Our 3rd Lou & Grey Girl Talk panel featured Amelia Diamond, Deputy Editor of Man Repeller and Emma Straub, Best-Selling Author and Owner of Books are Magic. We talked with them about their biggest challenges when brainstorming for stories, what they do when they get writers block and what advice they’d give to their 25 year-old-selves. Our favorite OKREAL quote: “There is nothing harder than finishing the first draft of something you haven’t done before.”
Emma: I always wanted to be a writer. I was a poet as a youth (as so many of us are). I decided I was going to be a novelist when I graduated, so I wrote a novel. And then I wrote a few more novels and they were all terrible and nobody liked them, not even my parents. They liked the first one but for the following books, you could tell it was polite clapping. They were like, ‘We’re so proud of you… Your baby looks very interesting.’ In between college and publishing my first book I worked as a personal assistant to a musician, I worked in a clothing store for tweens, I went to grad school and then I worked at a book store. I said yes to everything and regretfully remain the kind of person who still does this. The tween clothing store is the one that I, in retrospect, should not have done because it was so terrible. But I know that there’s a place in my fiction where it will fit very nicely.
Amelia: Math has always intimidated me. I would be like, can I do an essay on the theory of geometry instead? But when I graduated college I never wanted to write a sentence again. So I didn’t really know I could write, and sometimes I still don’t know what I am doing. I think I gained a lot of confidence from the comments section on Man Repeller when people would say: ‘This is funny.’
Emma: When I was in grad school, one of my favorite professors was Lorrie Moore. I wrote this one story that I was really proud of (people died, it was moving) and she wrote something so nice (she had beautiful handwriting, because of course). She wrote, ‘You are a wonderful and amazing writer,’ and I cut it out, framed it, put it on my bookshelf. That was my moment.
Amelia: The fear of potentially not making money never deterred me because nothing in my future really looked like a money-maker. I have a very supportive mom and dad who are passionate about the arts and big on pursuing your dreams. It’s cheesy, but true. I was very lucky to have support. It was a lot of: ‘What you’re doing this year is kind of weird, but we’re going to hang in there.’ And it worked out. I think if you really believe in something, you can set your sight on it and figure out a way to make a living. And if not, I know so many people who have the corporate 9-5 and do creative things on the side.
Emma: Similarly, I was never that worried about money because I, too, had supportive parents. That said, money is one of the reasons that I switched from poetry to fiction. I knew the odds of ‘making it’ as a poet were much lower. Also, my father is a novelist so I knew that it was possible. My peers at college had this dreamy notion of writers from the 1950s, drinking whisky and staying up until four o'clock in the morning. But for me, I had this example of my dad for whom it was it was really a job.
Amelia: There have been many failures along the way. At Man Repeller, I mess up all the time. You see it instantly when you offend someone online. Twitter and the commenters will tell you. I’ve had moments where I’m like, ‘Well I’m gonna pack my bags up, here’s my laptop.’ You have to be thoughtful, genuine and honest about how you go about fixing those mistakes. You can’t use a blanketed PR release like, ‘Whoops we’re good now.‘ Each time, it’s less of a chip at your heart and more of a deep breath and a, ‘How am I going to tackle this?’ You just start to problem solve, rather than cave.
Emma: That is something that is so newly true. You have people commenting immediately when you’ve said the wrong thing. That is hard. I wrote all these bad books. Those were genuine failures, but they were practice. I also had a job for six months when I got out of college at a publishing company that I knew immediately was terrible. I knew I wanted to be a writer, so I didn’t know whether I should get a job in publishing. But no, that’s not how you do it. You do other things that give you more time.
Amelia: In high school, you get in trouble and you think it’s the end of the world. Like, ‘I’m never going to get a job, my parents hate me, I’m done.’ And it’s always OK. People often ask me, ‘What is the one thing not to do? The biggest mistake?’ And I’m like, maybe don’t get arrested? But then you could probably still get a book deal. But don’t kill someone.
Emma: My dad writes books that are scary and actually have a lot of murder. And one of the things that he has said to me many times is that I don’t kill enough people in my books. So you say tomato….
Amelia: I have phases where I feel like I can’t write. It hits me often. Sometimes I have to write intro’s for our podcast that are only 200 words and I just cannot do it. I don’t know where a comma goes, I can’t spell certain words. I guess the answer is that when you’re on deadline you just do it. It’s like being at the gym, you push through classes where you’re miserable, and you’re like I can’t do sit ups, I hate this, this is stupid, I’m hungry. And then eventually you go to class and suddenly, you can do it. It’s like using a muscle and because of that there are aches and pains. Whenever I truly can’t write, I go back and read old faithful books. My favorite thing to read in the whole wide world is the introduction of Franny and Zooey—J. D. Salinger’s acknowledgements. And it’s just that page. There is this really great line where he offers his brother a lima bean. It is so bizarre but it’s the greatest sentence on the planet. Sometimes I read it and I am reminded that you do not need big words or fancy punctuation, you just need a clear thought and your own style.
Emma: When I look at my own books, all four of them, I can see my own voice getting clearer and clearer, every time. The stories were clear but had a residual scent of grad school on them. You know what I mean? But after that, I could see the books becoming more and more my own voice and less like what I imagine a novel should be. People liked them more, which was gratifying. And I think that’s because I put more of myself into them, and the came more naturally.
Amelia: When I first read about imposter’s syndrome, four years ago, I thought ‘Ohh, that’s a thing.’ And now it’s become such a cliché among women, but I do think it boils down to fear. It’s easy to assume you are not good enough or you do not have the qualifications. I have felt like that a million times, I still feel like that. But I think that fear can be broken if you can just sit with yourself for a minute, take a deep breath and put something on the page. Something that helps me is talking someone through about what I’m trying to write. At the very least that gives you the bare bones of your story. I once read that cats and rabbits have whiskers the width of their body, so that they know they can’t go through anything that their butts can’t get out of. It’s the same thing with writing. If you can get in, you can get out.
Emma: I agree. I’ve been telling myself that I want to write a screenplay for so many years, and this year I had a reason to finally do it. And I did it. There is nothing harder than finishing the first draft of something you haven’t done before. You have to do it one word at a time. Or with the bookstore, for example. It’s such a new venture and there’s a lot I have to figure out. But with writing, I’ve been rejected so many times that I have a very, very thick skin. I still get rejected all the time. So my fears are more along the lines of, ‘Will my child’s fever go away? Will his nose stop running?’
Emma: With book reviews, I have some friends who claim not to read anything, but I read everything. I’m like, this is what the Internet is for. To me, it’s not like my book is blue and someone is saying that it’s red. They’re saying, ‘This is a book about people I didn’t like, having conversations about things that I didn’t care about.’ But I like the characters and I was interested, so I don’t care. There isn’t one book that’s for everyone. I know that as a bookseller too. There are certain things that a lot of people like, but there isn’t one book that is going to appeal to everyone the same way. I have a husband who is not relaxed about these things. His theory is that when someone writes me a bad review, it’s his fury that allows me to stay calm.
Amelia: I take it much more to heart when I accidentally offend someone. It’s so easy on the Internet when you’re typing, thinking and responding to things quickly. It’s one thing if someone comments saying, ‘I really disagree with the way you approached this. You left this person or these people out.’ Those comments, I soak up. I’m like, let’s talk about this, let me learn; let’s have a dialogue. It’s another thing if they say, ‘I hate your writing.’ Then there are the visual comments. I’m 5’3”, and when I’m photographed next to Leandra who is 5'10,” I see people in the comments referring me to the ‘short one.’ That’s the nice version. But I’ve learned to let that roll off my back. I think, ‘OK, you’re not into my outfit or how I look? Totally cool.‘ But did you read that really funny article I wrote?
Emma: When it comes to special routines with writing… I wrote in bed for a long time because I lived in a studio apartment, so where else was I going to write? It was more comfortable than sitting at a desk. My husband and I moved last year and we were constantly on the subway while I was on deadline. So I wrote on the subway every day. I could write anywhere, you could plunk me down in the middle of the Super Bowl and I could just 'get in the zone,’ which is weird.
Amelia: I need crazy silence if I’m going to write something. I’m one of those weirdos where if I need to write something and I am stressed out about it, I can hear what someone is doing in the back corner of the room. So I am the least fun person in the office when I am under that type of stress. I’ve learned to extract myself out of the annoying situations, go to a quiet place and not be hungry. I need to not be hungry or tired. I used to just power through a lot and I’m learning slowly that it’s OK to get a snack, to go walk outside, that I’m not chained to this desk, and the story will be a lot better if I go pee.
Emma: If it’s 6am and my children are still asleep, then I am very happy. Then it’s chaos, chaos, chaos until about 9am when I drop off my kids. Then I have until about 2:30pm to work as much as I can and as fast as I can. Lately that’s been a lot of bookstore stuff. I had lunch with my editor and my agent the other day and they were asking me questions about pages that I had submitted six months ago and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I am going to write that book. I’m thinking about it all the time, just not right now.’ Then it’s chaos, chaos, chaos until 7pm and they are asleep. And then I try to remember to feed myself dinner. It is glamorous.
Amelia: I wake up early, and go to the gym begrudgingly, or I snooze and pay for it. The past year I made a very conscientious decision to be a human. I used to do weird things like work until 4am. And no one likes a 4am email. So the past year I have normalized. I try to spend spend an hour working before the day starts, like an easy story or an edit. This morning I didn’t check emails at all. I turned off Slack, wrote 3 stories and my editor was like, ‘Woah, you’re never on deadline.’ I almost always have a PR breakfast with someone on the fashion side, and I do a lot of advice breakfasts too—meeting young women who want to know what I do and how I got here. I try to do that often because a lot of people were kind enough to do that for me when I was starting. Our office is pretty fluid. People are in and out depending on what their day looks like. I usually have one story to power through. The days go by so fast, all of a sudden it will be 7pm.
Emma: When I reach that point of burnout, for me, sleep is the answer, always. I so rarely get to exercise that when I get to go to yoga class, I immediately feel like Buddha on a mountaintop. It’s like, I’m here and I’m in it, this is it. This is what I was meant to do. And then my body is sore for 6 days.
Amelia: I read a lot of productivity books and I’m always trying to figure it out. The two best and only takeaways I’ve gotten are: Do the worst thing first and write down the three things you have to do that day. Write them down as if you will ruin someone else’s day or deadline if you do not get them done. I also try not to make plans that I have to cancel. I say yes to everything and I’m always, late, sweaty and stressed. I also think it’s important to have a few years in the beginning where you’re really hustling. You might not be sleeping, you’re eating very weird things, like a granola bar you find in your purse one night, dollar pizza the next night. Not to say that you should find yourself in a consistently unhealthy pattern, but I think that the real nose-to-the-grind is important in terms of getting something done. I used to think that balance meant a perfect TV dinner life—friends, family, etc. But think of it as: this week I’m going to get this report done, then next week I’m going to do better about being a non-cave person.
Emma: Those periods also can be long. It could be a year, two years, that you are an insane squirrel. But yes, in general it’s about shifting priorities. Sometimes I haven’t seen my friends in a hundred years so I go on a date-making spree. And that feels really satisfying, even if it means that I have not been able to do some of the other things. It can be fluid.
Emma: When it comes to advice for my 25 year old self…well Amelia, you’re probably 25 and a half.
Emma: OK sorry. So I am an older person. I am 36 now, which is a good age to be because I have a lot of things figured out that I did not have figured out when I was 25. When I was 22, I was like, ‘If I do not publish a novel by the time I am 25, then it is going to be the worst thing to ever happen to me.’ And then that did not happen. It turned out that was not the worst thing that could happen to me. It was actually perfectly fine and normal and healthy and good. So if I was talking to my 25 year old self, I would say, ‘Girl. Chill. Don’t be anxious. It will work out.’ Just keep working. Also, obviously, I love my children but there are certain things that I have always wanted to do that I know are going to be so much harder now. Like traveling to certain places and doing crazy things, like living in Paris for a year. I would say do things like that. Do things that seem terrifying but are not actually impossible.
Amelia: It’s annoying when someone tells you to relax. If anyone tells me to calm down, I’m like, no. But if I could, I would tell my 25 year old self that it is always, somehow fine. Even though in the moment you think the world is exploding, it is always fine. I tell my friends this a lot now. I like a Hail Mary, that moment when you’re like, ‘Should I send that text?’ YUP. When a guy ghosts my friend, I’ll tell her to text him a week later saying, ‘You need to leave me alone, this is crazy.’ They’ll be all, ‘Should I really do this?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s hilarious.’ Why not? Your safety net it a little bit closer at that age.
Amelia: In terms of what I’m proud of, we get a lot of people who email us saying that something Man Repeller published made their day or helped them out of a hard situation. We’ve gotten some really intimate, touching stories. Those never fail to make me proud and thankful that I am a part of a place that supports women. I’m excited to see where MR goes in five years.
Emma: In five years I hope I have a bookstore that people will shop at, that feels like an integral part of the neighborhood. I hope my children are happy and healthy. I hope I’ve written a couple more books. Also in five years I will be reading Amelia’s book.
Deputy Editor, Man Repeller
New York Times best-selling author of Modern Lovers, The Vacationers, and Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Amelia Diamond photo courtesy of