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Monday, January 30, 2012

Heather Havrilesky: Writing Like Your Life Depends On It

Heather Havrilesky, Author of "Disaster Preparedness"
By Erin Auerbach

Whether reliving childhood experiences, analyzing the psychological underpinnings of sitcom parents or exposing the unglamorous absurdity of greeting card holidays, Heather Harvrilesky injects her writing with candor and zinging wit.

A regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, she spent seven years as the TV critic for Prior to that, she co-created the cartoon “Filler” for Her work has also been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Book Forum, Spin and NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

Of her 2010 memoir Disaster Preparedness, The New York Times said, “This amusing coming-of-age memoir is not Oprah bait. Ms. Havrilesky didn’t sleep with her dad, become an addict or become addicted to sleeping with her dad.”

In fact, Heather will emphasize that you need not have survived catastrophic experiences to write a great story when she teaches Memorable Memoirs: Make Your True Tales Thrilling on February 19. You can also study with her at the Mountain Retreat in Idyllwild March 9-11, and hear some of her thoughts on memoir writing at Writing A Life Worthy Story this Friday, February 3rd. Until then, Heather shares with us a bit about how she got started in her career, found inspiration for "Disaster Preparedness" and her methods to tackle the challenges of writing:

1. You have an impressive list of publishing credits. When did you start writing essays and articles and how did you break in?

I started writing essays in college and loved it. Once I decided that I wanted to write professionally, I took an internship at a financial magazine in San Francisco. About six months later, I was hired as an editor and writer at, where I collaborated with the illustrator to create a weekly cartoon called Filler. It was really a dream job. Thank you, dot-com boom!

2. What was your inspiration for your memoir Disaster Preparedness? Do you think that  memoirs must focus on harrowing experiences to be effective?  What do you think the qualities of a good memoir are?

Disaster Preparedness grew out of a piece I wrote for "All Things Considered" about the emergency plans my sister and I developed for every potential catastrophe, so that we'd be prepared to face everything from an earthquake to a dog-napping. My memoir isn't focused on harrowing experiences so much as the harrowing ways I experienced the world as an oversensitive kid. Harrowing experiences are by no means a requirement for writing a memoir. If anything, publishers are turned off by dreary or depressing material unless it's handled in some unique or inventive way. The big question is: how does the writer bring the experiences to life and make them entertaining for the reader? My focus with my book was to entertain and to reexamine ancient history and question my old assumptions about my life and myself.

Unless you're a major public figure or escaped a shark attack, your story isn't inherently interesting. You have to figure out a way to make your story interesting, funny, suspenseful, or all of the above. Mostly, this comes from distilling your unique perspective and voice, and then allowing that voice to guide your story. It's also important to read a lot of good memoirs, so you see how other people do it. Three of my most recent favorites (along with mine!) are "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls, "Fiction Ruined My Family" by Jeanne Darst and "The Journal Keeper" by Phyllis Theroux.

3. In your Rabbit Blog, you specifically dealt with a writer's question about criticism and how to keep it from paralyzing you creatively. What advice do you have for newly published writers to cope with criticism, especially in the Internet era where analysis of your work can be brutal and immediate?

I began my career in 1996 at a pretty aggressive publication (the name "Suck" should give you some idea), so I was indoctrinated into the harshness of internet culture early on. Luckily I was in my 20s then, young enough and sociopathic enough not to mind when strangers hated me or my writing. In 2001, when I became a regular TV columnist for, criticism in the comments section had more power to get under my skin. Ultimately, though, if you live by the ego sword, you die by it. If you're bolstered by praise from strangers, you have to accept that you're also going to be criticized by them. When you make any of it too important – the praise or the criticism – you're moving away from trusting your own voice as a writer.

Likewise, if you're obsessed with "becoming someone" by publishing a great book, you may never write it. Writing will become something you beat yourself up with. "I should be writing more! I'm a failure!" It's better to focus on how much you enjoy the writing itself, getting lost in it, learning to improve on what you know. Throwing yourself into the process, and recognizing, "Hey, I feel good when I write a nice paragraph." Or "I love to wake up early, drink my tea, and write just one page before work. It makes my whole day go better." That turns writing into a part of life that you enjoy, instead of defining your entire life as "not there yet." When I'm in touch with how much I love the process itself, without fixating on the end results, I tend to be a lot happier and more prolific.

4. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

All writers, aspiring or not, should write as much as they can every day. It's hard to remember that sometimes. Whether you're freewriting or writing in a journal or experimenting with a new genre or just venting about something that makes you furious, it helps you to find your voice as a writer. I think it helps to write in a lot of different ways, too. If I work on these precious little descriptions of the color of the sky too long, I lose touch with the big ideas and concepts that I want to explore. If I write detached, controlled passages about this or that, I forget how much my writing wakes up and leaps off the page when I'm pissed off or giddy. So, try not to write the same stuff over and over. And you know, I hate to say it, but a lot of people find that their productivity triples when they get up early to write. That means you have to go to bed early. If you're truly committed to becoming a writer, that one change will really shift you into high gear.

5. You have been able to pursue a career as a journalist, you have an active blog, and you finished a book, in addition to having a family.  What advice do you have for people trying to find the time for a regular writing practice?

When I was finishing my memoir in 2009, I was still writing full-time for Salon, which meant watching 20 hours of TV and writing 4,000-6,000 words a week. So I didn't really have a choice, I had to get up super early and write like hell every day, including on weekends, to finish the memoir and do all of my regular work. I couldn't waste any time daydreaming or second-guessing myself, I had to treat writing like it was this concrete task that was keeping me alive. Last night I was reading the first chapter of "Little House in the Big Woods" to my kids, you know where Pa is out shooting at bears and deer and catching fish and then smoking the meat and salting the fish so the family won't die when winter comes and the cabin is surrounded by snow drifts? That's the way writing feels when you're under extreme pressure.

Even once you're an established writer, you still have to light a fire under your ass to write. If the fire isn't big enough, you won't do shit. Today, I'm not allowed to leave my desk until I write a new essay. That's my version of wandering around in the snow looking for furry things to blow away with my rifle. It's cold and I want to go home and eat some lard cakes in front of the fire, but I can't.

6. How did you learn your craft?  How much of it did you teach yourself (and how did you teach yourself) and how much did you learn from people you worked with?

The three most important precursors to my writing career: 1) writing in journals a lot when I was young, and 2) taking a typing class in high schooI and 3) reading a lot. I took a good nonfiction class in college and took some classes after I graduated. The classes mostly taught me to believe in myself and to trust my own instincts as a writer and editor. As a professional writer, on staff or freelance, you're sort of on your own. It's a hectic profession, and no one has time to stop and teach you anything. A good editor will demonstrate how to cut out repetition in your writing or make your point more clearly, but typically you look at a heavy edit and say to yourself, "I should've done this stuff before I turned this in, instead of rushing and being sloppy." I think writers at any level can benefit from writing classes that shake up what you know, get your juices flowing, give you confidence, show you cool tricks and help you to strengthen your unique voice. But it's also important to know that you're your best teacher, and you learn the most by feeling your way in the dark every single day.

7. How did you find your voice as a writer?  Do you recall one singular moment where everything clicked, or was it a more deliberate process?

It was a gradual process. Again, I think you have to write about things you care about, things that stir up your emotions. You push yourself into these melancholy or frustrating or traumatic spaces, and then see what springs to mind. That's the work that tends to define your voice.

Thanks, Heather for sharing this helpful advice with us.  Don't forget to sign up for the Mountain Retreat for your chance to study with Heather. We can't wait to see you in Idyllwild in March!


Simone Says... said...

I'm so excited to meet Heather! Such a great interview.

Carolyn Arnold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carolyn Arnold said...

I really appreciate Heather's honest, serious, and helpful advice about how to learn and keep writing.

Last year at the Idyllwild Mountain Retreat, she had such clear feedback on my memoir outline, that it really helped me move forward. I really recommend Heather and the retreat!