I moved to New York after college with great writerly ambitions. My plan was to work at a magazine and write novels on the side. In that era, every other aspirational female character in a movie of television show was a magazine editor. After a series of interviews for magazine jobs that paid $23K a year, I lucked into a temp job at Random House—I quickly realized this was a better track from me stayed with the company until I left the city. I admittedly didn’t write much during my first couple of years in New York, and when I at last started noodling with a novel, it was in fits and starts. It was a conversation with the Irish writer Polly Devlin that set me straight.
One of the considerable perks of my job (I eventually landed in the publicity department at Doubleday) was that it afforded me seemingly endless opportunities to meet fascinating people. It was at a book party for a glamorous model-turned-novelist that I met Polly, who was teaching a class at Barnard at the time. She was luminous: beautiful, stylish, with a fierce wit and overwhelming charm: the kind of woman who makes you excited about getting older. She was in the midst of beguiling a New York Times food critic when I met her. Why she had any interest in me, I don’t know, though I suppose being young and bursting with eagerness has its own appeal.
We met up for coffee a few times after the party and it was on one such occasion that we had a conversation that changed my life.
I had at last confessed to my own writerly ambitions. In those days, working at that venerable house, I feared admitting this to people. I thought someone might laugh or think I wasn’t taking my job seriously, that I was only there in the hopes of slipping my manuscript under Nan Talese’s office door. I told Polly that I was having trouble making headway on my novel. She was unsurprised. She told me I had three big factors working against me: “One, you’ve no time to write,” she said. I lived in one of the vibrant, distracting cities in the world. There would always be other things to steal my attention. “Two, this job of yours.” Working in publishing was helpful, she said, but also in its way inhibiting. I knew how the sausage was made. “Three, you’re absolutely terrified, I can see it in your face. And let me tell you, my dear, that fear isn’t going anywhere. It will be with you all your life, so make peace with it. And you need the job. So the only thing you can do anything about is the time. Tell me, what time do you get out of bed in the morning?”
Back then I got up as late as I could get away with while still getting to work on time, around eight o’clock. And what time did I go to bed? She asked. Midnight at best. I was twenty-five and living in New York, life primarily took place after dark. So could I start going to bed an hour earlier, and getting up an hour earlier to write?
“I guess I could,” I said. I had never considered myself a morning person. In college I burned the midnight oil working writing projects.
“Let me tell you what will happen if you don’t. You will be sitting here ten years from now, wondering why you never finished your novel.”
It occurs to me now that Polly likely gave some version of this sage advice to many young writers over the years. But for me it was like the hand of god, delivering a swift slap across my face. She had hit upon my greatest fear: that I would turn out to be yet another wannabe writer who gave up, who carried with them their unrealized potential like a so many heavy chains.
This, I decided, could not come to pass. I was up at the then unthinkable hour of 6:30 the next morning to claim that quiet hour for myself. It’s a habit I’ve stuck with—or, more accurately, abandoned and returned to—for the better part of a decade. For me, mornings were the key, because you decide when you begin them. It’s possible, I realized then, to get out in front of the day’s distractions.
Fear, as I learned then, can be a powerful ally. Not the free-floating, anxious kind that paralyzes you and asks “why bother?” but the galvanizing, deeply-felt variety that asks “how can you not?” Times flies by us all, and it cares not at all about your dreams. There won’t come some future when you magically have time to devote to writing: time will always fill with other things if you allow it to. Find your fear and keep it close, let it show you the way.