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The Word Process: An Interview with Morgan Jerkins

The Word Process is an interview series focusing on the writing process, aimed at illuminating the many ways that writers approach the same essential task. In this interview, Morgan Jerkins talks about writing into your fear, the Toni Morrison quote that inspires her, and what she wishes her writing desk looked like.

What does your writing desk look like? What objects, photographs, texts or talismans do you keep there?

Oh, I love this question. In my mind, my writing desk has a rosary, a vase full of peonies or ranunculi (my favorite), and a few galleys, but that’s a goal hopefully for the future. Right now, it’s just my laptop, scattered papers, and maybe some leftover containers from food that I ordered from Postmates or Seamless.

Describe a typical day in your writing life.

I usually wake up each morning no later than 6 a.m. and then I start writing. I tend to shoot for 1500-2000 words. I’m not an all-day writer either. I usually end around 7:30 a.m. so I can get dressed and head out to a fitness class or personal training. If I’m really on a roll, I’ll write a little at night but no more than an hour. Generally speaking if I’m working on a book, I write every day but I do take some days off.

When it comes to the craft of writing, what do you think is the most important quality or skill for a writer to possess in order to excel, and why?

Discipline. You have to be okay with taking constructive criticism and incorporating what works. You have to remind yourself that no one is going to stand and watch over you to see when you’ll reach your word quota. It really is about your work ethic because honestly, even lesser talented writers can succeed much more if they work at their craft and hold themselves to a standard than those who are far superior in skill.

What book, poem, story, essay or quotation inspires you as a writer? What are your literary touchstones, the things that come to mind as you sit down to write a first draft?

“If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison

When I sit down to write my first draft, I remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect. I am trying to get the information down as best as I can and I may have to backtrack once I gather more. But I’ll admit that I’m always scared. I worry that I peak and my gas has run out so to speak, but I remind myself that if I did it once, I can do it again.

What do you do when you feel stuck in your writing?

I take a daylong break from writing. It really helps me to reset. Also I’m fortunate enough to have friends in the industry and in academia who I feel comfortable talking things out with.

What’s the best advice about craft or process that you’ve ever received?

If you are afraid to write something, most likely that’s exactly the thing you need to be writing.

Morgan Jerkins graduated from Princeton University with an AB in comparative literature and she has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her most recent book, This Will Be My Undoing, was a New York Times bestseller. She has written for The New Yorker, New York Times, The Atlantic, ELLE, The New Republic, and BuzzFeed, among others. She’s also an Associate Editor at Catapult. She lives in New York.

Photo Credits: Courtesy Harper Collins; Sylvie Rosokoff

About the author

Kiley Bense is the Online Managing Editor for Columbia Journal, 2018-19. Her essays have appeared online for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Rumpus, Saveur, and Narratively, among others. You can read her work at kileybense.com and follow her on Twitter at @kileybense.

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