Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Willy Somma and Heather Havrilesky
Author and Ask Polly advice columnist
Sometimes we set the best intentions for doing our creative work, and sometimes as writer Heather Havrilesky puts it, we find ourselves sitting around eating muffins instead.
One of my greatest curiosities is delving into why some people appear to effortlessly stick to a routine, and why others, like myself, struggle and falter.
So it’s a comfort to hear that thee writer behind the existential advice column Ask Polly not only shares this fascination, but would also places herself in the latter category.
“Some days I’m just completely off track – just the other day I woke up as my husband and kids were leaving the house and then just looked at Twitter for half an hour, then read article before I finally got out of bed. I wonder if people do they ever do that? Are they ever just completely off track?”
Heather has an aversion to alarm clocks, describes her routine as being in disarray, and also admits to undercutting her own advice. But there is a semblance of discipline even within the messy and imperfect parts of her day-to-day – rising early to simultaneously write and walk on her treadmill desk, for one.
Part of what makes Heather and her writing so compelling is an ability to brighten the space between striving for who we want to be, and appreciating how we currently live, messiness and all.
We can create rituals that serve us and simultaneously go off track, the key is to abandon any preconceived notions of how we should be.
“I used to tell myself that if I really want to be a great writer, I would stop screwing around at wake up at 4.30am every day. I mean, there are a million different benefits to getting up at that time, but I feel like even if you succeed at that lifestyle and that structure, it's almost like you're living in this really unforgiving routine that tells you that productivity is the number one goal of every day.”
Resisting that lifelong story means practicing living messily in the moment, she says. "Are you noticing how good it feels to be alive in this moment? Are you noticing how much you have to be grateful for, how much you're surrounded by interesting, exciting, joyful, good, positive things in your life? Are you allowing for frustrations and sadness and savoring these things in your own way? Are you making space for what actually is exist here without making it into a way of judging yourself?”
Even when we do learn to embrace the sloppy, the sadness, the distractions that give our days texture, we can fall back into expectations. “I'm constantly going back to my old ways of thinking and saying, ‘You didn't do enough today. Are you sure you really want to live this way?’ Then another part of me wonders, what is enough anyway? Can't you just let the day unfold and enjoy it for whatever it is?”
Above all, feeling out our lives is a process.
From playing Stardew Valley to long walks with the dog when she should be writing, Heather shares how she has been letting her days unfold after the publication of her book, What If This Were Enough?
A day in the life
If I'm trying to write a book or if I'm under the gun, I set my alarm for 5am, but I like to avoid alarms if at all possible. That's one of my many aversions to anything regimented or routine, of which there are many.
Sometimes I randomly wake up at 4.30am – I'm 48 years old and this is common among people my age – so if I happen to wake up early, I try to use those hours because they are the best for writing for me. If I really wanted to be incredibly prolific, I would just do that every day religiously –but then I’d have a constant battle of needing a nap in the afternoon and falling asleep on the couch at night every night at 9pm.
Usually though, I have a strange, alternating schedule because my husband Bill and I split certain responsibilities. On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, I get up with the kids at around six, make them a smoothie and pack their lunches. My daughter will get picked up by her friend’s mother, and I then walk my youngest to school.
After the school drop off I walk and run the dogs for an hour, which is way too much time but I really love it.
When I get back, I try to get right to work. Does that always happen? Not necessarily. [Laughs] At the moment it feels like my productivity is way down because I’m trying not to force myself to write if I'm not really feeling it. That said, when I do write I really like what I'm writing, so I suppose it's a little bit of a tradeoff.
On Wednesdays and Fridays, my husband takes the kids to school and is in charge of the dogs, so I’ll usually wake up early, go upstairs, get on the treadmill desk and drink two cups of tea without looking at Twitter, and write for three or four hours. I do generally find that my writing goes really well and I get a tonne of stuff done when I do that.
The writing process for the column is pretty gut-driven, instinctive, and impulsive – I just dive in and I write for about three hours. Then I will read the whole thing again and edit my response. If I like it a lot, I usually edit it two more times. The whole process probably takes about six hours before my editor sees it, and obviously there’s another round of editing after that. The odd thing about writing and editing yourself for years and years is, when you like a piece of writing, you tend to edit it even more.
I stop for lunch at about 1pm and I usually make a salad or something virtuous that won’t put me straight to sleep. Every now and then my husband and I go out and eat gigantic sandwiches for lunch, if we’re feeling self-indulgent or extra whiny. I often have grand intentions to get back to my writing after lunch but most days I lose the thread.
When my kids are back from school and doing their homework I try to read for a few hours – I do read a lot but it never really feels like enough. With kids in the house, it's like you're half reading all the time and have to constantly put the book down and deal with whatever comes up.
If I can't manage reading, I sometimes play this farming video game called Stardew Valley, which I was obsessed with after my book came out late last year. I've since been on this self-imposed, do-whatever-you-want phase where I’m allowed to do pointless things if I feel like it. I'm experimenting with just following my whims wherever they lead as a means of being kind to myself and being free and feeling inspired.
I feel like it's somehow paying off in these strange little magical surges of being able to write with clarity about things that are complicated – I have a lightness around the process that I didn't have before. But honestly, you caught me in a quiet lull between books. I’m starting a new book now so I’m going to have to start cracking the whip more.
I will randomly read Ask Polly letters during the day – I receive anywhere between 10 to 50 a week. There’s no real sorting process, if they strike me as interesting I might set one aside and then when I go to write it I'm like, "Well, what else do I have?" and go to the top of the inbox and think, "This one. This is the one I want." It's sort of a crapshoot.
My husband is a professor at UCLA and his schedule is pretty relaxed and flexible so the days he works across town he’ll walk in the door at around 5pm. I'd say three days a week, we do a workout together when he comes home. The other four days we talk about doing a workout and then we don't do it.
It gets boring to talk about exercise all the time, but my personal experience is that I am very ambitious when I exercise regularly. I'm very optimistic. I reach out to a lot of different friends. I make and keep plans. The quality of my writing is better
One of the only reasons that I'm in pretty good shape is because it affects my mentality so much. I would not just exercise for vanity's sake, ever. That has never really worked as a motive for me. The only thing that's worked as a motive is, "Hey, have you noticed how you love being alive when you exercise? And have you noticed that you can barely stand being alive when you don't?"
Most nights my husband and I will have a panicked conversation about what to make for dinner. Sometimes there's actually food around that we can form into a meal quickly, and sometimes he will have a meal that he wants to make, which is great. Then maybe once a week we just either get takeout or go out to dinner. I also go out to dinner alone with a friend once a week, and we often have friends over for dinner on weekends.
After the kids go to bed, Bill and I will hang out and talk on the couch. Sometimes we'll read and sometimes we'll watch something on TV that we can only watch together, like Big Mouth.
I used to be a TV critic, so I feel like I've watched enough TV for a lifetime. There are so many good dramas I know I should watch, but I just want funny stuff at the end of the day.
We go to bed at about 10.30, 11pm. I just took Twitter off my phone so I can’t look at it right before bed like I used to. What a terrible habit! I couldn’t even figure out why I was doing it, honestly. So now I read before bed or we cuddle with the dogs and talk. Then we kick the dogs off the bed, but the smaller one always sneaks back on because she’s spoiled.
My kids do their own thing in the morning on the weekends, so generally I try to write for about two or three hours early in the mornings.
Does that always happen? Not really. I mean, there are times on weekends when I think, “All right, this is really my day to write” and I'll sit around eating muffins instead.
But usually one day of the weekend I get a lot of good writing done, so that's a way of feeling like I've got a leg up on the following week. Sometimes we have a weekend trip planned, or my stepson is visiting and we play board games or wander around and eat out all weekend, in which case I don’t do any work at all.
Behind the scenes
On how our best work often comes when we are not forcing it…
Why is my routine so messy, random, and kind of lazy? It’s because I don’t force it anymore. I feel like my brain now knows that I don't actually have to work that much, I just have be in front of my computer for those times when everything is flowing and it’s possible to hit that high note. I’m not going to torture myself the rest of the time.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about shame and it was very popular. When that happens, nine times out of 10, it was a column that I wrote in one fell swoop. I don't need to suffer when I'm not in that mode, I just need to open up the rest of my life for entering that mode every now and then.
On feeling and facing shame…
I think shame and similar feelings are beautiful and good to pay attention so you can use them for good in your life.
No matter how your life seems to add up to anyone else, you can notice what you’re feeling and rather than telling yourself you’re failing, you can tell yourself it does add up to, you do have a lot of potential and the world is opening up to your every day and I just need to see that.
Shame doesn't have to go away, but once you notice it you can actually use it as fuel for moving forward.
When you stop torturing yourself everyday for what you aren't, you finally have some room to be what you already are. It's so important, it's so fundamental.
On learning how to trust your instincts…
Creatively, I'd say trusting your instincts is rooted in knowing what you like and measuring your work based on what you enjoy and love, as opposed to what other people think of your work.
It took me years and years to feel that way, but it's about knowing that you can create things that really are great, and trusting that you can get there, but also not torturing yourself when you can't and knowing when to work on something else.
Then there is trusting your instincts in terms of the world, which I think is about boundaries and protecting yourself from experiences that don't feed you and make you feel small. Part of living a good life is learning how to shake off messages about what you should be that just keep you stuck and miserable.
On not feeling like a terrible person for saying no…
I think all of us feel extremely burdened by the pressure to say yes to every single thing. Being able to say no to people that you don't actually want to spend time with or things you don’t want to do is not something that comes naturally, I don't think.
I didn't learn how to say no until I turned 40, but trusting that you know what's best for you is a big, big step. It takes years to have the ability to say, "I irrationally don't want to do that and that's fine, I don't have to change who I am."
You don't have to feel like an asshole for not wanting to do things, you can actually just say, "That's not really my thing." As long as you don't feel like you're cutting yourself off from everything, or you're too anxious to do anything, or you're living inside your fear all the time, you’re not obligated to live someone else's idea of a good life. You are actually obligated to honor the kind of life that you want to live. When you do that, when you let yourself off the hook for being who you are, you become more compassionate to other people, you serve your community more and can feel joy in whatever you want to do with your life.
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