How did you become a writer?
As a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer, but I figured out that what I really loved about law was that feeling of captivating a room full of people during a perfect opening argument or cross-examination. I also read constantly as a kid—everything from The Babysitters Club to Hemingway novels—and eventually, it occurred to me that the work of captivating people is the same in writing. I wanted to enroll in a creative writing class in high school, but my giant, dysfunctional public school didn't have one, so I signed up for a journalism class instead. I fell in love with the reporting part long before the writing part, and I still am a little uncomfortable calling myself a "writer;' journalist feels much more natural. But I started writing articles my freshman year of high school and haven't stopped since.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Without Greg Giglio, who taught the intro to journalism class I mentioned, I'm not sure I would have ended up a professional writer and editor. He made every part of the process, from researching to copy editing, seem so exciting that I couldn’t help but continue. In college, I was lucky enough to take a small seminar on book reviews with the great Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, who drilled into us the importance of active verbs and not saying more than you need to. Thanks to him, I never exceed my word count.
In terms of writers, I try to learn something from everything I read—whether I love it or hate it—so it's impossible to list them all. But I'm a California native, so perhaps I was destined to be deeply influenced by Steinbeck and Didion. Writers whose work has been humming in my brain recently include Yaa Gyasi, Anne Fadiman, Rachel Monroe, and Hua Hsu. And because my primary gig is as an editor, I have the privilege of working with and learning from writers I admire every day. Most recently, Tommy Tomlinson's created scenes that literally took my breath away in this profile of the Rev. William Barber.
When and where do you write?
I aspire to be the kind of writer who can write anywhere, at any time. Instead, I am very picky about my conditions. Writing in the office is out of the question, but my apartment won't work either. Instead, I need a coffee shop that's not too loud and not too quiet, that has unobtrusive music, and that sells food that's easy to eat while typing. My preferred spot generally shifts over time, but as of a few weeks ago I'm pretty convinced I've found the perfect place. (I refuse to tell anyone where it is, because nothing would be worse than running into friends there!)
Once I've settled in, I actually have no problem staying focused. I'll take a quick break to scan Twitter every hour or so, but I never want writing to take longer than it has to, so I am decent at avoiding distractions.
What are you working on now?
Aside from editing a constant stream of narrative features for Esquire, I'm putting the finishing touches on the first one I've written in a few years: a profile of a Twitter comedian that's actually about the nature of internet comedy in our sometimes nightmarish world. I have a few other story ideas I'd like to pursue after that, but nothing nailed down yet!
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
It's not that I don't believe in writer's block, but I do think writers focus too much on its existence. My friend Cord Jefferson once wrote what I consider the perfect response to a question about writer's block: "In those moments I try and force myself to remember that this is my job. House painters don’t get house painter’s block. Baristas don’t get barista’s block. I think some writers fuck themselves up by thinking of their job as high-minded philosophy for which one requires perfect conditions and a perfect headspace. It’s work. Treat it as work instead of an academic exercise." While I still won't write anywhere but in coffee shops, I have taken this lesson very much to heart. I feel lucky to have this job, but I also remind myself constantly that it's a job instead of some mission-driven calling.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I was 23, I convinced The Washington Post to send me to Baghdad. I had a year of professional journalism experience, didn't speak Arabic, and didn't know anything about the conflict in Iraq other than what I had read in the newspaper. When I got there, I was intimidated and overwhelmed, which I dealt with by couching every paragraph wrote in "gotta hear both sides"-type language and far too many expert opinions. After a couple of these stories, my editor, Cameron Barr, called me with one sentence of advice: "Write with authority." I tried to protest that I didn't have any authority; that I didn't know what I was doing. He cut me off. "You're there, you have the authority. Own it." More than anything else anyone has ever told me about writing, "write with authority" is the line that runs through my head every time I write.
What’s your advice to new writers?
The best advice I have for young writers is to read a lot and write a lot. I love to ask young writers what they've read recently, and I'm constantly surprised by how few are regularly reading the kind of writing they want to do. And I don't just mean The New Yorker! Read newspapers, and magazines from other countries, and every word you can on topics you're interested in. It's the only way to develop sophisticated story ideas.
As for writing a lot, I find that young people are often hesitant about writing, as if they're waiting for permission. Sure, you may not get published in your dream magazine or land a book deal right away, but what you write is so, so much more important than where you write it. Write for your student paper, and tiny publications with tiny budgets, and wherever you can publish something you're proud of.
Megan Greenwell is executive features editor at Esquire. She was previously a features editor at New York Magazine and ESPN the Magazine, the managing ed. at GOOD magazine, and a reporter at The Washington Post. She tweets stories she loves, advice for freelancers, and far too many photos of her pug Benson at @megreenwell.