How did you become a writer?
Am I a writer? I have no idea. I do write, because I'm not great at a lot of other things. (Examples of things I don't do: Math, science, surviving apocalyptic scenarios). If I had a choice, I'd make music, but that's not my strong suit, so by default I started writing. I loved poetry early on in school, because it reminded of music but didn't require any musical proficiency. I still struggle with grammar, sentence structure, misusing words, concision—you know, all the things great writers have mastered. But I like ideas, I enjoy the challenges of structure and plot, I savor the opportunity for detail.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I'm most influenced by artists in any genre who perfectly nail a feeling, set a mood, and pull you inside the sensation of a character's experience in the world. I like imagery, rhythm and momentum. I have a few staples to turn to: The poem "Don't Do That" by Stephen Dunn. Two stanza's from Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour" haunt my memoir (Beginning with "One dark night, my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull..."). I'm particularly drawn to works that break genre codes: people who pull out the humor in darkness, or the darkness in humor. Mike White's HBO series "Enlightened," Harry Nilsson's album "Nilsson Sings Newman," Donald Barthelme's short story "The School," the films of Yorgos Lanthimos and Sofia Coppola, The Temptations' haunting cover of "Ain't No Sunshine," and anything that comes out of writer Ottessa Moshfegh's brain.
When and where do you write?
I write at home in a reclining position on various cushioned upholstery. I wish to be the kind of person who writes for 4 hours a day and then goes to the gym, but I'm not. I'm more of an addict. So I write for 17-20 hours a day for five days and then panic for the next five days because I haven't written a thing. My problem is that there's no dimmer switch in my brain. It's either on or off. When it's off, I worry I'll never find the light switch again. So when it's on, I work until the bulb fizzles out.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I'm working on a short story that centers around one character's exhaustive internet search of people she knew in the past. I'm enjoying writing it, though I'm not sure yet if it's anything solid. Spending so much time alone writing is a bit of a risky thing to do. The process requires isolation, but the best outcome requires the ability to connect with others. Bridging the two is a challenge. The stakes feel high. When someone reads an early draft of my work, I'm less concerned that it's good, and more preoccupied with the fear that it's totally nonsensical. I'm just testing to see if I'm still a sane person who has a grip on the basics of human communication. I know it may sound extreme, but when you spend weeks, months working on something alone without sharing it with another human soul, you start to wonder whether you've drifted too far off into the animal parts of your mind. Then again, that's not always a bad thing, is it?
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I have suffered from laziness, self-loathing and fear of failure which can hinder my ability to do pretty much anything creative. Discipline helps. But also the block part can be a sign that the approach to what I'm writing isn't working. I make a deal with myself: I can put a hold on the work that's making me feel stuck, as long as I try writing something else—an old poem, a half-finished story, a song, a new idea, anything that strikes me as pleasurable in the moment. Writing should feel like an escape, not a trap. When you're stuck it may be a sign that you're trying too hard to make something work that just doesn't. Writing something new—something with no expectations or associations, something that makes you feel exactly how you want to feel in that moment, regardless of whether it's "literary" or "commercial" or "career-oriented"—helps to remind me why I still write. It's the same reason I did it as a child: to escape my daily existence, to manifest a new feeling that wasn't entirely connected to my own bullshit. Then, when you're on a roll, you may find that self-loathing and fear have a place in the piece itself, rather than in your brain. You can let it out and better yet, use it.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
“Nobody cares.” A dear friend and former boss at the New York Daily News would repeat those words to me every time I walked into her office in a state of panic about something totally ridiculous: I can't come up with an idea for the pitch meeting, I think I left a typo in an article, my story isn't good enough, our editor-in-chief hasn't responded to my email, I might be mildly allergic to the vending machine peanuts.
“Nobody cares,” she would say, and what she meant was “you're fine.” And after she said it, I was.
When you're stuck in a cycle of perfectionism, fear or compulsive second-guessing, it's impossible to move forward on anything. You're stuck in your own ego and desperate for approval. That's no way to be creative. But if "nobody cares," which is generally true, all of the judgement you hear in your head quiets down, and you're free to take risks. You don't have to apologize or worry what other people will think at that stage, because truly nobody cares but you. "Nobody cares" allows you to discover what it is that YOU care about, and drown out the need to please everyone else. By the time you get to the editing process, you want other people to care as well, and you've listened to your own instincts long enough to defend them. Then, "nobody cares" becomes a kind of dare, a challenge that drives you to prove its falsehood. It's brilliant advice (courtesy of two genius editors Amy DiLuna and Colin Bertram), whether or not it was intended as such.
What’s your advice to new writers?
In my early 20s, I was pretty messed up. In addition, I had few job prospects, zero confidence in my writing skills and no career direction. I was desperate for advice of any kind. While in an out-patient treatment program, I met a gentleman who'd spent a decade as a ghostwriter for an Ashram guru. "Is that something I should do?" I asked him. "I don't give advice," he told me. It seemed, especially considering the venue that had brought us together, these were some of the wisest words ever spoken.
Advice is hard. I only know my own path to writing a book, but it's not the only one. I still struggle everyday to be the writer I want to be. But I guess what I've learned in my own experience is this: Find people who jog your brain, rustle up your imagination, and generally delight you. It doesn't matter what they do for a living. Collaboration comes in many forms. You don't need to be surrounded by writers to write, not that most fellow writers aren't wildly valuable and generous. From my experience, they truly are. There's much to be gained from asking for help, feedback and straight-up introductions. It's just as important to provide any help you can when others ask for the same. We're kind of all in this together.
Piper Weiss is the author of two books. Her memoir, You All Grow Up and Leave Me, published by HarperCollins in 2018, was named one of Amazon's Best Books of April. She has held senior editorial positions at New York Daily News, Yahoo, HelloGiggles and Levo. Her writing has appeared in Hazlitt, Lenny Letter, LitHub's CrimeReads, Elle.com and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn. More on Instagram (@piperweiss).