Lori Gottlieb

How did you become a writer?

I think I became a writer by being a reader. Books were my salvation growing up. I never thought I'd grow up to be a writer, though, because I didn't know anyone who did that kind of job. I loved story in all forms--books, TV, film, plays, radio, conversations with friends. After college I worked as a development executive in film and later moved over to network TV. I hung out in the emergency room with the medical consultant for the show ER, and eventually decided to apply to  medical school. While I was looking through my closets in my parents' house for my old high school science notes so I could prepare for the MCAT, I came across my childhood diaries and a friend suggested that they'd make a great book. When that book was published, I started writing for magazines and newspapers and then wrote another book, and another, and after doing that for years, one day I woke up and finally said to myself, "I guess I became a writer." 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). 

I've always admired a masterful memoir, one that made me see myself or the world differently through somebody else's experience. Or one that gave voice to something I'd always felt or thought but hadn't quite articulated to myself in that way. Same thing with novels and their psychological insights and ability to make me feel less alone in my own struggles. It's probably no surprise that eventually I became a therapist, too!

When and where do you write? 

I write the weekly  "Dear Therapist" column for The Atlantic, and I like the structure of that weekly schedule. I file on a certain day and edit on a certain day and that predictable rhythm suits me. Being a journalist has given me the gift of knowing how to write well on deadline, but also the curse of not being able to write without one! So for my magazine and newspaper pieces, I start early and am very focused on what I need to get done each day to meet my deadline. Writing books is another matter entirely. I generally have a year or more and my mind doesn't really know how to structure my days with such a long time horizon, so in month one, that seems like I have all the time in the world. Then before I know it, it's month six and I start to panic--oh, no! I have a BOOK due in six months! And then I put on my journalist hat and write on deadline, because six months is a more manageable deadline for me than a year or more.  I used to write best at midday. I'd take care of administrative things or errands in the mornings, and then I could write without worrying about what else I needed to get done or whom I needed to call back. But now, since I'm also a therapist with a practice, I don't always have the luxury of writing whenever I want to, or choosing the time of day that works best, so often I'm writing at night after my son goes to bed. 

What are you working on now? 

I'm about to go on book tour for MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE, and it seems like every interviewer has been asking that question. I wish I were the kind of writer who finishes one book, takes a couple of weeks off, and then starts working on the next project, but because I have the therapy practice and the weekly column, I can only focus on so much at once and I don't think people who aren't writers understand--or people who are writers talk about openly--that launching a book is a full time job. There's a period leading up to launch and then once the book is published in which you're going 24/7 with interviews and readings and media, and I know some people are able to be working on something else while talking about the book that just launched, but I'm not that skilled. Also, this book was so personal and in some ways the hardest thing I've ever written, and I want to sit with it and savor it for a while longer before I begin to think about where I go next. So what am I working on now? My weekly Atlantic column and my practice and trying to remind my son that yes, I do exist, even though it seems like I've disappeared these past few weeks.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Absolutely! In fact, MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE was born of writers block, in that I was under contract to write a book that I just couldn't get myself to write. I spent several years staring at a blank page, writing words I didn't care about (when I did write), and pretending I was hard at work on the-book-I-wasn't-writing whenever people asked how it was going. I was like the gambler who kisses her spouse goodbye in the morning and then goes to the casino instead of the office. My casino was Facebook. Eventually, I mustered the courage to tell my editor I couldn't write this book, cancelled my contract, and began writing the book I should have been writing all along--this new one. A lot of people say that if something isn't working, you have to write through it, and while I know that can be true, sometimes it can also mean that you aren't working on the right story. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

An editor once told me that when I feel like I don't know how to start something or fix something and I'm banging my head against the wall, I should go outside and walk around the block and look at something green--trees, grass--and not think about whatever has me stuck. She said that resetting this way would help me get unstuck. And she was right. A lap or two around the block has worked 100% of the time. I always come back from those 10 or 15 minutes with something I didn't have in mind before I walked outside. It works well when writing books, too. Don't go on Twitter--just put on your shoes and walk outside.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Don't compare yourself to other people. Full stop.

Lori Gottlieb is a psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author who writes the weekly “Dear Therapist” advice column for The Atlantic. She also writes frequently for The New York Times and has appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, CNN, and NPR.  Her most recent book is Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed.  Learn more at LoriGottlieb.com or by following her @LoriGottlieb1 on Twitter.