agenda by Malka Gouzer

Alice Gregory on long-form writing in the digital age.

reading time 8 minutes

Over the last few years, Alice Gregory has gone from being a popular blogger on Tumblr to becoming a successful freelance writer, with bylines in the New Yorker, Harpers, GQ, and N+1 . In this conversation with fellow writer Malka Gouzer, she discusses how she copes with distraction, the limitations of literary circles, and what it actually means to be a professional writer today.  

Malka Gouzer: How did you start writing?
Alice Gregory: I kept little journals as a child, but I am not one of those people who always wanted to be a writer. I don’t think I have, like, a writerly soul. I had a blog in college. By the end, more people read it than I would have thought.

What was it about? The cabbage you can buy at the supermarket?
Yeah, how many calories are in cabbage. No, things I read. Personal stuff. But also, yes, probably the caloric content of cabbage, if I’m being honest.

Where can I find it?
I took it down. 

Why? Were you embarrassed by it?
Yes, of course, in the way that I’m embarrassed about everything I write — after I write it.  

How did you go from this to becoming a professional writer?
An editor asked me to expand one of my posts, and that was the first thing I did that really got attention. It was about what it was like to get an iPhone when iPhones were new, and how it destroyed the way you thought. People complain about iPhones all day now, but at the time people cared about this. It got quoted in the New York Times, etc. People were just obsessed with the way people talk about technology. I feel like my young self was actually instinctively quite good at picking topics that people wanted to read about, whereas now I tend to write more about whatever I want and nobody cares [laughs].

Some writers develop elaborate daily routines to trick themselves into producing. Thomas Wolfe, for example, typed on his refrigerator and wouldn’t come down until he’d written 12,000 words. How do you do it?
I used to like to think of myself as someone who’s very programmatic and structured, but I’m not. I don’t get dressed in the morning. Some writers decide ‘this is my job,’ and they get dressed like they’re going to an office, even if they’re just walking into the living room next door. I never do that. I wear absolute garbage. 

And you get straight to work?
No, no, no, I drink coffee, I walk my dog, I have to buy something. I have to start the day with a financial transaction of some sort. I need to go out. I mean, the truth of the matter is that no one really writes for more than a few hours a day. No one’s sitting there writing for ten hours. I write in bed a lot, which is kind of disgusting. I sit propped up, with the laptop on my stomach, or maybe on my ovaries even. We’ll find out someday. I always think I can go to a coffee shop and it will be good for me, but in fact I just get distracted: there are no outlets, there’s no internet, someone’s talking too loudly, the tables are wobbly. I’m inclined to look for excuses not to work.

The truth of the matter is that no one really writes for more than a few hours a day.

So you struggle to get started, like everyone?
Yeah, I do errands, wash the counter, organize my things, and finally I start to work. I never sit down for more than 45 minutes. I stop constantly. Sometimes I shut down the internet on my computer. You can do that yourself or get one of those programs, like Freedom or Self Control. You set the time, how long you won’t need the internet, and then you find yourself like an addict trying to turn it on again somehow.

Is it particularly hard to start a new article?
I just start with the part of the article I find most interesting. I trick myself into it by starting with the most seductive part. Every single time I start a new article I feel like I’ve never written one before. The structure is so elusive to me. I am a horrible editor: I can write the whole thing and it’s almost psychotically out of order.

So, you have all the colors but you don’t have the frame.
Yeah, the frame has to come from someone else. My husband, Leon, mostly. He’s a very good editor. To him it’s like a puzzle. He’s like: you’re an idiot, can’t you see this? It would take me ten years to figure out, and it takes him four seconds. If I were to hand in what I write without him reading it first, I would have never published another article. 

So, you have to stay with him your whole life.
Yes! The other thing is, if I have a doctor’s appointment in an hour or something, I can never do work. I need eight hours ahead of me, which is really stupid, because it’s not like I have more than an hour of work. When I finish the article, I can never remember where or when I wrote it. It’s not mystical or anything. I just don’t know when it actually happened. 

What do you need?
I need a lot of sleep. I need a clear deadline. Without the threat of not getting paid, I wouldn’t write anything. Sometimes I don’t do any work for days at a time . I just don’t get started. 

Does that make you angry?
I get depressed. Well, not depressed, really. I just wonder: ‘what’s the point of this?’

But the feeling of a good day of work is amazing.
Amazing, yeah. The question is: why don’t I remember that feeling and just do that every day then?

Because there’s another force at work there.
But what is that other force? In the end I get it done, I guess, which is all that matters. Even if I can’t read it after.

Many writers take “smart drugs” to concentrate, like Adderall. You once said to me that you can tell if a writer is doing that. How can you tell?
Well, a lot of it just makes no sense. It often gets really fake-academic. You start taking these intellectual/conceptual shortcuts, assuming that other people are coming along with you, and they’re just not. Stuff written on Adderall reminds me of what gets said at panel discussions about conceptual art. The nonsense.

Sartre was on amphetamines too.
Yes, and Susan Sontag, all of them. But no one knows quite what’s going on with them anyway. I mean, imagine that kind of writing coming out it in a little chapbook now, or an online magazine. Can you imagine? (Laughs.)

Then there are authors who drink to write.
Yeah, I don’t know what that is. I could never do that. I can’t do anything after ever one sip of beer. It’s over. 

How were you different as a writer when you started?
I was much meaner as a critic. I think that at a certain point you realize that the person you’re critiquing is actually reading what you’ve written. Only a psychopath or a very young person could ever criticize someone else’s work and not be forced to imagine that it might destroy the person who spent a hundred times longer making the thing than you did writing the article about it. There are people I would have given a negative review a few years ago, and now I decide just not to write about them. I’ve become nicer. As you become more successful, you also get better editors, which improves your work. Editors play a much larger role than people think. A good editor reins you in. My favorite editors just delete things without explanation. And my first reaction is ‘how dare she?’ and then I think about it for four more seconds and I’m like, ‘thank god, that was so embarrassing. Why did I write that?’

It’s a job that makes you realize that you can ask anyone any question you want.

Are most of your friends writers?
Yes, unfortunately. I have friends who aren’t, but most are. It’s nice, but in terms of getting story ideas, it’s worthless. No writer is going to have any idea that you wouldn’t have or they wouldn’t do. Whereas, if you talk to a surgeon or something…a surgeon has all these weird pieces of knowledge and information. I recently went to a dinner with a bunch of people and one was a pediatrician, his friend worked in finance, etc. I got like three story ideas out of that. They just know things that you don’t know. Especially finance people. For better or worse the pursuit of money often can make people more interesting; it’s just true. I don’t often get ideas socially, because writers get gossipy so quickly. I’m sure it’s like that in any profession, but because names are attached, because it’s public, it’s much more vicious, I think. I’m sure corporate lawyers are like: ‘Why did he get hired by that firm? He did such a shitty job on that deal!’ And I’m sure there are accountants who hate other accountants or whatever, but the competition isn’t public in the same way. 

And what are the upsides?
I’m always looking for ideas in a greedy, desperate way. It’s a nice way of being though. It’s a job that makes you realize that you can ask anyone any question you want. Anyone can do this. You don’t have to be a journalist. It just doesn’t occur to someone who’s not a journalist. I mean, this is a dumb example, but, ‘Why is this one candy bar suddenly at every deli I go to?’ There’s a reason for that and you can easily find out. There are little mysteries about the world that don’t have to remain mysteries. It enables you not to be shy. It occurs to you to ask. In fact, you can ask anyone anything — this was a real revelation.  

Do you want to write a book?
I’ll never write a novel. I know that already. It’s very seldom that I write an article and wish I could expand it. A book like that needs a person at the center and you kind-of need to be in love with them. It’s like finding the right therapist or falling in love — a magical thing needs to happen. And I just hope that it will one day happen to me. But I have nightmares of being on a book contract: being stuck for years writing a book I don’t want to write. Can you imagine something worse than that? You spend five years writing about something you end up not caring about, nobody knows what you’re up to. They assume you’re doing nothing; you’re all alone. And then it comes out, it represents you, people criticize it. You have to give interviews about it for months, and you are remembered for it for the rest of your life—and that’s if you’re lucky! No, writing a book sounds terrible. I can’t believe so many people do it.

How is it not having any area of specialization?
Well, you’re a dilettante by definition. It’s the best, but also the worst. You don’t know anything. If you’re like me, you’re interested in superficially interesting things that hopefully turn out to be actually interesting too.

And then you lose interest in them?
Yeah, you dispose of them. And you’re not really helping anyone or making money, and those are the only actually good reasons to do a job. God, this sounds so negative. The thing is, I love my job! It’s just that it’s fully self-interested in a way that can be uncomfortable to think about. I’m just doing things that are interesting to me. As a woman, you can trick yourself into thinking ‘By doing whatever I want, that is in fact a political statement,” but come on. I don’t think there’s actually anything morally redeeming about writing about whatever you’re interested in. It just makes my life nicer. That’s it.

A few silly questions. If you could reincarnate as anyone at anytime, what would you be?
Well I think about my parents a lot. My parents were born in the early 1950s. Perfect. Child in the ‘50s. Teenager/young adult in the ‘60s. Early 20s in the ‘70s. Starting to make money in the ‘80s. Bourgeois yuppies in the ‘90s. Every decade matched their age. 

And who is the most attractive man in the world?
Sadiq Khan. Easy.

Photo credit: Bryan Derballa.

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