How do you do what you do, every day?

I received this letter from a young woman who’s at the beginning of what I’m certain will be a big life in advertising. With her permission, I’m replying here.

Dear Stefanie,

What does a female need to do to have her name remembered in this business by the males she works with every day?

I thought it was something like “work really really hard,” “do really really good work that continues to make the wall and the pitches and the CCO’s desk.”

I read that it was to “lean in,” or “keep your hand up.”

I figured maybe “work the weekends,” “go in early / stay late” couldn’t hurt. And that “volunteer to work on this” would only yield positive results.

I even thought maybe the most basic, “introduce yourself” and “say hello in passing” might be totally valid ways. Seems sensible?

How is one expected to be motivated to keep doing the good work when if she does, a male writer is “accidentally” given the credit?

Or when she’s told, “He keeps forgetting you’re on this pitch. It’s weird. But I remind him and he thinks it’s really cool you want to help” ? Help? No, I want to win.

Who do you look to when there are literally no females in higher creative positions in your place of employment?

How do you do it? I’m sincerely asking. Is the answer simply “more”? More time, more work, more handshakes?

It makes me feel really sad. And sick. And then I wonder if my name was only remembered in the first place because I really liked to bake cookies in college. And that makes me sadder.

Sad Mad Woman

Dear Sad Mad Woman,

I have been obsessively thinking about your letter and how to answer you. In no small part because it could have been written by a 22-year-old me, just staring to make her way in the world and almost wholly unprepared.

You say it makes you sad. It used to make me furious. Probably sad is better, because you won’t ever find yourself having to live down a reputation for being “inappropriately angry,” “scary,” “dramatic,” and “overly emotional.”  You also won’t have the humbling experience of realizing it’s all true, and learning a new way to be.

I’ll tell you what I know. I’ll also tell you that I learned what I know from Cheryl Strayed, Anne Lamott, Tina Fey, Marie Forleo, Sheryl Sandberg, Janet Kestin & Nancy Vonk, Rebecca Solnit, and Naomi Dunford. So I did learn from the best.

This chart.

Things you can’t control include: how other people behave, how other people treat you, what other people think of you, the weather, the past, who you are related to, your sexual preference, and everything you don’t acknowledge. Also, the laws of physics and the fact that the cat will immediately kick litter all over the floor immediately after you vacuum. Because cats are assholes.

Things you can control: your behavior and how you respond to the behavior of other people. It may not sound like a lot, but includes everything from who you spend time with to how you develop and use your talent to whether you make it a habit of flossing every night.

You can’t control who remembers your name or who takes credit for your work. Only how you respond to it.

Youth is prized. Immaturity isn’t.

I once read that there is no such thing as a neutral woman. Every choice we make — long hair or short, makeup or bare face, long nails or short, manicure and pedicure or natural, skirt or pants, length and kind of skirt, bra or no bra, and on and on — every one of these choices telegraphs something. I’m feeling it pretty acutely myself lately, and often stand in front of my closet, asking myself, “What do 46-year-old grown-up ladies wear?” I’m still figuring it out, but I’ve decided it’s not the plaid dress I’ve had since 1998.

Vintage. Like me.

I guess what I’m saying is, take inventory. Are you dressing and styling yourself to look like someone who ought to be taken seriously? How do the people in your office present themselves? Do you mesh with the vibe? Do you look like someone they’d happily put in front of clients? I’m not saying you need to wear a nice pantsuit (unless a nice pantsuit is your thing) or be anything other than unique yourself, but you do need to ask what story you’re telling about yourself with your choice of clothes, hair and makeup. Who do you look like? I know I probably sound like a traitor to post-feminism, but you know what? If you show up at the meeting in a dress that looks like a shirt and you forgot your pants, they STILL may not remember your name but you can be certain they will remember your fanny.

Don’t lean in so far you fall over.

Look, it’s not worth it to work harder and harder and longer and longer and lean in and raise your hand and then suddenly wake up one day to realize you’re 40 and your asshole cat is dead and you haven’t taken a vacation in 11 years. It’s just not.

You need to go home. You need to read and knit and do whatever else it is you want to do. You need a way to recharge your battery and meet people who are not people in your office. You need to have a life. And yes, the hours in our industry are notoriously brutal. But the trick is, only work that hard when it matters. On a pitch? Work until you drop, sure. A launch, a deadline…all good reasons to put in the hours. But on a regular basis, showing up and staying late just for the sake of being there isn’t worth it.

As for volunteering to work on projects — do your own time. Unless you bring something vital to the table that no one else can bring, like the pitch is for a knitting business and you’re the only knitter in your office (Do you even knit? I seem to think so.) Otherwise, let the assigned team do the job they were assigned to do, and YOU go home. Or better yet, to dance class or whiskey tasting club or to dinner with a skier you met at the farmer’s market over the weekend. You need to live a whole life.

That said, in some situations it is good to be generous and ask if you can help. Not in a way that seems like you are hovering or trying to edge in on anyone’s territory, but if someone looks like they’re drowning or the pitch team is being run ragged, go ahead and ask if you can lend a hand.

I wish I could knit, then maybe I’d stop spending all the money on fancy Pottery Barn throws.

Don’t apologize.

Unless you are wrong, of course. Then apologize quickly, humbly, and with sincerity. I’m talking about things like “Sorry but, I had an idea?” “Sorry but, I think maybe I disagree with you?” “Sorry, I know how busy you are, but could you review this copy?”

I don’t know if you do this, but if you do, stop. As one of mentors advised me, “Just be normal” and say what you mean: “I have an idea…” “I disagree with you and here’s why…” “Please look over this copy and let me know what you think by the morning…”

You do not have to apologize for showing up and doing your job well. You don’t have to apologize for your thoughts, your talent, or your opinions. You have nothing to be sorry for.

Don’t bake.

I am going to assume you no longer bake things and bring them to the office. But if you do, stop today. You can bake for your friends, your family, your boy/girlfriend, me, and your children, should you decide to have some. Do not bake for your workplace. You are not anyone’s mother, girlfriend, daughter or roommate at work. You don’t want them to remember you by your cookies.

Don’t sit on the floor.

Do you do this? There are no chairs left in the room so you sit on the floor? Stop it. Sit at the table or if there are no seats left, stand close by — not at the edges of the room and not in the corner.

“Stop interrupting me.” “I just said that.” “No explanation needed.”

Internalize this powerful advice from Soraya Chemaly:

“We’ve met before…”

This comes in handy when someone doesn’t remember you. Do NOT let anyone get away with pretending they don’t know who you are. Remind them, with good humor, that you’ve met, and where, and when. Do this every time they forget you.

Believe people when they show you who they are.

That male copywriter who “accidentally” got credit for your idea and didn’t correct the mistake? He’s a thief. Remember that for all your future interactions with him. He will take credit for your work, he will not pull you into the meeting or support you. Let that inform all your future interactions with him. I don’t mean you should be rude or hostile to him, or gossip about him. But don’t give him anything — no favors, no ideas, no help, no support. And protect your work against him.

Keep your cool.

If you need to cry, go somewhere private. If you feel yourself getting flustered or losing your temper, excuse yourself. When this happens to me, I sometimes pretend my phone is ringing and I have to take a call, and I put a worried look on my face, apologize for the interruption, and leave the room to collect myself.

Find an ally. Or many.

There may not be any senior women creatives in your agency, and that’s awful. But there is the 3% conference, AWNY, and all these women. Go to conferences. Reach out via email. Build a network.

And after all of this, there will still be some people who don’t remember your name, don’t acknowledge your contributions, and forget you are on their pitch. Time is not the answer, working harder is not the answer. Boundaries, respecting yourself, doing amazing work, taking credit for what’s yours (and being generous with credit to anyone who collaborated or helped you), refusing to be forgotten, reminding them that they DO know you, that you’re NOT sorry, and you are NOT going anywhere, this is where you start.



Just You And The Words And The Dark Sky You Shout To

About a week ago, I received a tweet from a reader named Thomas, which read:

I started a novel and got 3/4 the way written then lost inspiration. Anything I can do to rekindle the desire to finish my book?

With permission, I’m replying here.

Dear Thomas,

Let’s begin with a confession: I haven’t finished my debut novel yet either. I’m working on it, with a NOVEL OR BUST sign hung across my chest, but it’s not done. I am unpublished, unrepresented, and unrepentantly optimistic.

Furthermore, I have been working on this novel of mine for a long time. It started as a glimmer of an idea I had in 1999 while on vacation with my best friend, Lisa. 1999 was not my finest year. My first husband had left me just months before, and I was in a haze of depression, anxiety, and emotional turmoil that made it difficult to put on pants, much less consider writing a book. And yet, this idea nudged at me and poked at me and stamped its foot while I tried to ignore it and did other things. It absolutely refused to go away. The main characters took on names, and then personalities, and started asking — demanding to know, really — why I was ignoring them.

I made at start at writing my book in January of 2013, and it was like falling in love — a headlong hot rush of words and ideas. That lasted for a few months, and then in April of 2013 I attended the Robert McKee STORY seminar, which is to writing seminars what Ultraman is to endurance races. I do not exaggerate when I say I cried through most of that seminar, for a few reasons:

I cried with frustration, because I was more than 100 pages into a novel that I now realized had to be dismantled and rewritten from page 1.

I cried from relief, because finally, FINALLY, I had a method for doing the work. I have been to many writing classes and seminars where the focus was on beautiful writing, finding your unique voice, and being brave on the page, and these are good, worthy things to learn, but holy hell — INDEX CARDS ARE THE KEY TO EVERYTHING. (OK, now I’m exaggerating, but the McKee seminar gave me a precise method for understanding characters and crafting a story. It gave me tools, not permission.)

I cried because on the last day of the seminar we watched Casablanca for hours — with McKee stopping the film to explain the mechanics of the plot, the subplots, the way everything from camera angles to costumes tell us that Elsa and Rick are soul mates – and I always cry when I watch this movie, hoping in vain that this time he won’t put her on the plane, this time she’ll refuse to go, this time there will be an epilogue where they find each other after the war.

I cried because it is four very, very long, exhausting days, and it is so cold, and the seats are so uncomfortable, and I was so hungry, and I had to pee all the time, and did I mention I had to throw my whole book away and start over?

That was April 2013.

I went home from McKee, and took the book apart. I went back to basics. I outlined. I wrote character bios. I wrote scenes. I threw them away. I made a timeline. I made a Spotify playlist. I tried again. I wrote and rewrote.

I thought I had it.

I didn’t have it.

In mid-2014, I got stuck. Profoundly stuck. Scary stuck, the kind that makes a person want to give it all up and re-watch The X-Files. All of The X-Files. Including Season 9. And both movies.

So I stopped writing the book, and I started thinking about it instead. I had a problem, a major problem, and the problem was I didn’t know what my main characters wanted. Oh, I had lists of things they desired, dreams and wishes, motivations and hungers, but nothing that could be expressed in a single sentence, nothing that would drive a person forward.

I thought about them all the time, these two characters who first appeared to me as I climbed a mountain in Costa Rica with my best friend in 1999. I thought about them as I drifted off to sleep. I thought about them on the treadmill. I sat in front of my computer and I tried a million answers to the questions “What do you want? What do you wish for? If you had a magic wand, what magic would you do?” I listened to Into the Woods. I listened to Bleachers. I listened to Motown. And I finally got my answer last month, in December of 2014. It was a terrible answer, raw and full of pain, but it was the absolute truth.

I wrote it on an index card and I got back to work.

This is a very long way of telling you that I am no field commander in this business of giving advice about finishing the book. But I am here in the foxhole with you, and I will share my cigarettes and coffee and tell you what I know, what I believe.

You say, Thomas, that you lost inspiration ¾ of the way through. Which makes me suspect that you don’t have an ending, something went awry that makes it impossible to get to an ending, or you’re scared of what will happen (or won’t happen) when you finish.

Do you have an outline for your novel? Do you know what happens in act 3? Do you have an honest resolution for your plot, your subplots? Will you know when it’s done? These are questions you need to ask yourself, and if the answer is no, then you have work to do; however you do it (index cards!). Returning to the bones of your story, writing an outline that takes you from where you are to that last moment, figuring out the “and then and then and then,” will free your mind to write beautifully. It will give you the comfort of knowing exactly how it all goes down, and the ability to structure your time by giving yourself assignments and deadlines for those assignments. It sounds so obvious, but you need to know how it ends to write the ending.

“But Stefanie,” I imagine you protesting, “I do have an outline! I have all of act 3 carefully planned on multi-colored index cards and I’ve got a string map that shows how the plot and sub-plots resolve. I made a Pinterest board! I have a Spotify playlist! I’m just not feeling inspired to finish.” It is possible, Thomas, that you aren’t feeling inspired because there is something essentially wrong with your story, something dishonest, a problem to be fixed that requires dismantling and reassembling. You may need a rewrite. It may be terrible, the idea of starting again, but take heart in that it happens to the very best writers. You are in good company, if this is the case.

But it may be something else. It may be that as you stand on the cusp of finishing you are thinking, “Well shit, it looks like I’m actually going to finish this thing and then what? What if I finish and no one wants it? What if I can never find an agent, find a publisher? What if it DOES get published, and the world thinks it sucks? What if it DOES suck? What if I suck? Even worse, what if it’s good and I have to do this AGAIN?”

I am well acquainted with this kind of crazy making thinking, and after years of therapy and meditation and yoga and journaling and studying the Dharma I have found there is nothing for it but to tell that voice to Shut. The. Fuck. Up. and do the work. That voice does not have your best interests at heart. That voice is not your best self. That voice rides with fear, and complacency. That voice likes The X-Files. Even Season 9. And both movies. That voice is an asshole, Thomas.

It really does help to have a teacher to consult. For me, that teacher is Robert McKee. When I get mucked up, I turn to the two notebooks I filled during the fours days I attended his seminar, and his giant book STORY. If McKee isn’t your thing, Anne Lamott gives some wonderful, encouraging, beautifully Lamotty advice in Bird by Bird. Neil Gaiman has some excellent things to say about getting the work done (although I find it hard to hear him over those soulful eyes and magnificent floppy hair). Stephen King’s On Writing will kick your ass (and scare you half to death). Steven Pressfield can help you get out of your own way. Find the one who speaks to you, who can help you figure out what to do next when the going gets tough.

Here’s what it comes down to, Thomas. There is so much in this world left undone, unresolved. People leave us in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons, and we never get to tell them the one thing we always meant to — I’m sorry, I love you, it was always you, I didn’t mean it, thank you. Jobs end. Accidents happen, and tragedies. We make choices, and by their nature those choices leave us wondering about what might have been, lingering wants, regrets that can’t be made right. There is no way to control all that gets left behind as we make our way through life, but you do control this. Finish the book. Finish it. Give it closure. See what it feels like to be done, to have done this thing, to have said the thing you meant to say, to not back down to fear or apathy, to have given your heart and your sweat and your time and your best intentions to something with no guarantee, no promise, just you and the words and the dark sky you shout to.



The Life That Will Be Your Life Forever

I received the below email from a reader on New Year’s Eve. With her permission, I’m replying here.

Dear Stefanie,

I’m 37 and single and not a mother. I was engaged for a while and have been in a series of relationships for the last 12 or so years. I recently realized I want to have a family, but I’m mystified as to how I could possibly ever believe love lasts and being a parent is something I wouldn’t screw up. I really loved your piece on FaceTime and your daughter. I have babysat for children in the midst of young romance and have been so moved by their ability to open their hearts so wide without fear (well fear of being embarrassed I guess). I suppose this isn’t a question you can really answer, but it felt right to send it out into the Internet ether: How do you settle into a life that will be your life forever? How do you know what man will be a good father to your as yet non-existent children? How did you know?

Anyway, quite personal I know, no one answer fits all, but I am so new to wanting actually wanting a family, that I would gladly accept any thoughts you have.


Dear Anne,

There’s a story I tell about the day I found out I was pregnant. It’s a funny story, about how I took a pregnancy test in a bathroom stall at Nickelodeon, where I was working at the time, and how I was utterly floored to find myself knocked up by accident at the age of 35, a newlywed, and days away from quitting a lucrative full-time job I despised to start a career as a “permalance” writer. You can go read it, if you want to, and then come back here. Or not, that’s all right. What you need to know is that I took all the elements of that day, the day I found out I was unexpectedly, ambivalently pregnant, and turned it into a sweet story with a happy ending.

It’s not a lie, that story I tell, but it’s not complete.

I’m going to tell you the part I always leave out, because it goes to the heart of what you’re asking, or at least some of what you’re asking. I’ve never written about this before, and I’ve told only a few people about it. But these questions of yours demand courage, in the asking and in the answering.

I went home from work the day I found out I was pregnant and told my husband, Jonathan. He was surprised, but joyful in his gentlemanly, muted way. That night we discussed logistics (Oh God, our apartment is so small and we have no doors!!!) and finances (Oh God, we have no money!!!) and if I could still quit my job (Oh God, it’s a huge pay cut and I’ll lose my paid maternity leave but if I don’t quit it will surely ruin my life but how can I possibly?!?). Sometime after midnight we fell into bed exhausted and giddy, having decided that babies are small and surely we could fit one into our Brownstone floor-through apartment, and it was inaccurate to say we had “no money” because we were managing, and would continue to manage, and that I would quit my job, no question about it. We’d figure it out.

At six the next morning, I woke Jonathan from a sound sleep, so overwrought I was nearly dry heaving. I’d been up for two hours by then, sobbing in the bathroom (the only room in the entire apartment with a door). I told him I wanted a divorce. I was going to have an abortion, and I wanted him to move out, right now, today, and I wanted a divorce. Because this baby was going to turn him into a father, and fathers leave. That is simply what they do. It was unbearable, to think of this man I loved turning into a father— unknowable, frightening, ultimately gone. And anyway, who was I to believe I was the kind of person who got this life? This love, this husband, this baby? I was the girl who got left, everybody left, I was made for loss, but not this time. This time I was the girl who was leaving.

He let me go on like this until my throat was so raw I couldn’t talk anymore, and then he opened his arms to me and I fell into them. If I wanted an abortion, he said, then he would take me for one. And if I wanted a divorce, he said, he’d give me one. And if I truly couldn’t bear to have him in the apartment, then he’d just sit outside on the stoop. You know that quote, he asked, the one from Winnie the Pooh? “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.” Well if you live to be a hundred, he said, I promise I will live to be a hundred plus one day, because I am going to be the man who never leaves you.

You asked, Anne, how I knew. This is how. I showed him my most ugly, vicious, terrified secret self, and in return he showed me exquisite compassion and promised me the thing I could never bring myself to ask for. He promised to love me, in all my broken sorrow. He promised to stay.

For the longest time, I wondered how he managed it. How he was able to comfort me exactly the way I needed, cracking open the door to possibility just enough for me to walk through. I’ve come to realize part of it is who he is, his goodness and decency, his fearlessness. But also, I let him. He was the first man I was willing to be completely honest with. No fronting, no performing, no trying to be interesting by pretending to be what I thought he wanted. The irony of all this is that, when we first met, I thought he was so out of my league I didn’t even bother trying to be anything but what I was, and it was me in all my messy realness he fell in love with. Go figure.

I wonder, Anne, what is the promise you can’t bear to ask for? And where do you keep it hidden, this visceral, essential need you have? It’s worth investigating, I think. And once you’ve thought about it, can you be courageous enough to show someone, to let them see you in your raw, most vulnerable wanting and answer you with kindness? Can you show up and say, I don’t know how to believe, but I want to. I want to believe in a love that lasts, I want to believe I can have kids I won’t screw up. I want to make a family somehow, but I don’t know where to begin. Here is why it’s so hard for me to trust in that. Here is why it’s so hard for me to ask. Will you stand with me and let me show you how I am when I’m at my worst? Can you see how my worst is also my best?

I think you can. I think you’re that courageous.

That’s how you start. You find out what your plus one day is — the secret ache you hide, the thing you suspect no one could ever possibly give you — and you ask for it. You keep asking until someone opens his arms and says yes. And then you believe him.

I know how overwhelming it sounds, how scary, but it gets easier, the more you do it. And you do have to keep doing it. Because even when you find that lasting love, even when you have the kids and you’re almost certain you’re not screwing it up, there is no such thing as a life you live forever. You were engaged and then you weren’t and then there were relationships and then there weren’t, there were friends and jobs and places you lived and here you are. For years I was scared and then I was alone and then I was in love and then I had a baby and now I am a wife for more than 10 years and have a child who can FaceTime. And soon I will have a teenager and then she will be gone and Jonathan and I may finally take the honeymoon we never managed and we all roll along, the years unfurling like an endless road while we keep telling the truth about who we are now and the secret thing we still need, in the face of change and heartbreak and joy.