Forge talks to our Medium colleague and the bestselling author of ‘Wandering in Strange Lands’ about productivity and focus. And sleep.
Before the pandemic relegated Medium staffers to working from home, ZORA senior editor Morgan Jerkins sat feet away from Team Forge in Medium’s Manhattan office. Every so often, she’d break the focused silence of our editorial wing with an out-loud story discussion or a throaty, infectious laugh — casual gestures of camaraderie that belie Jerkins’ parallel identity as a rising star of the 21st-century cultural canon. Her 2018 debut essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing, was a critical triumph, cementing Jerkins as a key voice in an emerging generation of critics that probe the intersections of Black American experience.
The now 28-year-old author has just released her second book, Wandering in Strange Lands — a roving, investigative journey that retraces her family’s route through the Great Migration — and is working on a debut novel. In the meantime, she juggles speaking engagements and the occasional teaching job, book promotion and, yes, self-care — all while chasing the day-to-day deadlines and creative brainstorms of a full-time job at Medium’s publication for women of color.
Jerkins spoke to Forge about staying motivated, organized, creative, and sane as an author on the rise — all while balancing a demanding full-time job.
Forge: Were the circumstances of writing this second book, in terms of your day-to-day routines and commitments, any different from the first?
Morgan Jerkins: When I was writing This Will Be My Undoing, I was working full-time at a literary organization. In fact, one of the people that worked there helped me with my book proposal.
Then I started doing more contributing writing [on the side] and then I finally [went full-time] freelance. I was shuffling around a lot because the levels of support changed. And the further I got into the book, the more I had to rely on myself.
You were finishing Wandering in Strange Lands when you started working at ZORA. Why did you seek out a full-time job at that moment, when you had so much already on your plate as an author?
I wanted to work at ZORA because I wanted to be at work with other writers. I once thought that I wanted to write full-time, but when you live alone in a big metropolis, like New York, it gets too hard. The first week that I started working at ZORA, I realized how nurturing it felt just to have someone say hi to me. Just to have people to have lunch with. I missed that institutional support.
I’m talking about just having people have your back: somebody to bounce ideas off, some people to go to lunch with, some people to network with, and to feel like you have a team behind you. I wanted that.
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There would be weeks [in my full-time freelancing days] where I wouldn’t even talk to anyone besides a trainer that I had at the gym. I’d used the money from my first [book] advance to move into a studio [apartment]. And you know, a studio is only one room, so my work and my personal life just melded together. There was no separation.
Working at ZORA, I have a boss that understands that, yes, I do speaking engagements. Yes, I have teaching stuff that I do. And also, I’m an author — I think that’s part of the reason why I got hired.
Some people might not realize that the life of an author isn’t just about writing the book, but also promoting the book before and after its release. Interviews, speaking engagements, whatever it takes. How do you arrange your time each day to accommodate those demands, on top of everything else, without totally burning out?
Oh, I do have burnout. I’m tired, but I can tell when it’s a burnout because I get irritable.
I’m in constant dialogue [with myself], checking in with myself. For example, I have another book coming out next year. There were certain times I said, “Okay, this is a deadline that I have to reach, but I really feel like I need more time.” So, I would put in a vacation day [at work] and be honest about what was going on, in terms of balancing personal projects. That’s where my calendar comes in handy.
Is that the thing that keeps everything on track? Are you a calendar junkie?
Oh yes, I am. I’m a calendar junkie. I love to-do lists. I used to have a whole bunch of little notebooks for writing down what I want to do today. And I bought this new, beautiful planner at the beginning of the year — you know, those highly stylized planners where it’s like, ‘What are your goals for the month? What are the things you want to get done?’ I look at it every morning and I look at it every night before I go to bed.
What’s your process for filling out your calendar?
As soon as I get an email about a meeting or an interview, I immediately put it in my Google calendar. I tell myself: As soon as you open it, you’ve gotta fill it because if you don’t, you’re going to forget it. I also designate certain colors for different commitments. If I have a virtual gym class, I’ll color-code the calendar entry to match the company’s logo. For fun things, I’ll do like pinks or magentas or yellows. Interviews will be blues. Things like that make the entries more poppy and make sure I pay attention.
At Forge, we’re always interested in how people stay productive. The tools they use. The thought exercises. How do you stay on top of your day?
I like actual writing for [plotting long-term goals], or if I’m working on a creative project and I need to plot scenes or prod ideas. There’s something more visceral about putting your hands to a pen and paper than typing on a keyboard. I’m definitely very tech-heavy, but sometimes when I’m really trying to get to the grit of a project, I need to put my actual hands on the page.
Do you block off specific times for focused work in your calendar?
I like to. I’ll say, “Alright, if I really want to plot this, why don’t I wait for the weekend? Or maybe I’ll wait for the late afternoon because all this stuff’s happening early- to mid-afternoon and I’m probably not going to give it the attention that it deserves.”
But I’ll be honest with you, sometimes I could be in a meeting or I could be editing someone else’s work and an idea will come to me that’s relevant to a creative project that I’m working on, and I’ll immediately write it down because I’m like, don’t forget it. You know what I mean? Immediately I’ll write it down and then come back to it later. And that’s the thing that I like about my job now: I get inspired by working alongside other writers.
How do you deal with distractions?
When the protests were happening, I had to download the Self Control app. [It helps] you block certain sites for an amount of time, and you can’t undo the time. And that’s what I did, because I was on deadline with a lot of things. I had to get things done.
You had to force yourself not to be glued to every breaking news update.
Yeah. It was hard.
I [write] well in the morning, so I told myself: “You’re going to put your Self Control on from 7:30 to like 9:30 and you’re going to bang it out. And then you can go back to being glued [to Twitter].” That was the only way I was going to be able to get stuff done, because I just could not stop scrolling. I couldn’t look away. I felt like I had to look at everything.
Is your sleep schedule as impeccable as your waking schedule?
No. So, here’s the thing about my body, and I freaking hate it: I always wake up at 6:30, 7. I wish there was a day where I could wake up, skin glowing, leave levitating above my tile floor, at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. My body just won’t do it. I tell people, if I’m ever still asleep at 8, call the ambulance.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.