how i get it done

Morgan Jerkins Managed to Put Out Two Books During the Pandemic

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Most people used the pandemic as an opportunity to slow down. Morgan Jerkins is not one of those people. Jerkins, the New York Times best-selling author of 2018’s This Will Be My Undoing (her first-ever book) and an editor at ESPN’s The Undefeated, has released two books since the start of the pandemic: Wandering in Strange Lands, and her debut novel, Caul Baby, which came out just last month. Jerkins’s work handles difficult topics like race, gender, and class with immense poise and a lot of heart — and she somehow manages to write these books while working as a full-time editor. Jerkins currently resides in Harlem with her partner. Here’s how she gets it done. 

On her morning routine: 
I generally wake up before seven o’clock, and I hate it. I wish that I could wake up at eight or nine, but it just never happens. When I’m working on a bigger project like a novel, I tend to start writing no later than 7:30 in the morning. I’m most alert at that time — you can talk to me about aerodynamics or something and I’ll be paying attention. I also work out most mornings. I do virtual classes, either a HIIT boot-camp style or a strength-training class, which usually run between 45 minutes to an hour.

On balancing multiple jobs: 
Now that I’m an editor, I try to get my writing done in the morning before the workday begins. I like that time because it’s quiet; usually things aren’t popping off in the news yet, and people on Twitter are still waking up. So I really take that time for myself. I also try to remind myself that I might not be able to write every day, and that’s okay. My creativity is like a battery; it’s going to go down sometimes. I tell myself that if I can write at least 1,000 words in the morning, I’m happy. But there are days when I just don’t have it, and I try to be sensitive to what’s going on in the world; there’s so much happening with the pandemic and all the stories surrounding police brutality.

On rest: 
I love naps. I think naps are so important. I wake up extremely early and I go hard, and unfortunately I’m not the type of person who always knows when to “stop” working in terms of not having email notifications on or closing work tabs at night. So I like naps because around midday, my energy just dips. Napping is a way for me to seclude myself from everything, shut everything off, and let my emotions reassemble themselves if I’ve had a stressful morning. I’m a huge fan of The Nap Ministry; the woman behind it, Tricia Hersey, really centers the fact that naps are especially important, and that’s something that I kind of devalued early in my career that I’m making up for now.

On confidence: 
Self-doubt is easy in this industry because it’s so volatile. Everyone is working themselves too hard, a lot of people aren’t getting paid enough, and a lot of people are being exploited. For me personally, the self-doubt comes in waves. When I’m writing and I’m in my office, nobody can tell me what to do. When I’m writing in there, I act like I’m the shit, even when I don’t feel like it because my book is my baby right now. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I know I’m capable because all I have to do is look at my bookshelf. I have three of my books up there, and I tell myself that if I did it once, I can do it again.

On the importance of community: 
My partner is a huge support system. We actually met during the pandemic so I’m very blessed to have him. I’m the youngest in my family, I have four older sisters, and I definitely lean on them and my mother and father for support as well. Friends of mine who are mainly in New Jersey and New York have been sending each other voice messages and hopping on Zoom whenever we can. I was in Harlem when it was the epicenter of the virus, when we thought we were going to run out of ICU beds. It was gut-wrenching, to say the least, and I would probably go so far as to say traumatizing. That really made me realize how important community is, and just how much we need our people.

It’s so important, especially for Black female artists, to make sure you have your people, because this industry gets rough. I think because I’m a type-A workaholic person and I’m always on the go, for a good part of my career I really didn’t celebrate my successes as much as I should have because I was afraid of “peaking” artistically and I felt insecure about my place in the literary world. I remember once I went to an event and introduced myself as a writer, and one of my closest friends was like, “Come on, tell them that you’re a New York Times best-selling author!” Sometimes you need your people to remind you all that you’ve done.

On balancing ambition and rest: 
If you go to my Twitter page, my header image is of Sade. I love Sade. I grew up on her music, but she also fascinates me in terms of her trajectory. If you look at Sade’s discography, she would go several years in between projects. Despite that, she has captured our fascination, and that really inspires me. I feel like if I were to meet her, I would ask her, “How did you give yourself that time? Weren’t you afraid? How did you trust in your path and your maturation while being this big star?” I think that’s going to be important for me as I’m moving forward. Between 2018 and 2021 I released three books, and two of them were during the pandemic. I’ve been working very expeditiously. I don’t want to come up with another book next year. I’m definitely going to be writing more books, but I also want to cherish and experience in-between stages while I’m creating. I really want to believe that there’s a place for me as a writer, even as I take that time.

On unwinding after work: 
I love candles, so I usually light a couple at night. I also make sure I pull all my curtains back in my living room because I have a really nice view of Harlem. I just like to sit and look at it sometimes because I think about how I’ve wanted to live in New York for so long and I didn’t think I was going to get to be here, but I made it happen.

On words to live by:
Whenever I have trouble falling asleep, I say to myself, “You are loved.” There’s been so many times when I’m writing that I have this laser-sharp focus on the job that I forget about the people around me and convince myself that they don’t even care about me or my work. Writing can be really lonely. So I tell myself, “You are loved”; whether it’s romantically, platonically, or even artistically, because even after I’m gone, my words will have a life of their own. That’s what I try to repeat to myself when I take it down for the night.

Morgan Jerkins Gets Her Writing Done in the Morning