how i get it done

Samantha Irby Doesn’t Bet on a Losing Dog

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Lori Morgan Gottschling

It took Samantha Irby 14 years to commit to a career in writing — a mostly practical decision driven by her upbringing, as she describes it. “It never, ever occurred to me to think of writing as a career,” she says. “It was kind of a pipe dream. I wasn’t raised with that kind of optimism. My reality was this: I only have a high school diploma, I don’t have a safety net, I just have to work and work and work so I can take care of myself.” So instead she earned her livelihood running the front desk at an animal hospital, doing shifts while writing her second major essay collection, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, and even continuing after it was published. “I cannot bet on a losing dog,” she says. 

Irby is not exactly a losing dog. When her name appears in print these days, it’s preceded by “#1 best-selling New York Times author.” Between three essay collections, a newsletter that’s currently focused on meticulously synopsizing Judge Mathis, and her work on TV shows like Shrill and And Just Like That…, she’s made me loudly guffaw on a public train more times than I can count. (You can also thank her for that kitchen scene. You know the one.) Her writing career started, implausibly enough, as a MySpace blog she set up to impress a guy she liked, which eventually turned into bitchesgottaeat. By the time she made it onto an agent’s radar, she was performing her work live in Chicago and had put out her first collection of essays, Meaty, through a local indie printing house. Since then, she’s released three more, including her newest, Quietly Hostile, which hit bookshelves in May. The fruits of her work on the second season of Sex and the City’s reboot will arrive on HBO in June, where more Che Diaz antics await. 

Irby does all her work, whether it’s Zoom-based writer’s rooms, book proposals, or freelance  gigs, from her home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she lives with her wife, two teenage stepchildren, and a very stubborn chihuahua mix. Here’s how she gets it done.

On her morning routine:
If the white noise machine is doing its job, I don’t wake up until 8:30. I don’t usually have the emotional wherewithal to make breakfast, but I have to eat to take my Zoloft, so I have a banana. I also have tons of those powders and tablets that you put in water that are supposed to rehydrate you faster, so I always drink a couple of those in the morning, which to me feels like I’m doing something good for myself. Then I take an unglamorous shower and try to wrestle the dog into the car. He’s a pandemic dog, and he’s a lot. He is a 3-year-old chihuahua mix and weighs, like, 11 pounds, but is very sassy and ugly — an interesting combination, because his cuteness doesn’t make up for his badness. My treat for dropping him off at daycare is sometimes I’ll stop at Starbucks on the way back home.

On fueling her workday:
When I used to rent an office, my key to working all day was to take everything I needed for the day, like lunch and snacks, so that I didn’t have to leave. Any excuse to leave, I would just stop the work. Now that I work from home, I do a similar thing. I’ll gather my Diet Coke, my Owala water bottle, maybe some nuts for protein, a gluten-free rice chip, cottage cheese — I bring it all into my office.

On her ideal working environment:
Remote writer’s rooms are incredible. I think you still get the same kind of connection, but it’s distilled down into a shorter amount of time, so you really have to get to work. And nobody can see when you’re texting. It’s win win! In terms of my personal writing, if I’m really on fire about something, the best writing time is after everyone is asleep and the house is quiet. Midnight to 3 a.m. are my prime working hours. It’s terrible for every other part of my life. I’m 43 years old, I need to go to sleep. But it’s when the juice really gets flowing.

On writing for And Just Like That:
However many seasons they give us, I’m going to work on the show. When I got hired, I thought maybe I’d be there to punch up jokes. It’s an institution and I did not think they were going to let me get my grubby imprint on it. I’m an OG watched-it-on-VHS-when-I-was-19 kind of fan, so it truly is a dream come true. And yet the first day, everyone was, like, “We want to hear all of your ideas, you are an active part of this room, welcome aboard.” I can’t believe it! Then they assigned me an episode and I was, like, Oh, they really mean it. All the stories on the show come from our lives. It is so collaborative, almost shockingly so. If I’m too quiet for a while, Michael will be, like, “Samantha, what do you think?” Also, everyone is funny, so all we do is try to make each other laugh all day and hopefully figure out where Carrie Bradshaw’s gonna go. People assume that being funny is effortless, like I just sit down and funny stuff comes out of my brain. Sometimes that’s true, but I do have to think. The misconception is that writing humor is easy. You don’t have to throw a telethon for me, but it does take work and thoughtfulness.

On getting feedback:
Working in TV is so collaborative, it’s like a failsafe. But if I write something stupid in my own writing, the fact checker or copy editor or lawyer is not going to chime in and say, “Hey, dude, I know you think this is funny, but it’s not landing.” I need my jerk friends to do it, the people who aren’t there to stroke my ego and will tell me if something’s terrible. Sometimes I get so enamored with a thing I’ve written but I think people may not get it. I have to call in reinforcements and be, like, “Did this make you laugh?” They are all more than happy to roast me over something I was going to put in a book that doesn’t work.

And getting personal:
No one wants to talk to someone who’s, like, “I know I wrote all this stuff in my book, but it’s off limits.” So I don’t write about anything I wouldn’t be comfortable sitting down on the nightly news and talking about. And I try not to ever say anything negative about anyone who can recognize themselves. I would never tell a story with someone else involved without their permission. My friends can usually tell when a thing that would be good to write about is happening to us. They’ll be, like, “You’re gonna put this somewhere, right?” You’re right! I am. I’m texting myself the notes right now.

On celebrating her success:
The way these industries work, no one really wants you to sit back and relax in your success. They’re, like, “What’s the next thing?” Not even in a bad way, sometimes it’s just excitement. That conversation happened to me before Quietly Hostile was even out. So it’s hard to kick back and be, like, “I’m doing so good,” when my editor is, like, “Hey, dude, let’s start talking about the next book.” That being said, I love a little prize I can give myself, often a Sephora treat. I’m not a big jewelry person, but I’ll get a bunch of blushes or some fancy lipstick to wear nowhere. Or, if there’s an opportunity to celebrate with other people, I love to treat everyone to a nice dinner.

On making (and spending) money: 
When I was younger, I was living paycheck to paycheck, but I’ve always liked things that feel fancy and luxurious and make me feel like I’m not in the garbage can emotionally. I would pay part of my bills but always leave some to go out to a club, have money for cabs, buy a nice bottle of perfume, that kind of thing. Right now is the first time I’ve ever been comfortable with what I have. I got a $75,000 book deal for We’re Never Meeting In Real Life and $250,000 for Wow, No Thank You. But I’m still like a squirrel trying to gather up all my nuts before the frost. I don’t know if I’ll ever shake that nagging feeling of, What if that’s not enough? But as a person who has those fears, I am incredibly indulgent. I grew up with nothing, and this is just me catching up. That’s an excuse, but it’s one that lets me do what I want.

On the people who help her get it done:
My wife is a huge help to me. I don’t know how many paper towels we have in the house right now. She does. She is the engine of the household and keeps everything running while I am in la la land trying to write fart jokes. We take the dog to day care three times a week, which is the key to our sanity. We have a cleaning service that’s very helpful in making it look like we haven’t camped out in our house.

On self-doubt:
I spent over six years trying to make my book, Meaty, into a television show. Many, many people in Hollywood rejected it, and they don’t tell you why. So if you’re a self defeating person like myself, it’s easy to internalize that. Everyone is rejecting me, they think my life is bad, they also don’t like my jokes. I’m a big “what’s wrong with me?” kind of person, and that does not help. I just had another show I have in development rejected, so by now I’ve had a little practice. But I just try to remind myself, in terms of the earth, it’s like you’re a poppy seed inside of a salad bowl. The world is so big, no one is intentionally doing things to you, there are lots of reasons these things don’t work. I can’t give in to doubt, because I would never do anything.

In my mind I just block out the fact that people are going to see what I’m writing. I don’t read reviews, I don’t read anything. I don’t want to directly engage with anyone who hates my work because that would make the doubt even worse. I don’t need it to be worse. I don’t think of it as powering through the doubt, it’s just one foot in front of the other. And never stopping to think, Does this suck? Do I suck? I have to resist self-sabotage.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How Samantha Irby Gets It Done