Molly Young, Writer


"I’m lucky because I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I know a lot of people who didn’t figure out what they wanted to do until much later in their lives. Some of them still don’t know. But for me, writing was always something that I was pursuing—in college I wrote for the newspaper and took classes that required me to write a lot of papers…nothing that required analytical thinking. [Laughs] Writing is also the one thing that robots can’t do well, so I feel slightly reassured in my job security. And I think of the skills that make a good writer—intelligence, empathy, and curiosity—they are things that pretty much apply to any job in the broader, non-technical realm. It’s much harder to find a good writer than it is to find a good marketing associate. Writing is also one of those things that requires a lot of self-discipline because you have understand what conditions allow you to work well so you can create those conditions for yourself. That takes a lot of self-awareness. And I think a lot of those qualities make for people who can also be really good technical thinkers and collaborators.

My first freelance gig was writing metro pieces for the New York Observer. I had several friends who worked there, including one who sent me on an assignment to interview Sandra Lee about some kind of tuna sponsorship she was doing in the Flatiron District. It was a 100 degree day and I was there with 10 other reporters…I turned in the piece and and I got paid about $100 all told, which I was over the moon about. The thing with freelancing is all you need is that one clip, that one piece to be able to go to another editor and say, ‘Look! I write for this other place, so you should hire me!’ And you do that until you find editors you love. I’ve written for a lot of places—New York magazine, GQ, the New York Times... The Times is my favorite, particularly the magazine. It’s terrific in the tradition of old-school magazines. If you want to write features, it’s one of the very few places that will give you the resources and the breathing room to do that. And then I like writing for the Times Book Review because it gives my dad something to brag about.

In general, I like writing about people who are really good at their jobs. I also realized that’s like my favorite kind of movie to watch, like The Martian where he’s just really good at planting things and living in space. I will say that the most successful pieces I’ve written tend to be ones in which I was passionate about the subject. When I get negative or really critical, those pieces don’t turn out as well. Two of my favorites are the Jenna Lyons profile I did with New York magazine and the Paul Rudd profile I wrote for the New York Times Magazine. In both those cases I got to see them actually doing their jobs, which is really important. Most people aren’t very good at talking about what they do for a living, but if you watch them do it you can see all the things they’ve internalized and wouldn’t necessarily describe well.

When I’m writing, I have to get up every 15 minutes or so and do something with myself. I try not to check my phone at all—the apartment is covered in clocks so I can see what time it is without checking my phone. But I have all these other little tricks to maintain stasis throughout the day and not get too stressed. I'll get up from my desk and drink a seltzer, or make a snack, or go for a walk, or do like 20 bicep curls with my 10 pound weights—as a result my arms are fairly buff. Plants also make me really happy. Just having a fairly responsive living thing in the house that thrives with so little attention is really validating. It’s the opposite of my cat, who requires a lot of attention and doesn’t thrive. She breaks a lot of wine glasses–I don’t even buy them anymore.

And I take a lot of baths–I’ll read in the bathtub for like 90 minutes. I use Kneipp bath oils, which are those colorful Bavarian tonics that have herbal scents. The bath is the place where I seriously don’t allow myself to use my phone because I’m afraid I’ll drop it in the water, so it’s become a sense deprivation zone for me. That’s important because my best advice for writers is to read a lot, specifically things that you like. I think writers need to trust their tastes and not read things that they feel they should read or should have read. You can only be influenced by what you remember and therefore what you enjoy, so read things you enjoy and will be influenced by. I look at reading as basically a part of my job and I do it for two hours a day, or however early I can manage to force myself up in the morning. My other advice is turn your shit in on time. It’s small, and it’s hard but just do it, because the benefits are huge.

I will say, I’m looking forward to fall. I’m not ‘going back to school,’ but there are still all these rituals that I've maintained from those days. You know, getting desk supplies, and allowing myself to pay more attention to my tools in a way that’s fun. I always go on a little Etsy or Ebay spree in the fall and get a bunch of pens and books. It’s also easier to think when the weather’s not super hot. In the summer, I feel like 90 percent of my energy is used just regulating my temperature, which means it's energy I’m not using to have interesting thoughts. If you charted it, my output would probably be more prolific and also more interesting in the fall. It’s a fun time to start doing the little creative projects on the side. I’ve done a couple this year, like the Periodic Table of Trash. My boyfriend Teddy and I made that together. I made a list of trash that I associate with New York—very specific stuff—and then took a couple months and photographed it all. Then we organized it to be an exact copy of the Periodic Table of Elements. Except that it’s trash.

Then I have devious little compliment cards that were inspired by Steve Martin’s business card. Apparently there's this business card he used to give out that says, ‘This is to certify that I’ve met Steve Martin and found him charming and intelligent, warm and gracious,’ and it’s signed by Steve Martin. I found that very funny, so my friend and I were like, ‘We should do a box of cards that have very specific, almost eerily specific compliments, and then people can give them to their friends and coworkers and stuff.’ They’re beautiful and printed on expensive cardstock. I’m not really design-oriented, but it's nice to get the chance to work with brilliant, design-oriented friends. I just come up with things and find people I enjoy working with to help me execute. Like, one day I took a selfie of myself myself yawning because I wanted to see what I looked like. I figured it was really hideous—and it was! I thought that when I’m in bed and I can’t sleep I can just look at this and then I’ll yawn and then I’ll get tired. So I told my friend Derek about this and he thought we should do something with the idea. We talked and he’s like, ‘We should take really nice close-up potraits of people yawning and then put them in a gallery. Everyone who goes in will start yawning, and it’ll be a non-stop yawning event that Sleepy Jones will host.' So we're doing it! I’m very excited for that one—we're taking the photos next week actually. So yeah, these things come to me in the bath usually. [Laughs] Or on walks. Anytime my body is doing something menial, my brain is wandering."

—as told to ITG

Molly Young photographed by Tom Newton at her home in New York on July 28, 2016.

Read more Molly—starting with her Top Shelf, her $100 toothpaste review, and her Oprah cleanse.

Fun fact! Molly shot Glossier's latest campaign for the Back to Reality bundle on her iPhone. See it all here.