Inside Phoebe Robinson’s ASMR- And Diet Coke-Fueled Writing Process
This is Rough Draft, in which our favorite writers get to the bottom of their own craft. From preferred writing drinks to whether or not you really need to carry a notebook, we find out all the ways they beat writer’s block and get it done.
Comedian, author, multi-platform powerhouse—Phoebe Robinson is undoubtedly a jack-of-all-trades. Her meteoric rise began in 2016, when she and her fellow comedian Jessica Williams debuted the acclaimed podcast 2 Dope Queens, a show that became so popular that it spawned a two-season HBO series. That same year, Robinson released her debut essay collection, You Can’t Touch My Hair (And Other Things I Still Have to Explain). Her second book, Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay (which was recently shot as a pilot for Freeform that Robinson both starred in and wrote) arrived two years later, solidifying her status as a New York Times Bestselling Author. On October 14, Robinson will return to HBO to for her stand-up comedy special, Sorry, Harriet Tubman. Today, she celebrates the release of her latest essay collection, Please Don’t Sit on My Bed In Your Outside Clothes, published under her imprint Tiny Reparations Books. The essays approach weighty, timely topics with trademark Robinson levity—covering everything from the woes of quarantining with a boyfriend, to why “self-care is not a candle and therapy is not a notebook.” Below, the prolific entertainer reflects on her writing process—which includes a few too many beverages and a lot of RuPaul quotes.
JULIANA UKIOMOGBE: What’s your ideal writing atmosphere?
PHOEBE ROBINSON: Good question. Definitely changes depending on the project, and it has morphed as I’ve gotten older. When I was younger, my prime hours for writing were 10 PM-5 AM when the world is quiet, but now that I’m running multiple businesses, I have to be present and awake for my employees, which mean thaaangs have changed.
Now, my ideal writing atmosphere is a desk, a lit candle, music, my laptop, and a second monitor that I can use solely for looking up stuff that pertains to whatever I’m working on. Music is key for the atmosphere, and it’s dependent on the mood. When it was crunch time on Please Don’t Sit On My Bed In Your Outside Clothes, I was listening to Incubus, Linkin Park, and Biggie. Just stuff that got me hyped. But other times, it’s smooth jazz, ’80s Top 40, or indie artists such as Amber Mark and Nilüfer Yanya. I also use the Pomodoro app that helps break up writing because I’m definitely the kind of writer who will not move from my chair for six hours straight. That’s just ignorant. Now, I give my tushy a break and make time to pee.
UKIOMOGBE: What are your go-to writing snacks?
ROBINSON: If only you could see my desk! I tend to have four to five drinks available to me at all times: green juice, hot tea, an 80 oz jug of water, a sparkling water, and maybe a Diet Coke if I’m feeling sassy. It typically takes the whole day to get through all those beverages, but I like to stay hydrated. I usually graze on chips and nuts and turkey jerky, but don’t eat full meals while I write.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you ever smoke or drink alcohol while you write?
ROBINSON: I am a Sober Sally when I work. I don’t smoke anything in general anyway. I feel as though writing is so difficult and requires so much of you that being at your best makes it easier. I don’t want to have to wade through tons of shitty writing because I’m typing away while tipsy. Ain’t got time for that!
UKIOMOGBE: Do you keep a notebook and/or journal?
ROBINSON: I do! I have about 30 notebooks, but honestly? I tend to jot down thoughts on Post-its, scraps of paper around the apartment, the back of envelopes, and printouts of drafts of whatever I’m writing. It’s organized chaos, but it works!
UKIOMOGBE: Do you prefer handwriting or typing?
ROBINSON: Typing all the way. Love the ASMR click-clacking of the keys. Handwriting takes too long for me. Especially because I tend to free write before I do actually writing, I like everything in one MS Word doc and sort through my notes that way.
UKIOMOGBE: What’s your favorite quote?
ROBINSON: “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love someone else?” — RuPaul. Timeless!
UKIOMOGBE: Whose writing do you always return to?
ROBINSON: I don’t know that I return to anyone’s writing. Rather, it’s that if I like one book of someone’s, I will buy all their stuff. Like Roxane Gay, Caitlin Moran, Rupi Kaur, and Rebecca Solnit. I really enjoy watching how a writer’s style and use of language changes as they change as human beings. It’s a really cool journey that readers get to witness.
UKIOMOGBE: What books did you read as a kid/teen? Have your thoughts about the writers changed?
ROBINSON: As a teen, I read what a lot of schools teach as the classics—Animal Farm, 1984, Shakespeare, etc.—and I think they served their purpose. My thoughts about the writers haven’t changed. I just think that kids/teens would benefit greatly from reading/being taught about work that’s outside the literary canon, which is overwhelmingly white, male, and straight. The more kinds of voices and stories that people are exposed to, the more likely they are to develop a deep love of reading.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you read while you’re in the process of writing?
ROBINSON: Yes, but definitely less. Often, it will be a genre that’s different than what I writing. So while writing my last book, I was reading a lot of poetry. When I was working on my script, I was reading essay collections. Reading is so joyful for me, so I never want to give it up. At the same time, I don’t want my writing to be too influenced by what I’m reading, so that’s why I mix it up.
UKIOMOGBE: Which writers inform your current work the most?
ROBINSON: It’s difficult to say because I’m so in it. I just gravitate towards writers whose voices are unique, but I don’t believe I sound like any of them. I enjoy Samantha Irby, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Celeste Ng. They have a distinct style and I believe that I do, too. So I just enjoy reading that kind of material, but I don’t know how much they inform my work, to be honest.
UKIOMOGBE: How many drafts of one piece do you typically write?
ROBINSON: No matter whether it’s a book, essay, or script, it tends to be five drafts and two polishes at a minimum. This is why when I talk to someone who just wants to write one draft of something and be done with it, I say, “Think hard about whether you want to be a writer because so much of this process is refining and tweaking. If you’re not interested in doing that, then writing probably isn’t for you.”
UKIOMOGBE: What would the title of your memoir be?
ROBINSON: This Could’ve Been An Email.
UKIOMOGBE: Who’s your favorite screenwriter?
ROBINSON: Nora Ephron was pretty great. Spike Lee. Charlie Kaufman. Love me some Scorsese. Michaela Coel.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you consider writing to be a spiritual practice?
ROBINSON: It can be. It truly depends on the intention, ya know? Writing is one of the great forms of expression, to understand and question the world, to reflect on the human condition, or simply to connect with someone. It can do many things, and for a lot of people, writing— whether it’s a journal or the next “Great American Novel”— is an activity that can bring peace and be meditative.
UKIOMOGBE: Which writers would you choose to have dinner with, living or dead?
ROBINSON: Kiley Reid. Brené Brown, Adam Grant, Sam Irby, Austin Channing Brown, Simon Sinek, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison.
UKIOMOGBE: What advice do you have for people who want to be better writers?
ROBINSON: Double down on your voice. Sure, learn the rules of writing and develop a work ethic, but please, please, for the love of Michelle Obama’s arms, have a unique way of presenting your ideas and stories. The notion of creating authors who don’t add anything to the tapestry, but just mimic those who came before them, is boring and limiting. We should be adding to the conversation, inspiring others and ourselves. Swing for the fences. Write poorly and learn from the misses.
UKIOMOGBE: What are some unconventional techniques you stand by?
ROBINSON: I don’t have any. I just write. Rewrite and rewrite. Make sure I have fun and am making myself laugh along the way.
UKIOMOGBE: Can great writing save the world?
ROBINSON: Ooof, if it could, it would’ve done it already, no?