“Writing Can Be a Spell”: Nichole Perkins on Total Literary Immersion
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. This week, we speak with Nichole Perkins to mark the release of her new book Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be—out today. Named after her favorite Prince song, “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” the memoir is a mesmerizing mix of brief anecdotes and thought pieces on everything from how Janet Jackson’s Control inspired her all-black wardrobe, to the joys and complications of having a ‘hoe phase.’ Here, take a peek at her writing process and discover how she got it done.
JULIANA UKIOMOGBE: Describe your ideal writing atmosphere. What gets you in the mood?
NICHOLE PERKINS: Before I write, I try to listen to music to set my mood. For example, when I was writing the chapter about my college alma mater, I listened to a lot of the R&B and southern hip-hop that was popular while I was in school to activate memories. When I finally do sit down to write, I just put on random classical music playlists. I don’t know anything about classical music (although I do love “Adagio for Strings,” because it’s so sad), but lyrics and movie scores distract me.
Physically, I prefer having plenty of room and privacy. I don’t like feeling confined or being in tight spaces when I write. I spread my notebooks out around me. I sometimes get up and pace or stand up and read my work out loud. I make terrible growling noises when I stretch so I can’t be at a coffee shop doing that. I’m paranoid about someone reading over my shoulder or trying to read my screen if I write in public. And any time a friend and I try to do a working lunch, we just end up talking to each other, so I need space and privacy to get my best work done.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you eat or drink while you write? If so, what do you like to have?
PERKINS: I like crunchy foods when I write, so I’m often eating cereal, popcorn, or chips. I don’t put milk in my cereal— I eat Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Fruit Loops, or Cap’n Crunch with my fingers. I usually drink hot green tea with honey or ice water while I’m working.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you ever smoke or drink alcohol while you write?
PERKINS: I don’t smoke cigarettes, but I definitely cannot smoke weed and write. I’ve tried, it does nothing for me. I end up taking a nap on the couch or cleaning the entire house. I try to stay away from drinking and writing because it seems like such a cliche, and too many writers, according to my high school English classes, died from alcoholism. But one day while writing my memoir, I got stuck to the point where I felt physically afraid to sit at my desk and write, so had a glass of white wine to steady my nerves. I wrote three terrible chapters, but they had really strong bones. Now, I’ve come to the conclusion that white wine is the best option. Whiskey gets me too drunk, and red wine gets me too amorous.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you keep a notebook and/or journal?
PERKINS: I keep notebooks and journals. Journals are for personal, intimate writing—goals, desires, gratitude tidbits, and general emotional vomit. Notebooks are for project planning, ideas, and other work. I also have a bunch of journals that are too pretty to write in.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you prefer handwriting or typing?
PERKINS: For prose, I type. For poetry, I write in my journal by hand, then type it up.
UKIOMOGBE: What’s your favorite quote?
PERKINS: “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” — Paul D, Beloved by Toni Morrison.
UKIOMOGBE: Whose writing do you always return to?
PERKINS: Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton, Jesmyn Ward, Donika Kelly, Danielle Evans, and Sharon Olds.
UKIOMOGBE: What’s your favorite book to reread?
PERKINS: Jelly Roll by Kevin Young.
UKIOMOGBE: What books did you read as a kid/teen? Have your thoughts about the writers changed?
PERKINS: When I was young, I read Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Virginia Hamilton, Mildred Taylor, and the occasional Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew book, but once I started reading romance novels around eight or nine, I don’t think I read very much age-appropriate literature outside of class assignments. My thoughts about these writers haven’t changed because I have not revisited their work, with the exception of one Sweet Valley High Super Edition called Malibu Summer. In the last seven years, I’ve bought three used copies of it because I loved it so much as a kid—it ends with a feeling of resigned longing, which is my jam.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you read while you’re in the process of writing?
PERKINS: Yes, I continue reading while I’m writing. During my research phase, I’ll read strong examples of what I’m working on to get a better sense of structure. Once I start writing, I no longer refer to those texts. While writing, I often alternate between poetry and romance novels: poetry because the lyricism informs my prose and it’s my first love, and romance novels are a palate cleanser for my brain.
UKIOMOGBE: Which writers inform your current work the most?
PERKINS: Samantha Irby’s essay collections really helped shape my memoir. When I read her work, it felt like she was in the same room and we were cracking up and having a drink. My work doesn’t have the same kind of “second happy hour location” feel but reading her essays helped me feel more comfortable relaxing into my own language.
UKIOMOGBE: How many drafts of one piece do you typically write?
PERKINS: Honestly, I don’t even know. Maybe anywhere from 3-5 drafts for prose and 2-3 for poetry. I’m more confident in my poetry.
UKIOMOGBE: Who’s your favorite screenwriter?
PERKINS: Nora Ephron because When Harry Met Sally is gold, but I also have to show love to Joseph Stefano who wrote the screenplay for Psycho, which is my favorite movie.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you consider writing to be a spiritual practice?
PERKINS: Writing can be a spell. When I’m writing the small gratitudes I feel each day, it helps ground me and practice good mental health. When I haven’t written anything just for myself, away from freelance assignments, I start to feel off, so I think writing keeps me connected to myself in many different ways.
UKIOMOGBE: Which writers would you choose to have dinner with, living or dead?
PERKINS: I would love to have dinner with Toni Morrison, rest her soul. I would’ve liked to hear her talk about Black women and how she dealt with desire in her work. Not just sexual desire, but overall yearning and longing. So much of her work gets labeled as “A Look into the Black American Experience,” and her interviews often focused on the trauma of racism, but I’d want to hear her talk about Black women and the softness we’re often denied.
UKIOMOGBE: What advice do you have for people who want to be better writers?
PERKINS: Read more poetry.
UKIOMOGBE: What are some unconventional techniques you stand by?
PERKINS: Writing every day is a scam. Let your mind rest. Instead of using a conventional timer or an app for dedicated writing time, I use playlists or cook something in my crockpot so I’m not watching the clock instead of writing. When the playlist stops or when I smell the food, I know to take a break. My advice: adopt a cat and name it after a Greek muse.
UKIOMOGBE: Can great writing save the world?
PERKINS: If you consider billionaires writing checks to provide clean water, housing, and thriving wages instead of visiting space to be great writing, then yes.