Elaine Welteroth Spills the Secret to Writing a New York Times Best Seller
When Elaine Welteroth’s not taking selfies with the legendary Cicely Tyson or her iconic circle of friends (ah-hem, check her MET Gala after-party footage on Instagram), you can find the former Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief mentoring designers on Bravo’s "Project Runway", writing for and cameo-ing on "Grown-ish", and serving us her first memoir, More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say). Notice how we said “first memoir”, because if she’s capable of achieving everything she has in the past 10 years of her career, just imagine what’s to come. The California native and American journalist has the influence and staying power of Oprah. Yeah, we said it.
We were able to snag some time with Elaine as she was hitting up all the major cities on her national book tour. The New York Times best-selling author chatted about her writing process and even shared a few secret tips for all her fellow writers out there. Really though, Elaine makes you feel like you’re one of her group-chat contacts. She’s candid and relatable, with an inspirational aura that makes you want to go out there and give your absolute best, dammit.
It’s said that writers write the books they want to read, and creators create what they want to see in the world. Is that true for you? If so, what did you want to provide with your book More Than Enough?
100%. I feel like I had the chance to create the magazine I needed growing up, and now I feel like I’ve written the book that I needed all throughout my 20s. I wanted to crack open the conversations that professional women aren’t having enough. I think that we live in this world where we’re only seeing each other’s success stories play out online. You know, headline and highlight reels but we’re not really talking about the most universal aspects of those journeys. Things like burnout and salary negotiations, complicated personal relationships, and microaggressions on the job and what it’s like to be the only one of you in the room. If we’re going to be a part of creating a new generation of female role models in leadership, we have to be vulnerable enough to share more of our stories so that we can share tools with the next generations, and with women of our age, even our peers need more truth-telling and so that’s sort of what I set out to do with this book.
Writing about yourself feels a lot like therapy. It definitely has you facing yourself head-on. What did you learn about yourself as you wrote your book?
It was definitely very therapeutic. The first check that I wrote when I got my advance was to a therapist so that I could have someone there to help process with me and make sure that I’m writing from a really healed and whole place. All of the stories really wrote themselves inside of me, and going into writing my book proposal and selling my book, I knew the book I was going to write. I knew the stories that needed to be told. There was urgency to it. They were at the tip of my tongue. They were at the edge of my fingertips. All I needed to do was just clear the space, and create the time to sit with my laptop and let it flow. So, I think I had processed a lot of the stories and the takeaways from them, it felt really relevant and urgent for this generation. I just knew that this book felt like more of a calling that I had to answer, rather than a decision that I made. You know what I mean? It was already written, I just had to be the conduit for these stories. I think if anything, I just had to learn how to say no to other opportunities in order to really create this space to tell the story that only I could tell. I think that, if anything, was the hardest part, and the thing that I had to learn… how to say “no”. That’s the hardest thing for people to do when you’re working for yourself, but it was well worth it. It absolutely paid off. It was the only way that I could have gotten a book like this written in a year. Which is really rather quick for a book like this one.
Your writing process for your book––Did you have a designated writing area, or marked out time frame during the day? Basically, was it hot mess express, or a very well-oiled machine?
It wasn’t easy and it required a lot of discipline and focus, and Jedi mindset tricks. So, there are a couple of things that I did. One thing that I learned early on is that I needed to clear a whole day, several days, of my schedule for writing days. I would sort of look at my week ahead, and I would carve out whole days just to write. Nothing else. That was critical because I think a lot of the work that we do requires us to be on, requires us to put makeup on, and put a face on for the world. And that "out" energy is very different from the inward, introspective work that writing a book requires. I needed to really get into giving myself permission to not put makeup on, or not even leave my house or office at all. No meeting, no phone calls. No nothing. Because sometimes it takes half a day just to get your motor going in terms of writing and once that flow hits, you don’t want to interrupt it. You want nothing interrupting it. I compartmentalized my schedule to allow huge open windows for writing, and then on my days where I was out in the world working on other projects, I allowed myself permission to be fully present in those projects. Rather than try to dip in and out. Some people have managed to set aside a couple hours in a day and get writing done, I’m not that person. I learned that very early on. I also learned the power of rituals, of having a writing ritual.
My writing ritual was lighting a candle. I love white candles. I stocked up on them, I can’t tell you how many I burned through in the process of writing this book. I would also always play this random playlist I found on YouTube. It’s called Binaural Beats brainwave music, and it supposedly makes you smarter and improves your focus, memory, and the cognitive ability. I don’t know if it’s true or not. I don’t know if it’s just the placebo effect, but it definitely helped me get into my zone. I recommend it to any creative, any writers. I think it cues my brain, it cued my brain to know that now we’re writing and nothing else is happening.
The combination of lighting the candle and playing my Binaural Beats, that would get me in my zone.
What was the hardest thing to write about in More Than Enough?
I definitely experienced [writer’s] block. My tactic when I got stuck was just to record myself talking through the story, and then I would have that transcribed, and when I read that back, the story was there. It was already on the page. I think the hardest thing for any writer, any artist, any creative, is working with a blank canvas. The thing that lowers the pressure, the tactic that helped take the pressure off, was working sometimes from the transcript of my own words. It also helped me write a book that was more conversational. I wanted the book to feel like an intimate conversation with your best friend. Working from some lines that I’d actually said aloud, helped give me a framework. You’d see the beginning, middle, and the end. You can pull out certain conversational lines that maybe you wouldn’t have even arrived at it if it was the paper. I really wanted to write a voice-y book where you could really hear the voice jumping off the page, and you could really feel like you’re sitting with someone who is talking to you. That was kind of the only way to arrive at that, was to actually talk it out first. I found that to be really helpful.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ELAINE WELTEROTH
PHOTO COURTESY OF ELAINE WELTEROTH
Let’s talk about this beautiful cover of your book, More Than Enough. It makes your soul smile just to look at it! Can you tell us about how you chose this image?
By the way, you were the first person who has asked me about my cover!
So the cover is actually inspired by this iPhone picture that my best friend Brooke took of me when we were in Seychelles for our other friend’s wedding. We were just kind of just goofing around on the beach as we all do. We all have full-on photo shoots with our friends. We know what it is. We do it for the ‘gram. So, she was doing it for the ‘gram and we were deep in this photo shoot and she just took this really great photo that just captured… for me, it felt like it captured my spirit in a picture. I love the blue sky in the background and there was movement and it felt very kinetic. My hair was moving, it was an in-between moment and we were laughing. I just felt free. I wanted to translate that exact spirit onto my cover.
I had to reshoot my cover, there was another shoot that just didn’t work out. So, I had such a clear vision for exactly what I wanted this to look like and what I mostly wanted it to feel like. which was all of those things-joyful, triumphant, kinetic, emotive, liberated, expansive, bright. But also, I wanted to play with light and shadow. Because the book isn’t all sunshine and smiles. I wanted there to be a cue that you’re getting something deeper and richer, and in some ways darker at times than you’d ever get on social media. We’re going real. We’re going deep. I wanted to be able to play with shadow as well. But the chin up to the sky was very intentional.
I talk about how all women are born with this chin-to-the-sky confidence, and then the world kind of chips away at that. The goal of our journey as women, is to fight back and reclaim that chin-to-the-sky confidence. That was really intentional in the image. The pop of pink was a total surprise. We were shooting with a more tonal look–blue blazer against the blue sky–and in an off-chance, we decided to try a pink blazer and it just really popped against the blue sky. It was freezing cold in New York. I think it was in single digits. It was FREEZING. In order to get that shot, we had to run… we had a whole studio but we realized, “this is not it”. I also had three days to produce this, when we realized the other shoot wasn’t going to work. We had to schedule it very quickly. I called a couple of my friends to help me, my friends that worked in the magazine world, and they helped me put this shoot together. This amazing photographer, young woman Jacq Harriet. I called in favors from friends.
Anyways, we ran across the street to the middle of a basketball court and we brought a stool that I stood on top of. It was freezing, I had no pants on so they wrapped blankets around my bottom. It looked so crazy, and the fact that we ended up with that shot is kind of a miracle. I’m soooo happy with the way it turned out! I knew it was the one when I showed it to my intern and she was like, “I’ve never felt like crying happy tears by looking at a book cover. I feel something.” I was like, “YES! That’s what I want!” I want it to be emotive, I want people to feel something when they look at the book. I’ve worked on many magazine covers in my day, so I really take the cover seriously and this was the most high-stakes cover of all time ‘cause obviously, it’s my book. I just couldn’t be happier with the way it came out.
When you became the Beauty & Health Director of Teen Vogue, and then Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue, these moments brought so much inspiration and joy to people who understood the importance of you in these roles. Who are some people coming up in the industry (or any industry) today who bring you that same pride and excitement?
Yara Shahidi. She could be president one day and I would be like, “100% stan”. She’s just brilliant, she represents the best of the future generation that’s coming up behind us. I’m really proud of her. My second cover as editor of Teen Vogue, we put her on the cover and it was her first American cover. To see where her career has gone since then is just a point of real pride and admiration for her. Her talent and her star just keep soaring. It’s only the beginning for her. She’s inspiring to me. Janet Mock, for sure. She’s just a multi-dimensional talent. And she represents for a community that long has been unseen in mainstream media and she represents it so well, for the trans community, for the queer community. The sky is the limit for her. Going from writing, I think she was a freelance mag writer, then became a best selling author, then a writer and producer, and director on "Pose" and now she just closed a deal with Netflix, which is historic. She’s an inspiration to me. And then always, Ava DuVernay. Ava DuVernay is a huge inspiration and mentor. If you have not seen, “When They See Us.” Get ready. It’s important. It’s too important to sit out. Too painful to watch in one sitting, but it’s too important to sit out.
We’re all about female empowerment here at Good American & Good Times. Who are the women around you that provide love, care, and power on your toughest days?
My mom. She’s my best friend and my honorary Editor-in-Chief. Everything I’ve ever written, I’ve read to her first before publishing. No matter what it is, she’s in my corner and she’s also honest with me. She’ll tell me like it is. She’ll check me in a minute if I need it. She’ll be my biggest supporter and cheerleader. She’s my #1 but I feel extraordinarily blessed to have a whole tribe of women in my corner. My friends, who are like my sisters. I have multiple group chats with my sister-friends. I have literally different threads-I have “The Aunties”, which are my industry friends, in media. We have a chain called “Homies. Sisters. Lovers. Friends.” Those are like my best friends from New York. I have my “Solid Six”, which are my best friends from seventh grade. I don’t make any decisions in my career, my life, and nothing good or bad ever happens to me alone. I share it with the group chat. I have an extraordinary group of women around me and every boss I’ve ever had has been a mentor to me.
Your Instagram is hella fun! What’s your relationship with social media? How do you keep a healthy connection to its craziness?
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always had a photo album. I’ve always obsessed over them. Looking back those are my first magazines, and when Instagram came out I sort of approached it like my digital photo album. It’s an outlet for expression, for storytelling around what matters to me right now, what I care about, what inspires me and I have fun with it. At the end of the day, I do Instagram because it’s entertaining to me. My Instagram stories entertain me, and sometimes I forget that other people are looking at them. I force my fiancé to watch them everyday. I’m like, “Did you watch my Instagram stories? Why didn’t you watch my Instagram stories.” It’s like daily harassment at our house.
…But do you even watch his Instagram stories?
He’s not even good at Instagram stories! He’s very inconsistent with his content. I strive to be consistent. I try to keep a steady flow of content. I try to post at least once a day on my grid, and then I try to stay up with Instagram stories. I used to be like really really good at it. Now I’m just trying to stay alive. But, I also had to take some digital detoxes when I was writing this book because it can be a distraction. It can really mess with your focus, and especially when you’re trying to write a book, it’s all-consuming and you really have to check your input. You become very sensitive to everything you see, so I had to protect my senses. The sensory overload that is scrolling Instagram. I had to kind of step up out of it which is actually hard because, the FOMO of it all. But every time I’ve taken a step back from social media, I’ve benefited from it in all the ways-mentally, emotionally, spiritually, creatively, productively. It’s a good thing to do every now and then. It sort of puts it back into perspective. It’s a fun outlet, and it’s a way to connect with folks, it’s a way to stay inspired, but when you find yourself going down rabbit holes and falling into compare and despair, that cycle… that’s when you know, it’s like, “Ok. I need to cut myself off.” There’s always so many more important things to focus on that are not on the internet. But every once in a while, we need to cut ourselves off.
Who was the first person you gave your final draft to?
My mom. What I did is, as I finished things I called my mom and read it to her. So, she read everything before it was in final manuscript form.
Who makes you laugh the hardest?
Jonathan, my fiancé.
When was your last happy cry?
When I found out I made the New York Times Best Seller list the other day.
When was the last time you felt totally empowered?
I’d say every day. Every day. Is that cliché?
When was the last time you said to yourself “I have no idea what the hell I’m doing”?
Every day. (Laughs)
For major inspiration that uplifts your soul, follow @ElaineWelteroth on Instagram
Click here to purchase Elaine's book, More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say)