DON’T INTERRUPT: KIMBERLY HARRINGTON
Becky Brinkerhoff is the social media manager for 3% and a copywriter at Arnold Worldwide in Boston. She’s a diversity and inclusivity activist in all things and hasn’t been “chill” a single day in her life.
Any conversation with Kimberly Harrington should come with a disclaimer. Something along the lines of, “Warning: liquids consumed during your interaction will inevitably be spewed due to intense laughter.”
She’s the author of Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words, a contributor to McSweeney’s and The New Yorker, a freelance creative director, and a copywriter. For this month’s installation of Don’t Interrupt, we spoke with her about all things creative process and why you should never, under any circumstances, write a book in seven weeks.
What were you like in high school?
I grew up with a lot of funny people. The guys would never laugh at anything a girl said, which set the bar really high for my humor. I was pretty funny in high school, but no one can beat an audience that won’t react.
Overall, I was such a medium-popular person. I was solidly in the middle. It’s really served me well over time. There were boys who dated quite literally every one of my friends and not me. Now I realize that the middle is the perfect place to aim for, even though it's not that enjoyable at the time. I wasn’t bullied or picked on relentlessly, so I didn’t hate school. But, I wasn’t so popular that I peaked.
Peaking at sixteen is not the way to go. So, I'm not encouraging my kids to be popular.
What keeps you up at night?
Oh, everything. Everything. I don’t sleep anymore.
If my eyes open, I get up. That could be 2:30 in the morning, that could be 4:00. I try to aim for 5:00. It’s not so much that I wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking about things and freak out, it’s more that I wake up and think I should be writing. And that’s how a lot of the writing has gotten done. Everyone asks me how I’m doing all of this and it’s because I’m maximizing my time in a truly unsustainable way.
I only returned to my own writing three-and-a-half years ago and once that happened, I stopped being able to sleep like a normal person. I guess I have so many years of pent-up ideas that it’s just what I want to do all the time.
What’s your most embarrassing professional faux pas?
I’m a freelancer and I work from home the majority of the time. Although, every day alone in my house is its own form of embarrassment.
The only specific thing I can think of—I’m not trying to shirk the question, I just don’t think I’ve had enough opportunities to humiliate myself. Plus: I have lived my entire life actively avoiding humiliation which is a whole other story. Anyway, I think the most embarrassing stuff I did was early on in my career when I was just young and dumb. For example, when I was first starting out I was living in LA and I was so broke. I temped at this small agency and the head guy asked if I would come in and sit at the reception desk wearing a very short skirt for $150 because they had a potential new client coming in. And I said yes! Because I needed the $150!
Is that embarrassing, or is it just good business?
Go back to the beginning of your career. What would you do differently?
I wouldn’t compare my path to others. Throughout my career, people my same age have lapped me many times over. They were going on shoots while I was routing their mechanicals. And it sucked. I was like, god, why can’t I get it together? It’s hard when you feel like everyone is succeeding except for you. And I think a lot of that has to do with the whole 30 Under 30 bullshit. It’s great to recognize people who are super creative and making great work, but it’s a disservice to people who don’t come out of the gate hot at 23.
In hindsight, the path I took is fitting for me. I’ve always been a late bloomer. I’ve always done things only when I’ve been fully ready to do them, including all the way back to taking my first steps or riding a bike. My professional path has been very meandering and winding, but what it gave me was empathy for what other people do. Even when I became a creative, I totally understood what a project manager does. Or an account manager. It’s really easy when you’ve only lived your life as a creative to be a dick to everyone. Some creatives think their job is just so important and account people are just there to screw you. But, when they go freelance, they find that those people were actually holding them up and allowing them to do their precious work all along.
You’ve worked in agencies and design studios. Any key differences?
To me, ad agencies are like fraternities and design studios are like art schools. That’s a damned sweeping generalization, but I find it holds. Big successful ad agencies feel bro-heavy to me, full of swagger, very masculine. And then design studios are formed around the art nerds who tend to be quite modest or at least quietly smug. They have an inferiority complex on some level, probably from being abused back in school by all the dudes who ended up working at agencies. I’ve just been surprised by how different these cultures can be when, from an outsider’s perspective, they seem like the exact same industry. I think being on the design side for most of my career is the reason I don’t have a ton of embarrassing moments. Design studios have potlucks for parties. Ad agencies break shit at their parties—people, buildings, everything.
What’s your advice to new moms working in advertising?
Honestly, think about not working in advertising.
I get that it’s changing and I get that there’s a lot of lip service around it changing. But, in my opinion, it’s not an industry that knows how to support new mothers. There’s a lot of momentum, and I’m really heartened by that and the way that certain agencies are leading the charge. But, advertising is built around men and the young. And it’s built around people who don’t have a life outside of advertising.
So, if you’re a dude who has a wife at home who is taking care of your kids, that works. If you’re single and your life is work, excellent. And I was 20 once. I was 30 once. My life revolved around the places where I worked. I lived it. But, the minute you have this overwhelming commitment and life change, you’re immediately undercut by a culture that tells you that you can’t possibly be efficient—even though it is the most fucking efficient you will ever be in your entire life.
And to me, that’s the enraging part. If you want to look up “inefficiency,” look me up when I was 25. Dicking around, coming in at 10, actually going out to lunch. The whole culture supports rolling in late, spending 45 minutes getting your breakfast and chatting, being in meetings all day, then starting your real work around 4:00.
That’s not a culture that mothers can work within. We need to get in there early, get our work done, and then go get our kids. So until you solve that culture, it’s not a great place for moms of very young children to be working. And I think the culture that gets there first and really steps it up, is going to be the culture that wins. I mean, why beat around the bush? It’s tough. It’s a really tough culture for mothers.
You wrote Amateur Hour in seven weeks. What was that process like?
It was stupid. Don’t write a book in seven weeks. That’s my advice.
There were a lot of timing things that came into play which, from an advertising standpoint, is the only thing I’ve understood about publishing so far: production timelines. The book was shopped around earlier, but that was right around the election when the whole country decided it didn’t give a shit about women. So, it stalled out temporarily. It didn’t start making the rounds again until February or March of last year. By the time it was actually bought, it was the last week my kids were in school and the first draft was due the last week of summer vacation.
My book proposal had about 100 pages of material in it, so I wasn’t starting from scratch. When publishers started showing interest in the book, my agent asked me about the completion timeline, wanting to know how quickly I could write the rest of it. I thought of it as an advertising thing, where I’m just used to working really fast. The whole concept of working on something for years sounds like torture to me. I can’t imagine writing a book for three years. I’d rather punch myself in the face. So I said, “I don’t know, maybe three to six months.” I wasn’t pumped about the idea of three months, but I knew they were trying to time it for Mother’s Day. But I was also like, “How long are books? I don’t even know how long books are. I probably just have to write 100 more pages.”
Yeah, that’s not how long books are. I needed to write maybe 200 more pages, which I didn’t realize until I had already committed to it. And I was like, holy shit, that sounds hard. That’s where all my project management training kicked back into gear. I had to look at how many days I had to write the first draft and then divide that by the numbers of words I needed. I had to write a certain number of words, every day, without a day off.
I don’t recommend writing a book like that. Then again, that shit worked so who am I to say?
Do you have a favorite part of your writing process?
I touched on this earlier, but I only recently returned to my personal writing for the first time since I was probably 28. Because so much time has passed, I have a lot of pent-up energy and ideas. I never have enough time in the day to write everything I want to write. That feeling of monster creative energy and momentum has been incredible but, well, I also have to work and I have a family. When I’m able to write without feeling like I’m sacrificing someone or something else in the process, that’s truly a gift. It’s rare.
Advice for creatives who want to pursue other projects outside of advertising?
I kept bitching about all this other writing other people were doing that I thought I could do better. Then when I started writing, I realized how hard it was, which is a really valuable experience. I think a lot of people do the whole “I’d write a book if only I had time.”
Well, no one has time. It’s very easy to convince yourself that you could really kill it when you’re not even close to trying to do it. You can convince yourself that you’d be good at something, but until you sit down and face the fact you might not be good at it, it’s irrelevant. It’s all just talk. And I have definitely had those moments over and over again. I'd been telling myself this story that I’d be good at this thing, but I had to face the fact that maybe I wasn’t. And that’s a dark place to be. But it’s valuable.
I hear from people all the time—it’s always women, never men—telling me that they’re too scared to write a humor piece and send it anywhere. It’s like, I don’t know what to tell you. That’s bullshit. It’s bullshit! What are you waiting for? If you can’t handle a little rejection, you’re never going to get your project done, ever. It’s never going to be something you value if you are that afraid of putting yourself out there. You only get better at it through repetition like anything else.
The creative process gets treated like it's so precious and fragile. And it’s not. It’s just work. You don’t get better at it if you just do it once. No one is good at their job on the first day! Creatives feel like they should innately be able to do all these things, but that’s not how it works. Or, if it does, it works that way for very rare individuals. That’s not me. It was a steep learning curve for sure. It still is. I hope it always will be.
But advertising creatives do have an edge. We’re used to working on stuff we don’t give a shit about half the time. We’ve all been on a deadline for brands or products we don’t necessarily believe in. But, you still have to do it if you want a paycheck. And I think that is where creatives have an advantage because we have a work ethic. We're used to rejection. We’re used to people saying horrible things about the things we make and we learn how to deal with it and move on. We get the work done because you can’t wait to be inspired when you have a deadline. Getting it done wins over not getting it done every time. Conceptual strength, resilience, and work ethic are where creatives can really translate their work experience into other projects outside of their regular jobs.
You have two minutes to speak uninterrupted.
I guess the bee in my bonnet remains to be a mother in advertising (or in design). My kids are older now, they’re almost 12 and 14, so it’s not like this is a fresh complaint. But when I’m freelancing and see mothers who are working at agencies or design studios who are stressed out and have really little kids, it’s hard for me to not want to find a pan and bang on it with a wooden spoon while marching through the halls screaming, “IT’S NOT WORTH IT!” It is such a grind to be in this industry when you’re in that particular stage of your life.
I want to see agencies go for it. I’m a deeply cynical person when it comes to agencies jumping on any bandwagon. I mean, we’re all branding experts. We know how to exploit an opportunity. We know how to make ourselves look great. So I’m not going to believe anything any agency says about how great they are at supporting women or mothers until I see it happen with my own face. And I want to see women themselves talking about it, I want that third-party endorsement. I just don’t want to see agencies posting about it on social media anymore, no more patting yourselves on the back, please.
On the flip side, agencies aren’t the only game in town. Maybe you can go back when your kids are older. Maybe not. I’m not saying it’s easy. And I’m not someone who stayed home full time ever. I couldn’t afford to and I didn’t. And I like working. But in hindsight, I’m not sure those few years of killing myself over work were worth it.
I just think there are certain moments in your life when you really need to question who, what, and why you’re doing things. What are you doing it all for? I say this as someone who would come home, fall asleep breastfeeding my daughter at 7 PM, only to wake up fully clothed and do it all again. I pried my son’s hands off my legs many, many mornings at daycare and I can still burst into tears thinking about it more than a decade later. Some mornings my job felt like the dumbest thing I had ever chosen to do in my life. And I’ve done a lot of dumb shit.
Photo: Alex Williams
Kimberly Harrington is a copywriter and creative director, a regular contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and her work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Cut. She is the author of AMATEUR HOUR: MOTHERHOOD IN ESSAYS AND SWEAR WORDS and the co-founder and editor of parenting humor site RAZED. Please invite her to a party, she has dresses.
Don't Interrupt is an interview series from The 3% Movement that showcases inspirational industry women.
Illustration by Raphaela Putz.