This week's interviewee is the talented writer and editor, Haley Nahman. You may know her from our favorite fashion blog, Man Repeller, where she pens everything from personal essays to humor pieces. Or, you might've seen her popular Instagram, dedicated to her adorable cat Bug. We wanted to talk to Haley not only because we love her work and sense of humor, but also because she made a major career shift a few years back. She moved from the Bay Area to NYC, and left a solid career in HR because something inside of her was saying it wasn't enough. Her jump has clearly paid off, read on to learn more!
Alright then! Let’s start with the basics. What’s your official title?
My official title is Deputy Editor at Man Repeller.
Before Man Repeller, you were working in HR. What exactly were you doing?
My title was HR Business Partner, which meant I partnered with our General Manager on people strategy and was a bit of an office therapist. I worked a lot with people on how they were feeling about their careers and what their next steps could be, that kind of thing. Even though it felt really, really different from what I’m doing now, and it was an entirely different industry, there is some emotional crossover in the sense that there was a lot of big picture thinking in terms of how people tick. And I actually really enjoyed myself in that role. It wasn’t really the kind of work I felt was fulfilling in an “I’ll do this forever” kind of way, but I did enjoy it day to day. And that juxtaposition was part of why I didn’t whether I should leave or not, because I didn’t hate it, but I also couldn’t shake this feeling that I wanted to do something more and I wanted to have a job that I could see doing forever. And that wasn’t what I had in HR.
What was the transition like from that to writing at Man Repeller?
It was massive! It was a radical shift. I went from working at a large design firm with a lot of people who were 10 and 20 years my senior in their careers, to a tiny, young, scrappy team in New York that was talking about fashion and pop culture. So obviously the context change was huge. But personally, it was more so. I had never written professionally, I’d only written personally, and that really rattled me for a while. I remember one of the first weeks I was in the job, I had all these stories I had to write, and I remember just waking up in the night having a panic attack and crying and thinking “I can never do this. This is just too much, I don’t know how to write, I’ve never done this before, I’m not going to be able to do this job, and I’m going to get fired.”
No! Oh my goodness!
Yes! It was so intense, it was really scary! I was 26 and worried I’d spent five years in the wrong career. Enough time that I’d worked my way up to a leadership position. And now I’d taken a huge jump back to a junior position. Since then I’ve changed roles of course and have grown a lot, but when I first came into it, I kind of had to pay my dues. And that meant just writing at a crazy pace sometimes about things I had no idea about. It was really an intense transition. But it was also the most fun I’ve had in my life. I never regretted it, I was just scared I was going to fuck it up.
What was your first assignment, do you remember?
There were two early on that stand out – I think the actual first story I wrote was about how I’d become obsessed with this iPhone app that tracked my period and I had taken my obsession with it too far. I started blaming random things on my hormone levels and letting it guide my life. So I wrote a humor piece, I guess I’d call it a humorous personal essay about that. I remember filing that and Amelia, my editor, reading it and saying “Thank god you’re here.” And I remember screenshotting that and freaking out and sending it to my family. Because at that point, I was so scared, I didn’t know if they wanted me here. I just didn’t know if I was what they expected. I later learned they had spent about a long time looking for someone for this role and had really struggled. I think Man Repeller’s kind of niche, the particular role that I came in doing demanded a very specific type of person. So I think she was really relieved that I fulfilled that, or was seeming to, and I just remember being so relieved and excited, too.
And then shortly after that, I wrote a story about Zappos customer service. I heard that you could ask them anything and they would answer, so I spent a week asking them weird questions and wrote about it. I think I’d probably cringe if I went back and read it now, because I didn’t really know what I was doing! I’ve written probably 1,000 pieces for Man Repeller since then, so hopefully I’ve grown. Anyway, that was the first piece I wrote that was kind of popular on the site, so it sticks out in my mind.
Do you do anything to measure your own progress as a writer?
It’s interesting, because, like with any skill, I think the better you get at it the more discerning you become at what does or doesn’t define quality. And so I don’t think I’ve ever or will ever reach a place where I think ‘I’m good enough’. And I don’t mean that in a beating-myself-up, self-deprecating way. I just think that to improve and care about a craft is to continuously see how you could be doing it better. So I am continually critical in new ways. I think every once in a while I’ll realize that my goal post has moved -- that I’ve found a new way my writing isn’t measuring up -- and that’s scary to feel. Sometimes it can make me freeze or panic with anxiety. But usually on the other side of that panic is progress, and that always feels really gratifying. I think dedication to any passion means repeating that cycle over and over.
As you’ve grown into different roles, I’m sure your responsibilities have changed. Now, as Digital Editor, what are your main responsibilities?
My role as Deputy Editor means I edit or final edit all our digital content. So that just means that in addition to writing my own pieces, I work with our writers on staff and all of our freelance writers on their pieces. And sometimes, like especially with young writers, that means helping them find their voice and shape their ideas, and with more experienced writers it’s just about helping them be as clear as possible in the point they’re trying to make. So that’s been really fun. I think it’s definitely made me a better writer. It’s a very different muscle. Some people say that you’re either a writer or an editor, and that it’s binary, but I don’t necessarily feel like that. I think I have both in me, I just have to sort of switch on a different part of my mind. It’s a very different challenge to edit, to look at a piece and ask yourself, “This just doesn’t feel right, but why?” That’s something I now take to my own writing.
I think when I first started editing in this role, I was kind of rewriting and being nitpicky. But I had to learn that it’s not about rewriting someone’s sentence, it’s about helping them understand why a sentence isn’t working. And it’s also about sometimes putting my own ego away. I once heard an aphorism about editing that said something along the lines of, “Don’t change something just because you would have worded it differently, only change it if you’re truly adding or making it better.” That means sometimes shelving my writing muscle and really trying to tap into what the writer’s trying to say, and how.
So in my role I’m writing and editing and just generally working with Amelia, our Head of Creative, to make sure that we’re writing about the stuff that we should be writing about and in the right way. And just continuing to broaden and expand our capabilities in terms of writing to and for women.
In this role, has there been a part of your job that you weren’t expecting?
Let me think...I’m surprised every day! I think that it’s a really interesting time to work in media, it’s challenging in a way that can be both gratifying and really frustrating. We’re such a generation of consumers and to play a role in providing content for people to consume and in some small way, shaping how people think, or at least how they feel, whether that’s anger at what we’ve said or joy and understanding, it’s a big responsibility. And I think the shape of that responsibility changes every day and gets bigger and more nuanced, and that’s been surprisingly challenging for me on a personal level too, because I care so much about adding something to the conversation that’s productive, and it’s hard to do that, there’s just so much out there. I don’t want anyone to ever feel alienated by what we put up, and that’s kind of a tall order when we’re also trying to speak very honestly and specifically.
How much of your life does this job take up – are you at the office writing all day, every day or is it a bit more flexible than that?
It takes up a lot of my life. I think that’s probably one thing that people don’t know. Our office is eerily quiet because all of us are working so hard. When people come in to visit they think we’re going to be goofing around, and they’re always shocked. I actually feel kind of bad because I think they’re disappointed! We’re just a really small team and we all have a wildly personal stake in Man Repeller emotionally. We all put so much into it, and that means really long hours sometimes. It’s a huge part of my life, I work late most days. But it doesn’t feel like working late in other jobs that I’ve had. It feels a little different, more personally driven. I’m happy to do it. I do think that comes with risks though, like burnout for instance. You can really only work so much for so long. That’s actually been an interesting thing for me to learn -- that I need to pull back before I think I need to so I don’t run into that wall.
That makes sense, writing can be so emotionally draining.
Absolutely. I think that was a bigger challenge for me when I was writing three pieces a day. At that point I felt this wild emotional drainage. Now that my job is a little more varied, I get some breaks from that, but it’s just busy in a different way, probably more so.
I read a post on Man Repeller about how your dream job is to be an author. I feel like you are one already, but do you mean for a book? What would you want to write about?
Oh my god, is that from my Meet the Team? I completely forgot that I said that! I think that’s actually still true. I think of author as book writer more so than what I am now. I do consider myself a writer, but I would love to write a book one day. I think especially because working in media in New York means a lot of fast-paced turnover, and a lot of short pieces. I would love to write longer form. I would love to just spend months on one thing, I’m very compelled by that. As far as what book I would like to write, I used to think I would want to write a book of essays, but since I kind of do that already, I think I would prefer to write fiction. But I say that with absolutely no knowledge of whether I could. I have a long road ahead in terms of learning and figuring out how to do that. It’s such a departure from what I’m doing now, which appeals to me, and also reading fiction is one of my greatest pleasures, so I’d like to take a whack at it at some point.
If you’d rather not answer this, no worries, but we are curious – do writers get paid by the word, or the piece, or just as an overall job no matter the amount you write?
I am paid a salary, since I am a full-time writer and editor on staff. We pay our freelance writers by the piece, not by word, but we do usually agree on a word count range ahead of time. Most of our pieces are similar in length. I think our shortest are 400 and our longest are 1500, but normally we price freelance fees more so on the heft of the topic than the length. So if it’s a lot of research or a lot of interviews or if it’s just sort of a quick humor piece, that’s more how we choose our fee structure.
Is there a piece you’ve written that feels the most meaningful or impactful to you so far?
I would say my favorite pieces to write are personal essays, that’s kind of what got me into writing and what is still probably my sweet spot. As for which stick out in my mind, I will give you three.
One is a piece I wrote pretty early about moving to New York, 10 Things I Learned Since I Moved To New York. It sounds like a listicle but it’s really more of an essay. That stands out because it was written from such an emotional place. And then I wrote about ending a six-year relationship, and it was called Why I Ended A Happy Relationship, which again was a really deep cut for me, but it was also something that I needed to expel and put in words, so that one stands out too. And most recently, I wrote about friendship, it’s called, Does Everybody Have A Friendship Complex or Just Me? That one and the breakup one are probably the two stories I get the most personal messages about. I think because they spoke to something a lot of people privately go through. Having a platform and the privilege to tell my stories and connect with people as a result of that is definitely one of the greatest parts of my job. I feel really lucky to get to connect emotionally with people through my writing, and those are two of the best example of that happening.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
It’s an interesting question because I was in HR, so I could still be doing that job. Or, if the urgency I felt that led me to this role had stayed with me, which I imagine it would have, then I probably would have come to New York and done any kind of editorial job I could find. I’m trying to think if there’s a different job I would do beyond that because that’s boring! I always thought it sounded kind of interesting to go into therapy. That was always something my mom thought I’d be good at, which I suppose is reflected my writing style. So maybe I would pursue a PhD in psychotherapy or something?!
Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self.
Thank you so much, Haley! It was such a pleasure to speak, and we're cheering you on! Readers, after spending your morning reading her essays on Man Repeller, be sure to come back next week for a helpful bout of advice from her too. (Photos provided by Haley Nahman)