Here’s How Maria Popova of Brain Pickings Writes

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Most serious writers and online publishers are relentlessly on the prowl for fresh inspiration to fuel both their creativity and productivity.

If you aren’t familiar with the writing of Maria Popova, prolific author of the “discovery engine for interestingness” known as Brain Pickings, you’ve been missing out on some of the most fascinating and heady publishing on the web.

Ms. Popova is a wellspring of knowledge and she daily cross-pollinates a wide variety of disciplines, all in the spirit of creativity and discovery. She has contributed to Wired, The Atlantic, is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow, and was named to Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business (among many other accolades).

Although she began her professional career in advertising, she found the DIY integrity of publishing her own website far more rewarding, and her indie work ethic has contributed to a growing legion of fans (including quite a few celebrities).

Join me as we examine the file of Maria Popova, writer …

Maria religiously publishes three posts a day for her more than 350,000 Twitter and 590,000 Google+ followers — as well as 150,000 plus email subscribers — and in a recent interview she talked about the organic growth of her creative brainchild:

My philosophy, and the one thing I’ve been strategic and deliberate about from the beginning, is reader first …

Maria admits to putting in some exhaustive hours to get where she is today, and we are honored that she took the time to stop by The Writer Files.

In this installment of our Q&A, Maria Popova shares her thoughts on a lifetime of “research,” the power of ritual, the toxicity of approval, and much, much more.

About the writer …

Who are you and what do you do?

A reader who writes.

What is your area of expertise as a writer or online publisher?

I’m not an expert and I aspire never to be one. As Frank Lloyd Wright rightly put it, “An expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.’” Brain Pickings began as my record of what I was learning, and it remains a record of what I continue to learn – the writing is just the vehicle for recording, for making sense.

That said, one thing I’ve honed over the years – in part by countless hours of reading and in part because I suspect it’s how my brain is wired – is drawing connections between things, often things not immediately or obviously related, spanning different disciplines and time periods. I wouldn’t call that “expertise” so much as obsession – it’s something that gives me enormous joy and stimulation, so I do it a great deal, but I don’t know if that constitutes expertise.

Where can we find your writing?

The writer’s productivity …

How much time, per day, do you spend reading or doing research?

Practically (pathetically?) every waking moment, with the exception of the time I spend writing and a couple of hours in the evening allotted for some semblance of a personal life. I do most of my long-form reading at the gym (pen and Post-Its and all), skim the news while eating (a questionable health habit, no doubt), and listen to philosophy, science, or design podcasts while commuting on my bike (hazardous and probably illegal). Facetiousness aside, however, I have no complaints – as the great Annie Dillard put it, “a life spent reading – that is a good life.”

Because Brain Pickings is simply a record of my own curiosity, of my personal journey into what matters in the world and why, it’s hard to quantify how much of my life is “research” – in fact, I feel like all of it is.

I just had tea with someone – a writer whose book I’d written about and who reached out and wanted to connect – and that hour-long conversation gave me a dozen ideas to think about, to learn about, and thus to write about (including two books I already ordered based on our chat). Is that “research” in the sense that one deliberately sets out to find something already of interest? No. Is it “research” in terms of the unguided curiosity that lets one discover something previously unknown and succumb to the intellectual restlessness of wanting to learn everything about it? Absolutely.

And I think that’s part of our challenge today, not just semantically but also practically – we tend to conflate “research” with search, which is always driven by looking for something you already know you’re interested in; but I think the richest “research” is driven by discovery, that intersection of curiosity and serendipity that lets you expand your intellectual and creative comfort zone beyond what you already knew you were looking for.

Before you begin to write, do you have any pre-game rituals or practices?

Given I write several thousand words each day, there’s no room for “pre-gaming.”

The “game” IS the ritual.

Do you prefer any particular music (or silence) while you write?

I have music on all the time (unless I’m transcribing archival audio), with various playlists for different purposes or moods. My taste is too eclectic, both across genres and eras, to list specific artists. But, I’m an incredibly loyal listener – some of the songs in those playlists have gotten more than 10,000 plays over the past few years. Familiar, beloved music – much like habit or ritual – is a remarkably powerful creative grounding force, I find.

How many hours a day do you spend writing (excluding email, social media, etc.)? What is your most productive time of day?

Anywhere between three and eight hours. It’s hard to separate the reading and research part of the process from the writing and synthesis one. The osmosis of the two is where the magic happens – that place where you pull existing ideas together into a mesh of insights that germinates your very own point of view, that illuminates the subject in an entirely new way. Is that reading? Writing? Or some other form of sense-making we don’t yet have a word for?

Ironically, I prefer to write earlier in the day, but find the onslaught of email too overwhelming – even though I can’t possibly even open everything, just the awareness of it being in my inbox is uncomfortable. It’s hard to retreat into a quiet corner of your own mind when you feel demanded of. So I tend to write later in the day now, often well into the night, when email is quiet. The dark, too, is somehow grounding – I’ve always found lucubrating strangely meditative, like a bubble of light that envelops you and silences the rest of the world.

Do you write every day or adhere to any particular system?

I publish three articles a day, Monday through Friday. All are pre-scheduled and pre-written, some weeks in advance and others the day before. I try not to write on Fridays, which I reserve for email and meetings.

Do you believe in “writer’s block”? If so, how do you avoid it?

I think the operative word here is “believe.” If you fixate on it, it’ll be there. It’s kind of like insomnia – the more you think about not being able to fall asleep, the less able to fall asleep you become.

It’s different for everyone, of course, but I find that you break through that alleged “block” simply by writing. As Tchaikovsky elegantly put it, “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”

The writer’s creativity …

Define creativity.

The ability to connect the seemingly unconnected and meld existing knowledge into new insight about some element of how the world works. That’s practical creativity. Then there’s moral creativity: To apply that skill towards some kind of wisdom on how the world ought to work.

Who are your favorite authors, online or off?

That’s what my side project, Literary Jukebox, celebrates. Though it’s impossible to name all, some are Susan SontagAnaïs Nin, Carl Sagan, Henry David Thoreau, Stephen Jay Gould, Annie Dillard, Mark TwainHenry MillerDebbie MillmanAndrew Sullivan.

Can you share a best-loved quote?

Another near-impossible task – I live in literature! But I do always come back to the approximate words of Seneca:

The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.

Practically everything in Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom is words to live by.

How would you like to grow creatively as a writer?

By never ceasing to be curious because “I know” – but, at the same time, by reconciling this with the knowledge that I’ll never be able to “finish” all of literature, or the Internet, for that matter. That, I guess, is tied to my aspiration not only as a writer, but as a human – to be more comfortable with the open-endedness of life.

Who or what is your Muse at the moment (i.e. specific creative inspirations)?

I’ve been obsessed with the diaries of Susan Sontag, Anaïs Nin, and Maria Mitchell for a while. And old, out-of-print anthologies of letters: Raymond Chandler, Edna St. Vincent Millay (oh Edna!), Anne Sexton. The best writers (or artists, or scientists), I find, are also extraordinary philosophers full of timeless wisdom on the triumphs, tribulations, and imperfections of being human.

What makes a writer great?

The same thing that makes a human great:

Curiosity without ego, and generosity of spirit. No amount of talent is worth anything without kindness.

The writer’s workflow …

What hardware or typewriter model do you presently use?

MacBook Air for writing, iPad mini for reading whatever is available as an e-text, and lots of Post-Its for my copious marginalia in paper books. (I prefer reading in the Kindle app on the iPad, so I can search my highlights and travel without having to carry hefty tomes, but since I write mostly about old books, they tend not to be available in digital form.)

What software do you use most for writing and general workflow?

My site runs on WordPress, but I write straight in HTML – on my desktop, in Coda – and not in the WYSIWYG editor on WordPress. I use Evernote to save notes on various items I’m reading and to photograph the marginalia on book pages, which are then searchable thanks to optical character recognition. I read almost everything online in Pocket

Do you have any tricks for beating procrastination? Do you adhere to deadlines?

I don’t procrastinate when it comes to reading and writing. Having a daily rhythm of such intense pace makes that practically impossible.

How do you stay organized (methods, systems, or “mad science”)?

I keep a comprehensive editorial calendar that stretches weeks, months, and sometimes well over a year into the future, where I plan my reading (and thus my writing) – book releases, notable birthdays, anniversaries of important historical events.

I take copious notes on books I’m reading, as well as online materials, and save everything to Evernote, where I tag meticulously – it’s so easy for any extensive library or archive to become useless if the items in it aren’t searchable or retrievable, and I find the tagging system is an incredible memory aid to help counter that.

How do you relax at the end of a hard day?

I resort to the completely unoriginal yet completely comforting blend of yoga class and a cozy evening with my partner or with Anaïs Nin’s diary.  

A few questions just for the fun of it …

Who (or what) has been your greatest teacher?

I grew up in communist Bulgaria. My family didn’t have much when I was little and though communism fell in the early 1990s, things didn’t change much. Going to college in the U.S. was a challenge to begin with, especially an Ivy League school where most of my classmates came from families of privilege – a trying test of withstanding the inevitable erosion of self-esteem that befalls a young person who doesn’t “fit in” in such stark ways.

But having to pay my way through school by working up to four jobs at a time taught me a great deal about making do, about time management, and about the difference between what you’re good at versus what makes your heart sing.

There’s nothing like being tossed into necessity to help you figure out who you are and what matters most in life – necessity may be the mother of invention, but it’s even more so the fairy godmother of self-invention.

What do you see as your greatest success in life?

Not having relinquished the hope that happiness is possible. Waking up excited to do what I do. Going to bed satisfied with what I have done.

And, okay, it was rather gratifying when the Library of Congress included Brain Pickings into their archive.

What’s your biggest aggravation at the moment (writing related or otherwise)?

We’ve created a culture that fetishizes the new(s), and we forget the wealth of human knowledge, wisdom, and transcendence that lives in the annals of what we call “history” – art, literature, philosophy, and so many things that are both timeless and incredibly timely.

Our presentism bias – anchored in the belief that if it isn’t at the top of Google, it doesn’t matter, and if it isn’t Googleable at all, it doesn’t exist – perpetuates our arrogance that no one has ever grappled with the issues we’re grappling with. Which of course is tragically untrue.

Choose one author, living or dead, that you would like to have dinner with.

Susan Sontag. And who knows where the evening might take us.

If you could take a vacation tomorrow to anywhere in the world, where would you go (cost or responsibilities are no object)?

Henry Miller’s library in Big Sur.

Can you offer any advice to writers that you might offer yourself, if you could go back in time and “do it all over?”

Writing is meant to move the heart, the mind, the soul – not the page-view meter. I’m fortunate – biased, perhaps – in having always approached my writing as personal development rather than business development and always having written for this personal audience of one. Everything external has been a byproduct rather than an objective.

So the most critical thing an aspiring writer can do, I think, is to always know why he or she is doing it and for whom. It’s fine to find gratification in the approval of others or in financial success or in any other extrinsic reward, but it’s toxic to make that approval or prestige the motive to write.

The most important piece of advice, however, renders the premise of the question somewhat moot:

Learn by doing.

Please tell our readers where they can connect with you online.

And finally, the writer’s desk …

To borrow one of Maria’s oft-cited quotes:

A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.
~ E. B. White

Ms. Popova, thank you for a glimpse into your inspiring creative process!

Photo by Elizabeth Lippman, provided by Ms. Popova.

And thank you for perusing The Writer Files …

We have more Q&As on tap from writers who inspire us, and if you want to dig into our archives, you can find more inspiration here.

If you’ve already subscribed to Copyblogger via email or RSS, the next installment will be delivered to you just like the rest of our daily content.

If not, go ahead and subscribe right now so you don’t miss a thing.

Now put on some familiar music and get back to work! See you out there.

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Reader Comments (39)

  1. says

    hi Kelton

    It’s incredible how Maria grew her brand, her numbers are amazing; more amazing I believe it’s her relationship with readers and subscribers… “reader first” as she says 

    It’s interesting she mentions… that she’s a reader who writes… this implies she understands her target audience, and the way she connects two unrelated things or topics, is incredible! This reminds me of a similar approach I have to writing, for e.g. in one article I talked about Donald Trump and social media…

    I have one question for Maria, is she sees this, hope she’ll answer… If research and writing is your life, what would you say is the most challenging part of your blogging/business at the moment, and why?

    Plus, when did you start to build your “tribe” (mailing list, mainly) and what did you learn back then?

    Thank you!

  2. says

    It is great that Maria gives credits not only to people from literature and writing world, but also from music world that shows her versatile personality. No wonder that she is cross=disciplinary and intelligent in writing getting together different fields such as design, technology, philosophy, history, politics, psychology and others.

  3. says

    I give thanks for this site every single day! I also contribute to it ( and suggest all others who love it do also) as it comes across my screen without anything blinking, talking, or those take-no-prisoner display ads. It is a joy to see the diversity of topics and links to original material on a daily basis. How she does it, I do not know, but I just hope she can keep on doing it. Her site celebrates creativity and her own is embedded in how we all are allowed to consume this diversity in such a quiet but inspiring way.

    • says

      Ditto Jani’s comment…Ms. Popova is a true artist who creates because she must. My admiration for her ethos is best expressed in someone else’s words: “We learn to do by doing.” ~ Aristotle. Thank you Kelton.

    • says

      Thank you for tuning in to the series. And I firmly agree with you. Maria’s single-pointed intention is inspirational and intimidating.

  4. says

    Thanks for the insightful interview. I follow Maria on Twitter and I’m in awe of her productivity and creativity.

    I was beginning to think her site was a “Huff Po”- like empire of writers but I’m amazed to find out she produces 3 articles of such quality and depth every day.

    Very inspiring indeed.

    Note to self. Get off Facebook. Get off Twitter. Start writing….

  5. says

    I read Brainpickings obsessively. Brainpickings makes me feel like a student all over again, in the best way possible. And her writing breaks down the most complex subjects into a language we can all appreciate and understand.

    This interview helps me get to know the author better. Feeling inspired!

  6. domen says

    Maria, did you move to the US as a small child or when you went to college? I suppose your knowledge of the English language comes from learning by doing?

  7. says

    This series is like The Paris Review’s “The Art of ___________” series. _________ being fiction, poetry, theater, what have you.

  8. says

    Brain Pickings is one of my favorite “newly founded” websites. And I really appreciate the twitter feed.

    Though my reading is mostly confined to blogs, I have a thirst for learning that I relate to in her. She’s a thinker and I really enjoy how she combines different ideas.

    By the way, Big Sur is one of my favorite places. The air is clean there and the smell is heavenly. Unfortunately, I’ve never been to the Henry Miller Library.

    This was a great blog post and I think it needs to brew a bit in my mind.

  9. says

    Excellent Interview. She brings so much interesting things to us. She is a treasure. She has made dead authors, artists and intellectuals very famous.

  10. Justyna says

    “We’ve created a culture that fetishizes the new(s), and we forget the wealth of human knowledge, wisdom, and transcendence that lives in the annals of what we call “history” – art, literature, philosophy, and so many things that are both timeless and incredibly timely.” – soo true! Excellent talk, thank you!

  11. says

    Maria and Kelton, wonderful piece here! I resonate with working, long, and persistently. Genius develops over many hours, over many years. I also vibe with her general idea of being observant.

    I create 50 to 60 minute-long videos each day and post to my blog. Ideas hit me frequently because I practice observing, being aware of all happening in my life, here and now.

    By being aware, I can create 5 videos after being inspired by this post. Easy, really, and it becomes easier if I practice looking deeper and deeper into the moment, to make connections between the stories in my life today and the online business world.

    Spot on interview with some real gems.

    Thanks for sharing guys!


  12. says

    I recently discovered Brain Pickings and appreciate this post!

    I was surprised by following:

    “Maria religiously publishes three posts a day…”

    This seems counter-intuitive to those who advise writers to post once a month, twice a month, or three times a month. Maybe there isn’t a right or wrong number of posts you need to post. Perhaps you should just stop listening to others and do your own thing. Follow your inner guidance.

    Thanks again for the insightful interview.

  13. says

    I was inspired by Popova’s comment that she schedules her reading far in advance—what a great idea, and a great push-back against the “presentism bias” that she mentions.

  14. says

    Amazing interview, there was a lot of insightful advice. Loved the quote “An expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.’” I will definitely remember that as I’m writing.

  15. says

    This was my favorite.

    I love the idea that you can’t procrastinate if you don’t have time. It’s rather a kick in the pants to the rest of us. If you find you’re wasting time, clearly you have too much of it. Give yourself more to do.

  16. says

    Readers First the very first and the last tool for smart content. I couldn’t but agree what tips and advice Maria has stated. Quite engaging and informative questions asked by Kelton. Thank you for this honour.

  17. says

    I’ve been reading Brain Pickings for a few years now and it always delights me.

    The sheer depth of information, gorgeous illustrations and textured writing is a joy to read.

    Maria’s focus and hours of work every day are astounding.

    Loved this interview – great questions and really pleased you interviewed her – she deserves all the coverage she gets.


  18. says

    To me, the most impressive thing about Maria is not her creativity. She’s certainly creative in the way she pulls ideas together and meshes them in new ways, and that’s tremendous. Yet ultimately her ideas come almost exclusively as reactions to books that she reads.

    Where she really astonishes me is in her productivity. That ability to process so much input and then churn out thoughtful, well-written, and plausible interpretations is amazing.

    We all know it can take hours to produce a really good post. I can’t keep up with all of her content but she actually produces it.

    I guess I’ve learned from her that there are ways to organize and be incredibly productive.

  19. says

    I just fell in love with this woman.

    You have inspired me to read more. Just when I thought I was doing enough.
    You come along and raise the bar.

    Thank you for being transparent and sharing.
    Now I have a circle of reading

  20. Archan Mehta says

    I can’t thank you enough for publishing this post. It was an eye-opener. It is great to know what writers out there are actually doing with their lives; how they are contributing and adding value by publishing great content.

    This series is valuable. The timing is just right. Just what the doctor order. You are performing a noteworthy service.

    Another writer you may want to interview is Ali Luke of Aliventures fame. She is darn good at what she does and knows it. She has been active in the blogging community for years and has been featured on your blog as a guest writer several times too.

    Ali can contribute to our knowledge about what makes for great commercial writing as well as creative writing. I think your readers and subscribers would welcome your decision to feature her. Please consider Ali. Thanks. Cheers.

    • Archan Mehta says

      Sorry, I forgot to mention: Maria’s blog, namely, Brain Pickings, is one I came across recently. If memory serves, I followed a link provided by a writer. Instantly, I enjoyed reading her work. Today, I count myself as one of her fans and subscribers. Thanks for your contribution. Please keep up the great work. And here’s wishing you all the best in your life. Cheers.

  21. says

    What a great and inspiring article. As much as I would like to commit as much time to writing, most business owners are also busy managing their businesses. What is important is to find a balance.

    Even with all the automation tools available, I can’t commit as much time as I’d like to creating content. The key for me has been to take the time to decide what tasks I can delegate to other team members. I’m kind of a control freak but I’m getting better.

  22. says

    Great interview and wow! What a writer! I’m a full-time teacher and only have time to write a few thousand words per week. But to write a few thousand every day? Amazing. I noticed that we share the same tools: A Macbook Air and an iPad Mini. It makes writing and blogging very portable.

  23. says

    Amazing inspiration and ideas for any writer. When I see the writing schedules and her momentum for reading and writing it gives a tremendous motivation produce more and more content for social web.

  24. says

    Thanks for this! Very inspiring and just what I needed to read today.

    I’ve long admired Brain Pickings and if possible, after reading this interview I’m an even bigger fan.

    Thanks again for all the inspiring and helpful things you share,

  25. says

    I was reluctant to read this at first. Some of the others were disappointing, so I was not keen on reading it. I am so very happy I did.
    To find someone who likes both Henry Miller and Anais Nin!
    She is obviously a writer who values and loves words. This was informative, entertaining and insightful. Every reply was proof of her giving/sharing/celebrating information, without self-praise or self-pity about this writers’ life we share. I am going immediately to all the links, in “search”…

  26. says

    Fantastic article! Maria Popova had a keen mind and I enjoy Brain Pickings every chance I have to do some reading other than research and other writing resources. Thanks for highlighting her writing life.

  27. says

    Writer Files is one of those that I look forward to reading.

    Not only am I learning from different kinds of writers, but they inspire me as well with their life stories. And although I am unfamiliar of Maria Popova(I am seriously sad), I am amazed with her story especially with her philosophy.

    Thank you for this frequent dose of inspiration. :)

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