A Perfectionist Comes Clean: Bestselling Author of 'I Miss You When I Blink' Finds Her Voice

Mary Laura Philpott and her dog

Mary Laura Philpott ’96 with her dog, Eleanor Roosevelt. Photo by Heidi Ross

Just sit down and start telling your story.

Mary Laura Philpott ’96 draws on that phrase when writer’s block lurks. She adopted it while trying to start her senior thesis, a study of Sylvia Plath’s poetry.

She researched. She worried. She procrastinated. Then she admitted her panic to her Davidson College English Professor and advisor Elizabeth Mills, who offered that simple advice:

“Just sit down and start telling your story.”

She got an A on her thesis and graduated with high honors.

Philpott’s storytelling has since taken her from the college library to the inner circles of emerging writer royalty. National Public Radio, Esquire magazine and others named her latest book, I Miss You When I Blink, as one of 2019’s best. In April, it came out in paperback.

Her work has appeared regularly in The New York Times, Washington Post and other prestigious publications. She also won a regional Emmy award as a cohost of the Nashville Public Television literary show, A Word on Words

The people who know her well aren’t surprised by her success—they expected it. What has amazed them is how much this composed, private, over-achiever has shared with the world.

Philpott comes clean about battling perfectionism, anxiety and depression. About having the life she thought she wanted, but feeling lost. And then finding herself—and her voice—as she explores life’s funny, painful, scary and sometimes inane shifting winds.

When she speaks to aspiring writers who want to know how she does it, Philpott takes her own deep breath and advises:

“Just sit down and start telling your story.”

Quest to be the Best

I can sustain a buzz for hours after anyone tells me that something I’ve done is the best, even if it’s a colleague… saying ‘Hey Mary Laura, you’re the best at changing the toilet paper roll in the employee bathroom.’ Bam. Better than a shot of tequila.

Mary Laura Philpott

Maybe it was the first-grade spelling bee.

For weeks, Philpott practiced with her mother, spelling virtually every word that came out of her mouth. She won the contest, and remembers her mom’s proud, smiling face.

Or that math test where she got a B, and the raised parental eyebrows that signaled: We don’t get Bs in this house. Or the moves to different cities for her dad’s residencies as a doctor and surgeon.

Perhaps all of it led to Mary Laura Moretz’s life as a perfectionist.

“She was so verbal at such an early age. As a toddler she would breeze through picture books,” her mother, Mary Moretz, says. “By the time she was in second grade she was reading books so above her age level it became a case of, just because she can read this doesn’t mean she should. By third grade, it was as if my job was done—she knew exactly what she had to do.”

Mary Laura finished her homework without being told. She practiced the piano faithfully. She followed rules. Her younger brother, William ’99, was another high-achiever of a more laid-back variety, “one who hid beer in our backyard tree house and laughed it off when he got caught,” she writes in I Miss You When I Blink, adding:

“I became uptight and anxious, the one who religiously performed all three steps of the Clinique three-step cleansing system every night because the instructions said, ‘Wash, tone, moisturize.’”

She figured out that working hard and excelling at school would get her where she wanted to go. And that turned out to be Davidson.

The College Years

This town was mine. These people were mine. The modular bed/desk/wardrobe/loft combo in the dorm room I shared with a soft-spoken anthropology major from South Carolina was mine. I made the best friends of my life.

Mary Laura Philpott

She started college planning to be a doctor like her father, Bill Moretz ’70, and a host of other relatives.

But chemistry and calculus brought none of the joy she felt in English classes. She opted to major in English and the summer after sophomore year, studied abroad at Cambridge.

Laura Jefferson Balch ’96, Philpott’s hallmate and friend, also went on the trip. They shared a 200-year-old stone cottage with seven other young women. They saw Les Miserables and other plays in London, took the train to Scotland and Wales for weekend jaunts, bouncing from hostel to hostel. (And discovered on a horseback riding excursion in Wales that Philpott was horribly allergic to horses.) They made new friends from around the world as they cemented their lifetime bond.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful summer,” Balch says. “I got to see a side of Mary Laura that not everyone knew. She truly was and is the smartest person I’ve ever known. And she was very composed with most people. She was also ridiculously funny, and so witty, but only people who knew her well saw that.

“She relaxed more that summer, and she was so unexpected. You’d see the shocked looks people had when something came out of Mary Laura’s mouth—she could cuss like a sailor, and had the face of an angel.”

Mills was the faculty advisor on the trip. Back at Davidson, Philpott thrived in Mills’s women’s literature class, and in American literature with Professor Randy Nelson. She studied poetry and short stories and essays, and learned to make each word count when writing.

She researched exhaustively for her Plath thesis, poring over poems and at one point, driving with Mills to Statesville to meet beekeepers because Plath had taken up beekeeping before her suicide.

“I worried about her and kept asking, ‘Are you sure?’ We talked about the beauty of Plath’s work, but there was so much pain,” Mills says. “Mary Laura was so passionate and so engaged in her research—it seemed like the darkness of Plath did not affect her.”

“She was an excellent student. She was this very self-contained, confident woman who was very pretty and had a lot of friends—women and men.” Mills says. “I didn’t know how funny and sassy she was until much later. She was far more complex than I realized.”

During her junior year she met John Philpott ’95. Shortly after her graduation, he proposed.

Small Talk

Mary Laura is relentlessly funny, self-effacing and charming as she tells the story of living as a triple-A-plus perfectionist. Everything in her life is done on time and exactly right, until of course, it all falls apart.

Author Ann Patchett

Mary Laura and John Philpott got married in the Augusta, Georgia, Lutheran church where she’d been baptized. A few hundred relatives and friends, including many from Davidson, filled the church and following reception at her parents’ home. After a honeymoon in Martha’s Vineyard, the couple settled in Atlanta.

John worked for an internet startup company and Mary Laura as a business analyst for a consulting firm—which much like chemistry and physics—didn’t stoke her passion.

She took a leap of faith and a big pay cut to become a writer for a hospital, then later, for the American Cancer Society’s national headquarters. She left that job when her son was born in 2003 to become a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer.

Motherhood didn’t come easily. She struggled with infertility before the birth of her daughter a few years later.

She loved being a mother; reading stories, dancing around the kitchen, and watching her kids delight in simple things. But it could also be exhausting—and lonely.

John Philpott traveled extensively for his job, and at one point, the family briefly lived in Dublin, which wasn’t the expat life she’d envisioned as she mothered a toddler and baby in a city where she had no friends.

Back in Atlanta with growing kids, she spent hours driving to school and afterschool activities. She became the super volunteer and found it hard to say no. She led the neighborhood garden club’s pumpkin patch and the elaborate elementary school art show fundraiser.

She lamented social events where conversations never seemed to extend beyond sports, weather or chicken salad recipes.

“When small talk starts replacing real talk, you start to feel like you’re among strangers, even when you’re among friends. I was in a phase of life that required a certain amount of socializing, floating around in blobs of people waving and smiling courteously,” she writes. “I needed my other interactions to balance those out. To offer some real connection, some meaning.”

She felt guilty: What right did she have to be unhappy when she had a loving family, money to pay the bills, and a safe place to live? Her unhappiness turned to anxiety and isolation.

“Something had fallen out of place in my head,” she writes. “Sometimes I had heart palpitations so violent I could see my chest flutter through my shirt, brought on by nothing at all. And when I didn’t feel that anxiety, I didn’t feel much of anything.

“I told myself to get over it, because people were depending on me, so I decided to keep going and doing the things I signed up to do, because it’s wasteful and self-indulgent to feel so bad when so much is really quite good.’’

Then she stopped answering her phone. She stayed in pajamas all day. She didn’t wash her hair. She sat in her car during soccer games to avoid other parents. She forgot to pick her kids up on the first day of school. 

“I am a horrible mother… what is wrong with me?” she asked herself.  She wanted to sleep all the time and wondered, “What was the point of waking up?”

Nashville Renewal

By offering these dispatches from her own life experience, she leaves us thinking about ourselves—where we’ve been, where we’re going, and who we really want to be.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert

She needed to get away.

That opportunity came when a friend in Nashville told her about someone who also needed a break from her life—and a house sitter to take care of her cat.

When her kids went away to summer camp, Philpott retreated to Nashville. 

She read. She hiked. She kept a simple journal.

When she ran out of things to read she headed to Parnassus Books, where her friend worked. The novelist Ann Patchett co-owns the internationally known independent book store.

Philpott visited the store often and loved the literary community that gathered there. The Nashville respite helped quiet her brain and by the end of three weeks, she felt more like herself.

She returned to Atlanta happy to see her husband and children; and knowing that she needed to make changes. Shortly after her return, Parnassus asked her to create its online literary magazine, Musing.

Philpott worked from Atlanta and traveled to Nashville for meetings and events. A year later, she and John packed up the family and moved to Nashville.

Getting Real

I wish all my friends would write memoirs. This book gave me a richer understanding of her eccentricities and anxieties—things we all possess but don’t put on our Twitter feeds. Mary Laura shows us that it’s never too late to change your life.

Author Emma Straub

John Philpott is now a partner in a Nashville venture capital firm. The family has settled into life there. They enjoy the city’s laid-back feel and their close proximity to great parks, hiking trails, and of course, live music.

Mary Laura Philpott worked for Parnassus until recently. The demands of juggling the store job with her television show and new writing were too much.

More important, she said she felt the need to be present more for her children, who are now teenagers. Visiting colleges reminds her of how soon they’ll leave home: “I miss them in advance,” she says. “Is that weird?”

I Miss You When I Blink came out to rave reviews in national publications and became a favorite among book sellers and book clubs.

It also showed a vulnerability Philpott generally kept hidden.

“At first I wasn’t aware of what a struggle she was going through,” Mary Moretz says. “She didn’t let on how serious it was, but that’s Mary Laura. She’s always been such a chin-up kind of kid—when things got tough, she buckled down. Troubles have to be blood and guts spilling out before she’ll let on that’s something’s wrong.

“I was taken aback by how much she revealed, but I wouldn’t change a single thing in that book,” Moretz says. “It is a gift to be able to put things in words that people can relate to so well.”

Balch, her close college friend, wedding maid of honor and Atlanta neighbor, knew about her struggles. She worried about Philpott’s propensity to “protect an image of who she thought she was supposed to be.”

“I was blown away that she let people know she was battling depression,” Balch says. “I’m so proud of her.

“The Mary Laura of today is so different from the college Mary Laura. I love that she’s embraced this side of herself and is willing to share it with others.” 

More Like You

Philpott describes herself as a recovering perfectionist. She’s learned to quit things that don’t fit: jobs, social obligations, traffic.

“If you want to make a change, you have to put something down,” she says. “That’s where perfectionism becomes a problem, when you believe you have to carry everything, finish everything.”

People often ask her if it’s been hard to give up so much privacy, so publicly.

“I’m still very private—as are a lot of memoir writers I know, actually,” she says. “The small collection of pieces I’ve chosen to write for this book are just that: pieces. Most of my life is not in these pages. All I’m doing here is picking out a few threads and going, ‘Hmmm, what could be made of these?’”

She now has another mantra, borrowed from a cameraman on her television show. She’d been nervous and bungled her first few takes when she initially appeared before the camera.

“Try it again, more like you,” he coached.

That’s what Philpott aims for as she lives and writes: to keep drafting, keep trying.

“She’s very intelligent and has a tremendous sense of humor,” John Philpott says. “Her personality and voice really come through in her writing. It’s her.”

“I sat down to read her book for 10 minutes and ended up not moving until I finished it,” Balch says. “It felt like she was sitting right next to me telling the story.”

Philpott’s story has been well told, says her former college advisor, now retired. Mills remains a dear friend, and like many readers, eagerly awaits more.

“She has found her voice,” Mills says. “It’s a funny voice, it’s a bold voice, it’s a kind voice.

“It is a truthful voice.”

This piece appeared in the spring/summer issue of the Davidson Journal magazine.