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Posts Tagged ‘Gretchen Rubin’

This is the official release date for the paperback of my new novel, Bird in Hand. To celebrate, I wrote about writing, life, and the pursuit of happiness for Gretchen Rubin’s wonderful blog, The Happiness Project.  One of my favorite questions she asked was, “What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?”  (Long-time readers of this blog can probably guess my answer.)

I’m also launching a redesign of my website today, and even of this blog, ditching my old WordPress URL and finally getting a grown-up domain name of my own.  You can still find me at this address, but it’s a little swankier over there.

I’m really happy that my paperback is out in the world.  (I always feel a little twinge about asking people to cough up money for a hardcover.)  I’m delighted with my website, which was designed by the extraordinarily patient and good-humored Steffen Rasile of sra design studios.  And I’m so pleased that my blog finally has a permanent home.

One of the best things I’ve learned from Gretchen is to “grab those moments of happiness as they wing by.” So here I am, grabbing the moment.  And doing a little happy dance.

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In anticipation of the paperback release of my latest novel, Bird in Hand, my friend Gretchen Rubin invited me to answer some questions about happiness for her wonderful blog, The Happiness Project.  One of her questions is, “Is there a happiness mantra or motto you’ve found very helpful?” I do have one — which I’ll write about for Gretchen (and link to here!) in a few days — but I love the answer to this question given by Larry Smith, creator of the brilliant Six-Word Memoir Project (“Fall down. Get up. Repeat process.”):

“My motto for writing (which is a big part of my daily existence and own happiness), one that I think applies to life as well: “Write drunk, edit sober.” Not that you should actually be drunk (the inebriated writer is a silly, antiquated idea, among other things), but that you should just get the words down whether you’re writing a letter, a report for work, or the story of your life, in six words or 60,000. Put the words down, don’t obsess over them, just effusively spill them down onto the page. Then step away—for an hour, a day, a week, whatever you need. And then edit. Edit like crazy. Be hard on words and yourself and make it better. And when you think you’re finished, edit it one more time.”

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Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project, talks about the thrill and the perils of trying something new:

There’s a common occupational hazard that affects writers, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about it: the desire to write outside your main field.

I know a journalist who took a sabbatical to write a novel, which turned into a short story. I know a science writer who is writing a play. I know a novelist who is writing a memoir.

This change can be exhilarating and fun, because it’s a new creative challenge – and that contributes to a happy life.  But it can also be a bit of a pain, because these projects can feel … oppressive. With writing, often, there’s a strange feeling of compulsion. You just have to write about something. I remember hearing Kathryn Harrison remark on a panel, when asked how she chose her topics, “You really have surprisingly little control about what you want to write about.” I knew exactly what she meant. I had to write a book about power, money, fame and sex — when I was clerking for Justice O’Connor, I was writing that book on the weekends. A few years later, I felt I couldn’t go another day without working on a biography of Churchill.

Of course, you can choose what you write about. You just can’t choose what you want to write about.

For the last few years, for example, I’ve been desperately fighting the urge to write a book about St. Therese of Lisieux. I have a lot to say, and I think most of her biographers seriously mis-read her writing, and I’d love to set everyone straight. But I resist because I’m not Catholic, I have no doctrinal expertise, I don’t even speak French! No one would read my book – but how I would love to lay roses at the feet of my spiritual master, St. Therese.

Although I write non-fiction, three times in my life I’ve had an uncontrollable urge to write a novel. My problem is that I’m not much of a storyteller, and these were “novels of ideas.” Which, I know quite well, is not a good way to write a novel. One novel was about the apocalypse, one was about why people destroy their own possessions (I later wrote a non-fiction book, Profane Waste, on this subject, in collaboration with artist Dana Hoey, and it worked much better in that form), and most recently, I wrote a novel-in-a-month about the happiness consequences of two people having an affair. (I describe this experience in The Happiness Project book.)

For a writer, it can be a gigantic distraction, and therefore a work liability, to have these projects press on you. They get in the way of the work you really need to get done. They can be fun, creative, and satisfying, yes, but writers, like everyone, need to be productive in the work for which they’re paid.

This has happened to me, yet again. I have this idea for a novel – but for once, in a nice change, it’s not a novel of ideas. Well, it is a little bit. But it has more plot than usual. And it actually has some real characters in it. It’s also a young-adult novel, which I’ve never tackled before, although I’m a huge fan of children’s and young-adult literature.

But what’s the point of view? I imagine it like a movie, with a distant third-person narrator, but I need to locate it in my main character’s point of view…and then how to handle the gradual reveal of the secrets I want to emerge slowly?

I really don’t have time to be fussing with this right now!

I mentioned this dilemma to a friend who is an editor and a YA writer herself, and she said, “You should just write it! That’s the happiness project thing to do!”

She’s absolutely right. It would make me very happy to write that novel. But while it would be fun, it would also be draining and difficult and distracting. Plus, I would really try to make it good, but it probably wouldn’t end up being good – and if I go to the trouble to write a book, I really want it to be good. It would be “play,” in that I’d be doing it for fun, but it would use up precisely the same energy that I use for “work.” More time at the keyboard, can I stand it? Of course, it might energize me as well.

I know that I’m extraordinarily lucky to be a working writer, debating whether to do this extra project for fun. For now I think I’ll hold on to my idea, and promise myself that I’ll make a start on this novel this summer, if I still feel the urge.

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writers_block2Gretchen Rubin is the guru behind the phenomenally successful blog (and soon-to-be book) The Happiness Project.  In this post she shares an inside glimpse at her process.

One of the challenges of writing is … writing. Here are some tips that I’ve found most useful for myself, for actually getting words onto the page.

1. Write something every work-day, and preferably, every day; don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Staying inside a project keeps you engaged, keeps your mind working, and keeps ideas flowing. Also, perhaps surprisingly, it’s often easier to do something almost every day than to do it three times a week. (This may be related to the abstainer/moderator split.)

2. Remember that if you have even just fifteen minutes, you can get something done. Don’t mislead yourself, as I did for several years, with thoughts like, “If I don’t have three or four hours clear, there’s no point in starting.”

3. Don’t binge on writing. Staying up all night, not leaving your house for days, abandoning all other priorities in your life — these habits lead to burn-out.

4. If you have trouble re-entering a project, stop working in mid-thought — even mid-sentence — so it’s easy to dive back in later.

5. Don’t get distracted by how much you are or aren’t getting done. I put myself in jail.

6. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that creativity descends on you at random. Creative thinking comes most easily when you’re writing regularly and frequently, when you’re constantly thinking about your project.

7. Remember that lots of good ideas and great writing come during the revision stage. I’ve found, for myself, that I need to get a beginning, middle, and an end in place, and then the more creative and complex ideas begin to form. So I try not to be discouraged by first drafts.

8. Develop a method of keeping track of thoughts, ideas, articles, or anything that catches your attention. That keeps you from forgetting ideas that might turn out to be important, and also, combing through these materials helps stimulate your creativity. My catch-all document, where I store everything related to happiness that I don’t have another place for, is more than five hundred pages long. Some people use inspiration boards; others keep scrapbooks. Whatever works for you.

9. Pay attention to your physical comfort. Do you have a decent desk and chair? Are you cramped? Is the light too dim or too bright? Make a salute—if you feel relief when your hand is shading your eyes, your desk is too brightly lit. Check your body, too: lower your shoulders, make sure your tongue isn’t pressed against the top of your mouth, don’t sit in a contorted way. Being physically uncomfortable tires you out and makes work seem harder.

10. Try to eliminate interruptions — by other people, email, your phone, or poking around the Internet — but don’t tell yourself that you can only work with complete peace and quiet.

11. Over his writing desk, Franz Kafka had one word: “Wait.” My brilliantly creative friend Tad Low, however, keeps a different word on his desk: “Now.” Both pieces of advice are good.

12. If you’re stuck, try going for a walk and reading a really good book. Virginia Woolf noted to herself: “The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw.”

13. At least in my experience, the most important tip for getting writing done? Have something to say! This sounds obvious, but it’s a lot easier to write when you’re trying to tell a story, explain an idea, convey an impression, give a review, or whatever. If you’re having trouble writing, forget about the writing and focus on what you want to communicate. For example, I remember flailing desperately as I tried to write my college and law-school application essays. It was horrible – until in both cases I realized I had something I really wanted to say. Then the writing came easily, and those two essays are among my favorites of things I’ve ever written.

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