Struggling to “Be Gretchen” — the new and improved version.

I’m having one of those practice-what-I-preach opportunities. Unfortunately.

My first commandment (see left-hand column) is “Be Gretchen.” One revelation of my happiness project has been getting the dimmest sense of what this precept actually means, and why it’s so challenging to follow.

Here’s my current difficulty.

Last week, I gave my fantastic (and long-suffering) agent a sample chapter for THE HAPPINESS PROJECT book proposal. She told me she laughed when she read it, because my approach was so absolutely characteristic.

This is what happens when I “Be Gretchen” with my writing: I take a vast subject that fascinates me (power/money/fame/sex; Churchill; JFK; happiness – all actually aspects of my one overriding interest, human nature); I amass a huge amount of research; I think about the subject obsessively; and I try to find a cunning structure that will allow me to pack in as much wheat as possible, while eliminating every bit of chaff. Chaff that some people find important, like transitions, scene-setting, reflections, background information, etc.

I remember that when I was trying to sell Power Money Fame Sex, some publishing person told me my writing “had too many ideas.” Which reminded me of that scene in the movie Amadeus when Salieri tells Mozart that his music has “too many notes.” (I found this a very comforting comparison.)

But I’ve come to understand what that person meant. So many books are a 35-page essay crammed into a 200-page book; my problem is just the opposite. Too much material; at the same time, not enough material.

So, knowing this about myself, how do I harness my natural strengths, but also shore up my weaknesses? How can I “Be Gretchen” – but an improved Gretchen? Of course, this isn’t just a question that concerns the writing about my happiness project, but the very purpose of undertaking the project.

W. H. Auden observed, “Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

It turns out that happiness is a lot of work.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Uday

    Personally, I see this as a happy problem….
    It seems that the intensity of your ideas lends itself simply to a different presentation format – Short, digestable, self-contained topics that are each a chapter or clustered together to present a coherent theme.
    Personally, as someone who reads a lot of the work you are describing, I would much rather have a lot of ideas, well presented, than few ideas drawn out across many pages.

  • Michelle I

    I agree. Happiness is a lot of work. I struggle with the fact that whenever I chart a new path and start to feel like I’m doing well, my old (not so good) habits creep back up.
    Staying the course takes persistence and prayer. Good luck with your writing. Whew–combining happiness and writing? Pretty tough stuff!

  • But who is Gretchen? I feel like I’m missing out on something here – is it a US thing?

  • JF

    Read some of Hofstader’s books (Godel, Escher, Bach, for example). He does the exact same thing, and the result is *fantastic*.

  • Lisa

    Hey. Isn’t it ok to ‘be Gretchen’ just the way you are? That being Gretchen sometimes means lots of ideas and a desire to eliminate the chaff? It’s the editor’s job to help guide the writer if a different style is needed, no? Your website’s great! I agree with Uday’s point.

  • Happiness is a lot of work. Just look at how much you’ve done in the website…:).
    It’s a great website indeed. And I think lots of important information would be better kept in chunks, like you’ve done here in the web pages.
    Best wishes with your book project.

  • A lot of work indeed. And not easy also. Finding the ‘accidental limitations’ can take quite some time (not to mention overcoming them), finding the ‘necessary limitations of our nature’ can take even longer.

  • cw

    Hi Gretchen,
    I haven’t had a chance to check out all your entries but I thought I’d throw out a research point for you if you haven’t already hit it — Harry Rathbun was a mentor for O’Connor at Stanford and talks about many of the topics you are interested in. There is now the Harry and Emilia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life facilitated through the Office of Religious Life at the University (
    If you do a search for him at Amazon, you’ll run into some of his writings and if memory serves, a history of his organization, Creative Initiative was published around 1992 or so.

  • just me.

    “So many books are a 35-page essay crammed into a 200-page book”
    you means spread out?…. i would rather have ‘too many notes’ there’s nothing more annoying than a padded article turned into a book.

  • Thanks so much for all the encouragement about following my style. I need to find a way to captitalize on the strenghts and shore up the weaknesses…I haven’t quite figured it out yet, so it’s nice to hear that others have faith.
    Great reading suggestions…I’m off to look up Creative Initiative and Godel, Escher, Bach (which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time).

  • D. Stiles

    To me “Be Gretchen” means determining your values, morals, principles, passions, etc. These things provide guideposts through out a person’s life. The gudeposts should mature as one matures. I think being true to one’s self and persona is summed up well by Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

  • Helen

    Is there a chance that this isn’t really about “Be Gretchen” but more about the human tendency to focus on the negative rather than on the positive?

  • Oh god, it wasn’t till I saw your NEXT post after this one on my rss feed and noticed it was posted by “Gretchen Rubin” that I realised who Gretchen was. I’m sorry – I’m new to your site. Returning though, your front page doesn’t actually say your name – not under your photo, not in a “posted by” under a post. You have to click through to the “About” page for that. So I really didn’t know who Gretchen was. Sorry.
    Great topic for a blog, though, and a wonderful project.

  • The best advice given to me about writing was to focus on a single drop of water in the bucket, not the bucket of water.
    Happiness is not work, it is a choice.
    Thanks for the site and your thoughts.