Tag Archives: creativity

“Deciding to Write Consistently and Actually Doing So for 5 Years Are Very Different Things.”

Interview: John Freeman Gill.

I’ve been friends with briliant writer John Gill since the first months of our freshman year at Yale — the days are long, but the years are short!

He’s been a New York Times contributor for many years, and writes for many other publications as well. He has just published his debut novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, and it is so good. I was thrilled to have the chance to write a blurb for the cover, and here’s what I said:

John Freeman Gill’s The Gargoyle Hunters is a brilliant evocation of many things: the world of a thirteen-year-old boy, with its mixture of thoughtless destructiveness and wrenching emotion; a son’s relationship with a charismatic, architecture-loving, thieving father; the endless changes to timeless Manhattan during the crumbling, tumultuous 1970s. Funny, heartbreaking, elegiac, unforgettable—David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green meets E. B. White’s Here Is New York.

The novel is getting tremendous buzz and praise. Among other things, The Gargoyle Hunters was named one of Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection for Spring 2017. And if you’d like to read a (terrific) review, check out “‘The Gargoyle Hunters’: A Love Letter to New York City.

I’m going to do a Facebook Live interview with John on Friday, March 31, at 3:00 pm Eastern — we’re going to do the interview on the steps of the townhouse where the novel is set. How great is that!

John has been working on this novel for a long time, and I was curious to learn how his habits helped (or hurt) the process.

GRETCHEN: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, etc.?

JOHN: Yes, but to explain I’ll first need to give a bit of background. I’ve wanted to be a novelist ever since fifth grade, when I wrote a series of waggish short stories about a raffish British private detective named Anthony Bristol. My tastes became more literary as I grew up, and ever since high school, my favorite novel has been The Horse’s Mouth, by the Anglo-Irish writer Joyce Cary. The book is a hilarious and irresistible 1944 tale about a winningly irreverent old London painter named Gulley Jimson, who begs, borrows, steals, and cons his way through life, shoving all else aside in a relentless drive to finish a gigantic modern painting that has seized his imagination and won’t let go.

When I was in my twenties, I attended an MFA program in creative writing, and in 1995, the first week after I graduated and was on my own, I sat down in a fever and banged out 15 pages of a novel. I liked those pages, but life took me in another direction (screenwriting), and then another (journalism). Over the next two decades, despite writing no new fiction, I read literary novels nonstop and never stopped seeing myself as a novelist who just happened to be writing other kinds of stories. But somehow I never quite took the plunge and committed myself to writing a novel.

Then, a few years ago, I was walking around in Park Slope, Brooklyn, not far from my home, and I stumbled upon a cardboard box full of discarded books in front of an old brownstone. One of the books was a crumbling, yellowed paperback copy of The Horse’s Mouth, a 1957 edition with a tattered purple cover. The serendipity of that moment really did feel like a lightning bolt. I’d forgotten how much I loved Gulley and his relentless artistic drive, and I’d forgotten how much I needed to write fiction. That old paperback book, its spine broken and its pages falling out, reminded me. I gathered up the pages and began to read as I walked home, so engrossed that I nearly got hit by a car in a crosswalk. The novel is narrated in the first person by Gulley himself, and one sentence in particular resonated with me. “And I perceived I hadn’t time to waste on pleasure,” Gulley writes on the very first page. “A man of my age has to get on with the job.”

“The job,” of course, is the making of art. And I, in my forties at the time, decided that Gulley had it exactly right. The time for procrastination was past. I began writing my novel the next morning and didn’t stop until I finished it five years later. It’s called The Gargoyle Hunters, and Knopf is publishing it.

So it sounds like you managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—writing fiction consistently—that had eluded you for ages. How did you do it?

It’s a fair question. Because, of course, deciding to write consistently and actually doing so for five years are very different things. The new habit that I think proved most important was that I began keeping a daily log of how many hours I wrote. This kept me from lying to myself with all kinds of rationalizations about how hard I was working if I wasn’t really buckling down.

When you’re writing a novel, see, you don’t have a boss either to pat you on the head or kick you in the ass. All you have is your own constantly fluctuating sense of how good a day’s work you just performed and how the novel is going over all. So I felt it was necessary to superimpose an overarching structure on the writing process, to simulate having a boss who would take me to task if I was underachieving. And for me, the best way to ensure steady progress was to monitor the time spent at my desk. For me, time equals writing. Some writers talk about how many words they write each day, and I’ve always admired authors who can crank out page after page in a single sitting. But for me, that measurement is pretty meaningless. I’m a very slow, methodical writer who labors over the language, so for me, word count is sort of beside the point. I mean, the idea is to write the right words, not just a lot of them, isn’t it? So by logging the number of hours I write, rather than the number of words, I free myself from the tyranny of quantity and permit myself to take as long as I need to get every sentence and paragraph into a form I’m happy with.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I’m terrible at going to bed. I just won’t do it. I’m a sleep idiot. I stay up too late, which saps my energy and keeps me from ever becoming that well-organized fellow of lore who leaps out of bed each morning, carpe-ing the diem and immediately penning reams of deathless prose.

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

I think the most important newish habit I have is swimming. I have no fear of the water—I grew up in the ocean at Fire Island, exultantly body-surfing hours a day—but I’ve never been a strong swimmer; for most of my life I was never good enough to do more than three or four frantic, exhausted laps at a time. My wife’s parents have a beautiful pool up in the Berkshires, though, and two summers ago I basically taught myself to swim. I’m sure I’m doing it all wrong—I’m just going on memory from the lessons I was given as a child—but by taking it slowly and breaking down the elements of what my body was doing in the water, I taught myself to breathe properly, and now I can basically swim laps indefinitely. I belong to a gym that has an Olympic-size pool, and it’s just half a block from my house in Brooklyn, so anytime I’m feeling stressed or just need to escape my own mind, I go swim until I’ve got my zonk on. Immersing yourself in the world of a novel for several years is so consuming that it’s hard to turn your mind off at the end of the work day. Your brain wants to keep rehashing those creative issues you’ve been grappling with all day. And that’s just really destructive and counter-productive. So I’ve found that the best way to make a clean break from the day’s mental efforts is to swim myself to exhaustion. When I do that, I get out of the pool happily devoid of thoughts. Part of the secret to writing, it turns out, is to learn how not to write.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits?

The Internet is the enemy. And lunch. I know from experience that if I ever meet someone for lunch, I never refocus on my work again properly that day. So I solve that problem simply by never having lunch with anyone. I meet someone for lunch maybe five times a year.

The Internet is even more insidious. There’s simply no way to do serious creative work if you keep interrupting yourself to check e-mail or read online articles that fuel your righteous indignation about the state of our national politics. I used to belong to a writers room here in New York, and I found it very enlightening and motivating. On the one hand, there are writers—usually women in their fifties or sixties, I’ve found—who are hardcore: banging away at the keyboard as if they can barely type fast enough to keep up with the rapid-fire verbiage their Muse is shouting in their ear. On the other hand, though, you wouldn’t believe how many people spend their writing days reading about celebrity Scientologists or shopping for shoes. News flash: You can’t write fiction while checking out sparkly high-tops on Zappos.

The truth is, though, I don’t have particularly good self-control myself. So I installed a great piece of software on my laptop called Freedom, which you can program to lock you out of the Internet for whatever period of time you like. It’s a life-changer. I think of it as prosthetic will-power.

Podcast 105: Leave on High Note, Childlike Wonder vs. Adultlike Wonder–and What I Eat Every Day.

It’s time for the next installment of  Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Update: In response to our discussion in episode 102, listeners told us the different “missing puzzle pieces” they’d managed to find.

Try This at Home: Leave on a high note.

Happiness Hack: The Metropolitan Museum has introduced an extraordinary new resource: for artworks that are in the public domain, the Met makes them freely available for unrestricted use (including commercial use). Learn more and browse here!

Happiness Stumbling Block: What appeals to you more: childlike wonder, or adultlike wonder?

Listener Questioner: Fiona asks, “Gretchen, what do you eat every day?’

I talk about the fact that I’m an “Abstainer” — are you an Abstainer or a Moderator?

As I write about in Better Than Before, I was inspired to quit sugar after reading Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat. If you’d like to read my interview with Gary Taubes about his new book, The Case Against Sugar, request it here.

Demerit: I hate the theme of unjust accusation in books, movies, plays, and TV shows — but I unjustly accused my family of ignoring the groceries.

Gold Star: Elizabeth went to two doctors’ appointments in one day.

If you want easy instructions about how to rate or review the podcast, look here. Remember, it really helps us if you do rate or review the podcast — it helps other listeners discover us.

I do weekly live videos on my Facebook Page to continue the conversation from the podcast — usually on Tuesdays at 3:00 pm ET. To join the conversation, check the schedule.

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Happier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #105

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Want to know what to expect from other episodes of the podcast, when you listen to the award-winning Happier with Gretchen Rubin?” We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).  We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much!

Want a new podcast to listen to, with the same vibe as Happier? The Onward Project is the family of podcasts that I’ve launched, for podcasts that are about “your life–made better.” The first shows are Side Hustle School and Radical Candor. Elizabeth’s show with her writing partner, Sarah Fain, will be Happier in Hollywood, so stay tuned for that.

HAPPIER listening!

“The Habit of Daily Exercise Was Probably the Most Important and Unexpected Thing I Learned at Business School.”

Interview: Kim Scott.

I’ve known Kim for many years. She and I (and my husband Jamie, too) worked at the Federal Communications Commission together. After that job, I switched to being a full-time writer, and she worked in a bunch of different places, including three failed start-ups, Google, and Apple, and wrote novels.

I’m thrilled that with her co-host Russ Laraway, she’s heading the terrific new Radical Candor podcast on The Onward Project family of podcasts that I’ve just launched — podcasts about your life, made better. The Radical Candor podcast is about being a better boss, a better colleague, a better team member.

I love talking to Kim about workplace issues. She has such interesting things to say about how to be a terrific boss or colleague who has high standards, and who can help people grow and improve, but also be kind. It can be a tough balance.

Her book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity comes out in a few months — a terrific books, with fascinating stories from her own life (including mistakes and failures, always my favorites), practical suggestions, and profound insights.

As a side note, I thought of Kim when I read this line by Gertrude Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as she described her friend the poet Apollinaire:

“The death of Guillaume Apollinaire at this time made a very serious difference to all his friends apart from their sorrow at his death. It was the moment just after the war when many things had changed and people naturally fell apart. Guillaume would have been a bond of union, he always had a quality of keeping people together, and now that he was gone everybody ceased to be friends.”

I’ve never known exactly how she does it, but Kim also has this quality of “keeping people together” to help them be friends. I’m going to ask her to about this on the Radical Candor podcast! How does she do it?

Naturally I wanted to quiz Kim about her habits.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Kim: I declared 1999 the Year of my Fantasy. I quit my job and did only the things that I wanted to do. It turned out that not having a job was enormously productive: I wrote a novel, I worked at a pediatric clinic in Kosovo, and I started Juice Software. The reason I was able to do so many things that year was not because I wasn’t working, but because I started the year out focusing on how to be happy. I found three habits were responsible for keeping me happy:

  1. Sleeping 8 hours a night
  2. Exercising 45 minutes a day
  3. Having a real conversation with somebody I love every day.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I had no idea how bad sugar is, how much of it is snuck into our food, or how much we need a little fat to deal with the sugar that’s in foods we don’t think of as sugary (milk, Cheerios, etc). I learned this only when I got gestational diabetes, and the experience of checking my blood sugar levels after every meal really changed my eating habits for the rest of my life.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I like to have a glass of wine with dinner. I prefer two glasses. And unless I focus on not having that third, I reach for it. That much alcohol interrupts my sleep, which affects my happiness.

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Sleeping 8 hours a night is probably the most important habit I have for health, creativity, productivity, and for enjoying leisure.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I quit drinking altogether for about 18 months to break my 3 drinks a day habit. Here were the things that helped:

  1. Having a ritual of a seltzer with a splash of cranberry juice and a lime
  2. Eating dinner earlier–often I was hungry and had a drink rather than eating something
  3. Eating food I really looked forward to eating
  4. Arriving at parties late

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I am definitely a Rebel!

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

I have twins who are seven years old and go to bed at 8:00. The temptation to crawl under the covers with them as they are falling asleep is often overwhelming. When I succumb to it, I fall asleep too. Then I wake up around 11 with a crick in my neck and am unable to go back to sleep till about 3 am. It’s a disaster for healthy sleep habits!

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

I never exercised regularly until I got to business school. I went to Harvard, where they really stressed the importance of daily exercise, and put their money where their mouth was. They spoiled all business school students with a beautiful gym and free personal trainers. Developing a habit of daily exercise was probably the most important and unexpected thing I learned at business school.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

As a Rebel I resisted anything that looked like habit or routine from 1967-1999. Then, in an act of rebellion, I found that having a few habits made me so much happier and left me with so much more energy for other more important rebellions that I adopted a few 🙂

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

You have been a huge influence on habits–both breaking them and adopting them. [Awww, thanks Kim!]

In 1998, I realized that I was in a habit of hating my work. I started talking to people about quitting my job so that I could break this habit, and you were one of the people I talked to. But, I wasn’t making any moves to actually quit. I kept coming up with reasons to delay quitting. Most people, nervous about the idea of my unemployment, reinforced my habit of staying in jobs I hated. But you looked at me one day and said, “Don’t forget to quit!” Your words rang in my ears over and over, and were a big part of what propelled me on the Year of My Fantasy.

You also helped me with a more mundane habit: flossing. Like you I hate to floss. You suggested toothpicks, and I took your suggestion. I now have toothpicks at my desk, in my bag, in my car. My dentist is pleased, and I feel virtuous!

Ta-Da! Announcing…My Coloring Book of Great Quotes. Do You Love to Color?

I’m excited to announce that I’ve created — yes! — a coloring book. Check it out: The Happiness Project Mini Posters: A Coloring Book of 20 Hand-Lettered Quotes to Pull Out and Frame.

It was a particular delight to be creating a coloring book now, given my recent obsession with color, and accompanying obsession with beautiful markers and colored pencils.

Also, it’s a big trend across the United States. (Is coloring becoming a popular adult activity in other countries?) More and more adults are returning to the coloring books they loved as children.

Great idea! Coloring boosts happiness for many reasons.

1. Coloring is calming, even meditative.

The activity of coloring helps to focus the mind and rest the body in a constructive, creative way. In this book, you’re coloring various quotations, and II hope that the quotations, too, will inspire quiet reflection.

2. Coloring is very satisfying, because there’s a special pleasure in doing things with our hands.

Very often these days, we’re sitting behind screens and living in our heads. Like activities such as knitting or tying flies, coloring allows us to connect with the physical world, in the present moment. And there’s something about the repetitive, wordless nature of the work that boosts creativity and energy.

3. Coloring is a great activity to do with other people.

Research shows that a secret—probably the secret—to happiness is strong connections with other people. Coloring is fun to do with other people. It’s companionable, and allows for conversation, and at the same time, gives a sense of shared purpose.

With my sister Elizabeth Craft, I host a podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. Many people have written to tell me that they like to color as they listen to the latest episode—the two activities are highly compatible.

How about you? Do you like to color? And if so: markers or pencils? Or both — I love both.

Podcast 83: Are You A Hedgehog or a Fox? and Read 3 Unfamiliar Magazines

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Update: If you live near Seattle, please come to our live event! We’ll be recording an episode of the podcast live on stage at Seattle’s Town Hall on October 13, 7:30. Tickets are $25. More info and buy tickets here. Please come, bring your friends.

In episode 76, we talked about manifestos, and if you’re coming to the Seattle event, we’d love to highlight a few manifestos from listeners. So send us your manifesto for work, life, parenting, marriage, exercise, clutter-clearing — whatever! And maybe we’ll talk about it with you on stage.

Try This at Home: Read three magazines that you don’t usually read. I tried this creativity exercise as part of writing my book The Happiness Project.

Happiness Hack: Doug suggests using the reminders app in your smart-phone to remind yourself to any tasks you need to complete.

Know Yourself Better: Are you a hedgehog or a fox? We refer to the enigmatic line from Archilocus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” According to the understanding of that line that Elizabeth and I share, we’re both hedgehogs.

Listener Question: Daniel asks “I’m now working freelance, and I struggle to create habits, because my schedule changes all the time. How can I built my habits?”

Elizabeth’s Demerit: She and Adam neglected to get their son Jack back into an earlier sleep schedule before school started.

Gretchen’s Gold Star: The musical Hamilton! Such a fresh, beautiful way to think about American history.

If you want easy instructions about how to rate or review the podcast, look here.

Remember,  I’m doing weekly live videos on my Facebook Page about the podcast. To join the conversation, check the schedule. 

As always, thanks to our terrific sponsors

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1pixHappier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #83

We love hearing from listeners:

 

To sign up for my free monthly newsletter, text me at 66866 and enter the word (surprise) “happier.“ Or click here.

If you enjoyed the podcast, please tell your friends and give us a rating or review. Click here to tell your friends on Twitter.

Listeners really respect the views of other listeners, so your response helps people find good material. (Not sure how to review? Instructions here; scroll to the bottom.)

How to Subscribe

If you’re like me (until recently) you’re intrigued by podcasts, but you don’t know how to listen or subscribe. It’s very easy, really. Really.  To listen to more than one episode, and to have it all in a handier way, on your phone or tablet, it’s better to subscribe. Really, it’s easy.

Want to know what to expect from other episodes of the podcast, when you listen toHappier with Gretchen Rubin?” We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).  We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much.

HAPPIER listening!