Tag Archives: literature

Podcast 121: How to Get More Reading Done, a Car-Related Hack, and an Interview with Sam Walker about Leadership.

Update: We love reading everyone’s haiku!

Here’s mine for today:

Writing my haiku

A new way to see the world

Quiet, creative.

Try This at Home: Read more. Something that definitely boosts my happiness! For my one-pager about “Reading Better Than Before,” it’s here.

As promised, here are Daniel Pennac’s “10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader.”

Happiness Hack: Michael Melcher suggests using the vacuum at the gas station to keep the car clean. Outer order, inner calm.

Check out his podcast, Meanwhile, for ideas about how to improve your work and life.

Interview: We talked to journalist and editor Sam Walker about his fascinating book The Captain Class: the Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams. It’s about sports, leadership, and success.

Sam mentions that he’s a Questioner. Don’t know your Tendency? Take the quiz here to see if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.

Sam’s Try This at Home: Ride a bike to work.

Gretchen’s (Possible) Demerit: I decided to stop driving in New York City. I write about my dislike of driving in Happier at Home,  and as part of the experiment of that book I worked hard to get back into the practice of driving. This decision feels cowardly — but those drives drain me and casts a shadow over summer weekends.

Elizabeth’s Gold Star: Elizabeth and Adam just celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary, and that occasion reminded her how much work our mother did, to plan her wedding. It was gorgeous, and just what Elizabeth wanted.

Two Resources:

  1.  To get the one-page PDF on “Reading Better Than Before,” “Working Better Than Before,” “Eating Better Than Before,” or “Exercising Better Than Before,” you can find them here.
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Happier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #121

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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.” Check out these great shows: Side Hustle School and Radical Candor and Happier in Hollywood.

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

Interview: John Freeman Gill.

I’ve been friends with brilliant 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.

“All That I Ever Hope to Say Is that I Love the World.” What Do You Hope to Say?

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”

–E. B. White

He wrote this to a reader of his masterpiece of children’s literature, Charlotte’s Web.

If you were to fill in the blank, “All that I ever hope to say is that I _____,” how would you answer?

Ah, Charlotte’s Web. An extraordinary, beautiful book. If you haven’t read it since you were a child, re-read it now. It’s a book that immediately made it onto my list of my 81 Favorite Works of Children’s and Young-Adult Literature.

“My Highest Ambition Is To Be What I Already Am.”

“Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself–and if I accept myself fully in the right way I will already have surpassed myself.

–Thomas Merton, Journal, October 2, 1958

I love this quotation so much that the first line of this passage is the epigraph for my forthcoming book The Four Tendencies. (Choosing the epigraph is probably my favorite part of writing a book. How I love quotations!)

I’ve spent a lot of time studying Merton, because as a Trappist monk and definite Rebel, he was a fascinating case study. He kept voluminous journals, as well as writing essays and memoirs, so it was possible for me to have true insight into his thinking.

When I first started studying the Four Tendencies, I was puzzled by the not-infrequent pattern of Rebels being attracted to areas of high regulation, like the clergy, the military, and big corporations. Now it makes sense to me. It’s a whole section in my book.

If you’re intrigued by the book The Four Tendencies, you can pre-order it here (pre-orders really help me, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I very much appreciate a pre-order).

If you don’t know which of the Four Tendencies describes you — whether you’re an  Upholder (like me), Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel (like Merton), you can take the quiz here.

I also love the way writer Flannery O’Connor put it: “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.”

These quotations remind me of one of the paradoxes of my happiness project: I want to accept myself, but also expect more from myself.

This tension between “accepting myself’ and “surpassing myself” — how we must accept ourselves in order to surpass ourselves — is something I think about often. What is self-acceptance, really? Or self-knowledge? A mystery.

How do you think about self-acceptance and self-knowledge?

Revealed! February Book Club: Keys to Good Design, a Personality Quiz, and High Fantasy.

Because nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

— one outstanding book about happiness or habits

— one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit

— one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

Shop at IndieBound, BN.com, or Amazon (I’m an affiliate), or your favorite local bookstore. Or my favorite, visit the library!

For all the books I choose, I love them; I’ve read most of them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.

Bonus book this month: with Shea Olsen, my sister Elizabeth Craft has a new young-adult novel, Flower. The tag line? “She had a plan, then she met him.” Romance, temptation, secrets, college applications, celebrity...Check it out.

Now, for the three book-club choices. Drumroll…

A book about happiness, good habits, or human nature:

 

The Enneagram Made Easy: Discover the 9 Types of People by Elizabeth Wagele

On episode 99 of the Happier podcast, my sister Elizabeth and I discussed the “Try This at Home” of taking personality quizzes. The Enneagram isn’t a scientific way to understand personality, but many people find it to be an illuminating framework. To my mind, that’s the chief benefit of a personality quiz: whether it helps us glimpse into our own nature. Sometimes it’s hard to look directly in the mirror, and something like a personality quiz can help us see ourselves indirectly.

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.

 

An outstanding children’s book:

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

I was astonished to realize that I’ve never suggested the Tolkien books as my kidlit choice (though arguably they aren’t children’s books). These are towering classics of world literature. The Fellowship of the Ring is the first in a trilogy called “The Lord of the Rings,” and while The Hobbit isn’t part of the official trilogy, and is very different in tone, it’s quite related to the high fantasy epic that unfolds. These books are unlike anything else. Read the books even if you’ve seen the movies; as always, movies can’t capture so much that’s wonderful about books. For instance, one of my favorite characters, Tom Bombadil, doesn’t appear in the movies.

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.

 

An eccentric pick:

The Pocket Universal Principles of Design: 150 Essential Tools for Architects, Artists, Designers, Developers, Engineers, Inventors, and Makers by William Lidwell.

This is an absorbing, fascinating, accessible book. Each page has a very succinct description of a design principle, with a fascinating example on the facing page. I loved reading this book because it made me realize why certain designs in the world around me worked well — or didn’t work. It’s so fun to know about design principles like “Back-of-the-Dresser,” “Defensible Space,” “Figure-Ground,” and the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” These may sound dry, but they’re fascinating.

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.

 

If you want to make sure you never miss a month’s selections, sign up here for the book club newsletter.

Remember, if you want to see what I read each week, I post a photo of my pile of completed books on my Facebook Page every Sunday night, #GretchenRubinReads.

I just went to the library a few days ago — my reading stack is huge. What book are you most excited to read next?