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.

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