Gretchen Rubin

“When Writing, I Procrastinate for Weeks, Then I Write a Huge Chunk in a Few Days.”

“When Writing, I Procrastinate for Weeks, Then I Write a Huge Chunk in a Few Days.”

Interview: Robin Benway.

I've written many times about how I'm a huge, raving fan of children's and young-adult literature. I read these books as a child, and I continue to read them as an adult. I'm in three (yes, three) book groups where we talk about kidlit. (If you want to see my list of my 81 favorite works of children's literature, it's here.)

The other night, I attended the National Book Awards party, where Robin Benway won the 2017 prize for Young People's Literature for her book Far from the Tree. She's written several other popular, award-winning novels for young adults.

I have my copy of Far from the Tree, and I'm saving for my most delicious holiday reading -- can't wait to dive in.

Because I'm such a fan of YA literature, I wanted to hear what Robin had to say about happiness and good habits.

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

Robin: Walking my dog in the morning and afternoon. I think I enjoy it more than he does! As a writer, it's easy to stay inside in front of the computer all day, but with Hudson, I get to go out and chat with my neighbors, see what's going on in the neighborhood, get the gossip, etc. I also talk to my mom most mornings, either via phone or text, and she always makes me laugh. I look to her as a model for being a happy person because she just wakes up ready to go each morning. It takes me about 90 minutes and two cups of coffee to get to that point.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old? 

Robin: I was such a people-pleaser at 18 years old, and I cared so much about what people thought about me, which could be so exhausting! I turned 40 this year and I don't know if it's age or just getting sick of worrying about it, but I'm much more selfish now, in a good way!

When I was working on the book that eventually became Far From the Tree, I kept missing deadlines because I just couldn't get the book to work. I finally called my editor and said, "I don't have any ideas, I need to start over." Missing a deadline (or two...or, ahem, three) would have been unfathomable to me 20 years ago, but it was the right thing for the book. It would have been so much worse to deliver a book that I knew wasn't working. I've learned to protect myself and my work almost like a mama bear, and I think we're both better for it.

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

Robin: For health, water, sleep, sunscreen, and Vitamin D supplements. I also cook most of my meals at home. I'm a Type 1 diabetic, so knowing that I have healthy food waiting for me erases a lot of anxiety, so when I know I'm heading out for a few weeks of travel, I make a big batch of soup or turkey meatballs to freeze so I can walk in the door and have an actual meal. I also take a photo of the inside of my refrigerator before I leave so I can remember what to buy at the grocery store on the way home.

For productivity, running to-do lists on my Gmail account. I make a draft email and constantly update it so I can access it from anywhere. It keeps me from waking up at 3 am worrying about all of the things I have to do. (Most nights, anyway.) I've tried so many organizational apps, but the email draft is the thing that works best for me.

For creativity, I meet friends for writing dates in coffee shops around Los Angeles. It's like having a workout buddy, but instead we just sit and write. When I was working on Far From the Tree, those dates were crucial because I was doing everything in my power to not write the book given how much I was struggling with it early on. I knew friends were waiting for me to show up, though, and I would drag myself out of the house and end up writing a few thousand words with them.

For leisure, I truly love making up stupid songs to sing to my dog. Again, this is something that I enjoy way more than he does.

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

Robin: When I travel, I cut myself some slack for healthy habits. I once heard a great piece of advice that said there are three main aspects to health: diet, exercise, and sleep, and to try to maintain two of the three when traveling, so that's what I try to do. If I'm running on 4 hours of sleep, I'll get the salad and walk around in the airport. And then of course there are days when all three things go out the window!

When I’m writing, I will procrastinate for weeks on end, and then I'll write a huge chunk within a few days. For Far From the Tree, I wrote the last two-thirds of the book in roughly two weeks, which obliterated any and all of my healthy habits. It didn't even feel like writing, it felt like I was channeling the characters, and I was afraid that if I stopped writing, their voices would be gone. So I just didn't stop!

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

Robin: At one point, I was working on a book idea that just wasn't going anywhere, and I truly thought my career was over. I couldn't make the idea work, no matter how many times I reworked it. I told my editor I needed to step back and figure out my next move. It's hard to look back now and think about how heartbreaking that time was. Writing has been my friend, my comfort, since I was eight years old, so to lose that connection AND feel like it might never come back was so painful. I felt like I was the biggest failure. I couldn't even talk about it with my friends, I felt so ashamed.

Then a week or so after saying that I needed to step back for a while, I was in the car and heard the opening lyrics of a Florence + the Machine song. I instantly —I mean, INSTANTLY— knew that I wanted to write a book about three siblings who had been separated as babies and placed for adoption. I had such a clear vision of the middle sister, Grace, getting pregnant and putting her own daughter up for adoption, and how that loss leads her to look for her birth family. I knew all of the characters' names, their stories, everything. To this day, I have no idea how or why that happened. There's a very strange alchemy when it comes to creativity, and I think it was one of those moments that's truly inexplicable, especially given everything that's happened with the book and how well people have reacted to it. It recently won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, which is an honor beyond anything I could have imagined for my career. I feel very grateful that I get to keep writing books, and that people still want to read them.

Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

Robin: My driver's ed teacher gave me the best piece of I've ever heard. In the driving simulator, he used to say "Look there, get there." He meant, "Pay attention to the road so you don't mow down a pedestrian," but I think it's a great rule to live by. If you want something, aim in that direction and go for it. Take the class, take a chance, do the thing. No one gets what they want or achieves a goal by accident. Even Powerball winners have to buy the ticket.

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