Interview: Catherine Burns.
I met Catherine Burns when we had an hour-long conversation at a rooftop deck party thrown by a publishing house. Not long after that, we did an event together about podcasts. Every time I see her, I love getting the chance to talk about storytelling, speaking, audience engagement, and every other topic we wander into.
She's the long-time Artistic Director of The Moth, which is a non-profit group in New York City dedicated to the art of storytelling. They're best known for their storytelling events, where a group of people each tell a carefully crafted story—a true story—around a theme.
The Moth is a live event, a podcast and a radio show. And now there's a new book: The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories About Defying the Impossible. "From storytelling phenomenon and hit podcast The Moth—and featuring contributions from Meg Wolitzer, Adam Gopnik, Krista Tippett, Andrew Solomon, Rosanne Cash, Ophira Eisenberg, Wang Ping, and more—a new collection of unforgettable true stories about finding the strength to face the impossible, drawn from the very best ever told on its stages."
I couldn't wait to talk to Catherine about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Catherine: Hands down: exercise. It really is medicine for me. If I can get either 10,000 steps in or a vigorous 2- or 3-mile walk in, I feel like a different person. It reduces my anxiety and seems to make my brain cylinders fire faster. I used to think I didn’t have time to exercise, but I’m so much more efficient on days when I work out that I now feel that I don’t have time not to exercise! I’ve been trying to add a longer walk on weekends—there’s a six-mile loop that goes from from my house in Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge, through Chinatown, then back over the Brooklyn Bridge to home. Doing that walk makes me so happy!
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That nobody is coming to save me, and that happiness is a choice. I used to have this fantasy (Well, I see it as a fantasy now. At the time, I thought it was a fact.) that if I did X, Y, or Z the world would just fall into place. When people did things that made my life more difficult, I took it very personally—it would hurt my feelings and I’d feel like a victim, which was exhausting for me and also for the people around me. Now I know that my happiness comes from how I choose to react to the circumstances of my life, not from the circumstance itself.
Most of us are lucky in that we have more agency in our lives than we may realize. If we do nothing but try to manage well what we do have control over, we’ll find that we have more control than we think. This realization makes it easier to deal with the things we actually can’t control.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
My work at The Moth involves people telling stories from their own lives in front of live audiences around the world. The best stories end up on our radio show and podcast and in our books. There’s a narrative being shared in the media right now that we are a country divided, and that the damage of that division is beyond repair. But I find again and again that what connects us to one another is almost always bigger than what separates us. I’ve seen people from very different backgrounds, with differing belief systems, bond deeply after hearing each other’s stories.
On our first national tour, our storytellers included a retired NYPD detective and a former pickpocket who had spent years in Attica. Back in the day, their turf was Greenwich Village and they definitely would have been at odds with each other. But through telling their stories night after night they became close friends. We see this again and again. More recently, there’s David Montgomery, who has a story in our new book, Occasional Magic, about quitting his job to follow the Spice Girls around on their last world tour. The story is really about him becoming comfortable in his own skin as a gay man and how he and his mother were able to repair their strained relationship. After the story aired, he received several emails from parents of gay children who heard his story and then reached out to their own estranged children. We were all blown away by this!
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I have pretty much cut out sugar and I no longer drink soda. I was able to do it by focusing on how much better and more energetic I feel without it!
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I am definitely an Obliger, though I wanted to resist that when I first heard about the Tendencies. What gave me pause is that I’m very often Obliger-like, but I also have a pretty strong streak of Rebel in me at times. One day I heard you talking on your podcast about Obliger Rebellion and a big lightbulb went off. I realized I’d been obliging for so long that in some ways (as I later joked with my friends) my life had become one big Obliger Rebellion. Embracing this has helped me bring about some meaningful change in my life. For instance, I’m working on eating healthier and exercising, and as an Obliger I benefit from outward accountability. But it doesn’t entirely work without a few Rebel rules thrown in (like telling myself that I’m the kind of person who runs in the park every morning, or that I’m the kind of person who sets a healthy example for my nine-year-old son).
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g., travel, parties, email)
The disease of busyness is always a threat to my habits. When I’m away from work and completely in control of my own time, I tend to do well. I wake up early, read, meditate, walk daily, cook, and eat healthfully. I hear about people indulging too much on vacations, but for me it’s usually just the opposite. But when things get busy it’s very easy for my healthy habits to fall by the wayside. It helps me to remember how much happier I am when I stick with my habits, and actually doing things every day keeps me from the dreaded “decision fatigue.”
This is a little embarrassing to admit, but I have quotes and poems that inspire me set to pop up regularly on my electronic “to-do” list so that I re-read them daily/weekly/monthly and then check them off as “done.” The quotes change depending on what I’m working on right then, and they help keep me in touch with my deepest values instead of getting dragged down by the details of daily life. One of them is actually a quote from you, Gretchen, that speaks to this: “Habits are freeing and energizing because they get us out of the draining, difficult business of making decisions and using our self-control. When something’s important to us, and we want it to happen frequently, making it into a habit means that it does happen, and without a lot of fuss.” Amen!
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.?
I am stumped by this question, but I will say that thousands upon thousands of Moth stories are about a lightning bolt moment—something that happened that forever changed the storyteller.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
“The price of glory is high.” My high school marching band director used to say that, and it’s true. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by my to-do list, I try to remember how lucky I am to have a job that I love, doing work that’s meaningful to me. So it’s worth the occasional sacrifice.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Yes: Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup. I always say that if I could force everyone I love to read just one book it would be that one. Kate is the chaplain for the Maine game wardens, so she’s the person sitting with you if your child is lost in the woods. She also takes care of the game wardens themselves when things go wrong. The book is about how to hold space for your community during difficult times, and I read it during a particularly challenging period in my life, when I was trying to show up for our staff after a tumultuous event. Kate’s work has helped me find the courage to lead and show up as my best self even when I’m not feeling particularly strong or capable in the moment. She writes about a lot of serious things, but she’s also one of the funniest people I know, so the book is a joy to read. Kate has gone on to tell a number of riveting stories at The Moth.
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
People think that by practicing telling a story it won’t feel spontaneous and you’ll make the story worse. But the opposite is true. The more you know the beats of your story, the more you can have fun with it and play with it on stage. You need to have the scaffolding in place and really know where the story is going if you want to be able to improv and play on stage. Moth stories aren’t memorized, but a great deal of time goes into crafting them so they can be told well in ten minutes. Ironically, it takes a lot of practice to appear spontaneous on stage!
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