Gretchen Rubin

“Having a Non-Verbal Activity Feels Essential, and As, These Days, Do Non-Digital Activities.”

“Having a Non-Verbal Activity Feels Essential, and As, These Days, Do Non-Digital Activities.”

Interview: Amy Waldman.

Through mutual friends, I've known Amy Waldman for years. When I first met her, she was a reporter with the New York Times (which she did for eight years, including three years as co-chief of the South Asia bureau). Then she changed her writing path to become a novelist, and her first novel, The Submission, was a national bestseller.

Now Amy has a new novel that has received a huge amount of buzz: A Door in the Earth. It's the story of a young Afghan-American woman who's trapped between her ideals and the complicated truth. When describing novels, it's sometimes helpful to say what a book is "in the spirit of"—this novel is in the spirit of Cutting for Stone and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. You can read the New York Times book review here.

I couldn't wait to talk to Amy about habits, happiness, writing, and productivity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Amy: Gardening (meaning: pulling up weeds, disentangling vines, mowing a very tiny patch of lawn, and meditating on the plants I’ve managed to keep alive, along with the birds, bees, and butterflies they attract). We got a yard about six months ago and working (or even sitting) in it is like hitting the refresh button. I go back indoors calm, with my mind cleansed. I recently saw this quote from the poet Richard Wilbur: “I do things which are non-verbal so that I can return to language with excitement.” For a writer, having a non-verbal activity or hobby feels essential, and as, these days, do non-digital activities. And gardening can be a metaphor for just about everything—the consequences of care versus neglect, the tension between wildness and order—and I like thinking about all of that as I work. 

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

That sometimes the route to happiness is thinking less, not more, about yourself. That external validation provides short-lived happiness. And that, even though at 18 you’re desperate to escape childhood, it’s where you can find so many of the secrets to happiness: imagination, joy, play, action, friendship, outdoor life.

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

Not very surprising: the Internet. It’s very easy to feel productive when in fact all you’re doing is consuming—information, quips, images, whatever it is. All of these things may feed creativity but ingesting them is very different than creating something. Working at home is also complicated for me: I love it, but I am easily distracted by everything that needs to get done, both short-term and long-term, and as if in a dream I’ll find myself looking at curtains on the Internet when I thought I was writing. It helps to get out and go to a café for a while—the presence of other people can embarrass me into writing. A friend also suggested keeping a legal pad next to me when I write, on which to note down all the non-work tasks and anxieties and temptations that come into my head. If you write down things like “curtains,” it becomes a to-do list for later, not something that has to interrupt your work right now.

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.?

Every time a friend dies, and now it’s happened to me a few times, it’s a lightning bolt, reminding me that life is both fragile and finite, and I should use it well. Same with reading obituaries of people who died too young. As a writer, I’m a big procrastinator, and get a lot of clarity as deadlines approach (I did a huge amount of revision on both A Door in the Earth and The Submission in the last few months of work.) But that’s a lousy approach to life, because by the time your “deadline” is approaching you may not be in physical or mental shape to put your epiphanies into practice. So when I get these reminders, I try to think more consciously about my life and whether I’m spending it the way I want to.

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

“Work makes work,” which was passed on by two very productive friends. As in, stewing, complaining (writers love to complain!), day-dreaming and procrastinating don’t. I used to think people who accomplished a lot were just naturally brilliant. They may be, but what they really are is incredibly hard workers.

What’s a common misperception about your field?

That writing comes easily to people who write for a living. It doesn’t, at least for me, and often makes me abjectly miserable. I think a lot about writing and happiness. Am I compelled to write because I’ll be more unhappy if I don’t write? Does the pleasure come from the result—from having finished something—or from the process, and if so what part of the process? For me, getting a first draft down is the worst part; I am a much happier reviser. It’s a relentless struggle with enough intermittent rewards—a sentence that pleases you; a plot twist that, despite emerging from your own brain, surprises you—to keep you going.

Author photo by Katherine Wolkoff. 

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