Bruce Handy: “Contemporary Life Demands Too Much Concentration; Not Concentrating Can Be Liberating.”

Bruce Handy: “Contemporary Life Demands Too Much Concentration; Not Concentrating Can Be Liberating.”

Interview: Bruce Handy.

Bruce Handy is an author, journalist, essayist, critic, humorist, and editor. He's the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult (Amazon, Bookshop). I'm a huge fan of children's literature, and I absolutely love Bruce's book. I wish he'd write Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV...

Bruce has also worked as a writer-editor at Vanity Fair, Time, Esquire, and Spy and has contributed to the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, New York, the New Yorker, The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal.

Bruce's new book is The Happiness of a Dog With a Ball in Its Mouth (Amazon, Bookshop), which is his first book for young readers. I also love picture books, so I was very excited to read his latest work.

I couldn't wait to talk to Bruce about creativity, habits, and of course, children's literature.

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

Bruce: For me, any activity that allows my mind to wander stimulates creativity, from which those other attributes tend to flow. Running, for instance. I don’t listen to anything when I run and I mostly follow the same route every day, which is maybe boring but allows me not to concentrate on anything in particular. The same with long showers. Or, best of all, stirring from sleep but not getting out of bed. A lot of ideas come to me when I’m in that half-awake state. Sometimes it feels like productive dreaming—which as I write that phrase strikes me as kind horrible, like I’ve taking something lovely and ineffable and harnessed it to utilitarian ends, but half-wakefulness works for me, and has the added benefit of justifying what might look like laziness to some. (Needless to say, my children are no longer school age.) Contemporary life demands too much concentration; not concentrating can be liberating.

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

I think, at eighteen, I thought happiness came in one size. I now know it comes in many sizes, shapes, wrappings, payment plans, etc.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I quit cigarettes in my late twenties, after smoking for ten or so years--starting in college was the stupidest thing I ever did. I was lucky in that I was able to quit cold turkey without too much stress, largely because I had become disgusted by it. I guess the disgust outweighed the addiction. It helped that I had adopted healthier habits earlier in my twenties, like running and not having potato salad for lunch every day; I think I was twenty-four when I realized I was going to have to start working at it if I didn’t want to turn into a blob. The funny thing is, there were maybe three years where I was both running and smoking. How did I manage that?

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I see elements of myself in all four, but professionally I’m a Questioner. [Note from Gretchen: Seeing yourself in all four Tendencies is itself a sign of Questioner.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

There is a jazz musician named Matt Wilson, a drummer, whose music I love—his playing is smart, witty, and joyous. He suffered some horrible losses in his private life, but in 2012 he released an album called “An Attitude for Gratitude.” I saw his group perform that year and he passed out purple plastic bracelets with the title on them. I’ve worn mine ever since, even though the words wore off years ago, as a reminder to be grateful. So much flows from gratitude.

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Amazon, Bookshop). I didn’t like that book as a kid; I just thought it was weird. But when I rediscovered it as a parent, I found it spoke to me—it made sense to me at thirty-eight in a way that, at six, it didn’t. I wrote an essay about that, which led to writing a whole book about reading children’s literature as an adult, which in turn has let me to write actual children’s books. I suspect it’s unusual to publish your first kids’ book at sixty-two, but it took decades to accrue the kind of emotional clarity writing for kids requires, at least for me. (PS: There’s nothing wrong with not liking Where the Wild Things Are, as either a kid or an adult. People of any age should never feel bad for liking what they like, unless we’re talking about anti-social behaviors.)

Author photo by Justin Bishop.

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