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Mary Laura Philpott: “I’m What I Call an ‘Anxious Optimist.’”

Mary Laura Philpott: “I’m What I Call an ‘Anxious Optimist.’”

Interview: Mary Laura Philpott

Mary Laura Philpott is an author, former bookseller, and Emmy-winning co-host of A Word on Words, the literary interview program on Nashville Public Television. She's the author of the national bestseller I Miss You When I Blink (Amazon, Bookshop) and her new memoir, Bomb Shelter: Love, Time and Other Explosives (Amazon, Bookshop) just hit shelves this month.

I couldn't wait to talk to Mary Laura about happiness, habits, and seasons of life.

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

Mary Laura: I was so skeptical about meditation before I started, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work. It should be required from preschool onward — we humans need it!

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

There’s no finish line. I keep having to re-learn this lesson. I’m always setting my sights on some elusive goal or state of being, thinking, “Once I reach _______, I can finally relax and be happy.” Nope. Happiness doesn’t come from finally reaching a particular status or achievement.

Can you think of a spontaneous, unexpected moment of joy, silliness, or amusement you’ve had recently? What sparked it?

During the Winter Olympics, there was a tweet going around asking what song people would choose if they were doing a figure skating routine. I knew the answer instantly: “MMMBop” by Hanson. Wait, hear me out! I know it’s cheesy, but it is one of my core beliefs that you cannot feel sad listening to that song. Can you even imagine someone gliding out onto the ice as that chorus kicks in?

It makes me laugh every time I think about it.

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 changed my eating habits significantly when I was pregnant with my first child and I was diagnosed with borderline gestational diabetes. I’d always had a sweet tooth — I loved good ol’ refined carbs and white flour, too — and I had never tried very hard to eat better. Knowing that what I ate would be the only source of nutrition for my unborn baby and that if I didn’t change my ways he’d be swimming in sugar-water (*not a scientifically accurate description) made me overhaul my habits completely. I do eat sugar and carbs now in moderation, but I never really went back to how I ate before. That’s the number-one way to get me to do something: tell me someone else’s well-being depends on my behavior.

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

Oh, I am an Obliger, through and through.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?

My own brain! I’m what I call an “anxious optimist.” I have a general baseline belief that most things will probably turn out okay, but my mind also never stops spinning an array of horror stories about all the ways things could go wrong. It’s as if by anticipating every possible catastrophe, I can be prepared for them all, and thus avoid any unfortunate surprises…which, of course, is not really how life works. And it’s exhausting. That’s how meditation helps me; it makes me practice holding my mind still in the present instead of letting it run wild into a hundred hypothetical futures.

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

This is my favorite work motto lately: “Be so good they can’t ignore you,” a quote from Steve Martin. It can be hard to stay confident and focused during the in-between phases of a literary career, the years when you’re just sitting alone, writing, with no idea what will ultimately become of what you’re creating. There are so many ways a book can ultimately succeed or fail, and during those long periods of uncertainty it’s easy to get caught up in comparisons. Will my book sell as many copies as so-and-so’s? Will the reviews be good, or will it even be reviewed at all? The truth is that I can’t control any of that. The only thing I can control is the work itself, and I’m the only one who can make that work great.

I also tend to be attracted to shiny, new endeavors and often feel drawn to multi-task more than is actually good for me. I’m always thinking, should I start another newsletter? Maybe a blog or podcast or show? I tell myself, “Be so good they can’t ignore you” as a way of saying, “Get back to work, and write a book that’ll get you on everyone else’s blog or podcast or show.”

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

There’s a funny tendency among readers — not all readers, obviously, but enough that I’ve heard it often: People will say they love the latest novel set in space, they can’t wait for the new tell-all biography about a movie star, or they’re absolutely addicted to a murder mystery series. And then some of these same people, if you were to recommend to them a memoir that includes motherhood, will say, “Eh, I can’t really relate to that. I’m not a mom.” Really?? You’re not an astronaut, a celebrity, or a serial killer either, are you?

I used to avoid writing about family and motherhood, and I still draw my boundaries very carefully when I do write about it, but exploring the experience of parenting another human being is at least as good a way to illuminate the meaning of love, risk, joy, and pain as writing about the trials of life on Mars. I mean, didn’t we all — at some point, for at least a little while — come from a mother?

Anyway, I guess my point is this: Books, especially memoirs, are not meant only for readers who are just like the people in those books. It’s wonderful if you can relate to something you read, but it’s especially cool when you find something elemental to relate to in a story about someone who, on the surface, is different from you.

If you were to describe your work using a comparison from a different field, what would that be?

I write books, so I’ll use a comparison from a different entertainment medium, television: I’d say the experience of reading my new book, Bomb Shelter, combines the big, cathartic emotional range of watching a show like Parenthood or This Is Us with the quirky, feel-good laughs of, say, Ted Lasso. I love it when something hits that sweet spot that lights up my whole emotional circuit board — when I’ve both cried and laughed by the end of an episode or a chapter. That’s what I’m going for.

 

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