Last week, I had the chance to hear the well-known author and journalist Anna Quindlen speak — and as always, I found it so interesting to hear a writer speaking in person, after having read his or her books.
I’ve read a lot of Anna Quindlen’s work, and lately, she’d been on my mind because I’ve been thinking a lot about book titles, and I love the title of her memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (you can’t judge a book by its title, but it’s a great book). Also, she wrote A Short Guide to a Happy Life — of course I loved that title and book. Her latest novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs — yet another great title — just came out a few months ago, and it’s on my reading list.
I asked her about her habits, and the role they play in her life, and she explained:
I’m trying to make a distinction—if any—between habit and routines, because routine is essential to most fiction writers. Because of that, my life is filled with what might be called essential habits. I try to walk four miles as fast as I can every morning. I eat the same things for breakfast and lunch for days on end. (My husband insists on variety, so dinner is always different.) I work out three days a week at the same time, although the trainer insists on varying the workouts, which always makes me a little testy. The idea that a person can write on the fly, in planes or at a coffee shop, is preposterous to me. I have an office and a desk and a laptop and they must all stay more or less that same. I can only really imagine, go into a complete different world and invent it as I go, if my actual world is completely unvarying and set to music.
There’s a quote from Eudora Welty that I think makes this so clear. She says, “To go outside and beat the drum is only to interrupt, interrupt, and so finally to forget and to lose. Fiction has, and must keep, a private address.” It’s in the going outside that I lose my way; if I interfere with my routine, my succession of habits, by traveling or even going out to lunch, I don’t get anything done. I have a picket fence of habits to keep me on track. I neither like nor dislike them; I just need them to do my work.
This makes me somewhat inflexible. For instance, I’m part of a women’s travel group and my friends can tell you that no matter where we land, or how great the time difference, I’m downstairs lacing up my walking shoes around 7 AM. When people ask about lunch, I offer breakfast instead–if my interruptions come at the beginning of the day, I can handle them far better than if they bisect it. I don’t do staying up late very well or very often.
As for the rest, I try to talk to my best friend on the phone every morning at 9. That’s a habit that enriches my life. I always needlepoint while I watch television, which means I have too many pillows. I’m on a school schedule, 9 to 3 and then I’m done. When school’s out, I go to our house in the country and stay until Labor Day. Those last habits were occasioned by having young children; they’ve grown up and moved on but I, apparently, haven’t.
I think when I was 18 I would have found all this sad and pathetic. I thought then that I had to be interesting. Now I just feel that I have to be productive, and happy.