Podcast 285: Why It’s a Good Idea to Create a Catch-All, a Spotlight on Virginia Hamilton, and a Conversation with Susan Burton About Her Brilliant Memoir “Empty.”

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Create a catch-all.

Many of my catch-alls take the form of big documents. 

Happiness Hack

A listener suggests the free daily email from DelanceyPlace that sends out a brief excerpt from a nonfiction book.

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Spotlight on a Black Author

Virginia Hamilton.

I love children’s literature, and from the great children’s literature of the previous decades, everyone should know about the work of Virginia Hamilton. Hamilton had an extraordinary career: she won the Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book award, the Hans Christian Andersen award, the Coretta Scott King award, and she was the first children’s book author to receive a MacArthur “Genius” Award.

She wrote many books. My favorite novel, and probably her most famous, is M. C. Higgins the Great (AmazonBookshop). In 1974, it won the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award, and it’s a strange, haunting book.

I also highly recommend The House of Dies Drear (AmazonBookshop), which, I must say, seems to me to be a book that might appeal to more people. The main character Thomas and his family move into an old house that was part of the Underground Railroad. It’s sort of a ghost story, suspenseful. 


Susan Burton is an editor at the renowned radio show This American Life, and a writer whose work has appeared in many publications, such as The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Slate, the New York Times Magazine.

I’ve known Susan for years because we belong to a children’s literature book group together. (In our group, Susan is well-known for her strong preference for realistic fiction—she prefers her novels dragon-free.)

Susan just published the brilliant, haunting, thought-provoking memoir Empty (AmazonBookshop).

In it, and in our interview, she grapples with the tough subject of eating disorders, so please do skip the segment if this subject is distressing to you.

The memoir Empty is also about many other things: dealing with parents’ divorce, the sense of invention and re-invention in childhood and adolescence, the feeling of being in college, and being a young adult starting a career.

We talk about the power and intimacy created by letting go of a secret; the idea of self-invention, re-invention, and the false self; how writing and talking helped Susan to grapple with the secret of binging; the challenge of truly seeing ourselves. I also tell the story of an unforgettable moment: many years ago, during a meeting of our kidlit group, Susan said, “I always want to feel empty,” and a friend replied, “I always want to feel full.” The moment passed in a flash, but all three of us recognized its power, and we all remember it vividly.

  • If you’d like to read an excerpt of Empty, “The Way I Ate” ran in The New Yorker.
  • Here’s a great review from the New York Times.
  • If you’d like to listen to more from Susan,  Terry Gross interviewed her on Fresh Air.

Because of safer-at-home, of course, we couldn’t record with Susan in the studio. Here’s a photo of us recording together virtually. Like so many of our guests these days, Susan recorded in her closet. A closet’s small space with lots of clothes makes for good sound.

Gretchen’s Demerit: I know better, but when I woke up in the middle of the night with a brilliant insight, I thought, “This idea is so clear to me, there’s no way I’ll forget it! I don’t need to write it down.” And in the morning, I’d forgotten my thought. Of course.

Elizabeth’s Gold Star: Elizabeth recommends the hit podcast Wind of Change. Its producer is Henry Molofsky, our beloved founding producer. “It’s 1990. The Berlin Wall just fell. The Soviet Union is on the verge of collapse. And the soundtrack to the revolution is one of the best selling songs of all time, the metal ballad ‘Wind of Change,’ by the Scorpions. Decades later, journalist Patrick Radden Keefe heard a rumor: the song wasn’t written by the Scorpions. It was written by the CIA. This is his journey to find the truth.”


  • Subscribe to my free “Moment of Happiness” newsletter. Five days a week, I’ll send you a quotation related to happiness or good habits. I recently updated the design so you can screenshot and share if you want. Click here to join.
  • Many listeners are completists. If you’ve heard every episode and now have to wait each week for more, remember, you can also listen to my audiobooks. You can get them on AudibleiBooks, and Google PlayBetter Than Before is a great choice if you’re grappling with making or breaking a habit.

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