Gretchen Rubin on Virginia Woolf and the Cycles of Being a Writer
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story from Macmillan Podcasts.
In Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, she writes, “Happiness is in the quiet, ordinary things. A table, a chair, a book with a paper-knife stuck between the pages. And the petal falling from the rose, and the light flickering as we sit silent.”
And recently I got to talking about happiness, creative freedom, and a hint of magic with today’s guest.
Gretchen Rubin: I’m Gretchen Rubin and I’m a writer and podcaster and my subject is human nature.
WS: Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, a book about her year-long quest to be more fulfilled, which sparked happiness movements around the world. Her other recent bestsellers include The Four Tendencies and Outer Order, Inner Calm. She’s also the co-host of the podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.”
GR: I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri and still go back there all the time. My parents both still live there and I had sort of the very typical, traditional, suburban childhood. I had one sister, we had a dog, sandbox in the backyard. So it was just sort of a very, kind of just what you think of when you think of a childhood.
WS: An older or younger sister?
GR: She’s five years younger than I am.
WS: And what kind of dog?
GR: A schnauzer. Miniature schnauzer named Pattywhack because of, “knick knack pattywhack, give your dog a bone.”
WS: She remembers something unusual about her neighborhood.
GR: The most interesting thing about my main childhood house is I actually lived on state line. Kansas City is a metropolitan area between Missouri and Kansas. And when you were young, they did that. You can cross the street and go into Kansas or like you can be in a car and you feel like your dad will move to the middle of the street, you know, you’re straddling two states—that was very exciting.
WS: Gretchen also found herself crossing boundaries of place and time through reading.
GR: I was sort of in the spirit of Hermoine Granger. I was a real academic child. I read all the time. I kind of had to force myself to go outside. I think my parents had a rule at one point that I had to spend at least a half an hour outside when I was a child. I really did read a lot. That was my main activity.
WS: She was drawn to two stories in particular.
GR: One is Charlotte’s Web, because I just wept for days without stopping when Charlotte—spoiler alert—Charlotte dies, so I remember that very, very vividly. I remember that whole scene very vividly. And also the Little House books. Every year at Christmas I was given a new hardback in the series and those I would play—I had like a prairie dress. I was really fascinated with that world.
WS: What was it in the books that meant so much to you?
GR: The books do interesting things like Laura starts off very young and then the books get more complex as she gets older in a way that is unusual. Laura was sort of keeping pace with me or I was keeping pace with her and it was interesting to me. I mean they are complex, like the way Ma and Pa have different views about civilization and about kind of going West and Mary going blind. That was like a huge—I was fascinated by that. I was fascinated by someone going blind and what that would have been like; I was really interested in Helen Keller. And then just the sense of just the wildness of it and the unpredictability.
WS: I’m curious. I want to get back to the driving back and forth between Kansas and Missouri across the state or just, or just running back and forth. There’s something sort of magical about that.
GR: There is.
WS: And how did you feel as a kid about literature that involved magic?
GR: Love it. Love it. Love it. Love it. Love it to this day. Still read it constantly. Adult magic. Children’s magic. Yes. I love any book that has to do with especially, well, every kind of high fantasy magic or the kind where it’s very, or you know, it’s part of the day-to-day and there just happens to be magic. Love it.
WS: Gretchen eventually left Missouri, and the magical state line, for college. There, she came across an author who would become her guide.
GR: I took a class on Virginia Woolf at Yale and was very interested in Virginia Woolf. She has written voluminous diaries. I mean like six or seven giant volumes. And this is a collection of extracts that Leonard Woolf made of her diaries before they were published—but after her death—that are only related to her writing life.
WS: A Writer’s Diary includes observations from 23 years of Virginia Woolf’s life, starting in 1918 and ending three weeks before her death in 1941.
GR: You see like her, her, you know, we all have obsessions or things that we keep coming back to. You see how she’s kind of having the same realization over and over as one does or you know, you see even Virginia Woolf was very upset—like, “How many books have I sold?” You’re Virginia Woolf! How can you possibly care how many copies of The Waves you sold? And yet there she is, diligently writing it down day after day. But then she also talks much more about kind of her creative thinking and what she was trying to do with each book and why she was led to each project. And it’s just fascinating.
WS: Gretchen first read A Writer’s Diary at a confusing stage of her life.
GR: Well, at that time I had no idea that I was going to be a writer myself. I didn’t, I had no idea what I, what I was gonna do, which looking back on it seemed awfully strange. And then at some point I was like, well, I’ll just go to law school because I’m good at reading and writing and it’ll keep my options open and I can always change my mind later.
WS: She became a lawyer but continued to hold A Writer’s Diary close.
GR: My copy is so battered because it’s, over the years I just keep reading it and now I almost just pick it up and leaf through it at random and don’t even try to read it sequentially.
WS: Soon, she began to see a new path emerge for her as a writer.
GR: I just was like, okay, well I’m going to . . . I would rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer. So why don’t I see if I can give it a shot.
WS: When we come back from the break, Gretchen throws herself into writing with the reflections of Virginia Woolf at hand to light the way. Be sure to stay through the end of the episode to hear a fun, new segment, too.
WS: As Gretchen began her first book proposal, she often turned to Virginia Woolf’s diary for words of encouragement and advice.
GR: She’s constantly reminding herself, “Yes, you’re really upset about that negative review, but get over yourself.” I mean she’s constantly like, Oh, remind . . .” and she’ll say like, “and I leave these notes to myself in case later I’m lost: get some gentle exercise, do some reading. That’s the way to get back into it.” There’s this song, Raggle Taggle Gypsy, which is like a traditional song and it’s a beautiful, beautiful song. And she refers to it a couple of times in this very interesting way where she’ll just, she’ll be talking about all her worries and then she’ll say like, “But what care I for my goosefeather bed? I’m off with a Raggle Taggle Gypsy,” and sort of bringing in this song in this very weird, interesting way, just sort of saying like, “Just leave it all behind and just go do what you want.”
WS: That’s lovely.
GR: Yeah, it was. Go listen to the song.
WS: She appreciated Virginia’s approach to work.
GR: She would often do a thing where she would write kind of a major work and then she would do sort of a playful book. So she would write something huge like The Waves or Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse. But then there would be a book like Flush or a book like Orlando, which sort of started out playful and then ended up kind of against her. She didn’t really intend for it to get a serious as she did. Or something like Three Guineas. And what’s interesting is you would see her kind of, um, and I have this issue myself where I’ll be working on something very hard and then it’s almost like a hooky project. I’m going to go play hooky and work on this other thing and it’s kind of a relief and it’s kind of cheating, but it’s kind of working.
WS: Gretchen began to allow herself more creative freedom.
GR: Just seeing her go back and forth and how she did that in her career and sort of showed me that like everything doesn’t have to be of the same weight. With a lot of art you see that what people do as kind of play sometimes does succeed better. Certainly you see this in children’s literature, it’s very striking how many kinds of eminent writers—now their adult works are forgotten. E.B. White is much more known for his children’s books. C.S. Lewis, certainly J.R.R. Tolkien. JM Berrie. There’s a lot of people where—Elizabeth Enright, Frances Hodgson Burnett. I don’t think at the time they would have thought, “Oh, this is the book that’s gonna make me live, endure for decades.” And so sometimes maybe that spirit of play allows people to sort of tap into something . . . or, or maybe it’s just, it’s lighter and therefore more people can, can get access to it.
WS: She became fascinated by the concept of making life more joyful.
GR: I was stuck in the crowded crosstown bus in the pouring rain. And I looked out the window and I was like, what am I . . . what do I want from life anyway. And I thought, well, I want to be happy. And then I thought, I don’t spend any time thinking about whether I am happy or if I could be happier. And I thought, I should do a happiness project. And so I got really interested, like I do, and I went to the library, got this giant stack of books: What is happiness? Can you make yourself better? There’s the ancient wisdom, there’s the science, there’s, you know, pop culture, all these things. And I was just going to do it for myself, could I be happier? I realized, I did read a lot of, I loved children’s literature and young adult literature. I read it as an adult, but I never really talked about it because it didn’t fit my idea of myself as kind of a sophisticated discerning reader who could read challenging books. So I never really talked about it. And then I realized, well, I don’t have so many interests and passions that I can just sweep this under the rug. And as part of my happiness project, one of the things was can I bring it into my life more?I don’t feel like I need magic as a way to escape from the disciplined part of myself. But I do love all the possibilities that it permits.
WS: Gretchen decided to start a book club for adults who wanted to read books written for young people. She called it Kid Lit.
GR: When you start listening and looking, I realized there were other people who really loved children’s literature and young adult literature. And it’s a taste. It’s like, I don’t really like mysteries. A lot of people like mysteries. I didn’t really like mysteries. It’s not because they’re good or bad, or I’m right or wrong, or whatever. It’s just a taste that some people have. And so it’s just been the greatest engine of joy in my life because I love it.
WS: A writer wanting to make herself happy or we all want to make ourselves happier. But I guess when we think back on Virginia Woolf, we think of someone who perhaps at the end was not a very happy person?
GR: One of the things I’ve written about is my spiritual masters and so one of my spiritual masters is Virginia Woolf. Many people have said, “It’s odd that you would pick her,” because there—and I think it’s really unfortunate that she does have this association with unhappiness—because certainly she fell into despair and she had many periods in her life where she was sort of in a despairing place. But like if you read even A Writer’s Diary, which isn’t the whole thing, but she’ll often say how happy she is or what a happy time it was or how happy she was with her husband. And certainly she has unhappiness, too. But I feel like she’s always trying to capture the moment and the intensity of a kind of life and the every day and sort of the, you know, the moment. And so I feel like, to me, she’s a very happy writer, or at least very vital. So that’s sort of been overshadowed by her suicide, but I think if you look at the whole of her, there’s a lot of happiness there as well.
WS: Gretchen returns to A Writer’s Diary whenever she needs to be reminded to be gentle to herself and make space for play when she writes.
GR: Virginia Woolf often will say, “I’m not good at this.” She’s like, “I can do situations, I can’t write plots.” Or as she said, like I read this book, it’s all of my faults and all of my strengths. And it shows, she’s very aware. Like there’s certain things I, Virginia Woolf, can do. There’s certain things I can’t do. And I feel like, well that’s kind of refreshing. I mean, sometimes you’re like, I’m not good at this, but I can be good at other things. And you know, even Virginia Woolf wasn’t good at everything. It’s like, I’m not good at metaphor, but that’s okay.
WS: What else as a writer you’re not good at?
GR: Well, I’m not good at fiction, so that’s a huge thing. I cannot, I cannot do that. I will sometimes be, I’ve written three bad novels, but they’re all novels of ideas. They’re not, I’m not interested. I can’t write about character, which is like what fiction is. I’m not good at metaphor. I’m not good at things where, and I’m fascinated by this, where things—I’m very linear, which is a strength in some circumstances—but where things suddenly break, or things become unexpected. I’m not good at that. I’m really good at putting one foot in front of the other.
WS: What are you good and not good at in life?
GR: I’m kind of a killjoy. I am kind of a killjoy. I can be kind of rigid, so I’m not that fun-loving. I’m probably not a good person to like kick back with. I really want you to get enough sleep, and I really want to get enough sleep myself. So that’s, you know, again, strengths and weaknesses. What am I not good at? Oh, there’s so many things I’m not good at. Oh, I don’t like games. That’s something I’m terrible athlete. Can’t sing, not interested in music, don’t care about food. See I’m a killjoy. I just sound dreadful.
WS: And what are you good at?
GR: I think I am good at noticing things. I’m good at remembering passages, which is very handy for me. And I’m very curious. I guess that’s probably the thing—that’s my greatest strength, because I like to learn. Yeah.
WS: Traits like making sure people get enough sleep and breaking things, projects down into manageable tasks is so the opposite of magic, and yet you’re so drawn to magic in the books you read. Why is that?
GR: I don’t know. I don’t feel like . . . see the thing that’s interesting is that I think we’re people—and I think about this a lot because I’ve thought a lot about discipline cause I have my four tendencies framework where I divide people into four categories. I think people like me who sort of tend to be very disciplined, from the outside, our lives can look very cramped and constraining and you might think that I would yearn for magic as a way to break free. But actually from the inside, people like upholders, as I call them, would say discipline is my freedom and they actually feel free and energized by their discipline. And so it doesn’t feel like something that you need to escape from. That’s hard for other people to understand. Like they kind of want us to loosen up on ourselves because they think we would enjoy that. Whereas in fact we don’t. We often don’t enjoy that. So I don’t feel like I need magic as a way to escape from that part of myself. But I do love all the possibilities that it permits.
WS: Before we end this episode, we’re trying something new: a lightning round question segment. Let’s get started:
WS: What’s your favorite library in the world?
GR: Oh, New York Society Library, which is a block from my house.
WS: If you could be any character in a book, who would you be?
GR: Oh gosh. I can’t decide. Who is . . .
WS: Who was the first one that came to mind?
GR: I’m trying to remember. What is the name of the main character in Graceling, because she has all that like the power to prevail. Okay. Kristin Cashore, the main character in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, which is an amazing book because she can do anything like she’s graced so she can’t be, she cannot be conquered.
WS: What would you be if you weren’t a writer?
GR: I don’t know. I don’t think I would be a lawyer. I asked a friend of mine this and she works in wealth management. She said, I would either be the governor of a small state or I would own a fine linen shop. And I was like, “You would do both those things very well. I can see you going in either, either direction,” but I don’t know. I feel like I’m already on my alternative path, so I don’t know what the next alternative would be.
WS: What is the one thing implement, a creature comfort, that you can’t write without?
GR: Oh, other than like a computer. I have to have a computer. You know, what I have—which I use constantly—is a book weight, because I’m always taking notes and a book weight is just this leather strap that has weights on both ends and so it holds your book open. That is something where I really, when I’m in a note-taking phase, I use that thing all day long and it’s just the perfect solution for that problem of a book that wants to open to the correct page.
WS: If you had to choose one place to write in forever, what would that place be?
GR: My office. Yeah.
WS: What about your office?
GR: I’m just, that’s where my brain is, kind of. Yeah. But my laptop is my brain, so as long as I have my, I guess my laptop is my, is what I would say.
WS: Your go-to reading spot—your favorite place in the world to read?
GR: On the couch in our like, you know, main family room. I’m a stretched out reader for sure. Or I read in bed if it’s cold. I read in bed so that I can have the covers over me.
WS: If you could meet any author, dead or alive?
GR: Oh my gosh. Ah, gosh. Any author? I might say Samuel Johnson. I love Samuel Johnson and he’s such a quirky guy. I would love to see what he was actually like in person. He clearly was extraordinarily charismatic and very interesting. I would love to meet Benjamin Franklin. I love Benjamin Franklin. I just wonder what he was like in person.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Gretchen Rubin. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at email@example.com. I’m Will Schwalbe, thanks so much for listening.