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Anna Quindlen On Keeping the Magic Alive In Your Daily Work

I recently began reading a little book from the Library of Contemporary Thought called “How Reading Changed My Life” by Anna Quindlen.”

In the opening pages, Quindlen recounts reading as an activity that “has always been my home, my sustenance, my great invincible companion.” She goes on to say “I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement, or even learning. I read because I loved it more than any other activity on earth.”

Quindlen’s romantic affinity for the magic of books resonated with me instantly. I wanted to hear as much of her voice as possible. So last night I spent some time binge-watching some of her past talks and I came across a fifteen minute interview titled “Anna Quindlen on Overcoming Loss, Creating a Second Act in Life and One Trick to Keep Writing.” In this interview, she talked about how she coped with the loss of her mother at the age of 19, how having children changed her life, what it means to be authentic, and why an ordinary life is the most extraordinary and wonderful thing one could ask for.

In the last two minutes, the interviewer asked her about her writing routine and Quindlen talked about her practice of writing every day. She expressed being a non-believer in writer’s block because, as a journalist where she was paid to produce regular columns for the New York times, “Writer’s block is not in any way shape or form acceptable.” She cited Madeleine L’Engle as an influence who helped her see that inspiration is something that comes after you start writing rather than beforehand.

When questioned about how she finds the courage and creativity to face the blank page, here’s what Qundlen had to say:

“I actually have one little trick which I have found has been very helpful to me and even to other people. I never stop at the end of the day or at the end of a chapter. I never stop at the end of a paragraph. I never stop at the end of a sentence. I stop in mid-sentence. Every time.  because if I come back the next day and I’m in mid-sentence, I know I can begin. If I were at the end of a chapter and so I had the challenge of beginning a new chapter, I could rev my motor for days before I got back in gear. So with that half-sentence, I can always get back into it again.”

This writing trick reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode called “The Storyteller.”

The Storyteller is about a little boy named Mica who claims to keep his great-great-great-grandfather alive by reading to him every night and stopping somewhere in the middle of the story just as the suspense mounts. The combination of tension, curiosity, and the desire to finish what has been started supposedly worked like a magic charm to extend the old man’s years beyond what was naturally possible. One day, Mica injures himself at school and is unable to make it home in time to tell his great-great-great-grandfather a story. So he reveals his secret to his school teacher, Dorothy, who feels enough pity for him to fill in as a substitute reader. The old man continued to live, Dorothy remained skeptical but charitable, and Mica was pleased to know that the ritual was properly maintained while he healed.

Many years later, Dorothy is now retired and she runs into her former student Mica who is now a grown man. She wonders to herself if Mica’s great-great-great grandfather is still alive. She calls out to him, but he doesn’t hear her. He then hops into a cab to head home. She quickly summons a cab and tells her driver to “follow that man.” Upon pulling up to the house, she slowly approaches the door, peeks inside the window, and then all of a sudden…..THE STORY PAUSES THERE!

As the camera pulls back, we realize that the story we’ve been watching of a little boy who kept an old man alive through stories is itself a story being told by Dorthy to her own great-grandmother.

“What happens next? Did you find the man? Was he really 200 years old?”

Dorthy answers, “Tomorrow, mother,” as she leaves her in suspense until the next day.

Like the storyteller’s trick, there’s magic in Quindlen’s practice of ending today’s work somewhere in the middle of tomorrow’s starting point.

In Monday Morning Begins on Sunday Evening, Isaac Morehouse suggests the practice of making Monday’s to-do list and beginning Monday’s work on Sunday night as an antidote to the typical sadness and stress people feel about ending their weekends and getting ready for work:

Start small. You don’t need to work all weekend to have a good Monday. Start by carving out an hour or so Sunday evening. Sit down in a quiet place, pull up your calendar, inbox, and to-do lists. Look it over. Take it in. See what you have going on Monday. See what’s scheduled and needed the rest of the week too. Clear out clutter emails and respond to any that you can knock out then and there. Mentally categorize and prioritize the rest. Make a list of the things you’ll do the next morning. Then walk through the entire day mentally.

Walk through your tasks, meetings, and activities in your mind. If something doesn’t feel right or seems confusing or stressful, take a few minutes to break it down, or do some work to get a head start so it’s not overwhelming when the time comes. Neatly set aside your list for the day, exhale, and go enjoy the rest of your Sunday night. It’s amazing how much it will improve your Monday.

Isaac’s advice isn’t just a stress-management technique. It’s actually a method for creating excitement around your upcoming work by generating your own cliffhangers. In the same way that we get addicted to great stories by ending on a promising or prophetic note about more intriguing things to come, we we can also get addicted to our own creative projects by sowing tiny seeds of constructive action towards the next day’s work before closing shop.

Whether in writing, working, or whatever else you wish to get done, sometimes the best way to keep the magic alive isn’t just by finishing what you start, but by also starting up again before you stop.

You can check out Anna Quidlen’s full interview below.

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