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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.

More Ways Than One

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “Money can’t buy happiness.”

Here’s an exercise I like to suggest for people:

Take the phrase “money can’t buy happiness” and substitute words like health, friendship, music, food, dance, travel, and romance instead of “money.”

The advice still works because none of those things, in isolation, can make you happy either.

Physical health is great, but there are lots of physically fit people who are psychologically miserable. Having friends is great too, but it’s no substitute for self-esteem, physical health, and enough financial resources to secure the tools necessary for connecting with them. Music is awesome, but it can’t satisfy your biological need for food and water.

The same is true of food, dance, travel, romance, and whatever else you add to the list. All things are limited in their ability to satisfy.

Nothing can make you happy apart from a nuanced and unique combination of many things.

The only silver bullet is the recognition that there’s no silver bullet.

I can’t tell you how to find happiness, but the surest way to lose it is by seeking it in a single source.

It Works Both Ways

A friend of mine shared the following quote (attributed to Aagam Shah) with me today:

“If you know me based on who I was a year ago, You don’t know me at all. My growth game is strong. Allow me to reintroduce myself.” 

This is a good affirmation to keep in mind, but I’d like to add the following:

It works both ways.

A former coworker once told me “we judge ourselves based on our intentions, but we judge other people based on their actions.”

In our own eyes, we’re complex evolving beings and everyone else should consider a multitude of factors when making judgments about us. When it’s our time to sit in the judgment seat, however, it’s easy to reduce others to whatever image that best fits our memory of them. This is why we want people to quickly forgive us when we cut them off on the highway, but we also want to see them eternally punished when they do the same to us. We’re just human beings doing our best. Others are evil androids sent by the devil himself to torment us.

It takes a little work to remember, but it’s well worth the effort: Just as we have the right to move on from our own past failings, so does the next person.

While you’re busy demanding respect for your own growth, don’t forget to extend that same consideration to others.

Is It Really True That You Don’t Care About Money?

When people constantly feel the need to say things like “I don’t care about money,” I think they mostly mean something like “I don’t enjoy looking at price tags” or “I fully expect someone else to do the magic necessary to finance my dreams” or “I don’t see the connection between my lifestyle preferences and basic economics.”

I think they rarely mean something like “I don’t care about the experiences and options that come along with money.” I’ve met a few people who truly mean that, but those people never complain about their options and their lives are way too simple to look interesting on instagram.

The people who talk the most about not caring about money are usually the ones who have the most expensive tastes. But since they hardly ever contemplate the economic implications of their “non-monetary” choices, they equate “not caring about money” with “not wanting to own a Lamborghini.” Their logic is “I don’t feel the need to own a whole lot of shiny objects. Therefore, I don’t care about money.”

And the people who care a lot about money are usually the ones who talk about it the least because they’re too busy working on money-producing projects that will help them enjoy all the beautiful things that money can be used as a tool for creating.

If you want to know how people really feel about money, don’t listen to anything they say. Just watch what they do with their time and take note of all the economic conditions that make their activities possible. And pay close attention to who pays the bill. Because there’s always a bill and there’s always someone paying it.

Make The Strangers Mad

If you’re advocating what I believe, just say it in the funniest or catchiest way possible.

If you’re doing anything else, please include a preface, a lexicon, a bibliography, and enough footnotes to ensure no one in the history of humankind ever misunderstands.

Sincerely,

The Internet

P.S.

If you truly want to have an impact, don’t hedge. Or as Gary Vaynerchuck says “don’t be the guy in the middle.” Write with conviction.

Don’t write for voices in your imagination that uncharitably scrutinize every possible loophole in what you say. Write for the audience who actually cares to listen to the things you care to write about. Non-believers and hecklers exist for every philosophy. There’s no use in trying to avoid them.

Isaac Morehouse once told me that “most people sell their souls for nothing more than not having a stranger get mad at them.” Make the strangers mad. This world can handle the presence of angry strangers. What it can’t handle is an abundance of people who don’t have the guts make a point.

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