The Happiness Project

Interview With an (Imaginary) Hostile Reader

I got a big kick out of an anecdote recounted in Tara Parker-Pope’s recent New York Times story about getting along with your relatives over the holidays. Two cousins were facing separate difficult family dinners, and in anticipation, they organized a game:

Each made bingo cards, but instead of numbers, the squares were filled in with some of the negative phrases they expected to hear during the meal, like “That outfit is interesting” or “Your children won’t sit still.” As comments were made at the separate family celebrations, each woman would mark her card. “Whoever fills up a bingo row first,” Betsy said, “sneaks off to call the other and say, ‘Bingo!’ ”

What a great idea! By making a joke of it (one of my own happiness-project resolutions), these women reframed a challenging situation. The person with the most annoying relatives wins ! The cousins could laugh at behavior that would ordinarily have driven them crazy.

When you realize that something is likely to make you unhappy, you can take steps to change your reaction—even if you can’t change the situation.

I did something similar myself. I’m extremely sensitive to any kind of criticism, and I dread hearing criticism of my book when it comes out in a few weeks (of course, being ignored would be worse … right?). Also, I think I can predict what some typical negative comments would be. But what could I do about that?

I decided to answer these imaginary critics myself. I wrote something called Interview With a Hostile Reader , in which I play both the part of the hostile reader who criticizes my book, and the part of myself, answering.

This exercise was hugely fun for me. I loved coming up with all the obvious hostile comments, and it was relief to get the chance to address them in a thoughtful, calm way. And it tickled me to think that if people do make these criticisms, if I do get a bad book review, I’ll be able to show a lack of originality—after all, I predicted and answered these criticisms, ahead of time! After all, it’s not that I didn’t foresee these criticisms of my book, but that I made these mindful, writerly choices nonetheless. For example, you can say it’s a cliché to write a “year of” book, but the fact is, it’s a very satisfying way to write and read a book. That’s why it’s a cliché! Zoikes, Thoreau did it!

Of course, I also remind myself to feel grateful, to enjoy the process , and all my other relevant happiness-project resolutions—but this particular exercise was particularly amusing, for some reason. It boosts my happiness right now and, I hope, in a possibly challenging future situation.

Now, I hesitated to post the link to the Interview With a Hostile Reader here, because if you read it, you’ll see the criticisms that a hostile reader or negative book reviewer might make. And maybe that will discourage you from wanting to read the book—which of course, I hope you’ll want to do. But oh well! I remember my First Commandment: Be Gretchen .

Have you found a way to make a joke of a difficult circumstance, or some other way to change your reaction to it? What worked for you?

 * I always find a lot of interesting posts to read over at LifeDev , “helping creative people create.”

* If you’d like to read some some free sample chapters of The Happiness Project , you can now find them here . Enjoy! And if you like what you read so much that you’d like to order a copy, here’s the order link .