How To Start Writing (w/ Anna Quindlen & John Dickerson)

Listen to this episode

S1: Anyone out there who feels like you’re being shredded by all of the interruptions in your life? If you want refuge from that, this is a great way to sit down and write, engages you and your attention in a way that is, even if you don’t write anything that is terribly profound. It is a safe harbor from the constant pelting of the rest of the world.

S2: Welcome to How to I Amanda Ripley. If you’re a regular listener of this show, you might have noticed that there are a couple of universal pieces of advice that come up again and again. One is to practice rhythmic breathing. In fact, we just heard about this again in our last episode on Finding Your Voice. It’s just the most proven way to calm yourself down any time you’re under stress. And that one I’ve been doing for years. But the other piece of go to Can’t Fail advice is to write or journal. Write about the argument you just had with your partner. Write about your regrets. Write something every day. And yet, even as someone who writes professionally, I just can’t get into a regular practice of writing personally. I know I should be doing it. Studies show that writing can help you sleep better, boost your IQ, even strengthen your immune system. It’s incredible. So how do people get into the habit of doing it in addition to everything else they’re supposed to do? For that, we’re turning to two very talented and very busy people who manage to write every day.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I am John DICKERSON, a political reporter and author of nonfiction books, and I work at CBS News and write for The Atlantic.

S3: Hi, my name is Anna Quindlen. I started life as a reporter. Became a columnist. Went from there to being a novelist. And also do some nonfiction work. This new book, Right for Your Life, is, in fact, nonfiction.

S2: I want to start by asking both of you if you could talk about when you first started writing less for work and more for yourself.

S3: It really was only oddly enough, when I was on my second maternity leave from my time at the New York Times that I wound up writing my first novel, Getting There. As for journaling, I have this weird ace in the hole. For years, I wrote a column for the Times called Life in the Thirties, which was very personal. And then I did the same thing on the back page of Newsweek. And to some extent, they are my journals. I got paid for doing what we all know is so valuable about journaling, which is figuring out what you think about things. I mean, the famous quote, how do I know what I think until I read what I write? Hmm.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: The column was a way to reflect, it sounds like, and consider what was happening in the world and in your life. Is that right?

S3: That’s true. I mean, one of the most powerful journal entries I’ve ever read is one sentence Teddy Roosevelt on the Valentine’s Day when his mother, his wife and their newborn daughter all died on the same day. And on that page, it’s almost entirely white space. And then it says in this beautiful copperplate handwriting, the light has gone out of my life. Sometimes you don’t need more than that to mark your place on any given day in the universe.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: That journal entry is so powerful. And and at the top of it, he wrote this X, which is just, oh, it’s so chilling.

Advertisement

S2: So today on the show, we make the case for writing in any capacity, journaling letters, notes, because everyone should write not just presidents and columnists. It’s an incredibly powerful way to process your past and figure out your future. And there are some secrets to make it much less painful and more doable. Don’t go anywhere. One of the most famous diaries ever started out as a birthday gift to a 13 year old girl in Germany.

S3: You know how denuded our understanding of what it was like to be hunted down and hounded and murdered during World War Two would be if that girl named Anne Frank hadn’t gotten that diary for her birthday and written in it day after day. And when she ran out of space in that wrote in ledger books Up in the Attic, a very ordinary human being whose name and words are now known all over the world. It just shows the extraordinary role that writing can play in the lives of people who don’t think of themselves as writers.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Anna Quinlan’s new book, Right for Your Life, begins with the story of Anne Frank. Could I ask you to read something from your book? Would you mind?

S3: This is actually the fulcrum of the whole book in some ways. So think of it this way. If you could look down right now and see words on paper from anyone on Earth or anyone who has left it. Who would that be? And don’t you, as do I, wish that person had left such a thing behind. Doesn’t that argue for doing that yourself, no matter how terrifying or impossible writing may sometimes seem? It doesn’t really matter what you say. It matters that you said it. The gift of your presence forever. And did not realize that was what she was doing when she wrote in the diary called Kitty. She was writing for herself, showing us the value of doing so. The words were bomb, and yet they became so powerful that they also conferred eternal life. I want to go on living even after my death. Anne Frank wrote. Done. Nice.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Oh. Poof. Wow.

S3: It’s just mind boggling. But it just does show you how there’s immortality in just writing words down. And, you know, you pick up a letter that your grandmother say wrote and that beautiful Palmer method handwriting that they all had then. And it’s as though she comes to life on the page.

S2: John DICKERSON also appreciates old fashioned handwriting. He actually has a two notebook strategy that he’s developed over decades, along with a daily routine.

S1: I’ve had a notebook in my back pocket for the last 32 years, so it just captures observations, thoughts, reflections, quotes, whatever. I’m sort of my brain is is churning around sometimes it’s questions for future interviews, sometimes it’s book ideas. And then there is a more formal journal, which is the what I write in at the end of the day usually, and the very end of the day before going to sleep. It serves a couple of functions. One is it just whatever is is churning in my head. It’s a place to try to make some meaning out of it. And so sometimes it’s just the the process of meaning making, even if you never see, even if it never sees an audience. And in fact, maybe most important that it’s not an audience of anyone but you is just trying to put into words whatever that blob of emotions that you’re you’re feeling, gain some control over it because emotions are are messy and all over the map.

Advertisement

S3: The two notebooks really fascinate me, John, because it makes me think of something that a doctor named Rita Charron has invented for medical school students called parallel charts, where she talks about the standard chart, where you put down blood pressure and and the gender of the person and their physical complaints and so on and so forth. And the parallel chart is what you would write about the person that you wouldn’t put in the chart, maybe some sense you get of them as a human being, some sense of their family situation or their home situation. So it’s as though she’s saying to these doctors, you have two notebooks, you have the one that we’re used to, and then you kind of have the back story, which of course, for me is the front story.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that’s that makes such great sense because I’ve been looking back at those notebooks and they tell different stories about the person who was writing them, you know, over time, what identities I had, what identities I was trying on, what what my version of the back story was, because there’s a lot of observational little notations about things. You know what things? I chose to write with the careful penmanship of a grade schooler verses the Metroliner schedule back when they called it the Metroliner, you know, dashed across the page. I like that idea though.

S2: Yeah. No, be interesting to see both like side by side, I wonder. And then so with this nightly writing you do, John, how long have you been doing that?

Advertisement

S1: But since high school it started in composition books and then moved to leather bound books with with long periods of wear where it’s gone dark. But I’ve I’ve done it in one form or another since I was about 17, I guess.

S2: Wow. And do you still have all those journals?

S1: I do. There was a recent set of challenges I was working through, and in my diary I wrote, I kind of did the math of a decision I had to make. And once I had written down the kind of why the decision was good to go one way and not the other, it actually fixed it quite nicely. And and as I started to ruminate again, subsequent to writing it down in the journal, I would go back to that and think, no, you sat down, you did the math, you thought this through, and you made a decision based on these things which are more important values to you. So you made the right choice. So stop ruminating about it. And that actually has helped you can get into these cycles in your head. And and this is a nice circuit breaker for that.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: It’s so interesting that there it turns out a lot of data to support the kind of thing that John was just talking about. I mean, I wrote this book all filled with the squishiness of thinking to myself. Writing is good. Ordinary people should write. We need to know what they think. They need to know what they think. And just the other night, I was talking to the president of Barnard, Seon Bloch, who’s a psychologist, and she had just done a study where they had a group of students who were very anxious about a math test, and they divided them into two groups. One group just studied for the math test, and the other group were told to write several pages about why they were so nervous and what the stressors were and how it was making them feel. And you’re Rekha, the group that wrote about it first did better on the math test. How about that? Just simple data that shows that if you sit and write and ruminate and puzzle something out, it can help you surmount some of the things that might otherwise hold you back.

Advertisement

S2: We’ll get into the nitty gritty of when you should write and for how long and what you should do if you’re staring at a blank page. Later. But for now, here’s our first rule. Don’t overthink this. Journaling doesn’t need to be romantic or indulgent. Instead, maybe writings like taking your brain to the gym. You don’t always feel like doing it, but just do it anyway.

S3: It’s a kind of a feedback loop, I think, too. And that way of stepping outside of yourself and when you see it on paper, somehow it seems both more real and less frightening. Hmm.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: That’s interesting. My tendency is I will only write in a journal when I’m, like, at my absolute wit’s end. So everything is terrible, then. Then I’m like, okay. And so. But if I look back at those entries, it is helpful to notice themes and to also notice patterns that predate the thing that I’m blaming my angst for at the moment. So, you know, I think it’s the pandemic is so terrible. This is why I’m this is why I feel X, Y and Z. And then I’ll look back five years ago and you can see some of the same same laments. Right? So I’m like, oh, I guess I guess I’m bringing something to this party myself. So that is helpful to see that there are some consistencies over time or maybe change over time. Have either of you noticed that, like how you you sort of see yourself from a distance?

S3: Oh, that’s an interesting question.

S1: When I look back at the journals I wrote, I can’t I can’t handle it because it’s just it’s too kind of I mean, it is probably quite useful to me at the time, but it’s just that person is so distant from me and so long ago that it’s not that helpful, but that no notebooks I carried in my back pocket. There are definitely themes that come up all the time. Where do you find hope? Where are the limits of things? I recently found one that I thought was this great revelation and I had made this great discovery. And then in looking at these old notebooks, I realized that I’d written that exact quote down 20 years ago and had completely forgotten it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: I’m always afraid I’m going to do that in my book, so actually that some reader will say, Gee, you know, that’s a great image. But I read that in your second.

S2: Would either of you be willing to share one of a recent journal entry or something that you wrote recently?

S1: Since I prepared for this homework assignment, it was a hell of a thing to do. It was very hard. This is from, I don’t know, like a year ago. And I’m just going to this is the banality of it, really. And it says more later. I just wanted to record myself here. Random. Colin had a great meal at Blue Duck Tavern Friday night. After a day spent interviewing at William and Mary in Williamsburg. I drank a martini, ate steak. Read The New Yorker. Hmm. Total absorption. And then period. And then suddenly reading Fosdick, who was a Presbyterian preacher. The plate on the front of the book belonged to Charles. A lemon. Feel connected to him across time. What kind of charity sit in? Did he live long enough to have a library worthy of the book numbering system? Why do people have book plates? Was it generosity or fear of theft? Is it just a marketing exercise? Did Charles a lemon live long enough to have a large collection? Was Charles a man of the city or the country? Was it a gift that another set of hands carried, hailed and found meaning from this book connects me to it. What kind of din was going on outside of his door when he read it? What concern did he have in his day? That’s it. That is the gut is. That’s a diary entry.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Wow. Wow, wow.

S2: That is awesome. I love the visual of you there having a martini and the steak and then asking all these questions and you don’t feel like you have to answer them, which is nice. Were you wearing a smoking jacket? What we wear. That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. So here’s our next rule. Be like John DICKERSON. And I can tell you, it’s not easy. I’ve been trying to be like John DICKERSON since I met him 15 years ago when we were both at Time magazine. But there’s another important insight buried in all of this. Even an accomplished writer like John is embarrassed to look back at his own journal entries, which means that’s probably not a good excuse to quit for the rest of us. When we come back, Ana and John are going to walk us through their writing routines and they have some great tips to help make the habit stick. Stay with us. If you rely on how to for inspiration or life hacks, the best way to support us is by joining Slate plus Slate’s membership program. Signing up for Slate Plus helps us help all the people you here. On this podcast every week. You know our biggest complaint in our reviews is that people don’t like hearing ads, which I totally get. And yet we still have to pay the rent somehow. So this is your best option? Members will never hear another ad on our podcast or any other Slate podcast. You’ll also get free and total access to Slate’s website. So I hope you’ll join if you can. To sign up now, go to Slate.com. Slash how to plus again that Slate.com slash how to plus. Thanks. We’re back with John DICKERSON and Anna Quindlen, who say they try to write every day even if they don’t want to. And to that, I say how.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: I think that reading the memoirs of various writers and talking to my colleagues has convinced me that like anything else, everybody has a writing bio rhythm. I mean, I have certain writer friends who will tell me every day from 6 to 9, well, at 6:00 in the morning, I can barely achieve full respiration. I am not writing anything at 6:00 in the morning. It so happens that my zone is from about nine. If I’m working on a novel, it’s not more than two two and a half hours because the pictures in my head tended dim, but nine to noon, 9 to 1, 9 to 2, something like that. That’s my zone. Is that my zone? Because it used to have to be my zone because I would take three kids to school, run home. Right. And go back and pick the three kids up. I don’t know, but it’s still my zone.

S1: I mean, my work writing, book writing time is is is actually in the morning. And I as Dan Pink wrote in his book, when there are studies that show, there are ways that the body actually is ready for writing and ready for deep work at different times depending on your your bio rhythms. So. But for this, I think the trick is yeah. Regularity, you know, habit stacking to use a popular phrase, stack it on top of something else. So, you know, before you get into bed and then set the bar incredibly low. My wife actually has this is this is not necessarily exactly a journal, but it’s it’s it’s adjacent and therefore can can start the habit. But it’s just a one line a day diary. You’ll be amazed at what over time builds if you just don’t don’t you don’t have to write the great illumination and you don’t have to write a whole lot just at the same time, a little bit every day.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: So here’s our next suggestion. Find a time that works for you and then start with just one or two lines every day.

S3: But let me address something that gets in the way of a lot of people doing this and is somebody who does this for a living. I want to make this really clear. I never want to do this.

S4: Never.

S3: There is never. There is never an A with a light heart, skipping Tripoli to her computer and going. Oh, another day of writing. No. Never. Never happens. Every morning sit down and say, I am so bad at this. And what I really want to do is watch Netflix. First of all, it’s all about confidence, right? So it’s all about. Do I really have anything to say? Mm hmm. You know, and and I have this little talk with myself every day, and I say, look, you know, it just might not amount to a hill of beans, but, you know, sit down and try it. And a lot of times you start out not doing very well. And it’s a bummed day, but a lot of times not doing well turns to doing well and occasionally doing well. Turns to, oh, wow. And that’s what you live for those days when, you know, you look back a year later and say, I really understood what was going on in my life that day. I really nailed it. I’m capable. I’m capable not so much of writing, but I’m capable of understanding myself in a way that gives me hope.

S2: That feels doable. Just a little something. It’s not going to be perfect. Nobody’s perfect.

S3: I was thinking about this earlier when I was thinking about all of us talking. So I’m in a house where I’ve lived part of the time for 25 years, and in that 25 years there has never been a swan on the pond. And this week there is a swan. And I keep looking at this swan thinking, man, I could write all day about this swan and, and what it means David show up. So it’s not like you have to plumb the depths of your psyche. Sometimes it’s just a bird.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: Right?

S2: John Do you just sit down and start writing or do you sort of have in your head where you’re going to go or what question you’re trying to answer that day?

S1: I’m quite intentional about my writing life, mostly to try to what Anna was talking about is to create a system and a set of entanglements and obligations that it forces you to sit down because you do anything but sit down. No room is tidier than when you’re on deadline because you will tidy up the room and organise everything before you sit down and write the notebook that I have in my back pocket. I don’t have I don’t set myself to a task, but I think over 32 years it has created in me a greater sense of observation than I probably otherwise would have had. In terms of the journal, I don’t really set myself a task. I think it was either Einstein or Edison. I think Edison actually would set himself a set of questions the night before Go to sleep, wake up in the morning, and then answer them in his journal. That seems very interesting that he never tried it.

S3: The Edison thing, though, is freaking me out a little bit. I’m picturing writing down and then waking up in the morning and sitting down and writing and inventing the light bulb.

S2: Yes, I think it can be daunting for some people like to just open the blank page.

S3: People are always saying like, how do you what’s the secret? And the secret is there is no secret. Or if there is, no one has filled me in on it yet. But the one thing that I always do is I never knock off of the day at the end of a chapter and I never knock off for the day at the end of a paragraph and I never knock off for the day at the end of a sentence. I always stop in.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Mid-Sentence.

S3: Because when I come back the next day, I’m always fighting it. Yeah, but I can finish a sentence.

S2: Oh, that’s good.

S3: So, yeah.

S1: That’s parking on the downhill slope. Have you heard that expression?

S3: No, I.

S1: Have. Yeah. I can’t remember who’s writing book. It is that talks about you should always you should always park on the downhill slope when you end your writing so that you can do precisely what you just articulated so well.

S2: And it robs you of the excuse, right? Like I always have a million excuses why I can’t start. I got an outline. I got to do a lot more reporting, but you can finish the sentence. And I think Hemingway did this, too. He would stop right in the middle of the sentence.

S3: I didn’t know that. That’s interesting. I already stole something from Hemingway. So there’s nothing new under the sun.

S2: So here’s our next rule. Make it easy on yourself. Maybe you relish the creative freedom of a blank page, but if not, give yourself a prompt or a question. There’s a million prompts online you can find, but if it’s offputting, give yourself a prompt or question whatever it takes to make starting a little easier. But also remember. It’s okay if journaling just. Isn’t your thing. There are all kinds of ways to write. Don’t discount letters or scrapbooks. It could be a true gift to those around you when you’re no longer here. John, your mother, Nancy DICKERSON, you’ve written a book about was CBS News first female correspondent. Did she write letters? Did that help you in your writing?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: She wrote letters. She wrote journals. It helped her. It helped a great deal. In fact, the book exists really, because after she died, I became her archivist because all of her books and papers and letters and so forth came to me. And two of the best parts of the collection were her journals when she was very, very young growing up in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, keeping track of the the boys she was dating. And then when she’s in Washington, D.C., in the fifties, as a young woman, trying to first working on Capitol Hill, then trying to break into working for CBS and then trying for a long time to get on air. When women didn’t do that, she wrote letters home to her mother and father, typed them all neatly on CBS stationery. And her her mother, my grandmother, thank goodness, kept all those letters. And so you have this real time description of Washington in the fifties and and also in this just lively, very chatty prose, which is entertaining in and of itself. And then over the course of her life, she kept diaries or had diaries or would occasionally write letters to herself, which are which are much, much more painful because of some experiences in her life. And that was also a very rich kind of material.

S3: All right. This has nothing to do with writing, but I have to stop and say. It’s it’s always miraculous to me how there are people that we don’t know and have never met and yet who make from a distance your future seem possible. And Nancy DICKERSON was one of those people for me when you saw women who dared to be different in the public eye and who were clearly smart and sophisticated and dignified and went about the work of doing good work, it made you think that a different kind of future was possible.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Hmm. That’s wonderful to hear. Thank you for saying that. You know, I just remembered that my mother used I mean, I remembered this before, but but after school, when I was in, I guess, fifth and sixth grade, I used to have to come home every day and write, write what was known as the paragraph, write a paragraph about something before I could go out and play at my mother’s insistence, which was probably a result of the nuns having made her do it too. But I don’t know. But that was the part that was the beginning, I guess, of my writing life.

S3: Being a reporter is such a good preparation for this kind of life because it not so much because it teaches you to write, but because it teaches you to see. Yeah. I mean, the the journal entry that John read is John seeing things both outside of himself and sort of around in inside of himself. And I think that’s what what you learn during a lifetime as a reporter, you learn to to find those telling details that that always tell a story.

S2: Yeah. And that doesn’t take a lot of time, actually. But I do. I have like your wife, John. I have one of those one line a day, five year. Diaries that are sometimes not religiously but sometimes write in. And yeah, you do end up just noting one thing that delighted you that day or one thing that happened. And, and it’s almost always a detail about my kid or something we aped or something we saw. And it is an amazing way to mark time, right? Because I think I don’t know about you all, but as I get older, time is just going by so fast. And then you see this and you’re like, Oh, three years ago is when we went on that hike and it’s all it’s like a really small thing, right? But it marks time in a way that’s really hard to do otherwise.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yes. And you presumably it excavates something in reflection on an on an event that can make it almost more powerful than the event was in the moment for certain kinds of things. You know, it’s got the weight of time. It’s got the. Kind of this fresh, revelatory feeling. I mean, it’s not new to you, but it is. But you’re kind of there’s a little burst of excitement that comes from remembering it again.

S2: So almost like a smell, like smelling your mother’s perfume or something. Like it’s so familiar and yet.

S1: Fresh air or a song. I mean, it happens a lot with me, with music. When I hear a song that was crucial to me in high school or something, it’s the closest thing to time travel that I can experience, you know, because I can feel of being in my, you know, Datsun station wagon.

S2: Like, what’s on it?

S1: It’s Supertramp. Take the long way home.

S2: Oh, yes. Okay, great. Oh, this is a perfect ending. Look at this. Yeah.

S4: It’s true.

S2: A big thanks to John Dickerson and Anna Quindlen. Be sure to check out John’s many books and listen to him on Slate’s Political Gabfest and definitely look for Anna’s newest book, Right for Your Life, which comes out later this month. And for all of you superfans of Anna, listen up. Because at the end of this episode, after the credits, we have a sneak peek at her next novel. Do you have a habit you really want to embrace but can’t seem to get into on your own? Send us a note at how to at Slate.com or leave us a voicemail at 6464954001. And if you enjoy the show, you know what I’m going to say? Please leave us a review and please give us a rating and tell a friend. That is how we can help more people. How TOS Executive Producer is Derek John. Rosemary Belson produces the show. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob, our technical director. Special thanks to Amber Smith. Charles Duhigg created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening. Anna, what do you got?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Well, I never do this, but I’ve been trying to bring it on home with a first draft of a new novel. So I’ll read the first couple paragraphs of that new novel, which doesn’t have a title yet. Okay. I either get them right away or we’re like dummying up the jacket and it still says title. Okay. So Annie Brown died right before dinner. The mashed potatoes were still in the pot on the stove, the dented one with the loose handle. But the meatloaf in the piece were already on the table. Two of the children were in their usual seats. Jamie tried to pick a piece of bacon off the top of the meatloaf and Allie elbowed him. Mom, he yelled. Bill, get me some Advil. My head is killing me, their mother said, turning to their father from the stove, her ponytail waving at them. More or less the same shade and texture of the Irish setter down the street. She’d done the color herself, and she said she wasn’t happy with it, too brassy, but she figured she just let it go. Her husband said it looked fine. Of course he did. Bill, she said again, looking at him with a wooden spoon raised in her hand. And then she went down hard, the spoon skidding across the floor, leaving a thin trail of potatoes, stopping at the base of the stove. Allie didn’t see it because she was still policing Jamie, but she heard.

S1: It. Wow.

S2: That’s good.

S1: I mean, it was great. I felt like I’d lived that. I mean, it felt like good.

S2: Yeah, I can see it’s great. And I can see everything about the kitchen, the spoon, everything.

S3: That’s what we work towards.

S1: Yeah.

S2: Thank you for sharing. That was cool.