In the November/December 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest, we looked at some strategies for establishing successful writing work habits inspired by bestselling author Gretchen Rubin. In this extended Q&A, the 50-year-old happiness and habits expert talks about why she became a full-time writer, how she found an agent and what advice she has for those trying to write a novel in a month.
This online exclusive is by Debbie Harmsen. Harmsen is a writer and editor based in Dallas. Find her on Twitter at @DebbieHarmsen. Also, Gretchen Rubin shares tips regularly on her blog and podcast. You can listen to the “Happier with Gretchen Rubin” podcast at gretchenrubin.com/podcast.
WD: You went to Yale Law School, worked for the Federal Communications Commission and even clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. What prompted you to switch from such an impressive law career to writing?
GR: I had a book that I really wanted to write. I had actually been working on it for quite awhile. And then finally I realized, Wow, for some people, this is their job. I’m doing this after work and on the weekends, but for some people this is their real job, and I began then to think about making a switch.
WD: Once you knew you wanted to be a full-time writer, was it a quick transition?
GR: It was a long transition. Partly it was me coming to grips with the idea that I was going to make the switch. And part of it was just disentangling myself from (my law career) and embracing what it would be to be a professional writer. One of the things that helped is moving from Washington D.C. to New York … it was the right place to be moving to.
WD: What was one of the biggest challenges you faced in making the change?
GR: I had really, really strong legal credentials. I had a lot of feathers in my cap, and I was starting over from nothing. I didn’t even have clips. I’d always written a ton as an English major … but it wasn’t like I had a big pile of stuff to show. I was really starting over from nowhere—but I had an idea. I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
WD: One of your personal 12 commandments is to “Be Gretchen.” Do you feel like writing rather than practicing law is how you can most fully be Gretchen?
GR: Yes. I’ve always had this strange feeling that’s hard to put words to, but when I was doing law it felt like a tangent. It felt like I was some place off the beaten path … like I was off-centered. It didn’t feel like where I was supposed to be, whereas now I feel like I’m in the center.
WD: Do you have any recommendations for those looking to make a switch to full-time writing?
GR: There’s a terrific book that, admittedly, a good friend of mine wrote called The Creative Lawyer [by Michael Melcher]. While it’s aimed at lawyers specifically, it really is for any profession where you’re thinking about trying to switch, but you can’t just drop everything and go write the great American novel. It’s about how you [make the switch] in a smart way so that you use your time and energy wisely and make sure you’re not burning your bridges.
WD: How did you find an agent?
GR: I asked a bunch of people who had connections to agents and got their names, and I interviewed with a couple. And then I met Christy [Fletcher of Fletcher & Company] and it was like a total love connection. I remember literally skipping down the street as I left the meeting and thinking this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. And it’s true. She’s a huge—huge—partner for me and what I do.
WD: Why is having a good agent so important?
GR: I always tell people, this is the key relationship. If you read about publishing in the past, the relationship between writer and editor was much stronger and lasted a lot longer, and for some people that is still true. But very often editors move around a lot and there’s a lot of consolidation, and stuff happens. It’s very uncommon for a writer over a period of years to have the same editor the whole time. But a lot of people keep the same agent. And so the agent really is so important. And you really need to feel like your agent gets you. If they don't get you, they can’t represent you and they can’t help you.
WD: In The Happiness Project you talk about how you wrote a novel in a month. What motivated you to do it?
GR: A lot of writers have a blocking project. There’s something that you want to do even though it doesn’t really professionally make sense for you to do it as a writer, and yet you feel like you can’t move forward until you do it. I know so many people who say, “I need to write a play.” They say, “I know I’m going to write a bad play, and I don’t even like plays that much, but I feel this compulsion to write this play.” And I say, “Write your play and get it out of your bloodstream, because it will just stand there and block your path.” I felt this need to write a novel, and it was a terrible novel, and no one’s ever seen it, but I felt this need to write it, and I did. I got it done in a month instead of having it stand in my way for a year and a half.
WD: What advice do you have for those who are trying NaNoWriMo?
GR: For some people, it’s really important to be part of the group and having everyone watching you, [and asking], “Have you made your minimum? Have you stuck to it?” That’s why NaNoWriMo works. It’s a process. There’s a whole group of people doing it. There’s a team spirit about it.
But there’s also a danger, because I think many people start NaNoWriMo thinking, ‘This is going to get me in the habit of writing every day.” It will not get you in the habit of writing every day. It will get you writing for a month. If you want to use it as a way to jump-start regular writing, you have to think very carefully about how to go from writing for a month to writing consistently, indefinitely. It’s like the difference between giving up sugar for Lent and giving up sugar indefinitely. A lot of people can give up sugar for Lent because they’re just hitting a short goal. That doesn’t necessarily turn into a habit. It often does not.
So I think NaNoWriMo is tons of fun; it can be a great experience. I think it’s always good for writers to write. It’s like doing scales. The more you write, the better your writing will get. But if you’re using it as a way to develop the habit of consistent writing, you have to think about doing that in a very careful way.