14 Feb Episode 198 #RoomforTwoPrincesses
We’re interviewing Julie Lythcott-Haims this week and you won’t want to miss it, because 1) she wrote an amazing, best-selling book called How to Raise an Adult and then followed THAT up with a memoir, Real American, that the New York Times Book Review pretty much thought was amazing and is now drafting the sequel to Adult very much on her own terms; and 2) she could very easily have become Jess’s arch-nemesis, and vice versa.
If they had been totally different people.
If they had been less open, less willing to see possibility in a scary-sounding situation.
If they’d let fear and jealousy win. But they didn’t. So two writers with authority, each releasing a book on raising children to be independent in nearly exactly the same moment turned out to be a recipe for collaboration, not catastrophe. The lesson? In books, it’s really almost never winner-takes-all.
We talk about how they pulled it off, how Julie transcended expectations with her memoir and why it’s so important to resist the call to write something that isn’t what you want to write.
Episode links and a transcript follow—but first, we’re giving away a set of three LitStarts, little books of writing prompts created by the Writer’s Grotto that Julie talks about during the podcast, to—a subscriber to this weekly shownotes email! Which means you’re very likely already entered to win. If you’re not, just click below, sign up to get our free weekly behind the scenes from the podcast and get your name in that hat.
(and if you know someone who would really LOVE to win those—please forward this email and help a fellow writer out.)
LINKS FROM THE PODCAST
Half a Life, Darin Strauss
#AmReading (Watching, Listening)
Julie: Wildhood: The Astounding Connections between Human and Animal Adolescents Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, Kathryn Bowers
Jess: Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol, Holly Whitaker
KJ: How Could She, Lauren Mechling
Andy J. Pizza’s Creative Pep Talk Podcast, especially episode 259 – 20 SURPRISING AND SUPER POWERFUL PROMPTS THAT WILL MAKE 2020 THE YEAR YOU DO YOUR BEST WORK EVER!
Our guest for this episode is Julie Lythcott-Haims.
This episode was sponsored by Author Accelerator, the book coaching program that helps you get your work DONE. Visit https://www.authoraccelerator.com/amwritingfor details, special offers and Jennie Nash’s Inside-Outline template.
If you enjoyed this episode, we suggest you check out Marginally, a podcast about writing, work and friendship.
Transcript (We use an AI service for transcription, and while we do clean it up a bit, some errors are the price of admission here. We hope it’s still helpful. Sometimes. transcripts may appear a few days after an episode has aired.)
Fellow writers, it’s KJ at the start of another #AmWriting episode. This week, we’re talking with an author who’s had amazing success across multiple genres, which is not an easy road. The most important thing she has to tell us is this – take the time you need to figure out what book you want to write. If you’re in that process though, you know it’s hard, whether you’re working on writing fiction or nonfiction. Sometimes it helps to work through some clarifying exercises and that’s where our sponsor Author Accelerator comes in. Head to authoraccelerator.com to find prompts to guide you through the process of narrowing what we are writing and where you’re going and more. And a second note, normally #AmWriting is a non-swearing zone, but our guest this week got a little salty and because that’s who she is, we are leaving it in. It’s minor, and it’s all in good fun, but we thought a warning was in order.
The AmWriting podcast is usually a no swearing zone, but this week we got a little excited. So if you have young ones in the car with you, you might just want to think about those sensitive ears. There are a few instances of swear words in today’s episode.
Is it recording?
Now it’s recording.
This is the part where I stare blankly at the microphone like I don’t remember what I was supposed to be doing.
Alright, let’s start over.
Awkward pause. I’m going to rustle some papers. Now, one, two, three.
Hey, I’m KJ Dell’Antonia and this is #AmWriting. #AmWriting is the podcast about writing all the things – nonfiction, short fiction, long fiction, short nonfiction. Yeah. Okay you can tell we are length neutral here. This is the podcast about writing the proposal, writing the pitch, writing the actual thing, because we are the podcast about sitting down and getting your writing work done.
And I’m Jess Lahey. I’m the author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so Their Children Can Succeed, and various things at the New York Times, and at the Atlantic, and at the Washington Post. And I’m working on my next book, The Addiction Inoculation on basically keeping our kids drug and alcohol free until they can walk off into their wonderful adult lives. And then we can just say, ‘Okay, we’re done parenting them now. Which leads me to KJ. You do your introduction.
I am KJ Dell’Antonia, I am the author of (and most excited about at the moment) the novel The Chicken Sisters, which is coming out in June of 2020. I’m working on my second novel. And I’m also the author of How To Be a Happier Parent, which is exactly what it says it is and will not in fact help you raise your happy, perfect….
Well, today we have a guest. And we have a very, very special guest because this is a guest that listeners of the #AmWriting podcast have been hearing about for an awfully long time, because every time I talk about writers I admire, writers that have helped me be a better communicator, a better writer, and a better friend. And whenever we talk about competition and sort of dealing with the fact that there are other books out there on the market that are competitors for our titles, this is the person I bring up every single time. In such a good way though, Julie Lythcott-Haims is with us today. And by way of introducing Julie, I have to explain how I know Julie. So a bunch of years ago while I was writing Gift of Failure, I got an email from a former student of mine, Megan Andrews. I taught Megan when she was 15 years old in high school. And Megan went on to Stanford University where she encountered Julie Lythcott-Haims. Julie was the first year advisor at Stanford for many years, and Megan said, ‘I have this woman, you are going to love her. She is fantastic. And I think you’re writing books about the exact same thing.’
Of course, the same thing was happening to me. Megan was telling me about you, keep going, yes.
For someone who’s writing a first book, that is a sheer panic moment. I don’t know if I emailed my agent about your book or about someone else’s book, but I’m like, ‘Oh my God, panic. What’s going to happen? Someone’s writing a book on the exact same thing. No one’s ever going to read my book.’ And I think going into that there was this moment at which we finally got to know each other and realize that there is an incredible power in lifting up other writers and in sharing the stage a little bit. And the reason that I bring that up with you is that you have written this incredible book, How to Raise an Adult.
You’ve written another incredible book, a total pivot book called Real American. And it’s a memoir that’s just spectacular and I want to talk about that a little bit. But when I think of Julie Lythcott-Haims, I think of a person whose goal isn’t really about just parenting. It’s about helping lift up other people. And I wanted to have you on the show to talk a little bit about author collaboration, about the way you interact with other authors, and even competitors. And that’s why I bring you up a lot is that I feel like through my relationship with you, I had this opportunity to view this person who I was in direct competition with. And as we came to find out (and we’ll talk about) even before the books were sold that we have turned that from a competition relationship into a collaborative relationship that I am so grateful for and incredibly proud of. And so without much further ado, Julie, thank you so much for being on the show.
Well, Jess, thank you for sharing all of that. And hi KJ, as well. I feel I can hear the fluttering heart that was in you when those realities were upon us. And like you, I couldn’t believe somebody else was writing such a similar book. Plus, I had the added sort of survivor guilt is the wrong word, but basically your book was supposed to come out first, but you’d had an equestrian accident. You had a concussion. And so your book was supposed to be out first, but because you’d had a concussion, things had slowed down. So my book ended up coming out first and it shouldn’t have. Yours was slated to come out first. It was going to be like this, you know, you were supposed to be the first princess and I was supposed to be the second princess. And mine came out first and it didn’t feel right or fair to me.
Aww, you’ve never told me that before.
Yeah, really, I was like, ‘Whoa’. And because we have Megan in common, I knew how amazing you were, and how incredibly heartfelt your connection to kids is and was, and I just really felt for you around the accident without even knowing you. I just was like, wow, that sucks man. So then the New York Times asked me to write your New York Times book review. Remember that?
And of course I had no idea until right before it came out.
And so I think that in some ways that was the beginning of collaboration, not competition, because I loved your book and I said so. I said it was an amazing book and it showed me (and I hope you) that hey, there’s room in this space for both of us. And of course it was my first New York Times thing, which was exciting for me. So your book became an opportunity for me to show up in the New York Times book review as a reviewer, which was incredible. So I was grateful to you, sort of secondhand for that, you didn’t ask me to do it. Obviously they asked, but it was your book and then you said yes to a joint event back East in Connecticut at the Gunnery. We did a joint event (early on, early, early) and that’s when we saw okay, this is gonna work. Because everything was additive. Everything was, you know, we weren’t literally traveling the same path. You know, you have this perspective, I have this complimentary perspective. I have this perspective, you have this kind of complimentary perspective. So I think we offer our own unique approach to a topic we both care about. And it’s just been delightful. I think we’ve done three or four joint things, but every time it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, Jess.’ And then of course I go around the country and I’m always talking about you. I’m always talking about the Gift of Failure. And KJ, I love your Happier Parent book as well. And I talk about it particularly when we’re focusing on, wait a minute, why is it so hard for us parents? Why are we so fucking miserable? I cite the honesty of your book. Like, yeah, we are miserable and you know, here’s someone who’s going to tell it like it is and tell you how to deal. And so anyway, it’s been a pleasure. I live 3,000 miles away from y’all. I’m out here in California. As your listeners know, you’re very much back East ensconced in the snowy winter, but I feel connected. And that is super important to me because ultimately as you said, my meta is about connecting with humans and that matters to me. And you said something nice about helping lift up others. I hope occasionally I’m able to do that, but mostly it’s just human connection is my juice. People are my jam. So, I’m grateful to you both and thanks for letting me be on the podcast.
It was such a pivot – after you did How to Raise an Adult you did Real American. And I want to talk to you a little bit about that book because you did some real amazing huge risks with that book, not just in the content but the way the book was written. And I do want to talk a little bit about those risks that you took. But one of the things that you did that I had never seen anyone do before that was so interesting, was during your book tour for Real American (and I had the privilege of seeing you speak in Austin at Book People) Before you went on and I didn’t even know this was something you were doing, you had gone ahead to each of the locations where you were going to speak and solicited a young writer, usually a high school student I assume, to read before you read. To give young people the opportunity to have their voices heard out there in the world as well, to give them a little bit of your stage. So this is something that not only are you doing with the other authors out there, but you’re doing this with kids as well. And that was a real sort of moment where I said, ‘Oh, this is a real money where your mouth is sort of situation.’ And that’s why I mentioned that thing about helping raise others up is because the girl that I saw speak that day – by the way, she was a poet, she kicked man, she was amazing. And it was really cool to see a young person given this incredible opportunity. And I sat in front of her parents and they were like in awe of Julie. Like we can’t believe some published author is giving our child the ability to put her voice out there in the world. How did you come up with that idea?
You know, I’m feeling moved as I listened to you describe it, because it was so touching every single place I went. It was so touching for me to hear young people whose sense of self and ability to construct language around their truth was so much more mature and self-aware than I had ever been at their age. Jess, I appreciate your mentioning it. Real Americans is about my journey to learn to love my black and biracial self in a country where black lives were never meant to matter. And so it’s this journey into this pit of self-loathing and up and out of that pit into self love. And my younger self was so frail and fragile and on the inside, I now know at 52 and knew at 50 when the book came out, that it’s so important for me to be one grown up in the life of a young person who sees them, and who honors them, and who celebrates who they are. And so it was, more often than not, a young black poet or spoken word artist. Everywhere I went, that’s what we were looking for. If there were no black people in the town or in the school (which was occasionally the case) I said, let’s broaden this anyone who has been made to feel like the other, who has written something about that, I’d love for them to open for me is how I put it. And they were as young as 12, I think the oldest was maybe 25. I want to give a shout out to one of my former students, Jay Marie Hill, who worked with me, who’s an artist, an educator, and an activist, particularly in the trans community, and they live in St. Louis. But Jay Marie and I were talking about this. I said, ‘Look, I want to give an opportunity for young people to take the stage and open for me’. I think I thought of it as an act of service. You know, I was going to do a good deed. And Jay Marie said, ‘Okay, so what are they going to get in return?’ And I kind of shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘Well, they’re going to open for a published author and I’ll give them a signed book.’ And Jay Marie looked at me and just paused and said, ‘Why don’t we pay young artists? Why do we refuse to pay young artists?’ And they just looked at me and I was like, ‘Oh shit, I get it.’ And so my practice became the signed book and a $50 honorarium, which isn’t a ton of money, but for a child, it’s not nothing, to say the least. And then what I said is I thanked them and if they were comfortable with it, you know, hug them and put my arm around them, I said to the audience, ‘Look, I’m doing this because I have all the privilege of a book tour, and a stage, and marketing, and a microphone, and you’re here as the audience. And before I take all of this privilege and use it, I want to step to the side and make room for other people younger than me coming up on the path behind me. And so that was the purpose. And, as I said, I think I thought I was doing a good deed. And to some small degree I was, but of course the far greater thing that was happening, the dividends, the unexpected dividend was they enriched the entire event with their language and their presence, right. I learned, I grew, the audience was enriched. And so they served me, it was an act of service to me that they showed up and offered their art in connection with whatever I was trying to offer. And so it became a very humbling moment for me, time after time, and an opportunity for more growth on my part. It was one of the best choices I’ve made in quite some time and I’m really glad you were there in Austin. I wish I could remember the young woman’s name and maybe I can pull it up before the end of the show.
I listen to music before I go on stage just to sort of get myself in the zone. I used to listen to (when I first went on book tour) and this was like all about me, me, me, me, me. I would listen to My Shot from Hamilton. Like this is it. Like I got to get up there and really bring it. And then I changed the song that I listened to every single time before I go up on stage to You Will Be Found from Dear Evan Hansen. Because the focus of why I’m on that stage has really shifted over time from being about, Oh gosh, this is my big break, to why am I doing this in the first place? Like why am I taking all this time away from my family and spending all this time on stage? And it’s because there are a lot of kids out there that are feeling not seen, not heard, not given the opportunity to be found. And it’s been interesting for me how that this whole journey has changed its focus for me. So, anyway, seeing you have a kid up there and paying them for their time. You know, at the very end of our podcast, we talk about the fact that we paid everyone for their services on this, including the person who wrote the intro music because you know, creative people should be paid for their work. So it was a great statement that you made by doing that. And I loved it. And it really did add to the evening. Can we talk a little bit about – you did something that would have scared the pants off of me with Real American – you had written a book, How to Raise an Adult that was very beautifully written, but nothing unexpected in the narrative in terms of like, you know, it looked like a normal nonfiction book that you’d pick up in the bookstore. And then you pick up Real American. And Real American is in a font that was unexpected. It was some places it was more poetry than prose, it was prose poetry. It was in a voice that was really different. Did you feel really free to do that? And how did that work with your editor?
Well, only a writer would ask this question and I’m so glad because it is absolutely of course (as you and KJ know) absolutely intentional, absolutely something I had to fight for. And I’m delighted to tell you why. So I left Stanford as a 44 year old, I completed 10 years as Dean of freshmen. I go off and enroll in an MFA in writing program in San Francisco at California College of the Arts to try to write How to Raise an Adult to develop confidence and craft. And got my book deal while I was there. But I didn’t want my “parenting book” to be my master’s thesis cause it didn’t feel brave or edgy. So I kinda wrote that book on the side of my MFA, when it came time to graduate, I was four years into a two year program cause I’m now touring How to Raise an Adult. My faculty says ‘You’ve got to graduate, you need to do a thesis.’ and they forced me to write the next thing, which became Real American. So I was really clear as I set out to write that thing that here I am, this black woman in the era of black lives matter, raising a black son. I’m learning to love myself finally in my forties, after a young adulthood and adolescence of self-loathing because of all the small acts of microaggression and blunt force racism that I had experienced. And now I’m in this place of, ‘You know, I don’t give a shit what people think about me. I love myself and y’all can do what you want.’ So I was trying to figure out how do I depict that on the page? So when I sat down with my Mac Airbook and opened Word for the first time to start to write that thing, I looked at the screen at those preset margins. and the first thing I did was yank the right margin in one inch because I said to myself (I couldn’t articulate it this way then) but I knew I wanted to constrain my voice. And so I just did that. And you know, I go to readings, I just did one last night. And people like, ‘Oh, you have a nice wide margin that gives us a to write notes. And I’m like, yeah, great that you write notes. I love that. But that’s not why I did it. I did it because as a black woman in the United States of America, I don’t have access to the full page, but I’m going to try to make damn good use of the space I’ve been given.’ And so the constrained voice was choice one. And then it became about font and letting and voice, of course. And when I submitted the manuscript (and obviously everyone knows the whole process – you work back and forth with your editor on the content, on the language, on what’s missing, on what’s extraneous, on what’s shitty, on all of that) And then at some point they send you the interior design. And that’s the first time I knew that they were not paying attention to my font, my letting, or my margins. And so they sent me this thing with a Sarif font so that the font is Sans Serif and you know, letting is the space between lines, and of course the margin I’ve already described, and they had ruined all of it. And I just gasped. It was like I had taken my child into the barber and they’d cut all his hair off.
Had you explained to your editor ahead of time what you were trying to achieve?
No, I didn’t think I needed to, cause I thought it was so obvious from the Word document. You know, the Word document looked exactly the way I wanted it to. It hardly looks accidental. This is a book with a zillion chapters, there’s nine parts to the book, but then all the little subdivisions within each part are labeled with a Roman numeral. Some chapters are only three sentences, some are a paragraph, some deliberately end at the bottom of the page. And what happened was I got the document back and because they had changed the letting, change the font, and change the margins, my deliberate conclusion at the end of the paper page was now kicked five sentences over onto the next page. And you know, this Sarif font was a flourish. I said, ‘Look, this voice is not a flourish. I’m not kicking up my heels and dancing. This is a voice that is stark. This is blunt. This is unadorned. I want the voice to be bare and naked on the page.’. And they said, ‘People can’t read a Sans Sarif font.’ I said, ‘They’re going to have to figure it out.’ And finally I said, ‘If this was a book of poetry, you would not be arguing with me like this. So let’s pretend that that’s what this is.’ Because as you’ve said, there are places where I do relax the rules of syntax to let the language perform on the page the way I want it to. They knew that much and I said, ‘Let’s just pretend it’s more poetry than prose. You’ve got to go with me on this.’ And I fought, and I fought, and I fought. And to their credit, as a newbie writer, I don’t know how much latitude and leeway I even have when I make arguments like this. You know, in the beginning (as I’m sure the two of you experienced with book one) it’s like, ‘I’m so glad I have a contract. I’ll do anything.’ And now I had a little bit more agency with my second book. I was like, ‘Fuck no. You know, I wrote this for a reason and you are not going to undo.’ It was like I knitted a sweater and they were unraveling pieces of it. It just felt an assault. So I fought for it and I’m grateful to the people at Holt (who are my publishers) because they were like, ‘Okay, fine, we get this, we get it, we’re going to do this.’ And they did. So it was quite a fight.
It reminded me a little bit of – I don’t know if you’ve ever read Darren Strauss’s Half a Life – but it’s a memoir about he had hit a girl on a bicycle and killed her when she was, I think she was about 17. He was about the same age. And so the book is very much about unfinished, or you know, incomplete things. And there are blank sections, blank pages, there’s chapters that are just a few lines. And it was very easy to understand based on how the book was published. But if it had been published with a regular sort of spacing and regular chapters, it wouldn’t have been half as impactful to me. It was sort of a view into what writing could be, as opposed to what I’ve always experienced it as. It was a big moment for me. I was really appreciative. And knowing of course that for that publisher it was probably way more expensive for them to leave blank space. It’s a big deal. It’s a very big deal.
I don’t want to derail, but I am wondering how much your publisher wished for you to continue in the vein of the very successful How to Raise an Adult when you said, ‘Why, no. Here, welcome to the Real American.’.
Well, KJ, this is an opportunity for me to give a shout out to my agent Kim Witherspoon. It was in this moment you’ve just foreshadowed that I learned how tremendously valuable an agent can be. Here’s what happened. I completed the manuscript for Real American. As I said, it was my MFA thesis, so I completed it in May of 2016. And I was vocal (as I am), I’m big sharer on social media. So I had been out on social media talking about what I was writing and my editor gently said, ‘I see you’re working on some new material, would love to see it.’ So I was like, great, that’s exciting. I gave it to my agent, Kim, and she and I talked about it a bit and she was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to take this to Holt.’ Because Holt has the right of first refusal on my stuff. And I’d be happy to publish with Holt again. So, off she goes. And then, I’m on a plane like three weeks later and I get this phone call from Kim. She’s like, ‘Okay, here’s where we are with your memoir. They’re happy to publish your memoir and they want a sequel to How to Raise an Adult.’ And I was like, ‘Oh God, I don’t want to write a sequel, I’m not a parenting expert, you know, I don’t want to do that.’ And she was like, ‘Wait, wait, wait. Let me tell you how we got here, okay.’ She said, ‘I went to them with your memoir and they were like, yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll publish that, but first we want a sequel to How to Raise an Adult.’ And that’s when my bad-ass agent stepped in and said, ‘The memoir is what’s ready. And if there is to be a sequel, it’ll come second.’ And so she was then presenting that to me and I was like, ‘Okay, wow, that is…thank you. And okay.’ So I was getting that the opportunity to publish the memoir was in part available to me because I was also going to do the sequel. And I was really grateful then for the role my agent had played and grateful frankly to the publisher that, you know, they were going to publish this little memoir on race in addition to the thing they wanted. Now of course, that what then happened was Donald Trump became a viable candidate as we were working on Real American. And all of a sudden my little memoir on race became much more relevant to our moment. And I think they were accordingly more invested in it than they might otherwise have been. I’m not trying to malign them at all. I’m just saying, like, they sent me on a book tour for it, which was amazing. They didn’t send me on a book tour for How to Raise an Adult. I cobbled that shit together by myself with friends. I mean, thanks to Facebook. You know, my publisher did not send me one foot for a How to Raise an Adult, but they sent me around the country with Real American, which was awesome. So I think KJ, they have come around to understanding who I am and what I’m about. And I really feel that this is a relationship now, not just with my editor, but with the head of sales and marketing, and with the publicists, and with the speakers’ bureau. I mean, I’m Holt all the time at this point. And I think they get me and I think they dig me, kind of. And that feels good. And now I finally am excited to write this sequel. In the beginning I was like, ‘Ugh, I’ve got to write a sequel. You know, I don’t want to write this book. I don’t know how to write this book.’ And finally I have found the voice for it. It’s going to be out three years later than it’s supposed to be, but you know, I’m about 60% done with it. And I’m actually developing that feeling we get when we know we are writing something that is of quality, that is firing on all cylinders, when we’re in the zone, and we’re like, yeah, this is amazing. Right? And it’s not every day and it’s not every page, but I’m starting to have those feelings about this book. So yeah, that’s how that happened.
It would’ve been hard to write that.
I think that’s something that’s familiar to both me and Jess and we have talked about it here before, is that sometimes, it can be a lucky position to be in, but sometimes we find ourselves pressured to write a book that we don’t want to write. And it’s something to be wary of.
Especially if you’re going to have to go out and speak about it a lot because then you’re talking about having to live with something for years and years. Man, hopping on a train because it’s a popular train to be on for the wrong reasons can be disastrous. So I’m so happy for you that this is coming together in a voice that you love.
How many potential sequel versions did you run through?
Let me tell you first, I love the being on a train you don’t want to be on. I signed a contract for Real American, which was basically half of the book you’ve seen. I amplified it in volume, in length, but they knew the content they were buying. How to Raise an Adult sequel was all the contract said. A sequel to How to Raise an Adult. Before we signed the contract we didn’t talk about what that even meant. Okay? So then I’m on the phone with my editor four months later and she’s like, ‘Hey, I know you’re working on Real American, I just wanted to check in with you about the sequel as well. I think we should have some kind of framing conversation.’ I said, ‘Yeah, awesome.’ So she goes, ‘Yeah, so this’ll be a book for parents of grown children, who are struggling with adulting.’ And I said, ‘Barbara, the author of How to Raise an Adult is not going to write a book for the parents of grown children. I reject that terminology. Grown children like, no, they’re just grown. Like, yes, they’re still your child. Right.’ And she sort of chuckled and I said, ‘Look, they’re going to read this. I have no doubt, because that’s what a generation of over-parenting has done. They’re going to be all up in this, but the narrative voice is going to be directed to the young adult. If I’m going to have any credibility with them, I have to be writing to and for and with them, not about them.’ And so that was our first argument. Then, because there was not even a book proposal on the table I got my advance over four installments, signed the contract. The second installment was submit an outline that’s accepted and I had three outlines rejected. They were like, ‘No, no, no, this is not right.’ You know, they were like, ‘Where’s the chapter on money?’ I’m like, ‘Who am I to write the chapter on money? Like, I’m not that person. I am not that person. You know, where’s the chapter on health insurance?’ Again, I was like, ‘Oh God, you know, those books exists. I can’t do that.’ I just kept playing. At one point I was arguing for a chapter on relationships and they were like – this was actually somebody younger in the organization who’s an editorial assistant who was on the phone with me and my editor and said – ‘You know, we’ve been told in our twenties, we don’t have to work on relationships, that we can focus on that in our thirties. So I don’t think this chapter needs to be in there.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, and I disagree. I think that’s terrible advice. And I’m going to say so in this book.’
What does she think she’s having with the people around her?
So, you know, argue, argue, argue, argue, argue. And I was determined, KJ to your earlier point (or maybe it was Jess), one of you said sometimes we find ourselves pressured to write a book we don’t want to write. And I was determined that I was going to write the book I wanted to write. I am a former college dean, I have talked with young people, and enjoyed their company and their conversation, and enjoyed caring about their fears and their dreams for a long time. And I knew if I could summon that voice on the page that I could get to where I wanted to get around the subjects the publisher wants me to cover. And so finally I was able to get there. I hope I will never be in a situation where I am in fact pressured and do write a book that I don’t want to write because that violates everything I believe in about how important it is for all of us to be doing stuff, to sort of live with integrity and authenticity. Like, how am I going to write a book on how to live your life if I hate writing the book? If I don’t believe in the book that I’m writing, how are you going to believe a word that I say in there? Because I’m basically saying, ‘Well, they made me do this, so I’m doing this.’ Right?
Well, and then you have to get up in front of people and speak. And as a speaker you have to look people in the eye and explain why they need to believe a word you say and what you mean, right?
So this book, I call it a compassionate beckoning. It’s for millennials and older gen Z. It’s for folks who are struggling with what they have termed #adulting and it’s me, this older gen X person, like, yup, I know it’s terrifying, but come on in, join us. It’s your turn. And it is terrifying and it’s also unbelievably amazing. So, let’s go. It’s a very close voice, it’s like we’re having coffee, it’s like I’m sitting there chit chatting with you. I’m listening to you, it’s not I’m the authority, I have the answers. I have to show you how this opens, cause I’m so excited. If it sucks, you’re going to be like, that sucks. Do not publish that. I’m just going to read you like four lines. Okay. “I am not wiser than you. I have been broken, sad, scared, bewildered, worried, and ashamed. I try to help humans make their way in life. I’m rooting for all of us to be okay. This book comes from that place.”
That’s a good start.
That’s great. I love it. I love it.
It’s about three paragraphs into the introduction. That’s just what I pause to say. And that’s kind of the vulnerability that I’m trying to bring to the page, which is just delighting me.
I mean that, that vulnerability is what reaches people. I think the only reason that any of us who are trying to put out that expert voice, (which by the way, super scary, super scary – having to put out some expert voice) is by admitting that, you know, we’re no better. We just have read some other stuff, and we’ve read some evidence, and we’re trying to help guide, and that we respect people that are reading it.
And we’ve lived. You know, How to Raise an Adult might’ve had 400 footnotes. This book is going to have zero footnotes. I refer to research, but I’m not citing it because I don’t think this is a book that wants to be about research. It’s my impressions based on the life I’ve lived. It’s stories. There’s a lot of narrative in it and storytelling. And there’s a little bit of advice. Hopefully the advice springs out of the stories as opposed to like, research shows you’re really need to do X, Y, and Z. It’s like, dude, I’ve lived this life, and I’m a little bit older than you, and I have fucked up, and I have failed, and this is what I’ve learned. And this is what I want for you and what I want you to know.
It’s almost like you’ve found a way to marry How to Raise an Adult and Real American. I mean, that’s probably not a novel insight, you completely have. You’re just expanding the audience, you know, sort of bringing everybody together in, Hey, if you like somebody’s voice, you don’t only have to like it in one race.
That’s exactly right.
I want to bring this whole picture together of Julie, with the fact that I happen to know that Julie got to a place in her career where she realized that her big, huge dream was this writer thing. Like she had some serious goals around writing. And she wrote this book that went on to be a New York Times best seller. She got to write a New York Times book review, which I happened to know was also one of your goals, too, is write something there. And now it’s my understanding that you get to write the introduction to an entire book on writing a memoir. Is that correct?
Wow. Yes. You know what, it’s very cool. And it’s very like, are you sure you want me to do this? But it’s also a tiny little book. It’s a writing prompt series for writers. And so, it feels sort of like here we are in our writerly community. And it’s an offering to people who are farther behind me on the path of writing. So that feels like, okay, I can kind of feel a little bit more authority there, as opposed to like, I’m making these grand pronouncements about memoir to all the people who’ve written memoir. It’s not a conference of celebrated memoirists. It’s me trying to offer something to folks who would like to do what I did in pulling Real American together. So it’s this awesome little series called Lit Starts, published by Abrams. And we have six of them. Four of them are on craft, writing humor, writing character, writing action, writing dialogue. Yeah. And then two on genre on writing scifi fantasy and writing memoir. And so there are these adorable little writing prompts that are kind of juicy and fun. The booklet is just full of them and each one of these opens with an essay by a published author. So I got to be the essayist who wrote the opening bit for Lit Starts’ writing memoir. And it was so much fun to dig into. You know, let me find six or seven memoirs that I want to write about here as examples of stuff that went well or stuff they did right. It was an opportunity for me to honor other memoirists, from Roxanne Gay to Frederick Douglas. And to just try to be a little bit more analytical about a process that had been very personal. So I really enjoyed it.
You want to hear my favorite line? I have a little tiny book by Abigail Thomas on memoir. And my favorite advice she gives is “So remember – the writer of memoir makes a pact with her reader that what she writes is the truth, as best as she can tell it, but the original pact, the real deal is with herself. Be honest, dig deep, or don’t bother.”
I absolutely love that. But let me tell you this, I say this in the book, truth is subjective. Alright? You know, the three of us are sitting here on a conversation, and we’re all going to have a memory of it, and if we were all to write a page after we hang up about what happened. As long as we are obligated to write what we think happened, that’s all truth. And we would write three completely different write-ups of this conversation because we remember things differently. Somethings stick in your brain that aren’t going to stick it all in mine or I’m going to hear it differently or I’m feeling differently as it happens. So therefore, I experience it differently. One of the prompts in Lit Starts writing memoir is write a Thanksgiving scene from your perspective, and then from the perspective of somebody who was in the kitchen, and from the perspective of the guy that showed up late. You know, it just honors the fact that we all have our own truth and as memoirists we have to constantly ask ourselves, where does my story end and yours begin? We’re not supposed to be telling other people’s stories. We can’t deploy the trick of fiction where you can get into the head of somebody else’s character. We are the character, we are the narrator, and we are the author. We inhabit all those roles and we are obligated to the truth. But, it’s also equally valid that that truth is subjective. And I think that’s a really important thing for memoirists to appreciate and feel okay about. The line I like most in my essay is (I don’t have it in front of me, but it’s something like) memoir should not be an act of naval gazing. You know, if you just want to tell people about your amazing life, write it down in your journal, and let that be for you. A memoir should be an act of service. You know, you think like, I have gone through an experience that might be of benefit to my fellow humans. That’s why I write memoir. And you’re citing of Darren Strauss Half a Life, I mean anguish for Darren of what happened. But what an offering to anyone who has inadvertently committed a tragic act that harmed another human being. I mean, that has got to be one of the most devastating life experiences. And as cathartic as it probably was for him to dig into that, and that was valid in and of itself, what a tremendous gift and offering to people hungry, desperate to know I am not the only human who has had this abjectly horrible experience. What an act of service that was.
Well and to write it as an act of therapy would have ruined the book.
Before we go on, I just want to shout you out for saying my favorite line in my essay was … cause that’s awesome. I have favorite lines in things that I have written, I know Jess has favorite lines in things that she has written, Sarina has favorite lines, we have each other’s favorite lines. But you know, hello everybody, have your favorite line, download one of those little quote creators, and pop your favorite line in there and add a little dash and then add your name. Because that’s you. Put that out there.
Yes, yes, yes. Exactly. Absolutely. Own it, claim it, celebrate it. We can be a little self deprecating as artists and writers and looking for other people to celebrate, hopefully cross our fingers that other people will recognize what we’ve done and like it and maybe celebrate it. But absolutely we have to own the work that we’ve put out there. And boy, those favorite lines. You know, I have a favorite line from my memoir that somebody just tweeted and I was so thrilled. It was a stranger who heard me say it out loud and tweeted it. It’s a description of my father; he had these crude nicknames for me when I was little – knucklehead old sport, even worse things than knucklehead – and the line is like, it sounds crude to my grown ears, but spoken in the butter of his baritone. it felt like melted love. And you know, this dude heard me say this to an audience of a couple hundred people and he pulled it out and he wrote it down and he tweeted it. And you know that was like a gift to me that he had heard me and was leaning in so intently, and he was there for it in the moment, and he remembered it, and he wrote it down. I mean, that was gold.
That’s pretty cool. I always take pictures of people who have copies of my books with all the note cards and underlines. Well, speaking of other people’s work, we have to wrap it up, but we always like to talk about what we have been reading and loving these days. And I know you’re deep into the work of writing your book, so I’m assuming a lot of the work you’ve been reading lately is about that, but is there anything you’d like to shout out?
Yeah, absolutely. So, two things. One is a book on friendship. It’s called literally Friendship by Lydia Denworth.
We love it. We just interviewed her.
Oh, I’m so glad. I got to write a blurb for it, so I read a galley. And what I loved, cause I’m writing this book on how to be an adult and I’m talking about relationships as you know, I insisted, like I will talk about human connection with humans in this book, and to have this incredibly well-researched, it’s this narrative about other people’s research, right? To have this justification that human connection is what makes us live well and long. It landed like a gift in my mailbox. I was like, thank God. There’s proof for what I intuitively know and many of us intuitively know is true. So that book I loved and then a companion to it, in many ways, Wildhood by Barbara Natterson- Horowitz. This is an examination. It’s Wildhood as sort of a description for that period that we call adolescence. It’s after childhood and before maturity in the animal kingdom. They trace four different young animals, a penguin, a wolf, a whale, and I think a mere cat. And they tracked them and traced their journey once they left their nest, or their home, or wherever their family was. And what they’re demonstrating is mere cats, and whales, and penguins, and wolves, and humans must go on these journeys away. The writer in me of How to Raise an Adult was just like pumped up like yes, yes, yes. This is evidence from evolutionary biology that what we do when we over parent our kids and hold onto them too hard and for too long harms them.
Let me close this loop for you. The co-author is Catherine Bowers. Catherine Bowers is a friend of mine and I saw that you had Instagrammed a picture of the books you were taking away on your writing retreat and one of them was her book. And I called it to Catherine’s attention, and she actually emailed me, and asked me to reintroduce you because you and Catherine Bowers went to college together.
Holy shit. That’s amazing.
You were in the same class. So you will be getting an email from me to you and Catherine because she wanted to get back in touch after she heard that you were reading her book.
Well, I saw on Instagram that she commented under the photo, like, I’m so glad that my book is in your stack. And I was like, wow, I love this book. So that’s such a small world. So yeah, those are, those are two people out there in the world doing the work to prove the hunches that I have about humans. I’m someone who cares about humans. I love humans. I’m trying to help remove the obstacles from the path of humans. I’m not a scientist. And so I’m always looking for the evidence that what I intuit, what I understand in my bones. I’m looking for the evidence that it’s true. And that’s probably the former lawyer in me that’s like, you can’t just have feelings, Julie, you gotta back it up. So all of these people who do the work of really excavating the underpinnings for what I would say is the magic of the human experience. I’m just really excited about their work. So yeah, Wildhood and Friendship. Absolutely. Thumbs up.
Two great, great choices. I’m reading a book that KJ actually recommended to me. This is testament to, even though I thought I owned every single book that’s out there on the planet about substance abuse, I mean it’s like shelves, and shelves, and shelves. All of a sudden KJ texts me a picture of a book and she says, ‘Oh, I assume you have this, but blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ And I didn’t even know it had come out. So it is a book called Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol by Holly Whitaker. And I’m really, really enjoying it. It’s not just about drinking, and why people drink, but it’s specifically about women and the culture around drinking, and how drinking is marketed to us, and how we portray ourselves as either sober people or not sober people. And how we use alcohol to cope and how it’s marketed to us in a way that sort of makes it attractive to use alcohol to cope. And it’s a really good read, Holly Whitaker. Well done. I’m really, really enjoying it. KJ, what have you been reading?
I want to go back and shout out a book that I talked about a couple of episodes ago because when I talked about it a few episodes ago, I was a little like, I don’t know how I’m feeling about this book. It’s called How Could She, and the author is Lauren Mecking and it’s this novel about three women’s friendship from three protagonist points of view. And I said at the time that the problem with it was that I often just wanted to slug the protagonists. Like they all had these great lives, but didn’t appreciate them. But I kept reading for some reason, like every night I would literally say to my partner, ‘Maybe tonight will be the night I like this book.’
I kept reading it and eventually there was the night when I liked it. And not only did I like it, but like the whole thing retrospectively because what I realized was that the author had pulled off this sort of really amazing feat of showing us FOMO and the envy that we have of other people’s lives, and the way that it masks the good things about our own lives. And I thought given the nature of what we talked about here that that was a great thing to kind of come back to and talk about. And it was annoying the whole time cause you wanted to shake the people and say ‘But your life looks good. I mean sure this other person, but you know, you’ve got it good.’ Anyway, it’s a cool book. So, How Could She – recommend. It’s not like an easy laugh a minute, but it’s not a hard read either. Its just as you read it, you’re kind of going, ‘Why is this so mesmerizing?’ And I think the answer is because we’re experiencing that so often without even realizing we’re doing it to ourselves.
The books that you stick with, even though you are why do I still care (Olive Kittridge was one of those for me) Why am I sticking with this even though I hate her? Those are fascinating to me, too. There’s some connection that’s being made, even though you don’t necessarily like them.
So I also want to draw everyone’s attention to another podcast that I have been loving. It’s called The Creative Pep Talk podcast and the podcaster is Andy J Pizza.
And I really want to call out this episode called “20 surprising and super powerful prompts that will make 2020 the year you do your best work ever” And you have to understand that he’s always tongue in cheek, he’s like a super enthusiastic person. But the interesting thing is that the prompts were so different than what we think of as creativity prompts. These were more prompts like remember how apparently Will Smith went and looked at the top 10 best grossing movies of all time and figured out what three things they have in common and went after those. Look at the top things in your industry and figure out what three things they have in common. Or, go and look at something that’s in the public domain and imagine a different version of that. Or imagine you have synesthesia, what does Tuesday smell like? So they weren’t so much writing prompts, as they were thinking prompts. And it’s fun and he’s always fun to listen to. You either love him or you’ll hate him. I love him.
Alright, well this has been tremendous, Julie, as always. I mean, the thing that’s really sad for me is that it’s hard for me to get to your speaking events and hard for you to get to mine because we’re usually waving at each other as we fly across the country. But it is just always a pleasure to talk to you and to have a chance to get inside your head because I so respect the way you frame your work, and the way you enjoy your work, and the way you live your work. That’s really inspirational to me.
I appreciate that. I’m grateful to you both. You have an amazing podcast, you have an amazing rapport with each other, so there’s such energy between the two of you and as individuals, too. So I’m really grateful that you had me on. Is it okay if I share my website if people want to follow up with me? So, julielythcotthaims.com. If you can spell my name, put it into Google. Julielythcotthaims.com is my website. All my social media contact info is on there. I have a newsletter you can sign up for and my speaking schedule. So check it out, follow me, connect with me. I’d love to hear about your interest in the topics I write about. I tend to engage with people pretty well on social, so I’d love to hear from listeners if they want to share anything.
Alright. With that, everyone, until next week, keep your butt in the chair and your head in the game. This episode of #AmWriting with Jess and KJ was produced by Andrew Parilla. Our music, aptly titled unemployed Monday was written and performed by Max Cohen. Andrew and Max were paid for their services because everyone, even creatives should be paid.