Happiness, Continued . . .

New Year's Resolution Reading Challenge / Joy Weese Moll
New Year’s Resolution Reading Challenge / Joy Weese Moll

As part of Joy Weese Moll‘s New Year’s Resolution Reading Challenge, I’m spending the month of January reading (and blogging about) Gretchen Rubin’s bestseller, The Happiness Project.

Joy poses interesting questions for this week’s chapters:

1. Of the three topics covered in chapters 7, 8, and 9 (Money, Eternity, and Passion), which area would you like to improve the most in 2014? Why? Would some of Gretchen’s techniques work for you?

My most needed improvement? I stand convicted, Gretchen: I’m an “overbuyer” and my husband is an “underbuyer,” for sure. I tend to buy on impulse whereas he looks, walks away, and looks and looks some more before he makes up his mind. I’m not sure whether Gretchen’s techniques will work for me, but she’s made me more aware.

2. What idea from chapters 7, 8, and 9 could you use today that would likely make you happier?

I like Gretchen’s concept of “spending out,” not clinging to things. She confesses to being a “saver”–holding on to things for later or for a special occasion. I can relate to that. My grandmother owned a lovely robe she never wore because she was saving it for her burial! I occasionally tried to get her to wear it, but she refused. Now and then she would have me take it out of her closet and check its condition. Satisfied that it was still pristine, she’d tell me to put it away. She got her wish.

More importantly for me, Gretchen goes beyond the idea of not clinging to things. She says, “The most important meaning of ‘Spend out’ . . . is not to be a scorekeeper, not to stint on love and generosity.” She describes how easy it is to fall into a pattern of keeping score: Well, I did this, so he/she should do that. The key, Gretchen says, is “Don’t think about the return.” She quotes Sarah Bernhardt, the great actress: “It is by spending oneself that one becomes rich.” Spending out relates directly to a generous spirit, and that is something I want to cultivate!

3. What idea from chapters 7, 8, and 9 are you pretty sure wouldn’t make you happier at all, even if it seems to work for Gretchen?

Sky above, what's below?
Sky above, what’s below?

In chapter 8, “Contemplate the Heavens: Eternity,” Gretchen tackles spirituality and mortality. I appreciate her quest for spiritual wholeness—every person is entitled to approach her spiritual journey as she sees fit. But as a person of faith, I don’t think I would ever pursue finding a spiritual mentor as she does. Nor would I set out to read about others’ catastrophes in order to learn from them, as Gretchen describes it–a kind of vicarious experience of tragedy:

I went to the library and checked out an enormous stack of books. I started by collecting accounts by people grappling with serious illness and death, but then I broadened my search to include any kind of catastrophe: divorce, paralysis, addiction, and all the rest. I hoped that it would be possible for me to benefit from the knowledge that these people had won with so much pain, without undergoing the same ordeals. There are some kinds of profound wisdom that I hope never to gain from my own experience.

It’s one thing to feel deeply for the plight of someone else. It’s a fallacy to believe that we can know what another person’s trials and sorrows feel like.

Let me tell you a story:

When I was a young wife and mother, an older woman I admired very much lost her only son. He committed suicide. I went to that heartbreaking funeral, and after, I knew I wasn’t done. I felt compelled to visit her. I dreaded it, but one afternoon, I got a sitter for my two young sons (oh, imagine the death of a son!), picked up a plant or something, I don’t remember, and went. I remember walking up to her front door, practically trembling, my heart racing, a huge lump in my throat. What could I possibly say?

I didn’t have to worry about it. She saw my helplessness. She consoled me.

What did I learn? The important thing is to show up. Speechless, empty-handed, it doesn’t matter. A hug, a grasped hand. Offer what I can.

But, Gretchen, there’s no “learning about pain” without going through it. And all of us, most likely, will at some point experience our own.

4. I suspect all of us share Gretchen’s passion for books. How do books make you happy?

Budding artist/writer
Budding artist/writer/ me

Books do make me happy. Or sad. Or angry. Books are so much a part of my life (and always have been; see the photo, left), that I can’t imagine life without them. The two novels I’ve written, although they’re unpublished at this point, fill me with pride. I have labored and laughed, bled and cried all over those pages. They are my own, which brings an entirely different perspective to the word book.

Have you read The Happiness Project? If so, please share your take on Gretchen’s ideas (and mine, too)!

If you would like to read the earlier Happiness posts, you’ll find them here:

Week One: January Read Along: The Happiness Project

Week Two: And How Was Your Day?

Resolved: The New Year’s Resolution Reading Challenge for 2014

New Year's Resolution Reading Challenge / Joy Weese Moll
New Year’s Resolution Reading Challenge / Joy Weese Moll

A writer-friend, Joy Weese Moll (librarian/blogger extraordinaire), has launched a reading challenge for the month of January. The New Year’s Resolution Reading Challenge involves a commitment. Joy explains it better than I can:

Whether you want to write a novel, start a new career, or be happier, there are books to aid you in your quest. The New Year’s Resolution Reading Challenge is to read one to four books that will stimulate action on your goals. Here are the levels:

Resolved: 1 book
Determined: 2 books
Committed: 3 books
Passionate: 4 books

The books can all be about one subject, or they can vary.

I’ve committed at the Determined level to participate in the Read-Along portion of the challenge. Joy has recommended The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin for a “communal” read and  discussion via our blogs and/or on Facebook and Twitter. So I’ll be reading Rubin’s book and blogging here each Wednesday in January with thoughts and responses.

I’ve also promised (in a very public way, thanks to Joy!) that I’ll read Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, a book I bought recently but haven’t yet read. Both books invite me to consider my life and my writing work in thoughtful, fruitful ways.

For complete info re these challenges, visit Joy’s links posted above. Or read along with me and follow on Wednesdays as I explore The Happiness Project.

Here’s to new starts in 2014!

My Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing has been going around the web for quite some time. I’ve chickened out before, but since this meme keeps cropping up, I finally decided to have a go at it. Thanks to Lydia Sharp at The Sharp Angle (a resourceful blog for writers, by the way), for her invitation to talk about my next big thing!

1. What is the title of your book?

Spirit Lamp

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

My grandmother, about seventeen
My grandmother at about age seventeen. What a wonderful hat! Or are those big bows?

This book has its roots in autobiographical sources, based partly on a story my grandmother told about her father’s death. He was shot and killed in a hunting accident, but she always believed he was murdered. The main character, Leona, derives from a young woman I vaguely knew growing up. She had an illegitimate son, and she and the boy lived with her mother just down the street from us. They were shunned in our little community, and as a child, I was both curious and bothered by their circumstances.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Spirit Lamp is set during World War I in rural north Mississippi, so it’s historical fiction. Whether it’s “literary” or not depends, I suppose, on readers’ perceptions of it. I recently read Donald Maass‘s book, Writing 21st Century Fiction. He describes the “new” fiction as a hybrid, combining the best of commercial/genre fiction (great plot) with strong characters and beautiful writing (what we generally think of as “literary”). I hope Spirit Lamp is that kind of book.

4. What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh, this one is fun, although, as Lydia Sharp says in her “next big thing” post, there’s some danger in choosing actors at this point. Actors could grow old (or worse) before the agent/publisher/book-sitting-on-the-bookstore-shelf (or on iPads or Kindles or whatever) scenario plays out! But I’ll do it anyway: Amanda Seyfried (Cosette in Les Miserables) is perfect for Leona–do you think she can do a Southern accent?—and I’d want Morgan Freeman to play Luther. Nobody else would do. There’ll be a few other crucial role choices, but I’ll settle for these two at the moment.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In Spirit Lamp, a historical novel set in rural Mississippi during World War I, an outcast white girl and an elderly black sharecropper share a rare and tender bond, drawn together by a deadly secret.

6. How long did it take you to write the first draft?

About a year and a half; about a year for revision.

7. Who or what inspired you to write the book?

My great-grandfather (the one who was killed in a hunting "accident"), holding my mother
My great-grandfather (the one who was killed in a hunting “accident”), holding my mother

I’m fascinated by family stories and the place where I grew up. Both inform my fiction. I was drawn to this particular era because so many things were happening: on a grand scale, the Great War and the influenza epidemic; closer to home, my grandfather’s service in the war and my grandmother growing up in poverty and the festering prejudices of a small community.

8. Is your book published, upcoming, and/or represented by an agency?

I don’t have an agent, but I’m querying!

Here’s where I’m supposed to tag people to do their own “next big thing.” I know a lot of folks with works in progress, so I won’t single out anyone. If you see this post, please  consider yourself tagged and tell us about your “next big thing”!