Literary giant Anna Quindlen returns to discuss her latest book, Write for Your Life, which shows the innumerable ways writing connects us to the world and those we hold closest. Anna shares why she believes everyone should document their life in words—regardless of whether they consider themselves a writer or not— as well as why the gesture of hand writing a letter or note is sometimes more powerful than the written words themselves. The two also talk about all of the different forms writing can take and why it’s important to Anna that her kids have her books to remember her by.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Anna. Thank you for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about your latest book, Write for Your Life. Tell everybody what it is about and how you came up with the idea. You could’ve written this so long ago. Why now?

Anna Quindlen: Your podcast is called “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Of course, the whole point of it is that moms need to have time to read books. This book might well be called Moms Don’t Have Time to Write, but they need to do it. I’ve been saving string on this one mentally for a number of years, first of all, from my own perspective as a writer. I’m sure you’ve found this too. Actually writing something down as opposed to having it ricocheting around in your brain does one of two things. It either diminishes it — you write a paragraph about something and think, why was I was so stressed out about this? — or it enlarges it. You write a paragraph about something and think, yes, this is my life. The problem is that the new technologies make us think we’re writing when we kind of aren’t or we are in an evanescent way that disappears. When I’m dead, I can’t imagine that my children are going to rifle through the saved emails on my computer, literally maybe tens of thousands, and find much of moment about me. I’m lucky. What they will find of moment about me is on an entire shelf of books where they can open something that I’ve written and say, oh, yes, there she is. What this book says is that that shouldn’t be the purview of professional writers. We’ve professionalized writing in a way that’s both curious and counterproductive.

Think about a hundred years ago. A hundred years ago, everyone who was literate wrote. Everyone wrote letters because that was really the only way to communicate. Many, many people kept journals. Lots of them kept accounts of their daily life in other ways. Then slowly over time with the advent of the telephone and now certainly with emails and texts, there’s an idea that ordinary people don’t write anymore. There’s a moment in the book that has been replicated for me literally dozens of times. A woman came up to me in the Twin Cities. She’s from Somalia. She now lives in Minneapolis. She talked to me about her journey from one country to ours. At the end of her very resonant description of her life, I said to her, “You should write that down.” Her response was, “I am not a writer.” I’ve heard that over and over again. What I want to do with this book is to say to everyone, you should write that down. You should write it down because when you do, you’ll understand yourself in a way that you didn’t before. You should write that down because when things are written down, they take on a life, a reality that they don’t have when they’re passing thoughts. You should write it down because fifty years from now, your granddaughter will open a drawer and find a letter or find a journal and think, I know her. That’s eternal life. Who doesn’t want eternal life?

Zibby: It’s so true. It’s amazing. You had a quote in the book where you just said, “Writing is the gift of your presence forever.” You said, “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?”

Anna: I feel that so powerfully about my parents, particularly my mother. My father has left more written documents behind, but my mother left almost nothing. Given the fact that she died when I was quite young, if only I had a packet of letters. I used to have a persistent fantasy that she had left me letters, one for every birthday, and that I would be able to open them up, but she didn’t. Probably, there were two parts to that. The first part was that she would probably say, as that woman did in Minneapolis, I am not a writer. The second part would be, as a very ordinary woman living a very ordinary suburban life, she would’ve said, what do I have to say? The answer is, real life is powerful. The tiny moments of real life taken together become a person in a way that is so powerful. There’s one small fact of my mother’s existence that I have written down in my columns that make everyone go, oh! That is that my mother wanted to be an artist but instead, got married very young and had five children in quick succession. On Fridays, when we could not eat meat because I’m from a Catholic family, she would put a hard-boiled egg in my lunch. She would paint with watercolors on the surface of that egg, the face of a princess or a tree with apples or things like that. It is no exaggeration nor diminution of my own character to say that when I was eleven or twelve years old, I took those eggs out and broke the shell. There’s something about that fact of hers that, if only she’d written a paragraph about doing it, would enlarge my understanding of her. I think particularly for mothers, to have that to give to your children, when you’re there but I think especially when you’re gone, is very, very powerful.

Zibby: That’s the first thing I do whenever anybody passes away. I do an inventory of what cards or what letters I have. I go through everything, every file drawer, everywhere I can find it. What pictures and what letters, that’s it. To your point, not emails. Even though sometimes emails can be so private and personal, it’s not the same. You said so much in your book about handwriting. You want to see where their hand touched that page. There’s something about it.

Anna: You sent me, after you finished the book —

Zibby: — I had to.

Anna: You sent me a picture of a handwritten note to me. It wasn’t long. It wasn’t discursive, but it was in your writing. That communicates something different than typing something. Look, I’m somebody who’s been typing things her whole life long. As I say in the book, I don’t handwrite my books. The thought is inconceivable to me. The synapse from my brain for my imagination goes directly from my fingers onto a keyboard. That’s how I’ve been writing virtually my entire life. I compare and contrast that with a number of other writers in the contempory era, with Jennifer Egan, who writes everything in longhand, which is amazing to me because her books are so tech-specific, yet she writes everything in longhand on yellow legal pads, or Mary Gordon, the novelist, who also writes in longhand. I’m just wowed by that. That doesn’t keep us from leaving some little piece of ourselves in longhand behind. I just was finishing up my healthcare proxy. That’s a very legalistic document that goes to my second son, Christopher. Then I thought, you know what? It would be really helpful if I wrote a letter to Chris, not long, not discursive, but just saying, hey, I’m asking you to do this because I think that you’ll be able to channel me really well. Just in case, here’s the deal if I’m incapacitated. I wrote it on the computer and printed it out, but I signed it with my name, with “Mommy.” You look at that and think, she was here. That’s what handwriting does. She was here. Even some small piece of it on a letter I think is incredibly valuable.

Zibby: When I did my will and healthcare whatever five years ago or something — or I updated it or whatever. Anyway, I did write a note by hand. I gave it to the lawyers to keep with the will so that my kids would have a letter when I die.

Anna: It’s funny, I just executed a new will, and they made me initial every page before we got to the signature page. Apparently, that’s what the law requires or demands. I don’t know. Halfway through it, I thought — Quin is my executor. I thought, is Quin going to see this? I asked them, “Will Quin see this?” I thought to myself, seeing these initials will be upsetting for him on this particular document. On everything else, I just feel like it bespeaks your presence. As I say in the book, when we think of letters, when we think of a group of love letters or those letters that were written during the war to and from someone who was serving, we think of them as tied up with a ribbon. The reason I think we think of them as tied up with a ribbon is that a letter is a kind of gift, especially now. If I want to tell you something, “Zibby, meet me for lunch at Café Luxemburg,” I send you a text. I don’t send you a letter because I want to inform you of something. I send you a letter because I want to give you something. I want to give you something substantive. I think that’s borne out by the fact that there are certain kinds of communications that we really think are only letter-appropriate. For example, I’m not going to write a condolence note as an email. I’m just not. I really feel like that demands that I handwrite a note and send it off. Email love letters, I don’t know. I’d just rather get a little something scrawled on a piece of paper.

Zibby: That’s true. My husband sometimes leaves me little notes. I’m like, oh, my god. I have one right up here. I taped it up.

Anna: Then you save them all, right?

Zibby: Yeah. Then I’m thinking, gosh, I don’t write him any notes. I better start writing him some notes. I have maybe once or twice. I feel like it’s been one of those things that I’ve been crossing off the list because it takes too long. It’s such a shame because I do love writing. I’m like, I could just as easily send this. I could send twenty thank-you notes in the time it would take me to handwrite two, basically. Is this really the best use of my time? There is something gift-worthy. You learn so much. There’s nothing like it.

Anna: I think we’ve underestimated what writing can do for us. It can be really therapeutic too. It’s interesting that more and more entities are using it with a therapeutic model. I don’t know if you recall the chapter in the book about doctors and nurses and about how this wonderful doctor who also has a PhD in English literature, Rita Charon, has invented this program called Parallel Charts, narrative writing in medicine. It helps medical students and doctors understand themselves and understand the people they’re treating. The one chart is the chart we know, blood pressure, sex, ailment, whatever. The parallel chart is what you can tell about the patient but you would never write on the chart, like the patient having this kind of family or the patient having this kind of affect about what’s going on or stories the patient might have told you. That’s exactly what people who are seeing doctors and nurses want. They want somebody who sees them. The writing helps healthcare professionals see the people they’re working with, but it also helps them. We’ve all talked about how the burnout, particularly in the last two years, is so considerable. There’s something about writing these things down that, again, helps you sometimes diminish and enlarge them at the same time. I keep thinking about that letter that’s in the book from the young nurse, Lutiant Van Wert, who talks about the first time she’s ever seen one of the soldiers she’s treating during the epidemic die. The epidemic she’s writing about is the flu epidemic of 1918. As I read that letter, I kept thinking, will we have this? Will we have this about COVID? We need to have this about COVID.

Zibby: It’s true. No one’s going to print out your Instagram posts or all of that stuff. During COVID, I was writing so much on Instagram. I went through and copied and pasted them all and put it all so I could remember what it was like in those minutes when my mother-in-law was sick, what each day was like. I’m not ready to read it yet, but I know I have it. I know I’m not going to go back and read it on Instagram. I have to have it printed in a cabinet. It’s not the same as handwriting.

Anna: That’s a smart thing to do. I think when you’re writing episodical on some site, it sort of gets away from you. I’m not saying you shouldn’t write episodically. If you were keeping a journal during COVID, that’s exactly what you’re doing, writing from the very beginning when we all thought, oh, no, two weeks of quarantine, oh, my gosh, to then when we realized that we were deep, deep into it, to when we started to climb out and then fell back. The seven-PM applause in the streets of Manhattan, the groceries that were left out in the driveway because we weren’t sure how this was communicated, all those things will be in the journals that some people kept. I was asked whether this book was a product of COVID. It wasn’t. As I said to you, I’ve been thinking about this for years. It was kind of thrilling to find out over and over again that while no one was buying fancy dresses — today, everyone’s opening their closets going, wow, I totally forgot I had any of this stuff. I put on dress shoes the other day for a gig, heels. I thought, are there cobwebs in here?

Zibby: I’m literally doing that tonight, literally. I had to go shopping this weekend because I was like, I don’t think I have a single thing that is still going to fit from two years ago. These are not even in style anymore. I’m going to dust off the heels. I’m not ready.

Anna: I totally forgot about half the clothes I had. Nobody was buying those kinds of clothes. People were buying yarn, and knitting. People were buying yeast and making bread. People, apparently, were buying journals with empty pages and stationery because they decided that they were going to go back to writing. I think people circled back to all the things that slow you down and that result in something that we sometimes take for granted because of the speed of daily life but that matter. When you knit a sweater by yourself and you’re done, it might not be perfect and it might not look like what you would’ve bought at a department store, but you made it. I think that’s the way people felt about journals as well. I think they also felt that sense — I talk in the very beginning of the book about Anne Frank’s diary and about how people think, oh, my goodness, she wrote this incredible book. The truth is, she didn’t write a book. In the very beginning when she first got this diary for her birthday, she was talking to herself. I think that’s some of what people were doing during COVID. They were talking to themselves on the page so they could understand what they were thinking and feeling. I think we all need to do more of that and not say, I’m not a writer. Everybody can write. If you can read, you can write.

Zibby: My mom said the same thing. I was encouraging her to write something. I feel like it was maybe even my book club or something. “Oh, I don’t have a story to tell.” I’m like, “Mom, what are you talking about? How can you say that?” as 57,000 funny things she — funny or meaningful or sad — I know what’s happened to her. Even if nothing happened, even if it was just about her day — I keep sending her all these blank things. Fill in this whatever. Some people, maybe, don’t feel comfortable.

Anna: What I say at the very end of the book is that’s why history feels so bloodless to us so much of the time. God bless them. I’m happy to know about the Constitutional Convention. I’m happy to know about the founding of the United Nations, but I live in daily life. What I really want to understand is the daily lives of people who lived at that time. That’s why I quote from this amazing book which I’m so happy is still in print called Pioneer Women where one woman in Topeka, Kansas, reached out to all of these women who had once settled the state and asked them to write down their recollections. From plagues of grasshoppers to handmaking all of their children’s clothes to having their young children die because of how primitive the conditions were to digging out the dug-out houses where they lived before they could build them, it’s such a rich history of a time that we don’t usually get, in part, because as Arthur Shlesinger says when I quote him in the end of the book, “Most history is written by and about powerful white men.” The history I’m really interested in is the history that can be written by women and people of color. The only way that history gets written is if those people decide to write it.

Zibby: Very true. What’s the last thing that you wrote by hand?

Anna: I just wrote a condolence note yesterday, actually, on my stationary. I do feel really strongly about that, that to say you’re sorry, you’ve lost someone, has to be done by hand.

Zibby: I shouldn’t even admit I have sent electronic email condolence notes. I also feel like when I’m going through a loss, sometimes I like getting it on email. I like opening email and seeing that somebody sees what I’ve gone through.

Anna: There’s an immediacy to it. It happened to you a day or two ago. The email says, “I just heard that you just suffered this loss.” It does have that kind of immediacy, but I feel like I want to write too.

Zibby: No, you’re right. My mother would say shame on me for doing that. I won’t tell her. What’s your next project? Do you have a next project?

Anna: I am kind of through the first draft of a new novel. I always hesitate to say that.

Zibby: I’ll knock wood. I won’t jinx it for you.

Anna: The wood must be knocked. It’s just such a difficulty prospect. That’s one of the things that I hope I successfully communicate to people who don’t do this for a living in the book. I’m not saying it’s easy because it’s not easy for me. This is book twenty-one. I never sit down and think, oh, writing, piece of cake. I do feel afterwards like there’s a piece of my life that’s frozen in amber. I feel like that’s only for the good. I do understand that when you sit down, you’ve got to wrestle with that voice in your head that says, I have nothing to say.

Zibby: Very true. Amazing. Anna, thank you. Thank you for this book. Thank you for the chat again. Thanks for encouraging people to read and write, especially. I am always telling people to write stuff down and saying, oh, your daughter said she’s — tell her to write it down. You can’t say it too many times. Of course, the way you said it is just so powerful for all the many people who have been benefited by writing, from freedom writers to Anne Frank to really everybody. Thank you.

Anna: Now you know what it’s like, Zibby. Now you know what it’s like to be one of us. Now you’re a member of this sisterhood between hardcovers. I would say you’ll be kinder to those of you who do this, except for you’ve always been notably kind to those of us who do this. Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome.

Anna: See you soon.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Anna: Bye.


WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE by Anna Quindlen

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