Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Bruce Feiler who’s the author of six consecutive New York Times best sellers including The Secret of Happy Families, Walking the Bible, and Council of Dads, which is becoming a show on NBC. His upcoming book is called Life is in the Transitions: Mastering Change in a Nonlinear Age. He’s known as one of America’s most popular voices on contemporary life. He’s the host of two primetime series on PBS. His two TED Talks have been viewed more than two million times. A native of Savannah, Georgia, Bruce lives in Brooklyn with his wife and twin daughters.

Welcome, Bruce. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Bruce Feiler: My pleasure. As a dad who doesn’t have time to read books, I feel right at home. We’re all the same people.

Zibby: I know. I feel bad always calling it moms. It’s not just for moms. It’s really for anyone who’s busy, anybody who caretakes. I figured if I got the whole mom market, that wouldn’t be too shabby.

Bruce: My wife and I have a saying that when we see somebody do something ham-handed in public and stick in their foot in their mouth or say something obnoxious on social media, we say, that person needs a wife. About half the time, that person is a woman. The wife is the one who says, are you kidding? Don’t say that in public. So we’ll think of moms in a gender-beyond-the-binary way. How about that?

Zibby: I love that. Gender-beyond-the-binary moms don’t have time to read books. That has a nice ring to it.

Bruce: Catchy.

Zibby: Anyway, I have been a fan of yours, by the way, for a very long time. I love your writing. I was so excited when I heard you wanted to come on this podcast. I’m really delighted to be talking to you today, especially about your new book. I don’t know when this episode will air. As we’re doing the interview, I just have to say we are in the midst of the quarantine for coronavirus. The idea that I get to talk to you about transitions when you have literally written the book on transitions is a personal blessing for me. Would you mind just starting by telling listeners what your most recent book is about?

Bruce: I’m happy to do that. Thank you for your kind words. Let me begin by saying, let me just reciprocate and say how much of, not just a fan that I am, but really what a public service you’re doing for all of us and what a mission it is to bring writers and readers together in this world. I just want to salute you and celebrate you and toast you and thank you for doing this. I can assure you I’m more honored to be here than you are to have me. As you say, I have stumbled into a fascinating life moment where I spent the last five years not thinking about pandemics and not thinking about job loss and financial anxiety and family disruption, but thinking about all of those and thinking about the larger question of what happens when our lives get overturned in a big. Just to quickly go through the backstory as you asked, I had what I’ve come to think of as a kind of linear life.

I grew up in Savannah, Georgia. I went to college. This doesn’t happen, I moved to Japan in the middle of my third year at Yale. I started writing letters home of the “you’re not going to believe what happened to me” variety. When I got home six months later, everyone said, “I loved your letters.” I was like, great, have we met? It turned out that my grandmother had xeroxed them and passed them around. They were viral in kind of the old-fashioned sense of the word. I thought, well, I should write a book about this. I didn’t know anyone who had ever written a book. It doesn’t happen this way, but one thing led to another and I sold my first book at twenty-four, now thirty years ago. In my twenties, I wrote books about Japan and England and country music. I spent a year as a circus clown, as you know. Then in my thirties, I went back and forth to the Middle East and wrote a series of books, Walking the Bible being the most famous of them, and made television. This was my life. I think of it as linear, as I said, because I stumbled early on into living my life. I was not that successful. Then I found some success. I got married. I had children.

Then in my forties, I had a back to back to back set of nonlinear experiences. First, at forty-three I was diagnosed with a rare aggressive form of bone cancer in my left leg. That was 2008. At the same time, my family was hit hard by the recession. Then a few years later, we had the biggest tragedy of all. My father was suffering from Parkinson’s. He was never depressed a minute in his life, but Parkinson’s affects your mood and he tried to kill himself six times in twelve weeks. There’s a lump in my throat even just telling the story. We were dealing with business and medical and all the ways you were dealing with it. But I’m the story guy. I’ve been this meaning person my whole life. I kind of like running into the fire in a way. I like seeking out pain in a certain way. One Monday morning, I sat down and I did something kind of instinctual. I sent him a question about his life. Tell me about the house you grew up in as a boy. Then it was, tell me about the toys you played with. He would answer these questions, a few paragraphs, a page, two pages. I kept going. This went on for years. Tell me about, how’d you become an Eagle Scout? How’d you join the navy? How’d you meet mom? Until this man who had never written anything longer than a memo backed into writing an autobiography. It was the most powerful transformation any of us had ever seen.

I became obsessed with how when our lives get changed in some way that we kind of have to rewrite or update or retell the story of who we are. I’ve told this story. You and I were talking before we began this conversation. At my thirtieth college reunion, that night, person after person came up and told me a similar story. My wife had a headache and went in the hospital and died. My daughter tried to cut and kill herself. My boss stole money from me. I’m being sued for malpractice. Everybody was saying the same thing. The life I’m living is somehow not the life I expected. I’m living life out of order in some way. I called my wife, Linda. I said, “Look, I’m sitting on this story. No one knows how to tell their story anymore. I don’t know what the solution is, but I have to figure this out.” What I did, as you know, is I went off and created this thing that I came to call The Life Story Project. Over the span of several years, I crisscrossed the country gathering hundreds of stories of Americans of all ages, all walks of life, all fifty states. There’s actually a funny story about that. One day I was bragging to my wife. I said, “I think I can get twenty-five states,” late at night. She walked in the room and she said, “Get all fifty or shut up,” and walked out the room. I was like, okay, fine. Then I became very obsessed with getting demographics and all over the country. I ended up with this huge trove of stories. Then I did something that I’ve never done, which is I sat down to analyze them. That produced the ideas that became Life Is in the Transitions.

Zibby: Don’t stop. This is great.

Bruce: I’ve never done this. I had all of these stories here. I had them transcribed. Essentially, on the internet — we’re doing this on the internet today. You can now get transcriptions all over the world. I used these services. I had six thousand pages. You stack together, it came to the shoulders of my adolescent twin daughters. I got a team of a dozen people in my office here in Brooklyn. We spent a year coding these stories for fifty-seven different variables, high point, low point, turning point. It quickly became apparent that what we had stumbled on was information about the number and pace and kinds of ways our lives are upended. Then we dug in to try to figure out, are there patterns, themes, takeaways that we can identify that can help people navigate these big life, I call them lifequakes as you know, these big life changes in a more systematic and helpful way using best practices that everybody else has, some of which they stumbled onto and some of which they do intentionally, ways of getting through these kinds of life changes?

Zibby: One of your main points is that the linear life which you said you had had at the beginning that many had become accustomed to, that’s just not a thing anymore. We have to be prepared for the different shapes and the different rhythms our lives will take. That’s part of managing the transitions, is anticipating them.

Bruce: Let me geek out a little bit with you because I know you can go there with me, and everybody listening can. This is an idea that I had never thought about, but once I thought about it and went digging through dusty library books, turns out to have been a conversation that people have had for centuries that we simply don’t have anymore. That conversation is that our lives take certain paradigmatic shapes. In the ancient world, they didn’t have linear time. There was no clocks or anything, so they thought life was a cycle. To every season, turn, turn, turn. In the Middle Ages, it turns out, people began to see — linear time gets introduced. They thought that life was a staircase up to middle age and then a staircase down. As you know, in the book, Life is in the Transitions, I have all these graphic illustrations of this. You think about, this is not how we were raised in the twentieth century. You peak at whatever it is, we’ll call it forty. There’s no new love at fifty. There’s no new career after your children leave the house. You peak, and then it’s downhill. Everybody is forced to live that.

Essentially, for the last hundred and fifty years since the birth of science, we have been told that life is a linear arrow of progress. You’ve got Freud saying there are these various stages. You’ve got Piaget saying children go through stages. You’ve got Erikson saying there are these eight stages of moral development. The five stages of the grief, the hero’s journey, all of these things are very linear constructs. This reaches its peak in the seventies with this book that our mothers all read. Gail Sheehy said we’re going to go through passages. What Passages says, it’s amazing, it literally says the predictable crises of adult life. Everyone does the same thing in their twenties. Everyone does the same thing in their thirties. Everyone has a mid-life crisis at thirty-nine and a half. That literally popularizes — that book sells twenty million copies. That defined this idea. It turns out that’s all bunk. This is not how we live now. We’ve kind of known it instinctually. What’s going on here is it’s basically the way we look at the world affects the way we look at out lives. Now we know that life is chaotic. It’s disruptive. There are changes. We haven’t updated how we think of our lives. What my data turned out to show in this big year of analytics that we did was — so the linear life is dead. That’s the first point, as you said. It’s been replaced by what I call the nonlinear life. That includes a lot more disruption. My data show we have thirty-six disruptions, around, in our life. That’s one every twelve to eighteen months. It could be small like a car accident or a major surgery. It could be a big diagnosis. It’s having a child. It’s having a child leave the home.

Most of these, we get through. We’re pretty good at adjusting and responding to this kind of change, but one in ten of them become massive life reorientations. I call these things lifequakes. We have three to five in the course of our lives. I would say the signature finding from The Life Story Project is that the average length of these lifequakes — I feel like I almost should ask you how many you’ve been through and what they are, but you know where this is going because you’ve read the book — is five years. For three quarters of us, it takes four years or longer. You think, three to five in a life; four, five, six years; that’s twenty-five years. Half of our adults lives we are in transition in one way or the other. My book unveils essentially the first new model for navigating life transition in fifty years. There has not been a book about this since the late seventies, a book called Transitions. It turns out we’re all doing this. We don’t have a language for it. That was part of my goal. It turns out the book is now going to appear in the middle of what is a massive worldwide situation, lifequake, where we’re all going through one of these transitions at the same time.

Zibby: You must have planned that.

Bruce: What’s interesting, there is a tiny paragraph in my book where we broke down the biggest transitions in everyone’s lives on a metric, one of those two-by-two metrics. The two poles were personal and collective. A personal one would be death in the family or finding out you have a child with special needs or losing your job. Collective is an earthquake, a hurricane, I grew up in hurricane country, pandemic. Then the other pole was voluntary or involuntary. Voluntary might be getting married or getting divorced if you’re the one who’s choosing to get divorced. Involuntary meaning being told that your spouse is leaving you or firing your job. Voluntary may be starting a new enterprise, as you’ve done in recent years. Involuntary may be losing your legs in an accident. We made this grid. It’s in the book. The smallest category was involuntary collective, so an earthquake, a hurricane, a recession. The biggest involuntary collective that came up in my conversations was 9/11, a lot of people choosing to reorient their lives.

There’s a story in my book, I interviewed this woman who’s a professor at NYU. She presented as a man before 9/11. She said, “I’d rather live without my family, without my friends than not be true to myself.” That was the trigger that gave her the permission to go through a gender transition process. Lots of people moved out of town, rediscovered religion, changed jobs because of 9/11. I’m looking at this and I’m thinking, three percent of people had involuntary collective transitions that they identified in these conversations. Remember, I’ve done a thousand hours of interviews. I write this paragraph that says had I done this in the twentieth century, that would’ve been a lot higher. We had two world wars. We had the Great Depression. We had women’s rights and civil rights and all these things. I was like, we clearly are in a time where we’re kind of me-oriented and not we-oriented. Boom. Here we are, an involuntary collective transition that everybody’s going through at the same time, not just in this country, but around the world. I actually think that that aspect of this has not been talked about a lot. What is like now to actually have the connection of going through a transition? Transitions tend to be kind of lonely-making experiences because we feel like only us can go — woe is me. Everybody else’s life is wonderful on social media, and I’m suffering. Now we’re all going through this together, which actually in a way may end up making it somewhat easier.

Zibby: I think there’s going to be a lot of really good lifequake turning point-type material that comes out of this. Even just from the couple weeks of isolation, I can already feel things that I want to do differently afterwards. I’m sure everybody feels the same way.

Bruce: Give me an example?

Zibby: I feel like my parenting has changed so much. I have four kids at home. There are things I used to be so concerned about. I think I tried to exert control over having lots of rules and screen time this. Everything had to be in its place. Baths had to be this. I really wanted dinner at a certain time. Things had to go according to schedule. I’ve just let all that go. The kids just do so much more for themselves. If they watch screens, fine. I’ve just relaxed on the whole thing. They still want to play and everything’s fine. I just feel like I will be a different type of parent, I know, going forward. I will not go back. Even things like what they eat — I don’t want to go on. I feel like my biggest concern right now is the food supply situation. I’m just so concerned that I’m not going to have access to food, so now I feel very different about mealtime. I feel like I always will.

Bruce: Here’s my reaction to that. Back to this shape thing. I stumble into this idea. I find it electrifying that our lives have a kind of shape and expectation. I then ask the last question. I did these two three-hour interviews. The first question was, tell me the story of your life in fifteen minutes. Most people took an hour. That was great. Then I would do high point, low point, turning point. Then I would dig into how they go through the transitions. Tell me the biggest emotion that you struggled with. Did you have any rituals that you did at the beginning of the transition? What habits did you shed? What new creative enterprises did you start? What kind of advice from friends was most helpful? I was collecting all of this raw data and these amazing, amazing stories. Then the last two questions, which were the ones that meant the most to me, were, number one, looking back on your life in a different way, do you discern a central theme? I have to say, I was kind of shocked how people just jumped out of their chair to say yes. I then analyzed which themes were most important.

Then the last question was, what shape is your life? I sort of asked it cold. No one really knew that it was coming. People’s answers, there were spirals. There were lines. There were flowers. There were boxing gloves. It was amazing and also just too all over the place. This was the hardest thing to analyze. It took months to figure out and identify. Then finally, some patterns popped into the views. The coins fell down the slot machine or something and the sevens came up. We finally got it. It turns out that people’s shapes fell into three categories. The first were people who said their life was some sort of a line, an up-and-down a line, a squiggly road, a river. That was the lines. Then there was another that was a geometric shape, a circle, a house, a heart. Then the third was people who had an object. My wife is an object. She helps entrepreneurs, and so hers was a lightbulb. She helps people with their ideas and bringing them to life. It turns out that these three ideas correspond to what I have called the ABCs of meaning, the three pillars of what gives us identity. The A is agency. These are makers and doers and creators. B is belonging. That’s the part of us that’s family and friends and relationships. The C is a cause. That’s a purpose, a calling, something that we do to give back. I call these your me-story, your we-story, and your the-story. The famous circle in my memory was a woman who was an anorexic and couldn’t get pregnant and then had an accident, changed, and then with her husband had eleven adopted children from nine different refugee countries. She said the shape of her life was a dented minivan. That’s a circle in my point of view.

The point of going through this whole story is that we have these shapes. We all have all three shapes within us. What happens when we go through a lifequake is that we tend to shapeshift. Maybe we’ve lost our job. That’s our agency. We spend more time with our family. That’s our belonging. Maybe we’ve been a parent and we’re an empty-nester now and we want to do something for ourselves. We go from our belonging, from our circle to our line. Maybe we’ve been giving back as a caretaker. Maybe we’re burned out and we want to do something else. When I hear you saying you’ve been a rule-based mom, that’s your agency kicking in. This is the control. These are the rules. Then you realize, guess what? It turns out the belonging is more important. It’s natural in these moments to shapeshift, to reevaluate our priorities. Maybe we’ve been home and we’re like, do we want to still work eighteen hours a day? Maybe we want to spend more time with our family. Maybe we’re sick of our family because we’ve all been cooped up and we want to give back in some way. We realize, you know what? We’re just taking care of ourselves, but we have to do something for humanity. It’s natural in these times of transitions to — I think of it as instead of Lady Justice with the two dishes, there are three dishes. When we go through transitions, we kind of rebalance the pebbles, if you will, that we have in each dish.

Zibby: That’s also happened to me, by the way. That’s why I’m doing all this now. I feel like I have to give back in some way. I have to find meaning out of the chaos. Otherwise, how do I survive? What about you? How has this affected you personally? Or has your shape been so analyzed that it refuses to shift anymore? It’s like a meta-shape inspector.

Bruce: I’m definitely, I’m a line. I’ve written fifteen books. I’m a creator. That’s what gives me meaning. I’m one of those lines, it turns out I think a lot of lines turn out to be this way, who was kind of shocked to realize that there were other shapes. If you said to me, what shape is ? Oh, it was an up-and-down line. That was mostly graphed based on my own success. It turns out when I would say to someone, what shape is your life? and they would say a heart, I would say, oh, no, you don’t understand the question. The question is, how do you see your life? Does it go up and down? They’re like, no, it doesn’t go up and down. It’s a heart. It’s my relationships. I don’t care about the ups and downs. It was so, humiliating is the wrong word, but I was so dense about the whole thing. I would say that now that I’m aware of this, when I get too in my own head or too definitional about looking at my life through the prism of my own accomplishments or creations or activities, then I sort of check myself and realize, okay, I need to make sure that I’m giving back. One of the reasons that I’m somewhat prickly about the mom/dad thing is I’m also an incredibly involved dad. Having almost died and left my young children, there’s a big part of me that’s around dads and Council of Dads and all of these things. My kids are now early teenagers, and so my thing is having to pull back a little bit, as you said earlier, be a little bit less hands-on and let them find their own way, which is hard for me. I would say I’m tweaking all three of the shapes in this current disruptive lifequake that we’re all in.

Zibby: I feel like you should do the “Dads Don’t Have Time to Read Books” partner podcast to my podcast.

Bruce: I’m ready, actually. I love that.

Zibby: Wouldn’t that be fun?

Bruce: I absolutely love that.

Zibby: In addition to expecting some shapeshifting, what else in a time of collective transition, involuntary, should we expect? What else comes from something like this?

Bruce: Let me say first of all, to pick a nit for a second, let’s go back to the voluntary/involuntary. Turns out it was about almost fifty/fifty. Fifty-three percent were involuntary transitions and forty-seven percent were voluntary transitions. It was interesting. I had all these, I shouldn’t call them kids, these millennials, these young adults, these undergraduates and graduate students in technology who were helping me analyze these stories. When the data — ping, ping — popped up that fifty-three percent of the lifequakes people experience in their lives are involuntary and forty-seven are voluntary, my reaction was, wow, forty-seven percent of the people choose their big lifequakes. They choose to change religions. They choose to leave their marriages. They choose to leave a corporate job and start a nonprofit. They choose to be a stay-at-home mom and not go back to work, whatever it might be. That was my reaction. I was shocked how big the voluntary number was. For the kids in my midst, they were shocked how big the involuntary number — shit, you mean I can’t control my life that much, the big, huge changes in my life? Of course, young people have the untested, for the large part — a lot of them grow up with addiction. One in four of my stories involved addiction in some way. If you grow up with that, a lot of people are born into lifequakes for disruptive families or divorce or addiction or poverty or whatever it might be. Their big reaction was how much of the big events in our life they can’t anticipate.

The point is, it turns out that the toolkit is the same. I thought it would’ve been different for someone making a career change and someone facing cancer as I did or somebody who’s trying to get sober. It turns out the toolkit is much more similar. Your question was what to expect. Number one, it’s going to be similar. I would say the following. The first thing I would say is that there are identifiable phases that people will go through. My names for these phases are the long goodbye where you say goodbye to the old you, this messy middle where you are trying to figure out what it means to be unmoored in some way, and then there’s the new beginning where you’re launching your new self. Everything written about transitions in the last hundred years has said these kinds of phases happen and must happen in order. First, you must say goodbye. Then you must go through the messy middle. Then you go — that turns out to be also BS. Each of us has a transition superpower and a transition kryptonite. Maybe you’re good at saying goodbye. Goodbye, I’m out the door. Then you’re going to linger for a longer time in the messy middle. A lot of people are bad at saying goodbye. They stick around far too long. They like the messy middle because that’s charts and schedules. My guess is you’re a messy middle person, right? You make graphs. You make lists. You’re going to accomplish it. That’s your superpower.

Zibby: I have schedules. Everything is typed.

Bruce: You are a master of the messy middle. Then what’s your kryptonite? You’re either bad at saying goodbye or you tarry in the middle too long and maybe you’re not good at unveiling it. My guess is you’re bad at saying goodbye. That would be my hunch because you seem to be good at launching new things. You’ve launched a lot of news things in the last couple of years. People have a transition superpower. Don’t expect to be good at everything. Don’t expect to do them in order. That’s perfectly fine. My data show that people do them out of order. Then you get into it. There are these tools that I have, it turns out, the seven tools of navigating transitions. I’ll just go through them quickly. We don’t have time to go into all of them. One is everyone’s going to struggle. I mentioned earlier. What’s the biggest emotion you struggle with in a transition? Top three were fear, number one. Two is shame. I was fascinated by that. Excuse me, two is sadness, like grief. It’s just sad. I see this with my kids. They’re just sad about all the things that they’re missing. They’re teenagers. They’re not having the dance concert. They’re not having this party. They’re not going to see this Broadway show with their friends for their birthday. They’re just sad a lot of the time. Then the shame, which is the shocking one to me, is number three. You have to identify this emotion.

I think that ritual is incredibly important, marking the line. I’ve written a lot about religion. This interested me. I was shocked by this. People do things. They get tattoos. They jump out of airplanes. They burn the old things. They repaint their rooms. There’s something ritualistic that says that old thing — it’s part of the saying of goodbye. I’m having a hard time thinking about it, and that’s okay. Other people have a hard time. Ritualize the saying goodbye in some way. Then you get into the messy middle, which is where a lot of us are now. That turns out to involve two massive things. One is shedding, shedding old habits, old clothes. Maybe you’ve put on weight. It’s maybe the skinny clothes. Maybe you’ve exercised a lot. Maybe it’s public recognition or dying your hair. I’m married to someone for that’s a big deal right now. You have to shed something. It turns out some of those things are things that you like, but a lot of them are stuff that you don’t like. I mentioned to you before we started this conversation, I cleaned my little side office. You know what I shed? Ten years of unused computer cables that I was keeping around in case I pulled out that old device and I wanted to get that picture off of it. Just garbage bags full of stuff, I shed this weekend. Then one of the most satisfying things that I discovered is that people turn out to instinctually turn to incredible acts of creativity. You see it now on social media with the baking. Apparently, there’s a run on yeast.

Zibby: I can’t get yeast. I can’t get it. I was trying to make challah. I could not get yeast, so I made brownies.

Bruce: That is fascinating. People, they didn’t say, I’m going to be creative, but yet there’s something ritualistic about baking. There’s also, it’s a creative thing. I heard stories of people who baked, people who painted tool houses. I’ll tell you a story of this guy Zach. It was an African American son of a crack baby who was adopted by a white family in Kansas, kind of drifted through his life, joined the US military, ended up in Afghanistan. In his first months in Afghanistan, his face was blown off by the Taliban. He had thirty-one surgeries between the tip of his nose and the tip of his chin, including sewing his tongue back on. I’m having this conversation with Zach. I say, “So tell me what happened.” By the way, suicidal ideation, thinks his life is over. His mother gives up and moves to near where he’s in recuperation in Virginia. He tells me that his mother tells him one day, “Why don’t you start cooking?” He can’t taste food. He can’t have spicy food. He starts to cook. He’s telling me these stories. He’s starting to cook. He says that girls love it. He has these specialties. He can make salmon. He can make lamb. Then he tells me that he starts to write poetry.

Then he tells me he starts to paint by splattering paint on the canvas. I’m talking to you right now. You are probably not that far from where Jackson Pollock splattered a lot of that paint. He says to me, “Who’s that painter who does that?” out of college, high school dropout. I say, “Jackson Pollock?” He said, “Yeah, like him. I used to shoot bullets at the Taliban to get my anxieties out. Now I splatter paint.” This is an amazing story. I said to him, “Zach, if you went to your high school self and said that you were going to cook and write poetry and paint, what would you have thought?” He said, “I would’ve thought it was stupid.” People turn to the most incredible acts of creativity, writing, journaling, as I said, baking, painting, dancing. I talked to a woman who left her job as a tenured chemistry professor, an Asian American woman in Alabama, who then takes up ballet dancing and tutus because she’d wanted to do it since she was a child. People turn to creativity. That’s the messy middle, shedding and creativity. The last thing they do is they slowly unveil the new self which involves essentially rewriting your life story and then beginning to tell it to other people.

Zibby: Amazing. This is so interesting and so timely and so helpful. Now that this book — this book is coming out whenever it comes out. What’s your next big project? You must have a lot of different balls in the air. I’m interested to hear.

Bruce: A couple things. First of all, I am working with a producer now to turn The Life Story Project and the book, Life is in the Transitions, into some sort of a television experience where we go and recreate it. I would say I have lots of ideas for television, for books and projects, but at the heart of all of them is the essence of what I’ve been doing the last five years, which is this incredibly old-fashioned thing of go and talk to people. You do it all day. Tell me the story of your life. There’s no greater drug than looking someone in the eye and saying, tell me the story of your life. Then the difference from what, say, Studs Terkel did or even some of the other storytelling projects out there now is then this data analytics, turning the stories into data and identifying patterns, so the old-fashioned thing coupled with this newfangled thing. A lot of the new stuff that I’m conjuring up in my mind involves this core experience because I would say one of the damn blessed things that happened in this experience was ninety percent of the ideas that I uncovered were things that really had not been written about in the extensive literature that I was reading about how we get through life. I feel like it’s a great way to surface ideas coupled with stories. I’m committed to the idea of collecting life stories.

Zibby: I love it. By the way, that’s my dream, just spending the day asking people about their lives. I can think of nothing more interesting.

Bruce: This is the reason that we have to do “Dads Who Don’t Have Time to Read Books” with moms. I would go to my wife, who has a busy job, and we have teenagers and all this, and at the end of the night I would want to unfurl these stories. You just can’t believe the story that I heard today of this person that used to be a white supremacist who now helps people get out of groups or this woman who was a big corporate executive who now is a hypnotist. The stories were amazing. She just got to the point where it was too much for her.

Zibby: Just call me. I’m totally interested. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Bruce: My big advice for aspiring writers is to write. My way of thinking about this is I know a lot of aspiring writers who are much better at aspiring than they are at writing. I tell a story which I’ve never told publicly in my book of when I was a freshman at Yale in the early 1980s. Somehow, the second month I managed to go to the art gallery and hear this talk from James Baldwin. He turned out to be near the end of his life. Someone raised his hand and asked the question that you just asked me, which is, “Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?” Let’s go with Baldwin’s answer as opposed to Feiler’s answer. This is, in some ways, quaintly old-fashioned now. He said, “All you need to write is a table, a chair, a piece of paper, and a pencil.” Meaning, sit your butt down. Grab the pencil. Start writing. Don’t worry that it has to be perfect or they have to share it. My father, when I asked him that first question, “Tell me about the house that you grew up in,” he couldn’t move his fingers. He had Parkinson’s. He dictated his answer to Siri. Then Siri typed it out. He began to edit it. He did this for five years until he wrote a 52,000-word memo more or less without using his fingers entirely in one and two-page chunks. To me, that’s my advice to aspiring writers. Write.

Zibby: Write even with Siri.

Bruce: Just do the exercise and patterns. We know, especially in difficult — the one thing that I have forced my teenagers to do against their better judgement was to journal. They’re not instinctually drawn to that. There is a lot of evidence that doing expressive writing, as it’s called, twenty minutes a day, three days in a row or whatever, will actually help you navigate whatever you’re going through more easily. It’s the one thing that I’ve insisted my kids do in this time of quarantine.

Zibby: Bruce, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and sharing all the stories of everybody you interviewed and all the tips to help us all through this. Thank you.

Bruce: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you again for doing this and for opening up your home and your heart to people who sit alone by themselves and want to have someone listen to their stories. Keep telling your story, everyone.

Zibby: Aw, thanks.