In January 2018, Gina Hamadey decided to write thank-you notes during her commute instead of checking off other tasks on her to-do list. What resulted from a simple choice was an entire year spent conveying gratitude through handwritten notes as Gina decided to write a thank-you note per day to someone or something new in her life. Reflecting on her childhood and studying her relationships, Gina shows readers all of the joy that defined her year and how they too can begin their own note writing project.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Gina. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss I Want to Thank You: How a Year of Gratitude Can Bring Joy and Meaning in a Disconnected World.

Gina Hamadey: Zibby, I truly could not be more thrilled to be here.

Zibby: Your book was so great. I literally was completely inspired to try this project myself, and then of course, have done nothing about it. Tell listeners what your book is about and the project that inspired the writing of it.

Gina: I went on a little gratitude journey in what I called my thank you year where I wrote 365 gratitude notes, gratitude letters, thank you notes, whatever you want to call them. I structured it so every month I turned to a group of recipients. There were neighbors. There were friends, family members, mentors, healthcare workers, and then some more conceptual topics like food and travel.

Zibby: In the book, you talked about your train ride where you came up with this idea. Tell me that story again.

Gina: I was doing this reverse commute from Brooklyn to Summit, New Jersey, for a time to Boll & Branch where I was consulting. It’s a home goods company. Summit, New Jersey, is a very sweet, little town. This is in January of 2018. It was coming off the heels of — as you know, every holiday season is a busy holiday season. This one felt particularly busy. I just didn’t enjoy it. An hour on a quiet train to New Jersey felt like literal heaven. I was spending it kind of caught up in my to-do list and emails and feeds until I turned to a stack of thank you notes that I had promised to donors of a fundraiser to City Harvest, a City Harvest fundraiser. This wasn’t a task that I was — I think I felt neutral about it. I wasn’t one of those people that was a thank you note person. Now I’m meeting them. They are around. They are super psyched to write thank you notes. That was not me. It wasn’t something I was dreading either, necessarily. I felt neutral about it.

The act of sitting down in a quiet train ride with a stack of thank you notes and writing something positive, “Thank you for giving money to this organization that I believe in,” it just felt like a blanket of calm and relaxation and focus that my brain really needed without me ever anticipating that. I sort of backed into it. I felt like, why does this feel so good? What is happening? I noticed that the mood would carry on into my day. I felt like a veil was lifted. I don’t want to say too many clichés all in row, but I just felt like the day started off in a much better, clear-eyed way. I was thinking about all this on January 31st because I’d just finished the last thank you note. I looked at my list. There were thirty-one thank you notes that I had written, and it was January 31st. The whole concept came to me fully formed. I’ve written a thank you note for every day this year. It was a surprisingly positive experience. Maybe this is my project this year. Then because I came up in magazines, I wrote a little content calendar for it.

Zibby: I love it. It’s just such a clever idea. I love that you started with your community and even Books are Magic and the guy at the butcher shop or whatever it was who kept your letter. I love that the way you approached it was like, I’m going to do this, and we’ll see what comes of it. You didn’t know. You didn’t have a mission. You’re just like, maybe it’ll be good. Maybe it’ll help the other people too. Who knows? Then you got so much positive feedback. People value these so much. I know for me, a handwritten note, especially if somebody passes away or something, those are the first things I go to. I need to see what I have. I do my inventory. Any note, it has so much more value. All these other emails, even if they’re super nice, they just get lost. Nobody’s framing an email or something. I just love this retro — so important to make this art of writing so important, I say as I literally this morning was trying to get my kids to write thank you notes for their birthday. I’m like, “Thank you notes, thank you notes!” They’re like, “Ugh, why do we have to do this?” I’m like, “I don’t know. You just do.”

Gina: I have some tips for them to make them a little more fun. That was one of my months where I was writing with my son. At the time, he was five. We were writing thank you notes after his birthday. I too was like, oh, great, this will just cross off this month really super quickly, but I stalled on those because those were really boring to write. It’s really fun, actually, to write to a neighbor who’s a treasured friend, or a mentor. Those are actually really fun things to write because you probably have something to say to that person that maybe you’ve never said. It’s an actual fun thing to do. Writing and saying, “Thank you for the Lego set,” is just so boring. It feels like there’s always something you’d rather do. In that case, we went a little deeper. I asked my son to say something that he likes about each of those kids. It just makes it a little more fun. I would say if you could just go one sentence, one step deeper than, “Thank you for the Lego set,” it’s just one little thing, it makes it more fun.

Zibby: It’s so true. The whole premise, too, of just reconnecting with people and deepening the connections you have is so important, and friendship in general. I just wanted to read this one passage. As I told you, I have so many dog-eared pages here because there was so much good stuff. You said, “As I sent the cards off to houses I’ve never seen in California and Seattle and Chicago, I thought about how keeping old friendships alive took time and that time was something we once had but no longer do. When time becomes scare, why is friendship the first thing to be sacrificed? Maybe it explains social media’s rocketing rise. We are all craving the friendships we had when we were younger, and we settle for this faux version because it’s all we think we have time for. This month’s correspondence took a little effort and time, to be sure, but it meant more than a social media smiley face, and it was more efficient than scheduling twenty-six catch-up phone calls.” Tell me about this and how you had been fitting friendship into your life and how you think about it now post-project.

Gina: Because each month’s topic was so different, each form was really different. The friends’ month was a good example where it took me a week or so to figure out how I was going to do it. My neighbors’ month, the prior one, was easy. It was like, okay, I’ll find neighbors, stores, and people who live near me who have done some really nice favors at some point. I’ll write them a little thank you note about it. Then when I tried to apply that to friends, it just didn’t make sense. Thank you for inviting me to your family trip thirty years ago. It felt wrong. That’s not what friendship is about, favors. What I eventually did was find old photographs. I opened up my shoeboxes. I turned some of those old yellowing photographs into postcards. You just reinforce it with a 4×6 mailing label. That’s it. It’s a postcard. It’s easy. That then became really fun because it’s like the copy’s already written. Each sentence I started pretty much the same, which was, “Remember when we were young and carefree?” Almost all those pictures felt like that. It was just us at a bar, us in Italy. We’re laughing. We’re eating ice cream. We’re on a moped. It was that and then a little sentence about the memory that it brings up and a little wish for the future, hope to see you soon, kind of thing. It was a tiny bit of an art project, but those went really fast. Then the reactions were so lovely and heartwarming.

It did underline something that I’ve always felt. I was born in California. I had dear, dear friends who I’m still very close with. I went to school in Michigan. I’ve been in New York since 2001. It’s so hard to keep these friendships, but they are so important to me. They’re more important to me than many other things that I do make time for. It just feels like it actually doesn’t take much to keep it up, not in the way that I wish we could. That gesture felt like I sort of bought myself another five years. Not that I want to wait five years before being in touch with some of these people again. The effort that I took with it and the words that I wrote and the effort that it was clear that I’d made, it just reinforced the love that I have for them. I know it made people feel great. I got a lot of comments. “This made my day. This made my week. Of course, I remember this.” It just felt like such a wonderful, positive, almost free thing to do. It reminded me of one of my — I’ll just use the marketing term; know that I know this is a marketing term — my core values. It is one of my core values. These friendships are so important to me. I don’t want to live my life pretending that they’re not, but I don’t have the time to sit down with all of them. I just don’t, so this was sort of me making it work.

Zibby: It’s so true that you have to, at some point, put some time behind the things that matter. This sounds ridiculously obvious. I feel like friendship, like you said in the book, and I think that’s why I responded to it, it’ll be there. I have friends who I haven’t talked to in forever. I call them and we pick up where we were, but friendships do need tending to like a fire before they go out. You got to tend to the embers a little or whatever. Something like this is so easy and sweet and thoughtful. Now I feel like it’s less thoughtful because I didn’t think of it myself. It’s your idea. If I were to do it myself —

Gina: — No, please. Are you kidding? Feel away.

Zibby: So you literally just took the picture and put on a mailing label. You don’t have to laminate the front or anything with the actual picture?

Gina: No. I tried a few different things. I did try, not laminating, but I got little cellophane packages and stick-its.

Zibby: Yeah, you wrote that.

Gina: I took a few things to the mailing label. It comes in round sticker thing. On Amazon or whatever, it’s 4×6 mailing labels. It comes in a round thing. You take off one sticker. For me, I’m not a crafty person. It wasn’t exactly even. Even though they’re both 4×6, the label’s a tiny bit longer. You kind of fold it over. It’s a little crude. It’s not perfect and Pinterest-y. I’m sure you could made it so if you wanted. It just wasn’t the point for me. You put it on, and that’s it. You draw the little line on the postcard.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Aren’t you sad you don’t have those pictures?

Gina: You know, I don’t know how you are — I’m not sure if we’re the same age. I’m forty-one. I just had so many of these. You can absolutely print something from your computer and get doubles or something. You can make a copy at the local whatever. I just feel like I had so many duplicates. They’re all in this box that is slowly yellowing. I felt okay giving them away.

Zibby: I’m forty-four, FYI. I have them all in albums. I don’t know if you can see.

Gina: Oh, I love it.

Zibby: I have these. I’m pointing. I have that whole row there. Then in the cabinets below, I have all the photo albums from the nineties. I was really good about putting them in albums, so I would have to pull them out. I’m sure I have some floating away. Maybe you just take a picture of it or a screenshot or something.

Gina: I took a picture of every note I ever wrote, including the front and back of these. Then I made a little photo album of it just so I had a record of the year. They’re in there.

Zibby: Perfect. I love it. How did it feel for you, writing the book as you were going through? What was it like documenting it and then writing it at the same time and making time not only for friendship and the notes, but then the book about the friendships and the notes and the responses and all of that? Tell me about that.

Gina: I finished the year. It was 2018. I finished out the year. Toward the end, Jenny Rosenstrach from Dinner, A Love Story, etc., she wrote about it on Cup of Jo in October. I made a little Instagram. Up until then, I really was privately doing this and not talking about it with anybody aside from my husband. Then at the end of the year, that was me going public with it. I had been writing notes the whole time, I should say that, because I’m a writer. I didn’t know what it would be, but I wanted to keep track. I was writing notes. I started working on a book proposal in 2019. Once the year was done, I started working on a book proposal and shopped that around, wrote a revise, got my agent, sold it. I got the deal in July of 2019. Then I had eight months to write it. The process of writing it, I think the hardest was having all of this raw data of all the notes and knowing that that could just go in so many ways. Is it a memoir? Is it a how-to? Some people were like, just print all the notes. I’m like, that must be so boring. Why would anybody want to read these notes? There’s just so many ways to slice it. Then especially, the big question is, how personal should it be? How much will people care? All of those things. In the planning of it and in writing the proposal and especially the second draft of the proposal from the first draft — I only bring this up here because I feel like this is a good place to talk about this. I feel like some of this is inside baseball for some of the press I’m doing, but I feel like this is a good place to talk about it.

Zibby: Yeah, tell me the nuts and bolts.

Gina: The first proposal was really about my journey and just that with some how-to. It was a how-to memoir. Then the second draft really brought in a lot of — first of all, I made the structure of pulling out a lesson, a surprise, and a benefit for every chapter. One of the agents that rejected it, she wrote the kindest rejection ever. I took some of her advice literally, which is, “I’m not sure that you could access some of these lessons and benefits. I’m not sure that you’ll be able to access them,” or something. I’m like, well, what if I just literally put them at the top for each chapter? That was a nice way to structure it because those became the subheads. Structurally, I got more organized. Also, every chapter, I pulled in an expert to shed light on those benefits that I was personally feeling. Now everything, in retrospect, feels obvious. It’s funny, when the sky’s the limit, this path wasn’t clear. It took a while to get that. The proposal that I wrote was so detailed. I had all the experts. I had them all decided. I decided that I would sit down with my mother-in-law. I would sit down with my friend that she and I were estranged. I knew that she would actually be generous enough to sit down with me and have an interview about why we were estranged and how the thank you note got us back in touch. The proposal was so detailed that the actual writing of it in those eight months was a pleasure. Every time I would open up a new chapter, I felt like, okay, I have a little blueprint. I can change it a little bit, but at least I know what I’m writing.

Zibby: That’s great, benefit of good outlining.

Gina: It feels so good.

Zibby: It’s so true. The idea of writing a book, it’s like seeing an empty field and being like, let’s build a house. Where would you even start? Then you have some fabrics, like your notes or something. Then you bring in an architect and say, what do you think? What style would you like? It’s like the difference between renovating and building a house from scratch. For me, the idea of building a house from scratch seems so overwhelming. I could never ever do it, but some people love that. It’s just more psychologically how you approach the project, having this as the baseline. I’m not making any sense. I hope you know what I’m trying to say.

Gina: No, you are. It was just interesting. I’ve had a lot of people say, this was probably easy because you had all those notes. I’m like, yeah, it was great to have all those notes to quote from, but that didn’t give me any indication of what this story is and what people would want to hear and what’s interesting.

Zibby: I love how Emma Straub from Books are Magic said you were the nicest person ever. I didn’t doubt it as I read through the whole book and saw all the ways you acknowledged people and stayed in the moment and just saw the whole person and didn’t let these things wash over you. I think this whole gratitude movement, if you will, it’s really the secret sauce of life. If you don’t stop and be grateful, that’s it, the moment passes. You don’t get that extra jolt of, I don’t know what it is, satisfaction, emotion, all of the good stuff. A book like yours completely makes it something actionable and something you can accomplish. It’s just great.

Gina: Thank you. You do need a little help, I think. It’s one thing to say, I’m going to be more grateful, but I do find that you need a little bit of help figuring out what that is. I grew up with — my dad came from Ohio, very middle class. He was self-made. He did great in his life. He was so obsessed with making sure that we were grateful all the time. He was just so obsessed with it. I feel like there were so many times when he would say, “Why aren’t you looking at the sunset? Aren’t you grateful?” I remember thinking a lot as a kid about, how does that work? Is being grateful saying it out loud? Is it thinking it? How does it work? How would I even express to my dad that I am grateful? Do I just have to say it all time? What is that? I think that the expressing it is really important. Writing in a gratitude journal is very helpful. It’s not for everybody. I’ve bought gratitude journals over the years. I’m super into it for two weeks. Then I drop it. It gets buried under novels on my nightstand. There’s something about expressing it even though that takes a little bit of bravery because it’s not something you have to do. Therefore, it feels awkward. There is something you have to get over in order to express something totally openhearted and vulnerable and earnest. Once you do that, there’s this feedback loop. You get it back. I think that’s the real difference. You say, Emma says you’re nice, you obviously are nice, look at this book, but this is me trying to do the thing that I — otherwise, if I didn’t make this, I would be stuck in my to-do list, in my feeds, in my head. This was forcing myself to really see other people in my life and not just the ones that are obvious, but the ones that are in my life that really make it better. It takes a little bit of structure in order to do that, but you don’t have to write 365 notes.

Zibby: Maybe ten? Five?

Gina: Maybe ten.

Zibby: I also think, even if it’s not a note, when you’re in those moments, too, that you would have so often with a neighbor or whatever, just really highlighting the time when someone lets you go if you don’t have enough money for four, but you can only buy two, or something. That happened to you. This made my day. I feel like I didn’t used to be like that. Now I’ll stop and say, this totally made my day. You made me so happy. Oh, my gosh, you should feel good about — something.

Gina: It makes a difference.

Zibby: It makes a difference.

Gina: How much more time does it take than just, oh, thanks? Like you said, no, you don’t understand, this really made my day. “This made my day” is a phrase that I thought about so much throughout this year because it’s probably what I heard the most. It might be a cliché, but what a lovely cliché. What a lovely power to have to make somebody else’s day.

Zibby: A hundred percent. I totally agree. I’m really quick to say when somebody makes my day. Even some sort of comment or something on Instagram or whatever, sometimes the notes are really nice. I’ll read it out loud to my husband. I’ll be like, “This made my day.” I shared some private thing, and it helped somebody out in the world who I don’t even know. Then I’ll just say, “Oh, my gosh, you made my day. I read this to my husband.” We might as well be open about stuff. Everybody’s open about the negative stuff.

Gina: As writers, that’s part of our motivation. You want to reach people. You want to share your own experiences or your own whatever it is you’re sharing so that you reach people and you touch them in some way. One of the points I was making is that you don’t have to be a great writer and do that. These little notes are on a smaller scale. Everybody can do that. You don’t have to be a writer. You could just write to people in your life. You’ll have that same power.

Zibby: Yes. Chances are people won’t even remember the content of your notes as much as the feeling they got from reading it.

Gina: Exactly.

Zibby: Gina, what is coming next for you? Do you have more books coming? Are you done with thank you notes? Do you never want to write another one the rest of your life? How do you feel now?

Gina: I’m figuring out what’s next as far as projects. I have a bunch of clients. I have a content agency thing. I’m busy but trying to figure out what’s my next bigger project. I have a bunch of thank you notes that I have written but not addressed. I sort of get stuck in that. I have twenty thank you notes right now that I wrote to the Today Show, my press people, and people who have hosted me at their bookstores and stuff. I’m just like, oh, god, I need to address them. I am still writing thank you notes, certainly not at a clip that I once was. This was something that I wanted to do my whole life. I quote you a lot with your, I don’t want to miss the plot. I loved that you said that. It’s two months since the book published. I’m still rooted in really trying to enjoy it and not get caught up in all the nonsense. There’s so much nonsense you can get caught up in. In the last couple weeks, I’ve been just popping into Barnes & Nobles and signing them. They’re so nice about it. I wasn’t sure how they would react. They’re like, “Oh, my god, of course. Let me gather them. I’ll put some little stickers on.” I’m trying to stay present and not take it for granted. We’re book nerds. My whole life, I wanted to write a book. Now I have a book out. I’m trying to live in that world still and then get to the next project when it comes.

Zibby: I love that. That’s exactly right. Don’t get caught up in the stuff. Ignore all of the stuff. I love that. So much stuff.

Gina: There’s so much that you could hang your mood on. It’s like, why?

Zibby: Yes, totally agree. I really, really enjoyed your book. It’s beautiful. I love the colors. I know it’s so superficial, but I even love how it looks.

Gina: Thank you. They actually allowed me a lot of say in this. They were patient when I kept rejecting their two rounds of covers, which I know is super rare. I’m very grateful to TarcherPerigee for that.

Zibby: It’s awesome. It turned out really great. Amazing. Maybe you need to launch your own line of stationary or something. That would be pretty cool.

Gina: That would be nice. Who knows? I literally have a Google Doc right now that says — this is embarrassing. The title of it is, “You’re a published author. Now what?”

Zibby: I love it.

Gina: That’s one of them. Should I be making cards? I don’t know. Should I start speaking to schools? I don’t know. Right now, I’m just writing this list of figuring out what’s next.

Zibby: I have a friend who started a stationary business. If you ever want me to put you in touch, you could at least explore it with her if you did your own line or you sold it as a little package. That would be really nice if you had, for the holidays this year, cards on top with a little bow. You could sell it together on your website or something. Lots of things. Thank you, Gina. Thank you so much. I really hope to meet you in person. I’m sorry this wasn’t in person. Although, I have a cold, so it’s probably better.

Gina: Anytime.

Zibby: Congrats on your book. Enjoy it.

Gina: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Zibby: Bye.

Gina: Bye.

I WANT TO THANK YOU by Gina Hamadey

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