Rachel Friedman, AND THEN WE GREW UP

Rachel Friedman, AND THEN WE GREW UP

Zibby Owens: I’m including Rachel Friedman on Advice Monday because her advice is about creativity, but her book is also memoir as well. Anyway, that’s where I put her. Rachel is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure, that was from 2011, and was a Target Breakout Book and selected by Goodreads’ readers as one of the best travel books of 2011. Now she’s come out with her second book which is called And Then We Grew Up: On Creativity, Potential, and the Imperfect Art of Adulthood. It received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Her essays and articles have appeared in The Best Women’s Travel Writing, McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals, The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the creative nonfiction program at Rutgers-Newark with her MFA, she has taught literature, journalism, and writing at Columbia University, New York University, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her son.

How are you?

Rachel Friedman: Hi. Good. How are you?

Zibby: I’m good. I’m glad we’re finally connecting.

Rachel: Me too. I can’t believe I have to follow Marian Keyes, but I’m very glad .

Zibby: Perhaps I should’ve put her at the end, but whatever. No, I’m kidding. Thank you. Your book was so interesting. I didn’t have a big idea of what it would be about other than the cover when I started it. I did not realize you had been this virtuoso viola player and that you had to give away — not give away, that you had to pivot so in early in life. When most people are just getting upwards on the trajectory, you had already reached a peak and had to regroup while everyone was at college bars or whatever. Tell me about this whole experience and how it informed your book.

Rachel: In many ways, I think I had to regroup because I wasn’t a virtuoso. I was very good from a young age. I played, first, guitar and then piano and then viola. Viola was the instrument that really hooked me. From a young age, I became quite obsessed with becoming a professional musician. I went to a very intense performing acts camp called Interlochen, which is the setting for the book because I reconnect with eight former campmates of mine. I was a small fish in a big pond growing up. I’m sure a lot of people have this experience, maybe not with music, but with debate or with a sport where they’re very, very, very good to the point where you can start to think about professionalizing what you love. Then somewhere along the way, you hit a ceiling and you realize, okay, I was pretty good, but I’m actually either not good enough to make it doing what I want to do, or in order to make it doing what I want to do I’m going to have to give up everything else to such exclusion of the rest of my life that maybe I actually don’t want the thing I thought I wanted. Both of those things happened to me. I hit a talent ceiling and I hit kind of an ambition ceiling with music.

Zibby: I feel like I saw that a lot in college with the athletes who had been training all their life. Then suddenly, that was not the be-all, end-all anymore and it was time to regroup.

Rachel: I think a lot of us have images of what our grown-up life is going to look like, even if it’s not a specific thing we’re pursuing. A lot of us, when we grow up, are facing this gap between the fantasy of our adult life and what it actually looks like. That’s really what the book is about.

Zibby: Then after this transition, you regroup. Suddenly by age twenty-six, you’ve published a book and gotten married. You were on cloud nine. This is amazing. Then again, you have to realize that that was another peak and a valley was coming.

Rachel: Yes, that’s a really lovely way of putting it. I had this precocious start to writing. Publishing my first book felt a little bit like a fluke in some ways. Although, I’m very proud of that book. I was young when I published it, for better and for worse. I thought, now I’ve published a book, now I’m writer. Now everything just goes uphill from here. I’m going to be able to make my full living as a writer. I’m going to have famous author friends. I’m going to get awards. It was the whole fantasy of the writers. I realized that with music I had developed this whole ideal of what it meant to be a writer and these very rigid definitions of success that weren’t really based on what I wanted or what was important to me, but what I had absorbed from external voices. With music, I was at this moment where I felt like if I didn’t grapple with that artist mythology and what it meant to make an artistic life and what was important to me — I didn’t think I was going to give up writing because writing has already proved to be something that had endured, unlike music.

I thought, I’m going to be really bitter if I don’t get a grip on this at some point, if I don’t really take stock of what matters to me. What do I really need to feel content as a writer and to endure? I went to track down all these people from this camp. This was a time when everyone I knew at this camp had very specific ideas about who they wanted to be when they grew up. Interlochen, which is a camp in Michigan, is just full of so much incredible talent. It felt to me kind of like the last place when I had really been so sure of what I wanted to be and what that would look like. I was really curious to see if other people had grappled with this gap and what had become of them. This was pre-Facebook, so you didn’t have updates on everyone in the same way. When I went to camp, it was pre-Facebook. Even if you do, you don’t really have any idea what’s going on with someone when you see their social media posts.

Zibby: I love how it all came back to you and you drowning your sorrows about taxes by going to a movie and seeing one of your fellow Interlochen friends having success like that. I think everyone can relate. Although, we don’t all say it out loud. There’s always something when you’re happy for someone else, like, oh, my gosh, how did they do that? What have I done? It’s just like, look at that.

Rachel: Yeah, this comparison issue, we all have. We went to camp with Ben Foster who’s a very well-known actor. He’s not in the book. Although, interestingly, as I was working on this book, at many points people encouraged me to try and interview him. I always felt like that’s not the point of the book. I want to hear from people who are not famous, not at either end of the spectrum, haven’t completely felt like they’ve failed at what they’re doing, or maybe they have, or kind of middle of the road and they’re trying to figure out how to endure. Ben Foster, you can read about it any magazine you pick up. That was the impetus behind the book. I was feeling very depressed about my financial situation as a freelance writer. I went to a movie, and there he was larger than life starring in it. That was quite a reckoning.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I’ve been there. Those are not fun feelings, oh, my gosh. What was your main takeaway? You went and you found all of these people. Then you end up actually dating somebody who’s friends with Adam. All these fun things just start happening as you retrace your steps. Everybody has different things to share. What do you think were some of the main findings?

Rachel: It’s a very interesting journey tracking down people who knew you when you were young. I do recommend it. It can be a winding journey full of many surprises. Everyone in the book really gave me another framework from which to view the issues that I was dealing with. The book breaks down the mythologies that I had about what it means to succeed, what it means to feel ordinary, what it means to compromise, what ambition looks like, what freedom looks like, all these very amorphous terms. We have this obsession with perseverance in this country, and I’m sure many other countries, where it’s like, you only fail when you quit. That’s really not true. If you have a quitting problem, that’s one thing. Most of us work really hard. Then at some point often, at least some goal at some point we’re pursuing, we do hit a ceiling and we have to refocus our energies. That’s really good for us. I think the main takeaway of the book is that our lives, we have to design them. There’s no expert out there. There’s no internet article that is going to teach you what success is or tell you if you do X, Y, and Z, this will happen. We love formulas. We love this idea that you put in the work and then you reap the rewards. I think it’s really important to dismantle the clichés and mythologies and really ask yourself the hard questions about what your fulfilling life would look like.

Zibby: That’s awesome. By the way, you had probably my favorite expression I’ve ever heard, the art-nership. That is so perfect. Sometimes I feel like my husband and I, we’re both very creative and whatever. That’s such a nice way. I was like, oh, we have an art-nership. That’s so great. Tell me about that.

Rachel: That’s not my phrase.

Zibby: Oh. Well, I’m going to credit you anyway.

Rachel: The idea of the art-nership is your partner, the person that you end up making a life with, is also an artist. It’s that romantic ideal of what that looks like. That too is a complicated reality, of course, but that’s one of the many things I thought about my life. I need to end up with a person who does X because I do Y. That’s the term of art-nership.

Zibby: I loved it. That was so great. Then your Washington Post article recently was great about teaching your son — well, about evaluating the current theory that people should not allow their kids to quit anything, that we should teach all of them to persevere. You’re not good at the piano? Just keep going. You said you also have to teach kids the flipside of that, which is not every extracurricular is for everybody. You have to be ready to cope when things don’t work out, which I loved as such great parenting advice and also just life advice. Tell me a little more about that.

Rachel: I think we’re really focused on resilience as it relates to perseverance, but there’s also resilience in terms of being able to be disappointed that something didn’t work out, not to wallow in that disappointment, but to understand that there are real setbacks. The experience of not getting what you want is such a common human experience, but we don’t talk a lot about it, this idea of disappointment or longing or quitting, in a way that is not rebranding it as opportunity or turning it into some other narrative, but just, I wanted this thing, I tried really hard, it sucks. Again, it’s not about wallowing in that disappointment, but I think giving it a little bit of space to say, I didn’t turn out to be an astronaut, or whatever it is.

Zibby: I did notice in your book, and maybe I missed where you explained it or something, but I feel like you talked a lot about your dad. He was a retired film critic. He came up a lot and what he would think and what you would say to him. There wasn’t a lot of mention of your mom. I was just wondering about that.

Rachel: My dad was probably just a stronger influence, to be totally honest, in terms of the way I thought about my grown-up life. My mom was very practical. My mom supports my writing and supported my music, but I think for her, she grew up poor and became a lawyer and really felt like her focus, understandably, was on financial security. Financial security is very important. I talk about in the book, kind of reckoning with that. My dad, who is a professor and has a different background, grew up in a more comfortable middle-class background, for me, the message was always, do what you love. You have to be passionate about what you do. There’s no such thing as just as job. I think he’s wrong about that ultimately, of course. Plenty of people have work-life balance where their job is not the thing that drives them and they derive their fulfilment in other ways. For me, he was just a very powerful influence. I saw his life too, this life of the professor, the life of the mind. He writes books. All of that really was influential for me as a kid.

Zibby: Interesting. I was wondering if you had advice for aspiring authors. Maybe you could weave in the fact that after you sold your first book, your second book didn’t sell and you had to regroup and find the way back, which obviously you did because now we have this amazing book and we’re sitting here talking.

Rachel: I think it’s important to say you have that book nine years after the first one. That’s a good amount of time. It took me a long time to write the second book. I did get pregnant in the middle of the writing process, which will slow things down a little bit. I couldn’t figure out the right framing for that second book. It didn’t get a contract. I was really disappointed, obviously. I think too, after a first book, you feel a lot of pressure to have this momentum. It’s a very common experience for the second book not to work out. That’s just one of the kinds of examples of enduring through disappointment that I think is useful and that we should talk about more. Marian Keyes had great advice for writers, which is essentially, you write. You sit down and you do it. Try to get out of your own way. I think a lot of times people who want to write, who aspire to write, they need permission. I’m not sure who we’re looking for permission from, but we are the ones who need to give it to ourselves. You are entitled to write. You are entitled to self-expression. You are entitled to that space. To try to quiet those inner voices — she was saying, we’re all writing, as Anne Lamott would put it in Bird by Bird, which is a brilliant book if people are looking for inspiration on the writing life.

We all write shitty first drafts. Maybe some people don’t, but we’ll just consider them outliers. Most of us, the way you endure as a writer is through rewriting. You have to have a tolerance for repetition and for revision because what comes out first is messy and often incoherent and not very good. You can’t edit, I think, out that part of it. You have to go through that part of it. There’s a different part of your brain — this the like the write drunk, edit sober expression which doesn’t actually mean drunk-drunk, but I think means writing — for some people, it does; not me — writing without that inner critic telling you that something is no good. You just have to get it out. You have to take time to do it. Writing is a job like anything else. You put your hours in. I think sometimes people think, and Marian Keyes was saying this too, that it’s sort of magical. Of course, there are magic moments, but I don’t think that you have the space for those magic moments unless you’re doing the disciplined work of carving out time regularly. I’m not even saying every day, but consistently to words on a page.

Zibby: Thank you, Rachel. Thanks for coming on. It was so nice to connect with you and hear your thoughts. I felt such pride for you when you were detailing your journey. Then knowing that because I was reading the book that you eventually got to success again, it was this wonderful thing that you could be holding the answer to what happens to the main character in your hands sort of like a meta — anyway.

Rachel: Thank you so much. This was lovely .

Zibby: You too. Take care, Rachel.

Rachel Friedman, AND THEN WE GREW UP