In the second half of this file, the psychology and culture journalist, editor, and author of the recent book The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith, returned to talk to me about the writing life and why our search for meaning is so important right now.
Emily has an M.A. in applied positive psychology, and in addition to being a columnist for The New Criterion, Emily’s writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, New York Magazine and other publications.
The author is also an editor at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where she manages “…an initiative to build purpose and community throughout the nation.”
The author’s new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, explores the latest insights in positive psychology as well as thinkers throughout history — from George Eliot, Aristotle, Buddha, and even Louis C.K. — to find answers on why our pursuit of happiness often leaves us unhappy, and how we can lead more meaningful lives.
Bestselling author Daniel Pink said, “The Power of Meaning deftly tells the stories of people, contemporary and historical, who have made the quest for meaning the mission of their lives. This powerful yet elegant book will inspire you to live a life of significance.”
If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.
If you missed the first half you can find it right here.
In Part Two of this file Emily Esfahani Smith and I discuss:
- The power of outlines and how to give yourself permission to write badly
- Why novelty helps you connect the dots in new ways
- How an old library can inspire new ideas
- The uniquely human pursuit of meaning and why we could all use a little more of it right now
Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...
The Show Notes
- If you’re ready to see for yourself why over 201,344 website owners trust StudioPress — the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins — just go to StudioPress.com
- How Journalist and Author of ‘The Power of Meaning’ Emily Esfahani Smith Writes: Part One
- How Journalist and Author of ‘The Power of Meaning’ Emily Esfahani Smith Writes: Part One
- The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters – Emily Esfahani Smith
- There’s More to Life Than Being Happy – The Atlantic
- The Hoover Institution at Stanford University
- I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen – by Sylvie Simmons
- Emily Esfahani Smith on Twitter
- Kelton Reid on Twitter
How Journalist and Author of ‘The Power of Meaning’ Emily Esfahani Smith Writes: Part Two
Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.
Kelton Reid: And welcome back to The Writer Files. I am still your host Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers to learn their secrets. In the second half of this file, the psychology and culture journalist, editor, and author of the recent book The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith returned to talk to me about the writing life and why our search for meaning is so important right now. Emily has a masters in applied positive psychology and in addition to being a columnist for The New Criterion, Emily’s writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, TIME, The Atlantic, New York Magazine and many others.
The author is also an editor at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University where she manages an initiative to build purpose and community throughout the nation. The author’s new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, explores the latest insights in positive psychology as well as that of great thinkers throughout history from George Eliot, Aristotle, Buddha, and even Louis C.K. to find answers on why our pursuit of happiness often leaves us feeling unhappy and how we can lead more meaningful lives. Bestselling author Daniel Pink said, “The Power of Meaning deftly tells the stories of people, contemporary and historical, who’ve made the quest for meaning the mission of their lives. This powerful, yet elegant book will inspire you to live a life of significance.”
In part two of this file Emily and I discuss the power of outlines and how to give yourself permission to write badly, why novelty helps you connect the dots in new ways, how an old library can inspire new ideas, and the uniquely human pursuit of meaning and why we could all use a little bit more of it right now. If you missed the first half of this show you can find it in the archives on iTunes, on WriterFiles.FM and in the show notes.
The Writer Files is brought to you by the all the new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for authors, bloggers, podcasters and affiliate marketers, as well as those selling physical products, digital downloads, and membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress now. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. And if you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.
The Power of Outlines and How to Give Yourself Permission to Write Badly
Kelton Reid: All of this stuff that you’re synthesizing into a book like this, do you have any organizational hacks you can share with writers to help us understand how you put it all together?
Emily Esfahani Smith: That’s a great question and I am not a very organized writer, I have to say. I probably can’t provide a whole lot of advice on this front, but I think that when I am being organized usually I have some kind of outline that’s at least giving me a little bit of structure. I can follow the outline. I think, for me, getting the beginning down is really important. I can’t write the piece unless I have a beginning. Getting even something down, even if I have to change it later, is really helpful. Not being afraid to write something, even if it’s not the best, I think would be one thing that helps me organize my thoughts.
Kelton Reid: All right, so are you a writer who leans into procrastination or do you have some procrastination beaters?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I think that procrastination can kind of lean into me. Sometimes it takes a hold of me, and again, it’s usually when I’m stuck. I think that the best thing to do to beat procrastination is instead of telling myself, “Okay, you have to go and you have to write this thing, this article, this chapter or whatever,” going a little bit easier on myself and saying, “Just go to your computer, start doing some research, read some related articles about what you’re writing,” and then from there I can usually transition into the writing itself. The writing can be just really hard. There’s so many mornings where I’m laying in bed and don’t want to get up because I’m like, “Oh god, I have to go and write this piece. I can’t do it. I’m worried I’m not going to do a good job.” And so, kind of easing myself into it with these more accessible forms of writing and research.
Kelton Reid: I like it. ‘Productive procrastination,’ as we like to say. How does Emily Esfahani Smith unplug at the end of a long writing day?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I love to read but the thing about writing is that you’re spending your whole day with words and it can kind of be taxing on the mind. Instead of reading, which is what I would normally do to unplug, I need to do something that’s going to really just take me out of my head. For me that is usually cooking or even meditating or going on a walk, something that can focus my attention outward is how I like to unplug.
Kelton Reid: Nice, nice for that important piece of unplugging the brain. I’d love to pick your brain about creativity a little bit, if you have the time. How would you say you define creativity, personally?
Emily Esfahani Smith: For me, I think that there are a lot of different definitions of creativity. One of them is introducing something novel or innovative into the world. Another one, and I think this one resonates more with the work that I do, is taking what’s already in the world and putting it together in new ways. That’s what I try to do in my writing. People have been writing about meaning, for example, for thousands of years, so I’m not saying anything new, but I hope that I’m putting things together in a new way so people can shift their perspective on how they think about themselves and their lives.
Why Novelty Helps You Connect the Dots in New Ways
Kelton Reid: Absolutely. I think you have done that successfully. It’s interesting that you pull all of these ancient and contemporary authors together to do that in The Power of Meaning and successfully so. When do you think you personally feel the most creative?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I think that I definitely need to be exposed to something novel, something new. So when I first started writing about psychology I wasn’t terribly familiar with psychology research before. I hadn’t really taken any classes in college, but I was in this master’s program in psychology and everything … It was just this new way of understanding human experience, of understanding the world that was so inspiring. I think because I was new to the field, it let me connect dots in new ways and in ways maybe that other people wouldn’t have. Novelty was really helpful. Also, being in a new place can do that. Just getting outside of the normal routine, your normal patterns of thinking.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Do you think you have a creative muse at the moment?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I don’t have a particular thing at the moment like I had with psychology several years ago. I think just sitting in silence and in solitude can spark creativity because it lets my mind wander naturally and daydream. Thoughts will come together in ways that I don’t always expect. That can sometimes be inspiration for something.
Kelton Reid: In your estimation, and you referenced so many great writers in your own work, what do you think makes a writer truly great?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I think that it’s a couple of things. I think one is the ability to move people in some way. Describing something that’s powerful enough that we think differently about our lives afterwards or about ourselves afterwards. I also think that Leonard Cohen, who I just read a biography of, he talked about how when he reads poetry that he loves he sometimes feels this recognition of truth that someone had described his own experience in a way that was more clear and more true than even he could have. I think that great writers do that too. They take what you are experiencing … Your experience of it may be kind of disorganized and unformed, but they express it to you in a clear way that helps you understand yourself more deeply.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah, interesting. And Mr. Cohen was a Buddhist. Am I correct in that?
Emily Esfahani Smith: Yes. I think that he described himself as both being Jewish and a practicing kind of Buddhist.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. A very fascinating man. I’ll have to point to that biography as well, which I would like to read personally.
Emily Esfahani Smith: I enjoyed it.
Gaining Inspiration from Fellow Authors
Kelton Reid: Do you have a few books on your bedside table right now that you’re enjoying besides that one?
Emily Esfahani Smith: Yeah … right. Yes, I’m reading Middlemarch by George Eliot. It’s a novel. I am also reading, I always keep the poems of T.S. Elliot nearby, because I find his work to be really inspiring. I always turn to that when I just want to decompress a little bit. Those are the two things that are taking up my time right now.
Kelton Reid: Nice. As many writers often do, do you have a best loved quote floating over your desk somewhere or in your head?
Emily Esfahani Smith: Yeah. It’s actually … so I mentioned George Elliot just a second ago. The reason I’m reading Middlemarch is because there’s this quote in it that I came across separately which I just think is so beautiful and I think about it a lot. This is the quote. It’s how she ends the novel actually. It’s, “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on historic acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”
I just think it’s such a beautiful sentiment that maybe you’re not remembered by the history books, and maybe your life isn’t exactly what you hoped it would be, but that you still were leading a meaningful life, because you kept the world moving forward in some way. You were contributing in some way that you might not have even realized.
Kelton Reid: I do like that. How about a few fun ones, just to lighten the mood?
Emily Esfahani Smith: Sure.
Kelton Reid: Are you a paper or an eBook? I should also add audio book to this question, but do you have a preference?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I use to be the kind of person who was like, “I’m never reading an eBook. I am faithfully devoted to my paper books. I think eBooks are travesty.” But now that I am a little bit older, and wiser, some might even say, I have really appreciated the benefit of eBooks and how you can carry your entire library around with you. I use the eBooks, mostly, these days.
Kelton Reid: Interesting. I don’t know how you’re going to answer this one but do you have a favorite literary character of all time?
Emily Esfahani Smith: It’s funny. I don’t know if I have a favorite one of all time. There are so many great ones, but one that I love is Pi in the novel Life of Pi. I think he’s just a really wonderful example of someone who thinks deeply about the world and is full of hope and tells a positive story about his life.
How an Old Library Can Inspire New Ideas
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Do you have any writer’s fetishes? Rare, first edition, collector, or vintage typewriters or anything weird like that?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I kind of wish I did, because that sounds so romantic, but I think the only thing that I demand and I don’t always get it, but is … I really love working in a beautiful space, like a library or somewhere with lots of windows and natural light.
Kelton Reid: What is your favorite library?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I went to Dartmouth in New Hampshire and the libraries there are just gorgeous, and there is one room in the main library called the Tower Room. It’s really wooden dark, wooden panels, these green and wooden green seats with wooden tables. It’s very romantic and very quiet. Most people would go there to take naps during the day, but for me that was like where I do my best writing.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. I think we should seek out beautiful libraries just for that kind of inspiration. I always feel so intimidated in a library like that, just overwhelmed by being surrounded by so many great words, weren’t written by me. Before we close with some advice to your fellow scribes, I want to go back to this great book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. I don’t know how to sum it up other than that it has some powerful messages for right now.
The Uniquely Human Pursuit of Meaning and Why We Could All Use a Little More of it Right Now
Kelton Reid: You talk a lot about, in your journalism and your writing, about this pursuit of meaning and how it makes us uniquely human. What’s the takeaway, I think, for listeners about this great book? Aside from these pillars of meaning and that we are meaning seeking creatures. What advice can you offer regarding seeking meaning right now for us?
Emily Esfahani Smith: Meaning is defined by connecting and contributing to something that’s bigger than you are. One of the really interesting things about meaning is that it can actually produce this deeper and more enduring sense of satisfaction and peace with your life than the pursuit of happiness does. I think that there’s something really powerful about taking the focus off of yourself and thinking about something that’s bigger than you are, and how you can be part of that, or how you can contribute to that.
I know that people are down, with the political news and things like that, but if you’re feeling that way I would recommend doing one of two things. One is asking yourself what’s one thing that you can do today to make someone else’s life better and then doing that. Two is going out of your way to cultivate connections and moments of belonging with someone else where you really treat someone like they’re valued and like they matter to you and hopefully where they treat you the same way. People are so divided right now. There’s just so much anger and fear. I feel like the best way to overcome that is just by treating each other in a “small l” loving manner. That meaning is so tied to the concept of love and being a compassionate person, an empathetic person.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. I think that’s all very important stuff and the book is fantastic. Thank you again for taking the time. Can you offer some advice to your fellow scribes on just how to keep going, how to keep the ink flowing and the cursor moving?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I would say just keep writing. Keep coming with ideas and pitches. Don’t be afraid to pitch different editors, to cold email different people. The more clips that you can have, the more that you’ll be able to write for other places. The other thing I’d say is don’t be afraid to pick up your phone and interview people. Do some real reporting because so few people are willing to do that but if you are it’ll help you stand out.
Kelton Reid: All good stuff. I didn’t ask you at the beginning, at the top of the show but what are you working on right now? Are you working on more journalism or are you turning to another book?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I am working on more journalism so writing some articles. One of them is about the rule of reflection and introspection in a meaningful life. Another article I’m thinking of writing is about rethinking our ideas of success and failure.
Kelton Reid: I love it. Can’t wait to check those out. Where can we connect with you out there? I know you’ve got a great website and you’re on Twitter.
Kelton Reid: Awesome. The book is The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters. It can be found at everywhere that fine books are sold. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
Emily Esfahani Smith: Thank you. This has been wonderful.
Kelton Reid: Cheers. Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writers Files podcast please subscribe to the show. Leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes or to just leave a comment or a question you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. You can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.