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The Juggle, Modern Writers and the Truth About Productivity – Joanna Rakoff & Freedom Matters

Joanna Rakoff Freedom Matters Podcast

Hear Joanna Rakoff discuss her working environment and the habits that keep her on track

As the world switches to hybrid working, many of us are having to learn how to manage our space, time, and demands now that we work from home. But authors have been doing it for decades. What is the secret to success?

In this episode, we welcome Joanna Rakoff, the author of the internationally bestselling memoir My Salinger Year and the novel A Fortunate Age, winner of the Goldberg Prize for Fiction, the Elle Readers’ Prize, and a San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller. She has written frequently for The New York Times, Vogue, Marie Claire, O: The Oprah Magazine, and many other publications.

In this episode we discuss:

  • Her working environment and the habits which keep her on track
  • What productivity means to her
  • The impact of social media on writers and their work

The film adaptation of My Salinger Year stars Margaret Qualley as Joanna and Sigourney Weaver as her boss. Directed by Oscar-nominee Philippe Falardeau, the film is now streaming in North America and Europe.

Host and Producer: Georgie Powell

Music: Toccare


Joanna: I think there’s a lot of confusion about what productivity means. If we don’t want our self-worth to be tied up in our productivity, maybe we have to think deeply about what productivity means. And maybe productivity doesn’t mean producing a commodity of making something, you know, or getting stuff done. Maybe productivity means working deeply in a meaningful way that is satisfying to you, and entering that state of flow.

Georgie: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each week, I’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. I’ll be asking them three questions to get to the heart of what productivity means to them. 

This week, I’m in conversation with Joanna Rakoff, author of the best-selling memoir My Salinger Year and the novel A Fortunate Age. She’s winner of the Goldberg Prize for Fiction, the Elle Readers’ Prize, and a San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller. 

My Salinger Year has recently been adapted to a film starring Margaret Qualley and Sigourney Weaver. 

Today, we’ll be talking about how she manages her work environment, what productivity means to her, and the impact of social media on writing today. 

Joanna is an absolute pleasure to have your Freedom Matters. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Joanna: I’m so thrilled to be here. I could not live without Freedom, and I’m so excited to talk to you.

Georgie: More of us than ever are now working from home, and hybrid work is set to stay. 

In a recent study of 4,000 UK office workers, Microsoft found that almost 20% don’t want to go back to work in an office space, and an additional 65% feel no pressure or need to return when restrictions are fully lifted. 

For many this new future of work requires adjustments to how we structure our space, time and demands that many professionals take freelancers, writers, musicians, have you been working from home for years. 

The culture of you which Jonathan Garner talked about back in one of our earlier episodes has been honed throughout their career. In her recent spotlight for Freedom, Joanna outlines clearly her own working culture. And it struck me how she has become an expert ensuring that she has the right environment for her to work. I started our conversation by asking her to explain this more.

Joanna: Yeah, absolutely. It’s changed and evolved for me over the years as technology has changed and become more intrusive and more difficult to shut off. Everyone has their different things. 

I know for some people games are huge. For my husband, it’s the news, but for me, it’s social media, online shopping, and also checking email. It’s hard to shut that off. And I know that once I start, I will be distracted and I can’t sink deeply into my work, which is what I need to do, basically every day. 

I’ll just set the scene and explain that I have three kids of very different ages. One is five, one is 12 and one is 16. So they all have very different needs, very different dramas and crises. 

The truth is that my work life is almost always interrupted by some emergency, especially during the pandemic. And so with these kinds of real-world things kind of always knocking on my door and derailing my work day, I know that I can’t have virtual things interrupting me. It’s hard to find space in my brain. 

What I do is I generally have Freedom programmed to go on, usually somewhere between eight and 09:30 PM at night on my phone, and then it turns off the next morning, and I have it set to block everything. I found that this is what works best for me, depending on what’s going on in my life right now. 

I’m in publicity mode for the film adaptation of my last book, My Salinger Year. So it means that I’m doing a lot of interviews and also writing a lot of essays in support of the film. So there are a lot of deadlines, and there’s actually a lot of communication. So Freedom is on a little bit less intensely than usual. 

And then I also have a lockbox for my phone. I think it’s officially called a kitchen safe. And so this is partly because of texting. It feels like everyone in the world texts me. And I love hearing from them and I’m a very social person. 

For instance, I’m part of a writing group with four other writers who are on book deadline during the pandemic. It’s all women, and I love them so much. And I feel I’ll get engaged in a conversation and suddenly an hour will go by. So, I will turn off message function on my laptop, that’s very important for me, and lock my phone away so that I can’t get involved in texting. 

The other thing that I do is, I think this is like a, it’s now known as time blocking and this is like a thing lots of people do. But I’ve done it since I was 18. I will say to myself, okay, so from 09:00 to 12:00, I’m going to write that article about Rachel Cusk. And then I’m going to take a half-hour walk and buy myself lunch and do 10 minutes of stretching. And then from 01:00 to 02:00, I’m going to respond to email about the film. And then I’m going to make all these annoying phone calls that I have to make about like kids doctor’s appointments. And then from 03:00 to 04:00, I’m going to read over the last scene of my book. Like, I will — I do a lot of time blocking.

Georgie: Do you usually write that down at the beginning of your day? 

Joanna: Yes, I do. I didn’t used to. My life was less complicated. I didn’t. So back, like before I had kids, or when I just had one kid, I would often just say — So, at that time, I worked as a freelance journalist and book critic. In my mind, they’re kind of the same thing. 

But now that I have perspective on it, they’re really very different things. They require very different skills and types of work. So that was how I made a living, writing for magazines and newspapers. And at one point, I worked halftime at a magazine as their book reviews editor. And then I also was writing a novel. And so I would block out my time just in my head. 

Often, an interesting thing, or I think it’s interesting, or it’s a puzzle to me, I don’t understand it, and maybe you do, Georgie. So I would often say to myself, okay, so I’m going to work on my novel first. So this is years ago, and this was my first book. I had written one novel that I had scrapped that was like, this is badm and just set it aside. 

And I had this idea for a new one, which became my first novel, A Fortunate Age. And I loved working on it. I still feel like those characters are my friends, and they’re like, as real to me as real people. I worked on it for six years. I’m a slow, deep writer. 

I would say, okay, I’m going to get to my office space, my shared writers space, and work on the novel, and then I’ll have lunch and then I’ll do my paid work, my journalism, and it never worked. I couldn’t concentrate on my novel until I had turned in that review or turned in that article or done the reporting for that article. I just couldn’t. I had to get my obligation work done. 

So all the writing advice that you see is, and honestly if you read my book, My Salinger Year, J.D. Salinger says this to me, he says, “Wake up and work on your own work first,” basically, and I just couldn’t. It just wasn’t who I was. I had to get my obligation work done. And I enjoyed my obligation work, but somehow having this deadline weighing on me, prevented me from thinking deeply into my work. 

I’m going to be totally honest, even though this goes against what everyone tells you to do. In my life now, because I’m so pulled in all directions, I often will do grunt work paperwork stuff first. And I also will often, for instance, do the dishes and straighten up my living room, throw in my laundry, just do stuff that doesn’t require that much thought, but that is kind of weighing on me, I’ll often do it first.

Georgie: It was really interesting to me that as a working parent, Joanna had come to accept the distraction from real life was, to an extent, inevitable. Perhaps acknowledging that is useful for many of us. 

Her work environment is also clearly something that she’s thought about and honed over the years. But through the course of the past year, the pandemic has created a huge disruption to that space, as indeed it has for many people. She explained to me how she had subsequently chosen to evolve.

Joanna: So everyone is different. There are people who work really well in public. And for me, that’s not the case. I need to be somewhere quiet, I need to be able to get up and make myself a cup of tea and stare in the mirror and put on lipstick, which I really actually do that sometimes to help me feel more awake. 

Georgie: I do that too.

Joanna: I just need to be able to kind of like putter around. It’s a huge part of my work methodology, I guess, that I need to be able to putter around. 

During the pandemic, one of the really big problems for me is that I was surrounded by people in my house all the time. And it was impossible for me to work on my book. 

So just to back up, as I said, I have a new book due, and it’s a memoir. I’m also working on another book that is not due yet, which is a novel that would have been much more fun to work on because it sort of directly relates to the pandemic, actually, and it’s just fun and exciting. 

And the memoir that I’m working on is about a very dark and difficult family secret and my investigating it, you know, it’s about, like, my sibling is dying and it being kept a secret. It’s really difficult stuff. And it really requires me to kind of steal myself. 

So, the real point is that, for part of the pandemic, everyone was home, all three kids, my husband, who was on Zoom meetings all day. He is a professor, and he’s the head of a huge department at MIT. And I just couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t focus. I have a little writing shed in our backyard, and I would go out to work and a child would come out one minute later. I would open up my laptop and a child would come out and be like, “Where’s the oatmeal?” Or whatever. You know, there would be fighting outside my door. 

And so what I did, and this falls into the category of throwing money at a problem is, my husband and I rented an office space in our neighborhood. It actually is a sort of little tiny apartment, and it really changed our lives. My husband could come here to do his meetings, and without a five year old running in and saying, “Can you wipe my butt?” And I could come here and just be quiet and write. And it definitely has been what people call a game changer for me.

Georgie: Yeah. And sometimes it’s just worth investing sometimes so that you can do the right work.

Joanna: Yes, yeah. I know this isn’t a podcast about finance, but sometimes you have to think about what is a worthwhile investment in my work. You know, maybe it’s more important to devote finances if you have those resources to an outside space than to something else, like then to vacation or I don’t know.

Like sometimes, for some people, depending on what kind of work you do, it could be more rewarding. For me, I hope this doesn’t sound crazy, but I honestly, I’m often my happiest when I’m working deeply. Some of my happiest memories of my whole life are from this month-long period when I was racing to finish My Salinger Year. 

And I lived in New York at the time. And I was married to someone else. And I had two relatively small kids, and I didn’t have that much childcare. And so I was very behind on the book, but I needed to turn it in because I needed my advanced money. And I also just needed to be done with it psychologically. 

And I would have two nights per week where I didn’t have to pick up the kids from school, and I could just work for 16 hours a day. And those memories of just being so deep in my story, and being able to have full control of it, and figure out what are the threads of the story? Are the threads balanced within the book? Have I gone deeply enough into this character? What do I need to change here? Do I need to shift this timeline? Am I allowed to do that even though it’s a memoir? 

Like just wrestling with these problems without interruption, that was one of the happiest periods of my whole life. So, for me, investing in an office space was a very good investment.

Georgie: I feel that a lot too. For me, it was never about the time, the hours you spent working. It was more about the energy you got or lost as a consequence of that work and the work that you’re doing. And you can work massive hours, but if you’re working on something that you genuinely have passion and love for, it gives you energy. It doesn’t take it away from you.

Joanna: Yes. That is exactly how I feel. I think there’s a lot of confusion about what productivity means. And we don’t want our self-worth to be tied up in our productivity. Maybe we have to think deeply about what productivity means. 

And maybe productivity doesn’t mean producing a commodity, making something, you know, or getting stuff done. Maybe productivity means working deeply in a meaningful way that is satisfying to you, and entering that state of flow, at least for me. And I do think this has to be universal. 

When I’m sitting at my desk, trying to work and a million texts are coming in. And I’m tracking back and forth between an article that is about something that I’ve thought about for years and years and years, that’s hugely interesting to me. And I’m trying to carry an idea forward and take it to, you know, its natural conclusion. And I am stopping every two seconds to look at Instagram, or respond to messages, even if I produce an article that is really interesting to me and that my editor says is great, that work is not a satisfying, and as fulfilling as it would have been, if I had just entered it deeply without those distractions. Did I make any sense?

Georgie: It does, because, yeah, I think you’re tying productivity more to this feeling, rather than the output. 

Joanna told me a recent story to show this case. After a few busy weeks of publicity for the new film, a book review, she was due to submit for the New York Times was late. She didn’t want to be late. She respects both the author she was reviewing and the paper, but life had just gotten in the way. 

Finally, she had a few days of clear time to sit down and write. And yet she couldn’t. She sat on the sofa for a day and a half staring into space. It was only at the end of the second day, that she finally could summon up the energy to sit down to her work.

Joanna: I had been pulled into the world and pulled in all these directions for weeks, and I was also tired, which is a huge part of all this, like when you’re tired, it’s very hard. And I just couldn’t bear to even look at a screen again. 

And the next day, it was raining, but I ended up taking a very long walk. And then finally, at the very end of the day, I just sat down and in 45 minutes wrote the whole review. And I turned it in. And I was like, oh god, is this okay, what have I done? Are they never going to have me write for them again? And also, did I do this book, which is actually wonderful, did I do it justice? 

I think that I was able to do this deep work very, very quickly because even though it felt like I was slacking off, I was really just allowing my brain to kind of breathe. And I think sometimes no matter what kind of work you do, you need to allow yourself time to not be pulled in all these other directions, to not be distracted by all of these apps, to not be, you know, productive, like to not be ticking things off your to do list all the time.

Georgie: Joanna is clearly very thoughtful about the impact that technology is having on her life and her work. But as an observer of the literary world, does she have a view on how it may be affecting writing more generally? How is it affecting younger authors? Is it affecting the work that they, too, are producing?

Joanna: I think young people entering the literary world now, first of all, they’ve grown up with smartphones, with social media. And that’s just part of the fabric of their lives. And I think that they feel a lot of pressure to build platforms for themselves, maybe even before they’ve started to write a book. 

This is a question I get a lot and that I see discussed. And there is a real world component to this that definitely, publishers are paying attention to things like this. It doesn’t necessarily, as far as I know, mean that much for me or for, I don’t know, Zadie Smith or writers who are a bit more established. 

But I personally know someone who, you know, submitted a book proposal to her agent and our agent said, “Well, if you had more followers on Instagram, we could sell this but I don’t think we can sell it.” 

So I think that younger writers feel an enormous pressure to create a persona for themselves, even like I could call it a brand for themselves on social media, and that carries as equal weight as their actual writing does. And I think my sort of old [inaudible 00:20:21] feeling is that that is really difficult and possibly dangerous for their actual work. 

I do sometimes feel like I’ll read your debut novels, sometimes much lauded debut novels, by very young writers, and there is a kind of cynicism to them, and hard, shiny quality, a kind of flatness. Like, they’re not necessarily bad, but there is a kind of hardness to them that is not quite what I’m looking for in a novel. I really want a novel that is broad and far reaching and goes really deep into character and isn’t just looking at the surface of things. And I do wonder if this has to do with technology. 

There’s also, this is getting into like dorky literary stuff, but a lot of novels by very young writers, especially those who have sort of huge followings on social media, are written in the present tense, you know, as in like, “I walk into my office, I see my boss there.” And I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that young people today are so encouraged to live in the present tense, to document their lives, and to package their lives and commodify their lives on social media.

Georgie: Before we go, I wonder if you were to be giving advice to other writers out there about how they think about productivity, what would you say to them?

Joanna: I would tell them that your goal as a writer is not just to produce something, right? The goal is to create a work of literature that is going to resonate with readers, and have a life of its own, that perhaps will go on even when you’re no longer there. 

And to just allow yourself to sink into that work, and not be distracted by what others are doing. And not be distracted by the pace of the world around you to write the book or the article or the essay or the screenplay that you want to write; to fill the hole that you see in the world to write the book, or essay or article that you want to read. 

Georgie: All right. Thank you so much. I feel like, I just wish I could meet you face-to-face and hang out. I really want to be your friend. You’re just amazing and I just, I’m so grateful for all your time and your wisdom, and you really are a real inspiration to me. 

Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.