Ruth Whippman is a British journalist, author and documentary film-maker living in California. She has written for the New York Times, Time magazine, The Guardian, The Independent and the Huffington Post and she is a regular contributor to time.com. She has also made numerous documentaries for BBC Television. She is the author of America the Anxious, How our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks. The Sunday Times UK calls Ruth a “whip-sharp British Bill Bryson,” and Kirkus, in a starred review, calls her book–out next week–“a hilarious narrative full of barbed observations, personal anecdotes and comical stories… a delightfully witty, enjoyable read.” – Meg
Ruth Whippman: Writing While Parenting
In 2011 my husband was offered his dream job in Silicon Valley and I quit my own job making TV documentaries to follow him out to California with our toddler son. We are both British, had lived in London all our lives and knew no one in our new home. I went from having a frenetic full time job, plus a full circle of family and friends, to having twelve gaping hours to fill each day before my husband returned home from work, in the company of a pre-verbal toddler. I was lonely, isolated and despondent.
Beyond college essays and the occasional ill-advised (often post break-up) attempt at a few pages of a ‘novel,’ I had barely done any writing at all up until this point. I had always liked the idea but was held back by a mixture of actual busy-ness, ‘excuse busy-ness’ and that brand of paralyzing perfectionism that prevents a certain type of person from ever actually doing anything. But now I was unemployed, with one precious day a week of childcare, I realized I had nothing to lose by spending it having a go. I inhaled those precious child-free hours, and started writing essays, blogs and op-eds about politics, culture and in particular the cultural differences between Britain and America.
Every week, I would write an entire essay in one frenzied day (something I can’t do now.) My first bite was from the Huffington Post, who published an essay of mine about how allowing religion to enter politics is damaging to women. They made me an official Huffington Post blogger, which meant I could post on the site again whenever I wanted without having to submit to an editor. The only problem was, they don’t pay their bloggers.
So I started submitting elsewhere. Soon other outlets started buying my work- The Guardian, The Independent, a couple of online magazines. Eventually I wrote an essay about pervasive cultural phenomenon that I had noticed in my new Californian home—the seeming obsession with finding happiness and how it had become an anxiety-inducing rat race. On a whim, I sent it to the New York Times. A few weeks later, an editor there emailed to say that he wanted to publish it.
That essay was genuinely life changing for me. It went viral, and readers from all over the world started emailing me saying how much it had resonated with them. High school teachers assigned to their classes and vicars messaged me saying they were using it in their Sunday sermons. I was interviewed on the radio. Then literary agents started getting in touch asking if I was interested in turning the idea into a book. Eventually I signed with one of them, Steve Ross, a former editor who had previously run a division at Harper Collins and was now working as an agent. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Across the years Steve has been the most spectacular advisor, champion and mentor.
Under Steve’s guidance, it took me 18 months to write a one hundred page book proposal. During this time, I also had a second baby. I wrote huge chunks of the proposal on my phone in the middle of the night, my non-sleeping infant son crooked in the other arm, typing out paragraphs with one thumb in the dark. I was delirious and exhausted.
Steve submitted the manuscript to publishers on a Monday. On Tuesday morning, as I was driving my son to preschool, he called me. St Martin’s Press had made a pre-emptive offer on the book, and we had twenty-four hours to accept or decline. We accepted. I was thrilled, my husband brought home flowers, and everything was fabulous.
Then it dawned on me that I had to write the actual book.
To this day, I honestly have no idea quite how that happened. It feels like the kind of memory blank where you are driving along the freeway and find you’ve somehow arrived in Pinole with no real memory of the journey. I had a toddler, a baby and a severe sleep deficit. It was exhausting and exhilarating and agonizing, a complete psychological marathon. I had gone from never having written more than an thousand word blog post to tackling an entire 300 page book. I lived in a constant state of fear. But somehow it got done.
America the Anxious comes out on October 4th, four years after the original essay appeared in the New York Times. And now I’m going to take some time off. – Ruth