Charlotte: Why did you decide to write The Next Happy? What inspired you to write it? Did the inspiration come at a particular moment or had you been planning to write the book for a while?
Tracey: I decided to write The Next Happy after speaking at a fertility conference. I had been invited to speak in front of a group of people who were still trying to conceive and the topic was how to be happy even if you didn’t end up having a biological child. I was convinced that no one at the conference would be interested in this topic, but it wasn’t the case. There was a huge turnout of people who were still trying to conceive, who wanted to know that no matter what happened, they could be happy. As I spoke to this audience, I felt like the skunk at the garden party, but these people were hungry to know what I had learned about getting from disappointment to happiness. And this was indeed a roadmap I had figured out. I also knew that this roadmap was a universal one and not just for people who were unable to conceive.
Charlotte: Does this book have a specific target audience? How did you decide what audience you were writing to? Did you write the book with that audience in mind? If so, what are some of the things you did in your writing to target and engage that audience, such as use a particular voice, vocabulary, structure, etc.?
Tracey: Everyone suffers loss. You can’t make it to ten years old without suffering loss. And in our culture, we simply don’t speak about it, or help people with it. I really wanted people to have a friend as they were going through this process, and that voice was really important to me in letting the reader know that I really get this terrain, I know it both personally and professionally.
Charlotte: Did you have to do any research before writing this book or was it more self-guided knowledge on the subject? How did you know when you had enough information about this topic to write it the way you imagined?
Tracey: I interviewed lots of people on the topic. But in terms of the theoretical research, all of that came when I was in the trenches. When I was grieving, I read and read and kept looking for any help, guidance, or answers I could find on how to survive. The truth is that there wasn’t a lot out there about giving up on dreams.
Charlotte: Your idea of giving up the life you planned and finding the next path is a unique perspective for self-help books. How did you develop this perspective from the initial idea to the full book-length concept?
Tracey: As I mentioned above, it started as a presentation at a conference and I knew that there was a lot more to share, that it would take a lot more than I could cover in a 90-minute presentation. I knew what I needed to add to expand out from a short talk to a book length work. Having that strong outline in my mind made the writing very easy.
Charlotte: The book includes quite a bit of your own experiences and your personal story of finding your next happy, as well as teachings for the reader. How did you balance the memoir-like personal stories with the more educational self-help aspects in your writing? What did this process look like in your writing process?
Tracey: The structure of The Next Happy was very important to me. I knew that not everyone would get the message in the same way and so I wanted to share the same themes from multiple perspectives. In each chapter, I share a bit of my personal story, I use other people’s stories, psychological theory, I give a bit of what I would tell you if we were in therapy together, I refer people to a movie, and offer self-help suggestions. This structure allowed for a kind of multi-modal learning approach. If you aren’t going to get in my story it is likely that one of these other methods will resonate.
Charlotte: The book also includes several cultural or media references, such as Dr. Kevorkian, recent movies, and mythic characters. How did you decide to include these references and how did you decide which references to include? What effect do you think this has on the reader?
Tracey: In my writing at Freudian Sip at Psychology Today and on my blog, I have always worked to make psychological theory relevant and even fun, I have written about the psychology of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Twilight, and Project Runway. Psychological theory can seem elite and distant, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When you are in the midst of grief it is unlikely you want to read Freud, Nietzsche, and Frankel, so I wanted to make these theories light, fun, funny and accessible. And, with movies, I think movies are a kind of modern mythology and in watching these films we can see our own experiences and see our own struggles. In each chapter I suggest a film that demonstrates the fundamental questions and insights being discussed.
In my practice with patients, I often prescribe movies and books as much, or more than, I ever refer to psychiatrists, and I do this throughout this book. Here’s why: stories, both fictional and fact, contain an element of truth that is applicable to us all. Stories work when they are both personal and archetypal. As we watch a film, we know if it feels real— even if it is a story about a princess on another planet who is unwillingly rescued by her brother (that she doesn’t know is her brother) and a couple of robots. That film works not because of Princess Leah’s dazzling hair-do, but because it does what all successful films do: tells a mythic story that speaks to us on a deep level.
We turn to the cinema the way ancient Greeks turned to Homer and his Odyssey and the adventures of the cast and crew of those wacky Greek mythologies. These characters and stories endure and have the longevity that they do because they mirror our personal experience—even if in exaggerated ways. Like mythology and literature, today’s films give us opportunities to be mirrored and give us a sense of the universality of our experience. They also allow us the chance to experience ourselves as people who are able to overcome obstacles that we might not yet have managed to overcome in our personal life.
It is my hope that the reader feels like I am a friend and not a pontificating pedant, I really want people to know I get it and that this is real life and not just theory.
Dr. Kevorkian came to me as I was writing the book. I felt like he was a good way of explaining what I was trying to do. The book was paradoxical to the “you can do anything” message of most self-help books, but like Dr. Kevorkian, I wanted to offer people compassion and an end to their suffering when it comes to dreams. My boyfriend worried about me calling myself that, he thought it was a pretty dark description. But I really feel that Dr. Kevorkian offered compassion and kindness to those who were suffering, and I wanted to give the reader that same kind of compassion with a dream or goal that may have become toxic.
Charlotte: Lisa tells me that you attended the Harvard Leadership Course In Writing and Publishing. How was this experience for you? Can you tell us a bit about this program? How many times have you attended the course?
Tracey: The Harvard conference is an incredible event designed to help healthcare providers to develop “the requisite tools and techniques to publish in various venues.” I attended in 2013. I came to Harvard with a pitch, a title and a business card. I left with a fuller understanding of my book and the incredible experience of pitching to a room full of agents who were all interested in my book. It also let me discover an extroverted part of myself that I didn’t know much about. The organizer of the event, Julie Silver, announced, “If you haven’t talked to everyone at this conference about your book idea, you have failed.” I don’t like failure so I did it. I took the challenge. And it was transformative. With each conversation I became clearer and more certain of my book. I also learned that when you are passionate about something it allows you (or forces you) to get out of your comfort zone. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. Now, when doing radio interviews or speeches, and I get a bit nervous, I remind myself of how scared I was when I took Julie’s challenge; what had once terrified me now soothed me.
Charlotte: What are some of the steps you took to get The Next Happy published? How did you choose this method of publishing?
Tracey: Step 1) Came up with basic idea.
Step 2) I contacted a book coach and we brainstormed on a title and I formulated the basic structure of the book, and developed the pitch.
Step 3) I went to Harvard and, because of the reception I received, learned that my book would appeal to a traditional publisher. I wanted that path because I wanted to have a team of professionals on my side as I launched the book. I also wanted the broad reach a traditional publisher can help a writer achieve.
Step 5) I wrote a proposal.
Step 6) Don sold my book to Hazelden.
While all of this sounds pretty easy and straightforward, it took a whole lot of work, risk, and more work to make all of this happen. Here is a blog post that illuminates the process.
Charlotte: What are some of the positive results or responses you have received since publishing the book?
Tracey: I have gotten a lot of great feedback, interest and some wonderful reviews, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Every day I get letters, emails and comments from readers who are feeling a huge sigh of relief and are writing me to thank me for the permission to let go of the insidious “never say die” philosophy that is part of our national zeitgeist. Readers are coming away from this book with real and tangible tools that are allowing them to move through the stages of grief and begin to conceptualize the death of their dream in a different way. They are discovering strengths, resources, and a new, healthy way forward. It is being described by readers as a “guidebook to surrender” and appropriate for any kind of grief. I am happy to report that men and women of every age and stage are finding comfort and validation in the book. It is my real hope that this book will help individuals to let go of dreams that have become destructive so they can find a happy ending, but I also hope it will galvanize a national debate about the pernicious and destructive mythology that tells us to never give up. Yes, we are a nation of dreamers. But we must also be a nation who knows when and how to call it quits. And it seems that The Next Happy is already giving people permission to do so, that, to me, means the book is succeeding.
This is one of many messages I received just today about the book:
“Tracey, I’m writing to sincerely thank you for your willingness to share your personal story as a way to help others. When my amazon shipment of The Next Happy arrived, I quickly devoured it. You probably know the maxim “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” For some time now, I have procrastinated the decision of when to quit riding the fertility coaster. Your revolutionary book arrived in my life at exactly the time I needed support, and it means the world to me to receive advice from someone who has actually traveled this heart-wrenching journey. The climbing book sales are proof that your message is resonating with a lot of people. Your work is vitally important and your success is well-deserved! Thank you so much.”
Charlotte: How can our readers reach you?
Tracey Cleantis, a therapist, writer, and speaker, is the ONLY expert in the world who has made the vitally important distinction between giving up what isn’t working as the key to finding real happiness. Tracey is a LMFT in private practice in Pasadena and Valencia, California. She writes for Psychology Today, Huffington Post and on her own blog on www.traceycleantis.com. In all her writing and speaking Tracey uses humor to make difficult topics easier to deal with. Tracey has published essays, fiction, and poetry in various publications, including the Sojourner and Mode Magazine, and her interviews and advice have been featured in stories in Psychologies Magazine, Redbook, Yahoo News, Salon.com, and on Fox News Boston. Her forthcoming book, The Next Happy: Let Go of the Life You Planned and Find a New Way Forward is a practical roadmap through loss and grief of all kinds and a new path to happiness.