Rachel Bertsche’s calling card as a writer is throwing herself into uncomfortable situations to find the lesson so that we don’t have to. That’s what she does in The Experimentalist, her monthly Chicago magazine column, where recent exploits have included freezing off her fat cells and demolishing electronics in a “rage room.”
After relocating to the Midwest from New York, Rachel sent herself on 52 blind “friend dates” over the course of a year, trying everything from improv classes to rent-a-buddy services. That became the subject of her first book, MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend, which she followed up with Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me, channeling the likes of Jessica Alba’s pregnancies, Sarah Jessica Parker’s wardrobe and Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop-iness to see if she could live like a star on a mortal’s budget.
Her adventures have landed her a third book deal in the genre of very personal journalism: The Kids are in Bed, due out in 2020, looks at how parents can make better use of their scant spare time. We picked this Power Figure’s brain to find out what’s in her research for us.
Q: How did you become a writer?
A: I keep restarting my answer to this question. It’s like peeling an onion. First I wanted to say I became a writer by getting a job out of college as an editorial assistant at O, The Oprah Magazine. But then it seemed more true to say that I became a writer by going to journalism school in college, and part of me thinks I should say I became a writer even before that, when I would write in my angsty journal as an adolescent. So I’m not totally sure how this happened.
Q: What’s it like to be your own boss?
A: Hard. It’s wonderful not to answer to anyone and to pursue projects you believe in, but you also have to self-motivate. A lot. It’s a hustle, and the feeling that the work is never done is tough. These days, I straddle both worlds: I have a regular day job in higher ed with a real boss who gives me direction and I enjoy that in that part of my life, because in publishing, I have to make and stick to my own schedule. Though, to be clear, even as a writer, it’s not like I never answer to anyone. I have editors who give me feedback. No one works in a void.
“Life could very easily become about work and parenting only”
Q: How do you juggle work and life?
A: I’m very deliberate about my plans and goals for any given week. My new book is due in February, and I have two kids, so my life could very easily become about work and parenting only. Writing is never done; there are always more words to get down or revisions to make. But my book is about how parents navigate their time, so this is something I think about a lot. For me, it’s about setting goals and letting yourself be done when you reach them. If I hit my word count goal for the night, for example, I don’t say, “I should keep going.” I say, “It’s time to watch This is Us or “It’s time to call a friend.” I plan ahead, and I plan the life part as much as the work.
Q: What’s a typical day like?
A: It depends on what projects I’m working on. Right now it’s crunch time for my book, so either I wake up around 7—my husband mostly gets up earlier with our kids because I’ve stayed up late the night before writing—or, if he’s away for work, I let my screaming 2-year-old son be my alarm clock. From 9 to 5, I’m director of communications at a law school. After work, I try to get home to exercise before the kids’ nanny leaves. Then we do family time for a bit until my son goes to sleep, then my daughter. On a good night, I’ll sit down with my husband for a quick meal before getting back in front of the computer at 8 or 8:30 to write until 11 or 12. When I’m not working on a book, I go to bed earlier and get up earlier, and those writing hours are spend watching TV, reading or catching up with friends.
Q: What are some of the takeaways you’re finding talking to women for The Kids are in Bed? What do you do for self-care, why is it so important and how can we prioritize it?
A: For my book, I’m talking to parents—so men, too—about how they use the time they have to themselves when they aren’t working or parenting. Parents know they need to take time for themselves for their own sanity, and yet they still aren’t doing it, whether that’s because they feel guilty or selfish, because they’re too exhausted or because they have too much to do for the household and not enough hours to do it in.
I’m looking at how parental time use has changed through the years and surveyed 500 parents, and I’m making the case for what I call “pockets of indulgence,” chunks of time to use for whatever leisure activity you enjoy. These chunks don’t have to be hours, they can be 20 minutes, or five. But they should have a beginning and an end. I’m writing about three areas where parents might focus: socializing, self-care and romantic relationships. I try to get a little bit of all three in every week, though sometimes I’m more successful than others. For me, self-care is watching a great TV show under a blanket, doing a New York Times mini-crossword, reading a good book and practicing yoga.
“Connecting with friends is incredibly important for our mental and physical health, yet we still think of getting together as a luxury”
Q: What did you learn from writing your books that you want other women to know?
A: The biggest thing from MWF Seeking BFF is the importance of socializing! Connecting with friends is incredibly important for our mental and physical health, and study after study has shown this, yet we still think of getting together as a luxury. Women should be putting get-togethers with friends into our schedules the same way we do exercise or work events. If, like me, you’re living in a new city and don’t know many people, put yourself out there! Join a class or group focused on something you’re already interested in. Tell your faraway friends to set you up with people they know locally. As for Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me, I want women to know that celebrity culture can be a lot of fun, as long as you can get inspired to take what works for you to become your best self, rather than holding yourself to an impossible standard of perfection.
“I say yes to challenges as they arise and figure I’ll deal with what comes later, later”
Q: How did you find the courage to make bold moves—working for Oprah, leaving that dream job for Chicago, pitching books, switching to digital, then academia—so young?
A: I’ve never thought of these as courageous decisions. Most of this was just seizing opportunities that were in front of me and not thinking too far beyond them. I’m a planner, but if I had thought too hard about the long-term implications of some of my biggest decisions, I would have been paralyzed. If I had thought of them as brave, I would have been too scared to go through with them. Instead, I say yes to challenges as they arise and figure I’ll deal with what comes later, later. Mostly, that has served me well. When it hasn’t—I’ve made career moves that didn’t work out, for example—I’ve cut my losses quick and moved on to the next opportunity.
Q: What does empowerment mean to you?
A: Taking control of your life. Feeling the freedom and ambition—or taking the freedom—to make choices you believe in. Speaking up when necessary. Owning your decisions.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO RACHEL
Writing attire: P.J. Salvage pajamas.
New Year’s resolution: To read all the unread books on my shelves before buying a zillion new ones.
Greatest extravagance: Our Peloton bike.
Secret to living well: Hanging out with friends.
Personal hero: JK Rowling.
Character flaw: Impatience.
Next thing to accomplish: Once I finish this book, I badly want to declutter my home. That’s kind of a sad ambition, but it’s true.
Current obsession: Girls of a Certain Age, the fashion blog by Kim France.
Prized possession: I mean, I don’t own my children, but they are the most prized part of my life.
Most romantic gesture: My husband surprised me with a trip to Paris for my 30th birthday. That was pretty good.
Most influential book you’ve read: This is hard but, recently, Hunger by Roxane Gay.
Personal mantra: It will all get done.
Perfect day must contain: Rest.
In a word: Silly.
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