Great Book Ideas and Dealing With the Tough Stuff

January 9th, 1937, Saint Mark’s Place, Manhattan, Maggie’s diary continues:

Succeeded in sticking M. with new needle Jack Cluett in to play bridge with his fiancée, Sylvia somebody from San Fransisco. Pretty girl, whom he first met several years ago at Huntington Hotel, when he was married to Prudie.  He said then he thought she was a “tasty dish”, but he did nothing about it.  She turned up here about Thanksgiving, and after whirlwind courtship was taken to Troy for New Year’s and engagement was announced then.

January 9, 2010, Brattleboro, Vermont, What Suzanne (yours truly) was doing:


Well, while Maggie was sticking her husband with cold serum needles and meeting Jack Cluett’s tasty dish, I was doing something I rarely talk about except to my closest friends.  I was helping writers write books.

When I go to book signings, an audience member sometimes comes up and says, I have a great idea for a book.  And then the person launches into tales about running away with the Roma from Bulgaria when they were eighteen or joining an aerialist troupe in France where they did flips off an elephant’s back. These books ideas are always infinitely more interesting than anything I’ve read in the last dozen years.

That night at dinner another author with mediocre housewine and filet mignon on his breath will lean over like a co-conspirator and ask, Doesn’t it just drive you crazy that everyone thinks they have some great idea for a book? Did you just poop an egg? I want to ask. And sit on it and one day it hatched into a 325 page book?  Didn’t Othello, The Grapes of Wrath and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest all start out as ideas?

After a while, because I couldn’t help myself, I started telling people, I’d love to help you write that book! I have sort of an obsessive compulsive ,slightly autistic side.  I like to file and pull weeds and organize closets. I love watching structure emerge out of madness. It fascinates me that all this order we see before us started as the Big Bang, as chaos. So I started helping people write their books. I can’t do it for free or else I’d be eating canned beans in a homeless shelter, but the payment is a luxury. Helping other people write their books is so much more interesting than just walking around in my own mind. This year alone I have walked around in the minds of at least fifteen other creatives, and been intimately involved with people I never even knew existed.  Demaris Wehr’s book chronicles eight survivors of the genocide in the Balkans, Greg McAllister’s memoir is about escaping the celibate seminary in the sixties, dropping acid and making free love in Haight Ashbury, Susan Strecker fictionalized her father’s fight with brain cancer and the paradox of finding tenderness and joy when faced with death. Elaine Little wrote a kick-ass coming-of-age novel about school segregation in a small southern town during the 1970’s. Kasey Ormiston just this minute finished a heart-wrenching book about her daughter being born 25 weeks early.  While we worked on it, I cried approximately 450 times, not from sadness, but from the human spirit’s astonishing capacity for resurrection.

Saying no isn’t hard for me, but you have to sort of watch it when you say no to a book idea.  About two years ago, my friend Meg, a YA novelist writing about lost languages and bats who can talk, asked me if I would mind meeting with a friend of hers named Lisa Lorimer who needed help writing a business book. My mean, hard little heart thought, Yuck. Up went my snooty nose, and I trotted into her friend’s office to give her a referral to some other writer who might be able to help her with her (yawn) business book.

Right smack-dab away I loved Lisa.  She started out low-income, accepting church donations as a child, at twentysomething she worked at a little bakery, bought it out, and two decades later she had turned it into The Vermont Bread Company, a mult-million dollar business she has since sold. She wanted to write a book about how difficult it can be to run a business based on good values. Just like we writers don’t like to tell you how many times we have been rejected, business people like to make you believe they were born with stock options in one hand and a successful marketing plan in the other.  She was writing the book with a little German woman named Margot Fraser, who came here after World War 11, decided women needed comfortable shoes, and began Birkenstock, USA. They’d gone out and talked to some people with similar journeys, and she had over 500 pages of interviews.

Ten pages into it, I was hooked. The stories her interviewees told were about survival, running out of money, being chased by the Russian mafia, taking on lovers, swimming in ponds, screaming at the top of your lungs, drinking too much wine and playing hard scrabble with the Goliaths. They talked about how hard it is to follow your heart while making money.  All of them had been told You can’t do this about 150 times before they were successful.

We edited the book down to 200 something pages, signed a book contract and now it’s on the shelves.  It’s called Dealing With the Tough Stuff and was published by Berrett-Koehler.  On Thursday everyone is invited toLongfellow Books in Portland, Maine for a book reading at 7:00. Lisa and I will be there and so will Meg and our other writer friend, Dulcie and probably lots and lots of audience members, and maybe one of them will come up to us afterward and say, I have a great idea for a book or maybe they will say, I have a great idea for a business. And we will say, Tell us what it is!!!! Every business started somewhere. Every great book was once just an idea.

And that leads us right back to Grandma Maggie, who didn’t care one iota if anyone ever read her typed pages, but here they are being published on the world wide web for everyone and his brother to run around in her creative mind and gain a little inspiration. Until tomorrow everybody, and keep those ideas coming, you never know where they might lead…

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