Reflections on Book-Writing
Today’s blog will be about the book writing process. I am working on another post related to Fonkoze and how it stands out in the fast-changing world of microfinance. It will appear in this space later this week.
Ah, my journey with writing. To take you back a bit in my life, I transferred from a public to private NY City school in 1978, and it took me more than half a year to catch up with my fellow students. Many of them had enjoyed enriched educational opportunities from kindergarten. The one subject I lagged in for my first three years at Horace Mann School was English. Like many students, I started to simply assume that I was a bit dull when it came to understanding literature and writing. I took on the persona of the classic male child who was numbers/math oriented. Whether for rich country students like me or a poor woman in a less developed country, such stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophesies that stunt latent potential.
In my case, I lucked out and had three years of exceptionally good English teachers in tenth through twelfth grades: one year with Randal Castleman and two with Robert McCardell (both have sadly passed into the big classroom in the sky). As a result, I came to love literature and, even more, writing. This “voice finding” process culminated when I was in Bangladesh in 1988-9 as a Fulbright Scholar. I wrote long, hand-written letters to Sam Daley-Harris, the founder of RESULTS (an anti-poverty advocacy group), and he had them typed up and sent to hundreds of his volunteer activists around the world. The experience of observing, reflecting on and writing about positive social change — and then having people read and be energized by what I wrote — was almost intoxicating. And it still is.
When I began contemplating this book on Fonkoze, I tried to be realistic. I had not written a book in the “creative non-fiction” genre from scratch since the mid-1990s. If this was to be the next “Mountains Beyond Mountains” (Tracy Kidder’s critical and commercial success about Paul Farmer), I probably needed access to a publishing/marketing expert.
Voila! On the advice of Meredith Kimbell, a first-rate management consultant who has been working with me since 2005, I reached out to Mark Levy, the best-selling author of “Accidental Genius” and a marketing and writing consultant. Mark agreed to take me on for half his normal fee because he believed in the cause of self-help through microfinance. We had several conversations over the summer leading to a two-day workshop/boot camp in his home in New Jersey last week. A few days earlier, I decided to extend my collaboration with Dystel and Goderich Literary Management and sent them a draft of my book proposal.
My time with Mark was an intense, fun, enlightening and humbling experience. We talked writing, Haiti and, from time to time, baseball. (He is a die-hard Mets fan. I have been following the Phillies since 1975. Need I say more?) When my housing plans fell through due to damage from the recent hurricane and local hotel prices shot up, he and his lovely wife Stella graciously agreed to host me in their home during my stay in the area.
The most valuable insights I took away from the workshop were:
- As a self-taught writer who has never taken a creative writing class, I realized that while I have a certain degree of natural talent I could also benefit from some of the blood and guts of “Writing 101.” Mark gave me a crash course including some exercises, books, and things to think about in the months ahead.
- Serious writers read a lot more than I do. And when they read, it isn’t always for the content, but it is often to immerse themselves in good writing regardless of the subject.
- Writing is often more compelling when the strongest word in a sentence is also the last.
- Especially in certain types of non-fiction, such as instructional or self-help books, it is important to write down the key idea(s) before starting to write — and then make sure that they are reinforced on virtually every page. This is also true, though perhaps to a lesser extent, in the kind of book I am setting out to write.
- Recalling techniques I used researching Small Loans, Big Dreams, I realized there is no substitute for attentive observation of telling detail and painstaking research into every aspect of a story.
I have a lot to think about as I try to move this project forward while back in the role of leading Grameen Foundation through an exciting and challenging time in its history. Thanks to Mark for igniting a renewed love of reading and writing, while at the same time causing me to wonder if I am up to the job of producing a great book on Fonkoze and its microlending adventures.
One final note: In 2007, I was honored to receive Horace Mann School’s Distinguished Achievement Award. In my Acceptance Remarks I mentioned — among many others — the influence of my English teacher Randal Castleman. He was in failing health at the time, but elevated the evening by somehow taking part. If I pull this project off, I’ll have him to thank along with Mark and many, many others.