I have made a career out of asking questions. So, isn’t it funny that I can’t really answer the one I get asked the most often: What do you do for a living?
The short answer is that since I left my day job as a news reporter, I have been dabbling in long form stories—looking for any excuse to sit around, talk to fascinating people, and ask them deep questions. Don’t get me wrong—doing a couple month-long embed tours with troops in Afghanistan was one of the most consequential professional experiences of my life, but the love I have for books and the space they allow for exploration has taken me down a different path. I could say I spend more time ghostwriting these days, but people get the mistaken impression that I just type furiously at my keyboard while a well-to-do author on a vanity crusade spews their story into a Dictaphone— all while paying me to be silent about my role as a glorified typist. But that’s not right either. What I do is something more, and it’s often a fervent labor of love.
When I help people write their books, I get to ask them questions like, for example, why did you decide to forgive your mother after all those years? Or, what emotions were you experiencing when they took your daughter away, and you knew you would have to institutionalize her? Or, how did you feel when the Communists confiscated your family farm? Yep, that doesn’t even compare to asking a US Senator why he voted against that farm bill. The questions that move people’s lives in tectonic shifts—that’s my currency; that work feeds my soul every day. I love being a part of this collaborative conversation—where what I give is just as important as what I get in the course of bringing the story to life.
But writing a book is a complicated, complicated process. Even for those who have a clear thesis from the get-go, there is much work to be done to discover, distill, define—which often leads to new waves of discovery, distillation, definition—which lead to further waves, and you get the picture. The iterations of ideas are a beautiful cascade to witness— like fractal geometry with words and emotions. I get to be the guide and confidante for these intimate journeys.
Sometimes it’s tough at the start. Before we become friends, we’ve signed contracts and non-disclosure agreements. Money has often traded hands, and preparatory emails with questions and caveats have been exchanged. Clients are often a bit confused when we begin—they don’t know how this whole thing is going to work. Usually they only know that they want to write a story, often on nothing more than a persistent sense that what they’ve experienced or learned should be shared. This is a mysterious impulse that strikes some people and not others, and if they come to me with that inclination, they’ve come to the right place.
Everyone has a story, and often the ones who are most fun to work with are those who aren’t even sure what their story is, exactly.
Surprise, surprise though—even those authors who believe they know exactly how everything will play out find that, once we begin, what they thought was the story, is not in fact the story. I love those moments when I’ve told clients, “This is not the story of the awards you won for your business’ contributions to the community as much as it is the story of a son living his father’s legacy.” Or another time—“This is not the story of how the church turned its back on you—but rather the story of how you outgrew the church.” A paradigm shift, an eye-opening perspective.
When in the course of conversations and iterations, it becomes clear that what they have to say goes far deeper than their original thesis—that is pure joy for me and for them. This is the best part of my job. This is where I am part therapist, part life coach—and all storyteller. I show them the beginning, the middle, and the end, and I convince them how moved readers will be by what they have to say, because I am moved myself. I show people how they can edit themselves into brilliance and meaning, and how with that comes healing, closure, and evolution—some of the best of what life has to offer.
Like all compatible meetings of the minds, openness, safety, and freedom are required for two people to develop a meaningful book together. Not only do I have to provide this space for my client, but they have to provide it for me too—which maybe they don’t realize. They allow me a glimpse of their innermost world, and in return I sometimes read their minds. I go out on a limb and say: I see you, and this is what I see. On those exquisite occasions when I have gotten it just right, understood them perfectly and read between the lines to see a part of themselves they couldn’t express—that is the art.
I coach them through the stops and starts. I know when something is “off” and send them little love beams to encourage them to come back to the page when they’re drifting. It takes time. It takes trust. Over months of phone calls and video chats, I will often learn more about a client than some of their own family members know. I honor their courage; I tell them they are doing the right thing. They are.
So what do I do for a living? I work inside hearts and minds; I shine a light in dark places no one has talked about for a long time. I fit big ideas into a body of relevant, page-turning chapters. Sometimes, if I am lucky, I get to show authors how this story makes meaning out of their lives—and it has the potential to lift them up, heal their wounds, make them proud. I help people define what Joseph Campbell called their Hero’s Journey. Then the world is the richer for having this story come to life.
This is what I do. I write books for a living.