art_of_doingThis coming week Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield will be presenting an Illustrated Art of Doing Book Talk at the New York Public Library, Mid-Manhattan Library, 6th floor December 4th, 2013.

So what is it about success? Why do some people succeed? And others don’t? From Dale Carnegie to Malcolm Gladwell authors have tried to answer these questions. Philosophers, economists and neuroscientists have taken their shots at the success conundrum. Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band even offers advice on the subject in their song Express Yourself: “Whatever you do, un-huh, do it good. Whatever you do, do, do, Lord, Lord, do it good, oh yeah.”

We are a writer (Camille) and an artist (Josh) and out of our great (you could say insatiable) curiosity, we got this idea: Why don’t we go to go straight to highly successful people and simply ask them, “How do you do what you do?

And the next idea was to turn the concept into a book, The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well. So then we asked ourselves, “Who do we want to include?” We wanted people who were good, but good wasn’t good enough. We wanted people who not only excelled in his or her field, but transformed it into an art form. We were looking for the Picassos and Warhols of their fields.

We wanted the book to be like a fabulous dinner party. We wanted a mix of people from every sort of human endeavor including someone from business such as Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, elite athletes like Yogi Berra, innovative entertainers like OK Go and funk master George Clinton, scientists like astronomer Jill Tarter, a great actor like Laura Linney, a best-selling author like Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics and dozens more. (A full list of participants can be found here.)

At first our goal was to find out what was unique about each one of the dozens of superachievers we interviewed: What was it that vaulted them above others in their field? But during the hundreds of hours of conversations, we were often surprised to discover how much a tennis champion, for instance, and a rock band think alike, or how a racecar driver and an extraterrestrial hunter share similar traits. Our pattern recognition systems were fully activated. Our participants’ vocations, goals, philosophical perspectives and personalities could not have been more different, but as their responses to our questions accumulated, we realized that these extraordinary people, no matter what they did—whether it was an opera diva, a war photographer or a CEO—shared many core principles and practices that had led to their great successes.

Some of these principles were what you may imagine such as perseverance and focus. But we also found that these superachievers had thought deeply about how to achieve success, inspiring them to employ many counterintuitive practices—listening, patience, managing emotions, and more.

So what is it about success? Of course, talent is required—but it’s just the beginning. We discovered that it’s what you do with your talent that matters. And that’s really a profound idea, because it means success is up to you.

As Thanksgiving 2010 was approaching, I was living in Iowa City, Iowa, where I was an MFA student in the Fiction program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I had ached ardently to go to the Workshop, and when I’d been accepted I’d shrieked with joy. Now, trudging through brown snow to my classes; eating lumpy, bland Chinese takeout as I researched my thesis—I knew that I was in so many ways very lucky. But wasn’t I actively thankful anymore. This was just my real life.

That same fall, a friend and classmate of mine had been typing his novel so fast and for so many hours a day that he lost use of both wrists, and he had to complete his own thesis using clunky voice recognition software. His experience didn’t make me grateful for my own uninjured wrists. Instead I was scared that was going to happen to me, too.

That winter was particularly dreary one in Iowa City, with frequent blizzards that made it dangerous to even go outside.  I gave myself over to writerly brooding. But the writing wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped, and when I turned in a chunk of my thesis for a class workshop, another writer in my class told me that my treatment of the subject matter was extremely shallow. Another writer commented that I’d spent way too much time describing how and what my characters were knitting. By the time I turned the thesis into the Graduate College, I’d gone completely off it. I’d been given this time at the Workshop to write something really great, and felt like I’d squandered the chance. I’d wanted to go to the workshop, and now that I was there I wanted everyone to praise my work, too. I wanted to write something that felt  worthy of this famed place. So much wanting.

Roxanne Gay wrote in Salon a couple years ago: “What most writers have in common is desire. We want and want and want and want.”  It’s what keeps writers ambitious.

But what if we don’t get what we want? And if we do, will we ever feel fulfilled, and grateful?

Ever since I came to work at Book Country, Penguin Group’s online writing and publishing community, that yucky feeling of ingratitude has dissipated, leaving in its place something much more heartening. Book Country is a community of writers both published and unpublished. These writers come from all over the world to participate in a wide-ranging conversation about writing books of all types, from Erotica to Middle Grade Fiction to Epic Fantasy to Horror. We talk to each other on the Discussion Boards, trading tips about the craft of writing and the business of publishing, and we Tweet at each other to share our congrats on successes and our musings on pop culture. And because Book Country is a sponsor of NaNoWriMo 2013, this engagement with other writers has extended into the even wider Nano community of writers, who reflect that same positive encouragement at one another, too.

In hindsight I can see by the end of the Workshop, I was just in a bad writing funk, and that there was work I needed to do on my thesis that was hard and uncomfortable that I was petulant about doing—this made me feel both ungrateful and unambitious, a loathsome combination. In the years since we graduated, my gratitude for having gone to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with my particular cohort has swelled, so much so that this Thanksgiving I’m waxing nostalgic about that brown snow and bland Chinese food. I miss my friends from the program, and the way we trusted each other enough to say it when we thought someone’s manuscript felt shallow or boring.

I no longer think that writers are an ungrateful lot, doomed to a forever of only wanting. Open to the acknowledgments section of any Penguin book, and you’ll see a grateful writer taking a long and wonderful moment to thank their editor, their agent, their publicist, their writing teachers, their friends, their spouses, and their children. And then they move on to writing another, even more ambitious book.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for my community of writers (both from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and on Book Country), for the experience of NaNoWriMo and how it’s energized my writing routine in a way that feels almost athletic, but also for that wanting that Roxanne Gay wrote about, that feeling that my work can and should get better. The balance of these is a wonderful place from which to write.

Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, an online writing and publishing community, and the author of the Beautiful Americans novels for young adults.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin HamidYou’re a big reader, always have been. Maybe you were an English major, worked at a bookstore, scored a job in publishing. Point is, you read a lot of books. And while you love to read, while you in fact love it more than ever, the sheer amount of books you consume can sometimes have an unintended effect: you can forget how powerful one individual book can be. Then you read Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

At first, you think, “Ugh, second person?” Seems a bit gimmicky. Same goes for the business / self-help conceit. But you keep reading. You start to admire how skillfully assembled it all is. How the sentences, which appear technical and cold, actually surprise you with their warmth and depth. How it’s somehow both universal and ultra-specific. And how all of the careful construction starts to collapse towards the end, beautifully.

You’re a literary snob, there’s no denying it. Point of view, voice, form: those are always the first things that catch your eye. But here you also get swept up in the story and the characters. As the protagonist moves from his impoverished roots in a rural town to becoming a rich man in a bustling metropolis, you’re right there with him. As he pines for the woman he loves, wondering where she is and knowing how impossible it is that he’ll ever find her again, well, you can’t help it: you get a little dust in your eye…

Finally, you finish it. And as you sit there on your couch, you think about doing something you’ve never done, something that you’ve heard people say but never believed they really did. Because why would they? There are so many books out there and not nearly enough time to read them all. But you’re thinking about doing it anyway. And then you do. You slowly turn back to the first page and start again.

- Matt Boyd, Publishing Manager and Manager of Special Marketing Initiatives

This holiday season, our Penguin authors can help you find the best book for everyone on your list.

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Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Help, Thanks, Wow; Some Assembly Required; Grace (Eventually); Plan B; and Traveling Mercies, as well as several novels, including Imperfect Birds and Rosie. A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

Tattoos on the Heart, by Father Greg Boyle

Gorgeous memoir of a priest who works with ex-gang members in LA.

Stations of the Heart, by Richard Lischer

Brilliant, sad, illuminating story of a deeply spiritual father losing his grown son while the son and wife are expecting.

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Half Baked, by Alexa Stevenson

The funniest, most wonderful memoir of a woman and her preemie in the Pediatric ICU.

What I Thought I Knew, by Alice Eve Cohen

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Another lovely, laugh-out-loud story of a woman with an incredibly challenging birth.

After Mandela, by Douglas Foster

The best book on South Africa after the revolution in years. The subtitle is “The Search for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa.”

Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes

A very funny and harrowing novel about a young woman who becomes a caregiver for a handsome quadriplegic man.

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Is This Tomorrow, by Caroline Leavitt

I enjoy everything she writes. This is right up there with her Pictures of You.

The Wrong Dog Dream, by Jane Vandenburgh

A love story by the great novelist and memorist about her cherished husband and dog.

What’s the Matter with White People, by Joan Walsh

Brilliant commentary on how and why the US has ended up in such political misery.

Gypsy Boy, by Mikey Walsh

An exciting voice from England, Walsh writes a boy about growing up in a violent gypsy family and discovering he is gay.

Helen in Love, Rosie SultanIt was a cold day in February and I was stalled. The writing of my novel, Helen In Love—which fictionalizes the story of Helen Keller’s secret love affair—wasn’t working. I’d done years of research: files littered my desk, photographs of Keller hung on my study walls, newspaper clippings from 1916—the year of the novel—blared their headlines of how Keller spoke out against the United States entering into World War I.

I had so many letters, photos, and books about my subject that I should have been able to write the novel in—what? A month? Two at most?

Well, it wasn’t happening. My characters felt stiff on the page—bloodless. I pushed them around like cardboard cutouts and after more time than I want to say—okay, after four years of writing—I finally did what any novelist worth her salt does in moments of frustration. I quit.

The next day, during a blustery snowstorm, I walked into my study. Instead of opening my computer, I left it shut. Then I ran my eyes over the bookshelves lining my walls. Please, I prayed to the writing Gods. Let me find a book to jump-start my writing.

And then I saw it. Way down on the bottom shelf, a flare of red caught my eye. The red cover of a novel I’d picked up years earlier but had never read now grabbed me. No, that cover didn’t grab me: it dragged me in. Blood red, this cover, with a Klimt-like female figure in a red dress, her black hair flowing, her dress enfolding her like a shroud.

And who was this figure on the book’s cover?

Madame Mao.

I moved to the couch in my study and opened the pages of Anchee Min’s mesmerizing novel, Becoming Madame Mao (Mariner Books).

All that week I walked in to my study at noon and stayed on the corner couch with Min’s novel until the sun went down. I was completely engrossed in the story of Madame Mao: her early years of desperation, then her love affairs, and a kind of heat rose up off of the page as I read. Min’s portrait of a woman I’d only known as the wife of Mao Tse-tung, Former Chairman of Communist Party of China, defied all of my expectations.

Gone was my image of Madame Mao as the tiny, grey-clad figure I’d seen on TV when she and her cohorts were charged with being the “Gang of Four.” No, this Madame Mao, told with Min’s careful shifts from first and third person, sizzled with life, lust, desperation, and greed.

She was human. She was fierce. She was very flawed.

And loved her.

When I finished the book later that week, I knew that fiery, flawed Madame Mao had freed my writing.

I flipped open my computer ready to do something different. The story I wrote, of another icon, might do something similar. Helen Keller, too, was not just her public image: a demure, school-teacherish, icon–preachy and dull. Rather, she was a suffragette, a supporter of civil rights as early as 1916, a firebrand socialist whose outspoken opinions offended many. And she was a woman who craved love.

As I wrote I felt—no, I was—alive to the story of the real Helen Keller. The one who wanted to “wear high heels and drink gin.” The woman who, despite worldwide fame and good works, said with great bitterness at her life’s end, “Had I been sighted, I would have married first of all.”

Several months later my novel was finished. The red copy of Anchee Min’s book was creased and worn on my desk. But my characters were alive.

And so I say thank you to the person I least expected would renew my writing.

Thank you, Madame Mao.

This holiday season, our Penguin authors can help you find the best book for everyone on your list.

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Daniel James Brown is the author of two previous nonfiction books, The Indifferent Stars Above and Under a Flaming Sky. He lives outside of Seattle.

The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century, by David Laskin

For me, the best kind of history is personal—history that speaks from the heart and to the heart. That’s what Laskin offers up here as he traces three strands of one family’s epic sojourn through some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century.

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Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II, by Mitchell Zuckoff

I like to be transported by history—taken to a different time and a different place, preferably someplace thoroughly exotic and utterly unfamiliar to me. What could fit the bill better than being dropped into the jungles of central New Guinea in the middle of World War Two?

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love, by David Talbot

It seems strange to have so many events that I lived through myself growing up in the Bay Area called history, but this is an accurate and compelling social history of San Francisco during those giddy and sometimes nightmarish years between 1967 and 1987 when flower children and mayhem came to visit Baghdad by the Bay.

Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy, by John R. Hale

Hale masterfully immerses his readers in a subject that could easily be as dusty and dry as an ancient tomb. Instead he brings vividly to life the entirely understandable trials and tribulations of citizens much like ourselves, who just happened to live and die in ancient Athens and invent democracy while they were at it.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand

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No one is better at unfolding a great, sweeping historical narrative than Laura Hillenbrand. I was mesmerized by this tale of extraordinary courage under the most trying circumstance imaginable followed by ultimate salvation.

The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, by Caroline Alexander

This book is nearly ten years old now, but I still have huge admiration for it. It is one of the rare works of history that is both thoroughly scholarly and at the same time a true page-turner. And if you think you know the full story of Captain Bligh, Fletcher Christian and the mutiny from the silver screen, it will hold some surprises for you.

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Rage Is Back, Adam Mansbach

Staff Picks

Andy Dudley, Digital Business Manager

As we end 2013, the Penguin staff celebrates and recommends some of the outstanding books you may have missed this year.

I loved this book because it’s set in a New York City that may not exist post-Bloomberg, but really should. It’s for people who loved Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. Or have spent the past few weeks chasing down the newest Banksy graffiti sighting. Or want to crawl into the subway tunnel just to see what’s there. Or like reading fast paced, literary, revenge tales.

My self-esteem is suffering. It has everything to do with NaNoWriMo, and only a little to do with writing.

It’s because I haven’t been reading.

You could say I am a bit of a “scorekeeper” when it comes to books read. I’ve never met a Goodreads reading challenge I didn’t like, and I’ve been known to waste many hours delving into the recesses of my memory to come up with the approximate date that I read a book in elementary school, so that I can add it to my Goodreads “read” shelf. There’s something immensely satisfying about getting “credit” for having read all these books, even if I didn’t enjoy them, or worse, if I barely remember them at all. For me, scrolling through my own “Read” shelf is also a way of taking stock: What have I been thinking about? What made me laugh? What am I now more inspired to do? I reflect on all these things when I review what I’ve been reading. As the music-nerd record collectors in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity attach heavy meaning to their stacks of albums, books I’ve read are an important part of how I validate how I’ve spent my time.

And now it actually is becoming a problem, because I haven’t read a book cover to cover since I started NaNoWriMo. I’ve started two (On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee, coming out from Riverhead in January 2014; and On Writing, by Stephen King—both really, really wonderful books, deserving of rich praise and fast reading), and both of them languish on my bedside table, begging to be opened, read, tucked back into the shelf, added to Goodreads. Next to them are unfinished issues of Real Simple, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, and People Magazine.

I’ve been blowing off these books and magazines because a militant typist inside my head scoffs at me when I reach for them. “You should be writing. You’ll never win NaNoWriMo if you spend all your free time reading!” (I have exactly 19974 words, and I need 50K to “win.” I feel hugely behind schedule.)  So I skulk away from the books, but not toward the computer. I get sidetracked by my TV, Twitter, and my cat. Double guilt: no books read, no words written. The technical term for how this plays out is “shame spiral.”

On Monday morning, I decided that enough was enough. Instead of thumb-typing in my NaNoWriMo document as I took the subway to work, I played an audiobook instead: I Kiss Your Hands Many Times, by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, a family memoir that came out from Spiegel & Grau. It’s subject matter has nothing to do with my NaNoWriMo project: It is about an aristocratic Hungarian family in the first half of the 20th century.

The audiobook of I KISS YOUR HANDS MANY TIMES is read by the author, and I was reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert, who also narrated the audiobooks for her memoirs. Both women have smart, warm voices—they are natural storytellers who bring their family stories to life in a way that makes them feel both rare and universal. Almost immediately, I started to chill out and get really into this book, which combines a sweeping romance with a great deal of historical research about complicated topics like anti-Semitism and Catholic conversion in Hungary, the Treaty of Trianon, and bourgeois values in Budapest during the interwar period. These were subjects I studied with great interest in college—I studied abroad in Budapest for a semester, living just a few blocks from the Dohany Street Synagogue, mentioned often in Szegedy-Maszak’s book. I rode the same subways that the author’s family did while living out these scenes, and the prose taps into that deep well of wonder I had as a young person delving into a new place, startled and amazed by what I learned of it.

My NaNoWriMo project does not take place in Hungary, but the main character is a college student far from home. Simply thinking about my own college memories brings up all kinds of things from that time I had forgotten about: How often I ate Subway sandwiches for dinner, because I didn’t know how to cook anything; how exciting it was to be invited to a party, and how much planning went into the outfit that I would wear; how easily I got lost when I went to a new city, not just because the city itself was new, but also because I didn’t yet know how to go to a new city—how to find out what I didn’t know.

This fall a discussion developed on the Book Country discussion boards about whether reading was “an acceptable procrastination technique,” and our members were almost uniformly in support. One member, Carl E. Reed, wrote that “Everything is grist for the mill when you’re a writer.”

I thought of that as I sat back down with my NaNoWriMo project this week. I KISS YOUR HANDS MANY TIMES is an unlikely source of inspiration for my particular work-in-progress, but it remains one just the same. Carl and the rest of the Book Country community were right, and because of that, I’ve resolved not to feel guilty about reading during NaNoWriMo anymore. You never know how a good book might jumpstart your own Nano inspiration.

Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, Penguin’s online writing and publishing community.

To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing, Simon GarfieldNot long ago, my 25-year-old son told me something I never thought I’d hear from him. He wanted to write to a female friend he’d met recently in Portugal, but there was an obstacle in his way called technology. He wrote to her by email, and she replied, and then he wrote again, all within a day. But this was not a satisfying exchange; it was just too damn quick. What he envisaged when he first thought of writing was a genuine meeting of minds, a Henry Miller/Anaïs Nin or Kingsley Amis/Philip Larkin kind of thing. Perhaps romance would blossom, and perhaps it wouldn’t, but at least there would be some time to mull things over a little bit in an intelligent way.

Fat chance. He soon found that email, wonderful thing that it is in so many ways, is rather too instant for gestation and deeper thoughts amassed over time; wait a week to return an email and people think you’re dead. And so my son’s relationship with his potential new friend petered out as quickly as it formed. He could, of course, have maintained the correspondence the way we’ve done it for a handful of years before email – pen, paper, envelope, stamp, postal system – but he’s 25, busy with filmmaking, and the thought of spending money on a stamp and then having to catch the last post had long ago begun to seem rather Victorian to him.

He told me this story when I was almost at the end of my new book about the history of letter-writing, and, magpies that writerly fathers are, I couldn’t help but put it in the epilogue. The ability to correspond slowly was another important thing sacrificed to brilliant technology. I added it to the list of other things we stand to lose when we abandon letters: an ability for secret intimacy; an ability to document our personal history in a meaningful way (more meaningful than just arrangements and links to cute cat vids); an ability to uncover secrets in attics years later; an appreciation of the beautiful – lovely paper, careful handwriting, emotion on a page that may be treasured or burnt.

Everyone writes a letter differently; everyone writes an email that looks the same. Fairly obvious really, and this has clearly been a slow decline over two decades. In To The Letter I wanted to emphasize how important this transition really is. I argue that it’s the biggest loss of the digital revolution, more significant than the loss detailed in my last two books about typefaces and maps.

So what will we miss most? And what will I miss most?

Love letters, obviously. Partly this is because I’m very happily married, so no new love letters for me beyond fuzzy things from my wife in birthday cards. But I really mean the idea of love letters, and their memory. My book is a trail of passion from the 12th century onwards, taking in misbehaving nuns, errant cartoonists and smitten poets, and you’ll detect their moistness on every page. There’s also a compelling (I hope) sequence of letters written during the Second World War that tracks the beginning of a beautiful and lasting relationship (I know it endured, because I obtained the letters from the correspondents’ son.)  Could they have written the way they did by email? No. Personally I’m just glad that I still have letters in shoeboxes from former beaus – almost all of which I will probably never read again. But like those kisses on the bottom, I’m glad I got ‘em.

Soon I think we will even write condolence letters by email or text. This is the last empire to crumble, and most of us have the good sense to mark a death by getting out the envelopes. But for how much longer? I’ll give it a decade or two before people start sending ‘so sorry to hear’ from a tablet.  And then it will become socially acceptable, and we’ll shrug and say how much easier and certain it is, what with postal deliveries not being what they were etc.

Condolence letters were where it really began for me with letters. My dad died 40 years ago when I was 13, and that’s the first flood of post I can remember, jamming our thin letterbox in the weeks after his death with Basildon Bond and slightly perfumed pastel-colored rectangles. Many of them said very similar things, but that wasn’t the point: the point was that friends had made the effort to sit down and gather kind thoughts about someone they loved or admired, and then wrote about him in a personal way in their own unpixelated hand. Touch has a memory. I still have those letters.