What do we lose when we avoid grief and pursue empty pleasures, when we mask our pain and feign cheerfulness, when we profess to have no regrets and insist on knocking down every frown? These questions are at the heart of two new books by Next Big Idea Club curators Susan Cain (bittersweet) and Daniel Rose (The power of regret). Today on the show, they sit down with Rufus to swap notes on the writing process, share what they’ve learned from each other, and imagine what the world would be like if we all learned to kiss. negative emotions.
Listen to their appearance on the next big idea podcast below, or read some key highlights. And follow host Rufus Griscom on LinkedIn for behind the scenes looks at the show.
Where do the book ideas come from?
Rufus Griscom: You both have some wonderful new books coming out over the past few months. From Dan we have The Power of Regret: How Looking Back Moves Us Forward. From Susan we have Bittersweet: How grief and longing make us whole. Let’s start with the subject of how you came up with the ideas for these books. Let’s start with you, Susan. You wrote the legendary book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. You and I met a few years after you posted Calm, and I remember you telling me that you had no intention of writing another book. What made you change your mind?
Susan Cain: The way I come up with topics for books is, like, I’m looking for something that I thought was incredibly important and moving [to me] overtime. When I look at the two books, [Quiet and Bittersweet]I think of moments that stand out in my memory that I can’t pass up for some reason.
Most of life you don’t remember. The moments that really stand out are when you’re actually onto something. With bittersweet, there’s the time I wrote about where all the way back to law school, when I was in my twenties, I was in my dorm, and friends were picking me up so that we can all go to class together. I was blasting my usual minor key music, and my friends thought it was hilarious. Why would anyone listen to this at full blast? It was really just a moment of nothing, except that it stayed in my memory for years.
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That experience – wondering what was so important about that music and what in our culture made it such a funny joke – I thought about it for decades, and then it became this book.
Daniel Rose: Have you posted books Calm What are you considering, haven’t written, given up on, thought about doing but didn’t pursue? I’m still curious about this.
“I’ve thrown out so many book ideas over the years. I have a bunch of scrapped book ideas.
Susan: It’s a good question. I do not know. I have a bunch of book ideas that are still in a folder that I might send to you one day. I didn’t have a book that I started working on and then threw away. Did this happen for you?
Daniel: I’ve thrown out so many book ideas over the years. I have a bunch of discarded book ideas. The reason I ask is that I’ve seen writers get tricked into this. Writing a book is a real gargantuan hassle. I’ve seen writers get trapped in that they get seduced by something – a topic, an idea – early on, then they get committed to writing a book, then they realize, This is a colossal mistake. And so I’m always curious: how do writers determine what makes the cut and what doesn’t?
Susan: Do I remember correctly that with The power of regret you were actually pretty far into another book and then you came across the idea of regret?
Daniel: I was not very advanced, but I was under contract.
Before writing a book, I make a very long proposal. Even though you might be able to get a decent contract, sometimes a really good contract, with two pages, I usually write 30 or 40 page proposals, partly to test my own interest in a topic, because for me a big fear i have is being accused of writing a book i don’t want to write.
So what happened in this case, to answer Susan’s question, is that I had what I thought was a pretty good idea for a book, and I was working on it, and then I had a moment when I realized that I had started thinking about it with regret. The catalyst was my eldest daughter graduating from college and that marker in life was a wake-up call. I looked back and realized I had regrets. And when I started talking to people about my own regrets, I found that people reacted very vigorously. It made me curious. So I put that other project aside and wrote a whole new proposal.
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On sharing your ideas with other people.
Rufus: How well do you talk to your friends and Uber drivers and cashiers? To what extent do you test these ideas when they emerge?
Susan: In fact, I don’t really tell anyone about it because I don’t know if people always give the right feedback. If you are moved by something that you feel very deeply, then you kind of know it. With the introversion book, a lot of people said to me at the time, “Well, that’s kind of like a weird topic.” Before that, I had spent all those years teaching women negotiation skills, and people were like, “This is the book you should do. You should write a book on negotiation. It is a salable subject. And I was like, Oh, I don’t wanna do this at all. So for me it’s more like once I’m in the book so I want to interview a thousand people about it and talk to people that way but not so much as comments about whether to do this book first.
Daniel: I have a social vision of writing. In fact, I’m happy to talk about things I’m working on beforehand. That’s partly because sometimes people give you helpful feedback. It’s also important because talking about it is another way to understand it. Talking about it is different from understanding it on the keyboard, and it’s a useful exercise.
I love getting feedback from readers afterwards because I ended up thinking of things I had never thought of before. And I’m always surprised by what works and what doesn’t. If I had to plot my predictions about what people would deeply react to and ignore in each book, I would be wrong every time.
“Talking about it is different from understanding it on the keyboard, and it’s a useful exercise.”
One of the things that I do – this is quite interesting for future writers – is that I always look at the Kindle versions of my books at the most underlined passages. It’s a way to see what actually works. And when I look at it, I’m always surprised. A language and ideas that I spent months developing? Nobody cares. A sentence I wrote hanging on a Tuesday morning in July? Everyone underlines.
The pleasures and perils of research.
Susan: Once I write a book, I think I really do too much [in terms of] how many people I talk to and how much research I do. It’s fantastic, and at the same time, it’s very difficult to understand what’s going on in the book and what’s left on the cutting room floor, and also how to structure it. How do you decide how many interviews to do, how many searches to do? Do you feel like you end up with a surplus that’s way more than you needed?
Daniel: Well, I think you must have a surplus. I don’t think there is a single heuristic to figure this out. You have to be willing to do more than you need to, and you have to be willing to do what you do in service of readers, not yourself. Example: two Julys ago, I spent the whole month reading 70 articles about how regret develops in the brain, especially in children. And then when I started writing I realized that I could pay to describe it roughly, I think it ended up being like a paragraph and a half. It’s annoying because I just wasted a month of my time now. So I am faced with a choice. Am I trying to somehow recoup those sunk costs and say, “You know what, reader? I spent a fucking month on it. It was difficult, and it was hard, it took time and it wasn’t that pleasant. Therefore, you are going to sit here and read seven pages about it”? Or I can say, “You know what, reader? I want to serve you. So the truth is, what you need to know in this context of this month’s reading is really just a paragraph”? Do I want to inflict pain on the reader for seven pages, or do I want to inflict pain on myself for [wasting] a whole month? And I flipped a coin and said, “I’m going to punish myself.”
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Rufus: Very generous of you, Dan. Thanks for that.
Remember the wow.
Susan: I was going to share one thing for potential writers. One thing I do in sifting through all the material that I end up gathering – whether it’s interviews, people’s stories, research or whatever – is try to include the elements that, I believe had emotional significance when I first discovered them. There are certain stories that I come across and I remember the emotion I felt when I first heard the story. You may not feel that emotion after reading it 17 times in your notes, but if I remember that the first time I heard it blew me away, or that when I heard a new search for the first time, it was Like, Wow! I didn’t know that was true. Later you forget the wow, but you can remember that you felt it for the first time. So I want to include those elements.
Daniel: It’s a great lesson. Remember the wow. I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s super helpful because you find this thing remarkable, and you’ve been living with it for a few months, and it’s like, Oh, whatever. Everyone knows it. Remember the wow.
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