Tag Archives: books

Finding Healing by Editing a Book

For more than 20 years, Mike Levine was a columnist at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y. His name was as well known in the region as Jimmy Breslin’s was in New York City.

To readers, he was “Mike Levine.” To his colleagues, he was “Mike.” And to the politicians he pissed off, he was “Levine.”

In life, Mike was a short guy, but in the world of journalism and in the Times Herald-Record newsroom, he was a towering figure.

My first encounter with him was when I was a new reporter. He was hunched over his computer at a corner desk littered – emphasis on “litter” – with papers and food wrappers.

An editor working with me on a project consulted with Mike about the opening to a story. Mike offered some writing tips and returned to his work.

Mike Levine, Editor for the Times Herald Record. 11.22.05 Tara Engberg/TH-Record.

Little did I know that that fleeting encounter would be my introduction to a man who would change my life: He became a mentor and cheerleader for my work and career.

I teamed with Mike on a couple of projects while he was a columnist and later, when he became executive editor, he helped advance my career as an editor.

Few things meant as much to a reporter than having Mike praise a story. I think he was a father figure to many of us, and we always sought his approval.

Mike was an enormously talented writer whose columns championed the unsung heroes of life: the school janitor who looked out for kids, the single mom struggling to make ends meet, the hometown doctor who dedicated his life to his patients.

By the end of any column, the power of his words could make you feel humility, gratitude or outrage — or leave you laughing or in tears.

His columns were compact and not at all stuffy the way some newspaper writing can be. His writing did not read like homework.

Most of his brilliance whirred inside his head, meaning he made a passable impersonation of being semi-organized.

But by the end of the day, his tie was askew, his shoes were untied, his shirt-tail was hanging out, and his reading glasses (one of five he bought from the drugstore) were horribly smudged.

Despite his popularity and stature in journalism, he had no airs and graces. He was very much the everyman-working-class-guy he wrote about.

Mike died in 2007 at the age of 54. The great big heart that he put into his family and work gave out. It was an unimaginable loss.

Upon his death, Pete Hamill, the author, columnist and former editor of the New York Post, said, “Mike was one of the best newspapermen I ever knew, full of passion for our poor imperfect craft.”

The debut of Mike’s column in the Times Herald-Record in 1983.

In the months that followed, there were discussions in the Times Herald-Record family about picking out the best of Mike’s columns and publishing them in a book.

But, you know, life happened: Careers advanced. People moved. Seasons passed.

Then in July 2015, in a burst of inspiration (or sheer hubris and/or insanity), I told my wife, Meg McGuire, who was Mike’s managing editor, and Mike’s wife, Ellen: You know, I’d like to take a crack at this.

It took me nearly four years to go through all 2,219 of his columns to pick the best 76, find a publisher and clear endless proofing and production hurdles.

The result? “Words to Repair the World: Stories of Life, Humor and Everyday Miracles” was published last month.

The title comes from “Tikkun olam,” Hebrew for “repair of the world.”

It was a belief reflected in his columns. Mike privately talked about his moral obligation to contribute to repairing the world.

Yes, the work to make the book happen was tedious and felt never-ending but it was a labor of love. All the proceeds go to the Mike Levine Journalism Education Fund to support training for journalists.

The work was also cathartic. It gave me a chance to celebrate his writing and pay it forward.

I still miss Mike.

Nothing will ever replace the void he left behind, but the book did help me repair the part of my world that was broken by his death.

For more about Mike and this book, please go to mikelevinebook.com

How One Man Followed His Dream (and What We Can Learn From Him)

Tris Korten is a man with a mission and vision.

I should know, having worked with him a long, long time ago in newspapers and seeing up close his dedication to his craft.

As with so many work colleagues, Tris fell off my radar for decades but then resurfaced thanks to Facebook.

And what he had been up to was nothing less than astonishing: He’d published a nonfiction book that I could not put down.

[Order it here.]

It was a page-turner.

Gripping, suspenseful, moving, filled with humanity and tragedy.

What struck me — beyond the sheer accomplishment of the book — was HOW he did it.

It’s one thing to dream big.

It’s quite another to see those dreams to reality.

And that is exactly what he did.

I thought that it would be instructive to hear from Tris about the path he followed to get there, what obstacles he faced and what he did to keep on going.

His remarks, edited lightly here, are candid, funny and smart. There are lessons in here for all of us.

From conception to publication, how long did “Into the Storm” take?

Well, the line blurs.

First I wrote a magazine story that the book is based on. That appeared in the November, 2016, issue of GQ.

Then I wrote a book proposal, then I wrote a book. The book itself took just under a year. But I had been neck deep in the topic for at least two years.

Briefly outline the path you took to get the book to publication.

GQ signed off on my story in Feb/March of 2016. It appeared in the magazine in November of 2016. From that research I then wrote a proposal that was sold to Ballantine in March of 2017.

The proposal was thin for a book.

I was not able to contact the captain of the Minouche, one of the two ships I write about, for either the magazine piece or the proposal. It was only after Ballantine had signed off that I finally found my captain and several of his crew members.

That was a good day.

It was a quick turnaround on the book, first draft in by November, we were done editing by late February/early March. Luckily, the amount of work I did on the magazine article laid a strong foundation for the book.

Describe the challenges of balancing the work of writing this book with demands of the rest of your life, such as your marriage, kids’ social and school calendars and other work commitments.

I work from home, a three-bed, two-bath apartment on Miami Beach, right on a large canal complete with coconut trees, fish, sharks, and five-foot long iguanas.

I share this space with my wife and two young daughters (ages 11 and 13).  My wife is a nurse and she works three days a week. On those days I pick the kids up.

I have a home office, but it ain’t soundproof. That’s always a challenge.

Normally when I write I don’t like any distractions, but I started wearing headphones and listening to classical music, piano concertos and nocturnes when the girls were home during this process.

Generally, my days were devoted to research and writing until the kids came home. Then homework with them, dinner, a little end of night TV.

Then I’d hit the office again for an hour or two more.

How did you discipline yourself to stay on track and still meet the demands of your personal life?

One lifestyle change I had to make was cutting back on my drinking.

Normally, I have a beer or two while cooking dinner and watching the news.

Then a glass or two of wine with dinner.

Maybe, just maybe, two fingers of rum after the kids go to bed.

During much of this process I cut way back. One beer or one glass of wine with dinner.

For a good two-month stretch I didn’t drink any alcohol.

Eh, I wasn’t that much more productive.

What kinds of obstacles did you face in reporting and writing this book?

Really the only issue was time. Time was not my friend.

There was a surfeit of information on the sinking of one of my ships, El Faro. The National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Coast Guard ran a joint hearing, so there was a lot of testimony to go through.

They put out final reports, which were very detailed and technical.

And there was a 500-page transcription of the Voyage Data Recorder, which chronicled the last 26-hours of conversation on the bridge.

It was almost completely the opposite for the Minouche, which was foreign-flagged and had a crew of Haitians and Filipinos.

U.S. authorities were not responsible for putting out a report on what happened there. No one was. So I had to piece what happened together through interviews.

Any strategies you can share for dealing with setbacks and frustrations when tackling a project like this? What did you do to keep yourself sane? Did you cook, work out, decompress watching movies, etc.?

The subject matter was sad. In half my book I write a tragedy. The other half I write about triumph.

Living with that tragedy for months on end – interviewing family of lost sailors, reading those sailors’ last words on the Voyage Data Recorder, discovering what went wrong and how it could have been prevented – does take a psychological toll.

Normally I like to stay active.

I’ve taken up boxing. I do a fair amount of freedive spearfishing. But the time pressures were so acute, I really didn’t feel comfortable taking any time off.

When it got to be too much, I’d go for a run, and let the repetitive pounding on the pavement kind of shake the low-grade sadness off.

Having kids helps too.

In general. I may have been a bit more curt and unavailable to them during this period. But for me, to come out of my office and have laughing, funny, little people around was a joy.

Guys can be notoriously thick-headed when it comes to asking for help and support in their lives. Was that an issue for you at all?

Nope. Never had that problem. Not proud. Ask directions all the time. Ask for help when needed.

The problem was, as much as I was overloaded, there was nobody else to turn to. It was on me to finish this project. I can’t ask someone else to write a chapter for me.

Beyond that, my wife was of course helping where she could. She was under her own pressures, finishing up a master’s degree in Nursing Education.

So this was an intense period in the Korten household.

So many times in life, we can have big dreams to start a project, a new venture or business, but then talk ourselves out of it. What advice do you have for others to keep that motivational flame alive?

Yeah, that’s a good one. I’m no model for this and I wouldn’t recommend doing what I do. I’m not even sure it has paid off … except, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.

I gave that caveat because I’m a freelance journalist. I don’t do anything else. I don’t teach, I don’t work for a website on the side, or sell insurance. (OK for two years recently, I did run the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, but then I got restless).

It’s not a logical way to live. I can see my finances about six months to a year out. After that, it’s wide-open. To me that’s exciting. To others, not so much.

So, what I did to propel me forward, and I’m not sure I even did this consciously, is I pulled up on the beach of this life then burned my boat.

No going back. No side jobs that could distract me.

This has the added benefit of keeping me hungry for great stories. My motivation is survival.

Describe that moment when you first held the hard cover culmination of all of your work in your hands. What was that like?

The big moment wasn’t holding the hardcover, because there were many milestones like that; turning in the manuscript; finishing the last edit; getting the galley copies; getting the hardcover.

And generally, I wouldn’t let myself celebrate because there was always something to do after that – even with publication, there were readings and then worrying about sales etc.

The truest feeling of joy from the culmination of writing the book was in the gradual build-up of reader response.

The people who read the book really connected to it, and were touched and moved by the lives of the sailors and Coast Guard members I write about.

Last question: Who sports that Walter White look better? You or the lead character from “Breaking Bad”?

Yes, I get that a lot. I mean a lot. I’ve had people in bars ask me to pose with them. I had a whole group of ladies at a hotel pool take pictures with me.

Good looking guy that Bryan Cranston.

Once your beard gets to a certain length, it’s like a friend, or a pet.

You don’t want to see it go.

I let it go a little crazy-long during the book, just because I didn’t have to go out and meet people or interact meaningfully with anything other than my book (and my indulgent wife).

Anyway, the kids love it.  They made me get beard balm, and beard oil. They blow dry and comb it.

Caring for my beard is a family activity at this point.


The Meaning of Manliness

In ancient Greece, men were encouraged to let the tears flow. Dudes in the 17th century looked for a virile, masculine edge by slapping on a pair of high-heels, and it was perfectly masculine for a man to wear a pink silk suit with floral embroidery in the 18th century.

As the cultural ideal of manhood continues to change in profound ways – and some would argue at an accelerated rate these days — Chris and Pedro try their best to understand what it means to be a “manly” man in 2017.

Also on this episode, our very first CONTEST GIVEAWAY!

When you hear the AMR “secret word”, be the first person to post it on our Facebook page for the chance to win a copy of the brand new book The Illustrated Art of Manliness by Brett McKay and the team at ArtofManliness.com.

Fellow AMR posse members (I’m looking at you Father John) and employees of HeadStepper Media are not eligible to play.

(About Men Radio is not affiliated with the Art of Manliness site…we just dig what they do.)