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Insights on writing “Letters to Doris”

This post originally appeared on How to Write a Book, a platform which provides writing advice from best selling and emerging authors. 


Lisa: What an inspiration. How did Letters to Doris come about and were you involved from the beginning of the project or how did you get involved?

Stuart Horwitz and Anita Mumm conducting an interview for Letters to Doris.
Stuart Horwitz and Anita Mumm conducting an interview // Stephanie Craig Photography

Stuart: We have the wonderful distinction of having the reputation as the team that helps people get their books done. The Letters Foundation had been talking about doing a book for about 5-6 years and when word reached the right person who knew of us, she said: If you want to git-r-done, you should call these guys.

Anita: I just have to add how serendipitous it was. I’d been having this itch to go around the country asking people about their stories for a project highlighting social welfare issues, but nothing had coalesced. As I’m mulling it over, Stuart calls and says, “How would you feel about a project where we go around the country asking people about their stories? It would be about social issues, but told through personal experiences…” I said yes before he could finish the sentence! We feel enormously blessed and honored that this project came to us when and how it did.

The Letters Foundation

Lisa: Tell us more about the work of Doris Buffett and the work of the foundation.

Stuart: Doris created the Letters Foundation as a last resort that provides humanitarian grants to people experiencing a crisis when no other options exist. These one-time grants provide a hand-up to individuals as they work to stabilize their lives. To date they have given away nearly $9 million, but all in small-batch grants that are individually tailored to the lives of individuals, rather than target blanket grants that go from organization to organization.

Lisa: Can you explain the “Letters to Doris” concept—the foundation’s system for making grants?

Anita: The Letters Foundation reads and replies to letters from individuals living within the United States. They aim to honor the dignity of every person who writes to them and collaborate with grantees to assist in overcoming the barriers currently preventing them from moving forward in their lives — often they will invest a lot of time and resources in helping people in non-monetary ways that don’t even count towards the $9 million Stuart mentioned earlier. Sometimes, individuals need connections or information or coaching just as much as financial assistance. Doris’ lifelong commitment to individuals, and her kind but practical approach to problem solving, informs all of their areas of grant making.

The process: choosing stories and conducting interviews

Lisa: How did you choose which stories to include?

Stuart: The selection was actually done before we arrived at people’s doors. Our subjects had gone through such struggle; we felt if they were willing to share the intimate details of those struggles, they shouldn’t also be treated to the indignity of their stories not making the cut. We relied on the Letters Foundation Program Officers to help us identify interviewees who would be good spokespeople for some of the various ills facing American society today. And of course they had to want to be part of the project.

Stuart Horwitz and Anita Mumm conducting an interview for Letters to Doris.
Stuart Horwitz and Anita Mumm conducting an interview // Stephanie Craig Photography

Lisa: They made great choices. The stories in Letters to Doris are both inspiring and have an “everyman” quality to them. It seems like the details of people’s stories were mostly gathered in personal interviews; is that right? If so, tell us more about the interviews:

–  How did you conduct the interviews?

–  How do you prepare for an interview?

–  What are some of the questions you asked most people?

–  How do you get at the deeper aspects of a story?

–  Any other tips for having a powerful interview that results in deep material for the book?

How To Conduct a Great Interview

Stuart: Great question, Lisa! I think a good interview starts with the interviewer/s being open to receive the unexpected. We prepared extensively, through discussion with the Program Managers, access to certain documentation, and internet research…but that was only a starting point. Anita, if I may, is a wonderful empath — she taught me how to read the tones of voice and body postures of our subjects to know how and where to go deeper while still being respectful.

Stuart Horwitz, co-author of Letters to Doris: One Woman's Quest to Help Those with Nowhere Else to Turn
Stuart Horwitz // Stephanie Craig Photography

Anita: And Stuart has an uncanny talent for getting to the heart of a topic—going beyond the obvious questions to the ones that bring out raw honesty or an “aha” moment for the interviewee. We really tag team well and we’ve found that this partner approach puts our subjects at ease while allowing us a breadth that might not have been possible as a single interviewer.

Lisa: it seems to me you do a great job of capturing the person’s voice in each story. Any specific tips for how to do that?

Stuart: All of our interviews were recorded and then transcribed. What took place between those transcriptions and the final product was a careful alchemy of doing some stuff but not too much stuff. For example, we restructured everyone’s story to give a full narrative arc. And of course, the work was copyedited and proofread. But at the same time, we didn’t want to bleed out the unique voices of individuals in the pursuit of sameness, or even worse “good writing.” As Duke Ellington once said about unconventional music, “If it sounds good, it is good.”

Making choices on structure, photography, and design

Lisa: How did you decide on the book’s structure?

Anita: When a client commissions us for a project like this, we meet with them to talk about their vision before making any decisions about big-picture aspects like structure. Sometimes they already have a lot of specifics in mind, and other times they look to us for ideas and collaborative brainstorming. For Letters to Doris, we consulted with the leaders of the Letters Foundation and Doris’ family members to get a clear sense of their goals and aspirations for the book, and then we presented a model that we believed captured that. They loved it and gave us the go-ahead, and we got to work.

Anita Mumm, co-author of Letters to Doris: One Woman's Quest to Help Those with Nowhere Else to Turn
Anita Mumm // Stephanie Craig Photography

Lisa: The photographs are gorgeous. Can you tell us a little about the photographer?

Stuart: Stephanie Craig is the bomb! We actually were able to participate in the hiring process where we were presented three photographers to help choose from. Her images blew the others away.

Anita: Totally. We opened Stephanie’s portfolio and knew pretty much simultaneously that we’d found “the one.” You can look at a portrait she has done of a stranger and come away feeling like you actually know that person. She’s that good at capturing their essence.

Stephanie has said that she learned more in one day of working on this project than she had in 6 years of being a photographer. As soon as she felt like she was getting the hang of things and everything was coming together artistically, she would be thrown a curve ball. Equipment malfunctioning, children playing with her lights…you name it. Since she couldn’t get away from spontaneity, she took advantage of it. The clock was always ticking but she found a way to slow down time and really be present with people. To capture their soul and their story without exploiting their grief. 

Finding the Right Book Designer

Lisa: The design of Letters to Doris is also beautiful. How did you find the right book designer? Had you worked with her before? Tell us a bit about working with the designer and your input into the design process.

Stuart: Our designer is Cara Buzzell, who is also a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. She came to us through our cover designer, Molly Regan, another RISD grad. Honestly, we didn’t have a ton of input into the design — Stephanie and Cara really started speaking a language all of their own, and then Richard Denzer at Puritan Capital brought the last piece forward with his wonderful printing expertise. I will say that as the project manager of this book — and others like it, as our team does full-scale projects like this regularly— I believe in finding the best people to fill every role and then elevating them to the level of expert in their domain. So we are there to help cut through red tape for them and weigh in on decisions where they want input, but it’s their show.

“What empathy actually means”: connecting with the Letters Foundation mission

Letters to DorisLisa:  That’s a powerful working philosophy and one I like to use myself! In your newsletter, you mention that the project inspired you to think more strategically about the philanthropy of Book Architecture and how you might be more focused in your giving. Can you share the result of that exercise?

Stuart: Yes, one thing that working with the Letters Foundation has taught us is that our charitable giving has been all…over…the…place. Previously, we had funded conference scholarships, given some of my books away to underserved communities, did the editing of a work pro bono, or mentored aspiring editors — all great and worthy things to do. Then the Executive Director of the Letters Foundation, Amy Kingman, challenged us to really think about where we wanted to focus our efforts. What do we think is most helpful for the writers that we work with?

The answer was resoundingly clear: A travel stipend for the author of a work-in-progress to get away and finish their work. Book Architecture thrives as a finish line business. Like I said at the beginning of our time together here, our proudest testimonials go something like: “We’ve been thinking as an organization of doing a book for ten years and with your help we were holding it in 9 months.”

Hence the Book Architecture Git-R-Done Grant was born. We will award $2,500 in grant money with a deadline for application of Jan. 15th.

Lisa: That’s wonderful, Stuart! It makes so much sense, knowing what I do of Book Architecture and your philosophy and skills. Letters to Doris seems like a profound project. How did working on it change or affect you?

Anita: We did find ourselves deeply affected by this work. Some days, the three of us would finish an interview and the effect was so powerful we wouldn’t speak for a long time. We just had to sit with it and think about how to honor the story we’d been entrusted with. We came away with two dozen examples of the strength and resilience of the human spirit. Of everyday people rising above tragedy to rewrite the story of their lives. That’s unforgettable.

Stuart: Yes, it was intense, for sure. We had to open ourselves up to talking to people, in many cases, about the darkest times in their life, and listening well enough to their process and their pain to replicate their story faithfully. That was some pressure!

The good news is we have a job where if you’re listening, you can hear everything you need to know. I look back on our travels for “Letters to Doris” as the summer when I learned what empathy actually means. I am very grateful I didn’t get to age 50 without knowing that.

A great accomplishment and a feel-good experience

Lisa: The grant recipients featured in Letters to Doris come from all walks of life—people trying to keep their family together, people looking to rise from poverty by furthering their education, and others, such as Robert Solomon, who found themselves in new circumstances (his by medical error). I loved that you included aspects of his story before he came to the foundation. He spent lots of time developing a relationship with the MBTA, the public transportation system throughout greater Boston, to make the “T” more accessible for those with disabilities that impaired their mobility. He had a lot of success with that. But then he even had trouble riding a wheelchair as his health declined. After he raised some—but not enough—funds through a gofundme campaign, the foundation helped him purchase a van he could drive with a stick shift (rather than foot pedals). How does the foundation make its decisions about projects to fund?

Anita: The Foundation has a very thorough vetting process to ensure the projects they fund are legitimate. Beyond that, it comes down to whether an applicant meets the target criteria: they’ve fallen on hard times through no fault of their own, with nowhere else to turn. If for some reason an applicant doesn’t fit those criteria, the program officers and volunteers do their best to refer the applicant to another organization that can help. As you pointed out in Robert Solomon’s story, collaboration—taking steps to help oneself in tandem with the Foundation’s aid—is also an important factor.

Stuart Horwitz and Anita Mumm present Letters to Doris: One Woman's Quest to Help Those with Nowhere Else to Turn at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting
Stuart and Anita present Letters to Doris at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting // Stephanie Craig Photography

Lisa: I discovered this terrific book in your newsletter along with a wonderful photograph of you and your team presenting the book at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. Can you share more about that experience?

Anita: We had so much fun taking that picture! At each Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Warren Buffett presents a selection of “recommended reads,” and we were honored to have Letters to Doris featured on that list.

We laughed because the main theme of the featured titles was how to make a lot of money, and our book is about giving it away. But the Buffetts are probably as well known for their philanthropy as for their financial acumen, so it made sense.

Warren and Doris have always been very close and he saw it as a way to share her unique approach to giving, in the hope that it will inspire others to initiate similar projects. We had a lot of fun “selling” people on the idea of direct philanthropy. And since the proceeds of the book go back to the Foundation, it was a feel-good experience all around.

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