“If you move fast, you can try more things. And if you try more things, you're likely to find something that works for you."
~ James Clear, author of The Atomic Habit
NON FICTION BOOKS
Why Nancy is writing non-fiction books.
As I reflect on my non-fiction writing career, I’ve discovered I write for several reasons: to survive, to share, and to learn.
Writing to survive.
As a young researcher at Battelle Memorial Institute (Columbus, Ohio), I wrote reports for clients in many different industries—from auto to steel, industrial diamonds to canned fruits and vegetables. That experience taught me to try and make writing clear, concise, and compelling, if that’s possible when analyzing vegetables.
Then I moved to the academic world where the job was teaching, research, and service. I eventually learned to teach and I could easily serve on committees, but I had to “publish or perish” or I’d lose my job. That meant, primarily, publishing in academic journals, which I did for years. For both jobs—research scientist and professor—I wrote to keep my job and survive.
But when I learned that, on average, only ten people read a given academic article, I choked. All that work for so few readers. So, I searched for ways to get my ideas out to more people, which meant…
Writing to share.
I began writing articles and books on questions that came from students, managers, and leaders I met over the years, including during my nine years working in Vietnam. The book topics were wide ranging, including women working abroad, economies in transition, and creativity and insight. I left my office and went into the field where I interviewed loads of people and did case studies on diverse, high-performing organizations—from college football to theater, from a jail to software. When USA Today wrote a story about the football coach I worked with and I was part of the story, I was thrilled that the notion of creativity was something people wanted to learn about because of the coach.
I found more outlets for sharing ideas. I gave talks in the U.S., Australia, the U.K., and Korea. For seven years, I delivered daily business comments on my NPR local affiliate. I began writing a column for the local newspaper and a blog for Psychologytoday.com, which I still do today. And when I run into someone who says, “Your column made me think differently about something,” that means more than when someone tells me she read my article on “Product Diversification, Performance Criteria, and…” because I’m asleep before the title is over. During those years, of course, I wrote to find the answers to questions. That brings me to a bigger reason of…
Writing to learn.
So much of non-fiction writing is to analyze a question and solve a problem, but in the end, writing has become one of the major ways I learn. Of course, I learn from reading, watching, and listening, but I also learn when I write and it's sometimes a mystery how that happens. Often I’ll discover I’ve written something in a way that I don’t know how I got there. When that happens, I find an idea is different, clearer, and more interesting. I’ve moved into a phase where a specific expectation no longer holds. I find that, if I’m lucky—or persistent—magic happens and an idea appears or a connection jumps into play. I realize again how lucky I am to learn…and write… for a living.
The Bridge Generation of Việt Nam: Spanning Wartime to Boomtime
The Bridge Generation was born in northern Vietnam between the early 1950s until just before 1975. This group's lives spanned three critical time periods in Vietnam’s recent history: from wartime, through a long period of food rationing, to the boom of a fast growing economy. Many are now among the top business, governmental, and educational leaders of the country. Who are these people and what did they experience on the road from children of war to leaders of a country?
The Bridge Generation of Vietnam: Spanning Wartime to Boomtime is a compilation of profiles and essays that shed light on innumerable questions. How did they manage to go from such hardship to modern lives in thirty years? How did that change them? So far, few have talked about their experiences, certainly not to many outsiders. Authors N.K. Napier and Dau Thuy Ha divided these experiences into three parts, mirroring the time periods to convey some of the experiences that the Bridge Generation lived through, what changes emerged, and what it means for them going forward.
No one can fully capture experiences that millions of people lived through but The Bridge Generation of Vietnam: Spanning Wartime to Boomtime presents a small sense of what makes the people and the country so captivating.
Why Nancy is writing fiction books.
After 35+ years in the academic and research world, I’m sticking my toe into the world of writing fiction. And I’m learning how to be a beginner all over again.
At the start of the pandemic, I took a Zoom course and wrote my first novel in about six months. After asking a few people to look at it, I realized what an amateur I was and had quite an awakening. This novel-writing business may be easy for some, but I’m not even at the starting line.
I didn’t take creative writing in college but rather jumped into years of nonfiction writing—research reports, academic journal articles, books on topics like transition economies, women working abroad, creativity, and insight. Then came newspaper columns (very short), a daily local NPR radio “column,” and writing for Psychology Today. I wrote some short, very accessible books for leaders about creativity and culture. Most recently, I wrote a set of profiles of Vietnamese who lived through war and famine and now lead the country in education, business, and government. All that has taught me to write clear nonfiction, and, at the time, I thought it would help me leap into fiction.
Was I wrong?
LEARNING HOW TO BE A BEGINNER AGAIN
I joined a fiction workshop where eight of us submitted 2,000 words a week for feedback. This group of fantasy, sci-fi, romance, thriller, and historical fiction writers baffled me. I was the lone “gentle mystery” writer: no violence, gore, or torture, just a story about a murder in a hot spring in the wild mountains of the Pacific Northwest.
The reviews from my colleagues were direct and felt brutal on first reading. But I’ve received many callous reviews on academic journal articles, so I did what I always found useful: I put the feedback in a drawer for a day or so and then took a second look. And I realized, of course, that the reviewers were fair, honest, and pointed out many places where I needed to improve.
They chided me about point of view, the purpose of a scene, why to drop extraneous characters, scenes, chapters, and words. They clarified the difference between story and plot, subplots, and “episodic chapters.” And that was just the first few weeks. I understood yet again that I am a beginner, but that also has its benefits.
For years, I’ve been an “expert” in my professional discipline and rarely embark on something completely new, so my writing adventure is a way to put myself into a situation where I can ask all the dumb questions. I can play since I’ve nothing to prove. As a fiction-writer-in-training, I feel completely free to be a beginning learner. There’s a freedom that comes with that, and being a beginner gives me empathy for people in my classroom who may themselves be beginners.