Eileen Flanagan – The Wisdom to Know the Difference

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

My most recent book is The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change-and When to Let Go, published by Tarcher/Penguin. Based on the Serenity Prayer, the book explains how spiritual practices can help people to accept the things they cannot change and change the things they can so they can live to their full potential. It weaves together insights from a variety of spiritual traditions, including my Quaker faith. The book has been endorsed by the Dalai Lama and has hit two (small) bestseller lists, so far.

What inspired you to write The Wisdom to Know the Difference?

I first got the idea when I was pregnant with my first child nearly thirteen years ago. The Serenity Prayer asks for serenity to accept the things we cannot change and courage to change the things we can, which really helped me during that time. There were all these things I couldn’t control—when I might go into labor, whether my favorite doctor would be on call, and most importantly, whether my baby would be healthy. At the same time, I felt this profound responsibility to do what was best for my baby, so I took my prenatal vitamins and stopped drinking wine at dinner. Focusing on the things I could change made it easier to let go of the things I couldn’t.

I realized then that the last line of the prayer, “the wisdom to know the difference,” would make a great subject for a book. I could see so many situations where it applied. But I also knew I wasn’t ready to write it yet. Over several years I noticed situations that I thought exemplified wisdom, or the lack of it. I thought about it as I cared for my dying uncle and later my mother. Then one day, several months after my mother’s death, it came to me very strongly that I was ready to write this book. I stopped at a drug store and bought a notebook and scribbled ten pages of ideas right on the spot.

Tell us something about yourself.

My son likes to tell people that I went skydiving as soon as I turned 18, when I didn’t need my mother’s permission any more. I guess that does give an idea of the kind of person I am. I’ve tried a lot of different things: teaching in the Peace Corps, traveling around the world, fundraising for a non-profit, teaching writing to women in a prison. When I was thirty, I quit my job working at a Quaker study center to write my first book. I’ve found that all those eclectic life experiences provide material for my writing, even though at the time I didn’t see how it would all fit together. Now that my second book is published and coming out in paperback I feel confident that I’ll always be a writer, no matter what other things I might do along the way.

How did you publish this book?

The key to getting this book published was finding a new agent. I had become dissatisfied with the agent who represented my first book. It was scary to cut ties with her and look for someone new, but I’m part of a wonderfully supportive writers group. They helped me believe that I deserved a better agent, someone who could get me a contract with a big publisher, which I valued because of the distribution the big publishers provide. I believed this book could speak to a lot of people, so I wanted them to have access to it. I started researching agents on the Internet, and this one agent’s site just appealed to me. I had a good feeling about her, so I sent off my query. She wrote back right away and asked to see the proposal. A week later, she called to say that she wanted to represent the book. Five minutes into the conversation she asked, “Did you know I was a Quaker?” I had not. It was total serendipity, but she turned out to be a wonderful fit. She approached Tarcher, which is the Mind/Body/Spirit division of Penguin, and they have also been a good match, too. I think I’m the only writer I know who loves my agent, my editor, and my publicist.

How do you do research for your books?

My first two books have woven stories from original interviews with my ideas and sometimes quotes from other authors. Doing the interviews has been particularly rewarding. I’ve been amazed at how generous people are in sharing their stories. Sometimes someone will share an anecdote that is exactly what I needed to hear at that moment or that fits exactly into a part of the book where something was missing. I often feel very close to the people I interviewed afterwards.

Did you learn anything from writing this book? What?

I learned how resilient human beings are. The people I interviewed had faced a host of challenges: the death of a child, cancer, divorce, paralysis, bankruptcy, discrimination, homelessness, Hurricane Katrina, even Nazis—and yet these people were not bitter or broken. They had learned from the challenges life had thrown at them and tried to make the best of their circumstances. Often they ended up profoundly helping other people and changing the world, in their own way. Their stories taught me to keep my own relatively small problems in perspective.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

My advice is to trust that you have something to say and to work on figuring out your message or story before you start worrying about the publishing part. I think sometimes new writers write their query letter before they’ve written much else, and then get discouraged when they get rejected. If you focus on the writing first, honing your message and your craft, you’ll be more likely to send out great work and more confident to persevere, which getting published sometimes requires.

What are you doing to promote your latest book?

I’ve been doing a lot of public speaking, which I find I really enjoy. In addition to book readings at book stores and radio appearances, I’ve been speaking to a growing number of organizations about topics related to living with more serenity. It’s something we could all use, not just groups specifically focused on spiritual growth.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

Please visit my website, where you can see pictures of the people I interviewed and check out my book trailer, among other things.  There is also a contact page if you are interested in having me come speak to your organization. I also have a blog called Imperfect Serenity because it deals with the challenge of living serenely in every day life.