Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?
For most of my early years, I lived with my parents and younger brother in a five-flight walk-up apartment in the Bronx, NY. I went to all NYC schools…PS 64, Junior High School PS 117, William Howard Taft High School, and Hunter College. It wasn’t until I went to graduate school, Yale Drama School in New Haven, CT, that I lived away from home.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life?
I didn’t read much as a child. I was more interested in creative things. I drew pictures a lot. One of my favorite toys was a free-standing blackboard that I would draw pictures on with chalk.
But I also remember that I wrote a couple of poems in grade school. One was published in the school paper (I guess that was my first ever published piece) and the other, about the principal, which I read out loud at a school assembly.
The thing that changed my life when I was young was not a book but a Broadway show. When I was seven-years-old, my parents took me to see Oklahoma. From that day on I wanted to be the person that created those pretty stage pictures. I wanted to be a scenic designer, which I did become. After leaving Yale Drama School. I was accepted into the United Scenic Artist Union. After passing their very stringent test, I was hired by CBS television, where I worked for ten years.
What was the moment or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world?
Shortly after my wife and I moved from New York City to San Francisco, we found out that she had a rare and incurable liver disease. The prognosis was about three years. She did die in that timeframe at the age of 34. While there were lots of tears during the years we were dealing with her terminal illness, there was also lots of laughter. After Ellen’s death, I realized that that laughter, and Ellen’s great sense of humor, helped me get through those trying times. It was that message that I wanted to share with the world…that therapeutic humor could help us get a perspective on any situation and help us survive it.
What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book?
Since The Healing Power of Humor was my first book, I had no idea what impact it might make. However, one day near the end of the completion of the book, I sat down to meditate. I asked my higher self, “What impact will my book have on the world.” The answer I got blew me away. It said that it will be hard for me to imagine what impact the book will have on the world, that it will be beyond my wildest dreams.
Did the actual results align with your expectations?
Yes, just as the advice from my inner being told me, the results of writing the book was more than I could imagine. The Healing Power of Humorwas embraced around the world. It has been translated into nine foreign languages. It has been used in psychology classes in colleges. It has gotten me invitations and opened doors for me to speak at hospitals and hospices all around the country. And to a conference in Australia, to doctors from Sweden, as well as many other places.
What amazed me too was that when I was growing up, my parents wanted me to be a doctor. And here I was teaching MDs.
What moment let you know that your book had started a movement?
There were several things that indicated a massive interest in using humor as a healing tool. For example, shortly after the book came out, I was invited to speak about the subject at a public event sponsored by a hospital in Portland, Oregon. The room was rather large and started to fill quickly. But the audience continued to come. So they opened another section of the collapsible wall. But that wasn’t good enough. They had to open a third and final section of a wall. In the end, the room was filled to capacity with standing room only.
What kinds of things did you hear right away from readers? What are the most frequent things you hear from readers about your book now? Are they the same? Different?
When the book first came out I was surprised how readers relished every word I wrote. Many would show me their battered copy of the book with numerous highlighted pages and border notes. When one woman found out that I was the person who wrote The Healing Power of Humor,she got so enthusiastic that I thought she might collapse from her excitement. She began screaming with joy and hugging me nonstop.
Later, over the years, a number of people told me that the book was a major influence and turning point in their life for them getting into the therapeutic humor and laughter field.
What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book?
As a result of writing the book, I’ve received many speaking invitations. Perhaps the most moving came from my daughter, Sarah, when she was a teenager. For several years in a row she would ask me to come and speak to her fellow counselors about the power of humor. And every year I would make some kind of excuse — “I’m too busy, Sarah.” “It’s a long drive, Sarah.” “It’s too hot up there in the summer, Sarah.”
Then I heard a fellow-speaker give a powerful talk. One of the things he said was that teenagers had the highest rate of suicide in this country. His words moved me. I immediately left his talk, called my daughter and asked, “When do you want me to come and speak to the teenage counselors?”
When I arrived, Sarah informed me that I would be speaking at eleven o’clock. “OK,”I said. “I’ll be ready 11 AM the next morning.” “No Dad”,she said, “11 o’clock at night after all the campers had gone to bed.“
As I started my talk, I scanned the room looking for a friend of Sarah’s who was also a counselor. He was very shy often depressed. I didn’t see him in the room at first but during the program I spotted him crouched down behind a couch. His head would pop up every now and then.
Around midnight the talk was over. I searched for Sarah’s friend, but he disappeared. Months later I ran into him on Haight Street in San Francisco. Usually he would hardly acknowledge me but this time he immediately came over and was eager to tell me something.
It seems that the next day, after my talk, he decided to leave the camp. He wasn’t getting along with the other counselors. And since he no longer spoke to his mom or dad, he couldn’t go home. So, he decided to hitchhike.
For hours, car after car whizzed by. As each one did, he said he felt more and more depressed and more and more deserted. When darkness set in, he started to cry and planned how he was going to kill himself. He pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe away his tears. The clown nose I gave out in my presentation fell out. He said, he bent down and put it on. Immediately someone stopped and give him a ride.
“Maybe lightening up a bit can get me further than I thought,” he said. “Thank you for coming to speak to us — and thank you… thank you… for saving my life.”
Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change?
One reviewer thought the book was frivolous. She questioned the value of humor in difficult times. And one woman in one of my workshops questioned how she could possibly laugh with her child, after all she insisted, she was the parent and had to be the disciplinarian. Other than that, I don’t recall much negative response to the book.
Can you articulate why you think books in particular have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?
Words are powerful. They can lift us up or bring us down. They can get us worked up or calm us down. They can inspire us to reach new heights or to kindle something we already know. I have no idea why certain books create a new movement or change. My best guess is that they hit a nerve and, perhaps more importantly, they are published at just the right time when the universe resonates with what the author has to say.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer?
When I had a contract to write The Healing Power of Humor,I had no idea how long it would take to write 200,000 words, which is what I think the contract called for. So I wrote all day, every day…and often into the evening. I turned down invitations to dinners and movies. I didn’t go to parties. I no longer sent friends birthday cards or answered letters that could wait (there was no email at the time).
I had to sacrifice some things and conserve my energy in order to accomplish what I knew would be an important message for readers. Doing so helped me complete the book within the deadline. Discipline was the key.
Perseverance was also the key. I realized that even if just wrote a page a day, the book would eventually get done.
What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career?
One of the things I learned is “stop struggling.” If it is right, it will happen. If it isn’t, it won’t. One example:
A couple of years ago, after I got the rights back to several of my out-of-print books, I tried in vain to find a new publisher for them. For a year-and-a-half I struggled everyday seeking a publisher. Frustrated in not finding one, I gave up actively looking and put a sign above my desk that read, “The Perfect Publisher Will Find Me.”
Then one day, I went to a meeting of book publicists. I hadn’t been to their meeting for years, but I wanted to hear the guest speaker that day. At the event, the man next to me was chatting with two women behind him. I overheard them say that they were starting a new division of their publishing company and they were looking for books that uplift, inspire, and bring joy to readers.
When I heard that, I immediately introduced myself and told them how well my out-of-print books would fit within their new division.
They gave me their card and asked that I send them my books. When I saw their address, I know that I found the perfect publisher. Their offices were only five blocks from where I live. So, I hand-delivered my books the next day. They have since published nine of my books.
Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers needs to know if they want to spark a movement with a book?
1. Write your passion.
After my wife, who had a great sense of humor, died at an early age, and after I saw how humor help me get through that loss, I had to share my experience and message with the world. I had the passion to do it and nothing was going to stop me, even my fear of public speaking which I needed to do to support interest in the book.
2. Write every day.
Like practicing playing a piano, I have found that if I don’t write everyday then when I get back to writing it takes longer to get in the groove again.
There is a wonderful lyric in the Broadway show “Chorus Line” in which a past-her-prime dancer sings about why she still wants to dance. “God,” she says, “I’m a dancer. A dancer dances!”
If you consider yourself a writer, published or not, keep writing. No excuses. A writer writes.
3. Edit, edit, edit
As a professional speaker, I realize that sometime after my presentation the audience might remember my message, but they will probably forget my exact words. A book, and the words in it, however, are forever. Make sure it is high quality both in content and that it is free of errors.
The galleys for The Healing Power of Humorhad five different colored markings from five different editors. In addition, both my editor and I read every word. Still, after the book was published, a friend pointed out a typo.
4. Tell the world about it
You might be the author of the best book ever written but unless the world knows about it, no one will ever buy or read it. Publicity needs to be a big part of being an author. Publishers will do a limited amount of publicity and usually only for a limited time. You must do the rest and not just for the book launch but on a continual basis. The Healing Power of Humorwas published in 1989. I still publicize it whenever the opportunity arises.
5. Don’t Give Up
When I had the idea to write The Healing Power of Humor, numerous people told me how difficult it would be to find an agent, to get the book published, and, even if I got a publisher, how the book might never make its advance back. They were all wrong. Listen to your gut, not other people.
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