My guest on this episode of the podcast is Allen Klein. He's spent his career writing spirituality and personal development books.
To date, he's written over 31 books, including The Healing Power of Humor, and his most recent title is The Awe Factor which spiritualityandpractice.com dubbed one of the best spiritual books of 2020.
I wanted to understand what goes into a good spirituality book and how authors can take a simple idea like awe and turn it into a book. Allen explains how he draws on stories from his personal life, stories that people tell him, and those he comes across online.
Allen talks about spending over a week in a library using microfiche film to extract an article from the New York Times, whereas, today, it's just a Google search away, or you can download an app.
He also talks about how he promotes his books using a service called Help a Reporter Out (HARO). If you write any non-fiction, I recommend checking it out.
In this episode we discuss.
Allen: I really love the scientists and the researchers because they’re kind of giving me the foundation for what I’m talking about but to really connect with the reader, I need that scientific basis but I need those stories to illustrate the point.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: What goes into a great spirituality book?
Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. My guest this week is Allen Klein. He spent a career writing spirituality and personal development books.
He’s written over 31 books, including The Healing Power of Humor. His most recent title is called The Awe Factor which spiritualityandpractice.com dubbed one of the best spiritual books of 2020.
I recently had the chance to catch up with Allen and I wanted to understand what goes into a good spirituality book these days and how authors of spirituality books can take a simple idea like awe and turn it into a book and Allen explained to me how he combines a little bit of scientific research with capturing stories. He uses stories from his personal life and he uses stories that other people tell him and stories that he comes across online.
One of my key takeaways from this interview is that it’s much easier than ever for nonfiction writers of any genre to research their book thanks to the internet. Allen talks about spending time in a library, spending over a week in a library using microfiche film to extract an article from the New York Times, whereas, today, if you want to do that, you know, it’s just a Google search away or you can just download the app.
Another takeaway from this interview is that even if you have a huge back catalogue of over 31 books, you still need to spend a little bit of time promoting your work and this is something I’m thinking about at the moment because I’m getting my story-driven parenting book ready for publication. But Allen promote his books by using a service called HARO, which is Help a Reporter Out, and if you write any type of nonfiction or you’re running a blog or a website of any sort, I recommend checking it out but, basically, you get e-mail queries every day from journalists, including from the New York Times, looking for sources for their stories and if they accept your pitch, then you can potentially be featured in that particular article or get a link back to your website, and Allen describes how he responded to a pitch and how he was able to get a mention in the New York Times and how that helped him increase the sales of his books.
Now, if you enjoy the show or you find any of the writing or book marketing advice useful, please consider leaving a short review on iTunes or sharing this show on Overcast or Stitcher or wherever you’re listening because more reviews and more ratings will help the show. Or, alternatively, you can support the show for just a couple of dollars a month and I’ll give you discounts on my writing courses, books, and software and you can find the link in the show notes.
I started by asking Allen to describe how he got into writing a book about awe in the first place and what the big idea behind his book is.
Bryan: Allen, you’re also a jolly-tologist. Would you be able to give listeners — explain what a jolly-tologist is because we were talking about this just before I hit Record.
Allen: Yeah, Bryan, I made that up, I believe. Whatever you want in life, you could just be that. So, I went back to school to learn about therapeutic humor and I got a degree in human, H-U-M-A-N, development and my thesis was The Healing Power of Humor and it became my first book and, in Greek, laughter is gelos, so I started to call myself a gelotologist but people didn’t understand that, they thought I made the jello dessert and so I changed it to jolly-tologist and I’m the world’s only jolly-tologist and I know that it’s been kind of popular with some people because I’ve heard of people now who are joy-ologists, happy-ologists, enthusi-ologists, and it goes on and on, but I am the world’s only and first jolly-tologist.
Bryan: That’s something to put on your CV or resume.
Bryan: So your book, The Awe Factor, would you be able to give listeners a flavor for what it’s about?
Allen: Right. Well, every one of my books, Bryan, have come out of things that have helped me in my life and I wanted to share it with other people so, when I was growing up, my dad was very negative, my mom was really positive and because my dad was so negative and particularly when I was a teenager, I would do the totally opposite, you know, how teenagers, kids are, and so I never listened to him and I would always see the positive in stuff and I think that really that influenced me to see that and also, for 10 years, I worked at CBS Television in the United States designing, and you may or may not know this show, the Captain Kangaroo show.
It was a kid show, it was on at least 25 years in this country, and so, as a designer, as the scenic designer, I had to think like a child. How would a child see this? And so I just, I guess, between my mom’s positive energy, going against my dad’s negative energy, and seeing the world like a child, I often saw, I guess, what I would call the mini-miracles in my life, all those times when there was just something unusual about what was happening or I couldn’t explain it or those kind of wow experiences, “This is amazing that this, you know, all came together,” or when I got goosebumps because of something that somebody said or something that happened. And so I thought — I think I’m not the only one, I think this happened to a lot of people —
Allen: — but they don’t acknowledge it and so I started putting my stories together, I started asking other people about their stories and about awe and wonder in their life and I started doing research and it’s fairly recent, about 10 years, that scientists have been doing research on awe.
What I found in their research was it could help us be happier and healthier and most people don’t know this and it doesn’t take a lot. It just — we can talk about some of the ways people could open their eyes to look for more awe in their life but I thought people need to know this and so I just started writing the book and that’s how it came about.
Bryan: So the book is broken into three acts and you have stories that illustrate each of the principles of awe or aspects of awe and you’ve little stories about like chance meetings and chance happenings and so on. Did you have those stories collected before you wrote the book or did you come up with the principles first and then go and look for the stories?
Allen: Good question. You know, I knew some of them before, kind of in my head, you know, I had experienced them and kinda thought they were incredible stories, I can tell you one right now, but I never really thought about putting them all together so I started putting them down and, as I’m putting them down, I thought of another story in my life. In fact, just the other day, I thought, “Oh, there was this story that never got in the book because I had forgotten about it,” you know? And then I just thought, well, I need to interview other people and I start reading about other people’s awe and wonder moments and so, suddenly, all these incredible stories started to like fall in place, you know? I have a TEDx talk on the power of intention —
Allen: — and so I guess that it was working. It was like I put my intention out to find awe stories, to have more awe in my life, and it just started happening.
Bryan: Some of the awe stories that kinda appealed to me were the ones that you went out in nature looking at a large tree and there was also a story of a dad walking his son. Any particular stories — or could you give an example of one of the stories for listeners so they get a flavor for the book?
Allen: Sure. Well, nature is the biggest generator of awe so anytime you can get in nature, you’re probably gonna find some awe if you stop and look for it, but I guess I should tell you about one recent bit of research that came out about going into nature and it was scientists, particularly one of the leading scientists in this field, Dacher Keltner, done a lot about awe and happiness and even the connection between awe and happiness, so one of the studies he did with his group is they took 56 people, these were older people, these were 60-, 70-, 80-year-old people, and they divided the group in half so there were 28 people in one group, 28 in the other, and they told both groups the same thing.
They wanted them to go out once a week for a walk, a 15-minute walk, that’s all it was, once a week for eight weeks, and they told these two groups the same thing except they took one group aside and gave them one little extra prompt and that was, when they go out for their walk, to look for something that awed them or they found wonder or just kind of stopped them in their tracks with amazement and notice how they feel when they were doing that and also take a picture of what they looked like when they were feeling that awe moment and then, after eight weeks, they tested these people and asked them how did they feel when they were taking the walk so the group that did not have that prompt to find awe, one example, one woman said, “Well, you know, on my walk, I kept thinking about the trip I’m gonna take next week,” she said, “I’m not ready, I haven’t packed. The other day, I couldn’t find the ticket,” and she said, “It was just stressing me out thinking about stuff in my life,” and a lot of people in that group on their walk thought about some negative things in their life.
With the other group, they said that finding the awe, it helped them diminish the negative emotions, helped to increase their positive emotions. They were less upset and they said they were connected more to other people and things around them and they were happier.
Bryan: It sounds like a mindful practice.
Allen: Exactly. Well, I think looking for awe and wonder in your life is a mindful practice and, you know, during the pandemic, a lot of people have focused on a lot of the negative aspects of the pandemic and, yes, they were serious, people were dying, people were ill, people were out of work, kids were not in school. Yes, that’s true, but the awe thing surrounds us. The wonder, the amazement of life itself and all aspects of it, that hasn’t gone away, that’s still there. It’s just mindful. We’re no longer mindful of that, we’re focusing on the negative, and so awe can help us stay more positive, even in those negative times. So, yes, it’s very much connected to be more mindful and looking at the wonder and the glory and the amazement that’s all around us.
Bryan: So you’ve written over 30 books, probably around personal development and spirituality. How do you come up with like a theme or a central idea for your books? Like I give — just to give listeners an example, your previous book was called The Joy of Simplicity and then you have another book called Secrets Kids Know so it seems like you pick one simple idea and create a book around it.
Allen: Right. So, most of the books came out of situations in my own life. So, my first book, The Healing Power of Humor, came out of what some people, I guess, would call a tragedy in my life. My wife had a terminal illness, we found out when she was 31 and she passed away at 34, but she had a great sense of humor and I realized after she died, yes, there were lots of tears but there was also a lot of humor that helped because she was very funny and we would laugh a lot together. In fact, when we were married, we’d say, “How come we’re still married after 10 years when a lot of our friends were separated or getting divorced?” and the thing we said to each other is because we make each other laugh. So, laughter and humor are really helpful and very important in our relationship.
So, after Ellen died and, you know, noticing how humor helped me and other people around her rise above the situation, even for a little while, I thought nobody’s talking about humor in serious situations and therapeutic humor and so that’s when I went back to school to get a master’s degree in human development and my thesis became The Healing Power of Humor. So, that book came out of a loss.
Another book, You Can’t Ruin My Day is the title, You Can’t Ruin My Day, I was happy, I was joyful, I was singing, and I was on my way to the gym and I was speeding because I didn’t notice the speeding sign and got pulled over for a speeding ticket and I got to the gym and I was telling my fellow gym mates, “Oh, I just got a speeding ticket and I’m still happy,” and they thought, “Allen, you are nuts,” you know? “How could you do that?” And out of my mouth, Bryan, came, “I’m not gonna let that ticket or that policeman ruin my day.”
Allen: And I thought, oh, my God, there is a book because most people let other people or other situations ruin their day so those are just two examples of, you know, out of my life and out of a passion to share what I know, what I’ve learned, with other people, I just start writing the book and I always tried to keep my books simple.
Another book I wrote was Embracing Life After Loss because after my wife died, I looked at loss and grief and I looked at books that were big and fat and told me how depressed I would be or I might lose sleep or, you know, and I thought, “I already know that. I’m experiencing that. I don’t need that kind of book, I need a book that would kind of hold my hand, lift me up, a book that I could just open and read some passage and be inspirational to help me get on with life,” and that’s when I wrote Embracing Life After Loss.
Bryan: When you decide to write a book, like Embracing Life After Loss or The Awe Factor, what does your process look like and how much time do you spend on it each day?
Allen: Well, sometimes, you know, if it’s an idea in my head, I will just start writing stuff or collecting stuff. Again, like intention. Suddenly, if I wanna write a book about loss and how to get over it, suddenly, I don’t know if it’s — just my whole consciousness opens and, all of a sudden, these articles come in or people tell me a story. “Oh, I wish — here, I can give you an example. Oh, it’s right here. Great.” So, the other day, I’m now doing a weekly class, a five-week class on the awe factor, half an hour before I’m doing my first class, I get this e-mail from a friend across the country and he said, “I just received The Awe Factor today. Also, when my 4-year-old grandson, Paulie, paid a visit to me today, he was wearing a t-shirt with the word ‘Awe’ on the front and ‘Awesome’ on the back. Can you believe it?”
Bryan: Coincidence or not, yeah.
Allen: You know, so some people call it coincidence. I call it, I don’t know, awe. One person I taught, they call it a godsend. I call it, you know, the awe factor, that these things happen and they’re just — they’re amazing. They’re just awe moments in my life.
Bryan: Do you spend a lot of time reading personal development or spirituality books?
Allen: I used to. I’m a little busy, you know, right now, I’m publicizing The Awe Factor a lot —
Allen: — so I’m grateful for you having me on your podcast. I don’t read a lot now. I read more articles than books about self-development, yeah.
Bryan: How do you decide between how much research, as in science-based research, to put into a book like this versus stories like the one you just described?
Allen: Well, it’s funny you asked that. When I wrote my first book, The Healing Power of Humor, I had a great editor and then she left, I got a second editor and he drove me crazy because every time I would submit something to him, he would say, “Allen, I want more stories, more stories, more stories.” I was going nuts trying to find the stories to illustrate what I was saying but I realized in a way he was right, that stories illustrate the point.
Allen: So, in this book, I wanted to make a point that, one, there is awe around us. You don’t have to go to a special place to find it so I needed many different stories because I also realized that awe is really in the eyes of the beholder.
So, Bryan, what I think might be an awe moment in my life may not be an awe moment in your life and vice versa. So, for me, a main part of the book is the stories because it’s those stories that I will remember, you know? And I used to be a professional speaker and it was the stories that, you know, people I think would take away from my talk but I know that when I heard other speakers, it was their stories. It wasn’t the facts. It wasn’t how much money I make or whatever it was.
So, when I think of a speaker, I think of their life and their stories and how they moved me so I think only stories can do that. So, how much research? I want to, whether it’s my talk on therapeutic humor, on awe, I really love the scientists and the researchers because they’re kind of giving me the foundation for what I’m talking about but to really connect with the reader, I need that scientific basis but I need those stories to illustrate the point.
Bryan: So you need both concrete — something concrete and something —
Bryan: — to illustrate the point.
Bryan: How do you decide what stories go in and my stories stay out?
Allen: Good question because I had a lot more stories than are in the book. Well, if — sometimes, like particularly in this book, there were stories that were too similar, say they were both about hugging a tree or, you know, something, I don’t know, so I can only use one so I put the better story in. Other stories were totally off base that people would give me or didn’t move me and I thought if I didn’t like it, if it didn’t move me in some way, with some emotion, laughter, tears, you know, getting goosebumps, whatever it was, if it didn’t move me, I didn’t think it would move the reader so they went out.
Bryan: Okay, that’s a good rule.
Allen: If it wasn’t told well and if I had to do too much editing and, you know, or it didn’t make sense, they went out. So it’s only the crème de la crème that actually goes in the book. Or, if I wanna illustrate a point, then that story would go in also. So, there were many different criteria of why a story gets in the book.
Bryan: So you’re coming across stories for your books quite regularly. How do you capture them or record them and then how do you organize them later on?
Allen: So, first of all, I had all mine so I put mine down.
Allen: I wrote all mine out and then I just ask all my friends, you know, “Do you have any awe — or what are your awe moments in your life?” I put it on various sites where people respond to stories, I do research. Quora, I think it was called Quora —
Allen: — put the word “awe” and “wonder” and there were a lot of stories there from people. The internet is incredible. I put “awe and wonder stories” and so many come up —
Allen: — so I used, you know, could use some of those with permission and then I just, once I know I’m writing a book, I just start collecting. On the internet, I would look up books about this subject, other books about this subject and they might have stories. It’s tedious but, I’ll tell you, Bryan, it’s so much easier with the internet than when I wrote my first book, The Healing Power of Humor.
I remember I saw some research about humor in grief. No one was writing about that and I wanted to write about that and, supposedly, the article was in the New York Times and there was no internet to look up the New York Times so I went to the library, there was something — you’re way too young to know this but microfiche? I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of microfiche.
Bryan: No, no.
Allen: It was this strip of film —
Bryan: Oh, yes, yeah, I’m familiar with it, yeah.
Allen: — so the New York Times, the whole year was on this strip of film, you put it in this gadget and you would turn the knob so the pages would scroll. I sat there for almost a week. I went through a whole year of the New York Times —
Bryan: To find one article.
Allen: — to find that article and, actually, I found it was cut because some big news story so it never got in there but I did get it from the researcher. You know, that would take, what? Maybe 30 seconds to find —
Bryan: Yeah —
Allen: — in the internet today.
Bryan: — and press search, yeah. So when you’re actually writing the book, are you just putting all the stories into Word and then editing them, or do you have some other process?
Allen: No, I put them down and then, what I noticed in this book was the stories would seem to fall in a category so there’d be — I started naming them like “Knock your socks off awe” or — oh, I can’t remember all the names I used. “Higher power awe” or “How could this possibly happen awe” or “Chance meeting awe,” like some mini — like “Mini awe,” like the chance meeting is I was walking in Yosemite National Park and, way high in the mountain, I’m walking up, someone on the down path is walking and he goes, “Allen?” and I look at him and I don’t know who it is and he said, “I used to design summer stock,” and he said, “I was your apprentice in summer stock like 40 years ago,” and I thought, wow, that’s, you know, that’s like a chance meeting awe, it’s like how did this happen, you know? Five or ten seconds later, he might have turned a corner, it might not have happened exactly.
Bryan: For the stories you’ve described, like some of them sound like they could be journal entries as well. Do you have a journaling practice?
Allen: I don’t. I used to but I don’t, yeah. I don’t know why. I don’t. I do, you know, now with the internet, I do write some stuff there and I file it away if I ever wanna use it but I don’t write things down every day, no.
Bryan: Okay, okay. And, Allen, you mentioned you’re promoting The Awe Factor at the moment. When you’ve as many books as you have, does the back catalogue sell the books for you or do you still have to do a lot of work promoting your latest book?
Allen: Well, whenever I see something that relates, say, to therapeutic humor —
Allen: — I will, you know, contact the reporter and often get in. Anytime I see — for your office listening and if they want publicity, anytime you see anything vaguely related to your book, contact that author of the article, you know — I’m sorry, the reporter, contact the reporter. So, I got in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago not because the reporter wanted stories about awe or wonder, they wanted stories about happiness —
Allen: — and then I told you the research that just was out about awe, helping people be happier, I sent that to her and she put it in the article because it was probably something no one else sent her. People are focusing on how to be happier and I was focusing on awe that led to happiness. So, it got in the New York Times. So, anytime anything related to what your authors are writing, their books, contact that reporter.
Bryan: Good advice. Good advice. So do you just look for their e-mail or reach out to them on Twitter or…?
Allen: Well, I — yeah, there’s several things. There’s — and I’m sure people can get it around the world, it’s called HARO. You know that?
Bryan: I do. I do.
Allen: Yeah, so it’s free to join, you’ll get three e-mails a day and I scroll through that every day. In fact, I have, from yesterday and the day before, I have three reporters to answer right now. I will do it right after we talk because the deadlines are coming up today and tomorrow. Whether I get in their article or their podcast or, you know, then I belong to some podcast sites, I think that’s how we connected.
Allen: Because my thing is, you can write the greatest book in the world and if nobody knows about it, it’s not going to sell.
Bryan: What’s the point? Yeah.
Allen: You can write the worst book in the world or one of the worst books and if you have incredible, you know, million dollars to do publicity, it’s probably gonna sell some copies. So, I think, for me, the easiest part, although it’s hard to write the book, the hardest part is getting the word out about how great the book is.
Bryan: Yeah, that’s good advice about promoting your work. In terms of the actual HARO pitch itself, I mean, reporters tend to be quite busy and I can imagine somebody working for the New York Times has a busy inbox, what do you put in the response to HARO or an e-mail to that reporter
Allen: Well, that reporter, because she was looking for happiness and she actually wanted psychologists and I, immediately, because I didn’t want her to read it if she wasn’t — I said, “I’m not a psychologist and I don’t focus on happiness except roundabout way and did you know about this new research —
Allen: — about awe can lead to happiness,” so, right away, you know, and then I told the why about the new study and that I’m the author of this brand new book on awe and wonder.
Bryan: Okay, yeah, that’s a good response. So, it’s kind of a short, succinct e-mail to her and explaining what you do —
Allen: Right, right, and she, you know, she only devoted a paragraph but I did notice, soon as that came out, the sales went way up.
Bryan: Oh, wow. That’s impressive.
Bryan: I’ll have to start using HARO again. I am a subscriber but I haven’t used it that much lately. So, Allen, where can people find more information about you or where can they buy your book?
Allen: Well, certainly the internet, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, they just have to spell my name right. A-L-L-E-N, K-L-E-I-N, and the other thing is, if they go on Amazon and put my name in, they’re gonna find a book called Allen Klein and he was the manager of the Beatles, same exact spelling. I am not the manager of the Beatles. In fact, he is dead, I am not. I am alive, you can see I’m alive so — or go to my website, www.allenklein.com.
Bryan: Thank you, Allen.
Allen: Thank you. Appreciate you’re chatting with me.
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