I have been reading A Truck Full of Money: One Man’s Quest to Recover From Great Success by Tracy Kidder. It’s the story about Paul English, founder of the travel information site, kayak.com, and his meteoric rise in the dawn of the Internet era. What I most love about Kidder’s work is that he simultaneously writes about extremely specific topics – this man, this life, this career trajectory – and big picture, universal, timely topics. It feels both like entertainment (a movie, a story) and education(a lesson, a glimpse at some sort of practical and purposeful truth.) I believe that this duality is the goal of every writer working in every genre, and I was so excited to put myself in the hands of a master who has taught me so much about how this is done.
I read the mass-market version of Kidder’s book House when I was still in college. I spent my junior year at Amherst College in Massachusetts and Kidder’s book chronicles the building of a house quite near the campus. I must have seen the book in a bookstore in town, laid out like an invitation. I imagine I responded to that promise of duality inherent in the story – “Tracy Kidder takes readers to the heart of the American Dream: the building of a family's first house with all its day-to-day frustrations, crises, tensions, challenges, and triumphs.” It was the marriage of a somewhat pedestrian concept – building a house – with the high ideal of the American Dream that piqued my interest. My parents had built a house when I was growing up, and I knew something about load bearing walls and the agonizing decisions about windows. By the time I was in college, my parents were divorced and the house was gone, so I felt like the book was speaking to me on a deeper level about house and home.
And it did do that. It has been more than 30 years since I read it and I can still remember the way that book made me feel – a belief that home is where you make it.
Some years later, I read Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Soul of a New Machine, which chronicles a team of young, brilliant engineers trying to build one of the first personal computers. I was an English major working in a publishing house at a time when writers still sent their typewritten pages into editors in manila envelopes. I knew nothing about computers and cared nothing about computers, but Kidder captured the magic of the creative process – the important of love and passion to innovation – and I was enthralled with his narrative.
A Truck Full of Money doesn’t hit the same highs as my two favorite Kidder books. It never quite soars beyond English’s life or dives deep enough into the concept of success (which was the promise) or money or even mania – from which English suffers. I found myself wishing that the book were more about that. There are some powerful moments when, for example, Paul (as Kidder calls him) codes his way out of depression. It is by giving himself over to something – to the thrill of creation – that he finds salvation.
Kidder writes: “He still lay awake in the middle of many nights, but he wasn’t huddled on the floor waiting for the sun. He was lying in bed thinking about the code he had written and the code still to write, or he was down in the basement with the lights on, writing it. This wouldn’t be the road to mental health for most people, but for him it felt more and more a way back, a new beginning… Paul felt that Xiangqi [a type of chess game for which he built a website] has saved him from despair… He had taken a step back to a former self. He had programmed his way out of depression.”
I think this concept probably resonates with a lot of writers, whether or not they suffer from depression or mania. Because the truth is that while we would all love to achieve great success and make a pile of money and go on Oprah with our book, it’s not why we write. We write for the pleasure of engaging with the material, of wrestling it to the ground. It’s the process so many of us love.
Towards the end of the A Truck Full of Money, Kidder is talking about the way that ideas flow through Pauls’ mind – ideas for businesses and programs and website and services. These ideas often came to Paul at night, and if they still seemed worthy to him in the morning, he would have his friend Karl register the domain names. At one point, they had 158 names on a master list. Excessive? Perhaps – but “as [English] would say, ideas are cheap, and worthless without execution.”
For writers, the ideas that survive until morning are the ones we decide to make into books. They’re the ones we throw ourselves into, the ones that become our salvation. And if we're lucky enough, we make them worthwhile by executing them, and by sharing with other people, who we call readers.