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Budapest Meets Baltimore in New York City to Help Save the World

May 7, 2018

By Ellen Freed
 

The First Meeting…

Dr. Thomas Vietorisz welcomed me into his Greenwich Village apartment with the charm and warmth of a European gentleman. I was there because this retired Hungarian Economics professor was looking for a ghost writer who could turn a highly academic work into a trade book that would appeal to young people. The primary objective of “Toward a Globally Balanced World” was to promote awareness among Millennials about the ever-increasing existential threats to our planet and all its inhabitants.

One look at a few pages of this 300-page draft made my head spin!   Focused on sustainability issues and global warming, it was filled with long, highly complex, sentences, and there were no graphics in sight. Clearly, Thomas was right: This material needed the hand of someone who could translate it into a form that would engage the target population. 

Over dinner, Thomas and I connected on a personal level as he shared his feelings about the recent loss of his wife of 50 years. We had just met, but there was an immediate sense of trust between us; and he hired me to review and critique a 25-page summary of the book’s content. Our collaboration began…


The Collaborators

Born and raised in Budapest, Thomas came to the United States at age 21 to study at MIT. With a PhD in Economics in hand, his first job was with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (UN-ECLA) directing training programs in Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Mexico, and Venezuela. Then in 1960, he served as an industrial development expert with the UN’s first mission to Castro’s Cuba. Back in the United States, he began a fifty-year teaching career at Cornell, the New School for Social Research, and Columbia University.  Throughout his teaching career, with professional proficiency in English, Hungarian, German, French, and Spanish, Thomas consulted extensively with the governments of Greece, Mexico, and the United States, the United Nations, and the World Bank along with such business firms as Allied Corporation and Steelcase Corporation.  Also, he authored numerous academic monographs, articles, and book chapters.

Raised in Baltimore, Maryland, I graduated from Brandeis University with a BA in History and moved to New York City after college. After several jobs as a research associate, I became a professional writer and instructional designer.  This involved creating such educational, corporate training, and marketing materials as participant workbooks, facilitator and teacher guides, video and audio scripts, learning games, press releases, brochures, website content, proposals, and magazine articles. The content areas I have tackled ranged from beginning reading and social studies to credit-card product launches and professional selling skills in the pharmaceutical and financial services industries. Clients have included ABC Entertainment, American Express, AT&T, Bank of America, Bayer Healthcare, IBM, Merck, New York City Ballet, Novartis, Sokolow Dance Foundation, Volunteers of America, and Xerox Learning Systems.

An Unlikely Collaboration

As our collaboration began, Thomas and I had to confront some striking differences. Coming from “Academia,” he valued what a student knows at the end of a course—knowledge for its own sake.  In my career which involved performance enhancement in the corporate world, the purpose of educational content was to provide a foundation for action--knowledge in the service of behavior. At the end of a training session, the question becomes: What will the participants be able to do with more competence?  Also, we had two diametrically opposed writing styles. His was complex, thought-provoking, and theoretical in nature, requiring time to absorb the meaning of each sentence while I strived for simplicity and clarity creating material that was practical and quickly absorbed.
 

Style…Content…Structure…Title

We began working together slowly, testing the waters to see if the collaboration would work. The summary critique of the original draft generated quite a few disagreements about style and content, but they were resolved gradually over time through mutual understanding and growing respect.

Given the target population, we decided to make each page of the book resemble a computer screen with limited, succinct text and relevant, supportive graphics.  With this model, the reader encounters whole-brained material that nourishes both the left and right sides of the brain and nuggets of knowledge, which are quickly absorbed. Also, if possible, content would be self-contained on every page, making it easier to stop and restart reading.

It took some time to develop a new content outline that we both felt was on track.  Some of the subject matter from the original draft had to be deleted and replaced with new material. The result is a book with very diverse material from the fields of anthropology, current events, economics, history, politics, psychology, and sociology.  

As we assembled the new and original content, a structure began to emerge which truly represented our collaboration. Part I is a snapshot of how the human race evolved from chimpanzees to the complex men and women of the 21st century, and it concludes with an examination of the existential threats that plague us today. Part II offers “Pockets of Hope”— current or recent examples designed to remind us that social cooperation and empathy are embedded in human DNA; and if we are to survive, these qualities need to be reactivated on a global scale. Part III is an urgent call to action, and it provides the reader with information and guidelines for becoming active global citizens. Finally, there was a moment when this title popped out unexpectedly which captured the essence of all the material in the book: Recovering Humanity: A Blueprint for Survival.

The Development Process

With a content outline in hand and an overall structure, I began writing and gathering graphics following the page model. After I finished each first-draft chapter, it was sent to the Professor for editorial feedback.  Again, when issues arose that involved disagreement, we found a path to resolution without concessions, and in some cases, richer content emerged. Over time, we had established a comfort level and a relationship based on mutual respect which allowed us to freely express our differences.  Also, we now had clearly defined roles; and as the generous and fair person that he is, Thomas insisted on giving me co-authorship.

When the first draft was finalized to our satisfaction, we decided to market test the book with 9 Millennials. Prepared for any response—positive or negative---the Professor and I were delighted with the results. The overall rating was a 4 out of 5, and it came with some awesome recommendations that precipitated another revision cycle.

At this point in development, the all-important “look and feel” of the book became paramount. Realizing that we needed someone with expertise in graphic design, I recruited Lee Goldstein, a book designer with an impressive record of accomplishment in publishing and the eye and talent necessary for making the material shine. Thomas turned over this final phase to me, and an extraordinary collaboration began between Lee and myself. Each designed chapter needed to be proof-read and corrected when necessary.  Sometimes sentences needed to be re-written to accommodate the graphic layout of each page.

This was a challenging and time-consuming process, but it eventually led to a manuscript that was ready for publication—except for the cover—another crucial component.  After exploring several possibilities, Lee found a powerful and relevant central image and proceeded to work her magic.

After several years of hard work by a senior from Budapest and another from Baltimore, Recovering Humanity: A Blueprint for Survival is out in the world. An easy read containing heavy content, it is designed to stimulate serious food for thought and the action necessary for making Planet Earth a better home for all its inhabitants.
 
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