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Thu, Mar 28, 2002 - Page 19 News List

How to write a book about your former employer

Old Enronians, former dot-commies, laid-off Wall Street brokers: America is suddenly pulsing with idle people who can spell and have an axe to grind

By Michael Lewis  /  BLOOMBERG , BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA

From the moment I published Liar's Poker about my experience working for Salomon Brothers, I began to receive letters from people who wanted to know how they, too, might pen a searing expose of their Wall Street firms.

For years these requests came to me at a rate of about one a month, but lately I've been getting several each week. Old Enronians, former dot-commies, newly laid-off Wall Street brokers: America is suddenly pulsing with idle people who can spell.

Those who write sometimes ask if I can set them up with an agent or a publisher, or perhaps write up their experiences for them (generously offering to split what they always assume will be a huge take). But mainly what they want is advice. Do I, they wonder, have any tips? I do.

If, when you sit down to write your book about your former employer, you are thinking, "I'll show the bastards," you can be fairly certain you will not.

There is a general rule about literary motives: They needn't be admirable; they must merely be disguised. The desire for more attention than one deserves, for instance, is an unattractive quality in a human being but useful in a writer, and easily masked as something else.

Indignation at some personal slight, while not always a bad quality in a human being, is a terrible quality in a writer of a personal story, precisely because it is so difficult to hide.

About half the people I hear from were fired or feel betrayed by their bosses. Wall Street people are especially prone to these hot feelings. They never quite believed it when people told them that, if they wanted a friend on Wall Street, they should buy a dog.

Feelings of betrayal abound in a free market economy, but they are not terribly useful to a person who seeks to describe that economy.

They lead, inevitably, to self-pity, which you can be sure the reader will not indulge. The reader is not interested in you; all he cares about is your story. If you ask the reader to be upset on your behalf that you were fired, the reader will only wonder what you did to deserve it.

When one's subject is oneself, moral indignation is unhelpful.

If you have been struck suddenly by your moral superiority over the people you once worked for, you should think twice before you set out to prove it to the rest of the world. The reader will be curious to know where those fine feelings of moral repugnance were when you took the job.

A corollary to this rule, useful especially to refugees from Enron Corp: If it didn't occur to you that your company was corrupt until you read about it in the newspaper, describing that corruption to others may not be your life's calling.

"Zany" and "colorful" don't mean "interesting for people who don't know me to read about." The belief that foolish excess equals literary value was common in Wall Street dropouts at the end of the 1980s and is common again in Silicon Valley dropouts today.

But zaniness alone won't hold a story together. At best it might serve as an interesting aside. Indeed, your excessive interest in zany business anecdotes is itself zany and, like a pierced nose, a sure sign that you don't have anything deeply interesting to say.

Conversely, you should feel emboldened if you doubt how "colorful" to others your life story is. In the past couple of months I've heard from a great many Enron employees. On purely literary terms, one stands far above the rest: In clear, thoughtful, unsensational letters, he has brought his experience of working at the bankrupt energy trader to life for me. And yet, even as he writes, he insists he has no ability to tell his story to the wider public. Which is why he does.

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