‘Life is in the Transitions’

New book explores how people ‘fight the wolf’ and overcome adversity

Bruce Feiler image

From a phone call that changed bestselling author Bruce Feiler's life comes his latest book that could change yours.

Life is in the Transitions is the story of the Life Story Project, an initiative that Feiler was inspired to develop after receiving a phone call from his mother that his father, who had been diagnosed late in life with debilitating Parkinson's disease, had made several attempts to take his own life.

"For three decades, I had devoted my life to exploring the stories that give our lives meaning," Feiler writes. "I have long been consumed by how stories connect and divide us on a societal level, how they define and deflate us on a personal level. I began to wonder: If my dad was facing a narrative problem, at least in part, maybe it demanded a narrative solution."

Feiler sent his father a question: "What were your favorite toys as a child?" When his father responded positively, Feiler sent follow-up questions every Monday morning: "Are you still friends with any of your friends from high school?" "What was your house like as a child?" "How'd you meet Mom?" The questions gradually became more probing: "What's your biggest regret?" "How'd you survive your first downturn?" After four years, Feiler had his father's autobiography. But this was only the beginning.

In his autobiography, Council of Dads , which was recently adapted for an NBC television series, Feiler looked inward. In Transitions , he looks outside himself. "I wanted to…learn from talking to people about how they navigated difficult times to help us better navigate our own difficult times," he said.

Coming to his subjects as an outsider comes back to growing up Jewish in the South, he said. "I loved the South; it's stickiness, family-ness, and the storytelling, but I grew up Jewish in the South, so I was always an outsider," he said. "What I love about being Jewish is the stickiness, family-ness and the storytelling."

For Transitions , Feiler conducted 225 life story interviews--more than a thousand hours' worth--in all 50 states. He talked to people who spanned many generations and represented myriad races, genders, and socio-economic backgrounds.

"To that I added data analytics," Feiler said. "I had this team of 12 and we spent a year analyzing and coding every story looking for themes, patterns, and takeaways. That ended up being one of the most powerful parts of this experience."

In book publishing, as in comedy, timing is everything. The seeds of Transitions were planted seven years ago with the episode with Feiler's father. It is getting released during a global pandemic and in an age when, Feiler writes, "the once routine expectation that people will have one job, one relationship, one faith, one home, one body, one sexuality, one identity from adolescence to assisted living is deader than it's ever been."

"I could never in a million years have anticipated the book arriving at a time when the entire globe is going through a transition at the same time," he reflected. "Tens of millions of us have lost jobs, lost loved ones. We are changing careers, changing how we live, rethinking what is important to us, and how we want to spend our time."

What he hopes Transitions does is give readers the tools to, as he terms it, "fight the wolf" and make themselves the heroes of their own stories. "It's not a fairy tale until the wolf shows up," he explained. "We need weapons to fight the wolf, the ogre, the pandemic, and this project has been a weapons factory for me. There are ideas in this book to help you or someone you love get through this moment and as a writer, who can ask for anything more?"

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago writer who writes forVanityFair.com, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and other outlets.


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