Tribe of the Breakaway Beads

Mad in Pursuit Notebook

Challenge: Make a Book from Years of Blog Posts

The evolution of ideas is no quick process, but worth the time

(Published Oct. 10, 2022 in The Writers' Co-op at Medium)

December 27, 2011. The Price family gathered at John D. McGurk’s Irish pub in south St. Louis for our annual Christmas party. This year I brought a special gift for my sisters, my nieces, and my many girl cousins and their daughters: copies of Tribe of the Breakaway Beads: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts. It was a small, illustrated book describing turning points in my life, coupled with tales of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. They had turning points too. The perennial question was do I go or do I stay? The answer lay in their ability to turn discontent into action.

I thought about Tribe when I began looking into Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain. His acronym CODE (Capture Organize Distill Express) perfectly described the evolution of my book, with its gradual amalgamation of anecdotes and development of themes. In a world that encourages knocking out an e-book in a week or a month, my little gem took a dozen years. It couldn’t have happened any other way. Reviewing that process here is my gift to those who are frustrated that their writing routines aren’t “paying off.”

Capture: gathering all the great stories

In 1999, I was 51 years old, having a silent mental meltdown. I turned to the new, edgy practice of keeping an online journal. With the help of the “webrings” of yore, I began writing short memoir pieces, describing youthful moments forever etched into my brain. For years Mad in Pursuit was more epistolary than bloggy. With rarely more than a handful of followers, the posts were more like letters to a friend.

In 2003, I got interested in radio and over the next few years developed a few of my memoir pieces into short productions for public radio.

In 2005, I went all in on the hobby of ancestry research and posted lots of essays on my family history finds.

Organize: untangling the stories to face the wicked mess

In November 2008, I discovered self-publishing, dusted off a 1995 manuscript, and pushed my thriller Passion and Peril on the Silk Road into the world. I was 60. Immediately, I wanted to publish another book.

As 2009 began, I turned to what was now a hoard of some 2,500 short personal essays. Could I create a compilation? What were the themes that stuck out? The strongest theme was grand exits: my leaving St. Louis for college, leaving Chicago for God-knows-what in Florida, quitting jobs, running away from my first husband. There was always a choice: sticking with a situation and making it work or getting the hell out and starting over. Didn’t my immigrant ancestors face this same choice? I could include their stories too.

As I lined up my stories in a single document, I had to face facts. I was no Joan Didion, no Susan Orlean. The Best of Mad in Pursuit Stories, the greatest hits of my ten years on the internet were a rambling mess.

Within my working title of Grand Exits, I had to learn more about memoir-writing. I had to work some magic.

Distill: discovering the best angles and most liberating styles

My 2010 journal is filled with efforts to turn my rambling mess into a short, snappy volume that someone would be interested in reading. I struggled.

Listening to The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, I heard author Louis Menand refer to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “personal mythology.” I wanted one of those! Not content to write just a plain old memoir — “here’s what happened” — I wanted to pound my stories into a mythic structure, with (of course) me as the hero. My epiphany was that my “foremothers” and I had this in common — all insisting on being the heroes of our own lives, all with a big idea of ourselves, none of us willing to be a martyr to a mortifying situation.

In the introduction to his autobiography, founder of analytic psychology Carl Jung wrote:

Thus it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only “tell stories.” Whether or not the stories are “true” is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth. [Carl Jung. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), p.3]

My fable, my truth — yeah.

This gave me permission to pull out new themes — like how I began collecting beads (and the early betrayals they brought) and the “s-curves of life.”**

Then, a crisis: social media and newly available old media allowed me to catch up on some of the people from my past. My myths about their contributions to my grand exits seemed petty. They’d gone on with their lives. Their memories would be completely different from mine. What if they found my book and confronted me about my total misrepresentation of them?

I froze.

My solution turned out to be an easy psychological trick. I changed my narrative from first-person to third-person. While I kept the names of ancestors who made cameo appearances, “I” became “Mary.” I called my book a “novella” and got on with it.

My final choice was to add illustrations. I wanted the volume to come across as light-hearted. I feared taking myself too seriously. I was not much of an illustrator but had always aspired to be a cartoonist. My image files were full of possible styles. I needed fifty-some drawings — one for each short chapter. They had to be black-on-white line art so that they’d print cleanly. I tried to develop my iconography in Illustrator. The results were slick but something about the vector art felt cold. I decided to draw by hand, on index cards.

Hand-drawn bead. One is breaking away.

The breakaway bead [illustration by Susan Barrett Price]

Express: choosing to make the book a gift

With the help of my friend Pat, who read and commented on every draft, it took me another year to polish and illustrate my novella. The conglomeration of Grand Exits became Tribe of the Breakaway Beads. Along the way, I gained insight into how I met crises with creativity. The final drafts revealed a deep kinship with those women ancestors of mine. As someone whose fierce independence led me to leave home early, I discovered a new sense of belonging. I thought I’d become alienated from family, but there they were there all along, watching over me. What a gift.

By the time I self-published in November, 2011, my goal changed from sales to sharing — sharing the lessons I learned from my foremothers: Use your head. Throw your arms around uncertainty. Trust your noble heart. Move your feet. Get going! Lean into the longing. Turn discontent into action.

Before traveling to St. Louis for Christmas, I made a bookmark for each autographed volume, attaching a glass bead to it with a ribbon. Giving the books away was a delight. My family loved the photos of grandmas and aunts on the cover and were drawn in by the whimsical illustrations.

I gave it away to my girlfriends too. Months later, I ran into one of them. Karen had just quit an important but frustrating job to accept the executive directorship of a large children’s agency. She said, “I loved the book. It helped me make my decision!”

That comment and others like it over the years reinforced my decision. Sometimes packaging up your stories of hard-won wisdom as a gift to others is the most fulfilling outcome — an antidote even — for those years of self-absorption at the blog factory.


FOLLOW me on my Facebook page and....

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter. Don't miss any of the fun!

* indicates required

Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.