Rewriting his own script

Norman Vincent Peale, the magazine’s founder, was minister of New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church from 1932 to 1984, during which time he crafted and preached a gospel of positive thinking that anticipated contemporary spirituality gurus like Oprah Winfrey and Wayne Dyer. His 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking spent 186 weeks as a New York Times best seller. Although himself a Protestant, Peale was proudly ecumenical, and from the start his magazine employed Jewish, Catholic, and unchurched editors, too. The staff filled its pages with short, simple, hopeful—some might say hokey—tales of uplift, submitted by the readers. “Peale was also smart enough to put celebrities on all his covers,” Grinnan comments.

Peale’s formula persists to this day. A typical issue, from May 2010, features a clean-cut celebrity cover (the Jonas Brothers, youthful pop-music sensations, posing with their mom) and an article about a pill-popping trucker who gets clean with God’s help, then founds a ministry with 77 locations at truck stops nationwide. There is also a short essay offering “the five secrets to a happy life” and a story from a Tennessee woman convinced that prayer saved her and the seven children she was watching when a tornado destroyed her house.

While Grinnan was happy to have a job—employed and sober beats broke and drunk—he did not immediately embrace the earnest, irony-free publication. “I was at arm’s length from Guideposts, even as I worked for it, for a long time,” he says. “Part of it was, what do you say at a New York City cocktail party when you’re with a lot of people from Condé Nast and Hearst?”—two of the more fashionable magazine publishers. “They don’t know what Guideposts is, and when you try to explain it to them, they know even less. It doesn’t register. This is midwestern storytelling, and people in New York and people at Yale and people from the drama school trying to write serious plays would never see this as a career path.”

Guideposts gets about forty thousand submissions a year, and even the best often require extensive rewriting. Editors everywhere have the task of helping writers sound like themselves, only better, but the editor at the New Yorker or Time begins with reasonably polished copy, from writers who’ve been trained and had plenty of practice. The Guideposts editor starts with far rougher stuff—sometimes the first task is to decipher the handwriting—yet must keep the voice honest, not refine it too much. “And I am amazed,” says Grinnan, “how many people with great educations cannot do this.”

Grinnan says that his playwriting background, a rigorous training in ventriloquizing the dialogue of all kinds of people, proved to be perfect Guideposts preparation. “It requires of me all the skills I learned at Yale. There was this osmotic evolution when I realized that some of the skills I’d been born with, some I had been given, and where I had ended up all made sense.”

Grinnan says that growing up in the Midwest is “definitely an advantage when understanding and identifying with the sensibilities of our readers and the spiritual landscape of their lives.” But he admits that he now has little in common with his typical reader: female, 56 years old, living in the Midwest or South—“the flyover states,” he says. Grinnan lives in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, which is gay, trendy, and urbane. He is married to Julee Cruise, an actress and singer best known for her vocals on the soundtrack of Twin Peaks, the director David Lynch’s cult-classic television series; they met one afternoon in 1986 when she was out walking her dog. But despite the cultural differences with his readers, maybe it’s Grinnan’s own troubled past that allows him to feel such kinship with the people who entrust their problems, and their prayers, to him.

The feeling is mutual. Grinnan says no other magazine has a readership as devoted, even familial, as Guideposts does. When he was first traveling the country for the magazine, he was shocked to be invited into his readers’ homes. “They would be appalled I was going to stay in a hotel,” he says, “and I would have to stay with them, and eat with them.” On 9/11, as the towers fell just south of his office in Manhattan, his phone rang, and he expected it was his sister calling from Michigan, or his wife from their weekend house in Massachusetts. Instead, it was a longtime reader he had never met. “And she said, ‘I am looking at these horrible images on the television, and I don’t know anybody in New York, but I do know Guideposts is in New York, and I want to make sure you’re all okay.’”

At Yale, Grinnan tried, and failed, to write a play about his brother’s death, and he occasionally thinks of trying again. But he is happy to have found a huge audience in the Guideposts heartland. He is still not like them. His itinerant, haphazard approach to religion is more Manhattanite than small-town Protestant: sometimes he goes to Mass at one of a couple Catholic churches, sometimes he takes in a service at Dr. Peale’s old Protestant church, and sometimes worship is “the gym or a hike in the hills with my dog.” But he has found professional satisfaction far from the theater district, and far from where his drama school ambitions lay. “Connecting with an audience on that level—I don’t think you can do it on Broadway or in a book,” he says. “One day I came to the realization I was at peace at Guideposts. And I was sober. And I was happy.”