Thursday, February 25, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Pierre-Auguste Renoir

This week (February 25) marks the 169th birthday of Pierre-August Renoir.

Now I freely admit I am not an illustrator or an artist. I am frankly in awe of anyone who can make his hand transfer to canvas what his mind's eye sees. Mine simply does not comply, and it is a sad kind of dumbness. I've always been particularly in awe of the impressionist painters. To be able not just to portray a scene but to subtly suggest it through splashes of colors has always intrigued me.

But it is something that Renoir said rather than something he painted which truly speaks to me. "When I've painted a woman's bottom so that I want to touch it, then [the painting] is finished," he once said. Ah, now this is something I understand.

True, I will probably never have call to write the words "woman's bottom" again. I AM a chilren's writer after all. But I fully understand the desire to create so faithful an illusion that it rivals reality. In writing, this is the "you are there" goal. With every biography I write, I strive to build an image of a very real place and time using words as my paint. Then I invite my readers in.

In my biography of Babe Didrikson, for example (BABE DIDRIKSON ZAHARIAS: ALL-AROUND ATHLETE, Lerner, 2000), I described the ticker-tape parade Babe was given after winning three medals at the 1932 Olympics. I described the car covered in roses, the sound of the cheering crowd, and Babe's thrill at being honored. "Even though it was a hot day, her arms had goosebumps." Every time I read that line, I get goosebumps myself.

I guess Babe's goosebumps are for me what Renoir's lady bottoms were for him.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Huckleberry Finn

This week (February 18) marks the 125th anniversary of the American debut of Mark Twain's ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN.

I read the book for the first time as a kid, maybe nine or ten. I'd already read THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER and loved it. Tom was just the kind of rebellious troublemaking kid that I wasn't, and I wanted more. So I went looking for it in Huck Finn. The book was supposed to be a sequel, wasn't it?

Well, yes and no. It didn't take me long to discover that this book was different, it was more. And probably more than I was ready for. I really didn't fully appreciate the book until I read it as a high schooler.

But I wasn't alone in thinking that HUCK FINN would just lead off where TOM SAWYER had ended. I recall reading that Twain had originally envisioned the book the same way. He started writing it as a sequel. But at some point, he paused and took a second look at where the book was going. He set the manuscript aside for a few years. When he was ready, he took it up again. The reult was an American classic and a masterpiece of fiction.

I have to wonder how hard it was for Twain to wait. How many of us slog on with manuscripts that aren't really ready, aren't quite "there" yet, just out of the misguided notion that we have to keep working? It takes real strength to admit that we are not yet the writer equal to our subject.

I probably would have been happier as a nine year old if HUCK FINN had been the book I wanted. But I would have been the poorer for it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from John Deere

This week (February 7) marks the 206th birthday of John Deere.

You know the name. At least if you're a farmer like me you do. It's one of those household names, like Hershey, that's become so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget there was a real man, and a real story, behind it.

The real John Deere--or as one friend referred to him, "the tractor guy--" built one of the oldest companies in the United States, dating back to before the Civil War. When he died at the age of 82, he was a wealthy, respected, and successful business man. His funeral was the largest the town of Moline, Illinois, had ever seen.

But that's the end of the story. In the beginning, Deere was anything but a success. He was a failure, and a rather spectacular one at that. As a young man in Vermont he became a blacksmith. His first blacksmith shop burned to the ground. He built another one. That shop burned, too. (At this point his story sounds like the one about the castle built in the swamp in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL). He was broke, with a growing family, and he owed money. He did what made sense to him. He left his family and skipped out on the debt.

Things could only get better for him in Illinois, and they did. He built a nice life. No one would have blamed him if he had played it safe and stuck with his blacksmth shop. Instead he bet everything on a new kind of steel plow. Even as his plow business grew, he was never satisfied. His plows had to be the best. "Good enough" was never good enough for Deere, no matter the cost.

And so, in the end, his story is the story of the American dream. It's the story of a man with a dream who wouldn't let go no matter how many times fate tried to loosen his grasp. It's the story of a man who made the dream come true with plain hard work and uncompromising standards.

It's the story of a man who deserves to be remembered when we turn the key of the big green machine with the nine yellow letters.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Ronald Reagan

This week (February 6) marks the 99th birthday of Ronald Reagan. (Also the 48th birthday of Axl Rose. This is probably the best argument I know against the validity of astrology.)

I met a biography author once who told me she "writes to quotes." I write to anecdotes. I let a few well-chosen anecdotes reveal the story behind my subject's life. And, let me tell you, Reagan's story was rich with great anecdotes. Some of my favorites:

Once, when he was traveling with his college football team, a hotel manager refused to give rooms to the black players on the team. Reagan's parents lived not far away. So Reagan invited his teammates to stay with his family.

As president, he traveled to Geneva to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev. He and Nancy stayed in a private home in a room normally occupied by the family's children. While the children had moved out for the occasion, their goldfish had not, and Reagan was expected to feed the fish. Maybe he forgot, but for whatever reason, one of the fish died. Reagan had a staff member replace the fish and left the children a note explaining what had happened.

On his famous visit to the Berlin Wall ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!")he was advised to be careful what he said at a meeting not far from the wall itself. The fear was that his words could be monitored from the other side. So Reagan took the opportunity to go out on a landing to get even closer to the wall and begin "sounding off" on what he thought about a government that penned its people in "like farm animals."

In the greater scheme of things, these were not important events in Reagan's life. Such anecdotes will never be the main focus of a biography. It's the whos and wheres and whens that will always be the skeleton of a biography. But it's stories such as these that give biographies their flesh and blood. They reveal our subject in a way that a who or a where or a when can't.

So mine those sources. Look for the great anecdotes. Let your subject live and breathe.