Thursday, March 25, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Aretha Franklin

Today, March 25th, is the 68th birthday of Aretha Franklin.

I freely admit I'm one of those people who loves to sing along with the radio in the car. Loudly. (Luckily I do this ONLY in the car.) My favorite Aretha song to belt out is "Chain of Fools." There's something about shouting out that "Chain chain chai-ai-n" that just feels so good. But the song that really speaks to me is "Respect."

Who doesn't feel they deserve more respect than they get in life? But as a writer of biographies I know that to get respect as a writer, I have to give it. All writers have a responsibility to their readers. Nonfiction writers have an extra measure: everything we present to our readers must be accurate to the best of our ability. Biography writers have a responsibity not just to our readers, but also to our subjects. My subjects are or were real people. Their story is in my hands and I owe it to them to treat that story yes, with accuracy, but also with respect. For me that means striving to present not just the facts of that subject's life, but also his or her point of view. I want to understand and have my readers understand not just what that person did, but why.

That isn't always easy, or even appreciated. A number of years ago I wrote a biography of George S. Patton (Lerner Publishing Group, 2005). Not exactly a subject to give anyone the warm fuzzies. But for all his blood and guts persona, I felt I had to tell why he was the way he was. I didn't need to make him likable, but I damn well had to make him understandable. I respected him enough to feel that I owed him that.

I explained it this way to a friend once: someday, if there is an afterlife, I will get there and meet all the people I've written about. I need to be able to look them all in the eye.

All they're askin'
Is for a little respect.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Little Women

Not long ago I was asked to name my favorite book from childhood, and whether I remembered a specific line from that book.

The first is not an atypical question for a writer to get, and you'd think it would be easy to answer. But, like most writers, books played a huge role in my childhood. I was a voracious reader, so--a favorite?--I had many: CADDY WOODLAWN, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and endless numbers of ghost stories, fairy tales, and biographies--lots of biographies.

But there was one book which I turned to over and over. I read and reread LITTLE WOMEN usually about once a year, until the cover fell off and the spine was broken. So when I was asked to recall a line from the book, it's no surprise that the words came easily: "...on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last." The description of Beth's death managed to say so much about family, about motherhood, about the link between birth and death, about peace, in such a few words. I was in awe. That was when I was introduced to the power of words.

I remember an interview with Amy Tan in which she complained, "They [readers] never ask about the words." It's true. No one ever asks us how we feel about words. And yet, we all fell in love with words and their power at some point. It's a heady experience to harness those little powerhouses to tell a story. To quote Rush Limbaugh (and I promise it's the only time I'll ever do THAT), "Words mean things." Choose the wrong word and you don't say what you mean. You've squandered that power.

If we're good, we choose the right words, the ones that say exactly what they mean. If we're great, we choose words that say even more. We choose words that speak of love and life and death as simply as describing a breath.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Frankenstein

In the summer of 1816 a group of friends went on vacation together. Among them were poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, and Shelley's young wife Mary. The weather was awful. In fact, that year is often referred to as "the year without a summer." Rain forced the friends to spend much of their time indoors. They amused each other by reading ghost stories aloud (the Romantic version of a pizza and DVD night, I guess).

They must have gotten bored with that, because before long there was a challenge. They should each write a ghost story of their own to share with the group. Mary concocted a frightening tale of a reanimated corpse, the result of "unhallowed arts." She said later it was based on something she'd seen in a dream. The others quickly forgot their stories. Mary continued to work on hers. Her novel was published two years later. This week (March 11) marks the 192nd anniversary of the debut of her masterpiece, FRANKENSTEIN, OR THE MODERN PROMETHEUS.

FRANKENSTEIN is still regarded as a classic of Gothic literature as well as a truly creepy read. It was published when Mary Shelley was only twenty years old. Because she finished it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned From Michelangelo's David

This week (March 6) marks the 535th birthday of Michelangelo Buonarroti.

I was privileged to see Michelangelo's David on a trip to Florence with my husband a few years ago. There have only been a few times in my life that I have felt transfixed by what I was seeing. Holding my newborn sons, for example. This was like that. I could only stand and stare stupidly, awed by the beauty I saw.

Of course I wasn't alone. The tour group looked like a bunch of sheep, all gawping in the same direction. The tour guide asked us two simple--and I thought very wise-- questions. "Do you like David?" she asked. And, "What do you like about David?"

She got the expected: the beauty, the perfection of male form. For me, though, it was David's face. There was story in that face, more story than I thought was possible to get out of eyes and brow and mouth. And certainly more story than I ever would have thought possible to get from stone. I knew I would have to write about that face and that story some day.

When Michelangelo first saw the giant block of stone that would become his David, he knew that David was already there within it. All he had to do was to remove what didn't belong. I've always thought that writing nonfiction is like that. I start with a great amount of research and I know that my story is somewhere in those stacks of books and notes. All I have to do is leave out whatever does not reveal the story I want to tell. But I can never add; I can only take away.

When a lesser sculptor made a mistake and took away more than intended, he used a bit of wax mixed with stone dust to fix the void. A sculptor who had made no such mistakes could advertise his sculpture as "without wax"--or SINE CERE. From that we get the word "sincere." So a sincere work of art is one to which nothing that does not belong has been added.

My writing may never approach the beauty of the story I saw in David's face. But I hope at least that my nonfiction will always be sincere.