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.

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