Thursday, October 28, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from John Adams

This week, October 30th, we celebrate the 275th anniversary of the birth of president and patriot John Adams.

When I do school author visits I’m nearly always asked which of my books is my favorite. It’s probably the hardest question I’m asked and I often answer that it’s a bit like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. Then too, my choice can vary with my mood. But my students want an answer and so I force myself to make a choice. And most often I find myself answering "John Adams".

The reason is simple: Adams was a man of words. He kept a diary most of his life and contributed to it often. He wrote letters: lofty, spirited ones to fellow patriots, intimate ones to his wife, Abigail. He wrote speeches, articles, documents. His words reveal his every fear and hope for his new country and especially his feelings of inadequacy for the task at hand. ("We have not men fit for the times," he wrote once. "I feel unutterable anxiety.") His words made it easy for me as a biographer to stand in his skin, to see what he saw, and feel what he felt. In short, he made it easy to get close to who he was.

And if I’m going to tell a subject’s story, I’d better get close to him. That, I tell my students, is the single best way to write a good biography and I stress it constantly in my author talks. Find your subject's words and you'll find the person. His words will lead you to the story you want to tell.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Doris Miller

This week (October 12) we celebrate the 91st anniversary of the birth of Doris Miller.

Don't know that name? It's not one you encounter often in the history books. And that's too bad. Because Dorie Miller was one of the very first American heroes of World War II and the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross.

Doris (Dorie) Miller joined the Navy in 1939. As an African American sailor, he was restricted to only the most menial of jobs. He began his career as a waiter and eventually became a cook on the battleship USS West Virginia, stationed at Pearl Harbor.

On December 7, 1941, Miller was collecting laundry shortly before 8 am when Japanese planes suddenly filled the sky. Explosions rocked the West Virginia, knocking Miller off his feet. The ship was badly damaged. Water was flooding in below decks and sailors lay all around, wounded and dying. Miller began carrying the wounded to safer parts of the ship. Among the wounded was the captain of the ship. Miller hoisted him up and tried to carry him to safety, but the captain refused to leave his post.

And still the Japanese planes kept coming. Miller had never received training in operating an anti-aircraft gun. So he was ordered only to help load. Instead, he grabbed the gun and began firing at the enemy planes. He kept at it until he was out of ammunition. Miller was credited with downing three Japanese planes that morning. He explained later that he had hunted squirrels back home in Texas and had used guns before. And besides, he pointed out, he had watched white sailors use the guns. "It wasn't hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine," he said.

On May 27, 1942, Admiral Chester Nimitz awarded Miller the Navy Cross, one of the highest military awards for courage. Eighteen months later, Miller was dead. He had given his last full measure for the Navy he had already served so well.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from John Lennon

This week, October 9th, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the birth of Beatle John Lennon. (70? Really? Yikes!)

About ten or twelve years ago I attended an SCBWI conference for writers who felt they were "on the cusp" of being published. I was not yet a published author, but I was a writer who took what I did seriously. I had received some "good" rejections from editors (you really have to be a writer to appreciate what that means)and encouragement from my much-valued critique group. It WAS going to happen. I could feel it.

That weekend being with other writers also on the cusp was a wonderful experience. But one woman stood out in my mind. The talk turned to how disciplined we all had to be to get our writing time in. She sighed and said, "Yes, but then you have to be in the mood." I knew immediately that she wasn't going to make it.

You see, she was waiting for her writing to come to her. It doesn't work that way. Oh, I know, sometimes writing can be a chore. And the fear that your mind will draw that dreaded blank is ever-present. But, mood or not, what carries most of us through is simply that we love to write. We sit, we begin, and somehow, the clouds part, the weight lifts, and the words come. Over and over, we rediscover just how much we love what we do. John Lennon knew this. "All you need is love," he wrote. It's that love that entices us to sit and get the job done, no matter the mood.

That's what you need to be a writer. All you need is love.