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.

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