Thursday, February 24, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Chester Nimitz

This week, on February 24th, we celebrate the 126th anniversary of the birth of World War II naval hero, Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Over the past few months, when I’ve told people that I’ve been researching the life of Chester Nimitz, I’ve received more than a few blank stares, polite smiles, and an outright “Who’s that?” Chester Nimitz, is seems, is a name we’ve forgotten. It’s a name we should know.

As Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet during the war, Nimitz was the architect of the US victory in the Pacific. Assigned the post just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was told by FDR to go to Pearl and "stay there till the war is won." He arived in Hawaii on Christmas Day and was horrified at what he saw. It was his task to rebuild the crippled fleet and to halt the Japanese advance across the Pacific.

In a way, Nimitz had been preparing for the job since boyhood. His grandfather, to whom he was very close, had been a merchant sailor. Young Chester had listened wide-eyed to tales of the sea. "The sea," his grandfather told him, "like life itself, is a stern taskmaster. The best way to get along with either is to learn all you can and do your best and don't worry, especially about things over which you have no control." Nimitz took the words as his personal philosophy.

Nimitz graduated from the US Naval Academy seventh in a class of 114. He spent his next years at sea, learning firsthand what a stern taskmaster it was. One night, at the helm of a destroyer, he felt the ship stop. He'd run it aground on a mudbank. The he remembered his grandfather's words. He'd done all he could. Now all he could do was wait for morning for another ship to pull him off. He earned a reprimand for the error, and learned a lesson.

As CinCPaC, he set out to push the Japanese fleet back across the Pacific. His decisive victory came at the Battle of Midway. Alerted that Japanese code had been broken and that enemy ships were underway, he set his ships into position for a surprise attack. Then he could only wait. Once more, he'd done all he could. By the end of the battle, the enemy's carrier force had all but been destroyed.

On September 2, 1945, Nimitz at last fulfilled the mission he'd been given after Pearl Harbor. There, on the deck of the USS Missouri under cloudy skies, he accepted the formal surrender of Japanese forces. The war was over.

And that, boys and girls, is why we should know the name Chester Nimitz.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Thomas Edison

This week, February 11th, we celebrate the 164th anniversary of the birth of inventor Thomas Edison.

In researching a subject biographers always end up with an abundance of great information, all of which illuminates the subject in some way, all of which we are terribly invested in, and most of which we have not a prayer of using in the final product. It hurts. I’m often asked how I decide what I’ll use and what I must cut. One biographer I know solved the problem by, as she puts it, “writing to quotes.” A good quote can often speak volumes about your subject when you just don’t have room for volumes in your manuscript, especially in material for children, where the writing must be extraordinarily tight.

With no subject is this more true than for Thomas Edison. He is the man who said the following: Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits. And: Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. And: Great ideas originate in the muscles.

Well. Bit of a theme there, wouldn’t you say? Clearly this was a man with little patience for armchair inventors with great notions but without the drive to put them into action. GET OFF YOUR BACKSIDE! he must have wanted to scream at such dabblers. JUST DO IT ALREADY!

Great advice for writers too, isn’t it? The idea is never enough. It’s the writing that counts, the writing that's both the sweet and the bitterly difficult part of the task. Even the dabblers know that. That's why they dabble.