Working on a Brian Doyle Profile for Notre Dame Magazine
My dear friend and fellow writer Brian Doyle died at 60 on May 27. Like many people who knew him or had simply read his marvelous books, I felt the loss deeply and wanted to remember him in some way, so I contacted Notre Dame Magazine, the alumni magazine for his alma mater, about writing a piece on him, focusing on his place in the Oregon literary community and at the University of Portland, where, over 25 years, he turned the alumni magazine, Portland, into one of the best magazines of any kind in America.
I’m collecting stories and thought about Brian for my piece now and will be writing it over the next couple of weeks, for publication in the magazine’s fall issue. If you knew Brian or have had a profound experience with his writing, please send your stories or thoughts to me at email@example.com
Here’s a link to one of Brian’s many astonishing essays, Joyas Voladoras, about the hummingbird and the heart. It was selected for Best American Essays 2005.
To see Brian talking about his writing and his life, view Oregon Public Broadcasting’s 2015 eight-minute ArtBeat feature on him here.
Ann Curry, Susan Orlean and a Dry Martini: The Interview as Conversation — Writing About Others #3
I’m thinking today about interviewing. The first person I ever interviewed as a journalist was the principal of my high school, who moonlighted as a referee for what was then Pac-8 football and had been selected to officiate in the upcoming Rose Bowl game, a singular honor. I was just a scared little student but he treated me with respect, answering all of my questions with patience. I suppose I learned two things that day: that journalism opens doors, and that interviewing is mostly about two people talking.
I learned the principles of interviewing from my favorite professor in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism, Ken Metzler, who wrote a book called Creative Interviewing. Metzler liked to tell a story about Ann Curry, the former host of NBC’s “Today” show, who was two years ahead of me in school. Curry, Metzler said, went to interview a prominent woman while still in school and was dissatisfied with how the conversation was going so she suggested they go to a nearby coffee shop to talk more. There, while gesturing, Curry spilled her coffee. “Mortified,” Metzler writes in his book, “she thought she had blown the interview. But, to her astonishment, the woman began talking more candidly.”
What Curry discovered that day, I discovered later: that interviewing usually goes best when the pressure of doing an interview is gone. To put people at ease, I’ve interviewed them while jogging, walking through a museum, building a theater set, and inspecting a building site. This kind of casual interviewing is one of the keys to New Yorker profile writer Susan Orlean’s success. She starts her research of a profile subject by simply hanging around, asking the questions that arise naturally and letting what happens determine the direction of the conversation.
In his otherwise interesting and entertaining book Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, Stephen Miller states that “an interview is not a conversation” because it has a purpose: to elicit information. Yet his definition of conversation—a witty exchange that happens naturally, giving pleasure to all involved—is certainly possible in interviewing. The best interviews I’ve done have come from being prepared, of course, but also from being willing to indulge in an exchange of ideas, personal disclosure and even prolonged asides. My subject will surely say more than me and I’ll make sure I ask the important questions, but our interaction will be as close as possible to the conversation of friends or maybe strangers who meet in an intimate environment.
Good reporting—and, in the end, good writing—comes from recognizing that interviewing and every other aspect of writing about other people is a human activity. This point was driven home to me one night in Manhattan when I’d gone to interview an old friend of my book’s subject, Robert Lax. I’d mistaken the location of the man’s address, thinking it was close to one subway stop and discovering only after I’d gone there that it was somewhere else. To get to the right location, I had to walk through rain that became a downpour. When I arrived, late and drenched, the man took one look at me and asked if I needed a martini.
Martinis in hand, we sat in his comfortable living room and I took out my recorder. He was as kind and solicitous as he could be, but when I asked my first question, he said he didn’t remember. I tried another and got the same response. When he shook his head at the third one, perplexed and sorry, I realized that he had simply grown too old to remember things that happened so long ago.
He was a delightful man, however, so I put my pad and recorder away and just enjoyed the experience: the dryness of the apartment, the martini and his still-lively wit. One of the things we talked about was his love of dance, and when I got up to go, he said the next time I came to New York we’d have to go dancing together. I still think of that evening as one of my best interviews ever.
We Want the Omelette: Writing About Others #2
This morning I was looking at a book by Ira Bruce Nadel called Biography: Fiction, Fact & Form, published in the mid-1980s, when a number of books about writing biography appeared, perhaps because Leon Edel, the influential biographer of William James, had published a book called The Poetics of Biography in 1977. I’ve only dipped into Nadel’s book but I like what I’ve read so far. Early on, he writes: “The need to understand the literary techniques and strategies of biography parallels its emergence today as perhaps the most popular, widely-read body of non-fiction writing.” His three epigraphs foreshadow his belief that biography is an art and should be more seriously studied as such:
“Facts related to the past, when they are collected without art, are compilations; and compilations no doubt may be useful; but they are no more History than butter, eggs, salt and herbs are an omelette.” —Lytton Strachey
“Nothing happens while you live. The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that’s all. There are no beginnings…But everything changes when you tell about life; it’s a change no one notices: the proof is that people talk about true stories. As if there could possible be true stories; things happen one way and we tell about them in the opposite sense.” —Jean-Paul Sartre
“The biographer, after all, is as much of a storyteller as the novelist or historian.” —Leon Edel
The art of biography lies in the interpretation of the facts discovered, Nadel says, and also in the choice of form and language. “No biographer merely records a life,” he writes. “Every biographer, no matter how objective he declares himself, interprets a life.” And as soon as a writer “becomes conscious of language, conscious of how it alters what he describes from a factual representation to an independent verbal object, he transforms his craft into an art.”
When I teach profile writing, I always tell my students that the profile they write is not the one true story to be told about their subject but rather a description of an encounter. Preparation and interpretation are part of what results, but so are the writer’s interests and knowledge, facility with words and mastery of tone and metaphor. There’s even a huge dose of randomness: we learn one fact but not another, we interview our subject on a day she’s feeling well or ill, a friend will talk to us but not a family member. In the end, we make the best sense we can of what we have.
As Nadel says, narrative is central to how we write about others, and narrative has “properties other than that of recording events.” There is voice in narrative and point of view, a sense, however muted, of the narrator’s perspective, personality and understanding. The corrective to this (if one is needed) should be a more explicit laying out of bias and approach rather than the faux-objective voice and stance so many profile writers and biographers adopt.
“Those who accept language as a transparent medium of representation and believe that if they only use the right word for describing an event the meaning will be clear, illustrate an inadequate sense of the creative nature of language and its role in biography,” Nadel writes. “Such empiricists, who place their faith in language for conveying fact, write biographies of maximum detail and minimal interpretation, believing the latter to be the function of some other form of composition. But the principal interest in biography, the reason for its popularity with authors as well as readers, remains its ability to provide meaning for an individual’s life, transmitting personality and character through prose.”
In other words, we want the omelette. And to get it, we need writers who know how to cook.
Do You Have the Right to Write About Her?
I’ve committed myself to posting one entry a week on memoir and one on writing about others for the next two months. Although I’ll be reading books about both subjects during that time, my plan is to concentrate on my own thoughts. I want to see what I can puzzle out. What questions come. I’m hoping to find intersections and exclusions: thoughts about one that are applicable to the other, and thoughts that aren’t.
My first entry each week, appearing on Monday (I hope), will be about memoir, and I’ve already made that entry this week. So here I’ll concentrate on writing about others. I want to start with something memoir-related, however: writing about family. This is the place where memoir and writing about others most often intersect. Virtually every memoir about childhood paints a picture of one or more parents in some way, and many paint profiles of siblings too.
In my classes on personal writing, I always tell my students, “Be careful about bringing parents into your writing. They have a tendency to take over.” This warning comes from experience–from seeing a brief mention of a father in a personal essay, for example, prompt a class full of readers and would-be critics to beg or even demand to learn more. Maybe we’re all just Freudian after all, believing that childhood experiences and relationships determine who we become. It seems more likely, though, that writing about parents is simply more highly charged than writing about anyone else. And once a reader feels that emotional charge, she hungers for more.
Most books that deal with writing about others focus primarily on biographies of people already dead. They talk about going to archives and interviewing survivors. They discuss the need to interpret a writer’s thoughts based on her works or a politician’s values based on his actions. They recommend researching and recreating the times in which your subject lived. And some, if they’re good ones, talk about how to bring your subject to life on the page. What they don’t discuss is how to think and write about someone with whom you’ve had an actual encounter.
The thing is, it’s easy to form opinions and settle on themes when you’re writing about someone you’ve had no relation to. You can treat that person as history, a collection of facts and writings and relationships with other dead people. But what if you’ve seen a person alive? What if you’ve witnessed his or her actions and words over time? What if that person had a great influence on your own life, for better or ill? How do you separate your own strong feelings from what someone else might call “the facts”? In the case of a parent, how do you distinguish your own development from the independent changes that person might have been going through at the same time?
I struggled with most of these questions while writing my biography Pure Act, in which I was writing about a man I loved who taught me much. They loom even larger as I embark on a memoir in which my mother’s life and death play a significant role. To some degree, they are questions of fairness, and they aren’t asked often enough about memoir or about writing about others, whether that writing be profiles or even biographies of the dead.
As I write these entries over the next two months, I expect this question of giving others a voice in the telling of their own stories to regularly pop up, along with an even larger question: In this age when every form of supposed appropriation is suspect, do we have the right to tell another person’s story at all?
Last Portland PURE ACT Reading at 6:30 p.m. This Tuesday, February 23…and Future Plans
After over 30 readings and other appearances over the past few months, I’m down to my last scheduled talk. It will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 23, in room 333, Smith Memorial Union, on the Portland State University campus. If you live in the Portland area, please join us. To mark the occasion, we’ll have copies of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax available at a discounted price.
A big thank you to those who came to last week’s readings in the Bay Area, where a standing-room-only crowd listened to poet John Beer, author S. T. Georgiou and me talk about our friendship with Robert Lax at City Lights Books in San Francisco, and another good crowd heard me read from Pure Act at Pegasus Books in Berkeley.
Among those in attendance at City Lights were Gerald Nicosia, one of Jack Kerouac’s biographers, and Mike Antonucci, a Bay Area journalist who is the nephew of Lax’s first publisher and close friend, Emil Antonucci. It was fun for me to read a passage from my book about Lax’s friendship with Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in a space where their spirits lingered.
My readings around the country have kept me from writing as much on this blog as I would have liked, and now that they’re over, I hope to write more. Starting some time in March, I plan to try a unique experiment. I’ll be teaching two courses in memoir writing while working on a memoir of my own AND a book on writing about other people. I’m planning to make two posts a week from my research and thinking, one on memoir and one on writing about others (biography). It will be interesting to contemplate how these two types of writing, one looking inward and the other outward, parallel and diverge.
Questioning Conventional Approaches To Writing About People
This posting comes from a journal entry I made on July 14, 2013, shortly after I began the final revision of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. I had just read the second of two books by prominent biographers about their craft, part of my early research for the book I’m working on now: about the history, process and ethics of writing about people. As you’ll see, I was already having doubts about conventional approaches to biography:
“What surprised me about the book was how fairly shallow the author’s thinking was. There was plenty of researched detail but the conclusions were all conventional. It’s as if those who think about biography are willing to explore only a limited range of thoughts, most of which deal with the practice of writing biography, not the larger questions the act of writing about others raises, such as: Why do we write about others in the ways we do? What does it mean to take responsibility for defining another person’s time on this earth? What obligations do we bear when we appropriate the creation and presentation of another person’s identity? What are we ethically bound to reveal about ourselves in the process?
“This latest (and I hope last) revision of the Lax book is bring my own thoughts on these questions to the surface. I feel more comfortable now that I’ve brought myself into the story. I tried to keep myself out, thinking I was somehow being truer to Lax’s story by not entangling it with mine. I see now that by stepping more fully into the book, I’m giving the reader a better reason to be interested in Lax’s story and being more honest in a way, showing my biases.
“I’ve begun to look at the book quite differently. Instead of a chronological movement through Lax’s life, I’ve begun to see my project as a pile of material drawn from the different parts of his life that I need to arrange in a way that will interest my reader. Whereas I moved through his life in a straightforward fashion in my previous drafts, now I’m using the story of my interactions with him as the organizing element, pulling in information from the different periods of his life as it fits this scheme. So my curiosity and developing understanding of him over the years propel the story forward, and elements such as his ancestry come in where they are necessary to satisfy that curiosity or further that understanding.
“Put another way: I didn’t learn about Lax’s ancestry until I’d known him quite a while, so it doesn’t need to be at the beginning of the story. Putting it at the beginning means taking on a God-like role, suggesting that you can step back and impartially observe the sweep of a human life. Letting that information come in at a more natural place and speaking of what I’ve learned about it more provisionally allows the story to feel more natural. Isn’t that how we learn about people ordinarily in life? We don’t learn someone’s ancestry when we first meet him. Generally we learn the most interesting bits and pieces of his life, the stories he knows are good stories to tell, before our curiosity and a deepening trust allow us to delve deeper. That’s more the way I’m trying to tell the story now.
“My models for this approach aren’t the biographies I’ve read (other than A. J. A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, perhaps, or maybe Boswell’s Life of Johnson) but novels such as The Great Gatsby, Zorba the Greek and maybe Lord Jim, in which an embodied narrator talks about a person he’s met and come to know better over time.
“Edmund Morris must have had a similar impulse when he created his fictional witness for Dutch. It’s related, too, to what one of my students said after reading George Plimpton’s book about Capote, which is a pastiche of commentary on Capote from various people who knew him or had dealings with him. She liked this approach to biography, she said, because it seemed less artificially mediated. Instead of working to create a composed (and imposed) structure, the person compiling the biography allows those who knew the subject to give their testimony, their perspective, with the compiler only correcting errors and arranging the various commentaries into a natural progression.
“In using this more natural approach, I’m going back to the roots of writing about people, which is talking about people—gossip and then legend and then myth. Myth or legend doesn’t have to be about someone great or powerful or even ancient. It only has to be about someone interesting.”
Judases, Jackals or Just Curious Souls?
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Every great man has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.” I came across this barb in a book by biographer Michael Holroyd while researching attitudes and approaches to writing about people. Wilde, of course, knew he was destined to become the subject (or, as he might have said, the target) of someone’s research someday. Not only was he an important literary figure but he challenged his society’s norms and had enough skeletons in his closet to cast the fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts (if you haven’t seen it, look it up: it gave me nightmares as a child in 1963).
Other writers have been equally brutal in their depictions of biographers, even those like Henry James who believed we need to know about an author’s life to fully appreciate his writings. James’s bête noire was the snoop who seeks to go where the work doesn’t go, prying into hidden letters and private moments that have little to do with art. The salacious scribblings of these pretenders, he wrote, are “the trivial playing at the serious.” Before he died, he burned as many of his papers as he could. Even so, Leon Edel managed to find enough material to write a five-volume version of James’s life. Edel took his work seriously enough to win a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, but he enjoyed the game of it as well: the scavenger hunt, the hide-and-seek.
Two things have particularly surprised me in my research: How vituperative some writers are at the mere mention of biography, and how defensive biographers are about what they do. I’ve looked at hundreds of books and essays by biographers about biography. A disturbing number begin with a defensive stance or, more alarming still, an admission that what biographers do is indefensible. These guilty souls pour their sins out on the page. Then, like Catholics coming from confession, they go out and sin again. As if researching biographies is like crack addiction. Or maybe serial killing.
And perhaps it is. It’s certainly obsessive and some people are more susceptible to it than others. It is often done in dingy and bad-smelling places. And there is definitely a high each time you find that vein, that mother lode, that deed or line or tryst that seems to explain the previously inexplicable or opens up new areas of inquiry.
I tend to think, however (maybe because my first biography will soon be published) that most biographers are less interested in finding dirt or getting thrills than simply learning about people. Especially people similar to them who have been more successful or better known or more intriguing in some other way. They want to know what makes these people tick, at least in part because they want to know what motivates and shapes themselves.
Yes, there are those who want only to pin Gulliver to the ground or, like the jackal, eviscerate the mighty lion. And yes, even the best-intentioned biographers love to open long-sealed letters or listen to what no one can pretend is anything but gossip. But we live our lives surrounded by strange, mysterious beings. We observe them and we listen to them. We wonder why they said or did that. And even the best of us, including those self-righteous writers who dismiss biographers as scum, evaluate and sometimes judge others—to learn from them and be inspired, to see life differently and maybe change, to be amused and entertained by them, and yes, to shake our heads at cautionary tales…or just to feel superior.
Fragile, Ephemeral and Precious
The publication of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, on September 1 this year, marks the culmination of 14 years of research and writing about the most extraordinary man I’ve ever known. I met Lax on the Greek island of Patmos in 1985, when I was 27 and he was 69, and exactly how we met was extraordinary too. (You’ll find that story in my book. ) We became friends immediately and he impressed me from the first, but I didn’t consider writing about him until ten years later.
Even then, I wrote only a single article. It ended up in Poets & Writers, though, as my first national publication, and the response made me think his story might interest others too. I wrote only two other pieces on him before he died in 2000, but in 2001, having become a professor of nonfiction writing, I thought I should probably write a nonfiction book. (I’d pinned my publication hopes on a novel before that.) Pure Act was the result.
Never having written a biography, I gave myself three years. But Lax was not a man who moved swiftly and it seemed a book about him was destined to develop slowly too. My first research trip to his hometown of Olean, NY, where one of his archives is located, was interrupted by 9/11. The next time I went there, the TV was filled with news of Abu Ghraib. My first visit to his other archives, at Columbia University in New York City, was tragedy-free, but when I returned the following year, having secured a friend’s apartment for a full month, I ruptured my Achilles playing basketball my first day there. I had to return home and wait the long months for it to heal.
During the years I worked on Pure Act, the U.S. entered and ended two wars and I suffered not only an Achilles rupture but a torn meniscus, a shattered kneecap and more cuts and aches requiring stitches or physical therapy than I want to admit. I took comfort only in hearing other biographers say their projects had taken as long or longer.
I want to warn anyone thinking of starting a biography to do something–anything–else. Something you can finish in a year…or five. But then I think of the exciting discoveries I made in letters and journals no one but Lax had read. And the ways being steeped in his ideas and decisions influenced my own thinking, even the course of my life. And the people I met who told me intimate and heartfelt things they’d never said to anyone.
Writing about a person’s life means lifting and holding things fragile, ephemeral and precious. You probably shouldn’t hurry with actions like that. You shouldn’t be anxious to have them end either. Even if your reward is a book, solid and heavy in your hands.