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Original Essays | February 6, 2014 0 comments
One afternoon in the mid-1990s, I found myself in Dauphine Street Books in New Orleans, staring hungrily into a vitrine containing costly literary... Continue »
Time-Lapse Realityby Leslie Berlin
I went to mail the manuscript on one of those soggy afternoons that people who do not live in California think we never get in California. It had not been a great day. The skies had opened after I got to work, and I commute by bicycle, which meant that I had to ride to the mailing station in the rain. To make matters worse, I had stopped at the grocery store on my way into the office that morning without considering that there would be no room for the groceries once I had the manuscript in my backpack. This meant that when I entered the mailing station I was: 1) drenched; 2) wearing a ratty black overcoat I keep in my office in case of rain emergencies; and, 3) carrying a backpack almost bursting with papers and to which were tied several plastic bags of groceries. Don't ask why I didn't ride home, grab the car, and come back for the groceries and the manuscript. By that point I had been working on the book almost nonstop for several weeks and could not think clearly about anything else.
When I made my dripping way to the mail counter and handed the man behind it the heavy envelopes I had carefully addressed to Messrs. Buffett and Moore, I was met with dramatically raised eyebrows and a decidedly patronizing smirk. Then the clerk said in a deadpan voice, "You planning to change the world?" a question I found so strange that I had no answer for it.
It was not until several minutes later that I realized what that question meant. The counter attendant thought I was a nut case, a grocery bag-toting, female potential Unabomber garbed in a black overcoat and obsessed with a "manuscript" that two of the nation's most prominent business leaders simply had to see. No doubt the counter man expected me to return the next day with fat envelopes addressed to the President of the United States and the Pope.
This funny story holds a serious message for me. When I was writing about Noyce, his life and mine often seemed to blur in my head. But the experience at the mailing counter reminds me that the line between subject and biographer is etched firmly in place. Let's be clear here, the story seems to say. The one with powerful, famous, wealthy friends? That's Noyce. You, Leslie Berlin, are the one with the wet jeans and damp loaf of bread.
Now that I look back on it, it is astonishing how much of a presence in my family's lives Bob Noyce became when I was writing his biography. Twice Noyce appeared in my dreams, uttering my name in a weird spooky voice that I took as a warning to do a very good job on the book. When the startup for which my husband worked was bought by an East Coast company, I could not stop talking about what had happened after Fairchild Semiconductor, Noyce's first startup, was bought by an East Coast company. And at the dinner table I would tell my children about how twelve-year-old Noyce tried to fly by jumping off the roof of his garage in a glider he had built with his brother, or how, as an adult, he had loaned his jet and his own services as a pilot to Audubon researchers trying to reinvigorate a colony of puffins off the coast of Maine.
By the time I finished the book, in fact, my children considered Noyce something akin to a very cool work colleague of mine. They had taken to calling him "Mommy's Bob." Every time we drove past the Intel headquarters building, my son would announce, "That's Bob's and Gordon's company," confident he deserved to be on a first-name basis with the founders. I once overheard my daughter proudly telling a friend, "People can only play video games because of Mommy's Bob." My children apparently took personal pride in Noyce's work because they felt as if they knew him. He was as much a real person as all the other people in their parents' lives whom they had heard about but never met.
This sense of Noyce inhabiting my life worked the other way, too. Over the course of writing about him, I came to feel a bit as if I were... not Noyce's friend (friendship requires reciprocity), but his comrade-in-arms, uniquely privileged to be the person standing beside him through each of the different stages of his life.
I knew, of course, how Noyce's story was going to unfold, but telling it was nonetheless a process full of suspense and excitement for me. I would regularly find myself happy for Noyce or muttering disgustedly at him, as if the events occurring on the page were happening for the first time as I wrote about them. My husband likened my experience to watching one of the old football games on ESPN Classic you know who is going to win the game, you might even know the play that changed the tide, but the knowledge doesn't make it any less dramatic to see it happen again. In fact, the knowledge might enhance the drama.
And as an author, I was no mere passive observer. I was making the story happen again by telling it. Noyce was again studying, inventing, skiing, loving, starting companies, making money, traveling, jumping off garage roofs living because I was writing about it. This sense of re-creating Noyce's existence is another reason why the line between us sometimes blurred for me. His life was my story.
To write a biography of someone no longer living is to enter a world of time-lapse reality. Noyce started college in 1945, but for my purposes, he began his coursework in late 2003, when I wrote about it. It took only two months in my world for him to graduate, go on to get a Ph.D. in Physics, find a job, marry, rent a tiny apartment, and have his first two children. In the next dozen weeks, he quit his job, moved to California, took a research position with a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, worked there for almost two years, quit, started a company, had two more children, and invented the integrated circuit. And so it went, his life flying by at this rapid clip, right up to his death at age sixty-two, approximately a year and a half after his birth, in my world. Noyce's children learned to walk, learned to read, entered and exited adolescence, left home, married, and had their own children in the space of a few weeks. It was strangely sobering to observe this happening so quickly. It caused me to look at my own life, my own children, differently.
And this, in the end, may be the finest reward of a biography, for its readers as well as its author. The proximity to or absorption into another life forces you to reconsider your own: how can you best live the story that some day someone else may tell?