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Original Essays | September 9, 2013 5 comments
Editor's note: Chris Bolton is not only a former Powell's employee, he was also once the primary writer for this blog. So we are particularly proud... Continue »
Biographers' Rulesby Jonathan Eig
1. Write about someone dead. Biographical subjects, "like snakes," the essayist Joseph Epstein once wrote, are best handled cold and lifeless, when they can't "charm and ultimately bite you."
2. Have a clear sense of purpose. For me, the purpose was in trying to explain why Gehrig, a dying man, would call himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth." What exactly did he mean? Lucky to have been a ballplayer? Lucky to have been loved by his fans, friends, and family? Lucky that he had at least a little bit of time left to live? And how did a man of immense insecurities rise to the challenge and speak with such grace and power at the moment of his greatest vulnerability?
In the course of answering the big question, I had to examine my subject's entire life. How was his personality shaped by the death of three siblings and by his mother's fierce determination to see that Lou survived? How did he manage his shyness with the onset of enormous fame? How did he retain his modesty even as his aggressive wife pushed him to embrace celebrity?
I viewed every moment of Gehrig's life as part of the buildup to his legendary speech. In the course of examining his speech I hope that I explained the times in which he lived, the great teams on which he played, and the amazing men who surrounded him. I'd like to think that the reader, when Gehrig steps to home plate for his speech on that muggy July 4 afternoon in 1939, feels as if he's watching not through binoculars but from high up in the grandstand, taking in everything at once.
3. Write your footnotes as you go. I learned this one the hard way.
4. I'm stealing this rule from Elmore Leonard: Leave out the parts people tend to skip. Just because you're writing the story of someone's life doesn't mean you need to say what he ate for breakfast on the morning of his Bar Mitzvah unless it was scrambled eggs and mimosa with Marilyn Monroe on the back set of Some Like It Hot. I'd leave that in.
5. Admiration is fine; idolatry is a bore, and it's usually not persuasive.
6. If you've got strong opinions, let 'em rip. A biographer is entitled to a point of view. Richard Ben Cramer described Joe DiMaggio as a greedy jerk. A generation from now, another DiMaggio biographer, having grown up surrounded by nothing but greedy jerks in professional sports, might see things differently. A great biography doesn't have to be definitive.
7. Don't hide the warts. When I finally got my hands on the letters Gehrig wrote to his doctor, after the thrill of the hunt faded, a horrifying thought hit me. What if Gehrig privately expressed certain ugly beliefs? What if he hated black people? What if he turned out to be an adulterer? Or worse, in the depths of his heart, what if he loved the Red Sox? I determined not to squelch the truth, no matter how terrible. To my relief, Gehrig was as squeaky clean as they come. He made one small joke in his letters about the private parts of monkeys, but even then he didn't use bad words.
8. Tell the truth. That seems obvious. But so many writers take so many liberties that there ought to be a category of books called "more-or-less-non-fiction." Great writers like Laura Hillenbrand, David Remnick, and Robert Kurson don't need to invent dialogue or details. That's because they're terrific reporters, too. The real power of their writing comes from the cold, hard facts upon which they build their stories.
9. Don't fool yourself into thinking you're really telling the truth. I probably know more about Lou Gehrig than anyone. I can tell you the brand of laxative he took to calm his stomach. I can give you the name of the young man who pulled Gehrig's Packard out of a ditch after a minor wreck in Kentucky. But do I know his secret fears, his traumas, his innermost loves and lusts? I doubt that even his wife and parents did. So what are the chances that a biographer coming along years later will know such things? Slim and none. Stick to what you know, what you can prove, and leave out the rest. Your readers will recognize the honesty of your approach and know that they're in the hands of a trustworthy storyteller.
10. Don't break the 500-page mark, unless your subject served at least one presidential term, fought a couple of wars, and had breakfast on the morning of his Bar Mitzvah with Marilyn Monroe.