If I asked you to list the qualities any book writer would need to complete a book, you might include n that list superb writing ability, excellent research skills, and an ear for a good story. You might also include less professional, and more personal, qualities like patience or intensity. What I discovered this week is that that list must also feature boldness on it.
I went to hear writer John Wray read from his latest novel, Lowboy. The story centers on a schizophrenic protagonist and his excursions both inside the New York City subway lines and inside his mind.
Wray, a non-schizo, said that he did a tremendous amount of research while producing the book. He spoke to therapists throughout the process, making sure that his story was plausible and his characters' thoughts and decisions fact-based. He also read up on the condition in order to prepare himself for his main character and to gain empathy for him from the start. What Wray acknowledged was the most difficult part, though, was having the confidence and willingness to embark on the writing project once he'd gathered together his research.
If authors only wrote about themselves and what they knew, we'd be flooded with bookshelves full of memoir and autobiography (though, to some, it might feel like we are). For writers like Wray, novels open up possibility through imagination and creativity. Yet, with that, comes a level of responsibility to stay true to the reality that the writer has assigned to his or her characters. For Wray, this was a central part of the process; he says it took him some time before he felt fully comfortable with his main character and convinced that he had gotten the voice and accordant emotions down pat.
Although this can be a difficult and often frustrating endeavor for novelists, it is a struggle for other writers as well. Writers of non-fiction, especially biographies, may encounter similar frustrations and chagrin as they attempt to convey the story of the life of someone else. While authors may have had a prior interest or obsession with a subject hat inspired them to write about them, there still requires a certain courage and conviction on the part of the author.
This was one topic covered in a panel discussion last night held at the New School in Manhattan on the subject of "Writing A Biography: Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" Biographer Stefan Kanfer said that before he can dive into writing about a subject, he has to first "hear the music" of the entire person. He explained that even though he already knows much of the public side of the celebrities he's covered, he wants to understand the full picture. He asks questions like What sacrifices were made in the name of celebrity and fame? Who endured what kind of pain? What were the long-term effects of the decisions made?
Kanfer spoke about the bravery and passion it takes for nobodies to become somebodies in Hollywood. Yet there's also a bravery that these biographers must possess in order to cover their subjects comprehensively, compassionately and fairly. They are forced to rely on whatever materials, information and people they have access to to help them reconstruct and then deconstruct a life.
Such an enterprise is dependent on both the fairness and accuracy of historical record as well the writers' reporting skills. The goal for all writers is to remain fair and balanced in hopes of depicting at least a portion of the complicated and convoluted lives of well-known people.
Jonathan Alter, another member of the panel and writer of a book about FDR, explained that there can never be a definitive biography focused on major figures. Each generation a writer will have to step forward to write about the person from the scope of the newest generation. In the case of his FDR book, Alter was the first to write extensively about the President without having personal reflections and distinct memories of his subject. This is where Alter's boldness came in handy as he utilized his journalistic training and resources to piece together the story.
In both the cases of Wray, a novelist, and Alter and Kanfer, biographers, the writers spoke about hesitation and uneasiness they experienced when sitting down to pen their books. Anyone who has ever stared for hours at a blank screen hoping for inspiration knows how daunting that can be. Add in months of research, hundreds of pages of xerox copies and incredible anticipation and you have a recipe for writer's block. Just getting started can be the hardest part of all.