Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It's Good to Have Smart Friends

I am on my way home from my week in New York, where I spent every spare minute in the manuscripts room of the New York Public Library (one of my favorite rooms in one of my favorite institutions), gave a talk, attended a talk, and had a great session speaking with the Biography Seminar at New York University.

This trip was a treat because it brought me into contact (or back into contact) with friends and colleagues who are highly respected writers. Writing is often considered a solitary life, as indeed it is much of the time. But, like many of my peers, I love to get together and talk shop. I often find that I not only learn something from other writers, but understand better what I think about writing, through the act of articulating my ideas and approach.

Last's night event is a case in point. This meeting of the Biography Seminar included some terrific biographers, including Patricia O'Toole, Neil Baldwin, and Deirdre Bair, to name just three. Ms. Bair repeated the quote from Virginia Woolf (if I'm not mistaken), that the biographer is the "artist under oath." To that, of course, I couldn't agree more. I contrast this with the view of another of my favorite writers and friends: Colum McCann, the great novelist, who says that there is no line between fiction and nonfiction. That is true—of fiction. When it comes to facts, to information, you can import as much nonfiction into fiction as you like, even make an entire novel largely factual—but you absolutely cannot import fiction into nonfiction.

Except! Yes, except: A biographer can import some of the method, or perhaps style, of fiction. In fact, this is an excellent idea much of the time. Allow me to explain. One of the worst things to do, when writing biography, is to turn it into what someone once called history: "one damn thing after another." You should shape the narrative, create a sense of momentum—of causal chains and, most of all, consequences. You do well to artfully define your characters, and show how their personalities and choices shape the flow of events. And you should do your best to make contextual information a part of the narrative, to convince the reader that she must know this information to make the most of the story.

On the other hand, not all factual information should go into a narrative, no matter how well-grounded or superbly researched. Let me give you an example. I submitted an early chapter of The First Tycoon to my fellow fellows at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Nathan Englander pointed out that some of the details of the scene that opened the chapter seemed out of place. He said, in essence, I don't doubt that your research proves that there were pigs running in the street, but they don't seem an organic part of the portrait you're painting at this point in the narrative. Later on, he criticized my reference to an enormous fireball in the sky. It doesn't matter if it's an absolutely factual event, he observed; by including it you're connecting your main character to the universe. Do you really want to do that?

Such exchanges made me realize that a richly drawn nonfiction scene shouldn't simply be a pile of confirmed details. It must be a thoughtfully crafted piece of writing, in which the details form an organic part of the world you are presenting to the reader, and an organic part of the flow of events. There's no science to it; it's a matter of art, instinct, and experience.

And it doesn't hurt to have smart friends tell you where you've gone wrong.

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