The Biographer's Craft

The Biographer's Craft

Writers discuss the art of capturing lives with words

By Frank Bures | Photos by Dave Curd


 
image"I really do believe that it's as good a look inside the black box that is consciousness and human existence as anything can give us," he said. "Fiction can do it for the same reason. Fiction allows us to get into somebody's consciousness. And a good biography should succeed in the same way good fiction does. It allows us to live that person's life through them, as well as to understand the dates and the importance and that sort of thing.

"There's nothing like biography to get to the heart of what it is to be human."

Writing biography requires discipline, organization, and the ability to understand both a person and a time period, Colby biographers say. Doris Kearns Goodwin '64, best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer, notes that it's also essential to choose the right subject.

"When you're spending as much time with your subject as I do, you've got to like him," said Goodwin, whose last book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, took 10 years to research and write. "You've got to want to wake up with him in the morning. I could never write about Hitler or Stalin. Somebody else might write a fantastic biography about them. But I have to feel like I want to live with that person for that long time that it usually takes me."

Goodwin's first subject picked her.

It was the spring of 1967 when a young Doris Kearns went to the White House for a ball for newly selected White House fellows. Later in the night, Goodwin stepped onto the dance floor with President Lyndon Baines Johnson. As he spun her around, she didn't yet know that he was spinning her into his life, reeling her in. She had no idea that his life would determine much of hers.

After Johnson left the White House and went back to his ranch, he badgered Goodwin to come to Texas and help him with the first installment of his memoirs. Reluctant at first, ultimately she spent many hours at the Johnson ranch, listening to tales of LBJ's youth and his years in the Senate. "He just talked endlessly," Goodwin said.

Johnson died in 1973, before he got a chance to write a word of the second or third installment of his memoirs. But Goodwin, who had gotten deeper and deeper into his life, would rescue those details for posterity. She took the things he'd told her and put them together for the story of Johnson's life, the first of many lives she has recounted.

"It was really that experience of working with Lyndon Johnson," Goodwin said, "and having him talk to me in a way that he probably wouldn't have at the height of his power, that made me think about writing about him. And after writing about him it became something where you begin to feel you're learning a craft. And that sent me into the presidential biography field."

Whether the subject is as prominent as a president or as obscure as a Civil War soldier, writing a person's life is a task biographers don't take lightly. "To be the first person to talk about someone in any significant way means you really have a lot of responsibility," said Elizabeth Leonard, the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History. Leonard is the author of Yankee Women, about three women whose lives were changed by the Civil War, and Lincoln's Avenger, about, among others, Joseph Holt, the investigator and prosecutor of Lincoln's assassins.

"I'm now the Joseph Holt person," Leonard said. "I'm one of the few people who's gone into any depth in studying his life."
 
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