Biographer Robert Caro on How It’s All About Perspective

Most books (and many theses and other projects) take years to produce, and that’s a simple fact. And yet, the “When will you be done?” question can bedevil new writers in particular. (Even worse when it’s phrased disrespectfully, as in: “What? Are you still working on that thing?”)

That’s why this anecdote from Caro’s autobiography Working is so satisfying:

  • “I was bothered, too, by the length not only of the manuscript [The Power Broker, about New York City “master builder” Robert Moses], but also of the time I had been working on it.“That was the thing that made me doubt the most. When I had started, I had firmly believed that I would be done in a year, a naive but perhaps not unnatural belief for someone whose longest previous deadline had been measured in weeks. As year followed year, and I was still not nearly done, I became convinced that I had gone terribly astray.“This feeling was fed by the people Ina and I did know. I was still in the first year of research when friends and acquaintances began to ask if I was “still doing that book.” Later I would be asked, “How long have you been working on it now?” When I said three years, or four, or five, they would quickly disguise their look of incredulity , but not quickly enough to keep me from seeing it. I came to dread that question….”

Skip forward a few years, and Caro has been given desk privileges in the New York Public Library’s prestigious Frederick Lewis Allen Room, where he finds himself working alongside, among others, two of the twentieth century’s most celebrated biographers: James Flexner (author of a multivolume biography of George Washington) and Joseph Lash (author of Eleanor and Franklin, about the Roosevelts). One day, Caro looks up from his work:

  • “James Flexner was standing over me. The expression on his face was friendly but after he had asked what I was writing about, the next question was the question I had come to dread: “How long have you been working on it. This time, however, when I replied, “Five years,” the response was not an incredulous stare.“‘Oh,’ Jim Flexner said, “that’s not so long. I’ve been working on my Washington for nine years.”“I could have jumped up and kissed him, whiskers and all–as, the next day, I could have jumped up and kissed Joe Lash, big beard and all, when he asked me the same question, and, after hearing my answer, said in his quiet way, “Eleanor and Franklin took me seven years.” In a couple of sentences, these two men–idols of mine–had wiped away years of doubt.”

There are at least two excellent lessons to be derived from Caro’s story:

1) You need mentors. And at least some of them need to have done what you’re trying to do. Neither Caro’s journalist friends nor his literary agent was able to mentor him on the idea that “biographies take a long time to write.” But when Caro finally met some other biographers, they set him straight immediately.

2) Reframing (looking at something from a fresh angle or perspective) is a brilliant, fun, and powerful technique. Here’s another example, quoted in my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific:

  • “In his essay “The Eleventh Draft,” from the book The Eleventh Draft (Frank Conroy, ed.), Chris Offutt offers one of the most brilliant and delightful re-empowerment strategies I’ve seen:“The notion of submitting anything to a magazine filled me with terror.A stranger would read my precious words, judge them deficient, and reject them, which meant I was worthless 4 … My goal, however, was not publication, which was still too scary a thought. My goal was a hundred rejections in a year. I mailed my stories in multiple submissions and waited eagerly for their return, which they promptly did. Each rejection brought me that much closer to my goal—a cause for celebration, rather than depression. “Eventually disaster struck. The Coe Review published my first story in spring 1990.”

Please remember that, no matter what your goal, nonperfectionism (including longsightedness / perspective) comes first, time management comes second, and finding great mentors is third. (To find them, do what Caro did, and join organizations they belong to.)

Comments

  1. I adore you.

  2. When I discovered Robert Caro during the prepublication publicity for Working earlier this year, one bit of perspective-shifting mentor-like wisdom that I gained was his unapologetic candor about how long it takes him to do research, as if there is something in his nature that makes him take so long, and there is, if no pride, also no shame in it: “It’s the research that takes the time—the research and whatever it is in myself that makes the research take so long, so very much longer than I had planned. Whatever it is that makes me do research the way I do, it’s not something I’m proud of, and it’s not something for which I can take the credit—or the blame. It just seems to be part of me. Looking back on my life I can see that it’s not really something I have had much choice about; in fact, that it was not something about which, really, I had any choice at all.”

    What also struck me about Caro was how laborious many of his working habits were. Those habits were perhaps unavoidable in the 1960s, but he has stuck to them through to the present day even though more efficient tools and methods are now available. One shouldn’t recklessly abandon habits that have produced results, and Caro doesn’t seem to have been in any danger of doing that, but I wonder if he had more choice than he cares to admit, if he could have changed and improved his habits more than he did? I haven’t read his whole book, so perhaps he documents elsewhere the other half that seems important to me: not only the self-acceptance, but the efforts to improve one’s habits. However limited the success of such efforts to improve, they seem to me to be just as essential as the self-acceptance.

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