10 Tips for Writing a Biography

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeAs we await a verdict from my editor on the official title of the book formerly known as The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming 2012), I thought I’d share a few tips with any aspiring biographers out there. Since I’ve only written one biography (albeit a double biography), you should of course feel free to take this advice with a grain of salt.

1. Seek counsel from experts.  Biographers Leonard Marcus (Margaret Wise Brown), Michael Patrick Hearn (L. Frank Baum, forthcoming), Judith Morgan (Dr. Seuss) all kindly answered my questions.  For instance, Michael introduced me to editor Susan Hirschman, who knew (and edited) both Johnson and Krauss.  In addition to putting me in touch with HarperCollins’ archivist, Leonard also told me that scanning city directories (the predecessor to phone books) can help you track down where people lived.  I’ve spent an unusual amount of time at a microfilm reader, perusing city directories for Manhattan, Queens, and Baltimore.

2. Ask lots of questions.  You’ll need to learn much about subjects in which you’re not an expert. So, for instance, Mathematics Professor Emeritus J. B. Stroud explained the math behind the paintings to which Johnson devoted his final decade.  In addition to venturing beyond your areas of expertise, you’ll also learn of research methods you didn’t know existed. For example, my former neighbor Jerry Wigglesworth (a lawyer) told me that any probated will would be on file in probate court.  Acting on his advice, I obtained copies of Johnson’s and Krauss’s wills from the probate court in Westport, Connecticut.

3. Pick a subject who had a brief but interesting life.  During the dozen years I worked on my bio., I’ve often thought: “ah, how wise of Leonard Marcus to write about Margaret Wise Brown.  She only lived to be 42!”  In contrast, Crockett Johnson lived to be 68.  Ruth Krauss lived to be 91.  That’s a lot of years to cover!  Of course, I’m partially kidding about the age of your subject (and I know that Brown’s early death had nothing to do with Leonard’s decision to write her biography).  It’s most important that your subject be interesting to you: you’ll likely be spending a decade of your life getting to know him or her.  The length of a person’s life is less important, though it will affect how long it takes you to complete the book.

4. Are there any autobiographical records? Choosing someone who wrote some autobiographical narrative of her or his own will make your life a lot easier — even if the account proves only partially accurate, you would at least have something to go on.  Crockett Johnson lacked any autobiographical impulse; apart from occasional remarks in interviews (of which there are very few), he left no first-person accounts of his life.  Ruth, on the other hand, did write about herself.  She never wrote a full-length autobiography, but left a number of autobiographical fragments.  For this reason, it’s much easier to access a sense of her inner life.

5. Don’t delay! Start today! If you are serious about writing a biography, stop reading this post and start working on it right now.  I’m not telling you this because the process is going to take about ten years.  I’m telling you this because people are going to die.  Of course, if you’re writing about someone who died 100 or more years ago, the likelihood of finding living witnesses is rather slim. But, if you’re writing about someone born more recently, then get started!  I was very fortunate to talk with Mischa Richter (New Yorker cartoonist and good friend of Johnson), A. B. Magil (one of New Masses’ editors in the 1930s, as was Johnson), Syd Hoff (New Yorker cartoonist, children’s author, and New Masses cartoonist in the 1930s), Mary Elting Folsom (children’s author, member of Book and Magazine Union, also knew Johnson in the ’30s), Else Frank (Johnson’s sister), and many other folks who have since passed on.

But I narrowly missed talking with Kenneth Koch (whose poetry class Krauss took) and Hannah Baker (PM’s comics editor, who worked with Johnson on Barnaby).  Immediately after receiving a reply from Ms. Baker, I tried phoning her — she’d invited me to call, but included no number.  My attempts failed.  I immediately wrote again. A month later, a kind reply from her niece informed me that she’d passed on.  My letter to Mr. Koch arrived the day he died.  Shortly thereafter, I had such a vivid dream that Mr. Koch was talking with me (from beyond the grave!) that I got out of bed, ready to take notes on our interview… and then realized, ahhh, right, I was dreaming.  And I went back to bed.

6. Organize! In the dozen years I worked on this, I interviewed 84 people, investigated over three dozen archives and special collections, read everything written by or about Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, and consulted additional hundreds of articles and books.  I looked at birth certificates, marriage certificates, census data, property deeds, wills, century-old insurance company maps, FBI files, photographs, and city directories for Baltimore, New York, Darien, Norwalk, and Westport, Connecticut.  That’s a lot of information to keep straight.  Two parallel systems evolved.  (1) Lots of file folders — both on the computer and in the physical world.  In the physical world, for instance, a separate folder went to: each interviewee or otherwise important person, reviews (this was actually two folders), biographical profiles and interviews, draft materials related to individual books, uncollected works (many file folders of Barnaby strips), census data, wills, and many more.  I’ve 6 file drawers full of materials.  And another three shelves full of printed work (books, magazines, etc).  Oh, and a box full of cassette tapes (containing interviews).  (2) A document I called “chronology.”  It has three columns: Year, Life, Published Work.  Here, for instance, is an unusually brief entry (for the year 1937):

Year Life Published Work
1937 RK not in Columbia University in the City of New York; Directory Number for the Sessions 1937-1938.  Including Registration to November 1, 1937.  Ruth Benedict is (p. 19).RK has adult measles, discovers Lionel’s infidelity, leaves Lionel.4 May: CJ at “New Masses party at Muriel Draper’s,” where he sees Donald Ogden Stewart make “a swell little talk on our [New Masses'] behalf.” (Dave Johnson to Rockwell K., 11 May 1937 Rockwell Kent Papers, Smithsonian, Reel 5217, Frame 0971). New Masses.  May 18: CJ is one of Associate Editors. 14 Dec.: CJ is one of Editors.  9 Nov. (p. 2): CJ identified as Art Editor.“Dutch Uncle of the Arts” (9 Nov. 1937): CJ review of The Arts by Willem Hendrik van Loon (Simon & Schuster).

I didn’t put everything in each year, but what I did put in there helped me locate events in time, gave me a sense of sequence.  Some items are approximately located — the manuscript reflects the fact that the break-up of Krauss’s first marriage likely occurred in 1938, but I neglected to correct that on the chronology document.

7. Leave No Stone Unturned…  As you interview more people and visit more archives, you’ll build up a vast network of contacts, and a rich nexus of information. Pursue those leads! I drove to Denmark, Maine’s Camp Walden, an all-girls camp where Ruth Krauss spent two formative summers: there, I found her first published writing in the 1919 issue of Splash, the camp yearbook. I went to Staten Island to meet 67-year-old Thomas Hamilton, who as 7-year-old Tommy Hamilton starred as Barnaby in the 1946 stage production of Crockett Johnson’s comic strip. He had clippings and the entire unpublished script for the play, all of which he let me copy.

8. … Except for the Stones That You Leave Alone.  At a certain point, you have to stop researching so that you can finish the book.  The research can be endless unless you make a conscious decision to curtail it.  One way to help contain the research process is to start writing while researching.  Doing so will help you get a sense of the shape the book will ultimately take.  As you start to glimpse the contours of the final volume, you’ll come to realize that — although interesting — there are some leads that can be put aside.

9. Learn to Write Narrative.  Read a lot of biographies.  Read “how to” books like Nigel Hamilton’s How to Do Biography: A Primer.  Talk to creative writers and, if you can, take a creative writing course.  (I was unable to take a class, but I did consult creative writers.)  I have no training in writing narrative or character … or creating any of the features of literary fiction.  I did my best to write a book that was both scholarly and told a good story, but this was very challenging.  Reading other non-fiction (especially biographies) and talking to my creative-writing colleagues helped me figure out how to do this.

10. Leap Before You Look. Finally, it may be helpful to forget much of what I’ve written here, and approach your task with a certain degree of ignorance. If you begin with a full awareness of what you are getting into, you might not start in the first place. Fortunately, if you are serious about writing a biography, nothing I’ve said here will deter you — because (1) difficulty is but a welcome challenge to the determined scholar, and (2) only by writing a biography can you truly appreciate how enormous the project is.  Even after reading this post, aspiring biographers should still be sufficiently unaware and thus able to approach their task with optimism.

Writing a biography is a painstaking, challenging, often plodding process.  As the narrator of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers laments, “It is to be regretted that no mental method of daguerreotype or photography has yet been discovered, by which the characters of men can be reduced to writing and put into grammatical language with an erring precision of truthful description.” However, as he also notes, “such mechanical descriptive skill” would yield only a “dull, dead, unfeeling, inauspicious likeness.” In other words, difficulty is a necessary part of rendering a life: “There is no royal road to learning; no short cut to the acquirement of any valuable art. […] There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily.”1  But, to end on an upbeat note, while the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss has certainly been the most difficult book I’ve written, it has also been the most rewarding.  It’s pushed me, forced me to develop intellectual muscles I didn’t know existed, compelled me to improve my writing.  It’s the best book I’ve written, and may well be the best one I ever will write.

 


1. Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, Vol. 1 (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1859), p. 232-233.

1 Comment »

  1. Marc Tyler Nobleman Said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

    Upon your kind suggestion, Phil, here are a few kindred spirit posts about the pleasures and perils of writing biography:

    http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2009/04/golden-age-of-picture-book-biography.html – we are in the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography

    http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2011/06/biosong-mary-pickford.html – we’ve all heard of biographies and biopics, but what about biosongs?

    http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2009/11/biography-vs-pathography.html – biography vs. pathography (with links to other similar posts, i.e. one about storyography)

    http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2009/08/your-life-my-book-morality-of-writing.html – is it moral to write about other people’s lives?

    http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2010/06/aint-nothing-but-manuscript.html – historian as character in biography he’s writing

    http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2010/09/who-said-what-and-when-part-1-of-2.html – using dialogue in biographies

Leave a Comment