Thursday, October 22, 2015

Life-Storying

This column first appeared on 

I’m writing a biography of a woman who has fascinated me since I first heard her name in the 1970s. I can’t give her name – yet. And you might not even recognize it when I do, for she died at age 65 in 1983. Time will tell. But if you are a writer and you are interested in trying your hand at biography, I do have some news you can use.

Writing biography is different from tackling a memoir, even though both are nonfiction, true accounts of true lives. Obvious difference: the memoir is about you, the biography is about someone else. But there is more to it than that. Readers and writers have been known to confuse biographical writing with historical writing. I like the distinction Virginia Woolf’s biographer, Hermione Lee, makes. She calls biographical writing “life-storying,” putting the emphasis on narrative and not just the verifiable facts of more academic histories. In addition, the biographer also wants to convey some sort of idea about the writer’s subject, which is why two biographies about the same person, let’s say John Fitzgerald Kennedy, can be so different, as with Kenneth O’Donnell’s Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye and Nigel Hamilton’s JFK: Reckless Youth. 

I can tell you this because I’ve been studying the craft of biography the way I studied memoir when I was writing Staying Alive: A Love Story, my memoir of loss and recovery. I loved that book. Loved that it made my husband’s life present in his children’s and my life again and because it has become respected in the field of writing about loss, receiving a 2012 Reader Views memoir award, a 2013 award from the New York Book Festival, and a recommendation from the American Institute of Health Care Professionals. But I’m on to something else now and in its own way, being essentially about someone else lessens the emotional weight of the project.

Yes, in trying to write something non-autobiographical, I’ve tried fiction. But my heart wasn’t in it. The same way Truman Capote’s heart wasn’t in his fiction either. And yet, just by picking up the New York Times one morning in 1959, Capote knew in his gut he had to write a book-length investigation of the news of that day, the Clutter family’s murder. Thus, In Cold Blood was born, the nonfiction book that broke the mold of true reporting when it was published seven years later.

So, in getting serious about the biographical writing, I found that, unlike memoir, there’s very little advice about craft available. Google how to write a memoir and pages and pages of “how-to” books will pop up. Not so when you google how to write a biography. I’ve found only two, Hermione Lee’s Biography which is part of the Oxford Very Short Introductions series and Nigel Hamilton’s How to do Biography: A Primer. Both have been very helpful, along with reading critically praised biographies and profiles.

The same dearth of information goes for online or on ground workshops on biography. I found a single four-day workshop on writing biographies being offered at this summer’s Yale Writer’s Conference, but the cost was just under $1000, nonresidential, just over $1000, residential. Both more than I could afford.

Finally, I came across a surprising good podcast: How to Write a Biography by Carole Angier, available for free at http://coventryuniversity.podbean.com/e/how-to-write-a-biography-carole-angier/. It is also available on iTunesU. So, if your heart is in nonfiction and you are passionate about someone else’s life, take some advice “life-storying” advice from Lee, Hamilton, and Angier.





Laura Hayden is the author of Staying Alive: A Love Story (website: http://laurabhayden.comShe teaches writing at Asnuntuck Community College and in the WCSU MFA in Creative and Professional Writing program, both in Connecticut.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Harper Lee Conundrum

First published at Poor Yorick Journal on September 25, 2015
Photo from modernmrsdarcy.com
When, like me, you’ve taught To Kill a Mockingbird to tenth graders for thirty years, you have a personal stake in Harper Lee’s only “other” novel, Go Set a Watchman, published a few months ago. For three decades, I’ve deconstructed Atticus’s airtight argument that proved Tom Robinson’s innocence beyond anyone’s (but a racist jury’s) doubt. I’ve introduced countless teens to the notion that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” Reading and rereading the classic so connected me to the text; I learned and loved something new every time. 
It’s been as difficult for me to separate the truth from the gossip surrounding Watchman, as it has always been to get students to appreciate the full monty of Mockingbird, the book, as compared to To Kill a Mockingbird, the movie. The 1960s Oscar-winning film omits the Southern excesses of Atticus’s siblings: Aunt Alexandra and bachelor Uncle Jack, the doctor in the Finch family. Yet, sister and brother continue to impact Harper Lee’s fictional world in Watchman in surprising and crafted ways.
Writers know, however, that crafted and well-crafted are two separate treatments, which leads me to the talking heads’ debate over Watchman: is it merely the rejected original manuscript of Mockingbird, something that aged and, some say ailing and addled Lee got duped into publishing? Or has Lee reshaped Watchman twice over her long life? First in the late 1950s, following her editor’s suggestion to turn the original manuscript’s clock back two decades—a rewrite that morphed into the Pulitzer Prize winning Mockingbird—and then again years later, trying to get the older Scout’s story right? 
Even before Watchman’s publication, airways buzzed about which came first, the Watchman chicken or the Mockingbird egg, as well as a striking difference in Atticus. 
I was all ears.
So when, on the way to a James Taylor concert a few weeks ago, my niece asked me, “Auntie Laura, where do you stand as an English teacher on this new Harper Lee book?” it was as if she had pressed my play button. “You know there’s all this controversy about if Lee wanted it published and if it is the rejected or the rewritten version, yadda-yadda-yadda I’m not sure I even want to read it, yadda-yadda-yadda, because I don’t want to be disappointed.“
I felt confident about my know-it-all English teacher rant based on The New York Times saying this and The Guardian saying that, etc., etc. That is, until the fellow I know so well, the one next to me at the JT fest, questioned me, not then, but the next evening, as straightforwardly and objectively as Atticus himself might have cross-examined. 
“How do you really know it’s not worth your time unless you read it?” His emphasis on really implied that I who have been connected to the hip of Lee’s body of work, including her legwork as researcher for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood—that I should know better. 
Before the night was over, I downloaded Watchman onto my Kindle. And I read, delighted with the first chapter. At 3% (my Kindle doesn’t give page numbers), it appeared to be a love story between a grownup Scout, now exclusively called Jean Louise, and her childhood friend Henry, also known as Hank. But where did this Henry/Hank guy come from? Where were Jem and Dill? 
Watchman had me turning, I mean tapping, who-knows-what number page after page, until—at 6%—I lingered awhile on a single sentence that pegged Maycomb, the county Jean Louise left behind for NYC, as a place where “If you did not want much, there was plenty.” That perfectly wrought sentence was plenty enough for me to feel it was worth picking up—I mean downloading—the book.
That is until 5% later when Lee writes off Jean Louise’s brother in three words and goes on to throw out all the stops at 36%, as Jean Louise sneaks a peak of Atticus and Hank at The Citizens’ council meeting. Seated at a table alongside an influential racist who has just delivered a no-question-about-it hate speech, neither man says anything. Atticus’s silence betrays everything he has taught her. Hank’s everything she believes. She flees the scene and vomits.
If I weren’t reading this on a Kindle, I would have thrown the book across the room. I did put it down for a day or so. Still, my thoughts wouldn’t let go of the book and the buzz.
If Watchman was written before TKAM, then Atticus “the Saint” (as opposed to Atticus “the Segregationist”) wouldn’t exist until after a savvy editor told Lee to rethink and revise the matters of Maycomb by bringing the story back to Jean Louise’s childhood . . . so maybe, in the way all writers must sometimes kill off their darlings, maybe Lee killed off her anti-darlin’ by stuffing him in a drawer or safe deposit box where he couldn’t breathe, and so he died. And reincarnated Atticus #2 from the dead Lee scroll to inhabit the Mockingbird manuscript? 
I recharged the Kindle and read through one-sided rantings about race, religion, and marriage at Aunt Alexandra’s tea and speechifying about history and politics via Uncle Jack. Jean Louise comes to blows with Atticus too but not in the way reviewers had led me to believe. 
Sure, I wish I could climb into Harper Lee’s skin to view this all from her point of view, but she declined an interview with Oprah and there is a guard at her assisted-living residence door. So, judging by what she wrote, I’ve formed my own opinion: Go Set a Watchmanis nothing more than the failed draft. I missed the polished style and grace that becomes the smooth storytelling of Mockingbird and the classic’s ideals. Yet, even if the new novel is really the old rejected novel, reading Go Set a Watchman reminded me—as it did Jean Louise—how often the objects of our affection—our loves, our family, our friends, and even our favorite writers—can fall from grace, simply because they are human or think differently from us. Even recognizing the narrow-mindedness and rough edges of this literary milestone—flaws that may have been out of Lee’s control to keep under wraps – I still have the urge to embrace its creation. When it comes to Harper Lee and me, the love is so strong as to risk being 100% unconditional.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Food for Thought



I didn't have to think twice when the ladies at the local library asked me to contribute a recipe to their fund-raising cookbook. I like company and I like to cook. In my memoir, Staying Alive A Love Story,  my immediate thought after running into an old friend is to get him together with my brother for dinner. 

“I could bake lasagna and fry an eggplant, ” I said, and do so a few days later. Eggplant Parm has become my "go-to dish" whenever I "go to" family picnics and pot-lucks. My niece even asked for the recipe before she moved to San Diego last month.


Many favorite recipes come with a secret or two. Here are mine: Be sure to salt the eggplant before frying (see #1 below). It takes the bitterness out. My mother taught me another trick that takes excess oil out of the fried slices before baking the casserole: Fry the day before and store the slices in the fridge overnight, layered between paper towels. It's a cinch to just have to  layer the slices,  sauce, and cheese  the next day.
 
Eggplant Parmesan Casserole
 

Ingredients

o    1 large eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/3 inch slices

o    2 eggs, beaten

o    1 1/2 cups seasoned dry bread crumbs

o    1/4 cup olive oil

o    3 cups spaghetti sauce

o    1/2 lb shredded mozzarella cheese

o    1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese

Directions

   1.    The day before the casserole is served, arrange a layer of eggplant slices in a colander. Sprinkle generously with salt. Continue layering and salting all eggplant slices. Let stand 30 minutes. Rinse and pat dry.

2.      Dip each eggplant slice in beaten egg, and dredge with breadcrumbs.

3.      Heat oil in a heavy skillet. Over medium high heat fry eggplant in hot oil about 2 minutes per side until golden. Drain on absorbent paper.

4.      Store the cooled slices between new layers of absorbent paper in the fridge overnight.

5.      Preheat oven to temperature 350°F Arrange half the eggplant slices in the bottom of baking dish sprayed lightly with nonstick spray. Spread half the sauce over top. Sprinkle with half the mozzarella and half the Parmesan. Repeat layers.

3.      Bake 20-25 minutes or until mixture is bubbly

The Recipe Library, a collection of favorite recipes from library staff, volunteers, library club members, and local authors is now available for sale at the Windsor Locks Library for $10.All proceeds from this fundraiser will be used to purchase new print and electronic materials or to fund library programming of interest to the public.

What's your "go-to" dish?


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Getting my schtick together

Schtick is not what it sounds like. I even looked it up  - to make sure.


Getting your schtick together is really like getting your act together, whether it's house cleaning, business planning, vaudeville routining, etc.  

I bet David Letterman is starting to get his schtick together about retirement planning right now.

I'm getting my schtick together on a number of levels actually. First, in getting back to this blog, which took a backseat to mommyofthebride.blogspot.com for a few delightful years. After that ran its titled course I decided it was too Internet intrusive to blog every nook and cranny of my beautiful grandson's world. So, except for a comment here and there about this and other-than-that ( the last being Robin William's death), mommyofthebride faded (if there is such a thing as virtual fade).

It's about time I got back to my original blog, Late Bloomer, and gave it a new focus. New, of course, implies it had one already - though I'm still not sure what that was. Which may have been part of the non-sustaining problem.

Anyway, the new and improved Late Bloomer  will mostly  follow my schticking - on a second level. A new project, a book, a biography about a woman I am fascinated with. Though I can't identify her yet, this blog will start by focusing on the process and the side stories I don't want to forget along the writing way. If you feel like reading along, follow me through  her life-storying (as Herminone Lee,  Virginia Woolf's biographer, calls it.). 

Meantime, I'm feeling a bit like David Letterman this morning, as we both get caught up in our new schticks. (Love that word!) What might you be getting your schtick together about? (There, I got to say it again!)