Monday, September 16, 2013

I Can't Handle the Truth! - Nonfiction Anxiety

I spoke with my editor about the biography I’m writing about Thomas Jefferson. An email on Monday said she’d call on Friday.  Nerve-racking anticipation for 4 days not knowing if she’ll have good news for me, or, as I always assume, bad news.

This time my fears were unfounded. She had great ideas and suggestions for me, as usual. I appreciate that she is my fresh pair of eyes.  I have been living with my words for months, so I no longer see gaps in the narrative, or places where I’ve tickled a reader’s interest but not scratched the itch.  And then there are places where I haven’t supported my theme. I’ve stated it, but not shown the proof.  So, it’s back to research to find those details in history that illustrate the nation growing as a result of Thomas Jefferson’s influence.

I opened the fourth volume of Dumas Malone’s biography of TJ and reread his introduction. He says: “Anyone who essays to write the biography of a President must familiarize himself as best he can with major events and developments in the country as a whole, and if dealing with an age when international relations were of prime importance to the Republic, he should try to see things in their world setting. He can hardly know too much about times and circumstances and, as I am well aware he is likely to know too little to orientate his subject properly.” 
His last line makes me feel that I am in good company. Malone spent some 40 years studying and writing about TJ, and yet he still had moments where he felt like he didn’t know enough.  How arrogant I am to attempt to excise a sliver of TJ’s life and offer it to children with any kind of confidence. I hope the 13 books I have stacked on my desk will help. (I know that a replica of TJ’s revolving book stand would help. It held 5 books open at once for easing viewing. That is the one thing I wanted at the Monticello gift shop and the only thing they don’t sell. I could have gotten TJ bookmarks, coasters, wine racks, tea towels… but no book stand.) The hours I have spent reading his letters online and at the TJ library have to count for something, too. 

I sometimes wonder why I write nonfiction. I can't handle the truth! A minefield of potential errors stretch out in front of me, and that’s not including my normal angst for making mistakes. Dates can be wrong, names can get screwed up, events misconstrued, and you know there are thousands of TJ enthusiasts who are ready to pounce on any little misstep. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve typed 1983 rather than 1783, and written Madison when I meant to write Monroe.  Clearly, I have to get these two guys defined in my head so that I have just as sharp an image of them as I do of TJ or George Washington. 

When you write a biography, you are never writing about one person or one time or one event. You are always chasing down a succession of details that radiate out from your subject like ripples around a stone plunked into a still lake. Where do you stop? When the ripples or details take you back to shore? No. Then you double back verifying those bits of information as they radiate back to the source to make sure that, yes, those pieces fit. Those connections connect. His cause had an effect, and vice versa.

See where I could go wrong?  Why do I do this, again? 

Oh, yeah. I love it.  

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