Mastery in writing, from Robert Caro

December 5, 2016 by Joshua
in Art, Creativity, Exercises

I started to browse The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s colossal work on city political power and Robert Moses, and couldn’t put it down. The book is huge. It used to be a fixture in New York City apartments. You couldn’t miss its big bold lettering on the big white spine on people’s book shelves. I don’t know how many people started or finished it, but I loved reading it.

Caro has won every award he can for his craft. Wikipedia establishes his mastery:

Caro wrote The Power Broker (1974), a biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses, which was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the twentieth century. He has since written four of a planned five volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson (1982, 1990, 2002, 2012), a biography of the former president.

For his biographies, he has won two Pulitzer Prizes in Biography, the National Book Award, the Francis Parkman Prize (awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that “best exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist”), two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the H.L. Mencken Award, the Carr P. Collins Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, the D.B. Hardeman Prize, and a Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

I’m reading a long interview of him in The Paris Review. A few passages show mastery in this craft that apply to mastery in any craft. If you take my classes, you learn that mastery requires doing—practicing and rehearsing over and over until what used to challenge you bores you and you crave to get to the next level of challenge. It’s the same in learning to play an instrument, play a sport, write, sing, dance, lead, and so on.

Here he describes his immersion in research Johnson, near whose childhood home he moved to live for three years:

At first, these people were very reluctant to talk to me. Until we moved out there, my interviews weren’t very productive. When we moved there, everything changed. They had a phrase, “portable journalist,” because during the time that Johnson had been president, journalists would come, stay for a week, and go back and write “the true history of the Hill Country.” When they realized that someone was finally coming to stay—to really try to ­understand them—all of a sudden they started talking to me in a different way, giving me a different picture of Lyndon Johnson, different from any that had been in any biographies before.

Note that he put the needs of the craft and the people he served before his. Hence Wikipedia can report:

The Power Broker is widely viewed [1] as a seminal work because it combined painstaking historical research with a smoothly flowing narrative writing style.

I don’t know what you do, but if you don’t commit like he did, don’t expect his results. Expect mediocrity.

People keep asking me how to do something well. I tell the same answer they already know: practice. Same as you get to Carnegie Hall. There’s no mystery. Practice, practice, practice. People don’t want to give up what they’d have to to practice. I think that deep inside they know what success would take and why they don’t have it, but don’t want to commit or sacrifice. Sacrifice isn’t the right word when you know what you do will bring success. Invest is more apt.

Look at his life years before, when he was writing The Power Broker:

I walked back to my office, and I ­really sat and thought, How am I going to explain to the readers of Newsday about Robert Moses? And the more I thought, the more I realized, My God, I’m never going to be able to do this in the context of daily journalism. It’s ­going to take a book. To me it seemed that the story of Moses was the story of modern New York. I didn’t have an agent, but I wrote a book proposal and got a $5,000 contract, $2,500 then and the other $2,500 when I finished.

We didn’t really have any savings, and that wasn’t enough for me to quit my job. For a while, I tried to work on the book while I stayed on as a ­reporter, but I wasn’t making much headway. I got a grant for a year, and that was when I decided I could quit. I told Ina the book would be done in nine months. But after a year, it was still only in the early stages. Ina sold our house—we moved to an apartment in the Bronx—and the money from that gave us another year. But I knew the book still had a lot more years to go. So those were years when we were just plain broke. All I could think was that I was going to have to be really lucky to be able to finish this book without having to go back to work as a reporter. I knew that if I went back to work, I would never finish.

He’s human like you and me. What he’s doing anyone can. You just have to do it.

Most people fear the investment won’t pay off, like they fear they’ll put in the work and find out they didn’t love what they worked on it that much. Well, everyone has something they love that will be worth it. Doing the work makes it worth it. The best way to find out what in your life will be worth give to so much that it gives more back to you is to start with something. If it pays off, great. If not, working on it is the surest way to get past it to what will pay off.

I have no doubt that if Caro met with Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, or the master of any craft, they’d have plenty to talk about in common, even if their crafts didn’t overlap at all. Nor do I doubt that you could join their ranks if you practiced enough. I plan to.

Look at him pushing through the doubts to discover it would be worth it and the majesty that results:

For seven years, I heard people say—I heard my first publisher say—No one is going to read a book on Robert Moses. It will be a very small printing. And I believed that. But as I came to write the book, I thought, It matters that people read this. Here was a guy who was never elected to anything, and he had more power than any mayor, more than any governor, more than any mayor or governor combined, and he kept this power for forty-four years, and with it he shaped so much of our lives.

I told myself, You have to try to write an introduction that makes the reader feel what you feel about his importance, his fascination as a character, as a ­human being. I remember rewriting that introduction endless times. For instance, Moses built 627 miles of roads. I said, Come on, that’s just a bare statement of fact—how do you make people grasp the immensity of this? And I remembered reading the Iliad in college. The Iliad did it with lists, you know? With the enumeration of all the nations and all the ships that are sent to Troy to show the magnitude and magnificence of the Trojan War. In college, the professor kept talking about Homer’s imagery, Homer’s symbolism, et cetera in the Iliad and the Odyssey. I would be sitting there thinking, Look what Homer does with the ships! Not that I would ever think of comparing myself with Homer, but great works of art can be inspiring as models. So in the introduction to The Power Broker, I tried listing all the expressways and all the parkways. I hoped that the weight of all the names would give Moses’s accomplishment more reality. But then I felt, That’s not good enough. Can you put the names into an ­order that has a rhythm to it that will give them more force and power and, in that way, add to the understanding of the magnitude of the accomplishment? “He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.” I thought I could have a rhythm that builds, and then change it abruptly in the last sentence. Rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters. All these things we talk about with novels, yet I feel that for history and biography to ­accomplish what they should accomplish, they have to pay as much attention to these devices as novels do.

Learning his drawing on Homer, I feel more confident in my considering Aristotle as a peer. Yes, it’s bold, but why else do we read them if not for their influence?

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