Tag Archives: My Patient Editor

Begin At The Beginning

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

At a recent booksigning, I was asked by a very nice fellow—who’d apparently spent the last several years researching a 19th century figure and was now ready to start writing—about the “right” way to begin a biography. “Should I begin at the beginning of his life?” he asked, “or pick a pivotal event and start there? Or should I start at the end, and tell the book as a flashback?”

It’s a tricky question, and I’m not certain I have a good answer for it. But I know for sure I don’t have the “right” answer for him — because I don’t think there is a right answer. All I can give you, and him, is my opinion. So, here goes.

Those of us who deal in non-fiction have different narrative issues than those of you who write fiction, mainly because we have the hassle—or the luxury, depending on how you want to look at it—of having the story plotted out for us in advance. No matter how much we might wish Aaron Burr hadn’t turned out to be such a skunk, or want Clarence Darrow to win the Scopes trial, that’s not the way it happened. Nor can the North win the Civil War because of the involvement of space aliens, or Jack the Ripper speed away from the scene of a crime in a Ferrari, no matter how cool that might be. We have to be true to the events we’re reporting.

That’s not to say that we don’t have considerable leeway in how we tell our stories. David McCullough, for example, begins John Adams in January 1776, with the 40-year-old Adams riding on horseback through a snowstorm on his way to Philadelphia, while David Michaelis starts Schulz and Peanuts with Schulz leaving for the army following the death of his mother, long before he ever drew a Peanuts strip. We can tell our stories through flashbacks, or on a straight, chronological track. What we can’t do, however, is tell our stories in ways that seem unnatural or forced. Every story has its beginning—and after doing our research, it’s our job to find it.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. In fact, I have a rather tumultuous relationship with my beginnings. I usually know structurally how I’m going to start, but I have a heck of a time with that “once upon a time…” clause that I need to kick the whole thing off. So I have an odd in media res approach to working in which I start writing the middle of the piece first– whether it’s a speech or article or what have you — and go until I have one of those Eureka! moments where everything falls into place, and I know where I’m going and how I’m getting there.

Even then, I still usually save the very first pages for last. By that point, I know exactly where I’ve been in the narrative, I know my structure, and I generally feel that, after having “lived it” for so long, I know the best way to kick things off. And yet, sometimes I still don’t get it quite right on the first try, usually because I’ve somehow ignored my own advice on writing the beginning that works for my story.

In the first draft of Washington Irving, for example, I wrote what I called my Cinematic Opening. It was artsy and theatrical and beautifully written, and I loved it. I even knew exactly the way it would look on film: We open with a tight shot of Irving, already the most famous man in the world, writing letters at the round table in his parlor at Sunnyside. The camera pans slowly up and moves forward—in a prolonged crane shot—through the window of the parlor and out onto the Hudson River, then makes its way downriver to New York City. As the New York of 1847 bustles away, a special effects shot slowly fades the city backwards through time until it reverts to its Revolutionary War-era face of 1783, and we begin to tell the story of Irving’s life.

It was lovely and very Merchant-Ivory and, ultimately, very terrible, because it wasn’t true to the story. It felt too forced, too dramatic, and my editor summed it up nicely with one word: “No.” Out it went.

She was right, and I knew it. I was trying to be clever and cinematic and beautiful, and that wasn’t really my story. It didn’t work. So I started over, and this time I began at the beginning—my beginning, the one I knew was there all along.

That’s the best advice I can give, then: Begin at the beginning of the story—your story—then go on until you come to the end, and then stop. There really is no “right” way, but there is a way that works best for you and the story you want to tell. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it. Find it, listen to it, then write it.

NYC Trip Report, Part 4 (Final Issue!)

After enjoying a brief moment of Zen with Washington Irving’s library card, I walked with Mark back down the curving staircase to the second floor. Here I met with Jonathan and Casey at the top of the marble stairs just outside the Member’s Room (you’re peeking through the door, just as I saw things, in the photo to the right), and chatted with several of the librarians and a number of patrons who had shown up early — including yet another charming member of the Irving family, who proudly showed me a fleur-de-lis ring of Washington Irving’s that she was wearing on her pinky. Meanwhile, staff whizzed in and out, setting the room up for their National Library Week reception (cake and lemonade, appropriately Spring-like fare).

It was a bit warm, and I have to embarassingly admit I’m something of a sweater — it didn’t help that I was wearing a suit (my Senate Uniform, I call it), but changing temperature from a Spring day outside to a temperature-regulated building usually turns my head shiny with perspiration, regardless. Fortunately, Jonathan and Casey went above and beyond and took good care of me — Jonathan pressed a cool glass of lemonade into my hand while Casey handed me a wad of paper napkins and dabbed a bit below my left eye — and like that, I was fine. I must say, having a posse with you is really cool.

A little after 2:00, Mark led me into the now-packed Member’s Room — a really great venue that allows some lucky audience members the luxury of sitting on couches and overstuffed chairs. Casey and Jonathan took seats discretely off to one side, and as I sat in a classy wingback, Mark stood at the central podium and gave me a very nice introduction.

I gave what I call my E! True Hollywood Story talk — it gives me a good opportunity to hit several of the high points of Irving’s life, with enough famous names and events to keep things really interesting (Look! Mary Shelley! And here’s Edgar Allan Poe! And now Martin Van Buren!). And to my delight, just as it had in Newport, the speech went over terrifically. (Want another look? Jonathan very kindly blogged about it himself over on his own website.)

And if you’d like, you can even hear audio of the entire thing right here. The NYSL has only just recently started putting its talks and presentations up on their website, and I’m very proud to be among their first three featured speakers.

As always, I had a wonderful time signing and talking with people afterwards. Interestingly, a number of folks were curious about my time in the U.S. Senate; I’m guessing that life in DC is as enigmatic to New Yorkers as life in New York is to us DC-ites — an iconic place that we can picture in our heads or see in the movies, but can’t imagine what it’s like to actually live or work there. I was having so much fun talking with everyone, in fact, that I completely missed having a piece of the cake they’d brought in for their National Library Week celebration.

It was 4:00 by the time we wrapped everything up, and I had a 5:05 train to catch at Penn Station. Jonathan graciously carried my suitcase (see what additional duties an agent shoulders?) as we headed down 79th Street in search of a cab. We finally managed to snag one on the corner at Fifth Avenue, pointed toward Central Park. I threw my bags in the back seat, then hugged (yes, hugged — I can’t help it, I’m a Westerner) Jonathan and Casey goodbye.

I made it back to Baltimore about two hours later than anticipated, thanks to a medical emergency on the Amtrak train directly in front of mine that had stopped on the tracks and required us to pull up next to it and load all of its passengers onto ours. Topping things off, I was then forced to detour about ten miles out of my way on my drive home when an accident — within spitting distance of my house — closed the road and turned me back around. At that point, I couldn’t get home fast enough.

I won’t leave you hanging. I made it home in one piece. And while New York was an unforgettable experience . . . man, was it nice to be back home. My wife took my things and sat me down at the bistro table in the kitchen and put a warm bowl of pasta fazoli in front of me. “Tell me all about!” she said.

I took a spoonful and smiled. Delicious. “Well,” I said, dabbing my mouth with the corner of a napkin, “I arrived at Penn Station in New York City on Friday afternoon, about an hour later than the 11:57 a.m. my train ticket had promised….”

NYC Trip Report, Part 3 (Collect them all!)

I awoke on Saturday morning at 9:45 a.m. or so. I was due to meet Casey (my editor) and Jonathan (my agent) for brunch at Cafe d’Alsace at 11:45, so I had plenty of time to shower, dress, pack and check out of the hotel before heading out to hail a cab. Given that it was Saturday morning instead of the Friday rush hour, I assumed I would have no trouble finding a cab.

I was wrong.

I came out the revolving door of the Omni, dragging my suitcase behind me, and saw that the entire length of 52nd street was lined with barricades, separating the sidewalk from the street. Pedestrians could move along the sidewalk, and traffic — what little there was of it — could move along the street, but no one could cross. I backtracked toward Fifth Avenue and ran into the same thing: the entire street was effectively blocked off.

I had completely forgotten the Pope was coming. New York City — or at least a good portion of it — was shut down.

I called Casey’s cellphone and left her a grumbly message, telling her the situation and letting her know I would do my best to get to the restaurant on time. Then I headed back down 52nd and crossed over to Park Avenue, planning to start a hike up the island toward 88th. Here I found things were moving just fine — apparently the police barricade didn’t extend this far. The roads and sidewalks were open, and cabbies were freely plying their trade up and down the streets. I hailed one easily, and stepped out of the cab only 10 minutes later on the corner of 88th Street and 2nd Avenue (did you see that? I just gave you an intersection rather than a street address. Drinks all around!)

Jonathan was standing outside waiting for me. While he may have been jetlagged — he had just come back from the London Book Fair the night before — he looked super cool and relaxed, with his sunglasses and a suit that struck just the right balance between business and casual (it was a “casual business” look, rather than the more stilted “business casual”…) We shook hands warmly — I hadn’t seen him in person in more than two years, either — and headed inside to grab a table while we waited for Casey, who came gliding in a few moments later.

We had a terrific conversation over omelettes, salmon benedict, and strawberry Belgian waffles (“But hold the strawberries,” Casey specified) and believe it or not, I actually did more listening than talking. No, really. It was fascinating to hear Casey explain how a project gets pitched in editorial meetings, to learn just how many queries Jonathan works his way through in a week, and to hear their mutually strong opinions on New Yorker magazine (the consensus: every New Yorker reads the magazine, and nearly every one of them yells back at it. Sort of like we in DC do to The McLaughlin Group).

It was only a little after 1:00 when we finished, so we decided to walk the twelve blocks over to the New York Society Library, where I was scheduled to speak at 2:15. The weather was beautiful, the Pope Barriers had been removed, and New Yorkers were bustling up and down the streets to find somewhere to enjoy their first real weekend of Spring sunshine. In no time, we were under the blue and white awning in front of the New York Society Library — a dignified but otherwise unassuming white brick building just east of Central Park. Head Librarian Mark Bartlett greeted us warmly and escorted us up to the newly-renovated Member’s Room where I’d be speaking.

Mark generously offered to store my suitcase and briefcase in his office, so I followed him up an elevator to one of the upper floors where we stowed my bags. But then, instead of taking me back to the elevator, Mark opened one of the low doors to the stacks and asked me to follow him.

Well, sure. I’m a sucker for stacks. When I was a Senate staffer, one of the real perks of my U.S. Senate badge was that (at that time, at least) I could get into the stacks of the Library of Congress — a dark, cool, bibliophile’s paradise. And now Mark was leading me back among the Society Library’s collection of old books. There was that great Old Book smell that I wish they could somehow bottle so I could spray it in my own house. Heck, I’d even wear it as cologne.

“I thought you might want to see this,” Mark said, steering me toward an enormous old leather-bound ledger lying open on a low table. “We just found it this morning.”

At the top of the ledger’s right-hand page, written in perfect cursive script, was the name WASHINGTON IRVING. Just below it, in pencil, was the date 1836. Running in neat rows down the page were the titles of books Irving had checked out, along with the dates he had checked them out and returned them. This was, in effect, Washington Irving’s library card.

I swallowed hard. “Can I touch it?” I asked, and Mark nodded, smiling.

I’ve thumbed through Irving’s own letters, held an 1819 original of The Sketch Book in my hands, and, thanks to friends at Historic Hudson Valley, even walked through his private rooms. Compared with those, the document before me was nothing special — it was merely Irving doing one of those mundane, day-to-day activities we all do: going to the library and checking out a book. Yet, for that very reason, it was one of those remarkable moments where your subject comes suddenly to life.

I took a deep breath, inhaling that wonderful leathery old smell. Then I rested my hand gently on the 170-year-old page.

To be concluded.