Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Robert Caro: "I'm Not Sure I Ever Think The Writing Is Going Well ... I'm Naturally Lazy"

I am reading Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, by Robert Caro, which, at about 220 pages, is a mere post-it note when compared to his lengthy biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Baines Johnson. (The first four volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson total more than 3,300 pages.)

Working is a brief, but illuminating, peek behind the curtain at how Caro works, and how he feels about non-fiction, and some remarkable examples of the breadth and depth of his research.

Caro talks a lot about power in Working. It can corrupt, yes, but not always.
Once you get enough power, once you're there, where you wanted to be all along, then you can see what the protagonist wanted to do all along, because now he's doing it. What power always does is reveal.
Caro is 83 years old and working on the fifth volume of his epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. The first four volumes are: The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990), Master of the Senate (2002), and The Passage of Power (2012). In January 2018, Caro said the fifth and final volume could be completed in anywhere from two to ten years. Caro also plans to write a lengthy memoir.

Caro has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography (1975 and 2003), three times won the National Book Critics Circle Award for the Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, and has won virtually every other major literary honor, including two National Book Awards (one for Lifetime Achievement) and the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Art and Letters. He received the National Humanities Medal in 2010.

In 2016, he was interviewed by James Santel of The Paris Review. A portion of the interview closes Working:
I can't start writing a book until I've thought it through and can see it whole in my mind. So before I start writing, I boil the book down to three paragraphs, or two or one—that's when it comes into view. That process might take weeks. And then I turn those paragraphs into an outline of the whole book. That's what you see up here on my wall now—twenty-seven typewritten pages. That's the fifth volume [of his Lyndon Johnson biography, which he has been working on since 1976].

Then, with the whole book in mind, I go chapter by chapter. I sit down at the typewriter and type an outline of that chapter, let's say if it's a long chapter, seven pages—it's really the chapter in brief, without any of the supporting evidence. Then, each chapter gets a notebook, which I fill with all the materials I want to use—quotations and facts pulled from all of the research I've done.

The boiling down entails writing those paragraphs over maybe . . . I can't even tell you how many times, over and over and over. The whole time, I'm saying to myself, No, that's not exactly what you're trying to do in this book.

If you saw me during this process, in the first place you'd see a guy in a very bad mood. It's very frustrating. I can't actually say anything nice about this part of the work. It's a terrible time for me. I sometimes think, You're never going to get it. There's just so much stuff to put in this book. You're never going to have a unified book with a drive from beginning to end, a single narrative, a single driving theme from beginning to end. There's just too much stuff.

I come home and Ina doesn't even want to see me for several hours, because I'm all wound up. I get up during the night to write that couple of paragraphs. I think, Oh, I've got it, I've got it, and then I get up in the morning and I look at it and I say, No, this isn't it. ...

Getting that boiled-down paragraph or two is terribly hard, but I have to tell you that my experience is that if you get it, the whole next seven years is easier. When you have it, it's so comforting, because you're typing away, and you can look over—it's usually stuck on the wall right there, but I don't want you to see it, actually. I put it away. I don't like anyone to see my notes. ...

I'm not sure I ever think the writing is going well. Every day I reread what I wrote the day before, and I've learned from hard experience that it's a real mistake to get too confident about what I've written. I do so much writing and rewriting. And Knopf knows. I rewrite the galleys completely. I even rewrite in page proofs, which they don't actually allow you to do, but they've been very good to me. I'd rewrite in the finished book if I could.

[You start writing in longhand, correct?] Yes. I write on white legal pads. I seldom have only one draft in longhand—I'd say I probably have three or four. Then I go and do the same pages over on the typewriter, and then I throw them out. I go chapter by chapter. I can't go on to another chapter until I feel this chapter is done.

I generally get up around seven or so, and I walk to work through Central Park outlining the first paragraphs that I'm going to write that day. But the thing is, as you get into a chapter, you get wound up. You wake up excited—I don't mean "thrilled" excited but "I want to get in there," so I get up earlier and earlier. ... I work pretty long days. If I'm doing research, I can have lunch with friends, but if I'm writing, I have a sandwich at my desk. ...

[Do you set daily quotas?] I have to, because I have a wonderful relationship with my editor and my publisher. I have no real deadlines. I'm never asked, When are you going to deliver? So it's easy to fool yourself that you're really working hard when you're not. And I'm naturally lazy. So what I do is—people laugh at me—I put on a jacket and a tie to come to work, because when I was young, everybody wore jackets and ties to work, and I want to remind myself that I'm going to a job.

I have to produce. I write down how many words I've done in a day. Not to the word—I count the lines. I do it as we used to do it in the newspaper business, ten words to a line. I do a lot of little things to try to make me remember it's a job. I try to do at least three pages a day. Some days you don't, but without some kind of quota, I think you're fooling yourself.
In another part of Working, Caro writes:
People are always asking me what my daily schedule is. It's not fixed. I write each day as long as I can. As I've said, I write my first drafts in longhand—pen or pencil—on white legal pads, narrow-lined. ... [When I type the drafts] I triple-space the lines the way I did as a newspaperman, so there will be plenty of room to rewrite in pencil. I rewrite a lot. Sometimes I look at a page I typed but have reworked in pencil, and there's hardly a word in type left on it. Or no words in type left at all—every one has been crossed out. And often there's been so much writing and rewriting and erasing that the page has to be tossed out completely.