Monday, February 13, 2012

Biography - Abraham Lincoln & a Passion for Writing

Whenever someone asks me what my favorite book genre is,  I quickly answer biography. Since I was a young  girl  in grade school I’ve enjoyed reading about kings and queens, the popes, saints and presidents.  As  I grew  older, my interests grew,  as did my  reading list — to include  biographies about poets and playwrights  like Emily Dickinson and Oscar Wilde, sports stars and movie moguls, newspaper publishers and famous cowgirls.

Yesterday, February 12  the United States commemorated  Abraham Lincoln’s   birthday. I was fascinated to learn more books have been written about the 16th President than any other person in  American  history.  ( Pictured  here  -  A three-story sculpture "Tower of Books" representing over 15,000 titles that have been written about Abraham Lincoln, are part of an exhibit at the Ford's Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D. C )

Contemporary biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin , whose book Team of Rivals The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln  numbers one of the 15,000,   says she has always   been fascinated by President Lincoln, and alludes to   turn of the century biographer, IdaTarbell who said “One reason so many books have  been written about Lincoln is , “because he’s so companionable”.    Kearns  agrees and says , “ I wanted to live with him (Lincoln), but wasn’t sure I could come up with a new angle”.   Initially Goodwin  thought she would write about Lincoln and his relationship with his wife, Mary Todd, but  as she investigated  Lincoln’s life,  she  discovered the time he shared with his cabinet members  - Steward,  Chase, Stanton and Bates—to be more interesting , especially  in midst  of civil war.    Kearns  also tells of the many years of research she put into her work, and the research she had to do.  In my humble opinion, work and research that paid off, giving the reader a new, inspired and thoughtful look at President Lincoln.

 What Goodwin is telling us is this,   to write biography, research is most important.  That, and a passion for whom we’re writing about.   Someone we want to live with.  As biographer , that’s what we'll be doing—living with that person. Perhaps for many years.   To get the facts right is also important, to find what motivates the person, and makes them special.  What effect did they have on the world ? The immediate people in their lives ?

Other tips about writing biography come from Tameri Guide for Writers:

1. Begin with a defining event, regardless of its chronology
2. Maintain consistent voice and style
3. Use dialogue or excerpts from historical records when possible
4. Describe all scenes as they relate to your protagonist –especially if you are the protagonist
5. Omit events and even people when they add nothing to the theme
6. End the biography with another defining moment, a personal revelation, or a recounting of the opening moment.

Goodwin ends her biography of Lincoln in just such a way - with a personal revelation.
With his death, Abraham Lincoln had come to seem the embodiment of his own words - " With 
malice toward none; with charity for all" - voiced in his second inaugural to lay out the visionary 
pathway to a reconstructed union. The deathless name he sought from the start had grown far
beyond Sangamon County and Illinois, reached across the truly United States, until his legacy, as 
Stanton had surmised at the moment of his death, belonged not only to America but to the ages
-to be revered and sung throughout all time.

And  the same  for us—whether we choose to write about some famed historical figure or our mother, brother,  grand-mother, teacher,  dear friend or long ago ancestor. We must   determine our motivation and have a passion for what/whom  we write,  then focus on the theme of the work with a detailed , factual account of events - helping to make what we  write, who we write about interesting to others. 

*** Click link for list of books about Lincoln


Anonymous said...

Oh so interesting. Abraham Lincoln was a great man,wish there could be more like him. Thank You for this information. Your writings are so very motivating.


Jennifer Rova said...

Excellent post! Doris Kearns Goodwin is a favorite author. The tips on writing biographies were helpful. I've been thinking about writing one but have to narrow down my many choices.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I'm a big Lincoln fan. Of course, I'm from Illinois . . . it's in our DNA. Ha! Thanks for this thoughtful post, Kathy.

elizabethbrinton said...

When I first began my journey as a resident in the States, I read the Federalist Papers and the works of Lincoln as well. Then as a student in California, I took a course in American history. Throughout those pursuits, I was very impressed with the discourse. However, Lincoln towered over all the rest, in my humble opinion, as a beautiful writer.
I am sure Doris Kearns Goodwin has done a first rate job. I will look forward to reading her book.

Patty said...

Very interesting Kathy! I, too, read and liked Goodwin's book. Another insightful read is Jim Bishop's The Day Lincoln Was Shot.