I don’t read a lot of long biographies — I usually hate anyone after about 250 pages — so it is remarkable that yesterday I finished my month-long project of reading Robert D. Richardson’s trilogy: Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism.
Richardson originally set out to write about William James, but he didn’t feel like he had the intellectual firepower, so he decided to do Thoreau first. It took him ten years, as did all 3 books: his method was to “read everything his subjects had read, in the sequence in which they read it, tracing their intellectual development.”
I had a wonderful teacher at Harvard, W.J. Bate, who wrote very great biographies of Keats and then of Johnson, and his advice to me when he discovered that I was daring to write a biography was to write in short takes; if at all possible, to write in short pieces so that the reader feels that he or she is getting somewhere. I mean, that’s a big, heavy book. And people have busy lives and they have lots else to do, and if you can sit down and read four or five pages and feel like you’re getting somewhere instead of these big 30 or 40-page or 50-page chapters, it makes a book readable that might not otherwise seem so.
He passed that advice — be kind to your readers and respect their time — on to his students and other biographers: Write 100 pieces of one to two thousand words on the parts of the life you care about the most, and don’t worry about what order they’re in until you have the pieces.
Now, imagine writing a book so good that Annie Dillard sends you a fan letter, and after “two lunches and three handshakes,” you get married and spend over 3 decades together. (Richardson died last year of complications after a fall. A posthumous book comes out next year.)
Emerson is dedicated to her, and, I could be making this up, but there are several sentences sprinkled here and there that I swear are him showing off for her. (Or, you know, just being really good.)
Here’s his answer to how being married to Annie Dillard changed his writing:
What changed? Everything. I could write a book, but I won’t. I learned from her that you have to go all out every day, every piece. Hold nothing back, the well will refill. She gave me the key to Emerson in one word: Wild. Emerson is wild. I also learned you don’t have to write every day, but you have to go in the room with the piece every day. She told me she looked at submissions from her students for any two words together that she’d never seen together. And finally, I learned I needed to read more. I read maybe 50 books a year that are not part of what I’m writing. She reads many times that. Most days, I’m not even good enough to get into one of her classes.
Adorably, he wrote a short biography of her, too: “She is, like Thoreau, a close observer; she is, like Emerson, a rocket-maker.”
If you haven’t read any of his books, before tackling one of these bad boys, I might start with his slim but dense volume of Emerson on the creative process, one of the better books about writing I’ve read, whose title also sums up his method: First We Read, Then We Write.