Spend an afternoon on social media, and you’ll learn ways to effectively communicate with people at different stages of life. Instead of asking the recent graduate, “What are you going to do with your life?” ask “Can I give you some money?” For the recently married, instead of “When are we going to see grandchildren?” ask “Can I pay off your student loans?” Instead of asking the biographer, “When’s your book gonna be done?”… well, we’ll get back to that.
There are so many answers I could give when people ask that question that I get tongue-tied just sorting them out. Today, I’ll deal with one: truth. Whatever the process, purpose, or eventual length of this biography, my readers have the right to assume that I will, at the very least, tell the truth about Emilie Loring. Courtroom dramas echo in my ears, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” I try. But it’s tricky.
Which truths do I tell? There are anchoring dates—birth, marriage, death—and requisite, background information—family members, education, achievements—but those give only a Wikipedia entry, not a biography. When we read Emilie Loring’s biography, we want to get to know her, identify with her, understand how she ticks, why she makes the decisions she does, why she doesn’t make others.
Shall I consider her roles as daughter, sister, wife, mother, women’s club vice-president, artist, author, summer “rusticator,” grandmother, Republican? Or maybe her relationships? Emilie grew up in a multigenerational home with her parents, her sister Rachel, her brother Robert, her Boles grandparents, and her Boles uncles–Ed, Fred, and Albert–who were so close to the Baker children in age that they were more like cousins.
“I admired your grandmother. She was a wonderful woman. Hope you have inherited her grit and her sunshiny philosophy.” Fair Tomorrow
“No one can ever tell me, and get across with it, that a mother’s influence doesn’t live forever.” The Trail of Conflict
“I was reared under the iron rule of a boy cousin. He was a relentless taskmaster.” A Certain Crossroad
Emilie and Victor named their boat the Sally Blanchard after her great-aunt Sally Baker who married ship-building tycoon Paul Blanchard in Portland. What was that relationship like? Close? Who were Emilie’s friends? Why did she choose Martha for her maid of honor but dedicate books to Beth and Louise?
And there are other kinds of truths to consider. Our thoughts, preferences, choices, and fears all shape who we are.
Why was it, when one couldn’t sleep, one thought of all the pesky little misfortunes which might occur, instead of radiant possibilities? With the day’s activities returned a Monte Cristo, the world-is-mine, assurance. Lighted Windows
“Duty? I’d say about seven tenths of the time it is what the other fellow thinks you should do, the other three tenths is what that character scout who perches on the hillock of Conscience tells you you must do.” High of Heart
After all, any poor dumb-bell could get married; it was staying married which proved one’s metal. The Trail of Conflict
Plus, people change. They make different impressions on those who know them, and everyone’s memories are altered with time. I’m glad of that. I would hate to have my life pinned down like an insect under glass. Leaving room for variation keeps the thing alive.
“The whole truth.” I’m accused of liking research more than writing, and I admit to partial guilt. I do love research, and it’s a good thing I do, because I’ve been digging in untilled territory. I get a little irked when I see yet another prize go to a biography of Franklin or Jefferson or Adams. I don’t even have to say their first names, there is so much information on them. How nice would it be to start out with the particulars already laid out and only my specific, nuanced perspective to research? And the famous biographers who have staffs to do their research for them? Well, now, wouldn’t that be a convenience?
When you start from scratch, the simplest details take months or years to find, even if they are in plain sight. Emilie was christened “Maria Emily,” so I made exhaustive searches for variants of her names. In her archives at Boston University, I found a letter written to “Betty” by a cousin, Angie Brackett. Emilie’s grandmother and sister were both named “Rachel Elizabeth,” but this Betty couldn’t be one of them, because the letter was written after both had died. Whose letter was this, and why was it in the files? I set it aside. Then, I visited the Fruitlands Museum at Harvard, Massachusetts and read letters from Emilie to her friend and fellow author Clara Endicott Sears. She signed them, “Betty.” Oh heavens. Maria Emily/Emilie was also “Betty.” Next, I found an article about “Bessie Baker” and her brother Robert, the children of George M. Baker, who gave a benefit carnival. Add “Betty” and “Bessie” to the list.
I repeated my search, this time looking for Bessie, Betty—and Bess for good measure. I found: “The wedding of Miss Bessie Baker, of the Huntington, and Mr. Victor J. Loring, of Brookline, is announced to take place Dec. 9.” I looked with new eyes at the little-girl character in Gay Courage, Betty Caswell, and picked up a possible clue as to how Emilie got her nickname.
Gran calls me Betty Blueskin ’cause I al-us wear blue clothes, I guess. Gay Courage
Victories like these both encourage and challenge. On the one hand, I have more of the “whole truth.” On the other hand, every time I begin a new section of the book, I find an unraveling thread that begs to be followed.
Despite my commitment, I’ve learned that publishers and readers don’t want the whole truth. They want a story, a compelling page-turner. Books on biography advise me to find the “central conflict” of a person’s life and build a story around that. Man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. We learned the essentials in English lit. I don’t know about you, but telling my life as the tale of a single conflict would be a serious distortion, and I am sure it would be for Emilie, too. In a family of writers, how does the one non-writer break through and become the most successful of them all? Or, with the losses she endured–her father’s wrenchingly early death, her sister’s slow muscle wasting, and her brother’s fall from the twelfth story of a New York hotel—how did she keep her optimistic attitude and convictions? I could tell either of these stories, and I could support it from beginning to end, but how well would we know Emilie? She lived her whole life, with all of its stages and issues. Her first biography can at least try to be inclusive.
That said, college teaching required me to prepare three layers deep but present only the the top layer. I am practiced at jettisoning unnecessary details when they don’t advance the present purpose. Emilie’s uncle, Walter Henderson Baker, was named for a Boston barber, the Baker’s neighbor Walter Henderson. Is that important to mention in the book? Probably not. Walter Baker’s granddaughter Cecile became a dancer, and Fair Tomorrow features a character named “Cecile” who is a dancer—and a cheat. Is that important? Maybe so. I wrote an entire chapter on Emilie’s grandfather Albert Baker that I set aside and another on the early Bakers of Portland. These are wrenching omissions for me, because I worked so hard to create them, but my husband provided a solution. I keep them in a folder called “Fascinating things that don’t make it into the book.” When I get a chance, out they will come.
“And nothing but the truth.” I made a commitment, early in this project, that everything I wrote would have verified back-up. No making up details, no hedging with “probably.” I looked up the background of every guest that the Boston paper listed for Emilie’s wedding, so I could say how each was related to Emilie or Victor. I researched the layout of Second Church’s interior, the color of its pews, the sound of the minister’s voice. I learned the organist’s connection to Emilie’s father and listened to the music he played as guests were seated–the overture from the popular musical “Martha,” the same name as Emilie’s maid of honor, Martha Pollard. The wedding was at six-thirty in the evening on December ninth. Was it dark? Cold? Snowing? I looked up sunset for that day, checked the weather. A half moon was aloft, a light snow falling. Now, I could have Emilie come up the aisle, her pearl-beaded gown accurately described, passing a congregation of well-wishers whose identities and significance are known.
There is more to this process of biography than initially meets the eye. Work is made light, however, by the interest of others, especially when they lead with, “Tell me something interesting that you’ve found,” or better yet, “Can I do your housework for you?”