There’s a certain excitement at the beginning of a new venture. There is much to learn, choices to make, a plan to create, and new rewards to enjoy. When I taught, I loved bringing new content into the classroom–figuring out what would connect with students, which examples to use, the experiences to make it real in their minds and cement it into memory. I also have great fun planning travel. I find guides, make lists, imagine days and what I want to put into them, figure out logistics, and put together all of the materials I’ll need to make everything run smoothly and create just the sort of experience I want to have. I get a tremendous satisfaction out of the learning, the doing, and the accomplishment.
I am like Emilie Loring in this way. She made an “intelligent study,” as she called it, of whatever venture she was about to undertake. She subscribed to writers’ magazines when she started writing fiction, and she read the newspapers for the places that served as her books’ settings. She decided her course, got going, and completed it.
When I started, I just wanted to learn about Emilie Loring for myself. Then I decided to write a full biography, and I felt confident that my education and experience had prepared me for the task. But when it became clear that I would try to publish the work, that’s when I had work to do. It is one thing to do something for oneself alone, but when you step into someone else’s bailiwick, you’d best figure out the lay of the land and what’s required.
I read books on biography, looked at biographies I’d enjoyed in the past, and got myself onto a panel about biography at the American Literature Association. I shared the program with Leo LeMay, a Benjamin Franklin scholar from Delaware, and he advised me to write all of my book before seeking a publisher. They’ll still make you change it, he said, but at least you’ll get more of you into it that way. I also spent a wonderful day at my alma mater, USC, with Armond Fields, the author of numerous biographies about theater people from the late 1800s. He gave me a career’s worth of good advice that I have kept on my bulletin board ever since. I’ll write a separate post about that soon. I’m always inspired when I consult those notes.
Biography can be a lonely business. You actually hope to work alone on your subject, because that means your work is unique, and it might find an audience. But it’s nice to have people who understand your hopes and pains, who’ve trod the path you’re treading, and for that, a group of compassionate biographers created the Biographers International Organization, whose conference I attended last June in Washington, D.C.
There were presentations on all of the business aspects of biography that were new to me: writing a query letter to an agent, developing “platform” (marketable clout), positioning your work in the market, contracts and legal concerns. There were also perspective and approach presentations that were familiar to me from English and history majors in college.
I signed up for their mentoring program and received generous advice from Will Swift, the biographer and presidential historian ( most recently, Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage). By the time we finished, I had a précis proposal all ready to go to a prospective agent. I also met Wayne Soini, a Boston attorney whose creativity led him to write his first biography about Gloucester’s Sea Serpent. Since the conference, we have read and critiqued each other’s work, encouraging each other by turns. His most recent book, THE DUEL, has just been released and can be downloaded for free.
Writing biography can be a lonely business, but it’s been less so because of Emilie’s abiding presence, the participation of her grandchildren, the encouragement of friends made in Blue Hill, Boston, and archives all over New England, and my new colleagues: biographers. This week, I was interviewed for a short piece in BIO’s monthly newsletter, which you can visit, if you’d like to see the sorts of things that biographers think about. Here is my contribution to this month’s newsletter:
Member InterviewSix Questions with Patti Bender
What is your current project and what stage is it at?
I am writing the first biography of Boston author Emilie Baker Loring, the “Queen of Romance,” who started at age fifty-five and wrote thirty best-selling novels. She also reviewed books and plays, earned Craftsman status as a metal worker, raised two sons, renovated an historic cottage in Maine, and participated in the women’s club movement.
Emilie escaped the Superwoman trap sixty years before it was defined, set an example of liberal feminism, and challenged agist bias. Her blend of romance, purpose, and intelligent optimism won the hearts of three generations of readers and sold more than thirty-five million books. I have written 82,000 words of an estimated 120,000 for the finished manuscript, and I am seeking representation.
[I’ve written more, but this is what is camera ready, in case an agent asks to see it.]
What person would you most like to write about?
I quit a thirty-year career to write this biography, so Emilie Loring’s story is “The One.” I read my first Emilie Loring novel when I was ten. Emilie’s sunshiny personality was mine, too, and through more than fifty readings, her books became so familiar that my sister could read a line, and I would tell her the next from memory. Now that I have researched her life for two decades, I find the real Emilie Baker Loring story more captivating than her best-selling plots. Emilie Loring would be 150 years old this year. It’s time she had a biography.
Who is your favorite biographer or what is your favorite biography?
Aaron Burr by Nathan Schachner was the first biography to make me think about an historical person’s character, and for skill and scholarship, they don’t come any better than David McCullough’s John Adams. But the books I’d pack in a summer suitcase and read more than once are Irving Stone’s biographical novels—The President’s Lady, Love is Eternal, and especially, Those Who Love.
What have been your most satisfying moments as a biographer?
I have enjoyed a twenty-year relationship with Emilie Loring’s grandchildren who had no idea who I was when I first called and confided, “I love your grandmother.” They have given their unrestricted support to this project, including full access to family records, memorabilia, and photographs.
My most satisfying times come when I can tell them something new about Emilie’s life or add information to something they remember only vaguely. Then a spate of memories, questions and shared laughter begins, and we feel more like cousins than a researcher and her sources. I am eager to share Emilie Loring’s story with the public, but I have already brought her back more vividly into her family’s consciousness, and that is heartwarming.
Your most frustrating moment?
Most frustrating to me are the gatekeeping hoops between me and publication. I need a connection to cross the “unsolicited” barrier to an agent, a social media presence to persuade a reading of my proposal, and a promotion plan to convince an agent to begin knocking on doors that will have their own sets of barriers to cross. I get it. There are too many submissions, and the bills need to be paid.
But it’s frustrating to get to this stage using long-honed expertise and realize that my success or failure now depends on new skills in unfamiliar territory. That said, I admit to a thrill of accomplishment as each barrier falls, and I persevere.
One research/marketing/attitudinal tip to share?
If you are still seeking that special place to write, consider “place and space.” Find yourself a protected spot with a view—an alcove next to a courtyard, a desk overlooking the ocean. If you can, provide motion, too—a gurgling fountain, crackling fire, a breeze rustling leaves above you. If you cannot, then get up and move yourself whenever you have something to work out in your story. There is substantial evidence to support these recommendations, but the experience alone will convince you.
Onward and upward!