Sunday, May 05, 2019

Writing inspiration: Robert Caro, time, and age

I know I've written about Robert Caro before, but I'm about to dive into On Working. Here's a roundup of recent articles by and about him:

First, a tidbit: Caro writes in longhand and then on a typewriter:
It's because of something that was said to me at Princeton by a professor, a very courtly gentleman, Southern gentleman, who was my creative writing teacher. Every two weeks we'd hand in a short story. I was in his course for two years. For two years he gave me high marks, but I always did these short stories at the last minute. ... I would always start at the last minute and just type, because I could write very fast.

At our last session, he hands back my short story ... and he compliments me, and as I'm getting up to go he says, "But you know, Mr. Caro, you will never achieve what you want to achieve unless you stop thinking with your fingers." ...

But when I quit to do a book, and I began to realize how complex the story of Robert Moses was; I said I must make myself think things all the way through, and the slowest way of committing your thoughts to paper is by writing in hand. So I write three or four or more — sometimes I write a lot of drafts in hand. Then I go to my typewriter and that's how I write.
 Now the age part:

As with George R. R. Martin, at some point in every interview, the interviewer comes up with something like "Mr. Caro, you're 83 and still projecting your next book on Johnson. Don't you think you ought to get a move on?" The one from the NYT is this:

What does it mean to know that there is a group of people out there having the somewhat morbid concern that you might not finish your book before you die? It’s hard to avoid that. Every time someone does an article on me it’s there.

Caro's response is basically this: "You've got me there, but really, that's your problem."  In other word, the process of writing takes what it takes. He's got 99 worries but mortality isn't one.

It's not so much that he's advocating slow writing for its own sake; instead, he wants to get it done the way he wants to get it done.

As I get back to writing after a month of various elder care crises and chaos, I find this comforting.


Servetus said...

I just read this and found it a very worthwhile read (apart from the fact that his writing career was hugely facilitated by his wife, who's apparently a factotum and doesn't mind ruining her credit rating and moving all over the place in pursuit of his projects). That sounds snarky -- but it was really interesting and helpful as long as I ignore the circumstances of production).

undine said...

It's true that his wife (Ina) was a major part of the books, but in reading the interviews & now the book, it's striking that he gives so much credit to her throughout. This is way more than the "I thank my wife & typist"; he talks a lot about her help in a way that's unusual for these authors, especially of Caro's generation. He's way different from Wendell Berry, for example ("I do the Deep Thoughts and write; my wife types"). I'm inclined to give Caro more of a pass on this, although it's clear that Ina gave up a lot to finance the books.

Servetus said...

It's not up to me to give him a pass or not -- or rather, he obviously got a pass on it as did every married man of his generation, whether they spoke well of their wives or not. It's just that the ongoing re-discovery of it is an increasing turnoff for me. Where's the chapter where she writes about what it was like to sit in the LBJ library day after day doing her husband's research so he could "turn every page"? It was also her choice to participate. It's just another of those moments where I think, oh, yeah, here's the patriarchy at work again, with its all side effects.

As I said, it's worthwhile reading and interesting and at moments, yes, inspiring. Just dinged for me.

undine said...

Absolutely right, servetus! Largely invisible & definitely uncompensated labor, and he did get a pass on it.