Here is a bit of inspiration for those who can take it. Admittedly, I’m not the typical hero of an inspirational story, I haven’t had that great heartwarming moment of underdog triumph we are used to seeing in movies, hearing about in author interviews on Fresh Air. I have achieved little in the outside world, though my inner world, where I live most of the time, is a place I can recommend highly. I offer this encouragement to follow your impulse to delve, imagine and create, and to go boldly where it leads.
The world will grind you down, constantly, it is a machine that seems designed to do that to most of us. It doesn’t give a rat’s cuisse about you, your thoughts, desires, what you love, what you need, what you think you deserve. It is run, down to the smallest subdivision, by the most desperately misguided, almost by definition. The most driven, entitled, selfish, forceful, corrupt and violent will often decide matters for everybody else. Look around the world, it is largely run by vicious motherfuckers who did not get to rule everybody else by chance.
At the same time, the natural world is an infinitely beautiful place – a miracle. Plants, animals, the sky, the oceans, rivers, mountains, the ground you walk on, what is under the ground you walk on, its colors, tastes, sounds and smells. Human imagination is a miracle. Unimaginable things are routinely accomplished by our puny fellow earthlings. Our ability to communicate using combinations of symbols, as you and I are doing right now– no less miraculous for being also somehow explainable. Empathy and kindness from strangers, another characteristic of the species, another kind of miracle. Is there a miracle greater than the intimacy we share with those we love?
Leave aside the destructive myths of the cultures we live in, the false values that cause untold suffering to the vast majority of us, the vain, heedless leaders hellbent on destroying the marvelous planet we all live on. Human creativity, that eternally surprising source of inspiration and hope, and the unshakeable will to do something new and amazing, are among the best parts of being human.
I’m typing quickly, I’m excited, following this thought. I’m in a hurry now, hastening to urge you, and myself, to take inspiration at every opportunity, from wherever you find it.
I’ve been listening to the remarkable Robert Caro reading his book Working. In it he collects a few thoughts about how he goes about his work, gives a few choice illustrations, assembles some notes for an intended longer memoir he hopes to write one day. He is now in his eighties, and working on the last volume of a vast biography of LBJ. Before he embarked on that work of several decades he wrote his first, now famous, ground-breaking study of power, his tome on Robert Moses, The Power Broker.
Caro has a great, down-to-earth New York accent and he speaks and reads his writing beautifully. He is a kind of genius. When he was broke, and feeling desperate, five years into his work on his first book, the study of all-powerful New York City colossus Robert Moses, he found himself, several times, almost at the end of his faith in himself as an author.
Each time he felt about to give up and go back to working for New York Newsday, at the time a crusading liberal newspaper on Long Island, he managed to catch a break. At one point it was a literary agent who got a sum of money for him and his family to live on as he continued to work on the book. Beyond that, she told him the New York literary world was already abuzz, very excited about his upcoming book and she found him the perfect editor. Later, when his faith was beginning to falter again, the stroke of good fortune was a key to a research and writing room at the New York Public Library.
This is the inspirational bit I am getting at. He was in a kind of despair that he might never be able to finish the massive book he was working on. Originally, naively, he’d envisioned taking a year to research and write it. Then it was two years, soon it stretched to five years and a million words. He was trying to get at how power works in the world, using the person of the most powerful man in New York City, an unelected public builder who ruled for half a century and inexorably shaped the city forever. He was writing a biography of Moses as a way of laying out the workings of political power.
Understanding how power works entailed learning and telling the stories of the many anonymous people screwed by the exercise of power, to get at power’s effects in the real world, on the daily lives of millions affected by it. These anonymous people were hard to find, it took a lot of work to locate them. The more research he did, the more interviews he conducted, the more he wrote, the more questions emerged and the further he seemed to be from the end of the gigantic project he’d devised for himself.
His wife had sold the family home she’d inherited, that money was gone, after some desperate days the additional advance from the literary agent was allowing them to rent an apartment as he continued to work in a tiny rented space, but his isolation as he worked was taking its toll. At the newspaper he’d been surrounded by colleagues, worked closely with an editor, got support from seasoned investigative journalists, had constant feedback and tight deadlines. Working in the tiny Bronx office he rented he was alone with his massive assignment.
He began to realize how much he missed the company of other writers, people who understood and could relate to the lonely work he was driven to undertake. He started thinking he might never finish the book, five years seemed an eternity and he was nowhere near done.
Off of the large research room at the main branch of the New York Public Library, there was a smaller room for several authors with book contracts who were doing research at the library. Caro was given a key and a desk where he could write and keep the books and other files he was working with. There were several other writers working at other desks in the room. Everyone worked in silence and for a few days he didn’t talk to anybody.
One day in the grubby library cafeteria (“grubby” I believe is the word Caro used) a writer he admired asked him about his project and how long he’d been at it. It turned out five years was not unreasonable, this writer had taken longer to research and write a book Caro had prized. Another impressive writer told him a similar story. Suddenly he was not an outlier indulging a fantasy that could never be realized, he was a working writer trying to see an ambitious project to completion.
He reports how the simple revelation of these facts by two writers he greatly respected made him feel like kissing each of these men. You can feel his relief in the way he tells the story. I take inspiration from his relief.
I don’t have Caro’s elite education, I went to public schools all the way through graduate school. I don’t have his background as an award-winning investigative journalist who spent years honing his craft under the watchful eyes of skilled editors and seasoned reporters he admired. I don’t have Caro’s prodigious work ethic, if I’m being totally honest. I work in my own imagination, in almost complete silence. Once in a while I write something that moves someone I know and they send me a quick email or text to tell me so. That is as close as I come to the world seeing me as a writer.
I write every day, as I have for many years. I’ve become good at setting things out clearly and I have a short shelf of books in mind to write. The tools are sharp, and waiting for me every time I sit down to write. I write with a great appetite to set things out as plainly as I can and I rarely hesitate to write what’s on my mind to tell.
I had a remarkable conversation with my father the last night of his life. In that confession, which I heard with the mildness of a good priest, a whole life was encapsulated, sorrows expressed with terrible regret. My father candidly said things that night that he’d fought tirelessly to deny for all the years I knew him. A nurse friend later told me this happens sometimes to people close to death, Death hovering nearby can have this truth-encouraging effect.
Searching for a way to make some money, I learned from a writer friend about a website that pays $250 for short pieces about the experiences of Baby Boomers. I’d told this guy many stories over the years, including the story of my father’s deathbed conversion. He told me to write some up and send them to the editor, that these family stories were just the kind of thing this website buys.
I sent the highly condensed story of a combative childhood, the constant war around the dinner table, the screaming every night, the verbal abuse. The call from Florida, decades later, father admitted to the hospital, time running out, rushing to Ft. Lauderdale airport. That final deathbed conversation, where my father, with almost no time left on the clock, told me he should have been mature enough to have had real conversations with his children, that the eternal, absurd black and white combat had been his fault. “You’re supposed to have some fucking insight…” he said in that raspy dying man’s voice. I told him it was OK. He died the next evening as the orange and pink Florida sunset outside the hospital windows turned the palm trees into silhouettes.
After a few back and forths during which I cut the piece from 1,500 to 1,000 words, it was published on the website and I had my first $250 check. I had a bracing moment reading it on-line. The editor had changed a few lines, swapping in a cliché here and there for a well-chosen, precise description, and in one egregious case, rewriting an entire sentence to make my narrator an insight-challenged idiot who could not understand how his mother could have loved his father, something I understood very well.
He left the next piece I sent him virtually intact, and sent me another $250, and he also loved the third, which he promised to publish soon. When I got no check for the third I inquired and he told me he thought he’d sent me an email about changing his mind. The piece was great, he wrote again, but maybe a bit too edgy for his audience. I sent one or two more but got tired of having this ham-fisted editor as the arbiter of whether my work was worth the fee. I should have begun flinging these pieces, and others, over the transoms of every magazine out there, but I didn’t.
Instead, I set out to write the book of my father’s life and times. Every day I’d make a cup of coffee and sit down to recall what I could of my complicated, difficult father. It was work I greatly looked forward to every day. A man of charm, great intelligence, dark humor, idealism, sensitivity, my father was, at the same time, a broken soul who generally acted like a merciless, prosecutorial dick to my sister and me.
I proceeded on the theory, initially, that I had to show the traits that endeared him to so many, his wit, his empathy, his championing of the underdog, his intelligent counsel, and then dramatically contrast them to the dreaded monster he turned into in private during the ruthless nightly battles over dinner. A monster! Jekyll and Hyde, something dramatic that the kids would want to buy.
After the intervention of my father, in the form of his talkative skeleton, and more than a thousand pages written over the next two years, and a year thinking more about the book I was trying to write, I came to realize that my initial theory had been crap. Irv was an ordinary, even typical, man of his generation, of many generations. His story was not about a monster but about the crushed dreams of a little boy who’d grown into a man, doing his best, but always fearing the worst. A man, like all men, who wrestled with terrifying demons, not always elegantly, not always without damaging those closest to him.
“My life was basically over before I was two,” he said with infinite sadness, yet without self-pity, that last night of his life. By then I knew exactly what he was referring to, and he knew that I knew.
The story of a life is an elusive thing, it changes radically depending on your point of view, your proximity to it, how that life affects your life. Your life, my life, how do you summarize it?
Robert Moses was very unhappy with the detailed portrait Robert Caro painted of his life in The Power Broker. He wrote a seething 3,500 word refutation of Caro’s book, based on the excerpts of it he’d read in The New Yorker. He wrote like a haughty, angry child who’d gone to the finest schools. Larded with obscure literary quotations and references to the classics, defensive and pretending not to be, from beginning to end it was the wounded cry of a man who felt he’d done great things, for millions, without a bit of gratitude. A master chef who had made the world’s most beautiful omelets, admittedly having broken a few eggs in the process, a thing impossible to avoid, and whose artistry was so unappreciated.
The half million people Robert Moses had summarily evicted from their longtime homes, destroying their neighborhoods (like my mother’s) to build his dream projects that allowed cars to drive quickly through what he regarded as former slums? “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” was how he summarily refuted that assertion by the scurrilous Mr. Caro. You can read his 3.500 words here.
In trying to fairly assess my father’s life, the valuable ideals he instilled and the terrible harm he inflicted on my sister and me, I found it necessary to talk things out with my dead father. There was no trove of documents to read through, no witnesses to interview, no writings left behind to ponder. There were only my memories, my intimate knowledge of the man, and the hints of a final conversation between us that should have started decades earlier.
That last chat was a good starting point for a relationship, then he was dead. I was glad to hear that I was no longer being blamed for the whole long series, senseless skirmishes, relieved to finally be let off the hook as the instigator of all the ugliness between my father and me, but then… poof! the suddenly reasonable man was gone. All that was left was the image of his skeleton, sitting up in his grave outside of Peekskill, piping up from time to time, giving me someone to discuss these perplexing mysteries with.
I started writing the manuscript daily in 2016. I worked on it every day through the end of 2017. Then, overwhelmed by a rambling 1,200 page draft that had not yet captured a real likeness of my complicated old man, had only touched on the damage he’d done, the deeper lessons of his life and the inspiration he left behind, I found myself sucked into the swirling toilet bowl of the ever-distracting, attention craving Donald J. Trump and his destructively transactional worldview.
Trump, for his part, was fond of saying that his father, the ruthless Fred Christ Trump, was his teacher, his mentor and his best friend. In more honest moments, the second youngest of the five Fred and Mary Trump children acknowledged that Fred was a hard man, ambitious, demanding and impossible to please. Young Trump, paid $200,000 a year from birth for undisclosed work he did for his father as a baby– his life was basically over by the time he was two.
Inspired by the example of historian Robert Caro, I feel like I’m ready to get back to work on the book of my father. Take your inspiration wherever you find it. Here is Robert Caro on the time-consuming search to get as close as we humans can come to historical truth:
The part of me that, now that I was writing books, kept leading me, after I’d got every question answered, to think, in spite of myself, of new questions that in the instant of thinking them I felt must be answered for my book to be complete. The part of me that kept leading me to think of new avenues of research that, even as I thought of them, I felt it was crucial to head down, it wasn’t something about which, I had learned the hard way, I had a choice – in reality I had no choice at all.
In my defense, while I am aware that there is no truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple either, no verity eternal or otherwise, no truth about anything, there are facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable, and the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts, through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing, can’t be rushed, it takes time. You could say that truth takes time.
But that’s a logical way of justifying that quality in me and I know it wasn’t only logic that made me think I’m never going to write about a crucial election, a pivotal moment in my subject’s life, and say that no-one’s ever going to know if it was really stolen or not until I’ve done everything I can think of to find out if it was stolen or not.
I could not track down the character who had falsely counted the votes for LBJ in that long ago local election, and perjured himself in a court proceeding decades earlier, and interviewed the now regretful old man, as Caro managed to do. All I can do is imagine and re-imagine my dead father’s life, in light of the discussions his skeleton and I have had, taking into account every fingerprint he left on my own life and on my sister’s.
Come to think of it, I haven’t heard a peep from the voluble skeleton in many moons. Probably time to wake him up, we have a lot more work to do if I’m going to get to the bottom of this challenging puzzle I’ve been assembling in this dark room.
Take inspiration from my determination, if you can, as I will also try to.