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~ Writing a Biography ~ STALKING THE ELEPHANTAbout Writing Biography and Imagining a Life

AN INTRODUCTORY WORD ABOUT ELEPHANT-STALKING

Maurice Prendergast, Summer, New England, 1912. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

        Let me say right away that this isn't a blog about hunting elephants. It's about writing biography, in this case a biography with the working title of Sara and Erskine, an American Romance. I don't believe in hunting elephants except with a camera, for cinematic or scientific purposes so I can watch them disporting on the savannah late at night on Animal Planet. I like to imagine the intelligent conversations I could have with an elephant if I could only get inside its head.

        And then I imagine what it would say about me to its friends if it were sitting on a couch and watching me on Animal Planet at my desk in New York, trying to come up with a good opening line for the next section of my book and wishing it were time to head across the street to Starbuck's for a Grande Bold, double cup, no room for milk.

        On the other hand, telling the story of someone else's life is actually not unlike stalking an elephant, and that's what I want to blog about. Allow me to explain.

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        In 1900, at the age of only 18, a bright, sensitive, idealistic young woman named Sara Bard Field (1882-1974) married the Wrong Man, an orthodox Baptist minister named Albert Ehrgott almost twenty years older than she was. (Yes, I agree: exactly like Dorothea in Middlemarch. Except that this really happened and Sara and Erskine isn't a novel.)

        A decade later, in 1910, Sara, by now a 28-year-old mother of two small children, met Mr. Right, a wealthy, astonishingly attractive attorney, writer, and art collector named Charles Erskine Scott Wood. They were introduced by Clarence Darrow, a mutual friend. Erskine, as he was known, was the town atheist, a philosophical anarchist, and a man with a colossal appetite for life. He was also thirty years older than Sara, and he'd been married for longer than she'd been alive. Nevertheless, they fell passionately in love.

        The public affair that ensued wounded many of those closest to them and caused the hypersensitive Sara to be shunned as "an anarchist and free-lover." Even so, over the next ten years she would reinvent herself as a poet, a nationally famous suffrage orator, and a woman who was willing to risk everything for the sake of her improbable lover. Sara and Erskine, an American Romance, is the story of what that affair did to them and the price they and others paid for their love.

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        I've been reconstructing this relationship and Sara's life at close range. During their frequent periods of separation the lovers wrote each other more than 3,500 letters, the majority of which are storied at the magnificent Huntington Library in California, along with hundreds more to and from friends and family members and thousands of pages of autobiographical poems and other writings, as well as oral histories and many other documents elsewhere. (You don't need to know everything at once. I'd tell you how long I've been working on this book, too, but since asking a writer where she is on her book is like asking an actress her age, that's all you're going to get from me right now, at least until we know each other better.)

        This sea of research material, which I stumbled into almost by accident, is my savannah, and scattered over it is the face-to-face, day-to-day story of Sara Bard Field and her relationship with C.E.S. Wood, as I see it in the evidence I find there.

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        That's my elephant, and this blog is about stalking that huge and wonderful beast—a woman's evolution and an extraordinary relationship, both of which were inseparable from the American era in which Sara and Erskine lived.

        But it's also about how story emerges from a biographer's research, what "story" actually is, the nonfiction creative process, why biographers are driven to write about other people's lives—and why we all need to read about them—and what immersing oneself in somebody else's existence can do to the writer's own. (And if you want to know why anyone would feel the need to blog about that, you try living inside an elephant's head sometime.)

        I will probably dispense a good deal of advice about writing nonfiction, as well as express strong opinions on totally unrelated subjects I know nothing about. And since a writer's blog also serves as a kind of sandbox, you can also expect me to act silly once in a while and say things I know I'll regret later.

        Anyway, stay tuned.
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