For me, nothing about writing biography is more difficult than remembering that I'm tracking the long, slow evolution of a human being. (Two human beings, actually: in a sense, Erskine is as important to SARA AND ERSKINE as Sara herself; maybe more, in some ways.) Which means that the elephant is always a moving target. You draw a conclusion that may have been true of your subject's personality at one time in life but not at another. Or maybe it was true all the way to the end. Or true, but with important modifications. The change factor is always there.
I learned this in a conversation with a wonderful, smart, handsome octagenarian named Paul S. Zall, who is no longer with us but whom I miss whenever I visit the Huntington Library to do research on my book. When Paul wasn't teaching or being the guiding spirit of the library's volunteer program, he was laboring happily away on books about Lincoln and the Founding Fathers. He wrote on two antique typewriters (I'm not kidding: one of them must have been from the 1930s) in an L-shaped basement carrell that was about five feet long and four feet wide. The carrell was littered with papers, personal photos, and newspaper clippings of funny, sassy letters Paul had written to editors over the years. A sign above the desk identified the carrell as "Zall's Stall."
One day at lunch, I asked Paul what he enjoyed most about his work. He replied, "The fact that Abe Lincoln wasn't the same man at forty-five that he was at twenty-five. People change. They learn, they grow, they adapt. If you really want to get at the truth about someone at any given time, you always have to take into account that they may not have been what they once were, or what they will become. That's a challenge, but an exciting one."
That's one of the wisest things anyone ever said to me about doing biography. But it's not always easy to remember that fourth dimension, because you get so immersed in conveying the three dimensions of a single moment. Which, heaven knows, is hard enough.
I was reminded of what Paul said today after seeing a column by Maureen Dowd about the Jackie Kennedy-Scheslinger interviews. Oh, right. Jackie was a geisha, wasn't she? Again. Still.
Soon after reading that, I came across this post by Oline Eaton, who is researching a biography of Jackie—Onassis, not Kennedy. Jackie Onassis seems to have been a different kettle of fish entirely, and she wasn't a geisha anymore—if she ever was, which is doubtful. Nobody is just a single story. Check it out.