Working – Robert A. Caro

The front cover of the book has Caro sitting at his desk with the typewriter in the foreground and a board filled with pinned sheets of paper behind him.

This is one of the books I got for Christmas and it’s been a very quick read for me surprisingly, as I’m not a very fast reader, and this guy normally writes enormous books. Anne’s eldest gave it to me after he went through most of the tomes of Caro’s major work, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. A lovely gift as I’m trying to improve my own writing ability, and in particular, my nonfiction.

Caro is best known for his incredibly exhaustive style of research. When he left his journalism career and embarked on his first book, The Power Broker, he thought he’d be done within the year. Instead it took a full seven years to complete, during which time his very understanding wife sold their home in order to keep funding his endeavour. It paid off because he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the work.

This, very much shorter book, is a collection of essays, mainly written by Caro, that talk about his method of work and it’s quite fascinating.

He had begun his career as a newspaper journalist, working to tight deadlines,  and short word limits. Having seen a name that cropped up time and time again in the news, with regards to the whole infrastructure of New York, he wanted to explore why this man had so much power to shape the city but was not elected. He decided to take a year out to research and write about Robert Moses but then found that the more he tried to answer, the more questions would follow.

It was like a gigantic rabbit hole, but the crucial thing that Caro used to stop him getting completely lost in a labyrinth, for this book and his subsequent books on LBJ, was to spend time at the beginning of the process, sometimes many weeks of time, boiling down the summary of the book to two or three paragraphs. He’d then pin this summary up on his board, always visible to keep an element of focus.

Although the kind of writing that I want to produce is nowhere near as epic as any of Caro’s works, there were some pertinent lessons learnt.

Interviewing: if you talk to people long enough, if you talk to them enough times, you find out things from them that maybe they didn’t even realize they knew.

He uses an example of a car ride that Johnson makes with three aides when he is about to address Congress. In the first interview, none of them could remember what they saw or heard, other than the hum of the car. But by around the fourth time of asking, they started to recall the Civil Rights activists outside singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ as the car left the White House grounds. They remembered how tightly the President held on to his notes with his huge mottled hands, and the almost pained look of concentration on his face. These visual and aural details, painstakingly dug up from people’s memories, helped shape the story, and put the reader in the picture.

Caro writes, once the main bulk of his research is done, systematically. He will have the first draft or five written in long hand on specific pads of paper. He then uses a typewriter, even now, and triple spaces the lines in order to make notes. Sometimes these notes cross out almost every word that has been typed. But he treats it as an office job, and gives himself deadlines for sections and chapters because he knows that he could go on re-writing ad infinitum.

The essays are fairly short and have given me the appetite, at some point in the future when I’m not studying, to read the books that he’s produced. But they’ve also given me some real insight into how much hard work and persistence goes into being a writer, and how much you have to labour, in order to create something worth reading.

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