Saturday, May 21, 2011

Biographers International Conference 2011-updated

Even if you don't write history or biography, you'll want to check out Biographers International Organization (BIO--get it!)  Conferences like these are a great place to break free of the usual; get a fresh perspective; see how the other team suits up.

And if you do write history or biography, join now. Go the next conference. I don't plan to miss any.

I attended the 2011 conference  here in DC at the National Press Club.  It was fun to check I was headed in the right direction by following the signs to the White House.  Yes, I was a total tourist.

The second sign I was NOT in NYC was that the coffee and pumpkin muffin cost less than $5 and the cashier smiled AND wished me a happy Saturday.  It was bewildering and disorienting of course, but I regained my wits enough to find the right place.

The first panel was "Dealing With Black Holes in Your Subject's Life."  I figured it would be useful in case any of my clients ran in to the problem.  I guess it's a big problem for biographers: the room was packed.

The first speaker was Marc Leepson who wrote a book I really want to read called SAVING MONTICELLO (more on my book buying later).  He was hilarious and charming and although he didn't have any great tips on black holes, he was the first of many people who talked about the rich sources of primary material available in letters. It made me wonder what historians of the future will mine for information.  Twtter? Godhelpthem.  Maybe blogs?  (hello future readers, sorry about the slang, inside jokes and foul language!)

The second panelist Matthew Algeo also talked about using letters for primary sources.  And the difficulty of deciphering some of those letters (say what you will about computers, they've largely ended the problem of crap handwriting)  What Mr. Algeo did was post a copy of the letter on his blog, and crowdsourced it. In other words, asked for his readers' help in "translating!" That drew an instant "ohhhhh" from the audience.  Clearly there will be more examples of this in the future!

And with the third panelist Tom Powers, we hit the jackpot.  He recounted how he learned about "deep chronology" from a CIA agent.  Deep chronology is a detailed gathering of information; built without prejudice, without making judgements. He said it's easy to be misled if you ignore something you know isn't true.  In other words, every event is in the chronology, even if you think it's wrong.  Mr. Powers said that as you build a chronology you begin to see relationships emerge; subjects can't hide anything in a chronology like this; it's the very life of a project.

At the end he said "you have a very valuable document you don't know what to do with!" and the room laughed with him.  But, he said, if you have everything in the chronology you'll soon find what is defined by the negative space.

It was clear this resonated deeply with the audience.  I can see the value of it in other things as well, but as a research and writing tool it's amazing.  Trying to figure out if something could have happened is a lot easier if you know that it can't have happened cause other things were going on.

Mr. Powers was so intelligently charming that I instantly resolved to buy all his books immediately.

The highlight of the day was the lunchtime speech by Robert Caro.  Mr. Caro is the undisputed master of the biographical form.  His books on Robert Moses and LBJ are benchmarks.  It was riveting to hear him speak about how he researched the LBJ books.  He and his wife moved to Texas for three years to do research on LBJ's early years.  He recounted that only when the residents of the Hill Country realized he wasn't leaving after a cursory look did they begin to open up and really give him the material that would illuminate the entire book.

His talk was so inspirational I felt ready to take on another ten years of publishing.

UPDATE: For a better, more in-depth report on Mr. Caro's lunchtime speech, check out Andrea Pitzer's piece in the Nieman Storyboard.  She captures it to perfection. (thanks to Pat McNees who called it to my attention in the comments section of this post)

And of course, after hearing him speak, I had to buy his books.  I'd read bits and pieces of most, actually owned a copy of THE POWER BROKER at one point, but they weren't on my shelves.

Now they are.

Here's what I bought:

If you wonder where I am this summer, just look at this picture again: I'll be reading!


Gary Corby said...

I can totally relate to the "black holes in your characters' lives" problem. You get the same issue if you write historical fiction using real people.

The deep chronology idea is very, very interesting! I may have a use for that.

Janet Reid said...

I was certain it had applications beyond biography! It's a very intriguing idea!

MamaRas said...

Fascinating. I'm thinking about using letters for additional character development now- what would this character write in a letter to their mother/landlord/credit card company....

I like it.

Thanks for going, and sharing the info!

Joyce Tremel said...

Thanks Janet! I'll have my history kiddo check this out.

Lauren said...

Thanks so much for this report, Janet. I love biographies, as can be seen from my bookshelves. Well-done, well-researched biographies. Of interesting, accomplished people. And I enjoy reading the BIO newsletter. I'm looking forward to perhaps attending myself when the conference comes to Los Angeles next year, and introducing you and Carl Rollyson to each other.

Pat McNees ( said...

Andrea Pitzer wrote up Robert Caro's keynote talk for Nieman Storyboard:

I think some of the talks will be written up in The Biographer's Craft, the BIO newsletter Jamie McGrath Morris edits.

Pat McNees
Writers and Editors