I love the thrill of finding a great author. Of reading a book and knowing that you will love any other book this author writes. When I was in high school, Kurt Vonnegut was the author I most admired. I read every book he ever published. Recently, I felt this way about Robert Caro after I read The Power Broker. He is quickly becoming my favorite author.
Robert Caro hasn’t written many books. He familiarizes himself so intimately with his subject that it takes years for him to write a book. I found this approach so interesting that I wanted to learn more about it, so I decided to read his recently released memoir Working. In the memoir, he reflects on the craft of writing and shares his experiences writing about Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson.
If you don’t know who Robert Caro is here is a quick summary. He is the author of five biographies and one memoir. His first biography, The Power Broker, is about Robert Moses and comes in at over 1,000 pages. It won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. His next four books, all about Lyndon B. Johnson, were released about once every decade since 1982. In 2003, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, won him his second Pulitzer Prize. He is currently working on the fifth volume of his Lyndon Johnson series.
My Notes and Takeaways:
Thinking and Writing
As a college student Robert Caro was a proficient writer. He turned out well-written short stories quickly for his classes. The stories he wrote were all written late the night before they were due. He put off writing them because he knew he was such a quick writer that he could get them done.
For two years, one of his professors always gave him high marks on the stories he turned in. But then one day he casually told Caro that he will never achieve anything if he doesn’t stop thinking with his fingers. Caro said this comment changed his life forever. He decided from that day forward he would never write again without thinking things through as far as he could take them.
To help with this goal, he decided to write in longhand. In Working he describes how he usually writes three versions of each chapter in longhand. He then types his handwritten drafts on a Smith-Corona Electra 210 typewriter. This process helps him to think more deeply about what he is writing. Even with this slow and methodical approach, Caro sets a goal to have 1,000 words written each day.
The ultimate goal of my website is to help me become a better thinker and writer. Robert Caro is a great writer because he is a patient thinker. He spends hours everyday thinking things through. I hope my own writing and pondering can improve to a Robert Caro level.
Learning the Setting
Robert Caro said he set out to write biographies as a means of illuminating the times of the men he was writing about and the great forces that molded those times. When he began writing his biography about Lyndon Johnson, he had planned on spending a few months writing about Johnson’s upbringing in the Hill Country of Texas. Other Johnson biographies had a few chapters about his childhood and so he thought there was already enough content about this time in Johnson’s early life.
However, as he began to research Johnson’s time in Texas he quickly learned that there was a lot missing. Caro struggled to get Johnson’s acquaintances to open up with him in interviews. After months of frustration, Caro and his wife Ina decided to move to the Texas Hill Country to better understand the setting of Johnson’s childhood. He ended up staying in Texas for three years.
He spent months and years talking to the women who lived through the depression. In one of his interviews, a woman asked him if he knew how heavy a bucket of water is. For most of their lives, the Texas Hill Country has no electricity or running water. They let him experience carrying a bucket of water. His wife commented that she never wanted to watch a John Wayne movie again. The women who built frontier America did more than just beg for their husbands to go to battle. Caro met women who were stooped because of the hard manual work they did every day. He said he would always remember the women of the Texas Hill Country.
It took a long time for Caro to “learn the story” of the Texas Hill Country. I am currently reading The Path to Power and I am in awe at Caro’s description of the Hill Country. This is a part of America I didn’t know existed, but now I feel as if I had spent years there.
Planning and Outlining
“The creative process occurs through the outline, because I make myself think through the whole book by making the outline.”
Robert Caro can’t start a book unless he has seen it in his mind. He begins by outlining the general story and breaking it into chapters. He spends weeks refining these chapter summaries until he feels they are ready. Once he has the chapter summaries he will expand each chapter with more detail; breaking up the chapters into sections and paragraphs. He even will outline transition sentences he will plan on writing.
This is the creative process for Caro. It forces him to think about his writing at a deep level. Personally, I struggle with outlining my writing. But I know if I were to outline like Caro, then my writing would have more purpose and clarity.
All Sides of the Story
Robert Caro had to tell all sides of the story. In telling the story of Robert Moses, he couldn’t just tell one side. For example, if Robert Moses built a new highway, it would be very easy to say Moses built a highway, it was this long, this many people worked on it, it took this long to build, it cost this amount, and look at this great thing he did. However, Caro wanted to know all sides of Robert Moses building a highway. For example, how many families were displaced to build the highway? Were those families treated equitably during the relocation process? Some of the families he researched were economically strained even twenty years after losing their farms to Moses’ highways.
This kind of investigative writing took time. It required Caro to spend months trying to find families that were negatively affected by Robert Moses. I appreciate the voice Robert Caro gave to so many Americans who had none.
Working is a quick read. For fans of Robert Caro, it is a must-read. This is one of the greatest writers of all time writing about writing. I highly recommend this book. You can pick up a copy here.
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