Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

My Coffee Shop Office

As I write this, I’m sitting at my regular table by the window in the coffee shop where I like to start my day. People laugh when I tell them I can concentrate better there. I see their point. It’s definitely not quiet. There is music playing and people are chatting with friends who they have met for coffee and bakery. Some are gathering for business meetings.

It’s easy for me shut out those sounds though because I don’t need to do anything about them. At home, I’m tuned in to sounds. One of those noises may be something that needs my attention. At the coffee shop, it’s all just background noise, and there are studies showing that some noise can be good for creativity. According to those studies, an environment that’s too quiet can be just as bad as a very noisy one. In fact, there are Apps now with coffee shop background noise to play when you’re working.

I don’t think those Apps would work for me because better concentration is only one reason I like going to the coffee shop. Those morning trips also help me get a better start to my day. When I stay home, I tend to dawdle in the mornings. I eat breakfast and read the paper. I may even turn on the TV to get the morning weather report. I don’t do any of those things on days when I go to the coffee shop. Instead, I get up and get going as if I have a regular job. And when I’m at the coffee shop, I can’t throw in a load of laundry or pick up a few things around the house. All I have to work on is the writing I brought with me. So, I settle down to business, and that’s good because getting started is the hardest part of writing for me. Once I get going on a project, it’s easy to keep the momentum going when I go home to the computer.

Working at the coffee shop also gives me another way of looking at my writing. I never take my computer with me because I don’t want to leave it unattended when I get a refill. So, I write in longhand. That slows me down a bit and that’s exactly what I need when I’m trying to work out some detail or a problem I’m having with the writing.

Of course, the morning shot of caffeine doesn’t hurt. On the other hand, the bakery has consequences. Right now, I’m needing to take off a few pounds and my mornings at the coffee shop probably have a lot to do with that. I figure if I’m taking up a table at a place of business I need to buy more than a cup of coffee. So, for now, I’m limiting myself to a couple mornings a week at the “office.” I save those trips for days when I trying to work out problems with manuscripts.

I admit that there is a limit to how much noise I can tune out. The coffee shop was much quieter when I arrived over an hour ago. There were only a few regulars here then. They were reading, working quietly, and talking softly. But more people have arrived, and the chatter is getting louder. Plus, although I can’t prove it, I think they’ve cranked the music up a few notches. That’s my sign that it’s time to pack up and head home to work at the computer. I’m ready for that transition now because after an hour or so in my “office” I’m on a roll.

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It’s not the type of book I usually read. In fact, truth be told, I started reading it once before several months ago and couldn’t get into it. But the timing seemed better when I picked up the book again recently. I had lost enthusiasm with my writing and needed some inspiration. So, I went back to my copy of Big Magic and started at the beginning again. This time it was just what I needed.

Gilbert got my attention early with the section “Enchantment” about the magic of ideas. She says ideas come to us from the universe. When it happens, we have two choices – saying yes or no. If we say no, Gilbert believes the idea moves on to someone else until it finds the right person, someone who is eager to work on it.

Unfortunately, something that happens to me more often than I care to admit is that I begin work on an idea and then lose interest. The result is my collection of half-finished manuscripts. Gilbert has a philosophical approach to that. “If a project doesn’t work out, you can always think of it as having been a worthwhile and constructive experiment,” she wrote. I’m more into feeling guilty.

Unfinished manuscripts nag at my conscience because it seems like such a waste of time to put so much effort into a project and then let it go. So now and then, I pull out one of those manuscripts determined to finish it this time around. But it’s hard to get back into a project that has sat in a drawer too long. I usually end up stuffing it back into a drawer a few days later.

Big Magic got me thinking about those half-finished manuscripts in a different way. Instead of feeling guilty about not finishing, I tried to figure out why I lose enthusiasm for some projects. I’ve decided it’s because I start them for the wrong reasons. Most often the reason is that I thought the idea was marketable. That’s not enough. It takes a lot of work to research and write a nonfiction book. It’s hard to put that much effort into anything if you don’t love what you’re doing.

After reading Gilbert’s thoughts on the magic of ideas, I’ve started getting rid of some of those old projects. The process is very freeing. Worrying and feeling guilty about unfinished manuscripts wastes a lot of energy. So, I’m letting go of projects I feel I should do to make time for those I’m meant to do. If Gilbert is right, maybe the ideas I’m letting go are moving on to people who are enthusiastic about them and will see them through to the end. I like imagining that possibility.

Coming up for Air

A couple of years ago, I blogged about how freelance writing often ends up being feast or famine. One day I’m wondering if I’ll ever get another writing assignment. The next thing I know, I’m too busy with too many projects. Some people thrive under pressure. I’m not one of them. Being too busy makes me feel that no matter how hard I work, I’m not doing my best with any project. That’s where I’ve been the last couple of months.

I don’t like feeling that way, and I try hard to avoid it. I start out thinking I have my schedule under control. I put the due dates on my calendar and plan what to do when. It all seems so workable on paper. Then life throws a couple of curves and my well-thought-out schedule no longer works.

Fortunately, I was able to meet my deadlines, and I have no other projects on the horizon for now. And so, I’m coming up for air. I’m taking time to read, blog, and get back in touch with friends I’ve been neglecting lately. And yes, I’m planning my next project. After all, the best part of being in the famine part of this business is having time to sit back and think about what I want to write instead of just focusing on what needs to be done.

First up, is a manuscript to send to an editor who spoke at a writers’ conference I attended earlier this month. The editor is accepting manuscripts from attendees for a short period of time, and I want take advantage of that. I’m working on something completely different than what I’ve done in the past, which means that it’s not a biography. I’m discovering that challenging myself with something different is a lot of fun.

I’ve also made a decision about a picture book biography I’ve been working on for several months. I like the subject I’m writing about, but I don’t have enough enthusiasm for the  picture book biography. I think my subject would fit better in a collective biography I’ve been researching, so that’s what I’m going to do with her.

Hopefully, I’ll soon have new due dates to meet. But for now, I’ll enjoy having time to relax and to try out some new ideas.

 

What’s in a Name?

I was not prepared many years ago when the publisher of my first book asked me what name I wanted to appear on the cover. To tell the truth, I was just excited about finally getting published. I had never given any thought to the name on the cover. But since the editor asked, I figured it deserved some consideration.

I briefly thought about using my maiden name, writing as Barbara Lynch Kramer, but I’ve always had trouble finding books written by authors who use three names. I forget the order of their names and don’t know what to type in for the search. I also toyed with the idea of using my middle initial – Barbara A. Kramer. I don’t remember why I didn’t go in that direction. I guess I just figured it wasn’t necessary. After all, how many authors would be named Barbara Kramer? Turns out there are at least three. Nampeyo and Her Pottery by Barbara Kramer was published in 1996. That was soon followed by The Bud Wilson Dream Book by another Barbara Kramer.

Those books made me regret that I had not put more thought into what name I would use, but by that time, I had a couple more books out and I figured it was too late change my name. If I did, people might think my first books were written by someone else. So I continued writing as Barbara Kramer and told myself it wouldn’t be a problem. After all, Nampeyo and Her Pottery is a very specialized book about a Hopi-Tewa potter named Nampeyo. The Bud Wilson Dream Book is a novel for adults. Both are completely different than my biographies for children and young adults. There shouldn’t be any confusion, I reasoned. Except, there was.

People who create lists of books showed Nampeyo and Her Pottery as one of mine. I contacted those people and explained that I didn’t write it. Hopefully, they made the correction on their lists because I try hard not to take credit for what other authors have done.

I ran into another problem with my name a couple of weeks ago when I decided to finally set up an author’s page on Amazon. I’m not the most technically gifted person, so I was very pleased with myself when I finally got a page set up with my books on it and even a link to my blog. That is until I decided to test it. I typed my name into Amazon’s search and came up with a listing of my books. However, the link to my author’s page was not there. Instead, there was a link to an author’s page for Barbara J. Kramer, who apparently does not exist. When I went to her page all that was listed was two books, The Bud Wilson Dream Book and my biography about Alexander Graham Bell.

I contacted Amazon and their technical department solved the problem. But the experience left me wishing, once again, that I had given more thought to the question my first editor asked: What name do you want to go on the cover?

 

The Upside of Failure

Walt DisneyOne thing I enjoy about writing biographies for children is exploring the way my subjects handle obstacles and failures. What I find especially interesting is how many times failure leads to something better. Walt Disney is an example.

Disney failed several times on his road to success. As a young man living in Kansas City, he started his own business called Laugh-O-Gram films. He made short films based on fairy tales changing them to make the films funny. Those cartoons were shown in theaters before the main feature. Disney worked hard, but he did not make enough money to stay afloat. He closed his business and packed everything he owned into one suitcase. With a train ticket and $40 in his pocket, he headed to California.

He hoped to find work as an actor there, but when no one hired him, he went back to drawing cartoons. He teamed up with his brother Roy to start a new business making cartoons. One day the distributor of his short films hired Disney to create a new character. Disney developed Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The new cartoons were a great success, so successful that the distributor got greedy. He decided he would make the Oswald cartoons himself. There was nothing Disney could do about it because the distributor owned the character. To make matters worse, the distributor convinced Disney’s cartoonists to leave Disney and work for him.

Disney had lost the character he created and his cartoonists, but he could not dwell on his loss. He had a studio to run, and the only way he could keep it going was to create a new character. That’s when he came up with the idea of a cheerful mouse with large ears. The rest, as they say, is history.

Another example is Oprah Winfrey. In 1977, she was failing as a reporter and co-anchor of the evening news at a television station in Baltimore. The problem was Oprah just wanting to be herself when she read the news. She sometimes changed the words to a story to make it sound like the way she talked. If she made a mistake, such as pronouncing a word wrong, she laughed. The station manager wanted her to be more serious in reading the news.

Oprah also showed her emotions on the air. One time when she had to interview a woman who had lost her children in a fire, Oprah cried. If a story made her angry, it showed. The station manager said she needed to be objective. Oprah was taken off the evening news and began doing short reports on the morning news. It was a stressful time and Oprah worried that she might lose her job. Things changed with the arrival of a new station manager. He started a morning talk show called People Are Talking and made Oprah the co-host. Oprah knew from the beginning that she had found her calling. “This is what I was born to do,” she said after the first show. “This is like breathing.” If she had not failed as a news anchor, The Oprah Winfrey Show may never have been born.

I could go on with other examples. The people I’ve written about have shown again and again that failure is not the end. It could very well be the first step towards something better. I hope the kids who read my books see that truth and remember it when they feel they have failed.

My biography, Lin-Manuel Miranda Award-Winning Musical Writer, was released this month. My initial interest in Miranda was because of his great success with the Broadway musical Hamilton. I was curious about Miranda and his writing. I wondered why he wrote a musical about our Founding Fathers and cast African American actors in the roles of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, played the role of Alexander Hamilton. As I began my research, I quickly discovered that getting to know more about Miranda was a lot of fun. Here are five of my favorite tidbits from my research.

Miranda didn’t like piano lessons. He began taking lessons when he was six, but he did not stick with it. He didn’t like to practice. Turns out, piano lessons were not necessary because Miranda can play by ear. He can hear a song and then sit down and play it without seeing the music.

But he did like applause. Miranda performed in a piano recital when he was about seven. When he finished his song, the audience applauded. Miranda like that attention so much, that he played another song and then another. After his fourth song, the teacher nudged Miranda off the bench to give the other students a chance.

Miranda got his first acting role in sixth grade. He played rock star Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. All the girls had to pretend to faint when he walked on stage in his shiny gold jacket. That was heady stuff for a 12-year-old who was shorter than most of the girls he knew and pretty much off their radar.

Miranda writes and then rewrites, rewrites, and rewrites. He wrote his first play, In the Heights, when he was in college. Eight years later, it opened at 37 Arts Theatre in New York, and a little over a year later, it opened on Broadway. Getting a play he wrote in college ready for a New York stage took a lot of rewriting. By the time Miranda was finished, all that was left of the original musical was a few notes from the first song.

He wrote several songs for The Electric Company, a children’s show on PBS. One song featured a rap battle between a very negative apple and an optimist hot dog. Miranda appeared on the show as the hot dog, who countered the negative words spewed out by the apple with positive words. You can watch that video here.

As for Miranda’s casting decisions for Hamilton, he said he wanted people to feel that everyone is part of the United States even if they do not look like the Founding Fathers. Miranda has a lot to say about immigration, and that was another reason I wanted to write about him. I’m hoping my biography about Miranda plays at least a small part in getting kids to talk about immigration. They are important conversations to have, now more than ever.

After the First Draft

I finally finished the first draft. My sigh of relief as I typed that final paragraph could be heard across three states. The writing is in sorry shape, but that’s okay. I’m just happy to be moving on to the rewrite, the part I love.

One thing I’ll be working on is cutting. I need to delete about 1,000 words to get the manuscript down to the 8,000 word limit for the series. It could be worse, in fact, it has been. There are times when I’ve had to cut manuscripts by half. I don’t mind because what I end up with is a tighter, more focused piece.

As I wrote in my previous post, I’ve struggled with finding the focus of this book. The one-sentence summary of what is important about my subject has been elusive. The answer finally came to me when I was having lunch with a friend. We chatted about our current writing projects, and the conversation came around to the things I like about my subject. As I explained what I admire most about my subject, it came to me. I realized mid-sentence that I was actually talking about what needed to be the focus of the biography. Knowing the focus makes cutting easy because I can delete the parts that don’t support that main idea.

I’ll also be taking another look at problem paragraphs. Sometimes I work hard on a paragraph, but no matter what I do, it doesn’t sound right. I’ve learned there are a couple of reasons for that. Either the paragraph is in the wrong place, or it doesn’t belong in the book at all.

Rewriting also involves smoothing and polishing, finding just the right words to convey an idea. I need to think about energy too, using the active rather than the passive voice and choosing strong action verbs.

Finally, I need to lower the reading level a bit. That means dividing some longer sentences into shorter ones. I’ll also replace some difficult words with easier ones that have fewer syllables.

It’s a lot to think about, but I love rewriting because that’s when the book really takes shape. And that’s satisfying. As the George Peppard character on The A-Team used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

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