Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for January, 2014

One Funny Lady

A couple of weeks ago, I read a short paragraph in our Sunday paper about Allie Brosh’s graphic memoir, Hyperbole and a Half. The long subtitle – Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened – was my first clue that she is very funny. It’s been a cold, snowy winter and I needed something to laugh about, so I went to her blog. It is also called Hyperbole and a Half and it is where her book began.

Apparently, I’m one of only a handful of people new to her blog. She started it in 2009, and in less than a year, she was getting almost 2 million views a month. By 2011, that number had grown to between 3 and 7 million each month. It’s easy to see why. I spent a lot of time exploring her archives, and she had me laughing out loud with her twisted way of looking at events in her life.

Her essays are a combination of text and illustrations. On her FAQ page, she says she uses Paintbrush for the illustrations that look deceptively simple. Some may call them crude, but Allie notes that it’s a “precise crudeness.” She may revise one drawing many times. She also puts careful thought into deciding what sections of her posts should be text and what parts work better as illustrations. She’s a perfectionist, who has been known to delete posts from her site because in hindsight she felt they were not her best work.

Her blog also includes some serious posts, most notably the two about her experiences with depression – “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two.” Her serious posts are just as compelling as her humorous ones. “Depression Part Two” brought 5,000 comments from her readers who were touched by her honesty.

About the only complaint her viewers have is that her posts have been infrequent in the last few years – only 3 posts in 2013. Perhaps that is because she’s been working on her book. According to information from the publisher, the book contains some of her blog posts, but 50 percent of it is new material.

Of course, if you’re just discovering her work, as I am, it’s all new material, and I’m glad I read that small paragraph in the newspaper that introduced me to her writing. After all, it’s still cold and snowy, but humor is great medicine for cabin fever.

Writer’s Block?

My first three biographies for young adults were about very accomplished writers – Alice Walker, Amy Tan, and Toni Morrison. Writing those books was fun for me because I’m always interested in how other writers get their ideas and how they work. The three authors had some things in common. They all were influenced by strong mothers and the stories of their ancestors, and they all wrote with passion about their cultures. One thing that interested me about Amy Tan and Toni Morrison was what they had to say about writer’s block.

Amy struggled with it when she began her second book. In fact, it was such an important part of her story that I devoted one whole chapter to it in my biography about her. The title of that chapter – “Fear of the Second Book” – sums up much of what caused her writer’s block.

The huge success of her first book, The Joy Luck Club, made it difficult for her to work on a second one. She was afraid it wouldn’t be as well received as the first one. Comments from other writers didn’t help. One said, “The critics are always worse when the first book was really, really big… With the first, they put you on this great big pedestal. But by the time The Second Book comes around, you realize you’re not sitting on a pedestal at all. It’s one of those collapsible chairs above a tank of water at the county fair.”

Every time Amy sat down to write, she thought about critics and her fans and her desire to not disappoint them with her second book. Her mind was filled with worry, which affected her writing. She wrote eighty-five pages of a novel and gave up on it. She started another one writing fifty-six pages before giving up on that one too. In total, she started six different books and discarded all of them.

It was advice from her mother Daisy Tan that helped Amy get past her “block.” Daisy told her daughter she was tired of explaining to people that she was not the mothers in The Joy Luck Club. She said, “Next book, tell my true story.” Amy liked that idea, and it was learning more about her mother’s story and the stories of other ancestors that lead to her second novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife.

Toni Morrison also had some experience with writer’s block. She said there were times when she wrote day and night, but other times she didn’t write at all. She was not concerned about not writing. She believed she was “blocked” because she was undecided about something in her story. She needed to give herself more time to think about her characters and their stories, trusting that the solution would appear.

At first, I thought their ideas about writer’s block were completely opposite, but I’ve decided there’s some similarity in their methods for overcoming it. Both authors found that the way to get past their “blocks” was to get more information.

One thing I like about writing biographies is that I always learn something from the people I write about. From Amy Tan and Toni Morrison, I learned that the way to handle “blocks” that threaten to upend my own writing projects is to delve deeper. For me as a nonfiction writer, it means I need to go back to the research and dig deeper.

Have any of you struggled with writer’s block? If so, what has helped you get back on track?

“Wrong Way” Corrigan

Have you ever seen a football player race to the wrong goal line, or a basketball player score at the opponent’s hoop? It’s an embarrassing moment for an athlete, and when it happens someone is sure to mention the name “Wrong Way” Corrigan.

Who was Corrigan? How did he get the nickname “Wrong Way?” And was he in fact going the wrong direction at all? The answers to the first two questions are easy. The last one is a mystery that may never be solved.

“Wrong Way” Corrigan is Douglas Corrigan, who became famous in 1938 with a flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Crossing the ocean was not new. Others had already managed that feat, beginning with Charles Lindbergh in 1927.  What was unique about Corrigan’s flight was that he had filed a flight plan indicating he was headed for California. More than twenty-eight hours later, he landed in Dublin, Ireland – 6,000 miles off course!  He said the change in direction was the result of a broken compass, but it’s more likely he purposely set out for Ireland.

Corrigan was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1907. His parents divorced when he was twelve. Three years later, his mother died leaving Corrigan to take care of his younger brother and sister. Corrigan supported the family by working at various jobs including driving a truck and washing bottles. He got interested in flying after watching two barnstormers doing loop-de-loops and other in-air tricks at an air show. He talked the pilots into teaching him to fly and paid for the lessons by helping out around the airport.

Corrigan got his pilot’s license when he was seventeen years old. He then went to work at a San Diego airport where he gave flying lessons and worked as a mechanic. He soon decided to go out on his own becoming a barnstormer.

Corrigan was always looking for new challenges. In July 1938, he flew nonstop from California to New York in a small single-engine plane he had rescued from a trash heap. According to reports, he had bought the plane for a little over $300 and rebuilt it himself. When he got to New York, he filed a flight plan for the next leg of his voyage, a trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Airport authorities turned down his request because the plane had no radio and no fuel gauge.

Corrigan then filed a flight plan for a return home trip to California. He took off at dawn surprising onlookers who said he was headed east when he disappeared into the clouds. U.S. airport officials were not amused when he eventually landed in Dublin, Ireland. They suspended his pilot’s license and Corrigan returned to New York by ship. His airplane was on board packed away in a large crate. Others were impressed. Fans gave Corrigan a hero’s welcome when he got to back to New York.

His flight earned him a new nickname, but did Corrigan really fly the wrong way or was he simply ignoring airport authorities? Corrigan said he was lost. “They [airport authorities] told me to get lost,” he once said, “so I did.” Most people did not believe him, but Corrigan stuck to his story. He died in 1995, and as far as I know, he never admitted he had actually set out for Ireland that day. If any of you have information that can shed some light on that mystery, I hope you’ll share it here.

One Scary Thing

A couple of years ago, I read My Year with Eleanor, a memoir by Noelle Hancock. The book is about a challenge Noelle gave herself after reading a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

Noelle had just lost her high-paying, high-stress job as an entertainment blogger, and had no idea what she would do next. She feared change. In fact, she was beginning to realize that she feared many things. That was when she discovered the quote from Eleanor posted on a board at a coffee shop.  It inspired her to face her fears overcoming them as Eleanor Roosevelt had done so many years earlier when she went from being a timid, fearful child to becoming a prominent First Lady. Noelle decided she would spend a year challenging herself to do one scary thing each day.

She wisely understood that writing about 365 scary things would make a long boring book, so she focused on some of the bigger challenges, and she didn’t mess around when it came to facing some huge fears. Her challenges included shark diving, learning a routine on a trapeze, stand-up comedy, fighter pilot lessons, and sky diving.

As Noelle faced her fears, she learned more about Eleanor Roosevelt by reading biographies and Eleanor’s autobiographies. She weaved that information into the book showing how Eleanor continued to inspire her throughout the year. Noelle wrote about her experiences with humor, which makes My Year with Eleanor a fun, easy-to-read book.

Did reading about Noelle’s experiences inspire me to overcome any of my fears? Well, you’re reading this first entry in my blog. Blogging is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I was – dare I say it? – afraid. Obviously, I wasn’t as bold as Noelle in overcoming my fear. After all, it’s taken me two years to start my blog, but now I hope to go boldly forward.

Do you have a fear that’s holding you back from achieving a dream? Maybe Noelle and Eleanor will inspire you too.

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