Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘Alice Walker’

Four Tips for Using Quotes

Quotes add punch to biographies for children and that helps to hold the readers’ attention. However, simply inserting a quote here or there does not make the writing interesting. It’s important to know when to use quotes and how to make them fit into the flow of the writing. Here are 4 tips for using quotes effectively.

  1. Use quotes when the person you’re writing about says it better than you could in your own words.

That was something I learned by chance when I was working on my very first biography which was about Alice Walker. I wanted to describe the day in 1961 when Walker left her small town in Georgia to head off to college. She took a bus to Atlanta, where the college was located, and made the mistake of sitting too close to the front. A white woman complained to the driver who asked Alice to move to the back.

I worked and worked on that paragraph trying to find a way to show how Walker felt about that experience, but I only got more and more frustrated. I finally realized it was impossible for me to describe how she felt. It was better to let her say it in her own powerful words: “But even as I moved, in confusion and anger and tears. I knew he had not seen the last of me,” Walker wrote in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.

  1. Use quotes to show character.

In The Great and Only Barnum, Candace Fleming used a quote from P.T. Barnum to show his aversion to farm work as a child. “I always disliked work,” he noted. “Head-work I was excessively fond of. I was always ready to concoct fun, or lay plans for money-making, but hand-work was decidedly not in my line.” It’s easy to see how Barnum’s gift for thinking up ideas for fun and profit as a kid may have led to his future as a great showman.

  1. Use quotes to build or expand on an idea.

In an article about how U.S. presidents kept fit while they were in office, I wrote this paragraph about Truman. “Harry S. Truman was famous for his early morning walks. Reporters and photographers sometimes tagged along, but keeping up with him was not easy. Truman kept a brisk and exact pace.” That provided the basic information, but I decided to show how brisk and how exact by ending with this quote from Truman’s memoirs: “I walk two miles most every morning at a hundred and twenty-eight steps a minute,” he noted. The quote also showed a bit about his character.

  1. Keep quotes short.

Think of quotes as dialogue in a story. Readers lose focus if a character rambles on too long. So it’s best to interrupt the dialogue with action or another character’s comments. It’s the same with nonfiction. A good way to keep quotes short is to weave in background information and then end with a short quote. It’s what I did with the paragraph about Alice Walker heading off to college. A long description of that day in Walker’s own words would have taken away from what I felt was a strong quote. So I provided the background about her sitting too close to the front of the bus and the white woman complaining to the driver. Then I ended with Walker’s words.

Finding just the right quotes and weaving them into a manuscript is hard work, but it’s worth the effort. They can turn a dull manuscript into one that holds the readers’ attention.

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?

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