Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘Oprah Winfrey’

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.

Give Readers Something New

This week, I sent my editor at National Geographic a manuscript for another leveled reader. I always think I’ll give myself a few days off after meeting a big deadline, but that never happens. The pull of starting something new is too strong, especially knowing that the first step will be the research. For me, that’s one of the best parts of writing nonfiction and I can’t wait to get started.

JimIn 1991, before I had written my first book, I attended a week-long writers’ workshop in Bloomington, Illinois. I chose that workshop because one of the instructors was James Cross Giblin. He was a long time editor at Clarion and had also begun writing nonfiction books including biographies. With his experience as both an editor and as an award-winning writer, I knew I could learn a lot from him. I wasn’t disappointed.

One thing he said at that workshop really stuck with me. He said that he always tried to give readers something new. His research was not done until he had found information that had not been included in other books about a subject. It’s advice I try to follow.

Sometimes, that’s easy. When I wrote my biography about George Washington Carver I had access to so much primary source material that finding new details was not hard at all. But my job became much more difficult when I wrote about Oprah Winfrey.

That book was part of a series for third and fourth graders about people who had overcome great odds in achieving success and then gave back. I didn’t include Oprah in my original proposal, but my publisher wanted her in the series. I agreed that she certainly belonged in such a series, but there had been so many books about her already. I worried about how I would ever find anything new. The answer came when I focused on the theme of the series and began looking for stories to show how she had helped others. That was when I found an anecdote showing that she had already begun helping others when she was in elementary school. As a third grader, she heard about starving children in Costa Rica. She responded by collecting money on the playground for them.

Sometimes finding new information means getting creative with the research. I was discouraged with progress on my biography about Mahalia Jackson because I wasn’t finding anything new. I told myself that my book was different because while others focused on her gospel singing, I was including information about her fight for civil rights. Even so, I still didn’t feel like I was bringing something new to the table.

Then I came up with the idea of looking at her through the eyes of others. I knew she had been friends with author Studs Terkel, so I decided to research him. I learned that he had interviewed her a couple of times, and I located those interviews. They gave me some great quotes that had not been included in other biographies about Mahalia, and it made me feel that I had done my job.

It’s been more than 20 years since I attended the conference in Bloomington where James Cross Giblin talked about giving readers something new. But it’s advice I still think about every time I research a biography. Trying to bring something new to the table is a challenge, and I’m not sure I’m always successful. But it definitely makes the research interesting, and I hope the extra effort shows in the final result.

What about you? What advice have you been given that is still guiding your work or your personal life even many years later?

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