Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Biography Panel at the Woodstock Writers Festival

Posted By on Thu, Apr 10, 2014 at 12:29 AM

Henry Bushkin
  • Henry Bushkin
Being a biographer is a particularly selfless calling. You spend years immersed in the life of your subject — J. Michael Lennon, the Norman Mailer biographer, estimates that he read 48,000 letters by the writer — then you laboriously summarize his life, revise and revise your manuscript, get it published, and when people read it they forget your name.

A woman from the audience asked Lennon, "I can't even imagine 48,000 letters. How do you possibly sort through them?"

"Well, first of all, you do it by decade," he explained. "Then, for each decade, you make three piles: 'Absolutely Yes,' 'Absolutely No,' and 'Maybe.' Then, at the end, you take all the letters in the 'Maybe' pile and put them in the 'No' pile. Because there's not enough room for even all of the 'Yes' file!"

Rock legend Alex Chilton had a perfect title for his own memoir: I Slept with Charles Manson, Holly George Warren revealed. (Unfortunately, it was never written.)

Henry Bushkin was Johnny Carson's lawyer for 18 years, until Johnny fired him. Now he's written a memoir, Johnny Carson, but he still seems bewildered, even hurt. "18 years together — it was like a divorce," Bushkin said, almost to himself.

It's surprising how little writing has changed since the Internet, the iPhone, the iPad. Writing is an ancient process, like weaving. (The one exception: biographers can now find the weather report for a particular day online, to discover if their subject was lying in his letter.)

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