October 19

With this book project underway, I've been thinking a lot about how I write, mainly because, honestly, it’s a total mystery to me. When I was in college, I read The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro. A few sections of it were assigned as part of a class I was taking on the history of the City of New York, but when I started in on it, I couldn't stop, so I read the whole thing. The whole 1,344-page thing. (An impressive percentage of which I insisted on reading aloud to my then-boyfriend.) (He was a very good sport.)  The class included an all-night bicycle ride through the city. We started in Morningside Heights and pedaled all the way down the island.  I took the class in the spring semester of my senior year, just a few months after 9/11.  We stopped at Ground Zero in the still-dark hours of the morning before crossing the bridge into Brooklyn at sunrise.  It meant something to be reading about a previous life of the city just then.

The Power Broker is a tremendous book in every respect, a biography, a portrait of a city, a study of politics and power. It’s a gorgeous, intense read, and also a fun read, and whenever I’d hoist myself up and out of those pages all I could think was how on earth does this happen? How does someone write a thing like this?? It was impossible. Except for that it wasn't, because there was the book, and there I was reading it. A miracle, then. A decade later, that answer’s still the best I've got.

Last week, Robert Caro's latest book on Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, was nominated as a National Book Award finalist. When I saw that, I remembered a Sunday Routine column featuring Caro that ran in the The New York Times last spring. I was in the final push with my proposal then and reading it gave me a real boost. You’ll find the column right here. Also terrific is this slideshow on Caro’s writing process. 

And while we’re on the topic of writers who make me cheer, take a look at this letter that Eudora Welty wrote to The New Yorker in 1933, asking for a job. It’s a gem. (Thanks to Andrew for pointing me to it.)

p.s. Did you know she was a photographer, too?


koshercamembert said...

Love the links about Caro's writing process. Love that he dresses up for work. Also love that his wife, Ina, often meets him halfway on his walk home.

Great inspiration as you write your book, and for all of us. Thanks for the links.

- Gayle

Molly said...

I gave Rich "The Power Broker" for Chanukah last year.(He asks his brothers for Wii games, I push Tom Robbins and Robert Caro.) There's always a huge waiting list for that book at the BPL, and you can only have it for couple of weeks, so it was worth adding to the bookshelf. It's a great book, although a little too heavy for an MBTA commute.

Now, about that mobile...

Tracy said...

I'm a fan of simple, honest, writing. You do that very well.

anya said...

Powerful links, Jess. "How I would like to work for you!" should embolden anyone dreaming (to ask for that one job). Thank you for passing the inspiration on!

Hannah said...

Great links Jess. I love hearing about people's writing process - and I firmly believe we would all work better if we could walk to and from whatever it is we do. (But does changing from yoga pants to jeans count as dressing up? Hm).

Here is one that I have been thinking about lately - I can tell you that your blog still makes the cut, even as I "prime proof" my reading! ;)

Jess said...

Gayle - Great stuff, right? So glad you enjoyed.

Molly - There should be some kind of automatic extension of loan times for books over a certain amount of pages, don't you think? But I agree, it's a nice one to own. The mobile - it's a Flensted. You can find it, and other models, on Amazon. Hope you're feeling well!

Tracy - Thank you. That means a lot.

anya - Agreed! It's something I so admire - knowing what you want, and going for it.

Hannah - Yes, I'd say that changing from yoga pants to jeans definitely counts. Thanks for the link to the article. I understand his argument about "cleans[ing] your linguistic palate," but I think his best point is the simplest one: that what we read informs the way we write. I feel that so powerfully. (I had never heard of "structural priming" or "syntactic persistence" - cool!)

Payal Shah said...

Hi Jess, Good luck with your book project. Looking forward to reading it when it's ready.

Maggie said...

I think there may be an entire narrative around reading that book during that crazy time. I'd like to read that and can't wait to read the current book.

Eudora, gosh, I remember being fresh out of J-school and feeling her same sentiments over and over, though I never wrote them out to anyone. Love her.

Anonymous said...

That Eudora letter is golden!

Jess said...

Payal Shah - I so appreciate the encouragement! Thank you.

Maggie - I didn't know you went to J-school! (Not surprised.)

Anonymous - Totally.

brooklyn girl said...

I love, love Robert Caro's routine piece. Newsweek had a big profile on him a few years back and also discussed it. Always inspiring when I'm in a work slump.

Pia said...

What a gem, Eudora's letter! So cheeky, it made me laugh out loud. And so modern, it could've been written today.
(As you can see, I'm walking backwards; down your blog; post to post. I love it!)