JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY
Here’s how Principle #4 works. Suppose you’re drawn to John Fitzgerald Kennedy. You want to write a book about him, but the problem with this, and with any subject, is that it’s so broad it would take many lifetimes to write everything that could be said about him. You are forced to be selective, but you have many choices. Imagine these options as segments of a horizontal line. You could write about the rise of Joseph Kennedy before Jack was born. You could concentrate on the period through JFK’s graduation from Harvard. There’s Kennedy, the naval hero. The reckless, young Senator Kennedy. The Presidential campaign. The first thousand days in office. His assassination. The Great Society. Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy. Ted Kennedy is good for several books; and now there’s a whole new generation–John Kennedy Jr–making the gossip columns. Inevitably there is one aspect of this spectrum you are drawn to more than to others. That will be your topic. But realize each segment has a meaning for you, and you are choosing the one that is most significant to your own personal needs.
JFK’s upbringing might represent how environment shapes one’s destiny. His naval service, your need to find heros. The assassination, how dreams fall apart. You’re not conscious of the theme as you pick the topic; the reverse is true. As you write, the theme emerges, and when it does you can use it to include or exclude events from all segments of the subject that enforce that theme. It’s like doing a large pencil drawing. You like the drawing well enough to get it framed. At the frame shop as you pick out a mat you think: Parts of this drawing are better than others. I’ll get a smaller mat than I need and move it around on the drawing so it frames the strongest elements and, if possible, excludes dead areas around the edges. We can do the same thing with our writing. Use a theme to frame the strong points and to exclude irrelevant ones. There’s still infinite choice within a segment, and you need to ask yourself: Of the many possibilities , which scenes are most readily accessible for my reader to experience the story? Use this as an additional selection criterion.
College freshmen say, “I understand plot, character, setting; but how do you arrive at the theme of a piece?” I’ve devised this little formula to help. Take the beginning of the work, the ending, any central symbol, and the title. Put them into one sentence and you have the theme. It works, because the beginning presents the conflict, the ending solves or comments on that conflict, a central symbol is a mirror of what the author thinks is significant, and the title is a last effort to point the reader in the right direction. But, once you have this statement of theme what do you have? A generalized conclusion, such as on the left side of the diagram. If Tolstoy, Bronte, James thought they could accomplish what they needed to in a sentence, why would they write thousands of pages instead. Theme is a tool for the writer.
Let’s try this principle out. I was forced to watch a TV mini-series a couple years ago on Frank Sinatra. I can just imagine someone in Hollywood coming up with this idea. “Well use appropriate songs of his to underscore the different episodes, see. Maybe we can even get an album out of this.” Then some studio devil’s advocate counters, “Yeah, but he’s still alive and he’s trouble.” To which the first person replies, “We’ll get his daughter to produce it, she’ll know how to handle her old man.” Imagine you’re the writer, how would you present this subject? The way it was done to start with young Sinatra growing up in Hoboken with a rather overriding mother. Next he’s married to Nancy Sinatra, but his recording career is pulling him away from family life. He then falls in love with Ava Gardner and gets into the movies. There’s even a short scene or two of his brief marriage to Mia Farrell. Where’s this going? What kind of ending could you come up with. Granted this biography is following the chronology of Sinatra’s life, but it seems to me the writer consciously or unconsciously has organized it around the women in his life. Recognizing this, to get an ending consistent with this theme you would ask, besides his mother, his wife, his mistress, his other wives, what other women are there? The actual series just trailed off. But, I think the answer is, of course his daughters. For one reason or another, his daughter, the producer, didn’t use this. Perhaps she wanted to perpetuate the image that he’s still a romantic figure, or perhaps he wasn’t much of a father (the real subject, for her, which she prefers to keep hidden?). But, once a pattern starts to emerge it is a good idea to use it as an instrument for what to include or exclude.
Often biography or non-fiction at first seem overpowering to the writer. The secret is to think of the book in terms of the reader. Pick scenes that readers can experience, then pack other information into these scenes as secondary material (or simply drop the extra material, a reader can only absorb so much). After you have done this see if a pattern isn’t emerging from these scenes, do a second cut of those scenes that don’t conform to this pattern. I guarantee the task be more doable and the result be much more readable.