Inspirations from the author of the best book I ever read

Sometimes you sit down to write and it’s wrong. It’s not the overdiscussed writer’s block. It’s not a negative thought from your head, a discouraging message from the heart or even a sense from your gut. It’s something from deep in your bones telling you that you’re not yet ready to type; that you need to do more work first.

Robert Caro wrote the best book I’ve ever read, and in his brand new book, Working—Researching, Interviewing, Writing, he describes that almost mystical knowledge letting you know you’re not ready to write. Comparing myself to a writer of Caro’s accomplishments is dicey, but I know that feeling he describes. I felt it just this week researching a story about how the nation’s electric grid copes with changes like electricity flowing in reverse from rooftop solar panels. Technology is making that possible, said the guy I was interviewing. I asked, what technology would that be? Electronic sensors, he answered, leading to more questions. What’s a sensor? What does it do? What does it look like? He answered my questions so I sat down to write.

But I couldn’t. I knew I needed the reader to be able to see what this modernized smart grid looked like and I couldn’t because I didn’t know. I had a description from my interviewee but I still couldn’t see it. So I surfed the Internet, wading through pictures of schematic diagrams of sensors, until I found a photo showing little blocks clamped to the power lines, the dimensions listed as 152mm x 305mm x 127mm. How do I describe what size that is so readers can relate, I thought as I tied my shoes to walk the dog. And there came the answer: they’re about the size of a running shoe. Now I could go ahead and write about what the green grid is, describing the role of all these electronic sensors, and even what they look like, hopefully in a way readers could imagine.

In the introduction to Working, here’s how Robert Caro describes that feeling of trying to write his first book before he had done all the research: “…it was as if something in me would rebel, and I would sit there for hours, fiddling with the outline, knowing it was no good, knowing that if I went forward, the book behind me wouldn’t be the book it should be, and my heart just wouldn’t be in the writing anymore.”

I first read Caro in The New Yorker’s advance excerpts of his Pulitzer-winning 1974 book The Power BrokerRobert Moses and the Fall of New York. Its 1,200 pages tells the extraordinary story of a man who had a vision for a beach and a park on New York’s Long Island. To get there, people would need parkways, which he managed to get in charge of, leading to his overseeing the building of virtually every bridge into Manhattan so people could get to those parkways. He extended his power by building parkways westward into the rest of the state. Ruling New York’s parkways and waterways even led to him being in charge of building hydroelectric dams. For 40 years he was so powerful politicians promised to get rid of him, until they got elected and realized Robert Moses was more powerful than they were.

In Working, which Caro describes as an advance memoir because he admits he’s getting old enough that the full memoir might never happen, he writes about his realization while working on The Power Broker that to truly convey the power of Robert Moses, he needed to paint a picture of those affected by power. So he interviewed people who lived in the apartment complexes who were kicked out for a road that could have been relocated. He talked to farmers and got vivid images of their land and livelihood that Moses ruined for political expedience.

Caro’s next project was a biography of President Lyndon Johnson. That project continues even after four decades, as he finishes up the fifth and final volume.

After reading The Power Broker, my next encounter with Caro’s writing came from his first LBJ volume in 1982, The Path To Power—The Years of Lyndon Johnson. At the time I worked for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and would travel around the country speaking on the meaning and history of electric co-ops. A section of The Path To Power details how a major part of LBJ’s early success was getting an electric co-op started in Texas in the 1930s. In order to be able to describe what the coming of electricity meant, and what life was like in the Texas Hill Country, Caro and his wife actually moved and lived there for three years. (In Working he gives great credit to his wife, Ina, for researching his books, and quotes her as responding to plans to move to remote Texas by asking, “Why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?”)

The chapter that came from that rural Texas research, “The Sad Irons,” tells of the torture women faced doing regular chores before electricity. In my speeches about co-ops I would read from that chapter. A brief excerpt won’t do justice to those several pages, but I’ll give it a shot: “Washday was Monday. Tuesday was for ironing… The irons used in the Hill Country had to be heated on the wood stove, and they would retain their heat for only a few minutes—a man’s shirt generally required two irons; a farm wife would own three or four of them, so that several could be heating while one was working…the irons would burn a woman’s hand. The wooden handle or the potholder would slip, and she would have searing metal against her flesh; by noon, she might have blister atop blister…the temperature outside the kitchen might be ninety or ninety-five or one hundred, and inside the kitchen could be considerably higher… The women of the Hill Country never called the instruments they used every Tuesday ‘irons,’ they called them ‘sad irons’.”

In Working, Caro writes that one of the most satisfying results of publishing The Path To Power was getting invited to speak to rural electric co-op groups, and talking to audience members who would come up to him after his speech, to tell him about how they actually lived the stories he wrote about.

Caro concludes Working with a 2016 interview he gave, ending with these words of idealism about what a writer might contribute to making the world a better place: “The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be.”

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