Why writers write what they do

June 2023

How do writers choose their material? The answer is probably as varied as writers themselves, an individual compass guiding each one. But my belief is that writers almost always write what they do because it feels personal to them. Within the nonfiction genre, the obvious example is memoir, where the writer’s experience is the subject. But when the subject is someone else’s life, how is that writerly motivation personal?

I began thinking about this while preparing to moderate a panel for the annual conference of Biographers International Organization. The panelists had written biographies of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and US Congressman Charles Diggs, Jr., all involved with government and the law. The writers had different reasons for choosing their subjects, but the reasons reflected them as individuals.

In his manuscript about Congressman Diggs, author Marion Orr relates a memory from his childhood. (His book, The House of Diggs, will be published soon.)  On Saturday mornings, his mother cleaned the house, with help from Marion and his siblings. She would listen to soul music while they worked, and sometimes to a recording of a speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Detroit a few months before the March on Washington. It was a preliminary version of the ”I Have a Dream Speech” soon to be delivered at the March. Marion was moved by King’s words and cadence but was struck just as clearly by the voice of Congressman Diggs introducing King to his Detroit constituents. Later, as a student of history and government, Marion learned more about Congressman Diggs and his work to advance civil rights. Now, as Diggs’s biographer, Marion, who is also a professor at Brown, is telling the story of a man mostly forgotten by history. Those Saturday morning memories provided a springboard for his work.

Felix Frankfurter’s life story gave Brad Snyder the opportunity to trace the country’s legal and political evolution from before World War I through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the civil rights movement. Frankfurter was highly influential throughout the entire era – as a confidant of FDR, a Supreme Court justice, and as a professor at Harvard Law School where he persuaded students to work in government because he believed public service was the highest calling. Brad himself is a law professor at Georgetown University where he specializes in constitutional law and history (plus sports law). It makes sense that he would have an intellectual interest in Frankfurter. But I think he also has a personal affinity for his subject.

Before the Frankfurter biography, Brad wrote a book about the House of Truth. That was a row house on Washington’s Dupont Circle, given its name by tenants early in the twentieth century. The tenants then and later worked in government and the house was where they and their friends congregated for parties and for intellectual debates on the role of government. Frankfurter lived there for a while, and even after he moved out, remained in vigorous conversation with other former tenants including journalist Walter Lippman and Supreme Court justices Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Brad doesn’t reveal his own political beliefs in his books, but I think it’s fair to conclude that he is comfortable with the liberal establishment that developed in the 20th century, shaped by many of the people who lived at the House of Truth. (His Twitter feed backs this up.) Brad also admires Frankfurter for his judicial restraint, an approach to keep courts from intervening in disputes that Frankfurter believed were better left to the democratic process. This congruence between a writer and his subject is another way that personal affinities motivate a writer. (Brad’s book is Democratic Justice: Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court, and the Making of the Liberal Establishment.)

In preparing for the panel, I had a zoom meeting with the three authors. I told Marion and Brad that I saw the connection between them and their subjects. But I told Beverly Gage, author of G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American. Century, that I did not assume a comparable affinity between her and J. Edgar Hoover. She laughed and thanked me for that. Still, that doesn’t mean that personal reasons did not guide her. Hoover spent 45 years in government, most of it as FBI director, and his career gave her an irresistibly large swath of history to explore. She is a historian, after all. She need not condone Hoover’s  racist beliefs or his self-serving approach to civil liberties in order to portray him as a multi-faceted individual with an outsized influence on events. As she writes in the book, early in his career Hoover proved himself to be an unparalleled administrator. He accepted constraints and was not anxious to expand his power. Later, after being encouraged by both Democratic and Republican administrations, he eagerly wielded a broad array of powers, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes as a national public relations strategy. It makes sense that Beverly relished the opportunity to delve into events of the 20th century history from Hoover’s unique vantage point.

I hope you’ll agree that personal considerations are at play when nonfiction writers choose whose life story to tell. But what about fiction? As it happens, I am currently reading Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe writes in the introduction that “we are the sum of all the moments of our lives – all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it. If the writer has used the clay of life to make his book, he has only used what all men must, what none can keep from using.”

I’m convinced. What about you?



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