How I Write: David Maraniss
Published: June 27, 2003
|Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Maraniss says journalism is the best teacher for nonfiction writers. The Washington Post national reporter and author of four biographies, including the critically acclaimed First in His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton, began his career at the Madison, Wis., Capital Times and worked weekends at Radio Free Madison. He then went to the Trenton Times in New Jersey and was hired by the Post in 1977. His new book, They Marched Into Sunlight (October), explores the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement through the prism of a protest and a battle that took place simultaneously in the United States and Vietnam. He lives in Washington, D.C. |
Credits: Books include The Prince of Tennessee: Al Gore Meets His Fate (2000), When Pride Still Mattered: The Life of Vince Lombardi (1999).
Why: Writing is in my blood. My mother was a book editor, my father was a newspaperman and my grandfather was a printer. It is one of the few things that I know how to do. I can't fix a car or build a house, and I certainly can't program computer software. I keep writing to stay alive, and feel alive.
When and where: When I am writing a book, I'm usually at my desk [at home] by 6 a.m., sometimes by 5. I love the feeling of having accomplished something while the day is still young, and I find that I do much of my problem-solving in my sleep, so I can't wait to get back at it. I write until about 10, take a break, then go back again until a late lunch. Then I exercise, do errands, and go back and read what I've done, read books or research material, and prepare for the next day.
I try to set goals for the week, rather than the day, because every day is different. My goal is 5,000 words a week but, of course, writing-even nonfiction writing-is a creative art that depends not just on preparation and determination, but on one's state of mind.
How: I am disorganized in everything in my life except my writing. I organize my research over and over, in notecards and three-ring binders. For the manuscript I just completed on Vietnam and America in October 1967, I had 170 binders full of documents and 180 interviews (almost all taped) along with thousands of cross-indexed notecards. I do outlines, but try not to make them too specific. I use them to get an idea of where to start a chapter and where I might end it, and the themes and story line I want to consider following to get from here to there. But I often find that the story takes me somewhere else, organically. I revise the outline as I go along. An outline that is too specific, in my opinion, can lead to traps and not allow you to flow with the best story.
Choosing subjects: I could never write a book about something or someone that did not truly interest me. All of my larger books have been entirely at my initiative and subjects of my choosing--Bill Clinton, Vince Lombardi, Vietnam, and my next book, about Roberto Clemente.
The concept for the Vietnam book, They Marched Into Sunlight, came to me over a period of weeks. I knew that I wanted to write a book about that era, which defined everyone of my generation. I had read many great books about the war, many not-so-great books about the anti-war, and no books that had tried to put the two worlds together, worlds that for all their vast differences were about the same thing. So I came up with the idea of finding a battle and an anti-war protest that were going on simultaneously, and playing out the narratives of those two contemporaneous events, with President Johnson and the White House serving as the hinge between [them]. It was all luck from there, in terms of ending up with incredible events on both sides that propel the book to the end.
Advice: Keep reading, keep writing, keep growing. Don't get trapped with an attitude of writing that will get you short-term attention but leave you stranded when your act grows old. Writing is something you can do for your entire life, if you keep learning.
Photo by Linda Maraniss