Wisdom from Patricia Lakin: Making Dead People Come to Life and So Much More
Guest post by Mari Boyle, Tokyo, Japan
To be honest I’ve never thought about writing biographies, so the SCBWI event on April 11, 2015, was the perfect opportunity for me to learn about the subject from veteran expert Patricia Lakin, or Patty, as she prefers. A prolific writer, Patty, at a youthful 71 years, has authored a number of biographies, including Steve Jobs: Thinking Differently, and six books for the noteworthy "Ready-to-Read" series, all published by Simon & Schuster.
Patty began the seminar by taking us back to her third-grade class. She spoke vividly of her teacher who quashed creativity in favor of perfect penmanship and accurate spelling. Failure to comply might have resulted in a whack across the palms with the "rat hand" (a rattan cane). Despite this poor role model, Patty entered the teaching profession. She later enrolled in the prestigious children’s book writing course at the New School, led by renowned Margaret “Bunny” Gabel, the antithesis of Patty’s third-grade teacher. Gabel gave this advice: “Practice writing every day and write what you care about,” which Patty clearly followed.
Patty regaled us with a multitude of examples on the craft of writing biographies. She talked about the process and the importance of gathering data from a range of sources, a task made easier today with the wealth of electronic tools. She noted the value of “marking the manuscript with your own thumbprint,” or your voice. She illustrated how to create links in the narrative of the subject’s life, to “shine the light” on supporting cast members, and to not be afraid of making connections between your own life and the subject's. By embracing this strategy Patty has been able to investigate avenues of inquiry bypassed by other biographers.
As Patty engaged us with her animated style and humorous anecdotes, the importance of Gabel’s words—“write what you care about”—became clear, and also that it is equally important to care about what you write. Sometimes working 14 hours a day at her desk, Patty acknowledged that biography writing can be an emotional roller-coaster—feeling at times in awe of the individuals' achievements and at other times equally appalled by their personal behavior!
I also realized that the biographer needs a sizeable hatstand to cope with ever-changing roles—researcher, detective, historian, interviewer, psychoanalyst, but most importantly, storyteller. Because that’s what it really comes down to. Putting together all the information you’ve gathered and telling the story of that individual’s life. Gabel had said, “Practice writing every day,” echoing the old adage “practice makes perfect.” That's exactly what Patty does.
Patty shared a whole host of tips and information built up over the years, so I’m very pleased that she chose to follow the advice of Margaret Gabel rather than her third-grade teacher, if only for selfish reasons on my part. Had she not, I may never have had the pleasure of listening to and learning from her.
Mari Boyle is a preschool teacher and educational researcher with a love of picture books.