Robert Caro’s “painstaking process”

I’m tinkering with a nonfiction book idea. By that I mean, I have a book in mind that I’d like to write, and in fact have written bits and pieces of it and collected some research for it, but I have yet to find the right voice, tone and format to tell the story I’d like to tell. I have a long history of getting overwhelmed when attempting longer work, partly because of the sheer volume of information that one needs to research, sift through, organize, and access while writing. Then there’s the organization of the writing itself; will an outline help, or maybe chapter summaries, or should I just wing it? And then there are the technological and logistical choices: Can I store all of my research within Scrivner, and also write a draft in the same program? Will I like that method? Maybe I should use Word, and keep my background info in PDF files. Maybe I will go old school and print all my research out and organize it into a giant binder that I will lug everywhere I go to reference as I am writing…?

So it was with the utmost respect that I read about Robert Caro’s writing routine in the New York Times last weekend, because Caro seems to have a methodical, precise, and disciplined approach to producing books. Caro is a biographer, and his fourth volume in a series about Lyndon Johnson has just been released. Yep, you read that right: four volumes — 36 years and 3,888 pages. This most recent book is 712 pages. You can imagine how much information Caro has acquired in his research of LBJ to produce four lengthy volumes on the subject. You might not imagine that Caro does not use a computer. That’s right, the man has produced thousands of pages of meticulously researched nonfiction without a computer.

The NYT, along with a Q&A on how Robert Caro spends his days, posted a slideshow titled “Robert Caro’s Painstaking Process.” Caro’s process includes walking to an office he maintains (not in his home). He wears a suit to “work”:

Whenever I go to work I wear a jacket and a tie, because I’m inherently quite lazy, and my books take so long to do, and my publishers don’t bug me, so it’s so easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re working harder than you really are. So I do everything possible to make myself remember this is a job I’m going to, and I have to produce every day.

Caro has written all the drafts of his books longhand, on legal pads. “He doesn’t start typing — on an old Smith Corona Electra 210, not a computer — until he has finished four or five handwritten drafts. And then he rewrites the typescript.”

Caro maintains a “master outline” on a large bulletin board which, from the photos, it appears he marks up with a pen, or perhaps crosses sections out once he’s completed them. He monitors revisions with a proof of the table of contents that he turns into a checklist and posts on the same pinboard. All of his notes/research are in filing cabinets.

I’m impressed by this process in part because of its old-fashioned, computerless nature, but also because of its a) success and b) meticulousness (at least from outward appearances). In our future-is-now technologically advanced times, I suppose it’s easy to view handwritten drafts as romantic in some way, but I have had a fascination with Caro’s type of process for a while now. The fascination stems from the fact that as a person who grew up pre-Internet, this used to be my process. I wrote all of my college papers this way, by hand first, followed by a second or third draft that came about as I was typing my handwritten version into a computer. I sometimes miss that process for the absoluteness of the concentration it generated. There was a lot less mental background noise, and a lot more focus.

It’s hard not to contemplate, as I struggle with whether to use Scrivener or Word, and as I battle my own will to try to refrain from using the Internet in the midst of a writing session, or as I try to figure out (for the 50th time) how any writing program’s outline function works, how much time I spend working on technology rather than working on writing. There is a separation that’s happened, a lot more background noise, that forces more distance between my thoughts and what I write. In any case, Caro’s process is one to think of when you find yourself spending a morning organizing electronic files, or importing documents into Scrivener (or whatever writing program you use) or having to turn on Mac Freedom. Not because anyone’s process is any better than anyone else’s, but because sometimes technology has a way of making certain things seem important, when all that really matters is the writing that gets done every day.


8 thoughts on “Robert Caro’s “painstaking process”

  1. This is interesting, Elizabeth. I saw (read? I think!) that story on Caro, but you bored into it and wrung out the gems. Yes, he’s impressive. Sometimes I hunger for messy, tactile, handmade, too. My handwriting is so bad, and so painful after daily notetaking as a journalist for over a decade, that, well, that may be out for me. Yet sometimes the computer feels so cold and dead and wrong.

    I bought Scrivener last winter and just couldn’t get the hang of it, even though I am certain the claims are right, that it’s less clunky than Word becomes when you have generated so much stuff and versions. I am a slow learner, and could probably learn Scrivener if a boss were making me, but on my own I just stared at it. As it is, I have so many Word documents and versions and files it’s scary.

    • Richard, thanks for sharing my post! I’m even more impressed by Caro after reading an excerpt of his latest book in the New Yorker last night. As for Scrivener, I have a couple of friends who have had the same response to it that you did. I go back and forth on it myself. It seems we are all doomed to trying to navigate massive numbers of Word files!

  2. Great blog. The effect of the computer on writing is an endlessly fascinating subject. I write philosophical stuff and word processing created a whole new world for me (yes I’m that old.) I don’t think I would be writing if the computer wasn’t around; its like my thinking Buddie. John Wylie

    • John,
      In a way, I don’t think I’d be writing either, if I couldn’t move as quickly as I can on a computer. Handwriting is great, but sometimes my brain moves faster than my hand! Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Thanks for writing about this. I clipped out that Q&A with Robert Caro and tacked it to my own corkboard last Sunday. I didn’t realize there was an interview and slideshow. Fascinating. I’ve tried Scrivener a few times, but it was too high-octane for me — like driving a sports car when all I want to do is plod down a country road. So it’s back to Word docs. Now I feel better about using notebooks and stacks of paper to write my current project.

  4. Interesting! My first attempts at fiction were clearly all written on typewriters (because I’m ancient), along with a truly dreadful filmscript. I do find I miss the physicality of the process.

    I still find that I write a surprizing amount in longhand that I type up at a later date (wedded to Scrivener though).

    My 8yo has a typewriter that he reserves entirely for writing scripts – he has several on the go – in preference to using a laptop. Very endearing, apart from the noise at 6am.

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