The Writing Life

(Laurel Gabler)
By Neal Gabler
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Biographers are many things: pedants, detectives, thieves, psychologists, to name just a few. But perhaps above all they must be Method actors, Stanislavskians who rummage through their own psyches to understand those of their subjects. Good biographers write from the inside -- not only from inside their subjects but also from inside themselves, working toward a convergence of writer and subject.

Some of this is inevitable. In the years of research that serious biography requires (seven in the case of my new book about Walt Disney), you live so closely with your subject that eventually you begin to channel him. You adopt his patterns. You assume his thought processes. You experience his emotions. Sometimes you drop the "act" at the end of the workday. Sometimes you don't. It follows you the way, say, Capt. Jack followed Johnny Depp when he was making "Pirates of the Caribbean": Depp, I have been told, continued to wear his eye patch and bellow "aargh!" even after the cameras had ceased to run. Even if you want to shed the character, after years of work it becomes harder and harder to silence the voice inside your head. I always say that I know my research is done when I know the subject so well -- and have internalized him so fully -- that I can anticipate the answer to any question about him. He tells me.

Some biographers actively invite this sort of identification, understanding that it gives a book life and texture. As for me, I always research chronologically, insofar as it is possible -- beginning with a subject's birth and working my way toward his death. This allows me to stay in the moment, which is, after all, how lives are actually lived, and it provides the element of suspense that hovers over each of us. I know, of course, that young Walt Disney will ultimately be successful, that he will invent Mickey Mouse, make "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and build Disneyland. But Walt didn't know. He was simply living out his life. I want to take that uncertain journey with him; and I want my readers to take it with him, too.

This approach has consequences not only for a book but for a biographer. When I wrote my biography of gossip columnist Walter Winchell, I found myself becoming helplessly antagonistic, like Winchell. Born on the other side of the tracks to a family with airs but without status, Winchell hated elites, hated the kind of superiority they exuded, and he used his column to take them down, empowering his readers in the process. In writing about Winchell, I was energized by his hatreds and by his power, and I hoped to convey those to the reader as a way of capturing the relationship he had with his fans. My subject's fiery antagonism even found its way into my prose.

Of course it is impossible to determine whether this identification is a function of choice or a matter of surrender. Consciously or not, we tend to select subjects who reflect us, and I probably chose the Hollywood moguls, who were the subjects of my first book, An Empire of Their Own , because they felt marginalized, as I did at one point in my life; and I chose Winchell precisely because he was a populist, as I regard myself. Similarly, I most likely chose Disney in part because he was an obsessive workaholic, and I have that tendency. Either way, the subject subsumes the writer. Either way, the mogul, Winchell or Disney -- c'est moi!

But there is another, more complicated aspect to this process of Method, one that is almost Pirandellian -- namely that the writing of a book itself frequently becomes a metaphor for the life being written about. In An Empire of Their Own , the first generation of Jewish movie moguls saw themselves as debarred from the corridors of American influence and were forced to construct an alternative if they were ever to exercise power. That alternative was Hollywood. Feeling debarred myself as a young writer without contacts or clout, I used my book as my own empire -- a personal Hollywood that functioned for me as the film industry had functioned for them. More, just as the Hollywood Jews had had to find a way to reconcile their Jewishness with their Americanness, I as the author had to modulate the balance between my own Americanness and Jewishness so that the book did not become fodder for anti-Semites, and I had to do so without sacrificing its content.

In Winchell , Walter Winchell seemed hell-bent on slashing his way through the establishment, using his outsider status to fuel his passion. As an outsider to the literary establishment, still without contacts or clout, I came to feel very much like Winchell while I researched and then wrote the book. Although I realized this only long after the book had been completed, writing about Winchell was my way of doing what he had done: setting myself up in opposition to the prevailing power, especially since there were many who believed that Winchell was too reprehensible to deserve a serious biography. Even Life the Movie , my book-length essay on the way in which the entertainment industry has affected ordinary life, was an object lesson in its own theme. In writing it, I found the book always perilously balanced between accessibility and complexity, between entertaining and provoking the reader.

In the case of Walt Disney , the convergence of my book with Walt's career seemed especially intense. Walt Disney lived his life with excruciating pressures, especially financial ones. I wrote the book with those same pressures, sometimes sweaty-palmed that I wouldn't finish it before the money ran out, so that while I was writing scenes of Walt Disney racing deadlines as the studio hemorrhaged money, I was also living them. Walt had pressures from his own family, most of all from his wife, Lillian, who was ever fearful that her husband's schemes would fail, plunging them into disaster. My own wife harbored similar anxieties, fretting that there was a very good chance no one would care about what I was writing and that it would all be for nought -- seven years wasted. Walt was simultaneously wracked by doubt and elevated by feelings of grandiosity. How could you build Disneyland otherwise? My own doubts were leavened by a grandiose belief that a biography of Walt Disney mattered. Walt sacrificed everything for his work. There were times I feared that I was sacrificing everything for my book. Finally, Walt could tolerate nothing less than perfection. I labored in my own desire for perfection, though I came to realize, as Walt himself did when he had to release "Snow White" even though the Prince seemed to jiggle because his outline wasn't consistent from animation cel to animation cel, that sometimes you just have to live with the shimmy.

The result of all these correspondences between the author's life and the subject's is a book that -- whether it is good or not -- is thoroughly lived in and, more, lived through. I feel that I know Walt Disney intimately not because I researched his life, spoke with his family, friends and employees, and read his notes, letters and interviews. I know Walt Disney because for seven years he and I lived parallel lives. ยท

© 2006 The Washington Post Company