A few days ago, a reporter who covers writers with books-in-progress asked me to explain Emmett and this bio in a sentence or two. “Just a sound bite kind of description,” she said.
This gave me pause.
Emmett Wilson in less than two sentences?
I hesitated — it isn’t because I don’t think I understand him, but we are talking about a complex human being. The request, frankly, makes me feel cold; much more so than the frigid temps we’ve had around Maryland for the past several weeks.
I wouldn’t want to be summed up in two sentences or less. Would you?
But I do understand the request. How does one tell — explain — the story of another man’s life simply?
Emmett’s story is complicated. Initially, I did not think it was so, but after almost two years of reading and gathering information, I stand corrected.
In doing biographical research on a long deceased subject, we:
- Collect all of the data available in existence.
- Read it.
- Catalog/organize it.
- Analyze it.
- Report it.
Simple? Yes, if I am looking at Emmett on the surface, and if I am doing a completely objective biography. The writerly question I then have, is: In telling the objective story, is that really Emmett’s story?
I’ve come to believe that the totally objective approach isn’t a true enough picture of the man.
And, in telling a ‘true’ story such as Emmett’s, how much can one really know about another person to tell his story accurately?
I’ve lived with Emmett for months on end, thinking about him, parsing out his life on paper, trying on his life, trying on his thoughts, even, to be the best of my ability. I’ve read the books he probably read (with the exception of Blackstone and other legal tomes); read the newspapers he read. I’ve listened to music he heard played at home and elsewhere during his lifetime.
Among other things, I’ve walked the streets he walked; visited the offices he worked in; drove by the homes he lived in in Pensacola (alas, I could not get permission to visit them on my first trip).
I visited Emmett’s childhood home which is (mostly) architecturally unchanged. I’ve read everything I can find about him and his family (and there is still info out there that I’m seeking and probably will uncover in time). I’ve even had a few cups of coffee with him, although I was the one drinking the coffee and doing the talking.
My point is, Emmett is more than just an objective topic at this point. He was complicated, and at times a dark and troubled man. There were many facets to him, and a reader would not immediately see that in the two-dimensional articles written about him in the contemporary media.
I feel strongly that I know Emmett; he was much more than the sum of his life in newspaper clips. Right now, the idea of summing up Emmett’s life — or anyone’s life, really — in two sound-bite type sentences seems ludicrous. Disrespectful, even.
Still, there is a huge difference in knowing versus understanding your subject. Without ever having interacted with him in person, and minus his personal journals or scrapbooks, I acknowledge that I may never completely understand him.
And truthfully, from what I have learned, even when Emmett was alive, those closest to him had a hard time understanding him. He kept to himself, even though he was a social butterfly at times. He didn’t mistake acquaintances for friends, but still, those he called friends were often kept at arms length. He kept the deepest, darkest thoughts to himself.
Maybe this is what I tell the writer:
“Emmett was an enigma. I love solving puzzles.”
Boom. Two sentences.
I’m only kidding. I’d never do that to Emmett.
I honestly don’t know what I’m going to say to this writer just yet. Probably nothing for a while. I like the fact that another writer is interested in the story, though.
Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus