A Type of Portraiture

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E.L. Doctorow's

E.L. Doctorow’s “Homer and Langley”. Source: Amazon.com

Last Thursday, as I was driving around in D.C., I was listening to The Diane Rehm Show on WAMU. It was a rebroadcast of an interview she conducted with E.L. Doctorow (one of my favorite writers) who had recently died. The subject was Doctorow’s book, “Homer and Langley.”

Doctorow’s book is based on the true story of the Collyer brothers: Homer was blind, Langley was his caretaker, and a hoarder of epic proportions. In 1947, Langley tripped and became buried in a booby trap of hoarded mess, and Homer starved to death. Doctorow’s story is based on facts and research; but, it is fictionalized (i.e., writing the book from the perspective of Homer. Doctorow was a teenager when the Collyer deaths took place).

Historical fiction, or creative non-fiction?

Doctorow called it fiction. But, there is so much information in his story of the Collyers. I listened closely to this interview, not only because of that, but also because a lot of what Doctorow says about the writing process, and having to understand your subject via a lot of secondary sources, resonates strongly with me as I write Emmett’s story. That’s exactly what I’ve had to do, too.

Here’s a quote directly from the WAMU transcript of that interview:

Source: The Diane Rehm Show

The story as portraiture. Source: The Diane Rehm Show

Writing about another person (such as Emmett), in fact, is a type of portraiture. It isn’t really Emmett, per se, but I sense that I’m fairly close in capturing his personality on the written canvas, so to speak. At least I feel that way. I can tell you that in 27 months of studying Emmett, he is not easily summed up in two sentences or less. He was a lot more than an obsolete young congressman who drank himself to death (which is what the press and others summed him up as less than 48 hours after his death in 1918).

Those 1918 reporters missed some things in their nice, tight summary of Emmett’s life. Well, there was a war on, and a pandemic stirring about. Those reporters were otherwise busy.

The other interesting point from Rehm’s interview with Doctorow was in the discussion of the Collyers’ behavior, and how that was a focal point of the book. But Doctorow wasn’t simply shining a light on mental struggles of these men to gawk at them — and I can completely relate to that. In writing about the Collyers’ mental issues (and for me, Emmett’s addictions) and how these mental illnesses overtook these lives, it is more of about awareness of how life can throw you a curve ball or three. These guys were incapable of dealing with life on life’s terms.

Also, in the Collyers’ case (as with Emmett), there weren’t many resources at the time to deal with their specific disorders. Even today, people are reluctant to come forward with their own OCD or alcoholism issues. It isn’t a crime to struggle with these problems. But there is so much of one’s life wasted in NOT dealing with them.

Now that we of the 21st century purport to know more, we can reach out more often. We still have a long way to go, though, to help those struggling. We are reluctant to reach out to those folks. These folks may be reluctant to ask for help.

These are good things worth exploring about ourselves as we discover the stories of both Emmett and the Collyers.

Finally, Doctorow has a great quote that I like to use in my classes at the University of Maryland, and a listener actually sent in the same quote and it was mentioned it in the interview.

Good advice for the writing life. Source: The Diane Rehm Show.

Good advice for the writing life. Source: The Diane Rehm Show.

The writing process for Emmett’s book, really, truly, has only just begun. My husband likes to remind me that I’ve spent over two years doing research, gathering information, and that’s not writing, per se, but it is critical, because I would not be able to make any progress without data with which to build Emmett’s story. This isn’t a McBiography, or McHistorical Fiction. It’s gonna take some time.

It’s not speeding along, it’s coming along right in front of me, a little at a time. That’s the nature of this particular story about a man’s life. That’s the way life is, anyway. One day at a time.


The transcript and audio of the Diane Rehm show rebroadcast can be found here.

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