Guest Post by Rachel Silber Devlin, Author of Snapshots of My Father, John Silber
When it comes to getting your mind right for writing, the first requirement is ego. Even if you are a humble and reserved person in many ways, you have to believe, at gut level, that your ideas and insights are valuable commodities that an audience out there in the world would be receptive to. And secondly, you have to be the kind of person that doesn’t just fritter those ideas, descriptions, and stories away in idle conversation, but the kind who likes to scribble them down, hone them, get them just right on paper (or device of choice).
With those criteria taken for granted, you may still need to find stimulation—an impetus to get you started. For me, that was the Sequences writing group in Newton, Massachusetts, meeting once a month with a group of women to read poetry and short essays, write a short piece, and then read to each other. In the dynamic of the all-women group, I found a clean directness of motivation and focus. In that way it reminded me of my time as a student at Wellesley College. With the factor of the opposite sex removed from the equation, I felt I could see more clearly the essentials of my fellow writers, their character, humor, and quirks of personality so essential to writing.
When I began writing the biography of my well-known father, John Silber, I didn’t at first talk about it with my writing group, but the energy I derived from each monthly meeting helped propel me along through the lengthy journey, seven years in all.
The life of my father, my Pop, is an inspirational story. Born with a birth defect that shortened his right arm, he nevertheless became an athlete, a scholar, a university president, a strategic thinker and commentator on society and culture, as well as the father of seven children. His accomplishments would be too numerous to mention here—too numerous for them all to be included in a book—and even if they were all enumerated, no matter how impressive and inspiring they were, that alone would be tedious to read.
A phony idol, featuring only the positive aspects, was of no use in my mission. Presenting the stories—warts and all—is how I tried to bring him to life. I was lucky that I had plenty of time to work on the project. When I started telling people I was writing the book, so many had John Silber stories of their own that added greatly to the richness of my text. Also, Boston University Photography allowed me to go through their massive files. The result is that the book is beautifully illustrated with 200 photographs.
I started thinking of my work on this huge project as going for three kinds of gold: Olympic gold, mining for gold, and turning straw into gold.
I thought of training myself to achieve this feat of writing my book as striving for Olympic gold. In this effort I was both athlete and coach. Building my stamina with steady work and gaining muscle by lifting the story into my brain day after day were very strenuous exercises.
As a coach I gave myself rules for getting the words on paper, with daily minimums, and requirements for planning the next day’s work. My job as a coach was also to make sure I got enough rest, but ironically, I found that the very best rest for a writing brain is physical exercise. Walking, working out at a gym, cleaning house, and mucking out stables can all be splendid sources of rest for the fatigued intellect.
The second kind of gold, mining for gold, is something every writer understands, sifting through rubble to find nuggets of gold—the pertinent ideas and facts that forge an interesting and reliable narrative. A strong sequence of events that illuminates the character of your subject can seem like a veritable vein of gold. I used note paper in an unusual color, mauve, to make sure I never confused or misplaced important notes for this project.
The third kind of gold is where you turn your hard work into something finer. Inspirational magic is what takes the written word to the next level. Like Rumpelstiltskin turning straw into gold, you can’t really explain how it happens because it seems to come from nothing.
This golden thunderbolt of inspiration is more likely to strike after you have been struggling with a subject, working for hours, and yet your stories still seem flat and prosaic, and you feel tired of your own voice. If you put your efforts aside and take a break for sleep or exercise, there is a good chance that inspiration will strike with an eloquence and spirit you were hoping for. It is crucial to capture this inspirational gol
Author Rachel Silber Devlin is a teacher, writer, and one of John Silber’s seven children. As a wife, a mother, and a homemaker, she always had a strong sense of who she was apart from any labels. Her new biography, Snapshots of My Father, John Silber, is a clear-eyed vision of this authentic man of principle who had a drive to achieve great things.
Devlin says that she sometimes feels like she and her dad grew up together because she knew him so well from a time when he was young and still learning how to make his way in the world. She divides her time between her homes in Texas and Massachusetts, the states where her children and grandchildren live.
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