One (Extraordinary) Man’s Writing Process

I’m a fan of Robert Caro. I have been ever since I read his first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, a book so good that I’ve recommended it time and time and time again. One of the best I’ve ever read, all 1,344 pages of it.

I am now reading–listening to, actually–the first volume of his currently four-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power. Like his book on Moses, this one is long, long enough to capture both the early life of LBJ and the lives of the many people LBJ crossed paths and sometimes swords with. More than a few of those people merit a biography themselves, and Caro obliges, writing entire chapters on their lives in order to set up and make sense of LBJ’s interactions with them. Caro’s approach needs to be read to be understood.

As I’ve read Caro, I’ve also watched interviews of him on CSPAN and read what I could find online to uncover his writing process. How does he manage all the information that fills his books. I just found this description from the April 1990 issue of Texas Monthly that sheds light on that subject:

. . . One wall of the room was lined with bookshelves and files, and just above the desk hung a large corkboard displaying the twenty or thirty sheets of paper that form his outline.

The outline is the key to Caro’s working method. “I’m determined to think through the book from beginning to end before I start it,” he told me. .’First I make a very short outline, just a page or two. Then I start filling it in with transitional sentences and key thoughts. You’re really writing the book without the details at that stage. Then what I do is I go through the notes and fill in the details. Let’s say I have a hundred and fifty pages of notes dealing with a particular incident-but of course I don’t; I have nearly a thousand. Anyway, you give a number to each interview. You go through all your file folders, and you index everything in it to that outline. And the outline keeps growing until you’ve got the entire book-an entire wall, twenty or thirty feet long, covered with paper. There it is. And then you come in one day, and you look at it, and you have to start writing.”

I rarely write from an outline, but then, I’ve never written anything as long or as well-developed as Robert Caro has. I long to do so. If imitation is a form of flattery, I think I may need to flatter Mr. Caro to that end.