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My So-Called Writing Life

March 25, 2014  • Walter Isaacson

I once was asked to contribute a piece for a section of the Washington Post called “The Writing Life.” This caused me some consternation. A little secret of many nonfiction writers like me—especially those of us who spring from journalism—is that we don’t quite think of ourselves as true writers, at least not of the sort who get called to reflect upon “the writing life.” At the time, my daughter, with all the wisdom and literary certitude that flowed from being a 13-year-old aspiring novelist, pointed out that I was not a “real writer” at all. I was merely, she said, a journalist and biographer.

To that I plead guilty. During one of his Middle East shuttle missions in 1974, Henry Kissinger ruminated, to those on his plane, about such leaders as Anwar Sadat and Golda Meir. “As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces,” he said. “But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.” I have always been one of those who felt that history was shaped as much by people as by impersonal forces. That’s why I liked being a journalist, and that’s why I became a biographer.

For many years I worked at Time magazine, whose cofounder, Henry Luce, had a simple injunction: tell the history of our time through the people who make it. He almost always put a person (rather than a topic or event) on the cover, a practice I tried to follow when I became editor. I would do so even more religiously if I had it to do over again. When highbrow critics accused Time of practicing personality journalism, Luce replied that Time did not invent the genre, the Bible did. That’s the way we have always conveyed lessons, values, and history: through the tales of people.

In particular, I have been interested in creative people. By creative people I don’t mean those who are merely smart. As a journalist, I discovered that there are a lot of smart people in this world. Indeed, they are a dime a dozen, and often they don’t amount to much. What makes someone special is imagination or creativity, the ability to make a mental leap and see things differently. As Einstein noted, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

The first real writer I ever met was Walker Percy, the Louisiana novelist whose wry philosophical depth and lightly-worn grace still awe me when I revisit my well-thumbed copies of The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman. He lived on the Bogue Falaya, a bayou-like, lazy river across Lake Pontchartrain from my hometown of New Orleans. My friend Thomas was his nephew, and thus he became “Uncle Walker” to all of us kids who used to go up there to fish, capture sunning turtles, water ski, and flirt with his daughter Ann. It was not quite clear what Uncle Walker did. He had trained as a doctor, but he never practiced. Instead, he worked at home all day. Ann said he was a writer, but it was not until his first novel, The Moviegoer, had gained recognition that it dawned on me that writing was something you could do for a living, just like being a doctor or a fisherman or an engineer.

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