Last Things First

The next issue of Esquire includes a great profile of Robert Caro, the legendary biographer of LBJ and Robert Moses.  Caro’s long been a hero of mine, ever since I read Master of the Senate and watched his three-hour profile on C-Span back in 2002.

The Esquire profile focuses on Caro’s writing process, making much of the fact that Caro plans each book’s closing lines early in the process, and then writes the other thousand pages with the destination firmly in mind:

Caro has always had a second anchor. The way he knows the last line for the final volume on Johnson, he has always known the last line for each book before he writes the rest of it. “This is the way I do it,” he says. “I’m not saying this is the right way to do it, but this is the right way for me to do it.” He has done it this way since he sat in Flushing Meadows Park in 1967, watching Robert Moses dedicate “a huge marble bench for reflection donated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York,” Caro later wrote. In that moment at the park, Caro found himself grasping. He had already done so much reporting, but he still couldn’t see the shape of The Power Broker. “It was so big, so immense,” he says, “I couldn’t figure out what to do with the material.” Then he watched Moses give his dedication. “Someday, let us sit on this bench and reflect on the gratitude of man,” Moses said over loudspeakers. The builder was already being broken down by then, his legacy already starting to crumble, and his few still-loyal lieutenants in the audience nodded and began to whisper to one another: Couldn’t people see what he had done? Why weren’t they grateful?

Why weren’t they grateful?

Caro had his last line. “All of a sudden, I knew what the book was.”

He gestures at the pile of paper on his desk.

“So with every book,” he says, “I have to write to the last line.”

It’s a good lesson, and it reminds me of another favorite writer, Mark Helprin.  He describes his own writing process in similar, if more poetic, terms:

“What comes to me is a diamond, found on the shore of a lake,” he continues. “Not a cut diamond, just the raw stone; it could be the last line of the story or the image of the last line. A poet might pick up that diamond and that will be his poem. But as a writer of prose I pick it up and throw it as far into the lake as possible. And then, perhaps in a zigzag course, go swimming toward it.”

That comes from a fairly recent (and excellent) profile of Helprin; he expanded the point years earlier, in Paris Review:

I certainly know how it will end. In fact, I build everything toward the last sentence, which is the first thing that occurs to me in writing a book. It’s like throwing a stone into a lake and then swimming and diving to fetch it. You can swim all over the place, you can dive and weave among the reeds, you can do anything you want, but when you finish, and you grasp the stone, the path between it and the place you start is a straight line. This “chalk line” is what I use to keep my intentions honorable, my plot simple, and my themes in reverberation.

Knowing the beginning and the end means that the middle is where the surprises are, where the characters and the book take on lives of their own, where the work becomes an adventure—but a disciplined adventure, because the ultimate purpose and the origin are known and firmly kept in mind. This fits quite nicely, in an aesthetic sense, with the notion that God does not play dice with the universe.

If Helprin and Caro agree, then who am I to disagree?