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If you like Doris Kearns Goodwin's story, you might also like:
Stephen Ambrose,
David Herbert Donald,
Shelby Foote,
David McCullough,
Peggy Noonan
and Neil Sheehan

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Doris Kearns Goodwin in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Justice & Citizenship
Freedom and Justice

Doris Kearns Goodwin's recommended reading: Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox

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NPR Interview

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Doris Kearns Goodwin
Doris Kearns Goodwin
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Doris Kearns Goodwin Interview (page: 6 / 9)

Pulitzer Prize for History

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  Doris Kearns Goodwin

How has criticism of your work affected you?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: It makes you realize something.

As much research as you think you're doing, you're going to mess up, without a question. There are some times -- I mean, I got the date of Roosevelt's birthday wrong! I can't believe it! I knew what his birthday was, and somehow I'd typed it wrong into the typewriter, and in the first edition of the book I had it the wrong day. Then immediately one reader called me up. Luckily now, the great thing about books is they print new and newer editions every few weeks, so you can correct your mistakes. And then, the next edition that comes out had the right date in it. There will be more serious things like that, that you might get wrong. Somebody will come up to you afterwards and say, "You know, you just didn't interpret this right. I was there," and maybe you didn't interview that person. What I think I've learned is that you're never going to get it all right, and you can't obsess about having a fact wrong or a date wrong or something like that, as long as you tried as best you could. And you know some of them you will be able to change with the new editions of the book or the paperback. But even if it's still wrong, if it is not meant, if you've done the kind of research that you're sure is pretty good, then you just have to have confidence in it, so that nothing is perfect in life. I think that is what the criticism has helped me to understand.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Sometimes people will find things that are wrong. Sometimes they will even find an approach that you took wrong. If you think you took the right approach, then you just absorb the criticism, but you don't change your mind. Sometimes you read something and you'll say, "You know, that person is right. I didn't spend enough time on that subject and I wish I had. Next time, I'll think about that."

Do you ever have any doubts about yourself or your ability as you proceed through your work?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: When the first book came out on Lyndon Johnson, before the reviews came out, I was certainly not sure how it would be received. It was the first. I had never even written articles before, much less a book, and I was young in writing it, and a lot was riding on it, because I needed to stay teaching for my tenure at Harvard. I needed it for my reputation as an historian. So I remember, in those months before the book came out, being quite scared. I mean, there's no question. The weird thing is -- I mean, luckily the reviews were wonderful. So I had this quick sense of being able to feel somewhat confident about it. But then you think, once the first one was really successful, then you would be fine when the second one came out. But I got nervous all over again, and I think you almost have to. I think it's like anybody who performs. If you're not nervous each time a new book comes out -- or even when I'm writing a book, if I finish one chapter and I go to write the next chapter, I wonder, "Can I write this next chapter? What do I have to say? I don't remember what I'm going to do."

[ Key to Success ] Courage

So you never feel so confident -- even after it has accumulated over a period of time -- that you lose that sense of worry about what it is going to be like. Maybe one of these books will not work. Then it is going to be much tougher to have to absorb that. I haven't had that experience yet, but it certainly might happen.

Have you thought about it?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: To be honest, when I think about Lincoln, that's probably the scariest one, because so much has been written about him. I have to make sure that I have an angle that other people haven't quite used, or else you really might have the people saying, "Why did she choose this subject when so much else has been written about it?" That one scares me. But I'm five years away, so hopefully by the time I get to the end of it, I'll have figured out something that I feel is different, rather than just saying what everyone else said.

So you are confident you will be able to find the solution?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Not completely confident. I don't think I'll feel confident until I find the solution. I've been able to do it before. All three of the subjects I've written about before were ones that had been written about a lot: Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedys and the Roosevelts. It's not so much that you come up with a totally original approach. It's just that your story is somewhat different from the other ways that other people have done it. I don't quite know how to do that yet with Lincoln. So until I figure that out, I won't feel confident. But I have a lot of time.

We've focused primarily on your writing career, naturally. But becoming a professor at Harvard is quite an achievement in its own right. What did you get from that experience?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think what really drew me to graduate school, more than being a writer was the thought that I wanted to be a teacher. I loved teaching at Harvard, it was so much fun. This course that I taught on the presidency, I had like 350 kids in it. It was in the late '60s, early '70s, and the kids were so politically active at that time. You couldn't get through a lecture without kids arguing with you, and it was wonderful. Much more lively in some ways than it is today, unfortunately. It was a wonderful time to become a young teacher. I also taught seminars, and had it not been for the fact that I got married and had kids and didn't feel I could do it all, I would probably still be teaching today. I still lecture a lot around the country, so I can stay in touch with young students. I've just been elected to the Board of Overseers at Harvard. My youngest son is about to become a freshman at Harvard, so I can oversee what he does the next four years by being on the Board of Overseers. So I haven't really left Harvard. I keep going back and doing seminars and stuff there, but it's not a full-time job anymore.

On the basis of your experience, what is your advice to young women and young men about balancing work and family?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: When I was at Harvard, in graduate school, I was in a seminar with the great psychologist Erik Eriksson. And I remember he taught us, or tried to teach, that the richest lives, in the long run, somehow balance work, love and play in equal order. He tried to define for us what that meant. He said, "You have to commit yourself equally to each of those realms. Work is the obvious one, with the perseverance and the discipline to do something that you love, and to do it well. But," he said, "even in the work -- in the spheres of love and play -- loving meaning friendships, family, children -- you have to commit yourself, and in energy and emotion, so that they really become an important part of your life. And even play," he said, "If you're going to be involved in a sport, if it is a participant sport, you have to play it enough so that you can enjoy it, or if it is a spectator sport, follow it fully enough so it really becomes an emotional part of you."

The most important thing he taught me, I didn't listen to at all at the time.

I was working for Lyndon Johnson. I was still teaching at Harvard, or a graduate student at Harvard, and I thought, "Oh, I can worry about marriage and play later. Work is what really matters." It was only the experience of watching Lyndon Johnson, as I said earlier, that taught me that he hadn't the play part of his life, he didn't have the love part of his life, and that the balancing was really important. I think what I learned, more than anything, was that you can't have it all balanced perfectly at any one time. When I was young, it was much more balanced toward work. When I had my children, it was much more balanced toward love and family, and I didn't get a lot of work done. But you have lots of time left. My youngest is about to go to college. So I'll have a lot more time than I had before, and I'll be able to do more work than I did before. So you can't ask of it to be perfectly balanced at any time, but your hope is, before you die, you've somehow had each of those spheres come to life.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

I think that's probably more important than success in any one of those spheres alone.

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This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 09:16 EDT
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