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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
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

Related Links:
Doris Kearns Goodwin.com
Poynter Fellowship

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Doris Kearns Goodwin
 
Doris Kearns Goodwin
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Doris Kearns Goodwin Interview (page: 8 / 9)

Pulitzer Prize for History

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  Doris Kearns Goodwin

What does the American Dream mean to you?


Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think what the American Dream means to me is the fact that -- what founded this country -- when I think about those posters that were put up in Europe which said, "Come to America and you'll have golden sidewalks. The land will be yours." There was something so inspirational about the fact that these immigrants from all over the world felt that here was a place of freedom, a place of opportunity. There is still something about Ellis Island, whenever I see it, that makes me realize that the root, in some ways, of this country was that people felt that this was a new land, without a class society, without an aristocratic background, where if you worked hard you could become what you want to become. It's only partly true. I mean, obviously there's racism in this society. There's economic benefits that go to people who are wealthy. There are some people who don't really have a chance. But on the other hand, there's always somebody who makes it through -- even from the worst ghetto -- that makes it through to the top of the society, and that's not true in a lot of other countries. I think that's still what the American Dream means: that with perseverance, with hard work, you can become something, that the classes won't prevent you from becoming, that there's a movement up that ladder with hard work.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream


What one book would you select to read to a grandchild?


Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think if I were reading to a grandchild, I might read Tolstoy's War and Peace. I love literature and fiction. In fact, when I'm not reading for my own books, I tend to read fiction even more than non-fiction. But the kind of fiction that I love the most is ones that tell stories about characters in a time, so that you learn from it at the same time. I've read War and Peace several times, and it can take a whole summer. If I had a grandchild to read it to, I can see it taking a whole summer. They would learn about Russia, they would learn about history, they would learn about human nature. They would learn about, "Can the individual make a difference or is it great forces?" Tolstoy is always battling with those large issues. Mostly, a whole world would come alive for them through that book. So I think I'd have a great time with that.


What advice do you have for young people who are interested in writing and perhaps are suffering from that common ailment, a writer's block? How do you get going?


Doris Kearns Goodwin: I remember in high school, the reason I would be paralyzed from writing so often was that they'd give us the wrong kind of assignments to write. I remember once this horrible essay, having to write, "Experience is an arch under which we all walk." I had no idea what it meant and I still don't know what it means to this day.


You'd sit there with abstract thoughts and try and write them on the paper. So the most important thing is, whatever the assignment is that you're given to write, go out and find some small detail that you can write about -- if you're describing a neighborhood, describing a house, describing a person or describing the reaction to a book -- so that you're bringing some material to the essay, or whatever it is that you write.


Do research. Even if you're writing the college essay in some ways, you can do a little bit of research to bring it to life. You can't just expect it all to come from your head. I think the mistaken idea that we have about writing is that somebody sits by a lake and they look at the clouds. There are poets who can do that, who generate their own thoughts with nothing other than what's in their head. Ninety-nine percent of the rest of the writing is from work you build up. When I do research, I have done -- 90 percent of my time is the research, the other ten percent is the writing. So I don't have to face a blank piece of paper. I can look at this as a quote that I have from somewhere. This is an interview that I'm going to take from that. So it's not as scary as having to have it come from your head. So I think the most important thing I would tell kids is, "Don't think of it as something that has to come from your head."

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


Even if you're writing a book report, go read other people's essays about that book. It doesn't have to just come from you. Think about what the other person said, then have your own reaction to it. Don't try and start the first paragraph. It's always impossible to have your first sentence and first paragraph. Start in the middle of the thing and then go back and write your first paragraph, because otherwise, that can spend three days figuring out how to open the thing, because the opening paragraph has so much weight to it.

What are your memories of English class? Were you always very successful in that?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Oh, not at all. When I was younger, I didn't understand detail and information. I kept thinking it had to be big thoughts. For example, if you're writing about Plato or Aristotle, and you're only 17 years old, how are you really going to understand what they're saying? If I were to do it over again now, I would just take a piece of what they were saying and understand that, and apply it something else that I knew about, instead of trying to be a miniature Plato, which you cannot be at that time. So I never felt really confident about writing until I wrote the Lyndon Johnson book.

Just doing that gave you the confidence?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Doing that, which came from research. Just knowing that there were building blocks to writing, as there is to anything else. That confidence grew, and I thought the next book was better. Then the next one, hopefully, was better than that.

We were speaking to R.L. Stine, a very prolific writer. He talked about the importance of having an outline and then basically following that roadmap. Is that something that you do also?


Doris Kearns Goodwin: Whenever I start a book, I make a very long outline. Not so much A, B, C, 1, 2, 3, 4, but really paragraph outline of the episodes that I want to cover in the book. And it's before I know a lot. When I do that, it is what I, as a layperson, would want to know about, say, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Then what happens is, you get so deep into it, that after a while you're off on a million tangents. And I always go back to the outline, because what it was in the outline, that I wanted to know as a layperson, is what the lay reader is probably going to want to know too. So it's a nice reminder to yourself, if you're getting so deep into something that really the reader is not going to care about at all.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


For example, I've always loved medical history, because I have two sisters who are nurses, and a brother-in-law who is a surgeon. John Fitzgerald, Rose Kennedy's father, went to Harvard Medical School for a year, in 1884. So when I was writing the Kennedy book, I used it to write 30 pages about the state of medicine in the 1880s. What was anesthesia like? What were hospitals like? It was completely off the track, because as the editors finally said to me, 'This would be great if this man became a doctor. But he dropped out of medical school after a year and he became a politician. What are you doing?" I said, "I don't know what I'm doing." and that's what happens sometimes. If I had gone back to my outline, I would have seen at the beginning I didn't think of having 30 pages on medicine in the 1880s. So sometimes that first brush of an outline tells you the general place you want to go with the book, and you have to trust that. It's sort of an instinct. When you become a specialist, you sometimes lose that layman's approach. So I always pull myself back to it by the outline.

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