i.m. Stephen B. Oates (1936 – 2021)

Among the lessons I learned from Stephen B. Oates: avoid the curséd passive voice (pronounced with a Texas Panhandle twang and an accented “ed”); always put arms and legs on your minor characters; biography is a spring art of bringing the dead back to life; you too can write, you too can publish.

And so we did, his students. Because he showed us how. First day of his biography seminar, Amherst, Massachusetts, winter 1983: box of notes on the seminar table. “Here’s how I do it,” he began. He was a little man, wiry and gray as the miniature schnauzer I later learned he owned.

He talked us through the process (all of it pre-computer of course). Boxes with hundreds of notes, categorized in sections, all of it cross-referenced. A separate box for bibliography. A typed outline. “I print out the day’s outline and turn on music”—spirituals for his biography of Martin Luther King—”and read through the day’s material. I memorize it, then set it down and go upstairs and write. Closest I can get to writing from the imagination.”

He communed with his subjects—channeled Martin Luther King Jr., lived with Lincoln, died with Nat Turner. Little wonder his marriages suffered, or that, for years, he drank (I remember sharing the dregs of a bottle of Gallo with him in my grad-school kitchen at 2 a.m. one morning while we talked biography). He inhabited spook worlds, lived and breathed the lives of others.

He taught us that we could do the same. From him I learned the techniques of creative nonfiction, found a métier, summoned a courage, in my twenties, I can’t easily conjure now. When I eventually went into the classroom myself to teach, Stephen was my model.

Find what drives your students and push them, he’d shown me. Teach them they’ve got something to say, and a way of saying it. Show them how to do it—literally, talk them through the process of research, queries, publication, revision. This stuff’s not precious. A kid from Pampa, Texas—father a mechanic, mother a secretary—can sit at the table with the grown-ups.

After I finished that seminar in 1983, Stephen invited me to join a group he’d formed in Amherst, a small assemblage of former students committed to biography. We met monthly for dinner, read each other’s work, talked shop. We published lives of Elinor Frost, Eva LeGallienne, Mary Emma Woolley, Eleanora Duse, Federico García Lorca). We stayed in touch for the next 40 years. Even when he was battling debilitating back pain, Stephen was the soul behind it all: the quintessential teacher who never really retired from teaching.

He never grew cynical (not even—not especially—when charges of plagiarism splashed him into the deep end of the news stream). He held onto his reverence for the craft even after illness kept him from writing. He believed there was nothing more important, more glorious, than the moment you set the outline aside and go upstairs to your desk and start to write.

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