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.

The View from Oman

Through the window of my hotel in Muscat, Oman, I see the Gulf of Oman, which leads to the Arabian (or Persian, depending on your politics) Gulf. Off in the mists of the horizon sit a trio of oil tankers. They’ve been docked offshore for the duration of my visit here—four days and counting.

I’ve been thinking a lot about journeys—this one, which I didn’t particularly want—and journeys in general. My two grandmothers, maternal and paternal, both set their sights on the wider world, and for women born in the last years of the 19th century showed surprising travel mettle. One took tours to South America and Spain in her older age. The other moved with her engineer husband to the Caribbean in the early 1920s and spent the next 30 years there, raising kids on a sisal plantation in Haiti, battling who knows what illnesses and fears. I’ve inherited their wanderlust but not, it seems to me increasingly as I age, their apparently singleminded devotion to its pursuit.

I find it harder and harder to leave home.

I find the thrill of travel more and more elusive. My curiosity—that faithful driver deep inside the reptilian human brain—is waning.

So why go? In this instance, because the trip was more or less thrust on me. I said yes before I knew what I was doing, and here I am, in Oman, for a conference about cancer, which is its own unwelcome journey, of course, to use what’s both a cliché and a reality for the dozens of people I’ve met here—women, mostly, whose nobility in the face of their unwanted travels I find humbling. I’m here to talk about how stories can empower those who have cancer and those whose job it is to report on the disease, but it’s the stories I’m hearing that are teaching me.

As my flight took off four+ days ago, I thought of that term “liftoff.” You lift off from the earth and plunge like a needle through the clouds, and with luck into the clarity of a blue sky or a starpocked night. Maybe that’s what still impels me to say yes to these less-and-less welcome embarkations—the chance to lift off the mind’s clutter, shed the routines and rituals I take for granted, see those oil tankers on the horizon and know that we’re connected. To meet the intrepid women at this conference, voyagers who in so many ways remind me of my grandmothers: their passports stamped with the record of their travels and their travails, open still, ready for the next page.