From Diary to Biography

The University of Nebraska Press, the umbrella publisher for Potomac Books, recently asked me to write a blog post for its "Behind the Book" series. 

I wrote about a topic that people often ask me about--how I used Julia Wilbur's diaries to write my book, A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time. You can see the original post on the University of Nebraska Press Blog, but here is the text:

[Begin post]

Diaries offer the closest thing we have to getting inside someone’s head, especially if that someone is no longer living. And so, for many years, I have gone “inside the head” of abolitionist and suffragist Julia Wilbur (1815-1895) as I delved into her diaries. From there, I wrote the biography A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose.

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Many people have asked me how to use diary entries to write a book. Some—perhaps you are one of them—have an ancestor’s diary or access to personal papers in an archive. Here are six suggestions, based on how I approached my project:

  • Absorb the originals: I not only read, but also transcribed many years of Julia Wilbur’s diaries before attempting to write this book. Transcribing was laborious but the physical act of writing what I read connected Wilbur’s words in my head and, I would have to add, heart. (I learned several years into the project that Wilbur kept a parallel set of diaries; a group of volunteers “crowd-sourced” the transcribing of this second set of diaries.)
  • Shape a main focus: Annotated books of diaries and letters are interesting, but I wanted my book to be more of a narrative. This choice led to tough decisions, namely, what to leave out. I wrote, and rewrote, a two-page summary of what I thought the main message of the biography should be. Wilbur lived from 1815 to 1895, yet ten of my sixteen chapters cover just four years. But those four years happen to fall during the Civil War.
  • Trust, but verify: Wilbur wrote about many fascinating places and events, including a trip to the Bull Run battlefield, the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, and a trip to Richmond a month after the end of the war. In these cases and more, I could not just rely on her accounts (although they proved amazingly accurate). Other primary and secondary sources corroborated, and sometimes challenged, her observations.
  • Cut, cut, cut: Readers want to “hear” Wilbur’s own voice, but their eyes will glaze over long excerpts with extraneous information. As biographers, we need to extract the best kernel for an excerpt (keeping accuracy in mind). For example, Wilbur considered turning age thirty a “peculiar period in my pilgrimage,” a universal way to describe this milestone. I quoted that phrase directly but not the many sentences in the diary before and after it.
  • Paint the full picture: We may wish our subjects were perfect and their writing unblemished, but they were human. And we have to weigh the fact that a diary or letter to a friend or family member can be a way to let off steam. Strike a balance between not overly magnifying the unflattering parts but also not ignoring them.
  • Acknowledge the holes: Fortunately for me, Julia Wilbur wrote down many thoughts and dreams in her diary. Thus, anything between quotation marks in the book are her words, not mine. But in her and other diaries, vital information can be lacking—never written, written too cryptically, or perhaps crossed out or erased later. For example, Wilbur wrote about a sister’s marital difficulties obliquely, although the sister lived with her for many years and evidence points to a divorce.
 Julia Wilbur's diary record some of her experiences on April 14 and 15, 1865. President Lincoln was shot the night of April 14.

Julia Wilbur's diary record some of her experiences on April 14 and 15, 1865. President Lincoln was shot the night of April 14.

Having access to Julia Wilbur’s diaries gave me a way into her life and into the life of the country in a time of conflict and change. She was a warm, principled woman whom I respect and wish I knew in person (in part, to ask her to explain some of the questions I still have!). The route from diary to biography requires time for reflection, background research, and hard decisions about what to include and what to omit. I hope you’ll agree that the route is worth the time.

[End of the UNP post]

Do you have family papers or other primary sources you are working with? What has been your experience? What are the obstacles? Please share your experiences with me.