Friday, January 09, 2015

Outline The Plot And Keep Careful Records

When a writer gets lazy
As a writer of non-fiction, Lee Israel understood the importance of research. If you want to write a biography of a famous person, such as Estee Lauder, you cannot make mistakes. Readers will find those errors and call them out, creating the impression that the book you've written is not well-written at all. Sales slide on that kind of negative result.

Ms. Israel managed to write three biographies during her career, all well-received. At some point, she ran out of inspiration or the subjects she thought were worthy of a biography were not subjects her publisher thought were worth being written about.

What's a writer to do? If you don't have a secure job in teaching, you have to make a living somehow. The rent will come due whether your muse is guiding your pen or sitting in another room ignoring you.

How about trying some fiction? The work ethic is there. The understanding of outlining a plot and researching a topic are there.

Of course, it helps if you label your work as fiction, which is where Ms. Israel went wrong.

She used a collection of typewriters to invent letters composed by literary elites. Rather than use them in an epistolary novel, however, she marketed her prose as newly discovered correspondence from the likes of Edna Ferber or Dorothy Parker. Rather than sell her work to readers, she sold it to collectors. In short, Ms. Israel turned to forgery to earn her keep.

Forgery being illegal, the author came to regret her mis-identification. Friends rushed to her defense and claimed that Ms. Israel was an alcoholic, unemployable in any other field than freelance writing.

Is freelance writing so filled with drinkers? How does anything get written?

The author had a talent for making things up. She could have tried for a new career as a writer of historical fiction, but that's a pretty hard sell, even for someone with a decent publication history. Instead, she went for the quickest payout and put her writing skills to work in crafting letters that mimicked the writing style of whatever famous author she wanted buyers to think had written those letters.

Perhaps there was a rush that became addictive, the thrill of pulling a fast one and getting away with it again and again. Preparing each new forgery would have been fuel to that addiction, and to feed the habit Ms. Israel used her ability to write what were essentially short stories. Nothing she wrote was real, whether it was supposed to a letter from Noel Coward or one of Hemingway's missives. Far more exciting than slogging away working on a biography, fact checking and poring over documents. She got into a character's head and let the words flow, the mark of a writer but one too lazy to do the work involved in preparing a full manuscript worthy of publication.

Now Lee Israel has died, but her legacy will not be the biographies she wrote legitimately. Instead, she will be remembered as a forger who wasted her talent. And what is even more tragic is that she remained proud of her forgeries even after she was caught and convicted.

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