Monday, January 31, 2011

Writing the End

"I pleased my own generation. That's all that matters." (Mary Pickford.)

I've come to the end of Mary's story. This is proving to be the hardest part of the book for me to write. Mary Pickford's last years were not happy. When the age of silent films ended, and she had trouble adjusting to talkies, she tried to re-invent herself. She did some writing, turning out a couple of books, she spent some time doing radio broadcasts, and she worked tirelessly fundraising for her many charities.

But she was grieving the loss of her youth, and with it her adoring audiences. Her fans weren't interested in seeing "Little Mary" play more mature roles. She tried, but after two unsuccessful pictures, she bowed out.
From the first time she'd felt the love of the audience, as a tiny child on the stage at the Princess Theatre in Toronto, she knew it was something she needed. But the public wanted her to keep playing young girls, and that became impossible as the actress grew older.

If she had conquered talkies, and then been allowed to grow old in front of the camera, as her friends Lillian and Dorothy Gish had, things might have been different.

Instead, Mary retreated inside her beloved Pickfair where, starting to show signs of heart disease, she eventually she took to her bed. Her leg muscles atrophied to a point where she could no longer walk. She became a recluse, seeing only a handful of friends and family. And then there was the tragedy of her alcoholism, the old Pickford/Smith family curse.

How to write this part without excusing her excesses. A biographer must tell the truth. Mary was grieving the loss of her youth, her beauty, and the love of her life. Her husband Douglas Fairbanks Sr. had left her for a younger woman. One of her friends described the fifty-year-old Mary as extremely handsome. What woman, whose youthful beauty had been called "dazzling," would later want to be referred to as handsome?

I can't sugar-coat the truth. This is the way Mary's life ended. I am required to tell it as it was. But now I can go forward to record her legacy, all that Mary Pickford meant to the world of motion pictures, and of her philanthropic work, and I can end on a triumphant note.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Writing Because it Matters

There are a number of books about writing that sit on the shelf above my desk, books that I return to again and again. Now that I am working on writing a biography for the first time, I took another look at Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories from Real Life, by Philip Gerard. 

Gerard poses an important question for the writer of nonfiction: Why am I writing this? The answer should be, "because it matters."
It's the writer's job to show the reader why it matters to him, in hopes that it will begin to matter to the reader. That is my goal in writing about the life and times of Mary Pickford.  I want you to "give a darn!"

More specific to writing biography, Gerard reminds the writer that he cannot invent dialogue, nor can he present the inner life of characters. "A good biography is founded on truthfulness." 

This is one of my favourite quotes from Gerard's book: "Your writing is just black marks on the page until it happens in somebody else's head." 
Write on!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Sneak Preview

I signed the contract with the publisher this week for a biography titled, Mary Pickford: Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart.

Ever since I first decided which Canadian woman would be the subject of my next book, I have immersed myself in everything Pickford.

The above illustration is a collage my eleven-year-old granddaughter created this afternoon, while she was showing me how to select and save images on the computer. The subject, naturally, is Mary Pickford.

It amazes me how easily today's youngsters adapt to the new technologies. I'm lucky that my grandchildren are willing to share their knowledge with me.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

In The Midst of Writing

     When I first started writing this blog, back in August 2008, I intended that my posts would be a journal of my writing life, all the exciting things that fill the days of a Canadian children's writer. 
     But there are long stretches where nothing much seems to be happening, writing-wise, at least. That is usually because every day finds me at work on my latest project. I had promised myself from the beginning that I wasn't going to resort to blogging about what I ate for breakfast or the state of my digestion.

      I am currently in contract negotiations with my publisher for the biography of Mary Pickford, and that's exciting. But otherwise, the work continues. Until I happened upon a book in the library that a writer friend of mine has just released, I had read nothing that wasn't related to Mary Pickford since I began the research, back in September. 
     What else can I tell you? It is a cold day. I have a pot of homemade soup simmering on the stove. Through my window I watch the birds visit the birdfeeders, before they dive down under the shrubs where the snow has provided a sheltering cave for them. It is lightly snowing.

Now, back to work on Chapter Seven.