Biographies have always fascinated me. I love to read and hear how others become successful, what motivates them, yadda yadda yadda. It’s the human interest part of me that wants to scoop this stuff up, not from People or OK Magazine, or, God forbid, the National Enquirer (not that there’s anything wrong with them), but real factual, historical stories that form the basis of the personalities of people who have Made It Big.
Truman Capote fascinated me. I had read In Cold Blood as a teenager, and was interested enough to find out about him. I delved in with everything I had, followed by learning about other writers: Hemingway, Wilde, Vidal, Austen, and my favorite, Angelou.
I just finished watching a PBS documentary on George Plimpton, a name I had heard throughout my life from time to time, but was never quite sure who he was.
Plimpton had escaped my research. What’s so interesting about Plimpton is he was an author, yes, but more especially a journalist, famous for what he called “participatory journalism” that he felt gave him the edge he needed to thoroughly experience what he was writing about. This included competing in professional sporting events, acting in a western, performing a comedy act at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and playing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra – and then recording the experience from the point of view of an amateur.
He had the resources, I guess, to totally immerse himself into a project. If he had been assigned an article about football, he played for the Detroit Lions – as the quarterback – and got beat up pretty badly; his book based on that experience is called Paper Lion (clever, no?). He pitched on Mickey Mantle’s All-Star team, resulting in the book Out of My League. He played golf, tennis, and bridge on highly-competitive levels, even though he knew he wasn’t very good or accomplished. He sparred with Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson. He played ice hockey with the Boston Bruins as a goalie, danced a ballet, and performed a flying trapeze act in a circus. A small notebook and a pencil was always tucked away in a helmet or in his knee guards (maybe the tutu?), prepared to make notes.
All this makes me exhausted. He not only did these things for his articles for Sports Illustrated, he wrote books about it. When in the world did he have time?
And then, of course, he was asked to join the Paris Review, the venerable publication for emerging writers, as its literary editor. The documentary said the Paris Review never made a dime. Plimpton contributed his own funds to keep it going.
Plimpton, in the interviews shown on the PBS show, took away this lesson: to fail spectacularly is the only way to fail. He was not good at any of the sports he played, but he immersed himself in it for his art, and he was willing to put his physical self in harm’s way to get it just right.
And he risked criticism. There was plenty of that, and he reveled in it because he needed to immerse himself – and more than likely fail – and most likely make a fool of himself to get the material. He was called a dilettante.
We writers, probably as much as the professional athlete, maybe more so (on a different level), put ourselves out there more than any other profession. We take risks. We put our thoughts and feelings and decisions and hunches and guts on the line for our art. We risk hurting those we love by writing about them (or thinly veiled characters of them), because it is so necessary for the story. We put our true feelings down to be judged for all eternity.
That takes guts. That takes risk. Plimpton took “participatory journalism” to another level, but we all do it. While Plimpton risked life and limb, those of us not willing to take it to the physical level risk relationships, feelings, and, sometimes, the truth.
Failure is always an option in our world. To fail utterly means you tried utterly.