Highlights from SPJ/LA’s Regional Conference: The Keynote Speech on Writing Biographies

Stephen Galloway, executive features editor at The Hollywood Reporter.

Stephen Galloway, executive features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, gave a keynote speech at the Mark of Excellence luncheon during the SJP/LA Region 11 conference on Saturday where student journalists are given awards for their outstanding work.

He spoke about writing biographies leading students through the process he used when writing his new book “Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the
Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker.”

He also gave four tips about writing a biography or profile.

Below is a copy of Galloway’s speech:

I just finished writing a book (titled “Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the
Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker.”) But the book isn’t a book about that
woman; it’s a biography of her daughter, Sherry Lansing, who for 25 years was
the most powerful woman in Hollywood.

She ran two studios, produced films like “Fatal Attraction” and “Indecent
Proposal.” And then when she was 60 years old, turned her back on Hollywood
altogether to go into the nonprofit field.

She ended up becoming chairman of the board of regents of the UC system, and
helped raise $500 million as one of the founders of Stand Up to Cancer. She’s
done that just in the past 10 or 12 years.

She’s now 73 years old and still going strong. She really is a quite remarkable
woman. I spent four years working on a book about her. Spent 300 hours
interviewing her. Spoke to 200 people who knew her.

So why did I start with her mother?

Because a biography isn’t the story of one person; it’s the story of multiple
people. And a biography isn’t just one story, it’s dozens or hundreds of stories —
and it’s up to you as a writer to decide which one to tell.

And the story I wanted to tell wasn’t just a Hollywood tale. I wanted to tell the
story of an incredibly broken, fragile girl, who loses her father at eight years old,
and wanders around her city, Chicago, desperately hoping to find him because
she can’t quite believe he’s dead — a fragile girl who rises to become an actress
but has so little self-esteem she crashes and burns in her mid-20s and goes into
deep, deep psychoanalysis — a young woman who has no self-confidence and
at 30 years old find herself reading scripts for $5 an hour — and yet who
manages to rise from that to become the most iconic and admired woman
Hollywood has produced in decades.

I wanted to tell that story. The story of a woman’s growth. The story of a broken
girl who overcomes horrible odds to remake herself, and to some degree remake
the world around her.

I wanted to tell a psychological story, charting the growth of one person, from
early childhood to the far end of adulthood — to show young men and young women — people like you — that you’re not born successful. That every life has
ups and downs. That success isn’t born out of success. It’s born out of failure.
Failure is just a step along the way. And the most successful people fail and fail
again. As Samuel Beckett says: Fail again. Fail better.

I spent four years working on that story. And I learned a lot. And I want to tell you
some of the things I learned, that may help you when you come to write a
biography, or any profile, for that matter.

So here are four lessons to go home with.

1. Know what your book or profile is about.

I don’t mean, oh, this is about Sherry Lansing. Or George Clooney. Or Snoop
Dogg. Or whoever the piece happens to be about on a surface level. The mere
facts about someone’s life, with no point of view — that’s Wikipedia. Because
point of view is everything.

So, on a deeper level, ask yourself: What’s the point you want to make? About
this person, about this person’s life? What do you want your reader to come
away with? What lesson are you teaching us about an individual human being,
and about humanity?

The lesson of my book, ultimately, is that the most fragile and broken human
being can rise and succeed — and if she can, so can you. Along the way, a
reader will learn a lot about the film business; but I had a deeper, more
meaningful agenda. To make a point. About life.

So when you’re writing, ask yourself: what’s the point I want a reader to come
away with, about life?

I’m going to give you two tricks to help you do that. First, every journalism
professor and editor is going to tell you that old chestnut and say: what’s your
lead? That is, how are you going to begin this story? How are you going to hook
me so that I keep reading?

Forget that. I want you to think about what you write in a completely different
way. Don’t ask, how am I going to begin? Ask: how am I going to end? Where do
I want to leave the reader when everything’s said and done?

If a golfer hits a ball, he’s not thinking about where the ball is when he hits it. He
thinks about where he wants it to land. If you can figure that out, chances are
you’ll also figure out where to start, or at least it will come much more easily.

So how do you figure out the point you’re making? When you go into a piece of
writing — a long feature story of any sort, a profile, a biography — how can I
help you define what it’s really about?

Well, one way is to ask yourselves: what question am I asking? What question
about life do I want to answer through this piece of journalism?

I’ve just started writing a new book about a very famous husband and wife, two
actors. A woman named Vivien Leigh and a man named Laurence Olivier. And
when I wrote the book proposal, a friend of mine said: What question about life
does this explore and help us answer?

And with this new book, it’s simple. It’s, how far will you go for love? Will you
sacrifice your friends, your family, the people you care for, your career, yourself?
Is there a limit to what we’ll do for love? And if there is, where does that limit lie?
I’m writing a whole book that attempts to answer that question, using two real-life
people as examples. So yes, it’s a biography. But it’s also conveying something
deep about life.

Every story — every feature — should make a point. Know what your point is.

2. Know that the truth, the factual truth, is very elusive.

When I started that story about Sherry Lansing’s mother, I knew I was up against
incredible odds.

May 1938 is an incredibly long way away. How was I going to find out about a
woman who left Germany when she was 17? Who lost family members in the
concentration camps? Who died 30 years ago?

Well, Google is a wonderful thing. If you use Google imaginatively, you’d be
amazed what you can find out.

Punch in: Jews. Mainz. Germany. Refugees. And dozens of other variations. And
you’d be amazed what comes up. I managed to track down six people who knew
Sherry’s mother in Germany before World War II.

I got lucky. They were in their late 80s and early 90s when we spoke. If I’d waited
two or three years, few of them would still have been alive.

But in speaking to them, I found out something I didn’t fully understand: memory
is vague, and nobody’s memory is infallible. And the further back in time you go, the harder memory is to trust. It twists things. It distorts them. Sometimes it
creates whole new things out of thin air.

Somebody may remember things wrong. Or they may have a point of view that’s
different from other people’s. They may accidentally — or deliberately — be
spinning things. I found that people can remember things going back about 10
years, and beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. Dialogue. Events. He said, she said.
It becomes so mixed up with the imagination you can barely trust it all.
The truth is very hard to find. And if you can’t find it, admit that. Say: here are two
different versions of what happened. And I don’t know which one is real. Make
your process of discovery part of the story.

But when you’ve finished your writing, go over every single fact. Underline each
one, and ask yourself: how do I know this? How do I know for sure? At that point,
forget style. Just focus on each hard, crisp, concrete nugget of information.
What’s the sourcing? How do I know this? Am I sure it’s true?

A fact is a fact is a fact. Don’t ever get one wrong.

That said —

3. Not every fact matters.

No book is a laundry list of facts. Again, that’s Wikipedia. Or an encyclopedia. It’s
boring. Often, it’s repetitive. We don’t want to know every single detail of every
single day in someone’s life. We want you to choose the facts that matter.
And that’s hard. Because what matters goes back to: what story do you want to
tell?

If you’re writing a technical book about the creation of the iPhone, you’ll want to
put in all sorts of technical stuff. If you’re writing a psychological portrait of Steve
Jobs, you won’t. Choose your facts. Choose wisely.

Sherry Lansing made 200 films at Paramount. I knew if I wrote about each one,
my book would be 1,000 pages long. And I’d also lose sight of the spine of the
narrative: that this was the story of one woman’s growth. Again, a psychological
story.

So I chose to focus on just 10 or 12 movies. The most important ones — “Titanic”
and “Forrest Gump” and “Saving Private Ryan.” And the ones through which
Sherry herself had grown the most.

Because, as I said, her growth is what my book was about.

You’ll find this the hardest thing. If you’ve done your research well, you’ll learn
that cutting stuff out is painful. It hurts. You’ll want to scream, look at what I find
out! Can you believe this stuff?! You’ll hate to lose days and weeks of work, just
because they’re not really what your story is about. But you must. You hit delete.
Just like that. And weeks of work are gone forever.

But do it. Because that’s what separates a good profile or a biography from a bad
one. I found out all sorts of things about Nazi Germany that I never knew. But
they were irrelevant to my main story. So they had to go.

Choose your point of view. Stick with it. And don’t be distracted.

4. Dig deep. Deeper than you think.

I just said that not all facts matter. But some facts matter a lot.
And you may have to sift through an awful lot of dross to find pure gold. But you
won’t get to it without the sifting. So dig deep. But how?

First, find out as much as you can about your subject. Cast a very wide net. If
you’re interviewing someone, they’ll respect that. Don’t ever under-report your
story. And even if these countless minor facts don’t make it into your article, a
reader will sense you know what you’re talking about.

Second, keep asking questions. When you think you know an answer, ask again,
and again. Just like a kid. You know how a kid can drive you nuts going why,
why, why? Guess what: you’re paid to do that.

And finally: Here’s my last point, the last thing I’ve learned.

There are lots of ways to write about the truth. You can write soft or you can write
tough. You can write with the glass full or the glass half empty. I would just urge
this:

Write the truth. But write it kindly. Write it the way you’d like someone else to
write about you. Not with flattery. Not disguising what happened. But with the
glass half full, not half empty.

Your job is to tell the truth. But do it without losing your soul.

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