S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.
S2: I always try to find objects and documents that have something about them that are unusual that will kind of say to people, Look at me. You know, if you look at a document with a lot of text, it’s it may not become visually compelling. But if there’s a big red line through the middle of it, that looks like something you might want to learn more about, right?
S3: Hello and welcome back to working, I’m your host, Kathryn Hahn,
S1: and I’m your other host, June Thomas June,
S3: who is our working subject this week.
S1: So this week I spoke with Debra Schmidt Bok, who is a curator at the New York Historical Society. And I reached out to her when I saw that the museum had mounted an exhibition called From Robert Caro Archive. It struck me as interesting that a writer’s working papers would be something that people would be interested in paying to look at. Do I have to admit that I was definitely making plans to visit the minute the very second I heard about it?
S3: That sounds so cool, but also like terrifying. As someone who I feel like I would never want anyone to look at my notes, I’d be like, Those are, I will burn them before I, so let’s get them same Hartson. But for any listeners who might not be familiar with his work, I was wondering if you could explain who Robert Caro is and what to you makes him such an icon?
S1: Well, so he’s a biographer, he wrote. The power broker, a very, very, very big, completely absorbing biography of Robert Moses, the man who reshaped New York City in his own very flawed image. And he’s been working on a multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson for more than four decades now. Four volumes have been published, and there’s another one in the works. He’s still writing well into his 80s, and he has a very particular way of working, which I think not only is that he’s a very good and a very beloved writer, but there is something that is like it is known that he has this peculiar process. So it starts with very intense research. And then he writes a version by hand and then he types of version on a typewriter. And then he revises and revises and revises and pretty much never starts revising. It’s incredibly painstaking and incredibly slow. But I have to say, in this particular case, I think it might be worth it. I’ve read three of his biographies, as well as his book Working Great Title, which he in which he tells some stories about his process. And they’re all really, really fantastic. And he’s certainly been hugely influential. The title of this New York Historical Society exhibition is Turn Every Page, which is his famous admonition to the nonfiction writers. I mean, great advice, but it sure makes it hard to meet your deadlines.
S3: A good exhibit for writers. Maybe a more stressful exhibit for editors, I’m guessing. Oh my goodness. And so what do Slate Plus listeners have to look forward to from your conversation with Debra Schmidt Bock?
S1: So in the plus segment, members will hear Debra talk about how she overcomes curators pluck, which is very similar to writer’s block, and also what she learned from Robert Caro while working on this exhibition.
S3: That sounds amazing, and I’m always so kind of in awe of the job that curators do. So listeners, if you are not a Slate Plus member, you can sign up today at Slate.com Slash Working Plus, and you will get to listen to the segment that you just described. Slate Plus is $1 for your first month, and members get zero ads on any Slate podcast. Bonus content on our show and other shows like Slow Burn and Culture Gabfest, and you can get full access to the articles on Slate.com so you won’t run into that pesky paywall. Last but not least, you’ll be supporting the work that we do here on working again. It’s $1 for your first month, and you can sign up today at Slate.com. Working Plus. Now, let’s hear June’s interview with curator Debra Schmitt back.
S1: So who are you and what do you do?
S2: My name is Debra Schmidt Ball and I am the curator of decorative arts here at the New York Historical Society.
S1: I have so many questions about that. First of all, what are decorative arts?
S2: Yeah, that’s quite a question at this point in time. I think the term decorative arts and my title, to be honest, are dated and a bit of a misnomer. Typically, decorative arts were defined as artistically made objects that were not paintings, sculpture or drawings. So generally, it was three dimensional materials, often fine furniture, silver ceramics, glass, different kinds of metals. But in the last 20 years, the idea of decorative arts has really expanded to include a range of objects, and those objects can include things like folk art, but also things like tools or different kinds of utilitarian objects, household objects, business and advertising objects anything three dimensional you really can think about as decorative arts. The field has really developed and matured over the last. It’s been an evolution over the last thirty five years.
S1: Wow, that’s fascinating. What’s your background? How did you get interested in decorative arts?
S2: I began my career after college in the fashion business, and I tell people that I’ve now worked in two industries where knowing how to pack is an asset. So I began by working in fashion in various capacities. For 10 years, I worked for a magazine for a period of time. I worked for public relation companies, and at some point I decided that I wanted to go back to school and learn more about American history. So I pursued a degree in American studies at Columbia University, and while I was at Columbia, I took a course. And in that class, we actually were assigned to use different objects from the New York Historical Society Museum and library collection for our class projects. And I just love this class. The professors introduced the field of material culture studies very in a very passionate way, and they made it very accessible. And I just fell in love with it. And after that class started to work first as a volunteer and then as an intern in various small New York City museums, and I just kept developing my love of studying objects. Wow.
S1: And I guess the final part of that the New York Historical Society. Tell us about that organization.
S2: The New York Historical Society is New York City’s oldest museum. It was established in 1884, and it was established as a repository for information and objects related to the history of the United States, but also the history of New York and the history of the United States through the lens of New-York and this collection. It was the basis for our library because New York Historical Society is made up of a world class library with millions of books and documents, as well as a world class museum collection. But one of the very unique things about this collection is that objects were coming into this collection simultaneous to documents. Mm-Hmm.
S1: Interesting. So the reason I wanted to have you on working was that I saw that the New York Historical Society was mounting an exhibition called Turn Every Page Inside the Robert, a Caro archive. And I wasn’t interested in that only because Robert Caro wrote a book called Working About His Creative Process, and that’s the name of our show. But like many writers, I love Robert Caro, but it also struck me as a really unusual kind of basis for an exhibition. Maybe I don’t spend enough time in historical societies or historical best museums. But how did this exhibition come about?
S2: So the exhibition is really provided a way for us to introduce the archive to the public, but it’s a very, very dense and wonderful archive. Mr. Caro spends many, many years researching every book, but he interviews. Hundreds and hundreds of people for each book and does really meticulous my news. Primary source research. And so that is part of this collection as well. And so this collection is chock filled with his own records. His interview notes, his outlines, his notebooks, manuscripts, galleys in their early phases, galleys after he’s his wife through them, but also many, many primary source documents that will help us tell fuller stories about the United States between the 1920s and up to the present day.
S1: So before we talk more about the exhibition, perhaps you could describe it for listeners who haven’t yet had a chance to visit.
S2: So the exhibition consists of approximately 93 documents and some objects that largely from the Caro archive here at the Historical Society. There are few objects that we’ve borrowed from Mr. Caro and a couple of his associates, but very, very few. And we’re displaying objects that give an overview of Mr. Caro’s career and how he came to write these five books that have become known as very important histories of aspects of the United States. The exhibition is divided into five sections, and we begin by showing materials that illustrate some of the early work that he did before he, while he was in high school and in college. Even then, we show work related to his days at Newsday. He was a reporter before he started to work on the power broker book. Then we show materials from the power broker and again from the first book on Lyndon Johnson. And then in our fourth section of the exhibition, which I think is very unique, we tried to illustrate Mr. Carroll’s writing process. Yeah, because he has a very. Tried and true process that he adheres to, and it’s a painstaking process. But we’ve displayed different kinds of documents that illustrate the stages that he goes through in writing a book. Yeah. And then the last section we show various types of memorabilia and photographs that again illustrate different aspects of the way that his books have impacted other people.
S1: I was particularly taken by the fourth section the you know, his process. I have read working, so I knew what his process was. But seeing you know the way that he puts the red line through the notes when he’s process them, seeing the typewriter to weirdly it like seeing these objects. It does make a difference. And I have to say, even though I love objects that surprised me. Well, I
S2: think one of the the wonderful things about working on this exhibition is and because we have the archive here now, we really had the material to illustrate the process with these documents, with these original documents. And that’s very, very unusual. And Mr. Caro, if you go to his when you go to his office and I think if you look at working, you see some pictures of his office in that book, you see that he has a cork board that he uses. So when he does start to write after he’s done voluminous research, he creates these outlines. And as he starts to write the manuscript, which he does initially by hand, he’ll put a red line through the outlines to indicate that he has now moved into the next phase of writing that part of what will become a chapter and then a book. And so we were able to use those some of those documents in the exhibition and put them in cases so that people or visitors can actually walk up to the documents and really look at them.
S1: Yeah, yeah. There’s also another really great thing from in the power broker area, you know, which is, you know, biography of Robert Moses and Caro and his wife went to a place so they could observe who what kind of people were they white people? Were they people of color were using a particular place? And you can actually see the marks that he made as he was counting people.
S2: And again, marks. Yes.
S1: Yeah, it’s so powerful. Even though I again, I knew that he’d done that.
S2: But right, and you can read the footnotes in the powerbroker, but you have the kind of material that gives you more of the background story on how he came to put that on the page is really incredible. And one of the other great advantages that we had in this exhibition is that Mr. Caro made himself available to us so we could go back and say, Can you tell us more about the tally sheet? Mm-Hmm. And so that doesn’t happen very often.
S1: Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s that’s another thing I wanted to ask you about because it was only when I heard about this exhibit that I realized that that the New York Historical Society no kind of had his archive because very famously, he’s still writing. I mean, he’s in his 80s, but he’s still writing his writing. He’s still working on more know Morgan’s.
S2: He’s working on his last Lyndon Johnson volume.
S1: Yeah. So does he still access the materials? Does he pop in and kind of consult things he has?
S2: He has held back some materials and he’s held back materials that he is using for the fifth volume. Got it. So anything that we have is not something he’s actively using right now in his writing process. Yes, he he he’s here. I would say he’s here often. He lives close by. So it’s very easy for him to walk here, actually. And it’s been really an incredible opportunity to be able to spend time with him and have him give us some of the back stories behind every piece of paper that we could pull out of the archive.
S1: Yeah. So was he involved in the selection of items that are on exhibition?
S2: Well, yes and no. We did the selecting and we put together a narrative, but we worked with him to ensure that our narrative made sense. And we also wanted to integrate some of these back stories into the exhibition explanatory text. And so he worked, really. I would say he collaborated with us very much so.
S3: We’ll be back with more of June’s conversation with Debra Schmitt back after this. Listeners, we want to hear from you. Whether it’s to ask us for advice on a creative problem or tell us a guest you’d like to hear on the show or share your own creative triumphs. Drop us a line at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at three zero four nine three three work. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Now, let’s return to June’s conversation with Deborah Schmidt bar.
S1: So I know we’ve kind of talked about this, but this must have been just such a tricky task because it’s not like you had to pick one of 300 items to spotlight. It was 100 or whatever number out of 100000, or maybe more.
S2: We don’t know yet. Yeah. Well, no, not yet,
S1: but certainly a lot. Yes. What was that winnowing process like? And how did you know like, OK, this will be something that people want to see. Obviously, that’s part of your training, that’s part of your art.
S2: But so this exhibition is not unusual for us, but it’s unique in that we it was a collaboration between curators and the library. Mm-Hmm. So the historical society has two divisions with collections. One is the museum collection, and the museum collection includes art and objects, and the other is the library collection, which includes manuscripts, broadsides, prints, ephemera, photographs, architectural drawings, books. And so this is a collaboration between the two. So I, as a curator, collaborated with the curator of manuscripts in the library division, and the two of us worked together to figure out what would work as best for display. Mm-Hmm. And so among the things that I think about when I’m looking for materials to help me propel an exhibition narrative is we wanted to find documents that were pretty immediately understandable documents that someone could look at and not read in detail, but come away immediately with a sense that this is a document worth looking at further. And then the other thing that I think about is is the overall document or object visually compelling because we really want I always try to find objects and documents that will pull people over that look that have something about them that are unusual, that will kind of say to people, Look at me. Yeah. And that’s what we both thought about from both the library and museum orientation. And we just had actually a really wonderful time using our different viewpoints to come up with pieces, objects or documents that would fit those issues.
S1: That’s so interesting. You know, things that are documents are also very much objects in his case, very visual, because that red stripe, you know, helps through what could just be a notepad. And it is a notepad, but it’s also something really visually striking.
S2: So absolutely. And and for me, each object is also a document or each document is also an object. Yeah. You know, if you look at a document with a lot of text, it’s it may not become visually compelling. But if there’s a big red line through the middle of it, that looks like something you might want to learn more about, right? So, yeah, we really did try to pick documents that would grab people in some shape or form, even if they were just walking by.
S1: And then there’s one of his typewriters in there, and it’s a typewriter could be my typewriter could be anybody’s typewriter. But you want to see that typewriter because he very famously doesn’t use a computer. He does his handwriting. Then he types. It’s perfect.
S2: Yeah, and those typewriters aren’t made anymore, so he has a collection of typewriters, actually. And he also has a part of that. The reason for that collection is because he needs to sometimes extract parts from other typewriters to fix the typewriter that he’s using. And I believe he has 11 typewriters right now. And so that is one of his typewriters, and that is in the archive, too. That will stay in the collection.
S1: So you just mentioned staying in the collection. This is, I read, is no, this isn’t like a rotating exhibition. This is a permanent exhibition that will be at the New York Historical Society. What does that mean?
S2: Most exhibitions that people visit tend to be exhibitions. That week we refer to as temporary exhibitions, so they’re up for a finite number of months generally, and then they go away or then they travel to another city. This exhibition was a bit more of a challenge than normal for permanent exhibitions because it’s so much paper based paper materials when they’re in an archive and they’re being preserved really should not be out meeting the light of day. More than five months at the most, and when people come to the exhibition, we’ve had many comments that the light levels are very low. Yes, they are because we can only use a certain amount of lighting and we measure lighting for every document to help preserve the documents. These documents are now. Library archive documents. So we want to preserve them in perpetuity. But at the same time, we want to show them. So another challenge we had was how can we safely show them so that people can read them even in low light? And then they’ll have to eventually go back and rest and the documents we actually have documents and drawings too are in that category that the documents have to have out West. So in terms of the exhibition will evolve and there will be times when the exhibition will change. And part of it will be propelled by the need to have documents.
S1: Rest, I shall I shall be pondering the concept of resting documents for a while now. So Gothamist, which had a really great piece about the exhibition, I think the weekend that it opened, they noted with with great sadness that there were no Caro refrigerator magnets or light power brokers silk scarves. As a curator, do you think about that kind of ancillary product when you’re putting together an exhibition?
S2: Oh, sometimes it depends on what the topic of the exhibition is. And I think some exhibitions lend to things like refrigerator magnets more than others. We did not do a lot of talking about the commercial aspect of items that are not books, frankly, for this exhibition, at least, not yet. And I think that because it’s a permanent exhibition, we can continue to think about that. Also remember we put this together during the pandemic. Yeah, yeah. So it was a very different process because most of us were not working on site for much of the time that we put it together.
S1: Another thing that struck me and I realized when I came to the exhibition that it was my first time at the New York Historical Society. I thought I’d been to all the museums in town, but it was my first time there. But you do things on a slightly different scale, you know, typically walking through rooms and rooms and rooms of material. I mean, there are rooms and rooms and rooms of material, but the exhibitions tend to be quite dense cases rather than rooms. Is that something that’s part of a particular philosophy of the institution? What’s that about?
S2: We are a history museum and as a history museum and a history library, we are here to interpret American history in New-York history for the public and our visitors. So our exhibitions fall very much in line with that idea. We are not an art exhibition. So, you know, I think a lot of art museums have an example of the best of X, Y or Z thing, and we may or may not have that. One of the other unique things about our collection because we’re not an art museum, is that many of the pieces, at least in the museum collection, come to us with histories that are either histories of the person who. Who owns the object or use the object or the object was given or represented an important historical event or some sort of historical figure. And so every object that we have in our collection has an aspect of history to tell, and that’s the philosophy we use for everything that we do here. The tagline that we use here a lot is objects tell stories. And that’s absolutely true. Objects and documents can uniquely and individually give evidence of different aspects of history. But I want to also say we also want our exhibitions to be inviting because everyone who works here is excited about history and excited about the materials that we’re that we get to work with. I mean, to be able to work with and touch Robert Caro collection for me was a big thrill. I read the powerbroker when I was first, when I was initially in graduate school. So to be able to look through these documents and be able to do it myself was such a was such an amazing treat. Yeah. So we try very hard to bring that, that enthusiasm and excitement and awe and infuse our labels with that as well because everybody here loves what they do.
S1: So who writes those labels was that you and the and the and the person from the library side that you were collaborating with?
S2: Yes, generally, the curator writes the labels. In this case, the labels were largely written by my co-curator, Edward O’Reilly, who’s the manuscript curator in the library, as well as Michael Ryan, who was the director of the library. Up until recently when he retired,
S1: I mean, the other thing that strikes me is as a curator, I imagine you can correct me. Another kind of part of your job is to think what could be a great exhibition? What could we use in this, this gigantic collection? I imagine that’s overwhelming. How do you overcome that sense of overwhelm of light? We’ve got all this stuff. What could we do?
S2: I mean, we’re constantly coming up with ideas, and I would say that most ideas never become an exhibition, but we just constantly throw out ideas. And once we have an idea, we vet them and those ideas get circulated and we do different amounts of research, depending on the stage that the ideas in. And if an idea continues to go through the proper stages and research and then we have objects or documents to to use as ways to propel that narrative, then we have an exhibition in the making. The other thing that we try to do, and I think we’re somewhat unique in again being a history museum and library and not an art museum is that we try really to think about what’s going on around us and to think about how our collection might help to propel information about what’s going on in our own lives and in the lives of others in the United States now.
S1: And what’s your biggest frustration as a curator,
S2: having lived through the pandemic and still creating exhibitions, brought a whole other range of frustrations. So as someone who works with objects for a living and every day. I did not have access to the objects in the Historical Society collection for many, many, many months. And that’s a very hard thing, a very difficult restriction. If you’re working with objects and writing and talking about objects,
S1: you know, not having access to your objects. It makes me think, you know, OK, there are the books in the, well, let’s just talk about the books that are in the library. I’m sure there are many very valuable, very rare books, but you know, there may be some version of that content, but there’s is there a sort of portable or copier book version of, you know, an object? Are you always working with the actual thing? No. And OK,
S2: no. You know, we have databases with our objects. We have a public interface to our object database, and we were very quickly after the pandemic shutdowns. We were given all the staff members on the museum side were given remote access to our internal database. So I use that database. I mean, I use that database, whether I’m in the office or not. But there’s something about seeing an actual three to. Mentionable object, and this is true of documents as well. There’s something about seeing it in person. That, for me, makes an enormous difference. So yesterday I was working on another project and writing about an object, and I wanted to check a detail on the object. So I got up and went to look at the object. And that’s not a detail that I would have seen in a photograph, even if it’s a great digital photograph.
S1: I really recommend this Robert Caro exhibition. But apart from that, it’s there. One thing is like some say, OK, I want to get you excited about objects about the historical society is the one object that you would say. So come over and check this out. Is there one thing that’s going to get people? They’re going to get them purring when they see it?
S2: Well, one thing that we’re about to put on display and it’s already out, but the does the exhibition has an open formally is. Every year we have a collection of toys and miniatures that we call Holiday Express. It’s a toy train and miniature collection, and we have some incredible objects that we’re in the process of putting out right now, including a very, very large, 30 inch high miniature ferris wheel and a Zeppelin and different kinds of turn of the century amusements. So I think these are just magical, wonderful, incredibly detailed objects that actually have a lot of history to tell. The toys were very much reflective of modern technologies from their day, largely from the late late 19th and early 20th century. So, you know, I think these wonderful, adorable objects. They’re just beautiful, fascinating, fun to look at, but just filled with with history behind them. Wow.
S3: OK, so I know that you start the interview by saying that you’re not really that much of a museum person, which I found very funny. And so I wanted to jump off that and ask what kind of museum person you are or at least think you are? How did you find out about the exhibit? Are you a slow gallery walk or fast gallery walk? Or do you read all the plaques? What do you like or dislike about exhibits?
S1: So just a clarification. I am a museum person, but I do that weird thing that I think a lot of big city residents tend to do, or I hold off going to museums in the city I live in because, yeah, the visitors are going to want to go only. We haven’t had visitors in the last couple of years, so I really haven’t much. I really haven’t spent much time in museums at home. Whereas when we go on vacation, even if it’s just a Philly or D.C., it’s like all museums all the time. So that’s a little strange. I am quite set in my ways. I’d like to begin in the museum shop not only because I love museum shops and I want to still have all my energy when I’m walking around there, but also because they can tip you off to what you’re going to enjoy. Like even in small museums, you have to pick and choose. Or at least I do. Right. So so that you know where to spend your energy? Yeah. If you just kind of, you know, check out what’s in the store, you know, the catalogs or even postcards can, like, give you an indication of what it is you’re really going to dig. We were in Edinburgh recently and in the shop of one museum. My partner and I both saw the catalogue from an exhibition at another museum, and we knew that we were going to like it. And so, you know, we had it over there, and I don’t think we would have if we hadn’t seen that catalogue. So, you know, right?
S3: That’s so fun because I feel like that’s usually the opposite of how people approach museums and their gift shops.
S1: Yeah, I love a gift shop. The other thing too, is my my partner is an artist and loves to buy very big, very heavy art books. And there are very few places these days where you can actually look at books, especially art books, because even if you’re lucky enough to have a bookstore near you, the chains just don’t have that many art books in stock. And so they’re one of the few places you can really check our books. Gotcha. As to my pace, I think I’m kind of medium speed. I scan, and if I’m not particularly grabbed by something, I won’t linger. I don’t feel obliged to check something out. But when I see something that I really like, I like to stare. And this exhibition, actually, I found about from a press release. I usually ignore press releases, but I wrote back like within seconds of getting it. And I found out later that one of my colleagues had also written to the written, like the second after she got the press release and she doesn’t even live in New York City. So I know that this is a topic that is just going to, you know, get a lot of people’s clicking, clicking, clicking.
S3: Yeah, definitely. I love what you said about like, if something doesn’t really grab you when you’re looking at it, you don’t really feel too bad about moving on from it, because that’s one of the things that you talk about in the interview, where the things that Schmidt Park is considering is not only the content of the note, but how it actually looks and if it’ll grab somebody’s attention. Do you feel like you’ve ever had to balance that sort of thing in your work, like figuring out maybe it’s like header art for a post or something, or a logo for a podcast or something like that?
S1: So I hate to admit this, but I’m just not a visual person. One of the few good things about the end of the blogging era is not having to find my own art. I just don’t care. So much better when a designer is the person making me pick. There are certain things that I am so down to, you know, obsess over and really like, get lost in. But art and headers, that’s never going to be one of them.
S3: That’s fair. So what is like one of the things that you get really obsessive over?
S1: Oh my god. Well, this again, this is not a good thing, but I think I think because I was once a copy editor and I really think I’m like a good copy editor. Oh, gotcha. Yeah. I find it really impossible to do any piece of writing that has typos or imperfect grammar or, like, you know, a comma where a semicolon should be. And that is really definitely not a good thing. The idea is just to get, you know, a lot of the time you just need to get a draft out, you just need to figure out what you want to say so that you can revise it. And I’m incapable of that. I I cannot like I have to have the proper capitalization. If it demands a semicolon, it needs a semicolon and I have to check the spelling of people’s names, even though I am 99 percent sure they’re never going to make it to the next version. I’m incapable of moving on from that.
S3: Honestly, I deeply respect that as someone who is also kind of obsessed with clean copy I. And speaking of like your penchant for the museum gift shops, I also love the part of your conversation where you were talking about how some people wanted like more or other kinds of Robert Caro merch, which is such a neat thing and so funny. And I’m curious how much you think of that in your own work. Like, do you ever think about merch opportunities when you’re producing a podcast or any of the other work that you do?
S1: I do not. But you know what? I’ve just thought when as because this is going to be a permanent exhibition. So there’s still lots of time to get merch. They need to get some magnets because so much of Kara’s work is about power and influence. And if they could have some, you know, some magnets, I think they’d be like, Well, you know, it would blow people’s minds. But to get to your question, I really don’t. Again, it’s partly that whole, you know, not particularly a visual person. I don’t really. It’s funny because I like to draw, but I don’t. I just don’t. It’s not how I think. Like, I draw and that’s separate from writing or thinking about objects. But I also think I resist it because I have such a thing for tchotchke is I have a house full of crap and almost I’m just terrified of like this. Anything that would cause me to not only spend money but just accumulate more stuff. But I also think like, I think it’s actively bad to get lost in stuff like that. I mean, we talk a lot about things that it’s really not productive to spend time on. You know, again, we focused on this in a lot of episodes recently of like time is precious. You have to decide what your every decision you make to spend time on something means you’re not spending it on something else. And I was I was reading some advice on the writer Melinda Lowe’s website recently as I was preparing to interview her. And one of the big lessons she has a whole series of lessons from 10 years in publishing and one was don’t spend unnecessary money on book promotion. You know, if you want to make merch, make merch. But don’t imagine for a minute that it’s going to make people view your work in a different way. Like you’re not going to get people to check out your book because you have amazing. I don’t know what boot marks. It’s just not going to happen so much better to spend your, your precious brain cells thinking about something else.
S3: Yeah, it makes me think of the recent publicity tour, I guess, of the new Sally Rooney book, where so many, like media influencers, got the tote bag and we’re showing it. And I was like, This isn’t for anyone who doesn’t know who Sally Rooney is, right? Where it’s like, it’s high because there’s Sally Rooney heads. Yeah, totally. So one of the other things that you talk about with Schmidt Bock is about talking about winnowing down resources to figure out what’s going to go in the exhibit and what isn’t, which is I’ve talked about this a little bit with Isaac, like, I think, but it’s like it’s a harrowing process for me, where sometimes it’s easy to decide what is or isn’t relevant to the topic. But when you have a lot of stuff that you think is relevant, it’s impossible to cut it down. How do you approach processes like that
S1: with so much trepidation and so much anxiety? It really is the worst. You know, there’s there’s there are so many cliches about writing and editing, but one of the most colorful is killing your darlings. All right. As our former co-host. Romano so memorably puts it beheading your swans. No, I know, right? It’s quite the image. So that’s one thing. And you know, yeah, you have to do. It’s never pleasant, but there’s a stage before that which I think is what you’re talking about where, you know, Robert Caro was, say you have to turn every page, you have to look at everything and it’s overwhelming, first of all. But then you do have to make choices because first of all, Robert Caro to to get to do what he does in terms of like, you know, making revisions to not only to galleys but to almost finish copies like only Robert. Caro gets to do that, you know, the rest of the rest of of humanity doesn’t
S3: get murdered if we tried to do and
S1: totally fully murdered. So I think for me, it boils down to the same thing of how I feel about what to spend my time on when I’m walking through a gallery like I do try and do my due diligence. I try and make sure I haven’t missed anything because of ignorance. And I I that could just mean, you know, trying to know the field that you’re writing about and kind of get a sense of it, but also asking questions like whose story isn’t being told and what I’ve gathered so far kind of looking beyond my own perspective. But then you just have to make choices, right? I mean, it just comes down to that. And that’s true for me. For me, that’s just about like, what is it that I’m excited about? Because if I’m bored by it, I know for sure it’s going to be boring for the people who read it. Yeah.
S3: And if we get to this point, the number one enthusiast for X topic, find it boring, but definitely somebody
S1: time to be had.
S3: That’s one who know this is so off topic. But are you apprised of the saga of swans getting stolen from Prospect Park?
S1: No, I think I know. But you know, it’s especially troublesome because, you know, in Britain, the Queen owns the Swans, so swans are extra protected. So, you know, even though I’ve lived here for many years, 40 years, I’ve become a U.S. citizen. Still, I’m like, Don’t mess with swans, OK, don’t care. So I generally agree. I think I was. I was too triggered to read those stories, but. Let’s make the funniest
S3: person I know, but also deeply reason it OK to take a sort of step back, I guess we talked a little bit about like being passionate about a topic. And one of the things that you talk about with Debra coming back is like coming up with a topic to begin with or how do you decide what to build an exhibition around? How do you personally approach finding a project topic?
S1: Once again, totally about passion, like what am I going to be excited about over the long term? I mean, if it’s for a 100 word piece, you just need a solid idea. But if it’s something bigger, a long feature and definitely for a book has to be something that’s going to sustain your interest at some point is going to feel like a chore. So the longer you can postpone that feeling, the better. And one thing that I’ve done like there were times when I was pitching like, you know, I could pitch and almost anything like you were told to pitch ambitious things, which is really the worst prompt. I’m like, OK, I would prompt. I don’t know. What I would do is look at my bookshelves like, what have I spent money on? Not only spent money on, but what have I kept, you know, because especially if you live in a city and you have a restricted space, you’re always having to like weed out books to hold on to what you’ve you know what you can squeeze into the space. So whatever. There were a lot of that was what I knew. That must be something I’m really into. Yeah. So that’s just like a way that it. What about you? What do you do?
S3: I have. I’m pretty lucky, I think, in that of the big projects that I’ve been approached for, like the topic has kind of already been decided for me, like the book that I’m working on, for instance, like I was already sort of known for covering that topic. And so when they approached me, they’re like, We’re thinking about publishing a book on this, and we thought that you would be a good fit for the material, which was lovely because I feel like I have had conversations with literary agents where they’re like, Yeah, like anything? You want to write a book about that? Be great. Every time I’m like, I have no idea where to start with this, so maybe I’ll have a better answer further down the line. But like, even with scripts and stuff, it’s usually. And it helps that I work with a writing partner so that we can bounce ideas off each other, and it’s not just me working in a vacuum. Oh yeah. So that’s helpful. So as I mentioned at the top of the show, I feel like probably not everybody who is listening would know who Robert Caro is. So and in that sense, he’s definitely more known to journalists and writers and the kind of media sphere. And for when you’re coming up with a topic, is there ever a worry that it might be too niche or not, I guess popularly known enough? Or is slash like, is there something you do to kind of counteract that?
S1: That, I mean, that’s really tricky, right? Because you don’t want to be the 30th person to write about Topic X, whatever it is, you know, even the most popular thing on the internet, the most popular thing, you know, the New York Times, for example, there’s maybe five things that they will never stop writing stories about because apparently there will always be red. But when it comes to writing them, when you’re devoting your time, your precious brain space, you to be sure that like, there’s a point to it, right? So. At the same time, if it’s, you know, just to you, if it’s just you, then it’s really. Yeah, you know, by all means, write it. But in your journal, you know, so how do you how do you find that that medium that there’s this and this is going to blow your mind because you don’t know about this, but this is really fascinating. And so you have to make it really fascinating. No pressure. But the other thing too, though, is I have always hated that particular approach of like, you don’t know about this, like anything that begins with, you know, stories you don’t know about why, like just makes me want to go. Well, actually, I know all of it just sets me on edge. So, you know, I talked to kind of, you know, I don’t want to kind of put it that way, but I do want to like is maybe more of a challenge. Like, I don’t know why people who haven’t heard about this because it’s crazy interesting. But let me tell you about it. You know, so that, I think is the sweet spot.
S3: Yeah, a definitely a really hard spot to hit, though.
S1: Totally. No kidding.
S3: And to circle back to process a little bit, I really found that discussion that you have on or talking about Robert process where he was just like, just write it as a person trying to write something perfect the first time which we’ve talked about a little bit in our conversation so far. I’m definitely someone who has a very hard time following that kind of advice where I’m like, I want it to always be good. I never want it to be in a bad position. No, OK. I was going to ask, Is that part of your process as well? It sounds like you were in my boat. It’s like you cannot.
S1: But also, again, is so hard because, you know that you just have to get it out. Everybody knows, everybody knows it’s all about revision. This is like this the most basic fact of writing. And yet I also struggle because I think I think that my worst flaw as a writer and maybe even as an editor is that I settle too quickly. Now, I also don’t know if that’s true or if that’s just my vision of myself. It’s just like, basically self-hating, you know? But so I’m always I’m always like fighting against it. But I, you know, you just have to admit that perfection is impossible. So you have to fight the urge to seek it. You know, it’s it’s great for Robert Caro and his process has created some amazing books, but I don’t think that anyone else should use that same process. Do not do that.
S3: It feels like the kind of thing where, for us, lesser folk, it would eventually just drive you kind of mad. Like when you’re when you say the same word, too many times you’re like, Oh, that’s not a word anymore, is it?
S1: Well, it seems like that’s no, exactly. And I, you know, maybe, maybe because we do know more writers, but I know several people who, you know, they had a big project. They were so in love with their idea. They sold a book and then they got lost in it. And it kind of breaks them. And you. And it’s because they, you know, they didn’t settle. And I can’t argue with that. Your what your book should be the best it can be. But don’t let it break you.
S3: Have you ever experienced that? Or do you feel like you have kind of a healthy enough relationship with your work that you haven’t hit that kind of a wall yet?
S1: I I think because I’m so aware of it, I think like, you know, I just said, I know several people are probably no two people, but like, it looms very large. So I think it’s it’s like, it’s like, you know, imagining your house burning down so that you never leave the gas on. I mean, like, that’s extreme. But like, sometimes it’s what you got to do to, you know, to just remember some basic lessons.
S3: Mm hmm. I definitely agree with that. But that is our show for this week. And if you enjoyed it, please remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and then you will never miss an episode. And now let me tell you how awesome a Slate Plus membership is. Slate Plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast. Full access to all the articles on Slate.com. Bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and How to Do It. And it’s only $1 for the first month,
S1: thanks to this week’s guest Debra Schmidt, Bock, and thanks as ever to our wonderful producer Cameron Drews. We’ll be back next week with a very special holiday episode. Until then, get back to work. He sleepless members, thank you once again for your membership in Slate Plus, we really appreciate it. Here are some questions I asked Debra and her answers are for your ears only. One of the things we like to ask the creative people we talk with is how they overcome their equivalent of writer’s block. And I’m wondering, is there a similar sort of creative block for curators? And if so, how do you overcome it?
S2: Yes, absolutely. One, I mean, there’s definitely the issue of writer’s block, especially when you’re writing labels and our labels. We try to adhere to very finite word counts. So to tell a dense history of an object or a document in 75 words or 150 words is not easy. No. So that in itself can cause some writer’s start. Yeah, my way of getting around that is to just write, even if I have to toss everything I’ve written. If if I sit in front of my computer and can’t put anything down, then I’m in a lot of trouble. So I just write, and sometimes it’s gobbledygook, and sometimes I use it. Sometimes I keep it. But I just I just start writing and I try very hard. I don’t just write anything. I try very hard to write about the specific object or document that I should be focusing on. But it’s it’s I’ve I use that for many, many years, and I find it very helpful. If I sit here stunned, then I can’t. I will never get through that writer’s block.
S1: If you could wave a magic wand and change something, anything about the way that visitors or even potential visitors interact with your institutional with museums generally,
S2: what would it be? I think I would want everyone to feel as excited about the historical society collection as collections, as everyone here, and I would want people to just be clamoring to get in here to look at the range of objects and documents that we have out in all of our galleries and in the library.
S1: Debra. As you were working with the materials in the exhibition, putting it together, was there anything about Robert Caro’s creative process that you learned about and that you were perhaps affected by?
S2: One of the things and this is one of the things that we tried to bring out in the exhibition Mr. Caro is not afraid to rewrite, and you see that there’s evidence of that in the exhibition, especially in the section where we look at his process. He rewrites and he rewrites, and he rewrites and he rewrites. And I thought that was a really important message, not just to writers, but to children, that it doesn’t have to come out perfectly and you can keep working on it and keep working on it, and you can cross it out and then rewrite it. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. It’s more important to think about what you’re doing and to continue to think about it until you get the product that you want. And I as, as you know, a former graduate student, I just I really appreciate that in his work. It gave me a lot of solace, actually, and I I found it very encouraging to know that, you know, one of the country’s best biographers rewrites and rewrites and rewrites and rewrites until he gets it to the point that he thinks it’s ready for his readers to see.
S1: I think maybe publishers said, but don’t do what he does by making changes. So many changes in the final galley exams. Yes.
S2: Yes. I mean, I’m sure most writers aren’t allowed to do that. But but I think the publishers have learned that his his method really works for the dense biographies that he creates.
S1: That’s it for this week. Once again, thank you for your support. So.