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From Politics to Poetics

By Jimmy Carter

As a high school student I read voraciously and competed in writing contests. In college, while studying to be an engineer, I was taught to write as crisply and clearly as possible. Since then, in a late-blooming writing career, I have progressed from dutifully producing books that have promoted my political aspirations or met my financial obligations, to writing just for the enjoyment of it. From the pragmatic to the poetic, it has been a continuous learning experience.

My first book was a campaign autobiography, Why Not the Best? It was written on yellow scratch pads on airplanes and in hotel rooms. It was early 1975, and I was traveling around the country looking for voters, but with little attention from the public or news media. I had plenty of time to write.

Having studied typing and shorthand in high school, I did my own stenographic work on a portable typewriter during weekends at home. When it was finished, I called some small publishers in Georgia, none of whom would print the book. Finally, Broadman Press in Nashville looked at a few chapters and agreed to publish it. They print all the Southern Baptist literature, and I had some influence with them as a member of the Baptists' Brotherhood Commission. There was no thought of an author's advance, but I received a percentage of the volumes printed. I gave these to potential political supporters and sold a few at my early political rallies.

After I won the primaries in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Broadman could not print my book fast enough, and so they arranged with Bantam Books to do a mass printing in paperback. Almost a million copies of that edition were sold, as people scrambled to learn something about a relatively unknown Georgian who might become president. Bending over backwards to be ethical, I put all the author royalties into a benevolent foundation. Also, I had a thriving agricultural business, Carter's Warehouse, and didn't particularly need the money.

As president, I placed my business in a blind trust, and heard no more about it during my term in office. After my defeat in November 1980, the trustee told me that my farm operation had had some bad years and was almost a million dollars in debt. We were lucky enough to sell the entire business, and Rosalynn and I signed book contracts for our memoirs that would provide the much-needed cash to save our home and land.

Writing the memoirs as a defeated incumbent was a somewhat bitter and difficult task for me, and I was soon in a quandary about how to address some of the more politically sensitive or personal issues. The historian Arthur S. Link offered to assemble at Princeton University about a dozen authorities on presidential biographies and memoirs, and Rosalynn and I spent a very fruitful day with them. Their advice was not to be defensive, not to distort the facts or try to write a complete history of my administration, but to tell about the personal and interesting things that had not previously been published.

I spent eight to 10 hours a day writing on a word processor, selecting excerpts from 6,000 pages of my typewritten diary notes. I had not read these entries since I had made them; they described events in the Oval Office and on presidential trips as they occurred during my four years in office.

I wrote the first draft of Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President within a year and completed the manuscript six months later. I broke the monotony of research and writing by making furniture in my nearby woodworking shop. In fact, I designed and built more than 30 pieces -- enough tables, chairs, beds, benches, cabinets, chests, and accessories to furnish an entire house.

As an engineer who had long been interested in literature, I considered myself able to write in a clear and logical manner, and resisted Bantam's suggestion that I work closely with one of their editors. However, when Nessa Rapoport was assigned to this task, she quietly transformed my understanding of writing a book. She was meticulous and persistent, and her comments and questions were incisive, probing and aggravating, but always stimulating.

Nessa helped me to clarify obscure passages, fill gaps in the narrative, eliminate superfluous words and sentences, and arrange the text in an orderly manner. She forced me to search for exactly the right words to explain why I had done certain things and how I felt about having done them. I learned that good writing requires a lot of effort, but can be rewarding.

The book tour was really my first exposure to the general public after I left the White House, and it was gratifying to welcome the crowds that came for a copy and an autograph. For 11 weeks, Keeping Faith was on the bestseller list, although it never managed to climb above Jane Fonda's first workout book.

Why Not the Best? and Keeping Faith were written as a matter of duty, to further my political career or for income, but most of my other books have been for my own pleasure. I learned a great deal about myself in Outdoor Journal as I struggled to describe what motivates me to climb a mountain, spend hours in the total isolation of woods and swamps, attempt to master the technique of flyfishing, or to balance the interests of a conservationist with those of a hunter.

In truth, my writing has given me an education that I never received at the Naval Academy or in graduate studies in nuclear physics. I learned to appreciate personal research when I conducted personal interviews for Turning Point, a history of my first campaign for the Georgia senate. Thirty years after that dramatic political confrontation, it was surprising to discover how different the facts and documents were from some of my "vivid" memories.

Among many things, the presidency gave me unlimited access to top leaders in the Middle East. I had never fully understood the complexities of the conflicts there until I traveled extensively in the region and listened to presidents, prime ministers, faction leaders and private citizens in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon give their own totally differing perspectives on the same basic issues. In Blood of Abraham, I tried to present these views as accurately as possible, without distorting them with my own editorializing.

My worst experience as an author was writing a book with Rosalynn. Our Everything to Gain almost broke up a 40-year marriage. It was amazing to find how differently we remembered the important events of our lives together, and how differently we reacted to them. As the writing progressed, we couldn't speak to each other about the book, and could communicate only by writing vituperative notes back and forth on our word processors.

Rosalynn treated my portions of the text only as rough drafts, but hers as having been carved in stone, just come down from Mount Sinai! Finally, our editor suggested that the more controversial paragraphs be allotted to just one of us, and identified in the final text with either a "J" or an "R." We'll never be co-authors again!

I wrote Talking Peace for young people of high school and college age; my purpose was to describe the causes of conflicts and how they might be prevented or resolved. It gave me a chance to report some of my personal experiences in the field, and to tell something about the work that The Carter Center does in peacekeeping, promoting human rights and monitoring elections worldwide. Having taught at Emory University as a distinguished professor for almost a dozen years, I have enjoyed seeing this book (as well as Keeping Faith and Blood of Abraham) used extensively in high school and college classrooms.

The most profound development in my writing, however, came when I decided to take up poetry in a serious way. I had written a number of poems during my life and was infatuated with the work of a few poets, but I wanted to learn more about the technique of poetry writing. I was fortunate to have two University of Arkansas professors who took me under their wing. I was an eager student, and they inundated me with textbooks, literary criticism, and, perhaps most important, passed judgment on my verses.

This was a new experience for me. I became fascinated with the words themselves, and was able to draw new meaning from the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, Langston Hughes and many others I had long enjoyed. As I searched for the exact word or juxtaposition of words to express a concept or feeling, I was forced to examine ideas and thoughts relating to my own life that I had never been willing to confront or explore. Rosalynn was surprised at some of the things I wrote and would often say, "I never knew you felt this way." On occasion, I replied, "Neither did I."

When I finally completed a few poems -- after months of struggle and 15 or 20 revisions -- I was very reluctant to expose them to the public. But one of my mentors, the poet Miller Williams, called me one day to say that he was submitting several to a poetry journal. One was accepted, and subsequently about a dozen were published in respected magazines.

This increased my confidence, but when I offered the collected poems to my longtime publisher, he rejected the idea, saying that poetry books didn't sell and implying that if I published them I might expose myself to ridicule. When he finally changed his mind and Always a Reckoning was published, it became a bestseller.

The brief promotional tour was an emotional experience; the crowds were so large they were almost unmanageable. Many people asked me to autograph a particular poem instead of the title page. My daily mail almost doubled with readers who wanted to comment on particular verses. There was an intensity of personal reaction I had never known among my readers.

Early in the mornings and during the brief interludes between my duties at the Carter Center and at Emory University, I continue to write poetry, and have two other books underway. One is based on tape recordings of my weekly Sunday School lessons, including more than a dozen I taught at First Baptist Church in Washington while president. The other is an account of my life on a Georgia farm during the Great Depression, with a focus on what I saw as a strangely intimate interrelationship between black and white families, both children and adults.

These were in the days when sharecropping was the highest ambition of day laborers and when no one questioned the total official segregation that existed. It is an intriguing subject, and I'm taking my time with it.

Every book has its own challenges and particular pleasures, and each has taught me something important about myself and the magic of words. I have come a long way, but I still have much to learn. That's what makes the journey worthwhile.

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