The art of biography

Like most writers, I am inclined to write quite a bit about myself. It’s easy to do, and no wonder we have so many memoirs floating about. But now I am writing a biography of someone, someone who’s dead now and can’t speak for themselves; and I find myself trying to figure out what kind of biography this should be. I’ve read quite a few, since at one time, when I strayed from novels, this was my favorite genre. A well-written and researched bio has always made me marvel at how the writer was able to capture the living person, even if the author had never known or met the person. A good biography is intimate. A badly written bio is easy to ascertain: The person being written about does not emerge at all.

There are many questions I am grappling with, and they don’t have easy answers, so I welcome any feedback from fellow writers. One is, if the person is not terribly well-known or a super-extraordinary, controversial sort of figure, is he worth writing about at all? (okay, so now you know my subject is male. And it’s not Thomas Merton, who I write far too much about.) This is definitely a question a publisher’s going to ask. And so, I suppose I will have to find a smaller publisher with the proper empathy for such a somewhat obscure subject. And that will be no easy task.

My next questions are more literary or philosophical. The one that nags me the most is, how brutally honest or frank must I be? I know I shouldn’t coddle my subject but…I really don’t believe there is anything distressing or wrong in his life. I don’t know that I could find anything of that nature. This biography will be more of a hagiography than anything else—of an uncanonized, unrecognized, most ordinary kind of saint, with a small S. For many writers, that would be okay, even desirable. But for the cynical, doubting, questioning writer I am, that will be hard. For example, I do not think it would be appropriate to question my subject’s sexuality, but of course, you know me and sex…I do believe in handling such matters frankly. But I think Michael McGregor handled it very well in his biography of the poet Robert Lax, Pure Act: Here was a shy, sensitive man who lived alone his whole life, who hinted at attractions to women, yet developed passionate (and chaste) friendships with other men. McGregor makes no conjecture whatsoever, and I think I will have to do that, too. By the way, Lax was good friends with my subject—are you intrigued yet?

The other thing is, what gets put in and what is left out? My research has turned up a lot of stuff on this guy. But how much goes in? I don’t want it to be a bad kind of fruitcake, stuffed with everything that was in the pantry. But certain little details can add humor, color. I guess I will have to figure it out somehow. Hopefully with the help of a good editor…

And the thorniest issue of all for me is, how much of myself goes in it. I personally don’t care for a biographer intruding on his subject’s story. It’s his/her story, not yours, I want to shout.  But I knew this man, even though he’s been dead now over thirty years. I didn’t have a close relationship with him, not by a longshot, but I did meet him and even worked alongside him, as did many other people. Of all the people who knew him, I would probably be the least appropriate person to write a biography of him, although I have the literary tools that his closer friends and acquaintance might lack. So far, I decided I would, in full disclosure, mention my connection to him in the introduction; and then never mention it again. No matter how much I thought of him, I still owe him complete objectivity in describing his life.

Biography is such a change from writing fiction. You cannot build a whole world here; the world exists and you need to be true to it, while still spinning the tale, drawing your readers in. There cannot be any fiction in it, yet I find myself drawing on some fictional techniques to write it. It is essential a story, a true story, and since I’m an established storyteller—the Midwest Book Review said I was, so it must be true!—I guess that gives me the credentials to write this thing. But, begging your indulgence as readers of my blog, I would like to continue  in future posts to examinethis issue of biography, of exploring and immersing oneself in someone else’s life. Maybe at the end I’ll reveal who it is, but chances are you’ve never heard of him. Which is why you need to read my biography…

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