Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

      ~ Writing a Biography ~
      About Writing Biography and Imagining a Life


November 12, 2015

Tags: Beginnings, Daughter of Persia (book), Research, Sara and Erskine (book), Sara Bard Field, Telling the story

Sara Bard Field on tour
    I haven't talked much on this blog about my own work. But a couple of months ago someone sent me some good questions about choosing a subject, researching and writing a biography, and the kinds of challenges biography can involve.

1. What initially drew you to the subjects you've chosen to write about?

   I tend to become obsessed with stories that can give me and my reader insights into human psychology and social change, especially if I can tell the story from the subject's perspective. I'm happiest writing from the inside out, so to speak. (more…)


November 8, 2015

Tags: Biography and ethics, Carla Kaplan, Women Writing Women's Lives (discussion group)

   Maybe it's just me, but on the whole I'd prefer to like and admire someone I've chosen to spend years living with. And while few biographers expect—or even want—their subjects to be squeaky clean in every aspect of their public or private lives, being able to identify with the subject, at least in part, can help a writer survive the long haul of writing a biography.

       On the other hand, as Deirdre Bair found when researching the life of Simone de Beauvoir, identifying with the subject can be a handicap as well as an advantage. Identification and empathy both have the potential to cloud the biographer's judgment, making it difficult to decide what to do with apparent inconsistencies—and also with blatant departures from what made us admire this figure in the first place. (more…)


November 7, 2015

Tags: Deirdre Bair, Living subjects, Women Writing Women's Lives (discussion group)

    At the 25th anniversary conference of the Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar, keynote speaker Deirdre Bair offered an object lesson in some of the difficulties of dealing with a living subject.

      When Bair began working on her groundbreaking biography of Simone de Beauvoir in the 1980s, her plan was to tell the story of the feminist icon "warts and all." (more…)


November 7, 2015

Tags: TBC articles, Women Writing Women's Lives (discussion group)

    Whose life is valuable enough to deserve a biography? For those who attended the all-day conference on October 2 at the City of New York Graduate Center in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar, the answer was clear: Any life.

       Women Writing Women's Lives is an ongoing independent discussion group of about seventy women journalists, independent writers, and academic scholars whose mission is to find "new ways of looking at and presenting women's stories" and ultimately influence the way those stories are perceived and written. (more…)


April 20, 2015

Tags: Biography and ethics, TBC articles

    Every biographer is familiar with the tension between the search for historical accuracy and the need to bring the subject alive in a narrative. In a conversation presented jointly by the New York University Center for the Study of Transformational Lives and the NYU Biography Seminar, biographer James Atlas asked three Pulitzer Prize–winning colleagues, Ron Chernow, John Matteson, and Stacy Schiff, for their views on the question, “Is Biography True?” The answer, basically, was a resounding, “Sort of.” (more…)


April 20, 2015

Tags: Biography and imagination, Black holes

How to get around missing pieces?
A couple of years ago, I posted a report about a Biographers International conference panel on the "black holes" in biography, or areas of missing information.

    Another conversation a few weeks ago, this one moderated by James Atlas and carried on by three noted biographers, Ron Chernow, John Matteson, and Stacy Schiff, reminded me again of the "missing pieces" biographers have to anticipate—or, just as often, can't anticipate—on their way to writing a definitive biography. (For the likelihood of doing that, see the conclusion of "THE TRUTH": BIOGRAPHY'S MOVING TARGET.) More reflections inspired by the discussion: • JOHN MATTESON: CHOOSING A SUBJECT AND WHY WE WRITE, • SHOULD WRITING BE FUN?

    Below are some of the things the panelists had to say about this perennially interesting topic. (more…)


April 12, 2015

Tags: The writing life, Writing process

The other day I was thinking about what writers can learn from John Matteson's thirteen-year-old daughter when I remembered something Larry Niven once said.

   In case you have never been a closet science fiction fan, Niven, who is the author of Ringworld, is also one-half of the writing duo of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Their most famous collaboration is The Mote in God's Eye, but my favorite is Lucifer's Hammer, a novel about a comet that hits the earth and destroys Los Angeles (as well as the rest of civilization, but that's incidental). (more…)


April 9, 2015

Tags: Choosing a subject, John Matteson, The writing life

A couple of weeks ago I attended a terrific panel discussion by four extremely able biographers to hear them kick around one of my most favorite and least resolvable topics: "Is Biography True?"

    I've posted a report on the event here. Since there wasn't space to consider all the interesting and thought-provoking things that were said, (more…)

A Biographer's Empathy: James McGrath Morris

February 6, 2015

Tags: James McGrath Morris (Author)

I'm off trying to meet a deadline and probably won't let myself come back to play in the sandbox until March. But I can't resist sharing a superb piece of biographical self-analysis by my friend James McGrath Morris.

  Morris, the author of a biography of Joseph Pulitzer (and, as the man who dreamed up Biographers International, the benefactor of biographers everywhere), is publishing Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press this month. His reflections on what researching and writing this book did for him as a human being will speak to every biographer who wants to enlighten not only others with the story of a life but also himself. Or herself. Read "Reporting across the Color Line".


January 3, 2015

Tags: Beginnings, Research, Telling the story, Writing process

    This is the third of four articles on how story and narrative work together in biography.

    Anyone who wants to write a biography that's more than just an encyclopedia article or a laundry list of the main events of the subject's life has to decide early on what story to tell and how the arc of the narrative will advance it.

         Elsewhere on this website, I discuss what what a story is in biography and the importance of the "red thread" for selecting what to include in the narrative. In this post, I'll describe what I consider the most important tool for identifying the story and keeping it on track as your interpretation of it becomes refined by new information and insights. (more…)

        The disciple of a famous sculptor came upon his master carving an elephant from a huge, shapeless chunk of stone. "Master," cried the disciple, "What splendor! What realism! What insight! How do you do it?" "Simple," replied the sculptor. "You just cut away everything that isn't elephant."

        Stalking the Elephant is a blog about creating an elephant from a chunk of stone, a.k.a. writing a biography.

        It's also about the biographer's writing life (well, mine, anyway) and a work in progress, SARA AND ERSKINE, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE. This is an intimate reconstruction of the life of SARA BARD FIELD, a World War One-era minister's wife, suffragist, and poet, and her extraordinary affair with an outspoken attorney, philosophical anarchist, and Renaissance man CHARLES ERSKINE SCOTT WOOD.

    Subscribing is easy.

        This couple takes up a lot of time (not to mention a lot of oxygen), and since I don't have a regular posting schedule, the best way to receive updates is to sign up to be notified when I post something new.

         Here's how: On the blog page, click on the RSS button of your browser. (In Firefox: Go to the Bookmarks menu and select "Subscribe to This Page.") You can then check to see if there's been an update in the RSS feed of your browser's toolbar.

    Visit the RESOURCES page and take advantage of a growing list of links, blogs, and books for anyone interested in biography and writing lives.

      Sidebar Photo Credit: Elephant Country Web

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