Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

      ~ Writing a Biography ~
      STALKING THE ELEPHANT
      About Writing Biography and Imagining a Life

TRADE EDITORS TALK ABOUT BIOGRAPHY (TBC REPORT)

April 6, 2016

Tags: Biography and publishing, TBC reports

   At a recent session of the New York University Biography Seminar, members Gayle Feldman and James Atlas invited four well-known trade editors to come and discuss whether biography has changed, what the editor contributes, and the hopes and expectations they entertain for the biographies they acquire.

      Tim Duggan, publisher of Tim Duggan Books at the Crown Publishing Group, doesn’t think writing biography or editing it has actually changed much from twenty years ago. Above all, he said, it remains “a huge undertaking” that can take years to complete. The glacial speed at which biography is produced, he observed, makes it "impossible to justify publishing only biography."

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       However, an editor's reason for taking on a serious biography is in any case less likely to be driven by visions of bestsellerdom than by the subject's perceived value, the quality of the writing, or both.

      Doubleday vice-president and executive editor Gerald Howard said that while biographies aren't regarded as money-makers, in respected critical venues biography remains the most frequently reviewed nonfiction genre. “In our world," he said, "success is being reviewed in the New York Times"—if possible, he added jokingly, by Dwight Garner. This personal and professional investment in a biography’s critical success has practical ramifications for authors, who look to their editors not only for encouragement and moral support over a long period but also for the enthusiasm that can translate into persuading other departments to support the book when it is published. (more…)

FRANKLIN THROWS LIGHT ON UNDERAPPRECIATED SHIRLEY JACKSON, by EVELYN BARISH (TBC: April, 2016)

April 5, 2016

Tags: Evelyn Barish, Ruth Franklin, TBC reports, Women Writing Women's Lives (discussion group)

Ruth Franklin
   For fans of Shirley Jackson ("The Lottery"), an intriguing report by Women Writing Women's Lives member Evelyn Barish (The Double Life of Paul De Man) on a talk given by another member, Ruth Franklin, on her upcoming biography of Jackson (to be published September, 2016).

   Barish's report appeared in the April, 2016 newsletter of the Biographers International Organization, which is dedicated to fostering the community of biographers worldwide. For more reports, click on "TBC reports" in the sidebar.
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BIOGRAPHERS EXPLORE POINTS OF VIEW: A Report by Deirdre David (TBC: April, 2016)

April 4, 2016

Tags: Choosing a subject, Deirdre David, TBC reports, The writing life

"Other Point of View," by Beryl Owl (Deviant Art)
   If you're writing a biography (or a memoir), or you're thinking about writing one, the following report by Deirdre David (Olivia Manning: A Woman at War) on the proceedings of the annual 2016 Leon Levy Conference on Biography may offer some food for thought.

   David's report appeared in the April, 2016 newsletter of the Biographers International Organization, which is dedicated to fostering the community of biographers worldwide. For more reports, click on "TBC reports" in the sidebar. (more…)

SARA BARD FIELD: LINKING THE OUTER AND INNER STORIES

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.
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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…)

DEALING WITH THE MESSINESS

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…)

"I'LL TELL YOU MY MEMORIES AND YOU'LL WRITE THEM DOWN AND WE'LL HAVE A BOOK."

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…)

WOMEN WRITING WOMEN'S LIVES CELEBRATES 25 YEARS (TBC REPORT)

November 7, 2015

Tags: TBC reports, 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…)

"THE TRUTH": BIOGRAPHY'S MOVING TARGET (TBC REPORT)

April 20, 2015

Tags: Biography and ethics, TBC reports

    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…)

WRITING AROUND THE HOLES

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…)

SHOULD WRITING BE FUN?

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…)


    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.

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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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         All material on this website Copyright © 2005-2015 by Dona Munker except where expressly stated or contributed by others. Copying, altering, or reproducing this material in any form without written permission is prohibited by law and may be prosecuted regardless of the venue or purpose of the copying.

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