Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

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

BAREFOOT IN THE ARCHIVE

October 21, 2014

Tags: Biography and ethics, In the archive, Sara Bard Field, Sattareh Farman-Farmaian

Recently, I reported on a lecture by biographer Richard Holmes, who recalled how he once arrived in a downpour for a discussion at the famous but notoriously mud-soaked Hay-on-Wye literary festival in Wales and was greeted by the moderator, in a lilting Welsh accent, “Ah, Mr. Holmes. Fine weather for biographers! Plenty of feet of clay!”

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     It wasn't exactly clear whether the target of this whimsical reminder of the debunking tendencies of biography were the people Holmes and his fellow biographers wrote about or the biographers themselves—probably both. Anyway, the implications of this amusing story were in the back of my mind as I arrived at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, California last week (more…)

SO WHAT'S THE STORY?

October 13, 2014

Tags: Biography and imagination, Telling the story

"Unwritten Story" (© Reproduced by permission of Hiroko Yoshimoto.)
That joke in the sidebar about the sculptor and the elephant may be an old saw (no pun intended), but it's a perfect analogy for carving a story from what may at first seem a daunting and, often, seemingly disconnected body of research.

    Being able to define and project a story about the subject is among the biographer's first and most urgent tasks. For one thing, even in the early stages, having at least a hypothesis about the particular story you want to tell is the best way to get a grip on all that research. If only for that reason, understanding what "story" means for biography is critical. (more…)

RICHARD HOLMES EXPLORES THE VALUE OF "A HANDSHAKE ACROSS TIME"

October 7, 2014

Tags: Richard Holmes, TBC articles

Holmes used this image to illustrate biography's "handshake." (By permission of Richard Holmes)
In fifty years of writing biography, the innovative and prolific Richard Holmes has become known to his fellow practitioners as "a biographer's biographer" for his reflections on the art and craft of biography (Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer and Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer). At the 2014 annual Leon Levy Center Lecture in New York, he shared some of his insights with a rapt audience.

       Holmes was about eighteen when he decided to hike through the Cèvennes in an effort to retrace the route Robert Louis Stevenson had taken with his donkey Modestine in 1878. Showing the audience a picture of two pages in a lined spiral notebook, he explained (more…)

IS THERE A "BIOGRAPHER'S IMAGINATION"?

October 6, 2014

Tags: Biography and imagination, Richard Holmes

What enables us to imagine other people's lives? (Image: West Virginia University Technical Institute)
A few years back, biographers were dismayed when critics lambasted biography for "pathography" and “sensationalism.” Everyone seemed to be getting tarred with the same brush. That view has evidently gone out of fashion, since for now, at least, we are more likely to read that we live in "a golden age of biography."

On the other hand, professional historians in the United States have long regarded biography, a literary hybrid with one foot in history and the other in the tradition of imaginative narrative literature, in somewhat the same way that Mr. Rochester's well-bred friends in Jane Eyre viewed Adele, his flamboyant ward—unreliable, showy, and of suspect lineage: something to be shunned, or at least avoided, by polite society. (more…)

MANAGING YOUR RESEARCH: A "DEEP CHRONO" TIMELINE CAN HELP

June 26, 2013

Tags: Telling the story, Research

I know I promised to get back to the subject of organizing primary research in biography, and I'll return to talking about data files and headnotes soon. Before that, however, I'd like to pass on an idea that comes to us courtesy of—get ready—the CIA.

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First, a brief but relevant digression. In a post last year, I discussed the essential "red thread" of narrative and how important it is to keep an eye on it at all times. (more…)

DEALING WITH BLACK HOLES, 1 (TBC, June, 2013)

June 19, 2013

Tags: Black holes, TBC articles


        Last month, I heard a subject discussed that should interest anyone who has ever discovered that a chunk of the story is missing—meaning, of course, every biographer. (more…)

    GETTING ORGANIZED, 4: LOCKING IN THOSE THRILLING DISCOVERIES

    June 11, 2013

    Tags: Research

    Call me a hopeless nerd, but for sheer mental excitement, I've never found anything better than discovering something new about my characters or finding a clue to their story. To me, that's what archival research is all about.

    In my first and second posts on organizing research, I discuss using MS Word to set up a chronologically-based folder system (more…)

    GETTING ORGANIZED, 3: WRITER-FRIENDLY SOFTWARE.

    June 4, 2013

    Tags: Research

    A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away—the one where I convinced myself that I could write a biography and still have time to blog regularly—I promised to continue with the subject of how to set up a seat-of-the-pants filing system for storing, retrieving, and keeping track of research (more…)

    PREDICTING BIOGRAPHY'S FUTURE: EVERYTHING CHANGES, EVERYTHING STAYS THE SAME (TBC, March, 2013)

    March 15, 2013

    Tags: TBC articles

    At the invitation of the NYU Biography Seminar, three veterans of New York publishing got together at New York University in February to talk about the current and future market for biography. The three were Jonathan Galassi, a long-time trade editor and the president of Farrar, (more…)

    BEFORE THE APOCALYPSE, SOME WRITING ADVICE TO MYSELF

    December 21, 2012

    Tags: The writing life

    (Image: National Aeronautics and Space Administration)
    I love this time of year. I've pretty much given up making New Year's resolutions, but late December is when I'm allowed by custom—no, obligated—to kick back and think about making a good start in 2013.

    Of course, given the date of this post—December 21, 2012—thinking about next year could be a (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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