Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

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

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…)


    October 21, 2014

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

    In my report on a lecture given by biographer Richard Holmes, I didn't mention that at one point he recalled arriving in a downpour for a discussion at the famous but notoriously mud-soaked Hay-on-Wye literary festival in Wales and being greeted by a moderator who said to him, in a lilting Welsh accent, “Ah, Mr. Holmes. Fine weather for biographers! Plenty of feet of clay!”


         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 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…)


    October 13, 2014

    Tags: Beginnings, 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…)


    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…)


    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…)


    June 26, 2013

    Tags: Beginnings, Research, Telling the story

    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.


    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…)


    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…)


      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…)


      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…)

          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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