Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

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


March 11, 2018

Tags: Biographers International

  *UPDATE*: BIO will be partnering with an independent bookseller, Merritt Bookstore of Millbrook, New York, to make recent biographies by our 2018 speakers, panelists, moderators, coaches, and award nominees available to conference attendees. The book table will be open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on the Concourse. You can also order any book in advance for immediate pickup, thereby giving yourself extra time to (a) find the author and get it autographed or (b) figure out where your next panel (or the bathroom) is. To see a list of titles and to pre-order, visit Merritt’s website.

Here are a few things I love about the Annual Biographers International Conference.

  1. It's democratic. There's something for everyone: old hands who've already published six biographies, newbies still in the planning stage (or the thinking-about stage), and everyone in between.

  2. It's an unmatched opportunity (if you can name another, let me know, but I bet you can’t) to learn about biography from people who actually practice it and to meet and mingle with others who love talking about doing that. You get to collect practical tips and ideas, schmooze about craft, and make connections that can lead to—well, like everything else about biography, to just about anything. (Come on, you know you can't do that at your sports club.)

  3. Unlike academic conferences, it's a pressure-free environment. No one is there because they're competing for a job or trying to get tenure. They're there (more…)


November 4, 2017

Tags: Deirdre Bair, Interviewing, TBC reports

(UConn Humanities Institute)
   Deirdre Bair, who has written six biographies, is currently working on a memoir about her experiences in researching and writing Beckett (1978) and Simone de Beauvoir (1990). At the fall, 2017 Dorothy O. Helly Work in Progress Lecture, presented by New York’s Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, she talked about her reasons for undertaking a memoir and the challenges for a seasoned biographer who decides to become part of the story.

   Bair originally planned “a short book” about all her biographies but was unable to find a framework that would encompass all six, (more…)


July 7, 2017

Tags: The writing life

Dumpdiggers, by Rob Campbell
  Every so often something comes along to remind me that this blog is about more than just writing a biography. It's also about using what we know (not only from research but from life) to imagine other lives: lives that actually happened, lives that were part of history. To me, it's one of the most satisfying things about writing biography.

  The title poem of The Bottle Diggers, a new collection by the poet Andrea Fry, blew me away because it so perfectly evokes (more…)


July 6, 2017

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

  How long does it take a biographer to commit to a subject?

  At the April, 2017 meeting of the New York University Biography Seminar, four noted biographers talked about their current projects and how they came to them. Turns out that even for experienced biographers, the process of deciding on a subject can be long, circuitous, and complicated.

      About a decade ago, journalist and former book editor Amanda Vaill (more…)


April 5, 2017

Tags: Carla Kaplan, TBC reports, Women Writing Women's Lives (discussion group)

Carla Kaplan: "This book has to be funny."
    Carla Kaplan's previous biographies, Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (2002) and Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (2013) made it clear that she likes women rebels.

   Her current project, Something to Offend Everyone: The Muckraking Life and Times of Jessica Mitford, which she discussed at the Spring, 2017 Works in Progress Lecture of New York City's Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar, made it clear that she especially likes them when they’re combative, empathetic, and have a talent for being "laugh-out-loud funny"—qualities Jessica Mitford employed to breathe new life into the venerable Gilded Age tradition of muckraking. (more…)


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…)


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.

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…)


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…)

    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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