Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

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


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."

      The subject, however, had different ideas. "Her attitude when we started," said Bair, "was, 'I'll tell you my memories and you'll write them down and we'll have a book.'" She soon discovered that after answering two or three questions unreservedly, Beauvoir would suddenly withdraw "behind a kind of veil," and Bair would have to "go out and do research around her to get the answers I needed."

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       As time went on, Bair also realized to her consternation that her revered subject was trying to manipulate her biographer into a more personal relationship. "I felt the boundaries between us dissolving," she said. "Things were getting a little too close up and personal....I had to decide that she was my work and my life was elsewhere."

       This became easier, Bair added wryly, when Beauvoir died before the book was completed. Still, the self-discipline that allowed her to maintain a historian's detachment, especially during the interviewing phase, made it possible for her to portray Beauvoir in all her human complexity.

       Far from resenting the fact that their idol had been toppled, Bair added, many readers turned out to be grateful to learn that "a woman could be a brilliant thinker and still be an ordinary human being."

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    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.

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    Sidebar Photo Credit: Elephant Country Web

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