Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

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

DEIRDRE BAIR ON WRITING A MEMOIR ABOUT BECKETT, BEAUVOIR—AND BAIR (TBC REPORT)

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…)

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO SAY, "I DO"? (TBC, JULY 2017)

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…)

CARLA KAPLAN TALKS ABOUT JESSICA MITFORD, MUCKRAKER (TBC REPORT)

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…)

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…)

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…)

RICHARD HOLMES EXPLORES THE VALUE OF "A HANDSHAKE ACROSS TIME" (TBC REPORT)

October 7, 2014

Tags: Richard Holmes, TBC reports

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…)

DEALING WITH BLACK HOLES, 1 (TBC REPORT)

June 19, 2013

Tags: Black holes, TBC reports


        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…)

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

    March 15, 2013

    Tags: Biography and publishing, TBC reports

    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…)

    ROBERT MASSIE: BIOGRAPHY'S KEY INGREDIENTS (TBC REPORT)

    December 6, 2012

    Tags: Beginnings, Telling the story, Robert K. Massie, TBC reports

    Robert Massie: Storytellers have "three ingredients" to think about. (Photo © Alex Remnick)
    Robert K. Massie, the journalist and historian whose gift for vivid narrative has made him the preeminent American biographer of Russian royals, makes his job sound easy. “I am a storyteller,” he explains modestly, adding that he writes biography because “telling stories about people in the past is important to everyone trying to understand (more…)

    Interview: DEIRDRE BAIR ON STEINBERG, CAPONE, AND CHOOSING A SUBJECT (TBC INTERVIEW)

    November 19, 2012

    Tags: Choosing a subject, Deirdre Bair, TBC reports

    This week, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday will publish Deirdre Bair's Saul Steinberg: A Biography, the first biography of the New York artist whose beloved, ferociously funny New Yorker cartoons are now icons of American satire. (Think "View of the World from 9th Avenue," his famous 1976 map of the United States as seen by parochial New Yorkers.) I interviewed Bair for the monthly newsletter of Biographers International. An adapted version of that conversation appears here. (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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           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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