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~ Writing a Biography ~ STALKING THE ELEPHANTAbout Writing Biography and Imagining a Life

• WHEN SHOULD YOU BEGIN WRITING?

A spiral galaxy giving birth to stars (NASA)


          First-time biographers often assume they have to complete all their research before writing anything. But since the writing process itself always generates new ideas, a nonfiction writer can always find more research to do.

          Case in point: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a newly-published biographer attended a panel discussion. Baffled by the fact that every paragraph she wrote had seemed to produce a new set of questions that needed researching, she raised her hand and plaintively asked Robert Caro, Lyndon Johnson's biographer, whether, after doing the exhaustive research for which he was famous, he had ever had to stop dead in his tracks and go back to do more research before he could even move on to the next sentence. Answer: "All the time. Next question."

          My point, which I can now make on the basis of a fair amount of experience (disclosure: I was that same pathetic questioner), is that waiting to start writing "until the research is finished" is pretty much impossible. It can even be dangerous. A biography is above all somebody's story, and as novelists know, waiting too long to give birth to a story that has captured your imagination can slowly drain away the passion a long-term narrative project requires.

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          If, on the other hand, you've already done a fair amount of research and feel the definite and growing urge to put fingers to keyboard, that's probably a sign that you're ready to start, even if you don't believe you know enough. True, you may not yet be able to write a whole book or even an entire chapter. But you'll probably find that you know enough to write something, maybe even something good. And on top of it, you'll be having fun. (Yes, writing is supposed to be fun. Basically. A lot of the time. Or some of the time. But that's a whole other post.)

          If you don't have enough material yet for every section of an opening chapter, or don't have the money to travel to an important library or archive, or if you haven't yet succeeded in getting that crucial friend or family member of your subject to agree to an interview, try writing a section for which you feel you do have enough material.

          In short, if your gut is telling you, "Begin," do it now, even if that's only for twenty minutes a day at first. You can always revise later. You can even stop, if you find it's not working. And in the meantime, you'll start to reap the rewards of actually engaging with this person who so intrigues you, instead of just preparing to.

          Good rule of thumb: trust your writer's instinct. Of the two of you, it's probably the smart one anyway.

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           Helps: For jump-starting the writing process, I'm a big fan of writing guru Peter Elbow's wonderful Writing without Teachers and Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Though these are aimed primarily at students, even experienced writers can benefit from his analogy, in Writing without Teachers, of writing as "generating" and "cooking" (which is, of course, what writing really is), and from his many delightful suggestions in Writing with Power on how to "Prime the Pump."

           Share your thoughts and experiences about when to begin writing and how to get started. Post a comment below.

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