"WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA?" invites published biographers and writers of nonfiction to discuss the ideas and insights that have been important to them or helped them solve one of the many challenges of writing, research, and the nonfiction writer's life. Has something helped you as a biographer or nonfiction writer? Send in a comment.
I think a lot (and by "a lot" I mean all the time) about the life of my subject and how I'm telling her story. My friend Louise (Lucy) W. Knight, who's written not one but two fine books about the great social worker Jane Addams, recently told me about an epiphany she once had about telling the story of a life, an epiphany that came from reading the first volume of Richard Holmes' biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It both deepened her thinking about Jane Addams' life story and increased her confidence as a narrator. I've asked her to describe it here. —Dona Munker
It was a rainy day in Oxford, England and I was browsing the shops without much purpose when I came across a rack of cheap paperbacks for sale on the sidewalk. Thus did I stumble across the first volume of Richard Holmes' prize-winning biography of Samuel Coleridge. I knew Holmes was a famous and admired biographer, and reading Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804, I could see why. Holmes caught me up and guided me through the hills and valleys of the poet's early years with a deft, yet unobtrusive hand.
I took many lessons from the book, but the one I found most useful was how he drew my attention to "first times." Every time Coleridge did something significant, something he had never done before, Holmes pointed it out. He told me the first time Coleridge wrote a narrative poem, the first time he took opium, the first time he met Wordsworth.
Most biographers call the reader's attention to some obvious "first times." For example, the first time someone has sex is an event few writers fail to note. But Holmes pointed out a number of "firsts," and thus helped me see how the poet was shaping his own life, breaking new ground, taking risks, growing, or, perhaps, degenerating. Character, will, choice: all came into focus around "firsts."
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Back home in the United States, as I worked on a biography of Jane Addams, I began to ask myself as I moved through the material, was this the first time Addams did this? The question turned out to be a powerful tool. Suddenly I was noticing things—the first time she gave a speech, the first time something she wrote was published, the first time she was elected to be president of a national organization, the first time she lobbied a legislature, the first time she met a president of the United States, etc.
These events, I came to realize, were not just worth noting; they were crucial to understanding who Addams was and who she was becoming. I began to see how, for a biographer, “first times” are markers for turning points in the life, the moments when the subject takes a step into the unknown, takes a risk, or makes a choice that reveals more about her than I or the reader knew before.
By showing me the power of “firsts,” Holmes showed me how to step forward strongly as the narrator and say what needed saying. In our own lives, we are very aware of our "firsts." How vital, then, to carry that awareness over to the task of capturing a life that is not our own.