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

DEALING WITH THE MESSINESS

   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.  Read More 
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"THE TRUTH": BIOGRAPHY'S MOVING TARGET (TBC REPORT)

    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.”  Read More 
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BAREFOOT IN THE ARCHIVE

In my report on a lecture given by biographer Richard Holmes, I didn't mention that at one point he recalled arriving in a downpour for a discussion at the famous but notoriously mud-soaked Hay-on-Wye literary festival in Wales and being greeted by a moderator who said to him, in a lilting Welsh accent, “Ah, Mr. Holmes. Fine weather for biographers! Plenty of feet of clay!”

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     It wasn't exactly clear whether the target of this whimsical reminder of the debunking tendencies of biography were the people Holmes and his fellow biographers wrote about or biographers themselves—probably both. Anyway, the implications of this amusing story were in the back of my mind as I arrived at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, California last week  Read More 
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