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

HARVESTING VOICES FROM THE MOVEMENT THAT TRANSFORMED WOMEN’S LIVES (TBC, DECEMBER 2018)

Honor Moore and Alix Kates Shulman are using women’s voices to tell the history of a revolutionary era in women's history (Photo: CUNY Center for the Humanities)
  This fall I heard two well known writer-activists, Honor Moore and Alix Kates Shulman, talk about working on an anthology, Writing the Women’s Movement, 1963-1991. While their book isn’t biography per se, their talk touched on something I think a lot about as a biographer: the potential of life-writing for portraying history intimately—as it took place on the ground, so to speak, and in its own time—by having it unfold through the voices, and the viewpoints, of those witnessed it.  Read More 
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SARA BARD FIELD: LINKING THE OUTER AND INNER STORIES

Sara Bard Field on tour
    I haven't talked much on this blog about my own work. But a couple of months ago someone sent me some good questions about choosing a subject, researching and writing a biography, and the kinds of challenges biography can involve.
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1. What initially drew you to the subjects you've chosen to write about?

   I tend to become obsessed with stories that can give me and my reader insights into human psychology and social change, especially if I can tell the story from the subject's perspective. I'm happiest writing from the inside out, so to speak.  Read More 
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TO FIND THE STORY, START BUILDING AN INTERACTIVE TIMELINE


    This is the third of four articles on how story and narrative work together in biography.

    Anyone who wants to write a biography that's more than just an encyclopedia article or a laundry list of the main events of the subject's life has to decide early on what story to tell and how the arc of the narrative will advance it.

         Elsewhere on this website, I discuss what what a story is in biography and the importance of the "red thread" for selecting what to include in the narrative. In this post, I'll describe what I consider the most important tool for identifying the story and keeping it on track as your interpretation of it becomes refined by new information and insights. Read More 
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    SO WHAT'S THE STORY?

    "Unwritten Story" (© Reproduced by permission of Hiroko Yoshimoto.)
    That joke in the sidebar about the sculptor and the elephant may be an old saw (no pun intended), but it's a perfect analogy for carving a story from what may at first seem a daunting and, often, seemingly disconnected body of research.

        Being able to define and project a story about the subject is among the biographer's first and most urgent tasks. For one thing, even in the early stages, having at least a hypothesis about the particular story you want to tell is the best way to get a grip on all that research. If only for that reason, understanding what "story" means for biography is critical.  Read More 
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    MANAGING YOUR RESEARCH: A "DEEP CHRONO" TIMELINE CAN HELP

    I know I promised to get back to the subject of organizing primary research in biography, and I'll return to talking about data files and headnotes soon. Before that, however, I'd like to pass on an idea that comes to us courtesy of—get ready—the CIA.

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    First, a brief but relevant digression. In a post last year, I discussed the essential "red thread" of narrative and how important it is to keep an eye on it at all times.  Read More 
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    ROBERT MASSIE: BIOGRAPHY'S KEY INGREDIENTS (TBC REPORT)

    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  Read More 
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    STAYING ON TRACK: THE RED THREAD OF THE NARRATIVE

    To stay on track, keep an eye on the red thread of your story. (Image via photos-public-domain.com)
    As my favorite literary parable suggests (see sidebar), telling the story of a life is a lot like carving an elephant from a block of stone. The "elephant" is the story of someone else's life in potentia, while the block of stone is the mass of unprocessed research in which the story is hiding. Here and in future posts, I want to discuss the creative process of rendering the elephant visible, not only to the eye of the reader but in the mind of the writer.  Read More 
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    • AN ELEPHANT IS A MOVING TARGET

    (Credit: Hayward Public Library)

      For me, nothing about writing biography is more difficult than remembering that I'm tracking the long, slow evolution of a human being. (Two human beings, actually: in a sense, Erskine is as important to SARA AND ERSKINE as Sara herself; maybe more, in some ways.) Which means that the elephant  Read More 
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      ARTICLE POSTING: "FINDING OUR VOICE'"

      "Voice" is the instrument with which a writer tells the story. For a biographer, as for other writers of narrative, feeling confident that one has found "the right voice" is vital for having the authority and conviction necessary to narrate the life story of another human being.

          But voice is hard to define. It's not  Read More 
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