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

FRANKLIN THROWS LIGHT ON UNDERAPPRECIATED SHIRLEY JACKSON, by EVELYN BARISH (TBC: April, 2016)

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)

"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.  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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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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WOMEN WRITING WOMEN'S LIVES CELEBRATES 25 YEARS (TBC REPORT)

    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.  Read More 
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"I'LL TELL YOU MY MEMORIES AND YOU'LL WRITE THEM DOWN AND WE'LL HAVE A BOOK."

    At the 25th anniversary conference of the Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar, keynote speaker Deirdre Bair offered an object lesson in some of the difficulties of dealing with a living subject.

      When Bair began working on her groundbreaking biography of Simone de Beauvoir in the 1980s, her plan was to tell the story of the feminist icon "warts and all."  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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WRITING AROUND THE HOLES

How to get around missing pieces?
A couple of years ago, I posted a report about a Biographers International conference panel on the "black holes" in biography, or areas of missing information.

    Another conversation a few weeks ago, this one moderated by James Atlas and carried on by three noted biographers, Ron Chernow, John Matteson, and Stacy Schiff, reminded me again of the "missing pieces" biographers have to anticipate—or, just as often, can't anticipate—on their way to writing a definitive biography. (For the likelihood of doing that, see the conclusion of "THE TRUTH": BIOGRAPHY'S MOVING TARGET.) More reflections inspired by the discussion: • JOHN MATTESON: CHOOSING A SUBJECT AND WHY WE WRITE, • SHOULD WRITING BE FUN?

    Below are some of the things the panelists had to say about this perennially interesting topic.  Read More 
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SHOULD WRITING BE FUN?

The other day I was thinking about what writers can learn from John Matteson's thirteen-year-old daughter when I remembered something Larry Niven once said.

   In case you have never been a closet science fiction fan, Niven, who is the author of Ringworld, is also one-half of the writing duo of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Their most famous collaboration is The Mote in God's Eye, but my favorite is Lucifer's Hammer, a novel about a comet that hits the earth and destroys Los Angeles (as well as the rest of civilization, but that's incidental).  Read More 
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JOHN MATTESON: CHOOSING A SUBJECT AND WHY WE WRITE

A couple of weeks ago I attended a terrific panel discussion by four extremely able biographers to hear them kick around one of my most favorite and least resolvable topics: "Is Biography True?"

    I've posted a report on the event here. Since there wasn't space to consider all the interesting and thought-provoking things that were said, Read More 
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