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~ Writing a Biography ~
A Blog About Writing Biography and Imagining a Life


What enables us to imagine other people's lives? (Image: West Virginia University Technical Institute)
A few years back, biographers were dismayed when critics lambasted biography for "pathography" and “sensationalism.” Everyone seemed to be getting tarred with the same brush. That view has evidently gone out of fashion, since for now, at least, we are more likely to read that we live in "a golden age of biography."

On the other hand, professional historians in the United States have long regarded biography, a literary hybrid with one foot in history and the other in the tradition of imaginative narrative literature, in somewhat the same way that Mr. Rochester's well-bred friends in Jane Eyre viewed Adele, his flamboyant ward—unreliable, showy, and of suspect lineage: something to be shunned, or at least avoided, by polite society.

       To be fair, historians' discomfort with biography may stem in part from the fact that history is analytical by nature and biographers give pride of place to narrative momentum, which too much analysis undermines. Whatever the reason, junior faculty members in the history departments of most major American universities know that they are about as likely to get tenure for writing a prize-winning biography as for breeding a prize-winning cow.

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       So it was salutary—practically therapeutic, in fact—to hear the British literary and science biographer Richard Holmes remind his audience at the annual lecture of the Leon Levy Center for Biography that biography's dual nature is the best thing it has going for it.

       Holmes is no stranger to serious historiography. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, his book about the eighteenth-century figures who paved the way for modern science, was on the New York Times bestseller list, but it also won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books. His 880-page Shelley: The Pursuit and a two-volume study of the sources of Coleridge's art have made him a member of the Royal Society of Literature.

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       Richard Holmes himself appears to attribute his successful combination of good scholarship and good storytelling to the judicious use of what I like to think of as "the biographical imagination." Whereas the novelist employs sensory and emotional memory to explore a character's responses to life, the biographer who is interested in (as Holmes put it) "discovering the human springs and sources" of a subject's inner, creative, or "spiritual" life employs sensory and emotional memory and experience to deepen his/her understanding of the evidence.

        Thus, for biographers and other writers of narrative nonfiction, "imagination" doesn't mean invention but emotional empathy. And if I understand Mr. Holmes correctly, it's that use of the biographical imagination, that use of creativity, that allows the biographer to bring a subject to life on the page. (Regarding the temptation felt by writers of "creative nonfiction" to fill in holes in their research, invent scenes, or ascribe unsubstantiated or imaginary thoughts, feelings, and conversations to a subject: he didn't bring that up, so I won't, either.)

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       And that is why, as Mr. Holmes' talk suggests, the true polarities for the biographer aren't "imagination" (fiction) versus "authenticity" (nonfiction), but the unrelenting effort to better understand the subject's responses to the events and circumstances of life—those emotional responses that drive the story forward and give narrative its all-important momentum—versus the continuing need for the circumspect evaluation of that very empathy in the light of ongoing research. Serious biographers know that shunting endlessly between these two poles is among the most demanding, not to say exhausting, aspects of writing a biography. But it's also among the most exhilarating, and the most rewarding.

       For an example of how Richard Holmes exercises his own biographical imagination, see this report on his lecture. For a video of the lecture, click here.
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