“Biography is a narrative which seeks, consciously and artistically, to record the actions and recreate the personality of an individual life.” The subject of a biography may be selected because of personal connection, that is, to record a family history or the life of a prominent person. When the writer’s aim is to become a professional biographer, and I argue that “professionalism” (the competence and skill of a craftsman/woman) should be the aim of all biographers no matter the age of the biographer, the approach to writing a life or, indeed, writing your life, needs to be well thought out. Words are important. It is difficult and, sometimes impossible, to take back what you say or write. Discipline is key and time needs to be set aside to be used exclusively for research into the biographical subject’s life and times or for reflection on your own life. There is no easy road to writing a life if one is to make a proper job of it. Craftsmen/women do not cut corners. They look at every angle before they put pen to paper.
If writing short articles about the currently famous, infamous or notorious, it is useful to maintain scrap books of newspaper articles. Maintaining a diary and carrying a notebook (i-pad) is helpful in documenting, recording and capturing those moments of inspiration that flow from meeting new people, journeying into unfamiliar landscapes or finding yourself “fallen down a rabbit hole”. Freshness of style is an important ingredient so, too, is heart and soul. Be yourself and write it as you see it.
Insofar as the “historical biographical subject”, studying the early/formative years, inherited characteristics and environment are of crucial importance in shaping the character and understanding his/her life and chosen direction. Time spent on this aspect of biography is time well spent as it helps to bring the principal character of the story to life. A family tree is a useful first step. Be prepared to do a lot of reading and do not be disheartened if an avenue of research fails to produce the result you were looking or hoping for. Your local librarian is your best friend. Librarians are very helpful people. Seek their assistance and value their efforts. Once on the right pathway, writing biography can be an exciting experience as one fact about your subject’s life leads you to another and to another and another. Unlike fictional writing, where the fashioning of characters requires imagination and inventiveness, biographical writing requires the writer to gather the greatest possible amount of material and to thoroughly research the life until the mind of the writer becomes the sensitive recipient of the habits, tastes, gestures, beliefs, peculiarities, desires and human frailties of the subject. Then, and only then, is the biographer in a position to prepare a truthful, unvarnished presentation of the subject and conditions of his/her life.
After collecting the data; documents, letters, press cuttings, photographs, journals, articles and so on; the material needs to be scrutinised and placed in some sort of order for ease of reference. Indexing events in chronological order: date and place of birth, family history, environment, education, friendships, colleagues, enemies, rise or fall from fame, success, outstanding achievements or failures, financial loss or reward, wealth, poverty, happiness, sadness and so on. Select the highlights and omit the items of little value but do not change the facts pertaining to the life of your subject so as to turn the subject into an instrument to your own ends. The idea is to capture the essence of the life and to uphold the dignity of personhood principle which requires you to treat your subject’s life with the dignity and respect it deserves not to treat your subject as a victim.
Understanding and keeping the subject in your sights will give your biography the authenticity required for the reader to form the view that you are trustworthy and what you have written about your subject is reliable. Do not allow propriety to colour the presentation of the material. Search for the truth and present the truth with understanding. Love, admiration, respect and contrary emotions may be expressed for the subject but at all times be accurate and honest. Do not emphasise the perfections and forget the imperfections. This is not always easy but the story you tell must be an honest portrayal if it is to be enjoyed and believed. If, during the research phase, conflicting facts come to light, seek out the truth. If the truth is not to be found, give both sides of the story and, if you wish and deem it appropriate, provide a considered opinion.
If you are writing fiction and fact, make sure you evoke what is called the caveat emptor principle: “Reader, beware, I may be an unreliable narrator.” Extol the virtues and accomplishments of your subject, but do not ignore his/her shortcomings. Avoid veiled allusions and gossip presented merely for the sake of adding “spice” to the story. Take pains with the style and presentation. Write for the enjoyment and instruction of the reader. Use simple language and try not to indulge in long words. The art of biography is not easy. There will be days when words flow. There will be other days when the mind goes completely blank. Persistence, energy, enthusiasm,dedication and discipline will overcome most setbacks. Finally, there can be no satisfaction arising from writing into history hurtful inaccuracies which cause damage to the subject, his/her family and to the human family as a whole. Documenting untruths robs humanity of its right to truth. I consider the art of biography in greater detail in Family, Nation & Sport which is a free download at www.lindrum.com. Family, Nation & Sport was written to correct inaccuracies about my father’s life which were written into history after his death. To write untruths about a deceased person who is unable to defend himself/herself is, in my view, a crime against humanity.
Examples of biography:
The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) James Boswell
Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone (1845) Timothy Flint
Abraham Lincoln: A History (1886) John Hay
The Windsor Story (1979) J Bryan and C Murphy
Toulouse-Latrec: A Life (1994) Julia Frey
In Search of Captain Cook: Exploring the Man Through His Own Words (2008)
Edward R Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism (2004) Bob Edwards
Judy Garland (2003) Anne Edwards
Further examples are cited in Family, Nation & Sport.
Love is patient and kind
and patience and kindness are the foundation
stones of living and writing a good life.
Peace is the pathway to progress.