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The Jealous and Painful Art of Biography

 

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There are only two types of biographers.  Yes, our subjects might be different; the focus of obsession can range anywhere from the greatest artist or inventor to the most abject failure.  We talk about sports, about politics, cover massive stretches of history, and devour current events.  The biographer writes about everything and yet I stand by my claim that only two styles exist.  There are those who probe the living, while the majority study the dead.

 

Telling the story of a person still alive brings certain complications that the historical academic is not forced to consider.  Think about the great biographers of today: Jon Meacham (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?an=jon%20meacham&cm_sp=det-_-bdp-_-author), Ron Chernow (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?an=ron%20chernow&cm_sp=det-_-bdp-_-author), David McCullough (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?an=david%20mccullough&cm_sp=det-_-bdp-_-author), Doris Kearns Goodwin (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?bsi=0&kn=doris%20kearns%20goodwin&sortby=17&prevpage=4), among thousands of others, the above only in the English language and all four of them Americans.  But each one of them–every book they have written save the random essays and occasional memoirs–deal with significant figures from an increasingly distant past.

 

Those who discuss people still living are compelled to deal with the ego and attitude of their subject not merely in an academic way, trying to paint the figure as accurately as possible.  No, we must cope with hurt feelings, allegations of misinterpretation or even lies; we must face the chance that our subject might wind up hating us, or sue us, defame us–they might even try to destroy us.  It is very hard to write about the living without descending into either hero worship or tabloid slur.

 

I am presently writing a rather intense biography of a living individual.  Recently I spent nearly a week with them at their home and rolled about, following their life in nearly every capacity, recording most conversations, scribbling notes non-stop, and interviewing every person present who are a part of their lives, no matter how slight.  It was exhausting.

 

The job of a biographer of the living is to immerse themselves in another person’s life, to discard your own identity and transform, mostly, into a fly on the wall, even while directly engaged with different people.  The process of interviewing someone, who are often on the defensive, the primary subject, perhaps, willing to tell all (or not, sometimes even inventing a past that can be, sometimes with very little work, disproved), their family and associates are usually more interested in protecting their intimate than telling their story.  This can make work very difficult.

 

Now of course some friends and family are more than willing to spill the beans, to confirm every rumor or deny even their fame, but this is more perspective, one of the most important perceptions to cover to paint the story in the light not just of how the subject sees themselves, but of the impact they have on others.  Interviewing people requires quick reads of the willingness or unwillingness, of nervous confusion and enthusiastic chatter of the individuals the biographer needs to complete their work.  Empathy is an absolute necessity as, again, the writer as cipher, denying themselves in the name of, perhaps, art, must do everything to understand whatever it is a person is saying.

 

Interviewing itself is a performance, one of the more complicated ad lib games you could possibly play.  One must adapt to whatever quirks the individuals might have, coming across as an expert on one hand, while playing dumb should whomever you are talking with prefer to offer a lecture.  Sometimes you have to be funny, at other times sympathetic.  One has to learn who a person is before they can really talk to them, to gauge their limits, to reconcile with opinions you might personally find objectionable, and to gain a rather deep psychological insight into another person, sometimes far deeper than anyone you have ever known.

 

The trip I took, covering a major event in my subject’s life, provided me with consecutive 18 hour work days, physical labor included as my job allowed me to join in the preparations and the actual functioning of the event.  I am not used to working quite so hard.  Yes, I might sit here bang banging away at the keyboard for hours and hours and hours, piecing words together like the mathematical jigsaw puzzle they really are, finding the right place and then withdrawing, flaws still and always remaining.  But this particular ordeal forced me to be surrounded by people all day, every day, another thing quite foreign to me.  Again, it was exhausting.  When I finally did lay down to sleep it was more like passing out, my dire unconsciousness providing blank dreams and total darkness.

 

And then I would wake, earlier than everyone else in the house (the subject’s mother was there, along with occasional other house guests, all of them deep night owls like the rest of us).  After about three hours of sleep I would have some time to myself, roaming around the house and taking pictures, writing notes, evaluating certain interesting quirks of living arrangements, and the collection of things selected to provide the background of a life.  I listened to the tapes and recounted interviews and experiences, and even wrote some first draft narrative in a notebook, occasionally crossing things out and reworking them, some of the scribble scribble incomprehensible.  I provided academic detail based upon ideas certainly learned at the university while also reveling in the fact that life was there, spinning around and around and out before me.

 

Such an experience of living will be with us long after my subject and I are dead.  This is the final difference between the two sorts of biographers: with one you get a speculative history, providing personality to significant events in a person’s life; with the other you get more of a peep show into how a person lives, how they interact.  What you get is a portrait of contemporary life, the sort of history that goes on to provide the future historians with a living and breathing viewpoint of how things used to be.

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