Thursday, October 22, 2015

Life-Storying

This column first appeared on 

I’m writing a biography of a woman who has fascinated me since I first heard her name in the 1970s. I can’t give her name – yet. And you might not even recognize it when I do, for she died at age 65 in 1983. Time will tell. But if you are a writer and you are interested in trying your hand at biography, I do have some news you can use.

Writing biography is different from tackling a memoir, even though both are nonfiction, true accounts of true lives. Obvious difference: the memoir is about you, the biography is about someone else. But there is more to it than that. Readers and writers have been known to confuse biographical writing with historical writing. I like the distinction Virginia Woolf’s biographer, Hermione Lee, makes. She calls biographical writing “life-storying,” putting the emphasis on narrative and not just the verifiable facts of more academic histories. In addition, the biographer also wants to convey some sort of idea about the writer’s subject, which is why two biographies about the same person, let’s say John Fitzgerald Kennedy, can be so different, as with Kenneth O’Donnell’s Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye and Nigel Hamilton’s JFK: Reckless Youth. 

I can tell you this because I’ve been studying the craft of biography the way I studied memoir when I was writing Staying Alive: A Love Story, my memoir of loss and recovery. I loved that book. Loved that it made my husband’s life present in his children’s and my life again and because it has become respected in the field of writing about loss, receiving a 2012 Reader Views memoir award, a 2013 award from the New York Book Festival, and a recommendation from the American Institute of Health Care Professionals. But I’m on to something else now and in its own way, being essentially about someone else lessens the emotional weight of the project.

Yes, in trying to write something non-autobiographical, I’ve tried fiction. But my heart wasn’t in it. The same way Truman Capote’s heart wasn’t in his fiction either. And yet, just by picking up the New York Times one morning in 1959, Capote knew in his gut he had to write a book-length investigation of the news of that day, the Clutter family’s murder. Thus, In Cold Blood was born, the nonfiction book that broke the mold of true reporting when it was published seven years later.

So, in getting serious about the biographical writing, I found that, unlike memoir, there’s very little advice about craft available. Google how to write a memoir and pages and pages of “how-to” books will pop up. Not so when you google how to write a biography. I’ve found only two, Hermione Lee’s Biography which is part of the Oxford Very Short Introductions series and Nigel Hamilton’s How to do Biography: A Primer. Both have been very helpful, along with reading critically praised biographies and profiles.

The same dearth of information goes for online or on ground workshops on biography. I found a single four-day workshop on writing biographies being offered at this summer’s Yale Writer’s Conference, but the cost was just under $1000, nonresidential, just over $1000, residential. Both more than I could afford.

Finally, I came across a surprising good podcast: How to Write a Biography by Carole Angier, available for free at http://coventryuniversity.podbean.com/e/how-to-write-a-biography-carole-angier/. It is also available on iTunesU. So, if your heart is in nonfiction and you are passionate about someone else’s life, take some advice “life-storying” advice from Lee, Hamilton, and Angier.





Laura Hayden is the author of Staying Alive: A Love Story (website: http://laurabhayden.comShe teaches writing at Asnuntuck Community College and in the WCSU MFA in Creative and Professional Writing program, both in Connecticut.

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