Questioning Conventional Approaches To Writing About People

This posting comes from a journal entry I made on July 14, 2013, shortly after I began the final revision of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.  I had just read the second of two books by prominent biographers about their craft, part of my early research for the book I’m working on now: about the history, process and ethics of writing about people.  As you’ll see, I was already having doubts about conventional approaches to biography:

“What surprised me about the book was how fairly shallow the author’s thinking was.  There was plenty of researched detail but the conclusions were all conventional.  It’s as if those who think about biography are willing to explore only a limited range of thoughts, most of which deal with the practice of writing biography, not the larger questions the act of writing about others raises, such as:  Why do we write about others in the ways we do?  What does it mean to take responsibility for defining another person’s time on this earth?  What obligations do we bear when we appropriate the creation and presentation of another person’s identity?  What are we ethically bound to reveal about ourselves in the process?

“This latest (and I hope last) revision of the Lax book is bring my own thoughts on these questions to the surface.  I feel more comfortable now that I’ve brought myself into the story.  I tried to keep myself out, thinking I was somehow being truer to Lax’s story by not entangling it with mine.  I see now that by stepping more fully into the book, I’m giving the reader a better reason to be interested in Lax’s story and being more honest in a way, showing my biases.

“I’ve begun to look at the book quite differently.  Instead of a chronological movement through Lax’s life, I’ve begun to see my project as a pile of material drawn from the different parts of his life that I need to arrange in a way that will interest my reader.  Whereas I moved through his life in a straightforward fashion in my previous drafts, now I’m using the story of my interactions with him as the organizing element, pulling in information from the different periods of his life as it fits this scheme.  So my curiosity and developing understanding of him over the years propel the story forward, and elements such as his ancestry come in where they are necessary to satisfy that curiosity or further that understanding.

“Put another way: I didn’t learn about Lax’s ancestry until I’d known him quite a while, so it doesn’t need to be at the beginning of the story.  Putting it at the beginning means taking on a God-like role, suggesting that you can step back and impartially observe the sweep of a human life.  Letting that information come in at a more natural place and speaking of what I’ve learned about it more provisionally allows the story to feel more natural.  Isn’t that how we learn about people ordinarily in life?  We don’t learn someone’s ancestry when we first meet him.  Generally we learn the most interesting bits and pieces of his life, the stories he knows are good stories to tell, before our curiosity and a deepening trust allow us to delve deeper.  That’s more the way I’m trying to tell the story now.

“My models for this approach aren’t the biographies I’ve read (other than A. J. A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, perhaps, or maybe Boswell’s Life of Johnson) but novels such as The Great Gatsby, Zorba the Greek and maybe Lord Jim, in which an embodied narrator talks about a person he’s met and come to know better over time.

“Edmund Morris must have had a similar impulse when he created his fictional witness for Dutch.  It’s related, too, to what one of my students said after reading George Plimpton’s book about Capote, which is a pastiche of commentary on Capote from various people who knew him or had dealings with him.  She liked this approach to biography, she said, because it seemed less artificially mediated.  Instead of working to create a composed (and imposed) structure, the person compiling the biography allows those who knew the subject to give their testimony, their perspective, with the compiler only correcting errors and arranging the various commentaries into a natural progression.

“In using this more natural approach, I’m going back to the roots of writing about people, which is talking about people—gossip and then legend and then myth.  Myth or legend doesn’t have to be about someone great or powerful or even ancient.  It only has to be about someone interesting.”

 

Judases, Jackals or Just Curious Souls?

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Every great man has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.” I came across this barb in a book by biographer Michael Holroyd while researching attitudes and approaches to writing about people. Wilde, of course, knew he was destined to become the subject (or, as he might have said, the target) of someone’s research someday. Not only was he an important literary figure but he challenged his society’s norms and had enough skeletons in his closet to cast the fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts (if you haven’t seen it, look it up: it gave me nightmares as a child in 1963).

Other writers have been equally brutal in their depictions of biographers, even those like Henry James who believed we need to know about an author’s life to fully appreciate his writings. James’s bête noire was the snoop who seeks to go where the work doesn’t go, prying into hidden letters and private moments that have little to do with art. The salacious scribblings of these pretenders, he wrote, are “the trivial playing at the serious.” Before he died, he burned as many of his papers as he could. Even so, Leon Edel managed to find enough material to write a five-volume version of James’s life. Edel took his work seriously enough to win a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, but he enjoyed the game of it as well: the scavenger hunt, the hide-and-seek.

Two things have particularly surprised me in my research: How vituperative some writers are at the mere mention of biography, and how defensive biographers are about what they do. I’ve looked at hundreds of books and essays by biographers about biography. A disturbing number begin with a defensive stance or, more alarming still, an admission that what biographers do is indefensible. These guilty souls pour their sins out on the page. Then, like Catholics coming from confession, they go out and sin again. As if researching biographies is like crack addiction. Or maybe serial killing.

And perhaps it is. It’s certainly obsessive and some people are more susceptible to it than others. It is often done in dingy and bad-smelling places. And there is definitely a high each time you find that vein, that mother lode, that deed or line or tryst that seems to explain the previously inexplicable or opens up new areas of inquiry.

I tend to think, however (maybe because my first biography will soon be published) that most biographers are less interested in finding dirt or getting thrills than simply learning about people. Especially people similar to them who have been more successful or better known or more intriguing in some other way. They want to know what makes these people tick, at least in part because they want to know what motivates and shapes themselves.

Yes, there are those who want only to pin Gulliver to the ground or, like the jackal, eviscerate the mighty lion. And yes, even the best-intentioned biographers love to open long-sealed letters or listen to what no one can pretend is anything but gossip. But we live our lives surrounded by strange, mysterious beings. We observe them and we listen to them. We wonder why they said or did that. And even the best of us, including those self-righteous writers who dismiss biographers as scum, evaluate and sometimes judge others—to learn from them and be inspired, to see life differently and maybe change, to be amused and entertained by them, and yes, to shake our heads at cautionary tales…or just to feel superior.

 

Fragile, Ephemeral and Precious

The publication of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, on September 1 this year, marks the culmination of 14 years of research and writing about the most extraordinary man I’ve ever known.  I met Lax on the Greek island of Patmos in 1985, when I was 27 and he was 69, and exactly how we met was extraordinary too.  (You’ll find that story in my book. )  We became friends immediately and he impressed me from the first, but I didn’t consider writing about him until ten years later.

Even then, I wrote only a single article.  It ended up in Poets & Writers, though, as my first national publication, and the response made me think his story might interest others too.  I wrote only two other pieces on him before he died in 2000, but in 2001, having become a professor of nonfiction writing, I thought I should probably write a nonfiction book.  (I’d pinned my publication hopes on a novel before that.)  Pure Act was the result.

Never having written a biography, I gave myself three years.  But Lax was not a man who moved swiftly and it seemed a book about him was destined to develop slowly too.  My first research trip to his hometown of Olean, NY, where one of his archives is located, was interrupted by 9/11.  The next time I went there, the TV was filled with news of Abu Ghraib.  My first visit to his other archives, at Columbia University in New York City, was tragedy-free, but when I returned the following year, having secured a friend’s apartment for a full month, I ruptured my Achilles playing basketball my first day there.  I had to return home and wait the long months for it to heal.

During the years I worked on Pure Act, the U.S. entered and ended two wars and I suffered not only an Achilles rupture but a torn meniscus, a shattered kneecap and more cuts and aches requiring stitches or physical therapy than I want to admit.  I took comfort only in hearing other biographers say their projects had taken as long or longer.

I want to warn anyone thinking of starting a biography to do something–anything–else.  Something you can finish in a year…or five.  But then I think of the exciting discoveries I made in letters and journals no one but Lax had read.  And the ways being steeped in his ideas and decisions influenced my own thinking, even the course of my life.  And the people I met who told me intimate and heartfelt things they’d never said to anyone.

Writing about a person’s life means lifting and holding things fragile, ephemeral and precious.  You probably shouldn’t hurry with actions like that.  You shouldn’t be anxious to have them end either.  Even if your reward is a book, solid and heavy in your hands.