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.”


Novelist Kent Haruf (1943-2014) On Teaching and Learning Writing

Monday, November 30, was the first anniversary of the death of Kent Haruf, the bestselling author of Plainsong and other novels of unusual simplicity and beauty.  I met Kent when we taught together at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and we became good friends.  In his gentle way, he taught me many things about writing and being a writer, teaching and mentoring writers.  In January 2000, I did two in-depth interviews with Kent, a portion of which was published in the March/April 2001 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Here are some excerpts in which he talks about teaching writing, including what aspects of writing can and cannot be taught:

McGregor: What do you find most difficult to teach students or for students to learn about writing? Can you teach them, for example, to have an intrinsic sense of life or human values?

Haruf: I think you can teach them how to observe life. That can be learned. For example, you can teach somebody how to listen to natural speech sounds. One of the most difficult things for students is to understand what a story is or to see their own experience as story. Most of their notions of story are so distorted by bad movies and lousy TV that what they end up writing is pretty shallow, pretty implausible, and derivative. One thing I do is encourage them to read things that aren’t derivative—aren’t lousy TV. Presumably if they can learn what a bad story is and think it’s a story, they can learn what a good story is and know it’s a story. Another thing I do is encourage them to think about what has hurt them, because they will remember that better than good times or joyful times. I don’t want them necessarily to write autobiography but to use that pain as a springboard to a story. That leads to a lot of stories about pain but to me fiction is about problems and pain. Something has to happen, and it seems to me action most often comes out of yearning or pain.

McGregor: Are there things you can’t teach students?

Haruf: You cannot teach students talent.

McGregor: How would you define talent?

Haruf: I’m not sure. It has to do with an ability to write musical language. It’s a sensitivity to language, I think, before story. A person can learn how to see stories. I feel I have, and if I can, other people can. But while you can show a person why these words in this order might be musical or these words in this order are vivid and wonderful, you cannot affect the reception of that language in somebody’s ear in some innate way. You have to read a lot to find out whether you have that sensitivity to language or not, but reading alone won’t develop it.

McGregor: In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner wrote that anybody can learn to write a story they can publish. Do you agree with that?

Haruf: In most ways, yes. If you have at least some ability with language, you can be taught to write a story. If you work at it, it will be published, yes. But most people don’t have the talent for work required. The persistence that takes you past defeats and helps you stay in this process for the long haul. In my experience it’s a very long haul. And you have to be doing it for its own sake rather than any external reward because those are few and far between.

I sometimes say to students that writing is like religion. That doesn’t mean I’m solemn about it but I am very serious. I want to enter into it, devote the best I can to it, be the best I can to it. There’s no point in doing it in some mediocre or less than totally concentrated way. I’m irritated when students don’t take it seriously. I can’t see why they would be taking a writing class. There are so many other things that are easier to do. Writing calls out the best in you. It is difficult and the rewards are few, but if you actually succeed in creating something that seems like art, the satisfaction is greater than almost any other satisfaction available to human beings.

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.