We Want the Omelette: Writing About Others #2

This morning I was looking at a book by Ira Bruce Nadel called Biography: Fiction, Fact & Form, published in the mid-1980s, when a number of books about writing biography appeared, perhaps because Leon Edel, the influential biographer of William James, had published a book called The Poetics of Biography in 1977.  I’ve only dipped into Nadel’s book but I like what I’ve read so far.  Early on, he writes: “The need to understand the literary techniques and strategies of biography parallels its emergence today as perhaps the most popular, widely-read body of non-fiction writing.”  His three epigraphs foreshadow his belief that biography is an art and should be more seriously studied as such:

“Facts related to the past, when they are collected without art, are compilations; and compilations no doubt may be useful; but they are no more History than butter, eggs, salt and herbs are an omelette.”   —Lytton Strachey

“Nothing happens while you live.  The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that’s all.  There are no beginnings…But everything changes when you tell about life; it’s a change no one notices: the proof is that people talk about true stories.  As if there could possible be true stories; things happen one way and we tell about them in the opposite sense.”   —Jean-Paul Sartre

“The biographer, after all, is as much of a storyteller as the novelist or historian.”  —Leon Edel

The art of biography lies in the interpretation of the facts discovered, Nadel says, and also in the choice of form and language.  “No biographer merely records a life,” he writes.  “Every biographer, no matter how objective he declares himself, interprets a life.”  And as soon as a writer “becomes conscious of language, conscious of how it alters what he describes from a factual representation to an independent verbal object, he transforms his craft into an art.”

When I teach profile writing, I always tell my students that the profile they write is not the one true story to be told about their subject but rather a description of an encounter.  Preparation and interpretation are part of what results, but so are the writer’s interests and knowledge, facility with words and mastery of tone and metaphor.  There’s even a huge dose of randomness: we learn one fact but not another, we interview our subject on a day she’s feeling well or ill, a friend will talk to us but not a family member.  In the end, we make the best sense we can of what we have.

As Nadel says, narrative is central to how we write about others, and narrative has “properties other than that of recording events.”  There is voice in narrative and point of view, a sense, however muted, of the narrator’s perspective, personality and understanding.  The corrective to this (if one is needed) should be a more explicit laying out of bias and approach rather than the faux-objective voice and stance so many profile writers and biographers adopt.

“Those who accept language as a transparent medium of representation and believe that if they only use the right word for describing an event the meaning will be clear, illustrate an inadequate sense of the creative nature of language and its role in biography,” Nadel writes.  “Such empiricists, who place their faith in language for conveying fact, write biographies of maximum detail and minimal interpretation, believing the latter to be the function of some other form of composition.  But the principal interest in biography, the reason for its popularity with authors as well as readers, remains its ability to provide meaning for an individual’s life, transmitting personality and character through prose.”

In other words, we want the omelette.  And to get it, we need writers who know how to cook.

Do You Have the Right to Write About Her?

I’ve committed myself to posting one entry a week on memoir and one on writing about others for the next two months.  Although I’ll be reading books about both subjects during that time, my plan is to concentrate on my own thoughts.  I want to see what I can puzzle out.  What questions come.  I’m hoping to find intersections and exclusions: thoughts about one that are applicable to the other, and thoughts that aren’t.

My first entry each week, appearing on Monday (I hope), will be about memoir, and I’ve already made that entry this week.  So here I’ll concentrate on writing about others.  I want to start with something memoir-related, however: writing about family.  This is the place where memoir and writing about others most often intersect.  Virtually every memoir about childhood paints a picture of one or more parents in some way, and many paint profiles of siblings too.

In my classes on personal writing, I always tell my students, “Be careful about bringing parents into your writing.  They have a tendency to take over.”  This warning comes from experience–from seeing a brief mention of a father in a personal essay, for example, prompt a class full of readers and would-be critics to beg or even demand to learn more.  Maybe we’re all just Freudian after all, believing that childhood experiences and relationships determine who we become.  It seems more likely, though, that writing about parents is simply more highly charged than writing about anyone else.  And once a reader feels that emotional charge, she hungers for more.

Most books that deal with writing about others focus primarily on biographies of people already dead.  They talk about going to archives and interviewing survivors.  They discuss the need to interpret a writer’s thoughts based on her works or a politician’s values based on his actions.  They recommend researching and recreating the times in which your subject lived.  And some, if they’re good ones, talk about how to bring your subject to life on the page.  What they don’t discuss is how to think and write about someone with whom you’ve had an actual encounter.

The thing is, it’s easy to form opinions and settle on themes when you’re writing about someone you’ve had no relation to.  You can treat that person as history, a collection of facts and writings and relationships with other dead people. But what if you’ve seen a person alive? What if you’ve witnessed his or her actions and words over time?  What if that person had a great influence on your own life, for better or ill?  How do you separate your own strong feelings from what someone else might call “the facts”?  In the case of a parent, how do you distinguish your own development from the independent changes that person might have been going through at the same time?

I struggled with most of these questions while writing my biography Pure Act, in which I was writing about a man I loved who taught me much.  They loom even larger as I embark on a memoir in which my mother’s life and death play a significant role.  To some degree, they are questions of fairness, and they aren’t asked often enough about memoir or about writing about others, whether that writing be profiles or even biographies of the dead.

As I write these entries over the next two months, I expect this question of giving others a voice in the telling of their own stories to regularly pop up, along with an even larger question: In this age when every form of supposed appropriation is suspect, do we have the right to tell another person’s story at all?


Writing About One’s Self and Others: Embarking on an Experiment

A few years ago, one of the external evaluators who supported my promotion to full professor wrote that I was among those rare writers who look inside as well as out.  Most writers, he said, focus exclusively on personal writing or on writing about the world beyond them.  I didn’t think much about his statement until I decided to add parts of my personal story to Pure Act, my biography of poet Robert Lax.  I did so for three good reasons: My personal connection to Lax gave readers who had never heard of him a reason to care about him; I could use scenes from our times together to bring him more vividly to life; and it seemed false to write from a distance about a man who had greatly influenced my life.

I knew some traditionalists would call this decision a mistake, but artificial boundaries between personal observation and supposedly objective research strike me as silly and generally false.  Even a piece of writing based primarily on research is saturated with the writer’s personal viewpoint.  It is the writer alone who decides what subject to write about, what material to include or exclude, and what tone and approach to use.  The personal is always there, whether we recognize it or not.  Fortunately, as our thinking about narrative nonfiction has evolved, more and more writers are loosening up—showing their work, so to speak, by making their methods of fact collection and even their preferences and biases clear.

With the biography birthed and the initial publicity done, I’ve begun two new projects that have me thinking again about looking inward and outward at the same time.  One is a memoir about a year my wife and I spent on an island off the coast of Washington State.  The other is a book about writing about others.  Am I Janus-faced enough, I wonder, to work on these two books at the same time?  And if I can, what might my efforts reveal about the similarities and differences between these two types of writing?

In some writing circles, primarily in Britain, biographical and autobiographical writing are grouped together under the title Life Writing.  Having written short pieces of memoir as well as biography, this grouping strikes me as overly baggy.  Yet there can be no doubt that writing about yourself is akin in some ways to writing about another.  In writing a memoir, for instance, you must be able to see yourself as a character, and in writing about someone else you must establish an empathetic connection.  In both cases, you need to create a world around your subject and bring that subject to life.

In order to explore these connections further, I’m embarking on an experiment: For the next two months, I plan to post two entries a week on this site, one on memoir and one on writing about others.  Since I’m teaching memoir writing this term, some of the memoir material will come from class preparations and discussions, and some of the material on writing about others will come from classes I’ve taught on that subject.  But my intention is to be more speculative and contemplative than academic or, God forbid, didactic.  I want to think on the page about what I’m discovering and share it with anyone interested.

Generally, the first entry each week will be devoted to memoir and I’ll write it on Monday, so let’s call this the first Memoir Monday.  That having been said, this introductory entry is quite long already, so instead of deep contemplation, I’ll leave you with just a few memoir thoughts.  These are drawn mostly from comments made at the annual Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference I attended over the weekend.

  1. In an AWP panel on memoir, Cheryl Strayed, author of the best-selling memoir Wild, said that a memoirist needs to “let the bottom fall out,” writing “into the deepest truth,” the one you didn’t know until you started writing. “We go into the darkness,” she said, “we go through the darkness, and we come out of the darkness changed.”
  1. Another panel member said that a memoirist is the protagonist in her story but not the hero. This comment deserves more musing, of course, but in the interest of brevity I’ll say only that the panel member was calling for a true examination of one’s self—one that goes beyond and below self-glorification, self-centeredness, and even self-doubt. In her new book The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes:  “Once the reader identifies a vain or self-serving streak the writer can’t admit to with candor, a level of distrust interferes with that reader’s experience.”
  1. Memory studies have shown that the least-durable type of long-term memory is factual memory and the most-durable type is episodic memory, which is primarily scene-based memory with a personal component, the kind of memory most conducive to memoir writing.
  1. And finally, a quote from poet Marie Louise Kaschnitz especially applicable to memoir writing:

You cannot write

To save your soul. 

Given up, it drifts and does the singing.


And so the experiment begins…

Last Portland PURE ACT Reading at 6:30 p.m. This Tuesday, February 23…and Future Plans

After over 30 readings and other appearances over the past few months, I’m down to my last scheduled talk.  It will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 23, in room 333, Smith Memorial Union, on the Portland State University campus.  If you live in the Portland area, please join us.  To mark the occasion, we’ll have copies of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax available at a discounted price.

A big thank you to those who came to last week’s readings in the Bay Area, where a standing-room-only crowd listened to poet John Beer, author S. T. Georgiou and me talk about our friendship with Robert Lax at City Lights Books in San Francisco, and another good crowd heard me read from Pure Act at Pegasus Books in Berkeley.

Among those in attendance at City Lights were Gerald Nicosia, one of Jack Kerouac’s biographers, and Mike Antonucci, a Bay Area journalist who is the nephew of Lax’s first publisher and close friend, Emil Antonucci.  It was fun for me to read a passage from my book about Lax’s friendship with Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in a space where their spirits lingered.

My readings around the country have kept me from writing as much on this blog as I would have liked, and now that they’re over, I hope to write more.  Starting some time in March, I plan to try a unique experiment.  I’ll be teaching two courses in memoir writing while working on a memoir of my own AND a book on writing about other people.  I’m planning to make two posts a week from my research and thinking, one on memoir and one on writing about others (biography).  It will be interesting to contemplate how these two types of writing, one looking inward and the other outward, parallel and diverge.