It is sunny in Sydney today but the wind chills swirling around the city buildings like a
predator after unsuspecting Melbournites who assume Sydney is always balmy. However, it is the rainy day in Melbourne yesterday that still excites me. The event was a Melbourne Writers Festival workshop run by Francis Wheen – a masterclass on biography. This was a timely event for me which followed a Saturday panel on ‘a Century of Biography’ including Wheen, Brenda Niall and William Shawcross.It is the workshop that was a stand out partly because Wheen delivered an incredibly informative talk on biography and partly because the participants, of which there were approx 10, all had varied projects on the go, from locomotives to film makers, and all were hungry for contact and writing tips. Wheen generously shared his personal experience and practical knowledge: the discovery of biographical subjects through a self desire to read about interesting and flawed human beings, the different forms that biography can take, the moral dilemmas, the history of biography, research tips and delightful discoveries, tools, interpretation of evidence, organisation, balancing thematics and chronology, guiding the reader through time, questions of authorial participation, methods to identify gaps, starting to write and not getting lost and in awe – or love – with your subject – the best method being to shut your research away, clear your desk and write, going back for quotes and references only when a substantial portion of a chapter is written.
In amongst the tool kit listed above definitions of biography were shared and discussed from Benjamin Disraeli on reading ‘…biography, for that is life without theory’; Cynthia Ozick ‘…a biography believes in the notion of ‘a life’; Julian Barnes ‘…define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called [a net] a collection of holes tied together with string’; Walt Whitman ‘…(As if any man really knew aught of my life,’; and through all these quotes the one that captured the small audience was from Jeffrey Meyers, ‘The Craft of a Literary Biographer’ ‘…an investigative reporter of the spirit’. The quest then is to reach the spirit of your subject and bring it into the text with the breath of life.
Moral dilemmas were discussed by the group at some length. All participants seemed to face varying levels of what information to include and what to leave out for fear of offending relatives or acquaintances of the subject. Guidelines are not in existence and each dilemma needs to be assessed on its own basis and balanced with notions of truth to the essence of the subject. What was unanimous both on the Saturday panel and through the workshop was the obligation to work from factual evidence and to cross test all evidence both primary and secondary. Writers were discussed who make fictional breaks in biographical writing and whilst this has been a mine field for discussion in the Australian writing-place – historians versus writers – it would seem fair if the intent remains in the search of the subject’s spirit and full transparency is provided to the reader. The call sits with the writer through the foundation provided by the known facts.
Gaps, like the net described by Julian Barnes in ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’, are bound to exist and do so even in autobiography. What to do with these gaps is another challenge. What to do with human memory as experienced through interviews with your subject or their contemporaries. The memory of events within a single family can vary enormously with some participants recognising in their own lives that in discussions with siblings they feel like they grew up in a different family. So for the biographer, calls have to be made, lines measured gently in the sand taking into account all the varying grains possible to create the glass through which the reader can see clearly.
In discussing research techniques alongside the usual sources: Births, Deaths and Marriages registers, family archives, manuscript collections; be mindful of the trifles: the lists, the accounts, notebooks all contain a treasure trove of information about daily life and rituals which can illuminate more about the subject than you may first suspect. A warning note was also sounded, take care not to become distracted by the genealogy or you will lose the focus on your subject by becoming lost in the branches of the family tree. Take care with loose usage of Wikipedia – always check the facts have not been tampered with or misrepresented which goes for any documented source. I however do find Wikipedia to be an invaluable tool on the run when I meet a subject in a letter with which I am unfamiliar.
I have three treasures from the workshop:
1. As you research jot down on a separate sheet/exercise book emerging themes and particular characteristics of the subject, of the life. Include an evidence reference against each discovery so that you can return when you start writing
2. Balance your chronology with themes and connective points moving back and forth in time. Francis Wheen began a book backwards at the cemetery focusing on this as the event from which the life story emerges. Note events that are turning points for your subject in the exercise book
3. ‘Shut those quotes away’ and write. Writing before the research is complete is invaluable to identify the holes in the net
Writers mentioned during the workshop: Francis Wheen’s works of course, Michael Holroyd, Oscar Wilde, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, William Golding, Brenda Niall, William Shawcross, Barbara Caine (to me from a participant), Richard Holmes, Jeffrey Meyers, Peter Ackroyd, D J Taylor, Benjamin Disraeli, Russell & Wittgenstein, Cynthia Orzick, James Russell Lowell, Julian Barnes, Michiko Kakutani, A J A Symons, Rebecca West, Philip Roth, Walt Whitman, Hugh Brogan, W H Auden, Samuel Johnson