Tag Archives: biography

Experiment with Something New

I’ve always said that I am not a novelist, that I don’t have a novel in me. I’m a poet. But, lately, I’ve been thinking about trying something new. When I was an undergraduate, I wrote stage plays and screenplays. My very first attempt at writing was a novel (I was twelve and wrote a page). Prose isn’t entirely alien to me: I’ve written loads of non-fiction, including three book-length biographies. And, I’ve written a book-length poem. Mash all of that together and I wonder what I’ve got.

Writing prose has always struck me as work for more patient people. I am not a patient person. All that plotting and characterization. I’ve always felt more of a single-speaker, single-moment kind of writer. The short lyric poem. I love economy of words, perfect word choices, tight construction. Sharp and incisive with a punch. When I took on The Hungry Grass and realized it wanted to be a long poem, and not a collection of lyrics, I headed into uncharted territory. I really didn’t know if I could do it, and maybe that’s the whole secret. I didn’t know if I could, but I set out anyway. I’ve done that a lot in my life. The BA. The MA. The PhD. I really didn’t know if I could do any of it.

For no reason that I know of, the idea of writing a novel has surfaced again. It has done this a few times, and I toy with it, and then I shelve it. I think, “The gods didn’t make me a novelist.” Perhaps I need to take the suggestion more seriously. Or, more lightly. Maybe I should stop thinking of it as such serious business and just start playing with ideas. Maybe I should give myself an assignment. When I first wrote a stage play, it was an assignment in my drama intro class. Thank you Dr. Tyson. When I first wrote a screenplay, it was an assignment in my creative writing intro class. Thank you Prof. Oordt. Those projects have never seen the light of day since I left university, but that’s not the point. The point is that those forms were unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me as a writer, and if they hadn’t been assigned, I might never have experimented with them.

Maybe I should experiment with something new. Maybe I should just set out.

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Thomas Hardy’s Life Story

One of the things I love about reading authors’ biographies is making connections between the life and the work. Academic departments traditionally have a lack of respect for biographical criticism, although department members regularly research and write biographies, an irony that frustrates me no end. An historian once informed me that biography isn’t history, and I replied that history isn’t either. What we both meant was that these are not “real” or “true,” necessarily. They’re both all about storytelling and making meaning from events. What’s important is to start from the original data rather than to read backwards from the stories and to assume that everything in them happened exactly that way. Not everything that goes on in a novel is something that happened to the author.

But writers write what they know. They borrow from anywhere to get what they need, but they also use their own lives. Readers need to be discerning. In the case of Thomas Hardy, one of my great loves, and the focus of my Master’s degree, there are a few staples that recur: an architect, older woman/younger man, social class divide. When Hardy was a young man, he trained as an architect, and when he married, he was beneath his wife in terms of class. Characters need to do something, and what they do needs to be convincing. In Hardy’s marriage, social class was a barrier, and he works that out novel after novel. Also recurrent are Hardy’s philosophical convictions. For one thing, he believed that we are in the hands of an unkind Fate. Novel after novel.

But most interesting to me is that he struggles, book after book, with the question of to whom does a person really belong–the one to whom a person is married or the one with whom a person has a bond. Transgressing societal order, in terms of this dilemma, is at the heart of Jude the Obscure. Hardy lays the blame at society’s judgmental feet. When we read a writer’s work, we read what concerns that writer, and it’s couched in aspects of the life.

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All in the Name

Almost always, the titles of our favourite books and movies somehow capture the whole work in a very few words. A title serves as a doorway that we step through into the work, and by the end, we have a clear vision of how the title functions. Maybe most readers don’t think about titles having a function, other than getting a reader to pick the book off the shelf. A title has to have meaning. Think about naming kids. We choose carefully, something with meaning, something symbolic, some kind of statement, a signpost. Pet people do it, too. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but the other name wouldn’t work the same way in a poem.

My first book is called Shattered Fanatics, and the cover image is a rather crushed looking carved figure. I chose the image because it looked to me like a shattered fanatic might look. The phrase comes from a student essay, some terrible kind of typing error, and I immediately could see what such a person might be. A shattered fanatic is someone who has believed absolutely and then realized, standing at the stake, waiting for the fire, that nobody was going to show up for the rescue. The faith is shattered. The poems inside the book are spoken by such people. When I chose the title for Pierce: Six Prairie Lives, I wanted to honour the family name and to acknowledge the importance of the individual family members. I wanted to situate their story clearly in their place, and I did not want a pedestrian title. I wanted something that set them apart from any other family biography in the way that I felt they were demonstrably apart in their lived story. I wanted something with their strength without being prosaic about it.

My current poetry manuscript has a working title drawn from myth, “The Hungry Grass,” an image apt for the story being told. Naming takes thought. I’ve always told my students that essays are like babies: if you can’t name it, you shouldn’t be having it. Or writing it. A title doesn’t have to be  labyrinthine, or elaborate, or grand. Think of On the RoadHamletPride and PrejudiceJane Eyre. A title just has to fit. Like a glove. Perfectly tailored.

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Biographers’ Ethics

A friend happily informed me over dinner that I was a professional writer. Until I heard him say it, right out loud, I didn’t realize it, feel it, fully. We’re all secretly frauds, after all. And, my head had been down for years, as I scrabbled to make a living. I’d been teaching a lot, but for the first time, I was working on a project big enough to support me. A biography. Lifewriting is my doctoral specialization, but, when I prepared my requisite ethics approval and protocol for the degree, no one asked me if I’d be having sex with my subjects. Later, my publisher didn’t ask about that, either.

I was asked if I’d be experimenting with live subjects, but I thought that was covered by an explanation of my research and interview strategies.  I didn’t read the question as a euphemism. And, I did state that I agreed with Plath’s biographer, Anne Stevenson, not to include anything that would harm the living without serving any good purpose for the story. I meant it. There were some alcoholics in my subject group, but I didn’t out them individually. I made my point by discussing the overarching effects on the group. A biography isn’t exactly a tell all.

I wasn’t writing a written-overnight, unauthorized biography of Michael Jackson or a who’s-zooming-whom scandal sheet. Two of the most important considerations in lifewriting are the match of biographer and subject, and of the writer’s voice functioning in what otherwise could be a copy-and-paste exercise. Leslie Kaufman wrote about “The Quandry for Biographers,” in her 13 November article for The New York Times, and it’s an interesting piece to read because it opens this discussion, using the recent biography All In as a touchstone. The quandary is all about the ethics.

So, does it matter, as we watch the Paula Broadwell / David Petraeus story, All In, titillate news consumers, that the reason the biographer had such extraordinary access to the subject was because they were lovers? It may not be as clearly an ethical issue, from a biography point-of-view, as the James Frey A Million Little Pieces debacle. In that case, the guy called it a memoir, and he lied. If he had called it an autobiographical novel, no one would have cared. There would have been a fascination about what was autobiography and what was invention, and he wouldn’t have had to contend with the wrath of Oprah.

Someone might protest that Ms. Broadwell couldn’t be objective if she was sexually involved with Gen. Petraeus. No, probably not. Do we really believe in objectivity anymore? Don’t we instead accept that we cannot be objective, and then try to minimize our subjectivity? I have to say that if I were to write a biography of John Lennon, readers should question my objectivity, and no, it would not be because we’d been lovers. Alas. However, Broadwell and Petraeus’ relationship may affect the quality of the book, and it’s the quality of the book that we should care about, as writers. American national security isn’t our purview. The affair may be a factor there, but moralizing, on the basis of his marriage, should be irrelevant in that context.

If there is an ethical question here, for a writer, what is it? The only potential ethical foul that I can see is if the writer has a sexual relationship in order to achieve exceptional access to the subject’s life. Otherwise, who cares? We all have our own codes, presumably, things we would or would not do. But, as a profession, it’s difficult, or impossible, for us to articulate a list we’d all sign, maybe not even a single item list. We aren’t physicians, who very clearly are compromised by sexual intimacy with their subjects.

I am not a fan of the public humiliation of Holly Petraeus, but that public humiliation is the result of extra-marital sex being privileged as the Big Sin and therefore a thing to be trumpeted about the town. Sex between consenting adults ruining careers: there are worse things people could do. Is Mrs. Petraeus’ humiliation an ethical consideration for the writers who released and repeated the big news? If it should be, it certainly wasn’t. Who’s done harm to whom? Scandal mongering should be on the ethics hit list. If the general had an affair with a spy, then it should affect his career. But he isn’t John Profumo. In my opinion, if any writer has done something unethical in this instance, it isn’t Paula Broadwell. But there’s always an “unless,” an exception, a variable—because writing isn’t math.

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A Writer Writes

I’ve been writing all my life–as a child, on walls and on sheet music. When I was twelve, I decided to write a novel about war but was devastated when I got to the end of page one and realized I knew nothing about war. A high school English teacher encouraged the class to enter a writing contest in the local newspaper, and I wrote a poem for the purpose. It won. I still have the cheque. Poetry is my first love, and it was my first book: Shattered Fanatics. The second and third books are both biographies: The Business of Marriage and Medals and Pierce: Six Prairie Lives. Now, I’m working on a third biography and a second poetry manuscript. My work is far more polished now than it was when I wrote that my sister “is a pig girl” on the bathroom door jamb, although that was as sincere as it gets.

But, even though I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of pages, and even though I’ve been writing most of my life, I still find it difficult to be disciplined about it. I’ve never been a write-every-day writer. Sometimes, when I have a writing assignment, I find myself paralyzed, unable to start. But, I have learned enough about my writing process to know when I’m stalling and when I have to wait. It’s important to be honest. Tomorrow, I’ll be at my desk, sorting a mass of research for the bio. Somewhere in all that material, there’s a shape all its own.

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