Taking an Elastic Approach to Biography

BIO Vice President Cathy Curtis spoke in New York at the March 2 meeting of the Women Writing Women’s Lives group. We’re sharing a revised and condensed version of her talk. The first part is here.

Ever since I was an adolescent, I have been an avid reader of biographies, particularly of writers and people in the arts. In my youth, I read these books to learn how I could live my life. Now, I read them to learn about the lives of people who interest me, and also to glean strategies for life writing. I have published only one biography, which hardly makes me an expert on the subject, but much of what I’m going to say derives from thinking about the dozens of biographies I have read or abandoned partway through in recent years. Both my reading and my thinking have accelerated lately, as I’ve come to grips with what it means to capture a life between two covers.

Because my background is in journalism, I am determined to write for the largest possible audience, which means that I try to present complex information in a form that any reasonably educated person can understand. My aim is to write the kind of biography that would hold my interest even if I know nothing about the subject or her milieu. Which means that it’s up to me to tell a great story—a true one, of course—and to try, as much as possible, to make readers feel as though they know my subject as well as they know a close friend.

This process involves ruthlessly weeding out redundant and boring details. As in fiction, telling a great story depends on maintaining the narrative flow—the propulsive engine that keeps readers wondering what will happen next. Yet in many biographies, the engine either never starts or stalls partway through the journey. That’s because we biographers tend to feel that the only way to do justice to our subjects is to present virtually everything we’ve learned about them. After all, much of this information has been hard-won, gained from months spent poring over documents in archives or persuading our subject’s family members and colleagues to talk to us. Many biographers have decided to write about a particular subject specifically because a voluminous archive exists. But our struggles, persistence, and archival passions are matters of indifference to readers, who just want to immerse themselves in an absorbing human story. Too much ancillary detail, no matter how fascinating to the biographer, just gets in the way.

There is also a practical aspect. Agents say that—beyond the choice of subject—the key to obtaining a book contract is an engaging narrative that offers a persuasive psychological grasp of the subject.

One argument in favor of biographical inclusiveness is the desire to write the “definitive” life. Yet there really is no such animal—because every biography consists of facts filtered through one writer’s sensibility, because each era has its own notion of what a biography can contain, and because biographical research is an ongoing enterprise.

As biographers, we have to realize that even the most pedantically thorough chronicle of a life will no longer be definitive when writers in future generations discover new information. In recent decades, the longstanding cradle-to-grave model has also been jostled by books that cover just a slice of a life. We must allow ourselves to make personal choices that will convey our particular view of our subject’s life in the most enthralling and accessible way.

Even though our genre is factually based, I believe that we have much to learn from novelists, as well as from playwrights, stage directors, and composers—all of whom rely on elements of rhythm and pacing, as well as an innate sense of how to create a satisfying ending.

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