Taking an Elastic Approach to Biography

This is the second part of a revised and condensed version of a talk BIO Vice President Cathy Curtis gave at the March 2 meeting of the Women Writing Women’s Lives group. The first part is available here.

A curious aspect of biographies is that authors tend to chop up a life into neat parcels, writing chapters of virtually equal length. But if we assume that we are writing not simply to chronicle a life but to engage readers in our perception of it—and that everyone’s life naturally has its more and less interesting moments—why must we plod along as if every event were equal in interest to every other?

As I worked my way through drafts of my biography of the painter Grace Hartigan, who was born in 1922 and died in 2008, I began to realize that I needn’t follow this all-too-tidy paradigm. So I decided to structure the story of her life on a rhythmic basis: slowing down the narrative when her life was most interesting and productive, and speeding it up during the early and late years. My goal was to avoid what I see as the five major stumbling blocks to narrative flow in a biography:

One: Biographers often devote many pages to the subject’s forebears. But as a reader, my interest is in the subject, not in her great-grandmother. Even if the ancestors were accomplished or otherwise fascinating people, I want their achievements summarized as quickly as possible (and surely not in the book’s first pages, the ones that need to hook my interest), so that I can focus on the person whose name is on the cover. In an admittedly extreme tactic, I summed up my subject’s genealogical background in a single footnote.

Two: In a similar vein, I have often paged forward impatiently past meandering early-life anecdotes to get to the meat of the story—the years during which the subject did whatever it was that made him or her famous. Devoting more space to the subject’s childhood beyond what is necessary to establish formative influences strikes me as counterproductive to narrative drive. For this reason, the first few chapters in my book are brief, the equivalent of “blackout” scenes in the theater. I tried to include only details that are of psychological relevance, as I saw it, to her later life.

Partly because available information was often sparse, and partly because I wanted to move as quickly as possible to her glory days in New York, Grace’s first marriage and foiled attempt to travel to Alaska with her husband, her years living under the thumb of a second-rate artist, and her ill-fated trip to Mexico with her second husband occupy brief chapters—each one no longer than nine pages.

Then, when she began her professional life as a painter in the early 1950s, I slowed down to describe every detail known to me of her daily routine, devoting entire chapters to a single year. At the same time, I broadened my lens to look at larger issues in the cultural life of the era in an effort to avoid the airlessness of a personal narrative disconnected from the flow of history.

Three: Biographies about creative people share another stumbling block: the relative proportion of “life” to “work.” I believe that a biography that halts the narrative every few pages for paragraphs of analysis of a single work is really a critical study or monograph masquerading as a biography. The general audience I had in mind would surely be turned off by lengthy disquisitions on my subject’s paintings. So I tried to limit myself to a single short paragraph—written in the clearest, jargon-free language I could muster—to evoke and to briefly analyze a particular work.

Because it would have been tedious to chart all the twists and turns of her largely disappointing late work, I focused instead on its reflection of her emotional life—discovery of her husband’s devastating lies, lack of art-world attention, her worsening alcoholism—which culminated in a suicide attempt. Of course, I am aware of the need to avoid the so-called biographical fallacy. But because Grace’s work was so unremittingly personal, it would have been absurd not to link the two in writing about them.

Four: Events that happened even as recently as the mid-twentieth century are impossibly remote to people now in their twenties and thirties. As I wrote my book, I visualized a potential reader—a thirty-five-year-old woman who likes memoirs about young women who led adventurous lives. I realized that she wouldn’t be familiar with certain names and events that were widely known in decades past. But because I didn’t want these explanations to interfere with the narrative flow, I placed them in footnotes, so that my imaginary thirty-five-year-old (unlikely to consult an endnote) could simply glance at the bottom of the page for enlightenment.

I reserved my 70 pages of endnotes—which include commentary as well as source information—for material primarily of interest to art historians. In this way, I hoped to retain a sort of bifocal approach—the big picture for the average reader, the close-up one for the specialist.

Five: When a subject has lived a long and productive life, many biographers seem loathe to omit any award, honorary degree, or lecture, any illness or hospitalization. I have stopped reading otherwise absorbing biographies that have final chapters clogged with the minutiae of late-life garlands and physical decline.

A single chapter deals with Grace’s final 23 years. I viewed Grace’s death as the equivalent of a last scene in an opera that is followed by a quickly descending curtain. She is fatally ill, people close to her gather round, and she dies. I had already discussed her contribution to twentieth century art, and I was not interested in writing about subsequent assessments of her work.

By ending my narrative with her death, plus a short paragraph about what she thought her place in history would be—her final aria, if you will—the narrative and the book conclude simultaneously.