Sunday, May 4, 2008

Why I Don't Read Biographies...

Other than the first-hand accounts from Holocaust survivors I was obsessed with as a teen, I do not gravitate towards reading biographies. Seems odd considering my writing is primarily autobiographical. But therein lies the explanation. I feel an odd sort of intimidation when I read biographies, comparing my writing with theirs and thinking, how do they do it?

In particular I am always struck by the conversations that are included, some that go back decades. How can anyone remember a conversation they had with someone 40 years ago? I can barely remember what I had for dinner last night.

It seems false somehow. I imagine someone reading my biography one day, reading over a conversation that they were a part of and thinking, "WTF? That's not what I said at all." I mean, I don't get it. How do people recall what was said so many years ago with any amount of accuracy?

The other thing I find hard about biographies is the chronological order thing. My life didn't happen in chronological order. I'm not even sure how I'd put a biography together. Where would I start? What would I include? My life is one big montage--random clips set to the soundtrack of my inner musings. I guess that's why I like the blog format.

And lastly, biographies seem to have happy endings, an endpoint where everything seems to get wrapped up in a box with a pretty bow. I've always thought I couldn't write my own story until I have a happy ending. But there is no ending. It's life. It unfolds.

So, really, I'm just envious. Maybe I just haven't been reading the right kind of bios. I'm open to suggestions. Having said that, I like reading philosophy. That's my kind of biography. Currently, I'm reading Thoreau's Walden. He begins with this disclaimer of sorts which I would quote if I were ever to write a biography of my very own:

"In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience."


tall penguin


Simone said...
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zensim said...

Ha ha ha - still amusing reading my exact thoughts coming from someone else!

I have always wondered the same things about other people's ability to remember conversations - especially after I read "Angela's Ashes".

Do you think it is a brain wiring thing? Some people can and some people can't?

I am not a detail person, I am a big picture person.

Or maybe it is just because I don't care so much after the fact, that moment is past, gone. I am not attached to the feeling.

And I just don't trust my perception any more than someone else's - so I don't see the point. (Plus I have had enough scary conversations with people who were convinced they remember exchanged words correctly).

Aren't the bits you leave out of a biography as telling as the one's you include? We all need to choose to portray some persona in the end, even if we know it is not the sum of all that we are :)

tall penguin said...

So, soul sister, we meet again. :)

Yes, perhaps it is the big picture thing. As you well know, we get these overall senses of things, people, events. The details slip into the ether.

They say the whole is more than just the sum of the parts. Kind of holographic in nature. I like that.

You're cool. We're cool. Let's be cool together. :)

Daniel McCullough said...

I was thinking along the similar lines the other day while listening to an interview of a biographer, I believe. A life's story is not well described by a biography. It is put together more like a trashy magazine or supermarket tabloid. All bizarre pictures, gaudy headlines, and a variety of typefaces to dazzle the eye!

tall penguin said...

Interesting perspective Daniel. For me, a life story is about the inner life not just about the events that happened. We all have events happen and really, they're not all that different from one another. But it's the mind and its interpretation of the events that fascinates me so. What goes on on the inside? It's that whole three pound universe thing. Love it.

Thanks for your comments here by the way. I enjoy your input.

Renee said...

It's funny, Nick Hornby addresses this very issue in FEVER PITCH. I'll find the quote and send it to you. It certainly isn't written in some widely profound manner, but it's interesting that you've commented on it and I've just read someone else commenting on it.

Renee said...

Nick Hornby, in Fever Pitch :
"Dialogue in works of autobiography is quite naturally viewed with some suspicion. How on earth can the writer remember verbatim conversations that happened fifteen, twenty, fifty years ago? But 'Are you playing, Bob?' is one of only four sentences I have ever uttered to any Arsenal player...and I can therefore vouch for its absolute authenticity."

There was another bit somewhere about him not keeping a journal of the events in his life, but rather that he remembered certain things because of how they tied in with other parts of his life. The score from one particular Arsenal game noted because he was best man in his friend's wedding the same day (an no doubt missed the game entirely).

It's an autobiographical work about his obsession and, I must admit, very enjoyable.
But then again, I like biographies.

tall penguin said...

Thanks Renee for those quotes from Nick Hornby. I guess I'm in good company then.

I don't want to write a piece of great literature. I don't want to agonize over every biographical detail, every slight nuance of language. I want to write something that feels real, that unfolds as my life did: raw, visceral, authentic. I guess I'm still finding my style, or rather I'm still coming to accept my style. :)