The audio version of this post appears below. Just click on “play”.
I have a love/hate relationship with biographies. I love to read them but I hat the fact they are inherently dishonest. That really burns me. I mean, someone like me who earned his living seeking absolute truths as a private dick may be a little harder on biographers than most and I’m cognizant of that, but when an author takes on the task to be the chronicler of someone’s life, they have a responsibility to the truth. Someone’s – anyone’s, life is worthy of truthful representation.
It’s understandable that an author may feel the need to spice up someone’s life in the black and white, hell, I’m sure even famous people have some periods in their lives that didn’t exactly hit 10 on the excitement meter. But, I think using this mechanism is disingenuous and that even the most banal existence can be made interesting if the writing is good enough.
I’ve never met anyone who was un-interesting and I really mean that. I think everyone’s own story is unique and fascinating. If I could, I would spend all my time writing biographies of the people I’ve met. In a way, I kind of do in my own head. I take thousands and thousands of notes a year; usually on people I’ve met and had a conversation with in the local watering hole, coffee house, or at my kid’s school. This is how I build the characters in my stories. It’s fun, like being a mad scientist. This is some insight into my work by the way. There isn’t one character in my book 5 Tales that isn’t an amalgamation of people I know or have met however briefly.
The idea behind a biography is get to know the subject and when there is embellishment or something is intentionally left out, that defeats the whole purpose and let’s face it in some cases it can effect history. Look at Thomas Jefferson. Does anyone really know what that dude’s life was actually like? There are so many variations in so many biographies I don’t feel like I really know a thing about Jefferson – at least nothing I can trust. Same with Lincoln. I want my heroes with all the warts intact. Save all the feel good crap for the Hollywood versions.
Obviously, a biographer can’t follow around their subject twenty-four seven, especially if they’re dead, and that very well could account for the embellishment and deletions that occur, but I expect at least the best effort possible in their research and I think as readers we all deserve it. It’s going to be very interesting to see where biographies go in the next five, ten, twenty years with all the social media and other technology available to record one’s life. There will pretty much be no hiding and I kind of like that idea.
I’ve been fortunate in my life to have known some people whose biographies I’ve read and thought: holy cat’s this isn’t even close to the way this man/woman really is! That’s like the ultimate disappointment to a guy like me. I won’t mention the authors, but I will say who the peeps were. John Kenneth Galbraith, the only thing the author got right was his height. Mario Cuomo, I’m reasonably sure the person’s version I read never even met the guy. James Carville, I have to give a pass to this one – no one can accurately describe Jimmy’s life, the man is a machine. There’s more by why belabor the point?
Unless you’re writing quantum physics texts, the inherent storyteller in all writers is a hard one to contain, but when it comes to doing biographies, I think it’s necessary in order to be genuine to the reader and respectful to the subject.
So, if you’re going to be a biographer – stick to the script. We’ll all be better for it.