AWP Dispatch: Writing Biographies

Another posting from a Lighthouser on the scene at the AWP Conference. This one's from Susanna Donato, writer and blog queen at Cheap Like Me:

 "Writing Biographies: Making Someone Else's Story Your Own" offered six very different writers taking six very different approaches:

· Diana Raab wrote Regina's Closet: Finding My Grandmother's Secret Journal and edited the just-released Writers and Their Notebooks
· Honor Moore took some family skeletons out of the closet to write The White Blackbird, A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent by her Granddaughter
· Joy Castro researched and wrote short biographical essays of other women writers who have overcome deprivation, as a means to encourage herself to transcend her personal background, and wrote a memoir, The Truth Book
· Phillip Lopate took a Sontagian approach to his critical biography, Notes on Sontag
· Robert Root has written several biographical works from an interesting array of sources, the most recent being Following Isabella, for which he revisited the sites of Isabella Bird's tour of the Rocky Mountains in 1873; he also talked about his work on a biography of E.B. White as an essayist (mostly excluding White's work as a children's novelist)
· Kim Stafford spent years researching and mentally conversing with his late father, the poet William Stafford, for his book Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford

Despite their varied subject matter, personal backgrounds and authorial interests, these writers often echoed each other in the points they made about writing biography:

Love to research. You can't write biography without doing tons of research. Lopate's book only took 18 months or so to write, but he noted that he didn't delve into Sontag's personal biography. Other panelists mentioned taking 10 years to research and write their books.
Find your unique connection to the story. For Lopate, Sontag shaped his own taste; they were acquainted, and he remained curious about her work. Castro was inspired by Virginia Woolf's urging to "map the lives of obscure women," as well as what she termed "raw self-interest." Moore "wanted to know what happened when a woman had a room of her own, a house of her own, and probably too much money."
Be rigorous in discovering the structure. Moore said six years into her project, she wrote down the "hot spots" -- the high points that made "big, fabulous scenes" through which she could thread the rest of the story. Castro said her memoir was driven by two key questions. "Anything that answered those questions stayed in; anything that did not was not even drafted."

Stafford described working on the table of contents for a month. The table of contents became labels on file folders; the file folders became notes, which became essays, which became chapters. Then Stafford's editor at Graywolf Press instructed him, "Abandon chronology and start again." Ultimately, Stafford found one of his father's poems served as a perfect structural guideline. "You need file folders, chapters, and some form of SHAZAM!" Stafford said.

The panel left no doubt that biographical writing is an intimate, individual experience. Raab said, "You get a chance to walk in [your subject's] shoes, and what an honor that is."

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