Adventures of a Biographer

I sometimes have the feeling that every biography I have written is a part of my autobiography. Remembered experiences and emotions grant me a lens of empathy through which I can view my subject. One’s writing and one’s personal life frequently mesh. We are the stories we tell.

Natalie S. Bober is an author I came across during my teaching years who quickly became a favorite author of mine (and of my mother after I introduced her to some of her books!). She has written excellent biographies for young people, and I found them fascinating to read.

I discovered recently that she had written a book about being a writer and specifically a writer of biographies. Of course, I had to find it and read it immediately. Simply put: I loved it!  It tells her own story about becoming a biographer, and explains to young writers how to make that happen. It also describes her immersion into the lives of the subjects of her biographies, and so gives a fascinating new view of the lives of those people and extends the experience of each of those biographies. I just wish my mother were still here to enjoy this book as much as she enjoyed the other books by Natalie Bober!

This book gives a wonderful view into the life of a writer. I found myself highlighting many passages, wanting to store them away and refer back to them many times. Here are a few of her ideas that resonated with me:

The story becomes, then, not simply the life of a subject, but the portrait of an era as well. And – in this way biography becomes a prism of history. In fact, biography has been described as the human heart of history. The biographer, then, becomes a historian as well as a portrait painter.

To be a writer, I was discovering, one must first be a reader!

Every biography that I write offers me an excuse to travel. Documents can never tell the whole story. I must go to the territory. I must walk where my subjects walked, and see what they must have seen. The language of landscape is essential.

I have always felt that writing is exploration. I write to learn. My drafts become a lens helping me to see my subjects from a new perspective.

Research can be exciting, for me perhaps more so even than the writing, because when I’m researching I’m learning. It’s like a game, a treasure hunt. I’m playing detective, and the excitement comes from search and discovery – from recreating a life from details.

Most importantly, the good biographer combines the detective work of the historian, the insight of the psychologist, and the art of the novelist.

Always, as I write, I have in mind something written by Sir Sidney Lee (1859-1926), editor of the Dictionary of National Biography in England, and known for his biography of William Shakespeare. He wrote: “The aim of biography is the truthful transmission of personality.”

There are still a couple of her biographies I haven’t read yet, and I would love to reread many of the others. I’ve read her books on Abigail Adams and on Robert Frost but didn’t review them. I would love to reread both of those! When I do, I will definitely review them and add to the list below!

Please check out the other blog posts I have written on Natalie Bober and her wonderful biographies:

I do hope you’ll read some of her books! They are so well written and so interesting!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s