Becoming A Biographer

Happy Friday everyone!

It’s definitely easy to say that with a certain spring in your step when the most pressing thing you have on your plate at the moment is napping, reading, and working on some other projects you’ve got lined up… I won’t lie, it’s a pretty good way to live! But, about biography. I first conceived the idea for this blog post some time ago, possibly as far in the past as the middle of 2016, when I first proposed to my grandparents that I write my grandfather’s biography—but I haven’t really had the capacity to complete it. The reason for that is simple: despite having done a lot of ‘thinking’ and ‘brainstorming’ and maybe some ‘daydreaming’ about how to put together (or at least start putting together) the work itself, I hadn’t actually done anything. And I mean anything. I had a pile of various documents courtesy of my grandmother, I had various ideas about what I might need to know and how to go about getting it, but I had written nothing. Zero. Zilch.

Is there any force of intimidation so powerful as an empty page to a writer?

Thankfully, sometimes all we need in order to start is the right impetus, and for me that came in the form of a uni subject in Trimester 2 of this year called Writing Non-Fiction. and the final major assignment for that unit: write a 1750 word non-fiction piece, along with a 750 word exegesis, in whatever form, and on whatever topic, you might choose. All of sudden, all the barriers that had prevented me from diving into the biography became a little less significant, and the opportunity for putting into practice some of my brainstorming became seriously more tangible. More importantly, once I’d made the decision that my final assignment would encompass the first chapter of this biography, I had no choice not to get my butt into gear and start pulling it all together. And what did I discover?

Biography is hard work, people.

This photo may provide SOME indication of how many disparate elements have to be pulled together… But I feel like it still doesn’t do justice to the process!

I mean, logically, if I’d ever thought about it, I’m sure I would have reached that conclusion, but having to actually go through it is a completely different kettle of fish. What I found was that as soon as I corroborated or discovered one piece of information, it sparked two or three more questions that I wanted to know the answer too, even if that information wasn’t necessarily going to end up in the final work. Moreover, there were countless pieces of information that are contextualising and provide depth, but realistically fulfil only a very, very small role in the biography itself (such as a date of death, or the address of a property), yet simultaneously require a lot of work to determine. Thus, the process of gathering information seems interminable: as soon say you reach a point where it might be complete, there is more to find. I operated (and continue to operate) under the assumption that the optimal situation is one in which you have the maximum possible amount of data, and can thus subsequently draw forth whatever you require (within reason!). Inevitably, this means that there were plenty of things that I found out that I may never use in the final work, but I would rather have them and not use them (or find a strange way to incorporate them later in the work), than need them and not have them.. Yet, in and of itself, this leads to another challenge: weaving all of the information together.

Honestly, sometimes I felt like this was going on in my head.

Sometimes, I felt like my head was going to explode trying to contextualise and organise all of the various events occurring just in the first ten years of my grandfather’s life: I wanted to know where he came from and what his personal history consisted of, meaning that I needed to interrogate the lives of those now long dead. And, of course, memory isn’t chronological. Fascinating snippets of information—that then may need to be investigated further or clarified through secondary sources—often occur out of ‘order’ in the story’s chronology, and then need to be isolated and contextualised in order to better present the story as an integrated whole… All in all, it’s damn hard work. And that’s only the first chapter! But at the same time, it’s exhilarating and exciting to discover the history of your family and of the people you love; it’s thrilling to reach a point where the story you’re facilitating is becoming readable and enjoyable to others, and I’m already plotting out how to attack Chapter 2. Now if only I could find a publisher who’d give me a contract for this book…

Have a great weekend everyone!

–Ana.

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