Over the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about how far it’s possible to construct an emotional biography of a writer, by examining the texts they choose to write at different times in their life. This is really a question about the emotional driving forces behind the projects in which we choose to engage; and is perhaps particularly interesting when applied to non-fiction writers (in which the personal motivation is potentially more opaque, the writer more obscured, than in fiction and autobiography). Why, for example, does someone like Simon Winchester write biographies of a collector of skulls; the Atlantic ocean; the Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham; the volcano Krakatoa; the geologist William Smith; and two men behind the Oxford English Dictionary? I’m not inviting psychoanalyses of Simon here, nor trying to find a unifying factor among all these disparate projects. (Indeed, perhaps their disunity is more revealing.) I’m really just wondering why it is that writers become interested in different subjects at different points in their lives: how do certain subjects speak to us, engage our interest, offer a vessel into which to put our hearts? It’s not always enough to just say, ‘well, I simply find that topic interesting’. Interest is usually a matter of emotional engagement; and the extent to which our attention can be held by a matter, our spirits roused, can be to do with how that subject speaks to our personal concerns at meaningful points in our own lives.
Of course, this isn’t always the case – far from it. In a psychoanalytic tradition, thinking can be an evasion of feeling; not an engagement with it. I think perhaps this was the case for my first book, Map of a Nation (a biography of the Ordnance Survey).
As a corollary to this, I’m also interested in why certain projects (not necessarily literary ones) fail: why are they abandoned? Are there cases in which this is to do with the writer’s heart being no longer in it; a mismatch between the type of emotional investment required to do justice to the subject matter and the writer’s personal drives and interests at that time?
I’d love to hear input on this: why do you pick the subjects that you do to write about? How do they speak to you personally? What sort of emotional investment is required to do them justice? Or do you have examples of projects that have failed because of a lack of investment? a case of the heart no longer being in it?