The Centre recently hosted a conference of thirty life-writers, all at various stages of their project and all keen to get to get to grips with some of the practical and ethical questions involved in writing a life.
Lyndall Gordon, Elleke Boehmer and Clare Morgan facilitated a series of engaging and thoughtful workshops which encouraged people to share their challenges, work through their difficulties, and gain fresh inspiration from the insights of other participants. Some were working on family histories, others approaching well-known figures and still others uncovering untold stories.
The first session I attended, run by Lyndall Gordon, worked through some of the challenges involved in archival research. Everyone faces the same problems: either too much material or too little! But the important thing is to go in with ‘all your feelers waving’ as Lyndall put it, alert for whatever detail might enrich your narrative or change your perspective.
Don’t necessarily trust the archives. Be prepared to be critical and wary of the agendas of those writing the sources or putting together the archive. Always allow enough room for another agenda to evolve, and remember that people want to make themselves the heroes of their own stories. The problem of ‘archive time’ came up – where the hours fly past at a speed unknown elsewhere!
The second session, led by Elleke Boehmer, addressed the technical challenges of archives: where material might be unavailable, have disappeared, be inaccessible, obscure or contradictory. Participants spoke of letters whisked away by executors, of materials in unknown languages and of the future challenges posed by digital correspondence. It was suggested that gaps and silences could be part of the story: life-writers can explore the meanings of omissions without necessarily jumping to conclusions. But some issues will always be unresolved and there is no need to try and fill in all the gaps.
Beginning to write up research early is a good general solution: it forces the writer to think through the implications and makes the connections for you. Timelines and spider diagrams are also useful tools to map connections visually.
The final session, overseen by Clare Morgan, considered some of the ethical questions which come up in writing a life. There is no such thing as a neutral narrator, and so the writer needs to position themselves in relation to the reader: setting out their stall. The boundaries between fact and fiction and the nature of truth and authenticity were discussed: and it was agreed that while there is room for supposition, readers don’t like to be ‘tricked,’ and biographers should have regard to established historical facts.
We reflected on how to deal with sensitive private issues, especially where there are living relatives, and particularly how to ask the right questions of interview subjects. The biographer must decide whether to tackle these head on – though sensitively – or to come at them in a roundabout way.
Though the conference was focused on ‘the quest for materials’ the discussion was very broad and wide-ranging. Biography is appealing because it illuminates what it means to be human: and the individual biographer must decide what that means in this particular story. No single trajectory can do justice to a life; many interpretations are valid and there are many ways through a life. Perhaps most importantly, have a passionate commitment to the subject.
Our facilitators summarised the day with some final pieces of advice:
Lyndall Gordon: decide early on what story you want to tell and don’t lose track of that story
Clare Morgan: consider how to structure and present the story
Elleke Boehmer: think and research laterally, but within clear boundaries, and have a strong voice
Hermoine Lee: never say ‘yes, I know,’ to an interview subject, or they will stop talking!