Friday, September 19, 2008

Unlocking the Biography

As the fall conference and school season approacheth, I spent today working on a new conference talk about biographies. While I am better known for my science books, biography has been a cornerstone of my career. Just yesterday, I put the finishing
touches on the fifteenth book of my “American Heroes” series with Benchmark/Marshall Cavendish. Many of my science books, however, also have strong biographical components, including my fall book Science Warriors: The Battle Against Invasive Species from Houghton Mifflin.

So, I thought while writing my new talk, what makes a biography work? There are many answers, of course: voice, clarity, accuracy, unique information. For me, a key to writing about a person is to understand what drove that person forward through life. This isn’t always easy to discover. Finding one, though, allows a writer to develop a common theme that helps the entire biography hang together. Choosing the one essential aspect of a person also helps the writer make choic
And a biographer does need to make choices. My “American Heroes” books are only 12-1400 words long. It’s as difficult to choose what to leave out as what to leave in. But getting down to that essential aspect of a person makes it possible—and makes the writing more fun. Working on the biography of George Washington, for instance, I concluded that what drove George forward was a desire to be rich. Wanting to join the landed gentry dictated almost all of his early decisions. What was so impressive about the man is that he grew out of this simple idea of himself and was later able to stand up for ideals that protected the nation’s future.

One of the most fun biographies I’ve worked on recently has been of Jacob Lawrence, one of the first successful black American painters. Lawrence’s parents participated in “The Great Migration”, the mass exodus of rural Southern blacks to urban areas in the North. Even though Lawrence wasn’t born until after his parents moved north, this event influenced every aspect of his life, from his own family’s dislocation to the remarkable culture of Harlem surrounding him as a young man.

This choosing a “key” to a person is a huge part of what makes biographies work—and what makes them so fun to read. Different biographers, after all, seize on different aspects of a person’s life. You can read ten different biographies of the same person and get ten different perspectives. That’s why people will continue reading—and writing—biographies, well, forever.

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