Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Compleat Biographer Conference, A Report: Sphinxes, Secrets, Virgin Eyes

This past Saturday, Susan Kuklin, Marfé Ferguson Delano and I were on a panel at the Compleat Biographers Conference here in New York City. Tanya Lee Stone was supposed to be with us, but unfortunately could not come. (We missed you, Tanya!) Thanks to Gretchen Woelfle for telling us about the call for YA biography writers.  This organization is relatively new (2010) but I think they have a good thing going. 

We had a fun time planning the panel Friday night over a lovely meal and a bottle of wine. We sat next to a man with very strange facial hair, just a line from his lower lip down his chin. Not a soul patch, more like a soul line. (That was a detail you needed, right?). 

Anyway, we decided that the best kind of panel is a conversation, not just talking heads. So we didn't over-plan--we wanted the conversation to be real, and it was. Marfé was the designated moderator, and she did a terrific job.  And it is always fascinating to listen to how Susan does her work. (There was an collective gasp in the room when she talked about interviewing a young man who had been on death row since he was a kid.) People asked really good questions. One question was, naturally, is writing a biography for kids different from writing one for adults, and if so, how? And our answers were—it isn’t different, it is different, and in the end I think we agreed that all writing is about choices and some of the choices we make when we write for kids we make because we are writing for kids—and for their gatekeepers.  But other than that, it isn't different at all. (Marfé wisely had started our session with an anecdote about someone saying she was sure writing for kids was easier than writing for adults. We dispelled that notion immediately.) 

There was one high school teacher in the audience and I found myself looking to her often for agreement, nods, approval. Do those of you who speak to audiences do that? Find one or two people you look at to gauge how you're doing? (It's much better, by the way, if you focus on the happy, nodding people rather than the bored, angry-looking, or sleeping people--if you have any of those. We didn't. But I've learned that nice little lesson over the years...) 

Happily, there was also another YA author in the room, Catherine Reef. Marfé had been on a panel with her at this conference in D.C. two years ago, and asked her to chime in. Catherine did, and she really added to our discussion! 

I left our panel feeling inspired and renewed, which is always a good thing. I left the conference, also, with nuggets of knowledge and inspiration, and I will share those I remember with you. Maybe Marfé and Susan will remember more... 

Nuggets:

*Will Swift presented the BIO AWARD to Ron Chernow. In his introduction Swift told that audience that we should all read the prologue to Chernow’s Washington book. I did and it's terrific. It's about Gilbert Stuart painting Washington's portrait, and is really an essay about writing biography, about how we try to capture real people, not just their likenesses.  I recommend it to you, too. (And now I really want to read the whole book.) 

*Swift said that Chernow is a master at shedding light on things that their characters are trying to hide from themselves.

*Interestingly, soon after Chernow himself said, in his speech, that writing a biography is an act of intellectual presumption!

*Chernow said truth will emerge in subtle ways even if the people we are writing about are evasive. So many of our subjects are sphinxes.  He said that he realized with the help of his late wife that Rockefeller was revealing who he was by trying to conceal.

*He also said, and I loved this especially, that when you are writing a biography you need to find the balance between writing the character from the inside out and from the outside in.

*In working on George Washington, the more Chernow read, the less familiar Washington seemed. There were dimensions of his life and personality (his meanness, his temper, his sensitivity) that previous biographers overlooked. Chernow decided that the 5% who knew him were more reliable than 95% who didn’t.

*He said he learned he had to look at Washington with virgin eyes.

After lunch we went to a panel about how to deal with black holes when writing a biography. It started out promising when the moderator said that you can have black holes in research, in periods of a person’s life, or in the understanding of our character. In secrets. Yes! Tell us how to deal with them, please! They didn't give us many answers, sadly.. but here are a few nuggets:

*When you read someone’s memoir or autobiography you have be suspicious and ask yourself what was the reason they were writing their autobiography or memoir. Look for what is not said.

*Mythologies make you want to find the real story.

*If there are people still living who knew the person you're writing about, go talk to them. You want the gossip. (Chernow's 5% or, if you're lucky, more.) 

*Writing a biography is really a group project—you are assembling all the voices of those who will help you.

*If there’s something important you don’t know, that’s part of the story. 

Maybe it was the lights going off and on in that room, or the daunting feeling of the black hole, but we three decided to leave the conference right after that panel. Somehow within fifteen minutes we found ourselves at The Algonquin Hotel, at a round table, having drinks. 

11 comments:

mariam baurice said...
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Nikolay Argirov said...
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Susan Kuklin said...

Thanks, Deb, for writing about our terrific panel. It was a pleasure to get to know fellow INKer, Marfe', and of course always wonderful to spend time with you. For me, the BEST part about participating on a panel is spending time learning from my colleagues. While walking home my head was bursting with ideas, reminiscences, and all the things I would have liked to have said.

I also appreciated another of Ron's comments about research: "One has to look for what's not said."

That reminded me of our dinner the night before. While you and Marfe' watched the moving decoration on the man's face, I saw the silence coming from his date.

Jim Murphy said...

Deborah -- Very informative and fun post. About the darker side of George Washington. When I did The Real Benedict Arnold I included discussions of some of his less than pleasant ways (to try to balance the conventional views of Arnold). Found myself criticized for trying to bring down Washington a notch and for trying to soften the image of Arnold. Sometimes ya can't win.

Steve Sheinkin said...

Interesting advice, about dealing with memoirs with a bit of skepticism. The main character in the story I'm working on now wrote a memoir, and presents himself as pretty fabulous. Others seem less convinced...

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Wish I'd been there!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Ron Chernow's Washington is brilliant - a 904 page-turner!

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Deb, being on the panel with you and Susan was a pleasure and a privilege, not to mention a heck of a lot of fun. As a first-time moderator, I was delighted that our panel was a real conversation, a lively exchange of ideas, with lots of audience participation. Susan, I agree that the best part of being on a panel is learning from my colleagues.

And then what a treat to hang out with Deb and Susan at the Algonquin, drinking wine and talking books and writing and the writing life. It was definitely one of those days that makes all the struggles worthwhile, one of those days that inspires me to keep going, to keep trying. Thank you!

Deborah Heiligman said...

Thanks, everyone, for your responses. It is a fascinating subject, biography. I have on my bulletin board right now an article by Stacy Schiff called "The Dual Lives of the Biographer." I recommend that, too (from the NY Times).

Susan E. Goodman said...

What an interesting post. I'm researching to write a biography for the first time. Love the idea of looking for what's not said. And thanks for Schiff's recommended article, Deb.

Brian Jay Jones said...

Deb, thanks so much for lending us your expertise (and good humor -- oy, the LIGHTS!) for the weekend -- and I hop we'll have the pleasure of continuing to rely on you and others who have your particular Super Power. We hear from more and more people who want to get into YA bio, who then find (as you said) that it's both harder and easier than they originally thought!

Anyway. Great post.