Sunday, August 29, 2010

How to Write a Life

“…people write what they call ‘lives’ of other people; that is, collect a number of events, and leave the person to whom it happened unknown.”

This quote brought many things into question for me. It has forced me to reevaluate what I “know” about biographies. Is it really possible to write about another person’s life? Could I, for instance, write about my mother’s life? I am extraordinarily close to my mother so getting all the nitty-gritty details on her is no problem. I could write about every single thing that has happened to her during her lifetime. I could even go so far as to ask older members of the family to fill in what she is too young to remember – but would that really be her life? At what point does a piece of writing cease to be merely a history and become a person’s life?

A history is quite basically a timeline – a “number of events.” It may be descriptive and well-written but in the end it is just a timeline. If I were to film the “life” of a man from the day he was born to the day he died I would be able to show no more than a ridiculously accurate history – I would still not have a record of his life. I would have no way of knowing what he was thinking or feeling. My subject could be crumpled on the floor with a broken ankle with tears streaming down his face and still I could not know what he was feeling. Perhaps he had been forced to participate in a certain sport and is now crying with relief because he no longer has to. It does not matter what I see or hear – unless he were to dictate his every thought to me I have no way of knowing what that moment meant to him.

A life requires thoughts and feelings. A robot may have someone write its history but never its life. To write of a life is to write not only of events but of what those events meant to the subject. How did the event make him feel? How does he remember the event when he reminisces? How did that event shape how he sees the world?

It seems to me that every “life story” I have ever read that was written by someone other than the subject is no more than a history book. Unless the book has been written by the subject it can never be called a life story – can it?

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