Writing Biography as Creative Nonfiction
September 12, 2019 § 8 Comments
“Oh, I hated history in school.”
“That sounds so boring.”
These are the two responses I get most frequently when I tell people I’m a historian. How rude, as my hero Stephanie Tanner would say. But here’s the thing: I secretly kind of agree with them. History is fascinating, but some history books are boring. Bestseller lists teem with 800-page biographies of the founders, but these tomes are not for everyone. They are not for me, in fact.
I’ve never been particularly drawn to narrative nonfiction, popular history or biography. So when I crashed and burned in academia, I flailed around for a bit looking for a kind of writing that would draw on my scholarly background but encompass my interest in creative nonfiction. In the meantime, I devoured essay collections, and when I began writing again, the essay was the form I turned to. Eventually, it occurred to me that the way historians are trained to think and write is far closer to the essayist than to the narrative-nonfiction writer: rather than follow a story from beginning to end, we approach an overarching question or problem from many different angles, trying to weave these pieces into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Now I’m writing a biography of Martha Schofield, a nineteenth-century Quaker, abolitionist, and feminist, best-known for founding a school for freed people during Reconstruction. What I’m trying to do, though—following Christy Wampole’s 2013 piece in the New York Times—is to “essayify” the biography. Here are three methods I’ve developed for doing so, along with some of the authors who have inspired me along the way.
Find Your Voice. In Orlando: A Biography (not a biography), Virginia Woolf pokes fun at the genre. Occasionally, her narrator breaks in to bemoan the biographer’s limited role or even to trace, in a pages-long digression, the provenance of a certain document or piece of information. Cynical, sarcastic, and witty, the voice is very different from the “objective” distance we expect from biographers.
Orlando’s narrator, of course, is not Woolf, and my voice—Serious Lady Essayist Who Is Also a Jaded Millennial (and Jokes about It to Avoid Her Feelings)—is not me. Readers expect this in fiction, and, following Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story, we understand that the “I” of a nonfiction narrative is not the writer per se, but a persona.
Biographical and historical narrators are personae, too. This narrative persona can establish distance from the subject through the exploration of diverging experiences, which I find much more interesting, natural, and valuable than scholarly remove. A present, well-developed persona can also reveal their feelings about the subject in a way that traditional biographical narrators can’t.
Make It Personal. In H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald charts her attempts to raise a goshawk while grieving for her father. It’s primarily a memoir, but hidden within it is a mini-biography of The Sword in the Stone author and falconer T. H. White, who becomes Macdonald’s central antagonist. Eventually, she realizes that they share more similarities than she would like to admit—and that she must write about him because he helps her understand what she herself is experiencing.
Forming a relationship with your subject can help clarify the stakes of your biographical project: What are you trying to figure out by writing out this subject? and Why is it urgent that you do so? I was halfway through my own project before I realized all of the ways in which my life parallels Martha Schofield’s—and then only because a fellow workshop participant pointed it out. But in 2017, when I started writing, I needed to see how a woman like me confronted a time of national crisis.
We don’t need to resemble our subjects; we don’t even need to like them. We just need to need them. When tackling a new subject, think about what draws you to it. Keep digging until you find something personal. My personal story starts with me adrift in authoritarian America, searching for something to anchor myself. That something became Martha Schofield.
Show Your Work. Another way to include more essayistic elements in your biography is to comment on the research process itself. Even formally trained historians do this, often in prefaces, introductions, and conclusions. Jill Lepore’s books, especially Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, provide great examples of this.
It’s also possible for the book’s spine to be the research process itself. John Edgar Wideman adopts this strategy in Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File. He puts his own experiences growing up black in America into conversation with the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, when both Till and Wideman were fourteen, continuing police and extrajudicial brutality against black people, and Wideman’s attempts to track down information about Till’s father, Louis, who was executed by the army in 1945 on unfounded charges of rape and murder. As Wideman leads readers up to dead ends, through bureaucratic red tape, and on his journey with the file itself, he also shares his interactions with the documents, connecting their materiality and content with his own bodily and emotional experiences.
Most of us aren’t Jill Lepore or John Edgar Wideman, but we can still implement some of these strategies by keeping, alongside our research notes, a process journal dedicated to our research experience. What are you finding/not finding in the archive? What do the room and the documents look like? What is your internal and/or physical experience within this space? We like essays in part because of their “thinking on the page” quality. Making the discovery process itself—learning about a subject and figuring out what you think about it—part of the work extends this quality to history and biography.
Now get out there and essayify, and be sure to tell me what you learn along the way.
Christina Larocco received her PhD from the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. She lives in Philadelphia, where she is editor-in-chief of a scholarly journal and a prose editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Hotel Amerika, Avidly, Feminine Collective, Drunk Monkeys, and elsewhere.