The Nature of Biography

You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.

Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot, then goes onto explain how the same could be said of biographies as so much does escape. And yet, as Ted Hughes once wrote, ‘I hope each of us owns the facts of his or her own life.’ And that is the other point: we must.

There are parts of our lives regarded as, not quite us. We look back at a particular period as if peering at a naughty child through a classroom window, neither wanting to disturb, yet unable to believe our eyes. We shy away from the parts of ourselves that aren’t too pretty, editing extensively to make them shiny and admirable from all angles. But few, if any, lives pan out this way. Everybody has blips, failures, sicknesses so that the list of disasters is endless, but the question becomes, not the extent of the pain, but what actions were taken thereafter; how, in other words, you responded. More often than not, such events appear as bitter bolts from the blue; we were planning against one disaster while another came up and nipped at the ankle. But this happens to be the point of transformation’s promise. It takes one by surprise and yet attempts to comfort with the distraction of challenge and growth, despite our many protests to the contrary.

What I have learned in recording people’s lives, is that the more successful a person is, quite often the more misshapen it once began; the more inspirational, the greater the loss at pivotal moments and the richer, the greater the deprivations in early life. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules, but these are the patterns I’ve noticed.

And so what becomes more important than hiding secrets is revealing transformation, that peculiar kind of alchemy more familiar to the human spirit than we care to attest. It must grow from a foundation of hope, like the lily bursting forth from mud, often unconscious, yet once noted, capable of attuning the mind to future possibilities. Much later, we must look back but with objectivity and distance to gain a greater understanding of how these – all too frequently – awe-inspiring acts were accomplished. Firstly, though we must comfort ourselves knowing dreams can reform at any moment. Most of all we must believe – just as the toddler did when learning to walk – that great things are possible. Yet biographies show us more than the end: they show us the journey, providing signposts along the path. You might say that they direct us toward our dreams.

Unrecorded lives still move human evolution forwards, that is society, forwards but even these apparently normal lives make up an essential part of the whole. Some are more exceptional in resilience, but everybody has something to teach and everybody something to learn.

The stories of our lives must thus be enthusiastically tied together to form a net, no matter how frequent the holes. Failures that had bright and gleaming linings need to be celebrated, as do the wrong paths and the crazy people and places or those events that eventually lead to greater joy. But without the calamities and the suffering, would our lives – the world – really change? Not so fast, I expect. So go tell your stories as if retelling a great epic, for in five hundred years, no matter what you have achieved, nobody will quite believe the circumstances you lived through.

Therefore, harness hope and look back with a sense of fondness. Many fish will continue to escape and return to the stream, but there always remains enough to determine character, cultural contextualising and social peculiarity. Naturally, there will be areas of obscurity and absence because, at times, human beings are a mystery unto themselves, but record we must of for no other reason than to throw off and release the past and move closer to some, as yet, unattained form.

As a biographer, it is always the inner life that holds more interest than external situations; for the patterns of life are firstly held in the mind. Once this is gently unravelled, however, events become explicit, making individual sense and then it is those that have understood the peculiar mechanics of their own mind who produce the greatest and most flourishing lives.

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