Can biography evolve to meet our current demands? Has the internet killed off the demand for the authoritative? In an age of best-selling celebrity memoir, does anyone still care what Shakespeare had for breakfast?
asks Guardian columnist Kathryn Holeywell as she ponders the state of the art of biography. For the record, I care what Shakespeare had for breakfast and many of the quotidian moments that make up a life which brings me to the 27th day of the 2013 WEGO Health Writing Challenge prompting us to create five working titles for the book of our lives.
If I were to write my life, I would first have to devise a way to cull out all the boring bits. Nobody wants to hear about when I started school and when I finished; but somebody might be interested to know more about that time I knit a pair of slippers. Finding the story of a life is work, and it brings to mind the job once done by television presenter, Eamonn Andrews, as he prepared the iconic big red book, “This is Your LIfe,” to present to scores of unsuspecting celebrities throughout the 1970s.
I remember clearly, a long ago Christmas evening, our family gathered around the TV to watch Muhammad Ali, then in his prime, as quick on his toes as he was with his comebacks, when Eamonn Andrews surprised him with the big red book. For the next hour, we watched as the heavyweight champion of the world’s life story unfolded in front of him complete with recorded greetings from friends and relatives who were not thousands of miles away, but waiting behind the curtains to surprise him. The real story lay in Ali’s unguarded and unrehearsed responses to the memories of milestones replayed for him, his family, and an audience of strangers in living rooms all across the country. Who could have predicted the twists and turns that lay ahead?
Many years later, my father, my brother, and a few relatives who could keep a secret (an impressive trait in rural County Derry), decided to plan for my mother’s sixtieth birthday a “This is Your Life” style surprise that included an unexpected reunion at the end of the show. When the big day arrived, I called in the morning to wish her a happy birthday and to tell her how sad I was that we were so many miles apart and that I would definitely arrange a trip home soon.
That evening, on their way out for a birthday dinner, she and my father stopped for a quick visit with my Aunt Sadie. When they arrived, they were greeted by shouts of “Surprise!” from a well-hidden gathering of family and friends whose cars had been parked out of sight. One of my cousins assumed the role of Eamonn Andrews and related the story of my mother’s life to all assembled. When she reached the part about my mother becoming a grandmother for the first time just eight months earlier, she wondered if perhaps they should get me on the phone so, although far away in Phoenix, I could be included in the party. I was unavailable, of course, given that two days earlier, I had flown in to Belfast with Sophie, and had been holed up at my Aunt Sadie’s house enjoying secret visits with my dad and my brother, the three of us laughing that my mother was completely in the dark.
No different from Smokin’ Joe Frazier showing up to surprise Muhammad Ali all those years before, was my baby girl, wrapped in a soft pink blanket and waiting on my Aunt Sadie’s doorstep, for my mother to answer the front doorbell. A perfectly executed surprise. If I were to write my mother’s biography, I would include the occasion of her sixtieth birthday and the story behind the surprise that made it one of those days she would cherish as in a jewelry box.
In an interview about the art of biography, David McCullough explains how he never had any intention of writing except in the narrative form.
In E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel he talks about the difference between a sequence of events and a story. He says, If I tell you that the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I tell you that the king died and then the queen died of grief, that’s a story—you feel that.
Thus, simply chronicling a life is inadequate; rather, crafting the story is the important thing. To know me, you need to know my story, all the crystallized moments that have shaped and tested me, all the first times, and the days that were turning points, beginnings or endings, best times or worst.
Unlike Madonna, Cher, Prince (or whatever symbol now represents his name), Oprah, my first name alone would not evoke a story worth reading. Scanning The New York Times Book Review’s list of literary biographies, I find there are plenty of titles already taken that would work just as well for the story of my life. Why reinvent the wheel? In no particular order . . .
- The Art of Burning Bridges
- Her Own Woman
- The Kindness of Strangers
- The Two of Us
- A Life in Two Worlds
- Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow
- Wrapped in Rainbows
- The Fly Swatter: How I Made my Way in the World
- The Decisive Years