For those of you who don't know, I'm writing a biography about two people who are no longer alive.
Though I can't yet discuss who they are (I will, soon!), I can say it's been a fascinating journey, researching these remarkable people and immersing myself in their history. I really look forward to sharing the project with you.
Writing a biography has been a lifelong dream, since I fell in love with biographies as a child, and I attribute my initial interest to my maternal grandmother, Edna Farmer. Nana, as we called her, had a wonderful way of sharing what she learned from the biographies stacked next to her bed. It's as if she knew behind-the-scenes info no one else had ever considered. Nana was a character, a Norwegian nurse who said "Warshington" instead of "Washington" state, where she grew up. If only she'd known I've been to Washington, D.C. several times to research my book...well, I can only just hear her now: "Dolly! You went to Warshington? Tell me about it, won't ya?" She'd have already read Kitty Kelly's Jackie Oh! and Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, but she'd still have wanted to hear my take on the place.
"Dolly," I remember her once saying, "sit down here and let me tell you what Lauren Bacall was really like."
We'd frequently discuss the difference between lives lead publicly versus privately, and that we all tend to mask insecurities with brave exteriors as a means to survive life's inevitable challenges. So often we discussed the importance of being vulnerable, of asking for help and not being ashamed. Though she preferred to read celebrity biographies, I think she so often sold herself short, and that she could have handled even meatier scientific and political subjects.
In my youth, I'd always wondered where the facts and information in biographies came from. Though I never articulated it, I was just as fascinated with biographers' processes as I was with the actual subjects themselves. Where did biographers get all their information? How did they learn all those "previously unreported" things? How did they manage to get their subjects to open up? And how did their subjects feel about the published works?
Since my own subjects are deceased (and there's never been a book written about them), some of my biggest challenges have been finding individuals who 1) knew my subjects personally AND 2) are willing to speak on the record. While I've found extensive data about their movements -- through public records, newspaper columns, government publications and oral histories -- I'd yet to meet anyone who knew my subjects personally when they were alive. As I've been researching and outlining and drafting my chapters, I've been feeling something missing all along.
I'd spent countless hours over the past year, sitting in archives across the country, combing through clippings, files, photos and letters, trying to capture a particular feeling about my subjects -- a feeling that felt frustratingly and indescribably elusive. All this time, I've been asking myself, "What is it exactly, that I think I'm even missing?"
The problem, I figured, was that I couldn't hear my subjects' voices in my own head. I could absolutely hear my own take on their voices, but I was in need of some sort of confirmation --validation, if you will -- that my interpretations have been correct.
In other words, I just really didn't want to mess this up. I feel a tremendous responsibility to share these two lives accurately, and to do it fairly and with utter respect.
But what I've been missing, it turns out, have not been some missing "voice" from the past, but rather my own confidence as a biographer, and a willingness to tell someone else's story in my own words.
Then, just this past week, I received an email from one of the numerous archivists I've been lucky to meet, who knows I've been searching for a breakthrough of sorts. She told me about a 94-year-old woman who now lives in Minnesota, a woman who knew one of my subjects personally.
I thanked the archivist and called the woman in Minnesota immediately.
I introduced myself and quickly explained who I was, and that I hoped she'd be willing to tell me a bit about her connections to my subjects. I couldn't have been more surprised to learn she'd been the personal assistant to one of them, and that she was delighted to answer any questions I had.
We've spoken on the phone numerous times since then, each time getting to know one another along the way. In addition to the subject matter at hand, we discuss life, love, family and politics. She's confirmed the majority of my thoughts about my subjects, and shared new insights I hadn't considered before. She's offered stories I'd have never know without having spoken to her, and provided perspective that only deepens my existing narrative.
So this is how the biographers actually do it.
This is the formula I'd always wondered about. Turns out all it takes is a bit of inquisitiveness, stress, responsibility, patience, not a little gumption, and the willingness to admit I can't possibly know everything there is to know about someone.
Incidentally, the woman in Minnesota pronounces Warshington just like my Nana.
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