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Approaching Biography as a Former Journalist

As a former arts journalist, I began writing biographies because I wanted to tell the story of an accomplished person in the arts who seemed to have led an eventful life. Rather than starting with a thesis (why close down the possibilities with some arbitrary point of view?), I wanted to keep an open mind as I learned about this person.

 

Accustomed to suddenly being called upon to write about people and situations I knew little about, I was not deterred by having to start from scratch. I was motivated by my need to be the first biographer—the first to share with readers the ways the life and the work intertwine, as they inevitably do.

 

A journalist is a writing machine, expected to be able to corral hundreds of words into readable form in a few hours, if necessary. As a biographer, as soon as I have a few facts to rub together, I'm keen to begin writing; this was the only way I can discover what I still needed to know.

 

There is also the matter of style. In the forefront of a journalist's mind is the need to grab fickle readers at the outset. That's why coming up with a catchy lede (the first sentence or paragraph of a story) is so important to us. The prologues of my books are my way of hooking the reader with the most dramatic aspects of my subject's story.

 

I think journalists-turned-biographers are pleased if our books are said to resemble fiction, despite their scrupulous reporting. We know that it is pointless to view any biography as definitive—new facts are likely to be uncovered; new emphases develop, based on changes in the culture. So it makes sense to omit details that don't fit comfortably in the narrative of the life. The narrative is paramount; it is what makes a book enjoyable to read rather than simply a dumping ground for information.

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