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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 had a few facts to rub together, I was keen to begin writing; this was the only way I could 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. It is pointless to view any biography as definitive—new facts are likely to be uncovered; new emphases develop, based on change 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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