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Fighting the Urge to Compete with Your Subject

The competitive spirit can emerge in unexpected places. Writing the life of a noteworthy author or artist has spurred some biographers to attempt to meet their subjects on their own turf by trying to imitate their distinctive style or intellectual approach, or by wallowing in a kind of fake poetry intended to evoke the experience of seeing the work. Some critics even fault biographers whose writing (in the critic's opinion) fails to reflect the lofty standards of their subjects.


I believe that these attempts on the part of biographers are misplaced—awkward or misleading at best, laughable at worst. They not only fail to help readers understand the work but also make a poor case for our own writerly strengths. As biographers we belong to the world of nonfiction, approaching our task as intelligent and observant handmaidens to history as we follow the trajectory of a life and describe the work in order to clarify its significant features.


Restraint is the better part of valor in biography. We do best to adopt a clear and unshowy writing style reflecting our own considered approach to the material, the better to allow the virtues of our subjects' work to emerge. This requires a certain balance between self-effacement and personal engagement. We are not trying to prove that we are as clever as our subjects. Rather, we leave our mark in the choices we've made in choosing and organizing the material to retain readers' interest and in the discernment that allows us to form a reasonably charitable opinion of our subject's virtues and faults, both as human beings and as creative individuals.


We are not novelists, philosophers, pundits, or poets. But we operate in our own special world of documented truths, which require no small amount of skill to discover, describe, and evaluate in a nuanced way. Let us be celebrated for that.


© Cathy Curtis 2023


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