What’s the key to writing an engaging life story?
It’s a challenge faced by memoirists, biographers, and family historians. How do you get at the essence of the person you’re writing about?
A recent New York Times Book Review piece by Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, author of My Name Is Red, Snow and Museum of Innocence, posed a question by which all life writers might be guided. In a review of Adam Begley’s biography Updike, a life story of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike, Pamuk asked, “How was Updike possible? Every literary biography should ask and attempt to answer the same question for its own subject.”
Let’s expand the question beyond literary biographies to every life story. What would it take to do that?
The factual record of the person you’re writing about provides a scaffold on which to build, but it’s only the starting point. To understand what made your subject tick you need to explore the values and sensibilities which guided and motivated him. Answering Pamuk’s question, “How was your subject possible?” means exploring context. A generation ago biographies were often titled The Life and Times of________. That title provided a good insight into the author’s goal. How did the subject’s time and place shape the person he or she became. Understanding the social and economic forces which in which your subject’s life unfolded helps to grasp not just what he did, but why he did it. Understanding a subject’s world helps you to understand him as a person.
There is no better guide to life story writers than Pamuk’s simple question. Answering it will help you create a portrait, to borrow the title of Tom Wolfe’s novel, of A Man in Full.