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New Life in Life Writing: Part 2 – Specific issues

Posted by on May 19, 2013

Notes from a discussion, held at Senate House, 15 May 2013

Chair: Max Saunders: Professor of English at Kings College; Co-Director of the Centre for Life Writing Research.

Michael Holroyd: CV on

Sarah Bakewell: her first biography:- How to live: a Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty answers.

Wendy Moffat: American, Professor of English at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania.


Part 2 – Specific issues

What about the boundary between creative life-writing and fiction?

Michael said he didn’t like debates about non-fiction versus fiction: when you write biographies you are not just writing the truth, you are writing about the subject’s dreams and fantasies and delusions, which were real life-experiences to the subject. Hence, he referred to “re-creation.”  He used quotations from letters to give the same immediacy as dialogue, but didn’t make up dialogue. He didn’t invent. You mustn’t “know better” than the subject, about their life. Wendy said she also never put words in the subject’s mouth, even in third person indirect discourse. Max said that transgressing that boundary in autobiography is even more problematic. However, Sarah believed that in memoir writing these conversations are made up all the time, because people actually don’t remember accurately. There is a tacit understanding that these are reconstructions patched together from fragments of unreliable memories – or should be, if you are communicating adequately with the reader.

What are the motivations for writing biography?

Max suggested a never-ending fascination with human nature is a characteristic of all biographers. Sarah believed that biographers are drawn to subjects who are ostensibly like themselves in some way – but then find that the subject lived within such a different set of socio-economic relations and in an age that had very different ideas, so then became absorbed in exploring the similarities and differences. Interest in how and why people’s views of a subject had changed over time was another fascination. Wendy agreed that identification with the subject was the draw for the biographer and the reader, but then there was the quest to see the world as their subject would have seen it. Michael said he hadn’t been to university and reckoned he’d been self-educated through writing biographies. Sarah commented that her readers (of her book on Montaigne) had told her they valued the tips for living they’d derived from it, which surprised her because she didn’t consider she’d written a self-help book! She was now writing a group biography, and thought the attraction of that form was to examine what pulled people together and what drove them apart. Max said his one biography was of Ford Maddox Ford, who he had enjoyed reading, and was written to counter previous biographies – both the hagiographic ones and the scathing ones.

To Be Continued – Part 3 – Questions for the Audience




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