Tips for Writers: Tip #12:
Rules for Writing Biographies

The following is a list of rules that professional biographers should adhere to as much as possible when attempting to write the life story of any individual. These rules come from the first chapter of Hermione Lee’s enlightening Very Short Introduction to Biography.


1. The story should be true. This may sound like a no-brainer, but what Lee means is that biographers spend quite a bit of time sifting through the “mythology” that their subjects have created throughout their lives about themselves. This also goes for those who have previously written about their subject, or those who have had personal involvement with their subjects; clearly, memories are never exact, are deliberately distorted, and all individuals have their own agendas. As Lee writes, “Biographers have to treat all testimony with skepticism and care.” Verification by and of various sources into the “stories” of a subject’s life is key here.

2. The story should cover the whole life. Biographies have changed throughout the centuries in what they focus on concerning an individual’s life. Some biographies briefly relate the stories of the subject’s immediate ancestors, while others continue on after the subject’s death to give details about their posthumous fame and reputation. Many biographies try to narrate the whole life of a subject from birth to death, but more often than not, do not attempt to do so. Some biographies start from a critical moment in the subject’s life to then illuminate the multitude of corners and other moments in their life. Should a subject’s entire life be discussed? Does coverage through thematic moments of the subject’s life count as biography?

3. Nothing should be omitted or concealed. Contemporary biography is subject to different perspectives than biography from one hundred years ago and even further back in time. Since the line between the private and public spheres has pretty much disintegrated and we seem to be increasingly antagonistic toward authority and the power it wields through concealment, readers are demanding transparency in the written lives of public figures, contemporary and historical. Since there is so much to any one life, especially that of a public figure, the desire to eliminate concealment may not be an issue in itself, but the plethora of repetitious details that accumulate in a person’s life needs to be selected and shaped into a coherent narrative of a respectable, but not overwhelming, length for biographies written today. And in this act of selecting and shaping, parts of a person’s life will be omitted, hopefully without a charge of deliberate concealment being leveled against the text and its author for this unfortunate by-product in writing the story of a public life.

4. All sources used should be identified. Until the twentieth century and the concept of “the authorized biography” biographers ensured the validity of their subject’s life story via other textual sources or eyewitnesses. Eyewitness testimony as well as letters by and to the subject have been widely used in life-writing. In the twentieth century, footnoting became the norm in aiding the truthfulness of sources used in the text. But now this too is beginning to lose its value and fall by the wayside. To what extent should sources be verified and how much detail should be given about that source via notes, if any at all? How good is any man’s word today?

5. The biographer should know the subject. Another no-brainer, but this hits at the heart of every personal relationship and any biographer’s struggle to give a full, honest portrait of their subject. Samuel Johnson believed “that a biography could only be really valuable and useful if it were written by someone who had known the subject intimately . . .” But that’s the rub. How well can we ever know anyone? Public and private selves exist at all times, and even in private, our intimate friends and lovers do not know us to the point where our skin becomes transparent, so to speak, and all comes to light.

6. The biographer should be objective. Another idea that is pivotal but highly problematic in all literary writing: How objective can any writer be? How do we, as author, divorce ourselves to the point of nonexistence in narrating the story of someone’s life? Can we achieve the obliteration of self that Shakespeare seems to have obtained in penning his dramas in the act of writing biography? To an extent, from the start a biography contains our own lives in it: We choose the individual we want to write about for a reason, and we write and react to the story of the subject’s life from a constructed position that has been ordered and created by our personal history, our national history, our race, gender, and class, as well as our education and beliefs. All of these successfully, albeit not always clearly, color our perspective on our subject. The greatest lie any writer can tell you is that they wrote something from an objective viewpoint. In the end, on this issue Lee succinctly states, “There must be some involvement, but there must also be detachment.” This is the only way in which a subject’s life story can be written with any hope of telling the truth.

7. Biography is a form of history. By the very nature of the beast biography entails a narrative telling of the historical period or moment in which an individual lives. This is ever more so in the writing of a public figure’s story. “One of biography’s tasks is to place its subject in its ‘age’: the question is how best to do it.” What is most fundamental here is that the individual itself is a political entity. As much as we may see and hear the opposite, the individual is feared across the globe because he or she can break from the masses and begin a revolution that can potentially topple and eliminate the ever-fragile grip on power that all governments and those who openly and clandestinely run them have and use to keep the people stupid and unaware of their own power as individuals and as a group. “Biography always reflects, and provides, a version of social politics . . .” and explores the wider world in which the individual lived, whether they were an integral force in their time or lived a quiet life that did not directly shape the current of history.

8. Biography is an investigation of identity. This is another unsolvable philosophical question that works behind the scenes of a biography like the gears of a clock. What is the self? Does the self even exist? Is there a difference between a private and public self? And, if so, how do we distinguish between them, or do they blend without any clear markers? Where and when do nature and nurture come into play in the story of the subject’s life? Can these too be clearly divided or do they melt into each other? The belief in an inborn, essential self is often at battle with the idea that the self is developed by the accidents of life along with the education we receive and the environment in which we live. “Types” of human beings was something found in biography before the eighteen century, but once the Enlightenment investigated the concept of the individual, this disappeared and stories of human lives became one of individual characters who could not be easily categorized.

9. The story should have some value for the reader. Do biographies have a purpose? Can we learn from the lives of others, whether public or private figures? Does reading about a historical figure’s life teach us just about the particular details of their life, almost as if they are trying to return from beyond the grave, ever desirous of immortality through the words of another as well as ample words of their own and others who knew them? Or can we learn about the period in which they lived, how they were affected by the society, customs and beliefs, and events of their own time, which they in turn conditioned? Do biographies make for more interesting history books? For Lee, “The telling of life-stories is the dominant narrative mode of our times” and readers’ interest in them can be interpreted as “a desire to understand at least one individual’s behavior in a period of global confusion and uncertainty.” I for one agree with her on this assessment.

10. There are no rules for biography. In the end, Lee states that there are no rules when it comes to biography because it has proven to be an unstable genre, which is very much what you come to realize by the time you finish reading her book on the subject. This is true in its way but that does not mean that the previous nine statements should not be taken under advisement and used as guides in writing biographies. Yet, I cannot agree with her view that biography is an unstable genre because then all genres are unstable in that they evolve as all things do because they lack permanence (hence, are unstable) and points of view on all things under the sun and beyond it shift with time as well.

As humans progress and change individually and as a species, their beliefs, customs, and modes of artistic expression change. This is the biography of the human race as it is of all things in creation: evolution, and within that broad term the birth, growth, decay, and death of all things and the return of that energy in another form in another time and another place. Biography is an attempt at writing the life story of an individual who continuously evolved (changed with time) from the climactic moment of their conception to the orgasm of their death, and even afterward in the decay and dissolution of their body into dust, along the way giving life to the earth around it. Life is a dance to the music of time, and biography attempts to catch and render the fleeting moments of a life danced to that music through the imperfect, unstable medium of language.

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