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Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Biography v. Fiction

If you were asked to write your autobiography, where would you begin? "I was born...I did this, I did that...I went to school, college, university....met so & so etc. etc."?? Or would you write: "The first thing I felt was...." or "I hurt..." or "I was happy...."? Which would be closer to your essence and to who you really are? Which would be more real?

If you were asked to write someone else's biography, where would you begin? With the same questions? Or, because we feel such a sense of separation from each other, would you feel like Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens' Hard Times, when he says:

"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"

And more than facts...stick to sources!! State your sources, sir - how can you know this, how can you prove this??? In a biography or factual account of any life, these things are necessary, otherwise real historical people become dstorted and nothing but the projections of the writer. But how can I prove in my own life - how can you prove in yours - that you once felt humiliated, destroyed, elated, ecstatic??? Do you have sources for that?? Did you write it down? Did you make sure it was stored in archives?? How did you feel when you first fell in love?? Can prove it??

I can't. I have no sources for my own life...how much less anyone else's.

I am totally opposed to turning real historical people into projections of ourselves (something most of us do, with most people we meet, much of the time anyway!!) and for that reason, always found it objectionable when people fictionalised actual events and people. However, there are times when (to quote Dickens again):

"Some persons hold," he pursued, still hesitating, "that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart. . . ."

Sometimes, reading the spoken words and letters of people of the past, one has such a feel for what that person is saying, that it goes beyond what can be proved or cited to sources. Any novel is a projection of the author but so, too, is any biography in that the author places some kind of interpretation on the 'facts'. It is my belief that if a novel is clearly labelled as a 'novel' the author's intention is clear - it is an interpretation of truth. That is no less valid than something that is labelled 'biography'. Perhaps, in some ways, the former is closer to truth than the latter because the former is patently the author's interpretation.

When I was at school (a thousand years ago!), those who studied science subjects for 'A' level, were generally considered somehow 'cleverer' than those who studied arts subjects. I suspect this is a result of patriarchal societies where classifying things into boxes is more important than getting to the heart of the matter.

There are many ways to approach a person's life and none of them is as true as the person him/herself, but when it comes to presenting a life in any particular genre, I firmly believe that the bottom line is respect for the person. Many people have written from accurate sources and have written without love. Many people have written inaccuracies and novels, without love. When one writes from the heart and the head, I honestly don't think it matters which genre one chooses.

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