Virginia Woolf once said, ’How does one write a biography?’ The famous writer struggled with how to write the biographies of other people as well as her own autobiography. She drafted her autobiography several times, but each version differed from its predecessor and sadly she ended her life before finishing what could have been her most important book.
Virginia Woolf’s biography
In her acclaimed biography of Virginia Woolf, former Oxford English Literature professor Hermione Lee echoes Virginia’s question. She struggled with how to open her biography of the author. The acclaimed writer T. S. Eliot advocated starting a story at the end. He said: ‘What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.’
If you are writing a life story or biography, you may think you have to start with birth and progress chronologically to the present. But you don’t have to adhere to this structure. As the writer, it’s up to you to decide where to drop your readers into your story. You may decide to start at the beginning, somewhere in between or at the end.
How to begin a biography?
Moving the ending to the beginning can increase the power of your opening paragraphs. Your aim with the beginning is to intrigue your audience sufficiently that they want to find out more–a writer needs to make the first paragraph the best. The beginning is your ‘calling card’ and its role is to compel your audience to continue reading.
Hermione Lee wondered whether she should start Virginia Woolf’s biography by stating Virginia’s birth date and the names of her parents? Or should she give the date and cause of Virginia’s death? Should she describe Virginia’s family history, to enable the reader to get to know Virginia in the context of her ancestry, country and class? Or position her as a member of the social and intellectual group she inhabited?
All of these beginnings are commonly used by life story writers and biographers, and in the end, Hermione opened the biography with a reflection on the process of writing Virginia’s story. Then she launched into a description of the houses and homes that shaped Virginia, followed by an account of her parents, childhood, siblings, adolescence, abuses, first loves, then ‘madness’. And that was just Part One of the book taking the reader up to Virginia’s 21st birthday!.
The way Hermione opened Virginia’s biography illustrates the point she made in her book, Biography. A very short introduction, that there is no such thing as objectivity in life writing. Biographers approach the writing task with their own preferences and positions, deriving from their history, nationality, race, gender, education, class and beliefs.
According to Hermione, these factors profoundly influence the choice of subject, and often the case that the biographer and subject have a similar background or some shared interest. While it is valuable for a biographer to have some experience or knowledge of their subject’s profession or passion, this in itself makes it more difficult to remain objective as the biographer will bring to the book their own views and prejudices about the topic.
Another aspect of objectivity is being caught in the subject’s spell. Uncritical adulation of the subject of a biography leads to a flat, colourless portrait. So when a life story writer is paid to write a client’s biography, how does this affect their objectivity? Can they be truly objective and is there the risk of the biography falling flat or being more akin to fiction than fact?
This is an important question, pointing to the need to recruit highly experienced writers who are qualified to create a nuanced biography that skilfully balances the public and private faces of their clients. Seasoned writers able to cleverly tease out the essence of their client’s personality and penetrate through to their complexity and intrigue. Writers who bring their clients to life on the page with honesty, grace and dignity.
Get in touch
If you are searching for a skilled biographer to write your life story, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. As a professional storyteller, Gabriella Kelly-Davies, the founder of Share your life story, brings an objective and experienced voice to her clients’ stories, providing an exceptional level of skill and professionalism. To read other stories Gabriella has written, check out: https://www.shareyourlifestory.com.au/inspiring-stories/#inspiring_stories