Saturday, December 31, 2016

On (auto)biographies and the challenge of writing

Writing a biography -- or, better still, an autobiography -- seems to me to be a particularly challenging task, one not to be taken on lightly.

I was once offered a contract to write the biography of a fairly well known musician from the 1960s who had gone on to enjoy an interesting, comfortable life, made possible by the seemingly endless royalties earned by a single song he wrote at the start of his musical career. I met with the man on several occasions to discuss the project but, in the end, circumstances and, I now realize, fear forced me to turn down the contract and move on with my own, less interesting, life.

The man was a wonderfully talented writer in his own right (I mean, after all, he did pen one of the most enduring pop songs in history) and I convinced him that, rather than paying me to write the story of his life, he should take on the project himself. In other words, I told him that the biography I was being asked to write should actually be an autobiography, that he would write himself.

I'm sorry to say that, since those conversations more than a decade ago, the autobiography has not, to my knowledge, appeared. I am also sorry to have to admit that, while I still believe he was capable of writing his own story very well, my decision not to accept the contract may have been driven by my own fear of the challenge of writing a biography.

It is not a simple undertaking. It requires skills that, while related to those required to write a novel, are unique and special. Skills that I'm not sure I have.

The challenge of writing an effective biography/autobiography is, to my mind, the challenge of cultivating a series of true incidents and real people (whose only relation is that they interact with a single individual) into a coherent story, one that captures the interest, has an element of cohesive drama and actually leads the reader from beginning to end.

For the musician, that cohesive thread was the song itself, the events that led to its creation, the developments that permitted it to become popular, the good fortune that allowed the musician to retain his rights to it and the positive impact it had on the rest of his life.

But, as I told him in one particularly difficult discussion, his life story seems to lose its allure as a saleable narrative once the song has become a bit and his life a comfortable one. In other words, I told him, you may have lived sixty plus years to date but your biography would probably come to an end when you were still in your early 20s. Everything that followed was just a happy footnote.

I write all this now because I have recently been introduced to two fairly new autobiographies that have brought it all back to me.

The first, Scent From Above, is a privately published "mystical memoir" by local New Brunswick professor and personality Pat Post (writing under her birth name Rosalie Lawrence). I was interested in this book for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were the facts that I know Pat, that she self-published the book and that she has significant connections to McAdam, New Brunswick, in whose past my own Abigail stories are set.

Scent From Above is a remarkable book. Once you get past the first several pages (which I admit took me three or four tries) and start to get a handle on the "mystical" aspects of the story, you can't help but become deeply engrossed in the story of young Patti Post, a charming, often challenging orphan adopted by a flighty ingenue-like mother and a rough-edged father.

Patti's early life was not easy and was made even more difficult by the fact that she both remembered her past lives and could "experience" scenes from the earlier lives of those around her simply by breathing in their aroma. As her parents try to deal with their daughter's eccentricities and fragilities as well as their own demons (not to mention a rebellious adopted son), Patti struggles to find a place for herself in the lonely, often foreign world of rural New Brunswick in the middle of the 20th Century.

The book has moments of great beauty and scenes of extreme sadness. The author manages to make the "mystical" parts of the story believable and, even more importantly, integral both to the character and the narrative. It's not the most upbeat tale ever told but Post/Lawrence has successfully created a sympathetic character and a fairly compelling narrative.

If there is one weakness to Scent From Above it is the lack of a cohesive motivating force that links all of the various vignettes together. The book's climax, while interesting enough on its own, is not as strongly linked to the book's opening and rising action as it could be. Without including any spoilers here, I would say that, while it is clear at the end that the events at the climax of the book were very important to the character, it is not clear from the beginning that the character's life is building toward that climax.

As I said, writing an autobiography is not easy for precisely this reason -- we don't live our lives building toward a single climax in our personal plot; we try to find meaning in the events as they take place in their often random, uncaring way. Post/Lawrence's fault is, in fact, that she is perhaps too honest in her retelling, that she refuses to reshape/rethink the early events in her life to create a suspenseful narrative build-up to the climax of the story.

At the other end of the spectrum is Alan Cumming's memoir, Not My Father's Son. Cumming, a well-known actor of Scottish origin who currently stars on television in The Good Wife, uses his recent appearance on the British TV show Who Do You Think You Are and the stunning revelations it brings as the catalyst for a review of his life as the son of an angry, abusive father.

I received this memoir in audio-book format as gift for Christmas and we listened to the first half of it on a recent drive home from Halifax. I'm sorry to say, however, that I found this book to be significantly less effective than Rosalie Lawrence's memoir, even if it is read to me quite evocatively by the author.

Far be it for me to belittle the suffering of any person who has endured the horrors that Cumming recounts but Not My Father's Son feels a little too contrived, a little too "cultivated" to ensure that early events in Cumming's life (and his experience and interpretation of them) build with appropriate coherence and drama toward the climax of the book.

The book has the over-produced feeling to it of a television melodrama (or, to be honest, of a reality TV show like Who Do You Think You Are). Things fit together a little too well; Cumming's own remembered responses to situations early in his life match a little too perfectly with the needs of the later part of his story.

I write that with a great deal of hesitation. The story of Cumming's early life is stunningly horrific and I don't want to be read to be undermining what he went through in any way, shape or form. The fact that the early violence he experienced at the hands of his father had a significant impact on his adult life is both understandable and tragic.

But, as an autobiography, Not My Father's Son comes across as a little too well-orchestrated, well-integrated. It could do with a little bit of the loose association of characters and events that pervades  Post/Lawrence's memoir.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

I blame my sister (I really do)

The story as it appears in the print magazine of Created Here
It's a funny feeling to be asked to write an article for a magazine basically about yourself.

New Brunswick's cool new arts magazine, Created Here, recently made just such a request of me and, I'll be the first to admit it, I struggled to find the write tone in which to write the article. I didn't want to be too over the top and come across sounding vain but I also didn't want to err on the other side and come across as a falsely modest person.

I decided that the best way to approach the task was to tell a story. I am, after all, a story teller and it seemed appropriate to tell the fun, sometimes silly story of how the Abigail Massey stories came to be. Hence, I came up with the opening line (borrowed from countless other written works), "I blame my sister".

It turned out that I actually had fun writing the article for this magazine. Marie-Hélène Morell, the creator, publisher and editor of this fine publication, was easy to work with, clear in her instructions and requirements, quick in response to my questions and gentle with her editing. I think the final product turned out to be pretty good.

Even more impressive, however, is the beauty of the layout of the article, the way she has incorporated photos and drawing into the composition in a balanced, attractive way. I think the Created Here spread gives much deserved prominence to my sister Lynn's fantastic illustrations and the McAdam Railway Station comes out looking pretty darned good!

My copy of the magazine arrived just before Christmas so it turned out to be something of a wonderful holiday surprise. Thanks MH!