Several months ago I related some events from my father's life at a family gathering. A sister-in-law was fascinated and requested that I write and share what I knew about Dad's life. It took awhile to get started, but I have recently undertaken to write my father's biography.
I am about 30 pages into the document, which somehow averages about one page per year of life. So far the experience has been interesting. The first 25 years of Dad's life sprang from my fingers almost effortlessly. As Dad got older he more frequently talked about his childhood and early adulthood. I eagerly gathered these stories and recorded them. So they are fairly firm in my mind.
Writing any kind of history is an exercise in trade-offs. The writer necessarily operates with limited information and perspective. Even the most objective writers cannot prevent their biases from bleeding into the text. Writers pick and choose what to include and what to emphasize.
Biographies are rarely compelling if the writer has little affinity for the subject. One experienced biographer opined that biographers must assemble more than just facts. Biographers must at least admire some aspects of their subject and must help the reader understand what makes the subject the person he is/was.
Dad was opposed to writing a personal history. He said that every autobiography he had ever seen was incredibly self serving. Real people, he said, are complex individuals that are a bundle of goods and bads. It is extremely difficult to explore one's own imperfections and stupidities in an autobiography, so these histories invariably end up lionizing the subject.
Dad also opined that untold generations of his forebears had passed on without leaving much in the way of personal history. It is the lot of almost all humans to fade away into near anonymity within a couple of generations after passing away. Dad wondered why he should be any different.
I am not sure who might end up reading my biography. I expect some push back from my mother and my brothers, since they are apt to recall some elements differently than me. A few years ago I wrote a much briefer sketch of the early part of Dad's life. Mom claimed that there were some inaccuracies in my text. I repeatedly offered to fix them, but she was never forthcoming with the precise nature of the supposed errors. I wonder if perhaps she simply disagreed with my tone and choices of emphasis.
In the foreword of my biography, I have made it clear that it is my story about Dad, written according to my own understanding. If others present information that changes my understanding, I will happily make revisions. When differences amount to little more than questions of style, I will ask those that differ to either write their own biography or else to write something that I can properly attribute and include in my biography.
I have reached the point in my writing where my parents have married and started their family. I feel that I need to gather some details from Mom to cover the next decade and a half. This kind of thing is becoming increasingly difficult as Mom ages. She tends to focus heavily on more pressing matters and would rather put off thinking about those days of yore until some nonexistent future time when it will be more convenient. I also find that Mom's memory of certain distant details isn't as clear as it used to be.
Asking my brothers for help is another potential avenue, but one fraught with other challenges. I have discovered that discussions about family history are quite difficult to bring up deliberately. People can't find the time for it. They change the subject. You never get what you're looking for
It seems like good family history discussions only happen almost by accident when people are together in a relaxed setting. I am reaching the stage with my brothers that we don't do much of that kind of thing anymore. Each brother is now the patriarch of his own clan. Each is struggling to find opportunities to get his own dynamic posterity together, rendering extended family gatherings increasingly difficult.
I feel fairly confident about covering Dad's life from the time I was in my mid-teens without too much help. But I feel like I've hit a stopping point for the moment. If I move forward with only my own knowledge and records I risk leaving the record of those years devoid of much richness. Maybe I should forge ahead and consider it a first draft. Knowing how things go in real life, it would likely end up being an inadequate final draft.
Another issue that is bothering me is the sense that I don't want to leave my Mom shortchanged. Once I have written Dad's biography, I feel that I am obligated to write Mom's biography. Although I can't really say why, I feel much less confident about making that effort. Part of me doesn't want to finish Dad's biography because I will then feel like I have to start writing Mom's biography.
I am no great writer. I violate too many rules of good writing, even when I know that I am doing so. I can't seem to help myself. But I am the only one among my siblings that engages in much writing. So the biographies are up to me. I have no deadline other than what I impose on myself. I only hope that the finished works are something in which I feel I can take some pride.