Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Writing a Parent's Biography

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.


David Liddle. said...

My Father died almost two years ago. He was a remarkable man and also a very good writer. for years I begged him to write down the stories that he had told us about his life. But he always said that he was too busy - he was taking care of my Mother who had developed Dementia. He did write a diary but it was nothing more than what he did each day, which was virtually identical. he would write a full page every day, about nothing. I said just write one of those little stories that you told us very day. or even every week soon there would be dozens to show to your grandchildren, and even their grandchildren. But he wouldn't. Then he died. My mother was unable to help. she died about a year later: on his birthday!
Now it has been almost 2 years and I desperately want to write it. I just don't know how or where to start.
But start I must. I am not getting any younger. Dad died at 93 and my mother at 94, but I don't expect to reach such an advanced age.
Did you ever finish the biography of your father? If you did I would lave to see it. perhaps it would give me a start, unblock my writers block!

David Liddle. said...

I wrote a long comment, but it did not show up.

Scott Hinrichs said...

David, I have comment moderation in place on my blog, so comments only appear after I review and approve them. I used to allow comments to be posted immediately, but a few years ago my blog was targeted by trolls that posted very nasty stuff. I'm not opposed to posting divergent opinions, but I also believe that since it is my blog, I get some say in what people post. I posted your comment as soon as I got a chance to review it.

I did ultimately finish my father's biography. I put it out for family members to review, because I can't be expected to remember everything accurately and there could be value in multiple viewpoints. None of my siblings offered criticism, although, I did go back and include some points that they brought up.

My mother, on the other hand, kept telling me that I had gotten some things wrong. But she would never specify what she wanted me to change. After some going back and forth, I finally realized that I hadn't really gotten anything wrong, per se. I had just presented some things differently than she would have liked. I offered to take her views into consideration, but she would never offer any detail, so I was unable to include her perspective.

I essentially tried to go chronologically, starting with the story of Dad's parents. I consulted a number of sources, but I did not go to the extent of including these in a bibliography. I tried to present a human picture of my father. To me, he was a great man. But like all humans, he was flawed. I didn't dwell on Dad's flaws, but I didn't avoid them either. They were part of who he was.

In the end I had 19 chapters, less than 100 pages with included photos. So it's certainly not the most extensive biography. Still, it's adequate. Family members have been provided copies.

After considering the matter for a while, I ended up posting each chapter on FamilySearch as "memories" under Dad's profile. I posted each chapter separately, attached photos, and linked other people that were mentioned.

For those considering this route, I'd suggest that the title of each memory include the chapter number, the name of the individual, and perhaps a title. For example, a title might say, "2. Jane Doe Biography: Jane's Elementary School Years."

When posting text memories, I found it best to leave an entire blank line between paragraphs to make it more readable online.

Although I have put Dad's biography on FamilySearch for the whole world to see, I am reluctant to send PDF copies to people outside of my family. Nor will I provide a link here to Dad's FamilySearch profile. I can't really explain why. I just don't feel quite right doing that at this point in time.

A few months ago I completed a biography of my mother. She is still living, so the biography is as yet incomplete. But I feel good about having completed as much as I have. Like Dad's biography, I essentially laid it out chronologically.

At this point my wife is the only other person that has reviewed this text. She is close to my mother and has issued her approval, although, I'm sure Mom would be less than happy with how I handled some parts. I have tried to extract more information from Mom, but she seems to purposefully avoid directly answering my questions. She quickly wanders off into other topics. So her biography reflects this. I think I will only share it with my siblings at some future point after Mom's sojourn on earth is complete.

tallrachelb said...

Hi - I don't know if you'll see this, or if your blog is still active. I have recently decided to write a biography of my father, so I was interested to read your experience above. My dad died 4 years ago. He was a great inspiration to me and to many others, and its those particular leadership qualities that I want to explore.

David Liddle. said...

Tallrrachelb, I encourage you to start. Just keep it in mind for a while - it could be a few days or even hours or minutes and something will come into your mind as a start. For me it was almost immediate. I thought, My Father Was A Remarkable Man. That was the initial thought that became the title. Then I might have made some notes. The “book” was for my child - one daughter - and my three grandsons and perhaps their children. So I started with a note to them. Then I started with his early life and it just started flowing. Much faster than I could write. Almost immediately I realized just how little I knew about his life.. my mother also died before I got started. They were both 94 years old so there were no people who were with them still alive. My biggest advice is to start as soon as possible and talk to any brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, anyone still alive that you can use to fill n. Just start. You will want to find more. Good luck.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Tallrachelb, you would do well to follow David Liddle's sound advice.

My mom passed away last autumn. I have since finished her biography and have posted it chapter by chapter as a memory on the FamilySearch website. I included far more photos than I did in my dad's biography. That's likely because my uncle, Mom's brother was a professional photographer, so that there were a lot more photos of Mom and her family available.

I would suggest just starting out with some cherished memories. Each story can be self contained. You might consider posting each story as a memory under your dad's profile on FamilySearch. But collect them somewhere. Share them with family members. They might contribute some of their own memories.

I found that recording one memory often jogged my memory to bring forth other experiences I wanted to write down. So you don't really have to approach it in any kind of organized way. Just write down something that you remember well. While doing that, you might think of other things you want to write down. When you get enough of these little stories recorded, you can consider how you might want to arrange and organize them.

Best of luck!

Unknown said...

This comment may be way past it's 'due date' for the questions but I have been wanting to write my father's wartime service story (biography) for over 10 years now. I could never get started. But this was for the best. The more research I did, the more the 'real' man came through - sometimes through mateship, sometimes hi jinx, his handling of responsibility for his aircrew (he was pilot) his fears, anxieties, occasional low spots, loneliness, homesickness and day to day life. I found that the man who was my father (absolutely much loved) was not the man that I needed to write about. No, the man that I needed to write about was in his 20's - a long way from home and a long way from marrying and my ultimate arrival. This was a different man and I had been trying to imprint the man (my father) onto his person in his mid 20's. Of course his basic morals, standards and personality didn't change but his attitudes, his character in many ways did. So, don't rush...our parents are tricky things as we can only view them through the lens of ourselves in many ways. It will all fall into place and the 'aha' moment will occur, maybe weeks, months or years (or even decades0 later. Research, interview, discuss, be open and accept that nobody is a saint or a sinner every day of their lives - they are a rich tapestry of life. I wish you well and great patience in the pursuit of your work - it's a very emotional journey to write about someone we love.Barbara