While our literary commentators are often pronouncing the forthcoming obsolescence of the novel or poetry (Can Poetry Matter? Dana Gioia asks and everyone wrings their hands again…), one form that seems to be in no danger is the biography. We never get tired of talking about the way we live, and wondering if it’s the right way. Many of us turn to biographies for examples of right and wrong turns, as well as for a particularized vision of an era or a milieu that interests us: they make very palatable history lessons. The genres of biography and memoir of course run the gamut of type and quality, from the masterful multi-volume consideration of the life of Henry James by Leon Edel to the “unauthorised” biography of the latest starlet, who at sixteen or seventeen already is deemed worthy of a report on life in progress.
For myself, and for many other writers I know, biographies and memoirs of writers are a great pleasure to read—side outings into the letters and diaries of writers, often published posthumously, also count here.
How many young writers—especially young women—move from reading Sylvia Plath’s poetry into Letters Home, the volume of correspondence she sent to her mother, and then into the Journals? I feel that in some respects I came “late” to Plath: I was still a teenager, but had already found a poetic guiding spirit in the work of Seamus Heaney. But when I fell for Plath I fell hard, because the poetry is often masterful. From the forceful tread of her lines I was fascinated to fall into the energetic world of her letters and diaries. Yes, the troubles that have contributed to her fame were of interest, but what stays with me years later is the sense of her constant self-disciplining outbursts in order to create serious space and serious ambition for her work. As a diarist, Plath constantly writes to herself in imperatives—I must!—and makes plans accordingly. Just as she returns again and again to her plan to master the German language, so too does she from her beginnings as a serious writer set herself new writing goals. Words lengths, page lengths, lengths of time—no doubt she sticks to each new regime for a time and then, when realising it has lapsed, makes a new resolution. In her journals she is constantly willing herself forward into words, and their popularity, above and beyond her tragic end, seems to partially lie with that wilfulness. The schedules and schemes echo the Paris Review’s “Writers at Work” interviews, and the fact that interviewers must always cover these nuts-and-bolts questions as part of the Paris Review beat speaks to the hungriness their readers—so often aspiring writers—have to discover some magic formula.
Similarly the lives of the Victorian authors are haunting and daunting in equal measure. The Brontë sisters writing their elaborate worlds into being in miniature books, long before the poems of “Currer”, “Ellis” and “Acton” Bell came into print, and before the novels arrived. The image of these sisters walking around and around the table at Haworth Parsonage after their evening meal, planning their novels is a strange and arresting one. Or Dickens, whose supply of words seemed endless: churning out the novels serially at an astonishing pace, at the same time writing essays and tales and pamphlets endlessly. His productivity is both shaming and also buoying: I read about his life and am moved by his obvious demons (throughout his life he was drawn to prisons, and when visiting foreign cities he made a point of visiting their prison, seemingly never recovering from his own experience working in a blacking factory while his father was joined by the rest of his family when imprisoned for debt, events which echo through the novels) and also by the possibility some wondrous prolificacy suggests. Even the more plodding, determined, matter-of-fact example of Anthony Trollope is always before me. For much of his adult life he worked for the General Post Office, assisting with the development of the postal service as it exists today; alongside this, however, he kept up a rate of literary production as astonishing as that of Dickens. In his Autobiography he notes that while travelling in France, and still writing his daily reports for the post office, he never let up the pace of his other writing:
According to the circumstances of the time, —whether my other business might be then heavy or light, or whether the book which I was writing was or was not wanted with speed,—I have allotted myself so many pages a week. The average number has been about 40. It has been placed as low as 20, and has risen to 112. And as a page is an ambiguous term, my page has been made to contain 250 words; and as words, if not watched, will have a tendency to straggle, I have had every word counted as I went.
It’s hard to fathom that kind of dogged productivity—and yet there are writers that manage it even in this new world of maddening distraction. Joyce Carol Oates writes so much that she has resorted to publishing some of her over fifty books under pseudonyms. The amount of press that writers’ block gets makes some writers feel ashamed—or as if they should be ashamed—of their facility. (This may be seen as a culturally specific hang-up: in Poland, for example, I have been told that books are not as readily reprinted, and so the spur to get a new book out could lead to new work without the shame of producing it so quickly. Czesław Miłosz produced a huge body of work—in poetry and prose—during his lifetime. Another example of such productivity is the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos who wrote over one hundred books. Of course only a fraction of his work is available in translation, so Anglophone readers don’t need to face this particular back catalogue.
I can’t entirely explain my own attachment to reading about these examples of literary lives. In part these examples provide me with the models: while I’ve tried out some of the work practices I’ve encountered, from spending a certain set of hours at my desk to writing a certain amount each day to working exclusively on yellow paper, such experiments have merely instilled in me the idea that ritual is helpful, and can evolve over time. I enjoy knowing that Joan Didion writes in the day, and in the evening looks at that day’s work over a glass of wine, just as I enjoy knowing that after Plath’s children arrived she awoke at 4 or 5 in the morning to carve out time for her own writing, though coffee in the late morning hours or early afternoon suits me better. Mere ritual doesn’t make the writing, but it certainly creates the space, temporally and mentally, for it to happen. Then, too, is the fact that writing is something done primarily alone, but these biographies allow me to spend time in the company of those who’ve gone before and juggled an imaginative and a “real” life successfully, paving what could, I suppose, be called “careers” out of a ragged collection of pages and days.