Penman No. 3: Biographies of the Ordinary

Penman for Monday, July 9, 2012

(This is being posted a little late, after WordPress hiccups lasting about 12 hours.)

EVERY OTHER semester, I get to teach a graduate class in Creative Nonfiction at the University of the Philippines, alternating with my friend Jing Hidalgo, who’s probably the foremost expert on the subject in the Philippines, having written a manual and a reader for CNF, as we call the genre.

“Creative nonfiction” may be a relatively new term in academia, compared to “the short story” or “the essay”, but it covers many kinds of writing that have been around for ages—including and primarily, yes, the essay. There’s a lot of variety but no great mystery to it—you could be writing about food, Tibet, your old car, religion, painting, your grandmother, or hypoglycemia; the important thing is that you’d be dealing with matters of fact and opinion, employing the techniques of fiction.

As Lee Gutkind, who popularized the term beginning in the early ‘80s, puts it, “Although it sounds a bit affected and presumptuous, ‘creative nonfiction’ precisely describes what the form is all about. The word ‘creative’ refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.”

Looking back in my own practice, I realize that I’ve done more work in CNF than in fiction—not only because I enjoy doing it, but also because it provides me with a living, which fiction simply can’t, at least not in this country. I’ve written quite a number of commissioned biographies, and while there are certainly limits to what you can put in such works—as differentiated from independent, critical biographies such as a professional or academic historian (which I am not) might do—they allow and call for the exercise of a broad range of CNF techniques: description, narration, dialogue, and contextualization, among others.

This semester, for the first time, I’ve decided to depart from the usual CNF syllabus—which has students writing about themselves, their families, their loves, and their peeves—and have my class do a little of what I’ve been doing, Biographical Writing. To my recollection, nobody has ever taught it in UP, at least in our department; but the truly novel thing about teaching it is, I believe, in getting students to leave themselves behind and to start focusing on others. (I’m disallowing them from doing autobiographies or memoirs, and from writing about their families or loved ones.) At least for this semester, I want writers to see art not as something touchy-feely or inevitably, intimately personal, but as an approach to the capturing and the representation of the external. Their subjects need not be big names—indeed, I’d prefer biographies of ordinary people, suspecting that in them reside the true aches, plaints, joys, and fantasies of the nation.

In our second meeting, I gave the class an overview of what, for me, makes for great CNF—although you could apply these just as well to other kinds of writing. I named seven elements—three C’s, three P’s, and one L—to guide my students in their work. Here they are:

1. Comprehension. How well do you understand your subject—both the person, and his or her context? This understanding is not a premise, but a goal, of the project. We can have some idea in the beginning of what we’re writing about, but we don’t really know him or her until we undertake the writing—which is to say, the subject doesn’t grow larger but actually smaller and more human in our eyes.

2. Clarity. Descriptions, statements, and explanations should be made as clearly as possible, even if their meaning may be ambiguous. Readers should never be in doubt that they are looking at, say, a green umbrella wet with rain, or dealing with a character whose sadness is laced with guilt. Concrete objects are easy to render clearly, but abstractions and complex emotions require more skill and sensitivity to capture and present.

3. Correctness. Did you get everything right, and represent everything as fairly as you can? The good CNF writer doesn’t invent, ignore, or change the facts, even as the final appeal of the piece will depend on his or her interpretation of them.

4. Precision. A good writer will find the exact word for the object or the situation—or the exact shade of green or brown, as the writing situation may require.

5. Proportion. How much of the subject should you cover, to what degree of intensity? How do you distinguish between the important and the trivial? Given, say, a 7,000-word limit for a brief biography, how do you make a 90-year-long life seem not too long, and a 35-year one not too short?

6. Perspective. Given the same set of facts, one writer’s interpretation and presentation of them can prove to be more mature and circumspect than another’s. That maturity and circumspection could come with age and experience, but it can also be acquired through wide reading and scholarship. I tell my students—mostly English majors—that literature is just a starting point for the CNF writer, who needs to cultivate an interest in and develop a working knowledge of history, politics and public affairs, business and economics, and science and technology. Perspective can also be a matter of both angle and distance, of the writer’s attitude towards and closeness to the subject and of the writer’s ability to put things in context.

7. Language. Sadly, even with all of the above, if you don’t have the language, then you can’t write. Language’s first and foremost task is communication, but at its most challenging and exhilarating, language is the writer’s way of expressing the otherwise inexpressible. In the very least, I look for competence—command of the sentence and its structure; no huge and recurrent problems with grammar, spelling, and punctuation; some degree of fluency; clarity and forcefulness of expression. The outstanding student will write not only with competence but brilliance, which is not be confused with an exotic vocabulary (often resulting in a forced and artificial elegance) but which rather makes the most out of the simplest words, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Biographical writing clearly isn’t for everyone, especially since we’re mostly interested in ourselves. But again, as I keep reminding my students, writing about others is the best preparation for writing about oneself, because it should lead to greater and more honest self-awareness—and besides, the writer’s self is never lost in a biography; it’s there, in the questions one asks, in one’s choice of detail, in one’s appreciation of another person’s life. As a way to learn and to practice writing, biographical writing will also exercise the student in a way that writing poems, stories, or essays won’t; if the poem is the hundred-meter dash and the novel the marathon, the biography is the triathlon, requiring not just strength and endurance but versatility, pacing, and the ability to cope with ever-changing environments.

I’m looking forward to reading a good semester’s crop of biographies, of ordinary lives rendered extraordinarily.

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