Penman No. 158: A Biographer’s Advice

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Penman for Monday, July 20, 2015

OVER THE past 20 years or so, I’ve been privileged to be asked to write the biographies of many notable Filipinos, an unexpected but interesting digression from writing the stories, novels, plays, and screenplays that used to occupy me. As it is, these days, I spend far more time on other people’s book projects than on my own—not that I mind, as it’s become a second career for me, and as it’s also introduced me to some of the most remarkable people in our country and to their life stories, which can be very instructive and inspiring.

To put things in context, I’m in the business (yes, it is one) of writing commissioned (I call them “sympathetic”) biographies, and as I’ve discussed here before, that creates a unique set of impositions on the writer. Commissioned writers might otherwise be dismissed as paid hacks; I’ve never flinched at being called one (which has happened), because I’m aware of my givens and also of what I can achieve within and despite those limitations.

I’ve often been asked by my students and by other writers thinking of going into biographical writing what it takes to get into this line of work—aside, obviously, from the language skills every professional writer should be assumed to have. I might devote a full column to this one of these days, but for now, let me jot down some notes at random.

Know why you’re doing this. Curiosity will be part of it, and that’s always a good thing, and possibly earning a good sum of money will be, too, but you also have to tell yourself that you’re contributing to social and political history by putting new information on the table.

No, you won’t be telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You should make a solemn vow to yourself not to lie or to be a conscious party to a lie, but don’t be under any illusion that you will uncover and reveal everything there is to know about your client. Most clients will either forget, disregard, or downplay the negative aspects of their lives—it’s a natural human impulse. I do advise my clients to be as forthright as possible for the biography’s own good (see below), but the bottom line is, you’re not an independent journalist, so your client will have final editorial approval over what you write. The upside is, even if you’re presenting a half-filled glass at best, it’s still substance for serious scholars and critics to interrogate, so you’re contributing to a hopefully more productive discourse.

You don’t have to like or to admire your client to do a good job. It helps, and I often end up liking and admiring my clients, but I maintain enough distance to allow me to write without gushing, or without sounding like an apologist. I let my clients speak for themselves—especially in instances where I might hold different views; I quote them directly and represent them as fairly as possible, but I also try to raise difficult questions that most informed and intelligent readers will raise anyway.

Be thoroughly professional. Get a signed contract specifying outputs, schedules, and fees. Be prepared to issue official receipts, and pay your taxes.

You can always say no. No matter the money, there are some jobs you just know you have to refuse for one reason or other, and I’ve done that quite a few times.

Clients, too, need some sound advice, even before the project gets off the ground. I get many calls from people planning to have their biographies or that of someone they know written, and this is part of what I tell them.

Don’t go the first-person route. Using the first person (with an “I” talking all the time) gets tiring and tiresome pretty quickly, and almost inevitably sounds self-serving and defensive in its tone. This doesn’t mean that great, honest, and well-modulated autobiographies and memoirs don’t get written; but that takes enormous self-awareness and (ironically) self-effacement. Most people can’t resist thumping their chests. Again, that’s natural, but if you’re truly praiseworthy, it’s best to let others (not your writer, either) point that out. First person limits the number of people who can talk about you to one: you. It blocks out other perspectives—even contrary ones—which can be useful, and which every biography needs for credibility’s sake. You can always be quoted at length, anyway, for more personal insights.

Tell me the truth. Don’t expect me to lie for you. Like a lawyer, I can understand the necessity of nuancing the presentation of certain situations, but I will not deliberately misrepresent the facts. I don’t need or expect to know all your secrets, but I need to be told as much as you can let on, so I can tell your story fairly. If you choose to deliberately leave out entire episodes that could prove embarrassing, that’s your call, but be aware that people will spot the omission, and your credibility will suffer. A biography is your chance to present your side of a controversy, and quite frankly it’s what readers will look for, beyond the predictable catalog of one’s achievements. No one leads a perfect life, and fractures are almost always more interesting than surface sheen.

Be kind, and try not to use your book to settle scores. Like it or not, most big people acquire enemies, and a book’s a tempting opportunity to take potshots at everyone in range. Some of that may be called for, especially when some grave injustice has been sustained, but I counsel my clients to be very sparing with their arrows, which tend to be fired back. I’ve actually walked away from a nearly-finished book project (and from half my fee) when the client insisted on launching a savage attack on a business partner he’d had a recent falling-out with. “Look,” I told him frankly, “you’re XX years old, a born-again Christian, and close to dying. Are you sure you want to be remembered as this vengeful person?” The book never came out, and he died shortly afterward.

Trust me, trust my storytelling. Some clients insist on playing up their virtues to the nth degree, to the point of overwhelming if not nauseating the reader with self-laudatory information. Others want me to accentuate the theatrics of an already dramatic situation. As a fictionist, I rely on the power of selectivity, suggestion, and understatement, and I know how to trigger the desired effect in readers. Trust me; I hardly ever brag, but this is what I’ve won prizes for. If you want a rah-rah publicist, there are many others you can hire for a lot less. Know when to stop, when to let go of the text, and when to say “That’s enough for one book. We can always write another one.”

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