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Running Backwards: Finding a Structure for Biography

by on May 5, 2013

Have you seen that man in the Kingfisher gym in NUI Galway that runs backwards on the treadmill? He’s not as unique as you might think: it has become quite the trend. I see them on the roadside now, jogging along with the traffic, serious faces and muscly legs. At first, it simply intrigued me – I nearly crashed the car straining to watch how they kept balance and avoided potholes. Then I wanted nothing more than to roll down the window and ask why, why, why? It was when I saw the sixth or seventh backwards-runner (do they have an actual name?) that something clicked and I understood… They do it to exercise different muscles. They do it because when they turn around again, they run faster and with infinitely more agility and focus.

Last week I wrote a blog entry expressing my frustration with chronology in biographies. I said: ‘Simply put, I hate it.’ [The whole thing is here.] For a few weeks, I have been accumulating objects and compiling inventories to match my biographical subjects. It was an attempt, I suppose, to find a structure that is not chronological, that breaks out of our own notions of time, of life as a ‘history’ (being essentially a sequential ‘story’ ruled by ‘cause and effect’), and finds a new way of working that is both true to the random, chaotic lives of these women and exciting for its own sake.

My ideas are half-formed. Let me be clear about that. That is why I blog.

In any case, very soon after that post went up I had an email from the wonderful biographer who now affectionately calls herself  “your old nanny Helen”. (That is Helen Sheehy)

She urged me not to dismiss chronology so vehemently and offered:

“a biographer is an ‘artist on oath’ . [O]ne has to know what changed [your subject] – without that knowledge then mixing up chronology becomes a literary trick.”

A literary trick. That was the phrase that caught me, that had the potential to spin me on my heels. I hovered there a bit. Is that what my experiments are? Trickery? Illusion? Helen suggested that jerking facts out of chronology can be simply dishonest. As any kind of writer, you want to find a ‘truth’.

Our discussions continued, over the Atlantic waves and the six-hour time difference. I pointed out how I felt constrained by how the ‘death’ overshadowed the ‘life.’ Why is it that how someone dies always takes precedence over their life? Why can’t we celebrate the happy, promising, elegant ladies over the disillusioned, weary women they became?

Helen eloquently countered:

For me, writing biography is a process of discovery ending in revelation. The process involves painstaking drudgery and meticulous fact-checking, but the result I aim for is the revelation (although of course it’s an illusion–MY illusion) of a living, breathing person. […] Don’t forget that biography is narrative. No one was ever born a great actor or writer or statesman, a person evolves over time and is developed by human interaction and environment.

I know and understand such illusory ‘revelations’; an understanding of someone that can only come from a painstaking scrutiny of their personal history. But if biography is narrative, then narratives are structured – We are plotting, aligning cause and effect, rather than accepting life as the random and chaotic mess it is. Are we then CREATING rather than TELLING a story?

Helen elucidated:

Yes, it’s artificial – but art IS artifice after all, so you must find the particular structure, the particular art, that will reveal your character.

Aha! There you go! Perhaps without even noticing, Helen said ‘your character.’ Not biographical subject, or willing participant in a historical study. Character: fictitious person. So am I revealing or creating? Setting forth or setting up?

Sigh. I now feel like I’m going around in circles. But whenever that happens, I look up from my desk at the black-and-white photos of Aideen O’Connor that hang on my notice board. And just at the right moment Helen advised:

Let Aideen have her prologue and her first act and her second – and then she can arrive at her third and final act.

Everyone needs the gentle words of a nanny sometimes. She’s totally right. I’m the one that has become consumed by the beginning and the end, without concentrating enough on all of the moments that came in between, moments rich with possibility. At any point, things could have been different. She could have made different choices, dealt with things differently, but she didn’t. That’s not to say she was ‘wrong’, but she was ‘Aideen’. The real woman is in the choices as well as the random events. As life hurtled on around her, what did she choose to cling on to?

I’m going back to chronology. Maybe not for ever, but for a little while. I won’t look as stupid, and now watch me go …

(Follow all my Chasing Aideen adventures here.)


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