Telling the Story (Or Learning Not to Write Like an Academic)

I wrote a couple of months ago about searching for an appropriate way to end Woolson’s biography, so I should be done with the manuscript, right? Not exactly. This summer, I have reached a new stage in my writing that is anything but the end. In some ways it feels like starting over. But really it is all just part of the process, I keep telling myself.

When I made it to the end of Woolson’s life, I felt relief, a tremendous sense of accomplishment—for about two days. Because when I went back and looked over the beginning, I realized that I had a lot of work ahead of me still. When I started writing a year and a half ago, I had only a vague idea of where I would end up. Along the way, I learned so much, and all of it was interesting to me, so in it all went. What I have written, it slowly dawned on me, is a chronology of Woolson’s life, but not the story of her life.

Naturally, I was devastated by the realization that I was still far from my goal, especially as the last of my research leave slips away. But now that I have mapped out her life, I am discovering the story within it, a more creative part of the process. I knew all along that the biographer is first a researcher and second a storyteller, but I didn’t realize how far I was from marrying those two functions. The first part of the equation, I have down pat. I can dig and dig until I hit pay dirt. But the second is less familiar territory. Telling a story is not what academics are trained to do. We analyze stories, but we have no idea how to tell them. At heart, that is what I have always wanted to do, however.

Biography seemed to me the perfect way to bridge my two selves—the academic and the writer, the researcher and the storyteller. Academic writing has been unsatisfying, to say the least. After a lot of work and gnashing of teeth, your book is ordered by university libraries and gets reviewed in a few journals, but there is no real sense of having an audience engaging your ideas. Writing books that only a handful of people (it seems) have read or responded to—books that take years to seep into the collective consciousness of your field, if they do at all—feels like shouting into the wind. As we teach our students, writing is only effective if it communicates, if it participates in a larger conversation. But we barely achieve that goal in our own writing, if we are lucky. No wonder so many professors stop publishing once they have gotten tenure and promotion. What’s the point? By why stop there? Why give up on writing altogether? Some become fiction writers or poets. A few take the leap into trade publishing, but it’s an entirely different world, one I have been starting to navigate this summer.

Writing biography exists in that middle ground somewhere, making it both exciting and daunting. You are really addressing two audiences—other academics who study the figure you are writing about and so-called general readers who really don’t care what so-and-so had for breakfast or what book she read on January 12th, 1878. Put it all in the footnotes, one biographer says. Another insists, the task of the biographer is selection—in other words, cutting out as many extraneous details as possible. Cutting is the hardest part of writing. But the biographer must become a merciless cutter.

So now I am pruning and shaping, rearranging and plotting, highlighting and foreshadowing. One biographer has said that he writes out a detailed chronology, some 700 pages long, before he begins to tell the story of his subject’s life. That is more or less what I have done, I realize. Another admits that she started her biography that way but was quickly caught in the act of writing for an academic audience by her agent and editor. So she studied the craft of mystery writing and even pornography to figure out how to engage an audience. She must have figured it out, because she won the Pulitzer Prize.

I could write an academic biography of Woolson. Scholars in the Woolson Society may want me to. But I won’t, if I can help it. For such works don’t measurably impact a writer’s reputation. And what Woolson needs most is to come out of the shadow of the Master, her friend Henry James. She deserves to be known in her own right. A reader of the New York Times in 1906 wrote a letter to the editor declaring that Constance Fenimore Woolson “has done too much for America and Americans to be forgotten and ignored.” Yet she was. It is time to rectify the mistake. So into the brave new world of trade publishing I go. We’ll see if I survive.

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