The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

John Fleming Headshot

How to Write Someone's Biography or Your Own Autobiography

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Earlier this month, I wrote in the Huffington Post about being on a Storywarp panel which discussed the techniques and nature of storytelling, of telling "Other People's Stories". I have been listening to the tape and, unusually, I managed to be lucid on a couple of occasions.

In my first brief spurt of lucidity, I said:

"In the mid-1990s, I almost wrote the biography of an archaeologist and the sub-story to it was that, during the Cold War, he was a 'sleeper' agent for the Soviets. So there was a secondary story. The book fell through, tragically.

"But he said to me that he thought the process of writing a biography was the same as being an archaeologist: you are carefully excavating and uncovering the past, but you haven't really any idea what the hell actually went on. As an archaeologist, he might uncover a slab of stone and think it was used for a particular purpose, but he could be wrong.

"If you're writing a biography of someone then, if they're dead, you're probably guessing quite a lot - even if you have a lot of sources, you're still guessing. Even if they're alive, you're still vaguely guessing that they are telling the truth or that your guess of what they're telling you is what they are actually telling you."

My other piece of semi-lucidity was about autobiography:

"I edited Janey Godley's autobiography Handstands in the Dark for Random House," I explained. "She had never written before for print. She was a stand-up comedian. So I was shepherding her. I never actually wrote it. I advised her without ever suggesting any specific words.

"At first, she did what I think a lot of people do when they write their autobiography. She wrote facts. And, in my opinion, autobiographies are not about facts.

"She wrote I did this, I did that, I did the other in a long list of things she did.

"I told her Don't do that, because it's very dull. People are not interested in facts; they're interested in people. So what you want to do is, if there were lots of things happening at this time, figure out one episode which epitomises what you were experiencing, what you felt, what was going through your mind - what your emotions were - and then expand on that one anecdote. That one vivid example of what you were feeling will cover over fifteen uninteresting facts.

"If you are writing an autobiography, it's the emotional journey, it's the mental journey the reader is interested in, not the facts. No-one cares if you went to Swindon for a day; the reader wants to know why you went and what you felt. It's like Bill Clinton's slogan to keep his election workers on track when he was running his successful campaign against the first George Bush: It's about the Economy, stupid.

"In autobiographies: It's about the emotions, stupid. It's about people."