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Wordsetc Journal

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Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Pippa Green on the Art Biography

The Art of Biography Writing – Trevor Manuel opens his heart

By Pippa Green

Wordsetc 2nd Issue Choice not Fate“When I first approached Manuel with the idea of writing a biography on him – back in 2002 – he was not averse to the idea. Neither did he bubble with enthusiasm.”

“I also realise how little we still know about each other and the personal pain so many suffered. The present often suffocates the past.”

English writer Somerset Maugham once said there are three rules about writing biographies – unfortunately nobody knows what they are. That can be nowhere more true than if the subject is a living person still making history. And most of the new spate of biographies in South Africa are about very much alive people because we are stage in our history where we are beginning to reflect on the foundations of our democracy.

Part of that is a reflection on the leaders who helped bring it into being. First we had the books on the first generation – Nelson Mandela, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Oliver Tambo. In the past two years, we have seen the stories of the second generation of political leaders explained. So we have had a substantial biography on Thabo Mbeki by Mark Gevisser (there have been others but for the most part, whether they are hostile or friendly, have been vehicles used to express the authors’ own political opinions), one on Cyril Ramaphosa (a reluctant subject), an authorised (and the most comprehensive) biography of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and a biography/autobiography on Mac Maharaj that elucidates the political battles inside the ANC like few others have done.
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Biography Writing

Biography writing is a topic the second edition of Wordsetc explores in great detail. We rounded up five of our country’s top biographers. All tell of the art behind biography writing: how it’s done and how they chose their subjects. Here on the site writer Isabella Morris takes the subject even further. She focuses on the dynamics of the relationship between a biographer and his or her subject. It’s an absorbing read.

Telling lives

By Isabella Morris

Oscar Wilde once said: “Every person has their disciples, but it is usually Judas who writes the biography.” Because of its intimate nature, biography demands that a relationship is established between the biographer and the subject. The biographer approaches the subject with a strong idea as to why he wants to write the biography, and, in return, if the subject authorises the biography, he/she, too, is desirous of a certain outcome. However, is it possible to achieve a completely unbiased result from this relationship, one that will satisfy both biographer and subject, and, ultimately, the readers who seek out the biographies?

Biography is one of the most compelling and popular literary genres. A visit to the biography shelves of popular book stores reveals that there is something for everyone: from David Beckham to Barack Obama. Through life stories like these readers look to the personal experiences of the subject – their hopes, struggles, emotions and social circumstances – to find significance in the subject’s life, and possibly significance or relevance in their own lives.

According to biographer Paula Backscheider, “cultural interests, economics, and ambition merge with the personal and may even be the primary motives for choosing a particular subject.” Biographers assume that what a person does “expresses an inner life – personality, motives, aspirations, character”.
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