Reflections on Writing Biography ­ Blog ­ Susan Steggall

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Reflections on Writing Biography


‘Eventually we accept the ghosts that haunt us’[i]


Biography has long been a source of frustration and satisfaction. I have studied its theoretical aspects for an academic thesis, its social and emotional ramifications for biographies ranging from ten-thousand-word memoirs to 85,000-word manuscripts. Yet there remain mysterious currents to the writing of biography; unchartered waters to explore. An essay by Australian author Ruth Park – ‘This way to the spangly gloom’, April 1999, (reproduced in The Australian AuthorCommemorative Issue, Vol.50, No.2, 1969-2018, 2018), p.72) – has not only rekindled my desire to undertake a new biographical project but also to see the craft with fresh eyes.

Park takes her title from the words of poet John Keats whose description ‘of the innermost psyche as “internal spangly gloom”’, she considers the finest available. She uses this idea of ‘spangly gloom’ – the depths of our being – to introduce a meditation on how she was able to approach the writing of her autobiography. Many of Park’s observations can also be applied to biography, especially when the subject is close to the writer, such as a mother or a father. 

I have written an autobiography of a significant decade in my own (nuclear) family’s life, plus a biography of an art historian whom I admired very much but so far, parents have seemed too hard a task. Bittersweet. Even though my father died in 1979 and my mother in 2007, I am having trouble bringing the necessary distance to the material. Yet I am determined to create a record of their lives, if only for my children, grandchildren and siblings, as the unofficial chronicler in the family. Apart from the donation (by myself and sisters) of a set of Charles Blackman prints to the Maitland Regional Art Gallery, and my parents’ plaques in the Columbarium at Maitland’s St Mary’s Anglican Church, there is nothing in the town to mark the thirty years Rex and Phemie Wallis owned (and worked) a pharmacy at 455 High Street (1948 to late 1970s); nothing to mark the three decades prior to this that Phemie’s father, George Mallaby, owned the pharmacy. A family tradition! 

My parents’ lives – at least on the surface, at least the parts I knew, or thought I knew – had, like, Park’s own ‘been almost entirely hard work, looking after children, trying to make a living and pay…tax.’ In short little to light up the tabloid press. But biography, like fiction needs ‘theme, storyline and usually plot’. At first Ruth Park did not have a theme (I’ll return to this later) but for ‘the second essential, storyline [t]he story was already written’. The story I want to tell may also be ‘already written’ but there will be obligations: I must not smooth out awkward, albeit interesting, creases and rough spots in an effort not to speak ill of the dead; nor write with that respect for the dead that bleaches the bright colours of a life.Yet, it might be well-nigh impossible to avoid at least an occasional protective veil descending when writing about parents. 

Park again: ‘The third pillar of fiction is plot’ – the arrangement of story with a beginning, a middle and an end; a character arc as the biographical subject goes on her or his life’s journey, and a central dramatic question: the how and why; the where and when of it all. For plot the writer must turn a searchlight into ‘unexpected places and obscure recesses, hitherto undivined’. For Park the word ‘undivined’ brings glimpses of that spangly gloom: 

You’re lucky if at first you see any spangles. Because as you ponder more intensely…you begin to comprehend that although you have always known that there were sealed rooms in your memory, they were not sealed at all. 

I too must confront that ‘spangly gloom’, the innermost reaches of my psyche, all the while understanding I might risk, as Park writes, ‘hurting others’. I will do my best to respect my subjects and readers – and tell the truth. But what is ‘the truth’? Truth for one person is truth as she sees and interprets it; perhaps it is different for others.

Ruth Park procrastinated for weeks before she saw that what she had to tell was ‘the tale of people, events, landscapes, concepts, sorrows and joys’ that had made her what she had been, ‘and what … was in that minute’. She realised that her theme was, simply: ‘While I live I grow…Writing an autobiography was part of the growing, and dying would be, too.’

Writing about my parents is integral to my being, my life. I must step into and through the shadows, sift through photographs and documents, and hope memories rise up from that ‘spangly gloom’. If I am to do my parents justice I must draw forth remembered glimpses from childhood and reconcile them with an adult mind’s understanding.

Like Park, I believe it is impossible ever to know ‘perfectly such a complicated bundle of fire, ice, hell and heaven as a human being’. So in writing a biography of my parents I might learn a lot about myself and where I come from: ‘For there is a piece of ourselves in every person we shall ever meet.’ 

[i]The first part of a quote: ‘Eventually we accept the ghosts that haunt us (and we become their familiars at which they lose their horrors for us and are soon our playthings’), Alex Miller Landscape of Farewell (2007)


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