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‘Let the past and its oddness provoke us’ – A day at the Oxford Centre for Life Writing, by Corrina Connor

Biography and life-writing are often central to musicology, and to opera studies in particular. Although my own research does not involve writing a biography of any particular performer, I am investigating the professional – and also the personal – lives of a number of singers who worked at the Theater an der Wien in the 1870s and 1880s. When I saw an announcement for a day workshop called ‘Quest for Materials: Life-Writing Challenges’, run by the Oxford Centre for Life Writing (OCLW), I thought this would be the ideal opportunity to learn techniques for life-writing, particularly as the workshop was directed by Hermione Lee, with Lyndall Gordon, Clare Morgan and Elleke Boehmer, all eminent authors.

I had expected the workshop to explore the nuts and bolts of life-writing: research techniques, or how to search and collate archival finds. Instead, with the participants divided into three groups of about a dozen people, led by Lyndall Gordon, Clare Morgan and Elleke Boehmer, we spent the day in a series of discussions about the challenges – ethical, authorial and paradoxical – of life-writing in a variety of contexts. The participants in my group included researchers from different backgrounds working on biographies, architectural, oral, military and family history. What became obvious was that whether one is working in an academic setting – either as a graduate student or an established academic – or working independently, life-writers face problems which are applicable to musicology.  These problems include:

  • Finding too much material in archives
  • Finding too little material in archives
  • Finding vast amounts of material which is not relevant to one’s research, and which takes a lot of time to search with no concrete results
  • Feeling lost, helpless and thwarted (by the archive…)
  • Finding ‘gaps’ in archival material which can make research feel incomplete or unverified

Then, assuming that the researcher strikes archival gold or even silver (sometimes unexpected or initially irrelevant material can turn out to be ground-breaking), there is the problem of writing it up. Almost everybody in the room said that when writing about a life, they have difficulty in establishing an authorial voice which is appropriate to the subject, and which allows the subject to live. Another problem which arises for many life-writers is that of interpretation.  To what extent can the author reflect and interpret their primary source findings?  Here, two researchers (PhD students in English Literature and History) commented that reflection and interpretation are one difference between doing a purely academic piece of work – a thesis or journal article – and a biography which might be intended for popular and academic audiences. In the first, an interpretation (as a form of criticism) is imperative for establishing an argument. But, in a published biography, some editors prefer that that ‘facts’ are left to stand by themselves. Of course, the manner of assembling the facts and establishing a narrative is a form of interpretation which is silent, and as subjective as obvious editorialising. Both Lyndall Gordon and Hermione Lee emphasised that as life-writing becomes more experimental in form, there is room for exploring new forms of narrative in which the lives of even the ‘greatest’ people can be approached from creative angles, which require interpretation and criticism to achieve authority.

An example of where interpretation or imagining is necessary could occur in a case where a lucky author finds letters written by their subject and letters written by friends or family of the subject. Such a case allows the author to pick apart the different letter-writers’ view of the subject and his or her thoughts and actions. Even business letters – which may appear mundane and without ‘human’ interest – can paint a compelling picture of a public figure.  Our discussion of this topic led to considering how we understand talent, genius or creativity, and – when writing about a creative figure or artist – whether or not to separate the artistry and the person. Everybody in our group had read biographies of an outstanding creative person in which the author’s compulsion to expose every negative characteristic of their subject had made the reader feel uncomfortable. Julia Kavanagh’s Rudolf Nureyev: The Life was cited as an example. Several people in our group had read this book, and agreed that the author’s emphasis on Nureyev’s ‘bad’ behaviour had changed their attitude to his unique talent as a dancer. This was not a sensation that they enjoyed. It was unsettling. At least two of us agreed that this emphasis on Nureyev’s negative traits – whether his poor treatment of colleagues on stage, or his promiscuity – became prurient.  It had the effect of forcibly diminishing Nureyev’s extraordinary artistic legacy by not allowing the reader to interpret the material. Hagiography is equally frustrating, but we questioned what was to be gained by writing an exposé

To recover from this passionate debate, practical matters were discussed, especially the most difficult elements of writing anything: how to begin and where to end. All agreed that the beginning is difficult. How to introduce a character, and how to illustrate context are both problems which can halt the momentum of a piece. Lyndall Gordon said there were no magic formulae; she found that choosing a particular moment in a subject’s life – a moment she had found revealing or immediately moving – was often the key.  This allows the reader to ‘meet’ the subject. Gordon cited her biography of T.S. Eliot, which opens with a study of Wyndham Lewis’s portrait of Eliot, and her 2005 book Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft which begins with Wollstonecraft’s personal reaction to arriving in revolutionary France and witnessing the Terror at first hand. Ending the story is another problem: a life, paradoxically, does not end with a death. An after-life is often more important, especially in the case of lives cut short (think of Schubert, or Wilfred Owen). The reverberations of a subject’s life are integral to their reception and reputation.

To conclude, a representative from each of the day’s groups, and the groups’ tutors spoke briefly to summarise the discussions in each room.  Although some of the points are more applicable to authoring a book, these are ideas which are useful for any piece of academic writing, and the common priorities revealed were:

  • Establish who you are writing for, and why.
  • Decide the extent to which you will ‘editorialise’ and remain consistent
  • Consider your attitude to the past. Do not feel oblige to excuse a subject’s behaviour or attitudes, even if they now seem dated or offensive.
  • ‘Let the past and its oddness provoke us!’ (as one participant said).
  • What is meant by ‘authenticity’? To what extent do ‘facts’ exist? Mediate between contradictory ‘facts’ about a subject’s life. Never exclude what you don’t like.
  • True authenticity lies in the writer’s passionate commitment to (but perhaps not involvement with) the subject.

This is just a snapshot of the day. I recommend attending events run by the OCLW for stimulation, motivation, and the opportunity to meet some remarkable colleagues.

Nureyev link


OCLW link