I’ve not blogged much about the book I’m writing at the moment. Partly because there’s not much to say about it yet, partly because I’m not sure what shape it will finally take. But the process of constructing it (and at the moment it feels very much like the scaffolding’s just been put up) is quite fascinating in its own right – well, to me at least. It’s a little tricky to fit research and writing around the full-time job (and, you know, having a life) but I do find it interesting and absorbing. It also means I can honestly say ‘I’m writing a book’! So this is a little post about what I’ve discovered so far on my quest to become a fully-fledged biographer.
First, there’s the hours spent in the archives, riffling through boxes, reading old letters and trying to decipher generations of family trees.Basically, it’s being legitimately nosy.
I’ve absolutely adored it – one big surprise was to discover that the main archives that I’m using had a pretty serious fire in 2009, so several boxes of documents are singed and everything still smells of smoke, even six years later. An earnest archivist has done their best to neaten up the documents by cutting off the worst of the burned bits, but the trouble with this is that it makes any attempt at deciphering the damaged writing impossible, as the top part of each page is often missing entirely.
On the plus side, I’ve discovered some lovely little sketches in the margins of pages: look at this little chap!
Although this is a poet’s archive, a lot of the poet’s early manuscripts were written on medical notepaper or discarded hospital paperwork. Patient lists, notes between doctors, clinic timings: my subject was a medical receptionist so she had a lot of this kind of waste paper to hand to jot down ideas and drafts for her poems. It’s all over 30 years old now, but it does give one that eerie feeling of distant proximity to people’s private lives, even those who are only incidental, tiny players in the story of another life. The hospital she worked at in the 1970s and 1980s specialised in neurology so typed words like hydrocephalus, anosmia, and neurosyphilis show through the page, like ghosts under the drafts of poems. The fascination with the ‘neurologically deficient’ that Oliver Sacks describes (his words, not mine) in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat had a clear effect on my subject too: the first poem she ever wrote is one written in anger at a doctor’s treatment of his patients. [As an aside, you can read a brilliant review of that book over on Stuck In A Book!]
I’m also discovering that you can’t rely on books or newspapers or even obituaries to give you facts. To date, errors and omissions have included:
- omitting someone’s life-affirming second marriage and mentioning only the first short-lived one, in a national newspaper
- claiming someone went to a fairly famous school (which in its turn has absolutely no record of them ever having been there)
- suggesting that someone was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, when the official court transcripts and lists of people present makes no mention of them
It remains to be seen whether I can unearth any truths behind these ‘untruths’, but I have discovered a few surprises, from unexpected illegitimate children to family feuds spanning over 40 years. Trying to separate what really happened from what people say has happened is time-consuming and I’ll never be 100% certain that I’ve got it right myself, but I love being drawn down the biographical rabbit hole.
That’s about all I can say for now, but I have now at least completed a 5,000 draft of the first chapter: the beginning is begun, now only the remaining 95,000 words of its middle and end to go…