Writing Biographies for Inspiration

I’ve loved writing biographies ever since grade school and “slam books.” Remember them? They were popular in New York City elementary schools, mini-brochure-like yearbooks where you could write your good wishes next to photos of your classmates. I still have my 5th grade slam book with a photo of me smiling, wearing braces on my teeth. The comment beside my photo that stands out is, “Follow the leader!” a pun on my last name, Leder. I didn’t always feel like a leader, though. The comment gave me a good boost.

Often, I reviewed the comments I inscribed next to my classmates’ photos. How I delighted in commenting on their talents! I praised them for being good singers, dancers, scientists, or speakers of French and Spanish. I imagined them telling me about their skills. The qualities I admired in them were aspects of myself I wished to develop. I was inspired by the very act of writing these short bios.
As a high school student in the 1960s studying the Civil Rights Movement, I wrote a book report on John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. Most of his biographies were of U.S. Senators who stood up– against enormous odds — for the rights of American Blacks before the Civil War and after. Some of them lost their political careers. I asked myself, Why did Kennedy, when he was a senator, write in the genre of biography about these figures? Was it to inspire himself to take the moral high ground against the opponents of Civil Rights? When he became President and faced the racial violence and lynching in the South, we know that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders implored him to uphold integration and racial equality. Certainly, I projected, Kennedy’s past writing about courageous senators whom he admired must have inspired him to put forward the Civil Rights Act of 1963!

I wondered if writing about the lives of others, as well as reading about them, teaches us how to be our best selves? Fast forward to 1985, when I wasn’t my best, confident self the first time I applied for tenure in the fields of Women’s Studies and English. To gain tenure, I had to publish or perish. But I was new to academia and new to academic writing. I felt insecure about the authority of my writing voice, since some of my articles on women writers were being rejected. How could I possibly write a traditional book of literary criticism when the story that needed to be told about women writers was how much struggle and persistence it required for them to be published and recognized? I preferred a more biographical approach, how writing about the lives of women writers, in tandem with their writing, could be inspiring—for me, as well as for the reader. My two literary heroes were poets whom I learned had difficulty establishing the authority of their poetic voices, Emily Dickinson and her English counterpart Christina Rossetti. Why not tell their stories as aspiring writers?

Only 10 of Dickinson’s 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. When she submitted them for publication, they were so original, they were misunderstood. She was ahead of her time! One of her most popular poems drew me in: “I’m nobody / Who are you? / Are you nobody too? / Then there’s a pair of us . . .” I felt she was speaking directly to me. By writing Dickinson’s literary biography, I could answer my question: How did Dickinson, essentially unknown in her day, become the only iconic American woman poet of the nineteenth-century? As I traced the poems Dickinson wrote throughout her life, charting her increasing sophistication, depth, and confidence as a poet, I became inspired by her persistence. Could I make my own modest version of success happen for me? Could my early starts at academic writing improve so I could eventually be published and earn tenure? Writing about Dickinson’s tenacity in a literary biography spurred me on.

I learned that Christina Rossetti, like me, became a bolder writer when she herself wrote biographies, poetic ones called monologues. She wanted to go beyond the bounds of “women’s writing”– romantic lyrics, nature poems, and devotional hymns. If, as a woman poet, it was inappropriate for her to write about social ills facing women in the public sphere, she gained courage by speaking in the voices of prostitutes and unwed mothers she came to admire after visiting and bonding with them at St. Mary Magdalene’s Penitentiary. One speaker, the daughter of an unwed mother, resolves to live her life independently without crutches or dependencies: “I think my mind is fixed/On one point and made up: / To accept my lot unmixed; / Never to drug the cup/ But drink it by myself.” Writing about Rossetti’s biographical monologues inspired me to choose unconventional literary projects and to become a more confident writer.

By completing my book The Language of Exclusion: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, my writing career was launched. I landed another position that promised me a leave of absence to write a second book. That anthology by and about victims of the Nazi Holocaust included mini-biographies for each author. How I delighted in writing my praise of each Holocaust survivor’s adaptability and stamina in hard times! Writing those bios reminded me of the imaginary conversations I had with my 5th grade classmates whose photos appeared in my slam book. Back then, I wanted my classmates to tell me more about their talents. As I wrote these bios of survivors, I asked each author in my imagination: Please tell me more about your startling resilience so that I may become more resilient too! We all know that reading can be a source of inspiration, but in my case biographical writing has strengthened me both as a person and as a writer. ▪

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