A biography’s a memoir—a portrait from memory of an entire life. One thing that writing life-stories has taught me is that you can’t take your memories for granted. I don’t mean you can’t trust them—you have no choice but to trust them—but you need an open mind.

Liz Phelps is a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. In this video she describes how memories of emotional events are usually about 50% accurate. The data leaves her without any professional doubt, and yet she admits to feeling (just like the rest of us) that her own memories are absolutely right.

I have an 85-year old client whose long-term memory is phenomenal, but short-term is shaky. He doesn’t just forget and repeat—he modifies too. I now have several accounts of some episodes, and they don’t all mesh. When I’m not sure what my client actually did, I ask, “What might he have done?”

Anyone who’s never written a book would be overwhelmed. I expect it. My job is to bring order to chaos. I actually love it, but I need tools, and mindfulness is my Swiss Army knife. I focus on the character of the person and accept the ambiguity of memory. When my client’s in story-telling mode I don’t interrupt, correct or even ask questions. I’m more interested in moods and motives. I wait patiently for the long and windy first draft.

The more you listen, the more that 50% figure makes sense. Retrieval’s not just a replay button. Memories are taken out and then re-encoded with modifications. Phelps says, “Memories are vulnerable even long after they’re stored, and you can make them vulnerable again by retrieving them.”

Lots of modification tells you there’s lots of emotion. My client really wants to get all the facts straight, and get all the facts in. Meanwhile, details change. He knows we’ll make cuts but wants to start with the full record. I respect that and appreciate it because it’s going to make the book solid—but I want him to enjoy this whole process, not be stressed by it.

However, I understand. The first draft of my bio was three times the length of the final edition. I had to write down everything before I could see what was important. Sharing my story with him helps him worry less.

This is ghostwriting. The ‘ghost’ part means you get into your client’s head and heart. Or, if you’re writing your own story, you reinhabit all those different versions of you. It’s not easy at all, but if you’re a natural-born writer that’ll be what you love most about this whole process.

All this leads to an extraordinary bond. You start with a legal contract and you end up entrusted with the life story of another human being. You become friends, to say the least. I’ve cultivated so many relationships writing people’s stories, and there’s nothing casual about any of them.

After George Floyd

Racial Harmony Painting by Sachin Jagtap
Racial Harmony Painting by Sachin Jagtap

I’m not a racist.

At least, I don’t believe in racism. I think it’s wrong.

However, even though I try not to be, I see that I am racist. Aren’t we all?

Our ancestors living in a cave must have looked with suspicion on dwellers of the next cave down. If not, it would be a common enemy that brought them together. They’d exaggerate every difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’—the same way tribes do today. The more ‘they’ look, sound and smell different, the easier it is to objectify them. Whether it’s Sapiens versus Neanderthal or black versus white, a tribal people’s instinct is to identify and look down upon others.

This is crude and animalistic. It’s natural too. It’s not that we’re born evil or innocent, but that we’re prone to biases, and keep picking up more. They’re a survival mechanism, and they’re barely conscious. Whether it’s about the food you hate, the race you prefer or the class you aspire to, biases are not chosen; they’re inherited. Children mostly like and dislike what their tribe tells them to.

I grew up in England’s West Country, in the 1960s. On our road was a house everyone sniggered at, because there lived, “the two queers.” Trying to fit in, I made my share of stupid, hurtful jokes. Then, at the bottom of Barton Street, across the railway tracks, you’d encounter all sorts of brown and black people. Everyone (i.e., everyone white) said they preferred to keep to themselves. In our innocent minds, the fact that they rarely came into town had nothing to do with us or how we made them feel. I cringe to remember.

It shocks me as much as you. I’m ashamed. “At least,” I tell myself, “I’m not like that now”—but is that enough? I think not. Have you (if you’re white) ever been with a person of color thinking, “OMG, this is a person of color. Act natural! What if they see me acting differently?”

This isn’t as nasty as believing in racism, but it’s still racism. Imagine how the other person feels. You don’t see them. Choosing to not believe in a perverse political philosophy isn’t enough. It takes committed, ongoing effort to free yourself from unconscious bias.

I’m a mindfulness teacher and biographer. Human beings fascinate and terrify me. While trying to understand, I’ve learned to never judge them by their beliefs; that doesn’t signify much. If you want to know what people are really like, watch how they treat others.

Announcing, “I’m not a racist,” is a denial of your animal instincts. You can rise above it, but if you’re not committed to actively looking for those subconscious triggers, your claim is just a smokescreen.

That active looking is mindfulness. When I notice a different skin color before I notice the actual person, I tell myself, “That’s racism.” There’s subconscious stuff going on in there, screaming for conscious attention—and that’s the way to real change. It’s a learning process. It takes time, and a bit more honesty than you might be comfortable with.

But now, after George Floyd, change is upon us. To make a difference you don’t have to join a political rally or write a confession. Just stop acting like racism’s got nothing to do with you.

George Floyd
May 2020

Voice & Point of View (POV)

If you’re thinking about writing your own story you’ll get an idea of what to expect here, and hopefully pick up some useful tips. If you’re looking for a ghost-writer, you’ll see how I work and get a sense of what I can do for you.

Every story has a narrator, and every narrator has a voice. It could be loud or soft, angry or playful. If you want a voice to carry you through an entire story, it has to be able to convey the full range of human emotions and always feel like the same person. If you’re writing an autobiography, the voice needs to sound like you.

Finding that voice is a lot like painting a self-portrait. First, you develop your skills by writing every day. There’s no curriculum—it’s all trial and error. You trace and retrace your steps until it feels right. Once you find the voice, your writing flows.

Voice and point of view (POV) are interdependent, meaning you can’t have one without the other. There are three possible POVs for storytelling. As an observer, you’re either 1) watching from one POV (inside one person’s head) or 2) omniscient (seeing into and out of everybody’s). The alternative to being an observer is being 3) an active participant writing in the first person.

Pick one POV based on who you want the reader to sympathize with.

1. Omniscient Observer (third person)

[Example: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
“Florentina Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months and eleven days and nights.”]

You can be the author who knows everything about everybody, and if this sounds like you’re playing God, you are. Omniscience means you can peek into any character’s thoughts, feelings and motives.

If you really want that much power you can have it, but the trouble with this POV is that it doesn’t encourage emotional rapport. Readers may follow along respectfully, but they won’t particularly identify with the storyteller. If you’re in total control and everything’s explained, you’re also likely to bore the reader—the most awful sin a storyteller can commit. If there’s no tension, why tell the story? If all motives are visible, which ones count? Sorting through such questions is what makes omniscience the hardest POV to handle.

However, if, like God, you know just what to say and what to conceal, you may end up with a timeless classic.

2. Limited Observer (third person)

[Example: 1984, by George Orwell:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”]

Instead of keeping up a bird’s eye view of everything, you take a single POV and describe things from there. You’re limited and grounded in ways readers understand. You’re also a hands-off narrator painting the story as you see it. You guide the reader by simply pointing out what you want them to see.

3. Active participant (first person)

[Example: The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger:
“I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”]

Writing in the first person is like taking your reader’s hand and living the story with them. It’s intimate and risky. To share in your triumphs, they have to feel your disappointments too. Doubt, and the reader will doubt. Rejoice, and so will the reader—not just with you but as you. While the third person tells the story; the first person invites readers in. It’s a natural starting point for autobiography.

What makes first person hard is the level of honesty required. It’s always tempting to explain or excuse yourself, but if you try to sweep inconvenient truths under the rug, readers will see what you’re up to. Never underestimate them. The danger lies not in outright lies so much as subconscious denial. We all have our defenses, and they mostly start with, “I.” Coming to terms with total openness is pretty scary, but it’s incredibly liberating.

Your POV has to be credible. Readers don’t have to like it, but they must believe it, and if you can pull off the first-person, they’re in for a exhilarating ride!

At this point you might think that all biography should be in the first person. You can’t do that if the subject is dead. Also, some biographies are written to enhance reputations or to market a person, and you might want the air of objectivity that comes with the third person.

I hope you find this useful. I you have any comments, suggestions or questions, go ahead and add them below.

How to Write a Biography

If you’re thinking about writing your own story you’ll get an idea of what to expect here, and hopefully pick up some useful tips. If you’re looking for a ghost-writer, you’ll see how I work and get a sense of what I can do for you.

I’ve written my own biography and I’ve written other people’s. Working on my own was harder, as it will be for you. That’s because being objective is tricky when you’re the subject.

There are other challenges. For example, you know the landmark events of your life and have probably been ready to write them down for ages. But what is it that connects them? You’re privy to every single detail, so what do you put in and what do you leave out? Never mind all the positive stuff—what about the forgotten failures that were actually your key to success, the disappointments that triggered crucial insights?

There’s no single method for dealing with all this. Every book is a new puzzle. For practical advice on organizing your project, plenty of websites can help you assemble stories, verify facts, evaluate sources, record interviews, visit locations, establish chronology and build a life-thesis. But sooner or later, it’s just you and the page.

Here are three absolutely indispensable rules of thumb for good writing:

1) don’t bore the reader;
2) don’t patronize the reader;
3) keep rewriting until it works.

Organizing biographical material is never a predictable task. Every story’s different. Plus, memories change as you compare facts. At a certain point you need to hold the entire story, as yet unformed, up in the air all at once, like a juggler, as it takes shape. Balancing the various elements of good writing (here below) grows your book from the inside, giving it shape and bringing it to life.

Writers often refer to their books as children, because while you raise them the commitment is total. With skill and love, the end result is readable, interesting, exciting—and genuinely inspiring. It all depends on giving it the time it needs to grow, and keeping all the following in mind.

The elements of good writing:

1. Thesis statement

Who cares? What makes your story worth reading? These questions are brutal, but the more clearly you answer them at the outset, the better the writing goes.

‘Thesis’ makes it sound fancy—and it is critically important—but basically, it’s just a way of stating your message. It takes a while to narrow this down, and that process is what gives focus and direction to your writing, clarifies structure and helps flow. The earlier and more completely you do it, the more integrated your book will be and the more fun you’ll have.

Unlike a synopsis that describes the arc of the story, a thesis statement is like a rule of thumb that keeps your story on track as you write. For example, the thesis statement, ‘Einstein changed the way we see our universe,’ will produce one book, while the statement ‘Einstein was a Jew in Hitler’s Germany,’ will produce another.

2. Voice

As I begin the actual story, the first thing I need is a voice. The book has to sound like the person.

You’d expect this to be obvious, but it never is. We all have many voices, each one conveying a different impression of ourselves. The question is, which ones can carry the narrative through and sound just right? It took me ages to find my own voice for my own memoir! I had stuff to figure out about myself. That’s the thing about autobiography.

Looking frankly and unsentimentally into your life isn’t always fun, but it is liberating. For myself, it enabled me to feel closer to myself—less judgmental, more accepting.

When the voice is right, you just write and things fall into place. The voice in your head puts you in your subject’s shoes. This applies even when the subject is you. Writing means that you-now (the storyteller) looks back objectively upon you-then (the protagonist). These are different versions of you, with different priorities, in a different time and place—right?

If you want readers to relate emotionally, and to trust the story. the voice must be objective, but not cold—you need all that subjectivity too. That’s what makes it relatable. MORE ABOUT VOICE HERE.

3. Narrative

The cardinal sin of writing is to lose your readers’ attention. What carries them from page to page is your ability as a storyteller. However you do it, you want to make readers feel they’re right in there with you.

Pace and narrrative work hand-in-hand. Take the time to paint the picture, but use words economically. Don’t bore the reader and don’t drag things out. As well as being the writer, you’re also the front-line editor and should catch most weaknesses before the reader does. The idea is that you work things out so that the reader doesn’t have to.

4. Structure

The obvious way to structure any life story is chronological, but that’s easier said than done. Let’s say you’re discussing survival skills. You pick events to illustrate them and bunch them together, but in so doing, you interrupt other chronological threads. In fact, chronologies interweave and overlap throughout every good book.

Good structure holds the book together and makes it flow. You need to know where the story’s leading while the reader needs to not know. That creates tension.

5. Tension

Why is so much of the news we see each day bad news? Because that’s what grabs our attention. You may not like it, but the human mind works that way. Besides, how would you like to read a book about nice things happening to fine people in good times? You would SCREAM.

Even worse, you wouldn’t believe it. Life really is a struggle. You may not enjoy describing how you ended up in a deep hole at some point, but tell it right and your readers will be dying to know how you got out.

This is how you really describe yourself. Not so much with adjectives as with truthful, emotionally-charged stories.

6. Audience

As you think about your life story do you have someone in mind who’d be interested? Living or dead, real or imaginary, this is your audience—you’re writing for them. It could be your grandchildren, your fans or your competitors. If you think your story’s interesting enough for general publication it’s everyone.

Writers sometimes claim they’re just writing for themselves. I’m not sure that’s really possible. Language is a social tool. Storytelling describes events with people, and of course, stories are for people. Meanings change and significance shifts according to who’s listening, and when. How do you gauge your delivery? Are readers getting what you want them to? To figure all that out, you put yourself in their shoes as they read.

That doesn’t mean you’re not writing for yourself—you’re going to learn more about yourself than any reader will. You’re just not writing for yourself alone. Let the audience in.

7. Truth

The truth is in the way you tell the stories. Some things you’ll be proud of, and some you won’t, but if you try to tell only the good stuff, I guarantee the narrative will sound lame and no one will be interested.

Your failures and embarrassments keep you credible. They allow readers to identify with you. Once you have their confidence, they’ll follow wherever you lead, but you have to earn it first.

Equally important to understand is that too much truth is a turnoff—especially when it’s confessional. You can reveal your humanity without accounting for every single mistake, so you find a balance between being truthful and being vulnerable.

8 Memory

This is related to truth but more complicated. Scientists have shown that recollection is a creative process. It’s not completely made-up—memories represent things that did happen—but neither is it a faithful record, or even a stable one. Your most prominent memories are the ones that you’ve recited to yourself most often, with your own personal spin. The problem is, within the privacy of your own mind, that ‘spin’ feels like solid truth. Writing biography requires you to step back from your own reactivity and keep second-guessing yourself.

Butwatch out—second-guessing can turn into self-doubt. More about Memory here.

9 Drafting

Writing is not about using beautiful adjectives and making perfect sentences. That’s the work of editing. You want to keep these two tasks separate because they employ different parts of the brain, and switching back and forth between writing and editing is probably the most time-wasting mistake any writer can make. First, write your story. Don’t worry about how it sounds. Get to the end, then you’ll have something to work with. Constant editing as you write your first draft interrupts flow in ways that can permanently damage the narrative.

10 Creativity

It’s a true story, right? Not made-up.

It doesn’t matter. It may not be fiction, but to describe things in ways that make readers feel what you’ve been through takes creative writing. The thought of having to write like this terrifies some people, probably because they think of creativity as a skill they don’t have. In fact, it’s an inherent quality of the human mind. There’s no formula. You just have to find it. Write, and write, and write until you get it. Creativity comes to the committed.

The human brain hosts some 100 trillion nerve connections. Scientists call it the most complex structure in the universe, and you’ve got one. Enjoy.

Family Matters

When it comes to writing a biography, privacy’s always an issue. The question is, whose? I may sign a contract with one person, but I’m usually involved with several. If it’s a family story, opinions run deep.

For example, my great-grandmother worked for the Hungarian Consul in London—one Count Komlósi—and ended up having five children with him, all out of wedlock. This was unmentionable at the time, and even long afterwards. Her granddaughter (my aunt) nursed the secret of our ‘bastard blood’ for over sixty years! She was mortified when it finally came to light in the 1990s. However, my siblings and I were delighted to learn that we had noble blood—even if it was Hungarian, even if it was bastard!

Whatever your story, you need confidence that it’ll be handled with discretion and restraint.