In Dialogue: Intuition, Feeling, and Biography Writing

 

This blog post is part of a conversation between Jacky den Haan and Brixton Sandhals about how our personalities dictate how each of us went about writing biographies on Modernist writers.

At the first April meeting for King’s University MAPP RAs, I received the task of writing the biographies of Fyodor Dostoevsky and D. H. Lawrence. Dostoevsky is a 19th-century Russian writer, but a translation of several of his works, entitled Stavrogin’s Confessions and The Plan of the Life of of a Great Sinner, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1922. D.H. Lawrence similarly worked in translation, and worked with S. S. Koteliansky to translate “The Gentleman from San Fransisco”by I.A. Bunin, published in a larger collection of Bunin’s works by the Hogarth Press in 1922.

Being an idea-driven and free-spirited ENFP, I was enticed by the openness and creativity that this task held. I was eager to begin, and I initially thought the project would be a straightforward yet fun adventure. While there was freedom to move within the guidelines, they were clear as to expected outcomes, and so I thought completing my task would be as simple as reading several books and amalgamating the facts into a biography of a thousand words or less. My first goal was to conquer the Dostoevsky biography. After my final exams were written and graduation had come and gone, I took the first chance I could to begin my research. I excitedly donned my faded orange Swiss Army backpack and navigated the Edmonton transit system to the University of Alberta’s Rutherford Library. Here, I packed my bag with as many books on Dostoevsky as it would hold, and then took to the nearest Starbucks to begin reading.

The ENFP is at once fiercely independent and driven by a need to make close connections with those who are similarly driven by passion and ideas. Thus, the fact that I was working alone on this biography was initially intimidating to me. I craved a companion for my journey, and discovered one in diving deeply into the life of Dostoevsky. His life unfolds like a novel, marked by unexpected turns, trials, and triumphs that bring those who engage with it from despair into ecstasy. I found, too, in Dostoevsky’s story, the mysticism and emotion I would need to keep me motivated to the end of this project. My engagement with the life of Dostoevsky revealed to me a man whom I deeply respected and admired. Here was a man who had woven so many of the difficulties of his life into masterpieces of literature, and who blended experience and art to create moving tapestries that plunged into the depths of human existence. 

To write the life of Dostoevsky, with all its eccentricities and intensities, became itself a form of art, of interpretation. Did I focus the bulk of my story on his experience in prison and work camps – arguably the most pivotal season in his life – and only briefly touch on the events of his later life, or did I give equal play to all parts? Modern biography encourages treatment of the facts and attention to correct chronology, but I felt it would be incomplete to treat who I saw as a mythical prophet with such raw, unfeeling factuality. I settled on something of a moody photograph of him, even while my heart longed to paint him instead, with abstract blues and indigos and reds. It seems poetry comes more naturally to the ENFP than biography.

After I finished the Dostoevsky biography, I continued on to my next subject, D. H. Lawrence. Having read several Dostoevsky novels before, I was at least familiar with his style and historical setting, but about Lawrence I was clueless. I guessed that he was either American or British (although according to himself, neither of these feels quite accurate) and that he was probably somewhat cynical, probably fairly well-spoken.

My research revealed to me a man filled with contempt for much of humanity, particularly his fellow English citizens. I disliked him immediately. Being a sensitive, egalitarian and compassionate ENFP, I found my own need for personal connection chafing against Lawrence’s harsh, judgmental tones and his hierarchied view of humanity. Thus, the problem I was presented in writing his biography was how to present a picture of this man: did I opt for a whitewashed portrayal of this man, or did I allow my words to be saturated with my opinions of him? Was it possible to write his life without my own personality coming through?

D. H. Lawrence reminded me once again that in writing it is impossible, and arguably it is not even advisable, to reduce to nothing my own interpretive bias. It is true that this bias complicates a reader’s ability to fully ‘know’ the subject, but such knowledge of another has never been possible anyways. All telling is always at the same time creating. Speaking about an individual is not unlike painting a portrait of them: a portrait that follows the lines and contours of an individual’s face, but is at once also determined by the hand and the interpretive eye of the one holding the brush. My interpretation of him was as much based on who he was historically as who I was presently. So I took out a few of the most accusatory phrases in her biography, but left most of my opinions right there on the page.

While Brixton and I have vastly different personalities and researched different writers, the parallels we discovered between our interpretations of the biography project were striking. Both of us are intuitive and sensing personalities, and because of this we each responded with deep feeling to the assignment, forming either a close bond or a great distaste for our biography subject. Unlike more analytical personalities, we were not concerned with devising scientific accounts of these authors’ lives. Instead, we treated biography writing as being primarily artful and experiential. The greatest source of difference is in Brixton’s introverted and my extroverted focus. Brixton’s “one-sided love affair” against my “quest for companionship” portrays the wide space between how we gain energy, and it radically changes the stance at which each of us positioned ourselves for our research.

When I first joined MAPP, I was met with what would quickly become an incredibly daunting and humbling task. My first assignment for MAPP this summer was to provide the biography for literary legend and personal idol, Virginia Woolf. When I first discovered that I would be writing on her, I immediately took to my small local library in Northwest BC and had them send for every book on Woolf within 100 kilometres of my hometown they could find. After their prompt arrival, the next couple of days were filled with vigorous reading and deep immersion into a life I was only just realizing I embarrassingly did not know the half about. Being an INFJ, I found the process of writing on Virginia Woolf especially challenging given my extremely high opinion and respect for her. The INFJ is a deeply emotional person and is extremely sensitive to the feelings and problems of those people who are close to them. INFJs are typically associated with a strong desire for authenticity within their circles, and the circles which INFJs are typically found in are often heavily calculated. The INFJ is unlikely to form close bonds with people they happen across downtown, or at work, but rather they actively seek out people with shared interests and passions. Naturally, being a writer for MAPP, I feel strongly about literature, and as an INFJ, his connection with someone like Virginia Woolf, though removed by time and space, was bound to become deep and personal. After digging into every nook and cranny of Woolf’s life that I could get his fingers on, I set to writing the biography—a biography that would need to be cut down by two thirds of its length by the time its first draft was finished. Face to face with the task of the biographer, I quickly realized that writing an account of one’s life is first and foremost a task grounded in the art of fastidious selection. It became evident quite early on that the work of the writers here at MAPP is not found in the careful selection and scavenging for invaluable pieces of rock, if you will, but almost entirely in the careful chiselling of a knife and hammer against what is often an overwhelmingly abundant and colossal stone. The details of these writers lives, and the multiplicity of voices and eyes which we as biographers are provided, from both the author themself in their creative work and diaries as well as from the author’s friends, families and biographers, provides us all with more than enough to filter through.

When I had finished with painstakingly cutting words upon sentences upon paragraphs, I was left with what I felt accurately represented the pivotal moments of Woolf’s life, and perhaps more importantly, I was left with a biography which I felt openly invited its reader to engage further with the life of a literary legend. The time which I had spent investing thought into Woolf’s life was impactful on a personal level, and the firm desire for authenticity which rules over the INFJ posed an incredible challenge to I. The INFJ wants dearly to move past all of the facades and masks which people put up and uncover the self buried deep beneath. Of course with a project as limiting as a historical biography, the personal aspect of the relationship between biographer and biographed had been long lost, and needed to be made up for to some degree. The compensation for this void between I and Woolf could not be made up by squeezing as many facts as possible into his limited word count. The INFJ’s biography needed to replicate or encourage the experience the writer had personally had with the author being written about. The art of the biography quickly became the art of the fidelitous-yet-intriguing sample. As I sifted through books, articles and diaries, the world of Virginia Woolf became vivid and authentic, and the task before me, which once seemed so feasible, became impossible. However, I had soon realized that this feeling wasn’t one which needed to be overcome. Though the word might seem a tad bit strong, I found that I needed to learn to accept the futility of the biography and even learn to embrace it. There is an art to biography after all; there is scarcely anything scientific or quantitative about biography. My contribution is one derived from an infinitely narrow scope, but this contribution also garners the same strengths as any other work of art in that it is personal and that there lies within it a sort of truth which I and his readers are collectively grasping for.

I challenged myself first and foremost to form a large overlap between Woolf’s work and the elements which made up her life; I wanted to uncover and explain the inexorable link between Woolf’s own personal life and that of her work. Of course, as a biography which is being restricted by a cap on its word count, there is a scrambling found within it to subtly sneak important and necessary factoids into the narrative of Woolf’s life. That being said, my experience with Woolf in the weeks that I spent researching became something of a small and one-sided love affair. I felt that writing about Woolf required a sort of syncopation, and perhaps this explains his inability to write anything further about Woolf when her own narrative had reached its end and her last breath had been accounted for. The engagement I found in biography writing, particularly with such a personally inspirational figure as Woolf, was one which took me pleasantly by surprise. Although his initial task had taken me quite violently by storm, I felt that it readied myself for the biographies that were to follow and served as an invaluable means of orientating myself around the gravity and delicacy of biography writing.