Writing an honest biography in 1 volume
By Beth Carson
“Somebody should write his life story,” my husband said to me one day, referring to a friend in his nineties who was a legend in British Columbia’s church life. “And I think you should do it.”
So my husband distracted me from my ambition to write a Christian novel by encouraging me to write a biography. I had no idea how to tackle a project like this—find the people to interview and sort out what questions to ask, tie down when events happened, research historical events, collect old photographs and, most of all, tell a truthful story with all its bumps and detours instead of crafting the carefully balanced, smooth flowing novel that had been my ambition. It took too many years, learning as I plodded on, but eventually a beautiful book appeared which seemed to please many people.
I needed a good while to recover from that venture but eventually my husband said the same thing about another Canadian legend in his nineties—this time a pioneer in prayer for Canada. I tried to put into practice all that I had learnt the first time round and discovered even more about writing a biography.
What is your thesis?
Both books are long but they could have been much longer. Can you imagine how many things active nonagenarians have done in their lives? These days I can be heard muttering to myself, “If I ever write another biography it will be about a thirty-year-old!”
Even though I cut and cut, too many details clung to life and would not let me leave them out. So this is the constant pressure—what do I leave out? This is somebody’s life story. If I couldn’t create beautiful fiction, I wanted to represent these two lives truthfully, reflecting honestly all that he and his loved ones told me and respecting his reputation while not setting him on a pedestal. I felt it was important to include the low points, the boring bits, the slow slogs, all the nitty-gritty of life that makes the man. But there had to be a limit because the boring bits of people’s lives are … well, boring.
A friend proof-read the first book for me. She said it was very good and then added, “I was wondering … what was your thesis for the book?” Thesis? I thought. I’m not writing an academic dissertation! I just want to write a truthful account.
My friend explained that every author has to select which events to include and decide how to tell them. The guide is: What are you trying to say about this person? What lesson do you want to illustrate through the story-telling choices you make? You have to have an “angle”, so to speak. Think about book titles. Two books about the same person, entitled The Upward Struggle and A Joyful Life, will treat their subject very differently.
The story is about God using a man’s character
After first dismissing the idea of a thesis for a biography, I began to realize that I did have a way of deciding what to include in both books. I wanted to capture the character of each subject, display that character through the events of his life and explore how God used it.
During interviews with people who had known either of these men for years, I was told many stories that made me chuckle and think, That’s got to go in the book! It was because they were wonderful examples of his personality in action.
The thesis has to be laid out in the first pages. I began with an episode from one man’s childhood and one from the other man’s older years, both of which demonstrated the inner motivation of each man, his individual way of approaching life. I tried to describe that event using language and metaphors that added to the picture I was painting of his character. All the pages that followed would further illustrate who the man was, while unfolding the long story.
That made it doubly important to include the set backs, mistakes and low times. Negative experiences reveal the raw materials of a man’s character and are the crucibles where he can allow the Lord to strengthen the good and purge the bad. It doesn’t make a pretty story but it’s real and relevant to the reader.
Thinking of my readers
I realized that thinking of my readers was another part of my thesis. God wanted them to have more than an interesting story in their hands.
These biographies would carry the gospel message for those who had never heard it and be a magnet to draw near again those who had drifted away from the Lord. The stories should encourage us to develop that intimate closeness with the Lord through which we hear Him and obey Him.
I also wanted the reader to identify with each subject in his early years, recognizing that we only need to be ourselves to allow God to shape us and use us. These men were not giants of the faith from the beginning. Each man’s strengths and imbalances made him the right man for the job God called him to. It’s true for all of us.
And finally that the call may be a long time coming—you are never too old!
To achieve all these goals, the books had to be readable! In my mind that means vivid language, more showing than telling, a little dialogue (even if you have to be inventive) and splashes of light humour throughout.
I suppose these thoughts also applied to my late novel. (Sadly it expired when the main character went to work in Papua New Guinea—an exotic place that I knew nothing about.) In a novel the author has to create the stories and characters but in a biography you just have to choose how to reveal them. And trust that God will use your work for His glory.
About this Contributor:
Born in the UK, Beth Carson has lived in Burnaby, BC, with her husband Dave since 1989. They pastored in the UK and British Columbia for many years. Beth loves a good story and has authored two biographies: Pastor Bob: Statesman of Prayer for Canada and Arne Bryan: Pioneer of Prayer Canada.