Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Writing Life Ramblings – Biographical Ruminations (Peter Black)

Writing biographical pieces without your subjects’ knowledge and permission can be a precarious thing. You can never be certain beforehand whether your subjects would approve or disapprove, or like or dislike what you say about them. There’s potential for ruptured relationships . . . hmm, or even a lawsuit.

An author may be somewhat visionary and might extrapolate future outcomes based on trends and data, but is hardly a seer per se. This introduces another aspect of biographical writing that can be rather unsettling for the author.

Have you ever written about a contemporary individual in positive, affirmative terms, but later felt let down, disappointed, or more than a little peeved, when the person later fell far short of the glowing word portrait you’d painted?
I’ve had that experience—but rarely, and have more often been tremendously encouraged to find otherwise. A recent case was of a trucker I met and conversed with, in 2009 at a Christian retreat.
Courtesy: en.wikipedia.org
Shortly after, I wrote a column article of the encounter, in which I shared some of the personal testimony that the fellow recounted to me of his healing and how he came to Christ. I didn’t use his name—I’d forgotten it anyway—and didn’t seek his permission. In February 2010 I posted an edition of that piece on this blog, entitled, ‘Prophets’ – of a Sort.
In 2014 I included a version of that story in the book, “Raise Your Gaze . . . Mindful Musings of a Grateful Heart.” I’d occasionally wonder whether the man was still alive and whether he was still mobile (prior to his healing he had severe back trouble and had lived with unrelenting pain).
The other matter of wondering concern was whether he had continued growing in his Christian walk of faith and trust in Jesus.

Courtesy: anglicansablaze.blogspot.com
Recently I saw him again and reintroduced myself. Now retired from trucking, he still loves to meet with His Christian brothers and sisters and sing and praise the Lord at his church. His back is still doing just fine. Although unable to drive now, since he suffers from macular degeneration, he cheerfully looks to God for healing of that condition. I'm thrilled that he is still "pressing on the upward way."
It’s understandable that writers who create fictional characters and the ‘lives’ they ‘live’ can feel a relational connection with them, and some even call them their babies or their kids. 

That’s different for biographers. If remaining true to the character of the individuals about whom they write and whose stories (or portions thereof that) they tell, it’s different. Biographers neither create the characters nor the circumstances in which they live their lives.

In some instances when writing a living person’s story I may begin the process already having a personal relationship with the individual. That may deepen during the process of working through the elements based on the information available, but the individual is neither my baby nor my creation, although I may rightfully regard the work produced as such.
Although I’ve had cause to grieve when learning that one of my subjects has followed a course that casts  a shadow over the earlier portrait, my recent encounter with the former trucker encourages me to not give up on painting word pictures featuring people’s real life-experiences.
He continues along the course of life that raised my gaze to give thanks to God for His gracious working in the man’s life. Redemption in action—gaze-raising joy. And that's something worth writing about!
Peter's second book is a compilation of inspirational articles on a variety of themes from his weekly column. These are interspersed with brief expressions intended to encourage. Ebook edition is now available through Amazon.
ISBN: 978-0-9920074-2-3 (Angel Hope Publishing)
Peter's first book: “Parables from the Pond” – a children's / family book (mildly educational, inspirational in orientation, character reinforcing). Finalist – Word Alive Press. ISBN: 1897373-21-X. The book has found a place in various settings with a readership ranging from kids to senior adults.

Black's inspirational column, P-Pep! appears weekly in The Guide-Advocate (of Southwestern Ontario). His articles have appeared in 50 Plus Contact and testimony, and several newspapers in Ontario.


Rose McCormick Brandon said...

Peter - I enjoyed this - I too have written about people who failed to live up to my words . . . but only a couple of times. Most have been like your trucker - faithful and true. Like you, I enjoy the interaction with subjects and the friendships that result. As always, your words hit home.

Susan Harris said...

My default position is to not write about a person without his/her permission. If I write about a person I'd scale it to a point in time so even if the individual deviates from that trajectory, the facts would still be true. A good reminder, and as always, blessed by your words, Peter.

fudge4ever said...

Thank you for your honesty on this subject, Peter. I struggle with it too. It's always a risk writing about someone we know. The world would be quick to point out their downfall (as in the Duggar's case). But it few of us stay perfectly on course throughout the length of our lives. I suppose if one of our subjects falls away it would be an opportunity to point to the mercy of Jesus and write about grace.
Pam Mytroen

Peter Black said...

Thank you Rose, Susan and Pam. Your comments are appreciated and each offer food for thought in regard to writing about people we know or have met. I've often sought permission from subjects and checked whether they would prefer me to used pseudonyms or their real names. Sometimes I set the story up with blurred identifying factors of time and place. Some persons I've been unable to trace.
I've written about characters - especially from my UK years - who are long deceased. I generally try to present the character and story sensitively, in case any surviving relatives should ever come across what I've written.
However, writing about "the mercy of Jesus and . . . grace" (thanks Pam) - the redemptive motif - is a most precious thing, isn't it? ~~+~~

Popular Posts