Beware of Biographers

samueljohnsonThe positive side of reading a biography is its potential to inspire.  We see another human working away who finds answers, takes actions, who receives benefits, or overcomes obstacles in some manner we wish to emulate or fate grant us. We want what they have. Maybe not all of it, especially the part about suffering or travails.

Last night I saw the last minutes of a multi-part series on Frank Sinatra. It contained rare photos and films, and voice overs of those who knew him and had spent some time traveling his life’s road. The presentation, of course, made everything about Frank appear fascinating. Even Frank’s downturns and blemishes looked heroic, meaningful, poetic, or at least colorful. The director moved us through a dozen emotions. There was:

-nostalgia,
-cheering,
-sadness at Frank’s retirement,
-elation at his return out of retirement,
-grief over his passing, and
-rejoicing at his triumph over poverty and non-fame to riches and power in New York, NY.

Fun stuff and a great dopamine rush.

Stepping back from this experience, I can see something hidden in this biography and the many others I have enjoyed. My inner critic detects fodder for self-judgement. How in the world can my life ever stack up to, not so much to Frank Sinatra, but to any creative person?

My inner critic finds my story wanting.  In comparison with biographies, I always come out: smaller, drab, undisciplined, untalented, with darn few crescendo moments to speak of and with no future mourners or current fan base.

What started as a source of inspiration contains the undoing of my creative self-image and project motivation. My inner critic is happy, but I’m not.

Biographies are stacked against us because they are poetry and art and not reality. “Wait a minute, they used real facts and figures. They didn’t make anything up.” That’s true, but poetry and art do something to facts and figures. Nothing wrong with that. That’s the power of the arts.

Biographers sort and choose what best fits their writing goals.
Biographers develop a story or narrative arc.
Biographers look at a person’s life from 10,000 feet.
Biographers usually know how things are going to work out.
Biographers think they can reduce complexity to simple cause and effect
Biographers match a person’s life events and character to transcendent archetypes.

I would leave this discussion as something only I have to deal with, but I hear it between the lines of many creative people. “Enter and be judged,” demands the inner critic. “Speak and explain how you are as worthy as those celebrated in this high stack of biographies.  Justify how your life merits examination and artistic rendering in a Ken Burns series, a David McCullough lengthy read, or a History Channel treatment. Who dare stands before me?”

How to Handle Biographies

1. Get thrilled, enjoy and get inspiration from biographies, but be on guard. Biography feeds two mouths: the inner muse and the inner critic.

2. Remember, people in biographies did not live their lives from the perspective of their biographers. They lived daily life, under the same ground rules that we live. Biographers short-cut, simplify, glorify, amplify, and minimize. We have to take the long road, accept complexity, live with the mundane, and take life at whatever size it presents.

3. Limit the inner critic/judge by disputing its comparisons and think of it as a very ill-informed and belligerent person who is trying to give you advice.  No thanks and move along.

4. Turn your attention from unimportant comparisons back to your work at hand. If you don’t have work at hand, that’s a problem. Get busy and get some. Keep consistently busy.

5. One last time: Don’t compare yourself and your life to a biography.

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