Writing someone else’s autobiography: The World Trade Center comparison

Unknown numbers of unknown unknowns

I was talking to someone last night about writing their autobiography. It will probably never happen, because the publishing industry is in decline, is running scared and does not really know what is happening with eBooks, self-publishing, print-on-demand and all the other new imponderables.

Back in December 2011, I wrote a blog about How to write someone else’s biography or your own autobiography 

That did not go into the mechanics of the thing.

Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said:

– There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know.

– There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know.

– But there are also unknown unknowns – There are things we do not know we don’t know

He got a tremendous amount of unfair criticism claiming this was gibberish when, in fact, it is entirely clear and entirely correct. Especially when you are writing a book about someone else’s life.

You do not know how much – let alone what – you do not know about the other person’s life. And, if you do not know what you do not know, you may not know the right questions to ask to find out what you do not know and what the other person has forgotten or does not realise is illuminating.

By-and-large, I think the best thing is to chat to and record the person talking about their life. This might take 30 hours – or much more.

With my non-typing skills, I take three times as long to transcribe a chat as the chat takes itself. You cannot get someone else to transcribe it, because they may miss something vital in the intonation or the syntax or in the umming and ahhing and meandering which everyone does in ordinary everyday speech.

So that means, in this case, 30 hours of chats would take 90 hours to transcribe – so a total of 120 hours. If you work a solid seven-hour day, that means just over 17 days. If you take weekends off, that means three weeks and two days in total, working solidly every weekday from 9.30am to 5.30pm with a single one-hour lunch break.

After all that, you are at ground zero. You have the material with which to write the book, but you have not yet started to write the book.

If you have conducted the chats well, you will have got the basics and managed to stop the person diverging too much onto sidetrack dead ends – although you have to allow a lot of genuinely irrelevant, pointless sidetracking because you are faced with unknown numbers of unknown unknowns – and one apparent sidetrack may lead to you striking pure gold.

Even if the person has excellent recall of details (which is rare) and has been able to tell their story in some rough form of chronological order (which is even rarer), what you have now is a meandering, waffly mess, from which you have to create some sort of structure with threads running through which will intrigue and ‘hook’ the reader.

What you exclude is arguably more important than what you include.

Telling a life story is not a matter of telling the reader everything that happened. Facts are not necessarily interesting. You have to find specific incidents which will illuminate and explain certain periods in the person’s life. No point describing in detail what happened as 153 events slowly developed in one six month period of a whole life; you have to find one key event which illuminates the period, develops a thread and cut it back so it becomes vivid and insightful.

Part of that you have to sort-out when you are chatting to the person. But a lot is in the later writing, which is like putting together a jigsaw wading through syrup in concrete boots while carrying an octopus on your back.

The important choice is what you do NOT include.

It is like telling the story of how one person died in the World Trade Center. Going through the ruins of both collapsed buildings with a sieve and a toothbrush will not help. There is too much information. Too much rubble.

People know too much about their own lives. A ghost writer has to find the key vivid facts, incidents, thoughts and feelings which condense decades of incidents into 90,000-120,000 words.

And, trust me, 90,000 words is less than superficial.

So pity the poor person trying to write someone else’s autobiography.

You don’t know what my life is like.

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Filed under Books, Writing

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