Biographers On The Pain Of Letting Go Of Their Subjects
Robert K. Massie, writing in Parting Words (New York Times Sunday Book Review, March 2, 2012 ), observes that biographers have found it difficult to say goodbye “to a subject with whom [they] had been living for a long time.”
Nevertheless, the end must come. When that happens, how does a biographer feel? Exhausted? Relieved? Euphoric? At long last, a person of leisure? Or something different. Wistful, sad, bereaved? You were with the subject every day. Now this companion has departed and left you behind. He or she has concluded the time shared with you. That part of your life is over.
Massie goes on to discuss how specific biographers cope. Brenda Wineapple, for example, who has written the lives of Janet Flanner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Dickinson, reported
I felt the keenest sense of loss when I left the Steins. I felt alone and bereft. How could I replace my companionship with someone like Gertrude, so witty, so intelligent, so charismatic? I knew I’d never be with that kind of person again; never have the same intensity of feeling again.
Doris Kearns Goodwin believes that “How you feel about finishing a book traces back to why you chose the subject in the first place” and, like Wineapple, handles the separation by moving on to another book.
While Massie focused on authors who wrote about individuals from the past, the article provoked my curiosity, and I wondered if a biographer of a living person might have the same or similar experience on completing that book.
As it happens, I know someone who is just now wrapping up a biography of a living subject, so …
Dear Sylvie Simmons,
How Does It Feel To Finish Your Biography Of Leonard Cohen
I emailed the article by Massie to Sylvie Simmons,1 who is assiduously completing the multitude of administrative tasks necessary prior to the publication of her book, I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen, and asked how she felt now that she had finished writing her biography of Leonard Cohen.
She, in turn, sent me a thoughtful, evocative, and, of course, well written, response that was too good not to share.
This Massie character has pretty much hit it on the head.
For me, the emotion is somewhat akin to having had a longterm guest, whom you like very much and who is a wonderful distraction – as are many of the friends he introduces you to – but whose ongoing presence is also exhausting. So when you finally wave goodbye and close the door, there’s a sense of very welcome release as well as loss. A kind of post party-um depression sets in. A need to clean up and lick your wounds, oh and be waited on hand and foot, and when you look around and see there’s no one there to do the waiting, another kind of melancholy sets in too.
There’s also the detritus to clear up – the book equivalent of emptying the ashtrays and taking the empties out – checking for typos, dealing with questions from editors and the legal people, getting permissions for the use of every quote from every poem and song and the rights to use the photos. Since these have no particularly pleasant or tangible results – ie. it’s not like working on an article and seeing it in print, or on a song and getting to play it – it’s mostly (gazing at photos of Leonard aside) tiresomeness for the sake of tiresomeness. And it’s tiring enough, waking up in the middle of the night, convinced that you forget to mention some Extremely Important Incident or Observation and it’s too late.
The other bonus prize is that right now, writing short, pithy articles of 500 or 1000 words feels almost impossible. Getting the (pardon the expression) toss-one-off skill back is something I’ll have to work on, were I not so damned exhausted.
Remember when you first asked me about why did I choose to write a book about Leonard? The answer still applies.
The question and answer to which Sylvie refers is from Sylvie Simmons On Her Leonard Cohen Biography, The Uke, & All Sorts Of Good Stuff; the pertinent portion follows:
DrHGuy: You’ve written articles and essays about scores of rock musicians and books about Mötley Crüe, Neil Young, and Serge Gainsbourg (which Leonard Cohen praised). How did you come to decide to devote your efforts to a biography of Leonard Cohen instead of, say, Mick Jagger or Tom Waits?
Sylvie Simmons: Is there anyone else on whom you would have been willing to have expended the time and enthusiasm you have to this site?
Biography writing is, to a great degree, torture. The fact that I’ve chosen to inflict it on myself might lead to some follow-up questions on my tastes but the truth is that to write a biography, or to do it properly and not just go through press clippings and recycle what other people have said, involves immersing yourself in someone’s life to a degree that’s not entirely healthy and would probably get you locked up in any decent society. As a writer you want to tell a story (in fact my last published book was a collection of short stories), but as a biographer you not only want to do that but have the responsibility of telling your subject’s story. So you’d be well served to choose someone who’s life you’re willing to be immersed in and whose story you want to tell. (That’s why I’ve turned so many offers down.)
So okay, hands up: Jagger or Cohen?
OK, she’s got a point there.
You Can’t Judge A Cover By Its Book
I also asked Sylvie Simmons “Is this [see above] the for-sure, no kidding, this is it book cover? Will different countries have different covers? Could you tell me why you chose (assuming you had a vote) that shot?” Her reply follows:
Nope, I didn’t get to choose the cover shot and, so far as I can tell, Camp David has been rented and they’ll come to some sort of agreement on who gets to use what, where.
Regardless of the cover finally chosen, I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons will be published this fall and is currently available for pre-order.
- For more about Sylvie Simmons and her Leonard Cohen biography, see Sylvie Simmons On Her Leonard Cohen Biography, The Uke, & All Sorts Of Good Stuff. Ms Simmons has a long and distinguished career in rock journalism and is well known to Leonard Cohen’s followers who may recognize her name from the byline on the 2,000-word liner notes for Leonard Cohen, Live At The Isle Of Wight, the 11 page article on Cohen she wrote for the Dec 2008 MOJO, her November 1997 MOJO review and interview, Leonard Cohen: More Best Of, or her November 2001 MOJO piece, Felonious Monk, and, most recently, the Leonard Cohen interview that appeared in the March 2012 MOJO in conjunction with the release of Old Ideas. Of course, ongoing visitors to this site may recall that Ms Simmons also wrote the liner notes for the Heck Of A Guy Another Other Leonard Cohen Album collection of unreleased Cohen music, served as girls’ teenzines expert commentator in Leonard Cohen In Seventeen Magazine – 1968, and sporadically shows up in these pages with pithy quotes and even a photo or two. [↩]