Writing Biographies with Hermione Lee

By Joshua Copus-Oxland

‘It’s ten o’clock,’ author Hermione Lee said as the crowd at her workshop settled in. ‘I’m a great believer of starting on the clock.’ The atmosphere was lively as the morning workshop started. The attendants, from aspiring writers to published authors and stand-up comedians, were immediately engaged, volleying idea after idea with the hosting biographer. Everyone was an active participant, and all have vital points to add to the conversation. Lee also gives them the chance to share some of their own favourite biographies with the group, like those of Napoleon Bonaparte and Daphne Du Maurier.

Lee’s previous work as the biographer of Virginia Woolf, Penelope Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton provided the foundation for the hands-on workshop, discussing the idea of the biography and directly involving the participants in the process of telling their own stories. In particular, her fascination with Virginia Woolf’s life is apparent, as she’s the subject of two biographies. Lee quoted her essay, ‘A Sketch of the Past’: ‘I see myself as a fish in a stream; deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream.’ The quote is more or less Lee’s way of understanding the process of biography writing, as there many different stories in a person’s life that add up, some plainly reported, most left unsaid. As Lee says, ‘What other people knew of them, that’s what you don’t have.’

The workshop dripped with conversation throughout, discussing techniques on biography writing, ethics, truth and fiction, entertainment value, censorship, storytelling and much more, with the occasional tea and biscuit break. During that, Lee expressed the responsibility that comes with the burden of detailing another person’s life, as she had experienced when commissioned by Edith Wharton’s family estate to write about Edith.

‘Somebody is writing your biography, so how would you deal with this day in your life?’ Lee asked. At this point the attendants were sorted into pairs, where one person recalls an anecdote from their life and the other retells that same anecdote out loud. The results were varied; some responses poetic and poignant, others punchy and humorous. Towards the end, she gave the group another exercise, which presented an interesting twist. Lee instructed the attendants to write the first paragraph of a biography of their life, but instead of having them write it as a memoir from their perspective, it has to be written in third person. Again, this exercise showcased many different literary voices and starting points, from remembering the scent of Nasi goreng from early childhood to the experience of being at Lee’s workshop here at the festival.