Thursday, July 23, 2015

Current Obsession: Biographies... and Dennis Wilson

I've read a ton of writing guides, so I can't remember which one turned me in the direction of character study. It may have been Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott), but I can't be 100% sure. It was one of the less genre focused writing guides, one that recommended a more exploratory approach to writing. Anyway, thanks to that book, I have a huge crush on biographies - official and non. Think about it; when it comes to reading about people as characters, there is no getting closer to a person than a biography. Especially when you get a hold of one that is well written.

In grade school, I hated biographies. When I was in fifth grade, Mrs. Gardner had a wall of books at the back of the classroom. Each week, we had to pick one book from the wall and write an essay about that person. The books were quite old, from the 40s through the late 60s: cloth-bound hardcovers with stamped lettering. The illustrations all looked like this. They were children's books, but they were basically just watered down versions of adult biographies with all the controversial details about the figure's lives left out. A lot of the books in that set were about cowboys and outlaws. Almost all the books were about men. 

I didn't start to appreciate biographies until I was much older. The first biography I bought for myself was Jim Morrison, Dark Star by Dylan Jones. Or maybe hubby bought it for me. Either way, it's the first biography I read with any real interest. After that book, I ended up reading I'm With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, a biography about Pamela Des Barres. From there, I picked up a biography here, a biography there. Once I had the internet, I began to research and read about people I'd found fascinating at one point or another: Sid Vicious, Lori Maddox, Frank Zappa, Lydia Lunch, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Edgar Allan Poe. What was it about these people that made them so interesting?  I'd read books and articles about them to try figuring it out for myself.

I never thought of myself as a biography reader, but what's funny is that I had always loosely followed celebrity news to some extent. If someone was in the news and classmates were talking about them, I'd have to find out who they were talking about, see what had them talking, just out of curiosity. Is that what we do when we're writing fiction?  Writing about someone we think is interesting (or at least we hope readers will think so), while simultaneously trying to figure out why they're interesting? 

I was raised on a steady musical diet of Jan and Dean, and the Beach Boys, so much so, that when I was a tiny tot, I thought my dad personally knew the band members; we just never visited with them or anything. (Yes, I realize that's kind of weird. What can I say?) When the band members went through their breakdowns, and divorces, and drug problems, my dad would shake his head, and it was as if he was worried about a relative or someone he'd gone to school with. 

When Dennis Wilson died in December of 1983, my dad was crushed. We were at my grandmother's house when it came on the news. Silence fell over the living room. The news footage showed pictures of Dennis Wilson, bearded, shirtless, in ragged shorts, standing on a small yacht afloat on a calm stretch of ocean. There are articles abound that say he had gotten drunk and jumped off the boat to try to recover items he had tossed overboard three years prior. The family took that news with a mixture of sadness, shock, and disbelief. It was as if we'd been informed in the most unpersonal way ever that a loved one had died. 

In looking back, what a fascinating person Dennis Wilson was. He had his demons, yes, and he wasn't a stranger to controversy, but he lived a fascinating life. Isn't that what we all hope for? To be remembered?  To live a life worth discussion after we're gone? 

Some people probably don't care for the "warts and all" approach to biographies, but there is so much to learn from that type of life story. Especially when it comes to character study. Biographies showcase real life characters living life their own way. I think that's what makes for the most interesting characters - the people who do their own thing, no excuses, no apologies. They might have struggled or whinged the entire journey, but they stayed true to their own path right to the end. It's something I've been trying to think about when sitting down to write ficticious people: what are they doing that will be remembered? And, are they living a life that will be worth discussion once the book ends? 

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