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Why I Read Biographies

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

“I don’t read biographies of musical geniuses,” my father used to say. “The music may be sublime, but the composer usually isn’t.” He was probably thinking of Beethoven, who was notoriously difficult, Schumann, who went insane, or Mozart, who never really grew up (remember Amadeus?). Even the celestial J.S. Bach whined disappointingly about money in his letters—although with twenty children and a wife to support that may be understandable.

Unlike my father, I do sometimes read bios, mostly of writers. I read them in search of inspiration, consolation, and for entertainment not unmixed with  Schadenfreude. Clicking the page-turn on my Kindle, I remind myself that what I’m reading is just one fallible human being’s opinion of another fallible human being, that memory is unreliable, that language obscures rather than reveals the truth, and so on. 

Still, reading about the lives of writers shines a beam, however faint, on that nebulous interface between character and creativity. And one thing stands out in all these bios: no matter how diverse the writers, their temperaments, and their circumstances, they all worked astoundingly hard at their writing, which they found arduous, draining, frustrating, and only occasionally exhilarating. 

Their personal lives are often awe-inspiring in their disarray. The fifty-year-old Colette seduced her seventeen-year-old stepson. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, two of the most exalted philosophical minds of the last century, were emotional dunces, and nasty ones at that, when it came to managing their mutual love affair as well as their entanglements with the many “contingent” others. (See Tête- à-Tête, the lives and loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, by Hazel Rowley.) 

For the last week I’ve been knee-deep in Margot Peters’ biography of May Sarton. The feminist and lesbian icon comes off as a sometimes dangerous lunatic, careening from one disastrous love affair to another, alternately drowning in tears and alcohol, and never able to reconcile her thirst for solitude with the need to surround herself with admirers. 

What emerges for me out of this welter of dramas, disappointments, insecurities, envies, and betrayals? For one, I learn again what my father discovered in the composer bios: that one can be both a creative genius and emotionally challenged. As a writer, I find consolation in confronting how hard the craft is and how much discipline it demands of even the greatest. If Colette found it necessary to turn her desk to the wall to avoid being distracted by the view of the Mediterranean, shouldn’t I save my internet surfing for after I’m done writing? 

Another useful reminder: once the poem/novel/essay is finished, even gargantuan talent and effort don’t guarantee success. André Gide said non to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Madeleine L’Engle had to submit A Wrinkle in Time to twenty-seven publishers before one accepted it. The stories of rejected masterpieces could fill a book. 

Reading about May Sarton’s lifelong failure to balance solitude and society, I am more inclined to forgive myself for my own minor version of the dilemma. If she, with her talent, ambition, and dedication couldn’t figure it out, then maybe I shouldn’t beat myself up for longing to be with people and longing to get away from them, sometimes both at the same time. 

Alas, none of the writers I\’ve read about, from the merely talented to the great geniuses, was particularly happy. In fact, many of them were mostly miserable. Critics scoffed; lovers betrayed or were betrayed; money was scarce; the Muse absconded; self-doubt persisted despite public acclaim. 

Yet it wasn’t all darkness and gnashing of teeth. Even the least happy of these geniuses experienced flashes of, if not unclouded joy, at least temporary ease—that blessed moment when, having toiled and agonized (Flaubert: “Writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles.”) one lays down the pen or turns off the computer and enjoys the inexpressible relief of having written. 

In this respect, I’m there with the best—nothing smooths my brow or makes me feel more at peace than having written. The feeling reminds me of the endorphin rush that used to engulf me after a five-mile run. Of course, the lovely sensation doesn’t last, and tomorrow I’ll have to do the equivalent of one of those runs again. But what is life if not an endless run around the same old track?

For those us who write, paint, sculpt, or make music amid the tragedies and absurdities of human existence, the guarantee of solace that comes from having written, painted, sculpted, or composed is not a trivial blessing. It is an echo of the Creator’s cosmic sigh of relief (“and He saw that it was good”) at the end of each day’s work.


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