#AWP17 Conference Report — Rachael Hanel on “Attempting the Impossible: Strategies for Writing Creative Biography”

awp#AWP17 Panel S280: Attempting the Impossible: Strategies for Writing Creative Biography

Panelists: Sarah Blake, Sarah Domet, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Kathleen Rooney, Anthony Michael Morena

Description: Traditional biographers aspire to get out of the way of their subjects in order to render objective portraits. These panelists take the opposite approach, emphasizing the impossibility of ever creating such a portrait and using this not as a failure but as an opportunity for imagination and interactivity. At this event they present examples, research and writing methods, and mixed media techniques for adapting history into literature, offering new modes of presenting the past and the people in it.

Conference Report

One piece of advice from David Shields helped Kelcey Parker Ervick re-envision a biography she was writing: The notes are the book.

When she came across that advice, Ervick was struggling with telling the story of Božena Němcová, a 19th century Czech writer of fairy tales. Ervick wanted to write about Němcová’s complicated relationships, but so much was unknown. After coming across advice from Shields, Ervick’s focus became clear. Instead of trying to write a more traditional chronological narrative, Ervick decided to look at her notes and realized she could use found texts, handmade images and postcards written by Ervick to Němcová to create the story. The result was The Bitter Life of Bozena Nemcova, published in 2016 by Rose Metal Press.

I attended the panel as someone who is writing a narrative nonfiction biography, but not all of the panelists write nonfiction. Blake is a poet, Domet is a novelist, Rooney is a novelist and nonfiction writer, and Ervick and Anthony Michael Morena use essay to bring characters to life. Still, I found value in all of their approaches to biography even if the end result was fiction.

Blake described her process of researching information on Kanye West to develop Mr. West (2015, Wesleyan Poetry Series). She became intrigued with West when she learned that his mother died around the same time that Blake’s grandfather died. Blake’s primary method of research on West was daily Google news alerts on the singer. Blake noticed parallels between her experiences and West’s, and she responded to those parallels in poetic form.

Kathleen Rooney took an ekphrastic approach to biography when writing about the Belgian artist René Magritte. She’s been a lifelong fan and translated his selected writings in a 2016 book (René Magritte: Selected Writings, University of Minnesota Press). Now, Rooney is telling the story of Magritte through his work, his wife, Georgette, and his dog, Lulu.

“From pictures, we learn how to see and how to be,” Rooney said.

Sarah Domet used the life of St. Agatha to inform her novel, The Guineveres (2016, Flatiron Books). She said her end goal was not simply to retell St. Agatha’s story, but to use her story to develop themes in her novel of the female body and desire. Often, the stories about the lives of saints were told in a way to highlight their goodness as Christian women and to serve as an example. In her novel, Domet offers more ambiguity regarding St. Agatha’s life. She wanted to create an internal portrait of St. Agatha, to get into her mind and speculate on what she was thinking.

“I wanted to wrangle the story from white male Christian biographers, to restore her to her full complexity and humanity,” Domet said.

Anthony Michael Morena also wrote about a saint of sorts, the “secular saint” Carl Sagan. The Voyager Record: A Transmission (2016, Rose Metal Press) is a mix of poetry, flash fiction and essay that tells the story of 1977 recording that was sent out into space to represent the whole of the human experience. Morena said he focused on the “extremely boring details” of Sagan’s life, for example, lunchtime at home with his wife. Most biographies of famous people leave out those mundane activities, even though it’s those details that people will identify with. Morena used Cosmos, a 13-part TV documentary about space produced by Sagan, for inspiration.

Morena and Ervick included themselves in the biographies they wrote. Morena folded his experiences as a New Yorker into Sagan’s experiences growing up in Brooklyn. Ervick found similarities between her life and Němcová’s and wanted to write to Němcová to highlight those parallels. For example, Němcová was not happily married and took many lovers. When Ervick first discovered Němcová, Ervick was in a failing marriage. As she continued to write and research, her marriage dissolved and she fell in love again.

She wanted to explore “the dialectical relationship between two lives and the new possibilities that emerge” from that, she said.

When an audience member asked the panelists how they decided to insert themselves into the narrative of others, Morena said we’re always writing about ourselves, even when it seems that we’re not.

“Even when we’re trying to be altruistic, we’re always drawing that line back to ourselves,” he said.


Rachael Hanel is an assistant professor of mass media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

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