Biography Year

By on Oct 4, 2020 in Essays

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12 biographical subjects

Twelve individuals were born in my mind last year. My project went like this: I read one biography each month—some from my pile of the unread, and some that I heard about during that year. The subjects of these biographies, living and dead, mingled in my mind and became defined by the people, places, and ideas that were important to them. They went from being two-dimensional faces with names attached, to characters with three-dimensional personalities. As I got to know them, they seemed to get to know each other, connecting on places and interests they shared. I mind-mapped each, and looked for trends and connections among them. The librarian part of me was hoping to put together a clever biography selection and reading guide, but mainly, I just wanted to explore the genre.

I use mind maps to organize and remember information. I learned about this technique from a member of my book club, and for a very long time, this is where I practiced mind mapping. I mapped details of the books we read so that I could more easily enter into discussion. Soon I realized that mind maps helped me find connections, threads, and hierarchies as well. One step further, I sometimes make a meta map to summarize findings from multiple sources on a topic (books, articles, radio shows, interviews, etc.). I use mind maps to organize my writing and speaking, too.

Mind map of Molly Brown

Mind map of Molly Brown

By mind mapping my biographies as I read them, I was able to observe trends, and became intrigued by the art of biography writing. Over the course of the Biography Year, certain questions reappeared for almost every individual.

  • What surprises surfaced about the subject? Was the biographer surprised by these, too?

The musical theater and film character “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was based upon a real person named Margaret Brown who actually did survive the Titanic disaster and never went by the name “Molly.” The first pandas brought to the United States were captured and transported by a socialite widow named Ruth Harkness and her Chinese partner and guide. Beethoven worried a lot.

  • What places are important to the subject’s life, and did the subject become more familiar to me if I visited these places?

I happened to be in Denver recently and visited Margaret “Molly” Brown’s House of Lions. Having read the biography, this was a delightful experience, except I was disappointed at how much of Brown’s amazing life the tour guide left out. I understand that most people are intrigued by her surviving the Titanic disaster and that, if he had described all of her Denver civic accomplishments, the tour would have been three times longer.

  • Who were the major characters in the subject’s life? Were they collaborators or muses? Was the subject a rugged individualist? Did the biographer research these people?

Beethoven was a loner. Samuel de Champlain, Marco Polo, Bruce Springsteen, and Ruth Harkness often worked collaboratively, understanding that multiple minds offer multiple perspectives for a creative solution. Duke Ellington got ideas from other musicians, but took most of the credit.

  • What were the connections to the other eleven subjects?

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Margaret Montet writes creative nonfiction that combines place with memoir, music, or culture. She recently earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Nonfiction from the Pan European MFA Program at Cedar Crest College, where, for her thesis, she wrote a collection of essays of place called "Nerd Traveler." In order to provide herself with food, shelter, and travel money, she works as a librarian at Bucks County Community College, sharing her love of books and research. She teaches Effective Speaking to college students, and Music History to older adults. She spent the 1980s in Philadelphia pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Music Theory at Temple University, and she constantly looks back on the inspiration she found there to support her writing. Her pieces have appeared in such periodicals as Dragon Poet Review, Flying South, Clever Magazine, Pink Pangea, Edible Jersey, Library Journal, America in WWII, and The Bangalore Review.