My Commonplace Book (a diary of excerpts copied from printed books, with comments added by the reader.)
“Biographies of writers, whether written by themselves or by others, are always superfluous and usually in bad taste.”
—W. H. Auden (1907–1973)
That about sums it up. A biography of an explorer or a warrior or a performer or a political activist might amuse, inform, and enlighten us. But a writer or artist touches us through her books, paintings, music. All the of rest her life is, at best, just ordinary eating and drinking and minding the kids and going to the dentist, like everyone else. At worst, it may be mean-spirited posturing, gossip, nothing to do with the art which is produced in spite of these human failings.
An artist might try to let you in on her creative process, but she can’t. S/he can describe and suggest every possible conscious exercise to improve technique. But when s/he manages to sink into the part of her mind where inspiration hides, she enters a dark cave blindly, and takes dictation from an unknown source. It’s futile to ask her to explain that source; she hasn’t a clue.
That’s why biographical movies about artists fall into romantic clichés like those dreadful movies from the mid-1950s about artists like Gauguin, Chopin, etc. These bio-pics try to answer unanswerable questions, and only give us soap-opera clichés that get between us and the art itself. We must give ourselves up to the art, learn its language, and let it transform us.
(Send the Berkeley Daily Planet a page from your own Commonplace Book)