I'm currently having a daily flaming tryst with Kurt Vonnegut by reading his biography and re-reading his most famous work, Slaughterhouse Five. Vignettes from a painful, somewhat neglected childhood, the trauma of war, and the cruel tediousness of everyday family life come together and shed light on the troubled genius. I want to hold his hand and tell him everything is going to be okay. I want to tell him I understand him even if his publishers don't. I want to tell him how charming I think it is that he didn't know who Keats was when he was a university professor teaching writing. Funny. In his novels I would be able to do exactly that due to some mysterious time warp or some distracted all powerful being. He seemed to work it out just fine without me. So I won't build a time machine. One less thing on my to-do list.
Gifted writers use words carefully to give you a little insight into the wounded crevices of their souls. What they won't tell their best friend over a beer at the corner bar, they will scribble on a page and send out into the universe to see if there might be someone, anyone, who feels the same way. Then many years later, there I am on the sofa, in my threadbare Berkeley sweatshirt, savoring the book which I know in my soul of souls was written for me. I don't know why the other 2 million people bought it. The author was toying with them, but then he has to pay the bills. I can overlook his infidelity. I know the truth.
What an author reveals to us in his work is often explained further when the biography comes out. Talented writers and researchers go on massive treasure hunts through interviews that must feel like depositions, personal letters, and other tangible clues. True life stories come forward through the shadows. Character models and threads of real life become connected and the magic dissipates to expose raw inspiration.We get to share in the, sometimes tormented, creative process. The disappointments. The little victories. Eventually the success. We want to yell at his wife to "leave him alone, so he can write" we want to scold uninterested publishers. We want to sit in the front row of the class at a mid-western university or at Cambridge and catch the reek of cigarette smoke or the haunting slight scent of pipe tobacco. We want to be amused at the rumpled suit and disheveled stacks of papers. Biographers allow us to do just that.
Biographers--good ones, not the ones who turn out those disastrous tell-alls--help us understand the genius and his muse. The muse isn't so much that wispy ethereal being we picture hovering over the author. Sometimes her lip is busted and she smells like gin. Hanging around with artists and writers is tough work. You think Hemingway had a wimpy muse? She's limped along next to our favorite writers over the years helping them to slog it out at the typewriter, or on the back of a napkin when things were bad. She's kept them up at night demanding to be heard. When she's inspired the last piece of work maybe she starts looking for the writer who will tell the writer's story--the one he was creating when he wasn't writing. After all, isn't life just a story in the end? Biographers get to improve on it. Polish it up. Edit. They give our favorite writers back to us more easily understood and fully fleshed out. Every once in a while you can almost smell the Pall Malls.