Not a historian this time but one of my favourite fiction writers, and not so much uplifting as interesting. It’s the late Carol Shields from a short story I read last night called Collision. She’s talking about biography, not as a genre or literary construct, but as the live experience that we all accumulate around ourselves just through the act of being and living:
The only law of biography is that everything, every particle, must be saved. The earth is alight with it, awash with it, scoured by it, made clumsy and burnished by its steady accretion… That’s the worst of it: there’s nothing selective about biography’s raw data, no sorting machine, no briny episodes underlined in yellow pencil or provided with bristling asterisks- it’s all here, the sweepings and the leavings, the most trivial personal events encoded with history. Biography- it sniffs it out, snorts it up… (p. 315)
…Written biography, that’s another matter, quite another matter! Memoirs, journals, diaries. Works of the biog-imagination are as biodegradable as orange peels. Out they go. Pssst- they blast themselves to vapor, cleaner and blonder than the steam from a spotless kettle. Nothing sticks but the impulse to get it down. (p.316)
From ‘Collision’, Carol Shields The Collected Stories
This was an uplifting quote for a bedraggled historian! I have just spent the week updating Endnote, updating spreadsheets, double-checking, cross-checking, detail checking, recording, more checking, changing file names, checking, checking, checking… aaagh!
I have been immersed in raw data, herding it this way and that, taming it, encouraging it, checking out relationships…
Thankyou for sharing this little gem – the antidote that I needed after reading spending a week reading filenames, titles and bibliographical details.
This is an uplifting quote for a bedraggled historian. It was a delight to read after having spent days entering records into Endnote and even more into a spreadsheet, creating PDFs, checking entries, double-checking entries, cross-checking, finding more items to enter, checking, correcting, checking, correcting….
I have been harnessing the items we have accumulated from over a year delving into archives in three states. I have been swamped by a sea of data and have become a ‘sorting machine’ trying to tame the stuff. We are not working on biography but the issues are much the same.
Yet the anaology of a machine implies that I have been objective, that there is only one way to approach the task. While I feel that I have been stripped of creativity and expression this week, they crept in when I chose which items to include in our database, what tags I should use, the categories that I should assign to the items.
The problem is that ‘biography’s raw data’ is ephemeral, or perhaps randomly so. We can only work with what is kept and there is often no logic behind what has been turfed and what remains. Generally we work with what people carefully choose to record and keep, the dross deliberately hidden from us. Consequently we can provide a representation of the past, not the past as it was.
I’m so pleased that it resonated with you, too. I know exactly what you mean about the mechanics of data-collection as I, too, am ensnared in spreadsheets, NVivo and the logistics of negotiating archives before I head off to Canada to hoover up some more. I’m feeling like a boa-constrictor, bulging with STUFF. I’m wanting the messiness of a lived life, but instead find all this paper!
Perhaps I was an addled historian yesterday – a more brain dead version of a bedraggled historian. I submitted the second comment thinking that the first comment must have been lost in the ether!
Any chance of a post on your experience of NVivo? I am always interested in finding out how others work the data that they collect from archives.
Hmmm … fascinating quote RJ. But, you know, I thought orange peel wasn’t particularly biodegradable? Doesn’t it take a while? Just me being pedantic…
I’ve read one Carol Shields autobiography – the one on Jane Austen. (Did she write more? Maybe not). Anyhow, it was a great read because she’s quite self-conscious in it that she’s writing a biography, and writing one about a person for whom there are big gaps. So, she wrote it from the point of view of a novelist writing about a novelist, and made some assumptions based on that but nothing far-fetched. It was a good read.
Her image- not mine!! (lol). I’ve read the Jane Austen biography too- thought it was excellent. I’m reading a collection of her short stories at the moment and loving them- so many of them are quite memorable in their own right which is something that I rarely find with short story collections because they tend to all merge into each other.