Victor is currently teaching Everybody’s Autobiography. Recently we asked Victor, “What have you discovered about autobiographical or biographical writing?” Here’s his response:
Lives cannot be documented, only made—somehow constructed. Even if the subject is yourself, there is an awareness from “outside”—an inability to penetrate the core, a realization of its absence—it intrudes. You are never identical with yourself. We are, at best, but tourists with a view to every life. So when engaged in biographical or autobiographical writing, I know before I start that I am making something; it is a construction built from the materials of someone’s life. This, however, does not mean that anything can “go,” but there’s a range, an honest way of working through your materials that over time enforces certain limits on the way that this gets done; these, however, are not factual, but formal limits. Like any work of art, the material you use will start to come together in a way that makes demands, that must be followed if the piece—albeit essay, poem, book—is to be itself, is to “work.” And ironically, the more you work with facts, the more the research tends to pull you out of what you’re making, into something merely anecdotal, accidental, quite unnecessary—just a pile of “stuff.” There is a tension between the things you know about your subject and the things that over time become the meaning of the work. This is why an artist must be willing to sacrifice the facts—even if these facts are supposed to be your own—if they impede the inner workings of the text. In the end, a life—as all things passing—fades, but if you do your job “correctly”—passionately, honestly—there is the work. And that (one hopes) will be enough.