We write first in blood and tears, then go over in ink.

On Writing Biographies

I have written several biographies already – of my father-in-law Ong Tien Soo, Mr Toi Boon How, Mr Lionel Ong and Mr Christopher Victor. Even the 1000-word reports I interviewed and wrote up about cancer survivors and ex-offenders are, in a sense, short biographies.

Never once have I received feedback that I was false or inaccurate in my stories. Nonetheless, how much do I know of these people who are not related to me by blood or friendship, to write so intimately about them? Before I interviewed them, I’ve never even met many of them.

But, then again, who can claim to know a person so well that he can confidently say “Read my story – it reveals the true person.” Even adult children and siblings will tell you they don’t know their relatives that well. I see this all the time among the families I interview. One family member would swear that he remembered the right date of something important – like a birthday or an anniversary – only to be corrected by another relative. I hold all these facts and dates with an open hand. I don’t get too uptight about them.

You may ask: “If a biographer doesn’t emphasise accuracy, then what is the purpose of his story?”

In biographies, my purpose is to celebrate the person. I approach the first blank white paragraph with this question, “How would I like this person to be remembered by his children and grandchildren?”

This question guides me through the writing of all the subsequent chapters. My manuscript, then, becomes more than a report, it is actually the start of my relationship with my interviewee! By necessity of my task, I have to begin an odyssey in search for the real man.

Who is this real man? This is not a question we ponder in daily life. And so, we are misguided into thinking of the real man as the flesh and blood individual standing in front of us. However, when we pause and think about it, a man is so much more than a ‘eating, working, pooping and sleeping’ automaton. And no publisher would ask a biographer to write only about the physical aspect of a person.

It is natural, in that situation, to look outwards at the physical manifestations of the interviewee – his impact on his surroundings. Thus, biographers will ask: “What is my man’s relationship like with his family, his colleagues, his pet dog. What contributions did he make to society?”

It is more challenging to look inwards, to fathom the invisible part of the person. These would be his spirit, his values and his emotions. Many of my subjects so far have been Chinese patriarchs. They’ve been through World War II, or suffered the aftermath of the war. Such men do not wear their hearts on their sleeves. They have gotten to where they are in life by not harping too much on the finer things, like feelings.

Posed with a simple question like: “Who, or what, do you love?” they reply with a blank stare. They will ruminate for a long moment, then list the people they are responsible for, the milestones they’d clocked for their corporations, the number of rounds they covered on the jogging track that morning.

I love them for their pragmatism. I admire the solidity of their values that provides the moral foundation for their organisations and their families. It is up to me, then, to wrestle these invisible subtle distinctions into discrete, limited, crude vocabulary.

Two of my interviewees have already passed on since the writing of their life stories. One man did not even get to see his book launched. I treasured my short time with them. It also serves to remind me of the urgency of getting stories down in print. Every day, millions of men and women with invaluable insights and wisdom are carrying their secrets over to the other side with them. We writers have a noble task – let us work to be the voice (and word processor) for those who are unable to write their memoirs.

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