Kingston WritersFest: Biography as Essay

Thanks to Merilyn Simonds, Jan Walter, and all the many volunteers at the Kingston WritersFest last weekend. The Festival was an overwhelming success, with huge, enthusiastic audiences for every event and happy writers. The venue is already booked for next year.

With Merilyn Simonds at the helm you can be sure that writers of creative nonfiction were well represented at the Festival. In particular, I enjoyed a panel moderated by Charlotte Gray on Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series. Mark Kingwell, Daniel Poliquin, and Jane Urquhart spoke brilliantly on their subjects (Glenn Gould, René Lévesque, and Lucy Maud Montgomery, respectively) but also on the art of biography itself.

The Extraordinary Canadians series, edited by John Raulston Saul, imposes strict length restrictions on its authors. All three at the WritersFest mentioned that early in the process, they began to think of what they were writing as extended essays, and that ultimately, this idea that they were writing essays liberated them from doomed attempts to encapsulate an entire life in forty to fifty thousand words. Instead, the form itself required –  but also inspired – non-linear and highly personal interpretations. Structure arose organically from the themes that dominated their subjects’ lives, together with their need to cut through the many myths and presuppositions about these famous people. Each book in the series is therefore a dialogue of sorts between author and subject.

I liked this idea of essay-as-inspiration and look forward to reading the results.

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