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Check It Out

Courier Article by Sandy Schultheis
Sunday, October 7, 2001

Authors' Bios Give Insight Into the "Writing" Mind

Lately I have found myself drawn to biographies of writers, perhaps because I struggle to find the time to write a short column once a month and am in awe of people who actually make a living as writers. All of these titles are available through your public library which has numerous biographies of the famous, infamous and even of obscure individuals whose lives were nonetheless notable.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (Scribner, 2000).

I've enjoyed so many of King's works, not as books but as the very successful movies they became (The Shining, Stand By Me, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption and most recently The Green Mile). Starting off his memoir, King writes: "I lived an odd, herky jerky childhood, raised by a single parent who moved around a lot in my earliest years…" Indeed this is an odd, herky jerky book, read by the author in a voice eerily reminiscent of that of humorist David Sedaris. But it is also oddly appealing in its candor and self-disclosure. I was not aware that King battled alcohol and drug problems or that his wife had stood by him and given him the emotional support to keep writing. An accident in 1996 (he was run down by a reckless driver) left him near death and severely injured. It also gave him the perspective to revise and finish this book, which is aimed at aspiring writers. King's strongest message is that writing must be something you love and are compelled to do; otherwise you might as well get a job that will offer a more reliable source of income. An excellent audiobook version read by the author is also available.

Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare (Nan Talese, 2000).

If Stephen King is popular, proletarian and approachable, his polar opposite may be the late English writer, Bruce Chatwin, whose life reads as effete, elitist and enigmatic. Unlike King who knew from childhood he wanted to be a writer,

Chatwin started his career as an author relatively late in life at age 37 with the publication of In Patagonia, a sort of travel memoir which is partly fact and partly fantasy. I followed Chatwin's career with great interest and was always pleasantly surprised with each new book he produced. When I heard he was dying of a rare fungal infection he had possibly contracted in a cave in China I felt that the world would be cheated of a talented writer. When he died in 1989 the rumor that he had actually had AIDs but would not admit it puzzled me. Now having read this very detailed study of his life I can better understand the demons, which drove him. He was a golden boy who had talent, good looks and charm in abundance, but apparently no one really knew him or could get close to him.

His American wife, Elizabeth, was loyal to him until the end. Though she cooperated with the author in his research for this book I felt that I knew even less about her than I did about Bruce, but perhaps she wanted it that way. If you are a fan of Chatwin's you will enjoy this biography, but may find it slow going in the beginning. If you aren't familiar with Chatwin's writing I suggest you read The Songlines or On the Black Hill which arem two of my favorites.

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford (Random House, 2001).

It seems like eons ago, 1970 in fact, that Milford wrote Zelda, a fine and entertaining biography about the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This new book is about another jazz-era wild woman. It is an exhaustive (550 pages) and to me exhausting, study of the complex and sad life of a poet who burned her candle at both ends and won the Pulitzer

Prize for her efforts in 1923. The poet's sister Norma gave Milford access to Millay's personal papers, letters, and notebooks. She also worked with Milford to help her understand what it was like to grow up in Camden Maine at the turn of the century with an absentee mother who left her three daughters to fend for themselves much of the time. Millay, whose middle name was that of a hospital not an aristocratic ancestor, was a complex and charismatic woman who had literary abilities as well as a gift for self-dramatization. Her talent as a young poet inspired a wealthy woman to send her to Vassar College where she furthered her contacts and career. Her theatrical abilities made her an effective reader of her own works on the lecture circuit as well as on radio broadcasts Poetry enthusiasts should also be on the lookout for a new biography of Emily Dickinson which is coming out this month.

Sandy Schultheis is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.