- Writing Biography as a Relationship
Writing a biography is usually considered a combination of historical scholarship and literary art. The biographer needs to investigate the life of her protagonist in the context of her or his time and culture. From fractions of information that form a mass, the biographer forges a story, an image, a picture. The vivacity of the person emerging from the pages is a criterion of the biographer's writing talent, the coherence and breadth of the story a measure of her knowledge. These two elements are said to distinguish good biographical works from bad ones. In this short essay, I will describe how I learned that this conceptualization is severely insufficient, and how my understanding of the subject developed from my first biography, about Dvora Baron (Conversations with Dvora, 1997), to my second, about Lea Goldberg (Learning about Lea, 2003).1
In the late 1980s, like many feminist scholars, I became aware of the scarcity or near-absence—not only in Hebrew, but everywhere—of biographies about women, by women writers.2 I was motivated to enter the field and write about women in Hebrew literature.
My initial approach was to accept the dual nature of biography as a cross between history and literature. Thus, when I began to study the life and work of Dvora Baron (1887-1956), considered the first modern Hebrew woman writer, I bravely planned to write a biography of this kind.3 I considered my academic background in psychology as a possible third resource, since, after all, telling a life is not only about facts but also about understanding the inner world and life of the woman—her personality, her traits and motives, her strengths and weaknesses, her pathology and her resilience.
Having collected the many materials I would need, I sat quietly in my study at the Hebrew University during the summer of 1990 and felt completely stuck. Despite my experience as a writer and scholar, all my beginnings and plans seemed to lead me, over and over, to a dead end. I could not find my voice in telling Baron's story. Specifically, I saw many possible versions of this [End Page 206] life and could not make up my mind which of them was the "truth"—better, more accurate, more convincing. The biographers I had studied as models, most of them male, seemed so confident and sure of themselves when they said this or that about their heroes. Didn't they experience doubts and confusion? Is it possible to keep a variety of narratives in one biography, and how can this be realized artistically?
In frustration, I stayed at my desk one afternoon until dusk came over Jerusalem. I turned my eyes to the open space around me and invited Dvora Baron to come and help me then and there. To my great amazement, she did. I could suddenly see her very clearly, leaning on the embroidered couch in her old apartment in Tel Aviv. When I asked her a question, she answered, as if we were having a real conversation. Our voices, hers to me and mine to her, came through loud and clear. Mind you, I hadn't lost my sanity. The year was 1990; Dvora Baron died in 1956, and I had never met her. It was absolutely clear to me that all this—the vision, the voices, the dialogue—was happening in fantasy. But isn't fantasy what writing is always about? One doesn't merely put marks on a blank piece of paper or strike a computer keyboard randomly. My sudden encounter with Dvora Baron was a blessing, and it unstuck my "writer's block." I found a way to write her biography, while discovering at first hand that writing a biography is a relational project.
I can provide more details about what I view as my epiphany. That morning, I had been studying some of Baron's most important stories, those that depict the little girl Chana witnessing the slow demise of her father, the rabbi, from tuberculosis, and sharing the tragedy with her mother and siblings. In the stories, these things happened to a girl about 11 years...