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Phony. No biographer ticks off a list before starting, however logical and wha t is yo u r a g e n d a ? 23 helpful such a procedure might be. So I scrapped the bullet points; I’m not going to ask you anything. What I will do, though, is run through the “bare necessities” you should consider when deciding whether to tackle a life, and I’ll provide some examples. The Proposal At some point—sooner rather than later—you will, if you are serious about writing a life, have to produce what’s called the “proposal,” in order to get funding for what will take several years of research and writing.
Clarifying, for others, your conception of the biography you’d like to write is the ﬁrst hurdle you’ll have to overcome. As we’ll see, it’s not something you can do without some preliminary research, but recognizing that this is Goal Number One is the initial step in “doing” a biography. The proposal must set forth your agenda with clarity and purpose: whose life you wish to record; why; and how. Although the proposal will be a real document and, if accepted, the basis of an agreement or contract between you and a publisher or funding body, it is of course a ﬁgment of your imagination—not unlike Christopher Co- 24 g e tting star te d lumbus’ assurance to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, when he was seeking Spanish support and investment, that he would ﬁnd a western sea route to India.
These are among the pearls of modern literature, and maintain their timelessness in part because of their quasi-biographical form—their authors having recognized the very opportunities and challenges to which Johnson had alluded, but which had been legally and socially off limits to real-life biographers. The world of biography changed in the early decades of the twentieth century, as did, eventually, the laws safeguarding people’s reputations and the social mores restricting biographers’ access to private lives.