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what I’ve learned from reading biographies

January 24, 2012

In the last 2 years, I’ve read 55 biographies and 103 memoirs. When I started, it was because individual books caught my attention. Gradually, I decided I might want to write something memoir-ish about my life, so it made sense to see what other people had written about.

Over the last several months, I’ve been trying to figure out the Myers-Briggs personality type of the subjects of (some of) these books, in an effort to find someone ‘like me’ in a meaningful sense, even if our lives were very different. For this effort, I’ve mostly concentrated on ‘typing’ writers since I’m now one.

Roald Dahl, E.B. White, P.L. Travers and J.K. Rowling (and possibly John Lithgow) all seemed to me to be INFJs; Beatrix Potter, ISFJ; Georgette Heyer and Harper Lee, INTJs. Socialite Millicent Rogers, ESFP.

It wasn’t until last night, when I was reading a biography of polymath-musician-y Brian Eno that I realized why I’ve felt vaguely unsettled reading so many of the biographies of writers. (Besides that they all seem to be Judgers, and I’m a Perceiver.) So many of the writers knew very early on in their lives that they wanted to be writers, and they rarely did anything else. They often wrote different kinds of things – short stories, novels, essays – and they may have had a nonwriting job or two that paid the bills, but they all had a singular vision for their lives. And then they lived it. (Beatrix Potter was the exception, as she was an artist first, before writing; then became a farmer).

That’s not me at all.

I did start writing as a teenager, but I certainly haven’t been writing continuously since then. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to come up with anything I’ve been doing continuously for any length of time.

I like to jump around between projects. I do have several subjects of interest that I return to irregularly, but the cycles arise organically, and entangle with whatever else is going on in my life. Trying to force it doesn’t work, which I found out the hard way, when I couldn’t write poetry for 20 years. I couldn’t find a way in, until I woke up one day and there was a poem inside me that wanted to come out. So I wrote it. (I’m still working on revising it.)

Sometimes I’m painting or drawing. Or designing garments. Or playing with yarn. Or thinking about philosophy. Or taking photographs. Or developing relationships with my (mostly-nonhuman) neighbors. Or reading whatever my current interest is. Or walking around. Or considering flavor profiles to create.

About the only thing I can think of that I wanted to do as a kid and I’m doing now is being an artist (well, a philosopher too), but I never thought of either of those activities as relating to a job. They are things I like to do. But they probably aren’t things I would identify myself as, if someone asked ‘what do you do?’ I don’t expect I’ll get famous doing them, make a lot of money, or have fans.

I never do know what to say these days when someone asks what I do. Because I do so many things, but they’re probably asking about employment, which I don’t have any of. Telling people I have a blog tends to shut down the conversation almost immediately.

Spouse remarked the other night that I seem to have a facility for reinventing myself. But I kind of have to, because I don’t stick with things long enough to ‘master’ them in a conventional sense. And I really can’t just concentrate on doing one thing at a time. My brain shuts down with boredom. If I’m not learning about a bunch of different things that can cross-fertilize each other, I get really depressed and start feeling like a total failure.

I think everyone I know keeps thinking that I need to find ‘the one thing’ that’s right for me, and then I’ll finally ‘settle down’ and you know, act like an ordinary adult. But I can’t see how that could even happen (short of a brain injury).

For me, there isn’t ever going to be ‘one thing’ that defines me. I’m not unitary about anything in my life – why would this be any different?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Chad permalink
    January 24, 2012 13:42

    The undying “So…. What do you do?” ice breaker has different “correct” answers for different people. For some it refers to employment. For others, it is asking a more personal question: “What activities define you?” I find that contentedness lies where those two different meanings intersect and you can provide a single response that answer both (a topic for another time: dichotomy of personal enjoyment and “buying” happiness).

    I have similar feelings toward mastering things. Once I achieve somewhere between a general competence (Class C) and an Expert level (to steal from Elo), I lose interest. I doubt I could ever go back to school to pursue a PhD for the reason illustrated in the following link: However, I would love to go back and pick up another degree or three.

    It also illustrates that true mastery either is the result of the single minded pursuit of a particular field or the cause of it. I would wager that nearly all the “greats” in their respective fields pursued it from an early age. Perhaps it ties into Malcolm Gladwell’s suggestion in Outliers that success is bound by the amount of time directly invested in the activity (10000 hours is the rule he suggests for mastery).

    If you buy into that sort of thing, perhaps we both need to just pick something and stick with it for 10000 hours and see where it leads.

    • January 25, 2012 14:28

      Maybe next time the 4 of us get together, you and I should talk about this stuff further. Because it sounds like you’ve come up with different answers than I have. I’m always willing to learn something useful!

      What Gladwell also said in Outliers was that you have to be born at the right time, into the right milieu. Bill Gates was not some poor schmuck who got lucky — he was in the right place at the right time, with the right parents. All those champion hockey players were born in January.

      Like you, I don’t have the patience for a Ph.D., which also requires jumping through pointless hoops and politicking (neither of which I’m good at). But instead of a bunch more degrees, I would like a bunch more learning. Iow, classes can be good, but grades don’t matter much to me. Classes teach you, but you can also learn from your fellow students. I probably learn the most from books though.

      I can’t speak for you, but for me, I probably have Expert knowledge in several things by now. But I didn’t study them continuously. I definitely have 10,000 hours writing.

  2. Kenny-Cousin permalink
    January 24, 2012 17:29

    This blog sounds like you are very at peace with yourself doing many things that are heartfelt…at a given time. Press on! and like Chad suggest stick to it for a bit longer, maybe not 1,000 hours, but a few hours which may take you to another level within the project(s) to give you the passion/desire to continue to completion. How rewarding it will be to reflect on your journey and enjoy its ending result.

    I really enjoyed this blog and relate to it as well. You are very developed writer. 🙂

    • January 25, 2012 14:38

      Hi Kenny, my creative energy comes in fits and starts, so that’s how my projects tend to go. I don’t do any one thing for very long, but I keep circling back to the same activities. Unlike a lot of successful people, I’m not particularly interested in results; I enjoy the process of doing things — not what gets done. A lot of Judgers, like Spouse, don’t understand that. To me, the learning itself is what’s important, not whether someone else sees tangible evidence that I learned something.

      I reflect on my journeys all the time, and think about how far I’ve come, and where I’d like to go yet. And I hope the universe has surprises up its sleeve for me.

      I often think about you, and how even though our personalities don’t seem to be very similar, we still share qualities or affinities that I find rarely in other people. You’re one of my favorite people (in case you didn’t know).

  3. Kathy permalink
    January 26, 2012 09:00

    Chad raises a great point right there at the start, too… that question is, for many people, the go-to ice-breaker these days. It’s more PC than “so, do you and spouse have kids?” and sometimes less awkward than asking (women, especially) about pro sports.

    In other words, the person asking isn’t normally implying that you *should* have the right answer… s/he’s just looking for something to say, and hoping for a minute or two of painless small talk. “I’m working through what it takes to get started as a writer” and “I’m between things right now” both suffice.

    Often, a person overly interested in YOU finding your One Right Thing is coming from one of two places: S/he’s found her/his One Right Thing (of the moment, at least) and is consequently waxing evangelical, or s/he finds your not working uncomfortable because it brings up difficult emotions around working. The latter is similar to the person trying to talk you into childrearing because your happy childlessness doesn’t mesh well with her/his internal arguments around how people HAVE to have kids. You’re the elephant in the room – living proof that it’s not so.

    It’s not you; it’s them.

    • January 26, 2012 10:54

      Those are some really salient points, K.

      Saying I’m ‘working on becoming a writer’ is still misleading in a word tricks kind of way. That is, I usually don’t have words that would be meaningful to other people for what I’m doing. Like, we (most probably) don’t share a context, so what words can you, would you, use then?

      But you’re definitely right about other people with One Right Way. Reminds me uncomfortably of conversations with Foofino in October.

  4. January 30, 2012 12:34

    So many of the writers knew very early on in their lives that they wanted to be writers, and they rarely did anything else.

    In the ecological world, a great example against that is Rachel Carson. From the Wiki article at least, it seemed like she always wrote, but rotated it with a number of different interests, including of course, wildlife management. Similarly, I think you see a much larger variety of interests among non-fiction writers than fiction writers. Non-fiction writers frequently need very specific subject knowledge in order to even start writing, so their backgrounds and experiences tend to be in non-writing subjects.

    • January 30, 2012 12:39

      Lately I’ve been struggling with thinking that the ideas I’d like to share with other people might be more palatable, interesting, and accessible to more people in fiction — but I’ve never written fiction before, and I’m not sure how to start. Hence, reading about fiction writers. Maybe I need to track down biographies of nonfiction writers instead! Somehow I had missed that connection, so I must thank you for pointing it out to me.

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