what I’ve learned from reading biographies
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?