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Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Profile/Biography Sketch

Friday, August-02-13

Dave Hood

A profile is not a biography or autobiography. The profile is a biography sketch, providing details of the person’s character, an overview of the person’s life story, and highlights of the person’s achievements and accomplishments. When the writer crafts a profile, the writer makes “some person” the focus of the story. The writer can profile a stranger or someone he/she knows well. The writer can also profile someone ordinary, such as a teacher, or priest, or police officer, or someone extraordinary, like Margaret Atwood, David Hockney, or Steve Jobs. For instance, in the November 11, 2011 edition of The New Yorker magazine, writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote a profile on Steve Jobs called “The Tweaker: the real genius of Steve Jobs.”

Before writing a profile, the writer must answer the question “Who is this person?” If the writer knows the person, the writer will rely on memory and observation and personal experience to write the profile. For instance, Charles Simic wrote a profile about his uncle called “Dinner at Uncle Boris,” which is based on a dinner at his uncle’s home. If the writer doesn’t know the person, the writer will conduct research, interviewing the person, visiting various places where the person works, lives, socializes, observing the person in their daily life, reading books, articles, and other material on the person.

A good profile includes telling details, dialogue, and storytelling. The writer will also use scene, summary, and personal reflection. A good profile is also interesting, profiles someone new, encourages the reader to think more about the person. A good profile informs, educates, and entertains readers. Some profiles have a serious tone, and other have a humorous tone.

In this article, I’ll discuss how to write a profile or biography sketch. The following will be covered:

  • Definition of a profile
  • Types of profiles
  • Gathering material to write the profile
  • Writing the profile
  • Additional resources to learn more about writing a profile

Definition of a Profile

A profile is not a book-length biography, which is an in-depth description of the life and times of another person. Nor is the profile a book-length autobiography, which involves writing about one’s own life. The profile is usually only a few pages and published in magazines or newspapers as an essay. The writer can profile someone he/she knows or a stranger. As well, the writer can profile someone ordinary or extraordinary. Sometimes the profile is about the good guy. The writer profiles a person who wants to achieve or accomplish something worthy. Perhaps the amateur athlete dreams about winning a gold medal at the Olympics, or the starving artist desires to achieve fame and fortune, or the writer aspires to write the next bestseller.

Some profiles are about “the villain.” In the September 24th, 2012 edition of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes a profile about child molesters called “In Plain View: How Child Molesters Get Away with It.”” In the essay, Gladwell narrates two stories about pedophiles, to illustrate how the sexual predator uses “trust” to create the opportunity to abuse a child.

The writer will include details about the person’s private life, psyche, and public world. The inner world deals with the person’s thoughts, feelings, opinions, views of other people. In writing about the outer world, the writer identifies some of the important setbacks and obstacles, as well as the significant accomplishments and achievements.

The writer can profile someone he/she knows or a stranger. If the person knows the person he/she will profile, the writer can create the profile from memories, observations, and personal experience. To write a profile about a stranger, the writer must have access to the person. Having access allows the writer to interview and to observe the person at work and at play. The writer will also interview family, friends, and work associates.

Sometimes a portrait isn’t based on an interview but a conversation. For instance, Charles Simic wrote a profile called “Dinner at Uncle Boris,” which is based on a dinner and evening conversation with his uncle. He includes humour, telling details, dialogue, scene and summary, and personal reflection to construct the portrait of his uncle.

The good profile of a public person answer several questions, including:

  • Why is the writer profiling the person?
  • What is unique about the person?
  • What is significant about the person?
  • What are the person’s achievements or accomplishments?
  • What obstacles or setbacks did the person have to overcome?
  • Why is the person in the news or public consciousness?
  • Does the writer likes the person? Dislike the person? Why?

The best profiles answer the question ” Who is this person? Unfortunately, people perform many roles, such as husband, breadwinner, parent, and so the writer will not be able to write a complete profile. No matter how much research the writer completes, the writer will never know the person completely, because people have darks sides they don’t share and personalities traits that aren’t always revealed.

Types of Profiles

In “Telling True Stories,” writer Jacqui Banaszynski, in his essay “Profile,” identifies three types of profiles:

  • Cradle-to-Current Profile. It is a profile about the person’s entire life, up to the present. The writer invests a great deal of time in researching, writing, and fact checking.
  • Niche Profile. It is a profile that is 1,000 words or less, and can be written in a short period of time. The writer composes a profile about someone in the news. This type of profile includes relevant background information. For instance, if the writer is crafting a profile about a person who won a Pulitzer for Literature, the writer would include education and previously published works. But biography details about place of birth and early education would not be relevant. Instead the writer focuses on “telling details.”
  • Paragraph Profile. This type of profile is brief, providing essential details about accomplishments or achievements, and the person’s significance to the story. It is a paragraph or two, and part of a larger story.

Gathering Material for the Profile

Before writing the profile, you must gather material about the person. Your goal is to answer the question “Who is this person?” Here are a few ways to answer the question:

Begin by searching the Internet to find out what else has been written about the person. Start by completing a Google search. By reading what other writers have written, you can obtain a general sense of the person, such as their level of education, work accomplishments, interests, tastes, reason for being in the news.

Interview the person you are profiling and other people who know the person, such as friends and family. As well, interview subject matter experts. For instance, to get related information about being a stunt pilot, writer Annie Dillard collected quotes from a pilot who as a crop duster

In the interview, what sorts of questions should you ask? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. What are the events or moments that shaped your life?
  2. What are your biggest accomplishments and achievements?
  3. What are you afraid of?
  4. What is your biggest regret?
  5. What setbacks or obstacles have you faced?
  6. What motivates you?
  7. What are your fears and worries?
  8. What do you value?

In addition, you should try to observe the person at work or in their natural habitat. For instance, before Anne Dillard wrote, “Stunt Pilot,” a profile about a stunt pilot. She watched the, Dave Rahm, the pilot fly his plane. She writes:”Rahm did everything his plane could do: tailspins, four-point rolls, flat spins, figure eights, snap rolls, and hammerheads.” (You can read this profile in Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack)

If the person is deceased, you can sometimes uncover their inner world of the person by reading their diaries, journals, letters, Facebook profiles and other social media.

Immerse yourself in the experience. Before writing the sketch about Dave Rahm, the stunt pilot, Dillard immersed herself in the experience of flying by taking a seat in the plane and flying as Rahm’s passenger. She writes: “Later I flew with Dave Rahm; he took me up…We flew from a bumpy grass airstrip near the house…We were over the clouds at five hundred feet and inside them too…”

If the person is a well-known public figure, you can read a biography about the person. If the person has written their own autobiography, make sure you read it.

How do you know when to stop researching? You must continue to research until you have sufficient “telling details” to write a profile that’s compelling. Your goal is to create a revealing, interesting, and entertaining profile.

Writing the Profile

Many of the best profiles are written as narratives. The writer crafts true story involving a central character. For instance, Charles Simic, In “Dinner at Uncle Boris,” profiles his uncle, writing a story about a dinner conversation. Annie Dillard, in “The Stunt Pilot,” profiles a pilot flying a stunt plane.

To write a profile, follow these suggestions:

Structure

Structure the profile using the narrative arc. It includes:

  • Inciting incident
  • Conflict, such as setbacks or obstacles
  • Turning point and climax
  • Resolution or end of the story

Developing Character

To reveal character, use the fictional methods of characterization. These include:

  • Dialogue. Use interviews or immersion to capture interesting quotes of the person you are profiling. Use these quotes in your profile.
  • Description of Appearance. Observe the person you are writing about. Make note of their physical appearance, including hair style, clothing, gestures, hygiene, and so forth. Use concrete, particular, significant details to describe the person.
  • Dramatic action. Show what the person does, their actions and reactions, in the narrative.

Point of View

Use both the first person POV(“I”) and third person (“he/she”). For instance, in the profile “The Stunt Pilot,” Dillard uses third-person POV to write the narrative of the pilot flying in the sky, performing his daredevil stunts, and to provide narrative summary. She begins: “Dave Rahm lived in Bellingham, Washington, north of Seattle…Dave Rahm was a stunt pilot.” She shifts to first person POV (“I”) to share personal reflections about the stunt pilot.

 

Scene, Summary, and Personal Reflection

Use a scene to recreate important events. A scene always includes setting details, dramatic action, vivid description, dialogue, and POV. Use summary to tell” or explain. Use personal reflection to express your views about the person, sharing your own thoughts, feelings, opinion, emotional truth.

Vivid Descriptions

To reconstruct setting and events and people, use sensory details, writing descriptions of what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch.

Don’t include every detail. Instead use “telling details.” These are concrete, significant, particular details, which reveal deeper meaning than their descriptions.

Facts not Fiction

Don’t fabricate dialogue or events. This is writing fiction. As well, complete fact-checking.

Writing Style

Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. As well, read “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Pricilla Long.

Revision

The first draft is never your best work. Always revise the draft, completing a macro-edit (structure, tone, elements of fiction, POV) and micro-edit (grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, sentence patterns).

A Few Tips for Writing a Profile

Here are a few tips for writing a profile or biography sketch:

  1. Select a person to profile, and then begin with an interesting question you want to answer. If you are going to profile someone you know, mine your memory, observe the person in real life, and write about some significant event. (In Dillard’s profile, she answers “what it is like to be a stunt pilot?”) If the person is unknown, collect your material by researching the person.
  2. Before interviewing, have a list of open-ended questions you want to ask. These require the person being interviewed to respond with more than just “yes” or “no.”
  3. After doing the research, decide on an approach. How are you going to begin? With a scene? With a quotation? With a question? Before writing, outline your story. making a list of all the important points you want to write about.
  4. Always focus on what is significant or compelling. What is surprising? What is important? Any secrets? Oddities? Peculiarities? Contributions to society? What is their legacy?
  5. Show and tell your reader. You tell the reader by explaining and summarizing. You show the reader by writing in scenes. For any significant event, write a scene.
  6. Include dialogue. A good profile includes dialogue, revealing some personality trait.
  7. Include telling details. A good profile includes vivid description, revealing some personality trait.
  8. Don’t create one-dimensional portraits or profiles. Every person has a dark side. Every person has attributes you don’t admire. Share these telling details with the reader.
  9. Your subject is living an epic. In other words, the profile fits into a larger story about life. Consider the larger story as you write.
  10. Every story has a theme, a universal truth, shared meaning. For instance, Steve Jobs was one of the great inventors and innovators. He was a visionary who reshaped communication, use of leisure time, and everyday life with digital technologies.

Additional Reading

For more information on writing a profile or biography sketch, read the following:

  • Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, (2nd Edition) by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
  • Writing True by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz
  • Creative Nonfiction : A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
  • You Can’t Make This Stuff: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between Up by Lee Gutkind
  • Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’ Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • The Writer’s Personal Mentor by Priscilla Long
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Creative Nonfiction: Writing about Home and Family

In writing about home and family, you must create a dramatic and cinematic narrative. It must also be based on truth and fact–not fiction. Creative nonfiction writers often structure their stories about home or family as a “narrative arc.” And they use the literary techniques of fiction to reconstruct reality, such as dialogue, setting, vivid details. The scene is the most important literary technique available to the creative nonfiction writer. When writing in “scenes”, the writer of creative nonfiction “shows” the reader what happened. A scene includes setting details, action (something happens), dialogue, personal point of view, and vivid details. Writing in “scenes” enables the writer to craft prose that are dramatic and cinematic.  The writer often relies on memory to retrieve facts. The writer will also include personal reflection and share “emotional truth.”

In recent years, several bestselling, creative nonfiction books have been written about “home and family.” Frank McCourt wrote “Angela’s Ashes,” a memoir about poverty and growing up with an alcoholic parent. Jeanette Walls wrote “The Glass Castle”, which deals with growing up with two “eccentric, peculiar, dysfunctional parents.” Mary Karr wrote “The Liar’s Club” about the chaos she experienced growing up with boozing, shouting, combative, self-destructive parents, and a grandmother she despised.

In this article, I explain how to write about home and family. The following will be covered:

  • Minefield of Home and family
  • How to write about home and family
  • Dealing with family members who don’t want you to write about them
  • Writing about emotional truth
  • Motives for writing about family
  • The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
  • Literary techniques for writing about home and family

The Minefield of Home and Family

Many families have taboos and secrets, which are not shared with the outside world.  And so, if you intend to write about these taboos, these secrets, these skeletons in the closet, you could be confronted by an angry brother, or a threat from an uncle, or social isolation from family. People keep family secrets private for a reason. They are embarrassing to talk about them. They fear legal reprisals, such as sexual abuse charges by the police. They fear the outside world passing judgement. Before sharing family secrets in an personal essay or memoir, you must answer two questions:

  • What is your purpose in sharing these secrets or taboos?
  • Is the cost of sharing family secrets worth the price?

Even if you are going to write about sexual abuse or alcoholism, you must write in a respectful way. Brenda Miller, in “Tell It Slant,” writes: You “must find a way to handle this subject with both aplomb and discretion.” In other words, you must be careful about how you present the facts. Writing in a balanced way is important. People have both positive and negative personality traits. Most people are not all bad, wicked, evil.

How to Write about Family or Home

In Telling It Slant, author Brenda Miller suggests that you can write about family as either a biographer or as a witness. When writing as a biographer, you are writing about someone else’s life story. Writing as a biographer can create emotional distance, which is necessary to write about sensitive topics related to family and home. It  will also allow you to include other subjects, such as community, culture, history.  Writing as a biographer also allows you to use your imagination to speculate about a place or people before you knew about them.

The other approach is to write as a witness.  When writing as a witness, you write as an observer and victim. You experienced the abuse, the neglect, the poverty, the alcoholism. As a witness, you can share the facts as you saw them. If you experienced the poverty, the neglect, you are a victim. You can write about it—as you saw it. You can also include “emotional truth.” Did you  like a family member? Why? Why not? How  did you feel about the person? How did the abuse feel? How did you feel eating cat food for lunch? Memoirist Jeannette Walls writes as a witness and victim in her memoir “The Glass Castle.” Not only does she include anecdotes, stories, scenes, she includes personal reflection and emotional truth of growing up with two “oddball” and dysfunctional parents.

Hitting the Road Block

Sometimes, when writing creative nonfiction, the writer hits a “road block” and is unable to uncover the facts about home and family. Therefore the writer can “speculate” on what happened. When using this approach, the writer must explicitly tell the reader what he/she is speculating about a person or event. Otherwise, the writer is crafting a fictional story. For instance, suppose you had a father who always stayed out late, returned home disheveled in the middle of the night. You could speculate on the reason. Perhaps he was having an affair with his secretary. Perhaps he was moonlight for organized crime. Perhaps he loathed to sleep with your mother. A way to speculate is by using the word “perhaps.” This notifies the reader that you are merely speculating. Another approach is the notify the reader in the introduction of the book.

Emotional Truth

When writing about home or family, the writer can share emotional truth. What is emotional truth? It is how the writer feels about a person, place, event, experience. It is a subjective feeling. For instance, a brother might have felt that his parents were normal, while a sister who was verbally abused could view the family home as dysfunctional. Both the brother and sister could present emotional truth that is contradictory. Emotional truth answers the question: How did it feel to you?

Motives for Writing

When writing about family or home, you must not write as if you wan to punish a family member with “revenge prose.” Nor must you write as though you are sharing all your family secrets on the therapist’s couch. Your motives must be more than just to expose family secrets and its history.(Tell It Slant). You ” must have some perspective on the experience that spurs the essay beyond your own personal “dirty laundry.” (Tell It Slant) Your duty might be to speak on behalf someone else in the family who is unable or unwilling to share the family taboos. Your purpose might be to bring “justice” to those who sexually abused or physically assaulted you or another family member. Your intention might be to tell others that despite the abuse or poverty or neglect, you were strong enough to overcome these obstacles and make something of your life.

Obtaining Approval

When you write about family secrets or taboos, you risk the wrath of family members. Ideally, you want to obtain the approval from those family members you intend to write about. Yet, sometimes family members refuse to provide you with their blessing. And so, you must consider other approaches. Some writers compose the true story anyway, and then hope for minimal backlash. Other writers, fearing a backlash that isn’t worth it, morph their true story into fiction. Sometimes writers change the names of the people in the story. Other writer create a composite, which combines the personality traits and physical appearance of two or more characters into a new character.  Frank McCourt, author of “Angela’s Ashes”, a memoir about family and alcoholism and poverty, waited until after the participants were deceased to write his story.

Writing about Home

Why wrote about home? Home is often the setting for writing about family. Home creates a mood.  Home often provides the backdrop for memoir. Home can be like an antagonist or character you don’t like in a story.  When writing about home, ask yourself the following questions before writing:

  • How was it decorated? What was your favorite place? What did you like or dislike about home? What is the emotional truth?
  • How did you feel about your parents? Their behavior? The rule? Discipline?
  • What was your favorite place? Favorite toy? Favorite book? Favorite television shows?
  • How did your family celebrate birthdays, graduation, Christmas, New Years, and so forth?
  • What is your fondest memory about home? What is your saddest memory about?
  • Was your home temporary or permanent? Did you live in a house, trailer, apartment?

When writing about home, use the following literary techniques:

  • Sensory imagery. Use language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing.
  • Concrete and specific description. Use telling details, particular and significant details, which help the reader imagine your home.
  • Don’t tell your readers, show them what was your home. You can use a scene to write about home, revealing significant details. Example: Each night after work, my father would slouch in  a tattered, brown lazy boy, sip his rye and seven-up, one drink after another, until he was drunk. He’d smoke his Export-A cigarettes, one after another, until the pack was empty.  If there was a baseball game, or hockey game, or football game on the television, he’d watch and swear and scream like a madman.

The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction

Writing about home and family from a creative nonfiction perspective involves:

  • Real Life– Writing about real people, family actual events, and actual places, such as home, neighborhood, school, work, community.
  • Research– Collecting facts from the library, interviews, diaries, journals, photographs.
  • Writing-Writing literary journalism essays, autobiographies, or biographies.
  • Reflection-Sharing personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives.
  • Reading-Read autobiographies,  biographies, and other informative books about the world in which you live. By doing this, you learn how others have written about family and home. Three good memoirs to read are The Liars Club, Angela’s Ashes, The Glass Castle.

 

Creating or Reconstructing the Experience

When writing about home and family, your task is not to “create” a narrative, it is to “reconstruct” a narrative, based on facts. Often you’ll rely on memory to reconstruct the details. You’ll visit the places of your past, which will stir memories. You will interview others who grew up with you, such as other family members or friends. You’ll look at old photo albums, videos, journals, mementos, and so forth As well, you’ll share personal reflections and emotional truth. Emotional truth answers the question: How did you feel?

You’ll structure your story as a narrative. A narrative includes a beginning, middle and an end. Most writers use “the narrative arc” to structure a narrative about home and family. The narrative arc includes the inciting incident, setbacks and obstacles, conflict, climax or turning point, and resolution.

How do you reconstruct a narrative? You have several ways:

  • Recover your memories
  • Interviews with other family members
  • Read old diaries
  • Look through old photo albums,
  • Watch family videos
  • Revisiting the places where you grew up.
  • Speculate–When you don’t know, you can speculate how it might have been.
  • Immerse yourself in an experience from the past.

Creative Writing Techniques

Use these techniques to write about home and family:

  • Scene and summary (Show and tell). When you write in a scene, you “show the reader what happened.” For all major events, write a scene. A scene include setting, action (something happens), dialogue (not always), concrete and specific details, and a beginning, middle, and ending. When you write in summary, you tell the reader what happened. It involves compression and explanation, rather than “showing” the reader.
  • Personal Reflections-Include personal thoughts, meditations, contemplations.
  • Emotional Truth-Include your own feelings. How did it feel to you?
  • Inner Point of View-Use the “I” point of view.
  • Intimate Details-Include telling details. These are details that the writer cannot imagine unless you share them in your writing.
  • Storytelling-Use the narrative arc to structure your story. The narrative arc includes these components: inciting incident, conflict, setbacks and obstacles, climax, resolution, often an epiphany.
  • Figurative language-Spice up your narrative with simile, metaphor, imagery, symbolism.

For more information on how to write about home and family, read the following:

  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
  • The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
  • Tell it Slant Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
  • You Can’t Make this Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind
  • Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt