By Jacobi, Peter P.
Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management , Vol. 18, No. 4
Writing the personality profile
"We all wear disguises," writes Richard Rhodes in a New York Times Magazine short about his efforts to blend in with those who provide him with article material.
"We all wear disguises. The simple act of dressing is a disguising. Clothes are disguises, beards, pitch of voice, what we say, what we keep secret. Costumes declare us, but disguises protect us from exposure. Wearing them, we blend in. Every salesman dressing for a client knows the drill, every young intern pulling on a white lab coat, every recent graduate struggling with an unfamiliar suit or tie."
Rhodes recognizes the need to get beyond, beneath, around, through the disguise. To get to the real person.
Biographer Jean Strouse notes what financier J. P. Morgan once said: "There are two reasons why a man does anything. There's a good reason and there's the real reason." To which William Zinsser in his useful book, Extraordinary Lives, adds: "The modern biographer's task is to find the real reason."
How distant all such discussion is from the majority of so-called biographies or profiles run in magazines. There are good ones, of course, plenty of them. But all too many editors permit writers--staff or freelance--to shape a single interview into a story and label it profile or biography.
It's the most flawed of assignments, the profile. An interview. A bunch of quotes. Maybe an anecdote squeezed from the subject to use at the start, and just maybe an additional quote of praise from a friend or business associate. The result is like unpaid advertising, free promotion.
That's not good magazine journalism. That's not biography--which, according to biographer Paul Murray Kendall, is "the simulation in words" of a person's life, "from all that is known about him." In a long-while-ago article on the "Perils and Paradoxes of Writing Biography" for Saturday Review (March 27, 1965) he noted: "As the simulation in words of a life, biography works through effects, like the other literary arts, but it is an art with boundaries. The definition excludes works at both ends of the biographical spectrum: the 'fictionalized' biography simulates life but does not respect the materials at hand, whereas the fact-crammed biography, from the magpie school of scholarship-as-compilation, worships the materials at hand but does not simulate a life. The one fails truth; the other fails art. Between the two lies the impossible craft of true biography."
Putting a personality to paper
The skimpy pap that too many editors permit in their publications is not profile, which the dictionary defines as a concise biographical sketch--biographical being the key word here. Intriguing also is a second definition: "a set of data often in graphic form portraying the significant features of something." The something is a human being (although one can, of course, profile an institution or a place, too). The data are information collected by research and reporting. The graphic form is language of a visual nature. The significant features are those elements of the person's life that clarify his mission, her place, his accomplishments, her wisdom.
The biography or profile, as every strong editor knows, is a significant contribution to any issue of a magazine. Publications like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone survive on them. But the poorly prepared biographical piece gives a bad name to the form, wastes valuable space, and embarrasses the discriminating reader.
The novice believes that one interview a profile makes. The professional knows that to put a personality to paper may require hours of interviews with the subject himself, plus hours more observing him, plus hours more talking to others about him--all these hours following hours of preparatory research. O'Connell Driscoll has mastered the art form. He knows that the biographer must gather the information and the intuitions that, laboriously, become a real human being on paper. …