n. a written account of another person’s life: John Nash, “A Beautiful Mind” a biography by Sylvia Nasar.
Biographies are a unique and personal way to connect with extraordinary people. Often, you will be surprised to find that the most successful people of all time experienced similar struggles just like us. Einstein was divorced; Lincoln suffered from depression.
It is not only enlightening but also inspiring to know that such icons have walked down the same paths as us.
But what exactly is biographical writing?
Biographical writing is a specific form of writing that expresses the life of another individual using a myriad of techniques. Biographies can concentrate on forming personal histories, and analyse and explain social, historical, and/or political influences on an individual’s life. It can highlight an individual’s strengths, flaws, triumphs or defeats and situate them into a historical or social context. Biographies have the complete freedom to take a sympathetic or an unsympathetic point of view of an individual, or a subjective or objective view.
A biography could simply be the chronological account of an individual’s life or a deeply investigative statement explaining one’s actions or choices, motivations or flaws in a social or even psychoanalytical context.
In short, a biography is a unique and highly personal expression and exhibition of individual life.
The biography “A Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar exquisitely depicts the life and times of John Nash. Nash was a mathematical genius by the age of thirty who suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia for the most part of his life. In 1994 he went on to receive a Nobel Prize for his work in game theory.
Nasar has written the biography of John Nash in such a way that really helps the reader relate to scientific (in this case mathematical) concepts while simultaneously retaining the nature of humanity of a humbled man suffering a severe mental illness through the use of numerous writing conventions.
Some common writing techniques used in biographies are:
- Use of anecdotes
- Use of personal, human emotion
- Story-telling format
- Use of facts
- Use of characterisation
Nasar has employed many of these techniques effectively throughout the biography. Examples from the text include the use of anecdotes:
“Returning WWII veterans had flooded the job market and enrolments were falling because of the draft. In 2 years, there would be another crop of brilliant youngsters, clamouring for the handful of instructorships. His game theory thesis had been greeted with a mix of indifference and derision by the pure mathematicians, so his only hope of a good offer, he felt, was to finish his paper on algebraic manifolds.”
This extract deconstructs Nash’s desperation and anxiety towards avoiding drafting into the war and highlights the upmost value that Nash placed upon mathematics and the degree to which mathematics was integrated into his life.
The portrayal of human emotion is a very powerful writing technique used to elicit emotions in the reader such that they can share and understand the characters experiences. A perfect example from “A Beautiful Mind” utilizes this writing technique strongly:
“The urgency of Nash’s efforts to avoid the draft suggests deeper fears than those related to career ambitions or personal convenience. His was a personality for which regimentation, loss of autonomy, and close contact with strangers were not merely unpleasant, but highly threatening.”
This reflects insights into Nash’s psyche in a manner that affords the reader an opportunity to better understand the mechanics of his mind.
The story-telling format implemented in “A Beautiful Mind” is used as a means to engage the interests of the reader and make the presentation of scientific (mathematical) information much more accessible and relatable to the audience.
It is the method of separating the maths from the man that makes biographies such a unique form of science communication. Biographies achieve this through the employment of a myriad of writing techniques that use human emotion to convey scientific detail thus establishing a unique relationship between the two.
Nasar, S. (1998). A Beautiful Mind: Simon and Schuster.