Writing Autobiography: Some Thoughts.....as a retired English teacher after 35 years in classrooms I post the following thoughts. Writing autobiography is something students do all the time in English classes, although they often don't know it. Thisessay may be too long for some readers and I advise that, when your eyes start to glaze over, just stop reading...that's what I do and I do it often because there is so much to read and you can't read it all...run with your interests.-Ron Price, Tasmania
ESSAY ON AUTOBIOGRAPHY MAY 2005
In 1995 I wrote my first essay on the nature of autobiography. It was some two years after completing the first edition of my own autobiography, a work which had taken me eight years to write(1984-1993). I am now working on the 6th edition of that autobiography more than twenty-five years after the inception of this project in 1984. I trust this 6th edition will be the final one, but only time will tell. I was overwhelmed for many years by a sense of the complexity of the task, by feelings of indifference for the process of putting my life story on paper and by a vision of the magnitude of the task at hand if it was to be of any relevance to readers as well as, in some ways more importantly, to me. I struggled to find an authentic, inspired response, voice, for my words, for the phrasing, yes, for my voice as it is often said. This struggle to achieve the right feeling in my writing life, something we all have to do in our daily lives, was—as I look back now—an essential prerequisite for this autobiographical enterprize.
For ten years, from 1993 to 2003 I lost a sense of direction in writing my autobiography and was unable to move beyond that first edition which I had found, as I said, very unsatisfactory. During these same ten years, though, I read about autobiography and after reading studies of process and method, of philosophy and psychology, of the sociology and literary problems in autobiography, I was able to write a cohesive and, for me anyway, stimulating second edition. I certainly hope that this work will become of practical use to my fellow-man in the decades and even centuries ahead. Vision creates reality, as one of my co-religionists once said. This idea of the future relevance of my work seems presumptuous and this sense of my presumptuousness at first militated against the pursuit of the goals I began with when I set out to write this autobiography in 1984. But I pursued these goals anyway and that emotional and intellectual problem, hurdle, was overcome, at least for the most part.
Since I found the study of autobiography more interesting that the writing of it in the years 1993 to 2003, I wrote a series of essays on the nature of autobiography during those years. This is the first in that series. I also revised those essays in the next decade: 2003-2013. What follows in this first essay are a few general comments on autobiography with the long range aim of drawing these ideas together into some meaningful whole in future essays.
Even as a retired person with far fewer responsibilities on my plate than during my forty years of employment(1961-2001) and student life(1949-1989), my day-to-day life still takes me into corners of activity that keep me away from the kind of academic pursuits that this brief essay involves. My class in creative writing at a local Seniors School, my last years as a volunteer-teacher and a radio program that I ran for the LSA of Launceston kept me busy until 2003 and 2005. My wife's illness over many years, my singing work, family duties and obligations of home and hearth however minimal, a necessary amount of physical activity to keep a sound mind in a sound body, fatigue in the evening after more than eight hours of reading and writing and an endless assortment of odds and ends have kept me from continuing this simple task. But the concentration, the focus, has been improving as the years of my late adulthood(60-80) have entered their middle half(65-75).
But, by 2005, I was able to free myself from virtually all of these encumbrances, except those necessary to maintain my physical existence in a home. The years 1999 to 2005 became, then, a second stage, a transition stage, before an even fuller retirement at the age of 60 from the demands of social, employment and community life. After years, decades, of being up-front in classrooms and in Bahá'í community life, of being a person who wanted to give talks in Bahá'í communities and who wanted to excel as a teacher, I became, by degrees into my late fifties and sixties, what we used to call a "back-room boy", beavering away to as great an effect as possible but with little personal fanfare.
Not that I was shy or retiring when it came to advocating a new project. I could be both vociferous and voracious; but it was just that I preferred my writing to speak for itself, to be the vehicle for my energy and voraciousness. I pursued my various missions with a determination which almost always saw results. But they became results on the internet measured in nanoseconds and spread across thousands of sites. In the Baha’i community quantitative results had been slow for decades and they were still slow.
Errors, omissions, even lies, are part of the fiction or imposture that is autobiography, so went one of the main trains of thought in the literature on autobiography. The creative writer turns to autobiography out of some creative longing that can not be satisfied through fiction, but it is impossible to avoid various kinds of inaccuracies. Some autobiographers find a peculiar closeness and intensity of effect as they write. That was certainly true of me. But it is difficult in writing autobiography to keep history and fiction distinct. Nabokov says that the tracing of images of one’s personal life into intricate harmonies is what autobiography does. In the process hard edges of facticity rub off. Writers try to repossess the realities of their past from what often appears to be a sterile and even fictive world, try to repossess that past to which they have often sacrificed themselves, lived their days or, if lucky, lost themselves in literature, in life, in living, as if in some perpetual orgy, as the writer Flaubert put it in one of his letters.
The historicographical transaction that is autobiography does not contain the total freedom or imaginative response of, say, poetry or fiction. Unreliability is, still, an inescapable condition of autobiography given the play of freedom and imagination that is involved. The reader can watch the writer wrestle with truth but only to a degree because, for the most part, the reader does not know what the truth is. Readers must rely on the autobiographers and their version of the truth of their lives.
It is important for the critic to understand the organizing principle or purpose behind the work of an autobiographer. For the conscious shaping of a life, an informing purpose, principle, context, must exist behind the work. A voyage of genuine self-discovery is an essential component of such a work for the writer. It certainly was for me; it enabled me to rise from the ashes of a dried-out first edition, an edition I could well have thrown away. But in the second edition of my memoirs my literary voyage began to take place in a narrative past juxtaposed with a dramatic present. Confession, apology and memoir came to exist side by side as various contradictory and often unstable selves battled it out. This battle ground was part of the very fertility and the freshness that resurrected that first edition.
These are just some of the ideas I wanted to put down as part of this series of essays on the autobiographical process. They are just some of an array of writing which has appeared in the literature on autobiographical writing especially since the decade 1950 to 1960 when my Bahá'í pioneering-travelling life began in earnest. I summarize much of my reading in these essays for those with an interest in the process, the exercise, of writing autobiography. I hope a few here on the internet find my words of some value to them, if not in their own effort to write their autobiography, at least as part of their general interest inventory.
First written on 5 May 2005 and updated/edited occasionally until 27/8/09 (1350 words)
LATEST THOUGHTS ON AUTOBIOGRAPHY
I have written several essays exploring the nature of autobiography. These essays introduce the existing five volumes of my Journal or Diary. Other essays explore the nature of journals, diaries and letters as genres that play different roles in my autobiography.
There are endless ways of telling one’s story. For this reason poets and writers like Roger White and Bernard Shaw may be wrong to think that the passive nature of their lives disqualifies them from even attempting to write their autobiography. Roger used to say that he did not think it was possible for a biographer to make anything at all interesting out of his life. I think time will prove him wrong. He, like Shaw, thought his life was in his writing, or as he once put it, quoting Rabindranath Tagore: “the poem not the poet.”
If one does write autobiography, as I do, one can not tell one’s whole story no matter how one tells it. While one tells one’s story, as Montaigne said, one’s story makes oneself and there is so much of tedium, chouder and trivia in life which one simply edits out, out of pure necessity. If you put it all in you’d have a mountain of garbage that even the most assiduous reader could not plough through. You take form as you write and it is fascinating to watch. It feels to me a little like sculpting or painting must feel like to the artists in these fields. It’s part of the magic of writing autobiography. As William Spengemann emphasizes, autobiography is synonymous with symbolic action. Writing is symbolic action. The implications of this idea revolutionizes the experience of writing autobiography. One sees the whole exercise in metaphorical terms. While not possessing the freedom of the novel or the facticity of writing history, autobiography does contain enough freedom and enough truth to give it the best of both worlds. “Autobiographers”, Brian Finney notes in his introductory words to The Inner I: British Literary Autobiography in the Twentieth Century(1985, p.21), “appear to have as many different conceptions of what constitutes the truth about themselves as readers have different expectations of them.”
If parts of our nature are unknowable, if our degree of confessionalism is in our own hands, if others see us quite differently than we see ourselves, there is going to be only a certain aspect of the truth and only a certain degree of it that opens up for the autobiographer. Even if autobiographies are lies, as Shaw said; if they are not to be trusted unless they reveal something disgraceful, as Orwell hypothesized; if they reveal one’s mendacity as Freud emphasized; if they focus on our personal myths as Jung would have put it--they at least pursue the human, the personal, story from within. Even if autobiography is a caricature of sorts, it cannot deny the tyrannical power of basic facts, however interpretive or subjective. There is an inevitable and, to some extent, naive trusting in memory.
There is both historical veracity and artistic creativity, then, in autobiography. The self-portraiture, the process of writing, transmutes one’s life into a verbal artifact. It is difficult to reveal one’s private self to the world; some aspects of that self are better left unrevealed and an ambivalence regarding the revelation of some of that inner life is, it would seem to me, unavoidable. Evasion, euphistic language and diversionary tactics are all part of a process of saying what one wants to say and not saying it all.
George Orwell talks about a certain amount of exaggeration in the process of selection and narration and a type of meaning that emerges by the way one retrospectively chooses to order events. In the process of his own analysis Orwell attempts to come to grips with his buried and not-so-buried motives for writing his autobiography. Subjective self-discovery and the capacity for objective reportage are related; factuality and self-awareness seem to walk hand-in-hand. The reader, too, can often correct the unperceived distortions of the writer when the autobiography embraces fully this subjective element. For the reader and writer become more intimate through this style, this tone, of writing.
Memory is notoriously unreliable; it is like a minefield; it is also the great artist, as Andre Marois once put it. Some see memory as a pandering to the ego; some point out that being told by others what happened is not the same as one’s own account: so that all one really has is memory. “There have been episodes in my life” says A.E. Coppard “which not even the prospect of an eternity in hellfire would induce me to reveal.”(ibid.,p.46) But even then it is very difficult for the writer to hide his true nature. I see all of my own effort as quite a transparent, honest exercise, an exercise which is conscious of a good degree of probing, conscious of style, language and form. I am conscious that my own life has nothing of the great adventures and incredible stories that are at the heart of many autobiographies. Hopefully it has an interesting yarn at its centre and material that will be useful to the Baha’i community as it unfolds its contribution to the globe in the decades ahead. I hope, in aiming to achieve something useful, that I have not poured out a pile of dirty laundry, that I have at least kept the pile tactfully small. Vanity is as common as air and I trust this ubiquitous folly is at least kept to a minimum in the process of all my navel-gazing. The desire to give the reader pleasure and contribute something original and probing lies in the matrix of my motivations to write. Moliere said that what he tried to do was correct men by amusing them. I would like to be able to achieve this, but I am not conscious of much success. I hope I get better at this style of writing, at this comic autobiography. At this stage of my life writing, an autobiography seemed to be something I could do, something I would enjoy doing from among the options one has available in life, something for which there was a place in the burgeoning Baha’i literature of the 1990s and would probably be a place in the decades to come-when and if it got published.
I trust, too, that my writing is not characterized by that romantic flavour that Frank Harris writes with in his My Life and Loves published in England in the 1920s in all its 1100 odd pages. There is romance in my life: a sexual aesthetic, a sensitivity to the beauty of the feminine, of nature and of the intellect; but I trust that it is not removed from the real world, that it is simply part of my experience and not over-emphasized in my narrative, just a part of the intentional and unintentional revelations that add complexity and fascination to the text. The theatrical, the dramaturgical, is present in my work, but hopefully not unduely so. The mock-heroic, the lofty sentiments, the literary and thematic exaggerations and postures I hope are not overly done, stretched too far with too much religiosity as George Moore tended to do in his Hail and Farewell.(1911)