Terence Blacker holds a viewpoint that goes against everything I’ve learned about life writing:
Writing autobiographically, like prostitution, involves impersonation. The person who emerges on the page is inevitably a variation on the real thing – more (or less) well-behaved, less (or more) chaotic and confused. To turn the muddle of a life into a story which can be understood by someone else requires editing, tidying-up, streamlining. The result will often leave the writer feeling reduced in some way. Real life is strange and subtle in a way non-fiction rarely reflects, however well-written. The memoirist, like the prostitute, is putting on a show in which tricks and fakery are involved.
When that show consists of memories and experiences, the effect of revelation can be upsetting. Looking back to present one’s story to the world, whether in an online blog or in a book for publication, is almost always unhealthy. Public regret or guilt about things that have gone wrong is pointless; public satisfaction over a job well done can seem smug. Neither impinge helpfully on the present, and until someone is truly in his or her dotage, it is surely in the present and the future that happiness resides. . . .
An autobiography, however good, echoes to the sound of a door being slammed shut forever. Before his great book Life appeared, there was something interestingly incomplete about Keith Richards. He was a wonderful, shambolic work in progress, and it was impossible to tell how that work would end up. Now we know. The book has been published, the tale told. In some strange way, it put a full stop to his life. The normal things that evolve and change – careers, relationships, personalities – are immobilised by the act of memoir. Richards is slightly less interesting now that he has told his story.
ALL writing involves impersonation. To condemn the memoirist for this failing and compare autobiographical writing to prostitution is absurd. Would Blacker dismiss everything ever written, fiction as well as nonfiction?
And where is the proof for his statement that looking back on one’s life “is almost always unhealthy”? All the scientific evidence–and there is a lot–contradicts him. Yes, I know that this is an opinion piece, and he’s entitled to his. But I always find informed opinion so much more persuasive than, well, non-informed statements such as this.
And an autobiography does not have to put a “full stop” to one’s life. In fact, in serious autobiographical writing one looks to one’s past for lessons and encouragement on how to live now and on into the future. Writing memoir or autobiography is a self-defining and self-affirming act.
As an antidote to Blacker’s misinformation, take a look at The Cultural and Political Power of the Personal Memoir, mentioned in last week’s Friday Findings.
And here’s another refutation of Blacker’s assertions. Jeannette Walls’s memoir, The Glass Castle, tells of a live of neglect and poverty, yet the message she discussed at Ball State University was one of hope.
And this article contains an example of how one person’s memoir can be a blueprint to help others:
Senior creative drawing major Mo Smith said it was a story she was able to relate to. . . . “I’m the first person in my family to go to college,” Smith said. “We were all so poor; I thought I was smart enough to go but I’d never really fit in socially. So I loved this story. If Walls made better of her circumstances, and hers are way worse than mine, I think I can probably do it too.”
The godfather in question is Lee Gutkind, the so-called godfather of creative nonfiction. In this piece Gutkind talks about the growth of narrative medicine, a movement that aims to help medical professionals understand patients’ stories of illness as well as to encourage medical professionals to tell their own stories of how their work affects them. For more information, follow the link near the beginning of this article to a previous discussion of narrative medicine.
Another story of someone who believes that learning to put her thoughts down on paper has helped her through many tough periods in her life. Thank goodness she didn’t come across Blacker (above) while she was learning.
Bill Bollom explains how he got started with life writing:
When I was laid up for two years, I wrote life stories and other tidbits. It was a good thing for me to do. I think the kids, grandkids and maybe even beyond will appreciate my words, and it benefited me too. It kept my mind active on something other than my problems, and I enjoyed recalling stories of my past and writing my personal observations on a variety of topics and questions.
When two of his sisters-in-law were dying of cancer, he gave each of them a spiral notebook, a pen, and a list of 53 questions to stimulate their memories and get them started writing about events from their lives. He asked them to write when they felt up to it and offered these suggestions:
- » Don’t answer questions necessarily in the order I have written. You will be attracted to some of them immediately.
- » When writing, keep the paragraphs short and inviting to read.
- » Keep your writing simple, descriptive (put in details), with personal feeling.
- » Write as you speak. It’s your voice we want to hear.
- » Funny stories are good, even making fun of yourself.
- » Reveal successes, but also failures and ill will. This is not an application to get into heaven.
- » Have fun while writing.
Have a look at his memory-sparking questions and see if any make you feel the urge to write. And write so that your personal voice comes through.
From The New Yorker comes this interview with Janine di Giovanni, a war correspondent who recently turned to memoir. The writer talks about how writing her memoir, Ghosts by Daylight, compares with journalism.
David Bly, editor of the Desert Valley Times, talks about the importance of hearing the life stories of ordinary older adults:
Stories are not empty entertainment. I once wrote about the funeral of a 102-year-old Blackfoot woman who was the keeper of her people’s stories. Those stories and the position were handed down to the woman’s 78-year-old niece, who told me the stories were the Blackfoot people’s science, history, religion, moral code and culture. Without a written language, they used stories to hand down essential knowledge and wisdom.
In this age of rampant technology, we may think we don’t need those stories, but the mere transfer of information is not teaching. Knowledge cannot become wisdom without experience. A computer can store a huge amount of data, but it cannot tell us what it means.