Looking back, looking ahead
Some years ago, I began writing an autobiography. Don’t worry, you’ll never have to read it.
I didn’t begin it with any thought of publication. I may have worked at a zoo and lived in a coal bin, but my life is not so interesting or important that anyone else should be forced to know about it.
It began with a deal with my two brothers: I’ll write my life if you’ll write yours.
I realized that I didn’t know the details of their lives. We’ve always been close enough that I’ve known the basic direction of their lives, but from the point I left for college 40 years ago, the details became fuzzy. And it is the details that add up to create a personality.
So, I tasked them to write down the major points of their lives so we might better know each other: who their girlfriends were, what jobs they had, what books were important to them.
In the process, I thought, we might also get a different point of view on the shared episodes of our lives in childhood. Perhaps what I thought of as roughhousing, my younger brothers might have thought of as terrorism. Perhaps an uncle I thought hilarious, they might have found tedious.
But writing it has been one of the most engrossing tasks I have ever set myself.
I realize now, too, that this task really began when I visited my aging parents and began asking them all those questions that too many people ask only after their parents are dead. I recorded their recollections on my laptop and wrote up a piece of oral history to send to my brothers. It included family trees for both sides of the family, memories my mother had of her childhood and that my father had of World War II in Europe.
It was a revelation: Relatives that had been vaporous ghosts in my own memory were brought back to life and their interrelationships made clear.
I came to know my parents much better and began to admire things in them that had been previously obscured by what I had taken to be their faults.
Perhaps, I reasoned, this same sort of thing could be undertaken amongst us brothers.
“Something like 20 pages,” I told them, “It shouldn’t be too hard.”
Neither of my brothers is a writer by trade, as I am. I didn’t want to make it too daunting for them.
But when I began writing my own version, I found that 20 pages was a mere sneeze.
I have now written about 250 pages and haven’t even gotten to the moment when I met my wife. The first 50 pages only get me through high school.
It turns out that writing one’s memoirs is an endless unfolding of memory. Each tiny recollection is a door that opens into rooms with more doors. And each of these doors open on yet more. A memory, it turns out, is only an iceberg’s tip. Perhaps you recall a family picnic, but as you write about it, you discover you remember the way your mother made a certain sandwich, which connects, more surely than any internet link, with the larger issues of her cooking and the part food played in our family dynamics.
We are each one of us a Proust waiting to unlock our own brains.
It is astonishing what is buried in the synapses, unused for decades, but still there for downloading.
The other lesson of writing an autobiography is to see the shape of one’s life unfold: What had seemed a jumble of unrelated episodes takes a narrative form and you discover that what you did as a 5-year-old flows with the certainty of a great river into what you do as a 50-year-old. It is all of a piece; the child is indeed father to the man.
It has been a while since I continued writing it: My brothers never took up the challenge. Now, one of them has died; I’ll never learn about his life. The other brother has more important things to do than write his autobiography. My version sits in my harddrive, worked over and rewritten several times, unread by anyone but me. The fervor for self-expression has died down like last week’s campfire.
One of the things that has dampened my enthusiasm is that as I’ve gotten to be an old man, I recognize how useless it is for anyone else to know about my life. It is one of the futilities of age that you recognize how much you have learned over six decades of life, and how little it helps the younger generation, who are feverishly intent on committing all the same mistakes you made, and are deaf to any guidance you may offer. This should be no surprise: I didn’t listen to my elders when I was young.
Perhaps one day, my granddaughters will want to read about their grandfather. I certainly wish I could have talked to mine, to find out more about the long line of people that led up to my entrance on the stage. But when I was young, I had better things to do. It wasn’t until after my grandfathers were both long dead that the wish came upon me to have asked them important questions only they could have answered.
So, for whom am I writing these notes? Clearly, for myself. One doesn’t start an autobiography for the benefit of readers, but for the benefit of oneself, to find and delineate the patterns found in the weave, to discover or create the plot that conveys meaning to the life lived. We have a sense of ourselves not merely through our five senses, but through the remembered narrative we have created of our transport through this single, unexpectedly short lifetime. Pulling the memories out of the doors behind doors behind doors of our synapses gives us the matter for this novel we are writing by getting up each morning.
So, my autobiography is unfinished; it may remain so. I learned what I needed by the doing — I sifted through the first 35 years of my life to find the turns and bends that led me to this now. The subsequent 33 years have taken their own shape through the living. The only person I would wish to share them with has no need of my notes: She lived those years with me.
I would, though, love to read her version of those years. Perhaps I will attempt to persuade her to write her autobiography. It would be enlightening to compare notes.
Marvelous post. I recently found a diary belonging to my great uncle in Ohio, telling all about family members, including my mother and grandparents, really fleshing them out for me. Precious.
For many years I kept a journal. Over the years it evolved from maudlin self-indulgence to ruminations on what I like to think are Big Questions. Eventually I became too busy writing scholarly papers to spend time on personal reflection. But I have a faculty colleague who continues to journal every night. He was able to tell me the first day we spoke over fifteen years ago, what I said that put him off me at the time, and that I apparently had a relationship with Kerry, a student in one of his graduate courses. I envy that, but once again, I find myself too busy living to reflect with regularity.
Just had to see if it would take my comment, and it did. There are many art forms, and writing is one of them. What someone will get from a painting, poem, or piece of music may have little to do with the author’s intent. Sometimes, the value may be only in the appreciation of the artist’s skill in their medium, and that’s no small thing. Still, you never know whom your insights will touch, and for that you get bonus points.