The Autobiography Decision: Who Do You Think You Are?

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Recently a new discussion topic was posted on one of the writing and/or book related groups I am a member of on LinkedIn. The heading went something like this: “Let’s be honest. We all wish we could write our autobiography and people would read it.”

The person posting the topic explained he had been a trophy hunter and in a somewhat poetic reversal, he now cared for hundreds of animals after retiring young. Oh, and he had died three times (and been resuscitated three times presumably).

Now, I’m as self-involved as the next person (maybe a little less considering the emergence of the selfie generation) but I cannot stress emphatically enough how determined I am never to write an autobiography.

If after I am dead, someone else deems my life to have been interesting enough to deserve a biography, well, I’ll be dead and I won’t be able to do anything about it. But the thirty eight years that have brought me to this point have not encompassed anything that would justify the telling of my story.

And I’m not being modest. Born, schooled, parents divorced, car accident, high school, motorbike accident, university, hospitality job, office job, parents remarried, master’s, temp job that turned into career I never wanted, cat, next cat, more cats, house, next house, published my first book, won a trip to Europe, quit the career I never wanted, started a blog, another cat. And here I am. I suspect even that paragraph summarising my life may have sent a few people to sleep.

When I was doing my master’s degree, it seemed as though there were a handful of serious, more youthful writers who were vastly outnumbered by older writers, most seeming to be retired and writing their life stories. They were essentially rich hobbyists – rich because the master’s program I studied cost $21,000 (I’m still paying it off ten years later) and hobbyists because none of them ever had any intention of writing about anything other than themselves or of writing more than one book.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised but I always am when people who have had perfectly normal (boring) lives just like me think those perfectly normal (boring) lives are worthy of an entire book. I wouldn’t deny anyone their fifteen minutes of fame but a book, even a shorter one, is usually hours of commitment.

The truth about most fiction writers is that portions of their lives, heavily disguised and amended for interest, end up in their writing anyway. Even non-fiction writers sometimes weave their own story into the larger stories they are telling. So how do we, as writers, judge whether our stories are worth telling?

It certainly requires a large amount of honesty and humility. I think a reasonable benchmark would be finding a proper publisher. If you can interest a commissioning editor in your life’s story, then maybe you’re onto something. If you can’t, think about why.

We all seem to be living under a delusion these days that we’re special; it’s certainly a problem amongst youth who’ve been told every day by their parents that they’re something out of the ordinary. But the truth is that for every thousand Kim Kardashians, there will only be one Stephen Hawking. And I know which autobiography I would choose to read from those one thousand and one options.

Just as important as having a story worth telling is having the ability to tell it. As shows like X Factor, The Voice, America/Britain/Australia’s Got Talent, Idol, etc are constantly demonstrating, people who can’t sing often genuinely believe they can. There are just as many people who can’t write well that genuinely believe they have a gift.

So if you do have a life story worth telling, make sure you don’t destroy it with a poorly constructed effort. There’s no shame in working with a specialist biographer or even a ghost writer (while making sure they get the credit they deserve); just ask every footballer who’s ever retired.

And, of course, there’s the option that I wish a few more people would take: writing their autobiography and then leaving it in a draw for their children to find after they are dead. Life stories in the context of dead relatives can be fascinating but often only in that context. Insight into a deceased loved one who lived in a different time is often wonderful because we knew them personally. Without that connection? Just another perfectly painted but painfully pointless Kim Kardashian.

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2 thoughts on “The Autobiography Decision: Who Do You Think You Are?

  1. Autobiographies can certainly partake too much of vanity and I personally don’t see the need to waste time reading a tell-it-all from some pop icon. That said, it might be worthwhile noting (like I think you did, essentially, and I am sure you already know this) that at its best autobiography is a respected genre that can rise to the level of good literature. The narrator is a double persona telling the story as narrator and at the same time enacting it as protagonist, sharing the same name as the protagonist but not the same time, same place, or same level of maturity and insight (at least in the beginning). In the act of writing a self-portrait one half discovers, half creates the self, and to trace the arc of a life, including triumphs and failures, can not only enlighten the writer but also appeal to a broader reading public as well.

    “So if you do have a life story worth telling, make sure you don’t destroy it with a poorly constructed effort.”

    Nicely said. And in the interest of full disclosure I should admit that I am old fat white guy with a beard who is writing his memoir. ☺

    PS – your “About” page is fascinating, well-written, and certainly not “boring”…

    Like

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