Why I write autobiography.

I read a short piece in the New Yorker review of books yesterday in which Janet Malcolm talks about the difficulties of writing her own autobiography. How hard it is to keep out the excess detail that would most likely be of interest to the auto biographer only.

It is easier for a journalist or biographer, she writes. The distance and objectivity required enables the writer to pick out the salient pieces, the things in the life story that will keep the reader interested, and will keep the story rolling along.

When you write your own story you are far more likely to get stuck in the mire of details from your life, details that become tedious and irrelevant to your reader, however riveting they might seem to you.

The difficulties of writing autobiography multiply.

To begin with there is the business of being bound to ‘write the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. An impossible task, given there is no such thing as absolute truth, only multiple variations of it, and multiple perspectives.

The literature abounds these days with the discounted evidence of people who claimed they were telling the truth of their stories, when the facts of history disproved their claims. They may have written a good story but they betrayed their readership by claiming it to be true, when it was not.

Beyond writing the truth, autobiographers are also obliged to focus on their own lives. And given that it is impossible to write about yourself without including details of other people’s lives, then autobiographers must consider disguising those others to such an extent that they cannot be identified. To disguise your fellow travelers in life is to begin to write fiction.

I once wanted to write about my siblings from the perspective of the lives of the saints after whom they were each named. To write in this way would demand that I use their first names. I could not therefore write about them, though I was safe enough to write about my own patron saint, Elisabeth of Hungary. I would tell you the story here, but I digress.

So now we arrive at the first catch twenty two: write the truth but keep bits of it hidden, particularly the identities of those who wish to remain concealed. To establish the identities of those who might wish to remain concealed is to alert them to the possibility that you might write about them. This opens up Pandora’s Box.

If you do a run around among your siblings, parents, friends and close others about how they might feel were details of your memories of your life together included, you are likely to fall into thorny bushes. And, as Drusilla Modjeska once wrote to me, there are those whom you expect to object who will not, and those whom you imagine to be in support, who will be furious. You cannot predict.

I once wrote a series of letters to my nine siblings suggesting that we cooperate in the writing of a book. We could each write a chapter on what it was like growing up in our ‘troubled’ family. The book never eventuated. We could not cooperate. Besides, I am a middle child, sixth in line. How could the editorial role fall to me, someone in the lower echelons of family chronology, and a girl to boot? How could I be permitted to take on such a task? How could I be deemed the arbiter of what gets included?

The advantage for a woman of my generation, who is more likely to have changed her name in marriage, is that the details of her family name are obscured and therefore less likely to become an issue in the disclosure stakes.

Most teachers of writing will tell you just to get on and write it first, worry about how you publish later.

The joys and dangers of blogging are that less of this process needs to take place. It is rather like going to a bakery where the bread is fresh out of the oven, rather than going to the supermarket where the bread has been standing around for hours going through the process of being sliced, bagged, labeled and transported to supermarket destinations near and far way. The latter bread tastes more predictable and bland but it is safer perhaps, albeit more doctored, than the stuff fresh out of the baker’s tray.

Which is another rule of successful autobiography: the rule of keeping it vital, which as Janet Malcolm points out, involves a degree of exclusion and a level of fictionalising that clashes with the first rule of ‘telling the truth’.

The next accusation to be leveled at the autobiographer involves that of narcissism. What makes you think your life is so interesting that anyone else would want to read about it? Who do you think you are?

You do not hear such arguments leveled against artists who paint their self-portraits regularly, who examine the intricacies of their form and with flourish. These self-portraits are rarely considered narcissistic, at least not as far as I have heard. Artists can include a life long chronology of their self-portraiture and no one bats an eyelid, but loves to see the progress. No such indulgence is offered to the unwary autobiographer who repeats herself, whose self image changes over time, and who is inconsistent in her self appraisals and perspectives of others.

It is one thing to write about the past, especially the far distant past, ten years ago and more. There is a certain sense of completion to events that happened then. We have had time to think about these experiences, to reflect on them and every time we do, they change a little.

Memory is like that. Every time we remember an event we reformulate it. We tweak it at the edges. We offer it more internal and logical sense than it might have had at the time.

As Timothy Garton Ash writes memory is like a re-write able CD, each new version replaces the last. And we all know that memory is unreliable and prone to distortion.

When we write about the present the task is even harder. Our memory for recent events is likely to be better. We can embellish the details more effectively. We can remember more precisely the exact curve in the teacup and the way her hair curls on top, but the experience is all too close. It feels raw. It has little of that sense of completeness that comes out of our continual revisions – both conscious and unconscious – and therefore it is prone to exaggeration and distortion.

Besides the people who participated in the recent events described are far more likely to be around at the same time and their memories of the event are also fresher. They might have a different view and disagree with yours, or they might not yet be ready to reflect on the experience.

So it was for me when I wrote about my daughter’s wedding too soon after the event and posted it on my blog. She had not realised that I had felt so hassled on the morning of the day. Why hadn’t I talked to her about it? she asked. Why had I chosen to write about it on my blog? Why had I included details that might identify her?

My blog is too public. I can be too readily identified. I should conceal my identity and not let anyone else in the blogosphere know who I am in real life.

‘The people who blog are not all who they say they are,’ another daughter tells me. ‘You can’t talk about those people in blogdom as real, because there is every chance they are not.’

I am torn. What would it be like, I wonder, to write under a veil of anonymity? To write under a pseudonym? To write as though my name were not my name. To write as though I were someone else.

I have not yet been able to do this effectively. I have tried to write fiction. I have tried to write about events that come from the well of my imagination, but they are always events that have been part of my experience. I might give over the events to various made up characters, but they too come from my experience.

I cannot write into the complete unknown, but I admire those whose imaginations are so robust that they can.

I am stuck with the so called ‘reality’ of my world, its past and its present. I feel handicapped by this and yet I cannot write about any other world or place and time. Only the world I know. When I imagine other worlds, invariably I remember them through the lens of my own experience.

I do not write the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, only variations on it. I write from my experience but the events I describe are based on memories of times gone by, even if they only happened yesterday, and in so doing I embellish these events, I reconstruct them.

I do not lie, but it is not the absolute truth and my perspective can vary depending on from which part of me I write. For I am as multiple in my perspectives as are those other participants in the same events.

Now I will tell you why I refuse to travel incognito, even on this blog where my adult children warn me I should be more careful. I should conceal my identity; I should hide the ‘truth’ of myself.

I grew up in a family in which we were told to ‘do as if nothing is wrong’; ‘keep it to yourselves’; ‘don’t let the neighbours know’; ‘hide’.

I write to escape these injunctions.

I write to reorder and thereby to create some illusion of control, to redress wrongs, to turn my helplessness into strength, to expose the wrong doers in my life, including my own wrong doings and to offer another perspective, one that can be reworked again and again into another version of the same events by other writers and participants to come.

Through my writing I can both hide and reveal.

89 thoughts on “Why I write autobiography.”

  1. Elisabeth – I laud and applaud you. My adult children are just as critical as yours. They are mortified at my public disclosures. They will always be and I will continue to fight my way out of the silent fog. What good are we to anybody if we can't stand in our own truth, however disquieting to others?

    I have a sense that what I see (or read) is what I get, with you. I don't think there's much fiction going on. One truth-bearer to another creates an electric charge of verity.

    Your story-telling is rich and that means it includes all the ghosts and demons, but the delight and victory shines through.

    Thanks for the link to digression. It was fun.

    I look forward to your posts like a thirsty wanderer seeks water (wow, that sounded dramatic, but I'm into drinking at the well of understanding).

  2. I thought your comment about narcissism was really interesting because I hadn't thought of autobiography that way until I read that. I think of it as a more keenly felt story. All writers are telling stories, some affect the writer more than the reader though. I suppose this is one way I think of it.

    Glad to have been made thoughtful.

    Interesting, too, about blog anonymity. I get that. I relate to the idea of feeling exposed, irretrievably, on my blog. That aspect of blogging makes me, personally on my blog, uncomfortable. Just because I feel ok about sharing something about myself on Monday doesn't mean I'll still feel that way on Tuesday. Then what. I could stay silent. Have been doing that – not for that reason – but…I don't know where I'm going with this…it's mind food…thanks.

  3. Yes, I often wonder about those writers who write under the cover of anonymity. Such a freedom. But often with no consequence. I often wonder, I had a chance to re-do my blog, would I not use my real name.

  4. I love reading your blog. I can see the problems with truth as the truth is different for everybody. When you let people tell you to describe an event. All will do that from a diffent perspective and their stories are coloured by their experiences, by their perceptions, by their prejudices etc.
    That makes it interesting though
    as long as you are aware of it.
    I don't reveal everything on my blog, only general things.
    The reason is indeed you don't know who reads your blog.
    For example I wrote once an article about my son who has LD and kids from his clas found it
    There wasn't any negative in it but the fact that he has LD made them tease him. My son told me to take of everything involving him and I did. So I became very careful
    Revealing wouldn't be easy either
    because facts become fiction and than it wouldn;t be a really story anymore. So yes writing autobiography has many challenges
    but other people can learn form it

  5. Elisabeth,

    This is the first time I've visited your blog, and your post completely absorbed me – it was like reading my own thoughts typed out in front of me – but expressed so much better! Thank you.

  6. Dear Elisabeth, hope everything is fine with you.
    As you might imagine, this entry of yours is more than felt. The last paragraph incredible good and able to express probably the very reason for a autobiography.
    Thank you for this "manual", that I like to read and re-read time and again.
    Wishing you a wonderful weekend.

  7. Elisabeth

    It seems we must share the same children or at least the same mind set in our children– I did a post a short time ago called "crossing that Bridge -when we come to it" Mind you I could not use names — still I did use a quote at the end of it that I would like to share with you –“The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise”
    Alden Nowlan
    Keep on blogging, sister — and that was a good wedding post — I commented on it back then..

  8. Elisabeth, I enjoyed reading this post. My memory is hopeless. When talking with siblings, they mention things I can't remember or my outlook is completely different to their presentation. No way would I tackle a family disclosure in writing, as I would probably have a different take on the events. it's happened too many times.

  9. Your post today brings to the surface much of what I have been thinking about lately when I am writing/painting and deciding what to include. I think as writers or artists ,(I think of them the same), the distinction between fiction and the truth needs to be identified in some way. There is a certain disappointment when one feels mislead. I look forward to your writing very much, I think mostly for the truth and the struggle felt in your words as you explain yourself, more so even than the story you tell. Thanks.

  10. It is important, I think, to remember that not everyone can reveal themselves in every situation. I abhor people criticising something but declining to sign their name. On this page, I cannot write my name. People have to hide sometimes and we cannot always know why. I just hope that it is respected and not seen as cowardice. It can arouse fears as an unamed baby in a pram has onlookers become very anxious, but anonymity can be essential at times.
    I did wonder about the wedding disclosures and thought they were risky. Perhaps I have more reason to be wary. It is with great sadness that I say, I do not trust as easily.
    I agree that you would probably be able to judge a 'sus' blogger but identifying information is going out to a massive audience and that needs to be considered.
    Funny that you should mention ten years in your story plus bread. I was thinking of both things today. A conversation I had with someone ten years ago, about rubber bread for children and how they only like it because they are exposed to it. If we set our sights higher for our children, they also rise (pardon the pun)
    The artist is usually using the only living person willing to sit for them that often and for free. Why can't the writer also use the material to hand with same justification?
    In my opinion, you don't have to 'pretend there is nothing wrong' but neither do you have to speak about everything. Keeping ones own counsel has its place and sometimes, there is much beauty in the words that we are led to but never have to say. e.g parents telling their ch'n they love them. They usually know this without being told. They know how much, to what degree and in what sibling order! Sometimes words are cheap. I just wanted to put a different perspective. Thanks for the opportunity, Elisabeth.

  11. It is important, I think, to remember that not everyone can reveal themselves in every situation. I abhor people criticising something but declining to sign their name. On this page, I cannot write my name. People have to hide sometimes and we cannot always know why. I just hope that it is respected and not seen as cowardice. It can arouse fears as an unamed baby in a pram has onlookers become very anxious, but anonymity can be essential at times.
    I did wonder about the wedding disclosures and thought they were risky. Perhaps I have more reason to be wary. It is with great sadness that I say, I do not trust as easily.
    I agree that you would probably be able to judge a 'sus' blogger but identifying information is going out to a massive audience and that needs to be considered.
    Funny that you should mention ten years in your story plus bread. I was thinking of both things today. A conversation I had with someone ten years ago, about rubber bread for children and how they only like it because they are exposed to it. If we set our sights higher for our children, they also rise (pardon the pun)
    The artist is usually using the only living person willing to sit for them that often and for free. Why can't the writer also use the material to hand with same justification?
    In my opinion, you don't have to 'pretend there is nothing wrong' but neither do you have to speak about everything. Keeping ones own counsel has its place and sometimes, there is much beauty in the words that we are led to but never have to say. e.g parents telling their ch'n they love them. They usually know this without being told. They know how much, to what degree and in what sibling order! Sometimes words are cheap. I just wanted to put a different perspective. Thanks for the opportunity, Elisabeth.

  12. We can only ever write from our own perspective and you are so right about the difficulty of including details that are relevant to the flow.
    I think there's a degree of narcissism in all arts presented for public scrutiny. We all want to be acknowledged whatever we do and however much we may claim to be ducking the limelight. It's the degree and intensity of spotlight that differs from person to person.
    I enjoyed the link to digression – it can be so amusing and entertaining handled in an appropriate manner – which will be inappropriate for some . . .
    Ultimately, we can only speak or write as we find and that's our particular and peculiar truth.

  13. What I am interested in is the way writers novelize their memoirs. I just had the chance to read 'Liar's Club," which covered, if I'm correct, but two or three years of her early life, and yet had endless dialogue as if a quite young child remembered it all. In spite of being annoyed at that, I found the details about her difficult life, combined with such a clear picture of the climate, the economic circumstances, the low-life quality of their existence, her difficult mother and step-father very interesting/informative. They gave a perspective.

    I heard Michael Hoffman talk about his work, "Half a House," that he'd written 7 times. It finally got published when he added much more detail, dialogue, that was undoubtedly essentially true, but hardly 'really' true.

    I hope you put way the phrase — the whole truth — since you know so fully that there is no whole truth. Don't bother arguing it again.

    And I agree with your first commenter that standing in your own truth, no matter what, is important. I loved the blog about your daughter's wedding, all due respect to her. I am lucky that my daughter doesn't read mine. She's long ago backed away from commenting since she was the material for 18 years of my photographs… see http://www.melissashook.com for the website. We once did a combined lecture about my work on her. Other kids might be horrified, but she accepted that as my work.
    I am always interested in what you say, Elisabeth.
    thank you.

  14. Hi Kass.

    It is so difficult. I don't want to distress anyone, least of all my children.

    Often times I don't anticipate upsetting anyone when I post a blog, that's not to say i don't fear the response, but mostly I fear criticism of the 'this is boring' type.

    A friend of mine, a psychoanalyst, once suggested to me that the way we conduct ourselves in the world is of necessity defensive.

    None of us could survive were we to travel through life without defenses.

    Some defenses are more helpful than others. For instance denial is pretty useless – you stand in front of the bus with your back to it and convince yourself that you're safe. Meanwhile the bus rolls towards you. If you do not turn around and acknowledge that bus, you're done for. On the other hand, a defense like rationalization whereby you make sense of terrible events by reasoning your way through them might be more helpful depending on the extent of your intellectualism.

    This friend of mine suggested that being open is as defensive as being closed. There's room for both and it depends on the degree to which someone is open or closed and the circumstances of their experience and how or whether they might come together that determines its effectiveness.

    All this is to say, if we more open folks can do our best to respect the more cautious closed folks and vice versa, the world would perhaps be a better place.

    Thanks Kass. You give me heart.

  15. Thanks, Ronda. Maybe it offers freedom to write under the cloak of anonymity, but I'm not so sure.

    I suspect that to write at all, no matter what name a person writes under, is to bring to the surface that which lies beneath and that can be painful even if the author's identity remains concealed. The author as reader knows.

  16. I've written a paper on narcissism and autobiography and ironically the paper gave me trouble, not for the theoretical arguments I put forward but because I used the autobographical to make my point and in so doing I offended some people who preferred that I kept certain matters to myself in certain circles.

    Sorry to sound so cryptic, but that's the nature of the beast and censorship leads to veiled writing, which I think can be both tantalisng and frustrating for both the writer and the reader.

    There are those who would say write nothing then. It's worse to reveal the fact of a secret without revealing its detail than to keep it all to yourself.

    I'm sure that everyone who blogs writes carefully, conceals certain things and reveals others. None of us are so transparent and open that we would reveal all.

    Of course we reveal more than we imagine sometimes and at other times we are more evasive. On top of that readers will make out of what we write what they will.

    As Paul John Eakin writes – I quote him often – autobiographers lead perilous lives.

    Thanks, Rachel.

  17. I can understand your intention to keep things general on your blog, Marja. And the story you tell about your son is a lesson to us all.

    It horrifies me to think that someone would use what I have written and take it out of context to attack, not only me, but someone else I love.

    Children can be cruel, but I'm afraid that adults can be even more so.

    It is hard to find the safest and most meaningful path. Too much caution defeats the purpose of blogging but not enough can be, as you suggest, dangerous.

    Thanks, Marja

  18. I always feel a great sense of guilt when I write anything concerning real and or living people but that is more because of having it drummed into to me (at a young age) – like you – that I must never tell outsiders of family business! But I never felt that the stories warranted keeping secret or were in any way shameful. There is so much hypocricy in the lessons and advice adults give children. Autobiographical stories are necessary and such a tool for good in this respect.

    Thanks for your detailed response to my earlier comment. Cryptic in part perhaps but not illegible.

  19. Sharon, it's lovely to meet you here. I visited your blog and I can see how our writing struggles coincide.

    All I can say to you here is as I tell myself – keep on trying.

    And here I have the impulse to quote the artist Grace Cossington Smith from Drusilla Modjeska's book, 'Stravinsky's Lunch', that art is just one 'continuous try'.

    And further I have the urge to plonk here in the middle another quote from the French philospher, Helene Cixous. Most of her work I have trouble decipering, but not this from ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’

    'And why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it. I know why you haven’t written. (And why I didn’t write before the age of twenty-seven.) Because writing is at once too high, too great for you, it’s reserved for the great – that is for ‘great men’; and it’s ‘silly’. Besides you’ve written a little, but in secret. And it wasn’t good, because it was in secret, and because you punished yourself for writing, because you didn’t go all the way; or because you wrote, irresistibly, as when we would masturbate in secret, not to go further, but to attenuate the tension a bit, just enough to take the edge off. And then as soon as we come, we go and make ourselves feel guilty – so as to be forgiven; or to forget, to bury it until the next time.'

    So Sharon, go for it. It's time.

    Thank you.

  20. Dear Robert, you are so kind in our comments.

    I suppose this post of mine on autobiography can be read as a sort of manual but I did not imagine that you would read it as such.

    I hope it gives you a little more courage with your own wonderful work.

  21. Thanks Joanny, for your wonderful quote.

    I sometimes think about the strange reversal that takes place in life when our children whose behaviour might once have been a source of embarrassment to us see our behaviour as a source of embarrassment to them.

    It seems to start around adolescence and goes on for many more years, maybe even into our old age.

    Thanks for the wonderful support, Joanny. I shall soldier on.

  22. 'Through my writing I can both hide and reveal.'
    I can totally relate to this.
    I have been working on my memoirs for over a couple of years and as for 'who would want to read them' the choice is theirs. No point in feeling apologetic about sharing your life's experiences.
    It was writing on my blog Past Imperfect and getting favourable feed-back that inspired me to try to get published and I am encouraged by the members of my family who know about my blog. I do change some names to respect people's privacy.

  23. Thanks, Sylvia. Families are such intense melting pots. What one remembers another has forgotten and yet it seems someone's version of events takes centre stage and can count for all time as the official family record.

    It's hard finding a voice in the midst of the struggle. To me the struggle to represent one's own perspective also has a sharp political edge.

    No wonder there's often conflict.

  24. Thank you, Jane.

    I hesitate to accept comments from anonymous sources but I get the sense that yours is genuine and thoughtful and well worth consideration.

    I know there is potentially a mass audience out there, and such an unknown audience can be dangerous.

    I know I have a tendency to trust in the goodness of others first and then to realise – sometimes too late – that some might not have my best interests at heart.

    I took the wedding post off my blog out of respect for those I love. I suppose I could stretch that respect further and not post at all.

    I agonise about these things.

    I see evidence a plenty of nastiness in the blogosphere – the spammers, the so-called trolls the down right vindictive and vengeful souls who would want to hurt others for what they say. It's particularly evident in the more politically minded blogs. What is it about politics that brings out the worst in us?

    I cannot stop nastiness from creeping into my blog.

    I do my best to respect others, especially those near and dear to me, but I cannot write about myself without at times including evidence of those others in my life.

    I try my best and will try even harder in future to avoid clear identifications but I cannot do much more than that, other than to stop blogging altogether or to post stuff that becomes meaningless to me. If it's meaningless to me, then it's not worth posting, as far as I'm concerned.

    Thank you, Jane. I wish I knew just a little more of who you are, but I respect your need for privacy.

  25. Thanks, Janice. I have written elsewhere that not all narcissism is 'bad'. We all need a degree of narcissism in life to survive. A degree of self interest is necessary, otherwise how an we teach others to respect themselves. Much of ot goes back to the notion of how we are received by our first audience, our parents. If they can greet us and acknowledge us with pleasure and limits then we should do well enough.

    It's when we are neglected, ignored, shamed or humiliated or any of those other dreadful things that can happen to vulnerable babies and children that problems of narcissism can set in.

    Artistic endeavors go someway to redress these. We all need to be recognised in some way or another. It's a basic human need. Autobiography is just one way of getting some of it, but there are many other forms.

    Thanks again, Janice.

  26. Melissa, I had the same reaction when I read Mary Carr's 'The Liar's Club'. How could she have possibly remembered her early childhood in such detail.

    It's such a wonderful book and feels authentic and full of honesty and truthfulness, even as you know Carr could not have recalled all of this as a child. Similarly with Frank McCourt's 'Angela's Ashes'.

    I have no trouble with this. To me it is the work of autobiographers to transform their experience on to the page and in so doing they will inevitably fill in gaps and leap over sections of life.

    We cannot possibly provide an accurate record of our lives. It is always approximate. That's why I held my tongue firmly in my cheek when I wrote about the call to write 'the whole truth'.

    I know the whole truth is impossible to come by, even if the courts of law do not.

    I shall check out your web page Melissa. Your daughter is probably wise not to read your stuff. My daughters don't usually, but this post one must have jumped out, for obvious reasons.

    Thanks for your encouragement, Melissa. I'm grateful.

  27. Elisabeth: Your wedding post was very personal, and about a special and individual ceremony, but in that it described the deadlines, the multiplicity of last minute details, joys, happinesses, anxieties, the unexpected delays and hiccups, it seemed to me to portray the essence of such an occasion from almost any bride's mother's viewpoint.
    Although your life and experiences are obviously unique, despite the personal detail, you convey them in a manner that creates echoes in others' lives.

  28. Oh my, oh my! You touched upon one of the issues I will be writing about in one of my Sunday posts soon. And you mentioned one of my favourite columnists, Timothy. Great post. I find your blog honest and very, very good.

    Greetings from Kuala Lumpur.

    BUT I DON'T THING THAT A PERSON WHEN WRITING ITS OWN BIOGRAPHY SHOULD think about because people lives in diferent times , cultures and have diferent interests . a New Yorker person should know this very well , if not , i am sorry .
    there are no rules for self biographys because live completely changes for each one .
    someone , for instance , for telling about its life , sometimes must to give details of other people lifes or landscapes , or historic facts for example , or will never allow the reader to have a deeper idea of what is really happening .
    other thing i payed attention about this , is that all those rules seems to be one more formula that americans love so much for success . ok , maybe it works , but should we be interested in success of book selling when talking about our lifes ? or in finding new and more apropriated ways for revel ourselves ?
    i believe in just one formula and colection of rules .
    be yourself .

  30. I found blogging brings out the honesty and opens one up like a book. Isn't that amazing.

    One just simply cannot hide anything when one blogs. One can "not-tell", but one can never hide.

  31. Your posts usually hit so many of the keys on the xylophone that is me, I have to go away for awhile and brood before commenting. So, a couple of my sideways observations ~

    Some people who care deeply for me have questioned whether some of my posts have given too much information. I always welcome input and opinion from people I love, and if they think I'm revealing information too personal, I'd like to hear about that. After several conversations, I've still landed in the same place. I tell almost everything over time. The painful and the joyous. And I'm really OK with that and any consequences that might result.

    As for why one writes autobiography: aren't writers told to write about what we know? What do we know better than our own lives? And who could know it better than we, ourselves?

    I use a phrase often that you may have read on my blog: "my truth" or "This is my truth." Sometimes when we speak of past events, one of my parents will say, "That never happened." As plainly as that. If they both said that about one event, I might question my own recollection. But I've observed that one of them will say that when the behavior in the event makes him or her look bad. They use it selectively and either deny that it happened or – at the very least – their truth is different from mine. Initially it made me very angry. But I've landed on the simple understanding that we all process things differently. We have different truths about the same event.

    And lastly, your daughter is right – there are likely many people who blog who are not what they present themselves to be. And then there are those who may live far away and look very different and have a completely different living circumstance, but with whom we connect at some level with certainty that we know this person truly. We make that connection by exchanging the ideas and information the cautious warn us not to share.

    Thank you for your though-provoking post, as always, Elisabeth.

  32. Elisabeth, I feel that a sincere autobiography entails a great deal of grit and a masochistic honesty to write one.
    I know how hard it is to lance the old wounds, pull away the brown, hardened skin, gnaw at the raw unhealed flesh, and still do not cringe. More often than not, autobiographers create a Frankenstein’s Monster like caricature, to tell the world how brave they are, hoping to provide recompense to themselves for all the inadequacies that life had thrown their way. People are too chicken hearted to tell the brutal truth of why they cried, failed, cheated and killed their soul.
    I belong to the same group. This 'nothing but the whole truth' sort of gives me goosebumps…
    I have often toyed with the idea of writing an autobiography, but I I can bear the past only in small, measured doses…and present it to the world ,camouflaged…
    I also feel that it is preposterous at this stage to write an autobiography, and then…how do I write the end?
    When writing fiction one has to think about the end first. In true stories, the end could not be envisaged.
    Only lived.

  33. I write fiction, but on my blog, I write under my full name, and my friends and family can easily read anything I write. I don't quite know how people manage to keep up a pseudonym / persona for an extended period… but I think I know why they do it. I, for one, appreciate your frankness.

  34. A couple of thoughts…

    Don't give up on fiction so easily. It doesn't have to be pure imagination. Writers as disparate as Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald have borrowed from real life. Even James Barrie, who wrote the fantastical PETER PAN, based the Lost Boys on some actual boys he knew, even using their names.

    About autobiographical writing. I mentioned this in an email to you, but it bears repeating. One pitfall, and one reason I decline from indulging in that too much, is the temptation to look at one's life as a story or play, with an story arc or three act structure. I don't think your writing typifies this, Elisabeth, but I've seen it in others. The problem is life isn't plotted. At least not as far as I can tell. There are random events and loose ends. Unlike a novel, there's not always an underlining theme, as much as we'd like one. Again, I think you avoid that. I'm not so sure I could.

    Finally, whether to use your real name or not depends on your long-term goals. If blogging's just a hobby, perhaps a fake name is best. If you actually hope to become a published writer someday, you'll probably end up using your real name, unless you want to hire an actor to sit in for you at the book signings.

  35. elisabeth – i am fairly circumspect and circumscribed in my sharing of myself in this bloggy forum. i am everywhere else also. i share what is necessary in the moment. in that way i hand over the authority of my being and to some degree my becoming self to people who may benefit or may not benefit from my being cautious. some of those people are family, friends, colleagues, students. i am transparent and fully accessible to myslef and that seems to be the place where that works the best. my internal dialogue is often richer for that decision. i admire, and to some degree envy people who are able and willing to share the details of their lives. i find that for now, it is best to share something of the internal form and colour of my own. steven

  36. Autobiography is, by taste, a genre I’m not very well acquainted with. So clearly, my views about auto biography are mostly abstract or hypothetical drawn for parallels, or worse yet unfounded opinion. Below is a rough outline of my decision process (drawn originally for practical immediate things to act or not to act) roughly adapted to writing… It rarely takes me more than a few seconds, I’m lucky to have a simple life.

    What? Why? Objective? How?
    I suppose like with many things, I need to decide what I want to do. Make music? Cook? Paint? Save the world? Travel? Write an autobiography? Then I would work on defining the why… because once the why is determined it will be easier to find the objective and then reach the how. This is not specific to writing autobiography or to anything at all.

    What do I want to do? I want/need to write an autobiography. Why?
    For writing an autobiography I expect the answers could start at “I am doing this for myself” or “I am doing this for others”. And then that answer can be further refined to great lengths:
    I am doing this to express a voice that was squelched, or shout my outrage, I am doing this to make money, I am doing this to be famous, I am doing this for political or religious reasons, I am doing this for fun, I am doing this for my studies, I am doing this for mother/son/ancestors, etc.
    None of these are exclusive, in fact it quite rare that anything is done with a single intent, but let’s only consider the main intent.

    Why do I want to share my experience of teaching cats how to tap dance? Because I think it is vitally important that the world realize the vast tap-dancing potential that lies dormant in all felines. Ok so my objective is to tell as many people as possible about this to make the world a better place (filled with tap dancing cats).

    The objective is often easily derived from the why, chances are it will shift over time, sometimes to adjust for a moving target, sometimes to adjust to changing of circumstances.

    And now the crux… The how. How in the blue blazes am I going tell everyone about this crucial fact? What am I ready to sacrifice? Whose toes am I ready to step on? And here, the previous answer make it easier and clearer to define what me priorities are. Considering the vital nature and importance of my message, I will still at nothing short of breaking the law to tell the world about tapdancing felines. All obstacles in my way will be met with dogged and unflagging determination. Even should cost me the affection of all the dog lowers in the world.

  37. [cont.]Is the first rule telling the truth? Is there a list of rules? Who wrote it?
    I see biographies as belonging to two main categories, histories and stories. While I would expect a history to have accurate and true information, I would also expect it to be dry and somewhat academic. Stories on the other hand, personal stories, require an essence, something “vital” to drive them forward: it can be a need on the part of the author to express something, it can be an amazing experience to recount, an exceptional character, an unbound verve in the writing style, and much more. In many cases fiction makes for a better story… I’m sure that the few biographies I’ve enjoyed are only loosely based on reality and embellished/illuminated with creative writing. In any case how you write is determined by what you want to achieve and what you want to write. If your objective it to report the facts, then clearly you have no room invention, if your goal is to entertain then sticking doggedly to the truth will make you miss your objective.

    “When I imagine other worlds, invariably I remember them through the lens of my own experience”
    Nothing wrong with that… a lot people who write fiction don’t create, many just transpose. Take a situation involving your family, give everyone new names, put them, in the future on another planet and you’ve got science-fiction. Yes, this is certainly an oversimplification- a lot of what I am saying is. In practice every situation is much more complex, with a much large number of factors to consider…

    “The next accusation to be levelled at the autobiographer involves that of narcissism.”
    There will always be some one to point a finger… But how relevant is the finger pointer’s opinion? What is your opinion? Or that of the people you respect? Are any of these opinions properly informed and objective?
    Incidentally, artists (as a stereotype, in reality it’s a case by case thing of course) are notorious for being self involved and narcissistic. I think that, to some extent, anyone who is constantly looking inwards to create will be comparatively more self-centred than the majority who are passively looking out most of the time. And often time this can produce asocial or misunderstood behaviour. If you spend your time staring at the sun, you’re bound to get tan.

    ‘The people who blog are not all who they say they are,’ another daughter tells me. ‘You can’t talk about those people in blogdom as real, because there is every chance they are not.’
    Well certainly, everything can’t be taken at face value, that’s as true if not more so IRL than online. The nice young man who came to visit might not actually be from phone-company, he might be out to scam you… Common sense and caution a requisites to social interaction of any kind. And sadly, even that is certainly not 100% guaranteed. As for being real… Well, in a virtual environment, the reality of our personas is defined by our expression and the appearance we convey. “But then it is not real!” But what defines the reality of words and concepts? Having a body to express them? The conceptual weight behind the expression (words, art, music, pictures, whatever) over time gives value to online personas, just as it would to offline personas. I wouldn’t entrust my home to a person I’ve just met and exchanged 5 friendly sentences with… But if I have lengthy involved discussions over several years, than I much more likely to develop a level of trust.

    Apologies for the late, unordered, and in many points redundant comment. I hope there is at least something useful in there. Cheers.

  38. Very interesting post. You bring out the dilemmas we all face with blogging about our lives. As I see the situation is not how much to talk about or whom to mention. You choose your topics and how you slant them. If your adult children object, too bad. You are not writing for them; you are writing for yourself.

    Of course, don't embarrass them if you can avoid it.

  39. Thank you, Frances. I'm pleased that my post did not trouble you. I did not write it with the idea that it would upset anyone, but these things happen and perhaps I should be more circumspect in the future.

    I've written elsewhere that maybe these things need time. If I had posted it sometime down the track the story may not have had the same impact. If I had waited to write it too, I imagine I would have written it differently.

    All this is very well in hindsight.

    I'm grateful for your response to the post, though, Frances. It makes me feel less criminal in the business of posting it.

    I know that's a strong word 'criminal' but guilt leaves me prone to hyperbole.

  40. Hi Cuban, way away in Kuala Lumpur.

    I'm pleased my post found its way to you and that you are planning to write on this topic soon. I shall keep an eye out for it. The topic of autobiography and disclosure matters to me very much and it seems it matters to others, too. At least it maters to some.

  41. Thanks Caio. I understand that the 'rules' for writing about one's life ought not exist, especially when we all lead such different lives, but it seems they do.

    These so-called rules are not usually spelled out, but there are conventions, and there is evidence, at least in Western societies of what can happen to writers who 'break the rules'.

    I suppose this is the theory and theory is just other people's ideas. You can agree with it or not. You can create your own theories, or rules, formulae, call them what you will.

    I like your 'formula' best of all, the one that says: 'be yourself'.

  42. Thanks, Ocean girl. I agree with you that blogging brings out the personal in people.

    We tend to respond to comments by thinking about what the post means for us, to us in our lives. We tend to resond personally.

    Though others might respond from a distance. They might be better able to be objective or to intellectualize. They might write from outside of themselves even.

    It is possible I think, to hide a great deal from your blog. If you really think about it, Ocean Girl, there must be things you decide not to include on your blog, not only because you think it is not of interest, but also because it might feel inappropriate or worrisome or invasive of other people's or your own privacy.

    Now I am arguing against myself it seems. But I think it is important to watch what we 'publish'. It happens from the onset, it happens with the writing itself.

    The moment we put pen to paper, put our fingers to the keyboard, we make decisions that involve a degree of inclusion and exclusion. We can't possibly include it all. Nor would we want to. Nor would anyone want to read it. It would take a life time.

  43. having arrived quite late to this discussion
    i find i can add very little except a mild
    defense of the portrait artists' repetitive
    production of images of self (as contrasted
    with autobiographies and the notion of narcissism’s
    absence in one form and the suspicion
    of its presence in the other).

    i suspect, portraiture being a highly technical
    form, and access to live models not easily attainable,
    self portraiture becomes, by necessity, an alternative
    when the need to draw or paint is present and yet
    a live model, not only absent, but impossible to attain
    (for myriad reasons).

    i find this to be true when drawing any part
    of the human form– each time i draw myself
    or any of my own limbs, narcissism
    is the furthest notion in my mind at that point
    in time. although, i suspect, there have been,
    and always shall be, those who draw, paint or
    event photograph themselves driven by self admiration,
    i doubly suspect a large number do so
    because of the sheet utility of having one's
    own form available in a snap when the moment calls,
    especially late at night etcetera, etcetera.

    "a mirror is always there if one can bring oneself
    to look into it for any length of time, especially
    at oneself".

    speaking from personal experience: asking someone
    to pose is a lot more difficult than someone asking
    me to draw, paint or photograph them.

    whereas, the biographer has an immense set of
    choices, especially one who has a lifetime
    of observations to draw from, some opt to focus
    on themselves (for any number of reasons),
    other do not. some are narcissists, others not.

    finally, let me say this much: poets are the best
    liars of them all, they can say one thing
    and mean something else entirely. not so
    authors of prose (generally), especially biographers,
    auto or otherwise, because readers will refute them
    if caught. not so, readers of poetry … ha ha

    i know you did not say "A penny for your thoughts",
    but Vassilis did … hehehe (again, sorry:) …

    ok, i'll stop now– this "long-form stuff" is really
    taxing (for me). back to my criptic world of words
    in small spaces and the swift click of the shutter
    (if i can find a subject that is).

  44. I love your 'sideways observations', Les and I'm with you about the decision to include the joys and the sorrows in your writing.

    I was devastated a few weeks back when I came to realise how upset my daughter had been with me.

    I think it's okay for her now, but for me the issue has hit a raw nerve. The nerve it hit is that of feeling censored. I cannot abide the thought that someone is telling me not to write.

    Yesterday my husband read a short piece to me from the newspaper. Apparently somewhere here in Australia someone has conducted a survey asking people: if it came to a choice what would they give up, their partner or the Internet. Sixty percent said they'd take the Internet.

    'What would you choose?' my husband asked, half jokingly. I refused to be drawn in. It's Sophie's choice.

    I know that if it were a choice of who I might choose to be with on a desert island, my husband or the Internet, I'd take my husband any day, even assuming the Internet could work on a desert island. I'd still prefer the special companionship and love of my husband, over the virtual.

    Why am I telling you this? I'm getting as bad as Charlie from, Professor Worm. I digress.

    I'm telling you about my horror at the thought of being told I cannot write as I write. That in order to keep faith with people, particularly those I love, I must censor my writing, that I must take care not only of what I write but more importantly that I must be selective to a high degree about whom I share my writing with.

    To have someone tell me that I cannot post posts on the Internet because of the potentially vast audience, and that therefore I must eliminate the joys of communication with those I sense I have come to know, however virtually, for the sake of protecting people's so called privacy, is distressing.

    I have written too much in this comment and I have scarcely addressed your other thoughts, Les, but I'm on a roll.

    I like your idea that 'this is my truth'. Lynn Bloom, a literary theorist whose work I enjoy talks about the importance of 'writing how it is for me'.

    It's the same concept. We can only speak for ourselves when we write. We must be wary of speaking for others. Unfortunately people often read as though our written version of events becomes the sole version because we have gone to the trouble of writing them.

    Such can be the power of the written word. It offers the illusion of finality.

    Enough said. Thanks again, Les. I value your thoughts.

  45. Nazia, I'm glad you introduce the idea of masochism into this discussion.

    I think it must seem masochistic sometimes to have your writing pulled to shreds by those who would see the events you describe differently. But is it really masochism or its opposite, not so much sadism but certainly an aggressive act to put your ideas out about how things are/were to you.

    Joan Didion writes about writing as an aggressive, even a hostile act. It is, she argues ‘the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind…setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the readers most private space.

    I'm not sure I agree with her entirely but she has a point.

    On the other hand, as a writing friend said to me recently, it seems unfair. The writers write things down and hand their work over for others who do not so expose themselves, who do not write, to judge. It seems unfair but like most things, it's complex.

    Thanks, Nazia.

  46. Thanks, Rachel. It would seem easier for a fiction writer to identify her real identity, but even fiction writers can come a cropper.

    I still recall the Australian writer, Elizabeth jolly telling her audience about the way a woman at another presentation once asked her why she wrote about lesbianism in one of her books.

    Elizabeth Jolly had no idea what this woman was talking about.

    'What about the rumpled sheets on the bed?' the woman said, 'when the two women – I can't remember their names – were together one morning.'

    Rumpled sheets, two women and this woman read something that Elizabeth Jolly even with the best will in the world, the greatest respect for a reader's perception, could not see.

    People will read into our writing fiction or non-fiction tings that may or may not be there, and we cannot control it. Only do our best to live with the fall out.

  47. Kirk, thanks for your urgings to not give up on fiction. I have a huge respect for fiction. To me fiction is often the best way to get to the 'emotional truth ' of a story.

    Here I quote myself from elsewhere: In his novel, Empire of the Sun, J G Ballard wrote the story of a small boy interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Although the book was well acclaimed and was later made into a film, some critics attacked him. Ballard himself had been interned in a prisoner of war camp with his parents and brother. Why did he not write the actual truth of his experience? Why deny the existence of his parents and brother? In his defense, Ballard argued: he had wanted to explore the emotional truth of his experience, the trauma and the loneliness. Despite the presence of his family at that time, he felt completely alone.

    I agree too Kirk, that life isn't plotted. the biggest difficulty for me is that life constantly evolves and my perspective changes. What I wrote ten years ago no longer holds as it once did.

    I can only deal with this by acknowledging the multiplicity of selves that exist within the one person, namely in me, over time and circumstance.

    Thanks again, Kirk.

  48. Se'Lah, you're very kind.

    I am flattered by your response to my posts.

    It's strange that honesty can appeal to people sometimes and at other times and for other people it is appalling.

    I'm pleased you're one of those who value my efforts.

  49. Steven, I enjoy following your posts very much and I can see what you mean when you talk about 'sharing your internal form and colour' while keeping your personal details less than transparent. I respect this.

    At the same time I wonder how much you reveal about yourself in your decisions to approach your work like this. Nothing that anyone can be critical of and nothing that would jeopardize other people's privacy. you're lucky in that sense, not lucky I should say because I recognize the effort you have gone to to achieve this.

    There's more I could say here but maybe I need to think on it a little longer.

    Thanks, Steven. You are very generous both in your posts and in your comments. I appreciate it very much.

  50. Alesa, I have been responding to other people's comments for the last hour but now I have to go off and deal with the real world.

    You have written such an outstanding comment here that I want very much to get back to it and talk more, as soon as time allows. In the meantime, Thank you.

    And Thank you too, Lakeviewer.

    I know that I am writing for myself but I think the dilemmas we face in our writing go beyond the vagaries of our children's wishes.

    These are universal issues and I suspect they've been going on for a long time, ever since literacy began. Before then we had the oral storytellers' tradition. And maybe they too were told at times to be silent.

    Thanks again for your input, Lakeviewer. I need encouragement.

  51. Elisabeth,
    I think your daughter is extremely fortunate to have such sensitive and loving parents. Your removal of that post should resolve it. I imagine that it must have been an immensely emotional day – so much going on, reflections about her giving up her surname, your mother in the car, salads in far away suburbs with no parking, the daughter who cared enough to make the cake, reflections on moving into the next generation, formally, the toddler running around (you even remembered to wake him) It seems to me you did everything she wanted on that special day. Your husband made the rings. How precious. He even made the ultimate sacrifice of his peace of mind, by taking on the psychopath next door. How often do we ruin our own hard earned enjoyment for the sake of our children? She is a lucky girl and sounds like an appreciative girl too. Or will be one day. You make me think that children continue to wish that we do things for them with enjoyment and joy!! To quote the award winning novel "White Tiger" – 'what a f…. joke!'

    Here I am thoroughly enjoying hanging out the third load of washing. The happy grin on my face has nothing to do with the gin I had on my muesli. (my words) I refer to her not knowing and perhaps not wanting to know of the torture you had in the lead up. I think the proof was in the pudding of the talk later. Good time was had by all. That is a great success, to my mind.
    I don't like to think of you agonising about these disclosures. As a mother, you would have had a strong need to share and debrief after the wedding of your first born. I think that must be an incredible and life changing time. I always picture myself standing in a drenched outfit of tears, at the wedding of one of my sons.

  52. Elisabeth,
    I think your daughter is extremely fortunate to have such sensitive and loving parents. Your removal of that post should resolve it. I imagine that it must have been an immensely emotional day – so much going on, reflections about her giving up her surname, your mother in the car, salads in far away suburbs with no parking, the daughter who cared enough to make the cake, reflections on moving into the next generation, formally, the toddler running around (you even remembered to wake him) It seems to me you did everything she wanted on that special day. Your husband made the rings. How precious. He even made the ultimate sacrifice of his peace of mind, by taking on the psychopath next door. How often do we ruin our own hard earned enjoyment for the sake of our children? She is a lucky girl and sounds like an appreciative girl too. Or will be one day. You make me think that children continue to wish that we do things for them with enjoyment and joy!! To quote the award winning novel "White Tiger" – 'what a f…. joke!'

    Here I am thoroughly enjoying hanging out the third load of washing. The happy grin on my face has nothing to do with the gin I had on my muesli. (my words) I refer to her not knowing and perhaps not wanting to know of the torture you had in the lead up. I think the proof was in the pudding of the talk later. Good time was had by all. That is a great success, to my mind.
    I don't like to think of you agonising about these disclosures. As a mother, you would have had a strong need to share and debrief after the wedding of your first born. I think that must be an incredible and life changing time. I always picture myself standing in a drenched outfit of tears, at the wedding of one of my sons.

  53. Sorry to be taking up time again but just read your response to Les. The distress you feel about being told of the vast audience might be equated with the distress or sadness I feel at having to lock up all the windows in Summer. It should not be this way. But life has told me otherwise and being alive can be very distressing. The internet is not a private conversation with people we trust. Don't worry – I fall into this lull all the time too. We want it to be different. We want people to be mature and kind. But…….

  54. Elisabeth: Why would your post upset me? I think perhaps I didn't express myself well.

    E.G. When you quote: "keep it to yourselves", "don't let the neighbours know", and such, you are speaking about your own family's defenses in the face of very difficult circumstance.
    But, and this is my point, it was also very much the zeitgeist of the time. "Keeping up a good front", "Putting your best foot forward": the overwhelming importance of appearing to be "respectable", that was a common aspiration in the past.
    So, in that way, your experiences are tapping into universal experiences. As your followers say.
    Your recollections are not freakish curiosities, as Burroughs might be, or of particular historical interest like Martin Boyd's or Gwen Raverat's, but recounts that resound in others' experience, giving them the "Aha" moments.

    As for family…"Who is 'thee'?" demanded my 35 year old son on a recent visit. "And why are you sad without him?" That is how I found out that he read my blog.
    Our children like to think of us soley in terms of our role in their lives.

  55. Well, Alesa, I'm back from the supermarket and the business of collecting my youngest daughter from music camp.

    I have the impulse to write about this here now but I shall stick to the task at hand.

    Who writes these 'rules' for autobiography, you ask.

    Most of my immediate knowledge I've gleaned from one Paul John Eakin. See:http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/cup_detail.taf?ti_id=3243
    Ruth N. Halls Professor Emeritus of English at Indiana university.

    Eakin has written a number of infinitely readable books on the subject of autobiography. I've met him at conferences, a few times now and he is a lovely man as accessible and erudite as his books.

    In a paper called 'Breaking Rules: The consequences of self narration', Eakin talks about the unspoken, unwritten 'requirement' – expectation – that autobiographers, tell the truth, respect privacy and what he describes as 'display nornmacy'.

    The first two are self evident, the third has to do with the requirement that people when they 'live autobiographically' namely when the they represent their own story of themselves- as we all do much of the time, in simple social discourse – that they do so in certain socially acceptable ways, otherwise there will consequences, often times negative.

    I can't go into all the examples here, but I think Eakin is accurate in his persective, though he talks from an American perspective and it may be – is most likely to be – different for other cultures.

    Given that we in Australia tend to emulate the Americans and the English, these rules also appear to apply here.

    You seem to have a very logical mind, Alesa, far more logical than mine. I wonder were/are you a lawyer in your other life.

    Lawyers often times make wonderful fiction writers, at least they do here in Australia. They seem to have an amazing way with words and an ability to hold the structure.

    I have written elsewhere about how usless I am when it comes to structure. I can see from your comment here that you have no such problems.

    I enjoyed your thoughts very much. They resonate with my views on why people write autobiographiclly and perhaps why they choose fiction instead.

    And as for being able to trust the one you're with IRL, as opposed to online, I could not agree with you more. In fact I'd go so far as to say that there are even people we think we know/have known for years whom we can still find ourselves suprised by.

    Jeckyll and Hydes as it were, ourselves included.

    I have this odd habit of speaking in the third person when my daughters have a go at me. I refer to myself as she – she is this, she thinks that.

    My daughters consider it odd, but I enjoy it. It is a way of presenting different aspects of the argument from a distance, rather like a fiction writer as you describe her.

    Thanks so much for all the work you obviously put into these comments here, Alesa.

    I am enjoying this discussion immensely.

  56. Thanks, Noxy, for enlightening me on the business of portraiture. It had not occurred to me that one of the reasons for painting oneself is based on a practical need for models.

    I suppose it's a bit like setting yourself up as a still life – a bowl of fruit a vase of flowers, a human face, an arm, a leg, a hand.

    I suppose the biographer of another person has more to draw on and maybe even the autobiographer, from the sheer volume of information available, and particularly when it comes to writing about yourself.

    That's also when it becomes tricky though, as Janet Malcolm argues. Sometimes there's just too much information or the things we need to say don't come out right.

    I suspect much of what we write is driven by unconscious forces many of which we are unaware until and sometimes long after they have emerged in our writing.

    It's great to read your comment here, Noxy. I didn't realise that you were such a writer yourself, a poet who embellishes the so called truth. I knew you were wonderful with the camera

    A penny for your thoughts, Nox as Vassilis writes?

    You've given me several pennies worth here and I thank you.

  57. It's good to hear from you again, Jane.

    You are generous to write such things and I'm glad that you do not feel too critical of me for doing as I have done in the first place and putting up the offending post.

    I think you're right about our children not wanting to know about the hardship and 'mixed feelings' behind our willingness to give them as much as we possibly can. Though lately, I've become much more of an overt grizzler as a mother.

    My children are old enough now. They can take it.

    I read behind your words that you've had a bad experience somewhere that's made you more wary.

    The feeling of the private conversation is certainly there on line and it is seductive.

    I can see no way around it. If we are to reach out, we will inevitably encounter those who wish us harm, but hopefully, those who wish us well will offset the pain that the spoilers bring.

    I'm not always this optimistic, but today after all these wonderful and thoughtful comments, I am.

    It's been an exhilarating conversation.

  58. Sorry, Frances. I'm the one who didn't express herself well. I did not think from your initial comment that my post had upset you. I just wanted to make the point that I was glad that it didn't.

    It's probably a convoluted way of saying I'm glad there's someone else out there who seems to understand where I'm coming from.

    I agree with your point about children thinking of us innerms of our role in their lives.

    I do it, too. My mother wrote her memoir, and in it I feature merely as one of the several babies born to her. At the end she lists her children's accomplishments as adults but it grates and yet I can see that her memoir is about her life and as Carolyn Steedman who wrote a terrific biography of her own mother, 'Diary for a Good Woman' writes, children are always episodes in their parent's memoirs.

    Thanks for clarifying, Frances. I hope I'm clearer now , too. I'm very grateful for your thoughtful responses.

  59. There is middle ground. I don’t know if you’ve ever run across Jennifer Trinkle’s blog, Writing to Survive, but I’ve been following her for quite a while now. She uses autobiography as a jumping off point but she openly fictionalises it. This takes the pressure off having to be completely honest. She chooses to be honest enough. The last line of her most recent post says simply this: “Some of the names have been changed, some of the facts moved around.” Of course only she knows which facts but no one can come back in six months or a year and accuse her of getting her facts wrong. Another recent post of hers was called A facsimile of truth. I think one can be faithful to the spirit of the truth without necessarily revealing all the facts. I could talk about a boy I knew who had meningitis as a child and provide factual and accurate details without revealing who the person it. I actually have known two people who had meningitis when they were wee: my brother (who had viral meningitis) and me (I had bacterial meningitis). Would the ‘truths’ be more meaningful if I identified who the person was? Presenting something as truth encourages a level of scrutiny that fiction does not have to put up with.

    When Clive James wrote his biography – I’ve only read the first book, Unreliable Memoirs – he openly admitted that it was not 100% accurate and yet I’ve seen reviewers talk about his “fearless honesty”. Is it possible to have one’s cake and eat it? I believe you can. The simple fact is that he was honest up front and so no one will feel cheated if they learn that “the names have been changed to protect the innocent,” as the title sequence to Dragnet always asserted.

    Writing does not equal publishing. Murnane is a perfect example. How much has he written and not published? Why not write your book and leave it to your children to publish? By that time most of your own siblings will be dead too. Or is it a vanity thing, you want feedback while you’re alive? When I talk of my own writing I’ve often said that once I’ve written the words I’m done with them, you could toss them for all I care; they’ve done their job as far as I’m concerned. Why don’t I? Because, as I say in the introduction to my new poetry collection, “it’s green” – other people might get something out of them. Just because I don’t have a use for them doesn’t mean that no one will.

    At the moment you’re writing with one hand tied behind your back. That must be frustrating. You have options. You should consider them.

  60. Hi Elisabeth ~

    Great post!

    I want to speak to the "persona" attached to the representation of "ourselves" in the world of social media. When I was ready to make the leap onto Facebook and twitter, my husband said, "First you need to decide who you are and what you want." He was right. I did and consequently I am two pieces of my whole on each media. I am real; I am true. But only part of the truth. We are almost always only part of our truth.

    I am suspicious (and this recently bore itself out) when someone says to me, "What you see is what you get. This is who I am." In my experience, not only is this a partial truth, but these voices tend to play their cards very close to the vest. They are often less predictable than others more anonymous.

    My first mentor gave me this piece of advice on writing autobiography, "Wait ten years to fully appreciate your perspective and to protect the innocent, and if you can't, then fictionalize it."

  61. This is such an interesting subject and an age-old one, I'm sure. And while painters are not held to task for self-portraiture, their lives are often scrutinized and judged separate from their art (Picasso, for one). I think of great film-makers — Polanski — and the difficulty admiring his beautiful work in film when his personal life appears far from "moral." As for writing — and blogging — I try not to worry what people think, including my family. While I certainly don't wish to hurt anyone, I acknowledge that my truths might often hurt them and I weigh whether it's "worth it" or not. I think, therefore, that it's an individual imperative — that one has to decide one's purpose, the writing's purpose, etc.

  62. Hi Jim

    I haven't had a chamce to respond to your post all day but your words have rattled around in my head, particularly the line: 'At the moment you’re writing with one hand tied behind your back.'

    I'd like to think this isn't true. I'd like to think it isn't true, but it might be.

    All day long (in between bursts of other thoughts) I've wondered whether you consider that what I post on my blog is the 'whole truth' of it, or whether I can occasionally manage to straddle those two worlds – the fictional and the rest.

    I like to think I can, when I need to and when I don't, I don't.

    In 1995 I started to write the ubiquitous memoir of my life up till 18 years of age.

    I wrote much of it claiming at the time, at least during workshops that it was fictional – you needed to do so in novel writing classes in those days. In the end I added the usual rider:

    Author’s Note
    The people in this book are real and the stories true, in so far as I can remember or others have remembered and reported them to me. From time to time I have added descriptive detail for literary purposes, to help bridge gaps and whenever necessary, for anonymity.

    After all these years the writing seems strained and generally yuk. Nevertheless, there are bits in it that I mine for my essays, in which I argue ad nauseum about the sorts of issues I raise in my blog.

    I think in more recent times I have come to prefer the 'creative' essay form.

    For the sake of my blogger friends I avoid too much of the so-called academic except for what I can present with what I consider to be a light touch.

    I'm sure, Jim, if I had time in spades and did not simply have to squeeze my writing into the nooks and crannies of my life, I could get to a revised version of that book, with its blend between the fictional and the nonfictional. In the meantime, I can only do my best with 'one hand tied behind my back'.

    The irony of this is that I type with the two fingers of one hand. Like Gerald Murnane, one of my heroes, I did not learn to type properly. Like GM I use only my index and the tall finger on my right hand. I use the index on my left hand intermittently to press the return key.

    I'm fast enough for all this but I must needs do a great deal of proofing and even then my typos are appalling.

    Thanks, Jim. I always wait for your comments with mixed feelings – with trepidation and hope.

    It must be that sibling thing. I checked out Jennifer Trinkle's bog. It's wonderful and I'm instantly jealous.

    You know about transference, don't you Jim?

    I'm sure people can develop transference reactions on line and I can only describe this reaction of mine as such.

    How does the song go?

    'Teacher's pet,
    I want to be teacher's pet…'

    Please read this as I intend, with amusement. Things can get deeply serious and turgid on line and sometimes even I, with all my angst-driven words, would prefer to make light of it.

  63. Thanks, Jmarls80. I'm glad you found my post informative and thorough.

    And thanks, Mare. I wish I had been able to decide in advance which persona I wanted to adopt for my blog but I'm no good at such intentionality, at least not consciously.

    I know one thing, though. I want to have meaningful conversations with people who struggle with their writing; who are able to share the pain and joys of the process and who tend to be as honest as they can in the process, however much they might conceal of their actual lives, experience and identities.

    I'm all for the ten year hesitation, but even after ten years the issues of privacy persist, even after twenty and thirty years sometimes. After fifty years, when copyright lifts most of us are dead.

    Thanks. Mare.

  64. Thanks for the link, Rachel. I started to check it out but ran out of time. It sounds terrific so far. I'll get back to it.

    Thanks, Elizabeth. Here you refer to the cult of the celebrity, the way artists are judged before their work or after. Somehow the two are hard to separate – the artists and their lives.

    I too, try not to worry about what people think. Some people I can ignore, but others can cut to the core of me, especially those who matter, those I love or esteem and those who might have power over me.

    You're right, it's best to stick to your own 'truth' but that's not always so easy I find. Thanks again, Elizabeth.

  65. Another very thoughtful post, Elisabeth.

    I hadn't considered that what I do on my blog is autobiographical, but since I appear to be the principal character in every post, I suppose it is.

    I certainly wrestle with the issue of how to give those around me the privacy they deserve, while still leaving me with a coherent story.

    I read a book, many years ago, by Sydney Jourard called the Transparent Self that called for openness in our dealings with others as a key factor in both their and our sanity. Since then I've tried to be more open.

  66. I follow a number of blogs (from another blog of mine) in which the point is to concoct a fictitious persona. As “Annotated Margins,” the blogs that I follow are written as they are… words of people I know only through their words. It doesn’t matter whether from a blog or face-to-face, the words presented to me are what they are. Real, imaginary… that’s up to the writer/speaker. As for the words I write in my blog… they are what they are—as real and as true as I think they are, because my blog is about me, is in effect what I think about me.

    Your blog is what it is. That's why I read it.

  67. I think you aspire to telling the whole truth but are realistic enough to know that an edited version is all that you can present. It’s not that you’re holding back for yourself but out of consideration to others who have not given you the okay to say what you want about them. That’s the autobiographer’s constant problem: our lives are not our lives in isolation. Were we islands, or at least stuck on an island all alone, then who would we be hurting if we revealed everything? Just ourselves.

    Even if you decided to only write about your “alone time” as you’ve said you have the problem of your readers, an obligation to entertain. So you edit again and no sooner have you begun then the truth begins to be diluted. It can’t pretend to be the whole truth but perhaps it can argue that it is the essential truth.

    If I described a life and only changed the names what harm would be done? Could the truth be perhaps improved up? If I told you a story about an event in the childhood of Adolf Hitler, going to the corner shop to buy some sausages, would it not harm the story to say that “a young Adolf Hitler” went to the shop? He was not the Adolf Hitler at that point in his life. That something as innocuous as going to corner shop might well have happened has nothing to do with who he became. Is it then not part of the essential truth of Adolf Hitler? It’s certainly a part of the complete Adolf Hitler but I would argue that it is also a part of the essential: a monster does not only do monstrous things, to suggest otherwise is unfair.

    It’s like a pile of stones. Let’s say you go to the beach and fill your bucket with pebbles and then pour them out on the sand. You have a pile of pebbles. Remove any one and you still have a pile of pebbles. And then another and another. When do they stop being a pile? When does a boy become a man and when does that man become a monster?

    I believe the truth can only be suggested at best. To try and state it outright would turn your writing into legalese, it would become convoluted and unreadable. The truth is too big. People are not Newton’s cradles. We have forces coming at us from all directions and translating them into words does them no service. I’m a great fan of Newton’s 3rd Law – To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction… – but I like to apply it to more than the physical world. For every action there is a corresponding response. I write you a nasty letter to which you respond although not necessarily with equal vituperation; you may well absorb my slights but that doesn’t mean you haven’t been affected by them. A Newton’s cradle only works well because it’s in a straight line. Imagine one in 2 or 3 dimensions and that’s us. It’s hard to say anything is so because such and such happened because no event occurs in a vacuum. We have to simplify. Perhaps rather than talk about essential truths we should think about simplified truths.

    I think truth is something that can be aspired to but the facts often cloud the issues. 1+1=2. That is an absolute truth. A Golden Delicious and a Granny Smith doesn’t make 2 apples because there’s no such thing as “an apple” – you have a Golden Delicious and a Granny Smith, that’s what you have. But in simple terms – i.e. the simplified truth of the situation is – you have 2 apples.

    This is why I like fiction because it doesn’t pretend to be factual. It can be the setting for many, many beautiful truths in just the same way a ring provides the setting for a diamond, a simplified and polished crystalline form of carbon. Diamonds in the rough aren’t very pretty at all. When I write that Jonathan saw “thin cirrus clouds” out of his window that’s exactly what he saw. If I look out of my window I’d have to say that I noticed what looked like whatever clouds because a) there would probably be other kinds of clouds in the sky and b) I’m not that sure about the names for clouds. No, fiction is way safer than fact. There’s no middle ground: fictionalised fact is fiction.

  68. Thanks, Barry, it seems to me that your work is clearly autobiographical and that you practise a high degree of honesty in our writing, which to my way of thinking is to your credit. Why else would all those people ring the bell for and with you? They would not so it for a fictional character, no way.

  69. Thanks, Mike, for your comment here.

    I agree our blogs are about us even when we devise certain personae to help communicate our message to others.

    Still I think you can usually tell when someone lacks what I call genuine intentions. I tend not to follow such people. Mind you I have not come across many during my time here in the blogosphere.

    Most bloggers seem to me to be genuine, apart from the trolls, the spammers and those whose sole aim is to make money somehow. And here I'm not talking about the ones who aim to sell their arts and crafts. I'm talking about the sharks with little to sell but illusions.

  70. Truth is sometimes fuzzy, like an out-of-focus photograph. Everything we say and do is true at some point in our lives and existence – truth leaks out through the pages of our thought.

    I think if we write autobiographically we do so the best of our ability, knowing that we are leaving out the perspectives of others, which therefore already makes it a hazy shade of truth. But it is still truth…

  71. 'I write to reorder and thereby to create some illusion of control, to redress wrongs, to turn my helplessness into strength,..' I appreciate this honest assessment of a writer.

  72. Thanks again Jim for your wise, witty and wonderful thoughts.

    I hope you don't think that I'm agin fiction. I'm not. I love good fiction.

    The trouble for me as a writer is that when I consciously set out to fictionalise I wind up with a story that lacks some sort of esssence, some heart.

    Even when I try hard I can't get that emotional resonance out of it. Whereas I think I sometimes succeed in getting it with my non-fiction.

    I think I prefer GM's expression, autobiographical fiction, his fiction is clearly this, mine less so.

    I agree with you: 'the autobiographer’s constant problem: our lives are not our lives in isolation..'

    And therefore we must defer to others, though most of the time I don't. Until after the event and then I'm left maybe having to defend myself.

    Paul Lisicky http://paullisicky.blogspot.com/in his essay 'A weedy Garden', one among a wonderful series of essays called 'The truth in non-Fiction' and edited by David Lazar, suggests that fiction is 'where one becomes a self by escaping oneself. Or better yet, where one can be many selves at once'.

    Lisicky talks about how dreadful it is 'to shovel oneself into the same narrow trench…as if there could be one sad , linear truth we could ever know.

    I agree with this, I agree with you. I also agree with Lisicky's idea that 'a speaker is a construction, a representative self, with definite bordered, [and] that foregrounding one incident over another makes a meaning of its own…a narrative might need to elide, or keep something essential a bay, if it's to shudder with mystery'.

    For this reason I don't go too far into establishing the facts of what happened in my childhood according to other people's perspective. I prefer to rely on my own memory, even when there are those who will say he got it wrong. I'm all for this . I limit my research often times to my memory and even when people tell me things about the past I like to explore the new things I learn from my own perspective. My own perspective is in itself;f a sort of fiction in so far as its basis is always limited prone to distortions etc etc.

    As much as I agree with you Jim that 'The truth is too big', it is also too small, too narrow. It is dangerous.

    To me the truth is something you can only ever get a brief glimpse of and the it's gone.

    The people who imagine they have a firm grasp on the truth, the fanatics, the religious zealots, the academic ideaists are the ones who worry me. I prefer to leave room for doubt.

    And I agree with you, too, Jim, 'For every action there is a corresponding response.' In psychoanalytic terms for every thought there is a corresponding bodily reaction however slight and vice versa.

    There's a lot going on in this complex world and the boundaries between fact and fiction are blurred.

    Thanks again Jim.

    I'm about to go over to your blog and post a comment on the blend of history and fiction, which you review there in 'The Last Station'.

  73. Thanks, Phoenix. I love the idea as you write, 'that truth leaks out through the pages of our thought'. You have a wonderful way with words.

    And thanks to you, too, Maggie. I'm glad you found some truth in that last sentence of mine.

    I think we're all in agreement here about the importance of authenticity – another word for 'truthfulness'.

  74. Elisabeth, despite what people may think, to write autobiography is the most sincere excerise of humbleness and an extraordinary if not the best starting point to begin with that expedition that will lead us into the deepest corners of our life and existance. As multidimensional the truth is, we could wether to fill our mind with the advice and opinions of all that people and beings that surround and give form to the cast of the movie of the life or on the other hand, to close the doors and windows of the mind to the outer noise and let for the first time the conscience to express what she have to say, like a little fragile child far from the tyranic parent´s sight. To write a few lines, no matter what your intention would be is a very personal act of faith and thus sacred on this very purpose, and i think that allowing us to be a little selfish could be the best we could do in order to let our mind to tell both to ourselves, or to the rest of the world, the greatest and most extraordinary story of all, and that is, the one we write day after day in the path of our existance.

  75. Thank you, Alberto ,for your comment. I have never heard autobiography described in this way, as 'the most sincere excerise of humbleness and an extraordinary if not the best starting point to begin with that expedition that will lead us into the deepest corners of our life and existance'.

    I am pleased that you think about autobiography as a valuable means of writing.

    I agree with you.

    In writing about ourselves honestly when,as you write, we 'close the doors and windows of the mind to the outer noise and let for the first time the conscience to express what she have to say, like a little fragile child far from the tyranic parent´s sight', we create whole new worlds of experience and imagination'. As Nancy Miller writes, we 'rendezvous with one another. We resonate with one another.

    This is what happens through blogging, I would say more than any other activity, as in this post.

    Thank you again for your generous and thoughtful response.

  76. Thank you Paul C, for appreciating some of my words here.

    It is strange how some people value what is called 'honesty' while others feel uncomfortable with it and want to shut it off. I'm glad you're in the former category, along with many others here.

  77. I read your post with much interest.. and i do agree on a few things. It is indeed a difficult decision to make. Blogging is personal space and yet, some anonymity must be maintained in order to protect ourselves. Who knows who's out there reading out stuff..and not all may have the noblest intentions.


  78. Thanks, Silver. I've been over to your Reflections blog. From it, I can understand and share your reservations. At the same time I wonder what harm can come out of honesty, not in identifying details but trhough writing that clarifies our emotional experience.

    The trouble is that emotional experience is often most accurately conveyed through the details, though they need not be identifying at least not of others.


  79. Writing is an outlet, a way of escape..but when the story is about yourself, there is often a worry of somekind bugging me in the back of my mind.

    I am glad to stumble here earlier. I enjoy reading about your thoughts too.. and some seem to resonate from my head too.. except that, i have thought out loud enough yet.. ;D

    Great to meet you, Elisabeth!


  80. Wow. I've been struggling to write my autobiography and whilst I'm not from a troubled or particularly large family, there are still issues around who the hell do I think *I* am that my life would be of any interest to anyone else and the need to fictionalise some of it to create drama, pathos, humour or – dare I say it – sense.

    That's why blogging is so important to me. It's like running – essential to do it regularly to keep your senses sharp and fit.

    There! That's me now out of lurker mode!

  81. Hi Kath
    Do you ride a bike and did you ever participate in a short story class run at the CAE?

    Something tells me we've met years ago. Great if it's the case – the Kath I remember was a wonderful writer. No matter if it's not .

    It's wonderful to meet you in any case. And thanks for resisting the impulse to lurk and for leaping out of the shadows.

    Thanks also for the asylum seekers link.

  82. Thanks, Terresa, for your generous comment here. I suppose the baking analogy fits well with your preoccupations. Cooking in a sense is what we writers do in many ways. We prepare certain types of food for others to consume.

  83. That is a brilliant examination of the problems of autobiography. The problem I face over and over with mine is that the other people involved in the story do not necessarily have the skills or the platform to defend themselves against that which they may see as a form of judgement. I am presenting one side of the story and no matter how careful I am to maintain some kind of objectivity, it is impossible when I attempt emotional truth. This problem has become so tightly bound that I have abandoned the project altogether. Your article has set me to thinking about it again, thank you.

  84. What ever you do, don't abandon your autobiographical project, Paul.

    I can understand your dilemma. It happens all the time. You represent your version of your experience and others read it as you making some sort of statement on behalf of the crowd.

    You and I among others are not so egotistical as to imagine that our view is anything other than our view.

    It has resonance because I'm sure aspects of it are shared.

    The pity is that people become defensive when you do not write about events from their perspective, not that you can.

    But if we, who have a wish to represent our experience, are silenced then there will be no more personal stories. Everything is told at second hand.

    So my view is: keep at it. Forget the naysayers. If they want their version to be read, they can write it themselves.

    Thanks for this , Paul. I'm grateful for you thoughts. And I'm glad that mine have caused you to rethink some of yours.

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