Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Story of My Life

One of my writing interests over the past ten years has been autoethnographic writing. This is a more scholarly research-oriented branch of autobiographical writing.

Often people intending to write stories of their own lives become stymied by the question of where to begin. An obvious beginning point is one's birth; however, this is not necessarily a good place to begin. One reason is that choosing to start there immediately makes the whole enterprise overwhelming. Whatever spark of idea or zing of experience motivated the desire to begin writing a personal story at once become swallowed by the impossible bigness of the task. For if you start with your birth, suddenly your story becomes the story of your whole life, tedious stuff and all. All of this account must be placed into an accurate chronology. It becomes hard to decide what to leave out. You no longer have a story but rather a record or an account.

Another reason why one's own birth is not a good starting point is that as soon as you write, "The night that I was born was dark and stormy..." or whatever, you have already, inadvertently and insidiously, fallen prey to autobiographical trope -- a standard way of thinking and writing about things, a formula from within the genre of autobiography. To my mind, the constraints of genre templates might help the publishing industry to describe the place of a work within a body of writing and to market it, but for writers, formula stifles story.

I am presently reading a novel by Diane Setterfield called "The Thirteenth Tale." In the book, an elderly writer, Vida Winter, has hired a biographer to write the "true" story of her life. Miss Winter says:

"'I shall start at the beginning. Though of course the beginning is never where you think it is. Our lives are so important to us that we tend to think the story of them begins with our birth. First there was nothing, then I was born... Yet that is not so. Human lives are not pieces of string that can be separated out from a knot of others and laid out straight. Families are webs. Impossible to touch one part of it without setting the rest vibrating. Impossible to understand one part without having a sense of the whole.'" (p. 58-59)

Setterfield makes an interesting point. An autobiographical tale is never just about oneself. It is, from one's own point of view, about me in my world enmeshed in the the social relationships, physical contexts, and time periods (culture, way of knowing) that makes my life. The story of me, is by necessity, also a story about other people.

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