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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Autobiography February 16, 2008

Posted by kayren in Writing.
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the universeWikipedia strongly discourages the publication of autobiography on its site. Here’s why:

“Writing autobiographies is discouraged because it is difficult to write a neutral, verifiable autobiography and there are many pitfalls.”

To illustrate their claim Wikipedia provide the following humorous quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

It is said that Zaphod Beeblebrox‘s birth was marked by earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes, firestorms, the explosion of three neighbouring stars, and, shortly afterwards, by the issuing of over six and three quarter million writs for damages from all of the major landowners in his Galactic sector. However, the only person by whom this is said is Beeblebrox himself, and there are several possible theories to explain this.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Fit the Ninth

Truth in autobiography has always been a complex question. What we know of our past is reconstructed through the perceptions of the present and the way we see an event today may be very different to the way we viewed it at the time we experienced it. How often have you heard people say something like: ‘I can laugh about it now, but at the time…’ expressing the fact that they have changed their ideas about an experience that may have once been difficult or unpleasant.

Writers who publish autobiographies for the general reader are less likely to regard truth as the most important quality of their writing. Writing may be based on fact but extended by imagination to provide a different kind of truth – the truth that comes from allowing the reader to feel the emotion behind a series of events.

How far can you go when reshaping reality

When you begin to construct your autobiography or memoir you may well start with a list of events that happenend in chronological sequence. However, as you continue to develop your material you will feel a strong need to shape these events into something more compelling.

A memoir that describes real experiences has a particular fascination. You are there with the climber who scaled Everest every step of the way. You feel the challenge to keep going and the fears that hold you back. You see the way blocked by an avalanche, or the struggles of a companion suffering from altitude sickness. Should you help her back to base camp? No. You’ll go on and hope she recovers enough to make the return jouney alone. You are aware that this is real.  The author has unlocked his memories of dangerous and traumatic events and as you read on you might alternately sympathise and condemn.

This same story written as a novel, however, would produce a different reading experience. You now expect the author to use recognised literary devices such as plot, character, and dialogue to develop the story and keep it moving. You want your imagination stimulated by the way the characters are drawn and their interactions with each other. You hope the author will surprise you with unexpected twists of plot and let you follow it all from the god-like perspective that sees much more than we mere mortals are allowed. As a reader you will be prepared to accept whatever the fiction writer tells you as fact – simply and paradoxically because you know it’s not true.

Autobiography writers and memoirists are free to use the same devices as novelists to bring their works to life in the minds of the reader. A good writer does not simply set out to merely record fact, but to show the reader what it feels like to be the person who is writing and to help them relive the unique experiences of a life.

A note of caution

There are no set rules as to how far you can stretch the truth. Once again it comes down to the essential question of audience – who are you writing for? If you are creating a factual record only for the eyes of friends and family you could decide that exaggeration and embellishment of the ‘truth’ is neither necessary nor acceptable. If, on the other hand, you are writing for a wider audience, like the Everest climber you will need to consider what the reader expects from your writing and how you will satisfy the need we all have to mythologise certain instances in our lives that point to a wider and more poetic truth.

You are free to embellish the truth to make your point more strongly, but the reader trusts you not to tell lies and if you set out to deliberately decieve rather than to tell a good story you run the risk of exposure.

If you plan to alter names and the sequence of events in your story you could consider writing a simple disclaimer such as:

Some names and biographical details in this book have been altered.

Or you could take a more poetic approach with an explanation such as this one by Janet Frame at the beginning of her autobiography To the Is-Land:

From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always to the Third place, where the starting point is myth.