Friday, December 26, 2014

Memoirs, Autobiographies, Diaries, and Other Self-Serving Bloviations

What's the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?

In a memoir, as near as I can determine, you're allowed to lie. This is because aesthetic truth is more important in a memoir than historical truth.

The other difference is that anybody can write a memoir, but to write an autobiography you have to be important enough for historians to want to know about your life. Like the lovely Hedy Lamarr. I read her autobiography (ECSTASY AND ME: MY LIFE AS A WOMAN) years ago; it was one of those books you keep under your mattress so your mother won't know you're reading it. Come to find out she was actually a very smart woman. You would never know it from the book. Having foolishly signed off on it without reading it before publication, she sued her ghost writers, calling the book ”fictional, false, vulgar, scandalous, libelous, and obscene.” I would add stupid and raunchy (maybe in a good way), and I always thought that was what she was like. but, no. She was a great inventor. Bored with Hollywood life, she took to inventing things, one of which underlies the way that wireless transmissions work today. Nothing about that is in the book. The book is a memoir, not an autobiography, but the lies in it are not her own.

My first husband made me save all his letters from our courting days for his biographers. He is a character, in the non-literary sense, but not even close to being an historical figure. To date, as far as I know, there is no movement afoot to write his biography. Or mine either. I find my life interesting, on the whole, but I can't think why anybody else would.

Imagine what would happen if everyone wrote and published a memoir! Ah, the lies we could tell! Entire forests would be destroyed. And for what? Most of us, although God loves all of us as his children, are stupefyingly dull.

Of course, anybody can keep a diary, and anybody's diary can turn out to be historically significant. Or not. As I may have mentioned, I will read anything having to do with the War of 1812 or the period in which it took place. Much correspondence of the time has great charm. But one of the things I picked up—the diary of a Maine farmer—proved to be completely repellent. The man had no sense of the greater events around him, only of the weather and the state of his cows. When he wrote in passing that he had married his fourteen-year-old niece and put her to work in the kitchen that morning I was finished with him.

A writer’s personality and temperament shows in his writing, to the extent that a repellent writer cannot write an attractive work. It's something no amount of instruction can fix. John Gardner mentioned this in THE ART OF FICTION. Still, many people have to write about themselves in such a way as to appear to be attractive, though they are not required to compose a book-length work. The essays that prospective students are forced to submit to the admission departments of colleges come to mind. I'm glad I never have to do one of those. The speeches that public figures have to make when they are caught doing what they shouldn't do. I'm glad I don't have to do that either, not being any sort of a public figure.

If I did have to produce one of these groveling speeches, I suspect I wouldn’t have to do it all by myself. There seems to be a form for these things in recent years, these public apologies. They seem to come out of some playbook. A few keywords, or talking points, seem to be repeated by all of these embarrassed public figures. Maybe you can buy public apologies online, like term papers. First of all everybody apologizes to his family, if any. Then they talk about “choices.” Nobody says, I did an evil thing, or I did a really stupid thing. Everyone says, I made a bad choice.

This implies that the speaker was offered a range of behaviors, and through some cruel twist of insensate fate, picked the wrong one. A couple of weeks ago a teacher, I think it was, in a nearby county, was caught taking pictures of the private parts of some thirteen-year-old girl. He apologized publicly for making an inappropriate choice. Now, I don't know about you, but when I see a thirteen-year-old girl, my range of choices includes things like saying “hello,” “what and attractive outfit you're wearing,” and sometimes “really, you shouldn't be so rude to your mother.” “Take off your pants and let me see your woo-woo” has never even remotely appeared as an option. How can anyone call that a choice?

© 2014 Kate Gallison

1 comment:

  1. My mom read me bits of Ecstasy and Me. She was a great movie buff and during this time would go around intoning,"Me, Tondalayo." But I've read about Ms. Hedy and she was a very smart woman.
    I agree with your comments about "choices." It bothers me that the people who do bad things are somehow able to recast themselves as victims who are under the spell of their own obtuseness