Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Friday, 20 May 2011

The factional me


[B]iography risks exaggerating a subject’s importance. Is it enough to document a public figure because they were there? Readability, reason and relevance — the three R’s of writing — are challenges that should not be overlooked. – What are the problems of writing biography?

I am more than the things I have done. I am the things I have imagined, the things I have dreamed. I am as much what I believe myself to be as I am what I have proven myself to be. My body has no choice but to live in the physical world but in my mind I can fly.

I don’t have a lot of biographies and even fewer autobiographies. And most of the autobiographies I have are not especially satisfying because they are written like biographies, as if the authors weren’t really present in their own lives: I did this, I went there where I got this. They don’t let us in, not like fiction does. The problem with biography is that it’s nonlinear; it’s always written looking back on events. Yes, you can say in which order it was written but experience is cumulative. The me who wrote Living with the Truth had only thirty-odd years’ worth of being me to draw on. The man who is writing now has fifty-one years which, of course, contain those first thirty-odd, but they’re not as fresh as they used to be; lives go off. When I look at them it’s with fifty-one-year-old eyes. I can’t remember writing Living with the Truth; I remember what I think it was like. In truth I couldn’t even tell you how many weeks it took to write. And I remember even less about its sequel.

I do have a partial autobiography written. It covers about my first thirteen or fourteen years which is how old I was when I wrote it. I’ve never read it since but my wife has. I’ve tried but I can never make it past the first page. One of the reasons I’ve never read it, other than the purple prose (probably more the violet end than indigo to be honest), is the fact that I know it’s a load of pretentious crap. It’s crap because it’s edited to take out all the stuff I didn’t want people to read, basically all the stuff, if I ever did decide to write a real autobiography, I’d want to talk about now. The names of my best friends or my teachers are of little relevance in the grand scheme of things. The reason I wrote the thing that way was because it was being written for a girl I was in love with, the first girl I was ever truly in love with although I had had a crush on another a few years before that. As she was going to be reading it – which she did – it had to present a picture of me that I wanted her to see and so it was heavily tuttied up.

There is a lot of autobiographical writing to be found online and I don’t just mean sites where we get a day-by-day account of what’s going on in their lives – got up, went to the bathroom, had breakfast, walked the dog, etc. etc. – but they focus on moments in their life often traumatic ones or if not the white hot events at the core of the trauma then the ones circling its centre. Much of this is simple therapy, getting things out of your head onto paper where you can view them objectively. Not a bad idea and one I approve of. I suppose the question is: why would anyone else want to read these scraps of writing? Clearly those who have been through a similar trauma do, which sounds odd at first – why wouldn’t they want to distance themselves from anything that reminded them of what happened to them? – but I suppose there’s some perverse comfort in hearing that others have been similarly tormented and survived. We want to be understood and the best people to understand us are those who understand what we’ve been through. But even if we haven’t been through what they have isn’t it fascinating to put ourselves in their place, to try to feel what they feel, to develop empathy?

I suppose so. I think the real issue here is can we understand that kind of pain by proxy?

Some people, of course, use true-life happenings to develop their writing skills, the ‘classic’ write about what you know proposition. Often these pieces end up being highly fictionalised and only contain the odd shard of truth. Here’s the opening paragraph to my short story ‘Relish’:

I bet you don’t remember the first time you had fish fingers covered in batter rather than breadcrumbs. I do, but you saw that coming, I’m sure. I was eight, it was 1964, it was teatime. I was sitting in front of the television – in a state of great anticipation – with my tray on my lap as the very first episode of Stingray was televised. Like all kids my age I’d grown up on a steady diet of Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5 and Supercar. This was a new beginning. We were all sitting there – not all in my mum’s front room you understand – but we were all together in spirit, Ronnie, Mousie, Tom, Paul and Drew. We were just kids. What did we know? We knew what we liked and Gerry Anderson would’ve been quaking in his shoes had he known that we six sat in judgement of his new baby as we did of Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, UFO and Space 1999. I have no idea what I was eating when any of those aired but I remember the fish fingers well enough. I ended up picking off the coating and just eating the fish. My mum complained at me for it but what do mothers know? I’ve eaten a lot of meals in my time and watched a heck of a lot of TV but I have no idea what makes that particular memory stick out

The first bit is absolutely true. I remember that clearly. I have no idea if the chips were straight-cut or crinkle but my tea that night was fish fingers, chips and peas, most likely tinned garden peas because that’s what my mum bought. The names are all boys I knew at some time during my school years but not at the same time. Here I make us sound like a gang but we weren’t. Ronnie was always called Ronald and Drew was actually Andrew. When I knew ‘Mousie’ (pronounced ‘Moosie’ – this was Scotland remember) he was still known as Derek; he acquired the nickname later because he never grew much and was as small as a mouse. At the time I watched this programme I’d never befriended Tom (although we were in always in the same class throughout school) and by that time Andrew’s family may have moved to Wales. Paul was the boy next door and we were never friends.

Andrew appears in my novel Stranger than Fiction too:

That was the house on the right, Number 8, the one on the left being Number 10. The rest of the street had been bulldozed into oblivion to make way for the new estate. Number 10 was home to his first friend Andrew Danzig. The Danzig’s were of Polish origin—Andrew’s grandfather, one Wladyslaw Danzig, a warrant officer in some navy or other, had ended up marrying an English girl and immigrated.

Needless to say he was not Polish although his surname is similar to Danzig and I never met his grandfather that I can remember. The Andrew in the book does leave for Wales through. It also records the fact that I saw a clip on TV once of some Welsh school kids and was convinced he was one of them but he didn’t join the family firm as happens to the Andrew in the book; he actually became a professor of mathematics – I googled him a while back. The grandfather was actually modelled on a retired Swedish sea captain I was acquainted with for a couple of years. And Andrew was my very first friend. Why include these details? Basically to give the writing a feeling of authenticity. The narrator in ‘Relish’ says he was brought up in a FlatsScottish council flat. I was brought up in a semi-detached council house. I now live in an ex-council flat but not the same one I was in when I wrote the story. My one-time best friend Neil lived in a block of high-rise flats – it was those I was thinking about when I wrote the story – but you'll notice he never made the list of friends, nor did Ian or George or the other Tom.

When I look at this particular story I find it riddled with autobiographical details but only my brother or sister would have any chance in picking out the facts from the fiction. They’ll no doubt remember my mum saving Green Shield stamps from the Co-op though whether they’ll remember a trip to Ayr to trade them in I don’t know. The first time I was ever bought Edinburgh rock was in Ayr but I couldn’t tell you if my sister was there at the time. What I can tell you is that her name’s not Sally – I’ve never known a Sally.

My first girlfriend was certainly not called Agnes Clare McGuffey but she did become a born again Christian. The last time I saw her was also not in front of Tesco’s but rather outside the drycleaners I was working in at the time. And, no, she didn’t force a religious tract into my hand.

‘Relish’ was the first of a collection of short stories I began writing while I was stuck on my third novel. I think of it as a warming-up story – there's nothing essentially wrong with it and it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever written but if it never got published I’d not worry about it. To my mind its biggest weakness is that it is too rooted in my own childhood and I can’t read it objectively; maybe it’s a better story than I imagine but I don’t think so.

I have a rather simplistic view of the differences between fiction and non-fiction: the first is made-up stuff, the second aims to be factually accurate. That doesn’t mean that an autobiographer can’t start a sentence with, “I think…” because, if truth be told, virtually everything we remember has to have that caveat attached to it. I’ve told the story about watching Stingray so many times now that I honestly couldn’t say with one-hundred-percent accuracy what happened that night. I remember I was sat in my dad’s chair slap-bang in front of the TV screen – probably too close – but I’m only assuming I didn’t eat the batter because I remember another time that I didn’t – perhaps I’ve got them mixed up in my head. Perhaps it was cut green beans rather than peas. I have no idea if I had a drink with my meal. Milk, perhaps? I don’t know. I don’t actually remember the show, the titles, yes, but then I’ve seen them dozens of times and they’re pretty well impressed on my memory.

There is a new(ish) genre of writing called ‘creative nonfiction’ that I hear people talking about. I imagine the Wikipedia definition is as good as any other:

Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft. As a genre, creative nonfiction is still relatively young, and is only beginning to be scrutinized with the same critical analysis given to fiction and poetry.

It goes on:

For a text to be considered creative nonfiction, it must be factually accurate, and written with attention to literary style and technique.

The best way to explain it is with an example. Although the term was not in use at the time George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is a work of literary non-fiction; factually accurate and written with style. I think a lot of non-fiction writers felt they had to distance themselves from their subject even when that subject was themselves and so I’m happy to see a new genre emerging: give a thing a name and suddenly it becomes real.

unreliable memoirsThe problem, as always, is that some people have thought that allows them to fictionalise the facts. A good example is Clive James’ memoir appropriately entitled Unreliable Memoirs where James admits right from the jump that he has incorporated fictional passages into his factual account. There was no hoo-ha about it in the press because he was open about it. Others, notably James Frey in A Million Little Pieces, have been ‘found out’ and that’s cast a cloud over the whole autobiography industry. He lied – that’s the bottom line that most people see – and the public generally doesn’t like being lied to. Biographers who don’t do their research properly also irritate us (Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett is a good example) but they’re only human and weren’t there at the time; they can’t help it if they’re lied to, all they can do is pass on the lie in good conscience.

I’ve never been tempted to write biography. It’s not that I’m afraid of the research because actually I enjoy research. I’ve never found anyone who interested me enough to justify the amount of time I know I would end up spending on the project.

[Hermione Lee, t]he biographer of Virginia Woolf … fervently believes that ''you have to have emotional feeling to do the work.'' She felt a profound sense of bereavement when she finished her biography and had to give Woolf back to the wider world. Silly, she knows – but ''I felt she had been mine.'' – Brenda Maddox, ‘Biography: A Love Affair or a Job?’, The New York Times, May 9th 1999

Not all biographers agree with her.

When Hermione Lee asked Peter Ackroyd, who has written the lives of T. S. Eliot and Charles Dickens, whether he liked his latest subject, Thomas More, Ackroyd bristled. Liking is irrelevant, he answered. Biography is a job, and he gets on with it. – Brenda Maddox, ‘Biography: A Love Affair or a Job?’, The New York Times, May 9th 1999

I think I would be more like Lee. I’m not sure I’m capable of taking a journalistic approach to recording the events in a person’s life. Of course if liking one’s subject were a prerequisite there are plenty of people whose lives would never be addressed except in fiction and the fact is the public has always been fascinated by monsters. We want to understand. No doubt that’s what prompted Truman Capote to write In Cold Blood but from all accounts he got caught up in his research and the book (rightly it seems) comes under criticism for not only its lack of objectivity but also the way in which it sensationalises the story. Tom Wolfe wrote in his essay "Pornoviolence":

The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset ... Instead, the book's suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end. – Tom Wolfe, 'Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine', pp.163-164

It has also been argued that Capote changed facts to suit his story, added scenes which never occurred, and re-created dialogue. That’s the problem with reality. It so often lacks the edge that fiction has and yet we just love biopics, we don’t really care if the dialogue is 100% accurate; we just want to be a fly on the wall and imagine. That’s where faction is needed, the bastard child of fact and fiction. As I’m writing this there are ads on TV for Peter Bowker’s biopic of Morecambe and Wise’s early years and I’m really looking forward to seeing it. As for how accurate it’s going to be I’ll be content if the actors playing Eric and Ernie are believable. All the rest I’ll be happy to file under “it might have been like that” rather than expecting a definitive history besides, and this is the problem with written biographies, they only have a couple of hours, probably less, to say what they have to say. What to leave in, what to leave out – very hard. And as soon as you start selecting you start fictionalising, playing with what’s true and what might be true.

A S Byatt considers the predicament of the biographer in her novel The Biographer’s Tale which she describes in her book of essays On Histories and Stories:

My own short novel, The Biographer's Tale, is about these riddling links between autobiography, biography, fact and fiction (and lies). It follows a poststructuralist critic who decides to give up, and write a coherent life-story of one man, a great biographer. But all he finds are fragments of other random lives – Linnaeus, Galton, Ibsen – overlapping human stories which make up the only available tale of the biographer. It is a tale of the lives of the dead which make up the imagined world of the living. It is a study of the aesthetic of inventing, or re-inventing, or combing real and imaginary human beings. – p.10

eric-morecambe-1When I was in Morecambe last (first and last actually) I visited the statue of Eric Morecambe by Graham Ibbeson and stood in line (the British love queuing and automatically form an orderly line except at bus stops for some strange reason). As I waited for my few moments alone with him so that Carrie could take my picture I watched the other people. It was clear that everyone there had a great affection for the comedian and felt, I would imagine, a lot like how Hermione Lee came to feel about Woolf: he was theirs. I have read a biography of Eric but it wasn’t quite right: I was missing from it. Does that make sense? I was never a part of his life (except in the most abstract of senses, a member of an audience of millions) and yet he was very much a part of my childhood and despite the best efforts of The Two Ronnies Christmases never were the same after Eric’s death. I can’t imagine writing about Eric without writing about me. I can best explain Eric to you by explaining what Eric meant to me. The bottom line though is that Eric Morecambe is for most people an “imaginary human being,” but I think that is true about all of us; even those we live closest to, we imagine all sorts of things about. They say they love us and we imagine the love we feel for them is the same love they feel for us.

As I said before I have no plans at the moment to write a biography and I can’t ever envisage wanting to sit down and write the rest of my autobiography. Really it was pretty much all downhill after fourteen and what reason could I possibly have for dredging all that up? It could be argued that it gives the rest of my writing context. That I can’t argue with but I also think there’s a great danger in knowing too much about an author – as I do when it comes to Beckett – because it’s hard to read the work as it was intended to be read.


Art Durkee said...

I prefer to deal with memoir rather than autobiography; the latter word implies permanence, the record of history, and is too serious. Memoir allows one the possibility of misremembering. Autobiography seems more like you're making a fixed and permanent narrative; the anxiety to "get it right" in every detail can be too overpowering, and that can make for not very good reading.

I mostly prefer to write (and usually to read) the personal essay. I like personal essays. They're focused on a topic, usually, even if they're memoirs. They're self-contained. They don't try to sum up an entire life in one volume. They can be fragmentary. I find myself roving over my own past and wanting to write about what seems relevant at the moment. The last thing I want to do is construct a linear narrative of a life that has been very non-linear, and not subject to rules of conventional narrative.

Dave King said...

I probably have said before that I had a lengthy period -several years - in which I became quite addicted to biographies and especially auto biographies. I was interested in how people develop AS people, and seemed to get this more clearly from autobiographies than from novels. It soon became apparent to me that some authors were more revealing than others. Poets, usually, were best. (And I think that may have done much to reawaken my interest in poetry.) Artists generally, of course. Politicians and military men I got least from. This interest was given a new lease of life when I undertook my diploma course, much of which was devoted to a study of how events (experiences) influence the growth of the self picture and how that in turn influences one's life. The problem of the unreliability of memory was less of a problem than may be imagined as how we remember events, how we have structured experiences matter more in this context than what factually took place.

Your post has reawakened my interest in the whole concept. I found it fascinating.

awyn said...

Most interesting post and I think you hit the nail on the head Jim, about the "great danger in knowing too much about an author". Sometimes it helps, sometimes not. For example, knowledge of a certain poet's personal life aided enormously in helping me understand a particular poem whose translation I'd read seemed to have completely missed the point (what the poet was trying to say). Conversely, there are poets whose poems I love yet might find them despicable as human beings. This disconnect immediately apparent, also, after, say, having been completely mesmerized by a particular actor's performance in a play or film, in which the boundary seems to dissolve between the actor and the character they're portraying--and then you later see the actor in an interview and he/she seems like a complete bubblehead, shallow and uninteresting when being themselves. Which always brings me back to the nagging question: Does the stuff we write/paint/create really come from "us", or are we just a sort of vehicle through which it passes on take on a life of its own. I'm saying this badly, but those lines at the close of your post made me think of that for some reason. Thanks, as always, for a good read!

Art Durkee said...

Jack Spicer, one of the lead poets of the Berkeley Renaissance, believed strongly that his own poetry was dictated to him; he went so far as to call it getting radio from the Martians. He spent a fair bit of time deranging the senses (a la Rimbaud) by drinking a lot, and the poems that came through him are often quite powerful. So maybe he was right. I;ve been reading the recent biography of Spicer and his times, "Poet Be Like God," and it's been a real revelation, very fascinating, and occasionally disturbing. I doubt I would liked Spicer much as a person, and I know that I would have had little tolerance of his drinking, as it did not make him a nicer person.

Jim Murdoch said...

Memoir: from the Latin memoria, meaning “memory,” a popular form in which the writer remembers entire passages of dialogue from the past, with the ultimate goal of blaming the writer's parents for his current psychological challenges. I know it wasn’t always the case but nowadays, Art, I doubt many people would be able to distinguish between memoir and actual autobiography; they both involve one person telling us how it was for them. And as soon as they commit those words to paper we feel we can judge them by their own words. Perhaps every memoir/autobiography should be prefaced – in much the same way as a fairytale is by ‘Once upon a time – by the words, ‘As best I can remember…’ and conclude with ‘…without prejudice’ or something similar.

I can see your distinction though: you are not the subject of your essay, merely a participant in it. I suppose the same is true of the odd bit of relevant autobiographical detail I choose to share in my article. Although I often use myself as an example that’s simply for convenience; I’m not really interested in talking about me. I guess I’m like the photographer who for lack of a suitable subject turns their camera lens on themselves.

The unreliability of memory I can forgive, Dave, and with greater ease now than I might have in my twenties, now that I realise how tragically untrustworthy our memory retrieval system is. The danger is more in misremembering the past if I can distinguish between the two. That is why I might put more faith in what a diarist had to say, the person who was there at the time, but the problem there is that because emotions are involved you still might not an accurate picture of what went on. Possibly the best is to write at the time and then review later leaving the original comments intact.

And, Annie, the real question there is: What do you mean by “us”? I’ve just finished a book, a review of which will be up in June, talking about how little control our consciousness has over our lives. It’s certainly thought-provoking. I don’t believe that any external intelligence writes my poetry – I’m not channelling anyone – but I am well aware how much people have influenced me, and continue to do so. But for all I get idea from others, I’m still the mill that grinds everything up and makes something new of it. Like the British artist Stanley Spencer who would relocate moments from the life of Christ and set them in his hometown of Cookham like this one here. I chop up bits and pieces from my life and put them in my books. Left takes place in the flat I’m in at the moment; The More Things Change takes place in the flat I lived in in Jordanhill and the park at the end of the street.

Appearances can be deceptive. The actor who, in interview, comes across as a bubblehead was the same person whose performance wowed us on the screen so obviously they’re drawing out of themselves and we’re getting to see a part of who they are but then the bubblehead-interviewee is only a part of them too. At home with their families they’re probably something else entirely. Only bits of me find their ways into my writing. If you read everything I’d ever written you’d probably be surprised that I’d never written any science fiction and yet there’s hardly a film or a TV programme I’ve not watched. I love the genre but I’ve never found the need (or the wherewithal) to create anything myself. The same goes for classical music; name a composer and I’ll likely have heard something by him and certainly if he’s any of the big names I’ll own something by him unless he’s primarily an opera composer like Verdi or Puccini. But I never write about the stuff. That’s not what my writing is for. If I decided to write an autobiography I’d have to devote chapters to each of these but really I don’t have much more to say that I love both of these things. You won’t learn much about me than stuff I know. And that’s not the same thing.

Elisabeth said...

I can't believe I just posted a long comment here and blogger ate it up. I basically wanted to commend your post, to dispute the difference between the terms memoir and autobiography as observed by Art - these days the terms autobiography and memoir are used interchangeably as you suggest - and finally to offer you a quote from the Australian historian, Inga Clendinnen.

‘The real past,’ Clendinnen argues ‘is surrounded by prickle bushes of what I have to call epistemological difficulties. (From a Handy on-line dictionary: ‘”In a nutshell, epistemology addresses the questions, ‘Do you really know what you think you know?’’ You do epistemology all the time – as when you assess the likely truth of a rich piece of gossip.) Access to the actual past is slow, always problematic, and its inhabitants can be relied on to affront our expectations.’

I hope my comment reaches you now, truncated as it is. Thanks Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

I like to distinguish between data, knowledge, understanding and insight, Lis. I had a late lunch today and got caught up in the latest In Confidence on Sky Arts, an interview with artist and writer Tracey Emin. (Some people forget she’s also a writer.) Emin, as you well know, is (in)famous for her ‘honesty’ or at least what she markets as honesty but as she says in the interview about My Bed: “I tidied it up. I made it look good.” She turned it into art. It’s probably the best example I can think of of a visual representation of creative nonfiction: what she presented was the truth, just not all of it. As she said in the interview: “My subject isn’t me. My subject starts with me.” I can relate to that and that’s where all my work – arguably everyone’s work – is fundamentally autobiographical in that it arises from and addresses experiences in my own live or things I have witnessed read about others experiencing, like my poetic response to your recent short post. Emin talked about her abortions (she’s had two) and says that she’s now written about them five times and each time what she says differs, not the raw data, but the truth of what happened to her. She views the truth as something notional, a reflection in her mind’s eye and, as her mind changes, so the reflection is modified: “It’s not the truth – it’s how I wanted the truth to be.”

I treat the facts that I incorporate into my books, stories and poets as mere setting. Beckett could have written a not insignificant philosophical treatise or he could have had two tramps chewing the cud on the road to nowhere. In both he would have got his point over but the latter takes those points are make them digestible. I have another post coming up in a while in which I actually take a stab at writing accurately about something that happened to me and I found it incredibly hard because as soon as I had my autobiographer’s hat on I immediately felt a debt to the truth and I found that I didn’t much care to be indebted. It’s not that the truths were inconvenient but I found myself picking over every word. In a fictional piece I could write, “I was shocked,” but when I try and write about an actual event I find myself wondering, Was I shocked? Maybe I was astonished? No, that’s not right. Staggered – that’s better – or overcome, yes, that really conveys the physicality of the experience. It’s not right though. I was sick to my stomach. Now we’re getting there.

I have no doubt that there will be fiction writers and poets who obsess over getting the word right and there’s nothing wrong with that but as soon as I write ‘He was surprised’ on a bit of paper then that is what my character was. It is (or at least becomes) accurate. Even if it’s not precisely what I meant; the reader will take it from there anyway. Readers don’t have the same freedom with nonfiction; they’re wary of contributing too much of themselves to the text.

I long ago stopped obsessing over the accuracy of my writing. I did used to hang onto poems for months making insignificant changes whereas the simple fact is they were done in minutes. I can’t remember how long ‘Lacunae’ took to write but it was minutes. In the past I would still be swithering if it should be ‘aloud’ or ‘out loud’ in the last line. The choice wasn’t arbitrary – I considered ‘aloud’ – but would the poem by a better poem if that’s what I’d gone with? This is how we drive ourselves mad.

Ken Armstrong said...

I think 'bloggers-such-as-we' are constantly writing our memoirs - subconciously, almost - on a week-by-week basis.

I feel the same as you do about Eric, 'understand completely.

Jenny Woolf said...

I wrote a biography of Lewis Carroll because he seemed so hard to pin down.

He seemed intensely truthful and fundamentally devious - a man of extraordinary self contradictions. In later life I believe he assumed a persona which gave people what they wanted to see, and kept them off his back.

As a biographer, I felt I should not expand on many of my thoughts about him. Biography has to keep to the facts, and provide references for all its claims, because if it strays too far from this, then it becomes fiction of one kind or another, and (to me at least) terminally boring.

But that leads to the problem at the heart of biography. As you suggest, we don't even know ourselves, so how can we possibly write usefully about a stranger's inner thoughts and motivations?

And if the subject lived 100+ years ago, there's another problem. Their personal experiences have vanished without record, AND their culture is also outside living experience.

Actually I think I made a decent job of putting Carroll into his historical context. He made special efforts to relate convincingly to his own society, so to me he seems most human when seen negotiating the peculiar pitfalls of this now defunct culture.

On the whole I hope I've reanimated flashes of the man he was. And would I write another biography? No.

But I'd like discover even more about Lewis Carroll, though.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m not sure if the kind of anecdotes that you and I include in our posts could really be described as memoirs, Ken. When you add up what we know about each other it really doesn’t amount to a hill of beans (if I can borrow a few words from Casablanca). As for the visit to Morecambe it was a really interesting experience. As you know I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body and I’d be exaggerating if I said there was an aura there or anything like that but it was nice to be in a place that evoked good memories and to be surrounded by people who felt exactly the same as you.

And, Jenny, you provide an interesting perspective here. How do we know what anyone was like when they consciously market themselves as Carroll seems to have done. I know exactly what you’re on about here. I have all three biographies of Samuel Beckett and even though they talk about how sociable he could be – he was Irish, he loved the craic – it’s still very hard to envisage the man letting his hair down. Whenever you see photos of him it’s very clear that he is presenting a version of himself to the world and there were times too (as Eoin O'Brien discovered to his dismay when he was working on The Beckett Country) when the author was not entirely honest, in this instance preferring to perpetuate the myth about his epiphany (most people assume what’s presented in Krapp’s Last Tape is factual) rather than reveal at that time the not-nearly-so-dramatic truth of it; rather cruelly I think he told O’Brien after the book was published that he’d misled him.

I sometimes feel with biographies that they’re like trackers following, as I put it in one poem, “the spoor of the past” and when they finally do come across their prey there’s nothing left but a pile of bones and they can only guess at what its original form and behaviour was like or, as you suggest (rather ghoulishly), try to reanimate the corpse.

Thanks for dropping by. Always nice to see a new name in the comments box.

Dave King said...

Somebody said - and I can't remember who - that exactitude is not necessarily truth. I have been fascinated to read this discussion, but still feel that an accurate account of what occurred (accurate according to whom?) is not what most interests me in a memoir, mine or any other person's. Unconsciously or not, we edit, and there is a reason for the editing which has nothing to do with bad faith. I think we recall the kernel of truth that is essential to us.

Anonymous said...

Not sure why Blogger wouldn't let me post under my own ID there, Dave. I had to use my LiveJournal ID. Weird.

Elisabeth said...

I'll use these words of yours Jim, with due attribution, in a panel session I'm giving in a few weeks time on the topic, ‘Auto/biography’: an excess of fiction or in excess of it? :

You write 'as you start selecting you start fictionalising, playing with what’s true and what might be true.'

To me this is so so true. What you include and what you leave out colours the story even when its your own, profoundly.

And here's a great quote from Helen Garner, one of my favorite Australian women writers, with whom I have a love/hate relationship, a controversial writer for all sorts of reasons.

She has been accused of calling her first book, Monkey grip, a novel, when according to certain critics, she merely published her diary.

Years later she agrees she used her diary for the book, published large tracts of it even, but then she goes on:

'Why the sneer in "All she’s done is publish her
diaries"? It’s as if this were cheating. As if it were
lazy. As if there were no work involved in
keeping a diary in the first place: no thinking,
no discipline, no creative energy, no focusing or
directing of creative energy; no intelligent or
artful ordering of material; no choosing of
one. No free movement back and forth in time; no
leaping between inner and outer; no
examination of motive; no imaginative use of
It’s as if a diary wrote itself, as if it poured out in
a sludgy, involuntary, self-indulgent stream—
and also, even more annoyingly, as if the writer
of a diary were so entirely narcissistic, and in
some absurd and untenable fashion believed
herself to be so entirely unique, so hermetically
enclosed in a bubble of self, that a rigorous
account of her own experience could have no
possible relevance to, or usefulness for, or offer
any pleasure to, any other living person on the
planet. '

I think Garner has nailed the distinction between merely publishing her diary and creative non-fiction which she can then describe as fiction on the head.

I could go on, but the pull of real life drags me away.

Thanks for a terrific post, Jim. I wish I'd seen it earlier.

Jim Murdoch said...

Don’t worry about missing the post, Lis. I know you’ve been dead busy of late and do quote what you like. I quote myself all the time. It puzzles me that more writers don’t. I even set out to write a post about and asked a few people online to provide their own favourite quote from their own writing and I think only one got back to me if memory serves me right. On my new website I include a different quote on every page.

Elisabeth said...

Terrific website there, Jim. Thanks for sending it. As for your idea about quotes, I'm the queen of quotes, other people's that is, as for my own, I can't think of one, but I'm sure if I trawled through my writing I might find one or two.

That said, I just found one that feels relevant to my project:

As John Paul Eakin writes, ‘Autobiographers lead perilous lives’. They smash up against the rocks of non-compromise, their own and other people’s interpretations of what they have written. Shipwrecked on the judgments of others, all the autobiographer can salvage from what can sometimes feel like a volley of criticism, is the knowledge that she has tried her best to communicate an experience – her experience – and that although others might see things differently, she is not her writing, nor is hers the only perspective. Her writing is but one aspect, one perspective and it changes.

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