Autobiographies as tools for living:

How other people’s stories teach us who we are

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Letting someone into your head is a serious business. By inviting them inside, you let their words bond with your thoughts, attach to your ideas, change your mind, and colour your perceptions. It is a risk and a thrill, an intervention that could, if you’re lucky, change your life.

I have allowed countless people to walk through my mind over the years. Each time hoping — and most often finding — that they shed some light into the shadowy, uncertain nature of how to navigate the vicissitudes of life. People who have navigated a series of transitions and transformations, from madness to wisdom, from internment to liberation, from entrapment in an unchosen life to the creative ideal.

There is no particular permutation of struggle to which I am drawn, purely the struggle itself, and the fact as revealed in the very existence of the book and the will of the writer who penned it, that there is always some point at which it’s possible to take that struggle and recalibrate one’s sense of being in the wake of life’s wild oscillations.

People such as Lorna Sage, James Rhodes, Jay Griffiths, Viktor Frankl, Brian Keenan, Joan Didion, Patti Smith, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Blake Morrison, Henry David Thoreau and so many other munificent writers who have had the courage to expose their vulnerabilities, their flaws and their humiliations as much as their accomplishments and successes.

Know others, heal thyself

It was DH Lawrence who said that “the only history is a mere question of one’s struggle inside oneself”. His point being that the collective story of humanity, whether in fact or fiction, as chronicled in the billions of words scratched onto paper and battered into computers by individuals across the world and throughout the ages, are testament to the enduring struggle that we all face to make sense of our place in the world.

The deceitfully simple idea that “to know thyself” is the reason for living, the ceaseless echo through the centuries of Socrates’ call that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, is the most maddening challenge there is.

As the philosopher Alan Watts once said:

“Consciousness seems to be nature’s ingenious mode of self-torture.”

Why so? Because this interminable process of becoming who we are, of knowing what we should even aim to become, is exhausting.

Writer or reader, the challenge is the same. We think therefore we suffer. That’s the unavoidable truth. The point is how you respond, which is where autobiographical accounts or indeed any story, fact or fiction, come in.

Instead of spinning around in a solitary thought trance, or more likely after a period of having done so, writers articulate the thoughts that render the rest of us incoherent, they put those thoughts into words, which seep into our heads, lending clarity where before there might have been confusion.

Autobiographies are an invaluable form of self-help, for the writer in the act of releasing the madness to the page, and for the reader in finding comfort that we are all just as messed up as each other. And crucially, that there is hope for change.

The lives of others

Reading the life writing of others satisfies that most fundamental of human needs, of finding meaning and purpose, while simultaneously running scared from the responsibility of carving it out for ourselves.

As Lorna Sage wrote in her evocative memoir ‘Bad Blood’:

“If you write things down, however compromising…then life is redeemed from the squalor of insignificance — which is worse than wickedness.”

For Sage, language and books were a formative refuge from an unhappy home, growing up in the midst of a dysfunctional family of repressed eccentrics.

For Brian Keenan, books, specifically Moby Dick, was a life-saving refuge in so far as he retreated into his mind to recall what he could of the book so as to remove his mind if not his body from the torture being inflicted upon him when he was kidnapped and detained in Beirut.

Keenan’s own memoir, ‘An Evil Cradling’, was, he wrote, his way of imprisoning that period of his life on paper, an exercise in both therapy and exploration. And while what he experienced was “a strange reality far removed from normal human experience”, it was, he felt and convincingly demonstrated in his book, one that had much to reveal about the essence of what we are as human beings “in extremis”. That is, what we are capable of enduring and most importantly, what levels of adversity may arise and how we can survive.

Testimonies to the self

With Karl Ove Knausgaard and Patti Smith, the ordeals may be of a different calibre, of the doggedly determined artist, the writer engaged on a desperate quest to define their place in the world, but fundamentally, their stories convey a similar truth of no less depth, revealing that there is meaning and beauty in the smallest of details, and that there is joy to be found once you clamber out of the quagmire.

It’s for this reason that Knausgaard, as revealed in his mesmerising series, ‘My Struggle’, is the epitome of a writer as defined by Susan Sontag, someone who pays microscopically close attention to the world.

He is unashamedly and artfully self-conscious in recalling his entire life to date. In exposing his every vulnerability, flaw and incremental progress as a man and as a writer. His work is an impressive display of unfailing devotion to his life’s purpose as a writer. He stays with what Patti Smith in her own memoir ‘M Train’ calls “the twisting track of the mind’s convolutions”. Every twist and tangential turn is an exquisite revelation, creeping towards meaning in the slow meandering pace that is life itself.

Smith’s work has similarly oceanic depths at the most human level. She is like a portrait artist, looking at her own reflection as it changes over the years, watching her life replay in her mind and on the page and inviting us to be a spectator.

The personal as universal

The fundamental arc of the autobiographical account is the same as a piece of fictional writing, only its hold over the reader, the power it has in our imagination comes from the fact that it is real and intensely believable. We turn to the memoir for the same reason that we turn to the novel, to be transported, to see why and how others struggle and to see them transformed, for better or worse.

Contained within those billions of pages of ego-documents are the meaning of life, the essence of humanity, revelations of what it means to be human. For writer and reader, life writing is a means of time travel, of suspending time, a way of lending dignity and meaning to our lives in retrospect. To write about our past selves is to slow down time, to step into the past lives of others. To rewind, pause, observe and reflect.

Ultimately, we all want some form of resolution, we want to be saved from oblivion, not necessarily by achieving immortality through words, for even they will turn to dust and ethereal matter when the pixels and the pages that contain them eventually disintegrate, but by knowing that there is sense in the process, there are moments of significance and humour along the way that make it worthwhile.

Other people’s lives, other people’s stories prove to us what we most need to know — that our lives matter, that all lives matter. And so we turn to autobiographies to guide us, to act as our companions through experiences we have either encountered, wish never to encounter, or about which we have some natural human curiosity. It is the survivalist mode, the curious mind in the passive act of reading, the ego’s quest to save it from oblivion, and the call of our intelligent mind to find vicarious validation.

As the philosopher Theodore Zeldin writes in his essay, ‘What is a wasted life?’, summarising his lifetime’s work of charting the struggles of people from all over the world and throughout history:

“Autobiographies are a rare cactus that flowers spasmodically in the desert of pretence…it is possible to see every life as an experiment which has questions to ask and something interesting to say to those who have not yet shut down their sense of wonder at the variety and unpredictability of human waywardness.”

Thanks for reading….

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