Wander All Over Your Life
November 22, 2010
If you’re a fan of reading people’s lives, you’ve no doubt heard about the publication of the unexpurgated edition of Mark Twain’s autobiography, Autobiography of Mark Twain, which is flying off the shelves. (The publishers planned for a modest print run and can’t keep up with the demand.) I haven’t read it yet, but have one on order. (My local bookseller, like so many others, has run out.) I can’t wait to read it because, from articles in “The New York Times” and commentary on NPR, it seems as if Twain talks about the method he used to get the work done.
It helps me to know that, according to John McChesney’s NPR report, “’The Autobiography of Mark Twain’: Satire to Spare” Twain had a tough time getting started working on the story of his life. “He attributed his troubles,” McChesney reports, “to trying to follow a chronological calendar; a plan that, he wrote ‘starts you in the cradle and drives you straight for the grave, with no side excursions permitted.’”
I’ve always believed that this form – starting with birth, ending with the present – is more appropriate for biography, that for memoir or autobiography.
Have you ever been in a public place and listened to people talking to each other about their lives? I often sit in cafes in New York and eavesdrop, just like most writers. I’ve learned that when people relate their lives to one another, they move by association, from one part of their lives to another to another. There are digressions, asides, back-story provided with interjections about how someone in the story used to be years before. There are flashes forward as the narrator wonders what will become of one of her subjects or another.
What these speakers never do is begin at the beginning of the story and end at the end. Why not? That’s the fastest way to lose a listener. Have you ever been in the presence of someone who insisted on telling you a story in just that way? Beginning at the beginning and moving, chronologically, through to the end? I have. And I’ve wanted to jump out the window or stuff a sock in the speaker’s mouth.
Why is that, I’ve asked myself? I’ve thought, for a long time, that memoir is more in the oral tradition than in the written tradition. To me, memoir’s not like fiction (something written down). Memoir feels, on the page, like something the writer is telling me about her/his life. And so, for me, memoir has to proceed by association. It has to jump (artfully, of course) from one time to another, from one association to another, from one part of the story to another. There’s no listener sitting there to tell us to clarify what we just said, which is why, when we write our lives, we have to anticipate what a listener might have asked.
If we write, for example, “I broke up with him,” we have to anticipate what a listener might have asked you if you’d told a friend what you’d done. “When? Why? Where? Do you miss him? What did he look like? Was he surprised? Are you sorry? When did you first thing of breaking up with him?” I overheard just this interchange the last time I went out for coffee. The first woman said, “I broke up with him.” And her listener, throughout a fifteen-minute conversation, asked all the questions I’ve indicated. She didn’t want a start-to-finish account of the break-up. She wanted the story to segue from one thing to another, to meander from one set of meanings to another.
John McChesney, in his NPR report on Mark Twain, said that in 1904, after his false starts, Twain figured out the right way to tell his story. “Start at no particular time of your life,” he wrote. “Wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing that interests you for the moment; drop it at the moment its interest starts to pale.” He said that he was the first one to discover this method.
Wander all over your life. I’ve found that this is the best way to begin the first draft of any memoir I’ve written. I start anywhere in the narrative. I write until I stop being interested in that particular thread of meaning. And then I start somewhere else. This is the method I’ve used in the first draft of every memoir I’ve written. My method differs substantially from Twain’s of course in that I’m not writing my “entire” life in any one memoir, but just a slice of my life – about adultery, say, or asthma, or moving, or how I become a writer, or about the history of food in my family’s life. But I start anywhere, keep writing at what I call a “chunk” of meaning until I exhaust it and move on to another.
In subsequent versions, I expand, contract, move things around – I do all the work associated with revision, which, it seems, Twain didn’t do. But then again, I’m not Twain and seem to have to work much harder to convert beginning rambles into a fully realized work.
But I love starting my work in that way – in fits and starts, and moving from one subject to another. And this is why. When I begin this way, I force myself to remember that memoir isn’t a birth-to-present-day kind of enterprise. I work according to my fancy. This means that I “catch” a good deal of crazy stuff that I might not if I proceeded more methodically. For me, that’s key. I need to force myself out of the rut I might put myself into if I worked more systematically. At the beginning, anything goes, no matter how off-the-wall, no matter how crazy, no matter how incomplete.
At the end of this stage (which in, Writing as a Way of Healing I term the “Germinating” stage), I have a bunch of stuff to use when I move on to the next stage. Working this way is anxiety producing. I’m not getting anywhere quickly. And that’s the point. I have to “see” what happens when I write. I have to be open to the way the work is coming. People who’ve written as many books as I have can fall prey, I think, to repeating themselves and this happens, I think, if you don’t force yourself into working in a way that brings astonishments and surprises which “wandering at free will all over your life (or subject) does.”
Later comes the fun/hard work of making sense of all this. Of finding the heart and soul of the new work. But that comes later. The “germinating” stage, the “wandering all over your life” method takes us into the heart of the unexpected. Which is the reason I write memoir.