There are two main difficulties with life-writing. The first is that the volume of material the writer has to work with can feel overwhelming, so that as they sit before the blank page – aware that prose must have shape, clarity, a sense of order – the life they hope to draw on feels shapeless, messy, impossibly chaotic.
The first step in taming this mass of unruly life material is to establish some kind of organising principle. It can be anything, from an orderly progression through the months of a year, to an emotion, a relationship, or a capsule of time – such as childhood – that the writer will explore. Life writing needs boundaries, otherwise it is likely to sink beneath real-life chaos before it has even begun.
The need for an organising principle never seemed more urgent to me than when I decided to write a book about a historic cemetery in the city where I live. On my first visit to the site I gazed across an apparently limitless sea of headstones (500,000 people had been buried there since the colony of South Australia began). There were, quite literally, acres of information for me to sort through and to choose from, but who were all these people whose stories I thought I might tell? How could I find out? Where on earth was I to begin? I almost panicked and walked away.
Eventually, I noticed one or two gravestones that dated back to the very earliest days of the colony; some even mentioned the names of the ships that had carried these adventurous souls all the way from England. This, then, became my starting point: I found passenger lists for the first nine ships to arrive in South Australia and searched those names on the cemetery’s data base. I began by writing the earliest stories in a book that would go on to be published as Quiet City: walking in West Terrace Cemetery.
The second problem facing the life writer is the need to connect their story to the wider world, to find a larger meaning inside the personal. Sometimes we are so close to our own stories that it can be hard to see that they are part of a more universal narrative.
This need to find a purpose for a piece of writing above and beyond the actual experience is never clearer than in travel writing, where inexperienced writers often expect the travels themselves to carry the weight of narrative.
The demands of travel writing epitomize the challenges of any creative nonfiction writing: how do you shape or draft the work so that the experience becomes more than itself? Critic Paul Fussell answers that question this way: “Successful travel writing mediates between two poles: the individual physical things it describes, on the one hand, and the larger theme that it is ‘about’ on the other. That is, the particular and the universal.” For instance, Pico Iyer’s books not only describe his travels into places as diverse as the L.A. airport, Burmese temples, and suburban Japan, but they also often become inquiries into the effects of globalization on the world’s culture.
All art is the result of the choices made by the artist before the work begins. The shape of a piece of writing is often related to how the writer deals with time. Life is linear; reading is linear, but writing doesn’t have to be. So will you begin your story at the beginning? In the middle? At the end, and then circle back?
Your life story from the beginning to the end (or where you’re at now) is autobiography, but the beauty of memoir is that it can focus on short stretches of time.
Life writing can turn its focus away from the self onto the outside world. In all kinds of life writing, the writer is the observing consciousness. Sometimes the reader is allowed to stand close, and sometimes they are kept at arm’s length.
Finally, here is an exercise I have used when teaching a Life Writing Course. If you are an aspiring life writer who has read this far, you might like to give it a try.
- Make a list of objects that you treasure.
- They might be things you have carried with you over many moves.
- It might be the thing you would save first if the house was on fire (not a living creature, an object).
- Begin to list your feelings about this object. Why is it precious? What does it remind you of? How does it look, feel, smell? Perhaps it makes a sound? Taste?
- If you can, find other story threads that you can braid with your writing about the special object.
- This might mean incorporating research.
- It might mean flashing back to an earlier time and teasing out another story thread.
- It might mean reflecting on the broader meaning the object suggests.