Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Autobiographical Urge

In 2006, long before I was finding myself in Hoboken, I had a small reputation as a writer in Fairhope, Alabama. Almost everybody in Fairhope had a reputation as a writer, but I had published a memoir about the town and wrote an almost-daily blog called "Finding Fair Hope," which you can still find on the Internet.

I was approached by a man in his late 80's about ghostwriting his autobiography. He had lived a rich and varied life and loved to tell stories of his accomplishments and crises. He had coped with great success and tragedy, and about all he had not done was chronicle the events.

He had known lots of interesting people and been in very high places in his day; he sent me a packet of snapshots and newspaper articles about his life. Pictures revealed that he was a good-looking man, movie star good-looking in his youth, and the articles told of the fortune he had made in dealing with big corporations, selling the rights to his inventions and occasionally suing for large sums when his invention ideas were stolen. I was interested in his story, and felt that I would be good as a ghostwriter. I was up for the job. I encouraged him, admonishing only that he would have to be very open with me about some of the life situations in the newspaper items, situations that still might cause him some pain.

He would have had to relocate to be interviewed, or pay for my expenses if I had to travel. He would have to be candid. I would agree to work for him at a fixed rate for about six months, including writing time, and then submit what I had written for his approval. I would not be the salesman for the work, but I felt certain that with his lively personality and his truly unusual life story we could come up with a book that would sell.

I laid out the proposal and waited. Time passed, and he passed off my radar screen, by not acting. He probably thought better of the project and did not want to be under this kind of stress at this point in his life, no matter how strong his urge to be immortalized in print. I never received a refusal, but I had lobbed the ball to his court and it was never returned.

I didn't blame him. For years he had probably regaled friends and acquaintances with tales of his childhood inventions, his successes and near-successes, and the odd and unexpected turns his life had taken. He was probably told by many an acquaintance, "You really should write a book about all this," but the reality of such a venture was not one he could handle.

An urge to write hits us as we grow closer to what we perceive as the end of life. There is a need to get it down in black and white, this little life, before it's gone. I can understand this myself, hacking away at a daily blog and thinking of books I must get done. This being Mother's Day, I am thinking a lot about my late mother, and the book she produced. Always an admirer of writers (and married to a first-rate one), she spent years researching a family history that including anecdotal tales going all the way back to family members who gave Robert the Bruce of Scotland a ride across the river in the middle of a war--being awarded in later years with a coat of arms that read "I Saved the King." She completed her family history in the and self-published it in 1994 after almost 20 years of exhaustive research, and the result is a family history that reflects all the charm of its writer and is constantly used as research by her three grown children. She printed copies for all living members of the family and distributed this work to as many of them as she knew. I gave a copy to my 12-year-old grandson Andy for Christmas, and he glowed. "Now I can answer any questions I have about the family," he said.

Her little book is a treasure trove of information about our ancestors. It was a project that consumed her as she edged into old age, and a copy of it was in her bureau at the nursing home when she died. She would sometimes mention it ("the book I wrote") and we having it handy when we visited her made it possible to pick it up to confirm a birth date or year, or cause of death, or any little piece of family information we could get nowhere else.

It is good that much of mankind is equipped with this autobiographical urge. The stories, even those that might be apocryphal, are the stuff of life and the best we can do toward carving a place in the mythology of generations to come. Blogs, diaries, family histories, and just newsy letters and emails serve a greater purpose than the writer may realize.


Unknown said...

I teach a weekly creative writing class to a group of senior ladies and gentlemen. Each of them is compelled to improve their writing skills for this purpose, to document their lives, especially for their children, grandchildren and future descendants to know their story. One gentleman has taken this process fairly far over the years but has been unable to complete the task. Recently, he discovered that writing vignettes is a more workable option. All of the writers in our group are talented writers, and I hope I am able to give them enough skills to produce some literary histories.

Mary Lois said...

Good job! I'm sure the stories will be wonderful and only hope they will be referenced by families for years to come.

steve said...

Possibly he found a better writer to do the job?

Mary Lois said...

That was cruel.

Unknown said...

What an odd comment - the poster seems to have missed the entire point of your entry.

Interestingly, by his profile, he is an enlightenment-seeking philosophizer. I think he has not yet paid his utility bill.

jacques mullet said...

As posted in some Findingafairhope
entry of yore, "writers write". Others do not write. Inventors invent, but writers write. Whether it is an urge to be recognized in some way or some sort of getting at the straight of thoughts, writers write, others don't. I am no writer, but as an engineer/designer,1/2-assed artist, and ex-educator of sorts, I do know how and prety much why
folks do what they do and think what they think. Writers have an "urge". Old folks' 'urge' is to share what they have learned, seek possible overdue recognition, or clear up some misconception concerning them. I have heard that all of the possible stories have been told. Yet as ML wrote at her entry end, the personal touch
of individuality is what life is made of...(see ended with a preposition, maybe figure of speech).I am no writer.

Mary Lois said...

It had to happen: a spammer, disguised as my cyberfriend Steve, found this blog and decided to have a little fun at Steve's and my expense. I've had to add a screening feature now so that I can head him off at the pass and screen comments. Hate to do this to my regular readers, because it's so nice to have valid comments, but I have to go with the Internet flow here. It means it will be trickier to post a comment, but I hope you will continue to do so. If you want me to post your comment, email it to me and I shall.

"Better writer" indeed. "Another writer" I could have lived with.

jacques mullet said...

I remember a copy cat Jonathan Livingston Seagull in a previous
POST. mmmmmmmmmMaybe that Steve is worse than Cybil? Has no identity
of his/her own, ya know, a nobody.

I'll be most agitated if the Gulf of Mexico and it's estuaries fall to the scum of the Earth, BP & Co.,
associates included. After all the fishes I enjoy to catch and eat have the same spelling as my
French name.

steve said...

I assure you the surly remarks of May 9 did not originate with the good Steve.

Mary Lois said...

Actually there are three good Steves who read this blog, and one who is good enough with computers to steal the identity of one of them and say nasty things, some of which I deleted. Now I modify all incoming comments.

steve said...

How will we know which comments are modified and which are not?

Mary Lois said...

Would it make any difference? If it appears here, it will have been screened by The Great Oz (me).

(the real ) JL Seagull said...

The great Oz was a screwball, ML. I prefer you to be Morgana in
magical control of the realm. Yet , she too has a down side.
Athena, maybe, of wisdom and beauty. There I prefer to think that the best.