On Writing Autobiography

10 Mar

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By Rhea H. Boyden

 How much should one reveal of oneself in one’s writing? This is a good question to pose. Those of you who have been following my writing, will no doubt have noticed that I enjoy revealing who I am, and what I have experienced in life. I love to write about my love life, my drinking and partying years, and I enjoy putting on paper the many ideas that race through my skull, some of which can be contentious at times. I enjoy teasing myself and exposing my weaknesses in the hopes that people can relate in some measure to it all. This is all fine and grand when I am writing about myself, but what about writing about my family? How do I write about them safely without hurting them or provoking family arguments? Obviously, more caution must be exercised here if I want to keep my family relationships intact. I have a large and wonderful family spread across the world and there are so many stories to tell about our adventures, good and bad personality traits, our individual tastes, and views of the world. Thus far, in writing my autobiographical cookbook, I have kept it very safe and have mainly touched on funny and silly family anecdotes, and I suppose I need to keep it like that in order to maintain a happy emotional life.

There is, of course, the temptation to delve deeper into darker family anecdotes as many other memoirists have done regarding their own families. In the past months, I have read several memoirs by renowned authors about their own family lives and have been paying special attention to how they treat this subject.

In his internationally bestselling memoir ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ David Sedaris does an excellent job of teasing himself and his family in laugh-out-loud anecdotes. He clearly has a great relationship with his sister Amy Sedaris, who has also made a name for herself in show business and entertainment, and I suppose his family have just learned to laugh at his great sense of humour and are proud that he and his sister are both earning a living from it. On the other hand, however, I find it quite intriguing when I see what some other memoirists are willing to reveal and how they possibly get away with it. In her memoir ‘The Liar’s Club’ that was published in 1995 and stayed at the top of The New York Times bestseller list for a year, Mary Karr writes some quite revealing things about her family. She talks in detail, especially, about her mother and her grandmother. I have an eccentric mother and two eccentric grandmothers of my own about whom I have a whole trove of stories I could share. Mary Karr makes no secret of the fact that she hated it when her grandmother came home to live with them when she was dying of cancer.  She writes of how she just could not understand how some Christian kids in her neighbourhood could sit all saintly reading the Bible to their rotting grandparents. She says quite simply that ‘grandma lived way too long and made mother cry too much’.  Of course, Mary Karr’s book is hilarious too and very well written and it is meant in jest, but if I had talked about my own grandma as ‘rotting’ in the last few months of her life, I would have likely insulted some older relatives of mine for being so callous and uncaring. Could I get away with saying ‘oh, but it was meant as a joke.’

 Mary Karr also makes no secret of her various family members copious drinking. On a road trip with her sister and her parents she talks of both her parents as being ‘plagued with the Smirnoff flu’. Or that her father, as far as she could recall, drank every day and he also kept a fifth of whiskey ‘ratholed’ in his truck in the garage and he consistently said he had to go out and ‘check on the truck’ which was his euphemism for needing a good swig of whiskey to help him deal with his family. My own grandma (who was an incredible woman and highly educated) also liked her martinis and her wine and when sitting at the family dinner table at my grandparents’ house in North Carolina, she would insist -whilst tapping on the brim of her glass- that we fill it right to the top. ‘But grandma’, we would say, ‘the glass will overflow and it is not meant to be filled to the brim, you can have a second glass.’ She did not like being told how to act in her own house by her younger relatives, so as a matter of principal she would pick up the large bottle of white wine, would fill her glass to the top and occasionally the wine would slosh over the top causing some eye rolling. To me, this is comedy, and I still see her struggling with the weight of the bottle and not giving a damn what anybody else thought of her. She was a tough nut.

When I graduated from university we had a party at my grandparents’ and were up late drinking beer on the porch, when suddenly my grandma appeared in her nightie at the screen door insisting that we save her a beer. We promised we would save her one. When she went back into the kitchen, however, we saw her struggle to open the heavy fridge door that had a tendency to stick. She took a beer from the fridge, wrapped it in her white nightie, and went back to bed. Clearly, she wasn’t going to take any risks. Who, in their right mind, would trust drunk college graduates to save them a beer?

 Mary Karr talks all about how her mother used to go ‘Away’ to drink, and she eventually went so crazy that she was taken ‘Away’ to a mental asylum for being ‘Nervous’. Karr goes into great detail about how her mother goes insane and burns all her and her sister’s clothes before appearing at their bedroom door with a knife with the intention of murdering them both before she finally gets distracted and then calls her doctor for help.

 I thankfully never experienced such a degree of domestic violence and madness in my own childhood, but I have many a story of my mother’s own eccentricities and neglect at times. She loved us in her own way, but as a teenager I resented her for many things in my grumpy teenage manner. In my late twenties, I remember my mother coming to visit me in Berlin and there was the moment where I was suddenly the adult and she was having more problems than me. It was at this moment that I managed to let a lot of my resentments go and just attempt to treat her as a friend and not my mother. I naturally still have resentments against my mother, but now that she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I have realized even more that I have to be mature in dealing with her and her disease. Just as a ‘rotting’ grandparent is no joke, neither is a mother with a neuro degenerative disease, but even here I see comedy and a tree ripe for picking to fill my storybasket with anecdotes about her. I can’t help myself.  

I was recently on skype to my mother and my sister who are in California and the three of us were having a pleasant chat when my mother then announced how awful it was how all those poor school children were murdered by their classmate in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. ‘Yes, it is awful’ my sister and I concurred. ‘I was there and I saw it happen’ our mother elaborated. ‘You weren’t there, you saw it on the news.’ My sister said. ‘I was there, what do you know?!’ our mother responded in an irritated manner. My sister then quickly typed into the skype chat and wrote: ‘She’s confabulating’. ‘She’s what?’ I wrote back. I have yet to open my book on Alzheimer’s in preparation for my trip to California to see my mother. I guess I will read the whole book on the plane. In psychiatry confabulation is defined as: ‘the replacement of a gap in a person’s memory by a falsification that he or she believes to be true.’ Ahh, yes, good to be aware of this, especially as in a subsequent skype call my mother then told me that ‘People keep coming into the house and stealing things, they stole all my mother’s jewelry and lots of clothes too’ she informed me. ‘No, mom, in fact it was my flat that was burgled, not your house’ I told her. Again her response was: ‘What do you know? You weren’t even here.’ Fair enough. I am not going to argue with it. But, I will keep on writing about it, as it helps me process it.

In his memoir about his mother ‘Everywhere’ Richard Russo also talks in detail about his crazy mother and her struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder. He goes into detail about what a complicated woman she was. The title ‘Everywhere’ implies all the places he moved with her throughout his childhood and then even as an adult how he had to continue looking after her and how incredibly high-maintenance she was and how always having her there put a strain on his career, his marriage and his sanity. He even talks about how the Christmas after she died, he, his wife, his daughters and his two sons-in-law were able to really enjoy Christmas with late nights of board games and red wine and decadent snacks, none of them mentioning the whole time that the obvious reason it was so enjoyable is that his mother was no longer there to interfere. Now, I ask myself, would my family ever forgive me, if I wrote a whole book about my mother and my relationship with her? I would at least attempt to make it lighthearted comedy, if I were ever to write such a book. There is not much light-hearted about Russo’s book.

Another area of autobiography that I find intriguing is when authors start to talk about illegal or illicit activities that they have engaged in. It is one thing to talk about drinking stories, as drinking, as bad as it is for your health, is legal. I have written in detail about my own struggles with beating the drink and how I am now a year sober and I have managed to stay dry. I find it fascinating to read and write about alcoholism and it is such a broad topic and discussing alcohol abuse is very important in our society. Drinking stories are entertaining, and beating the drink is a struggle, and both of these topics are definitely of interest to the reader. I am not a drug addict and neither would I talk about drug addiction all over Facebook if I were. I wouldn’t dare go there, but many writers do broach the topic of illicit drug use in a public forum and in their autobiographies. In his memoir ‘On Writing’ Stephen King says the following: ‘In the spring and summer of 1986 I wrote ‘The Tommyknockers’ often working until midnight with my heart running at one hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.’ Mary Karr also talks of tripping on acid with her high school friends and David Sedaris speaks of his time on speed when he fancied himself a wonderful artist. Do these writers not worry about getting in trouble with the law admitting this? It is no secret that many writers and artists have drink and drug problems. Before I completely quit drinking I had a real penchant for vodka cocktails and I wrote some pretty crazy stories under the influence of these delicious cocktails. I have discovered, however that it really is a myth that you have to be drunk to tap into your creative juices. I can write just as well or better after a nice run in the park and a cup of coffee. Continuing to write sober is not my biggest issue at the moment, but rather how far I can push the boundaries in autobiography without harming myself or others. So far, I seem to be striking a good balance and I certainly don’t want to fall on my nose by making some grave mistake with it. I love autobiography and memoir writing and I have an awful lot more I want to share with the world, but not at the risk of causing too much scandal or hurting anybody. It’s a fine balance I continue to explore on a daily basis.  

2 Responses to “On Writing Autobiography”

  1. farfalle1 October 12, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    Which grandmother, Virge or your Dad’s mum? I love reading your accounts of your mother. We didn’t know each other as adults, but somehow one never loses interest in the people one found interesting when young. Your mother was certainly that! I love memoirs, too – just finished reading Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock, which is a happy marriage of fiction and memoir – and timely given her recent Nobel prize. I think good writing is difficult sober or under the influence of anything. The tendency is to want to Tell the reader what’s going on, and it’s so much more rewarding (to the reader) to Show him instead. My 2 cents. Keep at it!

    • rheahboyden October 12, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

      Thanks for the feedback Fern. This is indeed my mother’s mother Virg.

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