Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Autobiographical Urge

July 28, 2007

A year ago 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 had not been 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. My mother, always an admirer of writers (and married to a first-rate one), 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 book 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.

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 is in her bureau at the nursing home. She sometimes mentions it ("the book I wrote") and we sometimes 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. Blogs are a great tool for this very thing. As to those who are not compelled to write, of course they create and contribute in many ways. But the actual stories, even with a very personal slant, are the stuff of life and the best we can do toward carving a place in the mythology of generations to come.


Bert Bananas said...

Autoblogagraphical ...

Mary Lois said...

I wish I'd thought of that.