Writing and Thinking About Autobiography


Mr. RonPrice
Writing and Thinking About Autobiography.....for Cool Sci-Fi Forums from Ron Price in Australia:cool: If this post is too long for the conventional tastes of readers here, I advise that you (a) skim or scan or (b) just don't read it.
There are endless ways of telling one’s story. For this reason poets and writers like Roger White and Bernard Shaw may be wrong to think that the passive nature of their lives disqualifies them from even attempting to write their autobiography. Roger used to say that he did not think it was possible for a biographer to make anything at all interesting out of his life. I think time will prove him wrong. He, like Shaw, thought his life was in his writing, or as he once put it, quoting Rabindranath Tagore: “the poem not the poet.”

If one does write autobiography, as I do, one can not tell one’s whole story no matter how one tells it. It's not that I think the event, the experience, does not matter; on the contrary, it mattered a great deal then and, in retrospect, it still 'matters.' While one tells one’s story, as Montaigne said, one’s story makes oneself and there is so much of tedium, chouder and trivia in life which one simply edits out, out of pure necessity. If you put it all in you’d have a mountain of garbage that even the most assiduous reader could not plough through. You take form as you write and it is fascinating to watch. It feels to me a little like sculpting or painting must feel like to the artists in these fields. It’s part of the magic of writing autobiography. As William Spengemann emphasizes, autobiography is synonymous with symbolic action. Writing is symbolic action. The implications of this idea revolutionizes the experience of writing autobiography. One sees the whole exercise in metaphorical terms. While not possessing the freedom of the novel or the facticity of writing history, autobiography does contain enough freedom and enough truth to give it the best of both worlds.

“Autobiographers”, Brian Finney notes in his introductory words to The Inner I: British Literary Autobiography in the Twentieth Century(1985, p.21), “appear to have as many different conceptions of what constitutes the truth about themselves as readers have different expectations of them.” So, in the end, what I write about those intimacies with Kit Orlick nearly forty years ago is in my hands, in my head and, as in the life of a conversation, one decides what one is going to say to whom and when all of one's days. And it is no different with the written word, with the autobiographical word.

If parts of our nature are unknowable, if our degree of confessionalism is in our own hands, if others see us quite differently than we see ourselves, there is going to be only a certain aspect of the truth and only a certain degree of it that opens up for the autobiographer. Even if autobiographies are lies, as Shaw said; if they are not to be trusted unless they reveal something disgraceful, as Orwell hypothesized; if they reveal one’s mendacity as Freud emphasized; if they focus on our personal myths as Jung would have put it--they at least pursue the human, the personal, story from within. Even if autobiography is a caricature of sorts, it cannot deny the tyrannical power of basic facts, however interpretive or subjective. There is an inevitable and, to some extent, naive trusting in memory. And there is always the question of what one wants to disclose, its timeliness, its suitedness to the hearers. There is tact and frankness; there is a judicious etiquette of expression and there is the relaxation of restraint.. There are words which have "the influence of spring" and there are words which are "like unto blight" and cause the blossoms and flowers to wither.

There is both historical veracity and artistic creativity, then, in autobiography. The self-portraiture, the process of writing, transmutes one’s life into a verbal artifact. It is difficult to reveal one’s private self to the world; some aspects of that self are better left unrevealed and an ambivalence regarding the revelation of some of that inner life is, it would seem to me, unavoidable. Each person has his or her ambivalences, areas they want to evade, be diversionary and euphistic. Evasion, euphistic language and diversionary tactics are all part of a process of saying what one wants to say and not saying it all.

George Orwell talks about a certain amount of exaggeration in the process of selection and narration and a type of meaning that emerges by the way one retrospectively chooses to order events. In the process of his own analysis Orwell attempts to come to grips with his buried and not-so-buried motives for writing his autobiography. Subjective self-discovery and the capacity for objective reportage are related; factuality and self-awareness seem to walk hand-in-hand. The reader, too, can often correct the unperceived distortions of the writer when the autobiography embraces fully this subjective element. For the reader and writer become more intimate through this style, this tone, of writing.

Memory is notoriously unreliable; it is like a minefield; it is also the great artist, as Andre Marois once put it. Some see memory as a pandering to the ego; some point out that being told by others what happened is not the same as one’s own account: so that all one really has is memory. “There have been episodes in my life” says A.E. Coppard “which not even the prospect of an eternity in hellfire would induce me to reveal.”(ibid.,p.46) But even then it is very difficult for the writer to hide his true nature. I see all of my own effort as quite a transparent, honest exercise, an exercise which is conscious of a good degree of probing, conscious of style, language and form. I am conscious that my own life has nothing of the great adventures and incredible stories that are at the heart of many autobiographies. Hopefully it has an interesting yarn at its centre and material that will be useful to the Baha’i community as it unfolds its contribution to the globe in the decades ahead. I hope, in aiming to achieve something useful, that I have not poured out a pile of dirty laundry, that I have at least kept the pile tactfully small. Vanity is as common as air and I trust this ubiquitous folly is at least kept to a minimum in the process of all my navel-gazing. The desire to give the reader pleasure and contribute something original and probing lies in the matrix of my motivations to write. Moliere said that what he tried to do was correct men by amusing them. I would like to be able to achieve this, but I am not conscious of much success. I hope I get better at this style of writing, at this comic autobiography. At this stage of my life writing, an autobiography seemed to be something I could do, something I would enjoy doing from among the options one has available in life, something for which there was a place in the burgeoning Baha’i literature of this new millennium and might even find a place in the decades surrounding the emergence of the third century of the Baha'i Era.

1 ibid

Ron Price
25 March 2002

“The truth is”, J.D. Bereford tells us, “that my single pleasure is in continual retelling of the story of my own intellectual and spiritual life.”(ibid.,p.68) Beresford’s creative energy goes into interpretations of what is going on and that is the case with me as far as I am able. Frankly, I do not have that singleness of pleasure that Bereford seems to get. This autobiography has occupied a good deal of my time since the mid-1980s, but it is only one part of a multifaceted life. It is clearly not ‘my single pleasure.’

For some writers their creative effort goes into discussing others since others are part of their corporate identity. I do not do this well, at least not yet. Perhaps I got too discouraged by some of my earlier experiences with short biographies that I wrote about people in the Northern Territory of Australia. Alan Sillitoe says a writer makes art when he trys to make truth believeable. Given a certain shapelessness, plotlessness to life, the autobiographer strives to give form to an episodic enigma, to create the artistic illusion of conclusiveness, beginning and middle. Finney suggests this form is best defined in inner terms. For the main problem in autobiography is how to deal with yourself: not too high flying and smug on the one hand and not too humble and self-effacing on the other; not too confessional on the one hand, not too restrained, too moderate and refined on the other. Comedy is one way out of the dilemma. Understanding, wit and verbal skill is another way to hit some solid ground that is winning, genuine and communicates effectively.

Finney states that the history of autobiography is “the history of self-awareness”. (ibid.,p.117). The breakup in the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries AD led to St. Augustine and a more changeable, less static conception of self-statement. The Renaissance led to a concentration in autobiography on the private self, even a creation of a self, especially through an examination of one’s formative, one’s earliest years. This has been especially true in the last two centuries where autobiographers drew their very breath from the past and the mysterious origins of their authors' lives. The imaginative experiences and insights which come from memories and the process of private excavation help the writer make his story interesting. What and how things are excavated from one's life is, to a significant extent, the basis of the richness and pleasure derived from an autobiography. It is a challenge, a difficulty, inherent in the genre itself.

In a world of sensory stimulation, continuous entertainment and panem et circenses writing an autobiography that will hold the reader, many readers, is a high challenge. I’m not so sure I have acheived this goal. I take refuge in my poetry for its inevitable coterie of readers and for its expansion on themes I have difficulty elaborating in prose.

“Childhood is important” wrote Jung late in life “because this is the time when, terrifying or encouraging, those far-seeing dreams and images appear before the soul of the child, shaping his whole destiny.” The autobiographer reaches back when he can even into the life of his ancestors. (ibid.,p.127) We begin in the magic circle of our childhood, reaching out into the world in ever-widening circles as man breathes his own life into things in the act of observing himself and his environment. This I have done in my poetry and in my Life Story but not in the narrative of Pioneering Over Four Epochs which does not really begin until that magic circles begins to enlarge. Sometimes, I am only too conscious, the light of nostalgia is falsifying, sometimes illuminating, but always it tells something of the observing self and my adult preoccupations. One lives the early years, everything, over and over again.

Infantile amnesia, or what one author called the sweet darkness of one’s earliest years, is the time when the formative events and influences occur. I have no memories before the age of four. Freud argues that affectionate and hostile images of the father are born here and persist all one’s life(ibid.,p.140). This is an aspect of my life, these earliest memories, that I could develop one day in my own story. It is here that the dominating parent is born, the excessively pietistic influence, indeed much that is both positive and negative in life. And one can learn a great deal by examining the etiology of these influences. One can, as D.H. Lawrence suggests, shed some of one’s sicknesses by such retrospection or, as Clive James once put it, one can get out of the prison of one’s childhood. Both Frued and Jung argued, though, that we gain only a partial understanding of our early life and indeed of life itself. There is an inevitable incompleteness, blindness. There are countless subsidiary happenings that don’t get in to our story due to the genre’s pressure to create shape and meaning, and to be bony and bare at the perifery outside that shape and form. George Bernard Shaw admitted this when he wrote that his “story has no plot and the problem will never be solved.”(ibid.,p.164)

Autobiography, then, becomes like a monument to defeat or an expression of acceptance of defeat. Sometimes it is simply an oversimplification of the complexities of personality that defeat any therapeutic aim of the writer. The wholeness of personality, the realization of its totality and fullness, Jung argues, is impossible to attain. It is only an ideal.

Much of modern autobiography has grown out of religious introspection and the soul’s struggle with despair. Protestantism made the individual responsible for his own spiritual development and this resulted in an inner conflict and search for wholeness amidst psychological aridity, neurosis, depression and endless analysis as well as the joys and pleasures of life. History has now given us nearly half a millennum of Protestantism with its emphasis on the individual. Democracy, too, growing obtrusively and unobtrusively, perhaps for two and a half millennia has been a seedbed for autobiography. The historical story of this literary form, autobiography, is long and detailed. It is not my purpose to provide such a detailed examination here.

In the twentieth century ‘religious’ became ‘psychological’, at least for millions. Perhaps, as Jung states, “the spiritual adventure of our time is the exposure of human consciousness to the undefinable and indefinable.”(ibid.,p.208) An autobiography like my own is the account of that exposure.

Finney notes Roy Pascal’s view that the brief half-century from 1782, when Rousseau’s autobiography was published, to 1831 when Goethe’s was written, “there was a feeling of trust and confidence in the spiritual wholeness of the self. There was a meaningfulness, then, that disappears from later autobiography”(ibid., p.209). Modern autobiographers seek to recapture this trust and confidence, but for the most part they are not successful. Some, like Powys, achieve a measure of success by sheer verbal exhuberance and shapelessness in an attempt to capture the evanescent quality of life(Powys, Far Away and Long Ago, 1934). Here is how Powys puts it in a confessional autobiography that is moderate in tone, but delightfully revealing in parts:

It is most important in writing the tale of one’s days not to try to give them the unity they possess for one in later life. A human story, to bear any resemblance to the truth, must advance and retreat erratically, must flicker and flutter here and there, must debouch(come out of the woods) at a thousand tangents(ibid.,p.221).

Writing so much of what I do in poetic form I achieve this flicker and flutter here and there, the thousand tangents. But I would not want to use Powys as my only model because he derives a satisfaction from parading his neuroses, phobias and darkest fantasies, his sacred malice in the form of caricature and excess, as if he is a magician and a near mad-man. What the reader gets, some may see, as the idiosyncratic outpourings of an egocentric and demented eccentric. Of the many tendencies since those peaceful years from Rousseau to Goethe this is but one of the many subjective approaches to understanding of the self. There is some darkness, some of the mad-man in my poetry, my autobiography; but I think it is far from a parading of my neuroses, my eccentricies, although I'm sure some will disagree. The writer takes this risk in the world of autobiography.

Erik Erikson says autobiographers are concerned with the present, the past and the historical context of the times in which they live. Some writers show a fear of narcissistic self-indulgence in writing their account and, like H.G. Wells and Arthur Koestler, spend a great deal of time on the context of their times. I feel I have erred by spending too little on my times. This has not been out of fear, but the simple difficulty of balancing the three time frames and all that autobiography can contain. It can contain so much and, in the end, overwhelm the reader--and the writer! For years I held back myself from writing anything to publish because I was frankly overwhelmed by the massiveness of the content that always loomed ahead of me: gargantuan, amorphous, unmanageable.

I like Koestler’s emphasis on directing his writing to the unborn, future reader; directing the many levels of truth, the many subjectivities of his life to a future age. Certainly a large part of my own motivation for entering this field of autobiography is for a future age, for those not yet born. But even as I say this, I feel a certain pretentiousness in even admitting to such an interest. This seems to be Koestler’s central drive. I think, too, that for some autobiographers, like Storm Jameson, writing is an escape into words, an escape from society, a society she did not feel at home in. This is partly true of me as I have got older. She says that noone can write the story of their life; there is an inevitable impersonality, a partial and unavoidable lack of control for the author. Perhaps that is why each autobiography is so idiosyncratic, a work of art unto itself. We are each unique, each idiosyncratic, each a child of God. My story is just one child’s account.


A man is a teller of tales; All men are invisible to one another.
he lives surrounded by his stories and Experience is man’s invisibility to man.
the stories of others; he sees everything Experience used to be called the Soul.
that happens to him through them, -R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience
and he tries to live as
if he were recounting it.
-Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

This whole autobiographical exercise is like being an artist or poet-in-residence. The finest work you produce is yourself. The life you live and the life you tell are inseparable: in some respects they are twins, in other ways they are like friends, members of the same family or, indeed, hardly comparable. As we live, we organize and reorganize our story; we create ourselves as we go along. Charles Hartshorne, a process philosopher, says this is the ultimate reality: self-creation, making ourself, self-construction, self-fabrication. Your life story happens on several levels: the outside story, the story at the level of existing, the events; the inside story, is your interpretation of these events, your meaning, your creation; it is what you do with what happens to you. The third level is the level you project to the world. This level for me is my autobiography. The fourth and final level is the impression my story creates on others. It is their reading of my story, my life as I write or tell it and their reading has a thousand meanings from something profound to something quite meaningless.

Beyond these four levels, as Gregory Bateson argues, life for most of us is an improvisatory art; we make it up as we go along. Although it may be that the world is in-between stories, the Baha’i feels he is part of the new story, part of mankind’s one great story, the grand symphony that this world is, as Joseph Campbell calls it. My own story, told in many forms in this autobiography Pioneering Over Four Epochs, is an attempt to relate my small micro-world to the grand opus, as it is enviseaged in the Baha’i literature. It is also a linking of past, present and future in some story-form, some alluring sequence. “All serious work must be at bottom autobiographical” says Thomas Wolfe: novel, poetry, autobiography, essay, etcetera. And we continually edit this story, we continually confer meaning and purpose, thus rescuing our story from randomness through some simple narrative lust. But, as I said above, for the Baha’i there is still a master plot, a master theory, within which our life is but a sub-plot. However tedious, mundane, routine, repetitive, boring, uninspiring, smoothly ticking our life may appear there are tensions and conflicts which never go away and which, unresolved, are one of the major sources of our meaning and purpose. The reader of autobiography, of my story, gets a neat package, gets some equilibrium, with passions spent, even though life is not so neat. The equilibrium is dynamic and passions are far from spent. Life often appears in the end like a daydream, “bearing the mere semblance of reality.”

There is a pattern of build-up, a sense of what’s next. These are found in the world I create as much as the plot that is developed. This is especially true due to the multiple-genre format to my autobiography. No matter how meaningful, how accidental, how significant or insignificant my story I can not help but be concerned with the literary. In fact, my guess is that most people never write their story because they are beaten by the literary. The literary dimension is simply too much for them. They really prefer gardening, or reading, or sewing or one of a thousand things. They are beaten by the idiosyncratic, by the endless sense of life being in transition.. Life, too, as we get older, gets longer, bigger, deeper, thicker and, thus, harder to put down. It seems to elude logical meaning, directionality, obvious and unquestioned improvement. It’s all too complex, too beyond definition and the simple story.

“This world is not conclusion”, says Emily Dickinson, “a sequel stands beyond”. Perhaps those who have no sense of sequence or a sequel beyond find the whole idea of writing their story depressing. For me, Emily’s words are so appropriate to my own story and I weave that “sequel which stands beyond” as best I can into the texture of this life. It is not conclusion; it is continuity. The neat chapters in my life, even my view of the afterlife, are culture-bound and held together by a sub-culture, the sub-culture of my religious beliefs, attitudes and values.` Whatever the chapters, whatever the sequel, the origin and end of autobiography converges in the very act of writing. Everything collapses into the act of producing the text. That which does not collapse, does not find a place and is left in the home of the nameless and traceless, an oblivion which the world will never locate.

The various people mentioned in my text are infinitely more complex than those who appear in novels. Although they are known to me more intimately than the myriad strangers in my life, than my friends and associations, these ‘best known’ remain enigmatic, elusive, shadowy, incoherent, contradictory. None of them occupy the central place in the story, though. It seems to me that the Baha’i Faith occupies the pivotal position. As central person, my role, my circumstances, my character changes. I am especially conscious of this for I am storyteller, character, audience, narrator and reader all at once. My identity then is quintessentially biographical not biological. It is the answer to the question: what is your real, inmost story? What took place in those 64,000 hours, 4000 days and eleven years of real autobiographical data? According to Lewis Thomas this is all we have after the trivia are eliminated. The past develops like a plot; it thickens. That is why I can write a poem about an early childhood experience and then write it differently next year. Raccontio ergo sum. I want things to come out right, I suppose; I’d like to be saved, especially from myself, my lower nature. Thus, I am religious in my persistence to tell my story, to create and define my world, to write a Grand Unified Story. I am also trying to get back time but, alas, it is unredeemable. The memories I draw on connect what happened once upon a time with what is happening now in a process of synthesis which is quite mysterious, quite delightful and often immensely frustrating. At the core of the frustration for me is what I feel is an inability to make my story live as much as it lived in the act of living it. I read the words and they often seem flat, beyond reification. I am also conscious of just how brief the entire narrative is: some eighty pages. The poetry is one simple, yet effective, way to overcome these frustrations. It conveys in quite apt, quite fitting, quite emotionally satisfying ways both my personal experiences in pioneering and the heady days in these earliest years of the Universal House of Justice’s assumption at the apex of the Baha’i administrative system.

“Without forgetting” says Nietzsche, “it is quite impossible to live at all.” The autobiographer must forget a great deal and use it, perhaps, as Graham Greene says “as compost for the imagination.” We define our world very much by what we forget, by the nature or type of personality we have: gloomy, poetic, sentimental, joyful, melancholy, etcetera. Mine I might call Priceland. I’m not conscious of the type of land it is, not yet; I’m too immersed in creating this land at the moment. We also define our world against what we might call a gestalt of pastness which is partly a prelinguistic darkness. Writing explodes this darkness and creates a new gestalt. What goes on the page flows mysteriously out of the incomprehensible moods of the present. Whatever anecdotal brilliance is created is derived from these moods, from simple literary skill and from a host of other factors. It is these moods, this multi-factorial writing situation, as much as anything, which creates whatever wholeness comes into existence in the text. This wholeness draws more on the present, then, than it does the past.

I do think my life has a certain direction, integration sub specie Baha’i Faith. Obviously, too, there are contradictions between my personal goals, aims, purposes and what I actually do to acheive these. Until I die, though, I will try to make a comprehensible story of my life. I will try and tell if faithfully, fully and solely. For I am conscious that the extraordinary lingers just behind the ordinary and I want to bring it out in my life and in the lives of others when it can serve as some form of meaning therapy, what Victor Frankl calls logotherapy. My imagination has been feasting for years on a diet of rich and diverse experience and rich and diverse ideas. This richness is in a narrow range of activity involving: people, places and books. “Rich”, “diverse”, “narrow”, I could add other adjectives, adjectives which suggest a certain epistemological ambivalence. The autobiographical act, like life itself, generates this ambivalence. It also generates lived facts, lived events, as artefacts. This poetry is part of, an expression of, these lived facts in these darkest hours before the dawn while the Arc on Mount Carmel is being completed.

I should say something about self-deception, since there is in narration an inherent straying away from what actually happens, however slightly or innocently, a quiet but discernable progression from fact to fiction. Self-deception, lieing, secrecy, forgetfulness, confusion, gaps: they are all part of the story and our processing of the story. Everything we communicate, some analysts argue, is an orientation towards what is secret without ever telling the secret. As Henry Miller puts it: “I am I and I have thought unspeakable thoughts and done unthinkable things.”(1) We aim in our autobiography to monitor our hearts for self-deception. We aim for artistic coherence and ethical satisfaction as we attempt to integrate, analyse and identify the countless versions of our story and their inevitable secrets. This is unending work-poetic work-and it is central to self-creation. In other ways the self-deception is accidental, incidental. As Yeats put it: “I have changed nothing to my knowledge; and yet it must be that I have changed many things without my knowledge; for I am writing after many years and have consulted neither friend, nor letter, nor old newspaper.”(2)

There were three men went down the road
As down the road went he:
The man he was,
The man folks saw,
The man he wished to be.
-Source Unknown

Our ultimate aloneness in the universe is a truth which some find frightening. This aloneness is a part of the core experience in writing autobiography, part of its very raison d’etre. It may just be that one of the best routes to self-forgetfulness, which ‘Abdu’l-Baha says is at the heart of self-realization, is through self-understanding on the road travelled by means of autobiography.
(1) Henry Miller in “Confessions and Autobiography” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, editor, James Olney, Princeton, 1980, p.122.
(2) James Olney, “Some Versions of Memory/Some Versions of Bios: The Ontology of Autobiography”, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, editor, James Olney, Princeton UP, 1980, p.262.
(3) Quoted in The Stories We are: An Essay on Self-Creation, William Lowell Randall, University of Toronto, 1995, p.345.

Ron Price
17 January 1996
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