When writing about one’s life, the urge is to move chronologically, plodding from one place to the next, adding layers of experience and wisdom: and then, and then, and then, conveyed by the hope that somehow, if I put it all in order, it will add up to something more. Like the drawing that shows the stages of man’s evolution from the twisted hairy thing on the left to the attractive and big-brained character on the right that struts forward with excellent posture, wouldn’t it be nice and neat if we all got bigger and better along the way, if a simple path of progress could be traced?
When I try to plot my life it rings tinny and false, as stilted as a résumé, and it becomes apparent that my development is not linear: it’s cyclic, recursive, backward, messy, and redundant. Instead of one triumphal arch, my life looks more like a million inchworms writhing on the floor. Here’s the thing: People save up their entire lives to take a trip to Rome to admire the architecture but I’ve never heard anyone say that they hope they get to see worms someday.
Fellow blogger/writer Richard Gilbert says that “In memoir […] chronology is somewhat hostile to reflection. To say a memoir is chronological is to say, in effect, that it is driven by events; the person experiencing the events is, by definition, comparatively clueless. The tension between chronology and reflection accounts for why so many writers and critics are forever seeking a memoir that can escape the trap of chronology and ignorance and, instead, emphasize meaning (conveyed by a wiser, distanced narrator). And do this while preserving some sort of timeline. That is, to have a modicum of plot.” He also says that “bestselling memoirs tend to be plot-driven, while those who achieve the most literary respect tend to be reflective.”
It occurs to me that I could construct several different bestseller plots with the events my life:
Made-for-television plot: Girl with father issues poses for Playboy then uses the money to attend UC Berkeley and Harvard then has an epiphany one day at a café while sipping tea and watching a homeless woman apply makeup on the sidewalk outside. For her happy ending, she goes to work at a bookstore.
Woman vs. Nature: Unpublished writer and stay-at-home mom who feels overlooked and cut off from the world befriends a skittish, leery group of neighborhood crows and through their friendship learns about love, trust, and her own nature.
Wretched Excess & Quest For Answers With Final Ascension: Girl reads Zap comix and starts smoking cigarettes at 8, Siddhartha and pot at 10, The Fountainhead and booze at 13, cocaine and fashion magazines at 16, hallucinogens at 17, MDMA at 18, reads Toni Morrison and Philip K Dick and develops a Cindy Sherman obsession and it’s a fast forward high-speed party until one day, she takes a sip of tea, pauses at her bookshelf, and feels suddenly sated. The story ends with her standing in front of a high school English class wearing jeans, a blazer, and a pair of reading glasses, reading aloud from A Clockwork Orange to a group of rapt teenagers.
Cliché Love Story: Straight-laced nice-boy hooks up with grungy, bookish tramp for hijinks and unlikely romance played out in a road trip from San Francisco, CA to Boston, MA.
Tragedy: Writer writes joyfully, constantly, without pay until she has to get a full time job at a bookstore and has no time to write anymore. The irony kills her.
Comedy: Same as above but add a goofy husband, wise-cracking kids, a lot of jokes, and an uncanny knack for selling other people’s books.
It seems to me, the riskiest thing about autobiography is that one might start to believe one’s own story.
It also seems unlikely that I will ever write a bestseller. Blame it on brain damage or myopia or pretentious taste but for whatever reason, my mind just doesn’t move that way. Gilbert says, “We live our lives chronologically, of course, so it’s an easy structure for readers to grasp. But human memory doesn’t work that way—it’s a jumble from which images arise—and neither does our understanding.” My body moves chronologically but my mind does not. And so, to tell my body’s story, it feels right to let form follow function.
If you wrote a memoir, what would it look like?