I recently finished reading a biography of one of my favorite authors. Just days before I had read the same writer’s autobiography. That’s what I usually do. I read the memoirs, the life story written by the author, and then move on to read the same life story written by another writer, basically an outsider. When I put the book down I realized that I had learned more about this author’s life from the biographer than the writer had allowed me to do by his own account. With the author’s permission the biographer had written about incidents and times in the author’s life that were missing from the autobiography. And I thought, do I agree with Anne Michaels;
“Never trust biographies. Too many events in a man’s life are invisible. Unknown to others as our dreams.”
Or do I side with Charlotte Brontë;
“The human heart has hidden treasures, In secret kept, in silence sealed; The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures, whose charms were broken if revealed.”
Writing about one’s own life is hard, let alone another’s. If I were to sit down and write about my past, there are certain things, emotions, or phases in my life that I would not want the world to know about. I myself have suppressed those memories, because at some point in my life they were too painful to deal with. Like my memories of the civil war, even though it changed the course of my life. And as Margaret Atwood once said;
“The trick about integrating your past of course is that you have to forget it first.”
It is not easy to remember everything that happened in one’s life, let alone write about it. I wonder if it is easier to talk about the past than to write about it. I wonder if there were any incidents in the writer’s life that were deliberately omitted protecting family members and friends or loved ones. Were all thoughts and emotions included without prejudice? If not, how did the author prioritize?
There is no story more fascinating than a person’s life. Once we idolize someone, we want to know more about that person, whether a writer, a star, celebrity, media mogul, or sad to say even an offender, a serial killer, a conman, or a dictator.
“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
But every time I put down a biographical book or writing, I have this feeling of something missing. This sense of how little I know of what there is to know. And I always end up wishing I could find more about my subject. But what I wish for most after reading an autobiography doesn’t happen much:
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” J.D. Salinger