I started writing my autobiography around my fortieth birthday. The idea first came in visual form—random words penciled on a large sheet of paper, circled up or enclosed by ellipses, linked by arrows, as for a board game or a map. Two more sheets were added on the sides, in a sort of triptych. In the center, I grouped episodes or encounters that had favorably impacted me, sowing seeds of happiness and realization. I listed them as they came, in a most chaotic fashion. The page on the left gathered things that had hurt or scarred me. The bunch on the right was vaguer—maybe a synthesis of the previous contrast, its linear conclusion. Hardships as well as joys make us who we are, do they? They combine in a unique product, the alchemy of an individual existence.
I started writing out my list in utter disorder, just as I had formulated it. Short chapters—my vocabulary was poor, therefore, my narration could only be essential, concise. For some reasons, I wanted to write in English—not my mother tongue. Being able to do it was itself a thrill, and each phrase I could form—no matter how plain—a pure joy.
I had begun during the final stage of my marriage, which I didn’t know was ending. I slowed down during my divorce and consequent turmoil. Then, I picked up pace, of all times, when I met my first post-divorce lover. One with whom I didn’t sleep. He didn’t like that kind of togetherness, as he didn’t like my small apartment. I went to his place in late afternoons. We had quiet and relaxed evenings, then good sex. A bit after midnight, I fled Cinderella style, only, in my case, the prince didn’t care for following down the stairs. On the contrary, he gladly snored on. I drove a long commute—serene, peaceful, contented yet definitely awake. When I arrived home, I wasn’t ready for bed. I dragged my laptop into the kitchen, and in a weird state of grace I delivered a chapter. Hour, hour and a half? Then, it was dawn. After nine months, my love affair was over and my memoir completed.
I made copies and sent them to a few people I trusted—friends, or courteous acquaintances. They read, then provided positive comments. Encouraged, I sent the manuscript to a publisher who perused it “with great interest” then confirmed (as he had said up front) he was booked for several years to come. His words put me at rest, as if that one exposure had sufficed. As if having met so polite a rejection equated being accepted, at least virtually. Instead of pursuing other possibilities I spent a decade reviewing, rearranging, filling up lacking areas, and painstakingly improving the language. Gradually, the book doubled in size—as it grew, more smoothing was needed to ensure consistency. I didn’t mind the work. On the contrary, I felt happy and at ease when I let myself into that circumscribed, coherent universe of mine.
Those were years of emotional and logistical instability. Moves and relocations occurred in rapid succession. Often, I had no place of my own. The book I was writing became my abode, my anchor, my shore. When I lacked a proper home—thus adequate room for bulky items—I avoided printed matter. I worked on a laptop that I always carried along.
Until, it was stolen. I hadn’t backed up my files—one of those good habits I’d resume, I thought, as soon as a “normal” life would be available. As soon I’d land somewhere definite, solid, quiet. Bad call. In times of unrest more caution is needed. When the laptop was taken, everything was gone.
First, I couldn’t believe it. I tried chasing down my computer by all sorts of means to no avail. I was struck with a sense of loss, a kind of physical impairment, as if suddenly missing a body part. Maybe a couple of fingers? Perhaps some sensitivity? Alas, the theft of the laptop belonged to a series of unfortunate events, some of them more serious. Soon enough, I understood that I should let go of my manuscript, and be at peace.
Later, settling down in a new home, opening boxes—having summoned up resilience and optimism—I wondered if I could find my first printed draft, dating of ten years before. Finding isn’t the right word. Gleaning would be more accurate. The copy no longer existed as a whole, but I never threw away a sheet of paper. I recycled them all, printing something else on their back—hopefully useful items I had kept. Month after month, I went through my possessions. Every page was there except for one—on which I finally gave up. Of course, what I reconstructed was outdated—a skeleton, a backbone, but still better than nothing. I could flesh it out, no matter how long it would take.
Before losing the laptop, as I felt the work neared the finish line—ready to be submitted once more—I became preoccupied about collateral damage: the exposure a memoir implies of other people. It would be just a few. Friends, acquaintances, colleagues, even lovers are hard to identify. No one has the entire list of those with whom we interact in life. Guesses can be denied. “Oh no, it wasn’t X. It was Y, whom you never met.” But memoir invariably penalizes those tied to the author by specific links: parents, children, siblings, or spouses. I had not mentioned them all. I had said nice things of most, yet I was aware some behavior I had described would be unfavorably judged. I didn’t intend to hurt anyone, casting shadows in public and permanent form. I asked myself if I should prune some passages, but I was reluctant—they contained pivotal truths, I believed. They were hinges and bolts to the narrative, and I feared pulling them would cause the whole to collapse.
Those truths—crystalline as for my perception, feeling, experience, and suffering—of course didn’t define individuals per se. Those behaviors adversely, even disastrously impacting me, weren’t necessarily meant to obtain such effect. The humanity of those involved encompassed more than their exchanges with me. It included, in each case, commendable aspects I had tried to highlight, but I knew my efforts wouldn’t be sufficient. The majority of readers identify with the narrator, loving what she loves, blaming what she blames in spite of all rational discourse. Therefore, I was torn, conflicted, and stuck.
As I looked for advice I found a lecture online—“Truth and Biography” 1—by a philosopher I knew and appreciated. It seemed tailored to my needs. I assiduously perused it, deeply pondering the author’s suggestions on how to produce honest narrative: stick to the facts; avoid sentimentality and pathos; do not reconstruct dialogues in your own terms; report events as they happened, not as you believe they’d sound credible or appealing.
I listed those remarks, wishing they’d relieve my scruples once I checked that I had thoroughly applied them. They did not. I had been honest at the best of my capacity. I hadn’t altered memory for ideological reasons, yet my very concern for authenticity was the culprit, urging me to unveil unpleasantness I could have left alone. In fact, moderate manipulation might have helped me brew something smoother, painless, and unproblematic. Only, as I said, I feared picking out thorns and spikes, lest my work lose identity, waste away, become nothing at all.
In the same period of time, I watched a movie I found both fascinating and scaring2. Two sisters reunited after a long estrangement, initiated by the tragic death of their mother, in unclear circumstances the movie slowly revealed. On the purpose of coping with past catastrophe, the older sister had left, gone to the big city, and became a professional writer. As she was ready to get her autobiography published, she believed her effort of reconstruction had helped her to overcome grief. She hoped to share such effect with her sibling, but things didn’t go as planned. The young sister opposed disclosure of a past she had struggled to bury, together with remorse and regret. She had painstakingly worked at denying and forgetting. She would not let graves be uncovered. The movie resolved with the younger sister prevailing. To reinstate their bond, to soothe, reassure and protect her, the older sibling chose to give up up her work. The last scene suggestively showed the manuscript being scattered into a lake. The story, as I said, captivated and repelled me.
Thus, had I found all the pages of my first draft? For some reason I was reluctant to recreate the one missing fragment. Superstitiously, I wanted to recover the original, but I had nowhere else to look. I resolved to write a new version based on what I recalled. It was a short episode, a vignette. I so enjoyed my remake that I decided to use it as self-standing prose. Carried by my momentum, I similarly worked other chapters, plucking them like scattered leaves. I brought them to readings, submitted them to magazines, and published quite a few. Initially, I didn’t feel disrespectful towards the book. I thought I was only reacquainting myself with the narrative, summoning the nerve required for reshaping it, and borrowing parts I’d duly put back. Slowly, it dawned on me that I was lying. The dismantling was real and meant to be permanent, though I hadn’t formulated my intention.
Then, I realized chunks of my memoir unintentionally popped up, in slightly altered form, in whatever else I was writing—essays, poems, fiction.
“Haven’t I already talked about this?” I suddenly wondered, pen in hand. Not in these terms. Mostly, I had written about this or that in a direct manner—now in a veiled one, equally satisfying. Done, then. The episode, meaning, memory, emotional constellation was dealt with—out of context, with a modest shift of perspective, from a safer distance than what memoir implies.
Perhaps my book needed to come apart. I had to rip its pages—neither drawn them, nor have someone steal them, though, wasn’t I presently doing it? Snipping off a bit at a time. Should I fold those single sheets into kites, send each one onto its lone trajectory? Then come back at a later time, see what was left, what still seemed necessary to say, what had been said already, or could be said otherwise. See how I had changed in the meanwhile, or things had. What could be forgotten, forgiven, dissolved.
1 Truth and Biography: Writing Romulus, My Father, by Raymond Gaita, National Biography Award Lecture at the State Library of New South Wales, youtube published on May 2, 2013
2 Pearl Diver, written and directed by Sidney King, 2004
Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician, and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Colorado Boulevard, Mothers Always Write, Scryptic, and Pidgeonholes.