When you get to a certain age, most writers will consider, at least momentarily, penning an autobiography. Often, aware the effort will invite charges of vanity, they will opt to call it a memoir. Whatever the label, the result is the same.
Writers are faced with the question—and they alone can answer it—as to whether or not there is any value in the preservation of notes about their life journey.
I would argue that there is a clear benefit, even when no one else will read it. Self-reflection, in and of itself, enriches one’s life. Even if it is painful, it can be therapeutic. And, since we’re still alive as we examine our past, time remains to rectify some of the mistakes we have made.
This very process of looking at our lives invites us to question our motives for recording these stories. And, if we’re considering merely to praise ourselves, it would be best to abstain.
On the other hand, it seems to me that many “normal” lives can validly serve as an inspiration to others. (I don’t presume my own effort would fit into this category.)
Here is the reason why I’m actually contemplating assembling some notes for a near-the-end-of-my-earthly-sojourn document. It just might be of interest to some of my descendants. I have often wished to have just such a jewel written by my own ancestors.
Putting myself in the place of my great-grandchildren, etc., I suspect some of them and their own grandchildren might be curious about an ancient progenitor. In fact, the more such records, the fuller the picture they stand to gain of their lineage.
The key, I think, to writing a worthwhile memoir is honesty. If we share our challenges and failures, the volume will not only be more interesting, if may offer our descendants encouragement in their own struggles.
As a man vulnerable to the sin of pride, I’m cautious about proceeding. I pulled this disarming contrast from a book review written several years ago by theologian Carl Trueman.
Autobiographies are typically opportunities for the display of ego and the rationalizing of error. They have been so at least since Julius Caesar’s military memoirs. In our day, it is not just politicians and military leaders who indulge in this.
One thinks of the memoirs of Hans Küng: names dropped on every page, always with the purpose of reminding the reader how important—and how correct—Küng has been over the years on every significant issue and how unfairly he has been treated by his mediocre opponents.
Autobiography need not be so, as this volume [A Change of Heart] by Thomas Oden shows. Though Oden seems to have known everyone who was anyone in the theological world of the last sixty years, from Barth and Niebuhr to Dulles, Ratzinger, and Wojtjyla, there is no sense of ego. Names are regularly dropped but no self is ever promoted. Oden is a humble, fascinating, and important man blissfully unaware of the fact.
I’ve had the good fortune to meet several people during my life whose names would be familiar to you. But, God be merciful, I prefer to be an Oden rather than a Küng.
C.S. Lewis was a man like the former, “humble, fascinating and important.” Yet, despite the accolades he received from some quarters, he remained blissfully unaware of the fact that God would continue using his words to inspire others so many decades after he joined his Lord in Paradise.
A Worthy Exemplar
Lewis resisted writing about himself. Not out of a false modesty, but due to a desire to maintain personal privacy and a genuine sense that his life was neither particularly inspirational nor unique. Nevertheless, if it were possible that sharing about his life could help others, he was willing to do so.
His works are sprinkled with autobiographical commentary. His vast correspondence also provides great insight into his life. In 1955, he wrote a traditional autobiography, primarily to explain his conversion.
He entitled it Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. As he begins in the Preface:
This book is written partly in answer to requests that I would tell how I passed from Atheism to Christianity and partly to correct one or two false notions that seem to have got about.
He describes his approach, noting how it differs from what readers might expect.
The book aims at telling the story of my conversion and is not a general autobiography, still less “Confessions” like those of St. Augustine or Rousseau.
This means in practice that it gets less like a general autobiography as it goes on. In the earlier chapters the net has to be spread pretty wide in order that, when the explicitly spiritual crisis arrives, the reader may understand what sort of person my childhood and adolescence had made me.
When the “build-up” is complete, I confine myself strictly to business and omit everything (however important by ordinary biographical standards) which seems, at that stage, irrelevant.
I do not think there is much loss; I never read an autobiography in which the parts devoted to the earlier years were not far the most interesting. The story is, I fear, suffocatingly subjective; the kind of thing I have never written before and shall probably never write again.
I have tried so to write the first chapter that those who can’t bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time.
A Naked Autobiography
As fascinating as Surprised by Joy is, there exists another volume in which the mature Lewis bared his soul as have few others. When he lost his wife, Lewis experienced a profound sorrow that he described in A Grief Observed. So vulnerable was his writing, that Lewis published it under a pseudonym.
In 1988, Madeleine L’Engle penned a Foreword to the book, which now appears under Lewis’ own name.
In the end, what shines through the last pages of his journal of grief is an affirmation of love, his love for Joy and hers for him, and that love is in the context of God’s love.
No easy or sentimental comforts are offered, but the ultimate purpose of God’s love for all of us human creatures is love.
Reading A Grief Observed is to share not only in C. S. Lewis’s grief but in his understanding of love, and that is richness indeed.
Lewis was an exceptional writer, but I daresay that his life was little more amazing than your own. Certainly, Lewis’ life was no more precious to God than yours is.
I encourage you to consider writing (at the appropriate moment) your own memoir. This is particularly important if you have family who may be interested. But even if you don’t, consider writing.
Just remember to follow Lewis’ example and try “to write the first chapter that those who can’t bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time.”
10 thoughts on “Autobiographical Temptations”
Agreed. I have actually been starting to write a little bit about my life here and there.
Good for you. Your family–and, potentially, others–will be glad that you are.
Interesting. I too wrote a memoir as my first book in retirement, even though I prefer reading fiction, historical and science. I have a blog article called “Who reads memoirs?” that addressed that self-reflection aspect. To be truthful, I wrote my book as a series of short stories, some as third-person, with just clips of memoir-like author narration – I wanted to enjoy reading it too! ;)
Great. Writing something that we ourselves would like to read is a good standard for a memoir. I think that I would approach the task in a similar way, writing about the more interesting events as sort of individual stories and then linking them with a chronological narrative.
Heading over to check out that article you wrote about the audience for memoirs.
That is a great idea to write your story for your family. I think it is a great idea to leave behind history and the lessons we learn from them. I also think, sadly, of those left behind in the End Times. It might be that the lights click on and they might take time to hear us through story form.
True. Our personal life lessons and faith can inspire many. I would love to know about the faith, trials and victories of my own forebears. I think that witnessing the writing can even inspire your contemporary family to be more introspective.
It’s a sad life where people do not give any thought to what their personal legacy will be.
Really interesting. I have written something about some my past, but in the third person, as a short story
Interesting. Some people find it easier to share about themselves that way. In fact, don’t we commonly wonder about how many “personal experiences” writers of fiction include in their stories?
I would be tempted to approach things this way if elements of what I was sharing would be embarrassing to “innocents.”
True. Thank you for your kind reply
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