The Story Only You Can Tell

ISAAC REHERT

April 01, 1992|By ISAAC REHERT

I've just finished writing my autobiography, and I feel so elated I'm crowing. Not just because I'm proud of my achievement -- which I am -- but because the process has been so beneficial I want to recommend it to everybody.

Often, when I tell people -- in response to the question, ''What have you been doing lately?'' -- that I've been writing my autobiography, the first rejoinder is, ''Do you have a publisher?''

One of my oldest friends came back with, ''Who do you think you are, writing an autobiography? You're not a statesman or a movie star.''

Sometimes I try explaining. ''I didn't write it, necessarily, to be published.''

Or: ''Of course, I'm not a statesman or a movie star. But you don't have to be. An autobiography is just the story of a person's life, seen from the inside; and everybody has a life.'' But I don't know whether those responses register.

The truth is there are good reasons for every one of us to write an autobiography. It is a way of pulling the memories of one's life together. You look back and see how and where in your family you began; and you recollect how, early on, the twig was bent so that your life went off in its own direction, making you uniquely you.

I imagine that's what Robert Frost had in mind with those lines, ''Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- / I took the road less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.''

Something there is, in modern times, that drives us to look back to that fork in the road. Sometimes it's the pain of regret. Sometimes it's just the glow of nostalgia. Sometimes it's a never-subsiding itch to understand. When you look back, and you write about it, you come to terms.

Some people write autobiographies as records for coming generations of their family. While the children or grandchildren are growing up, marrying and establishing careers, they're not much interested in where they and their forebears came from. So there's not much use in trying to tell them. One day, more than likely, they will be interested, but by then it may be too late. So some people undertake to write a family history as a future legacy.

Some people want to write just a memoir -- to recall what their childhood was like, growing up during the Depression or during the war years with Daddy away in the service.

Some people want to describe for their grown children what they looked like to their parents when they were kids -- like filling in around snapshots in a family photo album.

Often retired people want to relive the highlights or the lessons of their careers.

But some people want to -- need to -- probe deeper. Usually these are people who have sailed through troubled waters, like Odysseus, and now that they've come through -- or often while they're still in trouble, still not sure they'll come through -- they need to describe how they got into trouble and what the trouble was like and how they've struggled and changed in this quest to reach the other side.

These people need to write autobiography. That takes more courage. It's like stripping yourself naked before a mirror and then examining what you look like without your covering of clothes.

''But isn't it like psychoanalysis?'' some people ask.

Yes it is, but writing it down as a story is different. There's no therapist facing you -- or sitting behind you if you're on the couch. It's just you and the blank sheet of paper (or the computer screen, if you're into the electronic age).

With the therapist you're apt to fall into using jargon -- buzz words, summarizing shorthand phrases -- that you and he understand but that may remain a blank to somebody else. When you write it down you can be deliberate and avoid language like that.

And when you write it down you solidify cloudy images and thoughts so you can go back and experience them again. ''Is that what I meant to say?''

With your therapist, at the stiff prices you're paying, you may be satisfied with approximation. But gazing at the words in cold black print, mouthing them, reading them aloud to yourself -- just you there, and your conscience, you can say, ''No, that's not exactly what I meant.'' And you can go back and edit and revise.

''And is it really cathartic?'' people ask.

Yes, it is. Not only do you dredge up those repressed experiences that have been running your life, but having written them down, you store them away, separate from where you are now. Then when you're at work, or playing with your friends, they're no longer with you; they're back there on your desk, or in the computer.

Whatever my own reasons were for beginning my autobiography, I've now completed a draft -- and a pretty hefty draft it is -- and I'm crowing.

''But do you have a publisher?''

I'm not sure I want one. Now that I've had the courage to put my life down, I'm not sure I'm courageous enough to go public with it.

Isaac Rehert is a retired feature writer for The Sun. He is currently teaching a course in writing autobiography at the Johns Hopkins University.

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