Saturday, April 3, 2010


Many would agree with Sam Goldwyn, who thought that no-one should write their autobiography until they were dead. However new writers, searching anxiously for something to write about, have a subject always accessible - themselves. Early in the course - when people ask where to get ideas from as they always do - I suggest that they might like to start on their autobiographies. The Poet looks worried and says that she hasn't done anything to write about. The Farmer is scornful: "Who would read it?" he bellows. The Charmer declares that biographies are only about important people. I disagree. Some great biographies have been about ordinary people.

However, an autobiography is not necessarily for public consumption. It can be a private indulgence, a way of loosening up, sorting out who we are, what we think, and how we became who we are. And - my trump card - what about your descendants, I ask. They would be enchanted to find your life story tucked away in your desk drawer after you've gone. That goes down well with the Genealogist, who is almost certainly beavering away on family history research, while Mr Hong Kong wakes up for a moment when his wife nods too briskly in agreement.
It takes a certain kind of self-indulgence to write about yourself, to believe that you might be an interesting person who has a right to an opinion, a person who has a life, who has done things, been places, learned a few things along the way. Suggesting that people use their lives and experiences as material is perfectly valid, because that is what writers do all the time. They observe, listen, store up information, use their imaginations, ask questions. They gather facts and ideas, order them, think about them, apply them. And the one subject that we all know everything about is ourselves. You never run out of material and you can't complain that you have nothing to write about.

Last time I had suggested to the class that they go home and write about themselves from the point of view of another person or thing. Doing this serves two purposes: it is first a basic lesson on using and controlling the narrative voice, and second it allows people to see themselves as interesting subjects without being self-conscious about it. When we meet again, about half had done the exercise and half had not - that's about par for the course. Those who had, reported that they had found it difficult to distance themselves from themselves, that the exercise was somehow unnerving. In the event, cats, dogs and a budgie had written about their owners, as had telephones, a mirror and a check-out chick. This last was a surprise and showed imagination on the part of the Letter-Writer who comes across as a woman with a healthy, self-deprecating sense of humour. (Letter-writing is an excellent way to flex the writing muscles in a free-form and unthreatening way.) The check-out chick as the narrator was clearly a bored girl rapidly losing patience with the fumbling, indecisive customer holding up the line, and the Letter-Writer has amused herself, and us, by poking fun at herself in the role of the customer.

Several other pieces are read aloud to hoots and chuckles. That first exercise - I never call it homework after one woman complained that it made her think of school - is usually safe enough for people to read aloud if they are brave enough to do so. (Later, I usually found it prudent to read the offerings first, for a variety of reasons.) It is an effective ice-breaker and gives people confidence to expose their work in a safe environment. It doesn't hurt to allow a measure of theatre in a class, and the person standing at the front pontificating is not the only one with a contribution to make. Comments from the class are usually generous, and the exercise is, as they always are, designed to illustrate a technique or press home a point. The class is warming up nicely and beginning to relax.

The painting is a triptych called "Impatiens"

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