“A MESSAGE TO THE CHILDREN” A GUIDE TO WRITING YOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY.
For years I recommended to people that they should write their autobiography, not with any particular view to publication but for the benefit of their families and as an exercise to take stock of Life and attempt an answer to the question of what it was all about.
Most people struggle to write their autobiography. It isn’t the technique that defeats them; poor technique makes only the difference between a good book and a bad one, not whether a book gets written at all. No, what defeats people – including experienced writers – is the psychology of writing: the daunting prospect of filling the empty page. In part, this comes from the mistake of viewing autobiography from the same perspective as the composition of a novel. But Life doesn’t have a plot in the way of most novels and it rarely resolves itself neatly. Rather it’s just stuff that happens, and its length is determined by the whims of the Grim Reaper and not the usual conventions of dramatic narrative. This is an important difference because it’s in the nature of a novel that it is unsatisfactory for as long as it’s incomplete, and accordingly the task of writing a novel isn’t one of getting to the end of the first page; rather you confront a mountain of pages, rarely fewer than 300, before you can sit back and pour yourself a well-earned drink.
In contrast with the novel, there are shorter forms of writing: poetry, essays and short stories for example. In this case the 300 page task is replaced by one measured in single pages or at most a few dozen. You may collect your poems, essays and stories into a book, but this isn’t a requirement: each item is at a basic level complete and self-sufficient, and, if you were to drop dead after the first poem, you would still have a completed piece of work: a statement that would not be true of a few pages of a draft novel.
Ordinary people read novels but write poetry. This bare fact lays open the crucial role of psychology in writing. The more closely your biography resembles one of the short forms of composition, the more likely it is that you will undertake it and achieve a result you regard as worthwhile.
The essence of my approach to everyday autobiography is to reduce it to a series of small manageable pieces analogous to essays, complete in themselves but capable of being collected and shaped into something larger. A Message to the Children is a demonstration of this technique using my own life as source material. Each piece is supplemented by notes – amusing ones I hope – that explain some of the technical points.
I wrote this book in 2004 for the benefit of friends and family. Those who have read it – even people who don’t know me – seem to have enjoyed it. It was never intended as a money-making exercise and it occurred to me that this year  I should put it on my website for you to take out of it anything you find of value. Or to call me Bad Names if you prefer.
So here it is in this and subsequent blogs.