Each summer, students who enter the MFA Program at USF are assigned to write a 40-page autobiographical manuscript. They receive this definition as a starting point:
AUTOBIOGRAPHY is a story about a narrator who is also the writer. The narrator examines an aspect of the past in order to discover some new meaning in the events or relationships of his/her life. As readers, we look forward to the pleasure of finding things out, whether they are about the character called "I" or about the ways that character's experience resonates with our own.
As you start to write your autobiography, you may think your life story will tell me who you are. But it never works this way. Naturally, your story will tell me something about you. But it will also show me something more perplexing and elusive.
When I first read your memoir, what I'm reading is a narrative, an account of unfolding events. These events are important, but they are also arbitrary in the same way that your personal history is, in many ways, an accident. Things happened to you, but you had no part in making them happen. You grew up in one place rather than the other; your parents treated you one way, not another; you looked and carried yourself a certain way, or you didn't. This information gives me context, but that's all; it doesn't capture you. Even if you give away your most guarded secrets, confidences that may shock or surprise me, they don't, of themselves, reveal. The more you disclose to me, the more questions I have. And these questions, in turn, make me recognize how far I am from knowing you.
Reading the narrative in your autobiography, I do become aware of defining episodes in your life. But it's not in the incidents you recount that the drama of your memoir takes hold; it's in your quest to understand the self at the center of the drama. Without this quest, a memoir lacks momentum and direction; it has no purposeful course because any autobiography, if it is to move beyond disclosure, has to pursue meaning. Wanting to comprehend is the force that drives the piece, as much for you the writer as for me the reader.
Precisely how do you approach the material of your life? This is the question that guides my reading. For as you strive to grasp your experience, the specificity of your story recedes from view and brings into focus something larger and more meaningful. I discover more about you in your search than in your story. And even here, my vantage point is limited: it is bounded by the construct of autobiography, by the form itself, which can never allow a single "I" to stand alone on the page.
When you write an autobiography, you put two selves on paper: the character in the narrative who acts and is acted upon, and the narrator who shapes the portrayal of that character. There you are as protagonist in your dramatized life; here you are as controlling narrator, making choices about how to depict that life, who to cast in it, and what to say about your protagonist. The genre demands a splitting off of the self; you try now to see yourself as you were then. Add to this the presence of another, third, "self" — the observing character at the time of the unfolding action — and that makes for three of you on the page.
In reading your memoir, I find multiple depictions of you. These figures are unified by their common desire to apprehend your experience, but they're also separated by their differing views of it. You're constructing meanings, and your character (your younger self) is constructing meanings. With these competing perspectives to negotiate, how could I possibly arrive at a fixed point of interpretation from which to gain definitive knowledge of you? Wouldn't it be presumptuous of me to think I could distill from these apparitions anything like an essential self? There's too much interference — from your narrator, your reflecting protagonist, your acting protagonist — for me to find any stable ground from which to pass judgment.
If the "truth" about you could be located anywhere, it would be lodged somewhere amid the secrets you unveil and the selves you inhabit. But it can't. For the real secret behind every autobiography is the enigma of identity itself. Though a memoir is based on self-disclosure, it leads to a recognition of the guises we wear, wittingly or not, in the roles we cannot help but occupy. To the extent that you are exposed in autobiography, you're perceptible to me not as a stationary self-portrait but as a moving image.
So there you have it. No matter how much or how little you disclose, how much or little you want to be known, there are too many versions of you on the page to make this possible. A thoughtful reader won't leave your manuscript with a privileged sense of who you are but rather a respect for the fleeting goal of all autobiographical writing.
So why do this kind of writing? Because it leads you to pursue truths with a relentless honesty you didn't know you had, or didn't think you'd employ. It bids you to take the tangle of daily experience and craft it into a work of literature. If your only reason to write autobiography is to confess, then you're bound to write narcissistically. But if you write to make artful sense of what's happened to you, your writing comes closer to the heart of something true. Closer to the heart, but never directly to it. Because the truth that emerges from autobiography is not the truth of events or our final assessment of them: it's the truth that the self is a composite of many selves; the story of a life, a narrative made up of half-recalled, half-imagined memories that change as time alters us.
Why read this kind of writing? Because I learn from your capacity to plumb the mystery of your self. And I'm moved by it. You've entered a profoundly private space and allowed me join you there so we might both discover how much of this space is communal. We all wrestle with the chaos of human experience, trying to make of our lives a meaningful narrative. We are each of us made up of multiple selves, our interpretations of our lives perpetually in flux. After reading your manuscript, I'll know enough to appreciate how elusive identity is, how complex our motives are, and how the past remains unknowable despite our best efforts to own it. It's a profoundly modern, even postmodern, experience that I'll have.
Secrets may be unveiled in your autobiography, and some lives may be exposed. But whatever you reveal, you'll still be a mystery to your reader. Give me a window into yourself and I'll also find a mirror there. In the end, what I'll see most clearly are the faces that are inseparable from individual personality — your narrator's, your character's, and my own. In reading and writing autobiography, it's not a matter of confession vs. mask: it's always about both.