A Reckoning with Autobiography: Reclaiming the “I” in our Writing.
The corner of Michelle Obama’s Becoming pokes out of my charcoal suede book-bag, collapsed on the wooden bench of a downtown cafe. It’s not quite 11 a.m. and sweat is forming on my upper lip like dew on a morning leaf. A fan laboriously circulates the hot air so that a wisp of hair stays plastered to my cheek.
I’ve come to write, inspired by the latest chapter in Obama’s autobiography. She’s just shared how she met Barack; how, at age twenty-five, her geometric philosophy of “checking boxes” and rising above the struggles of her community has collided, beautifully, with Barack’s more lawless philanthropic genius and his desire to lift up the people around him, no matter how long it takes. She shares the details of how their friendship, planted at a law firm in Chicago, bloomed on a hot curb outside a Baskin Robbins with their first kiss—“Can I kiss you?”
The story is vivid, moving, worth telling. But, when I reach for its oil-stained, sleeveless spine that morning to dip from the well of inspiration before inking my white document, my brain shakes its head— “It’s not literature.” Waiting in line behind that warning is the other suspicion: If this woman hadn’t been the First Lady, would she have even written this? Would I even be reading this? If the world weren’t poised to listen, do women like Michelle feel the artist’s passion move their fingers across the keyboard until the patterns of their own becoming are laid bare? If we aren’t told (in one way or another) “people want to know your journey” do we do all it takes to sketch the map of its territory, decoding and perhaps discovering for the very first time its key of sacred symbols?
Unless you’re already in the spotlight—and even then, still—there’s a fine-print written at the bottom of your document that mandates you make excuses for yourself. A small, usually male, voice projects Oz-like threats; he cautions the blogger to cover up her “I” with leaves until her naked truth is camouflaged among the flora and fauna of a shared experience. He demands that the journalist decorate the mundane in peacock feathers until it’s just another costume in parade, animal on exhibit. The novelist sends her “I” on a fictional spaceship out into the universe until the language of home is traded in for an alien index. The poet breaks the vast and sprawling forest of your life into stanza-sized plant-boxes, where the personal is but a seed you planted long ago into the soil of a faceless garden, booming with rhymes, blooming with petals of poetic device for readers to pluck and gather for their own fantasies. You offer the world something they can arrange into their own bouquet-- the offshoots of an author's dreams, un-dirtied by their roots.
Michelle Obama didn’t craft costumes out of the bare bones of her life, nor did she prune elaborate gardens out of the seeds of her experience. She wasn’t asked to convert raw data into art. She was given permission—granted by the world and by herself—to say I am, to expose the true journey of her becoming as it was, as it is. I envy this type of work. Michelle is one of many eloquent, bright women who should feel the right to tell her story, direct and undecorated. But, the reason I dove into writing this, rather than reading Becoming this morning was that I can’t tell how close or far apart our projects are: her accomplishment was telling her life story, fortified in the first person, to an eager public. My project feels like finding a story worth telling in the private library of my life. Which one do I aspire to? Do I stop writing now, go live a noble & notable life, and then tell it to you straight when I’m in my fifties?
No. The pressure to cook the raw material of my extraordinarily ordinary life at high creative-heat until a multilayered cake with poetic piping comes out is one of the greatest challenges & joys of life. I couldn’t be satisfied without it. But, this pressure is also the problem, my problem, because it is why many of our experiences stay in the dark of the kitchen cabinet, un-alchemized ingredients, or on the counter half-baked, a shapeless, in-consumable goo.
The internal wariness I have towards autobiographies is how they, in this way, also lay bare the sheer number of stories that are left untold—the lot of us who don’t sit to write down our lives, believing they aren’t worth reading, having been told they aren’t worth telling.
But I want to learn from her. Instead of holding suspect the person who writes about her own life, assuming that this “can’t be literature,” I want to use it as a way to build faith in the garden of my own backyard, the library of my own memory. I want to see it as further proof that the literature I’m after is made of lives, not something we force upon or out of it.
At the end of the day, I believe that all great writing, and all waves of inspiration powerful enough to get us to write great stuff, are made of the stuff of autobiography. It’s the “I” behind the imagination that makes the bestseller charts. It’s the “me” behind the curtain of characters that gives a story its soul and convincing force. Behind every figure a poem or piece of fiction makes, is a shadow of a self who simply wants to walk out into the light.
Reading a little of Becoming each day of my own writing journey is slowly convincing me that the “insignificance” of the self is the most fictional story of all. The desire to remember and retell our lives is a natural and necessary impulse.
Just as a soul wants to be embodied, every life wants to be articulated. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. No embarrassing illusion of self-importance to mask or make excuses for. Would you be embarrassed to share your findings after years of field research? No. In fact, it would be irresponsible to withhold them from your team of fellow researchers. In the same way, I think it would be wise and immensely helpful if we all exposed what we’ve found of this living experiment, with a dose of detachment and curiosity. Taking our lives seriously enough to write it down is a form of taking responsibility for that life; self-writing is an expression of becoming the author of our experience, of living our lives instead of letting life live us.
The more data we can share of our personal lives, the more educated we will be where it counts: in the field of everyday living, in the constant obstacle course of moment-to-moment decision making and meaning-making. And like Hellen Keller given her first sign, it’s not until we offer our life this language, that we discover all it has to say.
The sweat that began beading on my upper lip, by now, gives my entire concentration-lined face a summer glow. My forearms smack against the silver lip of my keyboard like a dry tongue. I am punching away on the plane of the meta, writing about writing about writing, stuck there like my thighs are to the wooden bench beneath me. Soon, I’ll get up and walk outside, go next door to the boutique where my friend works, where I can clothe myself in cute rompers instead of words. Then I’ll sit outside in the shade, still unbearably hot, after all the people I’ve tried to call have sent me to voicemail, and sit alone with my thoughts. Crouched on the curb, I look down at my thighs, the right marginally larger than the left—a fact of my body that used to torture me. I give into this, and with it, the heat of the day. I surrender to the energy of life beating down on me. It dawns on me that there’s only so many hours left before the night. I turn to my right as if to tell someone something important. As if I’ve finally decided I want to be more than just friends. Except, instead of lips are words. And instead of someone else, I lean into my own life—Can I kiss you? We go back inside. We write.