Wednesday, 2 December 2015


If writing an autobiography is 'a journey' then this post is an entry-level Satnav. I really loathe the term, it's over-used to the point of metaphor-fatigue, and from the mouths of Breakfast show guests, plugging some new CD, tends to suggest some mystical passage through a multi-coloured fantasy land of exotic plants, fabulous fruit trees and huge but friendly animals like lobotomised dinosaurs who pick the high fruit and give it to you from their gummy toothless mouths. A little OTT but you catch my drift. It's always said with a slightly faraway look in the eyes and a kind of profound knowing nod. Was the process always such unalloyed delight, or was the journey sometimes more like being stuck opposite IKEA in the Friday night rush hour on the North Circular? I think we know the answer.

Sometimes people make it a philosophical journey, often of self discovery, as the person treks through contemplation to insight and self awareness. Sometimes you have a little inkling that cannabis has had a small role.  Almost always the person feels bound to communicate their  newfound wisdom to whoever will listen, or doesn't have any option. I'm sure Peter Andre is a very nice person, but would you necessarily want to use his spiritual journey from Katie Price to Strictly Come Dancing as a guide for you own conduct?

Autobiography is a journey but one which is not directly from A to B. The B roads are very often more interesting than the main signposted routes, leading to territory which feels strange but then familiar as an image of the infant school playground drifts into your mind, the elderly babysitter or the first family car (and you are shocked to find that you remember not only its make and model, but its registration number: FON 700 - and that the family opposite had FON 699... and on, and on).  So the real journey of autobiography is not pre-ordained and linear, it is like a controlled explosion in slow motion, where things go off in every direction but also return to you on rewind, each with a bunch of new memories that have been tripped off. In retrospect you can see the paths you have followed, but at the time it is a spontaneous stream of consciousness. Alan Bennett once said that being a writer was like being a radio operator, sitting at your desk waiting for a message to come through. He cannot have meant writing autobiography, where the messages come through thick and fast, and the problem is to jot them down before they disappear again.

In emphasising the spontaneity and excitement of the process it is easy to forget the constraints you will work under as well: writing is a highly disciplined business, though perhaps I'm not the best person to be making the point. Aside from that there are issues to be resolved and decisions to be made, peculiar to your book, which will affect its shape, its professionalism, its readability, and maybe its sales. Here are a few of them:

I have made the point earlier that autobiography doesn't have a plot, something which drives novels and maintains the readers' interest. Don't be too wordy (trust me). Err on the conservative side as regards overall length. FESS was considerably more digestible for the cull of 30% of the wordage. 

Of course it is a serious work and you may deal with many serious issues. However that does not mean that it has to be done in a solemn manner, which will probably be puffed up and a bit pompous if you are not careful. Humour is permissible. My friend and mentor, Henri Tajfel, days away from dying of pancreatic cancer, asked his wife to buy him some toothpaste. "Just a small tube!" he added.
Most of us could not manage that wit in those circumstances, but the point is a good one: a light touch throughout is appreciated by the reader.

Your book is not supposed to be stand-up material. On the other hand, everyone likes to smirk, smile, titter, giggle or LOL.  Humour on the page is different from humour at Live at the Apollo. The principal difference is that the reader doesn't always know when s/he is supposed to laugh, whereas the audience at the gig is nudged by everybody else's response. Very subtle comic references or very heavy irony may escape the reader so it's wise to avoid them - or somehow flag them up. One thing which surprised me was that physical humour works quite well in print, perhaps because it's easier to visualise than more cerebral humour. In FESS despite all my attempts at verbal humour, word-play, double-entendres and puns, by far the most LOL-like reactions have from come the single instance of (literally) toilet humour (see FESS #60 A piece of my heart p.188)

OK, so you have got a reader: how do you keep them interested enough to read the whole book? Interest value is the supreme goal, and no-one can tell you how to make your life-story compellingly interesting without knowing the detail. But there are ways of making it incremental to maintain the reader's attention. Try to make sure that there is something on every page which is funny , fascinating, dramatic, graphic, cute, arresting, shocking, sad, embarrassing, anything at all which grabs the reader by the emotions, or the brain or the funny-bone, in that he or she says aha, haha, wow, lol or if you insist, OMG. This is easier to say than to practise and you won't hit the target every time, but it is worth trying to do.

Who you include in your autobiography is up to you: in a lifetime you have a lot of people to choose from. Your choice and how you portray them will be unique, and a result of your relationship with them, which is different from everybody else's, sometime radically so.  At worst it's a no-win situation: some people will be offended that you didn't include them; others will be offended that you did, because of how you depicted them. One response would be to say 'deal with it, I can write what I like about who I like (or don't like)', and accept that all autobiographers and biographers have this dilemma. However this doesn't quite cut it when confronted by an angry friend. Remember that the negative tends to have somewhat more impact and staying-power than the positive. The flip jibe in conversation takes on a very different aspect in print. You may well be held to account for these things long after publication: people have long memories for slights. On the positive side, autobiography gives a wonderful platform for the public appreciation of the great figures in your life, a premature eulogy, with the great advantage that the person concerned could hear how much you have loved and appreciated them.

There are  two chapters in FESS which are potentially libellous.
I agonised for months about whether they should go in. To not
include them for fear of legal action seemed craven and wrong.
But these things can ruin you financially and I had already
experienced that once in my life through divorce. In the end
I decided to put them in: I could always write a book about my
experiences in prison. The acid test was 'were they utterly true?'
to which the answer was 'yes'. However, true and provable may
be different matters. What tipped the balance was the conviction that there had been wrongdoing and injustice; that this had caused me distress and disadvantage and it should not be allowed to pass unnoticed. A rap over the knuckles should be the very minimum sentence. So 'Publish and be damned', but realise that you could be.