Friday, February 13, 2015

Advice for Autobiography Writers from the Pen of Mark Twain

In 2011 I found myself thoroughly entertained by The Autobiography of Mark Twain (Volume One), an audiobook narrated by Grover Gardner. This past week I discovered Volume Two of Twain's autobiography and am proceeding through its many discs as I commute to and fro from the office. Gardner is an award-winning audiobook narrator, and Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) is one of the great figures to have appeared on the American literary scene, so it's a good marriage and a more than satisfying diversion.

In Volume Two Twain devotes quite a bit of ink to his older brother Orion (ore-ee-on), firstborn of the seven Clemens children, only three of whom attained adulthood. Orion was the first and only Secretary of the Nevada Territory, his highest achievement after which he attempted and failed at a variety of other endeavors, ultimately being supported by his brother.

As backstory I should note that when Mark Twain wrote his autobiography he actually dictated it. Also, he insisted that it not be published till 100 years after his death so that he could be absolutely honest with hurting anyone's feelings. Many of the stories about Orion are less than flattering, but his brother was long gone by the time the 21st century rolled around. Twain himself passed away in 1910, allowing this work to finally be released to the public.

What follows is some advice he gave to his brother with regards to writing an autobiography.

About 25 years ago, along there somewhere, I suggested to Orion that he write an autobiography. I asked him to try to write the straight truth in it, that he refrain from exhibiting himself in creditable attitudes exclusively and to honorably set down all the incidents of his life which he had found interesting to him, including those which were burned into his memory because he was ashamed of them.

I said that this had never been done, that if he could do it his autobiography would be a most valuable piece of literature. I said I was offering a job which i could not duplicate in my own case but I would cherish the hope that he might succeed with it. I recognize now that I was trying to saddle upon him an impossibility. I have been dictating this autobiography of mine daily for three months. I have thought of fifteen-hundred or two thousand incidents in my life of which I am ashamed of, but I have not gotten one of them to consent to go on paper yet. I think that that stock will still be complete and unimpaired when I finish these memoirs, if I ever finish them. I believe that if I should put in all or any of those incidents I would be sure to strike them out when I came to revise this book.

Orion wrote his autobiography and sent to me, but great was my disappointment, and vexation, too. In it he was constantly making a hero of himself exactly as I should have done and am doing now. And he was constantly forgetting to put in the episodes which placed him in an unheroic light.

I knew several incidents of his life which were distinctly and painfully unheroic, but when I came across them in his autobiography they had changed color. They had turned themselves inside out and were things to be intemperately proud of. In my dissatisfaction I destroyed a considerable part of that autobiography...

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A few reminders about Friday happenings in the Northland.

There's an art opening and reception for Scott Murphy at The Red Herring tonight from 6:00-9:00 p.m. The exhibition will feature works both new and older. If you can't make it to the opening you'll want to go out of your way to catch Murphy's paintings some evening after work.

Love Your Local Artist takes place at the Superior Public Library beginning at 5:30 p.m. A great "first stop" after work, unless you wish to run home and change into your evening attire first. This is the fifth year for this event.


Ellen Sandbeck's Bravissimo Kickstarter Party is from 4:00 - 8:00 p.m. at 2532 East Fourth Street, Duluth.

Opening reception for Ryan Tischer's new photography show, Beyond Light, will be from 6:00-9:00 at the Washington Gallery.

Open Mic Poetry at Pineapple Arts from 7:00-9:00 p.m.

For music, you can catch the Jane Gang at the Keyport (Voted #1 by the Reader readers) at 5:00 p.m. tonight, and the Fractals at 8:00 at the Clyde. For info on other bands, find a Transistor and/or Reader.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it.

1 comment:

Jenny Hunt said...

As a professional biographer and memoir writer, I write biographies and memoirs that tell a person's story, in his own words, and in context. A biography or autobiography is the legacy we leave to the world in a book. writing a bio about yourself