Tag Archives: autobiography

Death by autobiography

Most of us are in a constant process of turning life into stories. In trying to make sense of experiences, we attach meanings, and sometimes impose narrative shapes on our lives. This can be really helpful, bringing coherence, a sense of direction and an understanding of who we are and what we’re all about. Sometimes those stories can be hard to carry.

I have a story about my body. It’s an old story, and I know how I got it, although that hasn’t made it go away. I’ve tested it on the man I’m married to, who finds it silly and clearly doesn’t fit with it, and still it doesn’t go away. Once allowed to take root, autobiographical stories can be pernicious things and bloody difficult to weed out.

The story goes like this: My body is hideous and repellent. It is therefore reasonable to assume that people will respond with anything from dismay to full on horror in any situation where they have to deal with my body. I am painfully self conscious about swimming, and I wear guys trunks and a top these days because of the horror of my midriff to upper thigh region. I struggle with photographs. Some days, just being looked at makes me uneasy. I expect to be judged, and found wanting. I’m passably symmetrical with no extra appendages, and there is no simple physical aspect I can point at to explain why I expect my body to be an affront. There are stories feeding on stories here.

One of the consequences of this is that I find it very difficult to seek affection. Imposing my body on someone else feels like an invasion. I tend to be very passive. It doesn’t help that in recent years I’ve developed alongside this a lot of anxiety issues around feeling safe being touched.

Making physical contact with another person is a profoundly affirming action. It’s a very tangible expression of acceptance, and of finding the other person good enough. I lug my weighty autobiographical story into every situation of exchange, wearing it on my back like a shell. If someone compliments me, I wonder if they are actually teasing me and I’m being slow to get the joke. I was teased a lot about my appearance as a child. I grew up with members of my own family calling me ‘funny looking’ so that story comes along for the ride, too. The boyfriend who was embarrassed by my tattoos, the ex who told me I had no idea how to move like a woman… stories upon stories.

Not only do we carry stories about with us, but we help other people create theirs. Small, throwaway comments, made carelessly or from casual spite can turn into another person’s reality. When I look into a mirror (which I don’t do any more often than I have to) all I see are the stories, and none of those have ever been pretty.

A life made of stories

All autobiography is to some degree a construct. As soon as you start talking about your ‘real’ life there’s a process of editing, and as with all kinds of history-making, more is bound to be left out, than mentioned. I’m very conscious of this when blogging, because I write from my own life a lot. I pick which points to dwell on. I decide which experiences are important or interesting enough to seem worth sharing. Consequently my life probably comes across as a lot more engaging than it is. But then, much of the life of an author involves sitting down and churning out words, and that bit is no kind of spectator sport! All normal human life is full of dull but necessary bits, and unless the laundry is your art-form or you’re really into cleaning, it’s not easy to talk about that in engaging ways.

We all tell stories about our lives, whether we consider ourselves to be ‘storytellers’ or not. We tales of who we are and where we came from. Those tales can root us in land, culture, family, community and faith. Such stories can be powerful, grounding forces in our lives that underpin identity, sense of purpose, sense of self. We tell stories that explain things. These can be helpful. I’m claustrophobic because I had a bad experience in the London underground. I don’t have to feel ridiculous or irrational, I have an explanation. However, if my story is that I can never make friends because I was bullied at school, or no one will love me because I am fat, that story can become a toxic thing that prevents me from taking the risks needed in order to move on. If my story is that it is never my fault and people are so unreasonable wanting me to behave decently, then I’m going to be fairly psychotic.

The stories I tell are constructs. They are true stories, but just by making a selection, I change the effect. Most often what I do aside from missing out the boring bits, is remove from the story those people along the way who I haven’t much liked. They become vague allusions, unnamed, ill-defined. It is a power that I know causes offence because I’ve had some very specific feedback, from one of the few people I don’t talk about in detail. People only like me, she said, because I am so selective in the stories I tell, I construct a falsely good impression of myself. If you really knew me, you’d hate me as much as she did, she felt.

I think she was missing the point. I don’t write this purely in order to be liked. I write to be useful. I’m guessing most of you do not read this because you are interested in my life, per se, more because you are interested in what light stories from my life might shed on your stories from your life. That’s a good deal more useful all round. Used that way, it doesn’t matter how factually ‘true’ a story is, only how useful it is. My stories are limited by being from my perspective, but other perspectives are available and a few of those cast me as villainous, selfish, demanding and unpleasant. I don’t expect to be able to keep everyone happy.

What I have for you today is a story. It is a true story, except that I missed out the boring bits, and I pared the cast down to a few interesting figures. A lot else happened during the time frame I’m talking about, but for the sake of coherence, I left those bits out too. This is a story about spiderwebs and the tenuous strings of connection that hold my life together. https://soundcloud.com/cradle2gravestories/nimue-spiderwebs-allow
It’s hosted by cradel2grave stories, who make a habit of this thing – people telling tales from their lives. It’s a really interesting project, so do have a poke around!