14 Apr 2013

Autobiography: We All Have Stories Of Ourselves, But How True Are They?

Even if you've never written your autobiography, you still have a life story. All of us do. If you take time to listen to other people's tales you'll hear some hair-raising tales, as well as stories that are just plain bizarre. As children we're told not to talk to strangers. As an adult there's nothing I love more. I've talked with a monk who appeared to be thirty but turned out to be fifty- and gets 'claustrophobic in hats'. A bodybuilder told me that a bunch of men oiling each other up backstage was 'not gay'. I was surprised at the time that no female volunteers could be found to help out.

We all have a story that we tell about ourselves - to ourselves, as well as the ones we tell to other people. We're the funny one, the clever one, the unlucky one, the one with depression, dyslexia, the one everyone else takes for granted, the caring one, the crafty one, the one who works hard but is under appreciated.  Autobiography is non-fiction. By definition, it's a life story written by the person who lived it. So it must be true, right?

But what if we're wrong about ourselves? What if the haircut we've had for the last ten years doesn't look 'fine' but really makes us look like a tragic hedgehog? Should we be wearing those trousers? Or maybe it would be better if we embedded them in concrete. What if we're not the unlucky one? Maybe we just keep making stupid decisions and never learn from them, because we always blame it on bad luck.

Stories make things happen. If we tell ourselves often enough that 'it'll never work' then it won't. A recent study into depression split into three groups: one that was treated with medication, another treated with medication and exercise, and for the final group, exercise only. All groups showed a similar rate of recovery. What was most interesting was this: the group using exercise only kept on feeling good long after the experiment was over, where the other groups slipped back into depression. Exercising re-writes a depressive's story that there's 'no point' and they're 'hopeless'. When you exercise, it's all down to you - you see you can do it - creating a more positive story and a more positive result.

If we tell a story about ourselves, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Words and images aren't 'real'. They're more than that. They create reality. We see the world in whatever colours we paint it. When we're depressed, everything seems grey. In a sensitive mood, every whisper stings like a slap. In a good mood, we're unstoppable, every colour seems sharper, brighter. Anything is possible.

I started thinking about Autobiography because I was trying to answer a student's question: in autobiography, can writers use pathetic fallacy? This means 'creating false emotions through weather' in other words, if a character is sad, the sky 'weeps' (rains) too, if they're angry, it thunders. However highly we think of ourselves, few rate ourselves as having the god-like power of controlling the weather. So, in the story of our life, when we're having a bad day, it might be blissfully sunny. If the story is real - the weather will just be whatever weather happened to be there on the day.

In the Autobiography we were reading, Chinese Cinderella, by Adeline Yen Mah, she was having a tense moment, losing at monopoly, and it was sunny. Except the way Yen Mah writes it, it's oppressive, claustrophobic heat. She never once mentions the brilliant blue skies. Like those of us in denial about our fashion sense, hobbies or luck, she only sees what she wants to see - and it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. So if you keep getting what you've always got, and you don't like it, try telling your story a different way.