Biographies vs. Autobiographies

Have you seen the latest craze in gifting? Don’t get insulted if you get one of the diary style tell-your-life books for your birthday – like Memory Journal: It’s Time to Tell Your Story by Beth Sanders. Granted, the blurb on the back saying it was so great to read it aloud at grandpa’s funeral would have put me off too. But, how can anyone resist talking about themselves? Besides, this gives you a chance to rewrite your life with probably no one the wiser.

These books usually have prompts that remind me of freshman comp class – my greatest accomplishment was…; the one thing I always wanted to do (bucket list?)…; the most fun I had was when… Dorothy Parker says “…if I wrote about mine you wouldn’t sit in the same room with me.”

My life book would be full of exaggerations – not lies – just sprucing up the events a bit – stretching the truth to fit – and leaving out the parts that are nobody’s business. Autobiographies and memoirs are so much more fun than reality checks.

In comparing Julia Child telling her own story to her nephew in My Life In France to Fitch’s biography of her, I noticed that Julia conveniently left out her health problems, and skimmed over her husband’s end of career crisis. On the other hand, Appetite for Life by Noel Riley Fitch did fill in the blanks.  Backstage with Julia: My Years with Julia Child by Nancy Verde Barr gives the perspective that only a close friend can. Who else would reveal that Julia got her chin waxed regularly? But actually, the personal touch of the autobiography (My Life in France) seemed more like Julia – the one I want to remember.

Memoirs got a bad reputation when James Frey betrayed Oprah with A Million Little Pieces, but it didn’t seem to hurt his booksales, and spawned a whole new genre for fabricating authors.  Katherine Hepburn’s story – Kate: The Life of Katherine Hepburn, as told to Charles Higham – was the approved version of her life – with Spencer Tracy on a white horse. You’ll have to go elsewhere to get his wife’s version. Ted Kennedy’s posthumous self- glorification in True Compass gets about as close to an appendix to Camelot as he could. Oscar Wilde noted, “they {memoirs} are generally written by people who have entirely lost their memories…”

Why not? Why not tell a life story the way you wish it were, and not exactly the way it was? Historians famously disagree most of the time anyway, and we tend to believe what we think is true – no matter – “When you put down the good things you ought to have done, and leave out the bad ones you did do…that’s memoirs” says Will Rogers.