On Autobiography: Truth and Poetry

Born in South Africa in 1903 and active in England until he died in 1973, William Plomer wrote novels, stories, and poems, as well as opera libretti for Benjamin Britten, and he worked as an editor for London book publishers. A posthumous collection of his short works called Electric Delights came into my hands the other day. For the first time, I read about interesting writers such as the English diarist Francis Kilvert, and I made the acquaintance of an eccentric yet congenial man.

For all his gentlemanly charm, Plomer is stern on a subject he knows inside and out—the memoir, diary, or autobiography. In an essay on Leonard Woolf, author of a five-volume autobiography, he writes:

Anybody intending to write about his own life might well pin up a list of things to be avoided—vanity, self-complacency, self-delusion, untruthfulness, boasting, vindictiveness, too much self-justification, and, perhaps above all, taking for granted that what interests himself is bound to interest other people.

Right after this warning, Plomer quotes Woolf from the second volume, called Growing:

The only point of an autobiography is to give, as far as one can, in the most simple, clear, truthful way, a picture, first of one’s own personality and of the people whom one has known, and secondly of the society and age in which one has lived.

This statement may be accurate for what Woolf intended, but a picture of personalities and society is not “the only point” of such a book. To judge by the evidence in Electric Delights on such asocial figures as Kilvert, Edward Fitzgerald, who wrote The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and Plomer’s own “Conversation with my Younger Self,” an autobiography can be filled with acute observation of nature and meditation on daily affairs. If “the people whom one has known” are not leaders and thinkers, politicians and creative artists, but neighbors and just plain folks, then instead of a great canvas, as Woolf seems to imply, the picture will be a domestic scene as painted by Chardin.

Both Plomer and Woolf mention truth, which if rightly considered, is an even stickier point. A writer may try to be truthful and fail. Conversely, a memoir or autobiography may reveal some truth of which the writer was unaware. The great temptation in this type of writing is to suppress facts that do not fit the narrative, and to supply interpretations where the facts are lacking, as for another person’s unspoken thoughts and wishes. Every human being, in order to make sense of his or her life, tells a story about it to others and to the self. And as long as that life is being lived, the story is under revision. Truth is an elusive goal in this endeavor, never an achievement. The writer who explores a life, the one he or she knows best, and shuns the big picture enlists my sympathy. The memoirist who tells an entertaining story, a harrowing tale, or a triumph over adversity is probably stretching the truth.


As I try to recall my own life, I drift at sea by night. Rocked by waves, I hear a muffled horn and shouts. Some bright star provides a bearing. Then I can triangulate in time and space. I plot the shape of the coastline, the harbor, the town, and the hills beyond. I pull the oars of reading and research, and I strike land. I leave the boat, jump in the water, flounder, and get soaked. I stumble up the beach and find I was not where I thought I was, not even close.

What might be a low-stress exercise in nostalgia, a swim in a sheltered bay becomes a slog. Where did I go wrong? More to the point, how do I chart a course? I want to draw with lines on paper and words in the air. I want to guide the reader who sails into my home waters and pilot her safe past shoals I conned by trial and error. She ought to be able to trust me.

After all, I demand as much. When it comes to lifelike fiction and adventurous lives, I read in silence like someone in a trance. My lips part in fear, I smile at a happy outcome, I weep for the heroine, and I snarl in disgust at the villain. As in a dream, I scarcely stir, held fast by the flow of language, the parade of images, and the need to know what lies ahead.

Yet all the while the words I read resound in my head. A moment comes when that inner sound—the symphony of rhythm, cadence, alliteration, long and short vowels—rings perfectly true and wrings meaning from the words. This is the moment I long for in poetry. It comes to me in prose as well, and when I least expect it. Lytton Strachey, whose “genuinely finished style” matches his depth of research, is no one’s idea of a poet. Yet his lives and essays pin in a phrase what others grind to dust in a paragraph. Like the people he praises, he works through metaphor and shows by example.

The task of literature is to baffle the senses and stir the mind. Or is it the other way around? The sound of language lights up the fog and darkness of memory, while the printed page roars like waves. I read about a ship under sail, and the smell the sea is in my nose, the tang of salt on my tongue. The book that weighed so heavy in my lap feels light in my hands. I rise on an incoming tide of pleasure. I hold on to the book like a life preserver, an inflatable device. I never think of calling for help, content to float in the beautiful flood.


If you are what you eat, does it logically follow that you think what you read? In high school in the 1960s in Schenectady, New York, I read textbooks, which used to be called reading for instruction. English courses served up Shakespeare plays, Dickens novels, American classics like The Scarlet Letter, and quite a lot of poetry. The eleventh grade American History teacher Miss Saulsbury arranged a low-cost subscription to The New York Times for each student. A bundle of newspapers was delivered to the classroom every weekday. She quizzed us on current events.

At home, I read pulp novels, James Michener doorstops, fantasy trilogies, and magazines that came through the mail or from a rack at the grocery store. I did not play sports. Reading was a recreation and a challenge, the kind a young person sets for himself. I would reach the bottom of a page, realize I had absorbed nothing, and start again at the top. I used a dictionary and acquired a large vocabulary, a trick that served me well on standardized tests.

In my late teens, I read for instruction in another sense: I wanted to become an adult. I read for answers to life’s questions, models to imitate, and a flash to light up the path that lies ahead. But novels and magazines are a risky guide to behavior, and I jumbled fact and fiction. The confusion lasted through college. I coasted through senior year reading Flaubert and Tolstoy, and I graduated with few skills. How would I land a job or earn a living? I went to graduate school and became an architect.

In my sixties I woke from a forty-year enchantment, a career and a business that supported myself and a few employees. I gave up reading trade magazines for construction and real estate, articles on houses, puff pieces on designers, and analyses of energy use in building design. All grown up but still hungry for marvels, once again I read fiction: novels, tales, short stories, and sketches. Some of the fiction is brand new, published in literary journals and small presses. And some is billed as science, analysis, ground-breaking research, true crime, biography, and literary memoir. The last includes an account of childhood told in detail no child could retain. The adult memoirist makes it up, as George Sand does in History of My Life.

If I want to write a true account of where I was, what I did, and what the world around me was like, how should I proceed? The reader demands a narrative, and all I have is a mass of information. To make matters worse, what I remember is unreliable and full of holes. I wish I had been a better observer, an obsessive note-taker, a meticulous saver of letters, bulletins, clippings, cards, and souvenir programs. What papers I have are dry as fallen leaves. I read the words and fail to recapture the moment.

Then again, I may be chasing a phantom. Is there one truth? When it comes to autobiography, can the writer see clearly? While he claims to separate fact and fiction in From My Life: Poetry and Truth, Goethe covers his tracks:

We are of course prone to set forth and stress results and the past as we see it now, rather than the detailed events as they took place at the time . . . all this, belonging as it does to the narrator and to history, I have included here under the word Poetry, so that I might employ the truths of which I am conscious to suit my ends.

What if I set down what I feel sure of and leave out the poetry? Maybe the story, the hidden truth, the insight that escapes me, will work itself free like a beetle that gnaws its way through woodwork. It makes little clicks, crawls out of the table, opens its wings, and buzzes off. In the tunnel it bored is a trail of sawdust.


The urge to write fiction, poems, plays, reviews, and more wells up in childhood. Think of the Brontës and their illustrated booklets, Virginia Woolf and her Stephen family newsletter, and Truman Streckfus Persons, who would one day be Truman Capote, typing away at his little desk in Monroeville, Alabama. All children tell stories. Some are determined to put them on paper and sooner or later to see them in print. Before they live, they write an autobiography.

I too made booklets at a tender age and filled them with nonsense. Even today, regardless of whether another person will read them, the need to play with words is strong. Where does it come from? Birdlike imitation, a thirst for fame, the hunger of the beetle and its will to fly—these are reasons shared by many. At this late stage of life, I also sense that time is running out, memory is slipping away, and I ought to make an earnest attempt before it’s too late. Or maybe it is too late, and life is essentially over? By writing this, I resist. I may never know how my story ends, but for now I stay at the desk and explore.

What I feel is a fierce desire to join the club, to commune with those who speak through letters. Every writer who longs for recognition feels this way. Family, friends, and critics assume that we write for money, public approval, fame, or their own good opinion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indulgently, they call us self-centered. Unused to creative work, they say all fiction, poems, plays, and so forth spring from the self.

They are right, but the self is larger than they know, and the center is a point in a sphere. It gravitates and radiates. Each of us is a star in the void, drawn to all others and shining on all. Like Walt Whitman, who wrote “I sing the body electric,” we luminous, gassy balls who are writers send ourselves out as waves of energy. The light from stars gone extinct only now reaches earth. I hope to rock some future boat adrift in space and light the way to shore.

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review. In 2016, his one-act plays were staged in Concord, NC and Detroit, MI.

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