An Essay On Writing My Memoirs

editing_for_authors
Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

RonPrice

Mr Ron Price
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Feb 12, 2005
Messages
53
Reaction score
0
Location
George Town Tasmania Australia
Website
www.ronpriceepoch.com
SOME ESSENTIAL THOUGHTS ON WRITING
MY MEMOIRS OR AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Part 1:

The autobiographies of others, as I have indicated in several previous essays, illuminate one’s own attempt to understand one’s life through writing it down. St. Augustine’s(354-430 AD) Confessions has a distinctly ‘before’ and ‘after’ flavour, before his conversion and after. Mine begins, essentially, with my conversion, although in my poetry the decade before my contact with the Baha’i cause receives some attention. Like Augustine I certainly possess a sense of participating in an eternal plan. This is also true of Dante’s(1265-1321) La vita nuova. For these writers and for me, the account is no final story, but a preparation for even more on the horizon.

Four hundred years later John Bunyan(1628-1688) wrote in his Grace Abounding(1666) about his life. Truth became known through his experience. For me, as well, it was truth becoming understood through my experience. I had had a massive influx of truth at fifteen and before. Indeed, my life was one of continual access to truth. Conversion was a beginning point for me and life provided one long, unending process of coming to understand its myriad ramifications. Dante accessed truth in dreams, some five in his autobiography; Bunyan had some ten mystical experiences, or visions. Not for me a series of ecstatic moments in my curve of learning, much more a process which the Guardian has described as a series of seven stages that we go through in our life, from crisis to victory. Baha’u’llah’s Seven Valleys provides another delineation of the process. It is complex, much more complex than anything autobiography had revealed by 1666.

For Bunyan all experiences partook equally in his ultimate deliverance. For me, certain events in my life stood out: getting to know two, perhaps, three personalities; my psychiatric illnesses; my moving to Australia; my two marriages; my parents; my career; my attempt to live a life consistent with the teachings of the Faith; my role as a pioneer. For all these men the presence of the divine was critical to their lives, albeit in different ways. By the time Bunyan wrote, the structure of belief upon which all previous historical autobiography was built, was beginning to fall into disrepair. With Benjamin Franklin(1706-1790) the edifice of autobiography came to be built entirely on human recollections alone.

Part 2:

Augustine had a contact outside of time through Christ; mine is and has been through Baha’u’llah. He is the ground of my being and the basis for any human consanguinity. My position is not unlike that of all autobiographers up to Franklin. Augustine addresses his narrative to God; what he writes is like a devotional colloquy. My entire corpus is addressed to my readers, in my minds eye, generations not yet born and holy souls who have passed on and who assist me in ways I do not know; as well as, and especially, to a body of men which represents an institutionalization of the charisma at the heart of my belief system. Unlike Franklin, I do not offer up my autobiography on the authority of personal conviction, I offer it as a contribution to understanding how one person lived his life within the framework of an emerging world religion, at an early stage in its development, its second century. I am not seeking, as Franklin apparently was, to get men to imitate me; far from it. But it is my hope that they would gain greater understanding of their religion and its history, its history as it was embodied in the life of one of its ordinary practitioners, one of its votaries during the second to the fourth epochs of its Formative Age.

Augustine, Dante and Bunyan used the form of autobiography to dramatize their belief that an eternal truth guided their lives. For Franklin it was reason which centred and dramatized his life; in writing his autobiography he was essentially reliving a successful life. It was his hope that the lessons of his own individual experience and self-reliance, would replace the role taken by revealed truth. The truths of the Bab and Baha’u’llah and their legitimate successors(1844-1995) are a critical anchorage for my own story; understanding and experience are the fruit of my life; they do not replace revelation but are important buttresses of everything that has come to constitute me, my identity, my self, indeed, my soul.

Rousseau(1712-1778) tries through his autobiography, his Confessions, to secure an honoured place in history. For him truth lies in his feelings and in the continuity of his soul. I have written about this theme of fame or renown in my poetry and in my journal. If I secure some place in history through the efforts contained in all that is represented by Pioneering Over Three Epochs it will be because there is something worthwhile in what I have written, there is some meaning and historical significance of some kind that illuminates a future age. I find this an inspiring goal: to contribute to an ever-advancing civilization. This would make my contribution ongoing, beyond my life in a very concrete sense. If this does not occur, it will be because people do not find it of use, of interest. I will have gained, I trust, through my examination of my inner life and my outer life as I am asked to do in the Writings of my Faith.

Part 3:

Rousseau, like Franklin, secularizes historical autobiography. He describes how he came to be the way he was. I do the same. Rousseau tries to remake society in his image.. Franklin tries to get people to imitate him. I try to do neither. Experience for Rousseau, as it was for Augustine, is the enemy of truth and happiness. For me the relation of the two is far more complex than this; indeed, it would require a separate essay to begin to explore this relationship. I, like Rousseau, enjoy my visits into the past to write autobiography. There is a nostalgia, a warm richness that coats the past. Unlike Rousseau I do not see the past as a sad concatenation of events that has led to my wretchedness. Rather, I see a series of events coated with many colours from dark blacks and browns to warm reds and spiritual blues, if one can give colours physical and psychological equivalents. There is sadness and there is joy; it depends where I look.

Augustine found true being outside of time; I do too, but I also find it in time. Rousseau found the thread, the link, the life of his soul in the undercurrent of feeling that ran through his entire life. Here he found a coherent, continuous whole and it was here that he re-experienced in imagination his enthusiasms, his hopes, his ambitions and pleasures. To tap into these feelings the narrator must relive his life. I find this particular aspect of Rousseau’s approach to autobiography very helpful. He has put into words what I have tried to do. When I have been successful I have achieved a kind of root-tapping. Rousseau saw this retrospective activity more a form of self-realizaton. To him it was divine. It caused the world to vanish; it caused the writer to enter an ecstatic plane of self-possession, a necessary stage perhaps en route to self-forgetfulness. Rousseau came to see all his past wanderings as pointless and destructive. Viewed sub specie aeternitatis, I have found my pioneer wanderings as part of a meaningful whole, especially the suffering.

The action that is my past has been characterized by a certain degree of faithfulness and a certain degree of passion. Augustine emphasized the former and Rousseau the latter. Experience has been both my enemy and my friend; passion both the life of my soul and its death. This is true of just about everything one does. Everything changes with each movement. Remembered feeling becomes the criteria for the truest autobiographical statement. Autobiography, for Rousseau, becomes not so much the life he lived as the life he lived in the act of composing his life. I find this to be true of my own writing in whatever genre the autobiography is found. I find myself in autobiography, like some flickering light of an ineffable bliss. It helps in making the road to the grave profitable, enlightened by the two most luminous lights of intellect and wisdom. To claim any wisdom makes me a little uncomfortable in Australia, a land of an unpretentiousness and cynicism that lives luxuriously slightly beneath the surface of everyday events.

Part 4:

I am more than a little conscious of the transition from a relatively unreflective young adult to what could be seen as an excessively reflective man of middle years. But, like Bunyan, I ‘fetch invigorating thoughts from former years’ and recreate an energy that has been lost or, better, transferred from brawn to brain. Like Wordsworth I ‘rescue from decay the old/ By timely interference’ and so ripen ‘dawn into steady morning’, or perhaps late afternoon.(for surely the last half of middle adulthood-50 to 60-can be equated with late afternoon). My purpose here is not so much to tell the story of my life, although I do achieve this in my narrative, but to look within, self-examine, gain self-knowledge, achieve some union between the knower(me) and the known. I find there is a certain stasis, quietness in my movement, reposeful condition, as a result of this writing process. The knowing and acting self has finally been brought together. The slow process of looking within and finding God, of acquiring virtues and contributing to the development of civilization, or of experiencing generativity and integration is all partially understood in the act of autobiography.

And so, like Wordsworth in his Prelude, I became a traveller in my own life. My primary vehicle has been poetry, although I have provided other genres largely for future readers should there be any. For poetry reveals, in Wordsworth’s words, ‘our being’s heart and home’; it allows discordant elements of our life to harmonize; it renovates the spirit in a priestly robe; it precedes from some creative and enduring source and becomes a source of knowledge, power and joy. Poetry is like a regulating device. It comes to see the parts of life in terms of the whole; indeed the recollected hours, again in the words of Wordsworth, ‘have the charm of visionary things.’ Again, in Wordsworth’s idiom, poetry diffuses:

Through meagre lines and colours, and the press
Of self-destroying, transitory things,
Composure and ennobling Harmony.(VII, 769-71)

Wordsworth was not able to find his centre in an urban landscape. He always returned to nature for his centre. My centre has only been threatened in a deep and serious, a conscious and obvious way on rare occasions in the course of my life: during university for about a year in 1964-65; in 1968 during a stay in a mental hospital in Whitby Ontario; in 1974 in the losing of my voting rights and the events that led up to them and, arguably, in 1995 when my experience of Baha’i community life dried up. Much else could be said on this theme but now is not the time. One thing should be said; namely, that if my Centre did disappear from my life the very raison d’etre for my life-and hence my autobiography-would go with it. In contrast to Wordsworth, who turned to nature when his centre was lost, I turned to prayer, to a process of waiting and withdrawal, as well as a gradual reorientation to Baha’i community life. Slowly the pattern of Baha’i life, so eloquently and extensively described in the Baha’i literature, would begin to emerge again in a form that I was comfortable with, which gave me joy and meaning and which was clearly an expression of finding my centre, safe and secure.

Part 5:

Wordsworth stated that life was like a river of remembrances which we try to shape into some pattern. But for him the view was dark and the movement of the soul was hidden from the reach of words, like forgotten experience which is hidden from our search on this intricate and difficult path. There are though, he stated, spots of time that nourish and invisibly repair our minds. They have a special virtue. This concept has some place in a Baha’i perspective: our declaration of belief, our hearing of the Faith, the Fast, moments of prayer, etcetera. In some future and fuller autobiographical account I might pursue this theme further. In the end, Wordsworth was left with thought and faith and his own words, his life: this was his truth, the true being that he sought. At the end of my work, this autobiography, the reader will find something quite beyond a writer, a personality, in however much detail his life is displayed. He will find a human experience that is touched by the white radiance of eternity, by the spirit and teachings of several souls who are continuing to energize the whole world to a degree unapproached during their earthly lives.

Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions place opium at the centre of a life, not a man or a divinity. De Quincey, like Franklin, had to rely on his own experience and the shared convictions of his culture to find any truth there was to find. De Quincey said that time breaks the self into impermanent, unrecapturable feelings, but that suffering brings it all together. Sometimes. There is a type of permanence, a type of capturing that autobiography creates. The fierce condition of eternal hurry which concerned De Quincey I have been conscious of at least since the beginning of my pioneer life in 1962. I refer to it as the sense of urgency. I feel as if I have been running for three decades, although in the last several years the running has been more frequently in my head. In other ways, the road has been too slow and tortuous to suit me. One seems to have only some degree of influence on the process, a degree which can not be measured.

De Quincey said he never heard the eternal, celestial music of life, although he believed in it. If I examine the entire period of my life beginning in 1962, several years after I joined the Cause, I find an increasing intensification of the music of the spheres, punctuated by no sounds at all and such stygian gloom that the soul wondered if it would ever recover.

Part 6:

My poetry, though, allows my words to enter or become the reader’s reality in unique ways, if the reader possesses the necessary susceptibilities. He becomes infected with a mode of utterance; his mind whirls around in mine. It is not the historical events that make the life; that life is essentially ungraspable. I can not find my life in the narrative or, indeed, in some of the philosophically intertwined material there. I find only a handle of some kind which is graspable; I find a work about itself, about a ghost that is me. I find something that tries to tie me together, my past to my present. How does one express what it is that ties it all together. Poetry provides better linkages: fuller, deeper, more intimate; these linkages are linkages to my past, my society, my self and the future. The poetry seems to provide the oneness I seek. It connects me with the infinite through Baha’u’llah and provides a vehicle for expressing this connection. For how does one know what one thinks about a connection until one has put it in words, however briefly. The poetry brings together an outer man and an inner man, two men who are so very distinct. They each provide two distinct sets of feedback about who I am. My poetry throws a light which both unites and separates my selves in paradoxical and ironic juxtapositions.

The surface externalities: where I worked, what I did, those I knew, etcetera in some basic ways hide the man rather than displaying him; they veil the inner person. The inner person can be found much more clearly in my poetry: both the darknesses and the lights are there, the mystery and the simplicity, the ambiguity and those paradoxes. The inner passages of my being, all its chambers, its treasures and its rubbish heaps are found here. The emblematical gold, the priceless gem, that writers like Hawthorne looked for in vain, was handed to me on a platter at the age of fifteen. “Thou without the least effort did attain thy goal.” Yet, as Baha’u’llah says, I remained “wrapt in the veil of self.” To put it another way my life has been a testing of the gold with periodic fires. It is quite a different battle than it was for writers like Hawthorne fight. But my autobiography has many parallels with his. It is, as Spengemann puts it in describing the fictive autobiography of Hawthorne, a series of actions performed in the act of composition, a historical record and an interpretation of them. The process and the result tells me who I am, at least in part. I find some of my immortal self, a lifelong task. The search yields only some result; the definition of success, the measuring rod so to speak, is found in the framework of a body of ethical and moral insights of the Baha’i writings.

Part 7:

Hawthorne and most of his contemporaries never possessed this framework and their search did not yield “the beauty of His countenance.”(HW, Persian, 22) All they found was a self, one created in the autobiography. A great deal of the who that I am, the what that I am, the garment of words can never tell. I am God’s mystery. But every atom in existence is ordained for my training. And so, on and on the quotations from the Writings pile high providing the perspective, the framework, that the contemporary secular autobiographer lacks. Every Baha’i that follows the autobiographical road has this same framework, this same centre, within which he can sift the experience of his life.

It may just be that modern man in search of his soul requires a particular Centre; that the Augustinian assumptions regarding the soul and the self are not adequate for these days; that the reshaping of the self, the soul, can not be accomplished by autobiographical efforts in the context of experience itself without getting lost in an inherent subjectivity. As Keats put it for many: “I have no Nature.” As Eliot put it: the self is “everywhere present, and everywhere absent” in the act of writing. The autobiographical experience is so enigmatic in this kind of framework as to discourage, frustrate and, in the end, seem just about meaningless. For the Baha’i who has been exhorted to understand his inner life, his private character; to take account each day before the final reckoning; to see with his own eyes and know of his own knowledge; to find the inner light and get its radiance, be content with it and seek naught else; for such a Baha’i who has turned his sight unto himself he may, through autobiography, find his Lord standing within him “mighty, powerful and self-subsistent.”(HW, Arabic, 13)

One thing I am very conscious of finding as I tell and retell, examine and reexamine my life, is a series of progressive and regressive periods repeating over time. Repose and adventure seem to be unstable states. Much of what could be called the romance of my story can be found in the oscillation between the saint, the hero, the courageous adventurer and the little fat man who preserves his comfort, his security, the chrysalis of everyday life To put the contrast another way: it is the contrast between the ordinary self and the heroic self, between ourselves as anti-heroes and heroes, that makes the real adventure, the colouration, the heart of the journey. The struggle with the ordinary self always involves courage and it is here that the road to high adventure is found.

Part 8:

Roger Bannister describes the moments when he neared completion of the four-minute mile this way: “I had a moment of mixed joy and anguish, when my mind took over. It raced well ahead of my body and drew my body compellingly forward. I felt that the moment of a lifetime had come. There was no pain, only a great unity of movement and aim. The world...did not exist....I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well.”(J.A. Michener, Sports in America, Random House, NY, 1976,p.77.) My experience in the last three to four years has been much like this ‘moment’ of Bannister’s. The world did not exist for Bannister as he headed for victory. The world provides a fertile base of material for writing poetry as the world provided Bannister with the misc-en-scene for his achievement. In this sense I find the world is like a window into the future, richly laden with meaning. It drives the engine of my writing, endlessly it would seem. One day, inevitably, I will run out of gas. After what seems like an endless sequence of adventures and security blankets finally an integration has occurred. It is like winning the race, the game, the prize, the lottery. The drudgery, tedium and gracelessness of so much that is ordinary life is gone. This is the most apt thing I can say that brings this autobiography up-to-date. Time will tell what sort of longevity this experience possesses. Each writer, each poet, has his own story.

Ron Price
Tasmania Australia
 
Last edited:

sommemi

Uses loquacious in sentences
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Mar 27, 2009
Messages
707
Reaction score
55
Location
Ohio
Hi Ron!
1) I find it hard to turn people off my radar. :)
2) When I find the time, I'd love to read this essay. Just know that I am hella busy right now, but would love to read what you've written. Thanks for posting it!
 

jerrywaxler

Super Member
Registered
Joined
May 17, 2007
Messages
561
Reaction score
35
Location
Pennsylvania, US
Website
www.jerrywaxler.com
I, too, love thinking about memoir writing

Hi Ron,

Thanks so much for dropping by and offering thoughts and ideas about memoirs. I love writing about memoirs, and have written two books about writing. It sounds a little weird to spend so much time writing about writing, but that's just what I do. I enjoy it, and I get some good feedback from other people who enjoy reading my writing about writing. I guess I hang out with a meta-bunch. It sounds like you're on the same wavelength.

Over the years I have gotten pretty good at reaching out to readers and asking them what works and doesn't work about my writing. This whole process of critiquing has helped me adjust my writing to suit a particular audience. I wonder if you have gone through a similar process. I know many academicians in my memoir classes find they need to go through a period of deprogramming to get the academic-speak out of their writing, in order to reach a more general audience. It sounds like you tend to write for an academic audience. Which is fine if that's really who you want to reach. One tip (and I know you didn't ask for any) is to read a bunch of modern memoirs. Many of the works you cite are hundreds of years old... Probably out of style by now.

Anyway, I hope you continue to enjoy and love memoir writing, and writing about memoir writing, and stop by often.

Best wishes,
Jerry
 

jerrywaxler

Super Member
Registered
Joined
May 17, 2007
Messages
561
Reaction score
35
Location
Pennsylvania, US
Website
www.jerrywaxler.com
Haha. Internet time is both fast and slow

Many people complain that the Internet requires twitch reflexes and if you miss the moment, it's gone. But some things happen on the Internet over a longer period, that provides ample opportunity for reflection. Apparently my brief comment to you has had sufficient time to sink in. LOL

As I am getting old, I must admit that I did not remember our exchange from five years ago. Re-reading it (and having the benefit of five more years of studying memoirs), I am intrigued by your purpose. It looks like you want to write about your life of searching for truths. Typically a memoir would lean more heavily toward the drama that unfolded in your life that led you to these truths, and put the truths themselves into the framework of your discovery.

A good example of this is Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler, no relation, in which he struggles for wisdom in the wake of his son's deadly disease.

Some books go directly to the knowledge gained, rather than the dramatic arc of learning that knowledge. Such books are typically not called memoirs.

I am currently writing a series of essays about a woman who wrote a memoir about losing her baby and then ten years later, wrote a book about all the wisdom she gained during the course of her recovery. I asked her to help me understand the structure of the second book and she called it a "wisdom book" - stay tuned to my blog - I'll post that over the next few weeks. (It's Lorraine Ash and I did already post one article about her.)

That second type of book might be what you are looking to do as well. I love that you are looking to translate a lifetime of reflection into book that can be shared by others. This is the opportunity extended to all of us by what I call the Memoir Revolution.

Best wishes
Jerry
 

RonPrice

Mr Ron Price
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Feb 12, 2005
Messages
53
Reaction score
0
Location
George Town Tasmania Australia
Website
www.ronpriceepoch.com
Belated thanks, Jerry

A belated thanks, Jerry, for your thoughtful and helpful response.-Ron Price, Australia...... I'll add an interview here at the risk of it being too long for some readers whom I suggest just skim or scan or stop reading when your eyes glaze-over.-Ron
----------------------------------------------------------

INTERVIEW NINE

It has been nearly three years since the first of our series of interviews in January 1996. I'd like to revisit some questions, rephrase others and ask some new ones. These interviews have been very helpful for gaining a perspective on both your poetry, on you as a poet and on this crucial decade when the Baha'i community made its major thrust in completing its spiritual and administrative center in Haifa.

Questioner(Q): Thank you for letting us into your home again here in Rivervale, by the Swan River in Perth. You have a lovely garden.

Price(P): Yes, that is why we bought this house back in 1988. My wife has a Certificate in Horticulture and she loves gardens and gardening. I like gardens but not the gardening. All those green things: trees, shrubs and plants make for a very pleasant atmosphere in this study where I do most of my writing. My wife is not unlike the plants. She is quiet, easy on the nerves and an organized and efficient homemaker. This all helps create a place of peace and quietness for writing poetry as I have been doing since the early 1990s.

Q: W.B. Yeats said that "there is one Myth for every man which if we knew it, would make us understand all that we did and thought." What does this mean to you?

P: I think that Myth has become a historical fact, rather than just a story like the Garden of Eden. That fact is the life and teachings of the prophet-founder of the Baha'i Faith, Baha'u'llah. It is, as Yeats says, the Myth for everyman. But everyman is coming to it slowly and it is unfolding slowly in the lives of those who would claim to be the followers of Baha'u'llah. My poetry is a partial record of an unfolding in the life of one person, myself. Of course, the whole process is made more complex because in our modern age, as that contemporary authority on myth Joseph Campbell put it, everyone must make his own myth.

There is a jangling cacophony of mythic views. Even in the Baha'i community the meanings of the shared Myth of the Baha'is are multifold. Baha'u'llah's teachings cover a vast range of history, theology, philosophy and life, and the metaphorical nature of this corpus has only begun to be explored. This exploration is at the basis of my poetry and a significant part of the richness of its texture.
Q: How would you describe your poetic endaevour as we approach the year 2000?

P: My poetry creates, in its own unique way, a mosaic of my life and those experiences that are dear and not-so-dear to me. It is a sort of continuous, ongoing, summary, a weighing of the evidence of my times and days. The reader is invited along and, if he or she is keen, they can try and fuse the totality of my poetic corpus into an analytical whole.

Poetry clarifies. It clarifies self, society, everything that comes under its umbrella, at least for me and, hopefully, for readers. But, of course, I can not guarantee this. Writing poetry, and prose, helps me to focus the elements of my days through curious and surprising juxtapositions of ideas and events. In the process, truth and insight are enhanced; at least the effort is made to enhance.

I should also add that I draw on a very wide range of perspective's. I have been teaching and studying the social sciences and literature for many years, a quarter of a century, and I am not comfortable with any one label. I draw on so many theoretical positions in sociology and psychology, in history and literary criticism. I mix them and stir the pot. It is very fertile but consistency is not my aim, integration perhaps? In the process I am trying to express the spiritual dimension of life, the deeper sense of self and world, a certain style of authenticity.

I find in an interview like this I can theorize about my writing; it provides a useful balance to the actual doing of it. But most of the "doing" is, to a large degree, based on hunch, intuition, inspiration and is divorced from theory and its multitude of perspectives. What we are doing here is talking retrospectively, as John Barth put it in an interview, or navel-gazing as they might call it in Australia. It is verbal analysis of an essentially impulsive activity. I find it quite satisfying as a contrast. This way of 'conducting' the interview helps me to focus on ideas and delimit the social aspect of the interview.

As that poet of analytic clarity, W.H. Auden, wrote in a review of J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings back in January 1956, and I paraphrase: " Life, as I experience it in my own person, is primarily a continuous succession of choices between alternatives, made for a short-term or long-term purpose; the actions I take are, in some respects, less significant to me than the conflicts of motives and temptations, doubts and ponderings, that world of thought in which they originate." My poetry is an examination of these conflicts and temptations, motives and doubts, ponderings and thoughts.

Q: Freud says that anyone who writes biography is committed to lies, concealment, hypocrisy, flattery and even to hiding his own lack of understanding. For, he argues, biographical truth does not exist and, if it did, we could not use it. What do you think of this provocative line of thought?

P: I like its very provocativeness. I think it contains a solid grain of truth: no more than a grain, much more. It is probably more true of autobiography. Everyday life is also: lie, hypocrisy, concealment, flattery, a hiding of understanding and more. The sociologist, George Simmel, described elements of this in his study of sociability at the turn of the century. If these things are part of life, and one must accept that they are if one is honest, then they are also part of written statements like biography and autobiography.

Baha'u'llah says that there is a great deal that "the garment of words" can never clothe; many mysteries that are concealed and no ear can ever hear them. You can't get it all down on paper.

Q: Do you think that autobiography can deliver the essential person, the core personality, the real self and that, if we dig deep enough as writers and readers, we can find this gem, this thing, this enigma? Can we get the total person, in any way?

P: Often the reader or writer, or both create something that is not there. Gail Mandell, a student of autobiography, states that an "autobiographer is not obliged to be particularly accurate as to facts."(Life into Art: Conversations with Seven Contemporary Biographers, Arkansas Press, London, 1991, p.57) Many, therefore, manufacture an illusion because the picture created is not factual. The writer deconstructs a life and reconstructs it with the tool of language. That is one reason I have abandoned chronology, memory, sequence, spiralling narrative. I have found new ways of structuring a life in my poetry. I use pattern and form, singular events, paradoxical juxtapositions, rather than time and history as a sequenced and continuous centre. For how a life is written is as important as how the life is lived, more important I would say. The writer delivers something with the indelible stamp of his own mind. It is like a performance enacted before an audience. He is given a sketch of the plot and a rough draft of a script. He must finish this 'roughness'. He must polish, then produce and direct. In fact whatever the real-self is: it is his creation. Without him there would only have been dust, ashes and a sea of words. I try, though, to be factual as far as this is possible but, more important than this is a certain spirit that I must capture when I write a poem. This is difficult to control within a boundary of specific fact.

In the last century and a half both biography and autobiography have burgeoned, after a long history going back at least to the Roman Empire. But they are only just beginning to accomplish what Virginia Woolf thought they must do: "weld....into one seamless whole....the granite-like solidity of truth and the rainbow-like intangibility of personality."(In Life Into Art, Gail Mandell, Arkansas Press, London, 1991, p.3) I see my poetry as a contribution to this deepening 'solidity' and 'rainbow-like intangibility.' Most autobiography I have read I find graphically uninspiring. I hope my own work does not add to the existing and massive pile of autobiographical tedium.

Q: Many things shape a life: an inner world, an external set of forces, facts, events, persons, cultural and historical realities. What is your bias in writing your life on paper?

P: There has been an increasing interest in the inner life in this century. More recently biographers and autobiographers are aiming for a balance between these inner and outer worlds, linking past, present and future generations and childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. I think that autobiographers, like biographers, are engaged in the task of defining what it means to be human, factoring in a range of variables not before attempted in Baha'i literature and its many genres of commentary and analysis. As we talk, at the close of the twentieth century, there is very little analysis of the response of an individual Baha'i over a lifetime to this new Revelation.

Certainly my autobiography tries to capture many worlds. I have many paintings in my gallery, many galleries, many potential collections for the world and its galleries, so to speak. But the key to its meaning, inevitably, is in the readers' hands. Many find it difficult to participate in poetry. And we live in a glass darkly, not face to face with reality all the time. Increasingly the glass is getting cleansed, shining for our use by the process of history. My poetry plays its part in the cleaning of the mirror. Hopefully, some readers will find the mirror useful.

My different selves emerge in my poetry the same way they emerge in everyday life with the many people who come to know me. Readers must construct my life the same way people who meet me must construct it: little by little, day by day. Most of the time, in most relationships you can't say it all or even most of it. This poetry says more, it accesses more, than probably most readers will either need or want. But it is there like an archive kept in the back room for now.

Q: Do you think you will ever return to your narrative autobiography?

P: Perhaps when I am old and grey with little to do. For now this rich soil of poetry will serve as the garden for my work. As I said above, poetry allows me to juxtapose different things, people and events, try to connect them and find "the truths common to both." Meaning emerges from the analysis of this connection. Proust put it like that in his Remembrance of Things Past. The reader must puzzle over what is in the poetry, must deal with the complexities often without getting answers to his questions. In the end, what the reader will get from my poetry will be an attitude, a perspective, a point of view. They may also get some of that 'bliss of solitude' which Wordsworth says exists in the inner eye which writes the poetry. In the end, too, what interests readers is this 'innerness', not facts, however luminous.

Arguing the other way, though, the narrative sequence could be useful to those who don't find poetry heuristic. And it is as difficult to paint the "real" person as a biographer as it is as an autobiographer. Each genre has its strengths and weaknesses. The cleavage of two minds, what William James called "the greatest breach in nature", is replicated in autobiography by the divisions within oneself. The subject in autobiography is 'vulnerable' and a 'victim' of the self within and the host of trivialities without. The narrative is a much simpler, clearer story. If nothing else, autobiography is a story.

Q: Do you think there is more reality in some of your poems than there is in real life and its relationships, its sensations and perceptions?

P: I look back with amazement at the road I have travelled and at the variety and extent of my poetry in recent years. In some aspects of my life I must force myself: Baha'i meetings and going to my place of work. The forcing has become necessary because of the vast quantity of repetition over thirty years or more. But this is not the case in writing. With writing I wait in a certain busy stillness, a solitude. Here, the center of my life finds expression in words on paper and I can gaze at the near and far, the internal and the external. Reality emerges like some core of beauty that is different than anything I find in life. The quotidian and the poetic intensities must both exist, one of life's infinite polarities.

Q: Do you think there is something about writing poetry which draws attention away from the writer and toward the writing itself?

P: Yes. David Womersley says this in his book about the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He says that Gibbon's writing drew attention away from the subject of the Roman Empire. His writing was an art form unto itself. Life's reality is awkward, tangled and difficult to penetrate below the surface; but language can do it. It can deal with the massive and inescapable complexity of it all. In writing, I find a place, a defined place in the midst of this great immensity. For me, it is a logical extension of my writing. I'm a very serious chap, unlike some writers who feel they waste a great dela of their leisure time. I use all of my leisure time in the service of 'the project', 'the work'. If anything my problem is an obsessiveness, a compulsiveness, a self-indulgence. That's how my wife sees it and she says so in her kindly way.

One advantage writing poetry has over the longer pieces like novels, or sci-fi stories, is the sheer shortness of most poems. So the intense exhaustion you read about in some novelists is something I only experience at the edges, say after a ten hour day with print. So what I do is simply go to bed or become a vegetable in front of the TV for an hour or two. But I admit that I am addicted to work, to expelling built-up ideas that form in my head. I like to write; I also like to read. They bring me great pleasure.

Q: The problems of philosophy, history, politics, indeed many of the disciplines, have become intertwined. The historian Dilthey argued this a hundred years ago. Where does your poetry come into this interdisciplinary complexity?

P: It is interesting that you should mention Dilthey in this context. He also saw the frightening catastrophes on the horizon, the shaking of the foundations of human society, the questioning of assumptions, the discordance between thought and life, the dark and awesome outlines in a global era, the emptiness, the alienation, the abyss of modern life. The world has been transformed in the last century and a half and the many prescriptions offered: the left, the new left, the right, the new right, the social sciences, the old religions and a host of new ones--have left a world of confused alarms with no center for humankind. My poetry comes into this complexity, this vacuum, this crisis, this ferment, this restlessness. For Dilthey the center was a lived experience. My poetry is at least that and with Dilthey I share a concern with the spiritual dimension, a dimension expressed in the context of subject matter from many subjects of study. Of course, my poetry is clearly associated with a specific centre.

It is interesting to note, parenthetically, that autobiography is rarely included as part of any university syllabus; poetry, yes. Poetry is taken seriously but not autobiography. So, if I had to pigeon-hole my poetry for academic study it would not be under autobiography. If my poetry were to be studied for scholarly purposes it would result in literary criticism. Anyone wanting to write a biography of my life, it would seem to me, would be primarily concerned with telling a story. He'd have to piece together, like a great patchwork quilt, the material from my poems. The main advantage he would have is that poetry allows me to tell my story in a thousand ways. In the end, though, the reader and any writer of my biography are left with interpretation, no matter what discipline I'm drawing on.

Drawing on a variety of disciplines allows me to enter the inner life and private character and come away with a bigger slice of 'the true me.' In the end, though, there is much of myself, much of anybody in any biography, that can not be expressed There are so many views of a person. No view, or synthesis of views, can plumb the depths. But the exercise of trying is not without its rewards.

Q: What do you see as the relationship between the poet/writer and society in the Baha'i community?

P: Back in March 1956, three years after my first contact with the Baha'i community and three months before the Guardian first referred to the North American Baha'i community as 'the impregnable citadel of the Faith' the renowned French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty was the invited speaker to a conference in Vienna. During the discussion the role of the writer was discussed and I would like to start my answer to this question by drawing on some of the remarks he made then. Merleau-Ponty referred to engagement as "the coming into relation with others." "We come", he said "to extract from (this engagement) a formula for living with others."1 Autonomy and engagement run along a continuum. One discovers the portion of separation and the portion of involvement. This portion changes in a range of ways in the writer's lifetime as he expresses his sense of community. We must learn and unlearn just how it is that we are to engage ourselves. There is no one way. There are many models, many points on the continuum which are right for us.

It must be kept in mind that the Baha'i Faith is a Divine Revelation not a socio-political system. Writers can not call into question the integrity of Baha'i administrative processes. They must exercise wisdom, a certain measure of love and develop a sensitive conscience. They must not stridently insist on individual views. An intolerant attitude toward other perceptions of reality must be avoided. Since conflict and contention are categorically forbidden the relationship of the writer to society is one centred around an etiquette of expression in which dissent is forbidden. This conception is far, far removed from present conceptions of both the writer and society. I have spoken on this subject before in other interviews and there is more I could say here, but this will suffice.

Anything written about the relationship between an individual writer and the Baha'i community can grow quite naturally out of the material presented to the biographer or by the autobiographer. This organic growth of views reflects the vast range of personality types, idiosyncrasies and individual orientations and does not impose some single 'ideal type' onto the writer involved. What is written about a life should reflect the spirit of that life. For this reason, among many others, I write poetry to tell my story. This genre seems the most appropriate spirit or form. A certain perspicacity is required of the reader of my poetry, though; otherwise the reader is advised to stay with the narrative, the letters, the essays and whatever else I leave behind. My poetry is my treasure. I hope it is yours, dear reader.

Q: Tell us some more about your writing habits. Have they changed in any way since we began these interviews three years ago?

P: The main difference is that in the evenings, after a day of teaching, I have little to no energy to write, a little reading for an hour or so and that's that. On the weekends I still get in my six to ten hour a day of reading and writing. I don't use any chemicals, psychic energizers, maybe two cups of coffee; writing makes me hungry; I gave up smoking four or five years ago. I drink lots of water, juices, soft drinks. I probably take in too much sugar for my own good. I go for walks, have a swim, a sauna bath, touch base with my wife and son, visit the local shop. After sitting for such a long time, the body craves movement, exercise; you get to the point that you could just about scream.

I've worked out a city-survival package that preserves as much of the privacy that I need. That has been difficult in a community of a thousand Baha'is. Actually this hermit-like, solipsistic existence, with its hours of solitude and wearisome fatigue at the edges after many hours of work, fits in well with the teaching profession and the endless talking and listening and a moderate amount of Baha'i activity and its essential social base.

I'll be retiring soon and I wonder how I will go without that balancing factor of the social and the solitude.

Q: Some biographers say that interviews are a way of accumulating a great deal of wasted paper. Some interviewers are impressed with their utility. What do you think is the value of the interview?

P: I have constructed the above nine interviews over nearly three years, asked all the questions and answered them. I have found this form of art, even if my own expression of it is recognisably artificial, a unique way of defining what I am trying to accomplish in my poetry. It achieves what no other form of writing achieves. I've grown quite fond of it and will most probably come back to it in the future. It is a way of cleaning up, tidying up, clarifying, the complex exercise of writing poetry.

1 Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Texts and Dialogues: On Philosophy, Politics and Culture, editors: Hugh Silverman and James Barry, Humanities Press, N.J., 1992, p.51.

Ron Price
8 October 1998
 

jerrywaxler

Super Member
Registered
Joined
May 17, 2007
Messages
561
Reaction score
35
Location
Pennsylvania, US
Website
www.jerrywaxler.com
Will read your interview from 1998

Hi Ron,

I love the pace of this conversation! Whoever said that the internet speeds things up so much that it doesn't give us time to think? Obviously they are generalizing. This forum is giving us plenty of time to think. And given that it has taken you a few years to respond, i hope you don't mind me taking a few days to review the thought provoking piece you posted.

I love the line "there has been an increasing interest in the inner life in this century" - that was the 20th century. In my opinion this is accelerating in the 21st century as evidenced by the interest in the first-person point-of-view in the memoir - we are more curious than ever about the actual experience of being an individual as reported through the individual's own voice.

By the way, by coincidence, I met another Bahai memoir writer in one of my critique groups. Here's a link to his blog.

Best
Jerry
 

Featured Book