7 May 2009

your life story

Tom at work asked me today if I'd read A heartbreaking work of staggering genius by Dave Eggers, and if so, what I thought about it. I said I was in two minds. I'd loved it to begin with, but it began to wear after 100 pages or so. But I've started A million little pieces by James Frey, I said, and I'm loving that so far. Tom said he'd been put off by the knowledge that it was a memoir which took dramatic licence with what had actually happened. And that does divide opinion. But for some reason, that's what magnetically drew me to the book in the first place. Maybe it's because I think some kind of creative or imaginative act is inevitable when you're trying to understand your life. Especially when memory is involved. Warming to the idea, we started talking about works of fiction that map onto authors' lives and the act of creative memoir in general. And there are loads of good ones. Like The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Read his How to be alone book of essays and you'll see what I mean. There's another good example in a different Jonathan (Safran Foer) and his book Everything is illuminated. And I think I've said before how much I love Amy Fusselman's The pharmacist's mate. Or read The liar and Moab is my washpot by Stephen Fry one after the other. Or Boy by Roald Dahl next to, well, any of his fiction. And all that got me thinking about us more generally, as consumers and creators of the information that we assemble under the headings of our lives. You need creative, interpretive tools to help you understand yourself. And sometimes it's easier to get some kind of truth of feeling (however slippery that is) by departing from what people might think is the "real", documentable truth. You need to reach for something beyond you in order to express what it feels like inside. Stuff (ideas themselves, or the stimuli that give us the ideas) helps us to do that. Not (necessarily) the materially aspirational stuff, in the sense that you find in lots of advertising. More the things that enhance or challenge the idea you have about who you really are. Whether that's novels or your own photographs, a pair of trainers or something else. Which is an interesting challenge for all cultural output, whatever it is. There's lots of things out there, but very few really touch people's lives in a way that changes their course, however small. It's rare to achieve it, but it is possible. So I like the idea that whatever I do, I should be aiming to achieve this quality of interesting or useful. (Picture courtesy of the rather splendidly named Auntie P.)

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