Sunday, 6 June 2010

The M-Word Manifesto

I propose that writing one's life story in a thousand words is something that each of us might consider doing. I have just done so, and I want to say why I did it.

One reason was as an antidote to having to write one thousand words or a bit more about someone else, as part of the university course I am doing. This piece of writing has to follow the formal structure of entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, starting with details of when and where the subject was born and who his parents were, proceeding through his achievements and ending with a brief mention of his family, where he was buried and how much money he had left his heirs.

The formula varies little from that established for the first edition of the Dictionary, published over a number of years in the late nineteenth century. It reflects the outlook and attitudes of that time, one aspect of which had been memorably summed up by Byron earlier in that century when he wrote "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart, 'Tis woman's whole existence".

This formula may seem, from one perspective, a reflection of Victorian male chauvinism, but from another it is eminently practical. It is (relatively) easy to dig up facts about a man's work: it is (exceedingly) hard to do the same about his relationships. Besides, it is easier to write about what someone did rather than how someone felt.

So it was that when I started writing an outline of my life story I found it very hard to write about my relationship with my two wives, particularly the first. I found it slightly easier to do so by writing about this by dropping the word 'I': omitting the personal pronoun enabled me to write much more dispassionately. Writing in staccato, disjointed phrases also helped. So it was that I ended up with something similar to that which used to appear at the start of chapters in many eighteenth and nineteenth century books, a series of phrases succinctly describing a topic or incident, separated by em dashes.

By the time I had finished I found that I had written just over a thousand words and had what might be called a Eureka moment. If I could edit it to make exactly one thousand words it could be the pattern for other people to write their own stories and we could be witnessing the genesis of a whole new genre. I have had many eureka moments in my life and most have turned out to be flashes in the pan than bull's eyes but, as I believe Cicero once wrote, "Dum spiro, spero": while I breathe, I hope.

In an earlier post to this blog I said why I wanted to do this: I felt that, because of the lack of opportunity for students on our course to get to know each other, I would write briefly about myself, let my fellow-students know I had done so and encourage them to do likewise. After writing it I found that the exercise was of far greater personal value. I found that I had written something that my grandchildren could read when they are older which would tell them about the life and times of their grandfather: I would that my grandfathers had done the same for me. I felt also that I had put, however faintly and however briefly, my footprint upon the sands of time.

This is why I am writing this manifesto with its alliterative title containing the Latin way of writing a thousand to reflect the length of my micro-autobiography and, perhaps, of other people, not just in the evening of their lives but also at their high noon.

It would be great fun for me to start another blog – say, – on which I could publish this and other life stories – like yours? C'mon, tell the world what you've done and how you've dealt with those two imposters, triumph and disaster: a thousand words is worth far more than a picture!

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