A relative has commented on a post of mine on this site, namely “My Boyhood,” at
She had some questions and made some observations about selectivity on my part in seemingly choosing to focus on some aspects of my boyhood while overlooking others.
Her comment induced me to think about what goes into writing such a piece. My response follows.
— Roger W. Smith
I appreciated your getting back to me with follow up on my response to your comment on my blog post “My Boyhood.”
I feel that some comments of my own regarding how the piece was written and my approach to it would be pertinent.
I wrote the autobiographical essay over a period of about six months (perhaps longer). I started it and got very into it, then put it aside.
I would go back to it periodically when something occurred to me to add. The piece grew incrementally, by accretion. It’s about thirty pages long.
My usual working method as a writer is to follow and trust in the drift of my recollections and thoughts. I feel that a good writer has the ability to link things that often do not on the surface seem to be connected — through a train of thought or of associations. Details and incidents come into one’s consciousness and get linked in the mind and fused in the narrative. Connections are made that might not be obvious and could be overlooked. It’s sort of like following one’s nose as a dog does — one does NOT first write an outline and say to oneself, I will cover this area first, then that, the next one. It’s anything but a PowerPoint presentation.
So, what individuals, persons get included, as a general rule/principle, and in this instance?
Take Janet Funke, my next door neighbor and first playmate. One of my earliest recollections is when I stole the flowers from her father’s garden. The incident made a big impression on me, especially because I incurred my mother’s displeasure and because of the way she handled it. So, Janet became a “character” in my blog post.
In writing, I usually don’t begin with a plan. I let things emerge in my mind and impinge upon my consciousness. I follow my own train of thoughts or associations, trust in it.
A respected friend and mentor liked the piece a lot and said he enjoyed reading it. He said it reminded him of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
I am attaching a Word document which includes discussions of Joyce’s narrative technique. I once attended a lecture by an English professor at Brandeis University, Allen Grossman, who discussed the same thing in a lecture on Joyce’s story “Araby.” I know that you already know it, but the point made in the commentaries is that Joyce, as author, writes strictly from the point of view — I believe the Brandeis professor used the term “favored consciousness” — of the main character, in the case of “Portrait,” of Stephen Dedalus. Authorial omniscience does not occur; interpolated commentary by the narrator is basically omitted. We see things at a “ground level” view, strictly through the lens or prism of the young boy. My friend thought I achieved this.
Regarding subject matter — and persons discussed — in this and other blog posts of mine.
A key point is that — as I have already said — I write about whatever occurs to me — often relying on my memory, which I was told by my former therapist, as well as others, is excellent. Businesspeople have agendas, and coaches have playbooks; the creative process seems to be a matter of free association. Who knows why an author or artist uses some material as grist for the mill and overlooks other material?
Regarding who was named and/or discussed in “My Boyhood,” I reread it myself yesterday to see who was named and/or discussed.
I was not writing a family history. Nor was I trying to place emphasis on parents or siblings. My parents are mentioned, for example — anecdotally and with regard to how they impacted my upbringing — but this was not an essay about my parents.
Regarding births of siblings, to be honest, consistent with my modus operandi, when I was writing the essay, it did not occur to me to discuss them. I probably wouldn’t have anyway. This wasn’t a piece about my siblings, family, or family history — it was about one particular member of my family: ME. My family is discussed — could not be left out — but from a particular perspective, namely their direct influence, experientially, on me.
My former therapist observed that writing is at bottom a self centered activity, both in terms of what it involves (viewed qua activity) — a solitary one that one undertakes hoping to be read — and by virtue of its nature: a priori, by definition. How true that seems to be.
Writing is done in isolation in the hope/expectation that the attention of others will be drawn to the writer’s thoughts and things about himself or herself that the writer shares, in the hope that he or she will thereby gain admiration.