Writing about your life can shut it down

There is something undignified, even a touch absurd, about someone agreeing to tell the story of his life, only to change his mind when the words have taken shape on the page. When the memoirist happens to be well-known, the false start can look like something of a tease – an act of self-importance and fake humility.

The excuses of would-be autobiographers vary. Mick Jagger, who was once commissioned to write an autobiography but who ended up returning the publisher’s advance, said on one occasion that his story was too boring and on another, almost as unconvincingly, that he was unable to remember what had happened in his life. Billy Joel, who pulled the plug on his book at the last moment, claimed that writing it had reminded him that he was no longer interested in the past. Others have said the process was simply too painful or exposing.

Julian Assange, the interesting and peculiar super-hacker, has come up with a weightier explanation for changing his mind about authorising his autobiography. “All memoir is prostitution,” he told the publishers. There is a problem with this somewhat prim pronouncement. Assange had been paid a large sum of money. He had worked for 50 hours on it with Andrew O’Hagan, a classy ghost-writer by any standard. Most prostitutes, having charged a punter before pulling out of the deal, would at least hand back the money before complaining. Unsurprisingly, the publishers decided to press ahead with publication without the author’s blessing.

Assange has made an interesting point about memoirs all the same. Writing autobiographically, like prostitution, involves impersonation. The person who emerges on the page is inevitably a variation on the real thing – more (or less) well-behaved, less (or more) chaotic and confused. To turn the muddle of a life into a story which can be understood by someone else requires editing, tidying-up, streamlining. The result will often leave the writer feeling reduced in some way. Real life is strange and subtle in a way non-fiction rarely reflects, however well-written. The memoirist, like the prostitute, is putting on a show in which tricks and fakery are involved.

When that show consists of memories and experiences, the effect of revelation can be upsetting. Looking back to present one’s story to the world, whether in an online blog or in a book for publication, is almost always unhealthy. Public regret or guilt about things that have gone wrong is pointless; public satisfaction over a job well done can seem smug. Neither impinge helpfully on the present, and until someone is truly in his or her dotage, it is surely in the present and the future that happiness resides.

The unlikely line-up of reluctant memoirists – Jagger, Billy Joel and Julian Assange – are in agreement about one thing above all: they would prefer to concentrate on what they are doing now than what has happened in the past.

An autobiography, however good, echoes to the sound of a door being slammed shut forever. Before his great book Life appeared, there was something interestingly incomplete about Keith Richards. He was a wonderful, shambolic work in progress, and it was impossible to tell how that work would end up. Now we know. The book has been published, the tale told. In some strange way, it put a full stop to his life. The normal things that evolve and change – careers, relationships, personalities – are immobilised by the act of memoir. Richards is slightly less interesting now that he has told his story.

The same process takes place when eminent authors – Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess, Doris Lessing – write their autobiographies. By looking back and closing the door, they are admitting that what is most interesting and important about them has already happened.

Independent, 23 September 2011