Why everyone should write an autobiography

The Fall semester is over and I’ve been strapping myself to my laptop, hoping to get plenty of writing done on my next book before the Spring semester begins. Until now, I’ve only written full two pages, and that was only so I could tell myself that I had started.

The delay is not for lack of thinking and planning. Most of my writing begins in my head long before I put a word to laptop. The problem is the first chapter, an autobiographical account that informs all the other chapters. It establishes a trajectory for the thesis of the book, pulling from my time growing up in the church to being formally educated by it.

Writing this chapter has not only shown me why autobiography and memoir are difficult to produce, but also why everyone should try to write one.

I’ve written academic books, children’s books, articles for magazines and journals, and until now I thought children’s literature was the most difficult. Perhaps, after I get the hang of the autobiographical process, my young adult books will maintain their crown, but there is something about the soul-engulfing process of engaging the autobiographical past honestly that is terrifying.

My new book, “Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education,” will be both academic and personal. Menachem Wecker, my co-author, and I were both raised in religious households, mine Christian and his Jewish. We both were educated in religious institutions. We both discovered the difficulties of finding freedom of thought within academic communities bound by religious constraints.

When considering the path that brought me to my more free-thinking perspective today, I’ve seen how easy it is to focus on one negative element and how hard it is to decide on which details to include and which lines not to cross. Should I mention names? How specific should I be? What is just a therapeutic paragraph for me, but actually unnecessary and eventually doomed to deletion?

More importantly, how do I know that I’m recalling everything accurately enough? I have always had a great memory, but when past events are too close to home, will I unconsciously rewrite them?

Recently, Scientific American reported on the trustworthiness of human memory. Individuals were shown images on slides of two crimes, both of which were followed by a written eyewitness account of what happened, with the distinction of having intentionally manipulated the details. For example, if the slides showed a man hide behind a tree after his crime, the narrated account would say he hid behind a door. After the slides, participants were asked to recall details based on specific questions, and again, a year and a half later, they returned to be questioned on the same details of that memory.

In the first test, participants endorsed 61% of the true items and 31% of the misinformation items as what really happened in the 12 manipulated slides. A year and a half later, only 45% of the true items were endorsed, showing a decent memory. But this time, 39% of the misinformation items were taken as true, a statistically significant increase.

The lesson? Misinformation persists and can, in fact, replace true memories. This led me to wonder: How much of my recollection of the past is primed by years of remembering those events with others or re-imagining those events in light of new ones, where the details I’m recalling may not be exactly what happened, but are primed by the false memories of someone else and similar events of more recent experiences?

I also understand now why the details of memoirs are sometimes challenged after publication. Even if our memories are not rewritten much over time, the act of remembering can be painful and sometimes it might feel easier to just weave fiction into fact. Writing an autobiography forces us to face our past, the bitterness we may have, and to own up to those gifts others have given us.

But lastly, the process of writing a religious autobiography has provided me a sense of my own movement in life, and this is why I think everyone should spend a little time trying to write a short account of their own stories, even if it is only to keep privately.

It’s telling me a little about where I began, the characters I met in life that gave me new ideas, or those that demonstrated to me the failures of old ones. It reminds me that I’ve got to embrace my story no matter how much I’m embarrassed by things I did or used to believe. But most importantly, it reminds me that the continuation of my story is something for which I need to take responsibility, and write well.

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