The Strangeness of Writing an Autobiography
On compressing 30 years worth of stuff into a single blog post
This is issue #19 of Light Gray Matters, written five days after I turned 30 years old. Happy birthday, me!
A few weeks ago, I was wondering how to mark the occasion. I couldn’t throw a big party. I couldn’t go get a fancy dinner at a restaurant. I couldn’t organize the Amazing Birthday Brunch that I had planned for March 22, 2020. I still feel cheated by the Universe that I cancelled that brunch two years in a row.
Next summer, when parties are allowed, I’ll throw the Ultimate Double Birthday Brunch in a park or something, and you’re all invited.
Anyway, social events involving food being Not An Option, I resorted to the next obvious alternative to commemorate the end of my third decade: writing my autobiography.
I called it Checkpoint 30 and I published it on my blog at exactly the minute I turned 30, at 4:42 am. Click on the magic button to go read it:
For the rest of this newsletter, I will reflect on what it means to write an autobiography. Because it struck me as an utterly bizarre exercise.
Think about the sheer amount of life that has happened over the course of three decades. 30 years. 360 months. 1564 weeks, 10,957 days, 262 thousand hours, 15.8 million minutes, or 947 million seconds.1
Put differently: 21 years of education; 3 years of full-time work. 8 years in a long-term relationship. 2 years lived abroad. Plenty of road trips across North America; a number of flights to Europe and the Middle East and Central America; 24 countries visited. 14 homes, defined as places I’ve lived in at least a month. 3 novel manuscripts written (and never published). 3 short stories published (and many more written). 53 blog posts and 18 newsletter entries. About 1,400 tweets. Countless people met — literally countless, because there is absolutely no way to count them. The same with books read, movies watched, conversations had, and so on and so forth ad infinitum.
here’s another attempt at compressing my entire life. Each square represents a month. Also there are tons of mistakes, so if you’re trying to gather intelligence about me, I suggest you don’t use this
A life — even part of one, because I expect mine to go on for quite a few decades still — is a complex, layered mess. Something impossible to hold in a brain all at once.
So how the hell are you supposed to summarize that in a 4,000-word blog post?
Maybe you aren’t. When I think of the word “(auto)biography,” I tend to think of thick, heavy books. Or of short blurbs, intended to be quickly read e.g. on a Twitter profile (interestingly, in those instances the word “biography” itself seems to be shortened to “bio”). Either way sounds easier than what I did. Long biographies have sufficient space to expound on various life events; short ones just require you to pick two or three things to say, which isn’t that difficult.
A 4,000-word autobiography is long enough that I needed to tell everything relevant, and short enough that I needed to tell nothing irrelevant. So what is relevant to my life story, and what is not?
There is, of course, no right answer. Skimming my autobiographical post again, it looks like I focussed on family, school, work, sexuality and relationships, and my writing. Pretty conventional stuff, I suppose. There are more unique bits: thoughts on class consciousness in my hometown; the quirky school-bus-turned-cottage my grandmother has next to a lake my great-grandfather dug; falling in love with a girl at the same time I discovered I was gay. There could have been infinitely many other unique details I could have included — but then I had to weave a coherent narrative, and there’s only so much space in a 4,000-word blog post.2
Whatever you do, you’ll have to compress a lot. That isn’t surprising; any sort of art is compression. The only way to fully describe a human life is to live it.
That’s why I felt the strangeness. I necessarily had to create a distorted picture of my memories of my life (which are themselves distorted). Add to that the feeling of laying myself bare in front of the entire internet, and the perceived arrogance of thinking people would want to read about my life story — and it was a bizarre exercise indeed.
But I’m happy I did it, and I’m sure the future me’s will be as well.
Until next week, I remain
Yours in self-archaeology,
The Last Section
What should I put in the last section? So far I’ve been promoting stuff I do (e.g. my Ted Chiang Salon, part 3, on Sunday!), but in the end it’s probably not that interesting to just post my Twitter thread again here. Any ideas?
Incidentally, I will be turning 1 billion seconds years old on November 25, 2022. Maybe that’s when I should throw my Incredibly Epic Birthday Brunch.
It didn’t have to be 4,000 words, of course. But longer would have been too long, I think. And shorter would have left too little space.