Twain’s Advice for Writing an Autobiography? Wander.

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

When I think about the memoir that I want to write someday, I often wonder: How the heck am I going to start this? I have lots of essays that I’ve started to weave together, but no definitive beginning. A recent NPR story on Mark Twain gave me some inspiration. A century after his death, Twain’s autobiography is being published.

The author said he tried writing his autobiography several times but kept getting sidetracked because he thought he needed to follow a chronological calendar. He found that doing so, however, “starts you at the cradle and drives you straight for the grave, with no side excursions permitted.” Instead, he said, it’s best not to start at a particular time in your life: “Wander at your free will all over your life. Talk only about the thing that interests you for the moment; drop it at the moment its interest starts to pale.”

NPR explains that Twain struggled to figure out how to tell his autobiography — until he discovered the power of dictation. “You will never know how much enjoyment you’ve lost until you get to dictating your biography,” Twain said. “You’ll be astonished at how like talk it is and how real it sounds.”

I like the idea of wandering through your life rather than trying to stick to a time line. Wandering, it seems, gives us the freedom we need to make sense of the life we’re living and writing about. When we’re bound by rules and road signs, we feel trapped. Maybe the key to starting a memoir, then, is just letting myself wander. I’m all up for trying it.