Smith and Watson offer us a wealth of information hidden beneath their jargon and tie-it-up-and-torture-out-a-meaning approach to autobiography. Its quite a process to get through some of the denser material covered in “Reading Autobiography” but the result is wroth it. I never understood just how complex autobiography, or being autobiographical, could be.
Chapter 3, “Autobiographical Acts” offers a breath of fresh air in its ability to be easily and quickly comprehended. More importantly, though, chapter 3 directs our attention to several of the complexities of autobiography, specifically autobiographical acts itself.
The section entitled “Coaxers, Coaches, and Coercers” was most interesting to me. I’ve always heard the notion of “playing the game” or “wearing the face they want to see”, in other words catering your words or actions to what your audience wants to see or hear. This section of “Reading Autobiography” really reflected upon this idea. The authors site a list of “[…] everyday situations in which people’s stories about themselves are elicited in the contexts of social institutions” (Smith, Watson 65). I was really struck by this and found it to be a very interesting concept. Plummer defines a coaxer/coercer to be “any person or institution or set of cultural imperatives that solicits or provokes people to tell their stories” (64). Often times, a person’s autobiography changes depending on their environment. The President wrote a version of his autobiography in “The Audacity of Hope”, though I’m sure he presents a different autobiography to his family, and yet a different autobiography to his church, etc. The same goes for me and for anyone else.
Though I enjoyed this chapter it led me to wonder if I believe there is such a thing as a “pure” autobiography or narrative. We, as human beings, are natural storytellers, or homo fabulans, but our stories differ depending on what social or cultural environment we find ourselves in. I wouldn’t say that we’re lying when we change or adapt our stories to be appropriate or more specific to our audience, however our “pure” autobiography becomes marred by the influence of another party. Perhaps this outside influence breaks our story from being purely ours. Or perhaps it makes our story more genuine, more realistic as it tracks our desires to be accepted, to make a statement, to be surrounded by others.
(Response to prompt 2 under “Critical Options”)