Telling your own life story
AZZO REZORI GUEST OPINION
Ever thought of writing your autobiography? There’s good news. Online advice on how to go about it is plentiful and comfortingly formulaic. One website has the process down as follows: start with brainstorming, craft an outline, do your research, write a first draft, take a break, proofread what you’ve written, move on to the next draft, repeat proofreading and next-drafting until everything fits. And there by the grace of your Muse you have it, your own story told by none other than yourself. Keep it simple, the advice goes. Pick a central theme that casts you in an interesting light. Include personal failures, not just a long list of achievements. Above all, find your voice. It’s a long way from St. Augustine’s Confessions written more than 1,700 years ago to the present-day flood of autobiographies detailing the trials and tribulations of even the most minor celebrities. Ours is an age of extreme individualism. Every life counts, we’re told, so every life story is worth telling. As one advice column puts it, “A quick scan of the bestseller lists will quickly reveal that we are obsessed with the lives of other people.” But haven’t there been enough autobiographies already? Why yet another one, and why one about me of all people? Who cares about another obscure son of a Europe that disappeared a long time ago? Why tell the story of another immigrant to Canada, a country where people looking for a new life arrive every day with no fanfare whatsoever. Haven’t we heard enough of romantics who have a hard time distinguishing between what’s real and what isn’t, and of retired journalists who would have you believe that they’ve figured things out after all? LIFE LESSONS Well, if autobiography is the attempt to come to terms with one’s life, I’ve been working on mine for almost as long as I can remember. When — after retiring from 30-plus years in journalism — I finally got around to tackling it in writing, the reason seemed all too obvious: to make peace with the family ghosts. On my mother’s side, the haunting boils down to the fall from power of the Prussian aristocracy. On the other side, it’s all about social and intellectual climbing in a fairyland my Austrian father, a successful writer of mostly autobiographic novels, concocted for himself and his readers. Some people like to break the ice by telling jokes. I’m no good at jokes, but after lifelong practise I’m quite good at telling stories about my father. He was a classic narcissist: brilliant, entertaining, vain, amoral — a Pied Piper with a wide repertoire of tunes that lured you into an intoxicating world of wit and esthetics but not a shred of common decency. It should come as no surprise that this was very hard on family life. My two brothers and I never tire of talking about him. Our wives roll their eyes each time we have another go at him like regulars at group therapy hashing out the same grievances over and over. I thought putting it all down on paper might help. The appearance on the world stage of two other confirmed narcissists — former U.S. president Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — made it topical. My brothers and I were no longer alone. The citizens of the United States and of the United Kingdom were on the same kind of receiving end as we’d been with my father. We had legitimacy on our side now. If Trump were interested in doing so, he could in all confidence trace his own narcissism to his parents and possibly to the generation that came before. I suspect the same applies to Johnson. Not long into writing about my own family, I realized that we fit that pattern as well. It’s well documented. Pity the children of narcissistic parents, say researchers who’ve looked into it. What’s harder, they point out, is to find where to lay blame. Entire family sagas are at play. Nobody’s guilty, nobody’s innocent either. The more I kept writing and putting the pieces of our own saga together, the more I felt caught up in a kind of out-ofbody experience with me hovering above the family. What I saw for the first time in full clarity was my family’s refusal to move on from Europe’s two great wars. It chose to hold on to a distant past instead, at a time when a new beginning was more urgent than ever. And inside that self-inflicted exile from everything around us, my father had every last word. He dictated what was real and what wasn’t, and we believed. PUSHED AND PULLED It was the selfishness and arrogance of it all that eventually drove me out of Europe in search of a place where all the old strings no longer applied. That it took me years to pull these strings out of my own flesh is the Canadian end of the story. Every immigrant is familiar with it to some degree, this pull between the roots in one place and the branches in another. For most of us it’s bittersweet and never ends. Remembering it all — what the advice columns refer to as the brainstorming — was the easy part. Putting it together was quite another thing. I’m not even sure “putting it together” is the right phrase. “Waiting for it to fall in place” is a better fit. I might be digging in the garden, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, be out walking the dog, and that’s when it would hit me more often than not, another little aha! that filled an empty spot here, completed a paragraph there, tied up ends I didn’t even realize were still loose. Something entirely larger than the episodic details my memory could yield came drifting down, and slowly it all made sense in that ineffable way that can only be gleaned from the corner of the eye, not fixed by staring at it. Lately, I’ve had the fantasy of letting this drizzle wash all the words of the written autobiography away, strip it down to one chapter, then one paragraph, one sentence, one word and finally one letter until that, too, fades and disappears. In that silence I’d finally be able to become truly one with my own story. It hasn’t come to that yet. For now I’m still looking for a publisher and stuck in the phase where it’s all out of my hands. Name recognition is allimportant. Outside my own province (Newfoundland and Labrador) I’m not even a minor celebrity, I’m a nobody. One mainland agent told me that as much as he enjoyed reading the manuscript, he couldn’t see it interesting a wider audience. Another one has agreed to try pushing it, but I haven’t heard from him since. Local publishers are caught up in a backlog caused by an unusual conjunction of difficult market conditions. Response times to basic submissions, usually six weeks, have been up to 18 months. I feel like a parent whose child is ready to leave the home, but all that’s out there is homelessness. Azzo Rezori is a Euromutt with a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s degree in journalism. A former journalist with the CBC and The Telegram in St. John’s, N.L., he’s also worked on a demolition crew, as a homemaker and as a small-engine mechanic. He’s a veteran daydreamer and author of a collection of short stories. He lives in St. John’s.