How to Capture an Individual in Words: The Benefits and Limitations of Life-Writing

Life-writing, that is biographies and autobiographies, are not a recent phenomenon. However, now more than ever these works of literature dominate the bestsellers list with the writing of Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and more selling millions of copies. But what makes these books so appealing to a modern audience? Is it the mere explosion of ‘celebrity’ admiration or is there something more complex than this at hand?

Twentieth-century literary icon F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” And in the modern age where we are seemingly more connected than ever, yet in reality equally as isolated, this statement seems more charged with meaning than ever. Life-writing seems to encapsulate this quote perfectly, the main benefit of life-writing is that it gives us a sense of belonging and brings with it a realisation that even these admirable characters in the media have ups and downs like any human; and their life, just like anyone else’s, is no straight-line journey. This is especially beneficial for young people who are bombarded with a pseudo-reality on social media, as life-writing allows for a more realistic, grounded view of what life is really like. For example, Tyson Fury seemed to be living the dream of many young aspiring athletes. However, the reality was very different as he struggled with depression, addiction, and even suicidal thoughts following his Heavyweight championship win. His recent autobiography ‘Behind the Mask’, another bestseller, allows for many admirers of his who aim to be athletes themselves to realise the realities of the journey he has been on and the ups and downs of such a life. This is extremely helpful in establishing him as a role model for people and not just this, but a realistic one, grounded in the highs and lows of what seems like a dream existence to many.

That is not to say that life-writing, and the sense of belonging it brings does not have downsides. By identifying with these real-life stories, we run the risk of oversimplifying life and the journey people go on. For example, Matthew McConaughey recently released his memoirs entitled ‘Greenlights’ in which he talks about his rise to fame and success in the acting industry. In this book, he talks openly about his somewhat luck in getting breakthrough roles and gives his signature brand of wisdom on the ups and downs of this. If we are to take this memoir as exemplifying everyone’s journey in the acting industry, then we are oversimplifying how hard it can be and thus may be creating unrealistic expectations or views. This might offer a dangerous comparative outlook to many people, especially young people.

Yet, is this not true of all literature? Nobody ever formed a view of the world through reading one book and if they did this seems somewhat dangerous. It is through reading a plethora of different novels, articles, poetry, short stories, and (of course) life-writing that we form a view on the world and life and thus, a sense of belonging. In today’s climate, it seems that life-writing may be the most successful method of cutting through all the pseudo-realities that we see in our fast-paced world, and as long as we take these narratives for what they are, one life and one journey, then they allow for a great outlook on the realities of the world. Thus, offering a sense of belonging, which we need now more than ever.

Tom Hale

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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