A friend recently told me that her autobiography lies irretrievably scattered throughout the world in the multitude of personal letters she has written to loved ones and friends. Personal letters are, of course, a kind of autobiography, and they are invaluable when it comes to writing a formal account of a person’s life. For reasons I do not entirely understand, I began to save a carbon copy of all my letters, invariably written on a typewriter, immediately upon returning from my mission in 1957. It used to amaze me that mother-in-law would promptly answer any personal letter she received and thereupon drop it into the waste basket. Somehow it seemed unnatural to me to destroy the record of her friends and loved one’s lives so callously.
I think that as they approach old age, people ought to write their life’s story even if they don’t have letters and diaries on which to rely. Admittedly, such sources lend a degree of objectivity to their autobiography. Now that my own life’s story is finished, I sometimes find myself feeling vacant and purposeless about the whole process of collecting information about myself. But I continue to recognize the value of having contemplated my life at great length. While writing my life’s story, I could see trends, gather explanations, and understand my obsessions better. You could say that I was reviewing my life both subjectively and objectively at the same moment. I could recommend that process to others even if, as I say, they lack access to a detailed record of their past and must write a monograph rather than a book. However much or little they can assemble, either from retrieved documents or from critically examined memory, I think they will find a great value in trying to pass judgment on it. Taking note of one’s strengths certainly ought to be a part of writing an autobiography, but so should taking note of one’s weaknesses. As far as I am concerned, a mingling of those two qualities adds credibility to the account of a life, and a narrative about half a person, rather than the whole person, scarcely seems worth reading.