Mark Twain’s Autobiography

Mark Twain – A Master of Narrative Flow Breaks the Rules.

This book posed a problem to read, but I’m so glad it came into my life – have you ever said that about a book before? It’s bigger than my Oxford Complete Wordfinder (a sadly inaccurate title) – if I was to read in bed and got too tired I would become trapped under it and starve to death. I don’t even want to consider trying to read this monster manuscript on the bus, though at least the other passengers can help me move it on and off.

Them’s eyebrows get their own chapter.

So I started a new routine of reading, just for this book and I’m so happy with it I will attempt to find other works worthy of it:

On a day off every few weeks, I now cook a large breakfast, plonk myself on the sofa under this weighty work and absorb a few pages around  a constant supply of tea. That’s right. A few pages. The last time I did this I made it through four whole pages in about two hours because the writing was so astoundingly beautiful and funny I went back and read it again to relive it several times.

Borrowed from Raffaella Loro - click to see her blog

This is what it would look like if I were a tastefully photographed female.

As you can no doubt read elsewhere, Twain tried to write his autobiography several times in his later life, and glad to say – like all of us who attempt large and difficult tasks – he failed, stumbled, got frustrated, had false starts, gave up for years at a time and took a while to sort himself out as he did it. But eventually he did it.

He talks about the journey he took to find the right method, habit and structure for his life story and I took a lot of good advice and encouragement from his experience, especially as I’ve realised that even if I’ve written something that reads well, it may still not be in the form that best serves the whole, a really tough lesson I’m sure you’ll agree.

You feel his excitement as he describes finding the solution to his previous stop-start attempts: dictating his thoughts as they come to him to a typist. It’s actually quite amazing to see a writer who is successful in his own time have revelation about himself and his process! I only have 45 years to wait for such insight into myself… great.

I like to think this is Twain when he’s supposed to be writing.

Secrets of Narrative Flow

Here’s my favourite bit about his description of the process; why speaking is better for expression than writing:

With the pen in one’s hand, narrative is a difficult art; narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every boulder it comes across and by every grass-clad gravelly spur that projects into its path; its surface broken by its course not stayed by rocks and gravel on the bottom in the shallow places;

a brook that never goes straight for minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around and at the end of the circuit flowing within a yard of the path it traversed an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law. Nothing to do but make the trip; the how of it is not important so that the trip is made.

With the pen in the hand the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish…

That canal stream is always reflecting; it is its nature, it can’t help it. Its slick shiny surface is interested in everything it passes along the banks, cows, foliage, flowers, everything. And so it wastes lot of time in reflections.

Vol 1, p.224.

As Twain says, the beauty of dictating thoughts rather than writing them allows his biography to flow and meander as naturally as possible, where more carefully written prose has a more precise and concrete edge to it – “like a canal”. Thanks for the engaging image, Mr. T.

This works in a fresh and engaging way that is rare to experience as you read the freedom and immediacy of his thoughts to twist and change as he pleases. If I ever write an autobiography I’m going to dictate it in style just like he did. Who doesn’t want to write their book from bed, dictating to an assistant, in a mansion in Valencia?

On a more practical level, it helps me understand why some writing is correct but boring and flat – it was without blemish and it was all blemish. 

writer I follow on-line also describes this well, that creative and good writing come fro the tension between immediate, passionate vocal expression and lasting, edited prose that is vulnerable to criticism  – we need both for good work.

“There’s a flexibility and a fluidity to the spoken word — thoughts don’t need to be complete, and the ebb and flow of conversation means there is a participatory shape to the expression of ideas. By contrast, writing is a more deliberate, more linear, and more solitary act; there is a sense of something solid, something permanent, in the act of committing our thoughts to paper. To write necessitates standing beside our words, owning them. But to speak — to speak requires conviction only at the point of utterance, as our sounds dissipate into the ether to live on as memory alone.”

The musical aspect of speech also creates a space where we can hear how words sound, which is pretty well understood, but prose must do much more than that, it must flow like a river – it must turn and ebb so that there is movement in the piece that adheres to a deeper natural rhythm inside us.

All that remains to be said is that this beast of a book has some fantastic stories and details of the man himself’s life, all told with iconic charm, style and wit. He just makes being a writer look so darn glamorous…

Favourite Quotes:

“Dr Meredith removed to Hannibal, by and by, and was our family physician there, and saved my life several times. Still, he was a good man and meant well. Let it go.”

On hunting a turkey as a boy: “… And besides, she always posed, when I raised the gun, and this made me suspicious that she knew about me and my marksmanship, and so I did not care to expose myself to remarks.”


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