Should We Have Waited 100 Years? Mark Twain's Autobiography and Today's Blogging

7 years ago

Mark Twain famously said, "Don't tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly, don't tell them where they know the fish," which may be why his memoirs are going to be released now, 100 years after his death. Pretty much all the fish he could tell about are long gone, and any whoppers he's told have a great chance of going unchallenged, making the king of American satire perhaps also the king of book release timing.

Mark Twain, according to The Independent:

... left behind 5,000 unedited pages of memoirs when he died in 1910, together with handwritten notes saying that he did not want them to hit bookshops for at least a century. That milestone has now been reached, and in November, the University of California, Berkeley, where the manuscript is in a vault, will release the first volume of Mark Twain's autobiography.

It may change the way you view him, from a clever and jovial Southern gentleman to an angry questioner who makes "cruel observations about his supposed friends, acquaintances and one of his landladies." Those who have read the autobiographies have found them full of observations about religion -- including missionary work -- and the government. And there is a good chance that publishing such observations during his life could have affected Twain's public image and his place in American literary history.

Mark Twain

While Twain may have asked for 100 years to pass to have his autobiography published in what he hoped would be a more open-minded era (he had unpopular feelings about events of the time), a stronger reason may have been this: Even if he was telling the absolute truth, with no fish stories that could be challenged, Twain may have felt uncomfortable being his true self and speaking openly about people who had a chance to read about themselves in print.

It's an idea that bloggers know all too well. You start writing for yourself, and within a few posts, you realize that your story is also tied to many other people. Some of those people will be excited to see themselves described through a blogger's eyes (especially when it's a good story), but more than one blogger has seen the negative consequences of writing about other people.

Heather Armstrong's blog, Dooce, took a hiatus after the first few months. She she notes in her FAQ that the reason those first posts are missing from her archives is:

I was very naive and stupid when I first started this website, wrote horrible things about my family and their religion, and when they found what I had done I took everything down and had a little meeting with myself about boundaries.

That idea of boundaries may have been the driving factor for Twain to keep his autobiography under lock and key for 100 years. Armstrong may have come to the same boundary decisions on her own, but certainly, the input of her family moved her to set those firm boundaries and decide how she wants to write about other people online.

Karen Walrond of Chookooloonks also stopped writing about her daughter's adoption when Alex was a few years old. She admits, "The main reason I stopped writing so much about Alex was because I was starting to feel like she was becoming a poster child for adoption. And while I certainly have no issues around the fact that she was adopted, and am very open about this, I felt that ultimately, her adoption was her story to tell, not mine."

Could Twain have felt guilty writing about others, taking what are essentially their stories to tell, knowing full well that with his talent, he could probably tell them better? After all, if 100 years have passed and she hasn't gotten around to it, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon is probably not going to return from the grave to talk about their sordid affair and her penchant for vibrating sex toys. By this point, the telling of that story seems fair game, lest it pass without being told at all.

I may be the anomaly, in that I set my boundaries before I ever wrote the first word on my blog, and haven't strayed from them. Unless my words are only effusive or I'm responding to something someone else has already written, I ask permission before I tell a story that involves another person. I ask permission before I post photographs or video. While I may tell a random story about my twins, I never reveal too many personal details about their life. I constantly ask myself how they would feel if they read this story ten years down the line. There are so many things I'd love to write about and there are times when I feel muzzled by my own rules, but I never have regrets.

Flotsam recently discussed this phenomenon: When your blog is an account of your life, are you being true if you self-edit out major moments?

Every once in a while, though, there is something I want to talk about but don't, for fear of hurting someone's feelings or making someone worry, or simply because the idea of relatives reading it makes me die a little inside. Even if I were anonymous there would be things I'd feel ethically squeamish about sharing because they involve other people, and this is a line I walk in my offline writing as well. The problem with these restrictions is that sometimes something comes along that falls outside them, but is so big that not writing about it feels like lying.

In the case Flotsam refers to, she admits that there have been problems within her marriage -- a story that is not just her story to tell. The fact is that when we are the only people who know the omitted details, it is easy to just quietly not post for a bit, or to write about things that aren't your personal elephant in the room. No one can call you on it, because no one else in the online world knows what you're mulling over off-screen.

Bloggers are not unique, and writers have been grappling with the idea of boundaries for eons. There is not one clear, perfect answer. Certainly, Twain's circumspection may have been to protect his subjects, but it also could have been less selfless, really meant to protect his own image and relationships. It isn't as if being on one side of the openness spectrum is good and being on the opposite side is bad -- a lot of it goes into the reasons why you've set those boundaries in the first place, and what you hope to accomplish by not crossing them.

Where are your boundaries with writing about others within your autobiographical blog? And would you ever predate entries to post 100 years from now for future generations to read and enjoy?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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