20 Nov Your autobiography and your private geography.
In a town near Melbourne, Australia lives a man of 78 who has never left Australia and probably never will. In fact, if you traced Gerald Murnane’s private geography, his lifetime’s worth of personal journeys outside the state of Victoria would number no more than half a dozen and stretch no further than Sydney to the north-west and Adelaide to the north-east.
Gerald has lived the last forty-nine years in the suburbs of Melbourne, quite a few suburbs in fact, and he can reel off a long list of his previous addresses in chronological order without stopping to think. Gerald Murnane’s father liked to bet on horses and he liked to move around Victoria, and the moving and the horses became part of Gerald Murnane’s private geography. Two years ago he published an autobiography based on a lifetime’s obsession with horseracing, Something for the Pain: A Memoir of the Turf.
Your private geography.
Your private geography is a map of every place you’ve ever been. From where you started to where you’ll finish. Some places you volunteered for and some you didn’t. If you mapped your life’s journeys they would branch out from rooms, houses, buildings and streets, they would stretch across towns and cities, oceans, and continents. Your private geography is an invisible mesh unlike anyone else’s, and you know it like no one else. And Gerald, with his seemingly limited private geography, is an award-winning writer. He says, ‘I still haven’t run out of stuff to write about my own external and internal territory.’
Gerald is not sentimental about his experiences crisscrossing Melbourne, the moving house every year which, if you imagine the cartography lit-up, would set a section of Victoria ablaze. He doesn’t want to go back but he does want to remember the places because he says, ‘they made me.’
Fit your story to a frame.
Your private geography can be the framework for your autobiography. Prefabricated structures exist in your head ready for you to decorate with your stories. Pick a thread and retrace your journey. Travel, jobs, houses, songs, movies, passions.
You don’t have to put everything in your biography. The geography you pick to write about gives purpose and direction to your story as well as control over how much you reveal about yourself.
In her autobiography, My Life in Houses, author Margaret Forster writes about the house she was born in and about all the houses she lived in until 2013. Her stories of houses intertwine with the history of the house or its environs, and the people she met inside those houses or other houses she visited. Landlords, tenants, neighbours, tradespeople, three of the Beatles…
She tells the story of her life without delving into personal details. Her descriptions are of other people and other eras. It is her story but she gives away very little about herself and the account is no less interesting for it.
Your divided life.
Thoughts about your life will fall open at the same divides every time you think about your past. In 2005, Irish singer-songwriter Christy Moore talked about how he thinks about his life in songs, ‘They are the central things running through my life since I was a small boy. You know I can still remember the songs that affected me when I was very, very young and today I’m still obsessed by them.’ His autobiography, One Voice, My Life in Song is his private geography based on those songs.
Rediscover your personal geography.
Think about the geography of your life and pick up a thread. Some threads weave their way throughout a life and some are much shorter.
If you sign up for a free trial of Johnnybio’s Child and Teenager, you’ll learn just how easy it is to create chapters and go on to write about your early life based on your private geography.
Listen to This American Life’s podcast to hear Gerald Murnane talk about the geography of his life.