I believe that writing about one’s own life — and maybe also reading about other people’s autobiographies and memoirs — is good for a number of reasons.
First and frankly, I am doing this study primarily for my own sake, for the sheer joy of doing it, and for satisfying my insatiable curiosity of myself — a largely unknown person, whom I have learnt to know better now over the last months. Looking up documents from the archive has the same pleasure value for me as viewing a good series on Netflix or doing basic research. Working in my own personal archive in order to understand myself is an experience of flow.
A closely related reason is that it satisfies my narcissistic impulses. It takes a moral saint to truthfully claim one has no narcissistic traits; academics in particular are prone to have a lot of them, and I am no exception. The trick is to be aware of them and canalize them. Devoting some of my time to narcissistic self-indulgence is one way to keep this unwanted personality trait under control.
A final selfish reason: I wish to age and die peacefully! As I am slowly but steadily growing older I feel an increasing need both for enjoying the achievements and atoning for my misdeeds. Taking stock of my life history seems like a good way to preparing myself for the final part of my life and avoid anxiety — maybe even obtain ataraxia. See further the page ‘On care of self‘
I may actually become a better person! Already the ancients knew that the understanding of oneself and one’s actions, thoughts, and feelings is an important prerequisite for doing good and making the world better. Even though I am growing older (I was born in 1946), I may still have another 10-20 active years to live — and it’s never too late to try make the world a little better.
Which leads me to the less selfish reasons for this undertaking:
Having realised the virtue of autobiographical writing for achieving solace and peace, I wish to spread the experience to others. I want to show how you can use your personal archive and mobilise your memory, not for boasting your ego or your curriculum vitae, but for reasons like those I listed above. Writing your autobiography is not yet another step in your career, but something entirely different — it is an antidote to the idea of living your life as a career in continuous progress.
Careerism is a cultural ailment that affects all kinds of people, including politicians, business people, professionals, artists, etc. It is particularly unfortunate when it occurs among those who have taken as their task to reflect upon our society and culture: doing research for career reasons doesn’t encourage slow in-depth thinking and thoughtfulness. Autobiographical self-examination may help intellectuals escape the careerist straitjacket.
I realise that few people would probably turn to autobiography as an antidote to careerism already in their forties or fifties. It’s probably a more realistic undertaking after having retired from a long professional career. But then again, we’re up against a growing trend suggesting that senior citizens should embark on a path of ‘succesful ageing’. Contemporary ageing studies focus mainly on ‘active ageing’ and ‘healthy ageing’, and seem largely to have missed the idea of old age as a phase for self-assessment. Particularly, I believe that autobiographical practice can help reclaim the Renaissance notion of ‘graceful ageing’ to the center of ageing studies.
Finally, autobiography is a popular and multifarious genre, which has generated lot of interest among historians and literary scholars. Having spent a significant part of my earlier research career on the genre of scientific biography, including the problem of historical and contemporary uses of biography, I wish to draw on these experiences to contribute to the discussion about autobiography, especially its use as a kind of care of self.