Writing the Story of Your Life: The Ultimate Guide
by Carmel Bird
Fourth Estate, HK$153
I once watched Carmel Bird address a writers' festival audience. She looked markedly different to her winsome, windblown publicity photograph. Then merely a sexagenarian or thereabouts, the Debbie Reynolds of Australian literature stepped up to the plate in what looked like red mid-heeled dancing shoes. The shoes, it transpired, were a gimmick: the novel she had written was called Red Shoes.
This stumpy little woman fulfilled her requirements - stand, smile, speak, sit - with the practised alacrity of a carnival performer. And almost a decade later, here's Writing the Story of Your Life: The Ultimate Guide, possibly the most insufferably patronising work of nonfiction to be published in memory.
Bird and those like her are motivated by one of two impulses, and sometimes both: the first being to inspire desire; the second, to justify their own logorrhoea for fear of otherwise appearing a little strange. 'My intention,' Bird announces in her 'Prelude' with a near-papal sense of spiritual dominion, 'is to inspire you, instruct you, and guide you in the hope that you will discover the joy of singing your own song'.
However ardently Bird needs to feel needed, however wounded by love and life, and however justified her fears of inadequacy, the simple fact is that as few people as possible should be encouraged to write anything other than invoices.
The market is choked by the efforts of night-school students - conscientious Brazilian waxers, impetuous actuaries, middle-class halfwits - whose quiet delusions of literary grandeur are fanned into near-psychotic conflagrations by Bird and her kind, paid as they are to assure these poor saps that to 'create the narrative as first of all a gift to yourself, and then as a gift to the people who matter to you, and perhaps ultimately as an offering, through publication to strangers you will never meet, is a glorious and fulfilling project'.
Never mind that said punters are mostly artistically inept; never mind that they'd be better off investing money in tennis lessons or a canoe - the idea is to breathe life into the lie that not only is everyone interesting, but that they're capable of telling their own story. One only has to think of the recent epidemic of 'memoirs' by intellectual luminaries such as David and Victoria Beckham and Danniella 'mononostril' Westbrook to understand the true evil behind Bird's piety.
Mindful that her readers may be tempted to carve letters on their foreheads or deface public monuments with sticks dipped in tar, Bird even recommends writing equipment: the backs of envelopes, loose pages, plain cards, an ordinary exercise book, a special notebook, a personalised handmade notebook, ballpoint, pencil, coloured pencils, fountain pen, and, in the event readers failed to consider it, a computer.
'You need to be able to tell the difference between the 'good' words and the 'bad' ones,' she writes, as if addressing someone in a coma, 'and sometimes people can't do this so well without some guidance'. This granny-knows- best tone may be effective with ESL students, developmentally challenged infants and sports people, but those of us with IQs higher than our rectal temperatures may find it asinine. Possibly suspecting this, she later switches tones. 'Tell-all confessional memoirs are fashionable, and maybe that's your style,' she jive-talks. 'Maybe you plan to pull back the curtain and reveal absolutely everything. The addict memoir, the call-girl memoir, the incest-killer-paedophile-cannibal memoir.' The 'incest-killer-paedophile-cannibal memoir'? Is this what passes for humour in her retirement village?
Only occasionally does an interestingly serpentine cynicism lance the boil of Bird's professional pulchritude. 'One very good piece of advice [regarding publishing a book] is that you should really be young and beautiful,' she writes on page 274. 'Stay young. Stay beautiful.' Or, even better, ignore this embarrassingly elementary offering and instead purchase Anne Lamott's best-seller Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life - the only real 'ultimate guide' to writing on the market.
Writing the Story of your Life: The Ultimate Guide by Carmel Bird is available from dymocks.com.au