The startling revelations of scary intimacy.
Themes that shock your soul.
Most authors are happy to edit other people’s work. This is often a reciprocal exercise and I don’t know of a single writer whose work doesn’t benefit from their having edited the work of others, or whose writing hasn’t been significantly improved by the labours of skilled and experienced input.
I am an editor, and working on autobiographies is my favourite by far. Everyone has a unique and fascinating life and I haven’t worked on a single autobiography that doesn’t have profound themes.
*Gasps from the audience* “Themes in non-fiction?”
Oh boy, yes.
Currently I’m working on the autobiography of a nurse who worked in the community, in a bombed-out area of London, shortly after the second world war.
As if her descriptions of post-war chaos, the beginnings of the Health Service, the antibiotic and immunisation revolutions weren’t enough to blow my mind, there are social and personal themes in her commentary that enable me to step outside of my world and take a hard look at how things are now—both in my world and in me.
As in fiction, the editor has to work out what the writer is trying to say, exterminating ambiguities, clarifying the unclear, and strengthening the weak. This is the most beautiful challenge, taking people’s often blurry ideas and accounts of real life and working with the writers to make everything crystal clear.
And you learn about the authors. There is nothing more fascinating to me than another human. I…
Oops… yes… themes… ahem. I was getting there, honest.
Themes are the depth of a novel and the most moving element of a personal history. But there can be no richer source of themes than another person.
Everyone heads off into life armed with around 18 years of it and the knowledge that they know just about everything. When amply supplied with 80 years’ experience, and the realisation that they’ve never really known anything, people’s wisdom and humanity are often their strongest points. These can reveal the themes of human existence—and can profoundly shake you.
One client was dying, and this catalysed a unique situation. On toxic levels of medication to fight the oedema that crept, day-by-day, up her legs and would eventually flood her lungs, she started to tell me her life story. Recording it was a race against time as either the medication, or heart-failure would inevitably kill her.
However, she became more interested in my life and insisted, like an interrogator, “I’m asking the questions!”.
So, over a couple of weeks, we discussed ourselves and each other.
What developed from this highlighted just about the strongest human theme imaginable. Fuelled by impending death, my client became increasingly honest and open. She warmly encouraged me to do the same.
I kept taking notes – notes I’ll probably not allow to be published, for both our sakes. Never have I had such an intimate conversation. It was a mutual invasion of each other – but with every question welcomed, respected and handled with absolute honesty and openness.
Scary stuff, asking a question reveals a lot about the person asking it.
We abandoned any moral judgements of each other. She helped me find the courage to follow her lead and ask personal questions. She led us both to a revelation.
The theme? How little we humans know about each other, how much we could know, but dare not ask about; how scared we are of ourselves, of revealing our most intimate secrets, even to close friends and relatives.
I’ve never heard of a conversation so unrestrained. Surely it’s happened to others at some time, but there’s nothing in all the literature and other media I’ve come across that even approaches it.
What emerged, and profoundly shocked both of us, was the depth of separation between people and the desperate tragedy of it. Even in our closest relationships we reveal very little of ourselves and know so little of each other. The tragedy is we are not aware of it.
My client and I realised how lonely humans are, at least in our culture, and how close they could be.
In a world where politicians role-model ways to humiliate and ridicule even a single statement made by another, and strut their momentary moral superiority like posturing cockerels and hens, it’s easy to understand why we’re so timid.
Caught up in this extraordinary situation, driven by imminent and inevitable death, this awe-inspiring and courageous woman pushed us both into a whirlpool of openness and unconditional acceptance. I learned not only how easy it is to accept everything about someone, but also how wonderful it is to have a person know you completely and yet still admire and cherish everything about you, no matter how much you despise yourself .
Maybe the details will never be aired, but, for me as a novelist, this theme is too hot not to handle.
Sarah says: Thank you, so much, Gary for sharing this insight into autobiographies. I admit to not reading an autobiography for ages, but perhaps I should.
My beloved Grandmother, who died aged 98, read them avidly up to the end of her life. I remember her sometimes getting through about four books a week; then she’d delight me with snippets about whoever she’d been reading about, calling them by their first name as if they were her best friends.
Other guest posts by Gary:
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