Point of Departure 1: We spend the days of our lives doing and undergoing. One way this stream of our experience can be divided up is in terms of meaningful incidents. Describe an incident that occurred in your life and explain why it is important to you.
The principal “stuff” of most autobiographies are its accounts of personal incidents–significant events that happen over the course of a day or so. That autobiographies are generally regarded as a continuous chain of incidents is signaled by the title of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself .
Here is just one of many incidents that Jacobs recounts in her book:
That night I sought my pillow with feelings I had never carried to it before. I verily believed myself to be a free woman. I was wakeful for a long time, and I had no sooner fallen asleep, than I was roused by fire-bells. I jumped up, and hurried on my clothes. Where I came from, every body hastened to dress themselves on such occasions. The white people thought a great fire might be used as a good opportunity for insurrection, and that it was best to be in readiness; and the colored people were ordered out to labor in extinguishing the flames. There was but one engine in our town, and colored women and children were often required to drag it to the river’s edge and fill it. Mrs. Durham’s daughter slept in the same room with me, and seeing that she slept through all the din, I thought it was my duty to wake her. “What’s the matter?” said she, rubbing her eyes.
“They’re screaming fire in the streets, and the bells are ringing,” I replied.
“What of that?” said she, drowsily. “We are used to it. We never get up, without the fire is very near. What good would it do?”
I was quite surprised that it was not necessary for us to go and help fill the engine. I was an ignorant child, just beginning to learn how things went on in great cities.
The titles of the five other books in the anthology of women’s autobiography do not include the word “incidents.” Nevertheless, each book is replete with incidents comprising a substantial portion of the author’s life story.
Consider a small sampling of incidents from other autobiographies in this OER anthology of women’s autobiography.
Let’s start with one from The Story of My Life by Helen Keller:
The first Christmas after Miss Sullivan came to Tuscumbia was a great event. Every one in the family prepared surprises for me, but what pleased me most, Miss Sullivan and I prepared surprises for everybody else. The mystery that surrounded the gifts was my greatest delight and amusement. My friends did all they could to excite my curiosity by hints and half-spelled sentences which they pretended to break off in the nick of time. Miss Sullivan and I kept up a game of guessing which taught me more about the use of language than any set lessons could have done. Every evening, seated round a glowing wood fire, we played our guessing game, which grew more and more exciting as Christmas approached.
On Christmas Eve the Tuscumbia schoolchildren had their tree, to which they invited me. In the centre of the schoolroom stood a beautiful tree ablaze and shimmering in the soft light, its branches loaded with strange, wonderful fruit. It was a moment of supreme happiness. I danced and capered round the tree in an ecstasy. When I learned that there was a gift for each child, I was delighted, and the kind people who had prepared the tree permitted me to hand the presents to the children. In the pleasure of doing this, I did not stop to look at my own gifts; but when I was ready for them, my impatience for the real Christmas to begin almost got beyond control. I knew the gifts I already had were not those of which friends had thrown out such tantalizing hints, and my teacher said the presents I was to have would be even nicer than these. I was persuaded, however, to content myself with the gifts from the tree and leave the others until morning.
That night, after I had hung my stocking, I lay awake a long time, pretending to be asleep and keeping alert to see what Santa Claus would do when he came. At last I fell asleep with a new doll and a white bear in my arms. Next morning it was I who waked the whole family with my first “Merry Christmas!” I found surprises, not in the stocking only, but on the table, on all the chairs, at the door, on the very window-sill; indeed, I could hardly walk without stumbling on a bit of Christmas wrapped up in tissue paper. But when my teacher presented me with a canary, my cup of happiness overflowed.
Little Tim was so tame that he would hop on my finger and eat candied cherries out of my hand. Miss Sullivan taught me to take all the care of my new pet. Every morning after breakfast I prepared his bath, made his cage clean and sweet, filled his cups with fresh seed and water from the well-house, and hung a spray of chickweed in his swing.
One morning I left the cage on the window-seat while I went to fetch water for his bath. When I returned I felt a big cat brush past me as I opened the door. At first I did not realize what had happened; but when I put my hand in the cage and Tim’s pretty wings did not meet my touch or his small pointed claws take hold of my finger, I knew that I should never see my sweet little singer again.
Next is a brief incident from The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux:
One day Léonie, thinking no doubt that she was too big to play with dolls, brought us a basket filled with clothes, pretty pieces of stuff, and other trifles on which her doll was laid: “Here, dears,” she said, “choose whatever you like.” Céline looked at it, and took a woollen ball. After thinking about it for a minute, I put out my hand saying: “I choose everything,” and I carried off both doll and basket without more ado.
This childish incident was a forecast, so to speak, of my whole life. Later on, when the way of perfection was opened out before me, I realised that in order to become a Saint one must suffer much, always seek the most perfect path, and forget oneself. I also understood that there are many degrees of holiness, that each soul is free to respond to the calls of Our Lord, to do much or little for His Love—in a word, to choose amongst the sacrifices He asks. And then also, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: “My God, I choose everything, I will not be a Saint by halves, I am not afraid of suffering for Thee, I only fear one thing, and that is to do my own will. Accept the offering of my will, for I choose all that Thou willest.”
Lastly, a longer incident from A Daughter of the Samurai by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto:
I was about eight years old when I had my first taste of meat. For twelve centuries, following the introduction of the Buddhist religion, which forbids the killing of animals, the Japanese people were vegetarians. In late years, however, both belief and custom have changed considerably, and now, though meat is not universally eaten, it can be found in all restaurants and hotels. But when I was a child it was looked upon with horror and loathing.
How well I remember one day when I came home from school and found the entire household wrapped in gloom. I felt a sense of depression as soon as I stepped from the “shoe-off” entrance, and heard my mother, in low, solemn tones, giving directions to a maid. A group of servants at the end of the hall seemed excited, but they also were talking in hushed voices. Of course, since I had not yet greeted the family, I did not ask any questions, but I had an uneasy feeling that something was wrong, and it was very hard for me to walk calmly and unhurriedly down the long hall to my grandmother’s room.
“Honourable Grandmother, I have returned,” I murmured, as I sank to the floor with my usual salutation. She returned my bow with a gentle smile, but she was graver than usual. She and a maid were sitting before the black-and-gold cabinet of the family shrine. They had a large lacquer tray with rolls of white paper on it and the maid was pasting paper over the gilded doors of the shrine.
Like almost every Japanese home, ours had two shrines. In time of sickness or death, the plain wooden Shinto shrine, which honours the Sun goddess, the Emperor, and the nation, was sealed with white paper to guard it from pollution. But the gilded Buddhist shrine was kept wide open at such a time; for Buddhist gods give comfort to the sorrowing and guide the dead on their heavenward journey. I had never known the gold shrine to be sealed; and besides, this was the very hour for it to be lighted in readiness for the evening meal. That was always the pleasantest part of the day; for after the first helping of our food had been placed on a tiny lacquer table before the shrine, we all seated ourselves at our separate tables, and ate, talked and laughed, feeling that the loving hearts of the ancestors were also with us. But the shrine was closed. What could it mean?
I remember that my voice trembled a little as I asked, “Honourable Grandmother, is—is anybody going to die?” I can see now how she looked—half amused and half shocked.
“Little Etsu-ko,” she said, “you talk too freely, like a boy. A girl should never speak with abrupt unceremony.”
“Pardon me, Honourable Grandmother,” I persisted anxiously; “but is not the shrine being sealed with the pure paper of protection?”
“Yes,” she answered with a little sigh, and said nothing more.
I did not speak again but sat watching her bent shoulders as she leaned over, unrolling the paper for the maid. My heart was greatly troubled.
Presently she straightened up and turned toward me.
“Your honourable father has ordered his household to eat flesh,” she said very slowly. “The wise physician who follows the path of the Western barbarians has told him that the flesh of animals will bring strength to his weak body, and also will make the children robust and clever like the people of the Western sea. The ox flesh is to be brought into the house in another hour and our duty is to protect the holy shrine from pollution.
That evening we ate a solemn dinner with meat in our soup; but no friendly spirits were with us, for both shrines were sealed. Grandmother did not join us. She always occupied the seat of honour, and the vacant place looked strange and lonely. That night I asked her why she had not come.
“I would rather not grow as strong as a Westerner—nor as clever,” she answered sadly. “It is more becoming for me to follow the path of our ancestors.”
My sister and I confided to each other that we liked the taste of meat. But neither of us mentioned this to any one else; for we both loved Grandmother, and we knew our disloyalty would sadden her heart.
Subsequent chapters in this book will introduce and illustrate other types of writing that often are blended with incident-writing to make up a full, rounded life story. Each will be presented as a separate Point of Departure for writing. To suggest how these genres might be synthesized into a full autobiography, I will primarily draw my examples from Etsu Sugimoto’s A Daughter of the Samurai. I frequently will supply additional examples from the other anthologized autobiographies.