'It Must Mean Something to Have Two Books on the List, after All' READ 1 Meic Stephens Confesses He's Never "Set Much Store on Literary Prizes" but Feels a Warm Glow at Seeing Two of His Books Shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year AUTHOR'S NOTES

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), July 6, 2013 | Go to article overview

'It Must Mean Something to Have Two Books on the List, after All' READ 1 Meic Stephens Confesses He's Never "Set Much Store on Literary Prizes" but Feels a Warm Glow at Seeing Two of His Books Shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year AUTHOR'S NOTES


Having already written in the Western Mail about my book Welsh Lives, a collection of obituaries and one of the titles short-listed for Book of the Year, I have no choice but to dilate now upon another of my books that appears on the list, namely Cofnodion, a volume of autobiography.

To have two books short-listed for such a prestigious award in the same year is a compliment in itself, even for a writer who has never set much store on literary prizes.

But when it happens, an author's mind can easily be changed and a warm glow is usually the result.

It must mean something to have two books on the list, after all.

The writing of autobiography is in some ways the beginning of the end of a writer's creative life.

It can be a summing-up, a settling of scores, a fond farewell to the scenes of his youth, an examination of a life well or poorly spent, or a thank you to the people nearest and dearest to him.

If anything, it's a clearing of the desk, a rummage through the files, and a clearing out of the cupboards where all those photos, letters, memoranda and mementoes are gathering dust.

This postcard from a famous writer making fun of a mutual friend, for example, or this snapshot of a novelist in a state of inebriation, this typescript of a well-known poem with the author's corrections on it, these minutes that propose the sacking of an incompetent officer of a national body, this letter complaining primly about the sexual content of a prize-winning novel, all can now be bundled up and discarded, thus making it easier for your loved ones to tidy the study/shed/boxroom/cellar/garage/landing when you've gone.

That's what I call kenosis or the clear-out function of autobiography.

But the hardest part still remains: to write about yourself accurately and fairly truthfully, and in a way that will hold the interest of others.

It's easy enough to give dates, facts, names, places, events, chronology, context, and 'all that David Copperfield type of crap' as Holden Caulfield called it in The Catcher in the Rye (1951), that apology for teenage angst many of us read when we were young.

What's more difficult is to examine your own motives, dissect your own emotions, measure your own intellectual feats against those of others, revisit your own prejudices, and somehow give an impression all the while of the whole person in the round.

All this without being too monstrously self-centred or too pompous or too unkind to others.

It's a tightrope few manage to walk with panache and in an entertaining way, and many lose their foothold and come plunging down in a mess of self-importance and maudlin sentiment.

That was one of the perils I encountered when I started writing Cofnodion, which is Welsh for 'Minutes'.

Having written hundreds of them in my time, I thought I could bring to the task the same flair as when I wrote, for the Welsh Academy, minutes which the poet Gwyn Thomas used to propose should be accepted 'as if they were a correct record'.

That is to say, they should reflect the gist of things, a broad outline, a version most members would recognise as being essentially what happened, a broad-brush version and not necessarily a true record in every smallest detail.

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'It Must Mean Something to Have Two Books on the List, after All' READ 1 Meic Stephens Confesses He's Never "Set Much Store on Literary Prizes" but Feels a Warm Glow at Seeing Two of His Books Shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year AUTHOR'S NOTES
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