Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography: A Call for Creative Autobiographies

How Neil Patrick Harris's meta memoir might inspire new frontiers for a sometimes-dull genre.  ♦ 
I remember back in middle school being told to write a report on an autobiography and struggling to keep my internal groan from becoming external. I hated the idea of reading a book in which someone bragged about how interesting their life was (yes, I know, not a very accurate description, but I was a pretty pessimistic and dramatic kid). To me, the whole idea of straight-up autobiography just seemed boring.
     I wish I could say I grew out of this phase, but that would be a lie. I’ve avoided reading non-fiction at all costs, especially autobiographies, because they still seem stale and egocentric, and I have better things to read. That is, until I received a copy of Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography. This is exactly what it sounds like: an autobiography modeled as a “choose your own adventure” story. Instead of the traditional autobiography, the reader acts as Neil Patrick Harris, moving through the story by making decisions and turning pages accordingly that lead to various moments in his/your life. Some of these moments are blatantly untrue and fictionalized, others are questionable, and plenty more seem to be real enough.
      At first, I was distrustful of this new creative autobiography, even though it promised to be unlike anything I’d ever read before. Part of me worried it would be like a less organized version of something I knew I’d dislike, but because it was a gift and I’m a huge fan of NPH, I gave it a read, and I’m glad I did because it was fantastic. Besides being really funny, it opened my eyes to the untapped creative potential of authors playing around with the traditional autobiographical form. It was clear that Harris wasn’t attempting to do the same thing as other authors; the purpose of this autobiography was more to entertain than to inform. This was something new and unique that appealed even to me.
      Reading this book, it was like Neil Patrick Harris was making up stories about himself, something that isn’t the norm in the traditional autobiography but definitely got my attention. (It’s nice to know that celebrities still daydream.) This is also, I imagine, more fun for the author, as it allows him to both write about his real life and to envision different ways his life could have turned out. The book is a blend of fake and real pictures, several storylines in which the author dies gruesome deaths, and a lot of random musical numbers that all add something compelling to what might otherwise have like the dry, self-congratulatory book I feared back in middle school.
     What Neil Patrick Harris did was demonstrate that there are more creative possibilities than have been explored in the autobiographical form. And what this book has done — the compelling effect it has created — could be accomplished by other creative forms as well. Maybe we’ll see comic books or flash fiction or blends of multi-media mixed in to future autobiographies; it seems to me when the author has more creative freedom, the result is more entertaining work. Everyday occurrences become funny and readers don’t feel bad for laughing because the author is laughing at himself. Creative forms say to the world, “I’m here, I’m amusing, don’t take me too seriously.” It’s not just that creative forms are entertaining; they lead the reader to allow him- or herself to be entertained.
    I’m not saying that traditional autobiographies can’t also be entertaining. There are plenty of fascinating life stories being written; I’ve just found straight narrative forms grow stale in both fiction and non-fiction. In the “choose your own adventure” form, readers become a part of the story, inviting them to be more invested in the events. If an author were to make a comic book or illustrated form the audience wouldn’t just be reading the story they’d also be seeing it. Also, fans of certain creative forms of storytelling would be drawn to similar creative autobiographies. A manga enthusiast, for instance, could spend all day learning about Zachary Quinto through comic panels and thought bubbles. A mother could teach her toddlers about the music of Elton John with sparkly pop-up pictures. There must be several other ways that creative autobiographies could pull readers into the story, the only limit is the imagination of the author.
     Don’t get me wrong, I recognize there’s a place for the traditional autobiography; if you’re an astrophysicist and are well known for being serious, then it’s probably not a good idea to write your life story using a collection of flash fiction. However, if you’re a creative person then there’s no reason that your autobiography shouldn’t also be creative. Think about what your potential audience wants and think about what you want. Don’t let yourself be trapped by conventions. If you want to write your life in a pop-up book then go for it. The world, and the genre itself, needs more creativity.
  • About the Author
    Erin Mathey is a Junior at Miami University majoring in Creative Writing. She hopes to write books for elementary and middle school aged children. She loves animals, food, and all forms of storytelling.

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