White makes an interesting but problematic distinction. He’s correct to say that the stuff we experience daily is no more formed than clay; and that to assume that our autobiographical stories have neat endings is to is to give in to Art (shape, mold) as seductress. But a memoir — whether it’s narrative with its seams artfully hidden, or essayistic and rambling — is a history, of the writer, of a mind, of an environment, of a life. Montaigne notes that our selves change (at least) daily: what greater disruption can there be? What more vivid manner of “self-fashioning” can there be when yesterday’s truths collapse into today’s scrutiny?
It’s the essayist’s job to render incoherence artfully, to allow memoir and history — a duo White suggests are in opposition — to blend. And if I work with my history filtered through memory, than surely that history will be rendered malleable, but no less true, no less historic.
I like Samuel Butler: “Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.” That's the movement, from darkness to light, mystery to knowledge, that the autobiographical essayist has to learn.
"The Conclusion" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons