I’ve been reading memoirs for year or so with the idea that, sufficiently informed, I’ll be able to write one of my own.
Why write a memoir? What makes me think that my story is that interesting? The first thing that comes to mind is the tagline to “Naked City,” a police drama from the late 1950s and early ‘60s that went: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is one of them.”
As a journalist, I discovered that’s pretty accurate. Get to know someone well enough, and inevitably there’s a good story. I met and wrote about a lot of famous people, but I also met and wrote about a lot of people who were not famous, but who had or did one thing that distinguished them and made them interesting.
I think of the guy who owned the biggest tow truck on Oahu. I interviewed the mothers of Hunter S. Thompson and James Taylor. I met a British guy who twice rowed across the Pacific, crashing once on Maui and then on the Great Barrier Reef. I met the co-author of a book called “The Secret Life of Plants” that inspired a Stevie Wonder album.
I interviewed the chief scientist at IBM, a poet teaching school on Molokai, a photographer who did books of aerial photographs. I met puppeteers in Kentucky, a horse whisperer in South Carolina, and a high school kid in Connecticut who gave a bootleg graduation speech and got a blank diploma. That last story won a national award.
Challenging and Risky
My own story isn’t just all the famous and interesting people, although they have obvious appeal. What I’ve realized is that for a guy who considers himself risk-averse, I’ve had far more than my share of challenging and even risky experiences.
That includes two life-threatening experiences, neither of which were among the three shootings I witnessed. It doesn’t include flying in an F-4F jet fighter — that was the ride of a lifetime, but never life-threatening — but it does include kayaking the Na Pali coast of Kauai, and being pushed helplessly toward the rocky coastline while the other person in the kayak worried about getting her nails wet.
My year of reading memoirs began when a friend loaned me Stephen King’s “On Writing,” which is a memoir and King’s take on writing. Being averse to terror and horror stories, I’ve avoided King’s books and the films they spawned. But I’d seen references to “On Writing” and I’m glad I took the chance.
I found King to be likable, open and honest, and his lack of pretense encouraging. The biggest problem I have with the idea of writing about myself is that I keep thinking I’ve got to get better somehow, that I don’t measure up yet. It’s my mother saying, “Stand up, you’re slouching.”
King was encouraging in that regard, even admitting that when starting a project, often all he can do is lie on the picnic table in his back yard until the words start coming. I’d buy him a beer on the strength of that alone.
Conroy, Gaiman, McCourt
I’m no fan of Pat Conroy’s fiction, but in “My Reading Life” and the posthumous “A Low Country Heart,” he is at his open-hearted best, celebrating the justifiable joy he feels at making it as a writer. He also lavishes praise on every other writer he ever knew or read, whether he met them or not. No one was more generous than Conroy.
Neil Gaiman’s “The View from the Cheap Seats” was a surprise. I tried reading one of his fantasies and one of his graphic novels, but couldn’t stay with them. “View,” on the other hand, is a wonderful omnibus of journalistic pieces, reviews, speeches, and reminiscences that reveal his versatility and off-hand artistry. I was particularly impressed that he could be so honest and vulnerable, considering his British upbringing. Gaiman has no trouble being Gaiman, although given his brilliance who could blame him?
I’d seen Frank McCourt’s name over the years, but knew nothing about him. Then I happened upon a used copy of “Tis,” and now I get it. He’s an amazing writer with a touching, soulful style that makes non-fiction read like the best fiction.
It also reminds me of a joke I heard years ago from a visiting Irishman: “God created alcohol to keep the Irish from ruling the world.” That’s not to say that McCourt’s an alcoholic — although he admits to loving a drop — but rather to endorse that wonderful Irish personality.
Alda, Katz, Forsyth
I read Alan Alda’s “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed” primarily because I do some acting and I thought I might pick up a tip or two. I did, and it works equally well in life: listen carefully to the other actor and respond, not because it’s time for your line, but because you’ve connected at a deep level. Then the next line comes naturally.
Also, I loved Alda’s description of the M*A*S*H cast as a close-knit family.
Jon Katz’s “Running to the Mountain” was helpful in seeing how a former CBS producer clung fiercely to his dreams of being a writer and succeeded, against all odds and his own self-doubt. I wearied of his devotion to Thomas Merton, but honor his love of nature and dogs.
Finally, Frederick Forsyth’s “The Outsider” was a fast and engaging read, and especially meaningful since he spent so much time as a journalist. Forsyth was a prodigy with amazingly supportive parents and earned his Royal Air Force wings before he was 19. He wrote “The Day of the Jackal” in thirty-five days at 40 when he was flat broke. And then, to please a publisher, he came up with the ideas for “The Odessa File” and “The Dogs of War” in four days. Hollywood ought to turn “The Outsider” into a movie.
I also read — very belatedly — Peter Mayle’s Provence memoirs and Frances Mayes’ Tuscan ruminations, and all of Anne Lamott’s non-fiction.
At this point, I’m running out of memoirs to read … and reasons for not writing.
found this piece very interesting/entertaining John, and was gratified that you couldn’t stay with Gaiman’s fantasies! I found them just mind-numbing, and his stature is mystifying to me. along those lines, of what’s appealing/and not, I recommend Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’s Son” and ” Largesse of the Sea Maiden” if you haven’t already discovered him.
Thanks for the note, Claire. I’ll check out D. Johnson. Cheers.