Excerpt from Make Your Memoir Suck Less: What I Did Wrong With My Childhood Memoir
Years ago, (ok, decades) I got an advance from Doubleday to write a memoir about my family. The contract said: “Work shall be a novel based on the Author’s growing up in a wild Irish family, consisting of seven children, an angry mother, and a wayward father who travels the back roads of California in search of frustrated dreams.”
I plunged in confidently.
If they give you a contract to write a book, you must know how. I thought: It’s my childhood. I’ll just write it down. One of my many titles was Lagunitas, after the little town I grew up in, north across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was not an unpromising tale –there’s my father trying to burn the house down, shooting at a rival with a cannon, and other fun stuff. I worked on it for years, filling cardboard boxes with drafts as I came up with new ways to start over. What was the result after all that effort?
Nothing. It was bad.
I knew it was when I read a few pages aloud to people. I’d select, say, the part about the rainy day my mother drove the car off the road while taking the six of us kids to the dentist. I would have slaved over this section. I’d be proud of my images:
The windshield wipers rubbed noisily on the glass, providing us wedge-shaped glimpses of the gray-green trees and hills folded in a row like Sunday newspapers in green plastic rain wrappers. The back tires of the car ahead of us kicked up so much water that it looked as if the car was smoking from underneath.
Isn’t that good, the image of smoke?
I had lots of good stuff like that. But my listeners’ faces were always blank when I finished. “I liked it all,” someone would say, meaning she didn’t know what was wrong, but something was.
I spent decades trying to write that book. It kept not working. Did I realize that I had no storyteller? I did not. I never realized what the real problem was: my narrator, my child self, was an observer, without a mind or will or personality of her own. She was a watcher, not a do-er (she was often placed conveniently in earshot of the adults.)
Lack of voice is the most obvious thing in the world but it’s hard to see it on your own pages. When my manuscript just lay there, about to join the cartons of drafts clogging the shelves, I’d decide something else was the matter, and rewrite the whole thing starting it off in Hawaii this time, or as a play, or a movie. I’d take it apart and put it together again, change it from the first to the third person, using Track Changes, beef up the role of one character and eliminate another, cover the dining table with new notes and plot outlines, making my husband Bill –walk around them when he swept. Then I’d bombard my weary writing partners with yet another version of the first 50 pages.
Tracy Johnston, my writing partner, tried to tell me what was wrong, not that I was listening:
You’ve gone overboard in sticking to showing us things. You need a narrator. Your parents act in ways that are really dumb. We will get tired of their stupidity unless you get inside their heads or comment on them – we need someone to help us understand what makes them tick. We need to know there is some intelligence behind this book – a narrator who will try to figure out what is happening, who will take us inside the head of these characters and show us something thoughtful, make the characters more complex.
And my friend Mark Sloan:
I’d like to see you inject more of yourself into this story of two incredibly hard-headed people and their attempts to lead a more “normal” life. You’re a fly-on-the-wall a lot, one among many children, at least in this draft – listening in while doing the dishes, or sitting at the table, etc.
It’s pretty easy –now—to see what they were trying to tell me. When she says, “You need a narrator,” Tracy was telling me that the very person who has to be interesting and engage the reader was hardly even on the page. My narrator just stands there and listens. She doesn’t want anything, and she doesn’t do anything. She had no spirit, no voice, and no desire except for everything to stay the same– which is a pathetic point of view, given how little say she had in the matter.
What should I have done?
I should have found a story to tell that was my own, not my family’s. Her parents’ dissolving marriage is an obstacle in the story, not the story itself. I should have decided what her point of view toward that story was, and should have made sure my narrator was a spunky kid, not a bit player in her parents’ collapsing lives. I should have found a tone that emphasized the humor without sacrificing the meaning. I should have asked what that kid wanted.
If I were to tackle it again, it would be about the most amazing experience I ever had, that of having been a child. And I would have made sure that the voice of the narrator –probably that of an adult looking back, as we can’t have a child prattling to us for the whole length of a book—was engaging enough to practically be the main draw of the story.
You have to like you.
In Lagunitas, I focused on what the adults were doing, not on what a funny little kid I was, and how perfectly cast I was to play a child. I also did a lot of reading as a child and had developed the habit of thinking of myself in the third person. (We seem to get all our reports of childhood from former bookworms.). You have to respect your own intelligence, and your efforts to get to the bottom of things. And to kind of get a kick out of yourself.
I know you might be thinking, she’s just being modest, it couldn’t have been that bad. But here’s another typical paragraph that Tracy would have read:
“I studied my bare dirty toes. The idea of moving was exciting, as practically any break in the routine was, but it was just the grownups talking. They talked a lot, and usually nothing happened. They talked about writing a play and putting it on down at Spec’s, the tavern on the highway, but they never did. Dad had a new plan every five minutes. As far as I could tell, for Mom and Dad talking to each other was a form of entertainment.”
What an exciting book! Three people doing nothing. The child hears her father says “let’s move to Alaska!” and she has no reaction. No wonder readers told me reading that book was like turning over the pages of a photo album. My child self was, alas, my real self as a child: a watcher (she was often placed conveniently in earshot of the adults) Here’s her response to her father’s alarming announcement that he thinks they should all move to Alaska:
Now that paragraph COULD be made to work, as my sister Robin points out (she’s helping me with this book). She said, “If you intimate that the child knows there is something empty in all these words- that nothing will ever happen-it can be a setup for catching her off-guard when something DOES happen.”
But I didn’t do that, because my narrator has no inner life. She’s a four-foot tall reporter. I was more or less just reproducing my actual child self, playing the role I played in my actual childhood. Also people who had parents like mine find it expedient not to bother them with their own feelings, and stop noticing them themselves, and when they grow up to be writers have trouble recalling them.
By way of contrast, let’s look at this passage from Donuthead, which is about an anxious, over-intelligent but determined fifth grader named Franklin Delano Donuthead:
“I willed myself to lean forward and concentrate. Really this was very simple if I just broke it down into a physics problem. This was all about velocity. My bat would repel this sphere at high velocity. My mother wound up. Despite my mental preparations, I froze in position as the ball sailed past, dangerously close to my nose. But I didn’t step back or drop the bat, which was, I believe, a minor victory worth celebrating. Sarah tossed the ball back to my mother. We repeated this exercise several times. Everyone seemed to understand that a person with my delicate constitution required a great deal of warming up.”
What kid says, “Which was, I believe, a minor victory worth celebrating?” Or regards hitting the ball as a matter of physics?” This is a kid who can look at his own ineptness with irony and dry wit. He wants something. He wants to hit the ball. Who wouldn’t want to spend time with this kid? I am ordering Donuthead right now. (Yes, I know it’s not a memoir. But children’s stories have voice too, and memoirists have a lot to learn from fiction.)
So I get it, but I can’t go back to that book –I have too long a history of failure with it. All those drafts! I remember working on one of my endless sodden drafts locked into bathroom at a ski condo in Tahoe while my granddaughter (her mother was ten when I started the book) kept asking from the other side of the door, “Where’s Bobbie?”)
Since I began bookshelves have become glutted with fathers, really bad ones, like Frank McCourt’s dad who drank the milk money while the babies died, and the father in The Glass Castle, whose mother clutched a diamond while the author wore rags. Who wants to read about another run of the mill abandoning father?
And who cares, anymore?
My father doesn’t. He swims with the fishes in the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay, having drunk himself first out of my childhood, and then right out of breathing space in 1991, when he died of cirrhosis. But it might be useful, now and then, for us to visit my mistakes in it as a sample of what not to do and how not to do it.