79,121

Last Wednesday, I emceed the launch of Blaise van Hecke’s memoir The Road to Tralfamadore is Bathed in River Water. Here’s some of the praise for my efforts:

    ‘One of the unheralded emcees in entertainment today.’
          – Variety

    ‘A delight from start to finish.’
          – Oprah Winfrey

    ‘On this performance, surely an outside chance to host the 2019 Oscars.’
          – Empire

But that’s hardly surprising. However, this is a blog not about emceeing, but about memoir and autobiography. (If you’re wondering what the difference is between autobiography and memoir, an autobiography might be about somebody’s life, while a memoir will be about a certain time or a certain thing in that person’s life.)

When I subcontracted as an editor a quintillion years ago, I saw a lot of memoir and autobiography. A lot. And that’s great, because I believe everybody does have a story to tell. But a story is more than the sum of one’s life.

One thing I’d see popularly were autobiographies that were episodic – each chapter would be about something different. There’d be no chronology, so it could make them confusing to read.

Other autobiographies were sprawling tales of the years. They didn’t frame a story. They were just a recount of everything that had happened in that person’s life – and sometimes, what had happened before they were born, as the parents’ lives were also explored for context.

I love reading good memoirs and autobiographies, because what makes people become who they are fascinates me.

The best memoir I’ve read is tennis legend Andre Agassi’s Open, which looks at Agassi’s upbringing, his career, and him finding the person who he wanted to be – there’s a definitive arc there.

That’s important in memoir/autobiography/biography. What’s the story about? Agassi’s is about him taking responsibility for his own life – it mightn’t sound like much, but given he had a tennis-obsessed dad who drove him as a child, and then people around him who took care of him, it’s gratifying when Agassi claims that ownership.

Agassi also holds nothing back. I admire him for baring all, because a lot of his earlier life isn’t pretty, and some of it is vain (e.g. did you know that great mop of hair he paraded as a young tennis player was actually a wig?). But it’s that journey that makes him who he is. Unfortunately, a lot of memoirs – especially of celebrities – just become press kits. The celebrity is tentative to open themselves up, because it could invite criticism, or tarnish their reputation. So instead, the stories are designed to sell them.

When I serialised my blog The Other Me, it was about my battles with neuroses, and how I’ve come to something of a truce with them. I hoped each instalment held nothing back (at least in relation to me). The purpose of The Other Me was to show others suffering silently with neuroses that they’re not the only ones, and it doesn’t have to shape their lives the way it did mine as a teenager, as well as in my twenties. That was my story.

If you’re going to write a memoir/autobiography, think about what your story is.

Blaise’s The Road to Tralfamadore is Bathed in River Water explores her childhood growing up on something of a hippy commune, Tralfamadore, in the 1970s. The book employs a series of self-contained vignettes that can be ethereal, but they engage because each has an arc, they contribute to a greater story, and she’s open about her life – all this viewed through a child’s eyes of wonder.

She has some strong puffs on the back of the hardcover, too:

    ‘A beautifully rendered portrait of a place and time, a family and a community. Nostalgic, tender – and yet clear-eyed.’
          – Inga Simpson
          Understory: a life with trees

    ‘I love this book. It is at once magical and real, both earthed and enchanting. It captures the innocence and spontaneity of a child’s view of the world, tempered by the child’s wry, sharp, affectionate observations on the antics of the wayward, loving, flawed, yet wise adults that weave in and out of her life. It was a joy to read.’
          – Arnold Zable.
          Writer, novelist and storyteller.

    ‘A dreamy excursion into an amazing way of life that captivates and mesmerises, and will challenge everything you know.’
          – Lazaros Zigomanis
          Pride

That’s some heavy-hitting endorsement. Well, Simpson and Zable are heavy-hitters. I don’t know about Lazaros.

Anyway, those who know me know I don’t freely endorse things. As I’ve grown older, I’ve also grown the teensiest weensiest bit intolerant with stories (in whatever form, be they movies, television, plays, books, mime, etc.) that I don’t think are particularly good (especially if they’re getting raves), but here’s one I’m heartily recommending.

Pick it up and give it a read if you get the chance.

63,303

If I asked you to guess what jobs were being advertised here …

    1. WANTED
    Do you spend all your time thinking about how to hurt people? How to torment them? How to torture them? Are there no depths you’ve haven’t ploughed? Ruin their relationships, destroy their families, dredge up the secrets from their past, and set them onto a course to oblivion? Do you not only contemplate all these courses – and more – but also take delight in them? Do you relish the damage that you can do? Do you take joy in your own cleverness? Do you take your plans and go over and over and over them, trying to perfect them?

     
    2. WANTED
    Interested in concocting plans of violence and destruction? Rob a bank. Kidnap and ask for a ransom. Commit an amazing murder. Commit many murders. Hurt and maim and kill. Devastate. And elude and befuddle the authorities. Taunt them, wherever possible. Show them up as incompetent. Celebrate your most heinous glories for all the world to see and fear, while mocking everybody else’s safety and security.

     
    3. WANTED
    Are you capable of threatening democracy? Of rattling its foundations? Perhaps you can bring down a government. Set bombs and rob the everyday people of their security. Destroy strategic targets and let civilisation know that the day of reckoning is near. Threaten to burn the world in pursuit of your own ideals, or a radical refurbishment of life as we know it.

… what would you say?

Your answers might be:

    1. Homewrecker / Narcissist
    2. Murderer / Kidnapper / Serial Killer
    3. Terrorist / Spy / Donald Trump

Your answers would be wrong. Well, in this context. The answer for all three is simpler:

!!! Writer !!!

Writers think about this sort of stuff all the time.

And it’s always miserable. Stories aren’t happy. They may have happy moments. They may end with the contemporary equivalent of, And they lived happily ever after. But the journey to get there is a passage through shit and misery, because that’s what makes stories interesting. Nobody wants to sit around reading 80,000 words about characters having a good time.

Part of what makes reading compelling is that journey, in seeing characters confront and overcome obstacles, grow, and move forward; or seeing that no matter how our way of life is threatened, we can triumph and move on.

As it is, I think writers are, generally, a lot more sensitive and definitely more empathetic than most people. That’s why (and how) they’re able to get into the headspace of so many different characters and represent them genuinely. It’s how they’re able to insert these characters into extraordinary circumstances and produce authentic outcomes. It’s how, when they’re successful, they deliver verisimilitude.

But thinking about all this can’t be healthy.

It’s been shown that our thoughts influence our outlook. You don’t have to be experiencing a terrible time to feel terrible – you can feel terrible just by recounting a terrible memory. That’s enough. Everybody would’ve experienced this at some point – watching a recording, for example, that either made them feel happy (e.g. a wedding) or sad (e.g. a funeral) even though it might be years (or decades) since those events.

Making matters worse is that writing is an isolated pursuit. Writers don’t sit in offices chatting away with workmates. They sit alone trying to get all this to work.

And then there’s that whole judgemental hierarchy, e.g.

  • Is this any good?
  • Will the publisher accept it?
  • Will people like it?
  • Will reviewers like it?
  • Will people buy it?

Most writers wouldn’t think, Yes. That confidence isn’t in their DNA. Most writers would think catastrophically. E.g.

  • Is this any good? It’s terrible.
  • Will the publisher accept it? No – it’s not good enough.
  • Will people like it? They’ll think it’s horrible.
  • Will reviewers like it? They’ll pillory it.
  • Will people buy it? Nobody will buy it.

This isn’t even pessimism. Publishers reject books – even good ones. Art is subjective, and plenty of great books haven’t been recognised as great until long, long, long after the author is gone. Tons of books – even amazing books – don’t sell.

It’s a mess. All of it. So it’s little wonder that writers can feel down.

And it’s something to be aware of. I don’t have any solutions. I doubt there’d be a blanket solution, just like there isn’t a blanket methodology to writing.

But it’s something to be aware of, and it’s equally important to find a constructive way through it.