by Hugh Gilmore
If you were writing a memoir, how honest would you make it be? Would you admit all your faults and foibles, especially the ones that led to the dark moments of your life? Heck, would you admit to having had dark moments? You should, if you expect your memoir to sell.
Most best-selling memoirs always tell of a fall from grace, followed by redemption. People like a happy ending. In fact, they’ll accept no other kind. They don’t pay good, hard-earned money to read a book or see a movie about someone who crashed and burned and died from crash burns.
Unless you’re Elvis. Or Marilyn, or James Dean, or Kurt Cobain et al. Then everyone will read your story, as long as it claims that you’re the victim. All you ever wanted was to be yourself, but “They” wouldn’t let you alone. So you died, still young, still beautiful, still blameless. Well, okay, not entirely, but who can blame someone for being addicted to painkillers? Life is painful. Especially for the rich and famous.
But what about the rest of us – we drudges who muddle along? Is the average man’s life story worth telling? To whom?
Well, yes, I agree – if you say every man and woman’s life is equally important in the smaller view of things. Somebody had to drag all those limestone blocks across the sand to build the pyramids and you can bet he and she told the einiclach (grandchildren) what it was like.
My grandmom told me that my grandfather, Hugh, ran the gang that installed the lights in the Broad Street Subway. And my father, Paul, put the red lights atop the Connolly Brothers towers you can see from the expressway near Manayunk. I helped build the chicanes (traffic islands) along West Chester Pike near Manoa. But it’s the Frank Lloyd Wrights that the biographers come running to. Our claims to fame are real, but meager, and don’t usually get on the marquee.
Unless things happen to us. How about Joey Coyle, an average guy from South Philly? A bag of money worth 1.2 million fell off a bank truck and he found it. He made the mistake of asking a local wiseguy to help him hide it. Joey committed suicide at the age of forty. The Inquirer’s Mark Bowden wrote a book about him: “Finders Keepers: The Story of a Man Who Found 1 Million.” Sad, fascinating book. I recommend it.
How about Violet Jessop, who served as a stewardess on the Titanic? She survived, only to go on and serve as a nurse on the Britannic (which also sank), and, again, survive. The stuff of memoirs, wouldn’t you say? As is the memoir (“Highest Duty”) written by Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger, who landed U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the cold surface of the Hudson River back in 2009. And all the coal mine disaster victims, Holocaust survivors, and every person who ever fought in a war.
And everyone who ever invented something, from Post-It’s to Post Toasties. Or managed something, like Lee Iacocca or Jack Welch – or mismanaged something, like Mike Milliken or Don King. In fact, while Iacocca labored at puffing up his achievements at Chrysler (“Iacocca: An Autobiography,” 1984), a GM assembly line worker named Ben Hamper was getting together his angry and raucous behind-the-scenes book “Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line” (1992).
So, whether one’s achievements or misfortunes are great or small, they can serve as the stuff of memoir. But what if you simply want to write about yourself as a person? You want to scratch your name on a rock, or stick your palm prints in wet cement, or whisper to the world, “I exist.” How much do you want the world to know about you? The good stuff? The bad stuff too? How much of it?
And who’s your audience? Because if you sit down to write your life story for your children or grandchildren, you’ll write a certain kind of sanitized biography (which will probably not be of much interest to them, dare I say, till you’re nearly dead, or dead. Then they’ll have lots of questions they’ll regret never having asked you).
It’s very important to know before you begin writing that you distinguish between an autobiography and a memoir. This is arguable, but I’ll make the distinction thusly: in an autobiography intended for family and friends you should write every dagblamed event that ever happened to you, all your preferences, and the names and breeds of every pet you ever owned. For starters. But chances are, you’ll want to censor the story. You won’t talk about your sex life, your crimes, your addictions, or your petty meannesses.
That’s what memoir is for. And obviously, if the book is not meant for family it must be meant for strangers. In that case, you have two basic choices of subject matter: (1) revelations about shocking behaviors you’ve indulged in or been the victim of, or (2) thoughts and insights and observations about life that are original. Either way, the books must be honest. Number 1 above does not have to be well written. Its appeal is to people looking for titillation. Number 2 does, because its audience is looking to be uplifted by reading another person’s “take” on life.
All this brings me to the memoir class I’m taking, taught by Carole Mallory, at Cheltenham Township Adult School. Carole Mallory achieved glitter-fame (modeling, acting) through her talents and through her association with famous people. Now, she is trying to make it as a writer, having published both a novel and a memoir that pivots around her relationship with the writer Norman Mailer. She now writes often for Huffington Post if you want to search that site for her essays and reviews. It’s fun to hear her describe what she’s working on and then read it on the Post.
I’ve published two columns so far about her class. The first concerned the difficulty I had trying to decide whether to take the class. The second described what happened on opening night. I hoped to continue anonymously describing my learning curve as we went along.
Unfortunately, I got outed last week. I felt embarrassed and, as usual, I could tell from how hot my ears felt that I was blushing. They stayed that way for about a half hour.
Fortunately, Carole did not challenge my right to be there, which I was grateful for, but if she had I’d have told her I hadn’t come to write about her, but to write about my own growth and the issues her class raises. That’s a fine distinction, I know, but it’s true.
And the class has been marvelous lately. As of this week we’re halfway through. This column has been a distillation of only a few of the ideas I’m being helped to grapple with as I try to write my own memoir, tentatively titled, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.”
Hugh’s new book, “Scenes From a Bookshop” is now available in Kindle format from Amazon.com.