“What makes you think anyone would want to read about your life?” he asked.
It was a reasonable question because I’m not famous, drug-addicted, bulimic or any of the other things that some people look for in a memoir.
“Well,” I said, “You could have asked the same question of Frank McCourt before he wrote ‘Angela’s Ashes’ and in fact, you could argue that, up to the point when he became famous, I’d had a more interesting life than a high school English teacher.”
Now we all know that McCourt, whose writing I adore, certainly had an interesting tale to tell but, except for his friends, family and drinking buddies, who knew that before he published his memoir?
My point is that most of the memoirs I read are by people I’ve never heard of and I prefer it that way. I would never read an autobiography of say, former President George Bush and, likewise, I’d never read one by former President Clinton either. Who cares? In my mind, they’re too well known.
People think you have to be a raging narcissist to write your memoir but, you know what, all writers are narcissists! But that is not the point of memoirs. For me, it’s all about story — presenting them and preserving them.
The reason I wrote my memoir — “Leaving Story Avenue: My journey from the projects to the front page” and being published today –– is that I didn’t want the stories of growing up in a Bronx housing project in the 1960s and 1970s and working for a daily newspaper before the age of computers, I didn’t want those memories to just disappear. They are to be valued.
That’s what the best memoirs do — tell stories of lives you’d otherwise know nothing about. One of the best memoirs I’ve ever read — it was at least ten years ago but it sticks with me to this day — is “Road Song” by Natalie Kusc. Never heard of her, right? But her memoir of growing up in Alaska and having her face nearly bitten off by Alaskan huskies is one damn great piece of writing, vulnerable and memorable. If that description turns you off, pick up the book and bathe in her struggle and ultimate triumph.
Other memoirs that I loved in recent years: “The Orchard” by Theresa Weir (my vote for best book of 2010) a love story that takes place in a pesticide-laden field of dreams, “Twisted Head” the hilarious story of growing up Italian-American in the Bronx (sounds familiar) by Carl Caportorto, “The Bookmaker” by Michael J. Agovino, a memoir about growing up in Co-op City in the Bronx with a father who has one foot in the world of classical culture and the other in world of bookies and numbers, “Her Last Death” by Susanna Sonnenberg about a mother who is craaazy, and the classic “Fierce Attachments” by the powerful writer Vivian Gornick.
These books do what the best memoirs are supposed to do — bring us into another’s life to understand what makes them tick. I can hear the doubters saying “Who cares about these unknown people? I don’t give a rat’s ass about their lives!”
If that voice is you, nothing I can say will convince you otherwise. All I know is that every life is extraordinary.