Frank McCourt, in the wake of his success with Angela’s Ashes, felt that any Irish person who fails to jot down his or her story is beyond an eejit. So what are you waiting for?
I didn’t set out to write my own memoir, Green Suede Shoes; truth is, I was having problems following-up a mildly successful novel when my publisher suggested that I throw a few stories around a dozen Black 47 songs and use the result as a stop-gap.
One thing led to another and after a couple of tales I found myself shoveling through the murky past trying to make sense of an un-sensible life. Unbeknownst, however, I had overcome the first major hurdle to all memoir writing – where to begin?
Right at the beginning, says you! Fair enough, but it’s a rough old trek uphill when your first sentence is, “I was born in the back streets of Ballyhaunis” or “I drew my first breath in Brooklyn.”
I would suggest that you don the old thinking cap and hone in on the first event in your life that continues to have an ongoing effect on you. I was lucky in that I had already written a song, Life’s Like That, Isn’t It, about waiting with my mother for my father’s return home from sea.
It was a beautiful summer morning and as the three of us walked up the Main Street of old Wexford town I heard a long lonely trumpet note and a few steps later saw a guitar in a shop window. Crazy as it may seem, I might not be writing this had it not been for that morning stroll.
I bet something similar happened in your life; you just have to dig deeply enough. If you already know then it’s time you got out the pen and paper or fired up the computer.
You’ll be amazed at what you’ll uncover. The revelations will be painful, joyous, humbling and even hilarious, but they will never be less than interesting, especially as you veer off on tangents you had forgotten existed.
Things will begin to make sense; now and then you’ll even find that adjustments can be made to your current compass, moral and otherwise.
One dilemma you’ll hit early on: how truthful should you be, for full disclosure will hurt many of those around you – and is unvarnished truth worth the pain you’ll cause?
I don’t think so; besides you’ll be up to your neck dealing with the truth about yourself. To paraphrase Pete Seeger – what you leave out may improve what you decide to leave in.
Now you may consider that you have no writing skills to speak of and you may be right. But I guarantee that by the time you get to the end of your story your penmanship will have improved markedly and you will look at other writers with a new appreciation.
On the other hand, the very slow, methodical act of writing will cause you to question facts that you have always taken for granted. Memory is, indeed, subjective; and anyway, even in autobiography one should never let awkward details get in the way of a good tale – a little seasoning only adds to the stew.
You may never write an Angela’s Ashes but you will tell your story – and even more importantly – leave an account of your family history. How many times have you heard the lament – “if only I had asked my parents or grandparents while they were alive?”
In this age of haste and anxiety we have barley time to ask the time of day, and God save us if the jolting vapidity of Facebook and Twitter become the sole narrative of our family history.
Maybe Frank McCourt wasn’t referring to fame or money at all when he declared that every Irish person should write a memoir; perhaps he meant that in the act of confronting our lives we leave an echo of our times for those who come behind us.