It was the time when everybody was writing a memoir, so of course I began writing a memoir. I’d thought about writing a novel but nobody was writing novels any more. Memoir was taking the novel’s place, everyone said. And sure enough, at our local bookstore all the memoirs had crowded the novels over to a single corner of the New Titles table. You could still see this one guy who thought he was writing a novel hunched over his laptop in the bookstore’s Starbucks, but he typed much harder than he had to and had a funny smell when you got close. I didn’t want to be that guy, so I started writing a memoir instead.
One very important lesson about writing a memoir is that you should always say “I am writing a memoir” and never, under any circumstances, “I am writing my memoirs.” From the looks this rookie error got me I might as well have been flourishing a peacock-feather quill pen.
Clearly I didn’t know the first thing about writing a memoir. So I asked people who were writing memoirs to give me suggestions. “I am too busy writing a memoir,” they would say, “to tell you how to write yours.” I was in despair until one of them kindly added, “Why don’t you take a workshop?”
At the first session the instructor had us go around the table introducing ourselves and our memoir ideas. We had coping with a child with autism, a struggle with drug addiction, a journey to spiritual enlightenment after a traumatic accident, a struggle with sex addiction, coping with a parent with Alzheimer’s, a struggle with gambling addiction, a journey to acceptance of an alternative gender identity, and uncovering a family’s immigrant experience after finding out your original last name contained no vowels.
This was how I learned my second important lesson about writing a memoir, which is that you had to have a central idea, something that could be summed up in a sentence. Somehow everybody at the table but me had already learned this one. When my turn came, I had to confess that I lacked a central idea.
That was no problem, the instructor responded instantly, because nobody in this group had taken childhood sexual abuse. A wave of nods and murmurs of approval rippled around the table. So it was decided: I was going to be childhood sexual abuse.
I’d never had the experience of being sexually abused before, so the next day I drove out to the nursing home where my uncle lived. The corridor of the facility, I noticed, smelled like a mixture of urine and ammonia. But it might have been just one or the other, because urine always smelled kind of like ammonia to me, and ammonia always a little like urine.
This triggered a memory that I hadn’t thought about for many years. It was of the day we drove up to the woods when I was a child. Dangling from the rearview mirror was a cardboard air freshener in the shape of a pine tree. When we reached the woods and stepped out of the car, I excitedly observed that the trees out here smelled just like the one in there. The rest of my family burst out laughing and I started to cry.
I found my uncle sitting in the chair next to his bed, like he was visiting himself. He glanced at me and then pointed to the TV mounted high on the wall across from his bed. He was mumbling something but since he wasn’t wearing his teeth I had to guess that it was about the fizz on the screen instead of a picture.
I looked around and retrieved both of my uncle’s dental plates from under the bed, but I couldn’t find the remote. My uncle just kept gesturing at the fizzy screen—or even gesticulating, a word I have never had cause to use before—while he mumbled and wheezed. With his teeth in I could kind of understand him, though, so I stretched out on his bed and tried to follow along.
It was something about how Sage didn’t trust Stone after that weekend with Faith at the lodge and meanwhile the mob was after Skye because she’d seen Brandon shoot Jake but really it was Amber in a wig getting revenge for the time Lorna drugged Fletcher and kidnapped little Nate Jr. before Paige woke up from her coma and testified against Hart who was still in rehab when Storm got the biopsy results but since Trey double-crossed Field over the money that River owed Cliff it was only a matter of time until Logan told Ashley that Brittany had switched the paternity tests and all because Rex deliberately crashed his Land Rover into Blake and Astor’s wedding where it was revealed that Amethyst’s stalker was Morse’s evil twin and Grant was alive after all . . .
I looked at my watch: it was the hour when, years ago, my family would gather in the den to watch our favorite afternoon soap. After the accident at the factory my uncle had become a devoted viewer along with my mom and grandma and aunts. I had overheard each daily episode while playing on the rug at their feet.
Now it appeared that my uncle was trying to catch me up on the latest developments. I didn’t have the heart to tell him what I’d read online a week or two ago about the show getting cancelled. Instead, just to humor him, I asked if any of the same characters were around from when I was a boy.
My uncle cleared his throat and raised himself slightly in his seat. Yes, he said. There were two or three of the same characters, but they were older now and played by different actors and actresses. Often the show’s producers would keep a character alive even after an actor quit by plugging in a new actor and pretending that nothing had happened. The presence of the new performer in the old role could be very distracting at first, but sometimes the new one turned out to be much better or more suited to the character and thus made the role “theirs,” so that you soon forgot the previous performer. Other times, though—and this was no doubt more frequently the case—the first one had been the best, and every further replacement—sometimes as many as three or four—was a step down, a dilution, until all you did when that character was on screen was think about the original actor, who by that time had acquired an almost mythic status.
Or stature—maybe it was stature my uncle had said. For a while now he had been looking at me instead of the TV. The tremors of his chin and hands had relaxed and his eyelids weren’t fluttering as much. Suddenly he pushed himself to his feet and began shuffling around on the linoleum in his slippers and pajamas.
But, he went on, there was one actor who had been playing the same character on the show for many years—almost the entirety of its run, in fact—so that now he was the silver-haired patriarch of the show’s main family. Other actors and actresses jumped ship because they believed they were going to make it big in prime time or even the movies, but not this one. He’d always been loyal to the show. Loyal, my uncle repeated. He made a slight but decisive arc in the air with his fist, as if bringing down an invisible gavel.
It had been one of the actor’s favorite gestures—by this time my uncle was even sounding a little like him. Or like the character, I mean, although since the actor had played no other role during his working life, it had become difficult to tell them apart. Suddenly my uncle paused and stared into space, as if waiting for the theme music. When he spoke again it was to ask what had brought me there that afternoon, in a voice like he was about to offer me a drink from crystal decanters on a silver tray.
I started explaining about my desire to write, and how since everyone these days was writing a memoir that was what I was going to write too, but since I didn’t know the first thing about memoir-writing I’d had to sign up for this workshop, and even though the title of the workshop was So You Want to Write a Memoir? —clearly implying it was for complete beginners with no experience in memoir-writing whatsoever—everybody except me already had topics for theirs—
I was getting into my story but I couldn’t help noticing what was happening to my uncle. It was like someone had pressed the rewind button on him: he sagged on his feet, shuffled back to his chair, and sank into it. Then his head dropped until all that was visible over the edge of the bed was his knobby spine and shoulder blades stretching the pajama flannel. I figured it must be just dawning on him that his show had been cancelled.
When I got down and knelt beside the chair I could see his dental plates in a pool of slobber in his lap. He was mumbling again, too— “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” or something like that. I put my arm around his shaking frame and soothed him until I was able to explain what I needed.
Next week we reconvened for the second session of the workshop. A woman began reading from the pages she’d written about her search for her birth parents, but the instructor cut her off after only a few paragraphs. That was when I learned my third important lesson about writing a memoir. This time, however, the rest of the class had to learn it along with me.
The memoir market was a crowded field, the instructor said, and competition from non-print media made it even worse. It was no longer enough just to have a central idea. That might give you a plot line for your memoir, but nowadays to get anyone’s attention—to say nothing of their dollars—you had to have a hook, too. It couldn’t even be considered a real memoir until it had a hook.
Thus a search for one’s birth parents was not a memoir, by itself. But if a successful fertility doctor searches for her own birth parents—now that was a memoir. Did we see the difference? In the same way, cancer treatment leaving a person without a sense of taste was not a memoir, unless the patient happened to be a successful chef. A struggle with Tourette Syndrome was not a memoir unless you were an etiquette columnist, say, or better yet, an opera singer. And a journey to spiritual enlightenment was not a memoir unless you were a former Fortune 500 executive grown disgusted with a life of money and materialism. And so on.
I stood up so fast my chair skidded back and toppled over onto the tiles. “Wait a minute—” I shouted, “I had my uncle’s fingers in my ass this weekend and now you’re telling me it’s only a memoir if I’m a successful Hollywood proctologist?”
Everybody else was on their feet and screaming at the instructor too. Nobody wanted to hear that even before they wrote their memoir they had to be somebody. And even then, while the coffee cups bounced and the pages went flying, every few seconds one or another of us would stop pounding the table just long enough to glance around the room in a very self-conscious way. We wanted to find the cameras that were recording all this for the reality show where one of us would be voted off at the end of the hour, or the contest show where a panel of judges would evaluate our performances, or better yet the daytime talk show where the guests were supposed to explode in fury and throw their chairs at each other or the host. All that was missing was a studio audience roaring for blood and the sudden appearance of burly bouncers onstage. But it was really just the basement of the community center, with the exact same linoleum as my uncle’s room at the nursing home.
You’d think after all that I would’ve given up on the idea of writing a memoir. Somehow, though, it’s only made me more determined to go on, more determined than ever, in fact. But this time I’m not asking anyone’s advice—I’m going to write it however I want and that will be the right way. I’ll sit at my table in the bookstore Starbucks and pound the keys of my laptop just as loud as I please. And fuck it—it’s not going to be “a memoir,” it’s going to be my memoirs.
So far I’ve only got a couple of things beyond that pine tree-shaped air freshener memory, but I am not discouraged. For example, I remember visiting Carlsbad Caverns when I was eleven and thinking it looked just like the cave part of that Disneyland train ride, which I had been on the year before. And I remember Miss Nancy looking through her Magic Mirror at the end of Romper Room and calling out the names of all the little boys and girls she saw out there in Televisionland. I see Timmy and I see Mark and I see Annie and I see Jane, Miss Nancy would say, or I see Johnny and I see Becky and I see Mary and I see Tom. I remember how close I’d crouch to the set, my knees on the rug and my nose almost touching the screen. And I remember waiting for Miss Nancy to call my name, too, since I had been a good boy, and waiting and waiting.
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