One of the lucky experiences I’ve had as a writer was getting to take a class from Frank McCourt, and as busy and sought after as the man was (he was writing Teacher Man at that time), he made time for a one-on-one with each writer in the class, which anyone who’s ever taught will tell you, it’s generous.
The thing about a great teacher is when you’re talking to him or her, you come up with stuff that’s smarter and wiser than you would’ve on your own, but somehow this great teacher makes you think it’s nothing to do with them and everything to do with you. So I wish I could promise you this were word-for-word how the conversation went but this is how– i promise you– I remember it.
“Is it honest?” he asked pointing to my thick manuscript sitting on the desk between us.
“I think so.”
He looked at me without a word, eyes narrowing a little.
I thought for a minute and came up with this but to tell you the truth, it seems more like it came from him than from me: “It seems like when you’re writing a memoir you have a choice, you can tell this story”—diving my hand in at desk level “and that story is honest enough and if people read it they might even say ‘ya that’s honest.’ But you know there’s this other story and it’s here,” I said, marking the level at our knees this time, “and if you dare to write that story, that’s really the honest story.”
Frank liked this. He clapped his hands like I came up with it, but the honest story is…the more honest story…is that I wouldn’t have come up with it if I hadn’t been sitting in his class all week.
Which takes us back to mill town. Mill town woke me up in the middle of the night last night. The knee-level story of mill town. Yes, I’ve been telling an honest story but there’s more to it, and last night I thought, I need to write that story, the story of how the depression in each of my now three-member family, the depression we staved off in the city with friends and urban delights, came into bloom that winter in mill town, that all the things we were avoiding in each other, we could no longer avoid. But then I thought, “It’s just a blog! Go back to sleep! Just write about Tanya and Bruce and that class stuff.” And just before I fell asleep again, some part of me continued to protest: “But that’s just half of it.”
Writing memoir, you’re always forced to make these choices of what you will tell and what you won’t. But I always tell my students: If you want to write a powerful memoir–one that people will remember, that they won’t be able to put down–you’re going to have to give something of yourself that you don’t want to give. You don’t have to give everything(in fact, tell-all memoirs can be just too much information, in my opinion), but chances are when you’re writing, the writing is going to take you to this place where you’re either going to glide along that desk-level route or you’re going to have to go to your knees and give up that one sacred, private piece of you.
Frank knew this, and he let me think I came up with it. And that’s a pretty good trick.