I am a closeted novelist. The closet light is on, and it isn’t too dusty in there. I am surrounded by fabulous outfits I covet, and am allowed to try everything on. I like it in the closet. I am content. But when l open the closet door, I will discover another cast of characters. They will smile, and tempt me with their quirks. They will promise stories. Before I know it, I will move into the larger, light-filled room where I write memoir.
It isn’t that I like sitting naked in the daylight, chilly and exposed. Really, I want the great wardrobes of fiction writers. Also, the shoes.
I am an accidental memoirist. I have never felt the impulse to share my own story. I am motivated not to tell—but to seek.
I write memoir to understand relationships, to consider what it means to be human, to untangle the big giant yarn ball of life, and to examine the threads that tie us all together.
When someone asks what I write, I say, “Books.” I figure it is a reasonable clarification. I don’t write regularly for magazines or newspapers (or even for this welcoming blog space where I am an invited guest). When pressed to admit that my first two books are memoirs, I feel almost embarrassed. I did not survive for three harrowing weeks alone in the winter woods or grapple with the demons of drug addiction or turn in several Oscar-winning performances or broker lasting peace in the Middle East.
In my mind, my books are not really about me. I wrote Cottage for Sale because I fell in love with the possibility of capturing a whole crew of real-life characters: house-movers and carpenters, an electrician and a stonemason. They were ordinary guys who seemed to me—extraordinary. I began the book that became Remembering the Music with another large cast: my fellow members of a community band. As I explored my own relationship to music, I found myself writing about my mother. She was a larger-than-life character who became my muse, my subject, and the guardian at the gate of an estate I had not planned to enter.
My long-suffering literary agent understands that I am seduced by interesting characters. She knows about the closet, and even while she waits for “that band book” I’m not yet writing, she encourages me to cross genres. She is also keenly aware that my small-life stories have thus far generated only a small income, and she’s always looking out for me. Two weeks ago, she called with an opportunity to ghostwrite a memoir. No doubt she realized that the prospect of steady, predictable income—perhaps for a year or longer—would be highly attractive to me. And she thought I would find the character I’d be ghosting—and the story to be told—personally compelling.
At my request, my agent sent along a title concept, a first chapter sketch, and notes on a working outline. I checked out a public Facebook page and Twitter feed. I ascertained my potential client had a “platform;” that would help later,
when we got to the publishing part of the program. I researched ghostwriting rates and sought advice from friends and colleagues—among them, three wise writers. Their consensus seemed to be, “Why not?”
Why not, indeed? If the money was good, and the timing wasn’t too demanding, I planned to say yes. I scheduled a follow-up with my agent. About two hours before our appointment, I panicked. I called the only friend—a painter—who had not seemed so keen on the project.
“If someone wanted to pay me a lot of money to forge a Rothko in a couple of hours, I might say yes,” he explained. “But if they wanted me to take me a year, I’d say no without giving it another thought.”
The analogy was imprecise—at best. Ghosting is not a felonious act. I would cheer on any writer who makes a living as a ghost. We live in a celebrity culture, and everyone who is anyone has to have a book out. Those who can, write it themselves. Those who can’t? They pay someone else. I’m all for writers getting paid. I’ve written radio commercials, catalogue copy, greeting cards and customized love songs in the service of keeping a roof over my head.
The painter plowed right into my thoughtful silence. “The point is, time is limited—and I have my own work to do.”
My own work.
I believe that when we write for ourselves, we are seeking truth. Where we find the truth—in the real world we have experienced, or in an invented world we have conceived and constructed—just doesn’t matter. As a memoirist, I write from memory, which is a kissing cousin to imagination. I am hearing voices that are not in the sunlit room, and writing down what I hear. In fiction or creative non-fiction, the work is the same; call it a difference in sourcing. I do covet the novelist’s versatile wardrobe, but I am at least as impressed with the work of those many fine writers who craft memoir. Truth will be found in a great novel, but great memoir requires honesty, self-revelation, truthfulness and truth. I feel privileged to spend time in that sunlit room of memoir, even if I have trouble explaining myself at dinner parties.
Saying yes to this project would mean I could hang out with an interesting person, claim a place in an alien world. In a way that was persuasive enough for print, I would inhabit another life. Ghostwriting this book would feel almost like being in the novelist’s couture closet. But could I find my way out again?
To my agent, I offered a variation on the classic rejection line: “I’m not the right writer for this book.”
“Oh, you are the perfect writer,” she said. “That’s why I had to ask. But writing it would be a distraction for you. I’m so relieved you said no.”
That made two of us.