Some things are too close to write about

In recent years, authors have written memoirs or memoir-style novels based on the crimes and conditions the authors suffered while growing up. I think of Natasha Trethewey’s 2020 book Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, for example.  The country needs to hear these words, especially from marginalized people.

I have no such words, nothing personal to say that impacts the national discourse en route to the equality of all people. I’ve thought about writing a novel about my uncle who was murdered in Fort Collins in 1919. But the moment is at once too close and too far away.

And in the end, assuming I could ever research it, I would probably see another inept police force that made assumptions about what happened and let the case go cold. (I contacted that police force years ago and they have no records of anything.) Usually, these kinds of cases are handled by having the courthouse burned down, providing plausible deniability for everyone.

And, I certainly wasn’t going to interview my father and his two remaining siblings to learn, as reporters ask, “how did it feel to hear your older brother had been shot to death while walking to church?” I was trained as a journalist, but that’s one unforgivable question I don’t ask anyone.

I may have, over the years, allowed a bit of spite to get into some of my books, things said with the names changed about people who wronged me in various ways. They wronged me in such creative ways, I couldn’t resist including what they said and did. If I had James Patterson’s readership, those people might have found themselves in my work. I don’t, so they didn’t. There’s an old joke: “Don’t mess with me or I’ll put you in my next book.” That’s true enough, though libel laws force us to cover up the perpetrators so they don’t even recognize themselves in the plotlines.

Most authors, who have personal stories less interesting and important than Natasha Trethewey’s are tempted to “speak out” in print. But are stories, while often universal, are often “too usual” (spurned lovers, schoolhouse bullying, the ills of military service, etc.) to make a compelling novel. So, there’s much we cannot share. To this day, I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

Yet, our lives become tangled with our novels in many ways, so discerning readers can probably find us if they read between the lines. Who we are is “large in our works” as Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando. We can’t hide even though we think we can hide because the truth will out. As we grow older, we accumulate a  lot of memories that are bitter-sweet.  To write about them or to keep quiet, that is the question.

Will it serve a purpose if we write about ourselves under the guise of fiction? I think most writers are doing that without realizing it. But intentionally, like a tell-all story sold at grocery stores. That seems kind of sordid and probably has no overarching redeeming value.


Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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Hey, folks, my memoir is all about me

It’s a vanity thing, right?

So many people are writing memoirs these days because they’re ready to tell the world “all about me.” Before they even graduate from college. I wonder what they plan to say. I see that some MFA programs are offering courses in memoir writing. How discouraging it is to think there are enough self-centered people to justify such vanity fair courses.

If even half of the derring-do fantasies I had before I graduated from college were true, I might have enough for a memoir, say, James Bond and Rocky and Dirty Harry rolled into one. Some people, for better or worse, have exploits, over-the-top trials and tribulations, feats of extreme bravery, and inexplicable miracles to write about. Okay, so the memoir may not be a vanity thing.

I’m still suspicious about the memoir writing fad. Yes, I know, we all have things to say, but that doesn’t mean all that will fit into a book that the public cares about. Well, maybe it’s a “seeking closure” thing, cheaper than or in addition to psychoanalysis. Yet, is there a viable market for that?

Memoirs make me think of people who are all talk but no action. They have plans, great plans, but nothing comes of them. Sure, one can write a memoir called I Always Missed The Bus, but will it sell? And is it vain to think that it would sell? Especially if the prospective memoir writer “hasn’t done enough” to even get into Wikipedia?

The wonderful people most of us know don’t need the validation of a memoir or a Wikipedia entry to keep being wonderful. Those who could write and sell a million copies of a memoir are often the last people willing to do it. Telling people “all about me” isn’t who they are.

Memoirs can be very inspiring, even educational or motivational. Call me cynical, but I don’t think we need everyone’s life story in print. “All about me” is really a turn-off kind of thing (at best).