Part 2: An open letter to my older brother, urging him to write his memoir


(Continued from Part 1)

But Dave, Don’t just dismiss this idea of writing your story. . . . And not as reporting, but as story-telling, because if you can do this with heart it will find an audience and it will last. I think it’s important that we tell our own stories especially because, if there is a future, enough will be known about us (because of whatever writings we leave behind) that future generations will be curious about how we navigated our lives decade by decade, in a time of such upheaval. You might think it is egocentric to write about ourselves. But not if you approach it is as a story. That is not hubris, but not to write our story, because we think it is too self-centered, is hubris. Who are we to say whether our lives make a good story or an important story? Stories are what last when everything else erodes and corrupts and blows away. When we get older and tell our stories at family gatherings,“about the time I . . .” and repeat our stories by rote, that is a feeble effort to do what I’m challenging us to do intentionally. Just telling the stories isn’t good enough in a culture like ours that marginalizes its elders. We have to honor our own memories, breathe life into our experience because no one else will be able to.   

I have done what I am urging you to do but it was a long process with a lot of trial and error. First, as you know, I kept journals that go back to when I was 31. My journals tell lots of stories. They just had to be teased out of the endless narrative of self-reflection that I maintained from age 31 to 44. After age 44, I started writing “books” in an effort to fashion my stories into a tale for our times. The “books” that I wrote were failures. I hadn’t figured out how to write about myself without losing my audience. The first real book I wrote was New Wasichu, Crossing, at the age of 62. The formula, for me, for the type of book I had it in me to write, was almost mathematical. (I think it was Rumi who taught me how to dive into the mirror so deep that you come out the other side!)  I had to strike a balance between the personal and “world”, but to understand that it was OK to be subjective, that there was nothing wrong with sticking to my own perspective. So what I learned was, I had to stay true to my core-self, my voice by figuring out how to let myself be vulnerable without being indulgent. A good story talks about survival. Readers of the genre I am writing in gravitate to stories that pan out; that can be a problem if we don’t believe there is a solution or resolution when we start. I think all writers have to hash this out for themselves. If something is hopeless and doesn’t pan out, in my opinion, it won’t endure and it won’t hold up. That book “Into the Wild”, about a young guy who soloed in Alaska and died because he was so ill-prepared, is a good example of a book where the story failed. (I realize there are plenty of reviews that would disagree with me, but I just found it too depressing to finish.)

I’m not sure that the human race will survive the wilderness of civilization. I can take up that hopelessness in my poetry because metaphors are containers and a good poem is a good container and as such can hold just about anything. It’s alchemical. But a book is different. Books that are air-tight containers make bad books. If it’s too neat and nicely structured with no imperfections, where is the vulnerability? To write a good fiction, you need to come up with a vulnerable protagonist. . . .To write a memoir, you have to go into how you stumbled and messed up and made mistakes, but you work something out, which is why Bob Dylan’s memoir is titled Chronicles, Volume 1. As far as I know there is no Volume 2 and may never be. He couldn’t chronicle his life and live it at the same time. 

So, if you are having trouble writing a memoir, start with Chronicle 1. That’s my advice. It’s the best advice I have for now.





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