Writing a Memoir a Strange and Fascinating Experience

In case you missed my announcement last week, I’m writing a memoir. It’s kind of a strange idea, given that I’m no one famous. I have not held national or statewide office, I have not been a movie, TV, or rock star.

I also am not one of those people who lived through something extraordinary. I am not a survivor of abuse of any kind. I wasn’t present at any amazing historic event, nor did I survive a catastrophe of some sort.

I’m really just a middle-aged white guy living in the Midwest. What about my life makes it memoir-worthy?

Well, I had a pretty good childhood. As a brainy kid with an overactive imagination, I managed to get into all sorts of adventures, real and imagined. And since I am not above self-deprecating humor, I believe my childhood contains good fodder for people looking for a laugh in their daily reading.

But it’s been an odd experience. I am largely a fiction writer by trade. All of my books to date have been novels and short stories. I make up stories about other people.

Memoirs are similar to novels in that they tell stories in a narrative format. But the stories are supposed to be true. They’re not quite nonfiction, and they’re not quite novels.

My approach to chronicling my early life has been less biography and more humorous essay. I fell in love with the personal essay in college, and I’ve adapted the form to tell my own story in a memoir.

Because of this format (and for commercial reasons), I’ve elected to publish the memoir not as a single book, but as a series of interconnected shorter works. Each installment will be on a different aspect of my childhood, and you won’t have to read previous installments to enjoy any of the subsequent ones. When I’m finished I’ll collect them all into a single volume. The entire series will fall under the title, True-Life Adventures. Each will be outrageous but completely true.

The first, which I plan to publish in November, is called Secret Identity: My True-Life Adventure as a Superhero. It concerns an incident when I was eight, when I snuck out of the house after bedtime dressed up in a Superman costume with the intent of battling evil. Yeah, I was that obsessed with superheroes, and I was that crazy.

The interesting thing about writing this piece has been the details that don’t have anything to do with me. To be sure, it’s my story. But to tell it in the format I’ve chosen, I’ve focused on things that aren’t necessarily about me. I’ve digressed multiple times on the pop cultural impact of superheroes — the shows that were on TV (or on repeats) in the 1970’s, the comic books and their approach to heroic archetypes, the general preposterousness of a secret identity. I’ve also discussed the culture of the 70’s as a whole.

These aspects of the memoir take up many, many more words than actually telling my story. It might sound extraneous, but I think I’m writing about more than the events of my childhood. I’m telling the story of how an eight-year-old perceived the world. We are all products of our environments, and the world I grew up in made it possible for me to think my outrageous ideas were reasonable. It is the story of the suburbs of the American Midwest as much as it is a true-life tale of boy with an overactive imagination.

It’s too early in the process to really evaluate whether I’m putting too much of this detail into the book or not. I’ll have to read the whole thing when it’s finished before I can decide whether I need to make cuts.

But I’ve found it fascinating and strange, not just remembering this single event from my childhood, but in reminiscing about the time period and how a kid saw it. Secret Identity: My True-Life Adventure as a Superhero is about more than the memories of a kid growing up in 1970’s Wisconsin. It’s about the impact the heroic concept has on us and how it causes us to dream and sometimes to act.

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