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The Dirty Little Secret of Memoir Writing

How Many Nuclear Bombs Must You Lob at Your Family to Ensure a Life So Compelling That Strangers Will Pay to Read All About It?

September 20, 1998|ERIK HIMMELSBACH | Erik Himmelsbach, managing editor of Bikini magazine, last wrote about Beach Boy Brian Wilson for this magazine

Two-and-a-half years ago, an article about my family appeared in The Times' Life & Style section. "My Three Dads" was an emotional essay I had written after my mother's death, acknowledging her impact on me and explaining how--in spite of a life in which few of her dreams came true--it was she, rather than credit-grabbing father figures, who shaped me.

When I arrived at work on publication day, my voice mail was overloaded with messages, most of them congratulations from friends. A few of the communiques were from agents and production companies. But none from my family.

Within a week I had taken meetings with agents from CAA, ICM, William Morris--each blubbering about their vision for a film of "My Three Dads."

" 'This Boy's Life,' but not as dark."

" 'Unstrung Heroes,' only funnier."

" 'Flirting With Disaster,' but with more tears."

I chose the agency that dangled the memoir carrot before me--one with an agent who said the nicest things about my writing, who announced, with as much conviction as is possible in Hollywoodese: "I am totally passionate about this project." And I totally fell for it. My screenwriter friend Paul told me, "Agents lie for a living," but I ignored him, believing these people genuinely cared about me, not just a potentially lucrative product. I went to New York to meet with representatives of the literary arm of my agency and with prospective publishers, who told me how great I was.

My head was spinning; I was in the process of being plucked from obscurity, earmarked for greatness, a dream all journalists have but dare not speak of. I had my signature piece. My calling card. I was the "My Three Dads" guy.

I'd worked as an editor for seven years, and what they say about editors is true: We all want to be writers. So I was about to become a writer, about to write the story of my life, because, well, the themes were so universal, the characters so vivid. Everyone said so. Even Sally Field, who expressed interest in playing my mom.

One problem: These weren't characters, they were real people. Sure, they were sliced and diced and chopped and pureed over the course of several edits, abridged to accommodate the almighty 1,500-word limit of the essay. Yes, I gave my pops easily digestible titles: Biodad, Adoptodad and Fauxdad. But no one asked them whether they wanted their lives, or my perspective of their lives, in book or movie form.

That's the dirty little secret of memoir writing--how many nuclear bombs must you lob at your family to ensure a life so compelling that strangers will pay to read all about it?

Fortunately, Biodad took it well: "You nailed it, man. I wasn't around. I was young and dumb." Since we essentially hadn't had a relationship until after my mother's death, the story wasn't a revelation, but actually a starting-off point. My dislike for Fauxdad, who was married to my mother when she died, was such that I didn't even bother to call him about the story. I warned Adoptodad, husband No. 2, but he never saw it coming. He, most of all, had attempted to fulfill the father's role while I was growing up; he had done the best he could, and we maintained a relationship after he and my mother divorced. But we had always avoided discussing how we felt about each other (discounting the awkward "love yous" tacked onto the end of phone conversations, the kind where you feel like a jerk if you don't parrot the sentiment).

Adoptodad obsessed over the piece, and in his anger recited specific language. "Deadbeat" drove him over the edge. It was a word that, admittedly, I played fast and loose with. I liked the way the word sounded and didn't give meaning a second thought. Adoptodad took it literally. "Those other two guys were the deadbeats," he said, his voice shrill with rage. "I was there."

"Why do you get to tell the world about us?" he added. "I don't get to respond, and that's not fair." Of course it's not fair. But memoir writing is essentially a blood sport--and since I communicate with words for a living, I always win. Which reminds me of a cartoon I taped to my refrigerator: It shows a woman signing copies of her memoir, "My Miserable Life." Her parents approach the table and say, "If we knew you were going to write about us, we would have been better parents."

I thought this was very funny.


Adoptodad and I tap-danced in slow motion for several delicate months. I made many apologies and clarifications in an attempt to regain his trust, which will probably never happen. The rest of that branch of the family was also feeling burned, angry that I would sell them out. And my Adoptofamily was unnerved, thinking that the essay was potentially just the beginning of public therapy.

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