by Jerry Waxler
After the success of Toby Young’s first memoir, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” he received a call from a Hollywood producer who was impressed by Young’s knack for transforming a jerk into a lovable character. In a sense, Young was being called to Hollywood. Now all he had to do was write a screenplay, and his attempt to do so forms the basis for his second memoir “The Sound of No Hands Clapping.” Just as the title is a send up of a Zen Koan, Young’s second memoir is a sort of send up of itself. Did I really want to read a memoir about a writer trying to profit from his previous memoir?
The tongue in cheek tone reminded me of the way Jerry Seinfeld’s television show was supposed to be “about nothing.” But unlike Seinfeld’s characters, who never grow or learn, Toby Young grows in all sorts of ways. “The Sound of No Hands Clapping” turns out to be more than light entertainment. It provides insights into life and some excellent lessons for memoir writers.
For starters, consider the familiar problem expressed by many aspiring memoirists. “How do you tattle on someone without incurring a law suit?” Young provides one solution. Instead of naming the producer who hired him to write the script, supposedly “one of the most powerful men in Hollywood” Young calls him simply “Mr. Hollywood” and states that the facts are altered to hide this person’s identity. You might try a similar technique to avoid the wrath of someone you want to write about.
When Young fears his wife’s pregnancy might derail his writing career, he discusses with her the wisdom of having a baby at this time in their lives. These are universal questions ordinary people ask every day. It’s a riot listening to him trying to convince her not to have the baby, and her flipping his logic upside down with the ease of an advanced judo master. By listening in on their discussion, I had a laugh, gained wonderful insights into both the male and female perspectives, and frankly feel wiser about the decision points of this issue than when I started.
While Young tried to kick start his own career, his buddy Sean Langan was trodding a parallel path. Langan, now a successful documentary film director, also had recently married and had babies. As the two men approach their domestic responsibilities, I am entertained by a buddy tale while at the same time I’m learning how a young man thinks when deciding to settle down.
Young provides more observations about the life of a writer through detailed conversations with another friend, a screenwriter and television producer Rob Long. These conversations with his mentor provide insider glimpses into “The Business,” in an entertaining portrayal, loaded with information for would be screenwriters. It’s typical of Young’s personal connection with his readers that the knowledge falls not from the sky but from a friend.
Through the book, the author discusses his observations of three main themes — making it in the movie industry, how to harness celebrity culture to succeed as a writer, and the shift in mentality of growing from a footloose young man to a married father. He develops these topics with the care of an expert essayist, without ever interfering with the power of the story. In fact, I became so intrigued by his observations, I began looking forward to these excursions. The lesson for me is that a good writer can offer lovely compelling observations about life without interfering with the story.
To learn how to write a screenplay, Young attended a workshop with story guru Robert McKee, author of a classic tome on writing, called simply “Story.” McKee says that by the end of a successful story the protagonist has psychologically grown as if he or she had been through a fabulously effective course of therapy. While McKee applied his rule to stories in general, I believe it is especially relevant for memoirs, which by their nature explore the protagonist’s inner world. When reading a memoir, I often feel that what the author learned and how they learned it is the main payoff for reading the book.
Young played up his flaws. For example, he would apparently do anything to become famous. (He actually posed nude to garner publicity.) And while he loves his wife, he wonders if his love for his career is greater. By making such a big deal about his character defects, Young aroused my curiosity to see how he would outgrow them.
Near the end of the “Sound of No Hands Clapping,” Toby Young stumbles down into the alcohol addiction he thought he had overcome five years earlier. In finding his way back from this slip, he declares his wife to be his Higher Power, thus sealing his faith in domestic life. Young’s reference to the Twelve Step Programs may sound like it was tacked on to the end of the memoir and not particularly relevant. But anyone who has studied the Twelve Steps will find an added layer of wisdom. The Fourth Step states, “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Taking a fearless moral inventory is a worthwhile exercise for any memoir writer, and by tackling our own memoir with this same enthusiasm, hopefully we, like Toby Young, will discover insights to help guide us more authentically and fearlessly into the future.
(Note: I listened to the Audible.com version.)
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