by Jerry Waxler
James McBride’s mother, Ruth, taught her twelve children to reach for their dreams. For example, a little-known clause in New York City’s educational system allowed her to send her kids to any school. She sent them to the best in the city where they were often the only blacks in the class. Despite her intense involvement in their lives, they knew little about her past. When James was a young boy, struggling to understand his racial identity, he asked her, “Are you white?” She evaded the question, replying, “I have light skin.” He couldn’t figure it out, and kept hounding her. “What color is God?” he asked. “He’s the color of water,” she said. “He doesn’t have any color.”
James McBride’s search for his racial identity intensified during adolescence. While his older siblings were earning college degrees, McBride rebelled so hard he ended up on a street corner, hanging out with punks stealing and dealing on their way down. In their company, something finally clicked and he realized the street corner was a dead end.
I should not be too surprised that McBride suffered while searching for his identity. During my adolescence, I too went through a period of uncertainty and anxiety so severe it turned self-destructive. One challenge for me was to figure out how a Jew was supposed to fit in to the Christian Melting Pot. After reading McBride’s memoir, I realize I had it easy compared to this boy with a white mother and a black father, trying to find his place in a culture that takes race far too seriously.
Surrounded by an all-black cast of siblings, neighbors, and extended family, he had no trouble finding the black half of his heritage, but his white relatives were a closed book. After college, less troubled but still curious, he applied his journalistic skills to discover the white half.
His requests to his mother became more focused, and finally after a lifetime of secrecy and angry refusal, she started talking. His interviews with her resulted in the New York Times bestselling memoir “Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” which weaves his mother’s tales of her youth into the author’s memories of his childhood.
Ruth’s reticence about her past reflected much that she preferred to forget. She grew up as an orthodox Jew in a small town in the south, shunned by her schoolmates, and raised by a cruel father who treated his wife and two children like servants. When Ruth set out to start her own life, she rejected everything about her father including his racism. She fell in love with and married a black man, triggering her entire family to reject her. The cut-off went in both directions. She broke off contact and eventually converted to Christianity.
If he wrote about his whole life, why wasn’t it an autobiography?
McBride’s life contains more than enough material for an entire memoir, and yet by the end of the book, we have also learned his aging mother’s history, a combined story that spans 80 years. This extended timeline defies the generally accepted rule that the journey of an entire life is an autobiography, a form supposedly more suitable for celebrities, politicians, and generals.
To write for strangers we’re supposed to limit ourselves to tighter timelines that focus on one particular aspect or period. Despite the broader scope of “Color of Water,” the book was fabulously successful, selling more than a million copies. How did this apparent autobiography earn such a prominent position as a highly acclaimed memoir?
In my opinion, “The Color of Water” compels me to turn pages for the same reason any good book does. The author has achieved expertise as a storyteller. McBride’s writing style was fostered by the years he worked as a professional journalist, reinforcing the comment I heard recently at a writing conference that the best preparation for any writer is to take a job as a reporter.
One scene offers an example of the lively nature of his writing. McBride’s older brother told him there was a surprise waiting in the closet. McBride peered into the dark to see what it was. The brother shoved him in and slammed the door. So far it sounds like a normal prank. The additional twist was that another brother, waiting quietly at the back of the closet, suddenly screamed and attacked, scaring McBride out of his wits. The two brothers had schemed to maximize the mischief, providing the reader with a vivid image of the loving mayhem that permeates McBride’s home.
Stylistically, the “Color of Water” jumps back and forth through time, interspersing tales of his mother’s childhood with his own. He even pops forward into the present, describing his trip to the small southern town where his mother grew up. As a reader I enjoy his time-weaving, but as a writer I find his style less accessible to analysis than a simpler, more chronologically organized tale. I wonder if his creative license comes from his years as a journalist or as a jazz musician, or more likely, both.
Somehow, McBride managed to achieve it all, thus proving that the power of memoirs is not in the rules but in the craft. Thanks to his excellent storytelling, James McBride ushered me into his life, where I joined the other million readers who also learned about the trials, pleasures, and challenges of this family and this man. Together we shared his tribute to his mother, Ruth McBride, and became one person wiser in our exploration of the vast range of human experience.
Write about a prank, an accident, or some explosive moment that left you disoriented and lets you show your characters in an almost otherworldly state of mind.
Look again at misadventures of your adolescence that you typically think of as stupid, misguided mistakes. Challenge your automatic self-attacks by writing about those events as if they were valuable experiments or detours along the longer road of growing up. For the purposes of this exercise, push your self-critic aside. Instead of judging yourself, simply tell the story.
Scan your life story writing, and pick an important scene you wish you could deepen. Interview a parent or sibling or, if they are not available, imagine you are interviewing them. Ask about their role in this scene, or their ideas about it, or about similar situations that they might have experienced. Use this real or imagined conversation to help flesh in some background to deepen your own scene.
Another bestselling memoirist John Grogan, author of Marley and Me, also started his career as a journalist. To read more about my take on Marley and Me, click here.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.