by Jerry Waxler
When you publish a memoir, you expose yourself to a variety of risks. In addition to the obvious one that not everyone will like your work, there are others, such as mistakes of memory, exposing vulnerable areas of self, and annoying relatives. If you want courage to balance on the high wire of your own memoir, look for inspiration from those who have gone before you. Take for example, Stephen Markley, author of “Publish This Book.” He is a risk taker of the highest order. In this part of my multi-part interview, I ask about his willingness to take risks in his writing.
Jerry Waxler: There have been a few huge media dustups about memoirs that were demonstrated to have introduced major factual errors. You discuss this interesting topic when shown were teaching a classroom full of young, under-educated children. It’s a powerful scene, and the kids offer some of the cleverest commentary on false memoirs I have seen anywhere, but the whole time I was reading it, I thought my head was going to explode, like that robot in the original Star Trek series who short-circuited after the humans presented it with a paradox.
“These kids couldn’t possibly have said such complex things. You were faking the whole situation. Your memoir scene about false memoirs was false. Wait a minute. This book that I’m holding, ‘Publish this Book’ is supposed to be a memoir, meaning it’s supposed to be true. And you have a fictional scene in it about kids discussing false memoirs. Wouldn’t that make you one of those memoir falsifiers?”
I couldn’t tell whether to be pissed off or ecstatic over this mind-burn. Yes, I know that’s part of the joke, but it’s so complex, who in the world is going to get it? (Oh, wait a minute. I guess I did.) What do you have to say for yourself?
Stephen Markley: I honestly don’t see what there is to be mad about. I feel like the chapter’s intentions become clear at the outset when I’m describing my ex-Soviet bloc, John Birch-loving drug dealer. I’m daydreaming on the page about how I could possibly fake my own memoir and win the glory all writers know they desire. The point of the chapter is that “Publish This Book” is about a painfully dull guy told in an engaging way, and that, as I said earlier, anyone’s story has these moments. For instance, I’m sure James Frey may well have had a harrowing experience as an alcoholic, but instead of describing that, he made up this “willfully contrived” story that makes him out to be this James Dean-badass crack addict (I’m always baffled by people who defend “A Million Little Pieces” as “still pretty good” even though it essentially reads like a season of “24” only less believable).
The invented parts of that chapter are nothing more than a fun device, a way of discussing the serious and troubling implications of memoir fabulism without dropping a dull essay into the middle of the book.
I would like to somehow take a poll of the book’s readers to see how many of them actually got it (glad that you did). I’ve had many people ask me who the semi-famous actress I was sleeping with was…
Jerry: In fact, the whole book seems loaded with one risk after another. It’s too long. It’s too meta. It’s too political. You have this strange ending with multiple false starts that could be confusing for some readers. And yet it works. I guess that’s one of the hallmarks of humor, that you have to take risks and if someone doesn’t get it they think you are just being stupid.
In Joan Rivers’ memoir “Enter Talking,” she reports that in her early days, while she was still trying to make it, she went on Jack Paar’s television show. The audience loved her but Paar didn’t get it. He said “I didn’t believe a word she said” and refused not only to bring her back on the show. He refused to talk to her again. I already know from your book that you have had similar experiences with people confused by your intentions.
I am inspired by the fact that you keep trying to push forward and just focus on those people who do get you. I think all performers could learn a lesson from this sort of courage, to focus on the people who love you and ignore the ones who don’t. What sort of self-awareness do you have about this aspect of your courage to write?
Stephen: This goes to pretty much the heart of any kind of writing, no matter the form. There have been some really harsh reviews of the book, and I admit, when I first read these, my gut sank. But the kind of writing I do–and the kind of writer I want to be–is pretty much predicated on the idea that I am going to swing for the fences more often than not. What some call fearlessness, others will call dreck, and there ain’t a whole lot I can do about that.
To some degree, you have to be responsive to an audience–after all, I’m not just writing for myself. So I do listen to criticism and I do read what the people who despise me say. But on the other hand, I think being even a boring writer takes a pretty thick skin. I know a lot of people who simply haven’t developed the callouses they’ll need to see them through. However, if you want to be an entertaining writer, if you want to take chances pretty much every chapter (and when I was getting critiques from my writing groups, it felt more like every other page), you’ll need that thick skin more than ever.
One of the most personal parts of the book (and some of my friends told me it was one of the most interesting) are the chapters where my professor Steven basically tells me the book is terrible and he’s questioning if I’ve been faking my persona all these years. When all that actually happened, it really sucked, and I was pretty hurt. Then, when it came time to finish the book, I realized I had to put it in because it was so central to the conflict of writing the thing. It would have been so easy to take the coward’s route and leave those chapters out (not to congratulate myself or anything), but by keeping them in and inventing a fun device to jazz up what amounted to an e-mail exchange, I basically offered up one of the most devastating moments of my writing career for everyone to read.
For a long time I thought it might be an epic mistake (especially when I sent the finished manuscript to Steven), but whatever–you only live once, and Heaven sounds boring anyway.
To read my review of the book, click here.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.