Memoir author talks about writing, sharing, and healing

By Jerry Waxler

Bill Strickland’s memoir, “Ten Points,” weaves together three things: a promise he made to his daughter, a summer of cycling to fulfill that promise, and his insights into the wounds of his own childhood. To see my review of his memoir, click here. To learn more about his experience of digging so deeply into his past and then sharing it with the public, I asked Bill Strickland to answer a few questions about writing and publishing his memoir. Here is the second part of the interview I conducted with him.

Jerry: Many writers feel a concern about sharing their private lives in public. I imagine this was even more intense for you, given the very personal nature of some of your disclosures. What was it like to share these private experiences?

Bill: At first I was terrified. When I first met my agent David Black, I couldn’t even look him in the eye as I tried to describe what I thought the book might be, even without details. I also hated sending the story to my mother, but it turned out to be good; we talked like we never had before ? a conversation that made its way into the end of the book.

After I submitted the manuscript, and it made the rounds through the offices at Hyperion, I was speaking to someone about the book – of course, right? – and the experience was so bizarre that it cured me of shock. I was lucky to be able to realize that everyone was going to know the worst parts of my life. And I’m luckier, I think, that for some reason I don’t very much care.

David Black, my agent, gave me some great advice when he read my first chapters. “Get ready for everyone on earth to understand you,” he said. And that’s been true: When I lose my temper at work with friends or I’m snotty at work or something, it’s not because I’m having a bad day but because my dad stuck a gun in my mouth ? that sort of thing. Everyone else has all these potential motivations that are hidden so we assume they’re just having a crappy day or are sick or tired or justified in their actions. But for me, now, for everyone who’s read my book the temptation is to attribute everything I do to something they’ve read. I don’t hold that against them. It’s probably hard not to do.

Most people are nervous when they approach me to talk about the story. They’re not sure if mentioning some scenes will open some sort of traumatic wound that’s been scabbed over. I try to put them at ease, and also try to apologize for the graphic nature of the story.

The bizarre thing is that I’m more myself now than I ever was. Rather than being driven or affected by shame, all the mistakes I make are my own mistakes, all the anger is my own, all the stupid decisions are just me being a stupid human, which is all I ever wanted. I’m more me than ever, yet to everyone else, I’m more the character in the book than ever.

The only concession I think I make is that when I give a book reading I try to select a section based on the audience. The story about my father making me race the killer poodle works pretty well.

Jerry: What advice would you give to people about looking at their own darker memories, and how to decide whether to dig deeper, or keep them hidden, or share them with others?

Bill: I imagine that the best way to go about our lives is different in at least some measure for each of us. Mining the hole inside me worked out; it might not for someone else. For me, it worked out that to be successful in a sport I fell in love, I had to spend a lot of time immersed in suffering, turmoil, unpredictability and other conditions that evoked my memories – and that one positive trait I possess, tenacity, was the answer to the memories as well as the sport.

Jerry: How would you describe what happened to you by writing this book – for example was it healing, redemption, therapy?

Bill: It felt like I was purified in some kind of fire. I don’t think I can make up for the rotten things I’ve done, nor do I think I have to make up for the things that were done to me. I just wanted to be shed of all of them, start fresh. My idea was never that I would be perfect, or even necessarily a better person. I just wanted to be a person.

The races themselves were the vehicles of my transformation . . . the experience of trying so hard, of failing, of succeeding only to fail again, of being outmatched but not quitting, then of having to quit anyway – all of that thrust my childhood back into my life. So my introspection took place at 30 mph, 180 beats per minute, 500 feet off the back of the pack or rubbing elbows with a whirling madman. Bike racing, as it turns out, feels like being burned clean.

Jerry: Some of the humiliating experiences your dad put you through were extremely difficult for me to read. Did you ever consider damping the book down to make it more palatable?

Bill: My editor at Bicycling magazine, Steve Madden, pushed me to be honest about my life in a feature story I wrote about cardiac health back in 2003. I was recounting my family’s cardiac history, and starting writing not just about the physical heart but the emotional concept of heart, and in a draft I dropped the detail that my father had once shot my dog, and I remember Steve saying, “That goes in,” then asking for more. At that time in my life I wasn’t going to tell anyone all that had happened to me, but the incidents I sketched out in that article marked the first time I’d admitted that what went on in my past wasn’t some hilarious caper of misadventures and loveable anti-heroes; that started a change that developed as I wrote the book.

Jerry: What role did writing play in helping you come to terms with your past?

Bill: Writing, as it turned out, was a way to process it, organize it, make sense of it. There was no narrative to my quest until I made it a narrative, in other words. I mean, we all decide where the stories begin and end in our lives — plenty of incidents related to that story happened before and after the framework of the book, but I made sense of my life within those particular boundaries.

One of the oddities about my personality is that I often seem to not know, or fully understand, what I think or believe until I write it down. It’s been this way for me as long as I can remember, just the way I relate to the world, a quirk of my mental make-up. I was one of those kids, for instance, who could learn how to hit a cue ball or build a go-cart from reading about it more so than from watching it demonstrated.

Jerry: I recently met John Bradshaw, who has spent his whole life working on the topic of shame. This fascinates me, since as near as I can tell it’s one of the main deterrents to introspection. Help me understand your willingness to stare your disturbing memories in the face and keep going.

Bill: Well, I was desperate. When Natalie was born, I was actually terrified that I might turn into the kind of monster my father had been. My choices were either to leave, to destroy myself, or to destroy the monster that was in me and wanted out. (I had no idea there was another option, which I found out only at end of that long season, which was to unmask the monster and see that it was only shame.)

At the end of the last race of the season, when I failed to get the ten points and had to deal with my failure and the fact that it had happened right in front of Natalie and my wife and my friends, I realized that the monster I’d always feared was nothing but shame. And I knew that exposing shame to the world would be the best way to neutralize it ? which meant I wanted to not only write my story but publish it so I would become transparent. I also wanted to keep my promise to Natalie. I couldn’t give her ten points (the score), but I could give her Ten Points (the book).

It wasn’t that I faced shame like some brave and noble human, but rather that the racing, the failing at racing, and the succeeding at admitting I’d failed, shone a bright light on the shame that was in me. I mean, there it was: I couldn’t not see it.

Jerry: Do you speak or do any sort of advocacy for victims of child abuse?

Bill: I don’t feel qualified to speak knowledgeably about anyone’s abuse except my own, or about the causes, effects or other commonalities. I just haven’t done that much research. The one thing I feel confident saying, which is in the book, is that I believe all of us contend with our own personal demons (though the intensity and source varies) and that for each of us, our obsessions, whatever they are – bike racing for me, stamp collecting, gardening, or whatever – can teach us all we need to overcome or learn to live with those demons.

Jerry: What’s next?

Bill: I’m done writing about myself. Next summer the paperback of Ten Points comes out. There has been some interest in movie rights to the story, though that’s notoriously unpredictable and not to be counted on, and I’m not inclined to see many of the scenes from the book acted out.

Next summer is also the release of a book I co-wrote with Johan Bruyneel (Lance Armstrong’s team director), We Might as Well Win (Houghton-Mifflin). Stories from Bruyneel’s life illustrate all he’s learned about how to win, whether it’s in the Tour de France or in life.

This is the second of a two part interview. To read more of this interview, click here.
Note: Foster Winans reports a similar experience in which revealing his observations of childhood helped him deepen his relationship with his mother, rather than alienating her as is so often feared. I comment more on Foster’s experience in this review.

Unbearable Courage of Living

By Jerry Waxler

To become more knowledgeable about living, I try to find out as much as I can about dying. This is easy information to find, because writers have so much to say on the subject. Death is such an important topic, Hemingway suggested to a young writer that he hang himself and have a friend cut him down just before he died so he would have something to write about.

Perry Foster, author of the memoir “Hands Upon My Heart: My Journey Through Heart Disease and Into Life” didn’t have to go to that extreme. Death came looking for him. Foster was an apparently healthy business man, until a cardiology exam. Then he found himself staring into the jaws of death and the only way to survive was to let masked people rip open his chest and stop his heart.

His memoir brought me face to face with the unbearable courage of living. He takes me to the waiting room, the gurney, and the operating room, and makes it easy to empathize with his predicament. While he’s a nervous wreck, so am I. He lets me feel his sweaty hands and his edgy outbursts so well it makes my skin crawl. He portrays a real flesh and blood character, not a cartoon caricature.

One of the things I learn is that when a real person is confronted by death, he doesn’t necessarily put on a happy face. Foster is afraid almost to paranoia that his care is inadequate. He accuses people of misleading him. And he is shocked that just when he thinks his situation is under control, he is back for another emergency visit to the cardiologist. His edgy reactions heighten my anxiety and while I would have intuitively thought such human frailty would have made me feel more distant, the end result is greater intimacy.

This treatment of death is so different from the way it is usually handled in fiction. In a murder mystery, for example, the victim might scream for a moment, then either expire or escape. In a war movie, bodies fly through the air, and die in droves, while the tough guy shrugs off pain. In Hands upon my heart, I linger in that state between life and death, grappling with the feelings, and trying to sort out what to do next. This is real human emotion, and I feel connected with his fear, anger, and confusion. As Natalie Goldberg would say, “this writing cuts close to the bone.”

In my desire to become a more alive human being, I can read Perry Foster’s book and learn about the project of bumping up against mortality, and coming back. And even though he didn’t claim to be tough or courageous, his experience inspires me to carry on as a person, and face the unknown.

Of course Perry Foster didn’t choose to be in this situation, and so it’s possible to dismiss his tale as simply reporting from the position of a victim. But one element of his experience did require a conscious choice. After he struggled through this painful and humiliating experience, being pushed along from doctor to doctor and feeling his life ticking away with every beat of his heart, he chose to write the story.

He didn’t have to do this. He could have kept his feelings private, and when someone said to him, “That must have been a heck of an experience” he could have just nodded, and said “Yes it was.” Instead, he undertook another arduous journey, this one of his own free will. He chose to write his story. He gained the skills, wrote the pages, and exposed his inner world to other people’s opinions.

Since I want to write about my life, I gain courage not only from his experience in the book but also his experience of the book. Within his lessons about his heart are embedded the other lessons about how one man faces the daunting task of translating his very personal life experience into a written story. And by assigning himself that task, Perry Foster has invested his own time and experience to help me learn to live a better life.

Read more about how life and death keep coming up in stories: “Life and Death in Memoir

The quote about Hemingway was taken from David Morrell’s book “Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing.” See more about Morrell’s work at http://www.davidmorrell.net

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]