by Jerry Waxler
When we look at the flaws in Andre Agassi’s character, as described in his memoir “Open,” it’s easy to see echoes of the tension between him and his father. From earliest childhood, Agassi’s father was obsessed with turning the boy into a tennis champion. At first his father looked like a tyrant, forcing the boy to hit a million balls a year. What kind of man would treat his son that way? In fact, Agassi goes on to explain his father’s thinking. One reason the book impressed me so much is because Agassi never asked me to hate his father. The memoir showed the characters and let me make up my own mind.
Agassi internalizes these demands, and feels enormous internal pressure to live up to his father’s unreasonable expectations. But simply following his father’s dreams starts to tear him apart. He wants to find his own goals. The journey of the memoir is about his self-discovery. The conflict keeps him striving and keeps me turning pages to learn how he would cope with it.
Agassi’s parental pressure turns up in a surprising number of ways. Both of his wives, Brooke Shields and Steffi Graf, were driven by high pressure, star-maker parents. When Agassi’s father meets Graf’s father the two highly competitive men almost come to blows. On the opposite extreme, Agassi’s friend and ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer grew up with no father. Moehringer wrote about this fatherless childhood in his memoir “Tender Bar.” Obviously Agassi has a lot going on in the parent department.
The tension I experienced with my ordinary father
This in-depth look at Agassi’s relationship with his father made me want to run back to take another look at my own. My father, a second generation immigrant, spent all his time tending his drugstore. I felt invisible and to gain his attention spent more and more time working at the drugstore. After I moved away from home, I continued to try to become the kind of boy he would notice.
Now that I have been working on my memoir for several years, I have a number of scenes that portray my involvement with him, and now, to learn more about our relationship I can read my own book. To my surprise, I find many instances when he offered himself to me in kindness and support. Even though I knew the facts, I had overlooked them for all these years. He did notice me. Now, I own that observation whether or not the scenes actually reach a published memoir.
Memoir writers and their parents
One of the most common complaints I hear in a memoir workshop is about the difficulty of writing honest feelings about parents. I encourage writers to push through their reluctance. Writing about them will reveal the relationships in new ways. Even if this material does not appear within the frame of your proposed story, you may find a wealth of material that can help you flesh in your own character, and sharpen your understanding of the conflicts that drive you later in life.
When you review your life, you may encounter things one or both parents wanted you to do. You have your own feelings about how these desires played out. You may have wished you lived up to their dreams, or resented that you followed theirs instead of finding your own. A memoir is a perfect place to explore these introspective topics, and even if you never intend to publish it, your family conflicts may help you discover your own organizing principles. After all, these were the people responsible for molding you. You can learn a great deal about yourself by seeing the conflicts with them unfold on paper.
Write scenes with your parents. Write about an argument, a missed dream, a desire for harmony. What did your parents want from you that you couldn’t deliver? Write a scene of rapprochement, or of reproach. Write about the first time you realized they might have inner or outer tension with their own parents, and then write what you know about those tensions. By recognizing the splits and paradoxes in your relationship with your parents, you can flesh in a more compelling portrayal of them as well as yourself.
This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”
More memoir writing resources
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