Fame, laughter, and self discovery: a review of the memoir The Sound of No Hands Clapping

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

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.)

For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

5 Memoir Starters for Beginners

by Jerry Waxler

To learn more about the cultural passion for memoirs, and reasons you should write your own, read my book Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire, available on Amazon. Click here for the eBook or paperback.

When you face a daunting task, the only way to start is to take the first step. But what if even the first step seems daunting? Like the Gumption Trap in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you can’t start your journey until you make peace with that first step. Memoir classes are one excellent way to coach you onto the road. And in fact there may be even gentler ways to start. Use techniques for self-reporting that you can find within ordinary life. If you’re already doing some of these, use them as the starting point from which to extend your writing and turn it into a more complete story of your life.

Letters and newsletters
For at least two thousand years, letters were an important way for people to keep in touch at a distance. The telephone made it so much easier to connect that it looked like personal letter writing was fading into oblivion. Now, with the development of blogs, email, and online family newsletters, writing is making a comeback. By writing letters to your relatives and friends, or articles for your family or group newsletter you can keep in touch while you develop parts of your memoir.

Job and school applications
A more structured method of organizing your past comes when you apply for a job or school. On the application you list previous employment, education, and related achievements. While it doesn’t include much narrative, it’s an ordered sequence of major events in your life, and as such demonstrates a fundamental technique of memoir writing. Expand the list by adding more events, including births and deaths, relationships, moves, and other critical changes in your life. Your list will help you frame out your memoir.

Online profiles
LinkedIn and Facebook want me to explain to strangers who I am. Online dating services want even more information. These profiles convey a glimpse of who we are through tiny fragments like favorite books, pets, and sports. At first I hated trying to tell about myself this way. When I approached it more playfully, I realized it’s not a bad exercise for creating the persona of the protagonist of my memoir.

Twelve Steps Moral Inventory
The fourth step of the Twelve Steps program is designed to help people climb out of the traps of the past by conducting a “fearless moral inventory.” If you have ever been through this process, you have already engaged in a courageous detailed self-examination. If you have never been through this process, look around for books about facing difficult memories, such as, John Bradshaw’s books, “Homecoming” and “Healing the shame that binds you.” While originally intended for addicts, these resources offer advice for anyone who wants to face regrets, embarrassment, and shame. By unraveling the knots of the past, you can set yourself free from backward pulls. And as you develop your story, you’ll find the strength, hope, and other emotions to help you move forward.

Keep a journal or diary
Journaling is a fantastic habit that can help you deal with emotions, get you in touch with your writing voice, and gather your memories. Journaling means writing just for you with no concern about a potential audience. By setting aside readers, you soothe the inner critic, allowing you to put words on paper, without worrying about what anyone thinks. (Stephen King in On Writing says to write your first draft with the door closed.) The goal is simply to find a safe place to transfer words from mind to paper. As you write in your journal, you sort out emotions of the day, as well as sorting out events that took place decades ago. Experiment. Brainstorm. Sketch. For example, snoop around your high school homeroom for a few journal sessions. Who sat next to you? What did you have for lunch? What set the class tittering? Get creative about asking yourself questions. You’ll be amazed at what turns up on paper, and with practice, you’ll develop an easier relationship with converting mental images into a written narrative.

Notes

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.