by Jerry Waxler
The first thing that caught my attention when I picked up Stephen Markley’s “Publish this Book” was that it was a parody of itself, a memoir about “writing this very book.” This trick of self-conscious awareness, or “meta” as it has come to be called, played a big role in my thought process in college. If my friends and I observed something, we could then continue the discussion by making a comment about making the observation. It’s a mental twist I still enjoy 40 years later. In fact, now that I think of it, this might explain my interest in memoirs. First, we live our lives. And then the memoir is our commentary on what we just lived. A memoir is by its nature “meta.” But Stephen Markley’s memoir is even more meta than that. In this Part 4 of my multi-part interview, I ask him about his fascination with the structure of memoirs, and the shape of his own.
How you playfully constructed the long middle
Jerry Waxler: One of the known problems with writing a book is that you have to somehow keep the middle moving along. In writing classes I’ve heard it called the muddle in the middle. As usual, you do a great job of sending up the long middle, by using an extraordinary trick.
You separated your mind into parts, and dramatized the battle between the parts. Wow, talk about being able to discover the conflict within everyday life. This was a lively, intriguing technique. I think any author who fears they won’t be able to find the dramatic tension in their lives ought to study some of the devices you used in your book to realize how the author discovers and accentuates tension that is already there.
One thing that surprised me about this technique was that you used the terms Ego and Id, to show your personality being broken into parts. I would have thought these Freudian terms were old-fashioned. They were already starting to lose favor back in my day. So help me understand, were you using Freudian terms to be retro, or are these terms pretty widely understand in your generation as well?
Stephen Markley: I chose the terms because they are very identifiable. Everyone has heard of them, even if they might not be able to give the exact definition. Plus, I loved the idea of part of myself being this completely self-consumed narcissist and the even deeper part being just plain fucking crazy.
Jerry: One of the things I love about reading memoirs is that it helps me understand how other people think, what they believe, and so on. With your Ego and Id battle, you’ve given me a front row seat, but into what? How well do these scenes reflect your own inner process? Do you actually think about the battle of your mind? Were you trying to develop an authentic glimpse into your inner process?
Stephen: Obviously, everyone is more complicated than a simple three-way personality battle. I used that device because 1) it was comical and 2) it allowed me, Stephen Markley, off the hook. I had embodiments of poor decisions or cruel things I said or did. This sounds cowardly, but it helped me write more honestly. The crucial scene comes at the end, after I’ve found out that the book will be published, and my Ego’s swagger is suddenly gone. Because the only purpose the Ego ever serves is to buffer the writer from cold reality, criticism, and setbacks. When the Ego realizes the biggest obstacle has suddenly been removed, he becomes terrified. It was my way of showing that all ego is always a shield.
How authentic is any of this? I have no idea. I’d say it’s as close to the bone as I could cut. But when you’re sawing off your own arm, you might think you’re halfway done and look down to discover you’ve barely pierced the bicep.
How do young people end a memoir?
Jerry: In memoir writing workshops, many young people are nervous about writing memoirs because their lives have not arrived at the conclusion. For example, if an author had not yet married, how would they reach closure on loneliness? You seem to have addressed this problem head on, but not with a simple answer. You use a variety of literary devices to reach a conclusion. The strange thing is that you reach the end in several ways: with a relationship, with a long footnote (huh?), and with the publication of “this very book.”
Your ending was a send-up of memoir endings, and like your joke about discussing false memoirs in a false scene, you are ending the book with a variety of ways to end the book. I’m amazed that you have so much interest and passion about the form that you are sending up the whole structure of a memoir. Your youthful craziness is applied so beautifully to this writing challenge it makes me proud to have been young once. Thanks for this fun exploration of story form.
Stephen: You’re welcome.
Jerry: Your memoir takes the prize for meta- a book about itself. I told my writing group about the concept of your book, not really expecting them to understand what I was talking about. The moment the first sentence had left my mouth, they cracked up laughing. Your publisher apparently liked the joke, too.
Books that were huge in the college scene in the 60’s often had this self-referential or ironic or self-aware humor. An example that comes to mind is Catch-22 with all of its paradoxes, like the fact that Major Major Major was bullied because people thought he was being arrogant, which turned him into a recluse and yet also promoted him to becoming a major.
Just as the ironies and paradoxes did not detract from the serious points of Catch 22 (war stinks, power corrupts), I felt that your humor did not interfere with your serious points about the difficulties of growing up, the hunger of the aspiring artist, and the urgent relevance of compassion lurking within your devil-may-care attitude.
Do you find that self-referential humor is still a hallmark of college reading? Has the meta thing struck your college audiences as a big deal? Have you decided to hang your hat on meta, or do you think you’re just passing through?
Stephen: While I certainly don’t think the obsession with self-referential humor is anything particularly new, I do think the generation I’m a part of just finds it really engaging and useful given the times. Aside from that, books that call out people’s bullshit will always be popular. I remember reading “Catch-22” and just being floored. Same with “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and “Breakfast of Champions.” Young people just like to hear that the old and wise are actually old and unimaginative. It gives us hope that we can do better. As far as “meta” goes, I think that label is basically a buzzword. If you read my book, you do discover fairly quickly that for all its meta posturing it is as old-fashioned and classic a story as there is: young man on journey faces obstacles, ponders love, loss, friendship. It’s as sweet and simple as it comes, and that story will never go out of style.
It’s possible my next project will also be thoroughly meta, but that’s OK, I think, because it will be meta in an entirely different way than “Publish This Book” was. When it comes to choosing projects I will be driven entirely by my own inner angels and demons (with the possible influence of loads and loads of cash money).
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.