By Dikkon Eberhart
One man could sail around the world and not hold a single reader with his memoir. E.B. White could describe a row across Central Park Lake and hold a reader breathless.
It’s not the events of your story. It’s the story of your events--in you.
Location: a party at a house by the harbor.
The conversation: it might go something like this.
One of the men turns to me—about my age, getting grey—we’ve been chatting boats. “You’re the one who’s just published that memoir.”
“Yes. I enjoyed doing the book. But I only had the time after retiring. Lot of work. I suppose not everyone could do it.”
"You know, I’ve tried to write a memoir. People say my life is amazing. Can’t seem to make it into a book though. I could use your advice.”
“You’ve sailed across the Atlantic, right?”
“Three crossings. Once solo in a 28-foot sloop. France—Azores—Cape Verdes—then downwind to the Caribbean.”
“So what’s the point of your memoir?”
He looks puzzled. “I just said.”
“I don’t mean to be argumentative, but no, you didn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve told me what happened, not what the point is.”
“People say I tell what happened very well.”
“I expect you do. There’s a lot to tell about. All that sailing. I’m sure you’ve done a good job at what is not the job.”
He looks, perhaps, offended. “What do you mean it’s not the job?”
“What I mean is you’ve begun the job—to tell the story—but that’s not the real job. You’ve got your story so one event flows into the next event. That’s good.”
“Thanks.” And then, “I think.”
“But the real job is harder.”
“Because the real job is answering my question—what’s the point?”
“Why can’t I just tell the story and be done?”
“Because no one wants to read a sequence of your events. ”
“I don’t understand. Why do I do this then?”
“What someone wants to read is what that person needs to read.”
“How am I supposed to know what that person needs to read?”
“One thing everyone needs to read is the truth.”
“The truth about what?”
“About you, and about the point.”
“But the truth about me is what I wrote down already.”
“No, it isn’t. What you wrote down is a sequence of events, which you have ordered so they flow. That’s not the truth. That’s a sequence. And nobody wants to read a sequence of your events.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
“Tell the point.”
“What is the point?”
“Ah, that’s the big question, is it not?”
“Oh, come on. We’re going around in circles.” He steps aside and pours himself another drink. I think he may have left the conversation, but he circles back. “Anyway, the truth right now is that I hate my boat as much as I love her. Maybe I’m too old.”
I pause, thinking there's truth right there if he developed it, but I ask, “What’s the point of your nautical life—of this sequence you have written down?”
“The point? I’m just trying to tell my story here. People say my life is amazing. That’s what I’m trying to tell about.”
“You really want my advice?”
“Take the sequence, each chapter, just as it flows now, and go back and rewrite it again. By the third or the fourth chapter I'll bet a new conception of your story will begin to emerge in your writing. Your concept of your story will have matured. That new concept is the point. Or at least it will be a new step toward the real point."
“Ah, that point thing….
“Yes. That point thing. Then, when you're all done, you'll need to go back to the beginning and do what I just said all over again another time."
"Eventually, you'll know what the actual point actually is. And that's what leads to the truth about you. The truth is the reason why people will need to read your book. So they can have truth in their lives. They need to have truth in their lives, and your book gives it to them.”
He muses. “It’ll take a lot of pages to write it again and again.”
“It takes a lot of days to cross the Atlantic. What’s the point of doing that? Just to get to the other side?”
"No." He pauses. “It’s being out there on the ocean and in tune with the ocean—for me, that’s in tune with God—and even more so when I’m alone.”
“So that’s the truth you need to talk about. Your focus needs to be on the truth, not on successive positions at noon. People will read your book, if it contains the truth about you and about your soul, so they can have the truth in their lives.”
“But what do I do with this mass of paper? By now, I’ve got maybe a thousand pages on my desk!”
“Yes, you do have lots of pages. Now cut every sentence from the thousand pages that does not reveal the truth.”
“But what if I love those sentences by now?”
“You will love them. But your love is self-indulgent. You’re in love with your love of your sentences. Cut anyway.”
“In the Caribbean, did you ever take on board a huge bunch of green bananas and hang them in the rigging and, when they ripened, need to eat them as fast as you possibly could before they rotted?”
“What happened when they rotted?”
“Threw them overboard.”
“See? Even though you loved them?”
“Even though.” He smiles. “Okay, I cut.”
“That’s what you’ll do if you want someone else to read your story.”
“I thought I wanted that.”
"Don’t back away now. Now people will read your story—and will value it—because now you are telling the truth.”
“Yeah, one more thing. Just go through and make every paragraph a pleasure to read—vivid, humorous, whatever it takes to make each paragraph a pleasure to read.”
He rolls his eyes. “Then am I done?”
“Oh, sure,” I smile. “Then you’re done.”
We shake hands.
As he turns away, I say, “But when an editor gets a hold of it, you’ll have three or four more rewrites yet to do.”
Birthday number 100. Dad was pleased. Lots of people came to see him.
I thought, I’d better write down my life with him now—how it was. Before we forget.
Tyndale House Publishers bought what I wrote, and its editors made a book of my writing, a memoir. We needed a title. They found a good one. The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told--eye catching. Everyone was happy.
We needed a cover design. I had no ideas. I’m a word guy, not a design guy. Left on my own, I would have put up a photo of Dad and written a perfunctory title across the top.
That book might flop.
That’s because my cover probably would not cause a shopper to pick the book up, to turn it over, and to read the back cover copy. The back cover copy, in its turn, is designed to make the customer open the book and to read the first two pages.
So the design we needed must be powerful enough, in sequence, to bring the shopper inside the book—to where the writing is. That is, to where the author is—to me.
As my editor and I emailed back and forth about title and cover suggestions, frequently she chided me for my stodgy ideas. “Dikkon,” she would say, “we’re creating a billboard, not a book report.”
The point is suggestiveness and mood. Look at the cover of my memoir. The cover does not tell the story—it’s not a book report—but it does convey a mood. And the mood is the first element of the billboard.
The front cover of my memoir provides suggestiveness and mood. There’s no story there. But all the elements of the front cover suggest that stories can be found inside—here’s what it says.
“Shoppers! You who like stories, pick this book up!”
Here are some of those elements. The typewriter typeface, that helps. The paper on which the title is written is faded and wrinkled, sepia colored (with some acid-based aging along the edges of the paper—showing that this manuscript and its stories are from an earlier time). And then there are the objects on the bureau.
The old typewriter. Where this manuscript was banged out. Stories are in here!
There’s the lamp—too close to the typewriter for writer convenience, but close enough to light the page as it rolls up on the platen. I suppose that the writer was so hot with his words he needed to pull the lamp over closer, so he could see the words.
And it’s hot of another kind where the author is banging out his story—thank goodness for the fan, rackety as it is. There’s the phone—imagine, with a dial!—in case he needs to call a friend to check a quick fact. The camera—snapshots, in black and white.
And what’s that other thing, farthest to the left? A Dictaphone? Perhaps the author once felt a spasm of eagerness to be modern, so he bought the thing because it’s what all the other writers were using, but he really didn’t know how to make the thing go, and, really, he didn’t care.
His life is the typewriter. The typewriter is the old standard of writing—always faithful. The typewriter is like his dog, never changing and always ready to be used. He trusts his typewriter. When he leaves off writing for the night, next morning his typewriter will be where he left it, and his last sentence will be right there, too.
What else is on my book’s cover? The tools sit on a bureau, not on a desk—its top surface is too shallow to be a desk. So perhaps this author stands up to write, the way Hemingway did, when he was hot in Key West or in Cuba. Typing as this guy Eberhart does, standing up, his face is only a foot or two from a blank wall—which is like his blank page. There’s no view before him, no window through which to watch the day’s stories out there in the world. His view is what is there in his memory.
This is a memoir, after all.
Hope it’s funny.
So—I’m the shopper—I turn the book over. Feels good in my hand. What does the back cover say at the top? “He was predestined for literary greatness, if only his father hadn’t used up all the words.”
Now, that’s funny!
I don’t know what the sentence means exactly, but I like the cheerfulness of it. I like a memoir when it has something funny—maybe some funny stories.
Lotta names here—poets. The heavy key strokes of the commas and periods—the stamps of the old typewriter font—they draw my eye to the names. Coupla names I’m not quite sure of, but I know Robert Frost and Allen Ginsberg. This author grew up with these people? That’s not every day. Wonder what that was like? I bet he has some interesting stories to tell.
And—yeah—I understand in the next paragraph, what is says about his needing to escape from his father’s shadow. I know a lot of men like that. You might even say it’s a basic experience of many young men, sons of successful fathers.
If this book’s any good, I can think of two men I could give it to. No, three! Four, really—well, maybe not, I’d need to think about him. So, three.
Wonder if the book’s any good. Can this guy tell a story?
Who is he anyway? Educated guy—a PhD! Hope he can tell a story despite that PhD, and the book’s not some dull thing. Married, children, grandchildren—he looks like a friendly guy in his picture. Maine. He lives in Maine. I’ve always wanted to go to Maine. And a deacon—so he must be a believer—and Special Olympics. Good people. Good people.
Here’s what I’ll do. What I’ll do is--
I’ll carry this book over to that comfortable chair and read two pages. If I read two pages, and if I like what I see, I’ll hang my hat on that coatrack, so to speak, and I’ll take this book home.
Wait! And his mother met Hitler?
What’s that all about?