Memoir, meet reportage

Brendan O’Meara on taking a reporter’s tack in memoir.

Guest Post by Brendan O’Meara

Twitter: @BrendanOMeara

Brendan O’Meara’s first book

Somebody at a book signing for Six Weeks in Saratoga asked me what I was working on next (this seems to always be a question when you’re selling your current book. What are you working on now?). I said I was writing a memoir about my father and baseball. Instead of the usual response, which is some measure of eyebrow-raising admiration, praise, and ego-stoking ovations, I got this:

“When Borders went out of business the only books left behind were Spanish books and memoirs.”

%&#!

Maybe if we were at the rim of the Grand Canyon I would have nudged her. But I thanked her for her input. I don’t think she bought a book. I felt ever-emboldened because when you feel strongly and passionately for your story, those words levitate off the page. The reader senses that energy and hopefully tells other reader friends about it. This is my hope.

So, yes, I too am writing a memoir, but I come at it from the blind side. I’m a reporter and I see memoir as no different than any other form of narrative nonfiction: the names are real, the events are verifiably true, and the writer did some—get this—reporting. The only difference is the story is closer to the marrow. The questions you pose to characters (which happen to be family/friends who acted never knowing they’d one day be told it was all on the record) ring awkward and, in some ways, judgmental.

My memoir, tentatively titled The Last Championship: A Memoir of My Father and Baseball is a hybrid of narrative journalism and memoir. It takes place at a senior slow-pitch softball tournament where I, the son, watch the father play ball. It illustrates the changing of roles as we age, how the children become caretakers of their parents, and how the young become old and the old become young again.

His team won the tournament and I thread the personal narrative around the seven-games. I’m profiling a handful of key players, ala David Halberstam, so the reader cares about the game action—narrative journalism. With the tournament as the backbone, I explore where my father comes from, who he is, what baseball means to him, and how he becomes the father I know, yet still know little about—memoir, personal exploration, the beating heart, etc.

It shows how sport, and specifically baseball, is the common tongue between fathers and sons, certainly between Dad and me. Watching those old guys play ball allowed me to reconcile the bitter end of my baseball career too. I then picked up the gear and played one more summer at age 30 to find the fun—10 years since I last played—and maybe one last championship.

Taking a reporter’s tack is best for the story and best for maintaining the readers’ trust.

Thanks, Jonah.

Thanks, Stephen.

Thanks, Jason.

Thanks, James.

Thanks, Janet.

Even when my memory is strong on an event from my childhood, I ask all the parties involved. I ask my sister if I really said what I said. I ask my Dad what he was thinking. Or I say, “Mom, what happened when you and Dad split up?” These questions are uncomfortable to ask. When it’s family, it’s hard. It avoids senseless naval gazing. You’re getting the important characters in your story to speak for themselves, not just what you thought and how you feel. A certain measure of detachment makes for a better product.

I try not to sound judgmental. I say, “What was that like? How tough was that for you?”

Or, as I told Dad at the beginning of this whole project, “I want to get to know my dad before too long. I want to know who your parents were (they died in a car accident when I was two). I want to learn where you came from.”

This puts a different tint on the lens. It softens the focus. My dad did some awful shit. I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to shy from writing about it, but that’s the mosaic. Readers will come away liking him more because of the ugly stuff. Because that’s human, dammit!

A character in the novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet said, “Memory is tricks and strangeness.”

It sure is.

It doesn’t have to be with some reporting.

Brendan O’Meara’s blog, Hash Tag for Writing, is at his website. He is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @BrendanOMeara.

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14 Comments

Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, immersion, journalism, memoir

14 responses to “Memoir, meet reportage

  1. Brendan, love at first read. I’ll be stalking you from here on out!
    Watch your back 😉

  2. Richard, though I’m a fiction writer, in a minor way a poet, and read memoir rather than write it when I have contact with it at all, I really am very impressed by what this O’Meara has to say, and thanks for featuring it. The way in which it’s helpful for fiction is indirect, but it helps in the sense that if one can remember to put together one’s characters with a sort of loving attention and painstaking attention (with the emphasis on the notion of feeling real pain for the things one must sometimes reveal of them, yet reporting fairly), then one is on the right path.

  3. Debra, thanks for the kind words and stalk away!

    Shadow, getting the bottoms of our shoes dirty is good for any form, but especially for memoir when the tendency is to rely on memory instead of hitting the microfiche, weather reports, and conducting interviews with integral characters.

    Author Richard Rhodes does this well in his memoir “A Hole in the World”. He presents scenes as he remembers, but also invites his brother’s insight when they remember things differently.

    Loving attention is indeed important, especially when dealing with characters close to the heart … who are also still alive.

  4. Love this post, Brendan. Made me want to put on a glove and play first base again. In fact, that’s what I am doing. Going for one more championship in writing a memoir.

    Your emphasis on reporting and checking in with the “characters” in your memoir who, in the words of Annie Dillard, “don’t have access to a printing press,” strikes me as being both fair and necessary. I don’t have a great memory and have uncovered a number of ways my mind distorted the verifiable past. I believe memoir, in order to be credible, must aim for truth, both in the visible world and the emotional realm.

    Still thinking about that crack about memoirs being the only books left on the shelf, though.

    • Thanks, Shirley. You know what’s funny? I remember a scene one way—not falsely—and it’s nice. Then I go talk to other people about it, and they add more details that make it so much richer. I’ve said, “Oh my God, I completely forgot about that!” And all it took was a little reporting.

      Whenever I get stumped—or stalled might be the more appropriate word—I get on the phone and call one of my sources or pop off an email. They end up giving me such great information to build my scaffolding. Some of that scaffolding will come down in service of the story, but the reporting and research energizes and kick starts the writing.

      Memoir, as a genre, can help itself by having end notes and well-cited material. That way the trust comes back.

  5. Pingback: A Guest Post and a Preview | The Blog of Brendan O'Meara

  6. Brendan, thanks for what you’re doing to give memoir its credibility back. 😉 I teach memoir writing workshops, and have written one myself that was published a few years ago. Memoir writers are all over the spectrum, from good reporters like yourself to navel gazers who end the story by telling the reader it might have all been fiction. Maddening. I appreciate your point that besides checking for veracity, another character’s view of events can add so much to a well-rounded, richer narrative.

    • You got it, Linda. Thanks for reading. Memoir can be beautifully written with deep feeling and insight but also adhere to the contract we nonfictionists sign with the reader: that you can’t make this stuff up!

  7. Thanks. As a former reporter and now magazine writer who’s terrified of memoir, you’ve given me some courage.

    • You’re welcome, dclaud! Try writing yourself in the third person to detach yourself from the story. Then put that terrifying “I” pronoun in there and see what happens. And never take off the reporter hat!

  8. Darrelyn Saloom

    The reason I love memoir is because “the story is closer to the marrow.” Because the writer is emotionally invested the reader connects on a deeper level. How a person navigates through life fascinates me and is much more interesting than the dreaded what-next question.

    I co-wrote a memoir with the first female boxing champion from Ireland. We spent six years working on her story. Next week we are traveling to Ireland to promote the book. When asked, what next? my mouth opens, but I can’t speak. I then stutter and dodge the question.

    Good luck with your memoir. I’m intrigued and can’t wait to read it.

    • P.S. I’m ordering Saratoga right now. Love the ponies. Hubby and I raise and race thoroughbreds. We’ve been watching Fast Falcon because we have her half-sister, a beautiful two-year-old filly.

      • Thanks, Darrelyn. The co-written memoir sounds fascinating.

        Fast Falcon was just a neck away from Alpha and Golden Ticket in the Travers. His trainer, Nick Zito, is the main trainer character in my Saratoga book. So there’s a welcome connection for you. I hope you like it and good luck with your filly. Writing and horses: labors of love.

  9. Good point…Walt Harrington famously did this with his memoirs as well.

    My newest book, “Malled”, is a memoir of my working retail for 27 months. I did not fact check with my former coworkers as the book was not planned from the start. Dialogue and anecdote, I stated clearly in the author’s note, were re-created from my notes and from memory, but I also made clear that nothing in the book is made up, exaggerated and there are no composite characters or changed details. I had a signed contract three months before I quit the job so took many more notes during that time to gather all the color and detail I would very likely have forgotten. I would have liked to measure the height of the ceiling (as one of my major issues was how far out of reach the merchandise was, which made the job much more difficult) — but could not seem to find a way to do so without being seen by someone (giving it away) or on camera. So you do the best you can under the circumstances.