How You Feel Now is Not How You Will Feel Always: Prince Harry, the Pitfalls of Memoir, and the Ethics of the Ghostwriter
Prince Harry’s memoir comes out on Tuesday. I have a few thoughts.
You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
Anne Lamott, the celebrated essayist and novelist, wrote those words nearly 30 years ago, in a book that has become a bible for would-be memoirists. In Facebook and Instagram memes, and in more sober forums for discussing the craft of storytelling, Lamott’s advice (she subtitled that particular book “instructions on writing”) has become the standard response to any suggestion that perhaps one shouldn’t air one’s dirty laundry in public. People should have behaved better, and since they didn’t, they must pay the price – remembered forever for the myriad ways they failed you, the wounded and innocent storyteller.
Tomorrow — Sunday, January 8 — I will work my last shift at Trader Joe’s. When I punch out, I’ll be a full-time ghostwriter, a man whose entire living depends on helping other people tell their stories. Though I’m now in a place to make this my career, I’ve been helping people write their memoirs for a long time. The autobiography of Carré Otis that I coauthored came out a dozen years ago, but I spent two decades before that helping my college students find the words to describe their own lives.
A long time ago, I liked to quote Lamott’s infamous instruction to my classes. I stopped when one of my students had a short piece of hers published on xoJane, a long-defunct website dedicated to publishing the saddest and most shocking confessional essays. Her father did not come off well in the story. He wept when he read it. My student came to see me in office hours, angry with me for helping her prepare the piece for publication. “What I said about my dad was true. But I don’t feel the way I did when he hurt me. The article takes what I felt once and makes it last forever.” Injuries can heal, but if the healing isn’t addressed in the text, then the wound stays open for eternity. My student owned everything that happened to her – including her father’s shame. She didn’t find the latter to be the least bit healing. Quite the opposite.
I’ve tried my hand at memoir many times. My shortcoming has been to always frame myself as the only villain in the entire piece. My family; my ex-wives and girlfriends; colleagues and clients? All wonderful. I, on the other hand, am an impulsive and self-destructive wretch, leaving mayhem in my wake! I do have colorful stories, but my reflexive insistence on taking responsibility for everything that happened to me makes those stories one-dimensional. A gentleman never blames others; a well-brought-up lad is ruthless with himself and generous with everyone else. From the standpoint of a professional writer, that makes him a one-trick-pony. The sex work; the four divorces; the brain injury; the sleeping with all those students; the hospitals; the jails; the repeated falls from grace; it’s all just a litany of salacious anecdotes smothered in repetitive WASPy self-deprecation. It makes for a brief diversion, but literature it ain’t. It gets tiresome right quick. Then again, when it comes to my own life, my desire to be a particular kind of gentleman outweighs my desire to see my own story for sale at the local Barnes & Noble.
My children already know too much about my past. It will not add to their happiness to read stories about what was done to me, once they’ve already read of the things I did to others.
But hey, no one’s waving big checks for my story. Some folks want me to help tell theirs, and I can be insightful with clients in ways I cannot be with myself. As a ghostwriter, my job is to help my clients tell the stories they want to tell. Most will only write one memoir. That means that as a professional, I have an obligation to remind my clients that words once printed can’t easily be taken back. What one says about one’s mother when one is, say, 35, might not be what one wants to say about her when one is 70 — and mama is gone. Unless you are a particularly important and famous person, publishers are unlikely to beat down your door for a second autobiography that disavows, or at least complexifies, the first.
There are exceptions. The late actor Leonard Nimoy wrote I am Not Spock in 1975, and penned I am Spock 20 years later. In Nimoy’s case, though, the years changed how he saw the role that defined his own career. He didn’t malign other people in the first book and then apologize in the second. His exception proves a valuable rule: many memoirists are likely to reassess how they see their lives and loved ones over time, long after their book is out of print.
I always remind my clients to think of the “stakeholders” in the story they’re telling. The truth is one of those stakeholders, but to paraphrase Jeffers, the truth is both an invaluable servant and an insufferable master. The injuries your parents did to you through malice or neglect or addiction may be true and real, but they are rarely the sum of your relationship with them. Like a photograph, a memoir freezes a single instant. Indeed, the memoir is in some ways more real than the photograph. When you see a picture of your parents on their wedding day, you know in your mind that they were once younger than that, and then older. You know you see only a snapshot of one moment. When you tell a story of angry words, or slammed doors, or broken dog dishes (hello, Prince Harry), you risk allowing a handful of unpleasant incidents to sum up enduring and complex relationships. What is published in anger and anguish becomes defining, even if the relationship off the page was so much richer and multifaceted.
I’m not a therapist or a pastor. That means that I can’t heal my client’s wounds, though I know that the writing process can be a vital part of their journey. I am not a mere stenographer either; it’s my job to think about what this book will mean for my client’s loved ones as well as the reviewers. The stakeholders include their own future selves, selves who may see things differently in a decade or three. The stakeholders include children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren still unborn; fame often doesn’t endure, but curiosity about one’s ancestors does. Most descendants will want to read great-grandma’s autobiography. Whatever they find within it will at least partly decide how they understand their heritage.
I remind my clients of the difference between a journal and a memoir. The former is a very good place to pour out one’s anger and hurt. It’s a good place for unvarnished truth. A journal can be a huge help in memoir-writing. The memoir, though, must take the long view that the journal can safely ignore. Rereading your own teenage diaries, your brain can fill in context and complexity; how you saw the world at 16 was only partly how it really was. You know this because your memory completes the picture – but your readers aren’t you. They have no other context save the story you tell, and the chance they will draw a lesson you will come to regret is high.
“Words have consequences, and they last a really long time,” writes Patty Davis this weekend. Ronald Reagan’s daughter is addressing Prince Harry, tenderly warning him of the enduring repercussions of what he has written in his new and scorching autobiography, Spare. Davis should know; as she tells us in the Times, she regrets her own bestselling memoir about her upbringing. She doesn’t regret that memoir because it was untruthful – she regrets that the truths she told were, in the end, unnecessary. Davis was able to apologize to her father before the 40th president slipped forever behind the veil of dementia. Davis worries that Harry may not be so lucky.
I would never talk anyone out of telling their story. My entire business model depends on people wanting to share their experiences and convictions with the world. It is precisely because I am so reverent about the power of memoir that I advise my clients to take the longest of long views and couch their stories as if their words will be read by the dead and the yet-to-be-born as well as by the living. I do not do this just to indemnify myself against accusations of enabling reckless oversharing. I do it because I know that the written word will outlive not just our mortal bodies, but our resentments. It is heartbreaking, unfair, and desperately incomplete to allow ourselves to be defined by the latter.