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How I learned to put myself into my own story Add to ...

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A sure sign you’re nearing the end of your useful life is when you start writing your memoirs – or even if you just start thinking about writing them.

And I always figured that memoirs are okay for famous and powerful types like, say, Bill Clinton or Keith Richards or Rin Tin Tin (probably ghost-written) but for the likes of you and me, who the hell would want to read them? (Just kidding about Rin Tin Tin; he died before he could do his.)

The potential audience is maybe a dozen, depending on the size of your family – more if there are a lot of females because, so I understand, women tend to read memoirs by the boatload. I would probably need only the fingers of one hand to tally up the number of memoirs that I’ve read.

I think I can say that my life has not been what you might call High Definition. It’s been more like thousands of little pixels, but not joined together in any way to make One, Big, High-Def Picture. What exactly would I have to write about?

So, taking all those things into consideration, I naturally signed up for a memoir-writing course.

And the first thing I learned was that the reason more women than men read such books is because that’s who goes to memoir-writing classes. Out of the usual complement of 14 or 15 people, there have never been more than four guys in any writing session I’ve taken over the past two years.

Maybe if the memoir genre was about important things, like where you were when Pat Quinn knocked out Bobby Orr in a 1969 Leafs-Bruins playoff game, more guys would join up. But so be it.

Karen, our instructor, made it pretty clear from the get-go that everyone who has reached a certain age in life must have a story to tell, and that every story is worth telling. So it really doesn’t matter if you are not rich or powerful or famous, or if your life hasn’t been otherwise High-Def.

The classes were in the daytime, so I have to assume just about every student was, like me, retired, leaving us all with plenty of time to write. And sitting down and trying to write something, anything, every day, was one of Karen’s must-dos.

Every week, four or five people would read something they had written and then the class would critique it. But one of Karen’s other firm rules was that no one was allowed to call someone else’s effort boring – suggestions on making the thing better was the idea.

A lot of times, someone would say she wanted to hear more detail. I often found it difficult to contribute here because, I guess, of the years I had spent as a newspaper copy editor trying to get things out of stories, either because they were overwritten to begin with or because of a simple lack of space.

Some of the stories read by the women were hard to listen to: illness, death, marriage break-ups, lost love affairs – but almost always, the stories were well and powerfully written – they rang true. When it came my turn to read, I sometimes felt downright silly going on about some foolish escapade from my teenage years or my early career as a political reporter. (By the way, is irony a proper term to describe what I’m doing here? A memoir about writing a memoir?)

If you’re a typical guy, you might only have a passing acquaintance with your inner feelings; but believe me, hauling up that deep-down hidden stuff into the full glare of daylight is a big part of memoir-writing classes.

For example, I once wrote about my first days in journalism, when I was a cub reporter for a Toronto radio station, covering the crash of an Air Canada plane north of the city; more than 100 people were killed. In the piece, I described coming across a field marked with dozens of white sticks, indicating where emergency workers had found bodies or body parts and pieces of the plane.

After I finished reading, others in the class quite naturally wanted to know what my reaction was to seeing all those white sticks, and suggested the memoir would be stronger if I included my feelings. But all I can recall feeling at the time was the pressure to get a story written and on the air as quickly as possible.

Yet the suggestions from the class made a lot of sense, so I rewrote it slightly to explain why I had thought it was important to keep my feelings in check at the time and not let them creep into the news story.

I also recalled for my class another big story about three months after the plane crash, when I was in charge of preparing a 30-minute radio newscast devoted to the murder of Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte by the FLQ. In the lead item, I recounted how other countries had been rocked by assassinations and riots but that such things were considered unthinkable in Canada. Now, with Laporte’s murder, I wrote, Canada had lost that innocence.

Working on those two awful tragedies was probably the end of my own professional innocence, at a time when my career in journalism was only just getting underway. In real life, it became obvious, bad things often happen.

Still, staying out of the way of the story was something I mostly adhered to throughout 40 years in journalism.

But in writing my memoirs, I’ve had to learn how to put myself into the narrative, how to let the reader know about my thoughts and feelings. So now I do get in touch with my inner self while writing – but only for short stretches now and then.

Being a guy, I figure that’s enough.


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