Rachel Silber Devlin ~
Yes, people are fascinated by a train wreck, but do you really want to cause one—or, even worse, be one? What can we learn from the recent memoir, Spare, by Prince Harry? It calls into question the motives and tactics of the memoirist or biographer.
Journalists ask if Harry was motivated by resentment, if his goal is to harm, or at least undermine, his family and the monarchy with his salacious memoir. In his book, the prince even details intimate family conversations that took place after his grandmother’s funeral. Why would he betray his family in this fashion?
The obvious answer is to make money and sell books. But perhaps he was also motivated by revenge, trying to settle the score for always coming in second, feeling that the cards were unfairly stacked against him from birth. You can see how he would feel that way, you might even sympathize and feel that the monarchy has outlived its time. And yet, how unseemly for a grown man to lash out and bare his raw bitterness, rather than trying to grow up and take responsibility for his own life.
As an author of a biography, Snapshots of My Father, John Silber, it was important to me to investigate my motives. There is nothing wrong with wanting people to read your story, hoping they will buy your book. For these reasons you don’t want to bore everyone to tears with a sanitized version of a life.
The life story of my father, my Pop, is in many ways inspirational. Born with a birth defect, a shortened right arm that ended at the elbow in a stub, he nevertheless became an athlete, an artist, and a philosopher, articulating his ideas on education, culture, and politics on the national stage. As Boston University’s president, he entirely transformed BU into a major institution of learning and research, and he was a controversial, yet intellectually formidable, candidate for governor of Massachusetts.
My book is a loving portrait of my Pop, and yet his story would be meaningless to me, and boring for readers, if it were only the positive, PR version of his achievements. I needed to tell the true story, warts and all, to bring him to life. To do this, it was necessary to take a clear-eyed look at his temperament and personality, his quicksilver temper that could flair unexpectedly and that most likely cost him the election for governor.
Once I had assured myself that my motives were in line with writing an honest and forthright portrait, I wanted to ensure that I was not trespassing on personal ground that my sisters would blame me for. I planned to ask my five sisters to read the manuscript with the assurance that I would remove anything I had written about them if they disliked it. I also intended to ask them to feel free to challenge anything else in the book and would carefully consider any objection.
In this way, I would avoid the Prince Harry scenario of selling off intimate details, betraying relationships, and burning bridges between my family and myself. I was very fortunate that when the manuscript was finished, all five of my sisters loved it and were happy with what I had written. Rather than asking me to remove anything, they all had details and memories of events that enriched my narrative.
With the clear aim of presenting a candid and trustworthy account and a plan for protecting my relationships, I still needed to come up with a method for actually turning out the book that was taking shape in my mind. As I worked, I started to picture my method as going for three kinds of gold: Olympic gold, mining for gold, and turning straw into gold.
I thought of training myself to achieve this feat of writing my book as striving for Olympic gold. In this effort I was both athlete and coach. Building my stamina with steady work on the project, gaining muscle by lifting the story into my brain day after day as the breadth of the story and the outline of its parts grew were very strenuous exercises.
As a coach, I gave myself rules for getting the words on paper: First thing in the morning, with a cup of coffee, but before reading emails or news, I had to write 500 words. It doesn’t seem like much, but it is substantial enough to be real. Sometimes I would finish within an hour, other days I struggled until noon just to capture that small set amount. Another rule was to prepare notes for the next day’s writing before quitting for the day.
My job as a coach was also to make sure I got enough rest. That involved getting plenty of sleep, but ironically, the very best rest for a writing brain is physical exercise. Walking, working out at a gym, cleaning house, and mucking out stables can all be splendid sources of rest for the fatigued intellect.
The second kind of gold, mining for gold, is something every writer understands, sifting through rubble to find nuggets of gold—the pertinent ideas and facts that forge an interesting and reliable narrative. A strong sequence of events that illuminates the character of your subject can seem like a veritable vein of gold.
When you strike this gold, you must not be careless with it. Don’t misplace any of these precious nuggets. For this purpose, I had a supply of small, 5×8-inch tablets of mauve paper. I kept one of these with me at all times: in my purse, in the car, on my bedside table. Then I made sure to incorporate these notes into the text. The unusual color of these pages ensured that I never confused or misplaced them.
The third kind of gold is where you turn your hard work into something finer. Inspirational magic is what takes the written word to the next level. Like Rumpelstiltskin turning straw into gold, it is hard to know where inspiration comes from. Sometimes it seems to come from nothing.
Inspirational gold can come out of the blue, but this golden thunderbolt is more likely to strike after you have been struggling with a subject, brainstorming possible angles, making false starts that are flat and prosaic. After you put these efforts aside and take a break for exercise or sleep, there is a good chance that a brain spark will come to you in an insightful and well-formed idea with neat and apt turns of phrase that elevate your writing and illuminate exactly what you want to say. The insights that come to you in these brilliant flashes can surprise you and enrich your whole enterprise. With your writing materials handy, be sure to catch this magical gold.
—Rachel Silber Devlin
Author Rachel Silber Devlin is one of John Silber’s seven children. As a wife, mother, teacher and writer, she has always had a strong sense of who she was apart from any labels. Devlin says that she sometimes feels like she and her dad grew up together because she knew him so well from a time when he was young and still learning how to make his way in the world. She divides her time between her homes in Texas and Massachusetts, the states where her children and grandchildren live.
2 thoughts on “The Fascination of a Train Wreck: Selling a Personal Story – Guest Post by Rachel Silber Devlin”
I very much enjoyed reading this post. I found it very relatable.
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It’s an interesting dilemma, isn’t it? How much “truth” to put in a true story.