I met a bank robber once.
Not the run-up-to-a-teller-and-demand-a-drawer-full-of-money robber, but a stake-the-place-out-and-pull-off-the-mission-impossible-vault-break-in-kind of robber. Dude had brass ones and obvious intellect to boot.
For years and years, he swore he was innocent of the crime that earned him two decades in prison. We got to know each other because he wanted me to write a book about how he was innocent. We talked at length. I heard all the arguments. It would be a great book, I told him. But I had a condition.
“You have to tell the truth,” I said. “I won’t write fiction and pretend it’s real.”
He stared at me.
“I think the title should be Guilty Enough,” I said, which also told him I didn’t believe he was innocent.
He then told the truth, perhaps for the very first time. The reason he held on to his fiction for so long is he knew the government stumbled across him but couldn’t prove it (several other dozen successful robberies, they never got close to catching him). They fabricated the case against them. They played a hunch. The Feds don’t like unsolved bank vault robberies. It threatens our belief in the power of our money. If a random guy can penetrate that and steal our money, he steals our power. We can’t have that. Tremendous pressure to convict grew. Someone. Anyone. My friend was a good bet. Turned out their fabrication worked. He was found guilty.
It still pisses him off. His pride as a bank robber was shattered by being caught because he knew they lucked out. They could have pinned it on anyone.
It was wrong, he insisted. I agreed.
“Fucked up,” I said. “Really fucked up. But still, I can’t write a book that isn’t the truth.”
The so-called moment of truth. The book talk died down. Like oh, so, many potential authors, that face-to-face stare-down with truth caused him to blink first. The idea of the book ended up on the shelf of good intentions instead of a bookstore bookshelf.
Many people are told, “You should write a book about your life.” Few do it. Of those who do, many still struggle with the fundamental task of truth.
First: writing a memoir requires being honest with yourself. Rigorously honest. If you haven’t tried it, it’s hard to explain how wrenching the process can be. Of all the lies we tell in life, we lie to ourselves the most. We live the script we write for our character rather than live our authentic self.
Have you ever read a memoir by a former pro athlete or political figure or most famous people? They read like the characters they portray. They are books about the brand, not the person and they aren’t that great. But the best memoirs, the truly memorable ones compel us by their authenticity.
Second: writing a memoir requires us to write that truth in a compelling way. Many of us write about our lives in journals. The emotional depth in a journal can be dramatic. It can be healing. It can powerful. But it isn’t something others would want to read unless you’re historically significant or naturally hilarious. Our journals are only interesting to us. They are not the stuff of a bestseller.
So then, this second step is a tough one. We have to take our sordid, confusing, dishonest lives and make them compelling, understandable, readable and honest. We have to turn our lives into a page-turner. An honest page-turner, no less.
Writing a memoir is not easy. Those who do it (and finish) are pretty few in my experience. Those who do it well make up a club more exclusive than the Knights of the Templar.
I truly enjoy the craft of writing fiction. But I came to a point in my life where I felt compelled to write a memoir. I avoided it for years until the point came where I felt God would not let up until I started. I described it as my Jonah in the Whale moment. I had a choice. Either agree and be vomited Jonah-like onto the beach of my new life or be consumed into whale shit. Tough choice, but I took the vomit and started writing the book I believe God wants me to write.
I love writing fiction, but too often I lived fiction. I lived the story I told, not who I really was. I allowed myself to believe the narrative about me rather than be me, for better or worse. I ran from my life right smack into a prison cell. I ended up in rehab in prison. Rehab sucks. Prison sucks even worse. Both at the same time, well, that’s sort of like a Far Side cartoon drawing of hell, only without the laughs. But that is where I rediscovered that we are not what we do. All that stuff is part of becoming. Thank God’s loving Grace that She doesn’t keep score of our behaviors.
Some "get it" easier than others. I get it only through red-faced moments that sear my brain. I’m slow. But in figuring it out, I discovered I am human and I’m a person who is doing my level best in this crazy, stupid, wonderful, spinning existence called My Life. In that dark turn of my life, I found it. I became honest. In writing the truth, I discovered the empowerment of a truthful life. Instead of saying “I am fucked up,” I began to admit “I fucked up.” In so doing, I became less so.
If we are honest we become our better selves. If we are honest, we find the spiritual stuff that in the end is most real. Whether we write a book about it or not is, in the end, far less important. But for those who feel compelled to like I do, like my writing buddy Dawn does, then be courageous because when you succeed you will offer the world a rare gem.