Memoir as Movie
Issue #9: "You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind…”
Super bummed to hear of the passing of Mr. Meat Loaf recently. He was a big part of my 1970’s rock n’ roll childhood. I never got to meet him in person but his daughter Pearl is a good friend and bandmate of my old friend, Joey Vera - and one time I accidentally took Pearl’s husband Scott - along with three other members of Anthrax - to a gay bar in Columbus, Ohio. I’ll save that story for another book. Meat Loaf was the real deal and a badass, gifted performer. My thoughts are with the Aday family.
Happy end of January, and thank you and hello to my new subscribers!
I am humbled and grateful for the donations, kind comments, and support.
In this edition of Library Confidential I talk about the concept of “memoir as movie”, free-range reading, story structure and Iron Maiden, my upcoming TBD memoir class, and a new podcast interview.
I know I get carried away and these posts are long, but personally, I get tired of my Twitter brain and Instagram snippets. It feels good to stretch out a bit. I’m grateful that you let me creep into your inbox every few weeks to chat about all the things.
Thanks for riding along, friends. Wanna stop off for coffee?
Since releasing my rock n’ roll memoir, Adventures of a Metalhead Librarian two years ago, I’d say at least fifty different people have reached out specifically to mention that they loved the book because:
a. It felt like they were watching a movie.
b. This book would make a great movie.
And even though it was my first book and I didn’t really know what I was doing (and I still don’t but at least I have the first-book monkey off my back) I am delighted by the comments because it’s exactly how I wanted the book to read. I wanted readers to form a mental picture as they walked through the story. I wanted them right there with me, in that dimension, to feel like they were watching a movie.
A good friend of mine, Layna, is a camera operator and cinematographer in Los Angeles and has worked on dozens of TV shows and video productions. I met her when I was in grad school, through our mutual friends in Armored Saint who she'd done some video work for. She was one of my beta readers when I was first getting feedback about AMHL and she was so specific - she said she could immediately picture the camera set-up shot for the opening scene in my book - and it matched exactly the vision that I’d had when writing it. I loved hearing it from her - I felt like I was on the right track.
My friend, Lonn Friend, notorious music-journalist extraordinaire who wrote the foreword to AMHL, had already picked out who would play me on the big screen before the book was even published. I think he suggested Natalie Portman (he flatters me too much and is very sweet) After rolling my eyes at him in disbelief, I poo-pooed the idea and told Lonn that Natalie Portman was way too old to play to the part (I should be ashamed of myself, but it’s true) and besides - I never had that kind of beautiful bone structure.
Lonn stopped bugging me about it, but now, after a couple of years and all of the random comments that have come to me unprovoked, I’m starting to think differently about my book.
The feedback I get about my memoir as a movie is that there’s a market for 1980’s-90’s Gen X nostalgia, a need for strong women characters, a book-loving metalhead chick is something different, it’s a good twist on a typical survival story or hero’s journey, and it would have such a great soundtrack - yadda yadda.
It makes my heart beat a little fast to think about. If I were to write a treatment, and maybe attempt a screenplay, how would I do it? Where would the movie begin? What would need to be left out from the book? How the heck do I format properly? Is this a waste of my time? Am I crazy?
The book that inspired my courage to write AMHL was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which was made into a movie. I know for sure AMHL would have a better soundtrack than Wild.
WAY WAY BETTER.
And as soon as I really asked the question, an opening scene formed in my minds’ eye, and the start of a framework, and it made my heart beat even faster.
I guess now it’s time to research and learn. If I can teach myself to write and format a book for publication - I can probably also teach myself how to write a treatment and a rough screenplay.
I know my friend Layna will read it and give me feedback. Who knows what from there.
Maybe learning to write a screenplay will come in handy at some point. I might as well practice on my own material that already has a story arc and a small fan base.
I mean, someday I would like to earn a real living from my writing. Isn’t that every writer or artists’ dream? Not to have to work a day job ever again? But that means selling some stories. In a format that buyers are looking for.
I know - I really don’t need another project to work on and fuss over - but this memoir-as-movie theme is popping up consistantly, like it wants me to pay attention to it. So maybe I need to.
Maybe I can channel a little Nora Ephron.
A little Hollywood side-action as I work on my other stuff.
Oh. My God. All the other stuff.
It’s fine. I know it. You can say it. I’m all over the place. These ideas blow up like a balloon in my head, rather than a linear thread that I stick to meticulously.
All I can say is that - to be an intuitive, productive and creative person is to follow, honor, and deeply trust the quirky rhythms of your own conjuring process and to figure it all out from there.
And I always manage to figure it out.
If you read AMHL, you’ll know that one of the many gifts my Ma gave me was the love of reading. Free-range reading as a child is the key to my whole adult being.
I was an accidental children’s librarian for a large portion of my career, and I helped parents all the time who were concerned with Lexile Scores and reading rubrics, teachers with rules about reading “on level” - never too far beyond, God forbid - and test scores and comprehension metrics, and I hated it - the implications of it were counter to my philosophy about reading.
How do you quantify joy and engagement? All the worry about literacy takes the fun out of discovery for the kid. A big boot of oppression on their little necks to “read this, not that”.
LET THE CHILDREN Fuckin’ READ.
Let the children read, and let the children LEAD.
Let the child read anything they want to - even if it’s out of their league. If your ten year old wants to read a Tom Clancy novel - let him try. Read it together. Answer their questions. Have conversations. Watch a show about the topic. Let them choose. Let them read comics, graphic novels. Let them read the same book over and over again. Let them read old issues of RIP Magazine if you have them. Let them read all the Magic Tree House books if they’re obsessed - they will move on to better books, soon. Let them go through reading spurts and rests. DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT.
Just get off their backs. They will learn to love books and reading if they are relaxed, engaged, and having fun. They have to follow the rules of reading at school - but in your house, YOU make the rules. (unless you are homeschooling, then you are a badass mofo.)
And personally, when it comes to reading - I don’t have rules.
I have two kids, and as a parent, I say no to A LOT of things. But for a trip to the library, or for books in general?
YES, CHILD. The answer is ALWAYS GOING TO BE YES.
I’m NEVER going to say no to a book my kid wants to read. I don’t care. They really don’t even ask. Go for it, kiddo. Let me know if you have questions.
I don’t give my 14-year old daughter an allowance every month - I give her a book budget. Which she blows through. Which I’m fine with, for the most part.
I was allowed to read anything that captured my attention, so by the time I was in third grade I was reading Stephen King horror and Kathleen E. Woodiwiss romance novels that my mom had laying around. I moved on to lots of other types of books as well. I was at our local library on a weekly, and sometimes, daily basis.
And the irony is that I was such a wreck in school. Of course, I didn’t tell that to parents at the library. I was just different. I couldn’t pay attention, so I snuck books to read in algebra class. I didn’t ever want to do homework. I quite literally almost failed out of high school due to my…whatever. ADD? Bad attitude? Drama at home? I just wanted to escape and read and listen to music.
Eventually, by the time I made it to college at the age of 25, I had to teach myself how to be a good student. I had literally ZERO good habits from high school.
Other than loving to read. My reading game was STRONG.
I inhaled books at a remarkable pace and yet, I never thought about how a story was structured or paced, or how good dialog could replace so much exposition, or what themes were or even what a story arc was. I wasn’t in the theater crowd in school, I didn’t know about plays or drama or dialog or scenes.
If any of my teachers ever did talk about story structure during the course of my public-school and university education, I totally missed it. I even disliked my literature classes, where we had to dissect books like they were the pickled frog from the jar in biology class.
Nope. Hated it. Oblivious. I didn’t want to look at, poke at, or study the guts of a book. Gross. I just wanted to read and enjoy the book. I enjoy frogs alive more than I do dead.
I stayed in my little lane, slurping down Anne Rice and Jackie Collins and Dean Koontz and Robin Cook novels like they were tasty banana smoothies with no bones or crunchy bits at all.
But the structure was there in those books. It was the secret smoothie ingredient that made them thick and rich, like protein powder or something.
As a reader, and especially as a young reader - structure was an invisible force to me. And maybe this is why I’ve always felt that books were Magic. I didn’t need or want to know how the writer made the Magic. If the book sucked me in as a reader, that’s all I cared about. That was the Magic trick that left me amazed and appreciative.
I learned how to write academically from being a history major, and I always worked from an outline. But now I know - trying to write a memoir from an outline is so - well, linear, and books are, I guess - DIMENSIONAL - and I know now it’s why my first draft felt so flat.
But that’s OK - writing freely and intuitively and a little blindly gave me a lot to work with, and a lot to edit. I had most of the big parts ready to wiggle into place when I figured the structure out.
And although I think being such an avid reader imprinted subconsciously the pattern and structure of a story on my psyche in some way - I also honestly think it’s probably what kept me blocked as a writer for so many years. Being overwhelmed by the Magic that I couldn’t see or describe, but was trying to mimic in my writing.
So all that to say - I made it through my entire adult life including two college degrees, but only when I’d written a very bad first draft of my own book and was struggling to edit it did I start to research story structure and realize how important it was.
Honestly, it was a real clonk upside the head.
It totally opened me up as a writer. If not a precise formula, at least it was a framework upon which I could visualize and build my story, mentally. I could see the connections, the top, the bottom and all around. Now I see structure everywere. Movies. Music. Jokes.
Find the structure - find the magic.
It was a big and necessary shift from being a reader to being a more productive writer and a more effective editor.
I’m a HUGE fan of Iron Maiden. I absolutely LOVE them. I respect their songwriting and musicianship so much, and their live performances - of legend.
While I was writing AMHL, I listened to a lot of Maiden and at some point I saw an interview with Steve Harris (legendary founder, bassist and chief songwriter) where it was disclosed that he had been trained and had worked as an architectural draftsman as a day job before they hit it big. It was his “Plan B” in case the music thing didn’t work out. He drew blueprints - two dimensional renderings to communicate three dimensional concepts.
And then once I processed that bit of information, listening to Iron Maiden clicked for me in a totally different way. Now I understood how the mind of Steve Harris worked - he crafts his music kind of like an architect would design a building.
He thinks dimensionally.
I know it probably sounds crazy - but once I understood HOW he wrote the parts and put them together - I could understand his unique gift and the brilliance of Iron Maiden on a totally different level.
In their music there is always a strong framework, backstory, tension, a nice long bridge, an echoing chorus, a theme, a good galloping pace, a crescendo, and a conclusion.
If you’d like a beautiful example of this, listen to the song Paschendale. It’s like a book in song form. The structure is amazing, the story is heart-wrenching. I can see a whole movie from just this song.
I always loved visiting recording studios and I actually considered sound engineering as a career at one point - it’s a real art and something I think I might have been good at. You can tell when a song is crafted two dimensionally, or three dimensionally, or beyond. You can hear sloppiness vs. care in songwriting and arrangement. I love putting on headphones and listening to all the hidden bits pop out. You can tell when it’s produced too tightly and condensed, or when it has a big open fresh-air sound.
It’s the same when you start understanding how great writers craft and edit their stories.
I’ve latched onto this idea of “memoir as movie” - and although I really think it’s what I did when I wrote AMHL, it’s still a rudimentary concept that I’m trying to flesh out. Which I will definitely do for my upcoming memoir class.
When I think of “memoir as movie” I do mean structure, and I do mean visual-thinking, but I also mean dimensional and intuitive.
Writing parts that come to you, even if they’re out of order. Following clues to where they lead you. Choosing words that build your remembered world in the readers’ minds so they can be with you in that time, place, event, or transformation you’re writing the memoir about.
When you start to understand story structure, you can move way beyond an outline. You can start to think in 3-D. You can engage your intuition and use it to thicken it all up and create depth and atmosphere. Instead of a straight line, you’re creating a balloon. A little bubble in their head that contains YOUR world.
Writing AMHL, I felt like a disembodied spirit, floating up above the reanimated scene as I was remembering it, about 10 feet away from the action, observing and recording like a little drone camera, channeling from that past dimension into my current one.
And yes, there were physical reactions, things would echo in my dreams, weird connections would pop up, old friends would manifest, and all of this was information to me about what needed to be written. It was ancient, fertile soil to dig up and till. I made peace with a lot of loose ends and unknowns, replanted new seeds, and buried some things again, forever.
Writing my memoir as a movie created some distance, emotionally, and helped me have so much empathy for my younger self. That naive, smart, stupid, brave girl. Many times I broke down crying while writing. Other times I’d die laughing at how dumb I was. My reactions to my own story gave me guidance about how to write the story.
The truth of those emotions is where we humans connect.
Writing like it was a movie helped in setting up and moving through crucial scenes. The concepts of polarity - ending on a high or a low, one leading to the next as the story flowed through its structure points. I wanted to create tension and I wanted the reader to keep turning the page to find out what happened next.
I guess that’s what I mean by dimensional writing, and writing like it was a movie.
Like I said, I’m putting together a class that will explore some of this.
If any of this resonates for you, let me know, will you?
I asked myself the question even as I was sitting here typing this all out - why am I so attracted to memoir and narrative non-fiction anyways? Why the need to examine and share? What makes me think that Library Confidential and what I’m calling The Papa Project are even worthwhile?
I think it’s because I am acting as my own historian.
I’ve been sifting through a huge box from my mom’s house that holds a ton of stuff for the Papa Project. I have all kinds of ephemera and artifacts - even some diaries and letters (in both Italian and English) tons of photos - but yet - I have no real memoir from Papa. No explanations to some of the most basic questions.
Working on my history feels like important work.
I was reminded of this while reviewing the fabulous conversation I had with my friend, Naomi, for her podcast, That’s Deep.
(You can listen to the episode here, if you’re interested. It’s under an hour. )
It was a great chat and she asked really good questions, mostly about being an introvert and an INFJ on the Meyers-Briggs. Naomi is 20 years younger than me, and as we were talking about some of the inspiration behind AMHL and what led me from heavy metal into librarianship - I realized how much the younger generations don’t know the foundations upon which Gen X rebellion was built. It’s kind of one of those secret histories.
Back then, artists stood together when the government went too far. The PMRC and censorship debate led me to a solid distrust of authority. And it persists even yet.
God I sound OLD. But it’s true.
Gen X is a small generation. We are getting old. Our stories do need telling. Even if it’s just for amusement or entertainment or escape - or education? I don’t know. But that’s the point of writing. To be of service in some way.
I went through a big scary illness a few years ago (but God, I don’t think I can write a cancer memoir - ugh) and it feels like I have been through enough in life that I finally have some shit to say about it all. Our time on earth is limited. The clock is ticking for every one of us.
The shadow that follows me is hard to shake.
What is it I’m going to leave behind? What do I want my grandchildren to know about me?
How about you? What have you learned in this life?
I need to get this stuff processed up and out of me to make room for other stuff. All the other stuff. I do have a humongous fiction story that's been brewing in me for years and will need to come out in the form of a book series.
I definitely can’t croak with that idea in me. It’s a really dimensional, epic story in my mind.
Come to think of it, it might be better as a screenplay.
I don’t think I’ll be in the memoir headspace forever, but for now, I’m here, I’m having fun, and I’m going to roll with what’s right in front of me.
I already have a ton of material to work with, you know?
You do, too. We all do.
Reach out if you have any thoughts.
And again, thanks for riding along. For more frequent - and much shorter updates, you can always check in on my Instagram @metalheadlibrarian. Otherwise, see you in a few weeks.
I remember every little thing as if it happened only yesterday…