This fall, Anchorman: the Legend Continues will be released, and with it, Ron Burgundy’s tell-all memoir, titled LET ME OFF AT THE TOP!: My Classy Life and Other Musings. So it’s the real story of a fake anchorman.
As if memoir writers didn’t have enough competition from celebrities, now fictional characters from movies are writing their life stories. So, if I’m thinking straight here, a make-believe character is writing about their true past. Actually, it’s kind of funny when you think of it that way.
Where does that leave me?
Believe me, I love fictional characters. In fact, when I was six, one of my few positive female role models was a fictional character. Her name was Annie Oakley and she galloped across the TV screen every Sunday night on her horse Target, pigtails flying.
In the 50s, six-year-old girls in small Northwest timber towns found heroes in short supply, especially ones of the female gender. I had been waiting all my life for a girl who could be a cowboy—prove that an escaped convict had been wrongly accused, protect the widows and little kids.
I liked watching The Lone Ranger, but I knew I could never be him. I could be a cowgirl like Annie, though. And I was sure there were still cowgirls somewhere. In Kansas. Or Texas. One of those for sure.
In my bed at night, when the wind howled and the rain lashed against the plastic sheeting Daddy had tacked over the outside of the window to keep the cold out, I would act out Annie stories in my head. I said all the brave things, stood up for all the people who needed defending. I was Annie.
The theme of my memoir deals in part with the dilemma of a smart independent girl in the 50s who isn’t seeing too many benefits to becoming the housewife and mother her family and the current society expect of her. Her childhood fixation with Annie Oakley illuminates her desire to get out and think, do and figure things out for herself.
So the Annie Oakley wannabe is an ‘ordinary’ girl who is on a quest. Add a childhood of poverty and a fundamentalist, homophobic church—and, later in the story, a daughter struggling with her sexual identity and a mother with a horrific secret of her own—and it’s a tale of damaged and flawed characters who are doing the best they can but are forced in the end to choose between two overwhelming, but opposing, needs.
And that is the conflict that hopefully keeps readers turning the pages.
Can an ‘ordinary’ writer produce an extraordinary memoir?
You don’t have to be a sports star, an entertainer, or a fictional movie character like Ron Burgundy to tell an interesting, funny, tense or heartbreaking life story. Ordinary people have written some of the most successful memoirs in history.
Frank McCourt was a retired teacher when he wrote the bestselling, Pulitzer-winning Angela’s Ashes, the wrenching story of his poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland. Mary Karr’s brutally honest and darkly hilarious The Liars’ Club gives us a front seat to the story of her apocalyptic childhood in an east Texas oil town.
So, yes, an ordinary writer can produce a successful memoir. We don’t have celebrity but we know how to tell a story—if we can find our story.
Five things I’ve learned
Here are five things I’m learning as I write this memoir. I can compete with the celebrities if I:
1. Make it about more than me.
“What? Isn’t my memoir about me?” you say. Well, yes, maybe if you are Mick Jagger or Ron Burgundy. But being a mere mortal, I needed a dynamite hook to reel my readers in and a different story to tell, one that only I can tell. I found my unique angle and then started building a narrative with tension, with the goal of making the reader continue to turn pages to find out what happens next. A story with a beginning, a middle and a tense climax.
2. Find the universal truths in the particulars.
It took me some time, but I’ve learned to dig deep, below the surface of an event or moment and find that universal truth. That something that everyone who lives and breathes can connect to—something we all have experienced.
3. Value reflection and give my story time to marinate.
Frank McCourt waited fifty years to tell his story. I’m not saying we all need to do that, but the greater distance between the events in your life story and you, and the more deep thinking you bring to the memoir, the truer story you will tell. When events aren’t so fresh in your mind, you will avoid using your book to whine or vent, and that’s better for all of us.
4. Connect to my readers’ emotions.
A good book makes people feel. It makes people think, yeah, I have felt just this way before. Whether it’s laughing or crying or raging with anger, readers are along for the ride—the whole ride.
5. Show my vulnerability.
If I let the reader in close, if I tell her about something I did, or thought, or felt, that I’m not proud of, I allow that connection to happen. The reader thinks, yeah, I made a similar mistake once. Or, jeez, I’m glad I was warned so I don’t go down that path.
So, though it seems that celebrities have it all—fame, money and guaranteed success as authors—we can write our memoirs, too. We just have to work a little harder.