What is a memoir? And why I chose to use it.

Last August I began writing “A Naked Car Thief” as a remembrance of the years I was a member of our band, Stark Naked and the Car Thieves. Prior to that, I spent about four months in intense research and writing certain scenarios that I vividly remembered like when we opened Nero’s Nook at Caesars Palace. I was testing to see if I could develop the skill to write something worth the effort it would take and if I could actually dedicate the time and effort and will to finish it. Though I have previously worked as a technical writer professionally for over eight years for three Fortune 100 companies, started an unfinished novel and a few short stories (one published in a game sci-fi magazine), I had never taken on anything like the scope of this project. Of the number of books I have absorbed in trying to develop this skill set, I realize that I should make clear the expectations and limits to what should be expected in a memoir, what it means for my goal, and why I chose this form. I am quoting below from one of the influential books that is guiding me.

“Memoir is a rendering of lived life, as filtered through memory and the wider net of the needs of narrative. Memoir just tells the story, no explicit thesis here. Memoir examines a life, a self, and does so through a period of time, say early childhood or the month you spent with Grandpa in France. Like novels and short stories, memoirs tend to operate in time and space, tend to have a story arc, rising action leading to a climax, a balance of scene and summary. A reflective voice might tell the story, might analyze events, but it tends to stay in the background, tends to let the action do the work. Research can support the storytelling, but the point isn’t a display of facts or information. A memoir lays out the evidence of a life, lets the reader make the conclusions. The mode ranges from pure, plain storytelling to more reflective storytelling. Some memoirs get so reflective and analytical that they move close to and overlap with the personal essay. A few pages, a book, a few volumes, memoir is an expansible form.”

— Roorbach, Bill (2008-06-17). Writing Life Stories: How To Make Memories Into Memoirs, Ideas Into Essays And Life Into Literature.

I chose this form specifically because I am dealing with a time now well over 40 years ago, where memory does it’s best but cannot mirror specifics. Time and again, after relating vignettes about our group’s adventures people would say “you ought to write a book”, even sometimes a band mate. But as I got further into the project I realized that the story I had to tell, was really about my specific adventures through the lens described above; the band’s story and the story of the times and places had to become the background of my story. It had to become my story, not the band’s.

At first it was for a practical reason, it had become clear that some members of the group had glaring differences in interpreting the memories of our shared experiences. As my goal was to get at the truths that were seminal to my growth through those years; accuracy was bound to take a hit so I dedicated those early months to research and I continue to do spot research during the writing to be as accurate as possible. I also don’t want to take the stance of invalidating anyone else’s recollections so by personalizing them as mine and mine alone, though I make every effort  to find common ground, I am only responsible to being true to my own sense of this experience.

But more importantly I have come to realize in this much more personal approach I am uncovering things that go beyond the band and into my relationships with family and friends with far-reaching consequence. I also realized that I wanted to write a story, a book, that anyone could pick up and read for the adventure and journey of several fairly ordinary guys who combined their talents  in a leap of faith, and ended up experiencing extraordinary events at extraordinary places at an extraordinary time, the middle to the end of the 1960’s, in music and culture.

The Indianapolis Times 1964

The Indianapolis Times

My last job in Indianapolis was at the Indianapolis Times. I was hired in 1963 to sell classified advertising. I didn’t realize it at the time but it was a dead end job because Scripps-Howard had already announced they planned to discontinue the paper. The Indianapolis Star, a morning paper, had already gobbled up the Indianapolis News, portending the change in the business environment. You needed to know the news before your working day not leisurely looking at in the evening.

The venerable Indianapolis Times, also an afternoon paper, held on even longer than it should have to try and keep Indianapolis from becoming a one newspaper town. Even then it was realized how dangerous it was to have only one news source (FoxNews crack addicts are you listening?).

[Location: 300 block W. Maryland Street at Capitol Avenue, Indianapolis (Marion County, Indiana)]

Life at a Dying Newspaper

I was excited at the prospect of working for a newspaper at first but my department had realized long before I arrived that there was no future in working hard at the Times. We met at 8 o’clock in the morning for a half an hour sales meeting, usually including donuts and coffee (some people surreptitiously adding a little kick to their coffee even that early). Then everyone left, supposedly to work on sales for the classified ads. I was told to ‘cold call’ car lots, gas stations, radio stations, local businesses, etc. to drum up sales but within a couple of weeks some of the old timers told me not to waste my time. I would get ads from the companies that just wanted to be in every publication but I wouldn’t get any new ads because everyone knew the Time wouldn’t be in business much longer and circulation was way down.

Everyone in the department except me was split into two groups. The golfers, who left immediately for the links after the morning sales meeting, and the rest, who left for the bars. Around 4:30 everyone would gather again for the final sales meeting before leaving for the day. That could be a hoot as the barflys could be raucous and unruly and the golfers told outrageous lies about their golf game or sexual adventures.

For me, I found that I could slip into a library and read science fiction novels or meet up with some of the guys I sang with, most of whom were chronically unemployed. Often there were enough of us to get in some a cappella practice time. 1964 was the year we had a close brush with fame after recording “In The Still of The Nite” and our trips to Chicago to support the record. In the first few months of the year we still hoped we might be able to keep recording but the Indy Sound and Jan Hutchens Productions died as quickly as it had risen. It was on one such day in the fall that I recruited Mac Brown from the Casinos to come and sing with us. At our New Year’s Eve party on the last day of 1964, knowing that the day the Times would close was near I agreed to a brash proposal to try our luck as The Checkmates (precursor to Stark Naked and the Car Thieves) singing in night clubs. So in early February of 1965 I gave notice at the Times and tried my luck as a bar singer. Though that experience was a complete disaster life was never the same again.

Display Artist

One of the best things I learned at the Times was from the display artist. I would bring him display ads and he would draw them up right in front of me. He was half cartoonist and have illustrator. His main tools were a metal ruler and a #2 pencil. He would use the ruler to tear through newspaper pages and his pencil to block out new art, write in new copy using the ruler edge, and illustrate where and when needed. I’ve always been influenced by his rough and ready skill and talent even though the medium has changed to a digital world. I still keep a couple of steel rulers around for when I work on art in article, brochure, or book form even in this digital world.