I was reminded of this analogy when reading a profile a couple of months ago in The New York Times on David Ritz, credited memoir ghostwriter to such musical stars as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Etta James, among others. (Author of the article, Nate Chinen, dubs Ritz "confessional bard of rhythm and blues.") Reading how Ritz found his calling is fascinating in itself, as are his colorful tales of working with such luminaries and his reflections on an amazingly prolific career. (This year alone he has five new books.) But what really hit home for me were his comments on a critical (THE critical) aspect of memoir writing: the willingness of the subjects to open their hearts.
“I’ve had a number of books where I could not attain the intimacy that I needed,” Mr. Ritz said with a pragmatic air, “and it showed in the book.” Noting the direct correlation between unguardedness and public response, he added: “All the good books are by people who open their hearts. Because, in turn, that touches the hearts of readers.”
This point has moved front-center in my mind recently, as I assess my level of success with my client's book, scan the horizon for a new project, and attempt (with much flailing of spirit, feelings of inadequacy, and a sense of futility) to work on my own memoir projects. How difficult it is to open one's heart. What effort and skill it takes to recount one's experiences without falling into maudlin/exculpatory/self-aggrandizing/whitewashing detours into the pedestrian. How impossible to be honest!
Time after time I turn to the memoirs on my shelf for inspiration, most recently Cheryl Strayed's devastatingly honest memoir, Wild. What is the common denominator in the best of these books? An unflinching exploration of the past, of the self, of personal failings, fears, and foibles. A willingness to sit before the mirror, not with a candle for light but under the full-on florescent glare of self-honesty.
"To thine own self be true." Indeed. A formidable task alike for the memoir writer relating her own story as for the ghostwriter helping a client tell his tale in way that moves the hearts of readers.