The mind is a city that grows more diverse and populous as we age, a more interesting place to kick back and put up your feet. Elder statesmen and retired prima ballerinas write memoirs, though few of us would shell out for the memories of someone under the age of fifty, no matter how famous. I am not famous, but having recently celebrated a milestone birthday, I thought it high time to examine the contents of a file marked “misc” that has sat on my computer desktop this past quarter century, a dead-letter box, a catchment, a dossier, made up of bits of genealogy, old family stories, narratives written fresh after the event they describe, letters to and from my sister.
These notes amounted to an impressive 100,000 words when pasted into a single document, about the size of one of my “big” novels. I was pleased that my mind city had matured into a destination spot whose paths and byways might lure a traveler or two. However, after performing my usual editorial magic, excising the dull bits, imposing chronology, filtering out the embarrassing parts, my chronicle, the summation of my seventy years on earth, numbered a paltry hundred pages or so, double-spaced. I do not expect Linda: A Memoir to become a bestseller, in fact, I would just as soon treat it like decaying plutonium, deemed safe only after everybody I know is dead.
Not that I haven’t lived a life worth setting down for others to read. I’ve had my share of adventure, and more than my share of husbands, some would say. But sticking to the facts bores me. One’s own memories are over-familiar to a brain ever seeking novelty. There’s no thrill like making stuff up. And, it’s cheaper than therapy. “Recurring themes” and “motifs” allow the novelist to refight all those battles she couldn’t win in real life.
Another reason I recommend novel-writing is for the status that comes with the world’s most desired profession, if we’re to believe Parade magazine, even beating out being president. In fact, Barack Obama said in his memoir (written when he was way younger than seventy!) that he might write a novel one day when he wasn’t so busy saving Western civilization. Want to bet he’s already got a manuscript in the bottom drawer? John Gresham assures us that all lawyers do, and Bill Clinton would prove his point. Bill is collaborating with James Patterson to write a political thriller, The President Is Missing.
In case you’re not familiar with literary genres, “thriller” falls within the capacious borders of the mystery genre, invented in the 1800’s by Edgar Allan Poe, or, if you’re British, by Wilkie Collins. Both sci-fi, Barack’s potential genre, and the thriller Bill will attempt, are forgiving genres. True aficionados will slog through the pulpiest pulp to find out whodunnit, a fact that is not lost on TV producers. Some truly terrible writers have made a good living writing mysteries, and some great writers have elevated the genre to literature, such as A Dark-Adapted Eye by the late Ruth Rendell.
Plotting a mystery exercises the cerebellum as well as the funny bone. The genre thinks nothing of sending in cartoon characters to solve a deadly crime. While we can’t all be Dave Barry, any one of us might invent the next Poirot.