Why My First Book Was a Memoir

BW-author-profile-masked-02-copyby Larry Dunlap

I’m always surprised when one of the very first questions I am asked is why I chose to write a memoir for my first attempt as an author. It’s not that it’s a bad question, it’s that I had little choice, as it turned out. While it is my first book, I’ve been a writer for a long time, and a voracious reader since early childhood. I earned my bones as a pencil-for-hire technical writer starting at Transamerica, Countrywide, and Hallmark through the mid-Nineties but I’d been writing everything from business plans to training programs to technical specifications well before then. But always, on my own time, I was reading every kind of fiction and creative non-fiction.

When I finally found time to write as an author, which I had previously attempted two or three times over the years, there was a decision to make. What to write. I had three options. The first seemed obvious, I’d been deeply involved in the computer game business designing and overseeing the development of my own graphic multiplayer online strategy game. While the game was a critical success, these kinds of projects are expensive, and I fell a farthing or so short of what was needed. However, over the several decades I’d been subconsciously mapping out the details of the game, I’d developed a back story. It was a complex trilogy, though, which seemed like a daunting place to start. My second choice was a novel about a young off-the-grid, dishonorably discharged, veteran with a sordid past, living illegally on an abandoned boat in a rundown marina in southern California, reluctantly working as an off-the-books private investigator to survive. I got pretty invested in this guy, and thought I’d like to take on authors like Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. Ha ha, sure. But then there was this real life story about a turning point in my life with a rock band in the mid-Sixties. The story almost told itself, and it seemed to demand telling, but I wondered if anyone would really care about some guys from the Midwest who almost made that climb to the top of the music biz.

The final decision came from two conversations. The first was with one of my band brothers, Dave. There are four of us, the four Midwestern musketeers so to speak, who are still in contact 50 years after our adventure began. Whenever we get together, sooner or later we always turn to reminiscences of the odyssey we took. While Dave and I were talking, he mentioned that the other two had told him they felt they could only converse with one, or more, of the four of us about those experiences because no one in their real lives could relate to what they’d done and where they’d been. That seemed incredibly unfair.

The second conversation was with my earliest best friend in high school, who’d introduced me to science fiction and board games. When I’d left Indianapolis for parts West, we lost contact with each other. But, serendipitously, I discovered him again when I was home visiting family and bandmates. When I mentioned I was considering writing about what happened in my life after I left Indy, and would he be interested in reading that, he said he’d always considered my experiences a “cautionary tale” he used to warn his children of what can happen when you wander off the beaten track as I had.

I totally got that. I’d lived in Indiana, it is an insular place. Often hard for people there to relate to things far away on either coasts. But when I considered it later, I realized that many of the adventures I’ve enjoyed reading generally had a cautionary tale at the root of them. I hadn’t thought of it that way before—so maybe it wasn’t such a bad book idea after all.

I began the process of getting things organized to write in early 2010, putting together calendars both in paper and spreadsheets, gathering photos, researching all the locations, music industry magazines, contracts, recording, people we met, and those who represented us–over several months of research. Though memoir, differing from biography and/or history, is a matter of opinion—what the memoirist remembers—I still wanted use all the dates, times, and facts I could find as milestones to weave my memory through.

The next big step was figuring out where to start. I had no problem with the ending. It was dramatic and obvious. It was where to begin. Despite all the crazy and interesting, almost unbelievable things, that had happened to us, who was going to care about reading a history of my band, no matter how I described and related these events I’d written in my calendars. It was well into the following year before I realized that if I wanted anyone to be interested in this book, I was going to have to write it through my own lens, how I experienced it. I would have to be the personal narrator. I struggled. I wrote about grade school, high school, discovering an obsession with singing, followed closely by an obsession with basketball, overshadowed by the mystery of girls. And then I tossed it all out.

I discovered memoir, in the sense that I hadn’t really understood what memoir was before then. I read other memoirs, mostly hated them, especially the music and band books, until I read “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, and “Candy Girl, A Year in the Life of a Unlikely Stripper” by Diablo Cody, and a novel that felt so much like memoir that I thought it counted, “The Descendants” by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and I got it. It wasn’t about history, it was about emotion, it was about what the things that happened to you meant, not getting dates, times and dialog exactly right. And that left the largest stumbling block. I was going to have to dig into myself. It took the next four years to write about the six years of the memoir (with look-ins to events back into the Fifties), and examine personal life back then and how things affected me in the story and even to some extent, to the present. Before this, I’d never considered myself a person who spent much time looking backward but now it was liking pulling myself out of a fugue state after each writing session.

Each draft vastly improved my creative writing skills, bringing more and better descriptions of the band’s experiences, but also found me digging into things about my own experiences I hadn’t considered sharing with anyone. It was becoming more and more obvious, I’d have to be willing to strip emotionally naked to uncover the real story. And since it was about my band, appropriately named Stark Naked and the Car Thieves, perhaps that made sense.

I finally found my beginning at one of the lowest points of my young life at 24. My marriage to my high school dream girl, who’d rescued me from the pain of being a high school teenager, borne our two beautiful young sons, and whom I loved beyond reason, was in trouble. The vocal group, that sang A Capella Fifties rock tunes, and had given me something to dedicate myself to as a teenager; that had recorded a record in a homemade studio that inexplicably out-charted the Beatles on Chicago’s big rocker, WLS, for a few of weeks in January 1964, was scattering to the winds. The winds of change had begun to howl and while they slammed some doors, others were being blown open. So while this isn’t quite where my personal story started, this is where NIGHT PEOPLE, Book 1 of Things We Lost in the Night, A Memoir of Love and Music in the 60s with Stark Naked and the Car Thieves begins.

 

3 thoughts on “Why My First Book Was a Memoir

  1. Wish I’d edited this a little better. The most glaring error is that 1971 should have been 2011. Only off by forty years. I think I was trying to say that my calendars ran through to 1971, when the memoir ends. My apologies about the others. 🙁

  2. Glad your expectations are high, hope to live up to them, Amanda. Launch day tomorrow. In fact I just got a notice while I was writing this that the Kindle book went live! Really pleased to be sharing my journey with you!

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