I tend to read non-fiction in the morning and fiction at night. Pat Conroy
once called newspapers "the daily gift of words." For nearly twenty years, I tore through four of them before seven a.m. every morning. I couldn't face the world until I'd read what was happening in it. In the evenings I read fiction. I need accounts of what-could-have-been to face the darkness. The art of endowing random reality with purpose eases the anxiety I have about at the prospect of exhaling, assuming a horizontal position, and doing nothing. In addition to segregating them in time, I've always needed to categorize words. There is "fact" (my personal caffeine) and there is "fancy," (my form of Ambien
). Memoir, as I said, seemed like a netherworld between the two, a hybrid, a vinaigrette, a mutt. But at some level, an appetite for truth pushed me to write a memoir.
My initial departure from food writing, which is how I make a living and how I made my name, had been a coming-of-age novel, a saga about five women's lives who had, in their youth, founded a women's restaurant that served non-violent cuisine. The book is sort of The Group for the bra-fee, Birkenstock era and it's not bad. But the three readers I trust the most all told me to put it way and write my family story first. My family ? the outsized myth of a Midwestern couple, who in the middle of the twentieth century produced a brand-name baseball player (my brother, Paul, who used to play right field for the New York Yankees) and a brand-named food writer, and all the unresolved weight of it ? said my friends, was the elephant-in-the-living-room of my novel.
"You have to write the truth before you can write the Truth," Isabel Allende told me. At the time, I wasn't sure exactly what she meant. In writing a memoir, I began to understand that she was talking about the difference between facts and emotional truth.
When I began my book, however, I wasn't aware of how dramatically the two realities diverge. Facts, I thought, are like super-ego, or God: infallible and, in their accumulation, always an irrefutable truth. If I thought of emotional truth at all, it was as something slippery, a lesser god.
Determined to tell the whole truth, I began researching my family. I collected historical documents about the O'Neills of Ravenna, Nebraska, and the Gwinns of Columbus, Ohio. I read histories of the places, the eras and everything I could get my hands on that referenced the interests of either family ? baseball, the milling of grain, fashion from 1880 to 1960, the maintenance of a dairy herd, you get the picture. I also interviewed every living relative and friend I could find. I couldn't get enough facts. My mother wrote biographies of herself, her husband, and each of her six children. I myself had begun keeping a journal when I was seven years old and for weeks I poured over these documents, watching the childish print grow first to a wobbly cursive and finally to a graceful combination of the two. Bound by files and facts, I began writing. For months and months, I diligently arranged the facts of our lives on the page.
Unfortunately, nothing-but-the-facts, it turns out, is nothing but a snore. After reading my first thirty pages, my poor editor couldn't maintain eye contact. She kept playing with her Blackberry, rearranging her hair and jumping up to take phone calls. "I am not sure you can have all this family history," she said. She may have mentioned that the O'Neills are not exactly the Lincolns or the Kennedys. She most certainly said: "You are going to have to put yourself in the story. I mean, it is a memoir."
Part of my problem, it turned out, was not so much the FACTS as it was hiding behind the facts. Sort of the mirror image of James Frey, who hid behind the fantasy. Finally, I had to leave all my meticulous files, move to another desk and just start typing. The other part of my problem in getting a handle on this book, is that the essential drama of my childhood was also dichotomy. I grew up in an argument between two Americas. My mother grew up in an OLDE Midwestern family; her America had higher education, good silver, and a positive cash flow. My father, whose grandfather and father had played baseball, grew up on a dairy farm in Nebraska and his America had a dust bowl, a dairy herd, and Major League ambitions. In addition to being pulled between their two Americas, I was also pulled between each of my parents' concept of Truth. My mother, on the one hand, is a literalist who associates truth with words such as "fact" and "evidence." In her mind, discomfort is evidence of truth. My father is more, well, impressionistic. He believed that happiness was the highest truth and he said whatever made the greatest number of people happy at any given moment.
My whiplash, as I struggled to shape my memoir, was nothing less than the story of my life. This "truth" was months in dawning. That is, I found, one of the differences between a literal truth and an emotional one. Facts are the fast food of the truth business, easily obtained and easily digested. Emotional truth is slow food, complicated, bifurcated, slow melding.
Once it starts, the fun begins.