Writing my memoir about my father and me, Stories I Tell Myself
, was a long, hard journey. I thought I'd knock it out in a year, but I profoundly underestimated just how hard it is to write a book, and how hard it was for me to write about my father in a way that did him justice in an honest way. It ended up taking nine years from the time I signed the contract. And it turns out that was a good thing. It's a much better book than it would have been otherwise.
I first decided to write this book several months after my father's death in 2005. I felt very strongly that I had to set the record straight about who Hunter was. For many years the focus had always been on his drug use, his drinking, and his crazy behavior, which overshadowed his writing, his idealism, and his complexity as a man. I figured I had sufficient writing skills and talent to come up with a readable book, I had a unique perspective, and I had a story I very much wanted to tell.
I contacted Hunter's agent for many years, Lynn Nesbit, and she liked the idea. I wrote a proposal, she took it to a few editors she thought would find it interesting, and voila
! After a few months, a book contract appeared, and an advance along with it. I had my proposal, my contract; now I just had to write the book. I took advantage of the advance to leave my day job in IT and focus full-time on the book. I planned to finish it in a year and then find a new day job. I figured this would be like writing a long thesis, but without the research and footnotes.
I set myself the task of writing at least 1,000 words a day, with weekends off. In the morning I sat down in front of my computer, and there I stayed until I had 1,000 words. Sometimes that was an hour or two, sometimes four hours, sometimes six or seven on a bad day. There were some days it was easy to write, but there were many days when I didn't know what to say. I resorted to stream of consciousness writing, putting down anything at all until I reached that 1,000 word limit. It was a great relief to reach that goal and be freed from the chair and the computer for the day, even on the days when I knew what I wanted to say and the words flowed. There are writers out there who look forward to sitting in that chair in the morning. I am not one of them.
And after nine months or so I had a first draft. It was uneven at best, lacked a flow, was full of holes and gaps and outright gibberish in places. It was certainly not publishable, but at least there was a draft to work with. And then, to my surprise, it got harder.
It turns out the easy part was getting words on paper. But words on paper do not make a story worth reading, and they certainly did not tell the story I wanted to tell, and now I was not quite sure what that story was. When I began writing, I was filled with grief and longing for my father, and that's what came through. In that first draft, I started with this:
I love my father. I cannot write that I loved him, because the past tense means my love has ceased. How could that be? Here may be a case where language has more truth in it than life: I loved him before, and I still love him. The fact that his body is gone and his spirit or essence or consciousness or whatever it might be has moved on does not change that. This brings us to the topic of the nature of love, and I will not venture into that vast wilderness, except to say that one thing that has changed for certain is that I no longer have the ability to express my love to him. But even that's not quite true. I offer this book as my last and best expression of my love for my father, Hunter Stockton Thompson.
That was the tone: valedictory, elegiac, and a bit maudlin. By the end of that first year, though, I realized that if I was going to tell a real story, I had to include the ugly parts also, and to accept that I was still angry at him for things he had said and done decades earlier. So began a long process of deciding what to include and what to leave out. I also had to address the issue of how to write about people still living, like my mother, my father's friends, or old girlfriends.
There was also the problem of trying to see the whole arc of the book in my head, how all the stories fit together into a whole. Meanwhile, I had found a new day job, and between that and being a father and husband, I had very little time. Finally, I just didn't want to work on it. It was hard and frustrating and painful, and there were difficult decisions to make. I procrastinated as long as I could, and then I would take a week off work and sit in front of that damn computer and make progress.
This went on for years. Sometimes I wouldn't work on it for six months, but eventually I would have to face the question: Was I going to finish this book or not? And I always I knew I had to finish it. I could not have lived with myself if I had stopped. It would have been a deep and lifelong regret and an unforgivable failure.
|“I consulted Hunter in my head, and he continued to say, "Damn right. Tell the truth."
These are strong words, but true. In part I felt an obligation to Hunter to tell the story no one else could tell. I also felt an obligation to myself as a writer: I had a reputable publisher and the chance to tell a story that might touch people in a meaningful way. To fail to follow through on that opportunity was unthinkable. And so I would make the time again, take another week of vacation time, and keep going.
When I finally reached the point where the book was as complete as I could make it, my editors gave me a perspective I had lost, along with a willingness to cut ruthlessly — we cut 25 percent of the book and a lot of fancy prose that detracted from the story itself. The book is better, and I am a better writer as a result.
The nine years also gave me time to realize I didn't have to protect Hunter now that he was dead, and in fact that he would've been disappointed if I had whitewashed his life, if I had been vague about the role and effects of alcoholism over 50-some years, among other things. In the first few years, I wanted to protect him, and I left out much. By the seventh or eighth year, though, I realized those facts were an important part of the bigger story that I had to tell. I consulted Hunter in my head, and he continued to say, "Damn right. Tell the truth."
It turns out I needed nine years — and thank goodness my editor agreed. I needed the time to get some distance from my subject and to learn about writing, but most of all to work through my conflicting emotions about my father. Writing is hard, but I think writing a memoir about a parent is harder still. It was certainly the most difficult, demanding work I have ever done.
And it is also the most important work I have done outside of being a father. I finished the book and I did my best to do my father justice with honesty. I worked very hard for a long time to get this story right, and to tell it in a way that may touch others. It is far from perfect, it may not win an award, and readers may dislike it for any number of reasons, but it is done. Even I can say it's not half-bad, that my father would be proud of me, and that it was worth the nine years and the struggle. I have created something of meaning. What more could I ask for?
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Juan F. Thompson
was born in 1964 outside of San Francisco, California, and grew up in Woody Creek, Colorado. He graduated from Tufts University and lives in Denver, Colorado, where he performs computer magic in the health care IT industry. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and his son, Will.