I was once an athlete—tennis player, basketball forward, and, God help me, a cheerleader, with a kick that could slice granite. And I’ve been quite content to coast on my former glory. I’ve long taken for granted some metabolic good luck and scaffolding that, dressed, makes me look fitter than I am. So I hardly noticed that with each passing year, my once-muscular frame was morphing into a chopstick. Until my son, a ridiculously fit quarter-miler, challenged me to a single push-up.
Twelve or so years ago, I went to a friend’s anniversary party in downtown Manhattan and found myself seated next to the late, great Frank McCourt. He was delightful and captivating in every way – and very modest. He was also a neighbor of sorts up in Connecticut where he lived with his wife, and where I was about to relocate to, full time. It was the first I had met him, though I would do so on a couple more occasions up here before he died in 2009.
He may have asked me what I did for work, as most people do by way of icebreaking at a New York social gathering. That was an easy question before I became a full-time writer, when I was TV news producer – a job that was concrete and verifiable, the kind with a weekly paycheck. Although I have thousands of pages of unfinished stories aging in cardboard boxes, and now I try to write all day every day, it’s still hard to say, “I’m a writer,” as if I have yet to earn the right.
But of course, I didn’t need to ask Mr. McCourt what he did. Angela’s Ashes had won the author a Pulitzer Prize, and became – and maybe still is – the gold standard for memoir, which then, I think, we called autobiography. I had been staggered by the grace of this book – the hilarious and shattering depiction of his childhood. I asked him, “Do people ever say, “Now I know everything about you?” He smiled, hesitated and then said, quite seriously, “Nobody knows a single thing about me.”
I copied this exchange on an orange post-it, one of three that are stuck on the back of my desk printer. Now that I’m writing a memoir, I think often about his words. This – my – book can’t possibly be a window into me because honestly, who cares about that? What I hope it will reveal, though, is something that will read like a story, with or without my presence in the pages. Even on days when I’ve exposed more than seems right and proper, I am reminded – constantly – of my dinner chat with Frank McCourt. He couldn’t possibly have known that he was giving a future writer the best advice of her career.