Remember when you were in high school and you told your mom you were going to Susie Straightlace’s house to study but you really went to Rachel Riskwhisker’s rager where you drank so much Grape Crush and vodka you had to crawl home with one eye shut and you peeked in your living room window to see if your mom was still up and you saw that she had removed her glowing, rutabaga-shaped brain from its cranial case and was recharging it with what you had once thought was a giant electric razor and you realized that she was an alien overlord?
I don’t, because that’s your memory, not mine. But gollyjeepers, I’ve got some doozies. (To be clear though, my mom was an angel.) Me, I had a tidy little enterprise in my high school years and beyond: professional shoplifter. I say “professional” because I ascended the ladder of five-finger skills through enterprise and gall, and because I sold the goods I lifted to high school acquaintances. Satan whispered in my ear a lot those days.
Well, I sold some of the goods–the significant amounts of liquor I stole were consumed by me and my cronies. Many of those were quaffed in the name of science, since items like blueberry schnapps and MD (Mad Dog) 20-20 “wine” weren’t actually meant to be ingested—by humans at least. And I was the guy who did steal Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book when it came out—Abbie, you asked for it.
Confessional memoirs have possibly peaked in popularity, but I’m always late to the party, so I recently wrote one. I have written essays over time about the impossibly poor judgment I had as a lad, but I hadn’t thought about writing a memoir until I was editing one for a client, hers being a 140,000-word composition about her years as a marketing executive in the senior care industry.
Part cautionary tale, part horror story about the dark side of aging, part song of friendship, part instructional on best and more humane industry practices, hers is a funny, sad, sharp and scary volume. Working with her on it made me realize that I could shape my misdeeds into a book, and at the least, terrify the parents of high schoolers who think their charges are studying at Susie’s.
Putting the Pieces Together
First, some mechanics: my book is 50,000 words, on the dieting side of memoir word counts. I can go on at times (just give me a pint of blueberry schnapps), but I wanted to write something snappy, and toward the end, the process of recounting my rips in the social fabric wearied me; being a notable ass has some intrigues, but at some point one must seek grace.
Though 50,000 words might seem a memoir appetizer plate, it’s still a full plate. And of course a memoir isn’t an autobiography: as William Zinsser said, “Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up off bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction.”
The walls of my construction are bound by my high school years, the full fruition of my thieving, with some leftover crimes trickling into my twenties.
The way I managed the writing, aligned with my other writing/editing assignments and related work, was to set a timer and write for 30 minutes, every workday. I can attest to the remarkable power of small, steady increments: I started with a sentence, and finished with a book. Beginning in February this year, I rarely missed a day, sometimes writing longer than 30 minutes, but never less, and I finished in six months. Having read James Clear’s influential Atomic Habits late last year helped me understand the power of incremental consistency.
I did read some memoirs during the writing (a re-read of Beryl Markham’s great West with the Night, two of Alexandra Fuller’s lunatic (and often sad) accounts of her southern African childhood, and good articles on memoir. Here’s a strong one by memoir-writing coach Marion Roach Smith on Jane Friedman’s site. And our own Sophie Masson wrote a piece a bit back on WU on how to memoir.
The Universal, the Personal, the Pestiferous
Me blathering about events in my Southern California middle-class microcosm nearly 50 years ago might not seem to have relevance to a broader audience. Smith’s essay on memoir tells us, “We want to read about how your experience reveals something universal that we either do not understand, that is weighing on us, or that is beckoning our wonder … Write about the universal as illustrated by the personal.”
My universal has a couple of components: coming of age in the Vietnam-war era, which my nascent political nose told me was a foul thing. There is a faint but detectable beat of 60s counterculture in the writing, though my surface efforts there were more Grateful Dead than Students for a Democratic Society. The other broader component was teenage life. Teenagers are yeasty creatures, in constant states of turbulence. If you have any, you know implicitly you should keep them chained.
But, in the specific, why be a high-school shoplifter? Well, for one, the hours were good. But my thinking (when I paused to think) about what I was doing then and why, over the course of my pilfering career, is a big part of the book—as my crimes escalated, the same kind of tensions you have in a conflicted character in a fictional work come to the fore. The work is an expiation of sorts: there is extended exploration of guilt, sifted through the netting of my nine years of Catholic school; those altar-boy hands worked some dark deeds. So, it’s an open-air confessional, with my inconsistent conscience as the patient priest.
I moved a lot of chapters and sections around, so initially writing the thing in Scrivener helped. I am lucky, in that I have many friends from that era who are still my friends, so I had 10 beta readers who read the whole thing in order to make sure their names were spelled correctly. Memory, of course, is a slippery fish, particularly in regards events from the cobwebbed past, so many of my peers had additions, elaborations and howls of protest apropos my interpretations. Some of my slippery fishes ended up stinking on the cutting-room floor due to their counsel.
I wrote a query, a proposal, and the dreaded synopsis, and began sending it out to agents and small presses, 26 so far. I have used the helpful Poets and Writer’s filterable databases for agents and small presses who look at memoir submissions. I also get the Writer’s Digest newsletters, one of which has a regular feature on agents that are looking for new authors to rep. Agent Query can be helpful too. (Do make sure to check out the submission guidelines on the agent/publisher websites directly; I’ve seen differences between the database sites and the specific publishing entities.)
If none of these pitches pan out, I’ll publish the durn thing myself.
Stolen Cars and College; The Hairy Days
To give you a taste of my tastelessness, here’s a quick sample from deep in the book, long after my initial high-school glory days, when I thought most of my theft-related lunacies were behind me. This squib is after I’d left my then home in Vegas, driving a car that had been given to me there, and after I’d begun my undergraduate classes at college in California:
A couple of months into my first semester, a uniformed police officer came to my English class and asked if there was a Tom Bentley there. I figured that it was my hair that had probably broken some law (my 1976 hairdo was very expressive). No, it seems I was in possession of a stolen car, of all things, and that I’d have to come to the station and straighten it out.
It was easily straightened out: My VW, the car Zack and I had been given and legally registered, wasn’t actually available to give. The car was owned by a woman in Vegas that had just loaned the car to our freeway doofus, and she’d discovered his poor stewardship upon her return from Japan, where she’d been touring with an entertainment group. Her particular talent was removing clothing from the profound grounds of her architecture. Zack and I had found a manila envelope in the trunk of the VW of black and white glossies of her in/out of costume; she might put you in mind of Elly May Clampett after five vodka tonics, wearing a mail-order Lady Godiva wig. Until the cop cruised in and I got the backstory, both Zack and I were baffled about those photos.
Her name was (and might still be) Angel Blue. Under her name, the tag line on the glossies read: The Heavenly Body. As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. And neither were the cops, who despite my protestation (and my registration), took the car and gave it to Ms. Blue’s lawyer, who had tracked me to my academic lair.
The real question I wanted answered was this: what was a stripper of Lady Blue’s talents doing with a ’65 Volkswagen? This was a woman that should have been driving a ’59 Caddy, pretty in pink. Ah, America. My housemate, who worked in Santa Rosa, picked me up and drove us home from the college. And he took me back and forth from school for a while, until my brother, the brother whose first motorcycle I used to unhook the odometer cable on and steal for joyrides, that brother, gave me his Yamaha 250 to use while I was carless.
Wrap It Up (and I Might Even Pay for It)
So, it’s been quite a year, eh? We’ve got a still out-of-control pandemic. California, yea, the entire West is burning, and the South is flooded. We have The Prince of Darkness in the White House, a hollow man/child impersonating a president, plowing our common American values into corrupt, dead ground—indeed fouling the nature of democracy itself.
And my mom, my greatest influence as a writer, died in June. Because I am devious, she didn’t learn of my shoplifting career until 40 years later. She didn’t approve, to put it mildly, but she found a way to laugh about it. This book will be dedicated to her, for her unfailing kindness and her great laugh.
So why publish a memoir on stealing stuff in high school, in such perilous times? Well, Mark Twain held back the publishing of his autobiography (which he dictated) until 100 years after his death, reportedly worried that his musing were too scandalous for his time. Now, that’s excellent marketing, but I’m not as patient as Mr. Clemens. I want my scandals in circulation. I hope they’ll amuse and entertain, supply a caution to fellow shoplifters in training, and show the lead character’s evolution, which continues apace.
My next book, which will be about the time John Lennon called me because he was worried that Elvis was getting too chummy with Nixon, will be a barnburner.
Stalwarts of WU: ever find anything in your pocket that wasn’t paid for? Did you return it, or go back for something bigger the next day? Have you written essays or longer works about your youthful exploits or other significant periods in your life? How often do you use direct life experiences in your fiction?