I’ve thought a lot about Frank McCourt and his engaging memoir Angela’s Ashes since hearing of his unexpected death yesterday. McCourt published Angela’s Ashes the same year I finished the family history of my Scottish grandparents. Until writing that book I hadn’t paid much attention to the memoir genre. Frankly, I can’t remember reading a memoir before Angela’s Ashes unless one counts Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. I must have been drawn to McCourt’s book because of all the attention it was receiving. Little did I realize how that book would change my life.
Writing my family history helped me see the value of leaving a record of one’s life. As I wrote about my grandparents’ lives, I keenly felt the loss of not having known them and hearing their story as they would have told it. I had my mother and two aunts who were valuable resources for factual material, but it wasn’t the same as being able to hear my grandparents’ version of what happened to them.
That sense of loss led me to the conviction that I should motivate and help others write their life stories. I have written before about how I naively believed writing that one family history taught me enough to teach others. Of course, I soon realized I was in over my head and began looking for help. And there was Angela’s Ashes. It couldn’t have been more fortuitous timing. I learned so much from that book that helped focus my thinking. Here was an ordinary man—not a hero or a celebrity—who had written about his life in such an engaging way that it resonated profoundly with people everywhere, selling millions of copies worldwide, winning a Pulitzer Prize.
I learned many things from Frank McCourt, but there are two that stand out.
1. A person doesn’t have to be a celebrity to write an interesting life story. We’ve all had interesting lives. It’s just a matter of telling our story in an interesting way. Here’s how McCourt did it…
He re-created incidents from his life and presented them as scenes so readers felt they were living his experiences along with him.
He re-created conversations that occurred decades before, thereby illuminating personalities by letting people speak for themselves. While there was no way he could duplicate exactly what was said in these conversations, they “ring true” all the same.
He didn’t whitewash the flaws of difficult people but wrote about them honestly and fairly, showing both their strengths and weaknesses.
Although people he loved often made his life miserable, he wrote about them with compassion and forgiveness, even humor, so he never came across as bitter or vindictive.
I continually stress these techniques in my classes and included them when I later wrote my life story writing book—quoting McCourt frequently—because I think they’re essential to writing an engaging memoir. I thank Frank McCourt for showing the way.
2. McCourt taught me something else: You’re never too old. You’re never too old to tell your story, a message I convey to my retirement-age students constantly. And, you’re never too old to embark on a new career path. McCourt published Angela’s Ashes when he was sixty-six—after three decades of teaching and at a time when most people retire. Then he published TWO more books after that! What a role model he’s been for us. I came to teaching relatively late in life—after I had raised four children and filled spare hours with volunteer work. My last fourteen years as a teacher have been some of the most interesting and rewarding years of my life. The sense of fulfillment I’ve experienced from teaching life story writing has enhanced every other aspect of my life. Like McCourt, I consider myself a late bloomer.
As I’ve read many of the tributes to him these last two days, it’s apparent that others have Frank McCourt to thank for their personal success. For some time the publishing industry has experienced what many call a “memoir boom.” While I haven’t studied the phenomenon closely, I suspect Angela’s Ashes was the catalyst—giving courage to countless others to write and publish their stories.
I’ve felt unsettled ever since hearing the news of McCourt’s death, keenly feeling the loss of someone who has been important to me and regretting that I wasn’t able to tell him. But I can tell you. Blogs can serve all kinds of good purposes.