Each year, the Philadelphia Writers Conference offers a three session workshop on memoir writing, taught by writing teachers with a special relationship to that genre. This year we pleased to host Tom McAllister, a writing professor and author of the memoir “Bury Me in my Jersey” about growing up in Philly in a football-saturated family. Whether you are exploring the possibility of writing about your life, or are already well on your way to a completed manuscript, this workshop can help you clarify your ideas and gain an overall sense of how your life can become a book.
In this interview, I ask Tom questions about writing memoirs and some specific questions about his. Check out what he had to say after the break.
Jerry: As people get older, they generate a lot of memories, and hence, a lot of material to write in memoirs. However, you wrote your memoir when you were relatively young. I suppose as a college teacher, you are teaching the genre to students even younger than you were when you wrote it. I wonder how these young people relate to the genre. Do you help them see everything as grist for the mill, even things that just happened yesterday? Do you tell them that over the course of their lives they will have lots more things happen to them that will create great writing opportunities? How do your students relate to all of this? Do they catch a gear and jump on board, or is there a skepticism in which they think of the genre as an older person’s medium?
Tom: A lot of my students have been really game to try it. Sometimes they’re anxious about starting– they worry that they don’t have anything important to say, or that they don’t have enough experience yet to say anything. And it’s a reasonable concern, but one thing that emerges consistently in these classes at the students have a ton of interesting experiences they can mine for good writing. The first major challenge is in identifying the right material, moving them past stories about frat parties and breakups and into more difficult territory. But once they’re there, they produce some really compelling work.
It’s true that most of it won’t turn out to be publishable, and a few years from now they may have entirely different feelings about the topic they’re covering, but when I’m working with undergrads, it’s especially important to me to push them toward ambitious projects and to cultivate habits of productive writing. Some of them really get into it and produce incredible work; others still need a lot of practice. But, if my course is successful, they leave feeling like they have a worthwhile story to tell (even if they’ve never crossed the Sahara or toured with Van Halen or anything like that) and having a sense of how to begin telling it.
Jerry: Your memoir has “sports” written all over it, from the title to the blurb, to the pages of the book. However having said that, it is also a very personal awareness of your journey as a young man trying to find his place in the world, and using sports as a medium through which you could locate yourself in the larger world.
As a memoir lover, I easily see how these two features of the story weave together seamlessly. But other readers, might think the book is a sports book and complain that you have become too introspective for their tastes. So my question has to do with the way your readers, and for that matter, your publisher related to the mix between a sports-fan book, and a young man trying to find himself. Did you have any regrets about this, or suggestions for other memoir writers who want to raise the best, most appropriate expectations in their readers?
Tom: This was one of the biggest challenges in marketing the book. I couldn’t tell the story of my life and my relationship with my father without discussing football; and I couldn’t discuss my relationship with football without getting into my time in grad school and my relationship with my wife. I think it made for a more interesting and complex book having all those elements in there, but it was also hard to market; even some people in my family told me they didn’t have any interest in reading “a football book.” And some football fans were really disappointed they didn’t just get a book about how great it is to be a fan.
My agent (at the time) and I had some discussions with the publisher about the best way to market it, and although I pushed for it to be sold more as a memoir than a sports book, I don’t think the publisher ultimately agreed. In Barnes & Noble, for example, it was always placed on the sports shelves. I don’t think they were wrong, necessarily; had we sold it as a literary memoir then a lot of my readers never would have found it either.
I love the cover of my book, but now several years removed from publication, I wonder if that cover hurt as much as it helped: no matter how many times you try to tell people it’s not just some sports book, they’ll look at the cover and see football memorabilia, an Eagles sweater, etc. and make up their mind.
All of which is to say that I’ve thought about this a lot and I still don’t know what the right answer is. I’m proud of the book itself, and think it would have been worse if it hadn’t included both elements. But the marketing end of it is still a mystery to me.
Jerry: Your book is easy for me to relate to, since I grew up in Philadelphia and I too have heard cheering for the Eagles since I was old enough to have thoughts. But I wonder if it appeals to readers outside the region. Do you find that people in other regions relate to it? Do you enjoy focusing your marketing efforts within one region? Say more about what you advise other writers about the pros and cons of writing a book with a regional focus.
Tom: The most common reaction I’ve gotten to people outside the area has been that even though they don’t root for the Eagles, they can relate to much of the book still because they’re a fan of the Vikings, or the Lions, or the Red Sox, or some other team. Or they know someone who’s a big fan and they feel like they can understand that person better because of it. My goal with the book wasn’t just to tell my story, but to try to get at the roots of that obsession, and to understand why I cared so much about a thing that ultimately doesn’t actually matter.
That’s actually one of the things I work on with my students: identifying the thing they care about and know about more than anyone else, and trying to make me care. What can you learn from your obsessions and what can you teach me? My experiences growing up are nothing like Tobias Wolff’s, for example, but This Boy’s Life is so evocative and well-written that I find myself feeling like I’m right there with Toby and investing deeply in his wellbeing. The best writing can make you care about something you never thought would matter to you.
Follow up on PWC Board member and fellow memoirist Jerry Waxler on his blog www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog
Ready to meet Tom and take his workshop, “Why Should I care? Making the Personal Universal?” Register Here!