Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for the memoir-pic Molly’s Game is intense — like a bobsled… No! A free-style mogul skier… right out of the gates. His now typical clipped-staccato rhythm propels us into a breakneck story; grabs us by the scruff, makes us want to strap on skis and hurtle down the run with Molly Bloom, to vicariously experience the full careering ride the opening scene promises.
There is something to be learned. I can try to replicate Sorkin’s visible technique, make my memoir opener as gripping as Molly’s. The opening chapter, or movie scene is a “pitch” of sorts. Crisp, engaging, and revealing just enough plot to hook us. Superficially unique to my story, but deeply intertwined with cultural sub-currents and myth. I need a solid pitch, or opening as much as Sorkin does, and he nails his. But admiration gives way to a familiar feeling: as the game unfolds to reveal that Molly gets her book and movie deal only because she was already well off, and had dirt to dish on famous people.
Already famous. Wealthy. In a position to expose secret spaces to which we mortals have no access. Molly’s Game is (like The Glass Castle) a hagiography written from the safety of success. It will tell us how the protagonist escaped myriad threats, all with the highest stakes imaginable, and survived to be even more successful in the end. Oh, and she had daddy issues.
Daddy issues sell. Bruce Springsteen released his critically acclaimed memoir this year (2017) but again… he has a story hook in that he is essentially the great American songbook. Everyone knows him. The vicarious ride in reading about Bruce’s absent, difficult, bi-polar father rests comfortably in the fact we can expect him to talk about the songs we already know and love, and reveal personal witness to famous events we already consider our own. He’ll slather the Daddy on those structural ribs.
I have to make you want to read about an unknown person, growing up in an unknown place, recognizing and overcoming “Daddy issues,” not rising particularly high in his career, nor sinking to any rock-bottom. And no one ever sells a story based on what it is not: “Well, I want to tell you something about a guy who is not as famous as Bruce Springsteen.” NO!
What is relatable, universal? What aspirational lessons learned, or role-modeling delivered? What connections to existing cultural touchpoints,for analogy? In Molly’s Game, the lead character shares the name of a main character in James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m sure if I (or anyone) had read Ulysses, there’s a touch-point there. Sorkin also weaves in parallels with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play about the Salem Witch Trials. There are oodles of cultural cross-reference for readers/viewers to latch on to.
My challenge is to sell an amazing story about a “normal” person, to a jaded reading public, in a competitive market landscape where everything has to be epic, Trumpian, bombastic, outrageous, eye-candy recovery porn-turned-lottery-winner. It’s like trying to get porn addicts to enjoy sensual love-making, when for the last 20 years they haven’t been able to get off on anything less than a lesbian donkey show, with triple penetration and a squirt.
To wit, Suzy Favor Hamilton’s “Fast Girl” is dreck of the highest order. Olympic superstar turned vegas call girl, gets caught, gets remorseful, learns something.
Why should every memoir be a story of absolute success, extracted from absolute failure? On a spectrum of 1-100, is the story showing progress from 20 to 60 not valuable to those looking for ways to escape 20? My story is not the most “extreme.” There is room for the less outrageous, subtle story, no?
Okay, then I have to dig in and focus on what I can control: I have to make the most of what I have, not bemoan the fact that I don’t have the “luxury” of pre-existing fame, fortune or public notoriety. The only reason they have those things is because they took what they had and crafted careers out of raw material. (I look back on this piece and see a lot of concern over what is preventing fame, publication, etc. and not a lot of focus on telling the god damn story in as compelling a way as possible.)
Hagiographies are always a second act. For now: Focus on the story!