“Oh, you’re writing a… memoir?” a friend all but scoffed, slurping a spoonful of soup.
That his comment did not include a spit-take was my only relief. “The nerve! You, thinking you have a life story worth contemplating that you, let alone others, might care about?” I imagined this unspoken invective, in a critical inner voice I would only recognize years later.
The tone I imputed to him resurrected a different, real conversation I had with a woman, four years earlier.
“Really, you’re building a violin? You?” she said. “What makes you think you can do that?”
I had begun crafting a replica of the Stradivarius Messie (“The Messiah”) violin in my basement, hobbyist woodshop. What made me think I could do it was the belief that even Stradivarius had to make his first violin. That and the fact that thousands of others have built violins since Stradivarius with some success. Also, it wasn’t my first instrument. I built an acoustic guitar with a surprising degree of success (it was tunable and made pleasing sounds!), and twenty-plus years of woodworking experience suggested I had the component, baseline skills to attempt a violin.
I’m not deluded, though. I didn’t believe I would equal the reputed quality of a Strad in my first instrument, relying on innate confidence, classic books, and YouTube video tutelage to guide my hand. But I also thought the reputation of a Strad rested in no small part on four hundred years of PR – marketing hype by vested interests on the hook for a few million dollars, needing to preserve property values like indignant, red-lining suburbanites protecting a white-flight neighborhood.
I could aspire to create a quality instrument, even if I didn’t have the reputation.
We humans are strange creatures, attaching value to reputed lineage and mythic narratives, pumping up our status through vicarious contact with greatness. Even my building a replica Stradivarius exudes the unmistakable whiff of coat-tailing complicity. I didn’t want to come out of the exercise bragging I had duplicated a Stan Plavetnik violin. (My apologies to any actual Stan Plavetnik who happens to be a decent luthier, or journeyman plier of any other trade.)
We are typically — all of us, both creator and consumer – vicariots, hangers-on to someone who has already made it. People prefer the Strad to the Plavetnik –or the Schneidervarius. The same is true in the world of memoir.
I completed my first draft just as Bruce Springsteen released his memoir, Born to Run. In the mind of a marketer, and perhaps my soup-swilling friend, some fame is prerequisite for a memoir. It surely makes the publisher’s job easier. Consider: Bruce’s title is the name of one of his best known songs. It’s tough to imagine why a person, confronted with the choice between my book and Bruce’s, would feel compelled to buy my story. What’s in it for them, in terms of vicarious association?
I suppose I understand a publisher’s reticence to risk trying to sell it. I don’t have Bruce’s back-catalog of beloved songs, nor constant public presence for 40 years – concrete reputation and personal connection in the audience – to hang my similar story on. Yet, the story is no less valid or universally human, in spite of my glaring lack of top-ten hits. (I do incorporate a close brush with Billy Joel’s “My Life,” but that, too, is vicarious association – second hand vicarity, via my father’s lawsuit against Joel — in hope of enticing a reader. Hell, while I’m at it, did I mention research led me to the special archives of the Kinsey Institute of Sexuality and Reproduction, and that Timothy Busfield stepped on my foot? Not at the Kinsey Institute. That would have been weird.)
As with woodworking instruments, this memoir is not my first writing effort. Only my first attempt at crafting a full-length book, and as with the violin I have resources and mentors helping create a passable result. Memoir role-models stretch back to J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and My Self – a posthumously published memoir of his father’s secret life and its impact on his life – through Jeannette Wells’ story of succeeding in spite of being raised in familial chaos and trauma, The Glass Castle. On to Tara Westover’s remarkable Educated — an almost unbelievable tale of individual escape (through education) from dogmatic religious upbringing in an isolated farm town in the rural Western United States. Early readers of my nearly completed manuscript suggested I read Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Martin Amis’s Experience to consider how they had handled difficult, non-linear exposition inter-weaving ephemeral spiritual and intellectual truths.
I cannot, as Amis does for an entire chapter, cockily compare my own output to Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and John Updike – from the starting point of their mutual experience of bad teeth – but I can say I’ve studied the masters. Like the YouTube violin carving tutorial videos, in exposing myself to great memoirs paralleling themes I knew mine would cover, I have slowly learned to separate the good, bad, and idiosyncratic from the essential in carving my narrative.
I completed the violin in September of 2015, before diving into writing this memoir. I forced myself to finish one ambitious passion-project before embarking on another. That ostensibly 200 hour project took me, I estimate, 400 hours. I had to learn foreign techniques, and fabricate required jigs and tools that a professional would already possess. I had to re-refine profiles and fair curves an expert would have intuitively shaped to appropriate parameters on first try. I occasionally had to repeat steps — processes I approached too tentatively, for fear of fucking up an expensive chunk of wood; a fear entirely absent in writing, yet the analogy holds – college professor Diane Gorlick’s admonition rings, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” With each slowly wrought chapter, each revised iteration incorporating friend and family critique, I have gradually brought this first book as close to a replica of a great memoir as my first violin is a replica of a Stradivarius.
I took my violin to a master luthier, one of 100 in America, trading a nice bottle of chianti for 45 minutes of his time. I hoped he would offer advice on which aspect I most needed to improve, in my next instrument.
“What makes you think you can make a violin?” The chilling, negating voice from the past shot through my head as he held the instrument aloft, squinting at reference points I didn’t know, and flaws I couldn’t see.
“Well… yes,” he intoned, “quite primitive. About what we’d expect to see from a folk craftsman. Yes… the finish is a little rough, and these corners. You MUST improve on these if you do another.” Then, with the weary voice of a man resigned to travel this road to its inevitable dead end, he sighed, “Well, I guess we must tune it up and see how it sounds.”
My heart was sinking. Who did I think I was? How DARE I.
He plucked the strings in pizzicato, tilting his head like Nipper before a Victrola, listening for his master’s voice. Satisfied with the tuning, he hoisted the instrument to his chin and began playing. He stopped, a slightly quizzical look on his face, then began again, rifling through a more complex piece. He stopped again, holding the violin in front for re-inspection, as if he’d missed something.
“Huh… this has a surpisingly good tone!” He played again, to confirm he had actually heard it.
There! I had it, for that split second, the voice to replace the snide nay-sayer, the inner critic anticipating failure. Instead, it was the voice of someone who had played the result of my 400 hours of effort, surprised. The voice I inferred said, in a gentle harmonic undertone, “You CAN make a violin, because why not?”
“Surprisingly good tone!”
I can only hope for the same review from a reader as, while this memoir is not perfect (what does that even mean?), and arrives with no built-in market, public history, or famous provenance recommending it, it is an authentic exploration of universal human experiences via the specific instances shaping my life, lovingly hand-crafted, as masters through the ages have done before me.
To my soup-swilling friend I can say positively, with no negation, “Yes, against all reason, and taking at least twice as long as others, I have written a memoir. Perhaps someday you will, too?” Even Stradivarius had a first violin. I imagine that is worth something now?
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