Monday, March 9, 2015

From John Graves to Rick Bragg, we all write about ourselves

Who is Juan Miguel? Who is he based on? People often ask me about the main character of my fiction series and they are often disappointed when I have to tell them that Juan Miguel is me. As writers, we just cannot escape ourselves. All of the characters, the motives, the feelings, the thoughts, and the language belong to the author.
What many of us as writers don’t realize at first but start to realize later is that everything you write is about you. You can write about the weather. It’s about you. You can write about your mother. It’s about you. You can write a novel. It’s about you. You can write about mashed potatoes. It’s about you.
I give the same advice to aspiring writers, young and old alike, including myself. Tell a good story. You’ll be in there somewhere—probably everywhere.
Goodbye to a River is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Somehow Texas writer John Graves makes it compelling that he took a canoe trip down the Brazos River in the 1950s, a short time before the river was to be dammed and much of the scenery and wildlife obliterated in the process. It’s a great read and contained within the big story are many wonderful small stories, past and present. His observations and knowledge are priceless.
In this Texas classic that has won numerous literary awards, Mr. Graves managed to avoid the many pitfalls of writing about himself, and he did it quite artfully.
You can usually tell rookie writers because they want to write about themselves in memoir style, as if they were a character in a novel. “I did this, I did that, I saw this, I said that, and then he did this to me and she said that to me and blah blah blah, nobody cares.”
The trick is to reveal yourself to yourself and everyone else while talking about something else. Then it’s interesting. Then somebody cares.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some great memoirs out there. Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs’ indictment of his liberal upbringing and the dysfunctional family who adopted him, is one. Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s anecdotal retelling of his childhood in Brooklyn and Ireland, is another. My all-time favorite memoir is All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg. It’s a book about growing up southern and I can relate to that. Mr. Bragg, you tell one hell of a story.
What do the great memoirists have in common? They have great life stories to tell. Not all of us do. Were my struggles at Sam Houston Junior High School as interesting as Rick Bragg’s struggles growing up poor, fatherless, and practically homeless? No, frankly they weren’t. And very few of us can write like Rick Bragg or John Graves. Lucky bastards.
My published novels, The Legend of Juan Miguel and The Passion of Juan Miguel are available on