Saturday, May 1, 2021

My San Antonio Childhood: A Memoir by Michael L. Hall—a review


Click here to learn more about
this book and its author

I’ve always been suspicious of published memoirs. So often they’re written by celebrities—movie stars, politicians, pro athletes—bent on self-promotion. Or they recount with melodramatic flair some remarkable, often tragic aspect of the author’s life. Michael L. Hall is not a celebrity and his life, as he himself muses, “has been only ordinary,” comic even, in that during his childhood he experienced “few tragic or even sad moments.” But while there may be little remarkable about Hall’s childhood, what is remarkable is his ability to look back on it and see how the people and events of his early life played a critical role in forging the man he ultimately became.

“What I have actually done,” Hall says of his memoir, “is simply tell some stories.” Yet the stories he tells, rich in detail and loaded with insight, are at once unique to his childhood and universal in theme: school, church, work, family and friends—and, yes, girlfriends—and more. These stories are relatable because they speak to the sometimes mundane, sometimes comic, sometimes poignant moments that happen in every person’s life. And the heartfelt lessons Hall draws from reflecting on his childhood experiences are bound to resonate with those of us who look back on our youth with the weighty ambivalence that resides at the confluence of nostalgia and regret.

It isn’t lost on me that Hall’s memoir presents only a narrow slice of Americana—a portrait of a boy who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s in a suburban, working-class neighborhood in central Texas, the child of loving and supportive parents, in a time when children were allowed to be children. Not exactly the stuff of Leave It to Beaver, but not far removed either.

So why should anyone reared in a dissimilar culture, under less fortunate circumstances care to read Hall’s recollections? For me the answer is this: My San Antonio Childhood: A Memoir, for all its unassuming narrative charm is, at its core, a thought-provoking examination of the roots of character. And who can’t relate to that?

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL FICTION

HOW COMPELLING

IS YOUR LIFE STORY?


Regarding Autobiographical Fiction

I have a friend who writes memoir and does it very well. He tried his hand at writing fiction, he told me, but found that his stories were “too close to home.” So he sticks with memoir.

I get it. My first novel, written in my late 20’s, was highly autobiographical. It was to be my “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”—or, in my case, a portrait of the theology school dropout, which was my ignominious fate. But, as with my friend’s efforts at writing autobiographical fiction, the story was “too close to home”—that is, it closely aligned in plot and setting with the actual details of my life. As a result, it lacked imagination—i.e., it was dull. So dull that I eventually got bored with it myself and sent it to never-to-be-published-land.

But that failed effort showed me that if I was going to write compelling fiction I had to look beyond my own personal experience for storylines. So for my second attempt at novel writing, I tried something far removed from autobiography: a farce called “The Day the Marines Invaded Disneyland.” It was about a military exercise gone awry when, after a mix-up in target coordinates, a contingent of US Marines on a mock mission to take and hold a strategic location accidentally lands via helicopter in the parking lot of Disneyland. The plot was indeed imaginative and fun, but the setting—Disneyland—was problematic in terms of branding infringement. I changed the setting to a generic theme park named WonderWorld, but the story didn’t hold together as well after that and I finally gave up on it.

Years and many fits and starts later, I celebrated my first published novel, “Tamara’s Child.” It narrates the misadventures of a homeless pregnant teenager determined to make a new and better life for herself and her child, only to fall victim to some loathsome characters intent on stealing her baby from her. The idea for the novel came from my work at our local high school with at-risk youth. The storyline, however, was anything but autobiographical—or so I thought. Not long after the novel was published, I received a note from a reader—someone who had known me for many years, stretching from my youth into adulthood. “It struck me,” she said, “how much of this novel comes from your own personal experience.”

I was taken aback by this comment. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. As a mature male, it was impossible for me to have experienced what 16-year-old Tamara Ames went through in this novel. But there were indeed things in my and my family’s personal history that paralleled Tamara’s experiences. Consciously or subconsciously, I had drawn from these things as I imagined the story. The novel was autobiographical, after all.

I have since come to the not-so-brilliant conclusion that all fiction has some basis in autobiography. Although one’s own personal experiences may not contain enough essence to make for a compelling narrative, they can be a launching pad for imaginative stories that are captivating while also being true to life.

So how should one view autobiography when it comes to writing fiction? I believe John Irving said it best in his novel “The World According to Garp,” when he relates his novelist-protagonist T.S. Garp’s response to the dreaded question of how much of his writing is true—that is, based on personal experience:

… Garp would say that the autobiographical basis—if there was one—was the least interesting level on which to read a novel… (The) art of fiction was the act of imagining truly… Memories and personal histories—“all the recollected traumas of our unmemorable lives”—were suspicious models for fiction… Fiction has to be better made than life...

“Tell me anything that’s ever happened to you,” Garp told an interviewer once, “and I can improve upon the story; I can make the details better than they were.”

That’s what I try to do in my fiction—make the details of real life better than they were, whether it’s the details of my life or someone else’s life I am drawing from when telling my story.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

An IPPY Award for The Water Tower Club





The 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards were recently announced. My new novel, The Water Tower Club, was awarded a Bronze Medal in the Popular Fiction category.

Thank you, Independent Publisher, for this honor!


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Fiction as "Experiments in Life"


Nineteenth century novelist George Eliot characterized her fiction as “experiments in life.” In my high school days, Eliot’s fiction was required reading. If I remember correctly, I had to read Silas Marner, and for me it was an experiment in life all right—an experiment in the agony of writing a book report.

But I’ve always liked George Eliot’s characterization of fiction as “experiments in life.” I like it because I think it comes as close as anything to describing what fiction writing is all about. Fiction writers create a place in time—that is, a setting. They populate that setting with human characters or creatures with humanlike characteristics that they prod into action. Then they keep the action going by giving their characters problems to solve, goals to meet, obstacles to overcome, stakes to play for, crises to face. And along the way, the characters reveal themselves to the readers. Through their words and actions, the characters show who they are. They show who they are in the same way that we inhabitants of this so-called “real world”—show who we are through our words and actions.

That’s my sense of what George Eliot meant when she characterized her work as “experiments in life.” Fiction, at its best, reflects the essence of the human experience. For me (and, I would say, for all of us) every day, every moment of one’s existence, is an experiment in living in a particular setting—that is, in a time and place and circumstance that is unique to the individual. Good fiction mirrors life. That’s why it can be said that a good story allows you to experience life vicariously—because you put yourself in the place of the characters. Fiction and life become intertwined.

I’m often asked “How much of your fiction comes from your own personal experience and how much is ‘made up’?” The answer to that question for me—and I think for all fiction writers—is this: Some of the fiction I write comes from my own personal experience, but all of it is made up.

If that sounds like a contradiction, consider this. In his novel The World According to Garp, John Irving has his protagonist, Garp, who is a writer, say this: “Tell me anything that’s ever happened to you . . . and I can improve upon the story; I can make the details better than they were.”

That’s what fiction writers do—or, at least, try to do—make their stories more compelling, more emotive than real life. When you read a book or see a movie that says “based on a true story,” it means that the writer has taken the story and enhanced it by filling in the details and giving the storyline a dramatic arc. The writer has taken dramatic license with the story; he/she has fudged the facts to make the story more compelling.

Because, unless one is writing autobiography, one’s own personal experience is merely a launching pad for storytelling that should eventually soar well beyond the limitations of personal experience. George Eliot’s “experiments in life” are a perfect example of this.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

A Love Poem


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I set out to pen a love poem for my wife for Valentine’s Day. Nothing so mundane as flowers or chocolates would I give her to convey my love. I would instead present her with phrases flowery and rhymes as sweet as any Ghirardelli treat. I would give Shakespeare a run for his money and relegate Keats to sophomore status with the rousing lilt of my words and the nuanced expression of my adoration for this woman I am fortunate to call wife.

I would avoid the cliché trap and assiduously decline to label her as “soul mate” or “woman of my dreams,” although she carries the distinction of being both. No Thomas Hood-inspired Hallmark claptrap (“Oh, if it be to choose and call thee mine, love, thou art every day my Valentine!) would invade this immortal verse of mine. Verily, the passion of my cantos would inhabit that immaculate air between the sun and the sea that Icarus failed to attain.

But, alas, herein lies the rub: The last love poem I authored, sixty years ago, began “Roses are red, violets are blue” and ended with a couplet so juvenile as to make a toad blush. And although I have since developed a more mature and practiced manner when it comes to setting down my thoughts on paper, the bald truth is my pen bleeds prose. Poesy, in all its condensed beauty, in the fine raiment of its figurative language, in its power of self-expression and its ability to penetrate to the deepest recesses of the soul, has remained for me as cognitively dissonant as someone speaking in tongues. It is like a diamond whose beauty I can marvel at but whose character and true value I have not the jeweler’s eye to appraise.

This is why more recently, when seeking a vehicle through which to express my admiration for my wife, I turned not to the sonnet or the ode. Nor did I deem a thing as pithy as haiku or clever as a limerick to be the appropriate mode. And in considering free verse or rhyme, it didn’t seem the place or time. In the end, I simply did what I do best; I penned a prose narrative titled “Why I Love My Wife: in 50,000 Words or Less.”

So while I am convinced my wife “walks in beauty, like the night” and is “more lovely and more temperate” than a summer’s day, I must confess I do not have the poet’s sensibility such sentiments to convey.

Then, again, as life is wont to come full circle, I could resort to …

To Karen, on Valentine’s Day, 2019: 


Roses are red,
violets are blue,
my love for you
is tried and true.

Hey, you do what you can.