Years ago I took a writing class from Adair Lara, a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of several books, including Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, a memoir about her relationship with her teenage daughter, Morgan.
There were 13 wannabe scribes in the nine-week course. Most of us were middle-class baby boomers interested in recording our personal histories. One woman was writing a book on midwifery, another was penning essays about her father, and a third was musing on the difficulties of motherhood. There were editors, computer sales people, a chef, and one lone man in the group. He was writing about the accidental death of his young son.
On the first day of class we introduced ourselves and discussed our goals. The man wanted to compose op-ed pieces on gun control. The chef was interested in publishing a cookbook. The midwife had many funny, bizarre, and poignant tales to tell about delivering babies in liberal, quirky Berkeley. But the person who had me sitting on the edge of my seat in rapt, voyeuristic attention was a statuesque, glamorous blonde from Marin County.
She told us she intended to write a memoir about juggling her professional career with the day-to-day humdrum activities of her family.
Her husband directed hardcore pornographic films in the basement of their mansion. She’d met him many years ago while hitchhiking through Sausalito. He’d slammed on the brakes of his new silver and black Porsche 911, driven onto the sidewalk where she was standing in a miniskirt, taken her back to his villa, and turned on the charm. She didn’t leave the confines of his bedroom for the next three years.
She helped out with the porn. She was a make-up artist, applying foundation to actors’ noses, chins, and private parts. She was also a Marin County matron, a member of the PTA. She had two circles of friends: soccer moms and porn stars. In other words, she had a lot of really good stuff to write about.
Each week Adair shared with us tips and exercises on writing personal essays. We talked about gripping starts and flashy endings, about content and syntax, epiphanies and grammar. We tried writing pieces that were humorous and newsworthy, and that captured small, everyday details reflecting and confirming the human condition. All the while I secretly looked at the PTA/porn expert, hoping she would divulge more about her double life.
One week Adair concentrated on what makes an interesting story. “People don’t want to hear about how wonderful your life is,” she said. “They want to read about despair and heartbreak. They want to know how you overcame a problem. They want to learn from your mistakes, your struggles, and your failures.
“Pull out all the stops,” continued Adair. “Make us laugh and weep; confide your deepest, darkest secrets.” Unfortunately, the woman from Marin wasn’t in class that night. I hoped Adair would let her know what she missed.
In addition to teaching us the basics, Adair had each of us share with the class an essay we’d written. I was looking forward to the day the make-up artist/soccer mom would share her pathos. I was hoping for something revealing, juicy, and kind of pornographic.
But on the evening Ms. Marin read aloud to us, she disclosed the pain and heartbreak of losing her luggage while on a two-week vacation in Greece. It was not scandalous, salacious, or sensational; it was not even interesting. She’d missed class on the day Adair instructed us to spill our guts because she had been living it up somewhere along the Aegean.
I left class disappointed, but I took away an important lesson: Don’t share your fabulous vacation stories with your readers; save them for your friends and family who might, out of polite resignation, feign interest.
This is a long-winded explanation for why I didn’t have a column last week. I was out of the country, having a good time. No pathos, no problems, no porn, and no epiphanies. Just a little sunburn, jetlag, and a very empty wallet.
For more information on writing classes taught by Adair Lara see www.adairlara.com.