While I was reading Frank McCourt’s obituary in the New York Times, a quote about writing his memoir Angela’s Ashes caught my eye. Or, okay, my ear.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I had to write it anyway. I had to get it out of my system.”
I can relate. When I talk to groups about writing memoir, or when I’m teaching my memoir-writing class for Chicago’s senior citizens, I champion memoir-writing as “cheap therapy.” Writing about losing my sight helped me adjust to the dark. Searching for just the right word to explain my feelings when the retinal specialist told me the surgeries hadn’t worked, or describing in words what it felt like to struggle with simple things like brushing my teeth, well…writing about it helped me sort out what had happened, who I was when I could see, and what might become of me in the future.
The more I wrote, the more my writing improved. A college student was paid to read my rough draft on cassette, and after hearing the story from beginning to end I started thinking maybe, just maybe, someone would be interested in publishing it. My husband Mike and my sister Cheryl helped me send cover letters and manuscripts to agents and publishers. Rejection letters piled up quickly.
The manuscript was too short. It needed more dialog. It was too long. It lacked professionalism. One letter said they might be interested if I was willing to rewrite the story “so your baby is born healthy.” Maybe these folks were the lucky ones who found James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces instead?! The most disappointing rejection came from an agent who said I had a compelling story, but I wasn’t famous enough to have a memoir published.
And then came Angela’s Ashes. The only way you might have heard of Frank McCourt before his book was published in 1996 was if you drank with him at the Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village or had been a student in one of his English classes at Stuyvesant High School.
“Angela’s Ashes,” published by Scribner in 1996, rose to the top of the best-seller lists and stayed there for more than two years, selling four million copies in hardback. The next year, it won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
My friend Colleen had been following my writing progress. She had read the rough draft of my memoir. Up to her eyeballs in student loans for medical school, she dug deep in her pockets to buy a high-priced cassette copy of Angela’s Ashes for me. Colleen and I met as waitresses in high school, and she loves to tell the story of me hiding a paperback copy of Great Expectations in the pile of unfolded cloth napkins at the waitress station. “You’d sneak back there between tables to read Charles Dickens!” she laughs. “I figured you must be really, really smart.” Well, I sure fooled her.
Truth is, though, I have always loved to read. When I could see, I liked putting my own voices to the characters I read about. And I used to love curling up on the couch with a book. Now narrators provide voices for the characters, and lying on a couch with headphones somehow isn’t as romantic as holding a hardcover in my hands.
Unless, that is, the narrator whispering in your ear happens to be Frank McCourt.
Angela’s Ashes, read by the author, remains the best audio book I have ever heard. There is no doubt in my mind that it was better to have listened to this book than to have read it in print. Irish phrases like “I didn’t give a fiddler’s fart” roll off his tongue, and on those nights when his father came home drunk and sang to the children, McCourt actually sings the songs himself. I hear the humor, the love and the forgiveness in his voice. Gorgeous.
Frank McCourt had retired from the New York City school system by the time his memoir came out in 1996, but trust me, he was still teaching. Frank McCourt taught me that listening can be better than reading. Not only that, but the success of Angela’s Ashes inspired me to keep writing. Keep revising. Keep editing. Keep trying. And sure enough, seven years after Angela’s Ashes hit the bookstands, University of Illinois Press published my memoir, Long Time, No See.
I am very sorry that Frank McCourt died. But, boy, am I glad he lived. Thank you, Frank.