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Enough About Me

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Gilbert Ford

A recent New Yorker cartoon showed a street scene in which every character was imagining that he or she "had one hell of a story to tell." The caption was "NEW YORK IS MEMOIR COUNTRY."

Typical New York chauvinism. The whole country is memoir country. Fifteen minutes of fame, escape from a disaster or divorce -- they're all good for a book deal. Store shelves sag under the weight of firsthand experiences told with a lot of secondhand help, sometimes recounting the lives of children too young to have had lives. Literary agents may be the ambulance chasers of the 21st century.

Although I enjoy memoirs and autobiographies, I have been wary of them since first reading one by somebody I knew. The author had been a fellow graduate student two decades earlier. When word got around that he was writing his memoirs, we all knew that the years we had shared with him were the transformative ones in his life. We could hardly wait to see how he treated the bright, witty, passionate men and women who made that time so special: us. Not a word. The book was about his relationship with his father. The man clearly did not know his own life.

Among the things that make me suspicious of present-day best-selling memoirs is the author's ability to remember long-ago conversations verbatim. ("My stylish kindergarten teacher, Miss Fishbein, patted me on the head and said, 'You're going to be the first Miss America to become a rocket scientist.' Well, I guess the rocket science part didn't quite come true, but..."). Such total recall impresses those of us whose memories misplaced an entire decade or two. The only verbatim dialogue from my mother that I can remember with any confidence is "No!" and -- on one occasion that I hoped would be memorable -- "I know what you REALLY want to do." From my father the unforgettable line was "an old man in Mexico who played the piano very well." That was in answer to my question, "What's a virtuoso?" It's hard to hang an autobiography on that.

Given the importance in a memoir of having remembered everything, what will happen when we begin to have -- as we surely will -- the reminiscences of former CEOs of giant corporations that collapsed? It is going to require a whole new writing technique, hence someone to put together a course on it. Let's call the technique "The Art of the Denial." I recognize that we've already seen forgetting in other autobiographies (such as "presidential memoirs"), but the type and scale of forgetting will have to be different for someone like the disgraced CEO of Shadydeal Corporation, especially if he hopes to sell books to pensioners whose income tanked along with the corporation.

In such cases, it will take a fine literary sensibility to create empathy between author and reader. ("I felt the pain of my people when Shadydeal collapsed. I, too, know what it is like to lose several houses and cars..."). There has to be exactly the right tone of indignation at spurious charges. ("I never had insider trading with that woman! We may have exercised a few stock options, but nothing more!") Shadydeal's ex-CEO will also have to be clear in assigning blame where it truly belongs. ("My mistake was in trusting those whom I believed to be good, honest people. It was a hard thing to realize that my own mother..."). Above all -- this is the crucial difference -- Shadydeal's former CEO will need to write a memoir based on forgetting. ("As for the alleged conversations with my chief financial officer and my wife, I simply do not recall them. In fact, I do not remember ever talking to my chief financial officer or my wife.")

The perceptive reader will have guessed that I have a new service in mind and am offering myself to provide it, especially since my retirement tanked with Shadydeal Corporation: an autobiographical writing program for ex-executives. It will be available on a one-to-one basis until all appeals are exhausted and afterward as an extension course through the federal prison system. If that course is successful, my associates and I are considering a broader "writing across the penal code" program. I even have a name for the first course: Exculpatory Writing.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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