Friday, June 19, 2015

Advice to those who write about themselves

(The following is a blog post I just published on Goodreads and concerns the difficulties of writing about yourself, something which I had to deal with from time to time in Silver Lining in a Funnel Cloud and offers advice to writers who face the same challenge.)

One of the difficulties of writing a non-fiction book in which you are a character is the tendency to rely too much on memory.

Before I wrote the chapters in my new book, Silver Lining in a Funnel Cloud: Greed, Corruption, and the Joplin Tornado, that featured events in which I had played a part, I had to do as much research as I did on others who were featured in the book.

The memory has a tendency to play tricks. I was fortunate that an actual transcript existed of my termination hearing before the Joplin R-8 Board of Education, which is featured in a couple of chapters, but I had no such backup for the other chapters in which I am featured.

Before I wrote about anything, I examined e-mails I had written, blog posts I had made, Facebook messages I had sent and received, and even in one instance, checkbook entries.

I had the same result I had when I did my earlier memoir Newspaper Days. When confronted with documented evidence, I realized that some of the things I thought I knew for sure had happened to me happened differently than I remembered. The memory does play tricks.

Even when going through the transcript, I discovered things I had never realized. A few months after my hearing, to combat some of the things that were being said about my case, I published the complete transcript of my hearing as an e-book titled C. J. Huff and the Assassination of a Teacher's Character and gave it away to hundreds of readers. I knew that the transcript, which covered 10 hours of testimony, would completely confirm the version of events I had told readers on the Turner Report.

The one thing I did not do before I published the transcript was to actually read it.

I did so as I researched Silver Lining in a Funnel Cloud and suddenly realized there were bits of testimony that had never settled in my memory and surprisingly, my testimony was far better than I thought it was at the time.

I had also forgotten some of the things that Superintendent C. J. Huff and his administrative team had alleged about me, things that were not even included in the charges and which they admitted they had no evidence that any of those things had ever happened.

For other instances I included in the book, including a meeting I had with former Joplin Police Chief Lane Roberts, school board candidate Jeff Koch's vigil outside the administration building as he braved frigid weather to be the first in line to file for the office the next morning, and my meeting with two Joplin High School students who were planning to find candidates to run for school board, I relied on notes I took following those occasions and on a blog post I wrote about Koch.

In several instances, my recollections of events were bolstered by audio recordings, including a meeting in which C. J. Huff talked about the proposed bond issue to build new schools to replace those destroyed in the tornado, and the four-and-a-half-minute "interrogation" of me by Joplin Schools HR Director Tina Smith before I was escorted out of the building by a police officer.

In some instances, I also talked to other people who were involved in the same events to see if they remembered the same things I did.

So one bit of advice I can offer to anyone who plans to write about his or her own memories is not to trust those memories.

Treat your recollections as if they came from someone you had never met and verify them.


Steve Holmes said...

That's sound advice. Some recollections, though, are nearly impossible to verify. I'm thinking of those nobody else was around to experience, and those in which the other people involved would be extremely difficult to locate. Chance encounters while traveling, for example. I still write about the events, but with the caveat of "This is how I remember it."

Anonymous said...

Two take aways from this post:

1. You try to rely on memory when you write, sometimes forgetting things or, in other words, writing inaccurate articles. (Shocker!

2. You don't read your writing before you post. (Again, shocker!)

Randy said...

If that was your takeaway, I would suggest you try a basic reading comprehension course.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the truth stings. I would expect that type of reply. And sir, may I suggest a basic writing course for you. And, you stated both of those things in your post.

Anonymous said...

Very humble and honest advice. There's a show I watched awhile back called Your Bleeped Up Brain, that featured an episode about memory. It basically backed up everything you said; our mind can distort memories over time, without us even realizing it.