If you’re not looking for it, you find writing instruction in the most unlikely places.
At my husband’s request, I just read a book he highly recommended, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic. Since I’ve been recommending books to Carl all our married lives, it seemed only fair that I comply with this request.
Now, this is not a book for everyone, it’s for car people and the people who love them. Written by Rob Siegel, a long-time columnist for a national car magazine, it is about a lifetime of caring for old cars, parenting, friendship, adventure, and love. Plus, there are the requisite mechanical bits – I’ll admit that I skimmed portions of these – that I’m sure enthusiasts would find enlightening. My car guy was right, I loved this book.
Just like reading a good novel, I’d head up to bed each night and be happy to get back to the story of a life told through car ownership. I came to like Siegel as a person, and found it comfortable to spend time with him. Throughout the book he admits to his own quirks and character flaws, he laughs at his foibles and strokes of luck, and he’s sincerely grateful for the people in his life. He sticks to his automotive topic but gives us enough of the details of his journey to round out the picture. Plus, he knows how to tell a good story.
Memoirists are real people, of course, but they are also good models for our fictional characters. If we like them and they seem authentic (I’m talking about you, Cheryl Strayed), we are wrapped up in their story and are pulling for them. Like Siegel, they have to share things they are and are not proud of, expound a bit on their philosophy for living, and give us a peek at who they love and what they loathe. We may agree, we may not – just as in the interactions in our own lives – but having the complete version of a person makes us care.
Life is short. Cars are cool. But they are not, in fact, my greatest joy. That would be going to bed with, waking up with, and spending my life with Maire Anne. Now that’s love. That’s passion.
(From Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic)
I read fiction for good writing and enticing plots, but the real reward for me is encountering characters who help me better understand myself and my world. Going forward I’ll read memoirs not only for pleasure, but also for instruction on how to make a fictional character seem, well, human. As writers it takes courage to, as Anne Lamott would say, “plunge through the holes we try to fill up with all the props. In those holes and in the spaces around them exist all sorts of possibility, including the chance to see who we are and to glimpse the mystery.” Memoirists – including the mechanically inclined – show us how it’s done.