PARTICIPATORY MEMOIR IS ONE of my favorite subgenres within my favorite type of writing. It’s where the writer goes and does something and writes about it, and while you could easily argue – and be right – that all memoir is a form of participatory writing, some of it is a bit more hands on than others. Like riding with the fire company or the paramedics. That’s the kind of thing I truly admire, and when William Patrick did so, and wrote a book about his year in the then-beleaguered city of Troy, New York, he created a work of art from which we can all take away something about writing and life. How to write a participatory memoir, you ask? Let’s ride along with the crew, shall we? Fasten your seat belts. Read and learn.
Backing into Memoir
By William Patrick
About twenty years ago, I was teaching at a college in Norfolk, Virginia, and I despised the job. What would you find more interesting? I asked myself. Riding with a rescue squad and telling stories about what I see. Where that answer came from I had no idea, and I failed, at the time, to wonder about it.
A few months after that, I moved back to the city where I had grown up and which I had left twenty-seven years earlier – Troy, New York – and I was able to convince the Chief of the Troy Fire Department to let me ride along with his firefighters and paramedics to do research for an experiment in immersion journalism. Up to that point, I had only written poetry, plays, and screenplays, and I was chomping at the bit to jump in and try my hand at literary nonfiction. Eighteen months, 140 tours of duty, five large notebooks, 221 audio tapes, 1100 photographs, and seventy hours of video tape later, I finished my research for what had seemingly begun as a relatively simple book idea.
During that year and a half I was embedded with the fire department in Troy, I also read about 200 nonfiction books, including every immersion chronicle I could find. Maybe it was the sheer volume of research material I had created on the job that made writing my own book so intimidating, or the brilliance of many of the literary nonfiction books I discovered, or a combination of the two, but it took me a good ten years to finish Saving Troy: A Year with Firefighters and Paramedics in a Battered City.
It took me so long, as a matter of fact, that I finished a screenplay, completed a radio play commissioned and produced by the BBC, wrote a memoir published by BOA Editions, We Didn’t Come Here for This, and created a 15-chapter DVD from my video and audio materials – all while I was in the process of figuring out how to write the firefighter book. And it wasn’t until near the end of the ordeal that I realized I was actually writing a kind of memoir.
Now, if I had been able to read Suzanne Farrell Smith’s excellent article, “The Inner Identity of Immersion Memoir,” which appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle in December of 2011, I could have connected the dots in my own project more easily. As it turned out, I had to arrive at this hybrid genre the old-fashioned way – not just by trial and error (lots of errors), but also by allowing the painful memories of my first ride in an ambulance to swim up out of the murky depths where I thought I had buried them. I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the book, but suffice it to say that the inspiration for the book (of which I was unaware in Norfolk, Virginia), and the determination to hammer out the necessary breakthroughs along the way, arose from repercussions of the serious farm accident that landed me in that first ambulance.
So what did all of that teach me about writing? To trust what my unconscious dictates, as Robert Olen Butler recommends in his book about allowing dreams to spark fiction? Perhaps. To compile fewer research materials, or to be ruthlessly selective in employing those materials, as John McPhee advises? Definitely. But most of all I learned that, whenever possible, I should decide on a book’s genre and structure before I get too far into building chapters around amazing events I may have witnessed. The kaleidoscope of real experience is so seductive that it’s tempting to rush ahead with narrative alone, of course, and having the whole fictional toolbox at our disposal now lets us create glittering surfaces for our stories. Good memoirs, however, have a lot more going for them than polished surfaces. They offer a wellspring of emotional and psychological resonance that makes a deeper connection with thoughtful readers possible. Maybe that’s what it took me ten years to understand.
Saving Troy, an excerpt
Mike Kelleher is sitting in the back of the liquor store, by the cooler with the refrigerated wines, when the guy shows him a serrated steak knife and says, “Get off the phone.”
Until now, it had been a slow morning. A cloudy Wednesday figured to be slow. Just a couple of regulars. One who had walked down from Samaritan Hospital’s alcohol rehabilitation unit, five blocks away, and was looking for some Mad Dog 20/20.
“Why were you in detox?” Mike wanted to know.
“I was having trouble with my wife and kids.”
“Go someplace else, okay?”
“You can’t do that.”
“Fuck you I can’t,” Mike told him. “There are only two of us in the store, and only one of us has the keys. And I know you don’t, so go someplace else and buy it.
“You can’t do that,” he mumbled again, but he was already shuffling toward the door.
And another regular, a professor’s wife, snuck in about 10 a.m. for her pint of Romanov vodka. 10 a.m. That left her enough time to suck down her daily pint, chew some sugarless bubble gum to get any telltale odor off her breath, and still make her lunch date. Mike saw her in the Price Chopper supermarket sometimes and she’d always look away, or bury her head in the frozen pizza case until he’d passed by. The closet drinker’s code – never say hello in public to anyone who knows your secret. Mike had learned quickly, the way bartenders do, about his customers’ secrets.
Working at Plaza Discount Wines and Liquors, with its sign that said only LIQUOR, in the Troy Plaza on Hoosick Street, which is N.Y. State Route 7, was Mike’s side job. He was a lieutenant on the 1st Platoon of the Troy Fire Department for 48 hours a week, 24 hours on then 72 off, pulling his two 24-hour tours of duty each week on Truck 1 at the 115th Street Station in North Troy. Most North Troy residents still called it Lansingburgh, or the Burgh, even though it had been part of the city of Troy since 1900.
Mike loved being a firefighter, but he wasn’t thrilled about going back to the firehouse right now. His shift, the 1st Platoon, would be on tomorrow. Mike didn’t much care for Truck 1 in the Burgh. It was too quiet there for him. He wanted to be downtown, at Central Station on State Street, but he was a new lieutenant, and junior lieutenants seldom got their choice of assignments. Most of the time they had to bid spots in what everyone, without the obvious irony, called the out-houses. Central Station had Medic 2, the paramedic truck which served the entire city, the Rescue Squad, which went to all the fire and trauma calls in Troy, Engine 5, and the Chiefs’ cars. If you wanted to see action as a firefighter and paramedic, Central Station was the place to work, not Truck 1 in the Burgh. And he sure didn’t want to be working at the liquor store today.
So he had called his friend, Phil Quandt, another firefighter, to tell him what Mike and his wife, Lori, had done on their vacation in Cape Cod when this third customer had slunk in. Customers usually just poked around, found something or didn’t, and waved at Mike when they were ready to pay. No big deal. He kept talking to Phil about going back to Truck 1 the next day. Why get excited over another cheap-wine customer?
“Get off the phone now,” the guy barks as he moves around the corner that houses the Scotches and Bourbons.
“I’ve got to go. I’ve got a customer here,” Mike says to Phil, and he hangs up the phone, fast. Boom. Okay, it’s down, Mike is thinking, What does this jerk want?
William B. Patrick is a writer whose works have been published or produced in several genres: nonfiction, poetry, fiction, screenwriting, and drama. His most recent book, The Call of Nursing: Voices from the Front Lines of Health Care, a Studs Terkel-like collection of occupational profiles, was published by Hudson Whitman/Excelsior College Press in July, 2013. Saving Troy, his creative nonfiction chronicle of a year spent living with the professional firefighters and paramedics of the Troy, NY Fire Department’s 1st Platoon and accompanying them to emergency medical calls, rescues, and fires, was published in 2005. From that experience, Mr. Patrick also wrote a screenplay, Fire Ground, as well as a radio play, Rescue, which was commissioned by the BBC for their Season of American Thirty Minute Plays and aired world-wide on BBC 3 in 1997.
Mr. Patrick wrote a teleplay, Rachel’s Dinner, starring Olympia Dukakis and Peter Gerety, that was aired nationally on ABC-TV in 1991. His book, We Didn’t Come Here for This, a hybrid of creative nonfiction and poetry, was published by BOA Editions in 1999. An earlier collection of Mr. Patrick’s poetry, These Upraised Hands, a book of narrative poems and dramatic monologues, was published by BOA Editions in 1995. One of the poems in that volume, “Kindergarten Day”, was featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, on National Public Radio. His novel, Roxa: Voices of the Culver Family, won the 1990 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for the best first work of fiction.
He has received grants from, among others, the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He has taught the writing of fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and poetry. He is a member of the faculty of Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of the book is Diane Heath. Congratulations, Diane! I’ll be in touch to send your book.