On Memoir Writing and Songwriting
As discussed last night with Amy Rigby in Catskill. Plus: a virtual event I'm doing tonight with Megan Stielstra.
Two things that are simultaneously true: 1) I’m burnt out from promoting my book. 2) I’m still enjoying doing book events and interviews and podcast appearances, so I keep doing them—for fun, but also with the hope of selling more books.
I suppose that more than I’m tired of taking part in these events, I’m tired of telling people about my various appearances and trying to persuade them to come out or tune in. Part of the appeal is that after 2.5 years spent primarily in my house, it’s nice to get out and be with people—book people, who are interested in hearing about my memoir and my journey toward publication. Right now I can’t get enough social interaction, and book events are helping.
I’m discovering that readers are also happy to have events to attend. My three California readings/in-conversations in late September were all well attended. (And I sold out of all the books on hand at each one!) Last night, there was a packed room at Left Bank Ciders in Catskill, where author and singer-songwriter Amy Rigby and I were in conversation and traded songs.
It was great fun to read and be in conversation with Amy. Our stories are different, yet there’s a fair amount of overlap between them, including our both striving as young women in creative fields in New York City while trying to support ourselves with other tedious work, and our mutual tenure on the same street in the East Village (E. 13th Street).
It was more than a bit chutzpadik of me to perform my own music alongside Amy—a real singer-songwriter. But Amy encouraged me, and it added another dimension to a fun event. Amy sang two songs: one called Bob, about a boyfriend she met when she first came to New York City in 1976 to attend Parson’s School of Design, who first took her to CBGB, where she’d later play; and another brand new one she debuted last night called Gimme Bangs, apparently partly inspired by my Oldster Magazine and Instagram posts about whether or not to grow mine out.
I talked about how my songwriting is somewhat inspired by Amy’s. I love how her songs tell stories, and how she sometimes puts a humorous spin on difficult things, for example, a spent relationship, as she does in one of my favorite of her songs, Cynically Yours.
Me, I played the chorus (read: the only part I’ve written) of a parody song called “Would You Cry If I Died?” It was inspired by a breakup I wrote about in my book—after I stopped taking an ex’s calls because he’d admitted to having cheated on me prolifically, he left me a voicemail basically saying, “What about me?! I want to jump out the window because of this! Would you even cry if I died?” Even in my heartbroken state, I was able to see the absurdity of what he’d said. It occurred to me that it was actually hilarious. So I cheered myself up by writing a little ditty (or a portion of one). Here are the lyrics:
Would you cry if I died? The way you cried when I lied. You know my cheatin' hurts me more than it hurts you. If you knew how I tried You would stand by my side You'd know cheatin's just a thing I have to do.
After that, I played a silly song about my pet allergies. It might sound trivial, but for most of my life, my pet allergies have kept me from visiting many friends’ houses. (After so much isolation the past few years, and with more friends than ever getting pets, I’m changing my approach, starting to visit them masked or on Benadryl, or both.)
In addition to both playing and singing, Amy and I talked about the similarities between songwriting and memoir writing. In her memoir, Girl to City, for example, Amy writes about worrying she might have revealed too much about her first marriage in the songs on her first solo record, Diary of a Mod Housewife. She said she was more thoughtful about what she revealed as she wrote her book, which is something I’ve been talking and writing a lot about, too.
I also believe that songs (including show tunes, my favorite) can be very much like personal essays. I touched on that when I recently I spoke with Kate Finegan for The Rumpus.
Rumpus: …with show tunes, you’re playing a part. There’s an earnestness there.
Botton: You’re embodying a character. A show tune is a monologue, which is a personal essay or a memoir.
Rumpus: In musicals, the songs have an interesting relationship to the actions that are happening between the songs, often giving us insight into what the characters are afraid to say out loud.
Botton: They’re often decision points. Billy Bigelow’s “Soliloquy” in Carousel is one of those moments. He finds out his partner is pregnant, and all these thoughts run through his head, until ultimately he decides to do crime to support his child. It’s a private moment shared publicly, which I love.
Rumpus: That reminds me of the balancing act that essay writing can be—of taking the public and then filtering it through the lens of the private, and vice versa.
Botton: Now I’m going to think of every essay I write and edit as a show tune.
While in-person events are great, some readers who don’t live near where I’ve been holding them have asked for virtual events, so that they can attend. Tonight at 7pm eastern, I’ll take part in one of those: an in-conversation with author Megan Stielstra, hosted by Rhinebeck’s wonderful Oblong Books.
I love Megan’s work, and feel honored to get to be in conversation with her tonight.
Please join us! (RSVP required.)