“Forgive your enemies: it drives them crazy!”
I was able to attend a couple of events at last weekend’s debut Woodstock Memoir Festival (see previous post), both of which were dominated by the larger-than-life figure of Malachy McCourt. The author of the memoirs A Monk Swimming and Singing My Him Song, Malachy is living proof -given that he has written so much about his drinking years and yet has been sober for the last 24 of them – that the gregarious personality of the alcoholic is typically genetic, and can prosper perfectly well without drink. (This, sadly, is a lesson Keith Moon did not live long enough to learn.)
Unlike his more reserved brothers, the elder one Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis and Teacher Man, and the younger one Alphie McCourt, author of A Long Stone’s Throw (there is a fourth surviving brother, yet to write a memoir), each of whom appeared alongside him at a Sunday evening event at the Bearsville Theater, Malachy McCourt has built his career around his character as a professional Irishman. His anecdotes and songs at the Woodstock Memoir Festival were full of the class and creed consciousness that comes from what Frank McCourt called, on the opening page of Angela’s Ashes, “the miserable Irish catholic childhood,” and though he overdoes the proud paddy persona (his idea of an Irish Reparations Army sailed somewhat close to the wind), there was little he said (or sang), both at the opening panel What Do I Say?, and that closing appearance with his brothers at the Bearsville, that did not make people laugh and, in one instance, change someone’s life.
That moment came (so we were later told) with his assertion at the What Do I Say? panel that he had learned to “Forgive your enemies: it drives them crazy.” You have to admit, it’s the kind of epigram that’s bound to sit well with the Woodstock set, especially the ageing, graying, ex-hippie populace that dominated both events I attended. Malachy made many other excellent verbal contributions to the events, even though he repeated a couple of them at each: that’s what you get, after all, from an actor.
At the point of attending the What Do I Say? panel on Friday evening, the only other name with which I was familiar was that of Martha Frankel, whose recent memoir about her family’s addition to gambling, Hats & Eyeglasses, has been quite the talk of the town (and beyond). I left in equal admiration of her fellow writers and memoirists Abigail Thomas, Laura Shaine Cunningham, Wendy Salinger, Linda St John, and playwright Suzanne Bachner. I also left in the safe knowledge that in memoir as in any other form of writing, there is no one hard and fast rule. Martha Frankel says she “sleeps on her computer” and jokes that “one of these days I’ll get around to buying a pen and notebook.” McCourt writes in longhand and carries several pens in his shirt pocket to satiate that continued urge. Abigail Thomas talked about tying herself to her desk chair using her bathrobe cord at 7am in the morning to start writing; others visible recoiled in horror at the very thought. McCourt observed his desire not to offend anyone, to which others noted, more specifically, that memoir was about self and that while nothing was off limits, the writer should take sole responsibility for any negative portraits. The one abiding agreement: “never show a single word to a blood relative until it’s too late,” i.e., until it’s been published. While this can be a useful defense mechanism for best-selling authors like the McCourts, the cheerful Abigail Thomas responded to this continual fear of cuasing offense with her own experience: that it hadn’t mattered as nobody read her first book anyway!
Thomas has since become a success and so, in their own ways, have each of the other writers on that panel. All of them, with the exception of McCourt and the Authentic Writing Workshop’s Fred Poole, were female, continued evidence that women – especially those of a certain age – make up the lion’s share of the book market. The rest of us have to fight for what’s left or, as the Woodstock Memoir Festival wisely and rightly demonstrated, choose other means of art: painting, monologue, theater or song. I’d like to have attended one of the two panels on Writers, Musicians and Memoir, but that’s for next time. And, I’m glad to see, there will be a next time: the second Woodstock Memoir Festival has already been scheduled for the Omega Institute this summer. Though it would be refreshing to see the Festival reach further down the generations to attract the area’s younger residents, too, perhaps the audience participation is a true reflection of demographics. Mercury Rev’s show at the Bearsville Theater just before Christmas drew barely 50 people; the theater was entirely sold out for the appearance by the McCourt Brothers (as was the previous night’s concert by Ronnie Spector), and at maybe a couple of hundred people attended the opening panel did. (My friend Robert Burke Warren reported that the second Writers, Musicians and Memoirs panel, on which he appeared on Sunday afternoon, was equally well attended.) Woodstock is clearly as much a writer’s town as it is a musician’s, and with events like the Memoir Festival added to its calendar, that’s unlikely to change any time soon. My appreciation to the Golden Notebook and Authentic Writing Workshop for putting it together.