Unfinished Business

Doing the right thing.

How to Write a Moving and Authentic Memoir

The recent spate of political memoirs lacks conviction and heart.

"Hard Choices" by Hillary Rodham Clinton
'Tis the season to test the presidential waters with political memoirs. At the top of the list: Dr. Ben Carson's "One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America's Future," and Hillary Rodham Clinton's "Hard Choices," about the lessons she learned as Secretary of State. In May, former Sen. James Webb of Virginia came out with "I Heard My Country Calling," following memoirs by Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts ("A Fighting Chance") and Marc Rubio of Florida ("An American Son.") Coming up next is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life," and a still-untitled memoir by Sen.Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz's $1.5 million advance was considerably more than the $800,000 Rubio and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee received for their memoirs and the $400,000 Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky got for his.

I intend to read only one of these memoirs, and my decision has nothing to do with any particular author's political views or party. In twenty years as a magazine editor, I assigned articles to Carson, Webb, Clinton (Bill, not Hillary) and several other national and world leaders; since then, I have written two memoirs that are spiritual in nature, including the just-released "Pilgrim: Risking the Life I Have to Find the Faith I Seek." In the process, I've developed a jaundiced view of political memoirs that test the presidential waters. They strike me, more often than not, as lost opportunities for developing the level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence we need in our leaders.

I'll be revealing the name of the writer whose memoir I intend to read in a few paragraphs; he or she is ambivalent about running for president and one of the longest of the long shots.

Most memoirs that test the presidential waters are a mix of autobiography, policy prescription and the memoirist's vision for America's future.The writer casts his or her personal story as reflective of the nation's larger narrative, so that voters will perceive him or her as having been born to lead. Memoirs of this sort are calculated to fend off criticism, sharpen a public image, create headlines, and earn votes. They are typically the result of the aspiring candidate's collaboration with a ghostwriter and political aides, with significant input from his or her spouse.

By contrast, writing a spiritual memoir forces you to go on a lonely journey that challenges everything you know and believe in. Traveling alongside your childhood fears and the ghosts of your ancestors, you confront one inner demon after another. You think about quitting. But you know that -- if you press on, stay disciplined, write from the heart -- you'll find solace and inspiration in unexpected places and begin to discover the themes and purpose of your life. This humbling process can clarify the writer's values and priorities as he or she ponders the next chapter of their lives.

Is it too much to ask of the presidential aspirants that they view memoir-writing as an opportunity for self-healing and spiritual growth rather than as a calculated vehicle for testing the waters before they take the big plunge? Obama did that with "Dreams From Our Father," the memoir that put him on the path to the presidency long before he was seriously considering it. He later tested the waters with "The Audacity of Hope," a more policy-oriented memoir that left many readers, including me, comparatively cool.


"I Heard My Country Calling" by James Webb
The one political memoir I'll be reading this season is "I Heard My Country Calling" by James Webb. From editing him in the past, I know that he's a curious man and serious writer who struggles with every word and phrase until it genuinely reflects his thoughts and beliefs. I've never heard him talk about the spiritual nature of his writing. But, as I've worked with him, I've been aware that the cadences of his sentences, particularly when he writes about war and his Scots-Irish ancestry and patriotism in general, can have a devotional quality, a reaching for larger truths. That doesn't mean I'll vote for Jim if he chooses to run for President someday. But I'll certainly read what he's written in his year of testing the waters. I can picture him staring out the window, pacing back and forth, sitting down at his computer, getting up to pace again -- in the solitude of his study, alone with his thoughts and his demons and the ghosts of his brave, warrior ancestors. His years of experience as a novelist and journalist have taught him how to ask himself (and others) the tough, clarifying questions -- and to listen to the promptings of his heart. The prerequisites for writing a moving and authentic memoir.

Lee Kravitz is the author of UNFINISHED BUSINESS: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things (Bloomsbury) and PILGRIM: Risking the Life I Have to Find the Faith I Seek (Hudson Street Press). He is the former editor-and-chief of Parade magazine.

Lee Kravitz is the author of the books "Pilgrim" and "Unfinished Business" and formerly editor-in-chief of Parade magazine.

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