A friend once told me that we all have three lives: our public life, our private life and our secret life.
When I decided to write about all three in my memoir, Love or Die Trying, I had two big decisions to make: the first, of course, was how much I was prepared to reveal. I’m a recovering cocaine addict; I’d been broke; I died after open-heart surgery in 2011; and then it got much worse.
But I decided that my memoir would be a redemption story, but also a love story between me and my wife, Jean Marmoreo. So, if you’re going to write a book about your life and your relationship with your wife, saying “we love each other a lot” doesn’t quite cut it. Besides, I’d spoken to businesses, church, and health groups for years about my bad times with drugs. Oh, and…I’m old: 71, and Jean’s even older, 78. So, many of those deep secrets from the past I can view through the gauze of not caring that much anymore. Or simply forgetting embarrassing moments, which is one of the hidden blessings of an unreliable memory.
But the second decision I had to make didn’t happen instantly. If anything, deciding to reveal my deepest darkest secrets was a daily decision taken over the year it took me to write the book. Writing involves thousands of instant decisions, taken on the spot, and often at a granular, word-by-word level. Leave this in? Take it out? Say it this way? Or that way? How about this word? No? This word.
Because denial has played a huge role in my life, and particularly in its troubles, I’ve learned that when I’m resisting something, I should stop and ask: “What are you avoiding?” Often, it’s the judgement of people long gone and things I don’t care about any more. Like my dear old dad who, I learned the day after his funeral in 1973, had fathered a daughter from his first marriage who I knew nothing about, and that was because he disowned her. Or like having an affair with a colleague at work and not having the decency to break it off when it was clearly over.
Both episodes are in the book. I decided to keep my dad’s story in because even he couldn’t reach out from his half-century-old grave and throttle me for betraying him. I also decided to keep the affair story in as well, because it illustrated a very big point in the book, which is that I behaved pretty badly with women when I was young. So it stayed, too.
But while writing about secrets is hard, writing what you feel about them is harder.
Time and again, I would give a draft chapter to my colleague Julia McDowell, and she would read it and say: “But Bob, tell the reader how you feel!”
I would look at her dumb-founded, as if to say: “I did that!”
But when I went back and looked at those stories, of my dad and my workmate and all the other stories as well, it seems I hadn’t. I’d just told the stories and not taken the next necessary step.
Which goes to show that storytelling itself is a great way to avoid the real secrets.
And that’s the subject for another blog…
Bob Ramsay is a communications consultant, writer, and founder of the speaker series RamsayTalks. He was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Medal in 2015 and the Bernier Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society in 2017. He lives with his wife, Dr. Jean Marmoreo, in Toronto. Read more here.