Well, that combination’s quite a stretch, some of you may say, but I ask you to hear me out. Two days before President Reagan’s death, former President Clinton gave the keynote address to this year’s Chicago BookExpo. For those of you who may not know, BookExpo is “the” place to be if you have a book coming out during the next fall or spring publishing cycle. Clinton’s book, My Life, is scheduled for release June 22. The reason for his speech? Marketing. His job? To instill a fervor in the crowd and talk among the publishing community—as if there wasn’t any already—so they would hand-carry his book to the multitude of readers, the willing and the unwilling, ready to plunk down the hefty price of a hardcover book to learn all. This would be a “tell-all,” right? The media, knowing timing is everything, had already moved into place. Book excerpts had been contracted, audio streams made available, and all were poised, ready and waiting, for the gun to go off.
Then President Reagan died. Like the fickle lover she is, the media swarmed to the late president’s family and made ready to do coast-to-coast coverage of the event. Clinton’s media had to wait in the wings, while Reagan’s media took center stage. For the book business, let’s face it, the week became an unexpected bonanza, one that will impact the sales of several publishers, not just one. Old books lurched forward into the public’s light. New books dealing with the late president’s faith received a tremendous boost. Only recently have writers begun to tackle the story of President Reagan’s faith and its impact on his life, his policies, his legacy, and the American people. As the public outpouring grew, more and more magazines and newspapers across the nation built commemorative issues and historical pages into their publications. And trust me, even as we talk, new book contracts are being offered, and next year’s BookExpo will reap the impact of this bit of history.
That’s it, you say? Anyone could have figured that out, others retort. Yes, if you are content to look on the surface, the race to detail history is pretty much what you see; but there’s another layer to examine that is more closely associated to the craft of writing. At the heart of both, beneath the crust of marketing and the rush to write history, lies the white-hot core of memory. You have only to mention Reagan’s name and the sad, lingering thought of the devastation of Alzheimer’s, and the cruel way the disease stole the life of the president out from under him long before he confronted death, comes to mind. After the last week, the image of his wife, adoring and protective of the man and his memory to the end, will accompany the realization that for ten years this woman protected the man and his loving public by keeping them separate and not allowing new memories to tinge and tarnish the old. So when he died, the public’s ability to re-embrace the past was not hindered by years of a difficult and long good-bye.
The link between memory and writing is nothing new. With the rise of memoirs in recent years, the whole concept has been discussed anew, particularly with the additional ideas espoused by those writing what is commonly termed “creative nonfiction.” President Clinton’s speech reminded me of the elusive nature of memory. His book, My Life, is a tremendous undertaking and, in large part, is dependent upon and is engaged with memory, his and ours. Most memoir writers only have their own dance with memory to perform, but Clinton must execute a dance that is choreographed to the steps of the public as well as his own. Memories are legion.
Still, Clinton journeys down the same path all memoirists undertake when they dredge up their past to re-examine their lives and the lives of those around them. He makes the same turns, builds the same bridges, executes the same pick-and-choose decisions all writers make as they strive to match the cadence of their own life events against their internal song. Sometimes it’s a happy dance; more often than not it strikes a poignant, even dramatic tone.
During an interview with Nancy Reagan, when the reporter mentioned the book, I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan, Mrs. Reagan compiled containing the love letters she received from her husband, I was reminded again of the potential gut-wrenching aspect of memoir writing. The reporter remarked that it must have brought her comfort to write the book. No, she said, it didn’t. She endured a face-to-face encounter with the stark reality of now compared to the loving, warm remembrance of the past. She did it, she said, because she wanted the public to engage with her husband in a new and different way, to enter a time she, alone, intimately knew. A time when the walls of their fortress were strong enough to ward off all attacks and hold them both intact. Before the ravages of a disease accomplished what no other person or past event could do: tear down their fortress walls. The walls fell, and in the devastation and aftermath, the public gained access to the most intimate moments of their lives. In doing so, Mrs. Reagan revealed the man, not the memory. All done, not with her own recollections and recasting, but with the actual letters published, so that the readers reconnect, not with her but with him. The letters reignite the public’s memories of Reagan, and the man comes striding through, tall and strong, full of command, and still the man he was.
That is the power of memory.