The great thing about being an author is that the people hiring you didn’t go to Harvard Business School. So after losing hundreds of thousands of their dollars on my first book, Hachette offered me a contract for a memoir. My editor didn’t even bother with due diligence, such as asking: Has anything awful ever happened to you? Because unfortunately, the answer is: “No. I’m a guy so lucky he’s getting paid to write a memoir despite nothing bad ever happening to him.”
To deal with this, I considered joining ISIS before learning that they are completely inflexible about their “no Jews” policy. So in the 11 months since I signed my book contract, I’ve written nothing, which is disconcerting since that’s 10 months longer than I usually procrastinate. Panicked, I got The Art of Memoir, an excellent new book by Mary Karr. A poet and English professor at Syracuse, Karr wrote The Liars’ Club, the story of her childhood with an abusive, alcoholic, schizophrenic mother. Luckily, in The Art of Memoir she tells potential memoirists not to let a dearth of abuse stop us, though she says it like this: “I was born in the richest country in the world to literate, employed parents who owned their home. Some start out brain damaged in rape camps in far-flung gulags. My suffering is not one iota of what such folks endure.” The greatest suffering I’d ever endured was finding out about gulag rape camps.
After 45 minutes of reviewing my life’s material, Karr sensed potential in an incident in which my mother hit my father with a sweater. “It doesn’t matter how it is to everyone else, it matters how it is to you,” she said. “You make that sweater hit as colossal as it possibly was.” If I returned to that moment, reliving the fear of my parents imminent divorce, confusedly reassembling my assumptions about my idyllic childhood, would Karr read my memoir of suburban semi-angst? “Never happen,” she answered.
With that encouragement, I got a decaffeinated tea, chose a moody Spotify playlist and suffered:
I was too young to know that the end comes neither with a bang nor a whimper but a laugh of relief. This time, my dad didn’t close the door hard and stomp somewhere in my suburban neighborhood I could never picture though there weren’t many streets to choose from. This time, my dad held a thin, white sweater joyously aloft, reporting the event over and over as if the divorce was coming by sea. “She hit me! With a sweater!” They both thought it was hilarious. I wondered what college was farthest away.
But I was not crying and barfing from the memories, as Karr promised in her book. So I called my friend Neil Strauss, who wrote The Game, in which he mastered picking up women, and has written a new memoir that I had given some editing advice on, most of which was “you need to warn your parents.” In The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, he goes to rehab for sex addiction, discloses his father’s secret fetish for handicapped women and severs his relationship with his smothering handicapped mother. When I told him I had no sexual abuse or life-threatening diseases to write about, Neil laughed. “You’re taking the Movie of the Week definition of trauma. You want to do it? Let’s do it.” I had barely told him a story of my parents arguing at dinner while I quietly tried to stop them when he interrupted, excited. “You couldn’t be heard by speaking, so you could be heard by writing,” he said. “Dude, is that not trauma? You were the peacemaker, which a child is never supposed to be. That’s enmeshment, when you’re taking care of your parents’ needs instead of them taking care of yours.”
I was clearly going to have to go to some kind of therapy, like Neil did, to learn to do this memoir talk. But before I did, I called my book editor, Ben Greenberg, to find out exactly what he’s liked in other memoirs. “I did Ozzy Osbourne’s memoir. He literally tried to kill his wife. And that was one page of the book,” he said. I confessed that I once called my wife the “c” word. “Ozzy calls everyone a c—, as a term of endearment. The dude snorted a line of live fire ants. He was traveling in a bus that got hit by a plane. He survived a plane crash in which the plane crashed into him.” I considered giving him the money back, until I realized that would involve me having less money. So I just asked him why he ever gave me this book deal. “I felt like you have embarrassing sex stories,” he said. I immediately felt freed, memories streaming out from me on the phone. “The failed three-way sounds good,” he said, satisfied. It’s going to be a long book.
This appears in the October 12, 2015 issue of TIME.