I am a story archaeologist. I help people unearth the treasure buried in their life stories. I firmly believe that, no matter what anyone says about how boring they are, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.
That’s why my favourite TV programmes are the genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? and the documentary Long Lost Family, which reunites mothers parted from sons, brothers wrenched away from sisters, fathers who never knew their daughters. I also love biographies and first-person accounts – by the notable and famous as well as the unsung.
About 15 years ago I was persuaded that I had a story worth telling. So, after many years as a journalist telling stories about other people, I set out to write my own. Or at least a section of it – one I considered would be the most interesting to a wider audience.
At first it was purely intended to be a compendium of the many interviews I conducted with pop groups and rock bands when I was a music journalist and editor in the Eighties. But as I progressed, the advice I received from a literary agent was to make it as personal as possible.
Why, I thought, would anyone be interested in my experiences? Wouldn’t my potential audience want to read about the stars, not me?
I then began to understand that I was not a passive observer or mere reporter of the facts –I had helped to create these stories and craft the images of the people I had interviewed. And so I began to inject more of myself into what was evolving into a memoir.
At many points over the five years that it took me to write the book, I had to battle resistance, self-judgment, discomfort and a panoply of unprocessed emotions that were still attached to these stories.
At times when I was reliving a particularly difficult moment, it felt like therapy – and I guess it was, except no one was there to hold the space for me apart from the part of self that was writing about the former self that had made some dubious choices and engaged in some colourful behaviour.
The result of this drawn-out process – which was lengthened by a period of inactivity after the death of my father – was 150,000 words of confessional combined with interview excerpts and social and cultural commentary.
When I delivered the first draft of the manuscript to my agent, she suggested I tone down the more lurid content because even she had winced at some of the “open kimono” passages.
I had gone from not wanting to write about myself to a warts-and-all expose. So I had to find a happy medium without losing impact or emotional clout.
This was a big lesson for me in discerning the difference between vulnerability and exposure. You don’t want to make your audience feel uncomfortable – you want them to identify with you and resonate with your experiences. I then set about producing a second draft, which involved cutting 50,000 words – a Herculean task.
When I had finally achieved this, my agent deemed the book marketable and set about finding a publisher – a somewhat arcane process that in the end took almost two years.
After some near-misses, she exhausted all possibilities, from major publishing houses to small independents. I received some great feedback but no one would take the risk of publishing an unknown author.
The main comment was that people wanted to read about celebrities, not about people who had interviewed them – which is exactly what I had feared in the first place. Why would anyone be interested in me?
My quest for publication had unfortunately coincided with the height of celebmania, when people were starting to become famous for being famous, with no discernible talent.
One publisher liked my style and asked if I was interested in ghost writing. I was not.
I had been a shadow worker for long enough.
My book has still not been published, but I have never regretted writing it. The experience was hugely cathartic for me – and it taught me a lot about how to structure and shape a biographical story.
In these days of digital self-publishing I still have the option of getting the book out there, but I would have to be convinced there was some value in it for me and for any potential readers.
When I read it now, I still inwardly groan at some of the more revealing moments. But despite my personal discomfort, writing the book proved to me that my life has been anything but ordinary.