Tuesday, April 13th, 2010
“Memoirs, like screenplays, need to be about core relationships. Every woman has a father who has affected her relationships with men. Maybe mine’s the extreme-sports version, but every girl can relate.”
Consider the raw material of Tracy McMillan’s life: black absentee father (a jailed, drug-dealing pimp); white absentee mother (a crazy addict); white difficult stepmother-figure; foster families; ADD; alcohol; drugs; rehab; infidelity; divorce (three of them). Her memoir could have been an overwrought pity party.
It’s not. In the hands of McMillan, an L.A.-based screenwriter who has written for United States of Tara and Life on Mars, these things aren’t “issues” that her experience illuminates for the benefit of society. This isn’t an eat-your-vegetables book. They’re just her “extreme-sports version,” as she winningly puts it, of every woman’s quest for sustainable love and how this quest is complicated by old pain, doubts, and fears about Daddy.
It’s a memoir for grown-ups, but I Love You begins with a little girl (one who today would be called “at risk”), one living with foster families in 1970s Minneapolis. Occasionally, she gets to visit her loving, insanely charismatic, recidivist dad. Smart and hard-working, she survives, goes to college, and becomes a TV journalist, musician, and, ultimately, screenwriter who drinks Americanos at the Casbah Café in Silver Lake.
She’s also the single mom of an adolescent son in whom the story comes full circle, with final lessons—and tests—on the whole men-women and children-parents thing. Blurbed by Diablo Cody and resembling the excellent (and weirdly Swift-boated) Eat, Pray, Love, McMillan’s memoir traces this unlikely arc with such humanity and skill that readers with totally different life stories will see themselves in it. When we spoke by phone, McMillan discussed how she pulled this off by drawing on her long and varied TV background to make her memoir both universal and entertaining.
How did the book come about?
A few years ago I read a piece, “Why You’re Not Married,” at Sit ‘N Spin, a regular reading event in L.A. It got an overwhelming response, so when the writers’ strike put my TV job on hold, I wrote a book proposal. I wrote it like a fake advice column, similar to He’s Just Not That Into You. It didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t from the heart.
Then I redid it in my own voice. I’d been a TV screenwriter for six months, and it really, really helped me make the proposal disciplined and story-driven. In television, there isn’t one scene that isn’t necessary, that doesn’t drive the story. This made the book more likely to connect with a mass audience instead of a bunch of navel gazers like me.
Talk some more about how your screenwriting experience informed the book.
When the title came to me, I took it and made every chapter heading a variation on it—”I Love You, This Is Just How I Am,” “I Love You, Which Is Why I’m Lying to You,” etc. This became like a through line that made everything in the book part of one whole. I wrote a very structured, thorough outline the way we do in TV, where the “writing” is pretty much just adding the dialogue to the outline. My final proposal and the book are almost the same. Something that’s straight out of TV is that there’s an “A story”—the rise and fall of my disastrous third marriage—and a “B story,” how I ended up in that marriage. The book cuts back and forth. Near the end, the two come together, and it finishes from there.
Despite the intercutting, the whole book is in the present tense.
I used to write TV news. It just felt right. To me the past tense would’ve felt stuck, bound. With present tense, boom, you’re in it, it’s real. It helped me be in it as I wrote.
How else did having written TV news work its way in?
In TV news, you’re writing for someone who’s cooking dinner. That’s my background, so as a writer it’s not my goal to write the perfect sentence. It’s to communicate an idea clearly so that it can be understood by a lot of people.
What audience did you write for?
For me, it’s not first nature to think about audience. In the early stages, when I was still writing it as advice to women about marriage, someone said, “It sounds like your book is really about a father and a daughter.” It made me realize that memoirs, like screenplays, need to be about core relationships.
Every woman has a father who has affected her relationships with men. Maybe mine’s the extreme-sports version, but every girl can relate. So it became about girls, their daddies, and their men—versus one woman who had all this crazy shit happen to her. I’m the one who goes to Nordstrom Rack and ends up talking to three random women for 45 minutes about guys. Among the greatest joys in life is to have a great conversation with another woman. It’s really powerful and nourishing. That’s what I wanted the book to be.
How do you approach humor? Were you always funny?
To me, the truth is funny—people doing stupid, people-like things. I’m more a James L. Brooks, make-you-laugh-make-you-cry person. Funny-tragic, not funny-ha-ha. I was so weird when I was younger, like a mascot…. There’s a lot of humor in everything. That’s a big part of how I survived. My humor didn’t work till I got older and went for it and trusted it, like in readings at Sit ‘N Spin. I grew up watching Mary Tyler Moore religiously—to me, it’s the ultimate in heartfelt television humor.
Therapy and other forms of self-improvement cultivate self-observation so that you can make better choices. This has obvious benefits for memoirists, too. You’ve clearly worked this muscle in therapy, which you refer to in the book. Did you always have it?
A little bit. People always said I was “a wise little girl.” I just read in an article in The New York Times that wisdom is pattern-recognition. As a foster child, I saw how lots of different people did things, and [adapting] was do or die. It was a combination of nature and nurture.
Talk a bit about the role editing played in this book.
Most of the book—I’d say 85 percent—is as I wrote it. The edits were mostly for story, expanding certain things. In my second pass, I changed too much. I went off road into parts my editor didn’t address. I ended up watering it down, and I had to go back.
Has your father read the book?
He really wants to. I don’t want him to! The reason is ridiculously banal: I talk a lot about my sex life in the book, and I’m embarrassed to have him read it—not to mention his prison buddies. But I have no axes to grind. All the men in the book have been very supportive. I’m like, “Dude, you haven’t read it!” Memoir is difficult that way: “How will people take it?” And with the Internet, it’s never going away. I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve written memoirs, and it generally works out. One friend’s mom disowned her. I changed a lot of details. It’s hard to make up names for the real people. You have to pick ones that no one in your life has. And names have a vibration, an energy; you want to keep the same tone.
It’s as much as you can hope for: you tell your story, and you stand behind it, whether it’s a book or just standing in line at the bank. I’m not scared to tell the truth. And it’s all from a loving place, part of my spiritual path.
I’m sure I’ll write more books. I know from my days in a band that the worst thing is when a band hits doing one thing and then their second album is, like, country. Maybe it’ll be another memoir, maybe fiction. We’ll see. I also plan to keep writing for television.
Finally, Tracy McMillan, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
I fell, got up, and laughed.
Edward Lovett is a writer and jazz crooner. He lives in Brooklyn.
BUY I Love You and I’m Leaving You Anyway.