Reading Memoirs: David’s Little Helper

I love reading memoirs. Turning to personal accounts of people’s paths through life is fun; […]

David Peterson / 6.11.15

I love reading memoirs. Turning to personal accounts of people’s paths through life is fun; it allows me to enter into their experiences for a while. I can’t deny, though, that implicit in my reading is a vague desire to live vicariously through the subject. I read stories to be transported and transformed. Art that deserves merit can have this transformative effect, but with memoirs I think my aim is less lofty. Some of the more memorable ones I’ve encountered were by Chuck Lidell, Rob Lowe and Jony Ive, among others– an eclectic bunch, yes, but all with flourishes of the tough, funny, innovative and altogether impossible person I aspire to be.


Part of the memoir’s appeal lies in my hope for a “secrets to success,” how-to paragraph where the beans are spilled and I can find a road map to fame, fortune and immortality. If the book captures this secret with just the right mix of pithiness and humor, my hope is that in a moment of rapture after intense study and adulation, I might be able to get there myself. In Keith Richards’ memoir, Life, one particularly cool passage shows that if I’m looking to the guitarist for a step-by-step guide to Rock n’ Roll superstardom, I’m barking up the wrong tree. It’s a familiar story, but his account is refreshingly honest and British-sounding:

“Brian, after figuring how much it would cost, called up Jazz News, which was a kind of ‘who’s playing where’ rag, and said, ‘We’ve got a gig at …’ ‘What do you call yourselves?’ We stared at one another. ‘It?’ Then ‘Thing?’ This call is costing. Muddy Waters to the rescue! First track on The Best of Muddy Waters is ‘Rollin’ Stone.’ The cover is on the floor. Desperate, Brian, Mick and I take the dive. ‘The Rolling Stones.’ Phew!! That saved sixpence.”

Just like that they stumbled upon one of the most iconic band names of all time. Granted, the name was a nod to their Blues-playing idol, Muddy Waters, but they couldn’t have guessed that it’d be ubiquitous in the coming decades. That story and the rest of the memoir reveal there’s no great secret to being Keith, or coming up with an awesome band name. There’s no magical incantation that summons the creative gods and allows one to channel some abstract artistic muse. To borrow an AA phrase, they’re just doing the next right thing.


This mantra helps contrast my ambitions leading me to pick up a memoir and the reality of the remarkable lives that the books contain. I assume, because I want to be special and likable and interesting enough to warrant my own best-selling, tell-all tome, that there will be something worthwhile to emulate and ascend to in these pieces. I want a Malcolm Gladwell or David Brooks-type essay explaining all the converging factors that led to their dazzling success. The serendipity involved in the story of the naming of the Stones debunks those selfish motivations. Keith, Mick and Brian weren’t “mainlining the secret truth of the universe” as Rust Cohle memorably put it; they were playing the blues for whoever wanted to hear, doing the next (right) thing.

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One response to “Reading Memoirs: David’s Little Helper”

  1. Debra Christenson says:

    David, I like what you say in this piece. You are a superb writer!!
    You give me a good reminder that sometimes it IS boring to do the next right thing, but if you keep on that path, you do wind up at a memorable moment or event. Daily reading of Scripture can sometimes feel like just doing the next right thing, but then your mind gives you the right verse in the midst of a difficult conversation. Suddenly, the daily “renewing your mind” part, becomes a living reality. Thanks for this post!

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