First Person

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Beautiful Struggle, describes the interior journey of the memoirist.

February 1, 2008

I was twenty-eight when I started writing my book, and I think like a lot of young authors I had only a vague sense of what I wanted to do. I started off trying my hand at capturing my dad, the biggest, greatest, most complicated, most frustrating human being I’d ever come across. He had an idea that I should write a book that basically chronicled his life, juxtaposing it with my own. The book was supposed to revolve around the intersection of race and manhood.

This was the story I ultimately sold, but it became clear to a lot of folks that there was a book within this book, one that came from my perspective, and used my father as an antagonist. Back then, memoir still seemed like a big word to me, an act committed by BIG writers—or by some guy who’d spent a year trying to place a ten-minute call to everyone in the Manhattan phone book and decided to write about it.

Of course I didn’t see just how difficult it was until I got into it. I’m a hard-headed dude, and so I set out, in my arrogance, to commit the greatest possible act of literature that I was capable of—to tell an amazing story and trick it out with flourishes of beautiful language and style. In other words, my expectations didn’t include gleaning what we used to call Knowledge of Self. In fact, what I quickly discovered was that if I were going to write anything approximating even a merely adequate book, I’d have to understand myself on a deeper level. Even with that in mind, however, I probably came closer to plausible explanations than exact truth.

Writing The Beautiful Struggle was like being an actor and playing my younger self in a low-budget movie. I had to get to some sort of core reason for why I, for instance, repeatedly took school as a joke, or why in the summer of ‘88, I couldn’t stop playing Public Enemy. Answers to these kinds of questions gave me deeper insight into myself. I know that I was negotiating a violent world as best I could. I know that I was totally overwhelmed by own dumb imagination. I know that I, like a lot of boys, had no idea how to communicate with the opposite sex.

But what I now know, more than anything, is that were I president, I would give everyone a small advance, and then tell them to go off and write a memoir. Even if we don’t get close to finding out who we are, we at least arrive at an invented explanation, a reasonable facsimile of the truth. That’s better than nothing.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of The Beautiful Struggle, coming May '08.