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Great Draft, Dad. I Have Some Notes.


Did she have edits? “There was quite a bit about strip clubs,” Erin recalled. “You know, cocaine and strip clubs go hand in hand. And I said, ‘Dad, I love ya, but there does not need to be a ton of strip clubs in this.’” Carr agreed to cut those scenes, but there were darker, tougher moments that Erin said she knew better than to ask him to change. “The most painful stuff was about violence toward women, including my mother. But that’s what the book is about. That made me wildly uncomfortable, but I knew my dad was not going to hide behind comfort.”

Lyra, too, is a writer, and when she finally returned my manuscript to me — after a nerve-racking afternoon during which I heard her laughing in her room but also shouting “Dad, you did a drug!” when she got to the pot-smoking scene — many of her suggestions were purely editorial. “This is the third time you described me as ‘simmering with rage,’” she wrote in the margin, along with a little drawing of herself, in a pot, simmering ragefully. (Great note. I cut the other two.)

But she also requested that I cut a scene of her crying, and identified a larger problem with the way she was portrayed. “With me it’s all arguments and problems,” she said, “and I’m not saying I didn’t cause a lot of problems on the trip, but a lot of the chapters are, like, me being bad, me being bad, me being bad, and then Harper” — her sister, two years younger and not yet ready to read the book — “doing something sweet, and that’s the end.”

Well! That was an astute criticism of a structure I’d apparently employed a few times too often. To my surprise I found myself making significant rewrites based on my tween’s comments, sharpening the relationship between the sisters, looking through my notebooks for more examples of Lyra’s joy to counteract the misery I’d focused on.

The lesson of sharing your work with a family member is that sometimes the story you wrote in private becomes less precious to you when you face the possibility of hurting someone you love with it. “When you’re an author, you’re told that everything should be included,” Carr said. By whom? “By … the machine of writing. The machine of making a memoir. But it shouldn’t!”

Could I give Lyra a little of the story back? Allowing a family member to weigh in on a work can lead to surprising kinds of collaboration. Mary McCarthy’s “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood” (1957) intersperses autobiographical essays she’d written for The New Yorker and other magazines with self-lacerating interludes inspired by an uncle disputing those essays, turning the entire book into a pointed commentary on the fallibility of memory. When John Schwartz, a science reporter for The New York Times, finished his first draft of “Oddly Normal,” his 2012 memoir about his son Joe’s difficult teenage coming-out, he printed it out, sat next to Joe at the dining-room table, and waited while he read every page. Not only did Joe make a half-dozen sharp comments, Schwartz recalled, “it helped him get invested in the book” — to the point that Joe later gave his dad a story and asked if it might fit in somehow. It’s the final chapter.

The journalist Elizabeth Weil also gave her daughter Hannah a chance to respond to her 2017 essay “Raising a Teenage Daughter.” Hannah’s annotations appeared alongside the essay in The California Sunday Magazine. Weil writes, “When Hannah was young, she said why at least a thousand times a day,” and Hannah replies, tartly, “I thought adults knew and understood everything.”

Inspired by Hannah’s annotations, I asked Lyra to write an addendum to “my” book, which was, of course, her book too. I asked her to respond to the question, “What did your dad get wrong about you in the book?” In that addendum, Lyra complains that I made her a “precocious jerk,” but allows that she did not entirely dislike her portrayal. She’s proud of the book now, and proud of me, and that means a lot. I showed her this essay before I filed it, and 15 minutes later she brought the laptop back to me and said: “Great draft, Dad. I had some notes.”


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