Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Frank McCourt: An Inspiration to Millions

On Sunday, the world lost a very special author, a man with a voice and a story that inspired millions. Frank McCourt’s first memoir, Angela’s Ashes, received the Pulitzer Prize, and he followed up his incredible debut with two more memoirs, Teacher Man and ‘Tis. When I heard he had passed away, I felt like I had lost a friend.

When I meet aspiring memoir writers, I tell them to read Angela’s Ashes. McCourt’s first book is a testament to the power of a well-told story and proof that one need not be famous to have had a fascinating life. If you’re a writer struggling to understand voice, read Angela’s Ashes. McCourt’s voice is lyrical and sad, coarse and delicate; he gave us far more than just the narrative of a childhood filled with abject poverty and challenges that would break many a grown man. He took his readers back in time with him. When I read Angela’s Ashes, I had to stop sometimes because the descriptions and McCourt’s voice were so penetrating, so real, that sometimes it broke my heart to keep reading. If you’ve read Angela’s Ashes, I’d bet that you, too, can still envision the McCourt’s home in Ireland as it appeared in your mind, no matter how long ago you read the book. He gave us not just his story, but his family’s story. He didn’t gloss over anything, and he showed himself to be a fallible human as well as a central figure.

McCourt’s book helped give me the courage to write my own memoir, and I followed his example of showing my own role in my past in as unvarnished a manner as possible. The title of his last book, Teacher Man, describes him perfectly, although I know it’s a specific reference to the years he spent as a teacher in public schools. His words taught many of us, millions of us who never met him in person. He taught us about life, about poverty, about hope. He taught writers that the ugly truth can be beautiful on paper, and that the story of a common man can be uplifting and insightful.

When I was growing up, we had this Irish blessing in our kitchen, and I offer it today in memory of Frank McCourt.

An Old Irish Blessing

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

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