Monday, 5 October 2015
How to write a circus book
Ever been told you should write your life story? I expect many circus people have, and many have done so. But if a book is next on your ‘to do’ list as a showman or performer, how best to go about it? Former promoter of the Greatest Show on Earth, Jamie MacVicar wrote The Advance Man about his experiences. In the following article, which appeared originally appeared in Writers Forum, he shares his tips for a successful memoir.
Conversing with Jamie MacVicar after reading The Advance Man feels odd, like meeting your favourite fictional character. Because MacVicar’s adventures promoting the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus - the self-proclaimed Greatest Show on Earth - in the early 70s read less like a memoir than a novel.
Unfolding hour by hour, scene by scene, conversation by conversation, the 650-page narrative gives us a real sense of sitting in offices as advertising deals are hammered out; backstage as unsold tickets are counted; and in “beyond seedy” motel rooms where the pressure builds and eventually takes its toll on a young man thrust into a high-stakes world.
“To write a book you have to be passionate and objective for a long, long time, so you better have something compelling to say,” says MacVicar, who’s book was a finalist for the Marsfield Prize, an American award for arts writing. “Very few people have held the job of circus promoter and to my knowledge no one had ever written a book about it. What I wanted to do in The Advance Man that I hadn’t seen done before was to teach a craft - the marketing of live entertainment - while somehow blending it seamlessly into the personal story. Since most memoirs are reflective, looking back at past events, I decided to write it in the present. I wanted the reader to experience events exactly as I had.”
To create that sense of immediacy, MacVicar advises the aspiring memoirist to use all five senses in their writing: taste, sight, sound, touch and smell.
“Detail makes the reader feel as though they are there,” he explains. “Why just drive across the bridge when you can drive past ‘a little girl sitting on a rail selling worms for 35 cents a box.’ I try to strip down descriptive elements to one or two at most - a sidewalk lifted by an oak tree, a man in a button-down sweater - just enough to trigger the reader’s imagination. It then becomes their story, and will stay with them.”
Asked whether the wealth of detail in The Advance Man stems from a good memory or whether a memoirist is permitted some creative license to fill in the gaps, MacVicar says, “I’m amazed at how much I remembered when I transported myself back in time, heightened I’m sure by the intensity of the period. The important things stay with us.
“I believe you can add colour to evoke a mood - ‘A tractor rumbled by in a swirl of dust, the trees looked barren against the grey sky’ - and you can guess at irrelevant details, like did I sell 500 or 600 tickets at that show twenty years ago?
“But the events and dialogue should be to the best of your recollection, and any historical details should be as chronicled. Our memories are faulty and we can be forgiven for that, but not for a lack of ethics, honest intent and due diligence.”
Although a memoir is by its nature drawn from personal experience, MacVicar’s book is notable for detailed passages on the history of the circus he worked for and the parts of America he visited.
“History and surrounding material that evoke the times give the story depth, and that makes the narrative far richer,” he says. “Context also renders a greater understanding of the actions and decisions of the protagonists. More than most books, a memoir gives the reader an opportunity to reflect on their own lives and what they might have done under similar circumstances.”
To aid his research, he hired a history graduate from his local university who uncovered “golden nuggets” of information, from the crops grown in Ohio during his time there, to a thorough biography of Gargantua, a famed circus gorilla. The author also sought the input of other people in the tale.
“I flew to Savannah, Georgia, and interviewed the head of the advertising agency I’d worked with twenty years earlier. He gave me perspectives and background material about Savannah that were priceless - things I never knew at the time.
“I also sent the manuscript to two of the main characters in the book as well as to the attorney for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, giving them three months to respond. My purpose was twofold: to discover any inaccuracies and to give them a chance to express any concerns before the book was published.”
MacVicar also hired a copy editor and content editor. The former would circle words in red ink with admonitions such as “You’ve used this word four times.” The latter would slash through entire scenes, saying, “This doesn’t move the plot forward.”
“They greatly improved the manuscript, tightening and streamlining the prose while teaching me what to look for myself,” say the author.
According to MacVicar, it’s becoming common for writers to hire their own editors, in America at least: “Agents will often insist on it before presenting your work.” Self-publishing writers are definitely encouraged to employ a professional editor, although MacVicar cautions, “Editors have different approaches. Not all are a good match. I advise asking two or three to do a chapter before deciding who is right for you.”
The Advance Man took eleven years to write, which is about four times longer than the period it describes. Editing and finding a publisher took another four years, and publisher Bear Manor Media took a further two years to bring the book to market.
MacVicar had to fit writing around his day job of running a graphic design firm. But while he would have preferred to complete the book more quickly, he urges all scribes to be patient with the writing process.
“Don’t look at the project as a whole - it’s too overwhelming. All you have to write today is one scene. Take your time. Fame and fortune are ephemeral. Pride in what you produce is permanent.
“I’ve never had a bad writing session because I don’t sit down to write until I know exactly what I am going to say and what I want to achieve. I stop when the going’s good, and then let the subconscious take over. At some point, the words start flowing again and I stop whatever I’m doing and write.”
Influences on his style included Robert Caro’s five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. “Caro is the master of making the mundane fascinating. But his pacing was particularly instructive. He knows how to build momentum into a paragraph.
“Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar took the leveraged buyout of Nabisco and turned it into a business thriller, introducing me to narrative non-fiction, a style I’ve been drawn to ever since. But it was Errol Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways that prompted me to write The Advance Man. He wrote it not to be liked or admired, but to look at himself objectively, warts and all. I found that powerful.”
The Advance Man deals unflinchingly with MacVicar’s stress-induced breakdown and the family issues that caused him to overwork.
“Writing about myself, I employed what I call the cringe factor,” he says. “If I wasn’t cringing at times by what I revealed, then I wasn’t doing justice to the story, the reader, and the lessons to be gleaned.”
As for the thorny business of writing about family, which some writers might find inhibiting: “A memoir is personal, so writing about loved ones is usually unavoidable. But a searing portrait can be mitigated by conveying why they may have behaved as they did. Maybe a cousin was a kleptomaniac, but could the lack of attention from a fatherless home have been the cause?”
In other cases, changing names can be a good idea - not least to avoid being sued.
“You might recall thinking someone in your past was an idiot, and while you might not care what he or she thinks about your opinion now, what about his or her spouse and children? Is it necessary to hurt their feelings too? In general, if I portray someone in a negative light, I change their name and description.”
MacVicar’s new book, A Year in a B&B in Banff, is set thirty years after his circus adventure, and describes how a new relationship lead to him running a bed and breakfast in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Both books can be ordered from Amazon.
Click here to read my review of The Adavnce Man.