Pamela Des Barres On Writing a Rockin’ Memoir
If there’s anyone who can write a joyously energetic, infectious, and humorous guide to writing a rock memoir, it’s the queen of rock memoirs, Pamela Des Barres. In her bestselling and now-classic I’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, she charts new territory for rock memoirs, chronicling her backstage adventures while raising questions about women and rock and roll.
Now, in Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin’ Memoir (Tarcher/Penguin), Des Barres draws on her years of teaching “femoir” workshops to offer a detailed and thought-provoking guide to putting pen to paper to bare your soul. Des Barres’ guide stands alone because she shares writing excerpts from her students as examples of how to approach certain writing prompts. At the very beginning of the book, she lays out “Miss Pamela’s Six Unruly Rules.” If you stick to them, she “promises that your writing will surprise and startle you”:
Don’t think! (The most important!)
Don’t second-guess what you’ve just written or re-read every sentence.
Don’t cross out or erase.
Don’t censor or judge yourself.
Don’t lift your pen off your paper or your fingers from the keyboard.
Don’t hold back!
Of course, she then offers nine rules for breaking these commandments. One of those rules is “don’t leave anything out. Be reckless. Don’t color in the lines. Don’t even use the proper colors. Cut loose and roar.”
And cut loose and roar her writers do. Des Barres offers them prompts ranging from “what will you miss about earth when you die?” “what advice would you give to your nineteen-year-old self?” and “describe your most memorable sexual experience” to “what do you hope to accomplish by writing your memoir?”
As only one example among many, Sara Stardust responds to the question, “who is your favorite musician and how has he or she affected your life” in a sly, wry manner: “This man is my greatest love. Now and forever. He saved me when my young mind wanted to live no more. He’s crazy, insane, eccentric, and you can hardly understand him… I love you, Ozzy Osbourne.”
The beauty of Des Barres’ guide lies in its ability to lead you deep into yourself, to guide you to explore those forgotten moments in your life that shaped you, to discover those secrets that move you, to unleash memories you’ve kept at bay, and to pour it all out tearfully, angrily, and joyfully on the page.
I chatted recently with Des Barres about her new book and about writing.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted you to write this book now?
Des Barres: I’ve been teaching writing for 17 years now. One of my writers had a really great time; she works for Penguin and she asked, “Why don’t you write a book for us?” So, I got my girls into publishing, and used their work as examples. I dared them into writing well. A lot of it has to do with getting to know who you really are, a guide to your inner self. I asked them to write about the experiences that made them who they are to their most recent experiences. I tried to put in prompts to trigger thoughts and memories.
How did you get into teaching the classes?
My friend Moon Zappa told me about a teacher in the Valley, and I was going to that creative writing workshop. I realized that I could be teaching the class, and asked myself why I should be paying money for the class. (laughs) There were eight women in the first class I had. They were all as nervous as I was. My first classes were in LA, and they were eight-week sessions. Then about eight years ago, I started going to Austin and leading a session during SXSW. I did my first class in London last fall. These classes are such a surprising thing in my life. I’m shocked at how important they have become to me. I am honored to be teaching them. I even have one student who’s been coming for eight or nine years.
Did you read any particular books as you were preparing to write yours?
Stephen King’s book On Writing had been a staple since it came out. I love all of Anne Lamott’s books. I got rid of them all, though. I wanted this book to be about me and my teaching.
If you could have lunch with three authors, living or dead, whom would you invite?
Stephen King: I have been a fan of his since the beginning. No one is as prolific as he is, and I want to know how he does it. Anais Nin: for obvious reasons; Henry Miller: I’ve been inspired by his writing; Walt Whitman: he’s the most sensual, bold, and open writer I know; he’s a wild man. Kerouac: because of him I learned you can change up the way you can write; because of the freedom he gave to writers.
Tell me about your own writing process — do you write every day?
My writing process varies. During the last book I wrote, I had too many distractions, so I started going to this little cheap motel to write. Following that, though, I learned to write with distractions. No, I don’t write every day.
What are some of the ingredients of a rockin’ memoir? What lessons will readers take from the book?
Always don’t fake it; you can’t fake it at all. Decide what you want to write about and just let it come out. You can’t qualify your writing, even to yourself; let it cut loose. Don’t double back or erase, don’t get in the way, stay out of the way. Often the first go ‘round is the best. I give my girls 12 minutes to write; they can’t erase or edit, they can just write. They are astonished by the memories that flow when they do this. It’s like slitting your wrists whenever you reveal things about yourself.
Tell me about the memoir you’re working on, Sex, God, and Rock and Roll.
I’ve been working on it for a while. My agent is the best agent in the world, and we talked about a book that would address the question, “what does a groupie know about God?” My spiritual journey goes back to high school when I started reading Yogananda’s work. I’m also a Jesus girl; what he said is still the truth. Mary Magdalene is a hero of mine. Any great art that opens your soul is transcendent, it’s eternal. I’ve had Walt Whitman appear to me in a hologram. I was reading William Blake’s poem “Tiger, Tiger,” and his quill appeared to me spinning in front of my eyes.