For most of the last year, I’ve concentrated on writing my memoir, the working title for which has long been Excerpts From Ally Sheedy’s Purse.
The title is a nod to the scene in The Breakfast Club where Ally Sheedy’s character Allison Reynolds dumps her purse onto the couch in front of Andrew, played by Emilio Estevez, and Brian, played by Anthony Michael Hall. This title calls out the anxiety and insecurity I feel about writing and, presumably, one day publishing my memoir. It reflects a hesitation to air my dirty laundry – and the responsibility I feel about sharing these stories in a way that retains my self-respect and doesn’t insult yours.
Mostly, though, it’s just been a joke between me, myself, and my tags at the end of my posts on The Nervous Breakdown.
I didn’t give much credence to the value of thinking about the process this way until I read an article recently that describes what Janis Joplin was carrying in her purse the summer she was 27, just before her death. The description is taken from Rolling Stone writer David Dalton’s 1972 biography of Joplin, Piece of My Heart. The contents are truly boggling: movie stubs, a pack of cigarettes, an antique cigarette holder, several motel and hotel room keys, a box of Kleenex, various cosmetics, an address book, dozens of bits of paper, business cards, match box covers with phone numbers written in near-legible barroom scrawls, guitar picks, a bottle of Southern Comfort (empty), a hip flask, an opened package of macadamia nuts from American Airlines, cassettes of Johnny Cash and Otis Redding, gum, sunglasses, credit cards, aspirin, assorted pens and writing pad, a corkscrew, an alarm clock, a copy of Time, and two hefty books – Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.
What does this list say about Janis Joplin the person, I wondered? Something? Nothing? Can I approach this description as, say, an archeologist would? David Dalton did the excavation; what can I discover through analysis? What conclusions can these items reasonably lead me to? The night of Joplin’s death, she went out drinking with a band mate and was found dead from a heroin overdose in her hotel room the next morning. Perhaps the contents of her purse are evidence of a life of non-stop partying. I can’t say for sure. The only things I know about Janis Joplin are what I’ve seen and read. Only Janis Joplin knew for sure whether the bottle of Southern Comfort, the aspirin, and the box of Kleenex were her go-to remedies for a perpetual hangover, or whether they were remnants of a bad cold from which she’d recently recovered.
But while I may not be able to draw definite conclusions from Janis Joplin’s purse, I realized after reading this article that I do have the luxury of excavating the depths of my own metaphorical handbag. And that my job – really, my only job – is to offer a fair and impartial analysis of its contents. Which, again, leads me to the scene in The Breakfast Club.
After Allison dumps out her purse, Brian asks if she always carries that much shit in her bag. Allison replies, “Yeah, I always carry this much shit in my bag. You never know when you may have to jam.” The conversation ends with Andrew telling Allison, “Wait a minute, now you’re carrying all that crap around in your purse. Either you really wanna run away or you want people to think you wanna run away.”
Why does Allison have dozens of tampons in her purse? Is she a heavy bleeder? Does she hope to spread them out over many cycles should she ever have to “jam?” Is she hedging her bets that she won’t have money to buy more? Or, perhaps more likely, is she just trying to shock people unfortunate enough to have the contents of her purse dumped on their lap? The point is, when writing my memoir, I don’t want to tell what seems to be the story, but what the actual story is.
If what I carry was inspired by artifice or a desperate need to be seen a certain way (as, perhaps, some of the tales from my adolescence were), that’s what I need to convey. Because while memoir is essentially similar to a giant purse dump, a skillful, professional, and respectful approach necessarily involves that I do all of the culling and categorizing for you. And if I treat the excavation, sorting, and labeling of the contents of my metaphorical purse as archeology, I can shed the nettlesome insecurity that has slowed me down until now and I can, finally, just tell the story.