My mother told me that Betty MacDonald had died in the 1950s, but that her niece lived in our very own neighborhood. I walked by the house, gazing at it with a true feeling of awe: the niece of an author lived therein! Of course I knew authors were real people. But Betty MacDonald was more than real; she was tangible. She was prima facie evidence that the materials I had at hand—those trees, that rain—were enough.
Other writers came and went; Betty MacDonald was among those who endured for me. This was because she was funny. No, that’s not quite right. Though I didn’t have the language for it when I first read her, Betty MacDonald was comic. As I became a writer myself, I studied her, trying to figure out just how she did it.
She wrote long, ridiculous set pieces about her various jobs. She wrote hilarious portraits of her bosses, who in her hands become one long parade of human oddity. She wrote fondly of her family’s eccentricities. But above all, she wrote with unflagging self-abasement. Her books twanged with the idea that one’s own ridiculousness was comedy enough. A good example of her rueful tone:
Until I started to night school, my life was one long sweep of mediocrity. While my family and friends were enjoying the distinction of being labeled the prettiest, most popular, best dancer, fastest runner, highest diver, longest breath-holder-under-water, best tennis player, most fearless, owner of the highest arches, tiniest, wittiest, most efficient, one with the most allergies or highest salaried, I had to learn to adjust to remarks such as, “My, Mary has the most beautiful red hair I’ve ever seen, it’s just like burnished copper and so silky and curly—oh yes, Betty has hair too, hasn’t she? I guess it’s being so coarse is what makes it look so thick.”
It almost goes without saying that she distinguishes herself in night school by being the absolute worst student in every class.
MacDonald was master of the comic memoirist’s first art: self-deprecation. Other types of memoirists value lyricism, or shock tactics. Comic memoirists are utterly dependent on knowing that they themselves are the silliest people in any given room.
I know whereof I speak—I am this year publishing a memoir about my own very, very ordinary life. Memoirists like me are writing what author Lorraine Adams has called “nobody” memoirs. As she said in a 2002 piece in the Washington Monthly, such memoirists are “neither generals, statesmen, celebrities, nor their kin.”
How, then, to proceed? You’re nobody. You want to write a memoir. Your first order of business is to let readers know that you know that they know you’re a nobody. So you must imply your unimportance as quickly as possible, and never, ever stop. By means of that simple dynamic, the memoirist makes a friend rather than an enemy of her reader.
In Anybody Can Do Anything, MacDonald fails again and again. It’s an entire book about failure: her own, and the economy’s. It’s also about persisting in the face of one’s own admitted shortcomings. What she wants is a job commensurate with her skills, which she presents as nil: “I wanted some sort of very steady job with a salary, and duties mediocre enough to be congruent with my mediocre ability. I had in mind sort of a combination janitress, slow typist and file clerk.”
Finally, she washes up safely on the sandbar of government work, taking a job at the Seattle branch of the National Recovery Administration, the New Deal agency started in 1933 and charged with organizing businesses under new fair-trade codes. There she felt right at home, surrounded by federal-level incompetence: “There were thousands of us who didn’t know what we were doing but were all doing it in ten copies.”