A few weeks ago when I was in Florida for the Mom 2.0 conference – and at the recommendation of my BFF since middle school, who had just finished the book – I downloaded Rob Lowe’s 2011 memoir, “Stories I Only Tell My Friends” to my iPad (I alternately read books these days on either the Kindle app for iPad or the iBooks app). I managed to read about half of Lowe’s autobiography while I was traveling that weekend, and then I got busy and put it down until tonight, when I happily found time to start back in.
Even though I am exactly the right age to have obsessed over the cast and music of St. Elmo’s Fire in the 80s, I have never been a particularly huge Rob Lowe fan. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve never disliked him as an actor, or had any negative feelings toward his celebrity persona. He just never really grabbed me at the theater or on the newsstand (as opposed to, say, any magazine cover ever that so much as mentions my imaginary boyfriends-for-life, Paul Rudd and Colin Firth).
Also, unlike everyone else I know, I somehow missed the whole run of The West Wing. I am not a TV watcher in general anyway, and I so I managed to somehow skip over that particular pop culture phenom – which became Rob Lowe’s big comeback – while it was happening. I am well aware of how well regarded the show is, and I even know who was in the cast, and a bit about the story arc of the show over time, but I’ve never actually seen a single episode of The West Wing. So I didn’t rediscover Mr. Lowe that way, as so many of my same-age pals did.
But when Rob Lowe’s memoir was released last year, I did notice when he scored that Vanity Fair cover story because, A: I love VF; it’s the only magazine I still always buy on the newsstand instead of reading online, and B: holy MOTHER OF GOD, did he look beautiful in that cover photo. I mean, the whole idea of a buff guy posing shirtless usually strikes me as so cheesy that it obviates whatever charms he might possess, but in this case, I couldn’t stop sneaking peeks at the magazine rack every time I was at any store during the entire month that issue was on the stands. Plus, around the time that I was trying not to stare at Rob Lowe on the cover of Vanity Fair everywhere I went, I also started noticing that the book he’d written was getting solidly positive and serious reviews, which is relatively rare for a celeb bio. So I decided to download the book to my iPad, only I never did get around to doing that until my friend Betsy told me a few weeks back how much she was digging it. So that’s how I ended up reading a personal memoir by an actor to whom I haven’t ever really paid any particular attention.
And as it happens, it’s a really well-written memoir. Obviously, Lowe has a lifetime of swoon worthy material to draw on regarding people like JFK, JR and Andy Warhol, meaning that his book would likely be at least somewhat interesting ever if it weren’t solidly crafted. But it is. Rob Lowe is a pretty darn good writer.
As I am reading “Stories I Only Tell My Friends,” I am noticing that Rob Lowe possessed a particular skill as a writer that I also notice when reading the very best mom bloggers – the women within the blogging genre whose skill as personal essayists I admire the most – and that’s this; as you read, you believe and feel like you are getting a really juicy, detailed, intimate bunch of details, but when you finish the chapter (Lowe) or the blog post (blogger), you realize that in fact, the writer was so adept at telling his/her own story and weaving in the stories of others that a certain sleight of hand took place. You mat THINK you got a great deal of dish, but in reality, you’ve come away with nothing inappropriately intimate or with too many highly specific details.
The best description I’ve ever heard or read of this phenomenon as it relates to bloggers (but it also applies to personal essayists in any medium) came from Jon Armstrong, quoted in Lisa Belkin’s 2011 NYT Magazine profile of his wife and business partner, Heather Armstrong of Dooce.com.. Jon explained it this way, “This is where Heather has become a master… She has the ability to take a single episode and turn it into an epic, and then, if you go word by word and ask, ‘What did she reveal?’ it’s really not very much. David Sedaris once said that his stories are ‘true enough.’ Blogs, the ones that last, are also ‘true enough.’ ”
As I am reading Lowe’s memoir, I realize that while he drops some names (but not all of them; his tabloid-match-made-in-heaven 80s relationship of several years with actress Melissa Gilbert gets only a line or two, and he doesn’t actually use her name), he’s not giving up anything that any of these people would likely care that he revealed. But again, he’s a good enough writer that he makes you THINK that you’re reading something deliciously gossipy….until you realize you didn’t. Yet, you never end up unsatisfied or feeling ripped off. He never seems insincere or inauthentic. It’s very, very smart the way he pulls this off with such honesty and grace, while retaining enough respect for himself and the other subjects of his writing that what he’s doing never feels trashy or exploitative, and it really is very much like some of the most talented mom bloggers whom fans (and even more so, their critics) may believe are regularly dishing up a great deal of specific personal info, when in fact readers have only been given a small, carefully crafted, and wonderfully written glimpse into the window of that blogger’s life.
The ability to offer up these slice of life, essay-style, first person vignettes in a way that’s appropriately circumspect, yet which also entertains and provokes thought or laughter, and which compels readers to read on to the next book chapter, or to come back to the blog again the next week is rare. It’s something I aspire to do in my own writing, and don’t always pull off. But reading Rob Lowe’s book – yes, ROB LOWE’S BOOK – is inspiring me to keep trying to improve as a personal essayist-slash-blogger. And I know that once I finish it this weekend, I will be recommending the book to other blogger pals as an excellent case study in mom blogging done right….by Rob Lowe.
READ MORE FROM KATIE OVER AT MAMAPUNDIT (HER PERSONAL BLOG)