I have a new favorite memoir.
Until now, you have never heard of it.
Until now, your friends have never heard of it.
But—and this is stated sans exaggeration—I found myself reading Paul Shirley’s “Stories I Tell On Dates” and laughing. And crying. And turning toward my wife in bed and saying, “Wait! You have to hear this one …”
One of the things I love about books is that you never quite know what (or who) will do it for you. I mean, on the surface Paul is an unlikely “favorite memoir” candidate. He’s a former basketball journeyman (18 total NBA games) who never wrote for the Iowa State student newspaper or majored in anything related to writing. Hell, he discovered the pen only while keeping a 2005 diary blog for NBA.com. But, man, he’s really good.
Anyhow, I could go on and on about the greatness of “Stories I Tell On Dates,” but instead I’ll inform you that Paul’s website is here, he Tweets here, and that you can order his new book here. He loves the Kansas City Royals, loathes Larry Eustachy and hasn’t picked up a basketball in years.
Paul Shirley, you are the magical 331 …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Paul, your new book isn’t a basketball book—but I want to start with a basketball question. Namely, what motivates professional athletes? Is it money? Is it fame? Is it winning? Is it, “What else am I supposed to do with my life?” You’ve been there. You’ve lived it. Where does the drive come from?
PAUL SHIRLEY: I can probably only speak to my experience, which is a far different experience than that had by, say, an O’Neal: Shaquille or Jermaine.
I loved using my body to do things other people couldn’t do. When I was at the peak of my powers—between age 27 and 31—I could walk into a gym unable to do something, and walk out able to do that thing. That probably sounds kind of trivial, but it was intoxicating to feel that progress. There were other aspects that were attractive, as well: competition and the sense that when I was on the court, I was able to behave at my most base level (and was encouraged to do so). But when I really drill down to what mattered: it was that feeling that I had a superpower and that I got to use it over and over.
J.P.: So your new book, “Stories I Tell On Dates,” is one of my all-time favorite memoirs. I recently wrote a memoir proposal, and it included a scene of me, as a youngster, jerking off to an image of Tanya Tucker. My agent read the proposal and said, “Eh, I don’t think people need to picture that.” In your book you also write about jerking off. Which, if you think about it, is a really personal, awkward sorta thing. So, being serious, did you need to really think hard about what to include and what not to include? Are there things so embarrassing you cut them out, or never even considered them? Is there a line not to cross?
P.S.: I had a capital-G Great editor for this book: Katie Savage, who’s uniquely capable in her own writing of connecting in a tasteful way to her most embarrassing moments. And I think that word—“tasteful”—is key. When I wrote the first drafts of these stories, I tried to put it all in there: the worst of the worst. Then, as I drafted/edited, I had to pick and choose. Was this embarrassing detail one that served the story or helped humanize me? Or was I just showing off how low I could go? I’m sure there were some misfired, but I think generally that I was able to find the line.
J.P.: One thing I loved about “Stories I Tell On Dates” is that it really delves into the mental gymnastics that accompany the dating scene. You’re telling the same stories over and over again. You’re using lines, feeling shit out, expecting reactions that you’ll almost certainly receive. I just found the whole thing really insightful. And I wonder—where does that come from? Because most people I know just see dates as dates.
P.S.: One of my brothers is convinced that, deep down, I’m a shy, introverted person, possibly because I was that way when I was young. He contends that this new version of me—the one that is able to walk up to a strange person and get to know them or can speak in front of hundreds of people—is something I’ve had to work toward.
I think he’s right, but it wasn’t necessarily because I wanted to become that person. Thanks to the lonely adult life I was leading, I had to get good at talking to new people in strange places if I was going to have any friends. And what’s great about figuring out how to talk to a strange girl in, like, Budapest, is that it makes it real easy to talk to a strange girl in Boise.
J.P.: I pretty much wind up hating everything I’ve ever written. Especially if I finished it a while ago. Your first book, “Can I Keep My Jersey?” detailed your life as an 11-team basketball vagabond. It sold well, I got good reviews—but do you like it? How do you view it now, nine years removed?
P.S.: Viewed in the vacuum of reading it now, I hate it—I think the writing is sloppy and the format is cheap. However, when I approach it with a bit of loving kindness, like the sort that would make Tara Brach (a meditation guru) proud, I remember that I was 24, 25, and 26 when I wrote most of it. I had an engineering degree, not an English degree. I was in the midst of playing professional basketball.
And, viewed in that context, it’s pretty good!
J.P.: I wrote a proposal for a memoir—but I’ve never written a memoir. So, Paul, how did you do it? I mean, you’re almost 40—so that’s four decades of living. How did you decide what to use, what not to use? How honest do you have to be with situations? Names, dates? Can you merge events? Can you slightly exaggerate? Do you view memoir differently than autobiography?
P.S.: This book has the following format: each chapter starts on a date. I explain how I came to be on that date. I explain why I might tell a certain story. I tell a story—maybe from childhood, maybe from college, maybe from my life as s pro. Then I go back and explain what happened on the date.
None of the dates have names, which was important because I didn’t want to betray their confidence. It was also important, though, because there were times when I needed to combine two people, or fudge the timing of that date in my life, or attribute to them more (or less) wisdom than they actually dispensed.
You’re right that memoir is different from autobiography. There’s a character in this book named Justin Bridges—he’s sort of my childhood tormentor. I was visualizing one person (not actually named Justin or Bridges) when I wrote about him, but I had to attribute several acts to that same character because he exists (for the stories) as a proxy for any number of several shitheads. It doesn’t change the truth of the stories to have Justin Bridges be one person when he’s actually a few. However, it would take away from the stories if I had to keep introducing a new bully every other chapter.
J.P.: You appeared in 18 NBA games and you averaged 1.8 points. And I wonder—what’s the difference between Paul Shirley and, oh, Dale Davis? Or Corliss Williamson? Or Lonnie Baxter? I’m not talking superstars, but guys who carved out fairly lengthy runs in the league? Is it talent? Devotion? Both? Neither?
P.S.: When I was a young pro, I would get mad about guys I would see in the NBA who I didn’t think were any better than I was, but who’d been given the benefit of the doubt because of some thing or another that I considered worthless. One day, I was bitching about this when my dad says, “You probably ought to remember that there are a lot of guys saying that about you.”
So, on one hand, I struggled to make it in the NBA because I:
A) Was from a tiny place in Kansas
B) Was not a McDonald’s All-American
C) Was not drafted
D) Was white (I was told, to my face, on several occasions, by coaches, that this worked against me)
But on the other, I had a lot of advantages because I:
A) had played on a really good college team
B) was 6’9
C) had been taught how to work hard, show up on time, etc
D) had a stable home life
In the end, the difference between Austin Croshere and me was almost none. But the difference between me and some guy who played at Nebraska-Omaha and never got to make money playing basketball: also none.
J.P.: You write about a lot of people from your life; especially women. I know you give them fake names, but do you worry—at all—about them calling you, pissed? Or hurt? Or humiliated? Have you told any about the book?
P.S.: I think about that, of course. But I also think I portrayed everyone in a rather loving way. And in truth, there are only two people who know, for sure, who they are: that person and me.
J.P.: Your publisher is “Fourth Bar Books.” You are “Fourth Bar Books”—meaning you self-published. Which I admire 1,000 different ways. So … how? Why? How hard is it? Do you hire editors? How do you get it in stores? How many copies do you print up?
P.S.: Well, I’m kind of Fourth Bar Books. In this day and age, what does “having a publishing house” mean? I hired an editor, a copy editor, a proofreader, and a graphic designer. I’ve got someone helping me handle promotion and scheduling. I’ve got a zillion contacts thanks to my first book. I also run a writing workshop that’s fairly popular and might, someday, help writers get their books published.
So I tend to shy away from “self-publishing” even as a term. I think of it like some of the bands I love who’ve started their own labels to help get their records out, but also to get friends’ bands’ records out.
To answer your question, though: Print-On-Demand is a wondrous invention. My book will be distributed through Amazon’s Createspace platform but also through Ingram’s publishing wholesaling, which allows it to go out to Barnes & Noble, for example. So, as of now, there is no giant stack of books in my bedroom.
J.P.: You teach writing at West Los Angeles College. You also head up Writers Blok, a Santa Monica-based writing group. So what are the biggest mistakes you see young writers making? What are the traps they fall into? And are there things you, Paul, can learn from inexperienced scribes?
P.S.: I see a lot of writers fall too much in love with their first project. In my experience, it is unlikely that someone’s first book or screenplay or poetry collection will be worth a damn. It is, though, a necessary exercise. So I wish I could tell those people to finish that project, and then get ready to have 10 people read it or to throw it in the trash, right before they dive into their next (and next and next and next) project.
J.P.: You told me you haven’t played a game of basketball in three years. Considering hoops was, at one point, your life, that seems sorta strange. So … why?
P.S.: I think it seems perfectly reasonable! I finished my career having five surgeries in four years. So, for one, there is no reason to tempt fate.
And for two, I can’t do what I used to love about basketball—that daily improvement thing—because I’m not training all the time, and because I’m getting old.
So I’d rather do almost anything else in the world, rather than play basketball.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PAUL SHIRLEY:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Curtis Granderson, elephants, M Street Kitchen, Ari Fleischer, Dan Quisenberry, Souplantation, Jamal Tinsley, business cards, Michael Richards, Franco Harris, the number 8: Dan Quisenberry, M Street Kitchen, Elephants, Michael Richards, business cards, Jamaal Tinsley, 8. I have no opinion on Curtis Granderson, Ari Fleischer, Franco Harris, or Souplantion.
• The world needs to know—what was it like playing with Glenn Robinson?: He didn’t say much when I was around, so I guess, unlike most dogs, the Big Dog is all BITE and no BARK.
• What does Theo Ratliff’s right ankle smell like?: I figure he’s like a zombie at this point, and I think zombies have no smell. At least, according to World War Z, which I’m reading right now.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I remember feeling like I’d be OK with it.
• On a scale of one to 100, how concerned are you with your own mortality?: Having almost died once thanks to having my kidney and spleen ruptured, and having thought, at the time, that dying would have been a nice alternative right about then, I’m less concerned than most. 10
• If someone points to the photo of you crying on the Iowa State bench and says, “Why you sobbing like a bitch?”—are you more likely to laugh or punch the guy?: Now, laugh. Ten years ago: punch.
• Twelve adjectives for Larry Eustachy?: Insecure, complicated, intelligent, unfeeling, sadistic, distant and not worth giving six more adjectives.