What Can We Steal From Denny McLain and Eli Zaret’s I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect?

Title of Work and its Form: I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect, autobiography
Author: Denny McLain with Eli Zaret
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book can be purchased at any independent bookstore or on Powell’s.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure

Discussion:
As a lifelong fan of the Detroit Tigers, I was excited to meet Denny McLain. The 1968 Tigers won it all, in large part because of McLain’s 31-6 record. I bought I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect before a Syracuse Chiefs game and had the man himself sign it for me. I knew that Denny McLain had a far rockier life than many baseball heroes. He won the Cy Young Award twice, but was suspended by Major League Baseball in 1970 because of his involvement with bookmaking. He had stretches with other teams, but was out of the game by the time he was thirty. In the 1980s, he went to jail for crimes including drug trafficking. Ten years later, he went to jail because he was convicted of raiding the pension fund of a company he bought. (He denies that crime.)

See why his book is called I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect? McLain tells his life story in the book and, it seems to me, is fairly honest. He owns up to a lot of mistakes and spends a lot of page space describing what his prison life was like. (He signed mug shots for the guards.) McLain is an interesting figure in baseball. A lot of folks are upset at him for wasting the tremendous talent he had. The Peet workers who lost their pensions are certainly angry with him. McLain and Zaret seem to have understood that many of their readers may not approach the book with a fair or sympathetic view.

That may have been why the book begins with the very sad death of McLain’s daughter, Kristin. Chapter 1 opens with McLain receiving that late-night visit every parent dreads. A police officer knocks on the door and tells him that he needs to get to the hospital as soon as possible. Over the next couple pages, McLain and his wife Sharon learn that Kristin was in a terrible car accident. A tractor trailer was backing into a space without its lights on when Kristen drove into it. Another car hit Kristin’s…that was the worst blow. The fuel in Kristin’s car ignited, sending flames “fifty feet into the air.” She was trapped inside as witnesses “screamed at Kristin to wake up.” Kristin “was still alive as they strapped her to a gurney and rolled it toward the helicopter that was waiting to take her away. But Kristin went into cardiac arrest. The gurney stopped. After two collisions and a fire, a tech announced that it was over.”

Even though the reader may not want to forgive McLain for his transgressions, boy oh boy, does he get your attention with the description of this horrible time in his life. He and his wife Sharon (who is pretty much a saint) endured a nightmare and we get to learn about it vicariously.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Start with the big personal drama. McLain could have described winning that thirty-first game in 1968 or what it felt like when his team beat the Cardinals in Game Seven. Instead, he involves you in his personal story. It can be hard to remember at times, but there is more to an athlete’s life than the sport they conquered.
  • Address the concerns people have about you (or your characters) in an honest manner. The book would have seemed fake fake fake if McLain had glossed over his brushes with the criminal justice system. Instead, he seems to have some measure of self-understanding as to what people feel about him.
  • Confront the unpleasant scenes in life head-on. Whether or not you are writing your own story, you are likely going to end up writing scenes about unpleasant experiences. (After all, why would you write only about happy times?) I am guessing that McLain doesn’t like thinking about the nasty details related to his daughter’s death. He and Zaret understood, however, that it was their sacred duty as writers to make the experiences as visceral as possible for the reader.

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