Automythography: "A work of nonfiction that looks reflectively at what we think we remember and how we think we remember it; an iridescent memory based upon truth and fact."
Dr. Rick Niece’s memoir The Side-Yard Superhero (Life in DeGraff: An Automythography) takes its readers on a trip to a past some of us may share and all of us will enjoy, a past that is a sort of “Andy Griffith Show” combined with a Norman Rockwell painting – a past that may seem too good to be true, except for those of us lucky enough to have had one similar to it.
“I had been thinking about writing a book about DeGraff, a town of 900 where I grew up, for three or four years,” says Dr. Niece. “I had all these stories I wanted to tell but no ‘story arc,’ no common thread to tie everything together. Until, that is, my mother called to tell me she had located Bernie Jones.”
The Side-Yard Superhero (Life in DeGraff: An Automythography) takes readers on a trip to the past, exploring the friendship between two boys in a small Ohio town.
Bernie Jones, a boy who suffered from severe cerebral palsy and whose life was painfully circumscribed by his limitations, was a friend of Niece’s through his boyhood newspaper route, and his adventures with Bernie form the core of this touching memoir.
“I love the term ‘automythography,’ which I thought I’d invented, although it turns out to have been used by New York-based artist Mequitta Ahuja and others,” says Dr. Niece. “I like ‘iridescent memory.’ Memories are like soap bubbles, in that they change shapes and colors as they move away from you. Which is to say, is the book true? My answer is that the events in the book are as I remember them.”
The book is a tender, thoughtful examination of the nature and diversity of friendship. It begins with Niece’s first awkward attempt to befriend Bernie, the boy he sees sitting day after day in the yard alongside his house in a wheelchair, a boy who cannot walk and whose speech is extremely difficult to understand. It is only with time Niece can understand him.
It goes on to show how the friendship between the two grows. Young Rick Niece is praised by the adults in the neighborhood for taking Bernie along on part of his paper route, pushing the wheelchair up the steep hill and back down again in the process, but comments that adults “over-think things.” What they see as an act of incredible altruism, young Rick Niece simply sees as helping out a friend.
Rick manages to bring a lot of happiness to his friend in the course of this book – including their trip to the county fair, and giving away Halloween treats in home-made costumes (Bernie is Superman, wearing his father’s red long johns as a cape, and Rick is Clark Kent.)
One shared preoccupation of the two boys is the comic strip Dick Tracy, which Rick would read aloud to his friend. “It’s difficult, I’m sure, for kids now to envision how amazing it was to us to read some of the things in that comic,” says Dr. Niece. “Two-way wrist radios were out of this world. Now cell phones are commonplace. As far as that’s concerned, how many kids now know what a paper route is? It was a different world.”
Dr. Niece, who has taught high school English and loves poetry, includes several poems through the course of the memoir which serve as lyrical and poignant reflections on the events of the tale. “I’ve always loved poetry, especially that of William Carlos Williams,” Niece says. “Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is a perfect poem. So I enjoyed working a few of my own poems into the book.”
The Side-Yard Superhero shares its terrain with a certain select number of other books: James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small comes to mind. And although Dr. Niece points to William Faulkner as a favored influential writer, his own writing bears a wonderful similarity to that of Faulkner’s less-well-known brother John, author of such books as Men Working and Dollar Cotton.
Like Herriot, it is Niece’s shrewd observations of the inter-relationship of the citizens of DeGraff among themselves, their work, and their community which gives his writing much of its savor.
Dr. Niece says the book is part of a proposed trilogy, and that the second book is written. “I was able to visit Bernie near the end of his life, and I had originally intended the second volume to cover the same events as the first, but from Bernie’s point of view,” he says. “Sadly, Bernie passed away shortly after that last visit we had, and so that chapter will never be written.”
Now, he says, the focus for the second volume of the memoir – Fanfare for a Small Town – is on an alumni high school marching band reunion back in DeGraff. The alumni band was led by its original bandleader, Dr. Niece’s father, Lewis Niece.
Bringing DeGraff to life on the page has been a rewarding experience, says Dr. Niece, not only for himself and new readers, but for the people in the book itself, and their friends and relatives. “A couple of young people came up to me at a book signing in DeGraff. The girl’s father, Wimpy Knight, was in the book, in the chapter on the great hamburger-eating contest. But he had died when she was only 23 months old, and so that chapter gave her insight into her father she’d never had.”
“My favorite part of writing is the editing process,” Dr. Niece says. “You write it, then put it aside for awhile, maybe a month, and then it’s all new. My least favorite part is when I have the time to write, but for whatever reason just can’t make it flow.”
He writes in longhand, and then types up the handwritten draft. His favorite response from readers is when they say, “I understand exactly what you’re saying, and then go on to tell me a story of their own.” Or, he adds, “When people say that my writing makes them want to write, too.”
His advice for new writers? “Make yourself write. Whatever it is you’re writing, practice. Write. Read writers you like, and write about what is familiar to you. It all adds up.”