Writing Your Messy Teen Memories Could Save the World

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This article continues the series inspired by Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness about raising her daughter through a maddening cycle of rebellion. For the first article in the series, click here

When a baby is born, the network of mommies buzzes with information about how to solve problems and raise healthy kids. A decade and a half later, when the kids are teenagers, problems become more complex, and the mommy network grows silent. As a result, parents often feel they are facing the troubled teen years alone.

Fortunately, an untapped source of information about these years hides within reach. All of us experienced the challenges of being teenagers. We had to navigate hormonal changes, on our journey from dependence to self-reliance.

During that period we tested rules, stumbled into the vortex of sex, rode in cars driven by drunks, or engaged in other risky behavior during the high-wire walk between childhood and adulthood.

As adults, we’re so grateful to be past those times, we try to forget them, or make light of them, telling them at parties to provoke a laugh. Our parents were probably not laughing though, and most of us hope our worst experiments will remain buried. Our silence seems harmless enough. We can’t undo the past. But without conversations, we also can’t bring our adult awareness to those mistakes, nor can we reap their wisdom.

The Memoir Revolution offers a way to pull those memories out of storage. By writing about the embarrassing or illegal events in our own lives, we transform them from secrets and jokes into lessons, cautionary tales, and a clearer vision of the journey from child to adult.

An excellent example of a story about raising a troubled child is Rachel Pruchno’s memoir, Surrounded by Madness. Like other parents, when her daughter acted out, Mom maintained the family’s privacy, protecting them from judgment and embarrassment. Now that those years are past, she is taking advantage of the Memoir Revolution to break that silence.

Her book is much more than the story of one couple trying to hold back the chaos that was enveloping their daughter. It is also the courageous attempt to share that situation with others. By sharing what ordinarily would be a very private story, Pruchno is challenging us to develop wisdom about the teen years.

Rachel Pruchno’s experience was an extreme example of a passion play repeated in varying degrees in millions of homes. Her suffering was not unique, but her willingness to talk about it is groundbreaking. Surrounded by Madness provides a model that could elevate our whole culture’s attitude toward the teen years. If we share these private stories, we can support each other through this difficult transition. By courageously sharing her story, Pruchno is inviting the mommy network to include support for the full fury of adolescent rebellion.

Getting in touch with the craziness of adolescence
Rachel Pruchno’s daughter kept crossing lines, but instead of reeling herself back to normal behavior, she defended her bad choices with lies and manipulation. Pruchno’s daughter used her intelligence, not to learn how to become an adult, but to thwart adult guidance. Inside her delusional bubble she believed she knew what was best for herself and traveled further and further down a course of self destruction.

Despite the dire implications of her behavior, her attitude bears a striking resemblance to ordinary adolescent rebellion. I recall entering my own delusional bubble between the ages of 18 to 24. During that period, I sneered at the rules created by shallow, hollow adults and insisted on racing toward chaos.

After I grew up, I wanted to pretend those years were a bad dream. Even during years of talk therapy, I managed to avoid the whole period. Only after I began to write a memoir did I explore the sequence of events. At first, my foolishness horrified me. Gradually, I allowed myself to gather the memories and craft them into stories.

The Memoir Revolution is causing many of us to reclaim memories that had been hidden behind a curtain of shame and forgetfulness. By developing and sharing stories, we can help new generations. Our memoirs might possibly help the kids themselves. And they will certainly help the parents, by providing social support and a broader foundation for communication.

Rachel Pruchno’s story offers a sobering illustration of how the transition from child to adult brings us dangerously close to the limits of sanity. Surrounded by Madness raises the intriguing possibility that no matter where you fell on the spectrum, the desire to grow up was simply human, and the not-yet-competent experiments were part of the process.

Writing Prompt
When you were growing up, what rules or laws did you break? Did you ever steal, vandalize, drive drunk, speed, cheat, have sex that didn’t align with your own ethical beliefs? Write a scene showing your internal debate to do drugs or not, to go to a party instead of study, to lie to parents and authorities.

Instead of laughing these memories off or suppressing them, write them as authentic scenes. Try to capture the delusion that you knew what you were doing, and the internal debate in which there was a glimmer of awareness that this wasn’t quite right.

In your scenes, watch yourself flaunt parents and institutions. When consequences occurred, did you place the blame on everyone but yourself? What happened next? When did you start to effectively challenge your own impulses and pull yourself back over the line? A well-crafted story about your poor judgment, the resulting consequences, and the lessons you eventually learned could make fascinating reading.

Even if you never show these scenes to anyone, you can benefit from seeing them on paper. By turning them into scenes and stories, you will understand how they fit into the context of your life. The exercise could give you more compassion for your own younger self, and provide a kinder, more patient view of young people who must go through the process now.

To take an incredible leap forward on this project of self-acceptance, join a compassionate group of memoir writers and share your awkward scene. You will probably be surprised, as I was, when your listeners nod in understanding and praise you for being willing to share.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

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The Story-of-self Matures in the Memoir Revolution

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

In the sixties, millions of us joined the counterculture in order to invent a new way to live. Our search felt so important and yet for many of us, it ended in confusion. As a result the quest to “find one’s self” fell into disrepute. That’s too bad, because a coherent sense of self is one of the foundations for a satisfying life, providing lessons from the past, confidence in the present, and a roadmap for the future.

Fifty years later, I find myself in the midst of another mass movement. Millions of us want to write memoirs. And this time, our collective effort appears to be much wiser, based not on the rejection of traditions, but on a deeper understanding of the guidance our society has been offering us all along. The Memoir Revolution allows us to tap into the ancient wisdom of the Story to help us pull together the pieces of self.

A perfect example of such an endeavor is Paige Strickland’s memoir Akin to the Truth. As an adopted child, she knew her parents loved her. She also knew she didn’t completely fit in. At family gatherings, she wondered how it would feel to be with relatives who were biologically related. Paige grew up, met her biological family, and then spent many years trying to knit these parts of herself into one whole person. By turning that journey into a memoir, she lets us experience it with her.

Accompanying her on scenes in school, I feel her fear about being judged “different” not only because she was adopted, but for lots of other reasons, such as pressures from friends, school, family, and so on.

Her account ranges across the whole scope of growing up, and appears at first glance to digress from the single issue of adoption. Many writing classes demand that students cut out any scene that does not directly relate to the theme. In this rigorous definition of theme in memoir, Strickland’s varied scenes with her girl friends in school might appear to be moving off point. But as our collective fascination with memoirs continues to grow, an increasing number of us want to stretch those rules and learn the actual experience of real life, even if it spills into areas outside the focus stated on the title and blurb of the book.

Paige Strickland’s Coming of Age story demonstrates that the Memoir Revolution is maturing. We are collectively moving beyond the memoir as defined by New York Times bestsellers, and coming to understand the memoir genre as a window into the mental machinery of ordinary people.

The evolution from “best seller” to “real person” played out in my mind in the first couple of pages of Akin to the Truth. When I opened the book, I was caught up in the promise that it was going to be about the challenges of meeting her adopted family. Two excellent memoirs that narrowly focus on these challenges are Lucky Girl by Mei-ling Hopgood  and Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes,   Both of these successful books breezed past the varied challenges of Coming of Age and headed sharply and concisely toward rediscovering the author’s biological family.

However, after reading few more pages of Akin to the Truth, I bristled at her portrayal of the complexities of childhood. Her stories about feeling slow in school, or about her socially clumsy dad violated my expectations of a tightly focused theme. Then over the next few pages, my attitude shifted. I found myself warming to her, befriending her, getting into her shoes. I loosened the expectation that every scene must bear down on her adoption, and I settled into accompanying a girl growing up.

As she grows older, her worries shift from wanting to be accepted by cadres of little girls, to the issues of cultivating her love life. The story of her extended courtship including false starts and apparent endings is excellent, and by the time they commit to each other, I am completely immersed in her charter to become an adult.

In retrospect, the book was not about reconciling with her biological family. It was about growing up. All of us must make this journey from fully-formed adults. This search for identity, often a laugh-line in jokes about the 60s, is actually a crucial mission for every young person. Paige Strickland’s Akin to the Truth provides us with yet another window into that journey from the fragmented self of childhood into the  completed, competent self of adulthood.

Is ordinary life a good topic for a memoir?
Years ago, when I was gaining my early glimpses into the Memoir Revolution, I enjoyed reading the memoir A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel about a little girl growing up in a small town. The protagonist was adorable, and I felt like I was there, observing her family squabbles, her adventures in the neighborhood, and her concerns about her parents’ marriage.

But when I analyzed the memoir I couldn’t figure out why such a story, with no claim to gravitas or sensationalism, earned a place on the bookstore shelf. Over time, I have come to see that ordinary life is the backdrop upon which all memoirs are staged. We live in a home or apartment, go to work, go shopping, desire simple psychological basics like dignity, friendship, and achievement. Our daily journeys become the raw material for our memoirs.

Memoir writers like Haven Kimmel or Paige Strickland turn such lives into well-told stories. In order to follow their lead, you must learn the craft, edit, seek feedback, and revise. Your goal is to carry the reader along from page to page. By the end, your reader must close the book, feeling grateful to you for having taken them on a meaningful, personal journey.

Why are we reading and writing about ordinary lives?
Who are the readers of these memoirs of real people? Obviously we are other real people who, in addition to desiring a well-written story, also relish the imprecise lines of real life. Memoirs offer the authenticity of unique experience, help us understand our neighbors, and inspire us to share our own stories.

The experiment in the 60s to “find myself” ended in confusion. Now, fifty years later, I can see that a failed experiment is simply a step along the path to success. The goal to find yourself is still urgently important. But now, instead of using tie-dyed clothing, bell bottoms and marijuana to assert our individuality we are attempting to craft the unique stories of our lives.

Unlike the youthful focus of the 60s counterculture, the Memoir Revolution is energizing people of all ages. Young people are using memoirs to help them understand their transition into adulthood. In mid-life, people are using memoirs to help evolve their roles to the next step. And older people tell their stories to create continuity across many chapters.

At any age, if you want to tie together the pieces of yourself, consider Paige Strickland’s journey. She was adopted and had two sets of parents. But many of us have multiple segments that could benefit from the power of storytelling.

Millions of us grew up trying to find our identities with divorced parents and blended families. Immigrants like Iranian born, Firoozeh Dumas, in Funny in Farsi, had to figure out how to integrate their ancestral identities with their new ones. Rebecca Walker in Black, White and Jewish and James McBride in Color of Water had to reconcile being born with a white Jewish parent and a black one. And all of us who live into old age need to reconcile youthful and aging parts of ourselves.

Examples for Your Memoir Techniques in the Memoirs You Read
If you are attempting to find your whole self by writing a memoir, take advantage of Paige Strickland’s Akin to the Truth.  Use her story to help you write your own.

She does an excellent job using the voice appropriate to each age of her character, from child, to older child, to teen, to adult. This technique was made famous by James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

She represents excellent scenes about the wide variety of interior conversations of the youthful mind, wanting to be accepted, crabby about a loving father who is dealing with his own issues, worried she doesn’t quite fit into her family for all kinds of reasons, not limited to ones of biological origin.

And above all, she gives an awesome example of developing a “story of self” gradually knitting herself together from the various parts.

You can’t change the past, but like Paige Strickland, you can organize the past into a story. By writing your memoir, you gain control over your understanding of it, shape the transitions, organize it with a beginning, middle, and end. The benefits of writing it are yours alone. When you publish it, you provide insight and inspiration for others to follow.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

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Wisdom Born in One Memoir Inspires a Second

Or: Write the Memoir But Don’t Stop Growing
by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

Memoirs often crush me with human suffering and then, in that fallen state, I accompany the protagonist, trying to find the lessons that will help us survive. In fact, the very nature of storytelling lends itself to the search for answers. In the beginning of every story, the protagonist sets off on a journey to find something. By the end, that search leads to some conclusion.

For example, Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a terrifying, life altering stroke in the first half of the memoir, My Stroke of Insight. In the second half, she discovers that she has become a gentler, more compassionate person. By accompanying the author through her stroke, and then through the lessons she learns, I am treated to her elevated version of reality.

I recently discovered an author, Lorraine Ash, who accomplished a similar effect, spread across two books. What started as the suffering and coping in the first book, Life Touches Life, ended with the profound conclusions she shares in the second, Self and Soul published ten years later.

Lorraine Ash became pregnant late in her 30s, and as her due date approached, she became increasingly excited about the arrival of her first baby. On a routine visit to the doctor, in the eighth month of pregnancy, the technician frantically adjusted her machine, trying to find the heartbeat. More tests revealed that the baby had died of an infection, requiring a cesarean section. The expectant parents had to replace the excitement of a new baby with the emotions of a devastating loss.

The baby’s death crushed Lorraine’s understanding of her relationship with God, and unraveled her as a person. Just as maddening as the loss of her daughter was the feeling that the little girl, Victoria Helen, was still with her. The love she felt for her daughter refused to die, making it impossible to follow the advice of grief counselors and friends who urged her to let go and move on. So for the sake of her sanity, she made it her mission to include Victoria Helen into the family.

Because she was a professional writer, her impulse was to write about her journey. Her research put her in touch with many women who experienced similar grief but didn’t know how to talk about it. They, too, had been instructed to let go and move on. Lorraine Ash offered them a different approach – to include the deceased baby in their lives. Instead of letting go, she showed them how to use their love to take them deeper into the essence of who they were as loving human beings. The story of her loss, and her search for healing culminated in the memoir, Life Touches Life, in 2004.

After the publication of the memoir, her mission to find peace and spiritual truth continued. Through her research, she came into contact with sufferers of other losses and traumas. She realized that her spiritual approach to grieving and growing would help many of these people develop a deeper foundation. Lorraine discovered for herself and wanted to share with others that a devastating loss can be part of an amazing, loving life.

After years of research into wisdom literature, developing her own spiritual beliefs and understanding, and counseling people who were trying to absorb losses, she published a second book, Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life. Self and Soul goes beyond the event that instigated her search. In Self and Soul, she shares truths that could help not only bereaved mothers but anyone looking for a peaceful, powerful view of their place in the universe.

In modern times, when so many of us have disengaged from the packaged belief systems offered by religion, our place in the universe seems poorly defined. Self and Soul offers us the hard-earned lessons from an author whose suffering sent her on a pilgrimage to understand how she, and by extension, we, can find our own spiritual center.

Organization of the book and a lesson for memoir writers
Many scholars think that civilization is built on the foundation of Story. Traditional societies used lofty, stylized myths to teach fundamental lessons about being human. The Memoir Revolution modernizes that tradition, allowing us to apply the story-form to our own unique circumstances. The more I study memoirs and the wisdom that emerges from them, the more I have come to appreciate that stories light the way through the complexities of life.

By my definition, a memoir reveals a sequence of events, told as they unfold over time. Stylistic exceptions allow authors to move chunks of chronological around, using flashbacks, or interweaving two time frames, but in general, the reader is expected to follow the sequence of events.

At the end of a story, a final wrap-up called the denouement gives storytellers a chance to summarize their findings and offer lessons they’ve derived. In Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight she offers the wisdom of living through a stroke. Lorraine Ash’s memoir Life Touches Life ended with conclusions she drew after the stillbirth of her baby. However, she kept learning. Ten years after the publication of her first memoir, she published Self and Soul, a sort of book-length denouement in which she offers an extended version of the lessons she learned since the first.

The two books offer a fascinating model for any memoir writers who wonders if they are really ready to write their memoir, or if they need to take more time to grow. Lorraine Ash’s two books offer an elegant answer to that question. Write one memoir now, in which you express who you are and the best lessons you have been able to develop. And don’t stop growing. Use the lessons you have learned through the earlier journey, and continue to live, opening yourself to the next chapter of your life.

Notes

For an example of a memoir that reveals a search for truth as a chronological unfolding see Dinty Moore’s search for Buddhism  in The Accidental Buddhist, in which he develops a deeper understanding of Buddhism by traveling to various ashrams.

For another memoir about a spiritual journey through various themes, see Dani Shapiro’s Devotion.

More examples of memoirs that end with essay-like conclusions about lessons learned:

  • My Ruby Slippers, by Tracy Sealey about her search for her roots in Kansas, and her conclusions about the roots of the national culture that can be found in the Heartland.
  • Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes Courter which describes her childhood in foster care that ends with her plea for more wisdom and advocacy for children caught in that system.
  • Picking Cotton by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Canino about a man falsely imprisoned for a brutal rape, and released after DNA evidence proved his innocence. The book ends with a plea by accuser and accused to modify laws and raise awareness of the dangers of turning innocent men into victims of the justice system

Links for Lorraine Ash

http://www.amazon.com/Self-Soul-Creating-Meaningful-Life/dp/1939129001/

http://lorraineash.com/selfsoul.htm

http://www.LorraineAsh.com,

www.facebook.com/LorraineAshAuthor
or @LorraineVAsh .

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

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A Ticking Clock Lesson for Memoir Writers

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness is a treasure trove of lessons about memoir writing and about life. In the previous posts, I wrote about the “nonfiction bonus” — gifts of knowledge about the world. In this post, I write about gifts of knowledge about memoir writing. What can we aspiring memoir writers learn from Surrounded by Madness to help us turn life into memoir?

Coming of Age Provides the Suspense of a Ticking Clock

Pruchno’s memoir is a pageturner. How does she achieve the effect of getting a reader to want to know what happens next? I once heard a great tip from author-turned-literary-agent Marie Lamba who says that good stories contain ticking clocks.

The ticking sound conjures the image of a sweating man with wire clippers urgently trying to stop the explosion. However, almost any dramatic tension can be elevated by the pressure of time. When you are racing to a job interview, a traffic jam can create a thudding heart and a hand slammed against the steering wheel. This awareness of the importance of time can help you generate forward motion in your story.

Marie Lamba says that a good story contains at least two ticking clocks. To understand this notion, I read her young adult novel Over My Head. The teenage heroine is often worried about time, for example, hoping to get home in time for her curfew. On a slightly longer timeframe, in a few more weeks, the summer break will be over. Will she get together with her guy before he leaves for college? Turn the page to find out. And on a longer timeframe, a beloved uncle struggles with a dire medical condition.

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir about her daughter’s coming of age builds suspense with clocks ticking on every page. In the shorter time-frame, each crisis causes tension as the parents try to get to the bottom of the daughter’s latest mishap, hoping she didn’t sabotage herself, hoping there is an innocent explanation, hoping the next psychologist will provide the solution.

In addition to these immediate pressures, there is another underlying sense of urgency that stretches across the entire period of growing up. Every parent knows that a child must achieve a sense of personhood and in general understand the rules of adulthood before going out into the world.

In the Pruchno family, this ticking clock takes on increasing urgency, because after their daughter reaches legal emancipation, they will no longer be able to restrict her self-destructive behavior.  Instead of the joy of coming of age, that legal boundary between child and adult sounds to the Pruchnos like the threat of a detonating bomb.

Writing Prompt

The notion of the ticking clock provides a great model of how any memoir writer can enhance suspense and give readers incentive to turn pages.

In your memoir, what must happen by what deadline? Consider the natural time-frames built into life: the school year, the duration of a pregnancy, the length of a journey. Or the plans and expectations. Will I get the promotion? Will I be laid off? Will he propose? Will she accept? Money is often associated with time. You can’t find a job, and the mortgage is overdue.  Or you are in school, but if the money doesn’t hold for another year, you will need to drop out. List the deadlines in your story.View Post

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Bookmark and Share

Six Psychology Lessons In This Memoir (continued)

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

After reading the memoir Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno, I pondered the lessons about life and about memoir writing. In this continuation of the series, I explore more of the lessons-about-life embedded in the book.

This is the third article in a series about Surrounded by Madness. For the first article, click here.

Psychology Lesson #3: Adolescent mental health care

When Rachel Pruchno’s daughter failed to follow the path of normal childhood development, the natural option was to look for help. Unfortunately, finding psychological help for her adolescent daughter required a complex and frustrating search.

She picked her way through complex insurance regulations and inadequate coverage, pleading and politicking with therapists who were not accepting new patients, trying to absorb each new diagnosis, leading to a new round of meds. When the problems continued, she had to start over, seeking the next round of help. Trying to help her daughter forced Rachel Pruchno into training, not based on an academic program but on real-world experience. The memoir passes this education along to readers, packed into a suspenseful high-pressure struggle for sanity.

Psychology Lesson #4: Inadequate response to broken minds. Unlimited response to broken laws.

When a child breaks the law, society steps in with full authority to remove all freedoms and place them in jail, usually without treatment. However, Pruchno’s daughter did not break laws, and so she was able to easily evade her parents’ desperate concerns, acting out at the very edge of sanity, and manipulating her way out of any attempts to rein her in.

The memoir, Surrounded by Madness, is in essence a cry for help, not just for one troubled girl but for the poor health of the mental health care system itself. Through Rachel Pruchno’s eyes, we experience the lack of supportive laws, lack of funding and research, and generally ineffective psychological response to children whose behavior reaches, but does not yet cross, the boundaries of the law.

The title could be construed as a double-entendre. Not only was Pruchno surrounded by the madness of trying to bring her daughter in line with social norms. She was also surrounded by the madness of a mental health care system that turns a blind eye toward insanity. Pruchno’s heart-wrenching story is both a good reading experience and a powerful cry for help from someone who has been under-served by the only institutional systems available in such situations. By sharing her story, Pruchno lets us feel the helplessness and insanity for ourselves.

For another tragic example of the maddening lack of social support for mental illness, see Leave the Hall Light On, in which Madeline Sharples’ son was able to sign himself out from treatment and commit suicide. Another example of a parent without institutional support is Live Through This by Debra Gwartney, in which two teenage girls cut school and eventually ran away leaving this single mom to find her own solutions.

Psychology Lesson #5: Health of the family versus the identified patient

The Pruchnos poured an extraordinary amount of energy into raising their disruptive daughter. Meanwhile their well-behaved son remained in the background, growing up in the midst of the drama caused by his sister’s erratic behavior.

The memoir, in addition to being about the daughter’s mental health, also demonstrates her impact on the health of the son and of the whole family unit. By showing the level of attention required to cope with the troubled child, Surrounded by Madness highlights the stress one sibling places on family dynamics.

The memoir doesn’t teach technical psychology lessons about these complex issues. Rather it leads the reader through the detailed personal experience of living through the situation. Books like Surrounded by Madness should be on the shelf of anyone who wants to learn how the psychological strength of the parents is crucial for the stability of the family.

Further Reading
For another memoir that shows the family’s response to a troubled child, see Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh. Read about it here.

Psychology Lesson #6: Nature versus Nurture: Unless Otherwise Demonstrated, It’s Probably Mom’s Fault

The contract of becoming a mother seems straightforward enough. Completely transform your life to become a caregiver, pour heart and soul into raising the child, and adapt every minute of at least the first eighteen years, no matter what the cost. As if this responsibility is not overwhelming enough, it is supercharged with a powerful threat of social stigma when the child does not meet society’s expectation.

In the 1950s, psychologists blamed mothers for causing schizophrenia. This cause for the horrifically disruptive mental disorder was discredited when inheritance patterns and medications demonstrated the disease’s biological roots. However, Personality Disorders resist such a straightforward biological model or treatment. As a result of this ambiguity, when a child persistently follows anti-social, self-destructive patterns, there is a tendency to wonder how parenting contributed to the problem.

To learn about the effects due to nature, scientists use magnetic resonance brain images and massive genetic surveys. To learn more about nurture, we need to observe the way these conditions unfold in real life.

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir is a fascinating case study that allows us to see into the dynamics of a family with a child who comes of age with this troubling mental condition. We watch the mother’s stunning persistence and intensity to guide the child, and the daughter’s equally persistent and intense determination to thwart those directives. The book offers no easy answers but raises these important questions in a detailed, careful exploration.

For this reason, this book is an important one to study when attempting to sort out the influence of nature and nurture on a child’s development.

Further reference
In his book My Age of Anxiety, author Scott Stossel traces the complex relationship between genetic and environmental factors in pervasive anxiety. Stossel grew up with horrible, debilitating anxiety starting from an early age, so this quasi-memoir, quasi-textbook sheds light on the complex interaction between nature and nurture in severe pervasive anxiety.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

For another memoir of Bipolar Disorder, see Tara Meissner’s Stress Fracture: A Memoir of Psychosis.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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Memoirs Popularize Important Psychology Lessons

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

(This is the second in a series of posts about Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness. Click here to read the first post.)

When Rachel Pruchno adopted a daughter, she looked forward to the joys and responsibilities of motherhood. At first her daughter seemed healthy, active and intelligent. However, through the years, her daughter tended toward risky behavior, manipulation and deceit. Mom drew on her training as a PhD psychologist first, to implement the best possible care, and second, to carefully chronicle the events.

The memoir Surrounded by Madness is the result of almost two decades of this combined effort to guide her daughter and to document the process. The resulting book offers many insights into the psychology of raising this child. However, the lessons are not offered as theories or statistics. Rather, they are contained within a Story, that narrative structure that human beings have used to learn about each other since the beginning of time. Here are six psychology insights I’ve teased out of Rachel Pruchno’s memoir.

Developmental Psychology: A well organized mind is a prerequisite for adulthood

Many bestselling memoirs show young people acquiring the skills they will need in order to become effective adults. Jeanette Walls in Glass Castle and Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes had to learn adult skills despite terrible obstacles of alcoholic and overwhelmed parents.

These bestselling memoirs gripped popular imagination because they demonstrated the heroic, relentless drive of these young people to grow up, despite their horrific environments. Most such Coming of Age memoirs end when the child reaches a plateau of competency from which he or she can reliably begin the next leg of the journey.

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir approaches the developmental project of childhood from the opposite point of view. Despite the parent doing everything within her power to guide her daughter to adulthood, the daughter keeps missing the lessons. Surrounded by Madness is the heart-wrenching account of trying to raise a child for whom the fundamental skills of adulthood seem constantly out of reach. Instead of learning to manage her choices and measure the outcome of her actions, she develops a fantasy-based system that idolizes her own impulses, without regard for consequences.

This Coming of Age story raises the stakes of the mother-child relationship and chronicles an outrageous battle of wills that borders on insanity.

Personal account of how it feels to be human

For a hundred years, psychologists have researched mental aberrations and reported their findings to each other in textbooks and peer-reviewed journals. Such information would be valuable in society, to help us understand our own minds, our loved ones, neighbors and people in the news. Sadly, most attempts to share such findings with the public are dismissed as unreliable, merely a popularization that ignores the complexity of the underlying situation.

Occasionally,  literature provides glimpses into the workings of the mind. Novelists and playwrights, those great observers of the human condition, often take us inside the minds of their characters. But fictional psychology cannot reliably help us learn about ourselves or our neighbors. The Memoir Revolution offers another approach, letting us into the minds of real people.

After having had an experience of mental illness, or some other complex, unique experience, a memoir author must attend writing workshops, collaborates in critique groups, hire editors, swap manuscripts with beta readers, and revise, revise, revise. Like grapes that require fermentation to release their intoxicating properties, the events of life require the evolution of the writing process in order to acquire a compelling form.

By the time this personal experience reaches the reader, it has been transformed into a structure as old as civilization. By transforming life into stories, memoirs enable readers to absorb and integrate the complexity and power of situations normally outside their own experience.

First-person accounts allow professionals, as well as the public, to enter private worlds. In 1990, William Styron led readers into the mind of a severely depressed man with psychotic features in his aptly-titled memoir Darkness Visible. In 1995, Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir An Unquiet Mind flipped the psychological view of Bipolar. For the first time, professionals as well as the reading public, viewed the disorder from inside. In 1996, Temple Grandin offered a first-person account of autism in Thinking in Pictures. And in 2008, John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye did the same thing with Asperger’s. However, the condition known as Borderline Personality Disorder resists a reliable first-person account.

Just as AIDS undermines the immune system, making it impossible for the body to fight off the disease, Borderline Personality Disorder attacks an individual’s will to improve.  Often such patients sabotage efforts to help them, spoiling their self-reports with misinformation, manipulation and deceit.

In the absence of an authentic first-person account, Rachel Pruchno’s book offers a close second. Through the eyes of a mother trained in psychological observation, the story is a blow by blow account of her daughter’s journey from early childhood to young adulthood. This book offers insight into the way Borderline Personality Disorder unfolds and should go on your shelf with other books that report the experience of mental illness.

In the next post, I will offer more psychological insights contained within Rachel Pruchno’s memoir.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

For another memoir of Bipolar Disorder, see Tara Meissner’s Stress Fracture: A Memoir of Psychosis.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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What Lessons Can You Learn by Reading Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

(This is an introduction to a series of posts about Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness.)

Every time I read a memoir, I let go and enter the story, enjoying the exploration of another person’s life. My immersion in a memoir is even better than merging in a good novel, because in a memoir I share a few hours with another human being. I see the world through their eyes, and allow them to lead me through the feelings and thoughts they experienced.

Most book reviews talk about the experience of reading the book. For example, if reviewing the memoir Surrounded by Madness, by Rachel Pruchno, I would report that the book was suspenseful, with aspects of a medical thriller, demonstrating that real life, when well-written can become an excellent reading experience. Not all memoirs are written with an intense focus on suspense. Because many aspiring memoir writers have never written books before, many memoirs, perhaps most of them, lack literary finesse.

However, I don’t read memoirs for their literary power. Instead, I concentrate on their other benefits. The lessons I learn from each memoir can be organized in roughly three categories.

What have I learned about the human condition? After reading about a soldier trying to recover from PTSD in Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him by Luis Carlos Montalvan, I learn about PTSD, about dignity and about the powerful healing affects of a service dog. After reading Martha Stettinius’ Inside the Dementia Epidemic, I learn about the powerful experience of a daughter caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. And after reading Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness, I consider the awesome responsibility of motherhood and the terrible confusion a mother experiences when a child keeps moving off course.

A second set of lessons applies to the author’s journey to turn life into story. What can I learn about the memoir writing process from this particular memoir? I view each memoir as an encyclopedia filled with hints about the style and structure of the memoir genre. In some cases, I conduct interviews with the authors to learn directly from them. The four hundred essays, reviews, and interviews on Memory Writers Network focus on these lessons, offering aspiring memoir writers insights into their own memoir-writing process.

The third benefit I gain from most memoirs I call the nonfiction bonus. These are lessons about some subject that the author has learned through life experience. Some memoirs contain a huge payload. The memoir Inside the Dementia Epidemic by Martha Stettinius offers an in-depth understanding of the caregiving institutions for Alzheimers. Luis Carlos Montalvan’s Until Tuesday provides a fascinating look at service dogs and PTSD. In Surrounded by Madness, Rachel Pruchno’s daughter’s pushes Mom into the arms of the mental health establishment, As a psychologist herself, Pruchno applies her training to report on her own first person experience,  teaching a variety of important lesson about the evolution of a child’s mind that is being distorted by mental pressures at the borders of sanity.

In my next few posts, I will offer a number of lessons I learned from Rachel Pruchno’s memoir, starting with lessons about psychology.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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Journey from Aspiring to Published Author and Beyond: David Kalish Interview Part 3

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

In previous parts of this interview, David Kalish talked about the long journey from surviving cancer to publishing a novel, The Opposite of Everything. His story has special value to aspiring memoir writers because he lingered so long and thoughtfully at the intersection of fact and fiction.

Click here for Part 1

After spending years dedicated to writing one book, I wondered how he plans to continue his journey as a writer.

Jerry Waxler: After a writer publishes the first book, the question naturally arises, “what’s next?“ I’m especially curious about your answer, because of the fascinating way your writing career has straddled the space between memoir and fiction. So in which direction are you heading?

David Kalish: Several readers have suggested I write what actually happened to me. I’m tempted, and I may do it. The process of writing a novel has taught me so much about craft that I may now have the skills to pull off a memoir without feeling overwhelmed by the material. This might help me explore my feelings that may have been lost to humor in the novel. I’ve already written several essays that are real-life adaptations from my novel, which turned out to be my most popular blog posts. So in a sense, I’ve started that journey back. Having said that, I have several fiction projects on my plate I need to finish before I try my hand again at memoir.

Jerry Waxler: So that’s exactly what makes me curious. After years of writing about your life, first in your unpublished memoir, and then in the fictionalized version, will your next fiction remain close to your life or break loose into the unlimited world of imagination?

David Kalish: In writing my first novel, I discovered a zanier side to my writing that sparked a lot of ideas for more novels. Right now, I’m revising my second novel and starting on a third. They’re both totally informed by my first novel’s foray into an off-kilter world where characters and events straddle the credible and unbelievable. It’s a vein I will continue to mine. But my next novels will not hew as closely to my real life. The Opposite of Everything is special in that sense. It’s the one I needed to write, to learn from, to set me on my path.

As I look for my next steps, I’m excited by the success I’ve had with Opposite of Everything. The fact that I was just at the Harvard Club receiving an award for the book is a sign that I can do this.

Jerry Waxler: Congratulations! So tell me more about how these awards fit into your journey.

David Kalish: I was thrilled and somewhat surprised last month (May) getting news that my novel was named top literary novel in the Somerset Fiction Awards and finalist in the comedy category of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. I say surprised because deep down, I’m as insecure as the next writer. I’d applied to a handful of contests last fall at the urging of my publisher, paying entrance fees out of my own pocket, and remember thinking: “That’ll be the day.“ So when I got word of my two honors, I felt affirmed. As writers we all seek affirmation. I’ve gotten mostly five-star reviews on Amazon, but feedback from a contest is different. It’s an objective judgment that my book compares favorably to similar books, and the contests I’d entered, while not the Pulitzer, were reputable and competitive and listed on Poets and Writers.

I’m not carrying high hopes that the awards in themselves will boost sales, but it’s one of many important steps on my publishing journey, to achieving popularity as an author. I feel my book has more credibility as a result. I’ve ordered stickers from the Indie Awards that I can affix to the cover to try to tempt readers. As I write this I’m headed to NYC to attend the Indie Book Awards ceremony at the Harvard Club. The Harvard Club! Now that makes it all worth it.

Jerry Waxler: After all those years of striving, the award must feel like a lovely milestone. You’ve gone from journalist, to memoirist, to award winning fiction writer. What an incredible achievement.

So now that you’re at the top of the mountain, or at least up on a pretty decent plateau, when you look back on your path towards this achievement, what boosts have you had along the way?

David Kalish: My experience as an MFA student at Bennington College, from 2005 to 2007, was invaluable not just for what I learned at school, but for the habits I took with me after graduating. Sure, my two years of workshops and feedback from my teachers taught me about the craft of writing. But I also learned to think of myself as a serious fiction writer, setting aside time each day to write and read. Surrounded by other serious writers at the campus, I became part of a supportive community of artists going through similar struggles. After graduating, myself and several other alumni began meeting once every month or two to give feedback on each other’s short stories or, in my case, novel chapters.

Seven years later, we still meet, though less frequently. It’s all about continuity, and developing good habits. Every day I make progress one or more of my several writing projects. Right now I’m revising my second novel, adapting my first novel to a screenplay, refining my script for a musical comedy that will be performed in December at a major theater in the Albany Capital Region, and trying to keep up with my twice-weekly blog at the Albany Times Union. I feel tired and occasionally overwhelmed, but overall I’m happy to be focusing on my passion. I’m hopeful the sense of community and writing habits I developed as a student will continue to serve me well, even after my student loans are paid off.

Notes
For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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More about Why Choose to Write Fiction Instead of Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

In the previous post, I interviewed David Kalish, author of the novel, The Opposite of Everything, about his ten-year journey to write his memoir, resulting in a fictionalized version. Why did he change genres? How did he choose his fictional storyline and characters from among the facts?

These important issues arise for many writers, whether novelists or memoirists who wonder how to create an engaging narrative from their observation of the human condition. In this second part of the interview, we dig deeper into David Kalish’s choice, trying to understand the relationship between his life experience and his powerful characters.

The Luxury of Deniability
Jerry Waxler:  I’ve been working on my memoir for ten years, and feel good about the story but not so good about the privacy that telling the story violates. I’m jealous of your ability to say in your acknowledgements “No one in this book is real.” What an awesome freedom that gives you. How did the freedom of deniability influence the decision to move toward fiction?

David Kalish: Interestingly, it wasn’t until after I completed my novel that the connection between fiction and deniability became clear. Until that point, the consuming process of writing the book, making sure it held together, and getting it published overwhelmed any concern over whether I’d offend anyone.

But several months before my book was released, a family member had a negative reaction to a synopsis of it on my website. The synopsis said that this family member’s fictional counterpart in the book was “overbearing” and pushed the main character off a bridge. My family member told me he feared the novel would make him look bad. He made the comment without reading the book. “How do I explain to my friends what’s real and what’s not?” Then and there I realized I needed to more proactively emphasize that the novel, despite its resemblance to my real life, is fiction. I crafted an acknowledgment to address his concerns, and struck the adjective “semiautobiographical” from all marketing materials. As I now say in the acknowledgment, any resemblance to real-life people is coincidental to my goals as a novelist to create a fully realized story with a narrative arc.

So the lesson here is, simply calling something “fiction” may not be enough to deny any violation of privacy. I suggest backing it up with a carefully worded acknowledgment and perhaps a dedication too. Even that may not be enough, however. The family member and I still are not on regular speaking terms, and he still hasn’t read the book.

Downer POV character
Jerry Waxler: Your character does some pretty excruciatingly rude things. He pushes people away. His relationship to his father is filled with neurotic blame and loathing. This guy was making such horrible decisions about his relationships, there were moments I wasn’t sure I wanted to accompany him on this journey.

As a memoir junkie, I am accustomed to thinking of the protagonist as a real person. So at first I thought, “This guy is incredibly rude.” Then I vacillated thinking “Wow. This guy is being incredibly honest about his own lousy behavior.” Then I thought “Wow. If I had cancer, maybe I would be a real jerk, too.”

But I had to reel my mind back from all of those assessments. It’s fiction, and you were free to create this character any way you wanted. Why did you choose to make him a jerk? Was it because you were a jerk? Were you drawn toward confessing your own bad behavior in real life? Did you exaggerate it for effect, dancing on the edge of intriguing readers and angering them?

David Kalish: I disagree that my protagonist is universally unlikeable. Yes, there are readers who may be turned off by his anti-social tendencies at the outset of his journey, but most people I’ve spoke with find him and his world entertaining enough to go along for the ride. They enjoy his humor, his hapless behavior, his intellectual zaniness. They connect with the darkness he’s going through. People give him a long leash as he discovers his place in the world.

But given that some people think Daniel Plotnick is a jerk, I’ll address that. To create Plotnick, I started with myself. I was a bit of a jerk, admittedly, in my younger days. In real life, I DID lock my wife out of our apartment, based on my lawyer’s advice. Indeed, for the novel, I softened my “jerkiness.” I planted reminders he’s morally conflicted about locking her out, and in fact doesn’t change the locks on her – he changes the locks on himself.

The dramatic requirements of the novel influenced my depiction. On the outset of his emotional journey, Plotnick is in conflict with his wife, his father, and the world. He just wants to be left alone. As the book progresses, he reconciles with people and puts his life back together. In his bizarre way, he finds love and renewal in the world.

I didn’t have a model in mind for an edgy character, although I took cues from the bizarrely dark behavior of the protagonist and lesser characters in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

Wife is smarter than main character. Could you invent such powerful behavior?
Jerry Waxler: Your edgy main character meets a women with astonishing sexuality and cleverness who has a relentless way of bypassing his defenses, ignoring his cynicism and mean-spirited behavior in order to help him heal. His self-involvement and her ability to cut through it provides a fascinating mix. I love these two people!

In a way, his wife was the hero of the story, and the main character was being rescued. (It would be like a version of Hamlet in which Ophelia figured out how to help Hamlet heal from his fatal flaw.)This premise is so complex and intricate, it’s hard for me to imagine you made this up. I’m wondering if life experience handed you this surprising flawed hero and his surprisingly strong wife.

Even if it wasn’t entirely a memoir, it seems to me that at least some of its power was shaped by your own experience. This raises the maddening question any writer might ask him or herself. How would one evolve from the power of real life into (hopefully) the even greater power of fiction?  In other words, for all of us aspiring writers, even if we don’t intend to write memoir, how much of our lives should we be expecting to move to the page? I know you can’t answer for the mob of writers lining up at the starting gate ready to start the marathon of memoir writing. But after having run the marathon of writing an unpublished memoir, and then tacking a second marathon of turning it into a novel, could you share some pearls of wisdom about how the power of real life has informed your writing?

David Kalish: The second wife in my novel is totally modeled after my actual second wife. Like Sonia in the book, she is a strong-minded, purposeful Colombian doctor who has a unique way of looking at the world and expressing it. The fact she’s from a foreign culture allowed me, as a writer, to view her with fresh eyes and, to an extent, capture her mannerisms, dialogue, and quirks on the page. Of course, I exaggerated everything for effect. But what I didn’t exaggerate was how much she helped me when I was going through my disease. She never beat around the bush. She told me in no uncertain terms how to cope. Her interesting way of nurturing me was what I needed to find strength to face up to my mortality. I’m a lucky guy that way. Of all the characters in the book, she’s one of the closest to my real-life counterpart.

All writers need to mine their personal lives for material for their writing. But my material is particularly rich, and so I probably went deeper than most. I think we all have characters in our life, but my tendency is to stretch real-life personalities and events to make them more interesting. Writing, to me, is a constant flight from boredom – and a lot more happens in fiction than in real life. Much of real life is spent doing very little of interest to fiction readers.

Click here for Part 3

Notes
For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Bookmark and Share

What Happens When a Memoir Author Chooses Fiction?

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

The novel, The Opposite of Everything is a powerful, fictional account about a character whose marriage is falling apart at the same time as he is fighting with a death sentence from cancer. In fact, this was the same circumstance as the author David Kalish.

Taking a cue from the title, I careened back and forth between the opposites of fiction and memoir, asking myself which parts were true, and how does fiction add to the power of the true life tale. The question of fact versus fiction haunts many memoir authors. How much should I hide? How can I protect myself from lawsuits and hate mail? What if I misremember? How can I embellish to make it more interesting?

I love these questions on the boundary of truth and continue to hope for answers. For example, last year, I went for a walk with Robert Waxler in preparation for point and counterpoint talks we intended to give some day about memoir versus literature. Since he is an English professor at UMass and has written two memoirs as well as a number of books touting the power of literature, he is intimately familiar with both sides of the debate. I told him that I believe memoirs are so important because they emerge from the truth. He insisted on the exact opposite. He believes that fiction is so much more powerful because it’s invented. These opposing views seem unsolvable.

The exciting thing about memoir writing, for me, has been the willingness to face these fears and keep going, staring into the unanswerable questions of truth and story. Now, having read the Opposite of Everything, I have come face to face with a man who has been staring at this paradox since he started writing about his life ten years ago.

Because he is apparently an expert in opposites, I interviewed him about these two forms of narrative and asked him how and why he stepped through that mysterious stargate into the limitless realm of imagination.

Your initial experience as a memoir writer

Jerry Waxler: When you first attempted to write this story, you were attempting to do it in a memoir. During that initial period, like any memoir writer, you were sticking to the facts and trying to turn them into a narrative, a compelling storyline. That makes you an unpublished memoir author. What did you learn from that experience?

David Kalish: I first wrote my book as a memoir because my life was pretty dramatic, and seemed to lend itself to a straight-forward telling. In just four months in 1994, I was diagnosed with incurable thyroid cancer at the same time my first marriage fell apart. I later got remarried to a doctor, and underwent chemotherapy around the same time my daughter was born. I turned to writing as a way to let off steam and tell what I thought was a pretty compelling story. I jotted down scenes, strung together a narrative. Going through this exercise helped me view the events in my life dramatically, and I gave certain scenes more emphasis than others, viewing them in a way that made sense from the standpoint of telling a story.

But after numerous rewrites over several years, I wasn’t happy with the result. The writing felt stiff. I didn’t know how to express how I felt about my pain. My characters were stick figures. Deep down, I felt uncomfortable starring in a book that featured me.

I decided to create some narrative distance. I tried humor. I made my characters do things their real-life counterparts wouldn’t consider.  I told the story in third-person. I replaced real names with offbeat ones. I stretched truths for dramatic effect.

What did it feel like to break loose from truth?

Jerry Waxler: To craft a memoir, writers limit themselves to what they can remember. But to turn your manuscript into fiction, you allow yourself to draw from the entire universe of possibilities. That’s a big step that seems to me like leaving the safety of the known and entering the unknown.

How did that feel? Were you scared of the unlimited possibilities? Exhilarated? Was there a moment you decided to make the break?

David Kalish: As a reporter for twelve years at The Associated Press, accuracy was paramount. But I’ve always written fiction on the side, and loved the freedom of it. So when I decided to extend that feeling to my book, I felt extra-liberated. The end result is still a story about one man’s struggle, his search for renewal. But I’ve handed the story over to actors who are free to do all sorts of crazy things. I focused more fully on narrative arc. I went to town on my life.

It was only after I took a fictional perspective – other than my own — did my compassion for characters emerge on the page. As an experiment in the novel’s opening scenes, for instance, I switched the POV from the main character to my first wife. This enabled me to imagine what she was going through during the collapse of my marriage. In doing so, I learned she wasn’t all bad — it was our relationship that was bad. In the end I switched the POV back to the protagonist’s. But my sense of compassion lingered, helping me to write a fuller account.

I felt uncertain about fictionalizing my memoir, of course. It was hard for me to decide where to push drama and comedy, and where to let the facts speak for themselves. That’s where I received lots of help from fellow writers, particularly from Bennington College’s Writing Seminars Program, where I earned my MFA. We formed a writing group after graduating where we shared insights into each other’s work. This helped tremendously when I repeatedly revised my novel to pare it to its essential story.

Sets you free to explore stylistic invention

Jerry Waxler: Most memoirs tend to be more journalistic, explaining what really happened without flights of wordplay and phrasing. In comparison, your book takes all sorts of stylistic liberties: fantastical metaphorical devices (like your character’s notion of  the two opposing lumps, his cancer and his wife’s baby) and being able to write chapters from other character’s points of view.

Stylistically you seem to aspire to get into my head in a playful way and sizzle and pop, using words to excite and inspire. Thanks for that sensation!! Fiction seems to have set you free from the journalistic style typical for most memoirs. Tell me how you felt your style evolving when you left memoir behind and entered the mindset of a novel writer. Did your voice change? How so?

David Kalish: When I was writing it as a memoir, the narrative voice was distant from the emotional core of the story. Once I started making stuff up, I had fun with my characters. I had them banter, tell jokes. I riffed on dialogue. The comedy revealed the coping mechanism of the characters, as well as myself. The narrator in turn reconnected to the underlying emotion.

My tone became lighter, even as my material remained dark. I grew less focused on creating beautiful sentences and more focused on conveying ideas, character and story. My writing, as a result, became punchier. The visuals less complicated. The words were a conduit for what I wanted to convey: the emotional journey of the characters.

In the next part of our interview I ask David Kalish more about his decision and thoughts on the relationship between these forms of literature.

Click here for Part 2

Notes

For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Bookmark and Share