Why Memoirs Should be Taught as Literature Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the first part of a two part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I explain how my love for literature helped unravel me and I introduce the way memoirs by literature professors suggest a new approach..

When I was thirteen years old, I discovered that all the interesting stuff happened inside books. I grabbed every spare moment to lose myself in spaceships heading for distant galaxies. By the age of sixteen, in the early 1960s, I graduated from sci-fi to the great writers, such as Dickens, Dumas, and Twain. Their works, either assigned in school, or borrowed from my local library, took me on a wild ride through great adventures in fascinating times and places.

These authors were clearly geniuses at self-expression. I felt smarter when I read these books, but sadly I was only smart about the author’s invented world. I had learned almost nothing about how to become an adult. In fact, many of my favorite books provided in-depth examples of how NOT to become an adult.

For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the narrator seeks truth by attaching himself to a narcissistic caricature of a man. In the Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, a young man attempts to find his truths, not within his own world, but by leaving everything he knows. In Henry Miller’s novels, the author searches for himself through sexual liberation which leads him into emotional chaos.

My English teachers showed me how to appreciate elegant structure, fine turns of phrase, and symbolism. However, when I lost myself in each book, I ignored their interest in history and technique. Instead, I left my own boring mind behind and entered the crafted intellectual framework created by the author. It turned out this was not a good idea.

I spent hours in disturbing worlds such as those created by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. From them, I learned that the future was going to be grim and hopeless. So when the angry anti-war riots began in the mid-60s, I wasn’t only fighting against the war. I was fighting for my soul, hoping to escape the helplessness my anti-heroes had inspired.

Protest marches and riots did nothing to restore my hope, so I returned to the method of escape that I knew so well, clinging ferociously to literary geniuses who took me into ever darker perspectives. Samuel Beckett completely deconstructed reality in his plays and novels. Joseph Heller in Catch 22 introduced a mocking cynicism to World War II. Ferdinand Celine smashed the notion of the novel, turning the very form into a distorted shape that made me gasp with pleasurable pain. I was drowning, and instead of throwing me lifelines, my literary heroes were teaching me how to drown better.

For example, I identified with the boy in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis who grew up and turned into a beetle. Growing up cost him his innocence and his parents’ love. Kafka’s book, along with so much of the literature of the day, hammered home the point that by entering adulthood we would lose our souls.

Arthur Miller captured the essence of spiritually dead adults in Death of a Salesman. The play’s anti-hero Willy Loman tried to cope with his emptiness by deceiving himself. Humbert Humbert, the anti-hero of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, was an even creepier master of self-deception. Instead of blaming himself for sexually abusing a little girl, he blamed her, thus demonstrating how far adults will twist their own values in order to serve their own needs.

After years of absorbing these stories, I was terrified of adulthood, convinced that growing up would make me ugly and shallow. My parents believed that sending me to college would prepare me for life. By the end of those four years, I felt far less prepared to be an adult than when I started.

Why Humans Need To Twist Literature Back to its Central Goal
To maintain civilization, each generation must pass along sophisticated social lessons. In preliterate societies, these lessons were communicated in oral stories, with simple, powerful messages. But by the twentieth century, society seems to have forgotten this essential purpose of stories. Instead, stories were being used in one of two ways.

Stories were used as pure entertainment for the masses, with no lesson at all. Those were the genre fiction novels and movies, the thrillers and mysteries, comedies and romances. And for the educated elite, stories became intellectual playthings to be admired for artistic sophistication, but again with no particular emphasis on helping kids understand life.

As an intellectual young man, I desperately sought lessons about life. Unfortunately, I was born at a time when the message embedded in almost every book taught that there’s really no point to grow up at all. It’s true that great literature contained an internal elegance and brilliance, but the underlying message was awful.

Memoirs Demonstrate How Literature Ought to Work
Forty years later, I learned valuable lessons peeking out from behind the twists and turns of literary stories. My belated insight came from reading Professor Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita In Tehran. As an English literature professor in Iran, she tries to convince her students that Western literature is not evil. She uses the villain in Nabokov’s Lolita as an example. According to Nafisi, Humbert Humbert’s manipulation of a little girl reveals the corrupt morality of turning women into things.

Through Nafisi’s eyes, Nabokov’s novel becomes an important window into the dark secrets of the human psyche. It’s quite simple, really. He is embedding the message in irony, saying one thing and meaning another. But to explain this lesson to her students, as well as to us, her readers, she uses an incredibly tricky device. She simply walks outside her classroom into the streets of Iran, where armed thugs treat women like things.

By artfully describing the events and their impact on her, she turns her life from a series of events into literature. While she teaches her students about Nabakov’s book, she uses her own life-as-literature to teach us about our place in the world.

For example, she recounts an episode that occurs one morning when she attempts to enter campus. A guard angrily blocks her. “Take that rouge off this instant. Don’t you know that it is a criminal act?” The guard rubs Nafisi’s face raw trying to get off the red, which is in fact her own natural coloring. The incident leaves Nafisi feeling violated and naked.

Thanks to Nafisi’s brilliant writing and a lifetime of symbolic thinking, she spins the two parallel dimensions, weaving together her real world experience with her intellectual insights into the literature.

My English teachers did not have the advantage of showing us reality. Instead, they were limited to the lessons inside the books, making the incorrect assumption that I didn’t need to learn lessons about life. Nafisi’s ability as a memoir writer adds a crucial dimension to her teaching toolkit allowing her to help students grow up.

When I first read Lolita so many years ago, I felt disgusted by Nabokov’s clever trick of taking me inside the mind of a creepy man who has no ability or interest in self-reflection. In my youthful view, the novel provided more proof that adults stink. Now, with Azar Nafisi’s help, I see a sophisticated insight into the darkness of manipulative men who use women as things. It would have been a good lesson, but because it was couched in irony, in the distorted viewpoint of a first-person anti-hero, the lesson was out of my reach.

Because memoirs are written “straight” (not “slant”) and from a first person point of view, it is easy and natural to enter Azar Nafisi’s world and feel her pain. By letting me experience what it is like to be on the receiving end of abuse, she makes me want to cry or vomit about the way millions of women are treated, just a few thousand miles away. Thankfully, her story also provides hope by revealing the compassion of people such as Nafisi herself, who risk their own safety to help kids build up their self-esteem.

Epilog to Part 1
It has been forty-five years since I have been a student of an English literature professor, so I consider the possibility that in recent times, literature professors have expanded their view of literature to include not just the author’s world but the reader’s as well. To learn more, I turned to the friendship I formed with Robert Waxler, an English professor at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who wrote two excellent memoirs, and happens to have the same last name as me.

His two memoirs share a lifetime of love for literature, as well as for his two sons, so I assumed he would be able to relate to my passion for life lessons. However, in a book he recently wrote about English literature, the Risk of Reading, he describes in detail the method of line by line explication, attempting to take us into the lines of great literature with the reverence usually associated with scripture. In my opinion, this approach glorifies complexity and undermines the value of literature as a teaching tool for social development. Click here to read the review I wrote about his Risk of Reading. Click here for an essay about his memoir Courage to Walk, and here for an interview I conducted with Robert Waxler about the relationship between literature and life.

However, in two other memoirs by literature professors, I discover that Azar Nafisi is not alone in her application of literature as a tool for life.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, by literature professor Karen Swallow Prior reveals how literature helped her steer through the challenges of growing up, and like Nafisi, she teaches her college students how to see their own lives reflected in literature. Click here for my essay about Booked by Karen Swallow Prior.

In Freedom Writer’s Diary, Erin Gruwell shows her high school students how literature could help them find their own higher truths and then goes further to show how writing about their own lives can deepen their search for truth. Click here for my essay about Freedom Writer’s Diary

In the second part of this essay, I describe how the Memoir Revolution is providing the tools that could help literature classes link the essential tool of Story to the essential task of growing up.

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

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.

A Cat Memoir Reveals Life’s High Stakes

by Jerry Waxler

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

Many aspiring memoir writers wonder if their lives are sufficiently interesting to justify a whole book. But we’ve all experienced the building blocks of good stories if we’ve ever felt shame, dashed hopes, fears or personal conflict. A well-crafted story weaves these less pleasant elements of the human experience together with ordinary events to turn the mundane into the sublime.

For an example of the way emotional undercurrents transform everyday life into a good story, read Anne Kaier’s memoir Home with Henry in which the author rescues an injured cat and brings him home. After she saves his life, she turns her attention toward his social health. She wants him to become a congenial member of the family. Despite this lightweight exterior, Anne Kaier’s story is driven by emotions every bit as powerful as any in the human panoply.

Home with Henry is a meditation on human existence, and how the love that seeps into our hearts, even from a humble source, has the power to turn despair into joy. For a memoir junky like me, the book is also a meditation on life stories, showing that emotions of love and loneliness shine just as brightly off simple circumstances as they do from more serious ones, the way a diamond brilliantly reflects sunlight when held at just the right angle.

By fixing her gaze on a detail, she takes us all the way into it
Fiction accentuates emotion by focusing on isolated, exaggerated events. Consider for example Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea in which a fisherman goes out for the day’s catch. He tries his best and comes home with a pile of bones. Old Man and the Sea generates intensity with grit, determination, and the cruelty of nature but beneath the macho exterior, there is an old man who seeks his dignity.

Home with Henry, like Old Man and the Sea, isolates a feature of life, and goes deep. Every day, the author struggles to coax the cat out of his self-protective stance and into a relationship. Externally Anne Kaier’s urban townhouse seems far more placid than a shaky fishing boat. Her emotional struggle with the cat seems far less dangerous than fighting off sharks. And yet within her ordinary circumstances, she struggles to find her dignity with no less urgency than Hemingway’s fisherman.

Since Anne Kaier also writes poetry, I expected her memoir to be informed by a poet’s mind. But I didn’t know what a memoir written by a poet would sound like. After reading it, I see how her deliberate, almost poetic fixation, word by word, phrase by phrase, constructs a narrative that shapes the ordinary feelings of loneliness into the structure of a good story.

William Shakespeare’s sonnets offer an example of how a poet turns an ordinary emotion into a sublime tribute. How can so much profound power be contained within the events that we take for granted every day? Another poet, William Blake, explains it this way. You can see the world in a grain of sand, an outrageous claim that is demonstrated over and over, not just in poetry but in stories as well. Ernest Hemingway reveals his hero’s soul in one day of fishing, and Anne Kaier explores her soul through her relationship to a cat.

What makes her childlike voice so haunting?
Every writer searches for a voice that will linger in the reader’s mind, inviting imagination back to the story the way a good song plays out in memory long after the physical recording stops. Anne Kaier’s voice provokes thought, and it lingers. What is it about this voice?

Her short simple sentences slow my mind and pull me all the way into her interior perspective. Does she speak this way to her cat and nephew, hoping the simplicity will suit them? Is this her normal interior voice, a slow, peaceful, hypnotic voice developed over the years as a survival tool for loneliness? Is it a poetic voice? Whatever the reason, the simplicity of language is important to the story, and worth absorbing as I attempt to make sense of why this little book “works.”

Loneliness and the power of low stakes writing
The backstory of Home with Henry is that Anne Kaier bought that townhouse alone because the years kept passing and a mate had not yet appeared. The ticking of this “clock of life” adds the dimension of mortality. This danger may not be as fast and frightening as Hemingway’s sharks, but it is no less ominous. The threat of death is the great awakener, in stories as well as in life, causing us to evaluate our actions, and choose wisely.

Her life in that townhouse feels so normal, hardly worthy of a story, but in the presence of that ticking clock, loneliness feels like death, or at least like death row, waiting to be released one way or the other. Home with Henry doesn’t dwell on loneliness. On the contrary, it highlights the potential release that might be forthcoming from a cat’s company. But behind the story, there is playfulness, like laughing at a cat who stares at a dancing beam of light, with coiled muscles, pouncing with every intention of killing it, if it could only catch the damned thing.

Happy endings?
When I was in college, I fell into deep despair, fueled in part by my addiction to literature with cynical endings. Despite the misery each one provoked, I felt compelled to keep reading stories that celebrated meaninglessness. When I finally kicked the habit, I realized I could serve my own psychological needs far more effectively by looking at books as fountains of hope. I eagerly look toward the end of each one in order to replenish my supply.

Throughout Home with Henry, the author tries to accept that the cat might be too ornery and independent for this type of relationship. Struggling to move past that stuck point represents the dramatic tension of the outer story. From one point of view, the outcome is utterly predictable. Even so, my story reading mind suspended me deliciously above the dark chasm of failure. At the end, (spoiler alert) instead of “girl gets guy” as would happen at the end of a romance novel, this memoir ends with “girl gets cat.” Even though it was predictable, my entire body relaxed once I was certain they were going to live happily ever after.

The apparent simplicity of Home with Henry is made infinitely more poignant when you take into account how much gravitas Anne Kaier has known in her life. In a memoir workshop I attended a couple of years ago at the Philadelphia Writers Conference, she explained the rare congenital skin disease that almost killed her in infancy, and continued to weigh heavily on her ever since.

In a journal article, she writes about her condition with a combination of brutal honesty, journalistic precision, and literary excellence. By reading this article, one understands the range of her voice, a range that suggests that even when an author finds one’s voice, other voices are also available.

Anne Kaier’s life and work offers hope to any writer who searches for the words to express one’s life, whether in essays, a short stories, a book length memoir, or in poetry. Through the magic of creative effort, we can learn to find the words that weave the magic carpet that lifts readers away from everyday life into the writer’s transformative world.

Notes

Read Anne Kaier’s runner up for Best American Essay of 2013.

Anne Kaier’s home page 

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

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.

Life as Fiction – Author Interview

by Jerry Waxler

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

In my previous post, I described the novel, Back in Six Weeks, by Sharon Gerdes about a woman who survives postpartum psychosis and lives to share the story with others. In this post, I ask the author to share her insights into the process of transforming a difficult experience into a novel.

Jerry: What a great example you have set by exposing this socially hidden experience to readers. Could you say more about your journey to write it and in particular to write it as fiction?

Sharon: When I first started writing about my postpartum psychosis, I considered several possibilities. One was a self-help book for women. But because I didn’t have any credentials in the counseling field, fiction seemed like a better way to tell my story. At first I wanted to write under a pen name. Again, I was ashamed to admit that I had been crazy and had struck a nurse in the hospital. When people asked what I was writing about, I used to get all choked up. But over time, I became more comfortable telling the story. It’s still painful, but I gradually transferred the pain to Kate, the protagonist in my story. It became both Kate’s story and mine.

Also, my story did not happen in a vacuum. Although I didn’t blame my husband, he always felt guilty and thought he should have done more to circumvent the psychosis. By writing my story as fiction, I was able to diminish the blame. After all, you have to eat Thanksgiving dinner with your family. Fiction gives you more freedom to tell your story, and still keep peace in the family.

The more I looked into it, the more I realized how hidden the problem has been, for the obvious reason that other women have been just as reluctant to talk about it. In 2000, the authors of “Women’s Moods” said that there was an “epidemic of silence” about this issue. A lot has changed in the past fifteen years as more women share their stories. I’m now proud to say that I had a postpartum psychosis, but went on to lead a happy and productive life.

Jerry: What a journey, from shame to sharing. Actually, this isn’t the first book I’ve read on the subject. I read Brooke Shields’ memoir Down Came the Rain in which she shares her postpartum depression. How do you see her memoir fitting into the whole spectrum of publicizing this issue?

Sharon: As a point of differentiation, Brook Shields had Postpartum Depression, which occurs in roughly one in seven new mothers. I had Postpartum Psychosis, which only happens to one or two per thousand women.  Women with psychosis are much more likely to harm themselves and/or their children. Roughly five percent of women with postpartum psychosis commit either suicide or infanticide. Some end up in prison. I’ve heard so many sad stories. I went from feeling bitter to feeling fortunate that I had such a good outcome.

Jerry: You started out as a technical writer, not a fiction writer. How did you learn the art of story-telling?

Sharon: It evolved over time. I had been writing articles about food science professionally for about fifteen years, so I considered myself a good author. But I soon learned that fiction is very different than non-fiction. It’s a real art form, and you don’t learn overnight. I took Jonathan Maberry’s “Novel in Nine Months” class. That got me off to a good start and provided the inspiration to carry me through to publication. It has been a nine-year journey. I attended numerous writers’ conferences and peer critique groups. I read a lot of books on how to write fiction. I worked with Toni Lopopolo and Kathryn Craft, both of whom helped me refine my story and my art. At one point I put the book away for two years, and then started it again. I would suggest that for the average person, writing a blog, a poem, or a short story might be a good way to tell their tale. A memoir is much more involved, and a novel is perhaps the hardest. For years and years I got up in the wee hours of the morning and wrote a set number of words or pages before I started my paying job. I hired professional editors to help me get the manuscript ready for final publication. It all paid off, as readers tell me they couldn’t put my novel down.

Jerry: As an aside, it’s interesting you mention Kathryn Craft. I’m writing about her recently published novel, The Far End of Happy, based on her own real experience of her husband’s suicide.

Jerry (continued): I am fascinated by the way writing your story helped you move past your shame and gave you the ability to talk about it, and even more fascinated that once you opened that door, you were able to help others, as well. Could you say more about how writing the novel has helped you become more engaged with helping other women?

Sharon: I’ve become involved with Postpartum Support International (PSI) and through that group am trying to help other women. I had extensive media training in my professional life, and so I joined the board of PSI as the Media / Public Relations Chair. I was recently elected Vice-President. Through our annual conferences, I personally met several other women who had a similar lived experience. Our little group of survivors has become close friends. I am involved in the PSI prison pen pal network, and offer an occasional cheery letter to an inmate. As I had no mental health problems in my subsequent childbirth, I’ve provided encouragement to other women who were afraid to have another baby after experiencing a postpartum psychosis.

Jerry: I’m interested in your experience as a novelist writing about your own experience, and then trying to write other novels that are about characters other than you. My readers are aspiring memoir writers and for many of us, once we’ve written a memoir, we wonder what we can write next. Writing the memoir gives us the knack of sharing our own first person points of view. But then, it seems to me that writing fiction requires that you be able to jump into other minds as well. What did it feel like for you to go from the incredibly personal account of your own darkest hour, to writing about other characters in fictitious situations? Can you give a glimpse of how that works?

I learned to base fictional characters on two or more persons that I’ve met or known in real life. By making those characters a composite, the author can create more interesting and realistic characters. I actually started my novel in third person, and then switched to first person. I learned a few tricks of the trade, such as adding a physical reaction—clenching a fist, or gasping for breath—at critical points in the manuscript. This all helps to engage the reader and bring your writing, either memoir or fiction, to life.

Jerry: So what’s next for you?

Sharon: I had a subsequent childbirth that ended tragically, but for different reasons. I realized that I was trying to cover too many subjects in one book. So what was originally one novel morphed into two. I have also started a third novel, which is a story inspired by my mother’s life after she became a widow. The first two books are sad and dramatic. The third will be much lighter, with two widows pursuing the same gentleman. The characters will poke fun at themselves and each other as they struggle with the early stages of dementia. People read to be inspired, but also to be entertained.

Jerry: Haha! That’s a good reminder! As we write our lives, whether in fiction or nonfiction, we need to remember that if readers are going to keep turning pages, we have to maintain their curiosity. Even though nonfiction writers can’t invent situations, we still try to keep people engaged by developing the dramatic tension and release of situations and emotions that make us human.

Notes
Sharon Gerdes’ Home Page:

Amazon page for Back in Six Weeks

Read my article about Brooke Shields’ Down Came the Rain

PSI Postpartum Support International for Postpartum Support International (“You are not alone”)

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

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.

Writing a Novel Heals Her Shame

by Jerry Waxler

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

I first met Sharon Gerdes around 2006 in Jonathan Maberry’s “Novel in Nine Months” class. My purpose in taking the class was to apply good story writing principles to my memoir, whereas Sharon wanted to write a novel. She confided in a confidential tone that the story about a woman who suffered from postpartum psychosis was based on her own experience.

“Why not write it as a memoir?” I asked.

“There’s a stigma about postpartum psychosis, and I’m not willing to go public about that experience.”

I tried to visualize how you could stay hidden when writing about such an intense experience. “Are you going to use your real name?” I asked.

“I’m still working on that. I’m not sure,” she said trailing off into uncertainty
.
I was fascinated by her desire to distance herself from the book and wondered if writing it as a novel would enable her to achieve the anonymity she desired. I was also curious about her journey to become a story writer. After her career as a journalist in the food industry, I figured that she, like so many of us who start writing stories in midlife, would struggle to find her voice.

Almost ten years later, the manuscript for Back in Six Weeks was ready, and I read it for the first time.

After the protagonist in the novel gives birth to her baby, she enters that visionary, agitated, disjointed state, called a psychotic break. The novel brought me straight into her disturbed mind, including the shame she felt, and the judgment heaped on her by others. Through the magical transport of a good story, I entered this impossibly vulnerable situation, in which the baby’s safety hangs in the balance with its mother’s sanity, and the mother’s sanity hangs in the balance of the social support being offered by some and withheld by many others.

I was delighted to discover that Back in Six Weeks was a page turner. Sharon had clearly mastered the craft of story writing. And she was authoring it under her own name. What happened to her anonymity? She explained that her courage had grown over the years as she became increasingly aware of the fact that her story could help other women. After years of writing the novel, she now openly shares her compassion for other women who undergo this experience.

Shame is a creepy emotion because of the way it perpetuates itself through silence. This is one of the reasons I love the Memoir Revolution. By writing our stories, we find a voice for our wounds, and can shine the healing light of social support on the dark places in our minds.

Despite the fact that Sharon Gerdes wrote a fictional account of her postpartum psychosis, she has experienced the same healing influence. By turning her experience into a novel, she has transformed the isolating experience of shame into the compassionate experience of helping readers. Writing about one’s life, whether in fiction or memoir, often has this subtle psychological benefit, making the author more comfortable in her own skin, or more accurately in her own story.

The Author Interview contains our interview.

Notes
Sharon Gerdes’ Home Page:

Amazon page for Back in Six Weeks

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

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.

Magazine Writer To Personal Historian, Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the second part of my interview with Carla Odell, a magazine writer I met at the Philadelphia Writing Conference who is turning her talent from life writing for magazines to the entrepreneurial project of writing life stories for individuals. To read the first part of the interview, click here.

Jerry: So how do you transition your interviewing skill from a magazine article mentality, with its brief size and specific point, to a much larger book length work?

Carla: In addition to the one book I wrote from start to end, I also help writers organize their own life stories. During this process, I write or suggest stand-alone chapters that all come together…by magic. Really. After years editing, I know how to bring stories full circle, and I can do it in books too. For instance, the book I did two years ago started with a fire in their barn in the early ’80s. I brought it back there in the second to last chapter with the rebuilding of the barn, then ended with a moment from her recent past. And I mean, I listened. It took about three days. While the barn wasn’t the most compelling part of her story, it was sort of emblematic of other life stops and starts and even though there was no chronology I could weave a cohesive, progressive life story.

Jerry: When you dug in to find the story, your customer’s willingness to cooperate was paramount. Do your interviewees reveal enough material to make a good psychologically rich story?

Carla: Usually yes. When I was in magazine work, we found our subjects because they had already discussed their story somewhere…in a local paper, on the radio, etc. Doing personal history/memoir editing can be more challenging. There’s a need to confess, or purge, just to finally reveal it to someone. But there is also a fear.

A good example is a woman I interviewed who spoke about her father in very broad terms, about their family time when she was a girl, and his old age before he died. No matter how many times I brought him up, she always said the same thing: “I loved my father very much.”

Finally one day, while we were talking about something not even remotely related, she went into a little more detail. “I was never comfortable around my father’s friends.” I used the opening to see if I could go deeper. From some hints she had told me about her background, I asked, “Did you fear they were engaged in illegal activity?” She admitted this to me, and after that she was able to reveal more. But because the book was for her children, we had to suppress most of that material. I felt that even though we didn’t write about it, she was grateful to have the opportunity to talk about it for the first time in her life.

Jerry: Interesting. Another personal historian, Foster Winans, told me that people often reveal things to him they had never told another person. . .

A book length story requires a lot of craft. How did you manage to take their life experiences and turn them into a book length story?

Carla: Actually, that is exactly my mission: to fulfill my own and my customer’s expectations of good writing. However, keep in mind that we were producing personal histories, not memoirs. There is a difference.

Personal histories don’t follow the plot line of novels: no rising action, climax, denouement. A memoir is different because there’s a lesson/realization in this genre, so it will follow more of a storyline.

Jerry: This is an excellent explanation of the difference. When I first heard about Personal Historians, I thought they were writing ghost written memoirs. But unless they go incredibly deep into the introspection process that wouldn’t be possible.

Carla: Even though personal histories aren’t propelled by a dramatic arc the way a more literary memoir tries to achieve, I still do everything I can to craft a good story. For example, I ask my interviewees at the beginning of each challenge in their lives, exactly where they are heading at the end. That helps create the cycle of chapters each of which starts with a goal and ends with a conclusion.

Jerry: So when the process is finished, how does it work out? How do your subjects feel after you have completed the work?

Carla: Before I started writing my book length project, I sent her the chapter breakdowns for approval. She was amazed that I was able to categorize and organize EVERYTHING she’d told me.

When the book arrived, she had a big party. She ordered 20 copies first time around, then another 50! Besides her family and some close friends, I’m not sure who got one. Sadly, her husband passed a few months after we finished. After the service, at her home, she had the book out, opened to the chapter about their wedding. I was touched. There’s something about print. I know people who do legacy videos, which are nice. But there’s nothing like holding a book  – a book about your life – in your hands.

I saw the same reaction in people whose articles appeared in magazines. There is nothing like holding the article in your hands. Even though subjects always knew what I had written about them, I always, always heard from them when the magazine hit the stands. Their excitement was off the charts. Always! I loved that! Everyone deserves their 15 minutes of fame. But when it comes in printed form, it will last a lifetime.

That’s why I am so sad to see the death of so many magazines…

Jerry: Me too! I can’t believe you had such a fulfilling career in an industry that is no longer able to support you. Now you’re trying to figure out how to make the most of your love for writing.

Carla: I love life story writing. I want to do it for the rest of my life.

Jerry: I guess you’re trying to write your own tragedy to triumph life story. (laughing)

Notes
Carla Merolla Odell’s home page

Philadelphia Writers Conference

Association of Personal Historians

Foster Winans, Personal Historian

For a writing conference near you, click here: Shaw Guide to Writing Conferences

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

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.

Magazine Writer To Personal Historian, Pt1

by Jerry Waxler

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

Southeast Pennsylvania is a great place for writers. One reason for our collective interest in word craft is because we are in the extended ecosystem of New York City, the publishing capitol of the world. Or at least it used to be. Nowadays, I meet a surprising number of writers from New York City who have been downsized from the dwindling industry and are hoping to find a niche in the more loosely structured writing life of the twenty-first century.

The Philadelphia Writers Conference, held the second weekend of every June, is a natural place for such writers to network. That’s where I met Carla Odell, a former magazine editor. She is trying to reinvent herself as a personal historian, that is, someone who charges money to interview people and turn their lives into stories.

Because of my intense interest in memoirs, I’ve always been curious about personal histories, but I’ve never quite grasped how that would work. To me, memoir writing is an extraordinarily introspective process, involving years of delving into memory to reorganize and shape experience in a way that would make sense to a reader. How does a personal historian incorporate the introspective insights necessary for the interior shading and detail that I have come to expect from a good memoir?

My meeting with Carla at the Philadelphia Writers Conference turned out to be a perfect opportunity for me to learn more about the writing industry she is coming from, and the more entrepreneurial version of writing toward which she is attempting to move.

Jerry: Tell me more about your attempt to start a business to write people’s personal histories. How did you get interested in doing that?

Carla: I worked as an editor in the women’s market for almost 30 years. The majority of my work was telling tragedy-to-triumph-type tales.

Jerry: I love that you were being paid to find and shape tragedy-to-triumph stories. What a wonderful training for a memoir writer. What was that like? How did you tease out the information from an interview and shape it into a story?

Carla: I had terrific training as a reporter/editor. Because I was always on a deadline, I didn’t have time for extraneous stuff, and that helped condition me to get to the meat quicker. I did some celebrity reporting too, and you have to get in and out. Celebs are funny: You are their very best friend…for a half hour. I’m exaggerating; sometimes I had longer. But you have to be intentional. You can’t go in and say, “So, tell me about your childhood.” You can’t do that with a personal history either. That’s why “research” is important here too: spending time with their mementos, photos. Also, no matter how long a piece is going to be, while I’m researching or interviewing, I’m already writing it in my head. I jot down notes so I don’t lose my thoughts. I can’t say much more on how I do it, other than what I sent previously. It just happens. I have a good sense for symmetry.

Jerry: Most of the work of writing a memoir is about the introspective aspect of figuring out how all those events fit into the emotional dynamics of a person’s life. How did you capture this “vicarious introspection” – what did it feel like to search through another person’s memory and look for structure?

Carla: Yes, you really need to get into first person view point. For short pieces, I usually do this over the phone, just typing notes when something jumps out at me. These notes provide good compass points for when I go back and listen/transcribe. I also type notes to myself with ideas of where to start and place a turning point. Saves a lot of time especially with deadlines.

As for their voice, I do a pretty good job getting to the language nuances. I think it’s the unrealized actress in me. With magazine work, though, we often knew what the moment or turning point was before we even decided to write the article.

Jerry: Ooh. That’s really interesting. When someone sits down to write their own memoir, they often have to tease the turning points out and then see the way the story will work. For an article, you already know the main newsworthy aspect of the story before you begin. Could you give me an example of such a pre-assigned turning point for an article?

Carla: There were so many…. A mom who lost her daughter to a drunk driver and turned to politics so she could affect policy; a victim of domestic violence who, after that final episode, left and became an attorney specializing in prosecuting DV cases. This was part of a larger in-depth special issue on what was, at the time, the new Battered Women Defense in courtrooms coast to coast. Oh, I did an article on an American nurse in Somalia. It started as just a general overview of what her days were like, and it led to a series on women doing humanitarian work and the moment they knew their “old lives” were over and they were on their way to something more important.

Jerry: A big part of your work was interviewing. That’s a very cool skill in itself. What insights can you offer about how you interview?

Carla: I talk as little as possible. I ask no qualifying questions (but I take notes to go back) because a subject will often “go” somewhere unexpected if there’s nothing to remind her/him of the question at hand.

Of course, if the subject goes on in what seems to be a nonsensical tangent, I will bring the subject back. There’s an old reporter’s trick where you repeat the last part of the last thing they say, questioningly. For instance, if the subject says, “I got this ring for my 25th anniversary.” “Your twenty-fifth anniversary?” “Yes, it was a very special event at the Waldorf. Every one I loved was there. It was such a surprise.” “A surprise?” “Yes, my family went to great lengths…” So if a subject is going on and on, I will do that, and he or she will realize it might be time to get back to the story. Also, watching expressions gives you the tone.

Here’s an example: I did a short piece for a woman who was born in Germany right after the war. As a young adult, she lived in West Berlin but had a friend in the East, and traveled to see her regularly. She was very animated, telling the story of a particular night she was detained on her way home. While it was a frightening episode, I decided, after watching her, to make that part of her story…funny. And she loved it!

However, I don’t only rely on talking. We sat down with her photo albums and documents and I listened as she uncovered each item of memorabilia.

I’ve used recipes as chapters, maps with notations. With one woman we used excerpts of her annual holiday letters to friends as chapter heads. (She wanted to do it chronologically, so we made it fun.)

It’s strange to be sitting among other people’s stuff and listening to a lifetime in the course of what turns out to be about three workdays.

To read part 2 of this interview, click here.

Notes
Carla Merolla Odell’s home page

Philadelphia Writers Conference

Association of Personal Historians

Foster Winans, Personal Historian

For a writing conference near you, click here: Shaw Guide to Writing Conferences

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

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.

Launching into Adulthood – Search for Beliefs

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the fourth in my series about launching into adulthood, inspired by Elna Baker’s memoir New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance. It completes the triad of challenges both she and I had to undergo in order to transform from child to adult. Click here for my post on sex and here for my post on finding a job.

Every week, my parents took me to synagogue where men in robes chanted on the dais, preparing to slide open the doors of the ornate tabernacle. In slow motion, they reverently cradled the holy Torah in their arms, removed its lavishly embroidered cover and silver protecting plate and set it on a table. Then they unrolled the scrolled parchment, and read from it in voices so filled with emotion I thought they might cry.

By the time I reached high school, I began to feel silly about going to a building and chanting. School books became my sacred texts. When I read a physics problem or a literary novel, I felt smart and empowered. By the time I left for college, I knew that God had no place in my life.

However, I soon discovered that my belief in my all-powerful intellect left important gaps. For one thing, when studying science I found myself in the company of loners, more interested in equations than in each other. My focus on knowledge made me feel lonely. And I was disheartened by problems that brilliant minds didn’t seem to be able to solve such as injustice and war.

To fill the holes left by my intellectual belief system, I joined anti-war protests. Linking arms with people who wanted peace made me feel less alone, and more capable of stopping the insanity. Together we could fix the world.

My euphoria ended abruptly when the police decided to “keep the peace” by bashing us with clubs and burning our lungs with tear gas. I slunk away, bewildered by my lack of power. The violent confrontation destroyed my belief in an orderly method of correcting social ills.

I had reached an impasse. Religion seemed irrelevant, and science and collective action seemed to have little effect on the evils of the world. My eager, idealistic mind imploded. Stumbling forward into nothingness, I felt that with nothing to believe in, there was no particular reason to be alive.

As if in answer to my desperation, someone introduced me to a mystical teaching that included a higher power, but skipped the robes and scrolls. Instead, the system led me to the sacredness within my own soul. This belief system lifted me out of despair, and invited me to see the universe through more hopeful, loving eyes.

When I finally settled into the rhythm of adult life, I could barely remember the insane turmoil of those younger years. In fact, I didn’t want to remember. I pushed away that troubling ten-year period as if it happened to someone else.

Then, forty years after my tumultuous launching into adulthood, I began writing a memoir about my complex, journey from child to adult. I quickly encountered a difficulty. Whenever I tried to write about my relationship toa Higher Power, I felt that I might be stepping on someone’s toes. I imagined whole counsels of the defenders of various faiths who might take offense. At first, I thought I was shy about describing religion because being Jewish in the wrong place had often led to death. But when I started to teach memoir writing classes, I realized the problem extended beyond any one group or system. Many aspiring writers were reluctant to talk about their beliefs. They all had various excuses but it boiled down to a general fear that they weren’t qualified to talk about their own beliefs.

This appeared to me to be the final frontier of the Memoir Revolution. We had collectively accepted the most intense revelations about mental illness, sexual variations, and a vast variety of life styles, but many of us didn’t know how to turn our own search for truth into a good story.

So when reading memoirs, I kept looking for those writers who had crossed these barriers and chose to share their introspective journeys without worrying about who they might offend. One of the most courageous, and clearest of these was Elna Baker.

In Elna Baker’s memoir, New York Regional Mormon Singles Dance, the protagonist grows up in an intense Mormon household. After she moves to New York City, she continues to identify with Mormon ideas and culture. However, most of the boys she meets run the other way when they learn her religion forbids sex outside marriage.

Should she toss away her belief system in exchange for a sexual relationship? The stakes are enormous. Losing her virginity means eternal damnation of her soul. And for her, the soul is not some abstract concept. She takes her soul very seriously.

When her atheist boyfriend says he doesn’t believe in the existence of the soul, it’s her turn to be horrified. She confronts him with one of the sweetest, most convincing defenses of the soul I’ve ever seen., and she does it without any reference to theology or ancient texts. Through her eyes, it’s easy to see that her boyfriend’s soulless approach increases the risk of interior deadness. By contrast her belief nurtures a vibrant interior life.

But her conviction about the existence of the soul doesn’t solve her immediate dilemma about whether or not to have sex. On the contrary, she wonders if lowering the barriers and establishing an intimate connection with another individual might be the best thing she can do for her soul,.

To steer through this unsolvable problem, she pleads for guidance. “God, if you’re there, I need help. Speak to me.” I connected instantly with her appeal to a higher authority. In fact, I felt so interested in her inner appeal, I had to ask myself why a young Mormon woman’s plea to God would resonate so strongly with an old Jewish man.

Then, it hit me. Elna Baker’s story helps me understand the dark, confusing time when I was struggling to become an adult. I too felt lonely and my loneliness led me deeper and deeper into confusion. At the time, I assumed my loneliness was caused by my inability to connect with people. Now New York Mormon helps me see that by cutting myself off from an inner dialog, I had isolated myself even more.

Elna Baker’s attempt to dialog with God helped me find language to understand the quandary of modern culture. Those of us who try to live in a post-religious world have no one with whom to discuss our dilemmas in the privacy of our own minds.

Perhaps this helps explain why the Twelve Step programs are so helpful for many participants. By insisting on belief in a higher power, the Twelve Steps offer members an inner sponsor. Such an interior conversation with a higher power provides a valuable tool to stay on the high road, transcending self-involved, addictive thoughts.

New York Mormon even helps me understand why my parents took me to synagogue. When the rabbi chanted on the dais about a relationship with God, every one of us in the congregation was attempting to reach up and achieve the same thing. We were all affirming our belief that having a connection with a higher power is a valuable tool for a healthy life.

So why was I, as a young man, so quick to reject this connection? New York Mormon helps me understand that, too. When Elna Baker grew up, she was handed a belief system as a complete package. The package said “You are a Mormon and you believe all the things a Mormon believes.” Unfortunately, her religion, like mine, didn’t include instructions for how to survive the questioning stage in life when we are trying to use our intelligence to put all the pieces together.

As a result, those parts that seem to make no sense instigate the need to challenge the entire system. And when we reject the whole system, as many of us do, we find ourselves in a crisis of identity, creating an unforeseen obstacle on our journey to grow up.

Power of the Memoir Revolution

Around a hundred years ago, William James, chairman of Harvard’s psychology department, delivered a series of lectures that resulted in his influential book Varieties of Religious Experience. James knew that his elite academic audience rejected religion on the grounds that its claims couldn’t be proven in chemistry or physics labs. However, he urged them to shift their attention from the science of matter to the science of mind. Within the realm of the mind, the influence of religion is easy to observe. He cited numerous examples of experiences such as ecstasy, conversion, faith, and even healing.

James’ attempt to include spirit as a legitimate area of psychological study was lost in the scientific revolutions of the twentieth century, during which Freud claimed that all religion is a hoax, and radical behaviorists claimed there is no such thing as personal experience. The study of religious experience went out of fashion for a hundred years.

Over the course of the intervening century, we have become far more sophisticated about inner experiences. Through cognitive psychology, we have developed an appreciation for the power of thought. Through MRI and other brain imaging techniques, we have developed a deeper understanding of the mysteries of personal experience. Through mindfulness meditation, we have proven that mental patterns influence blood pressure and other physical symptoms of stress. But until recently, we have lacked the tools with which to share the incredibly personal struggle each of us goes through to find a belief system that will sustain us.

Now, in the twenty-first century, through memoirs such as the one written by Elna Baker, we are developing a language that enables us to continue the work begun by William James.

Her perspectives, along with the tens of thousands of memoirs already written or now under development, are enhancing our shared vocabulary about personal experience. Rather than splitting us into separate camps, each of which tries to prove its God is better, the Memoir Revolution gives us the opportunity for the first time in history to share a dialog about our individual interior worlds.

Writing Prompt
Write a few scenes and a synopsis that reflects your emerging belief system as you made the transition into adult life. (For example, church membership, seeking, rejecting or embracing parent’s religion, ah-ha moment about God, attending a yoga class, etc)

Notes

For more discussion and examples about using memoirs to explore personal spirituality see my book Memoir Revolution, about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

Click here for Elna Baker’s home page.

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

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.

More memoirs about spiritual launching

When Mary Johnson was trying to grow up and find rules to live by, she decided to devote her life to a transcendent conversation. In her memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst she tells of joining Mother Theresa’s order, renouncing possessions and devoting her life to serving God. Instead of rejecting her parents in order to become more worldly, she rejected their normalcy and went the other way.

Return to Need for Spiritual Belief Systems

Spirituality and religious searching are not completed during the launching period. Many adults return years later to establish a guidance system that helps them cope with grief or to find the spirituality that will allow them to face trauma and mortality.

Lorraine Ash explores spirituality and personal relationship to God first in her memoir Life Touches Life, after the loss of her baby in the eighth month of pregnancy. After writing that memoir, she didn’t stop searching. Her search for a personal relationship to God is continued in Self and Soul. Click here for my article about these two books.

Two more memoirs of a search for beliefs later in adulthood:
Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup. A chaplain uses religion to help others and at the same time find her way after her husband’s death. Click here for my article.

Devotion by Dani Shapiro. A woman in middle age goes on a quest to find truth amid a variety of belief systems. Click here for my article.

Father Joe: the Man who Saved my Soul by Tony Hendra, who leaned on his mentor for insight, hoping this kind monk would help him steer through his own barren internal life.

The Path: One Man’s Quest by Donald Walters who left home to join a spiritual commune led by Paramansa Yogananda. Click here for my article

American Shaolin by Matthew Polly, who joined a Chinese monastery to learn martial arts, Click here for my article.

The Islamist by Ed Husain, who rejected the gentle religion of his parents. When he saw someone knifed, Husain realized that the power-hungry demands of his new crowd distorted his higher values. He returned to the roots of his religion to find the compassion and divinity his parents had been attempting to teach. Click here for my article.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior who tried to stray from religion but found that to find her way, she needed deeper insight into a loving universe. Click here for my article.

Expecting Adam by Martha Beck. Attempting to push away from the intellectual rigor of her graduate program in Harvard, she accepts the mystery of mothering a Down Syndrome child. Click here for my article.

Stress Fracture by Tara Meissner. A psychotic episode, involving visionary experiences of instructions to murder and other destructive imagery, decided that to preserve her sanity she needed to distance herself from the otherworldly teachings of her religion. Click here for my article.

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, the scandalous rejection of my Hasidic Roots  Accepting or Rejecting the entire system

Launching into Adulthood – Find a Job

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is a continuation of the series of articles about launching into adulthood inspired by Elna Baker’s memoir New York Mormon Regional Halloween Dance. Click here for the post about the journey from sex to love, and here for my article about the search for beliefs.

When I was 22, about the right age to become an adult, I decided that people who go to work every day were soulless drones. My decision to avoid adult responsibilities added many years to my transition into adulthood. Years later, I looked back on the mess I’d made of my launching years and assumed most of the confusion stemmed from the mass psychosis of the 60s, when millions of us had worked ourselves up into an anti-adult frenzy.

As I continued to grow through my protracted process of becoming an adult, I discovered that many people struggle to find the right job, even ones too young to know the difference between a hippie and a beatnik. (Answer: same thing, different decade)

In my fifties, when I finally returned to school for a graduate degree in counseling psychology, I took a course in career counseling and learned that helping people find a satisfying job is a whole career in itself. My career counseling course taught me the facts of other people’s struggles to find work, but I didn’t understand their stories until I began reading memoirs. Memoirs ushered me through the many tasks of growing up, including the sometimes-fascinating journey to earn money.

Some memoir authors have to find jobs in difficult circumstances. For example, Harry Bernstein’s second memoir, The Dream, takes place during the Great Depression. When he is walking around the city looking for work, he passes a mob of unruly men, shoving each other, frantically hoping to be selected for a job.

Some authors face obstacles within themselves. For example, in John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye, the author shows how his Asperger’s syndrome contributes to solving technical problems. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Asperger’s contributes to anti-social behavior toward his bosses that makes it difficult to hold down a job.

Some of the most interesting stories about finding work are by individuals who long, as I did, for a creative career. For example, Joan Rivers’ memoir Enter Talking describes the author’s desire to earn a living by making audiences laugh. Steve Martin is another world-famous comedian whose memoir, Born Standing Up, tells about his climb from a boy who wanted to do magic tricks to a household name.

At first these performers had to scrounge for work wherever they could get it. Joan Rivers regularly performed at strip clubs. Steve Martin, early in his career, was hired to perform at a restaurant. Even though the place was empty, the owner told him to perform anyway, because it would attract customers. Steve Martin’s performance to an empty room is not much different from the daily task of writing any memoir. At first, we all “perform” to an empty room.

Just as Steve Martin’s performance was supposed to attract customers, we writers hope to attract future readers. By giving the best performance we can muster, pouring our hearts onto the page, we establish exactly the kind of intimate connection that audiences seek.

Memoirs by stage performers underscore their author’s passion to move audiences, whether they do it from the stage or from the page. This desire to connect with an audience in both forms is beautifully portrayed by aspiring actress Elna Baker in her memoir New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance. To achieve her goal of becoming an actress, she moves to New York city and auditions for roles.

While waiting to be called back, she takes a job as a demonstrator in a toy store. The job requires acting skills, but instead of transporting audiences to higher realities, she is paid to convince children to fall in love with expensive dolls. She also works as a waitress in a bar, a job filled with colorful possibilities, especially since she doesn’t drink alcohol.

After a few such experiences, she notices that her attempts to become an actress are generating interesting anecdotes. So while she waits to be cast in someone else’s story, why not play herself in her own story? She discovers a hip storytelling scene, in venues such as The Moth in New York, This American Life on NPR, and  First Person Arts in Philadelphia. She tells her stories to live and radio audiences, using her acting skills to dramatize her journey to become an actress. Eventually her oral stories make their way into writing, and then become a memoir.

Elna Baker’s struggle to earn a living through storytelling resonates with the desire lurking in every memoir writer’s heart. We too hope that by sharing our stories, we can earn a more public place in society, lifting and entertaining readers, one at a time. Most of us wouldn’t complain if those readers also were willing to pay for the privilege. In reality, few of us will earn enough money to supplement our careers, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

For example, when Stephen Markley graduated college, he was desperate to earn a living as a writer. At the age of 24, he pitched an idea to write a memoir about writing a memoir. Against impossible odds, he sold it, resulting in the excellent book, Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book. For both Stephen Markley and Elna Baker, the project of earning a living became ridiculously intertwined with writing stories about earning a living.

Memoir writers exist beyond the last page of the book
Elna Baker’s search for a career doesn’t end with a satisfying conclusion. By the last page, she has not “made it” as an actress. Sadly, she is not sure what she’s going to do. In a previous post I wrote about the ambiguity of Elna Baker’s sexual launching. By the end of the book, she didn’t achieve her goal of finding love any more than she found a career. Despite the ambiguity of the ending, I loved the book and highly recommend it. But why was I satisfied with a character who seemed to feel stranded at the end?

I have been asking myself the same question since Frank McCourt got off the boat at the end of Angela’s Ashes and ended with all sorts of unresolved problems. After reading Elna Baker’s memoir, I realize the answer goes to the heart of the difference between fiction and nonfiction.

At the end of novels, we know their heroes live only inside the imaginary world created by the author. They have no life of their own. Unlike them, memoir heroes continue to grow and change. At the very least, we know they have spent a considerable amount of time and effort figuring out  how to share their stories. And we usually know a great deal more about them than that. We can look up their circumstances on their websites, follow their job history on linkedin, read their blogs, and watch their interviews.

The fact that fiction characters only live inside the story is called “the fourth wall” and when those characters reach out to talk to the audience, they are said to “break the fourth wall.” Memoir characters break the fourth wall all the time.

One of my main pleasures in reading memoirs is this connection with a live person. Inside the pages of the book, I learned about them inside the bounds of their stories. In addition, I often have an opportunity to find out more about how they live outside the pages.

We relate to heroes in thrillers and myths because of their larger-than-life achievements, grace, beauty, courage, and other mythical qualities. We bond with memoir heroes for entirely different reasons. As real people, they help us understand that humans are flawed, they can teach us amazing things about life, and for those of us aspiring to write memoirs, they can teach us about writing our own.

So when I heard Elna Baker was teaching a life-writing course at First Person Arts in Philadelphia, I signed up. I joined a room full of aspiring storytellers, and when she walked into the training room with her four-legged companion, she didn’t just break the fourth wall. She exited her story and helped us with ours.

By this time, she was a producer for the NPR series This American Life, and well on her way to earning a living as a storyteller. It turned out she was not only a great teller. She was a great listener and teacher, as well. After each of us shared a glimpse of our lives, she offered wise advice for how to strengthen the story and make it more accessible and compelling.

Some of us were young, and looking to launch ourselves into the wage-earning part of our lives. Others of us were much older, looking to launch from a private to a more public version of ourselves. In either case, we shared the performer’s passion, wanting to reach out to an audience, in exchange for a couple of dollars, a few laughs and tears, and if we were lucky, applause at the end of the story.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene about struggling to figure out the right job. Perhaps you talked to a career counselor, or took a job you knew was “wrong” for you, or tried to get into a career that seemed perfect, but something got in the way. After you write this scene of struggle, write another one in which you enjoyed a moment at work – for example, joking with coworkers, or finishing a project.

Notes

Click here for Elna Baker’s home page.

Click here to listen to a recording of Elna Baker’s story about demonstrating baby-dolls here:

Click here for Philadelphia’s First Person Arts [LINK]

Click here for Stephen Markley’s memoir, Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very 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.

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

Launching – from Sex to Love in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is a continuation of the series of articles about the three tasks of launching into adulthood as illustrated in Elna Baker’s memoir New York Mormon Regional Halloween Dance. Click here for part one of the series. Click here for the next part, about getting a job.

Before you write a memoir, your memories of sex, like other emotionally laden memories, are embedded in a hodge-podge of unformed glimpses. To write a memoir, you must first develop these glimpses into a series of anecdotes. Eventually, you will craft this sequence into a well-formed explanation of your journey through the awkward stages of your life, toward maturity. To help you overcome reluctance to share these private aspects of your life, consider the frank explorations in the memoir, New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker.

When Elna Baker was a teenager, she avoided experimentation into the mysteries of sexuality. Her early abstinence was motivated, in part, by strict religious rules. Another reason for her lack of romantic experience was her body. The guys to whom she was attracted rarely reciprocated. When she moved to New York to establish her career, Elna didn’t even know how to kiss.

Continue reading

Interview with Memoir Author Julie Freed

by Jerry Waxler

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

Reading memoirs at night often helps me drift off to sleep. This was not the case with Naked: Stripped by a Man and Hurricane Katrina by Julie Freed. The book kept me wide awake, as Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast with a fury reminiscent of the Twin Towers bombings, but perpetrated by nature instead of by terrorists. Just as awful for Julie Freed was the email she received from her husband announcing he was finished with their marriage. The two events together kept me frantically turning pages, seeking relief.

Julie Freed has used the magic of Story to transform these outrageous events into an uplifting piece of literature, leading us through upheaval and disruption back to rebuilding and hope. How did Julie Freed, a mathematics researcher and professor, learn to write such a compelling memoir? To find out, I asked her to share her secrets.

Jerry Waxler: You write so well. I’d love to know how you learned.

Julie Freed: There was no magic formula – I wrote a bit, thought a bit, cried a lot, edited, read out loud to capture pace, would recall pieces, plug in a related scene. It was like a puzzle assembling the pieces to make it intriguing and most important I hoped to make it meaningful.. The goal of writing was to help “me” and publishing to help others.

When I felt I had an almost finished product, I sent the manuscript to an English professor for feedback. She had some suggestions and questions I addressed. She laughed because I was such a good “little student” doing everything she asked. I also sent the manuscript to a friend and former high school English teacher to make sure my commas and such were behaving.

I read for pleasure, mostly non-fiction. But I most enjoy a read that makes a difference in the way I think or feel – one that resonates. Time is my commodity. I want what I read to be important for my own trajectory. And I wanted to give the same value to readers.

Jerry: This is incredible. The only example that comes to mind is from the legend of King Arthur. Legions of young warriors tried to pull the sword out of the stone and young Arthur walked up, pulled it out and said “what’s the big deal?”

I’m fascinated by your success. Your situation offers hope to others who question whether or not they have the ability to learn how to write their stories.

By publishing your memoir, you achieved a variety of goals. You left a legacy to help your child understand what happened. You showed people that courage can carry you through the most outrageous situations. You created a story to help you convert the whole chaotic situation into a good story.

But in my experience, when someone first starts to write, they don’t yet appreciate all the benefits they will achieve. When you started writing, what did you intend to achieve?

Julie Freed: Initially, I wrote to get the story, the dialogue, the memories out of my head. Replaying conversations – “I should have said…” “I can’t believe he …” It was a great purging at the initial writing. I had hoped it would be healing and indeed it was, allowing me to live more in the moment without distractions from my immediate past. My daughter needed my attention and I wanted to be able to give that to her fully.

When I completed a first draft I was actually surprised at the product – it was almost a little poetic. I found myself enjoying the writing process beyond the mental health exercise intended.

I had never before viewed my writing as “creative.” I always wrote in a technical, factual, organized, concise style for an academic audience only. I’ve always loved reading memoirs – true stories by people who are true. But I had not anticipated a product for public consumption. However, what appeared late nights at the keyboard with wine or tea in hand – needed to be shared with those who had encouraged me to “write a book!”

I’d written academic book chapters, journal articles, reviewed dissertations, edited journal publications, but few had any “creative” bits. The feedback on my manuscript from family and friends was completely shocking. Some were high school and college English professors, others just heavy readers. Bottom line, I respected their opinions and encouragement. I decided I should dedicate some time to the manuscript between life, job, single motherhood, and prepare the work for publication.

Jerry: In my article about Naked I already shared what the memoir did for me. But what did publishing it do for you? Did you get out of it what you wanted? Did you have any surprises about how it felt after you finished? Any expected or unexpected rewards or results?

Julie Freed: I certainly never dreamed of holding a memoir I’d written. An incredible thrill to see my love, my heart, my tears, my dreams all assembled with the hope that others might enjoy and learn from my journey. As a young memoirist – still close to my experiences – some of the most tender moments have come post publication. Readers from all over the world write and connect. My heart bursts. They know me. They find themselves in my story, my struggles. To touch people like this was completely unexpected and indescribable. This does not happen with academic journal articles! I’ve made the mistake of checking email in the produce section over the asparagus and found myself weepy – a note about the real tears a stranger had reading my book, another empowered to make changes in her marriage, one woman struggling with an alcoholic husband. It’s been the ultimate gift. I’ve been able to touch others I will never meet. We are never alone! And I want every woman and man to feel that way too.

Jerry: What’s Next

Julie: I didn’t have any plans to write more. But since the publication of Naked and the feedback from writers and readers I respect – I’ve sketched a few ideas, written a few scenes. It’s a hobby for me now but perhaps I should dedicate more time – that part that remains unclear.

Notes

Click here for Julie Freed’s website

Click here to read my article about Julie Freed’s memoir, Naked

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.