A Memoir of a Girl’s Urgent Need to Find Identity

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

Karen Levy grew up alternating between the United States and Israel, never sure of which one she belonged to. The story of her Coming of Age, as told in the memoir, My Father’s Gardens, shows how her split identity created challenges on many fronts. Wherever she went, she felt like an outsider. Friendship was made more difficult because she kept leaving them behind. Her first job involved her in military intrigue, as a result of mandatory conscription in Israel. And relationships were made almost impossible by her overly protective mother, who demanded her daughter’s undivided loyalty.

In the end, she resolved her own challenge to grow up by choosing a country, settling down with a man and writing for a living. The resolution with her parents was more problematic, lending a sad note to her difficult choices.

Even before I read the first page I was hooked on the story of a woman who had to constantly find herself. Search for identity is one of my favorite themes in a memoir. On the surface, such an introspective search might not seem important enough to motivate me to read and enjoy a whole book. And yet, when I think back on the problems of growing up, my own search for identity drove me almost mad.

My grandparents left Ukraine to escape religious persecution. When they settled in the U.S. they stuck together with their own kind, as immigrants tended to do. My enclave of Jews in an ethnic neighborhood in Philadelphia kept me feeling safe and whole as long as I stayed home. But once I moved to the Midwest, I struggled to find a balance between my heritage and the desire to be accepted as an American. To find this new, blended identity, I attempted the peculiar, and as it turned out, maddening exercise of reshaping my self-image. This psychologically-demanding task I imposed on myself at the age of 18 sent me careening through a series of experiments that complicated the already challenging process of growing up.

As a young man, trying to mix into the “Melting Pot” of United States culture, I was trapped in a long journey of assimilation. As I grew older, I discovered that the entire country consists of people who surrender some of their ancestral identity in order to enter a shared one.

As the great mixing of modernity extends across the globe with massive migrations and blending cultures, people all over the world are attempting to let go of parts of their traditional culture in order to find psychological wholeness among the modern mix.

The Memoir Revolution is a wonderful tool to help us achieve our new identities as citizens of the modern world. Memoirs let writers and readers apply the power of story to the important task of being healthy, whole human beings.

Karen Levy’s attempt to connect with her own country became more difficult than most because she was torn between two, never sure of which one reflected her true identity. As a result of her unusual situation, and her deep, sophisticated story about her experience, the memoir offers a rich, complex look at the whole process of steering between cultures in order to find Self.

Other memoirs that explore self-identity torn between cultures

For another look at this tearing between two cultural identities, read the powerful page-turner Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham. In it, the young man returned to his birth country, Vietnam, only to find that he was angrily rejected by his former countrymen because he grew up in the U.S. Ultimately he had to face the fact that he needed to find his identity within himself.

In Rebecca Walker’s memoir Black, White, and Jewish, the author lives half her life with her white lawyer father in his upper class neighborhood, and the other half with her famous black author mother, Alice, in a lower middle class neighborhood. For a deeper look at people who straddled the fence between two races read the oral history by Lise Funderberg called Black, White, and Other about kids with mixed-race parents. By straddling the fence between races, they had special challenges that highlighted the universal journey of finding the story of self.

Notes

Here is a link to My Father’s Garden by Karen Levy.

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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Caregiver on a Hero’s Journey – a model for your memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

Martha Stettinius’ life shifted rapidly from the ordinary challenges of raising a family to the extraordinary and disturbing responsibility of caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s. Martha scrambled to adapt, reaching outward to the mental healthcare community and inward toward deeper understanding. Thanks to the changes taking place in the literary landscape of the twenty-first century, Stettinius also took advantage of an ancient method to help her maintain her courage. The method, handed down in an unbroken chain since the dawn of civilization, is called Story.

I first learned about the importance of stories from a series of televised interviews that journalist Bill Moyers conducted with scholar Joseph Campbell. According to Campbell, every society in history has relied on a type of story he called the Hero’s Journey. When I first heard these ideas, they seemed quaint and archaic. The examples I knew, such as the Greek gods on Mount Olympus and the wolves and witches of Grimm’s Fairy Tales seemed out of step with modern life. I assumed Campbell’s observations had nothing to do with me.

However, when I began reading and analyzing memoirs, I discovered that Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey sheds light on the story structure used by contemporary memoir writers. Even though the details change from person to person and era to era, their underlying structure remains the same. The Hero’s Journey throughout human history has allowed us to discover that when facing difficult situations, we can rise to our higher selves.

Take for example the courageous work of Martha Stettinius, who had to care for her mother. In the following synopsis I show how her experience as a caregiver, as described in Inside the Dementia Epidemic, mirrors the Hero’s Journey. By discovering the structure within her memoir, you might get some good ideas about  to turn your own heroic struggles into a story.

Caregiving for Her Mother as a Hero’s Journey
Stettinius’ journey  starts in the familiar world of her home, taking care of her family, going to work, and getting through each day. Life goes on normally until her mother’s neighbors call with bad news. When her mother’s mental health deteriorates far enough, Stettinius is booted out of her normal life and in the terminology of the Hero’s Journey model, she is “called to adventure.”

A dementia ward is a radical departure from every day life. She has to challenge herself to enter their world. What do you say these people? How do you love them? Who are these caregivers and how can you participate with them to serve your mother?

The shocking transition from the ordinary world to the world of the adventure is summed up by the famous line in Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy emerges into colorful land of Oz, and looks around at dancing munchkins, the good witch says, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

To fit into this new land, Stettinius has to slow the pace of her own mind. By listening to the silences between words and tuning into her mother’s body language, she seeks a new basis for communication. She searches for the best people and institutions, learning how each one works, and striving to find ones that can help the most. Throughout the long middle, she overcomes discomfort and fears, and works diligently to partner with the staff who take care of her mother.

As a result of her heroic response, she grows more knowledgeable and confident, developing into a deeper, more mature version of herself.  By the end of the journey she has also grown closer to her mother. The story that began with pride of independence when the two women were apart ends in the pride of inter-dependence now that they have come together.

Telling the story is a heroic journey, too
After the story of Stettinus caring for her mother ends, another chapter begins. To become important to others, the story must be told. So Stettinius switches roles from the adventurer inside the story to the writer-hero sitting at her keyboard. By striving to tell her story in compelling scenes, she lets us release our grip on our own reality and enter hers.

Her instinct to share her wisdom fits perfectly with Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey. According to him, after the hero finishes the adventure, he or she returns home to offer lessons. In Native American stories, at the end of the adventure the hero returns with some magic ellixir or ritual that will help the tribe. In Lord of the Rings, the whole purpose of Frodo’s mission is to save the world from annihilation.

However, not all heroes return home to deliver wisdom. Ever since I read Homer’s Odyssey in high school, I wondered why the Greeks held Ulysses in such high regard. He was often self-serving and impulsive and when he finally arrived home, his own townspeople turned against him. What was I supposed to learn?

Now that I’m studying memoirs, I realize that there were two journeys represented in the Odyssey, and the second one was at least as important as the first. After Ulysses returned home, the next Hero’s Journey was traveled by Homer. Thanks to tireless composition, and then a lifetime of promotion, Homer turned the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the Lotus Eaters and a houseful of predatory suitors into cautionary tales, appreciated by readers for thousands of years.

Memoirs blur the lines between these two principle players. In memoirs, the protagonist-hero goes on adventures not to slay monsters, but rather to slay inner demons. Despite our falls and failings we strive to climb the mountains of dignity and mutual respect.  After we return from our adventures and think about what we have been through, we shift roles from adventurer to bard.

By telling the story, Homer transformed a life of suffering and adventure into shared wisdom. Martha Stettinius did the same thing when she chose to write Inside the Dementia Epidemic. Her willingness to share this story with others reflects this underlying desire of human nature. After our years of experience, we are drawn to find the story.

I can see Martha Stettinius’ heroism in both roles. As the protagonist she had to go forth and take care of her mother. Then as the storywriter, she had to endure the discomfort, expense and hard work of sharing her wisdom with her readers.

When memoir writers share experience with readers, everyone wins. The author gains wisdom by turning apparently haphazard events into a meaningful story. And readers take advantage of that work. Through the hypnotic experience of reading a good story, readers enter into the author’s world. Then they take away the gift, the magic elixir. Memoir readers apply the courage and lessons of the Hero’s Journey to their own lives and build up their own reservoir of hope.

Notes

Martha Stettinius’ home page

Inside the Dementia Epidemic on Amazon

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.

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

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Practical Philosophy in Memoirs, Pt 3

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

When Martha Stettinius’ mother became ill, Stettinius was forced to enter a world she would certainly never have entered voluntarily. Once inside, she learned much, about her relationship with her mother, her own compassion and willingness to help, and the impact the disease is having on her community.

When Stettinius lived through the events, she had to cope with the challenges and setbacks. When she turned the events into a memoir, Inside the Dementia Epidemic, she offers two important aspects of her experience  — her journey as a caregiver and her journey as a writer. By reading the memoir closely and thinking about what I’ve read, I draw lessons from both aspects.

In my previous post, I proposed two practical ideas that are embedded inside the author’s story of caring for her mother. Today, I describe two more healing notions. These philosophical points are apparent when I step back and consider the passion and effort that Martha Stettinius poured into this project. By turning her complex, often-painful experience into the shape of a memoir, she offers a path others can follow.

Practical Philosophy Point #3: The container of Story helps transcend suffering
Before writing a memoir, my entire life was contained in the raw collection of my memories. The limitations of memory seemed so natural and normal, I didn’t question them. However, after I learned about memoir writing, I began writing anecdotes and watched a narrative take shape on the page. Having embarked on this mission, I realized that memory provides a haphazard, emotionally inadequate way to understand my own past.

One reason why memories are inferior to writing can be found in the way our brains are constructed. In order to keep us safe, our brains are loaded with trigger points that set our teeth on edge as soon as an unpleasant memory comes into view. Another reason memories are inadequate is that they are stored in random order. When we remember our past, the sequence is jumbled and it’s difficult to remember how one thing led to another. As a result of these two features of memory, we tend to see our past as a collage of emotionally-loaded snapshots.

A memoir writer extracts this raw material from its messy piles and through hours of craft converts it into a well-constructed story. Stories are the containers that humans have invented to help structure the past, and the future, into a coherent whole. By the time a memoir has been structured, revised and polished, these same events are seen as steps along a purposeful path.

Martha Stettinius applied this process to her own experience. She constructed a story from the events of caring for her mother. On the pages of her manuscript, she reveals the purposeful courage to support her mother. She becomes the hero of the journey rather than its victim. By transforming the mundane reality of caregiving for Alzheimer’s into a Story, she offers us the image of a woman who discovers truths, overcomes difficulty, and finds love in the gritty spaces between challenges. By sharing the memoir with us, Stettinius elevates our imagination to that same hope that stories have been lifting us to since the beginning of time.

Practical Philosophy Point #4: Memoir transforms private experience into public service
To care for her mother, Stettinius was forced to learn about the stages and treatment of the disease. She reached out to the caregiving community where she found support not only for her mother but for herself. With their help, she learned and grew, gradually becoming a sophisticated partner in her mother’s care.

As the long, harsh journey continued, Martha Stettinius knew things she wished someone had told her when she started. She wanted to share this knowledge with others. This generous impulse required another round of learning. She would have to extend her expertise from caring for Alzheimer’s to writing about it. This attempt became a journey in its own right. She had to improve her skills sufficiently to craft a readable book. By attempting to write a memoir, she would provide information as well as solace to those who entered the dementia epidemic.

The instinct to seek community through the act of storytelling lies at the heart of the Memoir Revolution. Memoir readers want to deeply understand how others have lived. However, they don’t want to learn about someone who meandered through life. A good story has passion and forward motion. So every memoir author must go on the journey to shape their experience. In the publishable book, the protagonist moves purposefully through setbacks, carrying readers along to some goal.

The purposeful experience of the protagonist in a story follows the advice of psychologist Viktor Frankl. In his memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, he observed that living with purpose makes the difference between life and death, health and disease. He said that to stay healthy all of us need to live for something greater than ourselves.

Every memoir author attempts to follow Viktor Frankl’s advice, not once but twice. First they look back at life and highlight the purpose that drove them from the beginning of the book to the end. And second, they following the purpose of sharing this experience with the world.

Martha Stettinius’ memoir embodies such a two-stage search for a purpose. First she had to care for her mother while maintaining dignity and love. Second, she had  to share her wisdom with the world. By writing the memoir, Inside the Dementia Epidemic, Stettinius transforms, Alzheimer’s Disease, one of the great challenges of the twenty first century, into Memoir, one of the new century’s most exciting creative developments, converting her mother’s illness into a message of healing and community

The construction of this book demonstrates that by writing a memoir, each of us can transform life experience from a sequence of events into a purposeful story. Constructing the story lets us exert authorial control over the messy process of being human. Giving the story to others allows readers to see the world through our eyes. They can use stories as they see fit: to increase empathy, to create community, to learn information, and to increase collective wisdom.

Notes

Martha Stettinius’ home page

Inside the Dementia Epidemic on Amazon

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.

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

Bookmark and Share

A Practical Philosophy of Love Revealed in this Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

Martha Stettinius’ memoir, Inside the Dementia Epidemic, took me on a journey in which the author had to fulfill her new role as primary caregiver. By the time I closed the book, I felt inspired and hopeful. How could a book about Alzheimer’s have that effect? Clearly she wasn’t promising that Alzheimer’s would be cured. I wondered for months how to explain the effect the book had on me. What is it about her storytelling that could possibly convert the gritty realities of a failing mind into a reason for people of good will to band together and generate hope?

Based on these considerations, I offer four philosophical conclusions. Two of them are embedded in the book itself, and two of them arise from the very fact that the book exists.

Practical Philosophy Point #1: This is still the person I love
I watched my own mother drift in and out of dementia in the last weeks of her life. Even when her words were scrambled, she was still “there” somewhere. Because the experiences were brief, I did not need to dig within myself for a deeper understanding. I just rode through each episode, never doubting our connection.

In Inside the Dementia Epidemic the downward slide took place over a much longer period, forcing this daughter to come to terms with the notion of a person who exists on the other side of a cognitive divide. In her memoir, she painstakingly traces her own path from confusion to effort and hope. To maintain her own dignity as well as her mother’s, Stettinius focuses on the love between them.

She slows down to adapt to her mother’s new speed, and allows us to slow down with her. At this more intimate pace, she discovers a heartfelt connection, unencumbered by former, edgy patterns. By relying on this core of love, the memoir offers a perspective of the self that is deeper than the one visible on the surface. Despite her mother’s weakened cognitive ability, their relationship continues to evolve.

During Stettinius’ journey, we travel with the two women along a path toward gradually increasing wisdom about contact, mutual respect and love.

Practical Philosophy Point #2: Social support is the highest good
When I was growing up, I mocked the schmaltzy song lyrics, “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” My power came from pure knowledge. I never questioned the wisdom of this self-reliant philosophy until it pushed me into such severe loneliness I thought I was losing my mind.

To escape my isolation, I was forced to reach out for help. When I did so, a few caring souls noticed my need and reached back. The nurturing of friends and supporters ushered me into a much more satisfying version of adult life. My appreciation for interdependence continues to deepen.

Hillary Clinton’s book It Takes a Village to Raise a Child brought attention to our shared responsibility toward children. My disastrous experiment to grow up without social support revealed that it takes a village to raise a young adult. Over the middle decades of my life, I gained an ever-increasing appreciation for the importance of the village throughout adulthood, embracing the fact that our relationships are crucial for moral, mental, and emotional survival.

Early in my memoir-reading journey, I came upon an author who spent a lifetime trying to find words to explain this need humans have for each other. In her memoir Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup loses her husband in a freak accident and must raise her children without him. To support her family, she becomes a police chaplain, a job that requires her to console people after crime, accidents and other suffering. In her darkest hour, she recognizes that the support people pour out to each other is the crucial ingredient, the antidote to evil. Through her eyes, social support is the highest moral achievement. (See my article here)

And now, in Inside the Dementia Epidemic, Martha Stettinius shows how the village plays a crucial role in aging. To care for her mother, she needed an army of helpers. By highlighting the caregivers who participated in her mother’s care, the book lifts us out of isolation and into the support of the community.

In my next post, I offer two more practical philosophy points that I derive from the book Inside the Dementia Epidemic.

Notes

Martha Stettinius’ home page

Inside the Dementia Epidemic on Amazon

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.

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

Bookmark and Share

Learn Practical Philosophy by Reading Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn how writing your memoir can change the world.

I love the challenge of solving a good murder. In every mystery, I lose myself in the detective’s thought process. The two of us figure out who might have done it and how they might be avoiding detection. Criminals must be caught. Criminals are devious. Everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise.

Somewhere in my forties I realized I had spent an enormous amount of time thinking like a detective but I knew comparatively little about the way anyone else thought. When I noticed this gap, I switched my reading to include psychology, theology, linguistics, and artificial intelligence, and I listened to an awesome college course about Epictetus and the practical philosophy of the Greeks. I finally went to graduate school for a degree in counseling psychology, a great leap forward. But other than detectives, I had hardly any experience thinking like another person.

Memoirs elegantly resolve this deficiency. Reading a memoir, like reading a mystery, gives me the pleasure of losing myself inside another person’s thought process, a welcome reprieve from thinking like myself. At the same time, they expand my vocabulary of the human condition.

Inside memoirs, I think about the world through the minds of daughters, moms, and wives, survivors of poverty and mental illness, combat soldiers and immigrants, children, elders, adventurers and addicts. From their first-person point of view, I learn how they feel. And even more intriguingly, I learn how they think.

Inside each memoir, I listen to the protagonist’s thoughts and discover how their system of thought helps or hurts their ability to get through life. My favorite memoirs are ones in which the protagonist grows wiser during the course of the story. This involves them having some realization about how to think about their situation differently than when they started. By following these lessons, memoirs create a university of practical philosophy.

The lessons themselves are familiar, available from a variety of sources. Love conquers. Forgiveness relieves tension. Acceptance banishes anger. But inside memoirs, we accompany a person through the journey of learning those lessons. After a period of years, through setbacks and triumphs, the protagonist learns some deeper lesson.

An excellent example of this process is Martha Stettinius’ memoir Inside the Dementia Epidemic. Despite the gritty reality of caring for her mother, or perhaps because of it, she is learning profound lessons that sustained her through this period. The memoir itself is not philosophical in the traditional sense. However, it offers a healing world view. After reading it, I feel enriched in my understanding of fundamental ideas about life. In the next two posts, I will describe the practical philosophy the author grows toward through the course of her experience.

Notes

Martha Stettinius’ home page

Inside the Dementia Epidemic on Amazon

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.

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

Bookmark and Share

Lost Memories: A Daughter’s Memoir about her Demented Mom

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

When Martha Stettinius reached young adulthood, she and her fiercely independent mom parted ways. Years later, Mom’s cognitive decline forced the two women to reunite. After grasping the seriousness of her mother’s condition, Stettinius gradually incorporated this extra responsibility in her already busy life.

As a novice Alzheimer’s caregiver, Martha had much to learn. She quickly realized her mother needed more care than she was able to offer at home. Through experimentation and research, Stettinius learned about the types of facilities, and the theories behind them. So over time, two things were taking place. Stettinius was gaining expertise in what it takes for a daughter to care for a mother with Alzheimer’s. And at the same time, she had to relearn her relationship with her mother. In a surprising twist, this opportunity to care for her mother became the culmination of their mother-daughter relationship.

Martha Stettinius chronicles their journey in the memoir Inside the Dementia Epidemic. The memoir works on multiple levels. First, is Stettinius’ attempt to make sense of her evolving relationship with her mother. Second, is the story of her growing need to find the best care possible. And third is her desire to share this important information with others who face similar challenges. To achieve these three things, Stettinius was determined to create a readable, interesting book.

An unusual story of mother-daughter bonding
Since her mother often didn’t even seem to be tracking their conversation, Stettinius needed to learn new rules. One thing she learned about caregiving for Alzheimer’s was that since her mother was losing touch with the past, it was the daughter’s responsibility to do the remembering for both of them.

When the author tells her mother, “I love you,” it’s difficult to know if Mom’s smile was connected to the moment or was only an automatic reflex. Stettinius solves the dilemma by choosing to infuse her mother’s smiles and words with their shared history. Through Stettinius eyes, mutual love informs every syllable and gesture.

In the early stages of writing the book, Martha intended to use it as a way to hold on to her mother’s rapidly fading past. As the book evolved, she discovered that her relationship with her mother was actually growing deeper. She wanted to share this hopeful message with others in similar situations. And more practically, she wanted to help others learn the ins and outs of the Alzheimer’s caregiving experience.

With these goals in mind, she fretted that too much specific information about her mother’s life would shift the reader’s focus into the past. However, she was also concerned that too little would leave the reader without context. As a memoir writer, Stettinius had to decide how much of her mother’s actual history should she include in the memoir.

She decided to focus mainly on the mission to help readers learn from her experience. To achieve the goal, she applied her best understanding of craft, sought feedback, and revised again and again. Eventually, informed by feedback from editors, beta readers, and her own intuition, she decided that to reach readers in the most meaningful way, she had to reduce the backstory to a minimum.

The resulting book neither drags us back in time, nor ignores the past. Rather it offers an alchemical fusion of both. By turning confusing events into a narrative, she makes more sense of them for herself. By publishing the story she turns her painful experience into lessons that could help others.

Writing Prompt
What experience in your life could help someone else? Write an overview of such a story, or write a scene in which you learned a lesson you wish you could share.

Backstory: How to Find the “Right” Amount in Your Memoir
Many memoir writers struggle with the question about how much backstory to include. Too little risks lack of context. Too much could bog down the story. To assist with your decision, consider the example of Inside the Dementia Epidemic. Stettinius researched her mother’s life, and wanted to tell it to the world. However, in order to write a book that would be meaningful to readers, she chose to cut back on the detail about her mother’s younger years.

The resulting memoir centers on the daughter’s journey to care for her mother, a powerful story involving the progression of the disease and the relationship of the two women. As readers, we benefit from her hard work and commitment to her craft. However, in order to fit it all into a good story, she had to compromise. Only the author knows about the painful decision to cut interesting anecdotes.

When making decisions about your own memoir, there is no “right” and “wrong.” Your story emerges from your specific circumstances. From this raw material, you must shape a story that will convey your meaning to readers.

To make the most informed decision about how to construct your final version, get feedback from readers. And also expand your options by reading memoirs. After you read each one, ask yourself “What is it about this story that makes this particular literary choice effective, or not?”

When you finally publish the book, it will have gone through a series of such difficult decisions. And of course, none of them are perfect. You are simply doing your best to offer readers the most interesting possible representation of your experience.

For another article on how much backstory to include in your memoir, click here.

Writing Prompt
Write a synopsis of your proposed memoir. In one version, include your early life to show the reader how you grew up. In a second version of the synopsis, start at a later time, with a central dilemma or challenge in your life. Is there enough information in this second version to allow readers to experience the emotions you are trying to communicate? Are there things about your early life you want to explore in the story? How do you feel about these two books? Which one would focus the reader and help them understand your experience in the way you intend?

Other memoirs about caring for those who can’t care for themselves
When Stettinius attempted to write about Alzheimer’s, she was not speaking as an expert, but as a daughter whose life that had been profoundly altered by the problem. Carol O’dell was in a similar situation. After caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s she wrote Mothering Mother. When Diane Ackerman’s husband had a severe stroke, she knew a lot about the brain but hardly anything about caring for someone with a dysfunctional one. She wrote a fascinating account of caregiving for him after he lost his ability to speak in 100 Names of Love.

Jill Bolte Taylor was a brain expert but that didn’t help her when she suffered a massive stroke. She wrote about her recovery in My Stroke of Insight. Even though Jill Bolte Taylor’s book is about her own stroke, caregiving plays an important role in her story. The person who came to her rescue was none other than her own mother who helped her daughter in her hour of darkest need, a reminder that even in adulthood, service between parents and children can flow in both directions.

Notes

Martha Stettinius’ home page

Inside the Dementia Epidemic on Amazon

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.

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

Bookmark and Share

Writing a Memoir Penetrates the Fog of Memory

or Watching My Dad Watching Me
by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

On my dad’s eightieth birthday, my sister and I took my parents to dinner. To stir my usually reticent father to speak, we asked him what it was like raising us. He said, “I took Jerry to a baseball game once. He read the whole time.” We all laughed at the image. What a nerd I was!

But his comment unsettled me. Of all the experiences we had together, why did that one come to mind? Did he resent me for obsessive reading? I had long since forgiven him for being away at his drugstore 14 hours a day. Now, for the first time in my life, his comment made me wonder what he thought about me. However, he grew quiet, and I let the matter drop. My childhood seemed so far away. I would probably never understand his part in it. I had a hard enough time remembering my own.

One reason I can barely remember my childhood is because I spent most of it inside the covers of a book. I read in my room, at the dinner table, and on trolleys and subways, always more fascinated with the invented world of fiction than in the world around me. I became so absorbed in stories, I sometimes forgot about the boy turning the pages. Once, in ninth-grade English class, I was visiting another planet with the characters in Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, when my teacher grabbed the book from my hand. I looked up at his red face, momentarily confused. How did he even see me?

My strategy to read my way through life fell apart when I landed in Madison, Wisconsin in 1965. Even before the riots started, I had no idea how to relate to this teeming mass of 30,000 students. To survive those tumultuous years, I tried to lose myself in the despairing cynical literature of the time, like Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which turned the butterfly image upside down. The book described a boy who turned  into a giant beetle. For the first time, books were taking me into worlds worse than the one I was trying to escape. I turned to marijuana, angry music, and confusing friends. Drowning in a sea of kids, I descended into confusion that took me years to fix.

After college, I reversed the downward slide by reading books about spirituality. Their promise of transcendent reality shone on my light-starved soul, guiding me out of the woods and back toward normalcy. When I felt strong enough to get a job, I turned to self-help books. Each one gave me deeper insight into the boy turning the pages. My journey continued in a therapist’s office, and then in real life, with friends and a family of my own. For forty years, I continued to work at becoming a healthy adult, and books were always right there with me.

In the early 2000s, I discovered memoirs. By diving into a memoir I still lost myself in another person’s world. However, instead of becoming less of a person, I was becoming more. Over and over, after I experienced the world through the author’s eyes, I added compassion and wisdom to my own. The next step seemed obvious. I needed to write my own.

As a slow, methodical memoir writer, I discover incidents buried under years of forgetting. Like an archeologist, I extricate them from the rubble of details and wonder what value each artifact might offer. I place them into the context of the book of my life, and through the chemistry of a growing narrative, they acquire deeper meaning. And because books were so important to me, some of the treasures in my memory relate to my passion for reading.

For one of my birthdays, around my fourteenth, I received a gift-wrapped book from Dad. I assumed it was the Hardy Boys book I asked for. The library didn’t stock the popular mystery series, so I was looking forward to this gift to increase my supply. I tore away the paper, expecting to reveal a photo showing the young sleuths. Instead, I found a boring orange book with no dust jacket. I opened it to see an old-fashioned typeface.

“What’s this?” I asked, making no attempt to hide my disappointment.

“I wanted you to try something different. It’s about a guy stuck on an island. Give it a chance.”

I put the book down, my face tense with the effort of holding back tears. “I won’t read it. Please, please give me the book I asked for.”

He insisted, and I ran to my room. Why was he doing this to me? What did he even know about books, anyway? On the one night a week when he came home for dinner, he sat in his chair, picked up a novel, and within minutes had passed out, the book face down on his lap.

I would show him. I would just stay in my room until he relented. A few days later, Dad gave in and bought me a Hardy Boys book. However, instead of exchanging Robinson Crusoe, he told me to keep them both. The ugly book in its boring orange cover sat next to my bed while I enjoyed yet another episode of the Hardy Boys.

After I finished reading the mystery, my obsession with books got the better of me and I picked up Robinson Crusoe. Pushing past my reluctance, I began reading. Within the first few pages I adjusted to Defoe’s antiquated sentences, and quickly lost myself in the story, identifying with this lonely, resourceful man trying to survive in a hostile world. I loved my life on that island, and loved Daniel Defoe for giving it to me.

When my journey came to an end, I was hooked on classics, and walked to our local library for more. Reading classics for pleasure became a passion, and for years, I found endless pleasure in novels by European authors such as Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas and American ones like Jack London and Mark Twain.

When I first recorded the incident, it didn’t have any particular importance. After I wrote it and tinkered with it, the anecdote deepened. My father’s solution to this challenge was more clever than I realized. He caved to my demand in a way that allowed us both to win. It never occurred to me he was that smart. Then, in my growing manuscript, I can follow events from one year to the next. Through this lens,.

Through the lens of story, I see my early life from both sides. Dad wasn’t perfect. He was just a guy trying to earn a living and at the same time figure out what to do with his teenage son. Concerned about my obsessive reading so he used his influence to bump it up a notch. His small intervention had a longlasting effect.

By turning anecdotes into a narrative I connect the dots. Dad’s observation about me reading at the ballpark helps me visualize from another person’s point of view that I was trying to disappear inside a book. But I wasn’t invisible after all. I had a father who tried to influence his son’s behavior in ways I couldn’t yet appreciate.

Before I started writing the memoir, memories of my teenage obsession immediately led me back to the red face of an angry English teacher grabbing a book from my hand. Now that I’m working through more memories, I have the opportunity to see the kind face of my father, handing me a book that would invite me into the foundations of western literature. As my manuscript evolves, instead of remembering a dad who was too busy to raise me, I can now watch him watch over me.

Writing Prompt
Your early memories were put in place before you had the intellectual tools to make sense of them. There they remain in their original form, until you write about them (or talk to a therapist). To use memoir writing to help you make more sense of your memories, think of various incidents with a caregiver. When one such anecdote jumps out of your mind, write it. After it’s on paper, look at it more closely for clues about what was going on in your world and in theirs. Place the anecdote on your timeline, and consider its context. What other incidents does it remind you of? When another scene jumps to mind, write that one too. Even if you don’t see the connection at first, put this one into your timeline. Repeat this exercise several times. Then step back and attempt to portray a richer picture of these interactions than the one that first came to mind.

Notes

Read more about how my obsession with reading classics for pleasure almost killed me by clicking here.

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

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Your Memoir Teaches Recent Cultural History to Kids

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

This is the third in a series of essays inspired by Karen Prior’s memoir, Booked! Literature in the Soul of Me

The memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, is about Karen Prior’s reliance on literature to help her learn life’s lessons. The young woman loved literature so much she became a professor. From this vantage point, offers a deeper look at the books that influenced her.

The books she mentions are well-known centerpieces of the literary canon. Each one is a great story that makes complex points. To make the experience of reading them even richer, she shows how the authors were influenced by controversies of their own times.

For example, John Donne in the sixteenth century was influenced by the strange brew of religious conflict in England, when marrying into the wrong faction could land you in jail. She tells about the culture clashes between England and Ireland as well as the literary fascination with sexuality that influenced Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in the eighteenth century. And she delves into the conflict between sexuality and respect for women in Thomas Hardy’s time in the nineteenth century.

Her memoir made me wonder what cultural influences I absorbed when I was growing up. For example, in my high school years, books by Charles Dickens filled me with compassion about the economic struggles of the poor in old England and Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle opened my eyes to the abuse of immigrant labor in the U.S. In my college years, though, the cultural influence of my favorite authors turned in a direction so confusing I almost lost my way.

In the sixties, I dove headlong into novels by widely respected authors like Jean Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, whose portrayals of shattered societies and characters without hope riveted my attention.

Their style differed radically from the stories I had read since I was a child. In an endless stream of mystery and science fiction books, I came to expect an upswing at the end of the story. The conclusion lifted my spirits and gave me hope. The novels and plays that dominated my college years went in the opposite direction. In novel after novel, the hope offered at the beginning had evaporated by the end.

At a time when I should have been preparing for adulthood, these deep thinkers convinced me that growing up was a horrible, terrifying waste of time. I was not alone. Millions of us had been convinced by our literary giants that despair is a principle worth pursuing.

To delve deeper into European cultural history of the twentieth century, I took a college course that I thought explained the misery behind this wave of nihilistic literature. Of course they lost hope when surrounded by Russian totalitarianism, two World Wars, and the horror of the Holocaust.

But something still didn’t add up. Ordinarily, people would have looked beyond the misery to find some inherent good. My authors did the opposite. Each one seemed to vie for the most outrageous images, such as Franz Kafka’s boy who woke up as an ugly, person-sized insect. And they were honored for their dark excursions. Samuel Beckett won a Nobel Prize for works like Endgame in which two of three characters are legless and occasionally pop their heads out of the trashcans in which they live.

Decades after struggling out of the pit I had fallen into, I attempt to understand those years. How I could have fallen so far? And more poignantly, how could society have led me along such a desperate line of thinking? Now, in Karen Prior’s brief vignettes of cultural history, I have learned an important fact that helps me make sense of the whole crazy era.

At the end of the nineteenth century, despite relentless advances in science, Western intellectuals still maintained a toehold in the precarious belief in God. For proof they pointed to the mystery of life. Who else but God could have created such wonder?

According to Karen Prior, the final shove came from Charles Darwin’s observation that life is the product of statistical events. After that, anyone who believed in God was viewed as a dreamer or fool. To be accepted as a serious participant in intellectual society, college grads needed to figure out how to live without God.

In high school, I read a play about this dramatic shift. Inherit the Wind dramatized the famous Scopes Trial which pitted Charles Darwin against God. As an intellectual young man, I laughed at the foolishness of the character based on William Jennings Bryan, who defended God, and cheered for the brilliant character based on Clarence Darrow who swept Bryan’s arguments aside.

I knew the controversy but until I read Karen Prior’s memoir, I had never considered the dark pall it placed over twentieth century intellectuals. For the first time in history, they had to navigate their lives without the guiding principle of a higher power. To do so, they had to find a new mythology to live by. The literary geniuses of the time fulfilled their need by offering cynicism as the new ideal.

In the play Waiting for Godot, the characters meander in a wasteland, waiting for a savior who never comes. I followed them willingly, and when I learned from them that stories lead nowhere, I ended up with nothing to live for.

So how did I go from there back to sanity? Of course, I had no choice but to read more books. During my climb back, I reclaimed my childhood image, that I can live my life as if it has an upbeat ending. To support a meaningful ending, I had to maintain a belief in a transcendent reality.

Memoir Revolution Revealed
The responsibility of every civilization is to pass along the rules of society to their young. The terrifying fact is that we have about 20 years in which to achieve this goal. In small, intimate tribal societies, the task was achieved through advice from the elders and the stories at the campfire. In our more complex societies, we turn to books.

This is the topic of Karen Prior’s memoir. In addition to what the book is about, the very existence of her book offers an important piece of information. It represents society’s next great experiment to reclaim a personal myth. Her book is a perfect example of what I call the Memoir Revolution. By turning her life into a story, she provides us with a model of a life that is understandable, hopeful, and sharable.

So Karen Prior’s memoir, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me resonates on multiple levels. It shares the experience of one woman’s coming of age. It offers a brief overview of intellectual history. It explores the role of books in the upbringing of children. And it shows how one woman is fulfilling her end of the bargain, writing a book to pass her experience to the next generation.

Writing Prompt

On your journey to grow up, you have gone through a variety of experiments, finding what works and what doesn’t. By writing your memoir, you could pass these lessons along to the next generation. What trap did you fall into, and more important, what tools did you use to climb back out? By leading readers toward the hopeful conclusion at the end of the story, you provide an image of a world that leads through effort toward wisdom.

Notes
Link: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

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Interview with Memoir Activist Sonia Marsh, Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

In the previous post, I shared the first half of my interview with Sonia Marsh, author of Freeways to Flipflops. Here’s part 2 of my interview with her, mainly about decisions about writing and publishing her memoir.

Jerry Waxler: I enjoyed the glimpse you provided into the Expat experience on your move to Belize. Earlier in your life, as a newcomer to the U.S. you were an expat too. To what extent did this experience of being an expat into the US inform your description of what it felt like to be an expat to yet another culture when you moved to Belize for a year?

Sonia Marsh: Jerry, I never viewed myself as an expat when I moved to the U.S. at age twenty-five. I was so excited to be here and adapted quickly to my new life. Belize is so different, third-world, and then you really have to adapt and learn the ways of the locals.

Jerry Waxler: Were you ever tempted to insert your own expat experience from your childhood to help explain the experience as an adult one? What pros and cons determined your choice to talk so little about your earlier life?

Sonia Marsh: I didn’t think my own experience as a child growing up in Africa, and Europe related to this book. I also believe people are interested in reading about a contemporary family, and can relate to that more than me as a child in the late 50’s and 60’s. Working with my story structure editor helped me realize what belongs, and what doesn’t belong in my book. It has to fit the central theme, and my theme was “reconnecting a family on a tropical island.” I cut chunks out that didn’t fit my theme, and my message.

Jerry Waxler: In reviewing your book, I found many interesting themes, such as Life in the Caribbean, Escape from LA, Life as a Mother of troubled kids and getting them through a crisis, Midlife of a family, Escaping corporate life, and birth of an entrepreneurial spirit. I love this rich story with a lot of interesting lessons and tensions. However, many writing teachers try to convince memoir writers that it’s important to restrict the story to just one central theme. When you developed the book, what sort of internal debate did you go through to keep things in, like for example when you describe the hassle of getting your kids into schools in Belize.

Sonia Marsh: My husband kept telling me to focus on the adventure in Belize. Agents kept telling me that they didn’t care about the problems with my son (initially the first 1/3 of my book) but to move on to Belize by page 50, at least. “There are too many books about problem teenagers,” agents would say, “yours is interesting because you moved to another country to solve your problems.” As with many memoir writers, I focused too much on my own problems, almost to “vent,” rather than think about what my readers want that’s different. So I finally cut out the “venting,” about my son and his girlfriends, and moved on to Belize and how we had to cope and change.

Jerry Waxler: Then, a secondary question arises when you try to develop the title and cover of the book. Freeways to Flipflops makes the story sound like a carefree walk on the beach. When you set up the title and cover, were you worried about stripping away the complexity? Say more about how you decided what to emphasize.

Sonia Marsh: You make a good point Jerry. I wanted a visual title, and did not want to focus on my son’s defiance. As I mentioned, the adventure in Belize was more important than focusing on “healing.” I also spent several years branding my website and name from “Gutsy Writer,” to “Gutsy Living” and after discussing with 1106 Design company, I realized the potential of sticking with a brand, and being consistent. When people see the tropical water and font I use for my website, they will hopefully remember the word, “gutsy.”

Jerry Waxler: You talk about your entrepreneurial spirit in the memoir when you became interested in setting up a coffee shop in Belize. Much later, after you wrote the book, you had to sell it. The entrepreneurial spirit that unfolded inside the pages of your book spilled out into real life when you developed the entrepreneurial spirit of the Gutsy Story website and anthology.

This demonstrates one of the many reasons I love memoirs — they provide such an authentic window into the workings of the human experience. As real people we often must overcome intense struggles to find our self-worth and at the same time earn a living. However, many writers want to skip over earning a living because it’s too mundane. Did you wrestle or debate or get feedback from coaches or critiquers about including these elements of breadwinning in the emotional drama of your experience?

Sonia Marsh: I wrote about earning a living in Belize without any input from anyone else but myself. We were struggling to settle in Belize and make a new life. I did not want to be seen as a “failure,” as another statistic, or be taken for “one of those American couples who fell for the dream of paradise and couldn’t cope.” I didn’t realize how important it was for me to succeed and make a living in my “paradise.” As you know, I was mad at my husband for “relaxing” a little too much for my liking, and then I realized that I was the one who had made the mistake of pushing him into starting a business. Now I realize that I should have listened to the American expats who said, “Chill. Slow down Sonia. You’re no longer in the U.S. Things aren’t done the same way over here. You need to take your time. It takes a couple of years to find out whom you can trust.

Jerry Waxler: You did not always say flattering things about your husband or your son or your neighbors. These types of edgy revelations often cause aspiring memoir writers to shrink away from their memoirs. How were you able to be so frank about your family and neighbors? Weren’t you afraid of hurting your husband’s or son’s feelings?

Sonia Marsh: I’m glad you didn’t read my journal. As I mentioned earlier, I can only be honest with my feelings. When I get mad, I get mad, when I’m upset about something, I’m really upset. When someone turns against me and/or my family, I’m not going to pretend it didn’t happen. My husband knows me, and we’re still married. I also showed his good qualities, and why we married. There is no story if there’s no conflict or drama. I had to share what I was going through or my story would be flat and lifeless.

Jerry Waxler: How about your Belize neighbors and the suspicion you had about an area business man? How did you decide to do that? Did you lawyer up?

Sonia Marsh: I changed the names of everyone, and I realize I took a risk, but I did say, we had no proof about “sabotage” but it seemed quite suspicious that our boat was sinking with us inside on the same day as our son’s sailboat had both anchors cut off.

Jerry Waxler: As a blogger and host of the Gutsy Stories site, you have thrown yourself into the memoir world. What has your venture into the memoir blogging community taught you?

Sonia Marsh: I’ve learned so much from other memoir writers. I feel like most learn the craft and stick to the rules far more than I have.

1). I find many of them write memoirs in order to heal, and hopefully help others who might suffer from the same problems.

2). I would like to see more contemporary memoirs, about struggles today, adventures, taking risks to live an exciting life. But that’s because I love to travel and learn about different cultures and how a person adapts or doesn’t adapt to new situations.

3). I am surprised by how many memoirs I read about abuse, alcoholism, suicide, adoption, cancer, and holocaust survivors. Due to the nature of the topic, they are often depressing to read, but I know how helpful they are to those who have gone through something similar. I wish there were more uplifting memoirs.

4). I like humor in memoirs, and so far, I haven’t read that many. One I love is, Fat, Forty and Fired, by Nigel Marsh. Another I just read is by Jon Breakfield, called, Key West. These are both written by men. Strangely both are British, so perhaps I still have that British sense of humor from my childhood and college days in England.

Jerry Waxler: Typically at the end of an interview, I ask an author what they are working on next, figuring that most authors tend to have another book in the pipeline. However, when I asked what she was working on, she offered a delightfully diverse, ambitious list of goals. Her list reminded me that in addition to being an author, Sonia is a “memoir activist” who both shares her own story and encourages others to do the same.

In one of my essays, I compared her willingness to move her family to Belize as an example of the proverbial mother who lifts a car off a child in order to save it. Now, reading her to-do list for 2014, I feel the same about the way she is applying herself to memoirs. She appears determined to lift the whole world into the freedom of telling and sharing their stories.

Here is her answer to “what are you working on next?”
• Coaching authors on: How to publish and sell your books.
• Contact movie producers to turn my memoir into a movie.
• Inspiring audiences to live their “Gutsy” dreams.
• Create Workshops and Webinars: How to Publish and Sell your books.
• Continue to grow and help indie authors and publishers on Gutsy Indie Publishers on FaceBook.
• Ask writers to submit their “My Gutsy Story®” and promoting them on my site.
• Publish the 2nd “My Gutsy Story®” Anthology, and organize an event with a keynote speaker.
• Volunteer in Spain in May 2014. I shall be speaking English to Spanish business people for one week.
• Take the TEFL exam and teach English abroad for 6 months.
• Write a 2nd memoir about the experience of following your “gutsy” dream.

What are your gutsy ambitions? Feel free to leave them here.

NOTES
Click here to see my essay on her contest site, My Gutsy Stories.
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

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Interview with Memoir Author Sonia Marsh, Pt1

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

After reading Sonia Marsh’s Freeways to Flipflops, I sat back and thought about all she had taught me about my favorite subject: How to turn experience into a readable story. I shared my findings in a series of blog posts starting here. (You can see more by clicking the link for related posts in the right-hand column on each one.)

In addition to writing the memoir, Sonia is the mastermind behind the Gutsy Living contest which provides a platform for sharing the courageous, often outrageous acts of human experience. In this two-part interview, Sonia answers a few questions about writing her memoir and sharing her life experience with the world.

Jerry Waxler: When did you first conceive of turning your trip to Belize into a memoir?

Sonia Marsh: When a close friend said, “Sonia, uprooting your family to Belize would make a great story. Have you thought of writing a book?” That was the nudge I needed to start writing.

The first step was to keep a journal. As a novice, I had no clue it would take seven years to turn my journal into a commercial memoir.

Fortunately, I started writing one year before our move. Life at home was quite emotional, with our oldest son causing havoc in our daily life, and I knew if I could capture everything while it was still “raw,” this would make my story more authentic.

After keeping a journal for a couple of years, I had 660 pages on my computer. I would send excerpts via e-mail, to friends back home, and they would comment, “Wow, Sonia, your life in Belize is so exciting compared to mine back here, please continue sending me your stories.”  This was all I needed to keep writing.

Jerry Waxler: I understand that you kept contemporaneous notes during your time in Belize. Help me picture how you fit the writing into your days on Belize. Did you keep a daily diary? Were you actually crafting a book while you were going through the experience?

Sonia Marsh: I kept a daily journal in Belize, however, I did not write at a set time each day. Instead, I would run to my computer whenever something interesting happened. By that I mean, a specific conversation, argument, emotional moment with my family, or something significant that happened, and I wanted to keep the dialogue “real” and the emotions raw and clear in my mind.

Our life in Belize was simple, without television, shopping malls, bookstores, coffee shops, or movie theaters. We lived in a third world culture where life was slow paced and things did not get done when you expected them to get done. In a way, this was the perfect environment for writing. My only distraction was nature—so beautiful—and I spent hours studying my surroundings, and taking care of daily chores. Everything takes longer to do in Belize. Life was so different from life in Orange County, California. One day, an old “pirate” sailboat sailed in front of my house. It looked like one built to shoot a Hollywood movie, only this was the real deal. The next day a capsized “drug” trafficking boat was found close to the Island Ferry tourist boat. How often do you experience this in suburbia?

Jerry Waxler: When you started writing, explain anything you can to help us understand how you translated your notes and memories into scenes.

Sonia Marsh: Writing scenes did not happen until several years of being told that I was “telling not showing.” We all hear this when we start writing, and I remember copying sentences from Augusten Burroughs and Nicholas Sparks, feeling guilty at the time for copying some of their words and phrases, but those authors opened my eyes to reading scenes that felt like movie scenes. I knew this was something crucial I had to learn if I wanted my memoir to become visual. I would close my eyes and try to “see” my surroundings in detail, and “feel” the emotions. My first editor complained that I had too much dialogue that wasn’t moving the story along, and that instead of “the transcription of conversations,” she wanted “the context in which they occurred or your thoughts and feelings at the time.”

Jerry Waxler: How long did it take to write the first draft?

Sonia Marsh: I never really had a first draft, unless I call the 660 pages I printed from my computer, a first draft. My problem was reworking and polishing the first 1/3 of the manuscript over and over, and not spending enough time polishing the rest of my manuscript. I approached my first editor in March 2008, two years after I thought my manuscript was ready. She wrote a 12-page report which helped me realize how naïve I had been to assume it was ready for publication.

Jerry Waxler: To polish your writing or develop your writing voice, did you participate in critique groups? If so, where and how? Can you share any lessons about the story or about your style that you learned from their feedback?

Sonia Marsh: My first experience with a critique group was in 2008, at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference. I read some chapters during the workshops, and received such helpful feedback from the workshop leaders. I did join a critique group for 6 months, and we met once a week. In my case, I found it more beneficial getting critiqued by an editor, or a teacher, than by a group of writers like myself. Quite honestly, I wasted several months of being thrown off course by other writers who didn’t know my entire story, and who would make suggestions based on what they had heard me read. Also some writers in the group were from other genres, and couldn’t relate, so I did not find critique groups helpful.

Jerry Waxler: In the memoir, you provide such detailed insights into your thought process. Like when you went to the party at your neighbor’s house and they had brought so much wealth and the trappings of the first world to their home in Belize. You describe all that you thought about going and what you thought about what you saw. Did your journals help you get to this level of detailed internal dialog? How else did you achieve this level of detail about your inner process?

Sonia Marsh: My journals helped as I wrote the details, but I am very passionate about certain topics, and also stubborn and opinionated, so don’t get me started on materialism, and accumulating “stuff.” I guess having experienced life in various countries, I feel like I see things differently than someone who may not have had the same experience as me. So in a way, it’s my “duty” to share my thoughts and make people aware of things they may not realize. So perhaps “anger” and “frustration” as to why people need so much stuff, and why people need to flaunt it, made my internal dialog come naturally.

Jerry Waxler: I appreciate the way your narrative shows you worrying and second-guessing yourself. Your fretting adds an inner dimension that makes your scenes richer. When I started, and I’ve seen this since in other beginning writers, I was reluctant to report thoughts that raced through my mind. It took me quite a while to realize that sharing my thoughts added a rich dimension to the scene. When you were developing this style for your book, how conscious were you about inserting this inner discussion? Did it seem natural and normal to you as a writer?

Sonia Marsh: I know this may sound a little strange, but I was born in Denmark, to a Danish mother. I think Scandinavians have the reputation of being “open” and “honest” and don’t try to cover up their true feelings, as do some of my friends in the U.S.

I’ve always been that way, and sharing my thoughts is part of who I am. I value true friendships and while writing, I honestly felt like I was writing to my friends. I guess I’m naïve in that I hope my readers will also become my friends, and not remain total strangers.

In life, I try to connect with people on a “meaningful” level. I ask questions because I’m interested in what people think about their own life and their interests, and I also believe that writing a memoir should be “meaningful” to the reader. Why would anyone want to read about “you” and “your story” if you are not going to be open with them, and share part of yourself with them? We are all nosy, even those of us who don’t admit it. Why do so many of us like to read the tabloids? We want to ready the “juicy” stuff. No one would read the tabloids if they stated boring details like “Angelina Jolie had a manicure in 1997.”

Jerry Waxler: Were you ever criticized for sharing your thoughts, or on the other hand praised for it?

Sonia Marsh: So far, I have received positive reviews about being so honest. I’ve read reviews where readers have thanked me for sharing what I felt as a wife and a mother, and they said that they could relate. One of the key issues my first editor (when my memoir was still in half-journal format, and I thought it was ready) stated was, “In order to get your readers to come along on your journey with you, they have to be able to relate to you. And in order for them to be able to relate to you, they have to understand your inner thoughts and feelings.”  I didn’t understand this until later on in the writing process.

NOTES
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Bookmark and Share