Brain Science, Memoirs, and Education

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the fourth part of a four part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I share some of the ways brain science supports the use of memoir reading and writing to learn about life at any age.

Thanks to rapid advances in brain imaging, scientists are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about the way people think. Some scientists, such as Matthew Lieberman, focus particularly on the way the brain’s wiring enables us to live and work in social groups. Lieberman popularizes his observations in his book, Social: Why our brains are wired to connect.

It turns out, social scientists are not only interested in the hardware of the brain. They are interested in the software, as well. Since every child needs information in order to supply that software, Lieberman offers some interesting suggestions about how brain science could help. By coincidence his suggestions happen to fit in perfectly with the arguments I’ve been making in previous parts of this essay, about the value of memoirs for education.

One of Lieberman’s suggestions for education relates to the fact that we learn better through stories than through facts. He specifically mentions how much easier it is to learn history when it’s presented in terms of stories. I completely agree with his suggestion and believe that many of us are already coming to a similar conclusion – learning is more fun when it is done through stories. The knowledge is not limited to school kids. People of every age are learning about life by following the stories of our fellow humans.

Another fascinating improvement to our educational system was suggested in Dan Goleman’s groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence. In that book, he suggested exercises for empowering kids to communicate their emotions at an early age. Goleman’s ideas have been widely adopted, except for one giant gap.

It would be even more valuable if kids could learn not just how other people feel but how they think. This important knowledge, as important as math and reading, is rarely taught except in specialized courses for psychology majors or grad students. However, the study of other people’s minds becomes infinitely more accessible when we learn it through their stories. By following the scientific wisdom of both Matthew Lieberman (learn through story) and Dan Goleman (increase emotional intelligence), it would make perfect sense to teach kids emotional intelligence by letting them read memoirs.

Lieberman’s second powerful suggestion is to set up the school system in such a way that older kids can teach younger ones. He gives the example of eighth graders teaching algebra to sixth graders. Such a method empowers both groups by combining the act of learning with the act of teaching. In Lieberman’s model, older ones take the material more seriously because they need to teach it, and the younger ones link learning the material to the social act of impressing the older kids.

Lieberman’s suggestion sounds awesome. I can see how it would help math-averse kids learn and retain the material, and teach nerdy math whizzes how to interact with people. My only quibble with his suggestion is that I don’t think it is as futuristic as it sounds. I think adults are already engaging in this method. By reading memoirs, they are learning from those who have gone through similar experiences. And by writing memoirs, they are gaining the social pleasure of becoming teachers.

When serious scientists like Matthew Lieberman and Dan Goleman popularize sophisticated advances in our institutions, they are showering our culture with wisdom from above. In addition, culture is driven by powerful unseen forces from below. Like undersea seismic events, such pressures drive us along lines in social trends that seem to be coming out of nowhere. The Memoir Revolution is such a trend, providing us with a whole new wave of information about the human condition, not from experts but from each other.

Cultural pioneers such as Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers Diary show us how to teach kids through storytelling and writing. Memoir writers such as Elna Baker in New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance offer stories about the struggles of growing from childhood into responsible adulthood. Memoir writers such as Martha Stettinius in Inside the Dementia Epidemic offer insights into caregiving for elders and writers such as Kate Braestrup in Here if You Need Me shine a light on grieving.

Neuroplasticity – grow your civilized brain cells
Another advance in brain science also supports the importance of memoirs for training students of any age. We now know that the wiring of the brain improves with exercise, so the more we use a part of our brain, the healthier and stronger it gets.

By teaching kids or adults how to tell the stories of themselves, we “exercise” the part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that enables us to tell stories. This new part of the brain is responsible for helping us live together in harmony as well as for self-regulation. By seeing life as a story, we vigorously exercise the prefrontal cortex, improving both the hardware and software that will make us wiser about our selves and each other.

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.

In the third part, I focus on the way writing life stories is just as important as reading them.

Notes

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.

Why memoirs teach more than literature Pt 3

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the third part of a four part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I explain how writing as well as reading stories shows kids how to combine literature and life.

The memoir Freedom Writers Diary was about an innovative high school teacher, Erin Gruwell, who brought the messages of the great authors out of the clouds and into her students’ lives. At first she did it by showing life lessons contained in the classics. For example, she pointed out the gang wars that fueled the tragic tension in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

To demonstrate an even more intimate connection between literature and life, Gruwell invited a young author Zlata Filopovic to visit the classroom. When Zlata Filipovic was eleven years old, she wrote a diary about being pinned down by mortar fire in her hometown, Sarajevo. After publishing Zlata’s Diary, she became known as the “new Anne Frank.”

Another visitor, Miep Gies, was directly involved with Anne Frank’s diary. Gies, whose family protected Anne Frank, brought the Holocaust out of the history books and into Erin Gruwell’s classroom. She proved to the high school class that writing enables real people to share their lives.

Gruwell completed the circle that joins literature to life by inviting her students to write about their own experiences. Their diaries created connections across gang boundaries, and beyond neighborhoods all the way out to the rest of the world.

Gruwell’s groundbreaking work wasn’t finished yet. By publishing the story, she invited us to become students in her classroom. From her memoir, we learn that stories are not just about abstract characters. Her memoir bursts our story-reading minds out of the pages and into the world.

Gruwell’s students learned from each other’s diaries that the people sitting next to them in class had lives just like theirs. Our shared memoirs provide the same lesson on a much wider scale, helping us understand each other around the globe.

The need for life lessons doesn’t stop the day we leave our formal education. As we grow, we need to develop more fulfilling social patterns or adapt to new eras in our lives. And memoirs can help.

For example, everyone who tries to write a memoir is attempting to incorporate story writing into their adult lives, Elna Baker offers valuable lessons, first within the pages of her memoir New York Mormon, and then beyond it. Her attempts to become an actress, then a story performer, and finally a memoir writer provide a model of incorporating Story into real life. She also offers other lessons that could be valuable to adults. Her attempt to understand her relationship to God within or without the constraints of religion offers a brilliant look into one person’s attempt to follow this universal search. And her insights into the social power of trying to remain slim provides a valuable window into the challenge one faces when staring into the barrel of an ice cream cone.

Similarly, Erin Gruwell’s story, Freedom Writer’s Diary, is not just for kids, but for any English teacher or parent who wants to learn how to use literature to help kids grow. By watching Gruwell’s students connect the dots that separate them from each other, the entire world learned a valuable lesson about how life writing connects us all.

Reading and writing memoirs can help anyone at any age, to learn and grow beyond the assumptions we’ve always made about ourselves, so we can see ourselves as characters in a rich drama of interesting, vibrant, self-aware people.

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.

In the fourth part, I’ll dive into brain science. It turns out that brain imaging backs up everything I’ve been saying about memoirs. Isn’t science amazing?

Notes

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.

Why Memoirs are Better Than Literature Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

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

Great literature provides insights into true genius through the ages, but in this second of a three part essay, I claim that a far better way to raise young people is to assign  memoirs. Click here to read part 1.

Turning toward memoir as a more accessible approach to literature

In my late teens, I opened my heart and mind to the lessons contained in great literature. Over the next few years, brilliant authors like Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Samuel Beckett convinced me that adults are stupid and life sucks. These observations fueled my horror, and I pulled farther and farther away from adult life, convinced that it was all wrong, and young people were going to need to reinvent civilization. Even though great literature was unravelling my sanity, I continued drinking it in, like an addict, unaware that the substance giving me pleasure was also destroying me.

Tragically, the destructive influence of great literature didn’t stop my literature professors from supplying more. Looking back, I don’t blame them for wanting to me read these works of great literary merit. However, looking forward, I think young readers today can tap into a far more constructive source of wisdom.

In the twenty-first century, the Memoir Revolution allows adults to pass wisdom to the next generation, without the distortions and exaggerations of invented worlds and fictitious circumstances. Even though memoirs are crafted to maximize dramatic intensity, their greatness does not result from metaphor and hyperbole, to be picked apart in search of the finest phrase. The genius of this genre arises from its ability to immerse the reader in a slice of the author’s actual experience. If any picking apart is warranted, it would be to learn more about how the story can help readers make better sense of life.

To Grow Up, We Must Create Our Own Stories

To grow from child to adult, every one of us must construct stories of ourselves. Our initial co-writers in this endeavor are our parents, siblings, and caregivers. As we grow, we take into account glances from strangers, or watching our parents interact with outsiders. When we go to school, our interactions with teachers and students influence our self-understanding. And throughout the years, see ourselves reflected in the books, movies and television shows of our culture.

From this accumulated information, we construct a self-image that looks a lot like a story. Story is an ancient form of thought in which a protagonist seeks the solution to some problem. Reaching inexorably toward that goal, the hero must press, past obstacles toward an answer. By shaping our self-images in this form, we develop our own sense of confidence and purpose, providing ourselves with a roadmap for the future.

Literature professors could provide an enormous service by showing us how to apply well-crafted stories as models that would enable us to improve the shape of our own. But their charter until now has been focused on the power of story for its own sake. The Memoir Revolution offers them an opportunity to combine their love for literature with their charter to pass along the narrative art of civilization.

The memoirs on my shelves contain hundreds of brilliant life lessons, gained by authors through the course of their lives. By reading these memoirs, I’ve learned about life through each author’s eyes. Each memoir demonstrates the alchemy of converting the senselessness of real life into the elegant, universally admired elixir of Story. Now, all that needs to happen is for literature professors to discover the power of the memoir. The teachers can fulfill their original charter, by helping students learn the elegant structure of a well-told story. At the same time, the students can immerse themselves in the author’s life, learning features and insights about a wide variety of human experiences.

A Memoir Conveys Clear, Important Truths about Launching

A great example of a memoir that helps define a young person’s adjustment to adult life is New York Mormon Regional Halloween Dance. In it, author Elna Baker pursues the fundamental mission of trying to grow into adulthood. Compare the lessons Elna Baker learned about growing up with the books that influenced me as a young man.

Henry Miller’s characters remain trapped in the never-fulfilled state of sexuality. Elna Baker tries to understand how modern people use sexuality in their quest for mutual commitment.

In The Great Gatsby, the hero tries to learn about life from a man whose money flows from an exaggerated ocean of wealth. Elna Baker’s memoir is about the realistic challenge of developing competencies in order to earn a living.

In Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham’s character travels to remote regions to understand his relationship with spirituality. Elna Baker leaves home, not to escape her responsibilities but to accept them, hoping to find her truths in the same place she earns her living

Growing up requires the power of choosing

In New York Mormon, Elna Baker experiments, learns from the results, and takes the next step, informed by the last. This healthy approach to life sounds so obvious it shouldn’t even require mentioning, and yet when I was a young man, I immersed myself in an endless series of novels in which the “heroes” were trapped by indecision, trying to make sense of an overwhelming world. By identifying with them, I was undermining my will to grow up. As a result, I made what at the time seemed like a rational choice. I “dropped out,” attempting to solve the problem of adulthood by refusing to become one.

If, as a young man, I had been reading memoirs like Elna Baker’s I would have been inspired by her willingness to make choices. She does not fight against adulthood. Instead, she strives to make the most of it. Her proactive approach to acquiring the competencies of adulthood offer more guidance in one book than my years of exploring and studying the literary canon ever did.

Elna Baker represents a generation of memoir heroes who act with purpose, learn to move toward the next step, and take notes so they can pay their stories forward to those of us who need to travel that journey ourselves.

In the third part of this essay, I will tie together educational, scientific, and literary trends that suggest our collective will is already moving in the direction of using Story to help us learn to be social.

Notes

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.

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 three 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 Direct 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.

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.

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

Notes

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