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
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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 next post will contain our interview.

Notes
Sharon Gerdes’ Home Page:

Amazon page for Back in Six Weeks

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

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

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

Magazine Writer To Personal Historian, Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes
Carla Merolla Odell’s home page

Philadelphia Writers Conference

Association of Personal Historians

Foster Winans, Personal Historian

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

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

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

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

Magazine Writer To Personal Historian, Pt1

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read part 2 of this interview, click here.

Notes
Carla Merolla Odell’s home page

Philadelphia Writers Conference

Association of Personal Historians

Foster Winans, Personal Historian

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

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

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

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

Launching into Adulthood – Search for Beliefs

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power of the Memoir Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Click here for Elna Baker’s home page.

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

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

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

More memoirs about spiritual launching

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

Return to Need for Spiritual Belief Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Launching into Adulthood – Find a Job

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

Click here for Elna Baker’s home page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Launching – from Sex to Love in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Interview with Memoir Author Julie Freed

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry: What’s Next

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

Notes

Click here for Julie Freed’s website

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

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

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

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

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

A Memoir About Not Falling Apart

by Jerry Waxler

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

Because fiction writers invent perfectly orchestrated events, many aspiring memoir writers are afraid their lives aren’t structured well-enough to make a good story. However, before you decide if your life is memoir-worthy, take into account the fact that memoir reading is an acquired taste. Memoir readers are willing to give up gut-wrenching, larger-than-life suspense in exchange for psychologically-driven events that provide insights into the human condition.

Occasionally, though, real-life setbacks smash into authors’ lives with the degree of intensity usually found in fiction. Julie Freed’s memoir Naked: Stripped by a Man and by Hurricane Katrina recounts just such an extreme situation. A seemingly happily married young woman keeps in touch with her husband, whose military assignment has taken him away from home. Then, without warning, he sends her an email asking for a divorce. The life they built together, including their new home and infant daughter, are suddenly abandoned. His break off surges like a violent storm, threatening to tear her apart. At the same time, Hurricane Katrina is barreling down on her home in Mississippi.

Even though Julie Freed’s memoir takes us on a ride through two simultaneous life-shattering tragedies, for memoir readers, the events are just the backdrop. The real story is about her courage to cope with her circumstances. Naked is a memoir about NOT falling apart. From that point of view, this story offers hope on every page. By the end, the author reaches a place of safety from which she can look back across the rubble and bravely share her experience with us.

The memoir provides an extreme example of what courage-expert Susan Jeffers recommends in her self-help book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. According to Jeffers, the fear of failure causes many of us to shrink away from enriching activities. She suggests that to live life to its fullest, we need to trust that we can gracefully survive unwanted experiences. Whether we are facing an annoying traffic jam, or a life-threatening hospitalization of a loved one, we must find ways to move forward with as much poise as we can muster.

To increase our resiliency, we practice self-help strategies such as using encouraging self-talk. We center ourselves through relaxed breathing and other meditative strategies of “being here now.” We reach out for support from others. We pray. And we read inspiring memoirs like Julie Freed’s Naked.

The Memoir Revolution has made available a wide variety of such stories about real people who have suffered setbacks, and yet who can “handle it.” By reading about their experiences, we have the opportunity to vicariously practice courage. When we close the book, we feel we have survived, or in Susan Jeffers’ terminology, we have discovered we can handle it.

Inside Julie Freed’s story, we feel the collapse of all the good things in life. Despite that collapse, she carries on, clinging to hope, to the support of her parents and friends, and to the love she feels for her baby. After she survives her larger-than-life setback, she continues to grow. Eventually she feels strong enough to return to these violently disruptive memories and write the story.

By writing, she sorts out the horrible events, earning for herself the higher perspective gained from the author’s vantage point. And by giving the story to us, she helps us experience her strategies. We learn how she reached out for help, how she headed for shelter, how she wove her own brand of assertive pride and humiliated horror, and we join her as she passes through the trauma and onto the next stage in her life.

Writing Prompt
What is your story of NOT falling apart? Write a scene from one of the most disturbing periods in your life. After writing it, step away from it, and breathe. Now, think of a later scene. In this next scene, show how you hung on to peace and sanity, attempting to ride out the challenge.

Notes

Click here for Julie Freed’s website

Click here to read an interview with Julie Freed about writing her memoir.

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

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

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

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

Thoughts are the Soundtrack of a Memoir

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 review of David Berner’s Any Road Will Take You There. Click here to read the first part.

Before I wrote the first draft of my memoir, I visualized my past as a tangled web. When I gathered random anecdotes and placed them in chronological order, they began to connect, making it easier to see how one thing led to another. The next breakthrough came in critique groups where I learned that readers want to know more than the sequence of events. They want to know what I’m thinking.

Introspection is such an important feature in memoirs that a memoir without this dimension feels as if it is skimming the surface. By adding the mental track, the author does for memoirs what a good sound track does for movies. In both cases, the sound we hear helps us relate to what we see. The analogy with a movie sound track highlights a fundamental principle of all storytelling – a good story operates on two planes, inner and outer.

To feel engaged in any story, we need to understand the motivations of the characters. However, because our predominant cultural stories are formulaic, we often forget about this inner dimension. In thrillers, the good guys naturally want to chase the bad guys and bad guys naturally fight back. Similarly, in mysteries the detective needs to solve the crime, and in romances, the girl needs to get the guy. We don’t need to know much about the inner dimension in these stories because we assume they are roughly about the same every time.

Memoirs are about real life. We grow up, start a family, get a job, grow older, take a trip. Meanwhile, inside the protagonist of a memoir, all hell is breaking loose. Our search for love, dignity and understanding can become so vast, it seems to fill the sky. Memoirs provide insight into the characters’ deepest dreams and needs, and they achieve this effect with carefully crafted, cleanly integrated thoughts.

When Memoir Characters Need to Think a Lot
I am intimately familiar with the importance of thinking my way through major life transitions. When I attempted to pass through the gateway from child to adult, I struggled for years to think my way across the chasm. In fact, the working title of my memoir is Thinking My Way to the End of the World. So when I read memoirs, I take special note of the way the author reveals his or her inner process. Two recent examples illustrate the way memoir authors successfully include their thoughts.

When Cheryl Strayed was attempting to transition from girl to woman, she underwent a process of self-reevaluation. Her memoir, Wild, is about her attempt to do that reevaluation while taking a hike. The memoir on the surface is about a hike through the wilderness. Cheryl Strayed entices readers to turn the page to experience the trappings of her hike: blistered feet, fear of getting lost, heavy backpacks, and encounters with fellow hikers. But inside her mind, she is free to ramble, consider the past, and have inner discussions about the direction of her life.

Readers didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that her outer circumstances had little to do with her inner ones. The book was an acclaimed bestseller even before it appeared on the big screen, demonstrating that readers are interested in an author’s inner dimension and willing to go along for the inner ride.

Memoir author David Berner also needed to share a thoughtful life transition. In his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, he describes the meltdown that provoked him to leave his family and start a new life. In his second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, he returns to that decision to leave, and tries to figure out how to maintain his responsibility to his children. To reconcile the opposing parts of his desire, to leave and yet to remain loyal, he needs to think long and hard about responsibility, about his relationship to the boys, and about his father’s relationship to him.

To do all of this thinking, David Berner takes his sons and a buddy on a drive in a motor home. They roughly follow the path described by Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Each day a little more road passes under their wheels in perfect, chronological sequence. And as the miles go by, the boredom of travel invites introspection.

David Berner’s journey is less complex or picturesque than a hike through the wilderness. Reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s book, On the Road, this simple outer journey provides just enough forward momentum to keep readers engaged, while the much more dramatic story takes place inside his mind.

Occasionally one of Berner’s two sons says or does something that triggers a round of musing. Within each of these reveries, time moves more fluidly, leaping from one generation to another, like the point-counterpoint of jazz riffs, in which motifs intertwine, never going too far into one before the other intervenes, giving endless opportunities for contrast. Reconciling his inner conflicts, and figuring out how to renew his connection to the boys creates intense thoughts, written artfully in micro-essay, musing style.

These weren’t flashbacks. In a flashback, the reader must leap backward, and shift focus to a previous time frame. At the end of a flashback, the reader must leap forward again into the timeframe of the storyteller. This can create a jarring effect. On the other hand, David Berner’s musings comment on the past without actually returning to it.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. Berner is deciding whether or not to buy a memento on this trip. From there he remembers the emotional importance of travel in his life. The following paragraph explores this thought in greater depth.

“When I was a kid, the shortest family vacation would mean at least a cheap tee-shirt or salt water taffy to carry home for a cousin or the neighbor who took in the mail. And when my mother and father traveled to England to find the boyhood home of my grandfather, my mother’s dad, they returned with inexpensive fisherman sweaters and coasters with pictures of Westminster Abbey. My sons visited Abbey Road Studios with their mother on a European holiday, and their gift to me was a single white guitar pick. I loved that gift.”

After the introspective moment plays out, we look up and see we have traveled further on the road and the outer storyline picks up again. This alternating play between interior thought and exterior travel creates an almost musical rhythm.

How to use outer circumstances as the video for your own inner sound track
Both Cheryl Strayed and David Berner offer examples of the way a simple trip, from beginning to end, can be used as an opportunity to explore their inner lives. Each author faces an important life transition, to grow into adulthood, or to adjust to the changing landscape of middle age. The authors take us on a journey, during which we listen to their hearts and minds.

Their examples illustrate something all memoirs have in common. In the world of action, circumstances are unfolding. At the same time, inside the character, a series of thoughts and reactions play out, usually triggered by the external events. The events provide the visual framework. And the thoughts and musings offer readers a sound track.

If you wonder if your life transitions were interesting or important enough to write about, consider these two memoirs. In one, a girl is attempting to become a woman. In the other, a middle-aged man is attempting to renew his responsibility to his sons. What could be more ordinary? And yet, through the artful interplay of outer circumstance and inner response, we feel ourselves pulled into their lives. By the end of the journey, we have been enriched by the thoughts, ideas, and images that helped these authors adjust to great changes in their world views, and to adapt to new chapters in their lives.

Writing Prompt
What transition or challenge in your life required you to rethink your self-image?

What set of external circumstances unfolded while you were attempting to come to this inner shift?

Notes
David Berner’s Home Page
Click here for my review of Accidental Lessons
Click here to read an interview I did with David Berner

In the memoir Ten Speed, author Bill Strickland figures out his own deepest secrets while on a bicycle. He desperately needs to review his life in order to shake off the legacy of his father’s abuse, so he can fully love his daughter. Click here to read my article about Ten Speed.

Coming Soon: a list of memoirs I have read (or in some case previewed) by authors who have written more than one.

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

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

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

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

Two-Memoir Series about Youth, Midlife, and Responsibility

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 a review of David Berner’s Any Road Will Take You There. Click here to read the first part.

In Accidental Lessons, David Berner’s first memoir, a middle-aged man looks for himself in the wider world. From one point of view, it’s the classic midlife abandonment, leaving his wife and kids. But there’s a twist. Instead of running away from responsibility, he takes a job as a school teacher and helps students grow.

David Berner’s second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, seems to follow a similar thread. Again, he leaves home to find meaning. But again, Berner is not exactly running away. This time he hits the road, but in a motor home. And he takes his sons with him.

The characters in Any Road Will Take You There are supposedly following the path of the beat generation of fifty years earlier, when young rebels flaunted the values of society.  But during this updated version, a middle-aged man celebrates social responsibility. By taking his sons along for the ride, Berner attempts to inspire them with the same book that inspired him in his youth. Passing along social values to one’s sons is the very definition of “tradition” and a fabulous sendup of Jack Kerouac’s rebellion. The interplay of the two forces, running away and returning, creates fascinating harmonics.

Within the container of the road trip, Berner is able to ponder the rebelliousness of his youth, and place those youthful impulses within the context of his mid-life crisis. With each passing mile, he moves farther and farther into his commitment to his children. Instead of renewing his commitment to self-indulgence, the way mid-life crises are expected to do, Berner renews his commitment to care for others.

Leaving Home is Only the First Half of the Hero’s Journey
According to Joseph Campbell’s influential book, Hero of a Thousand Faces, the story of the young warrior leaving home to find his place in the world is at the heart of civilization. Campbell finds some variation of this image of “going forth” in every culture on earth.

This desire to find truths somewhere else is not just ancient history. In modernity we continue to travel outward as if our lives depend on it. That spirit drove Europeans west across the American frontier. Jack Kerouac updated the image to a new generation. On the Road was like a starter pistol that launched ten thousand cars. When I drove to San Francisco in 1969, I was not simply looking for good weather. By rejecting my parents’ values, and even their presence in my life, I was following this exciting idea — find truth by abandoning everything you know and believe.

A decade later, most of us former hippies figured out how to establish our adult lives. To do so, we had to reconcile an important flaw in our idealism. By leaving everything behind we had fostered a valueless, chaotic society. But how had we been so misled by the universal myth of the hero? Surely a fundamental guideline of human experience couldn’t have been so out of kilter.

At the time, I couldn’t make sense of how far off track I’d gone, but I kept asking the question. Now, the Memoir Revolution is providing answers. When David Berner looks back across his life, the outward bound passion of our youthful rebellion is shown in a new light. David Berner and other middle-aged chroniclers of the social experimentation of the sixties are helping us update the Hero’s Journey to the twenty first century. Or more accurately, we are rediscovering that the Hero’s Journey has contained that deeper wisdom all along.

It turns out that by celebrating the “going forth” part of the Hero’s Journey, modern cultures have been glossing over the crucial outcome of the Hero’s Journey. At the end of the classic story, the hero returns home. As a returned adventurer, the ultimate goal of the hero is not to conquer the unknown. In the next leg of the journey, the goal is to bring back wisdom to share with the community. In its complete form, the Hero’s Journey is about building and sustaining communities.

David Berner’s memoir Any Road Will Take You There reminds us of this necessary completion of the Hero’s Journey. He springboards from Kerouac’s image of leaving home, but Berner’s variation on this journey has a wonderful twist. He exposes mid-life, not as a time to leave home, but as a time to reevaluate and renew his commitment to his community. As a teacher to his students and his sons, Berner reminds us that the hero’s journey ends with wisdom that will help maintain social values and raise responsible children.

Mid-life crisis corrected
In middle age, it’s natural to fear the whispers of one’s own mortality. As long as our culture only values the “going forth” half of the Hero’s Journey, these fears might prod us to renew our youthful attempt to leave everything, as if by going outward we can become heroes again. But by prolonging the adventuresome half of the journey, we miss the reward offered to us throughout the history of civilization. Instead of going out again, we can find peace and fulfillment by accepting the call to return.

David Berner’s story offers us that image. Instead of focusing on the first half of the Hero’s Journey, he glorifies the second. By returning to his children, and the students in his school, he offers his wisdom to young people so that they can live wiser lives, themselves.

The story of Any Road Will Take You There is seductively simple. Rent a van and go on holiday. However, Berner’s apparently simple send up of On the Road creates a complex backdrop. His first memoir Accidental Lessons adds even more context. Through his two memoirs, the author transforms his midlife crisis into a meditation about generations, about the responsibilities of fathers, about the power of literature to transform individual lives.

On The Road was Jack Kerouac’s roman a clef, that is a novel based on the adventures of one of the great reporters of the Beat Generation. David Berner has done an excellent job updating that message with a true life message of his own. By writing his memoir, Berner compares the “going forth” of the Beat movement in the sixties with the “return home” of the Memoir Revolution in the twenty-first century. In our era, we can complete the cycle: grow up, learn about the world, then by writing a memoir, bring our wisdom to the next generation.

Notes
David Berner’s Home Page
Click here for my review of Accidental Lessons
Click here to read an interview I did with David Berner

For another memoir about an idealistic response to midlife, read Janet Givens At Home on the Kazakh Steppe about a woman who volunteered for a Peace Corps stint at age 53. Click here for Janet Givens’ home page.

Click here for a list of memoirs I have read by authors who have written more than one.

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

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

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

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