Memoirs Popularize Important Psychology Lessons

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal account of how it feels to be human

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Lessons Can You Learn by Reading Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

Click here for Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes
For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

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

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

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

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More about Why Choose to Write Fiction Instead of Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for Part 3

Notes
For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

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

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

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

Bookmark and Share

What Happens When a Memoir Author Chooses Fiction?

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your initial experience as a memoir writer

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

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

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

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

What did it feel like to break loose from truth?

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

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

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

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

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

Sets you free to explore stylistic invention

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for Part 2

Notes

For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

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

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

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

Bookmark and Share

When Does a Memoir Writer Choose Fiction Based on Life?

by Jerry Waxler

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

Every time I read a memoir, I feel the delicious release of leaving myself behind and entering the author’s world. How did this person cope? How did they grow? How did that feel? My involvement in each author’s experience does not rely on sensational circumstances. I read memoirs to show me the relationship between the author’s circumstances and his or her interior world. Memoirs are the only way I know to see inside another person’s mind. I love that.

I hope my memoir will, someday, offer the same gift to my readers as other authors have done for me – develop the best possible story based on the actual events of my life. That is the memoir writer’s quest.

When I first decided to write my memoir, I had never written a story of any kind, and so I went on a long journey, simultaneously traveling on two parallel roads. Like an electron that is in two places at once, I found myself dancing between the memories themselves and the art of representing those memories in words. I learned that a story carries the reader forward with literary devices, such as pacing, setting expectations, and flights of observation that add a splash of color to an otherwise drab scene.

To learn these skills, I often find myself learning from fiction writers. They are the keepers of storytelling, building on a craft that has been evolving for thousands of years, adjusting and shaping reality in order to captivate the minds of their readers. Even though memoir writers adhere to the truth, sometimes the need for excellence pushes them to the blurry boundary between truth and story.

For example, since few of us have the luxury of accurate contemporaneous notes, we must reconstruct what was said. Even with contemporaneous notes, written dialog is different than spoken. The same creativity applies to one’s thoughts. There is no way to know the exact thoughts. Memoir writers report the most likely version.

I love the veracity of memoirs, and read each one as if it was a detailed, honest account. But I also recognize that when attempting to transform their lives into stories, many writers prefer the pure invention permitted in fiction. There could be many reasons for this choice. Perhaps facts are difficult to remember, or were not exciting, or there are thing to be kept secret.

During my research, I came across a book by Xujun Eberlein. She grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. And her collection of short stories, Apologies Forthcoming, reflects those strange and fascinating times. However, when I asked her about the reality or lack of it in her stories she insisted it was all fiction. [Click here to read our interview.]

Susan Muaddi Darraj a Palestinian-American wrote a book of short stories called The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly, which won the Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction from Foreword Magazine. Most of what I know about Palestinians comes from the turmoil in the Mideast. I wanted to read about Palestinians in South Philadelphia. Her short stories gave me authentic glimpses of cultural mixing, and yet like Xujun Eberlein, she questioned the value of exploring their veracity or lack of it. [Click here to read our interview.]

Even though both books were fiction, their stories gave me a wonderful window into aspects of their lives that I would not otherwise have been able to experience.

Recently, I learned of another example of fiction based on reality, a novel by David Kalish called the Opposite of Everything. The book is about a man’s journey through cancer treatment, a profoundly disturbing time in a person’s life that cries out for understanding. But how much of the story was based on his own experience? He offered a hint during an interview with blogger Crystal Otto:

Before he was Daniel Plotnick, my main character had my name. That’s because my book started as a first-person memoir about my struggles with cancer and divorce. But over years of revision I decided the book worked better as a third-person comedic novel.[Click here for the whole interview.]

This decision fascinated me. Why did he do it and how did the transition work out? Fortunately, he is willing to delve into this question more deeply. In my next post, I will publish the first part of our interview.

Notes

For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

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

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Conflicted about American Melting-Pot: Cultural Identity in Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

America is a massive social experiment in which ethnic groups from all over the world come together and form a new blended culture by divesting some of their culture of origin. However, in the process of blending, we leave behind some of the familiarity of being in an ethnic group.This is not an easy process, since group identity can be built into our self-images through rituals, accents and food. And even built into our genes, through skin and hair color, nose and eye shape, and other inherited traits.

So what happens when you attempt to assimilate into a culture where you feel like an outsider? The dissonance between who you see at home and how you are received out in the world can create internal strife.

The feeling is highlighted in Sue William Silverman’s third memoir Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White, Anglo-Saxon Jew. In this third part of our interview, I ask her to help me understand the experiences that drove her to write the book.

Jerry Waxler: I was born into a Jewish family, and when I attempted to assimilate into American culture, I felt enormously conflicted, as if I was betraying my religious heritage by blending into the larger culture. Because the whole process required emotions that I didn’t clearly understand, I spent a lifetime in an unconscious battle, assuming that to be American I had to distance myself from being Jewish. This paradox caused endless confusion about my identity. Now that I’m reading memoirs and writing my own, I’m consciously reviewing the journey of assimilation and cultural identity. The undeniable fact that I did grow up Jewish makes me realize how ludicrous it’s been to try to pretend I’m not.

What was your experience? Say more about the process of reflecting back on your journey as a person born into a well-defined ethnic culture trying to blend into the larger culture of Americanism.

Sue William Silverman: I have a feeling we’re not alone, that many Jews are conflicted about whether – and how much – to assimilate. Growing up, I had Jewish friends who had nose bobs, or tried in other ways to look more Christian. I also have relatives who Americanized their last names in the belief they’d be more successful in their careers.

Of course there were – and are – tangible reasons for this. I grew up in a time when colleges still had quotas on the number of Jews they would accept. Likewise, housing subdivisions once had restrictive covenants to keep Jews out – as well as African Americans, and Latinos, and anyone else considered “other.” Anti-Semitism has always existed, so there are always incentives to pass.

As much as I myself once wanted to pass…I now just as much don’t want to. As you can see, I publish under my real name, “Silverman.” So no mistaking that name as anything other than Jewish. (For those of you who haven’t read my book, I’ve been married twice – and divorced twice – but, while married, I took each of my husband’s decidedly Christian names.)

I’ve now come to a much more comfortable place within myself. I owe a large part of this to the writing process. By writing the first memoir, I was able to process much of the destruction of growing up in an incestuous family. By writing Love Sick, I was able to work through the shame of a sexual addiction. Now, by writing The Pat Boone Fan Club, I’ve been able to explore the ambiguous feelings toward Judaism while growing up and, through this exploration, am much more accepting of myself, more at peace.

Notes
Sue William SIlverman’s Home Page
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

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

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

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

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Stylistic Choices in Creative Nonfiction, Interview Pt 2

by Jerry Waxler

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

In this second installment of my interview with Sue William Silverman, we continue to talk about her latest memoir The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. In the first segment, I asked her about her stylistic choices. In this one, I dig a little further, trying to learn more about the unusual writing style with which she successfully portrayed a woman attempting to blend into the dominant culture.

Jerry: You seem so obsessive about pop culture. In addition to your passion for Pat Boone, you show how you were afraid to move from one city to another because your new home doesn’t have a cable channel with your favorite television show. And later in the book, you seem to be obsessed with Superman. As I’m reading this memoir, I’m feeling that you are relying on pop culture as a sort of talisman to ward off your fears and insecurities. By immersing yourself in pop culture, you hope to finally melt into the melting pot. That’s a fascinating part of your story, and you do it beautifully, but you communicate your obsession in a really unusual way. You show your obsession by diving so far in, you become a character inside the pop culture. Rather than an observer, your writing takes you into the stories of pop culture so when reading the memoir, I feel like I’m inside your mind, and your mind is inside the television show, or the fan-worship or the Superman comic. Tell me more about those stylistic choices.

Sue William Silverman: One section of the book you’re referring to is “I Was a Prisoner on the Satellite of Love,” in which I was obsessed with the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is now (sadly) off the air. Not only did I love the show, but I was particularly smitten with one of the robots on it, Crow.

Anyway, I wrote the chapter or section almost as if it were an episode of the TV show, so I included Crow, adding his interjections at appropriate times.

Here is a short excerpt from it to better show what I mean. My writing is in blue and I put in red ink the sections where Crow speaks, and these are real lines of his, from the TV show, that I “borrowed” for my book.

To set the scene: My husband, “M,” and I have just flown into Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we’re moving for his new job, from our home in Georgia.

Rich, our realtor, glides to the curb in a black Jaguar. He leaps from the car, enthusiastically welcoming us to west Michigan. I barely shake his hand before collapsing in the back seat, forcing M. to sit in front. Let him schmooze with Rich, listen to the glowing Chamber of Commerce sales pitch. Let him hear about this “perfect” house, that “perfect” neighborhood. ["Hour after hour of heart-pounding small talk," Crow says, in a mock-stentorian voice.]

Just two years ago…, we bought our first house [in Georgia], only recently completing the re-decoration. That’s the house in which I want to live. But now, because of this job offer, we must sell it. I must give up my adjunct teaching job. I must leave my therapist and my group. ["Goodbye," Crow calls. "Thanks for the Valium!"] Worse, I fear I might also have to leave Crow – Crow, the robot, whom I think I love more than my husband. At least it feels as if I’m leaving Crow behind. Surely, though, I reassure myself, cable television stations in Michigan – just as in Georgia – must air the Comedy Central series Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which Crow is one of the stars. But all in all it feels as if I’m leaving my life behind—or as if I’m being abandoned. ["Does anyone have a copy of Final Exit?" Crow asks, innocently.]

In another chapter of the book, “An Argument for the Existence of Free Will and/or Pat Boone’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” I write as if I’m part of a Superman and Lois Lane comic book, an episode in which the young singing sensation Pat Boone visits The Daily Planet. This comic book, published back in 1959, actually exists.

It seemed the perfect invented structure in which I, playing the role of a newspaper reporter, could interview Pat Boone to help him understand why he hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (because of his conservative political and religious views). It’s not a conversation I could ever actually have in person with him, so I surreally portray us all as comic book characters, a format in which I could encourage Pat Boone to be more of a liberal Democrat, along those lines.

Why do this? Because by playing with structure and format (that TV show and the Superman comic book), I’m better able to draw both myself as well as the reader inside the actual experience. Everything we write needs to have its own voice, its own tone, its own structure to best work in conjunction with the content and context.

One thing I love about creative nonfiction is its openness of form. It’s a genre that encourages writers to experiment and push the envelope.

In the next section of the interview, I ask Silverman more about the angst of assimilation and her desire to be included as an “Anglo-Saxon.”

Notes
Sue William SIlverman’s Home Page
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

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

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

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

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Courageous Memoir Author Explains Stylistic Choices

by Jerry Waxler

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

Sue William Silverman’s three memoirs offer inspiring examples of a writer’s willingness to overcome shame in order to share her story. Her first, I Remember Terror Father dealt with the shame of childhood sexual abuse. The second, Love Sick, takes us on the journey of sexual addiction. Her latest memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, tackles the strange and often hidden world of trying to fit into the dominant culture.

Shame is a crucial emotion. As John Bradshaw, the “shaman of shame” points out in his books and lectures, shame has a good side and a bad side. On the good side it keeps us behaving in a socially acceptable manner. A “shameless” person has no concept of social responsibility. On the dark side, shame makes us feel bad about ourselves, and as a result we stay silent about the things that cause it. Memoir writers must fearlessly face these aspects of ourselves, as emphasized in Silverman’s excellent book about memoir writing, whose title”Fearless Confessions” highlights the fact that courage is one of the prerequisites for writing a memoir.

As a Jew, Sue William Silverman grew up feeling like an outsider who wanted to fit in. The shame of being an outsider is familiar to anyone who feels like they don’t belong, whether because of skin color, religion, acne, birth mark, frizzy hair, stutter, poverty, or any of a thousand other causes for self-consciousness.Those of use who are the recipients of prejudice, whether real or imagined, must figure out how to overcome our sense of being different. Sue William Silverman’s book Pat Boone Fan Club takes advantage of the author’s willingness to share her shame and tell a story about her own journey to come to terms with her difference.

In the next few posts, I invite her to answer questions about her memoir, writing about assimilation, and how she developed the particular style of this book.

How does a “dreamy style” work in nonfiction
Jerry: Hi Sue William Silverman. I just reviewed my notes and see our first interview took place in 2009. So nice to speak to you again! And thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about Pat Boone Fan Club.

In your latest memoir, Pat Boone Fan Club, you take us on your journey through your obsessive, desperate, and for the most part, not-logical side of yourself, trying to see yourself reflected in the mirror of our cultural icons – you select Pat Boone as the representative of the most vanilla, most iconic “all-American” pop culture figure. You seem to be saying, “If only I could connect with Pat Boone, I would finally and completely become an American.”

Because this is a memoir, I would ordinarily assume it was all “factual” but because your account of the interview with Pat Boone is so dreamy, I can’t tell if it takes place as a sort of imaginary sequence in your own mind. Could you help me understand your stylistic choice.

Sue William Silverman: The meetings with Pat Boone absolutely take place! The three encounters with him are at the heart of the book. I interweave the actual meetings, our dialogue and interactions, with my thoughts – what you’re calling “dreamy.” Generally speaking, much of memoir is discovering the story behind the story, a movement toward what the facts mean. A simple rendering of “this happened, then this happened, and then this next thing happened,” is only part of a memoir. The other part is to be brought inside the narrator’s reflection of these events – what the author/narrator thinks about these events now, as she’s writing.

Let me show you an example from the book, which should clarify this. First, though, a quick summary: Pat Boone is a 1960s pop-music idol, now better known as a Christian conservative and wholesome, squeaky-clean family man with four daughters. In the book, I write about how, growing up, I had a crush on him. The crush went deeper than the fact that I liked his music. I wanted him to adopt me. Since my own father, my Jewish father, misloved me, Pat Boone seemed the safest man on the planet. In this memoir, I explore my ambiguity toward Judaism and my desire to pass as Christian, be part of the dominant culture and religion.

Anyway, okay, back to your question. In this short excerpt, the factual story is in blue ink, and I’ve inserted my thoughts and reflections in red ink. Just to set the scene, this takes place in Pat Boone’s green room after his Christmas concert. Marc is my partner who accompanies me. You also need to know that I am recovering from a rather serious illness. Pat Boone has just entered the room.

Marc and I stand up from the couch.

“Can I hug you?” Pat Boone asks, smiling.

When he enfolds my frail, ailing body, it feels like a laying on of hands.

Pat Boone will cure me.

“Would you like to sit here?” Marc nods toward the couch, beside me, where he’d been sitting.

Pat Boone shakes his head, pulling a chair directly in front of me. “This way I can see her better.”  Meaning me.  He settles onto the chair….

Pat Boone points to the velvet flower embroidered on my lavender jacket.  “At home, hanging on my wall, I have a photograph of a flower growing up through concrete,” he says.  “Like you.  Your childhood.  You are like a flower growing up through concrete.”

This is Pat Boone, too.  Not just the religious conservative.  But the April-love-love-letters-in-the-sand Pat Boone.  The Pat Boone offering innocence.  Redemption.  Answers….

He is as I always envision: perfect hair, smile, teeth, wife, daughters, career, life.  But I struggle to pay attention as he talks.  I’m weak, dizzy.  I’m just hoping not to pass out.  Even as I lean toward him, smiling, an enormous sadness wells up inside me.  I want to tell Pat Boone I’ve been ill.  I want him to know I was worried I’d miss the concert.  I’m equally sad that I look thin and frail.  I’d wanted to be perfect for him, match his own seeming perfection.  Instead, my skirt hangs loose.  I notice a small rip in the flower on my jacket.  My hair is limp, my face wan.  My only hope is that he won’t notice how sick I appear.  I don’t want to spoil this meeting after anticipating it for so long.

Hopefully, from reading the above, you can see how I move between the actual action unfolding – the “outer” story – and my own thoughts, or the “interior” story.

In the next part of the interview, I ask her about how she used pop culture as an entry point for her fantasy about becoming a “real” American.

Notes
Sue William SIlverman’s Home Page
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

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

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

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

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Memoirs about Search for Cultural Identity in Modernity

by Jerry Waxler

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

In the first part of this article, I consider how Karen Levy’s memoir My Father’s Gardens raises important questions about the search for cultural identity during Coming of Age. In this part, I offer examples of other memoirs that ask similar questions. By exploring these memoirs, you might be able to get in touch with the way national origin, religion, skin color, or other cultural factors influenced your self-image as you grew into your role as an adult.

Examples of Memoirs that Chronicle the Search for Cultural Identity

In Frank McCourt’s childhood home in Ireland, he was mocked as an outsider because he was born the United States. At the end of Angela’s Ashes, he returns to the United States, trying to find his true identity. At the start of his second memoir, ‘Tis, he realizes that as an Irishman, he is advised to stick with his own kind. In other words, he is seen not as an American, but an Irish-American.

Mei-ling Hopgood in Lucky Girl is a Chinese girl adopted into a Midwest family, creating cultural tension between her parents and neighbors and her own biological origins. When she goes back to China to meet her biological family, she feels out of place, unsure if that’s where she belonged.

In the memoir, House on Sugar Beach, Helene Cooper tells of growing up in Liberia. Helene Cooper’s ancestors were freed slaves who moved from the United States to form the nation of Liberia. In the end, to escape a violent rebellion, Cooper emigrates to the U.S. One of the most interesting aspects of her story is that in her own land of Liberia, those blacks who had once been slaves in America had, by virtue of their larger experience, become the privileged elite, often resented by their countrymen who had no such foreign ties.

Henry Louis Gates’ memoir Colored People rivals Cooper’s in terms of the complexity of crossing cultures. Growing up in his small town in the waning years of Jim Crow, he felt secure with his black family and neighbors. He came of age during the tumultuous sixties when the laws changed and Jim Crow was crumbling. While other authors talk about shuttling back and forth between cultures, Gates must cross boundaries at a time when those boundaries are rapidly moving.

In Color of Water, James McBride felt securely black in his home and his neighborhood. As a young adult, he went on a search to understand his white, Jewish mother, who had always hidden her origins from him.

Rebecca Walker’s childhood was split between her mother’s middle class black neighborhood in San Francisco and her father’s privileged white neighborhood on the east coast. Her memoir Black, White and Jewish describes the confusion of trying to develop an identity while straddling these subcultures.

In the book, Black, White, and Other, author Lise Funderberg collects oral histories of many young people who struggled to grow up with a parent on each side of this cultural divide. Funderberg’s book of oral history was written before Barack Obama’s bestselling Dreams of our Fathers led readers along his own journey through this dilemma . All these stories raise awareness that even after multiple generations in the so-called Melting Pot, our cultural identities continue to influence the way we see ourselves.

When Rhoda Janzen in Mennonite in a Black Dress wanted to become an adult, she moved away from her Mennonite community to sophisticated city living. Her memoir is about returning to her roots and trying to make sense of the blend between the modernized culture of her adulthood and the sheltered one in which she grew up.

In Shirley Showalter’s early childhood, as described in her memoir Blush, she grew up embraced by the Mennonite culture of her family and community. Over time, she becomes increasingly aware that her dress, customs, and even choice of words differ from the “outside world.” To become an adult she chooses to assimilate, while at the same time maintaining what she finds good about the Mennonite aspect of herself.

In Sue William Silverman’s quirky memoir Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, she attempts to use her passion for pop culture as an entry point into American culture. In her desperate attempt to understand how a Jewish girl could become identified with a larger blended culture, she seizes on Pat Boone as the epitome of that blended culture, and tries to make sense of herself in relationship to him.

Jewish identity plays a key role in Harry Bernstein’s memoir. Bernstein grows up in England in the early part of the twentieth century. On one side of the street live Jews, and on the other side, Christians, creating a cultural boundary down the center that he calls the Invisible Wall, the title of his memoir.

When Carlos Eire emigrates from Cuba as a little boy in the cruel politically-motivated airlift known as “Operation Peter Pan” of the early 1960s, he considers himself a fan of American pop-culture. It never occurs to him he will be rejected by the people of that great land. But in Florida, his Cuban accent sets him apart as the Other and his classmates scorn him. In the powerful memoir, Learning to Die in Miami, he spends his Coming of Age attempting to be accepted as an American.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Nomad describes her evolution from an African tribal culture into the European Melting Pot. In a fascinating journey from penniless immigrant to member of the Dutch parliament, and in 2005 voted by Time Magazine to be one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The book is a must read for anyone interested in taking a brilliant, in-depth look at the challenges of assimilation in the Western world.

For a look at going back in the other direction, read the series of memoirs written by Ian Mathie about his years as a foreign aid worker in Africa. Even though Mathie is white, he isn’t nearly as much of an outsider in these remote villages as he seems. His missionary parents raised him in the jungles of Africa, providing him with a deep knowledge of local customs. Although his memoirs portray adult adventures in these situations, they all reflect his self-image as a man who has embraced two stunningly different identities. He has somehow found peace as both a modern, white European and a black, indigenous African. Every page and crisis makes one wonder, “How does he find such peace, embracing these two vastly different aspects of his own identity?”

As you attempt to fit into an increasingly blended world, one way to become more comfortable in your own skin is to write a memoir. When you shape your past into a story, your identity becomes a sharable, understandable part of yourself. You no longer limit your identity to just skin color, age, education, job, religion, national origin, and language. You come to see yourself as the person who lived this story.

The universality of memoirs works in both directions. When you read memoirs you gain a broader empathy for the way other people have lived, loved, and learned. Memoirs are a valuable tool in the melting pot. I am so excited to be part of this Memoir Revolution which is teaching us collectively that by combining literature and life, our culture offers us a language that helps us grow together.

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

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

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

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

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