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.

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.

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Two Midlife Memoirs: A Sequel Shows Command of Structure

by Jerry Waxler

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

I met David Berner in the pages of his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, so reading his second memoir Any Road Will Take You There feels like hanging out with an old friend. The second memoir turned out to be quite different from the first, so in addition to the pleasure of spending a few more hours with this kind, thoughtful man, I was fascinated to read about him from such a different perspective. The two memoirs together spin a multi-layer tale that offers interesting insights — into the man and into the memoir genre’s potential for rich literary value.

In the first memoir, Accidental Lessons, Berner, terrified that his life is superficial, quits his job and separates from his wife. The cliché of midlife suggests a man running away from responsibility and trying to live out his childhood. However, Berner doesn’t follow that hackneyed model. He takes a job teaching at a school in an under-privileged neighborhood. To find his new self image, he attempts to help other young people find theirs.

Accidental Lessons is framed within his year as a new teacher, a position that is accompanied with a bit of humiliation. While other teachers have been doing it for years, he is a total novice. He teaches his young students how to prepare for life, and at the same time, he is learning similar lessons. By the end, he’s starting to get the hang of it.

His story structure, bracketed within the rhythm of a school year, is a perfect canvas on which to paint a journey.  But I didn’t fully appreciate Berner’s cleverness in finding a good wrapper for a memoir until I read his second book.

Sequel Does Not Simply Follow Chronologically
Many second memoirs simply follow the chronological sequence, picking up where the first one left off. For example, Frank McCourt’s first memoir Angela’s Ashes was about growing up in Ireland and his second memoir ‘Tis was about becoming an adult in New York. Carlos Eire’s first memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana was about his childhood during the Cuban Revolution. Despite Carlos Eire’s fascinating experiments with flashbacks and flashforwards, in essence his second memoir, Learning to Die in Miami is a sequel to his first, mainly about his attempt to survive as an orphan in the United Stated.

However, David Berner’s second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, does not simply continue the journey of the school teacher. Instead, the second memoir jumps to a different model altogether. In the second memoir, he rents an RV and takes a road trip with his two sons and an old buddy. The small troupe drives along the same route Jack Kerouac’s characters travel in the landmark book On the Road.

Kerouac’s book, published in 1957, foreshadowed the counterculture of the 1960s and inspired many young men to hit the road and find their truths somewhere other than home. It certainly exerted a profound influence on young David Berner. In Any Road Will Take You There, he tries to pass this literary inspiration to his sons. So the outer story is the road trip itself. And that deceptively simple storyline provides a backdrop on which he paints a complex inner journey.

Because the road trip gives him time to think, the memoir turns into a meditation. Through mini-essays disguised in reveries, Berner explores the relationship of fathers and sons through three generations. And by contrasting his road trip with Jack Kerouac’s he offers new insight into the meaning of the Beat Generation fifty years later. I’ll say more about these deeper dimensions of the memoir in the second and third parts of this review.

Lesson for Memoir Writers
In addition to its artistically brash move to a new structure, Berner’s second memoir contains an interesting clue for writers who wonder. “How much backstory should I include in my memoir?”

The first memoir, Accidental Lessons, provides a wonderful example of a memoir that includes hardly any backstory. He jumps right into his crisis, without saying much about his earlier life. Even though the memoir offers very little backstory about Berner’s previous life, it offers fabulous backstory for David Berner’s second memoir. By reading the first, you gain insight into the character in the second.

The fact that Berner branched out into an entirely different model for his second memoir is a tribute to his commitment to the genre. Each book is excellent in its own right, and together they offer valuable lessons for memoir writers. First, you don’t need to be limited by any one model, and second the road might be longer than you think. There may be a sequel in there waiting to be told.

Writing Prompt
Does your story have enough complexity to break it into two parts? If so, describe the story arc of each of the two parts. How would the first part provide backstory for the second?

This is the first part of a series about David Berner’s memoir Any Road Will Take You There. For the second part, click here.

Notes
David  Berner’s Home Page

Click here for my review of Accidental Lessons

Another author who writes memoirs in different structures is Sue William Silverman. Her first memoir I Remember Terror Father Because I Remember You was a Coming of Age story. Her recent memoir (her third) is Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew in which she embeds parts of her adult life in stories in a pop culture style.

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.

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Trauma Passed Through Generations Shared by Writing a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

Linda Appleman Shapiro’s memoir, She’s Not Herself is about a girl whose mother had a serious mental illness. The memoir itself raised many intriguing ideas about the children of trauma survivors, about the secrets parents keep, and about how children manage to find their way despite grave difficulties. In addition to the events that took place inside the book, I am intrigued by how the author continued to develop as an adult. How did she integrate all the emotional upheaval that took place in her childhood, and turn it into a memoir? In this interview, I ask Linda Appleman Shapiro questions that might help aspiring memoir writers, who are looking back toward memories and forward toward turning memories into a story.

Jerry Waxler: As a reader, I cared deeply for the little girl who had to grow up navigating among such complex psychological pressures. Clearly these were traumatic trainings and you had to carry the burden of these memories into your adult years.

Linda Appleman Shapiro: When you say that I had to carry the burden of my early memories into my adult years, I’d have to add that I think it’s much more complicated than that. To carry a burden one has to be aware of the burden. If one succeeds in hiding the truth from himself/herself, the memories remain locked away until one trigger or another sets them loose.

In my case: I knew that my mother became sick several times each year. At such times, I heard my father refer to doctors giving her something he referred to as “shock treatments.”  At other times, when she was taken to the hospital, I was left alone with my father or shipped off to one aunt or another. I received no explanation other than “Your mother, she’s not herself today.”

Just as I was entering adolescence and the woman in me began to identify with my mother that fear for myself had begun to set in. I became conscious of living in a daily state of hyper vigilance and beyond that I was also beginning to lose my footing. Emotional swings that take place in every normal adolescent’s life soon became exaggerated nightmares in mine.

Jerry: You’ve done an incredible job in the memoir, sharing that whole journey with your readers. Now, as a memoir writer, you have clearly been on a very different journey. Memoir writers must reach back into their memories and turn them into a story.

It must have been painful to go back and look at those times, with so much confusion, suffering, and secrets. How did you face all of that when you were looking back?

Linda: I think what saved me from myself as I started to sort out disturbing memories occurred years before writing this memoir. It came from the therapy I sought in my early life when I was becoming more and more aware that the role I played in our family was interfering with my adult relationships, especially with my first love experience. I write about that in detail in the book.

I received invaluable tools from skilled professionals and for 30+ years have been a behavioral psychotherapist/addictions counselor. Based on this background, I wanted to make sense of the effects of multigenerational traumas, providing readers with hope from whatever wisdom I have as someone who has examined human vulnerability in its many disguises and has moved through and beyond trauma.

Jerry: Say more about the process of actually writing it. How long did it take? Did you love writing it or dread it?

Linda: The entire process was one of about twenty years while working full-time as a psychotherapist, living life within our family, with our daughters, in our community, and later with our grandchildren.

Throughout, I remained committed and determined to peel away the onion that was my life. There was never a time that I set writing aside. In fact, once I began, the writing seemed to write itself. As one memory emerged, others came forth . . . and there were many times when a memory was so horrific that I questioned if what I believed I was remembering actually did occur. But that didn’t stop me from writing or examining and exposing all that did happen. As one witness to human vulnerability and human strength, the process of writing it all was not cathartic. It was grueling because I forced myself to remain as authentic as possible.

By creating scenes and dialogue between my parents and writing about each of the memories they shared with me about life in war-torn Russia before emigrating to America, I got to know them on a far deeper level than I ever did while they were alive. As characters in my memoir, I respected and loved them more with each page that I wrote.

Of course, I also learned a great deal more about myself. The patterns of my life that popped off certain pages (revealing an ever present need to rescue a person or a moment, even at my own expense) caused me to feel the same concerns for that little girl who was the me that you felt concerned about.

Jerry: Now that your memoir has been published you have come a very long way, from a little girl on Brighton Beach, through your young adulthood, trying to sort out these disturbing memories, to an older adult who has crafted the story of that little girl and shared it with the world. Congratulations! What can you share about the feeling of having written a memoir that is now being read by strangers. Was it satisfying? Healing? Invigorating? Did you miss it once it was over?

With regard to how I feel about strangers reading my memoir, I have a one word response: HONORED. Actually, I believe that story telling is a part of my genetic inheritance. My father did not share many personal stories, but as an immigrant, he always tried to fit in to a new world. He supported his family by being a salesman, and he learned early on with each joke and every story he could tell to distract a customer, he’d gain a sale. Mother’s stories were all personal. She shared all of her memories with me – probably too many for a child to integrate and not feel as though I was a part of that world in Russia, reliving it all with her each time she told me yet another story. Yet, at the same time, from as early as I can remember, Mother always said that everyone’s life is worthy of a book and that if she were a writer she’d tell her story if it could help just one person.

So, to answer your question I’d have to say that I know she would be proud to know that in telling her story and mine, we are helping people take secrets out of their closet and not feel ashamed to seek the best help available for their family .  . . and though much more funding is needed to deal with the epidemic numbers of young suicides and mental illness, in general, there is certainly much more help and acceptance available today than when I was growing up.

To answer the next part of your question: Every aspect of having published my memoir is “satisfying, healing, and invigorating.” Though it took me many, many years to teach myself how to write, since I never allowed myself to consider writing creatively because my brother was a writer and that role had been taken in the family. . . I am now able to identify myself as a writer.

This memoir was a labor of love and tenacity and I do miss not writing. Once I completed writing the book, I definitely experienced writer’s withdrawal and, in the hope of fulfilling my need to continue writing, I do plan to revive a blog that I’d written for three years, “A Psychotherapist’s Journey,” for which Wellsphere named me the Top Blogger in the area of mental health.

Knowing that I have speaking engagements lined up and I’m currently in the process of this blog tour, it’s not “over.” Without being overly sentimental, I’d add that it is as life itself, a work that will continue to be in process.

Notes

Linda Appleman Shapiro’s Home Page
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/lindaapplemanshapiro41
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/lashapiro1
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1421689.Linda_Appleman_Shapiro

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.

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Launching Memoirs Chronicle Main Tasks to Grow to Adulthood

by Jerry Waxler

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

The modern memoir movement burst into being around the beginning of the twenty-first century, ushered in by a slew of bestselling stories about growing up such as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club. Those books describe the childhood development of their protagonists.

Now the presence of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild on the New York Times Bestseller list signals an interest in the next period of life, called “Launching.” At the beginning of Wild, the young woman is unemployed, sexually active, and confused about her relationship with drugs, men, and life in general. To find herself, she goes on a wilderness hike, during which she ponders her past. With each mile that passes underfoot, she moves farther from her confusion and closer to her future adulthood. Her outer story relies heavily on the struggle with nature, an ancient backdrop for the universal task of becoming an adult.

This period of transition into adulthood is not new. It’s just that Strayed’s memoir is a current favorite, focusing the book buying public on a transition that all of us must undergo. In most memoirs, the transition doesn’t take place in the wilderness. Instead, their authors must sort themselves out amid mundane challenges.

Stephen Markley’s clever memoir Publish This Book, is a great example of a young guy who needs to figure things out. Markley had just finished college and needed a job. His brainstorm to write a book about “publishing this very book” paid off. The outer story is filled with self-aware irony about the absurdities of writing a book about writing a book. The inner story is about Markley’s transition from college grad to adult. To complete that transition, he must establish a career, form a relationship and in general acquire enough oomph to move on to the next step in his life.

At the end of Frank McCourt’s bestselling Angela’s Ashes, the young man has just left home physically but he arrives in New York with no idea of what to do next. In his second memoir, ‘Tis, he describes the next leg of his journey in which he searches for work and attempts to form a relationship.

In Jancee Dunn’s successful memoir, Enough About Me, the outer story is about the adventures of a young celebrity interviewer. But at its heart, Enough About Me describes a young woman trying to figure out how to gain sufficient competency to leave home, form relationships, and get a good job.

Both Jancee Dunn’s and Frank McCourt’s launching memoirs take place in and around New York City, a cultural hotbed, famous as a place to search for that next exciting step into adulthood. Another memoir about trying to make it as an adult in New York is Elna Baker’s New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance (NYRMSHD).

After Elna Baker moves away from her parents’ home, she has to figure out how to transform from a youthful adult to a fully functioning one. Her excellent memoir about launching contains an in-depth treatment of the developmental tasks a young adult must undergo in order to make the transition.

In fact, the author describes her transition into adulthood with such crisp, engaging storytelling, I think of NYRMSHD as a quintessential Launching memoir. In it, she offers an in-depth treatment of what I have come to see as the three fundamental tasks required to make this transition.

In addition to the two standard ones of figuring out how to earn a living and how to form a committed relationship, she adds a third. She needs to figure out how much of her parents’ belief system to bring with her into her adult life. I believe that this third task is every bit as important as the first two, but for many reasons, it has not been as prominently covered in memoirs. Elna Baker makes up for that deficiency in a fascinating exploration of her Mormon upbringing and the conflicts it creates in her launching.

In the following posts, I’ll review the way Elna Baker tackles these three aspects of Launching. I hope these posts will give you ideas about how you might be able to shape and share the story of your own transition into adulthood.

Notes
Click here for another article about memoirs whose authors transition into adulthood:

Click here for a New York Times article Long Winding Path to Adulthood

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.

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Understand Self by Looking Back: Memoir of an Examined Life

by Jerry Waxler

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

Throughout her career as a nurse, Kathleen Pooler cared for thousands of patients. At the end of her career, she turned her attention to the one person she neglected — herself. To give herself the retirement gift of finding meaning in her life, she decided to craft her memories into a story.

In order to write her memoir, she embarked on a process to learn the necessary skills. True to her generous nature, she started a blog so she could share her journey with others. As fast as she gathered insights into memoir writing, she passed them along.

As if inviting us into a friendly classroom, her blog introduced us to the writers who inspired her. By joining her and her “crew” we became part of her online community of writers who love memoirs.

Kathy Pooler was, in a sense, writing two memoirs at once. The book itself, Ever Faithful To His Lead: My Journey Away from Emotional Abuse, traces her journey as a young woman . Her blog covers the period past the pages of the book, chronicling her transformation from a nurse of physical health to her new “career” as a nurturer of life stories. Continue reading

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Memoir of a Nervous Breakdown: Her Mind Betrayed Her

by Jerry Waxler

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

One night, when my dad came home from work, Mom told him in hushed tones that a neighbor had suffered a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t understand what that meant. Decades later, after I had achieved my master’s degree in counseling psychology, I still wasn’t able to form a clear mental image of a “nervous breakdown.”

The condition came into focus only after I began reading memoirs. In Darkness Visible, the famous author William Styron describes his psychotic break during severe depression. And in Unquiet Mind, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison describes her experiences during bipolar disorder.

As the Memoir Revolution continues to mature, increasing numbers of us are stepping forward to share the extraordinary experiences that impact our ordinary lives. In a recent memoir Tara Meissner takes advantage of this new freedom. Her memoir Stress Fracture provides a deeply introspective, well researched, and carefully explained account of her breakdown and recovery.

Stress Fracture begins with Tara Meissner growing up and like anyone else, striving toward a satisfying happy life, when, for some reason, her mind trips into freefall. Her strange thoughts lead to even stranger conclusions. Flooded with false reasoning that makes it impossible to function, she is confined in a hospital for her own protection. From inside the chaotic bubble, she wrestles with her thoughts, attempting to get them back into line with reality. The betrayal by her mind brings her pursuit of happiness to a screeching halt. And then, gradually, due to relentless effort to return to normalcy, she recovers and finds the words with which to describe her horrifying experience. Continue reading

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These Memoirs Are Similar to Biographies

by Jerry Waxler

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

This article continues the series inspired by Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness about raising her daughter through a maddening cycle of rebellion. For the first article in the series, click here

Rachel Pruchno wrote her memoir, Surrounded by Madness, at the intersection between a memoir and a biography. As a memoir, it is a first person account of a mother trying to raise a troubled daughter. As a biography, it records in detail that daughter’s journey through the first 18 years of life. This hybrid approach to memoir writing provides an important example of a structure that has been used by other memoirs and might give you some ideas about how to write yours.

All of us have intimate, long term relationships, for example, with parents, siblings, partners, friends, children, and colleagues. In many memoirs, these characters slip into the background. A husband or mother might be mentioned but never even have a speaking role in the drama. Other memoirs promote these characters into the limelight, sharing the stage, or sometimes even turning the stage over to the other character entirely.

Here’s an example of a memoir that focuses so much attention on the central figure that the author becomes almost invisible. In the memoir, Reading my Father, Alexandra Styron tells the story of her father, the famous novelist William Styron. She herself plays a minor role. Miranda Seymour’s memoir Thrumpton Hall is also mainly about her father. She tells of his obsession with his English Country estate, and in the process, allows us to see both her father and the fate of the gentry in the twentieth century. But we don’t learn much about her.

Some memoirs hover in the space between the two people. When James McBride attempted to figure out his heritage, his memoir Color of Water investigated his mother’s life as a Jew growing up in the south before she married a black man and moved up north. The memoir is about the son’s attempt to find his own truths, by learning more about hers.

A Dark and Troubling Journey

Rachel Pruchno’s story is a far more complex application of the “memoir as a biography” – As her daughter’s story proceeds, we are forced to face the fact that the person at the center of the story is so disturbing, we actually need a bridge back to sanity. And we use the storyteller as that bridge.

To stay hopeful, we readers are accustomed to link our destinies to the sane characters who walk away from the rubble. In the classic novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, readers maintain sanity by sticking with the chronicler, Ishmael, rather than the crazy main character, Ahab. Similarly, in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the teller of the tale offers the reader a bridge from the despair of the story to the survival of the storyteller.

Most of the memoir, Surrounded by Madness is about Rachel Pruchno’s daughter’s out-of-control behavior, and a mother who constantly strives to help the daughter get back on track. Just as in Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness, the final truth rests with the storyteller, rather than with the story’s central character.

In another example, Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, the initial story is about the life of her son, a brilliant young musician. As he falls prey to Bipolar Disorder, the emphasis shifts from raising him to trying to save him. Unlike Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness, the breakdown occurs early enough for readers to gain a clear understanding of what happens next. After her son’s suicide the memoir is all about the mother’s grieving and growing. In this sense, only the first part of the book is semi-biographical, and the second part is a hundred percent memoir.

More Approaches to the Memoir and Biography Hybrid

Many memoir writers are curious to learn the stories of their parents’ earlier lives. I’ve already mentioned Alexandra Styron’s portrayal of her famous father in Reading My Father. As a youngest child, rarely invited into the private life of her father, she saw his fame from a distance. To learn about him, she studied his papers, similar to the way any historian would have learned about him. And Miranda Seymour, author of Thrumpton Hall, also researched her father’s life by reviewing his diary. James McBride’s research in Color of Water feels like the work of a drowning man, who can only be saved by figuring out his mother. Setting aside for a moment that Barak Obama is president of the United States, his memoir Dreams of Our Fathers captures a young man’s thirst to understand his roots. All of these authors invested years of creative research and writing to make better sense of their parents.

Karen Fisher Alaniz is another daughter who tries to understand her father. She discovers  he has been so secretive about his World War II experiences because of the fact that he was involved in military secrets, and even half a century after the classified information could be used by the enemy, he still felt constrained by orders. The memoir, Breaking the Code, is a fascinating example of the way secrets separate people. The author’s instinct to break through the secrets in the final years of her father’s life offers a beautiful demonstration of that curiosity many of us feel about the lives of our parents.

In another story by a daughter, Susan Erikson Bloland grew up feeling jealous and ashamed by the fact that the public knew her father better than she did. Her memoir In the Shadow of Fame is not so much about the famous psychologist Erik Erikson as it is about the damaging effects of fame on the self esteem of the other members of the family.

Some writers want so badly to tell their parent’s story they create ghost written accounts. These first person “memoirs”, written by children in the voice of the parent, provide an extreme example of a child’s desire to understand a parent’s earlier life. Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Linda Austen, is a ghost written account of a woman growing up in Japan before World War II, marrying an American serviceman, and moving to the United States. And Eaves of Heaven was written by Andrew X. Pham as a ghost-written memoir about his father’s life growing up in Vietnam, surviving the hardships of colonialism, rebellion, and imprisonment. Both stories were based on extensive interviews.

Friend or Companion

When memoirs are about a friend, spouse or companion, the story is more a biography of the relationship than of the person. For example, Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell is as much about the friendship between two women as it is about the other woman. In a more troubling memoir about a relationship, Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner is about her relationship with an abusive husband.

In two memoirs, a wife has lost a husband, and tells about that relationship from beginning to end. Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener is the biography of her relationship with her husband, from courtship, to his early demise, and then through her grieving. Naked: Stripped by a Man and Hurricane Katrina by Julie Freed includes a biography of her relationship with her husband, and then her struggle to make sense of that relationship after he leaves her.

An unusual account of a relationship is Father Joe, The Man Who Saved My Faith by Tony Hendra. The memoir is the relationship between Hendra and his spiritual mentor. Like any memoir, it provides an opportunity to share a slice of life that readers might not have experienced. Tony Hendra’s mentor is a monk, and the memoir provides a peek into a monastery, a sort of atavistic example of an ancient tradition of men living apart and devoting their lives to God.

The Other Character Is Not Always Human

Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg is by the famous researcher of a famous parrot. Pepperberg’s groundbreaking research into the linguistic aptitude of the parrot escaped the limits of scientific journals and went public, giving the world insight into the uncanny brilliance of the African Gray parrot. The memoir offers fascinating a glimpse into the personal relationship between the two creatures.

Similarly Marley and Me by John Grogan tells the story of a relationship with a dog. The ensemble cast includes the whole family, but throughout the story, it’s clear that the dog is the star.

Less famously, Oogie, a Dog Only a Family Could Love by Larry Levin creates a similar effect. This memoir adds gravitas to dog ownership by mixing in issues of dog fighting, and also creating a loving environment for two adopted boys.

Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him by Luis Carlos Montalvan is about a veteran who suffers from PTSD and how his relationship to a service dog helps him regain his dignity. Saddled by Susan Richards is a memoir about her life, with an emphasis on the healing effects of caring for her horse.

Conclusion

As you develop ideas about your own memoir in progress, consider your other characters. Perhaps one of them deserves top billing in the title, or in a different telling of the same story, you could portray the character’s influence from offstage. Or you might find that your best story is a hybrid, hovering between yourself and the other character or switching from one to the other. When Rachel Pruchno started writing her memoir, Surrounded by Madness, she focused almost entirely on her daughter. As the story reached a conclusion, the focus shifted, and suddenly the author took center stage. Similarly, Madeline Sharples first wrote about her son, and then shifted emphasis to herself. These creative decisions are determined both by the specific events of your life and by your goals in writing your memoir. By reviewing the wide range of possible structures offered by memoirs you read, you can open your imagination to the story that best expresses who you are and what story you want to share with the world.

Writing Prompt

What one main character in your memoir might zoom up into center stage? Write a synopsis of the memoir as if it was about this one other character, or about the relationship with this person.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website
Madeline Sharple’s website
Susan Weidener’s website
Karen Fisher Alaniz’s website
Julie Freed’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.

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

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Memoir Structure: Beginning Doesn’t Always Point to the End

by Jerry Waxler

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

This article continues the series inspired by Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness about raising her daughter through a maddening cycle of rebellion. For the first article in the series, click here

Well-structured stories start with a character on a mission. The protagonist’s desire generates the momentum that carries the reader through the middle. By the end, the reader expects some graceful conclusion. In a sense, the whole purpose of reading the story is to learn how the mission turned out.

Consider the structure of the Coming of Age subgenre. At the beginning, the child’s mission is to grow up. Through the middle, the child grows biologically and attempts to achieve emotional maturity as well. By the end, the mission has been accomplished.

However, not all memoirs end in the place the beginning pointed. Sometimes the story turns upside down. A dramatic example of such a shift takes place in the movie The Sixth Sense. In the last few moments of the movie, the audience is shocked to realize that one of the characters is really a ghost. Viewers walk out of the theater, replaying the story in their minds, to adjust their understanding of the events to fit in with the ending.

The ending of Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness has a similar effect. Throughout the book, the daughter evades her mother’s guidance. Page by page, I wait for things to improve, but instead of getting better, things grow worse. I begin to hope for a miracle and then accept that this miracle might never happen. How is this going to work? I don’t want to read a book that ends in despair.

By the time I finish the book, I accept the fact that the daughter does not live “happily ever after.” Far from it. But the book inspires hope anyway, not because of what happens to the girl but what happens to the story. The ending of the story flips the focus to the survival of the family. Somehow husband and wife hold together to continue to care for each other, and for their son.

Other examples of stories whose missions are thrown off course

Sometimes the shift in forward momentum occurs much closer to the beginning of the story. At the beginning of Lucky by Alice Sebold, a young woman goes off to college to prepare for her life as a writer. However, a violent rape traumatizes her and the rest of the memoir is about her search for peace.

At the beginning of Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup a young family wakes up, eats breakfast and the husband goes off to work, where he is killed in a violent accident. For the rest of the story, the protagonist must make peace with the loss, and reconstruct a new reality in which this beloved person is gone.

Madeline Sharple’s memoir Leaving the Hall Light On is about trying to raise a son who suffers from bipolar disorder. After his violent suicide, the focus of the story shifts to her own emotional survival. In a sense, the mission shifts twice. In the first part of the book, her mission is to save her son. In the second part of the book, her mission is to make sense of his death. In the third part of the book, her mission subtly shifts again. Instead of simply making peace with his death, she must continue to grow as a person.

Sometimes a secondary mission evolves gradually through the course of the story

In Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh, the author’s family moves to Belize, partly as an adventure, and partly to help her son get past his selfish involvement with teen culture in LA. Through the course of the year, Sonia keeps finding new ways to contribute to her family, so that by the end, when they return to LA, not only has she changed her son. She also changed herself.

Writing Prompt
If you are not quite sure of the ending of your memoir, perhaps the structure will become clearer if you take into account the evolution of your goals. How did your goals change from the beginning to the end of the story?

For example, Rachel Pruchno’s original goal was to usher her daughter into adult life. By the end, her goal was to save her family.

Write three scenes, one that reflects your goals at the beginning of the story. One that shows you discovering there is a new goal being revealed by your changes. And one that shows you achieving this secondary goal at the end. a scene that  scene at the end that showed the “success” as something different than you originally conceived.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website
Sonia Marsh’s website
Madeline Sharple’s website
Essay about Alice Sebold’s Lucky

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.

Bookmark and Share

Writing Your Messy Teen Memories Could Save the World

by Jerry Waxler

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

This article continues the series inspired by Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness about raising her daughter through a maddening cycle of rebellion. For the first article in the series, click here

When a baby is born, the network of mommies buzzes with information about how to solve problems and raise healthy kids. A decade and a half later, when the kids are teenagers, problems become more complex, and the mommy network grows silent. As a result, parents often feel they are facing the troubled teen years alone.

Fortunately, an untapped source of information about these years hides within reach. All of us experienced the challenges of being teenagers. We had to navigate hormonal changes, on our journey from dependence to self-reliance.

During that period we tested rules, stumbled into the vortex of sex, rode in cars driven by drunks, or engaged in other risky behavior during the high-wire walk between childhood and adulthood.

As adults, we’re so grateful to be past those times, we try to forget them, or make light of them, telling them at parties to provoke a laugh. Our parents were probably not laughing though, and most of us hope our worst experiments will remain buried. Our silence seems harmless enough. We can’t undo the past. But without conversations, we also can’t bring our adult awareness to those mistakes, nor can we reap their wisdom.

The Memoir Revolution offers a way to pull those memories out of storage. By writing about the embarrassing or illegal events in our own lives, we transform them from secrets and jokes into lessons, cautionary tales, and a clearer vision of the journey from child to adult.

An excellent example of a story about raising a troubled child is Rachel Pruchno’s memoir, Surrounded by Madness. Like other parents, when her daughter acted out, Mom maintained the family’s privacy, protecting them from judgment and embarrassment. Now that those years are past, she is taking advantage of the Memoir Revolution to break that silence.

Her book is much more than the story of one couple trying to hold back the chaos that was enveloping their daughter. It is also the courageous attempt to share that situation with others. By sharing what ordinarily would be a very private story, Pruchno is challenging us to develop wisdom about the teen years.

Rachel Pruchno’s experience was an extreme example of a passion play repeated in varying degrees in millions of homes. Her suffering was not unique, but her willingness to talk about it is groundbreaking. Surrounded by Madness provides a model that could elevate our whole culture’s attitude toward the teen years. If we share these private stories, we can support each other through this difficult transition. By courageously sharing her story, Pruchno is inviting the mommy network to include support for the full fury of adolescent rebellion.

Getting in touch with the craziness of adolescence
Rachel Pruchno’s daughter kept crossing lines, but instead of reeling herself back to normal behavior, she defended her bad choices with lies and manipulation. Pruchno’s daughter used her intelligence, not to learn how to become an adult, but to thwart adult guidance. Inside her delusional bubble she believed she knew what was best for herself and traveled further and further down a course of self destruction.

Despite the dire implications of her behavior, her attitude bears a striking resemblance to ordinary adolescent rebellion. I recall entering my own delusional bubble between the ages of 18 to 24. During that period, I sneered at the rules created by shallow, hollow adults and insisted on racing toward chaos.

After I grew up, I wanted to pretend those years were a bad dream. Even during years of talk therapy, I managed to avoid the whole period. Only after I began to write a memoir did I explore the sequence of events. At first, my foolishness horrified me. Gradually, I allowed myself to gather the memories and craft them into stories.

The Memoir Revolution is causing many of us to reclaim memories that had been hidden behind a curtain of shame and forgetfulness. By developing and sharing stories, we can help new generations. Our memoirs might possibly help the kids themselves. And they will certainly help the parents, by providing social support and a broader foundation for communication.

Rachel Pruchno’s story offers a sobering illustration of how the transition from child to adult brings us dangerously close to the limits of sanity. Surrounded by Madness raises the intriguing possibility that no matter where you fell on the spectrum, the desire to grow up was simply human, and the not-yet-competent experiments were part of the process.

Writing Prompt
When you were growing up, what rules or laws did you break? Did you ever steal, vandalize, drive drunk, speed, cheat, have sex that didn’t align with your own ethical beliefs? Write a scene showing your internal debate to do drugs or not, to go to a party instead of study, to lie to parents and authorities.

Instead of laughing these memories off or suppressing them, write them as authentic scenes. Try to capture the delusion that you knew what you were doing, and the internal debate in which there was a glimmer of awareness that this wasn’t quite right.

In your scenes, watch yourself flaunt parents and institutions. When consequences occurred, did you place the blame on everyone but yourself? What happened next? When did you start to effectively challenge your own impulses and pull yourself back over the line? A well-crafted story about your poor judgment, the resulting consequences, and the lessons you eventually learned could make fascinating reading.

Even if you never show these scenes to anyone, you can benefit from seeing them on paper. By turning them into scenes and stories, you will understand how they fit into the context of your life. The exercise could give you more compassion for your own younger self, and provide a kinder, more patient view of young people who must go through the process now.

To take an incredible leap forward on this project of self-acceptance, join a compassionate group of memoir writers and share your awkward scene. You will probably be surprised, as I was, when your listeners nod in understanding and praise you for being willing to share.

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.

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

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The Story-of-self Matures in the Memoir Revolution

by Jerry Waxler

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

In the sixties, millions of us joined the counterculture in order to invent a new way to live. Our search felt so important and yet for many of us, it ended in confusion. As a result the quest to “find one’s self” fell into disrepute. That’s too bad, because a coherent sense of self is one of the foundations for a satisfying life, providing lessons from the past, confidence in the present, and a roadmap for the future.

Fifty years later, I find myself in the midst of another mass movement. Millions of us want to write memoirs. And this time, our collective effort appears to be much wiser, based not on the rejection of traditions, but on a deeper understanding of the guidance our society has been offering us all along. The Memoir Revolution allows us to tap into the ancient wisdom of the Story to help us pull together the pieces of self.

A perfect example of such an endeavor is Paige Strickland’s memoir Akin to the Truth. As an adopted child, she knew her parents loved her. She also knew she didn’t completely fit in. At family gatherings, she wondered how it would feel to be with relatives who were biologically related. Paige grew up, met her biological family, and then spent many years trying to knit these parts of herself into one whole person. By turning that journey into a memoir, she lets us experience it with her.

Accompanying her on scenes in school, I feel her fear about being judged “different” not only because she was adopted, but for lots of other reasons, such as pressures from friends, school, family, and so on.

Her account ranges across the whole scope of growing up, and appears at first glance to digress from the single issue of adoption. Many writing classes demand that students cut out any scene that does not directly relate to the theme. In this rigorous definition of theme in memoir, Strickland’s varied scenes with her girl friends in school might appear to be moving off point. But as our collective fascination with memoirs continues to grow, an increasing number of us want to stretch those rules and learn the actual experience of real life, even if it spills into areas outside the focus stated on the title and blurb of the book.

Paige Strickland’s Coming of Age story demonstrates that the Memoir Revolution is maturing. We are collectively moving beyond the memoir as defined by New York Times bestsellers, and coming to understand the memoir genre as a window into the mental machinery of ordinary people.

The evolution from “best seller” to “real person” played out in my mind in the first couple of pages of Akin to the Truth. When I opened the book, I was caught up in the promise that it was going to be about the challenges of meeting her adopted family. Two excellent memoirs that narrowly focus on these challenges are Lucky Girl by Mei-ling Hopgood  and Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes,   Both of these successful books breezed past the varied challenges of Coming of Age and headed sharply and concisely toward rediscovering the author’s biological family.

However, after reading few more pages of Akin to the Truth, I bristled at her portrayal of the complexities of childhood. Her stories about feeling slow in school, or about her socially clumsy dad violated my expectations of a tightly focused theme. Then over the next few pages, my attitude shifted. I found myself warming to her, befriending her, getting into her shoes. I loosened the expectation that every scene must bear down on her adoption, and I settled into accompanying a girl growing up.

As she grows older, her worries shift from wanting to be accepted by cadres of little girls, to the issues of cultivating her love life. The story of her extended courtship including false starts and apparent endings is excellent, and by the time they commit to each other, I am completely immersed in her charter to become an adult.

In retrospect, the book was not about reconciling with her biological family. It was about growing up. All of us must make this journey from fully-formed adults. This search for identity, often a laugh-line in jokes about the 60s, is actually a crucial mission for every young person. Paige Strickland’s Akin to the Truth provides us with yet another window into that journey from the fragmented self of childhood into the  completed, competent self of adulthood.

Is ordinary life a good topic for a memoir?
Years ago, when I was gaining my early glimpses into the Memoir Revolution, I enjoyed reading the memoir A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel about a little girl growing up in a small town. The protagonist was adorable, and I felt like I was there, observing her family squabbles, her adventures in the neighborhood, and her concerns about her parents’ marriage.

But when I analyzed the memoir I couldn’t figure out why such a story, with no claim to gravitas or sensationalism, earned a place on the bookstore shelf. Over time, I have come to see that ordinary life is the backdrop upon which all memoirs are staged. We live in a home or apartment, go to work, go shopping, desire simple psychological basics like dignity, friendship, and achievement. Our daily journeys become the raw material for our memoirs.

Memoir writers like Haven Kimmel or Paige Strickland turn such lives into well-told stories. In order to follow their lead, you must learn the craft, edit, seek feedback, and revise. Your goal is to carry the reader along from page to page. By the end, your reader must close the book, feeling grateful to you for having taken them on a meaningful, personal journey.

Why are we reading and writing about ordinary lives?
Who are the readers of these memoirs of real people? Obviously we are other real people who, in addition to desiring a well-written story, also relish the imprecise lines of real life. Memoirs offer the authenticity of unique experience, help us understand our neighbors, and inspire us to share our own stories.

The experiment in the 60s to “find myself” ended in confusion. Now, fifty years later, I can see that a failed experiment is simply a step along the path to success. The goal to find yourself is still urgently important. But now, instead of using tie-dyed clothing, bell bottoms and marijuana to assert our individuality we are attempting to craft the unique stories of our lives.

Unlike the youthful focus of the 60s counterculture, the Memoir Revolution is energizing people of all ages. Young people are using memoirs to help them understand their transition into adulthood. In mid-life, people are using memoirs to help evolve their roles to the next step. And older people tell their stories to create continuity across many chapters.

At any age, if you want to tie together the pieces of yourself, consider Paige Strickland’s journey. She was adopted and had two sets of parents. But many of us have multiple segments that could benefit from the power of storytelling.

Millions of us grew up trying to find our identities with divorced parents and blended families. Immigrants like Iranian born, Firoozeh Dumas, in Funny in Farsi, had to figure out how to integrate their ancestral identities with their new ones. Rebecca Walker in Black, White and Jewish and James McBride in Color of Water had to reconcile being born with a white Jewish parent and a black one. And all of us who live into old age need to reconcile youthful and aging parts of ourselves.

Examples for Your Memoir Techniques in the Memoirs You Read
If you are attempting to find your whole self by writing a memoir, take advantage of Paige Strickland’s Akin to the Truth.  Use her story to help you write your own.

She does an excellent job using the voice appropriate to each age of her character, from child, to older child, to teen, to adult. This technique was made famous by James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

She represents excellent scenes about the wide variety of interior conversations of the youthful mind, wanting to be accepted, crabby about a loving father who is dealing with his own issues, worried she doesn’t quite fit into her family for all kinds of reasons, not limited to ones of biological origin.

And above all, she gives an awesome example of developing a “story of self” gradually knitting herself together from the various parts.

You can’t change the past, but like Paige Strickland, you can organize the past into a story. By writing your memoir, you gain control over your understanding of it, shape the transitions, organize it with a beginning, middle, and end. The benefits of writing it are yours alone. When you publish it, you provide insight and inspiration for others to follow.

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.

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