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.

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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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Wisdom Born in One Memoir Inspires a Second

Or: Write the Memoir But Don’t Stop Growing
by Jerry Waxler

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

Memoirs often crush me with human suffering and then, in that fallen state, I accompany the protagonist, trying to find the lessons that will help us survive. In fact, the very nature of storytelling lends itself to the search for answers. In the beginning of every story, the protagonist sets off on a journey to find something. By the end, that search leads to some conclusion.

For example, Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a terrifying, life altering stroke in the first half of the memoir, My Stroke of Insight. In the second half, she discovers that she has become a gentler, more compassionate person. By accompanying the author through her stroke, and then through the lessons she learns, I am treated to her elevated version of reality.

I recently discovered an author, Lorraine Ash, who accomplished a similar effect, spread across two books. What started as the suffering and coping in the first book, Life Touches Life, ended with the profound conclusions she shares in the second, Self and Soul published ten years later.

Lorraine Ash became pregnant late in her 30s, and as her due date approached, she became increasingly excited about the arrival of her first baby. On a routine visit to the doctor, in the eighth month of pregnancy, the technician frantically adjusted her machine, trying to find the heartbeat. More tests revealed that the baby had died of an infection, requiring a cesarean section. The expectant parents had to replace the excitement of a new baby with the emotions of a devastating loss.

The baby’s death crushed Lorraine’s understanding of her relationship with God, and unraveled her as a person. Just as maddening as the loss of her daughter was the feeling that the little girl, Victoria Helen, was still with her. The love she felt for her daughter refused to die, making it impossible to follow the advice of grief counselors and friends who urged her to let go and move on. So for the sake of her sanity, she made it her mission to include Victoria Helen into the family.

Because she was a professional writer, her impulse was to write about her journey. Her research put her in touch with many women who experienced similar grief but didn’t know how to talk about it. They, too, had been instructed to let go and move on. Lorraine Ash offered them a different approach – to include the deceased baby in their lives. Instead of letting go, she showed them how to use their love to take them deeper into the essence of who they were as loving human beings. The story of her loss, and her search for healing culminated in the memoir, Life Touches Life, in 2004.

After the publication of the memoir, her mission to find peace and spiritual truth continued. Through her research, she came into contact with sufferers of other losses and traumas. She realized that her spiritual approach to grieving and growing would help many of these people develop a deeper foundation. Lorraine discovered for herself and wanted to share with others that a devastating loss can be part of an amazing, loving life.

After years of research into wisdom literature, developing her own spiritual beliefs and understanding, and counseling people who were trying to absorb losses, she published a second book, Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life. Self and Soul goes beyond the event that instigated her search. In Self and Soul, she shares truths that could help not only bereaved mothers but anyone looking for a peaceful, powerful view of their place in the universe.

In modern times, when so many of us have disengaged from the packaged belief systems offered by religion, our place in the universe seems poorly defined. Self and Soul offers us the hard-earned lessons from an author whose suffering sent her on a pilgrimage to understand how she, and by extension, we, can find our own spiritual center.

Organization of the book and a lesson for memoir writers
Many scholars think that civilization is built on the foundation of Story. Traditional societies used lofty, stylized myths to teach fundamental lessons about being human. The Memoir Revolution modernizes that tradition, allowing us to apply the story-form to our own unique circumstances. The more I study memoirs and the wisdom that emerges from them, the more I have come to appreciate that stories light the way through the complexities of life.

By my definition, a memoir reveals a sequence of events, told as they unfold over time. Stylistic exceptions allow authors to move chunks of chronological around, using flashbacks, or interweaving two time frames, but in general, the reader is expected to follow the sequence of events.

At the end of a story, a final wrap-up called the denouement gives storytellers a chance to summarize their findings and offer lessons they’ve derived. In Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight she offers the wisdom of living through a stroke. Lorraine Ash’s memoir Life Touches Life ended with conclusions she drew after the stillbirth of her baby. However, she kept learning. Ten years after the publication of her first memoir, she published Self and Soul, a sort of book-length denouement in which she offers an extended version of the lessons she learned since the first.

The two books offer a fascinating model for any memoir writers who wonders if they are really ready to write their memoir, or if they need to take more time to grow. Lorraine Ash’s two books offer an elegant answer to that question. Write one memoir now, in which you express who you are and the best lessons you have been able to develop. And don’t stop growing. Use the lessons you have learned through the earlier journey, and continue to live, opening yourself to the next chapter of your life.

Notes

For an example of a memoir that reveals a search for truth as a chronological unfolding see Dinty Moore’s search for Buddhism  in The Accidental Buddhist, in which he develops a deeper understanding of Buddhism by traveling to various ashrams.

For another memoir about a spiritual journey through various themes, see Dani Shapiro’s Devotion.

More examples of memoirs that end with essay-like conclusions about lessons learned:

  • My Ruby Slippers, by Tracy Sealey about her search for her roots in Kansas, and her conclusions about the roots of the national culture that can be found in the Heartland.
  • Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes Courter which describes her childhood in foster care that ends with her plea for more wisdom and advocacy for children caught in that system.
  • Picking Cotton by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Canino about a man falsely imprisoned for a brutal rape, and released after DNA evidence proved his innocence. The book ends with a plea by accuser and accused to modify laws and raise awareness of the dangers of turning innocent men into victims of the justice system

Links for Lorraine Ash

http://www.amazon.com/Self-Soul-Creating-Meaningful-Life/dp/1939129001/

http://lorraineash.com/selfsoul.htm

http://www.LorraineAsh.com,

www.facebook.com/LorraineAshAuthor
or @LorraineVAsh .

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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A Ticking Clock Lesson for Memoir Writers

by Jerry Waxler

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

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness is a treasure trove of lessons about memoir writing and about life. In the previous posts, I wrote about the “nonfiction bonus” — gifts of knowledge about the world. In this post, I write about gifts of knowledge about memoir writing. What can we aspiring memoir writers learn from Surrounded by Madness to help us turn life into memoir?

Coming of Age Provides the Suspense of a Ticking Clock

Pruchno’s memoir is a pageturner. How does she achieve the effect of getting a reader to want to know what happens next? I once heard a great tip from author-turned-literary-agent Marie Lamba who says that good stories contain ticking clocks.

The ticking sound conjures the image of a sweating man with wire clippers urgently trying to stop the explosion. However, almost any dramatic tension can be elevated by the pressure of time. When you are racing to a job interview, a traffic jam can create a thudding heart and a hand slammed against the steering wheel. This awareness of the importance of time can help you generate forward motion in your story.

Marie Lamba says that a good story contains at least two ticking clocks. To understand this notion, I read her young adult novel Over My Head. The teenage heroine is often worried about time, for example, hoping to get home in time for her curfew. On a slightly longer timeframe, in a few more weeks, the summer break will be over. Will she get together with her guy before he leaves for college? Turn the page to find out. And on a longer timeframe, a beloved uncle struggles with a dire medical condition.

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir about her daughter’s coming of age builds suspense with clocks ticking on every page. In the shorter time-frame, each crisis causes tension as the parents try to get to the bottom of the daughter’s latest mishap, hoping she didn’t sabotage herself, hoping there is an innocent explanation, hoping the next psychologist will provide the solution.

In addition to these immediate pressures, there is another underlying sense of urgency that stretches across the entire period of growing up. Every parent knows that a child must achieve a sense of personhood and in general understand the rules of adulthood before going out into the world.

In the Pruchno family, this ticking clock takes on increasing urgency, because after their daughter reaches legal emancipation, they will no longer be able to restrict her self-destructive behavior.  Instead of the joy of coming of age, that legal boundary between child and adult sounds to the Pruchnos like the threat of a detonating bomb.

Writing Prompt

The notion of the ticking clock provides a great model of how any memoir writer can enhance suspense and give readers incentive to turn pages.

In your memoir, what must happen by what deadline? Consider the natural time-frames built into life: the school year, the duration of a pregnancy, the length of a journey. Or the plans and expectations. Will I get the promotion? Will I be laid off? Will he propose? Will she accept? Money is often associated with time. You can’t find a job, and the mortgage is overdue.  Or you are in school, but if the money doesn’t hold for another year, you will need to drop out. List the deadlines in your story.View Post

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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Six Psychology Lessons In This Memoir (continued)

by Jerry Waxler

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

After reading the memoir Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno, I pondered the lessons about life and about memoir writing. In this continuation of the series, I explore more of the lessons-about-life embedded in the book.

This is the third article in a series about Surrounded by Madness. For the first article, click here.

Psychology Lesson #3: Adolescent mental health care

When Rachel Pruchno’s daughter failed to follow the path of normal childhood development, the natural option was to look for help. Unfortunately, finding psychological help for her adolescent daughter required a complex and frustrating search.

She picked her way through complex insurance regulations and inadequate coverage, pleading and politicking with therapists who were not accepting new patients, trying to absorb each new diagnosis, leading to a new round of meds. When the problems continued, she had to start over, seeking the next round of help. Trying to help her daughter forced Rachel Pruchno into training, not based on an academic program but on real-world experience. The memoir passes this education along to readers, packed into a suspenseful high-pressure struggle for sanity.

Psychology Lesson #4: Inadequate response to broken minds. Unlimited response to broken laws.

When a child breaks the law, society steps in with full authority to remove all freedoms and place them in jail, usually without treatment. However, Pruchno’s daughter did not break laws, and so she was able to easily evade her parents’ desperate concerns, acting out at the very edge of sanity, and manipulating her way out of any attempts to rein her in.

The memoir, Surrounded by Madness, is in essence a cry for help, not just for one troubled girl but for the poor health of the mental health care system itself. Through Rachel Pruchno’s eyes, we experience the lack of supportive laws, lack of funding and research, and generally ineffective psychological response to children whose behavior reaches, but does not yet cross, the boundaries of the law.

The title could be construed as a double-entendre. Not only was Pruchno surrounded by the madness of trying to bring her daughter in line with social norms. She was also surrounded by the madness of a mental health care system that turns a blind eye toward insanity. Pruchno’s heart-wrenching story is both a good reading experience and a powerful cry for help from someone who has been under-served by the only institutional systems available in such situations. By sharing her story, Pruchno lets us feel the helplessness and insanity for ourselves.

For another tragic example of the maddening lack of social support for mental illness, see Leave the Hall Light On, in which Madeline Sharples’ son was able to sign himself out from treatment and commit suicide. Another example of a parent without institutional support is Live Through This by Debra Gwartney, in which two teenage girls cut school and eventually ran away leaving this single mom to find her own solutions.

Psychology Lesson #5: Health of the family versus the identified patient

The Pruchnos poured an extraordinary amount of energy into raising their disruptive daughter. Meanwhile their well-behaved son remained in the background, growing up in the midst of the drama caused by his sister’s erratic behavior.

The memoir, in addition to being about the daughter’s mental health, also demonstrates her impact on the health of the son and of the whole family unit. By showing the level of attention required to cope with the troubled child, Surrounded by Madness highlights the stress one sibling places on family dynamics.

The memoir doesn’t teach technical psychology lessons about these complex issues. Rather it leads the reader through the detailed personal experience of living through the situation. Books like Surrounded by Madness should be on the shelf of anyone who wants to learn how the psychological strength of the parents is crucial for the stability of the family.

Further Reading
For another memoir that shows the family’s response to a troubled child, see Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh. Read about it here.

Psychology Lesson #6: Nature versus Nurture: Unless Otherwise Demonstrated, It’s Probably Mom’s Fault

The contract of becoming a mother seems straightforward enough. Completely transform your life to become a caregiver, pour heart and soul into raising the child, and adapt every minute of at least the first eighteen years, no matter what the cost. As if this responsibility is not overwhelming enough, it is supercharged with a powerful threat of social stigma when the child does not meet society’s expectation.

In the 1950s, psychologists blamed mothers for causing schizophrenia. This cause for the horrifically disruptive mental disorder was discredited when inheritance patterns and medications demonstrated the disease’s biological roots. However, Personality Disorders resist such a straightforward biological model or treatment. As a result of this ambiguity, when a child persistently follows anti-social, self-destructive patterns, there is a tendency to wonder how parenting contributed to the problem.

To learn about the effects due to nature, scientists use magnetic resonance brain images and massive genetic surveys. To learn more about nurture, we need to observe the way these conditions unfold in real life.

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir is a fascinating case study that allows us to see into the dynamics of a family with a child who comes of age with this troubling mental condition. We watch the mother’s stunning persistence and intensity to guide the child, and the daughter’s equally persistent and intense determination to thwart those directives. The book offers no easy answers but raises these important questions in a detailed, careful exploration.

For this reason, this book is an important one to study when attempting to sort out the influence of nature and nurture on a child’s development.

Further reference
In his book My Age of Anxiety, author Scott Stossel traces the complex relationship between genetic and environmental factors in pervasive anxiety. Stossel grew up with horrible, debilitating anxiety starting from an early age, so this quasi-memoir, quasi-textbook sheds light on the complex interaction between nature and nurture in severe pervasive anxiety.

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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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.

Bookmark and Share