Is your memoir Boomer Lit?

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

We all know the images of the groovy sixties. The exuberant rock and roll, hallucinogenic drugs, and soldiers in jungles waiting for helicopters to evacuate the wounded. But even with all those images to help me fill in the blanks, I looked back on those years in a daze. And I knew many other boomers who felt as confused and overwhelmed by those memories as I was. Now, thanks to the Memoir Revolution, we can find the words to explain what was going on in our hearts.

Pamela Jane’s memoir Incredible Talent for Existing is just such a story. For Pamela Jane, the sixties were a time of turmoil, obsessive soul searching, and and confusion about who she was supposed to be. For those of us with radical beliefs, living felt like a curse. How could we grow up to be adults when the adult world was evil and corrupt? Pamela Jane was one of those who were so disrupted by those beliefs, it took a lifetime to heal.

The iconic image that best illustrates the interior pain of the sixties can be seen in the familiar, shocking clip of a monk setting himself on fire to protest the war. At the time, I couldn’t imagine being willing to suffer so much in the name of Truth. However, after reading An Incredible Talent for Existing, I realized that Pamela Jane, along with many others, had been conducting a slower and less visible form of self-immolation. She was psychically destroying herself. And because her self-destruction was invisible, she had to go through a long, lonely journey to pull herself together.

When the dust settled after the sixties, and the Flower Children had to figure out how to become adults, their clothes weren’t so colorful, and photos of them going to therapy or struggling alone in sorrow no longer seemed interesting, so society moved on, and Pamela Jane had to find herself, no longer surrounded by a mass movement but now struggling to regain her sanity.

Now that decades have passed, she can look back on that period and piece together the story. This is the duel nature of the Memoir Revolution. It gave Pamela Jane the opportunity to figure out her story and share it. And by reading her memoir, the rest of us have the opportunity to go into her heart and mind, behind the flashy images of Woodstock and hippies and listen to her story. For some of us this story might be a way to make sense of an extreme notion of the sixties. For others, like me, it is a way to see myself reflected in the story of another person. I know about her pain because I traveled the same path.

During that period, I too had been engaged in the same psychic self-destruction, and went through decades trying to reconstruct myself. Like Pamela Jane I searched for therapists, groups, ideas, or anything else I could grab onto. And like her, I took advantage of the Memoir Revolution to write about it in my memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World. But until I read Incredible Talent for Existing, I had never read a story about anyone else who had experienced the sixties in that way.

After reading Pamela Jane’s Incredible Talent for Existing, I was struck by the similarities of our stories. Like me, she attempted to destroy everything she had been taught. Like me, she was trying to heal society by destroying it. After a few years of energetically, willfully fighting against the entire basis for sanity, she, like me, succeeded, not in destroying the ills of society, but destroying herself.

When we extreme rebels emerged from our mass psychosis, we looked around in a daze. Instead of pioneers of utopia, we had become stragglers, poorly prepared for the ordinary world. After a long, often painful climb, we made it to adulthood.

But how could we ever explain the logic of voluntary self-immolation? There was no language for it. Most of us chose to hide this embarrassing experiment. We didn’t even understand it ourselves. As a result, one of the most important periods in our lives remained hidden behind superficial clichés that revealed nothing about our inner state.

Finally, the Memoir Revolution has given us a voice. Thanks to the popularity of memoirs many of us are attempting to turn our experiences into good stories. By writing these stories we can understand our own past, and by sharing them we pass along lessons and insights to others.

The Memoir Revolution is our answer to the counterculture of the sixties. In the sixties we tore apart everything we believed. In the Memoir Revolution we are knitting it back together.

Whatever your experience was in the sixties, whether a soldier, a hippie, a housewife, a mother, a resident of a commune, cult, or clan, you had a personal, unique experience that is trapped in your mind until you give it voice. And memoirs give you that voice.

Many more stories are already started  in computers and file cabinets, anecdotes and insights waiting to be knitted together into a coherent whole. I know how hard it is to travel that long journey from snips to a completed memoir. During that time, I had to peel away layers of forgetting, and at the same time, learn the art of story writing. I took around 12 years from the time I started. Pamela Jane, already an accomplished author, took 22 years to complete hers.

When you read Pamela Jane’s memoir or mine you will learn two stories that go behind the surface to reveal some of the painful aspects of trying to become an adult during that period. And for a broader sample covering a wider variety, read Times They were a Changing, an anthology edited by Linda Joy Myers and Amber Lea Starfire. To witness the deconstruction of a combat soldiers, from eager young man to broken soldier is Jim McGarrah’s A Temporary Sort of Peace. His sequel Off Track tells about starting to knit himself back together as a worker at the racetrack. Bill Ayers memoir Fugitive Days takes us inside an extreme version of the war protest movement. If you read these books and the many out there that I don’t yet know about you can appreciate the powerful nature of turning confusing memories into a compelling story.

By writing a memoir, you can perform an amazing service for yourself, your peers, and anyone else trying to understand the human condition. By diving under the surface of your situation and writing your inner story, you can finally bring the reality of those or any other times out from behind the clichés and into our shared understanding.

Notes

This blog is part of the WOW Blog Tour. For more essays on An Incredible Talent for Existing by Pamela Jane see this website

See my essay about Jim McGarrah’s Vietnam combat memoir

See my review of Times They Were a Changing, a collection of short stories about the sixties.

Read my memoir, Thinking My Way to the End of the World. my own story of being thrown off course by the sixties, and then needing to search for a path out of the pit into which I had fallen.

I can only think of one other time in history when a massive number of people attempted to dismantle their own belief systems. By some sort of cosmic coincidence, that mass psychosis was happening in China at the same time as the counterculture was happening in the U.S. During the so-called Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government joined up with the mob mentality to consciously dismantle the psyches of a billion people. See my review of a book of short stories about the Cultural Revolution.

In the Part 2 of this essay on Pamela Jane’s memoir, I will discuss the way memoirs can be about a familiar subject and yet entirely unique.

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

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

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

Two-Memoir Series about Youth, Midlife, and Responsibility

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Writing a Memoir Penetrates the Fog of Memory

or Watching My Dad Watching Me
by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

On my dad’s eightieth birthday, my sister and I took my parents to dinner. To stir my usually reticent father to speak, we asked him what it was like raising us. He said, “I took Jerry to a baseball game once. He read the whole time.” We all laughed at the image. What a nerd I was!

But his comment unsettled me. Of all the experiences we had together, why did that one come to mind? Did he resent me for obsessive reading? I had long since forgiven him for being away at his drugstore 14 hours a day. Now, for the first time in my life, his comment made me wonder what he thought about me. However, he grew quiet, and I let the matter drop. My childhood seemed so far away. I would probably never understand his part in it. I had a hard enough time remembering my own.

One reason I can barely remember my childhood is because I spent most of it inside the covers of a book. I read in my room, at the dinner table, and on trolleys and subways, always more fascinated with the invented world of fiction than in the world around me. I became so absorbed in stories, I sometimes forgot about the boy turning the pages. Once, in ninth-grade English class, I was visiting another planet with the characters in Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, when my teacher grabbed the book from my hand. I looked up at his red face, momentarily confused. How did he even see me?

My strategy to read my way through life fell apart when I landed in Madison, Wisconsin in 1965. Even before the riots started, I had no idea how to relate to this teeming mass of 30,000 students. To survive those tumultuous years, I tried to lose myself in the despairing cynical literature of the time, like Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which turned the butterfly image upside down. The book described a boy who turned  into a giant beetle. For the first time, books were taking me into worlds worse than the one I was trying to escape. I turned to marijuana, angry music, and confusing friends. Drowning in a sea of kids, I descended into confusion that took me years to fix.

After college, I reversed the downward slide by reading books about spirituality. Their promise of transcendent reality shone on my light-starved soul, guiding me out of the woods and back toward normalcy. When I felt strong enough to get a job, I turned to self-help books. Each one gave me deeper insight into the boy turning the pages. My journey continued in a therapist’s office, and then in real life, with friends and a family of my own. For forty years, I continued to work at becoming a healthy adult, and books were always right there with me.

In the early 2000s, I discovered memoirs. By diving into a memoir I still lost myself in another person’s world. However, instead of becoming less of a person, I was becoming more. Over and over, after I experienced the world through the author’s eyes, I added compassion and wisdom to my own. The next step seemed obvious. I needed to write my own.

As a slow, methodical memoir writer, I discover incidents buried under years of forgetting. Like an archeologist, I extricate them from the rubble of details and wonder what value each artifact might offer. I place them into the context of the book of my life, and through the chemistry of a growing narrative, they acquire deeper meaning. And because books were so important to me, some of the treasures in my memory relate to my passion for reading.

For one of my birthdays, around my fourteenth, I received a gift-wrapped book from Dad. I assumed it was the Hardy Boys book I asked for. The library didn’t stock the popular mystery series, so I was looking forward to this gift to increase my supply. I tore away the paper, expecting to reveal a photo showing the young sleuths. Instead, I found a boring orange book with no dust jacket. I opened it to see an old-fashioned typeface.

“What’s this?” I asked, making no attempt to hide my disappointment.

“I wanted you to try something different. It’s about a guy stuck on an island. Give it a chance.”

I put the book down, my face tense with the effort of holding back tears. “I won’t read it. Please, please give me the book I asked for.”

He insisted, and I ran to my room. Why was he doing this to me? What did he even know about books, anyway? On the one night a week when he came home for dinner, he sat in his chair, picked up a novel, and within minutes had passed out, the book face down on his lap.

I would show him. I would just stay in my room until he relented. A few days later, Dad gave in and bought me a Hardy Boys book. However, instead of exchanging Robinson Crusoe, he told me to keep them both. The ugly book in its boring orange cover sat next to my bed while I enjoyed yet another episode of the Hardy Boys.

After I finished reading the mystery, my obsession with books got the better of me and I picked up Robinson Crusoe. Pushing past my reluctance, I began reading. Within the first few pages I adjusted to Defoe’s antiquated sentences, and quickly lost myself in the story, identifying with this lonely, resourceful man trying to survive in a hostile world. I loved my life on that island, and loved Daniel Defoe for giving it to me.

When my journey came to an end, I was hooked on classics, and walked to our local library for more. Reading classics for pleasure became a passion, and for years, I found endless pleasure in novels by European authors such as Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas and American ones like Jack London and Mark Twain.

When I first recorded the incident, it didn’t have any particular importance. After I wrote it and tinkered with it, the anecdote deepened. My father’s solution to this challenge was more clever than I realized. He caved to my demand in a way that allowed us both to win. It never occurred to me he was that smart. Then, in my growing manuscript, I can follow events from one year to the next. Through this lens,.

Through the lens of story, I see my early life from both sides. Dad wasn’t perfect. He was just a guy trying to earn a living and at the same time figure out what to do with his teenage son. Concerned about my obsessive reading so he used his influence to bump it up a notch. His small intervention had a longlasting effect.

By turning anecdotes into a narrative I connect the dots. Dad’s observation about me reading at the ballpark helps me visualize from another person’s point of view that I was trying to disappear inside a book. But I wasn’t invisible after all. I had a father who tried to influence his son’s behavior in ways I couldn’t yet appreciate.

Before I started writing the memoir, memories of my teenage obsession immediately led me back to the red face of an angry English teacher grabbing a book from my hand. Now that I’m working through more memories, I have the opportunity to see the kind face of my father, handing me a book that would invite me into the foundations of western literature. As my manuscript evolves, instead of remembering a dad who was too busy to raise me, I can now watch him watch over me.

Writing Prompt
Your early memories were put in place before you had the intellectual tools to make sense of them. There they remain in their original form, until you write about them (or talk to a therapist). To use memoir writing to help you make more sense of your memories, think of various incidents with a caregiver. When one such anecdote jumps out of your mind, write it. After it’s on paper, look at it more closely for clues about what was going on in your world and in theirs. Place the anecdote on your timeline, and consider its context. What other incidents does it remind you of? When another scene jumps to mind, write that one too. Even if you don’t see the connection at first, put this one into your timeline. Repeat this exercise several times. Then step back and attempt to portray a richer picture of these interactions than the one that first came to mind.

Notes

Read more about how my obsession with reading classics for pleasure almost killed me by clicking here.

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

A Book of Short Stories Expands My Memoir Collection

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution, to learn why now is the time to write your memoir.

I consider myself a “non-literary” reader, by which I mean that I prefer my stories told with minimum literary flare, and maximum emphasis on the power of the story. My desire for narrative stories has been endlessly satisfied by hundreds of book-length memoirs, but I have not been nearly so successful finding stories of shorter length.

In shorter stories, there is simply not enough space to build a close relationship between reader and writer. To compensate for this lack of space, most of the short life stories I have come across create power by using tricky detours, leaps, metaphors, and dream-like inserts. For example, here’s one such story that turns a summer job into a wild ride, packed with emotional storms, search for identity, and comic images.

Most of the time, I find that too much reliance on literary technique distracts me from my desire for a straightforward journey, and so, I stick with the longer form. Recently, though, I decided to expand my horizons and take a look at an anthology The Times They Were a Changing, edited by Linda Joy Myers, Amber Lea Starfire and Kate Farrell. The book contains narratives by women who were coming of age during the late sixties and early seventies.

After the first story, I quickly changed from skeptic to believer. Every page compelled me to move to the next, and by the end, I felt satisfied by the entire experience. As I do after every memoir I read, I ask myself why it worked. In this case, I had to ask that question not about an individual story, but about the whole collection, and found two principle reasons why the collection grabbed my attention at the beginning and satisfied me by the end.

First, I wondered how each entry makes up for its short length without reliance on intense literary technique. The answer is that each one focuses on the powerful crucible of some life-changing event. The intensity of the events carry me with gut-wrenching power. I have lots of experience with life-changing events. In my memoir classes for beginners, after I coach students to dredge their minds for anecdotes, the stories that emerge first are often the memories they have bottled up for years. These are peak moments that don’t make good conversation, fraught with embarrassment, humiliation, fear, and confrontation. Such memories seethe silently under the surface, and when I say “Go ahead and write,” they burst onto paper. The anthology, The Times They Were a Changing contains a whole book full of these burning moments.

In each story, I travel with an author into one intense moment in the feminine version of the 60s counterculture. If this was a book-length memoir, I would expect to turn the page and accompany the same author to the next step. However, in the anthology, I turn the page to someone else’s key event. And even though all the stories occurr around the same era, the experiences they report are drastically different. Here is an abbreviated list of topics:

Motorcycle gangs in the midst of flower children
Rock band groupie in a one-night stand
Birth of modern Feminism
Workplace inequality
Out-of-body drug experience
Defying Dad
Sit-ins for women’s equality in the university
Pregnancy and abortion
Hitch hiking
Radical politics

Despite their excellence and intensity, the individual short stories still don’t provide me with the immersion of a book-length memoir. A book allows me to forget my own world and enter the world of the writer. These short stories, when standing on their own, would feel too isolated, like snips of a life rather than deep sharing. However, when they all hang together in one collection, they are transformed into parts of a larger work.

That’s the second way The Times They Were a Changing creates fullness from these short pieces. Like a pointillist painting whose individual dots add up to a beautiful image, the collection combines individual stories into a worldview-shifting insight into the experience of growing up female in the 60s.

By juxtaposing this variety of perspectives, the editors have created a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This anthology is a compelling, satisfying reading experience that sets a high bar for the emerging genre of life story collections.

Suggestions for Writers

In addition to good reading material, the stories in this anthology offer excellent teaching moments. Each story has a beginning, middle, and end, with many variations of subject, emotional challenge, and pacing to name just a few of their distinctive characteristics. To develop your own expertise as a life story writer, consider the collection as a set of writing prompts to trigger you to write your own exciting, life changing story. Try this. Write a short story using each entry in Times They Were a Changing as a writing prompt. For example, write:

A story about a brief romantic encounter.
A story about your scariest next door neighbor
A story about a date gone desperately wrong
A story about a rebellious confrontation with a parent
The rudest, most demeaning treatment you received on a job
A time you were transported by drugs, music, trauma, or love to leave your body
The most pride (perhaps mixed with anger and fear) you ever felt when standing up for your rights
The most humiliated you ever felt with your parents
A creepy, immoral, or illegal thing you did in your youth that you have never told anyone before. (You could burn this one after you write it. Or better yet, read it in your memoir critique group.)

Perhaps a reader would not find each story satisfying by itself. But when arranged in chronological order and presented as a collection, the pieces add up. Perhaps like Times They Were a Changing, the stories in your anthology will create an overall understanding of your life. And with additional focus on transitions, you might even turn your collection into a memoir.

Notes

For a humorous example of a memoir composed of short stories all related to one author’s relationship to spicy food, read Sharon Lippincott’s Adventures of a Chilehead.

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

Read more about the authors by clicking here.

Click here for more about the themes in Times They Were a Changing

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Interview with Editors of 60s Memoir Anthology

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

In my previous post, I wrote about an anthology, The Times They Were a Changing, in which the stories and poems of 48 women spotlight a segment of the 60s experience. Collectively their words helped me understand an important segment of cultural history, and also extended my appreciation for the role of short-stories in the Memoir Revolution. In today’s post, I ask the editors of the anthology to help me understand how they put it together and why. Linda Joy Myers acts as their spokesperson.

Jerry Waxler: Is it called an anthology or a collection?

Linda Joy: We always called the Times They Were A-Changing “collection” an anthology because the range of themes and topics were consistent—the ’60s and ’70s—and because we included poetry, too. Early on all three editors discussed the various themes that were part of the era that we wanted to make sure were included, so the whole book is an arc of the era. As we researched the era through documentaries, films, music, and biographies, we were reminded of the many social, cultural, and political movements occurring simultaneously over a short time. To capture as much variety as possible in our stories and poems we developed subthemes, naming them by lyrics or slogans of the times.

Notes from the Underground: Early 60s
Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out: Hippie Counterculture
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Feminism and Women’s Rights
Social Unrest: Political Movements
Age of Aquarius: Spiritual and Human Potential Movements

Jerry:  It seems like creating an anthology requires specialized skills. How did you learn to do such a great job. Were there any models or prior attempts to inform you?

Linda Joy: We are all avid readers, and bring our reading and writing skills into this. It seemed intuitive, and we each contributed our vision to the project. We knew what the era meant to us, and we all remembered the feeling of those times and what they’d given us in the realm of creativity, inspiration to find our own voice, the ability to think out of the box, and the willingness to take risks.

Kate had edited and published a themed anthology that focused on the mother-daughter relationship and had edited several anthologies for the California Writers Club. The writers club developed a model of three editors—a small enough number to provide consistency in editorial direction, but had the advantage of a tiebreaker. Amber, who had also edited two anthologies for the Story Circle Network, is a wonderful manager and set up clear benchmarks, a doable timeline for selection, editing, manuscript formatting, proofing, and submission based on her own publishing experience.

An online company called Submittable, that helps editors create a system for receiving and reviewing work, is a great service. We sorted by themes and subthemes, set up keywords, scores, and made editorial comments viewable by all the editors. The professional tools that Submittable offered were essential to the success of our work.

Our publisher, She Writes Press, was supportive of a themed anthology, particularly one that showcased women’s experiences during a breakthrough era for women. Brooke Warner, co-founder of SWP, was willing to take the risk with us and trust our editorial abilities.

Jerry: How did you get so many great stories?

Linda Joy: We placed our ads in Poets and Writers, WOW! Women on Writing, Story Circle Network, where we knew there would be a lot of interested writers. The Story Circle Network conference is where our idea was born into the world, at a dinner under a 700-year-old oak tree on a windy evening. We placed our Call for Submissions with various writing groups we belonged to, and shared our project with writer organizations in newsletters, listservs, and blogs.

We decided to combine a contest with an opportunity for publication. The contest allowed us to advertise in publications that featured contests, while the opportunity to be published appealed to a wider reach. Our target groups were women writers, not celebrities or well-known feminine activists. We wanted women who could write, who were our peers, and who would create a grassroots publication.

We received about 270 submissions—it was a challenge to choose the best. We all read every story and loved our job.

Visit our website to meet our prizewinners and contributing authors whose works cover a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Many of our authors have written blog posts about their writing process which appear on our website.

Jerry: How did you tune and refine the stories so expertly (such consistent style!)

Linda Joy: Each of us had a set to edit, but we all read and re-edited each other’s group, partly because we were hungry to read ALL the stories and see them evolve, and partly because we wanted to make sure there was consistency. We created a rubric of what we wanted to see in each story and poem and “scored” the stories accordingly. Of course, we had to leave room for that je ne sais quoi, that mystery of why a story works too.

It was important to us that each story had a narrative arc of development, and brought home an insight that our readers could relate to. Each story needed to be a slice of life at the time and also reflect on the meaning of those times, either then or now. We wanted the stories to be pithy yet entertaining. Some of them are about painful experiences from that time that the writers had never before put into words and others are written from experiences on high—however you choose to interpret that word. This is the power of writing stories—shaping our experiences into a meaningful narrative that transcends the literal experience.

In developing the subthemes and keywords on our website and within the Submittable database, we grouped stories and poems by category and rank. We wanted to include a range of experiences as well as geography in our final selection.

Jerry: Why did you decide to include poetry in a book of stories? How do you see them fitting together?

Linda Joy: All of us who lived through this era know that poetry, song, and spontaneous eruptions of creative expression were part of it. Not all experiences can be properly shared in narrative form. It only seemed right to include poetry and invite another way to share the impressions, the moments of the era with impressionistic snapshots that brought us back to a feeling, a moment in time. We loved being able to include poetry.

Through the process of sharing our book we’re discovering how many women want to know, discuss, and share these changing times. We hope it may be the beginning of an important dialogue.

Jerry: I love your work with memoir writers and am a fan of your own memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother. So I was especially intrigued by the story you wrote in the Times They Were a Changing as a young woman trying to find herself in the sixties. How did your own personal experiences of the era come into play as you created this book?

Linda Joy: I had always wanted to write about the ‘60s and ‘70s, but hadn’t done it yet. It was such a confusing and exhilarating era, a time of my young adulthood, a time of confusion yet opportunity. Everything I’d known and believed before was fractured and out of the those pieces, along with my generation, I learned to find myself through art, through the new psychologies that were evolving at the time, through journaling, poetry, and books that invited self-expression and authenticity. So I was thrilled when Amber and Kate agreed to join me for this project. I can say now that it kickstarted my way into writing a new memoir about—yes, the ’60s and 70’s, and I can thank the courage of all the writers I was reading to help me find my own.

Notes

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

Read more about the authors by clicking here.

Click here for more about the themes in Times They Were a Changing

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

The Sixties Had Many Struggles. Here’s One I Missed.

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

When I landed at the University of Wisconsin in 1965 I was a virgin, never smoked dope, had never been drunk, and had never heard of Vietnam. Even if I knew we were at war, it wouldn’t have bothered me. War preserves our freedom, right? Within weeks, I saw a picket line, my first warning that life was about to change. Soon I grew long hair and visited the record store every day hoping for new albums by the Beatles, Stones, and Bob Dylan.

Our cultural fever was fearless and far ranging. We hated war and poverty. We intended to eliminate them. We hated the stupid rules that restricted sex, so we ignored them. We were going to change consciousness itself. With the help of marijuana, I broke loose from old fashioned notions of personal responsibility. Money? Who needs it? When I read my first book by Alan Watts, I saw exactly what he meant. All of life is an illusion and we young people were reinventing it. What an exciting time!

Sweaty palms and gut wrenching drama: confronting “The Man”

To convince The Man of our new truths, we locked arms outside classrooms and refused to let anyone in. When police stormed the building, beating us with clubs, we ran in disbelief, furious and confused. Didn’t they see we were right? That conflict between two opposing desires is the basis for the dramatic tension that has driven stories since the beginning of time. It is the reason many of us know we lived through some good stories.

However, despite all the story material provided by those colorful times, memoir writers seem to be avoiding the era. After reading hundreds of memoirs, I can only think of two that took me all the way into the mentality. **

Where are all the other boomers who will provide their own experience during that time? Recently, I found a fascinating stash, like an archeological treasure buried in the minds of its authors. It’s a collection of short stories and poems called The Times They Were a Changing, co-edited by Linda Joy Myers, Amber Lea Starfire and Kate Farrell. I settled back and went for the ride, turning the pages from one good story to the next. The stories not only took me into the past. They offered me the wisdom and uplift that I gain when I set aside my own point of view and see the world through other eyes.

Women Wanted to Change the World, Too

In these stories, I learn that women needed to confront the Man in a very different way than I did. They had to confront him when they asked their fathers what subject they were allowed to major in. They had to confront him when they asked for permission to leave their dorms at night or which job they were permitted to perform. But these women had drunk the potion of “we can change the world.” Why not change gender relationships too?

Like the war protestors, they discovered that The Man fought back. When Dorothy Alexander tells her dad that she is no longer restricted by the old ways, he screams at her. Get out of my house. I never want to see you again. Reading that scene, I vicariously feel her anger, pride, and fear, every bit as much as when I stood in front of a club-wielding cop. I turn the page. Tell me more!

Before I started gathering my past into a memoir, the sixties felt like a big, fascinating, mess, during which I joined a generation who thought that the path to wisdom required that we destroy the path. What did we end up with after all that drama? Most of our pipe dreams went up in smoke. We didn’t eliminate poverty or war, and drugs turned out to be less groovy than they first appeared. And in just six years, from 1965 to 1971, I effectively dismantled my life, forcing me to start over.

During my journey back to wholeness, I discovered that the best way to improve my relationship to the world was to tune in to the stories people tell about themselves and each other. For example, this method helped me improve my relationship with my older sister.

She seemed to be angry with me all the time, but I could never figure out why. I asked her to meet me for lunch so we could try to get to the bottom of it. The clatter of the restaurant faded into the background as we began to tell each other about childhood. She revealed her resentment about the way Dad gave his sons more freedom to choose schools and majors than he gave her. I was surprised and told her I had never noticed he was granting us more privilege. She was surprised by my lack of complicity. Now, years later, I finally saw the pain his preferences had caused.

Our conversation helped me understand why my sister resented me, and gave me my first personal understanding of what it felt like to be a woman before the shift. How could I have missed the whole thing? I couldn’t answer that question until I read the following story in The Times They Were a Changing.

Author Judith Barrington describes a crowded party, with loud music, booze and dancing. All the participants are female, bursting with the power of expressing themselves without worrying about the opinions of men. They wear blue jeans and some of them have even disrobed in an expression of defiance against all the crap about their bodies imposed by men. There is a commotion at the door. Two women have just entered dressed in fashionable dresses, makeup, coiffed hair and other symbols of male domination. The chatter in the crowd turns to a commentary about this turn of events. Why are they here? These aren’t feminists. Maybe they aren’t women at all. Maybe they are men dressed as women in order to crash our party. One of the women in the crowd says disdainfully, “Bloody men think they belong everywhere.”

The comment yanked me out of the story and brought me back to my body, where I found myself in an awkward position. I am a man. I can’t change my gender. Does that mean I’m not even welcome to keep reading? Of course not, I thought. That’s the power of reading. We set ourselves aside and go for the ride. So I climbed back into the story. Inside I see men as the enemy. In my state as an empathetic reader, I find that interesting, even mind expanding. I open my mind and drink in the mood of the time.

When I finish reading, I know more than I ever did back then. And my ignorance now makes better sense. If such parties were taking place at the University of Wisconsin, I certainly didn’t know about them. And if women were meeting to demand their rights, I didn’t know a thing about it. Despite the many benefits I have enjoyed as a male in a post-liberation world, I had no clear image of how we arrived here, nor was I able to empathize with the situations that women experienced during that turmoil.

Sharing stories heals wounds. After my sister and I processed the sins of our father, I told her that even though flying from Philadelphia to Madison may have looked glamorous, I regretted that I had more freedom than I knew how to handle. She had never realized how lost I felt there. By the end of the conversation, we understood each other. We’ve been good friends ever since.

After reading The Times They Were a Changing, I now have a much better understanding of the experiences of women in my generation. And even though I didn’t have a chance to witness the transition when it was first happening, now through the magic of memoirs, I am invited as a guest with a front row seat.

The Times are Changing Again

The title of this collection is for me a double entendre. In addition to the obvious meaning that the times back then were changing, I am fascinated by the changes today. The Memoir Revolution, in which we are participating right now, has fewer photo-opportunities. I doubt that I would watch a movie about a crowd of writers sitting at their desks. But inwardly this revolution overflows with all the drama that life has to offer. A million aspiring memoir writers are collecting their lives into the shape of a Story and imagining the possibility of sharing those stories with each other. Our new revolution liberates us from silence, lets us step out of our cliques and pains and ushers in an era of cultural dialog, with mutual respect and the exhilarating power of page turning stories.

Writing Prompt
What time in your life are you convinced “no one will ever understand.” Even if you can’t imagine ever writing it, set aside your doubts and try writing one scene. Think of any time related to that experience even if it seems too trivial to bother with, or at the other extreme, even if it seems too intense to ever capture in words. Write that scene by simply reporting what you were seeing, feeling, and thinking. Free-write. Don’t worry about excellence. It’s just a first draft. When you finish writing that scene, consider the powerful result. You have begun to translate a memory into a story. Later, by learning to polish and revise it, you can develop it into something with a beginning, middle and end, or you can add it as a chapter to a longer work. Feel free to type your brief episode into the comments below.

Reading Prompt
Look for memoirs that describe events similar to the one you experienced. Read the memoir, and then think about how that author translated life into story. If you want to ask about a memoir related to your situation, feel free to leave it in the comment section. Perhaps I or another commenter can offer a suggestion.

Notes

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

** Memoirs I’ve reviewed about the sixties: Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days, takes me into his over-the-top war protests. Read my essay:  in Read banned memoirs: Criminal or Social Activist?  And Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God offers a look at growing up in a Christian commune named L’Abri in Switzerland. Read my essay, Memoir of a commune stirs hope for a healthier world

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Why Boomers Should Write Memoirs about the 60s

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

When my parents were growing up in Philadelphia during the Roaring Twenties, they went home at the end of the day to parents who spoke Yiddish or heavily accented English. I wish I could understand their second-generation immigrant experience, or what life was like during the Great Depression or World War II. Millions of boomers share my curiosity about their parents but few of us have begun to record our own stories. When I ask people why not write a memoir, I hear all sorts of reasons. “I’m too busy.” “I don’t know how.” “My experience was similar to millions of others.” “If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand.” I know all these objections already. In order to write my memoir, I had to push through them myself.

I knew that people who had not lived through that period relied on clichés with lots of hair, dope, and rock and roll. But these images from movie and music snips and bits of conversation around the dinner table are not like reading a memoir. In a memoir, the author carefully crafts the world as they saw it, creating the ambiance of the times. I think the word “story” ought to be capitalized the way God is, because a Story invites the reader to set aside their own world and enter the author’s. Once inside, clichés disappear, replaced by unique, authentic responses to specific circumstances. This is true even for books that cover the same general circumstances.

Amid the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read, I have often seen the same themes repeated. I’ve read several books about young girls growing up in small towns, children coming to terms with their mixed-race identity, adoptees trying to understand which family is the real one, mothers trying to raise a child with intellectual challenges, and so on. Despite their similarities, each person has their own life and tells their own story.

Even though millions of my peers experienced the iconic events of the 60s, my exact story was my own, a drama with the specific circumstances of being me, my reactions, my observations, my careening path. So I set aside the fear that someone else has already published my life and I begin to write.

When I start, crazy memories spring out of hiding and clutch at me. At first I’m afraid that revealing emotional moments might make me seem like a victim, a dupe, or a confused bundle of nerves. I want to stuff my memories back into their cave. Then I think of my parents who remained hidden, and I think of my respect for the memoir authors who have welcomed me into their lives, and I press on.

The first story I share in a writing group describes a violent anti-war riot in Madison, Wisconsin in 1967. I wonder if listeners will judge me for the quality of the writing or for my naïve choices and raw emotions. But no one in the group expresses disdain and many express appreciation so I continue to write. Soon, I find myself deep in the darkness that enveloped me after the riots. When I realized how hopeless I felt to change the world or understand my role in it, I turned toward nihilism, embracing the notion that Nothing Matters with religious conviction.

I sit at my computer during my morning writing hours, looking back on that period and trying to make sense of it. Then for the rest of the day, I set those feelings aside and go about my pleasant, upbeat life. My writing desk gives me a vantage point from which I can understand far more about those times than I had any hope of doing while I was living through them.

However, being willing to face the past was only the beginning. As a novice storyteller, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever capture those feelings on paper. After I took a few memoir classes and started to develop a sense of chronology and scene-building, a larger story began to emerge. I remember my first days in Madison, Wisconsin, transplanted to the teeming campus from my quiet Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, I see a bookish young man who wanted two things: to become a doctor and to understand Absolute Truth. I didn’t know how dangerous my search would  be.

A perfect storm of cultural upheaval was brewing on the horizon: the Pill; the threat of the draft; a divisive, frantic, anti-war effort that inherited a sense of righteousness from the recent civil rights movement; affordable air travel; access to hallucinogenic drugs; eroding authority of organized religion and the influx of eastern mysticism. As each wave of change arrived, I tried to adapt. But like a boxer who must face a new opponent in each round, I ran out of fight, and went down — at one point, literally, after being attacked by a group of boys who wanted long-haired troublemakers like me to go back east where we belonged.

Hundreds of millions of people experienced their own version of those times, storing endless reels of movies in their minds. I imagine boomers all over the world occasionally pulling out one of their reels. If they have no reason to examine it more closely, they quickly return it to its shelf. If they attempt to write a memoir, they look more carefully at the scenes, and begin to place isolated events into context.

Gradually, the sequences add up. I see the influences of parents, culture, substances and desires, insecurities, and all the other things that make me human. Between the peaks and troughs, the glue of normalcy holds it together from day to day. And I begin to see how the shocks in one chapter lead to character development in the next. After setbacks, I find strength, courage, and eventually even wisdom. As happens in all good stories, the protagonist grew. A life that has been translated into a story transcends memory and achieves the richness of its many dimensions.

The harder I work to craft events so they make sense to a reader, the more they make sense to me. Or maybe “make sense” is too strong. They become more integrated. I learn to accept them as part of the continuous process of being me. I become more comfortable “in my own skin” or more accurately, more comfortable in my own memories. Converting memories from a jangle of isolated snaps into a coherent story is rewarding. It’s challenging. It leads to wholeness.

In the early stages of my writing, I am struck by the depressing self-inflicted immolation of my academic ambition. However, storytelling doesn’t stop with the problems. A good story takes both reader and author beyond the setbacks to the resurrection that comes next. So I look beyond the 60s. What new person emerged from the ashes of the old? For that, I explore the spiritual and religious dimensions of my life.

In Madison, Wisconsin, I went to classes surrounded by 30,000 kids, many of them blond, the vast majority of them northern European and Christian. Desperate to feel accepted, I felt swept up in the possibility of becoming part of that herd. If being Jewish separated me from them, I would separate myself from feeling Jewish.

Without knowing the far reaching effects of my defiance, I distanced myself from religion. As a result, I could no longer turn to the absolute moral authority that had guided my parents. Like many of my peers, I struggled to find my own direction. The first leg of the quest led straight into the abyss. Then, when I thought I could go no lower, I found a spiritual belief system in which everything mattered. That was the beginning of a period of rebuilding, during which I had to figure out how to live a meaningful life under the aegis of spiritual rather than religious principles.

As I search for my story, I return to my curiosity about my parents. All I knew about them was summed up in a couple of clichés about immigrants and the Great Depression, but I knew nothing about their specific, day-to-day circumstances. I wonder if reading their memoir would have brought us closer to each other during my own transition, perhaps even giving me a safety-net that would have softened my fall. I’ll never know how it would have changed my past, but as I put my story together, I gain a renewed appreciation for the challenges that each of us faced. My parents had to figure out how to cross the threshold into adulthood and so did I. By seeing the story of my own transition, I am drawn closer to theirs.

In the age of memoirs, more of us are taking the time to look back and develop the stories of our lives. By openly exploring the experiences of our youth, we can learn about the common humanity that binds us to our parents. And by leaving our stories for the next generation, our children will have a far greater ability to appreciate the context from which they have come.

Notes
For a memoir that shared the journey from organized religion to spirituality, read Frank Schaeffer’s, Crazy for God. It tells of his childhood, with an intense belief in Christianity, as guided by the wildly innovative interpretations of his parents, then into the intense certainty of the religious right, and finally to a journey to find his own inner guiding light.

Another memoir that reveals the journey from absolute religion to trust in an individual relationship with God: Carlos Eire’s Learning to Die in Miami

Three memoirs about black and white parents
Barack Obama’s Dreams of Our Fathers,
James McBride’s Color of Water
Rebecca Walker’s Black White and Jewish

Books that Search for the Life of an Ancestor
James McBride, Color of Water
Andrew X. Pham, Eaves of Heaven
Karen Alaniz, Breaking the Code
Jeanette Walls, Half Broke Horses
Linda Austin, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

Seeking Truth in a far off land, “American Shaolin” Part 3

By Jerry Waxler

In the 1960s, Timothy Leary suggested “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Many young people, myself included, were seduced into thinking that these three steps would lead to wisdom. For several years I jettisoned social norms. At the end of that road, I believed in nothing. Leary’s formula had emptied me without offering anything in return. To fill the void, I looked Eastward and found a teacher in India who, unlike Leary, advised me to get a job. According to his system, I could best achieve spirituality in a sort of parallel universe while I continued to live in the world. Essentially, he recommended that I drop back in

Recently I read about another young man looking to the Orient to find deeper Truth. Matthew Polly, author of the memoir “American Shaolin,” dropped out of Princeton and joined a monastery in China to study martial arts for two years. Polly’s path required hard work and sacrifice. By the time he arrived in China, he had already learned how to speak Mandarin, certainly a harder project than any self-respecting hippie would have attempted. And that was only the beginning. In China, Polly devoted hours every day to practice Kung Fu. His intense commitment earned him the respect and friendship of his fellow monks.

Writing Prompt
Do you have a story about dropping out, or seeking truth? What prompted you? Where did you go for answers? What did you sacrifice? Who did you talk to? What did you see, feel, or hear on your search? How satisfied were you with the results?

Describing introspective experiences

Polly studied religion at Princeton, and must have amassed a mountain of complex ideas. But he didn’t travel all the way to China to learn more intellectual concepts. He could have done that in the comfort of his college library. He wanted to go beyond books to find a more ethereal “Knowing.” When he achieved such a moment of introspective transport, he attempted to describe in words the subtle observations that could only be seen within his own consciousness.

Then, out of curiosity he asked other people if they ever felt anything similar. To his surprise, many people told him about their own transcendent experiences. His description of these conversations provided one of the simplest, clearest treatments I have read about the direct perception of spirituality.

Writing Prompt
Write about a time when you perceived an alternate reality, perhaps while listening to music, or on a starry night, or in a dream, or in prayer or meditation, or in the physical exhilaration and release after a hard bike ride, hike, swim, or climb.

Seeking is just one aspect of his story

My own reading of “American Shaolin” focuses on Polly’s curiosity about his inner reality. But that was not his only theme. He also told about his Coming of Age. The book described the emerging connection between China and the U.S. It was also a story about learning to fight, and it was a travelogue. That’s the magic of stories. They package the intricate weave of life within an unfolding narrative. Authors show what they see, and readers draw their own conclusions.

Writing Prompt
List the various themes and dimensions of your own life journey that you believe readers will appreciate.

Seeking takes us to strange places, where rules are not what we think

In the famous bar scene in the movie Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker saw the menagerie of strange looking creatures, it was obvious that he had entered a different world, to survive he would need to learn and adapt to unfamiliar rules.

In Matt Polly’s memoir, there were many indications that he was not in Kansas anymore. When Polly went to the hospital near the Shaolin Temple, he was shocked to find out how poorly equipped it was, and the floors were made of dirt!  When he traveled to a remote rural region, most people had never seen a white man.  The economic system was an unpredictable mix of socialism and capitalism – the official term was, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Apparently, this meant that anyone could earn money, and if the Party bosses wanted to take some for themselves, they just changed the rules.

Writing Prompt

When you moved to a different region, or into a different subculture, what changes let you know you were in a “foreign” land? Write a scene to show your surprise.

Here’s one of mine

In Berkeley in 1971, in my usual dire state of loneliness, I went to visit a girl who knew some friends of mine from the University of Wisconsin. When she answered the door, I told her the names of our mutual friends. I was relieved when she softened and invited me into her candle lit pad. Behind her, another girl reclined dreamily on cushions. As I was sitting down to join them, the first girl asked me my sign. I said “Gemini” and they looked at each other. She became stern and distant, and then asked me to leave. Shaken, I walked out to the street, alone again, wondering what I had done wrong.

Notes

This is my third essay on the memoir “American Shaolin.” To read the other essays, click the links below:
Princeton Student transfers to the School of Hard Knocks or Learning Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple

Flawed heroes and mechanical body parts: Shaolin Memoir Part 2

Click here for the Amazon Page for “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly.

For more background about the modern history of China, see my essay about the memoir, “The Man on Mao’s Right.