Interview: How to turn memories into a memoir

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

In a previous post, I described some of the many reasons I loved the memoir Accidental Soldier by Dorit Sasson. In this interview, I ask her to help aspiring memoir writers understand how she did such a great job turning life experiences in a good story.

Jerry: How long did it take to write the memoir?

Dorit: I downloaded a bunch of scenes during 2012-2013, but I didn’t actually run with a first draft until I started Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner’s well-known “Write Your Memoir in Six Months” online course. Best decision ever to jumpstart the entire process plus, I got the accountability and structure. Mind you, I started writing the first real draft with a six month old baby while in mourning for my mother, who recently passed. So if I can do it, anyone can!

By June 2014, many of those “downloads” started to become scenes. June 2014 to March 2015 was the period when I revised and wrote constantly working exclusively with Brooke Warner until reaching the finish line.

Jerry: There is something “impeccable” about the structure – with a beginning fraught with confusion and uncertainty, many intermediate challenges – beautifully executed – and then a nicely designed ending that leaves me satisfied that you (and I) have reached the conclusion of that journey. When you started your memoir writing journey, you had to figure out how to turn memories of a complex, formative period of your life into a good story. So how did you evolve that lovely, dynamic arc?

Dorit: Thank you so much Jerry for these kind words. It’s so thoughtful of you to say and notice. What you are seeing is the result of a lot of mentoring and writing. Brooke and I really worked closely on each chapter to ensure that each scene advanced some element of the heroine’s journey. Eventually I figured out on my own to ask myself four major questions that went like this:

1. What’s the purpose of this scene?
2. How does it advance the heroine’s journey?
3. What’s at-stake for my character?
4. How can I show her transformation and growth?

Jerry: Can you share some insight, or even some specific recollection when you began to shift from seeing yourself through the lens of a collection of memories and began seeing yourself evolve in the pages of a well structured story?

Dorit: Great question. And yes, this is an important yet hard one for memoirists to learn. First, I invested in myself as a writer by signing up for the online course and then hired Brooke as my personal writing coach and editor to help me reach the finish line.

Then, I wrote like crazy. This helped build the muscle I needed to think like a memoirist. I was also working from a place of pressure. My mother had recently died. I was dealing with a lot of emotional stuff. My sentences had a lot of power that I had never written before. When you work from a place of pressure, some amazing stuff can happen and surprise you.

I wanted to prove to myself I could write this memoir having written mostly academic type stuff for teachers.

I invested, practiced and took copious notes on our course lectures. I read what works well and what doesn’t in terms of memoirs. I kept trying to figure out the purpose of each scene. Some chapters went through 20 revisions until I finally got it. There’s no shortcut to figuring out structure because it’s individual for each story arc.

But there was one thing that worked very well to my advantage and that was the timeline of my service in the Israel Defense Forces, (IDF) which framed the structure of my memoir and the service in itself was structured. This inevitably helped with deciding which scenes from my service to include and the overall narrative arc of the memoir.

Jerry: I am blown away at the natural rhythm of interior fretting and exterior choices – it’s as if you have learned an exquisite dance between inner voice and outer actions – did you consciously develop this rhythm? Say more about how.

Dorit: I am pleased that you took notice of this. Once Brooke and I nailed the heroine’s journey, I knew that the only way for me to express my character’s fears and doubts about leaving Mom and getting inducted in the IDF, was to balance the events with my thoughts and feelings. This is what added the psychological layer to my cultural story.

As an American immigrant trying to figure out the “right” way of behaving in Israel and the added layer of becoming a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, the inner voice was the only way for me to express this cultural and emotional dissonance, which also represents the bigger picture of the story arc — leaving the familiar for the sake of the unfamiliar.

As a character, I was expected to be strong, and my introvertedness was mistaken for independence. So to answer your question, I wanted to bring that part of myself as a character to also show what was at stake. To show how my fear and doubts was the result of leaving one country behind for the sake of serving in another and the challenge of leaving one’s family. What I went through was a really lonely experience and the inner thoughts really accentuate the feelings of that lowly immigrant and IDF soldier.

Jerry: Similarly, I’m blown away at the natural weaving of backstory into the narrative – this leads to one of the most interesting backstory weavings I’ve ever seen in a memoir. So again, is it a knack you developed consciously? If so, please say more about how you found this rhythm.

Dorit: The backstory developed mainly with revisions and once I felt confident tackling the structure of scenes.

With each scene, I kept asking myself if there was something in the backstory that my reader needed to know. I turned on my “inner editor” and kept challenging myself not to assume anything that might leave my reader hanging or confuse him/her.

Brooke asked pertinent and stellar questions which forced me out of my “writer head.” This is why I truly believe that every writer needs a real good editor to handle this journey. The role of an editor for a writer’s journey is so crucial and especially that for a memoirist. I don’t quite understand how writers can publish a book without the expertise of an editor.

Jerry: I find the best relationships between author and editor to be an exquisite partnership, almost a dance of mutual desire for creative excellence, with plenty of acceptance and flexibility on both sides. The editor must give feedback assertively enough for the author to understand, and meanwhile the editor cannot superimpose too much of her own concept of the story – the author must stay true to her vision of the story while at the same time creatively adapting to the suggestions of the editor. The partnership also relies on the sympatico shared vision of the two partners. I admire editors who know how to do this dance. But my question relates to you as an author. Was it difficult for you to do your part, staying true to the story while accepting input, and being able to bounce back from the hurt that your writing wasn’t perfect so you could charge forward to the revision, staying true to both your vision and your editors?

Dorit: How I love this question and the way you put it – “editors who know how to do this dance.” It’s so so true.

I will be honest – this wasn’t such an easy process at first but I was determined to go full speed ahead with the writing of the story despite the feedback. The magical “a-ha” moment with my editor slowly developed particularly when she asked various questions about my IDF service, relationships and life in Israel and terms that needed clarification. At first I thought, “Is she going to be like my mother or some kind of nagging editor who is going to question every single thing?”

But I was surprised. She distanced herself enough to let me tell the story. She honored my voice. She gave me space to write and revise. This is crucial.

I also slowly realized that she wasn’t just after clarification. She was trying to also help me see the big picture of each scene and how it contributes to the narrative arc. It was then I realized that I picked her for a reason – she was “ga-ga” over structure and I knew that was where I needed a winning editor in this department.

So here’s the magic which clearly made all the difference. On our weekly coaching calls, she asked me a variety of questions – some clarifying and some bigger picture types that she would then include as part of her editorial feedback. So I actually heard myself talk about the experiences I went through which got me out of my “writer head” but also motivated me to such a fierce degree to translate the experiences into writing.

Writing and speaking are such different mediums but when you can hear yourself talk, you become more invested in your story because you’re also trying to help the editor understand the bigger and smaller pieces and help yourself sort it out as well.

Having this speaking element complement the writing was in fact, the winning combination. This process motivated me and powered up my revision and writing muscles for hours at an end.

I will also say that this process has a lot to do with an editor’s personality. I felt listened to. Because I was motivated by the process, I was also determined to “win my editor over” to prove that I could take the revisions to the next level.

Each time I forked over another revision, I trusted that she knew what she was doing and where she wanted me to go with this story even thought I didn’t know if the revision would be better or the same. When I got that final pat on the back, it was for a revision well-earned and I could continue forging on knowing that I was making progress. In the process, she also earned my trust because I was divulging areas of my life with someone outside my circle.

Jerry: Did you keep contemporaneous notes during the period you wrote about? If so, say more about the notes when you first wrote them? If so, how valuable were they for the book?

Dorit: I kept journals during my IDF service to help me understand the kind of craziness I was going through at the time. In one entry I wrote, “I intend to write a book of my experiences one day to help me figure out all this craziness.” I intuitively knew that what was going on paper was the result of the emotional experiences of serving in a foreign military and adjusting to life as an immigrant.

By writing these entries in English, I was able to give voice to these experiences using my mother tongue. Those notes later find their way into the story arc of the memoir as individual scenes.

Because of the structure of military life, I did not have the luxury of writing every day, but they documented very well the kinds of challenges I was going through at the time. So all I had to do was just pick up a journal and I was immediately transported to that point of time.

Jerry: What other methods did you use for getting back in touch with the moments about which you write.

Dorit: To get in touch with that eighteen year old immigrant self who was one foot out of America and one foot in Israel in IDF uniform, I did a few important things which really helped me get into my character’s shoes:

1. I listened to well-known Israeli songs on Youtube that are especially associated with the army and especially of that time period which helped me get into my character’s head.
2. From time to time, I looked at old army photos, which reminded me of what I was like as a young adult. Boy am I glad I still have these because they were the visual reminders I needed to reconnect to that eighteen year old who had no idea what she was doing in the IDF!
3. I occasionally reread some of the journals I kept and the letters Mom wrote to me. I did not let research however bar me from writing.

Notes
Dorit Sasson’s Home Page

Accidental Soldier on Amazon

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

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

Thoughts are the Soundtrack of a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two-Memoir Series about Youth, Midlife, and Responsibility

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Trauma Passed Through Generations Shared by Writing a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Click here to listen to an audio interview with Linda Appleman Shapiro

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

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

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

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

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

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

Click here for Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes
For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

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

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

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

More about Why Choose to Write Fiction Instead of Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for Part 3

Notes
For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

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

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

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

Conflicted about American Melting-Pot: Cultural Identity in Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courageous Memoir Author Explains Stylistic Choices

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc and I stand up from the couch.

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

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

Pat Boone will cure me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Memoir Author Sonia Marsh, Pt1

by Jerry Waxler

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

After reading Sonia Marsh’s Freeways to Flipflops, I sat back and thought about all she had taught me about my favorite subject: How to turn experience into a readable story. I shared my findings in a series of blog posts starting here. (You can see more by clicking the link for related posts in the right-hand column on each one.)

In addition to writing the memoir, Sonia is the mastermind behind the Gutsy Living contest which provides a platform for sharing the courageous, often outrageous acts of human experience. In this two-part interview, Sonia answers a few questions about writing her memoir and sharing her life experience with the world.

Jerry Waxler: When did you first conceive of turning your trip to Belize into a memoir?

Sonia Marsh: When a close friend said, “Sonia, uprooting your family to Belize would make a great story. Have you thought of writing a book?” That was the nudge I needed to start writing.

The first step was to keep a journal. As a novice, I had no clue it would take seven years to turn my journal into a commercial memoir.

Fortunately, I started writing one year before our move. Life at home was quite emotional, with our oldest son causing havoc in our daily life, and I knew if I could capture everything while it was still “raw,” this would make my story more authentic.

After keeping a journal for a couple of years, I had 660 pages on my computer. I would send excerpts via e-mail, to friends back home, and they would comment, “Wow, Sonia, your life in Belize is so exciting compared to mine back here, please continue sending me your stories.”  This was all I needed to keep writing.

Jerry Waxler: I understand that you kept contemporaneous notes during your time in Belize. Help me picture how you fit the writing into your days on Belize. Did you keep a daily diary? Were you actually crafting a book while you were going through the experience?

Sonia Marsh: I kept a daily journal in Belize, however, I did not write at a set time each day. Instead, I would run to my computer whenever something interesting happened. By that I mean, a specific conversation, argument, emotional moment with my family, or something significant that happened, and I wanted to keep the dialogue “real” and the emotions raw and clear in my mind.

Our life in Belize was simple, without television, shopping malls, bookstores, coffee shops, or movie theaters. We lived in a third world culture where life was slow paced and things did not get done when you expected them to get done. In a way, this was the perfect environment for writing. My only distraction was nature—so beautiful—and I spent hours studying my surroundings, and taking care of daily chores. Everything takes longer to do in Belize. Life was so different from life in Orange County, California. One day, an old “pirate” sailboat sailed in front of my house. It looked like one built to shoot a Hollywood movie, only this was the real deal. The next day a capsized “drug” trafficking boat was found close to the Island Ferry tourist boat. How often do you experience this in suburbia?

Jerry Waxler: When you started writing, explain anything you can to help us understand how you translated your notes and memories into scenes.

Sonia Marsh: Writing scenes did not happen until several years of being told that I was “telling not showing.” We all hear this when we start writing, and I remember copying sentences from Augusten Burroughs and Nicholas Sparks, feeling guilty at the time for copying some of their words and phrases, but those authors opened my eyes to reading scenes that felt like movie scenes. I knew this was something crucial I had to learn if I wanted my memoir to become visual. I would close my eyes and try to “see” my surroundings in detail, and “feel” the emotions. My first editor complained that I had too much dialogue that wasn’t moving the story along, and that instead of “the transcription of conversations,” she wanted “the context in which they occurred or your thoughts and feelings at the time.”

Jerry Waxler: How long did it take to write the first draft?

Sonia Marsh: I never really had a first draft, unless I call the 660 pages I printed from my computer, a first draft. My problem was reworking and polishing the first 1/3 of the manuscript over and over, and not spending enough time polishing the rest of my manuscript. I approached my first editor in March 2008, two years after I thought my manuscript was ready. She wrote a 12-page report which helped me realize how naïve I had been to assume it was ready for publication.

Jerry Waxler: To polish your writing or develop your writing voice, did you participate in critique groups? If so, where and how? Can you share any lessons about the story or about your style that you learned from their feedback?

Sonia Marsh: My first experience with a critique group was in 2008, at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference. I read some chapters during the workshops, and received such helpful feedback from the workshop leaders. I did join a critique group for 6 months, and we met once a week. In my case, I found it more beneficial getting critiqued by an editor, or a teacher, than by a group of writers like myself. Quite honestly, I wasted several months of being thrown off course by other writers who didn’t know my entire story, and who would make suggestions based on what they had heard me read. Also some writers in the group were from other genres, and couldn’t relate, so I did not find critique groups helpful.

Jerry Waxler: In the memoir, you provide such detailed insights into your thought process. Like when you went to the party at your neighbor’s house and they had brought so much wealth and the trappings of the first world to their home in Belize. You describe all that you thought about going and what you thought about what you saw. Did your journals help you get to this level of detailed internal dialog? How else did you achieve this level of detail about your inner process?

Sonia Marsh: My journals helped as I wrote the details, but I am very passionate about certain topics, and also stubborn and opinionated, so don’t get me started on materialism, and accumulating “stuff.” I guess having experienced life in various countries, I feel like I see things differently than someone who may not have had the same experience as me. So in a way, it’s my “duty” to share my thoughts and make people aware of things they may not realize. So perhaps “anger” and “frustration” as to why people need so much stuff, and why people need to flaunt it, made my internal dialog come naturally.

Jerry Waxler: I appreciate the way your narrative shows you worrying and second-guessing yourself. Your fretting adds an inner dimension that makes your scenes richer. When I started, and I’ve seen this since in other beginning writers, I was reluctant to report thoughts that raced through my mind. It took me quite a while to realize that sharing my thoughts added a rich dimension to the scene. When you were developing this style for your book, how conscious were you about inserting this inner discussion? Did it seem natural and normal to you as a writer?

Sonia Marsh: I know this may sound a little strange, but I was born in Denmark, to a Danish mother. I think Scandinavians have the reputation of being “open” and “honest” and don’t try to cover up their true feelings, as do some of my friends in the U.S.

I’ve always been that way, and sharing my thoughts is part of who I am. I value true friendships and while writing, I honestly felt like I was writing to my friends. I guess I’m naïve in that I hope my readers will also become my friends, and not remain total strangers.

In life, I try to connect with people on a “meaningful” level. I ask questions because I’m interested in what people think about their own life and their interests, and I also believe that writing a memoir should be “meaningful” to the reader. Why would anyone want to read about “you” and “your story” if you are not going to be open with them, and share part of yourself with them? We are all nosy, even those of us who don’t admit it. Why do so many of us like to read the tabloids? We want to ready the “juicy” stuff. No one would read the tabloids if they stated boring details like “Angelina Jolie had a manicure in 1997.”

Jerry Waxler: Were you ever criticized for sharing your thoughts, or on the other hand praised for it?

Sonia Marsh: So far, I have received positive reviews about being so honest. I’ve read reviews where readers have thanked me for sharing what I felt as a wife and a mother, and they said that they could relate. One of the key issues my first editor (when my memoir was still in half-journal format, and I thought it was ready) stated was, “In order to get your readers to come along on your journey with you, they have to be able to relate to you. And in order for them to be able to relate to you, they have to understand your inner thoughts and feelings.”  I didn’t understand this until later on in the writing process.

NOTES
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