Grieving memoirs – a different slant

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis is a memoir about two strong-willed people whose relentless mutual attraction chips away at their individuality. When they discover that they are happier together than apart, their relationship is born. The memoir continues past consummation, into a marriage fueled by an unquenchable thirst to live life to its fullest.

From the beginning, John’s rare form of cancer hung over the marriage like a sword. Instead of slowing them down, the threat egged them on to passionately engage in culture, nature, friendships, and each other.Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis

Both of them were on the cusp of retirement, anyway. So they seized this opportunity to cut short their successful careers and devote the rest of their lives to each other. Then time ran out. In a breathless chronology, the author leads us blow-by-devastating-blow through her husband’s medical setbacks.

Shirley Melis relies on the skills she honed during her career as a professional writer to pull readers into the details of their bliss together and then their frightening ordeal. She used scenes supported by dialog and contemporaneous material (letters and journal entries) to cut away the distance between reader and writer and allows us to enter her world.

The couple’s care for each other turned John’s downward slide into another chapter in their passionate love story. While their doctors fought his disease with the full weight of medical science, Shirley and John threw their full weight into trust in the future. They were determined to defy mortality and make plans for the next adventure. The power of love transforms the ending of their story into a sort of crescendo.

To satisfy readers, the ending of a memoir must wrap up the entire story in a way that allows the reader a visceral reaction—goosebumps, say, or a smile—that inspires them to recommend it to a friend. Banged-Up Heart achieves those goals in a way that surprised me.

In just about every memoir about loss I can think of, death takes place early enough in the book to allow plenty of time for the author’s recovery. This bridge from death back to life is one of the great gifts that grieving authors give to the rest of us.

Examples are plentiful. Susan Weidener’s memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, is also about a marriage ended prematurely by cancer. Like Banged-Up Heart, Weidener’s memoir shares the entire life span of her relationship to her husband, from the romance, through building a life together, and having children. Then the ripping away of a too early death. Weidener’s memoir, however, goes on to the next stage in her journey, as she tries to rebuild her life.

Rebuilding is the entire focus of Kate Braestrup’s memoir, Here if You Need Me. We barely meet Braestrup’s husband, who was killed in a freak auto accident at the beginning of the book. The lion’s share of the story describes the author’s long journey back, raising her kids and growing as a person. In the end, she offers a lovely perspective on the nature of good and evil, providing readers with the gift of her own hard-earned wisdom.

Memoirs about the death of a child also guide us through death’s aftermath, as the authors strive to cope with their devastating loss. For examples, check out any of these moving memoirs: Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Leave the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash, and Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes.

Well-defined story arcs about loss and the subsequent grieving process have earned an important place in my taxonomy of memoir subgenres, because each one provides wisdom regarding this fundamental journey of the heart.

I assumed that Banged-up Heart would similarly explore the arduous climb back to sanity and acceptance. But as I approached the end of the memoir, John was still battling for his life, and both of them were still struggling to visualize their adventures after he recovered. During this period, Shirley was too focused on hope to spend time grieving. As the pages flew by, I began to wonder how she would have room to wrap up the story.

In my impatience, I felt there were many details that didn’t add momentum to the story. Yet I carried on, drawn forward by the compelling writing, and my empathetic connection with this terrifying situation.

Amid so many upheavals and disasters, I wanted to learn as much as possible about Melis’ thoughts. In every other grieving memoir I have read, the nuances of the author’s interior landscape were crucially important. For me, that is the payoff for reading a story about loss. I want to accompany the author on this noble search to reclaim a sense of meaning. But instead of emphasizing her inner landscape, the author focused mainly on what was happening around her.

During this run-up to the end, with John in his deathbed, Shirley beside herself with worry, and me juggling my own expectations about where this was going, the story took a surprising turn. The result dashed my expectations and broke out of the “grieving story arc.” And it did so in a most satisfying way. Like the final moments of the movie The Sixth Sense, which shifted the premise of the entire story, the ending of Banged-up Heart caused me to toss out the expected storyline of a grieving memoir.

Melis’ exquisite, loving description of placing John’s remains in his final resting place helped me understand exactly what she was trying to do and gave me a rush of recognition. “Oh, that’s what the memoir was about.”

By ending the book the way she did — not with feelings of loss, but with admiration and love for her husband — the intent of Melis’ book instantly flipped. This was not the journey of sorrow and recovery, which I had expected, but a book about courage, respect, mutual support, and how two loving people can create life in each other’s eyes.

Although the story structure was unconventional, in the end, the book met my expectations after all, by offering me the two great gifts I expect from all satisfying memoirs: first, the life and mind of the author, and second, deep insight into a universal aspect of human experience.

By letting me into her life she showed me the unique nuances of her situation. She met and fell in love with John while still trying to recover from the death of her first husband, complicating her approach to grief. John was an unusual character, full of complex ideas and extraordinary talents. Their relationship was only a couple of years old. These individual variations gave me a sense of being with a specific person, at a specific time.

These specific features of their love offered me a fresh perspective on the universal experience of loss. The emergence of universal insights out of the cauldron of individual experience is why I love memoirs so much.

Love is one of the great driving forces of human experience. Some even say that love is the primary force and that all other emotions derive from it. And yet in the memoir genre, love is usually neatly tucked behind the thoughts, dreams, and needs of the protagonist. Shirley Melis’ memoir Banged-up Heart brings love out of its supporting role and places it front and center, as the hero of her story.

Memoirs that represent other relevant subgenres

Memoirs that Review multiple relationships

These memoirs review the life of several relationships across the author’s lifespan. Instead of praising one relationship, they lead us on the protagonist’s attempt to make better sense of these crucial features of emotional life:
Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse by Kathy Pooler,
Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers his Marriages by Boyd Lemon
Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro

Memoirs devoted to loving one other person

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell — Love and loss of a friend.
100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman — Her tribute to her husband mixed with the caregiving and cognitive rehabilitation after his stroke.

Notes
Shirley Melis’ Home Page

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

Two Fools at a Party: Serious Side of Humor

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

(This is the second article about Victoria Twead’s memoirs. For the first, click here.)

Despite my enjoyment of Victoria Twead’s memoir, Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools, something didn’t seem right. When the couple moved from dreary England to a

Memoir by Victoria Twead

Memoir by Victoria Twead

fixer-upper in sunny Spain, instead of hating the hardship they laughed. I worried that their frivolous attitude missed the opportunity to make some serious points.

To learn more about this adventuresome couple, I read another of their memoirs. In Two Old Fools on a Camel they moved from their by-now cozy village in Spain to a concrete building in the desert of Bahrain. In their new, barren surroundings, they were to teach kids of edgy, rich parents. They did this to earn money. That’s a scary twist. What happened to the golden years when you could retire to a life of leisure? To add to the discomfort, during their visit, a political uprising briefly shut down the country.

After considering both memoirs, my worry about their serious purpose began to evaporate. I could see that underneath the humor was a willingness to go out on demanding adventures. Their fearless attitude fits perfectly with my understanding of the Hero’s Journey.

I first learned about the mythical basis for modern storytelling from Chris Vogler’s book, Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Once I recognized the universality of the Hero’s Journey, it was easy to see its fingerprints all over my favorite memoirs. (I go into more details of this idea in my book Memoir Revolution.

The Tweads, like so many memoir authors, follow the Hero’s Journey model closely, going forth into the land of adventure. In their case, first into Spain and then into Bahrain. Unlike mythical characters, the heroes of memoirs search for psychological achievements. For the Tweads, the quest was for dignity in midlife. And like heroes in myths, the Tweads were willing to accept major discomfort during their pursuit.

In fiction, our heroes usually deal with discomfort by ignoring it. For example, in John Wayne’s war and western movies, the actor was famous for appearing to simply not care about extraordinary discomfort. In real life, though, the rest of us need to develop coping methods.

This is where the Tweads took me into new territory. They used humor, and even went so far as to pull practical jokes. For example, teaming up with fellow teachers, one of them dressed up in an outlandish costume, and then hid. When an unsuspecting victim entered the room, the trickster jumped out, trying to scare the daylights out of the newcomer.

After reading hundreds of memoirs, I can’t think of another one in which the hero uses practical jokes to break the tension. (See note below) At first, I feared the zaniness of their approach reduced the gravitas of their serious work. Aren’t practical jokes for children? Aren’t we supposed to outgrow that impulse?

My misgivings evaporated after reading a scholarly book on the subject. Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde. Hyde’s book shows how pranksters form an important theme in mythology. Because the Trickster messes around with the values of society, Western civilization has spent centuries trying to suppress this impulse. Despite this effort to stamp out the Trickster, he or she routinely appears in mainstream culture. First of course, are the practical jokes of children. In adult life we see the Trickster alive and well in horror movies, Halloween customs, and slapstick comedy. Victoria Twead’s use of pranks to survive adventure offers a refreshing, upbeat spin on this fundamental notion of trickery and surprise.

Heroes Return to the Community

The final stage of the mythical Hero’s Journey involves the hero’s return to the community to share hard-earned lessons. This is in fact the task of every memoir writer. Each of us invites readers to learn from our experience. Victoria Twead does this as well, and like everything else she does, she goes the extra mile.

In addition to passing her messages to us by writing many books , Victoria Twead shares herself on the Facebook group she co-founded with Alan Parks, (see note)    .

It was in that group that I discovered yet another dimension of Victoria Twead’s commitment to humor. In the Facebook group, she sets a light tone, asking members to leave their serious intentions at the door, before entering. Through these policies, the Facebook group attempts to bring a “party atmosphere” to the internet.

The levity on the Facebook group confused me in a similar way to the levity in the memoirs. “It’s too light,” I worried. “Where are the intense discussions about the meaning of life?” Finally, I accepted that group members have been invited to this gathering, not to ponder but to party.

Celebration!

The Facebook group is devoted to celebrating the joy that memoirs bring to writers and readers. I learned quite a bit about celebration during the sixties, when, in the pauses between anti-war demonstrations, we often got together for parties. Fifty years later, Victoria Twead and her cohorts on We Love Memoirs apply the notion of celebration to the internet.

It turns out that partiers, like tricksters, have roots that extend to the very beginnings of human culture. In the book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (see link below), social historian Barbara Ehrenreich traces celebration from the free-wheeling hoopla of pagan rituals. Similar to the way Western civilization tried to suppress the Trickster, there was a centuries-long effort to stamp out public celebration. In modern times, public revelry has been corralled into special holidays, such as New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras. Perhaps, if Ehrenreich is watching, she might add a chapter in her book on celebration to include We Love Memoirs, and other internet attempts at partying.

Serious points galore

After thinking about the Twead’s memoirs, I’ve discovered plenty of serious lessons. They harnessed the myth of the Hero to charge into life with full vigor. They used the myth of the Trickster to help them survive the discomforts of their adventures. And after they returned they used the ancient system of Story to share their adventures with us “couch warriors.” Finally, they gathered us together on the internet to for public revelry.
Even the Two Fools in the titles of their memoirs raise a serious issue. In ordinary usage, the word “fool” is a put down, but I don’t see the Tweads that way. I think they are more like Shakespearean fools. In Shakespeare’s plays, while most of the characters were caught up in the drama of the moment, the Fool was the one who lightly danced on top of reality and revealed the truth.

If Victoria Twead and her husband are Fools, maybe we would be smart to follow in their footsteps.

Notes and Links

The memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young was laugh-out-loud funny too. In the memoir, he attempted to earn his way into fame, and was willing to be outrageous in order to get into the public eye. But throughout the book, his zany behavior was driven by a serious needs. He occasionally dove into situations that came close to tragic, such as commitment to his relationship, his misgivings about fatherhood and his struggle with alcoholism. Read my 2007 review of that book by clicking here,

Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Chris Vogler

Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy byBarbara Ehrenreich

We Love Memoirs Facebook Group

Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools
Two Old Fools: Ole! 
Two Old Fools in Spain Again
Two Old Fools on a Camel, a New York Times bestseller.

Victoria keeps publishing  books! For a complete list, see her author page on Amazon.

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

A Cat Memoir Reveals Life’s High Stakes

by Jerry Waxler

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

Many aspiring memoir writers wonder if their lives are sufficiently interesting to justify a whole book. But we’ve all experienced the building blocks of good stories if we’ve ever felt shame, dashed hopes, fears or personal conflict. A well-crafted story weaves these less pleasant elements of the human experience together with ordinary events to turn the mundane into the sublime.

For an example of the way emotional undercurrents transform everyday life into a good story, read Anne Kaier’s memoir Home with Henry in which the author rescues an injured cat and brings him home. After she saves his life, she turns her attention toward his social health. She wants him to become a congenial member of the family. Despite this lightweight exterior, Anne Kaier’s story is driven by emotions every bit as powerful as any in the human panoply.

Home with Henry is a meditation on human existence, and how the love that seeps into our hearts, even from a humble source, has the power to turn despair into joy. For a memoir junky like me, the book is also a meditation on life stories, showing that emotions of love and loneliness shine just as brightly off simple circumstances as they do from more serious ones, the way a diamond brilliantly reflects sunlight when held at just the right angle.

By fixing her gaze on a detail, she takes us all the way into it
Fiction accentuates emotion by focusing on isolated, exaggerated events. Consider for example Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea in which a fisherman goes out for the day’s catch. He tries his best and comes home with a pile of bones. Old Man and the Sea generates intensity with grit, determination, and the cruelty of nature but beneath the macho exterior, there is an old man who seeks his dignity.

Home with Henry, like Old Man and the Sea, isolates a feature of life, and goes deep. Every day, the author struggles to coax the cat out of his self-protective stance and into a relationship. Externally Anne Kaier’s urban townhouse seems far more placid than a shaky fishing boat. Her emotional struggle with the cat seems far less dangerous than fighting off sharks. And yet within her ordinary circumstances, she struggles to find her dignity with no less urgency than Hemingway’s fisherman.

Since Anne Kaier also writes poetry, I expected her memoir to be informed by a poet’s mind. But I didn’t know what a memoir written by a poet would sound like. After reading it, I see how her deliberate, almost poetic fixation, word by word, phrase by phrase, constructs a narrative that shapes the ordinary feelings of loneliness into the structure of a good story.

William Shakespeare’s sonnets offer an example of how a poet turns an ordinary emotion into a sublime tribute. How can so much profound power be contained within the events that we take for granted every day? Another poet, William Blake, explains it this way. You can see the world in a grain of sand, an outrageous claim that is demonstrated over and over, not just in poetry but in stories as well. Ernest Hemingway reveals his hero’s soul in one day of fishing, and Anne Kaier explores her soul through her relationship to a cat.

What makes her childlike voice so haunting?
Every writer searches for a voice that will linger in the reader’s mind, inviting imagination back to the story the way a good song plays out in memory long after the physical recording stops. Anne Kaier’s voice provokes thought, and it lingers. What is it about this voice?

Her short simple sentences slow my mind and pull me all the way into her interior perspective. Does she speak this way to her cat and nephew, hoping the simplicity will suit them? Is this her normal interior voice, a slow, peaceful, hypnotic voice developed over the years as a survival tool for loneliness? Is it a poetic voice? Whatever the reason, the simplicity of language is important to the story, and worth absorbing as I attempt to make sense of why this little book “works.”

Loneliness and the power of low stakes writing
The backstory of Home with Henry is that Anne Kaier bought that townhouse alone because the years kept passing and a mate had not yet appeared. The ticking of this “clock of life” adds the dimension of mortality. This danger may not be as fast and frightening as Hemingway’s sharks, but it is no less ominous. The threat of death is the great awakener, in stories as well as in life, causing us to evaluate our actions, and choose wisely.

Her life in that townhouse feels so normal, hardly worthy of a story, but in the presence of that ticking clock, loneliness feels like death, or at least like death row, waiting to be released one way or the other. Home with Henry doesn’t dwell on loneliness. On the contrary, it highlights the potential release that might be forthcoming from a cat’s company. But behind the story, there is playfulness, like laughing at a cat who stares at a dancing beam of light, with coiled muscles, pouncing with every intention of killing it, if it could only catch the damned thing.

Happy endings?
When I was in college, I fell into deep despair, fueled in part by my addiction to literature with cynical endings. Despite the misery each one provoked, I felt compelled to keep reading stories that celebrated meaninglessness. When I finally kicked the habit, I realized I could serve my own psychological needs far more effectively by looking at books as fountains of hope. I eagerly look toward the end of each one in order to replenish my supply.

Throughout Home with Henry, the author tries to accept that the cat might be too ornery and independent for this type of relationship. Struggling to move past that stuck point represents the dramatic tension of the outer story. From one point of view, the outcome is utterly predictable. Even so, my story reading mind suspended me deliciously above the dark chasm of failure. At the end, (spoiler alert) instead of “girl gets guy” as would happen at the end of a romance novel, this memoir ends with “girl gets cat.” Even though it was predictable, my entire body relaxed once I was certain they were going to live happily ever after.

The apparent simplicity of Home with Henry is made infinitely more poignant when you take into account how much gravitas Anne Kaier has known in her life. In a memoir workshop I attended a couple of years ago at the Philadelphia Writers Conference, she explained the rare congenital skin disease that almost killed her in infancy, and continued to weigh heavily on her ever since.

In a journal article, she writes about her condition with a combination of brutal honesty, journalistic precision, and literary excellence. By reading this article, one understands the range of her voice, a range that suggests that even when an author finds one’s voice, other voices are also available.

Anne Kaier’s life and work offers hope to any writer who searches for the words to express one’s life, whether in essays, a short stories, a book length memoir, or in poetry. Through the magic of creative effort, we can learn to find the words that weave the magic carpet that lifts readers away from everyday life into the writer’s transformative world.

Notes

Read Anne Kaier’s runner up for Best American Essay of 2013.

Anne Kaier’s home page 

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.

Interview with Memoir Author Julie Freed

by Jerry Waxler

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

Reading memoirs at night often helps me drift off to sleep. This was not the case with Naked: Stripped by a Man and Hurricane Katrina by Julie Freed. The book kept me wide awake, as Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast with a fury reminiscent of the Twin Towers bombings, but perpetrated by nature instead of by terrorists. Just as awful for Julie Freed was the email she received from her husband announcing he was finished with their marriage. The two events together kept me frantically turning pages, seeking relief.

Julie Freed has used the magic of Story to transform these outrageous events into an uplifting piece of literature, leading us through upheaval and disruption back to rebuilding and hope. How did Julie Freed, a mathematics researcher and professor, learn to write such a compelling memoir? To find out, I asked her to share her secrets.

Jerry Waxler: You write so well. I’d love to know how you learned.

Julie Freed: There was no magic formula – I wrote a bit, thought a bit, cried a lot, edited, read out loud to capture pace, would recall pieces, plug in a related scene. It was like a puzzle assembling the pieces to make it intriguing and most important I hoped to make it meaningful.. The goal of writing was to help “me” and publishing to help others.

When I felt I had an almost finished product, I sent the manuscript to an English professor for feedback. She had some suggestions and questions I addressed. She laughed because I was such a good “little student” doing everything she asked. I also sent the manuscript to a friend and former high school English teacher to make sure my commas and such were behaving.

I read for pleasure, mostly non-fiction. But I most enjoy a read that makes a difference in the way I think or feel – one that resonates. Time is my commodity. I want what I read to be important for my own trajectory. And I wanted to give the same value to readers.

Jerry: This is incredible. The only example that comes to mind is from the legend of King Arthur. Legions of young warriors tried to pull the sword out of the stone and young Arthur walked up, pulled it out and said “what’s the big deal?”

I’m fascinated by your success. Your situation offers hope to others who question whether or not they have the ability to learn how to write their stories.

By publishing your memoir, you achieved a variety of goals. You left a legacy to help your child understand what happened. You showed people that courage can carry you through the most outrageous situations. You created a story to help you convert the whole chaotic situation into a good story.

But in my experience, when someone first starts to write, they don’t yet appreciate all the benefits they will achieve. When you started writing, what did you intend to achieve?

Julie Freed: Initially, I wrote to get the story, the dialogue, the memories out of my head. Replaying conversations – “I should have said…” “I can’t believe he …” It was a great purging at the initial writing. I had hoped it would be healing and indeed it was, allowing me to live more in the moment without distractions from my immediate past. My daughter needed my attention and I wanted to be able to give that to her fully.

When I completed a first draft I was actually surprised at the product – it was almost a little poetic. I found myself enjoying the writing process beyond the mental health exercise intended.

I had never before viewed my writing as “creative.” I always wrote in a technical, factual, organized, concise style for an academic audience only. I’ve always loved reading memoirs – true stories by people who are true. But I had not anticipated a product for public consumption. However, what appeared late nights at the keyboard with wine or tea in hand – needed to be shared with those who had encouraged me to “write a book!”

I’d written academic book chapters, journal articles, reviewed dissertations, edited journal publications, but few had any “creative” bits. The feedback on my manuscript from family and friends was completely shocking. Some were high school and college English professors, others just heavy readers. Bottom line, I respected their opinions and encouragement. I decided I should dedicate some time to the manuscript between life, job, single motherhood, and prepare the work for publication.

Jerry: In my article about Naked I already shared what the memoir did for me. But what did publishing it do for you? Did you get out of it what you wanted? Did you have any surprises about how it felt after you finished? Any expected or unexpected rewards or results?

Julie Freed: I certainly never dreamed of holding a memoir I’d written. An incredible thrill to see my love, my heart, my tears, my dreams all assembled with the hope that others might enjoy and learn from my journey. As a young memoirist – still close to my experiences – some of the most tender moments have come post publication. Readers from all over the world write and connect. My heart bursts. They know me. They find themselves in my story, my struggles. To touch people like this was completely unexpected and indescribable. This does not happen with academic journal articles! I’ve made the mistake of checking email in the produce section over the asparagus and found myself weepy – a note about the real tears a stranger had reading my book, another empowered to make changes in her marriage, one woman struggling with an alcoholic husband. It’s been the ultimate gift. I’ve been able to touch others I will never meet. We are never alone! And I want every woman and man to feel that way too.

Jerry: What’s Next

Julie: I didn’t have any plans to write more. But since the publication of Naked and the feedback from writers and readers I respect – I’ve sketched a few ideas, written a few scenes. It’s a hobby for me now but perhaps I should dedicate more time – that part that remains unclear.

Notes

Click here for Julie Freed’s website

Click here to read my article about Julie Freed’s memoir, Naked

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.

A Memoir About Not Falling Apart

by Jerry Waxler

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

Because fiction writers can invent any situation they want, our favorite novels involve larger-than-life, perfectly orchestrated events. Many aspiring memoir writers are afraid that by comparison, their lives aren’t structured well enough to make a good story. However, before you decide if your life is memoir-worthy, take into account the fact that memoir readers acquire a taste for real life. As a result, memoir readers expect authentic, psychologically-driven events that provide insights into the human condition.

Occasionally, though, real-life setbacks smash into authors’ lives with the degree of intensity usually found in fiction. Julie Freed’s memoir Naked: Stripped by a Man and by Hurricane Katrina recounts just such an extreme situation. A seemingly happily married young woman keeps in touch with her husband, whose military assignment has taken him away from home. Then, without warning, he sends her an email asking for a divorce. The life they built together, including their new home and infant daughter, are suddenly abandoned. His break off surges like a violent storm, threatening to tear her apart. At the same time, Hurricane Katrina is barreling down on her home in Mississippi.

Even though Julie Freed’s memoir takes us on a ride through two simultaneous life-shattering tragedies, for memoir readers, the events are just the backdrop. The real story is about her courage to cope with her circumstances. Naked is a memoir about NOT falling apart. From that point of view, this story offers hope on every page. By the end, the author reaches a place of safety from which she can look back across the rubble and bravely share her experience with us.

The memoir provides an extreme example of what courage-expert Susan Jeffers recommends in her self-help book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. According to Jeffers, the fear of failure causes many of us to shrink away from enriching activities. She suggests that to live life to its fullest, we need to trust that we can gracefully survive unwanted experiences. Whether we are facing an annoying traffic jam, or a life-threatening hospitalization of a loved one, we must find ways to move forward with as much poise as we can muster.

To increase our resiliency, we practice self-help strategies such as using encouraging self-talk. We center ourselves through relaxed breathing and other meditative strategies of “being here now.” We reach out for support from others. We pray. And we read inspiring memoirs like Julie Freed’s Naked.

The Memoir Revolution has made available a wide variety of such stories about real people who have suffered setbacks, and yet who can “handle it.” By reading about their experiences, we have the opportunity to vicariously practice courage. When we close the book, we feel we have survived, or in Susan Jeffers’ terminology, we have discovered we can handle it.

Inside Julie Freed’s story, we feel the collapse of all the good things in life. Despite that collapse, she carries on, clinging to hope, to the support of her parents and friends, and to the love she feels for her baby. After she survives her larger-than-life setback, she continues to grow. Eventually she feels strong enough to return to these violently disruptive memories and write the story.

By writing, she sorts out the horrible events, earning for herself the higher perspective gained from the author’s vantage point. And by giving the story to us, she helps us experience her strategies. We learn how she reached out for help, how she headed for shelter, how she wove her own brand of assertive pride and humiliated horror, and we join her as she passes through the trauma and onto the next stage in her life.

Writing Prompt
What is your story of NOT falling apart? Write a scene from one of the most disturbing periods in your life. After writing it, step away from it, and breathe. Now, think of a later scene. In this next scene, show how you hung on to peace and sanity, attempting to ride out the challenge.

Notes

Click here for Julie Freed’s website

Click here to read an interview with Julie Freed about writing her memoir.

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.

Understand Self by Looking Back: Memoir of an Examined Life

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

Your Memoir Teaches Recent Cultural History to Kids

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the third in a series of essays inspired by Karen Prior’s memoir, Booked! Literature in the Soul of Me

The memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, is about Karen Prior’s reliance on literature to help her learn life’s lessons. The young woman loved literature so much she became a professor. From this vantage point, offers a deeper look at the books that influenced her.

The books she mentions are well-known centerpieces of the literary canon. Each one is a great story that makes complex points. To make the experience of reading them even richer, she shows how the authors were influenced by controversies of their own times.

For example, John Donne in the sixteenth century was influenced by the strange brew of religious conflict in England, when marrying into the wrong faction could land you in jail. She tells about the culture clashes between England and Ireland as well as the literary fascination with sexuality that influenced Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in the eighteenth century. And she delves into the conflict between sexuality and respect for women in Thomas Hardy’s time in the nineteenth century.

Her memoir made me wonder what cultural influences I absorbed when I was growing up. For example, in my high school years, books by Charles Dickens filled me with compassion about the economic struggles of the poor in old England and Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle opened my eyes to the abuse of immigrant labor in the U.S. In my college years, though, the cultural influence of my favorite authors turned in a direction so confusing I almost lost my way.

In the sixties, I dove headlong into novels by widely respected authors like Jean Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, whose portrayals of shattered societies and characters without hope riveted my attention.

Their style differed radically from the stories I had read since I was a child. In an endless stream of mystery and science fiction books, I came to expect an upswing at the end of the story. The conclusion lifted my spirits and gave me hope. The novels and plays that dominated my college years went in the opposite direction. In novel after novel, the hope offered at the beginning had evaporated by the end.

At a time when I should have been preparing for adulthood, these deep thinkers convinced me that growing up was a horrible, terrifying waste of time. I was not alone. Millions of us had been convinced by our literary giants that despair is a principle worth pursuing.

To delve deeper into European cultural history of the twentieth century, I took a college course that I thought explained the misery behind this wave of nihilistic literature. Of course they lost hope when surrounded by Russian totalitarianism, two World Wars, and the horror of the Holocaust.

But something still didn’t add up. Ordinarily, people would have looked beyond the misery to find some inherent good. My authors did the opposite. Each one seemed to vie for the most outrageous images, such as Franz Kafka’s boy who woke up as an ugly, person-sized insect. And they were honored for their dark excursions. Samuel Beckett won a Nobel Prize for works like Endgame in which two of three characters are legless and occasionally pop their heads out of the trashcans in which they live.

Decades after struggling out of the pit I had fallen into, I attempt to understand those years. How I could have fallen so far? And more poignantly, how could society have led me along such a desperate line of thinking? Now, in Karen Prior’s brief vignettes of cultural history, I have learned an important fact that helps me make sense of the whole crazy era.

At the end of the nineteenth century, despite relentless advances in science, Western intellectuals still maintained a toehold in the precarious belief in God. For proof they pointed to the mystery of life. Who else but God could have created such wonder?

According to Karen Prior, the final shove came from Charles Darwin’s observation that life is the product of statistical events. After that, anyone who believed in God was viewed as a dreamer or fool. To be accepted as a serious participant in intellectual society, college grads needed to figure out how to live without God.

In high school, I read a play about this dramatic shift. Inherit the Wind dramatized the famous Scopes Trial which pitted Charles Darwin against God. As an intellectual young man, I laughed at the foolishness of the character based on William Jennings Bryan, who defended God, and cheered for the brilliant character based on Clarence Darrow who swept Bryan’s arguments aside.

I knew the controversy but until I read Karen Prior’s memoir, I had never considered the dark pall it placed over twentieth century intellectuals. For the first time in history, they had to navigate their lives without the guiding principle of a higher power. To do so, they had to find a new mythology to live by. The literary geniuses of the time fulfilled their need by offering cynicism as the new ideal.

In the play Waiting for Godot, the characters meander in a wasteland, waiting for a savior who never comes. I followed them willingly, and when I learned from them that stories lead nowhere, I ended up with nothing to live for.

So how did I go from there back to sanity? Of course, I had no choice but to read more books. During my climb back, I reclaimed my childhood image, that I can live my life as if it has an upbeat ending. To support a meaningful ending, I had to maintain a belief in a transcendent reality.

Memoir Revolution Revealed
The responsibility of every civilization is to pass along the rules of society to their young. The terrifying fact is that we have about 20 years in which to achieve this goal. In small, intimate tribal societies, the task was achieved through advice from the elders and the stories at the campfire. In our more complex societies, we turn to books.

This is the topic of Karen Prior’s memoir. In addition to what the book is about, the very existence of her book offers an important piece of information. It represents society’s next great experiment to reclaim a personal myth. Her book is a perfect example of what I call the Memoir Revolution. By turning her life into a story, she provides us with a model of a life that is understandable, hopeful, and sharable.

So Karen Prior’s memoir, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me resonates on multiple levels. It shares the experience of one woman’s coming of age. It offers a brief overview of intellectual history. It explores the role of books in the upbringing of children. And it shows how one woman is fulfilling her end of the bargain, writing a book to pass her experience to the next generation.

Writing Prompt

On your journey to grow up, you have gone through a variety of experiments, finding what works and what doesn’t. By writing your memoir, you could pass these lessons along to the next generation. What trap did you fall into, and more important, what tools did you use to climb back out? By leading readers toward the hopeful conclusion at the end of the story, you provide an image of a world that leads through effort toward wisdom.

Notes
Link: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

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.

Immersed in a Memoir about Life, Love and Loss

by Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

I wrestled with the decision to read Eleanor Vincent’s memoir, Swimming With Maya about losing her college-age daughter. Did I really want to experience so much pain? However, memoirs about suffering also offer the author’s courage and personal growth, two of my favorite features of memoirs. After I previewed the writing style and assured myself of its quality, I dove in. By the end, I felt fulfilled and inspired by the author’s journey through heart-breaking tragedy to find meaning and dignity.

Early in the book, the author’s daughter Maya dies from a freak accident and as a result, the mother can’t face life. Stuck in agony about her lost daughter, she herself is lost. The quest to find herself carries me through the book like a rafter on rapids. On every page, I wonder, “how she is going to learn to live again?”

Jumping into the memoir Swimming with Maya feels like an immersion in love and longing. The author’s love for her lost daughter is nearly overwhelming, larger than life, larger and deeper than everything. Eleanor Vincent spends every waking minute torn between the past and her own need to figure out how to move on.  The love story of a child who is gone forever vibrates with authenticity and power.

During this long period of grief she grabs onto every possible technique to reduce her pain. She attempts to keep her daughter alive by savoring every moment they had together. And since she believes in life after life, she even talks to Maya and feels her presence. In an unusual twist, Maya also lives in the chest of a man who received a heart transplant supplied by the dying girl. Caught by her fixation on her daughter, Eleanor establishes a relationship with this organ recipient and his family.

Eleanor Vincent’s grief is made more complicated by fears that she caused her daughter’s accident. Was she a bad mother? What could she have done differently? She feels trapped by these questions. Her obsessive guilt is yet another way she keeps Maya alive, turning their relationship over and over in her mind. She rips herself apart to get to the bottom of why she raised Maya so poorly.

This period of self-examination reveals many unattractive aspects of her own life. Her impulses to leave men for no particular reason, to betray men, to move on a whim, put me in an awkward position. I feel judgment rise in my throat. I don’t like these choices. She should have provided a more stable environment for her children. At the same time, I admire her for exploring herself, looking for meaning and answers.

This strange bittersweet mix of criticizing her actions and admiring her willingness to examine them provides one of the most profound gifts of reading memoirs. Rather than looking at this clumsy mothering from outside and clucking my tongue in disapproval, I’m inside her mind, with her, trying to figure it all out.

To overcome her obsessive guilt, she talks to her therapist about her own childhood. She grew up in an environment as chaotic as the one she gave Maya. Her own history gives her clues about her own bad mothering decisions. Then she dives one level deeper and pieces together her own mother’s story. Her mother too had a chaotic childhood.

The story of Eleanor Vincent’s inquiry into her past reveals another profound truth about reading and writing the stories of our lives. Behind each of our stories, are more stories, and as we peel them back and watch the layers fold and unfold, we become wiser about the way life works. This is therapy at its best and soul-searching memoir-writing at its best.

The way she peels back the layers of generations  puts her in the same category as Linda Joy Myers, Don’t Call Me Mother. Both memoirs offer insight into the multi-generational cause of family behavior.

Long Middle Gives Room to Grow and Change

During an epic story such as Lord of the Rings the hero must go through many trials and lessons over a long period. The sheer length of this long middle provides the hero with enough time to incorporate lessons into the fiber of his being. By the end of the story, he is essentially a different person than he was at the beginning.

Eleanor Vincent’s journey works in a similar way. She starts out with nothing but the pain and memories of a lost daughter. Then she gradually fills in blanks, while attempting to become a more accepting, wiser person. Her memoir is not only about gathering information. It’s about growing over time. A book with such a profound character arc fills me with hope about the human condition.

Some of my favorite memoirs achieve this goal, of growing over time, deeper and deeper, until the character at the end of the story thinks differently than at the beginning. Many of these are grieving stories, perhaps because grieving forces us to rethink ourselves in such profound ways. *

At the end of Swimming with Maya, I look back across the ground we’ve covered. From gut-wrenching sorrow, the exploration of many bad choices, and the search for new ways of growing, Eleanor Vincent relentlessly, courageously seeks comfort and insight. In gripping page after gripping page, her self-examination raises many intricate responses in my heart and mind. Judgments… compassion… wishing for a better past… working with her toward a better future. Watching her reactions and my own helps me grow wiser about this profound challenge of living gracefully despite death.

Amazon link to Swimming with Maya:

Eleanor Vincent’s Website

* Memoirs about the Long Journey to Maturity and Wisdom
Madeline Sharples, Leaving the Hall Light On about her survival of her son’s gruesome suicide, and many years of effort to move on.

Dawn Novotny, Ragdoll Redeemed about a woman who was sick of being limited by her passive self-image. Living in the shadow of her step-mother-in-law Marilyn Monroe. , She grew psychologically through the course of the book

Susan Richards, Saddled is a fascinating journey of a woman trying to find herself. A horse helped her grow.

Mary Johnson, Unquenchable Thirst showing her long journey into and through Mother Theresa’s religious organization, Missionaries of Charity.

John Robison, Look Me in the Eye shows a deeper understanding of self despite Asperger’s

Slash Coleman, Bohemian Love Diaries is about his attempt to find a deeper self. By the end of the book, he is wiser but reveals that he has not completed the journey.

More memoir writing resources

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.

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

List of Memoirs that Show Various Aspects of Family

by Jerry Waxler

Writing your memoir? Memoir Revolution provides many examples and insights into how to authors are translating life into story.

In a previous post, Family Psychology Lessons in Memoirs, I showed how Sonia Marsh’s Freeways to Flipflops is an excellent example of a family in midlife crisis, and in another post The Many Roles of Family In Your Memoir, I showed how that book demonstrates a type of do-it-yourself family therapy.

Her memoir started me thinking about the complexities of adding families to life stories. Their influence on us is important, and yet it adds an additional layer of complexity to an already-complex task. To help you organize your ideas about how to include your family or group experience into your memoir here are a number of books that include the author’s involvement with this important group.

Beginnings of the Family
We must undergo many profound emotional adjustments on the journey from a single person, to a married one, to a married person with children. My favorite book for learning about the transition from single to married is the memoir Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Feinberg Cook in which the author offers a terrific rendition of a young wife’s initial insights into the shift from free-agent to committed partner.

The transformation from a married guy to a married guy with a child is explored nicely in the quirky memoir Sound of No Hands Clapping by Toby Young and also in a memoir called Man Made by Joel Stein about his fear that he won’t be masculine enough to impress his new son. A less humorous book about a woman’s transition to motherhood is Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields about her postpartum depression.

Another story about a young couple with a baby is Ten Points by Bill Strickland. As a young father, he attempts to overcome the anger and dark memories of his own abusive childhood. He uses his own desperation to outgrow the mistakes of his own father, in order to support the innocence of his tiny daughter. This echo of trauma from one generation to another offers powerful emotional themes that could help you awaken the internal power of your story.

Self-involved parents who forget to raise kids
The memoir She Got Up off the Couch by Haven Kimmel is about how her mother went back to school and her father had an affair. It’s a fascinating look at the way the innocence of a child is distorted by the adult dreams and confusions of parents who are trying to find themselves.

Another memoir about a child whose innocence was overlooked is In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas, and another even more outrageous book in which self-involved parents forget to protect a child’s innocence is Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.

At the extreme are memoirs of the dark side of families, for example the devastating sexual abuse of Sue William Silverman in Because I Remember Terror, Father I Remember You, and the horrific alcoholism and neglect of Frank McCourt’s father in Angela’s Ashes.

When two parents divorce and go their separate ways, their lack of grace often undermines the kids’ ability to grow up, In Dani Shapiro’s Slow Motion, the author has a horrific launching into adulthood. As she retraces her past she exposes the nightmare that results from her father’s family hating her mother. The influence of an angry split is evidenced also in the memoir Tweak by Nic Sheff whose parents lived hundreds of miles apart. He found his solace in crystal meth. In Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love by Debra Gwartney, Mom hated Dad’s immaturity and decided she needed to get 1,000 miles away from him. Two of her young daughters took their upbringing into their own hands, running away and living on the street.

Changing Family after the Empty Nest
The family enters another phase when the kids move out. This back end of family life rarely makes it into adventure or hero stories. In the modern era, with longer life spans and more complex, varied goals, this later period turns up in many memoirs. How will the parents find fulfillment?

An extreme version of the empty nest is the death of a child. Madeline Sharples’ in Leaving the Hall Light On, struggles to keep her bipolar son sane and alive. After he commits suicide, she must keep her family together, for the sake of her own sanity, as well as for her husband and other son. She grieves and then must go on. Over the course of the following years, she relentlessly pursues creativity and self-healing.

In Robert Waxler’s first memoir Losing Jonathan, his eldest son loses the battle with addiction. The memoir, co-authored with his wife, is a book of grieving and healing. In his second memoir, Courage to Walk, Waxler’s younger son, by this time a professional with a vibrant independent life of his own, is stricken by a mysterious, crippling illness. The possible death of his second son awakens echoes of the loss of his first.

Trying to understand your parents
Memoir writers often return to their family of origin to try to make sense of growing up. Many of these memoirs concentrate only on one parent, reflecting the often slanted relationship we have with these powerful individuals in our lives.

Learning about mom’s younger years
Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Linda Austen, is about a mother who grew up in pre-war Japan.

Caregiving for Alzheimer’s Moms
When our parents grow old, they often raise intense emotions. As caregivers for our parents we reverse our roles, and find ourselves in an impossible tug of war trying to care about others in our lives at the same time. Two excellent memoirs, Mothering Mother by Carol O’Dell and Dementia Epidemic by Martha Stettinius are especially poignant because of the extra complexity of Alzheimer’s, tearing apart not just the body but the mind. These two women, at the height of their capacity to give and provide, must turn toward the women who raised them in a profound, poignant new relationship.

Understanding Dad
Joel Stein’s humorous book Man Made makes a joke about a man who is afraid he won’t be masculine enough for his son. A less humorous question arises for many boys who don’t feel masculine enough for their dads. Here are a few memoirs about guys trying to make sense of their fathers.

Drama by John Lithgow, traces his own life in theater in relationship to his father’s. This is another one of my favorite celebrity memoirs. Andre Agassi’s Open covers similar ground, showing how his father imposed his obsessions on the boy, who as a result became a world champion. What a complex conflict! He must juggle resentment at his father’s manipulation with appreciation for the glamorous, complex life that resulted.

Chasing the Hawk: Looking for My Father, Finding Myself by Andrew Sheehan, a wonderful exploration not only of his father’s life but of the lifespan of the whole extended family. This is one of the best “extended family over time” stories I have read.

Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family by Qui Duc Nguyen, reconstructing his father’s life during a brutal captivity by the Viet Cong

Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham, tells of his father’s life across war torn Vietnam.

The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer is a sort of ode to the absent dad. The star of his life is a placeholder for a guy who never shows up.

Women too, wonder what makes Dad tick. Here are memoirs about that search.

Breaking the Code by Karen Alaniz is about a father who experienced emotional trauma while fighting in the Pacific during WWII.

Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour is about her father who inherited an English country manor. He felt so connected with the place his identity merged into it at around the same time as country manors throughout Great Britain were being demolished and dismantled.

Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron by the daughter of the famous novelist, William Styron

The Impact of Early Death of a Spouse
The whole span of a marriage, from courtship to the end is hastened by the untimely death of a husband. Adapting and finding one’s self anew is the subject of powerful memoirs.

Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener, is about her courtship, young relationship, and early death of her husband, and her subsequent journey to find herself.

Here if you Need Me by Kate Braestrup. The death of her husband forces her to figure out her own career, and figure out how to overcome grief. The journey of an individual is actually the journey of a family.

Impact of Illness: Caregiving for a Spouse
100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, caregiving for a spouse after he suffers a severe stroke. Includes some of the best spouse-as-buddy writing I have seen.

Adopted children
When a child grows up with adopted parents, it raises the challenge: which one is my “real” family. Two memoirs handle this question with profound inquiry and insight. Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood tells about a girl raised in the Midwest who goes to China to meet her biological family. Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes investigates the mysteries of her biological parents, whose only relationship to each other was in a surreptitious affair.

Akin to the Truth by Paige Strickland
Twice Born by Betty Jean Lifton

Additional mentions of family
In Tim Elhajj’s Dope Fiend, as a recovering addict he makes desperate attempts to repair the damage his drug use had created in his relationship to his mother.

Family that Includes a Dog
Marley and Me by John Grogan and Oogy, the Dog Only a Family Could Love, by Larry Levin, two excellent stories about how the love for a dog becomes part of the fabric of the family.

Couple as Buddies
Some famous buddy stories in movies, like Thelma and Louise, or Bonnie and Clyde, show how two people bounce off each other in friendship and enterprise. Couples in real life sometimes do the same. I have read a few memoirs that highlight the delightful partnership of the partners.

When Sonia Marsh and her husband moved to Belize, the two adults had become partners in the family adventure. In Freeways to Flipflops, they fight, they work together, in an excellent story of a partnership under duress.

Queen of the Road, Doreen Orion about her taking a year off to travel in an RV. Her interaction with her husband provides humor, mutual respect and support. When I visualize them riding together in the front two seats of their decked-out RV, I think it would make an excellent movie about a couple with an empty nest.

Cancer, fading away of a parent
Kids are All Right by Diana Welch about siblings who gather like a flock, as their mother suffers the wasting of cancer.

Chasing the Hawk: Looking for My Father, Finding Myself by Andrew Sheehan, already mentioned for its portraiture of Dad, also recounts the ending of his father’s life due to cancer.

Chosen Families
In some memoirs, a group of people form an ensemble cast that resembles a chosen family, people who turn toward each other for companionship, understanding, and support.

An Unquenchable Thirst, by Mary Johnson, about a young woman who chooses to join Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

The Path by Donald Walters (Swami Kyriyananda), about a member of a group of devotees of Paramahansa Yogananda

Father Joe: The Man Who Saved my Soul by Tony Hendra, about his relationship to his mentor, a sort of chosen father.

In Fugitive Days, Bill Ayers portrays the members of his fellow war protestors as a chosen family.

In the combat memoir House to House by David Bellavia, the author chooses his life-and-death responsibility to his fellow soldiers over a commitment he made to his wife.

In Mentor by Tom Grimes, the author’s relationship to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop resembles a loosely knit chosen family.

In Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, the women with whom she shared her year in prison became like family to each other.

Writing Prompt
How will your family figure in as a “character” in your memoir? List and describe the members of the group. Write a scene that demonstrates the way they interact with each other. Write a scene that demonstrates the way they supported you. Write another one that shows you wanting to hide from them or break out of their influence.

Notes
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page Author of Freeways to Flipflops

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 a Memoir Writer – Childhood with Traumatized Parents

by Jerry Waxler

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

In my previous blog post, I wrote about a memoir by a woman who grew up under the terrible shadow of a tragedy. Judy Mandel wrote Replacement Child to share a childhood that had been distorted by a few horrifying hours in her parents’ lives that took place before she was born. Through the extraordinary medium of memoir, she was able to translate that trauma and the subsequent journey into a fascinating story. In this blog post, I interview Judy to ask her more about her experience writing and publishing the book.

This blog is part of a blog tour for Judy Mandel’s Replacement Child. For more information from the author, see her website.

Jerry Waxler: You had to face a lot of painful memories to write this memoir, and yet you did it anyway. Were you ever tempted to try to forget, and make it go away? How did you move beyond that impulse and face it and write about it?

Judy Mandel: In fact, I had been very successful in pushing all the memories down so far that it was like an excavation to unearth them. I can’t explain why I felt compelled to keep doing that, like picking a scab. You know there will be blood, but somehow you feel it will heal faster that way.

Jerry Waxler: Anyone who met you couldn’t possibly even imagine this tragic background and complex family life in the midst of a suburban community. Your sister Linda of course bore the signs of the tragedy on her skin for all to see, but you only had them inside. So growing up, how did that feel, having this vast amount of secret life contained within an ordinary one?

Judy Mandel: An interesting thing I discovered after I wrote the book, and many of my childhood friends read it. They knew about the accident, or some version of it, but never ever mentioned it to me in all the years we grew up together. Even my closest friends had never said anything. They were counseled not to by well-meaning parents. But I think if the discussion had been out in the open, both within my family and outside my family, it would have been a healthier way to deal with it and would have eliminated the feeling of secrecy. As a kid, I felt mostly a subterfuge that I couldn’t identify.

Jerry Waxler: Now that you have written a book about those experiences, you have transferred the scars from inside to outside. Describe how that has changed the way you see yourself in relationship to strangers. When you meet a stranger, do you feel more understood? Does the expression “more comfortable in your own skin” apply? How would you describe it?

Judy Mandel: What an insightful question! Sometimes when people ask me about myself, in the way people do when you meet, I am tempted to just give them a copy of Replacement Child–or tell them to read it if they haven’t. Other times, I almost feel like I have nothing left I can tell them about myself if they’ve read it.

Jerry Waxler: You have obviously worked hard on this memoir to create a story from all these memories and your research. From a mess of memories, you have created a coherent narrative. If possible, please compare how that feels to go from before writing it to having it on paper. Was it satisfying, fulfilling? Would you do it again?

Judy Mandel: The interesting thing is that once you give your inner story a narrative, it has a shape that it didn’t have before. And it is unchangeable. Before writing my story, my personal narrative morphed frequently, as I suspect it does for everyone. To your other questions, I would say I had no choice but to write this story and I can’t imagine doing anything like this again.

Jerry Waxler: Before 9/11, I spent zero time thinking about being struck by an airplane. After 9/11, this completely changed. The similarity of the experience to your childhood tragedy seems so strange and otherworldly. As a reader, it feels like a mini-9/11. Of course the cause and scope were different but in your individual life, the disruption had struck you in a similar way. That’s my reaction to reading the book. How did you react to that juxtaposition? When you realized that getting struck by a crashing airplane had become part of our collective traumatic experience, how did that influence your relationship to your memories? How did that affect your willingness to write about it?

Judy Mandel: I believe that victims of a tragic event, no matter the scope, are part of a club that none of us wanted to join. Realizing the very long tentacles of a tragedy, through a family, and even through generations, changes your view of the world. When I watched planes crashing into the towers on 9/11, I felt like it was my worst nightmare. I think, because of my family history, I have always believed that anything can happen–and 9/11 brought that home to me in a powerful way. When the Boston Marathon bombings happened, I felt the same way, and deeply sad for the families effected. I also connect very strongly to survivors of the Holocaust and their children–replacement children in some sense. Some say that an entire generation of Jews are replacements for those lost. That’s a subject I’m delving into for possibly an upcoming project. As I wrote in a recent blog post of mine, ultimately, we have to grapple with random acts of evil, accident or nature. All we can do is realize that each day is a gift, and any day that we find peace, and our loved ones are safe and well, is a good day.

Jerry Waxler: I completely sympathize with the thousands of hours your family obsessed about your sister’s final moments. The horror played through the family psyche like a nightmare or a PTSD flashback. Through your creative passion and hard work you captured those moments in words. Shaping these scenes into a story must have been such a profound labor of love and passion. You finally contained within story the culminating focusing moment that controlled your and your family’s history. That seems so profound to me. Now through the hard work and creativity of your writing and the magic of empathetic reading, strangers like me have shared some of that pain. How do you feel about making the private hell accessible  to empathy from strangers? Does it feel like we are sharing your burden in some way? Has it relieved you from a life sentence of facing this pain alone?

Judy Mandel: Thank you for seeing the work in that way. You come close to asking why we write. It makes me think of the quote from Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” That is true for me as well. Writing those scenes, especially the more graphic ones, helped me figure out how I felt and what I thought. It was the only way I could make sense of it. Which brings me to the other reason for writing and reading, to try to make some sense of the world and the human condition.

Jerry Waxler: I have recently written an essay about the structural techniques of writing memoirs. In one essay, I show how some authors have alternated back and forth between the two time frames, telling the earlier story of their childhoods in alternating chapters with their adult timeframe.  In example of this method, I show how each of the two time frames sticks with chronological order. Your memoir uses the interwoven time frames, with more than two separate threads. I counted at least three (your story of growing up, the day of the crash, and looking back from the present while you were constructing the memoir). Could you help me and your readers understand your thought process deciding how to weave time among chapters? How did you arrive at this system as the best way to tell your story?

Judy Mandel: I started with the trajectory of the crash itself, since it fascinated me and I delved into every detail I could find. The first chapter I wrote was the actual scene in my mother’s kitchen when she heard the blast and flash of fire, and the ensuing melée. I knew I needed my childhood scenes to illustrate the different aspects of my relationships with members of my family, and to underscore my isolation and finally the characteristics of a classic replacement child. My present day chapters came last, to give perspective to the book. Coming up with the structure was a slow process. I experimented with different ways to tell the story. I did this visually, using index cards with a brief description of each chapter and posting them on bulletin boards. The boards lined a hallway in my house for months. I would re-arrange them every few days and see how the order worked. When that didn’t seem like enough information, I used the actual chapters, spread out in an entire room in my house. So, it wasn’t an easy or entirely scientific method!

Notes

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