Two Inspiring Memoirs about Suffering

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

I rarely shy away from the hardship portrayed in memoirs. On the contrary, I have come to expect that setbacks are milestones on the road to hope. This uplifting quality of memoirs is summed up nicely in the Latin phrase my older brother penned on his tombstone. “ ,” meaning, “To the Stars through Hardship.” In my favorite memoirs, each author climbs to the best parts of themselves by enduring the hardship they encounter along the way.

However, my admiration for suffering was severely challenged nine years ago, when I began to read Sixty Five Roses by Heather Summerhayes Cariou. It was about the author’s sister, Pam, who had Cystic Fibrosis. Before I picked up this book, I had no idea a child could struggle so hard just to breathe. As I allowed my mind to enter the scene, I gasped for air.

Picturing that family, frantically caring for this suffocating little girl, overloaded my own emotions. It was too much. I set the book aside.

My reluctance to read the book presented me with a terrible dilemma. I would not be able to experience Heather Cariou’s triumph until I was willing to experience her pain. So for years Sixty Five Roses floated near the top of my reading pile, bypassed time after time by books which involved less suffering.

Recently, I grabbed a memoir, Trapped by Fran Macilvey, about a child who grew up with Cerebral Palsy. From earliest childhood, the author coped with her physical limitations. And after she came to terms with the cruel accident that damaged her body, she had to climb above the emotional scars that resulted from all those years she wished she could run, jump, and play with the healthy kids.

Fran Macilvey’s memoir is a journey of courage, of growth and change. Her frustration pushed me out of my comfort zone, where I felt the courageous shift beyond mere acceptance, to a lifelong search for dignity.

I didn’t want the book to end. So after the last page of Trapped, I returned to Heather Summerhayes Cariou’s Sixty Five Roses. This time, I vowed to stick with the pain until it led me to the inevitable conclusion of compassion and courage.

I am so glad I did. This memoir of a young person trying to grow up in the shadow of her sister’s terrible disease was one of the most beautifully written of the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read.

Knowledge of Death inspires life

This book also searches for the highroad hidden within the misery of circumstances. As Heather’s sister, Pam, inches closer to the early death expected for all sufferers of Cystic Fibrosis in those years, the family attempts to thrive. This terrifying situation creates an almost superhuman challenge for the author, of course. It is also terrifying for me, as I wonder with increasing urgency how the author will lead through death toward a strong, hopeful conclusion.

Heather pulls it off, showing how her sister and family looked squarely at death and defied it with a love for life. Thank you for sharing this lovely experience, Heather. You have lifted my heart and given me courage. Death and birth, sorrow and joy, effort and fear are flip sides of the human experience. Your sister showed us how to embrace both sides.

As a result, Sixty Five Roses does more than tell the story of a child’s suffering. It turns that valiant struggle into one of the most lyrical and uplifting memoirs I’ve read, taking me on a fearless journey to the shores of death.

Bonus of reading both memoirs

Because the family in both Trapped and Sixty Five Roses had to work so hard to ease the suffering of one child, the two books together provide a primer on the psychology of families with a special-needs child. In both stories, the healthy siblings learned early that their own problems are less urgent in comparison.

Reading the two books in sequence also taught me a surprising lesson about the influence of first-person versus third-person point of view on the way I was able to relate to the pain.

Even though Fran Macilvey suffered the terrible burden of a body that didn’t work right, one thing that made it easier to read was the fact that the suffering was told through her own eyes. After a lifetime of coping with her physical disability, she had learned how to create some distance from her own struggles. As a result, her own emotional tools allowed me to immerse myself in her situation while also remaining buffered from it.

On the other hand, in Heather Summerhayes Cariou’s story, the author had to witness the suffering of her younger sister. Her heart was ripped to shreds as she attempted to live her own life, and yet at the same time pour her compassion to her sister. Her aching heart completely opened me up to the pain.

Conclusion
I grew up reading science fiction. While standing on a crowded trolley car or subway in Philadelphia, I explored the galaxy. At the time, I didn’t realize that to a large extent I was reading in order to shut out the people around me. Decades later, I extended my exploration to include memoirs. By reading memoirs, I traverse the vast variety of human experience. It is truly the greatest and most exciting frontier, understanding of the people around me by reading their stories from inside their own points of view.

Thanks to frank, gorgeous writing such as Fran Macilvey’s Trapped and Heather Cariou’s Sixty Five Roses I no longer need to keep it outside my realm of experience.

Notes

Link to Sixty Five Roses – Goodreads page
Link to Trapped by Fran Macilvey Goodreads page
Link to Fran Macilvey’s home page

In one of my favorite memoirs, Here if you Need Me, Kate Braestrup faces the death of her husband and ends up proposing an uplifting way to look at good and evil. Tackling these huge topics through Story is one of my favorite things.)

In another one of my favorite memoirs, Gary Presley in Seven Wheelchairs takes his search for adulthood beyond mere acceptance of life in a wheelchair, toward the inexorable search for dignity and self-worth.)

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.

Memoirs Helped Her Conquer Midlife

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

victoria-twead-two-old-fools-coverWhen I was growing up in the 1960s, “midlife crisis” conjured the image of a fifty-year-old guy driving a red convertible sports car accompanied by a giddy twenty-year-old blond. Thanks to the Memoir Revolution, we no longer rely on such clichés. Instead, we can read detailed accounts of the infinitely varied experience of real people.

Take for example, the midlife journey depicted in Victoria Twead’s “Old Fools” memoir series. (The fools in her self-effacing titles refer to the author and her husband.)

In the first memoir of the series, Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools, when Victoria Twead reached midlife, she was itching for a change from dreary English winters. She convinced her husband that they should buy a fixer-upper in a village in southeast Spain. He agreed to a five-year trial. If they still loved it by the end of that period, they would stay. With the clock ticking, they began the laborious project of turning a dilapidated house into a cozy home.

By most measures, that achievement would have been sufficient to declare their approach to midlife a smashing success. But for Victoria Twead it was only the beginning. The next mountain she wanted to climb was a literary one. She wrote a memoir about their move to Spain. Her good-humored writing brightened the dark spots, turning the whole messy experience into Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools.

Their not-so-foolish decision to move to Spain followed by the even less foolish effort to write about it were merely the first couple of steps in what I have come to see as Victoria Twead’s ferocious response to midlife. Following Dylan Thomas exhortation, she was not going gentle into that good night.

But then life in Spain hit a bump more serious than outmoded plumbing and collapsing walls. Their money began to run out. Instead of retreating, they blasted out of their comfort zone into yet another adventure, taking jobs as visiting teachers in the small middle-eastern country of Bahrain. After that crazy year, she had enough material for her next memoir, Two Old Fools on a Camel. (I’ll talk more about it in my next article.)

By this time, the reading public had discovered her books, and in a wonderful example of “art meets life” the income from her memoirs began to sustain her lifestyle.

As if this wasn’t enough to confirm Victoria’s qualification as a ferocious midlife conqueror, she had another mountain to climb. In order to share her books, she forged a relationship with fellow ex-pat Alan Parks, and established a Facebook group called We Love Memoirs.  The group attracts people from all over the world. And unlike other such groups on the internet, the moderators keep this one buzzing. That’s amazing. Isn’t the internet supposed to belong to the young? (I’ll say more about the group in my next article, also.)

Victoria Twead’s relentless climb to higher versions of herself represents an important change in our culture’s view of midlife. Formerly considered the beginning of the end, many of us view the period as the beginning of the next interesting chapter. For a more serious exploration of this trend, read Marc Freedman, MD’s book The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.  In it, Freedman points out that naturally, with our increased life spans, we are going to search for the next great adventure.

This big shift in our thinking about midlife happens to coincide with that time in my own life. Once my age approached a half a century, it raised the possibility that my life was half over. Like Twead, I too wondered how to climb higher rather than sink lower. During my research into that question, I discovered that memoirs are the key, for me and many others in this situation.

For memoir writers, a crucial step for revising life’s timeline is to become the author of one’s own book. By using the ancient template of Story to help make sense of the whole journey, we have discovered a roadmap that lets us know where we’ve been and helps us figure out where we’re going. (I’ve documented the use of Story to help us understand ourselves and each other in my book Memoir Revolution A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire )

Victoria Twead offers a great example of the trend to see midlife as a time to grow. If you decide to follow in her footsteps, to boldly seize the future, to overcome your own limits, and grow toward a better version of yourself, keep in mind all three dimensions of her approach.

First, if you lust for experience, go ahead and bust through your limits. Move to another country or achieve some other difficult or seemingly impossible dream.

Second, whether or not you are inclined to a new round of adventures, turn to memoir writing to explore and share the experiences you’ve already had.

And third, hop onto social media to create and join online communities and “party” with like-minded people from all over the world.

I’ll say more about Victoria Twead’s approach to midlife, to memoirs and to community in my next article.

Notes
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.

Facebook group, We Love Memoirs, http://www.facebook.com/groups/welovememoirs

Other memoirs about renewal at midlife
At Home on the Kazakh Steppe by Janet Givens. She and her husband joined the Peace Corps at around 50 years old.

Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed
David W. Berner quit his job as a radio newscaster and became a school teacher

The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife by Marc Freedman,

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

Stories Help this Author Grow

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

An article and interview about David W. Berner’s Night Radio: A Love Story

Every memoir shows life through the author’s eyes, and each one provides an example of how the author turned life into a good story. One of my favorite memoir authors, David W. Berner has taught me many lessons in both arenas. Berner’s writing explores powerful parts of human experience, and his writing style is flexible and far ranging.

By following his life story, I have learned not only about writing a memoir, but also what it means to be a creative, energetic writer at midlife, ferociously stretching for new angles and new creative styles.

In his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, he wrote about the challenges of redefining himself in midlife. The book was written in a straight, narrative form.

In his second memoir Any Road Will Take You There he tries to make better sense of being a father and understanding his own father. He wrote it as a travel memoir, about the road trip he took with his friend and sons.

His third memoir, There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, A Life in Pets is again about his sons and father as explored in stories about their pets. He wrote this one as a collection of short stories.

Now, in his fourth book, Night Radio: A Love Story, he’s tackled the complex and sexy challenge of a young man in college who must sort out the difference between lust and commitment.

When I was trying to become an adult in the 60s, I learned about men from novels such as those by Henry Miller, which sensationalized the freedom of promiscuity. Such fictional characters provided little, if any, guidance to help me sort out these confusing issues. Now thanks to the Memoir Revolution, I hope young people can find better guidance from memoirs than I had back then. So when I heard that Night Radio is about that period, I thought this empathetic, insightful author would offer honest, compassionate insight into that important period of life.

However, it wasn’t a memoir and neither the publisher nor author ever said it was based on the author’s life. I should have just let it go and accepted that it wasn’t going to provide insight into this young man’s mind.

And yet, I wanted to believe in the authenticity of this main character. For one thing, Berner had written three memoirs, so he has plenty of practice writing from his own, authentic voice. And he, too, had been a radio announcer. Surely, I thought, he would place himself in the main character’s mind. So I kept wondering if the character in the book was a fabrication or a reflection of the truth. Finally, I asked Berner to help me tease apart the difference. I was not disappointed.

Interview with David W. Berner about his Memoir Night Radio

Jerry: When I started reading Night Radio, I found myself tangled up trying to figure out which parts were invented and which parts were you. Could you help me figure out how to sort this out?

David: Night Radio has what I call “experiential truths” in it. There are scenes that may be based on real events, but not necessarily tell the true details of that event. The scene is important to advance the narrative, but unlike memoir there is no need to stick to the absolute truth of an event. It can be shaped and massaged into what the story needs. I always get asked about the drinking party at the college radio station depicted in Night Radio. Did that happen? Well, the drinking party happened, sort of, but te what the characters end up doing on the floor of the station’s office is *not* true. At least it’s not *my* truth. It didn’t happen to me, but it wouldn’t be out of the question for this to have happened at a college radio station somewhere, at sometime. This brings me to authenticity. And that’s key here. It may not be fact, but it has to ring true.

Jerry: I was so curious about what it was like being you during that period. I guess I’m projecting my own desires on you. You wanted to write a novel, but I wished you had written a memoir. Why did you choose to write fiction?

David: I think there are a number of stories out there from very well known broadcasters and journalists who have written memoirs about their careers, legends in the industry. I’m not one of them. I’m a respected, long-time journalist and broadcaster, but not in that one-percent, if you will. I believed a fictionalized story with all the things I wanted to say about broadcasting, rock ‘n’ roll and the redemptive powers of love could be said, hopefully, more powerfully in a fictional story.

So many have said that fiction can get to a bigger truth. Sometimes, I think they are right.

“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” — Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” — Jessamyn West
“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” — Picasso

I think, in the case of Night Radio, fiction tells the wider truth.

Jerry: But that’s just it. The Memoir Revolution came into being to serve readers who no longer want a wider truth. We want specific truths so we can see into each other’s minds, and decide the wider truth for ourselves. And as a memoir writer and journalist, you were a great person to reveal it.

Maybe I’m being too personal here, but what I’m trying to figure out is Jake’s struggle with the awkward transition between the delights of lust and sex, versus the long-term commitment of authentic relationship. You did a great job of taking me inside that transition. In fact, your excellent writing evoked memories of my own inner debates during that period. My younger male self struggled enormously to steer through passion, and during that transition, I made a lot of mistakes. I included some of those awkward moments in my own memoir, but on every page, I had to resist the impulse to say, “And I was such an idiot.”

When I started reading Night Radio, and was still under the mistaken impression you had put yourself into the character, I thought you were being so heroic, opening up your thought process for all to see.

Now that you’ve convinced me this is really fiction, I’m not so sure if you were being brave. Maybe the opposite was the case. By couching it within fiction, you could completely deny the whole mess. Was that your intention? Did fiction enable you to explore that character without revealing personal, embarrassing choices and states of your own mind.?

David: This is a fascinating question, in essence, do we write fiction because the truth is too close to home? I do not believe I wrote Night Radio to avoid, in some way, calling attention to myself. I’ve written about other issues and emotions in my earlier memoirs that are pretty close to the bone. So writing about very personal feelings, is not a concern. Plus, I am *not* Jake. There are aspects of me in Jake, certainly. And the character’s issues with commitment and/or fidelity are a very human thing, I think, especially for young men trying to figure it all out. Plus, some are only modeling the behavior of their fathers. That’s somewhat the case for Jake. His father has had his own struggles with these issues and whether it’s overt or just through the DNA, sons of such fathers will also have to deal with these matters. It’s inevitable. Here’s the final say on this: everything a writer puts down on paper has a little of him in it. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, whether it’s painfully obvious or squeezed between the lines, it’s there and any writer who tells you differently is not telling you the truth.

Jerry: So now that you’ve written your first novel, are you dropping memoir altogether and switching over to writing fiction?

David: I’m glad you asked. Roundfire Books, will publish October Song: A memoir of music and the journey of time most likely in the first part of 2017. I believe October Song is a unique story of time and music. I played in a band many years ago. Nothing much. Just a bar band. I was a teenager and did it into my early 20s. But I always played music, and still play some guitar. But it’s really just about having some fun. Now and then, I’ll write a song. I’ve never professionally recorded or published music. On a whim I entered a national contest and was quite unexpectedly named a finalist and was asked to perform at a well-known music venue in Virginia to see how far the song would go. The memoir is about the road trip there and the experience of the competition, and most importantly about the passage of time. When are we at the moment when we should give up our crazy dreams? When do we say…”well, I guess I’m not going to be President of the United States,” and for me that was “that rock-n-roll star.” All of us have those dreams, right? Ultimately October Song is an examination of the passage of time, love, the power of music, and the power of dreams.

Jerry: That’s perfect. Another memoir. And the subject of the memoir fits in perfectly with the image you portray through your memoirs.

In the beginning of your first memoir, Accidental Lessons, you become convinced that you are not living life to the fullest, and to fulfill that desire, you need to change. Now here you are a few years later. You’ve been a high school teacher. A college teacher. You’ve written two memoirs, a collection of short stories, a novel. And you’ve got another memoir coming out about your passion for music. What a relentless, creative journey you’ve been on.

In my experience, most memoir writers are responding to a similar desire, to find themselves by creatively shaping their lives into stories. What advice could you offer us, based on your mid-life quest to reclaim your soul through creativity?

David: You hit the nail on the head – “reclaiming your soul through creativity.” I believe that my writing has done that. I didn’t write *to* do that; it was not calculated in some way, as journal writing might imply. But I have always been a storyteller in one form or another. From delivery newspapers as a paperboy in Pittsburgh, to my radio work, to writing journalism, to music and songwriting, to writing memoirs and now fiction. And for one reason or another, in the last 8-9 years, I have been a faucet of stories. I don’t know why that is, really. Maybe I am on a quest to understand my world and my place in it. But I don’t think people who are reclaiming their place in the world have to write a book or a memoir to “see” themselves or “find” themselves. That can be done in myriad of ways. And it’s a natural process for all of us. Looking in the mirror, really looking, is important to find steady ground, to be happy (whatever that means), or redeem or create relationships with people and the world. What makes us uniquely human? The stories we tell. No other species on earth tells stories. Only us. To be quintessentially human, we must tell stories. I must tell stories.

Notes

Night Radio: A Love Story by David W. Berner
Accidental Lessons by David W. Berner
Click here for the article I wrote about Accidental Lessons.
Any Road Will Take You There by David W. Berner
Click here to read my article about Any Road Will Take you There
There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard by David W. Berner

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

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.

Sharing Stories and Loving Mothers

by Jerry Waxler

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

Last fall, one of the students in my creative nonfiction sobbed as she read us her moving story about her mother. The rest of us sat quietly, absorbing the emotional impact. Kirsten’s love for her mother filled the room.

A few weeks after the class ended, I received an email from Kirsten announcing a writing competition. The winners would present their stories about motherhood in front of an audience. I have been toying with the idea of performance storytelling to see if my years of interest in book length memoirs would translate into a five minute story. So I decided to send in a submission.

I unearthed the eulogy I had delivered at my mother’s funeral thirteen years earlier. With some reshaping it started to sound like a story, but it was way too long. Every day I shaved off a few words, so by the deadline, I could read it in five minutes.

I arrived at the audition imagining I would be standing on a stage, straining to see a director sitting in a darkened theater. When I walked in though, Kirsten was sitting with her co-producers, Kristina Grum and Lauren Hale at a table in a brightly-lit room. Before I had a chance to feel intimidated, they cheerfully greeted me. In answer to my questions, they explained that “Listen to Your Mother” had been founded by Ann Imig in New York City and was spreading. This year, 2015, LTYM events would be held in 39 cities.

When Lauren started her stopwatch, I began to share the lessons my mother taught me after her 70th birthday party. When I finished, Kirsten reached for the Kleenex and laughed as she dabbed the tears from her eyes. That seemed like a good sign.

They said they hoped I would be participating. I said that even if I didn’t, it was already a cool experience. The following week, I was accepted in the cast. Yay.

Every morning on the treadmill, I practiced reading the talk aloud. In order to maintain a fresh, expressive voice, I visualized each scene. For example, when I said Mom swam laps in the pool, or did aerobics with women half her age, I tried to see her doing these things. When I showed up for our first rehearsal, I felt prepared. I was less ready for the fact that I was the only male.

During the introductions they told of wanting or not wanting to be pregnant, the emotional upheaval of a miscarriage, falling in love with their newborns, or in some cases not falling in love. When I was younger, such feminine topics would have reminded me of all the other places I urgently needed to be. However, now that I have studied hundreds of memoirs, I have grown comfortable with the vast spectrum of human experience.

My feeling of being included in their experiences was aided by the very thing we had come to achieve. Each author’s well-crafted story invited me into her world. By the end of the second rehearsal, I had learned so much about motherhood, I felt that I had earned an honorary membership in the Mommy Network.

I arrived at the event around noon, on one of the first gorgeous days of spring. The modern building was appropriately named Steel Stacks, set against the haunting backdrop of the hulking remains of the Bethlehem Steel towers.

Performing the sound check in an empty theater felt slightly spooky, like a premonition of something that was really going to happen. After each of us read a sentence or two, we moved to a waiting room off the lobby, chatting and pacing. Finally, the signal came and we filed past the audience to the stage.

The reading began, and I listened attentively to now-familiar stories about loving babies, wanting babies, having babies and of course, loving mothers. It was a real feast of motherhood. The difference was that I was listening in the company of almost two hundred strangers.

When it was my turn, I walked to the lectern, and with the bright lights in my eyes, I looked out over the dimly lit audience. But I wasn’t nervous. All the love in that room gave me strength.

Before I started crafting my story, I assumed the phrase “Listen to your mother” was about learning lessons. In fact, the title of my story was “what I learned from my mom.” But in that room full of people, I realized we weren’t just listening to their words. We were listening to their presence.

When I first heard Kirsten reading her story in my nonfiction class, I admired her determination to find the best words to express her love for her mother. Then, when I received the invitation to participate in Listen to Your Mother, I joined a whole group of people striving to do the same thing.

Dave Isay, the founder of Storycorps, popularized the simple, powerful slogan that listening is an act of love. In that theater we directed that loving act toward our mothers. Those weeks I spent crafting my story, sharing it with my fellow cast members, and then participating in a theatrical production to read my story to an audience demonstrates the basic principle of the Memoir Revolution. We take a step back from our hectic lives and listen. To listen even more deeply, we find the story. And to spread the love, we share those stories, so others can listen, too.

Notes

Click here to watch my LTYM story. 

Click here for a link to all 2015 LTYM youtube videos

Click here for the Listen to Your Mother 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.

Lost Memories: A Daughter’s Memoir about her Demented Mom

by Jerry Waxler

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

When Martha Stettinius reached young adulthood, she and her fiercely independent mom parted ways. Years later, Mom’s cognitive decline forced the two women to reunite. After grasping the seriousness of her mother’s condition, Stettinius gradually incorporated this extra responsibility in her already busy life.

As a novice Alzheimer’s caregiver, Martha had much to learn. She quickly realized her mother needed more care than she was able to offer at home. Through experimentation and research, Stettinius learned about the types of facilities, and the theories behind them. So over time, two things were taking place. Stettinius was gaining expertise in what it takes for a daughter to care for a mother with Alzheimer’s. And at the same time, she had to relearn her relationship with her mother. In a surprising twist, this opportunity to care for her mother became the culmination of their mother-daughter relationship.

Martha Stettinius chronicles their journey in the memoir Inside the Dementia Epidemic. The memoir works on multiple levels. First, is Stettinius’ attempt to make sense of her evolving relationship with her mother. Second, is the story of her growing need to find the best care possible. And third is her desire to share this important information with others who face similar challenges. To achieve these three things, Stettinius was determined to create a readable, interesting book.

An unusual story of mother-daughter bonding
Since her mother often didn’t even seem to be tracking their conversation, Stettinius needed to learn new rules. One thing she learned about caregiving for Alzheimer’s was that since her mother was losing touch with the past, it was the daughter’s responsibility to do the remembering for both of them.

When the author tells her mother, “I love you,” it’s difficult to know if Mom’s smile was connected to the moment or was only an automatic reflex. Stettinius solves the dilemma by choosing to infuse her mother’s smiles and words with their shared history. Through Stettinius eyes, mutual love informs every syllable and gesture.

In the early stages of writing the book, Martha intended to use it as a way to hold on to her mother’s rapidly fading past. As the book evolved, she discovered that her relationship with her mother was actually growing deeper. She wanted to share this hopeful message with others in similar situations. And more practically, she wanted to help others learn the ins and outs of the Alzheimer’s caregiving experience.

With these goals in mind, she fretted that too much specific information about her mother’s life would shift the reader’s focus into the past. However, she was also concerned that too little would leave the reader without context. As a memoir writer, Stettinius had to decide how much of her mother’s actual history should she include in the memoir.

She decided to focus mainly on the mission to help readers learn from her experience. To achieve the goal, she applied her best understanding of craft, sought feedback, and revised again and again. Eventually, informed by feedback from editors, beta readers, and her own intuition, she decided that to reach readers in the most meaningful way, she had to reduce the backstory to a minimum.

The resulting book neither drags us back in time, nor ignores the past. Rather it offers an alchemical fusion of both. By turning confusing events into a narrative, she makes more sense of them for herself. By publishing the story she turns her painful experience into lessons that could help others.

Writing Prompt
What experience in your life could help someone else? Write an overview of such a story, or write a scene in which you learned a lesson you wish you could share.

Backstory: How to Find the “Right” Amount in Your Memoir
Many memoir writers struggle with the question about how much backstory to include. Too little risks lack of context. Too much could bog down the story. To assist with your decision, consider the example of Inside the Dementia Epidemic. Stettinius researched her mother’s life, and wanted to tell it to the world. However, in order to write a book that would be meaningful to readers, she chose to cut back on the detail about her mother’s younger years.

The resulting memoir centers on the daughter’s journey to care for her mother, a powerful story involving the progression of the disease and the relationship of the two women. As readers, we benefit from her hard work and commitment to her craft. However, in order to fit it all into a good story, she had to compromise. Only the author knows about the painful decision to cut interesting anecdotes.

When making decisions about your own memoir, there is no “right” and “wrong.” Your story emerges from your specific circumstances. From this raw material, you must shape a story that will convey your meaning to readers.

To make the most informed decision about how to construct your final version, get feedback from readers. And also expand your options by reading memoirs. After you read each one, ask yourself “What is it about this story that makes this particular literary choice effective, or not?”

When you finally publish the book, it will have gone through a series of such difficult decisions. And of course, none of them are perfect. You are simply doing your best to offer readers the most interesting possible representation of your experience.

For another article on how much backstory to include in your memoir, click here.

Writing Prompt
Write a synopsis of your proposed memoir. In one version, include your early life to show the reader how you grew up. In a second version of the synopsis, start at a later time, with a central dilemma or challenge in your life. Is there enough information in this second version to allow readers to experience the emotions you are trying to communicate? Are there things about your early life you want to explore in the story? How do you feel about these two books? Which one would focus the reader and help them understand your experience in the way you intend?

Other memoirs about caring for those who can’t care for themselves
When Stettinius attempted to write about Alzheimer’s, she was not speaking as an expert, but as a daughter whose life that had been profoundly altered by the problem. Carol O’dell was in a similar situation. After caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s she wrote Mothering Mother. When Diane Ackerman’s husband had a severe stroke, she knew a lot about the brain but hardly anything about caring for someone with a dysfunctional one. She wrote a fascinating account of caregiving for him after he lost his ability to speak in 100 Names of Love.

Jill Bolte Taylor was a brain expert but that didn’t help her when she suffered a massive stroke. She wrote about her recovery in My Stroke of Insight. Even though Jill Bolte Taylor’s book is about her own stroke, caregiving plays an important role in her story. The person who came to her rescue was none other than her own mother who helped her daughter in her hour of darkest need, a reminder that even in adulthood, service between parents and children can flow in both directions.

Notes

Martha Stettinius’ home page

Inside the Dementia Epidemic on Amazon

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.

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

Interview with Venerable Memoir Teacher, Denis Ledoux Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

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

In my previous post, I ask Denis Ledoux questions about memoir writing and what it was like to have been a teacher so early, before the Memoir Revolution was even a glimmer on the horizon. In this post, I complete the interview, asking him questions about ethnic background in memoirs and teaching teachers.

Jerry: In addition to teaching memoir writers, you teach teachers. I love the way that extends your influence out into the culture. Say more about that. What do your memoir teachers come to you already knowing and what do they come to learn?

Denis: In 1996, I wrote the first of my workshop leader materials—I call it the Memoir Professional Package. People were writing to me from around North America asking me if there was anyone teaching memoirs in their area, and other people were writing to me to inquire if they could teach my workshop. At the time, there was much less material available for people wishing to teach. The whole explosion of web teaching materials had not yet occurred. I took four months to write my first Memoir Professional Package. That Memoir Professional Package was priced at $200 and almost immediately sold 40 of them. Since them I have added to the materials so that, in addition, to the Curriculum Manual and the Presenter’s Manual, we now include the Editor’s Manual and the Speaker’s, the Personal Historian Practice Manual, and a number of instructional MP3s and e-booklet.

Today, while some of the people who purchase the packages are seeking to earn a full-time income, most are seeking to do meaningful work regardless of income (retired people for instance) or to earn income that is additional to their regular income. Most prospective memoir teachers who approach me about learning to lead memoir workshops in their communities and about doing other memoir work are looking to find an interesting avocation. Most are not what you’d call entrepreneurs, interested in wresting a living. Instead many are retired or have a spouse to help them out. They have an interesting and reward future ahead of them. Memoir work is so gratifying,

Jerry: Do you feel that memoir teachers need to have written their own memoirs

Denis: When I taught French at one school, I taught with a woman who was not a native speaker. She had learned French in college and had a very anglophone accent. Being a native speaker, I could speak much better, fluently, than she. And, yet, she was a wonderful teacher who instilled in her students a love for French and francophone cultures. Many native speakers were simply nowhere near as good as she in teaching In the same way, a memoir writer may not know how to teach writing, not know how to break material down so that it can be absorbed. I do not think that it is a sine qua non that the memoir teacher by a published writer. Having said that, I would feel uncomfortable studying with someone who did not practice memoir writing regularly. (My colleague the French teacher traveled regularly to francophone countries and was often in attendance at French-language movies.) In summary, I would say asking a person to teach simply because s/he had written a memoir is like asking a person to teach a language because s/he is a native speaker. Not a good idea. One has to understand best practices and a teacher is that person.

Jerry: When I was first looking for memoir books, of course yours was one of the first I found. Another one that was available when I started to study the genre was by Louise DeSalvo, “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.” In addition to teaching memoir writing, she also wrote about her own cultural experiences as an Italian-American. Her passion for her culture-of-origin set the stage for my ongoing interest in this aspect of our life stories. Most of us are still so deeply influenced by the culture of our ancestors.

So I was intrigued to see your attention to your cultural history as a French-American, a sub-culture I have not been heavily exposed to. I love this ability of memoirs to keep stretching us into other byways and pathways of the human condition. By writing about your own cultural background and inviting your students to write about theirs, you must be an expert by now in the American “melting pot” experience. So how do you feel about culture in memoir? How do our ancestral cultures affect our own stories?

Denis: As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a home with three generations. My grandparents lived upstairs and I got to know my extended family very well as they visited with my grandparents. Mostly, I did not have the experience that immigrant children often have of their family of being different. Who they were was who I was also. We lived in a community where half of the people were Francos (as we French-Canadian-Americans call ourselves) so I had a sense we had a “right of place.” It is because of this “right of place” that I continue to live in Maine.

Conversely, when I studied American history I understood it to be the history of the country that fate had put me in but American history did not feel like my history—it was the history of another people. For instance, I did not study about the Civil War as a Northerner (that terms itself implies a culture that was clearly not mine) but as someone who was outside the margins of the conflict. Now I think this feeling of being at a distance from the lived experience of so many others is a great preparation to be a memoir writer and teacher. So many of us have some experience or other of being different and at some distance from the majority experience—not everyone but many people.

There is always a tension between the need to assimilate and the need to differentiate, between the resistance to balkanization and the urge to be part of a community.

I always urge people to explore their ethnic, religious, cultural background. I’ve had Anglo-Americans in my workshops tell me they had no ethnic background. “Excuse me!” I usually respond. Here in New England, Anglo-Americans (we call them Yankees) tend to be Protestants who attend plain, white, clapboard churches where’s there’s no holy water, no statues of the bleeding heart of Jesus. They can’t pass up their Indian pudding on holidays and have a high sense of privacy so that you can work next to them for a decade and never find out some essential details of their lives like they were divorced two years ago and have now remarried, etc.  “Excuse me! What was that about no ethnic culture that colors our days!”

Jerry: I am fascinated by the comparison between the book-length form of a memoir and the much shorter form, often called the “personal essay.” Naturally the two very different sizes lead to a different emphasis, different time frame. In fact, they are different in many ways. As a memoir teacher, how do you approach these two forms? Do you separate them or combine them? Do you specialize in one over the other? I know it’s a broad question but I would love to get some ideas about how you see the short form as part of the movement toward writing life stories.

Denis: I teach only the memoir. I tell prospective clients/students that if they want to work with the personal essay they ought to find another coach/teacher. The personal essay uses personal material to make a statement. It is one head talking to another. The memoir uses personal material to create a feeling, an impression, an affiliation between writer and reader. It is one heart speaking to another. It is walking in the footsteps of the writer. I have nothing against the personal essay. It’s just that I am not particularly interested in it.

Notes
Turning Memories Into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux
Denis Ledoux’s website, The Memoir Network
Denis’ memoir writing blog

More memoir writing resources

For a more literary explanation of how memoirs heal, read the book Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo, a literature professor at Hunter college. The book immerses you in the way memoir writing heals.
Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo

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.

Memoir Summit at the Birthplace of the Revolution

by Jerry Waxler

I grew up surrounded by icons of the American Revolution: the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Valley Forge National Park. Even in elementary school I felt proud of the role my region played in the birth of the nation. Now that I’ve grown up, I feel another surge of pride, this time about the contribution our region is making to the Memoir Revolution. With our substantial infrastructure of writing programs and groups of every variety, it’s a wonderful place for writers. However, in most cases, we life writers have had to tag along with the more numerous fiction writers. Now, I’m thrilled to announce an event that celebrates the growing movement toward writing stories about real people.

At the free Memoir Summit on the beautiful campus of Rosemont College on Philadelphia’s Main Line, four authors and teachers share their passion for the genre. The goal is to inspire writers and aspiring writers to come together for an afternoon, deepen their understanding of the genre, and gain insights into how to turn their own lives into stories.

The first speaker, Beth Kephart offers her awesomely enriched point of view, as a writer of both memoir and fiction. She has published 16 books, five of which are memoirs. She writes prodigiously about memoir on her own blog, and recently published a book for memoir writers called Handling the Truth.  The book has been mentioned in Oprah’s magazine O.  Beth teaches memoir writing at the University of Pennsylvania and was recently honored as one of the 50 most influential Philadelphia Writers. Come and be influenced!

Linda Joy Myers will be joining us from Berkeley, California. She is the founder of National Association of Memoir Writers, and a passionate proponent of the healing and sharing that comes from writing your story. As a therapist, teacher and memoir writer, she steers readers and students toward the elegant solution of applying storytelling to the puzzles of life. Her books include her own memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother: A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness and a handbook for memoir writers called Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story. She hosts an online Memoir Telesummit, and so it is fitting that she is an honored guest at this first Philadelphia Memoir Summit. Come and learn about the healing power of writing your memoir.

Robert Waxler is a professor of literature at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He teaches his college students how to use literature to gain insights into their own lives. When he himself encountered difficulties in the lives of his two sons, he turned to the written word to help him make sense of the profound emotions. He recorded his journey of grieving and healing in his two memoirs, Losing Jonathan and Courage to Walk. Robert Waxler co-founded an organization called Changing Lives through Literature that partners with the judicial system to offer selected convicts an alternative sentence. Instead of going to jail they read and discuss novels. The method leverages the power of the written word to help people grow. Come and let Bob Waxler share his views with you about how turning your life into literature can help you, as well.

I have been following and writing about these three speakers for years. The essays on my blog go deep into the experiences of Beth Kephart in Slant of Sun, Linda Joy Myers in Don’t Call Me Mother, and Robert Waxler in Losing Jonathan and Courage to Heal. And I’ve interviewed all three. I love what they are saying and doing. In their books about reading and writing, they are as passionate as I am about promoting literature by helping and encouraging you to write your life.

When I first became intrigued by memoirs in my fifties, I realized that until then, I had immersed myself in fiction stories. Memoirs gave me an opportunity to apply the principles of literature to the process of living. Once I began to do so, I gained an exciting way to look at myself and others. After I read each memoir, I ponder its meaning and share my findings on my blog.

After doing this hundreds of times, I published Memoir Revolution, which chronicles the birth of the life-into-story movement of the twenty-first century. As the fourth speaker at the Philadelphia Memoir Summit, I’ll share perspectives on the Memoir Revolution and offer six steps to help you get started and keep going on your own memoir. Come and join the revolution!

This fascinating interplay between life and literature is also the subject of Robert Waxler’s book in progress called Linguistic Beings: How Literature Helps us To Understand Ourselves and the World. From his manuscript, I learned there is a name for the process of carefully thinking about what you read. Waxler quotes Sven Birkerts who said, “[Deep Reading means] we don’t just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity.*” The term Deep Reading perfectly describes how memoir reading and writing help us become “more human.” By writing your own memoir, you can dream your life in the vicinity of your words, and offer others the opportunity to do the same.

Whether you’ve already written about your life, or are only considering it, come join these speakers and an audience of other aspiring memoir writers. Together, we can spend an afternoon dreaming about writing in the vicinity of each other.

Notes
Here is a longer quote about Deep Reading from Robert Waxler’s manuscript, reprinted with permission: “Deep reading is a risky but rewarding encounter with our rhythms and needs, our own feelings and emotions, and it offers a way of making sense of that encounter. Through such reading, we discover how we are all connected to others and to our own evolving stories. We experience our own plots and stories unfolding through the imaginative language and voice of others, and we desire to move on.” Robert Waxler

For more information about the Memoir Summit click here.

For more information about Philadelphia’s annual writer’s conference, click here.

Links to Articles about these speakers

Interview and seven part blog about Beth Kephart’s “Slant of Sun”
Use this memoir as a study guide: lessons 1 to 3
Lessons 4-5 from Beth Kephart’s Memoir, Slant of Sun
Four More Writing Lessons from Reading a Memoir
Memoir Lessons: Mysteries of emerging consciousness
Memoir Lessons: Moms, Quirks, Choices
Lessons from Kephart: Labels, Definitions, Language
Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond
Interview with Beth Kephart

Interview with Linda Joy Myers: A leader of memoir writers tells her own story
Link to Linda Joy Myers’ Blog

Blog about another talk I gave with Robert Waxler: Revealing Death and Other Courageous Acts of Life
Essay about Robert Waxler’s Courage to Walk
My Interview with Robert Waxler, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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: On Publishing the Memoir Breaking the Code

By Jerry Waxler

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

In the fourth part of the interview with Karen Fisher-Alaniz, author of the memoir, Breaking the Code we talk more about writing and publishing the memoir.

Jerry Waxler: Finally getting the book into print must have been a fabulous sense of completion. Now you are in a new leg of your journey, speaking to people about an actual book instead of a book in progress. Congratulations!

Tell us about your publishing choices, and why you chose the particular route you did?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: I believed in my book. I believed in my father’s story and that it was time for it to be told. But after sending out queries, I was getting some nice comments but no requests for more. There is a moment that stands out for me. I was at a writer’s conference and they had a time when authors were standing behind a table signing their books and chatting with conference attendees. Some were traditionally published, others were self-published. Some were famous, others were not. I looked around and thought, I’m not making myself crazy about this anymore. If I don’t have serious interest from a publisher by the end of 2010, I’m going to self-publish the book. My father was in his late 80’s, plus there were a couple of important war time anniversaries in 2011, so I knew that would be a good year to publish. When I let go of the traditional publishing as the only mode, I felt so free. I felt almost giddy. I knew that one way or another I would publish my memoir.

The funny thing is that just a few hours later, I had one agent and one editor seriously interested in the book. They both requested the first 50-pages. I know it sounds crazy, but the big-time New York agent just didn’t feel right to me. On the other hand, the editor from Sourcebooks had said, “It’s like our parents had these whole lives that we never knew about.” And I knew he got it. I sent him the pages and he skipped protocol and sent me a contract within about a month.

Jerry Waxler: Fascinating. That’s a great example of “letting it go!” So how is this publishing method working for you? I’d love to hear pros and cons. So many memoir writers face this challenge.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: With the advent and perceived ease of self-publishing, many writers are going straight to self-publishing. I’m not sure that is the best thing to do. It’s still so new that the typical reader, as well as bookstore owners, librarians and such, are still struggling with it. I had a couple of experiences with it. When my book first came out, when I traveled, I would go into bookstores and offer to sign stock or just tell them about the book in hopes they’d order it. Well, I was told by my publicist that when I do this I should begin the conversation this way, “_my book, which is published by Sourcebooks.” So, I always did that and was received very well. But one time, at an independent bookstore, I forgot to say I was published by Sourcebooks. I didn’t realize it at the time; all I knew was that the buyer for the store was very rude. She was short with me and said emphatically that she would be taking a percentage because they have a hard time selling those kinds of books. I’m still standing there, naively thinking she’s referring to memoirs or war stories. But the percentage thing threw me off. I hadn’t heard that before, so I asked about it. When she realized I wasn’t self-published, but was traditionally published, her whole demeanor changed. All of a sudden she was nice. It made me mad.

Unfortunately, I’ve found this to be an ongoing problem and something that those in the book selling industry are frustrated with. There are a lot of self-published authors who don’t put enough effort into editing, learning about their craft, and ensuring the book is it’s absolute best before it is printed. I feel like there needs to be some kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for books. We need to know they’ve been meticulously edited and beta tested.

On the other side, there is a lot of traditional-publisher bashing. I hear what people say about traditional publishers and it’s just not my experience. As a debut author, I was told not to expect an advance. But I did get an advance. I was told that I would have little or no control over my book. I was involved in every aspect of it. I was told that publishers just aren’t doing any marketing or publicity anymore — that they leave that for the author to do. That wasn’t true either. My publicist even got my father and I interviewed on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition. I had a very good experience with my publisher. Maybe Sourcebooks is the exception, maybe they’re not.

One thing a publisher has that an author just doesn’t is education, expertise, and connections. When I visited their offices in Chicago, I was really struck by the fact that these people have degrees in things like marketing, publicity, public relations, and so forth. Whole teams of people were working on my book. There’s just no way I could know everything they know, no matter how many years I studied. Publishers vary, of course. Smaller and mid-sized publishers like mine are often overlooked. Most authors shoot high and hope for one of the Big Six New York publishers. I feel like I had the best possible publisher for my book. I’m not sure I would have gotten the attention I did, if I’d chosen one of the mega-publishers.

Where self and traditional publishing converge is in the area of marketing your book. While my publisher did an amazing job in the months following the publication of Breaking the Code, there is a time limit. A best-selling author I know said that they give you a good three-weeks, and then they are on to other books. I had about two months where my book was a priority. That gradually dwindled off. It was like my publisher had been driving on the highway a hundred miles an hour, then pulled over and let me drive in really slow traffic. At this point, the shift changed to me. Self-published authors are at the forefront of knowing how to market their books. I’ve learned a lot from websites, workshops, and publications that are geared toward self-published authors. They are the experts at finding creative ways to keep your book selling.

I hear a lot of people use the phrase, “Traditional versus Self-publishing.” I don’t think it has to be that way. The two are not against each other and in fact can complement each other. Most people don’t know how little money a first-time author makes. In fact, most don’t even come close to making even the most meager of livings from their books until they have three out. Authors that are making a living at writing books have many, many books out. They also create multiple streams of income by adding in speaking engagements, and creating various web-based programs. They also supplement their writing income by self-publishing ebooks related to their subject. There are a ton of options out there. So, if your goal is to make your living at writing, it can be done. The timing is better than ever.

Jerry Waxler: One of the things that fascinates me about memoirs is the way so many of them bubble up out of the context of a person’s life, almost like a story that wants to be told. Because of this deep enmeshment between the author’s life and their book, the book holds a powerful important place in their life experience, and as a reader, I’m keenly aware of and appreciative of this connection between the life and literature. However, it leads to a dilemma for the published memoir writer.

After writing a book that is key to their entire lives, they want to keep writing. Some, like Frank McCourt, go on to write other memoirs. Some, like Jeanette Walls, go on to write historical fiction or like Andrew X. Pham, a ghostwritten biography. Others, like Alice Sebold and Beth Kephart branch over to fiction. Some, like me, mainly want to write about the process of writing a memoir. Where do you see your direction? Do you have another book in you? What’s next?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: That’s such a good point. When I do book events, there is definitely a good deal of teaching and encouraging others to write their own story. I’m passionate about that. We all think we’ll have more time to get our stories, or those of our loved ones, written down. But sadly, for some time runs out. My message is to Write Now: Because It’s Later Than You Think, won’t be changing anytime soon.

I am working on two nonfiction books right now. The first, Running in Circles is a humorous memoir about raising a son who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). My son just turned 18 and is a senior in high school. I finally feel like we made it to the other side. But it has been a real struggle — especially when he was young. People joke about ADHD and throw the term out every time they feel a little burst of energy. That’s not what ADHD is. But if you spend any time talking to parents, you’ll see the heartbreak, the frustration, and the guilt. I’ve been through all of those things. But I’m far enough out from it now to have some insight. And truth is, a lot of our experiences were downright hysterical. I always tell people that if I’d just stopped at two children, I would have been that annoying parent who had all the answers for your kid. And then there was Caleb.

The second book I’m working on is another veteran story. Drawing Me Home is the story of Vietnam Veteran, Michael Reagan. He is a talented portrait artist. He worked hard to build up a business with his art, in a beautiful, waterfront art studio. He raised more than $10 million for charity by drawing portraits of celebrities. He has met presidents, celebrities, and politicians. He was the official artist for the University of Washington for more than 30-years. When he was asked to do a portrait of a soldier who died in Iraq, his life changed. The soldier’s widow was so profoundly affected by the portrait that he knew what he had to do. He gave up everything; his art studio, his career at the U of W, prestige, paycheck, and notoriety, to dedicate his life to drawing portraits of fallen soldiers. He’s drawn 3,000 to date. His tragic past is woven into the present in the most amazing way. Miracles abound.

If I do branch out in the future, it would be into children’s books. I taught elementary school for a number of years, and I’ve written several children’s books. I’d love to see those published and I’d love to interact with children around books again.

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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.