Life to Stories: 3 Habits, 3 Rules, 3 Stages

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

I entered college in 1965 as a bold young man, competent and smart, ready to take on the world. But those were the riot years, the time of the counterculture, during which I turned my attention to unraveling everything I believed. By the time I left college in 1969, I had been reduced to a mere shadow of myself, clinging to sanity by a thread.

After years of reconstruction, talking to a therapist, meditating, and writing in a journal, I once more entered the human race. But no matter how much I matured, I never stopped wondering what lessons lay hidden within the murky memories of my Coming of Age.

Then in 2004, I stumbled on a cultural trend that could help me make sense of those chaotic years. Bestselling memoirs invited readers into the messy process of growing up. Each author converted the chaos of memory into the compelling narrative of a good story. I wanted to try it for myself.

This goal at first seemed farfetched. I was not a story writer, and I could barely remember those troubled years. How would I ever describe the intricate feelings, thoughts and events that took me on that journey to nowhere?

Despite the seeming impossibility of the task, I didn’t think there would be any harm in trying. So I joined a writing group and quickly learned that to write a memoir, I needed to follow three habits.

Habit One. When I remembered even a vague incident, I wrote it. And in the act of forming sentences, I transformed hazy memories into descriptions in a computer file. These written snips helped me penetrate the fog that had shrouded my past. I was finding my words.

Habit Two. I shared my anecdotes with fellow writers in a critique group. Their comments about my pieces radically shifted my thoughts about myself. My past emerged from hiding and became an experience I could share with strangers. When I saw my life in other people’s eyes, it wasn’t so awful after all. It was actually kind of interesting.

Habit Three. I read memoirs and fell in love with the intimacy of sharing an author’s interior journey. After reading each book, I lingered and tried to learn how the author had transformed life into a story.

I repeated these three habits over and over: writing anecdotes, listening to reactions from fellow writers, and reading memoirs. I read so many memoirs, and found the phenomenon of turning life into stories so pervasive that I dubbed the phenomenon the Memoir Revolution. After I established my blog, I started to interview authors. I was continually surprised by the consistency in their answers. They were all learning about themselves at the same time as they were constructing their memoirs.

After several years, I felt satisfied by my collection of anecdotes. This completed Stage One. But I had reached a plateau. It was not yet a real story and I doubted that I would ever be able to make it as compelling as the ones I enjoy reading. Despite my fears, I kept researching, and soon discovered three rules that would convert my anecdotes into a story.

Rule One. Readers enter stories through well-constructed scenes. So I had to learn how to construct scenes. For example, instead of saying “I was in a riot,” I needed to write what I saw, heard, and felt. “Hundreds of us jammed into the hallway, defiantly blocking the passageway. Then the crash of breaking glass shattered our confidence. Screams filled the air as the police poured through the opening, striking students with long clubs. The role reversal shook me to the core. These were police. They were supposed to protect us. I turned and ran.” Writing scenes forced me to see myself through a reader’s eyes.

Rule Two. Sort memories into chronological order. When the past only lives in random memories, the various incidents remain fragmented. For example, every time I remembered the riot, I felt trapped in the horror of that troubling day. But when I sorted my anecdotes into chronological order, the end of each scene led to what happened next, turning the confusing past into the bones of an orderly and increasingly compelling narrative.

Rule Three. A story’s hero strives toward an important mission. For example, in mysteries, the detective’s mission is to identify the murderer. But what was the compelling mission in my memoir? If I could define what my character really wanted, I would gain two things. For the reader, I would create a good story. For myself, I would create a better understanding of my own path.

After years of applying these three rules, I finished Stage Two: a manuscript. Woohoo. It was an awesome accomplishment, but I doubted that the resulting book would compel a stranger to turn pages to the end. To complete my task, I had to learn the art and craft of leading readers through struggles toward hope.

To proceed to Stage Three, I hired an editor to improve the technical craft of the book. Based on her detailed recommendations, I revised the entire book. Then, I sent the results to readers, asking them if they could immerse themselves in the story. And more importantly, what did they find missing? Some of them said they read it straight through. A few even said they couldn’t put it down. When they told me about missing details, places that dragged or unanswered questions, I revised some more and sent it to other readers. After a final round of edits from my editor, it was ready for the world. (Click here to buy it.)

Before I started writing, all I knew about my long journey to hell and back was contained in murky, disturbing memories. By writing, I knitted bits and pieces of myself together and changed the past from an incoherent jumble into a compelling story with a hopeful end. This perspective enabled my readers to stay engaged in the story and helped me make peace with the person I had been.

So now you know my story. Well, you don’t know the story of my descent into hell and my climb out. That’s described in detail in my book. Rather you know the story of how I created that book.

And I hope you might be able to apply that story to your own life. What experiences of yours remain hidden, perhaps even from you? What recollections could reveal meaning, lessons, or help you become clearer about the past?

By following three habits –write, share, and read– you will turn vague memories into a collection of anecdotes and essays. That’s the first stage. And by applying the three rules – build compelling scenes, sort them into chronological order, and follow the hero’s purpose — you can create a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. That’s the second stage.

If you choose to go all the way to the third stage and turn your memories into a publishable memoir, you will be able to share yourself with readers through this universal system called Story. And by immersing yourself in the meaning of your own life, you’ll discover that sharing stories is more important than you may have realized.

Since the beginning of civilization people have looked to stories to show us the way. In the old days the heroes of those stories were mythological and lived on mountains. In the modern age, we look to each other in order to learn how to climb those mountains. By writing your memoir, you can show the rest of us how you found the best elements of yourself. Your example will encourage and support us on our own search for truth.

This mission to write your story may be scary at first. Perhaps like me you’ll even think it’s farfetched. But there’s no harm in starting. Like any hero, once you enter the land of the adventure, you will face the unknown. With courage, persistence, and effort, you will travel one of the most interesting creative journeys of your life.

Notes
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.

 

 

How Boys Become Men – or – Can Memoirs Stop the Violence?

by Jerry Waxler

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

As a boy in a Muslim community in England, Ed Husain’s pleasure was to follow his father to the mosque and pray. In high school in the 1990s, he fell in with a group of boys who said that prayer was for old people, and that the urgent mission of every Muslim should be to destroy western culture. These ideas appealed to Husain. Overriding his father’s objections, he joined the demonstrations and was soon helping to organize them.

When I read Ed Husain’s excellent memoir, The Islamist, I was offended by his choice to turn against his father. Couldn’t he see his father’s perspective was deeper and wiser than his own? Wasn’t it obvious he was attacking the very government that gave him the freedom to protest in the first place? While I was criticizing Husain, I felt a tug from my own past. I also turned against my father’s peaceful ways and “middle class” values.

Throughout high school, I worked in my father’s drugstore and came to believe the best way to please him would be to become a doctor. When I flew from Philadelphia to Madison, Wisconsin in 1965, I was well on my way with excellent grades and a passion for science.

But the Vietnam war was ramping up and so were the protests. The cultural upheaval coincided with my own young-man’s need to assert myself. In 1967, I stood outside the Commerce Building in Madison, Wisconsin, dodging tear gas canisters. A thousand kids with red, fiery eyes and tears streaming down our cheeks, snapped our arms in furious irony, screaming “Sieg Heil” at the club-wielding police. I had crossed a threshold into an angry state of mind where tearing down “the system” took priority over a mere detail like my future.

Even though Husain’s ideology was light-years away from mine, our hearts followed similar paths. Both of us believed that our political beliefs were righteous and important. Both of us felt responsible to take any action necessary to change the world to conform to our beliefs. This sense of righteous urgency caused both of us to turn against fathers’ peaceful approach, replacing it with a pressured, bold one more suited to young men.

What drives boys crazy?
In 1997, 30 years after my blowout in Madison, I went to graduate school to study counseling psychology. I wanted to understand what makes people (including me) tick. In one class, a female professor explained that women often fall short in the quality of “assertiveness.” As therapists we should encourage them to develop that trait in order to achieve equality in relationships and better self-esteem. But what about males? I never heard a lecture or read a book about helping men who felt a need to push the world to match their view. As I continued to read more memoirs, the cast of boys who turned violent on their journey to manhood kept growing

Examples of Boys Going Through Violence on the Path to Grow Up
When Andre Dubus III was young, he felt humiliated by his subservience to bullies. To compensate, he learned to fight, and got better and better until fighting became his life. His memoir Townie is a journey through this painful, violent transition from boy to man.

Fighting is not limited to the streets of working class neighborhoods. Two intellectual, middle class boys fell in love with the potential for kicking and punching. Mark Salzman, in his memoir Lost in Place, became obsessed with learning to fight. Later he went to China to study karate. Another highly educated boy, Mathew Polly did the same. His memoir American Shaolin recounts his residence in the Chinese fighting school made famous by the television show Kung Fu.

Because of my violent experiences during the anti-war movement, I was fascinated to read about the extreme case of Bill Ayers. In Bill Ayers’ memoir Fugitive Days he chronicles the militant, sometimes violent Weather Underground movement. Undeterred by the paradox that he was trying to promote peace by planting bombs and inciting riots, his memoir provides a perfect window into this quality of young men, with our overabundance of assertiveness.

In some boys’ minds, the war protests were the problem and had to be stopped with force. I learned about their anger one night in Madison, Wisconsin when a carload of clean-cut boys piled out of a car, and singled me out because of my long hair. They threw me down on the ground and repeatedly kicked me. As they pounded their message into my body, I knew I had traveled far, far away from my original orderly goal of becoming a doctor and had entered a crazy world where boys use force to start and stop wars.

PTSD – the aftermath of too much assertiveness
We boys back home had it easy. The real fighting was taking place with guns and bombs, blood, death and ruined lives. Memoirs about boys in combat offer a glimpse into that violent world, and usually move beyond it, trying to pick up with pieces of sanity when attempting to reenter society.

In Temporary Sort of Peace Jim McGarrah starts his journey as a high school boy, transfers his life force to the jungles, sitting alone listening to and shooting at noises in the dark. The journey continues into his mental life as he attempts to sort out nightmare from reality. In Until Tuesday, Luis Carlos Montelvan fights military enemies in Iraq and suffers the tragic invisible wounds of PTSD. When he returns, he must fight both to maintain his ability to operate in society, and also fight to raise awareness of the value of service dogs to help mentally and physically wounded veterans.

What is the name for this overabundance of pushiness ?
Despite the far reaching social ramifications of the young male mind’s willingness to become violent, I didn’t even know a name for the impulse. It didn’t seem like the assertiveness I learned about in school. Assertiveness training involves such sophisticated social skills as negotiating, compassion for the other, and taking both sides into account. The boys who turn violent are beyond negotiating. In fact, their angry mindset willfully excludes the other side’s point of view. This young male willingness to fight seemed to have a strangely philosophical slant. My own, and Ed Husain’s anger, as well as the anger of the boys who beat me up, were all based on some abstract notion that through violence we would make the world a better place. Whether defending our homes, our ideals, or simply our street corners, boys seem willing to take up arms.

In the psychology section of the bookstore, I found a couple of books about raising boys, but they didn’t give me insight into the quality I was trying to name. Then I hit paydirt in two books by Jonathan Shay, M.D.

Jonathan Shay, by day, is a psychiatrist who works professionally with combat veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In his private life, he studies Greek classics. He combines the two seemingly disconnected passions in his two books, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming and Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. In these books, he refers back to the Greeks as masters of war. Part of their expertise resulted in their understanding of young men. Greeks knew how to stir men to fighting fury by appealing to this righteous quality call Thumos (sometimes spelled Thymos). Shay uses this insight from the ancient Greeks to help him guide combat veterans back from the broken state caused by their fighting instinct.

After  I learned the name for this quality, I saw it everywhere: in the goose-stepping soldiers of the Third Reich, harnessing young men to assert the need for a racially pure world; to the modern day Islamists who preach a worldwide conquest to bring the truths of Islam to the world; to the gangbangers who righteously defend their own turf and colors against incursion from boys one or two streets away.

Can Memoirs Help?
Now, when I look at the future of the world, I wonder if every young person must repeat these mistakes, or if somehow we oldtimers could convince young people to take into account our experience. By definition, we are already too old to be taken seriously by young men in this heated state. But perhaps those young men who stop long enough to read a book might gain hints and glimpses into the way youthful minds work. By giving them books that share our own experiences, perhaps we could give a few young people a way to see past their excessive assertiveness before they fall into some of these traps.

It may seem like wishful thinking to hope that reading books will help straighten out angry young minds, but many young people are influenced by books, and during that precious window when they are trying to figure out life, sometimes books slip into their inner spaces and give them a cause or image that could help.

For example, in Erin Gruwell’s Freedom Writer’s Diary, the high school students’ lives were being ripped apart by young men killing in order to protect territory and honor. To help her students understand their need to fight, Gruwell assigned them to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which a man from the wrong group provoked murder with a simple gesture. “Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?” Erin Gruwell’s teenagers gained deep wisdom about the tragedy that surrounded them in Los Angeles, through Shakespeare’s ability to reveal universal human truths. They read literature, and they wrote their own stories, and through these stories they grew.

The fascinating truth in the Memoir Revolution is that through the magic of memoirs, millions of us can read Freedom Writer’s Diary and learn powerful lessons about redirecting Thumos to socially productive outlets.

At the end of his memoir Townie, Andre Dubus III outgrows his need to fight, and turns instead to writing stories. Mark Salzman, in his memoir Lost in Place, also grows up fighting. In a later memoir, called True Notebooks, Salzman volunteers to teach young gangbangers how to write. Many of these boys were incarcerated for murder committed as part of their gang identity. As Salzman lets them write about their lives, and then share those writings, they realize that these “enemies” are people just like them. From these encounters, mutual understanding emerges from behind the curtain of Thumos. Salzman’s story offers a stunning window into the inherent sense of decency hidden within their roiling hearts and makes me wonder what their lives might have been like if these kids had been in writing classes before they murdered, rather than after.

In David Gilmour’s Film Club, a father became frightened when he saw his son approach the edge of the boy-to-man abyss. As a professional film reviewer, Gilmour took a chance, offering the boy the opportunity to drop out of school in exchange for a commitment to watch movies with Dad. The gamble paid off, as chronicled in this memoir about using story as a healing tool.

In the memoir Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle works with gang members in Los Angeles, helping them find alternatives to shooting each other. He doesn’t use story writing as a tool to help them. And yet, by writing and sharing his story with the rest of us, he helps us understand the hearts and minds of these young criminals who, with just a tiny shift in focus become devoted family men.

Memoirs by authors who have survived Thumos and come out the other end, can offer deeper understanding about the road to maturity. By sharing our lives through memoirs, we survivors can’t necessarily change the world drastically or solve all its problems, but we can hope to give young readers the chance to make better decisions. In fact, Ed Husain is attempting to do just that. Following the publication about his own transition beyond Thumos to Wisdom, he has become an activist in this cause, trying to help young Muslims choose a nonviolent course, not toward world domination but toward spiritual peace.

NOTES
When asserting their need to grow up, not all boys turn to violence
Of course not all boys use violence to express their needs for identity. In Publish this Book, Stephen Markley’s anger sent him running not to the barricades but to the typewriter. In his memoir Open, Andre Agassi fought against his father’s demands to become a tennis champion. Despite his rebellion, he continued to play tennis, expressing his defiance by breaking rules like wearing colored shorts on the tennis court instead of the regulation whites.

When Frank Schaeffer was growing up in a Christian commune, L’Abri, his father was a famous preacher. Instead of rebelling against his father’s belief system, Frank Jr confronted his own father, accusing him of being too weak. As a firebrand activist, Frank Jr demanded a more rigorous, intense interpretation of doctrine. Frank Jr’s angry righteousness made him an important formative influence in the Christian Right to Life movement, as chronicled in his fascinating memoir Crazy for God.

In Colored People by Henry Louis Gates, the boy was laid up in the hospital in a nearby larger town. A chaplain came by to play chess with him. During the chess matches, he slipped in a little mentoring, letting the boy know there is a wider world. As he grew, he became more assertive. In one scene, he angrily confronts the customers and management in a restaurant which refused to serve him. In the end, though, he made it past Thumos in one piece, and turned his attention to extreme learning. His  journey into academia eventually transformed him from a boy in a small Jim Crow town to a Harvard Professor.

Tragically, many boys turn their violence not against the world but against themselves. Drugs and other jail-worthy behaviors often end up tearing a boys life apart, in his search for the appropriate expression of inner turmoil. Tim Elhajj’s memoir Dopefiend is an excellent story about a boy who pries himself loose from the deadly grip of drugs, and then must somehow figure out how to get back into the game of life. The memoir Tweak by Nic Sheff is about a boy still in the throes of this inward battle. And in Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler the young man succumbs to a deadly dose of heroin, losing the battle altogether, leaving his family to pick up the pieces.

(This is a revised version of a post first posted Aug 26, 2010)

Amazon page for “The Islamist

Link to an article I wrote about “The Islamist” and another memoir, Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran

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

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

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

Why Boomers Should Write Memoirs about the 60s

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catch-up grief: how visiting my brother helped me grow

by Jerry Waxler

When my older brother Ed was diagnosed with cancer, he was 37, married, with two young children and the owner of a growing cardiology practice in a small town in Georgia. It did not take long for the disease to rip it all away. When he died, I was 30, still entrenched in my protracted struggle to grow up. We were living almost a thousand miles apart and so I experienced his death once removed, as if the loss was happening to someone else.

As I write my memoir, these 32 years later, I discover the gaping hole his death created, as if I was postponing my grief until I was mature enough to better understand what happened. I now watch our relationship unfold in slow motion, and this time I intend to learn as much as possible about what happened and what I missed.

Much of my childhood is hazy, and as I struggle to remember it, I sometimes gain clarity by comparing notes with my sister. I had no such opportunity with my brother, at least not in physical conversations. But by imagining discussions with him, I have improved my memory as well as my peace.

It started in a psychiatrist’s office. I was complaining about the fact that after decades of earning my living sitting in front of a computer, I didn’t feel comfortable telling people I was a therapist. Even though I had my Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, and was working with clients, I was still not able to see myself as a mental health care provider. In fact, I often tried to hide it.

The psychiatrist, Lyndra, was helping me sort out my self-image problem by using a sort of modified hypnosis, called EMDR. I sat with closed eyes while she alternately tapped my knees and told me to think about how I could break past my reluctance. Out of the haze, my brother appeared. He was kind and respectful, the same as I remembered him in life, and he “gave me his blessing” telling me how proud he was of my new role.

The vision boosted my confidence, helping me proceed more energetically along my new path. The following year, I conceived of a book in which Ed was a character who communicated with me from the Other Side. I imagined he must have achieved great wisdom by then, and I asked him to help me sort out the meaning of life. Although I still have not figured out how to tie together the loose ends of the book, the hours I spent with him in my imagination helped me restore our connection.

During the process, vignettes about our early relationship peeked from their hiding places. When he was trying to earn a place on his high school basketball team, he needed a place to practice. I helped him build a court in my grandmother’s yard. We dug the hole, poured in concrete, and erected the backboard. The summer before he left for college, he assembled a hi-fi system from a kit. He taught me how to read the color code on the transistors and solder them onto a circuit board. I was 11. The following summer, we played chess out on the patio. I had been studying chess books, and we were an even match. Sometimes he would make me play two or three games in a row, leaving me begging for mercy, and yet at the same time feeling bonded to him in the strange way competition connects opponents.

After he moved away to college, I had a premonition. I was watching a drama on television about a young boy who heard news of his older brother’s death. An inexplicable rush of sadness washed over me. And then there it is. I see myself at 30 flying down to Georgia to be by his side as he lay dying and instead of feeling grief, all I could feel was admiration.

I can’t go back to change the way I reacted, but I can use my writing to reorganize my thoughts and feelings now. By illuminating early memories, my writing has helped me appreciate growing up with him. I am developing a richer range of emotions about his passing. And moving forward, I have made better sense of his absence, filling in some of that gap with warm stories, images, and sometimes even a sense of his presence.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene in which you were together with someone you miss.

Failure to Launch Generates Dramatic Tension

by Jerry Waxler

According to the television shows “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” the process of going from child to adult was supposed to be easy. I expected to go to college, become a doctor, and raise a family. But the reality was far more complex. The turbulence during the Vietnam War shook me off course and sent me on a long journey that covered a lot of territory but never seemed to arrive anywhere.

Emerging into adulthood is sometimes dubbed “launching,” a term that reminds me of a woman in a fur coat smashing a bottle across the bow of a ship being sent to sea on its maiden voyage. My launching did not include getting hit with a bottle of champagne, but I was hit with other substances which contributed to my loss of focus.

During the first fifteen years of my extended search for my place in the adult world, I tried Plans B, C, and D, drifting on open seas, meandering from island to island, with no apparent route and for that matter no apparent destination. To gain control over my navigation, I began a decades-long course of talk therapy. Based on those discussions, my sense of purpose and direction came back into focus.

In my fifties, I realized that by writing a memoir, I could consolidate the knowledge I had gained from these years of experimenting and exploring. From this panoramic view, confusion gave way to wisdom. Dozens of alternate lifetimes later, I am finally regaining the confidence and purpose I felt before I fell off the launch pad. The whole point was to achieve a sense of empowered adulthood, and it appears I have finally achieved that goal.

I’m not sure that a memoir about this long, multi-stage life would be focused enough to sustain a reader’s interest. But since that’s the way my life actually worked, I intend to try. One of the few memoirs that offer a model for this long approach to adulthood is John Robison’s “Look me in the eye.” As a young adult, he pulled together relationships and career but something was missing.  My impression is that his life came into fullness much later when he realized he had Asperger’s, a mental “condition” that was preventing him from interacting with the world.

Robison was not the only one to have a difficult emergence into adulthood. Many memoirs relate the difficulties of this journey, and while each one offers its own unique slant, together they demonstrate that this developmental challenge of life, to go from child to adult, can provide an enormous amount of dramatic tension.

In my next blog essay, I will offer a number of examples of memoirs whose authors struggled on their transition into adulthood.
Writing Prompt
Consider the impact this period had for you. If you have had a curiosity or horror about your own transition from childhood to adulthood, you will find that the power of this period can make compelling material.

Note
To read the essay I wrote about how John Robison’s memoir gave me permission to be myself, click here.

Teaching Memoirs, Meeting Locals, Making Memories

by Jerry Waxler

When my wife’s sister, Judy, heard that her local writing group was looking for a writing teacher, she mentioned my name. She has been encouraging us to come to visit her town, Salida, with lots of artists, tucked in a valley amidst the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. If it worked out, I could teach memoir writing, while making a few memories of my own.  The directors of the group checked out my blog and other material on my website, and we began to brainstorm about how it would work.

All the memoir classes I had taught previously were broken into two hour segments. This workshop would go for eight hours straight, so one challenge would be to tailor the course to this new format. And I worried about my stamina. Would they need to carry me out on a stretcher at the end of the day? Over the next few weeks, I worked out a class schedule that I felt would offer the same value as the individual sessions. And the best way to find out if I could survive an all-day class was to try. My wife and I agreed the Rockies would create a welcome diversion from south eastern Pennsylvania, so we said “Yes. Let’s do it.”

In September, we flew in to the Denver Airport. On our drive to Chaffee County, we stopped at Colorado Springs to walk through the Garden of the Gods, a magnificent collection of brilliant orange spires, like fingers reaching up to the sky. We only had an hour to appreciate what it had taken God a million years to create. The rest of the drive was almost as spectacular. Along the canyon of the Arkansas River, the mountain faces kept changing color and texture, as if each section had been formed during a different era. I felt like I was watching the history of the earth unfold before my eyes.

In Salida, Judy showed us around the local art shops and historical buildings. The renovated Steam Plant is the home of the theater where she volunteers, and that night she took us to a rock concert, where we listened to good quality regional rock and roll, standing or swaying on a dance floor with the locals.  The next day, we ate breakfast at Bongo Billy’s Cafe, which like the Steam Plant, is a restored historical building. On the red brick walls hang works of local art and a poster that offered, “How to Build a Global Community.” I stood there and read every suggestion, as if the poster could help me understand the heart of Salida. One rule was “Visit people, not places.” I liked that rule and thought I could honor it on this trip, starting with the 25 people who had signed up for my class.

At 8 AM the next morning, arriving early at the church where the workshop was to be held, I greeted people on their way in and asked them what they wanted to accomplish in the class. Every good story starts with desire. The personal introductions segued naturally into a formal class, in which I offered an overview of memoir writing. Then it was time to learn techniques. After the first lesson, about finding the timeline, I gave a writing prompt. “Write a scene about one of the homes you lived in.” Their heads went down, and pens moved, allowing them the opportunity to ideas into action.

When it was time to read aloud, I asked them to break into groups of three so each could read their writing to two others. The room buzzed with energy while I sat alone and planned my next module. When they were done, I spoke some more, we discussed more, and they wrote and read to their small groups. The lunch break was in the adjoining kitchen, with a feast of pot luck dishes that included salads, cookies, and fruit. And then we started again.

By mid-afternoon, we had been focusing for five hours and I was running out of energy, but I couldn’t stop now. I had to press on, in an excellent example of life imitating art. The next lesson was about the long middle of a story, which could become bogged down in the passage of time. To keep the story moving, the protagonist must face and overcome obstacles. I gave one more prompt. “Write about a significant obstacle in your life.” Heads bowed, and when they looked up, this time I asked them to share their writing with the whole group.

One by one, they shared critical moments: near deaths, loves lost, disease, and recovery. I leaned forward in my chair, inspired by the variety and depth of human experience, and the power of memoir writing to shape those memories and share them. Some students choked back tears. Others were more stoical, while the rest of us nodded, and murmured in empathy. Many said, “It’s the first time I shared this with strangers.” Of course the details are protected by confidentiality, but now that the stories have been told in one group setting, my experience tells me the participants will have an easier time sharing stories in the future.

After each reading, I commented on how it fit into the course material and how they might develop it further. When we ran out of time, I thanked them for sharing their lives, and we were done. But it wasn’t over quite yet. While we were cleaning up, many people walked up and thanked me. “You helped me think about my life in a new way.” These expressions of appreciation made me feel my day was a success.

I carried out to the car the few remaining books from the stack I had brought with me to sell, one a how-to guide for writing memoirs, and the other a workbook for overcoming obstacles that can interfere with writing. On the drive back to our lodging, I shared thoughts about memories and family with Judy, who had attended the class as well.

When I returned to our room, my wife was excited by her own adventure. She had spent most of the day at an equestrian competition, watching riders roping, herding, and other events. When Janet is around horses, she’s happy, so the day was a success for her too.

To continue the horse theme, I suggested we take a trail ride to see more of the beautiful countryside. Asking around, we found a recommendation for Bill’s Sport Shop in Leadville. The next morning, we met the trail guide, George, a salty man with smiling eyes, and lots of creases in his face who bragged about his recent 77th birthday. We brushed the horses, (mine was named Ringo), saddled up and walked out amidst the big peaks and big skies of Colorado, through scrubby arid hillocks, and stands of pine trees. George turned around in his saddle to tell us about his life, working in a mine, losing his best friend in 1969 and even some bits about his love life. His love for his herd of 30 horses was obvious, considering he knew each one by name and told us anecdotes about many of them.  I was the last of the three riders, and Ringo was a little pokey so sometimes George’s voice drifted back to me and other times I ambled in silence.

Four hours later, we took the saddles off, and he let us give the horses their treat of grain. As we were leaving, I asked him, “Are you a cowboy?” He said, “I’m going to be a cowboy when I grow up.” Getting to know George, who had lived and worked in this area his whole life, I felt like I had fulfilled the suggestion on the poster at Bongo Billy’s. We were not just visiting places, but meeting people as well.

We pulled on to the road and headed out of town, back towards the Denver Airport. Leaving the mountains behind, my wife said, “I like this trip. Maybe you can find more places to teach memoir writing workshops.” “I don’t know hon. I’ll ask around.”

Note

To purchase a copy of  the poster, “How to Build Global Community” by Melinda Levine, search on the internet. For example, I turned up this link.

Chaffee County also hosts summer white water rafting down the Arkansas River, skiing at nearby Monarch Mountain, mountain climbing – it’s surrounded by fourteen thousand foot peaks of the Fourteeners. It is also on the route of the famous “Ride the Rockies” bicycle tour.

Your Autobiography is the First Step Towards Writing Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

The first draft of my memoir included my entire life, starting from my first year in the apartment above my dad’s drugstore in north Philadelphia. Who were those people I grew up with, my mother and father, my brother and sister? What was it like developing from a baby into me? I poked and prodded at my past and sorted the resulting scenes into chronological order. After a year of research and another of writing, I can now read about my dramatic tensions, the dynamics of family and friends, hopes and fears, obstacles and allies. My life makes far more sense than ever before.

And so, perhaps I’m done. Writing my life from beginning to end is a real accomplishment that makes me proud of myself, not only for of having written it, but also for having lived it.

But I don’t feel done. I want to take the next step and share my life with others. The problem is that readers don’t want a compendium of my entire life. They want a Story – that is, a dramatic form that we all have learned since we were children. My life does not by itself contain this form. To engage readers, I must find it. First I must craft a blurb dramatic enough to attract interest. Then I need to write the book so it compels readers from the first page to the last.

What do you cut away to make it more pleasing?

To create his crowd-pleasing statues, Michelangelo started with a raw block of marble. His task was to chip away everything that didn’t belong. Memoir writers face a similar task. The compelling story lurks somewhere within the vast range of memory. Now we have to figure out what to remove. That’s not so easy. Life was all one thing. Splitting off parts of it may feel disturbing or even painful. And yet, if the final product is as beautiful as Michelangelo’s Pieta, this creative pain would be worthwhile.

Pain is not the only reason it’s hard to remove parts of your life. While polished stories are bounded by the first page and the last, daily life provides no sharply defined markers. Day after day, events run together. We have to find the story within those days, through our own creative process.

Say I want to share my visit to an Ashram in India in the ’70s. Should I start when I board the plane, or do I back up and start the journey as a Jewish nerd growing up in north Philadelphia? Do I finish when I return to the U.S. and move into a commune, or do I move forward a few months when I return to my cubicle as an engineer in the Nuclear Power industry?

Suppose I want to tell about the incredible thrill of receiving a standing ovation from the board of directors of a nonprofit writing group when I was 50 years old. Do I start with the phone call I received from the director? “I appreciate the honor, Foster, but I’ve never done anything like this before,” I said. “You’ll do fine,” he said. “Just be yourself.” Or do I backup and show how incredibly shy I was just two years earlier, so nervous  at my first talk at Toastmasters my voice was swallowed up in a hoarse whisper, and I sat down flushed with humiliation after polite applause.

Wending my way through these options requires more than simply finding the most interesting scenes. I need to reveal the forces that propelled my life along its path, and more importantly why a reader should follow me.

A different metaphor, don’t tear anything away

Perhaps the image of a block of marble is misleading. Life is not really a shapeless blob. In its own way, the entire journey was a lovely creation, the life of a complete human being. Perhaps the transformation from the innocence of a little baby all the way to the end is a sort of Pieta in its own right, and we are all destined to end up draped across God’s lap.

The challenge is to somehow offer readers my sense of this fullness, but to do so at a smaller scale. Perhaps, if I adjust my lens to a higher magnification I can see my own passion play embedded in each moment like William Blake’s “world in a grain of sand.” Focusing on the drama, pleasures, and intrigue of a smaller part of life might not require any chipping away after all.

A popular form of computer graphics, called a fractal, looks like a beautiful set of swirls, a sort of mathematical paisley print with teardrop shapes intertwined in miraculously intricate patterns. The remarkable thing about fractals is that when you zoom in closer and closer, you continue to see exotic beauty and detail. The intricate patterns within a tiny fraction of the image are every bit as mesmerizing as the designs that emerge in a canvas as big as the night sky.

I tinker with focal distance, zooming in on particular events. Around each one I see a cluster of passions, needs, and dreams. That younger guy who flew to India was following an inner drive that had started years earlier, before he even knew his own path. And that older guy who spoke to a group of nonprofit leaders had a different constellation of circumstances and emotions.  What was he thinking? Why was it such a milestone? Now my challenge is less about cutting out and more about homing in on the details that surround a key event. By identifying the drama in each situation, I can develop a bright, creative reflection of that one part.

My original project of writing about my life resulted in a book that was too long and too complete to be accessible to most readers. But now I have transformed that longer work into a sourcebook, from which I can draw more tightly focused artistic renderings. Hopefully, the end result will please readers as much as the whole thing has pleased me.

Writing Prompt

From your entire scope of memories, select a particular incident, and try telling it as a self-contained story. What was the driving force of the event? Where would you start? Where would you end? Develop it as a short story. Try events of various sizes and see how they hang together as stories in their own right. For another exercise, try to organize the same set of events as a chapter in a larger memoir. Finally, imagine writing a whole book, with this event as its centerpiece.

Note
To see examples of fractals on the web, type the search term “Fractal Images” into your search engine.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Reading error teaches a writing lesson – or – A good character is hard to define

By Jerry Waxler

Part of relating to a good story is to feel a personal connection with its characters. Now I need to develop the knack of portraying the people in my life onto the pages in my memoir. I have attended workshops, and read how-to books about this skill, but it has been eluding me until recently when I stumbled upon a valuable insight. By incorrectly reading a series of short stories, I had an aha-moment about how reader and writer work together to form characters. This discovery will help me bring my characters to life.

I first noticed my reading problem last year when I read a lovely collection of short stories, “Apologies Forthcoming” by Xujun Eberlein about life in China during the Cultural Revolution. [ To read that essay, click here.] In one story, a student was relocated to join peasants in the countryside. In another story, a young factory worker struggled to make friends. I imagined the second story was about the same person as the first. My interpretation was wrong. The link was created by my imagination, not the author’s.

Recently, I read another book of short stories, “Inheritance of Exile” by Susan Muaddi Darraj. [To read that essay, click here.] I am attracted to short stories, both as a reader and a writer. So I jumped into the collection, enjoying each story individually. But again I noticed my mind making incorrect or unsubstantiated assumptions, unconsciously bridging a character from one part of a book to another. The fact that I repeated my mistake made me curious to learn more about this mental habit.

In many collections of stories, this effect is used intentionally. Readers expect the detective Adam Dalgleish in P.D. James’ mysteries to maintain his quirky personality from one novel to another. His ability to completely override compassion in the service of his job became his trademark, and so the reader of these novels forms an expectation that he will continue to behave in this way. As a result of this agreed continuity, the author of a series can portray deeper characters over a longer period of time than they could in just one story.

All kinds of series are built on exactly this principle. Star Trek allows us to get to know their recurring characters across a range of stories. Sitcoms, comic books, and book series take advantage of the reader’s accumulating familiarity with characters.

By digging deeper into the way my mind insisted on linking characters together across pages, I now see more about the way authors create characters. Books don’t tell us everything about a character all at once. They drop in a fact here and a scene there, and the reader’s mind accumulates a deeper understanding of that character in bits and pieces across many pages. In any longer book, this effect of continuity is a crucial tool for authors, but I never noticed it quite so clearly as when I saw it happen accidentally across multiple stories.

Now that I see the bridging, I can use it to help me offer my reader a better, more satisfying connection with the supporting characters in my memoir. Take my older brother, for example. He’s an important enough person in my life that I would want my reader to know more about him. So how do I bring him to life?

Ed towered over me in my youth, at first because he was seven years older than me and later because he was really tall. Six feet five inches and too thin he should have easily made it onto the basketball team. But like me and my dad, he was not particularly athletic, and he walked with a slight tilt because of his scoliosis. When he was cut from the team, he responded with an intensity of disappointment I wouldn’t have expected. Perhaps he had hoped a team sport would help further his ambition to be a doctor, or maybe he really wanted to play basketball. I was too young to ask, and now it’s too late.

Armed with this collection of observations, I begin to look for places in my memoir to expand his character. Hopefully the reader will do what I do when I read, and accumulate an image of Ed as an authentic, multi-faceted person. I hope they will see my relationship to him, and how he affected my life. As I gather information about him, I notice a peculiar thing. By writing about him years later, I am bridging across the years, and revisiting our relationship. I too am feeling this authentic connection grow, as I accumulate wisdom across the span of time.

Writing Prompt

Start a file that contains anecdotes, vignettes, and personal characteristics of important characters. Add to this file over time, through brainstorming, free-writing, explore your photo albums, or conduct interviews. This file will provide source material to help you build authentic characters in your memoir.

Link isolated anecdotes into a story with the power of your beliefs

By Jerry Waxler

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

A memoir starts with a single anecdote. Then another, and another. In our imagination, we know these events formed our life. But other people can’t read our imagination. They can only read what’s on the page. We must transform the anecdotes into a compelling story. The memoir writer’s job is to discover the binding that will bring the reader from one event to the next. One place to look for this continuity is in your beliefs. Beliefs are important. They influence our decisions and shape our mood and emotion. And yet few writing classes explore the impact of ideas and beliefs.

To see how ideas can influence a life, see my essay about the beliefs that changed Henry Louis Gates’ attitude towards girls. In today’s essay, I explore this strategy further by looking within a series of my own anecdotes for the underlying beliefs that could help pull them together into a story.

High School Trolley

My own school, Central High in Philadelphia, drew academically inclined boys from all over the city, so at the end of the day each of us went off in different directions. Sitting by myself on the trolley, a pack of boys piled in from a nearby Catholic High School. They all knew each other and they shouted and laughed far more boisterously than the studious kids I knew. Even though they never bullied me, nor did they seem to be bullying each other, I kept very still. When I reached my stop, I nonchalantly pulled the cord to signal the driver, and squeezed my way to the door. It slapped open and I stepped down, safe again on a quiet street in familiar territory.

Brainstorm underlying ideas
I look more closely at my thoughts and feelings in this scene. What can I learn about my trust in people, my fragile pride, my ethnic identity, and the way a city kid could feel vulnerable in a crowd, hoping to remain invisible.

Freshman year debate
In Freshman year, I was a thousand miles from home, living in a high-rise dormitory at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a sprawling campus with thirty thousand students. Some upper classmen were visiting the dorm to debate the U.S. action in Vietnam, while the mainly freshman residents crowded in to the meeting room to listen. “The U.S. government is using Vietnam as an excuse to test its weapons. We shouldn’t be there.” “Oh, yeah? You’re a fool. If we don’t stop communism in Vietnam, it will spread and take over the world.”

I tried to find my own truth amidst their battle of ideas. I could barely keep up. How did these people know so much? And why were they filled with so much intensity? What did it all mean?

Sophomore Year
At the end of my freshman year, I went home to a quiet summer in Philadelphia, working as an assistant in a medical research lab, and working in my dad’s drugstore on weekends. In the fall, I returned to Madison. Amidst the hordes walking to and from class, I saw Kathy Bridgman, one of the only girls I had dated the previous year. The date didn’t go well. I had become so nervous I had to cut it short, and never went out with her again. Now, our eyes met, we smiled tentatively, and kept walking.

Walking with the crowd, I felt a  little lonely. Seeing Kathy tipped me off balance, reminding me of my social incompetence. How would I survive three more years?

Junior Year
A year later, in the fall of 1967, my hair in a frizzy mop, and sporting bushy sideburns, I approached a group of students who were gathering to block a classroom. By now, I had decided to join the protesters. Together we would alter the course of history. I crowded into a hallway of the Commerce Building, packed tightly, arms locked together. After we had been there for a while, police broke out the plate glass entry-way, stormed in and swung their clubs with force. Many students went to the hospital, including the girl who stood next to me. She needed emergency surgery for a ruptured uterus. The violence I had witnessed disturbed me. I had started out full of hope and ended more confused than ever.

What ideas drove me to protest? What other ideas drove the police to fight back with such violence? What happened to me, as my ideas shattered along with the day’s events?

Senior Year
For most of my senior year, I stayed alone in my apartment. Depressed, I skipped as many classes as possible. I was falling off the edge of my ambition, and collapsing into myself.

Search for the ideas
As these scenes first occurred to me, they seemed isolated. Now, by looking for continuity, I recognize the way crowds worked in my mind. I had always been fascinated by mobs in history. Now I could see that my academic curiosity was really about me. I was constantly looking for the balance between my desire to be inside a crowd, and my desire to be alone.

My Coming of Age was beset by this tension. In high school, I started out as a nerd, very much alone. Then at the university, I jumped in to crowds, deeper and deeper, until I felt stripped of my individuality. I lost my momentum and collapsed back into myself. Now, to collect the events and find a conclusion, I need to show how a more balanced understanding of groups redeemed me, filled me, and brought me back to life.

These anecdotes have not yet formed a story, but now I feel the dramatic tension that links one to the next, providing the seeds of an emotionally authentic and hopefully powerful tale, transforming isolated bits of memory into a story that will hold a reader’s attention from beginning to end.

Writing Prompt
Look at some of the anecdotes in your notebook. See if you can tease out the ideas that added power to each scene and linked it to the next. What additional background will offer the reader a greater understanding of your emotions and decisions?

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays 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 step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Escaping the prison of what might have been

By Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Tony Cohan, author of the memoir “Native State” grew up listening to his father speak about popular musicians with the awe usually reserved for gods. Cohan’s father, Phil, produced a variety show in the heyday of radio, and famous performers like Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante filled dad’s heart with admiration and also put food on his table. It was natural for young Tony to want to grow up to be one of the performers his dad revered. At 13-years-old Tony played his first gig as a drum player at a high school dance. Then he moved “up” to bars and strip clubs. A few years later, his ambition took him to North Africa and Spain, where he played with the hippest jazz performers, but nothing satisfied him. No matter how far he progressed as a musician, his life remained stuck in dimly lit nightclubs, poverty, drugs, and danger.

Flash forward a couple of decades. Cohan is earning his living as a successful writer, living in Mexico with his girl friend. This explains why he felt stuck all those years. Music was taking him in the wrong direction. He wasn’t able to find satisfaction until he escaped his original goal. Empathizing with Cohan’s frustration, I turn pages, wanting him to find his true dream.

I have met many men and women whose lives started in one direction, say towards a profession, or marriage and babies, or the family business. Then they end up somewhere else. Often the change in direction leaves them or their parents confused, as if they have disrupted destiny or lost a crucial component of their own identity.

Later in life, they look back and wonder about the discrepancy between the initial story and the later one. If they describe it as they originally felt it, it raises issues of disappointment and regret, or anger and rebellion. They feel echoes of the initial confusion. All these years later, something about the transition into adulthood still feels “wrong.” And yet if they don’t include it, the story feels incomplete, as if they are ignoring major events.

I had such a fracture in my own Coming of Age. On the rare nights when dad could get away from the store to join the family for dinner, he told stories about his customers. His tone about most people was overly familiar, jocular, often condescending. But when he talked about doctors, the tone changed. As a pharmacist, he was simply fulfilling their orders. They were his gods. I didn’t want to be one of the mortals, the everyday people who became the butt of dad’s jokes. I wanted to be one he respected. To achieve that dream, I became increasingly tense about amassing knowledge. My intellectual drive constricted my view of myself and my role in the world.

By the time I was 18, I had become hyper-focused on science, math, and medicine, and becoming a doctor was the only Truth worth living for. Then, something very strange and disturbing happened. I entered college during the sixties, when cultural and political upheaval stirred my world into a frenzy. I became interested in philosophy and literature. Shaken loose from my original obsession, I started rebelling against everything, and then dropped out to pursue some hippie utopian fantasy.

I replay the events over and over. I was a hardworking and competent young man with a well-stocked arsenal of academic gifts already in place by the time I was 18. I wanted this one thing so badly. Then, like a clown stepping on a banana peel, I slipped and fell on my ass. For years, I thought my academic pratfall meant I was a failure. I didn’t live up to my own or my father’s expectations. Now as I review Tony Cohan’s story, I see my life journey from a different point of view.

When I threw myself into the social revolution and rejected everything my father and family stood for, it was not an accident. It was a choice. Math and science satisfied me mentally but cut me off emotionally from the rest of the world. Something inside me was crying out for release. Like a prisoner who takes advantage of a riot to cover his escape, I used the sixties to help me break out.

It turned out to be a messy process. Without my father’s dream, I was on my own. In the following decades, I explored a rich variety of life styles, shared my days with a far broader set of companions, pursued creative outlets in computers and psychology, writing and spirituality. The life that I actually lived is fine, despite the fact that it’s different from the one I thought I was heading towards.

For most of my life, I have tried to forget that loss of momentum, hating the accompanying emotions of failure and regret. Who wants to dwell on the crappy past? But finally, now that I apply my storytelling intelligence, I begin to see how one boy’s life played out. The events in high school and college, while seeming so vast at the time, were just the beginning of the story, not the end. In the beginning I thought I understood how life was supposed to be. And then came the decades of learning how it actually was. As I translate the fragments of my life into my life story, I develop a much deeper understanding of my own path.

In one sense, we are all “trapped.” First we are confined by the expectations instilled in us by our family, community, and society. Second, we feel trapped by what already happened. As life plays out, our past choices limit us to only a sliver of the infinite possibilities that might have been.

Yet, in addition to these two confinements there are also two freedoms. First, we apply our intelligence and creativity to make the best choices in each new moment. Second, as storytellers, we are free to interpret our past in the most interesting and engaging way. That original story of who we were supposed to be was just a springboard. Now it is our choice to craft the story of what actually happened. By exploring the past as a storyteller, we can become more accepting of this complex person, with all the twists and energy that have emerged from the cauldron of the past.

Writing Prompt
What initial story did you feel constrained to follow? Which parts did you end up fulfilling? Which parts did you not? Write an anecdote about a time when you felt your earlier dream slipping away. Write another one about an early image of yourself coming true.

Writing Prompt
Consider any regrets you might have about an earlier direction that felt like it slipped away. Look at those experiences as a storyteller, and create a positive reason for turning in the new direction. Write a story in the third person about a satisfied person who lived the life you actually lived. In your story, let this satisfied person meet a miserable person who followed the course you originally thought you were supposed to follow.

Writing Prompt
Another approach is to develop an alternative reality in fiction. By setting yourself free in the world of imagination, you can discover entire lifetimes. Write an anecdote about a key transition. Use it as a basis for a fictional story, and see where your imagination takes your character.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]