More Reasons Veterans Should Write Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

If you sign up for the military, your life is separated into at least two chapters, before your first day of service, and after. Then, when you leave the service, you add another chapter, to find your place in civilian society. Writing a memoir can help you organize and collect these sections into one compelling whole. Here is the second part of my essay about reasons why veterans should write memoirs.

Click here for part one of this essay

Resume Your Coming of Age Goals

People sign up for military service during the period in their lives when they are looking for a path into adulthood. We all go through that period, discovering our new identity beyond the childhood home. Military service offers a leap into that next stage, and once you enter the system, you know where you fit in to the larger world.

When you reenter civilian life, many of the advances you reaped in the military no longer apply. Your training probably doesn’t translate well into a civilian career. And the sense of purpose, of belonging, and structure are gone. You must start over, searching for a new place. In a sense, you are going back to the day before you entered the recruiter’s office. You are now looking for a second path that can carry you competently into adult civilian life.

Writing is a powerful tool to help reconnect with the person you were when you started, and the person you were trying to become. By pulling the pieces together into a story, you can reconnect them, and resume your journey. For example, by writing about life as a teenager, you get in touch with your first kiss, first car, first job, first questions about the possibility of God. When you lay these moments out in the form of a narrative, you find a self-image that makes sense across the span from civilian to warrior and back to peace again.

Restore Purpose and Idealism

In the book “Flourish,” psychologist Martin Seligman digs into the challenges of combat trauma. According to Seligman, who founded the Positive Psychology movement, the psychological care given to veterans focuses too much on falling apart and not enough on growth and resilience.

Many psychologists agree with Seligman that having a purpose for living is one of the crucial requirements for a healthy life. In fact, the search for purpose drives many young people to join the military in the first place. They risk their lives in defense of family, community, and country. However, when their mission is over it is difficult to remember the earlier ambitions and dreams, especially when memory is clouded by the fog of war.

If your earlier purpose no longer seems to apply to your life as a civilian, you are missing one of the great foundations of a healthy life. And your sense of purpose might be undermined further if during war, you suffered the side-effect noted by military psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, M.D. According to Shay’s books “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America,” many soldiers return to civilian life with their idealism in tatters. Without faith or dreams, they have little to stop them from sinking into cynicism and despair.

Writing a memoir can help. By searching for the meaning in their memoir, veterans can reconstruct the meaning of their lives. For example, David Bellavia, author of the Iraq war memoir House to House developed a sense of responsibility to publicize the experience of soldiers, as well as to commit himself to his family.

When Luis Carlos Montelvan returned from service in Iraq his mental and physical wounds left him incapacitated. He was better able to navigate civilian life after  he was chosen to participate in a program that uses service dogs to help wounded veterans. However, he continued to struggle for a purpose until he realized the importance of the service dog program. He became an outspoken advocate to help the public understand the invisible wounds of PTSD and his memoir Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him provided us with an important look inside the mind of a combat veteran.

Some veterans redirect energy toward promoting peace, or reducing gang violence. When Mark Bounds, left the army as chief of staff at a training center, he entered the civilian educational system to help young people become more responsible adults.  Whatever path you choose, writing your memoir can help you find your direction.

Building Bridges from War to Peace

In combat, soldiers earn respect by becoming experts at violence. When they return, this very skill sets them apart from the society they defended and our respect mingles with fear. After the Vietnam war, returning veterans were stigmatized by the violence of that war, adding a terrible psychological burden to the trauma they already suffered. And even the heroes of World War II had to fight with this stigma. Most of them felt obligated to shield their loved ones from war by hiding behind a wall of silence.

Writing a memoir is an antidote to this sense of separation. Just as memoirs can break down the walls between people of different races or lifestyles, it can break down the alienation between veterans and civilians. I have spent many hours vicariously terrified by combat, thanks to memoirs like James McGarrah’s Vietnam experience in “Temporary Peace” and William Manchester’s struggles on the Pacific front during WWII in “Goodbye Darkness”. David Bellavia took me on another emotionally grueling journey in “House to House,” about the war in Iraq. By now I have a good idea of how gruesome and dangerous that world can be.

So when a veteran shows up in one of my memoir workshops, ready to talk about their military service, I will encourage them to build bridges. By teaching them to write their story in language an outsider could understand, I could help them cross the chasm that separates their world from mine. In this era of the memoir, veterans no longer need to hide, but can be welcomed back into civilian life as messengers from another dimension of human experience.

More Articles
How Boys Become Men
Mark Bounds’ shift to Civilian educational system
Interview with Vietnam vet Jim McGarrah
Storytellers Shed Light On the Horrors of War
Luis Carlos Montelvan’s Home Page

Healing Combat Trauma website

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

Why Write Memoirs After Combat or Other Trauma

by Jerry Waxler

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

My friend Don mentioned that his writing group was thinking of offering fiction writing classes as a public service to veterans. The notion of serving those who serve their country inspired me and on an impulse I blurted out, “Maybe I could teach them memoir writing.” My offer caught me off guard. I had taught hundreds of civilians about memoir writing, but I had never taught a class full of veterans. Now that the thought was out in the open, I wondered how much I knew about teaching veterans to write, especially those who had been in combat.

Trauma debriefing

After the World Trade Center bombing, I wanted to help trauma survivors, so to supplement my master’s degree in counseling, I took a course offered by Pennsylvania’s department of emergency preparedness. The main technique they taught, called trauma debriefing, consisted of encouraging survivors to talk about their experience. The treatment seemed reasonable to me. Talking has always been the mainstay of counseling.

Later I learned that many researchers disagreed with the technique saying that if you talk about the experience, you might re-experience the trauma. I didn’t have enough information to form my own opinion, so I filed the debate in the back of my mind.

Memoir Writing as Trauma Debriefing

When I began to study memoirs, I realized that many of them were taking me on a journey through horrifically traumatic experiences like combat, rape, and abuse. But within the pages of the book, the horror had been transformed into a literary framework.

When I began to teach memoir writing, I extended my understanding of how this works. The participants often shared their most painful moments. After they read their passage aloud, something changed in the room. People became more relaxed and open with each other, as if they had gone through the actual experience together. The speakers said they had rarely if ever shared these moments with anyone, let alone strangers, and listeners reported a sense of empathy.

I felt that their revelations were similar to the trauma debriefing method with a key difference. Because they were in a memoir writing workshop, they were attempting to turn their horrible trauma into a good story. By packaging their memories in a shape that would be understandable by others, they had to restructure their  haphazard memories into an orderly sequence with a beginning, middle, and end. A story’s protagonist strives to achieve a goal, and along the way develops satisfying, philosophical insights. Memoir writers become philosophers of their own lives, searching for alternate perspectives and finishing with closure that would make sense to both the reader and the writer. By packaging their pain in the shape of a story, they gain control over it, masters of their own experience. For this reason, I believe combat veterans would benefit by attempting to convert their intense memories into the structure of a story, not to simply repeat the experience but to shape it.

In addition to helping themselves, they could help those who love them. After all, that’s what Homer did thousands of years ago, when he wrote the Iliad. We’ve been reading his account of battle ever since. By representing that world, so foreign to us civilians, combat veterans give us a deeper appreciation for their service, and we gain a more profound appreciation for the human costs of war.

Memoir writing is not for everyone. In addition to all the work and skill required to construct a story, memoir writers must also be willing to come out of hiding. When you first consider writing a memoir, the thought of divulging private aspects of yourself might seem horrifying. But if you stick with it, and add more and more anecdotes to your file, a story begins to emerge. Within that story, you uncover parts of yourself that had been forgotten or suppressed and you begin to forgive yourself for parts that you wish would disappear. As you find the words to explore these diverse aspects of yourself, you become more authentic and whole.

In the next section of this essay, I will explore more detailed ways that a memoir could help someone make sense of their experience in the military.

Click here for part 2 of this essay.

More Articles
How Boys Become Men
Mark Bounds’ shift to Civilian educational system
Interview with Vietnam vet Jim McGarrah
Storytellers Shed Light On the Horrors of War

Notes

Inspiring interview between Bill Moyers and Maxine Hong Kingston about why combat  veterans should write their stories.

Healing Combat Trauma website

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.

Nine Reasons To Read Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

The more memoirs I read, the more lessons I learn, first about the literary form, second about other people, and third about myself. These benefits intertwine to form one of the best systems of self-development I know. Here are nine benefits, along with a few titles of memoirs that exemplify each one.

Reason #1: The Fascination and Relief of Story Reading

A good memoir offers the same release as any engaging story, allowing me to lose myself in the author’s world… a fine turn of phrase… a fascinating dramatic incident… a character I care about, travelling along an interesting path. All these factors contribute to my satisfaction.

Enough about me by Jancee Dunn: Enters the world of a young celebrity interviewer
The Sound of No Hands Clapping by Toby Young: Shares the world of an ambitious writer
The Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner: offers wisdom about physical illness
Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum: A runaway teen lives in the shelters of New York city

Reason #2: Inspiration based on life experience and loss

My grandmother used to say: “This too shall pass.” I didn’t understand her platitudes when I was young. They make more sense now in the pages of each memoir, which starts with an author facing a challenge and then proceeds through the journey to a resolution. In every case, life goes on and characters grow.

Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup: After losing a beloved husband, she searches to recover from grief and find the meaning of life and death.
Mothering Mother by Carol O’Dell: a daughter cares for a mother suffering from dementia
Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham: a non-standard childhood with her two uncles
Expecting Adam by Martha Beck: She pays homage to her Down Syndrome baby.
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott; She shares her search for the meaning of life
Shades of Darkness by George Brummell: A black man escapes Jim Crow south by joining the army. His war injuries blind him and he must grow through another round.

Reason #3: Insight into cultural mixing, the melting pot of modernity

In modernity, cultures and races mingle at an ever increasing rate. Now, more than ever, we urgently need to understand each other. Through memoirs I penetrate the veil of the Other, by accompanying them on their journey. I accompanied a multi-racial boy, Barack Obama, who visited ancestors in an African village. I accompanied a girl who grew up in Michigan, Mei Ling Hopgood, when she traveled to Taiwan to visit her birth family. I grew up with an Iranian girl, Firoozeh Dumas, in California, a young Jewish immigrant, Harry Bernstein, in Chicago, and a black man, Henry Louis Gates, in the waning years of Jim Crow south. Memoirs turn the American melting pot into a vibrant, detailed, emotionally challenging and enriching personal experience.

Dreams of our Fathers by Barack Obama: A man of mixed heritage seeks his identity at home and in Africa
Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: An African woman seeks asylum in Holland, and discovers that western culture holds the antidote to the injustice she suffered at home.
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas: An Iranian child grows up trying to adapt to the American culture.

The Dream by Harry Bernstein: A Jewish immigrant arrives in the U.S. melting pot before the depression.

Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham: A Vietnamese American returns to Vietnam to make sense of his roots

Colored People by Henry Louis Gates: A black man in Jim Crow south tries to outgrow the limitations his culture has placed on him.

Reason #4: See deep into another’s point of view, including gender, war, celebrity

In order to live in the world, I need insights into the way other people think and feel. By reading memoirs, I no longer need to guess. Each author tell me themselves.

Athletes
Open by Andre Agassi: A famous tennis player shares his hopes, dreams and fears.

Performers
Enter Talking by Joan Rivers: A Jewish college grad attempts to escape the ordinary success mandated by her parents and enter the magical kingdom of entertainment.

Vinyl Highway: Singing as “Dick and Dee Dee” by Dee Dee Phelps: A young woman is invited into a singing duo and finds herself on television and on tour in the sixties.

Soldiers
Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester: A veteran returns to the scene of his Pacific battles and tries to put his demons to rest.

A Temporary Sort of Peace by Jim McGarrah: A Vietnam combat soldier struggles to survive the war with his life and sanity intact. He just barely makes it.

House to House by David Bellavia: A vivid, gut wrenching account of house to house combat in Iraq.

Mental challenges
Look me in the eye by John Robison: A man with an unusual approach to life finds out in middle age that he has been living with undiagnosed Asperger’s

Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison: in the 1980s the author revealed the damaging effects of bipolar disorder, as told from the insider’s point of view.

Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields: about giving birth and realizing she had  postpartum depression

Girls
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro: a beautiful girl is seduced by power, drugs, and sex and must find her way back.

Name All the Animals by Alison Smith: small town girl must find her sexuality against the pressures of religion and grief.

A Girl Named Zippie by Haven Kimmel: a small town girl, who turns ordinary life into a fascinating journey.

Boys
Father Joe by Tony Hendra: about his fascination with the monastery and his admiration of a mentor.

True Notebooks by Mark Salzman about teaching writing to convicted juvenile offenders.

Townie by Andre Dubus, III about growing up as a fighter, trying to maintain his pride in a world that constantly tried to strip it away.

American Shaolin by Matthew Polly: An American college student moves to a Chinese temple in order to study martial arts.

Illness
Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner: a man suffers from Crohn’s disease and learns about life without food.

Seven Wheelchairs by Gary Presley: a man suffers polio and then learns to live with it. (Coming of Age in a wheelchair)

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor: a neuroanatomist suffers a massive stroke and during rehabilitation draws conclusions about the right and left halves of the brain.

Spirituality
Devotion by Dani Shapiro: She searches for deeper meaning in spirituality and religion.
Accidental Buddhist by Dinty Moore: A man trying to immerse himself in Buddhist practices and beliefs.

Fatherhood
The Film Club by David Gilmour: A father agrees to let his son drop out of high school with the proviso that they watch movies together.

Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler: A young man falls under a mysterious illness, and his father writes of the grief and search for courage.

Reason #5: To share their story, authors overcome shame and privacy

Some memories evoke the emotion of shame, which tries to convince us to lock our thoughts away and never reveal them. It requires courage to share such memories with the world. Every time someone achieves that goal, it offers a role model for other aspiring memoir writers. Here are some of the books that in another age would have been kept locked in terrible secrecy.

Lucky by Alice Sebold: A girl is brutally raped in college and must go on a journey of self-discovery, making sense of her life after trauma.

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff: A young man grows up with edgy, directionless experimentation.

Ten Points by Bill Strickland  In raising his little girl, the author tries to make peace with the abuse in his own childhood.

Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner: The author falls in love with a man who starts out charming, and the more she commits to him, the more violent and dangerous he becomes.

I Know Horror Father Because I Know You by Sue William Silverman: Sexually abused as a child, she shares a disturbing account of growing up fearing the man responsible for caring for her.

Reason #6: In the River of Culture, Writers and the Writing Life

All memoirs reflect the journey from life to literature, but when memoirs take us inside the writing life, we gain an even deeper appreciation for the written words that form the fabric of our culture. These stories shed light on the nobility and magic of being literate human beings.

On Writing by Stephen King: A famous author shares the story of becoming a writer.
Mentor by Tom Grimes: A student at the Iowa Writers Workshop shares an account of his relationship with the director of the program.

Only as good as your word, advice from my favorite writing mentors by Susan Shapiro: Shapiro tells of her long journey as an aspiring New York writer, by sharing the stories of important influences.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico – Memoir of A Sensual Quest For Spiritual Healing by Rick Skwiot: The author leaves his corporate job and moves to Mexico to find himself and his writing voice.

Mentor by Tom Grimes: An aspiring author enters Iowa Writers Workshop and practically worships at the altar of the craft.

Reason #7 Learn about the development of identity

Until I started reading memoirs, I thought childhood development was something I would only read about in textbooks. Now, in Coming of Age memoirs, I accompany people on the journey from infant to fully formed adult. Along the way are the strange trials and learning during the adolescent years when we must construct our notions of self. But Coming of Age doesn’t always follow a straight path, or necessarily finish by the age of twenty. Many authors tell of their ongoing effort to become themselves.

Coming of Age
Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls: Tales of chaotic upbringing land on the bestseller lists.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: A boy in Ireland with a drunk father and overwhelmed mother, must figure out how to grow up.

Townie by Andre Dubus III: A boy grows up relying on his fists. As he grows, he becomes curious about his father, a famous story writer, and gradually trades in his gloves for a pen.

Name all the animals by Alison Smith: A girl loses her brother in a tragic accident, and grows up struggling to find herself.

Extended or Late Coming of Age
Accidental Lessons by David Berner: He loses his marriage and career, and becomes a schoolteacher, starting over in his 50s.

Dopefiend by Tim Elhajj: Squandering his teen years in heroin addiction, he finally becomes clean at the age most of us are finished Coming of Age. The memoir is his journey to discover what adult life is all about.

Tis by Frank McCourt: After he arrives in New York, he must invent his own life. Through trial, error, and education, he gradually develops into a fully formed adult.

Life Summary
In many of my memoir workshops, people over 50 try to make sense of the events of their lives. I love this journey of discovery, and at the same time I am aware of the fine line that distinguishes memoir from autobiography. If you attempt to describe your whole life, the result is usually considered less literary, and more historical. However, I have seen evidence that with a sincere, artistic attempt to find the story, such writers can develop a compelling work. And how else will we ever learn to understand the entire journey, unless we write about it? For now, most of the people who achieve bookstore success with this type of memoir are already famous. In the future, I believe ordinary people will achieve success with this form.

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill: An editor in a venerable publishing house in England writes about the journey of life.

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda: His journey through life recounts formative experiences that help us appreciate the impact of extended periods of time.

Golden Willow by Harry Bernstein: After the age of 95, when his acclaimed memoir Invisible Wall was published, Bernstein continues to write two more memoirs. The third one, Golden Willow is written from the point of view of a man in his 90s, looking back on the sweep of life experience.

Moll Flanders by Daniel Dafoe is a fake autobiography written in 1721 about a woman who struggles to find her way, and often loses it, in her journey through life. Considering that it has survived as a classic for almost 300 years suggests that a lifetime can make good reading, when portrayed with expert storytelling skills.

Reason #8 Extend my vision to other parts of the world

At every stage of my life I have been influenced by wars and global politics. In high school, I was traumatized by repercussions of the Holocaust. In college, I was lost in the upheaval of the Vietnam War. In recent years, the power struggles of the mid-east have taken center stage. Over the years, I’ve been disturbed and intrigued by developments in India, Asia, and Africa. Now memoir writers take me on intimate tours of those conflagrations and forces of history.

Man on Mao’s Right by Ji Chaozhu: History of China during the reign of Chairman Mao.

Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson: Glimpse of the back country of Mongolia

House on Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper: Growing up privileged in Liberia

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Asar Nafisi: an English literature teacher faces danger in post-revolutionary Iran.

Vietnam: Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham: After Coming of Age in America, Pham quits his job and goes on a bicycle tour through Vietnam to discover his roots.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba, an African boy falls in life with practical gadgets and manufactures a windmill to generate electricity.

Reason #9 Learn about people attempting to relate to each other

When I was young, romantic love and lust were so tangled I had no idea how to tell one from the other. Over the years, I came to believe that the principle difference between the two comes to light in the commitment of a mutually respectful partnership. This simple insight took years of trial and error, but now that I read memoirs, I can speed up the movie. Memoirs tell of the emotional complexity of love, babies, sex, extended families, careers, and all the other things that go into a couple’s life.

Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Cook Fineberg: a newlywed woman moves with her husband to Japan and in this foreign culture must also discover herself within the relationship.

Digging Deep by Boyd Lemon: In this retrospective attempt to understand his three failed marriages, Lemon completely exposes his own limitations. While it was happening he assumed it was all their fault, but now looking, he realizes his only contribution to the relationship was money.

Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story, by Judith Dickerman-Nelson, she falls in love and becomes pregnant at the age of 16, and has much to figure out about love, social approval, commitment, and becoming a couple.

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman: a woman attempts to make a marriage work within the many rules and constraints of her Hasidic culture.

Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner: Her young love goes terribly wrong when she discovers her new husband is an abuser.

Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener: Tells the whole journey of love, marriage, and then surviving his illness and death when he is struck with cancer.

(This is a rewrite of an article published January 4, 2008 called Eight Reasons to Read Memoirs by Jerry Waxler)

Notes

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

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

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

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

Recovering Self-concept after Trauma

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third article in my series about using memoir reading and writing to deepen your understanding of your own self-concept. To start from the beginning, click here. Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity,

Identity ought to be a stable thing. Once you find it, you should be set for life. But in reality, your ideas about yourself undergo continuous adaptation. We all adapt to the slow changes that unfold over years. And sometimes, our peaceful self-image is threatened by assaults so deep and swift they shake the foundations of sanity. Betrayal, divorce, job loss, combat trauma,  crime, abuse, disease, or death of a loved one can rip apart our trust that we know how to live in the world. We hang on using prayer, social supports, or counseling. Even as we shrink away from the parts of our life that hurt, we try to return to our routines. Eventually, the past slides into the past while often leaving behind a sticky residue.

One way to gain power over the bitterness and confusion that have been left behind by trauma is to write about it. Write the entire period, from your initial sense of safety, to the coming storm, then the actual experience. Then comes the most important part. Continue your story through the long journey to recovery.

One problem with events that assaulted you is that you feel trapped, as if the memory has become a prison. The power of the unexpected event feels like a life sentence. By writing the whole experience, you can form a more intimate familiarity with the journey back to safety.

By becoming a storyteller of your own life, you gain control over the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, finding the words that help you integrate the turn of events into your understanding of how you fit into the world. And by shaping the experience into a form that can be shared with others, you turn private sorrow into social compassion.

Memoirs that provide examples of facing and recovering from trauma

Alice Sebold, “Lucky.” She explicitly describes the rape that stole her innocence. Then for the rest of her life she attempts to reclaim her ability to once again believe she is a good person in a safe world. For my essay about Alice Sebold’s Lucky, click here

Jim McGarrah, “Temporary Sort of Peace.”Altered forever by his devastating experience as a combat soldier in Vietnam, McGarrah turned to writing, and looked for himself amidst the rubble of his own story. For my interview with author Jim McGarrah, click here

David Manchester, “Goodbye Darkness.” This veteran heals his nightmares by visiting the Pacific islands where he fought in World War II. In addition to providing a powerful historical account, he also searches for identity and tries to put his demons to rest. For my essay about combat trauma, click here.

Jill Bolte Taylor, “My Stroke of Insight.” After a stroke destroys the left-half of her brain, she must make do with only the right half. Then she takes an 8 year journey of rehabilitation, becoming whole and learning profound lessons about her brain and self. For my essay about My Stroke of Insight, click here.

Gary Presley “Seven Wheelchairs.” Presley, an athletic teenager is stricken with polio and then spends decades coming to terms with life in a wheelchair. His recovery is not of body but of spirit, and inspires me to think about the nobility of the long road of life. For my essay about Gary Presley’s memoir, click here.

My shakeup and subsequent re-discovery

I entered college with advanced placement scores in math, majored in physics and was sure I would be a doctor. After five years of anti-war protests, marijuana, and nihilistic beliefs, I was living in a garage, not talking to anyone for weeks at a time, striving to escape civilization. I suffered what might have been called a “nervous breakdown” if anyone had focused enough on me to give it a label. I unraveled my sense of self, and became story-less, a man without a workable self-concept, reducing myself to raw nerves and meaninglessness. I was a living laboratory experiment demonstrating that a healthy story is a minimum requirement for life. Looking back, I see that I spent much of my adult life recovering from the disruption. Writing my memoir has helped me gain an overview of this lifetime journey.

Writing Prompt

Write about unexpected suffering that made you feel like your previous sense of self no longer made sense. To help you see the whole experience, start with an outline from before the event when you felt safe until after, when you reclaimed your poise. Let your writing carry you forward from the quicksand back onto solid ground. If writing a dismal portion pulls you down, balance that feeling by writing scenes of hope and healing.

Notes
This method applies to trauma that you can look back on. Writing such a story can help you grow to a place where you can find wisdom about past suffering. If you are currently experiencing trauma or out-of-control feelings, please seek social support from a compassionate caregiver.

Link to other articles in this series

Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity

Self-concept and memoir – launching problems and identifying with a group

Recovering self-concept after trauma

Self Concept and Memoirs: The Power of Purpose

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

More Q&A with Sue William Silverman on confessions, memoirs, and the art of writing

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is part two of an original Interview between Jerry Waxler and author Sue William Silverman. To read the first part, click here. Silverman is author of an excellent how-to book for memoir writers, “Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir.”

Jerry Waxler:
One of the strange and wonderful things about memoir writing is that it converts haphazard, chaotic memories into a coherent, “sensible” story. How did it feel when you first tried to reach back and search amidst those disturbing memories for a story? How did it feel to see the story coming together?

Sue William Silverman:
Yes, memoir writing is giving a coherent organization to a life!  Memoir, then, isn’t so much writing a life, but writing a slice of a life.  Each memoir needs to have its own theme, its own plot, its own narrowly defined storyline, as it were.

That’s why even though, in real life, there is a close relationship between the childhood incest and the adult sexual addiction, still, when it came to writing, these two subjects wouldn’t fit in one book.  As I mentioned above, the voice, in each, is different.

It really is empowering or exhilarating, while writing, to learn what any given event really meant.

JW:
What did it feel like after you published? Did you have periods of uncertainty, vulnerability, fear?

SWS:
Always! But the important thing is to write anyway.  Publish anyway.  Believe in yourself anyway.  I guess I’ve learned to accept having contradictory feelings at the same time.

In other words, I can be full of doubt, yet know that I still have to write, still have to publish.

JW:
Is there anything you wish you could have done or said differently? (regrets, remorse, after-shock?)

SWS:
Oh, probably a ton of things.  I’d probably even like to revise everything I’ve ever written!  But, you know, what’s done is done. And there’s always another book or essay or poem to write.

JW:
Trauma researchers like Judith Herman and Sandra Bloom have written about the collective amnesia and denial that tries to suppress a public awareness of sexual abuse and other traumatic memories. I believe memoirs, such as yours are launching an assault on this denial. That puts you on the frontline, facing the counter-forces that try to stop confessions, to blame the victim, to reduce credibility and so on. What can you tell aspiring memoir writers to help prepare them for this kind of backlash?

SWS:
Write anyway!!

Yes, there are definitely naysayers out there, critics who simply are angry at memoirists for telling the truth!  They call us navel gazers—and worse.  And, especially on radio interviews, I’ve been asked some very inappropriate questions!
My advice?  Know that you don’t have to answer any question that makes you uncomfortable. You can re-direct the questions and answers around what you want to discuss—and how you want to discuss it. Stay true to your message.
Also, when writing or promoting a memoir, I think it’s a good idea to have a strong support system on hand, friends available to help you through the process.

That said, though, it’s important to know that there are others out there who fully recognize the importance of personal narrative, and understand how it can make us, as a culture, more empathetic.

And even though the naysayers can make me angry (and I write about this in chapter nine of Fearless Confessions), my sense is that the public can’t get enough of memoir.  Readers find our stories useful—in a really good way.

So my other bit of advice is to keep writing, regardless. Everyone has a story to tell.  And all our stories are important.

JW:
Your memoir is the first I’ve read in which the molesting continues repeatedly over a period of time. Trauma experts say that repetitive trauma creates even worse after-effects and amnesia than individual incidents. What can you share about any special problems of remembering repetitive trauma, and your process of discovering these memories, and telling them in such detail?

SWS:
Actually, I never had repressed memories or anything like that. But how to remember specific details of events that happened years earlier?  Of course, no one, off the top of her head, can simply recall everything—regardless of your history.

For me, the best way to recollect the details of past events is to submerge myself in sensory imagery. For example, say I want to write about a birthday party in sixth grade.  Maybe I remember some broad brushstrokes of the party but can’t recall as many details as I’d like.  In order to do so, I begin by asking myself the following: what did the birthday party sound like, taste like, feel like, look like, smell like?

By focusing on the five senses, it’s amazing how many seemingly “lost” details we remember!  In other words, by concentrating, I try to “re-enter” scenes, submerge myself in any given past experience, and see where that leads me.

JW:
When I read a memoir, it can sometimes trigger a great deal of my own anxiety. For example, certain kinds of cruelty or violence are almost too much for me to bear. Have you had feedback from readers who have been unable to read your memoir? What advice could you give memoir readers about this issue of feeling overwhelmed or “re-traumatized” by reading explicit material of abuse and suffering?

SWS:
Oh, that’s such a personal decision.  I’ve had people tell me they can only read my books in short snippets.  A page here, a page there.

But other people tell me they read my books straight through from beginning to end.  Just because of their own anxiety, they want to know how the book ends. Of course, on an intellectual level, they know I’m all right; after all, I wrote the book.  But on an emotional level, they want to keep reading just to make sure I’m okay.  Which I find very caring and lovely.

Additionally, some people have told me that they aren’t ready to read my books at all, but they feel a sense of comfort just having the books on their bookcases, knowing the books are there, when they’re ready.

JW:

Many memoir and journaling advocates believe that writing about trauma helps heal from it. What has been your experience?

SWS:
Yes, there is that element to this, for sure.  Writing is instrumental in helping me understand the trauma, give it a context, understand the metaphors around it.

Too, while it can be painful to write about painful events, still, I reached the point that just the opposite ultimately became true: that, with each word, the pain lessened, as if I extracted it one word at a time.

Notes
This interview is part of the blog book tour for Women on Writing.  To read other entries in the blog tour, including reviews, interviews, and essays, click here to visit the Women on Writing blog.

To learn more about Sue William Silverman, visit her website by clicking here.

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

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

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

Author Sue William Silverman Talks About Confessions, Memoirs, and the Craft of Writing

by Jerry Waxler

To help spread the word about the intimate, creative craft of memoir writing, I regularly network with other authors who are trying to do the same. Recently I found an energetic “memoir advocate” Sue William Silverman, author of an excellent how-to book for memoir writers, “Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir.” Silverman is a careful thinker, picking apart the process of memoir writing, intensely studying each part, and then not merely putting them back together but, showing the reader how to do it, too. I am impressed by the generosity with which she offers advice, insight, and enthusiasm. I love her treatment of metaphor, her thoughts about confession, and the excellent explanation of the difference between memoir and autobiography. When I finished reading “Fearless Confessions” I wanted more of her work.

Silverman has also published two award wining memoirs, and both at the leading edge of full-disclosure, gritty examples of the willingness of memoir authors to reveal their hidden worlds. One about child sexual abuse is called “Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You.” By writing about this topic, she has conquered one of the most daunting obstacles any memoir writer must face, revealing taboo parts of her life. (To see my review of the book click here.)

After reading Silverman’s how-to book for memoir writers, and her own memoir about child abuse, I spoke with her to gain further insight into her thoughts and feelings about sharing memories with strangers. Read Part 1 of this original author interview below.

Jerry Waxler:
To earn the right to share their stories in public, memoir writers need to write with a certain amount of style. In other words, sentences must be pleasing enough to propel a reader from page to page. I find your memoir about child-abuse, “Because I Remember Terror, Father” to be surprisingly compelling, in part because I enjoy your verbal imagery. You pour sensory information as if it were a painter’s palette.

Could you tell us about your own process of developing the writer’s art? What was your experience? What advice can you give aspiring writers so they can develop their own?

Sue William Silverman:
Thank you so much! This is high praise, indeed.

Before that first memoir was published, I read a lot of craft books, and I also received a Master of Fine Arts degree in a creative writing program. While that memoir is my first published book, I have many unpublished books (novels) lying around that will never see the light of day! But writing those books was not a waste of time.  I was perfecting my craft.  Paying my dues, as it were.

So my best advice is to understand that writing is a process—a slow process—which is true for all the arts.  But ultimately the hard work pays off, and it’s worth it. While writing, then, be patient with yourself.   But also know that your story is important!  So you want to take the time and care in the writing of it, to make it the best book possible. It’s important to honor your story in this way.

JW:
I love the way you explain things in your book “Fearless Confessions.” For example, I found your explanation of the difference between an autobiography and a memoir to be one of the best I’ve seen. Your non-fiction voice is clear and helpful, and quite different from the lyrical storyteller’s voice in “Terror Father.”

Did you develop the two voices at the same time or two different parts of your life? Did you receive formal training in each of these voices?

SWS:
I’m so pleased and relieved that you find the nonfiction voice in “Fearless Confessions” clear!  Thank you!

And, you’re right: it is a much different voice from the one I use in my creative work.  In fact, on some level, everything I write has its own voice.

That’s the interesting thing about voice!  Many writing instructors tell beginning writers to “find their voice.”  What I believe, however, is that each piece of writing needs its own voice.  What is the sound of the voice that best fits the topic at hand?

In fact, each of my memoirs has, to some extent, a different voice as well.  The voice in Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You is the voice or sound of a wounded girl.  On the other hand, in Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, the voice is tougher, edgier—the voice of an addict.  We all have many literary voices—just as we all have many different aspects of our personalities!  The key is to discover the right voice for your subject matter.

JW:
When did you first realize you wanted to write about the disturbing experiences of child abuse?

SWS:
Oh, good question!  Well, for years I tried writing my true story as fiction—as novels.  All those unpublished novels I mentioned are, on some level, about incest or sexual addiction.

But the novels didn’t work.  For me, to fictionalize my story (trying to tell the truth—but not), made the voice sound emotionally unauthentic.  After about ten or so years of this, I finally, at the urging of my therapist, switched to memoir, or creative nonfiction.

That’s not to say that other writers can’t tell their stories as novels or poetry.  Many writers do just that—and do it brilliantly.  For me, though, it didn’t work.

JW:

When did you first decide to share your story with the world?

SWS:
Initially, I always write for myself, in that it’s easier if I “tell myself” that no one else will ever read what I’m writing. That takes some pressure off and allows me to be more emotionally authentic—not sugarcoating stuff.

That said, in the back of my mind, I also know that I will try to publish whatever I write.  That’s what writers do!  We send our work out into the world.  Publishing is part of the process.

But that’s not to say that everyone has to try to publish.  Not at all. The most important thing is the writing itself, getting the story down on paper.

JW:
Society trains us to hide certain things about ourselves, because to reveal them would be shameful. Shame is a powerful emotion that blocks many aspiring memoir writers. Your memoir of having been molested as a child offers an extreme example of revealing the type of material many victims of abuse intend to take to their grave. How were you able to overcome these silencing emotions of shame and fear, and expose your secrets?

SWS:
The memoirist James McBride, author of “The Color of Water” says, “Fear is a killer of good literature.”  And I think he’s right. It does take a lot to overcome it, to feel brave or courageous enough to know that it’s okay to tell your story. More than that: It’s crucial to tell your story.

For me—although of course this wouldn’t be true for everyone—I think I needed a few years of therapy to gather enough courage to speak my own truths.  Then, ultimately (and ironically), it became easier to tell my truth than to use all that energy holding it back, staying silent.

Ultimately, I found that putting my story out there was rewarding and empowering!  I receive many e-mails from readers, who, in effect, thank me for telling their story, too.  That is a powerful message. After years of silence, I learn that I have a voice!

Notes
This is part 1 of a two part interview with Sue William Silverman. To read the second part, click here.

This interview is part of the blog book tour for Women on Writing.  To read other entries in the blog tour, including reviews, interviews, and essays, click here to visit the Women on Writing blog.

To learn more about Sue William Silverman, visit her website by clicking here.

Awakening bad memories helps shape your new life

by Jerry Waxler

One night in the summer of 1968, I walked along a busy street in Madison Wisconsin with my friend Ely, a soft-spoken math graduate student, and his girl friend Joan. We were enjoying the cool evening breeze, in a college town relatively quiet during the summer holiday. Then we heard shouting. I turned around and saw five boys rushing towards us. I shouted at them to stay away, and the ringleader tackled me and threw me down. Then the others swarmed around me and kicked. Ely asked them to stop. A boy punched him in the mouth and split his lip.

Joan screamed, and passing cars honked. Then a getaway car pulled up and the boys drove off. The intern at the hospital expressed no interest in how violated I felt. Reluctant to order an X-ray, he brushed off my headache. “Of course it hurts,” he said. “You were kicked in the head.” It turned out, he was right. I had no serious physical injury. By now almost dawn, two policemen took me back to look for my contact lens. When I was a protester, I hated the police, but now, these two men were shining their flashlights, bending down and looking for the tiny piece of plastic that enabled me to see. I felt an unexpected flush of gratitude.

Joan had written the license number, and with the help of a hippie lawyer we found that the ringleader was the son of the police chief of a small town 50 miles away. The lawyer and I split the settlement of $75.00. The rest of the summer I slunk around, racing into shadows when cars approached. In the fall, surrounded by thousands of returning students, I felt safe enough, and I let the incident slip into the past. After a few months I forgot it entirely.

Thirty three years later, in 2001, I was traumatized along with hundreds of millions of others by airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center. I wanted to help in some way so I took a workshop to qualify as a helper in community traumas. To learn how to conduct a group discussion, we were asked to talk about something that had happened to us. As I prepared, I unearthed my memory of being beaten.

Until that time, I had never thought in detail about the scene. Now as I tried to explain it, I saw it more clearly, describing who was there, what happened next, and so on. The event seemed important, so I tried to go deeper by writing about it. As it took shape on paper, it gradually changed from a vague, disturbing set of memories into a story.

With the Vietnam War raging, my attention was diverted from typical college concerns. All I could think about was the war. I didn’t think it was justified or fair, so I protested. I wanted to protect myself, the Vietnamese people, and the boys who were getting sent into danger. I thought my goals were noble, so why would anyone attack me?

To tell a more complete story, I tried to picture one of the high school boys in his home, eating dinner with his dad, who was probably a veteran of World War II. Dad was praising the soldiers who were out with machine guns and artillery hunting down the enemy. This was how Americans defend their freedom. Dad expressed his fear that if protesters stopped the war, it could unleash chaos, and threaten their way of life. The protesters must be stopped. So his sons protest the protesters by beating up someone with long hair. They were upholding the values of their family and country.  Under the circumstances, their actions were the most honorable thing they could have done.

Now, these many years later, I know a lot more about war trauma than I did back then. I imagine that one of those boys had an older brother serving in Vietnam. Instead of being kicked, he was getting shot at and watching his companions blown to pieces before his eyes. If he lived, he would for years continue to be assaulted by memories that repeatedly tear him apart. Flashbacks are the other way humans deal with trauma.

While flashbacks sound like the opposite of forgetting, these two reactions have one thing in common. They both leave you powerless to think clearly about the original experience and so the events remain stuck in their original shape. Only later, after you start trying to communicate, can you slow down and put things together.

Writing the memories gives me new power over them
I never understood the way the mugging influenced the following years. I always thought my profound depression was caused by some generalized angst. I didn’t make the connection with the trauma because I had forgotten it. I had not made the connection between being attacked and my loss of interest in protesting. I just thought my disengagement from the protests was because the whole thing was too emotionally exhausting. Now I see that beating was intended to stop me from protesting, and I got the message. My body wounds healed, but that part of me that wanted to share my opinions never did.

Writing the story reveals another powerful truth about that night in 1968. It was just one moment in time. Storytelling drags and pushes me to the next day and the next, until eventually I find myself on more stable ground. I find myself more whole.

How can writing help me grow?
As my storytelling reveals that night as one night in my six decades of life, I consider my decision to stop expressing my opinion. Must I for the rest of my life please everyone for fear they won’t like me and beat me up? If I am true to myself, I inevitably will displease some people. Everyone is different and unique. Now, instead of being limited by the decisions of a scared young man, I am working on a more public approach to my opinions that allow me a more vibrant relationship to the world. Diving into painful memories has helped me grow towards expressing my greater potential as an individual unique, human being.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about a time when you felt wronged. After you write it from your point of view, write another story about that experience from the other person’s point of view, seeing the way they justified their action initially, and the way they justified or forgave themselves afterwards.

Writing Prompt
In an experience you had that seemed traumatic, write a story in which that experience was the beginning, and then proceed from there. Look for a way to resolve the dramatic tension by reaching stable ground, or coming to terms with the trauma, or find some new direction or lesson that resulted in a positive ending.

Note
For another essay I wrote about PTSD and the horrors of war, click here.

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

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]

Storytellers shed light on the horrors of war

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.)

Amidst a lifetime of events, some memories are like scorpions that guard the gate of our own past. In my journey to understand as much as possible about life writing, I consider the question many aspiring life writers raise. “Should I approach painful memories, and if so should the memories become part of my story?” Of course there is no one right answer, so I look for lessons contained within painful memoirs I read.

I recently read “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” by Jim McGarrah, an engaging and well-written memoir about a soldier’s experience in Vietnam. I have a special affinity with Vietnam, because I was one of the students on the home front pleading to bring those boys home. Now after all these years, I finally get to see what I was protesting and it’s far more disturbing than I could have imagined.

While the author brings me into the jungle, and lets me share his pain, his psychological reality is so enormous I wanted a guidebook to help me find my way through his and my emotions. It turns out I found such a guidebook, “Achilles in Vietnam, Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,” by medical doctor and PTSD specialist, Jonathan Shay. For years, Shay has been working with Vietnam vets who have been so unnerved by their war experience that the memories yank them back into the fray, without warning.

Shay has explained trauma in an unusual way. He juxtaposes quotes from Homer’s Iliad side by side with conversations among Vietnam vets. It turns out that Homer was an expert on the psychological trauma of war, and this ancient epic that has been lurking in literature classes for centuries contains insights that help Shay explain what soldiers feel.

Soldiers’ love and loss
When I first heard someone claim that soldiers risk their lives because of their love for each other, I thought the word “love” was preposterous. But Shay and Homer convinced me that buddies on the battlefield do indeed care about each other with an intimacy we expect from brothers, or “best buddies.” (English is a bit weak in this regard, but apparently the Greek word philia comes closer.) What I don’t understand is what it must feel like to see such a beloved comrade explode into parts, vaporize, or bleed out in front of your eyes. It’s incomprehensible, and yet it happens, and changes a soldier’s life profoundly. As Jim McGarrah says in “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” “At that moment I started going insane.”

Absence of community compassion
When people in civilian life lose a loved one, they attend services in the company of community and family, and sit quietly in prayer to honor the dead. Shay calls this shared grief “communalization” and says it is one of the most important factors that keeps people balanced after loss. It is almost entirely missing from the combat soldier’s experience. When a soldier loses a buddy, the body is destroyed, lost, or shipped out in a bag. Soldiers are not encouraged to show their emotions. They get right back to fighting, and if they try to talk about what happened when they get home, civilians are unable to relate. The isolation feeds upon itself and creates a cauldron of inner pain.

Demonize the enemy at your own peril
In Homer’s time, truces were regularly declared to gather up and mourn those who had fallen on the battlefield. This act of mutual respect helped keep everyone in harmony with a universe that would continue to exist long after this particular war was over. In modern warfare, soldiers increase their will to kill by convincing themselves that the people they are fighting are less than human. Shay claims this attitude leads to atrocity and despair on and off the battlefield.

Defiling the body
Achilles ties Hector’s body to a chariot and drags it around the walls of Troy, using it as a weapon to demoralize the enemy. When I first read the book I thought it indicated that Greeks were a barbaric culture. But according to Shay, my assumption was incorrect. Achilles’ moral downfall meant that he as an individual had fallen into a barbaric state, and this fall according to Shay, was one of the central tragedies of the Iliad. During the Vietnam War, soldiers on both sides defiled bodies in order to fill the enemy with hatred, fear, and disgust. Loss of respect for the body undermines what it means to be human, and contributes to the unraveling of sanity that lingers long after the war is finished.

Berserking or “losing it”
I’ve seen soldiers in movies, screaming and running towards the enemy. I thought of it as an entertaining bit of theatrical exaggeration. I now realize that this is a very real state of temporary insanity in which soldiers slip outside the bounds of rational thought.

“Berserking” drastically increases the risk of death, and the results for those who survive are also tragic. Jim McGarrah, in a state of exhaustion and rage, performed reckless acts that haunted him for the rest of his life. Jonathan Shay suggests that modern military training actually encourages this loss of control. He warns that this tolerance towards “berserking” is a misguided strategy that hurts soldiers during their irrational behavior, and later damages their ability to return to civilian life.

The value of reading and writing painful memoirs
After Jim McGarrah left the war, there was no science of PTSD and soldiers were told to take it like a man or forget it. So when it finally dawned on McGarrah that he needed help, he had to overcome enormous resistance. He did finally reach out, and even though he doesn’t go into detail about the psychological work he did at the Veterans Administration, I already know the outcome. He faced his memories, no matter how horrific, turned them into a story and from those stories created a book. Thanks to the magic of reading and writing, I have spent hours with him in the jungles, accompanied him during his berserk episodes, sat with him in the recovery room after the wound that got him back to civilian life, and shared some pangs of his emotions, as well as one empathetic individual can do.

By sharing his story, McGarrah has opened himself up to one of the most important elements that veterans are missing, the “communalization” of his grief. Jim McGarrah and I have shared a few hours of pain and commiseration about some of the most painful experiences a human must endure, the loss of life and love during combat. My belief is that in the process of sharing these hours, we have regained a little of what was lost.

Notes

Jim McGarrah’s “A Temporary Sort of Peace” was awarded the Legacy Nonfiction Prize for 2010 from the Eric Hoffer Foundation.

To read an exclusive interview with the author, click here.

For a readable explanation of PTSD and its treatment, read “Sanctuary” by Dr. Sandra Bloom, based on years of clinical work, mainly with survivors of systematic child abuse.

To read my essay about another traumatic memoir, “Lucky” by Alice Sebold, click here. She quotes another widely regarded source book for PTSD is “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” by Judith Herman.

Why Write Memoirs after Combat or Other Trauma

Other war memoirs:
Tracy Kidder, “My Detachment”
Tobias Wolff, “In the Pharoah’s Army”
William Manchester, “Goodbye Darkness”

Note

Many soldiers walk away from deadly injury and regain their sense of purpose. For “Shades of Darkness” author, George Brummell, the post-war challenges of coping with his blindness became his urgent task, and he went on to increase his education, and become director of the Blinded Veterans Association.

Memoirs of people who have crashed and burned are not just about soldiers. Many of life’s most severe problems dismantle the sense of self that keeps us safe. In this article I talk about four people who walked into traps of various sorts and felt their lives becoming dismantled.

More about the psychological trauma of war
Jonathan Shay says that an important contribution to a soldier’s unraveling is a sense of betrayal, that the organization is not protecting him. For example, faulty weapons in Vietnam were interpreted as a sign that the military really wanted the soldiers to die. I knew that most Vietnam soldiers felt betrayed by the lack of civilian support, but I was surprised to learn that many soldiers hated the officers who were directing them in battle. The hatred was based on the belief that decisions were made more for the officer’s own career advancement than on the safety of soldiers or effective military strategy. Shay suggests this attitude about rear-echelon officers had a parallel in the Iliad. In ancient mythology the gods on Mount Olympus manipulated the outcome of the battle based on childish selfish desires.

The soldiers in Homer’s time used mythology and rituals to appease the gods. Modern soldiers have no such talismans. Once a modern soldier becomes convinced “The System” is capricious, irrational, and malevolent, they cross into a state of alienation from society and authority, and many of them carry this alienation back with them when they return home. Such betrayal from above undermines the basis for a sane, healthy energetic involvement in society.

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

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.

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

To learn more about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers

Exclusive Interview with Xujun Eberlein Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

I recently read “Apologies Forthcoming,” a book of short stories by Xujun Eberlein, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. (Amazon Page, Xujun’s Home Page, Longer Introduction to this Interview) I highly recommend her book for anyone interested in that period, or interested in converting life into story, or simply looking for a good read. In this exclusive interview, I ask her about the project of converting her memories into stories. Her answers offer insights that could help anyone who is interested in the relationship between memory and story.

This is part two of the interview. For Part 1, click here.
Jerry Waxler: You write so beautifully in English. What special challenges did you have to overcome?

Xujun Eberlein: Well, I have always loved to write. My first short story, written in Chinese, was published a year before I entered college in China in 1978. In 1982, one of my short stories caused me big political trouble, while in 1985 a novella won a literary prize. After I came to America in the summer of 1988, my writing was suspended for 13 years.

When I write in English, the biggest obstacle for me is vocabulary. You grow up with your native expressions for things, feelings, actions, even simple gestures, and when you try to find homologous terminology in the second language, you are tongue-tied, that is extremely frustrating.

When I was young, whenever I read a new expression or adage in a newspaper or book, I hand-copied it into a notebook and made my own customized lexicon. That was how I acquired a large Chinese vocabulary. It is kind of ironical that at mid-age I’m repeating the same painstaking process for English now. I envision doing this for the rest of my life.

While the disadvantage of writing in a second language is obvious, there is an advantage as well: you bring “new” expressions to the second language from your native tongue, and when you are doing it right you can create a “third” language with freshness. To do it right requires practice and a sensitive eye. One thing I learned from years of writing in English is that, if a “foreign” expression flows well with your prose, use it; otherwise it is better to go with an idiom.

JW: You have won awards for your writing, and have been published in literary journals. Please comment on what drives you as a writer.

XE: I want my writing to be both entertaining and have depth, and I write to raise questions rather than give answers. I also crave beautiful language, for which I know I have a long way to go. Like the ancient Chinese poet Du Fu said, “I won’t rest in death if my words haven’t astounded readers.”

I want to strive for quality, not quantity. There are too many books out there already; no one needs to read your book. That is, unless it’s good. The word “prolific” is not as attractive to me as “superb,” I guess. Or perhaps it is just an excuse for allowing myself to write slowly. (Laughs)

JW: I know it’s difficult to describe the creative process, but I ask anyway, in case you might reveal some secret. How would you explain the process of transforming a memory into a story?

XE: When I write a story that is memory-based, one technique I use is to first work up individual scenes. In this case there must be something deeply disturbing or unforgettable that makes one want to write about it years later, and the memory of details is usually pictorial or impressionistic. That is, the memory naturally provides you scenes. To make a good story you need several scenes. At first the scenes are disconnected. I just write down the scenes separately, then figure out how to connect them. This process includes shuffling the scenes to settle on a more intriguing order.

JW: I feel so comfortable inside your stories, and find there is an almost hypnotic rhythm that pulls me in. Is this a quality you have thought consciously about?

XE: For me this is really a trial and error process. I aim to maintain a story flow that is captivating and keeps the story progressing, but usually the first draft is far away from that goal. After I finish a draft I would put it aside for a while, then rearrange it with a fresher eye, cutting or adding material to accomplish the goal. So, unfortunately, it is not something that simply emerges from my pen (or keyboard) but the result of substantial adjustment. I find that, more often than not, reordering paragraphs results in a better rhythm.

JW: There is some sort of innocent intensity about your friendships that calls out to me. I’m curious to know if you worked particularly to achieve this effect.

XE: In China, we have the tradition of valuing friendship higher than even our own family. An old Chinese adage goes, “Wife is clothing, friends are limbs.” It is kind of sexist (as the old times were), but you get a feeling for the importance of friendship. Traditional Chinese literature is full of friendship stories. The most popular classic novel “Three Kingdoms,” epic of an entire dynasty, is centered around three sworn blood brothers. When I wrote my stories I wasn’t very conscious of depicting friendship, but since that was part of life and culture, a realism writer who is loyal to reality would naturally reflect that aspect. Those things are just in my blood. On the other hand, Americans don’t have the same culture. From my perspective the role of friendship here is not as strongly important as it is in Chinese life. This may have something to do with individualism, I suppose.

JW: What favorite memoirs or other books have informed your style or voice or approach to telling about your past?

XE: Hmm. I liked the writing of a lot of the contemporary memoirs published in the United States, such as The Liar’s Club, Wild Swans, Fierce Attachments, Angela’s Ashes, etc., however I rarely finished reading every one of them. On the other hand, some less critically acclaimed memoirs, for example The Man Who Stayed Behind, glued me from cover to cover. I guess good language is not a sufficient factor to sustain my reading interest. A memoir has to tell good real stories as well as raise a lasting question. So it is my goal to have all those elements in the book-length memoir I’m working on now.

This post is part of the Blog Book Tour for Xujun’s book Apologies Forthcoming. For more information, check out http://blogstopbooktours.wordpress.com

To read the blog entry about what I learned about fact and fiction from reading Xujun’s two different representations of the events surrounding her sister’s death, click here.