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

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

Click here for Part 1

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

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

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

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 After years of writing about your life, first in your unpublished memoir, and then in the fictionalized version, will your next fiction remain close to your life or break loose into the unlimited world of imagination?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes
For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

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

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

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

Compelling Chapters Knit Small Stories into Powerful Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

After I enjoy reading a memoir, I think carefully about the impression it made on me. That for me is the payoff. What do I actually remember about this journey through a writer’s life? Usually, the chapters fade into the background. They provided forward momentum without calling attention to themselves. However, in some memoirs, they jump out and warrant a closer look. I’ve already raved about the power of Slash Coleman’s intriguing and creative approach to character arc in Bohemian Love Diaries. Now, I want to rave about the remarkable power he packs into his chapters. Each smaller unit pops with energy, and yet they all hang together to create a larger whole.

Slash Coleman’s journey comes alive with vivid images like his childhood pressure to find his half-Jewish identity, his desperate need to discover his artistic expression, and his series of passionate attempts to find a mate. I believe these pressures stand out so vividly in my memory, not because he had better adventures than other people (although he did have some doozies. His experiences sound so compelling because he turns experience into powerful stories.

Until now, I have mainly focused on the power of the overall arc of each memoir. Bohemian Love Diaries reminds me to pay more attention to the power contained within chapters. These smaller units of suspense are crucial for holding a reader’s attention.

When I first started writing my memoir, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever develop a compelling story. At first, my memories felt like a disorganized pile of bits and pieces. Gradually, my sequence of anecdotes took shape. Some chunks were obvious, like when I graduated high school in Philadelphia and went to college in Wisconsin, or when I moved to Berkeley, California to try and become a hippie. As my sequences of scenes turned into autobiographical segments,  I noticed subtler demarcations. A relationship. An artistic dream. A shift in career. A search for meaning. How could I turn these life pressures into strong arcs that shape chapters?

Slash Coleman offers an important clue on his website, where he lists himself as a professional storyteller. He stands in front of people and tells stories. For example check out his excellent TedX talk about the power of storytelling. As a story performer, he has the benefit of trial and error. If he doesn’t get the expected laugh, murmur or softening eyes, he has to tyr something else.

I know about this process from the excellent memoirs Born Standing Up Steve Martin and Enter Talking by Joan Rivers. These comedians both started their careers knowing they wanted to entertain audiences. To learn their craft, they had to stand up and try. Their listeners’ feedback provided constant course corrections that led these two performers to incredible success.

Memoir writers too can improve by listening to their audiences. Consider the fabulous success of Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s first memoir. The blockbusting bestseller helped launch the Memoir Revolution. In McCourt’s later memoirs Tis and Teacher Man he explains that he spent a lifetime as a high school teacher, telling his students about his childhood experience. Years of audience feedback taught him the art of telling his life.

Slash Coleman’s performances provided him with some of the same storytelling firepower. Reading his book felt like sitting in the audience watching him perform it. In segment after segment, he ends with a punch. And then, as I imagine listening to the ending of the book, I feel like I’m in a hushed audience, waiting and watching as he wraps up the whole thing.

You don’t need to stand in front of a live audience to learn if you’re on the right track.  For example, memoir writer John Grogan tells of a related technique that helped him create his bestseller Marley and Me. Grogan was a newspaper columnist, paid to look for a story every week. Not only did he develop the knack of finding the story in everyday life. He also learned what stories his readers enjoyed by checking the newspaper’s letters and phone calls to the editor.

During the early stages of converting memories into stories, we’re too close to our material. Telling stories to families rarely helps. Families know the characters and hear the same stories repeated in the same way for years. Stories told at the dinner table sound out of place in public. We need to gain some distance, and the best way to do that is to learn how we sound to strangers.

A good way to gain this perspective is to seek feedback from a critique group. Online groups are excellent for this. Their anonymity helps participants give honest responses. Face to face critique groups add intimacy, letting you look critiquers in the eye and see how they felt about the piece.  Sharing your work in a critique group teaches you what kind of impression your story makes on readers. Was there enough conflict? Were there surprises? Did the tale pull the reader into the incident or chapter?

Another way to reach readers is to develop a blog. Even if at first you have no readers, writing the blog will let you see yourself as a performer. When the comedian Steve Martin was starting his career, he went on stage and looked out to an empty restaurant. The manager told him to perform anyway, explaining that when people passed by and saw him performing, it would draw them in. Bloggers do this all the time. Without reassurance that anyone will read our work, we persist, using our imaginary audience to help us focus our writing.

So to write your memoir, look at your growing list of anecdotes organized along a time line. Muse about which segment might create the heart of that eternal story-sequence: challenge, obstacles, resolution. When you find candidate, tack on a beginning that introduces the character’s dramatic tension, and a conclusion that resolves it. Then look for an audience. See how it feels to tell it. See what sorts of responses you receive.

The feedback strengthen your storytelling sensibility enabling you to tighten each chapter and gain a compelling sense of the overall structure. Eventually, you will have a book that makes sense to readers, converting a lifetime into a story worth reading.

Notes

Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman

Click here for an article about John Grogan’s Marley and Me

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

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

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

10 Ways Writing Helps Develop the New You

by Jerry Waxler

Until my mid-40s, I was so shy, I spent most of my spare time reading and writing. As I grew older, I tried to improve my social skills. The most important step was to go back to school and earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, where I learned a variety of techniques to relate to people, especially the fine art of listening. I also completed the program at Toastmaster’s International to overcome my fear of public speaking. Then I started teaching workshops, shifting my lifelong passion for learning from the back of the classroom to the front. My efforts to connect with people have turned the years after 50 into some of the most vigorous and interesting of my life.

And yet, even in these years of social involvement I continue to spend time alone, writing. My words create a sort of social currency, allowing me to share myself in surprising ways. In fact, putting words on paper makes the rest of life richer and more fulfilling. It’s not a result I would have expected, but here it is, an exciting discovery, especially in the internet age when we have so many ways to offer our writing to each other. In fact, writing has turned out to be such a valuable self-development tool, I would like to share ten of my observations with you.

1. Improving writing skills is a never ending job (and that’s a good thing)

Writing is a part of life. We fill out applications, and write emails. An employer or teacher may have directed us to write. At times, we write to a larger audience, for example with a letter to the editor, or a newsletter article. Strangers expect interesting, clear phrasing, and so we strive to give them our best sentences, word choices, timing and rhythm. The challenges are infinite, and so are the emotional and intellectual rewards.

2. Learning connects you with energetic peers

Conferences, workshops, and classes invigorate our writing skill as well as our connection with fellow learners. By taking classes, we affirm the importance of knowledge and open the gates to acquire more. Our early education turned us from babies into complete humans, and later education makes us more completely human.

3. Writing about favorite topics creates online micro-communities

The thousands of students and teachers at the University of Wisconsin in the 60’s offered endless opportunities for debate and study. Now the internet restores this stimulation. Without leaving home, we write what’s on our mind, and those who share our interests gather and discuss.

4. Serve causes and community

Information is the lifeblood of a community, motivating us to place our energy where it’s needed, and enabling us to make crucial, complex decisions about social policy. In the television age, newscasters provided information while we sat silently on the sofa. In the internet age, we play a more active role. By writing and publicizing, we weave our perspective into the fabric of culture and community.

5. Develop brain cells

Since the mid-90s scientists have learned the incredibly exciting fact that the human brain can generate new connections at any age. “Use it or lose it” now applies just as much to brain cells as it does to biceps and triceps. Writing forces us to coax words out of storage, to imagine situations, to develop clear sentences. It keeps the language centers alert, sustaining the skills we will appreciate in the years ahead.

6. Explore inner space

Writing, like meditation, familiarizes you with what goes on inside your own mind. Whether you’re trying to ease mental worries or trying to gain some sense of organization or control, writing lets you plumb the depths of your interior.

7. Learn almost anything by writing

If you want to deepen your knowledge about a topic, write about it. As you try to explain your material to a reader, you must develop the logical flow that ties it together. Gradually you increase your expertise in the subject, learning by teaching.

8. Improve self-management skills

When you work for a paycheck, your boss keeps your nose to the grindstone. When you write articles or books, you are your own boss, and so, you must establish your own goals and rules. The self-management skills that get you to the desk will help you accomplish goals in other areas of life, as well.

9. Life review – “I am the person who lived this story”
Who you are today is the sum total of the life you lived so far. To find that sum, write about it. By scanning memory and collecting the story, you find fascinating strengths, connections, and challenges, jewels amidst the refuse pile of old memories, creating a more nuanced appreciation for where you’ve been and who you are.

10. Write the story of who you are going to become

An important turning point in my life came from the practical suggestions in the book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. One of his techniques was to write a mission statement. Writing lets me clarify vague images and flesh in details. As I see the story develop, I can hold it up to the light, turn it this way and that, shape it, and use it to help me fulfill my dreams.

Leave a comment:
How has writing helped you find energy, connection, insight, peace, or any other value you would like to share?

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.

Memoir by Celebrity Joan Rivers Offers Lessons for Aspiring Writers

by Jerry Waxler

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

After learning so many lessons from Steve Martin’s memoir “Born Standing Up,” I wanted more, so I jumped in to Joan Rivers’ memoir “Enter Talking.” Her path was remarkably similar to his. Year after year she too made a fool of herself in a desperate bid to please people, persisting through darkness, despair and frustration. What strange alignment of the stars caused these two comedians to suffer so we could laugh?

(To see my essay about Steve Martin’s journey click here.)

While their tales may seem to apply only to the stratospheric world of big celebrity performers, both started as ordinary people. And so, I found lessons in both their journeys that helped me on my struggle to travel from no readers to as many as possible.

Innovation makes publishers nervous

One contradiction sits mysteriously at the center of both their journeys. On one hand, audiences and talent scouts want to be entertained by a fresh voice, and on the other hand, gatekeepers shy away from an act that is too different from the ones that are already making money.

The road to success is littered with the dead acts and fatigued performers who have given up before making it through the gauntlet. And that’s exactly what makes Rivers and Martin so interesting, so informative, and in the end so famous – their relentless pursuit of unique excellence and their refusal to follow the herd. By continuing to push, inch by painful inch, they made almost imperceptible progress, polishing their act, gaining allies, and after each disappointment learning a lesson that would help them do better next time.

Their experience applies directly to memoir writers. Each memoir is its own thing. No one has ever done your particular life story before in your particular voice. But gatekeepers seek books that are similar to ones already on the bestseller list. How do you please them and stay true to yourself at the same time? These two memoirs offer insights into this seemingly impossible challenge.

Different decade, different coast

While the two memoirs bear remarkable similarities, they also have many differences. Steve Martin’s home base was Los Angeles from which he traveled to college campuses and small clubs all over North America, coping with endless miles of loneliness. Rivers’ home base was New York and her endless search was around town, begging agents’ secretaries for a few minutes with the boss, begging for stints at night clubs, venturing out of town for gigs in the Catskills, and a stint at the Second City Improv in Chicago.

Pacing of the memoir works like a thriller

Despite her relentless efforts, for six years Joan Rivers only had scattered success in a few clubs and occasional tours. But the Holy Grail of national exposure on television eluded her. When Jack Paar invited her on to his influential television show, she thought she had arrived. Weirdly, after the show he told his producers not to invite her back, calling her a “liar.” He didn’t understand that her ironically exaggerated stories were jokes. Crushed, she returned to small clubs.

After a few years, she was no longer a kid, and agents started to call her “old news,” and said if she was going to succeed she would have already done so. Over and over she hit the wall of rejection. This heart breaking cycle continued for hundreds of pages, like in a thriller in which the smell of disaster encourages readers to move on to the next page.

Finally, finally, at the very end of the book, her agent practically forced Johnny Carson’s producers to accept her for a spot. From the moment she walked on to the set, Carson clicked with her humor. He laughed. He fed her lines. And he praised her on camera. The tension broke, and the next day her agent called to tell her she would not earn less than $300 a week for the rest of her life. In a surge of joy and accomplishment, Rivers shouted at the world “I was right.”

Satisfying Character Arc

I found the almost abrupt end of the book to provide a focused emotional release equivalent to a well placed punch line. I think at least some of the satisfaction results from her character arc. As we follow her from amateur to professional comedian, the story arc shows us not only her external journey. It takes us deep inside Rivers’ psyche.

When she first tried her hand at comedy, she repeated jokes learned from other comedians. Gradually she tried more authentic material, improvised from her own experience. When she saw the irreverent performances of Lenny Bruce, she realized that he ferociously battled ignorance by telling truth more bluntly than it had ever been told. She had an epiphany that truth is the one thing that makes life worth living and she vowed to incorporate confession as the centerpiece of her comedy.

For example, she was hired at the last minute to take someone’s place in a performance. Many times in her career, she had been hired to do a gig and then fired after the first night by producers who hated her act. So she worked her fear into the routine. “I don’t know how long I’ll be working here. I notice they wrote my name in pencil on the poster out front.” She turned her vulnerability into a joke.

Her most vulnerable disclosures came from the arguments with her parents, who expected her to be more “normal.” She was a middle class girl with a degree from a prestigious college, daughter of a respected doctor. Desperate to succeed she moved out of the suburbs to live practically homeless in Manhattan, a move that so outraged and frightened her parents, they threatened to have her committed. By baring these fights with her parents she brings the same relentless commitment to honesty to her memoir as she offers onstage.

The memoir is a stunning expose of herself, her sorrow, the bitterness between her and her parents, and her struggle to find her own unique place in the world. The rejection and arguments didn’t tear her apart. Instead, the adversity seems to have made her strong, and provided the basis for a public career that has spanned 40 years, giving her the rare opportunity to become rich and famous by being exactly who she is.

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

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

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

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

The Nine Best Attitudes for Memoir Writers

by Jerry Waxler

When I was still a hippie in 1970, I attended a poetry workshop at the University of California at Berkeley. A member of the group questioned a particular word in the poem I had just read aloud. I felt confused. What gave these people the right to comment on my words? All eyes were on me, and I said, “I used that word because it was the one I wanted.” The room grew quiet, and the leader jumped in. “We don’t allow that response. If you want to participate, you must be willing to discuss your choice.” But I didn’t know how to discuss my poem. It had never even occurred to me that I would need to. I slid into my own thoughts, and at the end of the class, I slipped away.

1) Accept Input

Thirty years later I grew weary of writing only for myself. To find readers, I would need to learn how my words sounded to others. So I joined a critique group. At first I felt anxious about accepting their input, but I overrode my anxiety and began to listen. Soon I realized how valuable some of their suggestions were, and my writing skill took a leap forward.

Learning to accept input was by far the most important step I have ever taken towards improving my craft. And the lesson had nothing to do with language skills. It was about receptivity. From this one life-skill, all others flowed. Here are eight of the most important.

2) Aim towards a goal

To plan the success of your memoir, visualize the top of the mountain, setting long term goals so you know where you are heading. Then break the big goal into steps, and strive to achieve each one along the way.

3) Look inside yourself

To tell your story, you must discover what goes on inside your own mind. Some of us were born curious about the workings of our mind, while others cultivate this curiosity. Meditation provides a structure for your introspective journey. Journaling also helps transfer musings from mind to page.

4) Be curious about other people

To bring your own memoir into focus, read memoirs. You’ll learn things about other people’s ambitions, dreams, disappointments. And they have much to teach you about translating life into story.

5) Embrace imperfection

Ancient artists sketched horses on cave walls. Even though the pictures were primitive, a viewer today still understands their intention. Art only gestures towards reality, and yet the effort reaches deep into the psyche and provides lasting satisfaction. So as you tell your life, look for ways to improve your representation, while at the same time accepting the artistry and imperfection of your product.

6) Give the gift of story

We go to movies, read books, gossip about the lives of politicians and movie stars. Our minds are filled with other people’s stories, but few of us give away our own. Since you have always enjoyed receiving stories, try giving some back.

7) Form and follow habits

People who only write when they are in the mood stop dead when they don’t feel like it. This approach provides sporadic results. To press forward, write every day. Instead of waiting for the mood to move you, learn to move your mood.

8) Persist

When you first start, naturally you’re full of enthusiasm. Then you run into the long middle. To finish, you must keep going. Maintain your energy by hankering for a goal that urgently calls to you, and then overcome the obstacles of fatigue, discomfort, and discouragement.

9) Dare to succeed

To write, you must use your mind as an instrument, and to write successfully you must improve that instrument as much as possible. Dare to acquire the attitudes that will accelerate your success, fearlessly moving upward towards the pinnacle of your dreams.

Note

Writing classes and conferences do not teach great attitudes. That oversight leaves many of us wondering why our writing isn’t moving forward. To fill this gap, see my self-help book for writers, “Four Elements for Writers” available from my website. [LINK]

Be Here Now by Writing a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

When I first heard the phrase “Be Here Now” in the early seventies, it was from the title of a book by Ram Dass. According to the book, the best way to live a full life is to savor your direct experience, whether smelling a flower, watching a sunset, or even when experiencing the sadness of a loss. By paying close attention, you can penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos. As a hippie, I had little interest in learning from the past. And I certainly wasn’t spending much time planning for the future. So I didn’t think Ram Dass was telling me anything new.

Then I went to work for a living and staggered under the pressure. No wonder I had avoided working for so long. This was hard! I looked for tools to help me regain my poise and one of the most powerful turned out to be the one I didn’t think I needed — To Be Here Now. I started to meditate, and with practice I did occasionally spot glimpses of peace right there in the office. I was grateful to take advantage of this ancient technique from the East. But the mystics never said success was easy. It may take a life time to get it right. Meanwhile, I continued to look for additional ways to make each moment better.

One evening I complained to my therapist about feeling anxious. She said I would feel better if I brought my attention back to the moment, and she taught me a trick. Use words to describe my immediate surroundings. She said this verbal exercise would stimulate the cerebral cortex and put my conscious mind back in control. I looked around her office and noted her diploma hanging on the wall, her desk piled with papers, and her compassionate face. Her dog lying on his side slapped his tail against the floor. Sure enough, describing the office calmed me then, and when I see it now in my mind’s eye I feel reassured once again.

Despite all the valid reasons for staying in the present, however, the past plays an important role. I don’t want to forget the achievements that still give me pride, and I certainly don’t want to brush away the hard-won lessons that continue to help me find my way today.

The problem is not that memories exist but that there are so many of them, pulling me in a thousand directions. The more years I try to ignore them, the more confusing they become. As I grow older and watch some of the graces of my body fade, rather than wanting to let the memories go, I want to make sense of them.

I line my memories in order on a piece of paper and begin to notice sequences that make sense. Step by step, I increase my understanding of who I was, who I am, and who I am trying to become. Once I see myself taking shape on the page, I realize my life is turning into a story. I already know about the power of stories. Every time I read a suspenseful book or watch a movie, my attention is collected within the author’s tale. I am “Being Here Now” inside their story.

I gain that same benefit for my own life by writing about it. Writing reveals my role. I’m the hero in this story, and as the main character, I create an inner continuity that allows the past to flow into the present. Looking at the past isn’t an escape, after all. On the contrary, organizing my life into a story helps me collect my energy and apply myself with conviction to living in the world today.

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.

Note
The “Be Here Now” philosophy was expressed beautifully in William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” which starts out with the following quote. “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.” The poem is famous for its implication that all of eternity is within grasp in the moment. When reading the rest of the poem for the first time, I made the remarkable discovery that it is mostly about animal rights. It’s as if he has revealed how the Eastern notion of souls can help Westerners find a new relationship with their world, replacing domination with harmony. Within the moment lies eternity, and within the compassion for a horse lies the ocean of God’s love. Who is this man Blake, and why is he so intrigued by the souls of animals and the human responsibility to care for them? He passed along the insights he had 200 years ago. Which Now is real?

Since it’s in the public domain, I’ll copy it here in its entirety:

Auguries of Innocence
by William Blake

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

A dove-house fill'd with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro' all its regions.
A dog starv'd at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.

A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.

A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing.
The game-cock clipt and arm'd for fight
Does the rising sun affright.

Every wolf's and lion's howl
Raises from hell a human soul.

The wild deer, wand'ring here and there,
Keeps the human soul from care.
The lamb misus'd breeds public strife,
And yet forgives the butcher's knife.

The bat that flits at close of eve
Has left the brain that won't believe.
The owl that calls upon the night
Speaks the unbeliever's fright.

He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov'd by men.
He who the ox to wrath has mov'd
Shall never be by woman lov'd.

The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider's enmity.
He who torments the chafer's sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night.

The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother's grief.
Kill not the moth nor butterfly,
For the last judgement draweth nigh.

He who shall train the horse to war
Shall never pass the polar bar.
The beggar's dog and widow's cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.

The gnat that sings his summer's song
Poison gets from slander's tongue.
The poison of the snake and newt
Is the sweat of envy's foot.

The poison of the honey bee
Is the artist's jealousy.

The prince's robes and beggar's rags
Are toadstools on the miser's bags.
A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.

It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

The babe is more than swaddling bands;
Every farmer understands.
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity;

This is caught by females bright,
And return'd to its own delight.
The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar,
Are waves that beat on heaven's shore.

The babe that weeps the rod beneath
Writes revenge in realms of death.
The beggar's rags, fluttering in air,
Does to rags the heavens tear.

The soldier, arm'd with sword and gun,
Palsied strikes the summer's sun.
The poor man's farthing is worth more
Than all the gold on Afric's shore.

One mite wrung from the lab'rer's hands
Shall buy and sell the miser's lands;
Or, if protected from on high,
Does that whole nation sell and buy.

He who mocks the infant's faith
Shall be mock'd in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne'er get out.

He who respects the infant's faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
The child's toys and the old man's reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply.
He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of knowledge out.

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.
Nought can deform the human race
Like to the armour's iron brace.

When gold and gems adorn the plow,
To peaceful arts shall envy bow.
A riddle, or the cricket's cry,
Is to doubt a fit reply.

The emmet's inch and eagle's mile
Make lame philosophy to smile.
He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne'er believe, do what you please.

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out.
To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.

The whore and gambler, by the state
Licensed, build that nation's fate.
The harlot's cry from street to street
Shall weave old England's winding-sheet.

The winner's shout, the loser's curse,
Dance before dead England's hearse.

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro' the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.

God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.



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

Story extends my optimism to infinity

By Jerry Waxler

When I was 20, I fought desperately against my future. I refused to become an adult until I understood why I should. Looking back years later, I see my rebellion against the future was a big mistake that caused me and my parents much suffering. I eventually made it through that period, having learned many lessons. The one I treasure most is that my impression of the future profoundly affects my energy in the present. As a result, I have cultivated a habit of optimism, always looking for the good that is coming my way.

That optimism is being put to the test, now that I’m sixty, and I’m looking down the line at what looks like the downward slide at the end of my journey. To maintain my enthusiasm today, I need a more positive image of where I’m going, but it looks so uninviting. Fortunately, over the years, I have amassed an enormous amount of life experience. So to find out more about how to improve my fantasy of the future, I go back to the beginning and learn how my impressions of the future shaped my life.

What I thought the future would be like
As a child, I watched nice families like Ozzie and Harriet on television. The kids had adventures and learned lessons, while the parents stood by to guide them. As near as I could tell, once you grew up the party was over. By the time I was ready to become an adult, I believed life’s journey would look like this: Grow up, get a job, raise a family, grow old and die. After growing up, the rest looked flat, boring, and uninviting.

Chart of expected life

Heaven and hell didn’t help
The ideas of Judaism that I learned in my own home, and Christianity that I gleaned in the broader culture confirmed my worst fears. According to some renditions, after death, I could go nowhere, or to heaven or hell. In any of these options, my soul would continue without further challenge until the end of time.

Heaven forever

Secular learning didn’t improve my view of the future
I thought surely, within the vast universe of knowledge, there must be some compelling reason for living. So I poured myself into a broad search of science, math, history, politics, and philosophy. I found many interesting perspectives in each of these fields, but they gave me no path to work towards, nor any reason to strive in the human drama. In fact, nihilism injected darkness into my heart that poisoned my momentum even more.

Unable to find an impression of the future that appealed to me, and feeling disconnected from society I began to unravel. Protests against the world turned inward against myself and against life. I stopped eating. I was barely able to move, work, or socialize.

Eastern views added nuances to the future
My confusion about the future was tearing me apart. Thanks to a variety of compromises and insights, inch by inch, I came back to life. One perspective that motivated me was the Eastern philosophy that after each death, there would be another birth, with more challenges, opportunities, hopes, and dreams.

Eastern view of life and death

This chart seemed infinitely richer than the one I previously visualized. I loved the idea that even when I can’t see immediate results, my actions today will cause repercussions tomorrow. These beliefs helped me dispel despair, and expanded my vision beyond the tiny fraction of life in front of me. But it left many questions about how to make the most of my time on earth.

Instead of seeking absolute meaning I began to connect with people
As I regained momentum, got a job, and formed relationships, I realized that my zealous pursuit of Knowledge had blinded me to the people in my life. Once I loosened my obsessive grip on ideas, I became aware of the enormous satisfaction I felt with my friends, family, coworkers, and community. Social connections made me feel more balanced and more at peace with myself and the world.

My life path was not so boring as I had anticipated
By the time I was 35, I had achieved a stable lifestyle, with a job, a committed relationship, and day-to-day comfort and purpose. This stability, which I had fought so hard against when I was younger, became a blessed victory. While the future still looked flat, those first 35 years were far more complex than I had originally expected. I had made false starts, was distracted by illusions, addictions, and dreams that just didn’t work out. With diligence and assistance, I reached upward, out of these valleys and fulfilled my potential.

More interesting than I thought

Lifelong growing
When I was 50, I returned to Villanova University for a Master’s degree in counseling psychology. My education loaded me with insights into how to help people grow, and my understanding of the human condition became deeper. It occurred to me that the journey of adulthood had now turned upwards, and that by striving, I was not only helping other people grow. I was continuing to grow, myself. This added another feature to my increasingly interesting chart.

Still growing after all these years

What draws me to the next step?
Now I’m sixty, an age traditionally associated with the end of adult responsibilities, and I fear the downhill slide. And so, my enthusiasm is undermined by my old bugaboo: fear of the future. I am tempted to follow poet Dylan Thomas’ urging to rage against the dying of the light. But that risks repeating the mistake of my youth, angrily fighting with the future rather than embracing it.

How telling the story of my life exposes wisdom about my path
A few years ago, I began to write a memoir. On the surface, such a goal may seem to be a frill, a bauble, a celebration of the past. But the more I search for the organizing principle that will make my life worth telling, the more wisdom I discover in the act of storytelling.

I discovered there are two sides to every story, the inside and the outside. Looking from the outside, I see homes, families, and cars. People go to work, vacation, or the movies. But at the heart of the story, there is a character whose desires drive the story forward, while the obstacles help the character grow. At first, the inner story seems invisible to an outside observer, in fact it propels the story forward and keeps it interesting.

Focus on the inner story expands my vision of the future
Inside my character, I feel curiosity and energy. I am compassionate and want to serve others. I notice this tendency in other people, watching many people, including my parents, develop along these lines into their seventies, eighties, and beyond.

My grandmother often claimed she felt young. I never understood how this was possible considering her slower walk and older skin. Now I am experiencing this strange phenomenon myself. I look in people’s eyes and see a glimpse of something timeless in them too. As I chart my life, I realize it is the inner story that continues to grow.

The inner story continues to grow at any age
To find a wellspring of energy today, I consider the shape of my story over the last sixty years. Through the years, I kept thinking the future might be boring, and year after year, I was proven wrong. The character in my story continued to evolve, to gain insights, to become more nuanced. Then I look at other people, at the whole person, their eyes, their hopes, and I read or listen to their stories. By focusing on the inner story, I see them grow. My understanding of the inner story has expanded my vision of the future.

Extending my optimism towards infinity
I have heard many beliefs about what happens after death, from a welcome by angels, to reunions with family, the wise guides who will lead me farther, and even a coaching session to prepare for the next birth. I don’t know which of these ideas are true. But that’s okay. With each passing year, I watch my inner story growing, and with just a well-practiced slip of my optimistic pencil, I can let my chart of the future extend upward, right off the edge of the paper. This visualization of the future gives me the basis for an invigorating, hopeful, and more satisfying life today.

Beyond the visible

Is it narcissistic to write your memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

(This blog is also available as an audio file. See the Podcast player control at the end of this post.)

A woman in my workshop wondered if it’s narcissistic to write a memoir. I take such objections seriously, because they can drain away enthusiasm from this project. To help anticipate and refute these objections, I’ve compiled a list of some of the top reasons people have proposed for not writing a memoir and offered suggestions on how to bust through each one.

But before you invest too much time in refuting any specific reason, step back and consider the way you achieve any goal. Take for example going on a vacation. The suitcase is too small, traffic clogs the road to the airport, and the flight is delayed. But you don’t turn back. You keep going. The obstacles are part of the journey, and in a sense are steps along the way. You are determined to reach your destination and after you push through obstacles, you reach the beach. Writing a memoir is the same thing. You want it, you overcome the obstacles, and you reach your goal.

If you feel mired in objections, switch your perspective. Instead of feeling like a victim of objections, become a strategist, turning your intelligence towards defeating doubts. Like a martial artist, turn doubt against itself. Doubt your doubt. Think skeptically about what it claims. Punch holes in it and watch its energy deflate. So now, with a critical eye, the reasons why some people worry that writing memoirs is self involved.

Is it because thinking about yourself is bad? Such a restriction would stop you from more than just writing your memoir. Without self-awareness you would be stuck. Understanding yourself is a generous act that can help you become a kinder person, more willing to serve others, less angry, more harmonious. By reducing the grip of regrets, and other self-involved emotions from the past, you become lifted out of your own worries, and as a result more caring toward others.

Perhaps you fear that it’s wrong and shameful to expect other people to read your story. I suppose at first glance that might seem self-involved… unless it’s a well-told story that gives the reader pleasure or simply offers them another slant of the human condition. You’re giving them a gift, and so, it would be selfish to withhold it.

To find out more about this concern of memoirs and narcissism, I turned to an article from the wonderful collection of essays in Slate Magazine’s Memoir Week. In this collection, there is a history of memoir bashing by Ben Yagoda. The article makes the claim that the spate of memoirs proves we’re becoming more narcissistic. To back up the claim, Yagoda includes impressive sounding quotes by famous writers. But just because a bunch of people express strong opinions doesn’t make their opinions right. I think their case falls apart when you look behind the curtain and see what they are doing. These writers are standing on their public platform complaining that other people want a share of the platform. Apparently they would prefer you pay attention only to them, or to people they deem worthy. Perhaps they sincerely believe the world will be a better place if we only allow the elite to speak to us. But that seems so out of step with our times. Haven’t we evolved beyond this point of view?

In the 19th century, the masses “knew their place” at the bottom of the pile, waiting for truths to come from pundits. In the 20th century, we became a faceless mob, drowning in logos, and slogans, fodder for marketers who wanted to know us only by our demographic categories so they could sell us stuff. Ironically, when my generation was growing up, we all decided to express our individuality the same way, by wearing blue jeans. The marketers had a field day. Rather than breaking out of the mold, we created a new one. I think many of us are ready to move beyond the authoritarian model of the 19th century, and the anonymous masses of the 20th century. In the 21st century, we want to share ourselves freely with others who have exuberant passion for life in all its diversity.

Out of the demographics of the billions are arising energetic and generous people who break through the wall of sameness and tell others about their individual history, a story that has evolved through the years of their lives, and that represents a life they have actually lived. Through blogging and memoirs, writers share the story of themselves and in turn want to know the stories of each other.

Each of us is an individual. We can’t get around that fact. We’re stuck with it. The challenge is not to become less of an individual but to become more caring about the other individuals on the planet. So we stretch beyond ourselves. To become a more generous, socially responsible, kind, respectful person we strive for a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be those other selves.

A wonderful way to break down the walls that keep us apart is to read someone else’s memoir. And a great way to jump into the ocean of humanity is to tell your own story. By telling your story, you participate in a world of mutual respect, giving voice to your own individuality and in the process expanding the vision and compassion of those who want to learn about you. Telling your story will help the world stay balanced and sane. So if you’re wondering if your story is worth telling, don’t worry about those people who don’t want to hear it. Reach out to the people who do.

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10 ways memoir writing helps you now

by Jerry Waxler

Many people are unsure about writing their memoir because they think all those memories will pull them into the past. It’s true that writing about memories is like digging down into a deep old pile, but there’s no need to get lost in it. The goal is to bring back the treasures. There are valuable lessons, achievements, and pleasures in there but you can’t access them because they are buried under a multitude of experiences. To gather their value, tell the story. To promote the legacy you can take advantage of yourself, I’ve compiled a list of 10 ways writing your memoir will help you now and in the future.

  1. Develops writing skill that come in handy for all sorts of other communication applications, like writing letters or newsletter articles.
  2. By organizing your life into stories, people get to know you faster, and often more intimately than through the usual chatter of everyday encounters.
  3. Writing is a powerful brain toning exercise that will keep you keen and energized.
  4. By reviewing the past, you notice things that happen over and over. Once you see such patterns, you can learn how you contribute to them, and find ways to improve next time. This benefit is available at any age, even if you think you are finished growing.
  5. Memoir writing helps you rework the past, making better sense of things that pull you back, or things that confuse you that never made sense. This helps you feel better in the present.
  6. You can glean stories from your life, and apply them to fictional stories you create about characters in worlds of your choosing. Telling stories is one of the pleasures of a creative life.
  7. You can often gain insights into your siblings and other relatives, creating a richer, more compassionate experience with the people who share your genes and childhood.
  8. Reap rewards from your life the way a farmer harvests crops. By becoming more conscious of accomplishments and victories, you boost your confidence about who you are and where you’re going.
  9. One reason people seem to fade with age is that they lose touch with their past. Writing maintains links between past and present, giving you confidence to see yourself as an effective actor in the world, even though many of those actions happened years ago.
  10. By seeing life as a story, you build the skills to tell a sensible story of the future. Generating a story of the future is a powerful motivational and planning tool that helps you continue to move forward with energy.

Memoir reclaims fading memories

by Jerry Waxler

I’ve been misplacing my car keys for years, but lately I’ve been noticing a more disturbing problem. I keep forgetting where I put my life. I have to think before I remember where a past event fits into the scheme of time. And I’m not alone. Most people older than, say, 50 have to struggle to remember all their vacations, jobs, homes, kids, hobbies, illnesses, friendships. After decades there is just too much information to keep straight. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a big deal. Who cares if I forget when I started singing in a choir, or how many times I saw Close Encounters, or if I can only remember glimpses of the summer I spent in Europe during college? Perhaps I ought to just accept a disappearing past. But I think it’s a worse problem than it first appears. So much of who I am is built from the story of how I got here, and losing the story makes me feel like I’m losing me.

I don’t remember when I first noticed my memory was getting tangled, but I do remember being surprised by it. I didn’t see it coming. I never heard my parents or grandparents complain about feeling confused by too many memories. I’ve never seen it pointed out on television, movies, or the hundreds of self-help books I’ve read. It’s an invisible problem, or at least it was until I noticed. Now, I see how hard it is for anyone over 50 to maintain an organized understanding of their journey. The more I think about the problem, the more it makes sense. The past fades because we let it. When I was young, I didn’t ask my parents about the old days. Since they never talked about their past, they forgot it. And the cycle continues. As I grow older, no one asks me about my past, and now I’m forgetting, too.

It looks like post-modern philosophers like Jacques Derrida are right, that our identity is becoming lost in modern times. But unlike other ills, I believe we can fix this one without waiting for a social upheaval or the discovery of some new medication. We can reclaim our lives by writing about them. Writing lets us revitalize our sense of who we are and how we got here. However, few of us have been trained to write our story, and so we may not believe we can take advantage of the benefits of life story writing. But once you get started, you’ll find it’s really not that hard. As soon as you look, you’ll discover memories, piles of them, like the pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle spilled out in a heap. For most of our lives, we’ve picked up a piece of the puzzle, noticed where it fits, and then tossed it back in the pile! Of course we’re confused.

The key is to snap them into place, and you can do that very simply by writing them along a timeline. Writing anything helps you remember it. This is true with phone numbers and to-do lists. And it’s true for your life story. It seems so obvious and yet it’s a revelation for most people. When you line up the events in order, the sequence starts taking shape.

That’s just the skeleton. Now add flesh. As you review your list of events, watch for ones that jump out. Check to be sure you are comfortable going deeper. If so, jump in. While you’re in the scene, look around. Touch a wall or a table, describe hair styles, dreams, fears, or anything else that you experience while inside the scene. Write it all down. What do the characters say? Were they sitting or standing? What do you smell? Through this window, you begin to make more sense of what happened. In fact, it’s almost magical. You not only regain the memory. You go deeper, revealing more now than you knew when you first went through it.

Some people fear that if they delve too deeply into their memories they might get pulled back into the past. But I’ve found the opposite to be true. As I learn to tell my own story, I have become more curious about the people around me. Rather than pushing me into the past, my life story yanks me into the present with a renewed passion to learn the longings, the patterns, and the relationships that transform this sequence of events into the never ending drama of life.