By Jerry Waxler
What is the most unusual job you ever had?
I grew up as a nerd, and intended to go through life relying on brainpower. But during the sixties, I developed an idealistic notion that people who work with their hands are more authentic. When I was around thirty, I had the opportunity to test my theory. I thought working as an assistant manager in a foundry would turn me into a real man. In that dark, dingy manufacturing plant, soot and black sand covered everything, including the sweaty, shirtless men pouring molten metal into black sand molds. Even though I spent much of my workday in the office, and never took my shirt off, by the end of my two-year stint at the foundry, I was feeling pretty buff –as active and hard working as I had been in my lifetime. And I had discovered that hard physical work in a dirty, smelly environment is not my thing.
In addition to writing, what other modes of artistic expression do you love?
In college I loved to dance, but I was very shy. So I would stay alone in my apartment, turn on the stereo and practice dance steps. When I went to parties, always alone, I tried dancing with girls, but they backed away because I was so intense.
What is the most unusual trip you’ve ever taken?
Here’s one that’s perfect for Romance Junkies. After four years in college, in 1969, I was going to take a quick trip to California, before returning to summer school to finish my degree. A few days after arriving in Berkeley, California, I was invited to a party, where I danced with a tall athletic, blond who was training to become a dancer. We fell madly in love with each other. So I guess all that dancing was preparation to snag a great girl. That two week trip lasted two years, a long story I’m working on in my memoir.
What was the most unusual food you ever ate?
On a trip to India in the 70s, I attended a religious event, where they served free lunch to 100,000 visitors. The westerners were served a modified menu suitable to our wimpy taste buds, but a young woman I met invited me to eat with the locals. I sat on the ground surrounded by thousands of Indians, eating chapattis and Dal cooked on open-pit fires.
The girl who took me into the local lunch line had moved to India from South Africa. As had happened in the vast majority of my romantic endeavors, my clumsy nerdy ways made it impossible to connect. This mess I always made of romance was one of the reasons I spent my life trying to find myself.
Why do you think everyone should write a memoir, or at least try?
Many people think “I haven’t done anything special, so why would anyone want to read about me?” But memoir writing is not about being special. Memoir writing is a creative exercise in which you try to find the compelling dramatic tension contained within your actual circumstances. By writing a memoir, you search for interesting stories about growing up, relating to your family, entering adulthood, traveling or coping with illness or sorrow.
This search for narrative vigor and excellence has the side effect of giving you a clearer sense of who you are and where you’re going. Living with a coherent, integrated sense of self is healthier and more interesting than living with the story that has evolved by chance.
Why do you think memoirs have become so popular?
I think there are many reasons for our growing interest in the stories of individuals, as told in their own voice. Here are a few of the ones I discuss in greater detail in Memoir Revolution:
We are living longer. As we grow older, we have enough life behind us to make a story and enough life in front of us to enjoy that story. Another feature of living longer is that we have more time to see that people change over time. For example, we look more closely at our parents and wonder where they came from. Dinner table stories barely scratch the surface. The best way to understand the whole story is in a memoir.
The Internet Age has changed our relationship to strangers. Before the Internet, we walked past people at the mall or supermarket and didn’t know anything more about them than we could see from their clothes or hair. Social media allows us to share glimpses among strangers through their photos, Facebook status or tweets. The next step to satisfying our curiosity about them and our desire to be known by them can be fulfilled by reading and writing memoirs.
Self-publishing makes memoirs easier to publish and buy. Even if we cannot find a traditional publisher, we can publish the story ourselves, a fabulous creative thrill if not necessarily a money making one.
What advice would you give someone who has not yet been exposed to memoirs about how to get started reading them?
First of all, move beyond celebrity memoirs. I know there are a few profound ones such as Open by Andre Agassi and All that is Bitter and Sweet by Ashley Judd. But to learn the real depth of memoirs, focus on ones by ordinary people.
To find such memoirs, tap into the growing online communities of memoir junkies like me, who believe in the power of memoirs to make better sense of ordinary life. Read my blog, where I’ve written about the impact more than 200 memoirs have had on my life. Read Shirley Showalter’s or Kathy Pooler’s, or Linda Joy Myers, or any blogger who is trying to spread the word that memoirs heal and lift our collective understanding.
My book Memoir Revolution will help you sort through the types of memoirs, and the various goals authors are trying to achieve. At first, seeing the world through another person’s mind might feel strange. But once you get the hang of it, you will be entertained, informed, and inspired by the wide variety of experiences and the courage people show in overcoming their obstacles.