Launching – from Sex to Love in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is a continuation of the series of articles about the three tasks of launching into adulthood as illustrated in Elna Baker’s memoir New York Mormon Regional Halloween Dance. Click here for part one of the series. Click here for the next part, about getting a job.

Before you write a memoir, your memories of sex, like other emotionally laden memories, are embedded in a hodge-podge of unformed glimpses. To write a memoir, you must first develop these glimpses into a series of anecdotes. Eventually, you will craft this sequence into a well-formed explanation of your journey through the awkward stages of your life, toward maturity. To help you overcome reluctance to share these private aspects of your life, consider the frank explorations in the memoir, New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker.

When Elna Baker was a teenager, she avoided experimentation into the mysteries of sexuality. Her early abstinence was motivated, in part, by strict religious rules. Another reason for her lack of romantic experience was her body. The guys to whom she was attracted rarely reciprocated. When she moved to New York to establish her career, Elna didn’t even know how to kiss.

Her need to find a soul-mate stoked a ferocious determination to lose weight. After a crash diet under medical supervision she shed the flab behind which she had been hiding her beauty. Her journey from overweight to shapely gave her an inside look at both sides of the divide — what it feels like to be too large to attract stares, and then to be thin enough to warrant them.

As a newly attractive young woman, she discovered a “secret club” of people who look each other up and down. When men came onto her, they assumed she knew how to handle the attention. In reality, as a new member of the “club,” she had to rely on her acting skills to feign familiarity with this utterly foreign situation.

Once in the chase, pursued by men and pursuing them in return, she still needed to come to terms with her religious prohibitions. Every time she told a boy she had no intention of having sex outside marriage, he dumped her, leading to a never-ending cycle of frustration.

Elna Baker’s continued failure to find a soul-mate gives us a front row seat at one of life’s great transitions, through sex to a committed relationship. But instead of seeing the drama from the vantage point of the breathless, confusing experimentation of adolescence, Elna Baker approaches it with the clever, insightful mind of a student of life. From her more mature point of view, she attempts to solve the mystery of sex as if she was a detective.

Ambiguous Ending Shows that Good Memoirs Can End in Bad Outcomes
After her long search for a committed relationship, one might assume that the memoir ought to conclude when Elna Baker achieves her goal. Instead, the book ends with “bad sex,” a sort of send-up or ironic twist on the hoped-for fireworks. After this ambiguous ending, I snapped the book shut with a loud question mark. Why would she leave me hanging? Of course one answer is that life left her hanging, and this is a memoir. However, she is also a master story teller, and this book is well-crafted and polished. I wanted to learn more about ambiguous endings by considering this one more deeply.

Searching my shelves for other examples of ambiguous conclusions, I lighted on one of the seminal bestsellers of the Memoir Revolution, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. Throughout the memoir, McCourt generates empathy about his impoverished childhood in Ireland. At the end, he escapes to New York, and as he crosses the threshold into his new home, he has a promiscuous affair with a woman enamored with his fresh-off-the-boat naiveté. We close the book on this “bad sex” scene, with the understanding that he still must travel a long way before becoming a fully empowered adult. Obviously, the author’s unsatisfying conclusion didn’t stop readers from enjoying the book, which won a Pulitzer Prize and became a classic of the memoir genre.

These two supposedly unsatisfying endings provide examples of the flexibility of the structure of memoirs, and are a sign that we humans want to learn from each other about the many variations of growing up.

In both of these memoirs,  Angela’s Ashes and New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, sexual development was restrained by a religious culture. In both cases, slow development meant the authors reached biological maturity without having achieved a corresponding degree of social maturity.

For both of them, getting started on a satisfying adult life was not as straightforward as they would like. By sharing the long twisting road to maturity, the memoirs portray the complexity and bitter-sweet emotions of the intricate task of growing from child to adult.

Until the Memoir Revolution, we only really knew the intimate details of our own sexual maturity. Our cultural narrative about the subject was limited to the laugh-track-laden sex lives of sitcoms, stuck forever in that picturesque limbo between childhood and adulthood. Memoirs take us the rest of the way. Elna Baker, Frank McCourt, and many other memoir authors, transform awkward, embarrassing setbacks into a good story about the journey to maturity.

Writing Prompt
To start transforming your embarrassing and private moments into a good story, write a scene that represents your attempt to move from uncommitted to committed relationships. Consider a scene that highlights confusion you had about this transition – for example worrying if you are doing it too soon, wondering if it would be best to play the field, etc, or trying to connect with a partner who was having similar reluctance to commit.

What issues, beliefs or circumstances influenced this transition for you?

Click here to read the next part of this series.

Notes
Elna Baker’s Home Page

A youtube video of me exploring the subject of sexuality in memoirs. This is definitely safe for the office.

A list of memoirs that describe the journey from sexual exploration toward a committed relationship.

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.

2 thoughts on “Launching – from Sex to Love in Memoirs

  1. Endings can be difficult no matter what genre we’re writing in. I was happy to read of these ambiguous endings that left the readers hanging. Sometimes that’s what we want an ending to do. And maybe the reader will be willing to return for more in the next book.

  2. Hi Lily,

    Yes, endings are incredibly difficult. I probably should have written a whole article just on that topic. (I probably did now that I’m up to more than 400 posts across seven years. LOL)

    Another ambiguous ending is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. His ending was almost downbeat, but there’s a funny thing about memoirs. We always know the character kept growing even after the end of the book, so readers can fill in the blanks at the end of memoirs a lot easier than they can at the end of fiction.

    Tobias Wolff did not stop growing at the yucky end of his memoir. He not only became a famous writer, but a famous writing teacher as well.

    Elna Baker is also a teacher, and in fact, I took a writing course from her. So she definitely is still growing.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

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