Memoir writing lessons from the heart

by Jerry Waxler

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

Perry Foster was an ordinary business man until he found himself on the wrong end of a cardiology exam. Now he bears a scar on his torso that looks like it was zipped shut, which makes him a member of the zipper club. When he chose to record his experience he was not drawing upon years of training as a writer. He simply wanted to tell his story and his memoir “Hands Upon My Heart: My Journey Through Heart Disease and Into Life” is the result. Whenever I read a memoir, I look for lessons. How did the author put it together? How did his words create the emotions as I was reading? I have found that new authors, in their passion to explain what happened, often provide lessons every bit as good as the ones I learn from the pros.

Memoir like a novel
One of the most basic lessons in this book is Foster’s knack of telling a story like a novel – that is, he lets me see events for myself. His descriptions are so quintessentially “show don’t tell” that reading the book is like attending a “show don’t tell” seminar. Take for example a stressful scene in a doctor’s office when Foster’s wife pulls out a bottle and takes two aspirin, showing the headache rather than telling it. And precisely because the example is so basic, its lesson is easy to learn. If he had written, “she had a headache,” he would be reporting a fact that was inside her head, not his. A slightly improvement would be dialog. If she had said “I have a headache” at least he would not be reading her mind. But now she becomes the one who is telling. When he shows her taking the two aspirin, readers can see the evidence for themselves.

Foster also does a good job staying within a time frame. He immerses himself within each scene, providing sensations that let me lose myself in his world. Since the book starts around the time he learns his heart is failing, I know little about his history until he is sedated for a surgical procedure. In his drug altered state, he describes a picture perfect flashback from his childhood. This ploy supplies background about his family, and the flashback also provides pacing, letting me linger there with him while surgeons are poking at his body.

His observations include his own thoughts, feelings, and body reactions. These internally directed observations take me inside his experience. “Does anyone ever wake during surgery?” he asks his surgeon. He notices the taste of perspiration dripping from his upper lip. After this frightening meeting he becomes furious with his wife for trying to relax while she was waiting. “You’re buying a romance novel,” he asked in a restrained voice. “How could she?” he thinks.

Edgy characters make me turn pages
From the beginning Perry Foster showed me his messy emotions. He was afraid for his heart, angry at the doctors, and edgy with his wife. His thoughts are often judgmental, and paranoid, and I think, “No wonder this guy’s heart is a wreck.”

I also wonder how he could be so honest about these feelings. This is a big issue for me, because my instinct is to hide my imperfections. “Hands Upon my Heart” shows me that disclosing authentic feelings, even if edgy and flawed, creates human warmth so palpable I want to pick up the phone and ask him about his health.

Perry Foster’s nervous tension serves another purpose. It increases dramatic tension. Consider Shakespeare’s characters Hamlet, and Ophelia, or Romeo, and Juliet. Their edginess creates suspense because you’re never sure what they’ll do next. Foster achieves the same effect. I kept turning the pages to see how he will juggle the pressure of his disturbing emotions.

Will he grow?
I love character development in a book. By the time I reach the end I’m hoping some lesson has been learned. Because this is such a satisfying payoff for me, as soon as I recognize the character flaw I start anticipating how the person will grow. It’s part of the suspense that keeps me reading. I found this suspense especially acute in “Hands Upon my Heart,” where Foster seemed like such a likable guy, I couldn’t wait for him to find inner strength and peace.

In the end the author does become more accepting of his situation and his wife, but his changes did not match what I expected, resulting in a feeling of being let down. What can I learn from that? It feels like a variation on the famous advice offered by Anton Chekhov. If you show a gun in the first scene of a play, you should fire it by the end. It looks like this advice could also be applied to character development. When the beginning of the book shows dramatic tension in the character, then by the end that tension should be relieved.

My expectation that Foster was supposed to grow during the course of the book raises a fascinating question. Should a memoir take me on a perfectly crafted ride, or must it follow the course of events, precisely? My view is that from the same raw material, a storyteller could craft a thousand different stories. The memoir I end up actually reading is not the person’s life, but rather a creative representation of it. And it turns out that telling the best possible story provides a benefit to the writer as well as the reader. The more you strive to tell a good story, the more you learn about your life. Perry Foster’s “Hands Upon my Heart” has stimulated and informed my thinking about these issues, and as I look for the story within my own life, Foster’s work will be one of the sources for my deeper understanding.

See my other essay about Perry Foster’s memoir by clicking here.

See also: Dee Dee Phelps was another adult learner who developed her writing skill not as a professional writer but through workshops. Read her insights in the interviews we reported here.

See also: Chekhov’s Gun, a wikipedia entry

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9 thoughts on “Memoir writing lessons from the heart

  1. Woah! Gr8 post 🙂 You really knocked me on my feet on this one. It made me really think about my approach. Thx so much — I can’t believe I haven’t visited you in so long *ugh*

  2. “I want to pick up the phone and ask him about his health.” What a stellar example of “showing” your own response.

    Your observation that a memoir is a creative representation of life is poignant, and I hope you’ll expand on this in future posts. You imply that Perry might have delved a fathom deeper to find sufficient insight to produce a conclusion you would find more satisfying. Since I have not yet read the book (I have it on order), I can’t comment on that, but it’s a tantalizing idea that to make a book truly compelling to readers, we must persevere to … what?

    Your insight may focus an essential question for evaluating the odds of finding a publisher for memoir: Does the work introduce gut-level conflict early on, and build to a satisfactory resolution?

  3. Interesting. It makes me wonder about my own memoir. I recently changed the beginning to the end. Now in the beginning you see an old man on the end of a pier tossing flowers onto the ocean below. You don’t find out until the last chapter how my father got there and why. I don’t know how that fits into the gun theory you mentioned, but it was a move that sure made my book read differently (I hope). My hope is that the reader reads on in order to find out how and why the man is there. Thanks for a thought-provoking post. ~Karen

  4. This was a great article, fascinating, but I still can’t get beyond the first main paragraph. I had open-heart surgery when I was eighteen months old. My parents, too, referred to my scar as a “zipper” and talked about me being a member of the “zipper club”. I thought it was just something my parents made up. How fun to know that others have used that term too!

  5. Hi Karen, Certainly your first scene is crucial for setting expectations. It sounds like your technique is the “time wrapper” in which you start near the end and then tell the whole story as a flashback. This method has an illustrious history. Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness come to mind. Jerry

  6. “The memoir I end up actually reading is not the person’s life, but rather a creative representation of it. ” Add to this the fact that a reader always seems to project onto the written words in any memoir their own subjective perception of what the writer’s world might have been like. I think that is what makes memoir-reading so much more poignant and moving than reading something more dry and structure. That’s what I think anyway. 🙂

    I loved your post.

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