By Jerry Waxler
I thought I saw Brooke Shields in a restaurant in Princeton. I didn’t want to be rude and stare, but the woman I was with had no such problem. She said, “Yup, that’s her.” Now, decades later, I still feel I have a special relationship with Brooke. I’ve heard similar star-struck stories all my life. For example, I once walked into a shoe store in Sausalito, California and the salesman gushed that Daryl Hannah had been shopping there a week earlier.
I worry about all this adulation of good looking people, and wonder if we are collectively heading in the same direction as teenagers whose first love is based solely on physical attraction. Such choices often end in disaster.
I wish we could base our collective admiration on qualities that run deeper. And I believe this is exactly the role memoirs could serve. Whether or not I knew the author before I started reading a memoir, by the time I finish, I feel we have grown closer, like traveling companions who have shared many miles.
Through memoirs I know the inner workings of all sorts of people. I know Haven Kimmel’s childhood in a small town in the Midwest. I know Kate Braestrup’s climb out of grief amidst the streams and forests of Maine. I know the horrors Jim McGarrah experienced in Vietnam, and the psychological cruelty endured by Sue William Silverman. I know what it was like for Rebecca Walker to grow up black, white, and Jewish.
While all these writers earn my regard, some emerge from the pages, using their books as a platform from which they can raise awareness of some cause.
Henry Louis Gates and Tavis Smiley raise awareness of intercultural relations in America. Firoozeh Dumas tirelessly advocates to improve relationships between the U.S. and the people of Iran. Ashley Rhodes-Courter lobbies to improve the foster care system in America. John Robison educates the public about Asperger’s. Greg Mortenson started the Central Asia Institute to educate poor children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton publicize the plight of wrongfully incarcerated prisoners.
Several memoirists offer the power of words, not just inside their book but also in classrooms and other literary programs, trying to call our attention to that power in our own lives.
Erin Gruwell started the Freedom Writers Foundation to promote educational reform. English professor Robert Waxler founded a program, Changing Lives Through Literature, CLTL, which offers the alternative sentence of studying books, helping convicted criminals escape their pattern of crime, and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg developed a group, Transformative Language Arts, dedicated to using language to transform and heal society.
My love for all these memoir writers continues to grow. Through stories and activism, we swap passion and build sustainable relationships based on a more solid foundation than beauty.
I don’t mean to imply that the people who tell their story necessarily look bad. In fact, even Brooke Shields has earned her place on this list. Her memoir “Down Came the Rain,” tells about her struggle through the dismal terror of postpartum depression. She has shared her potentially humiliating experience in order to raise awareness of an important mental health issue. In the process she also shows me there is more to her than just a pretty face.
Consider ways your life experience could serve a cause, through advocacy or activism. Try writing your book blurb or a press release about your memoir that emphasizes the public service of your private life.
More about Transformative Language Arts Network
More about the Freedom Writers Foundation
More about Changing Lives Through Literature alternative sentencing program
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.