Life to Stories: 3 Habits, 3 Rules, 3 Stages

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

I entered college in 1965 as a bold young man, competent and smart, ready to take on the world. But those were the riot years, the time of the counterculture, during which I turned my attention to unraveling everything I believed. By the time I left college in 1969, I had been reduced to a mere shadow of myself, clinging to sanity by a thread.

After years of reconstruction, talking to a therapist, meditating, and writing in a journal, I once more entered the human race. But no matter how much I matured, I never stopped wondering what lessons lay hidden within the murky memories of my Coming of Age.

Then in 2004, I stumbled on a cultural trend that could help me make sense of those chaotic years. Bestselling memoirs invited readers into the messy process of growing up. Each author converted the chaos of memory into the compelling narrative of a good story. I wanted to try it for myself.

This goal at first seemed farfetched. I was not a story writer, and I could barely remember those troubled years. How would I ever describe the intricate feelings, thoughts and events that took me on that journey to nowhere?

Despite the seeming impossibility of the task, I didn’t think there would be any harm in trying. So I joined a writing group and quickly learned that to write a memoir, I needed to follow three habits.

Habit One. When I remembered even a vague incident, I wrote it. And in the act of forming sentences, I transformed hazy memories into descriptions in a computer file. These written snips helped me penetrate the fog that had shrouded my past. I was finding my words.

Habit Two. I shared my anecdotes with fellow writers in a critique group. Their comments about my pieces radically shifted my thoughts about myself. My past emerged from hiding and became an experience I could share with strangers. When I saw my life in other people’s eyes, it wasn’t so awful after all. It was actually kind of interesting.

Habit Three. I read memoirs and fell in love with the intimacy of sharing an author’s interior journey. After reading each book, I lingered and tried to learn how the author had transformed life into a story.

I repeated these three habits over and over: writing anecdotes, listening to reactions from fellow writers, and reading memoirs. I read so many memoirs, and found the phenomenon of turning life into stories so pervasive that I dubbed the phenomenon the Memoir Revolution. After I established my blog, I started to interview authors. I was continually surprised by the consistency in their answers. They were all learning about themselves at the same time as they were constructing their memoirs.

After several years, I felt satisfied by my collection of anecdotes. This completed Stage One. But I had reached a plateau. It was not yet a real story and I doubted that I would ever be able to make it as compelling as the ones I enjoy reading. Despite my fears, I kept researching, and soon discovered three rules that would convert my anecdotes into a story.

Rule One. Readers enter stories through well-constructed scenes. So I had to learn how to construct scenes. For example, instead of saying “I was in a riot,” I needed to write what I saw, heard, and felt. “Hundreds of us jammed into the hallway, defiantly blocking the passageway. Then the crash of breaking glass shattered our confidence. Screams filled the air as the police poured through the opening, striking students with long clubs. The role reversal shook me to the core. These were police. They were supposed to protect us. I turned and ran.” Writing scenes forced me to see myself through a reader’s eyes.

Rule Two. Sort memories into chronological order. When the past only lives in random memories, the various incidents remain fragmented. For example, every time I remembered the riot, I felt trapped in the horror of that troubling day. But when I sorted my anecdotes into chronological order, the end of each scene led to what happened next, turning the confusing past into the bones of an orderly and increasingly compelling narrative.

Rule Three. A story’s hero strives toward an important mission. For example, in mysteries, the detective’s mission is to identify the murderer. But what was the compelling mission in my memoir? If I could define what my character really wanted, I would gain two things. For the reader, I would create a good story. For myself, I would create a better understanding of my own path.

After years of applying these three rules, I finished Stage Two: a manuscript. Woohoo. It was an awesome accomplishment, but I doubted that the resulting book would compel a stranger to turn pages to the end. To complete my task, I had to learn the art and craft of leading readers through struggles toward hope.

To proceed to Stage Three, I hired an editor to improve the technical craft of the book. Based on her detailed recommendations, I revised the entire book. Then, I sent the results to readers, asking them if they could immerse themselves in the story. And more importantly, what did they find missing? Some of them said they read it straight through. A few even said they couldn’t put it down. When they told me about missing details, places that dragged or unanswered questions, I revised some more and sent it to other readers. After a final round of edits from my editor, it was ready for the world. (Click here to buy it.)

Before I started writing, all I knew about my long journey to hell and back was contained in murky, disturbing memories. By writing, I knitted bits and pieces of myself together and changed the past from an incoherent jumble into a compelling story with a hopeful end. This perspective enabled my readers to stay engaged in the story and helped me make peace with the person I had been.

So now you know my story. Well, you don’t know the story of my descent into hell and my climb out. That’s described in detail in my book. Rather you know the story of how I created that book.

And I hope you might be able to apply that story to your own life. What experiences of yours remain hidden, perhaps even from you? What recollections could reveal meaning, lessons, or help you become clearer about the past?

By following three habits –write, share, and read– you will turn vague memories into a collection of anecdotes and essays. That’s the first stage. And by applying the three rules – build compelling scenes, sort them into chronological order, and follow the hero’s purpose — you can create a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. That’s the second stage.

If you choose to go all the way to the third stage and turn your memories into a publishable memoir, you will be able to share yourself with readers through this universal system called Story. And by immersing yourself in the meaning of your own life, you’ll discover that sharing stories is more important than you may have realized.

Since the beginning of civilization people have looked to stories to show us the way. In the old days the heroes of those stories were mythological and lived on mountains. In the modern age, we look to each other in order to learn how to climb those mountains. By writing your memoir, you can show the rest of us how you found the best elements of yourself. Your example will encourage and support us on our own search for truth.

This mission to write your story may be scary at first. Perhaps like me you’ll even think it’s farfetched. But there’s no harm in starting. Like any hero, once you enter the land of the adventure, you will face the unknown. With courage, persistence, and effort, you will travel one of the most interesting creative journeys of your life.

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

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.

 

 

Writing Your Messy Teen Memories Could Save the World

by Jerry Waxler

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

This article continues the series inspired by Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness about raising her daughter through a maddening cycle of rebellion. For the first article in the series, click here

When a baby is born, the network of mommies buzzes with information about how to solve problems and raise healthy kids. A decade and a half later, when the kids are teenagers, problems become more complex, and the mommy network grows silent. As a result, parents often feel they are facing the troubled teen years alone.

Fortunately, an untapped source of information about these years hides within reach. All of us experienced the challenges of being teenagers. We had to navigate hormonal changes, on our journey from dependence to self-reliance.

During that period we tested rules, stumbled into the vortex of sex, rode in cars driven by drunks, or engaged in other risky behavior during the high-wire walk between childhood and adulthood.

As adults, we’re so grateful to be past those times, we try to forget them, or make light of them, telling them at parties to provoke a laugh. Our parents were probably not laughing though, and most of us hope our worst experiments will remain buried. Our silence seems harmless enough. We can’t undo the past. But without conversations, we also can’t bring our adult awareness to those mistakes, nor can we reap their wisdom.

The Memoir Revolution offers a way to pull those memories out of storage. By writing about the embarrassing or illegal events in our own lives, we transform them from secrets and jokes into lessons, cautionary tales, and a clearer vision of the journey from child to adult.

An excellent example of a story about raising a troubled child is Rachel Pruchno’s memoir, Surrounded by Madness. Like other parents, when her daughter acted out, Mom maintained the family’s privacy, protecting them from judgment and embarrassment. Now that those years are past, she is taking advantage of the Memoir Revolution to break that silence.

Her book is much more than the story of one couple trying to hold back the chaos that was enveloping their daughter. It is also the courageous attempt to share that situation with others. By sharing what ordinarily would be a very private story, Pruchno is challenging us to develop wisdom about the teen years.

Rachel Pruchno’s experience was an extreme example of a passion play repeated in varying degrees in millions of homes. Her suffering was not unique, but her willingness to talk about it is groundbreaking. Surrounded by Madness provides a model that could elevate our whole culture’s attitude toward the teen years. If we share these private stories, we can support each other through this difficult transition. By courageously sharing her story, Pruchno is inviting the mommy network to include support for the full fury of adolescent rebellion.

Getting in touch with the craziness of adolescence
Rachel Pruchno’s daughter kept crossing lines, but instead of reeling herself back to normal behavior, she defended her bad choices with lies and manipulation. Pruchno’s daughter used her intelligence, not to learn how to become an adult, but to thwart adult guidance. Inside her delusional bubble she believed she knew what was best for herself and traveled further and further down a course of self destruction.

Despite the dire implications of her behavior, her attitude bears a striking resemblance to ordinary adolescent rebellion. I recall entering my own delusional bubble between the ages of 18 to 24. During that period, I sneered at the rules created by shallow, hollow adults and insisted on racing toward chaos.

After I grew up, I wanted to pretend those years were a bad dream. Even during years of talk therapy, I managed to avoid the whole period. Only after I began to write a memoir did I explore the sequence of events. At first, my foolishness horrified me. Gradually, I allowed myself to gather the memories and craft them into stories.

The Memoir Revolution is causing many of us to reclaim memories that had been hidden behind a curtain of shame and forgetfulness. By developing and sharing stories, we can help new generations. Our memoirs might possibly help the kids themselves. And they will certainly help the parents, by providing social support and a broader foundation for communication.

Rachel Pruchno’s story offers a sobering illustration of how the transition from child to adult brings us dangerously close to the limits of sanity. Surrounded by Madness raises the intriguing possibility that no matter where you fell on the spectrum, the desire to grow up was simply human, and the not-yet-competent experiments were part of the process.

Writing Prompt
When you were growing up, what rules or laws did you break? Did you ever steal, vandalize, drive drunk, speed, cheat, have sex that didn’t align with your own ethical beliefs? Write a scene showing your internal debate to do drugs or not, to go to a party instead of study, to lie to parents and authorities.

Instead of laughing these memories off or suppressing them, write them as authentic scenes. Try to capture the delusion that you knew what you were doing, and the internal debate in which there was a glimmer of awareness that this wasn’t quite right.

In your scenes, watch yourself flaunt parents and institutions. When consequences occurred, did you place the blame on everyone but yourself? What happened next? When did you start to effectively challenge your own impulses and pull yourself back over the line? A well-crafted story about your poor judgment, the resulting consequences, and the lessons you eventually learned could make fascinating reading.

Even if you never show these scenes to anyone, you can benefit from seeing them on paper. By turning them into scenes and stories, you will understand how they fit into the context of your life. The exercise could give you more compassion for your own younger self, and provide a kinder, more patient view of young people who must go through the process now.

To take an incredible leap forward on this project of self-acceptance, join a compassionate group of memoir writers and share your awkward scene. You will probably be surprised, as I was, when your listeners nod in understanding and praise you for being willing to share.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

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.

Six Psychology Lessons In This Memoir (continued)

by Jerry Waxler

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

After reading the memoir Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno, I pondered the lessons about life and about memoir writing. In this continuation of the series, I explore more of the lessons-about-life embedded in the book.

This is the third article in a series about Surrounded by Madness. For the first article, click here.

Psychology Lesson #3: Adolescent mental health care

When Rachel Pruchno’s daughter failed to follow the path of normal childhood development, the natural option was to look for help. Unfortunately, finding psychological help for her adolescent daughter required a complex and frustrating search.

She picked her way through complex insurance regulations and inadequate coverage, pleading and politicking with therapists who were not accepting new patients, trying to absorb each new diagnosis, leading to a new round of meds. When the problems continued, she had to start over, seeking the next round of help. Trying to help her daughter forced Rachel Pruchno into training, not based on an academic program but on real-world experience. The memoir passes this education along to readers, packed into a suspenseful high-pressure struggle for sanity.

Psychology Lesson #4: Inadequate response to broken minds. Unlimited response to broken laws.

When a child breaks the law, society steps in with full authority to remove all freedoms and place them in jail, usually without treatment. However, Pruchno’s daughter did not break laws, and so she was able to easily evade her parents’ desperate concerns, acting out at the very edge of sanity, and manipulating her way out of any attempts to rein her in.

The memoir, Surrounded by Madness, is in essence a cry for help, not just for one troubled girl but for the poor health of the mental health care system itself. Through Rachel Pruchno’s eyes, we experience the lack of supportive laws, lack of funding and research, and generally ineffective psychological response to children whose behavior reaches, but does not yet cross, the boundaries of the law.

The title could be construed as a double-entendre. Not only was Pruchno surrounded by the madness of trying to bring her daughter in line with social norms. She was also surrounded by the madness of a mental health care system that turns a blind eye toward insanity. Pruchno’s heart-wrenching story is both a good reading experience and a powerful cry for help from someone who has been under-served by the only institutional systems available in such situations. By sharing her story, Pruchno lets us feel the helplessness and insanity for ourselves.

For another tragic example of the maddening lack of social support for mental illness, see Leave the Hall Light On, in which Madeline Sharples’ son was able to sign himself out from treatment and commit suicide. Another example of a parent without institutional support is Live Through This by Debra Gwartney, in which two teenage girls cut school and eventually ran away leaving this single mom to find her own solutions.

Psychology Lesson #5: Health of the family versus the identified patient

The Pruchnos poured an extraordinary amount of energy into raising their disruptive daughter. Meanwhile their well-behaved son remained in the background, growing up in the midst of the drama caused by his sister’s erratic behavior.

The memoir, in addition to being about the daughter’s mental health, also demonstrates her impact on the health of the son and of the whole family unit. By showing the level of attention required to cope with the troubled child, Surrounded by Madness highlights the stress one sibling places on family dynamics.

The memoir doesn’t teach technical psychology lessons about these complex issues. Rather it leads the reader through the detailed personal experience of living through the situation. Books like Surrounded by Madness should be on the shelf of anyone who wants to learn how the psychological strength of the parents is crucial for the stability of the family.

Further Reading
For another memoir that shows the family’s response to a troubled child, see Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh. Read about it here.

Psychology Lesson #6: Nature versus Nurture: Unless Otherwise Demonstrated, It’s Probably Mom’s Fault

The contract of becoming a mother seems straightforward enough. Completely transform your life to become a caregiver, pour heart and soul into raising the child, and adapt every minute of at least the first eighteen years, no matter what the cost. As if this responsibility is not overwhelming enough, it is supercharged with a powerful threat of social stigma when the child does not meet society’s expectation.

In the 1950s, psychologists blamed mothers for causing schizophrenia. This cause for the horrifically disruptive mental disorder was discredited when inheritance patterns and medications demonstrated the disease’s biological roots. However, Personality Disorders resist such a straightforward biological model or treatment. As a result of this ambiguity, when a child persistently follows anti-social, self-destructive patterns, there is a tendency to wonder how parenting contributed to the problem.

To learn about the effects due to nature, scientists use magnetic resonance brain images and massive genetic surveys. To learn more about nurture, we need to observe the way these conditions unfold in real life.

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir is a fascinating case study that allows us to see into the dynamics of a family with a child who comes of age with this troubling mental condition. We watch the mother’s stunning persistence and intensity to guide the child, and the daughter’s equally persistent and intense determination to thwart those directives. The book offers no easy answers but raises these important questions in a detailed, careful exploration.

For this reason, this book is an important one to study when attempting to sort out the influence of nature and nurture on a child’s development.

Further reference
In his book My Age of Anxiety, author Scott Stossel traces the complex relationship between genetic and environmental factors in pervasive anxiety. Stossel grew up with horrible, debilitating anxiety starting from an early age, so this quasi-memoir, quasi-textbook sheds light on the complex interaction between nature and nurture in severe pervasive anxiety.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

For another memoir of Bipolar Disorder, see Tara Meissner’s Stress Fracture: A Memoir of Psychosis.

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.

Memoirs Popularize Important Psychology Lessons

by Jerry Waxler

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

(This is the second in a series of posts about Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness. Click here to read the first post.)

When Rachel Pruchno adopted a daughter, she looked forward to the joys and responsibilities of motherhood. At first her daughter seemed healthy, active and intelligent. However, through the years, her daughter tended toward risky behavior, manipulation and deceit. Mom drew on her training as a PhD psychologist first, to implement the best possible care, and second, to carefully chronicle the events.

The memoir Surrounded by Madness is the result of almost two decades of this combined effort to guide her daughter and to document the process. The resulting book offers many insights into the psychology of raising this child. However, the lessons are not offered as theories or statistics. Rather, they are contained within a Story, that narrative structure that human beings have used to learn about each other since the beginning of time. Here are six psychology insights I’ve teased out of Rachel Pruchno’s memoir.

Developmental Psychology: A well organized mind is a prerequisite for adulthood

Many bestselling memoirs show young people acquiring the skills they will need in order to become effective adults. Jeanette Walls in Glass Castle and Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes had to learn adult skills despite terrible obstacles of alcoholic and overwhelmed parents.

These bestselling memoirs gripped popular imagination because they demonstrated the heroic, relentless drive of these young people to grow up, despite their horrific environments. Most such Coming of Age memoirs end when the child reaches a plateau of competency from which he or she can reliably begin the next leg of the journey.

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir approaches the developmental project of childhood from the opposite point of view. Despite the parent doing everything within her power to guide her daughter to adulthood, the daughter keeps missing the lessons. Surrounded by Madness is the heart-wrenching account of trying to raise a child for whom the fundamental skills of adulthood seem constantly out of reach. Instead of learning to manage her choices and measure the outcome of her actions, she develops a fantasy-based system that idolizes her own impulses, without regard for consequences.

This Coming of Age story raises the stakes of the mother-child relationship and chronicles an outrageous battle of wills that borders on insanity.

Personal account of how it feels to be human

For a hundred years, psychologists have researched mental aberrations and reported their findings to each other in textbooks and peer-reviewed journals. Such information would be valuable in society, to help us understand our own minds, our loved ones, neighbors and people in the news. Sadly, most attempts to share such findings with the public are dismissed as unreliable, merely a popularization that ignores the complexity of the underlying situation.

Occasionally,  literature provides glimpses into the workings of the mind. Novelists and playwrights, those great observers of the human condition, often take us inside the minds of their characters. But fictional psychology cannot reliably help us learn about ourselves or our neighbors. The Memoir Revolution offers another approach, letting us into the minds of real people.

After having had an experience of mental illness, or some other complex, unique experience, a memoir author must attend writing workshops, collaborates in critique groups, hire editors, swap manuscripts with beta readers, and revise, revise, revise. Like grapes that require fermentation to release their intoxicating properties, the events of life require the evolution of the writing process in order to acquire a compelling form.

By the time this personal experience reaches the reader, it has been transformed into a structure as old as civilization. By transforming life into stories, memoirs enable readers to absorb and integrate the complexity and power of situations normally outside their own experience.

First-person accounts allow professionals, as well as the public, to enter private worlds. In 1990, William Styron led readers into the mind of a severely depressed man with psychotic features in his aptly-titled memoir Darkness Visible. In 1995, Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir An Unquiet Mind flipped the psychological view of Bipolar. For the first time, professionals as well as the reading public, viewed the disorder from inside. In 1996, Temple Grandin offered a first-person account of autism in Thinking in Pictures. And in 2008, John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye did the same thing with Asperger’s. However, the condition known as Borderline Personality Disorder resists a reliable first-person account.

Just as AIDS undermines the immune system, making it impossible for the body to fight off the disease, Borderline Personality Disorder attacks an individual’s will to improve.  Often such patients sabotage efforts to help them, spoiling their self-reports with misinformation, manipulation and deceit.

In the absence of an authentic first-person account, Rachel Pruchno’s book offers a close second. Through the eyes of a mother trained in psychological observation, the story is a blow by blow account of her daughter’s journey from early childhood to young adulthood. This book offers insight into the way Borderline Personality Disorder unfolds and should go on your shelf with other books that report the experience of mental illness.

In the next post, I will offer more psychological insights contained within Rachel Pruchno’s memoir.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

For another memoir of Bipolar Disorder, see Tara Meissner’s Stress Fracture: A Memoir of Psychosis.

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.

Memoirs Chronicle Search for Identity in the Melting Pot, Pt 1

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

At the beginning of the Memoir Revolution, Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes and Jeanette Walls in Glass Castle horrified readers with the challenges of growing up in chaotic, impoverished homes. The spectacular success of these bestsellers ensured a whole genre of Coming of Age memoirs. These stories about that period of life continue to extend our collective understanding of the many challenges kids face on their journey to become adults.

Take for example Karen Levy’s beautifully written memoir My Father’s Gardens about a young girl whose parents moved back and forth between Israel and the U.S.. She did not suffer from alcoholism, child abuse or neglect, or poverty. The dramatic tension in her memoir is generated by her constant search for identity.

When she moved to the United States, her Israeli accent gave her away as a foreigner. However, when she went back to Israel, she experienced the same problem in reverse. Her Americanized accent made her an outsider in Israel, as well. This constant state of trying to belong forced her to ask an extreme version of the question every young person faces. “Who am I and how do I fit in?”

At first glance, moving back and forth between two countries seems like an extreme aberration. However, when you look more closely, you can see similarities to what millions of kids face when they go back and forth between the cultural mixing at school during the day, and ethnicity of their home at night. In modernity, with its great mixing and migrating, an increasing number of children are growing up in a culture different from the one in which their parents or grandparents were born. For those kids, the search for identity is complicated by many of the same tensions that influenced Karen Levy.

To add to the challenge of modernity, more people marry across cultural lines, creating a dual identity inside their own homes. If you are one of the millions have had to find themselves while bridging across two or more cultures, Karen Levy’s memoir will awaken familiar feelings. Even if your own Coming of Age did not involve complex cultural mixing, your ability to navigate in modernity will be enhanced by learning more about the psychological conflicts caused by trying to fit in.

Writing Prompt
If you are writing your own memoir, see if Karen Levy’s search for identity can help you get in touch with some of your own dilemmas about the question “who am I and where do I fit in?”

What understandings about your culture did you learn in your family and neighborhood? Write a scene when you realized that there were other cultures that might not accept you, and might even consider you to be the Other. What did that feel like? What impact did these cultural interactions have on your journey to find your own identity?

My search for cultural identity
When  I was growing up, I felt safe listening to the Yiddish my parents spoke in order to keep secrets from us kids. And I felt safe when I walked the few blocks to synagogue, crowded to overflowing during High Holidays. Because of the predominance of Jews in my part of Philadelphia, even at school most of my classmates and teachers were Jewish.

So as a teenager, when I opened a book and saw photos of the Holocaust, depicting those who had been tortured and murdered for looking and sounding like me, I was stunned to realize being Jewish is dangerous. However, I never personally experienced the stress of fitting into a non-Jewish culture until I was eighteen years old.

When I entered school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the predominance of northern Europeans threw me into massive confusion about my identity. Not only were many of my classmates blond, and almost all of them Christian, but when the war protests heated up, I discovered that many people in rural parts of the state considered the protests a product of Jewish agitators. As the police and politicians become increasingly aggressive against us, I realized that I was participating in a battle as old as the human race, with dominant groups feeling threatened by the Other.

Over the years of growing up, I again relaxed and learned to participate in a culture that is based, at least in theory, on the attempt to ignore differences among people. Later in life, when I began to look back at my own development, I often wondered why I struggled so desperately to travel from child to adult. Once I began writing my memoir and reading others, I realized that even though adults do their best to ignore these differences, when their kids go out into the world, they must figure these things out for themselves.

Kids from ethnic backgrounds face an exercise of getting the two images to overlap, like the familiar optical test at the eye doctor’s office. One image is the one you learned about yourself in your childhood home, and the other is the image you learn about yourself in the wider world. The exercise of bringing these two into focus creates wonderful material to explore in the story of yourself.

In the second part of this article, I list a selection of memoirs that highlight the attempt to make sense of cultural identity in a variety of circumstances.

Notes
Here is a link to My Father’s Garden by Karen Levy.

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.

Writing a Memoir Penetrates the Fog of Memory

or Watching My Dad Watching Me
by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

On my dad’s eightieth birthday, my sister and I took my parents to dinner. To stir my usually reticent father to speak, we asked him what it was like raising us. He said, “I took Jerry to a baseball game once. He read the whole time.” We all laughed at the image. What a nerd I was!

But his comment unsettled me. Of all the experiences we had together, why did that one come to mind? Did he resent me for obsessive reading? I had long since forgiven him for being away at his drugstore 14 hours a day. Now, for the first time in my life, his comment made me wonder what he thought about me. However, he grew quiet, and I let the matter drop. My childhood seemed so far away. I would probably never understand his part in it. I had a hard enough time remembering my own.

One reason I can barely remember my childhood is because I spent most of it inside the covers of a book. I read in my room, at the dinner table, and on trolleys and subways, always more fascinated with the invented world of fiction than in the world around me. I became so absorbed in stories, I sometimes forgot about the boy turning the pages. Once, in ninth-grade English class, I was visiting another planet with the characters in Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, when my teacher grabbed the book from my hand. I looked up at his red face, momentarily confused. How did he even see me?

My strategy to read my way through life fell apart when I landed in Madison, Wisconsin in 1965. Even before the riots started, I had no idea how to relate to this teeming mass of 30,000 students. To survive those tumultuous years, I tried to lose myself in the despairing cynical literature of the time, like Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which turned the butterfly image upside down. The book described a boy who turned  into a giant beetle. For the first time, books were taking me into worlds worse than the one I was trying to escape. I turned to marijuana, angry music, and confusing friends. Drowning in a sea of kids, I descended into confusion that took me years to fix.

After college, I reversed the downward slide by reading books about spirituality. Their promise of transcendent reality shone on my light-starved soul, guiding me out of the woods and back toward normalcy. When I felt strong enough to get a job, I turned to self-help books. Each one gave me deeper insight into the boy turning the pages. My journey continued in a therapist’s office, and then in real life, with friends and a family of my own. For forty years, I continued to work at becoming a healthy adult, and books were always right there with me.

In the early 2000s, I discovered memoirs. By diving into a memoir I still lost myself in another person’s world. However, instead of becoming less of a person, I was becoming more. Over and over, after I experienced the world through the author’s eyes, I added compassion and wisdom to my own. The next step seemed obvious. I needed to write my own.

As a slow, methodical memoir writer, I discover incidents buried under years of forgetting. Like an archeologist, I extricate them from the rubble of details and wonder what value each artifact might offer. I place them into the context of the book of my life, and through the chemistry of a growing narrative, they acquire deeper meaning. And because books were so important to me, some of the treasures in my memory relate to my passion for reading.

For one of my birthdays, around my fourteenth, I received a gift-wrapped book from Dad. I assumed it was the Hardy Boys book I asked for. The library didn’t stock the popular mystery series, so I was looking forward to this gift to increase my supply. I tore away the paper, expecting to reveal a photo showing the young sleuths. Instead, I found a boring orange book with no dust jacket. I opened it to see an old-fashioned typeface.

“What’s this?” I asked, making no attempt to hide my disappointment.

“I wanted you to try something different. It’s about a guy stuck on an island. Give it a chance.”

I put the book down, my face tense with the effort of holding back tears. “I won’t read it. Please, please give me the book I asked for.”

He insisted, and I ran to my room. Why was he doing this to me? What did he even know about books, anyway? On the one night a week when he came home for dinner, he sat in his chair, picked up a novel, and within minutes had passed out, the book face down on his lap.

I would show him. I would just stay in my room until he relented. A few days later, Dad gave in and bought me a Hardy Boys book. However, instead of exchanging Robinson Crusoe, he told me to keep them both. The ugly book in its boring orange cover sat next to my bed while I enjoyed yet another episode of the Hardy Boys.

After I finished reading the mystery, my obsession with books got the better of me and I picked up Robinson Crusoe. Pushing past my reluctance, I began reading. Within the first few pages I adjusted to Defoe’s antiquated sentences, and quickly lost myself in the story, identifying with this lonely, resourceful man trying to survive in a hostile world. I loved my life on that island, and loved Daniel Defoe for giving it to me.

When my journey came to an end, I was hooked on classics, and walked to our local library for more. Reading classics for pleasure became a passion, and for years, I found endless pleasure in novels by European authors such as Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas and American ones like Jack London and Mark Twain.

When I first recorded the incident, it didn’t have any particular importance. After I wrote it and tinkered with it, the anecdote deepened. My father’s solution to this challenge was more clever than I realized. He caved to my demand in a way that allowed us both to win. It never occurred to me he was that smart. Then, in my growing manuscript, I can follow events from one year to the next. Through this lens,.

Through the lens of story, I see my early life from both sides. Dad wasn’t perfect. He was just a guy trying to earn a living and at the same time figure out what to do with his teenage son. Concerned about my obsessive reading so he used his influence to bump it up a notch. His small intervention had a longlasting effect.

By turning anecdotes into a narrative I connect the dots. Dad’s observation about me reading at the ballpark helps me visualize from another person’s point of view that I was trying to disappear inside a book. But I wasn’t invisible after all. I had a father who tried to influence his son’s behavior in ways I couldn’t yet appreciate.

Before I started writing the memoir, memories of my teenage obsession immediately led me back to the red face of an angry English teacher grabbing a book from my hand. Now that I’m working through more memories, I have the opportunity to see the kind face of my father, handing me a book that would invite me into the foundations of western literature. As my manuscript evolves, instead of remembering a dad who was too busy to raise me, I can now watch him watch over me.

Writing Prompt
Your early memories were put in place before you had the intellectual tools to make sense of them. There they remain in their original form, until you write about them (or talk to a therapist). To use memoir writing to help you make more sense of your memories, think of various incidents with a caregiver. When one such anecdote jumps out of your mind, write it. After it’s on paper, look at it more closely for clues about what was going on in your world and in theirs. Place the anecdote on your timeline, and consider its context. What other incidents does it remind you of? When another scene jumps to mind, write that one too. Even if you don’t see the connection at first, put this one into your timeline. Repeat this exercise several times. Then step back and attempt to portray a richer picture of these interactions than the one that first came to mind.

Notes

Read more about how my obsession with reading classics for pleasure almost killed me by clicking here.

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.

Interview with Editors of 60s Memoir Anthology

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

In my previous post, I wrote about an anthology, The Times They Were a Changing, in which the stories and poems of 48 women spotlight a segment of the 60s experience. Collectively their words helped me understand an important segment of cultural history, and also extended my appreciation for the role of short-stories in the Memoir Revolution. In today’s post, I ask the editors of the anthology to help me understand how they put it together and why. Linda Joy Myers acts as their spokesperson.

Jerry Waxler: Is it called an anthology or a collection?

Linda Joy: We always called the Times They Were A-Changing “collection” an anthology because the range of themes and topics were consistent—the ’60s and ’70s—and because we included poetry, too. Early on all three editors discussed the various themes that were part of the era that we wanted to make sure were included, so the whole book is an arc of the era. As we researched the era through documentaries, films, music, and biographies, we were reminded of the many social, cultural, and political movements occurring simultaneously over a short time. To capture as much variety as possible in our stories and poems we developed subthemes, naming them by lyrics or slogans of the times.

Notes from the Underground: Early 60s
Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out: Hippie Counterculture
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Feminism and Women’s Rights
Social Unrest: Political Movements
Age of Aquarius: Spiritual and Human Potential Movements

Jerry:  It seems like creating an anthology requires specialized skills. How did you learn to do such a great job. Were there any models or prior attempts to inform you?

Linda Joy: We are all avid readers, and bring our reading and writing skills into this. It seemed intuitive, and we each contributed our vision to the project. We knew what the era meant to us, and we all remembered the feeling of those times and what they’d given us in the realm of creativity, inspiration to find our own voice, the ability to think out of the box, and the willingness to take risks.

Kate had edited and published a themed anthology that focused on the mother-daughter relationship and had edited several anthologies for the California Writers Club. The writers club developed a model of three editors—a small enough number to provide consistency in editorial direction, but had the advantage of a tiebreaker. Amber, who had also edited two anthologies for the Story Circle Network, is a wonderful manager and set up clear benchmarks, a doable timeline for selection, editing, manuscript formatting, proofing, and submission based on her own publishing experience.

An online company called Submittable, that helps editors create a system for receiving and reviewing work, is a great service. We sorted by themes and subthemes, set up keywords, scores, and made editorial comments viewable by all the editors. The professional tools that Submittable offered were essential to the success of our work.

Our publisher, She Writes Press, was supportive of a themed anthology, particularly one that showcased women’s experiences during a breakthrough era for women. Brooke Warner, co-founder of SWP, was willing to take the risk with us and trust our editorial abilities.

Jerry: How did you get so many great stories?

Linda Joy: We placed our ads in Poets and Writers, WOW! Women on Writing, Story Circle Network, where we knew there would be a lot of interested writers. The Story Circle Network conference is where our idea was born into the world, at a dinner under a 700-year-old oak tree on a windy evening. We placed our Call for Submissions with various writing groups we belonged to, and shared our project with writer organizations in newsletters, listservs, and blogs.

We decided to combine a contest with an opportunity for publication. The contest allowed us to advertise in publications that featured contests, while the opportunity to be published appealed to a wider reach. Our target groups were women writers, not celebrities or well-known feminine activists. We wanted women who could write, who were our peers, and who would create a grassroots publication.

We received about 270 submissions—it was a challenge to choose the best. We all read every story and loved our job.

Visit our website to meet our prizewinners and contributing authors whose works cover a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Many of our authors have written blog posts about their writing process which appear on our website.

Jerry: How did you tune and refine the stories so expertly (such consistent style!)

Linda Joy: Each of us had a set to edit, but we all read and re-edited each other’s group, partly because we were hungry to read ALL the stories and see them evolve, and partly because we wanted to make sure there was consistency. We created a rubric of what we wanted to see in each story and poem and “scored” the stories accordingly. Of course, we had to leave room for that je ne sais quoi, that mystery of why a story works too.

It was important to us that each story had a narrative arc of development, and brought home an insight that our readers could relate to. Each story needed to be a slice of life at the time and also reflect on the meaning of those times, either then or now. We wanted the stories to be pithy yet entertaining. Some of them are about painful experiences from that time that the writers had never before put into words and others are written from experiences on high—however you choose to interpret that word. This is the power of writing stories—shaping our experiences into a meaningful narrative that transcends the literal experience.

In developing the subthemes and keywords on our website and within the Submittable database, we grouped stories and poems by category and rank. We wanted to include a range of experiences as well as geography in our final selection.

Jerry: Why did you decide to include poetry in a book of stories? How do you see them fitting together?

Linda Joy: All of us who lived through this era know that poetry, song, and spontaneous eruptions of creative expression were part of it. Not all experiences can be properly shared in narrative form. It only seemed right to include poetry and invite another way to share the impressions, the moments of the era with impressionistic snapshots that brought us back to a feeling, a moment in time. We loved being able to include poetry.

Through the process of sharing our book we’re discovering how many women want to know, discuss, and share these changing times. We hope it may be the beginning of an important dialogue.

Jerry: I love your work with memoir writers and am a fan of your own memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother. So I was especially intrigued by the story you wrote in the Times They Were a Changing as a young woman trying to find herself in the sixties. How did your own personal experiences of the era come into play as you created this book?

Linda Joy: I had always wanted to write about the ‘60s and ‘70s, but hadn’t done it yet. It was such a confusing and exhilarating era, a time of my young adulthood, a time of confusion yet opportunity. Everything I’d known and believed before was fractured and out of the those pieces, along with my generation, I learned to find myself through art, through the new psychologies that were evolving at the time, through journaling, poetry, and books that invited self-expression and authenticity. So I was thrilled when Amber and Kate agreed to join me for this project. I can say now that it kickstarted my way into writing a new memoir about—yes, the ’60s and 70’s, and I can thank the courage of all the writers I was reading to help me find my own.

Notes

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

Read more about the authors by clicking here.

Click here for more about the themes in Times They Were a Changing

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.

The Sixties Had Many Struggles. Here’s One I Missed.

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

When I landed at the University of Wisconsin in 1965 I was a virgin, never smoked dope, had never been drunk, and had never heard of Vietnam. Even if I knew we were at war, it wouldn’t have bothered me. War preserves our freedom, right? Within weeks, I saw a picket line, my first warning that life was about to change. Soon I grew long hair and visited the record store every day hoping for new albums by the Beatles, Stones, and Bob Dylan.

Our cultural fever was fearless and far ranging. We hated war and poverty. We intended to eliminate them. We hated the stupid rules that restricted sex, so we ignored them. We were going to change consciousness itself. With the help of marijuana, I broke loose from old fashioned notions of personal responsibility. Money? Who needs it? When I read my first book by Alan Watts, I saw exactly what he meant. All of life is an illusion and we young people were reinventing it. What an exciting time!

Sweaty palms and gut wrenching drama: confronting “The Man”

To convince The Man of our new truths, we locked arms outside classrooms and refused to let anyone in. When police stormed the building, beating us with clubs, we ran in disbelief, furious and confused. Didn’t they see we were right? That conflict between two opposing desires is the basis for the dramatic tension that has driven stories since the beginning of time. It is the reason many of us know we lived through some good stories.

However, despite all the story material provided by those colorful times, memoir writers seem to be avoiding the era. After reading hundreds of memoirs, I can only think of two that took me all the way into the mentality. **

Where are all the other boomers who will provide their own experience during that time? Recently, I found a fascinating stash, like an archeological treasure buried in the minds of its authors. It’s a collection of short stories and poems called The Times They Were a Changing, co-edited by Linda Joy Myers, Amber Lea Starfire and Kate Farrell. I settled back and went for the ride, turning the pages from one good story to the next. The stories not only took me into the past. They offered me the wisdom and uplift that I gain when I set aside my own point of view and see the world through other eyes.

Women Wanted to Change the World, Too

In these stories, I learn that women needed to confront the Man in a very different way than I did. They had to confront him when they asked their fathers what subject they were allowed to major in. They had to confront him when they asked for permission to leave their dorms at night or which job they were permitted to perform. But these women had drunk the potion of “we can change the world.” Why not change gender relationships too?

Like the war protestors, they discovered that The Man fought back. When Dorothy Alexander tells her dad that she is no longer restricted by the old ways, he screams at her. Get out of my house. I never want to see you again. Reading that scene, I vicariously feel her anger, pride, and fear, every bit as much as when I stood in front of a club-wielding cop. I turn the page. Tell me more!

Before I started gathering my past into a memoir, the sixties felt like a big, fascinating, mess, during which I joined a generation who thought that the path to wisdom required that we destroy the path. What did we end up with after all that drama? Most of our pipe dreams went up in smoke. We didn’t eliminate poverty or war, and drugs turned out to be less groovy than they first appeared. And in just six years, from 1965 to 1971, I effectively dismantled my life, forcing me to start over.

During my journey back to wholeness, I discovered that the best way to improve my relationship to the world was to tune in to the stories people tell about themselves and each other. For example, this method helped me improve my relationship with my older sister.

She seemed to be angry with me all the time, but I could never figure out why. I asked her to meet me for lunch so we could try to get to the bottom of it. The clatter of the restaurant faded into the background as we began to tell each other about childhood. She revealed her resentment about the way Dad gave his sons more freedom to choose schools and majors than he gave her. I was surprised and told her I had never noticed he was granting us more privilege. She was surprised by my lack of complicity. Now, years later, I finally saw the pain his preferences had caused.

Our conversation helped me understand why my sister resented me, and gave me my first personal understanding of what it felt like to be a woman before the shift. How could I have missed the whole thing? I couldn’t answer that question until I read the following story in The Times They Were a Changing.

Author Judith Barrington describes a crowded party, with loud music, booze and dancing. All the participants are female, bursting with the power of expressing themselves without worrying about the opinions of men. They wear blue jeans and some of them have even disrobed in an expression of defiance against all the crap about their bodies imposed by men. There is a commotion at the door. Two women have just entered dressed in fashionable dresses, makeup, coiffed hair and other symbols of male domination. The chatter in the crowd turns to a commentary about this turn of events. Why are they here? These aren’t feminists. Maybe they aren’t women at all. Maybe they are men dressed as women in order to crash our party. One of the women in the crowd says disdainfully, “Bloody men think they belong everywhere.”

The comment yanked me out of the story and brought me back to my body, where I found myself in an awkward position. I am a man. I can’t change my gender. Does that mean I’m not even welcome to keep reading? Of course not, I thought. That’s the power of reading. We set ourselves aside and go for the ride. So I climbed back into the story. Inside I see men as the enemy. In my state as an empathetic reader, I find that interesting, even mind expanding. I open my mind and drink in the mood of the time.

When I finish reading, I know more than I ever did back then. And my ignorance now makes better sense. If such parties were taking place at the University of Wisconsin, I certainly didn’t know about them. And if women were meeting to demand their rights, I didn’t know a thing about it. Despite the many benefits I have enjoyed as a male in a post-liberation world, I had no clear image of how we arrived here, nor was I able to empathize with the situations that women experienced during that turmoil.

Sharing stories heals wounds. After my sister and I processed the sins of our father, I told her that even though flying from Philadelphia to Madison may have looked glamorous, I regretted that I had more freedom than I knew how to handle. She had never realized how lost I felt there. By the end of the conversation, we understood each other. We’ve been good friends ever since.

After reading The Times They Were a Changing, I now have a much better understanding of the experiences of women in my generation. And even though I didn’t have a chance to witness the transition when it was first happening, now through the magic of memoirs, I am invited as a guest with a front row seat.

The Times are Changing Again

The title of this collection is for me a double entendre. In addition to the obvious meaning that the times back then were changing, I am fascinated by the changes today. The Memoir Revolution, in which we are participating right now, has fewer photo-opportunities. I doubt that I would watch a movie about a crowd of writers sitting at their desks. But inwardly this revolution overflows with all the drama that life has to offer. A million aspiring memoir writers are collecting their lives into the shape of a Story and imagining the possibility of sharing those stories with each other. Our new revolution liberates us from silence, lets us step out of our cliques and pains and ushers in an era of cultural dialog, with mutual respect and the exhilarating power of page turning stories.

Writing Prompt
What time in your life are you convinced “no one will ever understand.” Even if you can’t imagine ever writing it, set aside your doubts and try writing one scene. Think of any time related to that experience even if it seems too trivial to bother with, or at the other extreme, even if it seems too intense to ever capture in words. Write that scene by simply reporting what you were seeing, feeling, and thinking. Free-write. Don’t worry about excellence. It’s just a first draft. When you finish writing that scene, consider the powerful result. You have begun to translate a memory into a story. Later, by learning to polish and revise it, you can develop it into something with a beginning, middle and end, or you can add it as a chapter to a longer work. Feel free to type your brief episode into the comments below.

Reading Prompt
Look for memoirs that describe events similar to the one you experienced. Read the memoir, and then think about how that author translated life into story. If you want to ask about a memoir related to your situation, feel free to leave it in the comment section. Perhaps I or another commenter can offer a suggestion.

Notes

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

** Memoirs I’ve reviewed about the sixties: Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days, takes me into his over-the-top war protests. Read my essay:  in Read banned memoirs: Criminal or Social Activist?  And Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God offers a look at growing up in a Christian commune named L’Abri in Switzerland. Read my essay, Memoir of a commune stirs hope for a healthier world

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.

Sexual Coming of Age in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

When I was a teenager, I completely flunked sexuality. Unable to balance signals from my body, from girls, and from social expectations, I “solved” the whole mess by running away. My all-boys high school made it easy to hide from girls during the day. And every Friday and Saturday evening I worked at my dad’s drugstore. I graduated high school having been on a total of three dates, all awkward, one ending in a car crash. Eventually, I reached adulthood, eager to forget the awkward feelings and general sense of failure I associated with those memories.

Decades later, when I became interested in writing my memoir, I had no idea how to revisit those early years. I was afraid my confusion about sexuality would force me to continue the pretense that this fundamental human need didn’t exist. But I soon discovered that by reading the stories of other people’s lives, I could gain wisdom about my own. Even though most authors only briefly touched on the subject, I gradually accumulated a greater understanding of how we humans incorporate this powerful force into our lives.

For example, Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes gives a gritty glimpse into a boy’s sexual awakening. And the boy who inappropriately touched Jeanette Walls in Glass Castle showed me the fear and confusion from the girl’s point of view. Name all the Animals by Allison Smith took me across the border into same-sex attraction. Beyond groping and pure confusion were the infatuating romance of sexuality such as expressed by Tania Grossinger in Growing up at Grossingers. And in Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer wrote an excellent story of a boy falling madly in love through the joys of sexuality. His passion started not only a marriage but also a political movement.

In almost every case, each young person feels alone in their desperate attempt to understand the awakening of sexual urges, and few of them attempt to apply social or religious teachings to help them steer. In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt was told that thinking about sexuality would land him in hell. Since he couldn’t escape his own sexual impulses, he decided to escape the Church. In the memoir, Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer received extensive religious training from his parents who ran a famous Christian commune. But their advice didn’t stop him from having sex with the attractive young seekers who came from all over the world for spiritual direction. His sense of morality only kicked in after his girl friend became pregnant. Aside from those examples, until recently I had not read any memoir about an author who investigated the complex, nuanced relationship between the rules of society and the impulses of the body.

That gap has been filled by Karen Prior’s memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. In it, she describes the development of a young girl’s journey through the tumultuous awakening of sexual impulses, and toward her own inner peace with it. Karen Prior’s forays into groping quickly led her to crave a deeper understanding of the social rules she ought to follow. Her desire to explore these rules adds such an important direction to the discussion of sex, I feel as if she lifted me out of flatland and into the third dimension.

Before Prior reached puberty, she had already received a good education in love and sex from her mother whose life had almost been destroyed by an unwanted pregnancy out of wedlock. Her mother taught her, first, to carefully understand the consequences of sexuality. Her mother’s second rule, equal in importance to the first, was that in her mother’s eyes, sex would never “ruin” her. They would be in it together, no matter what.

Prior took her mother’s guidance into account. However, she still needed to figure out how to apply this advice to her own life. Where does a young girl go when looking for such guidance? Karen Prior turned to literature. And that inquiry is the topic of her memoir, which could have been called “How literature helped me understand myself and my role in society.”

From her point of view, high school English Literature classes are about more than just interesting reading. They are about sharing with young people the repositories of the values of civilization. And so, Prior did not just read the books assigned in her English class. She devoured them, and tried to understand their social implications.

In the literature of only a century earlier, she discovers the disturbing fact that despite her mother’s reassurances, girls really could be destroyed by sex. However, instead of accepting this damnation, she looks at it as a stage on the path of civilization. Karen Prior realizes that human attitudes toward each other evolve over the centuries and our literature is like a historical record of those changes. As an example, she discovers that one of the most damning of books, Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy is a subtle mockery of the cultural climate of the time. According to her close reading, Hardy’s book celebrates the inherent dignity of the girl, and criticizes the social hypocrisy that condemns her.

Karen Swallow Prior’s memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me is not just about lessons she learned in books. It’s also about growing up bookish. For example, when she crosses into adolescence, the clique of popular girls pushes her away. She makes an important, perhaps life-altering decision. Rather than beg her way back into a club of girls who base their power on sexual charisma, she applies for admission into the clique of smart girls. Her new friends support her mission to make sense of life not by commanding power over sexuality, but by mastering the thoughts that govern those impulses.

Romance, sex, feminism, and values
Through Karen Prior’s exploration of her own coming of age, she has created a fascinating tapestry that weaves together human kindness and decency in the same bundle as sexuality. Her story has shown me more clearly than ever the meaning of the feminist diatribe against pornography as the objectification of women. But rather than making this assertion as an obvious fact that I’m already supposed to know, she takes me on her journey of discovery and reveals the logic behind it.

Her premise seems familiar enough. By stripping romance out of sex, the package of romance falls apart and leaves just sex. But trying to apply that premise in modern society at first seems quaint and old-fashioned. However, through her value-rich eyes, she shows how without romance, sexuality quickly becomes dark, sinister and manipulative. Then I take another look at my memoir shelf and see the potential for human suffering hidden just behind the promise of easy pleasure.

In Nic Sheff’s memoir Tweak and Janice Erlbaum’s memoir Girl Bomb, falling into drug addiction leads to the gritty, sobering reality of trading drugs for sex. On an even darker note, in Reading Lolita in Tehran Azar Nafisi describes the way the righteous men of Iran treat women like objects, similar to the way Humbert Humbert treats Lolita in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. In the memoir Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro, the author becomes a plaything of a controlling, rich man. In Crazy Love, Leslie Morgan Steiner finds that within her new husband’s heart lurks a wounded, vengeful animal. In Lucky by Alice Sebold, love is stripped away entirely, leaving behind the raw, animalistic sexuality of rape.

In Karen Prior’s analysis, pornography is another expression of this dangerous obsession that offers sex without the uplift of romance. Her explanation gives me the eerie feeling I have just witnessed the convergence of two almost diametrically opposed belief systems. On one extreme, left-wing radical feminists fight valiantly to prevent women from seeming like men’s things, and on the right-wing, sexual moralists fight with equal vigor to remind us to maintain the linkage between love and sex. She combines the two into a single powerful argument, and she does it all through the universal language of literature.

Two “characters” – the young girl and the grown woman

When Karen Prior becomes a literature professor, she has the opportunity to teach younger students about how literature can help them grow up. Most memoirs I review allow the reader to stay focused within a single timeframe. The single timeframe lets us suspend disbelief and enter the character’s world. In Booked, Prior removes that wall that keeps the reader within one timeframe. Her memoir moves back and forth between her younger self and the adult looking back on that younger self. From her vantage point as a professor she can make more profound observations about her younger self than she could if she remained within a single point of view.

Memoir purists might object to this shift that splits the reader’s attention between the two perspectives. However, I love stretching the boundaries of this vast, fluid Memoir Revolution. If the author believes the story is best told as a split between two timeframes, I accept her storytelling choices and go for the ride.

Her journey of Coming of Age continues, until the young woman grows up and merges with the adult, a somewhat haunting storytelling effect. In a chapter on the pleasures of married life she calls upon the writings of the sixteenth century poet John Donne. When John Donne fell in love he married his beloved without her father’s approval. The shotgun wedding angered her powerful father so much that he had Donne imprisoned. This punishment did not shake the lovers’ commitment to each other. Donne’s writing memorialized this romance-in-a-crucible, offering generations of readers insight into a poetic view of the institution of marriage. *

Prior’s exploration of the pleasures of marriage took me by surprise. Isn’t this a memoir about a girl learning about sexuality? However, after pondering the arc of the story, I realize that marriage is integral to her journey. Her willingness to postpone the urge to procreate is founded on the hope of finding a partnership that will last a lifetime.

As we go through life, attempting to figure out how to live, we naturally absorb examples and ideas from our reading material. From books and stories, we learn how other people steered and why they made their choices. Karen Prior offers an excellent example of a young woman who learned from books.

The memoir inspires me about more than the power of studying literature in formal English classes. If a young woman reads Karen Prior’s story at just the right time in her life, this author’s example might offer wisdom, passing along the wisdom of one generation to the emerging choices of the next.

Writing Prompt
What lesson did you learn that you wish you could pass on? Naturally once you learned that rule through your own hard experience, you may feel entitled to pass it on to young people. If they don’t listen, try another method. Take advantage of the Memoir Revolution’s pathway, and share the story of how you learned that rule. Your mistakes, and the agony of your hard earned lesson might find their way into another heart more easily than merely repeating a rule.

NOTES
According to a new branch of science that studies the evolution of culture, humans invented stories to teach each other how to live in society. In his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Brian Boyd makes the case that humans are wired to tell stories, so we could learn from the mistakes of others, and advance our culture based on the stories of those who had come before. And according to my book Memoir Revolution, memoirs extend that system, allowing us to learn not only from fictional characters but from living ones.
John Donne’s wife’s name is Anne, and he was thrown in jail for marrying her. In one of the cleverest micro-memoirs ever Donne uttered these five memorable words: “John Donne. Anne Donne. Undone.” I am grateful to Karen Prior for sharing this clever bit of intellectual history.

I’ll write more about her contribution to my understanding of intellectual history in a future post.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of 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.

This Memoir Teaches How To Grow up with Books

by Jerry Waxler

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

The memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Professor Karen Swallow Prior is about a young girl trying to make sense of life. She is not content to mindlessly accept what she’s been told by her elders. Nor does she mindlessly surrender to the tribal rituals of her schoolmates. She needs to find the truth for herself. Her memoir is about her process of deeply questioning her world, and the mistakes and lessons she learns along the way. As a young intellectual, naturally she turns to books for many of her answers.

Her memoir recounts how authors like John Donne, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Arthur Miller offer a rich source of insight. Their wisdom helps her steer through dilemmas, maintain dignity and find the high road. The memoir is one of the best I’ve seen about the intellectual development of an inquiring mind.

Professor Prior’s journey took me back to my own intellectual development. During high school, my favorite classics by Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas did not teach me how to live. They were more like magic carpets transporting me to another place and time. When I was finished, I moved on to the next. My attitude toward books became more serious in college during the 60s. Desperate to figure out how to grow up, I poured my intensity into books. I lingered with each one, immersed myself in it, lived within the world the author created. Tragically, the books that seized my imagination were by despairing authors like Ferdinand Celine, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett.

By the time I reached the end of that journey, instead of being prepared to face adulthood, I had lost all hope. I knew that if I didn’t find something to live for, I would die. A lifeline came to me in the form of a few pages of an obscure photocopied book that opened me to something called a spiritual path. I became a seeker, latching onto the presence of God. Things suddenly brightened. I switched reading material again, this time immersing myself in an eclectic mix of mystical writings such as Kahlil Gibran, Rumi, and the anonymously written Way of the Pilgrim. These writings provided me with a cosmic context. No longer alone in the universe, my journey made sense.

However, despite the enormous influence books have had on my life, I have read few memoirs in which books play a central role. * Now, riding Karen Prior’s magic carpet about growing up with books, I return to my youth and wonder what it would have been like to have deeper appreciation for the social lessons embedded in my classics.

In college during my hours of deepest need, I was not interested in what adults told me. I wanted to read my truths in books. I opened to each one as if it might contain the key. What if I had read a book like Karen Prior’s, that showed me how to find longer lasting guidance. Would I have grown through that period faster, with less pain and fewer mistakes? I can’t turn the clock back to my own youth, but it makes me wonder about the influence of memoirs on young people today.  Perhaps some of them will suspend their disbelief, join her and other memoir authors on their journeys of discovery and then return to their own lives, enriched with new possibilities.

Unlike the authors of most of the books I read in high school, who were inaccessible and mostly dead, Karen Prior is very much alive. To learn more about her I looked her up on the web, and found she also writes articles for the Atlantic Monthly. In her articles, she is a ferocious evangelist for the value of reading. In an age filled with fear and confusion that young people are falling away from books, she urgently points out that literature is the conduit through which we pass values to the next generation.

In addition to being a science-based appeal to the power of reading, the article also addresses one of the central problems I faced as a young man. How does an intellectually voracious young person develop a notion of transcendence without resorting to doctrine?

In the article “Does Reading Make Us More Human?” Prior offers one of the most universal, least doctrine-based answers I have ever seen. She says, “What good literature can do and does do — far greater than any importation of morality — is touch the human soul.” She calls the process “Deep Reading” and makes an astonishing claim for its importance.

She says the word “read” does not just apply to written symbols. We also use the same word “read” when we attempt to understand another person’s feelings. She goes on to draw this far reaching conclusion. “In this sense, deep reading might be considered one of the most spiritual of all human activities.” Her sweeping statement shocks me. I need to deep-read her assertion that Deep Reading is spiritual. When I open my mind to her perspective, I see how it beautifully expresses the reason I love memoirs.

A work of literature, by itself is just a collection of words. By deep-reading it, we bring to life the author’s passion, years of deep thought, insight, and wisdom. Deep Reading reveals that behind every book is an author and every time we deep-read a book, we enter an intimate connection with that author. Engaging in that sophisticated, mature and interior relationship with an author is essentially a spiritual act. Her assertion agrees with my own definition of spirituality. If God is love, and God is within each one of us, by opening up to each other’s stories, we touch God.

Her experiences as a child and a teacher, and the effort she subsequently poured into writing her Atlantic articles and her memoir all add up to a life devoted to the relationship between literature and life. And by offering her lessons to the rest of us, she adds to our cultural awareness of the impact books have on our lives.

Memoirs share many journeys

In each decade of my life, I am accompanied by a different set of books. After I had learned as much as I could in my thirties from my round of spirituality books, I needed escape so I read murder mysteries. When I realized that escape wasn’t getting me anywhere, I shifted to an obsession with self-help and psychology books to learn how to relate to people and be my own best self. In my late-fifties, when I realized that life is a fascinating story, I switched again, this time reading the stories of other people.

Memoirs provide a different type of reading experience than I’ve had during previous periods. Instead of isolating various dimensions of life, this genre ties them all together. Each memoir lets me dance inside an author’s world, discovering what drives them to excel and what tries to crush their spirit, how they learn to keep going and how they turned all of that into a book.

Now I do the same dance inside Karen Swallow Prior’s memoir and I feel like I’m in a hall of mirrors. Deep-reading about her experience of learning lessons from literature makes me feel like I am in heaven. No. It’s better than that. Pondering every memoir makes me feel like I’m in heaven. Pondering this one makes me feel like I’m in heaven gazing up at heaven’s sky.

Written across that sky, I read an important message for memoir writers. After we make mistakes, learn lessons, read books, and grow up, we have the opportunity to pass our wisdom along to those who follow. By learning to translate our lives into stories, we are offering ourselves to others in a universal form, leading ourselves and our readers more deeply into what it means to be human.

In my book Memoir Revolution, in a chapter titled Finding a Language for Individual Spirituality, I explore the way memoirs enable us to share our views of transcendent truth. Professor takes my argument one step further and proposes that our individual experience, when deeply appreciated, is itself transcendent. Your memoir could contribute to this great spiritual awakening. By pouring your life experience into the stream of wisdom, you help others learn and grow.

Karen Prior’s memoir provides yet another demonstration of the profound ability of the Memoir Revolution to break down walls between strangers, to give us a way to share our wisdom and lessons. By deep reading memoirs, we can find our connection with each other, and by writing our own, we can offer others the opportunity to deeply read us.

Writing Prompt
The obvious writing prompt that emerges from this book relates to the power books have had in your own life. Write a scene in which a book strongly influenced the course of your thinking, providing lingering guidance.

Writing Prompt
You may also have counter-examples, books that tore you down. When I was in college, and struggling with my own obsessive sense of rebellion, I became infatuated with the despairing authors in 20th century Europe. I read these too deeply for my own good. If you have any counter-examples in which the ideas in a book took you off track, write a scene or story about one of those, too.

Writing Prompt
At the end of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me is a long list of study questions suitable for a literature class. These study questions raise an interesting possibility for your memoir. Could you imagine young people, or people in your target audience, discussing some facet of your life, in order to understand their own? Review the scenes or chapters in your own memoir in progress, and write a study question about some principle or challenge that could stir up conversation.

Notes

Amazon Link: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Atlantic Articles: How Reading Makes Us More Human
What Maya Angelou Means When She Says ‘Shakespeare Must Be a Black Girl’

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury made the case that it was important to preserve books, but I do not recall any deep message about how a young person could apply lessons from any of the individual books to his or her own development.

* Another memoir that uses literature to explain principles of life is Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. Click here for my essay about that memoir.

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.