Why memoirs teach more than literature Pt 3

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the third part of a four part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I explain how writing as well as reading stories shows kids how to combine literature and life.

The memoir Freedom Writers Diary was about an innovative high school teacher, Erin Gruwell, who brought the messages of the great authors out of the clouds and into her students’ lives. At first she did it by showing life lessons contained in the classics. For example, she pointed out the gang wars that fueled the tragic tension in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

To demonstrate an even more intimate connection between literature and life, Gruwell invited a young author Zlata Filopovic to visit the classroom. When Zlata Filipovic was eleven years old, she wrote a diary about being pinned down by mortar fire in her hometown, Sarajevo. After publishing Zlata’s Diary, she became known as the “new Anne Frank.”

Another visitor, Miep Gies, was directly involved with Anne Frank’s diary. Gies, whose family protected Anne Frank, brought the Holocaust out of the history books and into Erin Gruwell’s classroom. She proved to the high school class that writing enables real people to share their lives.

Gruwell completed the circle that joins literature to life by inviting her students to write about their own experiences. Their diaries created connections across gang boundaries, and beyond neighborhoods all the way out to the rest of the world.

Gruwell’s groundbreaking work wasn’t finished yet. By publishing the story, she invited us to become students in her classroom. From her memoir, we learn that stories are not just about abstract characters. Her memoir bursts our story-reading minds out of the pages and into the world.

Gruwell’s students learned from each other’s diaries that the people sitting next to them in class had lives just like theirs. Our shared memoirs provide the same lesson on a much wider scale, helping us understand each other around the globe.

The need for life lessons doesn’t stop the day we leave our formal education. As we grow, we need to develop more fulfilling social patterns or adapt to new eras in our lives. And memoirs can help.

For example, everyone who tries to write a memoir is attempting to incorporate story writing into their adult lives, Elna Baker offers valuable lessons, first within the pages of her memoir New York Mormon, and then beyond it. Her attempts to become an actress, then a story performer, and finally a memoir writer provide a model of incorporating Story into real life. She also offers other lessons that could be valuable to adults. Her attempt to understand her relationship to God within or without the constraints of religion offers a brilliant look into one person’s attempt to follow this universal search. And her insights into the social power of trying to remain slim provides a valuable window into the challenge one faces when staring into the barrel of an ice cream cone.

Similarly, Erin Gruwell’s story, Freedom Writer’s Diary, is not just for kids, but for any English teacher or parent who wants to learn how to use literature to help kids grow. By watching Gruwell’s students connect the dots that separate them from each other, the entire world learned a valuable lesson about how life writing connects us all.

Reading and writing memoirs can help anyone at any age, to learn and grow beyond the assumptions we’ve always made about ourselves, so we can see ourselves as characters in a rich drama of interesting, vibrant, self-aware people.

In the second part of this essay, I describe how the Memoir Revolution is providing the tools that could help literature classes link the essential tool of Story to the essential task of growing up.

In the fourth part, I’ll dive into brain science. It turns out that brain imaging backs up everything I’ve been saying about memoirs. Isn’t science amazing?

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.

Why Memoirs are Better Than Literature Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

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

Great literature provides insights into true genius through the ages, but in this second of a three part essay, I claim that a far better way to raise young people is to assign  memoirs. Click here to read part 1.

Turning toward memoir as a more accessible approach to literature

In my late teens, I opened my heart and mind to the lessons contained in great literature. Over the next few years, brilliant authors like Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Samuel Beckett convinced me that adults are stupid and life sucks. These observations fueled my horror, and I pulled farther and farther away from adult life, convinced that it was all wrong, and young people were going to need to reinvent civilization. Even though great literature was unravelling my sanity, I continued drinking it in, like an addict, unaware that the substance giving me pleasure was also destroying me.

Tragically, the destructive influence of great literature didn’t stop my literature professors from supplying more. Looking back, I don’t blame them for wanting to me read these works of great literary merit. However, looking forward, I think young readers today can tap into a far more constructive source of wisdom.

In the twenty-first century, the Memoir Revolution allows adults to pass wisdom to the next generation, without the distortions and exaggerations of invented worlds and fictitious circumstances. Even though memoirs are crafted to maximize dramatic intensity, their greatness does not result from metaphor and hyperbole, to be picked apart in search of the finest phrase. The genius of this genre arises from its ability to immerse the reader in a slice of the author’s actual experience. If any picking apart is warranted, it would be to learn more about how the story can help readers make better sense of life.

To Grow Up, We Must Create Our Own Stories

To grow from child to adult, every one of us must construct stories of ourselves. Our initial co-writers in this endeavor are our parents, siblings, and caregivers. As we grow, we take into account glances from strangers, or watching our parents interact with outsiders. When we go to school, our interactions with teachers and students influence our self-understanding. And throughout the years, see ourselves reflected in the books, movies and television shows of our culture.

From this accumulated information, we construct a self-image that looks a lot like a story. Story is an ancient form of thought in which a protagonist seeks the solution to some problem. Reaching inexorably toward that goal, the hero must press, past obstacles toward an answer. By shaping our self-images in this form, we develop our own sense of confidence and purpose, providing ourselves with a roadmap for the future.

Literature professors could provide an enormous service by showing us how to apply well-crafted stories as models that would enable us to improve the shape of our own. But their charter until now has been focused on the power of story for its own sake. The Memoir Revolution offers them an opportunity to combine their love for literature with their charter to pass along the narrative art of civilization.

The memoirs on my shelves contain hundreds of brilliant life lessons, gained by authors through the course of their lives. By reading these memoirs, I’ve learned about life through each author’s eyes. Each memoir demonstrates the alchemy of converting the senselessness of real life into the elegant, universally admired elixir of Story. Now, all that needs to happen is for literature professors to discover the power of the memoir. The teachers can fulfill their original charter, by helping students learn the elegant structure of a well-told story. At the same time, the students can immerse themselves in the author’s life, learning features and insights about a wide variety of human experiences.

A Memoir Conveys Clear, Important Truths about Launching

A great example of a memoir that helps define a young person’s adjustment to adult life is New York Mormon Regional Halloween Dance. In it, author Elna Baker pursues the fundamental mission of trying to grow into adulthood. Compare the lessons Elna Baker learned about growing up with the books that influenced me as a young man.

Henry Miller’s characters remain trapped in the never-fulfilled state of sexuality. Elna Baker tries to understand how modern people use sexuality in their quest for mutual commitment.

In The Great Gatsby, the hero tries to learn about life from a man whose money flows from an exaggerated ocean of wealth. Elna Baker’s memoir is about the realistic challenge of developing competencies in order to earn a living.

In Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham’s character travels to remote regions to understand his relationship with spirituality. Elna Baker leaves home, not to escape her responsibilities but to accept them, hoping to find her truths in the same place she earns her living

Growing up requires the power of choosing

In New York Mormon, Elna Baker experiments, learns from the results, and takes the next step, informed by the last. This healthy approach to life sounds so obvious it shouldn’t even require mentioning, and yet when I was a young man, I immersed myself in an endless series of novels in which the “heroes” were trapped by indecision, trying to make sense of an overwhelming world. By identifying with them, I was undermining my will to grow up. As a result, I made what at the time seemed like a rational choice. I “dropped out,” attempting to solve the problem of adulthood by refusing to become one.

If, as a young man, I had been reading memoirs like Elna Baker’s I would have been inspired by her willingness to make choices. She does not fight against adulthood. Instead, she strives to make the most of it. Her proactive approach to acquiring the competencies of adulthood offer more guidance in one book than my years of exploring and studying the literary canon ever did.

Elna Baker represents a generation of memoir heroes who act with purpose, learn to move toward the next step, and take notes so they can pay their stories forward to those of us who need to travel that journey ourselves.

In the third part of this essay, I will tie together educational, scientific, and literary trends that suggest our collective will is already moving in the direction of using Story to help us learn to be social.

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.

Two Types of Trainings in Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

In a famous scene from Star Wars, when warrior Luke Skywalker was learning how to fight, his mentor told him to close his eyes and “feel the force.” The training was a crucial step in the young man’s journey and a perfect demonstration that heroes need to learn skills in order to succeed.

To see how this applies to memoir writing, consider the brilliant, detailed treatment of training and mentors in Andre Agassi’s memoir, “Open.” To become proficient as a tennis champ, Agassi relied heavily on sport trainers. In his description of his training, Agassi offers us a bonus, demonstrating the distinction between two fundamental types of training. One type could be called “fight training” relevant for battle. In his case, the battle was tennis. The other form of training was his ordinary schooling, which was supposed to teach him how to live in peacetime, if he had stuck with it. His struggle to balance these two types of training became a key dramatic tension in his memoir.

Tension between School and Sports

As a teenager, Agassi was sent away to live in a special high school for aspiring tennis champions. He only attended ordinary classes for a few hours a day and the rest of the time he practiced to become a fighting machine on the tennis court. He hated the mundane schoolwork and pressured his trainer to let him drop out. After Agassi quit, he became even more immersed in tennis. He listened to his coaches and worked hard, constantly striving to succeed.

His progress, at first glance, seems like a perfect model for a successful life: study, challenge yourself to get ahead, and rise to the top of your field. Despite Agassi’s success on the tennis court, he had the nagging regret that he had missed one of the foundations of being a human being. His lack of general education did not interfere with his ability to earn a living but it gradually revealed itself as a missing piece in his heart. When he began to search for fulfillment off the tennis court, he tried to fill in this piece, not by going back to school himself but by building a school that would give this opportunity to others.

Writing Prompt

Write about your own two types of training. Consider the type of training that prepared you for battle. Perhaps you were a soldier and you really did have weapons training, or an athlete, a violinist, or any other skill that you used to make your way in the world. Show scenes of the warrior training, including classrooms, coaching sessions, discussions with mentors.

If you can’t think of any obvious “warrior training” loosen your definition and use metaphors to search for your warrior side. For example, if you went to business school or fashion school, imagine it prepared you to go forth to do battle in your career. If you engaged in social activism, or fighting against poverty or ignorance, what training helped you fight these “battles”? If you engaged in sports for fun, write a scene of those competitive situations to see what warlike aspects of yourself you can reveal. Or perhaps your warrior nature is expressed in board and computer games. Such activities are inherently competitive. You win, they lose. Write a scene about these skills and activities, to see if they can reveal more about that aspect of your experience.

In the peacetime type of training, how did you learn to live with people, socially, understanding your culture, your home and hobbies, and the less competitive aspects of life. What lesson or experience gave you the wisdom to be smarter about just being yourself? What mentors, beliefs, books, or classrooms helped you become a wiser person, easier to live with, more helpful to your community, family, and friends?

When and how did you feel torn between the practical form of training and the more general, peaceful one? Which aspect was over-accentuated, and which under?

When have you passed the training along, paying it forward, or returning to your community to share your learning with others?

Note
Another example of the way training can change lives, is, The Pact by Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, Rameck Hunt in which three boys in the ghettoes of north New Jersey band together to overcome their environment and became doctors.

Note

This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

by Jerry Waxler

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

The Freedom Writers Diary is a collection of diary entries written by inner-city high school kids in Los Angeles. When I first heard about it, I thought the book would be too scattered and too youthful to have anything to do with memoir writing. After I started reading, I discovered these authors were doing essentially the same thing any memoir writer does; telling stories about their lives, and sharing them with the world.

I was stunned by the intensity of their circumstances. In the classroom, the kids separated themselves into racially defined groups – Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and Whites.  Out on the street, many were members of rival gangs, killing and being killed for the color of their skin. Most of them had been shot at, and almost all had lost at least one friend to gang violence. The cultural tension portrayed a more complicated view of the American Melting Pot than I ever knew, and highlighted the terrible tendency of human beings to group together with their “own kind” and to exclude and misunderstand “the other.”

This particular classroom was designated for the throwaway kids, the ones who would never make it. Their home life was racked by poverty and drugs, and broken families. Some had been evicted and a few had even been homeless. When Erin Gruwell, a new teacher fresh out of college, walked into her English class, two things seemed obvious to everyone but her. First, these kids would continue their murderous hatred for each other, and second, none of them would graduate high school.

Through her innovative use of literature and journal writing, the young teacher defied both of these predictions, offering her students opportunities to escape their apparent fate. They raised their test scores, crossed racial lines to form deep friendships, finished high school and went on to college.

Uses of Journaling

To try to overcome their initial hostility to her and to each other, Erin Gruwell asked them to write about their personal lives. She had no idea she was turning on a spigot that released a flood of revelation and sharing. Through the writing, members of the class opened up to each other, breaking out of rigidly defined racial identities.

The journey to tolerance was helped by Gruwell’s use of world literature, especially the recollections of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of another diarist, Anne Frank. After reading Anne Frank’s diary, the students realized they were not the only ones persecuted. The Holocaust’s impact on the kids was so strong, Gruwell wanted to teach them more. She took them to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and she introduced them to several Holocaust Survivors. By visiting these horrors of recent history, they began to open their eyes to the futility and horror of racial hatred.

Shakespeare helped, too. The kids thought it was stupid that the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet would kill each other merely for being born with the wrong name. Then Gruwell pointed out the similarities to their own situation. They made the connection and learned another lesson about prejudice.

After four years of sharing their stories with each other, working together to raise money for educational projects, and becoming avid students of the literature of tolerance and survival, these kids traded in their hatred for harmony. Over and over they use the word “family” to describe their feelings for their fellow classmates.

The Power of Sharing Private Experience

Now that their diary entries have been published, the rest of the world can share their moral journey, too. Like the shape-shifters in magical myths, they tear off the masks of gang bangers, of druggies and anti-social kids who will never amount to anything, and reveal real people, with real dreams for family and a safe society. Their experience makes me dream of the possibilities.

After they graduated, the book ended but the kids kept pushing their agenda. Using the public awareness generated by the book, Gruwell and the Freedom Writers formed a non-profit organization, the Freedom Writers Foundation, to bring the message of hope to other schools.

Their public relations campaign shifted into high gear when the Freedom Writers experience was produced as a movie starring Hilary Swank. The production moved me as deeply as the book did, and will extend the reach of their message even farther, proving this amazing lesson about memoir writing. By telling the story of our own lives, we reach beyond ourselves, sharing experiences that potentially help other people grow, turning private lives into a public act of social change.

Writing Prompts
Write a situation in which you felt empathy for someone who was on the other side of some wall, contained behind the boundaries of your pre-judgment. Write what it felt like before the connection was established, and then what it felt like as the wall started to crumble and you saw the real person beyond it.

Consider some interaction you have had with a person from the “wrong” race or religion. Tell a story about your interaction. Stretch your imagination and try to tell the same story from their point of view.

Write about a period in your life when you felt stuck behind a façade, in which others saw you differently than you saw yourself. Write a story about taking off that mask.

Write a story about a book that made a difference in your life.

Write a story about a teacher who made a difference in your life.
Notes

The Freedom Writers Diary : How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, by Freedom Writers, Zlata Filipovic, with Erin Gruwell

Freedom Writers Foundation

Read my essay “The Terrible Logic of Uncivilized Boys” about Mark Salzman’s creative writing class inside a juvenile detention center for gang members in Los Angeles,

More memoir writing resources

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.

To learn more about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers

“Find meaning through service” or “Making peace with the peasants of Pakistan”

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

In his poem, “Second Coming,” W. B. Yeats made an incredibly discouraging statement. “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” It seems fair for a European continent ripped apart by war in 1920, but does it foretell the state of the world as it exists today? I hope not, and that’s why I was so encouraged by Greg Mortenson’s memoir “Three Cups of Tea.” In it, Mortenson is the guest of honor at a fund raiser, where he is introduced by Jon Krakauer, the mountain climbing author of “Into Thin Air.” Krakauer said “Yeats may be right that the worst are full of passionate intensity but he was wrong about the best lacking all conviction. As proof, I present Greg Mortenson.”

Greg Mortenson started out his life of public service by narrowly missing the peak of K2. On his way down, he lost his way and was taken in by villagers in the Pakistani mountains. Mortenson fell in love with the poor people who protected him. He loved their deep values, their willingness to care for strangers, their loyalty to each other, and above all, their desire for learning. To the people who cared for him that night, he vowed to return to build a school for their children. Serving these children became his life’s work.

This was in the early 90’s when climbers were the only westerners interested in the villages of Pakistan. In the following years, while Mortenson struggled to raise money to build schools for poor children, radical Islamicists also noticed the poverty in this area. Men with suitcases filled with cash came to fund a different kind of institution, which included curricula in automatic weapons, bombmaking, and the virtues of suicide. While Mortenson was striving on the basis of a few donations to develop their minds, oil money was pouring in to harvest these same kids as soldiers in the coming war against the west.

“Three Cups of Tea” is a book about the struggle of one man, and also a passion play about the struggle of civilization in the twenty first century. The great powers square off. One side attacks villages in hopes of killing villains, while the other side harvests the sons and brothers of the dead, anointing their revenge with the seductive promise of martyrdom. Meanwhile, Greg Mortenson pours his life into educating the children, seeking to convert them from human fodder into citizens of the world.

Inspirational – Uphill, against all odds
After returning to the States, he earned a living as a nurse in Berkeley, California, while writing hundreds of letters to philanthropists, one by one on a typewriter. Pakistan was literally on the other side of the world and it would be easy to imagine him becoming discouraged and forgetting his promise. But his tenacity turned into obsession, and he continued to fight to achieve not what was easy but what was right.

Growing up in Africa, with a father who started a hospital and a mother who started a school, Greg accepted in his bones the value of devoting his life to serving others. His hero was Mother Theresa whose mission was to care for the poorest of the poor. Greg Mortenson seems to have found his stride in fulfilling that ideal. While he didn’t reach the top of K2, his journey comes close to the pinnacle of what one human can achieve, and renews my faith in the potential goodness of humanity.

War stinks, “collateral damage” equals human tragedy
In his book “Achilles in Vietnam,” about the trauma of war, author Jonathan Shay said, “Demonize the enemy at your peril. It’s bad for your strategy, and bad for your own moral fiber.” Forty years after the Vietnam war, we are demonizing the enemy once again, portraying terrorists as dupes and soulless fools. Mortenson’s book is filled with deeper insights into the culture wars of the 21st century. When we look at the villagers of Pakistan and Afghanistan through Mortenson’s eyes we see multi-dimensional human beings with hearts, families, and dreams.

When he stumbled into the village the day he was lost, he was a stranger in a strange world. Perhaps because of his childhood in Africa, his first instinct was to meet them on their own terms. There is a saying in those mountains. “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time, you are an honored guest. The third time you become family.” Greg Mortenson shared far more than three cups of tea with these people.

Mortenson’s situation was not without danger. He asked his tailor to teach him how to pray to Mecca. Later, in a village mosque he discovered the tailor had taught him the Sunni way and these were Shiites. He thought, “people have been killed for less.” But these villagers knew him, and their friendship gave him all the protection he needed.

Things were riskier when he ventured into a remote area of the country without an introduction from an insider. He was kidnapped for 8 days by a local warlord, until they verified that he was indeed the infidel who built schools for Pakistani children. When they released him, they gave him money towards his building fund.

On two occasions, he was the target of a fatwa issued by a local mullah, making it a blessing to assassinate him. The only apparent way to reverse the ruling would be to pay a substantial sum of money. Instead of surrendering to this extortion, he appealed for protection from the top clerics of the Shiite religion. With the help of several village leaders, he asked these Iranian religious authorities to sanction his effort. After investigating his work, they sent back a ruling that said there was nothing in Muslim law that forbade an infidel from helping Muslim children. The top Shiite leaders formally gave him their blessing.

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, Mortenson was in Pakistan. He was swarmed by village women who offered tearful condolences for the loss of American lives, and was surrounded by men who offered to protect him. According to Mortenson the local villagers expressed disgust for bin Laden, seeing him as a troublemaker who had no interest in their welfare, and only cared about his own twisted agenda.

Mortenson, feeling more urgency then ever, decided to stay in Pakistan long enough to oversee details of his charity work. But when he went to the American embassy about a passport problem, he was ushered into a room and interrogated by the CIA. Their insinuating line of questioning made me wonder how easy it might be for them to lock him up with the other detainees in Guantanamo. He really did look like he was consorting with “terrorist types” if by “terrorist” you mean “Muslim peasant.” When the interrogators realized Mortenson knew the Pakistani mountains, they asked him where bin Laden was hiding. I guess it didn’t hurt to ask, but to a reader of “Three Cups of Tea,” their inquiry seemed desperately out of touch with the possibilities Mortenson was offering.

I thought how sad that the CIA operatives interrogating him could not see the whole picture. The man in front of them, full of passionate intensity, had developed and was carrying out a plan for world peace, at least one of the best potentials for it that I’ve heard. Instead of asking him to teach them what he knew, they asked him where they should drop a bomb. I guess this might be what W. B. Yeats wrote about in his poem. Now I wonder, as we move into the twenty first century, which side will win.

Writing Prompt
List peak experiences of your life, such as joy, accomplishment, or overcoming fear. Portray your approach to these peaks as if you were climbing a mountain, and recount the journey to the top. Were there moments when it seemed you would never make it, or you wanted to give up? Consider times when a positive outcome seemed impossible. Such moments add depth and texture to the story, and create a more meaningful experience for your readers.

Writing prompt
Consider the goal of writing your memoir. Like a long mountain road, that winds and climbs upward, look at the journey now as a step along the way to your final outcome. Imagine you just published your memoir. Get into it. Read the acceptance letter. Go to the bank and deposit the check. Attend your first book signing. What would you tell the audience member who asked you how you overcame the obstacles and completed your book.

Writing Prompt
When did you visit some other neighborhood or country and feel like a foreigner? What was it like? What did you do to try to feel more included?

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