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.

 

 

Interview with Memoir Activist Sonia Marsh, Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

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

In the previous post, I shared the first half of my interview with Sonia Marsh, author of Freeways to Flipflops. Here’s part 2 of my interview with her, mainly about decisions about writing and publishing her memoir.

Jerry Waxler: I enjoyed the glimpse you provided into the Expat experience on your move to Belize. Earlier in your life, as a newcomer to the U.S. you were an expat too. To what extent did this experience of being an expat into the US inform your description of what it felt like to be an expat to yet another culture when you moved to Belize for a year?

Sonia Marsh: Jerry, I never viewed myself as an expat when I moved to the U.S. at age twenty-five. I was so excited to be here and adapted quickly to my new life. Belize is so different, third-world, and then you really have to adapt and learn the ways of the locals.

Jerry Waxler: Were you ever tempted to insert your own expat experience from your childhood to help explain the experience as an adult one? What pros and cons determined your choice to talk so little about your earlier life?

Sonia Marsh: I didn’t think my own experience as a child growing up in Africa, and Europe related to this book. I also believe people are interested in reading about a contemporary family, and can relate to that more than me as a child in the late 50’s and 60’s. Working with my story structure editor helped me realize what belongs, and what doesn’t belong in my book. It has to fit the central theme, and my theme was “reconnecting a family on a tropical island.” I cut chunks out that didn’t fit my theme, and my message.

Jerry Waxler: In reviewing your book, I found many interesting themes, such as Life in the Caribbean, Escape from LA, Life as a Mother of troubled kids and getting them through a crisis, Midlife of a family, Escaping corporate life, and birth of an entrepreneurial spirit. I love this rich story with a lot of interesting lessons and tensions. However, many writing teachers try to convince memoir writers that it’s important to restrict the story to just one central theme. When you developed the book, what sort of internal debate did you go through to keep things in, like for example when you describe the hassle of getting your kids into schools in Belize.

Sonia Marsh: My husband kept telling me to focus on the adventure in Belize. Agents kept telling me that they didn’t care about the problems with my son (initially the first 1/3 of my book) but to move on to Belize by page 50, at least. “There are too many books about problem teenagers,” agents would say, “yours is interesting because you moved to another country to solve your problems.” As with many memoir writers, I focused too much on my own problems, almost to “vent,” rather than think about what my readers want that’s different. So I finally cut out the “venting,” about my son and his girlfriends, and moved on to Belize and how we had to cope and change.

Jerry Waxler: Then, a secondary question arises when you try to develop the title and cover of the book. Freeways to Flipflops makes the story sound like a carefree walk on the beach. When you set up the title and cover, were you worried about stripping away the complexity? Say more about how you decided what to emphasize.

Sonia Marsh: You make a good point Jerry. I wanted a visual title, and did not want to focus on my son’s defiance. As I mentioned, the adventure in Belize was more important than focusing on “healing.” I also spent several years branding my website and name from “Gutsy Writer,” to “Gutsy Living” and after discussing with 1106 Design company, I realized the potential of sticking with a brand, and being consistent. When people see the tropical water and font I use for my website, they will hopefully remember the word, “gutsy.”

Jerry Waxler: You talk about your entrepreneurial spirit in the memoir when you became interested in setting up a coffee shop in Belize. Much later, after you wrote the book, you had to sell it. The entrepreneurial spirit that unfolded inside the pages of your book spilled out into real life when you developed the entrepreneurial spirit of the Gutsy Story website and anthology.

This demonstrates one of the many reasons I love memoirs — they provide such an authentic window into the workings of the human experience. As real people we often must overcome intense struggles to find our self-worth and at the same time earn a living. However, many writers want to skip over earning a living because it’s too mundane. Did you wrestle or debate or get feedback from coaches or critiquers about including these elements of breadwinning in the emotional drama of your experience?

Sonia Marsh: I wrote about earning a living in Belize without any input from anyone else but myself. We were struggling to settle in Belize and make a new life. I did not want to be seen as a “failure,” as another statistic, or be taken for “one of those American couples who fell for the dream of paradise and couldn’t cope.” I didn’t realize how important it was for me to succeed and make a living in my “paradise.” As you know, I was mad at my husband for “relaxing” a little too much for my liking, and then I realized that I was the one who had made the mistake of pushing him into starting a business. Now I realize that I should have listened to the American expats who said, “Chill. Slow down Sonia. You’re no longer in the U.S. Things aren’t done the same way over here. You need to take your time. It takes a couple of years to find out whom you can trust.

Jerry Waxler: You did not always say flattering things about your husband or your son or your neighbors. These types of edgy revelations often cause aspiring memoir writers to shrink away from their memoirs. How were you able to be so frank about your family and neighbors? Weren’t you afraid of hurting your husband’s or son’s feelings?

Sonia Marsh: I’m glad you didn’t read my journal. As I mentioned earlier, I can only be honest with my feelings. When I get mad, I get mad, when I’m upset about something, I’m really upset. When someone turns against me and/or my family, I’m not going to pretend it didn’t happen. My husband knows me, and we’re still married. I also showed his good qualities, and why we married. There is no story if there’s no conflict or drama. I had to share what I was going through or my story would be flat and lifeless.

Jerry Waxler: How about your Belize neighbors and the suspicion you had about an area business man? How did you decide to do that? Did you lawyer up?

Sonia Marsh: I changed the names of everyone, and I realize I took a risk, but I did say, we had no proof about “sabotage” but it seemed quite suspicious that our boat was sinking with us inside on the same day as our son’s sailboat had both anchors cut off.

Jerry Waxler: As a blogger and host of the Gutsy Stories site, you have thrown yourself into the memoir world. What has your venture into the memoir blogging community taught you?

Sonia Marsh: I’ve learned so much from other memoir writers. I feel like most learn the craft and stick to the rules far more than I have.

1). I find many of them write memoirs in order to heal, and hopefully help others who might suffer from the same problems.

2). I would like to see more contemporary memoirs, about struggles today, adventures, taking risks to live an exciting life. But that’s because I love to travel and learn about different cultures and how a person adapts or doesn’t adapt to new situations.

3). I am surprised by how many memoirs I read about abuse, alcoholism, suicide, adoption, cancer, and holocaust survivors. Due to the nature of the topic, they are often depressing to read, but I know how helpful they are to those who have gone through something similar. I wish there were more uplifting memoirs.

4). I like humor in memoirs, and so far, I haven’t read that many. One I love is, Fat, Forty and Fired, by Nigel Marsh. Another I just read is by Jon Breakfield, called, Key West. These are both written by men. Strangely both are British, so perhaps I still have that British sense of humor from my childhood and college days in England.

Jerry Waxler: Typically at the end of an interview, I ask an author what they are working on next, figuring that most authors tend to have another book in the pipeline. However, when I asked what she was working on, she offered a delightfully diverse, ambitious list of goals. Her list reminded me that in addition to being an author, Sonia is a “memoir activist” who both shares her own story and encourages others to do the same.

In one of my essays, I compared her willingness to move her family to Belize as an example of the proverbial mother who lifts a car off a child in order to save it. Now, reading her to-do list for 2014, I feel the same about the way she is applying herself to memoirs. She appears determined to lift the whole world into the freedom of telling and sharing their stories.

Here is her answer to “what are you working on next?”
• Coaching authors on: How to publish and sell your books.
• Contact movie producers to turn my memoir into a movie.
• Inspiring audiences to live their “Gutsy” dreams.
• Create Workshops and Webinars: How to Publish and Sell your books.
• Continue to grow and help indie authors and publishers on Gutsy Indie Publishers on FaceBook.
• Ask writers to submit their “My Gutsy Story®” and promoting them on my site.
• Publish the 2nd “My Gutsy Story®” Anthology, and organize an event with a keynote speaker.
• Volunteer in Spain in May 2014. I shall be speaking English to Spanish business people for one week.
• Take the TEFL exam and teach English abroad for 6 months.
• Write a 2nd memoir about the experience of following your “gutsy” dream.

What are your gutsy ambitions? Feel free to leave them here.

NOTES
Click here to see my essay on her contest site, My Gutsy Stories.
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

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 Memoir Author Sonia Marsh, Pt1

by Jerry Waxler

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

After reading Sonia Marsh’s Freeways to Flipflops, I sat back and thought about all she had taught me about my favorite subject: How to turn experience into a readable story. I shared my findings in a series of blog posts starting here. (You can see more by clicking the link for related posts in the right-hand column on each one.)

In addition to writing the memoir, Sonia is the mastermind behind the Gutsy Living contest which provides a platform for sharing the courageous, often outrageous acts of human experience. In this two-part interview, Sonia answers a few questions about writing her memoir and sharing her life experience with the world.

Jerry Waxler: When did you first conceive of turning your trip to Belize into a memoir?

Sonia Marsh: When a close friend said, “Sonia, uprooting your family to Belize would make a great story. Have you thought of writing a book?” That was the nudge I needed to start writing.

The first step was to keep a journal. As a novice, I had no clue it would take seven years to turn my journal into a commercial memoir.

Fortunately, I started writing one year before our move. Life at home was quite emotional, with our oldest son causing havoc in our daily life, and I knew if I could capture everything while it was still “raw,” this would make my story more authentic.

After keeping a journal for a couple of years, I had 660 pages on my computer. I would send excerpts via e-mail, to friends back home, and they would comment, “Wow, Sonia, your life in Belize is so exciting compared to mine back here, please continue sending me your stories.”  This was all I needed to keep writing.

Jerry Waxler: I understand that you kept contemporaneous notes during your time in Belize. Help me picture how you fit the writing into your days on Belize. Did you keep a daily diary? Were you actually crafting a book while you were going through the experience?

Sonia Marsh: I kept a daily journal in Belize, however, I did not write at a set time each day. Instead, I would run to my computer whenever something interesting happened. By that I mean, a specific conversation, argument, emotional moment with my family, or something significant that happened, and I wanted to keep the dialogue “real” and the emotions raw and clear in my mind.

Our life in Belize was simple, without television, shopping malls, bookstores, coffee shops, or movie theaters. We lived in a third world culture where life was slow paced and things did not get done when you expected them to get done. In a way, this was the perfect environment for writing. My only distraction was nature—so beautiful—and I spent hours studying my surroundings, and taking care of daily chores. Everything takes longer to do in Belize. Life was so different from life in Orange County, California. One day, an old “pirate” sailboat sailed in front of my house. It looked like one built to shoot a Hollywood movie, only this was the real deal. The next day a capsized “drug” trafficking boat was found close to the Island Ferry tourist boat. How often do you experience this in suburbia?

Jerry Waxler: When you started writing, explain anything you can to help us understand how you translated your notes and memories into scenes.

Sonia Marsh: Writing scenes did not happen until several years of being told that I was “telling not showing.” We all hear this when we start writing, and I remember copying sentences from Augusten Burroughs and Nicholas Sparks, feeling guilty at the time for copying some of their words and phrases, but those authors opened my eyes to reading scenes that felt like movie scenes. I knew this was something crucial I had to learn if I wanted my memoir to become visual. I would close my eyes and try to “see” my surroundings in detail, and “feel” the emotions. My first editor complained that I had too much dialogue that wasn’t moving the story along, and that instead of “the transcription of conversations,” she wanted “the context in which they occurred or your thoughts and feelings at the time.”

Jerry Waxler: How long did it take to write the first draft?

Sonia Marsh: I never really had a first draft, unless I call the 660 pages I printed from my computer, a first draft. My problem was reworking and polishing the first 1/3 of the manuscript over and over, and not spending enough time polishing the rest of my manuscript. I approached my first editor in March 2008, two years after I thought my manuscript was ready. She wrote a 12-page report which helped me realize how naïve I had been to assume it was ready for publication.

Jerry Waxler: To polish your writing or develop your writing voice, did you participate in critique groups? If so, where and how? Can you share any lessons about the story or about your style that you learned from their feedback?

Sonia Marsh: My first experience with a critique group was in 2008, at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference. I read some chapters during the workshops, and received such helpful feedback from the workshop leaders. I did join a critique group for 6 months, and we met once a week. In my case, I found it more beneficial getting critiqued by an editor, or a teacher, than by a group of writers like myself. Quite honestly, I wasted several months of being thrown off course by other writers who didn’t know my entire story, and who would make suggestions based on what they had heard me read. Also some writers in the group were from other genres, and couldn’t relate, so I did not find critique groups helpful.

Jerry Waxler: In the memoir, you provide such detailed insights into your thought process. Like when you went to the party at your neighbor’s house and they had brought so much wealth and the trappings of the first world to their home in Belize. You describe all that you thought about going and what you thought about what you saw. Did your journals help you get to this level of detailed internal dialog? How else did you achieve this level of detail about your inner process?

Sonia Marsh: My journals helped as I wrote the details, but I am very passionate about certain topics, and also stubborn and opinionated, so don’t get me started on materialism, and accumulating “stuff.” I guess having experienced life in various countries, I feel like I see things differently than someone who may not have had the same experience as me. So in a way, it’s my “duty” to share my thoughts and make people aware of things they may not realize. So perhaps “anger” and “frustration” as to why people need so much stuff, and why people need to flaunt it, made my internal dialog come naturally.

Jerry Waxler: I appreciate the way your narrative shows you worrying and second-guessing yourself. Your fretting adds an inner dimension that makes your scenes richer. When I started, and I’ve seen this since in other beginning writers, I was reluctant to report thoughts that raced through my mind. It took me quite a while to realize that sharing my thoughts added a rich dimension to the scene. When you were developing this style for your book, how conscious were you about inserting this inner discussion? Did it seem natural and normal to you as a writer?

Sonia Marsh: I know this may sound a little strange, but I was born in Denmark, to a Danish mother. I think Scandinavians have the reputation of being “open” and “honest” and don’t try to cover up their true feelings, as do some of my friends in the U.S.

I’ve always been that way, and sharing my thoughts is part of who I am. I value true friendships and while writing, I honestly felt like I was writing to my friends. I guess I’m naïve in that I hope my readers will also become my friends, and not remain total strangers.

In life, I try to connect with people on a “meaningful” level. I ask questions because I’m interested in what people think about their own life and their interests, and I also believe that writing a memoir should be “meaningful” to the reader. Why would anyone want to read about “you” and “your story” if you are not going to be open with them, and share part of yourself with them? We are all nosy, even those of us who don’t admit it. Why do so many of us like to read the tabloids? We want to ready the “juicy” stuff. No one would read the tabloids if they stated boring details like “Angelina Jolie had a manicure in 1997.”

Jerry Waxler: Were you ever criticized for sharing your thoughts, or on the other hand praised for it?

Sonia Marsh: So far, I have received positive reviews about being so honest. I’ve read reviews where readers have thanked me for sharing what I felt as a wife and a mother, and they said that they could relate. One of the key issues my first editor (when my memoir was still in half-journal format, and I thought it was ready) stated was, “In order to get your readers to come along on your journey with you, they have to be able to relate to you. And in order for them to be able to relate to you, they have to understand your inner thoughts and feelings.”  I didn’t understand this until later on in the writing process.

NOTES
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

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.

Memoirs Connect Us by Sharing Our Hidden Worlds

by Jerry Waxler

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

The anthology The Times They Were a Changing coedited by Linda Joy Myers, Kate Farrell, and Amber Lea Starfire offers many glimpses into the lives of women during the 60s. The book taught me about a fascinating era in recent American history. It also provided many examples of life-changing moments, full of the passion and intensity of the human condition. This focus on high-intensity moments makes the collection a valuable demonstration of an important aspect of life-story writing.

For many aspiring memoir writers, such high-energy moments lurk under the surface waiting to spring out of hiding. I discovered my own hidden pool of intensity in the first memoir workshop I ever attended. The event took place at a high-energy writing club in a converted storefront in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Along with twenty writers, I considered the possibility I could turn my life into stories. At the end of the first session, the teacher told us to go home and write a story about ourselves.

The scene that came to my mind happened in Berkeley California in 1971 when I lived in a garage, stopped wearing my glasses so I was effectively blind, and went for weeks at a time without speaking. My fallen-apart life after college made sense in that crazy, hippie era. And yet looking back on it later in life, it had always seemed so out of context with my bachelor’s degree in physics and my original goal of becoming a doctor.

Despite my embarrassment and confusion about that period, my mind kept returning to it. Perhaps I was driven to that scene by horror, or by a lifetime of silence. For whatever reason, I attempted to portray my life as a hippie.

At the next session, my voice trembling with embarrassment and exhilaration, I read my piece. In it I revealed that when I was 24 years old, I wanted to live like a chimpanzee and had made plans to move to Central America to eat fruit from the trees. Instead of being horrified, my fellow writers laughed. That laugh changed my life.

I looked around the room. Everyone was relaxed. I realized that reading my story had not upset them or turned me into a pariah. On the contrary, several of them spoke to me afterward and recalled some zany or compelling memory of their own. Paradoxically instead of increasing my shame, sharing the story dispelled it.

Without this wall of shame to hold me back, I became increasingly energetic about discovering my own past. Like an investigator, I unearthed anecdotes I had never before tried to put into words. Then once I found them, I needed to convert them from stubs into a well constructed story. That meant that for the first time in my life, I had to learn how to write stories.

Before that time, my main experience trying to convert bits of my life into stories took place in a psychotherapy office. In my forties, I spent an hour every week attempting to collect myself by using my words. I found so much benefit to the system of trying to express myself that I went back to school and received my master’s degree in Counseling Psychology so I could help others do the same. At the age of 52, I watched my clients attempt to find words with which they could explain their lives. I let them ramble along, helping them choose which part of their lives they would talk about on any given day.

When I began to write my memoir, I realized that by attempting to find the story of my life, I could create a coherent understanding of myself, not just in bits and pieces but across entire eras. By reading memoirs, I realized that every author had achieved this same goal. And by writing the story, they had found a new way to share their lives with the world.

To help other people figure out how to do it, I began teaching memoir writing classes. In my early workshops, I asked writers to record scenes that came to mind. Often the first scenes that jumped onto paper were ones that were too powerful to be communicated in ordinary life. Many said this was the first time they had tried to describe this incident.

Over a period of years, I kept noticing that students used the memoir workshop as an opportunity to reveal their most profound life moments. Sometimes, I would tell writers about this phenomenon. In one such workshop, a woman raised her hand and said, “So you are telling me that once I write about and reveal my powerful secret, I’ll no longer feel as compelled to keep it hidden?”

“Exactly,” I said. “When you see the words on paper and then read them aloud in a group, your memory won’t generate the horrifying results that you expect.”

At the next session, she read a piece about her husband’s suicide. After reading it, she looked around the room at the murmurs and nods of empathy, and said, “I get it. That’s amazing.”

Sometimes the peak moment jumps out before the writing exercise even begins. I gave a talk at a church one Sunday morning to churchgoers who arrived before the services began. This was the best-dressed group of people I had ever spoken to. I explained to them that by writing their experiences in a memoir, they can reveal things that are too personal to talk about. A woman in the back of the room raised her hand. With trembling voice she said, “You mean that I can finally write about my experience of being sexually abused as a child?” I assured her that this was indeed possible. Her tearful “thank you” gave me another glimpse into the relief that can be experienced when peak experiences no longer need to be kept secret.

Lessons for memoir writers
Consider episodes in your life that  burns under the surface, imprisoned by a lifelong commitment to secrecy. Such memories are often surrounded by mental keep-out signs. A common sentiment is, “I could never tell that!”

By pretending the moment never happened or fearing you can never share it, you are stuck forever with your unspoken memory. Without the additional perspective of dialog or literary expression, the offending moment remains in its original form. Instead of eradicating the pain, your silence reinforces it. Aided by the literary act of memoir writing, you can commute this life sentence. Follow the example of the authors of Times They Were a Changing. Try turning it into a story.

When such memories first appear in your mind, they might sound boring, scary, taboo, mundane, or gritty. Don’t worry if the vignette does not contain deadly force, celebrities or unique moments in history. If it is boiling in your mind, write the first draft.

After you write the first draft, enhance it through scenes, description and other techniques. By crafting the memory into a story, with a compelling beginning, middle, and end, you create a container for it. Turning private pain into a public one generates deeper insight into what happened, how you survived, how you moved on to the next step and the step after that.

Your decision to write about the experience as if for strangers is not the end of your journey. To turn it into a polished piece, you still have a long road ahead. How do you develop it into a story with a beginning, middle and end? If you are like me, you not only must do the introspective work of uncovering your past. You also must travel the creative journey of learning to write Creative Nonfiction. By crafting your own life into a readable story, you will see it through fresh eyes. Gradually you will discover that whatever tension made the moment important to you will also be interesting to readers.

Your creative effort to turn life into story presents an elegant escape from silence. As you continue the journey, eventually you will turn a corner. When you look back, you realize your memory is no longer frightening. The episode that formerly burned under the surface and refused to be revealed has now become the story that must be told.

Writing Prompt 1
List a few interesting scenes that jump into your mind. What part of your life seems unmentionable? Upheavals, changes, betrayals, first loves, shifts in awareness. All the things that make life hard also make stories good.

Writing Prompt 2
Pick one of your incidents. Write about it as if you were there, complete with description of what you see, hear and think. Then, using that event as an anchor for your story, cast your net a little wider. What happened next? Look for another scene afterward that represents the immediate outcome.

If the scene was tragic, you might have always felt stuck with it. Then write about how you survived. Did you fight, or rebel, or reach out for support? The scenes *after* the peak event might reveal how to turn this into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The scenes after the main one will show courage, social support, and other positive experiences that helped you push forward.

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.

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.

Interview with Venerable Memoir Teacher, Denis Ledoux Pt2

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 ask Denis Ledoux questions about memoir writing and what it was like to have been a teacher so early, before the Memoir Revolution was even a glimmer on the horizon. In this post, I complete the interview, asking him questions about ethnic background in memoirs and teaching teachers.

Jerry: In addition to teaching memoir writers, you teach teachers. I love the way that extends your influence out into the culture. Say more about that. What do your memoir teachers come to you already knowing and what do they come to learn?

Denis: In 1996, I wrote the first of my workshop leader materials—I call it the Memoir Professional Package. People were writing to me from around North America asking me if there was anyone teaching memoirs in their area, and other people were writing to me to inquire if they could teach my workshop. At the time, there was much less material available for people wishing to teach. The whole explosion of web teaching materials had not yet occurred. I took four months to write my first Memoir Professional Package. That Memoir Professional Package was priced at $200 and almost immediately sold 40 of them. Since them I have added to the materials so that, in addition, to the Curriculum Manual and the Presenter’s Manual, we now include the Editor’s Manual and the Speaker’s, the Personal Historian Practice Manual, and a number of instructional MP3s and e-booklet.

Today, while some of the people who purchase the packages are seeking to earn a full-time income, most are seeking to do meaningful work regardless of income (retired people for instance) or to earn income that is additional to their regular income. Most prospective memoir teachers who approach me about learning to lead memoir workshops in their communities and about doing other memoir work are looking to find an interesting avocation. Most are not what you’d call entrepreneurs, interested in wresting a living. Instead many are retired or have a spouse to help them out. They have an interesting and reward future ahead of them. Memoir work is so gratifying,

Jerry: Do you feel that memoir teachers need to have written their own memoirs

Denis: When I taught French at one school, I taught with a woman who was not a native speaker. She had learned French in college and had a very anglophone accent. Being a native speaker, I could speak much better, fluently, than she. And, yet, she was a wonderful teacher who instilled in her students a love for French and francophone cultures. Many native speakers were simply nowhere near as good as she in teaching In the same way, a memoir writer may not know how to teach writing, not know how to break material down so that it can be absorbed. I do not think that it is a sine qua non that the memoir teacher by a published writer. Having said that, I would feel uncomfortable studying with someone who did not practice memoir writing regularly. (My colleague the French teacher traveled regularly to francophone countries and was often in attendance at French-language movies.) In summary, I would say asking a person to teach simply because s/he had written a memoir is like asking a person to teach a language because s/he is a native speaker. Not a good idea. One has to understand best practices and a teacher is that person.

Jerry: When I was first looking for memoir books, of course yours was one of the first I found. Another one that was available when I started to study the genre was by Louise DeSalvo, “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.” In addition to teaching memoir writing, she also wrote about her own cultural experiences as an Italian-American. Her passion for her culture-of-origin set the stage for my ongoing interest in this aspect of our life stories. Most of us are still so deeply influenced by the culture of our ancestors.

So I was intrigued to see your attention to your cultural history as a French-American, a sub-culture I have not been heavily exposed to. I love this ability of memoirs to keep stretching us into other byways and pathways of the human condition. By writing about your own cultural background and inviting your students to write about theirs, you must be an expert by now in the American “melting pot” experience. So how do you feel about culture in memoir? How do our ancestral cultures affect our own stories?

Denis: As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a home with three generations. My grandparents lived upstairs and I got to know my extended family very well as they visited with my grandparents. Mostly, I did not have the experience that immigrant children often have of their family of being different. Who they were was who I was also. We lived in a community where half of the people were Francos (as we French-Canadian-Americans call ourselves) so I had a sense we had a “right of place.” It is because of this “right of place” that I continue to live in Maine.

Conversely, when I studied American history I understood it to be the history of the country that fate had put me in but American history did not feel like my history—it was the history of another people. For instance, I did not study about the Civil War as a Northerner (that terms itself implies a culture that was clearly not mine) but as someone who was outside the margins of the conflict. Now I think this feeling of being at a distance from the lived experience of so many others is a great preparation to be a memoir writer and teacher. So many of us have some experience or other of being different and at some distance from the majority experience—not everyone but many people.

There is always a tension between the need to assimilate and the need to differentiate, between the resistance to balkanization and the urge to be part of a community.

I always urge people to explore their ethnic, religious, cultural background. I’ve had Anglo-Americans in my workshops tell me they had no ethnic background. “Excuse me!” I usually respond. Here in New England, Anglo-Americans (we call them Yankees) tend to be Protestants who attend plain, white, clapboard churches where’s there’s no holy water, no statues of the bleeding heart of Jesus. They can’t pass up their Indian pudding on holidays and have a high sense of privacy so that you can work next to them for a decade and never find out some essential details of their lives like they were divorced two years ago and have now remarried, etc.  “Excuse me! What was that about no ethnic culture that colors our days!”

Jerry: I am fascinated by the comparison between the book-length form of a memoir and the much shorter form, often called the “personal essay.” Naturally the two very different sizes lead to a different emphasis, different time frame. In fact, they are different in many ways. As a memoir teacher, how do you approach these two forms? Do you separate them or combine them? Do you specialize in one over the other? I know it’s a broad question but I would love to get some ideas about how you see the short form as part of the movement toward writing life stories.

Denis: I teach only the memoir. I tell prospective clients/students that if they want to work with the personal essay they ought to find another coach/teacher. The personal essay uses personal material to make a statement. It is one head talking to another. The memoir uses personal material to create a feeling, an impression, an affiliation between writer and reader. It is one heart speaking to another. It is walking in the footsteps of the writer. I have nothing against the personal essay. It’s just that I am not particularly interested in it.

Notes
Turning Memories Into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux
Denis Ledoux’s website, The Memoir Network
Denis’ memoir writing blog

More memoir writing resources

For a more literary explanation of how memoirs heal, read the book Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo, a literature professor at Hunter college. The book immerses you in the way memoir writing heals.
Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo

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.

Show Don’t Tell: Difference Between Fiction and Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Why are memoirs so popular? Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn the reasons for this important cultural trend.

The rule “Show don’t tell” can help writers find a strong, clear storytelling voice. However, because it is mainly taught to fiction writers, we memoir writers have to apply our own interpretations in order to adapt it to our genre.

In a previous essay, I explored the fact that we have all been influenced by ideas. Since ideas are important in the journey of our lives, they might authentically enter into our memoirs. Exposition about influential ideas could offer a valuable contribution to your readers.  In this essay, I continue to explore the ways memoirs differ from fiction.

I don’t mean to imply that good memoirs ignore the powerful methods of storytelling. On the contrary, a good memoir converts the bits of our real lives into the shape of a story. When we do a good job, we offer readers an informative, engaging entry into our world.

However, if we adhere too closely to techniques that work in fiction, we miss opportunities to help readers understand our authentic, real-life experience. To develop a strong memoir writing voice, consider the differences between fiction and memoir writing. Here are three areas in which the forms differ.

Fiction writers make stuff up

In fiction, a novelist can show ominous emotions by adding a wolf’s howl or a foul smell, or covering the sky with dark clouds. Need tactile sensation? Blow some snow in your character’s face. Need a gloomy room? Put a layer of grime over everything. The ability to invent actions and descriptions creates a whole palette of experience that can keep a fiction reader engaged.

Memoirs rely on real-world settings. What if the setting doesn’t evoke the right mood? To add emotional depth, memoir writers can simply invite readers inside our interior. As protagonists we know we hate this situation and we know why. To help the reader understand, we can just say it. For example, in Freeways to Flipflops when Sonia Marsh searches for a school in Belize for her younger son, she realizes he would have had better educational opportunities back home. A key aspect of her dramatic tension arises from the worry that perhaps she was hurting her younger son at the same time as she was trying to protect her older one. To convey this fear, she lets us “hear” her thoughts. It is a simple and direct way to share her inner battle. Her fretting “shows” the pain and confusion of the situation, and strengthens the point perfectly.

In my memoir, if I felt bad about myself during the 70s, I could relate it to the way I felt at the end of a day at the foundry when every inch of exposed skin was covered in a film of black grit. These memories are a combination of showing and telling – telling my thoughts in which I show my experiences. Another way thoughts could keep the reader engaged would be to suggest some hypothetical action. “I wanted to scream.” The protagonist shifts from feeling things directly, to becoming a narrator telling the feelings.

Note
This shift into the mind of the narrator at the time of the story is relatively common in memoirs. This is different from the less common technique of shifting into the mind of the present-day narrator. When you comment on the past from the point of view of the present-day narrator, you are asking the reader to jump back and forth between two versions of yourself. Whether or not this is an effective technique for you will depend on the way you want to structure your story.

Novels Condition Us to See Characters from the Outside

We read endless novels written in third person. The statement “he pulls out his gun” focuses our gaze on the character’s external actions. We have grown so accustomed to this external point of view that we might feel confused hearing too much of what the character thinks, relying instead on their actions and speech. This makes sense in fiction when we are not inside anyone’s mind.

By contrast, the first person point of view prevalent in memoirs provides an entirely different vantage point, taking us inside the main character’s mind. From this point of view, we have direct access to the character’s thoughts, not just through external cues but within the reality of being that person.

After I realized I was allowed to reveal my thoughts, my scenes became stronger and my critiquers thanked me. I also pay attention to the memoirs I read, and discover that I enjoy learning what the protagonist of a memoir thinks. In fact when a memoir author relies too heavily on external detail, and too little on his or her own thoughts, the book often feels “fake” to me, as if the author is trying to write a novel, rather than a memoir.

Actors condition us to guess a character’s thoughts from external cues

On the page, a story might describe one character speaking and the other character smirking. On the screen, an actor could squeeze complex subtexts into the smirk. With just the right twist of lips, eyebrows and voice, the actor could imply “I know you didn’t mean what you just said,” or “I love you and I don’t really care what you say. Just keep talking.” or “Yes, yes. Whatever. My mind is a million miles away.” As viewers we have become accustomed to “reading” all this subtext into the actor’s intentions, based on the nonverbal cues. Our verbal minds don’t need to be engaged.

In addition to the nuances of an actor’s face, moviegoers rely on yet another nonverbal channel of communication. Background music lets us know what to feel. After a lifetime of watching shows with soundtracks, we have become accustomed to believing that feelings can and should be expressed without words.

Memoir writers do not have access to the facial nuances of a professional actor or the musical score to set the mood. Instead we employ our own unique tools. When we attempt to portray the subtlety of emotion, we can share what we think.

Share Your Inner World

Woody Allen has become famous for portraying characters who think before, during and after every important action. His career is based mainly on the joke that only weak-minded, obsessive people  think. There is an ironic twist embedded in his send-up. His characters reflect the human condition more accurately than do the characters who populate “Hollywood” movies.

Unlike the external view provided by fiction, memoirs allow us into the interior of human experience. People really do think, and memoirs are taking the mute button off the mind and letting us learn about each other’s thoughts.

Memoirs let us see, hear and experience what it was like for someone else to grow up, struggle to find dignity, and adapt to change. We learn where this person has been and can listen to their thoughts. We see the world through their eyes and we keep turning pages to see how the situation unfolds.

Instead of paying actors to communicate human experience through body language and invented situations, we are paying our neighbors, peers, and other memoir writers who have learned how to express their own thoughts, feelings and observations.

Writing Prompt
Read through your memoir-in-progress and find a spot where you have been struggling to “show” the emotions and thoughts. Since you can’t invent things in the external environment, try revealing something about what’s going inside your mind.

Notes
For an entertaining and informative book about how to live in a culture which celebrates action over thinking, read Quiet, The Power of Introverts by Susan Caine.

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.

How to Pick the Best Title for Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

When you write your memoir, you turn great swatches of your life into prose. You search for a narrative arc, psychological insights and dramatic tension in paragraph after paragraph, and page after page. But when you write a title, you must think like a poet, condensing the entire journey into a few words. To ensure your title has the maximum impact, microscope in on the phrase, searching for just the right meanings, hopefully spiced with a hint of ambiguity or mysterious depth.

Authors stare at the sky of their minds, hoping some pattern will jump out at them. But before making a decision, consider all the work a title has to do. A great title helps potential readers buy the book, love it to the last page and then recommend it to friends. To learn more, look at your own buying, reading, and recommending behavior to see the effect other titles have had on you.

The Title Is the First Line of Marketing

If a book’s title tickles my interest, I move to the next step. I look at the blurb or description and read reviews online. If still curious, I look up the author’s home page, blogs and social media. However, I continue to rely on the title as the centerpiece for all this interest.

Many factors play in my mind when I glance at a title. Is it fun? Is it somber? Is it cryptic? Sonia Marsh states in an interview about her memoir Freeways to Flipflops, readers want to go on an interesting journey. She believed that if her title had highlighted her son’s emotional problems, readers might have anticipated a bummer. Who wants to pay for that? By selecting a title with a more interesting visual image, Sonia Marsh made it easier to love the book.

Sometimes the title slows down my purchasing decision. Reading Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi is a good example. Years ago I read Vladimir Nabakov’s book, Lolita, about a creepy man who coerced a little girl into sex. I had no interest in pursuing this topic, so despite repeated recommendations, I rejected the memoir.

The Title Guides You Through the Journey

Reading a book is like entering a contract with the author, and the terms of that contract are summarized in the terse few words of the title. Every time a reader sits down to read, the title goes through their mind, evoking an image that pulls them back into the story.

Just as the name of the “Big Dipper” helps stargazers imagine the shape of disconnected points of light, an effective title helps readers link together clues into the shape of a story that hangs together along a central premise.

For example, when I read Seven Wheelchairs by Gary Presley about life after polio, every time I picked it up, my throat constricted, remembering that we would resume the search for meaning in a life on wheels.

I knew The Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner would be about a man who had to stop eating in order to survive an attack of Crohn’s disease. Through his year of physical and emotional agony, the absence of food continued to play a central role.

Queen of the Road by Doreen Orion was about a married middle-aged couple who took a year off to travel around the United States in an RV. That title evoked a hint of playful irony, conjuring the image of a woman sitting on the “throne” of the passenger seat, ruler of all she surveyed.

Sometimes the subtitle serves this central purpose. Every time I picked up the memoir Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair With Turkey by Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner, I accompanied the two authors on a love affair with a place, an unusual experience that is highlighted in the subtitle.

Sonia Marsh’s title Freeways to Flipflops provided a perfect link through the dynamics of the story. Every time I thought of the book, I visualized this urban family trying to make sense of life on the beach.

Write
Pick a memoir off your shelf and think about what you thought before you read it, and what you thought after. Were you attracted by the title? Throughout the book, were you satisfied that the title steered you well?

The Title Lingers After Closing

After we close the book for the last time, we continue to associate the story with its title. So when you look for the best possible title, consider the image it will leave. The title should haunt readers, please them, and continue to evoke images. Ideally, the title should roll off the reader’s tongue when friends ask for a recommendation.

For example, Slash Coleman’s memoir Bohemian Love Diaries implies a series of passionate romances. The word Bohemian has delicious implications that remind me of my youthful dreams of returning to pre-war Europe, and of living life according to my own fantasy, not someone else’s rules.

Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls raises a haunting, image, somewhere between a child’s innocent hope for the future and an almost sinister reminder of her father’s mentally incompetent ability to fulfill those hopes.

Freeways to Flipflops leaves a perfect after-image. It’s easy to remember, evokes clean, strikingly compelling images of the crossing between two worlds. And it’s fun to remember the two metaphors. I want to tell friends about it partly because the title is so much fun.

When I finally picked up Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, I enjoyed a delicious weaving of life and literature. In addition, it provided a fascinating analogy between the way Humbert Humbert treated Lolita, as his “thing” and the way Islamists dehumanized the women of Iran as their “things.” Nafisi’s intense personal experience, coupled with the profound analogies she drew from literature helped me understand these powerful cultural dynamics. As a bonus, Nafisi’s love for literature took me so far into the mind of Vladimir Nabakov I feel like we have become good friends. I now recommend the book, but I completely empathize if you decide to pass. Click here to read my post on the memoir.

Ask the Story to Reveal its Own Title

If you don’t yet have a title for your own memoir, keep a list of whatever comes to mind, and meanwhile reserve your main focus on crafting your story. Perhaps the story itself will reveal a powerful title. With continued revision, the story becomes more real and accessible to your own mind. Every time you attempt to answer the question “what is your memoir about” you will find yourself inching closer and closer to a concept that satisfies your authentic intention as well as creating curiosity in potential readers.

Turn words over in your mind, and then try them out with friends and fellow writers. Eventually you will be able to explain the scope of your entire story in a catchy, meaningful phrase, a creative achievement that symbolizes to you and your future readers all the creative effort you have poured into turning your life into a story.

Writing Prompt
Free-write a descriptions of the journey taken by the main character, or ask a good friend to ask you what the book is about and try to explain it. Vary these synopses, looking for the overall lesson of the book, or some powerful transition, or a metaphor that keeps coming to mind, or something about a main character, main desire, or something about the time and place. Use these brainstorming session to reveal the power in characters and situations. Each possible synopsis might provide you with just the right phrase or idea to act as the guide post for the life of the book. Will it entice a reader, guide them through the journey, and leave them with an image after they close it that they would want to share with a friend?

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

Notes
I have not yet published my memoir, tentatively titled Thinking My Way to the End of the World, but I have published two other books. The title of my self-help book for writers “Four Elements for Writers” accurately described the contents, but it didn’t make sense until after you finished reading it. Recently, working on a re-release, I arrived at a new candidate, “Writers: Train Your Brain!” which hopefully evokes more curiosity and direction before, during and after.

Sometimes the title appears from nowhere. Early in the design of my book about the surge of popular interest in memoirs, the title Memoir Revolution popped into my mind. It felt good to me and when I mentioned my working title to writers and even agents they said “Nice title.” So I kept it.

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.

What is the Theme of Your Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

Write your memoir! Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time.

Along the journey of turning life into a story, many teachers will advise you to focus on a single theme. They say, “Avoid sounding like this book is a record of your whole life. If you do that, it will really be an autobiography. In order to write a memoir, you need to focus on a single driving theme. When you can tell me what your story is ‘about’ you can call it a memoir.”

The part of this advice that I love is that a memoir is not just about the events of a life. The events themselves are simply the framework. The “real story” is under the surface, in the emotional and dramatic pressures that carry the character and the reader forward from first page to last.

When I read a memoir that has earned a place on my shelf and in my heart, I reap the rewards of the author’s creative passion and endless hours required to turn the humdrum sequence of life’s events into the magical form of a story. By offering me this memoir, the author has given me the gift of “life as a story,” a gift that inspires me to see the power, dignity and hope that make ordinary lives worth living. The memoir also inspires me as a writer. When I return to my desk, I attempt to follow the same path, and perform the same magical conversion to my own experience.

The thing I hate about the advice is actually following it. As a memoir writer, my first ten thousand steps related to pulling events out of memory, lining them up on paper, developing scenes, finding emotional connections, recognizing compelling forces. When I teach memoir writing, I look at a room of people who lived lives with all the complexity life can bring. I don’t expect or advise them to look for a theme until they are far, far along in their process.

Finding the theme, a crucial requirement for a book you buy at the store, can seem ridiculously out of reach for the story you are attempting to understand about yourself. What do you mean, “What is the theme? It was my life!” Life has so many dimensions. Must you really limit your story to just one of them?

To learn more about how this works, I turn, as usual to the memoirs I read, and realize that when I dig under the surface, even the ones that are compelling, powerful stories have more than just one theme.

The humorous, ironic memoir Man Made by Joel Stein is “about” the attempt of a first time father to embrace his new role, as well as the theme identified in the title about his attempt to understand the meaning of “being a man.”

The crazy, wildly romantic Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman is not just “about” intense romances that don’t work out. It’s about a man trying to live as if his life is a work of art.

Linda Joy Myers’ Don’t Call Me Mother is not only about the heartbreaking abandonment by her own mother. It’s also “about” coming of age in a small town in the Midwest, about the power of extended family, and on a subtler level is about the long lens of forgiveness and wisdom that occurs later in life.

Saddled by Susan Richards is “about” a horse who saved her, but it’s also about a woman trying to find a career, and a life free of abusive men, and free of the self-abuse of alcohol.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell is “about” the friendship of two women, but it’s also “about” the evolution of adults who continue to find themselves, relying on dogs, and sobriety meetings, and each other.

Many of my favorite memoirs demonstrate that discovering who you are does not end at 20, or 25 or even 50. After finding sobriety, or after having a baby, or after leaving home, or making peace with your parents, you have the opportunity to Come of Age again.

In my next post, I’ll dig deeper into the title and theme of Sonia Marsh’s book Freeways to Flipflops. It has a remarkably simple title that points to a complex, complete slice of her life. And Sonia Marsh like other memoir authors and memoir activists, is a role model who can help the rest of us follow in her footsteps.

If you are past information-gathering and ready to develop a book that will appeal to readers, you will enter this outward-facing stage of your journey. As you struggle to find the single, emotionally grabbing principle that drives your story, you will realize you are also looking for the title, and the reverse is true as well. As you look for the title, it will help you find the theme.

This “high concept” is not just a superficial marketing ploy. It will provide you with a framework that can help you relate to your readers’ expectations. Then using that synopsis, you can reread your manuscript for yet another revision, keeping in mind the expectations your title establishes with your readers.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

Notes

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.

From Complex Memories to the Compelling Title of Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Write your memoir! Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time.

When you first consider the possibility of writing the story of your own life, you have not yet pulled experiences out of their storehouse in memory. Over time, the anecdotes take shape on paper, and you search for a beginning, middle, and end. From within your pages emerge story arcs. How did you grow up? How did you survive some assault on your dignity? How did you move to the next step? Some themes emerge gradually and others jump out as surprises. During a reading, or during a workshop, or while you are showering, you realize how long you’ve been struggling to please your dad, or you recognize the power of some dream that you’ve always taken for granted. You see how such a theme would hold the story together and drive the reader’s curiosity.

A memoir is born. But what to call it? How do you label your journey through life in a brief title that announces to potential readers that this book is worth reading? And just as important, what title will hold your own interest and help you tighten the concept of the book?

Fortunately, like every aspect of the memoir writing process, you don’t need to face this question alone. Every memoir you read offers an example of how one author turned a life into a story, and then labeled that story in a few enticing words. Take for example, the memoir Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh. Before reading the book, the title might sound simple, light and breezy. I think of a fun loving family leaving Los Angeles to try out the adventure of a lifetime.

However, in these simple words, the title evokes powerful images, metaphorically comparing life in Southern California to the laid-back life on the beach. Despite the breeziness of the title, Sonia Marsh’s life was anything but simple. The book actually describes one of the most pressured, complex periods of the author’s life.

However, despite the contrast between the breeziness of the title and the difficulty of the life it describes, I never felt betrayed or misled. On the contrary, the deeper I went into the story, the more meaning I found in the title. I realized it provided a micro-guidebook, showing the family’s initial optimistic hopes for the journey, and then as I proceeded, I discovered the irony of the title. This journey was not so simple as it first appeared.

At the start of the story, Sonia Marsh’s teenage son decides he can do whatever he wants. His sense of entitlement looks like the beginning of a terrifying descent. He crosses a line when he lifts his fist to his mother and instead of smashing her face, he puts a hole through the wall. His behavior is heart wrenching and frightening.

His dad was busy at his corporate job, and had no insights into how to change his son’s behavior. So it was up to Mom to come up with the next step. Some moms might be paralyzed with fear, or turn the matter over to the police or ship the boy off to military school or call in the therapists. Sonia Marsh does something different. Like one of those mothers who lifts an automobile off her child, Marsh attempts to get Los Angeles’ Freeway culture off her son’s back by moving her family to the Central American nation of Belize. Freeways to Flipflops is the story of that journey.

This is part 1 of a three-part essay about titling your memoir.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

Notes

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.

How to Start Writing Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Write your memoir! Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time.

If you have ever wanted to shape your memories into stories, there has never been a better time. Thanks to the popularity of bestselling memoirs by ordinary people, many of us are wondering if we could record our past into a readable form. Before we start, though, two simple questions block the way. How do you do it? And why would anyone care? These two questions sound like insurmountable obstacles. Yet, when you make a sincere effort to find answers, you will be learning an invigorating craft, and also finding a new way to look at your own journey.

If you are not an accomplished writer, don’t let that stop you. You weren’t a professional when you started other activities. Just learn the basics and then practice, practice, practice.

The fundamental building block of all storytelling is the scene. To write about your experience, jump into the memory and report what you see, hear, feel and think. Dialog is often used in memoirs, with the understanding that the words are only a best guess at what was said. Once you start writing, you will be amazed at how interesting your account will be to a curious, empathetic reader.

Over time, you will build a stockpile of anecdotes. These may seem fragmented, until you apply the simple organizing principle of chronological order. By placing your anecdotes in sequence, the form of a story will begin to emerge.

How to make your story interesting

You wouldn’t believe your life was worth writing if by “story” you imagining the kinds of tales my dad told every night after coming home from the drugstore. He would say something like, “The doctor next door came in late again today and his patients kept begging me for information.” Such dinner-table stories vented some emotion or highlighted some powerful or humorous incident. We rolled our eyes or laughed, and that was the end of the story.

However, when you read memoirs, you’ll notice many differences between crafted stories and casual ones. Memoirs present characters who start out with some emotional challenge. The character then proceeds toward a goal, overcoming obstacles, experimenting, and learning from mistakes. By the end of a written story, the events make sense in a larger context and both the reader and the writer feel okay about the whole thing

To learn how to express your life through story, you need to reveal more information about yourself than you might typically be inclined to do in conversation. Such disclosure may seem daunting at first. Many beginners assume their revelations will create divisions and tension.  In many cases I have found the opposite to be true. Opening yourself up allows people to see you as more accessible, and can actually increase intimacy with loved ones.

Written stories also tend to explore mundane details of life far more than spoken stories do. The reason is that when you write a story, you are attempting to provide sensory information so readers can visualize who you are and where you’ve been. You can help them do so by letting them walk with you to school, or go on a first date. What kept you busy after school? Describe each room in your house, and write a scene that happened in each one. Describe your neighborhood, or the games you played with your friends. These details seem unimportant when you’re speaking, but they will help a reader feel connected to your experience.

When writing your memories, put yourself in the mind of a reader. That is easy to do since you have been enjoying stories since your parents started reading them to you as a child. By learning to convey your memories in this form, you provide readers with pleasure, provide yourself with the satisfaction of creating a written piece, and gain an insight into a craft that has entertained you throughout your life.

What you need to start your memoir

A writing habit
Write a few minutes every day. This will accomplish two important goals. First the writing will add up over time. Second, the habit will create momentum, which makes it much easier to write.

Writing prompts
Ask yourself questions: Write a scene about a bad hair day, a great vacation, a day with a best friend. By developing a list of such questions you can stimulate all sorts of surprise gifts from your unconscious.

A curious supportive audience
To write with freedom and energy, find or imagine a warm, curious audience. Your first such audience might be at a local library where you join with others who help each other write stories.

Read memoirs
By reading memoirs, you will appreciate the skill and patience with which other writers achieved the task. Every one you read provides an example from which you can draw lessons about how to write your own.

Read books and take classes about writing memoirs
There are an abundance of teachers, in classrooms, in books, and online, eager to help you get started.
Notes

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.