Thoughts are the Soundtrack of a Memoir

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 review of David Berner’s Any Road Will Take You There. Click here to read the first part.

Before I wrote the first draft of my memoir, I visualized my past as a tangled web. When I gathered random anecdotes and placed them in chronological order, they began to connect, making it easier to see how one thing led to another. The next breakthrough came in critique groups where I learned that readers want to know more than the sequence of events. They want to know what I’m thinking.

Introspection is such an important feature in memoirs that a memoir without this dimension feels as if it is skimming the surface. By adding the mental track, the author does for memoirs what a good sound track does for movies. In both cases, the sound we hear helps us relate to what we see. The analogy with a movie sound track highlights a fundamental principle of all storytelling – a good story operates on two planes, inner and outer.

To feel engaged in any story, we need to understand the motivations of the characters. However, because our predominant cultural stories are formulaic, we often forget about this inner dimension. In thrillers, the good guys naturally want to chase the bad guys and bad guys naturally fight back. Similarly, in mysteries the detective needs to solve the crime, and in romances, the girl needs to get the guy. We don’t need to know much about the inner dimension in these stories because we assume they are roughly about the same every time.

Memoirs are about real life. We grow up, start a family, get a job, grow older, take a trip. Meanwhile, inside the protagonist of a memoir, all hell is breaking loose. Our search for love, dignity and understanding can become so vast, it seems to fill the sky. Memoirs provide insight into the characters’ deepest dreams and needs, and they achieve this effect with carefully crafted, cleanly integrated thoughts.

When Memoir Characters Need to Think a Lot
I am intimately familiar with the importance of thinking my way through major life transitions. When I attempted to pass through the gateway from child to adult, I struggled for years to think my way across the chasm. In fact, the working title of my memoir is Thinking My Way to the End of the World. So when I read memoirs, I take special note of the way the author reveals his or her inner process. Two recent examples illustrate the way memoir authors successfully include their thoughts.

When Cheryl Strayed was attempting to transition from girl to woman, she underwent a process of self-reevaluation. Her memoir, Wild, is about her attempt to do that reevaluation while taking a hike. The memoir on the surface is about a hike through the wilderness. Cheryl Strayed entices readers to turn the page to experience the trappings of her hike: blistered feet, fear of getting lost, heavy backpacks, and encounters with fellow hikers. But inside her mind, she is free to ramble, consider the past, and have inner discussions about the direction of her life.

Readers didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that her outer circumstances had little to do with her inner ones. The book was an acclaimed bestseller even before it appeared on the big screen, demonstrating that readers are interested in an author’s inner dimension and willing to go along for the inner ride.

Memoir author David Berner also needed to share a thoughtful life transition. In his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, he describes the meltdown that provoked him to leave his family and start a new life. In his second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, he returns to that decision to leave, and tries to figure out how to maintain his responsibility to his children. To reconcile the opposing parts of his desire, to leave and yet to remain loyal, he needs to think long and hard about responsibility, about his relationship to the boys, and about his father’s relationship to him.

To do all of this thinking, David Berner takes his sons and a buddy on a drive in a motor home. They roughly follow the path described by Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Each day a little more road passes under their wheels in perfect, chronological sequence. And as the miles go by, the boredom of travel invites introspection.

David Berner’s journey is less complex or picturesque than a hike through the wilderness. Reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s book, On the Road, this simple outer journey provides just enough forward momentum to keep readers engaged, while the much more dramatic story takes place inside his mind.

Occasionally one of Berner’s two sons says or does something that triggers a round of musing. Within each of these reveries, time moves more fluidly, leaping from one generation to another, like the point-counterpoint of jazz riffs, in which motifs intertwine, never going too far into one before the other intervenes, giving endless opportunities for contrast. Reconciling his inner conflicts, and figuring out how to renew his connection to the boys creates intense thoughts, written artfully in micro-essay, musing style.

These weren’t flashbacks. In a flashback, the reader must leap backward, and shift focus to a previous time frame. At the end of a flashback, the reader must leap forward again into the timeframe of the storyteller. This can create a jarring effect. On the other hand, David Berner’s musings comment on the past without actually returning to it.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. Berner is deciding whether or not to buy a memento on this trip. From there he remembers the emotional importance of travel in his life. The following paragraph explores this thought in greater depth.

“When I was a kid, the shortest family vacation would mean at least a cheap tee-shirt or salt water taffy to carry home for a cousin or the neighbor who took in the mail. And when my mother and father traveled to England to find the boyhood home of my grandfather, my mother’s dad, they returned with inexpensive fisherman sweaters and coasters with pictures of Westminster Abbey. My sons visited Abbey Road Studios with their mother on a European holiday, and their gift to me was a single white guitar pick. I loved that gift.”

After the introspective moment plays out, we look up and see we have traveled further on the road and the outer storyline picks up again. This alternating play between interior thought and exterior travel creates an almost musical rhythm.

How to use outer circumstances as the video for your own inner sound track
Both Cheryl Strayed and David Berner offer examples of the way a simple trip, from beginning to end, can be used as an opportunity to explore their inner lives. Each author faces an important life transition, to grow into adulthood, or to adjust to the changing landscape of middle age. The authors take us on a journey, during which we listen to their hearts and minds.

Their examples illustrate something all memoirs have in common. In the world of action, circumstances are unfolding. At the same time, inside the character, a series of thoughts and reactions play out, usually triggered by the external events. The events provide the visual framework. And the thoughts and musings offer readers a sound track.

If you wonder if your life transitions were interesting or important enough to write about, consider these two memoirs. In one, a girl is attempting to become a woman. In the other, a middle-aged man is attempting to renew his responsibility to his sons. What could be more ordinary? And yet, through the artful interplay of outer circumstance and inner response, we feel ourselves pulled into their lives. By the end of the journey, we have been enriched by the thoughts, ideas, and images that helped these authors adjust to great changes in their world views, and to adapt to new chapters in their lives.

Writing Prompt
What transition or challenge in your life required you to rethink your self-image?

What set of external circumstances unfolded while you were attempting to come to this inner shift?

Notes
David Berner’s Home Page
Click here for my review of Accidental Lessons
Click here to read an interview I did with David Berner

In the memoir Ten Speed, author Bill Strickland figures out his own deepest secrets while on a bicycle. He desperately needs to review his life in order to shake off the legacy of his father’s abuse, so he can fully love his daughter. Click here to read my article about Ten Speed.

Coming Soon: a list of memoirs I have read (or in some case previewed) by authors who have written more than one.

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

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

10 Ways Writing Helps Develop the New You

by Jerry Waxler

Until my mid-40s, I was so shy, I spent most of my spare time reading and writing. As I grew older, I tried to improve my social skills. The most important step was to go back to school and earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, where I learned a variety of techniques to relate to people, especially the fine art of listening. I also completed the program at Toastmaster’s International to overcome my fear of public speaking. Then I started teaching workshops, shifting my lifelong passion for learning from the back of the classroom to the front. My efforts to connect with people have turned the years after 50 into some of the most vigorous and interesting of my life.

And yet, even in these years of social involvement I continue to spend time alone, writing. My words create a sort of social currency, allowing me to share myself in surprising ways. In fact, putting words on paper makes the rest of life richer and more fulfilling. It’s not a result I would have expected, but here it is, an exciting discovery, especially in the internet age when we have so many ways to offer our writing to each other. In fact, writing has turned out to be such a valuable self-development tool, I would like to share ten of my observations with you.

1. Improving writing skills is a never ending job (and that’s a good thing)

Writing is a part of life. We fill out applications, and write emails. An employer or teacher may have directed us to write. At times, we write to a larger audience, for example with a letter to the editor, or a newsletter article. Strangers expect interesting, clear phrasing, and so we strive to give them our best sentences, word choices, timing and rhythm. The challenges are infinite, and so are the emotional and intellectual rewards.

2. Learning connects you with energetic peers

Conferences, workshops, and classes invigorate our writing skill as well as our connection with fellow learners. By taking classes, we affirm the importance of knowledge and open the gates to acquire more. Our early education turned us from babies into complete humans, and later education makes us more completely human.

3. Writing about favorite topics creates online micro-communities

The thousands of students and teachers at the University of Wisconsin in the 60’s offered endless opportunities for debate and study. Now the internet restores this stimulation. Without leaving home, we write what’s on our mind, and those who share our interests gather and discuss.

4. Serve causes and community

Information is the lifeblood of a community, motivating us to place our energy where it’s needed, and enabling us to make crucial, complex decisions about social policy. In the television age, newscasters provided information while we sat silently on the sofa. In the internet age, we play a more active role. By writing and publicizing, we weave our perspective into the fabric of culture and community.

5. Develop brain cells

Since the mid-90s scientists have learned the incredibly exciting fact that the human brain can generate new connections at any age. “Use it or lose it” now applies just as much to brain cells as it does to biceps and triceps. Writing forces us to coax words out of storage, to imagine situations, to develop clear sentences. It keeps the language centers alert, sustaining the skills we will appreciate in the years ahead.

6. Explore inner space

Writing, like meditation, familiarizes you with what goes on inside your own mind. Whether you’re trying to ease mental worries or trying to gain some sense of organization or control, writing lets you plumb the depths of your interior.

7. Learn almost anything by writing

If you want to deepen your knowledge about a topic, write about it. As you try to explain your material to a reader, you must develop the logical flow that ties it together. Gradually you increase your expertise in the subject, learning by teaching.

8. Improve self-management skills

When you work for a paycheck, your boss keeps your nose to the grindstone. When you write articles or books, you are your own boss, and so, you must establish your own goals and rules. The self-management skills that get you to the desk will help you accomplish goals in other areas of life, as well.

9. Life review – “I am the person who lived this story”
Who you are today is the sum total of the life you lived so far. To find that sum, write about it. By scanning memory and collecting the story, you find fascinating strengths, connections, and challenges, jewels amidst the refuse pile of old memories, creating a more nuanced appreciation for where you’ve been and who you are.

10. Write the story of who you are going to become

An important turning point in my life came from the practical suggestions in the book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. One of his techniques was to write a mission statement. Writing lets me clarify vague images and flesh in details. As I see the story develop, I can hold it up to the light, turn it this way and that, shape it, and use it to help me fulfill my dreams.

Leave a comment:
How has writing helped you find energy, connection, insight, peace, or any other value you would like to share?

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.

Memoir Writing as a Form of Therapy

By Jerry Waxler

Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn how writing your story can change the world.

I sat in bed, beneath a six foot poster of Picasso’s Guernica taped to my wall. The book I held, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, was probably not on the summer reading lists for most other 17 year-old boys in 1964, but I was on a mission. I needed to figure out how to become an adult. The book by the father of Twentieth Century psychiatry raised more questions about war, peace, and human nature than it answered. Over the next few years, I read many more books, delving into science, psychology, and social theories.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out my place in the world. By my early 20s, I began to meditate, watching my thoughts flow down the river, learning how to let them go. I didn’t need to jump in after each one. In my 40s, I discovered psychotherapy. I became an instant believer, grateful to receive help on my introspective quest. I loved talk therapy so much, I returned to school to earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology.

Finally, by the age of 52, I was fully invested in adulthood and one of my first steps as an adult was to figure out how to help other people. I put out my therapist’s shingle on a busy street and nothing happened. Few people were willing to spend money to tell me their most intimate thoughts. It turns out talk therapy is not for everyone. Frustrated in my desire to help, I searched further, trying to understand how I could help. By this time, well into midlife, the center of my curiosity shifted gradually from knowledge of ideas to connections with people.

Writing gathers, shapes, and then shares

My transition from knowledge to  communication started many years earlier. I wrote regularly in a journal. The flow of words on paper soothed my agitated mind, an experience shared by many journal writers. Journaling allows sentences to pour from the cloud of unknowing, allowing you to verbalize what you didn’t even know you were thinking. Natalie Goldberg, arguably the most influential writing teacher of our era, suggests that powerful writing emerges from deep within our spiritual and emotional core. When such authentic feelings burst from their hidden places, we feel a lift and clarity.

Entering the Twenty First Century, I was stuck in this puzzle. Filling journals  pleased me, but without an understanding storytelling, I was powerless to please readers. Then I stumbled on the rumbles of the Memoir Revolution. I noticed memoirs appearing in bookstores and talk shows. I began to read them and my questions about therapy and life journey snapped into place.

Memoirs push us towards the heart of civilization

Each memoir taught me about the workings of an author’s life. I started looking into this system and experimented with it myself. By pouring my life into a story, I saw the boundaries and definition and shape of myself. And the most exciting thing about memoir writing is that I can share it with others.

When writing our lives, we have no therapist to offer feedback, to ask us to explain a feeling, or see more deeply into a particular situation. However, in a sense, we have a more natural resource than simply one individual guide. By writing for a broader audience, memoir writers follow the form called Story, with its familiar beginning, middle, and end. The broken thoughts that make no sense begin to take shape. Like assembling a puzzle, the pieces fit together into a continuous whole.

Once a story is on paper, any reader can say if the explanations sound complete. How do they know? Because by following the ancient principles of storytelling, memoirs push us to organize experiences into the structure civilization has been teaching us since the beginning of time.

Life into myth, life into literature

Until I read the work of the scholar Joseph Campbell, I never realized stories were so important. I thought books and movies were just for entertainment, the evening news was just for information, and literature classes just allowed us to admire the expressions of previous centuries.

Thanks to Joseph Campbell’s work, I know that stories are everywhere, and that we use them to discover fundamental insights into the human condition. Through his interpretation, I realize that memoirs are exactly the tool I’ve been looking for. By reading them, I understand the shape of another person’s life. By writing, I develop a deeper understanding of my own.

Perhaps when people write memoirs, they are participating in the original therapy. Sigmund Freud apparently thought so, since his technique consisted of asking clients to tell stories about themselves. Now as I learn to tell my own stories, I see how my life works, and finally discover the river into which my years have been pouring me all along. Memoir writing is a social form of therapy, joining us through understanding ourselves and our relationship to each other.

Note: This entry is a rewrite of an essay first posted on September 28, 2007

Notes
While talk-therapy is studied in the psychology department, literature is studied elsewhere. So combining the form of language art known as “story” with the psychology art of healing the self does not fit nicely into an academic framework. But there are those independent thinkers within academia who make the bridge.

For a more literary explanation of how memoirs heal, read the fantastic 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 more about research into the psychology of talking and writing, see:

Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by James W. Pennebaker

For more about cognitive therapy, google for Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, two of the founders of that movement.

For the brain science of cognitive work, see Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz book on combating OCD with cognitive methods.
Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior by Jeffrey M. Schwartz

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 the cultural passion for memoirs, and reasons you should write your own, read my book Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire, available on Amazon. Click here for the eBook or paperback.

Link isolated anecdotes into a story with the power of your beliefs

By Jerry Waxler

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

A memoir starts with a single anecdote. Then another, and another. In our imagination, we know these events formed our life. But other people can’t read our imagination. They can only read what’s on the page. We must transform the anecdotes into a compelling story. The memoir writer’s job is to discover the binding that will bring the reader from one event to the next. One place to look for this continuity is in your beliefs. Beliefs are important. They influence our decisions and shape our mood and emotion. And yet few writing classes explore the impact of ideas and beliefs.

To see how ideas can influence a life, see my essay about the beliefs that changed Henry Louis Gates’ attitude towards girls. In today’s essay, I explore this strategy further by looking within a series of my own anecdotes for the underlying beliefs that could help pull them together into a story.

High School Trolley

My own school, Central High in Philadelphia, drew academically inclined boys from all over the city, so at the end of the day each of us went off in different directions. Sitting by myself on the trolley, a pack of boys piled in from a nearby Catholic High School. They all knew each other and they shouted and laughed far more boisterously than the studious kids I knew. Even though they never bullied me, nor did they seem to be bullying each other, I kept very still. When I reached my stop, I nonchalantly pulled the cord to signal the driver, and squeezed my way to the door. It slapped open and I stepped down, safe again on a quiet street in familiar territory.

Brainstorm underlying ideas
I look more closely at my thoughts and feelings in this scene. What can I learn about my trust in people, my fragile pride, my ethnic identity, and the way a city kid could feel vulnerable in a crowd, hoping to remain invisible.

Freshman year debate
In Freshman year, I was a thousand miles from home, living in a high-rise dormitory at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a sprawling campus with thirty thousand students. Some upper classmen were visiting the dorm to debate the U.S. action in Vietnam, while the mainly freshman residents crowded in to the meeting room to listen. “The U.S. government is using Vietnam as an excuse to test its weapons. We shouldn’t be there.” “Oh, yeah? You’re a fool. If we don’t stop communism in Vietnam, it will spread and take over the world.”

I tried to find my own truth amidst their battle of ideas. I could barely keep up. How did these people know so much? And why were they filled with so much intensity? What did it all mean?

Sophomore Year
At the end of my freshman year, I went home to a quiet summer in Philadelphia, working as an assistant in a medical research lab, and working in my dad’s drugstore on weekends. In the fall, I returned to Madison. Amidst the hordes walking to and from class, I saw Kathy Bridgman, one of the only girls I had dated the previous year. The date didn’t go well. I had become so nervous I had to cut it short, and never went out with her again. Now, our eyes met, we smiled tentatively, and kept walking.

Walking with the crowd, I felt a  little lonely. Seeing Kathy tipped me off balance, reminding me of my social incompetence. How would I survive three more years?

Junior Year
A year later, in the fall of 1967, my hair in a frizzy mop, and sporting bushy sideburns, I approached a group of students who were gathering to block a classroom. By now, I had decided to join the protesters. Together we would alter the course of history. I crowded into a hallway of the Commerce Building, packed tightly, arms locked together. After we had been there for a while, police broke out the plate glass entry-way, stormed in and swung their clubs with force. Many students went to the hospital, including the girl who stood next to me. She needed emergency surgery for a ruptured uterus. The violence I had witnessed disturbed me. I had started out full of hope and ended more confused than ever.

What ideas drove me to protest? What other ideas drove the police to fight back with such violence? What happened to me, as my ideas shattered along with the day’s events?

Senior Year
For most of my senior year, I stayed alone in my apartment. Depressed, I skipped as many classes as possible. I was falling off the edge of my ambition, and collapsing into myself.

Search for the ideas
As these scenes first occurred to me, they seemed isolated. Now, by looking for continuity, I recognize the way crowds worked in my mind. I had always been fascinated by mobs in history. Now I could see that my academic curiosity was really about me. I was constantly looking for the balance between my desire to be inside a crowd, and my desire to be alone.

My Coming of Age was beset by this tension. In high school, I started out as a nerd, very much alone. Then at the university, I jumped in to crowds, deeper and deeper, until I felt stripped of my individuality. I lost my momentum and collapsed back into myself. Now, to collect the events and find a conclusion, I need to show how a more balanced understanding of groups redeemed me, filled me, and brought me back to life.

These anecdotes have not yet formed a story, but now I feel the dramatic tension that links one to the next, providing the seeds of an emotionally authentic and hopefully powerful tale, transforming isolated bits of memory into a story that will hold a reader’s attention from beginning to end.

Writing Prompt
Look at some of the anecdotes in your notebook. See if you can tease out the ideas that added power to each scene and linked it to the next. What additional background will offer the reader a greater understanding of your emotions and decisions?

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays 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 step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Are Memoirs True?

by Jerry Waxler

Harry Bernstein, author of the recently published memoir, “The Dream” describes a conversation with his mother in which he offers to support her. She hated the idea.

“What about college?” she says.

“I can put off going to college until I’ve made enough money to pay for it and leave you some.”

“No!” She said this with so much emphasis that the plan I’d just conceived was crushed immediately.

This argument took place at the beginning of the Great Depression and he wrote it in his memoir, “The Dream,” almost 80 years later. Are you wondering if he remembered the conversation in exact detail? I, am too, hoping to balance memory on the razor’s edge of Truth.

When we read fiction, we believe all sorts of wild things — travels to foreign galaxies, imagining fantastic creatures. But when we read memoirs we want to believe the events really happened. This is more complicated than it first appears. Memory is slippery. For example, I can not guarantee the exact words even a few minutes after a conversation. And when siblings talk about their childhood, it’s rare that they agree on the facts. Absolute truth, it appears, can never be pinned down like a butterfly on a cork board.

So how can I trust Harry Bernstein’s memory? It’s simple. I set aside my doubts, and enter the book “as if” it’s true. Here’s the contract I mentally construct with him. “He’s doing his best to capture the fluttering essence of Truth and I am doing my best to believe it. Together we walk through this particular rendition of the dream of life.”

When Harry Bernstein walked past a row of employment offices, pushing through the mob of hungry men trying to get a glimpse of the help-wanted posters, I didn’t need to fact-check his work. And anyway, there’s no way I could. When I set aside doubts and enter the scene, Bernstein’s words conjure up an image from the Great Depression that satisfies me emotionally and intellectually.

Some authors make this contract explicit
To research my own memoir, I peer into my memories. Some come to mind with an almost cinematic clarity, and others start out hazy and then reluctantly yield their secrets, eventually forming a convincing picture. In neither case, do I have absolute proof of their truth. So I am forced to make a deal with my own memory. After I have pondered, checked against any factual records that are available, and made my best effort, if I want to stay sane and enjoy the journey of my own life, I accept my own memories. If I don’t, I end up doubting myself, which diminishes the richness and pleasure of being me.

To see how other memoir writers deal with these issues, I look back through the memoirs I’ve been reading, and find a variety of statements authors use to help set the reader’s expectations. In the preface to Kate Braestrup’s memoir “Here If you Need Me” she says that to maintain the anonymity of her characters she went beyond changing their names. She distorted the descriptions of their towns. I enjoyed her book each of the three times I read it, and was never bothered by the alteration of these facts.

Nic Sheff’s “Tweaked” contains a broader disclaimer. “This work is a memoir. It reflects the author’s present recollections of his experiences over a period of years. Certain names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed, and certain individuals are composites. Dialogue and events have been recreated from memory and, in some cases, have been compressed to convey the substance of what was said or what occurred.”

With or without disclaimers, as far as I can tell, writers have been approximating reality since the beginning of time. The earliest stories I know, Homer’s “Odyssey” in the West, and the “Bhagavad-Gita” in the East, appear to be based on some unknowable conglomeration of history and imagination, through which we see glimpses of their world, exotic in the differences from our own, and uncanny in the similarities.

Is it really that simple?
Not everyone agrees with me that Truth can be approximated. Some people seem terrified that they have no way to prove their memory. Their voices pinched and clipped, they demand Truth. I am reminded of the endless bickering between my mother and her sister. These two women, apart in age by 10 years, argued bitterly about the facts of their childhood.

When the topic of Truth comes up in a memoir writing workshop, people speak faster, interrupting each other to express fear of betrayal, and bewilderment about the slipperiness of memory. Inevitably someone raises the specter of James Frey, whose memoir “Million Little Pieces” was recommended by Oprah. Later, it was revealed that he had misrepresented crucial facts. Oprah brought him back on her show and in front of millions of people demanded like an outraged mother to her lying son, “How dare you?”

For some readers this spectacular episode infects all memoirs with an aura of deceit. Others shrug their shoulders, unwilling to let one betrayal ruin their trust, believing that most authors will do better. Surely this lack of agreement demonstrates beyond any doubt that there is no single answer. It boils down to this rather confusing fact. Each of us has our own definition of what is True.

My position is that the most important reality is the one you know. This person-centric view lets me stay curious about people, even when they see the world differently than I do. Of course, you might disagree with my definition of Truth, and your perspective is every bit as valid as mine. But let me offer one observation to support my position.

We go to art museums, longing for a glimpse of the world through the artist’s eyes. These images we see of starry skies and fields of flowers are not valuable because they are Truth. Our yearning to see them is based at least in part on the desire to learn a different way of looking at the world. Memoirs provide the same benefit.

So rather than be threatened by the fear of lying, I take the opposite approach. I am exhilarated by the joy of trying. To understand the way life unfolds for other people, I open up to the sharing of their best approximation. By accepting the stories of others, as they remember, I am able to see through their eyes things I could never see through my own. And as I build trust for them, I gain a powerful side effect. I increase my trust in myself, strengthening my acceptance that there are valuable insights hidden within my memories. By aspiring to tell my story, I can learn about my own life, share it with others, and increase the value of my journey now and in the future.

—–

Note
For more information about Harry Bernstein’s “The Dream”
Click here
for the Amazon page.
Click here to support your local independent bookstore.

For more information about Nic Sheff’s memoir, “Tweaked”
Click here for the Amazon page
Click here for my essay about Tweaked

Memoirs as a journey from blindness to sight

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.)

David Sheff’s memoir “Beautiful Boy” oscillates between the uplifting joy of his son’s Coming of Age, and the tragedy of his son’s tragic fall into addiction to crystal meth. All the ugly stuff is there, how Nic lied, broke in and stole from his own parents and neighbors, slept in alleys and drug houses but refused help. And then there were the drug-free periods when this beautiful boy was back, a delightful human being, full of creative spirit and enormous promise.

Sheff, a professional journalist, recounted his son’s self-destructive journey, starting with the first suspicions. Then came the confrontations, the efforts to control his son’s behavior, and the gut wrenching worry. The horrible fact is that millions of parents ask themselves every day or even every hour, “Where is my child?” “Will this be the call from the police?” “What must I do to stop the downward slide?” “Should I pay for another round of rehab, or is that last relapse a sign that I must write this child out of my life?”

The book has all the elements of a compelling drama. There is the author’s loving second wife, and their two sweet younger children. There is the constant anxiety, and the play by play experience of watching the son grow up, and then fall apart. Sheff applies his journalism skills to report on the special hazards of methamphetamine addiction: the high rate of relapse after rehab; the irrational behavior of the addict when craving the drug or under its influence; the denial and lying. And then, the experience begins to take a toll on David Sheff himself.

It’s no secret that stress undermine health, and sure enough, the author’s extended periods of frantic worry almost kill him. About two thirds of the way through the book David has a life threatening brain hemorrhage. Until then, Nic’s father and step-mother had been going to Al-Anon meetings and hearing that they cannot change the addict. The addict himself is the only one who can do that. Al-Anon’s message is that the people around the addict need to figure out how to take care of themselves. But a parent’s job is to take care of a child. Right? So while hearing the Al-Anon messages they had not yet embraced them. Now, after the hemorrhage, they have no choice. At last, we remember this memoir is by the father, and now the story shifts inward to his own introspective journey.

Nic’s biological mother had played only a minor role through the course of the book. David rarely spoke to her, except to make arrangements to hand Nic back and forth between the two homes, one with dad in northern California during summer and the other with mom in southern California during the school year. When Nic started disappearing, they called each other to get information about where he might be.

Three pages from the end of the book, Nic’s biological parents have their first therapy session together. It turns out that they went through a bitter divorce when Nic was little more than a toddler. I try to understand what it felt like to be Nic, raised by parents who resented each other and who lived hundreds of miles apart.

I don’t know whether to laugh in relief or cry in rage that it has taken this much anguish to force these two people into a therapy session with their son. I, as do most therapists, believe that all the members of a family influence each other. With his two parents split apart, I picture Nic split apart inside himself, too. It must have taken a superhuman effort to hold these warring parts of himself together.

For most of the book, I was sucked into the premise that it was all about Nic. When will he come back? Will he completely resolve the addiction? But that’s the son’s journey. I finally realize this is David Sheff’s’ memoir. I want to understand more about his inner world. Will he awaken psychologically and spiritually, so he can offer his love to his two younger children and his wife, and stay centered, healthy, and supportive himself? David Sheff’s inner journey begins close to the end of the book and runs out of room. After finishing Beautiful Boy, I could see that dad was just getting started.

I felt a little cheated that it took the author so long to start looking within himself. Then I look at my pile of memoirs and realize that most of the authors continue through the darkness for a really long time. Dani Shapiro in “Slow Motion” took forever to realize she was destroying herself. Jeanette Walls in “Glass Castle” took forever to grow up and get away from the clutches of her weird parents. Frank McCourt had to grow up and get away from his destructive father in “Angela’s Ashes.” Jim McGarrah had to fight in a war, and then go home to figure out how to heal in “A Temporary Sort of Peace.” William Manchester in his World War II battle memoir “Goodbye Darkness” first had to show us his demons, before finally coming to terms with them in the final chapters.

Despite the fact that David Sheff’s knowledge of himself remained hidden for so long, it did finally force itself to the surface. This long climb, known as the Character Arc, creates hope, letting me know that through the circumstances of life, the character is becoming a better, smarter, deeper person. This journey the author has taken through the course of his memoir fulfills my faith in the human experience – that if we keep hacking at it we will end up smarter by the time we die than when we started. This faith is one of the unspoken agreements we have with the authors of our books. We conspire together to promote this lovely truth about life, that in living we learn and grow, or as stated more poetically in the lyrics of Amazing Grace, “I once was blind but now I see.”

Writing Prompt – Character Arc
As you look for a structure for your life story, your job is to find a meaningful segment or point of view that will provide the reader with a compelling experience. One way to look for this segment or point of view is to find the lessons contained within it. Of course, your end result does not need to beat the reader over the head with such a lesson but if you can find this Character Arc, and hold it in mind, it can help develop a compelling time frame and structure for your memoir. Name the life lessons you think you have drawn from your experiences. For each one, brainstorm how it might fit as a template for your memoir.

Writing Prompt – Drugs and alcohol
While the horrific downward slide of David Sheff’s son is hopefully a minority experience, millions of people are affected by substances. Often the abuser creates a wall of denial, convincing him or her self that they can handle it and it doesn’t affect anyone else. Write an anecdote about how you or people in your life have been affected by substances. If you have a romantic notion of your own use when you were younger, write the experience from your parents’ or partner’s eyes. If you were deeply affected by someone else’s abuse, write a story seeing what that experience might have looked like from their eyes.

Note

David Sheff’s son Nic also wrote a memoir, called “Tweak” about his experience as an addict. I am just getting started on it. “Tweaked” is the slang term that describes the frantic mental state of a methamphetamine high. From what I have read so far, the book is quite explicit and should be eye opening about the other side of the drama.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Story untangles distorted memories and reveals truths

by Jerry Waxler

(Listen to the podcast using the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

During one fateful day in ninth grade, I discreetly positioned a science fiction book on my desk and was reading it while the English teacher droned on. I was so absorbed in the exploration of the galaxy that Mr. Disharoon walked up behind me, caught me red handed and confiscated the book. I always assumed the ‘C’ I received in that class, my only ‘C’ in high school, was based more on revenge than poor performance.

The first version of that story, the one that automatically comes to mind, looks at Mr. Disharoon as the villain, a self-righteous jerk who busted me for reading in his English class. How ironic! Later when I was rejected from a highly competitive college, I blamed Mr. Disharoon’s mean spirit.

Now that I write about that incident, I look deeper, and I immediately see flaws in my original version. For one thing, I was the one who was breaking the rules, and he was doing his job by enforcing them. It would be self-serving of me to forgive myself for the crime, while blaming him for the punishment. I shift to his point of view. Through his eyes I see a bratty kid who doesn’t seem interested in learning.

I spot another problem with the proposition that Mr. Disharoon ruined my life. This was not the only English class I struggled with. The following year, in a rare visit to a teacher’s office, I went to ask my tenth grade English teacher Mr. Barsky for help. I wasn’t doing well in his class, either. The final blow to my interpretation of events came a few weeks ago, when I was corresponding with a fellow writer. I was telling her I sprinkle commas or semi-colons wherever the mood strikes me. She seemed surprised, pointing out the pleasures and virtues of correct punctuation. The conversation sounded familiar. I realized I’ve often defended myself as a “free spirit” amidst the rules of English. Ah-ha! I was reading the science fiction book because I didn’t care about my teacher’s stupid rules. I deserved the ‘C’.

I am fascinated to discover that I have permitted this important story of my past to remain in its original form for decades. To learn more, I look more closely at the characters. As a young man, I was almost obsessed with obedience, so when I was caught in such a defiant act, I was not only breaking rules. I was undermining my own self image. It was overwhelming to think I’d blown it so badly, so instead of taking the blame myself I shifted it over to Mr. Disharoon. He was the jerk, not me. This “logic” made sense when I was 14 years old. Once I had developed this explanation, it took on a logic of its own. The thousandth time I remembered the episode, I saw it the same way I did when it first happened.

But wasn’t there any truth at all to my original interpretation? How could I have been so far off the mark? I look for evidence to prove Mr. Disharoon was a spiteful man, but I can’t find any. In fact, his office provided a hang out for a coterie of adoring students. I stick myself back into the scene, and try to understand what I was thinking. At that time in my life, I had fallen so deeply in love with science fiction books that when I read one, I became lost in its world and couldn’t let it go. Robert Heinlein’s “Tunnels in the Sky” had seduced me into joining a band of explorers stranded on a remote planet, facing the dangers of the mysterious stobors and that was preferable to being in an English class. When Disharoon snatched my book he ripped me away from that world. I felt violated. I see his face, ordinarily pale, now flushed under snow white hair. In addition to being disgusted with myself, I realize I was angry with him.

All these years, I’ve been focused on my belief that he didn’t like me, but now I recognize my own feelings of dislike. This realization shocks me. As a “good boy” I took great pride in my obedience to teachers. They were the gods of my world, and in order to succeed, I needed to serve them, even worship them when possible. Now as I hear his bass voice and his exaggerated elocution as if he was some kind of damned radio announcer, he seems full of himself. Pompous. What did he know? Screw him and his damned rules. I was such an obedient robot-like teen, this memory stands out as the only example of defiance from those years. That’s kind of cool! I had guts in a nerdy sort of way.

All of these lessons about myself come from the simple act of trying to tell a proper story. When I tried writing it in the form it has always presented itself in my mind, it didn’t sound right. To turn it into a readable story I had to strip away the layers of self-righteousness and expose the actual events. In the process, I feel lighter. I’ve released my load of blame and I learned more about the events that shaped me.

To listen to this blog, click on the podcast link below.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Prompt: Select a memory in which you felt hurt or wronged. (Be sure it’s a safe one. Don’t jump into a memory unless you are ready.) Step back from your own feelings, and especially from your sense of outrage, and describe the situation the way an observer would who was not partial to either party.

Note: The book I was reading in high school was Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky about a group of young people who were exploring the universe through “tunnels” or “wormholes.” The warning they were given to beware of the “Stobors” turned out to be a meta-warning, which really meant “Beware of some unknown danger which you don’t know about now but it’s out there.” “Beware of the stobors” has become one of those classic Robert Heinlein phrases that has passed down through generations of his readers.

Memoir writing is a tool for introspection

by Jerry Waxler

Entire epochs of my life, like the decade after I got out of college for example, have disappeared into the haze of the past. And I’m not sure that decade made much sense when I was living through it the first time. The past is strewn behind me in a jumble of memories that won’t go away, but won’t come clear either.

So instead of leaving that pile just sit there and bother me in its messiness, it’s more fun to search through the piles, and turn them into something beautiful and sensible. This exercise of finding the stories in life might seem daunting at first – so many memories, so little structure. But like cleaning up any messy pile, the starting point doesn-t really matter. I could start anywhere.

For example I could take out a photo album and when I feel an emotion stirring, jump into the scene and write about it as if I was there. Or compile a timetable of my life, including dates and short descriptions of major events and transitions. “I was born in 1947. When I was five I went to Pennypacker Elementary School. I walked three blocks to school and then walked home for lunch, everyday for six years.”

Ask yourself questions about the past. You’ll discover remarkable material lurking within your mind. Describe the furniture in your living room. What year did you move? What did you plan to do for a living, and what changed as you grew? Describe your aunts and uncles.

Then add emotion. What frightened you? (Recurring dreams of being chased by dinosaurs.) What did your parents want from you that you could never do right? (Be perfect.) How did it feel when you visited your grandparents? (It felt good when grandmom pulled out her piano music and started playing. It felt bad when she lectured me.) How did you feel at summer camp, or during a big argument? As you gather the information, and turn memories into scenes and time-lines, take a step back and think about how you would pull these disparate elements into a story that would make sense to someone who doesn’t know you.

By seeing it through the lens of a story, you regain so much of who you are. Out of the pile of vague memories emerge a sensibility that can help you organize who you are today. And if you strive to make it a good read, you’ll be taking the next step of your journey, turning yourself into a craftsperson, a storyteller of life.