Interview: How to turn memories into a memoir

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

In a previous post, I described some of the many reasons I loved the memoir Accidental Soldier by Dorit Sasson. In this interview, I ask her to help aspiring memoir writers understand how she did such a great job turning life experiences in a good story.

Jerry: How long did it take to write the memoir?

Dorit: I downloaded a bunch of scenes during 2012-2013, but I didn’t actually run with a first draft until I started Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner’s well-known “Write Your Memoir in Six Months” online course. Best decision ever to jumpstart the entire process plus, I got the accountability and structure. Mind you, I started writing the first real draft with a six month old baby while in mourning for my mother, who recently passed. So if I can do it, anyone can!

By June 2014, many of those “downloads” started to become scenes. June 2014 to March 2015 was the period when I revised and wrote constantly working exclusively with Brooke Warner until reaching the finish line.

Jerry: There is something “impeccable” about the structure – with a beginning fraught with confusion and uncertainty, many intermediate challenges – beautifully executed – and then a nicely designed ending that leaves me satisfied that you (and I) have reached the conclusion of that journey. When you started your memoir writing journey, you had to figure out how to turn memories of a complex, formative period of your life into a good story. So how did you evolve that lovely, dynamic arc?

Dorit: Thank you so much Jerry for these kind words. It’s so thoughtful of you to say and notice. What you are seeing is the result of a lot of mentoring and writing. Brooke and I really worked closely on each chapter to ensure that each scene advanced some element of the heroine’s journey. Eventually I figured out on my own to ask myself four major questions that went like this:

1. What’s the purpose of this scene?
2. How does it advance the heroine’s journey?
3. What’s at-stake for my character?
4. How can I show her transformation and growth?

Jerry: Can you share some insight, or even some specific recollection when you began to shift from seeing yourself through the lens of a collection of memories and began seeing yourself evolve in the pages of a well structured story?

Dorit: Great question. And yes, this is an important yet hard one for memoirists to learn. First, I invested in myself as a writer by signing up for the online course and then hired Brooke as my personal writing coach and editor to help me reach the finish line.

Then, I wrote like crazy. This helped build the muscle I needed to think like a memoirist. I was also working from a place of pressure. My mother had recently died. I was dealing with a lot of emotional stuff. My sentences had a lot of power that I had never written before. When you work from a place of pressure, some amazing stuff can happen and surprise you.

I wanted to prove to myself I could write this memoir having written mostly academic type stuff for teachers.

I invested, practiced and took copious notes on our course lectures. I read what works well and what doesn’t in terms of memoirs. I kept trying to figure out the purpose of each scene. Some chapters went through 20 revisions until I finally got it. There’s no shortcut to figuring out structure because it’s individual for each story arc.

But there was one thing that worked very well to my advantage and that was the timeline of my service in the Israel Defense Forces, (IDF) which framed the structure of my memoir and the service in itself was structured. This inevitably helped with deciding which scenes from my service to include and the overall narrative arc of the memoir.

Jerry: I am blown away at the natural rhythm of interior fretting and exterior choices – it’s as if you have learned an exquisite dance between inner voice and outer actions – did you consciously develop this rhythm? Say more about how.

Dorit: I am pleased that you took notice of this. Once Brooke and I nailed the heroine’s journey, I knew that the only way for me to express my character’s fears and doubts about leaving Mom and getting inducted in the IDF, was to balance the events with my thoughts and feelings. This is what added the psychological layer to my cultural story.

As an American immigrant trying to figure out the “right” way of behaving in Israel and the added layer of becoming a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, the inner voice was the only way for me to express this cultural and emotional dissonance, which also represents the bigger picture of the story arc — leaving the familiar for the sake of the unfamiliar.

As a character, I was expected to be strong, and my introvertedness was mistaken for independence. So to answer your question, I wanted to bring that part of myself as a character to also show what was at stake. To show how my fear and doubts was the result of leaving one country behind for the sake of serving in another and the challenge of leaving one’s family. What I went through was a really lonely experience and the inner thoughts really accentuate the feelings of that lowly immigrant and IDF soldier.

Jerry: Similarly, I’m blown away at the natural weaving of backstory into the narrative – this leads to one of the most interesting backstory weavings I’ve ever seen in a memoir. So again, is it a knack you developed consciously? If so, please say more about how you found this rhythm.

Dorit: The backstory developed mainly with revisions and once I felt confident tackling the structure of scenes.

With each scene, I kept asking myself if there was something in the backstory that my reader needed to know. I turned on my “inner editor” and kept challenging myself not to assume anything that might leave my reader hanging or confuse him/her.

Brooke asked pertinent and stellar questions which forced me out of my “writer head.” This is why I truly believe that every writer needs a real good editor to handle this journey. The role of an editor for a writer’s journey is so crucial and especially that for a memoirist. I don’t quite understand how writers can publish a book without the expertise of an editor.

Jerry: I find the best relationships between author and editor to be an exquisite partnership, almost a dance of mutual desire for creative excellence, with plenty of acceptance and flexibility on both sides. The editor must give feedback assertively enough for the author to understand, and meanwhile the editor cannot superimpose too much of her own concept of the story – the author must stay true to her vision of the story while at the same time creatively adapting to the suggestions of the editor. The partnership also relies on the sympatico shared vision of the two partners. I admire editors who know how to do this dance. But my question relates to you as an author. Was it difficult for you to do your part, staying true to the story while accepting input, and being able to bounce back from the hurt that your writing wasn’t perfect so you could charge forward to the revision, staying true to both your vision and your editors?

Dorit: How I love this question and the way you put it – “editors who know how to do this dance.” It’s so so true.

I will be honest – this wasn’t such an easy process at first but I was determined to go full speed ahead with the writing of the story despite the feedback. The magical “a-ha” moment with my editor slowly developed particularly when she asked various questions about my IDF service, relationships and life in Israel and terms that needed clarification. At first I thought, “Is she going to be like my mother or some kind of nagging editor who is going to question every single thing?”

But I was surprised. She distanced herself enough to let me tell the story. She honored my voice. She gave me space to write and revise. This is crucial.

I also slowly realized that she wasn’t just after clarification. She was trying to also help me see the big picture of each scene and how it contributes to the narrative arc. It was then I realized that I picked her for a reason – she was “ga-ga” over structure and I knew that was where I needed a winning editor in this department.

So here’s the magic which clearly made all the difference. On our weekly coaching calls, she asked me a variety of questions – some clarifying and some bigger picture types that she would then include as part of her editorial feedback. So I actually heard myself talk about the experiences I went through which got me out of my “writer head” but also motivated me to such a fierce degree to translate the experiences into writing.

Writing and speaking are such different mediums but when you can hear yourself talk, you become more invested in your story because you’re also trying to help the editor understand the bigger and smaller pieces and help yourself sort it out as well.

Having this speaking element complement the writing was in fact, the winning combination. This process motivated me and powered up my revision and writing muscles for hours at an end.

I will also say that this process has a lot to do with an editor’s personality. I felt listened to. Because I was motivated by the process, I was also determined to “win my editor over” to prove that I could take the revisions to the next level.

Each time I forked over another revision, I trusted that she knew what she was doing and where she wanted me to go with this story even thought I didn’t know if the revision would be better or the same. When I got that final pat on the back, it was for a revision well-earned and I could continue forging on knowing that I was making progress. In the process, she also earned my trust because I was divulging areas of my life with someone outside my circle.

Jerry: Did you keep contemporaneous notes during the period you wrote about? If so, say more about the notes when you first wrote them? If so, how valuable were they for the book?

Dorit: I kept journals during my IDF service to help me understand the kind of craziness I was going through at the time. In one entry I wrote, “I intend to write a book of my experiences one day to help me figure out all this craziness.” I intuitively knew that what was going on paper was the result of the emotional experiences of serving in a foreign military and adjusting to life as an immigrant.

By writing these entries in English, I was able to give voice to these experiences using my mother tongue. Those notes later find their way into the story arc of the memoir as individual scenes.

Because of the structure of military life, I did not have the luxury of writing every day, but they documented very well the kinds of challenges I was going through at the time. So all I had to do was just pick up a journal and I was immediately transported to that point of time.

Jerry: What other methods did you use for getting back in touch with the moments about which you write.

Dorit: To get in touch with that eighteen year old immigrant self who was one foot out of America and one foot in Israel in IDF uniform, I did a few important things which really helped me get into my character’s shoes:

1. I listened to well-known Israeli songs on Youtube that are especially associated with the army and especially of that time period which helped me get into my character’s head.
2. From time to time, I looked at old army photos, which reminded me of what I was like as a young adult. Boy am I glad I still have these because they were the visual reminders I needed to reconnect to that eighteen year old who had no idea what she was doing in the IDF!
3. I occasionally reread some of the journals I kept and the letters Mom wrote to me. I did not let research however bar me from writing.

Notes
Dorit Sasson’s Home Page

Accidental Soldier on Amazon

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

Best Ever “Launching” Memoir Review

by Jerry Waxler

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

Note: The word “launch” in the title of this article refers to the act of leaving home. When a ship launches, it simply glides down into the water. When a young adult goes out into the world, it can be much more complicated. Memoirs about launching are one of my favorite subgenres, and Dorit Sasson’s Accidental Soldier is one of my favorite representatives of that subgenre.

When Dorit Sasson was on the threshold of becoming an adult, her top priority was to get away from her neurotic mother. The obvious escape route led to her father’s homeland, Israel. But when she arrived there, she followed a surprising impulse. She volunteered for the Israeli army. This led her on an unusual road to womanhood, forcing her to shed her insecurities and to become more comfortable as a person.

Everything about her memoir, Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service and Sacrifice in the Israel Defense Forces, fascinated me.

It was one of the most complex, well-developed launching-from-child-to-adult stories I’ve read. In an impeccable story arc, it begins with a young woman, struggling to findAccidental Soldier the inner strength to face the world. As she copes with a series of obstacles, she gradually learns and grows.

One of her main challenges is her search for identity. Her journey from the U.S. to Israel created an important inner conflict, forcing her to figure out which nationality would define her. In Israel she was the “New Yorker” creating a subtle tension, never quite belonging to any one group. The group-identity struggles continue as she longs to be accepted by the other soldiers in her unit.

Figuring out which group one belongs to is often a crucial step in the process of growing up and has figured prominently in some of my favorite memoirs.

For other examples of young people trying to find their cultural identity as part of their search for adult self, read New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker, in which a young Mormon woman trying to fit into mainstream New York; Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas, in which she tries to figure out if she is Iranian or American; Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham about a young Vietnamese American on a similar search. And My Father’s Gardens by Karen Levy, another memoir about the tension between Israeli and American identity.

Accidental Soldier is deliciously psychological in other ways, too. It digs deep into the dysfunctional relationship with her mother. And the book provides a wonderful example of how fretful thoughts add to a suspenseful story.

Fortunately, by the end, the author achieved satisfaction. As a result, so did I.

Her denouement provide an excellent example of the way a memoir author can lead readers beyond the pages of the book, and provides a foreshadowing of life to come.

To learn more about how she crafted the book, I reached out and asked her for insights about how she achieved this level of professionalism, psychological insight, and good story telling. Our dialog follows in the next post.

Notes

For another memoir about a young woman entering a war with a camera rather than a gun, see My Journey Through War and Peace: Explorations of a Young Filmmaker, Feminist and Spiritual Seeker by Melissa Burch

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

Launching into Adulthood – Find a Job

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is a continuation of the series of articles about launching into adulthood inspired by Elna Baker’s memoir New York Mormon Regional Halloween Dance. Click here for the post about the journey from sex to love, and here for my article about the search for beliefs.

When I was 22, about the right age to become an adult, I decided that people who go to work every day were soulless drones. My decision to avoid adult responsibilities added many years to my transition into adulthood. Years later, I looked back on the mess I’d made of my launching years and assumed most of the confusion stemmed from the mass psychosis of the 60s, when millions of us had worked ourselves up into an anti-adult frenzy.

As I continued to grow through my protracted process of becoming an adult, I discovered that many people struggle to find the right job, even ones too young to know the difference between a hippie and a beatnik. (Answer: same thing, different decade)

In my fifties, when I finally returned to school for a graduate degree in counseling psychology, I took a course in career counseling and learned that helping people find a satisfying job is a whole career in itself. My career counseling course taught me the facts of other people’s struggles to find work, but I didn’t understand their stories until I began reading memoirs. Memoirs ushered me through the many tasks of growing up, including the sometimes-fascinating journey to earn money.

Some memoir authors have to find jobs in difficult circumstances. For example, Harry Bernstein’s second memoir, The Dream, takes place during the Great Depression. When he is walking around the city looking for work, he passes a mob of unruly men, shoving each other, frantically hoping to be selected for a job.

Some authors face obstacles within themselves. For example, in John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye, the author shows how his Asperger’s syndrome contributes to solving technical problems. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Asperger’s contributes to anti-social behavior toward his bosses that makes it difficult to hold down a job.

Some of the most interesting stories about finding work are by individuals who long, as I did, for a creative career. For example, Joan Rivers’ memoir Enter Talking describes the author’s desire to earn a living by making audiences laugh. Steve Martin is another world-famous comedian whose memoir, Born Standing Up, tells about his climb from a boy who wanted to do magic tricks to a household name.

At first these performers had to scrounge for work wherever they could get it. Joan Rivers regularly performed at strip clubs. Steve Martin, early in his career, was hired to perform at a restaurant. Even though the place was empty, the owner told him to perform anyway, because it would attract customers. Steve Martin’s performance to an empty room is not much different from the daily task of writing any memoir. At first, we all “perform” to an empty room.

Just as Steve Martin’s performance was supposed to attract customers, we writers hope to attract future readers. By giving the best performance we can muster, pouring our hearts onto the page, we establish exactly the kind of intimate connection that audiences seek.

Memoirs by stage performers underscore their author’s passion to move audiences, whether they do it from the stage or from the page. This desire to connect with an audience in both forms is beautifully portrayed by aspiring actress Elna Baker in her memoir New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance. To achieve her goal of becoming an actress, she moves to New York city and auditions for roles.

While waiting to be called back, she takes a job as a demonstrator in a toy store. The job requires acting skills, but instead of transporting audiences to higher realities, she is paid to convince children to fall in love with expensive dolls. She also works as a waitress in a bar, a job filled with colorful possibilities, especially since she doesn’t drink alcohol.

After a few such experiences, she notices that her attempts to become an actress are generating interesting anecdotes. So while she waits to be cast in someone else’s story, why not play herself in her own story? She discovers a hip storytelling scene, in venues such as The Moth in New York, This American Life on NPR, and  First Person Arts in Philadelphia. She tells her stories to live and radio audiences, using her acting skills to dramatize her journey to become an actress. Eventually her oral stories make their way into writing, and then become a memoir.

Elna Baker’s struggle to earn a living through storytelling resonates with the desire lurking in every memoir writer’s heart. We too hope that by sharing our stories, we can earn a more public place in society, lifting and entertaining readers, one at a time. Most of us wouldn’t complain if those readers also were willing to pay for the privilege. In reality, few of us will earn enough money to supplement our careers, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

For example, when Stephen Markley graduated college, he was desperate to earn a living as a writer. At the age of 24, he pitched an idea to write a memoir about writing a memoir. Against impossible odds, he sold it, resulting in the excellent book, Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book. For both Stephen Markley and Elna Baker, the project of earning a living became ridiculously intertwined with writing stories about earning a living.

Memoir writers exist beyond the last page of the book
Elna Baker’s search for a career doesn’t end with a satisfying conclusion. By the last page, she has not “made it” as an actress. Sadly, she is not sure what she’s going to do. In a previous post I wrote about the ambiguity of Elna Baker’s sexual launching. By the end of the book, she didn’t achieve her goal of finding love any more than she found a career. Despite the ambiguity of the ending, I loved the book and highly recommend it. But why was I satisfied with a character who seemed to feel stranded at the end?

I have been asking myself the same question since Frank McCourt got off the boat at the end of Angela’s Ashes and ended with all sorts of unresolved problems. After reading Elna Baker’s memoir, I realize the answer goes to the heart of the difference between fiction and nonfiction.

At the end of novels, we know their heroes live only inside the imaginary world created by the author. They have no life of their own. Unlike them, memoir heroes continue to grow and change. At the very least, we know they have spent a considerable amount of time and effort figuring out  how to share their stories. And we usually know a great deal more about them than that. We can look up their circumstances on their websites, follow their job history on linkedin, read their blogs, and watch their interviews.

The fact that fiction characters only live inside the story is called “the fourth wall” and when those characters reach out to talk to the audience, they are said to “break the fourth wall.” Memoir characters break the fourth wall all the time.

One of my main pleasures in reading memoirs is this connection with a live person. Inside the pages of the book, I learned about them inside the bounds of their stories. In addition, I often have an opportunity to find out more about how they live outside the pages.

We relate to heroes in thrillers and myths because of their larger-than-life achievements, grace, beauty, courage, and other mythical qualities. We bond with memoir heroes for entirely different reasons. As real people, they help us understand that humans are flawed, they can teach us amazing things about life, and for those of us aspiring to write memoirs, they can teach us about writing our own.

So when I heard Elna Baker was teaching a life-writing course at First Person Arts in Philadelphia, I signed up. I joined a room full of aspiring storytellers, and when she walked into the training room with her four-legged companion, she didn’t just break the fourth wall. She exited her story and helped us with ours.

By this time, she was a producer for the NPR series This American Life, and well on her way to earning a living as a storyteller. It turned out she was not only a great teller. She was a great listener and teacher, as well. After each of us shared a glimpse of our lives, she offered wise advice for how to strengthen the story and make it more accessible and compelling.

Some of us were young, and looking to launch ourselves into the wage-earning part of our lives. Others of us were much older, looking to launch from a private to a more public version of ourselves. In either case, we shared the performer’s passion, wanting to reach out to an audience, in exchange for a couple of dollars, a few laughs and tears, and if we were lucky, applause at the end of the story.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene about struggling to figure out the right job. Perhaps you talked to a career counselor, or took a job you knew was “wrong” for you, or tried to get into a career that seemed perfect, but something got in the way. After you write this scene of struggle, write another one in which you enjoyed a moment at work – for example, joking with coworkers, or finishing a project.

Notes

Click here for Elna Baker’s home page.

Click here to listen to a recording of Elna Baker’s story about demonstrating baby-dolls here:

Click here for Philadelphia’s First Person Arts [LINK]

Click here for Stephen Markley’s memoir, Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book.

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.

Launching Memoirs Chronicle Main Tasks to Grow to Adulthood

by Jerry Waxler

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

The modern memoir movement burst into being around the beginning of the twenty-first century, ushered in by a slew of bestselling stories about growing up such as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club. Those books describe the childhood development of their protagonists.

Now the presence of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild on the New York Times Bestseller list signals an interest in the next period of life, called “Launching.” At the beginning of Wild, the young woman is unemployed, sexually active, and confused about her relationship with drugs, men, and life in general. To find herself, she goes on a wilderness hike, during which she ponders her past. With each mile that passes underfoot, she moves farther from her confusion and closer to her future adulthood. Her outer story relies heavily on the struggle with nature, an ancient backdrop for the universal task of becoming an adult.

This period of transition into adulthood is not new. It’s just that Strayed’s memoir is a current favorite, focusing the book buying public on a transition that all of us must undergo. In most memoirs, the transition doesn’t take place in the wilderness. Instead, their authors must sort themselves out amid mundane challenges.

Stephen Markley’s clever memoir Publish This Book, is a great example of a young guy who needs to figure things out. Markley had just finished college and needed a job. His brainstorm to write a book about “publishing this very book” paid off. The outer story is filled with self-aware irony about the absurdities of writing a book about writing a book. The inner story is about Markley’s transition from college grad to adult. To complete that transition, he must establish a career, form a relationship and in general acquire enough oomph to move on to the next step in his life.

At the end of Frank McCourt’s bestselling Angela’s Ashes, the young man has just left home physically but he arrives in New York with no idea of what to do next. In his second memoir, ‘Tis, he describes the next leg of his journey in which he searches for work and attempts to form a relationship.

In Jancee Dunn’s successful memoir, Enough About Me, the outer story is about the adventures of a young celebrity interviewer. But at its heart, Enough About Me describes a young woman trying to figure out how to gain sufficient competency to leave home, form relationships, and get a good job.

Both Jancee Dunn’s and Frank McCourt’s launching memoirs take place in and around New York City, a cultural hotbed, famous as a place to search for that next exciting step into adulthood. Another memoir about trying to make it as an adult in New York is Elna Baker’s New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance (NYRMSHD).

After Elna Baker moves away from her parents’ home, she has to figure out how to transform from a youthful adult to a fully functioning one. Her excellent memoir about launching contains an in-depth treatment of the developmental tasks a young adult must undergo in order to make the transition.

In fact, the author describes her transition into adulthood with such crisp, engaging storytelling, I think of NYRMSHD as a quintessential Launching memoir. In it, she offers an in-depth treatment of what I have come to see as the three fundamental tasks required to make this transition.

In addition to the two standard ones of figuring out how to earn a living and how to form a committed relationship, she adds a third. She needs to figure out how much of her parents’ belief system to bring with her into her adult life. I believe that this third task is every bit as important as the first two, but for many reasons, it has not been as prominently covered in memoirs. Elna Baker makes up for that deficiency in a fascinating exploration of her Mormon upbringing and the conflicts it creates in her launching.

In the following posts, I’ll review the way Elna Baker tackles these three aspects of Launching. I hope these posts will give you ideas about how you might be able to shape and share the story of your own transition into adulthood.

Notes
Elna Baker’s Home Page

Click here for another article about memoirs whose authors transition into adulthood.

Click here for a New York Times article Long Winding Path to Adulthood

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.

How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

When you start writing your memoir, you might not know how much of your childhood to include. However, don’t let that uncertainty slow you down. Gather anecdotes with an open mind, recording any scene that feels like it “wants to be told.” The material that pours on to the page during your research phase could influence the final decision about how to structure the book.

Material about an early period might turn into a memoir itself. It might provide important flashbacks. Or even if you don’t use it, these old scenes will provide rich background to help you make more sense of your character.

In addition to writing your draft material with an open mind, read memoirs with the same flexible approach. By reading voraciously you learn the range of life experience that each author chooses to include. You learn what sorts of memoirs you love to read.

As an aspiring memoir author, you look past the content of each memoir to its structure. How did the book start, and how did the initial scene (or at least chapter) relate to the character’s main challenge? Did it grab your attention? How would you apply the beginning and ending of the memoir to your own memoir in progress?

After you’ve read a variety of memoirs and answered these questions, you will develop a “vocabulary” of memoir structures that will give you ideas about how to construct your own. For example, in this post, I’ll focus on the amount of childhood that is included in the memoirs I’ve read.

Start from Childhood

Some of the most successful bestsellers in the Memoir Revolution were about growing up. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club and Jeannette Walls’ Glass Castle all were on the New York Times bestseller list, and they all began in childhood. One reason their stories grabbed so much attention was because these children endured abusive, chaotic situations. Our hearts go out to Frank McCourt as he wanders the street hoping to find a piece of coal that might have spilled off the delivery truck so he could heat the house for his mother and siblings. We want to send in Social Services to protect Jeanette Walls, whose parents moved for no reason, choosing poverty over work.

Less prevalent are books about childhood without gut-wrenching danger. The key to storytelling is creating and resolving conflict, so if there is no monstrous father in the picture, or rockets smashing into nearby apartments, (Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filapovic) the story’s conflict must come from other aspects of the human drama.

No matter how cushy our material circumstances, we all had to grow up, and in our own way, each of us knows the emotional dangers and hardships of that process. Our attempts to find safety and wholeness amid these ordinary challenges can provide an excellent story.

Memoirs about Non-horrific Childhood

Laura Shane Cunningham, author of Sleeping Arrangements lost both her parents, a profound loss that was softened by the care of the two compassionate uncles who raised her. Her unusual freedom and attempts to find emotional wholeness makes a great story. Even more normal was Haven Kimmel’s life in a small town. In her memoir, a Girl Named Zippy, she energizes the reading experience with a terrific, ironic humor.

Tell About Childhood as the First Installment

A Girl Named Zippy was Kimmel’s successful first memoir. Her second memoir She Got Up Off the Couch essentially continued the story from where the first one left off. This strategy of writing sequential memoirs has been employed by some very successful authors,

Frank McCourt followed his smash hit Angela’s Ashes with a second memoir ‘Tis and a third, Teacher Man. Mary Karr, after the Liar’s Club, moved on to the next phase in her life in the memoir Cherry, and then recounted her long struggle with alcoholism in Lit. Harry Bernstein wrote three books about his life, starting with Invisible Wall, about being a child in England before World War I. His second was The Dream about being a young immigrant to the U.S., and his third was Golden Willow about the span of life that took him into his 90s. For each of these authors, the book about childhood was the first installment in a much longer work which added up to a de facto trilogy.

Late Childhood: Transition into Adulthood

Early childhood might feel like the most psychologically important period, when you are learning to be a person. It is also might seem too far away from your adulthood or your memories might be too vague and unrecoverable, or too “normal.” However, there is another segment of Coming of Age that creates enormous psychological pressure for many of us. During the period called “launching,” we leave our dependence on our family and enter the adult world. The challenge is that we are making decisions that will affect us for the rest of our lives, but our adult minds are not yet fully developed. The launching process can make a fascinating, high energy, dangerous story, as evidenced by these:

Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum. Desperate to get away from her mother’s boyfriend, Erlbaum hurled herself out on the street unprepared to care for herself. She lands in a girl’s shelter for a year in a great example of trying to grow up too fast.

Dopefiend by Tim Elhajj. His entry into adulthood was derailed by addiction to heroin, so when it’s time for him to take a stand and launch himself into the adult world, he starts out with enormous disadvantages

Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro made it all the way to college drug free and then lost her way. This is one of the best “derailed launching” books I’ve read.

Publish This Book by Stephen Markley. When he gets out of college, he has to figure out how to make a living. “I know,” he thinks, “I’ll write a book about writing a book.” It’s a fun read and at 26 years old, he happens to be one of the youngest memoir authors I’ve covered.

Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Fineberg Cook. She marries a schoolteacher and leaves her life as a spoiled Los Angeles party girl. In Japan, she learns to be a housewife and an expat at the same time. This is a later period in launching when she has her first taste of adult responsibility.

Tell the Whole Thing in One Book

Coming of Age stories don’t necessarily end at age 18 or 20. After all, this is simply the prelude to the rest of life, and often the story of childhood merges into the next leg or two of the journey. Even though Glass Castle is famous as a Coming of Age story, with many mesmerizing scenes of Jeanette Walls’ childhood, the book doesn’t end when she moves out of her house. It ends well into Walls’ adulthood when she attempts to make peace with her parents.

Even if your childhood doesn’t have sufficient drama to make it a story in its own right, you may have a sense that it is part of your “story that must be told.” If you keep coming back to that period of your life as an important aspect of the character you need to portray then challenge yourself to find a way. Memoirs, like any creative work, allow room for your own approach. It may take you longer than you originally hoped, but over a period of development, you gradually see how to knit the whole thing together. And as you creatively knit together your memoir, you will also knit together the fragments of your life, allowing you to see the whole thing in one story.

Consider Susan Gregory Thomas’ compelling memoir, In Spite of Everything. The book offers a terrific example of a story that starts with childhood and keeps going. Her childhood seems like a magical, storybook life, disrupted by the tragic breakup of her parents, a nightmarishly chaotic adolescence, through her college years, her young married life, and then to the heart-wrenching breakup of her own marriage. She keeps this long journey fraught with compelling tension that carries the reader all the way through.

In the next few posts, I continue to dig into more of the structural decisions that will help you turn your manuscript of life events into your compelling story.

Notes

This is the second part of the series about how to structure a memoir.
How Should I Begin My Memoir?
One of the most puzzling questions about how to structure a memoir is “Where do I begin?”

How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir?
Since memoirs are a psychologically oriented genre, we want to include enough background to show how it all began. But how much is the right amount?

Should You Use Flashbacks in Your Memoir?
Flashbacks provide important background information, but you need to use them carefully so you don’t confuse your reader.

More Tips about Constructing the Timeline of a Memoir
The timeline of a memoir contains the forward momentum, and the laying out of cause and effect, so it’s important to learn the best techniques for laying it out.

Beware of Casual Flashforwards in Your Memoir
In real life, we can’t know the future, so to keep your memoir authentic, try to avoid sounding like a prophet.

How a Wrapper Story Helps You Structure Your Memoir
When you try to tell your own unique story, you might find that you need an additional layer of narration to make it work. Here are a few examples of writers who used wrapper stories.

Telling a Memoir’s Backstory by Seesawing in Time
If you want to tell about the childhood roots of your adult dilemmas, you could follow the example of these authors who wove the two timeframes together.

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.

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

If Not Conflict, What Fierce Determination Drives a Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

In the memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints, Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner, travel to Turkey to help a friend manage a small inn. It seems like a pleasant getaway that combines travel, friendship, and an entrepreneurial spirit. As they visit museums and historical sites, try new cuisines, befriend locals, and in Angie’s case, have romances with them, the women become increasingly smitten with the place. By the end, they fulfill the book’s sub-title, clearly communicating their love for the country.

Turkey has played a crucial role in world religion and commerce for millennia, and yet I grew up learning hardly anything about its history. Through the eyes of these two American women, I gain a fascinating glimpse into this crossroads of Moslem and Christian traditions, and even delve into pre-Christian goddess power. I also gain another glimpse of the expat experience.

In my younger years I read about macho Americans like Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway consuming their way across Europe, sucking in unlimited quantities of alcohol, food, and women. By contrast, Anatolian Days and Nights is almost a sendup of those excesses. Stocke and Brenner have modest appetites, spiced with a delicate mix of curiosity and compassion.

In fact, the women behave so nicely, it makes me ask a fundamental question: “Don’t all satisfying stories need conflict?” Ever since Ulysses traveled through the Greek and Turkish isles, threatened by monsters, imprisoned by sex goddesses, and fighting to the death with his wife’s suitors, readers have demonstrated their gluttony for conflict. Fiction writers satisfy this desire by inventing all sorts of exaggerated dangers and setbacks. Memoir writers, on the other hand, extract tension from the desire, fear, and courage enmeshed in a lifetime of memories.

So what tension in Anatolian Days and Nights keeps me reading? Were the two women at risk, traveling alone in a male-dominated world? Were they afraid? Actually, apparently not. If anything, the locals seem eager to protect them. If it wasn’t driven by the desperation to stay alive, or the gluttony to consume, what is the fierce determination that propels them to the end of their journey and me reading to the last page?

The Importance of Character Arc as a Driving Force in Memoirs

To engage me in a story, the author must convince me something in their character is missing or under-developed. The rest of the story leads me on a treasure hunt to work through the tension and choices of life. By the end, the character convinces me they have achieved this thing. This important payoff to a story is often thoroughly obvious in fiction. But in memoirs it can be more difficult to point out, and after I’ve read a satisfying story I go back to see what the character has learned.

For example, by the end of Accidental Lessons, David Berner is oriented to serving humanity rather than merely having a good job. At the end of Seven Wheelchairs, Gary Presley has wrapped his mind around the destiny of living on wheels instead of legs. At the end of Dope Fiend, Tim Elhajj has traveled beyond his minimum goal of abstaining from heroin. He has also figured out how to be a father to his son.

However, when I looked for a hard-fought character arc in Anatolian Days and Night , at first I couldn’t find it. Since both women were gentle, curious, and generous at the beginning, I did not feel any urgent pressure for them to grow along these lines. Their main goal seemed to be to understand Turkey, rather than themselves. And yet, I still closed the book feeling satisfied. What had the authors done for me and for themselves that made me turn pages?

Search for Identity as an Important Type of Character Arc

In memoirs, there is a special type of character arc — the search for identity. In this type of story, the missing ingredient that provides the impetus for forward momentum is the protagonist’s desire for a clearer sense of who they are. By the end, the character finds their true self and satisfies their quest.

This need to “know thyself” has been responsible for some of the blockbuster memoirs of our era. In fact, the modern memoir movement was started largely by the success of Coming of Age memoirs like This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. In each of these books, the young character must figure out “who am I?” The answer to this question is, of course, not simple.

Coming of Age stories are driven by a variety of questions that must be answered on the journey from child to adult, including issues of sexuality, career, family, spirituality. And one of the most fascinating struggles is one of the most abstract — the fierce determination of a young person to find identity. By the end of a satisfying memoir, the character must find enough of a sense of self to know how to steer themselves in the coming years, or at least suggest that they are heading toward such a clear identity.

This journey to find identity is not limited to Coming of Age. By lining up my collection of memoirs in the order of the life-period they describe, it becomes apparent that people of all ages try to figure out who they are. The first Coming of Age stage, finishes around say 18 years old. But there is a second stage of this transition to adulthood that is also crucial. Many memoirs are about the struggles during this second period, say from around 18 to 26 years old, when we have to make important adjustments to our identity so we can survive in the world.

For example, at the beginning of Japan Took The JAP Out of Me, Lisa Fineberg Cook is a newly-wed party-girl. By the end, she is less self indulgent and more oriented to work and service. At the beginning of Wild, Cheryl Strayed is a dysfunctional young adult, with no direction, quick to try a new guy or a new drug. She walks 100s of miles across wilderness trails to find a new vision of herself and ends with the moral strength to establish herself in the adult world. Similarly, at the beginning of Slow Motion, Dani Shapiro is almost ready to become a young woman when she falls into a trap of drugs and sex. By the end, she outgrows her fascination with the power of her own beauty, and enters the adult world of personal responsibility.

Adopted kids have a particular challenge, as evidenced in two memoirs about girls who are just about to launch into the world when they are contacted by their birth mothers. In Mei Ling Hopgood’s Lucky Girl a Chinese American adoptee travels to China to learn about her birth family. In Mistress’s Daughter, AM Homes conducts an intense investigation, trying to understand her birth family in order to understand herself.

Sometimes, a person much later in life begins to ask pressing questions about who they are. These later searches for identity can also make compelling stories. For example in the memoir Catfish and Mandala Andrew X. Pham realizes he can never be happy until he makes peace with his Vietnamese origins. He quits his engineering job in California and rides through Vietnam on a bicycle, trying to understand his roots. In My Ruby Slippers, Tracy Seeley, an English professor in San Francisco, ejected from her comfort zone by cancer, travels to Kansas to try to understand her roots. Both authors become seekers for their own identity, and they both use the notion of place in order to help them learn more.

Why is the Search for Identity So Important?

In thrillers, the compelling force is obvious. Stop the assassin. By comparison, finding your identity seems woefully abstract. Despite the apparent vagueness of this propelling force, in memoir after memoir, authors uproot their lives in order to understand their identity. Their fierce determination to answer the question “who am I?” drags readers along for the ride. Perhaps this need for identity is more visceral and fundamental than we think. For those of us interested in the psychological journey of human experience, the longing for identity appears to be every bit as life-affirming and page-turning as stopping an assassination.

Anatolian Days and Nights is good evidence of the importance of this quest. Like the hero in Somerset Maughm’s The Razor’s Edge, who left home in order to find his truth, Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner left their familiar lives and traveled east. They were seekers, looking for whatever wisdom Turkey could offer them about themselves.

By diving into Turkey, they fulfilled a sublime search not just for that country’s identity but for their own. It was a search that was important enough to drive them half-way around the world, and significant enough to keep me reading, and then to recommend their story to anyone looking for a satisfying experience.

Notes

Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints by Joy Stocke and Angie BrennerClick here for Amazon Page
Click here for Anatolian Days and Nights Home Page

There’s a word for that! I thought I understood the meaning of the word “mandala” as a sort of symbolic geometric shape. But I couldn’t figure out why Andrew X. Pham used the word in his title. I looked it up the in the dictionary and find that it means: In Jungian psychology, a symbol representing the effort to reunify the self. Perfect!

For more about the desire that drives a memoir, see my essay:
What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?

Although this is the first memoir I’ve read about love for a culture, it adds to my collection of the subgenre about friendship. Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is a tribute to her friendship with Carolyn Knapp. And Father Joe by Tony Hendra, is a paean to his spiritual mentor.

More Expats: Recently I read the memoir San Miguel D’Allende, about Rick Skwiot’s attempts to find himself in Mexico. And in Native State, Tony Cohan describes his attempts to settle into the jazz and drug scene in northern Africa. Both follow the Anatolian Nights model of searching for self in a foreign land.

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, 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.

Spoiled brat? What does spoiled even mean?

by Jerry Waxler

Lisa Cook Fineberg grew up in Los Angeles, a town where, by the rules of contemporary culture, the world bows down in submission to hot young women. But her memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is not about life as a princess. It’s about moving beyond her self-indulgent youth, and trying to find her way to the next step. When Lisa marries, she moves to Nagoya, Japan where the lack of chic hair salons or appreciation for her appearance hurtles her into a different world.

(This is the second of a three part review. To see the first part, click here.)

After the long flight, the newlyweds arrive at their supposedly-furnished apartment and discover there are no bed sheets. The prospect of sleeping on a bed without sheets throws Lisa into a panic. She wonders if she will be able to survive in Japan. Her husband coaxes her through it. “It’s an adventure,” he says. “You can handle it. If you can’t handle it we’ll go home.” She submits to his emotional support and reaffirms her original intention . “That’s okay. I’ll try to stick it out.”

During Lisa’s reaction, readers must make a choice. We could either say, “Dear Lord. It’s only a night with an inconvenient sleeping arrangement. Get over it.” Or we could cheer for her, the way her husband did. And that is the real charm of the book. Lisa lets us in on the debate she is having within herself. She generates dramatic tension when she feels discomfort, and then relieves the tension when she decides she can do it.

Subways show passage beyond “spoiled”

In another scene, she shows the tedium and crush of riding the subway to work. At first glance, her discomfort might seem “spoiled.” But when you think about it, why is she riding to work on a subway, anyway? Wouldn’t a princess take a cab? And she isn’t going shopping. She’s on her way to teaching an English language class, another non-princess-like activity. The subway scenes show excellent examples of her transition from youth to maturity. To go from princess to working woman, the only way she could do it was to push ahead, explore, experience it for herself, and keep trying.

Memoir Writer’s Courage

Some of her behavior to her husband and coworkers is clearly selfish. One scenes shows her unwillingness to be kind to a woman who reaches out to her. In another scene, she becomes furious because her husband doesn’t make a big enough fuss about her birthday. The scenes  provide emotional vulnerability that engages the reader. They also provide insight into the challenges faced by every aspiring memoir writer.

When we had to make the transition from the freedom of youth to the responsibility of adulthood, many of us tried to prolong our entitlements. Even as we were pushed into the new world, we clung to the notion that other people were supposed to serve us. In the process we made self-involved decisions. Like Lisa, we threw hissy-fits, angry at our fate and ready to ignore other people’s feelings on order to survive our own. After the snit was over, most of us forgave ourselves, forgot about it and moved on.

Memoir writers choose a different path. We look back on those memories squarely, and observe our behavior carefully.  When we consider scenes in which we ignored the rights and feelings of other people, we feel a pang of shame. I have read many memoir scenes that are clearly not included because the author was proud of their behavior, but because they are willing to fearlessly face them. In order to provide the full emotional experience to our readers, memoir writers remember the ups and downs and we share things about ourselves that most people hide.

Before the memoir wave, we tried to resolve unwanted memories by pretending they never happened. Memoirs offer us a different way of relating to our past, allowing us to face our memories, share them, and acknowledge those experiences as steps along our own long journey.

Writing prompt
Pick a moment when you felt the world was falling apart, but which in retrospect was just a temporary inconvenience. Looking back on it, you can see it was just your mind freezing up, demanding better circumstances. Write the scene with the outrage and hurt and victimization you felt at the time. Let the reader feel your pain.

Spoiled in creature comforts but generous in explanations

I love the way Lisa thinks about things and then clearly and thoughtfully communicates what she sees. For example, in her teen years she feels entitled to buy hair products, designer clothes, and look attractive. But she also realizes that some boys have a different form of entitlement. They treat her like an object and push her around. She decides to stay away from boys who have that attitude and she advises all young women to do the same. In a couple of simple sentences, she provides a primer on manipulative relationships and guidance on how to steer through that period of discovery in a young woman’s life.

Such simple clarity takes place on every page, where she offers observations in clear, sensible language. The writing reminds me of the famous advice to entertainers. “Work hard to make the audience think it’s easy.” So even though the younger Lisa Fineberg Cook is spoiled, years later she sits in front of a blank page and works hard to clearly show me her life. By revealing her vulnerable moments, Lisa paradoxically also demonstrates her courage as a writer, a revealer, and an explorer of self.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Cultural Crossroads: Memoir of An American Princess In Japan

by Jerry Waxler

The memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is based on a familiar premise: a young woman marries and moves to a different city to follow her husband’s job. From this raw material, Lisa Fineberg Cook takes us on a rich, complex journey. The title is an extraordinarily clever play on words, referring to the acronym Jewish American Princess, or JAP. It refers to the fact that her sense of privilege and entitlement were squeezed out of her by the realities of her move to Japan.

As the title suggests, Japan plays an important role, but an American in Japan is only one of several contrasting cultural realities that make this book so delightfully multi-dimensional. Lisa grew up in Los Angeles, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. In Japan, she lives in Nagoya, which feels insulated. When she takes a trip to Tokyo, an international city with more global connections, she contrasts it to Nagoya, with its dearth of designer clothes and modern hair stylists. The less outgoing social conventions of her adopted city combined with the  clumsiness of crossing the language barrier force her to shift her cultural gears into speeds so slow she didn’t even know they existed.

Launching into Adulthood

The cultural transition that dominates this book is Lisa’s journey from the familiar world of a young adult to the strange new world of adulthood. Cook doesn’t just saunter into this transition. She catapults into it. Just before the memoir starts, the most important thing in her life was to beautify herself and attract boys. She marries and then flies to Japan where she must settle down and adapt to the adult world of compromise, when she actually had to work for things, and sometimes wait for gratification.

At the threshold of this new world, Cook describes adulthood through the eyes of a newcomer who is shocked that she must leave her entitlements behind. During her adjustment to marriage, she faces the mundane chores of house cleaning, laundry, and entertaining neighborhood women. The newlywed arguments are superb and insightful, offering a glimpse behind those closed walls at the way both partners are adjusting to their new roles. Just as Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball kept us engaged in newlywed problems thanks to humor and cultural contrasts, Lisa Fineberg Cook does the same thing. She keeps the story moving, thanks to excellently executed contrasts between L.A. and Japan.

Adapting to Japan While Growing Up

When Lisa meets her Japanese neighbors, she tries desperately to read social cues that are either absent or so understated as to be invisible to the American eye. The mismatch generates many opportunities for humorous misunderstanding and dramatic tension. There are also opportunities for insight.

For example, when she teaches English to Japanese girls, she encourages them to think independently. However, her efforts are frustrated by their social conventions. They seem to believe their highest social priority is to think exactly the same thoughts as everyone else. When one student furtively asks Lisa for help with an English poem, the teacher recognizes and admires the social risk the girl is taking. But like feeding a hummingbird, she must hide her excitement so she doesn’t scare the girl away. The situation highlights the contrast between American exuberance and Japanese reserve.

Tarnishing the Glow of Sexual Charisma

Another fascinating cultural insight in the memoir was the difference between beautiful women, head-turners who command the attention of a room, versus the rest of humanity, who walk into a room barely noticed. I sometimes wonder what it feels like to be a beautiful woman who attracts attention by simply looking good. Fortunately, I don’t have to reincarnate to find out. I can just read memoirs. In “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” Lisa Fineberg Cook explores the question through a sexy girl’s eyes. For example, she talks to her friend Stacy about how good it feels to walk past construction workers in L.A. in order to get an ego boost from a wolf whistle.

In Japan, Lisa discovers a fascinating twist to this experience of being stared at. When she commutes to her job on a crowded train everyone looks at her, a situation she is probably accustomed to at home, but this gaze is colder and more remote, as if the other passengers are examining a strange specimen. Her size, her shape, the color of her hair and skin, attract attention not because she is delicious but because she is different. Again, like so much of the memoir, this experience helps her grow beyond the entitlements of youth and move on to the next stage in her life.

Each time I turned the page, I learned more about how people must learn about and get along with each other. In each contrast, whether between sexy single and married adult, Japanese and American, charismatic and ordinary individuals, husbands and wives, I feel like I am peering into the heart of the human condition. Lisa Fineberg Cook’s life experience taught me many lessons about her in particular, about the people she encountered, and about writing memoirs. I’ll say more about these lessons in the next part of this essay.

(This is the first of a three part review. To see the second part, click here.)

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

Other Memoirs About Launching

Another book of a launching and pop culture is Jancee Dunn’s “Enough About Me” – Jancee left home to enter a career at Rolling Stone magazine, while she shifted her self-image from child to adult.

A similar transition takes place in “Sound of No Hands Clapping” by Toby Young, an excellent transition from a wild and often drunk single, to a married young father, looking to convert his attention from self to family.

Most of the drama of “Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls is about surviving mistakes made by her parents. When she is ready to take responsibility for herself, she emerges from poverty and into adulthood like a rocket.

Frank McCourt’s Coming of Age represents a dark difficult transition. Unlike Lisa Fineberg Cook’s “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” by the time McCourt reaches the end of “Angela’s Ashes,” he had no idea how to be an adult. He describes his launching in much greater detail in his second memoir, “Tis.”

For another article about launching into adulthood: How These Memoir Authors Emerged Into Adulthood

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Self-concept and memoirs: The power of purpose

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the fourth article in my series about using memoir reading and writing to deepen your understanding of your own self-concept. To start from the beginning, click here. Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity,

In his memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” psychologist Viktor Frankl observed that a person who lacks purpose is susceptible to a variety of ills. According to Frankl’s theory, we live to the fullest only when we pursue a goal greater than ourselves. Abraham Maslow offers a slightly different slant on the issue of desire. His famous Hierarchy of Needs describes how our sense of purpose evolves from the most basic physical requirements for food and shelter, up through safety, pride, and recognition. At the very top of the hierarchy are transcendent goals like creativity, spirituality and service.

In many memoirs, and certainly the ones I enjoy the most, these energizing psychological principles leap off the pages. In the beginning of each memoir, the protagonist burns with some sort of desire, and then through the course of events, the character matures and begins to develop a deeper understanding of purpose.

To make your memoir as compelling as possible, search for your central mission. What drove you from day to day? When you find it, you will be giving yourself as well as your readers a gift. The wind in your sails that has propelled you through the years, also propels your reader through the pages.

Examples
Viktor Frankl, “Man’s search for meaning.” Frankl keeps himself alive during internment in Nazi death camps by helping fellow prisoners. He also dreams of someday helping people in the world. For the rest of his life, he follows this dream, promoting his system of Logotherapy, based on the notion that finding your true purpose is the antidote to modern ills.

Davis, Jenkins, and Hunt, “The Pact.” Three boys in northern New Jersey band together to overcome the influences of their tough urban environment. They help each other become doctors. Then they return to their community to inspire other struggling young men to follow the same path.

Greg Mortenson, “Three Cups of Tea.” As a young man interested only in climbing mountains, Mortenson finds his true calling when he stumbles into a village where poor people save his life and offer him a place in their homes. He vows to build a school for their children, and his work evolves into an international charity that builds schools for poor children in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Purpose interrupted

In any good story, as in any full-featured life, there are ups and downs. When our sense of purpose stalls or derails, it can feel not only like the death of a dream, but like a small death of the self. How do we get back into the game of life when our best effort failed? The story of resurrecting self after such setbacks reveals the courage and resilience of the human spirit. Many of the memoirs on my bookshelf tell about such complex journeys. These examples may help you discover how purpose played out in your own story.

Dani Shapiro, “Slow Motion.” This author entered a prestigious college, a powerful first step that would set the stage for her life as a writer. Then she hit a snag. A seducer showered her with flattery, gifts, and drugs, and she almost lost everything. The climb back to purpose shows her resilience. In fact, in a sense, it was this call to higher purpose that pulled her out of the abyss.

Janice Erlbaum, “Have you found her?” The author was homeless as a young girl. As an adult she returned to a shelter to help homeless kids. When her good intentions missed their mark, she shows her vulnerability and also gives us the chance to learn about human nature along with her. Her experience makes me wonder about the profound suffering possible in life, the desire to help, the limits of that help, and the degree to which you have to grow wiser yourself in order to heal others.

David Berner, “Accidental Lessons.” The author was a successful radio newscaster who, in mid-life, realized his career had only satisfied him externally. Internally he was drying up. Berner found deeper meaning by spending a year teaching in an inner city school. His memoir offers an example of discovering a deeper calling the second time around.

How did I find my purpose?

Like Dani Shapiro, my life presents an example, of a failure to launch. When my original goal of becoming a doctor fell apart, I fell into a spiritual void. With no reason to do anything, I lost interest in turning the pages of my own life. Stumbling in the dark, I came upon a belief system that prevented my spiritual demise, and I gradually built myself back to mental health. And like David Berner, in my fifties I began searching for a career that would allow me more opportunities to work with people. Eventually I found my calling to people find their story. This mission is providing me more enthusiasm about life than I experienced since I was a teen.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene which shows what you longed for. Did  you find fulfillment at your paid job, or a volunteer job, a hobby, or with your family, or community service. Look for places when your life connected with a larger social purpose.

Link to other articles in this series

Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity

Self-concept and memoir – launching problems and identifying with a group

Recovering self-concept after trauma

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.

Stephen Markley Interview Part 3: Satire, Truth, and Risk

by Jerry Waxler

When you publish a memoir, you expose yourself to a variety of risks. In addition to the obvious one that not everyone will like your work, there are others, such as mistakes of memory, exposing vulnerable areas of self, and annoying relatives. If you want courage to balance on the high wire of your own memoir, look for inspiration from those who have gone before you. Take for example, Stephen Markley, author of  “Publish This Book.” He is a risk taker of the highest order. In this part of my multi-part interview, I ask about his willingness to take risks in his writing.

Jerry Waxler: There have been a few huge media dustups about memoirs that were demonstrated to have introduced major factual errors. You discuss this interesting topic when shown were teaching a classroom full of young, under-educated children. It’s a powerful scene, and the kids offer some of the cleverest commentary on false memoirs I have seen anywhere, but the whole time I was reading it, I thought my head was going to explode, like that robot in the original Star Trek series who short-circuited after the humans presented it with a paradox.

“These kids couldn’t possibly have said such complex things. You were faking the whole situation. Your memoir scene about false memoirs was false. Wait a minute. This book that I’m holding, ‘Publish this Book’ is supposed to be a memoir, meaning it’s supposed to be true. And you have a fictional scene in it about kids discussing false memoirs. Wouldn’t that make you one of those memoir falsifiers?”

I couldn’t tell whether to be pissed off or ecstatic over this mind-burn. Yes, I know that’s part of the joke, but it’s so complex, who in the world is going to get it? (Oh, wait a minute. I guess I did.) What do you have to say for yourself?

Stephen Markley: I honestly don’t see what there is to be mad about. I feel like the chapter’s intentions become clear at the outset when I’m describing my ex-Soviet bloc, John Birch-loving drug dealer. I’m daydreaming on the page about how I could possibly fake my own memoir and win the glory all writers know they desire. The point of the chapter is that “Publish This Book” is about a painfully dull guy told in an engaging way, and that, as I said earlier, anyone’s story has these moments. For instance, I’m sure James Frey may well have had a harrowing experience as an alcoholic, but instead of describing that, he made up this “willfully contrived” story that makes him out to be this James Dean-badass crack addict (I’m always baffled by people who defend “A Million Little Pieces” as “still pretty good” even though it essentially reads like a season of “24” only less believable).

The invented parts of that chapter are nothing more than a fun device, a way of discussing the serious and troubling implications of memoir fabulism without dropping a dull essay into the middle of the book.

I would like to somehow take a poll of the book’s readers to see how many of them actually got it (glad that you did). I’ve had many people ask me who the semi-famous actress I was sleeping with was…

Jerry: In fact, the whole book seems loaded with one risk after another. It’s too long. It’s too meta. It’s too political. You have this strange ending with multiple false starts that could be confusing for some readers. And yet it works. I guess that’s one of the hallmarks of humor, that you have to take risks and if someone doesn’t get it they think you are just being stupid.

In Joan Rivers’ memoir “Enter Talking,” she reports that in her early days, while she was still trying to make it, she went on Jack Paar’s television show. The audience loved her but Paar didn’t get it. He said “I didn’t believe a word she said” and refused not only to bring her back on the show. He refused to talk to her again. I already know from your book that you have had similar experiences with people confused by your intentions.

I am inspired by the fact that you keep trying to push forward and just focus on those people who do get you. I think all performers could learn a lesson from this sort of courage, to focus on the people who love you and ignore the ones who don’t. What sort of self-awareness do you have about this aspect of your courage to write?

Stephen: This goes to pretty much the heart of any kind of writing, no matter the form. There have been some really harsh reviews of the book, and I admit, when I first read these, my gut sank. But the kind of writing I do–and the kind of writer I want to be–is pretty much predicated on the idea that I am going to swing for the fences more often than not. What some call fearlessness, others will call dreck, and there ain’t a whole lot I can do about that.

To some degree, you have to be responsive to an audience–after all, I’m not just writing for myself. So I do listen to criticism and I do read what the people who despise me say. But on the other hand, I think being even a boring writer takes a pretty thick skin. I know a lot of people who simply haven’t developed the callouses they’ll need to see them through. However, if you want to be an entertaining writer, if you want to take chances pretty much every chapter (and when I was getting critiques from my writing groups, it felt more like every other page), you’ll need that thick skin more than ever.

One of the most personal parts of the book (and some of my friends told me it was one of the most interesting) are the chapters where my professor Steven basically tells me the book is terrible and he’s questioning if I’ve been faking my persona all these years. When all that actually happened, it really sucked, and I was pretty hurt. Then, when it came time to finish the book, I realized I had to put it in because it was so central to the conflict of writing the thing. It would have been so easy to take the coward’s route and leave those chapters out (not to congratulate myself or anything), but by keeping them in and inventing a fun device to jazz up what amounted to an e-mail exchange, I basically offered up one of the most devastating moments of my writing career for everyone to read.

For a long time I thought it might be an epic mistake (especially when I sent the finished manuscript to Steven), but whatever–you only live once, and Heaven sounds boring anyway.

Notes

Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

To read my review of the book, click here.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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