Why memoirs teach more than literature Pt 3

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

Why Memoirs are Better Than Literature Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

Turning toward memoir as a more accessible approach to literature

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

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

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

To Grow Up, We Must Create Our Own Stories

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

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

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

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

A Memoir Conveys Clear, Important Truths about Launching

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

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

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

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

Growing up requires the power of choosing

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

Why Memoirs Should be Taught as Literature Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the first part of a three part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I explain how my love for literature helped unravel me and I introduce the way memoirs by literature professors suggest a new approach.

 

When I was thirteen years old, I discovered that all the interesting stuff happened inside books. I grabbed every spare moment to lose myself in spaceships heading for distant galaxies. By the age of sixteen, in the early 1960s, I graduated from sci-fi to the great writers, such as Dickens, Dumas, and Twain. Their works, either assigned in school, or borrowed from my local library, took me on a wild ride through great adventures in fascinating times and places.

These authors were clearly geniuses at self-expression. I felt smarter when I read these books, but sadly I was only smart about the author’s invented world. I had learned almost nothing about how to become an adult. In fact, many of my favorite books provided in-depth examples of how NOT to become an adult.

For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the narrator seeks truth by attaching himself to a narcissistic caricature of a man. In the Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, a young man attempts to find his truths, not within his own world, but by leaving everything he knows. In Henry Miller’s novels, the author searches for himself through sexual liberation which leads him into emotional chaos.

My English teachers showed me how to appreciate elegant structure, fine turns of phrase, and symbolism. However, when I lost myself in each book, I ignored their interest in history and technique. Instead, I left my own boring mind behind and entered the crafted intellectual framework created by the author. It turned out this was not a good idea.

I spent hours in disturbing worlds such as those created by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. From them, I learned that the future was going to be grim and hopeless. So when the angry anti-war riots began in the mid-60s, I wasn’t only fighting against the war. I was fighting for my soul, hoping to escape the helplessness my anti-heroes had inspired.

Protest marches and riots did nothing to restore my hope, so I returned to the method of escape that I knew so well, clinging ferociously to literary geniuses who took me into ever darker perspectives. Samuel Beckett completely deconstructed reality in his plays and novels. Joseph Heller in Catch 22 introduced a mocking cynicism to World War II. Ferdinand Celine smashed the notion of the novel, turning the very form into a distorted shape that made me gasp with pleasurable pain. I was drowning, and instead of throwing me lifelines, my literary heroes were teaching me how to drown better.

For example, I identified with the boy in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis who grew up and turned into a beetle. Growing up cost him his innocence and his parents’ love. Kafka’s book, along with so much of the literature of the day, hammered home the point that by entering adulthood we would lose our souls.

Arthur Miller captured the essence of spiritually dead adults in Death of a Salesman. The play’s anti-hero Willy Loman tried to cope with his emptiness by deceiving himself. Humbert Humbert, the anti-hero of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, was an even creepier master of self-deception. Instead of blaming himself for sexually abusing a little girl, he blamed her, thus demonstrating how far adults will twist their own values in order to serve their own needs.

After years of absorbing these stories, I was terrified of adulthood, convinced that growing up would make me ugly and shallow. My parents believed that sending me to college would prepare me for life. By the end of those four years, I felt far less prepared to be an adult than when I started.

Why Humans Need To Direct Literature Back to its Central Goal
To maintain civilization, each generation must pass along sophisticated social lessons. In preliterate societies, these lessons were communicated in oral stories, with simple, powerful messages. But by the twentieth century, society seems to have forgotten this essential purpose of stories. Instead, stories were being used in one of two ways.

Stories were used as pure entertainment for the masses, with no lesson at all. Those were the genre fiction novels and movies, the thrillers and mysteries, comedies and romances. And for the educated elite, stories became intellectual playthings to be admired for artistic sophistication, but again with no particular emphasis on helping kids understand life.

As an intellectual young man, I desperately sought lessons about life. Unfortunately, I was born at a time when the message embedded in almost every book taught that there’s really no point to grow up at all. It’s true that great literature contained an internal elegance and brilliance, but the underlying message was awful.

Memoirs Demonstrate How Literature Ought to Work
Forty years later, I learned valuable lessons peeking out from behind the twists and turns of literary stories. My belated insight came from reading Professor Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita In Tehran. As an English literature professor in Iran, she tries to convince her students that Western literature is not evil. She uses the villain in Nabokov’s Lolita as an example. According to Nafisi, Humbert Humbert’s manipulation of a little girl reveals the corrupt morality of turning women into things.

Through Nafisi’s eyes, Nabokov’s novel becomes an important window into the dark secrets of the human psyche. It’s quite simple, really. He is embedding the message in irony, saying one thing and meaning another. But to explain this lesson to her students, as well as to us, her readers, she uses an incredibly tricky device. She simply walks outside her classroom into the streets of Iran, where armed thugs treat women like things.

By artfully describing the events and their impact on her, she turns her life from a series of events into literature. While she teaches her students about Nabakov’s book, she uses her own life-as-literature to teach us about our place in the world.

For example, she recounts an episode that occurs one morning when she attempts to enter campus. A guard angrily blocks her. “Take that rouge off this instant. Don’t you know that it is a criminal act?” The guard rubs Nafisi’s face raw trying to get off the red, which is in fact her own natural coloring. The incident leaves Nafisi feeling violated and naked.

Thanks to Nafisi’s brilliant writing and a lifetime of symbolic thinking, she spins the two parallel dimensions, weaving together her real world experience with her intellectual insights into the literature.

My English teachers did not have the advantage of showing us reality. Instead, they were limited to the lessons inside the books, making the incorrect assumption that I didn’t need to learn lessons about life. Nafisi’s ability as a memoir writer adds a crucial dimension to her teaching toolkit allowing her to help students grow up.

When I first read Lolita so many years ago, I felt disgusted by Nabokov’s clever trick of taking me inside the mind of a creepy man who has no ability or interest in self-reflection. In my youthful view, the novel provided more proof that adults stink. Now, with Azar Nafisi’s help, I see a sophisticated insight into the darkness of manipulative men who use women as things. It would have been a good lesson, but because it was couched in irony, in the distorted viewpoint of a first-person anti-hero, the lesson was out of my reach.

Because memoirs are written “straight” (not “slant”) and from a first person point of view, it is easy and natural to enter Azar Nafisi’s world and feel her pain. By letting me experience what it is like to be on the receiving end of abuse, she makes me want to cry or vomit about the way millions of women are treated, just a few thousand miles away. Thankfully, her story also provides hope by revealing the compassion of people such as Nafisi herself, who risk their own safety to help kids build up their self-esteem.

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

Epilog to Part 1
It has been forty-five years since I have been a student of an English literature professor, so I consider the possibility that in recent times, literature professors have expanded their view of literature to include not just the author’s world but the reader’s as well. To learn more, I turned to the friendship I formed with Robert Waxler, an English professor at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who wrote two excellent memoirs, and happens to have the same last name as me.

His two memoirs share a lifetime of love for literature, as well as for his two sons, so I assumed he would be able to relate to my passion for life lessons. However, in a book he recently wrote about English literature, the Risk of Reading, he describes in detail the method of line by line explication, attempting to take us into the lines of great literature with the reverence usually associated with scripture. In my opinion, this approach glorifies complexity and undermines the value of literature as a teaching tool for social development. Click here to read the review I wrote about his Risk of Reading. Click here for an essay about his memoir Courage to Walk, and here for an interview I conducted with Robert Waxler about the relationship between literature and life.

However, in two other memoirs by literature professors, I discover that Azar Nafisi is not alone in her application of literature as a tool for life.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, by literature professor Karen Swallow Prior reveals how literature helped her steer through the challenges of growing up, and like Nafisi, she teaches her college students how to see their own lives reflected in literature. Click here for my essay about Booked by Karen Swallow Prior.

In Freedom Writer’s Diary, Erin Gruwell shows her high school students how literature could help them find their own higher truths and then goes further to show how writing about their own lives can deepen their search for truth. Click here for my essay about Freedom Writer’s Diary

Notes

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

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

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

Your Memoir Teaches Recent Cultural History to Kids

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the third in a series of essays inspired by Karen Prior’s memoir, Booked! Literature in the Soul of Me

The memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, is about Karen Prior’s reliance on literature to help her learn life’s lessons. The young woman loved literature so much she became a professor. From this vantage point, offers a deeper look at the books that influenced her.

The books she mentions are well-known centerpieces of the literary canon. Each one is a great story that makes complex points. To make the experience of reading them even richer, she shows how the authors were influenced by controversies of their own times.

For example, John Donne in the sixteenth century was influenced by the strange brew of religious conflict in England, when marrying into the wrong faction could land you in jail. She tells about the culture clashes between England and Ireland as well as the literary fascination with sexuality that influenced Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in the eighteenth century. And she delves into the conflict between sexuality and respect for women in Thomas Hardy’s time in the nineteenth century.

Her memoir made me wonder what cultural influences I absorbed when I was growing up. For example, in my high school years, books by Charles Dickens filled me with compassion about the economic struggles of the poor in old England and Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle opened my eyes to the abuse of immigrant labor in the U.S. In my college years, though, the cultural influence of my favorite authors turned in a direction so confusing I almost lost my way.

In the sixties, I dove headlong into novels by widely respected authors like Jean Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, whose portrayals of shattered societies and characters without hope riveted my attention.

Their style differed radically from the stories I had read since I was a child. In an endless stream of mystery and science fiction books, I came to expect an upswing at the end of the story. The conclusion lifted my spirits and gave me hope. The novels and plays that dominated my college years went in the opposite direction. In novel after novel, the hope offered at the beginning had evaporated by the end.

At a time when I should have been preparing for adulthood, these deep thinkers convinced me that growing up was a horrible, terrifying waste of time. I was not alone. Millions of us had been convinced by our literary giants that despair is a principle worth pursuing.

To delve deeper into European cultural history of the twentieth century, I took a college course that I thought explained the misery behind this wave of nihilistic literature. Of course they lost hope when surrounded by Russian totalitarianism, two World Wars, and the horror of the Holocaust.

But something still didn’t add up. Ordinarily, people would have looked beyond the misery to find some inherent good. My authors did the opposite. Each one seemed to vie for the most outrageous images, such as Franz Kafka’s boy who woke up as an ugly, person-sized insect. And they were honored for their dark excursions. Samuel Beckett won a Nobel Prize for works like Endgame in which two of three characters are legless and occasionally pop their heads out of the trashcans in which they live.

Decades after struggling out of the pit I had fallen into, I attempt to understand those years. How I could have fallen so far? And more poignantly, how could society have led me along such a desperate line of thinking? Now, in Karen Prior’s brief vignettes of cultural history, I have learned an important fact that helps me make sense of the whole crazy era.

At the end of the nineteenth century, despite relentless advances in science, Western intellectuals still maintained a toehold in the precarious belief in God. For proof they pointed to the mystery of life. Who else but God could have created such wonder?

According to Karen Prior, the final shove came from Charles Darwin’s observation that life is the product of statistical events. After that, anyone who believed in God was viewed as a dreamer or fool. To be accepted as a serious participant in intellectual society, college grads needed to figure out how to live without God.

In high school, I read a play about this dramatic shift. Inherit the Wind dramatized the famous Scopes Trial which pitted Charles Darwin against God. As an intellectual young man, I laughed at the foolishness of the character based on William Jennings Bryan, who defended God, and cheered for the brilliant character based on Clarence Darrow who swept Bryan’s arguments aside.

I knew the controversy but until I read Karen Prior’s memoir, I had never considered the dark pall it placed over twentieth century intellectuals. For the first time in history, they had to navigate their lives without the guiding principle of a higher power. To do so, they had to find a new mythology to live by. The literary geniuses of the time fulfilled their need by offering cynicism as the new ideal.

In the play Waiting for Godot, the characters meander in a wasteland, waiting for a savior who never comes. I followed them willingly, and when I learned from them that stories lead nowhere, I ended up with nothing to live for.

So how did I go from there back to sanity? Of course, I had no choice but to read more books. During my climb back, I reclaimed my childhood image, that I can live my life as if it has an upbeat ending. To support a meaningful ending, I had to maintain a belief in a transcendent reality.

Memoir Revolution Revealed
The responsibility of every civilization is to pass along the rules of society to their young. The terrifying fact is that we have about 20 years in which to achieve this goal. In small, intimate tribal societies, the task was achieved through advice from the elders and the stories at the campfire. In our more complex societies, we turn to books.

This is the topic of Karen Prior’s memoir. In addition to what the book is about, the very existence of her book offers an important piece of information. It represents society’s next great experiment to reclaim a personal myth. Her book is a perfect example of what I call the Memoir Revolution. By turning her life into a story, she provides us with a model of a life that is understandable, hopeful, and sharable.

So Karen Prior’s memoir, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me resonates on multiple levels. It shares the experience of one woman’s coming of age. It offers a brief overview of intellectual history. It explores the role of books in the upbringing of children. And it shows how one woman is fulfilling her end of the bargain, writing a book to pass her experience to the next generation.

Writing Prompt

On your journey to grow up, you have gone through a variety of experiments, finding what works and what doesn’t. By writing your memoir, you could pass these lessons along to the next generation. What trap did you fall into, and more important, what tools did you use to climb back out? By leading readers toward the hopeful conclusion at the end of the story, you provide an image of a world that leads through effort toward wisdom.

Notes
Link: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

This Memoir Teaches How To Grow up with Books

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memoirs share many journeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

Amazon Link: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

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

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

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

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Courage to Write, Passion to Read

by Jerry Waxler

Robert Waxler found his athletically active son, Jeremy, on the floor, unable to move his legs. Rushed, to a hospital, doctors first suspected a back injury. Tests revealed it to be more sinister, requiring emergency surgery. The memoir “Courage to Walk” by Robert Waxler starts like a medical thriller, but soon the lens of the book widens to include the family’s search for emotional survival. Jeremy’s medical crisis awakened echoes of a previous tragedy. Twelve years earlier, Jeremy’s older brother Jonathan died from a heroin overdose. Now, Robert and his wife Linda had to face a new trial.

The book blurb forms a contract with the reader

Before I even purchased the book, I knew from the blurb that the author was an English Literature professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. I knew that “Courage to Walk,” was about the crippling and potentially deadly illness of a second son, and I knew about the death of Robert and Linda’s oldest son, Jonathan.

This preliminary information not only motivated me to buy and read the book. It also set my expectations for what I would encounter inside. I was looking forward to learning about the relationship between this father and his son, and I wanted to learn more about the private emotions of a man who earned his living as an intellectual. Since Waxler had written two memoirs, I had the added incentive that if I liked one, I could also read the other.

Courage to Live, To Love, and To Write

The title “Courage to Walk” refers to the son’s courage to reclaim the use of his legs and return to his place in society. However, there are other forms of courage in evidence. Robert Waxler lived for twelve years under the burden of his previous loss and now he must cope with this new danger. While Jeremy was struggling to stand up physically, Robert Waxler struggled to stand up emotionally in a world that threatened to swallow the ones he loved.

Like any memoir writer, I imagine this author struggled with the dilemma of how much of his private life to share. And since college professors are being paid to tell students how the world works, I imagine he would have even more incentive to hide his vulnerability. The fact that Robert Waxler chose to reveal this family struggle makes his memoir an exquisite example not only in the courage to walk, but also the courage to write.

Professors and emotions

When I started reading “Courage to Walk” I assumed this professor would adhere to my stereotype that “intellectuals hide in their ivory tower.” Suspicious of his ability to express emotion, I was overly critical at first of his occasional literary references. For example, he inserted a poem by Emily Dickenson. “Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune–without the words, and never stops at all.”

“Interesting,” I thought. “But what does Waxler think?”

To explore the suffering a parent must undergo, he quoted Simone Weil’s interpretation of the Bible. Weil said, “A mother, a wife, if they know the person they love is in distress will … suffer some equivalent distress.”

“Yes,” I thought. “I can appreciate this point that a parent would suffer, but why quote Simone Weil?” As I became accustomed to Waxler’s style my prejudice faded and I realized that the quotes were not creating distance between us at all. In fact, they invited me into his inner life. Upon reflection, it made perfect sense that Robert Waxler’s self-portrait ought to include a love of books, poetry, and plays. The references added depth to his character and through the course of the book, I saw how he used literature as a container large enough to include both passionate love and soul-crushing worry.

I thought of the poet William Blake, about whom Robert Waxler wrote his doctoral thesis. William Blake illustrated his poetry with etchings to offer readers an additional window into his soul. Robert Waxler achieved a similar purpose, showing me how other authors embellished his thoughts.

Waxler’s passion for books leaps around the world

While Jeremy Waxler was confined to his room, he read a pile of books. Robert listed the titles of the book, explaining their value for his son. “Like medicine on a shelf, these books need to be taken in and digested by a sensitive reader, and Jeremy is just that kind of reader, the kind that lets language seep deep through the skin and permeate the heart. Such reading gives him buoyancy, a lightness of being. Good books stir his blood and transport him to some other place.” Father and son shared this passion. Books were their common love.

I too am a lover of books. During my college years, I often saw the world in terms of the book in which I was currently immersed. After I graduated, few people in my life were interested in what I was reading, and my literary interest went into hiding. “Courage to Walk” reminds me that I’m not the only one with this impulse to turn toward books for sustenance.

This discovery comes at a perfect time for me. Thanks to blogging, I have been able to share my love for books with a larger crowd than at any time since I was a university student. With access to the purported billion plus people on the internet, bibliophiles everywhere can trade notes, enjoy each other’s company, and spread the word. Book lovers unite!

Writing Prompt for Memoir Readers
What memoirs make it onto your reading list? Look at the memoirs you recently read. What did you know about the author and his or her story that pulled you to read it? What similarities or differences with your own situation added to your curiosity? What questions did you hope to answer about the human condition in general or the author’s situation in particular?

Writing Prompt for Memoir Writers
In your own life or your memoir-in-progress, consider what your book blurb will tell potential readers about the journey they are about to embark on. What special audience might be interested in unique features in your story such as job, cultural or family background, geographical community, or some other special interest group? Brainstorm freely, and see which items would catch your eye if you came upon this book while browsing.

Note
While Robert Waxler’s last name interests me, we are not related.

Links

To read Part 1 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.
To read Part 2 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.
To read Part 3 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler

More memoir writing resources

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

To order my short, 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.

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

Interview about crossing from academic to popular writing

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third of a three part interview with Robert Waxler, author of two memoirs about his relationship to his sons: “Losing Jonathan” published in 2003 and “Courage to Walk” published in 2010. Waxler is a professor of English Literature at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and founder of the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature,” which uses literature to help criminals find their place in society. In this part of the interview, I asked Waxler how he moved his writing from an academic audience to a popular one.

Jerry Waxler: By writing memoirs, one might say you are playing hooky from the responsibilities of your day job. Instead of studying other people’s literature, you are creating some of your own. What did that feel like, shifting out of your role of English professor to a writer of an accessible, very personal, and intimate sharing of your actual life?

Robert Waxler: Well, yes, people comment about this, although I don’t fully embrace this apparent dichotomy. I remember giving a reading of “Losing Jonathan” at Rice University in Texas, and one of the Vice President’s there came up to me at the reception to tell me how surprised he was by my presentation. He was very moved, he said, but he had thought that as a professor I was going to offer a more academic discussion about heroin addiction. He had apparently been taken back by the emotional quality of the book and the reading.

Literature is about the heart as much as the head, and it is the emotional response that comes from deep reading that I try to evoke in the classroom as well as mindful interpretation. As an English professor, I think an important part of my job is to keep alive an understanding of how vulnerable we all are as human beings, how fragile our lives really are. Literature helps move people in that direction.

So for me, the writing of a memoir is not a different role; it is precisely what I should be doing just as discussing other people’s literature is also central to the job. I agree that we have often assumed that literature professors should distance themselves from the affective quality of the story, keep the feelings out of it, in other words–but that is, I think, a mistake.

Jerry: People who write at work usually need to unlearn their professional style in order to reach the public. Please share some of your own journey in developing the voice for your memoirs. When did you start aspiring to a publically readable voice, and what steps did you take in order to achieve it?

Robert: Some of my writing has been what could be called ” academic” in this context. Especially academic journal  articles, etc.  But I have always liked to think of myself as a “public” person in this regard. Much of my work has been out in the community, trying to convince people that reading and discussing literature is a worthwhile activity, perhaps one of the more important ways to keep us human.

The challenge for me in writing these memoirs was really learning how to write narrative descriptions, dialogue, and so on. I have given a lot of public lectures, written newspaper articles, appeared on radio, and so on for some time, and so have developed what could be considered a non-academic style of discourse, but it did take me some time to figure out how best to capture the “truth” of these family stories in what might be considered a creative non-fiction (memoir) genre. If I have been successful at that, it was mainly through trial and error–and, of course, the fact that I have read a lot of books.

Jerry: Good storytelling is supposed to show scenes and avoid telling ideas. Since you are passionate about ideas, I would imagine such a rule places you in an awkward position. How do you deal with this “show don’t tell” rule while at the same time showing the importance of ideas in your life?

Robert: It did take me a while to fully understand that: “Show don’t tell.”  An early reader of a very rough draft of “Losing Jonathan” told me I needed a lot more description and dialogue–that I was, in other words, telling rather than showing. That is probably the professor in me. In “Courage to Walk”, I did cut some of the more philosophic passages (Heidegger, in particular) because I realized that the discussion was becoming so abstract that it hurt the flow of the story and so blunted the implications. The book is short and can probably be read in one sitting (if you sit long enough!), but it is no doubt a book that demands slow reading at times, contemplation and a lot of thought, but it also, I hope, offers a compelling story. I think it does.

Jerry: What’s your next writing project?

Robert: With another professor, I am writing an academic book on why reading and writing should be central to 21st century pedagogy –especially in this age of images and screens. It should be out the beginning of next year.

To read Part 1 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

To read Part 2 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler
To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” 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 short, 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.

Interview about the relationship between literature and life

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second of a three part interview with Robert Waxler, author of the memoirs “Losing Jonathan” and “Courage to Walk.” Waxler is a professor of English Literature at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and founder of the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature.” In this part of the interview, I ask Waxler about the relationship between literature and life.

Jerry Waxler: In your books, when you quoted a passage from literature, I felt you were using literature to help you explain things to yourself, as if you were using literature as a source of strength. So first of all, thank you for expanding my vocabulary of self-help tools. I wonder to what extent you have consciously thought about the use of literature as a repository of wisdom to help you get through life?

Robert Waxler: Now this could be a book in itself. I helped start a program back in 1991 called “Changing Lives Through Literature” precisely because of my deep belief in the power of literature to make a difference in people’s lives. Literature can teach us important lessons about life; it can give us strength, as you suggest. When we read good literature, we realize we are not alone. We learn about empathy, about ourselves and about others. As the story unfolds, our own lives unfold. We see ourselves and others, understand the complexity of human character, and see how singular each life is, and yet recognize how universal certain patterns and behavior seem to be. I try to show (and tell) my students this all the time.

Jerry: A common problem for memoir writers is deciding how to tell their story without intruding on the privacy of other characters. So I was surprised to see how much you had written about your son Jeremy’s life. What can you share about his willingness to be portrayed, or any fears you might have had about sharing his private life with your readers?

Robert: Yes, this is a particularly sensitive issue, especially given some of the issues that “Courage to Walk” attempts to address. I would never want to write anything that would harm Jeremy or Linda. And this story is so much a story about vulnerability and how we are all powerless, how human weakness is at the core of our humanity and how we should not be ashamed of that fact, that we should instead see it as a strength, as an important way of building compassion and community. It is difficult for Jeremy and for Linda and myself as well, to relive these very traumatic events as they are narrated in “Courage to Walk.” These events take us close to the core of our mortal human selves. Our hope though is that the story will get people thinking more about the meaning of compassion and vulnerability, the need for all of us to confront our finitude, and not to feel so much the shame but the beauty of it.

Jerry: While memoirs are about real life, they seem to be journalism. But they are also stories, so they seem a lot like “literature.” What do you think? Are memoirs “literature” or not?

Robert: I am not sure I am an “expert” on memoirs, but I’ll give you my view on this. To begin, the word “literature” itself is problematic. I am not sure people can agree these days on a definition. Are we talking about canonical works—Shakespeare’s plays, for example? Or can we assume that Stephen King is also writing “literature”? And what about a book such as “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac or “Night” by Elie Weisel? Not exactly non-fiction, but not really memoirs either. Are they “literature”?

And then there is an important issue about memoirs and memory. We recover the past through the present, and, in this sense, I suppose, as you suggest, memoirs are introspective and psychological portraits. But memory is a very tricky process. What we filter through the present about the past is not the past but our recollection of the past. Someone writing a memoir wants to stay true to the facts as he remembers them, of course, but the truth of an event is not simply in the facts. So that too complicates the issue.

I think there is a very fine line between literature and the memoir. In both cases, the writer is trying to get to the “truth” of the experience. Literature might be an invented story; memoirs might be based in fact. But, in an important sense, all narrative is invented—in the same sense, that we create our selves and our identity through the actual experiences of our lives. Our lives are our stories, and our stories are our lives.

Jerry: As you were putting your life on paper, what were you learning about yourself and your circumstances that you didn’t know before you started?

Robert: I learned about how powerless we all are as human beings from the beginning, and how that knowledge is a good thing. It can help build a more compassionate and reasonable community if we let it. We are all filled with fear and anxiety from birth; we need others to help us along the way. I don’t know why we should be ashamed of that. If anything, we should be ashamed of the ways we distance ourselves from others, pretend to be powerful and independent, set up foolish defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from that truth. I also learned that it is very, very difficult as a parent not to try to do everything possible to help our children, even if they don’t want our help. It’s a difficult line to draw—between obsession and compassion. They need their freedom, and we need ours, but we all need each other.

To read Part 1 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

To read Part 3 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

http://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/interview-academic-popular-writing/

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler
To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” 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.

Interview with Robert Waxler, English Professor and memoir author, Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

Robert Waxler and his wife Linda wrote the memoir “Losing Jonathan” about the death of their eldest son. Robert Waxler’s second memoir, “Courage to Walk” is about his younger son who suffered a paralyzing spinal infection. Both books explore the father’s love for his sons, informed by his lifelong love for literature. In addition to being an English Literature professor at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, Waxler also co-founded the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature” which provides convicted criminals with the opportunity to read and write their way to a deeper understanding of social responsibility.

In this first of a three part interview, I ask Waxler about his process of writing the two memoirs.

Note: Robert Waxler and I are not related.

Jerry Waxler: You wrote two books involving your relationship to your sons. What was it like writing a second memoir? What was easier and what was harder the second time? What knowledge did you bring with you from the experience of writing the first?

Robert Waxler: The love a father feels for a son is beyond the boundaries of language as is the loss of a son, but both books try to capture that sense of love and the sense of mortality that we all share. When I wrote about the loss of my oldest son, Jonathan, I started by sitting outside on my back porch and without any specific purpose or direction let language flow out of me into a notebook. It was about a week after Jonathan’s death, and I wanted to try to remember as much as possible about the battle he had fought the last year of his life. It was a compulsion, I suppose. I had never written this kind of narrative and was not thinking about publishing the story. That was the summer of 1995. I wrote about 50 pages, as I recall, in a very short time, and then didn’t look at it again for a couple of years. I couldn’t.

Finally, about five years later, I began to think that perhaps this story could help other families in similar distress, and so I returned to it, shaped it, tried to find the meaning in it, and published it in the Boston Globe Magazine on Father’s Day in 2001. The response to the story was overwhelming, and I realized that a book might make a difference to others. It was also one way of keeping the memory of Jonathan alive. It took me another couple of years to get the language and the story to a point where I felt satisfied with it, as close to the truth of the experience as I was capable of saying it, in other words. It was important to me to make sure that readers saw Jonathan as a complex human being in the midst of a difficult struggle, that they felt the sense of love and the sense of loss that all families could experience, that this story could be their story as well.

The writing of the second book about the sudden spinal trauma of my younger son, Jeremy, was easier in some ways and harder in other ways. I started writing in a notebook right away, not because I was thinking about publishing a book, but because I knew that writing itself would be helpful for me, and I wanted a record of the experience and my thoughts about the experience. I wrote as the events unfolded, and I had no clear idea, from day to day, how these experiences would work out, whether Jeremy would recover, the extent of his recovery, the daily impact on all of us in the family, and so on. In addition, Jeremy’s suffering was compounded for me by the haunting memories of what had happened to Jonathan.

Jeremy’s recovery is a miracle to me now, but it took a while for that to become clear to me. Compared to “Losing Jonathan,” “Courage to Walk” was written over a relatively short period of time, and it captures the curve of the family experience as it unfolds over a relatively short period of time as well. In many ways, though, I think it is a more complex and probing story and meditation. It is written with a great deal of care. I hope people will find it helpful.

I did make extensive journal notes for “Courage to Walk,” which I suppose is somewhat unorthodox, in this context. It takes shape through my consciousness, my imagination, my reading, my reflection on the journal material, etc. It is, as a couple of people have suggested, a mix of medical thriller and meditation. That’s part of its uniqueness, I believe. It is very real, at times, but it has its surrealistic dimension as well. I hope it has a spiritual quality too.

JW: After reading your two memoirs, I could almost visualize you as a character in a novel. Did you ever think about your portrayal of yourself in that way?

RW: I take that as a compliment. I hope that readers get to know the characters in these memoirs as well as they get to know the characters in a novel. I have an old-fashioned sense that we can learn a lot from the characters in stories if we can visualize them, even identify with them, feel what they feel. The protagonist (me) in “Losing Jonathan” is the same person that appears in “Courage to Walk,” a father agonizing over a son, a college professor in love with his family (wife and children) and with great literature, a man who wants to be helpful but at times seems obsessed and at times is clearly powerless, a person who is mortal and vulnerable, as we all are. In “Courage to Walk,” though, I think I am perhaps more weighted down and obsessed, in an ironic way, at times, less hopeful than I was in “Losing Jonathan” –probably because of what happened to Jonathan. The irony of course is that “Courage to Walk” is much more upbeat in the end than “Losing Jonathan,” although both books, I hope, celebrate the human spirit. I think that my son Jeremy is the real hero of “Courage to Walk.”

To read Part 2 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

To read Part 3 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler
To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.

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

A memoir of mourning helps make sense of loss

By Jerry Waxler

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

The first half of the memoir “Losing Jonathan” by Robert and Linda Waxler is about their attempt to stop their son’s fall into heroin addiction. At the center of the story was a good kid, loved by his family and friends, a college grad bursting with potential and a desire to change the world. By the time his parents discovered his problem, all of that was tearing apart. Horrified to learn that Jonathan was in trouble, his parents were torn out of their ordinary lives and hurled into pleading and research, therapists and rehab.

They felt caught in the cruel undertow of drug addiction. Something was stealing their son and they couldn’t stop it. After a stint in rehab, they hoped he had returned to them. And then the call came. A tainted dose of heroin had ended his life. The second half of the book recounts the following years of their grieving. The book is told from both their points of view with Robert’s passages written in straight font and Linda’s in italics.

The father’s journey

During the year they knew about Jonathan’s addiction, Robert struggled to hold on to his own emotional center, relying on his family, friends, and his Jewish faith. After his son’s death, he turned even more desperately towards these supports. Meanwhile, his mind was churning, second-guessing what more he could have done, and struggling to make sense of a world in which such things could happen. Amidst his thoughts are wonderful images of the young boy in his earlier life, full of hope and promise.

Robert Waxler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, has devoted his life to teaching literature as well as finding the wisdom within it. He believed so deeply in the power of writing that he founded a program called “Changing Lives Through Literature,” to help convicted criminals find their way to social responsibility.

So when he tried to cope with his own loss, he looked towards literature for help. In “Losing Jonathan,” he writes, “Literature helped me keep my anger in check. It gave me a sense of proportions, of tolerance. But it didn’t foreclose on passion, nor did it serve as an escape from Jonathan’s death. Sometimes standing in an empty room, I will yell out loud at Jonathan, even now, and wonder why this tragedy happened.”

The mother’s journey

Linda was so overwhelmed, she didn’t know what to say. Neither did her neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances. So they avoided her. At the time when she needed the most support, she felt most alone.

“Losing Jonathan” revealed the effects of the passage of time, showing grieving as a sequence of inner adjustments. After a few years, Linda began to reclaim her poise enough to greet people and look them in the eye. Robert writes, “Near the end of the fourth year, Linda wrote her own article about grief, a stunning composite of her feelings and her knowledge. It was published in several places including the Providence Journal Sunday Magazine. She was stretching, touching others, rejoining a community, becoming a writer of her own life.”

In the fifth year, Robert writes, “We were like the wedding guest who listens to the tale of the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem, disturbed by the spell cast by his turbulent journey, but wiser now. At the end of the poem, the Mariner is gone, leaving the wedding guest to stand alone, forlorn, stunned into wonder at the vision:

And now the Wedding Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn;
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.”

Many layers of grieving

Memoirs of grieving have a special place in my library, since they take me on the author’s spiritual journey, trying to reclaim the meaning of life after its loss. In another memoir, “Here if you need me,” Kate Braestrup wrote about losing her husband in a freak accident. Then, she had to get on with her life. In the end, she arrived at a lovely conclusion, summarizing her feelings about death in a compelling and uplifting chapter on good and evil. When I’m asked which memoir is my favorite, this is usually the one that comes to mind.

Now I realize after reading “Losing Jonathan” that I loved the Waxlers’ memoir for similar reasons. Like Kate Braestrup they were on a quest to wrest their sanity back from the abyss. At first they were thirsty for support from their community. Then, after five years, Linda suggested, “We should try to write a book. It would be a way of honoring Jonathan’s life. Sustaining it.” The suggestion reflected Linda’s desire to give back to the community some of the strength they had given her. And the vehicle for their gift was a book.

Publishing the book was a social act, a generous gift to each other and the world. I feel encouraged by the willingness of these authors to share their inner process with the rest of us, to give us insights, tips, and guidance to help us stay strong and wise during our own recovery from loss.

Click here for the Amazon page for Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler

Click here for the Amazon page for Waxler’s second memoir, Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler

Writing prompt
If you suffered a loss, describe the situation. Show the external signs of your suffering (tears, blank staring, incoherent cries, or inappropriate silences, pounding the wall). Show the impact on relationships (arguments, withdrawal). Write about how you tried to find meaning, (discussions, readings). Where did you turn to help you make sense? Describe the ideas that helped you patch together the universe. Write a scene that shows you emerging from the valley.

Notes about multiple voices in a memoir
I have read several memoirs that speak from more than one point of view. “Color of Water” by James McBride includes extensive passages taken from interviews with his mother. “The Kids Are All Right” is told by all four Welch siblings. In “My Father’s House” the author Miranda Seymour occasionally steps outside the narrative of the book to discuss its assertions with her mother. “Picking Cotton” is written in the voices of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino who was brutally raped, and Ronald Cotton, the man who served seven years in jail for the crime he didn’t commit.

Writing Prompt about multiple voices
Consider giving prominent characters in your story their own voice. If practical, interview these people. Observe the interplay between their perspective and yours and try to imagine how a memoir might include their observations or even their voice.

Another memoir that fast-forwards at the end
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg in “The Sky Begins at your Feet” continues with an epilog that shares the years of survival after her surgery. Coincidentally, Mirriam-Goldberg also believes in the power of literature to change lives and community. See her organization for literature and social change, Transformative Language Arts Network

Writing Prompt for epilogs
If you need to explain how life kept going after the presumed end of your memoir, consider tacking on a postscript that shows what happens after the main or central story is over.

Read an interview with Robert Waxler

To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.

Note

For another view of a son’s fall into addiction see the pair of memoirs: “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff  and “Tweak” by Nic Sheff  see my essay, Matched pair of memoirs show both sides of addiction

More memoir writing resources

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

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