Sharing Stories and Loving Mothers

by Jerry Waxler

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

Last fall, one of the students in my creative nonfiction sobbed as she read us her moving story about her mother. The rest of us sat quietly, absorbing the emotional impact. Kirsten’s love for her mother filled the room.

A few weeks after the class ended, I received an email from Kirsten announcing a writing competition. The winners would present their stories about motherhood in front of an audience. I have been toying with the idea of performance storytelling to see if my years of interest in book length memoirs would translate into a five minute story. So I decided to send in a submission.

I unearthed the eulogy I had delivered at my mother’s funeral thirteen years earlier. With some reshaping it started to sound like a story, but it was way too long. Every day I shaved off a few words, so by the deadline, I could read it in five minutes.

I arrived at the audition imagining I would be standing on a stage, straining to see a director sitting in a darkened theater. When I walked in though, Kirsten was sitting with her co-producers, Kristina Grum and Lauren Hale at a table in a brightly-lit room. Before I had a chance to feel intimidated, they cheerfully greeted me. In answer to my questions, they explained that “Listen to Your Mother” had been founded by Ann Imig in New York City and was spreading. This year, 2015, LTYM events would be held in 39 cities.

When Lauren started her stopwatch, I began to share the lessons my mother taught me after her 70th birthday party. When I finished, Kirsten reached for the Kleenex and laughed as she dabbed the tears from her eyes. That seemed like a good sign.

They said they hoped I would be participating. I said that even if I didn’t, it was already a cool experience. The following week, I was accepted in the cast. Yay.

Every morning on the treadmill, I practiced reading the talk aloud. In order to maintain a fresh, expressive voice, I visualized each scene. For example, when I said Mom swam laps in the pool, or did aerobics with women half her age, I tried to see her doing these things. When I showed up for our first rehearsal, I felt prepared. I was less ready for the fact that I was the only male.

During the introductions they told of wanting or not wanting to be pregnant, the emotional upheaval of a miscarriage, falling in love with their newborns, or in some cases not falling in love. When I was younger, such feminine topics would have reminded me of all the other places I urgently needed to be. However, now that I have studied hundreds of memoirs, I have grown comfortable with the vast spectrum of human experience.

My feeling of being included in their experiences was aided by the very thing we had come to achieve. Each author’s well-crafted story invited me into her world. By the end of the second rehearsal, I had learned so much about motherhood, I felt that I had earned an honorary membership in the Mommy Network.

I arrived at the event around noon, on one of the first gorgeous days of spring. The modern building was appropriately named Steel Stacks, set against the haunting backdrop of the hulking remains of the Bethlehem Steel towers.

Performing the sound check in an empty theater felt slightly spooky, like a premonition of something that was really going to happen. After each of us read a sentence or two, we moved to a waiting room off the lobby, chatting and pacing. Finally, the signal came and we filed past the audience to the stage.

The reading began, and I listened attentively to now-familiar stories about loving babies, wanting babies, having babies and of course, loving mothers. It was a real feast of motherhood. The difference was that I was listening in the company of almost two hundred strangers.

When it was my turn, I walked to the lectern, and with the bright lights in my eyes, I looked out over the dimly lit audience. But I wasn’t nervous. All the love in that room gave me strength.

Before I started crafting my story, I assumed the phrase “Listen to your mother” was about learning lessons. In fact, the title of my story was “what I learned from my mom.” But in that room full of people, I realized we weren’t just listening to their words. We were listening to their presence.

When I first heard Kirsten reading her story in my nonfiction class, I admired her determination to find the best words to express her love for her mother. Then, when I received the invitation to participate in Listen to Your Mother, I joined a whole group of people striving to do the same thing.

Dave Isay, the founder of Storycorps, popularized the simple, powerful slogan that listening is an act of love. In that theater we directed that loving act toward our mothers. Those weeks I spent crafting my story, sharing it with my fellow cast members, and then participating in a theatrical production to read my story to an audience demonstrates the basic principle of the Memoir Revolution. We take a step back from our hectic lives and listen. To listen even more deeply, we find the story. And to spread the love, we share those stories, so others can listen, too.

Notes

Click here to watch my LTYM story. 

Click here for a link to all 2015 LTYM youtube videos

Click here for the Listen to Your Mother home page

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.

Memoir Summit at the Birthplace of the Revolution

by Jerry Waxler

I grew up surrounded by icons of the American Revolution: the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Valley Forge National Park. Even in elementary school I felt proud of the role my region played in the birth of the nation. Now that I’ve grown up, I feel another surge of pride, this time about the contribution our region is making to the Memoir Revolution. With our substantial infrastructure of writing programs and groups of every variety, it’s a wonderful place for writers. However, in most cases, we life writers have had to tag along with the more numerous fiction writers. Now, I’m thrilled to announce an event that celebrates the growing movement toward writing stories about real people.

At the free Memoir Summit on the beautiful campus of Rosemont College on Philadelphia’s Main Line, four authors and teachers share their passion for the genre. The goal is to inspire writers and aspiring writers to come together for an afternoon, deepen their understanding of the genre, and gain insights into how to turn their own lives into stories.

The first speaker, Beth Kephart offers her awesomely enriched point of view, as a writer of both memoir and fiction. She has published 16 books, five of which are memoirs. She writes prodigiously about memoir on her own blog, and recently published a book for memoir writers called Handling the Truth.  The book has been mentioned in Oprah’s magazine O.  Beth teaches memoir writing at the University of Pennsylvania and was recently honored as one of the 50 most influential Philadelphia Writers. Come and be influenced!

Linda Joy Myers will be joining us from Berkeley, California. She is the founder of National Association of Memoir Writers, and a passionate proponent of the healing and sharing that comes from writing your story. As a therapist, teacher and memoir writer, she steers readers and students toward the elegant solution of applying storytelling to the puzzles of life. Her books include her own memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother: A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness and a handbook for memoir writers called Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story. She hosts an online Memoir Telesummit, and so it is fitting that she is an honored guest at this first Philadelphia Memoir Summit. Come and learn about the healing power of writing your memoir.

Robert Waxler is a professor of literature at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He teaches his college students how to use literature to gain insights into their own lives. When he himself encountered difficulties in the lives of his two sons, he turned to the written word to help him make sense of the profound emotions. He recorded his journey of grieving and healing in his two memoirs, Losing Jonathan and Courage to Walk. Robert Waxler co-founded an organization called Changing Lives through Literature that partners with the judicial system to offer selected convicts an alternative sentence. Instead of going to jail they read and discuss novels. The method leverages the power of the written word to help people grow. Come and let Bob Waxler share his views with you about how turning your life into literature can help you, as well.

I have been following and writing about these three speakers for years. The essays on my blog go deep into the experiences of Beth Kephart in Slant of Sun, Linda Joy Myers in Don’t Call Me Mother, and Robert Waxler in Losing Jonathan and Courage to Heal. And I’ve interviewed all three. I love what they are saying and doing. In their books about reading and writing, they are as passionate as I am about promoting literature by helping and encouraging you to write your life.

When I first became intrigued by memoirs in my fifties, I realized that until then, I had immersed myself in fiction stories. Memoirs gave me an opportunity to apply the principles of literature to the process of living. Once I began to do so, I gained an exciting way to look at myself and others. After I read each memoir, I ponder its meaning and share my findings on my blog.

After doing this hundreds of times, I published Memoir Revolution, which chronicles the birth of the life-into-story movement of the twenty-first century. As the fourth speaker at the Philadelphia Memoir Summit, I’ll share perspectives on the Memoir Revolution and offer six steps to help you get started and keep going on your own memoir. Come and join the revolution!

This fascinating interplay between life and literature is also the subject of Robert Waxler’s book in progress called Linguistic Beings: How Literature Helps us To Understand Ourselves and the World. From his manuscript, I learned there is a name for the process of carefully thinking about what you read. Waxler quotes Sven Birkerts who said, “[Deep Reading means] we don’t just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity.*” The term Deep Reading perfectly describes how memoir reading and writing help us become “more human.” By writing your own memoir, you can dream your life in the vicinity of your words, and offer others the opportunity to do the same.

Whether you’ve already written about your life, or are only considering it, come join these speakers and an audience of other aspiring memoir writers. Together, we can spend an afternoon dreaming about writing in the vicinity of each other.

Notes
Here is a longer quote about Deep Reading from Robert Waxler’s manuscript, reprinted with permission: “Deep reading is a risky but rewarding encounter with our rhythms and needs, our own feelings and emotions, and it offers a way of making sense of that encounter. Through such reading, we discover how we are all connected to others and to our own evolving stories. We experience our own plots and stories unfolding through the imaginative language and voice of others, and we desire to move on.” Robert Waxler

For more information about the Memoir Summit click here.

For more information about Philadelphia’s annual writer’s conference, click here.

Links to Articles about these speakers

Interview and seven part blog about Beth Kephart’s “Slant of Sun”
Use this memoir as a study guide: lessons 1 to 3
Lessons 4-5 from Beth Kephart’s Memoir, Slant of Sun
Four More Writing Lessons from Reading a Memoir
Memoir Lessons: Mysteries of emerging consciousness
Memoir Lessons: Moms, Quirks, Choices
Lessons from Kephart: Labels, Definitions, Language
Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond
Interview with Beth Kephart

Interview with Linda Joy Myers: A leader of memoir writers tells her own story
Link to Linda Joy Myers’ Blog

Blog about another talk I gave with Robert Waxler: Revealing Death and Other Courageous Acts of Life
Essay about Robert Waxler’s Courage to Walk
My Interview with Robert Waxler, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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.

Memoir Revolution: What It Is and Where It’s Heading

by Jerry Waxler

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

When I attended my first memoir writing class in the summer of 2004, I quickly realized I wasn’t alone.  Many others were reviewing their memories in search of interesting stories. To learn more, I began reading memoirs, many by authors whose main claim to fame was that they had taken the time to turn their lives into stories.

Each book offered a rich, generous window into the author’s life. To organize my thoughts and share them, I posted essays on my blog. Again, I found I wasn’t alone. Through the internet, I started corresponding with other memoir bloggers and then with memoir writers. We were forming online communities!

I began teaching workshops where I introduced students to techniques for finding their own narratives. Once they realized they could translate the chaos of memories into the order of stories, they expressed their appreciation. Their excitement added to mine.

In 2008, a book publisher heard me speak and said I ought to write about my big ideas. “What big ideas?” I asked. “You know. What you’ve been saying about the importance of memoirs for individuals and society.”

At first I resisted the suggestion. I have always been addicted to ideas, and thought that finally in my later life, I was ready to replace analytical thoughts with lyrical ones. However, I couldn’t resist the challenge. I thought that perhaps I could achieve both goals. I would try to turn my ideas about memoirs into a good story.

To illustrate my observations, I provided specific examples from my growing shelf of memoirs. I soon realized I was writing a book about books. This turned out to be one of the biggest ideas of all. In our literate society, we learn so much about life from the writings that have been recorded before us. As memoir writers ourselves we pass along what we have learned to the next generation.

After five years of reading, interviewing, writing and revising, my editors reassured me that the book was ready. In 2013, I published the Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire. (Paperback or Ebook) In the book, I explore the current interest in memoirs: where it came from, why it is having such a profound influence on readers and writers, what I have learned from it and what you can too.

One reason I felt so compelled to write the book was because of my belief that writing a memoir can be a powerful aid to self-understanding. Turning life into story moves events from their haphazard storage in memory back into a sequence. We see the scenes more clearly, and by finding the narrative that links them, we understand ourselves in a new light.

Unlike more isolated forms of introspection such as therapy and journaling, this one reaches outward. From the time you share a few anecdotes with fellow writers, you begin to see yourself the way others have seen you, providing an almost magical amalgamation of self and society.

When I was growing up in the sixties, I looked for my truth in the stories popular among young intellectuals. Authors like Franz Kafka, Joseph Heller, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus convinced me that life is meaningless. Their powerful literary works helped me dismantle my trust in the world, and without trust, I sank.

Now in the 21st century, memoirs offer a more healing collection of stories that weave the good and the bad in life into a purposeful narrative. Instead of undermining readers with disturbing twists of irony and dystopia, modern memoir authors shape real life, with its cruelties, vagaries and victories into an orderly container as ancient as civilization itself.

The bestselling authors in the front lines of the Memoir Revolution taught us about this healing potential of life stories. By sharing the psychological influences that shaped them Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life), Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) and Jeannette Walls (Glass Castle) gave the rest of us license to explore our own. Like published authors who have worked long and hard to discover the purpose and character arc of their protagonist, we aspiring memoir writers strive to find the same driving forces within our own lives.

Memoir-lovers in my experience intuitively recognize the potential that this genre has for healing us individually and collectively. My book, Memoir Revolution, backs up these intuitive views with research and examples about how the cultural passion for life stories serves us all.

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.

Listen to an interview with me and Linda Joy Myers of the National Association of Memoir Writers: [display_podcast]