Grieving memoirs – a different slant

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis is a memoir about two strong-willed people whose relentless mutual attraction chips away at their individuality. When they discover that they are happier together than apart, their relationship is born. The memoir continues past consummation, into a marriage fueled by an unquenchable thirst to live life to its fullest.

From the beginning, John’s rare form of cancer hung over the marriage like a sword. Instead of slowing them down, the threat egged them on to passionately engage in culture, nature, friendships, and each other.Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis

Both of them were on the cusp of retirement, anyway. So they seized this opportunity to cut short their successful careers and devote the rest of their lives to each other. Then time ran out. In a breathless chronology, the author leads us blow-by-devastating-blow through her husband’s medical setbacks.

Shirley Melis relies on the skills she honed during her career as a professional writer to pull readers into the details of their bliss together and then their frightening ordeal. She used scenes supported by dialog and contemporaneous material (letters and journal entries) to cut away the distance between reader and writer and allows us to enter her world.

The couple’s care for each other turned John’s downward slide into another chapter in their passionate love story. While their doctors fought his disease with the full weight of medical science, Shirley and John threw their full weight into trust in the future. They were determined to defy mortality and make plans for the next adventure. The power of love transforms the ending of their story into a sort of crescendo.

To satisfy readers, the ending of a memoir must wrap up the entire story in a way that allows the reader a visceral reaction—goosebumps, say, or a smile—that inspires them to recommend it to a friend. Banged-Up Heart achieves those goals in a way that surprised me.

In just about every memoir about loss I can think of, death takes place early enough in the book to allow plenty of time for the author’s recovery. This bridge from death back to life is one of the great gifts that grieving authors give to the rest of us.

Examples are plentiful. Susan Weidener’s memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, is also about a marriage ended prematurely by cancer. Like Banged-Up Heart, Weidener’s memoir shares the entire life span of her relationship to her husband, from the romance, through building a life together, and having children. Then the ripping away of a too early death. Weidener’s memoir, however, goes on to the next stage in her journey, as she tries to rebuild her life.

Rebuilding is the entire focus of Kate Braestrup’s memoir, Here if You Need Me. We barely meet Braestrup’s husband, who was killed in a freak auto accident at the beginning of the book. The lion’s share of the story describes the author’s long journey back, raising her kids and growing as a person. In the end, she offers a lovely perspective on the nature of good and evil, providing readers with the gift of her own hard-earned wisdom.

Memoirs about the death of a child also guide us through death’s aftermath, as the authors strive to cope with their devastating loss. For examples, check out any of these moving memoirs: Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Leave the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash, and Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes.

Well-defined story arcs about loss and the subsequent grieving process have earned an important place in my taxonomy of memoir subgenres, because each one provides wisdom regarding this fundamental journey of the heart.

I assumed that Banged-up Heart would similarly explore the arduous climb back to sanity and acceptance. But as I approached the end of the memoir, John was still battling for his life, and both of them were still struggling to visualize their adventures after he recovered. During this period, Shirley was too focused on hope to spend time grieving. As the pages flew by, I began to wonder how she would have room to wrap up the story.

In my impatience, I felt there were many details that didn’t add momentum to the story. Yet I carried on, drawn forward by the compelling writing, and my empathetic connection with this terrifying situation.

Amid so many upheavals and disasters, I wanted to learn as much as possible about Melis’ thoughts. In every other grieving memoir I have read, the nuances of the author’s interior landscape were crucially important. For me, that is the payoff for reading a story about loss. I want to accompany the author on this noble search to reclaim a sense of meaning. But instead of emphasizing her inner landscape, the author focused mainly on what was happening around her.

During this run-up to the end, with John in his deathbed, Shirley beside herself with worry, and me juggling my own expectations about where this was going, the story took a surprising turn. The result dashed my expectations and broke out of the “grieving story arc.” And it did so in a most satisfying way. Like the final moments of the movie The Sixth Sense, which shifted the premise of the entire story, the ending of Banged-up Heart caused me to toss out the expected storyline of a grieving memoir.

Melis’ exquisite, loving description of placing John’s remains in his final resting place helped me understand exactly what she was trying to do and gave me a rush of recognition. “Oh, that’s what the memoir was about.”

By ending the book the way she did — not with feelings of loss, but with admiration and love for her husband — the intent of Melis’ book instantly flipped. This was not the journey of sorrow and recovery, which I had expected, but a book about courage, respect, mutual support, and how two loving people can create life in each other’s eyes.

Although the story structure was unconventional, in the end, the book met my expectations after all, by offering me the two great gifts I expect from all satisfying memoirs: first, the life and mind of the author, and second, deep insight into a universal aspect of human experience.

By letting me into her life she showed me the unique nuances of her situation. She met and fell in love with John while still trying to recover from the death of her first husband, complicating her approach to grief. John was an unusual character, full of complex ideas and extraordinary talents. Their relationship was only a couple of years old. These individual variations gave me a sense of being with a specific person, at a specific time.

These specific features of their love offered me a fresh perspective on the universal experience of loss. The emergence of universal insights out of the cauldron of individual experience is why I love memoirs so much.

Love is one of the great driving forces of human experience. Some even say that love is the primary force and that all other emotions derive from it. And yet in the memoir genre, love is usually neatly tucked behind the thoughts, dreams, and needs of the protagonist. Shirley Melis’ memoir Banged-up Heart brings love out of its supporting role and places it front and center, as the hero of her story.

Memoirs that represent other relevant subgenres

Memoirs that Review multiple relationships

These memoirs review the life of several relationships across the author’s lifespan. Instead of praising one relationship, they lead us on the protagonist’s attempt to make better sense of these crucial features of emotional life:
Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse by Kathy Pooler,
Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers his Marriages by Boyd Lemon
Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro

Memoirs devoted to loving one other person

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell — Love and loss of a friend.
100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman — Her tribute to her husband mixed with the caregiving and cognitive rehabilitation after his stroke.

Notes
Shirley Melis’ Home Page

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

Interview With Memoir Editor Brooke Warner

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

After reading Dorit Sasson’s excellent memoir Accidental Soldier I asked the author for insights into her writing process. She gave much of the credit to her editor, Brooke Warner. Her answer confirms a “secret” that has taken me many years to fully appreciate. Good, publishable writing relies on a collaboration between author and editor. To learn more about this creative relationship, I reached out to Brooke Warner,Magic of Memoir by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers herself, to see what the memoir world looks like from her point of view.

Jerry: One of the things I loved most about Dorit Sasson’s book Accidental Soldier was the exquisite sensitivity to her mental voice. She seemed totally tuned in to her own interior process and exquisitely capable of sharing it. That’s so important n memoirs, because one’s thought-stream gives readers the opportunity to learn how a character thinks.

When I asked Dorit how she learned the subtle skill of writing her thoughts, she said you taught her. How did you learn to inspire and guide authors to pull these introspective realizations out of mind and onto the page?

Brooke: In reading your book, Memoir Revolution, you identify something really important about memoir writing when you write that memoir writers are tapping into psychology and literature without necessarily realizing they are doing so.

My parents are both psychologists, and while I never studied psychology in school, I’ve been exposed to therapy in various contexts my whole life. My mom runs a retreat center, and since I was fairly young I’ve been privy to the power of sharing story, and how self-expression heals and helps us better understand ourselves. This has given me a bedrock for how I hold people in their memoir process. It’s not therapy, but I do have a certain sensibility that leans that way, in addition to compassion for the writers I work with.

Jerry: Wow. I’m so impressed by the way you’ve taken the sensitivity training from your home life and applied it to your working life. Interesting! That explains your insights into the workings of your clients’ minds, but how did you get so knowledgeable and sensitive to the form of memoirs?

Brooke: I make no apologies for the fact that it’s my favorite genre. I’ve probably edited and/or published somewhere around 300 memoirs. My professional background is as an editor for a Seal Press, a women’s press in Berkeley, and I started She Writes Press in 2012, and we publish a lot of memoir as well. I teach a six-month memoir intensive with Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers. We’ve co-authored two books together, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir and an anthology The Magic of Memoir. And I wrote an ebook called How to Sell Your Memoir. Finally, Linda Joy and I are co-leading our second annual conference this October in Oakland, also called “Magic of Memoir.” So I’m pretty entrenched in memoir all around.

Jerry: That’s amazing. No wonder you’re good! You have invested a huge portion of your creative life into helping authors shape their life into stories. Cool. What got you into this line in the first place and what keeps you engaged in it with so much commitment?

Brooke: The memoir thing started for me when I started working at Seal Press in 2004. I’d worked in publishing for five years before I started working at Seal, but it wasn’t until Seal Press that my editorial focus became so strongly memoir-focused. During those eight-plus years as an acquiring editor and ultimately Executive Editor, the vast majority of the projects I acquired and edited were memoirs.

I also read tons of memoirs during those years because I was reading the competition. I was learning what made memoir work, and I was reading the best and most famous memoirists—those memoirists who started the revolution, like Caroline Knapp, Mary Karr, Annie Lamott, Joan Didion, Vivian Gornick. (I read almost exclusively women authors during those years, with the exception of James Frey and Augusten Burroughs probably.)

On a more immediate level, I was working with memoirists who were baring their souls. I witnessed firsthand what they went through to get these projects out, and then what they experienced when their memoirs came out in the world. There was often a lot of praise and good reviews, but I also saw and experienced the backlash against memoirists, and specifically women memoirists.

Part of my passion for this genre comes from a kind of Momma Bear instinct. I didn’t actually become a mother until 2010, but for years before that I was a mom of sorts to my authors. In-house editors get very close to their authors, and I’m no exception. I was part-mother, part-therapist, part-friend, part-midwife, part-taskmaster. You wear a lot of hats, and I was well-suited to these roles. I was personally impacted, and oftentimes awed, by what my authors went through to bring their stories into the world. I have been a champion of this genre as a result of walking the path with my authors, and feeling that what memoir writers do is hugely courageous, and one of the most vulnerable acts I know of. I believe memoirists should be celebrated, each and every one of them, and instead they’re so often met by criticism from family and friends, and cultural criticism for the very act of writing personal story. All memoirists need champions, and champions of memoir need to voice their support. Amy Ferris, a Seal author (her memoir is called Marrying George Clooney) and my dear friend, says that memoir saves lives. And I absolutely know this to be true. It saves the lives of the writers who write them as much as the people who need to read them.

Jerry: Because of all the years that Linda Joy Myers has put into building a community of memoir writers, I consider National Association of Memoir Writers to be one of the most important hubs of the Memoir Revolution. What is it like for you, being in a position where so many people come to look for help finding the stories of their lives?

Brooke: I agree, and I love my partnership with Linda Joy Myers. We have a really similar sensibility, and she’s an equally passionate advocate for memoir and memoirists. I feel so lucky to teach alongside her. When we met, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit!

As far as what it’s like to be in my position, it’s wonderful, and sometimes hard. What’s hard about it is that so many people have the dream that their book can be a breakout bestseller. And a lot of people come to me for coaching, or join my classes, and what they want more than anything is validation—that their story is not only worthwhile, but well-written, going to get agented, going to get a big advance, going to sell tons of copies.

Of course most of the memoirs I work on these days don’t go on to get big agents, big advances, or become bestsellers. The publishing climate is the most contracted it’s ever been. The only memoirists who are getting those kinds of agents and advances are people who are already famous, or who have big author platforms, or who have something that’s trending in such a way that the traditional industry sees a project as a risk worth taking.

I love meeting writers. I love hearing that people are working on memoir. I also love hearing that they’ll publish no matter what, because I know how difficult it is out there right now, and in fact the high barriers to publishing is one of the main reasons I started She Writes Press, to provide an alternative to authors who were being met by rejections from the traditional world for really beautifully written books. (Ours is a model in which the sole determinant of whether or not we publish a book is the writing, not author brand or model.)

I’m encouraged because I think there are countless brilliant books whose authors are committed and willing to take them to the finish line, with or without a traditional deal. The new revolution that we’re in the middle of is the Indie Revolution, and a lot of memoirists are riding this wave. And so I love talking to writers of all stripes, but I also try to gently introduce a bit of publishing realism to those who have stars in their eyes about a publishing paradigm that no longer exists.

Jerry: Nicely said.

Interview to Be Continued

Notes and links
See my review of Dorit Sasson’s excellent memoir Accidental Soldier, edited by Brooke Warner
To visit Brooke Warner’s home page, click here.
Green-Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing by Brooke Warner
The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey by Linda Joy Myers PhD and Brooke Warner
Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers

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

Memoirs Helped Her Conquer Midlife

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

victoria-twead-two-old-fools-coverWhen I was growing up in the 1960s, “midlife crisis” conjured the image of a fifty-year-old guy driving a red convertible sports car accompanied by a giddy twenty-year-old blond. Thanks to the Memoir Revolution, we no longer rely on such clichés. Instead, we can read detailed accounts of the infinitely varied experience of real people.

Take for example, the midlife journey depicted in Victoria Twead’s “Old Fools” memoir series. (The fools in her self-effacing titles refer to the author and her husband.)

In the first memoir of the series, Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools, when Victoria Twead reached midlife, she was itching for a change from dreary English winters. She convinced her husband that they should buy a fixer-upper in a village in southeast Spain. He agreed to a five-year trial. If they still loved it by the end of that period, they would stay. With the clock ticking, they began the laborious project of turning a dilapidated house into a cozy home.

By most measures, that achievement would have been sufficient to declare their approach to midlife a smashing success. But for Victoria Twead it was only the beginning. The next mountain she wanted to climb was a literary one. She wrote a memoir about their move to Spain. Her good-humored writing brightened the dark spots, turning the whole messy experience into Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools.

Their not-so-foolish decision to move to Spain followed by the even less foolish effort to write about it were merely the first couple of steps in what I have come to see as Victoria Twead’s ferocious response to midlife. Following Dylan Thomas exhortation, she was not going gentle into that good night.

But then life in Spain hit a bump more serious than outmoded plumbing and collapsing walls. Their money began to run out. Instead of retreating, they blasted out of their comfort zone into yet another adventure, taking jobs as visiting teachers in the small middle-eastern country of Bahrain. After that crazy year, she had enough material for her next memoir, Two Old Fools on a Camel. (I’ll talk more about it in my next article.)

By this time, the reading public had discovered her books, and in a wonderful example of “art meets life” the income from her memoirs began to sustain her lifestyle.

As if this wasn’t enough to confirm Victoria’s qualification as a ferocious midlife conqueror, she had another mountain to climb. In order to share her books, she forged a relationship with fellow ex-pat Alan Parks, and established a Facebook group called We Love Memoirs.  The group attracts people from all over the world. And unlike other such groups on the internet, the moderators keep this one buzzing. That’s amazing. Isn’t the internet supposed to belong to the young? (I’ll say more about the group in my next article, also.)

Victoria Twead’s relentless climb to higher versions of herself represents an important change in our culture’s view of midlife. Formerly considered the beginning of the end, many of us view the period as the beginning of the next interesting chapter. For a more serious exploration of this trend, read Marc Freedman, MD’s book The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.  In it, Freedman points out that naturally, with our increased life spans, we are going to search for the next great adventure.

This big shift in our thinking about midlife happens to coincide with that time in my own life. Once my age approached a half a century, it raised the possibility that my life was half over. Like Twead, I too wondered how to climb higher rather than sink lower. During my research into that question, I discovered that memoirs are the key, for me and many others in this situation.

For memoir writers, a crucial step for revising life’s timeline is to become the author of one’s own book. By using the ancient template of Story to help make sense of the whole journey, we have discovered a roadmap that lets us know where we’ve been and helps us figure out where we’re going. (I’ve documented the use of Story to help us understand ourselves and each other in my book Memoir Revolution A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire )

Victoria Twead offers a great example of the trend to see midlife as a time to grow. If you decide to follow in her footsteps, to boldly seize the future, to overcome your own limits, and grow toward a better version of yourself, keep in mind all three dimensions of her approach.

First, if you lust for experience, go ahead and bust through your limits. Move to another country or achieve some other difficult or seemingly impossible dream.

Second, whether or not you are inclined to a new round of adventures, turn to memoir writing to explore and share the experiences you’ve already had.

And third, hop onto social media to create and join online communities and “party” with like-minded people from all over the world.

I’ll say more about Victoria Twead’s approach to midlife, to memoirs and to community in my next article.

Notes
Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools
Two Old Fools: Ole! 
Two Old Fools in Spain Again
Two Old Fools on a Camel, a New York Times bestseller.

Victoria keeps publishing  books! For a complete list, see her author page on Amazon.

Facebook group, We Love Memoirs, http://www.facebook.com/groups/welovememoirs

Other memoirs about renewal at midlife
At Home on the Kazakh Steppe by Janet Givens. She and her husband joined the Peace Corps at around 50 years old.

Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed
David W. Berner quit his job as a radio newscaster and became a school teacher

The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife by Marc Freedman,

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

Stories Help this Author Grow

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

An article and interview about David W. Berner’s Night Radio: A Love Story

Every memoir shows life through the author’s eyes, and each one provides an example of how the author turned life into a good story. One of my favorite memoir authors, David W. Berner has taught me many lessons in both arenas. Berner’s writing explores powerful parts of human experience, and his writing style is flexible and far ranging.

By following his life story, I have learned not only about writing a memoir, but also what it means to be a creative, energetic writer at midlife, ferociously stretching for new angles and new creative styles.

In his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, he wrote about the challenges of redefining himself in midlife. The book was written in a straight, narrative form.

In his second memoir Any Road Will Take You There he tries to make better sense of being a father and understanding his own father. He wrote it as a travel memoir, about the road trip he took with his friend and sons.

His third memoir, There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, A Life in Pets is again about his sons and father as explored in stories about their pets. He wrote this one as a collection of short stories.

Now, in his fourth book, Night Radio: A Love Story, he’s tackled the complex and sexy challenge of a young man in college who must sort out the difference between lust and commitment.

When I was trying to become an adult in the 60s, I learned about men from novels such as those by Henry Miller, which sensationalized the freedom of promiscuity. Such fictional characters provided little, if any, guidance to help me sort out these confusing issues. Now thanks to the Memoir Revolution, I hope young people can find better guidance from memoirs than I had back then. So when I heard that Night Radio is about that period, I thought this empathetic, insightful author would offer honest, compassionate insight into that important period of life.

However, it wasn’t a memoir and neither the publisher nor author ever said it was based on the author’s life. I should have just let it go and accepted that it wasn’t going to provide insight into this young man’s mind.

And yet, I wanted to believe in the authenticity of this main character. For one thing, Berner had written three memoirs, so he has plenty of practice writing from his own, authentic voice. And he, too, had been a radio announcer. Surely, I thought, he would place himself in the main character’s mind. So I kept wondering if the character in the book was a fabrication or a reflection of the truth. Finally, I asked Berner to help me tease apart the difference. I was not disappointed.

Interview with David W. Berner about his Memoir Night Radio

Jerry: When I started reading Night Radio, I found myself tangled up trying to figure out which parts were invented and which parts were you. Could you help me figure out how to sort this out?

David: Night Radio has what I call “experiential truths” in it. There are scenes that may be based on real events, but not necessarily tell the true details of that event. The scene is important to advance the narrative, but unlike memoir there is no need to stick to the absolute truth of an event. It can be shaped and massaged into what the story needs. I always get asked about the drinking party at the college radio station depicted in Night Radio. Did that happen? Well, the drinking party happened, sort of, but te what the characters end up doing on the floor of the station’s office is *not* true. At least it’s not *my* truth. It didn’t happen to me, but it wouldn’t be out of the question for this to have happened at a college radio station somewhere, at sometime. This brings me to authenticity. And that’s key here. It may not be fact, but it has to ring true.

Jerry: I was so curious about what it was like being you during that period. I guess I’m projecting my own desires on you. You wanted to write a novel, but I wished you had written a memoir. Why did you choose to write fiction?

David: I think there are a number of stories out there from very well known broadcasters and journalists who have written memoirs about their careers, legends in the industry. I’m not one of them. I’m a respected, long-time journalist and broadcaster, but not in that one-percent, if you will. I believed a fictionalized story with all the things I wanted to say about broadcasting, rock ‘n’ roll and the redemptive powers of love could be said, hopefully, more powerfully in a fictional story.

So many have said that fiction can get to a bigger truth. Sometimes, I think they are right.

“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” — Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” — Jessamyn West
“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” — Picasso

I think, in the case of Night Radio, fiction tells the wider truth.

Jerry: But that’s just it. The Memoir Revolution came into being to serve readers who no longer want a wider truth. We want specific truths so we can see into each other’s minds, and decide the wider truth for ourselves. And as a memoir writer and journalist, you were a great person to reveal it.

Maybe I’m being too personal here, but what I’m trying to figure out is Jake’s struggle with the awkward transition between the delights of lust and sex, versus the long-term commitment of authentic relationship. You did a great job of taking me inside that transition. In fact, your excellent writing evoked memories of my own inner debates during that period. My younger male self struggled enormously to steer through passion, and during that transition, I made a lot of mistakes. I included some of those awkward moments in my own memoir, but on every page, I had to resist the impulse to say, “And I was such an idiot.”

When I started reading Night Radio, and was still under the mistaken impression you had put yourself into the character, I thought you were being so heroic, opening up your thought process for all to see.

Now that you’ve convinced me this is really fiction, I’m not so sure if you were being brave. Maybe the opposite was the case. By couching it within fiction, you could completely deny the whole mess. Was that your intention? Did fiction enable you to explore that character without revealing personal, embarrassing choices and states of your own mind.?

David: This is a fascinating question, in essence, do we write fiction because the truth is too close to home? I do not believe I wrote Night Radio to avoid, in some way, calling attention to myself. I’ve written about other issues and emotions in my earlier memoirs that are pretty close to the bone. So writing about very personal feelings, is not a concern. Plus, I am *not* Jake. There are aspects of me in Jake, certainly. And the character’s issues with commitment and/or fidelity are a very human thing, I think, especially for young men trying to figure it all out. Plus, some are only modeling the behavior of their fathers. That’s somewhat the case for Jake. His father has had his own struggles with these issues and whether it’s overt or just through the DNA, sons of such fathers will also have to deal with these matters. It’s inevitable. Here’s the final say on this: everything a writer puts down on paper has a little of him in it. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, whether it’s painfully obvious or squeezed between the lines, it’s there and any writer who tells you differently is not telling you the truth.

Jerry: So now that you’ve written your first novel, are you dropping memoir altogether and switching over to writing fiction?

David: I’m glad you asked. Roundfire Books, will publish October Song: A memoir of music and the journey of time most likely in the first part of 2017. I believe October Song is a unique story of time and music. I played in a band many years ago. Nothing much. Just a bar band. I was a teenager and did it into my early 20s. But I always played music, and still play some guitar. But it’s really just about having some fun. Now and then, I’ll write a song. I’ve never professionally recorded or published music. On a whim I entered a national contest and was quite unexpectedly named a finalist and was asked to perform at a well-known music venue in Virginia to see how far the song would go. The memoir is about the road trip there and the experience of the competition, and most importantly about the passage of time. When are we at the moment when we should give up our crazy dreams? When do we say…”well, I guess I’m not going to be President of the United States,” and for me that was “that rock-n-roll star.” All of us have those dreams, right? Ultimately October Song is an examination of the passage of time, love, the power of music, and the power of dreams.

Jerry: That’s perfect. Another memoir. And the subject of the memoir fits in perfectly with the image you portray through your memoirs.

In the beginning of your first memoir, Accidental Lessons, you become convinced that you are not living life to the fullest, and to fulfill that desire, you need to change. Now here you are a few years later. You’ve been a high school teacher. A college teacher. You’ve written two memoirs, a collection of short stories, a novel. And you’ve got another memoir coming out about your passion for music. What a relentless, creative journey you’ve been on.

In my experience, most memoir writers are responding to a similar desire, to find themselves by creatively shaping their lives into stories. What advice could you offer us, based on your mid-life quest to reclaim your soul through creativity?

David: You hit the nail on the head – “reclaiming your soul through creativity.” I believe that my writing has done that. I didn’t write *to* do that; it was not calculated in some way, as journal writing might imply. But I have always been a storyteller in one form or another. From delivery newspapers as a paperboy in Pittsburgh, to my radio work, to writing journalism, to music and songwriting, to writing memoirs and now fiction. And for one reason or another, in the last 8-9 years, I have been a faucet of stories. I don’t know why that is, really. Maybe I am on a quest to understand my world and my place in it. But I don’t think people who are reclaiming their place in the world have to write a book or a memoir to “see” themselves or “find” themselves. That can be done in myriad of ways. And it’s a natural process for all of us. Looking in the mirror, really looking, is important to find steady ground, to be happy (whatever that means), or redeem or create relationships with people and the world. What makes us uniquely human? The stories we tell. No other species on earth tells stories. Only us. To be quintessentially human, we must tell stories. I must tell stories.

Notes

Night Radio: A Love Story by David W. Berner
Accidental Lessons by David W. Berner
Click here for the article I wrote about Accidental Lessons.
Any Road Will Take You There by David W. Berner
Click here to read my article about Any Road Will Take you There
There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard by David W. Berner

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

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.

Is your memoir Boomer Lit?

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

We all know the images of the groovy sixties. The exuberant rock and roll, hallucinogenic drugs, and soldiers in jungles waiting for helicopters to evacuate the wounded. But even with all those images to help me fill in the blanks, I looked back on those years in a daze. And I knew many other boomers who felt as confused and overwhelmed by those memories as I was. Now, thanks to the Memoir Revolution, we can find the words to explain what was going on in our hearts.

Pamela Jane’s memoir Incredible Talent for Existing is just such a story. For Pamela Jane, the sixties were a time of turmoil, obsessive soul searching, and and confusion about who she was supposed to be. For those of us with radical beliefs, living felt like a curse. How could we grow up to be adults when the adult world was evil and corrupt? Pamela Jane was one of those who were so disrupted by those beliefs, it took a lifetime to heal.

The iconic image that best illustrates the interior pain of the sixties can be seen in the familiar, shocking clip of a monk setting himself on fire to protest the war. At the time, I couldn’t imagine being willing to suffer so much in the name of Truth. However, after reading An Incredible Talent for Existing, I realized that Pamela Jane, along with many others, had been conducting a slower and less visible form of self-immolation. She was psychically destroying herself. And because her self-destruction was invisible, she had to go through a long, lonely journey to pull herself together.

When the dust settled after the sixties, and the Flower Children had to figure out how to become adults, their clothes weren’t so colorful, and photos of them going to therapy or struggling alone in sorrow no longer seemed interesting, so society moved on, and Pamela Jane had to find herself, no longer surrounded by a mass movement but now struggling to regain her sanity.

Now that decades have passed, she can look back on that period and piece together the story. This is the duel nature of the Memoir Revolution. It gave Pamela Jane the opportunity to figure out her story and share it. And by reading her memoir, the rest of us have the opportunity to go into her heart and mind, behind the flashy images of Woodstock and hippies and listen to her story. For some of us this story might be a way to make sense of an extreme notion of the sixties. For others, like me, it is a way to see myself reflected in the story of another person. I know about her pain because I traveled the same path.

During that period, I too had been engaged in the same psychic self-destruction, and went through decades trying to reconstruct myself. Like Pamela Jane I searched for therapists, groups, ideas, or anything else I could grab onto. And like her, I took advantage of the Memoir Revolution to write about it in my memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World. But until I read Incredible Talent for Existing, I had never read a story about anyone else who had experienced the sixties in that way.

After reading Pamela Jane’s Incredible Talent for Existing, I was struck by the similarities of our stories. Like me, she attempted to destroy everything she had been taught. Like me, she was trying to heal society by destroying it. After a few years of energetically, willfully fighting against the entire basis for sanity, she, like me, succeeded, not in destroying the ills of society, but destroying herself.

When we extreme rebels emerged from our mass psychosis, we looked around in a daze. Instead of pioneers of utopia, we had become stragglers, poorly prepared for the ordinary world. After a long, often painful climb, we made it to adulthood.

But how could we ever explain the logic of voluntary self-immolation? There was no language for it. Most of us chose to hide this embarrassing experiment. We didn’t even understand it ourselves. As a result, one of the most important periods in our lives remained hidden behind superficial clichés that revealed nothing about our inner state.

Finally, the Memoir Revolution has given us a voice. Thanks to the popularity of memoirs many of us are attempting to turn our experiences into good stories. By writing these stories we can understand our own past, and by sharing them we pass along lessons and insights to others.

The Memoir Revolution is our answer to the counterculture of the sixties. In the sixties we tore apart everything we believed. In the Memoir Revolution we are knitting it back together.

Whatever your experience was in the sixties, whether a soldier, a hippie, a housewife, a mother, a resident of a commune, cult, or clan, you had a personal, unique experience that is trapped in your mind until you give it voice. And memoirs give you that voice.

Many more stories are already started  in computers and file cabinets, anecdotes and insights waiting to be knitted together into a coherent whole. I know how hard it is to travel that long journey from snips to a completed memoir. During that time, I had to peel away layers of forgetting, and at the same time, learn the art of story writing. I took around 12 years from the time I started. Pamela Jane, already an accomplished author, took 22 years to complete hers.

When you read Pamela Jane’s memoir or mine you will learn two stories that go behind the surface to reveal some of the painful aspects of trying to become an adult during that period. And for a broader sample covering a wider variety, read Times They were a Changing, an anthology edited by Linda Joy Myers and Amber Lea Starfire. To witness the deconstruction of a combat soldiers, from eager young man to broken soldier is Jim McGarrah’s A Temporary Sort of Peace. His sequel Off Track tells about starting to knit himself back together as a worker at the racetrack. Bill Ayers memoir Fugitive Days takes us inside an extreme version of the war protest movement. If you read these books and the many out there that I don’t yet know about you can appreciate the powerful nature of turning confusing memories into a compelling story.

By writing a memoir, you can perform an amazing service for yourself, your peers, and anyone else trying to understand the human condition. By diving under the surface of your situation and writing your inner story, you can finally bring the reality of those or any other times out from behind the clichés and into our shared understanding.

Notes

This blog is part of the WOW Blog Tour. For more essays on An Incredible Talent for Existing by Pamela Jane see this website

See my essay about Jim McGarrah’s Vietnam combat memoir

See my review of Times They Were a Changing, a collection of short stories about the sixties.

Read my memoir, Thinking My Way to the End of the World. my own story of being thrown off course by the sixties, and then needing to search for a path out of the pit into which I had fallen.

I can only think of one other time in history when a massive number of people attempted to dismantle their own belief systems. By some sort of cosmic coincidence, that mass psychosis was happening in China at the same time as the counterculture was happening in the U.S. During the so-called Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government joined up with the mob mentality to consciously dismantle the psyches of a billion people. See my review of a book of short stories about the Cultural Revolution.

In the Part 2 of this essay on Pamela Jane’s memoir, I will discuss the way memoirs can be about a familiar subject and yet entirely unique.

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 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.