Writing a Memoir Penetrates the Fog of Memory

or Watching My Dad Watching Me
by Jerry Waxler

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

On my dad’s eightieth birthday, my sister and I took my parents to dinner. To stir my usually reticent father to speak, we asked him what it was like raising us. He said, “I took Jerry to a baseball game once. He read the whole time.” We all laughed at the image. What a nerd I was!

But his comment unsettled me. Of all the experiences we had together, why did that one come to mind? Did he resent me for obsessive reading? I had long since forgiven him for being away at his drugstore 14 hours a day. Now, for the first time in my life, his comment made me wonder what he thought about me. However, he grew quiet, and I let the matter drop. My childhood seemed so far away. I would probably never understand his part in it. I had a hard enough time remembering my own.

One reason I can barely remember my childhood is because I spent most of it inside the covers of a book. I read in my room, at the dinner table, and on trolleys and subways, always more fascinated with the invented world of fiction than in the world around me. I became so absorbed in stories, I sometimes forgot about the boy turning the pages. Once, in ninth-grade English class, I was visiting another planet with the characters in Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, when my teacher grabbed the book from my hand. I looked up at his red face, momentarily confused. How did he even see me?

My strategy to read my way through life fell apart when I landed in Madison, Wisconsin in 1965. Even before the riots started, I had no idea how to relate to this teeming mass of 30,000 students. To survive those tumultuous years, I tried to lose myself in the despairing cynical literature of the time, like Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which turned the butterfly image upside down. The book described a boy who turned  into a giant beetle. For the first time, books were taking me into worlds worse than the one I was trying to escape. I turned to marijuana, angry music, and confusing friends. Drowning in a sea of kids, I descended into confusion that took me years to fix.

After college, I reversed the downward slide by reading books about spirituality. Their promise of transcendent reality shone on my light-starved soul, guiding me out of the woods and back toward normalcy. When I felt strong enough to get a job, I turned to self-help books. Each one gave me deeper insight into the boy turning the pages. My journey continued in a therapist’s office, and then in real life, with friends and a family of my own. For forty years, I continued to work at becoming a healthy adult, and books were always right there with me.

In the early 2000s, I discovered memoirs. By diving into a memoir I still lost myself in another person’s world. However, instead of becoming less of a person, I was becoming more. Over and over, after I experienced the world through the author’s eyes, I added compassion and wisdom to my own. The next step seemed obvious. I needed to write my own.

As a slow, methodical memoir writer, I discover incidents buried under years of forgetting. Like an archeologist, I extricate them from the rubble of details and wonder what value each artifact might offer. I place them into the context of the book of my life, and through the chemistry of a growing narrative, they acquire deeper meaning. And because books were so important to me, some of the treasures in my memory relate to my passion for reading.

For one of my birthdays, around my fourteenth, I received a gift-wrapped book from Dad. I assumed it was the Hardy Boys book I asked for. The library didn’t stock the popular mystery series, so I was looking forward to this gift to increase my supply. I tore away the paper, expecting to reveal a photo showing the young sleuths. Instead, I found a boring orange book with no dust jacket. I opened it to see an old-fashioned typeface.

“What’s this?” I asked, making no attempt to hide my disappointment.

“I wanted you to try something different. It’s about a guy stuck on an island. Give it a chance.”

I put the book down, my face tense with the effort of holding back tears. “I won’t read it. Please, please give me the book I asked for.”

He insisted, and I ran to my room. Why was he doing this to me? What did he even know about books, anyway? On the one night a week when he came home for dinner, he sat in his chair, picked up a novel, and within minutes had passed out, the book face down on his lap.

I would show him. I would just stay in my room until he relented. A few days later, Dad gave in and bought me a Hardy Boys book. However, instead of exchanging Robinson Crusoe, he told me to keep them both. The ugly book in its boring orange cover sat next to my bed while I enjoyed yet another episode of the Hardy Boys.

After I finished reading the mystery, my obsession with books got the better of me and I picked up Robinson Crusoe. Pushing past my reluctance, I began reading. Within the first few pages I adjusted to Defoe’s antiquated sentences, and quickly lost myself in the story, identifying with this lonely, resourceful man trying to survive in a hostile world. I loved my life on that island, and loved Daniel Defoe for giving it to me.

When my journey came to an end, I was hooked on classics, and walked to our local library for more. Reading classics for pleasure became a passion, and for years, I found endless pleasure in novels by European authors such as Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas and American ones like Jack London and Mark Twain.

When I first recorded the incident, it didn’t have any particular importance. After I wrote it and tinkered with it, the anecdote deepened. My father’s solution to this challenge was more clever than I realized. He caved to my demand in a way that allowed us both to win. It never occurred to me he was that smart. Then, in my growing manuscript, I can follow events from one year to the next. Through this lens,.

Through the lens of story, I see my early life from both sides. Dad wasn’t perfect. He was just a guy trying to earn a living and at the same time figure out what to do with his teenage son. Concerned about my obsessive reading so he used his influence to bump it up a notch. His small intervention had a longlasting effect.

By turning anecdotes into a narrative I connect the dots. Dad’s observation about me reading at the ballpark helps me visualize from another person’s point of view that I was trying to disappear inside a book. But I wasn’t invisible after all. I had a father who tried to influence his son’s behavior in ways I couldn’t yet appreciate.

Before I started writing the memoir, memories of my teenage obsession immediately led me back to the red face of an angry English teacher grabbing a book from my hand. Now that I’m working through more memories, I have the opportunity to see the kind face of my father, handing me a book that would invite me into the foundations of western literature. As my manuscript evolves, instead of remembering a dad who was too busy to raise me, I can now watch him watch over me.

Writing Prompt
Your early memories were put in place before you had the intellectual tools to make sense of them. There they remain in their original form, until you write about them (or talk to a therapist). To use memoir writing to help you make more sense of your memories, think of various incidents with a caregiver. When one such anecdote jumps out of your mind, write it. After it’s on paper, look at it more closely for clues about what was going on in your world and in theirs. Place the anecdote on your timeline, and consider its context. What other incidents does it remind you of? When another scene jumps to mind, write that one too. Even if you don’t see the connection at first, put this one into your timeline. Repeat this exercise several times. Then step back and attempt to portray a richer picture of these interactions than the one that first came to mind.

Notes

Read more about how my obsession with reading classics for pleasure almost killed me by clicking here.

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.

Catch-up grief: how visiting my brother helped me grow

by Jerry Waxler

When my older brother Ed was diagnosed with cancer, he was 37, married, with two young children and the owner of a growing cardiology practice in a small town in Georgia. It did not take long for the disease to rip it all away. When he died, I was 30, still entrenched in my protracted struggle to grow up. We were living almost a thousand miles apart and so I experienced his death once removed, as if the loss was happening to someone else.

As I write my memoir, these 32 years later, I discover the gaping hole his death created, as if I was postponing my grief until I was mature enough to better understand what happened. I now watch our relationship unfold in slow motion, and this time I intend to learn as much as possible about what happened and what I missed.

Much of my childhood is hazy, and as I struggle to remember it, I sometimes gain clarity by comparing notes with my sister. I had no such opportunity with my brother, at least not in physical conversations. But by imagining discussions with him, I have improved my memory as well as my peace.

It started in a psychiatrist’s office. I was complaining about the fact that after decades of earning my living sitting in front of a computer, I didn’t feel comfortable telling people I was a therapist. Even though I had my Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, and was working with clients, I was still not able to see myself as a mental health care provider. In fact, I often tried to hide it.

The psychiatrist, Lyndra, was helping me sort out my self-image problem by using a sort of modified hypnosis, called EMDR. I sat with closed eyes while she alternately tapped my knees and told me to think about how I could break past my reluctance. Out of the haze, my brother appeared. He was kind and respectful, the same as I remembered him in life, and he “gave me his blessing” telling me how proud he was of my new role.

The vision boosted my confidence, helping me proceed more energetically along my new path. The following year, I conceived of a book in which Ed was a character who communicated with me from the Other Side. I imagined he must have achieved great wisdom by then, and I asked him to help me sort out the meaning of life. Although I still have not figured out how to tie together the loose ends of the book, the hours I spent with him in my imagination helped me restore our connection.

During the process, vignettes about our early relationship peeked from their hiding places. When he was trying to earn a place on his high school basketball team, he needed a place to practice. I helped him build a court in my grandmother’s yard. We dug the hole, poured in concrete, and erected the backboard. The summer before he left for college, he assembled a hi-fi system from a kit. He taught me how to read the color code on the transistors and solder them onto a circuit board. I was 11. The following summer, we played chess out on the patio. I had been studying chess books, and we were an even match. Sometimes he would make me play two or three games in a row, leaving me begging for mercy, and yet at the same time feeling bonded to him in the strange way competition connects opponents.

After he moved away to college, I had a premonition. I was watching a drama on television about a young boy who heard news of his older brother’s death. An inexplicable rush of sadness washed over me. And then there it is. I see myself at 30 flying down to Georgia to be by his side as he lay dying and instead of feeling grief, all I could feel was admiration.

I can’t go back to change the way I reacted, but I can use my writing to reorganize my thoughts and feelings now. By illuminating early memories, my writing has helped me appreciate growing up with him. I am developing a richer range of emotions about his passing. And moving forward, I have made better sense of his absence, filling in some of that gap with warm stories, images, and sometimes even a sense of his presence.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene in which you were together with someone you miss.

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

By Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

High School Trolley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

Are Memoirs True?

by Jerry Waxler

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

“What about college?” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

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

Reach deep into memory to build a scene

By Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

I wish I could portray what it was like to be a nerd in high school. I had few friends and for four years, my main interest in life was studying and reading. The best way to share my nerdiness is to show scenes, bringing readers into the halls of my high school to see for themselves. And yet when I try to describe my life in high school, I feel like I’m trying to peer into the hidden memories of a stranger. Who was that guy? Fortunately, memoir writers have tricks. By prying into the hazy past, we can find far more detail than we had first expected.

One way to get started is to list facts. It was 1961 when I started attending Central High School in Philadelphia, an all-boys, all-academic school, where more than 90% of my classmates were heading to college. There was actually a minimum grade required for admission. No slackers permitted! Every morning, I walked down to wait for the trolley, an electric contraption that clanked, hissed and squealed on tracks. By the time the trolley reached Broad and Olney it was packed. The doors thwacked open, and I stepped into the hectic terminal, crossed Broad and walked down past the girls’ high school. I didn’t know any girls, and just kept walking. As I reached Ogontz, I looked up at the school perched on a hill. Then my imagination fades. I can’t see inside the building.

Since my eyes don’t seem to be working, I try stirring up smells, touch, and sounds. Groping like a blind man, I reach out and my hand lands on a blackboard. I am transported into ninth grade algebra. My teacher calls me up to the front of the class to show a homework problem. With chalk in hand, scratching the board and smelling the dust, I feel the excitement, hoping my work is right and terrified that it’s wrong. I love algebra, and I love my algebra teacher Mr. Abrams. His passionate demand for excellence would change the course of my life. He is short, and on the last day, after a year of looking up to him, I am horrified to hear a student say, “Mr. Abrams. Would you stand up on a chair so I can kneel down and take your picture?”

Ah-ha! That’s the secret. The events that emerge from memory are loaded with emotions. The emotions make the memory stick. And that’s the problem. I was an intellectual, among a crowd of intellectuals, and emotions were not in our vocabulary. We wanted to get into top schools and that meant being serious, all the time. No wonder I don’t remember much.

But there is hope. I’ve already discovered one scene. Surely there must be others. I grope again, touching the glazed cinder block walls that on hot days radiate a soothing coolness. In this tactile mode, I feel a weight in my hand. It’s my briefcase, so loaded with books I can barely close it. I smell today’s sandwich, dig around in the bottom and find pencils and stab myself on the point of the compass that I use for drawing circles in geometry class. I snap the clasp. There is a particular hallway I keep going back to outside my chemistry class. The windows seem far away, and the hall is dimly lit.

The main focus of every conversation is to drill each other about things we are supposed to know for tests. We also try to stump each other about the definition of vocabulary words. As I try to listen in on these conversations, I again feel a complex thrill of emotion, desperate to sound smart, mixed with fear that I might sound stupid. I try to home in on one conversation.

Our chemistry teacher is extraordinarily flat. Not only doesn’t he have a sense of humor. He doesn’t express emotions of any kind. In one lesson, he teaches us the laboratory notation for a chemical reaction that does nothing. Think for example of pouring water over rocks. No dissolving, no heat, no change in color. When that happens we are supposed to write “NR” which stands for “No Reaction.”

Emerging from class into that dark hallway, I walk with an awkward gait, compensating for the heavy briefcase in my hand. Another student turns to me and loudly quips, “Hey. Let’s just call him ‘NR.'” It feels good to show a little disrespect for our teacher. And the scientific terminology is a nice touch. We all laugh. Looking back, I realize why the memory stands out from the haze – we are a bunch of nerds laughing at someone who has even more trouble expressing emotion than we do ourselves.

While it’s not a complete scene, I’m adding more components, and if I persist I could end up with boys’ names, and what they looked like, and what more they said to each other, to show how these particular nerds behaved on this particular day in this particular hallway. Even if I only find one or two such scenes, readers will see for themselves that I was a nerd. And at the same time, I’m benefiting from it too. The ghostlike quality of those years has always given me the eerie feeling that I was a shadow, an outline with no substance. By discovering scenes, I feel my past self gradually taking on flesh and bones, filling in who that boy was back then, and making me feel more whole and continuous of a person today.

Writing prompt
What scene do you wish you could remember? List facts, descriptions, names of places, names of people. Do they remind you of anything else you didn’t think of until you started writing? Touch objects. Find a particular object, and while you are touching or looking at it, look around and describe what you see. Name a person and talk to him or her. What are you saying? Remember anything that person said or probably said, and listen to the voice. What does this tone of voice tell you about the person or their background? How does the conversation make you feel?

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

Story untangles distorted memories and reveals truths

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

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

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

My niece reminded me I’m getting old

by Jerry Waxler

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

While searching the internet for my own last name, I found an article by a Caroline Waxler, about a television show “Mad Men” that shows office workers in the sixties. Caroline, who happens to be my niece, knew abstractly that women had come a long way but didn’t comprehend how far. Could it have really been that bad just a few decades ago? To find out she asked her mother. The discussion not only gave her deeper insight into the history of feminism. It also provided mother and daughter an opportunity to share their stories.

The article was interesting to me, not only because Caroline is on the web. She’s always up to something. Her latest adventure is launching the website mainstreet.com, which manages to combine the seemingly unrelated world of celebrities and personal finance. The more interesting aspect of the article for me was that it challenged one of my basic assumptions about the transmission of human knowledge. Until I read the article, I assumed Caroline would have known exactly what life was like in the sixties. I had some vague notion that the information would ooze over to her through the media, discussions with older people, and her extensive education and reading. Now that I’ve thought it through more clearly, I recognize my folly. By the time she entered the business world, the behavior that shocked her on “Mad Men” was no longer just obsolete. It was illegal. Most of the upheaval took place before Caroline was born and was over by the time she was a little girl.

As I thought about Caroline’s revelation that times have changed, I had a revelation of my own. Many powerful culture trends are obscure only a generation later. This simple observation offers me a new way to look at my past. Instead of seeing events through my own eyes, I gain fresh perspective by seeing my world from the point of view of a younger person who didn’t know my world. I brainstormed this notion and turned up a few scenes that I can add to my stack of vignettes.

  • After a day at my all-boys high school, I took the subway to work at my father’s neighborhood drugstore in North Philadelphia. Family-owned drugstores and all-boys public high schools are nearly extinct.
  • Occasionally I took the subway by myself into center city, and sat in the balcony of the Philadelphia Academy of Music to hear orchestra rehearsals, or went to the listening room of the main branch of the Public Library to hear classical music on scratchy 78 RPM records.
  • On summer evenings, before we had air conditioners, our family sat on the patio of our row home and talked to the neighbors. One summer, when my brother Ed was home from college, we sat out on the porch and played chess every day. He was a nerd, too.
  • While waiting for dinner I sprawled on the living room floor, reading the comic section of the newspaper. Our television was in the basement, which is also where Ed assembled a high fidelity amplifier he was going to take with him to his college dorm. I helped him by following the diagram and soldering transistors.
  • I was a freshman in college when I first heard the word “marijuana.” I had no idea what it meant, and didn’t even know the concept of recreational drugs.

As I look back through my life, I realize that culture is not a steady thing. The world around me has changed in small ways that gradually accumulate. Only when I look across a few decades do I see how the small changes added up to profound differences. A memoir is a perfect place to highlight these changes, explore them, turn them into stories, and share them with others. By striving to explain these differences more clearly, I can add depth that will help people learn about the past, while sharing the authentic world in which I lived.

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

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Prompt
In the period of your memoir, what lifestyle “givens” that seem so obvious inside one period might seem foreign to people a generation later?

Writing Prompt
Remember a situation when you were telling a younger person about your life and you realized that they didn’t know what you were talking about. Fundamental differences are hard to explain, which makes them excellent writing exercises. Take such a situation, slow it down, and write it in richer detail that will provide some of the background that will make it more understandable to someone who wasn’t there.

Note: Some people could accuse me of narcissism for looking at the internet for my name, like looking in the mirror too long. Others call it smart marketing. I have written an essay on the question of whether a memoir is narcissistic. I still need to write one about the blurry line between narcissism and self-marketing.

Note: Here’s Caroline Waxler’s article if you want to read her thoughts and her mom’s response.

Note: I’m reading a remarkably simple and powerful memoir, Colored People: A Memoir by Henry Louis Gates Jr. about growing up in the fifties in West Virginia. He wrote it for his kids, who didn’t know his world. And I get to watch, and share his observations, learning about a slice of life I did not see for myself.