Interview: On Publishing the Memoir Breaking the Code

By Jerry Waxler

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

In the fourth part of the interview with Karen Fisher-Alaniz, author of the memoir, Breaking the Code we talk more about writing and publishing the memoir.

Jerry Waxler: Finally getting the book into print must have been a fabulous sense of completion. Now you are in a new leg of your journey, speaking to people about an actual book instead of a book in progress. Congratulations!

Tell us about your publishing choices, and why you chose the particular route you did?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: I believed in my book. I believed in my father’s story and that it was time for it to be told. But after sending out queries, I was getting some nice comments but no requests for more. There is a moment that stands out for me. I was at a writer’s conference and they had a time when authors were standing behind a table signing their books and chatting with conference attendees. Some were traditionally published, others were self-published. Some were famous, others were not. I looked around and thought, I’m not making myself crazy about this anymore. If I don’t have serious interest from a publisher by the end of 2010, I’m going to self-publish the book. My father was in his late 80’s, plus there were a couple of important war time anniversaries in 2011, so I knew that would be a good year to publish. When I let go of the traditional publishing as the only mode, I felt so free. I felt almost giddy. I knew that one way or another I would publish my memoir.

The funny thing is that just a few hours later, I had one agent and one editor seriously interested in the book. They both requested the first 50-pages. I know it sounds crazy, but the big-time New York agent just didn’t feel right to me. On the other hand, the editor from Sourcebooks had said, “It’s like our parents had these whole lives that we never knew about.” And I knew he got it. I sent him the pages and he skipped protocol and sent me a contract within about a month.

Jerry Waxler: Fascinating. That’s a great example of “letting it go!” So how is this publishing method working for you? I’d love to hear pros and cons. So many memoir writers face this challenge.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: With the advent and perceived ease of self-publishing, many writers are going straight to self-publishing. I’m not sure that is the best thing to do. It’s still so new that the typical reader, as well as bookstore owners, librarians and such, are still struggling with it. I had a couple of experiences with it. When my book first came out, when I traveled, I would go into bookstores and offer to sign stock or just tell them about the book in hopes they’d order it. Well, I was told by my publicist that when I do this I should begin the conversation this way, “_my book, which is published by Sourcebooks.” So, I always did that and was received very well. But one time, at an independent bookstore, I forgot to say I was published by Sourcebooks. I didn’t realize it at the time; all I knew was that the buyer for the store was very rude. She was short with me and said emphatically that she would be taking a percentage because they have a hard time selling those kinds of books. I’m still standing there, naively thinking she’s referring to memoirs or war stories. But the percentage thing threw me off. I hadn’t heard that before, so I asked about it. When she realized I wasn’t self-published, but was traditionally published, her whole demeanor changed. All of a sudden she was nice. It made me mad.

Unfortunately, I’ve found this to be an ongoing problem and something that those in the book selling industry are frustrated with. There are a lot of self-published authors who don’t put enough effort into editing, learning about their craft, and ensuring the book is it’s absolute best before it is printed. I feel like there needs to be some kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for books. We need to know they’ve been meticulously edited and beta tested.

On the other side, there is a lot of traditional-publisher bashing. I hear what people say about traditional publishers and it’s just not my experience. As a debut author, I was told not to expect an advance. But I did get an advance. I was told that I would have little or no control over my book. I was involved in every aspect of it. I was told that publishers just aren’t doing any marketing or publicity anymore — that they leave that for the author to do. That wasn’t true either. My publicist even got my father and I interviewed on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition. I had a very good experience with my publisher. Maybe Sourcebooks is the exception, maybe they’re not.

One thing a publisher has that an author just doesn’t is education, expertise, and connections. When I visited their offices in Chicago, I was really struck by the fact that these people have degrees in things like marketing, publicity, public relations, and so forth. Whole teams of people were working on my book. There’s just no way I could know everything they know, no matter how many years I studied. Publishers vary, of course. Smaller and mid-sized publishers like mine are often overlooked. Most authors shoot high and hope for one of the Big Six New York publishers. I feel like I had the best possible publisher for my book. I’m not sure I would have gotten the attention I did, if I’d chosen one of the mega-publishers.

Where self and traditional publishing converge is in the area of marketing your book. While my publisher did an amazing job in the months following the publication of Breaking the Code, there is a time limit. A best-selling author I know said that they give you a good three-weeks, and then they are on to other books. I had about two months where my book was a priority. That gradually dwindled off. It was like my publisher had been driving on the highway a hundred miles an hour, then pulled over and let me drive in really slow traffic. At this point, the shift changed to me. Self-published authors are at the forefront of knowing how to market their books. I’ve learned a lot from websites, workshops, and publications that are geared toward self-published authors. They are the experts at finding creative ways to keep your book selling.

I hear a lot of people use the phrase, “Traditional versus Self-publishing.” I don’t think it has to be that way. The two are not against each other and in fact can complement each other. Most people don’t know how little money a first-time author makes. In fact, most don’t even come close to making even the most meager of livings from their books until they have three out. Authors that are making a living at writing books have many, many books out. They also create multiple streams of income by adding in speaking engagements, and creating various web-based programs. They also supplement their writing income by self-publishing ebooks related to their subject. There are a ton of options out there. So, if your goal is to make your living at writing, it can be done. The timing is better than ever.

Jerry Waxler: One of the things that fascinates me about memoirs is the way so many of them bubble up out of the context of a person’s life, almost like a story that wants to be told. Because of this deep enmeshment between the author’s life and their book, the book holds a powerful important place in their life experience, and as a reader, I’m keenly aware of and appreciative of this connection between the life and literature. However, it leads to a dilemma for the published memoir writer.

After writing a book that is key to their entire lives, they want to keep writing. Some, like Frank McCourt, go on to write other memoirs. Some, like Jeanette Walls, go on to write historical fiction or like Andrew X. Pham, a ghostwritten biography. Others, like Alice Sebold and Beth Kephart branch over to fiction. Some, like me, mainly want to write about the process of writing a memoir. Where do you see your direction? Do you have another book in you? What’s next?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: That’s such a good point. When I do book events, there is definitely a good deal of teaching and encouraging others to write their own story. I’m passionate about that. We all think we’ll have more time to get our stories, or those of our loved ones, written down. But sadly, for some time runs out. My message is to Write Now: Because It’s Later Than You Think, won’t be changing anytime soon.

I am working on two nonfiction books right now. The first, Running in Circles is a humorous memoir about raising a son who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). My son just turned 18 and is a senior in high school. I finally feel like we made it to the other side. But it has been a real struggle — especially when he was young. People joke about ADHD and throw the term out every time they feel a little burst of energy. That’s not what ADHD is. But if you spend any time talking to parents, you’ll see the heartbreak, the frustration, and the guilt. I’ve been through all of those things. But I’m far enough out from it now to have some insight. And truth is, a lot of our experiences were downright hysterical. I always tell people that if I’d just stopped at two children, I would have been that annoying parent who had all the answers for your kid. And then there was Caleb.

The second book I’m working on is another veteran story. Drawing Me Home is the story of Vietnam Veteran, Michael Reagan. He is a talented portrait artist. He worked hard to build up a business with his art, in a beautiful, waterfront art studio. He raised more than $10 million for charity by drawing portraits of celebrities. He has met presidents, celebrities, and politicians. He was the official artist for the University of Washington for more than 30-years. When he was asked to do a portrait of a soldier who died in Iraq, his life changed. The soldier’s widow was so profoundly affected by the portrait that he knew what he had to do. He gave up everything; his art studio, his career at the U of W, prestige, paycheck, and notoriety, to dedicate his life to drawing portraits of fallen soldiers. He’s drawn 3,000 to date. His tragic past is woven into the present in the most amazing way. Miracles abound.

If I do branch out in the future, it would be into children’s books. I taught elementary school for a number of years, and I’ve written several children’s books. I’d love to see those published and I’d love to interact with children around books again.

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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.

Turning Dad’s WWII Secrets Into a Memoir, Pt 3

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is Part 3 of an interview with author Karen Fisher Alaniz about writing, publishing, and reflecting on her memoir Breaking the Code. In this part, she focuses on how she chose to organize the book. This is a crucial question every memoir writer faces. How do you go from a mountain of notes and memories to a memoir worth reading.

Jerry Waxler: There were a number of ways you could have structured this book. For example, like Linda Austin, in Cherry Blossoms in Autumn, you might have attempted to reconstruct your father’s early experience. You chose instead to use two timeframes, one in which you were the investigating daughter, and the other in which you reconstructed the original time of his war experience. I’m really curious about the thought process that led you to structure it the way you did. Did you model your book after any particular memoir or story structure? Did you try more than one structure before you settled on the final one?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Each chapter of Breaking the Code has two or three letters my father wrote during the war. But very early on, I tried writing the story without including the letters. But what I found myself doing was quoting the letters or saying that I’d read XYZ in his letter. It didn’t make for a cohesive, natural story. I’d only written a handful of chapters when I realized I was going to want to include the letters, and center the text around them. I was also getting encouragement from my critique group. Some of the ladies were little girls during the WWII years and they were a good barometer for how important the information in the letters was. Like everything with this book, the structure developed naturally. Once I’d written maybe 30-pages, I knew it was reading like I wanted it to read. But remember, I had 400-pages of letters to work with. So one of the hardest parts was deciding what to leave out.

Jerry Waxler: How long was it from the time you conceived the book to the time you published it?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: The evolution of the book was such an organic process that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I started writing it. Originally, I was simply going to transcribe the letters. Then I decided to write in the story between the letters. The whole process took years. It was nine years from the time my father gave me the letters he wrote during the war, to the time the book was published. Not all of that time was spent writing it though. It was a slow and often halting process. You just can’t rush memories to the surface, and that was certainly true for my father. If I could condense the actual writing of the book, it probably took about two years.

Jerry Waxler: Like most memoir authors, you had to sort through the events in order to decide where to end it. Explain the thought process that led you to deciding where the story was finished.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Well, the funny thing is that I actually finished writing the book before I had any real resolution to the story. My father was still suffering terribly from flashbacks and nightmares. I’d written the book with a very unsatisfying ending. Basically, in the final chapters I wrote about the reality of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; there are no neatly tied up, happily-ever-after endings. PTSD can wax and wane, but it’s always there. Of course, when we went to Hawaii, my father came back a different man. And that changed the end of the story.

Jerry Waxler: You use photos in the book. That’s interesting. I have often thought while reading a memoir that I wish I could see the images, but then I tell myself these are two different media, and that the absence of images levels the playing field and gives the reader the chance to fill in the story with their own imagination. Tell us about the decision making process and internal debates that led to your inclusion of photos.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: My father saved everything. He had photos and memorabilia. He did have a scrapbook for some of that. But a lot of it he would just put into a manila envelope with a word or two about the contents and hand it to me. It was usually after the subject contained in the envelope had been discussed. Or sometimes he even gave me an artifact before we talked about it. It was like finding treasure for me. Eventually, I took all those treasures and put them in a notebook, in archive safe sleeves.

I imagined the book with photos. But I also knew that that’s a publishing decision. I had heard that it is expensive to include photos, so I didn’t have many expectations. But my editor at Sourcebooks, Peter Lynch made a decision before I was even done with the edits. He wanted to include photos, perhaps somewhere in the middle of the book. But then I decided to visit the publishing company in Chicago. I hand carried my father’s scrapbook and a few of his original letters. Once Peter had a look at it, he decided that the photos had to have a bigger part than simply a section in the middle somewhere. I think that the decision to use a photo at the beginning of each chapter was brilliant. The art department did an excellent job.

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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.

Birth of a Memoir: Turning Her Father’s Secrets Into a Story

by Jerry Waxler

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

When Karen Alaniz’s father handed her a packet of the letters he wrote 60 years earlier, she embarked on a quest to finally understand his experiences during World War II. The whole experience then triggered a second quest. She wanted to turn the entire experience into a memoir. In this second part of a four-part interview, I ask her more questions about interviewing her father about his past traumas, crafting a book, and then publishing the resulting story.

Jerry Waxler: Tell me about the moment when you realized, “ah, I want to write a book about this process.”

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: There were a couple. When my father finally revealed what he’d done during the war and the trauma surrounding it, I started to see the story as if it was a movie. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s the way I see Story when I read. I started seeing my father’s story that way.

Also, I joined a Christian critique group. It wasn’t a perfect fit for what I wanted to do, but many of the women were published writers. They all had expertise and knowledge that I needed. Everything about book writing was new to me, so I soaked it all up. Every week, members would bring a few chapters or an article they were working on. We would all get a copy and follow along as the writer read it. We’d write comments on the pages and then take turns talking about it. There was a lot of give-and-take conversation. I learned so much from that. I learned how readers read, what draws a reader through the manuscript, and what stops them.

At this point, I wasn’t sure if this was a story I wanted to find a publisher for or if I wanted to simply write it and just have copies printed for my family. But I wasn’t thinking about that much. I just wanted to get it written down in the best form I could. But at the meetings I was being encouraged. People seemed to genuinely like my writing. They said they couldn’t wait until the next meeting so they could learn more. Some of them even made comments insinuating that they assumed this was going to be a published book. Little seeds were being planted. Then one day after the meeting, two of the women stayed and talked to me. One of them said, ‘Have you ever considered that this isn’t just your dad’s story–that it’s your story too?”

Without realizing I was doing it, I had been bringing chapters each week, going over them in the group, and then sharing how discovering my father’s story had impacted me. Of course, I didn’t know I was doing this. But looking back, it was true. I was going through this very emotional experience as a daughter, but in writing the book, I had separated myself from it.

I went home and started thinking about what the book would be like if it was a memoir. What if I wrote myself into the story? My first thought was that I didn’t want to do that. It was my father’s story — not mine. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Before the next meeting, I had written my experience into a few chapters. The ladies loved it. I did too. And it didn’t feel so fractured this way. It also gave me an outlet for talking about my own truth, my own experience.

Jerry Waxler: While trying to make sense of your father’s letters, what else were you doing to try to gather facts about his war experience?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: The research aspect was relatively minor for this book, but I do have some. When I initially wrote it, I didn’t want to be stopped by research. So, I devised a system where I left a long string of dots like this; ————–.. , when research was required. I left enough dots so that it would catch my eye when I went back through the document. Then I would just keep writing.

It ended up being a good system because there were times when I couldn’t seem to move forward with the story. I don’t acknowledge that Writer’s Block exists – but that’s what some people would call it. When that happened, I went through the manuscript and found a place where I needed to do some research and worked on that. It ended up being a great thing to do. No matter how much I was struggling with the story line or direction of the plot, I could always research something and so, I was moving forward every day and that kept me from ever getting truly stuck.

My research came from printed sources, as well as the internet. A section of my, Breaking the Code notebook was for documenting where I found things. It was a very simple system.

Jerry Waxler: Please share something about your writing process. Did you have a daily writing habit. Did you take courses. Did you have a critique group? Anything you can say about the writing life that brought you from initial idea to final completion would be fascinating.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Writers always want to know how an author’s day is structured. I want to know that about other authors too. I think we hope that by doing what the author does, we can achieve what s/he has achieved. But the truth is, you have to fit writing to your life and nobody else’s. So, keep that in mind as I share what works for me.  I was very proactive in learning what I needed to in order to get where I wanted to be. But having a very structured writing life doesn’t work for me.

I have relapsing-remitting Multiple Sclerosis (MS). It’s not something I talk about very often. But I want people to know that you don’t have to have a perfect writing life in order to create something truly wonderful. Your dreams can come true despite and sometimes because of–difficult circumstances. For me, having MS means that my health is unpredictable. I may do very well for months, and then suddenly be hit with severe fatigue and weakness. It’s also unpredictable within a day; sometimes my mornings are better and sometimes late at night is better. The way I look at it, as long as I’m moving forward each day, then it was a good day. I’ve learned to take care of myself too. For example, if I’ve had a book event that took a lot from me, I take a few days off to recoup. I manage my health issues but I never use them as an excuse. To me, that gives MS way too much credit.

I do keep to somewhat of a schedule. But it’s not based on a particular time of day. I write for three hours a day, most days. I rarely take a day off. That three hour chunk of time is for “new writing.” I don’t spend it editing or rewriting or anything like that. I write at home, at a local coffee shop, or a nearby university library. My home office is filled with all of the things I love. It’s filled with inspiration. There is an old chimney that goes from floor to ceiling. It’s rather an eye sore. Inspiration stuck one day and I thought, well, if you can’t camouflage it, embellish it. That’s kind of the rule in our old house; it was built in 1907. So, that chimney is now the centerpiece. I stick anything and everything that inspires and informs me. For Breaking the Code, I had copies of photos from the 1940’s, fabric from that era, memorabilia, and things like that. I also bought a couple of CD’s of 1940’s music. I think those things help me get into the mood of the book.

When I decided I wanted to write a book, I took advice I heard at a writer’s conference years ago. The speaker said that if there’s something you want to learn to do with your writing, “become a student of it.” I did that over and over. For example, I wanted to learn how to end my chapters in a place that makes the reader want to turn the page and read, “just one more page” before bed. So, I studied James Patterson’s writing. I like his novels, but what’s amazing to me about his writing is that he has very short chapters and yet at the end of each one, you want to turn the page. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stayed up for just one more, and then just one more, again. Though the genre isn’t even close to my memoir, it was a technique I wanted to learn. So, after reading it for pleasure, I went back through with a highlighter and sticky notes. For anything you want to learn to do, this technique works.

I read a lot of memoirs; I always have. I love them. But I had only read memoirs for pleasure. I’d never really sat down and tried to figure out what I like about a particular one. You have to look at it critically and that takes a whole different mindset.  Like everyone else in the world, I know what I like (to read) when I read it. But I never had to figure out what it was that made a particular memoir work for me. So, I reread some of my favorite memoirs and picked up newer ones too. Again, after reading for pleasure, I went back through with a highlighter and sticky notes. It was like peeking behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain. The answers are all there, you just have to look for them. So I studied memoir. I had to define what it is that actually works and what it was I wanted to do in my own memoir.

There are a lot of people who want to be a writer. But you have to be completely honest. You have to ask yourself, “How badly do I want this?” And, “Am I willing to do what it takes?” I took a lot of steps but what it all came down to is that I purposed myself to learn what I needed to learn. I attended the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association conference. It’s expensive and time-consuming, but the opportunities for learning and making connections with publishers and agents are huge. I joined writer’s forums like Absolute Write and the Yahoo group, Life Writer’s Forum. I chatted with other writers constantly. Writers are a very helpful bunch. I went to workshops. When I learned that there were a couple of writer’s groups in a town 50-miles from me, I committed to traveling there twice a month. I not only made some great friends there, but all the little bits and pieces of information I attained were adding up.

As I got closer to completion of my manuscript, I started studying things like how to write a query and book proposal. I worked on those even though I didn’t have anyone to send them to yet. And when I did get to that point, I researched agents and editors I thought would be enthusiastic about my book. Note that I didn’t say agents and editors I could send my book to. That wasn’t good enough. Maybe it’s because my memoir was so personal, I’m not sure, but I was not willing to send it to just anybody. So, after I read the Writer’s Market, or Agent Query, I’d make a list of agent/editor’s names and then research each one. I Googled the agents’s name, adding the word “interview.” You can learn a lot from an interview. If it’s a good interviewer, you will hear the agent’s heart, their soul, their mission.  And that helps you send your book only to those who are right for your book.

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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.

Memoir Interview: Breaking into Her Father’s Secrets Pt 1

by Jerry Waxler

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

I recently reviewed Breaking the Code by Karen Fisher Alaniz, a memoir largely about the secrets that prevent people from knowing each other. More specifically, it’s about the secrets veterans keep when they return from war. And more specifically still, it’s about a daughter’s quest to understand her father’s life in World War II. As she taps into his memories, she encounters the traces of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that roil under the surface decades later. In other words, the book tackles a lot of powerful topics, and offers insights into each one. Today, I have the added privilege of interviewing the author about her experience of writing and publishing it. This is the first part of a four part interview.

Jerry Waxler: My wife’s father was also in the Pacific theater during World War II, and she’s only had a couple of conversations with him about that experience. Now that you have shared your story about a war that so deeply affected that generation, you must be exposed to a lot of reactions from people who are trying to open up to their own memories. Tell me more about the way this book has struck the Vets and children of the WWII vets that you have spoken to.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: My memoir seems to resonate with people from many different directions. One of the most poignant experiences I had was shortly after the book came out. I was invited to speak at a Retired Military Officers Club. It was a rather formal event and I was so intimidated. After a lovely dinner, I started my presentation. I talked about the experience of discovering what my father really did during the war. That lead to talking about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PtSD); how it manifested in my father, and specifics of a particularly vivid flashback. I spoke of the fear he developed of sleeping. He didn’t even want to take his nap for fear of the nightmares that had plagued him for several years. My father even said a few words, but he stuck to the code-breaking process. Afterward, the retired officers came up and shook my father’s hand, thanking him for his service. It was beautiful. Many of the wives took the opportunity to talk to me, sharing very briefly, the profound and long-standing struggles of their mate.

I went home that night, knowing that in some small way, our talk had been at least a conversation starter. However, my overwhelming thought was a sort of “so what?” So, they’d heard the story. But what did it really matter? I mean, sure, hearing that someone else has been in your shoes is helpful, but just like with my father, I felt helpless to help them in any meaningful way. But that changed when I opened my email the next day.

The subject line said, “me.” I opened it to find a three-page letter. It was from one of the men. He said he was so emotional that he didn’t talk to me or my father. He had, in fact, left quickly after our presentation. He went on to tell me about his military service. He shared some of the horrible things he’d seen and done while in Vietnam.

When he went to Vietnam, he had just married his high school sweetheart. When he came back, he wasn’t a boy; he was a man. In fact, his wife had said many, many times that he didn’t come back at all. She didn’t know the man that returned. His personality had changed. His wife said many times over many years that she thought he had PtSD. He was hyper-vigilant about keeping his family and himself safe. He had a temper. He was distant. But she stuck with him. What he said next moved me to tears, “I just always thought I was a bad father, a bad husband, a bad friend, a bad son. My wife says I wasn’t like that before, but I always thought of PTSD as something that only the weak soldiers get. I thought it was a big, fat damn excuse for bad behavior. Your talk last night changed that. I think I have PtSD and I want to get help. Can you help me?”

For more than 40-years this poor man had blamed himself for what war had clearly done to him. That letter did two things. It broke my heart and it propelled me in the direction of finding out what help is available for people like him.

Jerry Waxler: What sorts of other suppressed memories, military or otherwise have you heard about that children wish they could learn from their parents?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Children of the Greatest Generation want to know their parent’s stories, whether war-related or not. What I find is that many families follow the same pattern my father and I did. My father didn’t share that much about the war when I was young, or even as I had a family of my own. I had a general knowledge of his WWII experiences. Of course, in my father’s case, he was sworn to secrecy. But I find that other children have the very same experience. And then as we age and our parents or grandparents age, they simply stop telling the stories. In fact, often they build a very tall wall around that period of time. But the most interesting thing now is that for many of us our children are grown, our jobs are stable, our lives aren’t so hectic, and we have this sense that we want to know who we came from. We want to know that heritage and we want to pass it on. But our parents have denied us for so long, that they don’t seem to want to talk about it anymore.

The encouraging part of this journey is that I find it really doesn’t take much to get that conversation started again. You have to be persistent. You have to make story-sharing a priority in your life and then you just have to go for it.

Jerry Waxler: In the book you share quite a bit of internal conflict about whether or not to pry these secrets from him. On the one hand, you hoped it would be the right thing to do, to release his secrets, share them with you and unburden himself. On the other hand, you were often afraid that awakening the memories would only make him feel worse. By the way, you did a great job of showing this dilemma, and I appreciate that you never provided a simplistic answer that firmly solved the question one way or the other. So now that the book is out in the world, and you have heard from readers, what more can you share about how this conflict all resolved in your mind. Are you glad you did it? Do you still beat yourself up or question yourself? Is there an anecdote or moment that can help us understand how you feel about your sense of purpose that kept you going through to the end of this project?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: The quick and direct answer to the question is this; I’m glad we went through this process together. I’m glad my father’s story was finally told and shared with the world. I put a lot of hope and faith in the fact that in the long run, this would be good for him. I now think that was a bit naïve. You have to understand how I came to this belief.

I worked for eight years in a program for children with emotional and behavioral issues. Many of them had been rescued from horrible situations of abuse. When I worked with them, part of what I did was help them journal through. If they were very young, I transcribed their memories for them. After some time of doing this, and other types of reading and writing, like keeping a gratitude journal, I saw absolutely stunning transformations. They were like the Lotus flower. Brought up in the mire, they blossomed into something beautiful. So, when my father was suffering so, I thought it would help him to talk about it. There were many, many times when I questioned my belief that this would help him and I think part of that was because of his age and part was that it is just so difficult to see someone you love hurting. You wish you could take it from them. I wish I could take that pain from my father. I wish I could take the guilt over his friend’s death from him and he could just live out his days in peace.

But once the memories came to the surface, there just wasn’t a way to turn back. Every time I wanted to stop, or my resolve was challenged, something would put me back on track again. Some little step forward would be taken, or a tiny beam of light would shine on a new area.

All of this said, I don’t want to over simplify what bringing up painful memories can do. I wish that the steps my father took when we created an Intentional Time of Remembrance could be replicated by others with a trauma in their past with a guarantee of peace at the end. For my father, it was healing. I wish it was as simple as replicating a journey. But it’s not. A Vietnam Veteran sat next to me at a dinner several months ago. I’ve never forgotten his words. He said, “I’ll never tell my story. I wasn’t one of the good guys.”

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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.

A Memoir About her Father’s Secret Pain

by Jerry Waxler

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

When I started the blog Memory Writers Network, I assumed that memoirs are only about the author. Over time, I have read a number of excellent books that reflect their author’s powerful curiosity toward parents and grandparents. Recently I read about a daughter who desperately wants to understand her father. In Breaking the Code Karen Fisher-Alaniz tries to break open the code of her father’s silence and make sense of his experience as a soldier in World War II.

The story starts when her father hands her a binder with hundreds of letters he sent home from Hawaii six decades earlier.  Before that moment, she knows very little about his military service and doesn’t even know the letters exist. She attempts to grasp the significance of what he has just given her. What secrets might they contain? But when she expresses her intention to read every one, he pulls away. “Why would you want to do that? Those are just some old letters.” The story tugs back and forth between the daughter’s search for understanding and the father’s conflicted feelings about whether he could or even should remember what went on.

Storyline 1: A daughter searches for her father’s military past

Karen’s search begins with the letters themselves. They are hard to read, and soon she realizes they are missing important details. During the war, U.S. military censors blacked out any phrase that could compromise security, so letters from most soldiers were sanitized, giving the letters a superficial quality. She is not going to learn as much from the letters as she hoped.

When Karen interviews her father for more information, she quickly realizes how troubled he is about those events. Why was he guarding his memories so jealously? This is the central tension of the book – between the curiosity that links people together and the secrets that keep them apart.

In addition to satisfying her own curiosity she also wants to help him. Over the years, he has had nightmares and she wonders if sharing his secrets will relieve the burden that he has been carrying alone for so long. And yet, she is torn, afraid that by asking him too many questions, she will stir up the pain and make it worse. She wakes up in a panic, worried about how to get inside his head without upsetting him. These emotions that pull her in opposite directions create the tension in this storyline.

Her quest raises issues that are important to many aspiring memoir writers. As we try to understand the forces that influenced our early life, we sometimes bump into situations that our parents would prefer to forget. Millions of our parents have experienced combat and other traumas, such as abuse, neglect, or deprivation. Going back another generation or two, we might run into other horrors such as extermination camps and lynchings. If we pry into those buried memories, how do we know whether we’ll increase the pain or relieve it? Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s memoir has brought this question into sharp focus.

Note
James McBride’s Color of Water is another memoir in which a child attempts to storm the gates of a parent’s well-defended memories. In this memoir about coming of age in a mixed-race family, his attempt to understand his mother’s world brings him into conflict with her desire to keep secrets. Click here for my essay on Color of Water.

Ordinary life as a backdrop for suspense

For those aspiring memoir writers who think their lives are too normal or don’t contain unique elements, Breaking the Code provides an excellent example of the drama that might be hidden just out of sight. Interspersed with research into the deadly time in her father’s life, she has to drop her kids off at school and meet her friends for a cup of coffee. Her ordinary life was just one step away from his extraordinary past.

Writing Prompt
What intense human drama is represented in your memories? Often, we spend years actively wishing they never happened. As a result, these powerful memories might be buried in the cave of forgetfulness. If you feel safe and brave, write a brief synopsis of the situation, giving it the full impact it might have if you were to write about it thoroughly and openly. Even if you decide to put it back in the cave, the exercise will give it a little more light and perhaps a glimmer of possibility that you can accept it, even if you don’t love it.

Try the same exercise for family history. These memories might be difficult to fill in, but for the purposes of this exercise, imagine that you could penetrate the mystery of a parent’s humiliation, escape, persecution, or other difficult memory. What do you wish you know? How much might you actually be able to guess or reconstruct?

Storyline 2: A soldier’s life during World War II

The other story frame is about her father. We try to peer into his experience during the war and his development as a young man. I have not read many stories of soldiers during WWII so I was curious to learn about life in a tent city. He had plenty of spare time to write letters home, as he watched group after group of men shipping out to the front.

His evasive conversation and struggles to remember are fairly common in post-combat veterans who have become accustomed to sheltering their families from the horrors they have seen. After years of not talking about these memories, many veterans tend to seem quiet or distant.

However, Alaniz’s father had been put into a situation that cruelly exaggerated this need for silence. He was involved in code breaking and was told that because of his top-secret mission, if he revealed anything that compromised security, he would be executed without a court martial. That threat must have been terrifying to the young man, but looking back, he can only remember small glimpses of it. Eventually he dredges a frightening example of this excessive security.  He was in the hospital and the doctor asked him what he had been doing when he was injured. Armed guards who had been stationed at the door of his room rushed in with guns drawn to stop the conversation. Because of his situation, despite the death that surrounds him on all sides as soldiers ship out to kill and be killed, his letters maintain a cheerful innocence.

Note
In Carlos Eire’s Learning to Die in Miami, letters between the boy and his parents were censored by Castro’s agents, so they too created a surreal lack of honesty about the suffering in his life just as Alaniz’s father was forced to only report pleasantries in his.

The letters link two timeframes

In the movie Titanic, an old woman looks at a necklace and remembers her youthful voyage on the ill-fated ocean liner. The necklace acted as a sort of magical amulet that links the former time with the present one. In Breaking the Code, the packet of letters plays a similar role. In some scenes, the daughter handles the letters in the present, and in others I picture the father writing them sixty years earlier. The letters draw our attention back and forth between the two stories. Her time-travel technique perfectly suits the charter of every memoir writer who is essentially attempting to unite past to present through the pages of a written story.

Writing Prompt
What prop, symbol, or document can usher your reader smoothly across time?

PTSD, Suppressed Memories and Unresolved Grief in Later Life

Her father buried his memories so effectively over the years that the nightmares finally stopped. Then they were awakened by the terrifying events of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. This is one of the important aspects of this memoir. Even though his trauma occurred more than a half of a century earlier, it was still lurking under the surface.

The book provides a testimony to society’s responsibility first to avoid sending soldiers into harm’s way, and second, to help care for those who return. As the saga of Breaking the Code continues, Alaniz offers some lovely insights into the ways she and her father attempted to bring closure to these deep psychic wounds.

In the spirit that “listening is an act of love,” Karen Alaniz’s profound, deep listening offered her father the opportunity to turn the isolated and fragmented memories of his experience in war into a story that we can all share in peace.

Note
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

Notes
Here are a few memoirs in which the author tried to make sense of an ancestor’s life:

Andrew X. Pham’s Eaves of Heaven, a ghost-written account of his father’s experience in war-torn Vietnam
Alexandra Styron’s, Reading my Father about her father’s life as a literary giant
Amanda Seymour’s Thrumpton Hall about her father’s passion for his English country house, and the fall of the British class system
Linda Austin’s Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a ghost-written account of her mother’s childhood in Japan and subsequent move to the United States.
Barack Obama’s Dreams of Our Fathers in which he visits the African village where his father was born
Mei Ling Hopgood’s Lucky Girl. She travels to China to meet her biological family

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

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

More Reasons Veterans Should Write Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

If you sign up for the military, your life is separated into at least two chapters, before your first day of service, and after. Then, when you leave the service, you add another chapter, to find your place in civilian society. Writing a memoir can help you organize and collect these sections into one compelling whole. Here is the second part of my essay about reasons why veterans should write memoirs.

Click here for part one of this essay

Resume Your Coming of Age Goals

People sign up for military service during the period in their lives when they are looking for a path into adulthood. We all go through that period, discovering our new identity beyond the childhood home. Military service offers a leap into that next stage, and once you enter the system, you know where you fit in to the larger world.

When you reenter civilian life, many of the advances you reaped in the military no longer apply. Your training probably doesn’t translate well into a civilian career. And the sense of purpose, of belonging, and structure are gone. You must start over, searching for a new place. In a sense, you are going back to the day before you entered the recruiter’s office. You are now looking for a second path that can carry you competently into adult civilian life.

Writing is a powerful tool to help reconnect with the person you were when you started, and the person you were trying to become. By pulling the pieces together into a story, you can reconnect them, and resume your journey. For example, by writing about life as a teenager, you get in touch with your first kiss, first car, first job, first questions about the possibility of God. When you lay these moments out in the form of a narrative, you find a self-image that makes sense across the span from civilian to warrior and back to peace again.

Restore Purpose and Idealism

In the book “Flourish,” psychologist Martin Seligman digs into the challenges of combat trauma. According to Seligman, who founded the Positive Psychology movement, the psychological care given to veterans focuses too much on falling apart and not enough on growth and resilience.

Many psychologists agree with Seligman that having a purpose for living is one of the crucial requirements for a healthy life. In fact, the search for purpose drives many young people to join the military in the first place. They risk their lives in defense of family, community, and country. However, when their mission is over it is difficult to remember the earlier ambitions and dreams, especially when memory is clouded by the fog of war.

If your earlier purpose no longer seems to apply to your life as a civilian, you are missing one of the great foundations of a healthy life. And your sense of purpose might be undermined further if during war, you suffered the side-effect noted by military psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, M.D. According to Shay’s books “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America,” many soldiers return to civilian life with their idealism in tatters. Without faith or dreams, they have little to stop them from sinking into cynicism and despair.

Writing a memoir can help. By searching for the meaning in their memoir, veterans can reconstruct the meaning of their lives. For example, David Bellavia, author of the Iraq war memoir House to House developed a sense of responsibility to publicize the experience of soldiers, as well as to commit himself to his family.

When Luis Carlos Montelvan returned from service in Iraq his mental and physical wounds left him incapacitated. He was better able to navigate civilian life after  he was chosen to participate in a program that uses service dogs to help wounded veterans. However, he continued to struggle for a purpose until he realized the importance of the service dog program. He became an outspoken advocate to help the public understand the invisible wounds of PTSD and his memoir Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him provided us with an important look inside the mind of a combat veteran.

Some veterans redirect energy toward promoting peace, or reducing gang violence. When Mark Bounds, left the army as chief of staff at a training center, he entered the civilian educational system to help young people become more responsible adults.  Whatever path you choose, writing your memoir can help you find your direction.

Building Bridges from War to Peace

In combat, soldiers earn respect by becoming experts at violence. When they return, this very skill sets them apart from the society they defended and our respect mingles with fear. After the Vietnam war, returning veterans were stigmatized by the violence of that war, adding a terrible psychological burden to the trauma they already suffered. And even the heroes of World War II had to fight with this stigma. Most of them felt obligated to shield their loved ones from war by hiding behind a wall of silence.

Writing a memoir is an antidote to this sense of separation. Just as memoirs can break down the walls between people of different races or lifestyles, it can break down the alienation between veterans and civilians. I have spent many hours vicariously terrified by combat, thanks to memoirs like James McGarrah’s Vietnam experience in “Temporary Peace” and William Manchester’s struggles on the Pacific front during WWII in “Goodbye Darkness”. David Bellavia took me on another emotionally grueling journey in “House to House,” about the war in Iraq. By now I have a good idea of how gruesome and dangerous that world can be.

So when a veteran shows up in one of my memoir workshops, ready to talk about their military service, I will encourage them to build bridges. By teaching them to write their story in language an outsider could understand, I could help them cross the chasm that separates their world from mine. In this era of the memoir, veterans no longer need to hide, but can be welcomed back into civilian life as messengers from another dimension of human experience.

More Articles
How Boys Become Men
Mark Bounds’ shift to Civilian educational system
Interview with Vietnam vet Jim McGarrah
Storytellers Shed Light On the Horrors of War
Luis Carlos Montelvan’s Home Page

Healing Combat Trauma website

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

Why Write Memoirs After Combat or Other Trauma

by Jerry Waxler

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

My friend Don mentioned that his writing group was thinking of offering fiction writing classes as a public service to veterans. The notion of serving those who serve their country inspired me and on an impulse I blurted out, “Maybe I could teach them memoir writing.” My offer caught me off guard. I had taught hundreds of civilians about memoir writing, but I had never taught a class full of veterans. Now that the thought was out in the open, I wondered how much I knew about teaching veterans to write, especially those who had been in combat.

Trauma debriefing

After the World Trade Center bombing, I wanted to help trauma survivors, so to supplement my master’s degree in counseling, I took a course offered by Pennsylvania’s department of emergency preparedness. The main technique they taught, called trauma debriefing, consisted of encouraging survivors to talk about their experience. The treatment seemed reasonable to me. Talking has always been the mainstay of counseling.

Later I learned that many researchers disagreed with the technique saying that if you talk about the experience, you might re-experience the trauma. I didn’t have enough information to form my own opinion, so I filed the debate in the back of my mind.

Memoir Writing as Trauma Debriefing

When I began to study memoirs, I realized that many of them were taking me on a journey through horrifically traumatic experiences like combat, rape, and abuse. But within the pages of the book, the horror had been transformed into a literary framework.

When I began to teach memoir writing, I extended my understanding of how this works. The participants often shared their most painful moments. After they read their passage aloud, something changed in the room. People became more relaxed and open with each other, as if they had gone through the actual experience together. The speakers said they had rarely if ever shared these moments with anyone, let alone strangers, and listeners reported a sense of empathy.

I felt that their revelations were similar to the trauma debriefing method with a key difference. Because they were in a memoir writing workshop, they were attempting to turn their horrible trauma into a good story. By packaging their memories in a shape that would be understandable by others, they had to restructure their  haphazard memories into an orderly sequence with a beginning, middle, and end. A story’s protagonist strives to achieve a goal, and along the way develops satisfying, philosophical insights. Memoir writers become philosophers of their own lives, searching for alternate perspectives and finishing with closure that would make sense to both the reader and the writer. By packaging their pain in the shape of a story, they gain control over it, masters of their own experience. For this reason, I believe combat veterans would benefit by attempting to convert their intense memories into the structure of a story, not to simply repeat the experience but to shape it.

In addition to helping themselves, they could help those who love them. After all, that’s what Homer did thousands of years ago, when he wrote the Iliad. We’ve been reading his account of battle ever since. By representing that world, so foreign to us civilians, combat veterans give us a deeper appreciation for their service, and we gain a more profound appreciation for the human costs of war.

Memoir writing is not for everyone. In addition to all the work and skill required to construct a story, memoir writers must also be willing to come out of hiding. When you first consider writing a memoir, the thought of divulging private aspects of yourself might seem horrifying. But if you stick with it, and add more and more anecdotes to your file, a story begins to emerge. Within that story, you uncover parts of yourself that had been forgotten or suppressed and you begin to forgive yourself for parts that you wish would disappear. As you find the words to explore these diverse aspects of yourself, you become more authentic and whole.

In the next section of this essay, I will explore more detailed ways that a memoir could help someone make sense of their experience in the military.

Click here for part 2 of this essay.

More Articles
How Boys Become Men
Mark Bounds’ shift to Civilian educational system
Interview with Vietnam vet Jim McGarrah
Storytellers Shed Light On the Horrors of War

Notes

Inspiring interview between Bill Moyers and Maxine Hong Kingston about why combat  veterans should write their stories.

Healing Combat Trauma website

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

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

Awakening bad memories helps shape your new life

by Jerry Waxler

One night in the summer of 1968, I walked along a busy street in Madison Wisconsin with my friend Ely, a soft-spoken math graduate student, and his girl friend Joan. We were enjoying the cool evening breeze, in a college town relatively quiet during the summer holiday. Then we heard shouting. I turned around and saw five boys rushing towards us. I shouted at them to stay away, and the ringleader tackled me and threw me down. Then the others swarmed around me and kicked. Ely asked them to stop. A boy punched him in the mouth and split his lip.

Joan screamed, and passing cars honked. Then a getaway car pulled up and the boys drove off. The intern at the hospital expressed no interest in how violated I felt. Reluctant to order an X-ray, he brushed off my headache. “Of course it hurts,” he said. “You were kicked in the head.” It turned out, he was right. I had no serious physical injury. By now almost dawn, two policemen took me back to look for my contact lens. When I was a protester, I hated the police, but now, these two men were shining their flashlights, bending down and looking for the tiny piece of plastic that enabled me to see. I felt an unexpected flush of gratitude.

Joan had written the license number, and with the help of a hippie lawyer we found that the ringleader was the son of the police chief of a small town 50 miles away. The lawyer and I split the settlement of $75.00. The rest of the summer I slunk around, racing into shadows when cars approached. In the fall, surrounded by thousands of returning students, I felt safe enough, and I let the incident slip into the past. After a few months I forgot it entirely.

Thirty three years later, in 2001, I was traumatized along with hundreds of millions of others by airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center. I wanted to help in some way so I took a workshop to qualify as a helper in community traumas. To learn how to conduct a group discussion, we were asked to talk about something that had happened to us. As I prepared, I unearthed my memory of being beaten.

Until that time, I had never thought in detail about the scene. Now as I tried to explain it, I saw it more clearly, describing who was there, what happened next, and so on. The event seemed important, so I tried to go deeper by writing about it. As it took shape on paper, it gradually changed from a vague, disturbing set of memories into a story.

With the Vietnam War raging, my attention was diverted from typical college concerns. All I could think about was the war. I didn’t think it was justified or fair, so I protested. I wanted to protect myself, the Vietnamese people, and the boys who were getting sent into danger. I thought my goals were noble, so why would anyone attack me?

To tell a more complete story, I tried to picture one of the high school boys in his home, eating dinner with his dad, who was probably a veteran of World War II. Dad was praising the soldiers who were out with machine guns and artillery hunting down the enemy. This was how Americans defend their freedom. Dad expressed his fear that if protesters stopped the war, it could unleash chaos, and threaten their way of life. The protesters must be stopped. So his sons protest the protesters by beating up someone with long hair. They were upholding the values of their family and country.  Under the circumstances, their actions were the most honorable thing they could have done.

Now, these many years later, I know a lot more about war trauma than I did back then. I imagine that one of those boys had an older brother serving in Vietnam. Instead of being kicked, he was getting shot at and watching his companions blown to pieces before his eyes. If he lived, he would for years continue to be assaulted by memories that repeatedly tear him apart. Flashbacks are the other way humans deal with trauma.

While flashbacks sound like the opposite of forgetting, these two reactions have one thing in common. They both leave you powerless to think clearly about the original experience and so the events remain stuck in their original shape. Only later, after you start trying to communicate, can you slow down and put things together.

Writing the memories gives me new power over them
I never understood the way the mugging influenced the following years. I always thought my profound depression was caused by some generalized angst. I didn’t make the connection with the trauma because I had forgotten it. I had not made the connection between being attacked and my loss of interest in protesting. I just thought my disengagement from the protests was because the whole thing was too emotionally exhausting. Now I see that beating was intended to stop me from protesting, and I got the message. My body wounds healed, but that part of me that wanted to share my opinions never did.

Writing the story reveals another powerful truth about that night in 1968. It was just one moment in time. Storytelling drags and pushes me to the next day and the next, until eventually I find myself on more stable ground. I find myself more whole.

How can writing help me grow?
As my storytelling reveals that night as one night in my six decades of life, I consider my decision to stop expressing my opinion. Must I for the rest of my life please everyone for fear they won’t like me and beat me up? If I am true to myself, I inevitably will displease some people. Everyone is different and unique. Now, instead of being limited by the decisions of a scared young man, I am working on a more public approach to my opinions that allow me a more vibrant relationship to the world. Diving into painful memories has helped me grow towards expressing my greater potential as an individual unique, human being.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about a time when you felt wronged. After you write it from your point of view, write another story about that experience from the other person’s point of view, seeing the way they justified their action initially, and the way they justified or forgave themselves afterwards.

Writing Prompt
In an experience you had that seemed traumatic, write a story in which that experience was the beginning, and then proceed from there. Look for a way to resolve the dramatic tension by reaching stable ground, or coming to terms with the trauma, or find some new direction or lesson that resulted in a positive ending.

Note
For another essay I wrote about PTSD and the horrors of war, click here.

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

Interview with Vietnam vet memoir writer Jim McGarrah

by Jerry Waxler

The Vietnam War memoir “A Temporary Sort of Peace” by Jim McGarrah, struck me with its fearless honesty. So much can happen to a person during war. The terrible experiences become embedded in mind as terrible memories. So what does it take to convert these terrible memories into a story that can be shared with other people? To learn more about what that feels like, I asked the author a few questions about his memoir writing process.

Click here for my book review and essay on PTSD.
Click here for the Amazon page.

JW: You talk in the book about how hard it was to face your war memories. And yet, you managed to write a whole book about it. I am hoping you can share some of what that felt like.
JM: Yes, I did write a whole book, but I was thirty plus years and a lot of therapy past the war before I could look at it objectively and with the honest perspective of an old man, able to admit my own character flaws and willing to face the fact that politicians use words like honor and patriotism to manipulate their personal agendas. You can’t write a credible war memoir if you’re still stuck on either end of the extremes – pumped up with pseudo-glory or bitter from reality. I’ve felt both ways in the past and I had to learn to balance those issues emotionally before I could describe them and reflect on their influences personally with any credibility. Any attempt at honest reflection involves some painful introspection.

JW: When did you first start thinking you wanted to write about those years? What were your initial thoughts, misgivings, or plans?
JM: I wrote an essay about ten years ago for a magazine called Southern Indiana Review. The subject was returning to the Veterans Administration out-patient clinic to be examined for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The VA had only recently begun to admit that such a condition existed, even though historians as old as Tacitus, among others, were describing similar symptoms in Roman soldiers 2,000 years ago. After the article was published, I put it out of my mind and went on to other things.

When we invaded Iraq five years ago, the parallels with the 1960’s came immediately to mind. Politicians and journalists were even using some of the same phrases to fire up the population for a limited war with a third world country. One of my university students, a beautiful and sensitive and talented young writer, had joined the National Guard the year before the invasion to help pay her way through school. She was called up and returned home a paraplegic at the age of twenty. At that point, I went back and looked at the old essay and started to wonder how I had managed to get myself involved so easily in an event that influenced my life so heavily for decades afterwards. Not only that, but I wondered why we had learned so little between Vietnam and Iraq.

So, I started writing a series of inter-connected essays about that period in my life in an attempt to understand my own thoughts and feelings at the time. I believed that by doing this I might somehow discover why history seems to always repeat itself. My only misgiving was that I might not be talented enough to do the subject justice. After a few of those essays had been published and I saw there was an interest in the subject, I also saw that what I was doing was evolving into a book. I don’t really plan projects. I start writing about things I feel and try to discover something worth knowing in them.

JW: What sorts of steps did you go through to gather the skills, and organize the information and arrange the structure?
JM: The first step in writing about life is to live it. As an editor, so often I read stuff that is technically flawless, but says nothing interesting. As writers, we are translators, not creators. And, what we translate is specific experience, or composites of experience, into language that’s both accessible and full of emotional substance. If we have never involved ourselves emotionally in the process of living, we have nothing to translate and it becomes difficult to make a connection on a level that resonates with a reader.

Secondly, we have to overcome our own fears and our own feelings of self-importance. We’re making ourselves open and vulnerable so others may learn something about what it is to be human. I put these things down as steps because they often require conscious discipline to accomplish. Another very important step is reading. I read constantly and I read everything lying around, from labels to Ladies Home Journal to James Joyce to Salmon Rushdie to Gaston Bachelard. I’ve read the Bible several times, not because I’m a religious man, but because it’s an anthology of forty great poets and story tellers. Not only does reading help you gather skills and see how they are used, it also teaches you variations of structure and organization.

Possibly the most important step I ever made, and it’s a one time step that never quits, is moving my writing from a means of expression into a tool to search for meaning in life or discover something or relearn something that we forgot about human nature. Then we create an opportunity for a reader to learn something new as well. Robert Frost once said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” This is the quality that sometimes allows writing to approach the level of true art.

JW: What sorts of feedback or coaching did you get?
JM: I was privileged to study with some of the best writers currently working, not necessarily the most famous, but the best. From 1999-2001, I went through the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at Vermont College and the faculty at that time was simply amazing. I don’t know how else to put it. The class I graduated with is responsible for dozens of good books in the 21st century, largely due to the influence and encouragement of the faculty that was there at the time and the intensity of the curriculum.

JW: What did you tell yourself, to sustain your commitment to putting these difficult memories on paper.
JM: I just kept telling myself that besides exorcising my own demons, I might actually help some other person deal with similar circumstances. I forced myself to believe that what I was doing might make a difference, might turn out to be greater than the sum of its parts. I have always believed that my experience was not unique, only my reaction was and through a record of that some connection might be made with someone else. Judging from the responses I’ve received by people who’ve read the book, I’d say the assumption was true, and I’m thankful for that.

JW: What reactions did you get from other combat veterans?
JM: One example – I gave a public reading last December. In the audience, I noticed a man whose eyes started to get moist. After the reading, he came up to me and asked if I remembered him. I confessed I didn’t. He told me his name and that we went to high school together. He had enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduation and gone to ‘Nam. I hadn’t seen him in forty years, but he thanked me over and over again for finally getting things right, for telling the world how it really was. That was a very humbling and inspiring moment for me. I’ve had several more like it. I’ve also had some older vets from WWII who felt like I was unpatriotic for talking about the war the way I did.

JW: What did you find surprising about the response to your book?
JM: What I’ve found surprising is the overwhelmingly positive response I’ve been getting from younger, college-age, readers. Many of them who have never studied much contemporary American history wondered how baby-boomers could relate Vietnam to Iraq and had a much clearer understanding after reading this memoir. Also, I’ve had several students come up to make after readings and say “thanks, now I understand my dad better.”

JW: Do you speak to groups, or reach out to other veterans or other trauma survivors about your experience?
JM: I speak to as many people as I can as often as I can and I ask a lot of questions. I also do public readings and book signings and teach writing workshops in various places. But, that’s contingent on my time schedule and whether or not I can earn enough money from the engagement to pay for the trip. I’ll go just about anywhere.

JW: I hate admitting my frailties so I am impressed by your telling of experiences you weren’t proud of. How did you feel about writing so frankly?
JM: No human is all good or all bad. All humans equivocate. If you create a character in fiction that is all one way or another, that character doesn’t read real. He or she reads as a stereotype and the text becomes boring very quickly. If you write non-fiction and you describe a real person as all one way or another, you’re lying. To write a memoir, an author must be able to confront himself or herself with honesty and integrity, no matter how humiliating the experience. Anything less and you’re cheating yourself and your audience. Good readers know immediately if they’re being led down the path of bull shit.

Also, what makes books interesting is drama. What makes drama is conflict. A person in real life is conflicted about most things, no matter how insignificant, on most days. When you capture that on the page, it FEELS real to a reader.

As to how I felt – relieved.

JW: But it seems so final, putting yourself in this light in a published book. You can never retract it. Doesn’t that bother you?
JM: if I worried about wanting to retract them, I wouldn’t have written them. Not everything we write is pretty. Not everything we write is accurate, or with the best judgment. But, we are responsible for everything we write. Therefore, if you don’t want to communicate something keep it off the page. When it’s printed you are saying to the world, right or wrong I accept the consequences of this language. Being a writer requires a thick skin and a certain mental toughness that most people don’t have. Everyone thinks they can write wonderfully until they try and find out they don’t have the stomach to do what’s necessary emotionally.

JW: As a memoir writer, you looked back across time, and saw your own life moving through decades. I wonder what lessons and discoveries this long view gave you about how your life has worked.
JM: That’s a very complex question without an easy answer. I can’t say that, looking back, there weren’t things in my past I might have done differently, or better. On the other hand, I don’t regret the experiences I’ve had because the sum total of them is who I am today and, for better or worse, I like who I am today. I have received a lot of privileges in my life and I’ve shared my benefits with others. I’ve raised two fine children and influenced a lot of people, both positively and negatively. But, a long view of my life tells me my life has worked for me and I’m truly appreciative that I’ve lived long enough to enjoy it. Many of my closest friends didn’t.

JW: What’s next?
JM: My newest collection of poems, “When the Stars Go Dark,” is due to be released nationally this winter as part of Main Street Rag‘s Select Poetry Series. I’m working on a second memoir that picks up after the Vietnam war that examines where my generation went after the war and why.

Storytellers shed light on the horrors of war

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.)

Amidst a lifetime of events, some memories are like scorpions that guard the gate of our own past. In my journey to understand as much as possible about life writing, I consider the question many aspiring life writers raise. “Should I approach painful memories, and if so should the memories become part of my story?” Of course there is no one right answer, so I look for lessons contained within painful memoirs I read.

I recently read “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” by Jim McGarrah, an engaging and well-written memoir about a soldier’s experience in Vietnam. I have a special affinity with Vietnam, because I was one of the students on the home front pleading to bring those boys home. Now after all these years, I finally get to see what I was protesting and it’s far more disturbing than I could have imagined.

While the author brings me into the jungle, and lets me share his pain, his psychological reality is so enormous I wanted a guidebook to help me find my way through his and my emotions. It turns out I found such a guidebook, “Achilles in Vietnam, Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,” by medical doctor and PTSD specialist, Jonathan Shay. For years, Shay has been working with Vietnam vets who have been so unnerved by their war experience that the memories yank them back into the fray, without warning.

Shay has explained trauma in an unusual way. He juxtaposes quotes from Homer’s Iliad side by side with conversations among Vietnam vets. It turns out that Homer was an expert on the psychological trauma of war, and this ancient epic that has been lurking in literature classes for centuries contains insights that help Shay explain what soldiers feel.

Soldiers’ love and loss
When I first heard someone claim that soldiers risk their lives because of their love for each other, I thought the word “love” was preposterous. But Shay and Homer convinced me that buddies on the battlefield do indeed care about each other with an intimacy we expect from brothers, or “best buddies.” (English is a bit weak in this regard, but apparently the Greek word philia comes closer.) What I don’t understand is what it must feel like to see such a beloved comrade explode into parts, vaporize, or bleed out in front of your eyes. It’s incomprehensible, and yet it happens, and changes a soldier’s life profoundly. As Jim McGarrah says in “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” “At that moment I started going insane.”

Absence of community compassion
When people in civilian life lose a loved one, they attend services in the company of community and family, and sit quietly in prayer to honor the dead. Shay calls this shared grief “communalization” and says it is one of the most important factors that keeps people balanced after loss. It is almost entirely missing from the combat soldier’s experience. When a soldier loses a buddy, the body is destroyed, lost, or shipped out in a bag. Soldiers are not encouraged to show their emotions. They get right back to fighting, and if they try to talk about what happened when they get home, civilians are unable to relate. The isolation feeds upon itself and creates a cauldron of inner pain.

Demonize the enemy at your own peril
In Homer’s time, truces were regularly declared to gather up and mourn those who had fallen on the battlefield. This act of mutual respect helped keep everyone in harmony with a universe that would continue to exist long after this particular war was over. In modern warfare, soldiers increase their will to kill by convincing themselves that the people they are fighting are less than human. Shay claims this attitude leads to atrocity and despair on and off the battlefield.

Defiling the body
Achilles ties Hector’s body to a chariot and drags it around the walls of Troy, using it as a weapon to demoralize the enemy. When I first read the book I thought it indicated that Greeks were a barbaric culture. But according to Shay, my assumption was incorrect. Achilles’ moral downfall meant that he as an individual had fallen into a barbaric state, and this fall according to Shay, was one of the central tragedies of the Iliad. During the Vietnam War, soldiers on both sides defiled bodies in order to fill the enemy with hatred, fear, and disgust. Loss of respect for the body undermines what it means to be human, and contributes to the unraveling of sanity that lingers long after the war is finished.

Berserking or “losing it”
I’ve seen soldiers in movies, screaming and running towards the enemy. I thought of it as an entertaining bit of theatrical exaggeration. I now realize that this is a very real state of temporary insanity in which soldiers slip outside the bounds of rational thought.

“Berserking” drastically increases the risk of death, and the results for those who survive are also tragic. Jim McGarrah, in a state of exhaustion and rage, performed reckless acts that haunted him for the rest of his life. Jonathan Shay suggests that modern military training actually encourages this loss of control. He warns that this tolerance towards “berserking” is a misguided strategy that hurts soldiers during their irrational behavior, and later damages their ability to return to civilian life.

The value of reading and writing painful memoirs
After Jim McGarrah left the war, there was no science of PTSD and soldiers were told to take it like a man or forget it. So when it finally dawned on McGarrah that he needed help, he had to overcome enormous resistance. He did finally reach out, and even though he doesn’t go into detail about the psychological work he did at the Veterans Administration, I already know the outcome. He faced his memories, no matter how horrific, turned them into a story and from those stories created a book. Thanks to the magic of reading and writing, I have spent hours with him in the jungles, accompanied him during his berserk episodes, sat with him in the recovery room after the wound that got him back to civilian life, and shared some pangs of his emotions, as well as one empathetic individual can do.

By sharing his story, McGarrah has opened himself up to one of the most important elements that veterans are missing, the “communalization” of his grief. Jim McGarrah and I have shared a few hours of pain and commiseration about some of the most painful experiences a human must endure, the loss of life and love during combat. My belief is that in the process of sharing these hours, we have regained a little of what was lost.

Notes

Jim McGarrah’s “A Temporary Sort of Peace” was awarded the Legacy Nonfiction Prize for 2010 from the Eric Hoffer Foundation.

To read an exclusive interview with the author, click here.

For a readable explanation of PTSD and its treatment, read “Sanctuary” by Dr. Sandra Bloom, based on years of clinical work, mainly with survivors of systematic child abuse.

To read my essay about another traumatic memoir, “Lucky” by Alice Sebold, click here. She quotes another widely regarded source book for PTSD is “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” by Judith Herman.

Why Write Memoirs after Combat or Other Trauma

Other war memoirs:
Tracy Kidder, “My Detachment”
Tobias Wolff, “In the Pharoah’s Army”
William Manchester, “Goodbye Darkness”

Note

Many soldiers walk away from deadly injury and regain their sense of purpose. For “Shades of Darkness” author, George Brummell, the post-war challenges of coping with his blindness became his urgent task, and he went on to increase his education, and become director of the Blinded Veterans Association.

Memoirs of people who have crashed and burned are not just about soldiers. Many of life’s most severe problems dismantle the sense of self that keeps us safe. In this article I talk about four people who walked into traps of various sorts and felt their lives becoming dismantled.

More about the psychological trauma of war
Jonathan Shay says that an important contribution to a soldier’s unraveling is a sense of betrayal, that the organization is not protecting him. For example, faulty weapons in Vietnam were interpreted as a sign that the military really wanted the soldiers to die. I knew that most Vietnam soldiers felt betrayed by the lack of civilian support, but I was surprised to learn that many soldiers hated the officers who were directing them in battle. The hatred was based on the belief that decisions were made more for the officer’s own career advancement than on the safety of soldiers or effective military strategy. Shay suggests this attitude about rear-echelon officers had a parallel in the Iliad. In ancient mythology the gods on Mount Olympus manipulated the outcome of the battle based on childish selfish desires.

The soldiers in Homer’s time used mythology and rituals to appease the gods. Modern soldiers have no such talismans. Once a modern soldier becomes convinced “The System” is capricious, irrational, and malevolent, they cross into a state of alienation from society and authority, and many of them carry this alienation back with them when they return home. Such betrayal from above undermines the basis for a sane, healthy energetic involvement in society.

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

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

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

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