Is your memoir Boomer Lit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

See my essay about Jim McGarrah’s Vietnam combat memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Book of Short Stories Expands My Memoir Collection

by Jerry Waxler

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

I consider myself a “non-literary” reader, by which I mean that I prefer my stories told with minimum literary flare, and maximum emphasis on the power of the story. My desire for narrative stories has been endlessly satisfied by hundreds of book-length memoirs, but I have not been nearly so successful finding stories of shorter length.

In shorter stories, there is simply not enough space to build a close relationship between reader and writer. To compensate for this lack of space, most of the short life stories I have come across create power by using tricky detours, leaps, metaphors, and dream-like inserts. For example, here’s one such story that turns a summer job into a wild ride, packed with emotional storms, search for identity, and comic images.

Most of the time, I find that too much reliance on literary technique distracts me from my desire for a straightforward journey, and so, I stick with the longer form. Recently, though, I decided to expand my horizons and take a look at an anthology The Times They Were a Changing, edited by Linda Joy Myers, Amber Lea Starfire and Kate Farrell. The book contains narratives by women who were coming of age during the late sixties and early seventies.

After the first story, I quickly changed from skeptic to believer. Every page compelled me to move to the next, and by the end, I felt satisfied by the entire experience. As I do after every memoir I read, I ask myself why it worked. In this case, I had to ask that question not about an individual story, but about the whole collection, and found two principle reasons why the collection grabbed my attention at the beginning and satisfied me by the end.

First, I wondered how each entry makes up for its short length without reliance on intense literary technique. The answer is that each one focuses on the powerful crucible of some life-changing event. The intensity of the events carry me with gut-wrenching power. I have lots of experience with life-changing events. In my memoir classes for beginners, after I coach students to dredge their minds for anecdotes, the stories that emerge first are often the memories they have bottled up for years. These are peak moments that don’t make good conversation, fraught with embarrassment, humiliation, fear, and confrontation. Such memories seethe silently under the surface, and when I say “Go ahead and write,” they burst onto paper. The anthology, The Times They Were a Changing contains a whole book full of these burning moments.

In each story, I travel with an author into one intense moment in the feminine version of the 60s counterculture. If this was a book-length memoir, I would expect to turn the page and accompany the same author to the next step. However, in the anthology, I turn the page to someone else’s key event. And even though all the stories occurr around the same era, the experiences they report are drastically different. Here is an abbreviated list of topics:

Motorcycle gangs in the midst of flower children
Rock band groupie in a one-night stand
Birth of modern Feminism
Workplace inequality
Out-of-body drug experience
Defying Dad
Sit-ins for women’s equality in the university
Pregnancy and abortion
Hitch hiking
Radical politics

Despite their excellence and intensity, the individual short stories still don’t provide me with the immersion of a book-length memoir. A book allows me to forget my own world and enter the world of the writer. These short stories, when standing on their own, would feel too isolated, like snips of a life rather than deep sharing. However, when they all hang together in one collection, they are transformed into parts of a larger work.

That’s the second way The Times They Were a Changing creates fullness from these short pieces. Like a pointillist painting whose individual dots add up to a beautiful image, the collection combines individual stories into a worldview-shifting insight into the experience of growing up female in the 60s.

By juxtaposing this variety of perspectives, the editors have created a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This anthology is a compelling, satisfying reading experience that sets a high bar for the emerging genre of life story collections.

Suggestions for Writers

In addition to good reading material, the stories in this anthology offer excellent teaching moments. Each story has a beginning, middle, and end, with many variations of subject, emotional challenge, and pacing to name just a few of their distinctive characteristics. To develop your own expertise as a life story writer, consider the collection as a set of writing prompts to trigger you to write your own exciting, life changing story. Try this. Write a short story using each entry in Times They Were a Changing as a writing prompt. For example, write:

A story about a brief romantic encounter.
A story about your scariest next door neighbor
A story about a date gone desperately wrong
A story about a rebellious confrontation with a parent
The rudest, most demeaning treatment you received on a job
A time you were transported by drugs, music, trauma, or love to leave your body
The most pride (perhaps mixed with anger and fear) you ever felt when standing up for your rights
The most humiliated you ever felt with your parents
A creepy, immoral, or illegal thing you did in your youth that you have never told anyone before. (You could burn this one after you write it. Or better yet, read it in your memoir critique group.)

Perhaps a reader would not find each story satisfying by itself. But when arranged in chronological order and presented as a collection, the pieces add up. Perhaps like Times They Were a Changing, the stories in your anthology will create an overall understanding of your life. And with additional focus on transitions, you might even turn your collection into a memoir.

Notes

For a humorous example of a memoir composed of short stories all related to one author’s relationship to spicy food, read Sharon Lippincott’s Adventures of a Chilehead.

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

Read more about the authors by clicking here.

Click here for more about the themes in Times They Were a Changing

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 Boomers Should Write Memoirs about the 60s

by Jerry Waxler

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

When my parents were growing up in Philadelphia during the Roaring Twenties, they went home at the end of the day to parents who spoke Yiddish or heavily accented English. I wish I could understand their second-generation immigrant experience, or what life was like during the Great Depression or World War II. Millions of boomers share my curiosity about their parents but few of us have begun to record our own stories. When I ask people why not write a memoir, I hear all sorts of reasons. “I’m too busy.” “I don’t know how.” “My experience was similar to millions of others.” “If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand.” I know all these objections already. In order to write my memoir, I had to push through them myself.

I knew that people who had not lived through that period relied on clichés with lots of hair, dope, and rock and roll. But these images from movie and music snips and bits of conversation around the dinner table are not like reading a memoir. In a memoir, the author carefully crafts the world as they saw it, creating the ambiance of the times. I think the word “story” ought to be capitalized the way God is, because a Story invites the reader to set aside their own world and enter the author’s. Once inside, clichés disappear, replaced by unique, authentic responses to specific circumstances. This is true even for books that cover the same general circumstances.

Amid the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read, I have often seen the same themes repeated. I’ve read several books about young girls growing up in small towns, children coming to terms with their mixed-race identity, adoptees trying to understand which family is the real one, mothers trying to raise a child with intellectual challenges, and so on. Despite their similarities, each person has their own life and tells their own story.

Even though millions of my peers experienced the iconic events of the 60s, my exact story was my own, a drama with the specific circumstances of being me, my reactions, my observations, my careening path. So I set aside the fear that someone else has already published my life and I begin to write.

When I start, crazy memories spring out of hiding and clutch at me. At first I’m afraid that revealing emotional moments might make me seem like a victim, a dupe, or a confused bundle of nerves. I want to stuff my memories back into their cave. Then I think of my parents who remained hidden, and I think of my respect for the memoir authors who have welcomed me into their lives, and I press on.

The first story I share in a writing group describes a violent anti-war riot in Madison, Wisconsin in 1967. I wonder if listeners will judge me for the quality of the writing or for my naïve choices and raw emotions. But no one in the group expresses disdain and many express appreciation so I continue to write. Soon, I find myself deep in the darkness that enveloped me after the riots. When I realized how hopeless I felt to change the world or understand my role in it, I turned toward nihilism, embracing the notion that Nothing Matters with religious conviction.

I sit at my computer during my morning writing hours, looking back on that period and trying to make sense of it. Then for the rest of the day, I set those feelings aside and go about my pleasant, upbeat life. My writing desk gives me a vantage point from which I can understand far more about those times than I had any hope of doing while I was living through them.

However, being willing to face the past was only the beginning. As a novice storyteller, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever capture those feelings on paper. After I took a few memoir classes and started to develop a sense of chronology and scene-building, a larger story began to emerge. I remember my first days in Madison, Wisconsin, transplanted to the teeming campus from my quiet Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, I see a bookish young man who wanted two things: to become a doctor and to understand Absolute Truth. I didn’t know how dangerous my search would  be.

A perfect storm of cultural upheaval was brewing on the horizon: the Pill; the threat of the draft; a divisive, frantic, anti-war effort that inherited a sense of righteousness from the recent civil rights movement; affordable air travel; access to hallucinogenic drugs; eroding authority of organized religion and the influx of eastern mysticism. As each wave of change arrived, I tried to adapt. But like a boxer who must face a new opponent in each round, I ran out of fight, and went down — at one point, literally, after being attacked by a group of boys who wanted long-haired troublemakers like me to go back east where we belonged.

Hundreds of millions of people experienced their own version of those times, storing endless reels of movies in their minds. I imagine boomers all over the world occasionally pulling out one of their reels. If they have no reason to examine it more closely, they quickly return it to its shelf. If they attempt to write a memoir, they look more carefully at the scenes, and begin to place isolated events into context.

Gradually, the sequences add up. I see the influences of parents, culture, substances and desires, insecurities, and all the other things that make me human. Between the peaks and troughs, the glue of normalcy holds it together from day to day. And I begin to see how the shocks in one chapter lead to character development in the next. After setbacks, I find strength, courage, and eventually even wisdom. As happens in all good stories, the protagonist grew. A life that has been translated into a story transcends memory and achieves the richness of its many dimensions.

The harder I work to craft events so they make sense to a reader, the more they make sense to me. Or maybe “make sense” is too strong. They become more integrated. I learn to accept them as part of the continuous process of being me. I become more comfortable “in my own skin” or more accurately, more comfortable in my own memories. Converting memories from a jangle of isolated snaps into a coherent story is rewarding. It’s challenging. It leads to wholeness.

In the early stages of my writing, I am struck by the depressing self-inflicted immolation of my academic ambition. However, storytelling doesn’t stop with the problems. A good story takes both reader and author beyond the setbacks to the resurrection that comes next. So I look beyond the 60s. What new person emerged from the ashes of the old? For that, I explore the spiritual and religious dimensions of my life.

In Madison, Wisconsin, I went to classes surrounded by 30,000 kids, many of them blond, the vast majority of them northern European and Christian. Desperate to feel accepted, I felt swept up in the possibility of becoming part of that herd. If being Jewish separated me from them, I would separate myself from feeling Jewish.

Without knowing the far reaching effects of my defiance, I distanced myself from religion. As a result, I could no longer turn to the absolute moral authority that had guided my parents. Like many of my peers, I struggled to find my own direction. The first leg of the quest led straight into the abyss. Then, when I thought I could go no lower, I found a spiritual belief system in which everything mattered. That was the beginning of a period of rebuilding, during which I had to figure out how to live a meaningful life under the aegis of spiritual rather than religious principles.

As I search for my story, I return to my curiosity about my parents. All I knew about them was summed up in a couple of clichés about immigrants and the Great Depression, but I knew nothing about their specific, day-to-day circumstances. I wonder if reading their memoir would have brought us closer to each other during my own transition, perhaps even giving me a safety-net that would have softened my fall. I’ll never know how it would have changed my past, but as I put my story together, I gain a renewed appreciation for the challenges that each of us faced. My parents had to figure out how to cross the threshold into adulthood and so did I. By seeing the story of my own transition, I am drawn closer to theirs.

In the age of memoirs, more of us are taking the time to look back and develop the stories of our lives. By openly exploring the experiences of our youth, we can learn about the common humanity that binds us to our parents. And by leaving our stories for the next generation, our children will have a far greater ability to appreciate the context from which they have come.

Notes
For a memoir that shared the journey from organized religion to spirituality, read Frank Schaeffer’s, Crazy for God. It tells of his childhood, with an intense belief in Christianity, as guided by the wildly innovative interpretations of his parents, then into the intense certainty of the religious right, and finally to a journey to find his own inner guiding light.

Another memoir that reveals the journey from absolute religion to trust in an individual relationship with God: Carlos Eire’s Learning to Die in Miami

Three memoirs about black and white parents
Barack Obama’s Dreams of Our Fathers,
James McBride’s Color of Water
Rebecca Walker’s Black White and Jewish

Books that Search for the Life of an Ancestor
James McBride, Color of Water
Andrew X. Pham, Eaves of Heaven
Karen Alaniz, Breaking the Code
Jeanette Walls, Half Broke Horses
Linda Austin, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight

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.

Matched pair of memoirs show both sides of addiction

by Jerry Waxler

Addicts often think of their affliction as a victimless crime, but these two memoirs show both sides of the story. “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff  is written from the father’s point of view, while “Tweak” by Nic Sheff tells the son’s tragic journey through meth addiction. The dual vantage point provides a stunning insight into the corrosive effect drugs have on users and their families.

In the father’s memoir, David watches his son start out full of joy and creativity. Sneaking into a liquor cabinet, the son’s first experiment with substances started when he was 11 years-old, and keeps getting worse, accelerating out of control when he tries crystal meth. As his focus narrows to one thing only, he gives up everything he values, every morsel of sanity and pride. Neglecting responsibility to his parents, siblings, and his own value system, he steals, prostitutes, and deals. With each bad decision he falls deeper into the hole and drags down everyone who loves him.

Details vary from one substance to another. Some make you numb, or buzzed, or make you feel in communion with the cosmos. Others break social inhibitions. Whatever the particular effect, they all share one thing. They make you feel like you’ve wrested control away from adults. Now you can shift your state of mind at will. At first it feels like you have become the ruler of your own destiny.

It takes time for the harm to emerge from behind its glittering mask, by which time the damage is done. Broken relationships. Lost opportunities. And the risks intensify. Car crashes, loss of mental functioning, the quick death of overdosing or the slow death of disease. Nic’s dad pleaded and threatened his son. Nic retorted, “You did it and you turned out okay.” Then he slipped out of reach. Swearing he wasn’t using or would never do it again, he continued tripping and scheming, lost inside himself.

The wildcard in these youthful experiments is addiction, a neurological response that the user never anticipates. Once the brain becomes dependent, the drug that started out like glorious freedom reveals its cruel intentions. Hijacking the brain’s pleasure center, drugs and alcohol shift the user’s attention from the will to live towards a single-minded goal of getting high.

Finally, after sinking close to death, Nic tried to get clean. He succeeded for a while, built his life back, and then kept relapsing. Critics argue that relapse proves rehabs are a sham, a con, a waste of money. On the other hand, there are so few things society can do for addicts, and rehab seems like one of the best. My experience is that people come out of these programs knowing so much more about themselves and their addiction than they knew when they went in. It takes time to put the knowledge into practice.

Nic’s memoir “Tweak” begins in the midst of a horrific relapse. Despite all his effort, he was right back at the bottom. And even in this degrading state, Dad kept trying to raise his son out of hell. Their combined effort provided them both a deeper, stronger foundation on which to build permanent sobriety and mutual understanding. The two books propose we take another look at rehab. Instead of seeing relapse as defeat, look at it as a series of stumbles from which the addict can arise, and eventually look back on these terrible valleys as stages along the road to victory.

How can you preach if you really did try drugs and alcohol?

When I was a college student in the sixties, my peers and I believed drugs gave us a front row seat to Truth. From our stoned vantage point, we knew beyond doubt we could see straight to the heart of Reality, and that we were far more insightful than the poor fools who were not under the influence. It took me years to realize the smoke was merely creating the illusion of wisdom, leading me to believe I was smart, while step by step I abandoned my beliefs and ambitions. Following a direction that makes no sense to my sober mind today, I made a series of impractical and self-destructive decisions, harming myself gladly, stranding myself on the precipice of oblivion.

I can’t imagine what pain my parents must have suffered as I pushed away from them. Now, as I draft my memoir, I gain a new appreciation for this whole story, seeing who I was before I was smoking and then who I became after. The overview shows me that “harmless” marijuana damaged my life by letting me profoundly alter my belief system without bothering to check with people who had lived longer and seen more. After I cleared away the clouds and saw where I had gone wrong, I could never regain what I had thrown away, so like all fallen addicts, I started from where I had fallen and continued marching forward.

Lean on each other
During the descent, Dad leans on his professional journalism experience for support, interviewing experts and clutching to their information and advice, desperate to regain control. The news was never good. According to the experts whom David Sheff consults, crystal meth is the most destructive, most addictive drug, with the most relapses and the worst statistics of early death. What happens to someone like Nic, so full of promise and so deeply invested in getting high that his addiction pushed away all sense and advice? Nic kept hearing that the only escape was through the Twelve Step Programs, and even though he didn’t want to, he was finally desperate enough to try. The Twelve Steps gradually seeped in.

Nic’s sponsor said, “Call me whenever you need me” and when Nic was able to bust through the hypnotic spell of temptation, the phone call worked. Spence talked him through to the next minute and the next day. Mentoring made a huge difference in Nic’s life, and is one of the reasons the Twelve Steps are so powerful. As the grand finale of their own journey out of addiction, Twelve Steppers learn to pass on what they’ve learned. As a writer, Nic has a way to spread the message farther than he could one-on-one. Through his book and his blog, he tells his story to thousands.

Addicts are not the only ones who have a valuable perspective about life. And therein lies the crux of memoir writing. By sharing our experience, all memoir writers have the possibility of offering some wisdom to the world, helping other people learn from our experience, hopefully saving them from the necessity of making the same mistakes themselves.

Click here to visit the Amazon page for “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff

Click here to visit the Amazon page for “Tweak” by Nic Sheff

Click here to visit Nic Sheff’s Blog

Click here to read my essay about the relationship between The Twelve Steps and Memoir Writing

Note
This healing power of service pervades many thought systems. In particular, is Frankl’s idea that all of human suffering can be helped by living a life with a higher purpose. For more, read Frankl’s landmark memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

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