These Memoirs Are Similar to Biographies

by Jerry Waxler

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

This article continues the series inspired by Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness about raising her daughter through a maddening cycle of rebellion. For the first article in the series, click here

Rachel Pruchno wrote her memoir, Surrounded by Madness, at the intersection between a memoir and a biography. As a memoir, it is a first person account of a mother trying to raise a troubled daughter. As a biography, it records in detail that daughter’s journey through the first 18 years of life. This hybrid approach to memoir writing provides an important example of a structure that has been used by other memoirs and might give you some ideas about how to write yours.

All of us have intimate, long term relationships, for example, with parents, siblings, partners, friends, children, and colleagues. In many memoirs, these characters slip into the background. A husband or mother might be mentioned but never even have a speaking role in the drama. Other memoirs promote these characters into the limelight, sharing the stage, or sometimes even turning the stage over to the other character entirely.

Here’s an example of a memoir that focuses so much attention on the central figure that the author becomes almost invisible. In the memoir, Reading my Father, Alexandra Styron tells the story of her father, the famous novelist William Styron. She herself plays a minor role. Miranda Seymour’s memoir Thrumpton Hall is also mainly about her father. She tells of his obsession with his English Country estate, and in the process, allows us to see both her father and the fate of the gentry in the twentieth century. But we don’t learn much about her.

Some memoirs hover in the space between the two people. When James McBride attempted to figure out his heritage, his memoir Color of Water investigated his mother’s life as a Jew growing up in the south before she married a black man and moved up north. The memoir is about the son’s attempt to find his own truths, by learning more about hers.

A Dark and Troubling Journey

Rachel Pruchno’s story is a far more complex application of the “memoir as a biography” – As her daughter’s story proceeds, we are forced to face the fact that the person at the center of the story is so disturbing, we actually need a bridge back to sanity. And we use the storyteller as that bridge.

To stay hopeful, we readers are accustomed to link our destinies to the sane characters who walk away from the rubble. In the classic novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, readers maintain sanity by sticking with the chronicler, Ishmael, rather than the crazy main character, Ahab. Similarly, in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the teller of the tale offers the reader a bridge from the despair of the story to the survival of the storyteller.

Most of the memoir, Surrounded by Madness is about Rachel Pruchno’s daughter’s out-of-control behavior, and a mother who constantly strives to help the daughter get back on track. Just as in Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness, the final truth rests with the storyteller, rather than with the story’s central character.

In another example, Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, the initial story is about the life of her son, a brilliant young musician. As he falls prey to Bipolar Disorder, the emphasis shifts from raising him to trying to save him. Unlike Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness, the breakdown occurs early enough for readers to gain a clear understanding of what happens next. After her son’s suicide the memoir is all about the mother’s grieving and growing. In this sense, only the first part of the book is semi-biographical, and the second part is a hundred percent memoir.

More Approaches to the Memoir and Biography Hybrid

Many memoir writers are curious to learn the stories of their parents’ earlier lives. I’ve already mentioned Alexandra Styron’s portrayal of her famous father in Reading My Father. As a youngest child, rarely invited into the private life of her father, she saw his fame from a distance. To learn about him, she studied his papers, similar to the way any historian would have learned about him. And Miranda Seymour, author of Thrumpton Hall, also researched her father’s life by reviewing his diary. James McBride’s research in Color of Water feels like the work of a drowning man, who can only be saved by figuring out his mother. Setting aside for a moment that Barak Obama is president of the United States, his memoir Dreams of Our Fathers captures a young man’s thirst to understand his roots. All of these authors invested years of creative research and writing to make better sense of their parents.

Karen Fisher Alaniz is another daughter who tries to understand her father. She discovers  he has been so secretive about his World War II experiences because of the fact that he was involved in military secrets, and even half a century after the classified information could be used by the enemy, he still felt constrained by orders. The memoir, Breaking the Code, is a fascinating example of the way secrets separate people. The author’s instinct to break through the secrets in the final years of her father’s life offers a beautiful demonstration of that curiosity many of us feel about the lives of our parents.

In another story by a daughter, Susan Erikson Bloland grew up feeling jealous and ashamed by the fact that the public knew her father better than she did. Her memoir In the Shadow of Fame is not so much about the famous psychologist Erik Erikson as it is about the damaging effects of fame on the self esteem of the other members of the family.

Some writers want so badly to tell their parent’s story they create ghost written accounts. These first person “memoirs”, written by children in the voice of the parent, provide an extreme example of a child’s desire to understand a parent’s earlier life. Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Linda Austen, is a ghost written account of a woman growing up in Japan before World War II, marrying an American serviceman, and moving to the United States. And Eaves of Heaven was written by Andrew X. Pham as a ghost-written memoir about his father’s life growing up in Vietnam, surviving the hardships of colonialism, rebellion, and imprisonment. Both stories were based on extensive interviews.

Friend or Companion

When memoirs are about a friend, spouse or companion, the story is more a biography of the relationship than of the person. For example, Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell is as much about the friendship between two women as it is about the other woman. In a more troubling memoir about a relationship, Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner is about her relationship with an abusive husband.

In two memoirs, a wife has lost a husband, and tells about that relationship from beginning to end. Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener is the biography of her relationship with her husband, from courtship, to his early demise, and then through her grieving. Naked: Stripped by a Man and Hurricane Katrina by Julie Freed includes a biography of her relationship with her husband, and then her struggle to make sense of that relationship after he leaves her.

An unusual account of a relationship is Father Joe, The Man Who Saved My Faith by Tony Hendra. The memoir is the relationship between Hendra and his spiritual mentor. Like any memoir, it provides an opportunity to share a slice of life that readers might not have experienced. Tony Hendra’s mentor is a monk, and the memoir provides a peek into a monastery, a sort of atavistic example of an ancient tradition of men living apart and devoting their lives to God.

The Other Character Is Not Always Human

Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg is by the famous researcher of a famous parrot. Pepperberg’s groundbreaking research into the linguistic aptitude of the parrot escaped the limits of scientific journals and went public, giving the world insight into the uncanny brilliance of the African Gray parrot. The memoir offers fascinating a glimpse into the personal relationship between the two creatures.

Similarly Marley and Me by John Grogan tells the story of a relationship with a dog. The ensemble cast includes the whole family, but throughout the story, it’s clear that the dog is the star.

Less famously, Oogie, a Dog Only a Family Could Love by Larry Levin creates a similar effect. This memoir adds gravitas to dog ownership by mixing in issues of dog fighting, and also creating a loving environment for two adopted boys.

Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him by Luis Carlos Montalvan is about a veteran who suffers from PTSD and how his relationship to a service dog helps him regain his dignity. Saddled by Susan Richards is a memoir about her life, with an emphasis on the healing effects of caring for her horse.

Conclusion

As you develop ideas about your own memoir in progress, consider your other characters. Perhaps one of them deserves top billing in the title, or in a different telling of the same story, you could portray the character’s influence from offstage. Or you might find that your best story is a hybrid, hovering between yourself and the other character or switching from one to the other. When Rachel Pruchno started writing her memoir, Surrounded by Madness, she focused almost entirely on her daughter. As the story reached a conclusion, the focus shifted, and suddenly the author took center stage. Similarly, Madeline Sharples first wrote about her son, and then shifted emphasis to herself. These creative decisions are determined both by the specific events of your life and by your goals in writing your memoir. By reviewing the wide range of possible structures offered by memoirs you read, you can open your imagination to the story that best expresses who you are and what story you want to share with the world.

Writing Prompt

What one main character in your memoir might zoom up into center stage? Write a synopsis of the memoir as if it was about this one other character, or about the relationship with this person.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website
Madeline Sharple’s website
Susan Weidener’s website
Karen Fisher Alaniz’s website
Julie Freed’s website

 

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

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

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

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

Ten Things to Learn from a Combat Memoir, Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

In David Bellavia’s memoir, “House to House,” he shares the life of a modern soldier and in the process extends my understanding of the memoir genre. In this second part of my essay about the book, I offer more lessons that I learned from the book, and a few writing prompts to help you apply these lessons to your own memoir in progress.

Click here for part 1

Memoir as trauma debriefing or confessional

Mental health care workers are trained to administer a type of mental-first-aid called trauma debriefing, in which victims are encouraged to talk about the horror. The technique is supposed to help them assimilate the experience more effectively. I believe that writing a book has a similar therapeutic effect. To write your story, you expose events that had become trapped inside your mind. Writing a memoir allows you to find your words, and to share those words with interested readers.

Of course, a good story has to go beyond these introspective goals. A memoir has a responsibility to please a reader with a satisfying overall story arc, and a character who learns lessons through the course of his journey. With craft, a good memoir can achieve both goals.

What is Bellavia’s character arc? Throughout House to House, the author struggled with the intense emotions of the hunter and the hunted. Later, when he recounts his story, he doesn’t offer philosophical lessons. Instead, he looks for his own emotional truths. I did not blame Bellavia for failing to resolve the problems of war. Instead, I accepted that he needed to find his own inner peace. Like William Manchester’s Pacific War memoir, “Goodbye Darkness,” the lesson seemed to be that he survived, that he was brave, and that somehow, someday, he would be able to get his demons to back off.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene in which you found emotional relief by telling a story.

Fear is a dangerous master

The author joins the army to prove to himself and to his father that he is not a coward. His need to prove his lack of fear drives him into situations so dangerous even he admits they blur the line between courage and recklessness. His finest hour might, in retrospect, have been his most foolish.

Writing Prompt
When did fear force you to make a hasty decision?

Paradox of a soldier’s family life

In order to prove his manliness on the battlefield, Bellavia, or any soldier, must withdraw his presence from his wife and child, thus offering one manly service at the expense of another. As his tour of duty drew to a close, he decided that the pendulum had swung too far towards country and he chose to move back to family. The author never claims to identify the right path through this dilemma. However he does an excellent job of exploring the paradox and lets us accompany him through his own heartache about it.

Writing Prompt
When did you have to choose between two roles, and then realize it was time for the pendulum to swing back?

No atheists in fox holes

Enemy soldiers scream out to Allah to help them defeat these foreign invaders. The prayers unnerve Bellavia and his men. Whose side is God on anyway? In response, Bellavia screams prayers, too, appealing to his own God. The outburst is another example of the soldier’s interior process in the thick of battle, and a demonstration of the old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes.

When he faces the most dangerous situation imaginable, running back into a house from which he has a good chance of not leaving alive, he prays more quietly, trying to find a spiritual place within himself where he can accept death.

Writing Prompt
What situation forced you to remember God?

Boys trying to cross into manhood

Poet and philosopher Robert Bly, the famous popularizer of male mythology, observes that societies throughout history have implemented warrior-rituals to help males make the transition from boy to man. Nowadays, boys grab any method they can find, whether it’s jumping into a gang, going hunting with Dad, or excelling at sports. Many other boys, especially nerds like me, flounder without rituals, never sure how they will know when or if they are entitled to adopt the title “man.”

Bellavia’s memoir “House to House” is filled with young men attempting to face their fear and develop their courage on the battlefield. They are following one of the classic methods for moving from boy to man.

Writing Prompt
What major milestones marked your crossing from child to adult? (sex, career, respect from peers, drugs or alcohol, education, independence, home, etc.)

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by David Bellavia

Notes
William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness about the Pacific war.

Essay: How Boys Become Men? (Hint: Memoirs Help)

Click here for my post on George Brummell’s memoir, Shades of Darkness about growing up in Jim Crow  south, injured in Vietnam, and reclaiming his dignity in adulthood

Click here for my interview with Jim McGarrah author of “A Temporary Sort of Peace” about the trauma of his combat tour in Vietnam

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.

Ten Things to Learn From a Combat Memoir, Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

Most of us have never been in combat, and the exposure we do have is through news clips or war movies. Typically, the real events are locked away inside the troubled memories of those who have actually been there. Memoirs change that, giving us an insider’s view of the moment by moment events and sensations of war.

The memoir “House to House” by David Bellavia is a gritty account of urban combat in Fallujah, Iraq. At first I avoided Bellavia’s memoir, not sure I wanted to immerse myself in danger, bad smells, edgy trigger fingers, and enormous suffering. In the end I realized that at the very least, reading the book would help me relate to veterans, and would give me another glimpse into the creative journey of transforming life into story. When I started to read, the book glued me to my seat.

Most of the book takes place within the span of a couple of days during a brutal firefight. It expanded my understanding of combat, building on other memoirs I’ve read such as David Manchester’s “Goodbye Darkness,” about his experience in the Pacific invasions of World War II and James McGarrah’s memoir, “A Temporary Peace” about his experience in Vietnam. Here are 10 ways the book deepened my understanding of the world.

Cultivate communication between civilians and combat soldiers

During war, we pay soldiers to kill in the defense of our society. When warriors return to this society they often feel out of place, unwilling to speak openly about the most intense experiences in their lives. In most family settings, the violence of their memories would not make good dinner conversation. Fortunately, there is no such restriction against writing about it. By writing the story, warriors share what they’ve seen, and provide us all with words that can help us reach out to each other.

If you want to understand military combatants, read this book. It’s a guided tour of the thought process and circumstances of fear, power, explosions, and insane levels of human discomfort required in combat and it will provide you with insight into the mind of a warrior.

Writing prompt
What extreme or specialized experience have you had in your life that other people wouldn’t understand unless they had been there? Write a scene from such an experience. Even though the first draft might feel sketchy, imagine being able to polish it to really be able to allow readers to be in that experience with you.

Support for the affirmation “I’m not in Iraq”

Early in the Iraq invasion, my wife and I saw interviews with U.S. National Guard troops who enlisted before the war because they thought it would be a great way to spend weekends with friends. After being deployed to Iraq, their weekends turned mean with 110 degree summers, no showers and people shooting at them. Based on our empathy, my wife and I developed a system of coping with petty annoyances. If dinner burned or one of us was caught in traffic we said “we’re not in Iraq” to indicate that our challenges were minor compared with those soldiers. “House to House” reinforces this notion, making it impossible to complain about almost any discomfort.

Hatred for Military Commanders Was Not Just Limited to Vietnam

According to military psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, M.D. one reason that Vietnam Vets suffered so terribly from cynicism after the war was because of their hatred for the officers who sent them into battle. Their hatred poisoned them not only for the duration of the war, but after their return, as well. How could they serve a society which allowed such odious monsters to ruin their lives? After reading House to House, I realize the phenomenon was not limited to Vietnam. Bellavia apparently hated his officers just as much. This chilling information could provide important insight for anyone who wants to understand the spectrum of pain that runs through a veteran’s mind.

Humans as thinking predators

When the author hunted for insurgents in an abandoned home, his prey was also hunting for him. Despite all their body armor, automated weapons and communications devices, when you strip it down to raw emotions, each soldier is trying to become the hunter, not the hunted. It’s a primal part of life as a human animal, and worth reading if you want to understand the range of experience of being a soldier.

Action-packed memoir

Action movies and books lead you through a series of adrenaline-charged scenes. Memoirs, by contrast, usually take place in a psychological dimension, with a protagonist worrying not about exploding bombs but about hopes and fears. I usually think of action stories as being the opposite of memoirs. However, “House to House” defies my simplified categories. It’s a memoir that contains the wild, life threatening, and fast paced action of an adventure novel.

During the action, we see the world as he saw it, and listen to his inner dialog as he faces his fear. His exhortations to himself are fascinating. “You must do this,” he screams at himself to psych himself up. “Focus! Think! Snap out of it,” he screams when his mind is flooded with terror. This inner view during the heat of battle adds a psychological dimension to a mainly action-oriented story and demonstrates the astonishing range of human experience that can take place within a memoir.

Writing Prompt
List the scenes in your memoir that would create adrenaline if your reader could experience it the way you did.  For example, consider accidents, assaults, performances, embarrassing moments, first loves, betrayals, etc.

Click here for Part 2

Notes

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by David Bellavia

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.

Mom of Troubled Teens Tells Her Side of the Story

by Jerry Waxler

After Debra Gwartney’s divorce she packed up her two kids and moved a thousand miles to try to get them away from their father. She thought she was “starting over.” The new start however, was the beginning of a nightmare. In “Live Through This,” Gwartney recounts how her two daughters, age 12 and 14, dropped out of school, took drugs and slept in crash houses. With their tattoos, body piercings and heavy black makeup, Mom hardly recognized them. When she tried to reel them in, they withdrew further, until finally they hopped a freight train and moved to a different city.

There were many reasons I was interested in the story. For one thing, in my early twenties, I went through my own extreme rebellion, living in a garage on food stamps and not speaking to my parents for a year. In all the years since, I never tried to make sense of it from my parents’ point of view. Reading about another mom who watched her children fall apart revealed the other side of the story.

A parent suffering through the rebellion of a child is an important, under-reported facet of family life. Most kids rebel to some extent, and despite all the suffering and confusion that parents must feel, most of the social attention to the matter is limited to half measures and shared confusion. “Live Through This” provides a parent’s eye view of an emotional wrenching experience, as these girls hurl back in their mother’s face the life she was trying to build for them.

In addition to letting us see the girl’s bad behavior, Gwartney describes her own, including some glaring flaws in her parenting. She didn’t just break up with the girls’ father. She hated him so much she took the girls a thousand miles away, and throughout the hell of their rebellion she continued to do everything she could to turn them against their father. The story ought to be used as a textbook of how not to behave. And yet, while having screwed up so profoundly, Gwartney simply lets it all hang out.

In the book, she does not try to recruit us to hate her husband. She allows us to make our own decision. Nor does she justify her behavior in  a flurry of self-analysis and defense. She just tells the story. This turns out to be one of the hallmarks of powerful memoir writing. Tell the story and let the reader go for the ride. From that point of view, “Live Through This” is impeccable storytelling.

However, there is an aspect of the storytelling that aspiring memoir writers can learn from. Gwartney played fast and loose with chronology, as if she threw the pages up in the air, and didn’t take the time to assemble them correctly. In the middle of one scene, the narrative morphed into another time frame, and then from there, she might hop backward or forward, so quickly and with so little warning, I often lost track of where I was. She made me work far too hard to figure out where we were in time and space. Through the lurches, I kept reading because I loved  the underlying story. But it would have been far more enjoyable if she had held me hand and led me through the journey with more authority and grace.

Of course, storytelling does allow some breaks in chronological sequence, but to keep the reader immersed in suspension of disbelief, the author must deftly transition from one time frame to another. This usually involves far fewer leaps than there are in “Live Through This.” For example, in “Ten Points” by Bill Strickland, the author guides me through two well-defined time frames. In the present, the author attempted to win a cycling race. Inside himself, another story played out, in which he confronted the demons of his childhood. At all times, Strickland artfully let me know which timeframe I was in, and both stories, the cycling one in the present and the disturbing childhood scenes in the past let me maintain my sense of suspense, a sign of an effective technique.

In addition to well constructed flashbacks, another out-of-sequence technique is the essay-like focus that occasionally crops up in memoirs. For example, in the coming of age story “A Girl Named Zippy” by Haven Kimmel, the book is a chronological account of the author’s childhood. However, it is not strictly in order, and that’s okay because she controls my attention using other devices. For example, in one chapter, she focuses on the shenanigans of a particular friend. It is a gentle, barely discernible shift from story into essay style. Another example is “Seven Wheelchairs,” Gary Presley’s mainly chronological account of coming to terms with life from a seated position. In the chapter about his relationship with wheelchairs, he jumps out of his timeline to talk about the various contraptions he has relied on for mobility. He does this effectively, and I found myself just as engaged in that chapter as I was in the story, without a sense of disruption.

In general, most stories can and in my opinion should unfold in the same sequence they were lived. When the story moves along in that order, I jump on board and go with the flow. However, according to Brian Boyd, in “On the origin of stories” humans have evolved to grasp storylines. The capability is wired into our brains and we’re good at it. My ability to stick to Debra Gwartney’s underlying dramatic tension supplies a good example of this innate strength.

Debra Gwartney’s amazing journey offered me all the benefits that I enjoy from a memoir. And then in a fabulous closing scene, one of the best final lines I’ve read in a memoir, she redeemed all flaws. A good ending makes all the pain of the journey worthwhile. In fact, this is a fundamental notion of storytelling. The story’s tension primes the reader to crave release. Then in that moment when we cross the finish line, if we feel lifted and inspired, the way I did when closing “Live Through This,” we will race to recommend it to our friends.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene from your rebellion period when you were trying to step away or differentiate from your parents. Write one scene in which you were in flagrant violation of their rules. Write another in which you tried to explain to yourself or to them why you had to “do this” even though they couldn’t understand.

Click here to visit Debra Gwartney’s home page.

Note about wrapper stories
Bill Strickland’s technique of a story in the present that helps set up a story in the past is what I call a “wrapper story.” Another example is A. M. Homes search for her own genealogical past in “Mistress’s Daughter.” In “Color of Water” James McBride searches for his mother’s history. Such memoirs maintain my attention by artfully flipping back and forth between two stories, maintaining crisp, easy-to-follow dramatic tension throughout. A famous wrapper story was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which starts with sailors on a boat telling a story. The whole book takes place in the body of the story. Then at the end, the sailors come back to recount the way it worked.

Notes about Parent memoirs
Other memoirs that took me down a parent’s road were Robert and Linda Waxler’s “Losing Jonathan” and David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy.”

Notes about favorite endings
My other two favorite endings in memoirs were Matthew Polly’s, “American Shaolin” and Joan Rivers’, “Enter Talking.”

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Self-concept and memoir – launching problems and identifying with a group

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second article in my series about using memoir reading and writing to help you understand the notion of “Self-concept” in general, and your own self-concept in particular. In a previous entry, I spoke about the initial formation of self-concept during Coming of Age. In today’s entry, I list more aspects of identity, showing how these two things, story and self-concept, merge in the pages of memoirs you read or write.

Collecting the pieces of a chaotic launch

In an ideal world, by the time we leave home, or “launch” into the world, we have a coherent sense of purpose. But many of us must try to find our place in the world armed only with a blurred picture or even a damaged one. When the story that we developed during Coming of Age doesn’t lead us towards satisfaction, we must evolve. Some authors recount long struggles to replace their confusing or misleading original self-image with a more coherent one.

Examples:
A.M. Homes, “Mistress’s Daughter.” She was comfortable with her identity, until her biological mother contacts her and throws her identity into confusion. She obsessively researches this new definition of herself, trying to decide if the “real” her is the daughter of this woman she is meeting for the first time, or the daughter of the adoptive parents who raised her.

Linda Joy Myers, “Don’t Call Me Mother.” Rejected by her mother, she strives to define herself. Early in her life, she reaches out to her extended family and later, she turns back to try to knit all the pieces together in her memoir. Today, the author has moved far beyond that fractured self. As a therapist and memoir teacher, she helps other people knit together the pieces of their lives. Link to Linda Joy’s blog, Link to my article about “Don’t Call Me Mother.”

Barack Obama, “Dreams from our Fathers” He was born in the American melting pot with a white mother and a black African father. The memoir recounts his search for his true identity and proves that the human spirit is capable of knitting together a coherent whole from fractured parts.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter ,”Three Little Words.” She tries to patch herself together from the crazy-quilt of life in a variety of foster homes, eventually reaching safety in an adopted home with parents who help get her back on track. She made it her mission to return to the foster system and try to heal it.

My own search to pick up the pieces
When I left home, I thought I knew myself. Soon I realized I only knew how to relate to people within my all-Jewish neighborhood. The broader world confused me and I fumbled. By the time I was 24, my grip on life had unraveled. The self I was becoming looked nothing like the self I had intended. I envied those kids who wanted something and then attained it. By failing my initial goal, I was thrown into uncertainty. What had thrown me off course? Was my failure to launch caused, as I first assumed, by the crazy 60s? Or was it more psychological than that? Perhaps I was undermined by the same gene-pool that caused my first cousin to kill himself shortly after earning his credentials as a psychiatrist. Or perhaps I had reached some invisible internal  limitations imposed on me by undiagnosed Asperger’s. Such limits social incompetence was practically invisible in my ultra-nerdy all-boys high school, but inadequate to cope with the social demands on the campus of a large state university. The quest to put the pieces back together has driven me for forty years.

Writing Prompt
What parts of yourself felt unfinished or disconnected when you went out into the world? These desires might run deep, creating a sense of purpose that runs under the surface for many years, and possibly for the rest of your life. Your memoir could help you find closure to these old dreams.

Identifying with a group

Humans are social creatures who group together, and so, when we look for ourselves, we often look for the larger group we’re part of. As Bob Dylan said, “You have to serve somebody.” In almost everyone’s life, there is a series of such attempts to identify with some group, idea, or organization, such as your ethnic group, local sports team, political party, religious affiliation. For many memoir authors, their to serve and identify play a prominent role in the protagonist’s search for self concept.

Examples:
Diane Diekman, “Navy GreenShirt.” The author spent her working life in the Navy. Her memoir is about finding her self, while serving the organization.

Ji Chaozhu, “Man on Mao’s Right.” One of Chairman Mao’s chief interpreters finds his identity through devotion to the national interests of China. Read my article about “Man on Mao’s Right.”

Donald Walters, “The Path.” Walters, one of Paramahansa Yogananda’s assistants, tells about life in the service of an Indian spiritual teacher.  My article about “The Path.”

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, “The Sky Begins at your Feet.” She shows how people in groups serve each other. From ecology groups, to writing groups, to groups of friends, the people in her life arrange themselves along lines of mutual support and striving. My interview with author Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

Who did I identify with or serve?
I have always been conflicted about my group allegiances. I first saw myself as Jewish and then poly-religious, first as an American then a citizen of the world, first an aspiring doctor, then a computer guy, a therapist, and a writer. Along the way, I have served many groups: writing groups, technical groups, spiritual groups. But serving one is never enough for me. I see them all connected somehow and try to apply lessons I learn in one to improve the workings of another, hoping somehow to learn how to individually and collectively serve the greatest possible good.

Writing Prompt
Look back through the years, and list the organizations you served. Perhaps there were hobby groups, religious or spiritual group, schools and other community activities, your job, your country, your family. Write a few paragraphs about each one. Then put them in chronological order and comment on how your attitude towards serving organizations changed over time.

Link to other articles in this series

Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Philadelphia Push To Publish, Lessons in Courage from a Writing Conference

by Jerry Waxler

For weeks I considered dedicating a precious Saturday to attend the “Push to Publish” conference, hosted by Philadelphia Stories. I enjoyed the event last year and thought I ought to do it again. Now, I needed to commit the time.

By Saturday morning my preference to meet writers won and I drove into pouring rain, to find myself back along the winding paths and elegant buildings of the Rosemont College campus on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The registration room was packed, and looking around I spotted a likely networking candidate, a young man sitting alone. “What do you write,” I asked. “A memoir,” he said. Jackpot. The memoir gods were smiling.

He was an undergrad in the English Department at University of Delaware. “People think I’m crazy to write a memoir when I’m so young.” I looked at him. “I think they’re the ones who are crazy. It’s your story. You should tell it any time you want.” Just then, a woman I knew from another regional writing group leaned in to interrupt us. “Aren’t you the memoir guy? There’s someone I want you to meet.”

I excused myself from the youngest memoir writer I’ve met, and was introduced to a woman, perhaps in her 40s, who had written about her family history. She told me a fascinating tale complete with twists and turns. “I’m finished the draft. Now, before I spend a lot of time editing it, I came to the conference to see if anyone believes I’m wasting my time.” I looked at her. Had she really come here searching for naysayers? “Ouch,” I said. “Why would anyone tell you that? And if they did, why would you believe them?” She shrugged and I moved on.

Waiting on line for coffee, the woman in front of me turned, smiled, and stuck out a hand. I clasped it in greeting, but instead of introducing herself, she pointed to the man next to her. “This is my husband. I talked him into writing a novel.” I asked her, “How did that work for you?” She said, “It was great” and they both laughed.

We sat down together to eat our continental breakfast, and I said, “I’m into memoir writing.” He said, “If I wrote about my life, it would put everyone to sleep.” I chewed my bagel and tried to imagine an entire life with no dramatic tension. Finally, I said, “It’s not about spectacular events. It’s about great story telling.”

He grew quiet. “Well, actually, I have written a couple of stories about myself.” He went on to describe an incident from his childhood that completely grabbed my attention, like I was back there with him, and we were in danger together. I said, “How could anyone fall asleep? That story is enchanting.” (No, I won’t tell it. It’s his story, not mine.)

On my walk through the rain to hear the keynote speech, I wondered, “Why do so many people think there’s something wrong with writing their own stories?” The keynote speaker, Lise Funderburg, didn’t have this problem. She published a memoir about her relationship with her father. Apparently, one of her goals as a writer is to share herself.

In fact, most of the talk consisted of tips she had learned about the writing life. For example, “You have to be okay with rejection. And that doesn’t stop. In fact, it still hurts me when I’m rejected.”

“Well,” I thought. “That’s a consistent message. Writing is hard work, with long periods of uncertainty, plenty of pain and for most of us not too much money. So, if it hurts so bad, why is this room full of people again?”

Funderburg went on to read a passage from her recently published memoir, which I have not yet had an opportunity to read, called “Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home: A Memoir.” It’s about discovering her relationship with her father while he was dying of cancer. The passage was rich in imagery, full of kindness and conveying the same sparkle in her words as danced in her eyes. At the end, I raised my hand and asked, “How did you find your voice?” She hesitated for a moment, and said, “Finding my voice was really a very long journey around a big circle until I finally came back to just being myself.”

Dodging rain drops and puddles on my way to the next section of the conference, I thought, “Even her voice is an expression of herself. No wonder it hurts to be rejected. We’re pouring ourselves out to other people. What a crazy thing to do.”

I realized that in addition to learning the art of self-expression, writers must learn courage. We imagine, we write, we polish, and then we beg gatekeepers for the opportunity to share our work with readers. But Lisa Funderburg didn’t shrivel back from the task, and her story provides one more inspiring example of a writer pushing through obstacles to reach higher goals.

Notes

Visit the Amazon Page for the memoir Pig Candy by Lise Funderburg
Lise Funderburg’s Home Page

Click here for the essay I wrote about last year’s Philadelphia Stories Conference

Teaching Memoirs, Meeting Locals, Making Memories

by Jerry Waxler

When my wife’s sister, Judy, heard that her local writing group was looking for a writing teacher, she mentioned my name. She has been encouraging us to come to visit her town, Salida, with lots of artists, tucked in a valley amidst the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. If it worked out, I could teach memoir writing, while making a few memories of my own.  The directors of the group checked out my blog and other material on my website, and we began to brainstorm about how it would work.

All the memoir classes I had taught previously were broken into two hour segments. This workshop would go for eight hours straight, so one challenge would be to tailor the course to this new format. And I worried about my stamina. Would they need to carry me out on a stretcher at the end of the day? Over the next few weeks, I worked out a class schedule that I felt would offer the same value as the individual sessions. And the best way to find out if I could survive an all-day class was to try. My wife and I agreed the Rockies would create a welcome diversion from south eastern Pennsylvania, so we said “Yes. Let’s do it.”

In September, we flew in to the Denver Airport. On our drive to Chaffee County, we stopped at Colorado Springs to walk through the Garden of the Gods, a magnificent collection of brilliant orange spires, like fingers reaching up to the sky. We only had an hour to appreciate what it had taken God a million years to create. The rest of the drive was almost as spectacular. Along the canyon of the Arkansas River, the mountain faces kept changing color and texture, as if each section had been formed during a different era. I felt like I was watching the history of the earth unfold before my eyes.

In Salida, Judy showed us around the local art shops and historical buildings. The renovated Steam Plant is the home of the theater where she volunteers, and that night she took us to a rock concert, where we listened to good quality regional rock and roll, standing or swaying on a dance floor with the locals.  The next day, we ate breakfast at Bongo Billy’s Cafe, which like the Steam Plant, is a restored historical building. On the red brick walls hang works of local art and a poster that offered, “How to Build a Global Community.” I stood there and read every suggestion, as if the poster could help me understand the heart of Salida. One rule was “Visit people, not places.” I liked that rule and thought I could honor it on this trip, starting with the 25 people who had signed up for my class.

At 8 AM the next morning, arriving early at the church where the workshop was to be held, I greeted people on their way in and asked them what they wanted to accomplish in the class. Every good story starts with desire. The personal introductions segued naturally into a formal class, in which I offered an overview of memoir writing. Then it was time to learn techniques. After the first lesson, about finding the timeline, I gave a writing prompt. “Write a scene about one of the homes you lived in.” Their heads went down, and pens moved, allowing them the opportunity to ideas into action.

When it was time to read aloud, I asked them to break into groups of three so each could read their writing to two others. The room buzzed with energy while I sat alone and planned my next module. When they were done, I spoke some more, we discussed more, and they wrote and read to their small groups. The lunch break was in the adjoining kitchen, with a feast of pot luck dishes that included salads, cookies, and fruit. And then we started again.

By mid-afternoon, we had been focusing for five hours and I was running out of energy, but I couldn’t stop now. I had to press on, in an excellent example of life imitating art. The next lesson was about the long middle of a story, which could become bogged down in the passage of time. To keep the story moving, the protagonist must face and overcome obstacles. I gave one more prompt. “Write about a significant obstacle in your life.” Heads bowed, and when they looked up, this time I asked them to share their writing with the whole group.

One by one, they shared critical moments: near deaths, loves lost, disease, and recovery. I leaned forward in my chair, inspired by the variety and depth of human experience, and the power of memoir writing to shape those memories and share them. Some students choked back tears. Others were more stoical, while the rest of us nodded, and murmured in empathy. Many said, “It’s the first time I shared this with strangers.” Of course the details are protected by confidentiality, but now that the stories have been told in one group setting, my experience tells me the participants will have an easier time sharing stories in the future.

After each reading, I commented on how it fit into the course material and how they might develop it further. When we ran out of time, I thanked them for sharing their lives, and we were done. But it wasn’t over quite yet. While we were cleaning up, many people walked up and thanked me. “You helped me think about my life in a new way.” These expressions of appreciation made me feel my day was a success.

I carried out to the car the few remaining books from the stack I had brought with me to sell, one a how-to guide for writing memoirs, and the other a workbook for overcoming obstacles that can interfere with writing. On the drive back to our lodging, I shared thoughts about memories and family with Judy, who had attended the class as well.

When I returned to our room, my wife was excited by her own adventure. She had spent most of the day at an equestrian competition, watching riders roping, herding, and other events. When Janet is around horses, she’s happy, so the day was a success for her too.

To continue the horse theme, I suggested we take a trail ride to see more of the beautiful countryside. Asking around, we found a recommendation for Bill’s Sport Shop in Leadville. The next morning, we met the trail guide, George, a salty man with smiling eyes, and lots of creases in his face who bragged about his recent 77th birthday. We brushed the horses, (mine was named Ringo), saddled up and walked out amidst the big peaks and big skies of Colorado, through scrubby arid hillocks, and stands of pine trees. George turned around in his saddle to tell us about his life, working in a mine, losing his best friend in 1969 and even some bits about his love life. His love for his herd of 30 horses was obvious, considering he knew each one by name and told us anecdotes about many of them.  I was the last of the three riders, and Ringo was a little pokey so sometimes George’s voice drifted back to me and other times I ambled in silence.

Four hours later, we took the saddles off, and he let us give the horses their treat of grain. As we were leaving, I asked him, “Are you a cowboy?” He said, “I’m going to be a cowboy when I grow up.” Getting to know George, who had lived and worked in this area his whole life, I felt like I had fulfilled the suggestion on the poster at Bongo Billy’s. We were not just visiting places, but meeting people as well.

We pulled on to the road and headed out of town, back towards the Denver Airport. Leaving the mountains behind, my wife said, “I like this trip. Maybe you can find more places to teach memoir writing workshops.” “I don’t know hon. I’ll ask around.”

Note

To purchase a copy of  the poster, “How to Build Global Community” by Melinda Levine, search on the internet. For example, I turned up this link.

Chaffee County also hosts summer white water rafting down the Arkansas River, skiing at nearby Monarch Mountain, mountain climbing – it’s surrounded by fourteen thousand foot peaks of the Fourteeners. It is also on the route of the famous “Ride the Rockies” bicycle tour.

Turn economic hardships into stories of strength

by Jerry Waxler

Jutting out of the landscape of our lives are those times when we struggled to provide for ourselves and our family. Whether we were transitioning to a new career or scrambling to recover from a layoff or other setback, we stumbled through uneven and unfamiliar territory. Years later, we take pride in our effective decisions and the cunning with which we applied old skills and learned new ones. We overcame discouragement and other obstacles and survived. Now as we tell the story of those triumphs, we develop our role as the hero at the center of our own life.

But what about today’s challenges? In the last few years, millions of us lost savings and jobs, forcing us into economic changes we didn’t anticipate. In some distant future, when we write the memoir of these times, we will again discover the resilience, strengths, and the excitement of the story. But for now, it’s hard to feel like a hero, constrained as we are by the narrower scope of just getting through the day.

One way to improve your perspective is to develop as quickly as possible the story of these hard times. Stories let you grasp the whole situation, letting strength dominate worry. Through stories you can find courage, poise, and make better sense of your choices. And stories have one more benefit. They let you share your experiences, providing an opportunity for mutual support. I have been following two organizations who have taken a keen interest in turning stories of economic survival into the shared experience of a community.

One group, called Civic Ventures, was founded by Marc Freedman, author of the book “Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life by Marc Freedman.” Freedman’s organization, Civic Ventures now also publishes the Encore Careers website to provide a forum for people going through the transition to a new career. The site is loaded with stories of people who have reinvented themselves, turning loss and frustration into a catalyst for renewal.

The other organization that is encouraging people to tell their stories is First Person Arts, . Their programs help people share the artistry of life experience through paintings, video, and written works. First Person Arts even conducts “story slams” in Philadelphia, adding live performance to the teller’s repertoire.

Because of the historic changes in the economy in the last year, First Person Arts has launched a national story writing contest, to solicit stories of how individuals are coping and adapting and reacting to hardship. Inspired by the explosion of storytelling in the Great Depression, the First Person Arts contest encourages people to find their stories and share them. For more about the contest, click here.

To organize your story, consider the universal framework that converts life experience into a narrative form that other people will relate to. In the beginning there is a protagonist who wants something – in this case economic survival, with a dash of dignity and satisfaction. On the road towards that goal, you push through or outsmart the obstacles. You gather allies and skills, and overcame discouragement. By the end, you achieve some goal. To help you get the ball rolling, I’ve listed a few questions. Try answering them as if you are giving an interview. (If you’d like, post them here, or on other storytelling sites.)

“What was your goal?”

Look for a mix of motivations that drove you forward. Be specific (“I want my old job back”) or general, (“I want to find satisfaction”). In fact, this may be the most important part of the exercise. By trying to explain what creates the dramatic tension in your story, you will begin to see it more clearly yourself.

“What were the main obstacles that blocked you from achieving that goal?”

The external ones will be relatively obvious, like money, education, or age. But like any good story, there is also an inner dimension. What did you fear? What options were you reluctant to face? Did you impulsively lunge forward, meaning your biggest obstacle was lack of clear thinking? Turn storytelling into a mirror. As you explain your story to others, you’ll understand more about yourself.

“What tools, allies, and choices helped you overcome these obstacles?”

In any good story, the thrill is seeing the protagonist overcome the enemies, and reach the end of the maze. How did you do it? What mentors gave you  advice? What learning did you acquire? Cleverness is a fun story element. What choice felt especially cunning?

“What milestones did you pass?”

Describe the important milestones to let the reader see how things moved from beginning to end.

“When did you know you ‘arrived’?”

The satisfaction of reading the story comes from achieving or releasing the dramatic tension you established at the beginning.

“What would tell others who want to make this journey?”

A good story often has a second payoff. After the external goal is achieved (you got the job), you can offer the reader the additional reward of offering what you learned or how you grew.

It will take additional effort and skill to polish your interview and turn it into something fun to read. But it’s worth it. While you challenge yourself to achieve the goal, you’ll also be gaining some lovely benefits, not the least of which is to increase your ability to tell a story. Learning this knack of telling your story could be the best investment you can make, because once you own the skill, it will pay dividends for the rest of your life.