Trauma Passed Through Generations Shared by Writing a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

Linda Appleman Shapiro’s memoir, She’s Not Herself is about a girl whose mother had a serious mental illness. The memoir itself raised many intriguing ideas about the children of trauma survivors, about the secrets parents keep, and about how children manage to find their way despite grave difficulties. In addition to the events that took place inside the book, I am intrigued by how the author continued to develop as an adult. How did she integrate all the emotional upheaval that took place in her childhood, and turn it into a memoir? In this interview, I ask Linda Appleman Shapiro questions that might help aspiring memoir writers, who are looking back toward memories and forward toward turning memories into a story.

Jerry Waxler: As a reader, I cared deeply for the little girl who had to grow up navigating among such complex psychological pressures. Clearly these were traumatic trainings and you had to carry the burden of these memories into your adult years.

Linda Appleman Shapiro: When you say that I had to carry the burden of my early memories into my adult years, I’d have to add that I think it’s much more complicated than that. To carry a burden one has to be aware of the burden. If one succeeds in hiding the truth from himself/herself, the memories remain locked away until one trigger or another sets them loose.

In my case: I knew that my mother became sick several times each year. At such times, I heard my father refer to doctors giving her something he referred to as “shock treatments.”  At other times, when she was taken to the hospital, I was left alone with my father or shipped off to one aunt or another. I received no explanation other than “Your mother, she’s not herself today.”

Just as I was entering adolescence and the woman in me began to identify with my mother that fear for myself had begun to set in. I became conscious of living in a daily state of hyper vigilance and beyond that I was also beginning to lose my footing. Emotional swings that take place in every normal adolescent’s life soon became exaggerated nightmares in mine.

Jerry: You’ve done an incredible job in the memoir, sharing that whole journey with your readers. Now, as a memoir writer, you have clearly been on a very different journey. Memoir writers must reach back into their memories and turn them into a story.

It must have been painful to go back and look at those times, with so much confusion, suffering, and secrets. How did you face all of that when you were looking back?

Linda: I think what saved me from myself as I started to sort out disturbing memories occurred years before writing this memoir. It came from the therapy I sought in my early life when I was becoming more and more aware that the role I played in our family was interfering with my adult relationships, especially with my first love experience. I write about that in detail in the book.

I received invaluable tools from skilled professionals and for 30+ years have been a behavioral psychotherapist/addictions counselor. Based on this background, I wanted to make sense of the effects of multigenerational traumas, providing readers with hope from whatever wisdom I have as someone who has examined human vulnerability in its many disguises and has moved through and beyond trauma.

Jerry: Say more about the process of actually writing it. How long did it take? Did you love writing it or dread it?

Linda: The entire process was one of about twenty years while working full-time as a psychotherapist, living life within our family, with our daughters, in our community, and later with our grandchildren.

Throughout, I remained committed and determined to peel away the onion that was my life. There was never a time that I set writing aside. In fact, once I began, the writing seemed to write itself. As one memory emerged, others came forth . . . and there were many times when a memory was so horrific that I questioned if what I believed I was remembering actually did occur. But that didn’t stop me from writing or examining and exposing all that did happen. As one witness to human vulnerability and human strength, the process of writing it all was not cathartic. It was grueling because I forced myself to remain as authentic as possible.

By creating scenes and dialogue between my parents and writing about each of the memories they shared with me about life in war-torn Russia before emigrating to America, I got to know them on a far deeper level than I ever did while they were alive. As characters in my memoir, I respected and loved them more with each page that I wrote.

Of course, I also learned a great deal more about myself. The patterns of my life that popped off certain pages (revealing an ever present need to rescue a person or a moment, even at my own expense) caused me to feel the same concerns for that little girl who was the me that you felt concerned about.

Jerry: Now that your memoir has been published you have come a very long way, from a little girl on Brighton Beach, through your young adulthood, trying to sort out these disturbing memories, to an older adult who has crafted the story of that little girl and shared it with the world. Congratulations! What can you share about the feeling of having written a memoir that is now being read by strangers. Was it satisfying? Healing? Invigorating? Did you miss it once it was over?

With regard to how I feel about strangers reading my memoir, I have a one word response: HONORED. Actually, I believe that story telling is a part of my genetic inheritance. My father did not share many personal stories, but as an immigrant, he always tried to fit in to a new world. He supported his family by being a salesman, and he learned early on with each joke and every story he could tell to distract a customer, he’d gain a sale. Mother’s stories were all personal. She shared all of her memories with me – probably too many for a child to integrate and not feel as though I was a part of that world in Russia, reliving it all with her each time she told me yet another story. Yet, at the same time, from as early as I can remember, Mother always said that everyone’s life is worthy of a book and that if she were a writer she’d tell her story if it could help just one person.

So, to answer your question I’d have to say that I know she would be proud to know that in telling her story and mine, we are helping people take secrets out of their closet and not feel ashamed to seek the best help available for their family .  . . and though much more funding is needed to deal with the epidemic numbers of young suicides and mental illness, in general, there is certainly much more help and acceptance available today than when I was growing up.

To answer the next part of your question: Every aspect of having published my memoir is “satisfying, healing, and invigorating.” Though it took me many, many years to teach myself how to write, since I never allowed myself to consider writing creatively because my brother was a writer and that role had been taken in the family. . . I am now able to identify myself as a writer.

This memoir was a labor of love and tenacity and I do miss not writing. Once I completed writing the book, I definitely experienced writer’s withdrawal and, in the hope of fulfilling my need to continue writing, I do plan to revive a blog that I’d written for three years, “A Psychotherapist’s Journey,” for which Wellsphere named me the Top Blogger in the area of mental health.

Knowing that I have speaking engagements lined up and I’m currently in the process of this blog tour, it’s not “over.” Without being overly sentimental, I’d add that it is as life itself, a work that will continue to be in process.

Notes

Linda Appleman Shapiro’s Home Page
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/lindaapplemanshapiro41
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/lashapiro1
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1421689.Linda_Appleman_Shapiro

Click here to listen to an audio interview with Linda Appleman Shapiro

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.

Interview with a Memoir Writer – Childhood with Traumatized Parents

by Jerry Waxler

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

In my previous blog post, I wrote about a memoir by a woman who grew up under the terrible shadow of a tragedy. Judy Mandel wrote Replacement Child to share a childhood that had been distorted by a few horrifying hours in her parents’ lives that took place before she was born. Through the extraordinary medium of memoir, she was able to translate that trauma and the subsequent journey into a fascinating story. In this blog post, I interview Judy to ask her more about her experience writing and publishing the book.

This blog is part of a blog tour for Judy Mandel’s Replacement Child. For more information from the author, see her website.

Jerry Waxler: You had to face a lot of painful memories to write this memoir, and yet you did it anyway. Were you ever tempted to try to forget, and make it go away? How did you move beyond that impulse and face it and write about it?

Judy Mandel: In fact, I had been very successful in pushing all the memories down so far that it was like an excavation to unearth them. I can’t explain why I felt compelled to keep doing that, like picking a scab. You know there will be blood, but somehow you feel it will heal faster that way.

Jerry Waxler: Anyone who met you couldn’t possibly even imagine this tragic background and complex family life in the midst of a suburban community. Your sister Linda of course bore the signs of the tragedy on her skin for all to see, but you only had them inside. So growing up, how did that feel, having this vast amount of secret life contained within an ordinary one?

Judy Mandel: An interesting thing I discovered after I wrote the book, and many of my childhood friends read it. They knew about the accident, or some version of it, but never ever mentioned it to me in all the years we grew up together. Even my closest friends had never said anything. They were counseled not to by well-meaning parents. But I think if the discussion had been out in the open, both within my family and outside my family, it would have been a healthier way to deal with it and would have eliminated the feeling of secrecy. As a kid, I felt mostly a subterfuge that I couldn’t identify.

Jerry Waxler: Now that you have written a book about those experiences, you have transferred the scars from inside to outside. Describe how that has changed the way you see yourself in relationship to strangers. When you meet a stranger, do you feel more understood? Does the expression “more comfortable in your own skin” apply? How would you describe it?

Judy Mandel: What an insightful question! Sometimes when people ask me about myself, in the way people do when you meet, I am tempted to just give them a copy of Replacement Child–or tell them to read it if they haven’t. Other times, I almost feel like I have nothing left I can tell them about myself if they’ve read it.

Jerry Waxler: You have obviously worked hard on this memoir to create a story from all these memories and your research. From a mess of memories, you have created a coherent narrative. If possible, please compare how that feels to go from before writing it to having it on paper. Was it satisfying, fulfilling? Would you do it again?

Judy Mandel: The interesting thing is that once you give your inner story a narrative, it has a shape that it didn’t have before. And it is unchangeable. Before writing my story, my personal narrative morphed frequently, as I suspect it does for everyone. To your other questions, I would say I had no choice but to write this story and I can’t imagine doing anything like this again.

Jerry Waxler: Before 9/11, I spent zero time thinking about being struck by an airplane. After 9/11, this completely changed. The similarity of the experience to your childhood tragedy seems so strange and otherworldly. As a reader, it feels like a mini-9/11. Of course the cause and scope were different but in your individual life, the disruption had struck you in a similar way. That’s my reaction to reading the book. How did you react to that juxtaposition? When you realized that getting struck by a crashing airplane had become part of our collective traumatic experience, how did that influence your relationship to your memories? How did that affect your willingness to write about it?

Judy Mandel: I believe that victims of a tragic event, no matter the scope, are part of a club that none of us wanted to join. Realizing the very long tentacles of a tragedy, through a family, and even through generations, changes your view of the world. When I watched planes crashing into the towers on 9/11, I felt like it was my worst nightmare. I think, because of my family history, I have always believed that anything can happen–and 9/11 brought that home to me in a powerful way. When the Boston Marathon bombings happened, I felt the same way, and deeply sad for the families effected. I also connect very strongly to survivors of the Holocaust and their children–replacement children in some sense. Some say that an entire generation of Jews are replacements for those lost. That’s a subject I’m delving into for possibly an upcoming project. As I wrote in a recent blog post of mine, ultimately, we have to grapple with random acts of evil, accident or nature. All we can do is realize that each day is a gift, and any day that we find peace, and our loved ones are safe and well, is a good day.

Jerry Waxler: I completely sympathize with the thousands of hours your family obsessed about your sister’s final moments. The horror played through the family psyche like a nightmare or a PTSD flashback. Through your creative passion and hard work you captured those moments in words. Shaping these scenes into a story must have been such a profound labor of love and passion. You finally contained within story the culminating focusing moment that controlled your and your family’s history. That seems so profound to me. Now through the hard work and creativity of your writing and the magic of empathetic reading, strangers like me have shared some of that pain. How do you feel about making the private hell accessible  to empathy from strangers? Does it feel like we are sharing your burden in some way? Has it relieved you from a life sentence of facing this pain alone?

Judy Mandel: Thank you for seeing the work in that way. You come close to asking why we write. It makes me think of the quote from Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” That is true for me as well. Writing those scenes, especially the more graphic ones, helped me figure out how I felt and what I thought. It was the only way I could make sense of it. Which brings me to the other reason for writing and reading, to try to make some sense of the world and the human condition.

Jerry Waxler: I have recently written an essay about the structural techniques of writing memoirs. In one essay, I show how some authors have alternated back and forth between the two time frames, telling the earlier story of their childhoods in alternating chapters with their adult timeframe.  In example of this method, I show how each of the two time frames sticks with chronological order. Your memoir uses the interwoven time frames, with more than two separate threads. I counted at least three (your story of growing up, the day of the crash, and looking back from the present while you were constructing the memoir). Could you help me and your readers understand your thought process deciding how to weave time among chapters? How did you arrive at this system as the best way to tell your story?

Judy Mandel: I started with the trajectory of the crash itself, since it fascinated me and I delved into every detail I could find. The first chapter I wrote was the actual scene in my mother’s kitchen when she heard the blast and flash of fire, and the ensuing melée. I knew I needed my childhood scenes to illustrate the different aspects of my relationships with members of my family, and to underscore my isolation and finally the characteristics of a classic replacement child. My present day chapters came last, to give perspective to the book. Coming up with the structure was a slow process. I experimented with different ways to tell the story. I did this visually, using index cards with a brief description of each chapter and posting them on bulletin boards. The boards lined a hallway in my house for months. I would re-arrange them every few days and see how the order worked. When that didn’t seem like enough information, I used the actual chapters, spread out in an entire room in my house. So, it wasn’t an easy or entirely scientific method!

Notes

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.

Turning a Tragedy into a Memoir of Becoming

by Jerry Waxler

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

When I first picked up the memoir Replacement Child by Judy Mandel, I quickly learned from the title and blurb that it was about a girl born into a family that had suffered a trauma. A plane crashed into their house, killed the family’s oldest child, and disfigured the youngest! At first, the shocking nature of the trauma drew me in. That is exactly what every memoir attempts to do, build a bond of curiosity with the reader. And yet, when we start writing our memoirs, few of us know how to achieve this seemingly simple goal.

When you first start to write, you might have no idea of what to call the book or even what it is “about.” Gradually, you construct a story and at some point in your writing journey you begin to wonder how you are going to explain it to readers. Growing attuned to this potential future experience of your readers becomes an important step in completing the work. How can you turn the events of a life into a simple message? That is a wonderful question and answering it will take you on a journey of self-discovery.

By reading Judy Mandel’s memoir, you can imagine how she might have gone through this process. In her childhood, overshadowed by this one horrid event, she had to discover who she was and how she would fit into the world. Despite her normal need to move outside and establish herself as a person, everything in her childhood home wanted to keep collapsing back to the moment when the airplane crashed and her sister burned to death. Considering the power of the moment, it must have been difficult for Judy Mandel to grow up, and even more difficult to tell the story. But in fact she did both. In the memoir, she unpacked all those years and spread them out on the page, allowing us to accompany her through the period of growing up under the shadow of trauma and even giving us the bonus of her struggle to tell the story.

Complex Task of Comprehending Trauma

The family had been devastated by a plane that exploded into their house, a trauma that severely impacted her parents’ ability to enjoy their lives. To try to compensate, they gave birth to Judy, as a “replacement child.” Her presence was supposed to ease their pain about the baby who had been killed. This put her in the strange position of competing for affection with a sibling she never even met. Much later in life, she came across the psychological notion of a Replacement Child and realized that other children grow up under a similar shadow. A child who was attempting to fill a deceased one’s shoes was destined to insecurity.

However, her actual life was far more complex than simply replacing a lost child. The book is about growing up in the aftermath of trauma. I have read memoirs about growing up in all kinds of dysfunctional families, like alcoholism and neglect but this is the first one I can think of about a child who grew up in the shadow of violent trauma. It’s an interesting and powerful topic for millions of children who grew up as second or third generation sufferers of war and persecution, and a haunting consideration for me.

At the end of the 19th century, Russia, like so many host countries before, had turned against the Jews and launched violent attacks and harsh laws designed to force them to convert or get out. About two million of these Jews fled to the United States to build a new life. Every one of those immigrants left after having directly witnessed or heard about Russian soldiers coming into town, rounding up Jews, murdering men and raping women. My grandparents would have been among that group, as would the grandparents of almost everyone I knew. Looking back on my childhood, I replay the faces of my parents and their friends, and in my mind’s eye, I see a people attempting to escape some pain. Perhaps the whole lot of them were suffering from the aftereffects of their immigrant-parents’ trauma.

Judy Mandel’s childhood was overshadowed by yet another wound. Her sister, Linda, had been disfigured by the accident. Growing up with a disfigured sister placed Judy under strange pressures, not to look too pretty, not to make it look too easy. And Judy often had to sit on the sidelines while their parents attended to the enormous ongoing medical needs of the older sister. The worst challenge for Judy was that Linda, with all of her scars and memories was one of the few connections that Dad had with his lost daughter. This difficult situation trapped Judy in a catch-22, wishing to bring some joy ot the family to make up for the pain of that awful event and yet sometimes feeling guilty about being spared that suffering.

So actually there were three family pressures woven into Judy Mandel’s attempt to become a person: her birth as a replacement for a lost sibling; her parents who were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress; and growing up with a sibling who had special needs for attention. These are powerful, important issues, and anyone interested in trying to understand the complexities of growing up could learn by reading this book.

In fact, this is exactly the type of story that started the Memoir Revolution. One of the first, Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life (1989) told his bleak story about trying to grow up, raised by a single mom and an absentee dad. His memoir was one of the first in the wave of Coming of Age stories about children trying to figure out how to become adults under the terrible burden of inadequate parenting. Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes (1996) and Jeanette Walls in Glass Castle (2005) took us further on this path, showing us how hard it can be to turn from child to adult. Judy Mandel’s memoir Replacement Child takes us further still, showing us life in a particular family under very different types of burdens than what we would have expected.

When I studied Family Therapy in graduate school, I was fascinated by the complex interweaving of siblings, parents, and grandparents. Trying to make sense of anyone’s upbringing struck me as being one of the most sophisticated and complex studies anyone could hope to learn. Now, I have found such learning in every Coming of Age memoir. In addition to taking me inside the complexities of individuals, they also show me the intense, intricate interactions of families.

But Judy Mandel’s memoir is hardly a psychology book. In fact, it is a well-told story, with obvious passion for the craft of storytelling. One intriguing demonstration of this devotion to storytelling craft can be found by observing the author’s choices about chronology.

Authorial Control over the Reader’s Sense of Chronology

As the author explains in the book itself, she reconstructed the timeline of all the events. And yet, the book unfolds in an unusual sequence, mixing chapters from at least three periods in her life. One of the dangers of writing outside of chronological order is that the reader will feel lost. But by adding dates to the chapter titles, the author keeps us oriented. Occasionally I wondered why she had chosen to intertwine events the way she had, but in retrospect I can see a wise, insightful artistic decision.

This mix between journalistic authority of the exact chronology, and the intricate interweaving of the story in time, creates an interesting effect. She develops a story arc along a number of lines: the day of the crash; the growing up of the author; the ongoing health of the family; and even her attempt to research and reconstruct the past. Through it all, she builds suspense and understanding, while at the same time keeping us oriented by leading each chapter with the date and in some cases the time of day of the incidents in each chapter.

Her whole life had been consumed, overwhelmed, overshadowed by the events of a few hours on that fateful day. By interspersing the horror of that day, bit by bit, throughout the telling of her memoir, she showed in a creative way how the suspense of that crashing plane kept grinding through her life like a bad dream that she could never escape. In retrospect, it seems like this was the only way to tell the story, one of the subtlest demonstrations I can think of in which the story itself demands to be told in a particular order.

To read my interview with Judy Mandel about writing and publishing Replacement Child, click here.

Notes
For more information about Judy Mandel’s Replacement Child, see her website.

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is another good example of liberties with a timeline being useful in revealing the unfolding story.

Another memoir in which an author attempted to find a diagnosis for his strange childhood was Look Me in the Eye by Jon Robison. He learned late in life that he had Asperger’s which helped him form a better understanding of how his mind works. I believe memoirs in general will help all of us make some of these connections, not necessarily through psychological diagnosis but by sharing our unique stories. For more about this subject read my book Memoir Revolution.

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.

Interview: On Publishing the Memoir Breaking the Code

By Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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

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

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

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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

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

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

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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

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

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

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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

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

A Memoir About her Father’s Secret Pain

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ordinary life as a backdrop for suspense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The letters link two timeframes

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

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

PTSD, Suppressed Memories and Unresolved Grief in Later Life

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

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

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

Note
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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

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

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

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

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.