Thoughts are the Soundtrack of a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the third part of a review of David Berner’s Any Road Will Take You There. Click here to read the first part.

Before I wrote the first draft of my memoir, I visualized my past as a tangled web. When I gathered random anecdotes and placed them in chronological order, they began to connect, making it easier to see how one thing led to another. The next breakthrough came in critique groups where I learned that readers want to know more than the sequence of events. They want to know what I’m thinking.

Introspection is such an important feature in memoirs that a memoir without this dimension feels as if it is skimming the surface. By adding the mental track, the author does for memoirs what a good sound track does for movies. In both cases, the sound we hear helps us relate to what we see. The analogy with a movie sound track highlights a fundamental principle of all storytelling – a good story operates on two planes, inner and outer.

To feel engaged in any story, we need to understand the motivations of the characters. However, because our predominant cultural stories are formulaic, we often forget about this inner dimension. In thrillers, the good guys naturally want to chase the bad guys and bad guys naturally fight back. Similarly, in mysteries the detective needs to solve the crime, and in romances, the girl needs to get the guy. We don’t need to know much about the inner dimension in these stories because we assume they are roughly about the same every time.

Memoirs are about real life. We grow up, start a family, get a job, grow older, take a trip. Meanwhile, inside the protagonist of a memoir, all hell is breaking loose. Our search for love, dignity and understanding can become so vast, it seems to fill the sky. Memoirs provide insight into the characters’ deepest dreams and needs, and they achieve this effect with carefully crafted, cleanly integrated thoughts.

When Memoir Characters Need to Think a Lot
I am intimately familiar with the importance of thinking my way through major life transitions. When I attempted to pass through the gateway from child to adult, I struggled for years to think my way across the chasm. In fact, the working title of my memoir is Thinking My Way to the End of the World. So when I read memoirs, I take special note of the way the author reveals his or her inner process. Two recent examples illustrate the way memoir authors successfully include their thoughts.

When Cheryl Strayed was attempting to transition from girl to woman, she underwent a process of self-reevaluation. Her memoir, Wild, is about her attempt to do that reevaluation while taking a hike. The memoir on the surface is about a hike through the wilderness. Cheryl Strayed entices readers to turn the page to experience the trappings of her hike: blistered feet, fear of getting lost, heavy backpacks, and encounters with fellow hikers. But inside her mind, she is free to ramble, consider the past, and have inner discussions about the direction of her life.

Readers didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that her outer circumstances had little to do with her inner ones. The book was an acclaimed bestseller even before it appeared on the big screen, demonstrating that readers are interested in an author’s inner dimension and willing to go along for the inner ride.

Memoir author David Berner also needed to share a thoughtful life transition. In his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, he describes the meltdown that provoked him to leave his family and start a new life. In his second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, he returns to that decision to leave, and tries to figure out how to maintain his responsibility to his children. To reconcile the opposing parts of his desire, to leave and yet to remain loyal, he needs to think long and hard about responsibility, about his relationship to the boys, and about his father’s relationship to him.

To do all of this thinking, David Berner takes his sons and a buddy on a drive in a motor home. They roughly follow the path described by Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Each day a little more road passes under their wheels in perfect, chronological sequence. And as the miles go by, the boredom of travel invites introspection.

David Berner’s journey is less complex or picturesque than a hike through the wilderness. Reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s book, On the Road, this simple outer journey provides just enough forward momentum to keep readers engaged, while the much more dramatic story takes place inside his mind.

Occasionally one of Berner’s two sons says or does something that triggers a round of musing. Within each of these reveries, time moves more fluidly, leaping from one generation to another, like the point-counterpoint of jazz riffs, in which motifs intertwine, never going too far into one before the other intervenes, giving endless opportunities for contrast. Reconciling his inner conflicts, and figuring out how to renew his connection to the boys creates intense thoughts, written artfully in micro-essay, musing style.

These weren’t flashbacks. In a flashback, the reader must leap backward, and shift focus to a previous time frame. At the end of a flashback, the reader must leap forward again into the timeframe of the storyteller. This can create a jarring effect. On the other hand, David Berner’s musings comment on the past without actually returning to it.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. Berner is deciding whether or not to buy a memento on this trip. From there he remembers the emotional importance of travel in his life. The following paragraph explores this thought in greater depth.

“When I was a kid, the shortest family vacation would mean at least a cheap tee-shirt or salt water taffy to carry home for a cousin or the neighbor who took in the mail. And when my mother and father traveled to New England to find the boyhood home of my grandfather, my mother’s dad, they returned with inexpensive fisherman sweaters and coasters with pictures of Westminster Abbey. My sons visited Abbey Road Studios with their mother on a European holiday, and their gift to me was a single white guitar pick. I loved that gift.”

After the introspective moment plays out, we look up and see we have traveled further on the road and the outer storyline picks up again. This alternating play between interior thought and exterior travel creates an almost musical rhythm.

How to use outer circumstances as the video for your own inner sound track
Both Cheryl Strayed and David Berner offer examples of the way a simple trip, from beginning to end, can be used as an opportunity to explore their inner lives. Each author faces an important life transition, to grow into adulthood, or to adjust to the changing landscape of middle age. The authors take us on a journey, during which we listen to their hearts and minds.

Their examples illustrate something all memoirs have in common. In the world of action, circumstances are unfolding. At the same time, inside the character, a series of thoughts and reactions play out, usually triggered by the external events. The events provide the visual framework. And the thoughts and musings offer readers a sound track.

If you wonder if your life transitions were interesting or important enough to write about, consider these two memoirs. In one, a girl is attempting to become a woman. In the other, a middle-aged man is attempting to renew his responsibility to his sons. What could be more ordinary? And yet, through the artful interplay of outer circumstance and inner response, we feel ourselves pulled into their lives. By the end of the journey, we have been enriched by the thoughts, ideas, and images that helped these authors adjust to great changes in their world views, and to adapt to new chapters in their lives.

Writing Prompt
What transition or challenge in your life required you to rethink your self-image?

What set of external circumstances unfolded while you were attempting to come to this inner shift?

Notes
In the memoir Ten Speed, author Bill Strickland figures out his own deepest secrets while on a bicycle. He desperately needs to review his life in order to shake off the legacy of his father’s abuse, so he can fully love his daughter. Click here to read my article about Ten Speed.

Coming Soon: a list of memoirs I have read (or in some case previewed) by authors who have written more than one.

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 an Indian Lifestory Author, Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

In a previous post, I reviewed a life story called “Love in Hyderabad” by Bhaswati Ghosh, about her romance with the city and her budding relationship with her new husband. This is the second part of the interview about writing and publishing the story.

To read part one of the interview click here.

Jerry Waxler: You wrote your story within your own cultural point of view, so you made no comments to the fact that you were falling in love with your husband after marriage, rather than before. I think you did a lovely, fun, uplifting job showing this love. I suspect one reason this component had so much authentic power is because you gave no background that it was an arranged marriage, since in your culture, that is the norm and there is no reason to explain it. You were just there, inside it, inside your own point of view. To me, that makes great memoir writing. Did you debate this decision within yourself or with your editor? Were you tempted to offer any explanation to a reader who might have been confused about falling in love with your husband?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Ha, ha, I am glad this question came up. Ours wasn’t an “arranged marriage” in the conventional sense of two strangers getting married after brief introductions. We had known each other for about a year through our blogs before we first met in person. At the time, my husband was working in the US and I was in India. When he came to visit me, we met just twice. Even though we knew each other, our interactions were mostly limited to the virtual space. So while we liked each other enough to get married, the love needed ripening. And that happened after the marriage, in Hyderabad. In the context of the story, I didn’t feel the need to share all this detail with the readers and hence left it a bit ambiguous. I do remember my editor asking me about this, and I told him that we had met each other online.

Jerry Waxler: That’s a fascinating circumstance, Bhaswati. Maybe an opportunity for another story. (laughing) You delved into the delicious food you ate. I was surprised by the specificity of your menu and the intensity of your pleasures. I don’t typically see this much emphasis on food in memoirs, although I do know that in writing we are taught to include all five senses. Typically taste is short-changed but not in your story. I wonder if you had a particular reason for focusing so specifically on your eating experience, or if you could comment on that.

Bhaswati Ghosh: Oh yes, I have a particular reason and that is my intense love of food. Food is essential to my appreciation of any culture, and it was the same in case of Hyderabad. What made it even more prominent in this story was the novelty that this city presented to me in terms of cuisine. The rich assortment of food available here was definitely good news to me, but what made it even more appealing was the affordability. This enabled us to sample a lot of different foods within a short span. Since a lot of the tastes were new to me, I remained more curious than I usually would be. My taste buds were alive to the unfamiliar but inviting sensations, and that has possibly found a reflection in my descriptions of foods in the story.

Jerry Waxler: The journal, Global Graffiti Magazine, that published this short story focuses on international articles so your piece about Indian culture spoke directly to the heart of that particular publication. How did you find a publication that was looking for a piece like this? I ask because I think most aspiring writers are trying to figure out where to publish their work, and so we would love to learn something from you.

Bhaswati Ghosh: My “system” of finding venues for my writing is quite conventional. Like most people who use the internet, I rely on Google for my searches. Currently, another good source of finding suitable markets is Facebook, which has a number of resources in the form of Groups/Pages that provide links to writing sites/journals etc. I found the link to Global Graffiti via one such group. As far as I remember, it was Places for Writers.

Jerry Waxler: Where can I look for more life stories, with this same, clearly communicated, lovely storytelling quality?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Unfortunately, I haven’t found too many avenues for this form of (personal) storytelling. The immediate names that come to mind are Granta, Cha (an Asian literary journal) and The Caravan.

Jerry Waxler: I love to read about cultural mixings, for example reading books about travel to foreign lands, or immigration, or cultural intermarriage. Such crossings reveal things about our lives that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to see when our perspective stays within one culture. Your story was actually based on such cultural surprises, crossing from the city of your birth to the city of Hyderabad. However, there is another cultural crossing at work here. By reading it in the U.S. I had some of my own surprises. So it became cross-cultural not within the story, but out here in the contract between reader and writer. Interesting! What was your relationship to international writing? Did you have any particular background,r preparation, or intention to write for an international English speaking audience?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Not really. About six or seven years back, I joined an online writing community, the first for me, which mostly consisted of Americans as members. My interactions with these writing buddies enhanced my knowledge of Americanisms more than American English. That and reading international publications has enabled me to develop a style that I hope appeals to readers from different cultures.

Jerry Waxler: Nice. I love writing groups, and you’ve offered yet another benefit that I hadn’t thought of. How about a crossover market in the other direction? What sort of audience is there for aspiring western authors in India?

Bhaswati Ghosh: That market looks more and more promising. If a recent report published in a leading Indian daily is to be believed, nearly 90 million Indians speak English. Publishing houses are proliferating in the country, bringing out more titles than ever before. Festivals like the Jaipur Literary Festival (http://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/) draw big names from the Western literary circuit every year, besides also featuring notable authors from Asia and Africa.

Jerry Waxler: You write about living in India, and now, it looks like you have immigrated to Canada. We’re on the same continent. Welcome! How do you plan to reach out to publications in this part of the world?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Thanks for your welcome. At the time of writing and subsequently publishing “Love in Hyderabad”, I was already in the US, in California, for nearly a year and a half. My husband worked in the Bay Area as an IT specialist, while I managed the home and my writing. We moved to Canada in June 2011. Being relatively new here, I am still exploring publishing avenues in this country. I hope to answer your question with more clarity only after spending some more time here.

Jerry Waxler: What else of yours can I read on line? What else are you working on that I can look forward to reading?

Bhaswati Ghosh: I blog at http://bhaswatighosh.com/. It’s part of my website, which also has links to some of my online publications. Among new things, I have started a series on my blog called “Immigrant’s Postcard” (http://bhaswatighosh.com/category/immigrants-postcard/), in which I record my experiences as a new immigrant in Canada. I intend to write these as short, conversational sketches that will acquaint readers with an immigrant’s perspective. I am also working at a tree sloth’s pace on my first novel, but your interest may just move my writing limbs a bit faster!

Note
You can read Bhaswati’s story by clicking here. Global Graffiti Magazine, Bhaswati Ghosh, Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad

Click here for Bhaswati’s blog

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.

Interview with an Indian Lifestory Author, Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

In a previous post, I reviewed a life story called “Love in Hyderabad” by Bhaswati Ghosh, about her romance with the city and her budding relationship with her new husband. This lovely story, published in an international literary journal provided many of the rewards of much longer works. To learn more, I interviewed the author about her experience as a writer. This is the first part of a two part interview.

Jerry Waxler: Your story sounds like a short memoir, complete with character arc and excellent character portrayal. I was surprised to see this clean, memoir-like structure. It reminds me of the Japanese art of bonsai, that creates the illusion of forrest in a tiny pot. Or maybe it’s just because I’m so interested in memoirs I see them everywhere. (Laughing) Did you set out to write a brief memoir?

Bhaswati Ghosh: That was the whole idea of this story. I did not intend to write it like a typical travelogue, as in my memory, the city of Hyderabad shall always remain entwined with the first few months of my marriage. This wasn’t just a new city for me; it was the first place I was exploring with my husband. This is where the two of us discovered each other most intimately, while also learning what we individually meant for the other partner. Since B, my husband, had a relatively light work schedule, we spent a lot of time scouting the city steeped in history, nature and a strong cultural ethos.

Jerry Waxler: As the reader learns about the Place in the story, we also learn about your important and complex transition from a single to a married woman. The story contains a clear, compelling character arc, something I would have expected in a much longer work. Could you explain your goals and ideas about character arc in short story, and in particular how you manage to scale character arc down to the shorter form.

Bhaswati Ghosh: In this particular story, I used an outline. The theme was clear in mind from the start–I was going to write about the city where I “found” love. Keeping that in mind, I broadly divided the story into sub-sections, focusing on different aspects of Hyderabad and how they corresponded to or even facilitated to the growth of my relationship with B. These included watching wildlife, relishing the city’s culinary culture, exploring its history, and being amused by its furtive romance.

Jerry Waxler: Fascinating. I can almost visualize you looking out over the landscape of that whole period and scaling down each segment to fit into the form. Nicely done. I notice that the language and sensory experience is especially rich, even luxurious. I wonder if perhaps this attention to language arts is more appropriate to a short story. For one thing, a short story writer has more time to passionately craft every sentence. And similarly a short story reader can perhaps read more slowly, pondering each sentence. When I read a full-length memoir, or a novel for that matter, I want the language to flow lightly from one sentence to the next, so the story can move along. Could you comment on this observation that perhaps richer language arts are more appropriate in short stories than longer ones?

Bhaswati Ghosh: To be honest, this never occurred to me, while writing the story or even after completing it. I just wrote in a language that naturally comes to me, constrained as I am by my limitations of vocabulary and aesthetic expression. I, like you, enjoy writing that flows smoothly, without burdening the reader too much (irrespective of the length of the piece). I sure hope mine achieves that effect!

Jerry Waxler: I love the story because it conveys sentiments in rich, musical language without being stuffy or pretentious. Somehow you have avoided the problem I have found in some stories that are trying so hard to be literary they are not fun to read. Could you say anything about your style that would help me understand your method or intention?

Bhaswati Ghosh: This is linked to my previous response. I have no intention of being “literary”, “stylistic” and so on for the sake of it. All I want is to convey my emotions and ideas with clarity and honesty. Some humor never hurts. That is the kind of writing that I am most drawn to and possibly draw the most from. The honesty factor is crucial–it entails allowing oneself to reveal one’s vulnerability and discomfort along with one’s confidence and joy. This is one of the most powerful ways to connect with readers because at the end of the day, we are dealing with the same emotions and emotional responses.

Jerry Waxler: Around 35 years ago, I met a Pharmacy student from southern India. To share a bit of his culture, he loaned me a book of philosophical essays by Rabindranath Tagore. Each one started out with a description of landscape and nature that was lush with life, and filled me with the joy of living. The reading experience was remarkable for the fact that I’ve remembered it all these years. Your story evoked a similar sensation to those essays I read many years ago. Perhaps it was something about that marsh inside the city, and the birds who could navigate, and bring their beauty and song into your urban experience. This evocation of Tagore may not be a coincidence. I notice you mention him on your website. Does he influence your style?

Bhaswati Ghosh: Rabindranath Tagore is a major influence in my life, of which writing is only a certain part. As a Bengali, I had the privilege of being introduced to him at an early age, and it wasn’t difficult to take a liking to his words because of his ability to appeal to all ages. His works for children are particularly endearing and even empathetic.

Tagore has remained a constant through the many changes in my life, almost taking the place of a close personal friend. I feel deeply impacted by his ideas of convergence and inclusion, cultural appreciation of the other, which comprise the essence of his humanism.

Jerry Waxler: Your story seems to invoke a complex blend of your own joy, love, and admiration intertwined with the scenes around you. Perhaps the scenes in the story were lush because your emotional engagement in the city was so rich. Tell me more about your process to bring authentic emotion to the page, to find the most compelling aspects of your own response and then do your best to pass those sensations along to the reader?

Bhaswati Ghosh: The response to this has already been well articulated by you in the question. Hyderabad was a unique experience for me in more ways than one. This was the first time I had stepped into southern India, having always lived in north India, with occasional visits to the eastern part of the country. The differences between this city and Delhi, my hometown, were more than just surface level. People here were more mild-mannered and easygoing as against the often brusque and rushed mood that prevails in Delhi. Public transport was decent, safe for women, and affordable. I saw a lot more birds than I would in Delhi on a day to day basis. Being alert to these offerings helped me bond with the city without making any effort.

Note
You can read Bhaswati’s story by clicking here. Global Graffiti Magazine, Bhaswati Ghosh, Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad

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.

Memoir Author Finds Drama in Everyday Life

By Jerry Waxler

In this last part of my interview with Lisa Fineberg Cook, author of “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” I ask her more questions about her writing process and her decisions about the way she put her memoir together.

(To read the first of my three part review of her memoir, click here.)

Jerry Waxler: Many writers wonder how to find dramatic tension within their ordinary lives. I think your scene about being disappointed by not having sheets on your bed makes a great example. I think most of us have had moments when creature comforts fail to meet our expectations and we sink into an emotional stew. So maybe it’s not a JAP problem but a human problem. From that point of view, your scene of being disappointed about a sheetless bed makes a statement about how people handle unexpected loss of comfort. When writing your memoir, what did you think about this creative project of turning ordinary experiences into compelling story elements?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: It’s the little things that we can all relate to.  For me, to walk into my new home — first ever as a married woman — at ten o’clock at night in an entirely different part of the world and not have sheets on a bed when I was so tired that all I wanted to do was fall down — seemed like the cruelest form of deprivation I could imagine  (LOL!)  Looking back now thirteen years later, not having sheets on a bed seems pretty insignificant so my threshold for little inconveniences is much higher but at the time it seemed symbolic of the whole experience – I imagined at the time that this must be what the Peace Corp is like! Again, perception is key in all of life’s experiences and at the time it seemed  huge to be deprived in that way.

In other anecdotes too, it’s the little things, like when I was in downtown Nagoya and found the store that sells American products, I was so happy I cried — Kraft Macaroni and Cheese woo hoo!

Jerry Waxler: You structured the book, along lines of domestic responsibilities. Because of my preference for chronological story telling, I would have expected this organization to disrupt the story, but it didn’t. In fact, it pulled me along, consistently guiding me through your experience. What sort of training or experience went into developing your knack for writing in a story flow so naturally that even when you messed around with the organization, it still felt like a good story?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I wrote the laundry section in my head and when it came time to put it on paper, I liked the idea of organizing the sections into domestic chores. However, I felt that I wanted to chronicle the first of the two years as it was the more significant of the two, so even though it’s sectioned into domestic topics, it does follow the year and doesn’t jump around.  This happened organically by the way, I didn’t necessarily plan it but it evolved in a way that made too much sense to ignore.

Jerry Waxler: The title emphasizes two aspects of your journey, the trip to Japan and your loss of princess status. In addition, the book is also about the transition from single and spoiled to married and responsible. Memoir writers, especially with commercial ambitions, are supposed to stick with one particular theme. What sort of angst or decisions went into incorporating the multiple facets into the container of one story?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I had no angst whatsoever (is that bad to admit? LOL!) Truthfully, I felt like the theme was all about perception and expectation.  Wherever someone grows up, there are societal expectations and perceptions about how to behave, how to mold yourself, how to succeed, choices you make, creature comforts, etc..  When a woman gets married, there again are the expectations and perceptions about how to behave, what it means to be a wife.  Then when you combine the change of single to married and take a person out of their comfort zone — entirely mind you — and put them in a place that also has very strict, structured societal expectations and perceptions (very different from your own) — it is yet another way of having to figure out how to make sense of it all and how to make it work for you as opposed to against you.  None of it was easy and what’s true is that if I had decided to write the book immediately after returning to the States, it would NOT have been a humorous book, it would have been a much more serious, angst-filled memoir because Japan was incredibly challenging for me, very painful and an enormous growth experience. But again, with time and perspective, humor wins out and I feel like the humor is a way of saying ‘I’m over it. I win.  Japan 0, Lisa 1.’

Jerry Waxler: When I grew up in the fifties and sixties, being Jewish was not particularly hip. In fact, as far as I remember, most Jews tried to hide their religion. It’s interesting that you are putting Jewishness in the name of your book, and also interesting that the contents of the book has almost nothing to do with the religion. You use JAP as a sort of stand-in for culturally privileged, entitled young woman. So is JAP now a word that can apply to any girl of any religion who feels entitled to a world of comfort and privilege, or were you really trying to say something in particular about being Jewish?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I think there’s definitely a stigma attached to Jewishness, or if not a stigma then a stereotype about what a Jewish man or woman looks like, acts like, sounds like and while I do believe stereotypes have elements of truth running through them, it is obviously not an exclusive and accurate portrait of anyone. I love being a Jewish woman and most of my women friends who are Jewish are beautiful, smart, successful and very funny. In regards to the use of the word JAP, it’s interesting because I have so many girlfriends (both Jewish and not) who commented after reading the book ‘wow, I’m more of a JAP than I thought.’ (Almost all of them said ‘Lisa there is no way I could have stayed past the first laundry experience. I would have come straight home.’) And in truth, the term is more about a particular attitude towards lifestyle and behavior than being a Jewish woman — again I think a ‘JAP’ mentality has to do with expectations, particularly when it comes to dealing with service based industry; how they will be treated, dealt with, immediately attended to, provided with excellent service – that sort of thing.  I definitely do not think this is an exclusively Jewish characteristic, however, I do know some Jewish women who would be considered the Olympians of JAP-ness.

Jerry Waxler: Thank you for your time. I think you have a great knack for communicating and look forward to reading more of your work. What else of yours can I read and what are you working on next.

Lisa Fineberg Cook: This is my first published work and I am currently working on two projects – one is the sequel to JAP which is titled LumberJAP about the three years we spent in rural Maine post-Japan and a novel titled Greedy Bitches which is a dark comedy.

Click here to read part one of my interview with Lisa Fineberg Cook.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

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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.

Memoir Author Offers Writing and Story Insights

by Jerry Waxler

In previous posts, I reviewed the memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me.” In this second part of a three part interview, I ask author Lisa Fineberg Cook to share observations about writing the memoir. Her answers included several surprises that proved how each of us has our own system, and even as we try to learn from each other, we also need to do what works best for us.

(To read the first of my three part review of her memoir, click here.)

Audience and Voice

Jerry Waxler: I’m guessing from your writing voice that you are accustomed to writing for a hip, young pop-culture magazine reading audience. That’s my assumption. What’s your reality?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: LOL! Oh, no. I don’t consider myself young or hip.  I think once you’re over forty it can be dangerous to call yourself young and hip – you’re more inclined to wear thong underwear and four inch platform heels – either of which would cause me great discomfort.  No, seriously, as I stated in an earlier answer, I wrote this particular book for an audience of ‘girlfriends.’  I think life can be so challenging, as well as mundane – laundry – though I do like doing it now – is one of the most redundant, mundane activities we perform in our lives – most days I’m thinking ‘I just washed this!’ or ‘wait a minute, the laundry basket was empty two seconds ago!’

My female friendships are such an integral part of my life and my sanity.  They are my ‘other husbands’ and they are the ones I call when the laundry basket gets too full and the fridge is empty and my hair is a mess and my kids are driving me crazy.  I can literally call them and just give a good primal scream and they say ‘I get it. Say no more.’ So I wrote this book for them – the ones I know personally and the ones who I imagine would be my friends if I knew them.  They would get the humor, the ridiculousness, the self-effacing attitude.  Some of those girlfriends might be in their twenties, others in their forties and some might even be in their fifties or sixties and I think if they don’t flinch at the ‘f’ words and they laugh out loud a few times then that’s as young and hip as I need to be.

Jerry Waxler: Considering my age and gender, I’m a bit bewildered at how much I enjoyed reading the memoir. The language was simple and engaging, and yet there was a lot of emotional depth. So were you on some level writing to me too? In other words, do you have a conscious creative goal to present deep emotional realism in a straightforward, breezy package? (The way Shakespeare could aim his jokes at different members of his audience.)

Lisa Fineberg Cook: One thing that did surprise me was the amount of seniors and men who enjoyed the book. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was that reached across gender lines or age gaps and I cringe a little when I think of some of the sweet women who live in my building and are in their eighties who said they loved the book; because there’s a fair amount of expletives and some racy scenes, but my guess is, anyone who does like it, must be responding to the humor and the honesty and has found something relatable in it.  I can’t think too much about the ‘why’ though or it will get in the way of the writing. You never want to catch yourself thinking ‘how can I please everyone with this book?’

Writing Insights

Jerry Waxler: Did you keep a journal or writer’s notebook during your trip to Japan? If so, what was your process?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I never wrote a single word in Japan.  It never even occurred to me while I was there that this could be a book.  I actually didn’t start writing the book until four years later.  I am blessed (or cursed depending on how you look at it) with a memory that won’t let me forget anything.  I can remember passages in books that I read when I was ten, I can remember the most  random information like a street that I was on once twenty years ago.  I came up with the title for JAP while I was living in rural Maine (from 2001-2004) and I wrote entire passages in my head without ever putting it down on paper.  I started writing the book in 2005.

Jerry Waxler: Can you offer any writing tips that can help me and my readers understand and possibly emulate your good-natured, breezy style? Do you have some sort of image, or sentence structure technique or some other advice to offer an author in search of a stronger or signature voice?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I am a very visceral writer.  I write quickly and instinctively and I do very little editing when I write something that I think is good.  If I like it, I leave it alone, if I’m trying too hard to fix it then I take it out completely.  One thing my mother had always said to me was to write the truth and I try to stick to that, even if I’m working on fiction. I write from a place of truth and if I’m trying too hard to make something work and if it’s not working, chances are it’s because it’s not an authentic idea and that I’m ‘borrowing’ from others.  The other thing that seems to help me in writing is based around my life and my work schedule –  I commit to fifteen minutes a day.  Sometimes all I do is reread what I wrote the day before, but usually I can get something done in fifteen minutes. Obviously the goal is to write for longer but if I try to schedule a two-hour writing block I tend to get anxious and stressed about finding the two hours, so the fifteen minute rule allows me to relax and usually I do end up writing for much longer.  The other fact is that I own and operate a seasonal business and I do very little writing during the summer months so when I come back to my work after a three month hiatus, I am able to be even more objective about my own material and I can ruthlessly eliminate anything that isn’t working.

Jerry Waxler:  Good writing is usually a result of impeccable, high energy editing. Considering how much I enjoyed reading your memoir, I imagine there was considerable attention paid to that aspect of the final product. Tell me about how you edited your book.

Lisa Fineberg Cook: My personal editing would take place after the summer hiatus.  It took three years to write the book because I only wrote from September to February or March.  Towards the end of the summer I would begin to think about the book and then I would sit down and simply reread all that I had written – sometimes I did this for days before I even wrote another word.  I can’t stress enough what a great tool this turned out to be as it gave me just enough time off to approach the text from a fresh perspective and allowed me to be even more objective about my work. Frankly, I think it’s a potential death knell to good writing to be too protective of your own work. I was able to be quite ruthless about my own material, thinking ‘that stinks and it’s gone!’

Jerry Waxler: Alright, then. (Laughing).  Instead of editing, you throw away and rewrite. I have to think about that. I sometimes suspect that this continuous flow method of rewriting makes a book easier to read. It certainly seems to have had that effect in your case. What sort of help did you have from critique groups, writing buddies, or paid coaches and classes?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I only allowed two people to read my book as I was writing it – my girlfriend (the one who is the Stacey character in the book) and my husband who writes as well and has an excellent editing eye.  I would give ‘Stacey’ large sections of the book to read and then listen to how many times she laughed out loud.  If too many page turns went by without at least a chuckle I would make a mental note to look that section over again.  My husband was helpful if I was stuck on how to make a transition or bogged down in too many details.  In that he lived the story with me, he would often throw out ideas about other anecdotes that worked better.

Jerry Waxler: Fascinating. In fact, “common wisdom” suggests not even letting family members read the memoir while its being written. Another demonstration that there is no such thing as a rule, and that each memoir author is as unique in their writing style as they are in their life experience. I can only recall one other interview in which an author’s husband was her main editor, Doreen Orion, author of “Queen of the Road” and by coincidence, her book was about a one year voyage.

Click here to read part one of my interview with Lisa Fineberg Cook.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

 

Click here to read my interview with author Doreen Orion about writing her travel memoir, Queen of the Road.

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.

Interview with Memoir Author Lisa Fineberg Cook

By Jerry Waxler

Firewood heats you twice, once when you chop it and once when you burn it. I find the same applies to memoirs, which warm me when I read them and then again when I dive back into them for lessons. In some cases, memoirs warm me a third time when I interview the author and find out more about her process. In this entry, I have the pleasure to speak with Lisa Fineberg Cook, a generous writer who has shared her experience in “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me.” In this three part interview she answers questions about how it felt to share her life, and what is a JAP anyway.

(To read the first of my three part review of her memoir, click here.)

Jerry Waxler: Of course, all of us make mistakes and go through rough spots. But most of us try to forget those things, and bury them deep in the vaults of memory. For memoir writers, though, such material becomes the basis for the story. As I write my own memoir, I see that in many situations I was neither a kind or wise person. I think, “Dear Lord, the protagonist in this story was a jerk. Do I really want to portray myself that way?”

Your memoir portrays edgy moments that you might not be particularly proud of, and yet there they are in plain sight, and you are the one who shared them. How did you feel when you saw your flaws first showing up on the page? Were you horrified? Did you learn things about yourself?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I have never been particularly concerned with hiding flaws.  I think flaws make people more interesting and because I look for humor in just about every situation, flaws can be especially funny. As far as learning things about myself, I think I learn more in reflection than I do in the moment.  I’m usually just trying to figure out how to deal with a situation when I’m in it and then later — sometimes even months or years later, I’ll look back and think how differently I’d handle that situation now, or how valuable that lesson was and I didn’t even realize it at the time. When I’m learning things about myself after the fact, it seems like useful information to be incorporated rather than a revelation.

Jerry Waxler: Tell me about the reasoning that ran through your mind as you decided to reveal moments that most people would try to hide into public stories.

Lisa Fineberg Cook: When I wrote JAP, my husband gave me great advice, which was to choose my audience and write solely for that person (or people depending) and not to concern myself with trying to write universally.  So when I sat down and started writing, I wrote as though I was having a series of anecdotal conversations with my girlfriends. I could imagine us at a bar, having cocktails while I regaled them with amusing stories about my plight in Japan. When we talk to friends, in a relaxed atmosphere, we are much less inclined to edit ourselves down to a superficial exterior that looks good and is in control.  Besides which, revealing moments are funny.

Jerry Waxler: While writing the book, how much did you discover about yourself or about the experiences during that period of your life by seeing yourself emerge on the pages of the book?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: What’s true is that I actually wrote the book using another name for both myself and my husband.  I wanted distance from myself and to be as objective as possible — I didn’t want to protect my image in any way because that would have ruined the story for me — so I began to think of the character as someone else entirely and then when it was sent to the publisher they told me I had to change back all the names to mine and my husband’s actual names.  That was weird because I really had begun to think of this person as a third person.

I think what’s important to remember too is that I was crafting a story, not documenting my autobiography.  I purposely edited my character to a fit the story the way I wanted it.  It is me but  not completely me and I certainly played up the Jappiness for humor and consistency.  Nora Ephron has a great line which is ‘memoirs are novels that your agent tells you will sell better as a memoir.’ (I’m paraphrasing slightly but that’s the gist of it).  I wanted the book to be entertaining more than anything else and I made stylistic choices about my character that were suited to this story in order to keep it funny.

Jerry Waxler: How much about the book did you understand before you started, and how much was revealed during the writing?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I had never written a book before and I really wanted to know what it felt like to finish it.  I continued to envision myself writing the last sentence and then the words ‘The End’ and emailing the final manuscript to my agent and the dedication and so on and so forth…

I think of the writing process now much the same way I do about raising a child.  I knew I wanted to be a mother absolutely but when the time actually comes, you know less than nothing about being the parent of an infant.  So basically you just show up and hope you’re getting it right most of the time.  By the time your infant is a toddler, you know what its like to have an infant. When your toddler is in preschool, you know what its like to have a toddler and so on…

How I relate that to writing this book and any subsequent projects I’m working on, is that I knew I wanted to write this book and I figured if I showed up every day to work on it, it would turn into something which would eventually resemble a book. I sort of learned about this whole process after each stage had been completed and by the time I was holding an advanced copy in my hands, I took about two minutes to say ‘wow, this is so cool,’ and then it was on to the next project because there is still so much I don’t understand yet and I can’t wait to find out.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

Click here to read part 2, in which Lisa Fineberg Cook continues to offer observations about writing the memoir.

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.

Endings of Memoirs: She Returns Home

by Jerry Waxler

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s memoir, “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is about the first year of her two year trip to Japan and, like many successful books, the structure fits nicely into the model of the Hero’s Journey. In the Hero’s Journey, the universal myth made famous by Joseph Campbell, an ordinary person departs from their familiar setting, and enters the world of the adventure, which is governed by strange rules. The hero learns how to navigate within the new rules, overcomes obstacles and then returns home, armed with deeper wisdom.

(This is the third of a three part review. To see the first part, click here.)

I have become accustomed to discovering this structure at the heart of many stories that I like, so I was not surprised to see it peeking out through the pages of  “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me.” The author travels from her familiar world of Los Angeles to the land of the adventure, Japan, where she must learn new rules. Inside herself, she overcomes the character flaws of being a spoiled teenager, and gradually becomes an adult. Like every Hero’s Journey, the conclusion of “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” affirms the importance of challenging yourself in order to achieve deeper meaning.

Some of the iconic stories of our time have followed a similar pattern. “The Wizard of Oz” offers a perfect example. Dorothy leaves her home in Kansas and enters the land of Oz. Like Lisa Cook leaving Los Angeles, Dorothy is actually on two simultaneous journeys. On the outside, she must solve the puzzles of Oz. Inside herself, Dorothy wrestles with her immaturity to discover her strengths. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey loses his grip on ordinary life, and out in the cold cruel world he must reclaim his sense of purpose. In the memoir “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup travels a similar road. She doesn’t lose money, the way George Bailey does. She loses her husband in a car accident. To earn a living and also look for meaning, she becomes a law enforcement chaplain and learns to steer through a world of legal violations and the cruelty of death.

Stories that make me feel wonderful often end with a celebration of family and community. Dorothy returns to Kansas armed with the wisdom to appreciate her parents’ love, and the assertiveness to fend off her bullying neighbor. In “It’s a Wonderful Life” George Bailey discovers his importance in the community. In her memoir “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup discovers that the antidote to evil and despair is the support of the community.

A Nuanced Ending Links Friendship and Maturity

When Lisa Fineberg Cook returns to Los Angeles at the end of the year, she meets her old friend Stacy. They go shopping and talk about their usual topics. As Lisa puts it, “When it comes to handbags and swimming pools, Stacey always comes first.” After her year of learning to cope in Japan, I was afraid that Lisa was backsliding. Did she forget everything she learned? She seems to ask herself the same question. But then, Lisa offers Stacey some advice and it appears that Lisa really has grown. Her interaction with her old girlfriend provides a foil that lets us see what she might have been like if she had stayed in Los Angeles.  After a year away, Lisa’s world has expanded. Based on her well-earned maturity, our hero reaches back to her friend not in a needy way, but in a supportive one.

As the memoir finishes, I feel confident that the wisdom she found during her journey will help her relate more maturely to her husband, her students, and her friend. That’s a perfect example for the inner and outer trajectory of an excellent memoir.

Structural Bonus: One year, one trip

“Japan Took the JAP out of Me” offers another interesting insight for aspiring memoir writers. Even though she went to Japan on a two year contract, the memoir covers one year of that trip. The one-year cycle turns out to be an excellent mental model which helps readers visualize the beginning middle and end.

Writing Prompt
Experiment with different time frames for your own memoir. What period might help your reader form a better mental image of your journey?

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

Notes
Here are a few examples of memoirs that wrap their story in a well-defined period of time, or a trip, or both:

Queen of the Road, by Doreen Orion
She travels around the U.S. in an attempt to combat mid-life crisis, and then returns home, wiser. Click here to see my series about “Queen of the Road” here.

Accidental Lessons by David Berner
His career as a radio broadcaster ends around the same time as his marriage. To reconstruct his life along more meaningful lines, he becomes a school teacher in a lower income community. At 50 years-old, he is the oldest and the newest teacher. The story takes place during one school year. Click here to see my series about Accidental Lessons.
link

Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald
To escape a stalker in Australia, Sarah McDonald follows her fiancé to India, where she becomes a religious tourist for one year.

Zen and Now by Mark Richardson
This memoir is about a motorcycle trip that follows the same route as Robert Pirsig wrote about in the classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Richardson returns to the road, reminiscing about Pirsig, and as the miles roll by under his wheels, he has plenty of time to muse about his own life, as well. Click here to read my essay about Zen and Now.
Link

My Ruby Slippers by Tracy Seeley
She returns to Kansas to try to make sense of her roots. The memoir loosely follows that journey. Click here to read my essay about Ruby Slippers.

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.

Spoiled brat? What does spoiled even mean?

by Jerry Waxler

Lisa Cook Fineberg grew up in Los Angeles, a town where, by the rules of contemporary culture, the world bows down in submission to hot young women. But her memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is not about life as a princess. It’s about moving beyond her self-indulgent youth, and trying to find her way to the next step. When Lisa marries, she moves to Nagoya, Japan where the lack of chic hair salons or appreciation for her appearance hurtles her into a different world.

(This is the second of a three part review. To see the first part, click here.)

After the long flight, the newlyweds arrive at their supposedly-furnished apartment and discover there are no bed sheets. The prospect of sleeping on a bed without sheets throws Lisa into a panic. She wonders if she will be able to survive in Japan. Her husband coaxes her through it. “It’s an adventure,” he says. “You can handle it. If you can’t handle it we’ll go home.” She submits to his emotional support and reaffirms her original intention . “That’s okay. I’ll try to stick it out.”

During Lisa’s reaction, readers must make a choice. We could either say, “Dear Lord. It’s only a night with an inconvenient sleeping arrangement. Get over it.” Or we could cheer for her, the way her husband did. And that is the real charm of the book. Lisa lets us in on the debate she is having within herself. She generates dramatic tension when she feels discomfort, and then relieves the tension when she decides she can do it.

Subways show passage beyond “spoiled”

In another scene, she shows the tedium and crush of riding the subway to work. At first glance, her discomfort might seem “spoiled.” But when you think about it, why is she riding to work on a subway, anyway? Wouldn’t a princess take a cab? And she isn’t going shopping. She’s on her way to teaching an English language class, another non-princess-like activity. The subway scenes show excellent examples of her transition from youth to maturity. To go from princess to working woman, the only way she could do it was to push ahead, explore, experience it for herself, and keep trying.

Memoir Writer’s Courage

Some of her behavior to her husband and coworkers is clearly selfish. One scenes shows her unwillingness to be kind to a woman who reaches out to her. In another scene, she becomes furious because her husband doesn’t make a big enough fuss about her birthday. The scenes  provide emotional vulnerability that engages the reader. They also provide insight into the challenges faced by every aspiring memoir writer.

When we had to make the transition from the freedom of youth to the responsibility of adulthood, many of us tried to prolong our entitlements. Even as we were pushed into the new world, we clung to the notion that other people were supposed to serve us. In the process we made self-involved decisions. Like Lisa, we threw hissy-fits, angry at our fate and ready to ignore other people’s feelings on order to survive our own. After the snit was over, most of us forgave ourselves, forgot about it and moved on.

Memoir writers choose a different path. We look back on those memories squarely, and observe our behavior carefully.  When we consider scenes in which we ignored the rights and feelings of other people, we feel a pang of shame. I have read many memoir scenes that are clearly not included because the author was proud of their behavior, but because they are willing to fearlessly face them. In order to provide the full emotional experience to our readers, memoir writers remember the ups and downs and we share things about ourselves that most people hide.

Before the memoir wave, we tried to resolve unwanted memories by pretending they never happened. Memoirs offer us a different way of relating to our past, allowing us to face our memories, share them, and acknowledge those experiences as steps along our own long journey.

Writing prompt
Pick a moment when you felt the world was falling apart, but which in retrospect was just a temporary inconvenience. Looking back on it, you can see it was just your mind freezing up, demanding better circumstances. Write the scene with the outrage and hurt and victimization you felt at the time. Let the reader feel your pain.

Spoiled in creature comforts but generous in explanations

I love the way Lisa thinks about things and then clearly and thoughtfully communicates what she sees. For example, in her teen years she feels entitled to buy hair products, designer clothes, and look attractive. But she also realizes that some boys have a different form of entitlement. They treat her like an object and push her around. She decides to stay away from boys who have that attitude and she advises all young women to do the same. In a couple of simple sentences, she provides a primer on manipulative relationships and guidance on how to steer through that period of discovery in a young woman’s life.

Such simple clarity takes place on every page, where she offers observations in clear, sensible language. The writing reminds me of the famous advice to entertainers. “Work hard to make the audience think it’s easy.” So even though the younger Lisa Fineberg Cook is spoiled, years later she sits in front of a blank page and works hard to clearly show me her life. By revealing her vulnerable moments, Lisa paradoxically also demonstrates her courage as a writer, a revealer, and an explorer of self.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

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.

Cultural Crossroads: Memoir of An American Princess In Japan

by Jerry Waxler

The memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is based on a familiar premise: a young woman marries and moves to a different city to follow her husband’s job. From this raw material, Lisa Fineberg Cook takes us on a rich, complex journey. The title is an extraordinarily clever play on words, referring to the acronym Jewish American Princess, or JAP. It refers to the fact that her sense of privilege and entitlement were squeezed out of her by the realities of her move to Japan.

As the title suggests, Japan plays an important role, but an American in Japan is only one of several contrasting cultural realities that make this book so delightfully multi-dimensional. Lisa grew up in Los Angeles, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. In Japan, she lives in Nagoya, which feels insulated. When she takes a trip to Tokyo, an international city with more global connections, she contrasts it to Nagoya, with its dearth of designer clothes and modern hair stylists. The less outgoing social conventions of her adopted city combined with the  clumsiness of crossing the language barrier force her to shift her cultural gears into speeds so slow she didn’t even know they existed.

Launching into Adulthood

The cultural transition that dominates this book is Lisa’s journey from the familiar world of a young adult to the strange new world of adulthood. Cook doesn’t just saunter into this transition. She catapults into it. Just before the memoir starts, the most important thing in her life was to beautify herself and attract boys. She marries and then flies to Japan where she must settle down and adapt to the adult world of compromise, when she actually had to work for things, and sometimes wait for gratification.

At the threshold of this new world, Cook describes adulthood through the eyes of a newcomer who is shocked that she must leave her entitlements behind. During her adjustment to marriage, she faces the mundane chores of house cleaning, laundry, and entertaining neighborhood women. The newlywed arguments are superb and insightful, offering a glimpse behind those closed walls at the way both partners are adjusting to their new roles. Just as Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball kept us engaged in newlywed problems thanks to humor and cultural contrasts, Lisa Fineberg Cook does the same thing. She keeps the story moving, thanks to excellently executed contrasts between L.A. and Japan.

Adapting to Japan While Growing Up

When Lisa meets her Japanese neighbors, she tries desperately to read social cues that are either absent or so understated as to be invisible to the American eye. The mismatch generates many opportunities for humorous misunderstanding and dramatic tension. There are also opportunities for insight.

For example, when she teaches English to Japanese girls, she encourages them to think independently. However, her efforts are frustrated by their social conventions. They seem to believe their highest social priority is to think exactly the same thoughts as everyone else. When one student furtively asks Lisa for help with an English poem, the teacher recognizes and admires the social risk the girl is taking. But like feeding a hummingbird, she must hide her excitement so she doesn’t scare the girl away. The situation highlights the contrast between American exuberance and Japanese reserve.

Tarnishing the Glow of Sexual Charisma

Another fascinating cultural insight in the memoir was the difference between beautiful women, head-turners who command the attention of a room, versus the rest of humanity, who walk into a room barely noticed. I sometimes wonder what it feels like to be a beautiful woman who attracts attention by simply looking good. Fortunately, I don’t have to reincarnate to find out. I can just read memoirs. In “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” Lisa Fineberg Cook explores the question through a sexy girl’s eyes. For example, she talks to her friend Stacy about how good it feels to walk past construction workers in L.A. in order to get an ego boost from a wolf whistle.

In Japan, Lisa discovers a fascinating twist to this experience of being stared at. When she commutes to her job on a crowded train everyone looks at her, a situation she is probably accustomed to at home, but this gaze is colder and more remote, as if the other passengers are examining a strange specimen. Her size, her shape, the color of her hair and skin, attract attention not because she is delicious but because she is different. Again, like so much of the memoir, this experience helps her grow beyond the entitlements of youth and move on to the next stage in her life.

Each time I turned the page, I learned more about how people must learn about and get along with each other. In each contrast, whether between sexy single and married adult, Japanese and American, charismatic and ordinary individuals, husbands and wives, I feel like I am peering into the heart of the human condition. Lisa Fineberg Cook’s life experience taught me many lessons about her in particular, about the people she encountered, and about writing memoirs. I’ll say more about these lessons in the next part of this essay.

(This is the first of a three part review. To see the second part, click here.)

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

Other Memoirs About Launching

Another book of a launching and pop culture is Jancee Dunn’s “Enough About Me” – Jancee left home to enter a career at Rolling Stone magazine, while she shifted her self-image from child to adult.

A similar transition takes place in “Sound of No Hands Clapping” by Toby Young, an excellent transition from a wild and often drunk single, to a married young father, looking to convert his attention from self to family.

Most of the drama of “Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls is about surviving mistakes made by her parents. When she is ready to take responsibility for herself, she emerges from poverty and into adulthood like a rocket.

Frank McCourt’s Coming of Age represents a dark difficult transition. Unlike Lisa Fineberg Cook’s “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” by the time McCourt reaches the end of “Angela’s Ashes,” he had no idea how to be an adult. He describes his launching in much greater detail in his second memoir, “Tis.”

For another article about launching into adulthood: How These Memoir Authors Emerged Into Adulthood

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.

Is a Travel Memoir Really a Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

When I started studying memoirs, my original focus were the conventional ones like Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” or Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle.” At first, I didn’t understand why some travel books were sold as memoirs. Travel books weren’t about the author’s childhood, and they included a lot of journalistic descriptions of the places they were traveling through. And yet I realized they were first person accounts that let me get inside the author’s point of view and see the world.

To understand more about what goes into a travel memoir. I read a few like Doreen Orion’s travel memoir, “Queen of the Road,” and Mark Richardson’s “Zen and Now.” I’ve also dabbled in others like Tom Coyne’s walk around Ireland recounted in “A Course Called Ireland” and Rosemary Mahoney’s solo trip in Egypt, “Down the Nile Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff.”

Based on my research, I decided travel books indeed could be considered as a sort of memoir. In fact, in my perfect world, the book store would have a whole bank of memoirs and autobiographies, including sub-sections for Coming of Age, Overcoming Hardship, and Travel memoirs, to name a few. Here are a few of the features of travel memoirs you might consider when reading your next one, or planning your own.

On the road alone means inside your mind

Travel provides the fascinating unfolding, as places appear in the distance, come closer, and then whiz by, fading into the past. From this perpetual flow of locations, comes a variety of outer experience.

And while the miles disappear under the tire, hull, or shoe, the protagonist’s main activity is… nothing. With nothing to do but move your body from A to B, traveling is a sort of meditation in its own right, providing the protagonist ample time to reflect. That’s what Bob Pirsig did in his classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and when Mark Richardson road his motorcycle along the same path, he too reflected about life in “Zen and Now.”

Since Doreen Orion is traveling with her husband in an RV she has other options. She can read, or banter with her husband. Considering she is a psychiatrist, I wonder if her absence of introspection is a sort of subterranean irony, a feature I have noticed throughout Orion’s entertaining approach to her material.

Wrestling with your Stuff

Traveling raises all sorts of issues about stuff. First you have make a list of what to take, buy what you need, and then pack your luggage. You have to store it somewhere and lug it along. Sometimes you can’t fit much. On his motorcycle ride, Mark Richardson could only bring a couple of pairs of underwear. When he stopped in a motel, he methodically unpacked his saddlebags, including motorcycle repair tools. Then the next morning, he packed them up again. At the other extreme, Doreen Orion packed her luxury RV with all sorts of amenities, such dozens of pairs of shoes. But even she had limits. One day she jumped in the tagalong SUV and went shopping, and when she tried to put the purchases away, she realized she had run out of room for her stuff.

Describe the people you meet

During travel, you meet people, and these meetings add character to the journey. Richardson tells about the small town girl working in the motel, and the Russian couple who own it. He describes other bikers he meets at stops, and he looks up some of the same people who had met with Pirsig during the original ride. He even stops in a town and speculates about which tree Pirsig and his son might have sat under, and asks some of the locals to help him figure it out, while Orion chats up the other campers at the RV parks – neighbors for a night.

Focus on your vehicle (boat, feet, RV, motorcycle)

In “Zen and Now” Mark Richardson focuses in detail on his motorcycle. This is a neat trick that emulates Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Both motorcyclists do an excellent job of showing how their world has collapsed down to their vehicle and the stretch of road they are on right now. By describing the motorcycle they let you feel intimately connected with their contracted world. Doreen Orion also showed us her small world by bringing inside the cab of her luxury RV in “Queen of the Road.”

Journalistic accounts of the world

In the musical “Sound of Music,” Julie Andrews walks along a country road with the kids, and suddenly they all burst into song. It’s entertaining, albeit a little out of place. Something similar takes place in a travel memoir, when the author decides to insert a little background description about something they are seeing. My quirkiest example is in Doreen Orion’s “Queen of the Road.” In a night club she visited with her husband, a girl performed a clog dance. Orion included a brief history of clog dancing. Not your typical memoir material, but it worked as a lovely way to pass the time in her company. Of course, the scenery, the towns, and the people are all fodder for the writer’s research, should they choose to add a few details about the world they are moving through.

Getting there and back is a perfect container for a story

The whole purpose of a good story is to portray a sort of journey, that takes the protagonist as well as the reader from the beginning of the book to the end. Travel memoirs turn this into a literal journey from one geographical location to another. When you insert your experience into travel, you allow your reader to go along with you as you prepare, pack, and go forth from your home. Leaving your familiar world behind, you enter a new world with different rules and make progress through obstacles. This allows for the curiosity and adventure of discovery, as well as the contrast with the familiar. At the end, you complete the journey, providing the appropriate metaphorical as well as circumstantial ending.

By breaking the protagonist out of the daily grind, travel memoirs still provide plenty of room for an inner journey, too. Under the stress of confusing situations, or the tedium of the passing miles, or the curiosity of new observations, travelers discover new things about themselves. As the outer miles go by, the inner journey is also underway, making the travel memoir an excellent framework for writing about life.

Notes

For discussion about some of the classic memoirs, see my essay, “Why so many memoirs about dysfunctional childhood?

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.