Stories Help this Author Grow

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

An article and interview about David W. Berner’s Night Radio: A Love Story

Every memoir shows life through the author’s eyes, and each one provides an example of how the author turned life into a good story. One of my favorite memoir authors, David W. Berner has taught me many lessons in both arenas. Berner’s writing explores powerful parts of human experience, and his writing style is flexible and far ranging.

By following his life story, I have learned not only about writing a memoir, but also what it means to be a creative, energetic writer at midlife, ferociously stretching for new angles and new creative styles.

In his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, he wrote about the challenges of redefining himself in midlife. The book was written in a straight, narrative form.

In his second memoir Any Road Will Take You There he tries to make better sense of being a father and understanding his own father. He wrote it as a travel memoir, about the road trip he took with his friend and sons.

His third memoir, There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, A Life in Pets is again about his sons and father as explored in stories about their pets. He wrote this one as a collection of short stories.

Now, in his fourth book, Night Radio: A Love Story, he’s tackled the complex and sexy challenge of a young man in college who must sort out the difference between lust and commitment.

When I was trying to become an adult in the 60s, I learned about men from novels such as those by Henry Miller, which sensationalized the freedom of promiscuity. Such fictional characters provided little, if any, guidance to help me sort out these confusing issues. Now thanks to the Memoir Revolution, I hope young people can find better guidance from memoirs than I had back then. So when I heard that Night Radio is about that period, I thought this empathetic, insightful author would offer honest, compassionate insight into that important period of life.

However, it wasn’t a memoir and neither the publisher nor author ever said it was based on the author’s life. I should have just let it go and accepted that it wasn’t going to provide insight into this young man’s mind.

And yet, I wanted to believe in the authenticity of this main character. For one thing, Berner had written three memoirs, so he has plenty of practice writing from his own, authentic voice. And he, too, had been a radio announcer. Surely, I thought, he would place himself in the main character’s mind. So I kept wondering if the character in the book was a fabrication or a reflection of the truth. Finally, I asked Berner to help me tease apart the difference. I was not disappointed.

Interview with David W. Berner about his Memoir Night Radio

Jerry: When I started reading Night Radio, I found myself tangled up trying to figure out which parts were invented and which parts were you. Could you help me figure out how to sort this out?

David: Night Radio has what I call “experiential truths” in it. There are scenes that may be based on real events, but not necessarily tell the true details of that event. The scene is important to advance the narrative, but unlike memoir there is no need to stick to the absolute truth of an event. It can be shaped and massaged into what the story needs. I always get asked about the drinking party at the college radio station depicted in Night Radio. Did that happen? Well, the drinking party happened, sort of, but te what the characters end up doing on the floor of the station’s office is *not* true. At least it’s not *my* truth. It didn’t happen to me, but it wouldn’t be out of the question for this to have happened at a college radio station somewhere, at sometime. This brings me to authenticity. And that’s key here. It may not be fact, but it has to ring true.

Jerry: I was so curious about what it was like being you during that period. I guess I’m projecting my own desires on you. You wanted to write a novel, but I wished you had written a memoir. Why did you choose to write fiction?

David: I think there are a number of stories out there from very well known broadcasters and journalists who have written memoirs about their careers, legends in the industry. I’m not one of them. I’m a respected, long-time journalist and broadcaster, but not in that one-percent, if you will. I believed a fictionalized story with all the things I wanted to say about broadcasting, rock ‘n’ roll and the redemptive powers of love could be said, hopefully, more powerfully in a fictional story.

So many have said that fiction can get to a bigger truth. Sometimes, I think they are right.

“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” — Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” — Jessamyn West
“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” — Picasso

I think, in the case of Night Radio, fiction tells the wider truth.

Jerry: But that’s just it. The Memoir Revolution came into being to serve readers who no longer want a wider truth. We want specific truths so we can see into each other’s minds, and decide the wider truth for ourselves. And as a memoir writer and journalist, you were a great person to reveal it.

Maybe I’m being too personal here, but what I’m trying to figure out is Jake’s struggle with the awkward transition between the delights of lust and sex, versus the long-term commitment of authentic relationship. You did a great job of taking me inside that transition. In fact, your excellent writing evoked memories of my own inner debates during that period. My younger male self struggled enormously to steer through passion, and during that transition, I made a lot of mistakes. I included some of those awkward moments in my own memoir, but on every page, I had to resist the impulse to say, “And I was such an idiot.”

When I started reading Night Radio, and was still under the mistaken impression you had put yourself into the character, I thought you were being so heroic, opening up your thought process for all to see.

Now that you’ve convinced me this is really fiction, I’m not so sure if you were being brave. Maybe the opposite was the case. By couching it within fiction, you could completely deny the whole mess. Was that your intention? Did fiction enable you to explore that character without revealing personal, embarrassing choices and states of your own mind.?

David: This is a fascinating question, in essence, do we write fiction because the truth is too close to home? I do not believe I wrote Night Radio to avoid, in some way, calling attention to myself. I’ve written about other issues and emotions in my earlier memoirs that are pretty close to the bone. So writing about very personal feelings, is not a concern. Plus, I am *not* Jake. There are aspects of me in Jake, certainly. And the character’s issues with commitment and/or fidelity are a very human thing, I think, especially for young men trying to figure it all out. Plus, some are only modeling the behavior of their fathers. That’s somewhat the case for Jake. His father has had his own struggles with these issues and whether it’s overt or just through the DNA, sons of such fathers will also have to deal with these matters. It’s inevitable. Here’s the final say on this: everything a writer puts down on paper has a little of him in it. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, whether it’s painfully obvious or squeezed between the lines, it’s there and any writer who tells you differently is not telling you the truth.

Jerry: So now that you’ve written your first novel, are you dropping memoir altogether and switching over to writing fiction?

David: I’m glad you asked. Roundfire Books, will publish October Song: A memoir of music and the journey of time most likely in the first part of 2017. I believe October Song is a unique story of time and music. I played in a band many years ago. Nothing much. Just a bar band. I was a teenager and did it into my early 20s. But I always played music, and still play some guitar. But it’s really just about having some fun. Now and then, I’ll write a song. I’ve never professionally recorded or published music. On a whim I entered a national contest and was quite unexpectedly named a finalist and was asked to perform at a well-known music venue in Virginia to see how far the song would go. The memoir is about the road trip there and the experience of the competition, and most importantly about the passage of time. When are we at the moment when we should give up our crazy dreams? When do we say…”well, I guess I’m not going to be President of the United States,” and for me that was “that rock-n-roll star.” All of us have those dreams, right? Ultimately October Song is an examination of the passage of time, love, the power of music, and the power of dreams.

Jerry: That’s perfect. Another memoir. And the subject of the memoir fits in perfectly with the image you portray through your memoirs.

In the beginning of your first memoir, Accidental Lessons, you become convinced that you are not living life to the fullest, and to fulfill that desire, you need to change. Now here you are a few years later. You’ve been a high school teacher. A college teacher. You’ve written two memoirs, a collection of short stories, a novel. And you’ve got another memoir coming out about your passion for music. What a relentless, creative journey you’ve been on.

In my experience, most memoir writers are responding to a similar desire, to find themselves by creatively shaping their lives into stories. What advice could you offer us, based on your mid-life quest to reclaim your soul through creativity?

David: You hit the nail on the head – “reclaiming your soul through creativity.” I believe that my writing has done that. I didn’t write *to* do that; it was not calculated in some way, as journal writing might imply. But I have always been a storyteller in one form or another. From delivery newspapers as a paperboy in Pittsburgh, to my radio work, to writing journalism, to music and songwriting, to writing memoirs and now fiction. And for one reason or another, in the last 8-9 years, I have been a faucet of stories. I don’t know why that is, really. Maybe I am on a quest to understand my world and my place in it. But I don’t think people who are reclaiming their place in the world have to write a book or a memoir to “see” themselves or “find” themselves. That can be done in myriad of ways. And it’s a natural process for all of us. Looking in the mirror, really looking, is important to find steady ground, to be happy (whatever that means), or redeem or create relationships with people and the world. What makes us uniquely human? The stories we tell. No other species on earth tells stories. Only us. To be quintessentially human, we must tell stories. I must tell stories.

Notes

Night Radio: A Love Story by David W. Berner
Accidental Lessons by David W. Berner
Click here for the article I wrote about Accidental Lessons.
Any Road Will Take You There by David W. Berner
Click here to read my article about Any Road Will Take you There
There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard by David W. Berner

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

Author and creative writing teacher helps me steer between fact and fiction

by Jerry Waxler

Last year, I attended a writing conference at Rosemont College hosted by Philadelphia Stories journal. At one of the sessions, I met Susan Muaddi Darraj and purchased a book of her collected fiction called “Inheritance of Exile.” The protagonist of the stories was a Palestinian woman who grew up in South Philadelphia in circumstances similar to Muaddi Darraj’s own childhood.

The characters in “Inheritance of Exile” felt authentic. I loved their introspective world, their frustration, despair, and hope. I connected with their romances and their interaction with their families. And I even deepened my imagination of my own ancestors who also were immigrants in Philadelphia. [See my essay on that topic here.]

The interplay between fact and fiction enhanced my reading, but I wanted to know more about how it felt to the writer so I asked Susan Muaddi Darraj to help me understand how she the world she is creating with the one about which she is writing. And since she is a writing teacher, I wanted to know what she tells her students.

Jerry Waxler: When I was a student, literature was taught as an art form that had value in its own right. Now that I’ve become obsessed with memoirs, my view of literature has shifted. I now look at stories as a window into the human condition. Judging from the authenticity of your characters and situations, I’m wondering how you feel about the connection between story and life. Are stories art? Or are they a way to share the experience of human beings? Or some of each?

Susan Muaddi Darraj:
I do think literature serves multiple purposes. Its primary purpose is to serve as art — that aesthetic goal is always first and foremost. But literature also has an opportunity to comment and describe other worlds to the reader — not monolithic “worlds,” but a view of life as experienced by that particular author. For example, in this story collection, “Inheritance of Exile,” I tried to express what life was like for not all Palestinian emigres, but for a particular socio-economic class of emigres who had settled into a working-class, urban environment.

JW: Writers must learn all sorts of micro-skills such as word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, characterization and so on. The authentic characters in your stories make me wonder if writers also need to be exquisite observers. Must we also get degrees in psychology, sociology, and anthropology?

SMJ: No, but you still need to do your research as a writer. The best writing I have ever read is that in which it is clear that the author has spent time conducting or doing research of some kind — and the research could take place on many levels: looking up the right word for a particular object, researching the jargon used by archaeologists because you’ve decided to make one of your characters an archaeologist, etc.

JW: Can explain how you learned the skills of careful observation?

SMJ: Reading, watching, listening, always keeping a notebook in my purse…

JW: How do you teach these skills of careful observation to aspiring writers, or recommend that they learn?

SMJ: The writer’s notebook is a lost art form in itself! I always tell my students (I teach a fiction workshop in the Johns Hopkins graduate writing program) that keeping a notebook to jot down observations and ideas is vital.

JW: Could you share some insight or examples of the way the notebooks help you add vitality to your stories.

SMJ: I am a marvelous eavesdropper — I listen to conversations around me all the time and am always affected by the tone of people’s voices, their diction, as well as the stories they tell. I write those observations down. I also clip out news items or articles or pictures that strike me in some way. For example, who knows when I will need to describe a log cabin some day in a story I’m writing? If I do, I have a photograph clipped out of a magazine, to give me some parameters.

JW: I struggle to understand how fiction writers create characters. For example, are they composites stitched together from a variety of observations? That seems risky to me. Can a writer really invent a person from whole cloth or cobble one together from bits? Especially in first person stories such as yours, creating the thoughts and feelings of real people seems difficult. Could you say more about how you invent your characters?

SMJ: My characters are not composites, although I suppose they are sometimes inspired by particular traits I do observe in people in the real world. My characters seem like real people to me, and so I often spend a lot of time just thinking about them in my mind before I commit them to paper. I think about them in terms of “How would x react to this particular event?” Their responses to people and reactions to incidents tells me a lot about their personalities, their fears, their desires.

JW: Did you grow up telling stories, or was story telling a learned skill? Was a family hobby? If it was learned, how did you come to it?

SMJ: My father is a wonderful storyteller and a great writer as well. He told us stories every night — things he invented, stories he spun based on prompts we would give him (“Tell me a story about a fish, or about going to the supermarket,” etc…). And my mother taught me to read quite early, so I always had a book with me everywhere I went — long car rides were a joy for me, for example. I could finish two books in the time it took us to drive from Philadelphia to visit my grandparents in New York.

JW: Many aspiring memoir writers wonder if their lives would be best told in fictional form.  What do you think about this option? What are the pros and cons?

SMJ: Every work of fiction is inspired to some degree by the author’s life. The limit to this is that if a character is based too closely on you, you will be afraid, hesitant, to allow that character to behave badly. And that’s just not realistic — people behave badly all the time, and it’s quite interesting when they do. They make poor choices, etc. Once you have committed a character to paper, then you have to cut the umbilical cord with him or her and just allow him or her to be…

JW: Your protagonists are young women who grew up in Philadelphia in an immigrant home. So while you have not written about your own life, you have written things that you know. Did you find this confusing, steering your characters, settings, and situations in the strange space between actual experience and imagination?

SMJ: Not really. The cultural aspects of the stories are things that I know, but most things were invented, such as the particular situations, etc.

JW: John Barth, author of “End of the Road,” came to speak at the University of Wisconsin in the 60’s. After the lecture, I asked him if his novels were based on real life, and he looked disgusted. What do you feel when someone asks you if your stories are autobiographical? Do you think it’s a disrespectful question?

SMJ: I just think that, in recent years, because of the growth of memoir as a genre, readers want fiction to also be based on the author’s life. It’s one way of grasping the work, or accessing it — that is, to make it connect to the real life of the writer. I don’t think it’s a disrespectful question, but it is wearying when people ask me that, because I feel that it doesn’t recognize the art of invention, the work it takes to sit down in a chair and create this fictional world.

JW: As a published writer, you expose your thoughts, your imagination, your mental world. It’s a goal all writers strive for, and yet, I suspect once we get there, it has its pros and cons. Could you share your experience of what it’s like letting people “in” to see parts of your mind.

SMJ: I have no complaints! It’s been nothing but fun. I admit that if I were a New York Times bestselling author who was doing lots of interviews and traveling all the time, I would probably miss my writing time a bit. All writers, in the end, are solitary people — it’s the nature of the job — and I think we crave that quiet time.

Susan Muaddi Darraj Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Yin and Yang of Storytelling – Dramatic Tension of Opposites

by Jerry Waxler

Writing your memoir? Memoir Revolution provides many examples and insights into how to authors are translating life into story.

An author’s job is to tie us in knots, forcing us to search for relief on the next page. Thrillers easily generate tension when the hero races to find and defuse a bomb. But how do writers create tension from ordinary life? To find out how one writer achieves this creative task, I peered into the collection of short stories, “Inheritance of Exile” by Susan Muaddi Darraj.

Each story shows characters caught in the emotions and circumstances of ordinary life, and yet despite their ordinariness, I feel engaged in their struggles, turning the page to learn more. As I seek to understand how Susan Muaddi Darraj has accomplished her hold on me, I notice a particular feature of the writing. She has superbly tapped the power of opposites.

Opposites generate texture in every aspect of ordinary life: sad and happy, rich and poor, young and old, hope and despair. It’s the yin-yang of nature, that oriental principle that claims each polarity contains its opposite. I knew about the principle, but I never noticed it as a tool for storytelling. Now I discover the secret hidden in plain sight.

Opposites, by their nature, create tension, like the sparks that jump across the two terminals of a battery. The tension pulls together when opposites attract, or pushes apart when we want to maintain our distance from the other. By juxtaposing the two sides and allowing us to feel the contrast, the writer generates energy, creating an intellectual and artistic feast. Here are examples of the opposites I noticed in these stories:

Girl and boy romance

While describing a relationship, the author maintains her protagonist’s feminine needs, and at the same time, she shows a deep empathy and understanding of the boy’s perspective.

Child and parent have two very different views

She shows characters at different stages of Coming of Age, wanting to grow up, and at odds with their parents. This universal tension can be confusing and polarized. And yet, somehow, Inheritance of Exile brings enormous compassion to these situations by giving us deeper understanding of the parents’ point of view.

Tension between rich and poor

To earn a few dollars, she sells hand-made baskets at a craft fair. People with lots of money stop by to look. The contrast between their economic situation and hers crackles with tension.

Hoodlums and law abiding working people

A working man is robbed at gun point, showing the stark contrast between these two lifestyles. The man works hard, pushing himself through the daily grind to support his family. The hoodlums break the law and steal what he built up. The scene creates an intense contrast of these opposing life choices.

Relationships with Father vs. Mother

The protagonist’s relationship with her mother and with her father are each formidable, each rich in emotion, tension, and love. The real power, though, comes from the juxtaposition of the child’s relationship with each. The difference in her connection with each of these two parents creates enormous tension that the character must sort through, and which drag me deep into their family dynamic. Mother-love and father-love, so different and so authentic, create dramatic tension that drives me not only to turn pages, but to ponder these truths of the human condition after I have closed the book.

Palestinian (immigrant) culture and American (dominant) culture

Of course, every immigrant copes with these two opposing forces – the confining boundaries of the culture-of-origin, and the inexorable crucible of the melting pot that demands escape from that confinement. Susan does an artful job of showing her characters moving sometimes easily and sometimes awkwardly between these two different states.

Life is a balance of opposites

All of life is caught in the pincers of endless pairs of opposites. Opposites create revolutions, hatreds, and passionate love. At a more ordinary level, we strive to balance or solve cold and hot, hunger and fullness, loneliness and anger. At every level of life, from physics and biology, individual life, and the history of civilizations, opposites move us forward. Find these opposites in your story to propel your reader’s attention forward as well.

Writing Prompt

To accentuate dramatic tension in your own story, look for the opposites. Use the same ones I noted from reading Inheritance of Exile or look for others: educated and not, healthy and sick, and so on.

Notes

The famous graphic symbol of yin and yang is a circle with the two black and white interlocking shapes. It is called Taijitu. Here’s a link to a wiki page.

Visit Susan Muaddi Darraj’s Portfolio

Visit Amazon’s page for Inheritance of Exile

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

Fiction built on a foundation of real life

By Jerry Waxler

Fiction seems entirely different from memoirs. And yet, when I look at actual examples of the two forms, I discover their intimate connection, each breathing life into the other. A good memoir is more compelling than a raw dump of facts. It generates dramatic tension by using fiction techniques like suspense and character development. And good fiction requires believable characters and real psychological interactions in order to capture our attention.

Last fall, I attended a writer’s conference organized by Philadelphia Stories held amidst stately trees and classic architecture of Rosemont College. There I met Susan Muaddi Darraj, creative writing professor and author of a book of short stories, “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly.” The protagonists in her stories are girls growing up in Palestinian families in South Philadelphia. The author, as it happens, grew up in a Palestinian family in South Philadelphia. “Write what you know,” the teachers say. Apparently Darraj took this advice.

The parallel between her life and her characters made me curious. Even though “Inheritance of Exile” is fiction, it’s apparently grounded in her own experience. I decided to read her book to learn what I could about the relationship between life and art.

Inheritance of Exile is written in an intimate, first person account
How does she or any fiction writer create a world authentic enough to let me enter? Surely they don’t create an entire world from scratch. I imagine they take a page from the memoirist’s book, describing a fictional world based on the things they see in the real one.

In Muaddi Darraj’s fiction, I hear her protagonist’s inner voice and see her family, friends, and culture. For example, in more than one story in “Inheritance of Exile,” the protagonist’s parents hang a blue stone to fend off the evil eye. I don’t know much about Palestinian culture, so I have no way to know if they do indeed follow this ritual. But it wouldn’t make sense for the author to invent such a thing. Even though I don’t know for sure if the blue stone is “real,” her story connects me to old world hopes and fears.

In one story, the protagonist was criticized by her mother for sitting in a way that she revealed the bottom of her foot, a gesture considered an insult. I found this detail interesting. Then, a few weeks after reading it, I saw a news article in which an Iraqi threw his shoes at President Bush as a highly publicized insult. Aha! External corroboration.

The character’s father ran a sandwich truck in Philadelphia. It reminded me of the truck parked outside the University of Pennsylvania, where I often bought my lunch during the years I worked there. The Lebanese guys who made delicious falafels were lovely and even though I was just a customer, I soon felt close to them. “Inheritance of Exile” now lets me imagine additional dimensions of their lives. For the first time I think of their whole situation, raising American children in an immigrant home in Philadelphia. This book of fiction, of invented reality, expands my understanding of the real people around me.

Coming of Age has changed over the decades
When I was growing up, I read several Coming of Age stories such as “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and “Portrait of the Artist” by James Joyce. The protagonists of these books were full of angst, disenfranchisement, anomie – moods that were hallmarks for their times, when readers and publishers focused on the existential problems of young men. Times have changed.

Forty years later, Inheritance of Exile offers a different view of Coming of Age, describing this life journey through a female author’s eyes at the beginning of the Twenty First Century. Her struggles for social and emotional wholeness sound very different than the authors I read in high school, and deepens my understanding of the search for identity in today’s culture.

To read my essay on the shifting gender orientation of contemporary literature – click here

Immigrants are us
My parents grew up in Philadelphia, children of immigrants. I know so little about how that felt, and now it’s too late to ask. But I can learn a little more about the experience of children of immigrants by reading stories. For example, one of Darraj’s characters resented her mother’s accent because it sounded foreign. This resentment felt eerily familiar.

My maternal grandmother was born in the United States, and through fanatical attention to elocution, had developed a Proper British accent. Her husband immigrated from Russia when he was a young man, and sixty years later, he still pronounced the letter “W” as if it was a “V.” According to family lore, my grandmother was not particularly fond of him, and now I wonder how much his pronunciation grated against her ambition to become unambigously American. I’m starting to realize that one reason my parents never taught me Yiddish or talked about the Old Country was that they wanted to forget their past.

Susan Muaddi Darraj’s character, like other immigrant children, wanted to blend in with Americans and yet at home she had to relate to a very different culture. This character’s emotions teach me about my own grandparents, my parents and myself.

Literature is a window into society
Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, in his lecture series “Understanding Literature and Life” claims that literature portrays the world and culture of the author, so for example to learn how Greeks thought, we read Greek plays. And one place to seek insight into an Arab immigrant community in South Philadelphia might be in the stories of “Inheritance of Exile.” They contain emotionally compelling situations that capture my attention and transport me to a world that feels authentic, even though they make no claim to factual reporting.

Writing Prompt
What community or social phenomenon does your memoir explore?  How do characters in your story behave towards each other? What lessons do you detect in the unique workings of your family? Look for an anecdote that might evoke some powerful observation about families or communities, tension among people, or aspirations to gain entry into privileged social situations.

Links

For more about Philadelphia Stories, click here
Click here Susan Muaddi Darraj’s home page
Amazon page for “Inheritance of Exile”
To hear the wonderful lecture series, “Understanding Literature and Life” by Arnold Weinstein published by the Teaching Company click here.

Are Memoirs True?

by Jerry Waxler

Harry Bernstein, author of the recently published memoir, “The Dream” describes a conversation with his mother in which he offers to support her. She hated the idea.

“What about college?” she says.

“I can put off going to college until I’ve made enough money to pay for it and leave you some.”

“No!” She said this with so much emphasis that the plan I’d just conceived was crushed immediately.

This argument took place at the beginning of the Great Depression and he wrote it in his memoir, “The Dream,” almost 80 years later. Are you wondering if he remembered the conversation in exact detail? I, am too, hoping to balance memory on the razor’s edge of Truth.

When we read fiction, we believe all sorts of wild things — travels to foreign galaxies, imagining fantastic creatures. But when we read memoirs we want to believe the events really happened. This is more complicated than it first appears. Memory is slippery. For example, I can not guarantee the exact words even a few minutes after a conversation. And when siblings talk about their childhood, it’s rare that they agree on the facts. Absolute truth, it appears, can never be pinned down like a butterfly on a cork board.

So how can I trust Harry Bernstein’s memory? It’s simple. I set aside my doubts, and enter the book “as if” it’s true. Here’s the contract I mentally construct with him. “He’s doing his best to capture the fluttering essence of Truth and I am doing my best to believe it. Together we walk through this particular rendition of the dream of life.”

When Harry Bernstein walked past a row of employment offices, pushing through the mob of hungry men trying to get a glimpse of the help-wanted posters, I didn’t need to fact-check his work. And anyway, there’s no way I could. When I set aside doubts and enter the scene, Bernstein’s words conjure up an image from the Great Depression that satisfies me emotionally and intellectually.

Some authors make this contract explicit
To research my own memoir, I peer into my memories. Some come to mind with an almost cinematic clarity, and others start out hazy and then reluctantly yield their secrets, eventually forming a convincing picture. In neither case, do I have absolute proof of their truth. So I am forced to make a deal with my own memory. After I have pondered, checked against any factual records that are available, and made my best effort, if I want to stay sane and enjoy the journey of my own life, I accept my own memories. If I don’t, I end up doubting myself, which diminishes the richness and pleasure of being me.

To see how other memoir writers deal with these issues, I look back through the memoirs I’ve been reading, and find a variety of statements authors use to help set the reader’s expectations. In the preface to Kate Braestrup’s memoir “Here If you Need Me” she says that to maintain the anonymity of her characters she went beyond changing their names. She distorted the descriptions of their towns. I enjoyed her book each of the three times I read it, and was never bothered by the alteration of these facts.

Nic Sheff’s “Tweaked” contains a broader disclaimer. “This work is a memoir. It reflects the author’s present recollections of his experiences over a period of years. Certain names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed, and certain individuals are composites. Dialogue and events have been recreated from memory and, in some cases, have been compressed to convey the substance of what was said or what occurred.”

With or without disclaimers, as far as I can tell, writers have been approximating reality since the beginning of time. The earliest stories I know, Homer’s “Odyssey” in the West, and the “Bhagavad-Gita” in the East, appear to be based on some unknowable conglomeration of history and imagination, through which we see glimpses of their world, exotic in the differences from our own, and uncanny in the similarities.

Is it really that simple?
Not everyone agrees with me that Truth can be approximated. Some people seem terrified that they have no way to prove their memory. Their voices pinched and clipped, they demand Truth. I am reminded of the endless bickering between my mother and her sister. These two women, apart in age by 10 years, argued bitterly about the facts of their childhood.

When the topic of Truth comes up in a memoir writing workshop, people speak faster, interrupting each other to express fear of betrayal, and bewilderment about the slipperiness of memory. Inevitably someone raises the specter of James Frey, whose memoir “Million Little Pieces” was recommended by Oprah. Later, it was revealed that he had misrepresented crucial facts. Oprah brought him back on her show and in front of millions of people demanded like an outraged mother to her lying son, “How dare you?”

For some readers this spectacular episode infects all memoirs with an aura of deceit. Others shrug their shoulders, unwilling to let one betrayal ruin their trust, believing that most authors will do better. Surely this lack of agreement demonstrates beyond any doubt that there is no single answer. It boils down to this rather confusing fact. Each of us has our own definition of what is True.

My position is that the most important reality is the one you know. This person-centric view lets me stay curious about people, even when they see the world differently than I do. Of course, you might disagree with my definition of Truth, and your perspective is every bit as valid as mine. But let me offer one observation to support my position.

We go to art museums, longing for a glimpse of the world through the artist’s eyes. These images we see of starry skies and fields of flowers are not valuable because they are Truth. Our yearning to see them is based at least in part on the desire to learn a different way of looking at the world. Memoirs provide the same benefit.

So rather than be threatened by the fear of lying, I take the opposite approach. I am exhilarated by the joy of trying. To understand the way life unfolds for other people, I open up to the sharing of their best approximation. By accepting the stories of others, as they remember, I am able to see through their eyes things I could never see through my own. And as I build trust for them, I gain a powerful side effect. I increase my trust in myself, strengthening my acceptance that there are valuable insights hidden within my memories. By aspiring to tell my story, I can learn about my own life, share it with others, and increase the value of my journey now and in the future.

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Note
For more information about Harry Bernstein’s “The Dream”
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For more information about Nic Sheff’s memoir, “Tweaked”
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Click here for my essay about Tweaked

Story untangles distorted memories and reveals truths

by Jerry Waxler

(Listen to the podcast using the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

During one fateful day in ninth grade, I discreetly positioned a science fiction book on my desk and was reading it while the English teacher droned on. I was so absorbed in the exploration of the galaxy that Mr. Disharoon walked up behind me, caught me red handed and confiscated the book. I always assumed the ‘C’ I received in that class, my only ‘C’ in high school, was based more on revenge than poor performance.

The first version of that story, the one that automatically comes to mind, looks at Mr. Disharoon as the villain, a self-righteous jerk who busted me for reading in his English class. How ironic! Later when I was rejected from a highly competitive college, I blamed Mr. Disharoon’s mean spirit.

Now that I write about that incident, I look deeper, and I immediately see flaws in my original version. For one thing, I was the one who was breaking the rules, and he was doing his job by enforcing them. It would be self-serving of me to forgive myself for the crime, while blaming him for the punishment. I shift to his point of view. Through his eyes I see a bratty kid who doesn’t seem interested in learning.

I spot another problem with the proposition that Mr. Disharoon ruined my life. This was not the only English class I struggled with. The following year, in a rare visit to a teacher’s office, I went to ask my tenth grade English teacher Mr. Barsky for help. I wasn’t doing well in his class, either. The final blow to my interpretation of events came a few weeks ago, when I was corresponding with a fellow writer. I was telling her I sprinkle commas or semi-colons wherever the mood strikes me. She seemed surprised, pointing out the pleasures and virtues of correct punctuation. The conversation sounded familiar. I realized I’ve often defended myself as a “free spirit” amidst the rules of English. Ah-ha! I was reading the science fiction book because I didn’t care about my teacher’s stupid rules. I deserved the ‘C’.

I am fascinated to discover that I have permitted this important story of my past to remain in its original form for decades. To learn more, I look more closely at the characters. As a young man, I was almost obsessed with obedience, so when I was caught in such a defiant act, I was not only breaking rules. I was undermining my own self image. It was overwhelming to think I’d blown it so badly, so instead of taking the blame myself I shifted it over to Mr. Disharoon. He was the jerk, not me. This “logic” made sense when I was 14 years old. Once I had developed this explanation, it took on a logic of its own. The thousandth time I remembered the episode, I saw it the same way I did when it first happened.

But wasn’t there any truth at all to my original interpretation? How could I have been so far off the mark? I look for evidence to prove Mr. Disharoon was a spiteful man, but I can’t find any. In fact, his office provided a hang out for a coterie of adoring students. I stick myself back into the scene, and try to understand what I was thinking. At that time in my life, I had fallen so deeply in love with science fiction books that when I read one, I became lost in its world and couldn’t let it go. Robert Heinlein’s “Tunnels in the Sky” had seduced me into joining a band of explorers stranded on a remote planet, facing the dangers of the mysterious stobors and that was preferable to being in an English class. When Disharoon snatched my book he ripped me away from that world. I felt violated. I see his face, ordinarily pale, now flushed under snow white hair. In addition to being disgusted with myself, I realize I was angry with him.

All these years, I’ve been focused on my belief that he didn’t like me, but now I recognize my own feelings of dislike. This realization shocks me. As a “good boy” I took great pride in my obedience to teachers. They were the gods of my world, and in order to succeed, I needed to serve them, even worship them when possible. Now as I hear his bass voice and his exaggerated elocution as if he was some kind of damned radio announcer, he seems full of himself. Pompous. What did he know? Screw him and his damned rules. I was such an obedient robot-like teen, this memory stands out as the only example of defiance from those years. That’s kind of cool! I had guts in a nerdy sort of way.

All of these lessons about myself come from the simple act of trying to tell a proper story. When I tried writing it in the form it has always presented itself in my mind, it didn’t sound right. To turn it into a readable story I had to strip away the layers of self-righteousness and expose the actual events. In the process, I feel lighter. I’ve released my load of blame and I learned more about the events that shaped me.

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Writing Prompt: Select a memory in which you felt hurt or wronged. (Be sure it’s a safe one. Don’t jump into a memory unless you are ready.) Step back from your own feelings, and especially from your sense of outrage, and describe the situation the way an observer would who was not partial to either party.

Note: The book I was reading in high school was Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky about a group of young people who were exploring the universe through “tunnels” or “wormholes.” The warning they were given to beware of the “Stobors” turned out to be a meta-warning, which really meant “Beware of some unknown danger which you don’t know about now but it’s out there.” “Beware of the stobors” has become one of those classic Robert Heinlein phrases that has passed down through generations of his readers.