Why Memoirs Should be Taught as Literature Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the first part of a three part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I explain how my love for literature helped unravel me and I introduce the way memoirs by literature professors suggest a new approach.

 

When I was thirteen years old, I discovered that all the interesting stuff happened inside books. I grabbed every spare moment to lose myself in spaceships heading for distant galaxies. By the age of sixteen, in the early 1960s, I graduated from sci-fi to the great writers, such as Dickens, Dumas, and Twain. Their works, either assigned in school, or borrowed from my local library, took me on a wild ride through great adventures in fascinating times and places.

These authors were clearly geniuses at self-expression. I felt smarter when I read these books, but sadly I was only smart about the author’s invented world. I had learned almost nothing about how to become an adult. In fact, many of my favorite books provided in-depth examples of how NOT to become an adult.

For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the narrator seeks truth by attaching himself to a narcissistic caricature of a man. In the Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, a young man attempts to find his truths, not within his own world, but by leaving everything he knows. In Henry Miller’s novels, the author searches for himself through sexual liberation which leads him into emotional chaos.

My English teachers showed me how to appreciate elegant structure, fine turns of phrase, and symbolism. However, when I lost myself in each book, I ignored their interest in history and technique. Instead, I left my own boring mind behind and entered the crafted intellectual framework created by the author. It turned out this was not a good idea.

I spent hours in disturbing worlds such as those created by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. From them, I learned that the future was going to be grim and hopeless. So when the angry anti-war riots began in the mid-60s, I wasn’t only fighting against the war. I was fighting for my soul, hoping to escape the helplessness my anti-heroes had inspired.

Protest marches and riots did nothing to restore my hope, so I returned to the method of escape that I knew so well, clinging ferociously to literary geniuses who took me into ever darker perspectives. Samuel Beckett completely deconstructed reality in his plays and novels. Joseph Heller in Catch 22 introduced a mocking cynicism to World War II. Ferdinand Celine smashed the notion of the novel, turning the very form into a distorted shape that made me gasp with pleasurable pain. I was drowning, and instead of throwing me lifelines, my literary heroes were teaching me how to drown better.

For example, I identified with the boy in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis who grew up and turned into a beetle. Growing up cost him his innocence and his parents’ love. Kafka’s book, along with so much of the literature of the day, hammered home the point that by entering adulthood we would lose our souls.

Arthur Miller captured the essence of spiritually dead adults in Death of a Salesman. The play’s anti-hero Willy Loman tried to cope with his emptiness by deceiving himself. Humbert Humbert, the anti-hero of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, was an even creepier master of self-deception. Instead of blaming himself for sexually abusing a little girl, he blamed her, thus demonstrating how far adults will twist their own values in order to serve their own needs.

After years of absorbing these stories, I was terrified of adulthood, convinced that growing up would make me ugly and shallow. My parents believed that sending me to college would prepare me for life. By the end of those four years, I felt far less prepared to be an adult than when I started.

Why Humans Need To Direct Literature Back to its Central Goal
To maintain civilization, each generation must pass along sophisticated social lessons. In preliterate societies, these lessons were communicated in oral stories, with simple, powerful messages. But by the twentieth century, society seems to have forgotten this essential purpose of stories. Instead, stories were being used in one of two ways.

Stories were used as pure entertainment for the masses, with no lesson at all. Those were the genre fiction novels and movies, the thrillers and mysteries, comedies and romances. And for the educated elite, stories became intellectual playthings to be admired for artistic sophistication, but again with no particular emphasis on helping kids understand life.

As an intellectual young man, I desperately sought lessons about life. Unfortunately, I was born at a time when the message embedded in almost every book taught that there’s really no point to grow up at all. It’s true that great literature contained an internal elegance and brilliance, but the underlying message was awful.

Memoirs Demonstrate How Literature Ought to Work
Forty years later, I learned valuable lessons peeking out from behind the twists and turns of literary stories. My belated insight came from reading Professor Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita In Tehran. As an English literature professor in Iran, she tries to convince her students that Western literature is not evil. She uses the villain in Nabokov’s Lolita as an example. According to Nafisi, Humbert Humbert’s manipulation of a little girl reveals the corrupt morality of turning women into things.

Through Nafisi’s eyes, Nabokov’s novel becomes an important window into the dark secrets of the human psyche. It’s quite simple, really. He is embedding the message in irony, saying one thing and meaning another. But to explain this lesson to her students, as well as to us, her readers, she uses an incredibly tricky device. She simply walks outside her classroom into the streets of Iran, where armed thugs treat women like things.

By artfully describing the events and their impact on her, she turns her life from a series of events into literature. While she teaches her students about Nabakov’s book, she uses her own life-as-literature to teach us about our place in the world.

For example, she recounts an episode that occurs one morning when she attempts to enter campus. A guard angrily blocks her. “Take that rouge off this instant. Don’t you know that it is a criminal act?” The guard rubs Nafisi’s face raw trying to get off the red, which is in fact her own natural coloring. The incident leaves Nafisi feeling violated and naked.

Thanks to Nafisi’s brilliant writing and a lifetime of symbolic thinking, she spins the two parallel dimensions, weaving together her real world experience with her intellectual insights into the literature.

My English teachers did not have the advantage of showing us reality. Instead, they were limited to the lessons inside the books, making the incorrect assumption that I didn’t need to learn lessons about life. Nafisi’s ability as a memoir writer adds a crucial dimension to her teaching toolkit allowing her to help students grow up.

When I first read Lolita so many years ago, I felt disgusted by Nabokov’s clever trick of taking me inside the mind of a creepy man who has no ability or interest in self-reflection. In my youthful view, the novel provided more proof that adults stink. Now, with Azar Nafisi’s help, I see a sophisticated insight into the darkness of manipulative men who use women as things. It would have been a good lesson, but because it was couched in irony, in the distorted viewpoint of a first-person anti-hero, the lesson was out of my reach.

Because memoirs are written “straight” (not “slant”) and from a first person point of view, it is easy and natural to enter Azar Nafisi’s world and feel her pain. By letting me experience what it is like to be on the receiving end of abuse, she makes me want to cry or vomit about the way millions of women are treated, just a few thousand miles away. Thankfully, her story also provides hope by revealing the compassion of people such as Nafisi herself, who risk their own safety to help kids build up their self-esteem.

In the second part of this essay, I describe how the Memoir Revolution is providing the tools that could help literature classes link the essential tool of Story to the essential task of growing up.

Epilog to Part 1
It has been forty-five years since I have been a student of an English literature professor, so I consider the possibility that in recent times, literature professors have expanded their view of literature to include not just the author’s world but the reader’s as well. To learn more, I turned to the friendship I formed with Robert Waxler, an English professor at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who wrote two excellent memoirs, and happens to have the same last name as me.

His two memoirs share a lifetime of love for literature, as well as for his two sons, so I assumed he would be able to relate to my passion for life lessons. However, in a book he recently wrote about English literature, the Risk of Reading, he describes in detail the method of line by line explication, attempting to take us into the lines of great literature with the reverence usually associated with scripture. In my opinion, this approach glorifies complexity and undermines the value of literature as a teaching tool for social development. Click here to read the review I wrote about his Risk of Reading. Click here for an essay about his memoir Courage to Walk, and here for an interview I conducted with Robert Waxler about the relationship between literature and life.

However, in two other memoirs by literature professors, I discover that Azar Nafisi is not alone in her application of literature as a tool for life.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, by literature professor Karen Swallow Prior reveals how literature helped her steer through the challenges of growing up, and like Nafisi, she teaches her college students how to see their own lives reflected in literature. Click here for my essay about Booked by Karen Swallow Prior.

In Freedom Writer’s Diary, Erin Gruwell shows her high school students how literature could help them find their own higher truths and then goes further to show how writing about their own lives can deepen their search for truth. Click here for my essay about Freedom Writer’s Diary

Notes

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

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

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

3 thoughts on “Why Memoirs Should be Taught as Literature Part 1

  1. I enjoyed your take on your reading history. I highly recommend a new memoir by Laila Al-Sissi called Out From the Shadows of Men. It takes place in Egypt and supports what Azar Nafisi’s book says about women being seen as objects. It is exceptionally well written.

  2. Jerry– I feel the struggle you went through on all this. Great writing here. I am still not sure there is really al ot of difference between a well-written novel and a well-written memoir, though. In both cases, you are shaping a world and through that shaping you give some meaning to it. But that shaping makes that world “fictional” in an important sense. No?

  3. Hi Bob, thanks for the compliment about my writing. Since you are one of the main inspirations for me writing this article, I’m glad to see you are following it. Naturally all nuances and disagreements are welcome. I have learned a lot from our open exchange and am happy to think about my own position in relationship to yours. Let me know what you think about the next couple of installments. I extended the article to three parts to make room for some neuroscience. It’s always good to have a little neuroscience to back up one’s position. Jerry

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