Author Interview: Memoir into Fiction

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

After years of working on her story as a memoir, Wendy Baez switched to fiction. In my previous article, [click here to read it], I commented on my own observations about the impact of her novel Catch a Dream. In today’s post, I share our conversation in which she explores insights, techniques, and recollections. Her perspectives are especially informative because she is also a writing teacher and coach.

Jerry Waxler: Catch a Dream describes such an intense experience. It surprises me that most of it really happened and that you started writing it as a memoir. Wow. Tell me more about the events that you actually lived through.

Wendy Brown Baez: The experience of being in Israel was incredibly profound and a story I was compelled to write. I arrived there as part of a Christian commune. After ten years of living together, we broke up in Israel. I had to de-program myself from group-think. Was it okay to be feminine? Was it okay to put my son in school? I hadn’t worked for ten years—we took in the homeless and lived on donations. It was a very emotional time of betrayal and disappointment. I was very idealistic and naïve and Israel brought me down to earth. The awakening I experienced was extraordinary and it happened in an extraordinary place.

Jerry Waxler: So if it was a story you knew you wanted to tell, why didn’t you ultimately publish it as a memoir?

Wendy Brown Baez: I spent years trying to write it as a memoir, but I kept struggling to get it right. One problem with the memoir is that I had already fudged some of the story, a touch of fiction in some scenes. For example my character’s first meeting with Levi is a composite of my memory and someone else’s.

Another problem was the complexity of my backstory. Living in a Christian commune seemed too complicated.. My backstory also included my being kidnapped and raped ten years earlier. I wanted the book just to be about my journey through Israel and I couldn’t figure out how to make it a memoir while stripping away all these extra storylines.

Jerry Waxler: What happened that switched you from memoir-writing mode to fiction writing mode?

Wendy Brown Baez: I attended the Bookbaby Independent Author’s Conference last year and left knowing I was going to publish with them. I have a stack of manuscripts so I had to make a choice.

One day I thought to myself what if I changed Catch a Dream to a novel? The names Lily Ambrosia and Rainbow Dove popped into my head. I immediately had a visual of these two young women and it just felt right. By changing it to fiction, I could remove all the backstory. This meant the story was less focused on reflecting on my experience and more focused on taking the reader on a journey. It meant I could make things up! It was very freeing to let go of the backstory.

I then had to add the backstory of what had motivated Lily and Rainbow to be on the road. I enhanced Lily’s sense of rootlessness. The descriptions remain the same and the pivotal scenes remain the same. Many of the conversations are recorded as they happened (in particular with Levi, Jonah, and Asher, and between Dov and Asher).

I did fall in love with a man who was very mysterious and who rejected me because I asked him to slow down, based on group advice. I made up the conversations between Lily and Rainbow and embellished their personalities. I took out mental meanderings and journal entries.

Jerry Waxler: When you say “group advice”, I’m trying to visualize a group that could advise you on the specialized skill of translating real life experience into a novel. How did you manage to find such a group?

Wendy Brown Baez: This wasn’t a formal group, just people I asked to read my work. Some are writers, some not, but I worked with a professional editor on the longer memoir and it was quite a struggle. I had to explain everything as she had never had a ’60s experience of living freely and hitch-hiking and raising children together cooperatively. Another young writer friend said, I just don’t get why anyone would live that way. And yet, as soon as I changed the characters’ names and described what they were doing, people were nodding their heads and saying they could picture it.

The beta readers I picked to read Catch a Dream never saw my earlier memoir writing, only the novel as it reached completion. Some knew me and my story and some did not, some are writers but mostly I chose people who like to read, and some with Jewish backgrounds. Readers who know me try to figure out who the characters are in real life and which parts were true and are a bit confused until I tell them it is fictionalized!

Jerry Waxler: In Catch a Dream, you mention that you had been violently raped. This is such a profound, disruptive experience. I wonder how much of your journey in Israel was really a search for healing from that trauma.

Wendy Brown Baez: I have written (and shared publicly) other stories and poems about the rape. I didn’t want it to be the central theme of the book, I wanted to emphasize the search for personal and spiritual meaning. The healing started in Israel, instigated by standing up to the attacker (true story) but it took trauma therapy years later to fully heal. (more stories!)

Jerry Waxler: I love some of your long paragraphs where Lily goes into amazing reveries. I’m not sure what to call them, “riffs” or “rants” or “internal soliloquys” – these are just so lovely and powerful, some of the coolest writing I’ve seen in a memoir. What can you tell me about that style of writing?

Wendy Brown Baez: The inner workings of my thoughts came out of journaling. I wrote Catch a Dream separately from the longer memoir because the experience of living in Israel was so dynamic and complicated and extraordinary and deserved its own book. I am also a poet, a performance poet, so the riffs maybe come from my poetic voice. One advantage of fictionalizing is that I can exaggerate impacts, responses, and emotions. (Lily’s lament, It’s all my fault. Rainbow’s accusatory conversation with Levi: fiction)

Riff tends to mean short repetitions (in music), soliloquies are like talking to yourself: these are short monologues meant for an audience. I just wrote them because these things were on my mind, but I really don’t know what to call them. Inner reflections meant to be shared….

I was reading a lot of Anais Nin at the time I wrote those journals. She wrote down everything that happened to her and her reactions, very detailed insights into a woman’s psyche and emotions, analyzing herself and others. In fact, I used to wonder how she got anything else done! She was married to two men at the same time, wrote erotica for money, and based her novels on her true life experiences. In a way, her entire diaries are riffs!

Jerry Waxler: Would you have kept these lovely “riffs” if you had published it as a memoir?

Wendy Brown Baez: I would have kept the riffs in the memoir but I did take some liberties with style, for example I switch to second person in the bar scene, that maybe wouldn’t work as well in memoir. I would say that the inner thoughts and emotional responses came from my direct experience and conversations and some scenes were fictionalized. As a writing instructor I believe that the more we know ourselves, become aware of our inner workings and reflect on our writing process, the better we can create characters that resonate emotionally with readers. I give my participants questions to ponder such as What are you afraid to write about? What do you want people to know about you? How can you view your actions differently? as a tool for self-discovery– I think that makes us better writers. So memoir and fiction blend in self-reflection.

Jerry Waxler: What more can share about the experience of turning it from a memoir to a novel?

Wendy Brown Baez: Because the story was originally written as memoir, people respond to it as if it is true. Readers after publication say, This sounds just like you! The line between memoir and fiction are blurred and I am hoping it’s a good thing!

I have to gently remind them that Lily’s opinions and observations may be flawed. I do not want to be considered an expert on Israeli history or politics–I hope that a novel with a flawed main character will excuse me!

To show that Lily became assimilated into Israeli (therefore Jewish) culture gradually, I fabricated the story about how she lost her cross. In real life, I returned home still wearing my cross, although I kept a kosher kitchen and Jewish holidays. (My Israeli boyfriend used to say I was more Jewish than he was!)

I also knew that by keeping the memoir’s structure and pace, it was not a traditional novel. There is not a definitive cliff hanger or a resolution and that’s why the questions in the back are very important to me. I wanted to raise questions more than answer them.

After I had the first copy in my hands I realized that it is my love letter to a country embroiled in conflict.

Notes
Catch a Dream by Wendy Brown-Baez
Wendy Brown-Baez’s home page

For my article about the impact Catch a Dream had on me, and some of the life lessons and memoir lessons I drew from the novel, click here.

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

Journals of Spiritual Awakening Turn into a Novel

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

My soul trembled in empathy when reading Wendy Baez’s novel Catch a Dream. The main character traveled through the Land of Israel desperately seeking the elusive truth that lies at the intersection of culture, religion, and self.

The main character’s search for spiritual sanctuary in the land of milk and honey echoes an ancient story I prayed about every Saturday. As I grew older, I discovered that across the globe, billions of people look for guidance from a a man who walked in this same land.

Despite all these reasons to be curious, I had never pictured myself wandering through contemporary Israel. After I read Catch a Dream, I can’t get that image out of my mind.Catch a Dream Wendy Baez

How did Wendy Baez create such a moving story about a woman traveling with her ten year old son, penniless, looking for handouts like a modern version of an ancient pilgrim? It sounds like the fever dream of a novelist driven to invent an extreme plot that would provide the backdrop for a modern Biblical story.

But it wasn’t a fantasy. The author really went on such a trip with her son. For many months, she tried to find herself reflected in the eyes and hearts and even the history of the people of Israel. She kept copious notes about her soulful experience, hoping to someday turn them into a book.

Despite years trying to transform her experience into a memoir, she couldn’t figure out how to construct a good story from her actual tricky detours and complex subplots. Finally, she decided to write it as fiction. That decision freed her to modify it to suit her storytelling needs.

The authenticity and psychological power of her main character arises straight from the author’s journals. By calling it fiction she could distance herself from the constraints of truth and zero in on the dramatic urgency. The book grew strong and deep when nourished by the influences of both fiction and memoir.

By reading and analyzing a number of fiction authors who turn to real life for characters and situations, (see notes) I learned how memoirs and novels differ in more ways than just fact versus fake. The two genres of writing invite different story arcs.

A fiction reader might expect this novel to end with the main character marrying and settling down. But Wendy Baez’s actual journey ended on a more ambiguous note. That’s where Catch a Dream blurs the line between the two forms. Instead of ending the novel with a fantasy ending, she allows the character to sound like a real person, with deep ambiguous needs.

Because the authenticity of the character arises from Wendy Baez’s own emotional complexity, her supposedly fictional novel took me on one of the most authentic searches for self I have ever read.

In addition to a search for self, Catch a Dream was a great story about Israeli identity, about ex-pat life, an awesome ode to the character’s best friend, an unbelievably conflicted love relationship, and a “love letter to Israel.” Each of these themes offered a good reason to read the book.

Reading memoirs and writing my own has sensitized me to the psychological journey of being a human being. For example, the psychological trials of being a parent, of being addicted to drugs, of losing a loved one, etc. Among the many aspects of being human that I have learned from reading stories, is the challenge of become an adult. Catch a Dream takes me on a fascinating, unique ride through that critical stage.

When any young person attempts to leave the nest and launch into the wider world, they must accept certain assumptions about what it means to be an adult. For example, they need to earn a living, find a relationship, start a family, and so on. Not every young person easily accepts these conditions. I have read some fascinating memoirs by people who, make mistakes or drag their feet while trying to transition from child to adult.

The most familiar impediment to becoming an adult is drug addiction. For example in Tim Elhaj’s memoir Dope Fiend, heroin addiction spoils his initial opportunity to step out into the world, and so he must reinvent himself in order to reach the next step. Dani Shapiro in Slow Motion  does the same thing with sex and cocaine. Both are excellent books by writers who spent many years “finding themselves” through writing.

In addition to drugs, another, more abstract, disruption often turns up in memoirs. A young person’s search for truth can provide a wall of confusion and pain, as it did for a number of authors.

For example, in his memoir Ashes in the Ocean  Sebastian Slovin had to make sense of his father’s suicide. In An Incredible Talent for Existing, Pamela Jane  needed to find herself amid the collective mental breakdown known as the 60s.

In the memoir New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, Elna Baker  struggled throughout her launching to decide whether to stick with the celibacy regulations taught by her Mormon roots, or to leave those rules and enter the ones offered by the dating game in New York City.

In the memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst, Mary Johnson,  refused to accept the social rules of marriage and family offered by her middle class upbringing. Instead, she made the radical decision to throw away conventions and join Mother Teresa’s religious order.

In my own memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World  my own upbringing and tendencies as a scientist and philosopher sounded good in theory, but as I tried to grow up in the sixties, my abstract ideas ran headlong into the complexity of real life.

Wendy Baez’s novel Catch a Dream is a perfect example of a launching story about a woman desperate for clarity about her relationship to spirituality and religion. To find herself, she joined a religious group (this took place outside the scope of her novel). Then she went out on her own, trying to find her own spiritual and religious homeland. She seemed obsessed by the thought: If Christ was here, shouldn’t I be too?

Catch a Dream is thought provoking at the intersection between childhood and adulthood, at the intersection between Christian, Jew, and Moslem, at the intersection between sexual love and committed relationship.

Her novel enriched me along each of these lines. And as if that wasn’t enough, her exemplary stylistic choices and talent made the novel an absolute pleasure to read. Some of her “riffs” or mental “soliloquys” are so passionate and clearly written, they seem like music.

To learn more, about her creative choices I interviewed Wendy Baez. Her comments offered lovely insights into the relationship between memoir and fiction. I’ll post that interview next week.

Notes
Catch a Dream by Wendy Brown-Baez
Click here for my interview with Wendy Brown-Baez about her decision to write her life experience as fiction.
Wendy Brown-Baez’s home page

Click here for links to other stops on Wendy Baez’s WOW Blog Tour

Click here to read my interview with Sharon Gerdes about turning her postpartum psychosis into a novel

Click here to read my article about Sharon Gerdes “fictional memoir”

Click here to read my interview with Israeli born novelist and writing teacher Naomi Gal talks about the relationship between her real experience as a person and the main character in her novel Daphne’s Seasons

Click here to read my article about a book of short stories The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly by Palestinian/American author Susan Muaddi Darraj

Click here to read my article about Xujun Eberlein’s book of short stories, Apologies Forthcoming about growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

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

Memoirs that ask who is my father?

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

In the memoir Ashes in the Ocean, Sebastian Slovin must find his own identity beneath the shadow of his father’s suicide.

At first, the dramatic tension results from the reader’s empathy for a boy who suffers the ultimate abandonment and betrayal. Over the course of the book, the tension increases because the boy fears he is doomed to repeat his father’s self-destructive pattern.

This fear sends him on an urgent chase to dig deeper into his father’s mind and then into his own. The book becomes a race with the clock. Will he find his truth before surrendering to the mad impulse to destroy himself?

At first he runs faster and faster. Ironically, his manic attempt to stay out in front of the fear unwittingly recreates his father’s own desperate need to win. To his father, coming in second place is a humiliating defeat, and Sebastian follows in his footsteps.

To save himself, Sebastian needs to back off. But emotionally, he seems incapable of going slower. He becomes famous (in certain circles) as a world class bodyboarder, (I didn’t even know there was such a thing). Then a yoga teacher. And most desperate of all, he seeks the goodness within himself in order to defeat the terrible fear of following his father into suicide.

Many memoirs lead readers through the challenge of finding one’s own identity. Other memoirs require healing from a loss. Ashes in the Ocean combines these two psychological goals. In order to clarify his own identity, the author must make peace with his father’s life and death.

Sebastian anxiously interviews his father’s old friends, digs up old newspaper articles and letters. However, when emotional wounds cut this deep there is the danger that knowledge and research will only lead to an intellectual understanding, adding more dramatic tension to the search and resulting in a “dark night of the soul” resolution that allows these lessons to penetrate all the way to his heart.

The implied meta-lesson of every memoir is the hope that the reader might be able to grow by sharing the author’s experience. In the epilog, Sebastian Slovin explicitly states his hope. He says:

“While everyone will have their own path on this journey, it’s important to remember we are not alone. Many of us have been affected, whether personally or through a friend or loved one, by mental illness and/or suicide. There is a part for all of us to play in working to raise awareness and to overcome the stigma around suicide and mental illness. My hope is that this book serves as an inspiration to others to share the stories that need to be shared and to listen deeply to the stories that need to be heard.”

This is the essence of the Memoir Revolution. Through sharing our stories, we are normalizing the hard work of our inner journeys and giving others the tools to share their own.

Writing Prompt

What mystery about your father (or mother) nags at you and makes you wonder how it affects some of your own quest to find yourself?

How did this mystery (answers or lack of them) influence your self-image while you were trying to find your own identity?

Your unique story has universal aspects

This deep need to make sense of one’s father (or one’s mother) in order to understand one’s self shows up again and again in memoirs.

If you feel that your memoir writing journey is leading you toward this quest to make better sense of one or both parents, or you want to make better sense of people who have already written about that journey, here are some more examples.

Search for Father

Chasing the Hawk: Looking for my Father, Finding Myself by Andrew Sheehan
Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer
Drama by John Lithgow  A famous actor traces the roots of his career back to his father’s influence.
Dreams from my Father: A story about race and inheritance by Barack Obama
Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House by Miranda Seymour

In the Shadow of Fame by Sue Erikson Bloland. Daughter of the famous psychologist, Erik Erikson saw him as a narcissist and a woefully inadequate father, in the grip of his own public image.

Reading my Father by Alexandra Styron, William Styron’s daughter,
The daughter of the great author trying to dig into his personal archives to get to know him better than in his impersonal presence.

Breaking the Code Breaking the Code: A Father’s Secret, a Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything by Karen Fisher-Alaniz

Search for Mother

Who is my mother is also at the heart of many memoirs.

One of the best is James McBride’s Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother, trying to make sense of his Jewish mother who would never permit anyone in her black family to acknowledge she was white.

Three more words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter
An adopted woman trying to approach and make peace with her biological mother.

She’s Not Herself: A psychotherapist’s journey into and beyond her mother’s mental illness by Linda Appleman Shapiro

Search for Ancestral context

The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood by Helene Cooper

Linda Joy’s memoir Don’t Call Me Mother trying to understand a damaged parent And She’s Not Herself, trying to understand her damaged mother’s influence
and Song of the Plains, to understand her deeper psychological roots

Mistress’s Daughter by AM Homes
Alex’s Wake: The Tragic Voyage of the St. Louis to Flee Nazi Germany—and a Grandson’s Journey of Love and Remembrance by Martin Goldsmith

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

Memoirs heal the moral injury of rape

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Some memoirs take me so far into the darkness of human experience, I must struggle through my own moral despair in order to read. And yet despite my revulsion, I forge ahead. Why do I or any of us do this? The answer reveals one of the pillars of the modern memoir movement.

Memoir readers trust that in exchange for our willingness to accompany the author through hell, the story will also show positive forces that elevate our spirits. Such qualities as effort, wisdom, compassion, and spirituality carry us back to hope. After reading 100s of memoirs, I have never been disappointed. Every author has maintained his or her part in this implicit bargain.

Take one of the more horrific ones, for example — Lucky, by Alice Sebold. The cops called her “lucky” because her rapist didn’t kill her. Recently I read another memoir, if possible even more terrible than Sebold’s. Leona Stucky in her memoir Fog of Faith was raped, not by a stranger but by her boyfriend. Then, through a series of deadly threats against her and her family, he coerced her into marrying him. Even after she escaped, he continued to hunt her down.

As if the violence itself wasn’t bad enough, the normal avenues of justice and healing were cut off, adding to the author’s despair. For one thing, the laws of the time were so strongly influenced by patriarchal marriage, the police were unable to intervene. And second, Leona Stucky grew up as a devout Mennonite. Her community’s passivism assured her that God would defend the innocent.

One predatory man stole years of her life. His repeated assaults led to PTSD. In addition, he wrecked her faith in God, forcing her into an absurdist fog, where she vacillated crazily between refusing to believe he existed at all to wanting to blame him for all her problems. In a sense, his behavior destroyed her at a moral level.

Stucky’s experience brought her face to face with evil, and forced her into a personal battle with the age-old theological question “How could a loving God permit evil?” Theologians call this the Theodicy Problem and have spent thousands of years trying to answer it. In the last few decades, psychologists have entered the debate, not so much to try to understand why it would happen but rather to help us recover from its ravages.

Moral injury and the betrayal of beliefs

The American psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, after years of working with Vietnam vets concluded that combat damages sanity in part because it destroys trust in a compassionate, well-ordered universe. Shay explained his proposal in the book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.

Since Shay gave Moral Injury a name, psychologists have been using the concept to learn how to help combat soldiers recover from PTSD. But combat is not the only cause for this disruption in moral order. Violent or sexual child abuse, rape, violent crime, terrorism, betrayal, and unexpected, untimely, or unexplainable loss of a loved one can all destroy one’s trust in a sane, safe universe.

At the time of their rapes, neither Alice Sebold or Leona Stucky had much guidance to help them repair the psychic damage of these horrific events. So each author went on a long journey to heal her own damaged soul. Reading their memoirs lets us join these two incredibly gifted intelligent women in their effort to repair themselves.

How could a loving God let this happen?

During Leona Stucky’s attempt to escape her spiritual wilderness, she fell in love with a divinity student. Their hours of debate about God’s purpose and presence continued for years.

Their discussions, and her own desperate longing for a loving God add a fascinating dimension to the story. In the end, she didn’t exactly solve theodicy problem. After all it has defied theologians for thousands of years. So if she didn’t resolve her theological struggle, how did she fulfill her implied promise to her readers to uplift us by the end?

To understand why her story helped her and me make better sense of evil, I turned to Alice Sebold’s memoir for an important clue.

At the time of her rape, Sebold was a student in a creative writing class at Syracuse University taught by Tobias Wolff. Wolff. His memoir This Boy’s Life became one of a handful of bestsellers that launched the modern Memoir Revolution. After she told him what happened, Wolff told Sebold to “remember everything.” His instruction guided her toward the eventual development of her book.

Perhaps that is the real reason Alice Sebold was lucky. In the thick of her suffering, her writing teacher handed her a tool that could help her process her pain. Sebold’s book helped her contain and share her moral injury and demonstrated that memoirs of horrific experiences offer an important tool for the modern mind.

Leona Stucky determination to write about her experience came after decades of wrestling with psychology and theology. In the end, Stucky came to the same conclusion as Alice Sebold. In order to survive the corrosive effects of her soulful wounds, Stucky felt ccompelled to wrap the whole painful ordeal, including a lifetime of heroic seeking for sanity, into a literary container.

The two authors, narrated their horrific traumas, and their long journey back to wholeness, thus revealing a profound psychological truth known to all cultures throughout history. Stories frame and contain our experiences, including suffering and evil, in a way that our minds (in particular the higher cognitive functions of the Prefrontal Cortex) can comprehend.

The Memoir Revolution has given us the opportunity to translate our experiences including ones that shake the very foundations of our emotional stability, into a sensible story. In this form, we can then share ourselves with compassionate readers.

Memoir readers can’t rescue the author from horrific experiences, but we do the next best thing. We use our social awareness, wisdom and love to help the author understand that her memories have now become incorporated into our shared experience. By converting private hells into sharable, socially accessible stories, we develop a language for collective hope and effort.

Leona Stucky’s story demonstrates the psychological struggle many of us face in midlife. Whereas earlier in our lives, in order to say energized, we did everything we could to dismiss or overlook the past, as we grow older, we find an increasing urgency to make sense of that past. And we can only do that through the development of our stories.

By teasing apart our journeys, especially the dark times, and the ensuing compassion and courage, scene by scene and chapter by chapter, we can deeply understand our own intellectual, psychological, and philosophical evolution.

And as memoir readers, we can accompany any number of sufferers of trauma, through their moral injury and then on their long journey to make peace within themselves. Through Story, we join together to release our shaming wounds into the embrace of social acceptance and appreciation.

Notes and Links

Leona Stucky’s Website
Check out Fog of Faith by Leona Stucky on Amazon

More articles on Memoirs and Moral Injury by Jerry Waxler
Alice Sebold and the moral injury of rape
Response to the moral injury of an untimely death of an infant
Repairing self-concept through memoir writing
Kate Braestrup’s solution to the theodicy problem
The moral injury of war
A website that explains  Moral Injury

More resources on moral injury
Recovery from child sexual abuse, Leaving the Saints by Martha Beck 
Documentary movie about combat vets and moral injury
Soul Repair at Brite Divinity School
Awesome interview with Leona Stucky about writing her memoir

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

Parent’s Story: Personal History or Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

In almost every memoir writing class or group, one person says “I really want to write about a parent.” Early in my study of the memoir genre, such a goal seemed off-point. After all, a memoir is a first-person introspect account of the author’s life experience.

However, over the years, by reading an ever-widening selection of memoirs, I have grown to respect the desire to contain all aspects of one’s life journey into the form of a story. Stories of parents run the gamut.

On one extreme are the author’s attempts to ghost write or inhabit their parent’s

Farewell Aleppo

earlier lives. Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Yaeko Sugama-Weldon and Linda E. Austin captures the first person account of Linda Austin’s mother growing up in pre-war Japan. Andrew X. Pham in Eaves of Heaven  tells the story, through his father’s eyes, of being caught in the cross fire of north and south during the Vietnam war. Both base their stories on intense interviews and the familiarity of a close personal relationship to get inside the perspective of the main character.

Linda Joy Myers, a thought-leader in the memoir movement wrote a whole memoir Song of the Plains, about her sometimes frustrating effort to see inside her ancestors’ points of view. Her story is a tale of reminiscences, speculation, interviews, and research.

Other authors such as Miranda Seymour, author of Thrumpton Hall  and Alexandra Styron, author of Reading my Father  dig into the archival records their father’s left behind, sprinkled with a smattering of the author’s own early memories. Alex’s Wake by Martin Goldsmith  chronicles the author’s maddening search in Europe to trace the tragic journey his uncle and grandfather made on the ill fated St. Louis when they tried and failed to escape Nazi persecution.

Barack Obama shared his insights into the African origins of his father (and by extension other African Americans) in Dreams of Our Fathers . And author Helene Cooper did the same in her memoir of growing up in Liberia, in House on Sugar Beach.

This desire to understand ancestors arises as a natural extension of the same curiosity that drives one to know one’s own story. And so when I come across another example of a child’s attempt to chronicle a parent, I accept it as an honorable and welcome contribution to the memoir literature. Even if such stories are not always able to go inside the protagonist’s inner perspectives, these authors do their best to learn how their ancestor’s history contributed to the author’s psychological evolution.

The latest example of this drive to find a parent’s life is Farewell Aleppo: My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home by Claudette Sutton.

A young girl knows her parents come from Syria but she doesn’t know what that means. And the stories she hears from various members are so complicated with various surprising twists and turns, with brothers who move from country to country, and return or don’t return to Syria. As a young woman, she has little hope of being able to sort it out into a coherent story.

Were her grandparents really from Syria? Most of the Jews she meets have ancestors from Europe. Her own family’s stories of middle eastern Jewish communities seem unreal.

As she matures and has kids of her own, she begins to wonder how she can learn more. Eventually she begins to ask questions and gather information. Through interviews and research she constructs the story of her father’s clan.

In gathering her father’s stories, she uncovers amazing features of twentieth century history, including some fascinating insights that are rarely known or discussed in our popular culture. into the cultural cross roads and sanctuary city. In addition to the existence of a large Syrian Jewish community, her father’s story provides insights into the existence of a substantial Jewish community in Shanghai, which swelled during World War II, with Jews looking for safe haven from the Nazis. In Claudette Sutton’s story, we can’t go deep into her father’s emotions as a young man. And yet, even without his internal voice, we can feel the thrill and nervous tension of watching the historic events of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, and other profound events that shaped the journey of this international group of souls who had been wandering for two millennia, looking for a safe home.

Typically a memoir is about the journey of an individual, and the narrative takes us deeply inside the author’s own point of view. Even though Farewell to Aleppo does not sit firmly within the point of view of either author or protagonist, it nevertheless offers a brilliant insightful story of the life of an ancestor. This form at the intersection of personal history and memoir brings alive the journeys of recent ancestors, supplying the author and her family with important information about their heritage and offering the rest of us a vibrant, personal view of the events of recent history.

Writing Prompt

What were your parents doing before you were born? Write down a few stories from family lore. If parents or other older relatives are still alive, ask questions to try to flesh in this folklore and develop the scenes and emotions that will turn them into stories.

Notes

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

A Mormon, Mennonite, and Jew Convert to Spirituality

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

I recently read two smartly-written memoirs that traced their author’s search for spiritual truths. Despite the fact that the two authors grew up in different religions, their paths were remarkably similar to each other. And as it happens, their journeys were remarkably similar to my own.

A Mormon, Mennonite and a Jew. When we reached our teen years, we began to view our parents’ religion more as a bond that connected families than a source of Truth. For answers to the deeper questions of human existence, all three switched allegiance, and viewed school as a place of worship.

But as we attempted to become adults, we ran into problems. While books could feed our intellect, our souls were starving. Eventually we couldn’t tolerate the pain. Something had to give. And so, each one of us was led to love and spirituality. The parallels and differences in our journeys provide three very different examples of how to find a relationship with a loving God, feeling guided by rules without feeling diminished by them.

Martha Beck

Martha Beck’s first memoir Expecting Adam leads readers on the author’s escape from Utah, the home of the Mormon church to Harvard grad school, arguably the Vatican of the Enlightenment.

After she becomes pregnant, she learns her fetus has the genetic code for Down’s Syndrome. Her Harvard colleagues assume the only smart choice is to terminate the pregnancy, leading her to a crisis at the intersection of love and science. She chooses love. But even though she is ready to reject Harvard, she is not yet willing to give up on her religion.

Martha Beck’s second memoir, Leaving the Saints takes place in Utah, where she returned to reclaim her faith and community. Over time she comes to believe that inclusion into her religious community demands intellectual dishonesty. After much soul searching she abandons her religion, turning instead to a belief in spirituality.

Martha Beck’s two memoirs synergize, each adding depth and wonder to the other. And yet each is a good read on its own.

Rhoda Janzen

In Rhoda Janzen’s first memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, a New York Times bestseller, she moves from her intellectually stimulating life in California to her laid back hometown in Michigan. Instead of hating her Midwestern town, she seems grateful for its simplicity. It turns out that even for a smart PhD, there is plenty of food for thought among the common people. The simple premise of “Returning Home,” (or Nostoi as they call it in Greek) drives this lovely story of self re-discovery.

In her second memoir Mennonite Meets Mr. Right, Janzen falls in love with a religious guy, not a restrained and proper Mennonite but a Pentecostal, the most intelligent but least intellectual guy she ever expected to love. She goes to church with him where she finds parishioners celebrating a joyous personal relationship with God. The book brilliantly teases apart the paradoxes between intellect, spirituality and religion.

Rhoda Janzen’s two memoirs, like Martha Beck’s, are each beautiful in their own right, and even better together. I listened to the audio versions, narrated by the author. With Janzen’s quirky, expressive voice and inventive use of language, she hosted one of my all-time favorite book listening experiences.

Jerry Waxler

The third of this trio is my own memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World, about my journey to the edge of sanity to find a belief system. In my teens, I lost interest in my Jewish upbringing. Growing into my intellectual birthright as a well-educated citizen of the Enlightenment, I thought that humans were completely crazy to have invented such an annoying unprovable concept as God. As far as I was concerned, calculus and physics were sufficient to solve all my problems.

During that crucial time in my life, when I should have been preparing for adulthood, I felt increasingly empty and confused. Maintaining absolute adherence to scientific thinking, I desperately searched for a belief system. Without one, I thought my mind would implode. When the pain became too great to bear, my intellectual rigidity burst and I discovered that the only way to stay sane was to allow in a spiritual dimension.

Memoirs enable us to describe introspective danger and redemption

In later years, when I looked back at my search for truth, I wondered how I would ever be able to describe my terrifying journey. But without any coherent language to explain my internal struggle, I could barely make sense of it myself.

In the early 21st century, what at first looked like a modest, inconsequential shift in book-buying tastes turned into what I call the Memoir Revolution. In this new wave, writing classes offer instruction and bestseller lists provide social context to help anyone turn disjointed memories into a story. That social permission to repackage my life into a story ushered me into a rewarding creative project, and plugged me into one of the most upbeat cultural movements of our time.

To immerse myself in the “Revolution,” I read hundreds of memoirs. From each one, I learned that it is possible to tell the story of one’s deepest hopes and fears.

Among my growing library of human experience, I began to notice other authors who also struggled to find authentic beliefs. For example, Dani Shapiro searched among wisdom traditions in Devotion. Deborah Feldman broke free from the micromanagement and misogyny of her Hasidic sect in Unorthodox. Nuns escaped the suffocating religiosity of their orders in order to find themselves, in The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong and An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson. And two mothers whose loss of a baby almost drove them crazy until they found spirituality: Lorraine Ash in Life Touches Life and Sukey Forbes in Angel in my Pocket.

These and other hints of spirituality showed me that memoirs are allowing us to expose our inner worlds.

My understanding of the power of this literary medium jumped up a notch when I discovered the two fabulous stories by Martha Beck and Rhoda Janzen. Like me, they devoted their precious life energy to find an authentic faith. I finally accepted I had found a real memoir subgenre, in which the search for a belief system was the central theme.

These three authors, Beck, Janzen, and I, agonized over our connection to family, broke free of those traditions in order to connect with the secular power of rationality, and then when that still wasn’t enough, had to agonize again. For each of us, losing our faith in the sacred truths of rationality was every bit as wrenching as losing a religion. The three memoirs end up in three different versions of the modern system of beliefs known as spirituality in which love provides the foundation for everything.

Historically we’ve expected religious leaders to dictate our relationship to a higher power. But in the great dispersal of autonomy in Western society, we continue to evolve from the authority of institutions to the wisdom of individuals. Each of us wants to know these truths on our own. And to learn those truths, we go on a journey. Memoirs enable us to share those journeys.

In high school literature classes I learned that it is possible for an author to encapsulate a whole world in the written narrative. I inhabited those brilliantly conceived fictitious worlds for a few hours. When I closed each book, I slid back into my own hidden inner world.

The Memoir Revolution is ushering in a new era that will help readers and authors solve some of the most profound problems of our times. Memoirs help us accept people who think and live differently from ourselves. These stories across the lifespan help us understand our own and each other’s stages of life. And they dive into the paradox of knowledge which, from a scientific viewpoint is unprovable and yet from a personal viewpoint is undeniably knowable.

The Memoir Revolution offers us a new instrument through which we can observe our own and each other’s inner worlds and find the common ground that unites us in our individuality. This is far more than just a literary movement. It introduces the potential for a new science of the soul.

Writing prompt
What spiritual or “belief system” features of your life are ending up in your published or work-in-progress memoir?

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

Tragedy and courage in memoirs

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Recently I read a terrifying memoir about a mother’s loss of her baby, Losing Malcolm by Carol Henderson. The book takes me on a journey of primal fear.

First, I ride her wave of unbridled hope for the new life growing within her, culminating in the otherworldly surge of love when the baby is born. The wave crashes when he is diagnosed with a life threatening birth defect. The surgeons lift her spirits from the depths of despair by offering hope for a rare risky neonatal open heart surgery.Losing Malcolm Carol Henderson

Long ago, I stopped exposing myself to fictional horror. Stopping monsters just isn’t worth the emotional turmoil. Now I ask myself why am I willing to accompany an author on her real life horror. To answer that question, I compare the two types of emotional journeys.

In both forms of storytelling, the evil is too great to be stopped by ordinary people. Additional help must be recruited. For example, when aliens from another galaxy invade earth, the military mobilizes. Eventually the military wins, the killing stops, and order is restored.

In the tragic memoir, Losing Malcolm, the “villain” at first is death. If the baby’s defective heart cannot be repaired, all hope is lost. The specially-trained heroes are called in. But when the risky heart surgery fails and the baby dies, the enemy instantly shifts. Death is no longer the enemy.

Now, the antagonist in the story is despair. Despair threatens to destroy the main character’s sanity, and disrupt her grip on the very meaning of life. The psychological horror of despair threatens to unravel everything. To defeat despair the hero must journey back to wholeness.

Perhaps reading a grieving memoir is a learned skill. When I started reading memoirs, years ago, I sometimes ran away from a book with too raw and painful a topic. But over the years, as I have grown more acclimated to the genre, I no longer slow down to ask myself “why should I put myself through that experience?”

By now, I have read many grieving memoirs. Throughout each one, I keep turning pages, accepting the hero’s pain as the price I pay for the generous, uplifting ending. The victory at the end of Losing Malcolm is the psychological realignment of the hero’s attitude and direction, so that she is able to absorb that tragedy and move back into a world that once again makes sense. By my willingness to walk hand in hand with an author who has been to the depths, I am also treated to the pleasure of that author leading me back into the light.

The pleasure of reading Losing Malcolm is enhanced by excellent story construction, a compelling writer’s voice, and a sprinkling of powerful inline excerpts from the author’s contemporaneous journals. These passages heighten the sensation of being right there with her. Good writing can’t remove the pain, but it does let the story reach deep into my heart, while I remain safely in my comfortable chair.

Reading memoirs has enhanced my appreciation for the many aspects of being a human being. By learning from each author’s journey, I become a deeper person with a greater range of understanding for the complex experiences my fellow humans must undergo. When I close one of these books, I feel not only wiser about the presence of evil in the world, but also about the uplifting power of courage and hope.

Writing Prompt
What situation in your life brought you so low you felt there was no point in going on, or you didn’t think you had enough sanity to even survive? Write an overview of the situation. Write a scene that shows your despair. Write another that shows your journey back to hope.

Notes

Carol Henderson’s Losing Malcolm page
Amazon link for Losing Malcolm

Other grieving parent memoirs of lost babies:
Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes, Amazon link
Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash.  Link to my article

Memoirs by grieving parents of young adult children
Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples Amazon link
Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Link to my article:
Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Link to my article

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

By reviewing her roots she continues to grow

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

After I finished reading Linda Joy Myers’ first memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother, I did what I always do. I allowed my imagination to retrace the journey. By actively imagining the story, and then finding words to express what I experienced as a reader, I completely absorb the story.

In addition to my immersion in the story itself, I look outside the book, at interviews, Song of the PLains by Linda Joy Myerscorrespondence or blog posts, for insights into the author’s experience of writing it. What motivation sustained her through the long, difficult journey to develop her own story? And by writing the memoir, how has she grown and changed?

In the case of Linda Joy Myers’ Don’t Call Me Mother, the way writing the memoir changed her life has been nothing short of astounding.

By writing the memoir, she discovered the power of turning the pain and confusion of childhood into a good story. The rewards she gained from this process inspired her to pass along the methodology to other people. She became a teacher, coach, thought leader and “connector.” By founding the National Association of Memoir Writers, she has helped thousands of individuals gain insight into their own memoir-writing process.

Linda Joy Myers’ experience demonstrates the powerful notion that writing a memoir can not only change your own life but also the lives of many people who come within its influence.

Now, after reading Linda Joy’s second memoir, Song of the Plains, I again pursue my two-part inquiry.

By allowing my imagination to retrace her steps through this memoir, I see us traveling together on an adult’s journey to understand her earlier self. The memoir is a call to the past, a need for finding the roots of the self, beyond one’s own childhood, into the roots of family and ancestors. The hero engages in a sort of angelic wrestling match between an individual who wants to understand her ancestral roots, and the mystery and unknowability of events that occurred years or even generations before the author was born.

The memoir is a heart-pulling saga, a seemingly never-ending, impossible quest to learn the past, and to reconstruct the story.

Her childhood pain forces her to seek deeper understanding of her parents’ childhood and then their parents. In attempting to see into the past she cries to the universe, begging for insight into the very meaning of human experience and culture!
Multi-generational trauma is the subject of a book by Mark Wolynn, one of the featured speakers on the NAMW webinar recently. In “It Didn’t Start with You” Wolynn speaks of his intense, desperate search to understand the meaning of his life. After years of seeking his inner truth in southeast Asia a guru told him that to heal himself, he needed to go home and heal his relationship with his parents. Linda Joy’s memoir seems to be based on the same insight. She searches for herself by returning to her roots.

Linda Joy Myers’ two memoirs, taken together, offer fascinating insights into the project of understanding one’s self. In the first one, I accompanied her on her hero’s journey trying to move past her childhood and become a full-fledged adult. In Song of the Plains, I returned with her, staring into the wounds of her ancestors, trying to pull all those pieces together too.

The two narratives beautifully illustrate the journey that all Coming of Age memoir writers travel. Like heroes traveling the Hero’s Journey, we must “go forth” and learn how to become actors in the world. Later, when we are ready to find and share the wisdom we have learned, we “return home” (or as the Greeks call it Nostoi), to write the memoir so we can learn what the heck that journey was all about.

By the end of Song of the Plains, I was exhausted. Did she find complete answers? Of course not! Unraveling her ancestors’ tangled emotional complexity would have required going back in time and spending years in therapy with each of them. But even though there were no complete answers, the memoir did offer a meta-message. The memoir affirms that looking back to the past is one of the tools we humans use in order to grow more healthfully and wholly toward the future.

Many of us who search for our stories are grateful that Linda Joy Myers discovered this beautiful technique to heal herself. Based on her experience of memoir as a healing art, she generously supports others on that same journey.

Now, I wonder how this second memoir worked and is continuing to work in Linda Joy’s own life path. To answer those questions, I must turn to Linda Joy, herself. The interview will continue in a separate post.

For more information about the National Association of Memoir Writers, click here:

To read  my interview (2010) with Linda Joy Myers about Don’t Call Me Mother Click here

To view the Amazon page for Don’t Call Me Mother click here

To view the Amazon page for Song of the Plains click here

A book about multi-generational trauma was featured on a recent free webinar, hosted by NAMW. It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn.

For excellent, haunting memoirs to find one’s self by searching within the experiences of an ancestor read these memoirs: Color of Water by James McBride, Alex’s Wake by Martin Goldsmith, The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes, Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood

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

Two Inspiring Memoirs about Suffering

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

I rarely shy away from the hardship portrayed in memoirs. On the contrary, I have come to expect that setbacks are milestones on the road to hope. This uplifting quality of memoirs is summed up nicely in the Latin phrase my older brother penned on his tombstone. “ ,” meaning, “To the Stars through Hardship.” In my favorite memoirs, each author climbs to the best parts of themselves by enduring the hardship they encounter along the way.

However, my admiration for suffering was severely challenged nine years ago, when I began to read Sixty Five Roses by Heather Summerhayes Cariou. It was about the author’s sister, Pam, who had Cystic Fibrosis. Before I picked up this book, I had no idea a child could struggle so hard just to breathe. As I allowed my mind to enter the scene, I gasped for air.

Picturing that family, frantically caring for this suffocating little girl, overloaded my own emotions. It was too much. I set the book aside.

My reluctance to read the book presented me with a terrible dilemma. I would not be able to experience Heather Cariou’s triumph until I was willing to experience her pain. So for years Sixty Five Roses floated near the top of my reading pile, bypassed time after time by books which involved less suffering.

Recently, I grabbed a memoir, Trapped by Fran Macilvey, about a child who grew up with Cerebral Palsy. From earliest childhood, the author coped with her physical limitations. And after she came to terms with the cruel accident that damaged her body, she had to climb above the emotional scars that resulted from all those years she wished she could run, jump, and play with the healthy kids.

Fran Macilvey’s memoir is a journey of courage, of growth and change. Her frustration pushed me out of my comfort zone, where I felt the courageous shift beyond mere acceptance, to a lifelong search for dignity.

I didn’t want the book to end. So after the last page of Trapped, I returned to Heather Summerhayes Cariou’s Sixty Five Roses. This time, I vowed to stick with the pain until it led me to the inevitable conclusion of compassion and courage.

I am so glad I did. This memoir of a young person trying to grow up in the shadow of her sister’s terrible disease was one of the most beautifully written of the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read.

Knowledge of Death inspires life

This book also searches for the highroad hidden within the misery of circumstances. As Heather’s sister, Pam, inches closer to the early death expected for all sufferers of Cystic Fibrosis in those years, the family attempts to thrive. This terrifying situation creates an almost superhuman challenge for the author, of course. It is also terrifying for me, as I wonder with increasing urgency how the author will lead through death toward a strong, hopeful conclusion.

Heather pulls it off, showing how her sister and family looked squarely at death and defied it with a love for life. Thank you for sharing this lovely experience, Heather. You have lifted my heart and given me courage. Death and birth, sorrow and joy, effort and fear are flip sides of the human experience. Your sister showed us how to embrace both sides.

As a result, Sixty Five Roses does more than tell the story of a child’s suffering. It turns that valiant struggle into one of the most lyrical and uplifting memoirs I’ve read, taking me on a fearless journey to the shores of death.

Bonus of reading both memoirs

Because the family in both Trapped and Sixty Five Roses had to work so hard to ease the suffering of one child, the two books together provide a primer on the psychology of families with a special-needs child. In both stories, the healthy siblings learned early that their own problems are less urgent in comparison.

Reading the two books in sequence also taught me a surprising lesson about the influence of first-person versus third-person point of view on the way I was able to relate to the pain.

Even though Fran Macilvey suffered the terrible burden of a body that didn’t work right, one thing that made it easier to read was the fact that the suffering was told through her own eyes. After a lifetime of coping with her physical disability, she had learned how to create some distance from her own struggles. As a result, her own emotional tools allowed me to immerse myself in her situation while also remaining buffered from it.

On the other hand, in Heather Summerhayes Cariou’s story, the author had to witness the suffering of her younger sister. Her heart was ripped to shreds as she attempted to live her own life, and yet at the same time pour her compassion to her sister. Her aching heart completely opened me up to the pain.

Conclusion
I grew up reading science fiction. While standing on a crowded trolley car or subway in Philadelphia, I explored the galaxy. At the time, I didn’t realize that to a large extent I was reading in order to shut out the people around me. Decades later, I extended my exploration to include memoirs. By reading memoirs, I traverse the vast variety of human experience. It is truly the greatest and most exciting frontier, understanding of the people around me by reading their stories from inside their own points of view.

Thanks to frank, gorgeous writing such as Fran Macilvey’s Trapped and Heather Cariou’s Sixty Five Roses I no longer need to keep it outside my realm of experience.

Notes

Link to Sixty Five Roses – Goodreads page
Link to Trapped by Fran Macilvey Goodreads page
Link to Fran Macilvey’s home page

In one of my favorite memoirs, Here if you Need Me, Kate Braestrup faces the death of her husband and ends up proposing an uplifting way to look at good and evil. Tackling these huge topics through Story is one of my favorite things.)

In another one of my favorite memoirs, Gary Presley in Seven Wheelchairs takes his search for adulthood beyond mere acceptance of life in a wheelchair, toward the inexorable search for dignity and self-worth.)

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

Grieving memoirs – a different slant

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis is a memoir about two strong-willed people whose relentless mutual attraction chips away at their individuality. When they discover that they are happier together than apart, their relationship is born. The memoir continues past consummation, into a marriage fueled by an unquenchable thirst to live life to its fullest.

From the beginning, John’s rare form of cancer hung over the marriage like a sword. Instead of slowing them down, the threat egged them on to passionately engage in culture, nature, friendships, and each other.Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis

Both of them were on the cusp of retirement, anyway. So they seized this opportunity to cut short their successful careers and devote the rest of their lives to each other. Then time ran out. In a breathless chronology, the author leads us blow-by-devastating-blow through her husband’s medical setbacks.

Shirley Melis relies on the skills she honed during her career as a professional writer to pull readers into the details of their bliss together and then their frightening ordeal. She used scenes supported by dialog and contemporaneous material (letters and journal entries) to cut away the distance between reader and writer and allows us to enter her world.

The couple’s care for each other turned John’s downward slide into another chapter in their passionate love story. While their doctors fought his disease with the full weight of medical science, Shirley and John threw their full weight into trust in the future. They were determined to defy mortality and make plans for the next adventure. The power of love transforms the ending of their story into a sort of crescendo.

To satisfy readers, the ending of a memoir must wrap up the entire story in a way that allows the reader a visceral reaction—goosebumps, say, or a smile—that inspires them to recommend it to a friend. Banged-Up Heart achieves those goals in a way that surprised me.

In just about every memoir about loss I can think of, death takes place early enough in the book to allow plenty of time for the author’s recovery. This bridge from death back to life is one of the great gifts that grieving authors give to the rest of us.

Examples are plentiful. Susan Weidener’s memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, is also about a marriage ended prematurely by cancer. Like Banged-Up Heart, Weidener’s memoir shares the entire life span of her relationship to her husband, from the romance, through building a life together, and having children. Then the ripping away of a too early death. Weidener’s memoir, however, goes on to the next stage in her journey, as she tries to rebuild her life.

Rebuilding is the entire focus of Kate Braestrup’s memoir, Here if You Need Me. We barely meet Braestrup’s husband, who was killed in a freak auto accident at the beginning of the book. The lion’s share of the story describes the author’s long journey back, raising her kids and growing as a person. In the end, she offers a lovely perspective on the nature of good and evil, providing readers with the gift of her own hard-earned wisdom.

Memoirs about the death of a child also guide us through death’s aftermath, as the authors strive to cope with their devastating loss. For examples, check out any of these moving memoirs: Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Leave the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash, and Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes.

Well-defined story arcs about loss and the subsequent grieving process have earned an important place in my taxonomy of memoir subgenres, because each one provides wisdom regarding this fundamental journey of the heart.

I assumed that Banged-up Heart would similarly explore the arduous climb back to sanity and acceptance. But as I approached the end of the memoir, John was still battling for his life, and both of them were still struggling to visualize their adventures after he recovered. During this period, Shirley was too focused on hope to spend time grieving. As the pages flew by, I began to wonder how she would have room to wrap up the story.

In my impatience, I felt there were many details that didn’t add momentum to the story. Yet I carried on, drawn forward by the compelling writing, and my empathetic connection with this terrifying situation.

Amid so many upheavals and disasters, I wanted to learn as much as possible about Melis’ thoughts. In every other grieving memoir I have read, the nuances of the author’s interior landscape were crucially important. For me, that is the payoff for reading a story about loss. I want to accompany the author on this noble search to reclaim a sense of meaning. But instead of emphasizing her inner landscape, the author focused mainly on what was happening around her.

During this run-up to the end, with John in his deathbed, Shirley beside herself with worry, and me juggling my own expectations about where this was going, the story took a surprising turn. The result dashed my expectations and broke out of the “grieving story arc.” And it did so in a most satisfying way. Like the final moments of the movie The Sixth Sense, which shifted the premise of the entire story, the ending of Banged-up Heart caused me to toss out the expected storyline of a grieving memoir.

Melis’ exquisite, loving description of placing John’s remains in his final resting place helped me understand exactly what she was trying to do and gave me a rush of recognition. “Oh, that’s what the memoir was about.”

By ending the book the way she did — not with feelings of loss, but with admiration and love for her husband — the intent of Melis’ book instantly flipped. This was not the journey of sorrow and recovery, which I had expected, but a book about courage, respect, mutual support, and how two loving people can create life in each other’s eyes.

Although the story structure was unconventional, in the end, the book met my expectations after all, by offering me the two great gifts I expect from all satisfying memoirs: first, the life and mind of the author, and second, deep insight into a universal aspect of human experience.

By letting me into her life she showed me the unique nuances of her situation. She met and fell in love with John while still trying to recover from the death of her first husband, complicating her approach to grief. John was an unusual character, full of complex ideas and extraordinary talents. Their relationship was only a couple of years old. These individual variations gave me a sense of being with a specific person, at a specific time.

These specific features of their love offered me a fresh perspective on the universal experience of loss. The emergence of universal insights out of the cauldron of individual experience is why I love memoirs so much.

Love is one of the great driving forces of human experience. Some even say that love is the primary force and that all other emotions derive from it. And yet in the memoir genre, love is usually neatly tucked behind the thoughts, dreams, and needs of the protagonist. Shirley Melis’ memoir Banged-up Heart brings love out of its supporting role and places it front and center, as the hero of her story.

Memoirs that represent other relevant subgenres

Memoirs that Review multiple relationships

These memoirs review the life of several relationships across the author’s lifespan. Instead of praising one relationship, they lead us on the protagonist’s attempt to make better sense of these crucial features of emotional life:
Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse by Kathy Pooler,
Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers his Marriages by Boyd Lemon
Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro

Memoirs devoted to loving one other person

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell — Love and loss of a friend.
100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman — Her tribute to her husband mixed with the caregiving and cognitive rehabilitation after his stroke.

Notes
Shirley Melis’ Home Page

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