How to become a storyteller

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

To write a memoir, you must evolve from someone who randomly remembers bits of life to someone who purposely turns them into a story. This shift is revolutionary.

Picture yourself as one of those travelling storytellers who come to the local library. With dramatic voice and exaggerated gestures, they establish rapport with their wide-eyed audiences. Sometimes these charismatic tellers dress in costume or paint their faces to help usher their listeners into an altered state. That primal relationship between teller and listener evokes images of aboriginal rituals, in which the roots of courage and identity are told around campfires. Storytellers hold an almost mythic place in our collective imagination.

All memoir writers attempt to inhabit that sacred space. When we translate our mundane memories into the magical language of stories, we gradually come to realize that these details are, in fact, the stuff of life itself, overflowing with universal, idealistic, and glorious principles. It’s the storyteller’s job to reveal the universal contained within the mundane.

So the journey to write your memoir is not simply looking backward to remember the past. You also look forward to your own creative metamorphosis, to deepen your skills as a culture warrior, as an innovative truth teller, as an interpreter of the daily grind, and a hero of the long view.

When you first remember the facts of your life, the sequence might sound flat. When you add emotional swirls, you offer a more humanized view. As your collection grows, you increasingly visualize a story, and begin to imagine how to lead your future readers on the journey storytellers have been leading you since your parents read you the first tale. From that vantage point, you transform the bits of life into a link between one individual and all of humanity.

Bestselling memoir authors like Frank McCourt have climbed into that ethereal space at the pinnacle of civilization. He spent years as a school teacher, telling stories to his students in order to keep them entertained. From that experience, he gained the skill to write a best selling memoir.

John Grogan spent years as a newspaper columnist, scanning the world for a good story. Thanks to the skill he developed at work, he transformed the family dog into the world famous star of Marley and Me.

Dani Shapiro has written something like nine books, four of them memoirs. In her latest bestseller she mentions that she has done thousands of readings to audiences all over the world. What better way to inhabit the sacred space of storyteller than to see the faces of your listeners as you tell them your story?

These extraordinary individuals achieved expertise, but how about people like me? I had been shy most of my life, and had almost no practice telling a story about anything, let alone myself.

During the years it has taken me to learn to write my story and teach others how to find theirs, I have become increasingly aware that we all have storytelling burned deep in our souls. And so, becoming a storyteller is a journey to discover what you already contain.

Of course, with practice you will develop literary microskills, such as scene building, chapter construction, and character development. But the most important skill of all is your willingness to inhabit the role of a storyteller. Like much of the memoir writer’s journey, it requires that you reach higher than you thought possible.

You can only achieve that goal when you believe in your ability to do so. Like Tinker Bell tells Peter Pan, he can fly if he believes. So can you!

Register for a free online discussion about this state of mind I will be having with Linda Joy Myers, founder of National Association of Memoir Writers.

Trusting in your ability to stay in a storytelling frame of mind will help you write a strong story that will sustain an emotional connection with your future readers. And after the memoir is complete, you will have grown from your effort to see life as a story.

While I can urge you to find your own storytelling knack, I can no more teach it to you than Tinker Bell could teach Peter how to fly. Once you realize that it’s attainable, you will embark on the adventure yourself. And like all storytellers you will eventually return from that adventure and tell us what you found.

Linda Joy Myers, another champion of the storytelling knack is hosting me for a discussion about this topic. As president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, she has been encouraging people to follow a similar path, for years. Together we will explore the vantage point of the storyteller, and offer tips that help you achieve it.

The session, typically for members only, has been opened up to anyone. And if you can’t make it to the live interview, you will be able to listen later.

Sign up for the free webnar about entering this state of mind, then tune in November 22, 2019

November 22, 2019, 11 AM PST  |  12 PM MST |   1 PM CST  |   2 PM EST

Notes

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Lifelong learning: tips for memoir writers

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

After all the living to acquire our experiences, in past generations, those experiences disappear into forgotten boxes in the attic. Today we have the opportunity to resurrect that lost wisdom by sharing the experiences of our lives. Such stories provide us with a vast encyclopedia of insight into the human condition.In the previous post [link] I introduced two of my favorite international coming of age memoirs, both about childhood stints in Saigon just before the war. The stories expand my cultural reach, from the limitations of each reader’s life into the tsunami known as Vietnam. In addition to their specific historical significance from fifty years ago, the very existence of these two memoirs represents a cultural tsunami in the present. – we are living at a time when it is acceptable to find the story of your life.

After reading the Vietnam memoir Saigon Kids, the author Les Arbuckle provided a wonderful overview of his process to learn how to tell the story Here is our conversation for anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps.

Me: So tell me the origin story of Saigon Kids. What made you decide to write it, and I guess just as important what made you think you could?

Les: I first thought about telling this story when I was talking to a friend’s wife way back in 1988. She had become interested in writing screenplays and it occurred to me then that my adventures in Vietnam might make a good movie. But I didn’t know anything about writing screenplays, so I set the idea aside.

The story kept nagging at me. There are between 10 and 15 million Military Brats in the US and my story is, in some ways, their story too. I wanted to be the one to tell it.

Many years went by and at the ripe old age of fifty-three in 2002, I realized that if I was ever going to tell my story, I had to get started. But I didn’t want to just write it for myself. I was going to write it well enough to attract a literary agent and a publisher, rather than self-publish.

Since I still didn’t know how to write screenplays, I figured I’d write it as a memoir. As it turns out, I didn’t know anything about writing memoirs either, but my ignorance made it possible to get started without worrying about the details.

At this stage in my life, I had no experience in the world of writers and writing, except for a 500-word technical article I had penned for the Jazz Educators Journal in 1993 (The Music of Bill Evans: “Laurie”). I wasn’t worried about my lack of experience. I had a great story to tell, which I figured was what made the difference (it didn’t).

I wrote the whole book in about three weeks. I simply wrote down every memory I could muster, rearranged everything in chronological order as best I could, and then began struggling to make it better, a little at a time.

Me: Wow. What an amazing accomplishment. Congratulations for taking this big leap.

Les: I knew I had a long way to go, so I reached out to a mystery writer I knew, Zach Klein, (author of the Matt Jacob Series).

I was having trouble writing either descriptive or action prose. Zach suggested I do what Hemingway did: Just say it: “John threw the stick into the lake.” I immediately read the first Hemingway book I could get my hands on, “A Movable Feast,” and studied his style. I also used the Internet to review scenes of Old Saigon, paying particular interest to those scenes that resembled parts of my stories. This helped quite a bit with the descriptive portions of the book, tweaking my memory and inner eye enough to effectively add details I had forgotten. My daughter even gave me a vintage book about Saigon in the 1950′ and ’60’s that contained many familiar pictures of the city I once knew and its inhabitants.

Zach informed me that, unlike fiction or fantasy literature, memoirs are not “plot driven.” In a memoir, the narrative usually takes the form of an “arc” where the writer shows that in the course of the story he/she has changed in some meaningful way, and is no longer the person they were at the beginning of the story. Zach suggested I read a lot of memoirs and get a feel for the oeuvre, so I loaded up on every memoir I could find.

Me: Zach sounds like an incredibly helpful resource. It’s so cool that he offered you his wisdom about a genre that is not even his specialty.

Les: What I eventually learned was that memoirs are held to a higher literary standard than Fiction or Fantasy, and there were a lot of no-no’s to take into consideration (no lying!). Sustaining a 96,000-word narrative is not easy, either. Had I known how difficult the task was that I set for myself, I may never have started, but that’s one of the only good things about my ignorance of the literary world.

Over the next fifteen years I would read around 200 memoirs or so (who counts?). Based on my reading, I learned the importance of having strong themes. Because of my interest in the Military Brat phenomenon of constantly moving around, and needing to learn how to quickly adapt, I began to focus on the theme of belonging, of having a real home, friends, and community, and moving constantly. These are themes all Brats can relate to, so I tried to keep them front and center in the narrative.

Me: I totally agree that reading memoirs is a great way to learn how to write one.

Les: Then I hired a Professional Editor in Seattle named Anne Mini. I sent her the MS and a check and a few months later she sent the MS back. This was in the Spring of 2008 and that Summer I moved to Southern California and began working on her edits.

Anne was detailed beyond belief. Zach was kind and generous. Anne was not. She wasn’t unkind, however, she just told me the harsh truth and held a candle up to the workings of the literary world and the standards required of a memoir writer. In my memoir, “Saigon Kids”, I mention a teacher named Sister Kenneth who kept me after school every day for the entire first grade. Her approach was much like Anne’s: Absolutely no nonsense, tell the full truth about every detail of the manuscript, and give the appropriate amount of encouragement.

Anne gave me a literary beating from which I hope to never recover. She marked up every page, including the back, and every paragraph, and then put together a fifty-page summary with even more remarks, critiques, and suggestions.

She also told me not to commit the greatest sin of the memoir genre: Don’t try to make yourself look like a hero.

Anne Mini emphasized the scene building aspects quite a bit. She would write in the margins, “What did that look like?” “What did you feel there?” “Tell me more about xxx”

She suggested I join a writer’s group and get some fresh eyes on my prose, so I looked around San Diego, found a group at the Encinitas Library and began going every Thursday night. The group helped a lot because, as Anne explained, even though a person might not be a great writer, anyone inclined to join such a group is probably an excellent reader and can give valuable feedback.

Me: More awesome advice! That is so nicely said. In memoir groups, each person is giving you expert feedback on what they liked. She said it more clearly and succinctly than I’ve ever heard it stated before.

Les: One realization I had around this time: Words have rhythm: Accentuate. Wonderful. Technology. Dot. Hyperventilating. When words are strung together into sentences, the sentences acquire a rhythm. When sentences are combined to create paragraphs, the paragraphs acquire a rhythm that is sensed on a very subtle level (Avoid boredom! Vary your sentence length!). And rhythmic paragraphs become chapters, and the rhythm of the chapters creates the rhythm of the book.

We weren’t in Encinitas long. My wife’s father got sick, so in December of 2009 we moved back to Boston. I sought out another writing group and found the Walpole Writer’s Group, which at the time had been in existence for about ten years. WWG was a big group, and had some real good writers, including one retired teacher of English, a professional Technical Writer, and a woman who eventually published several children’s books. Their insights were very helpful.

Finally, in March of 2010 I got a call from the person who would become my agent. He had liked my query letter and asked for the full manuscript. When he read it he said that he noticed a lot of errors and small issues. He would ordinarily have passed on it, he said, but he kept wanting to read further and thought that was a good sign. His specialty was Military History and he told me he found the story to be a fascinating look at a world (the world of Military Brats in Vietnam) of which he knew nothing.

Me: That’s a great story. Typically you hear about editors having zero tolerance for errors in the query. This guy saw past that. Nice.

Les: I worked with his editor for a few months, and at one point we decided that it would be helpful to have the story start with a scene that was exciting; something to get the blood flowing. The Coup scene initially occurred about two-thirds of the way into the book. It contains a lot of violent action and emotion, and we felt it might draw the reader into the story, make them want to find out how things got to that point. We tried moving it to the front of the book and it seemed to work. After that first chapter I flashed back to the real beginning of the book (when my family was in Florida) and proceeded chronologically.

One of the concepts Anne Mini drilled into me was that the writer must speak with their own authentic voice and not adapt affectations from other writers. You have to sound like you, not Jeanette Walls or JR Mohringer or whomever it is you admire. This was particularly difficult because I had no idea what my “voice” was. But as Theresa and I worked on my MS I began to realize that some of the things she objected to were my own little verbal idiosyncrasies, the “me” in my voice.

It was years before Roger (my agent) found a willing publisher. One of the problems we had with finding a publisher was the same problem I experienced finding an agent: when agents/publishers see the word “Vietnam” they think they know what it’s about — “choppers,” “Charlie,” “incoming,” and “rice paddy.” Their eyes glaze over and the query gets deleted. We endured six years of “no”, until a small publisher in Florida offered a deal. We took it.

Me: I have heard so many stories about how long and hard it is to find a publisher. You made it across the desert. Congratulations!

Les: Well, the story isn’t over yet. We still had a few more rounds of edits. After the first round of edits I had gone back over the manuscript and put back in some of the “me” that we had edited out, but when I started working with the editor assigned to me by Mango (my publisher), I sometimes faced the same problem.

For instance, in the first chapter, referencing Mother’s shaking hands and voice, I wrote: “The shakes have got a grip on her throat, too.” Mango’s editor, suggested that I change that sentence to something like, “Her throat was quivering with fear,” which would have been correct. But that’s not how I would say it. That’s how Mango’s editor might have said it. It’s a Southern thing…

The moral of this story is “don’t be afraid to sound like you.” If you’re from the South (like me) or from the North or the East or West, speak on the page as you would in life, then edit it to make it read well. If you’re not from the Appalachians don’t try to sound like the Beverly Hillbillies. If you’re not an intellectual with a PhD in English Literature or Medieval French poetry, don’t try to write like it.

Mary Karr is a good example of how an authentic Voice can work in a literary setting and still sound natural. I’m Southern, but not as Southern as Mary Karr (My father is from New York). My writing doesn’t have much of that Texas twang to it, but what it does have I plan to keep, ya’ll. By the way, her book, “The Art of Memoir” is a must-read for any budding memoirist.

To sum it all up, if I had to do it over again, I’d take some writing classes first. Not so much as to get bogged down in the process, but the way I learned how to write to my present stage of ability was the hard way. I probably could have saved myself a few years! Although I initially thought the key to getting published was telling a great story, I discovered that, while there are millions of great stories waiting to be told, about the only ones that get a real publishing deal are those that are told well. I hope Saigon Kids is in that category.

Notes

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Ex-pat Brats Come of Age in Saigon

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

I feel fortunate to be able to extend my vision into the farthest reaches of human experience. This superpower has been granted to me by a lucky stroke of cultural creativity. I happen to live in an era when tens of thousands of creative people are looking back across the vast sweep of their lives, and turning those experiences into stories.

Take for example my friend Sandy Hanna. Over the years I’ve known her, she intimated that she lived in Saigon when she was a child. Her claim hung in the air, so far past the scope of my experience, I had no ability to visualize it.

Thanks to the cultural trend to read and write memoirs, Hanna took it upon herself to resurrect those memories from long ago. Her memoir Ignorance of Bliss brings that the period alive in my imagination. A ten year old blond girl trying to make her mark in the black market in Saigon informs one of the most exotic Coming of Age stories I’ve read. By writing the story, she offers her life in order to enrich mine.

It turns out the book represents a microculture – that is, that collection of oldsters who spent a portion of their childhood in Southeast Asia at the dawn of the conflagration.

Writing Prompt: What microculture would your memoir exist in?

Out of that collection of people, I discovered another author, Les Arbuckle, who like Hanna felt compelled to tell the story of his childhood in that war torn country. His book is called Saigon Kids, An American Military Brat Comes of Age in 1960’s Vietnam.

Anytime I can compare two memoirs that touch similar themes, or whose stories intertwine, I learn so much about the content and art of memoir writing.

In some ways, Saigon Kids by Les Arbuckle and Ignorance of Bliss by Sandy Hanna appear almost identical. For example, both kids were able to take advantage of their parents’ lack of understanding of the permissiveness of the society, allowing each of them to find astonishing gaps in parental control. Their freedom provides a shocking prelude to the incredible chaos which would soon envelope that country.

Despite the similarities between the two stories, they were also totally different, representing a stark contrast between the kinds of trouble a ten year old female and a fourteen year old male might get into.

With these rich weaving of differences and similarities, the two books combine to create an education in the experience of military brat kids, navigating pre-war Saigon, with their gender-appropriate world views.

In a previous post, I dug deeper into Sandy Hanna’s story. In this and the next post I’ll go deeper into Les Arbuckle’s.

Saigon Kids by Les Arbuckle is a great example of the raw adolescent male Coming of Age memoir. Following in the footsteps of the classic bestsellers, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, it reveals the flaws and edgy mistakes that adolescent boys make on their way to becoming young men.

Neither Les Arbuckle or Sandy Hanna make any effort to hide their willingness to take the low road, at a time in their lives when experimentation preceded wisdom.

Learning that authors are willing to admit the dark side of adolescent experiences was an early milestone in my own evolution as a memoir writer. When I saw Tobias Wolff reveal his misadventures in This Boys Life, I thought “oh, so it’s okay to be flawed in a memoir.” Apparently Les Arbuckle learned the same lesson, because he was exceptionally brutal with his own self-image. I asked him how he arrived at such an honest approach to some of his less savory behavior.

Me: I was impressed at how raunchy and raw you made yourself appear in the memoir. Weren’t you afraid your kids or people who know you as an adult would think less of you?

Les: I did have a certain amount of concern about how some of my adventures and misbehaving might be perceived, but after reading a lot of memoirs I decided that it’s okay if some people get offended by an experience I wrote about. I was most concerned about how my fellow Saigon Kids would feel, but they seemed to like the book a lot. I think a memoirist, to be relevant, has to put their real self on the page and not sugar-coat or downplay the truth of who they were at the time. No one puts everything they ever did wrong on the page, but you have to tell at least some of the bad, as much as it might hurt. Getting to the emotional truth of a situation is difficult, but it makes things believable and shows that the writer is a human being, like everyone else.

Writing is, in many ways, like playing jazz: No matter how good you play, someone’s not going to like it, and no matter how bad you play, someone will like it. In any artistic endeavor there is always the fear of rejection and criticism, but you just have to say what you say and let the chips fall where they may. Fear is the enemy of all Art.

Me: Like me, you didn’t start out as a memoir writer. You had to learn as you went. What was that like for you to go from being a musician to writing and publishing a whole memoir?

Les: What I liked about beginning to write at such a late age is that one doesn’t need the kind of background that’s required, for instance, to learn to play a musical instrument well, or the level of education/math required to dabble in sciences such as computer engineering, or medicine. Trigger reflexes are not necessary for writing (like they are in playing music at a high level) and the conventions and rules of good writing can be absorbed by most people at almost any age. There are a great many good books on the subject.

Writing gave me the opportunity to create my own world, (or re-create, as in my memoir) and live in that world a little each day. As a life-long musician, it was interesting to delve into the creative aspects of writing and experience something that, had I tried my hand much sooner, could have been a career. Like music, Journalism is a problem-filled career choice, but almost anything worth doing is difficult in one way or another.

Although the “literary life” can be a lonely endeavor, participating in Writing Groups allowed me to improve my writing while developing social contacts I still maintain. My writing pals were (are) of all ages and walks of life, and helped give me a perspective about my stories that I could have gotten no other way.

Me: Thanks Les. I’m so glad you arrived at the craft. Thanks to your willingness to learn how to tell your story, and then to do all the hard work of putting it out there, readers are treated to an amazing (and in some ways gut wrenching) view of what it was like to grow up in that place and time.

Notes

Les Arbuckle’s home page

Sandy Hanna’s home page

My article about Sandy Hanna’s memoir Ignorance of Bliss

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Memoirs teach cultural anthropology in modernity

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

Whenever a new wave of immigrants arrives in the United States, they and their kids must find their identity somewhere in the space between their old country and their new one. It’s an age-old process, and one which my own immigrant grandparents and parents had to undergo.

Growing up in a household in which my parents still spoke their parents’ mother tongue, Yiddish, I had plenty of opportunity to observe the effects of growing up in the melting pot. Over time, I came to understand a peculiar thing about the struggle every immigrant must face. For four hundred years, immigrants have been trying to find their new culture by stripping away their old one.

So does that make us a nation of 100 cultures, or none at all? It is the question implied every time we try to sort out our own heritage, or wonder about a new neighbor or coworker with a different accent.

Understanding how this Melting Pot works could be the subject of an advanced degree in Cultural Anthropology. But thanks to the Memoir Revolution, all of us have easy access to a charming tool that entertains while it educates. We can all become amateur cultural anthropologists by reading memoirs. Memoirs take us through the entire process of blending as seen through the eyes of a variety of participants.

Take for example, Albert Nasib Badre. His memoir Looking West describes his move from Beirut, Lebanon to the United States. As a boy in Beirut, he venerated all things American. And so, when his professor father said they were moving to the United States, the little boy was ecstatic.Looking West memoir by Al Badre

Perhaps his fearlessness about blending was helped by his own family folk lore. According to legend, his Middle Eastern ancestors acquired their blue eyes from crusaders who swept through Lebanon almost a thousand years earlier.

Despite his enthusiasm for blending, he had to undergo many of the difficult tasks that all immigrants must face when trying to find themselves in their host country. Probably the hardest thing about moving to the new country for Badre was losing his close knit set of friends and extended family. Badre grew up in Beirut before the civil war tore the city apart. As a child he walked out of his home, and could visit or greet cousins and friends. His community connections were so deep and rich, they make American social interactions look more like the wild west than a civilized country. When he arrived here, his social relations fell to a tiny fraction of what they had been.

Badre’s memoir does not dwell on the difficulties of immigration though. He dives into the complex task of growing up and becoming an individual in a society which prizes self-determination.

The search for a suitable career.

One of the requirements for growing up is to figure out what you are going to do for a living. For some of us, this search for a calling can feel mundane, and not contain much interesting dramatic tension. For others, the search can be so sublime it could fill a whole book. Badre’s search is closer to the latter. His search for a career was propelled by a combination of serendipity, mentoring, trial and error, and a deep desire to serve higher principles.

Despite his father’s relentless advice to be practical, he continued to pursue idealistic educational goals. Those were the days of a true liberal arts education and so, he followed his heart, studying mostly theology and philosophy.

When it came time to earn a paycheck, though, his father’s advice made more sense. After a failed attempt to become a social worker, he went back to school and ended up with one of the most sophisticated careers available. In the early days of computer technology, he latched on to the emerging field of human-computer interaction, and became a leading expert in the field.

His journey to find a mate was also intricate and exquisitely told, complete with old fashioned courtship, failed attempts, and impulsive choices. And his attempt to sort out his preference for Protestantism versus Catholicism reads like a theological thriller.

I can’t think of another memoir that so deeply engages me in the author’s search for intellectual, theological, and career self-development. He set out as a child absolutely determined to live in an integrated way, true to his own beliefs. And through the course of his story, he succeeded.

Memoirs of immigrants help explain the American experience

Al Badre’s story, like all memoirs, is a blend of the universal and the particular. It has the familiar elements of a boy struggling to come of age, trying to figure out a mate, a job, and a belief system.

He seems to have been born for the challenge of finding himself. In a complex dance between old customs and new, he looks to his parents for guidance about finding his career, his marriage, and even his belief system. Then in a gesture toward the independence of his adopted country, he takes their advice into account and then sets out to find his own truths.

Using the essence of American Independence and seeing the Melting Pot as the ultimate license to explore the best version of himself, he selects from the vast menu of choices, tries out more than most of us have the patience to explore, and then gradually through hard effort, becoming a self-actualized citizen of modern times.

Memoirs help explain the human experience

Early in the 2000s, when I became interested in writing my own memoir, I realized that I needed to read a few. That simple intention quickly expanded, once I realized that reading memoirs is a window into the souls of my fellow travelers.

Over the years, I have accompanied many people, sometimes through hell, and always up mountains, attempting to climb to higher versions of themselves. In every case, when the hero achieved the mission, the resulting satisfaction transcended the ordinary circumstances of life. What started as a project to make sense of myself has led me increasingly into a deeper understanding of the people around me. Memoirs offer a combined education in sociology, psychology, anthropology, feminism, and even spirituality.

Al Badre’s story describes far more than one man’s move from Beirut to the United States. The memoir represents a new way for all of us to find the best in ourselves and to see the best in each other.

By reading such stories, we come to understand that the guy or gal with a different accent, skin color, or religion has a thought process, grows through life stages, worries about couples and kids and copes with losses just like us. And as each of us tries to make sense of differences, we are also on a quest to understand what we share.

The Memoir Revolution lets us join together to become better citizens of modernity, and also to extend a welcoming hand to those who are ready to join us in the brave world of modern, blended culture.

Other memoirs of blending cultures

Carlos Eire’s move to the United States was far more problematic than Al Badre’s. In Eire’s first memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, he grew up privileged and wealthy in Cuba, with a Spanish ancestry that put his family in a ruling class. But to escape Castro, Carlos was shipped to the United States. Without money or even parents, Eire’s second memoir Learning to Die in Miami, portrays the hardships of life in the new country.

An even more radical example is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She moved to the melting pot in Europe from her tribal culture of Somalia, where it is still considered normal to arrange marriages for teenage girls and to perform female genital mutilation.

Ayaan Hirsi Alli in her memoir Infidel at first looked at Western Culture as a safe haven to escape from the harsh treatment of women in her native land. Gradually she grew to respect, and then to embrace, and then to love Western culture. She sought an education in political science and became outspoken advocate for the modernization of her former homeland. Her memoir is a fascinating look at Western culture as seen through an African Muslim lens.

A light-hearted ride through the Melting Pot is provided by the Iranian American author Firoozeh Dumas’ memoir Funny in Farsi, about growing up in a family who had emigrated from Iran and had to find their new blended identity in California.

The memoir Freedom Writers Diary is about a class of high school students trying to identify themselves in warring tribes based on their ethnic origins. Through literature and journaling, teacher Erin Gruwell showed them how to see themselves not as “the Other” but as equals. By the end,, they were able to shed their sense of separateness and danger. It is the perfect Melting Pot story.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Journey of a Lebanese-American Immigrant by Al Badre

Click here. for brief descriptions and links to other posts on this blog.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Coming of Age in the Shadow of Vietnam

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

Memoir writers are forensic historians, attempting to reconstruct the stories buried in the past. Take for example, Sandy Hanna, a marketing executive and artist, looking forward to retirement, Her childhood must have seemed like a distant dream.

But the mystery of those times called to her, begging to be told. In fact, her military father “The Colonel” ordered her to tell the story. He wanted to let others know that just Ignorance of Bliss Sandy Hannabefore the Vietnam war started, there were levers of choice and power that could have averted the catastrophe. If only we had applied wisdom instead of force.

Her adventure began in 1960 when her family lived in Saigon. While her father investigated the feasibility of the United States military involvement in that remote part of the world, this ten year old girl had to figure out how to grow up.

Thanks to the less protective parenting style of those times, and the hyper-resourceful instincts of kids who grew up in the military, Sandy’s older brother figured out how to start a small black-market business. The little girl discovered her brother’s scheme and threatened to expose him unless he cut her in on the action. She didn’t need the money. She just had a thirst for adventure.

If she had been in the States, she might have been playing jacks or hopscotch. In Saigon, she entertained herself by selling baby powder and chocolate at a street market among the locals. She came home looking all innocent to her unsuspecting military parents. Her precocious business venture provides a fascinating variation on the resourceful way kids everywhere can get themselves into trouble.

But when you take into account that her coming of age occurred in the epicenter of the coming war, the story takes on a deeper meaning, shrouding the innocence of her childhood in the shadows of one of the great conflagrations of modern times.

A few years after her escapades, college campuses would explode with screams to stop the war, and the verdant jungles of Vietnam would explode with the screams of those who were participating in it. Protesters, police, soldiers, displaced civilians, and the many millions touched by the counter culture were all swept up in the chaos.

After the waves receded, Sandy Hanna, like the rest of us tried to get back to the hard work of becoming an adult. But as she approached retirement she thought, “If not now, when?”

Now, at last, almost 60 years later Hanna offers Ignorance of Bliss, one of the gutsiest, quirkiest tales of coming of age I have read, complete with mystery, with a brilliant, cunning child-hero, a colorful cast of characters (including a pet monkey), and a feel-good ending too cool for me to risk spoiling.

A little girl’s view of Saigon, from inside the home of a top military attache, bursts with insight into the delicate balance that holds civilization together, shows how small actions can create large results, and how coming of age in a crazy world often requires a bit of craziness in response. The whole thing would look terrific on the big screen.

Many boomers who saw such a movie might walk out of the theater with a nagging need to reconstruct their own stories about growing up during that era.

At first, you might recoil from such a desire. Our culture is saturated with evocative symbols of that era such as Woodstock, the Beatles and Cheech and Chong on the fun side and all the hellish images of foot soldiers in jungles on the bad side. But in reality, we have far less understanding of the introspective experience of the individuals who had to make sense of their own lives during that period..

For most of the hippies, soldiers, Jesus freaks, Hari Krishnas, stoners, groupies, Hell’s Angels, dropouts, and any of the other menagerie of counter-cultural extremes, those years have always seemed better left buried. The whole thing was so embarrassing and confusing, that in order to return to a normal life, our whole generation allowed itself to hide behind the clichés..

As boomers take stock of where we’ve been, our first memories often reinforce the clichés and embarrassment. Such first-glances are far too simplistic to do justice to our intricate passage tinto adulthood. A book length memoir is the only medium rich and deep enough to convey those inner journeys.

If you accept the challenge posed by Sandy Hanna’s memoir, you will find yourself immersed in one of the most important activities in civilization. Civilization requires the steadying influence of the longer view of history, which can only be seen through the eyes of elders.

From the stories of people who grew up in the midst of those changes, we learn so much from each other about the way humans respond to the forces of history. And by sharing these psychologically rich narratives, you will be offering your life to increase our collective wisdom, one story at a time.

Developing your story in a readable form might sound scary or hard. But I have watched many writers go from disbelief, to hard work, to completed publication. I know it can be done. (For more insight into this process, read my book Memoir Revolution.)

Here are a few other memoirs of the Vietnam War and Counterculture era I’ve read and one that I’ve written. I’m sure there will be many more as boomers retire and try to find the story of those complex times:

Thinking my Way to the End of the World by Jerry Waxler
An Incredible Talent for Existing by Pamela Jane
Hippie Chick: Coming of Age in the ’60s by Ilene English

Times They were a Changing — a book of short stories by women about that time edited by Amber Lea Starfire and Linda Joy Myers

A Temporary Sort of Peace by Jim McGarrah
A soldier in the thick of combat, horrifies himself. A great look at the horror of being a soldier, and a great prelude to the return to sanity memoir Offtrack.

Offtrack by Jim McGarrah
After the crushing psychological trauma of combat in Vietnam, McGarrah uses the horse people who run race tracks as a sort of half way house to return to society.

Click here. for brief descriptions and links to other posts on this blog.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

How traveling helped them find themselves

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

A young man in the 60s went off to the jungles of Southeast Asia, not to face enemies with machine guns but to confront that transition all of us must face – the voyage from childhood to adult.

As Neill McKee fulfilled his mission for the CUSO, the Canadian version of the Peace Corps, he had to teach the local school kids. On weekends he traveled with his buddy Peter, to immerse himself in the nature and culture of the region.

In his memoir, Finding Myself in Borneo, McKee generously offers a front row seat to his adventure in an interesting part of the world. But I want more from a memoir than Finding Myself in Borneojust exotic sights. I expect to learn about the author’s inner journey as well. McKee’s memoir satisfies that desire by showing me how his adventure in Borneo helped him launch from child to adult.

The Memoir Revolution has provided a literary genre through which we can explore this fascinating life transition. By reading memoirs like Neill McKee’s, we discover the infinite variety of ways people acquire the prerequisites of adulthood, such as finding a relationship, a way to earn a living, a set of beliefs, and a place to call home.

In addition to the usual hassles of growing up, Neill McKee adds another dimension. He complicates everything by going forth into a foreign land. And yet, his impulse to leave home has a remarkably familiar ring. Traveling in order to find one’s deeper truths is at the heart of Joseph Campbell’s universal myth, the Hero’s Journey.

In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the earliest and most famous stories in Western civilization,  Ulysses traveled around the Mediterranean in an attempt to find his true home. Unlike the Odyssey, McKee’s journey does not involve magic and monsters. But the young man was so smitten with epic heroes that he decided the island of Borneo was the model for Mordor, the land of evil in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Even though he saw himself in the land of Mordor, McKee was not on a quest to defeat evil. His mission was to travel beyond his own youthful impulses and mature into adult life.

Another author finds herself through foreign service
Another memoir demonstrates that traveling to search for a wiser version of yourself can continue in later life. When Janet Givens crossed the threshold from the first half century to the second, she and her husband joined the Peace Corps. They were looking to energize their entry into this new chapter of their lives.Home on Kazakh Steppe Janet Givens

The caricature of midlife crisis is a middle-aged guy in a red convertible sports car having an affair. Memoirs transcend caricatures. Instead they describe unique characters who question the trajectory of their lives and look for creative ways to re-calibrate.

In her memoir At Home on the Kazakh Steppe, Janet Givens turns to foreign service as the tool with which to reinvent herself. Following in the footsteps of classic heroes, she trades her comfortable home in the US for a tiny room among people, most of whom speak a language she couldn’t understand.

I recommend the book for anyone who wants to vicariously experience a courageous search for purpose. Read it if you have ever considered self-sacrifice and volunteerism in later life. As a bonus, you will gain a first hand glimpse into an obscure corner of the former Soviet Empire,

Homecoming: Memoirs heroes bring back knowledge

If you have ever traveled to, or lived in an exotic location, one obvious way to entertain readers is to show them the sights. However, memoir readers want to know about the psychological dimensions of the hero’s inner world. So be prepared to show them how your exotic outer world changed you forever.

Whether you were invited into a parlor for a ritual cup of tea, or tried to bargain with a local vendor, or any of a thousand other small glimpses into every day life, your memoir provides a feel for the psychological and social dynamics of a place. You become homegrown, amateur version of a cultural anthropologist.

Writing exercise
During your transition from an earlier version of yourself to the present one, did you find some of your truths in faraway lands? If so, write a scene that intrigued you, disrupted some preconception, showed you new sides of yourself, or in some other way altered your beliefs about your identity and your place in the world.

Hero’s Journey: reporting the adventure to those who didn’t go

In the universal myth of the Hero’s Journey, the main character goes out into the land of the adventure, grows through hardship and longing, and finally achieves a goal. Ignorance is replaced by wisdom. Anger by forgiveness. Confusion by clear vision.

But even after scaling the moral mountain, the story is not complete until the hero returns home to teach these lessons to the community.

The effort to bring wisdom back to the community is exquisitely illustrated by both Neill McKee in Finding Myself in Borneo and by Janet Givens in At Home on the Kazakh Steppe. Both the Peace Corps, and its Canadian cousin, the CUSO, encourage participants to return after their service to share insights with fellow country men and women.

Both McKee and Givens took this part of their assignment seriously, logging in the many hours required to compose a memoir. By letting us vicariously accompany them, the authors give all of us the opportunity to see ourselves in intimate connection with the Other, thus providing us with an ever deeper empathy for the global citizenship of planet earth.

Empathy and exotic adventure right here at home

When Firoozeh Dumas in Funny in Farsi, or Carlos Eire in Learning to Die in Miami immigrated to the United States, they had to adjust to culture in this country as a foreign land. Their “foreign travel” memoirs provide an eye-opening perspective on the hall of mirrors that is created when one looks at one’s self as the Other.

The “foreign land” doesn’t really even require crossing national borders. For example, when I left my ethnic neighborhood in Philadelphia to go to college in Wisconsin, to my naive eyes the Midwest was strange and bewildering. Then while I was still struggling to adapt to one shift in reality, the  60s counter-culture erupted, transforming an already bewildering coming of age experience into a psychedelic one. Thinking my Way to the End of the World by Jerry Waxler

Writing prompt
Write a scene about stumbling into some patch of culture out of your ordinary experience that forced you to find new attitudes, or different parts of yourself.

Memoirs mentioned in this article
At Home on the Kazakh Steppe, a peace corps memoir by Janet Givens
Finding myself in Borneo by Neill McKee
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas
Learning to Die in Miami by Carlos Eire
Thinking my Way to the End of the World by Jerry Waxler

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

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

Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Memoirs, privacy, fame, and family

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

When I was little, my family watched the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday. I was mesmerized by the silly, shallow host, so devoid of emotion he appeared to be a cartoon version of himself. As I became more savvy about mass media, I realized that celebrities cultivate this empty look, so audiences don’t worry about what they think.

When I was around 40 years old I went to a therapist and asked him to help me understand myself. He said “tell me your story.” After years of individual sessions, I grew into a deeper version of myself, with a greater appreciation for how my mind works. But something was missing. Therapy had not shown me how to understand other people.

In the early 2000s, I discovered memoirs. From the first one, I allowed my imagination to enter the tangled mind of another person. Through the familiar structure of storytelling, I watched that character travel through some aspect of their lives, from discomfort and confusion towards some meaningful conclusion. The more I read, the more I learned. Book by book, my understanding of the people around me grew.

Memoirs are similar to traditional entertainment in that they take us out of ourselves. However, instead of replacing our thoughts with the silly and exaggerated personalities of celebrities, or the formulaic plots of thrillers and mysteries, memoirs open our hearts and minds to the full complement of human insights, frailty and courage.

Through memoir reading, I became a passionate student of human nature in all its depth and variety. And as I increasingly expanded my understanding of these authors, I realized that I was growing in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. Understanding myself was not an isolated project. By knowing others, I was coming to make better sense of myself.

Thanks to the Memoir Revolution, millions of us have entered into a complex multi-dimensional social conversation. By reading the accounts of people who have struggled for years to craft stories of their inner lives, we learn to see the ancient form of Story as a key to the wisdom and strength of the human experience. And in expanding our understanding of Story to include the story-of-self, we are beginning to discover the stories embedded in our own memories.

Is it possible to be both public and authentic?

In New York Times bestseller Glass Castle, television personality Jeannette Walls came out from behind the camera to reveal her gritty childhood, growing up in poverty and neglect. Instead of ruining her public image, she became even more famous for sharing her past.

TEDx speaker and activist Rachel Lloyd stands in front of audiences, but instead of inviting them to look at her, she invites them to look at prostitutes and pimps. Lloyd’s memoir Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale challenges us to trade in the superficial glimpses we see portrayed on television and movies, and take a closer look at this dark corner of human experience. In a surprising poignant twist, in exchange for our honest gaze, she offers us hope and compassion.

Brooke Shields steps out from behind the glamour of her public persona to provide insight into the disturbing, disappointing and very unattractive phenomenon of postpartum depression in her memoir Down Came the Rain.

Going public with your ordinary life

Unlike Ed Sullivan who became famous for pretending to be no-man, Frank McCourt became famous for being everyman. His memoir, Angela’s Ashes was one of the early books in the modern memoir movement that demonstrated that sharing private life can raise social awareness.

Of course only a few ordinary people will ever be catapulted into the fame of a Frank McCourt, but all of us can use our words and stories to tease apart our own intricate journeys and find our social and psychological truths. In fact, sometimes those deepest truths are the very ones that make publicity seem like the last thing in the universe we would ever want.

Take tragedy for example. No one wants to talk about it. So when we experience it, we often feel totally alone. This is the opposite of fame, living in a vacuum, where our pain is too real, and too complex to be shared with anyone.

Memoirs break through that isolation. Through memoirs both writer and reader can participate in an open, healing process. Carol Henderson, in her tragic memoir Losing Malcolm takes us behind the numb disbelief and anger, so poignant she wondered how she could ever go on. Lorraine Asch in Life Touches Life and Sukey Forbes in Angel in my Pocket reveal similar journeys. Robert and Linda Waxler, in Losing Jonathan share their journey of grief about losing their son to a drug overdose. All these authors share the courage they required to absorb despair and rise above it, and the courage to share these intimate vulnerable feelings.

But it’s scary to show the real me

When Ed Sullivan projected himself into my family’s living room each week, he always said “we have a really big show.” It has taken me decades to understand that while he was showing the talent of his guests, he had an almost fanatical determination to hide their inner worlds.

Most of us try to follow his example, getting along by dumbing down what we share about ourselves. This reluctance to express your messy inner world might make it easier to get along with people, but it makes it much harder to get along inside your own mind. How can you ever know yourself if you spend too much time pretending not to be you?

This concern about offending people comes up often in classes about memoir writing. Aspiring authors fear that exposing real feelings will offend people. By coincidence, when I was first learning about memoirs, two of the authors in my writing group had to reconcile the conflict between truth and loyalty to their family.

R. Foster Winans, my first memoir teacher, told about his own struggle not to upset his mother while he was still revising his memoir Trading Secrets about insider trading. And Linda Wisniewski, a member in my first critique group, had to overcome loyalty to her family in order to publish her memoir Off Kilter about her battle for self esteem.

For a much more radical, and public version of revealing family secrets, consider Tara Westover, the author of the NY Times bestseller Educated. Her family tried to convince her that her own memories of childhood were false. She struggled in the deepest, darkest regions of her heart to fight against the tide of their threats and the undermining, crazy feeling that her own story would be hated and rejected by her family.

But if she couldn’t tell her story, they still owned her truth. Westover went on to earn a doctorate in History at Cambridge University. Her dissertation was about the conflict between loyalty to the family versus loyalty to one’s self. In the end, she found the strength to write her own story.

Most of us don’t need to go to that extreme. By banding together with a group of fellow writers, we begin to pull together our healing story to the best of our understanding. By constructing our story, in our words, we gain authorial control over our own personhood.

To advance your own memoir writing journey, join me and up to 8 aspiring memoir writers next month at our online class and group coaching at Memoir University. Take the journey from 2018 into 2019 by making progress on your healing story. For more information, click here: Write Your Healing Memoir. Starts Dec 6

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

Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

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.