By Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
A memoir starts with a single anecdote. Then another, and another. In our imagination, we know these events formed our life. But other people can’t read our imagination. They can only read what’s on the page. We must transform the anecdotes into a compelling story. The memoir writer’s job is to discover the binding that will bring the reader from one event to the next. One place to look for this continuity is in your beliefs. Beliefs are important. They influence our decisions and shape our mood and emotion. And yet few writing classes explore the impact of ideas and beliefs.
To see how ideas can influence a life, see my essay about the beliefs that changed Henry Louis Gates’ attitude towards girls. In today’s essay, I explore this strategy further by looking within a series of my own anecdotes for the underlying beliefs that could help pull them together into a story.
High School Trolley
My own school, Central High in Philadelphia, drew academically inclined boys from all over the city, so at the end of the day each of us went off in different directions. Sitting by myself on the trolley, a pack of boys piled in from a nearby Catholic High School. They all knew each other and they shouted and laughed far more boisterously than the studious kids I knew. Even though they never bullied me, nor did they seem to be bullying each other, I kept very still. When I reached my stop, I nonchalantly pulled the cord to signal the driver, and squeezed my way to the door. It slapped open and I stepped down, safe again on a quiet street in familiar territory.
Brainstorm underlying ideas
I look more closely at my thoughts and feelings in this scene. What can I learn about my trust in people, my fragile pride, my ethnic identity, and the way a city kid could feel vulnerable in a crowd, hoping to remain invisible.
Freshman year debate
In Freshman year, I was a thousand miles from home, living in a high-rise dormitory at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a sprawling campus with thirty thousand students. Some upper classmen were visiting the dorm to debate the U.S. action in Vietnam, while the mainly freshman residents crowded in to the meeting room to listen. “The U.S. government is using Vietnam as an excuse to test its weapons. We shouldn’t be there.” “Oh, yeah? You’re a fool. If we don’t stop communism in Vietnam, it will spread and take over the world.”
I tried to find my own truth amidst their battle of ideas. I could barely keep up. How did these people know so much? And why were they filled with so much intensity? What did it all mean?
At the end of my freshman year, I went home to a quiet summer in Philadelphia, working as an assistant in a medical research lab, and working in my dad’s drugstore on weekends. In the fall, I returned to Madison. Amidst the hordes walking to and from class, I saw Kathy Bridgman, one of the only girls I had dated the previous year. The date didn’t go well. I had become so nervous I had to cut it short, and never went out with her again. Now, our eyes met, we smiled tentatively, and kept walking.
Walking with the crowd, I felt a little lonely. Seeing Kathy tipped me off balance, reminding me of my social incompetence. How would I survive three more years?
A year later, in the fall of 1967, my hair in a frizzy mop, and sporting bushy sideburns, I approached a group of students who were gathering to block a classroom. By now, I had decided to join the protesters. Together we would alter the course of history. I crowded into a hallway of the Commerce Building, packed tightly, arms locked together. After we had been there for a while, police broke out the plate glass entry-way, stormed in and swung their clubs with force. Many students went to the hospital, including the girl who stood next to me. She needed emergency surgery for a ruptured uterus. The violence I had witnessed disturbed me. I had started out full of hope and ended more confused than ever.
What ideas drove me to protest? What other ideas drove the police to fight back with such violence? What happened to me, as my ideas shattered along with the day’s events?
For most of my senior year, I stayed alone in my apartment. Depressed, I skipped as many classes as possible. I was falling off the edge of my ambition, and collapsing into myself.
Search for the ideas
As these scenes first occurred to me, they seemed isolated. Now, by looking for continuity, I recognize the way crowds worked in my mind. I had always been fascinated by mobs in history. Now I could see that my academic curiosity was really about me. I was constantly looking for the balance between my desire to be inside a crowd, and my desire to be alone.
My Coming of Age was beset by this tension. In high school, I started out as a nerd, very much alone. Then at the university, I jumped in to crowds, deeper and deeper, until I felt stripped of my individuality. I lost my momentum and collapsed back into myself. Now, to collect the events and find a conclusion, I need to show how a more balanced understanding of groups redeemed me, filled me, and brought me back to life.
These anecdotes have not yet formed a story, but now I feel the dramatic tension that links one to the next, providing the seeds of an emotionally authentic and hopefully powerful tale, transforming isolated bits of memory into a story that will hold a reader’s attention from beginning to end.
Look at some of the anecdotes in your notebook. See if you can tease out the ideas that added power to each scene and linked it to the next. What additional background will offer the reader a greater understanding of your emotions and decisions?
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.