I grew up at a time of sharp gender distinctions, but as a young intellectual I mostly kept out of the fray. For example, failing out of contact sports didn’t bother me. I did try a few other things I consider manly, like constructing a small rustic end table from lumber. And I changed the oil on my car a few times, and even changed the brake pads once. But the male stereotype I adhered to most ferociously was the shallowness of my interest in girly emotions.
I was curious about those exotic creatures, of course, who clearly had about a thousand times more insight into style and emotion in one day than I had in a year, but I never expected to find a pathway that would enable me to feel their feelings.
Looking back on it, I can see how my ignorance was supported by the reading material of the day. Throughout my youth in the sixties, Huck Finn, Great Expectations, the Count of Monte Cristo, Edgar Alan Poe’s short stories, and the whole genre of science fiction, all shielded me from the experience of being a girl.
But the wall that separated me from the inner life of women rapidly crumbled when I discovered memoirs. When reading memoirs by female authors, I not only think about women. I spend hours vicariously thinking like one, allowing me to feel those complex emotions for myself. For example, reading books by mothers about the loss of a child took me on a journey through some of the most heart-wrenching emotions I’d ever experienced. [For example to read an essay I wrote about such a mother’s memoir, Lorraine Ash’s Life Touches Life click this link.]
I held back on the feminine experience of romance though, viewing it as a sort of final frontier that my male mind hesitated to cross. I did try reading a couple of romance novels, but I felt as though they were written in a foreign language, and could not let go in order to enter them vicariously. I needed to find a good romance memoir and build up the courage to read it.
Then last year I took a baby step in that direction. B. Lynn Goodwin’s memoir Never Too Late, about forming a relationship later in life, was the perfect starting point for my expanded emotional intelligence, in part because it was, well, frankly not very romantic. This meant I didn’t have to expose my logical male mind to too much emotion too fast. But it broke the ice. [Click here to read my essay about that experience]
This year, my memoir romance reading jumped up a notch (or ten). Paris Blue by Julie Scolnik is a beautifully written book. It has all the vulnerability of a romance novel, but with the intense authenticity that arises from a heart-felt first-person account.
Paris Blue empowered me in the same way all memoirs do, to get me out of the limitations of my own approach to life in order to experience someone else’s. As her story awakened primal feelings of being swept away in love, I remembered when I felt that intoxication too! Through the magic of vicarious experience, I remembered those delicious moments as a young man when I felt swept up in that fascinating, fun, intricate, sensual, and sweet aspect of human existence.
Paris Blue, about the author’s most intimate moments, is yet another reason to celebrate the dawn of the Memoir Age – sharing stories lets us make better sense of each other’s inner worlds – like the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which enabled modernity to understand ancient hieroglyphs, the existence of a modern library of interior life journeys can help us speak to each other more openly and with deeper insight. In this way, memoir reading and writing will change the world.
This Is How I Save My Life: From California to India, a True Story of Finding Everything When You Are Willing to Try Anything by Amy B. Scher
At the beginning of Amy Scher’s memoir, This is How I save My Life, she is riddled with pain, weakened in every muscle of her body. Her young life is drowning in a blur of doctors, medications, and crises. She has tried everything. Nothing works. But she, and her parents, are not ready to give up.
And then, along comes an experimental stem-cell treatment at a small clinic in New Delhi, India. Really? Is she going to risk her life to save her life? As a reader, I’m skeptical. If she’s already tried the best doctors, why will this method work? But I like her writing, and I like her challenge, so I keep reading.
When she lands in Delhi, she has to adjust to the assault on her senses, colors, smells, noise. So what does she do? She manages, amazingly to turn Delhi, India into a character with a personality all its own. The way she portrays India is unique, interesting… and alive!!! It seems like everyone in India is painting outside the lines. And everywhere she turns, India is beckoning to her to let go of her rigid preconceptions and join in its exuberant chaos. I fell in love with Amy Scher’s personalization of Delhi. But wait there’s more.
At the clinic where her treatment will be administered, she meets an ensemble cast of patients and caregivers. To bring this experience to the reader, she repeats the same brilliant technique she used for Delhi. She turns the clinic into a character, too. In this way, she makes her trip so much more easily understandable. As characters, both the city and the clinic, offer lessons, joy, and companionship.
Reading this memoir reminds me of the importance of good writing – she provides humor, insight, and some of the most artfully interwoven backstory I’ve ever seen. And while all these features make the book easy and enjoyable to read, the highlight of this memoir is her journey of self-discovery. She constructed her story arc so well, I offer it as a “textbook” example of the story arcs at the heart of every good memoir.
Every memoir needs three basic components
First, every memoir needs to start with a high stakes question. Amy Scher’s debilitating illness is a perfect setup to capture our attention. However, spoiler alert, this initial challenge is a moving target. As the story proceeds, the challenge gradually shifts. I’ll have more to say about this challenge in a moment.
Second, as she moves toward resolving the problem, the author must encounter many obstacles. Her illness provides a constant stream of setbacks. Other setbacks arise from the discomfort, anxiety, and adjustment to such an exotic environment. So this requirement is satisfied as well.
Third, as she confronts each obstacle, she must exert psychological and emotional effort required to move from initial problem, through the obstacles, toward a conclusion. We want to see how our hero will push through all the obstacles in order to reach the conclusion.
While This is How I Save my Life perfectly exemplifies these three essential parts, Amy Scher modifies the formula a little and in the process makes its story arc exceptional.
At the start of the book, her main challenge seems to be medical. So if that continued to be the main challenge, the conclusion would be a cure. Naturally, as a compassionate human being, I would be thrilled to see the author throw away her pill bottles and get up and dance. But memoir readers tend to want to learn about psychological, social, or moral self-development. Memoir readers are actually psychology geeks – we have a thirst for understanding how people grow.
This notion of a character growing wiser, or more mature, or more accepting during the course of a memoir is one of my favorite things about the genre. I believe that the whole genre is devoted to reminding our culture of a simple concept about being human that has been lost in the hectic pace of modern times: that is, that adults can continue to grow throughout their lives.
Memoirs chart a path to the high road
I claim that memoir readers long to witness this feature of human courage – we want to admire people who climb to a higher elevation. But until the Memoir Revolution, our culture offered only a tiny handful of metaphors to help us visualize our upward moral mobility. In fact, I can only think of two.
In the Japanese culture, you take your shoes off when entering the home in order to symbolize that you are going to a higher spiritual plane. Just a step higher, but to a different plane. So simple, and yet it says so much. Similarly, when I heard Martin Luther King’s exhortation to “take the high road,” I knew exactly what he meant. There is some higher elevation that we all know about. And yet if we all know about the importance of the high road, why does the modern, educated Western world invite so little discourse about it? As a culture, we are suffering from a poverty of insight into the path to the high road.
That impoverishment ended when we began reading memoirs. Each one is a roadmap of one author’s journey toward their higher inner qualities. In a sense, the genre is a sort of human university, and by immersing ourselves in the stories of people who have gone through these journeys, we have discovered a language of hope and courage at the heart of the human condition.
Until the Memoir Revolution, few of us had thought about our own life transitions in these terms. We lived, year after year, and filed away memories in their messy repository, only jumping out randomly, or during a conversation.
And so, chances are that when you read your first few dozen memoirs, you had a hard time fathoming how these particular authors had arrived at a coherent, readable account. Who were these unusual individuals, you might have asked? What made them so unique? But when you look more carefully, you realize they started out just like you, with a pile of memories and then years working out how the past fit together into a good story.
Once you decide it might be worthwhile for you to do something similar, at first all you have are a pile of disorganized memories as well. They have no inherent organization. Rather these bits of your past will only acquire the organizational framework of “story” after you’ve taken a lengthy, verbal journey to put the pieces together in a new form.
Read memoirs to learn how to find your own map
To help you find the wisdom embedded in your own life, take some time to make more sense of the memoirs you read. In each one, review how the author went from the challenge at the beginning, to a satisfying conclusion at the end. As you understand the way they portrayed their character arc, you can begin to do thought experiments, to see which parts of your life might line up accordingly. Amy Scher’s storyline offers a great example of the hope and courage available within the genre.
When the book starts, the main goal of the protagonist is to heal her physical disease. As the story proceeds, she gradually shifts her goal from the medical problem of curing a disease to a psychological and spiritual quest to become a better person. That gradual shift from curing a physical disease at the beginning, to her growing awareness of her psychological well-being by the end creates an exceptionally clever story arc.
So if you were looking for a recipe for healing chronic life-wrecking Lyme disease the story might be a bit disappointing. But if you are looking for a story about a really sick person coming to some sort of spiritual understanding of the healing process, you will find this book exciting and uplifting.
But when you take off your white coat, leave the lab and enter the streets of Delhi, life is no longer even remotely predictable. And what had begun as an attempt for a medical cure turned out to be a pilgrimage, whose ultimate lesson was that it’s okay to let go. And like heroes throughout the ages, once she learned her lesson she returned to the world to let the rest of us know.
One problem with this East Meets West lesson about reality is that we Westerners are afraid that if we let go of too much, chaos would ensue. There is no easy way to reconcile that fear, but if you want to find a good way to gather the two ways of looking at the world and hold them within the embrace of one good story, read Amy Scher’s memoir.
Instead of teaching us about one or two of India’s spiritual belief systems, she exposes the roots of those beliefs. India teaches her that to find her new truths, she must break through old boundaries. This is in a sense the very foundation of the Hero’s Journey – the hero must “go forth into the land of adventure” in other words, to start the journey the Hero must “let go.”
As she proceeds through the course of her treatment, she gradually discovers that it’s not the medicine that is healing her. The healing results from the courage to let go.
In her memoir, the mystical magic of India emerges organically, directly from its culture of acceptance, of controlled chaos, of believing that the truth is there waiting for you if you just let it in. In her own unique, subtle, innovative way, she shows the path to healing is through acceptance – once you let go, you let in the light.
What if letting go leads to chaos
This idea of letting go of emotional control is foreign to the educated Western mind. Still reeling from the cultural horror of the Dark Ages, we grow up believing that science is the bulwark against ignorance. Thanks to the great promises of analytical thinking, if you know the mathematical formula you can predict the exact trajectory. If you construct a proper experiment, you arrive at the best truth.
When you leave the sterile research lab with its white coats and controlled variables and enter the streets of Delhi, life is far messier than Western science would lead us to believe. Even in high school physics they taught me that the predictions only work when you ignore the messy details. And in medicine, the complexities of the body often outstrip the skills of the body.
So we’re stuck in an impasse. Western science is a bulwark against ignorance, except when it’s not. And Eastern (Indian) thinking is too wild, too out-of-the-box, to uncontrolled. This is where Amy Scher story introduces us to ideas that easily cross between the two cultures.
While it is lovely to appreciate Amy’s story as a literary experience, it’s even more intriguing when you can extend these insights into a framework that will make sense to your Western trained mind. If you want a little guidance, consider this quote. Dan P. MacAdams is a psychologist who has spent his life exploring how our individual sense of self, our very personhood, is wrapped up in the stories we tell about ourselves. In his book called The Stories We Live By he calls upon Western psychology to explain why Amy Scher’s ending feels so right.
The principle at the heart of This is How I Saved My Life is that the stories we live by must have flexibility and expansiveness in them if we intend to be mentally healthy. When Amy Scher ventured forth to India in the hopes of finding her own truth she had to let go of the crazy notion that she knew everything.
Amy went on a pilgrimage, on a hero’s journey, to learn these lessons. She didn’t learn them from Dan MacAdams’ graduate Psychology classes on personality formation. Instead she learned them from the citizens of India who must embrace ambiguity in order to survive. Then she brought back her truth the way heroes are supposed to do. In Amy Scher’s story, the notion of letting go is indeed revealed as a beautiful truth in its own right.
The mix of East Meets West proposed by Amy Scher’s memoir is innovative, in the same way the music and culture of the sixties led to innovative mind expanding perspectives. It took an expansive, open mind to follow the artistryof Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar’s famous mashup. If you are ready to go for a similar expansive journey into the intersection of the two cultures through Story, take a deep breath and go for a ride through This is How I Save My Life.
If you have been trained in Western thinking, you might find it a bit scary. What if we “let go” too much? The dilemma between too much control and too little does not lend itself to an easy answer. But if you want to find a good way to gather the two ways of looking at the world, and hold them in your mind within the embrace of one good story, read Amy Scher’s memoir.
The process of getting together with a romantic partner is so psychologically complex, and so fraught with pitfalls and doubts, it makes perfect raw material for a memoir. Then why have I seen so few bestsellers centered on this theme?
Perhaps the subject has been so over-reported in fiction that some memoir authors might fear that mentioning their own romance will sound cliché. Others might be reluctant to reveal such an intimate insight into their hearts. And yet, as the Memoir Revolution continues to mature, every possible life experience is finding its way into a book length story. It’s just that romance is arriving slowly.
Romance did famously play a key role in Elizabeth Gilbert’s runaway best seller Eat, Pray, Love. This was “her guy.” No problem. Unlike the inner battles of the romance novel, there wasn’t a lot of “should I shouldn’t I” going on.
However, in a second, less famous book, Committed, Gilbert went through every agonizing contortion you could imagine, trying to convince herself to tie the bond. Unlike the inner debates in a romance novel, Gilbert didn’t fret so much about the suitability of the guy as she did about her hatred for the institution. The book was a protracted intellectual war within herself to talk herself into getting married. Committed was so emphatically not a romance novel, one wonders if she was intentionally avoiding those tropes.
My next foray into what looked like it might be a romance memoir was the improbably titled The Happily Ever After: A Memoir of an Unlikely Romance Novelist by Avi Steinberg.
I already knew Avi Steinberg’s penchant for a strong nonfiction slant from his previous memoir, Running the Books about being a librarian at a prison. Unfortunately, true to his quirky style, The Happily Ever After showed me a lot about Steinberg’s attempt to be accepted into romance writer’s groups, but did not do much for my insights into the emotionally complex journey to enter a committed relationship.
Actually over the years I have read several memoirs which included the connection with a romantic partner – (see notes at the end for more details) — but in all of these, the storyline included other powerful themes, such as death, cancer, and in one case concluding she would better off on her own. So I was gaining a slow education in the way romance could be introduced into a memoir.
I did not run into a full-blown “romance memoir” until Never Too Late: From Wannabe to Wife at 62by B. Lynn Goodwin. Not only was the memoir specifically about getting together as a couple. It also had the bonus feature of being by a woman who had made it into her 60s without having been married. It was a perfect opportunity to extend my horizons. And it didn’t disappoint. The memoir Never Too Late took me into the complex emotional territory of a romance novel, but completely within the style and intent of a memoir.
In addition to taking me on an excellent journey, I felt that B. Lynn Goodwin’s experience might help other authors who are debating whether or not to include romance in their memoirs. So I reached out and asked her a few questions.
Question about your decision/inspiration to write this
Jerry: At what point in your relationship did you realize you wanted to write about this experience? For example, had you been on the lookout for a deep story about yourself and realized as you entered this situation it would be worth writing about? Or did you become aware of the potential for a book much later in the period?
B. Lynn Goodwin: We’d been on 3-4 dates when I realized that if this relationship went any where it might make a good a memoir. Actually, I’d been free-writing with a group of married women, all younger than me, for about 8 years when Richard and I started dating. They had a lot more to write about than I did and somehow, I realized that I’d done many of the things that I wanted to, but I’d never had a chance to find out what marriage was like. I’d never even lived with anyone. Richard offered me that chance.
Did you have inner doubts about “do I really want to be writing this?”
Jerry: Never Too Late is an unusually frank and open look into aspects of your inner world that not everyone would be willing to expose. As you realized you might turn it into a publishable book, what additional self-doubts or worries crept in that you had to brush aside to keep going? Such as:
Jerry: worrying about his reaction to being made public”
B. Lynn Goodwin: Richard and I have done a good job working through all the compromises and choices we would have to agree on to become a couple.’ Though we still have our individual sides, fortunately neither one of us has to be right all of the time.
He sees life as black as white, and I see it in a spectrum of grays. I also pick my battles. It was easy to show this through our early encounters. Of course, he once suggested that after I wrote each chapter, he could write “what really happened.” He was joking… sort of. As the writer, it was my story, but in the end we were still aligned.
When it was done, I asked him to read it. His response to the book was, “It’s all true.” He’s right. I love his honesty.
Jerry: Worrying about what others will think about your own actions and choices
B. Lynn Goodwin: I was anxious about my lack of experience with relationships, but memoir writers reveal things that the rest of us keep private. Besides, it was no secret that I’d never been intimate. Most people probably figured it out immediately. Now moms often ask if I’m a grandmother, so whatever obvious signs were there about my single status have apparently disappeared.
Jerry: Worrying about what others will think about your writing.
B. Lynn Goodwin: I didn’t think my writing was bad and I appreciated when others pointed out what was unclear to them.
Inner debate as a cornerstone of the romance genre
Jerry: The whole basis for this story is remarkably similar to the Romance genre, which is largely about the journey of two people trying to come together as a couple. Did you make any conscious effort to follow or diverge from that genre’s story structure?
B. Lynn Goodwin: I didn’t have much experience reading romance novels, so it didn’t occur to me to reference them. If you’d like a little romantic symbolism, I opened like a rose, and my petals are still blooming.
Jerry: Okay. So even though you weren’t thinking about the romance genre, per se, you were certainly treading some of the same territory. Your memoir explores the whole process of choosing to enter into the partnership of marriage.
While everyone who has ever formed a relationship must sort out how much of themselves will be compromised, you have written a whole book about crossing that frontier. These decisions are especially complex and fraught for you because of your beliefs about gender, and your coming to this question late in life. Throughout the journey you write about in this book, you must weigh these questions in an astoundingly transparent and intricate series of self doubts and self discoveries.
Considering how differently the two of you were when you started, this desire to bond with this man, you had to use internal dialog to cross over some very complex terrain where heart and mind must come to some very important agreements.
I’m blown away at the content of these inner debates. You were asking yourself detailed questions about such an intense ethical and moral set of choices, almost drilling down to the heart of what it means to be a couple. Your story is a workshop in a dimension of personal attunement and personal ethics that most of us only ever think about in the background if at all. That is a fascinating journey. Thank you for taking us readers along for the ride.
B. Lynn Goodwin: Thank you for understanding what I was doing.
Jerry: The inner debates about what you will need to adjust in order to share a life are an amazing masterclass in this aspect of relationship building.
B. Lynn Goodwin: Still a student in this master class… Memoir is usually two stories. It’s the story of what happened and how the narrator felt then. The second story is about how the narrator feels now as she reflects. I’m often struck by the fact that no one can tell your story but you. If Richard were to tell the story of our meeting and marrying, his would be different from mine. Even his reporting of our experiences would be different. My story might speak to someone who’s had similar experiences and thoughts, and outside perspective often helps.
Jerry: Your circumstances added some fascinating nuances to the equation. You had never been married, and had a lot of life behind you as a single woman –to give over half of your life to this other person was such a huge decision and you take us deep into the guts of your decision.
B. Lynn Goodwin: Absolutely. There are many reasons a single woman needs to be cautious. I needed to believe we were both doing the right thing so I would not live with regrets.
How much did writing act as a workspace for your own emotional evolution
Jerry: I definitely had the sense that through the course of the story, you kept moving the dial from “I’m comfortable and content living on my own ” to “I want to be in this marriage with this man.”
So I’m looking at your memoir as a sort of real-time unfolding of your own evolving self-understanding. I love that. I think you spooled that aspect of decision-making masterfully through the course of the book.
So while as a reader I’m seeing how you are moving the dial of your decision making process, I wonder what that was like for you as a writer. Were you using the writing as a tool to help you expand and extend and clarify your own emotional vocabulary during this experience?
B. Lynn Goodwin: I used the memoir to help me figure things out and to justify my choice because plenty of my friends had questions. It did not seem like an evenly-matched marriage, but they were applying different standards than I was.
Jerry: Could you say more about how or if you see writing the memoir as a part of your evolution as a person.
B. Lynn Goodwin: I write tons of short memoir pieces in my journal. I call them flash memoir. As I write I discover a great deal about who I am and how I became the woman I am. Every moment of evolution helps me function better.
Jerry: As a writer, editor, and a lifetime reader and literary person, how much were you consciously thinking of this as a journey through your “Relationship value system?”
B. Lynn Goodwin: More than you might imagine. This is a hard one to answer, but Richard introduced me to honesty without fear of repercussions. It was something I’d always craved. I didn’t write much about why it was missing, because I wanted to limit this to our story rather than including excessive back story.
Jerry: What was the relationship of your passion for writing, with your earnest development of new emotional “muscles” in this time in your life?
B. Lynn Goodwin: My passion for writing helped me develop my buried emotional muscles. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d said no. I can’t imagine any scenario I’d like.
Other books with strong themes of romantic connection. Each has its own unique slant of course, but as you search for the best way to include the notion of romance, consider these other approaches to constructing your story.
Again in a Heartbeat by Susan G. Weidener. Romantic, connection, then loss, and grief. Then on to reclaiming her own strength as a single mom.
Banged Up Heart by Shirley Mellis. Romantic, connection, then tragic loss. A real ode to a relationship – and like B. Lynn Goodwin’s Never too Late, it took place later in life.
Click here to read my article about these two romance/grieving memoirs.
The Dog Lived and So Will I by Teresa Rhyne. This was a great, romantic comedy. And it involved a dog, and like the previously mentioned ones, cancer.
Click here to read my article about the adorable, brave and romantic memoir The Dog Lived and So Will I
MatchDotBomb: A Midlife Journey through Internet Dating by Francine Pappadis Friedman. An unromantic book that speaks to the horrors and disappointments of midlife dating.
Growing up Jewish gave me a front row seat to the hatred proudly on display against people of other races, not only in Europe but right here in my own country. By the time I arrived in college, the signs posted on beaches and restaurants throughout the American South – No Jews or Blacks Allowed –had been reluctantly taken down, and I happily assumed that the American promise of universal equality was heading in the right direction.
Sadly that optimistic belief has been challenged by the presence of video cameras in everyone’s pockets, which document the fact that something is still desperately wrong. From a woman tasered and jailed for refusing to put out her cigarette, to suspects of a minor crime shot multiple times in the back while running away, to a man strangled to death in front of a crowd of onlookers, the injustice continues, and even though it’s an uncomfortable conversation, it is also one my heart demands I enter.
Since I’ve spent the last 15 years making the audacious claim that memoirs have the power to transform society, it makes sense to tack on this additional hope – that memoirs could specifically elevate our conversation about race.
After George Floyd’s murder, while riots raged in cities around the country, I reviewed the Black memoirs I’d read, and found that the very first blog post I wrote in 2007 mentions two memoirs by Black authors, one of which inspired a trip into Philadelphia to meet the famous Tommie Smith. In 1968, Smith, one of the great runners of the modern era, stood with his Gold Medal on the podium of the Olympics and raised his fist in solidarity with Black protests.
Back in 1968, while I was busy trying to grow up, Tommie Smith’s brave gesture quickly slipped out of my awareness. Reading his memoir years later revealed what happened next. His simple plea for equality ran afoul of the racial caste system, and decades before “cancel culture” became a thing, he lost his endorsements and was blacklisted from college and sports team. His silent, bold, dignified gesture hurtled him into obscurity and poverty.
I am ashamed to admit that when I first read Tommie Smith’s memoir, I was still clinging to the belief that the vicious backlash directed against him was some sort of mistake, and that in general, while the American promise of equality had flaws, it was still essentially intact.
George Floyd’s murder made it impossible to ignore that these supposedly small pockets of racial indignity run much deeper into the fabric of our society and have more far-reaching, dire consequences than I wanted to believe. But what could I do?
I can’t change the world, but perhaps I could cry harder, and invite others with big hearts to cry (and try!) with me. Because in addition to protests, the other way to lift this mess is with love, and love sometimes requires exposing one’s self to pain.
So I dug deeper into my reading list, and eventually I came to see that the American system of promising everyone equality and then withholding it from those of a different race has forced many people to find the dignity hidden in the spaces permitted them by their circumstances.
I didn’t make these observations of moral strength on my own. I extracted them from between the lines of another Black writer I met in Philadelphia, Lorene Cary. In reviewing her two books, Black Ice and Lady Sitting, I formulated my ideas for a 21st Century approach to racism, and how the response to it is a search for dignity.
After I wrote an essay on the topic, my own blog seemed too limited a platform. To stretch outside my usual range, I sent the essay out into the world. When I heard back from, Mary McBeth, the editor of Memoir Magazine that she wanted to talk to me, I was flattered that she would take some time to help me improve it.
Unfortunately she did not find my exploration of these topics to be as clear as I’d hoped. Fortunately, she wanted to talk about it, and that resulted in an impromptu seminar in the language of being Black (and white) in America.
It turns out that she too has been longing for a way to contribute to this conversation, but she has the privilege of seeing the situation from the Black side of the ocean that separates us. When she saw I’d dived into that ocean, she jumped in too, in order to see if we could meet in the middle.
During two phone conversations, spanning 3.5 hours, we attempted to swim across the turbulent waters that divided her world from mine. Because of hundreds of years of cruelty and contention, it turns out that steering through appropriate, compassionate language is more difficult than I’d anticipated.
Based on her feedback, I mulled over my article, and eventually returned version two. She reviewed that one and gave me even more feedback. By the third round, she said she didn’t just like it. She loved it.
The article, published in Memoir Magazine [Click here to read the whole thing, ] says much of what I’ve been thinking about since the George Floyd murder, I also want to add one more thing here.
I’ve been reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns, about the Jim Crow south, and the great migration from south to north. Wilkerson’s thoughtful, heavily researched story has shredded the blinders that kept me from seeing the history of racial atrocity in this country. Perhaps because I am now close to three quarters of a century old myself, the sadistic, dehumanizing laws and social norms against Blacks in the first half of the twentieth century don’t seem so long ago. In fact, they were taking place in the same decades as the groundswell of human cruelty was rising in Europe to create the Holocaust – it’s all too close for comfort.
Of course no one can reverse past oppression, but as we move forward, in order to live up to our own standards of “freedom for all” we must learn to use our words in the service of mutual respect. While most of our public debate about the empathetic use of language has been directed against inflammatory and demeaning word choices, an even more valuable use of words occurs in the mutual respect we gain by listening to each other’s stories. This is the promise of the Memoir Revolution, that while we all live our own unique lives, stories enable us to have empathy for each other’s.
After you’ve given an author several hours of your attention, you have entered into one of the most dignified, and dignifying relationships in human experience, vicariously setting yourself aside, and letting them lead you through their journey.
I’ve often said that memoirs generate hope, because each one leads from a place of lesser personal satisfaction to greater. But whenever I cross a barrier of race, or culture, or any other difference in our backgrounds, I believe that equally important is its promotion of empathy. By allowing myself into their worlds, each memoir chips away at the sense of otherness, and immerse myself in the knowledge that we are all swimming in the same ocean.
When I was a teenager, in the sixties, I loved to read novels about the previous hundred years. Authors such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Ernest Hemingway led me on astonishing journeys through the worlds that existed before my time. Mysteriously, though, it never occurred to me to ask my parents about their own earlier lives, or the stories their parents might have told.
Today, 60 years later, I feel bewildered by my teen preference for the written words of strangers, while ignoring the history living within the people who raised me.
In my fifties, I discovered the Memoir Revolution, a cultural movement that transforms the memory of elders into the engaging form of a good story. The trend has given rise to a whole army of cultural historians, scouring their memories to report the way things used to be. While it was too late to ask my own parents about their past, I could open a book and read about an author who had done just that.
The popularity of memoirs might at first glance appear to be little more than a passing trend in reading preferences. But when viewed as an expansion of our understanding and respect for the past, this trend has the potential for raising our cultural wisdom.
Winston Churchill famously wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Considering our poor track record of learning from the past, it would be easy to interpret his pronouncement more as a death knell than a wake up call. So are we really doomed? Not if the Memoir Revolution has anything to say about it.
However, while memoirs beautifully reveal the person doing the writing, their value falls off sharply when they guess what went in the minds of those already deceased (unless of course the ancestor left behind a memoir.)
That lack of visibility into the minds of the dead has spawned a subgenre in which the author sets out to wrest the story from their ancestor’s graves. (Literally in the case of genealogists who travel around looking for inscriptions on gravestones.)
Such memoirs regularly show up on my reading list, many from authors whose previous memoirs I already respect. These intrepid personal historians have such a strong desire to know the folks who came before them, they devote whole chapters of their lives to this quest.
My first encounter with the subgenre came from one of my memoir heroes, Linda Joy Myers, the president of the National Association of Memoir Writers. She spent fifteen years writing about her own childhood, resulting in her first memoir, Don’t Call me Mother, an insightful, psychologically-rich Coming of Age story. [I wrote about that memoir here: ]
Another author who attempted to find the stories of her ancestors was Tracy Seeley. In her book My Ruby Slippers, she travels from California to Kansas to understand her roots. Her book weaves together the history of her family with the role Kansas and the plains played in the history of our nation. [Here’s a link to my article about that book ]
Recently another such memoir pushed me over the threshold from ancestry skeptic to believer. I’d already read and reviewed Neill McKee’s first memoir, Finding Myself in Borneo, about how a gig as a government worker set him on a lifelong career of foreign service. [I wrote about that memoir here ]
In his second memoir, Guns and Gods in my Genes, he travels around North America to visit his family roots across hundreds of years, settling the frontier and earlier still, to the birth of Canada and the United States. The history of his ancestors is fascinating and sobering, drenched in the blood of the people who were already here.
After reading these three searches for ancestry, I’ve drawn a more complete understanding of how the Ancestor-search subgenre works and what it contributes to the Memoir Revolution
Who is the hero of an ancestor memoir?
My love for memoirs comes from their ability to take me inside another person’s journey to grow from some lesser state at the beginning to the wiser, more mature state at the end. But because ancestor-research memoirs spend so much time chasing down insights into the lives of other people, I originally questioned if they have the well-defined, character-driven story that would qualify them as “real” memoirs?
Upon reflection, I found abundant proof that they do indeed satisfy the requirements. The ancestor research memoir expresses the author’s driving curiosity to “know thyself.” That’s a perfect characteristic of the hero of a memoir.
Like any good memoir, each one has an outer story. The hero must relentlessly scour every corner of their history, painstakingly searching for clues. They are detectives!
Each one has an inner story, as well. The main character’s passionate curiosity shines like a beacon from the beginning of the story to the end. These writers soldier on, driven by some psychological force to get to the bottom of their nagging questions about their ancestral inheritance.
The promise of new information from a microfiche, a gravestone, or a museum sends them flying across the country. It’s a chase, a hunt, and to that end, these authors are true memoir warriors, archeologists, forensic scientists, trying to recreate the knowledge hidden within the ruins.
All memoirs invite us to ponder the truth at the heart of the Memoir Revolution. “Who I am today is an evolution of who I used to be.” In most memoirs, that question of identity is explored through the main character’s own recollections. The ancestor research subgenre poses a somewhat different question. “If I’ve been influenced by the psychological truths of my parents, what psychological factors influenced them?”
Ancestor research memoirs, by their nature, seem choppy
These three memoirs, Song of the Plains, My Ruby Slippers, and Guns and Gods in my Genes, rely on genealogical sources such as research in libraries and interviews, and in precious snips of old letters. Stories reconstructed from these artifacts will of course sound very different from stories created out of a memoir author’s memory.
In fact, so different that they introduce a fault line, in which the reader must across the chasm. Instead of identifying with the hero/author, the reader must jump into the life of the ancestor currently under review.
The resulting attempt to reconstruct the past breaks our attention away from the present and forces the writer to disrupt one of the primary methods for maintaining the story-reader’s attention: continuity. Instead of staying inside the mind of the protagonist, the way most memoirs work, the story must leap back into the world of the ancestor.
This need to jump in time disrupts that hypnotic sense of vicarious identification that is such a lovely aspect of the typical first-person memoir. Of course, no matter how diligently researched, the story that emerges from research cannot be as introspective as it would have been if an ancestor had written a memoir (hint, hint.)
However, despite the inherently choppy story line, these fragments being unearthed by the author really do begin to come together, in their mind and in ours, as a tantalizing visualization of the way life used to be.
So do I wish their ancestors had written memoirs? Sure. Do I wish that the author’s hard work could have magically reconstructed a smooth, introspectively authentic narrative? Sure.
But because this is a memoir, it has to stick with the facts. And the facts are that the hero of the memoir was desperate to know about their past. As we accompany them on that journey, we eventually do reach a point of acceptance, not perhaps that we’ve found a perfect story, but that at least we have done everything in our power to elevate these memories into conscious awareness. There is a satisfaction in that astonishing yeoman service, and I turn the last page and close the book feeling that I too have heard those ghosts whispering from the past.
Ancestors, in our genes, our minds, and in society
These three well-crafted, passionately researched stories, took me on multi-year journeys, attempting to coax stories from cemeteries, libraries, and museums Through this painstaking process, I witnessed tendrils of the authors spread throughout a pre-industrial land. The fact that their findings on the American frontier are so sketchy put me off at first. But then, the ghosts of the past turned into a chorus which informed me of something I should have known all along.
Collectively, they “said” that the stories of our ancestors are important. The revelation sounds somewhat prosaic when I say it out loud. And yet, despite its power and importance, it has largely been hidden from my awareness.
But in reading these memoirs, I finally get it. We all not only have childhoods. Our own personal cultural roots stretch far into the past, and even though we don’t think about it consciously, when we pass someone in the grocery store, or encounter them in the news, they have a history that extends far beyond the person we can see with our eyes.
As I contemplate this fact in memoir after memoir, I awaken to a new interpretation of Churchill’s warning about ignoring history. He wasn’t just referring to the lessons we studied in our high school text books. We all have our own personal history. And whether conscious of it or not, the way we envision our ancestors has the potential to inform and influence our self-understanding throughout life.
While most of us probably are not going to embark on the long, difficult road of research traveled by Linda Joy Myers, Tracy Seeley, and Neill McKee, I’m coming to understand that we all have an inherent thirst for our own identities, and even if we don’t know the details of our actual ancestors, we all invent stories about where we’ve come from. I know I certainly did.
I never heard a single story about life before my ancestors arrived on the shores of the US. I only knew the general outline of the facts. Like so many others who came to these shores, they were seeking protection from religious persecution. So without specific stories, I cleverly filled that vacuum by concocting my own.
One surprising source for my story-of-self came from American history. Because the men and women who broke away from British rule had so much interest in religious freedom, I have always envisioned the founders of the nation personally saved me from persecution.
So even though the events of the American Revolution took place 125 years before my ancestors came to this country, I used to walk around the streets of my hometown, Philadelphia, and imagine them populated by the characters I read about in history books, believing that those shadowy figures were more real to me than my own invisible and voiceless ancestors.
I have these three memoirs to thank for awakening a deeper understanding of the way I conflated my personal history with the idealistic dreams of a new nation. It was a fiction, but it entered my definition of myself with the full brunt of truth.
Allowing myself to feel the pain and curiosity, the thirst for identity shown in these three memoirs, I awaken to the incredible pull these ghostly connections have on all of us. How do the rest of us piece together these ancestral fantasies based on vague, bits of story told over holiday meals, or taught in school, or reflected in the statues in our town squares?
My identity story is one of being lost to persecution and being found and protected by idealism. In these three memoirs I see very different origin stories. Their ancestral identities were shaped by the harsher, more desperate times of the settlers. The stories raise questions about the millions of people in the US who look back and see ancestors involved in the American Indian “wars” (or more accurately the genocide), the slave trade and other harsh realities. These insights offer a new way for me to interpret the divisive news of today. In our fantasies, I suspect many of us are still fighting our ancestors’ wars.
Can we ever fulfill the promises and ideals of this nation? In the second part of this article, I will delve into more observations about pioneer trauma, as I search for glimmers of hope and courage awaiting us among the lessons of history revealed by the Memoir Revolution.
(Note: This article began as a review of Strawberry Roan by Judy Beil Vaughan, and over time turned into a longread about the intricate relationship between memoir and autobiography. If you are a writer wondering how your memoir will work, or a reader, wondering about how to make better sense of these two types of life writing, consider the creative way Judy Beil Vaughan bridged the divide.)
During my training to become a therapist, one of the more esoteric instructions I received was that when a client told me about their situation, I was supposed to pay attention to my own feelings.
I found this instruction unsettling, given that I had no idea how to observe my own feelings. It soon became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to help other people until I learned how to steer through the complexities of my own emotions.
Hoping to correct my deficiency, I read Emotional Intelligence, by Dan Goleman, and was heartened by his assertion that this “intelligence” was learnable. So I started on a long road of self-development, to increase my sense of empathy.
Years of being in therapy helped, but the real breakthrough came from a surprising direction. From reading memoirs.
I’ve always enjoyed losing myself in books. The problem was that in my younger years, all my reading matter was written by males. They involved very little emotional intelligence.
So for example, I read lots of books about people dying, but instead of learning about the emotions of loss, the story centered on finding the killer.
Other emotions were similarly superficial or ignored altogether. Take children for example. A mother’s love for a child was given a vague gloss. Cute but without any depth. And the experience of falling in love was a linear operation, with little time spent appreciating its complexity.
Back then, my reading preferences exposed me mainly to people who barely bothered to feel their lives. But when I decided to broaden my emotional horizons, I switched to reading memoirs. By immersing myself in each author’s inner world, I experienced what it was like for that one individual. And after I completing each one, I pondered how I felt about it, similar to the instruction in my therapy training.
One reason reading memoirs had such a profound influence on me was because I was also trying to write one. In order to effectively communicate my experience, I needed to learn how to communicate emotion. And the only way I, with my tin inner ear, could know if I’d succeeded, would be to get feedback from readers. So I joined a critique group, composed of others who were also trying to turn their lives into stories.
Together with a few people, all in a similar situation, I discovered an exponential benefit. By sharing our works-in-progress, we were becoming each other’s teachers, not just in writing but in empathy.
The directive to “pay attention to my own feelings” became crucial when critiquing my fellow memoir writers. To give them feedback about the quality of their writing, I had to tune into the emotions they aroused in me.
In this way, the empathy-enhancing effects of memoir reading were accentuated (or “potentiated” in the parlance of neurobiology) – and as a result, year over year, I could observe myself growing increasingly curious about the whole range of emotions that had once eluded me.
As I continue to gain emotional sensitivity, I keep pushing the limits. Glad, sad, mad, might sound simple, but in their infinite variety of expression and nuance, they continue to draw me out of myself and into an intimacy with the human condition I never knew was possible. Memoirs were an incredible source for this never-ending variety.
Perhaps one of the most complex, enjoyable and emotionally satisfying memoirs I’ve read recently (or perhaps ever) is a surprisingly light hearted little book about cancer, named The Dog Lived and So Did I by Theresa Rhyne. As I set myself aside, and entered Theresa Rhyne’s story, I was in for a feast of emotion, artistically organized into a fulfilling tale.
For a guy who was looking for deeper insight into the realms of emotion, this book is especially valuable, because it weaves together three stunningly intricate emotional experiences: the threat of mortality, loving a pet or child, and most stunning of all is the entanglement of two people attempting to partner up.
Rhyne offers a rich drink from the cup of emotion, providing nuances about her specific circumstances that allow me to turn each of these situations over and over in my mind in new, unique ways. And it all added up to a terrific story.
In the case of cancer, first her dog, then (spoiler alert) she herself, must go through the grueling rigors of chemotherapy. But while the medical details of such a process might be cold and clinical, in a memoir the journey becomes warm and inspiring, filled with the intricacies of misery and courage.
And her relationship with her dog raises astonishing emotional complexity. While Marley and Me by John Grogan brought us closer to the family dog, The Dog Lived takes it a step further, making the relationship almost indistinguishable to the emotions you might expect with a troubled child. And in her love for her pet, it is easy to feel the full protective embrace of a mother’s love.
Finally, there was the romance – that terrifying process that in my younger male mind, I wrote off as a caricature only relevant in cheesy novels. I used to pretend that partnering was easy, or more to the point, if it was difficult, I didn’t want to know about it.
After I’d read enough memoirs, I developed a far more nuanced appreciation for the ups and downs of finding a romantic partner. Theresa Rhyne’s story pried me open further, making me even more willing to include the aching pain of romance into my ever widening circle of empathy.
The thing that makes this particular memoir so emotionally rewarding is the expertise with which the author weaves these three themes. Each one is as complex and nuanced as any good theme should be, and yet they add power to each other, providing a far greater story in combination.
Her memoir demonstrates the vast difference between mere memories and the stories they generate. Anyone who had to look back on this collection of past events, all one might see in memory might be a bratty dog with behavior problems, two incredibly disruptive scary cancer experiences, and an attempt to forge a relationship against unbelievable odds.
I am in awe of this nearly-impossible challenge that every memoir writer faces – to take the life dealt to you by destiny, and turn it into a satisfying page turner that resonates long after the book is closed.
How Theresa Rhyne pulls the whole thing together into such a lovely memoir is a testimony to her skill as a writer, and also a testimony to the enormous humanity of this genre – it is designed for exactly this deep human need – to enable us to immerse ourselves in each other’s emotional experiences.
I’m not the only one who could benefit from a course in empathy. My hope is that as more people discover the nuances of the human experience, as shared in memoirs like this, we will all grow more empathetic to the difficulties and joys of being human together.
Write a paragraph about our most complicated romantic encounter
Write a paragraph about an encounter with cancer or some other life threatening and disruptive health issue.
Write a paragraph about a relationship with a pet, child, or someone else who both relied on you and caused you problems.
If you are feeling adventuresome, try to weave these three high-intensity interactions in your life into one compelling story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Footote about empathy and neurons
How could I, or anyone for that matter, truly be learning how to be more empathetic? Wasn’t I stuck with the amount of empathy I was born with? Based on the most up-to-date neuroscience, our adult brains can change. Through effort and lots of training, I was able to increase the number of neuronal connections responsible for my sense of empathy.
Our brains contain a feature called “mirror neurons” which enable us to empathetically relate to each other’s emotions. So in a sense, the best way to raise our aptitude about our own emotions is to carefully pay attention to each other’s.
In my early teens I learned how to lose myself by entering into the minds of detectives and space adventurers. In more recent years, I’ve shifted to actual people, whose memoirs enable me to leave my life for a while and enter theirs.
After years of memoir reading, I am a well-seasoned lifestory traveler, but the variety of human experience is so vast, I continue to encounter surprising, insightful, unique adventures.
I recently completed such a vicarious journey with a young woman named Erica Elliott who, when she was trying to figure out what to do with her life, went to teach school children at the Navajo Reservation.
She quickly fell in love with the indigenous people and their culture, and thanks to an incredible ability to set herself aside, she merged so thoroughly with them that she sometimes actually forgot she was a foreigner. Even more remarkably, they seemed to forget, as well.
Thanks to the magic of memoirs, she took me on that journey with her, showing me things about being Navajo that could only be known by insiders, and helping me more than ever understand the ancient culture that our pioneer forebears were so intent on destroying. Erica Elliott’s memoir opened a portal and let me travel back in time to a people who lived closer to the land.
Coincidentally, Erica Elliott’s memoir intersected with my fascination with mysteries. Her observations about Navajo culture validated everything I learned from the many detective novels I’ve read by Tony Hillerman. It also reminded me of a very different experience of Native American culture. During many hours in my childhood, I sat glued in front of the television, watching the good guys (all white) killing the marauding “Indians.”
Back then, I had no appreciation for the fact that the Indians were fighting in order to protect their own homes. Nor could I have known this seemingly innocent entertainment was conditioning me to see white people as “us” and people of color as “other.” I am so glad that I now live in a time when stories let us see each other, no matter what color, in a more spiritual light. Through Erica Elliott’s eyes, their “otherness” simply disappears.
But this book is actually two stories in one. In addition to an immersion in an ancient culture, it’s also the story of a young woman trying to find her path to adulthood.
Leaving child self to enter adult self – launching
At that time in life when we must go forth from our family of origin, and declare our individual identity, most of us follow the prescribed sequence – get married, get a job, start a family. For Erica Elliott, curiosity burned like lava. The possibilities were endless. The entire world beckoned.
In her state of massive questioning, she let go of all previous assumptions about who she was. It was a daredevil stunt… throwing herself into the unknown… a true hero’s journey.
I have met or read about many people who struggled mightily to reinvent themselves during that transition. In fact, I was one of those people myself.
Fed up with the ills of Western culture, at the end of the 60s, I attempted to become a hippie, which meant I tried to divest myself of all social norms. And once I started down that road, I wanted to keep going. As luck would have it, Jane Goodall showed up in town (Berkeley, California) and praised the innocence of primates. Her message was the sign I’d been looking for. I decided that living like a chimpanzee would be the most noble path. In a sense, I went berserk.
One reason I was willing to throw everything away was the Vietnam war lapping at my doorstep. I couldn’t picture myself entering adulthood holding a gun. But while I was running the other way, many young men were hoping that military service would be a valid, and honorable gateway into adulthood.
Jim McGarrah was just such a recruit. In his memoir A Temporary sort of Peace about his stint as a combat soldier in Vietnam, McGarrah had every right to expect that his experience would be a healthy, ordinary, rite of passage. But on the battlefield, with death all around him, having given up everything, with nowhere else to turn, McGarrah became unraveled. He too went “berserk.” Since he was holding a rifle at the time, berserking turned into a deadly affair.
The thought-leader who helped me find a language for battlefield breakdown was Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who spent his life trying to understand the psychology of war, by treating PTSD in combat veterans, and by interpreting Homer’s classics, The Odyssey and The Iliad. (I was grateful to Shay for finally explaining the point of those obscure stories, which I also read in high school.)
While the psychology of warriors seems off-topic from Erica Elliott’s lyrical journey to serve those in desperate need, it all has the stamp of young people, trying to grow up by throwing away their old selves.
See notes at the foot of this article for more examples of intense, sometimes desperate young people, who tried to destroy their childhood limitations in order to find their adult truths.
Memoirs provide an encyclopedia of life transitions
Memoirs about the transition to grow up are written by people who have gotten to the other side of that turmoil, often many years later, and are looking back on it hoping to make better sense of what took place. (See notes below for a couple of fun exceptions.)
Looking back from that stable position in adulthood, it is really difficult to sort out the memories and explain what happened back then, even to yourself.
This problem of making sense of our younger selves has often left adults speechless about their own younger years. But now, in the twenty-first century, we have the cultural benefit of memoirs to help us shine a beacon on those difficult transitions.
There’s no better way than a memoir to forensically reconstruct who you were and how you became the person you are.
And in addition to writing your own story, you can read many others. Memoirs create a free worldwide university course, (a MOOC or massively open online course) where we can lose ourselves in any number of these journeys, and see how they feel. And after reading, we can close the book, wiser about the way another person’s experience, and a little wiser about our own.
Erica Elliott’s intense journey with the Navajos was often profoundly uncomfortable and at times even dangerous. Her memoir let me accompany her on that entire journey, in only a few hours in the comfort of my home. And yet, despite these vast differences in the scope of our investment, both she and I were attempting to achieve the same goal –we were both trying to give up who we’d been in order to become better, wiser, broader.
How about your transition to adulthood?
Perhaps your own launching was as wildly experimental as Erica’s, mine, Jim McGarrah’s or others that you’ve read about. Or perhaps it was more routine. But whatever your specific path, in order to get from one side of that journey to the other, you had to redefine yourself.
To learn more about your own transition, try writing the sequence of events. A simple ordered list will start you on the journey to remember your past. And if you keep at it, learning to write scenes, and gather them into a narrative, you will be embracing one of the coolest most educational hobbies in the universe. You might discover things about yourself that you had not considered before, adding to your wisdom. And ultimately, you might be able to pass these insights along to others.
The Memoir Revolution is the synergism of two exciting forces in society – on the one side, it is an invitation to those of us who attempt to see our own life journeys through the lens of a story. And on the other side, it is an invitation to those of us who are curious about the lives of others to discover this deep way to enter into (and lose ourselves in) their lives.
When you were trying to find your adult self, what sort of detours or experiments did you make in order to go out of the ordinary life, and try to lose yourself in another?
A few more examples of memoirs of drastic launchings
An excellent memoir about this impulse to throw away your childhood identity is Unquenchable Thirst, by Mary Johnson. When she sought the best way to become an adult, she attempted to stamp herself out in the service of God and the poor. She defied her parents to become a nun in Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
A very different example of giving up your former identity in order to find a new adult one was explored in the launching memoir the Orchard by Theresa Weir. She was a footloose young woman, with no sense of purpose or direction. Seemingly on a whim, she married into one of the most stable families imaginable, a family of apple growers with deep roots to the land. Instead of leaving some stable life and going into the unknown, Weir left behind her instability and tied herself down.
Berserking was sadly quite common in the 60s, when the normal rhythm of growing up middle-class was disrupted by anti-establishment values. Here’s an intense example of another person who like many of us in those days knew what she was running away from, but was muddled about what to run toward. Pamela Jane’s An Incredible Talent for Existing. See my essay about this memoir by clicking here. https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/is-your-memoir-boomer-lit/
Finding an adult belief system is another challenge of becoming an adult. If the belief system you inherited from your parents does not fulfill your idealistic impression for your own destiny, you must go on a search for a belief system of your own. https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/launching-pt3-beliefs/
A stylistic note about Medicine and Miracles: The infamous pull-out first chapter
At the beginning of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, she famously lost her boot on a mountain top – – perhaps an ironic “cliffhanger” at the very beginning captured enough attention to engage the reader to turn pages to learn how she survived that event.
Erica Elliott’s pull-out first chapter serves a similar purpose, getting us deeply engaged in the character and causing us to turn pages. Astonishingly the pull-out first chapter, which I must admit was one of the best I’ve ever read, actually takes place in a second memoir. I don’t want to give too much away. You should read the book to see what I mean. But if you are considering writing a memoir, figuring out which scene will set the pace for the rest of the story will become one of your most complex puzzles. This book provides a powerful example.
To write a memoir, you have to carve out a few minutes each day to make progress. Despite the apparent simplicity of this requirement, many, if not most, aspiring writers consistently find it difficult to prod themselves to act.
The problem is that at any given moment there are a thousand other things to do, and in order to write, you need to convince yourself this task is more important than the other 999.
To understand why that is so difficult, consider the primary job for which your brain evolved – survival.
You have a strong motivation to go to work, since your paycheck depends on you doing your job. No work. No paycheck. You die. Easy choice!
But your writing project carries no such life and death stakes. If you go without writing no one will die as a result. And your brain knows it!
So, when you direct yourself to sit still and write, your ancient brain wiring simply yawns, and moves on to more urgent matters. To write your memoir, you need to trick yourself into thinking that writing really is urgent.
That’s where self-help strategies come in, to convince your brain that your daily writing is as important as breath itself. If you’ve ever seen (or been) a cigarette smoker, attempting to not take that next hit, you know exactly what I mean. The brain’s habit circuit is so strong, it can cause you to do things that could kill you.
While teenagers routinely convince themselves and each other to start self-destructive habits, writers must read books in order to learn how to start more positive behaviors. Once you get addicted to a daily writing habit, you will feel a sense of desire and even urgency to translate thoughts into words.
The urge to write might be less intense than the craving for a cigarette or a hit of crack, but with a good motivation and at the right time in your life, fostering a writing habit will be strong enough to get the job done.
How I started my own daily habit is a long story. But the important thing about that process is that building the habit was done in small steps over a period of years.
Reading articles like the one you are reading now is one such step. And reading entire books on the subject is an even bigger one. (See the notes at the end for some of the books I’ve read, and one that I’ve written.)
As a self-help junkie, I am already a nut about the subject of getting things done.
Of course checklists are as familiar as your grocery shopping list. In fact they are so familiar most self-help authors don’t even bother to mention them. So reading a whole book about this simple habit was a refreshing opportunity to focus a lot of attention on something I already know, and in the process to renew my faith in its power.
The checklist scales things down to a delightfully bite size chunk. Which is the scale where habits live. By persistently making progress on small steps, over and over, you can achieve mighty things.
The special power of the lowly checklist arises from the barely noticeable burst of satisfaction you get from actually checking the box. It sounds so trivial, but in that tiny act, you are harnessing the same brain chemical, dopamine, that forces heroin addicts to seek their next fix.
Admittedly checking an item only releases a small surge of rewarding neurotransmitters, which is why we barely notice it. It’s the repetition that turns that series of tiny surges into a life changing habit.
Your brain is already wired to turn small rewards into unstoppable motivations. So instead of letting the dopamine surge of meaningless acts (like playing video games, checking your twitter feed, or eating potato chips) develop strong neural pathways, trick your brain into harnessing those powerful systems to write.
Transforming your habit-system from self-destructive behavior to creative acts that can make you feel better about yourself and move you in directions of your choosing – that’s an awesome outcome for the tiny Checklist book.
As for how to apply checklists to move your memoir-writing project forward, you will need to adapt them to your own current challenges.
For example, if you are just gathering anecdotes, you might write, “write one memory” on your check list.
Or if you are organizing your time line, put on your list, “add five events to my timeline file.” Timelines are a powerful tool to help you sort out what happened, when.
Or if you are much further and you have a bunch of organized anecdotes, you might say, “pull together one segment into a chapter.” Chapters help you start organizing your anecdotes into a book length form.
Or if you completed the first draft, write a few paragraphs that explain exactly what this main character is trying to achieve. By describing your character’s mission, you can make better sense of the journey on which you are taking your reader.
Or if you’ve written your memoir and you are trying to figure out where you could speak about your book. “Email one local library today to find out if they host zoom meetings.”
When facing a task that keeps slipping away from you, you can even turn your attention toward your long term self-development. Your checklist could say, “read one page of the self help book currently on my reading pile.
At every stage along the way, you can gain momentum by listing a small task, and then achieving that task. You’ll send a tiny surge of satisfaction through your brain. Nature has been employing this trick for hundreds of millions of years to program us to do her bidding. Now, to write your memoir, take advantage of this ancient strategy.
As you continue to craft the story of your life, one check mark at a time, you will come to see that the small steps that carried you day by day throughout the difficult periods of your life, added up to make you the hero you are today.
Early in my journey to write my memoir, I encountered an age-old problem. My mind was devilishly clever at undermining me. Who will read it? It’s not interesting. I’m not good enough. I’ll do it later. I’ll do it someday.
If my goal had been to jump into an ice-cold swimming pool, perhaps I could have overcome my reluctance by screaming “Just do it.”
But weaving my reflections on the past into a good story required thousands of small steps. Other than perhaps the first one of sitting in front of the computer, none responded very well to screams.
Writing a memoir turned out to be a journey in its own right, in which I had to steer through all sorts of fears, self-doubts and other mental obstacles I encountered on the way. I soon realized I was creating two parallel hero’s journeys.
Hero’s Journey #1 was the story I was trying to write about a character trying to discover a better version of himself.
In order to create that story, I had to go on Hero’s Journey #2, developing introspective skills, teasing out scenes, and courageously facing the tasks of writing and revising.
When I started writing my memoir, though, I didn’t see myself as the hero of anything. However, one thing I did know a lot about was self-help, which I had been studying for years. While most self-help books and recordings focused on becoming a better business person, I extracted those aspects that would make me a more creative person.
So when I became attracted to memoir writing, I realized that achieving my goal required a specialized application of the self-help field. Another source of psychological insight into the creative process came from the helping profession of psychotherapy. I had recently graduated with a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and had often considered my psychotherapy training in relationship to the creative process.
One of the most important and exciting bits of self-help advice I had come across was to “write as if you were speaking to an interested audience.” That advice has motivated me for years, because as I write, I find myself engaged with the people who might want to hear what I have to say. This desire to communicate makes writing so much easier and more interesting.
The fact that you are reading this places you in that category of a curious audience, interested in what I have to say about memoirs, so I’m thinking of you when I write. ?
If you are attempting to write your memoir, be sure to populate your imaginary audience with compassionate memoir readers who are deeply interested in other people. These readers want to know all about you. By maintaining a loving, mutually respectful relationship with this imaginary audience, you will be able to turn your writing sessions into engaging stories about the dramatic tensions, the difficulties, and the courage of your journey.
As I continued to gather strategies, I shared them with other writers. Teaching self-help workshops to writers was a new venture for me. Instead of just thinking about these techniques for myself, I began to see them as shareable skills writers can learn together.
If you have an interest in the techniques and insights afforded by the self-help and psychology movements, take a look at my book. Working through the lessons and writing exercises will provide you with a series of interlocking skills that will arm you for the journey to become a writer.