by Jerry Waxler
The first draft of my memoir included my entire life, starting from my first year in the apartment above my dad’s drugstore in north Philadelphia. What was it like developing from a baby into me? I poked and prodded at my past and sorted the resulting scenes into chronological order. After a year of research and another year of writing, I was able to read about my dramatic tensions, the dynamics of family and friends, hopes and fears, obstacles and allies. My life made far more sense than ever before.
And so, perhaps that is the end of the project. Writing my life from beginning to end is a real accomplishment that makes me proud of myself, not only for of having written it, but also for having lived it.
But I don’t feel done. I want to take the next step and share my life with others. The problem is that readers don’t want a compendium of my entire life. They want a Story – that is, a dramatic form that we all have learned since we were children. My life does not by itself contain this form. To engage readers, I must find it. First I must craft a blurb dramatic enough to attract interest. Then I need to write the book so it compels readers from the first page to the last.
What do you cut away to make it more pleasing?
To create his crowd-pleasing statues, Michelangelo started with a raw block of marble. His task was to chip away everything that didn’t belong. Memoir writers face a similar task. The compelling story lurks somewhere within the vast range of memory. Now we have to figure out what to remove. That’s not so easy. Life was all one thing. Splitting off parts of it may feel disturbing or even painful. And yet, if the final product is as beautiful as Michelangelo’s Pieta, this creative pain would be worthwhile.
Pain is not the only reason it’s hard to remove parts of your life. While polished stories are bounded by the first page and the last, daily life provides no sharply defined markers. Day after day, events run together. We have to find the story within those days, through our own creative process.
Say I want to share my visit to an Ashram in India in the ’70s. Should I start when I board the plane, or do I back up and start the journey as a Jewish nerd growing up in north Philadelphia? Do I finish when I return to the U.S. and move into a commune, or do I move forward a few months when I return to my cubicle as an engineer in the Nuclear Power industry?
Suppose I want to tell about the incredible thrill of receiving a standing ovation from the board of directors of a nonprofit writing group when I was 50 years old. Do I start with the phone call I received from the director? “I appreciate the honor, Foster, but I’ve never done anything like this before,” I said. “You’ll do fine,” he said. “Just be yourself.” Or do I backup and show how incredibly shy I was just two years earlier, so nervous at my first talk at Toastmasters my voice was swallowed up in a hoarse whisper, and I sat down flushed with humiliation after polite applause.
Wending my way through these options requires more than simply finding the most interesting scenes. I need to reveal the forces that propelled my life along its path, and more importantly why a reader should follow me.
A different metaphor, don’t tear anything away
Perhaps the image of a block of marble is misleading. Life is not really a shapeless blob. In its own way, the entire journey was a lovely creation, the life of a complete human being. Perhaps the transformation from the innocence of a little baby all the way to the end is a sort of Pieta in its own right, and we are all destined to end up draped across God’s lap.
The challenge is to somehow offer readers my sense of this fullness, but to do so at a smaller scale. Perhaps, if I adjust my lens to a higher magnification I can see my own passion play embedded in each moment like William Blake’s “world in a grain of sand.” Focusing on the drama, pleasures, and intrigue of a smaller part of life might not require any chipping away after all.
A popular form of computer graphics, called a fractal, looks like a beautiful set of swirls, a sort of mathematical paisley print with teardrop shapes intertwined in miraculously intricate patterns. The remarkable thing about fractals is that when you zoom in closer and closer, you continue to see exotic beauty and detail. The intricate patterns within a tiny fraction of the image are every bit as mesmerizing as the designs that emerge in a canvas as big as the night sky.
I tinker with focal distance, zooming in on particular events. Around each one I see a cluster of passions, needs, and dreams. That younger guy who flew to India was following an inner drive that had started years earlier, before he even knew his own path. And that older guy who spoke to a group of nonprofit leaders had a different constellation of circumstances and emotions. What was he thinking? Why was it such a milestone? Now my challenge is less about cutting out and more about homing in on the details that surround a key event. By identifying the drama in each situation, I can develop a bright, creative reflection of that one part.
My original project of writing about my life resulted in a book that was too long and too complete to be accessible to most readers. But now I have transformed that longer work into a sourcebook, from which I can draw more tightly focused artistic renderings. Hopefully, the end result will please readers as much as the whole thing has pleased me.
From your entire scope of memories, select a particular incident, and try telling it as a self-contained story. What was the driving force of the event? Where would you start? Where would you end? Develop it as a short story. Try events of various sizes and see how they hang together as stories in their own right. For another exercise, try to organize the same set of events as a chapter in a larger memoir. Finally, imagine writing a whole book, with this event as its centerpiece.
To see examples of fractals on the web, type the search term “Fractal Images” into your search engine.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.
To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.
So glad I found your blog. Memoir is my genre and I love discovering others who love the genre. I will be back.
Jerry, I just listened to your teleseminar talk through the National Association of Memoir Writers and enjoyed hearing your physical voice–to match the voice I have gotten to know through your writing here.
I am sure you will find just the right focal distance for your memoir. I love the process of reading,blogging, networking, etc. so much that I am not doing very much memoir writing itself these days.
I have often become snagged on the “when to start” and “when to end” issues of a piece. The way through this is simply to start writing wherever…reassuring yourself that you can add and subtract later, when the bulk of the piece is in place. You might even end up with two essays.
I adore fractals, but never thought of them as a metaphor for writing one’s life story. It is absolutely appropriate– a wonderful metaphor! Thanks.
I’m glad you could make it to the teleseminar at National Association of Memoir Writers. The internet offers so many amazing ways to connect, I have to hold myself back from gushing about “miracles” and “magic” of the Twenty First Century. I know what you mean about how much time it takes to blog. But instead of a distraction, I think of blogging as a sort of self-publishing, and so it is one of the ways I do what I love — write for readers.
I’ve just found your blog and am amazed at what I have learned so far about memoir writing.
I’ve spent the past twelve years – on and off- writing my memoir. Like yours, it turned out to be a huge book of seven hundred pages! I self published it in hard cover form for my family and a few friends who were interested and don’t intend on selling that edition. When I started it, it was meant to be for the general public but my family kept insisting that I put this in and that in and so, you get the drift.
I’m in the process of rewriting it but although I have cut out a lot of content, I’m still faced with a huge manuscript. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with the task before me, yet I have a passion to share my story. I have a beginning- loss and confusion- a middle – coasting along, but not really living – and a rather dramatic and satisfactory ending. All the ingredients, I hope, for a story that will entice readers.
Some of my friends told me that they couldn’t put my book down.They said that it read like a thriller. Someone else said that I seemed to have an instinctive feel in knowing how to entice the reader to turn the page and start the next chapter to find out what happened to the person telling the story. All well and good but I am not a celebrity. I feel disheartened when I read that, by and large, people do not buy memoirs written by ordinary people who have done nothing but live their simple ( in my case, painful) lives.
Yet, I picked up Harry Bernstein’s “The Invisible wall” and what an inspiration to me that was. I am only sixty seven, a mere baby compared to him at ninety eight ! Was it just luck for him to find a publisher or was it simply sheer persistence on his part? Personally, I didn’t find the book as good as Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes”but I am encouraged by the fact that he continues to write and get published. I wish he had a blog. I’d love to know more about him.
Anyway, I want to thank you for all the wonderful knowledge you are compiling on the subject and wish you luck with your own memoir. I’ll let you know how I’m doing with my rewriting as it chugs along. You have inspired me to keep going. Talk to you again soon.
Little Bird, Thanks for your praise. It means a lot to me. And congratulations on your effort. It does become difficult and discouraging at times which is why we have to support each other along the road. Best wishes, Jerry
Thank you so much for making the distinction between writing a memoir and writing an autobiography. That really helped me understand and re-frame how to enter the work I want to do. I am 49 and before going back to grad school or making some other life changes, I really need to integrate what the heck these 49 years have been about. I want to take my wisdom out into the world but first I need to know who I am.
I am thankful to your for saying it took you a year to research your autobiography and a year to write it. What permission it gave me!
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your wisdom online.
You are quite welcome, Wendy. Writing can feel lonely, but when writers communicate with each other, we turn it into a social experience. Enjoy your writing and your search for meaning. There are many rewards ahead. Jerry