by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
When my parents were growing up in Philadelphia during the Roaring Twenties, they went home at the end of the day to parents who spoke Yiddish or heavily accented English. I wish I could understand their second-generation immigrant experience, or what life was like during the Great Depression or World War II. Millions of boomers share my curiosity about their parents but few of us have begun to record our own stories. When I ask people why not write a memoir, I hear all sorts of reasons. “I’m too busy.” “I don’t know how.” “My experience was similar to millions of others.” “If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand.” I know all these objections already. In order to write my memoir, I had to push through them myself.
I knew that people who had not lived through that period relied on clichés with lots of hair, dope, and rock and roll. But these images from movie and music snips and bits of conversation around the dinner table are not like reading a memoir. In a memoir, the author carefully crafts the world as they saw it, creating the ambiance of the times. I think the word “story” ought to be capitalized the way God is, because a Story invites the reader to set aside their own world and enter the author’s. Once inside, clichés disappear, replaced by unique, authentic responses to specific circumstances. This is true even for books that cover the same general circumstances.
Amid the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read, I have often seen the same themes repeated. I’ve read several books about young girls growing up in small towns, children coming to terms with their mixed-race identity, adoptees trying to understand which family is the real one, mothers trying to raise a child with intellectual challenges, and so on. Despite their similarities, each person has their own life and tells their own story.
Even though millions of my peers experienced the iconic events of the 60s, my exact story was my own, a drama with the specific circumstances of being me, my reactions, my observations, my careening path. So I set aside the fear that someone else has already published my life and I begin to write.
When I start, crazy memories spring out of hiding and clutch at me. At first I’m afraid that revealing emotional moments might make me seem like a victim, a dupe, or a confused bundle of nerves. I want to stuff my memories back into their cave. Then I think of my parents who remained hidden, and I think of my respect for the memoir authors who have welcomed me into their lives, and I press on.
The first story I share in a writing group describes a violent anti-war riot in Madison, Wisconsin in 1967. I wonder if listeners will judge me for the quality of the writing or for my naïve choices and raw emotions. But no one in the group expresses disdain and many express appreciation so I continue to write. Soon, I find myself deep in the darkness that enveloped me after the riots. When I realized how hopeless I felt to change the world or understand my role in it, I turned toward nihilism, embracing the notion that Nothing Matters with religious conviction.
I sit at my computer during my morning writing hours, looking back on that period and trying to make sense of it. Then for the rest of the day, I set those feelings aside and go about my pleasant, upbeat life. My writing desk gives me a vantage point from which I can understand far more about those times than I had any hope of doing while I was living through them.
However, being willing to face the past was only the beginning. As a novice storyteller, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever capture those feelings on paper. After I took a few memoir classes and started to develop a sense of chronology and scene-building, a larger story began to emerge. I remember my first days in Madison, Wisconsin, transplanted to the teeming campus from my quiet Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, I see a bookish young man who wanted two things: to become a doctor and to understand Absolute Truth. I didn’t know how dangerous my search would be.
A perfect storm of cultural upheaval was brewing on the horizon: the Pill; the threat of the draft; a divisive, frantic, anti-war effort that inherited a sense of righteousness from the recent civil rights movement; affordable air travel; access to hallucinogenic drugs; eroding authority of organized religion and the influx of eastern mysticism. As each wave of change arrived, I tried to adapt. But like a boxer who must face a new opponent in each round, I ran out of fight, and went down — at one point, literally, after being attacked by a group of boys who wanted long-haired troublemakers like me to go back east where we belonged.
Hundreds of millions of people experienced their own version of those times, storing endless reels of movies in their minds. I imagine boomers all over the world occasionally pulling out one of their reels. If they have no reason to examine it more closely, they quickly return it to its shelf. If they attempt to write a memoir, they look more carefully at the scenes, and begin to place isolated events into context.
Gradually, the sequences add up. I see the influences of parents, culture, substances and desires, insecurities, and all the other things that make me human. Between the peaks and troughs, the glue of normalcy holds it together from day to day. And I begin to see how the shocks in one chapter lead to character development in the next. After setbacks, I find strength, courage, and eventually even wisdom. As happens in all good stories, the protagonist grew. A life that has been translated into a story transcends memory and achieves the richness of its many dimensions.
The harder I work to craft events so they make sense to a reader, the more they make sense to me. Or maybe “make sense” is too strong. They become more integrated. I learn to accept them as part of the continuous process of being me. I become more comfortable “in my own skin” or more accurately, more comfortable in my own memories. Converting memories from a jangle of isolated snaps into a coherent story is rewarding. It’s challenging. It leads to wholeness.
In the early stages of my writing, I am struck by the depressing self-inflicted immolation of my academic ambition. However, storytelling doesn’t stop with the problems. A good story takes both reader and author beyond the setbacks to the resurrection that comes next. So I look beyond the 60s. What new person emerged from the ashes of the old? For that, I explore the spiritual and religious dimensions of my life.
In Madison, Wisconsin, I went to classes surrounded by 30,000 kids, many of them blond, the vast majority of them northern European and Christian. Desperate to feel accepted, I felt swept up in the possibility of becoming part of that herd. If being Jewish separated me from them, I would separate myself from feeling Jewish.
Without knowing the far reaching effects of my defiance, I distanced myself from religion. As a result, I could no longer turn to the absolute moral authority that had guided my parents. Like many of my peers, I struggled to find my own direction. The first leg of the quest led straight into the abyss. Then, when I thought I could go no lower, I found a spiritual belief system in which everything mattered. That was the beginning of a period of rebuilding, during which I had to figure out how to live a meaningful life under the aegis of spiritual rather than religious principles.
As I search for my story, I return to my curiosity about my parents. All I knew about them was summed up in a couple of clichés about immigrants and the Great Depression, but I knew nothing about their specific, day-to-day circumstances. I wonder if reading their memoir would have brought us closer to each other during my own transition, perhaps even giving me a safety-net that would have softened my fall. I’ll never know how it would have changed my past, but as I put my story together, I gain a renewed appreciation for the challenges that each of us faced. My parents had to figure out how to cross the threshold into adulthood and so did I. By seeing the story of my own transition, I am drawn closer to theirs.
In the age of memoirs, more of us are taking the time to look back and develop the stories of our lives. By openly exploring the experiences of our youth, we can learn about the common humanity that binds us to our parents. And by leaving our stories for the next generation, our children will have a far greater ability to appreciate the context from which they have come.
For a memoir that shared the journey from organized religion to spirituality, read Frank Schaeffer’s, Crazy for God. It tells of his childhood, with an intense belief in Christianity, as guided by the wildly innovative interpretations of his parents, then into the intense certainty of the religious right, and finally to a journey to find his own inner guiding light.
Another memoir that reveals the journey from absolute religion to trust in an individual relationship with God: Carlos Eire’s Learning to Die in Miami
Three memoirs about black and white parents
Barack Obama’s Dreams of Our Fathers,
James McBride’s Color of Water
Rebecca Walker’s Black White and Jewish
Books that Search for the Life of an Ancestor
James McBride, Color of Water
Andrew X. Pham, Eaves of Heaven
Karen Alaniz, Breaking the Code
Jeanette Walls, Half Broke Horses
Linda Austin, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.
Jerry: This is a wonderful rendering of how writing our life story makes that singular event meaningful not only for us as individuals but for others as well. It takes courage to write, but you give us all inspiration to make the effort and to continue on. Thanks for making clear and how and why stories are so important in our life journey.
Thanks for the comment and compliment, Bob. My goal is to inspire, so I’m glad I have achieved that effect. Best wishes, Jerry
I love this paragraph, Jerry:
“The harder I work to craft events so they make sense to a reader, the more they make sense to me. Or maybe “make sense” is too strong. They become more integrated. I learn to accept them as part of the continuous process of being me. I become more comfortable “in my own skin” or more accurately, more comfortable in my own memories. Converting memories from a jangle of isolated snaps into a coherent story is rewarding. It’s challenging. It leads to wholeness.”
According to Daniel J. Siegel, the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to his parents as children, but whether his parents have integrated their stories, creating a coherent vision of how they happened.
Most of us boomers are grandparents now, but I’m certain our work in this area benefits our grandchildren, too.
Thanks for a great essay!
Thank you for sharing your” deep core” journey both in life and in writing. It serves to inspire us all to write the stories of our own lives so as to preserve the times in which we grew up.. It seems we serve as conduits,relaying sacred information from our ancestors through us to the next generation. As you point out, there are so many reasons we can use to not write-too busy, who cares,can’t write,etc. Your post encourages us to move beyond those barriers and just write. Wonderful! I am spreading this all over 🙂
Thanks for the comment and for sending it out to your corner of the world, Kathleen. I love this additional dimension of “writing on the web” that lets us share ourselves with others in our sphere. Weaving life with writing makes everything more interesting.
Thanks for the great comment, Patty. It’s my pleasure to create the essay, and an even greater pleasure to receive thanks in return!
Jerry, you touch on experiences that many of us have gone through during these years. What has happened to each of us is different, and yet similar. When you talk about your parents, I can clearly relate to what they experienced as children of the depression. I too wish that mine had recorded their memories. However, I can’t forget the stories my mother told me about getting an apple in her holiday stocking, living through food rationing, and being an army bride. Your book is going to be wonderful. I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for a beautiful article.
Catherine, Thanks so much for your generous compliments. You’re fortunate to have heard detailed stories about your mom’s life. As Patty said in the comment above, this gives you an ability to see yourself in a richer context than those of us who felt like we dropped from the sky. I’m looking forward to contributing to the story-sense of the next generation. Jerry
Terrifically inspiring essay. I doubt that we all have a book in us, but it would be nice to know that at least a bit of our own oral history would be passed down to our immediate family members. Maybe it’s even a type of immortality.
Thanks for your inspiring comment, Mary. It is immortality in the sense that our experience enters the stream of culture, sharing our lives with those who come after, just as we have lived in the stream of those who have come before.
I agree that it’s not easy to find the book we have within us, but for those who take the time, there is definitely a story in there. We guide ourselves by its beliefs, and aim toward the future we tell ourselves is out there. As you attempt to write your story, you gain an author’s insight into it, and learn to craft not only your past but also your present. What book would you write about the coming year? Hopefully, writing a memoir will be included!
Best wishes, Jerry
Have enjoyed your thoughts on memoir writing. Thank you!
Jerry, one thing that bugs me about the baby boomer generation is that all information seems aimed at the upper end of it. I happen to have barely made it – born in 1963. So, instead of being a pre-teen or teenager during the 60’s, I was a child. So, when boomers talk about 60’s music, I know it because I was listening to it in the 70’s.
I have a sister who started college the same year I started Kindergarten. Her view is so different from mine. For example, the colorful mushrooms that were on everything were just a fun fashion accessory to me. For my sister, she understood that those ‘shrooms represented drugs. That’s just a small example.
Anyway, your post made me realize that what I need to do is write about that time, from my perspective. What other way is there for others to understand my experience? Thank you for the thoughtful essay! ~Karen
Karen, Yes, yes, yes! You’ve pinpointed one of the great shallow-making techniques of our time. Humans are great at two things, categories and stories. Up until now, we’ve allowed “The 60s” to be a category that has conned millions of people into thinking their lives or their parents lives can be summed up in a word. BY writing your memoir, we’ll deconstruct the cliche and reclaim our own individual life stories, and those of the people we love. Have fun. I bet you discover and share some cool things as you identify *your* 60s, 70s, or in fact, your actual life. Best wishes, Jerry
I enjoyed reading this post about your journey through writing your memoir. I can identify with many of your experiences, especially your roots in a strict religious community. Earlier this year I published my own memoir called The Flying Farm Boy: A Michigan Memoir. It is the story of my growing up on a small family farm in Michigan as part of a Dutch Reformed community. However, unlike you, I remained quite protected from the outside world as part of an isolated community in the 50’s and 60’s. The appeal of my story is that it pictures a way of life that will probably seem long ago and far away to most people in today’s world. If you wish to learn more about my memoir please check out my website at http://www.flyingfarmboy.com.
Jerry, great site, thank you. I am an Australian, live in Brisbane. I recently self-published a self/help/memoir on kindle/paperback.
‘Undone’ The Search for Meaning by Marie Clair.
‘Undone’ received 13 ***** Reviews after it’s free five day run. Now, it sits on the bottom of a very large heap waiting for me to discover ways and means to direct traffic to the the book. I have set up a website, social media etc, still no traffic. Next step, offering paperbacks to local bookstores??
Writing is easy…….marketing, a different skill entirely.
My reason for writing to you is twofold, obviously you have given me an opportunity to draw attention to my book, but more importantly, can you suggest ‘places, ways and means’, to promote such books?
I would like to have the book read and reviewed, I am happy to swap the service with other writers.
What do you suggest?
Marie, Congratulations on completing the journey of writing a memoir, and sharing your observations and lessons in life. And thanks for stopping by to let people know about it. Actually you raise a fabulous question. Indeed how do you reach out to the world and let them know about your book? The internet provides wonderful opportunities to reach out to find a niche. For example, you have reached readers of Memory Writers Network from your home Australia. And yet despite the possibilities, the reality is that it requires networking, energy, and outreach. These ongoing efforts to let the world know about your memoir are just as significant an effort as the writing. Actually, your exact situation was my original motivation for calling this Memory Writers Network, because I was hoping to figure out how to help people like you communicate your work to the world. Five years later, and I’m still trying. But the wave continues to grow, and I am staying tuned and trying to grow with it. In the meantime, check out a lovely group of like-minded writers (not all of them memoir writers) on Gutsy Indie Publishing by Sonia Marsh. And there are others like it popping up all over. Best wishes, Jerry
Happy to read your encouragement about writing about the 1960s. Just completed my memoir of 1959-1973 – to be out in JANUARY 2013 – The Long Stem is in the Lobby – Memoir of a young writer. Jerome Mark Antil
Thanks for stopping by, Jerome. Congratulations on the publication of your book.
Hi, I’m writing a memoir about Woodstock, but all of the related topics as well, which overlap with yours: growing up, politics, religion. Thanks for the inspiration!
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I’m so glad to know you feel inspiration from my writing. Yes, there were massive changes in culture – it was a pressure cooker. Memoirs can help us put together the pieces. Read mine if you want an example of one person’s perspective. I’ll bet yours will be different. Keep me posted!
Jerry, thanks for this article. We all have our own experiences of those times. My passion for writing my stories comes from being a small child confused by the changes – coming into the world during the calmer mid-60s, only to have my entire life change when my parents got caught up in the counterculture revolution.
In my love of reading, I mostly hear about the Flower Children, and not true children, as I was.
Well, glad to have found your website. I’ll read on.
Here’s my soon to be published book, “Craving Normal” – http://michelemilesgardiner.com/
Thanks for finding the site and leaving a comment. And congratulations for finishing your book.
I agree that “most people hear about flower children” – I have a theory about why the psychological truth of that era was suppressed – so many of us came through it embarrassed, ashamed, or outright traumatized by the events – and I can’t even imagine the trauma of a child being raised in the social-psychosis known as the sixties – from what little I have read about your experience, I imagine it has taken you a lifetime of rebuilding and reframing to find your own authentic truth. And if you are like most other memoir writers, writing the story has helped you find those truths.
I was 20 during the misnamed “summer of love” – what an odd time to be alive and 20 and seeking. Trying to go back in time and find my own story has taken me most of my adult life. Discovering how to turn those memories into a book was my impetus for getting involved in the Memoir Revolution.
Thank you for adding your voice to the literature of that psychologically rich, complex, and troubled social movement.
Hi again, Jerry –
I just found your reply in my email. You’re right. Living life my own way and writing about my childhood and the following years has helped me figure it out. And I agree with your assessment about why the actual children’s voices aren’t often heard.
Thank you for your thoughtful reply.