Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir

by Jerry Waxler
This is part 2 of the essay, “Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?” Click here for part 1. Click here for part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview, and Click here for part 3b

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

When you ask your parents if you can write their history, they might block you with statements like: “Let sleeping dogs lie,” or “I can’t remember all of that,” or “No one would care.” Instead of letting these objections frustrate you, use them as conversation starters. “Really?” you say. “Tell me more about what you mean.” Let them explain why remembering makes them uncomfortable. By quietly listening, you will change the mood from a debate to a collaboration, and will shed more light on their relationship to the past. When they finish, offer comforting, reassuring reasons why you want to work with them to overcome these obstacles. Here are a few insights that might help you address some common concerns about writing a memoir.

Writing my memoir means my life is over
After a visit with my parents, I stood up to go. My mother expressed her frustrated with the lack of physical affection between me and my father and insisted that we hug. As I put my arms around him, he laughed nervously and exclaimed. “What? Am I dying?” He implied that a hug meant the end of his life, when in fact it was intended to be a celebration. Many people make a similar mistake about memoir writing, assuming it means that life is over. When you take the time to write one, you realize that it lets you reap life’s lessons and joys.

I’m too boring
When I grew up, my parents apparently believed we ought to hide anything that makes us look different. They wanted to look average. People who grew up in that generation became so accustomed to pretending they were like everyone else, that they came to believe it themselves.

In the twenty first century, our fascination with memoirs has flipped that convention upside down. In the Memoir Age, we have become curious about other people and assume they are curious about us. Instead of hiding messy emotions in order to appear boring, we reveal internal conflicts that bring us to life.

Hidden within ordinary life, you will discover that you are utterly unique. For example, my childhood in a row home in Philadelphia seemed thoroughly ordinary. Perhaps my after-school job at my dad’s drugstore made me different from most of my peers. I didn’t know anyone else who worked for their father. Digging deeper, I recall my dad’s brother who had achondroplasia, or dwarfism. When I was a teenager, I went with Uncle Harry to help him collect rent from the apartment buildings my grandfather owned, and I felt disturbed by the children who stopped and stared at his short legs and head too large for his body. Harry’s problem was visible to everyone, but Dad’s nephew, Jules, was another matter. Handsome, athletic, and a brilliant scholar, Jules graduated medical school by the age of 21, and was a psychiatrist by the time he was 24, when some secret turmoil caused him to hang himself. The family tried to cover up the tragedy, writing Jules out as if he never existed. Before the memoir age, it seemed natural to hide these facts. Now, I wish my father had been a memoirist, and left a record of how these complex experiences made him feel.

I have read and studied 200 memoirs, and continue to be fascinated by the enormous variety of human experience. Memoir authors write about growing up, about families, hardship, war, travel, spirituality, and so on. By sharing their authors’ lives, memoirs promise to deepen and expand our ability to live together on this planet.

I refuse to criticize my parents
To write about your parents, you must break down two sets of facades. The ones that block them from admitting to you that they are real people, and the ones that block them from admitting their own parents are real, as well.

Many people believe it’s a sin to criticize their parents. As a result they are stuck with shallow, unexplored images. I am glad that we are beginning to open our minds to an honest evaluation of those relationships . According to child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, we need our parents’ stories in order to stay healthy ourselves. Authentic stories allow us to honor our parents for who they really are, rather than some glossy, idealized image.

To open up about their younger years, your parents will have to accurately portray their relationship with their parents. Certainly they might need some convincing. Let them see that you are not looking to blame anyone but only want to understand the realities in which your ancestors lived. By convincing them to reveal their childhood experience, you will be encouraging them to develop more compassionate relationships with their parents just as you are trying to do yourself.

What’s the point of returning to the past?
At first it might seem logical that writing a memoir would detract from focus on the present. However, almost everyone already keeps a photo album for the purpose of hanging on to the past. Flipping through the album, you glimpse echoes of the past and savor its pleasure.

Beneath the smiles in those photos were more complex, ambiguous feelings. Writing awakens that complexity. Perhaps fear of writing about the past is a way to try to resist the pain that might be lurking under the surface. If your parents are attempting to make hard times disappear by pretending they never happened, their strategy cannot possibly succeed. Burying emotional pain is like burying toxic waste. When it emerges from its hiding place, it is still poisonous. By writing about it, you can, help them disarm it and find embedded lessons, forgotten friendships, and the strength that carried them through.

By getting those earlier times on paper, you give them the opportunity to add meaning and order to what otherwise might seem like a chaotic batch of memories. I have found that memoir writing is compatible with a vibrant, energetic focus on the present moment.

My sister has it all wrong
With stunning regularity my mom and her sister argued about their family memories. Mom said something about her parents’ unhappy marriage and my aunt would vehemently disagree. “That’s not the way it happened.” A battle ensued, each of them intent to prove her version to be true and the other false.

To accommodate heated differences of opinion, interview the warring parties separately. Listen openly to both versions. You will no doubt favor one interpretation over the other, but keep your favoritism to yourself. Maintain harmony by validating each person’s version of the truth. “That’s the way you remember it. I’m okay with that.”

Learn more about the pressures in the family by trying to understand how the hot button works. What words or details throw them into a tizzy? If you can tiptoe around the edgy topic, you may be able to gain insight that helps portray the pressure without raising hackles. If you hoped to learn the Real Truth, such irreconcilable disagreements might frustrate you. However, memoirs do not offer an absolute version of truth, but only each person’s best recollection. That’s what memoir writing is all about. Delving into their recollection helps you understand more about them. And they played such an important part in your life, you learn about yourself as well.  In the next part of this essay, I offer insights into the process of interviewing them.

Notes

Click here to read about “be here now” while writing a memoir.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?

Jerry Waxler

This is part 1 of the essay. Click here for part 2, Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir.

Click here for part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview, and Click here for part 3b

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

During dinner, my dad told endless stories about the characters who came into his corner drugstore in North Philadelphia. His shoptalk intrigued me so much that I started to work there every weekend, and extended hours during the summer. Through high school, I spent more time with my father than I did with my friends. By the time I left for college, I knew everything about Dad’s daily grind, but I never asked him about his earlier life, and he never volunteered.

Decades went by, during which I struggled to find myself. By the time I became curious about his early life, it was too late. He died without telling me anything about how he had come to own a drugstore, or what it was like to be the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant. Sometimes I wonder if my ignorance of his younger years contributed to my own confusion. If we had established a storyline about the challenges of going from boy to man, I could have relied on him instead of making so many mistakes on my own.

In my dad’s generation, it was normal for parents to pretend they were never young. Nowadays, that social convention is changing rapidly. With each passing year, our cultural interest in memoirs grows and our fear of revealing ourselves fades. This trend to see life as a story has opened many people to their own past, as well as their parents’.

If you decide to write your parents’ story, you will follow many of the same steps you would if you were writing your own. Gather facts and anecdotes and place them in chronological order, and then look for the psychological power that will draw a reader from one page to the next.

The first step is to gather the anecdotes you already know and type them into a file. When you arrange them in chronological order, you’ll begin to transform isolated events into a continuous narrative. You’ll reveal insights about how one thing led to another, and you’ll see a shape that you might not have noticed before. If your parents are able and willing to talk about themselves, you can join the growing legion of people who know that now is the right time to

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to procrastinate. In addition to the challenge of finding time and energy, you also must overcome anxiety about asking them so many personal questions. Perhaps they don’t really want to talk about their lives? Interviewing requires a different form of conversation than most of us are accustomed to. I will share tips about  overcoming objections and interviewing in later parts of this essay. If you are motivated to achieve the goal, learning the skills is merely a step along the way.

To counter the reasons to stall, focus on the many reasons to proceed. When you see their lives unfold as a story, you will gain a deeper insight into their humanity. They had hopes, desires, pressures from their parents, and if they were like most people, they defied their parents in ways that may still cause shame. Informed by this new information, you will understand them and also gain insights to yourself. And during the course of the conversations, you will have an opportunity for intimacy, breaking through some of the posturing that separates parents from children.

A memoir is more than a sequence of information. After you gather the information, you still have to find its shape.  To do it well, you need to think like a story writer. Look for unifying concepts, dramatic tension, and beginnings, middles, and endings. Your search for artistic elegance will force you to go deeper. Stories are built on the unfolding of psychological stakes, so to write a good story you must understand what makes your characters tick.

Even though I arrived at my curiosity about my own parents too late to learn about their early life, they emerged as characters in the pages of my memoir. For the first time, I imagined the pride my father might have felt when his son chose to work at the drugstore instead of playing with friends. And then, again for the first time, I wondered what disappointment he must have felt when I drifted off to my troubled, chaotic quest. These speculations awaken a more complex, rounded impression of his journey than I had before I began writing.

If you decide that this is the year to write about your parents, you will discover them as important characters in your own story, and reveal a mysterious resonance between your real life and the literature you create. As you develop your skills and experience as the author of their stories, you will gain deeper insights into your relationship with them than you ever dreamed possible.

Recommended memoirs about parents by children

Cherry Blossoms  in Twilight by Linda Austin
Ghost written memoir of her mother’s life starting with childhood in Japan before and during World War II.

More About Linda Austin’s Cherry Blossoms: Interview Part 1
Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin

Reading my Father by Alexandra Styron
Search for her father’s life. Essentially an autobiography of her famous father William Styron as told through the eyes and voice of his daughter.

Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham
Ghost written memoir of his father’s life in Vietnam through the late 50s to early 70s.

Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour
By a daughter about her father’s obsession with a British country manor during the deterioration of the British class system.

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Search for a man’s identity by trying to find his father’s story.

Color of Water by James McBride
A man’s search for his own identity by trying to understand his mother’s past.

Mistress’s Daughter by A. M. Homes
and
Lucky Girl by Meiling Hopgood
An adopted daughter struggles to understand her biological parents.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

How to write a profile

by Jerry Waxler

Writing a memoir is hard work, and to keep myself motivated, I compiled a list of all the reasons for persisting. Of course, I improved my familiarity with the many parts of my past. That was the reason I started writing a memoir in the first place. Another of my original motivations was my desire to bust through my overwrought sense of privacy. As soon as I began to read my pieces in a critique group, I felt that people were interested and accepted me in ways I had not expected. As a result, I loosened up.

Each month, I found a new benefit for writing my memoir, until I began to joke that my mission was like George Washington Carver’s, who had done an exhaustive study of everything you could do with a peanut. I acquired items for my list in a variety of ways. Some I experienced myself. Others I learned by watching students in my workshops or groups. And some I speculated must be true. For example, I assumed that after I told my own story, I would gain the skills to write other people’s stories, as well. The benefit seemed self-evident, but I was not yet ready to test it.

Then, last year, David Bank asked me to write profiles for his organization’s website. Bank is the director of Encore Careers, a site devoted to helping people find new careers in the second half of their lives. My job would be to interview career changers and post their stories. The assignment gave me the chance to meet people and apply my writing skills.

The Assignment
One such career changer was Judy Cockerton. From her website, I learned that she was a Massachusetts toy store owner who sold her business so she could devote her life to helping kids in foster care. Before I called her, I considered my mission – to show readers her journey from business woman to social activist.

The Interview
During the interview, I asked her to walk me through the steps. As a social entrepreneur, Judy Cockerton spoke in urgent tones when she listed all the deficiencies in the foster care system. However, my job was to learn about her career change, so I steered the interview, asking for scenes that would evoke each stage in her journey.

The Beginning

From my work with memoirs I’ve learned the importance of the initial desire. Judy Cockerton’s desire was easy to find. She remembered the exact moment in her kitchen when she read an article in the newspaper about a child who was supposed to be protected by foster parents and yet had been forgotten. Her heart opened to the plight of these children, setting the stage for everything that followed.

The Middle
During the middle of any story, the protagonist must overcome obstacles. I found many such scenes in Judy Cockerton’s journey. She visited foster homes to learn more and quickly realized that since not everyone can take a child in, there are ought to be other ways for people to participate. She envisioned a community where people could live and contribute to the care of the children. Next she needed allies to help her implement her vision.

The End

Judy Cockerton was not finished helping foster kids so how could I provide a satisfying ending to the article? I called her back and asked “Tell me about a moment when you knew you were on the right track.” By this time the first Treehouse community had already been built and people were living there. She took me on a verbal tour of the place, describing the children playing, with adults and elders enjoying the multi-generational camaraderie. The mountains in the background completed the scene, which gave me, and hopefully readers, the thrill of her success.

Finished, or So I Thought

The structure of my article followed the structure of any good story. Start with a desire, overcome obstacles, and finally reach a conclusion. I was confident I had nailed this fundamental structure. But after I submitted the article, I realized I had one more lesson to learn. My editor, Terry Nagel, wanted me to move Judy’s success to the beginning. At first it didn’t make sense. You don’t tell the ending of a story first. It would break the suspense.

Difference Between Article and Memoir Structure
My editor insisted, and I kept seeking to understand how the suggestion would improve the article. After thinking about it, I saw what was going on. I was learning the difference between a book and an article.

Before I even the first page of a memoir, I have already become curious about the protagonist. Before I started Joan Rivers’ “Enter Talking,” I knew she succeeded at the end. Before I read Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea,” I read the book blurb and knew he built schools for kids in Pakistan. This preliminary information motivates me to read the book. But when I read an article, all I know is the title.

That’s why my editor was telling me to move Cockerton’s success up to the top. I needed to give the reader enough information to stir their curiosity. From article writing workshops, I knew that the second paragraph, or the “nut graf” as they call it in the business, is supposed to tell the reader where the article is heading. But until now the advice sounded like a meaningless formula. Once I tried it for myself, I saw how it worked.

Thanks to my study of memoirs, I was learning how to structure a life story. And now, thanks to the assignment from encore.org, I was learning how to apply these skills to describe the journeys of other people. This experience validated my claim that memoir writing results in broader writing benefits. And the rewards keep accumulating. Writing those profiles gave even more insights that helped me increase my range and learn new ways to turn life into story.

Note
Here are links to a few reasons for writing your memoir.

Refute these 14 reasons not to write your memoir
Ten reasons anyone should write a memoir

Here are links to four profiles I wrote about career changers for Encore.org:

Judy Cockerton, Toy Store Owner Transforms Foster Care in Massachusetts

From Basic Training to Training Teachers

Retired as a Nurse, Hired as a Nonprofit Leader

Media Executive Puts Her Experience to Work Para Los Ninos

Note

Encore Careers is a subsidiary of Civic Ventures, a community service organization founded and directed by Marc Freedman. Freedman is the author of “Encore, finding work that matters in the second half of life.” According to their About page, “Civic Ventures is leading the call to engage millions of baby boomers as a vital workforce for change.” Here is a link to an article I wrote after being inspired by Marc Freedman at Philadelphia’s Boomervision conference series.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Your Autobiography is the First Step Towards Writing Your Memoir

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. Who were those people I grew up with, my mother and father, my brother and sister? 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 of writing, I can now read about my dramatic tensions, the dynamics of family and friends, hopes and fears, obstacles and allies. My life makes far more sense than ever before.

And so, perhaps I’m done. 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.

Writing Prompt

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.

Note
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.

Seeing History Through The Eyes of One Man

by Jerry Waxler

Note: Read more about the cultural passion for memoirs, and reasons you should write your own “Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire.”

Ji Chaozhu’s memoir “The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, Life Inside China’s Foreign Ministry” let me enter the modern history of China, a country so vast and so important on the world stage, it seems like I ought to be talking about it in hushed tones. This planet cannot be understood without understanding this nation of a billion people, and yet, just a few decades ago, China was an ancient dragon, trapped in what looked like an unshakable slumber, set upon by the British and then the Japanese, and creaky in its old ways. Then came Mao Zedong who shook the dragon awake. But he did it behind an impenetrable curtain erected by mutual distrust. Western journalists were excluded and few westerners had inside information.

To visit the Amazon page for Man on Mao’s Right, click here

In the early 70’s, the walls between the U.S. and China became porous and news and diplomats began to speak. Now in our time, the walls are collapsing and the cultures growing towards each other in ways I couldn’t have imagined. So how do I catch up on all that history?

Ji Chaozhu’s memoir offers a crash course in the history of modern China, provided through the eyes of a man who was in the thick of it. Ji was an English translator for the two main characters of Communist China, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Ji Chaozhu was present during some of the most powerful diplomatic exchanges in the twentieth century.

History this large teaches me about the human race
Chairman Mao believed that China was being held back by their culture’s strong emphasis on worshipping authority and ancestors. He was afraid these backward-looking tendencies had made his country weak. To bring China into modernity he felt it was crucial to undermine respect for the past.

Mao stirred up distrust for what he called “The Four Olds,” Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. The strategy went too far, and this disrespect for the past plunged the country into chaos. In what Ji Chaozhu calls the dark ages of modern China, from 1966 to 1976, mobs of teenagers publicly humiliated and beat people who had attained the very things that make a civilization successful. Like everything that happens in China, the proportions were staggering. Ji estimates that a million people were beaten to death or forced into suicide for their educational, artistic, and social achievements.

Ji Chaozhu compares the period known as the Cultural Revolution with the book “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding in which a group of boys stranded on an island lose all civilized values and revert to the behavior of animals. By outlawing respect for the past, Mao transformed China into a gigantic real-life “Lord of the Flies.”

What does this have to do with the memoir you might wish to write? In my opinion – everything. Memoir writers are the keepers of our culture’s pas. We maintain the long view. By remembering and passing along our stories, we link the past with the present. Ji Chaozhu’s life provides a wonderful motivation to capture and share the story of your life. One person at a time, we memoir writers recount life across decades and help people young and old develop their own best understanding of how to live.

Lessons about ghost writing
Fleeing the invading Japanese armies in the late 30’s, Ji’s family moved to the United States. As a young boy, Ji grew up in America, an outsider intent on blending in. As a student at Harvard, he made many American friends, and enjoyed the bourgeois perquisites of western life. When he left Harvard and moved back to China to support Mao’s new government, he was an outsider again. His years in the U.S. cast a shadow over his authentic Chinese identity.

I love stories about mixing cultures, perhaps because of my own grandparents’ immigration to the United States and my experience of growing up Jewish, a minority religion in a Christian dominated country. Like me, Ji’s two cultures made him feel like an outsider and kept him under constant pressure to unify his two identities. These contrasts and tensions between cultures provide a rich layer that holds my interest.

Ji Chaozhu spent his entire adult life translating back and forth between the two cultures. But when it came time to translate his own long life into a story that could be appreciated by the west, he turned to an accomplished memoir writer and biographer, Foster Winans. Foster brings his all-American past to the table, as well as his skill at converting the events of a lifetime into compelling prose.

Long Span of Time, some good things about a long life
Ji experienced many setbacks in his life. When his family was forced by the invading Japanese army to flee their ancestral lands, his father told him that the Chinese people are like ants who continue to strive and climb, finally reaching their destination, not on wings, but by great and powerful persistence.

His father’s advice to be patient helped Ji cope when, during the Cultural Revolution, he was repeatedly transferred from his diplomatic mission to work on pig farms, supposedly to scrub away his “bourgeois tendencies.” In reality this punishment was regularly imposed by the paranoid regime to maintain absolute obedience.

Memoir Writers Bring the World Together
When Mao won control over the government of China, United States leaders were so disappointed they behaved like small children. At an important diplomatic meeting between the two countries in1954, Zhou En Lai extended his hand in friendship to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Dulles turned and walked away. His insulting gesture made front page news all over China and poisoned the relationship between the two countries for 20 years. As Theodore White later wrote, “It was probably the most expensive display of rudeness by any diplomat anywhere, ever.”

Throughout the Cold War, when the U.S. and China seemed so far apart they would never see eye to eye, Ji stayed focused on his father’s advice, believing in the power of persistence. Over time, he witnessed a much greater understanding between the two nations. And still, Ji keeps applying his passionate belief in harmony across the cultural divide. When thanking the people who had helped him bring his story to the west he says,

“I am indebted to all these good people for taking such care with my legacy and helping me open a window into the soul of modern China in a way that I hope will bring us all closer together.”

In Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing” he says that writing is like magic. It allows people to communicate across space and time. When reading a memoir like Ji Chaozhu’s “Man on Mao’s Right” I feel this magic multiplied by a thousand-fold, or perhaps a billion. By sharing his own world, Ji Chaozhu has opened up a channel through which I can feel the connections of entire nations. And that’s true for all memoir writers. Through our individual story, we help communicate the entire experience of a lifetime, break down the barriers of difference, and create deeper mutual understanding.

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

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Bookstores provide valuable information for memoir writers

by Jerry Waxler

According to successful author, Jonathan Maberry, from whom I have taken many writing courses, “despite the power of online marketing, bookstores still provide vital information to any writer who wants to get their work into print. By exploring bookstores, you can find what’s hot and get ideas for your own work.” Last year, to learn more about memoirs, I followed his advice and went to the bookstore.

I was disappointed to see books written by people about themselves muddled together with books written by historians or celebrity watchers. The Biography and Memoir section contained mainly books about kings, presidents, generals, and movie stars, interspersed with some blockbuster memoirs like Tobias Wolff’s “This Boys Life” and Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle.” I had little interest in Biographies at the time, and found it clumsy to pick through the shelves to find the few memoirs.

However, since that first visit, memoirs have gained considerable respect from booksellers. Every time I go to the store, there are one or two fewer biographies, and one or two more memoirs. In fact, it’s now closer to an even mix, and memoirs have even pulled out in front with a table in the aisle devoted to the latest offerings.

For example, this week I picked up “A Three Dog Life,” by Abigail Thomas, about a woman’s relationship to a husband who has lost his mind in a car crash. Being with him is similar to living with someone who has the cognitive deficits of Alzheimer’s. But unlike Alzheimer’s, his tragedy happened in an instant, shifting her role overnight from a loving partner to fulltime caregiver. It’s a human tragedy both frightening and compelling, and the book offers me exactly what I seek from memoirs: an opportunity to emotionally share a life outside my personal experience.

I was helped in my purchasing decision by a testimonial on the front cover from none other than the king of the bookstores, Stephen King himself, who called it “the best memoir I have ever read.” His recommendation pushed me to the next step and I opened the book to check out the writing. I found it to be haunting and compelling. So I paid for it.

If you want to write for the public, try this as an exercise. When you walk into a book store, take advantage of that out-of-body training you received in astral-projection school. Float up a few feet and watch yourself scanning the shelves. Which ones catch your eye? Why did you reach out and pick one up? Which part of the cover copy gets you to read further or put it back? Use these observations to imagine the way you would present your own story. If you can see yourself picking up your own book and wanting to know more, your observations provide valuable information about how to achieve success.

After browsing the memoir and biography section, I strolled over to the books about writing. (I’ve never understood why they call this section “Reference” but that’s often the way it is.) There I scored another hit. Unlike last year, when the books about writing a memoir were skimpy (I recall seeing only one), this time I saw a half a dozen, another indication that this trend in publishing continues to grow. While browsing, I stumbled across an interesting looking book called “How to do Biography,” by Nigel Hamilton. This turns out to be a wonderful find. (“Luck favors the industrious,” or something like that.)

While I’ve been annoyed with all those biographies on the “Memoir and Biography” shelf, I’ve recently become more interested in learning what those authors can teach me. They must have an enormous amount of information about how to turn a life into a story. Of course, since biographies are written by someone else, they don’t have the same introspective slant. And since the genre often tends more towards historical facts than towards story telling, there are other differences. But surely there are many areas of overlap.

To help me understand this process, I’ve joined the Association of Personal Historians, an organization whose charter is to help other people tell their story. Personal historians, by helping someone write their memoir, live somewhere in the middle between the two genres. Joining the organization will give me access to their shared expertise. And it looks like this book “How to Do Biography” is going to offer an overview of the whole subject. From the first few chapters which I have already devoured, it appears to be accessible, and informative, offering history and insights into the whole project of life-into-story, including chapters on autobiography and memoir.

Finally, I browsed the magazine rack, and to my surprise scored again. There was a magazine in the literary section with the peculiarly punctuated title of “Memoir, (and).” This is a journal devoted to memoir writing, including poetry, photography, essays, and so on. This was proof that the trend towards memoirs continues to grow, and the resources and outlets are richer than ever. Hopefully my purchases will help keep my local bricks and mortar bookstore open, so I can go and actually touch books, open them, and see which ones I like.