What Lessons Can You Learn by Reading Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

(This is an introduction to a series of posts about Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness.)

Every time I read a memoir, I let go and enter the story, enjoying the exploration of another person’s life. My immersion in a memoir is even better than merging in a good novel, because in a memoir I share a few hours with another human being. I see the world through their eyes, and allow them to lead me through the feelings and thoughts they experienced.

Most book reviews talk about the experience of reading the book. For example, if reviewing the memoir Surrounded by Madness, by Rachel Pruchno, I would report that the book was suspenseful, with aspects of a medical thriller, demonstrating that real life, when well-written can become an excellent reading experience. Not all memoirs are written with an intense focus on suspense. Because many aspiring memoir writers have never written books before, many memoirs, perhaps most of them, lack literary finesse.

However, I don’t read memoirs for their literary power. Instead, I concentrate on their other benefits. The lessons I learn from each memoir can be organized in roughly three categories.

What have I learned about the human condition? After reading about a soldier trying to recover from PTSD in Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him by Luis Carlos Montalvan, I learn about PTSD, about dignity and about the powerful healing affects of a service dog. After reading Martha Stettinius’ Inside the Dementia Epidemic, I learn about the powerful experience of a daughter caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. And after reading Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness, I consider the awesome responsibility of motherhood and the terrible confusion a mother experiences when a child keeps moving off course.

A second set of lessons applies to the author’s journey to turn life into story. What can I learn about the memoir writing process from this particular memoir? I view each memoir as an encyclopedia filled with hints about the style and structure of the memoir genre. In some cases, I conduct interviews with the authors to learn directly from them. The four hundred essays, reviews, and interviews on Memory Writers Network focus on these lessons, offering aspiring memoir writers insights into their own memoir-writing process.

The third benefit I gain from most memoirs I call the nonfiction bonus. These are lessons about some subject that the author has learned through life experience. Some memoirs contain a huge payload. The memoir Inside the Dementia Epidemic by Martha Stettinius offers an in-depth understanding of the caregiving institutions for Alzheimers. Luis Carlos Montalvan’s Until Tuesday provides a fascinating look at service dogs and PTSD. In Surrounded by Madness, Rachel Pruchno’s daughter’s pushes Mom into the arms of the mental health establishment, As a psychologist herself, Pruchno applies her training to report on her own first person experience,  teaching a variety of important lesson about the evolution of a child’s mind that is being distorted by mental pressures at the borders of sanity.

In my next few posts, I will offer a number of lessons I learned from Rachel Pruchno’s memoir, starting with lessons about psychology.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

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

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

Lessons for memoir writers from my first year of blogging

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

One of the speakers at last year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference was veteran news reporter Daniel Rubin. Fewer people are reading newspapers these days, so Rubin’s bosses at the Philadelphia Inquirer went looking for readers online. They asked him to write a blog. This experiment in new journalism achieved two goals. First, inquirer.typepad.com let the Inquirer participate in what turned out to be a robust stream of Philadelphia blogs. And secondly, it changed Rubin’s writing style. Like any newspaper reporter, Rubin had been taught to leave himself out. As a blogger, he had to put himself in. His two year stint transformed him from a silent observer to an engaged one.

Newspaper reporters aren’t the only ones trained to keep themselves out of their writing. My high school English teachers taught me never to write the word “I.” And for many years, I earned my living writing technical manuals that sound as if the author doesn’t exist. When I wanted to tell my own story, I couldn’t figure out how to write in a livelier, more personal style. Then I discovered blogs. Blog audiences expect to know the writer, personally. To fulfill that expectation, I’ve learned to insert opinions, observations, and anecdotes.

Blogs give everyone in the world the opportunity to share themselves. Some bloggers include pictures of their kids or their garden or the view from the window of their vacation home. While many of these online scrapbooks are frivolous, others offer serious memoir information, tips, and insights. People who sell services also use blogs to create a personal connection. It’s the modern equivalent of the corner store, when people actually knew the family from whom they were buying.

Experiment to find the best blog topic and material
A blog gives you the opportunity to experiment with your material, and since blogs are free, you can start as many as you like. After several attempts, I decided to write a blog about memoirs. I speculated that book reviews and interviews with memoir writers would keep it interesting for readers, and informative and engaging for me as well.

When I started I didn’t know how any of this would actually work out. Would I be able to generate fresh material? Would my vision stay focused enough to entertain and inform readers? Would it become repetitive or trite? Now for the past year, every month, I’m previewing 15 books, finishing five, and posting essays about several. I’ve done interviews with memoir writers, and have networked with a number of bloggers and other internet denizens. I have figured out how to keep the material fresh for me and hopefully my readers. It was only through the test of time that I could learn these lessons, and the knowledge I gained by doing it empowers me to do more.

You can accumulate more than a writing style
If you are reading this article because you want to gather material for a memoir, then you are already looking for a way to bring your own life experience out into the open. A blog is a perfect place to explore and experiment. Gather snips of experience, whether from years ago, or from yesterday, and see how it works. This can be intimidating, at first, for a variety of reasons, one of the most common of which is “why would anyone want to read this stuff.” That’s a great question, and perhaps the ultimate question, but here’s the twist. Instead of using the question as a doubt that drags you down, use it as fuel that drives you forward. Really, honestly ask, “Why would anyone read this stuff?” and as you passionately search for the answer you will gradually transform your writing from material that only interests you to material that will interest others.

Writing a blog means taking the story you find inside yourself and placing it out in the open, where anyone can examine it. Putting it out there is half the job. The other half is to figure out if it makes sense to anyone. That’s what makes blogs so powerful. They generate a low volume conversation with those visitors who want to let you know what they think. It’s a little like stand-up comedians, who find out if their jokes are funny by listening for laughter. As a blogger you find out if your posts make sense by reading the comments. By paying attention to this feedback, you can tweak your writing in a direction that works for this group of people, who like any focus group represent a larger audience.

These readers become part of your micro-community
After blogging for a while, I occasionally hear from repeat visitors. This means that through my writing, I’ve tapped into a micro-community of like minded people. By blogging within a particular focus, my blog has become a sort of forum where people interested in this topic can stay connected.

Many of my readers share similar desires to mine. They want to develop community, find their voice, organize their material, and become accustomed to reaching towards the public. These shared desires bond us across space and time. We become both an audience and a community. So if you are wondering how to hook up with readers and writers, and develop your writing skills in the process, then jump into the blogosphere. Tell your story, and offer feedback about the ones you find.

Note: This year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference will take place June 6, 7, 8, 2008. See this link for details.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Boomer memoir is a step towards social activism

by Jerry Waxler

Terrorism! Melting ice caps! Another traffic jam! When is someone going to do something about this mess? While I am waiting for “them” to change the world, “they” are waiting for me. It’s time to break this impasse by taking action. But how? I already tried to bring about world peace by disrupting a campus when I was in college in 1968. It was scary confronting a mob of police, and I don’t believe the world has become more peaceful as a result of those actions. Now that I’m older, I’m looking for better methods. I recently became inspired by a talk hosted by the “Coming of Age” organization in Philadelphia. The main speaker was the CEO of AARP, Bill Novelli, who echoed the sentiment of his book, 50+: Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America in which he claimed that I can join an army of new oldsters to help move the world in a positive direction. A week later I went to another Coming of Age event and heard similar ideas eloquently delivered by Marc Freedman, author of Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America.

When I was a kid, I thought that older people were the problem. They seemed so invested in the status quo. Now that I’m one of them, I find old people aren’t so bad after all. In fact, I feel just as passionate about changing the world as when I was 20. While Novelli and Freedman spoke of a variety of ways that others have chosen to pitch in and move their own little corner of the world, I have a grand idea. It seems to me that the missing element in modern civilization is that we don’t seem to be doing a good job of learning from our mistakes. And in my opinion, that’s where the army of us oldsters can help significantly. We’ve seen the world go by for more years than others have, and have gained an appreciation for what matters in the long run, and what fizzles out.

It’s not that I have all the answers. But if there is any wisdom at all to be gained from experience, and my experience tells me there is, then I’d say we need to communicate more of our life story. And we’ve been born at the perfect time. Just as boomers are reaching “that certain age” technology has provided new opportunities for us to collaborate. The printing press brought ideas from individual minds out into the public, broke us free from a layer of oppression, and opened the way for the Renaissance. The internet makes the printing press look like an old relic. We’re ready to take this thing global, and who knows what rebirths we can bring about?

By developing a community of thinking people who talk about life in an inquiring way, we can learn from each other. Your wisdom is contained in your life experience. Share it with the world! Even if you don’t know how writing could change your world, start writing anyway. Your experience turns into stories that are authentic, in a voice that is authentically yours. That’s all that matters now. Find the authentic voice and share the authentic experience. As you go, you’ll discover the sense you’ve made of your past, and then discover the impact your experience has on others. By writing and organizing your story, without even knowing how, you are already beginning to serve. And like any service to others, you’ll be the first to reap the rewards.

Writing about life will give you more energy. Even if you already have plenty of energy, writing will give you more. And if you are too tired to write, writing will wake you up.

Writing will make you more knowledgeable about how to write and how to tell stories. You can press these enhanced skills into service as you discover things you want to share with the world.

By writing about your own life experience, you open up parts of yourself to others. This makes the world a friendlier, more intimate place to live.

Write for a cause, write for a community, write for posterity, write to share yourself. Write to change the world.

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.

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers