List of Memoirs that Show Various Aspects of Family

by Jerry Waxler

Writing your memoir? Memoir Revolution provides many examples and insights into how to authors are translating life into story.

In a previous post, Family Psychology Lessons in Memoirs, I showed how Sonia Marsh’s Freeways to Flipflops is an excellent example of a family in midlife crisis, and in another post The Many Roles of Family In Your Memoir, I showed how that book demonstrates a type of do-it-yourself family therapy.

Her memoir started me thinking about the complexities of adding families to life stories. Their influence on us is important, and yet it adds an additional layer of complexity to an already-complex task. To help you organize your ideas about how to include your family or group experience into your memoir here are a number of books that include the author’s involvement with this important group.

Beginnings of the Family
We must undergo many profound emotional adjustments on the journey from a single person, to a married one, to a married person with children. My favorite book for learning about the transition from single to married is the memoir Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Feinberg Cook in which the author offers a terrific rendition of a young wife’s initial insights into the shift from free-agent to committed partner.

The transformation from a married guy to a married guy with a child is explored nicely in the quirky memoir Sound of No Hands Clapping by Toby Young and also in a memoir called Man Made by Joel Stein about his fear that he won’t be masculine enough to impress his new son. A less humorous book about a woman’s transition to motherhood is Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields about her postpartum depression.

Another story about a young couple with a baby is Ten Points by Bill Strickland. As a young father, he attempts to overcome the anger and dark memories of his own abusive childhood. He uses his own desperation to outgrow the mistakes of his own father, in order to support the innocence of his tiny daughter. This echo of trauma from one generation to another offers powerful emotional themes that could help you awaken the internal power of your story.

Self-involved parents who forget to raise kids
The memoir She Got Up off the Couch by Haven Kimmel is about how her mother went back to school and her father had an affair. It’s a fascinating look at the way the innocence of a child is distorted by the adult dreams and confusions of parents who are trying to find themselves.

Another memoir about a child whose innocence was overlooked is In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas, and another even more outrageous book in which self-involved parents forget to protect a child’s innocence is Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.

At the extreme are memoirs of the dark side of families, for example the devastating sexual abuse of Sue William Silverman in Because I Remember Terror, Father I Remember You, and the horrific alcoholism and neglect of Frank McCourt’s father in Angela’s Ashes.

When two parents divorce and go their separate ways, their lack of grace often undermines the kids’ ability to grow up, In Dani Shapiro’s Slow Motion, the author has a horrific launching into adulthood. As she retraces her past she exposes the nightmare that results from her father’s family hating her mother. The influence of an angry split is evidenced also in the memoir Tweak by Nic Sheff whose parents lived hundreds of miles apart. He found his solace in crystal meth. In Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love by Debra Gwartney, Mom hated Dad’s immaturity and decided she needed to get 1,000 miles away from him. Two of her young daughters took their upbringing into their own hands, running away and living on the street.

Changing Family after the Empty Nest
The family enters another phase when the kids move out. This back end of family life rarely makes it into adventure or hero stories. In the modern era, with longer life spans and more complex, varied goals, this later period turns up in many memoirs. How will the parents find fulfillment?

An extreme version of the empty nest is the death of a child. Madeline Sharples’ in Leaving the Hall Light On, struggles to keep her bipolar son sane and alive. After he commits suicide, she must keep her family together, for the sake of her own sanity, as well as for her husband and other son. She grieves and then must go on. Over the course of the following years, she relentlessly pursues creativity and self-healing.

In Robert Waxler’s first memoir Losing Jonathan, his eldest son loses the battle with addiction. The memoir, co-authored with his wife, is a book of grieving and healing. In his second memoir, Courage to Walk, Waxler’s younger son, by this time a professional with a vibrant independent life of his own, is stricken by a mysterious, crippling illness. The possible death of his second son awakens echoes of the loss of his first.

Trying to understand your parents
Memoir writers often return to their family of origin to try to make sense of growing up. Many of these memoirs concentrate only on one parent, reflecting the often slanted relationship we have with these powerful individuals in our lives.

Learning about mom’s younger years
Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Linda Austen, is about a mother who grew up in pre-war Japan.

Caregiving for Alzheimer’s Moms
When our parents grow old, they often raise intense emotions. As caregivers for our parents we reverse our roles, and find ourselves in an impossible tug of war trying to care about others in our lives at the same time. Two excellent memoirs, Mothering Mother by Carol O’Dell and Dementia Epidemic by Martha Stettinius are especially poignant because of the extra complexity of Alzheimer’s, tearing apart not just the body but the mind. These two women, at the height of their capacity to give and provide, must turn toward the women who raised them in a profound, poignant new relationship.

Understanding Dad
Joel Stein’s humorous book Man Made makes a joke about a man who is afraid he won’t be masculine enough for his son. A less humorous question arises for many boys who don’t feel masculine enough for their dads. Here are a few memoirs about guys trying to make sense of their fathers.

Drama by John Lithgow, traces his own life in theater in relationship to his father’s. This is another one of my favorite celebrity memoirs. Andre Agassi’s Open covers similar ground, showing how his father imposed his obsessions on the boy, who as a result became a world champion. What a complex conflict! He must juggle resentment at his father’s manipulation with appreciation for the glamorous, complex life that resulted.

Chasing the Hawk: Looking for My Father, Finding Myself by Andrew Sheehan, a wonderful exploration not only of his father’s life but of the lifespan of the whole extended family. This is one of the best “extended family over time” stories I have read.

Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family by Qui Duc Nguyen, reconstructing his father’s life during a brutal captivity by the Viet Cong

Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham, tells of his father’s life across war torn Vietnam.

The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer is a sort of ode to the absent dad. The star of his life is a placeholder for a guy who never shows up.

Women too, wonder what makes Dad tick. Here are memoirs about that search.

Breaking the Code by Karen Alaniz is about a father who experienced emotional trauma while fighting in the Pacific during WWII.

Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour is about her father who inherited an English country manor. He felt so connected with the place his identity merged into it at around the same time as country manors throughout Great Britain were being demolished and dismantled.

Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron by the daughter of the famous novelist, William Styron

The Impact of Early Death of a Spouse
The whole span of a marriage, from courtship to the end is hastened by the untimely death of a husband. Adapting and finding one’s self anew is the subject of powerful memoirs.

Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener, is about her courtship, young relationship, and early death of her husband, and her subsequent journey to find herself.

Here if you Need Me by Kate Braestrup. The death of her husband forces her to figure out her own career, and figure out how to overcome grief. The journey of an individual is actually the journey of a family.

Impact of Illness: Caregiving for a Spouse
100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, caregiving for a spouse after he suffers a severe stroke. Includes some of the best spouse-as-buddy writing I have seen.

Adopted children
When a child grows up with adopted parents, it raises the challenge: which one is my “real” family. Two memoirs handle this question with profound inquiry and insight. Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood tells about a girl raised in the Midwest who goes to China to meet her biological family. Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes investigates the mysteries of her biological parents, whose only relationship to each other was in a surreptitious affair.

Akin to the Truth by Paige Strickland
Twice Born by Betty Jean Lifton

Additional mentions of family
In Tim Elhajj’s Dope Fiend, as a recovering addict he makes desperate attempts to repair the damage his drug use had created in his relationship to his mother.

Family that Includes a Dog
Marley and Me by John Grogan and Oogy, the Dog Only a Family Could Love, by Larry Levin, two excellent stories about how the love for a dog becomes part of the fabric of the family.

Couple as Buddies
Some famous buddy stories in movies, like Thelma and Louise, or Bonnie and Clyde, show how two people bounce off each other in friendship and enterprise. Couples in real life sometimes do the same. I have read a few memoirs that highlight the delightful partnership of the partners.

When Sonia Marsh and her husband moved to Belize, the two adults had become partners in the family adventure. In Freeways to Flipflops, they fight, they work together, in an excellent story of a partnership under duress.

Queen of the Road, Doreen Orion about her taking a year off to travel in an RV. Her interaction with her husband provides humor, mutual respect and support. When I visualize them riding together in the front two seats of their decked-out RV, I think it would make an excellent movie about a couple with an empty nest.

Cancer, fading away of a parent
Kids are All Right by Diana Welch about siblings who gather like a flock, as their mother suffers the wasting of cancer.

Chasing the Hawk: Looking for My Father, Finding Myself by Andrew Sheehan, already mentioned for its portraiture of Dad, also recounts the ending of his father’s life due to cancer.

Chosen Families
In some memoirs, a group of people form an ensemble cast that resembles a chosen family, people who turn toward each other for companionship, understanding, and support.

An Unquenchable Thirst, by Mary Johnson, about a young woman who chooses to join Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

The Path by Donald Walters (Swami Kyriyananda), about a member of a group of devotees of Paramahansa Yogananda

Father Joe: The Man Who Saved my Soul by Tony Hendra, about his relationship to his mentor, a sort of chosen father.

In Fugitive Days, Bill Ayers portrays the members of his fellow war protestors as a chosen family.

In the combat memoir House to House by David Bellavia, the author chooses his life-and-death responsibility to his fellow soldiers over a commitment he made to his wife.

In Mentor by Tom Grimes, the author’s relationship to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop resembles a loosely knit chosen family.

In Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, the women with whom she shared her year in prison became like family to each other.

Writing Prompt
How will your family figure in as a “character” in your memoir? List and describe the members of the group. Write a scene that demonstrates the way they interact with each other. Write a scene that demonstrates the way they supported you. Write another one that shows you wanting to hide from them or break out of their influence.

Notes
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page Author of Freeways to Flipflops

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.

Interview with a Memoir Writer – Childhood with Traumatized Parents

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

In my previous blog post, I wrote about a memoir by a woman who grew up under the terrible shadow of a tragedy. Judy Mandel wrote Replacement Child to share a childhood that had been distorted by a few horrifying hours in her parents’ lives that took place before she was born. Through the extraordinary medium of memoir, she was able to translate that trauma and the subsequent journey into a fascinating story. In this blog post, I interview Judy to ask her more about her experience writing and publishing the book.

This blog is part of a blog tour for Judy Mandel’s Replacement Child. For more information from the author, see her website.

Jerry Waxler: You had to face a lot of painful memories to write this memoir, and yet you did it anyway. Were you ever tempted to try to forget, and make it go away? How did you move beyond that impulse and face it and write about it?

Judy Mandel: In fact, I had been very successful in pushing all the memories down so far that it was like an excavation to unearth them. I can’t explain why I felt compelled to keep doing that, like picking a scab. You know there will be blood, but somehow you feel it will heal faster that way.

Jerry Waxler: Anyone who met you couldn’t possibly even imagine this tragic background and complex family life in the midst of a suburban community. Your sister Linda of course bore the signs of the tragedy on her skin for all to see, but you only had them inside. So growing up, how did that feel, having this vast amount of secret life contained within an ordinary one?

Judy Mandel: An interesting thing I discovered after I wrote the book, and many of my childhood friends read it. They knew about the accident, or some version of it, but never ever mentioned it to me in all the years we grew up together. Even my closest friends had never said anything. They were counseled not to by well-meaning parents. But I think if the discussion had been out in the open, both within my family and outside my family, it would have been a healthier way to deal with it and would have eliminated the feeling of secrecy. As a kid, I felt mostly a subterfuge that I couldn’t identify.

Jerry Waxler: Now that you have written a book about those experiences, you have transferred the scars from inside to outside. Describe how that has changed the way you see yourself in relationship to strangers. When you meet a stranger, do you feel more understood? Does the expression “more comfortable in your own skin” apply? How would you describe it?

Judy Mandel: What an insightful question! Sometimes when people ask me about myself, in the way people do when you meet, I am tempted to just give them a copy of Replacement Child–or tell them to read it if they haven’t. Other times, I almost feel like I have nothing left I can tell them about myself if they’ve read it.

Jerry Waxler: You have obviously worked hard on this memoir to create a story from all these memories and your research. From a mess of memories, you have created a coherent narrative. If possible, please compare how that feels to go from before writing it to having it on paper. Was it satisfying, fulfilling? Would you do it again?

Judy Mandel: The interesting thing is that once you give your inner story a narrative, it has a shape that it didn’t have before. And it is unchangeable. Before writing my story, my personal narrative morphed frequently, as I suspect it does for everyone. To your other questions, I would say I had no choice but to write this story and I can’t imagine doing anything like this again.

Jerry Waxler: Before 9/11, I spent zero time thinking about being struck by an airplane. After 9/11, this completely changed. The similarity of the experience to your childhood tragedy seems so strange and otherworldly. As a reader, it feels like a mini-9/11. Of course the cause and scope were different but in your individual life, the disruption had struck you in a similar way. That’s my reaction to reading the book. How did you react to that juxtaposition? When you realized that getting struck by a crashing airplane had become part of our collective traumatic experience, how did that influence your relationship to your memories? How did that affect your willingness to write about it?

Judy Mandel: I believe that victims of a tragic event, no matter the scope, are part of a club that none of us wanted to join. Realizing the very long tentacles of a tragedy, through a family, and even through generations, changes your view of the world. When I watched planes crashing into the towers on 9/11, I felt like it was my worst nightmare. I think, because of my family history, I have always believed that anything can happen–and 9/11 brought that home to me in a powerful way. When the Boston Marathon bombings happened, I felt the same way, and deeply sad for the families effected. I also connect very strongly to survivors of the Holocaust and their children–replacement children in some sense. Some say that an entire generation of Jews are replacements for those lost. That’s a subject I’m delving into for possibly an upcoming project. As I wrote in a recent blog post of mine, ultimately, we have to grapple with random acts of evil, accident or nature. All we can do is realize that each day is a gift, and any day that we find peace, and our loved ones are safe and well, is a good day.

Jerry Waxler: I completely sympathize with the thousands of hours your family obsessed about your sister’s final moments. The horror played through the family psyche like a nightmare or a PTSD flashback. Through your creative passion and hard work you captured those moments in words. Shaping these scenes into a story must have been such a profound labor of love and passion. You finally contained within story the culminating focusing moment that controlled your and your family’s history. That seems so profound to me. Now through the hard work and creativity of your writing and the magic of empathetic reading, strangers like me have shared some of that pain. How do you feel about making the private hell accessible  to empathy from strangers? Does it feel like we are sharing your burden in some way? Has it relieved you from a life sentence of facing this pain alone?

Judy Mandel: Thank you for seeing the work in that way. You come close to asking why we write. It makes me think of the quote from Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” That is true for me as well. Writing those scenes, especially the more graphic ones, helped me figure out how I felt and what I thought. It was the only way I could make sense of it. Which brings me to the other reason for writing and reading, to try to make some sense of the world and the human condition.

Jerry Waxler: I have recently written an essay about the structural techniques of writing memoirs. In one essay, I show how some authors have alternated back and forth between the two time frames, telling the earlier story of their childhoods in alternating chapters with their adult timeframe.  In example of this method, I show how each of the two time frames sticks with chronological order. Your memoir uses the interwoven time frames, with more than two separate threads. I counted at least three (your story of growing up, the day of the crash, and looking back from the present while you were constructing the memoir). Could you help me and your readers understand your thought process deciding how to weave time among chapters? How did you arrive at this system as the best way to tell your story?

Judy Mandel: I started with the trajectory of the crash itself, since it fascinated me and I delved into every detail I could find. The first chapter I wrote was the actual scene in my mother’s kitchen when she heard the blast and flash of fire, and the ensuing melée. I knew I needed my childhood scenes to illustrate the different aspects of my relationships with members of my family, and to underscore my isolation and finally the characteristics of a classic replacement child. My present day chapters came last, to give perspective to the book. Coming up with the structure was a slow process. I experimented with different ways to tell the story. I did this visually, using index cards with a brief description of each chapter and posting them on bulletin boards. The boards lined a hallway in my house for months. I would re-arrange them every few days and see how the order worked. When that didn’t seem like enough information, I used the actual chapters, spread out in an entire room in my house. So, it wasn’t an easy or entirely scientific method!

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.

Turning a Tragedy into a Memoir of Becoming

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

When I first picked up the memoir Replacement Child by Judy Mandel, I quickly learned from the title and blurb that it was about a girl born into a family that had suffered a trauma. A plane crashed into their house, killed the family’s oldest child, and disfigured the youngest! At first, the shocking nature of the trauma drew me in. That is exactly what every memoir attempts to do, build a bond of curiosity with the reader. And yet, when we start writing our memoirs, few of us know how to achieve this seemingly simple goal.

When you first start to write, you might have no idea of what to call the book or even what it is “about.” Gradually, you construct a story and at some point in your writing journey you begin to wonder how you are going to explain it to readers. Growing attuned to this potential future experience of your readers becomes an important step in completing the work. How can you turn the events of a life into a simple message? That is a wonderful question and answering it will take you on a journey of self-discovery.

By reading Judy Mandel’s memoir, you can imagine how she might have gone through this process. In her childhood, overshadowed by this one horrid event, she had to discover who she was and how she would fit into the world. Despite her normal need to move outside and establish herself as a person, everything in her childhood home wanted to keep collapsing back to the moment when the airplane crashed and her sister burned to death. Considering the power of the moment, it must have been difficult for Judy Mandel to grow up, and even more difficult to tell the story. But in fact she did both. In the memoir, she unpacked all those years and spread them out on the page, allowing us to accompany her through the period of growing up under the shadow of trauma and even giving us the bonus of her struggle to tell the story.

Complex Task of Comprehending Trauma

The family had been devastated by a plane that exploded into their house, a trauma that severely impacted her parents’ ability to enjoy their lives. To try to compensate, they gave birth to Judy, as a “replacement child.” Her presence was supposed to ease their pain about the baby who had been killed. This put her in the strange position of competing for affection with a sibling she never even met. Much later in life, she came across the psychological notion of a Replacement Child and realized that other children grow up under a similar shadow. A child who was attempting to fill a deceased one’s shoes was destined to insecurity.

However, her actual life was far more complex than simply replacing a lost child. The book is about growing up in the aftermath of trauma. I have read memoirs about growing up in all kinds of dysfunctional families, like alcoholism and neglect but this is the first one I can think of about a child who grew up in the shadow of violent trauma. It’s an interesting and powerful topic for millions of children who grew up as second or third generation sufferers of war and persecution, and a haunting consideration for me.

At the end of the 19th century, Russia, like so many host countries before, had turned against the Jews and launched violent attacks and harsh laws designed to force them to convert or get out. About two million of these Jews fled to the United States to build a new life. Every one of those immigrants left after having directly witnessed or heard about Russian soldiers coming into town, rounding up Jews, murdering men and raping women. My grandparents would have been among that group, as would the grandparents of almost everyone I knew. Looking back on my childhood, I replay the faces of my parents and their friends, and in my mind’s eye, I see a people attempting to escape some pain. Perhaps the whole lot of them were suffering from the aftereffects of their immigrant-parents’ trauma.

Judy Mandel’s childhood was overshadowed by yet another wound. Her sister, Linda, had been disfigured by the accident. Growing up with a disfigured sister placed Judy under strange pressures, not to look too pretty, not to make it look too easy. And Judy often had to sit on the sidelines while their parents attended to the enormous ongoing medical needs of the older sister. The worst challenge for Judy was that Linda, with all of her scars and memories was one of the few connections that Dad had with his lost daughter. This difficult situation trapped Judy in a catch-22, wishing to bring some joy ot the family to make up for the pain of that awful event and yet sometimes feeling guilty about being spared that suffering.

So actually there were three family pressures woven into Judy Mandel’s attempt to become a person: her birth as a replacement for a lost sibling; her parents who were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress; and growing up with a sibling who had special needs for attention. These are powerful, important issues, and anyone interested in trying to understand the complexities of growing up could learn by reading this book.

In fact, this is exactly the type of story that started the Memoir Revolution. One of the first, Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life (1989) told his bleak story about trying to grow up, raised by a single mom and an absentee dad. His memoir was one of the first in the wave of Coming of Age stories about children trying to figure out how to become adults under the terrible burden of inadequate parenting. Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes (1996) and Jeanette Walls in Glass Castle (2005) took us further on this path, showing us how hard it can be to turn from child to adult. Judy Mandel’s memoir Replacement Child takes us further still, showing us life in a particular family under very different types of burdens than what we would have expected.

When I studied Family Therapy in graduate school, I was fascinated by the complex interweaving of siblings, parents, and grandparents. Trying to make sense of anyone’s upbringing struck me as being one of the most sophisticated and complex studies anyone could hope to learn. Now, I have found such learning in every Coming of Age memoir. In addition to taking me inside the complexities of individuals, they also show me the intense, intricate interactions of families.

But Judy Mandel’s memoir is hardly a psychology book. In fact, it is a well-told story, with obvious passion for the craft of storytelling. One intriguing demonstration of this devotion to storytelling craft can be found by observing the author’s choices about chronology.

Authorial Control over the Reader’s Sense of Chronology

As the author explains in the book itself, she reconstructed the timeline of all the events. And yet, the book unfolds in an unusual sequence, mixing chapters from at least three periods in her life. One of the dangers of writing outside of chronological order is that the reader will feel lost. But by adding dates to the chapter titles, the author keeps us oriented. Occasionally I wondered why she had chosen to intertwine events the way she had, but in retrospect I can see a wise, insightful artistic decision.

This mix between journalistic authority of the exact chronology, and the intricate interweaving of the story in time, creates an interesting effect. She develops a story arc along a number of lines: the day of the crash; the growing up of the author; the ongoing health of the family; and even her attempt to research and reconstruct the past. Through it all, she builds suspense and understanding, while at the same time keeping us oriented by leading each chapter with the date and in some cases the time of day of the incidents in each chapter.

Her whole life had been consumed, overwhelmed, overshadowed by the events of a few hours on that fateful day. By interspersing the horror of that day, bit by bit, throughout the telling of her memoir, she showed in a creative way how the suspense of that crashing plane kept grinding through her life like a bad dream that she could never escape. In retrospect, it seems like this was the only way to tell the story, one of the subtlest demonstrations I can think of in which the story itself demands to be told in a particular order.

To read my interview with Judy Mandel about writing and publishing Replacement Child, click here.

Notes
For more information about Judy Mandel’s Replacement Child, see her website.

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is another good example of liberties with a timeline being useful in revealing the unfolding story.

Another memoir in which an author attempted to find a diagnosis for his strange childhood was Look Me in the Eye by Jon Robison. He learned late in life that he had Asperger’s which helped him form a better understanding of how his mind works. I believe memoirs in general will help all of us make some of these connections, not necessarily through psychological diagnosis but by sharing our unique stories. For more about this subject read my book Memoir Revolution.

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.

In Memoirs, Misery is Simply a Step toward Hope

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

A participant in a recent memoir workshop asked me if all memoirs need to be about misery. I assured her there is no such rule. However, it is true that hard living makes good reading and at the end of a well-told story, the reader feels lifted by the triumph of overcoming hardship.

For example, in the memoir Here I Stand, Jillian Bullock starts as a young girl in a state of innocence with a loving stepfather who adores her, but he has one problem. He works for the mob and occasionally finds it necessary to assassinate friends. Eventually, his mob ties drive the family apart. Without him, Jillian loses her safe place. First, her “boy friend” rapes her. Then her mother gets involved with an abusive man. The young girl runs away, but doesn’t have anywhere to go. Homeless and starving, she ends up at the local brothel where she receives shelter in exchange for services.

When I started reading memoirs, I set limits on the topics I would read. Sex-for-money was definitely not on my list. However, the longer I study, the more I ambitious I become, craving to understand the variety of human experience. My quest has taken me into combat, physical and mental disability, extreme Muslim, Christian, and Jewish childhoods, and even occasionally to the dark side of sexuality. These stories help me untangle my attitude about situations that previously tied me in mental knots.

So I inched my way into Here I Stand, ready to bolt if it didn’t feel authentic or if I felt strangled by helplessness or despair. The deeper into the story I traveled, the more I trusted this author to maintain authorial control, guiding me through difficulties and then back out to safety. She achieves this effect through excellent story telling. Each chapter is paced well, with an enormous sense of tension and drama, and the gradual, tragic deterioration of circumstances.

The book makes this downward slide look easy, but I am in awe of the effort the author must have made in order to convert the overwhelming feelings of betrayal and humiliation into good reading. As Bullock says in the interview I conducted with her, it took years for her to untangle the heavy load of emotions and see events clearly enough to make them worthy of a story. By the time her story reaches readers, it has been transformed through the lens of the storyteller, and through that lens, the misery is only a step along the path.

When she attempts to steer through these initial setbacks, the impulses that appear appropriate to her child-mind lead her deeper into problems. I feel horror at the direction she heads, trying to imagine how she will make it back to solid ground. In the back of my mind, I’m also wondering how any of us survive the dangerous period of adolescence when we have the power to make decisions that will affect us for the rest of our lives.

Jillian’s saving grace is her determination to reclaim her dignity. Despite abysmal poverty and vulnerability, she keeps trying, until finally she claims her own “agency” — that wonderful literary term that means that the character consciously chooses her next step rather than having the next step chosen for her.

For strength in her darkest hours, she reaches out to the vision of her now-deceased stepfather. I love visionary moments in memoirs, because they provide a glimpse into the spiritual dimension, a sort of anti-gravity or pull from above. Somehow the visions give her the strength to keep going. Finally, she returns to her flawed mother, the only family she has.

After so many hardships, she manages to apply herself to school. That impulse to get an education saves her. The book is a tribute to the power of hope, effort, courage, and learning. As a reader, it answers my own prayer that people with determination can escape from hopeless situations. I am grateful to Jillian Bullock for sharing her journey with me.

The book is not just hopeful for the reader. The author also gains surprising benefits. By exposing hidden parts of herself, she magically converts secrets that could have separated her from people into pathways that connect her. Just as the younger Jillian Bullock was bolstered by those who helped her, the adult Jillian Bullock attempts to pay it forward, helping young people find their own high road. Through the memoir and her work in the community, she passes along the lessons and strength she learned on her journey.

Writing Prompt
When did you first realize that you were making choices that would take you in the direction you wanted to go? In other words, when did you assert your right to steer the ship, rather than let it be steered for you?

Notes

More examples of memoirs about falling from the grace of the family into the chaos of the world where they journey through the vulnerable dark side of sexuality and drugs, and find their way home. In all these cases, education plays a role in redemption.

Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum, about a girl like Bullock who runs away. Unlike Bullock, Erlbaum finds a shelter.
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro. This girl runs away to a rich man who keeps her like a modern-day fallen concubine.

Townie by Andre Debus III about a boy who learns to use his fists to survive the mean streets of a blue-collar town.
Tweak by Nic Sheff about his descent from a privileged home to a drug-infested wasteland. His redemption is only a future promise. This darker version of the fall without a definite rise at the end is humanized by the companion memoir Beautiful Boy by David Sheff about his father who tries to save him.

Another memoir that transforms misery into hope
Diane Ackerman’s 100 Names for Love in which she cares for her husband after a massive stroke.

Click here to read an interview with Jillian Bullock, author of Here I Stand

Jillian Bullock’s Home Page

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.

George Orwell and Memoirs: How Literature Changes Lives

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

This interview refers to the boook Orwell and the Refugees by Andrea Chalupa. To read my two posts about the book click here and here.

In her book Orwell and the Refugees, author Andrea Chalupa tells how the history of her family intersected with the history of the world. Her grandparents fled the Soviet Ukraine, where, in the 1930s, Joseph Stalin was killing millions of people. The family lived in exile at a time when many people in the West still thought of Stalin as an ally. That’s where George Orwell comes in. His book Animal Farm was an attempt to expose the truth about Stalinist Russia. A copy of Animal Farm reached the refugee camp where Andrea Chalupa’s uncle read it as a boy. Years later, her grandfather wrote a memoir about those events. This entire saga is described in a book published by the granddaughter in 2012. As a memoir enthusiast, I love seeing history through the eyes of these three writers. George Orwell exposes Stalin’s cruelty. Chalupa’s grandfather puts a human face on the millions of refugees. Finally, through the granddaughter’s eyes, I see how Stalin’s madness ripped through history, like a tsunami crashing upon the shores of modernity, and then receding as people grew, recovered, and entered new phases of their lives. To learn more about the creation of this extravaganza of history and literature, I interviewed Andrea Chalupa.

Jerry: Animal Farm was a powerful influence in my high school reading list, so when I read your story, I relate it to the feelings I had about it as a young man. Considering how Stalin affected your family, I am curious to know what if any effect the book had on your younger years. What are your memories of Animal Farm? Did you read Orwell in high school? When you read it, did you resonate with any personal sense of history about it?

Andrea: I don’t remember reading Orwell in school, but I grew up hearing the stories from my family that Orwell allegorizes in Animal Farm. But I didn’t read the novel until I was 26 and looking for inspiration and energy while working on a screenplay about Stalin’s famine in Ukraine. When I finally read Animal Farm, I felt incredibly grateful that someone “pop culturized” exposing Stalin and the Soviet Union. It had a massive impact in paying tribute to the countless victims.

Jerry: It’s interesting that you didn’t know about the actual physical existence of the Orwell manuscript hidden in your family archives. So I know you didn’t know about the original copy of the book. Do you remember anyone talking about the book when you first read it?

Andrea: No, no one. It was such a surprise and makes me wonder what other priceless possessions are in my family!…

Jerry: When you grew up, how aware were you of your grandfather’s past? Do you remember any incidents about how his past entered into your childhood awareness, say in passing comments or stories around the dinner table, or even hushed tones or avoiding WWII movies, or whatever?

Andrea: I grew up very aware and sensitive to what my family had escaped, their stories of survival. My parents and grandparents spoke openly about these things when the mood hit them. In sixth grade, I made a presentation to my class about Stalin’s 1933 famine in Ukraine and started crying. The stories I heard from my grandfather of surviving nearly being starved to death, seeing entire villages slowly wither and disappear, the stories of people driven to madness from hunger left a big impression on me at a very young age. The famine had only to be merely mentioned to get me to finish my dinner as a kid and eat every last bite, a tactic my parents sometimes employed. But I didn’t learn of the extent of my grandfather’s time as a political prisoner during Stalin’s purges and the torture he endured–I just knew that he was in prison, a victim of the KGB; but that was something that no one spoke openly about. Though one time, my parents had a party and one of the guests was a doctor. When he met my grandfather–whose hands slightly shook–he asked him, “Parkinsons?” My grandfather responded, “No, KGB.”

Jerry: Had you heard about the existence of your grandfather’s memoir when you were younger? When did you first learn about it?

Andrea: I didn’t learn about his memoir until my last year of college when I was working on a history thesis about underground religious movements in Soviet Ukraine. My mother brought it up as something that might be useful to my research since my grandfather witnessed religious persecution by the Soviets, and fearless monks continuing to practice and heal people.  He wrote his memoir shortly before he passed away, and she held on to it for almost ten years before giving it to me. His memoir primarily focuses on his time as a political prisoner, the torture he endured, and miraculously surviving and being released from prison–all these things were too painful for my mother and the rest of my family to talk about. That’s why I had to essentially “go looking” in my own way, by studying Soviet history in college.

Jerry: Did you read it? If so, what was that like?

Andrea: I did read it. It was written in Ukrainian, which I can barely read; so I went to Ukraine after college and found a translator. I got to read his memoir for the first time while I was backpacking through Ukraine. It was incredibly moving, his spiritual descriptions of relying on God in “this hellish machine,” as he described the Soviet Union. The first time I read it, I was overwhelmed and cried. I had to remind myself of the many happy years he had helping raise me in sunny and beautiful California. Orwell said it best, the horror of a totalitarian regime is “unimaginable.”

Jerry: Have you considered making your grandfather’s memoir available to other readers?

Andrea: I would love to. His memoir certainly was an inspiration to me, and I know it would be to anyone who reads it. It opens with him as a little boy watching the Bolsheviks battle the Czar’s army on his family’s farm, and he describes growing up as the Soviet Union grows up. So he gives a lot of wonderful, historically valuable insight into this dramatic time. But the richness and power of his writing comes through most during his arrest and his life in a secret KGB prison. I have done preliminary research into finding a publisher for it. The same time I received his memoir, I began researching and dreaming up an idea for the screenplay about Stalin’s famine that led me down a different rabbit hole. But now that the script is with a production company, I want to focus on getting my grandfather’s memoir published.

Jerry: What impulse originally stirred you to write this book Orwell and the Refugees?

Andrea: The ebook stemmed from a talk I gave on this little known history to the National Press Club. I had been invited to give a talk at the National Press Club after giving a presentation about Orwell’s refugee camp edition of Animal Farm to the U.S. Ukraine Foundation–I think I just brought the book in to their office one day and it turned into an impromptu presentation!  In preparing my talk for the National Press Club, I wrote a longer speech than I had time to give; I decided to present all my research in an ebook–an outlet that could fit all the research I kept gathering.

Jerry: When did you decide to publish it as an ebook?

Andrea: As a journalist and writer, I had been following the ebook trend for some time, watching it evolve from a “kiss of death” that turned off publishers to an attractive mainstream option. Journalists were just turning to ebooks to showcase longer, in-depth stories. It was an incredibly exciting project for me, because I had just spent two years pitching my screenplay to anyone who would listen, only to get it into the hands of professionals who would take another x amount of years just to produce it; I was hungry for the immediacy of sharing an ebook.  My ebook explores the history I dramatize in my screenplay; so it felt like a relief to finally get it out into the world and in front of an audience versus a few producers.

Jerry: What feedback have you received from other people who were affected by these events in history, say descendants of refugees like yourself?

Andrea: I’ve made new friends and learned so much from people who reached out to me after I gave a talk or after they heard me share this history on NPR. People have written to me through Facebook just to share their story or send me their memoir or pages of other invaluable information, or helped piece together missing links I couldn’t find elsewhere. It’s really been a highlight of this experience and gave me a sense of community.
After I gave my talk at the National Press Club, during the Q&A, about a dozen people in the audience raised their hands with comments that I had captured their childhood growing up in the displaced persons camps of Europe. The looks on their faces were very touching and humbling. It was an unforgettable experience for me.

Jerry: In my view, your writing voice in Orwell and the Refugees spans nonfiction genres, combining essay and history in a first person perspective. But that’s just me as a reader. What was it like for you as a writer? Where do you see this voice evolving in your own writing path?

Andrea: Orwell and the Refugees was originally intended to be a 25 minute lecture. There was just too much good information that couldn’t fit into a 25 minute talk. So the research, intended for a speech, is presented as it was written–to be spoken. At the time, I had been reading a lot of Orwell’s essays, and he had a wonderful, frank voice and I think that also influenced my writing style.

Jerry: What’s next?

Andrea: I have a fantasy of one day writing and producing a screenplay about the displaced persons camps of postwar Europe. I had interviewed a lot of people about their experiences, people who were children at the time. And they made life in these refugee camps seem like an endless summer camp. They acknowledged, of course, that this wasn’t so for the adults, who had to worry and act for the sake of the future.

In the meantime, I want to arrange for the publication of my grandfather’s memoir, so it can be shared in its entirety. In Orwell and the Refugees, I only published the sections that show my grandfather living through the horrifying events Orwell satirizes in Animal Farm. I wanted to show the real Animal Farm through the eyes of a survivor.

Notes
Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm by Andrea Chalupa

Andrea Chalupa’s Home Page

If you are intrigued by the relationship between literature and life, check this essay I wrote on the subject.

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.

Memoirs Extend History a Little and Wisdom a Lot

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

This is the second post inspired by Andrea Chalupa’s Orwell and the Refugees. Click here for the first.

When I began to write my memoir, I realized how little I knew about my grandparents. I never asked them what it was like to leave their homeland in Russia and travel to a new life in America. Nor did I ask my parents what it was like to grow up in Philadelphia as the children of immigrants. My ignorance was uncanny. Did I really have so little curiosity about them? How could I be so self-involved?

Recently, I met a woman whose ancestors grew up in the same part of the world my grandparents did. Unlike me, Andrea Chalupa knows about them because her grandfather wrote a memoir. And because she knows and cares so much about those events, she wrote a book that captures the spirit of those times. Chalupa’s book, called Orwell and the Refugees, tells about the great historical forces that shaped her family’s life.

In the 1930s, a couple of decades after my grandparents escaped, Joseph Stalin felt threatened by separatists in the Ukraine and decided the best solution would be to murder its entire population. The resulting famine-genocide was one of the great horrors of the twentieth century, but it was hidden behind the iron curtain of Stalin’s propaganda machine. In fact, many people in the west saw Stalin as a good guy and a bulwark against fascism.

When George Orwell decided to expose the cruelty of the communist regime, he had to overcome the resistance of those who didn’t want to hear anything bad about Russia, so he couched his frightening story in an allegory about farm animals. In 1945, after Animal Farm was published, it was translated and smuggled into the refugee camps in Eastern Europe, where Chalupa’s grandfather was trying to raise his children. In fact, Chalupa’s uncle still owns the copy of Orwell’s Animal Farm that he read in the refugee camp.

The presence of that book in the camps is the most fascinating thing about this whole story. Within those crowded makeshift communities, people maintained their dignity and hope by educating their children. These are the dramas that bring out the magnificent side of history — not the horrifying actions of murderers, but the pervasive attempt of ordinary people to stay balanced and strong in the midst of horror.

Thanks to her grandfather’s memoir, Chalupa provides a personal perspective on history, showing the human drama taking place during those turbulent times. The book by the grandchild weaves a rich tapestry of interlocking stories. The book’s title Orwell and the Refugees reminds me of one of the important authors who informed my own teenage search for meaning. Inside Orwell and the Refugees, I learn about that author’s attempt to spread truth and hope. And the very existence of Orwell and the Refugees provides yet another dimension. It shows me how, like a magic camera, our grandparents extend our vision a few more decades than we can see for ourselves.

When I first read George Orwell’s Animal Farm in the 1960s, it filled me with terror. Was the world really this dangerous? To get a better handle on my intense questions I turned to dark confusing novels by authors like Ferdinand Celine, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Their fictional perspective felt so real, it undermined my trust in humanity and filled me with anxiety and dread.

It never occurred to me to ask my parents and grandparents to tell me what they remembered. I didn’t know that out of horror, springs courage. Years later, after the horror is in the distant past, we can look back at the whole sequence. My own grandparents, by explaining their escape, their courage, and their eventual success, could have offered me balm for the poisonous cynicism that overpowered me.

I wasn’t so fortunate. When I was a child, the prevailing opinion seemed to be that it wasn’t appropriate for adults to tell about their early lives. However, according to research by child-psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, parents who don’t tell their stories contribute to their children’s limited understanding of their role in the world. It certainly appears to have been the case for me. The way my parents and grandparents presented themselves, it felt like they dropped from the sky.

By passing her grandfather’s story along to us, Chalupa performs an act of social generosity, reminding us that the stories of individual lives contribute to the wisdom of society. Thanks to the explosion of interest in memoirs, more of us are writing our own stories and asking our parents for theirs. As a result, from now on, our children will be able to see beyond the stories in history books or the stories at the dinner tables. They will be able to draw conclusions about the way the world works from the lives and experiences of their own ancestors.

Writing Prompt
Remember that to you it was just ordinary life. To your children and grandchildren, it is something they only know from history, fiction or dinner table stories. You can help them understand your life in a much more authentic way by telling your story. What history would you pass on?

Notes

Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm by Andrea Chalupa

Andrea Chalupa’s Home Page

Read more of my essays about your parent’s memoir by clicking the links below:
Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?

Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir
Parent’s Memoir Part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview
Parent’s Memoir Part 3b, Guide for Ghost Writer’s Interview

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.

How eBooks Revolutionize Your Memoir Options

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

I recently read, Orwell and the Refugees by Andrea Chalupa, eagerly absorbing the human drama unfolding on its pages. The author’s grandfather survived Stalin’s infamous famine-genocide in the Ukraine, so she grew up surrounded by stories involving mid-century Russia. Naturally she had an enormous stake in the outcome of these historical events, and her passion for the subject drove the story forward.

And just as exciting as the content inside the book were the possibilities the book raised for other authors who wonder how they will find readers. Orwell and the Refugees reports on one cultural upheaval, and it is also an example of another. The book shows how the changes in publishing are expanding our ability to connect with each other.

Her story is about one of the greatest dramas in human history. Stalin’s starvation campaign affected millions of Ukrainians, and indirectly impacted hundreds of millions of others. And millions of people have grown up horrified by the strange and terrible allegory portrayed in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. However, despite this vast impact, none of this is in today’s news, and it’s unlikely many readers are heading to the bookstore to buy a book on either topic. The history of George Orwell’s impact on Ukrainian refugees seems too specialized and obscure for a commercial publisher.

Many aspiring memoir writers face similar problems. We know our story has dramatic impact that would intrigue some subset of people. But when we learn how to pitch it to a publisher or agent, we find that we must demonstrate its salability. It’s difficult to guarantee the five or ten thousand readers that traditional publishers need. Until recently, such authors would either squash the impulse to write about their lives, or they would polish a manuscript for years, shop it around, and then lovingly lay it to rest.

In the new millennium, we no longer need to jump over the barrier of the mass market. Electronic publishing gives us the freedom to focus on telling our story as artfully as possible so whoever reads it will enjoy it and tell their friends. In the new millennium, aspiring authors build momentum not on a sure business case but on the passion of storytelling. And as Orwell and the Refugees demonstrates, once we are released from commercial considerations, we can take advantage of some additional literary freedoms.

Cut Across Rules to Engage the Modern Mind

If Orwell and the Refugees was published traditionally, a bookseller or librarian would not know where to shelve it. Does it belong with books about the history of Eastern Europe, or the history of English literature, or is about the investigative journalism of a woman whose grandfather wrote a memoir? Because Chalupa published her story as an eBook, she didn’t have to worry about these distinctions. By cutting across categories, she is free to express herself in a variegated style and high-energy content that suits the broad interests of a hungry mind.

Its length is another radical departure from the past. Traditionally, its petite size would have kept it out of a bookstore or library because without a spine, you can’t see it on the shelf. However, it recalls a much older tradition. Some of the most influential books in history have been short enough to be considered pamphlets, such as the incendiary Common Sense by Thomas Paine, a 48 page work that helped ignite the American Revolution. Orwell and the Refugees is unlikely to start a revolution but it’s a great example of one, allowing us to regain access to this important, short form. The book is filled with intrigue and information, without being so long as to be overwhelming.

Which Niche Markets Beckon Your Book

Just because Chalupa did not convince a publisher that Orwell and the Refugees would sell thousands does not mean that such sales are impossible. Publishers often take the wrong side of this bet, as evidenced by endless stories of successful books that were rejected before they found a home. Even Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, was rejected at first.

When you look more closely at Orwell and the Refugees you can imagine an enormous number of potential readers. Millions of people could be curious to know the background of George Orwell’s ominous allegory about cruel tyrants, and millions more might want to know about grandparents displaced in the upheaval of Europe and Russia. Orwell and the Refugees places those events into historical context as a chilling personal account seen through the eyes of someone whose family suffered from the horror directly.

In fact, in my own household, the word Ukrainian never had any particular significance. My grandparents came from Kiev, wherever that is. In light of Orwell and the Refugees I looked at a map. It turns out that three of my four grandparents were refugees from the same region as Chalupa’s ancestors, as were the millions of Jews who escaped Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. Now that I have come across this information, I’m fascinated. Her niche is not so small after all.

It’s not easy to know in advance how your book will be received. In the epilog to Rachel Simon’s memoir Riding the Bus with My Sister, she says that the success of the book took her completely by surprise. Instead of the occasional person who wanted to read about a girl and her sister, she was inundated by buyers who desperately wanted to learn more about caring for their disabled siblings. Pleasing the vagaries of the public is not something any of us can predict, even the professionals. So the best bet for any memoir author is to tell your story as well as you can and then reach out and let readers know where to find it.

Writing Prompt
What niche audience might be interested in your story? (For example, boomers, veterans, survivors of a particular illness or injury, spiritual seekers, children of aging parents, etc.) How will you connect with these readers?

Notes
Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm by Andrea Chalupa

Andrea Chalupa’s Home Page

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.

Ten Things to Learn from a Combat Memoir, Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

In David Bellavia’s memoir, “House to House,” he shares the life of a modern soldier and in the process extends my understanding of the memoir genre. In this second part of my essay about the book, I offer more lessons that I learned from the book, and a few writing prompts to help you apply these lessons to your own memoir in progress.

Click here for part 1

Memoir as trauma debriefing or confessional

Mental health care workers are trained to administer a type of mental-first-aid called trauma debriefing, in which victims are encouraged to talk about the horror. The technique is supposed to help them assimilate the experience more effectively. I believe that writing a book has a similar therapeutic effect. To write your story, you expose events that had become trapped inside your mind. Writing a memoir allows you to find your words, and to share those words with interested readers.

Of course, a good story has to go beyond these introspective goals. A memoir has a responsibility to please a reader with a satisfying overall story arc, and a character who learns lessons through the course of his journey. With craft, a good memoir can achieve both goals.

What is Bellavia’s character arc? Throughout House to House, the author struggled with the intense emotions of the hunter and the hunted. Later, when he recounts his story, he doesn’t offer philosophical lessons. Instead, he looks for his own emotional truths. I did not blame Bellavia for failing to resolve the problems of war. Instead, I accepted that he needed to find his own inner peace. Like William Manchester’s Pacific War memoir, “Goodbye Darkness,” the lesson seemed to be that he survived, that he was brave, and that somehow, someday, he would be able to get his demons to back off.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene in which you found emotional relief by telling a story.

Fear is a dangerous master

The author joins the army to prove to himself and to his father that he is not a coward. His need to prove his lack of fear drives him into situations so dangerous even he admits they blur the line between courage and recklessness. His finest hour might, in retrospect, have been his most foolish.

Writing Prompt
When did fear force you to make a hasty decision?

Paradox of a soldier’s family life

In order to prove his manliness on the battlefield, Bellavia, or any soldier, must withdraw his presence from his wife and child, thus offering one manly service at the expense of another. As his tour of duty drew to a close, he decided that the pendulum had swung too far towards country and he chose to move back to family. The author never claims to identify the right path through this dilemma. However he does an excellent job of exploring the paradox and lets us accompany him through his own heartache about it.

Writing Prompt
When did you have to choose between two roles, and then realize it was time for the pendulum to swing back?

No atheists in fox holes

Enemy soldiers scream out to Allah to help them defeat these foreign invaders. The prayers unnerve Bellavia and his men. Whose side is God on anyway? In response, Bellavia screams prayers, too, appealing to his own God. The outburst is another example of the soldier’s interior process in the thick of battle, and a demonstration of the old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes.

When he faces the most dangerous situation imaginable, running back into a house from which he has a good chance of not leaving alive, he prays more quietly, trying to find a spiritual place within himself where he can accept death.

Writing Prompt
What situation forced you to remember God?

Boys trying to cross into manhood

Poet and philosopher Robert Bly, the famous popularizer of male mythology, observes that societies throughout history have implemented warrior-rituals to help males make the transition from boy to man. Nowadays, boys grab any method they can find, whether it’s jumping into a gang, going hunting with Dad, or excelling at sports. Many other boys, especially nerds like me, flounder without rituals, never sure how they will know when or if they are entitled to adopt the title “man.”

Bellavia’s memoir “House to House” is filled with young men attempting to face their fear and develop their courage on the battlefield. They are following one of the classic methods for moving from boy to man.

Writing Prompt
What major milestones marked your crossing from child to adult? (sex, career, respect from peers, drugs or alcohol, education, independence, home, etc.)

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by David Bellavia

Notes
William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness about the Pacific war.

Essay: How Boys Become Men? (Hint: Memoirs Help)

Click here for my post on George Brummell’s memoir, Shades of Darkness about growing up in Jim Crow  south, injured in Vietnam, and reclaiming his dignity in adulthood

Click here for my interview with Jim McGarrah author of “A Temporary Sort of Peace” about the trauma of his combat tour in Vietnam

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.

How Excellent Must Your Memoir Be?

by Jerry Waxler

This is the fifth part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Click here to read part one

When I decided to write my memoir, I entered a new chapter of my life. The beginning was easy. I just needed to gather the information and search for anecdotes and timelines. However, from the very beginning, I knew it would be my responsibility to create the illusion that readers were actually participating in the events. To meet that responsibility, I needed to learn many new language arts, such as scene building, sensory description, dialog, and story structure. As I learned, I continued to polish my manuscript, organize it, and incorporate feedback from critiques and edits.

Occasionally I think I’m getting close and I send it out to an editor for feedback. It always comes back with suggestions and concerns. After one recent submission, my editor told me about a weakness in my craft. She said my manuscript would be greatly improved if I developed my dialog with what she calls “beats.” Instead of just “he said,” then “she said,” I need to allow readers to see the characters. It would look something like this.

“blah blah blah,” he said, as he reached for a glass of water.

“blah blah, blah” she said, signaling to the waiter to bring the check.

Her instruction provided a wonderful teaching moment and another important step toward stylistic excellence. I could see what she meant. In the fiction I enjoy reading, the author interweaves all sorts of action into the mix. I now needed to follow her suggestion, and review my manuscript in an attempt to create more compelling scenes.

This project of turning life into a story has given me some of the most creative years of my lifetime. I love pushing my skill to higher levels, forcing me to learn how to create the same effects that I have been enjoying as a reader for years. But I also have mixed feelings about this new round of improvements. The techniques of scene-building require that I remember ever-increasing details from decades earlier. Would the value of my story really be that much greater if I remember the glint of light through a window, or the sound of water dripping from the sink, or a foot tapping nervously?

And another question arises. I have to decide if I really want to spend more months or even years increasing my ability to put talking characters into a room so readers can see the background. I want to present my case to a higher authority. “Isn’t it sufficient just to repeat the conversation?” But I know the higher authority is the reader, and if I can create a story worth reading, I will have succeeded.

Someday, my memoir will be ready and I hope when I finally do publish it, it will offer readers as interesting a journey as possible. Exactly, when I will cross that chasm from a private life to a public one will rely on a complex interplay of esthetic judgment and courage. Until that moment, readers and I will remain on opposite sides of the chasm. At some point, I will have to take the leap.

As the memoir wave continues to grow into a tsunami, and increasing numbers of people are feeling the desire to share their stories, each writer will face this decision. And when I read self-published or small-published memoirs, I am on the receiving end of their sense of timing. Should they have waited longer? Wasn’t it wonderful and sufficient that they had come this far and given me a story about the years of their lives?

For example, when I read “Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe”  by Dawn Novotny, I attempted to learn all sorts of lessons from her life story. And I also attempted to learn from her decision to publish. As a story reader, I notice gaps in language and storytelling skills, issues that would not have survived the editing process of a traditional publisher. As a result, many episodes violate the storyteller’s mandate to “show don’t tell” and would have received all sorts of skill-building suggestions from my editor. If Novotny had waited until she had reached a higher bar, she would not have had the satisfaction of sharing her story, and I would not have had the satisfaction of reading it.

I’m glad she chose to publish it, because her memoir puts things in perspective, and helps me remember the power of the memoir revolution. Everyone now has the option of taking this fascinating journey of writing a memoir, and then actually moving it from the privacy of a manuscript to the public sharing of a book. Novotny has taken the plunge, and realized one of the great benefits of modern times. We are allowing ourselves the freedom to get to know each other, our mistakes, our pain, and our wisdom. When we pass each other on the street, our stories are invisible. In the age of the memoir, we discover that we all are living our stories.

After every memoir workshop I’ve taught, students say, “People are so interesting,” or “I didn’t realize people had such extraordinary experiences.” Dawn Novotny’s memoir shares yet another one of those remarkable stories. It happens to touch on the lives of some of the people we know as household names, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe Dimaggio. But even those famous characters spill over into real life, with its complexity, dreams, faults, and emotional challenges.

The fact that it is not perfect story crafting is only one aspect of the book. It is in fact, a passionate, interesting, and engaging journey through a person’s life. Every memoir teaches me lessons, first about the variety of human experience, and second, about the craft of transforming life into story. Now in the age of self- and small-publishing, I also learn about the courage to step out from the shields of privacy and share our lives with readers.

Notes

Dawn Novotny, RagDoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe

Dawn Novotny’s blog and home page

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.

Will the Examined Life Become a Memoir Subgenre?

by Jerry Waxler

This is the fourth part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Click here to read part one

If the only books you read are ones you find in the bookstore, you might conclude that memoir writers limit their attention to small segments of life. However, many aspiring memoir writers who attend my writing workshops have a much broader agenda. They are interested in discovering the meaning of their entire lives and are trying to envision the character arc not just across a few years, but across decades.

Unfortunately, this desire to portray the panorama of a life violates a central mandate of the memoir genre. According to agents, editors, and teachers, a memoir should be about a slice of life, preferably a short one. According to these rules, if you include too much, for example including your childhood and adulthood in the same story, you bump up against the label “autobiography” which supposedly guarantees a rejection.

I have heard fiction writing teachers say “the less backstory the better,” and that “you always need less backstory than you think you do.” Modern readers supposedly are too impatient to stick with a character for too long. The trend toward shorter, tighter time frames reaches a crescendo in the hit television series, 24. Each one-hour episode chronicles the events of an hour in story-time.

This was not always the case. In early versions of the novel, authors were allowed to trace the origins of their characters. In one of my favorite novels Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, the power of the story arises from the pressures that build up across decades. And Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders traces the course of the protagonist’s whole life.

Now, as increasing numbers of people are drawn by the allure of the memoir revolution, we are beginning to notice that this literary form can help us make sense of who we are and where we’ve been. Memoirs are a perfect place to tie together the chapters of your life, to see how one thing led to another, and to discover the wisdom hidden within our own experience. As we look back across decades and try to capture their psychological complexity, the backstory is crucial.

Our reading preferences are beginning to reveal this awakening curiosity. Blockbusters such as Angela’s Ashes and Glass Castle, provide intimate insight into the way their protagonists grow up. Those books and others like them helped launch the memoir revolution. And another reading trend provides even more proof that we are interested in the way people emerge into adulthood. Harry Potter, one of the bestselling stories of all time, was about a young person Coming of Age. He had so much to figure out, and so do we. Apparently, we collectively crave deeper understanding of this process.

I recently found a memoir Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe by Dawn Novotny that demonstrates this longer search for meaning. By including her whole life, Novotny showed me how all the parts fit together. If she had limited her story just to the neglect and abuse during childhood, I would never have learned how that childhood led to her failed marriages. If she only wrote about her troubled young adulthood, I would never have understood the period of growth and wisdom that came later. Over this longer time frame, she portrayed a compelling dramatic arc.

By including all the stages of her life, Novotny allowed me to experience her fascinating journey, from shame, to troubles, to redemption. These long-term developments are among the most satisfying rewards of lifestory reading and writing, and I’m glad Ragdoll Redeemed extended beyond the “standard” definition of memoir.

Tips for your Memoir

When you first attempt to write the story of your life, you may be tempted to follow Dawn Novotny’s lead and include the whole thing. I encourage you to submit to that temptation, at least for early drafts. Once you record the whole thing on paper, you have a number of options.

For example, this longer version could provide wonderful raw material from which to find a shorter segment with a tighter focus. Or you could break it into sequential volumes, the way Frank McCourt did with Angela’s Ashes and Tis, or the way Mary Karr did with Liar’s Club and Cherry, or the way Haven Kimmel did with A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch. Or perhaps you will be so excited to have been through this creative process, you will decide to ignore the rules and publish it in its entirety.

You don’t need to decide now. By the time you are ready, perhaps the industry will change, as it always does. Perhaps some memoir of a complete life will cross over and become a New York Times bestseller and establish the validity of Life Reviews as a sub-genre, and then publishers will be just as interested in the story of your lifetime as you are.

Notes

Other memoirs from my reading list that offer a life review: Boyd Lemon’s Digging Deep about his attempt to understand his three failed marriages. Harry Bernstein’s Golden Willow about the journey of his 67 years of marriage. Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man recaps his journey as a teacher. And Alan Alda’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed about a lifetime journey as an actor.

Dawn Novotny, RagDoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe

Dawn Novotny’s blog and home page

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.