If this memoir author is famous, maybe you are too

by Jerry Waxler

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

Who is this person and why should I care?

In memoir workshops and talks, people often ask me “Why would anyone care about my life?” My answer has two parts.

One: By crafting the story you will begin to understand the answer to your own question. As you write, you delve deeper into your own journey. You learn how the parts fit together, and attempt to develop story-values that will make the journey worth reading. Writing a memoir is a fabulous creative exercise that can help you grow more self-aware, and wiser about the journey of your own life.

Two: People who read memoirs are curious about the journeys of the people around them. If they only wanted impeccable storycrafting, they could choose from the vast selection of novels whose authors can invent whatever they want. Instead, we reach for memoirs because of our passion for actual human experience. I have read hundreds of memoirs because I am fascinated by the stories of real people. Write your memoir for readers like me.

If she is famous, maybe you are too

Before the twenty-first century, most memoirs were about celebrities. Famous people are fun to read about because it feels like we’re learning about old friends. This is one reason I read “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Novotny’s first husband, Joe Junior, was the son of the baseball giant, Joe Dimaggio. Joe Junior’s step-mom was Marilyn Monroe. By reading about Novotny’s life, I thought I could learn the background of these famous people.

But Novotny was not famous herself and neither was her husband. She was famous twice removed. The presence of her memoir on my book shelf points to a fascinating trend in the twenty-first century. The very notion of “fame” is changing. Through the internet we all know people who know people. Like the old game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the internet age has ushered in the six degrees of every one of us. As we continue to grow increasingly connected to each other, fame in the internet age spreads out exponentially.

In fact, despite her connection with one of the most famous people in the world, I actually heard about Dawn Novotny through Linda Joy Myers, the president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, who wrote the foreword to the book. I was attracted to “Ragdoll Redeemed” because of my respect for Linda Joy’s energetic work with memoir writers, and her belief in the power of memoirs. And now that I am writing about the book, you have another way to know about Dawn Novotny. You know her because you heard about her from me.

When you ask yourself, “Why would anyone care about my life?” don’t ask it as a rhetorical question and assume the answer is “no one.” Switch it into an actual question, and then attempt to arrive at a specific, compelling answer.

First, when potential readers consider your book, they will be interested to learn that you have spent years plying the craft to create a story that contains dramatic tension and release. You will boil down the essence of your findings in the subtitle and blurb and readers will decide if they want to participate in your exploration. Part of their joy of reading your memoir will be to learn about your creative process. You are showing your readers how a writer can turn a lifetime into a book. Any memoir reader would be interested in that.

Second, out of all the people in the world, some of them are curious about you. Consider all the potential readers you are or will be connected with through various personal and internet groups. In addition, to internet acquaintances there are also people who want to know more about your situation. If you grew up in the Midwest, or are involved in Twelve Step programs, or love to quilt, people who had those experiences will relate to yours. For example, when Tracy Seeley wrote “My Ruby Slippers: The Road to Kansas and a Sense of Place” anyone from Kansas might wonder about her journey.

As we warm up to living in the internet age, we aspiring memoir writers are participating in this shift of attention from traditional fame to a new version that includes everyone. And Dawn Novotny’s life journey represents a perfect model for this transition. She started out as a rag doll, living as an object of other people’s dreams. Gradually she discovered that she is a real person. We’re doing the same thing as a culture, moving from the old-fashioned definition of fame in which we only cared about inaccessible stars on a pedestal, to a new definition that opens us up to authentic people. By writing a memoir we can share our authenticity with people who crave that sort of thing.


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

Dawn Novotny’s blog and home page

Another memoir by someone who grew up in the shadow of fame is by Erik Erikson’s daughter Sue Bloland. In her memoir “In the Shadow of Fame,” she wrote about the strange experience of growing up near her father who was a famous psychologist. Speaking of reenactment, she too became a therapist.

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

More memoir writing resources

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.

A Memoir That Relieves the Lifelong Burden of Shame

by Jerry Waxler

In her memoir Ragdoll Redeemed,  Dawn Novotny reveals the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Sexual abuse hurts for a lifetime, leaving behind a coating of shame. As long as it’s hidden, the memory maintains itself in its original form. One of the remarkable benefits of the memoir revolution is that it gives us the opportunity to relieve ourselves of hidden burdens. Now that she has transferred the incident from memory to book, the truth becomes blazingly clear. The perpetrator is the shameful one. And as the story proceeds, these disturbing events take their place among the rich pantheon of her lifelong experiences.

Novotney’s memoir, Ragdoll Redeemed, is not just about her childhood. It’s about growing up and being swept along by decisions made by and for her. It turns out that in addition to shame, her childhood experiences add another sort of burden. They teach her who we she is supposed to be. So as she grows up, Novotny expects to be used, which sets the stage for the middle period of her life.

The key event that started Dawn Novotny across the threshold from child to adult, was an attraction to a man who happened to be son of the famous baseball player Joe Dimaggio. She reminded Joe Dimaggio junior of his famous step-mother, Marilyn Monroe. Judging from the pictures on the cover, she looks like Marilyn, and based on the parallels of their abusive childhoods, she also had similar self-esteem and family problems.

Such an attraction is a fascinating example of “reenactment” meaning Dimaggio, Jr. was selecting a partner who would let him continue the journey of his childhood. Earlier in my life, I assumed that people are driven by rational forces, and that notions like reenactment would only make sense to overly educated psychologists . But after I became a therapist, I quickly  realized that reenactment is quite normal. We are often pulled into life situations in which we attempt to replay circumstances of our childhood. The phenomenon often drives us to select partners uncannily reminiscent of our family history.

Once it became obvious to me that it happened regularly, I noticed that it turns up in memoirs, too. And Dawn Novotny’s Ragdoll Redeemed is a perfect example of crucial life decisions that were based on the reenactment of primitive childhood experience. Joe Dimaggio, Jr. wanted to reenact his childhood fantasies of being close to Marilyn Monroe. And because Novotny had been repeatedly abused by men who looked at her as a sexual object, she was willing to go along with Dimaggio’s fantasy and become an object that would fulfill his needs. How strange and fascinating!

Fortunately, Novotny’s story does not stop there. She keeps going, searching for the next step and the next, which eventually leads her past mistakes, to a search for wisdom. By showing us the long journey of being an adult, in the end, the book is about developing a deep appreciation for the narrative of a lifetime, a troubling, fascinating journey that was finally “redeemed” as she puts it, or in my words, finally makes sense.

This is the first part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, Ragdoll Revealed. In the next parts, I will talk about her fame, lifelong search for wisdom, the structure of the memoir, and some comments on the memoirs stylistic choices.


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

Dawn Novotny’s blog and home page

Related article: Sue William Silverman, Fearlessly Confessing the Dark Side of Memory in this Memoir of Sexual Abuse

Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe
Dawn Novotny’s Ragdoll Redeemed inspired a series of essays about the memoir writer’s search for truth. The series covers issues about shame, fame, wisdom, life review, and the craft of memoir writing.

A Memoir That Relieves the Lifelong Burden of Shame
If This Memoir Author is Famous, Maybe You Are Too
In Memoirs, Changing Thoughts Reveal the Wisdom of a Lifetime
Will the Examined Life Become a Memoir Subgenre?
How Excellent Must Your Memoir Be?

More memoir writing resources

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.

When is a memoir by a celebrity not a celebrity memoir?

By Jerry Waxler

Andre Agassi was one of the greatest tennis players of all time, and he was married to supermodel Brooke Shields. So it would be natural to expect his memoir, “Open,” to be just another celebrity memoir, taking a free ride on his household name. But the book was not a vapid look at the privileged life of a star. Instead the tennis player and his ghost-writer J.R. Moehringer, author of the memoir “Tender Bar,” converted a lifetime into a good story, filled with emotional insight.

The memoir had much in common with a good novel. It developed characters, built suspense and guided me through the protagonist’s emotional experience. The author found the prize all aspiring memoirists seek. Like a quest for the holy grail, he located the organizing principle that allowed him to collect his experiences into a readable whole.

Each of us must describe our own unique path, but after reading more than a hundred memoirs, I find that memoirs are driven by fundamental principles. Like any story, memoirs require  dramatic tension and story arc. But many people, especially those who fear their lives are not important enough to write about, make the mistake of thinking that all the action takes place on the outside, with flashy characters and big scenes.

I find that memorable memoirs use the external events as a shell. The heart of the story takes place on a more interior level. When I read a memoir, I want to gain a deeper understanding of what drove the protagonist through those events. What inner flaws made the journey more difficult and how did the author overcome those inner obstacles?  “Open” is a world-class example of the author’s inner journey, making the book not only a good read but also an instructive one, offering valuable insights into what makes a memoir tick.

This is the first part of a multi-part review of Andre Agassi’s “Open.” In the next entry I will pick apart the elements and suggest ways “Open” can help you write your own memoir.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Let us now praise those who serve – a new way to earn fame

By Jerry Waxler

I thought I saw Brooke Shields in a restaurant in Princeton. I didn’t want to be rude and stare, but the woman I was with had no such problem. She said, “Yup, that’s her.” Now, decades later, I still feel I have a special relationship with Brooke. I’ve heard similar star-struck stories all my life. For example, I once walked into a shoe store in Sausalito, California and the salesman gushed that Daryl Hannah had been shopping there a week earlier.

I worry about all this adulation of good looking people, and wonder if we are collectively heading in the same direction as teenagers whose first love is based solely on physical attraction. Such choices often end in disaster.

I wish we could base our collective admiration on qualities that run deeper. And I believe this is exactly the role memoirs could serve. Whether or not I knew the author before I started reading a memoir, by the time I finish, I feel we have grown closer, like traveling companions who have shared many miles.

Through memoirs I know the inner workings of all sorts of people. I know Haven Kimmel’s childhood in a small town in the Midwest. I know Kate Braestrup’s climb out of grief amidst the streams and forests of Maine. I know the horrors Jim McGarrah experienced in Vietnam, and the psychological cruelty endured by Sue William Silverman. I know what it was like for Rebecca Walker to grow up black, white, and Jewish.

While all these writers earn my regard, some emerge from the pages, using their books as a platform from which they can raise awareness of some cause.

Henry Louis Gates and Tavis Smiley raise awareness of intercultural relations in America. Firoozeh Dumas tirelessly advocates to improve relationships between the U.S. and the people of Iran. Ashley Rhodes-Courter lobbies to improve the foster care system in America. John Robison educates the public about Asperger’s. Greg Mortenson started the Central Asia Institute to educate poor children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton publicize the plight of wrongfully incarcerated prisoners.

Several memoirists offer the power of words, not just inside their book but also in classrooms and other literary programs, trying to call our attention to that power in our own lives.

Erin Gruwell started the Freedom Writers Foundation to promote educational reform. English professor Robert Waxler founded a program, Changing Lives Through Literature, CLTL, which offers the alternative sentence of studying books, helping convicted criminals escape their pattern of crime, and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg developed a group, Transformative Language Arts, dedicated to using language to transform and heal society.

My love for all these memoir writers continues to grow. Through stories and activism, we swap passion and build sustainable relationships based on a more solid foundation than beauty.

I don’t mean to imply that the people who tell their story necessarily look bad. In fact, even Brooke Shields has earned her place on this list. Her memoir “Down Came the Rain,” tells about her struggle through the dismal terror of postpartum depression. She has shared her potentially humiliating experience in order to raise awareness of an important mental health issue. In the process she also shows me there is more to her than just a pretty face.

Writing Prompt
Consider ways your life experience could serve a cause, through advocacy or activism. Try writing your book blurb or a press release about your memoir that emphasizes the public service of your private life.


More about Transformative Language Arts Network

More about the Freedom Writers Foundation

More about Changing Lives Through Literature alternative sentencing program

Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s home page

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.

Memoir by Celebrity Joan Rivers Offers Lessons for Aspiring Writers

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

After learning so many lessons from Steve Martin’s memoir “Born Standing Up,” I wanted more, so I jumped in to Joan Rivers’ memoir “Enter Talking.” Her path was remarkably similar to his. Year after year she too made a fool of herself in a desperate bid to please people, persisting through darkness, despair and frustration. What strange alignment of the stars caused these two comedians to suffer so we could laugh?

(To see my essay about Steve Martin’s journey click here.)

While their tales may seem to apply only to the stratospheric world of big celebrity performers, both started as ordinary people. And so, I found lessons in both their journeys that helped me on my struggle to travel from no readers to as many as possible.

Innovation makes publishers nervous

One contradiction sits mysteriously at the center of both their journeys. On one hand, audiences and talent scouts want to be entertained by a fresh voice, and on the other hand, gatekeepers shy away from an act that is too different from the ones that are already making money.

The road to success is littered with the dead acts and fatigued performers who have given up before making it through the gauntlet. And that’s exactly what makes Rivers and Martin so interesting, so informative, and in the end so famous – their relentless pursuit of unique excellence and their refusal to follow the herd. By continuing to push, inch by painful inch, they made almost imperceptible progress, polishing their act, gaining allies, and after each disappointment learning a lesson that would help them do better next time.

Their experience applies directly to memoir writers. Each memoir is its own thing. No one has ever done your particular life story before in your particular voice. But gatekeepers seek books that are similar to ones already on the bestseller list. How do you please them and stay true to yourself at the same time? These two memoirs offer insights into this seemingly impossible challenge.

Different decade, different coast

While the two memoirs bear remarkable similarities, they also have many differences. Steve Martin’s home base was Los Angeles from which he traveled to college campuses and small clubs all over North America, coping with endless miles of loneliness. Rivers’ home base was New York and her endless search was around town, begging agents’ secretaries for a few minutes with the boss, begging for stints at night clubs, venturing out of town for gigs in the Catskills, and a stint at the Second City Improv in Chicago.

Pacing of the memoir works like a thriller

Despite her relentless efforts, for six years Joan Rivers only had scattered success in a few clubs and occasional tours. But the Holy Grail of national exposure on television eluded her. When Jack Paar invited her on to his influential television show, she thought she had arrived. Weirdly, after the show he told his producers not to invite her back, calling her a “liar.” He didn’t understand that her ironically exaggerated stories were jokes. Crushed, she returned to small clubs.

After a few years, she was no longer a kid, and agents started to call her “old news,” and said if she was going to succeed she would have already done so. Over and over she hit the wall of rejection. This heart breaking cycle continued for hundreds of pages, like in a thriller in which the smell of disaster encourages readers to move on to the next page.

Finally, finally, at the very end of the book, her agent practically forced Johnny Carson’s producers to accept her for a spot. From the moment she walked on to the set, Carson clicked with her humor. He laughed. He fed her lines. And he praised her on camera. The tension broke, and the next day her agent called to tell her she would not earn less than $300 a week for the rest of her life. In a surge of joy and accomplishment, Rivers shouted at the world “I was right.”

Satisfying Character Arc

I found the almost abrupt end of the book to provide a focused emotional release equivalent to a well placed punch line. I think at least some of the satisfaction results from her character arc. As we follow her from amateur to professional comedian, the story arc shows us not only her external journey. It takes us deep inside Rivers’ psyche.

When she first tried her hand at comedy, she repeated jokes learned from other comedians. Gradually she tried more authentic material, improvised from her own experience. When she saw the irreverent performances of Lenny Bruce, she realized that he ferociously battled ignorance by telling truth more bluntly than it had ever been told. She had an epiphany that truth is the one thing that makes life worth living and she vowed to incorporate confession as the centerpiece of her comedy.

For example, she was hired at the last minute to take someone’s place in a performance. Many times in her career, she had been hired to do a gig and then fired after the first night by producers who hated her act. So she worked her fear into the routine. “I don’t know how long I’ll be working here. I notice they wrote my name in pencil on the poster out front.” She turned her vulnerability into a joke.

Her most vulnerable disclosures came from the arguments with her parents, who expected her to be more “normal.” She was a middle class girl with a degree from a prestigious college, daughter of a respected doctor. Desperate to succeed she moved out of the suburbs to live practically homeless in Manhattan, a move that so outraged and frightened her parents, they threatened to have her committed. By baring these fights with her parents she brings the same relentless commitment to honesty to her memoir as she offers onstage.

The memoir is a stunning expose of herself, her sorrow, the bitterness between her and her parents, and her struggle to find her own unique place in the world. The rejection and arguments didn’t tear her apart. Instead, the adversity seems to have made her strong, and provided the basis for a public career that has spanned 40 years, giving her the rare opportunity to become rich and famous by being exactly who she is.

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.

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Celebrity Lessons for Writers

by Jerry Waxler

I picture Steve Martin in dozens of situations. I’ve seen him tell jokes on talk shows, woo a woman in the movie “Roxanne,” and anxiously fuss over his daughter in “Father of the Bride.” The more I think about Steve Martin, the more I remember him. It feels like we have been hanging out together for years. So when I heard about his memoir, “Born Standing Up,” I should have jumped for joy. But instead, my impulse was to run away. One reason for this aversion is that I prefer the lives of “ordinary” people. Another reason is that I’ve been burned.

Years ago I purchased a memoir by Ruth Gordon, an actress whose performances enchanted me in movies like “Harold and Maude.” I looked forward to reading more about her, but the prose was so boring, the situations so leaden, I actually returned the book for a refund. From that experience I formed the prejudice that celebrity memoirs are on the shelf because the author is famous, not because the book is good.

My conclusion was based on a sample size of one, hardly an impressive scientific test. Furthermore, famous people exert enormous power in our culture, and unless I break down and read their memoirs, I’m going to remain ignorant about them. So when an online friend suggested that Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up” was authentic and introspective I decided to give it a try. It turned out to be an excellent book about a boy’s climb from ordinary childhood to international fame.

Desire, Effort, Sacrifice

When Martin was a child, he looked at the stage and knew he wanted to be on it. At first he thought he could achieve success by performing magic acts. Later he incorporated comedy into his routine and then banjo playing. Basically, he didn’t care what he did, as long as he performed. Of course, reaching the stage was only the beginning. To be invited back, he had to learn how to please audiences. It was a long journey.

Writing Prompt

Consider your own life achievements. What sacrifices and hardships did you make in order to achieve some greatly desired goals?

Writers want to reach the public, too

Most writers think they will be finished when they type the last word. They seldom anticipate the public leg of their journey. And yet, to succeed we must reach out to readers. Many memoir writers are interviewed on radio, speak at meetings, and greet people at book signings. People want to learn more about us. So we writers need to face audiences gladly, learn to please them, and damp down our sensitivity to the weird mix of scrutiny, criticism, and indifference.

Hardly any of us will become famous in the way Steve Martin is, and yet his memoir provides insight into our situation. Like so many successful artists and performers, Steve Martin claims his fame had more to do with persistence than talent. He relentlessly pursued public attention, and refused to accept defeat. Week after week, he found an open microphone or a low paying gig, stood in front of the crowd, failed miserably, tried to learn from his experience, and did it again.

Famous writers often tell similar stories. Stephen King persisted despite many rejections, and I’m beginning to believe that willingness to reach for the public is indeed the entry fee. Martin sought fame as if his life depended on it. It makes a good story. His desire established the momentum. We accompany him through those years as he tried to fulfill that desire despite seemingly impossible odds.

As writers, we need to develop this dramatic tension in the stories we write. And to succeed, we also need to follow the dramatic tension in real life. By following our desire, we make choices and take chances that lead us further towards our dream of communicating with readers.

Writing prompt

What tenacious drive did you follow? Making babies.. your career.. your art or sport? Write a scene of rejection or failure, and show how you picked up and kept going.

Even spectacular success becomes just another chapter in a long life

His fame grew so large he was performing in large halls where he was barely visible from the back. And yet, surprisingly, even during this period of exploding fame, he continued to experience terrible anxiety attacks, private hells he can’t really describe. He was intensely lonely and scared much of the time.

Then Martin walked away from comedy and shifted to movie making. He says he never looked back. He even claims he forgot about those years when he was trying so hard to earn a living by making people laugh. Considering how much psychological pain he suffered during this period, it makes sense that he would forget it when he moved on to the next chapter in his life. Later, when he tried to write about it, this period came into focus and took its rightful place in the whole journey of being Steve Martin.

This is an excellent example of the way life really works. When we move on to a new challenge, a new city or relationship or career, we often have trouble remembering the old one. We don’t even know we’ve forgotten. The years are simply gone. By writing we can re-integrate those lost parts, making ourselves more whole.

Did it for you dad

Martin’s story includes a tragic portrayal of his relationship to his father. He could never please his dad, and so he kept wondering what he could do to impress the old man. When his dad was close to death, Martin reached out to him and said, “I did it for you, dad.” Then turning to the reader he says, “I should have said, ‘I did it because of you.'” In other words, he became a successful comedian in order to break past his dad’s relentless disapproval.

By sharing this intimate moment, Martin proves the point that celebrities are people. The work of a memoir is to offer that humanity to readers. And so, I’m glad I read this book about a celebrity, who was also a real human being, who wanted the same things I want, and who was later willing to take the time to go back, organize those experiences and share them with me in his memoir.

Please comment about your best or worst celebrity memoir, or your experience with tenacity.

Another memoir “Enter Talking” by Joan Rivers also highlights the shocking tenacity needed to go from obscurity to fame. She also endured years of hardship and rejection. To read my essay about Joan Rivers‘ tale, click here.

5 Reasons why I read Brooke Shields’ “Down Came the Rain” even though I avoid celebrity memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

I typically avoid celebrity memoirs, not because they aren’t people too, but because their memoirs generally play by a different set of rules. Celebrities are generally given a free pass. If they are famous enough, they can write anything they please, which is nice for them, and sometimes entertaining, but it’s much harder to draw lessons that apply to us normal people. I felt that Brooke Shields’ memoir “Down Came the Rain,” while certainly the product of enormous star power, was also down to earth enough to warrant a read. It turned out to be interesting, and informative. Following are five reasons why I read it.

  1. I want to learn what it’s like to be inside all sorts of minds, and I’ve never been inside the mind of a supermodel before. (It wasn’t bad.)
  2. Even though this was a celebrity memoir, it felt very different from others I’ve flipped through. There wasn’t much name dropping, and the psychological journey of having a baby carried the book.
  3. It turned out to be a sort of parenting guidebook, and there was a lot of information in it that could help both members of a couple prepare, including a lot of details about In Vivo Fertilization, which I was pretty sketchy about. I like memoirs that teach.
  4. Postpartum depression is more than just the blues. I have a friend who is writing a fictional representation of her own postpartum mental breakdown. It’s serious. Another friend joked once that his mother thought he was the devil. Upon further discussion, it turned out not to be so funny. After he was born, she was hospitalized with postpartum psychosis. I wanted to learn more about what it feels like from inside the experience of a disordered mom.
  5. I think I saw her once, so that means we have karma. When she was attending Princeton University, I went out to a restaurant with friends. I didn’t want to gawk but my friends said it was definitely her a few tables away. (I saw Natalie Portman in a play once, so I’ll be on the lookout for her memoir, too.)


To read the full essay I wrote about Down Came the Rain, click here.

To read about another celebrity memoir worth reading, see: Joan Rivers’ Celebrity Memoir Offers More Lessons for Aspiring Writers

Celebrity interviewer turns the camera on herself

By Jerry Waxler

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

Jancee Dunn was an ordinary girl from the suburbs of north New Jersey who dropped out of college, became a cub reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, and stayed there for 18 years. At her zenith she told the world about celebrities on MTV and Good Morning America. In the memoir “Enough About Me, How a Small-town Girl Went from Shag Carpet to the Red Carpet” she became the object of her own reporting. Thanks to her reporting skills, I empathized with her as she started her career, a nobody waiting at the doors of some of the most famous people in the world. “Oh my God, what must it feel like meeting a famous girl band, or rock and roll star?” Naturally her knees turned weak, but she went in anyway, and I kept turning pages.

For example, she interviewed singer Barry White, who gave her a big wet kiss at the door and treated her to a romantic dinner for two. Then she closed the door behind her. When she emerged a couple of hours later I don’t know what happened, in a virtuoso example of informing without revealing. Her discretion could provide a good model for other aspiring memoir writers who wonder how to explain awkward situations without getting into trouble.

During an interview with an unnamed celebrity who recently completed a month at rehab, he suggested that drugs were only a phone call away and asked if she would like to get high. She politely declined, and then went to the bathroom where she called her sister to explain the situation. Her sister said, “Are you crazy? Get out of there.” Jancee said, “But he’s so persuasive.” When she arrived home later, feeling shaken, she phoned her father, who talked to her about the routine details of his afternoon plans. His patter about gardening and errands soothed her and reminded her of all that was stable in her life.

Turned to the reader and offered interviewing tips
Walking with Jancee into interviews made me curious about how she worked her magic, getting the stars to say things they hadn’t said a thousand times. How did she work her way into their confidence? Occasionally she turned towards me and offered an insider tip. For example, in one of her more elaborate strategies, she started a celebrity interview by sharing a tidbit of gossip she heard about the star on the radio that very morning. Excited by this news, the star called over her publicity manager and they had a good laugh. By then, everyone was loose, and treated Jancee as a fine, generous person.

The anecdote showed me Jancee was smart, and gave me some insights into the mind of a celebrity. But I kept thinking about her interviewing tips long after I closed the book. In retrospect I see she was doing the same thing with me that she was doing with her stars. She was taking me into her confidence, making me feel like an insider. I felt her generosity and opened up to her. By turning towards the reader, she connected with me. I’m going to file this strategy away. Perhaps I can offer my own readers insider insights that will make them feel open with me.

Memoir of an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances
While I enjoyed learning about her interviews, this is a memoir, and I wanted to know more about her as a person. Rather than trying to be a star herself, she explored her life as an ordinary person. Her refusal to claim stardom for herself became a story element, providing a dramatic contrast between her own life and the lives of her interviewees. Her father was a manager at J.C. Penney’s, so loyal he named his daughter “Jancee” as a tribute to his employer’s initials. As children, when she and her sisters visited the department store, they were treated like royalty by the other employees. It was like being the fairy princess of suburbia.

In other memoirs, the exotic tastes and smells of food demonstrate the author’s ethnic life. Jancee uses food to show her background, too. Her family ate only beige and tasteless food. Think macaroni and cheese and Velveeta on white bread. These unremarkable food choices set a tone for her life.

What about inner struggles? Without the dark, there’s no way to emphasize the light. In Jancee’s memoir, the darkness came through her relationships with men. Her two disastrous boyfriends provided insight into her struggle to grow. The first guy was a sort of innocent sleaze, who left most of her self-respect intact. The second one was more self-involved, and his neediness and lack of care for her inner process pulled her into a darker place. When she started lying to her family, I wanted to cry out, “You’re going the wrong way! Turn back!” Eventually she realized that her strength came not from this self-involved guy but from within herself and her roots. As she pulled away from him, I felt dramatic relief, the sign of a good story.

Jancee found a compelling central arc to tie her book together
While she was paid to inform us about the world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Jancee really celebrated the world of normal people, returning to her unglamorous roots as her safe haven. This contrast between her ordinary life and the lives she reported created dramatic tension. As the subtitle says, it wasn’t just about the famous nor just about suburbia but about how a suburban girl interviewed famous people. By the end of the book, she made it clear she was a regular person, with ordinary feelings, family, and circumstances.

So how did her simple life relate to the life of the stars? In one scene, she joins singer Loretta Lynn making fudge. They were talking so much, the fudge didn’t turn out right, and the next day, a courier delivered a better batch to Jancee’s door. It was a gesture that reached across the divide, a star saying “look, I’m ordinary too.” While the masses of celebrity watchers long for the stratospheric heights of stardom, Jancee raises the possibility that at least some of the stars aspire to normalcy.

I love her comfortable, trendy approach, not only to her stars, but to her readers. Through years of experience as a reporter and interviewer, she has apparently gained the knack of turning to the reader or viewer. I too am looking for a comfortable open voice, and her example inspires me. I look for other opportunities in my life when I have been forced to open my voice, such as in public speaking at Toastmasters, or doing interviews, or writing letters. It turns out that blogs are an excellent tool for finding a voice. Blogging creates a conversational atmosphere that leads to a more intimate connection with readers.

Many themes run through Jancee Dunn’s memoir. Her suburban roots, her meteoric rise as a reporter, her relationships with family and men. And yet, in thinking about the book, my mind returns to the central theme. Her ordinariness pulls the whole thing together. And while the subtitle of the book claims she made it to the Red Carpet, I’m not so sure. I find Jancee’s real intention is right there in her dedication, in which quotes Emily Dickenson. “Who am I? I am nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?” Thanks, Jancee for grounding me in ordinary life, while you share your story, your insights, and your tips for interviewing the stars.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Prompt: If you can’t find dramatic tension in just one theme of your life, look for two themes and explore the contrasts and conflicts between them.

Note: Memoir writers sometimes think the only way to get published is to be famous. If you’re looking for a counter-example, check out A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, a popular memoir by a very ordinary person. It’s her writing and observation that makes it so interesting.

Visit Amazon’s listing of Jancee’s book by clicking this link.

Check out Jancee’s website to see what she’s up to these days.

Fame and Story Structure in Dee Dee’s 60’s memoir

by Jerry Waxler

I think I saw Brooke Shields, once. I was having dinner with friends in Princeton, when Brooke was attending school there. I didn’t want to stare, but my friends swore it was her. Here’s an even lighter brush with fame. A guy I knew in college almost danced with Gracie Slick, the lead singer for the Jefferson Airplane. I was amazed that he was bragging about almost dancing with her, and now I’m even more amazed that I remember it 40 years later. I’m not the only one. When I tell people my stories, they share their own sightings. One saw a Broadway show. Natalie Portman was only 40 yards away. Another went into the same shoe store in Marin County frequented by Darryl Hannah. Yet, despite all this passion for stars I have absolutely no idea what their lives are like.

If you ever want to publish your memoir, you might have more interest in fame than you realize. Publishing breaks the barriers between a private life and a public one, and while few writers are hounded by paparazzi, we wonder what it’s like to be known by strangers. To help aspiring writers cope with their feelings about “Going Public,” I devoted a quarter of my self-help book, Four Elements for Writers, to the subject.

So what is it like to be “known” by strangers? That’s where memoirs come in. Memoirs are supposed to show me what it’s like being in someone else’s shoes. But which memoirs? Many celebrity books are ghost written, not even a direct expression of the celebrity’s own words. And most such memoirs play the celebrity card rather than shedding light on it. When I found the book “Vinyl Highway, Singing as Dick and Dee Dee” by Dee Dee Phelps I had reason to believe it would go deeper. I discovered through interviews and personal correspondence that Dee Dee had written it herself. That increases its value for other writers. And because she was famous decades ago and is famous no longer, it places her closer to regular life. Down from Mt. Olympus she walks with us mortals, and I hoped she could speak our language.

Dee Dee was an ordinary teenager, working in a candy store in Los Angeles early in the 60’s. She met Dick St. John, and based on their mutual interest in singing, they formed a duo Dick and Dee Dee. They cut their first record before they even performed together in front of a live audience. Californians loved the “B” side, Mountain’s High, and it shot to the top on the west coast. It was as if fate threw a switch. Soon Dick and Dee Dee were driving around middle-America, looking for crowds and DJ’s to help them spread the word and drive up sales.

The music business back then was simpler. Performers and producers were making deals in tiny studios. On her first couple of tours, she crammed into the back seat of a car. Traveling with black performers like Gary U.S. Bonds, she encountered explosive responses in the segregated south. When Dick and Dee Dee sang in high school auditoriums in the Los Angeles area, the other act was an up and coming boy band. These were early days for the Beach Boys, and so they were happy to play back up music for Dick and Dee Dee.

As Dick and Dee Dee gained recognition, the hotels and buses improved, but the grind continued: hoping for hit records, getting onto bigger stages, putting on a smile, and then getting back in the bus and doing it again. When they became regulars on the national television show Shindig, it looked like they made it, but the duo’s fame was only as good as their latest hit. Their style fell behind the rapidly changing music of the sixties, and gradually they sank back down into seedy night clubs, not much better than the ones they started in. At the end of the sixties the pair split up.

On the surface, the book is about the rise and fall of a singing duo. But if the only story arc was the “Dick and Dee Dee” act, and if the book ended with its death, it would have left me feeling empty. The death of the main character is better suited to a Shakespearean tragedy than contemporary popular fiction. So I looked deeper. What dramatic tension kept me engaged from the beginning, and then provided release and satisfaction at the end?

To find the answer I look more closely at Dee Dee’s own hopes and dreams. Her external world with its endless parade of night clubs, stage acts and television shows, seemed to be sucking the life out of her. Internally, I realized this book is a coming of age story about a young girl becoming a woman. At the beginning of the story, Dee Dee wanted to grow up, and by the end of the story she did by getting married and having a baby. Fame was a detour, a distraction from real life. When her act died, it felt like she had escaped the superficial and needy life style of a famous singer. She finished the detour and it was time to return home.

It reminds me of Homer’s Odyssey in which Ulysses was stuck on the island with the beautiful Calypso for years. It was only when he escaped this island and returned home to Ithaca that his journey was complete. Greek dramatists had a wonderful word for this circle. “Nostoi” means the coming home at the end of the story. When Dee Dee returned, she was not the same young girl who had left home ten years earlier. Her experience in the world of celebrity showed her sides of life that most of us never see. And so, like a good Hero, she returned from her Journey with wisdom, which forty years later she can now share with her community, telling us what it’s like to have been famous and to have returned. Welcome back, Dee Dee. And thanks for the stories.

Click here to see Part 1 of my book review for Vinyl Highway, Singing with Dick and Dee.
Click here for the two part interview: Click Here for Part 1 and … Here for Part 2

Brooke Shields teaches mommies and memoir writers

by Jerry Waxler

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

I picked Brooke Shields’ book “Down came the rain” off the shelf. The dust jacket gave me reason to believe it was deeper than just another name-dropping celebrity puff piece. Flipping through it convinced me it genuinely focused on her issues of having a baby, and so I decided to give it a chance. Now that I’ve finished it, I can say that I liked it. It was a decent read, not because of literary genius. But even though I wouldn’t read this just for the beauty of the sentences, there is a sort of straightforward genuineness about the way it is written. It feels authentic, and I think that’s one of the most important qualities of any memoir.

In addition to a genuine voice, I also found other reasons to enjoy and recommend this memoir as a good read and a teaching tool for aspiring memoir writers. Just as the cover promised, its central function was a story about a mommy. I believe it does a lovely job of showing how a young, first time mother deals with some of the issues of having a baby. By reading this story I gained insights into what it’s like to be a troubled mom. In fact there are so many bits about how she overcame obstacles, it reads almost like an instruction book for moms, addressing the question, “how to get over the hump if your baby doesn’t feel like the best thing that ever happened to you.”

People are so saturated with the expectation that the moment of seeing the baby will be the best moment of a lifetime. But in about 10% of women, this experience is very different. Moments after the powerful physical act of childbirth, it’s possible a woman may not feel emotionally receptive to the baby, and for Brooke this lack of connection was an extremely disturbing experience, as she watched in horror at her own less than spectacular response. She does a terrific job of helping us understand this situation. Her focus on this issue kept the book interesting, tying her experiences together into a coherent whole. Here are some of the topics she covers:

  • When she felt depressed, she denied she had a problem, blamed herself and refused to rely on medication.
  • She didn’t want any help from anyone.
  • She spends a fair amount of time showing how breast feeding saved her from her depression and created a bond with her baby. (No it’s not titillating. Despite the celebrity value of those particular body parts, this discussion really is for moms.)
  • She offers a fascinating insight into the fact that having a baby changes her relationship to her own mother. Now she’s bumped up a notch in the hierarchy, no longer just a child, but now a mom as well.

I think the most psychologically insightful material was the contrast between her grandiose expectations of a perfect connection with her baby, and the real feelings she experienced, as a tired, somewhat overwhelmed and flawed human being, who does not respond in such a storybook manner.

Writing Prompt

Teaching turns out to be a lovely dimension of memoirs. Adding a teaching element to your story will help hold it together. It potentially can make your book interesting to a special-interest audience. And by binding the story into a unified whole, it gives the reader an additional incentive for turning to the next page. As you work on your own memoir, consider what sort of lessons you would share. Did you learn to garden as a method to cope while your mother was sick? Did you learn to fly an airplane, while you struggled for a job after getting out of the military? Or like Brooke, were your lessons more emotional? Explain how you and your child coped with bullying while he grew up with Down’s Syndrome. Or even more abstract still, are your lessons spiritual, like Anne Lamott’s lessons in Traveling Mercies?

As you look for teaching moments to share with your readers, stay true to the central power of memoir writing. Share your authentic experience, and as the lessons unfold, let the readers watch. Like Brooke Shields’ memoir, combine the force of your authentic voice with the unifying principles of the lessons you want to teach. So as you read “Down Came the Rain,” you could be enjoying and learning about the following aspects of memoir writing:

You may be enjoying hearing deeper background about an “old friend.” (That’s what the star system is about. While most of us have at most a few hundred people in our social network, she has a few hundred million. I don’t understand it, but there it is.)

You could be learning about how to relate to a child, especially if you feel disconnected. This information about postpartum depression could even be life saving if you’re in that situation and need tips about how to handle it.

You could be enjoying an interesting story, opening a window into the lives of people you don’t know, nor will ever experience firsthand. Since I’m not a mommy, nor a celebrity. If I want to understand what either of those experiences is like, I have to read stories about them. This expands my horizon as a human being, lets me relate more genuinely to people who are different from me, and makes my world a richer, friendlier place.


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.

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