Sexual Coming of Age in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

When I was a teenager, I completely flunked sexuality. Unable to balance signals from my body, from girls, and from social expectations, I “solved” the whole mess by running away. My all-boys high school made it easy to hide from girls during the day. And every Friday and Saturday evening I worked at my dad’s drugstore. I graduated high school having been on a total of three dates, all awkward, one ending in a car crash. Eventually, I reached adulthood, eager to forget the awkward feelings and general sense of failure I associated with those memories.

Decades later, when I became interested in writing my memoir, I had no idea how to revisit those early years. I was afraid my confusion about sexuality would force me to continue the pretense that this fundamental human need didn’t exist. But I soon discovered that by reading the stories of other people’s lives, I could gain wisdom about my own. Even though most authors only briefly touched on the subject, I gradually accumulated a greater understanding of how we humans incorporate this powerful force into our lives.

For example, Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes gives a gritty glimpse into a boy’s sexual awakening. And the boy who inappropriately touched Jeanette Walls in Glass Castle showed me the fear and confusion from the girl’s point of view. Name all the Animals by Allison Smith took me across the border into same-sex attraction. Beyond groping and pure confusion were the infatuating romance of sexuality such as expressed by Tania Grossinger in Growing up at Grossingers. And in Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer wrote an excellent story of a boy falling madly in love through the joys of sexuality. His passion started not only a marriage but also a political movement.

In almost every case, each young person feels alone in their desperate attempt to understand the awakening of sexual urges, and few of them attempt to apply social or religious teachings to help them steer. In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt was told that thinking about sexuality would land him in hell. Since he couldn’t escape his own sexual impulses, he decided to escape the Church. In the memoir, Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer received extensive religious training from his parents who ran a famous Christian commune. But their advice didn’t stop him from having sex with the attractive young seekers who came from all over the world for spiritual direction. His sense of morality only kicked in after his girl friend became pregnant. Aside from those examples, until recently I had not read any memoir about an author who investigated the complex, nuanced relationship between the rules of society and the impulses of the body.

That gap has been filled by Karen Prior’s memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. In it, she describes the development of a young girl’s journey through the tumultuous awakening of sexual impulses, and toward her own inner peace with it. Karen Prior’s forays into groping quickly led her to crave a deeper understanding of the social rules she ought to follow. Her desire to explore these rules adds such an important direction to the discussion of sex, I feel as if she lifted me out of flatland and into the third dimension.

Before Prior reached puberty, she had already received a good education in love and sex from her mother whose life had almost been destroyed by an unwanted pregnancy out of wedlock. Her mother taught her, first, to carefully understand the consequences of sexuality. Her mother’s second rule, equal in importance to the first, was that in her mother’s eyes, sex would never “ruin” her. They would be in it together, no matter what.

Prior took her mother’s guidance into account. However, she still needed to figure out how to apply this advice to her own life. Where does a young girl go when looking for such guidance? Karen Prior turned to literature. And that inquiry is the topic of her memoir, which could have been called “How literature helped me understand myself and my role in society.”

From her point of view, high school English Literature classes are about more than just interesting reading. They are about sharing with young people the repositories of the values of civilization. And so, Prior did not just read the books assigned in her English class. She devoured them, and tried to understand their social implications.

In the literature of only a century earlier, she discovers the disturbing fact that despite her mother’s reassurances, girls really could be destroyed by sex. However, instead of accepting this damnation, she looks at it as a stage on the path of civilization. Karen Prior realizes that human attitudes toward each other evolve over the centuries and our literature is like a historical record of those changes. As an example, she discovers that one of the most damning of books, Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy is a subtle mockery of the cultural climate of the time. According to her close reading, Hardy’s book celebrates the inherent dignity of the girl, and criticizes the social hypocrisy that condemns her.

Karen Swallow Prior’s memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me is not just about lessons she learned in books. It’s also about growing up bookish. For example, when she crosses into adolescence, the clique of popular girls pushes her away. She makes an important, perhaps life-altering decision. Rather than beg her way back into a club of girls who base their power on sexual charisma, she applies for admission into the clique of smart girls. Her new friends support her mission to make sense of life not by commanding power over sexuality, but by mastering the thoughts that govern those impulses.

Romance, sex, feminism, and values
Through Karen Prior’s exploration of her own coming of age, she has created a fascinating tapestry that weaves together human kindness and decency in the same bundle as sexuality. Her story has shown me more clearly than ever the meaning of the feminist diatribe against pornography as the objectification of women. But rather than making this assertion as an obvious fact that I’m already supposed to know, she takes me on her journey of discovery and reveals the logic behind it.

Her premise seems familiar enough. By stripping romance out of sex, the package of romance falls apart and leaves just sex. But trying to apply that premise in modern society at first seems quaint and old-fashioned. However, through her value-rich eyes, she shows how without romance, sexuality quickly becomes dark, sinister and manipulative. Then I take another look at my memoir shelf and see the potential for human suffering hidden just behind the promise of easy pleasure.

In Nic Sheff’s memoir Tweak and Janice Erlbaum’s memoir Girl Bomb, falling into drug addiction leads to the gritty, sobering reality of trading drugs for sex. On an even darker note, in Reading Lolita in Tehran Azar Nafisi describes the way the righteous men of Iran treat women like objects, similar to the way Humbert Humbert treats Lolita in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. In the memoir Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro, the author becomes a plaything of a controlling, rich man. In Crazy Love, Leslie Morgan Steiner finds that within her new husband’s heart lurks a wounded, vengeful animal. In Lucky by Alice Sebold, love is stripped away entirely, leaving behind the raw, animalistic sexuality of rape.

In Karen Prior’s analysis, pornography is another expression of this dangerous obsession that offers sex without the uplift of romance. Her explanation gives me the eerie feeling I have just witnessed the convergence of two almost diametrically opposed belief systems. On one extreme, left-wing radical feminists fight valiantly to prevent women from seeming like men’s things, and on the right-wing, sexual moralists fight with equal vigor to remind us to maintain the linkage between love and sex. She combines the two into a single powerful argument, and she does it all through the universal language of literature.

Two “characters” – the young girl and the grown woman

When Karen Prior becomes a literature professor, she has the opportunity to teach younger students about how literature can help them grow up. Most memoirs I review allow the reader to stay focused within a single timeframe. The single timeframe lets us suspend disbelief and enter the character’s world. In Booked, Prior removes that wall that keeps the reader within one timeframe. Her memoir moves back and forth between her younger self and the adult looking back on that younger self. From her vantage point as a professor she can make more profound observations about her younger self than she could if she remained within a single point of view.

Memoir purists might object to this shift that splits the reader’s attention between the two perspectives. However, I love stretching the boundaries of this vast, fluid Memoir Revolution. If the author believes the story is best told as a split between two timeframes, I accept her storytelling choices and go for the ride.

Her journey of Coming of Age continues, until the young woman grows up and merges with the adult, a somewhat haunting storytelling effect. In a chapter on the pleasures of married life she calls upon the writings of the sixteenth century poet John Donne. When John Donne fell in love he married his beloved without her father’s approval. The shotgun wedding angered her powerful father so much that he had Donne imprisoned. This punishment did not shake the lovers’ commitment to each other. Donne’s writing memorialized this romance-in-a-crucible, offering generations of readers insight into a poetic view of the institution of marriage. *

Prior’s exploration of the pleasures of marriage took me by surprise. Isn’t this a memoir about a girl learning about sexuality? However, after pondering the arc of the story, I realize that marriage is integral to her journey. Her willingness to postpone the urge to procreate is founded on the hope of finding a partnership that will last a lifetime.

As we go through life, attempting to figure out how to live, we naturally absorb examples and ideas from our reading material. From books and stories, we learn how other people steered and why they made their choices. Karen Prior offers an excellent example of a young woman who learned from books.

The memoir inspires me about more than the power of studying literature in formal English classes. If a young woman reads Karen Prior’s story at just the right time in her life, this author’s example might offer wisdom, passing along the wisdom of one generation to the emerging choices of the next.

Writing Prompt
What lesson did you learn that you wish you could pass on? Naturally once you learned that rule through your own hard experience, you may feel entitled to pass it on to young people. If they don’t listen, try another method. Take advantage of the Memoir Revolution’s pathway, and share the story of how you learned that rule. Your mistakes, and the agony of your hard earned lesson might find their way into another heart more easily than merely repeating a rule.

According to a new branch of science that studies the evolution of culture, humans invented stories to teach each other how to live in society. In his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Brian Boyd makes the case that humans are wired to tell stories, so we could learn from the mistakes of others, and advance our culture based on the stories of those who had come before. And according to my book Memoir Revolution, memoirs extend that system, allowing us to learn not only from fictional characters but from living ones.
John Donne’s wife’s name is Anne, and he was thrown in jail for marrying her. In one of the cleverest micro-memoirs ever Donne uttered these five memorable words: “John Donne. Anne Donne. Undone.” I am grateful to Karen Prior for sharing this clever bit of intellectual history.

I’ll write more about her contribution to my understanding of intellectual history in a future post.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

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

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

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

How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

When you start writing your memoir, you might not know how much of your childhood to include. However, don’t let that uncertainty slow you down. Gather anecdotes with an open mind, recording any scene that feels like it “wants to be told.” The material that pours on to the page during your research phase could influence the final decision about how to structure the book.

Material about an early period might turn into a memoir itself. It might provide important flashbacks. Or even if you don’t use it, these old scenes will provide rich background to help you make more sense of your character.

In addition to writing your draft material with an open mind, read memoirs with the same flexible approach. By reading voraciously you learn the range of life experience that each author chooses to include. You learn what sorts of memoirs you love to read.

As an aspiring memoir author, you look past the content of each memoir to its structure. How did the book start, and how did the initial scene (or at least chapter) relate to the character’s main challenge? Did it grab your attention? How would you apply the beginning and ending of the memoir to your own memoir in progress?

After you’ve read a variety of memoirs and answered these questions, you will develop a “vocabulary” of memoir structures that will give you ideas about how to construct your own. For example, in this post, I’ll focus on the amount of childhood that is included in the memoirs I’ve read.

Start from Childhood

Some of the most successful bestsellers in the Memoir Revolution were about growing up. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club and Jeannette Walls’ Glass Castle all were on the New York Times bestseller list, and they all began in childhood. One reason their stories grabbed so much attention was because these children endured abusive, chaotic situations. Our hearts go out to Frank McCourt as he wanders the street hoping to find a piece of coal that might have spilled off the delivery truck so he could heat the house for his mother and siblings. We want to send in Social Services to protect Jeanette Walls, whose parents moved for no reason, choosing poverty over work.

Less prevalent are books about childhood without gut-wrenching danger. The key to storytelling is creating and resolving conflict, so if there is no monstrous father in the picture, or rockets smashing into nearby apartments, (Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filapovic) the story’s conflict must come from other aspects of the human drama.

No matter how cushy our material circumstances, we all had to grow up, and in our own way, each of us knows the emotional dangers and hardships of that process. Our attempts to find safety and wholeness amid these ordinary challenges can provide an excellent story.

Memoirs about Non-horrific Childhood

Laura Shane Cunningham, author of Sleeping Arrangements lost both her parents, a profound loss that was softened by the care of the two compassionate uncles who raised her. Her unusual freedom and attempts to find emotional wholeness makes a great story. Even more normal was Haven Kimmel’s life in a small town. In her memoir, a Girl Named Zippy, she energizes the reading experience with a terrific, ironic humor.

Tell About Childhood as the First Installment

A Girl Named Zippy was Kimmel’s successful first memoir. Her second memoir She Got Up Off the Couch essentially continued the story from where the first one left off. This strategy of writing sequential memoirs has been employed by some very successful authors,

Frank McCourt followed his smash hit Angela’s Ashes with a second memoir ‘Tis and a third, Teacher Man. Mary Karr, after the Liar’s Club, moved on to the next phase in her life in the memoir Cherry, and then recounted her long struggle with alcoholism in Lit. Harry Bernstein wrote three books about his life, starting with Invisible Wall, about being a child in England before World War I. His second was The Dream about being a young immigrant to the U.S., and his third was Golden Willow about the span of life that took him into his 90s. For each of these authors, the book about childhood was the first installment in a much longer work which added up to a de facto trilogy.

Late Childhood: Transition into Adulthood

Early childhood might feel like the most psychologically important period, when you are learning to be a person. It is also might seem too far away from your adulthood or your memories might be too vague and unrecoverable, or too “normal.” However, there is another segment of Coming of Age that creates enormous psychological pressure for many of us. During the period called “launching,” we leave our dependence on our family and enter the adult world. The challenge is that we are making decisions that will affect us for the rest of our lives, but our adult minds are not yet fully developed. The launching process can make a fascinating, high energy, dangerous story, as evidenced by these:

Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum. Desperate to get away from her mother’s boyfriend, Erlbaum hurled herself out on the street unprepared to care for herself. She lands in a girl’s shelter for a year in a great example of trying to grow up too fast.

Dopefiend by Tim Elhajj. His entry into adulthood was derailed by addiction to heroin, so when it’s time for him to take a stand and launch himself into the adult world, he starts out with enormous disadvantages

Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro made it all the way to college drug free and then lost her way. This is one of the best “derailed launching” books I’ve read.

Publish This Book by Stephen Markley. When he gets out of college, he has to figure out how to make a living. “I know,” he thinks, “I’ll write a book about writing a book.” It’s a fun read and at 26 years old, he happens to be one of the youngest memoir authors I’ve covered.

Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Fineberg Cook. She marries a schoolteacher and leaves her life as a spoiled Los Angeles party girl. In Japan, she learns to be a housewife and an expat at the same time. This is a later period in launching when she has her first taste of adult responsibility.

Tell the Whole Thing in One Book

Coming of Age stories don’t necessarily end at age 18 or 20. After all, this is simply the prelude to the rest of life, and often the story of childhood merges into the next leg or two of the journey. Even though Glass Castle is famous as a Coming of Age story, with many mesmerizing scenes of Jeanette Walls’ childhood, the book doesn’t end when she moves out of her house. It ends well into Walls’ adulthood when she attempts to make peace with her parents.

Even if your childhood doesn’t have sufficient drama to make it a story in its own right, you may have a sense that it is part of your “story that must be told.” If you keep coming back to that period of your life as an important aspect of the character you need to portray then challenge yourself to find a way. Memoirs, like any creative work, allow room for your own approach. It may take you longer than you originally hoped, but over a period of development, you gradually see how to knit the whole thing together. And as you creatively knit together your memoir, you will also knit together the fragments of your life, allowing you to see the whole thing in one story.

Consider Susan Gregory Thomas’ compelling memoir, In Spite of Everything. The book offers a terrific example of a story that starts with childhood and keeps going. Her childhood seems like a magical, storybook life, disrupted by the tragic breakup of her parents, a nightmarishly chaotic adolescence, through her college years, her young married life, and then to the heart-wrenching breakup of her own marriage. She keeps this long journey fraught with compelling tension that carries the reader all the way through.

In the next few posts, I continue to dig into more of the structural decisions that will help you turn your manuscript of life events into your compelling story.


This is the second part of the series about how to structure a memoir.
How Should I Begin My Memoir?
One of the most puzzling questions about how to structure a memoir is “Where do I begin?”

How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir?
Since memoirs are a psychologically oriented genre, we want to include enough background to show how it all began. But how much is the right amount?

Should You Use Flashbacks in Your Memoir?
Flashbacks provide important background information, but you need to use them carefully so you don’t confuse your reader.

More Tips about Constructing the Timeline of a Memoir
The timeline of a memoir contains the forward momentum, and the laying out of cause and effect, so it’s important to learn the best techniques for laying it out.

Beware of Casual Flashforwards in Your Memoir
In real life, we can’t know the future, so to keep your memoir authentic, try to avoid sounding like a prophet.

How a Wrapper Story Helps You Structure Your Memoir
When you try to tell your own unique story, you might find that you need an additional layer of narration to make it work. Here are a few examples of writers who used wrapper stories.

Telling a Memoir’s Backstory by Seesawing in Time
If you want to tell about the childhood roots of your adult dilemmas, you could follow the example of these authors who wove the two timeframes together.

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.

Jillian Bullock About Writing Her Long Journey to Adulthood

by Jerry Waxler

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

In her memoir Here I Stand, Jillian Bullock describes the long, often painful journey from child to adult. In a previous essay about the book, I show how her Misery is Simply a Step toward Hope, click here. In today’s post, the author answers questions about writing the memoir.

Jerry: How long did it take from the initial concept of the book to completing a draft?

Jillian: It took me roughly 20 years. Due to the nature of the book, which deals with a great deal of pain and horrific experiences, I would start writing and then I had to take breaks (sometimes a few years) before I could go back to it.

Jerry: Then how long to actually get it out to the public?

Jillian: When I was truly ready to finish writing the book it took me two years. One year to complete the writing process and another year to have it professionally edited.

Jerry: I know from your memoir that you are very interested in writing. What prompted you to seek the help of a co-writer?

Jillian: I actually wrote the book myself, but since the man who edited it did have to do a really detailed edit. I had to go back and do rewrites that the editor suggested. Some of those rewrites consisted of changing whole sections of a chapter. I thought it would be fair to give him a “with” credit.

Jerry: How did writing the memoir affect you emotionally?

Jillian: The writing was difficult because I had many obstacles I had to overcome in my life. But at the same time writing the book helped me purge many of the emotional demons I had and eventually I was able to heal.

Jerry: How did the end result make you feel, seeing it finished?

Jillian: It was very emotional for me, especially considering it took me so long to write the book. Seeing it finished and in print made all the hard work, time and effort definitely worth it.

Jerry: How did you handle any fears or doubts you might have had about revealing all this intimate knowledge about yourself? For example what concerns did you have about the emotional vulnerability of exposing the events of your past, or about offending other people by exposing their secrets?

Jillian: I didn’t worry about revealing  my life. I’ve come to terms with all that happened, which is another reason why it took me so long to write it. I had to be at peace in order to get through the process and be able to deliver a well written book. As far as offending other people, I didn’t have a problem with that either. Those people who I used their real names signed releases allowing me to include them in the book. The people who didn’t sign releases were either dead or I changed their names and other elements in order to disguise who they were, in a sense. I did put a disclaimer at the beginning of my book which states, “some, names, places, and events have been changed to protect the innocent and the not so innocent.” I tried to keep the book as honest as possible, so I put in all that I could if someone signed a release form.

Jerry: You end the book with the emergence from your troubled childhood into the glimmerings of a satisfying adulthood. How did you decide to end it here?

Jillian: I am writing the sequel to Here I Stand, called A Warrior’s Heart. The second book will start from the time I enter college and begin my internship up to present day. I thought it would be great to end the book at a point that gave me so much joy-my dream of working for the Wall Street Journal. It was a major accomplishment for a former drug-addicted, homeless prostitute. It was something no one thought I would ever be able to do, except for me. I never gave up hope that I would go to college and work for the Wall Street Journal, even when things had hit rock bottom for me.

Jerry: You have experienced profound betrayals in your life. The memoir makes me feel that you have come to terms with these betrayals, and found peace with them, but presumably that personal journey of forgiveness took place after the ending of the book.

Jillian: By the end of Here I Stand I had not come to terms with the betrayal and pain from all that happened. It took me several more years to do this, which I will include in A Warrior’s Heart. For a long time I struggled with depression and self-defeating habits even after I gained success and accomplished many things. I had to seek therapy to help me rid myself of the “criminal and prostitute mentality” I had. It was difficult because I didn’t understand why I was so angry all the time, why I continued to get involved in toxic relationships, and why I often slipped and resorted back to negative, destructive and bad habits. These things will all be included in the sequel where I do finally purge myself of those “ghosts,” which followed me around for a very long time. At the end of A Warrior’s Heart I will share how I finally found inner peace and love for myself and what it took to finally give me true happiness in my life.

Jerry: Since you can’t change your past, you are, like every other human being, stuck with events as they happened. It looks like you have done an enormous amount of personal work to come to terms with the events. So how do you use this work you’ve done to help others (presumably mainly young girls?) come to terms with their own situations?

Jillian: First of all, I let people know that their past does not dictate what their future will be.  The past is just that, the past. And although I don’t ever forget my past, I don’t let it control my life or my actions anymore. I don’t berate myself for all that I did, the ugly, awful things I did to others and what others did to me. I now take 100% responsibility for my life, my actions and my behaviors. I stopped playing the blame game and pointing the finger at others (parents, kids, ex-husbands, employers, friends, family, society or God) for whatever decisions I make. I use my experiences to empower others to be Victors, not Victims by teaching them that despite the odds and obstacles in their past they can still go on to achieve happiness, success and greatness. It all starts with baby steps — 1) Take 100% responsibility for your life; 2) Stop the blame game.

Jerry: How do you use this published memoir in your speaking or activism work? What sort of talking points or opportunities has it given you to extend your message?

Jillian: I use my memoir, my story, as a way to help people understand that I know what they’re going through. I can relate to most people because I have walked in their shoes. People like to hear from someone who is real, who is down to earth, and who understands their plight and their pain.

Most of my empowerment programs deal with teaching others to transform their lives from Victims to Victors. Most people walk around with what I call “the pity look.” They look out at others and the world like they are owed something in life, especially if their life was difficult. I work to help people change their mindset, their methods, and their processing techniques, so they can understand why that make the choices they do. They have to understand that in order to begin to make the positive transformation needed to be emotionally healed.

I have gotten letters and emails from people all over the country, from corporate executives to those in correctional facilities seeking my advice on many personal issues. So, although I give people advice from my own personal experiences, I wanted to get more experience and education to help them. This has prompted me to return to college to begin working on a Ph.D. in Psychology.

Here I Stand, Amazon page

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.

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.


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.

Coming of Age Never Ends

by Jerry Waxler

Some of the most popular memoirs of our time have been about the period of life called Coming of Age. In fact stories of childhood and adolescence, such as Jeanette Walls’ Glass Castle and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes arguably ignited the explosive interest in the memoir genre. However, not all Coming of Age stories proceed from childhood in an orderly fashion.

For example, Dani Shapiro started with the advantages of a wealthy upbringing, but her memoir Slow Motion is about her detour into drugs and sex. When she regained her footing, Shapiro headed back to college. Another author, Tim Elhajj, fell off the tracks much earlier in his life. During adolescence, when he should have been learning about dating and trying to keep up his grades, Elhajj was scoring his next hit of heroin. By the age most of us were trying to start a career, he was getting serious about quitting drugs, but unlike Shapiro he couldn’t go back. He needed to start over.

At the beginning of Elhajj’s memoir, Dopefiend: A Father’s Journey from Addiction to Redemption, he is morally, emotionally, and financially bankrupt. He starts adulthood from the very bottom, a moral infant, obsessed as all addicts are by the need for a fix. It’s a powerful place to start a memoir, jolting the reader into the central question: how is this man going to become a full-fledged adult, long after that ship was supposed to have sailed? His story lets me feel the frustration and courage of overcoming his own impulsive behavior.

His saving grace was a close association with the Twelve Step programs, which helped him do more than stop drugs. The program gave him the tools to build the social, ethical, and spiritual foundation he needed to climb, like ivy toward the light. Year after year, he continued to grow more mature, to learn moral values and adult responsibilities. His memoir resonates with my belief that character development is one of the most exciting things about literature and about life.

I too have been on a lifelong journey to make sense of my life. Unlike Elhajj, I did not destroy my youth with heroin. Instead I turned my intellectual prowess to thoroughly tear apart every value I was supposed to live for. By the time I finished college, I too had become a mental and moral infant, with no sense of responsibility to my society and no sense of direction. Only by finding a spiritual path was I able to climb back from chaos and start my rehabilitation.

As a result of decades of personal development, I became fascinated by the potential for adults to keep growing. In my late 40s, I went back to graduate school to became a therapist. When I started talking to therapy clients, I discovered that I’m not so unusual after all. Many people who have achieved adulthood in calendar years, still are looking to achieve maturity in other dimensions of their lives.

In the 21st century, many memoir writers are stepping forward to share the complexities of their long, slow, intricate Coming of Age. Tim Elhajj’s memoir about finding himself later in life has, more clearly than any book I’ve read so far, shared the rewards of continued searching and growing. His project of self-discovery is a perfect example of the adage, “What I am is God’s gift to me. What I become is my gift to God.”

In my next blog posting, I will share a number of writing prompts and lessons I derived from Tim Elhajj’s Dopefiend.


Click here for Tim Elhajj’s home page
Click here for Dopefiend on Amazon

Click here to read an article about the relationship between Young Adult fiction and Coming of Age memoirs.
Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre

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.

Relationship between Fiction and Memoir, Interview Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second part of my interview with Marie Lamba, author of the young adult novel, “Over My Head.” In this part of the interview, I continue to seek understanding of the relationship between young adult fiction and the Coming of Age period in memoirs.

To read the first part of the interview click here

Jerry Waxler: Adult fiction is sorted on bookstore shelves by genres such as romance, mystery, and sci-fi/fantasy/horror. Are YA books separated along similar lines? Your book “Over My Head” reads to some extent like a romance. Would you or would booksellers categorize it as a YA romance?

Marie Lamba: It’s a contemporary YA or a romantic YA.  There is young YA for the tween crowd and older YA for more mature audiences (think PG13-R).  Then of course there is paranormal, dystopian, chick-lit, fantasy, literary, you name it.

Jerry Waxler: In Over My Head, there is an incredible amount of inter- and intrapersonal deception. Almost everyone was lying to each other, or to themselves. Girls lie in order to get guys, to save face, to override parental authority, to hurt each other, to protect each other, to brag. It was a deception fest. Naturally the lying created enormous dramatic tension. Did you accentuate this quality of human nature because of your own experience of what young life is really like, or is this just the way you felt these particular characters needed to act, or what?

Marie Lamba: Jerry, I’m sure you NEVER lied as a teen, but I might have once_ or twice? Teens try to be good, they really do, but sometimes it’s the lie that allows them to continue to be viewed that way, or to test out new identities or to fix what they may have broken, or to break what is too perfect.

The tougher the mess, the bigger the lies can be until they are so ridiculous that only the truth will do. Lies, like secrets, are also great story devices. As writers we do highlight elements in life, heightening them to make a story really shine.  In real life you might have one grand humiliating moment, in a book the character can experience a virtual fest of humiliation. Now that’s a story.

Jerry Waxler: Actual people are infinitely varied, and the situations that drive us have all sorts of nuances and details. I read memoirs so I can learn about these unique aspects of real people. However, in the genre fiction that I read as a young man, such as, mysteries, thrillers, and sci/fi fantasy, the characters often have far less human individuality or depth. Where do you see your books falling on this spectrum? Do your YA books aspire to offer authentic, unique challenges of real human beings, or more formulaic characters of a genre?

Marie Lamba: I hope that my books contain characters that are nuanced and not stock.  The bad guy has a soft side, the good girl does something horrible, they all have their own arcs and purposes and dreams. They say there are no original stories. But people are original.  I hope that by putting my own spin on characterization that I’m creating characters that are fresh and original and that feel real.

Jerry Waxler: What sort of real-world observations do you use to help you authentically portray your characters? For example, do you keep a writer’s notebook about growing up, or interview young people, or does it pour from your imagination?

Marie Lamba: It definitely flows. Once I have a good feel for the characters, that’s all it takes for me.  It helps that I’m surrounded by teens as a mom and that I’m an older girl scout troop leader. And I definitely remember my teen self vividly. No journal required for that.

Jerry Waxler: When creating your novels, what sorts of real life experience did you bring to your books? Can you offer any example of how you mined your own memory for situations, age appropriate emotions, characters and psychological tension?

Marie Lamba: It doesn’t take much for any of us to remember a time when we were heartbroken or mortified or how it felt to be in a fight with a really close friend. These are such visceral experiences that plucking those emotions to use in a story is a natural thing for most writers. In “Over My Head,” the uncle’s illness plays an important role. My brother-in-law actually had the same disease as the uncle in the book, and he passed away shortly after 9-11.  The novel is dedicated to his memory, and Sang feels what I felt_helplessness and a deep desire to do something, anything, to help.  So adult emotions and experiences can also be helpful in shaping the YA world.

Jerry Waxler: Have your characters ever taught you interesting lessons about yourself or about human nature? In other words, as you watch a character develop in your book, does the behavior or attitude of your fictional character help you piece together some aspect of real life?

Marie Lamba: In a way, a book is more than you are. You are creating different characters, points of view, experiencing things you never would have experienced otherwise.  I think it forces me to look harder especially at the villains in our lives to find a speck of good in even the worst of us, and writing difficult scenes forces me to linger and feel things that in real life I would eagerly speed past.

Jerry Waxler: In the last 5 or 10 years more and more writers are interested in memoir writing and the trend seems to be accelerating. I wonder if fiction writers are more open to real-life experience. Years ago, when the novelist Carl Barth visited the University of Wisconsin campus, I asked him if his fiction had been influenced by his life. He snapped at me like I was insulting him. Nowadays, I have met many fiction writers who are more open to discussing the relationship between their stories and their lives. What do you think? Have you noticed any change over the years in the attitude about using real life situations in fiction?

Marie Lamba: We fiction writers do have a dilemma. We want to be free to create honest stories, and this of course includes experiences from our past, but if the veil between truth and fiction is lifted, how can we feel free to be as frank? In my work, most things are a composite of experiences put together, plus a healthy dose of make believe. Is there a trend for writers to own up to the memoir-like aspects of their fiction?  Not for this writer.

The real truth is that people love to see themselves in your books. Even when they truly aren’t in there.  It’s pretty fascinating.

Jerry Waxler: What are you working on next? Are you going to stay within this period or are your characters going to grow older?

Marie Lamba: My YA novel “Drawn” again deals with a 17 year old teen, but the next novel I’m currently stirring around in my brain will probably reach into the 20-30 year old adult range.  And, hey, who’s growing older?

Marie Lamba’s novel “Over My Head” was described by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry as “a funny, touching, and at times heart-breaking young adult novel about the search for love.” She is also author of the young adult novel “What I Meant…” (Random House), which was dubbed “an impressive debut” by Publisher’s Weekly..

Marie Lamba’s Home Page

Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre

Click here for a more detailed article that compares Coming of Age memoirs with Young Adult fiction.

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.

Interview: Young Adult Fiction versus Coming of Age Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

I am fascinated by Coming of Age memoirs because they provide a window into the many emotional challenges that people undergo on their journey to becoming adults. Recently, I realized that Young Adult fiction is about that same period of life. To learn more about the way Young Adult fiction handles that period of human development, I read the novel “Over My Head” by Marie Lamba in which a 16-year-old girl falls in love with a college boy. Is it real love? To find out, she must process her own feelings as well as advice and opinions from friends and parents.

When I started reading, I was afraid I had entered a girl-zone where I didn’t belong. The more I read, the more engaged I became, appreciating my privileged front-row seat, where I watched the emotional and social challenges of a girl trying to make the leap to adulthood. “Over My Head” zooms into one particular aspect of Coming of Age: that awkward period when humans first steer through the outrageously intricate connection between romance and sex. The hero of the novel must learn those lessons under the spell of emotions so compelling they have an almost mystical power.

I have spent the last five years infatuated with the way memoirs allow us to see each other through the medium of a story. Memoir authors go deep inside themselves and then bring that intimate detail out into social awareness. Marie Lamba reminds me that the real people who write fiction also share their insights into the human condition. After reading the book, I asked the author her opinions about the relationship between real life and fictional characters.

Jerry Waxler: In “Over My Head” your character was 16-year-old character had to sort out romantic feelings from sexual ones. Some people advised her that the boy might be using her while others urged her to jump in. Her challenges represent the dilemma teens face in real life. When composing your novel, how conscious were you about representing these real-life Coming of Age challenges?

Marie Lamba: Hi Jerry.  Thanks so much for speaking with me about this.  I think when you write for the young adult market, it’s almost always a coming of age story. This is a time when we search for who we are as individuals.  The conflict of trying to make big decisions based not on the thoughts of our peers or our family, but on our own feelings and beliefs is key. This forces us to examine who we really are.  When I write about these sorts of things, it’s just natural for me. I don’t consciously plot out a coming of age structure, it just evolves from the characters and the plot.

Jerry Waxler: (laughing) Wow, I think you ought to be teaching a course in developmental psychology… In most Coming of Age memoirs, one of the protagonist’s tasks is to understand the relationship with adults, especially parents. We have to grow toward adulthood and yet at the same time, push adults away. I thought you did a great job in Over My Head portraying this dilemma.

When you were writing Over My Head, or when you read other Young Adult novels, how do you like to see the relationship between the young characters and their authority figures? How does the relationship of your fictional characters with their adults relate to your own observations of these relationships in the real world?

Marie Lamba: Family, whether absent or all-too-present, looms large in everyone’s lives. Intrinsically, children want to please their parents, even terrible parents, sadly. But there comes that moment when the point of view of even the very best parent seems so foreign for that child. That is when the child does take that giant step away from the parent and sees that maybe she’s on her own.  Pleasing your parents or listening to them isn’t always what’s right. That can be quite a revelation.

In YA fiction, the main character needs to have some independence, or needs to be fighting for independence, or the story just isn’t dynamic to me.

Jerry Waxler: The audience of YA is supposed to be 14 to 21. That’s a big range, considering the difference in reading level, emotional and life experience. So when you write, what is the age of the audience you visualize?

Marie Lamba: These days, the YA audience stretches straight up into adulthood. It’s not unusual for me to hear from adults that they related to my novels and that it took them back to their own teen years. And I also hear from readers who are much younger than I’d expect saying that they really related to the characters in my books. I guess I don’t really think about the audience, though. I think about the characters and strive to create as authentic a voice for the ages they are. For OVER MY HEAD, Sang was 16 going on 17, so that’s where my focus in voice and tone went.

Jerry Waxler: In adult life, a few years difference in age rarely makes much difference. But in a teenager’s life, each year brings them closer to adult empowerment. When will I be able to drive? When will I be able to earn freedom from my parents? When will I be old enough to earn the optimum romantic partner?

You bring out these tensions powerfully in “Over My Head” with the romance between a 16-year-old girl and 20-year-old boy. The age difference creates a big power imbalance. What interest brought you to the story of a 16-year old hero and her 20 year old love interest? How does age-related envy and power imbalance play out in your favorite YA stories?

Marie Lamba: There are all sorts of imbalances in relationships in novels, but age is a biggie. The younger character finds herself wondering if she’s mature enough, envying the freedoms of the older character, perhaps even glorifying what is mundane to an older person.  In OVER MY HEAD, the age difference isn’t exactly 4 years.  Sang is almost 17 and Cameron is just 20, but with him in college it is a great divide indeed.  He has a separate life from his summertime world, and this raises a lot of red flags about who he really is.

In my previous novel, WHAT I MEANT… all the teens were around the same age.  The adults had tremendous power and one especially diabolical aunt used this to set the heroine up to take the blame on numerous occasions. With OVER MY HEAD, Sang is 2 years older, and ready for true independence. I selected an older love interest to up the stakes and to really force Sang to be at odds with her youthful self and her family.

A favorite YA of mine, IT’S NOT SUMMER WITHOUT YOU by Jenny Han also involves a girl smitten by an older boy. The separation forced by him going off to college, coupled with the death of his mom, create huge rifts between the two, and the heroine wonders if he’s changed, or if he was ever who she thought he was. And perhaps she didn’t know her own heart either.

Jerry Waxler: I felt your novel “Over My Head” had especially good control over the passage of time. I wondered if part of that authorial control is related to the age of your characters. Since we all went through the school system during those years, your school-year markers remind us of our own coming of age. (Harry Potter capitalizes on this structure too, making each book correspond with a school year.) In addition, an illness in the family creates additional time pressure, and then toward the end, we hear the drumbeat of the approaching school year. Do you pay special attention to the suspense around the passage of time? Do you have any set rules about how to keep the reader moving through time?

Marie Lamba: I’ve learned through writing a number of novels to always keep a fictional calendar for my stories. Weekends make a difference. So do holidays.  So does the weather, the phases of the moon, stuff like that. With my manuscript DRAWN, which has a time travel element, this was especially critical.  I had to track the present day time as well as the critical events of the 1460s.  

I always know the big climactic event of the book before I write, and having a count-down to this helps me plot the pacing and keep the tension going.  An author (now I can’t remember who) once said that the things that keep story engine going are a secret or a ticking time bomb, preferably both. I always try to go for both.

Jerry Waxler: Sometimes YA books jump over into an adult readership. For example, Harry Potter obviously made the leap to a cross-generational readership. And sometimes adult books are picked up by young people. J.D. Salinger apparently wrote “Catcher in the Rye” for an adult audience, and then young people realized that the subject matter was about them, and they took it for themselves. So when you write about your young people, what sort of attention are you paying to the possible interest adults might have in reading your books?

Marie Lamba: With YA books, parents are often the ones who okay or nix the purchase, whether at a bookstore or online or at the library/school level.  Because of this, we YA authors are actually really conscious about the level of profanity and sex we put in a novel.  Win over the teens, lose the parents? It’s a delicate balance. I strive for authenticity, and then I assess how critical a curse word is or a sexual thought. If it truly is critical to the story, in it goes.

As for appealing to adults as readers, I believe that any well-told authentic story will speak to us all.

Interview to be continued

Marie Lamba’s novel “Over My Head” was described by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry as “a funny, touching, and at times heart-breaking young adult novel about the search for love.” She is also author of the young adult novel “What I Meant…” (Random House), which was dubbed “an impressive debut” by Publisher’s Weekly..

Marie Lamba’s Home Page

Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre

Click here for a more detailed article that compares Coming of Age memoirs with Young Adult fiction.

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.

Million Dollar Challenge: YA fiction is Coming of Age

by Jerry Waxler

Because of the millions of dollars earned by the Harry Potter series, it seems every author would like to understand the key to its success. I believe Harry’s power lies not in his magic but in his life experience. When you strip away the incantations and special effects, Harry Potter is nothing more nor less than a child trying to become an adult. The challenge to grow up has captivated the reading public, not just in fiction but in nonfiction as well. Many of the most successful memoirs that kicked off the success of that literary genre were about that period of life.

In 1997, the year of the first Harry Potter novel, Frank McCourt won a Pulitzer prize for his memoir “Angela’s Ashes.” As a child, McCourt faced incredible poverty, and then year after year had to learn about himself, his relationship to his family, his sexuality, and then push away to become independent person. Instead of a magic wand to get through these years, McCourt used his wits as he attempted to make sense of life.

In McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” and in the equally acclaimed memoir “This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff we witness some of the gritty issues boys face, and in Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle” and Mary Karr’s “Liar’s Club” we accompany girls through their side of the process. All of these young adults struggled to understand themselves, with only sketchy guidance from parents.

The close connection between the fiction and nonfiction version of young adulthood seems to contain important information for all aspiring writers. To research the connection between fiction and real life, I recently read a Young Adult novel, “Over My Head” by Marie Lamba. The protagonist is a 16-year old girl who fell in love with a 20-year old boy. The protagonist desperately wanted to overcome her parents’ objections. In her struggle for clarity, I learned about young love from a girl’s point of view. I also learned a much broader lesson. In “Over My Head” I saw the underlying power of both Coming of Age memoirs and Young Adult fiction.

Humans have to spend almost two decades connected with caregivers. During that period we are their mercy, and more importantly we are at the mercy of the stories they tell us about the world and about ourselves. We desperately need the stories of young adulthood in order to know how to go out into the world. This process is built into our society, and according to a fascinating perspective on human evolution, it may be built into our genes. (see Brian Boyd’s Evolution of Stories).

We all had to go through this period once in our lives, and now we read Harry Potter, or “Over My Head” or the growing body of Coming of Age memoirs, and we vicariously accompany the protagonist to see how his or her journey works. All the while, in the back of our mind, we want to cry out, “Grow up. Get through those mistakes. You can do it.”

Adults automatically urge young people to reach toward the next step. And this urging often annoys young people who fear that too much guidance indicates lack of respect for their youthful process. That’s part of the fascinating dramatic tension of adolescence and young adulthood. We long for the protagonist of “Over My Head” to learn and become wise as she tries to steer through the difference between romance and sex. We want her to find some wisdom, avoid mistakes, and make the right choice. The reader knows what the character does not yet know, a perfect equation for powerful dramatic tension.

The young protagonist of “Over My Head,” with the unusual name of Sang, brought to life the intimate connection between compelling stories and the underlying psychological dynamics. By watching Sang’s authentic struggles and at the same time watching my own deep instinctive reactions to her growing up, I realize that the memoir wave is performing multiple services for our culture. Primarily, it opens up memoir readers and writers to the introspective realities of real life. However, I believe that it is also permeating fiction and increasing the cross-fertilization between our literary goals and our psychological ones. Real human beings with real human needs populate our fiction as well as our lives, and we can learn about ourselves and each other by reading books.

If you are considering turning your early life into a memoir, you are already guaranteed that your readers will root for you the moment they see that you are striving to grow. If you are composing a fictional account of a young person growing up, you can learn an enormous amount about the actual psychological journey by reading dozens of memoirs.

Of course, fiction writers have the authority to stretch and shape reality. And if they are creating fantasy-worlds, they can also take advantage of myth and metaphor. For example, when Harry faced evil, it was pure and demonic. When his birth parents were murdered, it provides a powerful metaphor for the transition we all must go through, pressing away from our parents to find our own independent path.

Fiction writers can also apply other literary tools. For example, they have the ability to slow time down and take us into moment by moment details. That’s what Marie Lamba did in “Over My Head” when she focused on Sang’s romance. Fiction gave her the artistic freedom to take readers all the way into the situation in a highly crafted anxiety-producing, believable, and enlightening way. For a much grittier look at sexual Coming of Age, read the memoir “Girl Bomb” by Janice Erlbaum about her confusing life as a teenager on the streets of New York City.

Many Coming of Age memoirs show the demoralizing, dehumanizing dangers of drugs and alcohol. In addition to Janice Erlbaum’s involvement with drugs on the street in her memoir “Girl Bomb”, author Dani Shapiro traveled a more privileged version. Instead of scrounging for her next fix, Shapiro was a kept woman, maintained in an upscale apartment with endless drugs in exchange for sex. In Harry Potter’s world, the danger of breaking the rules was to be imprisoned in Azkaban, where the Dementors sucked away all emotions. This sounds remarkably similar to the real-life danger of drugs, which can leave users in a state of anhedonia, that is, unable to feel emotion.

In the real world, we have to learn a trade or get a job to support ourselves. Harry Potter’s trade was magic, which is perhaps more familiar to real teenagers than you might think. Adults often joke about the tendency of young people to act like they know everything, but that is not necessarily so funny. Young people often use fantasy and magic to help them plot their life course, or to help them tolerate their sense of helplessness in the world. When I look back to that period in my own life, I see how obsessed I became when I discovered science and math. I thought if I learned enough formulas and equations I would be able to control the entire cosmos. For me, knowing everything was neither a joke nor an exaggeration. However, instead of granting my wish for infinite wisdom, this approach left me entirely unprepared for adult emotional challenges. Another person who became obsessed about having pure, magical knowledge was Tony Hendra, author of the memoir “Father Joe.” When he was 14, he was seized by the conviction that he wanted to be a monk. Religious philosophy became his entire universe, and when it didn’t work out as planned, he had to completely restructure his understanding of the world.

The vast majority of adults look back on early years and remember a lot of fuzzy thinking and disconnected anecdotes. Aspiring memoir writers have the unusual opportunity to collect those random bits of memory and organize them into the shape of a story. We watch ourselves stumble through adolescence, when we are forced to learn incredibly subtle lessons and make crucial decisions before we understood their consequences. We can’t change the outcome of those years, so instead we do what people have always done with such profound life puzzles. We read and write stories. Coming of Age memoirs and Young Adult novels let us relive this period of life, running through an endless series of what-ifs, giving us that peculiarly human magic of entering into a world of someone else’s creation.

When we do finally turn our own experience into a good readable story, we might not earn millions of dollars or win a Pulitzer Prize. But even if we merely complete the work and step back satisfied, we will give ourselves a million dollar education about our journey from unformed infant into the person we have become today.

Writing Prompts
Write a scene in which you went out on a date or fell in love, and then tried to sort out what that meant.

Write a scene or a series of scenes about how you first realized you were going to have to figure out how to survive financially.

Write one or a series about an argument with your parents when you were trying to do something more adult than they could tolerate.

Write a scene about a decision you made or that was made for you that took you farther away from your goal of becoming an adult.

Marie Lamba’s Home Page

Click here for an interview with Marie Lamba

Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre

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.

Another way to write about childhood, memoir review Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

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

Tracy Seeley was born into a nomadic family in the Midwest. As soon as she settled into one home, her father’s demons and dreams forced him to search for a better place. After each move, Tracy left parts of herself behind. When she was old enough, she fled Kansas in search of her own place in the world. She earned her doctorate in English Literature at the University of Texas. She taught on the east coast at Yale University, and then shifted to the west coast to teach at the University of California in San Francisco.

In her adult places, when she told her educated peers where she grew up, their standard response was “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” The quote from the Wizard of Oz implied that Tracy’s childhood was irrelevant to her sophisticated world. Her life had become fractured in two ways. First her childhood was spread across thirteen homes, and second, her adult world was split off from the world in which she grew up. No wonder she wanted to return to the Heartland and make more sense of how it all fit together. Her lovely memoir, “My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” chronicles her exploration of her origins, as she attempts to find a unified story.

Story of researching yourself

Tracy’s story reminds me of “Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls. In both books, restless parents failed to deliver a safe, stable environment. After each author grew up and settled down, she returned to her chaotic beginnings and tried to knit together the pieces by finding the story.

The two memoirs make an instructive duo, because each author chose to construct her narrative in very different ways. Jeanette Walls did the research outside the page. In her memoir, “Glass Castle.” we are inside the little girl’s point of view, following her journey of growing up. In “Ruby Slippers,” Tracy Seeley starts her memoir as an adult, wondering how she grew up. She takes us on a guided tour of her investigation into her past.

Every memoir writer steers between these two frames-of-reference. In the first time frame, we live through the situation, becoming the person we are today. In the second frame, we look back, trying to make sense of how we got here.

I have written a number of essays about the Coming of Age genre as told from the child’s point of view, in bestsellers like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club, and Jeannette Walls, Glass Castle. In part two of this essay, I will dig deeper into Tracy Seeley’s memoir about rediscovering the roots of her self.

Click here to see Part 2 of this review of Ruby Slippers.

Notes: Other memoirs about researching self

Another memoir about researching a childhood was A. M. Homes, Mistress’s Daughter. The book takes us on her journey to find her biological parents and reconstruct their past. In Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour, as well as in “Reading my Father” by Alexandra Styron, a daughter creates the story of her father’s life through a combination of memories and his journals and letters.

In some memoirs, the early chapters tell the story of childhood, and then later reflect on earlier events. For example towards the end of “Glass Castle,” Jeanette Walls struggles to make sense of her relationship with her parents. In “Look Me In The Eye,” John Robison first tells of his childhood, and then later in the book explores how his earlier experiences had been shaped by Asperger’s Syndrome.

Amazon Page for My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas
How Did John Robison End His Memoir Look me in the Eye
Why so many memoirs of dysfunctional childhood?

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.

Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book by Stephen Markley

by Jerry Waxler

Scanning the memoir shelves at Barnes and Noble, I picked up a book I never heard of called Publish This Book by Stephen Markley. The subtitle tickled my imagination, “The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book.” Interesting! I kept reading the cover copy. The author is 24, a surprising age for a memoir writer. I flipped it open to sample the style, and liked what I saw. So I bought it.

Many new memoirs languish on my reading pile for months. Markley’s book, with its promise of irony, suffered no such fate. I began reading it almost immediately. And unlike many other memoirs that I set aside after 10 or 20 pages, “Publish this Book” never stalled out.

I loved the style and sense of humor (I laughed out loud quite a few times), and kept finding fabulous observations about the human condition and the project of writing a memoir. I made it all the way to the end, where there was one more test to go. Would I recommend it to others? Absolutely! I was delighted with the experience, and felt it was a worthwhile read.

Almost four decades ago, I too struggled to make the transition from child to adult, a nerve wracking period filled with confusion and bad choices. Much of my life since then, I have been trying to make sense of the chaos of college during the Vietnam War and the post-college hippie detour. Many years of therapy helped, but my best leap towards understanding came when I turned my life into a story. I find that reading and writing memoirs is the best way to make sense of a life. And even though “Publish this Book” takes place now, in the twenty-first century, it provides fascinating glimpses into the mind of a young man trying to become an adult.

In addition to helping me understand my youth, the book provided a window into today’s world. It’s crazy out there, and instead of Vietnam, there are many other obstacles. “Publish this Book” helps me see this world through younger eyes.

And finally, I imagine college kids themselves would appreciate it. After all, Markley recently emerged from those hallowed halls himself. If I was that age, I would be interested in knowing what to expect. I looked on Amazon to see what other readers thought. Several reviewers liked it as much as I did. The reviews were sort of “positive flames” ranting about how great the book is.

I’ve decided this book ought to be the next Big Thing and the author Stephen Markley ought to become a cult hero, as embedded in our cultural canon as J.D. Salinger or Kurt Vonnegut, who captured the anxiety of being young and trying to grow up. So I had to hurry and interview Markley before he became too famous. It turned out he is as prolific and generous with his interviews as he is with his book. Read my six part interview with Stephen Markley, starting here.


Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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