Why Coming of Age Memoirs ought to be a genre

by Jerry Waxler

One of the most haunting books I read in high school was James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” His childhood in Dublin was radically different from mine in Philadelphia, so I couldn’t figure out why his story moved me. Now, I look back and realize we both experienced the terrible anxiety of being young. During the period between the ages of say 13 and 23, I struggled to relate to my family and to excel in school. I clumsily attempted to learn the rules of friendships, sexuality, money, and responsibility. And far too often, my best effort led me to a dead end. Finally, I was spit onto the shores of adulthood, gasping for air.

Even on that terra firma, I felt shaky. You mean I have to keep going? When does it get easy?

To learn why life had not turned out according to plan, I spent years in talk therapy and read scores of self-help books. I went to graduate school to learn how to provide psychotherapy to others. But my understanding of that long, unsatisfying transition from child to adult still eluded me. How could i help others if my own transition to adulthood felt confusing? Finally, I found the solution. I can learn about that period of my life by reading memoirs.

Some of the most popular modern memoirs have been about that stage in the author’s development. The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr tells about growing up in Texas with two parents who were drowning in their own lives. Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls tells of a chaotic childhood, traveling from town to town escaping her father’s demons. In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt grew up in Ireland in a family where alcohol and poverty played a key role. And This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff tells of an ordinary boy with a single mom. She tries to take care of him, but to a large extent, he has to take care of himself.

These Coming of Age tales make one thing clear. Parents have flaws. They can’t always be there. They make mistakes that cause their family to suffer. Each of these dramas reminds me of the extreme vulnerability of children and the importance of parental guidance.

These books often show the role of money. For example, Tobias Wolff’s mother married a man she didn’t love in order to provide a home for her son. Jeanette Walls ate margarine sandwiches to stave off hunger. Frank McCourt scavenged bits of coal that had fallen off trucks, and his mother waited at her husband’s factory on payday to try to get his check before he could drink it away.

Alcohol comes up a lot. Sometimes the parents are drunk, and sometimes it’s the kids who have started to explore the anesthetic properties of drinking. Religion is often invoked as a way to keep kids in line, which in turn creates confusion about these belief systems. Other institutions come up as well. Kids spend a lot of time in school, where they must survive tests from teachers as well as from peers. And constantly, parents and society try to counsel the kids on how to behave.

Until the last few years, no one was ever supposed to talk about life inside their home. It wouldn’t be “right.” Coming of Age memoirs have broken through the taboo. Now that we’re comparing notes, we finally can discard once and for all the syrupy-fake television families of the 50s like “Leave it to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” Reality is much more complicated that they led us to believe.

But memoirs reveal more than secrets. They also reveal wisdom. In our younger years, we lacked the sophisticated thinking that would have let us make sense of what was going on. When we return to take another look, we identify the causes that tied it all together.

For example, in high school I did schoolwork while my peers were out playing in the back alley. Every Friday and Saturday evening I worked at my dad’s drugstore. At the time, anyone else might have immediately understood my pervasive loneliness but to me it was a mystery. Now, as I write my memoir, my adult mind untangles events and it all makes more sense.

James Joyce started the Twentieth Century by writing a semi-autobiographical story about his Coming of Age. At the beginning of the Twenty First Century such stories are becoming a regular feature of our culture. In my high school English class I also read poetry. William Wordsworth said, “The child is father of the man.” I knew it was important but its meaning was just out of reach. Now, thanks to reading and writing memoirs, I grasp the way that child gave birth to the person I am today.

Here are more Coming of Age stories.

— “Name all the animals” by Alison Smith. A Midwestern girl loses her brother, and discovers her sexuality amidst her grief.
— “Sleeping arrangements” by Laura Shaine Cunningham. An orphan in the Bronx was raised by two uncles, in a zany, heartwarming rendition of New York in the 50s.
— “Invisible Wall” by Harry Bernstein. A young man in Great Britain before and during World War I (yes, that’s a one) lived in a neighborhood split through the center of the street.
— “Colored people” by Henry Louis Gates. A black boy growing up in a tiny town in Jim Crow south finds himself. And he uses the book to try to explain this culture to his children.
— “Don’t call me mother” by Linda Joy Myers. A girl orphaned not by death but by abandonment, struggling to grow up despite her many emotional obstacles.
— “Black, White and Jewish” by Rebecca Walker. This is a book of self-discovery by the daughter of the famous author, Alice Walker.
— “Color of Water” by James McBride. A young black man explores the history of his white Jewish mother and in the process also discovers himself.
— “Tweak” by Nic Sheff. This young man falls into the clutches of crystal meth. Like any hard addiction, this one refocused his entire journey on the goal of getting high. It’s a sobering look at how badly drugs distort Coming of Age.
— “Funny in Farsi” by Firoozeh Dumas. An Iranian-American explores her childhood in America. These adventures of the Melting Pot update the many generations of immigrants who have tried to become part of this amalgamated culture.

Harry Potter was a coming of age story, about the hero’s adventure growing up in an unusual high school.

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.

How These Memoir Authors Emerged Into Adulthood

by Jerry Waxler

To learn how to write my memoir, I have been reading memoirs. The more I read, the more I learn not just about how to write a memoir, but also how other people’s lives worked, through a variety of situations and stages. And from this research about others, I learn more about myself. In the following list of memoirs, I show a number of examples of how memoir authors experienced this complex transition from childhood into adulthood. By seeing how this period contained so much dramatic tension for these authors, you may gain some insight into the dramatic tension of your own transition into adulthood.

Escaping gangs

Kids in ghettos are pressured from an early age to join gangs and get involved with drugs. It would be easy to stay within this lifestyle. The three men who wrote their story in “The Pact” by Drs. Sampson Davis George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt, were facing exactly that situation. But they stuck together, using the school system, combined with their mutual respect and support to escape the pull of the ghetto, becoming doctors, and then turning back to their community to inspire others to follow their lead.

Emerging From Foster Care

A child in the foster care system, Ashley Rhodes-Courter, constantly felt disconnected from her caregivers, as she moved from one home to another. Finally adopted as a teenager, she turned her disrupted childhood into a successful young adulthood. After this difficult turnaround, she launched successfully, going to college and becoming a national spokesperson for foster care. Her memoir “Three Little Words” enables her to share her message.

Related Essay: Who protects the children? Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Smashed trying to do the right thing

Jim McGarrah’s childhood in a safe, healthy Midwest town came to a crashing halt, not when he made a terrible mistake, but when he tried to do the right thing. He joined the army, against his veteran father’s advice, and through the course of his launching became demolished by the horrors of war. As portrayed in his recently published memoir “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” the young man at the end of the launching was just a shadow of the hopeful, energetic one who started it.

Related Essay: Storytellers shed light on the horrors of war

Smashed by sex and drugs

Dani Shapiro’s life had all the right ingredients. She came from a wealthy family, attended a top liberal arts school in New York, picking up an occasional job as a model or actress. Then, an affair with her best friend’s father pulled her into the undertow of drugs, alcohol and obsession. She was crashing on the launch pad. A tragic accident involving her parents shook her out of her stupor. She regained her footing, returned to school, and by the end of the memoir “Slow Motion” was ready to reenter society.

Related Essay: What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?
Dani Shapiro Seeks Spirituality Through Memoir

A detour into temporary stardom

Dee Dee Phelps, author of “Vinyl Highway” was an ordinary high school girl who liked to sing. With all the advantages of a middle class girl in the early 60s, her path seemed straight and sure: find a husband, and settle down. But she took a huge detour. A guy she knew asked her if she would join him as a singing partner. They formed a popular duet called Dick and Dee Dee.

She had a meteoric rise to a famous singer who toured the world and appeared regularly on television in the 60s. Over the next few years, musical tastes changed rapidly and her partnership with Dick collapsed. Dropping out of the stars, she returned to her original life, ready for the next step of her delayed path towards a more traditional adulthood.

Related Essay: Fame and Story Structure in Dee Dee’s 60’s memoir
To read the two part interview with the author: Click Here for Part 1 and … Here for Part 2

A perfect career left some questions unanswered

Soon after high school, Jancee Dunn landed a job at the magazine Rolling Stone, interviewing celebrities in print and on camera. Despite these glorious encounters, or perhaps because of them, she still needed to develop her own sense of identity, purpose and relationships. Her memoir, “Enough about me” is an excellent travelogue through this period of self-discovery.

Related Essay: Celebrity interviewer turns the camera on herself

Double-launch, injury forces a second coming

George Brummell, author of the memoir “Shades of Darkness,” grew up in the Jim Crow south. In the early sixties, he escaped into the military. His assignment in Korea seemed like a storybook case of letting the military help him grow up and see the world. It came crashing down in Vietnam when a landmine blinded him and permanently damaged his arm. As a civilian, he successfully found a new path, going to college, and landing a job as an executive in the Blinded Veterans commission.

Related Essay: Blind veteran finds his voice by writing

Double-launch, Failure of first launch hurls Joan Rivers into a second

When Joan Rivers’ first marriage failed, she decided to trade in her promising career at a department store for the shady and uncertain future of a performer. She tried her hand as an actress, and then decided there were more opportunities in stand up comedy. The memoir “Enter Talking” follows her grueling journey from her early dreams to her on-air meeting with Johnny Carson that finally launched her into her second self.

Related Essay: Memoir by Celebrity Joan Rivers Offers Lessons for Aspiring Writers

Ambiguous Launch into the world, but still many questions

Frank McCourt, grew up in Ireland, and from early childhood, he was burdened by a father whose devotion to liquor came first. The chaos and poverty hobbled McCourt’s march to adulthood, dragging him down. The book “Angela’s Ashes” shows McCourt crawling across the finish line of childhood. Geographically he escaped his childhood by traveling from Ireland to the U.S. but emotionally he had not yet come of age, leaving the door open for a sequel in which he could continue to grow up.

Greg Mortenson’s long sputtering journey towards adulthood

Greg Mortenson could not quite find the path into adulthood. Passionate about climbing mountains, he maintained a marginal lifestyle that gave him the freedom to climb in the Himalayas. Lost one day in those mysterious mountains, he literally stumbled on his true mission. He would build schools for the poor people in remote regions of Pakistan. Without even knowing what he was doing, he became a social entrepreneur, raising money and lobbying for his cause. His desire to serve forced him to launch. In “Three Cups of Tea” he describes his long journey from child to fully engaged member of society.

Related Essay: “Find meaning through service” or “Making peace with the peasants of Pakistan”

Mental misfit eventually finds rightful place

John Robison’s launching seemed sluggish. In midlife he was still trying to find his center. After decades of trying to put his life together piece by piece, a casual diagnosis of Asperger’s made him realize he had been carrying an extra load. Armed with this new perspective, he looked back upon his life and understood more about how it worked. He became a more complete human being by turning his newfound wisdom towards raising awareness about Asperger’s through public speaking and writing the memoir “Look Me in the Eye.”

Related essay: John Robison’s Asperger’s gave me permission to write about myself

Trauma that smashes launching in mid-stream

Some launchings are going along well, and then a violent intrusion wrecks the road, turning what was supposed to be ordinary life into a struggle to survive.

“Lucky” by Alice Sebold

Alice Sebold’s “Lucky” portrays a devastating reshaping of a life after she was violently raped during college. The memoir portrays her long search to regain innocence and peace.

Related Essay: Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a searing memoir of trauma

“Picking Cotton” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton

Another young woman’s life was torn to pieces by rape, but her journey back to adulthood was marked by an amazing story. Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton is co-written by the man who was falsely imprisoned for raping her. “That night two lives were destroyed.” The man she accused of the rape turned out to be exonerated, and her second launching has taken place in the social activism of reducing the number of such mistakes in the present.

Related Essay: Mistaken Identification: A memoir of injustice and redemption

“Crazy Love” by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Leslie Morgan Steiner, a Harvard graduate and rising magazine editor was set up for spectacular success. Falling in love with and marrying an abusive man, she quickly found herself struggling for her life. She tells the story in her memoir “Crazy Love.”

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.

Failure to Launch Generates Dramatic Tension

by Jerry Waxler

According to the television shows “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” the process of going from child to adult was supposed to be easy. I expected to go to college, become a doctor, and raise a family. But the reality was far more complex. The turbulence during the Vietnam War shook me off course and sent me on a long journey that covered a lot of territory but never seemed to arrive anywhere.

Emerging into adulthood is sometimes dubbed “launching,” a term that reminds me of a woman in a fur coat smashing a bottle across the bow of a ship being sent to sea on its maiden voyage. My launching did not include getting hit with a bottle of champagne, but I was hit with other substances which contributed to my loss of focus.

During the first fifteen years of my extended search for my place in the adult world, I tried Plans B, C, and D, drifting on open seas, meandering from island to island, with no apparent route and for that matter no apparent destination. To gain control over my navigation, I began a decades-long course of talk therapy. Based on those discussions, my sense of purpose and direction came back into focus.

In my fifties, I realized that by writing a memoir, I could consolidate the knowledge I had gained from these years of experimenting and exploring. From this panoramic view, confusion gave way to wisdom. Dozens of alternate lifetimes later, I am finally regaining the confidence and purpose I felt before I fell off the launch pad. The whole point was to achieve a sense of empowered adulthood, and it appears I have finally achieved that goal.

I’m not sure that a memoir about this long, multi-stage life would be focused enough to sustain a reader’s interest. But since that’s the way my life actually worked, I intend to try. One of the few memoirs that offer a model for this long approach to adulthood is John Robison’s “Look me in the eye.” As a young adult, he pulled together relationships and career but something was missing.  My impression is that his life came into fullness much later when he realized he had Asperger’s, a mental “condition” that was preventing him from interacting with the world.

Robison was not the only one to have a difficult emergence into adulthood. Many memoirs relate the difficulties of this journey, and while each one offers its own unique slant, together they demonstrate that this developmental challenge of life, to go from child to adult, can provide an enormous amount of dramatic tension.

In my next blog essay, I will offer a number of examples of memoirs whose authors struggled on their transition into adulthood.
Writing Prompt
Consider the impact this period had for you. If you have had a curiosity or horror about your own transition from childhood to adulthood, you will find that the power of this period can make compelling material.

To read the essay I wrote about how John Robison’s memoir gave me permission to be myself, click here.

Princeton Student transfers to the School of Hard Knocks or Learning Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple

by Jerry Waxler

Every week, the television show “Kung Fu,” opened the doors of a magic kingdom in which the hero, a peaceful warrior named Kwai Chang Caine, avoided violence except when he needed to save innocent people from persecution. Then, he crushed his opponents. Dreamy flashbacks showed Caine with his teacher, Master Po, in an exotic oriental temple. When the student was ready to go into the world, he lifted a kettle of red hot embers between his forearms, forever burning the Shaolin Temple into his skin and my mind.

Recently, I saw a memoir “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly, a young man who dropped out of Princeton to study Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple in China. I was stunned to learn the place was real and even more astonished that it still existed. At first I resisted reading the book, afraid the real world might ruin my fantasies. Finally curiosity won. I jumped in to “American Shaolin” and kept turning pages to the end.

Matthew Polly left his Ivy League school, and traveled to a small town in China, where he moved into a small sparsely furnished room, took a vow of celibacy, and began his studies. The memoir contained many interesting themes: a search for identity, for spiritual meaning, for the soul of China, and it was a book about men and fighting.

What are men really like?

I’ve never understood girly-girls. Their world view seemed as inaccessible as say, inhabitants of the planet Venus. That was before I started reading memoirs. Now I can see into the mind of anyone who takes the time to write about themselves, expanding my insight across gender lines in a way I never considered possible.

It turns out, I don’t know much about gender-drenched men, either, having lived a watered-down version of masculinity. I never played sports, never was in a fight, never served in the military, never hung out in bars. Matthew Polly’s book has taken me inside a more masculine world than the one I inhabit, and now I know more about that half of the world, too.

From Polly, I learned that some things about men remain consistent across drastically different cultures. For example, after a hard day of strength, agility, and fight exercises, Shaolin monks went out drinking. Talking shop about their day’s practice, their conversations also included that favorite male topic, women, demonstrating the influence of lust across cultural lines.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene when you were attracted to or repelled by a stereotyped male or female trait, such as “too macho” or “too cute.” In the same scene, or another one, write how you felt about your own gender traits?

Wooing and Other Bargaining

Despite his vow of celibacy, Matt Polly did occasionally try to woo a Chinese girl. His attempted liaisons were complicated by four decades of Communist party propaganda that taught Chinese citizens to beware of westerners. The girls were suspicious of Matt and at the same time attracted to him, providing a weird, intriguing mix of politics and sexuality.

On one occasion, he had a hot date the night before an important fight. During dinner, his coach created such an embarrassing scene the girl walked out in frustration. Afterwards, the coach said to Matt, “It’s just as well. If she stayed it would have made your legs weak.” When Polly did finally sleep with a Chinese woman he described the scene with lyrical tenderness. But then she expected him to marry and he fell back to another famous male stance, fear of commitment.

Trying to get a girl into bed was not the only maneuvering going on. One-upsmanship occurred in a variety of situations. Of course, in fighting, the opponents must constantly try to get the upper hand. The focus on strategy set the stage for all sorts of situations of bargaining and maneuvering. For example, he had evidence he was overpaying for rent and tuition, and he tried to negotiate with the temple managers to lower the price. The maneuvering on both sides demonstrated the business-like mentality of the place.

Forty years of hatred for capitalism did not stamp out the Chinese instinct for bargaining any more than it stamped out sexual attraction. Polly’s description of Chinese bargaining strategies helped me understand the expression “inscrutable oriental.” The men were employing a technique known in the west as a “poker face.” To beat your opponent, you must hide your feelings.

I used to think it was tacky to write about money, but I have since come to realize the stuff keeps showing up in real life as well as in good stories. In “American Shaolin,” Polly uses money to show the power struggles among people, to offer insights into his own circumstance, and to provide another window into the Chinese culture. Strangely enough, the tense negotiations between Polly and the managers of the Temple did not ruin my impression of Polly or the Temple. It simply helped me fill in additional aspects of their world, proving once again that the mundane side of human nature, when told well, can breathe authenticity and tension into ordinary situations.

Writing Prompt
Bargaining is a common activity, when we try to get what we want through arguing, or pleading, or strategy. Write a scene when you had to get something from someone, whether for love, or money, or power. Show your plan. Or show how you acted impulsively, without a plan. How did it work? How well did the other person defend their own needs? What did they do to resist your request? Who was the better strategist?

Click here for the Amazon Page: “American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China by Matthew Polly”

Matthew Polly’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 step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Color of Water, a memoir of race, family and fabulous writing

by Jerry Waxler

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

James McBride’s mother, Ruth, taught her twelve children to reach for their dreams.  For example, a little-known clause in New York City’s educational system allowed her to send her kids to any school. She sent them to the best in the city where they were often the only blacks in the class. Despite her intense involvement in their lives, they knew little about her past. When James was a young boy, struggling to understand his racial identity, he asked her, “Are you white?” She evaded the question, replying, “I have light skin.” He couldn’t figure it out, and kept hounding her. “What color is God?” he asked. “He’s the color of water,” she said. “He doesn’t have any color.”

James McBride’s search for his racial identity intensified during adolescence. While his older siblings were earning college degrees, McBride rebelled so hard he ended up on a street corner, hanging out with punks stealing and dealing on their way down. In their company, something finally clicked and he realized the street corner was a dead end.

I should not be too surprised that McBride suffered while searching for his identity. During my adolescence, I too went through a period of uncertainty and anxiety so severe it turned self-destructive. One challenge for me was to figure out how a Jew was supposed to fit in to the Christian Melting Pot. After reading McBride’s memoir, I realize I had it easy compared to this boy with a white mother and a black father, trying to find his place in a culture that takes race far too seriously.

Surrounded by an all-black cast of siblings, neighbors, and extended family, he had no trouble finding the black half of his heritage, but his white relatives were a closed book. After college, less troubled but still curious, he applied his journalistic skills to discover the white half.

His requests to his mother became more focused, and finally after a lifetime of secrecy and angry refusal, she started talking. His interviews with her resulted in the New York Times bestselling memoir “Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” which weaves his mother’s tales of her youth into the author’s memories of his childhood.

Ruth’s reticence about her past reflected much that she preferred to forget. She grew up as an orthodox Jew in a small town in the south, shunned by her schoolmates, and raised by a cruel father who treated his wife and two children like servants. When Ruth set out to start her own life, she rejected everything about her father including his racism. She fell in love with and married a black man, triggering her entire family to reject her. The cut-off went in both directions. She broke off contact and eventually converted to Christianity.

If he wrote about his whole life, why wasn’t it an autobiography?

McBride’s life contains more than enough material for an entire memoir, and yet by the end of the book, we have also learned his aging mother’s history, a combined story that spans 80 years. This extended timeline defies the generally accepted rule that the journey of an entire life is an autobiography, a form supposedly more suitable for celebrities, politicians, and generals.

To write for strangers we’re supposed to limit ourselves to tighter timelines that focus on one particular aspect or period. Despite the broader scope of “Color of Water,” the book was fabulously successful, selling more than a million copies. How did this apparent autobiography earn such a prominent position as a highly acclaimed memoir?

In my opinion, “The Color of Water” compels me to turn pages for the same reason any good book does. The author has achieved expertise as a storyteller. McBride’s writing style was fostered by the years he worked as a professional journalist, reinforcing the comment I heard recently at a writing conference that the best preparation for any writer is to take a job as a reporter.

One scene offers an example of the lively nature of his writing. McBride’s older brother told him there was a surprise waiting in the closet. McBride peered into the dark to see what it was. The brother shoved him in and slammed the door. So far it sounds like a normal prank. The additional twist was that another brother, waiting quietly at the back of the closet, suddenly screamed and attacked, scaring McBride out of his wits. The two brothers had schemed to maximize the mischief, providing the reader with a vivid image of the loving mayhem that permeates McBride’s home.

Stylistically, the “Color of Water” jumps back and forth through time, interspersing tales of his mother’s childhood with his own. He even pops forward into the present, describing his trip to the small southern town where his mother grew up. As a reader I enjoy his time-weaving, but as a writer I find his style less accessible to analysis than a simpler, more chronologically organized tale. I wonder if his creative license comes from his years as a journalist or as a jazz musician, or more likely, both.

Somehow, McBride managed to achieve it all, thus proving that the power of memoirs is not in the rules but in the craft. Thanks to his excellent storytelling, James McBride ushered me into his life, where I joined the other million readers who also learned about the trials, pleasures, and challenges of this family and this man. Together we shared his tribute to his mother, Ruth McBride, and became one person wiser in our exploration of the vast range of human experience.

Writing Prompt
Write about a prank, an accident, or some explosive moment that left you disoriented and lets you show your characters in an almost otherworldly state of mind.

Writing Prompt
Look again at misadventures of your adolescence that you typically think of as stupid, misguided mistakes. Challenge your automatic self-attacks by writing about those events as if they were valuable experiments or detours along the longer road of growing up. For the purposes of this exercise, push your self-critic aside. Instead of judging yourself, simply tell the story.

Writing Prompt
Scan your life story writing, and pick an important scene you wish you could deepen. Interview a parent or sibling or, if they are not available, imagine you are interviewing them. Ask about their role in this scene, or their ideas about it, or about similar situations that they might have experienced. Use this real or imagined conversation to help flesh in some background to deepen your own scene.


For the Amazon link to Color of Water, click here.

For James McBride’s Home Page, click here.

Another bestselling memoirist John Grogan, author of Marley and Me, also started his career as a journalist. To read more about my take on Marley and Me, click here.

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

One man’s battle with sexuality changed the world

by Jerry Waxler

As a teenager, Frank Schaeffer was filled with lust for the young women who travelled from all parts of the world to visit the Christian center run by his parents. At the beginning of his memoir “Crazy for God,” I was beginning to wonder why there was so much sexual tension in a book that was supposed to be about religion and politics. Then, a few pages later I realized why this background was important. When he was just 18 years-old, his new girl friend became pregnant. They married and had the baby.

Like many people before him, Schaeffer discovered the shocking fact that sex has consequences, a lesson which faced him every time he changed his daughter’s diaper. As an intense young man, surrounded by preachers, he couldn’t simply leave his personal discovery alone. He had to turn it into a sermon, not against his own sexual exploits but against abortion. In a few years he was working tirelessly, a human dynamo trying to rouse Christians everywhere to stand up for the rights of the unborn.

According to Schaeffer, the evil of abortion should be as self-evident to a Christian as the law of gravity was to a physicist. And so, he thought he was doing the Lord’s work. Unfortunately, down this path rode the hounds of hell.

While the most fanatical believers of his point of view were bombing abortion clinics, a much more widespread result was burrowing into the fabric of society. The pressure of these absolute positions skewed the politics of the United States, turning churches into battlegrounds for the control of government, turning every election into a referendum on abortion.

Of course, abortion opponents make an obvious point. Murder is bad, and murdering babies is enough to wake anyone in the middle of the night, screaming for justice. But when exactly do multiplying cells become a baby? The answer differs depending on who you ask. To know the moment when abortion becomes murder, you must choose the right religious doctrine over the wrong one, a battle that has created war and terror since the beginning of history.

As Frank Schaeffer grew older, he realized how politicians were manipulating his religious ideas for their own ends. He started to notice that his rigid position frightened people. His position softened, and his respect for people with diverse beliefs grew. Most interesting for me, he came to see that the abortion debate sidles up alongside sexuality. With his help, I see that sex injects a complication into what was supposed to be a simple question of stopping murder.

Sex is the act that turns an egg into a baby, and religions have long felt the need to take control. For example, in the Bible there was a woman who took sex too lightly and the punishment was public stoning. His observation raises a fascinating issue. How many of them are fighting to contain sex? And on the other side of the debate, how many who favor abortion rights are trying to take away the consequences of sex? Finally he turned his back on the evangelical movement altogether.

If you tried to understand Frank Schaeffer at any particular era of his life, you would see only one aspect of the man. At one period, he looked like a randy teenager. Then, a confused teenaged father. After that, a zealous preacher. Later still, a hypocrite who continued to speak for large fees about things he no longer believed. Then, he looked like a starving artist, refusing those easy fees while he struggled to earn money as a novelist. Finally, you would see the Frank Schaeffer of today.

When the most recent Frank Schaeffer looks at the mob mentality around abortion, he sees a situation similar to the righteous people in the Bible who wanted to stone the prostitute. In his younger days, he was leading the charge, urging greater passion. The more mature man says, “Let’s think about it more clearly.” He certainly knew the line in the Bible “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone” but he didn’t actually hear it until he grew older.

Writing about the evolution of ideas in his memoir, Schaeffer offers a profound lesson for aspiring memoir writers. When we look back on our own history, we can see ourselves in each period, and discover the set of beliefs we held then. We couldn’t know what those ideas would look like a decade later. It’s only now, as we look back through the years, that we can understand how the ideas changed. It turns out the accumulated wisdom that we earned through the course of these years is not contained in any one snapshot of our life, but in our unfolding story.
Writing Prompt
Looking back across the span of your life, when did you believe in something strongly, even zealously, and then later come to understand that your rigid ideas had consequences? For example, did you drink, assuming it would cause no harm, only to find out later that it was ruining your liver or your family? Did you believe strongly that some group was “bad” only to later discover their depth? How did your religious or spiritual beliefs change?

Write an overview of the beliefs as they moved through time. Describe the key ah-ha moments, events, readings, and discussions that spurred you along. Write about the doubts and certainties. Show how the beliefs influenced your attitudes and choices. Explore the possibility that this evolution can support some or all of the power of your memoir.

Frank Schaeffer’s official website
“Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back” by Frank Schaeffer

Yin and Yang of Storytelling – Dramatic Tension of Opposites

by Jerry Waxler

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

An author’s job is to tie us in knots, forcing us to search for relief on the next page. Thrillers easily generate tension when the hero races to find and defuse a bomb. But how do writers create tension from ordinary life? To find out how one writer achieves this creative task, I peered into the collection of short stories, “Inheritance of Exile” by Susan Muaddi Darraj.

Each story shows characters caught in the emotions and circumstances of ordinary life, and yet despite their ordinariness, I feel engaged in their struggles, turning the page to learn more. As I seek to understand how Susan Muaddi Darraj has accomplished her hold on me, I notice a particular feature of the writing. She has superbly tapped the power of opposites.

Opposites generate texture in every aspect of ordinary life: sad and happy, rich and poor, young and old, hope and despair. It’s the yin-yang of nature, that oriental principle that claims each polarity contains its opposite. I knew about the principle, but I never noticed it as a tool for storytelling. Now I discover the secret hidden in plain sight.

Opposites, by their nature, create tension, like the sparks that jump across the two terminals of a battery. The tension pulls together when opposites attract, or pushes apart when we want to maintain our distance from the other. By juxtaposing the two sides and allowing us to feel the contrast, the writer generates energy, creating an intellectual and artistic feast. Here are examples of the opposites I noticed in these stories:

Girl and boy romance

While describing a relationship, the author maintains her protagonist’s feminine needs, and at the same time, she shows a deep empathy and understanding of the boy’s perspective.

Child and parent have two very different views

She shows characters at different stages of Coming of Age, wanting to grow up, and at odds with their parents. This universal tension can be confusing and polarized. And yet, somehow, Inheritance of Exile brings enormous compassion to these situations by giving us deeper understanding of the parents’ point of view.

Tension between rich and poor

To earn a few dollars, she sells hand-made baskets at a craft fair. People with lots of money stop by to look. The contrast between their economic situation and hers crackles with tension.

Hoodlums and law abiding working people

A working man is robbed at gun point, showing the stark contrast between these two lifestyles. The man works hard, pushing himself through the daily grind to support his family. The hoodlums break the law and steal what he built up. The scene creates an intense contrast of these opposing life choices.

Relationships with Father vs. Mother

The protagonist’s relationship with her mother and with her father are each formidable, each rich in emotion, tension, and love. The real power, though, comes from the juxtaposition of the child’s relationship with each. The difference in her connection with each of these two parents creates enormous tension that the character must sort through, and which drag me deep into their family dynamic. Mother-love and father-love, so different and so authentic, create dramatic tension that drives me not only to turn pages, but to ponder these truths of the human condition after I have closed the book.

Palestinian (immigrant) culture and American (dominant) culture

Of course, every immigrant copes with these two opposing forces – the confining boundaries of the culture-of-origin, and the inexorable crucible of the melting pot that demands escape from that confinement. Susan does an artful job of showing her characters moving sometimes easily and sometimes awkwardly between these two different states.

Life is a balance of opposites

All of life is caught in the pincers of endless pairs of opposites. Opposites create revolutions, hatreds, and passionate love. At a more ordinary level, we strive to balance or solve cold and hot, hunger and fullness, loneliness and anger. At every level of life, from physics and biology, individual life, and the history of civilizations, opposites move us forward. Find these opposites in your story to propel your reader’s attention forward as well.

Writing Prompt

To accentuate dramatic tension in your own story, look for the opposites. Use the same ones I noted from reading Inheritance of Exile or look for others: educated and not, healthy and sick, and so on.


The famous graphic symbol of yin and yang is a circle with the two black and white interlocking shapes. It is called Taijitu. Here’s a link to a wiki page.

Visit Susan Muaddi Darraj’s Portfolio

Visit Amazon’s page for Inheritance of Exile

More memoir writing resources

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.

Link isolated anecdotes into a story with the power of your beliefs

By Jerry Waxler

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

A memoir starts with a single anecdote. Then another, and another. In our imagination, we know these events formed our life. But other people can’t read our imagination. They can only read what’s on the page. We must transform the anecdotes into a compelling story. The memoir writer’s job is to discover the binding that will bring the reader from one event to the next. One place to look for this continuity is in your beliefs. Beliefs are important. They influence our decisions and shape our mood and emotion. And yet few writing classes explore the impact of ideas and beliefs.

To see how ideas can influence a life, see my essay about the beliefs that changed Henry Louis Gates’ attitude towards girls. In today’s essay, I explore this strategy further by looking within a series of my own anecdotes for the underlying beliefs that could help pull them together into a story.

High School Trolley

My own school, Central High in Philadelphia, drew academically inclined boys from all over the city, so at the end of the day each of us went off in different directions. Sitting by myself on the trolley, a pack of boys piled in from a nearby Catholic High School. They all knew each other and they shouted and laughed far more boisterously than the studious kids I knew. Even though they never bullied me, nor did they seem to be bullying each other, I kept very still. When I reached my stop, I nonchalantly pulled the cord to signal the driver, and squeezed my way to the door. It slapped open and I stepped down, safe again on a quiet street in familiar territory.

Brainstorm underlying ideas
I look more closely at my thoughts and feelings in this scene. What can I learn about my trust in people, my fragile pride, my ethnic identity, and the way a city kid could feel vulnerable in a crowd, hoping to remain invisible.

Freshman year debate
In Freshman year, I was a thousand miles from home, living in a high-rise dormitory at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a sprawling campus with thirty thousand students. Some upper classmen were visiting the dorm to debate the U.S. action in Vietnam, while the mainly freshman residents crowded in to the meeting room to listen. “The U.S. government is using Vietnam as an excuse to test its weapons. We shouldn’t be there.” “Oh, yeah? You’re a fool. If we don’t stop communism in Vietnam, it will spread and take over the world.”

I tried to find my own truth amidst their battle of ideas. I could barely keep up. How did these people know so much? And why were they filled with so much intensity? What did it all mean?

Sophomore Year
At the end of my freshman year, I went home to a quiet summer in Philadelphia, working as an assistant in a medical research lab, and working in my dad’s drugstore on weekends. In the fall, I returned to Madison. Amidst the hordes walking to and from class, I saw Kathy Bridgman, one of the only girls I had dated the previous year. The date didn’t go well. I had become so nervous I had to cut it short, and never went out with her again. Now, our eyes met, we smiled tentatively, and kept walking.

Walking with the crowd, I felt a  little lonely. Seeing Kathy tipped me off balance, reminding me of my social incompetence. How would I survive three more years?

Junior Year
A year later, in the fall of 1967, my hair in a frizzy mop, and sporting bushy sideburns, I approached a group of students who were gathering to block a classroom. By now, I had decided to join the protesters. Together we would alter the course of history. I crowded into a hallway of the Commerce Building, packed tightly, arms locked together. After we had been there for a while, police broke out the plate glass entry-way, stormed in and swung their clubs with force. Many students went to the hospital, including the girl who stood next to me. She needed emergency surgery for a ruptured uterus. The violence I had witnessed disturbed me. I had started out full of hope and ended more confused than ever.

What ideas drove me to protest? What other ideas drove the police to fight back with such violence? What happened to me, as my ideas shattered along with the day’s events?

Senior Year
For most of my senior year, I stayed alone in my apartment. Depressed, I skipped as many classes as possible. I was falling off the edge of my ambition, and collapsing into myself.

Search for the ideas
As these scenes first occurred to me, they seemed isolated. Now, by looking for continuity, I recognize the way crowds worked in my mind. I had always been fascinated by mobs in history. Now I could see that my academic curiosity was really about me. I was constantly looking for the balance between my desire to be inside a crowd, and my desire to be alone.

My Coming of Age was beset by this tension. In high school, I started out as a nerd, very much alone. Then at the university, I jumped in to crowds, deeper and deeper, until I felt stripped of my individuality. I lost my momentum and collapsed back into myself. Now, to collect the events and find a conclusion, I need to show how a more balanced understanding of groups redeemed me, filled me, and brought me back to life.

These anecdotes have not yet formed a story, but now I feel the dramatic tension that links one to the next, providing the seeds of an emotionally authentic and hopefully powerful tale, transforming isolated bits of memory into a story that will hold a reader’s attention from beginning to end.

Writing Prompt
Look at some of the anecdotes in your notebook. See if you can tease out the ideas that added power to each scene and linked it to the next. What additional background will offer the reader a greater understanding of your emotions and decisions?

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays 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 step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

His Relationship to Girls Changed in this Scene

By Jerry Waxler

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

Henry Louis Gates grew up in a small town in West Virginia in the 1950s where he was taught he shouldn’t associate with girls until he married one. Then a fractured hip landed him in a hospital in a university town 60 miles away. During his protracted stay, with his leg suspended in traction, he was befriended by a minister who let him in on the good news that in some forms of Christianity, God and girls can peacefully coexist. By the time his hip healed, his mind had opened to a more liberal set of rules than the ones he had been taught as a child.

After I finished reading Gates’ memoir, “Colored People” I tried to understand why I related so empathetically with his life, and I kept returning to that scene in the hospital, which drew me in so vividly I felt I too had stopped by to encourage him to live as fully as possible. The more I think about the scene, the more power I find in it.

One thing that makes the scene memorable is the hospital’s distance from his home. He traveled far away to find wisdom, a story element that has echoes in many of the great stories of our culture, like Homer’s Odyssey, or the Wizard of Oz. I too left home, traveling a thousand miles away to college in order to find my own deeper meaning. So I feel an intuitive rapport with this notion that leaving town stimulates deeper thought.

Writing Prompt
What part of your memoir took place far from home? What realizations did you have on your journey?

His broken hip hurts, and his body is being stretched by traction. He also worries about falling behind in school, and wishes he was playing with his friends. These physical and emotional discomforts generate compassion, illustrating the lesson writing coaches have been telling me for years; discomfort and tension help readers relate to the protagonist.

When beginning memoir writers first explore memories, we may not know what to do with unsettling moments. Most of our lives we have skated around the regrets, traumas, weaknesses. But good memoir writing is different from the breezy overview you might tell a new acquaintance at a party. Memoir writing digs deeper, searching for the material that will convey an authentic account of your journey, complete with ups and downs.

Writing Prompt
In your own memoir, what scenes of physical or emotional pain can draw the reader in to caring about you?

Mysterious Strangers
Regular visits from kind, supportive adults brings this scene to life. A doctor realized how lonely Gates was, and stayed to play chess. A minister talked to him about religion and growing up. What a lovely gift these strangers offered Gates, not only giving him the comfort of companionship, but also helping him understand some things about life.

Writing Prompt
What advisors have helped you shift your beliefs? It could be a word from a stranger, as it was in Henry Louis Gates’ young life. Or an uncle, mentor, friend, teacher, or book. Write your ideas before you received the advice and after. Describe the scene when your idea-altering experience took place.

My writing example
I was working on a computer project at my first “real” dayjob at United Engineers. Then the project was canceled and I was crestfallen. A grizzled old engineer said to me, with a twinkle in his eye, “Nolo bastardo carborundum.” I looked puzzled. He said, “It’s fake-latin for ‘Don’t let the bastards wear you down.'” I roared with laughter, and discovered that with a little wisdom, a dash of humor, and the supporting hand of a fellow human being, you can get through situations that otherwise could make you miserable.

The impact ideas have on life
Before he went into the hospital, Gates believed that being around girls was the devil’s work. After talking to a visiting minister, he believed that God was fine with girls. This is an exciting example of the power of ideas. With hardly any external action, a change of mind profoundly influenced his goals and choices.

Ideas have always played an important role in my own life. In high school I believed I needed to accumulate knowledge in order to become an adult, so I studied hard. After a year in college, my idea changed. I believed it was up to me to fix the world, so I protested. By the end of those four years, my idea changed again. I believed that my actions didn’t have any influence on the world, and I collapsed into a tangle of despair. When I was 24, I stumbled upon a spiritually-oriented set of ideas that let me steer through the extremes. I believed what I did mattered to the people in my life, and that was enough to get me back on my feet and into the game of life. At each stage, my ideas affected the way I felt and the path I chose.

Yet, despite the crucial role that ideas played in my own life, I rarely hear them mentioned in writing courses. In this age of cinema and television, story writers are taught to focus on action. But that skips over one of the most important things in human experience, the way we think. Storytellers know the importance of the human thought-process, and for eons have been weaving their protagonist’s ideas into the action. Now I have to train myself to do the same.

I sift through piles of anecdotes. Taken one by one, these individual incidents do not add up to a compelling whole, so I look for the sequence that, like DNA encoding, binds isolated events together, maintaining forward motion while revealing inner truth. I believe to find the links between the episodes, we need to pay attention to our mental process.

Ideas told us what choices are available, and which ones are best. Ideas created the expectations of what was “supposed” to happen, and these expectations lead to our disappointment or joy. Ideas defined our judgment of other people. Discover within your ideas the forces that shaped you, and can shape the most compelling story.

Writing Prompt
Identify a few key ideas that drove you. Watch how they changed over time. For example, your religious ideas guide you through ethical choices. Your ideas about psychology helped you overcome barriers between people. Perhaps you decided to trust people instead of hate them, or realized that forgiveness helps the forgiver as much as the ‘forgivee.’ See if you can find specific moments or scenes when these ideas changed.

In a future essay, I’ll experiment with scenes from my own memory, and brainstorm ways that the scenes and the ideas interact.

For more about Henry Louis Gates’ contribution to African American Literature, try this link.

See the classic text on the relationship between beliefs and mental well being, “Existential Psychotherapy” by Irvin D. Yalom

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.

Awakening bad memories helps shape your new life

by Jerry Waxler

One night in the summer of 1968, I walked along a busy street in Madison Wisconsin with my friend Ely, a soft-spoken math graduate student, and his girl friend Joan. We were enjoying the cool evening breeze, in a college town relatively quiet during the summer holiday. Then we heard shouting. I turned around and saw five boys rushing towards us. I shouted at them to stay away, and the ringleader tackled me and threw me down. Then the others swarmed around me and kicked. Ely asked them to stop. A boy punched him in the mouth and split his lip.

Joan screamed, and passing cars honked. Then a getaway car pulled up and the boys drove off. The intern at the hospital expressed no interest in how violated I felt. Reluctant to order an X-ray, he brushed off my headache. “Of course it hurts,” he said. “You were kicked in the head.” It turned out, he was right. I had no serious physical injury. By now almost dawn, two policemen took me back to look for my contact lens. When I was a protester, I hated the police, but now, these two men were shining their flashlights, bending down and looking for the tiny piece of plastic that enabled me to see. I felt an unexpected flush of gratitude.

Joan had written the license number, and with the help of a hippie lawyer we found that the ringleader was the son of the police chief of a small town 50 miles away. The lawyer and I split the settlement of $75.00. The rest of the summer I slunk around, racing into shadows when cars approached. In the fall, surrounded by thousands of returning students, I felt safe enough, and I let the incident slip into the past. After a few months I forgot it entirely.

Thirty three years later, in 2001, I was traumatized along with hundreds of millions of others by airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center. I wanted to help in some way so I took a workshop to qualify as a helper in community traumas. To learn how to conduct a group discussion, we were asked to talk about something that had happened to us. As I prepared, I unearthed my memory of being beaten.

Until that time, I had never thought in detail about the scene. Now as I tried to explain it, I saw it more clearly, describing who was there, what happened next, and so on. The event seemed important, so I tried to go deeper by writing about it. As it took shape on paper, it gradually changed from a vague, disturbing set of memories into a story.

With the Vietnam War raging, my attention was diverted from typical college concerns. All I could think about was the war. I didn’t think it was justified or fair, so I protested. I wanted to protect myself, the Vietnamese people, and the boys who were getting sent into danger. I thought my goals were noble, so why would anyone attack me?

To tell a more complete story, I tried to picture one of the high school boys in his home, eating dinner with his dad, who was probably a veteran of World War II. Dad was praising the soldiers who were out with machine guns and artillery hunting down the enemy. This was how Americans defend their freedom. Dad expressed his fear that if protesters stopped the war, it could unleash chaos, and threaten their way of life. The protesters must be stopped. So his sons protest the protesters by beating up someone with long hair. They were upholding the values of their family and country.  Under the circumstances, their actions were the most honorable thing they could have done.

Now, these many years later, I know a lot more about war trauma than I did back then. I imagine that one of those boys had an older brother serving in Vietnam. Instead of being kicked, he was getting shot at and watching his companions blown to pieces before his eyes. If he lived, he would for years continue to be assaulted by memories that repeatedly tear him apart. Flashbacks are the other way humans deal with trauma.

While flashbacks sound like the opposite of forgetting, these two reactions have one thing in common. They both leave you powerless to think clearly about the original experience and so the events remain stuck in their original shape. Only later, after you start trying to communicate, can you slow down and put things together.

Writing the memories gives me new power over them
I never understood the way the mugging influenced the following years. I always thought my profound depression was caused by some generalized angst. I didn’t make the connection with the trauma because I had forgotten it. I had not made the connection between being attacked and my loss of interest in protesting. I just thought my disengagement from the protests was because the whole thing was too emotionally exhausting. Now I see that beating was intended to stop me from protesting, and I got the message. My body wounds healed, but that part of me that wanted to share my opinions never did.

Writing the story reveals another powerful truth about that night in 1968. It was just one moment in time. Storytelling drags and pushes me to the next day and the next, until eventually I find myself on more stable ground. I find myself more whole.

How can writing help me grow?
As my storytelling reveals that night as one night in my six decades of life, I consider my decision to stop expressing my opinion. Must I for the rest of my life please everyone for fear they won’t like me and beat me up? If I am true to myself, I inevitably will displease some people. Everyone is different and unique. Now, instead of being limited by the decisions of a scared young man, I am working on a more public approach to my opinions that allow me a more vibrant relationship to the world. Diving into painful memories has helped me grow towards expressing my greater potential as an individual unique, human being.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about a time when you felt wronged. After you write it from your point of view, write another story about that experience from the other person’s point of view, seeing the way they justified their action initially, and the way they justified or forgave themselves afterwards.

Writing Prompt
In an experience you had that seemed traumatic, write a story in which that experience was the beginning, and then proceed from there. Look for a way to resolve the dramatic tension by reaching stable ground, or coming to terms with the trauma, or find some new direction or lesson that resulted in a positive ending.

For another essay I wrote about PTSD and the horrors of war, click here.

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