Author and creative writing teacher helps me steer between fact and fiction

by Jerry Waxler

Last year, I attended a writing conference at Rosemont College hosted by Philadelphia Stories journal. At one of the sessions, I met Susan Muaddi Darraj and purchased a book of her collected fiction called “Inheritance of Exile.” The protagonist of the stories was a Palestinian woman who grew up in South Philadelphia in circumstances similar to Muaddi Darraj’s own childhood.

The characters in “Inheritance of Exile” felt authentic. I loved their introspective world, their frustration, despair, and hope. I connected with their romances and their interaction with their families. And I even deepened my imagination of my own ancestors who also were immigrants in Philadelphia. [See my essay on that topic here.]

The interplay between fact and fiction enhanced my reading, but I wanted to know more about how it felt to the writer so I asked Susan Muaddi Darraj to help me understand how she the world she is creating with the one about which she is writing. And since she is a writing teacher, I wanted to know what she tells her students.

Jerry Waxler: When I was a student, literature was taught as an art form that had value in its own right. Now that I’ve become obsessed with memoirs, my view of literature has shifted. I now look at stories as a window into the human condition. Judging from the authenticity of your characters and situations, I’m wondering how you feel about the connection between story and life. Are stories art? Or are they a way to share the experience of human beings? Or some of each?

Susan Muaddi Darraj:
I do think literature serves multiple purposes. Its primary purpose is to serve as art — that aesthetic goal is always first and foremost. But literature also has an opportunity to comment and describe other worlds to the reader — not monolithic “worlds,” but a view of life as experienced by that particular author. For example, in this story collection, “Inheritance of Exile,” I tried to express what life was like for not all Palestinian emigres, but for a particular socio-economic class of emigres who had settled into a working-class, urban environment.

JW: Writers must learn all sorts of micro-skills such as word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, characterization and so on. The authentic characters in your stories make me wonder if writers also need to be exquisite observers. Must we also get degrees in psychology, sociology, and anthropology?

SMJ: No, but you still need to do your research as a writer. The best writing I have ever read is that in which it is clear that the author has spent time conducting or doing research of some kind — and the research could take place on many levels: looking up the right word for a particular object, researching the jargon used by archaeologists because you’ve decided to make one of your characters an archaeologist, etc.

JW: Can explain how you learned the skills of careful observation?

SMJ: Reading, watching, listening, always keeping a notebook in my purse…

JW: How do you teach these skills of careful observation to aspiring writers, or recommend that they learn?

SMJ: The writer’s notebook is a lost art form in itself! I always tell my students (I teach a fiction workshop in the Johns Hopkins graduate writing program) that keeping a notebook to jot down observations and ideas is vital.

JW: Could you share some insight or examples of the way the notebooks help you add vitality to your stories.

SMJ: I am a marvelous eavesdropper — I listen to conversations around me all the time and am always affected by the tone of people’s voices, their diction, as well as the stories they tell. I write those observations down. I also clip out news items or articles or pictures that strike me in some way. For example, who knows when I will need to describe a log cabin some day in a story I’m writing? If I do, I have a photograph clipped out of a magazine, to give me some parameters.

JW: I struggle to understand how fiction writers create characters. For example, are they composites stitched together from a variety of observations? That seems risky to me. Can a writer really invent a person from whole cloth or cobble one together from bits? Especially in first person stories such as yours, creating the thoughts and feelings of real people seems difficult. Could you say more about how you invent your characters?

SMJ: My characters are not composites, although I suppose they are sometimes inspired by particular traits I do observe in people in the real world. My characters seem like real people to me, and so I often spend a lot of time just thinking about them in my mind before I commit them to paper. I think about them in terms of “How would x react to this particular event?” Their responses to people and reactions to incidents tells me a lot about their personalities, their fears, their desires.

JW: Did you grow up telling stories, or was story telling a learned skill? Was a family hobby? If it was learned, how did you come to it?

SMJ: My father is a wonderful storyteller and a great writer as well. He told us stories every night — things he invented, stories he spun based on prompts we would give him (“Tell me a story about a fish, or about going to the supermarket,” etc…). And my mother taught me to read quite early, so I always had a book with me everywhere I went — long car rides were a joy for me, for example. I could finish two books in the time it took us to drive from Philadelphia to visit my grandparents in New York.

JW: Many aspiring memoir writers wonder if their lives would be best told in fictional form.  What do you think about this option? What are the pros and cons?

SMJ: Every work of fiction is inspired to some degree by the author’s life. The limit to this is that if a character is based too closely on you, you will be afraid, hesitant, to allow that character to behave badly. And that’s just not realistic — people behave badly all the time, and it’s quite interesting when they do. They make poor choices, etc. Once you have committed a character to paper, then you have to cut the umbilical cord with him or her and just allow him or her to be…

JW: Your protagonists are young women who grew up in Philadelphia in an immigrant home. So while you have not written about your own life, you have written things that you know. Did you find this confusing, steering your characters, settings, and situations in the strange space between actual experience and imagination?

SMJ: Not really. The cultural aspects of the stories are things that I know, but most things were invented, such as the particular situations, etc.

JW: John Barth, author of “End of the Road,” came to speak at the University of Wisconsin in the 60’s. After the lecture, I asked him if his novels were based on real life, and he looked disgusted. What do you feel when someone asks you if your stories are autobiographical? Do you think it’s a disrespectful question?

SMJ: I just think that, in recent years, because of the growth of memoir as a genre, readers want fiction to also be based on the author’s life. It’s one way of grasping the work, or accessing it — that is, to make it connect to the real life of the writer. I don’t think it’s a disrespectful question, but it is wearying when people ask me that, because I feel that it doesn’t recognize the art of invention, the work it takes to sit down in a chair and create this fictional world.

JW: As a published writer, you expose your thoughts, your imagination, your mental world. It’s a goal all writers strive for, and yet, I suspect once we get there, it has its pros and cons. Could you share your experience of what it’s like letting people “in” to see parts of your mind.

SMJ: I have no complaints! It’s been nothing but fun. I admit that if I were a New York Times bestselling author who was doing lots of interviews and traveling all the time, I would probably miss my writing time a bit. All writers, in the end, are solitary people — it’s the nature of the job — and I think we crave that quiet time.

Susan Muaddi Darraj Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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.

Lord of the Flies in Los Angeles: The terrible logic of uncivilized boys

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 read a disturbing fantasy about a group of boys stranded on an island. Without any adults to enforce the rules, the characters in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” turned against each other. Their vicious behavior made me wonder, “Could civilization really fall apart that quickly?” Recently I found a chilling answer in the memoir “True Notebooks” by Mark Salzman. At the urging of Sister Janet Harris, founder of a program called the InsideOut Writers, Salzman volunteered to teach creative writing to a class of juvenile offenders. Not only did “True Notebooks” remind me that boys murder each other right here in American cities.

By telling them to write he allowed them to express things they would never have spoken. When the boys read their work, they engaged in some remarkable exchanges that showed me how they think and feel.

It looks like William Golding made some realistic assumptions about the brutality that boys are capable of, but the mental process of the Los Angeles gang members was more sophisticated than I expected. The gangsters maintained fierce loyalty towards their group, passionately defended their honor, and loved their mothers. Rather than being outlaws, they were actually doing their best, even risking their lives to follow the code of their neighborhood tribe.

However, while they were obeying the laws of one tribe, they were breaking the laws of another. When they murdered the kids of the wrong color, they crossed a line. Now that they were murderers, society could look at them with disgust. They had become the enemy.

When Salzman dragged my mind to the other side of the razor wire fence, I was at first horrified. But the more I listened, the more I saw real children with feelings and dreams and minds. A sob welled up in my throat, caused not by their failure, but my own. We all know there are kids out there being led down these paths.

Can’t we reach out and help them, before they veer too far off the path, the way another memoir writer, Erin Gruwell, was able to do? In Freedom Writers Diary she tells of using writing and literature to help high school kids see each other as human beings rather than enemies. (For more about Erin Gruwell’s memoir, the Freedom Writers Diary, see this link.)

As I broke past my reluctance and started looking at the world through the eyes of these murderers eyes, a light started to dawn. I realized their behavior was more civilized than it first appeared. I grew up watching war movies, during which I cheered every time an enemy died. It was part of my training as a civilized person. Any enemy holding a gun must be shot before they shoot you. The boys in prison had learned the lessons of civilization too well. They had joined their neighborhood army to defeat the enemies in the other neighborhoods. They were doing their best to follow the laws of civilization.

Once a rival was defined as an enemy, his life lost all meaning, making it easy to pull the trigger. My first impression was that these boys were learning some awful, primitive, tribal custom. Now I see that in their youthful enthusiasm, they were playing at the same “kill thine enemy” approach that I grew up admiring.

An even more horrifying observation comes to mind. I’ve been doing the same thing with these boys as they did to each other. I’m perpetuating the situation by my willingness to throw their lives on the garbage pile. If I want to stop them from dehumanizing their enemies, I have to stop dehumanizing them.

William Golding’s book “Lord of the Flies” created a sense of terror at the Shadow Side that lurks within the human heart. Salzman did the opposite. He showed me a glimpse of compassion where I least expected it.

When each of Salzman’s boys read his stories, the other boys responded with empathy. They began to see each other as real people instead of enemies. This willingness to open up and see their enemies as people is similar to what happened to me. Before they told their stories, they were outlaws and murders, consigned to the other side of an impenetrable line. After listening to them, the line moved, and I discovered they are people. As I watched their hearts open to each other, and mine open towards them, I am reminded of a much deeper lesson of civilization than “kill thine enemy.” The ultimate way to defeat enemies is to turn them into friends.

Writing Prompt
Have you ever felt like “The Other” for example when visiting a cultural center where you felt like an outsider? What emotions, vulnerabilities, or other human elements would you like to let these people know in order to convince them you are a real person.?

Writing Prompt
When have you felt entitled to remove the rights of others? By hating them, what aspects of that group’s members must you ignore?

Note
Salzman was recruited to teach a writing course by Sister Janet Harris, of the Inside Out Writers program,

Note
Amazon Page: “True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall” by Mark Salzman

Note

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

Memoir author speaks of spirituality, religion, and cancer

Interview with author Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg by Jerry Waxler

When Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg was diagnosed with breast cancer, she and her friends were busy organizing a conference to protect the environment. So her journey through doctor’s offices, chemotherapy, and surgery takes place against a rich back drop of family, spirituality, and rivers of community support. (“I have cancer, but I also have friends.”) She skillfully and generously shares her experience in the memoir “The Sky Begins at your Feet,” offering insights that expand my horizons about life as well as about life writing.

Caryn is also a poet, a writing teacher, and the founder of Goddard College’s Master’s Degree Program in Transforming Language Arts. In the following two-part interview she offers observations about writing this memoir, and suggestions that may help any memoir writer overcome difficulties on their quest to share their own stories.

In Part 1 below, Caryn offers observations about how she conveys spirituality, religion, and grieving. In Part 2, (click here to read Part 2) she talks about style, privacy, and some of the ways her memoir has touched the public.

Jerry Waxler: For many people, the two words “religion” and “spirituality” seem so different as to almost be opposite to each other. And yet in your view, you straddle the fence nicely between them. This is a powerful addition to the memoir literature I have read, because I know of many people who wish they could convey their spirituality but don’t know how to find the language. You are so eminently comfortable with the most intimate details of your own search for transcendence I wonder if you could explain how you came to be so comfortable sharing these intimate details of your life.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: As a seeker and a writer, I find the two yearnings — to create and to connect with the sacred — to come from the same impulse: to feel as fully alive as possible. How to write about religion and spirituality wasn’t really something I thought much about; it simply happened because both spirituality and religion are vital parts of my life. I guess I see religion as one part of spirituality that’s institutionalized, and added to the institutional mix is community, group dynamics, group governance, etc., which can be messy but also beautiful. Last week when I went to Yom Kippur services, I had a moment of looking around and thinking how odd and amazing it was that I knew so many of the people around me from various parts of my life, but here — at our services — we entered collectively into the somewhat tribal, confusing and challenging practices of Judaism. I also found it wild that I shared some of the most intimate communal prayers with people, some of whom I didn’t share anything else intimate with ever. That’s the magic of collective spirituality: you can share profound moments with people who drive you crazy, people you hardly know, people you know from other contexts too. I’ve also always been Jewish plus. What I mean by that is that I’ve explored other traditions from Sufi dancing in my 20s through Buddhism in my 30s and 40s to Yoga today.

JW: You use a substantial amount of Jewish lore and practice in the memoir. Of course, not all readers have a background in these references, so it seems that the memoir takes a step into an interesting territory for any memoir writer who might ask, “How much of my unique background will be interesting to readers?” When you wrote the references to Judaism, did you worry that non-Jews would not understand it?

CMG: Some of my own spiritual journey through cancer has included Jewish traditions, myths and practices because integral to my story. At the same time, I tried to contextualize and explain references so that non-Jews would better understand them. Because I live in Kansas, where there is a very small Jewish population, I’ve also done readings from this book, and I find that people tend to understand the Jewish context. Some things, such as the story of Jacob, are well-known to many people, as is the tradition of a Bar Mitzvah. Other aspects I found that people could understand with a bit of reference. I wasn’t worried about this issue just as I don’t think Christian or Buddhist or Moslem authors would need to filter their spiritual experience when telling a story with spiritual aspects.

JW: Can you offer any advice to other memoir writers who wish they could authentically describe their own transcendent beliefs.

CMG: It’s like writing anything: you have to find your own truest words, dive into it, and surrender to what wants to be said instead of what you think you should say. At the same time, I think it’s far more effective to describe the big stuff of life — spiritual struggles, traumas and wounds, giant yearnings or losses — by entering through the backdoor. By that, I mean you can convey the depth of what you’re writing by aiming toward specific detail and specific moments instead of making pronouncements about what it all means. In fact, I think it’s dangerous to try to say what it all means too fast or sometimes at all. For example, I described the moment of my father’s death as surprisingly ordinary, and I told readers how I paced back and forth on the deck, what the sky was like, how my voice sounded when describing the moment I found out I would need chemo. Our sensory experiences — what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch — are powerful tools for bringing readers to the vital and living emotions and realizations we find, which never happen in a vacuum, but always somewhere at some time, such as sitting in a lawn chair in early autumn and suddenly seeing a crow land on a dying tree, and knowing something new at that moment.

JW: I love the way you use the concept of “grieving” in the book. At one point you say you were grieving your loss of strength. Another time you say, “another part of me I sloughed off.” In popular use, the word “grieving” tends to be used for coping with the death of a loved one. You are using it in a broader sense here. Please say more about how the process of grieving has been extended to help you adjust to life through its various stages and changes.

CMG: There are all kinds of causes for grief in this life, and luckily, all kinds of causes for joy too, sometimes even joy and grief simultaneously. For me, it was important to name what I was losing, whether it was my breasts, my strength, my sense of humor, my father, etc. as a way to tell my true story. I needed to look at the loss and feel the grief because my life as continually illuminated how the only way out is through. I also realize that as I age — just as all of us — I will be losing things all along the way, such as the capacity to run down the street, or sleep eight hours straight (well, I already lost that one!), or get through a day without discomfort or pain, and certainly the speed at which I live my life and how much I can get done in an hour. That great poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” states, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master/ so many things are filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” I also heard a novelist, Julia Glass, on the radio the other day say that all novels are really about how to go on with life in spite of whatever happens. I hope my memoir also points toward how to go on with life, and to find greater life in learning from whatever life gives us.

Links

 

Click here for Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s website

Click here for more information about Caryn’s Transformative Language Arts Program at Goddard College

 

Click here for the Transformative Language Arts Network

Click here to visit the Amazon page for The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

This interview is part of the blog tour hosted by Women on Writing. To see Caryn’s Blogtour page, click here.


Teaching Memoirs, Meeting Locals, Making Memories

by Jerry Waxler

When my wife’s sister, Judy, heard that her local writing group was looking for a writing teacher, she mentioned my name. She has been encouraging us to come to visit her town, Salida, with lots of artists, tucked in a valley amidst the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. If it worked out, I could teach memoir writing, while making a few memories of my own.  The directors of the group checked out my blog and other material on my website, and we began to brainstorm about how it would work.

All the memoir classes I had taught previously were broken into two hour segments. This workshop would go for eight hours straight, so one challenge would be to tailor the course to this new format. And I worried about my stamina. Would they need to carry me out on a stretcher at the end of the day? Over the next few weeks, I worked out a class schedule that I felt would offer the same value as the individual sessions. And the best way to find out if I could survive an all-day class was to try. My wife and I agreed the Rockies would create a welcome diversion from south eastern Pennsylvania, so we said “Yes. Let’s do it.”

In September, we flew in to the Denver Airport. On our drive to Chaffee County, we stopped at Colorado Springs to walk through the Garden of the Gods, a magnificent collection of brilliant orange spires, like fingers reaching up to the sky. We only had an hour to appreciate what it had taken God a million years to create. The rest of the drive was almost as spectacular. Along the canyon of the Arkansas River, the mountain faces kept changing color and texture, as if each section had been formed during a different era. I felt like I was watching the history of the earth unfold before my eyes.

In Salida, Judy showed us around the local art shops and historical buildings. The renovated Steam Plant is the home of the theater where she volunteers, and that night she took us to a rock concert, where we listened to good quality regional rock and roll, standing or swaying on a dance floor with the locals.  The next day, we ate breakfast at Bongo Billy’s Cafe, which like the Steam Plant, is a restored historical building. On the red brick walls hang works of local art and a poster that offered, “How to Build a Global Community.” I stood there and read every suggestion, as if the poster could help me understand the heart of Salida. One rule was “Visit people, not places.” I liked that rule and thought I could honor it on this trip, starting with the 25 people who had signed up for my class.

At 8 AM the next morning, arriving early at the church where the workshop was to be held, I greeted people on their way in and asked them what they wanted to accomplish in the class. Every good story starts with desire. The personal introductions segued naturally into a formal class, in which I offered an overview of memoir writing. Then it was time to learn techniques. After the first lesson, about finding the timeline, I gave a writing prompt. “Write a scene about one of the homes you lived in.” Their heads went down, and pens moved, allowing them the opportunity to ideas into action.

When it was time to read aloud, I asked them to break into groups of three so each could read their writing to two others. The room buzzed with energy while I sat alone and planned my next module. When they were done, I spoke some more, we discussed more, and they wrote and read to their small groups. The lunch break was in the adjoining kitchen, with a feast of pot luck dishes that included salads, cookies, and fruit. And then we started again.

By mid-afternoon, we had been focusing for five hours and I was running out of energy, but I couldn’t stop now. I had to press on, in an excellent example of life imitating art. The next lesson was about the long middle of a story, which could become bogged down in the passage of time. To keep the story moving, the protagonist must face and overcome obstacles. I gave one more prompt. “Write about a significant obstacle in your life.” Heads bowed, and when they looked up, this time I asked them to share their writing with the whole group.

One by one, they shared critical moments: near deaths, loves lost, disease, and recovery. I leaned forward in my chair, inspired by the variety and depth of human experience, and the power of memoir writing to shape those memories and share them. Some students choked back tears. Others were more stoical, while the rest of us nodded, and murmured in empathy. Many said, “It’s the first time I shared this with strangers.” Of course the details are protected by confidentiality, but now that the stories have been told in one group setting, my experience tells me the participants will have an easier time sharing stories in the future.

After each reading, I commented on how it fit into the course material and how they might develop it further. When we ran out of time, I thanked them for sharing their lives, and we were done. But it wasn’t over quite yet. While we were cleaning up, many people walked up and thanked me. “You helped me think about my life in a new way.” These expressions of appreciation made me feel my day was a success.

I carried out to the car the few remaining books from the stack I had brought with me to sell, one a how-to guide for writing memoirs, and the other a workbook for overcoming obstacles that can interfere with writing. On the drive back to our lodging, I shared thoughts about memories and family with Judy, who had attended the class as well.

When I returned to our room, my wife was excited by her own adventure. She had spent most of the day at an equestrian competition, watching riders roping, herding, and other events. When Janet is around horses, she’s happy, so the day was a success for her too.

To continue the horse theme, I suggested we take a trail ride to see more of the beautiful countryside. Asking around, we found a recommendation for Bill’s Sport Shop in Leadville. The next morning, we met the trail guide, George, a salty man with smiling eyes, and lots of creases in his face who bragged about his recent 77th birthday. We brushed the horses, (mine was named Ringo), saddled up and walked out amidst the big peaks and big skies of Colorado, through scrubby arid hillocks, and stands of pine trees. George turned around in his saddle to tell us about his life, working in a mine, losing his best friend in 1969 and even some bits about his love life. His love for his herd of 30 horses was obvious, considering he knew each one by name and told us anecdotes about many of them.  I was the last of the three riders, and Ringo was a little pokey so sometimes George’s voice drifted back to me and other times I ambled in silence.

Four hours later, we took the saddles off, and he let us give the horses their treat of grain. As we were leaving, I asked him, “Are you a cowboy?” He said, “I’m going to be a cowboy when I grow up.” Getting to know George, who had lived and worked in this area his whole life, I felt like I had fulfilled the suggestion on the poster at Bongo Billy’s. We were not just visiting places, but meeting people as well.

We pulled on to the road and headed out of town, back towards the Denver Airport. Leaving the mountains behind, my wife said, “I like this trip. Maybe you can find more places to teach memoir writing workshops.” “I don’t know hon. I’ll ask around.”

Note

To purchase a copy of  the poster, “How to Build Global Community” by Melinda Levine, search on the internet. For example, I turned up this link.

Chaffee County also hosts summer white water rafting down the Arkansas River, skiing at nearby Monarch Mountain, mountain climbing – it’s surrounded by fourteen thousand foot peaks of the Fourteeners. It is also on the route of the famous “Ride the Rockies” bicycle tour.

Is memoir a genre? Consider these matched pairs.

by Jerry Waxler

For more insight into the power and importance of memoirs, read the Memoir Revolution and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.

I first became aware of matching pairs of memoirs after the publicity campaign last year for the memoir “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff, whose son Nic was addicted to crystal meth. The dad’s memoir was accompanied by the memoir, “Tweak”, written from Nic Sheff’s point of view, about the nightmarish period of his addiction. The two books created a well-deserved media splash, including the interview I heard on national public radio. I read both books and learned so much, seeing this tragic situation from two different, and yet intimately connected perspectives.

Then, I read a less self-conscious pair of memoirs, Joan Rivers’ “Enter Talking” and Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up.” Written decades apart, these memoirs describe the journey of the two comedians from anonymity to fame. Despite their overlapping topics, I felt as curious through the second as I was through the first. The two books complemented each other, giving me deeper insight than either would have done alone.

Recently I read the New York Times bestseller “Color of Water” by James McBride, son of a black Christian father and a white Jewish mother. I found the book informative and uplifting. After I finished, I noticed a similar book near the top of my reading pile, “Black, White, and Jewish,” by Rebecca Walker. Previously, I might have rejected it on the premise that one memoir about mixed-race parents was enough. But now, I was eager to learn more.  “Black, White, and Jewish” turned out to be invigorating, another excellent read, and another window into one of my favorite topics, an individual’s search for identity.

Despite the superficial similarities of the two books, they were massively different. Rebecca was trained in literary arts. James was journalist and jazz musician. Rebecca’s mother was Alice Walker, the famous black author of “The Color Purple.” James’ mother was an anonymous white woman, whose only claim to public attention was that she was usually the only white person in the room. Rebecca spent her childhood shuttling back and forth between posh white communities on the east coast and multi-racial communities in San Francisco. James lived exclusively in black urban areas. The differences go on and on.

Each of the books informed me in ways the other had not. By reading memoirs, comparing them, and adding up my experience, I am increasingly convinced these tales of real life are emerging as a full-fledged genre.

What is a genre?

When a reader picks up any detective novel, the expected formula for the book is that someone dies and then the protagonist sleuths to unmask the killer. Of course, within the formula, the author introduces all manner of variations. The murder could be motivated by power, revenge, or greed. The detective could be a grandmother in town for the holiday, a hard-nosed cop, or a burned out private eye.

At first, it may seem impossible to fit memoirs into a well-defined formula. But despite the infinite variations in people’s lives, memoirs all share certain features, and these shared features appear to define a category. While every memoir stretches the “rules” in some way, they have enough in common that I have put together the features of what looks like a genre to me.

A memoir is a story

A memoir is driven by the power of its story, a formula as old as recorded history. In the beginning of a story, the protagonist feels some need, frustration, or desire. Circumstances force the protagonist on a journey, moving past obstacles by making choices. Eventually, a little older and hopefully wiser, the protagonist reaches some conclusion, and the dramatic tension is relieved.

Inside the protagonist’s perspective

Memoirs place our point of view inside the protagonist’s mind. Seeing the world from a real person’s mind generally feels significantly more nuanced and less predictable than what we expect in fiction.

Looking back with greater wisdom

While the bulk of a memoir takes place within a particular period, the reader knows that the author is writing this book after the experience is complete. This is tricky because we know the author has gained wisdom about this experience, but the story starts before the protagonist knew what was coming. A strong memoir will release information slowly and in its own time, stringing us along and building suspense. As a memoir reader, I enjoy this intriguing relationship between author and protagonist, and am always eager to reach the end to learn what lessons the author has discovered.

Character Arc of the protagonist is a valuable aspect of a memoir

The stories we admire most tend to be the ones that allow the protagonist to grow. For example, they gain insight into their moral responsibilities, or achieve emotional closure that convinces us they will be less likely to repeat their mistakes.

Truth

Memory is slippery. Conversations can seldom be remembered word for word even a few hours later, and major events which seem clear in one person’s mind might be remembered differently by a sibling. Memoir writers do their best, and readers expect that the story is told as truthfully as possible through the eyes of a fallible human being.

How will you fit your lifestory into this budding genre?

There is a good chance the main theme of your life has already been covered in someone else’s memoir. There are books about immigration, dysfunctional parents, foster kids, searching for spirituality in an ashram, coming under fire in Vietnam, losing a loved one, or any of dozens of themes that have been written elsewhere.

And yet, despite the similarities between your story and ones that have already been written, yours will be different because this one is about you. It’s written in your voice, through your perspective, with the particular characters in your life, and the beliefs that sustained you or pulled you astray. All the things that make your life unique will make your memoir unique. By telling your own story, and then publishing it so others can read it, you take your place on the shelf amidst the rest of the authentic life story literature of the twenty-first century.

Notes
One of the first memoirs I reviewed for my blog was about the search for identity by another young man with mixed race parents, “Dreams of Our Fathers” by Barack Obama.

Essay about James McBride’s search for identity in “Color of Water”
An essay about Joan Rivers’ tenacity in “Enter Talking”

Essay about Steve Martin’s fame in “Born Standing Up”

Essay about two memoirs by an addicted son and his father, 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 how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

A Healthy Community Needs a Healthy Writer’s Group

by Jerry Waxler

A regional writing group in which I participate asked me to contribute to an application for a 501c3 status as a non-profit community organization. Since this is a topic about which I have been passionate for years, I had a number of ideas that I had never written in one place. Now, as I research the ways a writing group helps the community, I extend the conversation out to you. If you need such a document in your own writing group, or you want to offer your ideas and suggestions  to our group, please write your comments, links, and suggestions, below.

Since 2001, when I joined a writing group called Writers Room in Doylestown, PA, I considered writing groups a crucial part of my life. I am now the workshop chairman for the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, GLVWG where I have volunteered at monthly meetings and the annual conferences, served on the board, and spoken at area Libraries, and I am on the Board of Directors of the non-profit group, Philadelphia Writers Conference. Why do I invest so much of my time and energy into writing groups? Because I have observed that healthy writer’s groups contribute to healthy individuals and communities.

GLVWG, like every writing group, consists of people who are engaged in a three-dimensional endeavor. First, members reach inwards, developing the skills to converting thoughts to writing. Second, they reach towards their peers, to encourage each other, develop networks, and create a healthy organization. And third, they reach out to surrounding neighborhoods and towns, using the craft of writing to engage others in the larger community.

So it turns out when writers come together in a non-profit organization like GLVWG, their writing, which is often perceived as a solo activity, is transformed into a contribution to the “common weal.”

Activities sponsored by GLVWG

GLVWG engages in a variety of activities, all staffed by volunteers.

  • Monthly meetings
    Library Talks
    Firehouse Friday, public reading
    Annual conference
    Monthly discussion circles
    Workshops
    Newsletter

None of these activities compete with commercial ventures, and taken together offer a wide array of benefits to individual, group, and community.

Communities need more facilities to teach the life skill of writing

Writing is a life skill, necessary for all sorts of communication. However, after our formal education is over, there are few places where we can improve these skills. Our community is under-served in this regard. GLVWG provides such training opportunities, offering a place where community members gather to share creative passion, and learn about writing.

Through GLVWG, published authors contribute to the community

The writing group attracts published authors to the area, and also brings the ones already in the area out of their homes and into the community, where they offer talks and booksignings at local independent and chain bookstores, craft fairs, and libraries.

Writing promotes regional culture

Culture, as expressed through such media as music, drama, and writing, represent the creative expression of society. Writers make an especially important contribution to culture, because in addition to its artistic merits, writing also informs. The members of GLVWG contribute to this culture in many ways. We write for entertainment, for the healing of self and others, and call our neighbors out for social action. Taken as a whole our writing forms the backbone of human culture.

Writing helps democracy and civic life

As many social commentators have observed, reading is necessary for a healthy democracy. In order to read, we need writers. GLVWG writers participate in all the local and regional media. Our members are reporters, bloggers, and contribute to group newsletters.

Writing groups help kids, families, and schools

GLVWG reaches out to young people. Parents and teachers pass on the value of writing to their children, encouraging them to explore poetry and storytelling. GLVWG runs a high school writing contest to stimulate and reward young writers. The young people who participate appreciate the opportunity to turn their creative energy towards the development of fictional worlds, giving them an outlet, as well as teaching them tools for their future employment and satisfaction.

Writing groups help seniors

Verbal activities are good for seniors, increasing mental stimulation and purpose, and reducing isolation. Many of our members are seniors. In addition, our members teach classes at senior centers. And as we teach and learn the arts of story writing, we preserve the stories of community members.

Writing groups help community religious institutions

Our members contribute to publications in their houses of worship, extending the connections of individual members into their own groups.

GLVWG collaborates with other nonprofits to provide cultural activities

Our group does not work on its own. We collaborate with a local theater to stage public readings. Members work with local senior centers to provide instruction. And we cooperate with a local non-profit storytelling guild, and book and art festivals. GLVWG provides people a place to gather, be entertained and learn. We have been featured in local radio, television, and on the internet.

Conclusion

Our culture relies extensively on the written word, and yet individual writers and aspiring writers often feel isolated. Non-profit writing groups provide an incubator where such individuals can learn their craft, and extend their verbal interests beyond themselves out into the community. It’s a perfect example of a win-win investment. By nurturing and supporting writers, we increase the health of the community.

Notes

Writers Room, Doylestown, PA founded by Foster Winans, is no longer in existence.
Philadelphia Writers Conference, held in June, is the oldest continuous writing conference in the United States.
Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group holds an annual conference in the spring, meetings, workshops, readings, and other activities.

Let Your Memoir Take You to the Fourth Step

by Jerry Waxler

The first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting I attended was held in the basement of a church. I sat in my car until the meeting was about to start and then slipped in, hoping no one would notice. It wasn’t my idea to be there. The professor of my addictions counseling class at Villanova had assigned us the task of attending.

The speaker told her story of descending into the pit of alcoholism, losing her marriage, home, and children, and finally selling her body. Thanks to the Twelve Steps, she had been able to pull herself together. When I left the meeting that night, in addition to a renewed appreciation for the havoc that can be wreaked by substances, I also had witnessed one of our culture’s great institutions, dedicated to helping people in desperate situations build up their self-esteem and life-skills.

While I am not addicted to substances, there have been many times in my life when I felt out of control, like my years struggling with loneliness and depression, or coming to terms with the barrage of news about war, divisive politics, poverty, and disease. While I have a variety of tools to help me cope, occasionally I wish there was a Twelve Step meeting to overcome everyday feelings of being out of control.

Although I have not found an actual Twelve Step program for ordinary situations, I do see analogs that could serve some of the same purposes. The method of self-help pervading all civilizations since the beginning of history is the quest for support from a Higher Power. There are lots of meetings that can help us seek that transcending connecction. Another powerful offering of the Twelve Step programs are slogans, such as “give me the courage to change what I can and accept what I can’t” and “one day at a time.” All of us could benefit from uplifting phrases, because the things you say to yourself affect how you feel.

Now, as I study memoir writing, I believe I have stumbled upon another connection with the Twelve Steps. The Fourth Step says, “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” The goal of taking this inventory is to replace vague sorrows of “having messed up,” with more detailed information. It’s an important exercise for addicts who, in their pressure to obtain the next buzz, overrode their conscience more often than they would like to remember.

However, addicts do not hold a monopoly on regrets. Everyone bumps against things they wish they hadn’t done. As long as unpleasant memories remain tucked away, there is no way to learn from them. The Fourth Step suggests you pry them out of hiding. Once they’re in the open, you can work with them consciously, discover the details, find the implications, and then integrate the past into the complete picture of who you are and how you got here. This self-knowledge strengthens your ability to move more confidently into the present and future, and opens channels of compassion and connection with the people in your life.

The Twelve Step Programs started from inspired revelation, a seed planted by people desperate to find something more powerful than their addiction. In the following half a century, tens of thousands of people harvested the results of that inspiration. And as each generation learns, they arm themselves to help the next. To rescue their fallen comrades from the cauldron of addiction, perhaps one of the most selfish tendencies of human nature, these people have discovered within themselves one of the generous tendencies of human nature – the desire to help each other overcome challenges.

Memoir writers don’t belong to an elaborate step-by-step system of guidance and mutual support. When we take our moral inventory, we do it hunkered down alone at our desk. It sounds isolated. However, memoir writers turn towards another powerful resource. Our mentors are those writers who have gone before us, placing their lives on paper and leaving it for us in books. Reading memoir after memoir we witness the story, discovering lessons not just about the author’s lifetime but about their willingness to write it. Following their lead, we arrange and rearrange our own conglomeration of memories, until we too arrive at that system known as Story, a system as old as civilization itself.

When we tell about our history, when we hurt people or they hurt us, or resented, or misunderstood, or all the thousands of interactions we have with people, storytelling goes beyond initial emotions. We expand our thinking, and more clearly see all the characters in our lives, who they are and what the world looks like from their point of view.

Memoir writing is a powerful Step for anyone who wants to grow more resilient to face those things over which they have no control. As you write, you transform the past from a collection of memories into a path that goes from sin to redemption, from tragedy to grieving, from one step to the next step and the next. Stories are large enough to contain great mistakes and even evil, and their power goes beyond the individual. Through reading and writing, our stories intertwine, healing ourselves and our relationships, and leaving behind a map that can help others find their own way through the journey of life.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below.
You can also download the podcast from iTunes:
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My Day at a Writer’s Conference – or – The Benefits of Showing Up

by Jerry Waxler

On Saturday morning, a sunny autumn day, I left my home amidst the browning corn fields of Philadelphia’s northern exurbs. Thirty miles later, turning onto estate-lined roads of the Main Line, I reached Rosemont College, rich with serious stone buildings nestled amidst old-growth trees, the perfect setting for an intellectual feast. The college’s MFA program was hosting a regional writing conference called Push to Publish, organized by Philadelphia Stories magazine, a literary journal founded and run by Christine Weiser and Carla Spataro. I was looking forward to this opportunity to spend a day soaking up the ambiance of writers, learning, and networking.

In the lobby, looking for the registration desk I felt the buzz of writers, with our desire to put words on paper, to organize thoughts, and reach out to people. This ever-present tension between writing in private and reaching out to the public is at its most paradoxical when we get together in person.

The keynote speech turned out to be invigorating and liberating. Beth Kephart, whose work I did not know, started as a memoir writer, who, as her career proceeded, extended her writing to other forms, most recently winning awards as a young adult novelist. As her writing skills and interests develop, Beth follows her creative compulsion and then finds people who understand it. This is the refreshing message I drink in; it’s okay to speak from my heart and then find a market, rather than the other way around.

The writer’s journey is a long walk through a desert and talks like Beth Kephart’s are the oases of cool succor, mixed with a bit of prophecy that if I keep going, I too will reach ever more interesting connections with readers. (Click here for Beth Kephart’s blog.)

Outside, tiptoeing around the stinky ginkgo berries, whose smell I knew well because of the tree outside my grandmother’s house in the Logan district on North Broad Street, a professional-looking man with a rich German accent introduced himself. He’s a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and wants to publicize science. I told him my interest and asked him about his writing style. When he told me he was still writing in the academic mold, I launched into my pitch that the best way to reach readers is to bring himself into the page. “That’s interesting,” he said. “When I show my students photos I’ve taken around the world, they ask me what the trip was like. They want to know about me.” It was really fun sharing this insight about popularizing science with a university professor. I need to do this more often.

At lunch I sat down with a couple of women and asked what they write. One of them said, “I’m Ethel David. I wrote a book called, “My Lover the Rabbi, My Husband the Doctor.”

“How interesting,” I replied. “I saw that book on the display table. How nice to meet the author.”

The other woman said, “And I’m Cheryl Grady, her Boswell,” referring to the fact that Ethel spoke and Cheryl wrote.

“So,” I said. “Your husband was both a doctor and rabbi. That’s incredible.”

“No. I really had an affair with a rabbi while I was married to a doctor.”

Pause. “Don’t you feel awkward writing about it?”

“At 92 years-old, honey, I can say anything I want.” I had to ask her to repeat her age several times. Her voice was so lucid and strong, I would have figured her to be around 70. After she showed me family photos from 1916, I went back to the table where Larry Robin, owner of the oldest independent bookstore in Philadelphia, Robin’s Book Store was glad to sell me a copy of the book.

While most conferences provide the opportunity to speak with an editor or agent, this one offered “speed dating” letting you talk to more than one for a generous 15-minute block. First I spoke with Michelle Wittle, a blogger for Philadelphia Stories, and then Peter Krok, publisher of the Schuylkill Valley Journal. I told Peter about my interest in memoir and essay writing. He expressed interest in my writing because he too is interested in memoir. He said his book of poetry, “In Search of An Eye,” is essentially an introspective journey. I have thought about the fact that poetry is an expression of the poet’s life, and so I decided to look more closely at Peter Krok’s book of introspective poetry to learn more about this relationship between memoir and poetry. I went back to Larry Robin, and bought a copy of “In Search of An Eye” by Peter Krok.

For a review, of this chapbook, click here.

Another unusual aspect of the Push to Publish conference was that all the meetings were panel discussions. Workshops at other regional conferences I’ve attended, like the Philadelphia Writers Conference, and the Lehigh Valley Writers Group are taught by individuals. I felt that the bevy of writers in each session was more in keeping with the boutique flavor of the conference, and made the publishing journey more accessible. The panelists’ varying perspectives and conversations generated energy. Perhaps it felt refreshing simply witnessing that there are lots of writers who are out there “doing it.”

One of the women who moderated two panels was Susan Muaddi Darraj a Palestinian-American and Senior Editor of The Baltimore Review. Her book of short stories called “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly,” won the Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction from Foreword Magazine. This was a curious regional twist, since in my day, South Philadelphia was synonymous with Italian. I wondered what it would be like growing up a generation later as a Palestinian immigrant.

And since I’m interested in everything about turning life into story, I wanted to learn more about what it would be like translate her ethnic childhood into fictional stories. So I went back to Larry Robin and bought Susan Muaddi Daraj’s book, “The Inheritance of Exile.” By this time Larry was very pleased with me.

“So, Larry,” I said while he was writing up my order. “What do you think about the state of the world?” Larry has a huge white beard, and I knew from several years of acquaintance and work with him that he is one of those radicals who never got the message that the sixties were over. He said, “It’s about time. People are starting to wake up.”

I laughed, getting flashbacks to my own radical days in the sixties, when I tried to make sense of Marx’s dire predictions about the inevitable fall of capitalism. “So,” I said, “We’re finally reaping the fruits of our greed.” Larry’s eyes sparkled. Ah. Two old hippies sharing a laugh over a pile of books. On the walk to my car, I felt weary. In this morning’s bright sunshine, the cool wind blowing through multi-colored leaves felt invigorating, but now in the spreading afternoon dimness, the same breeze felt foreboding. It was time to go home.

I’ve heard that Philadelphia has a burgeoning art scene. Art, and most interesting to me, writing, shape the imagination of a community, and I’m delighted to participate in, and contribute to that pool of creative energy. At the end, I felt a vigorous passion, having met these people with their interest in sitting alone and putting words on a page, and then lifting their attention from the page to the public, reaching out to offer those words as part of the binding, the substrate, the collective communication that helps pull together a bunch of individuals into a society.

Note
Earlier this year I read a book of short stories, called “Apologies Forthcoming,” by a Chinese American author, Xujun Eberlein about growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. (Click here for an essay I wrote about her book.)

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below.
You can also download the podcast from iTunes:
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Self-image changes in step with society

by Jerry Waxler

Henry Louis Gates, author of the memoir “Colored People,” grew up in Piedmont, a small town in the northeastern corner of West Virginia. The town was geographically in a hollow, and through the eyes of a child, looked picturesque, even cozy. In those simpler times in the 1950’s and 60’s, people got along with each other, except when race entered the picture.

Gates’ first inkling that race was going to make life complicated started in grade school. When he first became best friends with a white girl in his class, neither of them noticed they had different colored skin. Over time, this became more of an issue, and she began to pull away. Gradually, Gates noticed increasingly important issues, such as not being allowed to eat with whites, and that the paper mill only hired blacks to work on the loading dock.

As Gates tried to sort out his role as a black man in a white-dominated culture, millions of other people were doing the same thing, not just asking questions, but taking to the streets to demand answers. This was a strange and powerful time in our history. We were a nation that preached equality with the fervor of religion. But in practice, Jim Crow laws limited the rights of blacks all over the south.

I don’t know what stirred up such a bold call to action. Perhaps it was the fact that little more than a decade earlier, Americans had risen up to smash Hitler and had become accustomed to destroying great evils. Perhaps the pervasive eye of television made the world too small to hide the fact that so many governmental and social policies contradicted our shared dream of equality. But for whatever reason, society was tackling the same problem collectively that Gates was facing individually.

Gates described a compelling scene to demonstrate the intensity. Late in his teen years, when segregation had become illegal, Gates and his friends showed up at an all-white bar, the only black faces in the crowd. He survived the ensuing confrontation without physical injury, providing himself forever with the pride of knowing he risked his own safety to defend American idealism.

In the end of this crescendo of social conscience, Gates shares a gentler image of the fading of segregation. The paper mill held their annual picnic, one for whites and another for blacks. Even though the separate but equal doctrine was dead, that last picnic had a wistful quality, as people fully engaged in their own culture and enjoyed each other for exactly who they were. It was a lovely scene that provided me with a fascinating puzzle. As we blend into the larger culture, we lose some of the characteristics of our separate one.

Gates’ life story was compelling enough as an individual journey. He increased its value by artfully weaving his private life into the trends of the world. To paraphrase John Donne “no person is an island.” While it seems like a lucky break for Gates that he was learning about himself during the Civil Rights movement, I step back to see if I can find ways my life has interacted with the world. And I find many.

For example, even though I was born two years after World War II, I was profoundly affected by the ripples of despair and hope that emanated through my generation. And then, during the Vietnam War, I was deeply affected by the protests, the fear, and the pain of divisiveness. Looking further across the decades, I see sweeping changes in attitudes towards gender, race, religion and spirituality, age, career, marriage, and sex.

And everything seems to be speeding up. Our lives are impacted each year by some new radical change. Just in the last twenty years, cell phones have connected people wherever they are. Politics in faraway places we never heard of implode into our lives in terrorism. The price of homes went up, seemingly bringing with it unlimited wealth, and then crashed creating a financial crisis throughout the world. The oil that heats our homes and fuels our cars could be running low, becoming more expensive, and at the same time, damaging the atmosphere. My car is contributing to the melting of the ice caps. We’re all connected, and it’s all changing.

Social trends are not always obvious when we’re in them. Like a rowboat rising and falling on the surface of a large wave, we might not even notice we are being moved. To me, this is one of the most wonderful benefits of memoir writing. By encompassing a larger view, we see not only what happened inside our own lives, but we also fit in to a broader context, connecting our individual stream with the ocean of humanity.

Writing Prompt – social change that changed the way you saw yourself
Focus on some powerful transition or theme or period in your life. Then look for parallel changes in the culture. What was going on in the people, the media, or other larger scope that helped or hindered your personal development? If you can’t find an obvious parallel, the way Gates does in “Colored People,” look for subtler ones.

Describe examples of these cultural influences, from news stories, or from stories you know about other people. See if you can weave your individual life with the trends that are taking place in the people around you.

Notes
Check out these other essays inspired by memoirs about the mixing of cultures and search for identity:
Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Dreams of our Fathers by Barack Obama

For the podcast click the player below or download it from iTunes: [display_podcast]

Exclusive Interview with Xujun Eberlein Part 2

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

I recently read “Apologies Forthcoming,” a book of short stories by Xujun Eberlein, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. (Amazon Page, Xujun’s Home Page, Longer Introduction to this Interview) I highly recommend her book for anyone interested in that period, or interested in converting life into story, or simply looking for a good read. In this exclusive interview, I ask her about the project of converting her memories into stories. Her answers offer insights that could help anyone who is interested in the relationship between memory and story.

This is part two of the interview. For Part 1, click here.
Jerry Waxler: You write so beautifully in English. What special challenges did you have to overcome?

Xujun Eberlein: Well, I have always loved to write. My first short story, written in Chinese, was published a year before I entered college in China in 1978. In 1982, one of my short stories caused me big political trouble, while in 1985 a novella won a literary prize. After I came to America in the summer of 1988, my writing was suspended for 13 years.

When I write in English, the biggest obstacle for me is vocabulary. You grow up with your native expressions for things, feelings, actions, even simple gestures, and when you try to find homologous terminology in the second language, you are tongue-tied, that is extremely frustrating.

When I was young, whenever I read a new expression or adage in a newspaper or book, I hand-copied it into a notebook and made my own customized lexicon. That was how I acquired a large Chinese vocabulary. It is kind of ironical that at mid-age I’m repeating the same painstaking process for English now. I envision doing this for the rest of my life.

While the disadvantage of writing in a second language is obvious, there is an advantage as well: you bring “new” expressions to the second language from your native tongue, and when you are doing it right you can create a “third” language with freshness. To do it right requires practice and a sensitive eye. One thing I learned from years of writing in English is that, if a “foreign” expression flows well with your prose, use it; otherwise it is better to go with an idiom.

JW: You have won awards for your writing, and have been published in literary journals. Please comment on what drives you as a writer.

XE: I want my writing to be both entertaining and have depth, and I write to raise questions rather than give answers. I also crave beautiful language, for which I know I have a long way to go. Like the ancient Chinese poet Du Fu said, “I won’t rest in death if my words haven’t astounded readers.”

I want to strive for quality, not quantity. There are too many books out there already; no one needs to read your book. That is, unless it’s good. The word “prolific” is not as attractive to me as “superb,” I guess. Or perhaps it is just an excuse for allowing myself to write slowly. (Laughs)

JW: I know it’s difficult to describe the creative process, but I ask anyway, in case you might reveal some secret. How would you explain the process of transforming a memory into a story?

XE: When I write a story that is memory-based, one technique I use is to first work up individual scenes. In this case there must be something deeply disturbing or unforgettable that makes one want to write about it years later, and the memory of details is usually pictorial or impressionistic. That is, the memory naturally provides you scenes. To make a good story you need several scenes. At first the scenes are disconnected. I just write down the scenes separately, then figure out how to connect them. This process includes shuffling the scenes to settle on a more intriguing order.

JW: I feel so comfortable inside your stories, and find there is an almost hypnotic rhythm that pulls me in. Is this a quality you have thought consciously about?

XE: For me this is really a trial and error process. I aim to maintain a story flow that is captivating and keeps the story progressing, but usually the first draft is far away from that goal. After I finish a draft I would put it aside for a while, then rearrange it with a fresher eye, cutting or adding material to accomplish the goal. So, unfortunately, it is not something that simply emerges from my pen (or keyboard) but the result of substantial adjustment. I find that, more often than not, reordering paragraphs results in a better rhythm.

JW: There is some sort of innocent intensity about your friendships that calls out to me. I’m curious to know if you worked particularly to achieve this effect.

XE: In China, we have the tradition of valuing friendship higher than even our own family. An old Chinese adage goes, “Wife is clothing, friends are limbs.” It is kind of sexist (as the old times were), but you get a feeling for the importance of friendship. Traditional Chinese literature is full of friendship stories. The most popular classic novel “Three Kingdoms,” epic of an entire dynasty, is centered around three sworn blood brothers. When I wrote my stories I wasn’t very conscious of depicting friendship, but since that was part of life and culture, a realism writer who is loyal to reality would naturally reflect that aspect. Those things are just in my blood. On the other hand, Americans don’t have the same culture. From my perspective the role of friendship here is not as strongly important as it is in Chinese life. This may have something to do with individualism, I suppose.

JW: What favorite memoirs or other books have informed your style or voice or approach to telling about your past?

XE: Hmm. I liked the writing of a lot of the contemporary memoirs published in the United States, such as The Liar’s Club, Wild Swans, Fierce Attachments, Angela’s Ashes, etc., however I rarely finished reading every one of them. On the other hand, some less critically acclaimed memoirs, for example The Man Who Stayed Behind, glued me from cover to cover. I guess good language is not a sufficient factor to sustain my reading interest. A memoir has to tell good real stories as well as raise a lasting question. So it is my goal to have all those elements in the book-length memoir I’m working on now.

To read the blog entry about what I learned about fact and fiction from reading Xujun’s two different representations of the events surrounding her sister’s death, click here.

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