How Can an Adult Learn to Write Stories?

by Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

Most nights, my dad worked at his drugstore until 10 PM. On Wednesday, his evening off, he joined the family for dinner. Using the table as a pulpit, Dad’s voice swelled with excitement. “This guy walked in and showed me a half empty tube of ointment. He said it wasn’t working.” Then Dad laughed. “He wanted to return it. Can you believe it?” He slapped the table. My mother, sister, and I ate quietly, and when Dad paused we said “Umm,” giving him the desired reassurance that the other guy was crazy. Then he plowed on to another anecdote and another.

He seemed to enjoy filling us in on his day, but he didn’t ask me about mine. And if he had, I wouldn’t know what to say. My thoughts were wrapped up with solving algebra or calculus problems, so when someone asked me how things were going, I shrugged. “I dunno.”

For decades I assumed that since I had not grown up telling stories, I would never learn. Then in my fifties, I became interested in memoir writing. The problem was that without storytelling skills, I would never be able to write the story of my life.

Even though I knew it was too late, I figured there wouldn’t be any harm reading books about how to write stories. First, I studied Robert McKee’s popular tome called simply Story. This detailed guide for screenwriters shed light on the mechanics of the craft. Another book for screenwriters, Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey opened my eyes further, by comparing the structure of modern movies with the ancient Hero myth popularized by Joseph Campbell. Gradually I gained confidence that storytelling can be learned, and like Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, I demanded it as my inalienable right.

Through networking, I found a variety of writing groups. Some at my local library; some listed on the internet; some monthly meetings and some annual conferences.   Gradually, my assignments for the classes began to interest me. I still needed to make them interesting to others.

Writing teachers want me to add sensory information in order to bring scenes to life. In my imagination, I revisit the kitchen table of my youth, trying to reproduce the experience. I feel myself leaning over my plate, wolfing down the boiled broccoli, mashed potatoes and baked meat loaf drowning in ketchup, squirming on the vinyl bench that wraps around two sides of the Formica table. Sounds echo sharply off the pale yellow and blue tile wall and linoleum floor. But what I really want to describe is not my sensory experience of the room. I want to finally express that high school boy’s feelings, all bottled up in math homework.

What am I thinking when Dad is telling his stories? I see that he is only checking with us to be sure we are listening. He dominates the room with his feelings, rather than giving us the psychic space to get in touch with our own. I wish I could say, “Hey Dad. What about me?” Now, by writing a memoir I can finally give that boy a voice.

Scene by scene, my memories converged into a story. But as they took shape, I encountered another problem. In addition to needing the skill to tell my story, I needed the courage. This is private material. No one needs to know this much detail about me.

I struggle to manage the fear of a recurring fantasy. I visualize a crowd of angry  townspeople summoning me to a public trial. I’m onstage and they heatedly shout, telling me I’m arrogant for thinking I’m entitled to publish. My vivid fears of public speaking invade my mind, turning the solo act of writing into a terrifying spectacle.

Fortunately, Dad offered me an inspiration that  helped me out of this jam. Later in his life, he grew frustrated with his limited communication skills, so he attended a Dale Carnegie public speaking course. They helped him improve his ability to communicate to an audience. With his newfound ability, he was elected president of his pharmacy group. He showed me that at any age, if you want to improve yourself along lines that seem impossible, jump in and try.

I followed his example. I joined Toastmasters, International, an organization designed to help people gain confidence in their ability to speak. After my first attempt to speak at Toastmasters, I ran away for a year, unable to face the humiliation. During that year I studied books about overcoming social anxiety and spoke with a therapist. Finally, I returned, and after an additional year of practice, I was able to share myself in front of a group.

My newfound courage to speak freed me from my fears about writing, too. I began to reveal my life stories in writing groups, and then I leapt past my local groups to the global reach of the Internet. I enjoyed feedback in person and online without feeling afraid.

Dad and I both discovered how to increase the reach of our communication. By doing so, we expanded our social horizons. Now, I can finally share my stories. And thanks to the swell of popular interest in reading and writing memoirs, I have found a whole community of fellow authors who want to share theirs. We’re collectively going beyond the dinner-table question “what did you do today?” Together we are answering the broader question, “what did you do this life?”

Writing Prompts
Describe the way storytelling was handled in your house or community.

Write a scene in which you felt overwhelmed and excluded by someone’s storytelling.

Write another scene in which storytelling felt warm, inviting and empowering.

Write about the first time you felt proud to have written a story.

Notes:

This is a rewrite of an article published April 17, 2009 titled The Birth of an Adult Storyteller.

Toastmasters International

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.

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

List of Memoirs that Show Various Aspects of Family

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Many Roles of Family In Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Writing your memoir? Read Memoir Revolution to learn how your story fits in with this important cultural trend.

When I started reading memoirs, I eagerly turned the pages to watch individuals transform. Children grew from childhood innocence to youthful rebellion, and young adults continued to come of age, learning lessons about themselves through midlife and beyond. In fact, this is one of the reasons the genre fills me with so much hope. I love watching people grow and change, adapting to new situations and developing deeper insights into old ones.

However, I had been so caught up in my fascination with individual development I missed another lesson about the human condition hidden in plain sight. After reading Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh, I realized the genre has also been showing me how families grow and change as well.

In Sonia Marsh’s story, her family is in the midst of a crisis. The older teenage boy is acting out, and this creates enormous stress on the rest of the family. As the kids are growing older, so are the parents. Dad is not sure how long he can tolerate the pressure of his corporate life. Mom, too, is looking for the next step. Suddenly, I see Sonia Marsh’s family from a different perspective. The family itself is going through a midlife crisis and shows some of the same angst and longing for rejuvenation that an individual does during this period.

Midlife of a Family

It’s easy to find stories about the birth of the family. The Romance genre offers endless fantasies about the way two people become one. However, to read about young marrieds trying to raise kids, or older families in trouble, I would skip the fiction shelves and proceed to self help and psychology.

Now, thanks to the Memoir Revolution, stories take us into intimate relationship with families in all stages. We join families across the entire life cycle, from the hopeful, romantic beginning to the many challenges in the middle, including the betrayed family, the family under crisis from illness, the empty nest, old age, and death.

Once I saw how the tension inside the group affected its members, I was able to see a new dimension of the genre. For example, in Freeways to Flipflops the interplay of individual lives with the collective swirl of the family provides all sorts of unexpected surprises. Now, in addition to her individual character arc – she grows as a person throughout the story – I watch the parallel emotional evolution of her family.

Aging parents and growing kids

When we grow old enough to move beyond our family of origin and create lives in partnership with significant others, the notion of family becomes even more complex. No longer living as individuals trying to escape our childhood, we are now connected above and below, providing even more opportunities for dramatic tension in our lives, and in our memoirs.

For example, in Freeways to Flipflops Sonia Marsh’s parents visit her in Belize. They are incredibly uncomfortable there, and as a reader, I feel miserable, trying to imagine how to please these two people, who are in a sense the most important people in her life. Now, they wish they could be anywhere else.

Self in Relationship to the Group

I am currently reading Orange is the New Black, My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman. The dramatic tension in the story covers her disastrous involvement with a yuppified drug ring and then her experiences in jail. And yet, mixed in with the protagonist’s own character arc, we also see her in relationship to two families. She longs to be out of prison and back with her fiancé, providing drama with the family she is trying to start. And she worries about her parents, knowing they would have helped to prevent her freefall and are now horrified by her time in jail. Her involvement with these two important families adds a powerful dimension to her individual experience.

When I started working on my own memoir, I assumed the story would be about me. As the writing journey unfolds, I discover many overlaps between myself and my family. At key points in my life, I interact with my father, mother, siblings and spouse. As I review my “life as story”, I discover that with a slight shift, I can expand the definition of family to include the group of people with whom I lived for many years, in a commune-type situation, developing a warm, trusting mutually supportive relationship without contract or biological links.

Other tightknit groups of mutually dependent individuals include members of a combat unit or members of a band, and residents of an ashram or a monastery. In Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black, her fellow prisoners are forced to share showers, meals and favors, in a level of intimacy often associated with a family.

When Sonia Marsh moves to Belize, she attempts to reach out to fellow expats, hoping to turn them into ad hoc family members. For various reasons, her neighbors reject the proposal, creating a frightening counter-example. Instead of mutual support, they become the group that pushes her away.

Before I list a selection of memoirs that include interactions with family, take a few minutes to consider how your life intersects with groups. They might include your family of origin, the family you are creating, or some other group that felt like a family.

Writing Prompt
In your own memoir, consider the groups that influence you. Are you starting a new family? Watching your family fall apart or arise from the ashes? Does your family embrace you, or reject you? Are you reaching out to them or running away?

Writing Prompt
Describe a scene when you left home. What sort of tension or nostalgia or longing did leaving create between you and your parents? Write a scene that portrays a strong ah-ha about the relationship, such as when you realize they think you are still a child, or further along when you realize you’re all adults.

Writing Prompt
During the period in your memoir, what was your relationship with your parents? Write a scene of going to visit them. Or a scene when the whole family gathered for a holiday. Write some dialog. How did you feel about being a member of this tribe?

Don’t require yourself to rigidly follow writing prompts. Use them as magical amulets that reveal material your memory wants to tell you. Once unleashed, let your free writing flow where it will. If you want to share the (short) results or tell us about them, please leave your musings in the comments below.

Notes

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page Author of Freeways to Flipflops

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

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

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

Family Psychology Lessons in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Why are memoirs so popular? Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn the reasons for this important cultural trend.

Despite the incredible importance of the family as the social unit that ushers us into the world, our public dialog is mainly confined to examples that fit into half-hour television sitcoms. The Memoir Revolution has taken us beyond those shallow waters. Memoirs take us deep into profound explorations of real families, allowing ordinary readers to see complexities that until now were only visible to the members of one’s own family.

By reading memoirs, anyone can experience childhood development with parents who are drunk, (Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt), parents who are crazy (Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls), or parents reeling from the disturbing events of their own past. (Replacement Child by Judy Mandel and Breaking the Code by Karen Fisher-Alaniz).

Memoirs show families ripped apart by war (Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham, Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filopovic, Learning to Die in Miami by Carlos Eire. )

They show families ripped apart by runaway teenagers, (Live Through This by Debra Gwartney and Beautiful Boy by David Sheff), kids undermined by parents who supply them with drugs (With You or Without You by Niki Ruta) and parents who love their kids but are too self-involved to raise them (In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas).

In some families, the parents simply don’t have the time or skill to lead their children toward adulthood. (Dawn Novotny in Ragdoll Redeemed, Andre Dubus III in Townie), and some families are so torn apart, their kids are thrown into foster care. (Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter.)

Intuitive Family Therapy in Action

The memoir Freeways to Flipflops, by Sonia Marsh provides a fascinating example of an important, specific type of family problem. In the Marsh family, one troubled teenager exerted enormous disruptive pressure on the family system, threatening to drag the rest of the family down with him.

In family-therapy parlance, the troublemaker is called the “identified patient” and most families quite naturally try to “fix” the offending member. Some try therapy, others ship the troubled one off to military school, or kick him out of the house. Identifying the patient might save the family at the expense of the member. But according to family therapists, to resolve the roots of the problem, the family system itself must change.

The memoir Freeways to Flipflops demonstrates just such a solution applied to the entire family system. Surprisingly, the sophisticated intervention is not administered by a trained family therapist but through the intuitive intelligence and courage of the mother. The family intervention she administers is as bold and far reaching an example of family systems therapy as any I can think of in literature.

When Mom sees her oldest son sliding toward danger, instead of trying to “fix him” or passively watching his train wreck destroy them all, she responds in a radical intervention that completely changes the rules of the game. She moves to a third world country.

The gamble pays off, resulting in an improvement in everyone’s life. So in addition to an excellent example of a family in trouble, Freeways to Flipflops provides an excellent example of a family that solved a systemic problem. Sonia Marsh turns her family’s psychological problems around, and in the process offers practically a textbook case of healing a family system.

Reenergizing the family by going through tough times together

When they move from Los Angeles to Belize, they certainly shake things up. Without their old friends and old patterns, they have to figure everything out anew. How to pass the time? How to find a store, or even get to the store? The Marsh’s use the unfamiliar environment of Belize to break out of old patterns, similar to the way wilderness rehabs help kids quit drugs. And like the wilderness rehab, it wasn’t always easy.

In this unfamiliar environment, Sonia snipes at her husband bitterly, asking him when he is going to get off the couch and find a job. Her nagging seems to have a reverse effect, apparently convincing him to dig in deeper. After this approach fails, Sonia decides she is being too edgy and combative. Similar to her attempt to resolve her son’s problems by changing the rules of the game she does the same thing with her husband. She tries an experiment, behaving toward him with more support, compassion. Before long, he too shifts gears, taking more responsibility and searching for his next step.

In my Family Systems therapy class, we learned that when one member of a family achieves a higher level of maturity, their increased level of functioning positively influences the rest of the family. Sonia Marsh’s approach offers a fascinating example of this principle.

For a memoir that provides a perfect counter-example of this approach, consider Boyd Lemon’s memoir Digging Deep. In this memoir, the author looks back on his three failed marriages, trying to understand what went wrong, and finding in each case that his own immature and self-involved approach to his spouse created the dynamics that ended in failure. Many of us learn lessons about ourselves after the fact.

Now that the Memoir Revolution is underway, more of us are writing about our real life experiences, and learning from each others’, offering examples of family dynamics that were formerly only available in academic textbooks. As these real-world lessons increasingly seep into our collective consciousness, they can help us improve our own situations through mature, informed action. And by learning to see our lives individually and together through the lens of our own memoirs, we are gaining an increasingly sophisticated tool to understand how our Stories all intertwine.

Writing Prompt
Write about a time when you did the same thing over and over, and kept getting the same results. Write a scene from one of those times, perhaps when you realized you were repeating a pattern, or simply when you felt the results of it.

Writing Prompt
Write about a time when you attempted to break out of a pattern. Write a scene in which you felt the courage, or unfamiliarity of trying something new. Perhaps you recognized you needed to change something, or you were desperate and ran away. In your writing assignment, include your feelings about this unfamiliar break in the pattern.

Notes
Another example of an author who broke a pattern is Cheryl Strayed. In her  memoir Wild, she goes for a hike in the wilderness to turn her life around. This breaks her out of her patterns with boys, friends, and drugs. It’s not about family change but illustrates a similar intervention. And it’s a great story.

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.

Memoir About Growing Up Leads to Surprise Ending

by Jerry Waxler

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

Slash Coleman’s memoir Bohemian Love Diaries takes me on the journey of a child who attempts to grow up, handicapped by the problem that the only way he can make sense of life is through art. With his constant companion, his writing journal, he relentlessly turns every aspect of his life, including his own name, into a work of art.

As he grows toward adulthood, he attempts to form a loving relationship. At first his artistic obsessions seem like they are going to work beautifully. The women to whom he is attracted are fascinated by his creativity. However, sustaining the relationships is another matter. By attempting to avoid the orderliness of life, he undermines the day to day requirements of caring for self and others.

As his search for a sustainable relationship continued, I noticed fewer and fewer pages until the end. I desperately feared that there would not be enough time to wrap it up successfully. Oh, no, not a perfect book with an imperfect end! I needed the story to be redeemed.

Good endings are important for me, because as a young man, seeking my own identity in the 60s, I was almost driven mad by the despairing implications of so many of my favorite books. Since then, I have had an aversion to unhappy endings, and believe that my sanity relies on a continued supply of redemptive conclusions.

I didn’t want to lose faith in Slash Coleman, but I couldn’t see how he had enough room to pull his unfulfilled romances into a satisfying end. And then boom. He pulled it off and in a surprising twist expanded my appreciation for good endings. By widening the camera angle, he showed me how coming of age is a family endeavor. The ending also helped me understand how a person in the thick of a dilemma, without any clear conclusion to his own circumstances, can wrap up a story. Even though the character has not found his own redemptive end, the story itself finds an ending.

The book shows me the extreme creativity that Slash Coleman will apply in order to offer his readers an uplifting experience. In an earlier passage, he attempted to spiritually awaken his audience by dancing in front of them naked. I don’t believe he succeeded in that particular art form, but I think he came close to doing it in this one. I walked away from the memoir with that lift of joy and hope that is the payoff for reading a good book.

Notes

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

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

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

Why Boomers Should Write Memoirs about the 60s

by Jerry Waxler

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

When my parents were growing up in Philadelphia during the Roaring Twenties, they went home at the end of the day to parents who spoke Yiddish or heavily accented English. I wish I could understand their second-generation immigrant experience, or what life was like during the Great Depression or World War II. Millions of boomers share my curiosity about their parents but few of us have begun to record our own stories. When I ask people why not write a memoir, I hear all sorts of reasons. “I’m too busy.” “I don’t know how.” “My experience was similar to millions of others.” “If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand.” I know all these objections already. In order to write my memoir, I had to push through them myself.

I knew that people who had not lived through that period relied on clichés with lots of hair, dope, and rock and roll. But these images from movie and music snips and bits of conversation around the dinner table are not like reading a memoir. In a memoir, the author carefully crafts the world as they saw it, creating the ambiance of the times. I think the word “story” ought to be capitalized the way God is, because a Story invites the reader to set aside their own world and enter the author’s. Once inside, clichés disappear, replaced by unique, authentic responses to specific circumstances. This is true even for books that cover the same general circumstances.

Amid the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read, I have often seen the same themes repeated. I’ve read several books about young girls growing up in small towns, children coming to terms with their mixed-race identity, adoptees trying to understand which family is the real one, mothers trying to raise a child with intellectual challenges, and so on. Despite their similarities, each person has their own life and tells their own story.

Even though millions of my peers experienced the iconic events of the 60s, my exact story was my own, a drama with the specific circumstances of being me, my reactions, my observations, my careening path. So I set aside the fear that someone else has already published my life and I begin to write.

When I start, crazy memories spring out of hiding and clutch at me. At first I’m afraid that revealing emotional moments might make me seem like a victim, a dupe, or a confused bundle of nerves. I want to stuff my memories back into their cave. Then I think of my parents who remained hidden, and I think of my respect for the memoir authors who have welcomed me into their lives, and I press on.

The first story I share in a writing group describes a violent anti-war riot in Madison, Wisconsin in 1967. I wonder if listeners will judge me for the quality of the writing or for my naïve choices and raw emotions. But no one in the group expresses disdain and many express appreciation so I continue to write. Soon, I find myself deep in the darkness that enveloped me after the riots. When I realized how hopeless I felt to change the world or understand my role in it, I turned toward nihilism, embracing the notion that Nothing Matters with religious conviction.

I sit at my computer during my morning writing hours, looking back on that period and trying to make sense of it. Then for the rest of the day, I set those feelings aside and go about my pleasant, upbeat life. My writing desk gives me a vantage point from which I can understand far more about those times than I had any hope of doing while I was living through them.

However, being willing to face the past was only the beginning. As a novice storyteller, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever capture those feelings on paper. After I took a few memoir classes and started to develop a sense of chronology and scene-building, a larger story began to emerge. I remember my first days in Madison, Wisconsin, transplanted to the teeming campus from my quiet Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, I see a bookish young man who wanted two things: to become a doctor and to understand Absolute Truth. I didn’t know how dangerous my search would  be.

A perfect storm of cultural upheaval was brewing on the horizon: the Pill; the threat of the draft; a divisive, frantic, anti-war effort that inherited a sense of righteousness from the recent civil rights movement; affordable air travel; access to hallucinogenic drugs; eroding authority of organized religion and the influx of eastern mysticism. As each wave of change arrived, I tried to adapt. But like a boxer who must face a new opponent in each round, I ran out of fight, and went down — at one point, literally, after being attacked by a group of boys who wanted long-haired troublemakers like me to go back east where we belonged.

Hundreds of millions of people experienced their own version of those times, storing endless reels of movies in their minds. I imagine boomers all over the world occasionally pulling out one of their reels. If they have no reason to examine it more closely, they quickly return it to its shelf. If they attempt to write a memoir, they look more carefully at the scenes, and begin to place isolated events into context.

Gradually, the sequences add up. I see the influences of parents, culture, substances and desires, insecurities, and all the other things that make me human. Between the peaks and troughs, the glue of normalcy holds it together from day to day. And I begin to see how the shocks in one chapter lead to character development in the next. After setbacks, I find strength, courage, and eventually even wisdom. As happens in all good stories, the protagonist grew. A life that has been translated into a story transcends memory and achieves the richness of its many dimensions.

The harder I work to craft events so they make sense to a reader, the more they make sense to me. Or maybe “make sense” is too strong. They become more integrated. I learn to accept them as part of the continuous process of being me. I become more comfortable “in my own skin” or more accurately, more comfortable in my own memories. Converting memories from a jangle of isolated snaps into a coherent story is rewarding. It’s challenging. It leads to wholeness.

In the early stages of my writing, I am struck by the depressing self-inflicted immolation of my academic ambition. However, storytelling doesn’t stop with the problems. A good story takes both reader and author beyond the setbacks to the resurrection that comes next. So I look beyond the 60s. What new person emerged from the ashes of the old? For that, I explore the spiritual and religious dimensions of my life.

In Madison, Wisconsin, I went to classes surrounded by 30,000 kids, many of them blond, the vast majority of them northern European and Christian. Desperate to feel accepted, I felt swept up in the possibility of becoming part of that herd. If being Jewish separated me from them, I would separate myself from feeling Jewish.

Without knowing the far reaching effects of my defiance, I distanced myself from religion. As a result, I could no longer turn to the absolute moral authority that had guided my parents. Like many of my peers, I struggled to find my own direction. The first leg of the quest led straight into the abyss. Then, when I thought I could go no lower, I found a spiritual belief system in which everything mattered. That was the beginning of a period of rebuilding, during which I had to figure out how to live a meaningful life under the aegis of spiritual rather than religious principles.

As I search for my story, I return to my curiosity about my parents. All I knew about them was summed up in a couple of clichés about immigrants and the Great Depression, but I knew nothing about their specific, day-to-day circumstances. I wonder if reading their memoir would have brought us closer to each other during my own transition, perhaps even giving me a safety-net that would have softened my fall. I’ll never know how it would have changed my past, but as I put my story together, I gain a renewed appreciation for the challenges that each of us faced. My parents had to figure out how to cross the threshold into adulthood and so did I. By seeing the story of my own transition, I am drawn closer to theirs.

In the age of memoirs, more of us are taking the time to look back and develop the stories of our lives. By openly exploring the experiences of our youth, we can learn about the common humanity that binds us to our parents. And by leaving our stories for the next generation, our children will have a far greater ability to appreciate the context from which they have come.

Notes
For a memoir that shared the journey from organized religion to spirituality, read Frank Schaeffer’s, Crazy for God. It tells of his childhood, with an intense belief in Christianity, as guided by the wildly innovative interpretations of his parents, then into the intense certainty of the religious right, and finally to a journey to find his own inner guiding light.

Another memoir that reveals the journey from absolute religion to trust in an individual relationship with God: Carlos Eire’s Learning to Die in Miami

Three memoirs about black and white parents
Barack Obama’s Dreams of Our Fathers,
James McBride’s Color of Water
Rebecca Walker’s Black White and Jewish

Books that Search for the Life of an Ancestor
James McBride, Color of Water
Andrew X. Pham, Eaves of Heaven
Karen Alaniz, Breaking the Code
Jeanette Walls, Half Broke Horses
Linda Austin, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight

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

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

Parent’s Memoir Part 3b, Guide for Ghost Writer’s Interview

by Jerry Waxler
This is part 3b of the essay, “Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?” Click here for part 3a. In this final part, I give more tips to help you interview your parents so you can generate material for a compelling memoir.

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

Go deeper with coded family anecdotes

You may already have heard some of the stories for so long, they acquire a rigid sameness, with details and phrases you have heard dozens of times. Use your curiosity to break through the crust of repetition. Ask about other parts of the situation, or where they lived during that time, or how old they were when this event happened, or which parts made them happiest.

For example, I remember my Mom told the story about Dad’s father standing up at their wedding and saying, “To the bride and groom, I give a car.” Her tone of voice when she mimicked him always sounded pompous.  I wish I had asked more about it. “That was an expensive gift. Were you surprised when your new father-in-law told you? Was he wealthy? Did many of your peers have cars? Did you have mixed feelings about accepting such an expensive gift from him? How were you making a living during that period?”

Here are more unasked questions:
—    “I heard that Grandmom spent her last years in bed. What sorts of situations did that lead to? Tell me about a time when you served her meals there. How did you feel only seeing her in bed?”
—    “I only knew Grandpop when he was retired. Show me a scene that will help me visualize him. What did you do with him evenings and on weekends? What was it like going to worship by his side?”

Write
What incident have you filed away under “I’ve heard that a hundred times.” Take a page from my unwritten book, and ask your own parents questions while there is still time. Write questions that would help you see it more completely.

Break taboos

Over the years, you have learned to avoid topics your parents prefer not talking about. In order to get the story,  you need to break these taboos. Consider James McBride’s memoir “Color of Water.” His mother had angrily told him to mind his own business whenever he asked her about his past. As she grew older, he realized her past was going to die with her and he grew increasingly insistent. He finally convinced her to talk. From their interviews emerged one of the hallmarks of the memoir generation. As a son, McBride was grateful, and as a reader, so was I.

When your parents express reluctance:

—    Let them know how much you want to understand their story.
—    Point out that no one is perfect, so there’s no point in pretending they were. Why not turn take advantage of all that experience and turn it into a good story?
—    There is power in revealing the truth. For one thing, you don’t have to worry about hiding secrets. And for another, when you share your hardships you also share the courage it took to overcome them. [For more tips about responding to their objections, click here.]

Review and Edit

After each session, you face the technical hurdle of transcribing it to typewritten material so you can edit. If you don’t want to type it yourself, consider hiring someone to do this tedious work. A good place to look for such resources is on the website of the Association for Personal Historians. (APH) [www.personalhistorians.org]. Some people have had success speaking into the software called Dragon Naturally Speaking which converts speech into text.
When you have the interviews in written form, you can weave the information into scenes that readers can enter. Insert new material into your chronological file to show how one situation flows into another, and also give you insights into what is missing. When you hit a puzzle, turn it into a question for further rounds of interviews.

Their character takes shape

When you remember things about your family, you are looking back to your own childhood point of view. To write your parents’ memoir, you need to see those events through their memories, not yours. Try to set yourself aside and listen to the way they explain it, even if it is substantially different from the way you remember it. In fact, this entire project is going to help you enter their frame of reference, seeing the world as they did.

Once they start talking, they may share reminiscences about things they had not discussed in years, joining you in bursts of collaborative energy. As you pull together scenes and link them together, their budding story gradually takes shape. How far this goes will depend on your artistic drive and tenacity, and on their willingness to explore the psychological and social forces that shaped them. The more you polish it, deepen it, and structure it, the more readable it will become.

Wherever you decide to stop, you will find that through the course of the project you have gained understanding, and helped them connect some of the dots in their own past experiences. What started as a literary or historical exercise ends as an opportunity to build intimacy and mutual respect. It’s true that writing a memoir takes time and to achieve your goal you must overcome emotional hurdles. But in the end, everyone wins.

Note:
If you don’t have the time and do have the money, you could hire a writer to do the research and create the book of their lives. To find a writer or videographer for your life story, contact Association of Personal Historians.
Notes
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

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

Ghost Wrote Her Mother’s Memoir, Part 3

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third part of an interview with author Linda Austin about her memoir Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. Linda’s mother grew up in Japan before World War II. After the war, she married an American serviceman and then moved to the United States. The memoir is a product of extensive interviews Linda conducted with her mother, and is written in the first person from Yaeko Sugama’s point of view. Click here [link] for my thoughts about the memoir and the first part of my interview with her. I continue the interview here.

Jerry Waxler: Your mother mentions her shame in a few places. For most people, shame creates a barrier so strong we try to hide the subject altogether. How did shame enter into your interviews? What convinced her to open up?

Linda Austin: The divorce was almost unbearably shameful to my mother. She eventually became used to the idea of divorce in America because it became so common, but in the 1970s  it was not. Even my sister and I were embarrassed. My mother still considers her divorce a badge of shame to her and her Japanese family, but because she feels a sense of victimization, she is open to talking about it to me and her American friends, so that wasn’t a problem. Talking about it too much was the problem. There were also some issues with her mother and brother, but again, since it wasn’t her fault she’s okay talking about it–to an American audience. I think I’m the one most embarrassed about the world seeing the intimate life of my mother.

Jerry Waxler: What did you learn about her or her family from the memoir that you didn’t know before?

Linda Austin: I learned why my mother behaves the way she does, which is one reason why I strongly encourage telling life stories. What happens to us affects who we are and how we behave. Once I cried with my mother while parked in the lot of the Social Security building. She had told me about some incidents with her mother, and suddenly I saw how that affected her own behavior toward me. I so wished I had known this long ago so I would have understood her own foibles and not have been so angry. I felt so bad for not understanding.

Jerry Waxler: How did writing and publishing the memoir affect your own sense of identity?

Linda Austin: I think I’ve always had a strong sense of Japanese identity. I mean, I love natto!  [Note: For a definition of natto, see this Wikipedia entry.] When I was a child, there weren’t any brown people in our schools so my sister and I kept our heads low. But my mother enjoyed her Japanese heritage and my dad still loves things Japanese, so my sister and I were exposed to as much Japanese as possible for living in a small lily-white town in the Midwest. Thank goodness for Chicago.

Writing the book and getting lots of compliments and speaking requests really changed me as a person, though. My mother was astonished to see her painfully shy daughter speak comfortably in front of a crowd of about 100. “I didn’t recognize you!” I became much more confident and outgoing and took leadership positions in the Japanese and the writing/publishing communities in St. Louis. I called myself a renaissance woman.

Jerry Waxler: How does it feel going out on book signings and revealing so much about your own mother? Does it feel strange…? Liberating…? Generous…?

Linda Austin: When I’m doing presentations, I think only about the message I want the audience to take away:  that the enemy’s people are the same as you and me inside, and that we should write down our stories for our families. I’m passionate about both those messages. I don’t talk about the divorce or anything too personal. Only when I get home and see another book sold on Amazon, or a review posted, I cringe. It’s not even my story, but I feel a sense of protectiveness towards my mother and a sense that this information belongs to our family, not to strangers. It takes guts to show your lifewritings to others because if you’ve done a good job and told your story in all its glory and pain, it’s like you’re standing naked in front of them. So it really takes guts to publish for the public. Sometimes you don’t think about that until somebody you don’t know wants to read your book.

Jerry Waxler: Have you considered writing a memoir from the point of view of an American girl with mixed race parents trying to come to terms with her own identity?

Linda Austin: I have, but there are too many very good, similar stories published, although with American-born all-Asian-heritage kids struggling to make sense of living in the U.S. with two traditional Asian parents. Even as a half-Japanese, I can relate to Linda Furiya’s Bento Box in the Heartland. Grace Lin did a fabulous job with her children’s chapter books, Year of the Dog and Year of the Rat, which inspire me–those are fiction based on truth, and I would consider doing something like that. Nowadays, diversity is cool, so some of the pressures I felt seem passé.

This finishes part 3 of a 3 part interview

Click here for Part 1 of article and interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin

Notes

Linda Austin’s home page:

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight By Yaeko Sugama Weldon and Linda E. Austin

For 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.

Parent’s Memoir: Finding Roots Across Generations

by Jerry Waxler

Memoir writers reach back through time to find our own story. Is it still a memoir if we reach into our mother’s memory to find her story? That’s what I wanted to find out when I read “Cherry Blossoms in Twilight.” The book is about Yaeko Sugama Weldon, who grew up in a small rural town in Japan before World War II, married a serviceman and moved to the United States. Her daughter, Linda Austin, grew up in America with a Japanese mother and an American father. Naturally she was curious about her mother’s earlier life, and as her mother aged, Linda began to put it all together. After extensive interviews and edits, Cherry Blossoms is the result.

Is it co-authored or ghost written? Is it a memoir or a biography? These distinctions blur into artistic interpretations rather than hard definitions. For example, in the memoir “Color of Water,” when James McBride searched for his mother’s past, he maintained his own point of view, with occasional well-marked shifts into his mother’s voice. In Cherry Blossoms, Linda Austin drops out of the frame and lets her mother tell the story.

Thanks to Yaeko’s willingness to explore her past, Linda Austin has the opportunity to delve deep into her mother’s journey. It’s an achievement that many people, me for example, wish they had achieved with their own parents.

The book is pleasant, easy, and informative. Since it is written for a younger audience, it does not go into deep analysis of emotionally sensitive topics, but despite this lightness, it gives profound glimpses into painful subjects, like war, prejudice, family splits, and abandonment. Because Yaeko does not hide her pain or the difficulties in her family, the memoir feels authentic and respectful, allowing me to stay connected with the protagonist’s emotions and experiences. In the end, it satisfies my criteria for a fascinating memoir and has convinced me to extend my definition of memoirs to include assisted ones.

To learn more about this book, and the experience of the author in working with her mother, I interviewed Linda Austin. Here is part 1 of that interview:

Jerry Waxler: I love this book. It’s short and easy to read, and yet it feels complete, and authentic. Nice work! So tell me what made you decide to write it as a children’s book?

Linda Austin: Thank you, Jerry. My mother had a lot of stories of when she was a little girl, in a different culture and era of history, plus the many Japanese festivals are fun for kids. I also wanted to preserve the children’s songs she taught us, so I thought the obvious audience for all of this would be upper elementary and older school children. And my mother speaks simply, too—perfect for a younger audience.

Jerry Waxler: How has the decision to write it as a children’s book worked out? Are you happy with the choice? What sort of feedback are you getting?

Linda Austin: It didn’t work out that well as a children’s book, partly because as an indie-published book it could not get pre-pub reviews from the all-important Kirkus or School Library Journal which librarians use to help determine which books to stock in their libraries. The kids I know who have read it love the children’s parts, but lose interest when my mother moves to the U.S. as an adult. Instead, I was shocked to hear all the praise from older adults who had lived through WWII in the U.S. – they loved comparing their experiences to my mother’s in Japan. Another, less shocking, development was that university libraries wanted it, I’m sure for its unique perspective of WWII—I’m proud to say that Princeton carries it.

Jerry Waxler: In addition to interviewing, what other research did you do? Did you go back to her home, or interview people who knew her when she was young?

Linda Austin: Believe it or not, I have never been to Japan. It’s very expensive, the time was never right, my relatives speak only Japanese and I speak only English. My mother rarely went back to Japan. Mostly I had to research WWII history and what was going on in Japan during the War. I read books and searched online. If I could not verify something I either left it out or stated it as an opinion or personal belief. I had a Japanese gentleman and his wife who are close in age to my mother review the book for details of the Japanese culture of that time.

Jerry Waxler: If it’s not too personal, what role if any did your father play in helping you construct the story?

Linda Austin: My dad played almost no role in writing the story. He knew I was working on this so a couple of times he suggested things to ask my mother about, and he graciously reviewed bits that pertained to him and his early relationship with my mother. It is all my mother’s story and her perspective. My parents had a bitter divorce, so writing the sections about my father was very difficult for both my mother and I as she is still very hurt. I had to negotiate difficult terrain and we had some arguments. I had to keep reminding my mother that this was a children’s book.

Jerry Waxler: Your time frame continues into her adulthood. Since this is a children’s book, I might have thought you would be tempted to stop when she was no longer a child. Tell about your decision about where to end.

Linda Austin: It was logical the book should end when she moved to America, but she was about 28 years old then. I tried to make the adult-life part shorter, less detailed, and of interest to at least middle-school kids. This is actually the second edition out there because I learned so much from the St. Louis Publishers Association that I just had to re-do the original. I honed down the grown-up years and added songs, photos and a concordance and glossary of Japanese terms specifically for the kidlit market. Because of the sales channel setup, I can’t tell if the book sells to schools.

Many times I’ve thought to create a fictionalized version of this book just for kids because the story is an important learning experience for youngsters and fiction allows freedom to develop the story in a way they would respond to better. On the other hand, adults tell me they want to know more about what happened to my mom in the U.S.! I’m lost between audiences.

This finishes Part 1 of a 3 part interview.

Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin

Notes

Linda Austin’s home page:

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight By Yaeko Sugama Weldon and Linda E. Austin

Color of Water, by James McBride: a memoir of race, family and fabulous writing

I am reading another story of a father’s life, written by his son called Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham about his father’s life through the Vietnam war.

For 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.

Revealing Death and Other Courageous Acts of Life

by Jerry Waxler

I met Robert Waxler online last year when I was reviewing his memoir  “Losing Jonathan” about his son’s heroin addiction. During the first half of the book, Robert and his wife Linda tried to stop their son’s downward slide. In the second half, they grieved his passing. I admired his courage to share this journey and was even more impressed by Robert’s second memoir, “Courage to Walk,” about another family tragedy. His surviving son, Jeremy, was stricken with a mysterious, deadly illness and the book is about the family’s journey to stay hopeful and safe.

As an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Robert has been delving into the power of the written word for a lifetime. Now, as he looked for strength to sustain him through his trials, he turned to the deep insights shared by his favorite authors. And then he turned to books again, as the vehicle through which he could pass his story to readers.

In addition to our mutual interest in literature, naturally we were curious about our shared last name. Neither of us had ever met a Waxler to whom we weren’t related. Over the course of the year, we discussed the possibility of giving a joint presentation about memoirs. Recently, I arranged such a talk sponsored by the Philadelphia Writers Conference.

Robert and Linda drove down from Dartmouth, Massachusetts a day early to do some sightseeing. We agreed to meet outside the museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall in Philadelphia; a fitting backdrop, since his ancestors and mine were Russian Jewish immigrants. My sister joined us to extend our greetings, one Waxler clan to another.

We sat in the coffee shop at the museum and talked with energy, jumping enthusiastically from one topic to another. Since our ancestral records no longer exist, we wondered if our easy flow indicated a shared ancestry. A woman walked by and Robert called out her name. She was an old friend of his and his wife’s from Massachusetts who just happened to be in this spot, hundreds of miles from home. My mother had an expression, “coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous.” Was this a sign?

Even though we had agreed for months that we would give a joint presentation, I didn’t know exactly what that meant. How would we interact in a way that would bring value to our audience? The next morning over coffee, I proposed the way we would organize the talk, and he agreed. Then we drove to the lovely campus of Montgomery County Community College to a lecture hall where about 20 people were already seated, including two of my cousins. Linda Waxler, who coauthored “Losing Jonathan” sat in the back of the lecture hall with my sister and her husband. I smiled thinking how fitting it was that a memoir workshop had turned into a family affair.

I introduced the talk with the enthusiasm I always bring to this topic. “In the memoir age, we read books by people who spend years turning their lives into literature. Today we’re going to meet an English professor who turned to the written word to cope with his personal tragedy. Then in the second half, we’ll give you some pointers on how to turn your own lives into literature.”

Robert Waxler stood, radiating the authority that he had gained from a lifetime of teaching. He described how he grappled with his emotions and beliefs during Jonathan’s fall from a lovely, promising childhood into heroin addiction, and how he stood on that precipice between despair and faith. Then, he explained his decision to turn that experience into “Losing Jonathan.” Last year, when I read this memoir, I wrestled with my prejudice that English professors are not free to express this much frank emotion. What would his colleagues and students think? But now, listening to him speak so eloquently about how he placed these precious experiences on the page, it felt so right. As a man of letters, of course he wanted to locate these profoundly human events in the world of literature.

When he started, he seemed to be gathering his thoughts, selecting elements of his memory and intention. By the time he finished, his voice was strong and there was a cadence to his speech. I have always admired the way a good professor can lean into his topic and share not only his information but also his enthusiasm about the subject. Today, the professor enveloped us in his vision, not by speaking about someone else’s writing, but by sharing his own intentions as a writer, a father, and a human being.

Then it was my job to turn the audience’s attention back to their own goals. I realized there wasn’t enough time to conduct a real workshop, but in the small amount of time available, I wanted to convince everyone that the problems of writing a memoir are solvable. “When you look back through your memories, they fly out at you in a variety of bits and pieces, entangled in time, and at first only make sense to you. As you write scenes and accumulate them in sequence, they begin to take shape. As you see the material of your life take shape on the page, you gradually tame the flood of memories and begin to craft them into a story worth reading.”

After my portion of the talk, I opened the floor to questions. Ordinarily in memoir workshops the majority of questions are about how to write about life, but today the audience wanted to pour out their empathy to a couple who lost a child to drugs. One of the raised hands belonged to my cousin. In a shaky voice, she said, “Thank you so much for writing about this.” I could hardly hear her and asked her to say more. She continued, “I was twelve years old before I found that my uncle died. It was a suicide and no one would talk about it.”

I thought, “Oh. That family nightmare.” I was a little boy when my father’s nephew, after graduating medical school, had a mental breakdown and killed himself. The family immediately imposed a silence around the event, and I never understood the emotional impact. Now, I saw the shock in my cousin’s face these many years later.

Linda Waxler, from the back of the room, spoke up with a strong, purposeful voice. Looking directly at my cousin, Linda said, “That’s the reason we wrote “Losing Jonathan.” When he died, people pulled away from us. We wanted to educate people to understand that when someone dies, that’s the time to pull together. Silence is the most painful response.”

Their exchange reminded me that people have a tendency to hide extraordinary things about themselves, even events that cry out for compassion. I have heard the issue expressed in my memoir workshops, where writers express fear and uncertainty about how much of their lives to reveal. To direct the audience’s attention back to their own writing, I said, “We often think we must keep our secrets hidden in order to be accepted, but in fact, the secrets themselves keep us separated. Memoir writing lets us explore and share these parts of ourselves. When hidden material is told in a story, it takes on a universal quality that we can all relate to.”

My other cousin spoke up. “It’s true. We always had secrets. My mother wouldn’t tell any of her friends when I was divorced. No one wanted to talk about that back then.”

I responded, “Times are changing, and memoirs are helping break down these barriers. Jeannette Walls, author of the bestseller “Glass Castle,” said that before she wrote her memoir, she was deeply ashamed of her poor, chaotic childhood. Now, thanks to her book and others like it, we are sharing many things that once were hidden.”

At the end of the meeting, people gathered around to thank us. I love these moments after a talk when people pour back some of the energy that I poured out. I looked at Bob and smiled. If we had been forty years younger, we would have given each other high fives. As we said goodbye, Robert and I promised to do it again. “We can call ourselves the Two Waxlers,” I said, “and give talks about how memoirs matter.” “Yes, a road tour,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

I realized how comfortable I was with all these people, a comfort level that for most of my life had been entirely foreign to me. For decades, I felt distant from my family. Now I was wondering how much of my distance was based on my secret. After I left my childhood neighborhood in Philadelphia to go out into the world, I decided that being part of a minority religion made me an outsider. Writing my memoir has given me more confidence to accept all these parts of myself. Letting go of my secrets feels like letting go of my walls.

As I walked across the parking lot to my car, I thought about my mom’s image of a God who tries to let us know He is there, without really letting us know. I wondered how clever He might be feeling right now, arranging things so that an English professor and his wife could learn hard lessons about life, and then write and speak about what they learned to help other people get in touch with their own secrets. When I give memoir workshops, my focus in on helping other people learn about their own lives, but today I felt the guilty pleasure of having learned something about my own.

Notes

To read an essay I wrote about Robert Waxler’s memoir “Courage to Walk” click here.

To read an essay about “Losing Jonathan,” click here.

To read an interview with Robert Waxler about his memoirs, click here.

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.