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.

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.

Show Don’t Tell: Difference Between Fiction and Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

The rule “Show don’t tell” can help writers find a strong, clear storytelling voice. However, because it is mainly taught to fiction writers, we memoir writers have to apply our own interpretations in order to adapt it to our genre.

In a previous essay, I explored the fact that we have all been influenced by ideas. Since ideas are important in the journey of our lives, they might authentically enter into our memoirs. Exposition about influential ideas could offer a valuable contribution to your readers.  In this essay, I continue to explore the ways memoirs differ from fiction.

I don’t mean to imply that good memoirs ignore the powerful methods of storytelling. On the contrary, a good memoir converts the bits of our real lives into the shape of a story. When we do a good job, we offer readers an informative, engaging entry into our world.

However, if we adhere too closely to techniques that work in fiction, we miss opportunities to help readers understand our authentic, real-life experience. To develop a strong memoir writing voice, consider the differences between fiction and memoir writing. Here are three areas in which the forms differ.

Fiction writers make stuff up

In fiction, a novelist can show ominous emotions by adding a wolf’s howl or a foul smell, or covering the sky with dark clouds. Need tactile sensation? Blow some snow in your character’s face. Need a gloomy room? Put a layer of grime over everything. The ability to invent actions and descriptions creates a whole palette of experience that can keep a fiction reader engaged.

Memoirs rely on real-world settings. What if the setting doesn’t evoke the right mood? To add emotional depth, memoir writers can simply invite readers inside our interior. As protagonists we know we hate this situation and we know why. To help the reader understand, we can just say it. For example, in Freeways to Flipflops when Sonia Marsh searches for a school in Belize for her younger son, she realizes he would have had better educational opportunities back home. A key aspect of her dramatic tension arises from the worry that perhaps she was hurting her younger son at the same time as she was trying to protect her older one. To convey this fear, she lets us “hear” her thoughts. It is a simple and direct way to share her inner battle. Her fretting “shows” the pain and confusion of the situation, and strengthens the point perfectly.

In my memoir, if I felt bad about myself during the 70s, I could relate it to the way I felt at the end of a day at the foundry when every inch of exposed skin was covered in a film of black grit. These memories are a combination of showing and telling – telling my thoughts in which I show my experiences. Another way thoughts could keep the reader engaged would be to suggest some hypothetical action. “I wanted to scream.” The protagonist shifts from feeling things directly, to becoming a narrator telling the feelings.

This shift into the mind of the narrator at the time of the story is relatively common in memoirs. This is different from the less common technique of shifting into the mind of the present-day narrator. When you comment on the past from the point of view of the present-day narrator, you are asking the reader to jump back and forth between two versions of yourself. Whether or not this is an effective technique for you will depend on the way you want to structure your story.

Novels Condition Us to See Characters from the Outside

We read endless novels written in third person. The statement “he pulls out his gun” focuses our gaze on the character’s external actions. We have grown so accustomed to this external point of view that we might feel confused hearing too much of what the character thinks, relying instead on their actions and speech. This makes sense in fiction when we are not inside anyone’s mind.

By contrast, the first person point of view prevalent in memoirs provides an entirely different vantage point, taking us inside the main character’s mind. From this point of view, we have direct access to the character’s thoughts, not just through external cues but within the reality of being that person.

After I realized I was allowed to reveal my thoughts, my scenes became stronger and my critiquers thanked me. I also pay attention to the memoirs I read, and discover that I enjoy learning what the protagonist of a memoir thinks. In fact when a memoir author relies too heavily on external detail, and too little on his or her own thoughts, the book often feels “fake” to me, as if the author is trying to write a novel, rather than a memoir.

Actors condition us to guess a character’s thoughts from external cues

On the page, a story might describe one character speaking and the other character smirking. On the screen, an actor could squeeze complex subtexts into the smirk. With just the right twist of lips, eyebrows and voice, the actor could imply “I know you didn’t mean what you just said,” or “I love you and I don’t really care what you say. Just keep talking.” or “Yes, yes. Whatever. My mind is a million miles away.” As viewers we have become accustomed to “reading” all this subtext into the actor’s intentions, based on the nonverbal cues. Our verbal minds don’t need to be engaged.

In addition to the nuances of an actor’s face, moviegoers rely on yet another nonverbal channel of communication. Background music lets us know what to feel. After a lifetime of watching shows with soundtracks, we have become accustomed to believing that feelings can and should be expressed without words.

Memoir writers do not have access to the facial nuances of a professional actor or the musical score to set the mood. Instead we employ our own unique tools. When we attempt to portray the subtlety of emotion, we can share what we think.

Share Your Inner World

Woody Allen has become famous for portraying characters who think before, during and after every important action. His career is based mainly on the joke that only weak-minded, obsessive people  think. There is an ironic twist embedded in his send-up. His characters reflect the human condition more accurately than do the characters who populate “Hollywood” movies.

Unlike the external view provided by fiction, memoirs allow us into the interior of human experience. People really do think, and memoirs are taking the mute button off the mind and letting us learn about each other’s thoughts.

Memoirs let us see, hear and experience what it was like for someone else to grow up, struggle to find dignity, and adapt to change. We learn where this person has been and can listen to their thoughts. We see the world through their eyes and we keep turning pages to see how the situation unfolds.

Instead of paying actors to communicate human experience through body language and invented situations, we are paying our neighbors, peers, and other memoir writers who have learned how to express their own thoughts, feelings and observations.

Writing Prompt
Read through your memoir-in-progress and find a spot where you have been struggling to “show” the emotions and thoughts. Since you can’t invent things in the external environment, try revealing something about what’s going inside your mind.

For an entertaining and informative book about how to live in a culture which celebrates action over thinking, read Quiet, The Power of Introverts by Susan Caine.

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 as a Hero’s Journey: Character Arc and Homecoming

by Jerry Waxler

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

In the beginning of the memoir Freeways to Flipflops, Sonia Marsh portrays a middle-class life in southern California. On the surface, this family seems ordinary and comfortable. But underneath the glossy exterior, trouble is brewing. Her teenage son is veering out of control, introducing a corrosive force that threatens to destroy their stability.

These problems force Marsh to consider making a huge change, but she isn’t sure what. One day a visiting plumber asks, “Have you thought about moving to Belize?” The question grows into a possibility, and then into a plan.

In the parlance of the Hero’s Journey, the plumber is a messenger, and the family answers the Call to Adventure. They leave the Ordinary World and move to Central America where they enter the World of the Adventure.

In this foreign land, the family encounters discomfort, inconvenience, edgy neighbors, and money problems. They valiantly press forward, finding schools for the kids and trying to make friends. But as fast as they solve one problem, new ones arise. Enemies turn against them, backstabbing and shunning them, and finally sabotaging their boat. This world grows increasingly dangerous and harsh. In the end, they can’t stomach the adventure anymore and retreat home to Los Angeles.

Heroes often return home at the end of the story. Ulysses famously returns to his home in Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War, and Dorothy returns home at the end of Wizard of Oz. The return home at the end of an adventure is so important there’s a Greek name for it: Nostoi. With the hero back home, the reader can close the book, satisfied that the story has reached closure. “Ah. Loose ends are tied up. The adventure made sense. I can return to my life.”

The fact that the Hero returns to the same geographic location highlights the fact that the most important transformation takes place in the Hero’s character. Before Dorothy is permitted to leave the Land of Oz, she must assertively confront the wizard. Once she finds her own courage, the door opens and she can return. The development of the character from the beginning of the story to the end is called Character Arc, and it expresses our culture’s deep faith in the possibility that we can grow over time.

Freeways to Flipflops provides a perfect example of this inner development. Externally, Sonia’s family needs to figure out where to find the boat that will take them shopping, where to buy cool birthday presents for the kids, and how to make money. Internally, they are trying to grow emotionally, and reclaim their emotional health. As they struggle through the outer events of their adventure, they are forced to view the world in new ways. Resolving their outer hardship forces them to solve their psychological challenges.

Adapting to this harsh environment has the same effect on the family as a wilderness drug rehab has on addicts. Marsh’s son realizes his parents and siblings are allies, and he rallies around the needs of the clan. In doing so, he learns that the entire world does not revolve around his desires. By the end of the book, he reorients his priorities in a more compassionate, socially responsible way. Dad’s character also develops through the course of the journey. Separation from the corporate grind helps him break out of his career stalemate. And even though Mom started this mission in order to help her family, by the end, she has grown too. No longer limited to acting inside the home, she has become an entrepreneur. And as a bonus, Sonia’s family experienced life outside the boundaries of the United States, an international perspective she had hoped to share with them.

The homecoming at the end of Freeways to Flipflops contains an important twist that adds energy and mystery to the story. If the only goal of the family’s move had been to stay in Belize, the whole adventure would have been a flop*. But settling into permanent life in Belize was only one of the family’s goals. A much more urgent goal was to resolve their family problems, and get their son back on track. From that point of view, they succeeded. Like Dorothy who was allowed to return home after she found the courage to confront the wizard, Sonia Marsh’s family was permitted to return home after the family achieved a new degree of maturity.

In the end of the classic Hero’s Journey, the hero brings back insights and wisdom to the community. Sonia Marsh’s memoir has achieved this heroic goal. By telling us her story about life in the Land of the Adventure, she lets us experience and learn from her lessons without leaving our chairs. And the greatest lesson Sonia Marsh offers aspiring memoir writers…? Messy experiences can be translated into tight, integrated, well constructed stories.

*The paradoxical nature of the family’s journey, turning defeat into victory, literally “flipped the flop,” offering a sneaky double-entendre of the title. Aren’t words amazing?

In Part 2 of this essay, I’ll offer examples of the Hero’s Journey model peeking through the seams of memoirs.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)


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.

How Should I Begin My Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

Beginning memoir writers face their mountain of memories and wonder how they will ever find a story. To achieve the goal, they brush aside their fears, and select one scene and then another. These anecdotes, when sorted into chronological order, add up and the dramatic tension begins to take shape. Completing the first draft is a huge accomplishment, but it’s not the end of the journey

To get the book ready for readers, you have to reread, edit and pay attention to critiques. You smooth the rough spots and add filigrees and flair. Gradually, you refine your voice and bring the character to life. By revising, you create order and movement, giving your story a compelling arc. You think you are finished and again, there is one more step.

When the reader opens the book, you must snare their attention and convince them they are going for an interesting ride. Within the first few paragraphs you need to introduce the protagonist and create a sense of interest and relationship as well as portents of disruption and development.

Fiction writers can achieve all these goals by inserting a shocking event. For example, mysteries often include a dead body in the first scene. The smart detective quickly shows up to put together the pieces of the puzzle. For memoir writers, the decision about where to start relies on events that were actually lived. Figuring how to create an enticing first scene can be confusing and complex.

No perfect formula

To start your memoir, you may be drawn to the earliest chronological event. This is especially enticing for any introspective author who is trying to sort out where it all began. Starting from the earliest time might feel like a root cause. However, it might not be the best place to start your story.

For example, my older sister says that our family life took a huge downturn when we moved from the apartment above my Dad’s drugstore to a row home. Before then, we were always within easy reach of Dad. After the move, he was away twelve hours a day, six days a week. This transition may very well have traumatized me for life, but since I was one-year old at the time, I have no way of authentically portraying the events.

An even more important reason for not starting too early is that you want to pull the reader into the thick of your story. An uneventful childhood, or just a few early scenes, might feel disconnected from the main action. But the solution doesn’t always seem easy. If you ignore your childhood, you run the opposite risk of portraying a character without roots. A story without any background could end up feeling shallow and lack authenticity and complexity.

Many aspiring writers struggle with the challenge of finding the right place to start. There is no simple answer. In order to keep learning, I read memoirs. After reading each one, I review it.

First I look at the compelling emotional value at the start of the book. What tension did the beginning set up? To be a good story, the beginning and ending are a matched set. The beginning establishes the dramatic tension which drives the story forward. By the end, that dramatic tension must be resolved.

The whole project of finding the right beginning for your story, read lots of published memoirs and consider how each author resolved these dilemmas. If the story grips you, then that system could be worth a closer consideration.

But after you know the story structure that worked for someone else, you still need to experiment to see if it works within the dynamics of your life. When Boyd Lemon was trying to convey the saga of his three failed marriages, he said he had to try seven different structures in order to find one that worked in his excellent memoir Digging Deep.

In the next few posts, I’ll explore memoirs and their structures to offer some specific ideas about how this works.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?

Jerry Waxler

This is part 1 of the essay. Click here for part 2, Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir.

Click here for part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview, and Click here for part 3b

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

During dinner, my dad told endless stories about the characters who came into his corner drugstore in North Philadelphia. His shoptalk intrigued me so much that I started to work there every weekend, and extended hours during the summer. Through high school, I spent more time with my father than I did with my friends. By the time I left for college, I knew everything about Dad’s daily grind, but I never asked him about his earlier life, and he never volunteered.

Decades went by, during which I struggled to find myself. By the time I became curious about his early life, it was too late. He died without telling me anything about how he had come to own a drugstore, or what it was like to be the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant. Sometimes I wonder if my ignorance of his younger years contributed to my own confusion. If we had established a storyline about the challenges of going from boy to man, I could have relied on him instead of making so many mistakes on my own.

In my dad’s generation, it was normal for parents to pretend they were never young. Nowadays, that social convention is changing rapidly. With each passing year, our cultural interest in memoirs grows and our fear of revealing ourselves fades. This trend to see life as a story has opened many people to their own past, as well as their parents’.

If you decide to write your parents’ story, you will follow many of the same steps you would if you were writing your own. Gather facts and anecdotes and place them in chronological order, and then look for the psychological power that will draw a reader from one page to the next.

The first step is to gather the anecdotes you already know and type them into a file. When you arrange them in chronological order, you’ll begin to transform isolated events into a continuous narrative. You’ll reveal insights about how one thing led to another, and you’ll see a shape that you might not have noticed before. If your parents are able and willing to talk about themselves, you can join the growing legion of people who know that now is the right time to

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to procrastinate. In addition to the challenge of finding time and energy, you also must overcome anxiety about asking them so many personal questions. Perhaps they don’t really want to talk about their lives? Interviewing requires a different form of conversation than most of us are accustomed to. I will share tips about  overcoming objections and interviewing in later parts of this essay. If you are motivated to achieve the goal, learning the skills is merely a step along the way.

To counter the reasons to stall, focus on the many reasons to proceed. When you see their lives unfold as a story, you will gain a deeper insight into their humanity. They had hopes, desires, pressures from their parents, and if they were like most people, they defied their parents in ways that may still cause shame. Informed by this new information, you will understand them and also gain insights to yourself. And during the course of the conversations, you will have an opportunity for intimacy, breaking through some of the posturing that separates parents from children.

A memoir is more than a sequence of information. After you gather the information, you still have to find its shape.  To do it well, you need to think like a story writer. Look for unifying concepts, dramatic tension, and beginnings, middles, and endings. Your search for artistic elegance will force you to go deeper. Stories are built on the unfolding of psychological stakes, so to write a good story you must understand what makes your characters tick.

Even though I arrived at my curiosity about my own parents too late to learn about their early life, they emerged as characters in the pages of my memoir. For the first time, I imagined the pride my father might have felt when his son chose to work at the drugstore instead of playing with friends. And then, again for the first time, I wondered what disappointment he must have felt when I drifted off to my troubled, chaotic quest. These speculations awaken a more complex, rounded impression of his journey than I had before I began writing.

If you decide that this is the year to write about your parents, you will discover them as important characters in your own story, and reveal a mysterious resonance between your real life and the literature you create. As you develop your skills and experience as the author of their stories, you will gain deeper insights into your relationship with them than you ever dreamed possible.

Recommended memoirs about parents by children

Cherry Blossoms  in Twilight by Linda Austin
Ghost written memoir of her mother’s life starting with childhood in Japan before and during World War II.

More About Linda Austin’s Cherry Blossoms: Interview Part 1
Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin

Reading my Father by Alexandra Styron
Search for her father’s life. Essentially an autobiography of her famous father William Styron as told through the eyes and voice of his daughter.

Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham
Ghost written memoir of his father’s life in Vietnam through the late 50s to early 70s.

Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour
By a daughter about her father’s obsession with a British country manor during the deterioration of the British class system.

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Search for a man’s identity by trying to find his father’s story.

Color of Water by James McBride
A man’s search for his own identity by trying to understand his mother’s past.

Mistress’s Daughter by A. M. Homes
Lucky Girl by Meiling Hopgood
An adopted daughter struggles to understand her biological parents.

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 Writing as a Form of Therapy

By Jerry Waxler

Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn how writing your story can change the world.

I sat in bed, beneath a six foot poster of Picasso’s Guernica taped to my wall. The book I held, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, was probably not on the summer reading lists for most other 17 year-old boys in 1964, but I was on a mission. I needed to figure out how to become an adult. The book by the father of Twentieth Century psychiatry raised more questions about war, peace, and human nature than it answered. Over the next few years, I read many more books, delving into science, psychology, and social theories.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out my place in the world. By my early 20s, I began to meditate, watching my thoughts flow down the river, learning how to let them go. I didn’t need to jump in after each one. In my 40s, I discovered psychotherapy. I became an instant believer, grateful to receive help on my introspective quest. I loved talk therapy so much, I returned to school to earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology.

Finally, by the age of 52, I was fully invested in adulthood and one of my first steps as an adult was to figure out how to help other people. I put out my therapist’s shingle on a busy street and nothing happened. Few people were willing to spend money to tell me their most intimate thoughts. It turns out talk therapy is not for everyone. Frustrated in my desire to help, I searched further, trying to understand how I could help. By this time, well into midlife, the center of my curiosity shifted gradually from knowledge of ideas to connections with people.

Writing gathers, shapes, and then shares

My transition from knowledge to  communication started many years earlier. I wrote regularly in a journal. The flow of words on paper soothed my agitated mind, an experience shared by many journal writers. Journaling allows sentences to pour from the cloud of unknowing, allowing you to verbalize what you didn’t even know you were thinking. Natalie Goldberg, arguably the most influential writing teacher of our era, suggests that powerful writing emerges from deep within our spiritual and emotional core. When such authentic feelings burst from their hidden places, we feel a lift and clarity.

Entering the Twenty First Century, I was stuck in this puzzle. Filling journals  pleased me, but without an understanding storytelling, I was powerless to please readers. Then I stumbled on the rumbles of the Memoir Revolution. I noticed memoirs appearing in bookstores and talk shows. I began to read them and my questions about therapy and life journey snapped into place.

Memoirs push us towards the heart of civilization

Each memoir taught me about the workings of an author’s life. I started looking into this system and experimented with it myself. By pouring my life into a story, I saw the boundaries and definition and shape of myself. And the most exciting thing about memoir writing is that I can share it with others.

When writing our lives, we have no therapist to offer feedback, to ask us to explain a feeling, or see more deeply into a particular situation. However, in a sense, we have a more natural resource than simply one individual guide. By writing for a broader audience, memoir writers follow the form called Story, with its familiar beginning, middle, and end. The broken thoughts that make no sense begin to take shape. Like assembling a puzzle, the pieces fit together into a continuous whole.

Once a story is on paper, any reader can say if the explanations sound complete. How do they know? Because by following the ancient principles of storytelling, memoirs push us to organize experiences into the structure civilization has been teaching us since the beginning of time.

Life into myth, life into literature

Until I read the work of the scholar Joseph Campbell, I never realized stories were so important. I thought books and movies were just for entertainment, the evening news was just for information, and literature classes just allowed us to admire the expressions of previous centuries.

Thanks to Joseph Campbell’s work, I know that stories are everywhere, and that we use them to discover fundamental insights into the human condition. Through his interpretation, I realize that memoirs are exactly the tool I’ve been looking for. By reading them, I understand the shape of another person’s life. By writing, I develop a deeper understanding of my own.

Perhaps when people write memoirs, they are participating in the original therapy. Sigmund Freud apparently thought so, since his technique consisted of asking clients to tell stories about themselves. Now as I learn to tell my own stories, I see how my life works, and finally discover the river into which my years have been pouring me all along. Memoir writing is a social form of therapy, joining us through understanding ourselves and our relationship to each other.

Note: This entry is a rewrite of an essay first posted on September 28, 2007

While talk-therapy is studied in the psychology department, literature is studied elsewhere. So combining the form of language art known as “story” with the psychology art of healing the self does not fit nicely into an academic framework. But there are those independent thinkers within academia who make the bridge.

For a more literary explanation of how memoirs heal, read the fantastic book Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo, a literature professor at Hunter college. The book immerses you in the way memoir writing heals.
Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo

For more about research into the psychology of talking and writing, see:

Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by James W. Pennebaker

For more about cognitive therapy, google for Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, two of the founders of that movement.

For the brain science of cognitive work, see Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz book on combating OCD with cognitive methods.
Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior by Jeffrey M. Schwartz

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.

To learn more about the cultural passion for memoirs, and reasons you should write your own, read my book Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire, available on Amazon. Click here for the eBook or paperback.

Your character evolves through time – a memoir prompt

By Jerry Waxler

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

Look at the sky. Then look again. Nothing changed, and yet everything changed. Ticks of the clock add up and after enough of them, the earth turns again. Day by day, you brush your teeth, wash dishes, watch the news. As the days gather into years, kids grow, you learn skills, achieve goals, and your character evolves. To discover the richness of detail within these moments, look back at the landscape as the years rolled by. To bring the features into focus, ask questions.

For example, I ask myself, “How did creativity enter my life?” On my computer file, I list the decades and then peer into my life journey by answering this question for each decade.

Age: 0-19
I sewed costumes in cub scouts for a dress up performance. Sometimes we dressed up as Indians but this time we were Robin Hood’s Merry Men. I still can sew the saddle stitch.

In junior high, I assembled models of warships. In the fifties, the armaments of World War II were an important part of my fantasy life. I wished I had the knack to paint the trim more realistically, but didn’t feel confident about my color sense. (Ah-ha! An old regret lurking in an innocent childhood activity.)

In high school biology, our teacher showed us how to embed objects in clear, solid acrylic. I ordered the kit and went to work like an aspiring chemist, pouring half the concoction into a mold, and letting it harden. Then I placed a shiny penny on top and poured in the rest of the goo. My bedroom reeked but I didn’t mind. I was creating!

Age: 20-29
In college I loved to dance. I practiced moves in my room in front of the mirror, and then showed them off at parties. It felt like magic. As the music flowed through my body I converted it into motion. I also loved to sit and listen. I felt lifted by The Beatles, Joan Baez, John Coltrane. Classical music sent me to the stars, from Beethoven’s symphonies, to Bach’s choirs. I drank in operas, quartets, and soloists. Many of my friends in college were jazz musicians. I know spectating is different than creating, but my appreciation for other people’s music touches such a deep chord I consider it to be part of my own relationship with creativity.

Age: 30-39
Two decades after I wanted to paint those model battleship, I finally tried my hand at painting, in oils and acrylics on canvas. I had never learned to artistically represent objects, so I stuck with abstractions. My passion was exploring the colors on the palette and on the canvas. That encounter with painting amplified my understanding of color by a hundred fold. I still have the paintings, and I love them.

My computer programming jobs involved graphics and images. I instructed the computer to create and analyze pictures one pixel at a time. I wasn’t an artist, but my work brought me inside the technology of images. And the actual coding was a creative challenge in its own right.

I took singing lessons, first in a little neighborhood music school, and then at my voice teacher’s home. I knew from her compulsive yawning how bored she was with me. She was a frustrated opera singer, and my puny attempts must have seemed so insignificant in comparison. But she gave me enough confidence and skill to join my first choir, where I’ve been singing ever since.

Age: 50 and beyond
Many music teachers thought if you didn’t know a musical instrument by the time you were five years old, it was too late. Fortunately in the 1990’s scientists discovered that neurons can grow at any age. So I started taking piano lessons. Unlike my singing teacher, my piano teacher was interested in my adult learning. I could see in her eyes an admiration for my growing neurons.

I started to write a memoir, a process which is teaching me how writing can organize life. And the best teaching tools I can find are the stories everyone else tells. Using the lessons I learn from all other writers, I create my own story. Culture begets culture. I joined writing classes, and gathered together decades of miscellaneous writing experience into a form that will let me share my life with strangers.

Writing Prompt
On a sheet of paper or computer file list the decades of your life. Then write notes about how creativity entered your life during that period. Brainstorm connections with the arts, crafts, music, hobbies, activities with kids, or the creativity you expressed in your career.

This writing prompt reveals a broad overview. After you’ve gone through the list a few times, you may find entry points into specific scenes. For example, I could write the scene of standing at the piano next to my voice teacher, then another one in my car singing scales along with my audio taped lesson on my way to work. The scenes of creativity could be sprinkled throughout other events in my life to offer readers a connection with my inner world. Just as important as looking back, I see the tenacious place creativity has held in my life and look forward to decades of satisfaction ahead.

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.

Is it narcissistic to write your memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

(This blog is also available as an audio file. See the Podcast player control at the end of this post.)

A woman in my workshop wondered if it’s narcissistic to write a memoir. I take such objections seriously, because they can drain away enthusiasm from this project. To help anticipate and refute these objections, I’ve compiled a list of some of the top reasons people have proposed for not writing a memoir and offered suggestions on how to bust through each one.

But before you invest too much time in refuting any specific reason, step back and consider the way you achieve any goal. Take for example going on a vacation. The suitcase is too small, traffic clogs the road to the airport, and the flight is delayed. But you don’t turn back. You keep going. The obstacles are part of the journey, and in a sense are steps along the way. You are determined to reach your destination and after you push through obstacles, you reach the beach. Writing a memoir is the same thing. You want it, you overcome the obstacles, and you reach your goal.

If you feel mired in objections, switch your perspective. Instead of feeling like a victim of objections, become a strategist, turning your intelligence towards defeating doubts. Like a martial artist, turn doubt against itself. Doubt your doubt. Think skeptically about what it claims. Punch holes in it and watch its energy deflate. So now, with a critical eye, the reasons why some people worry that writing memoirs is self involved.

Is it because thinking about yourself is bad? Such a restriction would stop you from more than just writing your memoir. Without self-awareness you would be stuck. Understanding yourself is a generous act that can help you become a kinder person, more willing to serve others, less angry, more harmonious. By reducing the grip of regrets, and other self-involved emotions from the past, you become lifted out of your own worries, and as a result more caring toward others.

Perhaps you fear that it’s wrong and shameful to expect other people to read your story. I suppose at first glance that might seem self-involved… unless it’s a well-told story that gives the reader pleasure or simply offers them another slant of the human condition. You’re giving them a gift, and so, it would be selfish to withhold it.

To find out more about this concern of memoirs and narcissism, I turned to an article from the wonderful collection of essays in Slate Magazine’s Memoir Week. In this collection, there is a history of memoir bashing by Ben Yagoda. The article makes the claim that the spate of memoirs proves we’re becoming more narcissistic. To back up the claim, Yagoda includes impressive sounding quotes by famous writers. But just because a bunch of people express strong opinions doesn’t make their opinions right. I think their case falls apart when you look behind the curtain and see what they are doing. These writers are standing on their public platform complaining that other people want a share of the platform. Apparently they would prefer you pay attention only to them, or to people they deem worthy. Perhaps they sincerely believe the world will be a better place if we only allow the elite to speak to us. But that seems so out of step with our times. Haven’t we evolved beyond this point of view?

In the 19th century, the masses “knew their place” at the bottom of the pile, waiting for truths to come from pundits. In the 20th century, we became a faceless mob, drowning in logos, and slogans, fodder for marketers who wanted to know us only by our demographic categories so they could sell us stuff. Ironically, when my generation was growing up, we all decided to express our individuality the same way, by wearing blue jeans. The marketers had a field day. Rather than breaking out of the mold, we created a new one. I think many of us are ready to move beyond the authoritarian model of the 19th century, and the anonymous masses of the 20th century. In the 21st century, we want to share ourselves freely with others who have exuberant passion for life in all its diversity.

Out of the demographics of the billions are arising energetic and generous people who break through the wall of sameness and tell others about their individual history, a story that has evolved through the years of their lives, and that represents a life they have actually lived. Through blogging and memoirs, writers share the story of themselves and in turn want to know the stories of each other.

Each of us is an individual. We can’t get around that fact. We’re stuck with it. The challenge is not to become less of an individual but to become more caring about the other individuals on the planet. So we stretch beyond ourselves. To become a more generous, socially responsible, kind, respectful person we strive for a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be those other selves.

A wonderful way to break down the walls that keep us apart is to read someone else’s memoir. And a great way to jump into the ocean of humanity is to tell your own story. By telling your story, you participate in a world of mutual respect, giving voice to your own individuality and in the process expanding the vision and compassion of those who want to learn about you. Telling your story will help the world stay balanced and sane. So if you’re wondering if your story is worth telling, don’t worry about those people who don’t want to hear it. Reach out to the people who do.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

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.