The Feminine Viewpoint in Memoirs

I grew up at a time of sharp gender distinctions, but as a young intellectual I mostly kept out of the fray. For example, failing out of contact sports didn’t bother me. I did try a few other things I consider manly, like constructing a small rustic end table from lumber. And I changed the oil on my car a few times, and even changed the brake pads once. But the male stereotype I adhered to most ferociously was the shallowness of my interest in girly emotions. 

I was curious about those exotic creatures, of course, who clearly had about a thousand times more insight into style and emotion in one day than I had in a year, but I never expected to find a pathway that would enable me to feel their feelings.

Looking back on it, I can see how my ignorance was supported by the reading material of the day. Throughout my youth in the sixties, Huck Finn, Great Expectations, the Count of Monte Cristo, Edgar Alan Poe’s short stories, and the whole genre of science fiction, all shielded me from the experience of being a girl.

But the wall that separated me from the inner life of women rapidly crumbled when I discovered memoirs. When reading memoirs by female authors, I not only think about women. I spend hours vicariously thinking like one, allowing me to feel those complex emotions for myself. For example, reading books by mothers about the loss of a child took me on a journey through some of the most heart-wrenching emotions I’d ever experienced. [For example to read an essay I wrote about such a mother’s memoir, Lorraine Ash’s Life Touches Life click this link.]

I held back on the feminine experience of romance though, viewing it as a sort of final frontier that my male mind hesitated to cross. I did try reading a couple of romance novels, but I felt as though they were written in a foreign language, and could not let go in order to enter them vicariously. I needed to find a good romance memoir and build up the courage to read it.

Then last year I took a baby step in that direction. B. Lynn Goodwin’s memoir Never Too Late was the perfect starting point for my expanded emotional intelligence. Because her deep, heartfelt relationship happened later in life, between two people who leaned into pragmatic choices rather than emotional storms, I didn’t have to expose my logical male sensitibilities to more than I could handle.. But it broke the ice. [Click here to read my essay about that experience]

This year, my memoir romance reading jumped up a notch (or ten). Paris Blue by Julie Scolnik is a beautifully written book. It has all the vulnerability of a romance novel, but with the intense authenticity that arises from a heart-felt first-person account.

Paris Blue empowered me in the same way all memoirs do, to get me out of the limitations of my own approach to life in order to experience someone else’s. As her story awakened primal feelings of being swept away in love, I remembered when I felt that intoxication too! Through the magic of vicarious experience, I remembered those delicious moments as a young man when I felt swept up in that fascinating, fun, intricate, sensual, and sweet aspect of human existence.

Paris Blue, about the author’s most intimate moments, is yet another reason to celebrate the dawn of the Memoir Age – sharing stories lets us make better sense of each other’s inner worlds –  like the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which enabled modernity to understand ancient hieroglyphs, the existence of a modern library of interior life journeys can help us speak to each other more openly and with deeper insight. In this way, memoir reading and writing will change the world.

Two-Memoir Series about Youth, Midlife, and Responsibility

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the second part of a review of David Berner’s Any Road Will Take You There. Click here to read the first part.

In Accidental Lessons, David Berner’s first memoir, a middle-aged man looks for himself in the wider world. From one point of view, it’s the classic midlife abandonment, leaving his wife and kids. But there’s a twist. Instead of running away from responsibility, he takes a job as a school teacher and helps students grow.

David Berner’s second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, seems to follow a similar thread. Again, he leaves home to find meaning. But again, Berner is not exactly running away. This time he hits the road, but in a motor home. And he takes his sons with him.

The characters in Any Road Will Take You There are supposedly following the path of the beat generation of fifty years earlier, when young rebels flaunted the values of society.  But during this updated version, a middle-aged man celebrates social responsibility. By taking his sons along for the ride, Berner attempts to inspire them with the same book that inspired him in his youth. Passing along social values to one’s sons is the very definition of “tradition” and a fabulous sendup of Jack Kerouac’s rebellion. The interplay of the two forces, running away and returning, creates fascinating harmonics.

Within the container of the road trip, Berner is able to ponder the rebelliousness of his youth, and place those youthful impulses within the context of his mid-life crisis. With each passing mile, he moves farther and farther into his commitment to his children. Instead of renewing his commitment to self-indulgence, the way mid-life crises are expected to do, Berner renews his commitment to care for others.

Leaving Home is Only the First Half of the Hero’s Journey
According to Joseph Campbell’s influential book, Hero of a Thousand Faces, the story of the young warrior leaving home to find his place in the world is at the heart of civilization. Campbell finds some variation of this image of “going forth” in every culture on earth.

This desire to find truths somewhere else is not just ancient history. In modernity we continue to travel outward as if our lives depend on it. That spirit drove Europeans west across the American frontier. Jack Kerouac updated the image to a new generation. On the Road was like a starter pistol that launched ten thousand cars. When I drove to San Francisco in 1969, I was not simply looking for good weather. By rejecting my parents’ values, and even their presence in my life, I was following this exciting idea — find truth by abandoning everything you know and believe.

A decade later, most of us former hippies figured out how to establish our adult lives. To do so, we had to reconcile an important flaw in our idealism. By leaving everything behind we had fostered a valueless, chaotic society. But how had we been so misled by the universal myth of the hero? Surely a fundamental guideline of human experience couldn’t have been so out of kilter.

At the time, I couldn’t make sense of how far off track I’d gone, but I kept asking the question. Now, the Memoir Revolution is providing answers. When David Berner looks back across his life, the outward bound passion of our youthful rebellion is shown in a new light. David Berner and other middle-aged chroniclers of the social experimentation of the sixties are helping us update the Hero’s Journey to the twenty first century. Or more accurately, we are rediscovering that the Hero’s Journey has contained that deeper wisdom all along.

It turns out that by celebrating the “going forth” part of the Hero’s Journey, modern cultures have been glossing over the crucial outcome of the Hero’s Journey. At the end of the classic story, the hero returns home. As a returned adventurer, the ultimate goal of the hero is not to conquer the unknown. In the next leg of the journey, the goal is to bring back wisdom to share with the community. In its complete form, the Hero’s Journey is about building and sustaining communities.

David Berner’s memoir Any Road Will Take You There reminds us of this necessary completion of the Hero’s Journey. He springboards from Kerouac’s image of leaving home, but Berner’s variation on this journey has a wonderful twist. He exposes mid-life, not as a time to leave home, but as a time to reevaluate and renew his commitment to his community. As a teacher to his students and his sons, Berner reminds us that the hero’s journey ends with wisdom that will help maintain social values and raise responsible children.

Mid-life crisis corrected
In middle age, it’s natural to fear the whispers of one’s own mortality. As long as our culture only values the “going forth” half of the Hero’s Journey, these fears might prod us to renew our youthful attempt to leave everything, as if by going outward we can become heroes again. But by prolonging the adventuresome half of the journey, we miss the reward offered to us throughout the history of civilization. Instead of going out again, we can find peace and fulfillment by accepting the call to return.

David Berner’s story offers us that image. Instead of focusing on the first half of the Hero’s Journey, he glorifies the second. By returning to his children, and the students in his school, he offers his wisdom to young people so that they can live wiser lives, themselves.

The story of Any Road Will Take You There is seductively simple. Rent a van and go on holiday. However, Berner’s apparently simple send up of On the Road creates a complex backdrop. His first memoir Accidental Lessons adds even more context. Through his two memoirs, the author transforms his midlife crisis into a meditation about generations, about the responsibilities of fathers, about the power of literature to transform individual lives.

On The Road was Jack Kerouac’s roman a clef, that is a novel based on the adventures of one of the great reporters of the Beat Generation. David Berner has done an excellent job updating that message with a true life message of his own. By writing his memoir, Berner compares the “going forth” of the Beat movement in the sixties with the “return home” of the Memoir Revolution in the twenty-first century. In our era, we can complete the cycle: grow up, learn about the world, then by writing a memoir, bring our wisdom to the next generation.

David Berner’s Home Page
Click here for my review of Accidental Lessons
Click here to read an interview I did with David Berner

For another memoir about an idealistic response to midlife, read Janet Givens At Home on the Kazakh Steppe about a woman who volunteered for a Peace Corps stint at age 53. Click here for Janet Givens’ home page.

Click here for a list of memoirs I have read by authors who have written more than one.

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.

To 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.

Gender Sensitivity and Wisdom in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

I posted a blog in 2008 in which I realized that by reading memoirs, I was seeing the world through the eyes of female protagonists. Despite the fact that I have never worn a pair of high heels and still refuse to carry my wife’s purse, I didn’t have any problem walking hundreds of pages inside the mind of a woman.

Memoirs extend into every corner of life, and over the years I’ve learned what it’s like to be a male or female parent, teacher, teenager or old person. (Diana Athill was in her late 80s when she wrote Somewhere Towards the End and Harry Bernstein was in his 90s when he wrote Golden Willow.) By reading memoirs, instead of learning general ideas about people, the way I would from a sociology or psychology class, I can experience life through their eyes and draw my own conclusions. Now, four years after the blog in which I made my first observations about the gender awareness raised by memoirs, I cite more examples.

In Crazy Love, Leslie Morgan Steiner tries to make sense of her husband’s violent abuse. This painful situation strains rationality to the breaking point. Seeing it through the eyes of someone in the situation opens my mind to it, through the window of story.

In Unorthodox, Deborah Feldman shows how the rules of her Hasidic family smother her by restricting her within culturally sanctioned roles. The contrast between her daily life and those of us out here in the larger culture provides a reminder of the evolution of western attitudes toward women. Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran also contrasts her liberal attitudes toward women with the fundamentalist regime imposed on Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini. The two memoirs raise my awareness to the fact that still, even in the twenty-first century, some of the most important cultural battles of modernity continue to be fought over the rights and roles of women.

The evolution from tradition to modernity is the topic of the memoir, Nomad, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She grew up in a Moslem village, under the most restrictive rules imaginable, and then ran away to the west where she discovered an entirely different set of possibilities. Through her eyes, the entire evolution of the Enlightenment unfolds in a brilliant exploration of our collective journey toward modernity.

While women continue to grow toward freedom, their partnerships do not always reflect this equivalence. Boyd Lemon’s marriages certainly didn’t. In his memoir Digging Deep, he looks back and tries to make sense of his three failed marriages. By picking through the rise and fall of each relationship, he shows how he follows his beliefs about a man’s limited emotional responsibility. His stereotypical attitudes inevitably led to the dysfunction in each relationship.

In Accidental Lessons, David Berner’s wife says she can’t go on with him anymore. He acknowledges that his own shallowness sinks the marriage. In David Bellavia’s House to House, while the author’s wife and child wait for his visit, he chooses to delay his return so he can spend more time with his battle comrades.

Rarer in my reading experience are books in which the woman creates the rift. I interviewed fiction writer Judi Hendricks about her novel Bread Alone, in which a woman was betrayed by a man. Hendricks said that in real life she was the betrayer, and she chose to write it in fiction with the man being the villain. Go figure.

In Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum, her mother’s choice of boyfriends squeezes the teenage protagonist out of the house and onto the streets of New York. In Live Through This by Debra Gwartney, the author hates her ex so badly that she moves 1,000 miles away. Even then, she continues to turn the kids against their father until they run away and live on the street. She doesn’t exactly blame herself for their rebellion but she doesn’t hide her contribution either.

In Linda Joy Myer’s memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, her mother abandons her, and her father doesn’t fill in the gap. Neither parent behaves nobly, each one placing his or her own needs above the needs of their daughter. (By the way, the book is a stunning example of good storytelling without blame, by an author who could have hated either parent, but instead only sheds compassionate light on their position.)

While I’m learning about genders, I also learn about the extreme possibilities within my own. I grew up as an intellectual and was never exposed to intense masculinity in activities such as battle, football, or construction work. I’m filling in that gap by reading memoirs like the two military combat memoirs, House to House by David Bellavia or Temporary Sort of Peace by Jim McGarrah, and also the blue-collar mean-streets story of Andre Debus III in Townie.

Plenty of stories include quiet, supportive, and responsible male heroes. Two outstanding examples are Laura Shaine Cunningham’s quirky uncles who are her surrogate fathers in Sleeping Arrangements. And then there are the loving male-female partnerships. In Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion tells of the infatuation for language she shares with her husband, with whom she seems to be as close as breath itself. In a similar love affair between two writers, Diane Ackerman cares for her stricken husband in 100 Names for Love. One of the most remarkable partnerships of man and woman is reported in Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Canino and Ronald Cotton, who team up to write a memoir about his false imprisonment which resulted when she wrongly accused him of rape. They are both activists in the Innocence Project.

I love Jon Reiner’s supportive wife in The Man Who Couldn’t Eat. She stood by him while his body and mind fell apart. I love the devotion of Harry Bernstein for his wife of 63 years in Golden Willow, the third memoir he penned in his 90s. And I love the supportive, humorous, and upbeat relationship between Doreen Orion and her husband in her memoir Queen of the Road about traveling through the United States in an RV.

One thought-provoking glimpse into the differences in the genders can be found in two books about a spiritual quest. In Dani Shapiro’s memoir Devotion, she tries to make sense of the contrast between her father’s devotion to Judaism and her own interest in eastern spirituality. As I describe her story, the word feminine comes to mind, with soft, supple curves, and gauzy gentle views. Dinty Moore’s memoir, Accidental Buddhist, is about his journey to Buddhism teachers, during which he tries to wrap his mind around the principles and practice of the religion. His search feels masculine to me, with edgier questions, and a more problem-solving orientation. I didn’t study the two books to find support for my impression of their gender differences, but that’s the way they struck me. Perhaps my reaction says as much about my prejudices as a reader as it does about the writers’.

When you pen your own memoir, you will first look inside yourself and see the thoughts and feelings of your own gender. But memoirs are a conversation between the author and the reader, and as you clarify the story you tell about yourself, you will also be searching for the conversation you want to have with your reader.

To improve this conversation, imagine telling your story to a live audience. (Note: Whenever you imagine writing to an audience, be sure to only allow in members who are supportive and curious and who will send you loving thoughts.) During this imagined session, look at some of the men as well as the women, and see how your tone or words reflect what you want to say to each. What aspect of your memoir might be most interesting to people of your own gender? Why? What aspect might present an interest to those of the other gender? Why?

For discussions and workshops about memoirs, visit National Association of Memoir Writers

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.