Tragedy and courage in memoirs

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

Recently I read a terrifying memoir about a mother’s loss of her baby, Losing Malcolm by Carol Henderson. The book takes me on a journey of primal fear.

First, I ride her wave of unbridled hope for the new life growing within her, culminating in the otherworldly surge of love when the baby is born. The wave crashes when he is diagnosed with a life threatening birth defect. The surgeons lift her spirits from the depths of despair by offering hope for a rare risky neonatal open heart surgery.Losing Malcolm Carol Henderson

Long ago, I stopped exposing myself to fictional horror. Stopping monsters just isn’t worth the emotional turmoil. Now I ask myself why am I willing to accompany an author on her real life horror. To answer that question, I compare the two types of emotional journeys.

In both forms of storytelling, the evil is too great to be stopped by ordinary people. Additional help must be recruited. For example, when aliens from another galaxy invade earth, the military mobilizes. Eventually the military wins, the killing stops, and order is restored.

In the tragic memoir, Losing Malcolm, the “villain” at first is death. If the baby’s defective heart cannot be repaired, all hope is lost. The specially-trained heroes are called in. But when the risky heart surgery fails and the baby dies, the enemy instantly shifts. Death is no longer the enemy.

Now, the antagonist in the story is despair. Despair threatens to destroy the main character’s sanity, and disrupt her grip on the very meaning of life. The psychological horror of despair threatens to unravel everything. To defeat despair the hero must journey back to wholeness.

Perhaps reading a grieving memoir is a learned skill. When I started reading memoirs, years ago, I sometimes ran away from a book with too raw and painful a topic. But over the years, as I have grown more acclimated to the genre, I no longer slow down to ask myself “why should I put myself through that experience?”

By now, I have read many grieving memoirs. Throughout each one, I keep turning pages, accepting the hero’s pain as the price I pay for the generous, uplifting ending. The victory at the end of Losing Malcolm is the psychological realignment of the hero’s attitude and direction, so that she is able to absorb that tragedy and move back into a world that once again makes sense. By my willingness to walk hand in hand with an author who has been to the depths, I am also treated to the pleasure of that author leading me back into the light.

The pleasure of reading Losing Malcolm is enhanced by excellent story construction, a compelling writer’s voice, and a sprinkling of powerful inline excerpts from the author’s contemporaneous journals. These passages heighten the sensation of being right there with her. Good writing can’t remove the pain, but it does let the story reach deep into my heart, while I remain safely in my comfortable chair.

Reading memoirs has enhanced my appreciation for the many aspects of being a human being. By learning from each author’s journey, I become a deeper person with a greater range of understanding for the complex experiences my fellow humans must undergo. When I close one of these books, I feel not only wiser about the presence of evil in the world, but also about the uplifting power of courage and hope.

Writing Prompt
What situation in your life brought you so low you felt there was no point in going on, or you didn’t think you had enough sanity to even survive? Write an overview of the situation. Write a scene that shows your despair. Write another that shows your journey back to hope.

Notes

Carol Henderson’s Losing Malcolm page
Amazon link for Losing Malcolm

Other grieving parent memoirs of lost babies:
Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes, Amazon link
Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash.  Link to my article

Memoirs by grieving parents of young adult children
Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples Amazon link
Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Link to my article:
Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Link to my article

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

Wisdom Born in One Memoir Inspires a Second

Or: Write the Memoir But Don’t Stop Growing
by Jerry Waxler

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

Memoirs often crush me with human suffering and then, in that fallen state, I accompany the protagonist, trying to find the lessons that will help us survive. In fact, the very nature of storytelling lends itself to the search for answers. In the beginning of every story, the protagonist sets off on a journey to find something. By the end, that search leads to some conclusion.

For example, Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a terrifying, life altering stroke in the first half of the memoir, My Stroke of Insight. In the second half, she discovers that she has become a gentler, more compassionate person. By accompanying the author through her stroke, and then through the lessons she learns, I am treated to her elevated version of reality.

I recently discovered an author, Lorraine Ash, who accomplished a similar effect, spread across two books. What started as the suffering and coping in the first book, Life Touches Life, ended with the profound conclusions she shares in the second, Self and Soul published ten years later.

Lorraine Ash became pregnant late in her 30s, and as her due date approached, she became increasingly excited about the arrival of her first baby. On a routine visit to the doctor, in the eighth month of pregnancy, the technician frantically adjusted her machine, trying to find the heartbeat. More tests revealed that the baby had died of an infection, requiring a cesarean section. The expectant parents had to replace the excitement of a new baby with the emotions of a devastating loss.

The baby’s death crushed Lorraine’s understanding of her relationship with God, and unraveled her as a person. Just as maddening as the loss of her daughter was the feeling that the little girl, Victoria Helen, was still with her. The love she felt for her daughter refused to die, making it impossible to follow the advice of grief counselors and friends who urged her to let go and move on. So for the sake of her sanity, she made it her mission to include Victoria Helen into the family.

Because she was a professional writer, her impulse was to write about her journey. Her research put her in touch with many women who experienced similar grief but didn’t know how to talk about it. They, too, had been instructed to let go and move on. Lorraine Ash offered them a different approach – to include the deceased baby in their lives. Instead of letting go, she showed them how to use their love to take them deeper into the essence of who they were as loving human beings. The story of her loss, and her search for healing culminated in the memoir, Life Touches Life, in 2004.

After the publication of the memoir, her mission to find peace and spiritual truth continued. Through her research, she came into contact with sufferers of other losses and traumas. She realized that her spiritual approach to grieving and growing would help many of these people develop a deeper foundation. Lorraine discovered for herself and wanted to share with others that a devastating loss can be part of an amazing, loving life.

After years of research into wisdom literature, developing her own spiritual beliefs and understanding, and counseling people who were trying to absorb losses, she published a second book, Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life. Self and Soul goes beyond the event that instigated her search. In Self and Soul, she shares truths that could help not only bereaved mothers but anyone looking for a peaceful, powerful view of their place in the universe.

In modern times, when so many of us have disengaged from the packaged belief systems offered by religion, our place in the universe seems poorly defined. Self and Soul offers us the hard-earned lessons from an author whose suffering sent her on a pilgrimage to understand how she, and by extension, we, can find our own spiritual center.

Organization of the book and a lesson for memoir writers
Many scholars think that civilization is built on the foundation of Story. Traditional societies used lofty, stylized myths to teach fundamental lessons about being human. The Memoir Revolution modernizes that tradition, allowing us to apply the story-form to our own unique circumstances. The more I study memoirs and the wisdom that emerges from them, the more I have come to appreciate that stories light the way through the complexities of life.

By my definition, a memoir reveals a sequence of events, told as they unfold over time. Stylistic exceptions allow authors to move chunks of chronological around, using flashbacks, or interweaving two time frames, but in general, the reader is expected to follow the sequence of events.

At the end of a story, a final wrap-up called the denouement gives storytellers a chance to summarize their findings and offer lessons they’ve derived. In Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight she offers the wisdom of living through a stroke. Lorraine Ash’s memoir Life Touches Life ended with conclusions she drew after the stillbirth of her baby. However, she kept learning. Ten years after the publication of her first memoir, she published Self and Soul, a sort of book-length denouement in which she offers an extended version of the lessons she learned since the first.

The two books offer a fascinating model for any memoir writers who wonders if they are really ready to write their memoir, or if they need to take more time to grow. Lorraine Ash’s two books offer an elegant answer to that question. Write one memoir now, in which you express who you are and the best lessons you have been able to develop. And don’t stop growing. Use the lessons you have learned through the earlier journey, and continue to live, opening yourself to the next chapter of your life.

Notes

For an example of a memoir that reveals a search for truth as a chronological unfolding see Dinty Moore’s search for Buddhism  in The Accidental Buddhist, in which he develops a deeper understanding of Buddhism by traveling to various ashrams.

For another memoir about a spiritual journey through various themes, see Dani Shapiro’s Devotion.

More examples of memoirs that end with essay-like conclusions about lessons learned:

  • My Ruby Slippers, by Tracy Sealey about her search for her roots in Kansas, and her conclusions about the roots of the national culture that can be found in the Heartland.
  • Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes Courter which describes her childhood in foster care that ends with her plea for more wisdom and advocacy for children caught in that system.
  • Picking Cotton by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Canino about a man falsely imprisoned for a brutal rape, and released after DNA evidence proved his innocence. The book ends with a plea by accuser and accused to modify laws and raise awareness of the dangers of turning innocent men into victims of the justice system

Links for Lorraine Ash

http://lorraineash.com/selfsoul.htm
http://www.LorraineAsh.com,
www.facebook.com/LorraineAshAuthor
or @LorraineVAsh .

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.

Make sense of loss: Grieving in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

After losing a loved one we are hurled into an emotionally pressured period called “grieving.” Words can’t contain the initial shock, so we turn to ritual. After the funeral, our loss moves inside, throbbing as a constant reminder, later surfacing in random moments. Whether we overcome the shock quickly or linger in a demoralized state for years, the world has changed forever, breaking time into parts, before the loss and after. Gradually, we reclaim our strength, but we are not sure if these parts can ever be knitted together.

When we first approach our memoir writing project, we look back across the landscape of our lives. Our research awakens scenes, before, during, and after each great loss. Placing them in order, we revisit the whole sequence, from the joy of companionship, through the tragedy of the loss, and the courage to climb back.

To turn this sequence into a continuous narrative, we look for lessons from other authors who have done the same thing. Here are several examples of memoirs that describe the journey of grief. Each book demonstrates how to collect the upheavals of life into the container of a story.

Love letter to the deceased

Gail Caldwell’s memoir, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is like a love letter to her perfect friend, Caroline Knapp. The book celebrates their friendship and then passionately reveals the journey beyond their friendship. In Gail Caldwell’s beautiful book, death cannot steal such a precious bond.

Losing a child

In the first half of Losing Jonathan by Linda and Robert Waxler, the parents try to drag their son back from the brink of addiction, and then after his death, they must come to terms with their grief. The book offers much wisdom about the role of philosophy, literature, and community support in the journey to cope with loss.

Losing a husband and finding a path

At the beginning of  Here If You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup, a young mother loses her husband in a freak auto accident. Then she must raise her young children, and at the same time make peace with God’s plan. To achieve both goals, she decides to earn a living as a minister.  In seminary, she studies the Bible, delving into it not as the final word but as an inspiring source to help her learn and grow. I love her brand of seeking, a mix of organized religion, faith, and real world observation.

An essayist describes her own grief

At the beginning of Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s husband dies suddenly and she turns her prodigious powers of observation on herself, describing the resulting thoughts and feelings. Unlike other writers in this list, Didion did not reach toward a spiritual system or a belief in the transcendent. The absence of this dimension turns the tragedy into a barren ache that leaves me feeling helpless in the face of mortality.

Grieving and seeking are intimately related

Generally the word “grieving” describes the journey of recovering from the loss of a loved one. Similar emotional repair is often needed after losing anything we love. After the tragedy of 9/11, we realized that normal life could suddenly explode and turn into a nightmare. Our sense of safety was dead, and we had to find our way back.

Dani Shapiro’s memoir Devotion is about her journey to recover from both types of loss, the death of her father years before and her need to make sense of the fragility of life. She explores that sadness, and the need to make sense of it, not only emotionally, but more importantly, to find belief in something greater than herself. In “Devotion” the process of grieving becomes intimately related to the process of seeking a higher truth.

My Family’s Grieving

There is no particular time frame around grieving and in fact the process can be substantially delayed. When my brother died, I was in the middle of a confusing period of my life. I did not process my feelings about him until thirty years later when I saw the whole sequence come to life in the pages of my memoir. By writing, I was able to feel a closer connection to him and deeper understanding of my own feelings.

In the development of my memoir, I also saw how his death shook the family and how each of us came to terms with it in our own way. Decades after my brother’s death, my father still appeared to be shaken. Like other men of his generation, he remained silent about his emotions right up to the end. My mother on the other hand, went on a journey of self discovery. She learned from yogis, rabbis, television preachers, and books. Over the years, I watched her grow. Even as she became wiser, she was never satisfied and continued to learn.

Writing Prompt

What loss have you touched upon in your memoir research? Write a scene before the loss, when you felt an innocent, joyful sense of connection. Write another one soon after the loss, then several more scenes later, as your emotional response evolved. Set these scenes out on a time line, and graph the ups and downs of one of your emotions. Try hope for example, or faith. Fill in additional scenes along the line to offer you and your reader a richer understanding of the evolution of this emotion over time.

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.

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.

Courage to Write, Passion to Read

by Jerry Waxler

Robert Waxler found his athletically active son, Jeremy, on the floor, unable to move his legs. Rushed, to a hospital, doctors first suspected a back injury. Tests revealed it to be more sinister, requiring emergency surgery. The memoir “Courage to Walk” by Robert Waxler starts like a medical thriller, but soon the lens of the book widens to include the family’s search for emotional survival. Jeremy’s medical crisis awakened echoes of a previous tragedy. Twelve years earlier, Jeremy’s older brother Jonathan died from a heroin overdose. Now, Robert and his wife Linda had to face a new trial.

The book blurb forms a contract with the reader

Before I even purchased the book, I knew from the blurb that the author was an English Literature professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. I knew that “Courage to Walk,” was about the crippling and potentially deadly illness of a second son, and I knew about the death of Robert and Linda’s oldest son, Jonathan.

This preliminary information not only motivated me to buy and read the book. It also set my expectations for what I would encounter inside. I was looking forward to learning about the relationship between this father and his son, and I wanted to learn more about the private emotions of a man who earned his living as an intellectual. Since Waxler had written two memoirs, I had the added incentive that if I liked one, I could also read the other.

Courage to Live, To Love, and To Write

The title “Courage to Walk” refers to the son’s courage to reclaim the use of his legs and return to his place in society. However, there are other forms of courage in evidence. Robert Waxler lived for twelve years under the burden of his previous loss and now he must cope with this new danger. While Jeremy was struggling to stand up physically, Robert Waxler struggled to stand up emotionally in a world that threatened to swallow the ones he loved.

Like any memoir writer, I imagine this author struggled with the dilemma of how much of his private life to share. And since college professors are being paid to tell students how the world works, I imagine he would have even more incentive to hide his vulnerability. The fact that Robert Waxler chose to reveal this family struggle makes his memoir an exquisite example not only in the courage to walk, but also the courage to write.

Professors and emotions

When I started reading “Courage to Walk” I assumed this professor would adhere to my stereotype that “intellectuals hide in their ivory tower.” Suspicious of his ability to express emotion, I was overly critical at first of his occasional literary references. For example, he inserted a poem by Emily Dickenson. “Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune–without the words, and never stops at all.”

“Interesting,” I thought. “But what does Waxler think?”

To explore the suffering a parent must undergo, he quoted Simone Weil’s interpretation of the Bible. Weil said, “A mother, a wife, if they know the person they love is in distress will … suffer some equivalent distress.”

“Yes,” I thought. “I can appreciate this point that a parent would suffer, but why quote Simone Weil?” As I became accustomed to Waxler’s style my prejudice faded and I realized that the quotes were not creating distance between us at all. In fact, they invited me into his inner life. Upon reflection, it made perfect sense that Robert Waxler’s self-portrait ought to include a love of books, poetry, and plays. The references added depth to his character and through the course of the book, I saw how he used literature as a container large enough to include both passionate love and soul-crushing worry.

I thought of the poet William Blake, about whom Robert Waxler wrote his doctoral thesis. William Blake illustrated his poetry with etchings to offer readers an additional window into his soul. Robert Waxler achieved a similar purpose, showing me how other authors embellished his thoughts.

Waxler’s passion for books leaps around the world

While Jeremy Waxler was confined to his room, he read a pile of books. Robert listed the titles of the book, explaining their value for his son. “Like medicine on a shelf, these books need to be taken in and digested by a sensitive reader, and Jeremy is just that kind of reader, the kind that lets language seep deep through the skin and permeate the heart. Such reading gives him buoyancy, a lightness of being. Good books stir his blood and transport him to some other place.” Father and son shared this passion. Books were their common love.

I too am a lover of books. During my college years, I often saw the world in terms of the book in which I was currently immersed. After I graduated, few people in my life were interested in what I was reading, and my literary interest went into hiding. “Courage to Walk” reminds me that I’m not the only one with this impulse to turn toward books for sustenance.

This discovery comes at a perfect time for me. Thanks to blogging, I have been able to share my love for books with a larger crowd than at any time since I was a university student. With access to the purported billion plus people on the internet, bibliophiles everywhere can trade notes, enjoy each other’s company, and spread the word. Book lovers unite!

Writing Prompt for Memoir Readers
What memoirs make it onto your reading list? Look at the memoirs you recently read. What did you know about the author and his or her story that pulled you to read it? What similarities or differences with your own situation added to your curiosity? What questions did you hope to answer about the human condition in general or the author’s situation in particular?

Writing Prompt for Memoir Writers
In your own life or your memoir-in-progress, consider what your book blurb will tell potential readers about the journey they are about to embark on. What special audience might be interested in unique features in your story such as job, cultural or family background, geographical community, or some other special interest group? Brainstorm freely, and see which items would catch your eye if you came upon this book while browsing.

Note
While Robert Waxler’s last name interests me, we are not related.

Links

To read Part 1 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.
To read Part 2 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.
To read Part 3 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers

A memoir of mourning helps make sense of loss

By Jerry Waxler

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

The first half of the memoir “Losing Jonathan” by Robert and Linda Waxler is about their attempt to stop their son’s fall into heroin addiction. At the center of the story was a good kid, loved by his family and friends, a college grad bursting with potential and a desire to change the world. By the time his parents discovered his problem, all of that was tearing apart. Horrified to learn that Jonathan was in trouble, his parents were torn out of their ordinary lives and hurled into pleading and research, therapists and rehab.

They felt caught in the cruel undertow of drug addiction. Something was stealing their son and they couldn’t stop it. After a stint in rehab, they hoped he had returned to them. And then the call came. A tainted dose of heroin had ended his life. The second half of the book recounts the following years of their grieving. The book is told from both their points of view with Robert’s passages written in straight font and Linda’s in italics.

The father’s journey

During the year they knew about Jonathan’s addiction, Robert struggled to hold on to his own emotional center, relying on his family, friends, and his Jewish faith. After his son’s death, he turned even more desperately towards these supports. Meanwhile, his mind was churning, second-guessing what more he could have done, and struggling to make sense of a world in which such things could happen. Amidst his thoughts are wonderful images of the young boy in his earlier life, full of hope and promise.

Robert Waxler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, has devoted his life to teaching literature as well as finding the wisdom within it. He believed so deeply in the power of writing that he founded a program called “Changing Lives Through Literature,” to help convicted criminals find their way to social responsibility.

So when he tried to cope with his own loss, he looked towards literature for help. In “Losing Jonathan,” he writes, “Literature helped me keep my anger in check. It gave me a sense of proportions, of tolerance. But it didn’t foreclose on passion, nor did it serve as an escape from Jonathan’s death. Sometimes standing in an empty room, I will yell out loud at Jonathan, even now, and wonder why this tragedy happened.”

The mother’s journey

Linda was so overwhelmed, she didn’t know what to say. Neither did her neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances. So they avoided her. At the time when she needed the most support, she felt most alone.

“Losing Jonathan” revealed the effects of the passage of time, showing grieving as a sequence of inner adjustments. After a few years, Linda began to reclaim her poise enough to greet people and look them in the eye. Robert writes, “Near the end of the fourth year, Linda wrote her own article about grief, a stunning composite of her feelings and her knowledge. It was published in several places including the Providence Journal Sunday Magazine. She was stretching, touching others, rejoining a community, becoming a writer of her own life.”

In the fifth year, Robert writes, “We were like the wedding guest who listens to the tale of the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem, disturbed by the spell cast by his turbulent journey, but wiser now. At the end of the poem, the Mariner is gone, leaving the wedding guest to stand alone, forlorn, stunned into wonder at the vision:

And now the Wedding Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn;
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.”

Many layers of grieving

Memoirs of grieving have a special place in my library, since they take me on the author’s spiritual journey, trying to reclaim the meaning of life after its loss. In another memoir, “Here if you need me,” Kate Braestrup wrote about losing her husband in a freak accident. Then, she had to get on with her life. In the end, she arrived at a lovely conclusion, summarizing her feelings about death in a compelling and uplifting chapter on good and evil. When I’m asked which memoir is my favorite, this is usually the one that comes to mind.

Now I realize after reading “Losing Jonathan” that I loved the Waxlers’ memoir for similar reasons. Like Kate Braestrup they were on a quest to wrest their sanity back from the abyss. At first they were thirsty for support from their community. Then, after five years, Linda suggested, “We should try to write a book. It would be a way of honoring Jonathan’s life. Sustaining it.” The suggestion reflected Linda’s desire to give back to the community some of the strength they had given her. And the vehicle for their gift was a book.

Publishing the book was a social act, a generous gift to each other and the world. I feel encouraged by the willingness of these authors to share their inner process with the rest of us, to give us insights, tips, and guidance to help us stay strong and wise during our own recovery from loss.

Click here for the Amazon page for Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler

Click here for the Amazon page for Waxler’s second memoir, Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler

Writing prompt
If you suffered a loss, describe the situation. Show the external signs of your suffering (tears, blank staring, incoherent cries, or inappropriate silences, pounding the wall). Show the impact on relationships (arguments, withdrawal). Write about how you tried to find meaning, (discussions, readings). Where did you turn to help you make sense? Describe the ideas that helped you patch together the universe. Write a scene that shows you emerging from the valley.

Notes about multiple voices in a memoir
I have read several memoirs that speak from more than one point of view. “Color of Water” by James McBride includes extensive passages taken from interviews with his mother. “The Kids Are All Right” is told by all four Welch siblings. In “My Father’s House” the author Miranda Seymour occasionally steps outside the narrative of the book to discuss its assertions with her mother. “Picking Cotton” is written in the voices of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino who was brutally raped, and Ronald Cotton, the man who served seven years in jail for the crime he didn’t commit.

Writing Prompt about multiple voices
Consider giving prominent characters in your story their own voice. If practical, interview these people. Observe the interplay between their perspective and yours and try to imagine how a memoir might include their observations or even their voice.

Another memoir that fast-forwards at the end
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg in “The Sky Begins at your Feet” continues with an epilog that shares the years of survival after her surgery. Coincidentally, Mirriam-Goldberg also believes in the power of literature to change lives and community. See her organization for literature and social change, Transformative Language Arts Network

Writing Prompt for epilogs
If you need to explain how life kept going after the presumed end of your memoir, consider tacking on a postscript that shows what happens after the main or central story is over.

Read an interview with Robert Waxler

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

Note

For another view of a son’s fall into addiction see the pair of memoirs: “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff  and “Tweak” by Nic Sheff  see my essay, Matched pair of memoirs show both sides of addiction

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.

Catch-up grief: how visiting my brother helped me grow

by Jerry Waxler

When my older brother Ed was diagnosed with cancer, he was 37, married, with two young children and the owner of a growing cardiology practice in a small town in Georgia. It did not take long for the disease to rip it all away. When he died, I was 30, still entrenched in my protracted struggle to grow up. We were living almost a thousand miles apart and so I experienced his death once removed, as if the loss was happening to someone else.

As I write my memoir, these 32 years later, I discover the gaping hole his death created, as if I was postponing my grief until I was mature enough to better understand what happened. I now watch our relationship unfold in slow motion, and this time I intend to learn as much as possible about what happened and what I missed.

Much of my childhood is hazy, and as I struggle to remember it, I sometimes gain clarity by comparing notes with my sister. I had no such opportunity with my brother, at least not in physical conversations. But by imagining discussions with him, I have improved my memory as well as my peace.

It started in a psychiatrist’s office. I was complaining about the fact that after decades of earning my living sitting in front of a computer, I didn’t feel comfortable telling people I was a therapist. Even though I had my Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, and was working with clients, I was still not able to see myself as a mental health care provider. In fact, I often tried to hide it.

The psychiatrist, Lyndra, was helping me sort out my self-image problem by using a sort of modified hypnosis, called EMDR. I sat with closed eyes while she alternately tapped my knees and told me to think about how I could break past my reluctance. Out of the haze, my brother appeared. He was kind and respectful, the same as I remembered him in life, and he “gave me his blessing” telling me how proud he was of my new role.

The vision boosted my confidence, helping me proceed more energetically along my new path. The following year, I conceived of a book in which Ed was a character who communicated with me from the Other Side. I imagined he must have achieved great wisdom by then, and I asked him to help me sort out the meaning of life. Although I still have not figured out how to tie together the loose ends of the book, the hours I spent with him in my imagination helped me restore our connection.

During the process, vignettes about our early relationship peeked from their hiding places. When he was trying to earn a place on his high school basketball team, he needed a place to practice. I helped him build a court in my grandmother’s yard. We dug the hole, poured in concrete, and erected the backboard. The summer before he left for college, he assembled a hi-fi system from a kit. He taught me how to read the color code on the transistors and solder them onto a circuit board. I was 11. The following summer, we played chess out on the patio. I had been studying chess books, and we were an even match. Sometimes he would make me play two or three games in a row, leaving me begging for mercy, and yet at the same time feeling bonded to him in the strange way competition connects opponents.

After he moved away to college, I had a premonition. I was watching a drama on television about a young boy who heard news of his older brother’s death. An inexplicable rush of sadness washed over me. And then there it is. I see myself at 30 flying down to Georgia to be by his side as he lay dying and instead of feeling grief, all I could feel was admiration.

I can’t go back to change the way I reacted, but I can use my writing to reorganize my thoughts and feelings now. By illuminating early memories, my writing has helped me appreciate growing up with him. I am developing a richer range of emotions about his passing. And moving forward, I have made better sense of his absence, filling in some of that gap with warm stories, images, and sometimes even a sense of his presence.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene in which you were together with someone you miss.

Memoir interview about privacy, activism, style

Interview with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg about her memoir “Sky Begins at Your Feet,” Part 2 by Jerry Waxler

This is Part 2 of the interview I conducted with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg about her memoir “The Sky Begins at your Feet.” In Part 1, (to read Part 1 click here) Caryn shares observations about the spiritual and religious journey. In this Part, she discusses community activism, privacy, style, and other issues that may help memoir writers learn more about their craft.

(Note: Caryn will be checking in during the blog tour to read and respond to your comments.)

Jerry Waxler: During the period covered in the memoir, you are also very much engaged in organizing an environmental conference, weaving your activism about earth into consciousness raising about breast cancer. This is a fabulous double-value of your story. Do you see the book as a tool of advocacy for ecology work, as well as health?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I see the health issues as relating directly to the environment, and I knew this book very much had to be a bioregional book. By bioregionalism, I mean the tradition of learning from your community and eco-community how to live, how to steward your home place and be a good citizen, and how to find greater meaning and purpose in your life through connection to the land and sky. The conference was actually a bioregional congress, focused on bringing people together from throughout the continent to network, share resources, and inspire each other in living more fully in our home communities. I hope the book does inspire people to, most of all, learn more about their environment, and from that learning, develop a greater connection with their local land, which will naturally lead to the kind of advocacy and stewardship that creates enduring ecological change. I also hope the book helps people see not just more of the connections between cancer and ecological degradation and destruction, but between healing and finding kinship with the trees, fields, birds, skies and other aspects of our homes around us.

Note: For more about the bioregionalism movement, click here.

Jerry Waxler: How has this memoir been received in your ecology activist community?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: It’s been received very well so far, and next week, I’ll be reading it at another bioregional congress, this one at The Farm in Tennessee, so I’ll see more how it speaks to people in that community.

Jerry Waxler: I love the characters in your community. So many people reach out with compassion, to help you with food, with caring for your family, and of course the all-important emotional support. In the process of telling about these people, aren’t you to some extent impinging on their privacy? Many memoir writers are confused about how much to say, how much detail to include, whether to change names, and so on. How did you balance your friends’ privacy with your desire to tell the story of friendship and community.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: This was an issue I thought long and hard about, and basically, anyone who showed up more than once, I contacted when the book was in its final draft, and sent them a copy of the book to read, letting them know that if there was anything they couldn’t live with, they should tell me. Few people asked me to change anything, but I thought asking was the ethical thing to do. I also shared the final draft with all my doctors, my children, my mother and siblings. I worked hard in editing to remove any references to people (there were just a few) I had larger conflicts with because I didn’t want to use my writing in any way to play out those conflicts. Occasionally, when I did present something unflattering about anyone, I changed the name of that person and that person’s identifying characteristics.

Jerry Waxler: You went through a terrifying period, facing the loss of part of your body, and a profound alteration of body image. In the memoir, you have explained and explored this loss of part of yourself, in far greater detail than most of us imagine. What I’m interested in knowing more about is what it felt like to write about this profound relationship between flesh and life. What sort of processing did you do while you were writing about this impending loss? Was it traumatic to write about it? Did writing the memoir help you understand more or cope more or come to terms more with this loss?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I write through whatever life gives me, so I wrote through cancer, not always coherently, but writing helped me sort out my feelings and also helped me make what was happening more real. The writing itself wasn’t traumatic although I’m aware that we can re-ignite trauma in our lives sometimes if we write obsessively about such events (as researched in the work of James Pennebaker and others). Before I lost various body parts, I wrote to those parts of my body (and I wrote some about this in the memoir), using writing itself as part of the ceremony of letting go of my breasts or uterus or ovaries. For me, it’s very important to create ceremonies that involve writing and sometimes spoken words as a way to name the rite of passage, so yes, all the writing helped me come to terms with losses. At the same time, time itself is wildly effective at helping people, including me, make peace in such situations.

Jerry Waxler: In a couple of places in the book you use Flash Forwards. For example, you say “I had no idea she would be killed in an accident in 5 years.” The character had no way of knowing this from within her own Point of View. Stylistically, this raises an important puzzle for memoir writers. The Author, the person sitting at the computer typing the book, is older and knows so much more than the Protagonist, the younger one undergoing the experience. How did you steer between these two sets of knowledge? What can you tell us about the relationship between the Author’s POV and the Protagonist’s? How does the unfolding of the Protagonist’s Point of View in the story help reveal what the Author is going to know in the future?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I purposely wrote this book very much from the perspective of being in the future, looking back. Particularly with the big stories of our lives, I think the added perspective of the author in the present can help readers better understand the various ramifications and unfoldings of the story. Two pieces of advice that influenced me were from a poet, who once told me how much we need to let our experiences ripen over time until we can find the real essence of the story or poem that wants to be told, and my oncologist, who said however I felt about my cancer experience would continually unfold and change over time. Also, when telling stories in which mortality is a kind of character, I think having the perspective of time passing allows an author to go much deeper into the hard stuff — the terror and sadness, grief and confusion — without making the reader feel too overwhelmed.

Jerry Waxler: The book contains quite a bit of concrete information about the medical diagnosis and treatment. How do you see your role in that regard? While writing it, were you thinking about how it could help cancer patients and their loved ones demystify the technicalities of this journey? How has that turned out so far?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I knew that I had to share at least some technical information because going through serious illness is often a technical journey as well as an emotional and spiritual one. I also wanted to demystify the genetic mutation discussion surrounding breast cancer. Because of fears many have about losing insurance if they reveal that they have the BRCA1 or other genetic mutation, it’s a difficult thing to talk about, and yet we’re only going to change the crazy biases of insurance companies by talking about things like this in print and out loud. I also was lucky enough to know I wouldn’t be dropped from my insurance although several of my doctors told me how careful they were in medical records never to write “BRCA1” but use a symbol instead so that the patient would be protected. I also find that people going through cancer, at some point or another, want and need to know about the technical aspects of their cancer; for example, is the cancer particularly aggressive or slow-growing? We get that information often from numbers on a page, and it’s difficult at times but important to understand these aspects or we won’t have the information we need to make the most informed decisions possible about treatment options.

Jerry Waxler: Are you reaching out to offer the book to that audience?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: Given that one out of three of us will have a cancer diagnosis in our lifetimes, that audience is actually very large. Just about all of us have had cancer or been close to someone who had cancer, so yes, I did want to reach out to that audience, but this is also a book about losing a parent, finding strength in the land and sky, connecting with community, and making greater peace with living in a flawed, aging and still miraculous body.


Links

Click here for Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s website

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

Click here for the Transformative Language Arts Network

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

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

A dog made famous by an expert storyteller

by Jerry Waxler

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

John Grogan’s memoir about a dog and his family was a huge success while in print, and then went galactic when produced as a movie starring Jennifer Aniston. Because “Marley and Me” was so popular, I avoided it, preferring to stick to the byways. But the book kept calling to me, especially after my review of a bird-buddy memoir, “Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg. So I finally put “Marley and Me” on the reading pile. Now I’m a fan, happy to revel in the pleasures and pains of this story.

There’s nothing fantastic or magnificent about a young family and a dog. And so, to earn its success it must have been told exceptionally well. That offers an excellent learning opportunity for the rest of us who want to turn the events of our lives into stories worth reading.

Suspenseful writing is not just for murders

Suspense sounds like an emotion best suited for horror or murder movies. However, every story needs to build up enough pressure to keep the reader turning pages. Grogan is an expert at applying this pressure without car chases or ticking bombs. His main tool for generating suspense is embarrassment.

Awkward social situations are regular features in stories. For example, when characters are preparing a wedding, there is the implied suspense they might humiliate the family by canceling. Or in a teen story, the protagonist may act against their values in order to avoid being humiliated by peers. I find such tension as gut wrenching as a murder mystery, and considerably more likely to occur in real life.

Marley’s oafish doggy behavior constantly makes the reader squirm. In one scene, the family walks through a picturesque town square, with people calmly eating dinner at outdoor cafes. Grogan hints that Marley is about to disrupt the peace and so my heart beats faster. I cringe as they tie Marley to the table. Even though I know it’s coming, I want to stand up and shout “NO” when Marley breaks into a run, dragging the table across the square. After it’s over, I can’t relax, because Grogan keeps me wondering about Marley’s next caper.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about an embarrassing incident. If you’re like me you have probably blotted out your embarrassing moments, so it might be harder to find them than almost any other type of memory. This reluctance to reveal embarrassing situations reduces the impact of my stories. When Joan Rivers tells stories, she goes straight for her most revealing, embarrassing, awkward details, the things most of us would keep secret, and as a result, her stories are world famous.

Foreshadowing or teeing up the shot

The technique of letting the reader know something is going to happen is called foreshadowing, and is an important element in the author’s page-turning arsenal. Grogan uses a variety of foreshadowing techniques in “Marley and Me.”

I compare one of his techniques to teeing up a golf ball. First he plants the problem in the reader’s mind, like the fact that on his birthday, there was no party and he was dejected. Later his wife springs a surprise party, proving his family really does love him. By planting the problem in your mind first, and then swinging later, Grogan heightens the tension as well as the ensuing relief.

In the previous example, you don’t even realize you were set up until you’re struck by the surprise. At other times, he informs you in advance. So when John and his wife visit the litter of puppies, the seller introduces them to the puppies’ mild mannered mom. But the cagey sales woman evades questions about the dad. After they put money down on Marley, a crazed, filthy dog comes barreling past. This was the father of the puppies and his out-of-control behavior sets us up to worry about what’s going to happen later.

Writing Prompt
It’s natural to want to relieve the tension of a story immediately after establishing it. But sometimes you can generate more satisfaction by waiting. Scan the stories you have written for your memoir, and tease apart the initial tension. Then insert a delay before resolving it.

Establish mood by reporting what other people say

Marley had been invited to act in a movie that was going to be shot in a neighboring town. The Grogans, late to the appointment, pull up to a blockade near the movie set. When the cop learns who they are, he shouts to another policeman, “He’s got the dog.” In that moment, the reader learns about an important emotion because one of the characters says it.

Writing Prompt
Look through your anecdotes and scenes for an episode that would be heightened in this way. Was there someone nearby who said something intense or important or focused that would highlight the emotional impact you are trying to convey?

Establishing the emotional authenticity of a dog

I think pets are people, but since they don’t speak English, the writer must use a variety of techniques to convey the dog’s intentions and “thoughts.” Body language is one such device. Marley crashes through the crowd, or jumps up and puts his paws on people’s shoulders. Another technique is to point out cause and effect. If there’s a thunderstorm and Marley claws at the dry wall trying to dig his way out of the room, it doesn’t take a dog psychologist to know that Marley is terrified of thunder. So now we know one of his fears, even though he can’t speak.

Now that we know one of Marley’s hang-ups we can use it to supply even more information, by putting words in the animal’s mouth. For example, after lightening damages the house, Grogan interprets the look on Marley’s face. “It was as if he was saying, ‘See, I told you so.'” Grogan’s portrayal of Marley’s “thought” process is part of the fun of the book.

Understanding a dog’s entire life span

A dog’s life span is short enough that a human can see the whole thing unfolding, from beginning to end. And so, while this is a love story, it is also an exploration of the peculiar fact that we don’t live forever. “Marley and Me” is about loving and losing. We meet Marley as a tiny pup, befriend him, love him, watch him grow up, and then grow older. By focusing on the love between man and dog, Grogan has offered a lovely, uplifting lifelong buddy story, and he makes it seem so easy.

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.

Life with a famous parrot, Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg

by Jerry Waxler

I first learned about Alex while I was on a spiritual retreat in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. Our host played a video of a talking African Gray parrot named Alex. Alex’s trainer, Dr. Irene Pepperberg held a tray of objects and asked questions. For example, she asked “which square?” and the parrot answered, “green,” because the square object was colored green. She asked “which same?” and Alex correctly said “key” because the keys were all made of cork. He even concocted his own words, for example describing an almond as a “cork-nut,” a word he was never taught.

Tell me more about that parrot

Alex was cute, zany and unpredictable, and while Pepperberg watched him learn, he was teaching her about the mind of a bird. His bobbing head, hyper-alert eyes, and clever voice mesmerized me, making me an instant fan. I was not alone. Everyone who saw Alex fell in love with him. A few years later I heard that the parrot died, a loss that surprised and saddened me. Then I saw the memoir “Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg, and thought, “Hey, I know that bird!”

The book starts with Alex’s sudden, unexpected death in 2007, followed by the outpouring of sympathy from around the world. Pepperberg read a sampling of the letters and obituaries from Alex’s many admirers. As each one played upon my heart, I was amazed at how much compassion they stirred. Like a group hug, Alex’s well wishers were drawing me in to Pepperberg’s pain.

Outpouring of compassion creates secondary compassion

I looked for a similar effect in my own life and remembered my mother’s memorial service. Her old friends came up to me and said “You were lucky to have such a great mom” and “I admired her so much,” and “We miss her.” Later, I turned their comments over in my mind, and was awed at the complexity of emotions.

How much were they seeking to support me, and how much were they hoping that somehow my presence could help them relieve their own grief? These moments showed me how intertwined we all are. During our communal grieving, we were each trying to make sense of what just happened, while supporting each other as we moved forward.

Writing Prompt
When in your life did empathy flow towards you? Was it related to the death or illness of a loved one? Or did others reach out to comfort you when you were in the hospital yourself? Describe the scene, keeping in mind that it will give the reader an opening through which they too can feel connected.

Emotional Bonds to Our Companion Animals

Dr. Pepperberg and Alex were close companions and so the book turned out to be a buddy story between human and bird. Sharing genuine emotions with animals has become widely respected, as evidenced by the runaway success of “Marley and Me,” by John Grogan, a memoir about the author’s relationship with a dog.

To make the relationship even deeper, Dr. Pepperberg showed how it evolved over the years. At first, she tried to maintain distance in order to create an objective, scientific perspective. She worked with him closely for years. Then after Alex died, Irene cried and cried, making her and her readers realize how deeply emotionally involved she had become..

Writing prompt
List your pets, and other encounters with critters. When you remember a scene, stop listing and start writing. See if you can string a few scenes together to show how the relationship changed over time.

Structure of a story, beginning, middle, and end

Every memoir writer seeks excellent story structure. Pepperberg’s memoir offers a couple of insights. For one thing, she grabs our attention with a bang, shocking the reader into the midst of the action, a technique the Greeks called “in medias res.” Then the story returns to the beginning, and moves forward through the long middle, towards an ending that resolves the dramatic tension. I love this structure.

Writing Prompt
What powerful event can you start your book with, to grab readers and yank them into the action. Worry about the transition to the flashback later. For now, just consider what event would get readers into the thick of your story.

Alex and Me ends with a Personal Witness to the Evolution of Knowledge

At the end of Alex and Me, Alex dies, as we already knew he would. So how does an author finish a book about loss? Pepperberg has chosen to review what Alex contributed to her and to the world. It turns into a poignant eulogy that contemplates a life well-lived, during which, Alex contributed not only to his trainer but to the world’s understanding of humans and other animals.

Considering his brain was the “size of a shelled walnut,” the vast majority of scientists were confident that Alex could not possibly be learning as much as Pepperberg claimed. But she doesn’t need to debate her findings with me. Even though I don’t have an advanced degree in bird brains, he seemed pretty smart. In fact, I believed that the other scientists were wrong and Pepperberg was right. It turns out that most people believe they know more about their own companion animals than scientists do.

Irene Pepperberg’s experiments herald a sea change in our attitude towards animal intelligence. With incredible persistence and love these two creatures demonstrated a thinking capacity that science had not yet imagined. As Shakespeare said, “There are more things in heaven and earth than your philosophy dreams of.” After reading “Alex and Me” I can feel this little creature’s beautiful influence on Irene Pepperberg and everyone else he touched. And their relationship touched me. My respect for pets, for intelligence, and the evolution of knowledge has been expanded by this loving connection between a scientist and her little winged companion.

Writing prompt
Do you have a story about your pet that demonstrates intelligence, loyalty, curiosity, or other “human” characteristics? The writing exercise may come in handy in unexpected ways for comic relief or to help readers identify with particular situations in your life.

Note
Click to visit Amazon’s page for Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperberg

Note
According to Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” science regularly changes its idea about what is True. My favorite example is that in the 20th century, all neuroscientists claimed that brain cells can never grow, but only die. Around 1995, science changed its mind. After the shift in perspective, scientists have agreed that adults can use their brains and grow. In fact, if you don’t use your brain it will die. This sort of shift in Truth from one decade to another is an ordinary occurrence in the history of science. And so, to study science is to study the constant evolution of ideas.

Note
For another book that shows how the brain has a capacity for wholeness, read Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight – in which she was forced outside the box by direct perception. Click here for my essay.

Note
For another example of starting in the middle of the action, see Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days. Click here for my essay about Fugitive Days.

Note
For another famous buddy memoir read “Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog by John Grogan”