by Jerry Waxler
Because fiction writers can invent any situation they want, our favorite novels involve larger-than-life, perfectly orchestrated events. Many aspiring memoir writers are afraid that by comparison, their lives aren’t structured well enough to make a good story. However, before you decide if your life is memoir-worthy, take into account the fact that memoir readers acquire a taste for real life. As a result, memoir readers expect authentic, psychologically-driven events that provide insights into the human condition.
Occasionally, though, real-life setbacks smash into authors’ lives with the degree of intensity usually found in fiction. Julie Freed’s memoir Naked: Stripped by a Man and by Hurricane Katrina recounts just such an extreme situation. A seemingly happily married young woman keeps in touch with her husband, whose military assignment has taken him away from home. Then, without warning, he sends her an email asking for a divorce. The life they built together, including their new home and infant daughter, are suddenly abandoned. His break off surges like a violent storm, threatening to tear her apart. At the same time, Hurricane Katrina is barreling down on her home in Mississippi.
Even though Julie Freed’s memoir takes us on a ride through two simultaneous life-shattering tragedies, for memoir readers, the events are just the backdrop. The real story is about her courage to cope with her circumstances. Naked is a memoir about NOT falling apart. From that point of view, this story offers hope on every page. By the end, the author reaches a place of safety from which she can look back across the rubble and bravely share her experience with us.
The memoir provides an extreme example of what courage-expert Susan Jeffers recommends in her self-help book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. According to Jeffers, the fear of failure causes many of us to shrink away from enriching activities. She suggests that to live life to its fullest, we need to trust that we can gracefully survive unwanted experiences. Whether we are facing an annoying traffic jam, or a life-threatening hospitalization of a loved one, we must find ways to move forward with as much poise as we can muster.
To increase our resiliency, we practice self-help strategies such as using encouraging self-talk. We center ourselves through relaxed breathing and other meditative strategies of “being here now.” We reach out for support from others. We pray. And we read inspiring memoirs like Julie Freed’s Naked.
The Memoir Revolution has made available a wide variety of such stories about real people who have suffered setbacks, and yet who can “handle it.” By reading about their experiences, we have the opportunity to vicariously practice courage. When we close the book, we feel we have survived, or in Susan Jeffers’ terminology, we have discovered we can handle it.
Inside Julie Freed’s story, we feel the collapse of all the good things in life. Despite that collapse, she carries on, clinging to hope, to the support of her parents and friends, and to the love she feels for her baby. After she survives her larger-than-life setback, she continues to grow. Eventually she feels strong enough to return to these violently disruptive memories and write the story.
By writing, she sorts out the horrible events, earning for herself the higher perspective gained from the author’s vantage point. And by giving the story to us, she helps us experience her strategies. We learn how she reached out for help, how she headed for shelter, how she wove her own brand of assertive pride and humiliated horror, and we join her as she passes through the trauma and onto the next stage in her life.
What is your story of NOT falling apart? Write a scene from one of the most disturbing periods in your life. After writing it, step away from it, and breathe. Now, think of a later scene. In this next scene, show how you hung on to peace and sanity, attempting to ride out the challenge.
Click here for Julie Freed’s website
Click here to read an interview with Julie Freed about writing her memoir.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
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.