How Boys Become Men – or – Can Memoirs Stop the Violence?

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

As a boy in a Muslim community in England, Ed Husain’s pleasure was to follow his father to the mosque and pray. In high school in the 1990s, he fell in with a group of boys who said that prayer was for old people, and that the urgent mission of every Muslim should be to destroy western culture. These ideas appealed to Husain. Overriding his father’s objections, he joined the demonstrations and was soon helping to organize them.

When I read Ed Husain’s excellent memoir, The Islamist, I was offended by his choice to turn against his father. Couldn’t he see his father’s perspective was deeper and wiser than his own? Wasn’t it obvious he was attacking the very government that gave him the freedom to protest in the first place? While I was criticizing Husain, I felt a tug from my own past. I also turned against my father’s peaceful ways and “middle class” values.

Throughout high school, I worked in my father’s drugstore and came to believe the best way to please him would be to become a doctor. When I flew from Philadelphia to Madison, Wisconsin in 1965, I was well on my way with excellent grades and a passion for science.

But the Vietnam war was ramping up and so were the protests. The cultural upheaval coincided with my own young-man’s need to assert myself. In 1967, I stood outside the Commerce Building in Madison, Wisconsin, dodging tear gas canisters. A thousand kids with red, fiery eyes and tears streaming down our cheeks, snapped our arms in furious irony, screaming “Sieg Heil” at the club-wielding police. I had crossed a threshold into an angry state of mind where tearing down “the system” took priority over a mere detail like my future.

Even though Husain’s ideology was light-years away from mine, our hearts followed similar paths. Both of us believed that our political beliefs were righteous and important. Both of us felt responsible to take any action necessary to change the world to conform to our beliefs. This sense of righteous urgency caused both of us to turn against fathers’ peaceful approach, replacing it with a pressured, bold one more suited to young men.

What drives boys crazy?
In 1997, 30 years after my blowout in Madison, I went to graduate school to study counseling psychology. I wanted to understand what makes people (including me) tick. In one class, a female professor explained that women often fall short in the quality of “assertiveness.” As therapists we should encourage them to develop that trait in order to achieve equality in relationships and better self-esteem. But what about males? I never heard a lecture or read a book about helping men who felt a need to push the world to match their view. As I continued to read more memoirs, the cast of boys who turned violent on their journey to manhood kept growing

Examples of Boys Going Through Violence on the Path to Grow Up
When Andre Dubus III was young, he felt humiliated by his subservience to bullies. To compensate, he learned to fight, and got better and better until fighting became his life. His memoir Townie is a journey through this painful, violent transition from boy to man.

Fighting is not limited to the streets of working class neighborhoods. Two intellectual, middle class boys fell in love with the potential for kicking and punching. Mark Salzman, in his memoir Lost in Place, became obsessed with learning to fight. Later he went to China to study karate. Another highly educated boy, Mathew Polly did the same. His memoir American Shaolin recounts his residence in the Chinese fighting school made famous by the television show Kung Fu.

Because of my violent experiences during the anti-war movement, I was fascinated to read about the extreme case of Bill Ayers. In Bill Ayers’ memoir Fugitive Days he chronicles the militant, sometimes violent Weather Underground movement. Undeterred by the paradox that he was trying to promote peace by planting bombs and inciting riots, his memoir provides a perfect window into this quality of young men, with our overabundance of assertiveness.

In some boys’ minds, the war protests were the problem and had to be stopped with force. I learned about their anger one night in Madison, Wisconsin when a carload of clean-cut boys piled out of a car, and singled me out because of my long hair. They threw me down on the ground and repeatedly kicked me. As they pounded their message into my body, I knew I had traveled far, far away from my original orderly goal of becoming a doctor and had entered a crazy world where boys use force to start and stop wars.

PTSD – the aftermath of too much assertiveness
We boys back home had it easy. The real fighting was taking place with guns and bombs, blood, death and ruined lives. Memoirs about boys in combat offer a glimpse into that violent world, and usually move beyond it, trying to pick up with pieces of sanity when attempting to reenter society.

In Temporary Sort of Peace Jim McGarrah starts his journey as a high school boy, transfers his life force to the jungles, sitting alone listening to and shooting at noises in the dark. The journey continues into his mental life as he attempts to sort out nightmare from reality. In Until Tuesday, Luis Carlos Montelvan fights military enemies in Iraq and suffers the tragic invisible wounds of PTSD. When he returns, he must fight both to maintain his ability to operate in society, and also fight to raise awareness of the value of service dogs to help mentally and physically wounded veterans.

What is the name for this overabundance of pushiness ?
Despite the far reaching social ramifications of the young male mind’s willingness to become violent, I didn’t even know a name for the impulse. It didn’t seem like the assertiveness I learned about in school. Assertiveness training involves such sophisticated social skills as negotiating, compassion for the other, and taking both sides into account. The boys who turn violent are beyond negotiating. In fact, their angry mindset willfully excludes the other side’s point of view. This young male willingness to fight seemed to have a strangely philosophical slant. My own, and Ed Husain’s anger, as well as the anger of the boys who beat me up, were all based on some abstract notion that through violence we would make the world a better place. Whether defending our homes, our ideals, or simply our street corners, boys seem willing to take up arms.

In the psychology section of the bookstore, I found a couple of books about raising boys, but they didn’t give me insight into the quality I was trying to name. Then I hit paydirt in two books by Jonathan Shay, M.D.

Jonathan Shay, by day, is a psychiatrist who works professionally with combat veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In his private life, he studies Greek classics. He combines the two seemingly disconnected passions in his two books, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming and Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. In these books, he refers back to the Greeks as masters of war. Part of their expertise resulted in their understanding of young men. Greeks knew how to stir men to fighting fury by appealing to this righteous quality call Thumos (sometimes spelled Thymos). Shay uses this insight from the ancient Greeks to help him guide combat veterans back from the broken state caused by their fighting instinct.

After  I learned the name for this quality, I saw it everywhere: in the goose-stepping soldiers of the Third Reich, harnessing young men to assert the need for a racially pure world; to the modern day Islamists who preach a worldwide conquest to bring the truths of Islam to the world; to the gangbangers who righteously defend their own turf and colors against incursion from boys one or two streets away.

Can Memoirs Help?
Now, when I look at the future of the world, I wonder if every young person must repeat these mistakes, or if somehow we oldtimers could convince young people to take into account our experience. By definition, we are already too old to be taken seriously by young men in this heated state. But perhaps those young men who stop long enough to read a book might gain hints and glimpses into the way youthful minds work. By giving them books that share our own experiences, perhaps we could give a few young people a way to see past their excessive assertiveness before they fall into some of these traps.

It may seem like wishful thinking to hope that reading books will help straighten out angry young minds, but many young people are influenced by books, and during that precious window when they are trying to figure out life, sometimes books slip into their inner spaces and give them a cause or image that could help.

For example, in Erin Gruwell’s Freedom Writer’s Diary, the high school students’ lives were being ripped apart by young men killing in order to protect territory and honor. To help her students understand their need to fight, Gruwell assigned them to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which a man from the wrong group provoked murder with a simple gesture. “Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?” Erin Gruwell’s teenagers gained deep wisdom about the tragedy that surrounded them in Los Angeles, through Shakespeare’s ability to reveal universal human truths. They read literature, and they wrote their own stories, and through these stories they grew.

The fascinating truth in the Memoir Revolution is that through the magic of memoirs, millions of us can read Freedom Writer’s Diary and learn powerful lessons about redirecting Thumos to socially productive outlets.

At the end of his memoir Townie, Andre Dubus III outgrows his need to fight, and turns instead to writing stories. Mark Salzman, in his memoir Lost in Place, also grows up fighting. In a later memoir, called True Notebooks, Salzman volunteers to teach young gangbangers how to write. Many of these boys were incarcerated for murder committed as part of their gang identity. As Salzman lets them write about their lives, and then share those writings, they realize that these “enemies” are people just like them. From these encounters, mutual understanding emerges from behind the curtain of Thumos. Salzman’s story offers a stunning window into the inherent sense of decency hidden within their roiling hearts and makes me wonder what their lives might have been like if these kids had been in writing classes before they murdered, rather than after.

In David Gilmour’s Film Club, a father became frightened when he saw his son approach the edge of the boy-to-man abyss. As a professional film reviewer, Gilmour took a chance, offering the boy the opportunity to drop out of school in exchange for a commitment to watch movies with Dad. The gamble paid off, as chronicled in this memoir about using story as a healing tool.

In the memoir Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle works with gang members in Los Angeles, helping them find alternatives to shooting each other. He doesn’t use story writing as a tool to help them. And yet, by writing and sharing his story with the rest of us, he helps us understand the hearts and minds of these young criminals who, with just a tiny shift in focus become devoted family men.

Memoirs by authors who have survived Thumos and come out the other end, can offer deeper understanding about the road to maturity. By sharing our lives through memoirs, we survivors can’t necessarily change the world drastically or solve all its problems, but we can hope to give young readers the chance to make better decisions. In fact, Ed Husain is attempting to do just that. Following the publication about his own transition beyond Thumos to Wisdom, he has become an activist in this cause, trying to help young Muslims choose a nonviolent course, not toward world domination but toward spiritual peace.

NOTES
When asserting their need to grow up, not all boys turn to violence
Of course not all boys use violence to express their needs for identity. In Publish this Book, Stephen Markley’s anger sent him running not to the barricades but to the typewriter. In his memoir Open, Andre Agassi fought against his father’s demands to become a tennis champion. Despite his rebellion, he continued to play tennis, expressing his defiance by breaking rules like wearing colored shorts on the tennis court instead of the regulation whites.

When Frank Schaeffer was growing up in a Christian commune, L’Abri, his father was a famous preacher. Instead of rebelling against his father’s belief system, Frank Jr confronted his own father, accusing him of being too weak. As a firebrand activist, Frank Jr demanded a more rigorous, intense interpretation of doctrine. Frank Jr’s angry righteousness made him an important formative influence in the Christian Right to Life movement, as chronicled in his fascinating memoir Crazy for God.

In Colored People by Henry Louis Gates, the boy was laid up in the hospital in a nearby larger town. A chaplain came by to play chess with him. During the chess matches, he slipped in a little mentoring, letting the boy know there is a wider world. As he grew, he became more assertive. In one scene, he angrily confronts the customers and management in a restaurant which refused to serve him. In the end, though, he made it past Thumos in one piece, and turned his attention to extreme learning. His  journey into academia eventually transformed him from a boy in a small Jim Crow town to a Harvard Professor.

Tragically, many boys turn their violence not against the world but against themselves. Drugs and other jail-worthy behaviors often end up tearing a boys life apart, in his search for the appropriate expression of inner turmoil. Tim Elhajj’s memoir Dopefiend is an excellent story about a boy who pries himself loose from the deadly grip of drugs, and then must somehow figure out how to get back into the game of life. The memoir Tweak by Nic Sheff is about a boy still in the throes of this inward battle. And in Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler the young man succumbs to a deadly dose of heroin, losing the battle altogether, leaving his family to pick up the pieces.

(This is a revised version of a post first posted Aug 26, 2010)

Amazon page for “The Islamist

Link to an article I wrote about “The Islamist” and another memoir, Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran

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

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

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

Memoir 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.

Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

The Freedom Writers Diary is a collection of diary entries written by inner-city high school kids in Los Angeles. When I first heard about it, I thought the book would be too scattered and too youthful to have anything to do with memoir writing. After I started reading, I discovered these authors were doing essentially the same thing any memoir writer does; telling stories about their lives, and sharing them with the world.

I was stunned by the intensity of their circumstances. In the classroom, the kids separated themselves into racially defined groups – Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and Whites.  Out on the street, many were members of rival gangs, killing and being killed for the color of their skin. Most of them had been shot at, and almost all had lost at least one friend to gang violence. The cultural tension portrayed a more complicated view of the American Melting Pot than I ever knew, and highlighted the terrible tendency of human beings to group together with their “own kind” and to exclude and misunderstand “the other.”

This particular classroom was designated for the throwaway kids, the ones who would never make it. Their home life was racked by poverty and drugs, and broken families. Some had been evicted and a few had even been homeless. When Erin Gruwell, a new teacher fresh out of college, walked into her English class, two things seemed obvious to everyone but her. First, these kids would continue their murderous hatred for each other, and second, none of them would graduate high school.

Through her innovative use of literature and journal writing, the young teacher defied both of these predictions, offering her students opportunities to escape their apparent fate. They raised their test scores, crossed racial lines to form deep friendships, finished high school and went on to college.

Uses of Journaling

To try to overcome their initial hostility to her and to each other, Erin Gruwell asked them to write about their personal lives. She had no idea she was turning on a spigot that released a flood of revelation and sharing. Through the writing, members of the class opened up to each other, breaking out of rigidly defined racial identities.

The journey to tolerance was helped by Gruwell’s use of world literature, especially the recollections of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of another diarist, Anne Frank. After reading Anne Frank’s diary, the students realized they were not the only ones persecuted. The Holocaust’s impact on the kids was so strong, Gruwell wanted to teach them more. She took them to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and she introduced them to several Holocaust Survivors. By visiting these horrors of recent history, they began to open their eyes to the futility and horror of racial hatred.

Shakespeare helped, too. The kids thought it was stupid that the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet would kill each other merely for being born with the wrong name. Then Gruwell pointed out the similarities to their own situation. They made the connection and learned another lesson about prejudice.

After four years of sharing their stories with each other, working together to raise money for educational projects, and becoming avid students of the literature of tolerance and survival, these kids traded in their hatred for harmony. Over and over they use the word “family” to describe their feelings for their fellow classmates.

The Power of Sharing Private Experience

Now that their diary entries have been published, the rest of the world can share their moral journey, too. Like the shape-shifters in magical myths, they tear off the masks of gang bangers, of druggies and anti-social kids who will never amount to anything, and reveal real people, with real dreams for family and a safe society. Their experience makes me dream of the possibilities.

After they graduated, the book ended but the kids kept pushing their agenda. Using the public awareness generated by the book, Gruwell and the Freedom Writers formed a non-profit organization, the Freedom Writers Foundation, to bring the message of hope to other schools.

Their public relations campaign shifted into high gear when the Freedom Writers experience was produced as a movie starring Hilary Swank. The production moved me as deeply as the book did, and will extend the reach of their message even farther, proving this amazing lesson about memoir writing. By telling the story of our own lives, we reach beyond ourselves, sharing experiences that potentially help other people grow, turning private lives into a public act of social change.

Writing Prompts
Write a situation in which you felt empathy for someone who was on the other side of some wall, contained behind the boundaries of your pre-judgment. Write what it felt like before the connection was established, and then what it felt like as the wall started to crumble and you saw the real person beyond it.

Consider some interaction you have had with a person from the “wrong” race or religion. Tell a story about your interaction. Stretch your imagination and try to tell the same story from their point of view.

Write about a period in your life when you felt stuck behind a façade, in which others saw you differently than you saw yourself. Write a story about taking off that mask.

Write a story about a book that made a difference in your life.

Write a story about a teacher who made a difference in your life.
Notes

The Freedom Writers Diary : How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, by Freedom Writers, Zlata Filipovic, with Erin Gruwell

Freedom Writers Foundation

Read my essay “The Terrible Logic of Uncivilized Boys” about Mark Salzman’s creative writing class inside a juvenile detention center for gang members in Los Angeles,

More memoir writing resources

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

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

To learn more about 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

Gary Presley’s Memoir Defangs the Horror of Disability

by Jerry Waxler

The children’s illustrator, Maurice Sendak told an interviewer that when he was little, he was scared of old people. He was afraid of their wrinkled skin and hair growing out of the wrong places. Such scary impressions formed the basis for the monsters in Sendak’s children’s books, monsters that made him famous. The interviewer Marty Moss Coane then asked him, “Now that you are 80 years-old yourself, do you feel you have become a monster to the small children who read your books?” “Absolutely” he answered. “Many children at signings are afraid of me and burst into tears when their mother tells them to hand me their book.”

The conversation stirred my own childhood memory of visiting my great-grandmother in a nursing home. She was very, very old, with white hair and shriveled skin. I couldn’t wait to get out. As I grow older, my own body gradually becomes less perfect, an observation made all the more disturbing by my tendency to prefer lovely and smooth people over flawed ones. If I judge my own vitality the way I judge theirs, I come up short, in fact shorter all the time, as even my height collapses under the weight of years.

I feel an urgency to start loving the flaws in the human condition, because if I don’t do it soon, I will start hating myself. To help me change my perspective, I have been reading people’s stories. Their thoughts and feelings teach me who they are, in the full flower of their differences and imperfections.

Take Gary Presley, for example, a moderator on InternetWritingWorkshop. I admire Gary’s relentless kindness and service to fellow writers. And, it turns out, Gary accomplishes these achievements from a wheelchair. His body was ravaged by polio when he was 17, and now decades later, he has written about his journey in the memoir “Seven Wheelchairs, A Life beyond Polio.”

As I learn about Gary, I recognize in his story, a central aspect of my own ambition. I too pour myself into writing, wanting to be known not by my increasingly flawed body but by the long reach of my curious mind. By understanding him, I learn much about myself and continue to expand my fascination with people of all kinds. His world makes mine richer.

But to share his world with me, he had to figure out how to set words on a page. It is through this strange medium that he, and every memoir writer, shares our world. And so, despite his physical difference from me, Gary has traveled a writer’s journey that has created a voice, strong and deep, through which to present himself in all his complex, rich energy of a creative human being, exemplifying universal qualities that make life worth living — the will to learn, to create, and then to express inner life and share it with the world.

While all of us have a story, not all of us have been to graduate school to study the nuances of writing style and theory. Instead we accumulate knowledge in bits and pieces. One workshop leader shows us how to create a unique character by describing a tic or habit. A book about writing explains the importance of starting a story in the middle of the action. An especially important insight for memoir writers is the difference between essays and stories. Gary Presley’s memoir contains excellent lessons about these two forms because it straddles the fence between them.

I think of pure story as something you can put on a stage. It progresses through scenes, and shows you specific images that you can visualize. So for example, consider Gary’s portrayal of his last walk under power of his own legs. He was milking the cows one evening, felt sick, went to bed, and woke up the next morning unable to move his legs. It’s a story.

I think of an essay as a discussion of ideas. For example, Gary explores his relationship with the Seven Wheelchairs in the title, rapidly traversing periods of time, progressing from one wheelchair to the next, and explaining the importance of this vehicle for his independence. He hates it when people say he is “confined to a wheel chair.” He prefers to see the machine as a sort of external appendage of himself, like a bionic man who uses wheels instead of legs. This discussion of his relationship to wheelchairs is an essay.

Reading Prompt
Memoirs are structured as stories. And yet, they almost always contain essays, sometimes a paragraph long, and sometimes a page. To learn about the relationship between these two forms, read Seven Wheelchairs or any favorite memoir carefully. In one color, highlight the scenes that could be performed as a play. In another color, highlight the parts that describe thoughts and ideas. See which parts you like, and think about how the author has handled the mix between these two forms.

Philosophy of self-reliance seen through the eyes of a crip
Presley tells the story of his life in a wheelchair, a “crip” as he calls himself, when he fell from the teenage graces of an adult into the prison of an iron lung. Then he describes years of life, from reliance on caregivers, to his employment in an office, and so on. Through it all, he faces a powerful inner tension. He is unable to get into or out of bed or clean himself without assistance, and yet his pride demands he be self-reliant. How can he be both self-reliant and yet rely on his helpers for his very life?

He expresses his dilemma eloquently, describing his initial anger and despair in the early years, and gradually he discovers a balance in his attitude that would sustain him through the rest of his life. In this state of inner tension, to survive as a proud individual, he exerts indomitable will, founded upon a rock-solid determination to manage his mind, the part of himself he can still control. He must not give in to depression, laziness, or dependence. Within himself, and with others, he demands the right to be a full person.

Gary’s biography proves that ideas are more than mere garnish. His ideas about self-reliance kept him alive, pushed him to excel, and despite the limitations polio foisted on him, he continued a lifelong commitment to giving and interacting with others. His ideas were crucial for shaping and sustaining his life.

His determination to rise above mere circumstance forces me to look beyond the frustration of traffic jams, the fear of economic downturn, and even the health and wholeness of my body. Idealism is more than all of these things. Idealism provides an image of what life could be. Then we idealists passionately reach towards it, and struggling, come as close to it as possible. By showing me how he arrived at these ideas, he transformed his outer disability into a story of inner strength, providing a noble ideal that I hope to be able to follow.

Notes
Here are two more memoirs that combine the story and essay form:
Kate Braestrup’s “Here when you need me” contains essay thinking about the theodicy problem.
Henry Louis Gates’ “Colored People” contains a terrific essay about hair.

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

Memoir writing is a step along my spiritual journey

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

Now that I’m 60, I am facing an age when the end of the story seems to be shimmering out there on the horizon. I’ve always been obsessed with who I am and where I’m going, and now I feel like I have a deadline.

People often talk about the urgency of living each day as if it’s their last. This perspective is especially compelling when someone we know has recently departed. I too find a desire to live each day to its fullest. But my pressure arises from a slightly different reason. I ask, “What if I’m here until I’m 90? How will I live a meaningful life for another 30 years?” That’s a daunting task. And it turns out that memoir writing has become the center piece of my plan. By delving into the inner journey of who I’ve been, I’m learning more and more lessons about where I’m going.

I recently gave a talk at a gathering at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethlehem Pennsylvania about using life stories to build a sense of purpose at any age. I didn’t give the talk during a worship service, and I’m not a preacher. This was an open meeting before the service, when people from the community come to listen to guest speakers talk about all sorts of topics. It was a perfect audience for my eclectic views on life, on memory, and on meaning. And during the three months I spent preparing the talk, I developed a neat way to explain how my life journey makes more sense than ever. It was ambitious of me to try to explain the meaning of life in 20 minutes, but I think I did a decent job. I’ll post the written version later. For now, I’m attaching the audio version. I’d be delighted to know what you think.

To see the written version of the talk I gave about how memoir writing enhances my faith in the future, see my blog entry by clicking here.

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

Deformity and love in Martha Beck’s memoir Expecting Adam

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

I overcame a thrill of horror when I purchased Martha Beck’s memoir, “Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic” about giving birth to a child with Down Syndrome. I like to think of myself as an accepting person. But since deformity, by definition, breaks the mold, it challenges my acceptance. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to read Martha Beck’s book. I was hoping her love for her son would help me grow.

By the time I reached page 70 I had already cried four times. These were good tears, of empathy and insight. I am grateful for her ability to share her experience so clearly and compassionately. And while she does not mention any particular belief system, I find this to be one of the more spiritual books I have read in recent years. For some reason it reminded me of William Blake’s poem, Auguries of Innocence, about how spirituality is wrapped up neatly inside ordinary life.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

I looked up the text of this poem, and was surprised to discover how passionate Blake was about protecting those who are different or helpless. “Expecting Adam” also reminds me of my father’s brother Harry. My father Sam was six feet tall and lanky, a great looking guy with blue eyes and a gorgeous smile. His older sister was also tall and good looking, while his younger brother Harry was about three feet and change, with a flattened nose, a forehead that took up way too much of his face, and legs so short he scampered rather than walked, all symptoms of what is known as dwarfism, or achondroplasia. Harry was a kind and energetic member of the family, helping his father and sister take care of the apartments they owned. We never talked about his stature, and so it was almost invisible to me, other than unavoidable details like the way the foot pedals in his car were built out so he could reach them.

When I went away to school, Harry discovered Little People of America, and he converted from being a freak to an accepted member of his own clan. When I came home for holidays, Harry began acting more like teenager than a 50 year old, having discovered dating for the first time in his life. Then while I was off finding myself, Harry died and I have not thought about him since, until recently when folks of his stature showed up on a reality television show. Despite my affection for Harry and my lifetime striving to accept people in all their diversity, I still find it harder to embrace differences than I would like.

I suppose my life would be simpler if I pushed this problem aside, and loved only the people who look like me. But that would cut me off from all of humanity, one way or another because there are a zillion ways humans can be different, or at least 8 billion, anyway. We are all unique, even though we expend a lot of energy pretending we’re like everyone else. One of the reasons I love memoirs is that they give me the opportunity to see into the minds and hearts of individuals, and learn how life works for them. By sharing her love for her son, Martha Beck’s memoir Expecting Adam has assisted my project of respecting the entire human race, one individual at a time.

More memoir writing resources

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.

It’s a wonderful life for every memoir writer

Jerry Waxler

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

Every year millions of people watch the movie “It’s a wonderful life” in which Jimmy Stewart’s guardian angel stops him from killing himself by showing him how his life has made a difference in people’s lives. Once he sees the bigger picture, he regains confidence and charges back into the fray. Why has this movie become an annual ritual for so many people? Of course, we love to see the hero overcome obstacles and save the town from the greedy landlord. But I think we are attracted to this movie for a much deeper reason. The fear that crept into Stewart’s mind, that his life was not worthwhile, could overtake any of us.

If we lose our sense of making a difference, we too start to lose our way, not necessarily contemplating suicide, but questions creep up. “If no one cares what I do, what’s the point?” So while for most of us, our situation is not as dramatic as Stewart’s, we can still empathize with his plight, as well as empathize with his need for deeper meaning. We would all benefit from finding that sense of engagement.

Fortunately, the movie is not about changing the past. The actions that restored Stewart’s faith took place years ago. The angel simply gave Stewart the gift of sight so he could see how these actions helped. I think this is what keeps us coming back to the movie year after year – the hope to see that we made a difference.

So while we’re waiting for our own angel, what can we do to find meaning in our lives? Try writing a memoir. Writing is the way we remind ourselves of all sorts of things. Take for example a shopping list. When I realize I need something at the store, the thought seems so real, so obvious, so compelling. But if I don’t write it on a list, that idea turns out to have been fleeting. I’ll stand at the store surrounded by thousands of items, but the one I wanted a few days before now simply blends in.

It’s the same thing with memories. As they occur, they seem so vivid. By writing them, I gradually compile a list of times I was able to help people. The efforts I made at work kept not only my own paycheck coming but also contributed to the business that supports many other people as well. My presence at a funeral or during a divorce offered support exactly when it was needed. I list moments of generosity and victories over my own limitations.

Am I going to find only times I saved people from despair and ruin? Of course not. I’m not a character in a movie. I see plenty of times when taking care of myself obscured my concern for others. In fact, when I was younger, I rarely thought about my impact on other people.

Seeing less than perfect actions in the past seems like it should upset me, but instead it has turned out to be exhilarating. By looking squarely at the way my life played out, I understand more about who I am, and how my story interacts with the world. Instead of feeling worse about my life, I see those events as part of a dynamic force. I grew, I tried things, made mistakes, learned from them, and kept going. The story with all its ups and downs had a continuity that carried me through the years.

Telling about the past at first seems like a simple act of remembering. But then out of the story emerge lessons that help me make the most of my actions today, so I can move in a worthwhile direction, and do things that make a difference tomorrow. In the movie, the angel didn’t say much. He just showed Stewart how the story works. Based on those observations Stewart drew his own conclusions. As I write, I go through the same process he did, and I’m drawing the same conclusion, too. It turns out it really is a wonderful life.

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.