Author and creative writing teacher helps me steer between fact and fiction

by Jerry Waxler

Last year, I attended a writing conference at Rosemont College hosted by Philadelphia Stories journal. At one of the sessions, I met Susan Muaddi Darraj and purchased a book of her collected fiction called “Inheritance of Exile.” The protagonist of the stories was a Palestinian woman who grew up in South Philadelphia in circumstances similar to Muaddi Darraj’s own childhood.

The characters in “Inheritance of Exile” felt authentic. I loved their introspective world, their frustration, despair, and hope. I connected with their romances and their interaction with their families. And I even deepened my imagination of my own ancestors who also were immigrants in Philadelphia. [See my essay on that topic here.]

The interplay between fact and fiction enhanced my reading, but I wanted to know more about how it felt to the writer so I asked Susan Muaddi Darraj to help me understand how she the world she is creating with the one about which she is writing. And since she is a writing teacher, I wanted to know what she tells her students.

Jerry Waxler: When I was a student, literature was taught as an art form that had value in its own right. Now that I’ve become obsessed with memoirs, my view of literature has shifted. I now look at stories as a window into the human condition. Judging from the authenticity of your characters and situations, I’m wondering how you feel about the connection between story and life. Are stories art? Or are they a way to share the experience of human beings? Or some of each?

Susan Muaddi Darraj:
I do think literature serves multiple purposes. Its primary purpose is to serve as art — that aesthetic goal is always first and foremost. But literature also has an opportunity to comment and describe other worlds to the reader — not monolithic “worlds,” but a view of life as experienced by that particular author. For example, in this story collection, “Inheritance of Exile,” I tried to express what life was like for not all Palestinian emigres, but for a particular socio-economic class of emigres who had settled into a working-class, urban environment.

JW: Writers must learn all sorts of micro-skills such as word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, characterization and so on. The authentic characters in your stories make me wonder if writers also need to be exquisite observers. Must we also get degrees in psychology, sociology, and anthropology?

SMJ: No, but you still need to do your research as a writer. The best writing I have ever read is that in which it is clear that the author has spent time conducting or doing research of some kind — and the research could take place on many levels: looking up the right word for a particular object, researching the jargon used by archaeologists because you’ve decided to make one of your characters an archaeologist, etc.

JW: Can explain how you learned the skills of careful observation?

SMJ: Reading, watching, listening, always keeping a notebook in my purse…

JW: How do you teach these skills of careful observation to aspiring writers, or recommend that they learn?

SMJ: The writer’s notebook is a lost art form in itself! I always tell my students (I teach a fiction workshop in the Johns Hopkins graduate writing program) that keeping a notebook to jot down observations and ideas is vital.

JW: Could you share some insight or examples of the way the notebooks help you add vitality to your stories.

SMJ: I am a marvelous eavesdropper — I listen to conversations around me all the time and am always affected by the tone of people’s voices, their diction, as well as the stories they tell. I write those observations down. I also clip out news items or articles or pictures that strike me in some way. For example, who knows when I will need to describe a log cabin some day in a story I’m writing? If I do, I have a photograph clipped out of a magazine, to give me some parameters.

JW: I struggle to understand how fiction writers create characters. For example, are they composites stitched together from a variety of observations? That seems risky to me. Can a writer really invent a person from whole cloth or cobble one together from bits? Especially in first person stories such as yours, creating the thoughts and feelings of real people seems difficult. Could you say more about how you invent your characters?

SMJ: My characters are not composites, although I suppose they are sometimes inspired by particular traits I do observe in people in the real world. My characters seem like real people to me, and so I often spend a lot of time just thinking about them in my mind before I commit them to paper. I think about them in terms of “How would x react to this particular event?” Their responses to people and reactions to incidents tells me a lot about their personalities, their fears, their desires.

JW: Did you grow up telling stories, or was story telling a learned skill? Was a family hobby? If it was learned, how did you come to it?

SMJ: My father is a wonderful storyteller and a great writer as well. He told us stories every night — things he invented, stories he spun based on prompts we would give him (“Tell me a story about a fish, or about going to the supermarket,” etc…). And my mother taught me to read quite early, so I always had a book with me everywhere I went — long car rides were a joy for me, for example. I could finish two books in the time it took us to drive from Philadelphia to visit my grandparents in New York.

JW: Many aspiring memoir writers wonder if their lives would be best told in fictional form.  What do you think about this option? What are the pros and cons?

SMJ: Every work of fiction is inspired to some degree by the author’s life. The limit to this is that if a character is based too closely on you, you will be afraid, hesitant, to allow that character to behave badly. And that’s just not realistic — people behave badly all the time, and it’s quite interesting when they do. They make poor choices, etc. Once you have committed a character to paper, then you have to cut the umbilical cord with him or her and just allow him or her to be…

JW: Your protagonists are young women who grew up in Philadelphia in an immigrant home. So while you have not written about your own life, you have written things that you know. Did you find this confusing, steering your characters, settings, and situations in the strange space between actual experience and imagination?

SMJ: Not really. The cultural aspects of the stories are things that I know, but most things were invented, such as the particular situations, etc.

JW: John Barth, author of “End of the Road,” came to speak at the University of Wisconsin in the 60’s. After the lecture, I asked him if his novels were based on real life, and he looked disgusted. What do you feel when someone asks you if your stories are autobiographical? Do you think it’s a disrespectful question?

SMJ: I just think that, in recent years, because of the growth of memoir as a genre, readers want fiction to also be based on the author’s life. It’s one way of grasping the work, or accessing it — that is, to make it connect to the real life of the writer. I don’t think it’s a disrespectful question, but it is wearying when people ask me that, because I feel that it doesn’t recognize the art of invention, the work it takes to sit down in a chair and create this fictional world.

JW: As a published writer, you expose your thoughts, your imagination, your mental world. It’s a goal all writers strive for, and yet, I suspect once we get there, it has its pros and cons. Could you share your experience of what it’s like letting people “in” to see parts of your mind.

SMJ: I have no complaints! It’s been nothing but fun. I admit that if I were a New York Times bestselling author who was doing lots of interviews and traveling all the time, I would probably miss my writing time a bit. All writers, in the end, are solitary people — it’s the nature of the job — and I think we crave that quiet time.

Susan Muaddi Darraj Home Page

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.

Yin and Yang of Storytelling – Dramatic Tension of Opposites

by Jerry Waxler

Writing your memoir? Memoir Revolution provides many examples and insights into how to authors are translating life into story.

An author’s job is to tie us in knots, forcing us to search for relief on the next page. Thrillers easily generate tension when the hero races to find and defuse a bomb. But how do writers create tension from ordinary life? To find out how one writer achieves this creative task, I peered into the collection of short stories, “Inheritance of Exile” by Susan Muaddi Darraj.

Each story shows characters caught in the emotions and circumstances of ordinary life, and yet despite their ordinariness, I feel engaged in their struggles, turning the page to learn more. As I seek to understand how Susan Muaddi Darraj has accomplished her hold on me, I notice a particular feature of the writing. She has superbly tapped the power of opposites.

Opposites generate texture in every aspect of ordinary life: sad and happy, rich and poor, young and old, hope and despair. It’s the yin-yang of nature, that oriental principle that claims each polarity contains its opposite. I knew about the principle, but I never noticed it as a tool for storytelling. Now I discover the secret hidden in plain sight.

Opposites, by their nature, create tension, like the sparks that jump across the two terminals of a battery. The tension pulls together when opposites attract, or pushes apart when we want to maintain our distance from the other. By juxtaposing the two sides and allowing us to feel the contrast, the writer generates energy, creating an intellectual and artistic feast. Here are examples of the opposites I noticed in these stories:

Girl and boy romance

While describing a relationship, the author maintains her protagonist’s feminine needs, and at the same time, she shows a deep empathy and understanding of the boy’s perspective.

Child and parent have two very different views

She shows characters at different stages of Coming of Age, wanting to grow up, and at odds with their parents. This universal tension can be confusing and polarized. And yet, somehow, Inheritance of Exile brings enormous compassion to these situations by giving us deeper understanding of the parents’ point of view.

Tension between rich and poor

To earn a few dollars, she sells hand-made baskets at a craft fair. People with lots of money stop by to look. The contrast between their economic situation and hers crackles with tension.

Hoodlums and law abiding working people

A working man is robbed at gun point, showing the stark contrast between these two lifestyles. The man works hard, pushing himself through the daily grind to support his family. The hoodlums break the law and steal what he built up. The scene creates an intense contrast of these opposing life choices.

Relationships with Father vs. Mother

The protagonist’s relationship with her mother and with her father are each formidable, each rich in emotion, tension, and love. The real power, though, comes from the juxtaposition of the child’s relationship with each. The difference in her connection with each of these two parents creates enormous tension that the character must sort through, and which drag me deep into their family dynamic. Mother-love and father-love, so different and so authentic, create dramatic tension that drives me not only to turn pages, but to ponder these truths of the human condition after I have closed the book.

Palestinian (immigrant) culture and American (dominant) culture

Of course, every immigrant copes with these two opposing forces – the confining boundaries of the culture-of-origin, and the inexorable crucible of the melting pot that demands escape from that confinement. Susan does an artful job of showing her characters moving sometimes easily and sometimes awkwardly between these two different states.

Life is a balance of opposites

All of life is caught in the pincers of endless pairs of opposites. Opposites create revolutions, hatreds, and passionate love. At a more ordinary level, we strive to balance or solve cold and hot, hunger and fullness, loneliness and anger. At every level of life, from physics and biology, individual life, and the history of civilizations, opposites move us forward. Find these opposites in your story to propel your reader’s attention forward as well.

Writing Prompt

To accentuate dramatic tension in your own story, look for the opposites. Use the same ones I noted from reading Inheritance of Exile or look for others: educated and not, healthy and sick, and so on.

Notes

The famous graphic symbol of yin and yang is a circle with the two black and white interlocking shapes. It is called Taijitu. Here’s a link to a wiki page.

Visit Susan Muaddi Darraj’s Portfolio

Visit Amazon’s page for Inheritance of Exile

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.

Fiction built on a foundation of real life

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

Fiction seems entirely different from memoirs. And yet, when I look at actual examples of the two forms, I discover their intimate connection, each breathing life into the other. A good memoir is more compelling than a raw dump of facts. It generates dramatic tension by using fiction techniques like suspense and character development. And good fiction requires believable characters and real psychological interactions in order to capture our attention.

Last fall, I attended a writer’s conference organized by Philadelphia Stories held amidst stately trees and classic architecture of Rosemont College. There I met Susan Muaddi Darraj, creative writing professor and author of a book of short stories, “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly.” The protagonists in her stories are girls growing up in Palestinian families in South Philadelphia. The author, as it happens, grew up in a Palestinian family in South Philadelphia. “Write what you know,” the teachers say. Apparently Darraj took this advice.

The parallel between her life and her characters made me curious. Even though “Inheritance of Exile” is fiction, it’s apparently grounded in her own experience. I decided to read her book to learn what I could about the relationship between life and art.

Inheritance of Exile is written in an intimate, first person account
How does she or any fiction writer create a world authentic enough to let me enter? Surely they don’t create an entire world from scratch. I imagine they take a page from the memoirist’s book, describing a fictional world based on the things they see in the real one.

In Muaddi Darraj’s fiction, I hear her protagonist’s inner voice and see her family, friends, and culture. For example, in more than one story in “Inheritance of Exile,” the protagonist’s parents hang a blue stone to fend off the evil eye. I don’t know much about Palestinian culture, so I have no way to know if they do indeed follow this ritual. But it wouldn’t make sense for the author to invent such a thing. Even though I don’t know for sure if the blue stone is “real,” her story connects me to old world hopes and fears.

In one story, the protagonist was criticized by her mother for sitting in a way that she revealed the bottom of her foot, a gesture considered an insult. I found this detail interesting. Then, a few weeks after reading it, I saw a news article in which an Iraqi threw his shoes at President Bush as a highly publicized insult. Aha! External corroboration.

The character’s father ran a sandwich truck in Philadelphia. It reminded me of the truck parked outside the University of Pennsylvania, where I often bought my lunch during the years I worked there. The Lebanese guys who made delicious falafels were lovely and even though I was just a customer, I soon felt close to them. “Inheritance of Exile” now lets me imagine additional dimensions of their lives. For the first time I think of their whole situation, raising American children in an immigrant home in Philadelphia. This book of fiction, of invented reality, expands my understanding of the real people around me.

Coming of Age has changed over the decades
When I was growing up, I read several Coming of Age stories such as “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and “Portrait of the Artist” by James Joyce. The protagonists of these books were full of angst, disenfranchisement, anomie – moods that were hallmarks for their times, when readers and publishers focused on the existential problems of young men. Times have changed.

Forty years later, Inheritance of Exile offers a different view of Coming of Age, describing this life journey through a female author’s eyes at the beginning of the Twenty First Century. Her struggles for social and emotional wholeness sound very different than the authors I read in high school, and deepens my understanding of the search for identity in today’s culture.

To read my essay on the shifting gender orientation of contemporary literature – click here

Immigrants are us
My parents grew up in Philadelphia, children of immigrants. I know so little about how that felt, and now it’s too late to ask. But I can learn a little more about the experience of children of immigrants by reading stories. For example, one of Darraj’s characters resented her mother’s accent because it sounded foreign. This resentment felt eerily familiar.

My maternal grandmother was born in the United States, and through fanatical attention to elocution, had developed a Proper British accent. Her husband immigrated from Russia when he was a young man, and sixty years later, he still pronounced the letter “W” as if it was a “V.” According to family lore, my grandmother was not particularly fond of him, and now I wonder how much his pronunciation grated against her ambition to become unambigously American. I’m starting to realize that one reason my parents never taught me Yiddish or talked about the Old Country was that they wanted to forget their past.

Susan Muaddi Darraj’s character, like other immigrant children, wanted to blend in with Americans and yet at home she had to relate to a very different culture. This character’s emotions teach me about my own grandparents, my parents and myself.

Literature is a window into society
Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, in his lecture series “Understanding Literature and Life” claims that literature portrays the world and culture of the author, so for example to learn how Greeks thought, we read Greek plays. And one place to seek insight into an Arab immigrant community in South Philadelphia might be in the stories of “Inheritance of Exile.” They contain emotionally compelling situations that capture my attention and transport me to a world that feels authentic, even though they make no claim to factual reporting.

Writing Prompt
What community or social phenomenon does your memoir explore?  How do characters in your story behave towards each other? What lessons do you detect in the unique workings of your family? Look for an anecdote that might evoke some powerful observation about families or communities, tension among people, or aspirations to gain entry into privileged social situations.

Links

For more about Philadelphia Stories, click here
Click here Susan Muaddi Darraj’s home page
Amazon page for “Inheritance of Exile”
To hear the wonderful lecture series, “Understanding Literature and Life” by Arnold Weinstein published by the Teaching Company click here.

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

Harry Bernstein’s Second Memoir, Still Writing at 98!

by Jerry Waxler

Harry Bernstein was 93 years-old when he published his first memoir “Invisible Wall” about his childhood in England before the first World War. His nonagenarian achievement changed the landscape for aspiring memoir writers who wonder if they are too old. Bernstein, now 98, is basking in the publication of his second memoir, “The Dream,” about immigrating to the United States.

Amazon Link: The Dream
My essay about The Invisible Wall

There have been lots of immigrant stories, so what makes this one worth reading? For one thing, he’s so old he offers a modern-day tale about Coming of Age during the 1920’s. That’s amazing. There are other twists. Chicago feels different than the more familiar New York setting. And since he grew up in England, his language is less of a barrier than for other immigrants, but at first no one understood his regional British accent.

The story comes alive when Harry describes characteristics of each member of his family. Harry’s own father is the villain, a selfish drunk, a menacing tyrant, cruel to everyone in the family; his brother is a humorless aspiring rabbi; his mother the victim of his vicious father; and his grandfather secretly earns his living as a beggar.

So here’s the tip. When you are afraid people will think your life was just like everyone else’s, focus on unique people and circumstances and find the dramatic tension that turns a “typical” story into a suspenseful, unique one.

I eagerly track the outcomes of his decisions
When they first land in the States, they are dirt poor. That starts to change when Harry lands a job in the U.S. post office. What could be more secure? But he doesn’t take it seriously, intending to go to college in a few months. Then, tension with his father escalates. To extricate his mom from this abusive relationship, he talks her into moving to New York, quitting his job just in time for the Depression, quickly sliding back into poverty. Then Harry meets the love of his life with whom he remains married for 67 years. In hindsight, perhaps it was the right move after all. When viewed through such a wide lens, the daily grind becomes a big story, and as I watch him careening through the events like a blindfolded driver through an obstacle course, I keep turning pages wondering where each situation will lead.

Writing Prompt
The outcome of your choices become part of your connection with readers. Focus on decisions that altered the course of your life. Sometimes the results weren’t what you wanted, leading to regrets and even shame. This is a good opportunity to revisit those regrets. Re-tell the embarrassing experience. Then go back further. What lead up to it? When you reach the fateful decision, stop and look around. What else was going on? What pressures and fears affected the decision? Keep going, past the bad memory and show how you moved and grew through the following years.

Parallel with Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes”

Harry Bernstein’s two memoirs resemble Frank McCourt’s, “Angela’s Ashes” and “Tis.” Both authors had drunken, neglectful fathers. Both first volumes tell of hardships in the mother country and both second volumes start with the immigrant experience in America. The similarities didn’t bother Harry Bernstein’s publishers, who apparently figured that if the public liked McCourt’s memoir, they might buy a similar one.

My Essay about Angela’s Ashes

As you plan your own memoir, read lots of published memoirs and consider the similarities between your story and other proven sellers. This is your chance to follow in the footsteps of success, taking advantage of similarities for your marketing material, while maintaining the integrity and authenticity of your own memories.

Reading is a pathway to writing

Harry, desperate for work during the Great Depression, eventually landed a job reading and critiquing stories. This is the second time I’ve read about someone earning a living during the Depression by reading. The first was in Sydney Sheldon’s memoir, “The Other Side of Me.” His experience as a professional script reader put food on the table, and at the same time provided insight into what makes stories work. His modest job provided a stepping stone towards a fabulously successful career as a novelist and screenwriter.

The Other Side of Me, by Sidney Sheldon, Amazon, my essay about The Other Side of Me

Both authors, Sheldon and Bernstein, learned that reading books can help you write them, and that turns out to be a perfect piece of advice for any writer. Read like a writer, picking apart books to see what works and what doesn’t. I am putting this method into practice myself. As I read memoirs and write reviews about them for this blog, I am gaining many of the benefits that these aspiring writers did.

Biggest lesson, how your own creative work can inspire hope

When my mother was in her 80’s she read the memoir, “Color of Water,” by James McBride, a black man with a Jewish mom. To share her thoughts with her peers, and to find out what they thought, she arranged a book review at a meeting room in her apartment building. About 40 people showed up to discuss the book. During that lively gathering something else was going on. They were seeing for themselves that an old lady doesn’t need to slow down. It was amazing to me how much confidence and love Mom’s activity inspired. For years after that event they came up to her in the lobby, asked her what she was reading and told her how much they admired her. She became a local hero.

Harry Bernstein is the oldest guy I know to have published a memoir, and so, in addition to the story he tells within the pages, the publication of the book creates a story about the story, offering a powerful message to hundreds of millions of people. “There’s still time. Start now. It’s never too late. You can do it! And as you create your own story, in addition to documenting your life events, under the surface your effort will offer your readers a larger lesson about inspiration and hope.”

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.

Iranian in America makes love and laughter

by Jerry Waxler

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

When two countries go to war, their “us” versus “them” mentality make their differences seem irreconcilable. So when I saw Firoozeh Dumas’ memoir, “Funny in Farsi, Growing up Iranian in America” it appealed to me instantly. I wanted to laugh at the differences instead of fight over them. But how can you laugh about something so serious as the differences between Americans and Iranians?

At a meeting of the National Speakers Association in Philadelphia, after an introduction that repeatedly cracked up the audience, Ron Culberson explained that humor happens when your mind sets you up to expect one thing, and then the punch line suddenly shifts the ground you thought you were standing on. That’s what creates the laughter in “Funny in Farsi.” One culture sets up an expectation, and the other culture spins that expectation in a surprising direction.

Firoozeh came to the United States from Iran when she was seven, with a father who believed America was the promised land, a land of infinite wisdom, compassion, and possibilities. That’s a familiar theme for me. Three of my four grandparents moved across the globe from Russia to the melting pot of America. In the early days of their immigration, there was enormous suspicion against them. Their Jewish names and manner and their foreign accents isolated them. But the melting pot blurred the differences especially among the children, and by the second or third generation, the accents were gone, the suspicion eased, and people started to relate to each other as people. The self-effacing humor of Jewish immigrants was an important tool as they struggled to become part of their new home, and helped create a sense of bonding and strength.

So I was prepared to appreciate Firoozeh’s humor. For example, when Firoozeh was a little girl, visiting Disneyland with her family, she became preoccupied by a bright red telephone and when she looked up, her family had moved on. At the lost-and-found for children there was another child who didn’t speak English. The caretaker begged Firoozeh to speak to the little boy. When Firoozeh spoke to him in Farsi, which the boy didn’t understand, he cried even harder. It was comical to think that the American woman assumed that any two foreign children would understand each other’s language.

On Firoozeh’s first day in second grade, her mother went along. The teacher invited them both to the front of the class and then gestured for Firoozeh’s mother to point out their country of origin on the world map. Firoozeh’s mom stood there smiling politely but not moving. The teacher assumed any woman would naturally know where her own country was on the map. She was wrong. What she expected did not match reality.

When I watch a movie or read a book, situations of identity confusion embarrass me so badly, I want to jump up and pace. I was feeling this jumpiness when I read Firoozeh’s memoir, and I wanted to understand how this dramatic tension works. So I pondered other dramatic situations in which identity confusion makes me crazy, and I realized that identity confusion plays a central role throughout Shakespeare’s plays. So I took a closer look at Shakespeare’s comedy “As you like it,” in which Rosalind, was forced into exile, and dressed up as a boy. In this disguise she meets Orlando who was madly in love with her. Taken in by her disguise, he enters into a second relationship with her, now as a friend and confidante. The resulting confusion has been driving audiences crazy for centuries.

Confusion about identity is especially relevant in the great melting pot of modernity, when people cross boundaries, exiled from their own culture and try to enter another. We wonder about each other, “How am I supposed to speak or act towards this person? What parts are the same? What parts are different?” The concern about a person’s identity creates tension, and then when the identity is exposed, we breathe a sigh of relief. “Ah, now I understand.”

While Firoozeh’s neighbors in the United States weren’t sure how to relate to her, I had no such confusion. She took me into her confidence and I saw for myself who she was, thanks to her superb command of the English language, and her clever, ironic insights. “She’s one of us.” I thought. And even better, as a recent entrant into the melting pot, she could share her observations about contrasts between two cultures more clearly than someone limited to seeing things only from within one.

At the end of the play “As You Like It,” just as at the end of all of his comedies, Shakespeare resolves the confusion by marrying the characters. I suppose he figured once they were living and sleeping together, all the masks would be removed. Firoozeh married too, but in her case, the wedding was yet another opportunity for misunderstanding. Her parents wanted the celebration to be the same as in Iran, where animal sacrifice is considered essential. The caterers, who were not experts in the nuances of this ritual, decided to carve the animal first. The carcass they wheeled out, stripped of its meat, was appropriate neither for an Iranian or an American celebration. It switched from being a symbol of joy, to a symbol of foreigners trying to hang on to their old identity in a new land.

The ending of Firoozeh’s memoir differs from a Shakespearean comedy in another way. Her husband is French, so even after they married they can never return together to a single homeland. Instead, they must continue to seek the universal qualities of love and laughter in each other, and in their adopted neighbors or else forever remain foreigners. And that is precisely what provides the lift at the end of Firoozeh’s drama of confusion and mixing. Amidst the differences of people, she offers us this opportunity too, to understand the things we share.

Writing Prompt: List the decades of your life. For each period, list examples of cultural mixing. For example, what neighbor, lover, teacher, or co-worker entered your life from another culture? How did you behave towards that person? Curious? Suspicious? Confused?

Writing Prompt: List vacations or journeys to other countries, regions or neighborhoods where others might have looked at you as a foreigner. What is it about you that people might have thought was different from them? (Color, features, accent, religion.) How did you reach out? What were some of the confusions? What humor or love relieved the tension? What did you learn? What surprised you? What still makes you wonder?

Visit Firoozeh Dumas’ home page.

Funny in Farsi, Growing up Iranian in America

Note: For more information about Ron Culberson, the speaker who got me thinking about humor, see his website. www.funsulting.com

Note: I listened to the audio version of the book, read by Firoozeh herself, so I was treated by her lovely voice and slight accent, along with the authentic pronunciation of the few names and words she mentions in Farsi. This book is available from www.audible.com.

Note:
Here are a few other memoirs in which the mixing of cultures plays a central role. Click the links to read my essay.

The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein
Pursuit of Happyness (the movie) by Chris Gardner
Dreams of my father by Barack Obama

More memoir writing resources

Memoir-lovers in my experience intuitively recognize the potential that this genre has for healing us individually and collectively. My book, Memoir Revolution, backs up these intuitive views with research and examples about how the cultural passion for life stories serves us all.

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.

Author interview with Naomi Gal: Life and art intertwined

Naomi Gal’s novel, Daphne’s Seasons, is about an Israeli woman who loses her husband in a suicide bomb attack. She moves to rural Pennsylvania where grief plays out against the protagonist’s first experience of four seasons. Daphne’s Seasons is Gal’s 16th book, and the 5th novel. This is the first one available in English. Gal is a Creative Writing professor at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA.

JW: Could you tell me about how your life experience as an Israeli informed your novel, Daphne’s Seasons?

NG: The first part of the book is immersed in pain. Having lived most of my life in Israel, I know about pain. I have seen time and again parents bury their children who paid with their lives for the ongoing war. Since Israel is a small country, there is one – sometimes zero – degrees of separation. So pain was always close and I could express it in my novel.

JW: Give me an example of a scene in the book that reflected your own life.

NG: My favorite chapter in the book really happened to me. Very much like Daphne, I was sipping my morning espresso at my window seat gazing at the green lush meadow, counting my blessings. Then, at leisure I went up to my computer and the news was screaming at me from the screen: there was a suicide bombing in Jerusalem and all the beauty around me disappeared, I was back on the traumatic scene of death, carnage, destruction, agony and pain. In the novel, Daphne lost her husband in a pretty much similar kind of blast, and she, like me, realizes that no matter how far away you run, and how glorious nature is, you cannot escape the horror of terror.

JW: How did it feel to write about that pain?

NG: When I started writing Daphne’s Seasons (my own title for it was Changing Seasons) my life was better than Daphne’s. But when she was recuperating, my life was falling apart so I went back to review the parts of my manuscript that described pain, and added, and added. It was so strange that it was almost funny, the way life was imitating fiction.

JW: Did this writing about Daphne help you deal with the pain of your memories?

NG: I did feel catharsis. Writing is an amazing way to let go of pent up feelings and turn suffering into a story. Weaving my threads of agony freed me in a way only art can.

JW: How does your real-life move to Pennsylvania enter into the experience of your fictional character?

NG: She moves to rural PA and slowly starts a process of healing with the generous help of lush mother nature. Daphne, very much like me, is a daughter of the desert. Israel is an arid country and except summer there aren’t really other seasons. So I could easily write about the solace Mother Nature bestows on Daphne.

JW: That’s funny. I grew up in Pennsylvania and I know a lot of people who want to move away get away from the seasons. Your perspective might help them come to peace with being here.

NG: Yes, seasons were an amazing revelation for me. Their healing power was good to me as it is to Daphne. I am still awed by the lush flowers of spring, by the unpredictability of summer, by the changing colors of fall leaves and by the serenity of snow in winter. Nature allows you to feel deeply the change of seasons in your own life cycle, it gives one hope since there is a constant renewal and change.

JW: What else can you share about how you have used your life experience in your fiction writing?
NG: All my fiction is based on memory one way or another. I am thinking back to all my novels, even the unpublished ones I wrote in my teens and twenties. It is always about me, even when it looks different. Daphne, as Nora, the protagonist of Soap Opera, my first novel, written in Hebrew. These were “un-liberated” women who go through transformation thanks to dramatic events in their lives. I guess my life was always a quest for freedom mainly as a woman. Fiction allowed me more dramatic changes, my life was more of an evolution than a revolution. Daphne’s husband has to die tragically so that she can grow out of the shadow he cast over her, and the same goes for Nora, in Soap Opera, who is confined to a hospital bed after a car accident and can at long last look at her life from the outside. I guess fiction is a condensed form of memoir, a more dramatic one. You can skip lots of mundane details.

JW: So if someone was wondering if it’s okay to weave their life experience in their fiction writing, what would you tell them?

NG: When Gustav Flaubert, who was very different from his protagonist Madam Bovary was asked how could he write with so much credibility and accuracy about a woman so different from him in every respect he allegedly said: “Madam Bovary is me.” So yes, I believe we always write about ourselves, even when our characters seem different. We can only rely on our experiences and system of beliefs no matter how and what we write. Everything we write is a memoir to some extent. At times a wishful one. All my protagonists have daughters. I have sons but always wanted a daughter. Daphne, as well as Dea, the heroine of my novel Lovend are accomplished pianists. I love music but I can’t play.

Virginia Woolf in “Room of one’s Own” cites a passage from the novel “Jane Eyre.” Woolf complains that Charlotte Bronte is talking for herself and not for her character, but I really can’t see the difference.

JW: Have you thought about writing a memoir?

NG: I prefer fiction to memoir because fiction allows me to better hide. Many years ago I had a personal column (this was before internet and blogs) and every week I would write about personal matters, and then all of a sudden I couldn’t do it any more. I needed privacy, so I started hiding behind characters in novels. That way I could improve, change and give free rein to my imagination. I love inventing. I can embellish and ameliorate reality.

JW: As a writer and a writing teacher, what other advice would you like to pass along to people who are thinking about writing their memoir?

NG: Everyone has a story is what I say when I teach creative writing and every story is worth writing and reading. I wish my parents, my grandparents and my great great grandparents would have written their memoir, but they didn’t and they are all dead and there is no one to ask the many questions I would love to ask. So write, write, write. Don’t discriminate. Just write as much as you can, editing will come later. Go back into your past and start with memories that are vivid, you will find out that as you write less vivid memories will surface and find their way to the paper (or computer). There are techniques to overcome your fear of writing or what I call your ISJ (Interior Supreme Judge) who sits there criticizing and prevents you from writing. Learn to tame her (or him) and one of the ways to trick your ISJ is with automated writing, early in the morning, before ISJ wakes up or late at night when she is tired. Write even if you don’t like what you are writing. Later you will be able to discern the good from the bad. For now, just write. You can record your voice if you are computer shy, but writing your memoir is a great opportunity to befriend this practical contraption.

Harry Bernstein reveals the Invisible Wall

by Jerry Waxler

I am reading the Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein. The reason I heard about this book and decided to read it was because of the buzz that it generated when Bernstein, now 96 years old, wrote this, his first published book when he was 93. That’s a story in itself, and inspiring to anyone who thinks it’s too late. That gives me 36 more years of productive writing ahead of me!! If I get started now, I still have the full span of a career ahead of me. And by the way, Bernstein has recently sold his second book.

So what can I share about memoirs by reading this book? First of all, I ask what makes this memoir tick? It combines two types of memoir: a coming of age story –Harry is just starting school, around 6 years old, and he shares his observations from that tiny perspective as he tries to make sense of the world. And it’s an immigration story. Both of his parents came from the old country, Poland, and moved to England. They are living on a block, an enclave, a sort of ghetto with other Polish Jews on one side of the street. And on the other side of the street are non-Jews. The Invisible Wall of the title is the wall of animosity and suspicion that runs down the center of the street and separates Jew from non-Jew.

When I read the synopsis, about growing up in England in the beginning of the century, and in particular growing up in the cultural tension of this street, I wanted to read more. For some reason which I find fascinating, even though my own grandparents came from Russia, I emotionally feel connected to England as the mother country. I guess it’s all that English literature, King Arthur, Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens. (Did those stories help me define my roots, more even than my own grandparents?) So I’m drawn to read this story to learn more about another generation of Jews being indoctrinated in the culture of the mother country.

Within the book, I find an interesting surprise. The author shows me both sides of the wall. Of course I see the fear of the children, as they walk to school terrified that they will be beat up by anti-semitic bullies. That’s the side of the wall one expects in a book that contains anti-semitism. But inside the home, I get to see the other side. Like Maria in West Side Story, when a girl from the Jewish side is drawn to a boy on the non-Jewish side, Bernstein shows us his mother’s graphic gut-wrenching fear.

I feel the emotions of the girls, reaching out to boys in the dominant culture with love. And the loathing from the parents, trying to maintain their old culture. It’s a beautiful melting pot story. Like the parents in West Side Story who beg their daughter to “stick with your own kind” Bernstein’s people desperately try to keep the children on the “right” side of the invisible wall. And there are other powerful emotions I identify with in this story. I am terrified and disgusted when I hear Harry’s father come into the house, abusive and drunk. I am anxious and hopeful when his mother figures out a way to make some money on her own.

So here is the magic of how the memoir draws in a reader. I see the world from the protagonist’s eyes. I want him to survive. I want his pain to be resolved. And he lets me get inside these emotions by showing them openly. It’s hard to write so boldly about one’s own raw emotions. I know it how hard it is for me. I suspect that Bernstein’s many decades gave him enough distance from the intensity, so he was able to see the emotions more clearly. So there’s another lesson I can take away from reading this book. Not only do I still have time. But as I grow older, my perspective of my life grows more interesting and deeper.

Note
For my essay about Harry Bernstein’s second memoir, The Dream, click here.

Never too late. Harry Bernstein’s first Memoir at 93!

by Jerry Waxler

I was wrong. You can wait before writing your memoir. Author Harry Bernstein started his first memoir when he was 93, and it’s just coming out now that he’s 96. This is great news for anyone who thinks it’s too late, or they are too lonely or tired. There’s plenty of time.

In fact, there are several benefits of writing your memoir later in life:

  • The world is changing so fast that your memories from a few decades ago seem like you’re telling about a foreign land. This adds a flavor of distinction to your memories, without you needing to do anything fantastic.
  • Long term memory is the most persistent. As we age, our short term memory becomes more difficult but longer term memory persists. You can find all sorts of memories lurking in there once you start looking, at any age.
  • Because you’ve been alive lots of years, you can see the way events unfold across decades. This ability to see the long view adds a sense of wisdom and continuity to your perspective that younger people can only get from books – such as the one you write.
  • You have time.

Bernstein already has a contract for his second book. And that’s the reason his story popped into my mind. I was sitting at my desk thinking how odd it feels not to be working towards a book deadline. I just sent my book “Learn to write your memoir in four weeks” and am thinking about which one of my next projects to focus on. I thought, “Writing books is addictive” and then I remembered this quote from the article about Harry Bernstein.

“Now that he’s got the hang of book writing, Bernstein says he could probably write a few more and is considering writing about his marriage. His second book, “The Dream,” is almost finished and centers on the family’s move to the United States; Ballantine has already signed on as the American publisher.”

I’m also finding, once you get the hang of it, immersing yourself in writing a book is as addictive as immersing yourself in reading one.

The title is “Invisible Wall” about growing up in England a long time ago. I can’t say too much about it yet, because I just ordered it. But when I read it, I’ll share my observations and teaching points in this blog.

Click here to read my article about Invisible Wall.