Thoughts are the Soundtrack of a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

Before I wrote the first draft of my memoir, I visualized my past as a tangled web. When I gathered random anecdotes and placed them in chronological order, they began to connect, making it easier to see how one thing led to another. The next breakthrough came in critique groups where I learned that readers want to know more than the sequence of events. They want to know what I’m thinking.

Introspection is such an important feature in memoirs that a memoir without this dimension feels as if it is skimming the surface. By adding the mental track, the author does for memoirs what a good sound track does for movies. In both cases, the sound we hear helps us relate to what we see. The analogy with a movie sound track highlights a fundamental principle of all storytelling – a good story operates on two planes, inner and outer.

To feel engaged in any story, we need to understand the motivations of the characters. However, because our predominant cultural stories are formulaic, we often forget about this inner dimension. In thrillers, the good guys naturally want to chase the bad guys and bad guys naturally fight back. Similarly, in mysteries the detective needs to solve the crime, and in romances, the girl needs to get the guy. We don’t need to know much about the inner dimension in these stories because we assume they are roughly about the same every time.

Memoirs are about real life. We grow up, start a family, get a job, grow older, take a trip. Meanwhile, inside the protagonist of a memoir, all hell is breaking loose. Our search for love, dignity and understanding can become so vast, it seems to fill the sky. Memoirs provide insight into the characters’ deepest dreams and needs, and they achieve this effect with carefully crafted, cleanly integrated thoughts.

When Memoir Characters Need to Think a Lot
I am intimately familiar with the importance of thinking my way through major life transitions. When I attempted to pass through the gateway from child to adult, I struggled for years to think my way across the chasm. In fact, the working title of my memoir is Thinking My Way to the End of the World. So when I read memoirs, I take special note of the way the author reveals his or her inner process. Two recent examples illustrate the way memoir authors successfully include their thoughts.

When Cheryl Strayed was attempting to transition from girl to woman, she underwent a process of self-reevaluation. Her memoir, Wild, is about her attempt to do that reevaluation while taking a hike. The memoir on the surface is about a hike through the wilderness. Cheryl Strayed entices readers to turn the page to experience the trappings of her hike: blistered feet, fear of getting lost, heavy backpacks, and encounters with fellow hikers. But inside her mind, she is free to ramble, consider the past, and have inner discussions about the direction of her life.

Readers didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that her outer circumstances had little to do with her inner ones. The book was an acclaimed bestseller even before it appeared on the big screen, demonstrating that readers are interested in an author’s inner dimension and willing to go along for the inner ride.

Memoir author David Berner also needed to share a thoughtful life transition. In his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, he describes the meltdown that provoked him to leave his family and start a new life. In his second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, he returns to that decision to leave, and tries to figure out how to maintain his responsibility to his children. To reconcile the opposing parts of his desire, to leave and yet to remain loyal, he needs to think long and hard about responsibility, about his relationship to the boys, and about his father’s relationship to him.

To do all of this thinking, David Berner takes his sons and a buddy on a drive in a motor home. They roughly follow the path described by Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Each day a little more road passes under their wheels in perfect, chronological sequence. And as the miles go by, the boredom of travel invites introspection.

David Berner’s journey is less complex or picturesque than a hike through the wilderness. Reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s book, On the Road, this simple outer journey provides just enough forward momentum to keep readers engaged, while the much more dramatic story takes place inside his mind.

Occasionally one of Berner’s two sons says or does something that triggers a round of musing. Within each of these reveries, time moves more fluidly, leaping from one generation to another, like the point-counterpoint of jazz riffs, in which motifs intertwine, never going too far into one before the other intervenes, giving endless opportunities for contrast. Reconciling his inner conflicts, and figuring out how to renew his connection to the boys creates intense thoughts, written artfully in micro-essay, musing style.

These weren’t flashbacks. In a flashback, the reader must leap backward, and shift focus to a previous time frame. At the end of a flashback, the reader must leap forward again into the timeframe of the storyteller. This can create a jarring effect. On the other hand, David Berner’s musings comment on the past without actually returning to it.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. Berner is deciding whether or not to buy a memento on this trip. From there he remembers the emotional importance of travel in his life. The following paragraph explores this thought in greater depth.

“When I was a kid, the shortest family vacation would mean at least a cheap tee-shirt or salt water taffy to carry home for a cousin or the neighbor who took in the mail. And when my mother and father traveled to England to find the boyhood home of my grandfather, my mother’s dad, they returned with inexpensive fisherman sweaters and coasters with pictures of Westminster Abbey. My sons visited Abbey Road Studios with their mother on a European holiday, and their gift to me was a single white guitar pick. I loved that gift.”

After the introspective moment plays out, we look up and see we have traveled further on the road and the outer storyline picks up again. This alternating play between interior thought and exterior travel creates an almost musical rhythm.

How to use outer circumstances as the video for your own inner sound track
Both Cheryl Strayed and David Berner offer examples of the way a simple trip, from beginning to end, can be used as an opportunity to explore their inner lives. Each author faces an important life transition, to grow into adulthood, or to adjust to the changing landscape of middle age. The authors take us on a journey, during which we listen to their hearts and minds.

Their examples illustrate something all memoirs have in common. In the world of action, circumstances are unfolding. At the same time, inside the character, a series of thoughts and reactions play out, usually triggered by the external events. The events provide the visual framework. And the thoughts and musings offer readers a sound track.

If you wonder if your life transitions were interesting or important enough to write about, consider these two memoirs. In one, a girl is attempting to become a woman. In the other, a middle-aged man is attempting to renew his responsibility to his sons. What could be more ordinary? And yet, through the artful interplay of outer circumstance and inner response, we feel ourselves pulled into their lives. By the end of the journey, we have been enriched by the thoughts, ideas, and images that helped these authors adjust to great changes in their world views, and to adapt to new chapters in their lives.

Writing Prompt
What transition or challenge in your life required you to rethink your self-image?

What set of external circumstances unfolded while you were attempting to come to this inner shift?

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

In the memoir Ten Speed, author Bill Strickland figures out his own deepest secrets while on a bicycle. He desperately needs to review his life in order to shake off the legacy of his father’s abuse, so he can fully love his daughter. Click here to read my article about Ten Speed.

Coming Soon: a list of memoirs I have read (or in some case previewed) by authors who have written more than one.

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

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

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Memoirs Connect Us by Sharing Our Hidden Worlds

by Jerry Waxler

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

The anthology The Times They Were a Changing coedited by Linda Joy Myers, Kate Farrell, and Amber Lea Starfire offers many glimpses into the lives of women during the 60s. The book taught me about a fascinating era in recent American history. It also provided many examples of life-changing moments, full of the passion and intensity of the human condition. This focus on high-intensity moments makes the collection a valuable demonstration of an important aspect of life-story writing.

For many aspiring memoir writers, such high-energy moments lurk under the surface waiting to spring out of hiding. I discovered my own hidden pool of intensity in the first memoir workshop I ever attended. The event took place at a high-energy writing club in a converted storefront in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Along with twenty writers, I considered the possibility I could turn my life into stories. At the end of the first session, the teacher told us to go home and write a story about ourselves.

The scene that came to my mind happened in Berkeley California in 1971 when I lived in a garage, stopped wearing my glasses so I was effectively blind, and went for weeks at a time without speaking. My fallen-apart life after college made sense in that crazy, hippie era. And yet looking back on it later in life, it had always seemed so out of context with my bachelor’s degree in physics and my original goal of becoming a doctor.

Despite my embarrassment and confusion about that period, my mind kept returning to it. Perhaps I was driven to that scene by horror, or by a lifetime of silence. For whatever reason, I attempted to portray my life as a hippie.

At the next session, my voice trembling with embarrassment and exhilaration, I read my piece. In it I revealed that when I was 24 years old, I wanted to live like a chimpanzee and had made plans to move to Central America to eat fruit from the trees. Instead of being horrified, my fellow writers laughed. That laugh changed my life.

I looked around the room. Everyone was relaxed. I realized that reading my story had not upset them or turned me into a pariah. On the contrary, several of them spoke to me afterward and recalled some zany or compelling memory of their own. Paradoxically instead of increasing my shame, sharing the story dispelled it.

Without this wall of shame to hold me back, I became increasingly energetic about discovering my own past. Like an investigator, I unearthed anecdotes I had never before tried to put into words. Then once I found them, I needed to convert them from stubs into a well constructed story. That meant that for the first time in my life, I had to learn how to write stories.

Before that time, my main experience trying to convert bits of my life into stories took place in a psychotherapy office. In my forties, I spent an hour every week attempting to collect myself by using my words. I found so much benefit to the system of trying to express myself that I went back to school and received my master’s degree in Counseling Psychology so I could help others do the same. At the age of 52, I watched my clients attempt to find words with which they could explain their lives. I let them ramble along, helping them choose which part of their lives they would talk about on any given day.

When I began to write my memoir, I realized that by attempting to find the story of my life, I could create a coherent understanding of myself, not just in bits and pieces but across entire eras. By reading memoirs, I realized that every author had achieved this same goal. And by writing the story, they had found a new way to share their lives with the world.

To help other people figure out how to do it, I began teaching memoir writing classes. In my early workshops, I asked writers to record scenes that came to mind. Often the first scenes that jumped onto paper were ones that were too powerful to be communicated in ordinary life. Many said this was the first time they had tried to describe this incident.

Over a period of years, I kept noticing that students used the memoir workshop as an opportunity to reveal their most profound life moments. Sometimes, I would tell writers about this phenomenon. In one such workshop, a woman raised her hand and said, “So you are telling me that once I write about and reveal my powerful secret, I’ll no longer feel as compelled to keep it hidden?”

“Exactly,” I said. “When you see the words on paper and then read them aloud in a group, your memory won’t generate the horrifying results that you expect.”

At the next session, she read a piece about her husband’s suicide. After reading it, she looked around the room at the murmurs and nods of empathy, and said, “I get it. That’s amazing.”

Sometimes the peak moment jumps out before the writing exercise even begins. I gave a talk at a church one Sunday morning to churchgoers who arrived before the services began. This was the best-dressed group of people I had ever spoken to. I explained to them that by writing their experiences in a memoir, they can reveal things that are too personal to talk about. A woman in the back of the room raised her hand. With trembling voice she said, “You mean that I can finally write about my experience of being sexually abused as a child?” I assured her that this was indeed possible. Her tearful “thank you” gave me another glimpse into the relief that can be experienced when peak experiences no longer need to be kept secret.

Lessons for memoir writers
Consider episodes in your life that  burns under the surface, imprisoned by a lifelong commitment to secrecy. Such memories are often surrounded by mental keep-out signs. A common sentiment is, “I could never tell that!”

By pretending the moment never happened or fearing you can never share it, you are stuck forever with your unspoken memory. Without the additional perspective of dialog or literary expression, the offending moment remains in its original form. Instead of eradicating the pain, your silence reinforces it. Aided by the literary act of memoir writing, you can commute this life sentence. Follow the example of the authors of Times They Were a Changing. Try turning it into a story.

When such memories first appear in your mind, they might sound boring, scary, taboo, mundane, or gritty. Don’t worry if the vignette does not contain deadly force, celebrities or unique moments in history. If it is boiling in your mind, write the first draft.

After you write the first draft, enhance it through scenes, description and other techniques. By crafting the memory into a story, with a compelling beginning, middle, and end, you create a container for it. Turning private pain into a public one generates deeper insight into what happened, how you survived, how you moved on to the next step and the step after that.

Your decision to write about the experience as if for strangers is not the end of your journey. To turn it into a polished piece, you still have a long road ahead. How do you develop it into a story with a beginning, middle and end? If you are like me, you not only must do the introspective work of uncovering your past. You also must travel the creative journey of learning to write Creative Nonfiction. By crafting your own life into a readable story, you will see it through fresh eyes. Gradually you will discover that whatever tension made the moment important to you will also be interesting to readers.

Your creative effort to turn life into story presents an elegant escape from silence. As you continue the journey, eventually you will turn a corner. When you look back, you realize your memory is no longer frightening. The episode that formerly burned under the surface and refused to be revealed has now become the story that must be told.

Writing Prompt 1
List a few interesting scenes that jump into your mind. What part of your life seems unmentionable? Upheavals, changes, betrayals, first loves, shifts in awareness. All the things that make life hard also make stories good.

Writing Prompt 2
Pick one of your incidents. Write about it as if you were there, complete with description of what you see, hear and think. Then, using that event as an anchor for your story, cast your net a little wider. What happened next? Look for another scene afterward that represents the immediate outcome.

If the scene was tragic, you might have always felt stuck with it. Then write about how you survived. Did you fight, or rebel, or reach out for support? The scenes *after* the peak event might reveal how to turn this into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The scenes after the main one will show courage, social support, and other positive experiences that helped you push forward.

Notes

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

Click here for more about the themes in Times They Were a Changing

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.

What is the difference between journaling and memoir writing?

by Jerry Waxler

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

When a man in one of my writing workshops complained that he hates reading his own journals, I knew exactly what he meant. I wrote in a journal every day for almost 10 years, but whenever I looked through one of my own books, I quickly became bored. My journals were so personal, so informal, and had so little thought towards future readability, even I didn’t want to read them.

However, I loved the process of pouring words on to paper. During these sessions, I became clearer about my own thoughts. And journaling provided a perfect postscript to meditation, helping me put to rest all those memories and ideas that I stirred up while I was sitting with my eyes closed. After years of practice transferring the contents of my mind on to paper, I became a faster, more agile writer. But despite these benefits, the journals themselves were neither informative nor entertaining, and I finally grew tired of writing only for myself.

To communicate with other people, I couldn’t just say the first thing that came to mind. I had to filter and organize my thoughts, then build up a coherent narrative. Ultimately, I decided the most interesting way to connect with people would be to try to write a memoir. So I began remembering and recording vignettes, putting them into order and finding their shape.

The best way to ensure that my writing would be readable was to share it with fellow writers. The feedback from critique groups caused me to rethink my style and adjust my phrasing. This goal of communicating with readers was turning out to be as different from journaling as walking around the house in my pajamas was different from suiting up to stand on a podium. The private act takes place simply and automatically, while the one that is intended for an audience needs attention detail and to concern for social convention.

Of course, informal writing had its advantages. During those relaxed sessions, I was able to catch my inner critics off guard, allowing me to engage my psyche in an authentic discussion. I didn’t want to give that up. And it turned out, I didn’t need to. On the contrary, memoir writing has become a natural extension of my earlier experience. Now, instead of letting my mind roam wherever it wants, I simply direct it towards particular situations. Once I start thinking about a scene, I am back in journal writing mode, allowing words to flow freely.

I still discover interesting phrases, ideas, and memories that I had not thought about before I started. But now, instead of setting my writing aside and forgetting about it, I use it as raw material with which to build a larger work. And editing does not detract from its introspective clarity. In fact, as I polish my draft, I take time to ponder my original thinking, making it clearer not only for my audience but also for me. By the time I finish dressing up my writing in a form that will appeal to readers, I have turned it from an isolated product into a public one.

More memoir writing resources

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

Memoir Writing as a Form of Therapy

By Jerry Waxler

Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn how writing your story can change the world.

I sat in bed, beneath a six foot poster of Picasso’s Guernica taped to my wall. The book I held, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, was probably not on the summer reading lists for most other 17 year-old boys in 1964, but I was on a mission. I needed to figure out how to become an adult. The book by the father of Twentieth Century psychiatry raised more questions about war, peace, and human nature than it answered. Over the next few years, I read many more books, delving into science, psychology, and social theories.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out my place in the world. By my early 20s, I began to meditate, watching my thoughts flow down the river, learning how to let them go. I didn’t need to jump in after each one. In my 40s, I discovered psychotherapy. I became an instant believer, grateful to receive help on my introspective quest. I loved talk therapy so much, I returned to school to earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology.

Finally, by the age of 52, I was fully invested in adulthood and one of my first steps as an adult was to figure out how to help other people. I put out my therapist’s shingle on a busy street and nothing happened. Few people were willing to spend money to tell me their most intimate thoughts. It turns out talk therapy is not for everyone. Frustrated in my desire to help, I searched further, trying to understand how I could help. By this time, well into midlife, the center of my curiosity shifted gradually from knowledge of ideas to connections with people.

Writing gathers, shapes, and then shares

My transition from knowledge to  communication started many years earlier. I wrote regularly in a journal. The flow of words on paper soothed my agitated mind, an experience shared by many journal writers. Journaling allows sentences to pour from the cloud of unknowing, allowing you to verbalize what you didn’t even know you were thinking. Natalie Goldberg, arguably the most influential writing teacher of our era, suggests that powerful writing emerges from deep within our spiritual and emotional core. When such authentic feelings burst from their hidden places, we feel a lift and clarity.

Entering the Twenty First Century, I was stuck in this puzzle. Filling journals  pleased me, but without an understanding storytelling, I was powerless to please readers. Then I stumbled on the rumbles of the Memoir Revolution. I noticed memoirs appearing in bookstores and talk shows. I began to read them and my questions about therapy and life journey snapped into place.

Memoirs push us towards the heart of civilization

Each memoir taught me about the workings of an author’s life. I started looking into this system and experimented with it myself. By pouring my life into a story, I saw the boundaries and definition and shape of myself. And the most exciting thing about memoir writing is that I can share it with others.

When writing our lives, we have no therapist to offer feedback, to ask us to explain a feeling, or see more deeply into a particular situation. However, in a sense, we have a more natural resource than simply one individual guide. By writing for a broader audience, memoir writers follow the form called Story, with its familiar beginning, middle, and end. The broken thoughts that make no sense begin to take shape. Like assembling a puzzle, the pieces fit together into a continuous whole.

Once a story is on paper, any reader can say if the explanations sound complete. How do they know? Because by following the ancient principles of storytelling, memoirs push us to organize experiences into the structure civilization has been teaching us since the beginning of time.

Life into myth, life into literature

Until I read the work of the scholar Joseph Campbell, I never realized stories were so important. I thought books and movies were just for entertainment, the evening news was just for information, and literature classes just allowed us to admire the expressions of previous centuries.

Thanks to Joseph Campbell’s work, I know that stories are everywhere, and that we use them to discover fundamental insights into the human condition. Through his interpretation, I realize that memoirs are exactly the tool I’ve been looking for. By reading them, I understand the shape of another person’s life. By writing, I develop a deeper understanding of my own.

Perhaps when people write memoirs, they are participating in the original therapy. Sigmund Freud apparently thought so, since his technique consisted of asking clients to tell stories about themselves. Now as I learn to tell my own stories, I see how my life works, and finally discover the river into which my years have been pouring me all along. Memoir writing is a social form of therapy, joining us through understanding ourselves and our relationship to each other.

Note: This entry is a rewrite of an essay first posted on September 28, 2007

Notes
While talk-therapy is studied in the psychology department, literature is studied elsewhere. So combining the form of language art known as “story” with the psychology art of healing the self does not fit nicely into an academic framework. But there are those independent thinkers within academia who make the bridge.

For a more literary explanation of how memoirs heal, read the fantastic book Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo, a literature professor at Hunter college. The book immerses you in the way memoir writing heals.
Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo

For more about research into the psychology of talking and writing, see:

Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by James W. Pennebaker

For more about cognitive therapy, google for Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, two of the founders of that movement.

For the brain science of cognitive work, see Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz book on combating OCD with cognitive methods.
Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior by Jeffrey M. Schwartz

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 the cultural passion for memoirs, and reasons you should write your own, read my book Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire, available on Amazon. Click here for the eBook or paperback.

Link isolated anecdotes into a story with the power of your beliefs

By Jerry Waxler

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

A memoir starts with a single anecdote. Then another, and another. In our imagination, we know these events formed our life. But other people can’t read our imagination. They can only read what’s on the page. We must transform the anecdotes into a compelling story. The memoir writer’s job is to discover the binding that will bring the reader from one event to the next. One place to look for this continuity is in your beliefs. Beliefs are important. They influence our decisions and shape our mood and emotion. And yet few writing classes explore the impact of ideas and beliefs.

To see how ideas can influence a life, see my essay about the beliefs that changed Henry Louis Gates’ attitude towards girls. In today’s essay, I explore this strategy further by looking within a series of my own anecdotes for the underlying beliefs that could help pull them together into a story.

High School Trolley

My own school, Central High in Philadelphia, drew academically inclined boys from all over the city, so at the end of the day each of us went off in different directions. Sitting by myself on the trolley, a pack of boys piled in from a nearby Catholic High School. They all knew each other and they shouted and laughed far more boisterously than the studious kids I knew. Even though they never bullied me, nor did they seem to be bullying each other, I kept very still. When I reached my stop, I nonchalantly pulled the cord to signal the driver, and squeezed my way to the door. It slapped open and I stepped down, safe again on a quiet street in familiar territory.

Brainstorm underlying ideas
I look more closely at my thoughts and feelings in this scene. What can I learn about my trust in people, my fragile pride, my ethnic identity, and the way a city kid could feel vulnerable in a crowd, hoping to remain invisible.

Freshman year debate
In Freshman year, I was a thousand miles from home, living in a high-rise dormitory at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a sprawling campus with thirty thousand students. Some upper classmen were visiting the dorm to debate the U.S. action in Vietnam, while the mainly freshman residents crowded in to the meeting room to listen. “The U.S. government is using Vietnam as an excuse to test its weapons. We shouldn’t be there.” “Oh, yeah? You’re a fool. If we don’t stop communism in Vietnam, it will spread and take over the world.”

I tried to find my own truth amidst their battle of ideas. I could barely keep up. How did these people know so much? And why were they filled with so much intensity? What did it all mean?

Sophomore Year
At the end of my freshman year, I went home to a quiet summer in Philadelphia, working as an assistant in a medical research lab, and working in my dad’s drugstore on weekends. In the fall, I returned to Madison. Amidst the hordes walking to and from class, I saw Kathy Bridgman, one of the only girls I had dated the previous year. The date didn’t go well. I had become so nervous I had to cut it short, and never went out with her again. Now, our eyes met, we smiled tentatively, and kept walking.

Walking with the crowd, I felt a  little lonely. Seeing Kathy tipped me off balance, reminding me of my social incompetence. How would I survive three more years?

Junior Year
A year later, in the fall of 1967, my hair in a frizzy mop, and sporting bushy sideburns, I approached a group of students who were gathering to block a classroom. By now, I had decided to join the protesters. Together we would alter the course of history. I crowded into a hallway of the Commerce Building, packed tightly, arms locked together. After we had been there for a while, police broke out the plate glass entry-way, stormed in and swung their clubs with force. Many students went to the hospital, including the girl who stood next to me. She needed emergency surgery for a ruptured uterus. The violence I had witnessed disturbed me. I had started out full of hope and ended more confused than ever.

What ideas drove me to protest? What other ideas drove the police to fight back with such violence? What happened to me, as my ideas shattered along with the day’s events?

Senior Year
For most of my senior year, I stayed alone in my apartment. Depressed, I skipped as many classes as possible. I was falling off the edge of my ambition, and collapsing into myself.

Search for the ideas
As these scenes first occurred to me, they seemed isolated. Now, by looking for continuity, I recognize the way crowds worked in my mind. I had always been fascinated by mobs in history. Now I could see that my academic curiosity was really about me. I was constantly looking for the balance between my desire to be inside a crowd, and my desire to be alone.

My Coming of Age was beset by this tension. In high school, I started out as a nerd, very much alone. Then at the university, I jumped in to crowds, deeper and deeper, until I felt stripped of my individuality. I lost my momentum and collapsed back into myself. Now, to collect the events and find a conclusion, I need to show how a more balanced understanding of groups redeemed me, filled me, and brought me back to life.

These anecdotes have not yet formed a story, but now I feel the dramatic tension that links one to the next, providing the seeds of an emotionally authentic and hopefully powerful tale, transforming isolated bits of memory into a story that will hold a reader’s attention from beginning to end.

Writing Prompt
Look at some of the anecdotes in your notebook. See if you can tease out the ideas that added power to each scene and linked it to the next. What additional background will offer the reader a greater understanding of your emotions and decisions?

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays 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 step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

His Relationship to Girls Changed in this Scene

By Jerry Waxler

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

Henry Louis Gates grew up in a small town in West Virginia in the 1950s where he was taught he shouldn’t associate with girls until he married one. Then a fractured hip landed him in a hospital in a university town 60 miles away. During his protracted stay, with his leg suspended in traction, he was befriended by a minister who let him in on the good news that in some forms of Christianity, God and girls can peacefully coexist. By the time his hip healed, his mind had opened to a more liberal set of rules than the ones he had been taught as a child.

After I finished reading Gates’ memoir, “Colored People” I tried to understand why I related so empathetically with his life, and I kept returning to that scene in the hospital, which drew me in so vividly I felt I too had stopped by to encourage him to live as fully as possible. The more I think about the scene, the more power I find in it.

Distance
One thing that makes the scene memorable is the hospital’s distance from his home. He traveled far away to find wisdom, a story element that has echoes in many of the great stories of our culture, like Homer’s Odyssey, or the Wizard of Oz. I too left home, traveling a thousand miles away to college in order to find my own deeper meaning. So I feel an intuitive rapport with this notion that leaving town stimulates deeper thought.

Writing Prompt
What part of your memoir took place far from home? What realizations did you have on your journey?

Discomfort
His broken hip hurts, and his body is being stretched by traction. He also worries about falling behind in school, and wishes he was playing with his friends. These physical and emotional discomforts generate compassion, illustrating the lesson writing coaches have been telling me for years; discomfort and tension help readers relate to the protagonist.

When beginning memoir writers first explore memories, we may not know what to do with unsettling moments. Most of our lives we have skated around the regrets, traumas, weaknesses. But good memoir writing is different from the breezy overview you might tell a new acquaintance at a party. Memoir writing digs deeper, searching for the material that will convey an authentic account of your journey, complete with ups and downs.

Writing Prompt
In your own memoir, what scenes of physical or emotional pain can draw the reader in to caring about you?

Mysterious Strangers
Regular visits from kind, supportive adults brings this scene to life. A doctor realized how lonely Gates was, and stayed to play chess. A minister talked to him about religion and growing up. What a lovely gift these strangers offered Gates, not only giving him the comfort of companionship, but also helping him understand some things about life.

Writing Prompt
What advisors have helped you shift your beliefs? It could be a word from a stranger, as it was in Henry Louis Gates’ young life. Or an uncle, mentor, friend, teacher, or book. Write your ideas before you received the advice and after. Describe the scene when your idea-altering experience took place.

My writing example
I was working on a computer project at my first “real” dayjob at United Engineers. Then the project was canceled and I was crestfallen. A grizzled old engineer said to me, with a twinkle in his eye, “Nolo bastardo carborundum.” I looked puzzled. He said, “It’s fake-latin for ‘Don’t let the bastards wear you down.'” I roared with laughter, and discovered that with a little wisdom, a dash of humor, and the supporting hand of a fellow human being, you can get through situations that otherwise could make you miserable.

The impact ideas have on life
Before he went into the hospital, Gates believed that being around girls was the devil’s work. After talking to a visiting minister, he believed that God was fine with girls. This is an exciting example of the power of ideas. With hardly any external action, a change of mind profoundly influenced his goals and choices.

Ideas have always played an important role in my own life. In high school I believed I needed to accumulate knowledge in order to become an adult, so I studied hard. After a year in college, my idea changed. I believed it was up to me to fix the world, so I protested. By the end of those four years, my idea changed again. I believed that my actions didn’t have any influence on the world, and I collapsed into a tangle of despair. When I was 24, I stumbled upon a spiritually-oriented set of ideas that let me steer through the extremes. I believed what I did mattered to the people in my life, and that was enough to get me back on my feet and into the game of life. At each stage, my ideas affected the way I felt and the path I chose.

Yet, despite the crucial role that ideas played in my own life, I rarely hear them mentioned in writing courses. In this age of cinema and television, story writers are taught to focus on action. But that skips over one of the most important things in human experience, the way we think. Storytellers know the importance of the human thought-process, and for eons have been weaving their protagonist’s ideas into the action. Now I have to train myself to do the same.

I sift through piles of anecdotes. Taken one by one, these individual incidents do not add up to a compelling whole, so I look for the sequence that, like DNA encoding, binds isolated events together, maintaining forward motion while revealing inner truth. I believe to find the links between the episodes, we need to pay attention to our mental process.

Ideas told us what choices are available, and which ones are best. Ideas created the expectations of what was “supposed” to happen, and these expectations lead to our disappointment or joy. Ideas defined our judgment of other people. Discover within your ideas the forces that shaped you, and can shape the most compelling story.

Writing Prompt
Identify a few key ideas that drove you. Watch how they changed over time. For example, your religious ideas guide you through ethical choices. Your ideas about psychology helped you overcome barriers between people. Perhaps you decided to trust people instead of hate them, or realized that forgiveness helps the forgiver as much as the ‘forgivee.’ See if you can find specific moments or scenes when these ideas changed.

In a future essay, I’ll experiment with scenes from my own memory, and brainstorm ways that the scenes and the ideas interact.

Note
For more about Henry Louis Gates’ contribution to African American Literature, try this link.

See the classic text on the relationship between beliefs and mental well being, “Existential Psychotherapy” by Irvin D. Yalom

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.

Doreen Orion’s brilliant memoir about last year’s midlife crisis

by Jerry Waxler

When Doreen Orion’s husband noticed they were getting older, he suggested they buy a recreational vehicle, take a year off from work and drive across the country. She fought the idea at first. (What’s a story without some sort of conflict?) It sounded cramped, and she would only be able to take a hundred pairs of shoes. Eventually she gave in, went on the trip and wrote about it in this delightful memoir, “Queen of the Road.”

When I first started studying memoirs, one question I asked was “Are travel books really memoirs?” It seems like cheating, since the events just took place last year. But upon reflection and further reading, I have discovered that books like this one are lovely containers for musings and sharing of the author’s life experience. So if this is cheating, give me more.

In fact, by understanding how she put her book together, I see the goal of a memoir. It is designed to take you inside a real person’s experience of life. Inside the author’s point of view, we see what they see and how they see it. It’s the closest thing to mind-melding we can get on this planet, and if the author sees interesting things in a fun way, we enjoy the experience. Doreen Orion satisfies these goals fabulously.

As a traveler, she sees interesting stuff. Traveling across country provides endless opportunities for description, so like any memoir writer, she had to select the scenes that will add up to a good read. Her choices tend towards a mix of “famous yet quirky” like the vast Wall Drugstore in South Dakota, a huge mountain-carved statue of Chief Crazy Horse, and that strange place a guy built in Florida in the 1920’s out of chunks of Coral. (see my notes below for more about these travel details.)

Her observations inside the bus are just as interesting as what took place outside. She has some great scenes with her husband, while he drives and she sits there with the dog and cats. She keeps it interesting by playing up her fear of crashing, rolling, and smashing when they approach overpass or hit a bump. She portrays her phobias with grace and humor.

Within this mix we are working through Doreen’s midlife crisis. Since I (along with a few million boomers) am recently discovering the weird fact that I keep getting older every day, midlife is a topic that is particularly interesting. Considering that both Doreen and her husband are psychiatrists, she could have applied a lot of analytical fire power, but instead of getting all heavy about it, she just has fun.

So let’s see. It’s a midlife crisis book. A travel book. A memoir. A romantic comedy. An introduction to the RV lifestyle. It even has cats and dogs. This tremendous variety becomes one of its most intriguing stylistic features. And it’s a story. Her scenes add up nicely to give me a picture of the whole trip. She lets me feel the rhythm of their day: sleeping late; socializing with neighbors in the RV camp where everyone is just passing through; unhitching their tow-along Jeep to do some sightseeing; and then back on the road, bouncing along, navigating, and making jokes to pass the time.

And that brings up a valuable lesson for writers. Just as important as the fun things she sees is the fun way she describes them. Her style is engaging and keeps the pages turning, a crucial requirement for any publishable book. I always get in trouble with the literati when I say things like this, but Doreen Orion’s memoir reminds me of Shakespeare’s plays, at least in one regard. To appeal to a mixed audience, Shakespeare laced the dialog with sophisticated innuendos for the intellectuals and gags to keep everyone guffawing. Orion does the same thing in Queen of the Road. She’s funny.

Within this simple premise of a travel book about two people at midlife, there are hidden a number of clever layers that create a wonderful read as well as a wealth of ideas that you might be able to apply to your own memoir. In fact, I find so many aspects of the memoir enjoyable and informative that when I tried writing them all, I ran out of time before I ran out of ideas. In future posts, I’ll have more to say about the many lessons from Doreen Orion’s Queen of the Road.

Writing Prompt
Write two synopses of your memoir. The outside story will describe events in the world. The inside story will describe emotions, such as fear, hope, and disappointment. Each of these stories should feel like a journey, with a beginning, middle and end.

Note:
About 20 years ago, I saw a documentary on public television about a guy who had built a sort of artistic compound, out of thousand pound blocks of cut Coral. I was intrigued by the weird fact that no one understood how this man moved this big rocks without any equipment. When I was in Florida, I went to see this strange out-of-the-way tourist attraction myself, and I was delighted to read Doreen Orion’s view of the place. Here is a note I found on the web with a link to the full article.

The Secrets of Coral Castle
Coral Castle in Homestead, Florida, is one of the most amazing structures ever built. In terms of accomplishment, it’s been compared to Stonehenge, ancient Greek temples, and even the great pyramids of Egypt. It is amazing – some even say miraculous – because it was quarried, fashioned, transported, and constructed by one man: Edward Leedskalnin, a 5-ft. tall, 100-lb. Latvian immigrant. Working alone, Leedskalnin labored for 20 years – from 1920 to 1940 – to build the home he originally called “Rock Gate Park” in Florida City.

Crazy Horse Statue
During the 1930’s, Chief Henry Standing Bear watched in silence as faces of great white leaders emerged from the ancient granite of Mount Rushmore in his ancestral Sioux homeland: George Washington in 1930, Thomas Jefferson in 1936, Abraham Lincoln in 1937 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1939. Finally, in the fall of 1939, the Sioux leader wrote an appeal to a Connecticut sculptor who had worked on the monument: ”My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.”

Half a century and eight million tons of rock after the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, acted on that appeal, the defiant eyes of Chief Crazy Horse once again glare across the Black Hills of South Dakota. One year from now, on June 3, 1998, sculptors plan to dedicate an 87-foot-tall version of his fearsome visage, a monument taller than the Great Sphinx of Egypt and higher than the heads of Mount Rushmore, 17 miles away.

Memoirs as a journey from blindness to sight

By Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

David Sheff’s memoir “Beautiful Boy” oscillates between the uplifting joy of his son’s Coming of Age, and the tragedy of his son’s tragic fall into addiction to crystal meth. All the ugly stuff is there, how Nic lied, broke in and stole from his own parents and neighbors, slept in alleys and drug houses but refused help. And then there were the drug-free periods when this beautiful boy was back, a delightful human being, full of creative spirit and enormous promise.

Sheff, a professional journalist, recounted his son’s self-destructive journey, starting with the first suspicions. Then came the confrontations, the efforts to control his son’s behavior, and the gut wrenching worry. The horrible fact is that millions of parents ask themselves every day or even every hour, “Where is my child?” “Will this be the call from the police?” “What must I do to stop the downward slide?” “Should I pay for another round of rehab, or is that last relapse a sign that I must write this child out of my life?”

The book has all the elements of a compelling drama. There is the author’s loving second wife, and their two sweet younger children. There is the constant anxiety, and the play by play experience of watching the son grow up, and then fall apart. Sheff applies his journalism skills to report on the special hazards of methamphetamine addiction: the high rate of relapse after rehab; the irrational behavior of the addict when craving the drug or under its influence; the denial and lying. And then, the experience begins to take a toll on David Sheff himself.

It’s no secret that stress undermine health, and sure enough, the author’s extended periods of frantic worry almost kill him. About two thirds of the way through the book David has a life threatening brain hemorrhage. Until then, Nic’s father and step-mother had been going to Al-Anon meetings and hearing that they cannot change the addict. The addict himself is the only one who can do that. Al-Anon’s message is that the people around the addict need to figure out how to take care of themselves. But a parent’s job is to take care of a child. Right? So while hearing the Al-Anon messages they had not yet embraced them. Now, after the hemorrhage, they have no choice. At last, we remember this memoir is by the father, and now the story shifts inward to his own introspective journey.

Nic’s biological mother had played only a minor role through the course of the book. David rarely spoke to her, except to make arrangements to hand Nic back and forth between the two homes, one with dad in northern California during summer and the other with mom in southern California during the school year. When Nic started disappearing, they called each other to get information about where he might be.

Three pages from the end of the book, Nic’s biological parents have their first therapy session together. It turns out that they went through a bitter divorce when Nic was little more than a toddler. I try to understand what it felt like to be Nic, raised by parents who resented each other and who lived hundreds of miles apart.

I don’t know whether to laugh in relief or cry in rage that it has taken this much anguish to force these two people into a therapy session with their son. I, as do most therapists, believe that all the members of a family influence each other. With his two parents split apart, I picture Nic split apart inside himself, too. It must have taken a superhuman effort to hold these warring parts of himself together.

For most of the book, I was sucked into the premise that it was all about Nic. When will he come back? Will he completely resolve the addiction? But that’s the son’s journey. I finally realize this is David Sheff’s’ memoir. I want to understand more about his inner world. Will he awaken psychologically and spiritually, so he can offer his love to his two younger children and his wife, and stay centered, healthy, and supportive himself? David Sheff’s inner journey begins close to the end of the book and runs out of room. After finishing Beautiful Boy, I could see that dad was just getting started.

I felt a little cheated that it took the author so long to start looking within himself. Then I look at my pile of memoirs and realize that most of the authors continue through the darkness for a really long time. Dani Shapiro in “Slow Motion” took forever to realize she was destroying herself. Jeanette Walls in “Glass Castle” took forever to grow up and get away from the clutches of her weird parents. Frank McCourt had to grow up and get away from his destructive father in “Angela’s Ashes.” Jim McGarrah had to fight in a war, and then go home to figure out how to heal in “A Temporary Sort of Peace.” William Manchester in his World War II battle memoir “Goodbye Darkness” first had to show us his demons, before finally coming to terms with them in the final chapters.

Despite the fact that David Sheff’s knowledge of himself remained hidden for so long, it did finally force itself to the surface. This long climb, known as the Character Arc, creates hope, letting me know that through the circumstances of life, the character is becoming a better, smarter, deeper person. This journey the author has taken through the course of his memoir fulfills my faith in the human experience – that if we keep hacking at it we will end up smarter by the time we die than when we started. This faith is one of the unspoken agreements we have with the authors of our books. We conspire together to promote this lovely truth about life, that in living we learn and grow, or as stated more poetically in the lyrics of Amazing Grace, “I once was blind but now I see.”

Writing Prompt – Character Arc
As you look for a structure for your life story, your job is to find a meaningful segment or point of view that will provide the reader with a compelling experience. One way to look for this segment or point of view is to find the lessons contained within it. Of course, your end result does not need to beat the reader over the head with such a lesson but if you can find this Character Arc, and hold it in mind, it can help develop a compelling time frame and structure for your memoir. Name the life lessons you think you have drawn from your experiences. For each one, brainstorm how it might fit as a template for your memoir.

Writing Prompt – Drugs and alcohol
While the horrific downward slide of David Sheff’s son is hopefully a minority experience, millions of people are affected by substances. Often the abuser creates a wall of denial, convincing him or her self that they can handle it and it doesn’t affect anyone else. Write an anecdote about how you or people in your life have been affected by substances. If you have a romantic notion of your own use when you were younger, write the experience from your parents’ or partner’s eyes. If you were deeply affected by someone else’s abuse, write a story seeing what that experience might have looked like from their eyes.

Note

David Sheff’s son Nic also wrote a memoir, called “Tweak” about his experience as an addict. I am just getting started on it. “Tweaked” is the slang term that describes the frantic mental state of a methamphetamine high. From what I have read so far, the book is quite explicit and should be eye opening about the other side of the drama.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

“Good shame” improves memories

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

One Friday night in 2007, I drove 50 miles to Philadelphia to hear a lecture by John Bradshaw, the author of bestsellers “Homecoming” and “Healing the Shame that Binds You.” He has been writing about shame for so long the Philadelphia Inquirer dubbed him the Shaman of Shame. Despite his world-class credentials, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend an evening learning about this edgy topic when I could be relaxing at home. But curiosity prevailed, and I’m glad I went. The evening’s insights have helped me answer some of the deepest mysteries of my life. My powerful ah-ha resulted from Bradshaw’s simple observation that there are two types of shame.

The nasty variety of shame is the one I have always run away from. This disturbing emotion creates a crashing loss of self-worth. I’ve always hated this feeling so completely that I thought in order to be a good person I had to completely eradicate it from my mind. Experts like Bradshaw believe the self-loathing of shame creates much of the suffering in the world, giving people an excuse to hurt themselves and each other.

The insight Bradshaw offered me was to see that shame also has a positive function. When I see this emotion through Bradshaw’s compassionate eyes I recognize that when it is good, this feeling helps me maintain humility, avoid anti-social behavior, and reel me back from mistakes. Bradshaw uses the analogy of cholesterol, which comes in two forms. The bad one clogs your heart and can kill you, and the good one protects your blood vessels from damage and can save you. This clever analogy has already helped me reformulate my hatred for shame, allowing me to look past its ugly exterior.

This lesson is especially valuable for me now that I am researching my memoir. As I scavenge through the past looking for material, I turn over many rocks, and I don’t always like what I find. My first inclination is to replace the rock and back away. This is an especially enticing option considering the fear, “If you reveal this part of yourself, people will despise you.” If I listen carefully to this warning, I end up hiding all the things that make me human. When I remember my teenage years for example, my mind is clouded by this fear, and I try to stuff my memories back down into the darkness. But I’m tired of running away from own humanity. I want to explore what it has meant to be me. With some exposure to the light, the pain eases and I accept parts of myself I have been avoiding for decades.

Take for example shoplifting. This was especially evil for me, since my dad owned a drugstore. If I thought it through, I would have hated shoplifters. However, as a 12-year-old, I didn’t think it through. And after the deed was accomplished, I didn’t know what to do with the disgust and fear that accompanied each stolen ballpoint pen or candy bar. I buried those feelings, and every time they lurch into view they reduce my sense of self-worth. Nearly fifty years later, in light of Bradshaw’s insight, I look again.

Now I realize feeling disgusted with myself was part of the emotional package that steered me away from that behavior. So now, instead of running away from the memory, I talk myself down from the self-anger, annoyance and secrecy and gradually more details emerge from their dirty hiding place. I see myself furtively glancing over my shoulder. Will I be caught? (How comical that I didn’t know my furtive glances could be interpreted by an intuitive observer.) I listen to my tense, confused, almost dopey thought process, and hear my confusion. “Why am I doing this? It doesn’t feel like me.” I see a young boy experimenting with the rules of property and power. And now I even see hope, because there is an inner voice that is trying to convince me to do better. Shame formerly seemed like a tattoo that would mark me to my dying day. Now I see that it can fade, and I can grow.

While I expand my insight into the relatively innocuous shame of a good boy being bad, there are all sorts memories that can cause memoir writers to shy away from their past, some of them so horrific they seem outside the range of human decency; cheating, betraying, chaos on the battlefield, teenage pranks that went too far, crimes. I recently read a memoir “Ten Points” by Bill Strickland. When he remembered his father’s psychological abuse, he hated not his father but himself. Like many abused children, he thought the situation was his own fault, because if he had tried harder he should have been able to stop the torture. The memories made him feel filthy, and as an adult, he determined to break their hold. His victory came within reach when he realized the horror was “just shame.” Once he found a label, he was able to pry back the curtain and gain control over emotions that threatened to destroy him. His experience is a good example of the positive power John Bradshaw is offering anyone who wants to heal from the pain of humiliation or self-doubt or disgust with their own memories.

I drove down to John Bradshaw’s meeting prepared to face the thing I feared the most. Two hours later, as I walked back to my car, I felt lifted, perceiving hope where there was previously only disgust. I had been given a light that would help me learn from my past, give me more compassion for other people, and would let me share myself with more energy and understanding.

Note:

The John Bradshaw lecture was hosted by Acorn, and produced by Dolores Proto, the director of a recovery house in Philadelphia. Learn more about the Acorn organization here: http://www.foodaddiction.com/ This organization runs programs designed to help people cope with overeating, food addiction, and other shame-based addictions.

For writers, shame holds an additional challenge. Exposing one’s writing in public can feel daunting, especially considering that many writers are shy and would rather stay private. If you are one of the people who like me have resisted publishing because of the shame of shyness and self-exposure, or fear of rejection, see the section in my How to Become a Heroic Writer book about Going Public.

Notes

Click here to see my full review of Bill Strickland’s memoir, Ten Points.

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

Relive your memoir by acting: Pursuit of Happyness

 by Jerry Waxler

I found insight into the power of memoirs from a surprising source, the movie Pursuit of Happyness. The movie is based on a true story about Chris Gardner, down on his luck in San Francisco in 1981. Gardner, played by superstar Will Smith, is working at a dead end sales job that has left him unable to pay his rent. Gardner, a single father, struggles to stop the downward slide into homelessness. Despite his effort, he continues to fall, sleeping on trains, in bathrooms, and shelters. And through a tenacity that is almost incomprehensible in its ferocity, he keeps his wits and determination, striving to provide for himself and his son.

Then he gets a break. He is accepted as a stockbroker trainee at a major financial firm, Dean Witter. But it’s not over yet. He must prove himself before he can get the job. He grips this first rung on the ladder while circumstances continue to pull him down into the abyss. To earn enough money to live, after a full day at Dean Witter he goes out to ply his other sales job, selling diagnostic equipment to doctors. Then he retrieves his kid from daycare, and starts the nightly search for a place to sleep. In the end his tenacity pays off. He is accepted as a stockbroker. It’s based on a true story, and the real man went on to become a millionaire and a social activist.

In the bonus material at the end of the DVD, there is an interview with Chris Gardner that turns this from a good movie into a fascinating exploration of a memoir. When they started filming a movie of his life, the producers asked Gardner, who by this time was a wealthy man, if he would he be able to handle the emotional turmoil of revisiting this humiliating, dark period in his life. He was willing to try, placing himself in an unusual position of watching Hollywood specialists reenact his circumstances. For example, they recreated the day care center where he had to drop off his boy, and designed a set to mimic the station bathroom where he slept when there was no room at the homeless shelter. Through the process Gardner saw his life acted out.

As you organize your thoughts about your own memoir, consider the power of reenactment. You can gain many of the benefits Gardner got, without having a multi-million dollar Hollywood production team. A much more modest effort to act out your past can provide you with surprising insights.

While I don’t have acting or drama experience myself, I have experienced the power of reenactment in a type of therapy group called psychodrama. In this method, without formal props or acting training, the psychodrama leader directs the group through a reenactment. The actors are selected from your fellow group members. As each actor comments on how the drama feels from their own point of view, you find yourself revisiting important scenes in your life, this time accompanied by concerned participants and observers.

If you don’t have access to a psychodrama group, you can achieve insights with a few friends. Organize the scene, and play out the various roles. I’m not talking about stage acting here. No one is going to pay to see it. It’s like a primitive sketch that helps you see things in a new light. You can even do it alone. Imagine the scene yourself, put yourself in each character’s shoes and see what you would say.

Consider this example. I try to remember a scene with my brother. We’re in the basement. He is studying and I am soldering a transistor, helping him build a hi-fi kit. The room is dark, except for the lamps each of us is working under. He is building the hi-fi because he’s moving away to go to Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, which would make him 17 and me 10. I don’t remember the conversation, so I pretend. I say, “Ed, I enjoy helping you. I’m going to miss you.” Now I ask a friend to pretend to be Ed, but the friend doesn’t know what to say. So we switch places. My friend, now playing me, says, “Ed, I enjoy helping you.” Now that I’m sitting in Ed’s chair, I imagine what he would say. I struggle but don’t say anything. As Ed, I’m preoccupied with studying, and nervous and excited about going away. Sitting in his chair helped me understand how he felt. We’re boys. Of course we don’t talk about feelings. Now I’m me again. I feel lonely. I’m glad he’s letting me help him with the soldering.

So what feelings did Chris Gardner report about making a movie of his life? Here’s what he says in the interview at the end of the DVD. “I didn’t know if I was ready for it. But this whole process, this entire production helped me tremendously, by helping me to create, if you will, new memories of San Francisco, instead of the film I had been running in my mind for the last 23 years. It’s part of letting go. It’s been a beautiful experience in that regard.” By revisiting the past, he has relieved some of its pain.

There is a powerful symbolic gesture at the very end of the movie that evokes the mysterious journey through time. Actor Will Smith walks along the street, ready to embark on his new life. Across his path walks the actual man Chris Gardner, successful, and now famous. Smith turns around to look at the person he will become 23 years later.

Writing prompt: Pick a scene in your past that continues to hold mystery and power. To help you write about it, think of it as a stage play, and you are the screenwriter and director. Write stage directions. And then try acting it, either exactly as it happened or improvise to create another way it might have happened.