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.

What to do with regrets in your memoir

by Jerry Waxler

When I remember my life, sometimes I get hot flashes when I stumble on things that make me feel stupid , things I wish had never happened. Regrets can be so uncomfortable they sometimes make me want to run away from my memories altogether. If you feel your regrets are interfering with your desire to write, you have company. We’re in it together. We all have regrets of varying degrees of intensity burning away in our past. And so, even though your regrets are uncomfortable, they offer another lovely benefit to writing your memoir. You will gain a deeper understanding not only into your own mind, but into the inner workings of everyone you know.

This is one of my favorite things about writing memoirs. It brings you face to face with the human story. Yes, it’s true that you can only directly see the one human story that you happen to have lived. But through this laboratory experiment you can learn so much about what makes people tick.

To explain how to use regret to go deeper into your very human condition, I’d like to offer an example, but this is as hard for me to talk about as it is for anyone. For the sake of explaining this idea, I’ll overcome my self loathing and admit that when I was little, I took some coins out of my older brother’s drawer. It was stealing, and there it is, like a zit on my memory, making me feel like a thief, making me feel like less of a person than I aspire to be. Now let’s look at the variety of options available to me as I tiptoe around my initial reluctance to even admit it ever happened.

Even though I’m embarrassed, I could just tell the story. That way, I get it off my chest. And I hope that people reading about it will assume I was just a normal kid. That’s exactly my attitude towards other people who tell about their childhood transgressions. Why shouldn’t they feel that way about me?

Once I’ve written about the incident, I can think it through. Why did I do it? What was I thinking? How did my actions affect other people? What did I wish I could have told people, or how could I have paid for the crime? My brother was probably hurt and felt a little less safe with his stuff. I learned from my experiment in dishonesty that when I stole things I felt bad. That was part of my training as a young man.

After writing it and thinking about it, I could delete it. There’s no rule that says I have to make public every darn thing that happened to me. If I don’t like the way it looks on paper, I could delete it and move on.

I am the writer, and this gives me enormous flexibility to soften the impact of the incident with phrasing and positioning. When I first stole those coins, I felt terrible guilt. I was betraying my older brother. If I downplay the guilt, and look closely at the human elements, I find that all those big emotions, the sense of betrayal, fear, and guilt, flooded me as a child, but don’t sound like such a big deal now. When I look back, the act itself was almost ludicrously simple. Once he found out, I gave the money back. All that remained were my miserable feelings.

In the process of writing, insights creep into your story. You are applying today’s wisdom to help you explain actions from the past, and in the process, the regrets lose some of their power. You don’t feel like such a miserable cad. Veils of regret lift and you see the incident more clearly. If you want to learn more about your self, you can even use these intense moments as beacons, lighting your way into the interior of your psyche. As you unravel the impact of one, it will lead you to other glimpses into the dynamics of your past.

Look for other examples when that particular power expressed itself. If you stole something, talk about your guilt, about owning stuff, about how stealing was so important it made it into the top ten commandments. Talk about how you hated it when someone stole something from you. Talk about the tension and confusion you felt as a little boy, unsure of your role, unsure of yourself, and how money represented power, and how the coins you stole weren’t just any coins. They were steel pennies your brother had collected from the cash drawer at dad’s drugstore. Coin collecting was a special bond your brother shared with dad and you were too young to get into the club. If you took a few of those coins, perhaps you’d get some of the love.

What if you’re not sure whether to write it or not? Be careful, and take your time. Once it’s out on paper, you can never retract it. Bill Clinton stated publicly that he never inhaled marijuana. Since marijuana was illegal, it was his choice not to admit he had broken the law. Jimmy Carter said he lusted in his heart. Admitting his flaw probably improved his public image, showing him as a real human being. But notice that having made these statements, there they are in the public record forever.

If you’ve written about your regrets, you’ve already benefited by thinking them through, seeing nuances, and trying to understand the implications. The increased richness of your memories now belongs to you. And like a pin hole in a balloon, you’ll come back later and find that much of the tension from the old emotions has been deflated. It loses its hold on you. Now it’s just a story. Perhaps some time in the future, you’ll find a perfect time to share it, where fits in with something you are trying to illustrate.

If remembering this experience continues to feel damaging, talk to a therapist and see if you can work it out with help. Regrets are like heavy weights. By letting them go, you can live more fully and energetically today.

Life and Death in Memoir

 by Jerry Waxler

I have enjoyed thousands of stories that involve brutal murder and outright assassination. Why am I so attracted to mayhem, when most of the time my thoughts are no more edgy than wondering what’s for dinner, or what I am going to do tomorrow? It turns out death is closer to everyday life than you might think. Just turn on the news — murders, war, disasters, disease, terrorism.

Even in the most innocuous circumstances, life and death battle under the surface. Take food for example. Fine cuisine sounds like it’s about pleasure and elegance. But that need for food is caused precisely by our need to stay alive. We try to stay as far to the alive side as possible, which results in eating more than we need. But eating too little can cause death. This balance drives so many decisions, even when we’re not thinking about it.

It’s the same thing when we pursue a career. On the surface, we’re driven by many things, by challenge and drudgery, pride and frustration, but we also need food on the table and a roof over our heads. In short, it keeps us alive.

When you tell your own life story, listeners and readers, without necessarily realizing it, are tuned in to the issues that kept you alive, or brought you nearer the edge of death. You can keep them engaged by becoming more aware of these forces, and learn how to insert them into your tale. Here are some examples of the way life and death might enter your memoirs:

If you escaped Hitler’s clutches, your story becomes a fascinating race for your life. But even if you didn’t have such a dramatic escape, look for any instances when death came near. When I faced an aggressive, armed policeman during a 60’s war protest, walked away from a broadside car crash, was mugged by a gang of kids, survived self-imposed starvation when I decided to eat only fruit, sitting peacefully one moment by a campfire and then thrust into panic as flames raced through the parched grass and leaves of the forest floor, I came a closer to the precipice. Children are especially vulnerable, so childhood memoirs like Jeannette Walls’ Glass Castle feel like cliffhangers, as we wonder how those kids are still alive. In Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, some babies lost the fight.

When important people in your life die, these are potential areas of trauma. Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking centers on this confrontation with death. In my life, I have lost my older brother, Ed, when he was 37, and my first cousin, Jules, when he was in his twenties. And there was John Kennedy. How did their deaths affect my life? Since then, my parents died, and friends have died, events that feel like a great, mysterious knot, tying together the forces of life, death, and love.

In war, people kill each other all the time. Even though most wars happen far away, they affect us in so many ways, whether we fought in one, had loved ones go off to war, been caught as a civilian in war, protested war, or fled from war. Whenever war touches your story, it parts the veil between life and death.

When I was sixteen, I read about the Nazi death camps. Only a few years earlier, across an ocean that seemed very small, millions of people had been murdered for being born into the same religion I was. Since then I have watched many people take their groups seriously enough to kill for them. So when you write about the group you are in, or ones you interact with, it might be appropriate to wonder about the deadly nature of group identity.

Look at the faces of sports fans when their team loses. It’s a moment of grief. Games are battles, in which adversaries fight, and the loser of the game symbolically dies. Kids cry over games. Gambling and other addicts step even closer, risking their property and sometimes their lives for the next fix. By conveying this visceral connection in your memoir, between competition or addiction, and the quest for life, your reader will be able to feel its power.

Wrinkles in the skin at first seem a mere cosmetic annoyance. But signs of age remind us that we are not going to live forever. As friends die, you may look more closely at the meaning of life. In fact this quest is a great reason to write your memoir. When you become aware of the dance of life and death, it prods you to dive in deeper to understand the urgency and intensity of your own story. And when you feel this connection, your reader will feel it too.

Memoir writing is a tool for introspection

by Jerry Waxler

Entire epochs of my life, like the decade after I got out of college for example, have disappeared into the haze of the past. And I’m not sure that decade made much sense when I was living through it the first time. The past is strewn behind me in a jumble of memories that won’t go away, but won’t come clear either.

So instead of leaving that pile just sit there and bother me in its messiness, it’s more fun to search through the piles, and turn them into something beautiful and sensible. This exercise of finding the stories in life might seem daunting at first – so many memories, so little structure. But like cleaning up any messy pile, the starting point doesn-t really matter. I could start anywhere.

For example I could take out a photo album and when I feel an emotion stirring, jump into the scene and write about it as if I was there. Or compile a timetable of my life, including dates and short descriptions of major events and transitions. “I was born in 1947. When I was five I went to Pennypacker Elementary School. I walked three blocks to school and then walked home for lunch, everyday for six years.”

Ask yourself questions about the past. You’ll discover remarkable material lurking within your mind. Describe the furniture in your living room. What year did you move? What did you plan to do for a living, and what changed as you grew? Describe your aunts and uncles.

Then add emotion. What frightened you? (Recurring dreams of being chased by dinosaurs.) What did your parents want from you that you could never do right? (Be perfect.) How did it feel when you visited your grandparents? (It felt good when grandmom pulled out her piano music and started playing. It felt bad when she lectured me.) How did you feel at summer camp, or during a big argument? As you gather the information, and turn memories into scenes and time-lines, take a step back and think about how you would pull these disparate elements into a story that would make sense to someone who doesn’t know you.

By seeing it through the lens of a story, you regain so much of who you are. Out of the pile of vague memories emerge a sensibility that can help you organize who you are today. And if you strive to make it a good read, you’ll be taking the next step of your journey, turning yourself into a craftsperson, a storyteller of life.