Turning Journals and Notebooks Into a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

When Rick Skwiot moved to Mexico in the 1980s, he had two goals. He wanted to find himself spiritually and also find his writing voice. Years later, he wrote about the trip in the memoir “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.”

In the first part of this interview I asked Rick to help me understand more about the spiritual aspects of his search. Now in this and following parts, I ask about his literary journey. The book explains that he wanted to be a writer. I wanted to learn more about how he fulfilled those dreams by turning his powerful life experience into a book that invites readers to relive it with him.

Jerry Waxler: You mentioned your writing journals quite a bit, since writing was one of the things you did to pass the time. Explain how you used your writing notebooks while you were in Mexico.

Rick Skwiot: My journals were crucial in my development as a writer. Not only did I record events of my life, but I also, as you suggest, wrote fictional scenes there, experimented with writing styles, penned criticism on the books I was reading, recorded my dreams and more. It was a mishmash of fact and fiction that would likely misinform and mislead any reader other than myself. My journals were a cauldron from which a writer emerged, finally. They also taught me the discipline of writing every day and thinking every day, examining my life and the world around me with a sense of writerly investigation. For a writer, most everything is research and potential material, which makes us such charming companions, half vulture, half snake-in-the-grass.

Jerry: As you were attempting to write the memoir, what help were your original contemporaneous notebooks? How did it feel reading that old material?

Rick: A curious thing occurred regarding the notebooks’ content. I had mined the notebooks/journals years earlier when writing my two novels set in Mexico, and had not revisited them in perhaps ten years. But when I did I found that the fictionalized versions of events, from my novels, had come to be my reality, how I remembered things. My contemporaneous reporting of events shocked me at times, for I had not remembered things that way at all. This showed how unreliable memory (and perhaps a memoir) can be, and alerted me to the power and truth of fiction. I was also surprised by how hungry I was back then. I was on a compulsive quest to find myself, and my journal notes underscore how serious and driven I was, how dead set on saving myself. It was somewhat frightening in retrospect, for I saw what peril I was in at the time, and found myself feeling sympathetic and paternalistic toward my former self.

Jerry: How have your habits and strategies with notebooks changed over the years? How do you use them now?

Rick: Nowadays I don’t keep a regular journal and only start doing so when I am beginning to work on a book. Then I use a notebook to sketch out plot, dialogue, scenes, characters, etc. So it is more of a workbook than a journal. Also, I think my life has become much more mundane–which is a mixed blessing–and doesn’t inspire journal entries. Also, I have come to trust my memory, which is a writer’s capital, his material. I know everything that has happened to me is in my mind, in my conscious or unconscious, and that it will surface in some form when I need it. I noted this in particular when writing my childhood memoir, Christmas at Long Lake. When I began writing a scene and put myself in that place emotionally and, through the imagination, physically, I began to see and remember–the sights, smells, words, feelings–from my childhood. It was in some ways a very moving experience, spending time again, in that way, with my late parents, when they were young and vital. Most bittersweet and affecting for me.

Jerry: Many aspiring memoir writers look at their pile of notes, their many memories, and feelings, and are daunted by the prospect of turning them into a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. What was that like for you, as you tried to find a theme or organization or thread of this book?

Rick: That’s always the most agonizing and daunting part of writing a book, organizing and structuring it. What I try to do, and what I advise my writing students to do, is to think in terms of scenes–as in theater, compressed, meaningful action that takes place in real time at one location with a few important characters, and dialogue that drives the narrative forward and reveals character. I will note down what scenes I feel are obligatory, scenes I know I want in the book, somewhere, or that need to be there. Then I start to organize them in some effective way–whether it’s chronologically, thematically, geographically or whatever. I often do use a schematic in doing this–I draw boxes that represent scenes–so I can see what needs to happen first, what relationships and interconnections there are between various incidents and characters, and so I can easily move things around. Once I arrive at a workable ordering of the scenes, I can write them (or often I write the scenes first and worry later about where they go.) The last thing then is to write the summary and transitions, the authorial intrusions, if any, and needed exposition. Of course this is a very messy and recursive process, and difficult and potentially heartbreaking. You can write the whole book and then see that one particular scene is out of place, so you have to tear the book all apart and do another organization and a lot more work. This was even more daunting in the pre-computer days, when each draft meant having to re-type the whole manuscript. But I was happy to do it, as I thought such rigors weeded out the dilettantes and other writers not as insanely committed as I.

Jerry: There was a rhythm to the way the book was set up, with your initial burst of enthusiasm, some rethinking, then a trip back to the states and the start of a second round. I liked the rise and fall and rise again. It felt organic and natural. This is especially important for writers because the middle of a book is supposed to be the hardest, keeping the energy moving during the “long middle.” It’s hard enough to get the overall structure. You have done an excellent job of finding internal structure too. Talk about how you worked through the material looking for the shape.

Rick: I am gratified that the book’s structure “felt organic and natural,” because it was arrived at after a lot of trial and error and anxiety. Yes, I did labor over it, and it changed shape drastically over the ten years of its gestation. At last–and this came after numerous drafts over the years–I settled on starting the book in the middle of things, at the pivotal and dramatic point when I broke my ankle playing basketball on the Mexican team. Then most of what happens in the first half of the book is told in flashback. This gave me the opportunity to order things thematically and control pacing. Part two, my return to Mexico, is told more chronologically. The key for writers is the get the story going right off the bat, to get and hold the reader’s interest and attention. Once you have some conflict or problem on the table that captivates the reader, then you can begin to layer in some of the needed exposition, in a judicious way. This applies to creative nonfiction as well as fiction. It is perhaps the most difficult thing about writing a book, keeping the narrative driving forward.

End of Part Two

In the next part, I ask more questions about Rick Skwiot’s journey as a writer.

Click here for Part 1 of the interview with Rick Skwiot

Click here for Part 3, A Memoirist Talks About the Backstory of His Memoir

Click here for Part 4 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Tenacity of a Writer

Click here for Part 5 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Novelist or memoirist


Rick Skwiot’s Blog, “New Underground”

Rick Skwiot’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

Healing With Words, Hers and Yours

by Jerry Waxler

Breast cancer occurs with breath-taking frequency. It will strike one in eight American women in their lifetime, making it a present danger for every woman. To understand more about how that feels, I read Diana Raab’s memoir “Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey.” She offers the story of her own journey, detailing the emotional and technical challenges of being diagnosed with cancer, undergoing treatment, and surviving.

Cancer  is a strange way to face death, every bit as deadly as a bullet, but without the suddenness. When it strikes, we look back and realize with horror it has been building under the surface. After the diagnosis, cancer patients must continue with ordinary life, getting through each day with dignity, while death lurks in the wings. And even after the cancer has been eradicated, it is never really final, leaving its mark and requiring ongoing courage.

If breast cancer were to surface in a woman in my life, before now I would have been able to offer general compassion. Now Diana Raab has helped me tune in to the details of the situation. From the perspective of a person who has been diagnosed with the disease, she shows me the demoralizing effects, and also the courage, the community support, and the medical procedures that sustained her. (* see note)

For those readers who must cope with cancer, Raab offers some of the wisdom that helped her survive emotionally. Her most important tool, the one she loves and that has contributed to the title of the book, is her belief in the healing power of writing.

Throughout her illness, Raab wrote in her journal regularly, tapping into her heart and mind and pouring words on to the page. Much later, she decided to share her experience with readers, offering us a chance to grow along with her, witnessing her danger and her strength. For readers who are coping with cancer themselves, she includes writing prompts at the end of each chapter. The blank pages silently invite your words, allowing you to transcend the isolation and wordlessness of cancer.

Once you have written in your journal, you may desire to publish your story or you may not. Many aspiring memoir writers ask “why should I write my story?” While there are many reasons to consider, one factor to take into account is the value your story might have for other people. Consider the support  that Raab has shared with her readers, and then consider offering your own.

In an interview I will post tomorrow, Diana Raab shares more about writing and sharing this aspect of her life.

Diana Raab’s website ||| Diana Raab’s Blog

Diana Raab believes so deeply in the value of journaling, she edited an entire book on the subject. ” Writers and their Notebooks” contains essays by a number of writers who share their habit of writing in a journal. The essays describe a wide variety of uses for keeping a journal, including self-development, finding a better writing voice, and developing material for publishable pieces. I highly recommend this book for every writer.

(*) Another excellent memoir about a woman who had to traverse these dangerous and troubling experiences was Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s book “Sky Begins at your Feet.” See my interview with Caryn by clicking here.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

Interview with Robert Waxler, English Professor and memoir author, Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

Robert Waxler and his wife Linda wrote the memoir “Losing Jonathan” about the death of their eldest son. Robert Waxler’s second memoir, “Courage to Walk” is about his younger son who suffered a paralyzing spinal infection. Both books explore the father’s love for his sons, informed by his lifelong love for literature. In addition to being an English Literature professor at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, Waxler also co-founded the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature” which provides convicted criminals with the opportunity to read and write their way to a deeper understanding of social responsibility.

In this first of a three part interview, I ask Waxler about his process of writing the two memoirs.

Note: Robert Waxler and I are not related.

Jerry Waxler: You wrote two books involving your relationship to your sons. What was it like writing a second memoir? What was easier and what was harder the second time? What knowledge did you bring with you from the experience of writing the first?

Robert Waxler: The love a father feels for a son is beyond the boundaries of language as is the loss of a son, but both books try to capture that sense of love and the sense of mortality that we all share. When I wrote about the loss of my oldest son, Jonathan, I started by sitting outside on my back porch and without any specific purpose or direction let language flow out of me into a notebook. It was about a week after Jonathan’s death, and I wanted to try to remember as much as possible about the battle he had fought the last year of his life. It was a compulsion, I suppose. I had never written this kind of narrative and was not thinking about publishing the story. That was the summer of 1995. I wrote about 50 pages, as I recall, in a very short time, and then didn’t look at it again for a couple of years. I couldn’t.

Finally, about five years later, I began to think that perhaps this story could help other families in similar distress, and so I returned to it, shaped it, tried to find the meaning in it, and published it in the Boston Globe Magazine on Father’s Day in 2001. The response to the story was overwhelming, and I realized that a book might make a difference to others. It was also one way of keeping the memory of Jonathan alive. It took me another couple of years to get the language and the story to a point where I felt satisfied with it, as close to the truth of the experience as I was capable of saying it, in other words. It was important to me to make sure that readers saw Jonathan as a complex human being in the midst of a difficult struggle, that they felt the sense of love and the sense of loss that all families could experience, that this story could be their story as well.

The writing of the second book about the sudden spinal trauma of my younger son, Jeremy, was easier in some ways and harder in other ways. I started writing in a notebook right away, not because I was thinking about publishing a book, but because I knew that writing itself would be helpful for me, and I wanted a record of the experience and my thoughts about the experience. I wrote as the events unfolded, and I had no clear idea, from day to day, how these experiences would work out, whether Jeremy would recover, the extent of his recovery, the daily impact on all of us in the family, and so on. In addition, Jeremy’s suffering was compounded for me by the haunting memories of what had happened to Jonathan.

Jeremy’s recovery is a miracle to me now, but it took a while for that to become clear to me. Compared to “Losing Jonathan,” “Courage to Walk” was written over a relatively short period of time, and it captures the curve of the family experience as it unfolds over a relatively short period of time as well. In many ways, though, I think it is a more complex and probing story and meditation. It is written with a great deal of care. I hope people will find it helpful.

I did make extensive journal notes for “Courage to Walk,” which I suppose is somewhat unorthodox, in this context. It takes shape through my consciousness, my imagination, my reading, my reflection on the journal material, etc. It is, as a couple of people have suggested, a mix of medical thriller and meditation. That’s part of its uniqueness, I believe. It is very real, at times, but it has its surrealistic dimension as well. I hope it has a spiritual quality too.

JW: After reading your two memoirs, I could almost visualize you as a character in a novel. Did you ever think about your portrayal of yourself in that way?

RW: I take that as a compliment. I hope that readers get to know the characters in these memoirs as well as they get to know the characters in a novel. I have an old-fashioned sense that we can learn a lot from the characters in stories if we can visualize them, even identify with them, feel what they feel. The protagonist (me) in “Losing Jonathan” is the same person that appears in “Courage to Walk,” a father agonizing over a son, a college professor in love with his family (wife and children) and with great literature, a man who wants to be helpful but at times seems obsessed and at times is clearly powerless, a person who is mortal and vulnerable, as we all are. In “Courage to Walk,” though, I think I am perhaps more weighted down and obsessed, in an ironic way, at times, less hopeful than I was in “Losing Jonathan” –probably because of what happened to Jonathan. The irony of course is that “Courage to Walk” is much more upbeat in the end than “Losing Jonathan,” although both books, I hope, celebrate the human spirit. I think that my son Jeremy is the real hero of “Courage to Walk.”

To read Part 2 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

To read Part 3 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler
To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.

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 about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, 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.

A diary for social change. A young girl’s terrible experience of war.

by Jerry Waxler

Zlata Filopovic was an ordinary 10 year-old girl, living in Sarajevo, a cosmopolitan city in Eastern Europe. Her family was well educated, and had warm friendships with neighbors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. In 1992, in the name of ethnic purity, armed men encamped in the mountains overlooking the city and began a protracted campaign of terror. Artillery shells destroyed homes, businesses, and schools. Zlata’s apartment building lost electricity and gas so the family had to burn furniture to stay warm. When their water was cut off, her father risked sniper fire to fetch supplies from a distribution center. She stopped going to school, stopped playing outside. The family abandoned the rooms that faced the mountains. Month by month her life descended farther into chaos.

And day by day, she wrote in her diary short, innocent, and sweet entries to record the events, the things she lost, her friendships, and longings. Diaries are usually too introspective and too fragmented to add up to a readable book. Somehow Zlata Filopovic’s diary transcended these limits. Perhaps the readability of her entries arose naturally from the war itself. Dramatic tension erupted when, frightened by explosions, her family scrambled to the basement, not knowing how long they would be there or what would be left of their world when they emerged.

French journalists discovered that Zlata was recording her daily observations and passed the information along to publishers. Billing Zlata Filopovic as a “modern Anne Frank,” the book “Zlata’s Diary” sold out of its first run of 50,000 in France.

When she started writing, all she wanted was a way to record her private thoughts. Once published, the book became an instrument of social awareness, publicizing the plight of the Sarajevo people. The French authorities arranged her escape to Paris where she became an international spokesperson for the war’s assault upon innocence.

Erin Gruwell, a high school teacher in Los Angeles, instructed her class to read “Zlata’s Diary.” To Gruwell’s students, the racial hatred that had ruined Zlata’s childhood sounded eerily similar to their own gang infested neighborhoods. Literature intersected with life when Zlata accepted an invitation to visit Los Angeles to speak to the students. Her story exploded their neighborhood boundaries and instantly catapulted them into a sense of participation in a larger world. They in turn wrote about the meeting in their own diaries.

Their inspiring entries relating the war in Sarajevo to the undeclared war on the streets of Los Angeles eventually became published in another book, “The Freedom Writers Diaries.” The book was made into a movie, thus making the unlikely link between a little girl suffering a war in Eastern Europe and the millions of American kids and teachers who have been inspired by the Freedom Writers Diaries.

Zlata’s book expanded my world, too, offering an intimate, multi-cultural portrayal of a child trying to grow up amidst hardship, prejudice, and violence. The lesson that Zlata taught in her diary entries was that war stinks. There’s another lesson, as well. Through writing, one person, alone in her room, can reach the world.

Writing Prompt

What main “lesson to the world” do you think readers might draw from your life experience? Will it be a cautionary tale, a lesson of survival, or an appeal for harmony and empathy?

Most stories contain many messages. For example, in addition to a prayer for peace, Zlata’s story also portrays the wisdom of youth, the love of a mutually respectful family and community, companionship of a pet, and how people survive under extreme conditions. Extend your imagination and write about other images and ideas your readers might experience through your eyes.


Amazon page for Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo by Zlata Filipovic

Click here for my essay: Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

Carol O’Dell kept a diary, while caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. Writing in the diary helped her stay sane, and afterwards, she used the immediacy of the writing to help her write her excellent book about the experience, “Mothering Mother.”   Read mhy essay and interview on Mothering Mother:

Memoir about Caregiving for Mother offers lessons for life

Today is the first day of the rest of your memoir

By Jerry Waxler

It’s July 4, 2007 and I’m sitting in an outdoor pavilion at a new local shopping mall, writing in my journal while I wait for my wife. The pavilion is empty, perhaps because all the shoppers are getting ready for the fireworks or scared away by the rain. A few moments ago I was in the bookstore thumbing through a book called “Come to your senses.” The author, Jon Kabat-Zinn, says that by tuning in to sensory information, those things we see, feel, hear, smell, and taste, we become more alert and can connect more genuinely with our world.

Creative writing teachers offer the exact same advice. By writing specific sensory details, you invite the reader in. As my pen glides across the page of the spiral bound notebook, the electric air caresses my skin. I feel almost confused by the air’s cooling touch, considering that at this time of year, Pennsylvania summers are usually muggy, and make my skin feel sticky. The chair I’m sitting on is cushioned, another pleasant surprise. Most shopping areas have stiff chairs designed to keep you moving. I wouldn’t mind sitting on this chair at home on my porch.

Then a family sits near me and a little boy asks his father if he has ever been on a train. The man says, “Yes, when I was young, I went with my older brother on a train in the Punjab.” The boy asks, “What’s the Punjab?” Their voices are like music – the childish American singsong playing against the deeper resonance of India. The son’s curiosity has awakened an excursion into the past, and without realizing it, they are taking me with them to the other side of the world.

Memoirs are everywhere. In fact, in ten years, this moment itself could be part of my memoir. I start playing with this idea of time travel. The words I am writing right now will remind me of what I was seeing today. My journal takes on new significance, as I look around with keener attention, and wonder what I can record that will make a great story.

If you want to write your memoir some day, try this experiment. Think about today as an important day. What parts of your life right now, today, this month, this year, will be worth reading? This exercise can expand your relationship to memoir writing. For one thing, it will give you an incentive to keep a journal. Since diaries are not intended for public reading, you can say anything you want. This gives you writing practice without worrying about what other people think.

I kept a journal for many years, but in those days I had no intention of saving facts for posterity. I did it because I enjoyed writing. It was a powerful introspective exercise, but now when I look through those old journals I find little worth knowing. To write a journal intended for a future memoir, I need to write more than just raw feelings. I need to describe what I see, hear, and feel. To help me get back to the good stuff, I would highlight interesting passages. Perhaps I would transfer the good entries to a blog and let the computer keep track of them for me.

Once you get into the habit, you’ll realize that you don’t need to wait for ten years to make use of this material. As in most writing exercises, the benefits become apparent as soon as you start. Not only will it bring more attention to your writing. It might help you “come to your senses,” becoming more intimately aware of life itself.

When Alice Sebold, author of the memoir Lucky, told her writing professor Tobias Wolff, that she was going to the police station to identify her assailant, he took her by the shoulders, looked her in the eye and said, “Remember everything.” By thinking about your future memoir, you will become more vigilant, and sharpen your insights into the life you are living right now.