Writing for Community – or – When Going Public Can Save Dignity and Lives

by Jerry Waxler

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

Author Naomi Gal invited me to attend her book signing at Moravian Book Shop, an independent book store in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In her native Israel, Gal was a novelist. Now she teaches creative writing at Moravian College. However, the event at the bookstore related to another aspect of her life. Gal leads a creative group at Turning Point, a shelter for abused women, and their collected testimonials were published in the book “Free To Be.” Last year, I interviewed Gal, asking her how life influences fiction. Now, I was looking to her latest project to learn another way real life finds its way to the page.

I have heard from authors that book signings can be lonely affairs, so I was surprised to see people streaming in to the store, one of them carrying a tray of snacks. The atmosphere seemed festive. I picked up a copy of the book and flipped through it. The entries were a mix of poetry and prose, revealing private worlds of fearful silence. In the expression of that danger, I felt the stirring of true courage.

I stood in the line that extended from Gal back into the store, and chatted with a writer I know from the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group. The line had been moving slowly, and when I reached the front, I understood why. Naomi was showering each of us with warm thanks and a few moments of chatter. By that time, the crowd had swelled to fifty or sixty and the hubbub swelled to a din. Despite the serious subject matter, everyone seemed courteous and friendly, happy to be together.

Then, a moderator interrupted the signing so Naomi could make a short speech, which consisted almost entirely of effusive thanks to the project’s many contributors. She praised the Turning Point organization and its leaders, and the writers. She also thanked Moravian College’s sorority, Alpha Sigma Alpha, who helped gather the pieces and publish the book.

She went on to explain that many of the pieces in the collection were anonymous, because one of the tragedies of domestic abuse is that defiance can trigger aggression and even deadly force. Several contributors stepped forward to read their work, poems about their need to escape their abusers, and to demand better treatment in their own home. One woman used her full name. The reason for her lack of fear was that she had already lost a daughter to domestic violence. The shift from festivity to dark reality shook me. How awful that people can hurt each other. The human condition can be so cruel.

And then the readings were over, and the organizer asked everyone to buy books, and that the money would go to supporting the women’s shelter. Someone said they were almost sold out. A small cheer went up, and the sorority leader choked up as she thanked everyone who had participated, and Naomi reached over to hug her. The hubbub and the mingling started again.

I felt I had witnessed a powerful event. These women found relief from their suffering at Turning Point where they received shelter and guidance, and forged bonds with each other. Creative writing turned them inward, a tool that helped them cope and grow. Now publishing turned their pain from private to public, to let the rest of us know what is going on in our midst. By sharing their words, they gave us an opportunity to reach back towards them, to offer hope and support.

The testimonials served a different purpose than most memoirs. Rather than being selected for literary merit or completeness of story, these pieces were selected for their moral courage and willingness to communicate. And while this particular book may not reach the best seller charts, its effects radiate far beyond these particular individuals. The gathering gives witness to the impact of the written word and I visualize similar groups in other communities, reaching out to each other to hear words that need to be spoken.

On the way out of the store, I glanced at the display of gourmet chocolates. The woman behind the counter caught my eye and asked, “Do you like pistachios?” I nodded and with a conspiratorial smile she handed me a chocolate covered one. The explosion of good taste jolted me back into my body. Out on the streets of historic Bethlehem, holding my copy of “Free to Be” and a bag of candy, the sun still yellow in the early spring evening, I strolled past quaint gift shops and buildings dating from the 18th century. Surrounded by a sense of normalcy and safety, I thought of a passage from Kate Braestrup’s memoir, “Here if you need me.”

In her work as a police chaplain, Braestrup often pondered suffering. After a particularly grisly kidnap and murder, she asks herself the age-old question, “How can a loving God permit the existence of evil?” Then she attempts to answer it. First she considers the power of evil, quoting the devil’s brag “We are legion.” Then Braestrup considers all the kind people who she regularly witnesses, who come pouring out of their homes to give aid to those who suffer. These neighbors and friends attempt to spread love in order to ease the burden. Swelling with the compassion and generosity of her own heart and the people she routinely encounters, Braestrup refutes the devil’s claim. “No,” she says, “We are legion.”

Note and Links for this Essay
Turning Point, Lehigh Valley Shelter for Women

Moravian Book Shop, Independent book and gift store in historic Bethlehem PA

Read my interview with Naomi Gal about the relationship between fiction and fact.

Read my essay about Kate Braestrup’s exploration of Good and Evil

Writers in the Lehigh Valley – visit the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group

A Healthy Community Needs a Healthy Writer’s Group

by Jerry Waxler

A regional writing group in which I participate asked me to contribute to an application for a 501c3 status as a non-profit community organization. Since this is a topic about which I have been passionate for years, I had a number of ideas that I had never written in one place. Now, as I research the ways a writing group helps the community, I extend the conversation out to you. If you need such a document in your own writing group, or you want to offer your ideas and suggestions  to our group, please write your comments, links, and suggestions, below.

Since 2001, when I joined a writing group called Writers Room in Doylestown, PA, I considered writing groups a crucial part of my life. I am now the workshop chairman for the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, GLVWG where I have volunteered at monthly meetings and the annual conferences, served on the board, and spoken at area Libraries, and I am on the Board of Directors of the non-profit group, Philadelphia Writers Conference. Why do I invest so much of my time and energy into writing groups? Because I have observed that healthy writer’s groups contribute to healthy individuals and communities.

GLVWG, like every writing group, consists of people who are engaged in a three-dimensional endeavor. First, members reach inwards, developing the skills to converting thoughts to writing. Second, they reach towards their peers, to encourage each other, develop networks, and create a healthy organization. And third, they reach out to surrounding neighborhoods and towns, using the craft of writing to engage others in the larger community.

So it turns out when writers come together in a non-profit organization like GLVWG, their writing, which is often perceived as a solo activity, is transformed into a contribution to the “common weal.”

Activities sponsored by GLVWG

GLVWG engages in a variety of activities, all staffed by volunteers.

  • Monthly meetings
    Library Talks
    Firehouse Friday, public reading
    Annual conference
    Monthly discussion circles

None of these activities compete with commercial ventures, and taken together offer a wide array of benefits to individual, group, and community.

Communities need more facilities to teach the life skill of writing

Writing is a life skill, necessary for all sorts of communication. However, after our formal education is over, there are few places where we can improve these skills. Our community is under-served in this regard. GLVWG provides such training opportunities, offering a place where community members gather to share creative passion, and learn about writing.

Through GLVWG, published authors contribute to the community

The writing group attracts published authors to the area, and also brings the ones already in the area out of their homes and into the community, where they offer talks and booksignings at local independent and chain bookstores, craft fairs, and libraries.

Writing promotes regional culture

Culture, as expressed through such media as music, drama, and writing, represent the creative expression of society. Writers make an especially important contribution to culture, because in addition to its artistic merits, writing also informs. The members of GLVWG contribute to this culture in many ways. We write for entertainment, for the healing of self and others, and call our neighbors out for social action. Taken as a whole our writing forms the backbone of human culture.

Writing helps democracy and civic life

As many social commentators have observed, reading is necessary for a healthy democracy. In order to read, we need writers. GLVWG writers participate in all the local and regional media. Our members are reporters, bloggers, and contribute to group newsletters.

Writing groups help kids, families, and schools

GLVWG reaches out to young people. Parents and teachers pass on the value of writing to their children, encouraging them to explore poetry and storytelling. GLVWG runs a high school writing contest to stimulate and reward young writers. The young people who participate appreciate the opportunity to turn their creative energy towards the development of fictional worlds, giving them an outlet, as well as teaching them tools for their future employment and satisfaction.

Writing groups help seniors

Verbal activities are good for seniors, increasing mental stimulation and purpose, and reducing isolation. Many of our members are seniors. In addition, our members teach classes at senior centers. And as we teach and learn the arts of story writing, we preserve the stories of community members.

Writing groups help community religious institutions

Our members contribute to publications in their houses of worship, extending the connections of individual members into their own groups.

GLVWG collaborates with other nonprofits to provide cultural activities

Our group does not work on its own. We collaborate with a local theater to stage public readings. Members work with local senior centers to provide instruction. And we cooperate with a local non-profit storytelling guild, and book and art festivals. GLVWG provides people a place to gather, be entertained and learn. We have been featured in local radio, television, and on the internet.


Our culture relies extensively on the written word, and yet individual writers and aspiring writers often feel isolated. Non-profit writing groups provide an incubator where such individuals can learn their craft, and extend their verbal interests beyond themselves out into the community. It’s a perfect example of a win-win investment. By nurturing and supporting writers, we increase the health of the community.


Writers Room, Doylestown, PA founded by Foster Winans, is no longer in existence.
Philadelphia Writers Conference, held in June, is the oldest continuous writing conference in the United States.
Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group holds an annual conference in the spring, meetings, workshops, readings, and other activities.

To reach readers, learn from writers

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.)

It takes skill and courage to write a memoir, and then like trees falling in the forest, our intimate stories thunder silently on the page, until someone reads them. Persuading others to read what we’ve written seems daunting and foreign, unrelated to the central project. And so when writers get together, in addition to discussing their craft, they also ponder the challenges of reaching readers.

Take for example the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I recently attended their annual meeting, along with about 150 of my fellow writers and aspiring writers. The first session in the conference was a panel of four literary agents who had trekked down from the New York area. Agents often turn up at writing conferences, like scouts looking for the latest talent, which is one of the reasons aspiring writers attend such events. Once you convince an agent your book is worthy, they take it around to publishers and try to sell it. When the publisher bites, the book lands in bookstores where lots of readers buy it and everyone wins.

As a volunteer at the conference, I moderated the panel, took questions from the audience and asked some of my own. There were not many surprises, and in the end, the information from such panels can be found in magazine articles on the subject. “Write well.” “Increase your credentials, so publishers and readers trust you.” And by the way, beware of agents who ask you for money. The industry standard is that they make money only after the sale. Each year, I study the agents for some clue as to what makes them tick, and each year I become more aware of their human side. Agents are people. They want to be treated with respect, and since they are going to represent you, they want to believe in you and your work. Ultimately, the agent becomes an emissary and ally.

At most conferences, writers have an opportunity to briefly interview an agent, a compact 10 minutes in which to reach towards fame. My meeting was with Stephany Evans, the president of the FinePrint Literary Management agency. She reiterated the familiar point that in addition to good writing, publishers expect writers to come equipped with an audience. It sounds crazy, and yet, when Stephanie explained it with a warm regard, accompanied by specific information and advice, she transformed the news from a death blow to a challenge. When I tap into the human aspect of the publishing business, I find it all rather exciting.

Another insight into the business end of writing came from keynote speaker Jonathan Maberry, author of award winning supernatural thriller “Ghost Road Blues.” The title of Maberry’s keynote speech was “I can write that.” Jonathan explained that throughout his 30-year writing career, when deciding what to write, he let the almighty paycheck be his guide. If they were willing to pay for it, he was willing to write it. This sounds incredibly materialistic, and yet once the paycheck is in hand, Maberry shifts his focus to creativity, pouring himself towards his audience with the passion of a performer.

If you think looking for a paycheck makes a statement about Maberry’s selfishness quotient, consider this. When he mentioned that he had written or sold something like eight books in the last couple of years, someone asked Maberry how he explains his tireless energy. “A few years ago, my career was on the rocks, and my wife, Sara, enrolled me in a writing class, not to further my writing, but to connect me with other writers. It worked. Once I began hanging around with writers, my career took off. You all are the reason I have succeeded.” His expansive gesture towards the audience filled me with a sense of connection with him, with the writing project, and with my fellow writers.

Someone else asked him how he handles the feeling of jealousy when he meets someone more successful than himself. He said, “I never see writing as competitive. The more you succeed, the more I succeed. If it turns out there are a whole row full of bio-terrorism thrillers on the shelf next to mine, that’s not my competition. That actually helps me sell more books.” Jonathan is always a great listen, in a larger audience, as well as in workshops and in one on one coaching sessions. And as the winner of the most prestigious award in genre writing, the Bram Stoker award, he is an acclaimed writer as well.

Every time I attend a writing conference, like Maberry, I too feel lifted and recharged, which is why I am currently on the board of two writers conferences. And I’ve even tried starting a few groups of my own. And at each meeting, while I am learning craft from other writers, and feeling the camaraderie of their company, I am also letting people like Jonathan Maberry and Stephany Evans, remind me that if I want to find lots of readers I have to learn how to reach out to them.

For more information about hundreds of writing conferences, check out Shaw Guides.

The other regional writing conference where I volunteer as a board member is the Philadelphia Writers Conference. Their 2008 meeting is June 6-8.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Memoir of Redemption: Author Shares His Writing Experience

By Jerry Waxler

I recently reviewed Bill Strickland’s memoir Ten Points. It strikes me as being a “perfect memoir” – it’s a great read, it has a powerful sense of love and redemption, and the author opens up generously into his inner process. In order to delve even deeper, I asked him answer a few questions. Just as he was generous in his memoir, he was also generous in sharing his insights about writing it. This is the first of a two part interview.

(To read my review of the memoir, click here.)

Jerry: When did you realize you were going to write your life experience in a memoir?

Bill: As I started training for that season, I was taking notes and writing about the races, because that’s generally what I do ? try to make sense of my life by writing about it. But at that time, the writing was strictly for me. One of my training friends, Jeremy, who makes a few appearances in the book, rode many early 5 a.m. morning rides with me, during which we talked and talked, as cyclists do to fill the miles. He was a book editor (now an agent) and he kept telling me, “You have a book. This is a book. Write this book.” But I kept hesitating, because Jeremy, along with everyone else, didn’t know the full story. He only knew what I’d told everyone: That I was trying to score ten points to show my five-year-old daughter, Natalie, that any of could achieve something impossible, and to show her that we should ask much, and expect much, of those we love. Jeremy, like other people, that I’d had a tough life; I’d never been shy about spinning yarns about my white-trash family, turning us into comic-heroic misfits.

I didn’t tell anyone though, in detail, about the horrors of my life and what I really hoped to accomplish by scoring ten points ? destroying the monster I believed lived in me. I knew if I wrote a book, it would only be if I told the full, true story.

As the season wore on, and I wrote more, some of the stories of my past began to lay over the stories of the bike races in ways that seemed natural. And the act of racing itself, the suffering and the survival and the triumph and tragedies, was like opening a pipeline to my childhood. After the racing season was over and I’d had that final epiphany about shame, telling the story was not only okay to me, but almost mandatory.

Jerry: How long did it take you from the time you started to the time you finished writing?

Bill: From the end of the racing season through the rest of 2004, from October to Dececember, I kept writing scenes and what felt like chapters. At my agent’s urging, in 2005 I began working on a proposal, and we submitted a 50-page proposal that spring. It had a long chapter that also worked as a kind of introduction; a summary; and a summary of every chapter I’d planned.

Hyperion bought the book in the spring 2005 and I began writing for a May 2006 deadline. I mostly hit that deadline, with an 80,000-word manuscrpt. My editor, Leslie Wells, asked me what the book might look like with less cycling, more present day family stories, and a little tighter. She made some suggestions about which parts worked and where her interest flagged, and I ended up liking her ideas so much that I cut about 12,000 words and tried to focus on the most compelling race action rather than document each race. That, in turn, made the connections to my past even sharper. I turned in a final draft in August of 2006, and it was published July of 2007.

Jerry: What can you share about persisting, overcoming slumps, and making it to the end?

Bill: There was never a slump for me. Rather, in the spring of 2006, in the middle chapters, I could sometimes forget I was writing a book and that there was an end. The process seemed to exist only for itself, which I found sort of satisfying but also mystifying; I could get lost in the writing for days. Each week I tried to look at the book as a whole and see where I was, in a way kind of reminding myself that I was trying to complete this big, long thing.

I never had periods where I felt blocked or stumped. There were definitely times when I went off-track, or when I felt drained. I simply took a few days off, tried not to think about the book, then came back to it. I get great joy from the act of writing, even when it’s hard, maybe especially when it’s hard. To me it’s less about persistence than the incredible good luck that I am able to do this. When I get a chance to write, it’s a gift.

Jerry: What were your writing habits?

Bill: I don’t keep track of words or hours or consecutive days. I would guess that I write something, whether it’s fresh copy or playing with something already written down, just about every day. But I don’t know for sure. I write until I know I should stop for any of three reasons – I am exhausted or I can sense the next sentence and know I’ll be able to pick up the flow, or I have reached what I think of as a “turn,” in the story, which I define to myself as the end of a section that moves in a certain direction or with a certain rhythm. Or, sometimes, I need to take out the garbage or let the cat in or something, too – life’s mundanities rule us as much as our passions.

I’m also a fan of revision, so I like to just get something on paper and then tune it.

I write on computer, edit on paper, and like to move about the house with my laptop. I also wrote a fair bit of the book in our local bike shop, South Mountain Cycles.

Jerry: I am stunned by the brilliance of the story telling and phrasing. How much of this skill was learned before you decided to write a memoir, and how much after?

Bill: I have to say that I was surprised to hear myself called a good storyteller (by my agent, readers and editors). It’s not that I thought of myself as a bad storyteller but I’d never tried to tell a long story and didn’t know if I could, whereas I’ve always more or less known I can write some striking sentences.

In a strange way that is almost embarrassing to discuss, I think that deciding to be honest about who I am, for the first time in my life, opened up my writing in a way that changed it. I realize this sounds precious or maybe makes me sound like a sophomore in a creative writing class, but I now believe that I was always holding something back in my writing, what I gave to my writing, or the chances I was willing to take with language and sound and rhythm and image.

Jerry: What memoirs did you read to learn the art of memoir writing?

Bill: I didn’t want to read other memoirs as I wrote mine, especially those that dealt with abuse. I wanted to prevent anything from the abuse canon from slipping into my story; I wanted the details and whatever patterns or connections there might be in that area to come to the story strictly from my experience, even if they are part of a common experience . . . if that makes any sense. I guess you could say I don’t mind being derivative as long as I’m original.

I did have some reference points. I’d read Bill McKibben’s book, Long Distance, which is about a year he spent trying to become a world-class cross-country skiier. I still think Tim Krabbe’s book, The Rider, captures the entire feeling of a bike race better than any other book (or movie). A book about swimming, of all things, Water Dancer, by Jenifer Levin, showed me something important about language in its cadences; I realized that I wanted the writing about the racing to be extremely physical – to feel harsh or hard or as if it were slipping away from the reader, or hitting them in the face, and I worked hard to try to accomplish that through word choice and rhythm. I kept reading Worstword Ho, by Samuel Beckett, because I thought the pacing was a good model, and because some phrasing in it became important to me: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In fact, as I raced I used to repeat, like a mantra, “fail better,” and I had that in the book for a bit but the idea of a racer quoting Beckett seemed too outlandish to be accepted as real. I used it as the epigram, at least.

Jerry: Tell me more about your approach to finding the story amidst your memories.

Bill: I found that, to be effective as a storyteller, I had to quickly get to a point where I was able to view the story as a story rather than as therapy. I don’t think I could create tension, character, setting within the confines of a therapeutic recounting. A story, even the ones that feel loose, are structured. I was writing certain ways, introducing certain things at certain points, ending things at certain times, revisiting at certain times, for storytelling effect. I talk about the people in the book as characters, which I think can be disorienting for people who want to talk about me, or Natalie as people. We’re both, but those people inside that book are more characters to me. I mean, I counted up once and Natalie has less than 300 lines of dialog in the book — a fraction of a fraction of everything she said to me over the course of that year. Her dialog in that book is the dialog of that particular character, whereas Nat and I have this whole, nearly boundless yearlong mess of our life together.


This is Part 1 of a Two Part Interview. To read part 2, click here.

To see the Amazon page for this book, click here.

To read more about Bill Strickland and Ten Points, click here


Memoir of abuse and redemption, book review

by Jerry Waxler

One of the best memoirs I have read is about a guy who wants to score 10 points in bicycle racing. Whether or not he achieves his cycling goal, Ten Points by Bill Strickland gets 10 points from me for delivering everything I want from a memoir; dramatic tension, passionate love among lovely people, a complex and troubled villain, a battle against obstacles. And the ending fulfills the dramatic tension established in the beginning. It even has a geographical tie for me. It’s set in the Lehigh Valley Velodrome in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, just a few miles from where I live. And the writing contains some of the most lyrical phrasing I have seen this year, providing that elusive buzz that used to keep my nose glued to the classics, hoping for a phrase or concept that would set my mind dancing. The only memoir whose prose moved me more was Beryl Markham,’s West with the Night. When I look at the two books side by side, I am awed by the diversity of human experience.

West with the Night was about a woman coming of age amidst the wonders of Africa in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, when lions and elephants owned the land. As a little girl she hunted with the tribesmen. Then in her teens, she rode her horse wild and free throughout the region. Then she soared even higher, flying her plane above the savannah. Ten Points by Strickland is a sort of post-modern contrast to Markham’s West with the Night. Instead of riding a horse through the vast uncharted savannas of Africa, Strickland expends enormous amounts of energy going around and around a paved track riding a tiny machine. Strangely enough, they are both seeking the same goal; freedom. While Markham strives for ever greater freedom in the outside world, Strickland pedals faster and faster around that race course looking for freedom inside his own psyche.

Strickland’s quest seems like an unlikely place to find anything other than heartache. He is the underdog, hopelessly outclassed by the international champions with whom he is riding, forcing him to strive with superhuman determination. His desperate desire to overcome insurmountable odds makes the book is so powerful. But what does he stand to gain by winning these puny ten points, while the racers against whom he is competing are racking up hundreds? It turns out, this is the way he has chosen to set himself free from his inner demons.

The demons are nothing more nor less than some of the most horrific memories of child abuse I ever thought I could tolerate. Reading some of his most abusive memories felt like I was squeezing myself through a disgusting tube, so I could get out the other end and rejoin him in his quest for becoming a complete person. The abuse he suffered as a child reached a crescendo, some of the details of which leave me so breathtakingly shamed I’d rather not remember them, let alone repeat them. For reasons Strickland never understood, the abuse stopped, but of course the memories didn’t. The book is about him trying to overcome the backward downward suction of those memories. How could he ever overcome the demons in his own psyche? Isn’t he stuck with them for life? That’s what keeps me turning pages.

I hate stories in which the bad guys are so powerful that they always come out on top. I want to identify with a hero who stands a chance. In Ten Points, Bill Strickland gives it his all, and I’m rooting for him the whole way. And get this. The big firepower that helps him defeat his demons is his determination to win at bicycle racing and his determination to love his wife and daughter. So much warmth flows among these three people I feel I am sharing some of the most profoundly loving relationships in all of literature. And so, when Strickland promises his four year old daughter he will win Ten Points, his love for her binds him to his racing in an almost mystical commitment. By making this promise, the cycle of abuse passed down from his grandfather to his father to him stops right here.

I love this big ammo. It’s a stunning affirmation of ordinary life lived to its fullest. The most horrible stuff I ever don’t want to imagine, stuck seemingly forever in this guy’s memory, and his best antidote is his belief in the good things in normal life. When he throws himself into race, I can feel every turn of the wheel, every drop of spit and sweat that blows back from the riders who are beating him.

Through the drama and even poetry of his struggle, Strickland conveys the authentic power of racing to help him overcome his demons. And so, his experience teaches me something about how the human psyche can be healed. But why does it work? Is it a known psychological tool? I wonder where I have seen such a method used before and the best I come up with is Viktor Frankl’s model, that finding a purpose in life heals most psychological woes. Whatever the reason, striving for those ten points enabled Strickland to inject some sort of spiritual cleansing through his veins to help clear out the filth his father put there. Strickland’s love for his daughter, his urgent need to achieve purity through excellence, his commitment not to hate his father but to rise above him, and the partnership with his wife add up to a bittersweet creation, at one time showing some of the worst of the human condition, and in response to it, some of the best. His memoir is a great bicycle racing story, a great book about the love of a family, and a great book about the battle of good versus evil. In the end, he wins. Not the ten points. He wins his soul.


To read an interview with the author of Ten Points, Bill Strickland, click here.

To read more about the relationship between horror writing and real life, see my essay on that subject along with an interview with Jonathan Maberry.

To improve your memoir, break down the code

by Jerry Waxler

My dad owned a neighborhood drugstore in north Philadelphia, and on the nights he was able to make it home for dinner, most of the conversation centered around him telling us about the menagerie of characters who streamed through the store and gave him endless raw material. We sat and dutifully listened, but since there was no rule about equal air time, I grew up without having picked up even a smattering of skill to help me tell stories of my own.

In fact, I spent quite the next several decades story-less, feeling awkward about reporting on what happened to me. And though I didn’t realize it at first, I gradually noticed that my lack of storytelling was cutting me off from people. Stories are how we tell each other who we are, and so without stories, I felt isolated. Once I noticed how important it was to be able to tell stories, I set out to learn in adulthood what I had not learned as a child.

It turns out that with a little digging you can find storytellers who will teach you their craft. For example, Charles Kiernan, coordinator of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild, has been studying story telling for years. For him, storytelling is a performance art. He looks like Mark Twain, including the flowing mane of hair and bushy mustache, and when he dresses in period costume, it’s like listening to your own copy of Mark Twain. In addition to the performance and folklore aspects of storytelling, he’s also interested in creating them.

Here’s the simple, powerful lesson he shared with me, that he’ll be teaching in more detail at the Augusta Heritage Folkarts Festival in West Virginia, July 8-13, 2007. Say you’re sitting around at a family gathering, and the older adults start telling stories about Uncle Bob. The ones who knew Uncle Bob start laughing, and everyone else glazes over. They never met Uncle Bob, they didn’t know his pranks, or the sadness underneath his smile, so the story isn’t working for them. The problem is that so many family stories contain codes. The people who know the code can make sense of the story, and those who don’t know the code are left out.

It’s like that old joke about a newly convicted criminal in the penitentiary. Someone down the cellblock screams out the number “68” and all the other prisoners crack up laughing. The newbie asks what is going on, and his cellmate says, “We’ve heard these jokes so many times, we just tell them by the number.” It’s the same with family stories. As storyteller Charles Kiernan, coordinator of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild, explains it, say you’re at the dinner table celebrating a holiday with your extended family. You start telling stories about Uncle Bob, and all the adults who knew Uncle Bob crack up, while the kids who don’t remember Uncle Bob glaze over. Why are they staring at the ceiling, waiting for an excuse to get away from the table?

Kiernan’s family-oriented workshop will teach students to slow down and instead of telling stories in code that only insiders understand, they’ll learn to tell the story in a way that can be understood by listeners who never met Uncle Bob. The trick is to describe him in more detail. What did he wear? What was his hair like? What room do you picture him in? Sit down with someone who didn’t know him and describe him in as much detail as possible, so your listener could pick Bob out of a crowd.

If you want to tell a story, look closely at your language, and “unpack” it, laying out its content for everyone to appreciate. With a little learning you can turn the joke known only to the old inmates into a joke you can share with kids and strangers.

While this advice sounds simple, I consider it to be brilliant. For one thing, it acknowledges an important fact. Just because we think we’re telling a good story doesn’t mean the listener is hearing a good story. That in itself is a powerful piece of information, because most of us think that when we tell about events, we are doing the best possible job sharing the story. It turns out, the storyteller plays a crucial role, shaping a bunch of events into something worth listening to. Once we realize this fact, we can start looking for tricks to give our stories more impact.

Secondly, the message is brilliant because it is extraordinarily fundamental, sweeping across all aspects of storytelling. For example, I was preparing to write a description of my years in college, and was hoping to explain how the music of the times influenced my feelings. I could hope that by simply mentioning that the Beatles were intense or important, I might be able to convey what I was feeling, since everyone really knows about the Beatles. But I remembered Kiernan’s advice about avoiding code words, and thought how that applies to those icons of the sixties. If I just mention the word, “sixties” or “Beatles” I might hope everyone understands what I mean. But they will only get what they think, not what I think. That’s like the prisoner saying “68.” I have to tell a story.

So how can I unpack my thoughts and feelings about the Beatles? I’ll talk more about that in my next blog entry, and put into a scene what I mean by the coded word “Beatles.”

Storytelling lessons for memoir writers

by Jerry Waxler

The tiny town of Bethlehem in Southeastern Pennsylvania has a lot going on. It was the birthplace of Bethlehem Steel, it sports an 81 foot high Christmas star, hosts the annual regional music bash called Musikfest, is home of Lehigh University and Moravian College, and has its own public radio station, WDIY where I’m being interviewed today. It also happens to be the home of Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild. Storytelling interests me, not because I’m an expert but because I’m human, which is the chief prerequisite for interest in stories. We start learning stories from the time we’re babies, and we become attuned to them through a life time of exposure. In fact, they are everywhere, and form the basis for the way we look at the world, learn about people, and let people learn about us.

When I started to explore life-writing, I realized that while I’m an expert story listener, I have a lot to learn about story telling. Since stories are everywhere, you would think that learning about telling them should be simple. Many successful writers recommend that you learn the art of writing stories by emulating the books you enjoy reading. My problem with this method is that once I dive into the story I stop thinking about writing. In a trance, I turn the key on the door of his apartment, put my briefcase on the table by the door, and recoil in fear at the sound I heard in the other room. It’s hard for me to break out of this trance and analyze the writer’s technique.

It’s easier for me to draw lessons from memoirs. When I read a memoir, a significant proportion of my attention is already focused on learning lessons from the protagonist’s life. I want to understand what makes his or her world work, what’s special about it, what I can see that will help me live in my world. So since I’m already learning, it turns out to be natural for me to learn lessons about storytelling. And I can learn from first time authors, as well as from the masters. I find many lessons about storytellers from beginners, such as Margaret George’s Never Use your Dim Lights, or George Brummell’s Shades of Darkness or Harry Bernstein’s Invisible Wall.

Another place I learn about story telling is from people who teach writing. One comprehensive book for storytellers is a 400 page classic called simply Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. Since good screenwriting is good storytelling, don’t worry about the fact that your life may not be made into a movie. If you’re serious about representing your life as a story, I recommend you dig into such material, and learn more about how stories are told. Not only will you be learning to tell your own story. You’ll learn to see more perceptively into the stories you read, watch, or hear.

I love trying to understand what makes a story tick, so it was with great delight that I spoke with storyteller Charles Kiernan, from Bethlehem’s Storytelling Guild. If you want to learn how to tell stories, it makes sense to ask a storyteller. All you have to do is find one. Since I knew about Kiernan’s guild, I turned to him to ask him his ideas about stories. It turns out he was just getting ready to teach a workshop he’ll be presenting at the Augusta Heritage Folkarts Festival in West Virginia. July 8-13, 2007. This was a perfect time to have that conversation, because he told me about the lesson he is preparing to give at the Folkarts Festival. It is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard for turning life into story.

So what was the simple powerful advice Charles Kiernan offered? The gist is, “Break down the code, and spell it out.” Stories are like space ships and time travel machines. So even though I learned about this storytelling trick in a tiny town, I can use it to tell stories that transport me around the world.

I’m going to explain it in more detail in my next blog entry.