Understand Self by Looking Back: Memoir of an Examined Life

by Jerry Waxler

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

Throughout her career as a nurse, Kathleen Pooler cared for thousands of patients. At the end of her career, she turned her attention to the one person she neglected — herself. To give herself the retirement gift of finding meaning in her life, she decided to craft her memories into a story.

In order to write her memoir, she embarked on a process to learn the necessary skills. True to her generous nature, she started a blog so she could share her journey with others. As fast as she gathered insights into memoir writing, she passed them along.

As if inviting us into a friendly classroom, her blog introduced us to the writers who inspired her. By joining her and her “crew” we became part of her online community of writers who love memoirs.

Kathy Pooler was, in a sense, writing two memoirs at once. The book itself, Ever Faithful To His Lead: My Journey Away from Emotional Abuse, traces her journey as a young woman . Her blog covers the period past the pages of the book, chronicling her transformation from a nurse of physical health to her new “career” as a nurturer of life stories. Continue reading

If Not Conflict, What Fierce Determination Drives a Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

In the memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints, Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner, travel to Turkey to help a friend manage a small inn. It seems like a pleasant getaway that combines travel, friendship, and an entrepreneurial spirit. As they visit museums and historical sites, try new cuisines, befriend locals, and in Angie’s case, have romances with them, the women become increasingly smitten with the place. By the end, they fulfill the book’s sub-title, clearly communicating their love for the country.

Turkey has played a crucial role in world religion and commerce for millennia, and yet I grew up learning hardly anything about its history. Through the eyes of these two American women, I gain a fascinating glimpse into this crossroads of Moslem and Christian traditions, and even delve into pre-Christian goddess power. I also gain another glimpse of the expat experience.

In my younger years I read about macho Americans like Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway consuming their way across Europe, sucking in unlimited quantities of alcohol, food, and women. By contrast, Anatolian Days and Nights is almost a sendup of those excesses. Stocke and Brenner have modest appetites, spiced with a delicate mix of curiosity and compassion.

In fact, the women behave so nicely, it makes me ask a fundamental question: “Don’t all satisfying stories need conflict?” Ever since Ulysses traveled through the Greek and Turkish isles, threatened by monsters, imprisoned by sex goddesses, and fighting to the death with his wife’s suitors, readers have demonstrated their gluttony for conflict. Fiction writers satisfy this desire by inventing all sorts of exaggerated dangers and setbacks. Memoir writers, on the other hand, extract tension from the desire, fear, and courage enmeshed in a lifetime of memories.

So what tension in Anatolian Days and Nights keeps me reading? Were the two women at risk, traveling alone in a male-dominated world? Were they afraid? Actually, apparently not. If anything, the locals seem eager to protect them. If it wasn’t driven by the desperation to stay alive, or the gluttony to consume, what is the fierce determination that propels them to the end of their journey and me reading to the last page?

The Importance of Character Arc as a Driving Force in Memoirs

To engage me in a story, the author must convince me something in their character is missing or under-developed. The rest of the story leads me on a treasure hunt to work through the tension and choices of life. By the end, the character convinces me they have achieved this thing. This important payoff to a story is often thoroughly obvious in fiction. But in memoirs it can be more difficult to point out, and after I’ve read a satisfying story I go back to see what the character has learned.

For example, by the end of Accidental Lessons, David Berner is oriented to serving humanity rather than merely having a good job. At the end of Seven Wheelchairs, Gary Presley has wrapped his mind around the destiny of living on wheels instead of legs. At the end of Dope Fiend, Tim Elhajj has traveled beyond his minimum goal of abstaining from heroin. He has also figured out how to be a father to his son.

However, when I looked for a hard-fought character arc in Anatolian Days and Night , at first I couldn’t find it. Since both women were gentle, curious, and generous at the beginning, I did not feel any urgent pressure for them to grow along these lines. Their main goal seemed to be to understand Turkey, rather than themselves. And yet, I still closed the book feeling satisfied. What had the authors done for me and for themselves that made me turn pages?

Search for Identity as an Important Type of Character Arc

In memoirs, there is a special type of character arc — the search for identity. In this type of story, the missing ingredient that provides the impetus for forward momentum is the protagonist’s desire for a clearer sense of who they are. By the end, the character finds their true self and satisfies their quest.

This need to “know thyself” has been responsible for some of the blockbuster memoirs of our era. In fact, the modern memoir movement was started largely by the success of Coming of Age memoirs like This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. In each of these books, the young character must figure out “who am I?” The answer to this question is, of course, not simple.

Coming of Age stories are driven by a variety of questions that must be answered on the journey from child to adult, including issues of sexuality, career, family, spirituality. And one of the most fascinating struggles is one of the most abstract — the fierce determination of a young person to find identity. By the end of a satisfying memoir, the character must find enough of a sense of self to know how to steer themselves in the coming years, or at least suggest that they are heading toward such a clear identity.

This journey to find identity is not limited to Coming of Age. By lining up my collection of memoirs in the order of the life-period they describe, it becomes apparent that people of all ages try to figure out who they are. The first Coming of Age stage, finishes around say 18 years old. But there is a second stage of this transition to adulthood that is also crucial. Many memoirs are about the struggles during this second period, say from around 18 to 26 years old, when we have to make important adjustments to our identity so we can survive in the world.

For example, at the beginning of Japan Took The JAP Out of Me, Lisa Fineberg Cook is a newly-wed party-girl. By the end, she is less self indulgent and more oriented to work and service. At the beginning of Wild, Cheryl Strayed is a dysfunctional young adult, with no direction, quick to try a new guy or a new drug. She walks 100s of miles across wilderness trails to find a new vision of herself and ends with the moral strength to establish herself in the adult world. Similarly, at the beginning of Slow Motion, Dani Shapiro is almost ready to become a young woman when she falls into a trap of drugs and sex. By the end, she outgrows her fascination with the power of her own beauty, and enters the adult world of personal responsibility.

Adopted kids have a particular challenge, as evidenced in two memoirs about girls who are just about to launch into the world when they are contacted by their birth mothers. In Mei Ling Hopgood’s Lucky Girl a Chinese American adoptee travels to China to learn about her birth family. In Mistress’s Daughter, AM Homes conducts an intense investigation, trying to understand her birth family in order to understand herself.

Sometimes, a person much later in life begins to ask pressing questions about who they are. These later searches for identity can also make compelling stories. For example in the memoir Catfish and Mandala Andrew X. Pham realizes he can never be happy until he makes peace with his Vietnamese origins. He quits his engineering job in California and rides through Vietnam on a bicycle, trying to understand his roots. In My Ruby Slippers, Tracy Seeley, an English professor in San Francisco, ejected from her comfort zone by cancer, travels to Kansas to try to understand her roots. Both authors become seekers for their own identity, and they both use the notion of place in order to help them learn more.

Why is the Search for Identity So Important?

In thrillers, the compelling force is obvious. Stop the assassin. By comparison, finding your identity seems woefully abstract. Despite the apparent vagueness of this propelling force, in memoir after memoir, authors uproot their lives in order to understand their identity. Their fierce determination to answer the question “who am I?” drags readers along for the ride. Perhaps this need for identity is more visceral and fundamental than we think. For those of us interested in the psychological journey of human experience, the longing for identity appears to be every bit as life-affirming and page-turning as stopping an assassination.

Anatolian Days and Nights is good evidence of the importance of this quest. Like the hero in Somerset Maughm’s The Razor’s Edge, who left home in order to find his truth, Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner left their familiar lives and traveled east. They were seekers, looking for whatever wisdom Turkey could offer them about themselves.

By diving into Turkey, they fulfilled a sublime search not just for that country’s identity but for their own. It was a search that was important enough to drive them half-way around the world, and significant enough to keep me reading, and then to recommend their story to anyone looking for a satisfying experience.

Notes

Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints by Joy Stocke and Angie BrennerClick here for Amazon Page
Click here for Anatolian Days and Nights Home Page

There’s a word for that! I thought I understood the meaning of the word “mandala” as a sort of symbolic geometric shape. But I couldn’t figure out why Andrew X. Pham used the word in his title. I looked it up the in the dictionary and find that it means: In Jungian psychology, a symbol representing the effort to reunify the self. Perfect!

For more about the desire that drives a memoir, see my essay:
What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?

Although this is the first memoir I’ve read about love for a culture, it adds to my collection of the subgenre about friendship. Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is a tribute to her friendship with Carolyn Knapp. And Father Joe by Tony Hendra, is a paean to his spiritual mentor.

More Expats: Recently I read the memoir San Miguel D’Allende, about Rick Skwiot’s attempts to find himself in Mexico. And in Native State, Tony Cohan describes his attempts to settle into the jazz and drug scene in northern Africa. Both follow the Anatolian Nights model of searching for self in a foreign land.

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

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.

Nine Reasons To Read Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

The more memoirs I read, the more lessons I learn, first about the literary form, second about other people, and third about myself. These benefits intertwine to form one of the best systems of self-development I know. Here are nine benefits, along with a few titles of memoirs that exemplify each one.

Reason #1: The Fascination and Relief of Story Reading

A good memoir offers the same release as any engaging story, allowing me to lose myself in the author’s world… a fine turn of phrase… a fascinating dramatic incident… a character I care about, travelling along an interesting path. All these factors contribute to my satisfaction.

Enough about me by Jancee Dunn: Enters the world of a young celebrity interviewer
The Sound of No Hands Clapping by Toby Young: Shares the world of an ambitious writer
The Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner: offers wisdom about physical illness
Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum: A runaway teen lives in the shelters of New York city

Reason #2: Inspiration based on life experience and loss

My grandmother used to say: “This too shall pass.” I didn’t understand her platitudes when I was young. They make more sense now in the pages of each memoir, which starts with an author facing a challenge and then proceeds through the journey to a resolution. In every case, life goes on and characters grow.

Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup: After losing a beloved husband, she searches to recover from grief and find the meaning of life and death.
Mothering Mother by Carol O’Dell: a daughter cares for a mother suffering from dementia
Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham: a non-standard childhood with her two uncles
Expecting Adam by Martha Beck: She pays homage to her Down Syndrome baby.
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott; She shares her search for the meaning of life
Shades of Darkness by George Brummell: A black man escapes Jim Crow south by joining the army. His war injuries blind him and he must grow through another round.

Reason #3: Insight into cultural mixing, the melting pot of modernity

In modernity, cultures and races mingle at an ever increasing rate. Now, more than ever, we urgently need to understand each other. Through memoirs I penetrate the veil of the Other, by accompanying them on their journey. I accompanied a multi-racial boy, Barack Obama, who visited ancestors in an African village. I accompanied a girl who grew up in Michigan, Mei Ling Hopgood, when she traveled to Taiwan to visit her birth family. I grew up with an Iranian girl, Firoozeh Dumas, in California, a young Jewish immigrant, Harry Bernstein, in Chicago, and a black man, Henry Louis Gates, in the waning years of Jim Crow south. Memoirs turn the American melting pot into a vibrant, detailed, emotionally challenging and enriching personal experience.

Dreams of our Fathers by Barack Obama: A man of mixed heritage seeks his identity at home and in Africa
Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: An African woman seeks asylum in Holland, and discovers that western culture holds the antidote to the injustice she suffered at home.
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas: An Iranian child grows up trying to adapt to the American culture.

The Dream by Harry Bernstein: A Jewish immigrant arrives in the U.S. melting pot before the depression.

Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham: A Vietnamese American returns to Vietnam to make sense of his roots

Colored People by Henry Louis Gates: A black man in Jim Crow south tries to outgrow the limitations his culture has placed on him.

Reason #4: See deep into another’s point of view, including gender, war, celebrity

In order to live in the world, I need insights into the way other people think and feel. By reading memoirs, I no longer need to guess. Each author tell me themselves.

Athletes
Open by Andre Agassi: A famous tennis player shares his hopes, dreams and fears.

Performers
Enter Talking by Joan Rivers: A Jewish college grad attempts to escape the ordinary success mandated by her parents and enter the magical kingdom of entertainment.

Vinyl Highway: Singing as “Dick and Dee Dee” by Dee Dee Phelps: A young woman is invited into a singing duo and finds herself on television and on tour in the sixties.

Soldiers
Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester: A veteran returns to the scene of his Pacific battles and tries to put his demons to rest.

A Temporary Sort of Peace by Jim McGarrah: A Vietnam combat soldier struggles to survive the war with his life and sanity intact. He just barely makes it.

House to House by David Bellavia: A vivid, gut wrenching account of house to house combat in Iraq.

Mental challenges
Look me in the eye by John Robison: A man with an unusual approach to life finds out in middle age that he has been living with undiagnosed Asperger’s

Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison: in the 1980s the author revealed the damaging effects of bipolar disorder, as told from the insider’s point of view.

Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields: about giving birth and realizing she had  postpartum depression

Girls
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro: a beautiful girl is seduced by power, drugs, and sex and must find her way back.

Name All the Animals by Alison Smith: small town girl must find her sexuality against the pressures of religion and grief.

A Girl Named Zippie by Haven Kimmel: a small town girl, who turns ordinary life into a fascinating journey.

Boys
Father Joe by Tony Hendra: about his fascination with the monastery and his admiration of a mentor.

True Notebooks by Mark Salzman about teaching writing to convicted juvenile offenders.

Townie by Andre Dubus, III about growing up as a fighter, trying to maintain his pride in a world that constantly tried to strip it away.

American Shaolin by Matthew Polly: An American college student moves to a Chinese temple in order to study martial arts.

Illness
Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner: a man suffers from Crohn’s disease and learns about life without food.

Seven Wheelchairs by Gary Presley: a man suffers polio and then learns to live with it. (Coming of Age in a wheelchair)

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor: a neuroanatomist suffers a massive stroke and during rehabilitation draws conclusions about the right and left halves of the brain.

Spirituality
Devotion by Dani Shapiro: She searches for deeper meaning in spirituality and religion.
Accidental Buddhist by Dinty Moore: A man trying to immerse himself in Buddhist practices and beliefs.

Fatherhood
The Film Club by David Gilmour: A father agrees to let his son drop out of high school with the proviso that they watch movies together.

Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler: A young man falls under a mysterious illness, and his father writes of the grief and search for courage.

Reason #5: To share their story, authors overcome shame and privacy

Some memories evoke the emotion of shame, which tries to convince us to lock our thoughts away and never reveal them. It requires courage to share such memories with the world. Every time someone achieves that goal, it offers a role model for other aspiring memoir writers. Here are some of the books that in another age would have been kept locked in terrible secrecy.

Lucky by Alice Sebold: A girl is brutally raped in college and must go on a journey of self-discovery, making sense of her life after trauma.

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff: A young man grows up with edgy, directionless experimentation.

Ten Points by Bill Strickland  In raising his little girl, the author tries to make peace with the abuse in his own childhood.

Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner: The author falls in love with a man who starts out charming, and the more she commits to him, the more violent and dangerous he becomes.

I Know Horror Father Because I Know You by Sue William Silverman: Sexually abused as a child, she shares a disturbing account of growing up fearing the man responsible for caring for her.

Reason #6: In the River of Culture, Writers and the Writing Life

All memoirs reflect the journey from life to literature, but when memoirs take us inside the writing life, we gain an even deeper appreciation for the written words that form the fabric of our culture. These stories shed light on the nobility and magic of being literate human beings.

On Writing by Stephen King: A famous author shares the story of becoming a writer.
Mentor by Tom Grimes: A student at the Iowa Writers Workshop shares an account of his relationship with the director of the program.

Only as good as your word, advice from my favorite writing mentors by Susan Shapiro: Shapiro tells of her long journey as an aspiring New York writer, by sharing the stories of important influences.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico – Memoir of A Sensual Quest For Spiritual Healing by Rick Skwiot: The author leaves his corporate job and moves to Mexico to find himself and his writing voice.

Mentor by Tom Grimes: An aspiring author enters Iowa Writers Workshop and practically worships at the altar of the craft.

Reason #7 Learn about the development of identity

Until I started reading memoirs, I thought childhood development was something I would only read about in textbooks. Now, in Coming of Age memoirs, I accompany people on the journey from infant to fully formed adult. Along the way are the strange trials and learning during the adolescent years when we must construct our notions of self. But Coming of Age doesn’t always follow a straight path, or necessarily finish by the age of twenty. Many authors tell of their ongoing effort to become themselves.

Coming of Age
Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls: Tales of chaotic upbringing land on the bestseller lists.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: A boy in Ireland with a drunk father and overwhelmed mother, must figure out how to grow up.

Townie by Andre Dubus III: A boy grows up relying on his fists. As he grows, he becomes curious about his father, a famous story writer, and gradually trades in his gloves for a pen.

Name all the animals by Alison Smith: A girl loses her brother in a tragic accident, and grows up struggling to find herself.

Extended or Late Coming of Age
Accidental Lessons by David Berner: He loses his marriage and career, and becomes a schoolteacher, starting over in his 50s.

Dopefiend by Tim Elhajj: Squandering his teen years in heroin addiction, he finally becomes clean at the age most of us are finished Coming of Age. The memoir is his journey to discover what adult life is all about.

Tis by Frank McCourt: After he arrives in New York, he must invent his own life. Through trial, error, and education, he gradually develops into a fully formed adult.

Life Summary
In many of my memoir workshops, people over 50 try to make sense of the events of their lives. I love this journey of discovery, and at the same time I am aware of the fine line that distinguishes memoir from autobiography. If you attempt to describe your whole life, the result is usually considered less literary, and more historical. However, I have seen evidence that with a sincere, artistic attempt to find the story, such writers can develop a compelling work. And how else will we ever learn to understand the entire journey, unless we write about it? For now, most of the people who achieve bookstore success with this type of memoir are already famous. In the future, I believe ordinary people will achieve success with this form.

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill: An editor in a venerable publishing house in England writes about the journey of life.

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda: His journey through life recounts formative experiences that help us appreciate the impact of extended periods of time.

Golden Willow by Harry Bernstein: After the age of 95, when his acclaimed memoir Invisible Wall was published, Bernstein continues to write two more memoirs. The third one, Golden Willow is written from the point of view of a man in his 90s, looking back on the sweep of life experience.

Moll Flanders by Daniel Dafoe is a fake autobiography written in 1721 about a woman who struggles to find her way, and often loses it, in her journey through life. Considering that it has survived as a classic for almost 300 years suggests that a lifetime can make good reading, when portrayed with expert storytelling skills.

Reason #8 Extend my vision to other parts of the world

At every stage of my life I have been influenced by wars and global politics. In high school, I was traumatized by repercussions of the Holocaust. In college, I was lost in the upheaval of the Vietnam War. In recent years, the power struggles of the mid-east have taken center stage. Over the years, I’ve been disturbed and intrigued by developments in India, Asia, and Africa. Now memoir writers take me on intimate tours of those conflagrations and forces of history.

Man on Mao’s Right by Ji Chaozhu: History of China during the reign of Chairman Mao.

Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson: Glimpse of the back country of Mongolia

House on Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper: Growing up privileged in Liberia

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Asar Nafisi: an English literature teacher faces danger in post-revolutionary Iran.

Vietnam: Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham: After Coming of Age in America, Pham quits his job and goes on a bicycle tour through Vietnam to discover his roots.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba, an African boy falls in life with practical gadgets and manufactures a windmill to generate electricity.

Reason #9 Learn about people attempting to relate to each other

When I was young, romantic love and lust were so tangled I had no idea how to tell one from the other. Over the years, I came to believe that the principle difference between the two comes to light in the commitment of a mutually respectful partnership. This simple insight took years of trial and error, but now that I read memoirs, I can speed up the movie. Memoirs tell of the emotional complexity of love, babies, sex, extended families, careers, and all the other things that go into a couple’s life.

Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Cook Fineberg: a newlywed woman moves with her husband to Japan and in this foreign culture must also discover herself within the relationship.

Digging Deep by Boyd Lemon: In this retrospective attempt to understand his three failed marriages, Lemon completely exposes his own limitations. While it was happening he assumed it was all their fault, but now looking, he realizes his only contribution to the relationship was money.

Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story, by Judith Dickerman-Nelson, she falls in love and becomes pregnant at the age of 16, and has much to figure out about love, social approval, commitment, and becoming a couple.

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman: a woman attempts to make a marriage work within the many rules and constraints of her Hasidic culture.

Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner: Her young love goes terribly wrong when she discovers her new husband is an abuser.

Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener: Tells the whole journey of love, marriage, and then surviving his illness and death when he is struck with cancer.

(This is a rewrite of an article published January 4, 2008 called Eight Reasons to Read Memoirs by Jerry Waxler)

Notes

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

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life

by Jerry Waxler

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

David W. Berner, author of the memoir “Accidental Lessons” should have been satisfied with his successful career as a newscaster. Instead he hated chasing the latest sensational story in order to increase ratings. His distaste for his work infected his marriage. His wife couldn’t stand living in the shadow of this hollow man and so, they parted.

The memoir “Accidental Lessons” begins with the demolition of David W. Berner’s life and for the rest of the book, he builds himself up. He goes back to school to earn teaching credentials and he takes a job in a public high school. As a beginning teacher, he makes freshman mistakes with students, and when he tries to date a young woman, he behaves like an amateur there, too.

Can a beginner be a hero?

When I read a thriller, I expect the hero to know exactly what to do. However, I enjoy memoirs for the opposite reason. The protagonists of most memoirs are beginners whose journey is paved with mistakes. That’s the case in Coming of Age stories which are, by definition, about beginners. Children in blockbusters like Jeanette Walls in “Glass Castle” must make the journey from helplessness to adulthood. Readers cheer her, not because of her expertise, but because of her vulnerability.

Children are not the only beginners. Adults often find themselves starting over. Will readers cheer for older beginners, the way they do for young ones? David Berner’s memoir suggests that the answer is “yes.” His place at the bottom of the totem pole contrasts sharply with his success in broadcasting. And yet, as he bumbles along, trying to figure out how to make a positive impact on these kids, it is easy for me to cheer him on. I turn the pages, thinking, “Please grow.” “Please learn.”

Writing Prompt
In your own memoir, you might cringe at the mistakes and frustrations of starting over. Rediscovering these periods also highlights your courage. Write about a situation in your life that pushed you out of your comfort zone and forced you to take a new approach.

Writing Prompt
All memoir writers expose situations and emotions that most people keep hidden. We writers must learn new language arts. And we have to overcome reluctance and press on with tenacity. To get in touch with your vulnerability and courage, write a scene that shows you overcoming some emotional obstacle on your writing journey.

Second Coming of Age

At the beginning of the 21st century, more of us stay active well past the traditional retirement years. So how do we find meaning during our extended years? Stories like “Accidental Lessons” are perfect demonstrations of how such a “second act” can succeed.

David Berner’s new career is not just about regaining his earning power. In order to feel good about himself he needs to help young people feel good about themselves. He needs these kids as much as they need him. And even though as a new teacher he doesn’t know all the procedures of his position, he knows enough about life and love.

Through the memoir, he shows his sometimes-clumsy attempt to let his students understand he cares about them. In some cases his effort pays off, providing support to the kids and meaning to the teacher. I find the book to be a wonderful exploration of one man’s effort to create a more worthwhile life than the one he constructed the first time.

Teachers serve kids (and readers) in exchange for a sense of purpose

I love the fact that David Berner finds meaning through teaching. This is the third inspiring high-school teaching book I’ve read. The first two were “Teacher Man,” by Frank McCourt, and “Freedom Writer’s Diary” by Erin Gruell. In each of these books, an adult pours out information and support in the hope that children will grow. In exchange for their effort, they achieve their own sense of purpose.

Each of these teachers then wrested stories from their mundane experiences. By turning life into story, they created additional social value from their effort. I didn’t have to leave my home in order to vicariously experience their sense of purpose and uplift, and to learn more about my own years in a classroom, through the eyes of a teacher.

In the external world, David Berner traded in a glitzy career for an incredibly unglamorous one. However, inside himself and inside the kids, beautiful things were happening. Just as he filled himself up with his journey, by sharing it, he filled me up too.

Writing Prompt
What sorts of other new skills or crafts do you want to learn, “before it is too late”? Write a scene in which you are taking steps to achieve those goals.

Notes

David W. Berner’s Home Page

Three Part Interview with Author David W. Berner
Interview Part 1
Interview Part 2
Interview Part 3
The author of the memoir Accidental Lessons answers questions about the craft and experience of writing the book.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Why Coming of Age Memoirs ought to be a genre

by Jerry Waxler

One of the most haunting books I read in high school was James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” His childhood in Dublin was radically different from mine in Philadelphia, so I couldn’t figure out why his story moved me. Now, I look back and realize we both experienced the terrible anxiety of being young. During the period between the ages of say 13 and 23, I struggled to relate to my family and to excel in school. I clumsily attempted to learn the rules of friendships, sexuality, money, and responsibility. And far too often, my best effort led me to a dead end. Finally, I was spit onto the shores of adulthood, gasping for air.

Even on that terra firma, I felt shaky. You mean I have to keep going? When does it get easy?

To learn why life had not turned out according to plan, I spent years in talk therapy and read scores of self-help books. I went to graduate school to learn how to provide psychotherapy to others. But my understanding of that long, unsatisfying transition from child to adult still eluded me. How could i help others if my own transition to adulthood felt confusing? Finally, I found the solution. I can learn about that period of my life by reading memoirs.

Some of the most popular modern memoirs have been about that stage in the author’s development. The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr tells about growing up in Texas with two parents who were drowning in their own lives. Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls tells of a chaotic childhood, traveling from town to town escaping her father’s demons. In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt grew up in Ireland in a family where alcohol and poverty played a key role. And This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff tells of an ordinary boy with a single mom. She tries to take care of him, but to a large extent, he has to take care of himself.

These Coming of Age tales make one thing clear. Parents have flaws. They can’t always be there. They make mistakes that cause their family to suffer. Each of these dramas reminds me of the extreme vulnerability of children and the importance of parental guidance.

These books often show the role of money. For example, Tobias Wolff’s mother married a man she didn’t love in order to provide a home for her son. Jeanette Walls ate margarine sandwiches to stave off hunger. Frank McCourt scavenged bits of coal that had fallen off trucks, and his mother waited at her husband’s factory on payday to try to get his check before he could drink it away.

Alcohol comes up a lot. Sometimes the parents are drunk, and sometimes it’s the kids who have started to explore the anesthetic properties of drinking. Religion is often invoked as a way to keep kids in line, which in turn creates confusion about these belief systems. Other institutions come up as well. Kids spend a lot of time in school, where they must survive tests from teachers as well as from peers. And constantly, parents and society try to counsel the kids on how to behave.

Until the last few years, no one was ever supposed to talk about life inside their home. It wouldn’t be “right.” Coming of Age memoirs have broken through the taboo. Now that we’re comparing notes, we finally can discard once and for all the syrupy-fake television families of the 50s like “Leave it to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” Reality is much more complicated that they led us to believe.

But memoirs reveal more than secrets. They also reveal wisdom. In our younger years, we lacked the sophisticated thinking that would have let us make sense of what was going on. When we return to take another look, we identify the causes that tied it all together.

For example, in high school I did schoolwork while my peers were out playing in the back alley. Every Friday and Saturday evening I worked at my dad’s drugstore. At the time, anyone else might have immediately understood my pervasive loneliness but to me it was a mystery. Now, as I write my memoir, my adult mind untangles events and it all makes more sense.

James Joyce started the Twentieth Century by writing a semi-autobiographical story about his Coming of Age. At the beginning of the Twenty First Century such stories are becoming a regular feature of our culture. In my high school English class I also read poetry. William Wordsworth said, “The child is father of the man.” I knew it was important but its meaning was just out of reach. Now, thanks to reading and writing memoirs, I grasp the way that child gave birth to the person I am today.

Here are more Coming of Age stories.

— “Name all the animals” by Alison Smith. A Midwestern girl loses her brother, and discovers her sexuality amidst her grief.
— “Sleeping arrangements” by Laura Shaine Cunningham. An orphan in the Bronx was raised by two uncles, in a zany, heartwarming rendition of New York in the 50s.
— “Invisible Wall” by Harry Bernstein. A young man in Great Britain before and during World War I (yes, that’s a one) lived in a neighborhood split through the center of the street.
— “Colored people” by Henry Louis Gates. A black boy growing up in a tiny town in Jim Crow south finds himself. And he uses the book to try to explain this culture to his children.
— “Don’t call me mother” by Linda Joy Myers. A girl orphaned not by death but by abandonment, struggling to grow up despite her many emotional obstacles.
— “Black, White and Jewish” by Rebecca Walker. This is a book of self-discovery by the daughter of the famous author, Alice Walker.
— “Color of Water” by James McBride. A young black man explores the history of his white Jewish mother and in the process also discovers himself.
— “Tweak” by Nic Sheff. This young man falls into the clutches of crystal meth. Like any hard addiction, this one refocused his entire journey on the goal of getting high. It’s a sobering look at how badly drugs distort Coming of Age.
— “Funny in Farsi” by Firoozeh Dumas. An Iranian-American explores her childhood in America. These adventures of the Melting Pot update the many generations of immigrants who have tried to become part of this amalgamated culture.

Harry Potter was a coming of age story, about the hero’s adventure growing up in an unusual high school.

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.

Life’s desires create the chapters of our story

by Jerry Waxler

Every time I finish reading a memoir, I wonder how the author turned life into a story. After years of trying, I believe I have found a simple formula. Each book follows the author from the seed of some desire, through the journey, until they achieve their goal. Now all I need to do is apply that formula to my own memories. For every desire that propelled me, I search for the path it forced me to travel.

When I review my life, I immediately see my desire to become an adult. I remember that journey well because I had to struggle so long and hard to make it. Many aspects of early life eluded me. I couldn’t figure out how to relate to my family, or my peers. I couldn’t figure out sex, or money, or where to live. As soon as I was able, I moved 1,000 miles, from the east coast to the Midwest, and when that wasn’t far enough, I moved to the other coast, 3,000 miles from Philadelphia.

We all face this fundamental need to grow up, so it’s not surprising that some of the most popular memoirs of our era have been about the complex, sometimes disturbing process of Coming of Age. For example, Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle,” and Mary Karr’s “Liar’s Club,” all guide us through that period in the author’s life.

When we finally reached adulthood, we embark on the long middle, when career and family carry us along for decades. My long career journey, from foundry worker to technical writer and programmer, then on to graduate school for counseling psychology took up most of my life, a journey so long and complex I can only make sense of it by looking back. Amidst those years, I traveled a number of other important paths, each driven by some need for love, survival, success. The desires were different, but the cycle was the same: I wanted. I tried. I overcame obstacles. This cycle, repeated dozens of times, provided the raw material for stories through the middle of life.

Then aching knees and sagging skin announced the passing years. At first I clung to youth, creating the stereotypical mid-life crisis. Time moved further and soon, I faced a new challenge. At 62 years old, I must invent myself again, adapting to a new stage of body-mind development. I dub this period my Second Coming of Age.

To prevent some of my earlier errors, and hopefully smooth my path, I scan for stories through the years, bringing me to today. What desires are creating the next chapter of my life, right now? I make a list. More than ever, I want to “give back” to society. I also thirst for spirituality. And my passion for creativity, rather than fading, continues to intensify.

It turns out that writing my memoir satisfies most of these desires. Writing gives me a daily dose of creativity and skill-building. It helps me become more psychologically tuned to my self and my world. And it gives me opportunities to connect with writers and readers in a meaningful way. It even brings spiritual rewards. As I continue to discover the protagonist of my memoir, I look for deeper principles that will help me make sense of the entire book of my life.


Writing prompt

List the things you desired or needed during your first Coming of Age. Pick one desire and list the obstacles that stopped you from achieving that thing. Now write a scene that shows you facing and overcoming that obstacle.

Writing Prompt
List desires that are motivating you now. (For example, learning your heritage, connecting with readers, improving your credentials, satisfying a creative urge, serving a cause.) Pick one, and list the obstacles. Write a scene that shows you facing and overcoming one of these obstacles.

Link: See my article on Maslow’s Hierarchy for another discussion of the needs of human beings.

Note
The universal stages of life were explored in the Twentieth Century by psychologist Erik Erikson in his stages of Psychosocial development.

His stages of psychosocial development continue to inspire psychology students to slap their head and saying “Of course!”

Note

William Shakespeare said it superbly in an often quoted line from “As You Like It”

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ brow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” – As You Like it, Jaques (Act II, Scene VII, lines 139-166)

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.

Teaching Memoirs, Meeting Locals, Making Memories

by Jerry Waxler

When my wife’s sister, Judy, heard that her local writing group was looking for a writing teacher, she mentioned my name. She has been encouraging us to come to visit her town, Salida, with lots of artists, tucked in a valley amidst the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. If it worked out, I could teach memoir writing, while making a few memories of my own.  The directors of the group checked out my blog and other material on my website, and we began to brainstorm about how it would work.

All the memoir classes I had taught previously were broken into two hour segments. This workshop would go for eight hours straight, so one challenge would be to tailor the course to this new format. And I worried about my stamina. Would they need to carry me out on a stretcher at the end of the day? Over the next few weeks, I worked out a class schedule that I felt would offer the same value as the individual sessions. And the best way to find out if I could survive an all-day class was to try. My wife and I agreed the Rockies would create a welcome diversion from south eastern Pennsylvania, so we said “Yes. Let’s do it.”

In September, we flew in to the Denver Airport. On our drive to Chaffee County, we stopped at Colorado Springs to walk through the Garden of the Gods, a magnificent collection of brilliant orange spires, like fingers reaching up to the sky. We only had an hour to appreciate what it had taken God a million years to create. The rest of the drive was almost as spectacular. Along the canyon of the Arkansas River, the mountain faces kept changing color and texture, as if each section had been formed during a different era. I felt like I was watching the history of the earth unfold before my eyes.

In Salida, Judy showed us around the local art shops and historical buildings. The renovated Steam Plant is the home of the theater where she volunteers, and that night she took us to a rock concert, where we listened to good quality regional rock and roll, standing or swaying on a dance floor with the locals.  The next day, we ate breakfast at Bongo Billy’s Cafe, which like the Steam Plant, is a restored historical building. On the red brick walls hang works of local art and a poster that offered, “How to Build a Global Community.” I stood there and read every suggestion, as if the poster could help me understand the heart of Salida. One rule was “Visit people, not places.” I liked that rule and thought I could honor it on this trip, starting with the 25 people who had signed up for my class.

At 8 AM the next morning, arriving early at the church where the workshop was to be held, I greeted people on their way in and asked them what they wanted to accomplish in the class. Every good story starts with desire. The personal introductions segued naturally into a formal class, in which I offered an overview of memoir writing. Then it was time to learn techniques. After the first lesson, about finding the timeline, I gave a writing prompt. “Write a scene about one of the homes you lived in.” Their heads went down, and pens moved, allowing them the opportunity to ideas into action.

When it was time to read aloud, I asked them to break into groups of three so each could read their writing to two others. The room buzzed with energy while I sat alone and planned my next module. When they were done, I spoke some more, we discussed more, and they wrote and read to their small groups. The lunch break was in the adjoining kitchen, with a feast of pot luck dishes that included salads, cookies, and fruit. And then we started again.

By mid-afternoon, we had been focusing for five hours and I was running out of energy, but I couldn’t stop now. I had to press on, in an excellent example of life imitating art. The next lesson was about the long middle of a story, which could become bogged down in the passage of time. To keep the story moving, the protagonist must face and overcome obstacles. I gave one more prompt. “Write about a significant obstacle in your life.” Heads bowed, and when they looked up, this time I asked them to share their writing with the whole group.

One by one, they shared critical moments: near deaths, loves lost, disease, and recovery. I leaned forward in my chair, inspired by the variety and depth of human experience, and the power of memoir writing to shape those memories and share them. Some students choked back tears. Others were more stoical, while the rest of us nodded, and murmured in empathy. Many said, “It’s the first time I shared this with strangers.” Of course the details are protected by confidentiality, but now that the stories have been told in one group setting, my experience tells me the participants will have an easier time sharing stories in the future.

After each reading, I commented on how it fit into the course material and how they might develop it further. When we ran out of time, I thanked them for sharing their lives, and we were done. But it wasn’t over quite yet. While we were cleaning up, many people walked up and thanked me. “You helped me think about my life in a new way.” These expressions of appreciation made me feel my day was a success.

I carried out to the car the few remaining books from the stack I had brought with me to sell, one a how-to guide for writing memoirs, and the other a workbook for overcoming obstacles that can interfere with writing. On the drive back to our lodging, I shared thoughts about memories and family with Judy, who had attended the class as well.

When I returned to our room, my wife was excited by her own adventure. She had spent most of the day at an equestrian competition, watching riders roping, herding, and other events. When Janet is around horses, she’s happy, so the day was a success for her too.

To continue the horse theme, I suggested we take a trail ride to see more of the beautiful countryside. Asking around, we found a recommendation for Bill’s Sport Shop in Leadville. The next morning, we met the trail guide, George, a salty man with smiling eyes, and lots of creases in his face who bragged about his recent 77th birthday. We brushed the horses, (mine was named Ringo), saddled up and walked out amidst the big peaks and big skies of Colorado, through scrubby arid hillocks, and stands of pine trees. George turned around in his saddle to tell us about his life, working in a mine, losing his best friend in 1969 and even some bits about his love life. His love for his herd of 30 horses was obvious, considering he knew each one by name and told us anecdotes about many of them.  I was the last of the three riders, and Ringo was a little pokey so sometimes George’s voice drifted back to me and other times I ambled in silence.

Four hours later, we took the saddles off, and he let us give the horses their treat of grain. As we were leaving, I asked him, “Are you a cowboy?” He said, “I’m going to be a cowboy when I grow up.” Getting to know George, who had lived and worked in this area his whole life, I felt like I had fulfilled the suggestion on the poster at Bongo Billy’s. We were not just visiting places, but meeting people as well.

We pulled on to the road and headed out of town, back towards the Denver Airport. Leaving the mountains behind, my wife said, “I like this trip. Maybe you can find more places to teach memoir writing workshops.” “I don’t know hon. I’ll ask around.”

Note

To purchase a copy of  the poster, “How to Build Global Community” by Melinda Levine, search on the internet. For example, I turned up this link.

Chaffee County also hosts summer white water rafting down the Arkansas River, skiing at nearby Monarch Mountain, mountain climbing – it’s surrounded by fourteen thousand foot peaks of the Fourteeners. It is also on the route of the famous “Ride the Rockies” bicycle tour.

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.

Memoir by Celebrity Joan Rivers Offers Lessons for Aspiring Writers

by Jerry Waxler

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

After learning so many lessons from Steve Martin’s memoir “Born Standing Up,” I wanted more, so I jumped in to Joan Rivers’ memoir “Enter Talking.” Her path was remarkably similar to his. Year after year she too made a fool of herself in a desperate bid to please people, persisting through darkness, despair and frustration. What strange alignment of the stars caused these two comedians to suffer so we could laugh?

(To see my essay about Steve Martin’s journey click here.)

While their tales may seem to apply only to the stratospheric world of big celebrity performers, both started as ordinary people. And so, I found lessons in both their journeys that helped me on my struggle to travel from no readers to as many as possible.

Innovation makes publishers nervous

One contradiction sits mysteriously at the center of both their journeys. On one hand, audiences and talent scouts want to be entertained by a fresh voice, and on the other hand, gatekeepers shy away from an act that is too different from the ones that are already making money.

The road to success is littered with the dead acts and fatigued performers who have given up before making it through the gauntlet. And that’s exactly what makes Rivers and Martin so interesting, so informative, and in the end so famous – their relentless pursuit of unique excellence and their refusal to follow the herd. By continuing to push, inch by painful inch, they made almost imperceptible progress, polishing their act, gaining allies, and after each disappointment learning a lesson that would help them do better next time.

Their experience applies directly to memoir writers. Each memoir is its own thing. No one has ever done your particular life story before in your particular voice. But gatekeepers seek books that are similar to ones already on the bestseller list. How do you please them and stay true to yourself at the same time? These two memoirs offer insights into this seemingly impossible challenge.

Different decade, different coast

While the two memoirs bear remarkable similarities, they also have many differences. Steve Martin’s home base was Los Angeles from which he traveled to college campuses and small clubs all over North America, coping with endless miles of loneliness. Rivers’ home base was New York and her endless search was around town, begging agents’ secretaries for a few minutes with the boss, begging for stints at night clubs, venturing out of town for gigs in the Catskills, and a stint at the Second City Improv in Chicago.

Pacing of the memoir works like a thriller

Despite her relentless efforts, for six years Joan Rivers only had scattered success in a few clubs and occasional tours. But the Holy Grail of national exposure on television eluded her. When Jack Paar invited her on to his influential television show, she thought she had arrived. Weirdly, after the show he told his producers not to invite her back, calling her a “liar.” He didn’t understand that her ironically exaggerated stories were jokes. Crushed, she returned to small clubs.

After a few years, she was no longer a kid, and agents started to call her “old news,” and said if she was going to succeed she would have already done so. Over and over she hit the wall of rejection. This heart breaking cycle continued for hundreds of pages, like in a thriller in which the smell of disaster encourages readers to move on to the next page.

Finally, finally, at the very end of the book, her agent practically forced Johnny Carson’s producers to accept her for a spot. From the moment she walked on to the set, Carson clicked with her humor. He laughed. He fed her lines. And he praised her on camera. The tension broke, and the next day her agent called to tell her she would not earn less than $300 a week for the rest of her life. In a surge of joy and accomplishment, Rivers shouted at the world “I was right.”

Satisfying Character Arc

I found the almost abrupt end of the book to provide a focused emotional release equivalent to a well placed punch line. I think at least some of the satisfaction results from her character arc. As we follow her from amateur to professional comedian, the story arc shows us not only her external journey. It takes us deep inside Rivers’ psyche.

When she first tried her hand at comedy, she repeated jokes learned from other comedians. Gradually she tried more authentic material, improvised from her own experience. When she saw the irreverent performances of Lenny Bruce, she realized that he ferociously battled ignorance by telling truth more bluntly than it had ever been told. She had an epiphany that truth is the one thing that makes life worth living and she vowed to incorporate confession as the centerpiece of her comedy.

For example, she was hired at the last minute to take someone’s place in a performance. Many times in her career, she had been hired to do a gig and then fired after the first night by producers who hated her act. So she worked her fear into the routine. “I don’t know how long I’ll be working here. I notice they wrote my name in pencil on the poster out front.” She turned her vulnerability into a joke.

Her most vulnerable disclosures came from the arguments with her parents, who expected her to be more “normal.” She was a middle class girl with a degree from a prestigious college, daughter of a respected doctor. Desperate to succeed she moved out of the suburbs to live practically homeless in Manhattan, a move that so outraged and frightened her parents, they threatened to have her committed. By baring these fights with her parents she brings the same relentless commitment to honesty to her memoir as she offers onstage.

The memoir is a stunning expose of herself, her sorrow, the bitterness between her and her parents, and her struggle to find her own unique place in the world. The rejection and arguments didn’t tear her apart. Instead, the adversity seems to have made her strong, and provided the basis for a public career that has spanned 40 years, giving her the rare opportunity to become rich and famous by being exactly who she is.

Notes
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.

Turn economic hardships into stories of strength

by Jerry Waxler

Jutting out of the landscape of our lives are those times when we struggled to provide for ourselves and our family. Whether we were transitioning to a new career or scrambling to recover from a layoff or other setback, we stumbled through uneven and unfamiliar territory. Years later, we take pride in our effective decisions and the cunning with which we applied old skills and learned new ones. We overcame discouragement and other obstacles and survived. Now as we tell the story of those triumphs, we develop our role as the hero at the center of our own life.

But what about today’s challenges? In the last few years, millions of us lost savings and jobs, forcing us into economic changes we didn’t anticipate. In some distant future, when we write the memoir of these times, we will again discover the resilience, strengths, and the excitement of the story. But for now, it’s hard to feel like a hero, constrained as we are by the narrower scope of just getting through the day.

One way to improve your perspective is to develop as quickly as possible the story of these hard times. Stories let you grasp the whole situation, letting strength dominate worry. Through stories you can find courage, poise, and make better sense of your choices. And stories have one more benefit. They let you share your experiences, providing an opportunity for mutual support. I have been following two organizations who have taken a keen interest in turning stories of economic survival into the shared experience of a community.

One group, called Civic Ventures, was founded by Marc Freedman, author of the book “Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life by Marc Freedman.” Freedman’s organization, Civic Ventures now also publishes the Encore Careers website to provide a forum for people going through the transition to a new career. The site is loaded with stories of people who have reinvented themselves, turning loss and frustration into a catalyst for renewal.

The other organization that is encouraging people to tell their stories is First Person Arts, . Their programs help people share the artistry of life experience through paintings, video, and written works. First Person Arts even conducts “story slams” in Philadelphia, adding live performance to the teller’s repertoire.

Because of the historic changes in the economy in the last year, First Person Arts has launched a national story writing contest, to solicit stories of how individuals are coping and adapting and reacting to hardship. Inspired by the explosion of storytelling in the Great Depression, the First Person Arts contest encourages people to find their stories and share them. For more about the contest, click here.

To organize your story, consider the universal framework that converts life experience into a narrative form that other people will relate to. In the beginning there is a protagonist who wants something – in this case economic survival, with a dash of dignity and satisfaction. On the road towards that goal, you push through or outsmart the obstacles. You gather allies and skills, and overcame discouragement. By the end, you achieve some goal. To help you get the ball rolling, I’ve listed a few questions. Try answering them as if you are giving an interview. (If you’d like, post them here, or on other storytelling sites.)

“What was your goal?”

Look for a mix of motivations that drove you forward. Be specific (“I want my old job back”) or general, (“I want to find satisfaction”). In fact, this may be the most important part of the exercise. By trying to explain what creates the dramatic tension in your story, you will begin to see it more clearly yourself.

“What were the main obstacles that blocked you from achieving that goal?”

The external ones will be relatively obvious, like money, education, or age. But like any good story, there is also an inner dimension. What did you fear? What options were you reluctant to face? Did you impulsively lunge forward, meaning your biggest obstacle was lack of clear thinking? Turn storytelling into a mirror. As you explain your story to others, you’ll understand more about yourself.

“What tools, allies, and choices helped you overcome these obstacles?”

In any good story, the thrill is seeing the protagonist overcome the enemies, and reach the end of the maze. How did you do it? What mentors gave you  advice? What learning did you acquire? Cleverness is a fun story element. What choice felt especially cunning?

“What milestones did you pass?”

Describe the important milestones to let the reader see how things moved from beginning to end.

“When did you know you ‘arrived’?”

The satisfaction of reading the story comes from achieving or releasing the dramatic tension you established at the beginning.

“What would tell others who want to make this journey?”

A good story often has a second payoff. After the external goal is achieved (you got the job), you can offer the reader the additional reward of offering what you learned or how you grew.

It will take additional effort and skill to polish your interview and turn it into something fun to read. But it’s worth it. While you challenge yourself to achieve the goal, you’ll also be gaining some lovely benefits, not the least of which is to increase your ability to tell a story. Learning this knack of telling your story could be the best investment you can make, because once you own the skill, it will pay dividends for the rest of your life.