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

By Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

High School Trolley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

Escaping the prison of what might have been

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.)

Tony Cohan, author of the memoir “Native State” grew up listening to his father speak about popular musicians with the awe usually reserved for gods. Cohan’s father, Phil, produced a variety show in the heyday of radio, and famous performers like Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante filled dad’s heart with admiration and also put food on his table. It was natural for young Tony to want to grow up to be one of the performers his dad revered. At 13-years-old Tony played his first gig as a drum player at a high school dance. Then he moved “up” to bars and strip clubs. A few years later, his ambition took him to North Africa and Spain, where he played with the hippest jazz performers, but nothing satisfied him. No matter how far he progressed as a musician, his life remained stuck in dimly lit nightclubs, poverty, drugs, and danger.

Flash forward a couple of decades. Cohan is earning his living as a successful writer, living in Mexico with his girl friend. This explains why he felt stuck all those years. Music was taking him in the wrong direction. He wasn’t able to find satisfaction until he escaped his original goal. Empathizing with Cohan’s frustration, I turn pages, wanting him to find his true dream.

I have met many men and women whose lives started in one direction, say towards a profession, or marriage and babies, or the family business. Then they end up somewhere else. Often the change in direction leaves them or their parents confused, as if they have disrupted destiny or lost a crucial component of their own identity.

Later in life, they look back and wonder about the discrepancy between the initial story and the later one. If they describe it as they originally felt it, it raises issues of disappointment and regret, or anger and rebellion. They feel echoes of the initial confusion. All these years later, something about the transition into adulthood still feels “wrong.” And yet if they don’t include it, the story feels incomplete, as if they are ignoring major events.

I had such a fracture in my own Coming of Age. On the rare nights when dad could get away from the store to join the family for dinner, he told stories about his customers. His tone about most people was overly familiar, jocular, often condescending. But when he talked about doctors, the tone changed. As a pharmacist, he was simply fulfilling their orders. They were his gods. I didn’t want to be one of the mortals, the everyday people who became the butt of dad’s jokes. I wanted to be one he respected. To achieve that dream, I became increasingly tense about amassing knowledge. My intellectual drive constricted my view of myself and my role in the world.

By the time I was 18, I had become hyper-focused on science, math, and medicine, and becoming a doctor was the only Truth worth living for. Then, something very strange and disturbing happened. I entered college during the sixties, when cultural and political upheaval stirred my world into a frenzy. I became interested in philosophy and literature. Shaken loose from my original obsession, I started rebelling against everything, and then dropped out to pursue some hippie utopian fantasy.

I replay the events over and over. I was a hardworking and competent young man with a well-stocked arsenal of academic gifts already in place by the time I was 18. I wanted this one thing so badly. Then, like a clown stepping on a banana peel, I slipped and fell on my ass. For years, I thought my academic pratfall meant I was a failure. I didn’t live up to my own or my father’s expectations. Now as I review Tony Cohan’s story, I see my life journey from a different point of view.

When I threw myself into the social revolution and rejected everything my father and family stood for, it was not an accident. It was a choice. Math and science satisfied me mentally but cut me off emotionally from the rest of the world. Something inside me was crying out for release. Like a prisoner who takes advantage of a riot to cover his escape, I used the sixties to help me break out.

It turned out to be a messy process. Without my father’s dream, I was on my own. In the following decades, I explored a rich variety of life styles, shared my days with a far broader set of companions, pursued creative outlets in computers and psychology, writing and spirituality. The life that I actually lived is fine, despite the fact that it’s different from the one I thought I was heading towards.

For most of my life, I have tried to forget that loss of momentum, hating the accompanying emotions of failure and regret. Who wants to dwell on the crappy past? But finally, now that I apply my storytelling intelligence, I begin to see how one boy’s life played out. The events in high school and college, while seeming so vast at the time, were just the beginning of the story, not the end. In the beginning I thought I understood how life was supposed to be. And then came the decades of learning how it actually was. As I translate the fragments of my life into my life story, I develop a much deeper understanding of my own path.

In one sense, we are all “trapped.” First we are confined by the expectations instilled in us by our family, community, and society. Second, we feel trapped by what already happened. As life plays out, our past choices limit us to only a sliver of the infinite possibilities that might have been.

Yet, in addition to these two confinements there are also two freedoms. First, we apply our intelligence and creativity to make the best choices in each new moment. Second, as storytellers, we are free to interpret our past in the most interesting and engaging way. That original story of who we were supposed to be was just a springboard. Now it is our choice to craft the story of what actually happened. By exploring the past as a storyteller, we can become more accepting of this complex person, with all the twists and energy that have emerged from the cauldron of the past.

Writing Prompt
What initial story did you feel constrained to follow? Which parts did you end up fulfilling? Which parts did you not? Write an anecdote about a time when you felt your earlier dream slipping away. Write another one about an early image of yourself coming true.

Writing Prompt
Consider any regrets you might have about an earlier direction that felt like it slipped away. Look at those experiences as a storyteller, and create a positive reason for turning in the new direction. Write a story in the third person about a satisfied person who lived the life you actually lived. In your story, let this satisfied person meet a miserable person who followed the course you originally thought you were supposed to follow.

Writing Prompt
Another approach is to develop an alternative reality in fiction. By setting yourself free in the world of imagination, you can discover entire lifetimes. Write an anecdote about a key transition. Use it as a basis for a fictional story, and see where your imagination takes your character.

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

Steve at work – life lessons arise from conflict

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.)

I needed to work with Steve on a project. Since we had never worked together, I went to his cubicle to break the ice. As I approached his face darkened. He reached over, lifted his phone, and slammed it down, accompanied with a curse to drive home his point. “Shit!” he said to no one in particular, then looked up. “What do you want?” I don’t know when Steve decided he didn’t like me, but from that moment the deal was sealed.

For the last few years, I had been attending graduate school at night. My study of counseling psychology was teaching me how to sit quietly in an office and help clients cope with their stress. My situation with Steve was different. I was the one who was out facing the world, and I didn’t understand how to handle my hurt and frustrated feelings. I made an appointment with a therapist, and from our discussion I realized I have been avoiding conflict my whole life. But this time I couldn’t run away. I needed to deal with it, and that meant developing a new life skill.

So I did what I always do when things get tough. I bought a pile of books. At night I read about conflict resolution and the next day tried out my lessons in the “laboratory” at the office.

The most basic principle was to quit putting all the blame on the other guy. Looking at this situation as entirely his fault left me powerless to change it. Breaking out of the habit of blaming required a strange internal debate. “Of course it’s his fault,” I thought. And then I countered, “but that attitude does me no good.”

The second principle was to try to put myself in his position and imagine what the world looked like through his eyes. It was a mind expanding exercise, and while I obviously couldn’t know his view, speculating about it provided insights. After thinking about the situation with an open mind, I considered the possibility that I represented some sort of threat. I tried to look less threatening by smiling more and asking what I could do to help him.

Another technique I learned from my books was to make deposits into an “emotional bank account.” I hoped that by asking him about his family, I could establish rapport and increase the trust. Unfortunately, Steve blocked my emotional offerings right from the beginning.

For a year I tweaked my conflict resolution strategies. Nothing worked. To survive emotionally, I said supportive things to myself, like “This too will pass”, and “I can handle this.” I used deep breathing and muscle relaxation. Except for a couple of bad days, I kept my nose above water. Eventually, for issues unrelated to me, he left the company. Life returned to the ordinary pressures of the office, and I forgot about him, until I started looking for ways to write my memoir.

It’s hard to tell stories about life in an office when years keep rolling by, with nothing more to show for them than wrinkled skin and gray hair. And yet, ignoring those years doesn’t seem right either. As I ponder this storytelling conundrum, I believe the scenario with Steve provides a solution. Not only does this edgy situation provide a glimpse into how those years worked. It also provides some powerful lessons about what makes life worth living. Here are a few lessons I found by exploring this particular situation.

The characters in my life are real people
In good stories, all the characters have reasons for their actions. To discover these motivations, writing instructors suggest you develop a portrait of every character. Where did they grow up? What do they want? When I stretched beyond myself to see the world through Steve’s eyes, I was being forced to learn not only how to reduce conflict, but also to portray richer, more complex characters in my story.

Not everyone likes me
A world in which everyone liked me would seem so bland. I can add texture by learning this profoundly simple lesson in life: There are some people who think I’m stupid, nuts, edgy, a poor excuse for a human being. Accepting this fact makes me a more resilient person as well as a better storyteller.

I’ve grown
As I tried to cope with this office conflict, I had to exercise patience, and some of the other good qualities that elevate humans closer to angels. He forced me to learn and grow. All those years of plodding through life may have looked like they were going nowhere, but on some inner dimension, my character was evolving. The inner development of the character lingers in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.

I don’t see Steve’s eventual departure as a victory of good over evil. Rather I see it as a logical step in a longer story. He came, challenged me to grow, finished his work and moved on to help others find deeper meaning and greater strength. It turns out that Steve was one of my greatest teachers.

Writing Prompt
Consider an endless sequence of actions in your life, such as going to work, or school, or gardening, or getting your hair done. One way to represent repeated experiences in your memoir is to look for peak anecdotes that will represent the activity. Look for any anecdote that jumps out. See if you can tell it as a good story. If so, there’s a good chance you can use it to stand in as an example for all the repetitions.

Writing Prompt
Think of someone who really didn’t like you. If you feel safe, try writing a story from that person’s point of view. (If it doesn’t feel safe, try this exercise in fiction, changing names, hair color, or whatever is necessary to gain some distance.) What did that person see when they looked at you? Why was it okay from their point of view to see you that way? Now, still in their point of view, write a portrait of someone that person actually did like.

For one of the best observations about the working life I’ve ever read, consider this passage from Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

“It was all those people in the cars coming the other way,” she says. “The first one looked so sad. And then the next one looked exactly the same way, and then the next one and the next one, they were all the same.”

“They were just commuting to work.”

She perceives well but there was nothing unnatural about it. “Well, you know, work,” I repeat. “Monday morning. Half asleep. Who goes to work Monday morning with a grin?”

“It’s just that they looked so lost,” she says. “Like they were all dead. Like a funeral procession.” Then she puts both feet down and leaves them there.

I see what she is saying, but logically it doesn’t go anywhere. You work to live and that’s what they are doing. “I was watching swamps,” I say.

Recommended Books
Resolving Conflict Sooner, The powerfully simple 4-step method for reaching better agreements more easily in your everyday life,” by Kare Anderson

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey

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

Rediscovering why I read books throughout my lifetime

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.)

Books have always played an important role in my life, influencing, informing, and entertaining. Now I want to pass forward to others the benefits I have received. One of the steps of offering my thoughts to “the world” is to visualize who might be on the receiving end. Communication does, after all, require a speaker and a listener. So who are “those people” out there to whom I am speaking? One approach to understanding how books work for them is to explore how books have worked for me. By picking apart the way books have worked in my life, I hope to learn how other people use books.

When I lay out my recollections on paper, patterns emerge, much simpler and more sensible than expected, letting me identify the way I used books differently in various eras of my life. Perhaps this fact should have been obvious to me from the start, but it wasn’t and now once again, I find myself learning more about the changes across the lifespan by going back and reviewing my own.

Different reasons for reading at different stages in life
In early teen years, I fell into a torrid love affair with science fiction, a genre that let me suspend my own limitations, and join forces with people who adventured through the known and unknown universe. Regular trips to the library and a large paperback collection fed my passion for fantasy. Then in high school, I switched to more serious literature, like Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas, basking in the hypnotic rhythm of their language and stories. It didn’t bother me that they described a world that took place 100 years earlier. In fact, in one of my favorite books from that period, “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Mark Twain transported the protagonist back several hundred years, combining literature with science fiction.

When I was twenty, I desperately wanted clever people to tell me what life was going to be like, so I ran towards the darkness of a culture driven mad by World War II. One of the most intellectually demanding books I ever read, “The One Dimensional Man” by Herbert Marcuse left me feeling that all was insanity and all was lost. Mentors like Samuel Beckett and Joseph Heller offered a cynical emptiness, so deep and despairing that by the time I stopped reading I had entered my own hell. Perhaps I was experiencing “Clinical Depression” or perhaps I had simply spent too much time absorbing post-World War II despair. Whatever it was, I had my fill of the dark.

To regain some of the lightness required for survival, I reached towards spirituality, reading books by mystical authors who offered me insights into a reality that made more sense than the one I had constructed so far. One was Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yoga [See my essay on a memoir about Paramahansa Yogananda by clicking here.] There were many others. Rumi, the ancient Persian poet who continues to influence and uplift. Kahlil Gibran. The Book of Mirdad. The Way of the Pilgrim, about a Russian monk who learns the art of constant prayer. Some potent books, like Stewart White’s “Betty Book” were recommended by a friend who had found them on dusty shelves of a used bookstore. (Ah-ha! It’s not just bestselling books that influence a reader.)

I finally got back on my feet, and as a young working man, I returned to mysteries. Their repetitive formula soothed me by unmasking the villain and reducing the chaos of the world.

In my forties I discovered self-help books. During this period, authors taught me psychological skills to help me survive the working life, and improve my chances for aging gracefully. My foray into self-help reached a zenith in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, whose ideas formed the foundation for going back to school for a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. I continued my fascination with self-help and psychological literature, to help me continue to grow, as well as to give me insights with which I could help others.

When I approached sixty, I switched again, reading memoir after memoir to learn what sorts of lives people have written.

My changing tastes offer many insights
When I look back over the decades, what looked originally like a thousand disjointed bits of information fall into a nicely organized shape. Of course there were exceptions that don’t precisely fit into this convenient stratification, but those don’t disrupt the basic lesson — That as I grew, I used books in different ways. My insights about books through the years becomes a lens through which I can learn more not only about myself, but about how I interacted with the world around me.

Like almost every task in my memoir project, evaluating my past adds information to my present. I see so much more about my relationship with books, and book authors, a realization that will deepen my understanding of how to reach my readers. In further essays, I will write more about how these changing relationships might affect the way I organize my life story, ideas that I hope will inspire you to understand more about your own relationship with your potential audience.

Writing Prompt: For each period in your life, write about the books you read, and why you read them. List your favorite titles, and describe the impact they had on you. Place this list in order, and see if you can identify any patterns about how they changed over the years.

Note: Memoirs are so varied they provide a variety of the benefits I have looked for in the course of my reading. Memoirs can be exhilarating, provide lots of entertainment, and offer lessons about life. Articles about the spirituality of memoirs can be found here.

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John Robison’s Asperger’s gave me permission to write about myself

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.)

When I first saw John Robison’s memoir, “Look me in the eye” I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, the subtitle “My Life with Asperger’s” provided a clue about the book’s topic. On the other hand, I was afraid that the label would narrow the scope of the story to just one dimension. I eventually decided to read the book, and after finishing it I realize how far off the mark my first impressions were. John Robison uses the label Asperger’s not to shrink his worldview but to expand it. And even better, his label has helped me understand some things about myself.

What is Asperger’s?
People with Asperger’s Syndrome are awkward in their relationships to people, and often are physically clumsy as well. The description of someone with this “disorder” sounds remarkably similar to me and my fellow nerds in the honors class at Central High School, the all-academic public school I attended in Philadelphia. We preferred books over people, and had little interest in sports. We had plenty to do within our own mind. Everything else came second, if at all. While many people diagnosed with Asperger’s suffer symptoms far more severe than these, I was able to relate personally to the comparatively mild symptoms described in Robison’s memoir.

Permission to be “dull and introspective”
I went to camp in the mountains of Maryland, one month each summer between the ages of 9 and 11. I remember lying on the scratchy wool blanket on my hard bunk. I feel the bang and bend as I pounded a shiny copper sheet into a wooden mold, forming a nubbly metal ashtray. I taste my first corn fritters swimming in maple syrup in a noisy mess hall. But I don’t remember one single other person, child or adult, from those three months. Except for a few instances, I don’t even clearly remember growing up with my brother and sister. I had figured out how to survive in my own world, preferring reading over sports or other games and on weekends working in my dad’s drugstore. One of the most emotional moments I remember from my high school years happened when I walked into a bookstore and I felt overwhelmed by grief that there were too many books for me to ever read. I actually started to cry.

My lack of awareness of other children makes my descriptions of those years sound like I was alone. How will I ever be able to explain my life, when so much of it was spent inside my own mind? Until I read John Robison’s book, I assumed I had to hide my excessive introspection, ignore my high tech jobs and love for math, and the fact that it took until I was 35 to relate to a woman well enough to form a loving relationship. I thought to be worth reading, I had to restrict my memoir to “normal” behaviors, and had to transform my experience into picturesque portrayals like other authors I admire.

Instead of hating my condition or trying to hide it, I can now look at it more appropriately. People in my “condition” behave this way normally! The facts are the same but now, armed with Robison’s insights, I am able to look more closely at a wider variety of memories, and explore how to find the dramatic tension in the person I really was, rather than trying to force myself to sound like someone I wanted to be.

Robison even makes the case that looking inward is a valuable skill. After all, engineers, scientists, and writers must go inside their mind to do their work. And everyone benefits from carefully weighing options in order to make the most effective decisions. After reading “Look Me in the Eye” I realize there is room in the world for a variety of memoirs, and that someone with a mind like mine can write an acceptable, even fascinating story about their lives.

He turned coping with his own flaws into an opportunity to serve others
Robison started in life feeling limited and confused. Through this journey, he has discovered many things about himself. First he applied his mind logically to create excellent pranks. Then these same mental attributes helped create special effects for the rock and roll band, KISS. Then he used his mental abilities to solve high-tech problems in game manufacturing company. Next, he added people to the mix by starting an auto repair shop. Learning to deal with customers was his new hurdle. Look at how the protagonist of Robison’s memoir evolved through the story. By the end of this journey he understood so much more about life than when he started.

When I look for the net result of my life, the “reason I am here,” a question that has haunted me since I was 20, I believe that John Robison’s book offers me an intriguing template. I too lived decade after decade, trying to understand who I was and how to live more wisely. Perhaps somewhere in that long journey, I can find experience that could help others. At least that is my dream.

Reaching my sixtieth birthday could look suspiciously like I’m approaching The End. Is this truly time to close the book? I don’t feel finished. Perhaps the opportunity to pass along my accumulated experience provides the topic for the next chapter. When I first saw John Robison’s book, I would never have expected it to provide a model for my future, but there it is. John Robison’s life, or more accurately, his memoir about his life, has landed squarely in the center of my dream. Reach the “end” of a lifelong journey, look back across the landscape and find the wisdom contained in it. Then begin the new journey of sharing that knowledge with others.

Writing Prompt: Pick out some theme or period in your life that you think might make a good story. Now look for the main dramatic payoff to the reader. What goal did you want to achieve or what obstacle did you want to overcome. Now explain how you reached that goal by the end of the story.


To read more about Asperger’s click on this link to a Wiki Article.

To read my other article about John Robison’s “Look Me in the Eye” click here.

To visit John Robison’s blog, click here.

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How does John Robison end his memoir of lifelong learning?

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.)

The first chapter of John Robison’s memoir “Look me in the eye” was called “Little Misfit,” because Robison didn’t know how to get along with other kids, and he never seemed to do anything right. That might have set the stage for a Coming of Age story, but by the time he was 16, he had many more questions than he had answers. He left home and set off on a journey to figure it all out. His self-discovery took him the rest of his life. And I believe that’s why I love this book so much. The book does turn out to be a Coming of Age story — one that never ends.

The first time I heard a 65 year old woman say, “I’m trying to figure out who I’m going to be when I grow up” I laughed. And I also agreed with her sentiment. Decades trickle by, families grow up, jobs come and go, but exactly which morning are we supposed to wake up and say, “Oh. That’s what it was all about.” The only way I’ve found to tie it all together is to find the story. And that’s what Robison did. He lived, he learned, he grew, and then he wrote about it. Now I want to understand how he did it so I can do it too.

The long middle
Most people who consider writing a memoir wonder if our years in the office or taking kids to soccer have turned us into drones, and so we utter the familiar cry, “Who would want to read about me?” We can go a long way towards answering that question when we review events and look under the surface. The passions and desires unfolded day by day, too slowly to make sense of at the time. Gradually, those days accumulated into our unique story, and now in retrospect we can find their significance.

To learn how you might tell your own long periods, consider the way John Robison showed his years in an office as a technology worker. Rather than excruciating detail, he highlighted key points. He described a few pranks in keeping with his passion for practical joking. He felt good about some of his contributions to the company, and felt bad about the corporate mentality and the lack of appreciation for individual initiative. He showed what he went through in snapshots, giving us the picture without boring us. His scan across those years, provides the insight you can see when you look back across your own journey. The middle years were steps on a longer road.

I always wondered why the Israelis had to cross the desert for 40 years. Now that I’m studying stories, I realize those long years represent a sort of “baking period” in the middle of life during which the inner self continues to grow. John Robison didn’t shy away from the fact that he worked in an office. And by looking at those jobs through the longer lens of a memoir, he revealed their secret. They were steps on a longer road. By including these periods, “Look Me in the Eye” offers a role model for all us who seek to understand how to transform memories into a story.

Robison’s persistent desire to grow creates a potential problem. Every good story ends with relief of dramatic tension. Through the book, we readers have been growing with him, step by step. How do we know when we’ve reached the goal? Robison signals the conclusion of his journey by using an ancient storytelling technique. When Robison grows older, he moves back to the town where he started.

Moving back to the suburbs doesn’t sound like much of a story element, but it turns out the simple idea of returning home has enormous power in storytelling circles. It even has a Greek name, “nostoi.” (I love it when I know a Greek name for a concept.) Once you start to look for it, you will discover this simple device everywhere. Ulysses returns to his home at the end of Homer’s Odyssey. The Hobbits return home at the end of Lord of the Rings. Homecoming can be symbolic as well. For example, in Barack Obama’s “Dreams of Our Father,” Obama returns to the home of his African father, a sort of ancestral returning.

Robison started in life unable to connect with other children, but easily being able to turn within his own mind. The adults around him had no clue what was going on, and he was frequently shamed for his differences. Had he stayed home, and accepted the shaming comments he might have turned out to be the failure everyone expected him to be. When John Robison went on his journey of self-discovery, he wasn’t setting out to be a hero. He simply wanted to learn how to live well.

When Robison set out into the world, one of his first jobs was working as a special effects engineer for the famous rock and roll band, KISS. His own differences gave him the opportunity to see a different slice of life. Through the course of his years, he was learning about himself, and how to make the best use of his talents and personality.

Towards the end of “Look Me in the Eye,” Robison shifted his attention to raising his youngest son who had inherited some quirky Aspergian tendencies, such as fascination with machinery. So dad took his boy to the train yard to watch the big locomotives. It was a lovely scene, with a powerful storytelling twist. This little boy faced similar issues to the ones Robison faced, but this second time around, the child was neither lonely nor a “misfit.” By this time, Robison knew enough about his condition to help his son cope with it. Robison started his memoir in his own childhood, and ended raising his own children, a dramatic circle I found extremely satisfying.

Return from Hero’s Journey Armed with Wisdom
In fact, Robison story continues past the end of the memoir. He now gives talks to help parents cope and guide nerdy, withdrawn, Asperger’s spectrum children. He also speaks to children, helping them understand each other and themselves. Robison’s story emulates the classic Hero’s Journey. When the Hero Returns, his or her experiences can be used to serve the community. That turns John Robison’s memoir not into the finish line of his lifetime, but simply the end of a chapter. The next page begins with a life of involvement and service.

Writing Prompt
To decide where you want to begin the journey of your memoir, consider what sort of place and situation you were in when you started. Look at your hometown, your religion of origin, your initial dreams. Then as you come to the end of your story, see where you can “return” either physically to the same location, or symbolically to your roots.


The Hero’s Journey provides fascinating material for any writer. To learn more about how to apply these ideas to your story, read Chris Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers.”

In my book, “Four Elements for Writers” I explore the way you can turn this myth towards your own writing behavior, and use it to develop tenacity and courage. [link]

Another book that uses exquisite understanding of storytelling principles is Sound of No Hands Clapping. (Click here to see my review.) This explores a powerful use of the “character arc” in memoir. The author, self-conscious as ever, teaches a lesson about storytelling embedded in his memoir, repeating ideas he heard in a workshop from famous storytelling teacher Robert McKee.

To learn more about Robison’s work with Asperger’s Syndrome, or to see how he is doing, check out his blog, For more information about the Asperger’s condition, he recommends the website,

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

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.

What was grandmom really like?

by Jerry Waxler

My grandmother was looking at me, her mouth drawn taught. She had just found out that I had to climb in through the basement window to get into my house. This was not something a good boy does, she said, and backed it up with a financial incentive to never do it again. She wasn’t a harsh disciplinarian. She was an advice-giver. Most of the advice she gave me was more suitable for old people, like when she told me to think positively in order to feel better. I ignored her, letting myself think anything I damned well pleased, even if it made me miserable, as it often did. I knew she meant well, but I didn’t really care. I never understood what she wanted from me, so I kept my distance, and obeyed her advice, or pretended to.

As I grew up, I continued to see her as a remote figure, more interested in molding me than relating to me, and this connection prevented both of us from opening up and sharing ourselves with each other. It’s only recently, as I delve back into my memories that I see beyond these rigid impressions of her and uncover nuances of our relationship.

To see grandmom as a whole person, I recall the family lore about her own childhood. She lost her father when she was 12 and had to quit school to work as a bookkeeper in the Philadelphia department store, Strawbridge and Clothier. Her paychecks kept the family afloat, and then paid to put her brother Ben through college. He ended up graduating from Wharton, and then married into a textile family, while grandmom’s life remained modest. Her husband with his small neighborhood pharmacy was content with just getting by, and it was only thanks to her financial sense that they lived comfortably. When I visited their home on North Broad Street, in the midst of shops and a few yards from the heavily trafficked street, I would lose myself amid the thick bushes in her yard and imagine myself in a vast forest.

In high school, I was fascinated by numbers. When I noticed grandmom poring over the page full of numbers and symbols in the evening paper I asked her about them. I had stumbled on a topic we could talk about. Grandmom taught me which symbols represented preferred or common shares and how much dividend the stock was paying. I ordered annual reports to match the company face with its name. Then she hooked me up with her stockbroker and with her help and savings from working at my dad’s drugstore, I bought a few shares. Later, when I got to college, I moved on to calculus, which had the power to put a man on the moon, and I hoped, enough power to explain the mysteries of the universe. I lost interest in the list of numbers on the stock page and ended that connection with my grandmother.

A few years later, she took up still-life painting. We used to joke about her being like Grandma Moses. Now that I’m sixty myself, I no longer see her creative efforts as a joke. Now I see them as an inspiration. Her inquisitive mind kept trying new things. She never gave me any advice about art or life long learning. Instead she showed me by example.

Throughout my childhood, whenever we went to visit, we would sit dutifully while grandmom played the piano. The vibrant, youthful look on her face as she played leads me to believe she was getting at least as much pleasure from it as we were. She never gave me advice about service either, but later in her life I discovered she had been volunteering at a nursing home. One of her pleasures was to entertain the residents by playing the piano for them, a practice she continued when she moved into the same home.

It is only in this retrospective storytelling that I begin to see past all the advice and look more closely at the life she actually lived, her dignity, her desire to grow and her willingness to serve others. As a complete person, she has so much more to offer, adding richness to my own story, who I was, who I am now, and who I am yet to become.

Writing prompt
Which characters in your early life remain stuck in the simplistic mold into which you originally poured them? One of the most interesting things about writing memoirs is to revisit these characters and flesh them in. Looking back from your adult vantage point, consider what they wanted, and why they acted the way they did, allowing them to evolve from distant figures to real people. Write about a character who seemed distant when you were younger, and fill in some details that takes the reader (and you) beyond first impressions.

10 ways memoir writing helps you now

by Jerry Waxler

Many people are unsure about writing their memoir because they think all those memories will pull them into the past. It’s true that writing about memories is like digging down into a deep old pile, but there’s no need to get lost in it. The goal is to bring back the treasures. There are valuable lessons, achievements, and pleasures in there but you can’t access them because they are buried under a multitude of experiences. To gather their value, tell the story. To promote the legacy you can take advantage of yourself, I’ve compiled a list of 10 ways writing your memoir will help you now and in the future.

  1. Develops writing skill that come in handy for all sorts of other communication applications, like writing letters or newsletter articles.
  2. By organizing your life into stories, people get to know you faster, and often more intimately than through the usual chatter of everyday encounters.
  3. Writing is a powerful brain toning exercise that will keep you keen and energized.
  4. By reviewing the past, you notice things that happen over and over. Once you see such patterns, you can learn how you contribute to them, and find ways to improve next time. This benefit is available at any age, even if you think you are finished growing.
  5. Memoir writing helps you rework the past, making better sense of things that pull you back, or things that confuse you that never made sense. This helps you feel better in the present.
  6. You can glean stories from your life, and apply them to fictional stories you create about characters in worlds of your choosing. Telling stories is one of the pleasures of a creative life.
  7. You can often gain insights into your siblings and other relatives, creating a richer, more compassionate experience with the people who share your genes and childhood.
  8. Reap rewards from your life the way a farmer harvests crops. By becoming more conscious of accomplishments and victories, you boost your confidence about who you are and where you’re going.
  9. One reason people seem to fade with age is that they lose touch with their past. Writing maintains links between past and present, giving you confidence to see yourself as an effective actor in the world, even though many of those actions happened years ago.
  10. By seeing life as a story, you build the skills to tell a sensible story of the future. Generating a story of the future is a powerful motivational and planning tool that helps you continue to move forward with energy.

Ten reasons you’re not too old to write your memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Of all the reasons people give for not writing their memoirs, two I find most amusing are that “I’m too old” and “I’m too young.” If you find yourself squeezed between the wrong ages to write your memoirs, here are some reasons to help you refute the “I’m too old” one. In another blog, I’ll offer reasons why you’re not too young. Ultimately, the best time is right now.

1) If you fear it’s too late to learn how to write, flip this reason upside down. Learning how to write is an excellent reason for writing your memoir. If you start today, by tomorrow you’ll know more.

2) There’s no upper limit. If you can think, you can write. If your fingers don’t work or you can’t see, you can use voice technology. Author Harry Bernstein wrote his memoir, The Invisible Wall when he was 93.

3) Writing about yourself breaks down the walls between people. Readers feel they know you, and open up more quickly, increasing the energy of your social network.

4) No matter what your age, you can gain peace and deeper insights about your life by understanding how events in earlier years affected you later.

5) You might assume younger people are not particularly interested in you because you’re out of step with the times. Flip this reason upside down. The long reach of your memory is potentially the most interesting thing about you. You’ve seen more, and seen it in different contexts. Offering your memories helps younger people gain a better understanding of their own world.

6) You might think no one will read your work because you’re not young and glamorous. But the value we seek from books works on other dimensions than the smoothness of the author’s skin. In fact, your wrinkles might even become a credential, proving you have the years of experience to speak with authority.

7) Writing is good for your brain and will help you stay mentally supple and vigorous.

8) Once you start looking into your memories, you’ll find your accomplishments tucked away in forgotten corners. Remembering them will help you appreciate what you’ve done and who you are.

9) Telling the story gives you a sense that life is a story. This helps you craft a more interesting story of the future.

10) By writing a memoir, you improve your ability to write all sorts of material, notes, letters, essays, articles in newsletters, blogs. You can use your enhanced writing skills to share yourself with others expanding your interaction with the world, and continuing the social graces, pleasures, and gifts of being a human being.

Write to celebrate midlife crisis

by Jerry Waxler

A lot of people over 50 look down the road and spot what looks suspiciously like a finish line. We pause, ask a few questions and then shop for a sports car, an RV, or an affair. But after we pay for our fling we usually have more questions than when we started. For a more lasting solution, try writing your memoir. Yes, I know it doesn’t sound as glamorous as some of the more expensive responses to midlife but it turns out to be far more satisfying.

By finding the stories of our life we reclaim the adventure, the romance, and the mystery we’ve already lived through. When we put our youthful indiscretions on paper we gain insights not only about who we were then but who we are now. Rediscovering our youth, we see how our actions fit in the grander scheme of things. And we no longer take youth for granted. We savor it. This second look lets us endow youth with wisdom.

To understand how writing might work in your life, consider my mother. Starting from her 70’s, she woke early every morning and for the first hour or two of the day, she wrote. She wrote letters to old friends. She wrote notes about her past. She prepared talks to present to the clubs she belonged to. Occasionally she found a book she thought would interest her peers. The manager in her apartment campus posted a notice that Sylvia Waxler was giving a book review, and people showed up to listen. After staging a few such events, she became known as the book review lady. Strangers and acquaintances stopped her in the lobby to discuss her last review, and tell her about a book they were reading and why she might like it. They showered her with friendliness. She turned out to be one of the best liked 87 year old women I have ever had the privilege of knowing.

But it seems I have digressed. What does an 87 year old lady writing book reviews have to do with someone much younger trying to find a renewed sense of life? I think by writing every day Mom found the fountain of youth. And her audience knew it. They weren’t pouring admiration on her because she gave the best book review they ever heard. As she pried into the meaning of books, and then reached out to an audience to share her ideas, she was creating the story of an old woman who kept going. She wasn’t telling them what to do. She was showing them what one person could do. Her story gave them hope.

It turns out that stories are the only tool we humans have for understanding life’s trajectory. So if you want to enhance your experience of being you, haul your memories out of storage, line them up, and organize them. The mishmash of events falls into place. Armed with this organized view of your life, you begin to appreciate its form. By seeing where you’ve been, you open up to the possibilities of where you are going.

I can’t explain exactly how writing will help you feel better about your life journey, since you will approach it in your own unique way. But here’s how it has worked for me. After writing for a while, I realize I’m in the thick of my own vibrant story. Life becomes more engaging. Now, my curiosity propels me forward, and as I look down the road I see glimpses of the next chapter in this fascinating journey.