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.

Instant regional memoir at a Bed and Breakfast

By Jerry Waxler

The one and only time I was on a white water rafting trip I was on business. We were wooing an important customer who insisted we join him on the water. Never a big fan of risky behavior, I found myself paddling a boat in water moving so fast it could kill me. My heart was pounding from more than exertion. As we steered our craft around yet another area where the surging river was trying to smash us against rocks my experienced raft partner screamed above the roar of the water, “Paddle, Paddle, Paddle.” The river is the Youghiogheny, a well known watering hole for whitewater enthusiasts located in southwest Pennsylvania in the town of Ohiopyle. Later, while the rest of the group slept in tents, I retired to a bed and breakfast, the Quiet House. It was comfortable, and lived up to its name.

One of the things I like about Bed and Breakfasts is that the owners are locals, and can offer insider tourist information. But I wasn’t in the market for Ohiopyle tourist information that day. I had already seen quite a bit of this area on other trips, and didn’t think I had much more to learn. I knew about the five star resort, the Nemacolin, former home to a PGA tour golf course. In fact, last year, I had a massage at their spa. And I had visited the nearby Frank Lloyd Wright house, the famous Falling Water museum. What more could there be in this backwoods town in Pennsylvania?

As I was saying goodbye, I mentioned that I had been boating on the Youghiogheny and asked my host if he goes out on the river much. Marty, said he goes out in February, when the river has been quiet, undisturbed by visitors. I caught a reverential glint in his eye. People fascinate me. You can walk past them in the supermarket and not give them a glance, and yet they may have lived complex, rich, and entertaining lives that could fill volumes. Standing up from breakfast, ready to head to the car, it occurred to me that this man had a profound connection with the area. I said, “You must know a lot about the history of this place.” That got him started and he told me the whole story.

When Marty first moved here, he was managing a family farm. There was no commercial interest in boating on the river, until a couple of guys recognized its potential. Soon people started paying them to lead rafting trips. These guys bought a piece of land in Ohiopyle, and that was the beginning of the whitewater tourism in the area. Their rafting customers needed lodging, so the brothers approached Marty. He rose to the occasion, started a campground and turned it into a successful business. Marty has watched the river go from being just a river to becoming a thriving sports and nature destination.

Then we got onto a subject that completely surprised me. It turns out George Washington not only slept here. He fought here. A couple of miles away was the site of his first military operation. In a fascinating twist of fate, in 1754, when George Washington was a 22 year old soldier in the Virginia Colonial army, he attacked some French soldiers a couple of miles away from where Marty and I were standing. This attack on the French was one of the triggers that started the French and Indian War. For you non-history buffs, this is the war featured in the movie The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day Lewis. In those days, this area was considered the western frontier, fought over by the French and the English to gain control of the interior of the vast continent.

To gain more insights, I visited ,Fort Necessity National Park and Museum a couple of miles from the Quiet House Bed and Breakfast, and learned a boatload of background about how the area figured into the prelude to the American Revolution. Beyond the French and Indian war, the museum also exhibited artifacts and information about the National Road, which started out as a rough path along which settlers trudged on their journey west. Of course it also played a role in the tragic destruction of the indigenous people. When the United States was born, the National Road, which looks like little more than a country highway across the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, was the first federally funded road in the new country.

Such material seems at first glance more like a regional history than a memoir. But if Marty were to write about it, he could intertwine his entrepreneurial pursuits and his friendships with other entrepreneurs, his love for the river, and his knowledge of the history of the area. By using his life journey as the framework, the reader could see this part of the world through his knowledgeable eyes. And for me, this conversation was yet another proof that memoirs are everywhere. Here, tucked away in a little bed and breakfast in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, I saw a series of life events start to take the shape of a story. How many times has Marty told these stories? And how much more could he share if they were written?

Today is the first day of the rest of your memoir

By Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories, past, present, and future

I’ve been hard at work making memories this week, and helping others make their own, or more accurately record their own. In one week, I’ve given three workshops, one on telling the story of your life at the Writers Corner, one on getting started writing at the Quakertown Library, and one on finding meaning on your memories at GreenshireArts. I’m also taking a workshop on memoir writing at West Laurel Hill Cemetery. I learn so much from workshops, whether I’m giving them or taking them. People in a room, all sharing the introspective project of writing, stirs up lessons and insights, like how passionate people are about writing, and sharing their story. I love that. At every step there is something to learn, and I keep learning more so I’ll have more to share. I’m having fun, and in my surveys, people say “Inspirational, and motivational” so my students are having fun, too.

The amazing thing about all of this is that as I teach about writing memories, and seek to find the stories in my own life, I can’t help but notice that I’m making more memories every day. Take last night for example. As many times as I speak in public, preparing for talks often makes me nervous. Sometimes I was nervous there could be a large crowd, and other times that no one would show up. I was nervous because this was my first talk at a Library, and my first talk since I published “Learn to Write your Memoir in 4 Weeks.” The library talk means that I’m going to be talking about writing to a general audience, and I know there will be a huge range of experience.

Once you get used to it, being nervous isn’t too bad. The adrenaline was actually making everything sharper. My perceptions were more acute, and my thoughts were more intense. To get through the day I worked on a series of calming strategies, such as seeing the audience as dear friends with whom I was having a chat. But my favorite strategy arises from the storytelling work I’ve been doing. I looked at the evening’s performance as a chapter in my life. Yesterday, when I woke up, I thought, “In 12 hours, I will be giving the talk. That’s a little scary. In 24 hours, I will be looking back on the evening, and it will be over.” Based on previous experiences, I expect it will have gone fairly well. Of course I didn’t know the details in advance, like how many people would show up and how the conversations would proceed. But as I was telling myself this story about past, present, and future, I was calming myself with the passage of time, and more importantly the passage of story.

It turns out that every minute is tomorrow’s memory. That might seem obvious or cosmic, but in either case it is an inescapable fact that I might as well try to take advantage of. While I’m working through the stories of my life, why not work on the story I’m living right now? I can craft my actions to lead me in the direction I want to go, to achieve the goals I want to achieve. It helps me skate on the surface of obstacles, which I know will soon be past, and it helps me retain a sense of purpose.

The first time I heard the concept of making memories was years ago, in Victoria Island in British Columbia staying at a Bed and Breakfast run by a retired couple. The sun was shining brightly through picture windows that opened down a hill towards the docked boats in the harbor. Someone at one of the tables said something about vacations making memories, and the whole idea of time popped free from its moorings and yesterday, today, and tomorrow ran together in a delicious blur. Having fun in the blur was my job that day. Teasing it apart and writing about it gives me an opportunity for pleasure for the rest of my life.