How memoirs increase empathy

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

During my training to become a therapist, one of the more esoteric instructions I received was that when a client told me about their situation, I was supposed to pay attention to my own feelings.

I found this instruction unsettling, given that I had no idea how to observe my own feelings. It soon became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to help other people until I learned how to steer through the complexities of my own emotions.

Hoping to correct my deficiency, I read Emotional Intelligence, by Dan Goleman, and was heartened by his assertion that this “intelligence” was learnable. So I started on a long road of self-development, to increase my sense of empathy.

Years of being in therapy helped, but the real breakthrough came from a surprising direction. From reading memoirs.

I’ve always enjoyed losing myself in books. The problem was that in my younger years, all my reading matter was written by males. They involved very little emotional intelligence.

So for example, I read lots of books about people dying, but instead of learning about the emotions of loss, the story centered on finding the killer.

Other emotions were similarly superficial or ignored altogether. Take children for example. A mother’s love for a child was given a vague gloss. Cute but without any depth. And the experience of falling in love was a linear operation, with little time spent appreciating its complexity.

Back then, my reading preferences exposed me mainly to people who barely bothered to feel their lives. But when I decided to broaden my emotional horizons, I switched to reading memoirs. By immersing myself in each author’s inner world, I experienced what it was like for that one individual. And after I completing each one, I pondered how I felt about it, similar to the instruction in my therapy training.

One reason reading memoirs had such a profound influence on me was because I was also trying to write one. In order to effectively communicate my experience, I needed to learn how to communicate emotion. And the only way I, with my tin inner ear, could know if I’d succeeded, would be to get feedback from readers. So I joined a critique group, composed of others who were also trying to turn their lives into stories.

Together with a few people, all in a similar situation,  I discovered an exponential benefit. By sharing our works-in-progress, we were becoming each other’s teachers, not just in writing but in empathy.

The directive to “pay attention to my own feelings” became crucial when critiquing my fellow memoir writers. To give them feedback about the quality of their writing, I had to tune into the emotions they aroused in me.

In this way, the empathy-enhancing effects of memoir reading were accentuated (or “potentiated” in the parlance of neurobiology) – and as a result, year over year, I could observe myself growing increasingly curious about the whole range of emotions that had once eluded me.

As I continue to gain emotional sensitivity, I keep pushing the limits. Glad, sad, mad, might sound simple, but in their infinite variety of expression and nuance, they continue to draw me out of myself and into an intimacy with the human condition I never knew was possible. Memoirs were an incredible source for this never-ending variety.

Perhaps one of the most complex, enjoyable and emotionally satisfying memoirs I’ve read recently (or perhaps ever) is a surprisingly light hearted little book about cancer, named The Dog Lived and So Did I by Theresa Rhyne. As I set myself aside, and entered Theresa Rhyne’s story, I was in for a feast of emotion, artistically organized into a fulfilling tale.

For a guy who was looking for deeper insight into the realms of emotion, this book is especially valuable, because it weaves together three stunningly intricate emotional experiences: the threat of mortality, loving a pet or child, and most stunning of all is the entanglement of two people attempting to partner up.

Rhyne offers a rich drink from the cup of emotion, providing nuances about her specific circumstances that allow me to turn each of these situations over and over in my mind in new, unique ways. And it all added up to a terrific story.

In the case of cancer, first her dog, then (spoiler alert) she herself, must go through the grueling rigors of chemotherapy. But while the medical details of such a process might be cold and clinical, in a memoir the journey becomes warm and inspiring, filled with the intricacies of misery and courage.

And her relationship with her dog raises astonishing emotional complexity. While Marley and Me by John Grogan brought us closer to the family dog, The Dog Lived takes it a step further, making the relationship almost indistinguishable to the emotions you might expect with a troubled child. And in her love for her pet, it is easy to feel the full protective embrace of a mother’s love.

Finally, there was the romance – that terrifying process that in my younger male mind, I wrote off as a caricature only relevant in cheesy novels. I used to pretend that partnering was easy, or more to the point, if it was difficult, I didn’t want to know about it.

After I’d read enough memoirs, I developed a far more nuanced appreciation for the ups and downs of finding a romantic partner. Theresa Rhyne’s story pried me open further, making me even more willing to include the aching pain of romance into my ever widening circle of empathy.

The thing that makes this particular memoir so emotionally rewarding is the expertise with which the author weaves these three themes. Each one is as complex and nuanced as any good theme should be, and yet they add power to each other, providing a far greater story in combination.

Her memoir demonstrates the vast difference between mere memories and the stories they generate. Anyone who had to look back on this collection of past events, all one might see in memory might be a bratty dog with behavior problems, two incredibly disruptive scary cancer experiences, and an attempt to forge a relationship against unbelievable odds.

I am in awe of this nearly-impossible challenge that every memoir writer faces – to take the life dealt to you by destiny, and turn it into a satisfying page turner that resonates long after the book is closed.

How Theresa Rhyne pulls the whole thing together into such a lovely memoir is a testimony to her skill as a writer, and also a testimony to the enormous humanity of this genre – it is designed for exactly this deep human need – to enable us to immerse ourselves in each other’s emotional experiences.

I’m not the only one who could benefit from a course in empathy. My hope is that as more people discover the nuances of the human experience, as shared in memoirs like this, we will all grow more empathetic to the difficulties and joys of being human together.

Writing prompts

Write a paragraph about our most complicated romantic encounter

Write a paragraph about an encounter with cancer or some other life threatening and disruptive health issue.

Write a paragraph about a relationship with a pet, child, or someone else who both relied on you and caused you problems.

If you are feeling adventuresome, try to weave these three high-intensity interactions in your life into one compelling story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Footote about empathy and neurons

How could I, or anyone for that matter, truly be learning how to be more empathetic? Wasn’t I stuck with the amount of empathy I was born with? Based on the most up-to-date neuroscience, our adult brains can change. Through effort and lots of training, I was able to increase the number of neuronal connections responsible for my sense of empathy.

Our brains contain a feature called “mirror neurons” which enable us to empathetically relate to each other’s emotions. So in a sense, the best way to raise our aptitude about our own emotions is to carefully pay attention to each other’s.

NOTES

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Losing yourself to find your new truth

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Merging yourself in the Other

In my early teens I learned how to lose myself by entering into the minds of detectives and space adventurers. In more recent years, I’ve shifted to actual people, whose memoirs enable me to leave my life for a while and enter theirs.

After years of memoir reading, I am a well-seasoned lifestory traveler, but the variety of human experience is so vast, I continue to encounter surprising, insightful, unique adventures.

I recently completed such a vicarious journey with a young woman named Erica Elliott who, when she was trying to figure out what to do with her life, went to teach school children at the Navajo Reservation.

She quickly fell in love with the indigenous people and their culture, and thanks to an incredible ability to set herself aside, she merged so thoroughly with them that she sometimes actually forgot she was a foreigner. Even more remarkably, they seemed to forget, as well.

Thanks to the magic of memoirs, she took me on that journey with her, showing me things about being Navajo that could only be known by insiders, and helping me more than ever understand the ancient culture that our pioneer forebears were so intent on destroying. Erica Elliott’s memoir opened a portal and let me travel back in time to a people who lived closer to the land.

Coincidentally, Erica Elliott’s memoir intersected with my fascination with mysteries. Her observations about Navajo culture validated everything I learned from the many detective novels I’ve read by Tony Hillerman. It also reminded me of a very different experience of Native American culture. During many hours in my childhood, I sat glued in front of the television, watching the good guys (all white) killing the marauding “Indians.”

Back then, I had no appreciation for the fact that the Indians were fighting in order to protect their own homes. Nor could I have known this seemingly innocent entertainment was conditioning me to see white people as “us” and people of color as “other.” I am so glad that I now live in a time when stories let us see each other, no matter what color, in a more spiritual light. Through Erica Elliott’s eyes, their “otherness” simply disappears.

But this book is actually two stories in one. In addition to an immersion in an ancient culture, it’s also the story of a young woman trying to find her path to adulthood.

Leaving child self to enter adult self – launching

At that time in life when we must go forth from our family of origin, and declare our individual identity, most of us follow the prescribed sequence – get married, get a job, start a family. For Erica Elliott, curiosity burned like lava. The possibilities were endless. The entire world beckoned.

In her state of massive questioning, she let go of all previous assumptions about who she was. It was a daredevil stunt… throwing herself into the unknown… a true hero’s journey.

I have met or read about many people who struggled mightily to reinvent themselves during that transition. In fact, I was one of those people myself.

Fed up with the ills of Western culture, at the end of the 60s, I attempted to become a hippie, which meant I tried to divest myself of all social norms. And once I started down that road, I wanted to keep going. As luck would have it, Jane Goodall showed up in town (Berkeley, California) and praised the innocence of primates. Her message was the sign I’d been looking for. I decided that living like a chimpanzee would be the most noble path. In a sense, I went berserk.

One reason I was willing to throw everything away was the Vietnam war lapping at my doorstep. I couldn’t picture myself entering adulthood holding a gun. But while I was running the other way, many young men were hoping that military service would be a valid, and honorable gateway into adulthood.

Jim McGarrah was just such a recruit. In his memoir A Temporary sort of Peace about his stint as a combat soldier in Vietnam, McGarrah had every right to expect that his experience would be a healthy, ordinary, rite of passage. But on the battlefield, with death all around him, having given up everything, with nowhere else to turn, McGarrah became unraveled. He too went “berserk.” Since he was holding a rifle at the time, berserking turned into a deadly affair.

The thought-leader who helped me find a language for battlefield breakdown was Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who spent his life trying to understand the psychology of war, by treating PTSD in combat veterans, and by interpreting Homer’s classics, The Odyssey and The Iliad. (I was grateful to Shay for finally explaining the point of those obscure stories, which I also read in high school.)

While the psychology of warriors seems off-topic from Erica Elliott’s lyrical journey to serve those in desperate need, it all has the stamp of young people, trying to grow up by throwing away their old selves.

See notes at the foot of this article for more examples of intense, sometimes desperate young people, who tried to destroy their childhood limitations in order to find their adult truths.

Memoirs provide an encyclopedia of life transitions

Memoirs about the transition to grow up are written by people who have gotten to the other side of that turmoil, often many years later, and are looking back on it hoping to make better sense of what took place. (See notes below for a couple of fun exceptions.)

Looking back from that stable position in adulthood, it is really difficult to sort out the memories and explain what happened back then, even to yourself.

This problem of making sense of our younger selves has often left adults speechless about their own younger years. But now, in the twenty-first century, we have the cultural benefit of memoirs to help us shine a beacon on those difficult transitions.

There’s no better way than a memoir to forensically reconstruct who you were and how you became the person you are.

And in addition to writing your own story, you can read many others. Memoirs create a free worldwide university course, (a MOOC or massively open online course) where we can lose ourselves in any number of these journeys, and see how they feel. And after reading, we can close the book, wiser about the way another person’s experience, and a little wiser about our own.

Erica Elliott’s intense journey with the Navajos was often profoundly uncomfortable and at times even dangerous. Her memoir let me accompany her on that entire journey, in only a few hours in the comfort of my home. And yet, despite these vast differences in the scope of our investment, both she and I were attempting to achieve the same goal –we were both trying to give up who we’d been in order to become better, wiser, broader.

How about your transition to adulthood?

Perhaps your own launching was as wildly experimental as Erica’s, mine, Jim McGarrah’s or others that you’ve read about. Or perhaps it was more routine.  But whatever  your specific path, in order to get from one side of that journey to the other, you had to redefine yourself.

To learn more about your own transition, try writing the sequence of events. A simple ordered list will start you on the journey to remember your past. And if you keep at it, learning to write scenes, and gather them into a narrative, you will be embracing one of the coolest most educational hobbies in the universe. You might discover things about yourself that you had not considered before, adding to your wisdom. And ultimately, you might be able to pass these insights along to others.

The Memoir Revolution is the synergism of two exciting forces in society – on the one side, it is an invitation to those of us who attempt to see our own life journeys through the lens of a story. And on the other side, it is an invitation to those of us who are curious about the lives of others to discover this deep way to enter into (and lose ourselves in) their lives.

Writing prompt

When you were trying to find your adult self, what sort of detours or experiments did you make in order to go out of the ordinary life, and try to lose yourself in another?

Notes and Links

Erica Elliott’s memoir website

Buy Medicine and Miracles on Amazon

A really cool interview with the author about the experience which led to this memoir.

A few more examples of memoirs of drastic launchings

An excellent memoir about this impulse to throw away your childhood identity is Unquenchable Thirst, by Mary Johnson. When she sought the best way to become an adult, she attempted to stamp herself out in the service of God and the poor. She defied her parents to become a nun in Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

A very different example of giving up your former identity in order to find a new adult one was explored in the launching memoir the Orchard by Theresa Weir. She was a footloose young woman, with no sense of purpose or direction. Seemingly on a whim, she married into one of the most stable families imaginable, a family of apple growers with deep roots to the land. Instead of leaving some stable life and going into the unknown, Weir left behind her instability and tied herself down.

Berserking was sadly quite common in the 60s, when the normal rhythm of growing up middle-class was disrupted by anti-establishment values. Here’s an intense example of another person who like many of us in those days knew what she was running away from, but was muddled about what to run toward. Pamela Jane’s An Incredible Talent for Existing. See my essay about this memoir by clicking here. https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/is-your-memoir-boomer-lit/

Some more of my essays about launching

(Read more about berserking in my essay about combat and PTSD. https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/homer-iliad-ptsd/

And read another my essay about this launching impulse here: https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/boys-to-men/.

Finding an adult belief system is another challenge of becoming an adult. If the belief system you inherited from your parents does not fulfill your idealistic impression for your own destiny, you must go on a search for a belief system of your own. https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/launching-pt3-beliefs/

Read more memoirs of spiritual launching here: https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/lists-of-two-memoirs-by-same-author/memoirs-about-spiritual-launching/

Another article I wrote about the tasks of launching: https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/launching-memoirs-chronicle-main-tasks-to-grow-to-adulthood/

Another variation: A memoir about Midlife re-launching

In Doreen Orion’s memoir Queen of the Road, she and her husband leave their careers for a year and hit the road. It’s a travel memoir and a midlife relaunching memoir in one: https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/orion-memoir-midlife-crisis/

For a memoir about writing a memoir during the process of launching, read Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book by Stephen Markley about the author’s attempt to find his adult career by writing the very book you are reading. Here’s an essay I wrote about Stephen Markley’s memoir.

A stylistic note about Medicine and Miracles: The infamous pull-out first chapter

At the beginning of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, she famously lost her boot on a mountain top – – perhaps an ironic “cliffhanger” at the very beginning captured enough attention to engage the reader to turn pages to learn how she survived that event.

Erica Elliott’s pull-out first chapter serves a similar purpose, getting us deeply engaged in the character and causing us to turn pages. Astonishingly the pull-out first chapter, which I must admit was one of the best I’ve ever read, actually takes place in a second memoir. I don’t want to give too much away. You should read the book to see what I mean. But if you are considering writing a memoir, figuring out which scene will set the pace for the rest of the story will become one of your most complex puzzles. This book provides a powerful example.

NOTES

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Checklists for Memoir Writers

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

To write a memoir, you have to carve out a few minutes each day to make progress. Despite the apparent simplicity of this requirement, many, if not most, aspiring writers consistently find it difficult to prod themselves to act.

The problem is that at any given moment there are a thousand other things to do, and in order to write, you need to convince yourself this task is more important than the other 999.

To understand why that is so difficult, consider the primary job for which your brain evolved – survival.

You have a strong motivation to go to work, since your paycheck depends on you doing your job. No work. No paycheck. You die. Easy choice!

But your writing project carries no such life and death stakes. If you go without writing no one will die as a result. And your brain knows it!

So, when you direct yourself to sit still and write, your ancient brain wiring simply yawns, and moves on to more urgent matters. To write your memoir, you need to trick yourself into thinking that writing really is urgent.

That’s where self-help strategies come in, to convince your brain that your daily writing is as important as breath itself. If you’ve ever seen (or been) a cigarette smoker, attempting to not take that next hit, you know exactly what I mean. The brain’s habit circuit is so strong, it can cause you to do things that could kill you.

While teenagers routinely convince themselves and each other to start self-destructive habits, writers must read books in order to learn how to start more positive behaviors. Once you get addicted to a daily writing habit, you will feel a sense of desire and even urgency to translate thoughts into words.

The urge to write might be less intense than the craving for a cigarette or a hit of crack, but with a good motivation and at the right time in your life, fostering a writing habit will be strong enough to get the job done.

How I started my own daily habit is a long story. But the important thing about that process is that building the habit was done in small steps over a period of years.

Reading articles like the one you are reading now is one such step. And reading entire books on the subject is an even bigger one. (See the notes at the end for some of the books I’ve read, and one that I’ve written.)

As a self-help junkie, I am already a nut about the subject of getting things done.

So when I was gifted a lovely, short book called The Checklist Book by Alexandra Franzen, I devoured it in a couple of hours.

Of course checklists are as familiar as your grocery shopping list. In fact they are so familiar most self-help authors don’t even bother to mention them. So reading a whole book about this simple habit was a refreshing opportunity to focus a lot of attention on something I already know, and in the process to renew my faith in its power.

The checklist scales things down to a delightfully bite size chunk. Which is the scale where habits live. By persistently making progress on small steps, over and over, you can achieve mighty things.

The special power of the lowly checklist arises from the barely noticeable burst of satisfaction you get from actually checking the box. It sounds so trivial, but in that tiny act, you are harnessing the same brain chemical, dopamine, that forces heroin addicts to seek their next fix.

Admittedly checking an item only releases a small surge of rewarding neurotransmitters, which is why we barely notice it. It’s the repetition that turns that series of tiny surges into a life changing habit.

Your brain is already wired to turn small rewards into unstoppable motivations. So instead of letting the dopamine surge of meaningless acts (like playing video games, checking your twitter feed, or eating potato chips) develop strong neural pathways, trick your brain into harnessing those powerful systems to write.

Transforming your habit-system from self-destructive behavior to creative acts that can make you feel better about yourself and move you in directions of your choosing – that’s an awesome outcome for the tiny Checklist book.

As for how to apply checklists to move your memoir-writing project forward, you will need to adapt them to your own current challenges.

For example, if you are just gathering anecdotes, you might write, “write one memory” on your check list.

Or if you are organizing your time line, put on your list, “add five events to my timeline file.” Timelines are a powerful tool to help you sort out what happened, when.

Or if you are much further and you have a bunch of organized anecdotes, you might say, “pull together one segment into a chapter.” Chapters help you start organizing your anecdotes into a book length form.

Or if you completed the first draft, write a few paragraphs that explain exactly what this main character is trying to achieve. By describing your character’s mission, you can make better sense of the journey on which you are taking your reader.

Or if you’ve written your memoir and you are trying to figure out where you could speak about your book. “Email one local library today to find out if they host zoom meetings.”

When facing a task that keeps slipping away from you, you can even turn your attention toward your long term self-development. Your checklist could say, “read one page of the self help book currently on my reading pile.

At every stage along the way, you can gain momentum by listing a small task, and then achieving that task. You’ll send a tiny surge of satisfaction through your brain. Nature has been employing this trick for hundreds of millions of years to program us to do her bidding. Now, to write your memoir, take advantage of this ancient strategy.

As you continue to craft the story of your life, one check mark at a time, you will come to see that the small steps that carried you day by day throughout the difficult periods of your life, added up to make you the hero you are today.

NOTES

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Self help for memoir writers

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Early in my journey to write my memoir, I encountered an age-old problem. My mind was devilishly clever at undermining me. Who will read it? It’s not interesting. I’m not good enough. I’ll do it later. I’ll do it someday.

If my goal had been to jump into an ice-cold swimming pool, perhaps I could have overcome my reluctance by screaming “Just do it.”

But weaving my reflections on the past into a good story required thousands of small steps.  Other than perhaps the first one of sitting in front of the computer, none responded very well to screams.

Writing a memoir turned out to be a journey in its own right, in which I had to steer through all sorts of fears, self-doubts and other mental obstacles I encountered on the way. I soon realized I was creating two parallel hero’s journeys.

Hero’s Journey #1 was the story I was trying to write about a character trying to discover a better version of himself.

In order to create that story, I had to go on Hero’s Journey #2, developing introspective skills, teasing out scenes, and courageously facing the tasks of writing and revising.

When I started writing my memoir, though, I didn’t see myself as the hero of anything. However, one thing I did know a lot about was self-help, which I had been studying for years. While most self-help books and recordings focused on becoming a better business person, I extracted those aspects that would make me a more creative person.

So when I became attracted to memoir writing, I realized that achieving my goal required a specialized application of the self-help field. Another source of psychological insight into the creative process came from the helping profession of psychotherapy. I had recently graduated with a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and had often considered my psychotherapy training in relationship to the creative process.

One of the most important and exciting bits of self-help advice I had come across was to “write as if you were speaking to an interested audience.” That advice has motivated me for years, because as I write, I find myself engaged with the people who might want to hear what I have to say. This desire to communicate makes writing so much easier and more interesting.

The fact that you are reading this places you in that category of a curious audience, interested in what I have to say about memoirs, so I’m thinking of you when I write. ?

If you are attempting to write your memoir, be sure to populate your imaginary audience with compassionate memoir readers who are deeply interested in other people. These readers want to know all about you. By maintaining a loving, mutually respectful relationship with this imaginary audience, you will be able to turn your writing sessions into engaging stories about the dramatic tensions, the difficulties, and the courage of your journey.

As I continued to gather strategies, I shared them with other writers. Teaching self-help  workshops to writers was a new venture for me. Instead of just thinking about these techniques for myself, I began to see them as shareable skills writers can learn together.

Based on the workshops, I compiled a self-development workbook called How to Become a Heroic Writer, Train Your Brain to Build Habits, Overcome Obstacles, and Reach Readers.

If you have an interest in the techniques and insights afforded by the self-help and psychology movements, take a look at my book. Working through the lessons and writing exercises will provide you with a series of interlocking skills that will arm you for the journey to become a writer.

Notes

NOTES

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

How to become a storyteller

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

To write a memoir, you must evolve from someone who randomly remembers bits of life to someone who purposely turns them into a story. This shift is revolutionary.

Picture yourself as one of those travelling storytellers who come to the local library. With dramatic voice and exaggerated gestures, they establish rapport with their wide-eyed audiences. Sometimes these charismatic tellers dress in costume or paint their faces to help usher their listeners into an altered state. That primal relationship between teller and listener evokes images of aboriginal rituals, in which the roots of courage and identity are told around campfires. Storytellers hold an almost mythic place in our collective imagination.

All memoir writers attempt to inhabit that sacred space. When we translate our mundane memories into the magical language of stories, we gradually come to realize that these details are, in fact, the stuff of life itself, overflowing with universal, idealistic, and glorious principles. It’s the storyteller’s job to reveal the universal contained within the mundane.

So the journey to write your memoir is not simply looking backward to remember the past. You also look forward to your own creative metamorphosis, to deepen your skills as a culture warrior, as an innovative truth teller, as an interpreter of the daily grind, and a hero of the long view.

When you first remember the facts of your life, the sequence might sound flat. When you add emotional swirls, you offer a more humanized view. As your collection grows, you increasingly visualize a story, and begin to imagine how to lead your future readers on the journey storytellers have been leading you since your parents read you the first tale. From that vantage point, you transform the bits of life into a link between one individual and all of humanity.

Bestselling memoir authors like Frank McCourt have climbed into that ethereal space at the pinnacle of civilization. He spent years as a school teacher, telling stories to his students in order to keep them entertained. From that experience, he gained the skill to write a best selling memoir.

John Grogan spent years as a newspaper columnist, scanning the world for a good story. Thanks to the skill he developed at work, he transformed the family dog into the world famous star of Marley and Me.

Dani Shapiro has written something like nine books, four of them memoirs. In her latest bestseller she mentions that she has done thousands of readings to audiences all over the world. What better way to inhabit the sacred space of storyteller than to see the faces of your listeners as you tell them your story?

These extraordinary individuals achieved expertise, but how about people like me? I had been shy most of my life, and had almost no practice telling a story about anything, let alone myself.

During the years it has taken me to learn to write my story and teach others how to find theirs, I have become increasingly aware that we all have storytelling burned deep in our souls. And so, becoming a storyteller is a journey to discover what you already contain.

Of course, with practice you will develop literary microskills, such as scene building, chapter construction, and character development. But the most important skill of all is your willingness to inhabit the role of a storyteller. Like much of the memoir writer’s journey, it requires that you reach higher than you thought possible.

You can only achieve that goal when you believe in your ability to do so. Like Tinker Bell tells Peter Pan, he can fly if he believes. So can you!

Register for a free online discussion about this state of mind I will be having with Linda Joy Myers, founder of National Association of Memoir Writers.

Trusting in your ability to stay in a storytelling frame of mind will help you write a strong story that will sustain an emotional connection with your future readers. And after the memoir is complete, you will have grown from your effort to see life as a story.

While I can urge you to find your own storytelling knack, I can no more teach it to you than Tinker Bell could teach Peter how to fly. Once you realize that it’s attainable, you will embark on the adventure yourself. And like all storytellers you will eventually return from that adventure and tell us what you found.

Linda Joy Myers, another champion of the storytelling knack is hosting me for a discussion about this topic. As president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, she has been encouraging people to follow a similar path, for years. Together we will explore the vantage point of the storyteller, and offer tips that help you achieve it.

The session, typically for members only, has been opened up to anyone. And if you can’t make it to the live interview, you will be able to listen later.

Notes

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Lifelong learning: tips for memoir writers

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

After all the living to acquire our experiences, in past generations, those experiences disappear into forgotten boxes in the attic. Today we have the opportunity to resurrect that lost wisdom by sharing the experiences of our lives. Such stories provide us with a vast encyclopedia of insight into the human condition.In the previous post [link] I introduced two of my favorite international coming of age memoirs, both about childhood stints in Saigon just before the war. The stories expand my cultural reach, from the limitations of each reader’s life into the tsunami known as Vietnam. In addition to their specific historical significance from fifty years ago, the very existence of these two memoirs represents a cultural tsunami in the present. – we are living at a time when it is acceptable to find the story of your life.

After reading the Vietnam memoir Saigon Kids, the author Les Arbuckle provided a wonderful overview of his process to learn how to tell the story Here is our conversation for anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps.

Me: So tell me the origin story of Saigon Kids. What made you decide to write it, and I guess just as important what made you think you could?

Les: I first thought about telling this story when I was talking to a friend’s wife way back in 1988. She had become interested in writing screenplays and it occurred to me then that my adventures in Vietnam might make a good movie. But I didn’t know anything about writing screenplays, so I set the idea aside.

The story kept nagging at me. There are between 10 and 15 million Military Brats in the US and my story is, in some ways, their story too. I wanted to be the one to tell it.

Many years went by and at the ripe old age of fifty-three in 2002, I realized that if I was ever going to tell my story, I had to get started. But I didn’t want to just write it for myself. I was going to write it well enough to attract a literary agent and a publisher, rather than self-publish.

Since I still didn’t know how to write screenplays, I figured I’d write it as a memoir. As it turns out, I didn’t know anything about writing memoirs either, but my ignorance made it possible to get started without worrying about the details.

At this stage in my life, I had no experience in the world of writers and writing, except for a 500-word technical article I had penned for the Jazz Educators Journal in 1993 (The Music of Bill Evans: “Laurie”). I wasn’t worried about my lack of experience. I had a great story to tell, which I figured was what made the difference (it didn’t).

I wrote the whole book in about three weeks. I simply wrote down every memory I could muster, rearranged everything in chronological order as best I could, and then began struggling to make it better, a little at a time.

Me: Wow. What an amazing accomplishment. Congratulations for taking this big leap.

Les: I knew I had a long way to go, so I reached out to a mystery writer I knew, Zach Klein, (author of the Matt Jacob Series).

I was having trouble writing either descriptive or action prose. Zach suggested I do what Hemingway did: Just say it: “John threw the stick into the lake.” I immediately read the first Hemingway book I could get my hands on, “A Movable Feast,” and studied his style. I also used the Internet to review scenes of Old Saigon, paying particular interest to those scenes that resembled parts of my stories. This helped quite a bit with the descriptive portions of the book, tweaking my memory and inner eye enough to effectively add details I had forgotten. My daughter even gave me a vintage book about Saigon in the 1950′ and ’60’s that contained many familiar pictures of the city I once knew and its inhabitants.

Zach informed me that, unlike fiction or fantasy literature, memoirs are not “plot driven.” In a memoir, the narrative usually takes the form of an “arc” where the writer shows that in the course of the story he/she has changed in some meaningful way, and is no longer the person they were at the beginning of the story. Zach suggested I read a lot of memoirs and get a feel for the oeuvre, so I loaded up on every memoir I could find.

Me: Zach sounds like an incredibly helpful resource. It’s so cool that he offered you his wisdom about a genre that is not even his specialty.

Les: What I eventually learned was that memoirs are held to a higher literary standard than Fiction or Fantasy, and there were a lot of no-no’s to take into consideration (no lying!). Sustaining a 96,000-word narrative is not easy, either. Had I known how difficult the task was that I set for myself, I may never have started, but that’s one of the only good things about my ignorance of the literary world.

Over the next fifteen years I would read around 200 memoirs or so (who counts?). Based on my reading, I learned the importance of having strong themes. Because of my interest in the Military Brat phenomenon of constantly moving around, and needing to learn how to quickly adapt, I began to focus on the theme of belonging, of having a real home, friends, and community, and moving constantly. These are themes all Brats can relate to, so I tried to keep them front and center in the narrative.

Me: I totally agree that reading memoirs is a great way to learn how to write one.

Les: Then I hired a Professional Editor in Seattle named Anne Mini. I sent her the MS and a check and a few months later she sent the MS back. This was in the Spring of 2008 and that Summer I moved to Southern California and began working on her edits.

Anne was detailed beyond belief. Zach was kind and generous. Anne was not. She wasn’t unkind, however, she just told me the harsh truth and held a candle up to the workings of the literary world and the standards required of a memoir writer. In my memoir, “Saigon Kids”, I mention a teacher named Sister Kenneth who kept me after school every day for the entire first grade. Her approach was much like Anne’s: Absolutely no nonsense, tell the full truth about every detail of the manuscript, and give the appropriate amount of encouragement.

Anne gave me a literary beating from which I hope to never recover. She marked up every page, including the back, and every paragraph, and then put together a fifty-page summary with even more remarks, critiques, and suggestions.

She also told me not to commit the greatest sin of the memoir genre: Don’t try to make yourself look like a hero.

Anne Mini emphasized the scene building aspects quite a bit. She would write in the margins, “What did that look like?” “What did you feel there?” “Tell me more about xxx”

She suggested I join a writer’s group and get some fresh eyes on my prose, so I looked around San Diego, found a group at the Encinitas Library and began going every Thursday night. The group helped a lot because, as Anne explained, even though a person might not be a great writer, anyone inclined to join such a group is probably an excellent reader and can give valuable feedback.

Me: More awesome advice! That is so nicely said. In memoir groups, each person is giving you expert feedback on what they liked. She said it more clearly and succinctly than I’ve ever heard it stated before.

Les: One realization I had around this time: Words have rhythm: Accentuate. Wonderful. Technology. Dot. Hyperventilating. When words are strung together into sentences, the sentences acquire a rhythm. When sentences are combined to create paragraphs, the paragraphs acquire a rhythm that is sensed on a very subtle level (Avoid boredom! Vary your sentence length!). And rhythmic paragraphs become chapters, and the rhythm of the chapters creates the rhythm of the book.

We weren’t in Encinitas long. My wife’s father got sick, so in December of 2009 we moved back to Boston. I sought out another writing group and found the Walpole Writer’s Group, which at the time had been in existence for about ten years. WWG was a big group, and had some real good writers, including one retired teacher of English, a professional Technical Writer, and a woman who eventually published several children’s books. Their insights were very helpful.

Finally, in March of 2010 I got a call from the person who would become my agent. He had liked my query letter and asked for the full manuscript. When he read it he said that he noticed a lot of errors and small issues. He would ordinarily have passed on it, he said, but he kept wanting to read further and thought that was a good sign. His specialty was Military History and he told me he found the story to be a fascinating look at a world (the world of Military Brats in Vietnam) of which he knew nothing.

Me: That’s a great story. Typically you hear about editors having zero tolerance for errors in the query. This guy saw past that. Nice.

Les: I worked with his editor for a few months, and at one point we decided that it would be helpful to have the story start with a scene that was exciting; something to get the blood flowing. The Coup scene initially occurred about two-thirds of the way into the book. It contains a lot of violent action and emotion, and we felt it might draw the reader into the story, make them want to find out how things got to that point. We tried moving it to the front of the book and it seemed to work. After that first chapter I flashed back to the real beginning of the book (when my family was in Florida) and proceeded chronologically.

One of the concepts Anne Mini drilled into me was that the writer must speak with their own authentic voice and not adapt affectations from other writers. You have to sound like you, not Jeanette Walls or JR Mohringer or whomever it is you admire. This was particularly difficult because I had no idea what my “voice” was. But as Theresa and I worked on my MS I began to realize that some of the things she objected to were my own little verbal idiosyncrasies, the “me” in my voice.

It was years before Roger (my agent) found a willing publisher. One of the problems we had with finding a publisher was the same problem I experienced finding an agent: when agents/publishers see the word “Vietnam” they think they know what it’s about — “choppers,” “Charlie,” “incoming,” and “rice paddy.” Their eyes glaze over and the query gets deleted. We endured six years of “no”, until a small publisher in Florida offered a deal. We took it.

Me: I have heard so many stories about how long and hard it is to find a publisher. You made it across the desert. Congratulations!

Les: Well, the story isn’t over yet. We still had a few more rounds of edits. After the first round of edits I had gone back over the manuscript and put back in some of the “me” that we had edited out, but when I started working with the editor assigned to me by Mango (my publisher), I sometimes faced the same problem.

For instance, in the first chapter, referencing Mother’s shaking hands and voice, I wrote: “The shakes have got a grip on her throat, too.” Mango’s editor, suggested that I change that sentence to something like, “Her throat was quivering with fear,” which would have been correct. But that’s not how I would say it. That’s how Mango’s editor might have said it. It’s a Southern thing…

The moral of this story is “don’t be afraid to sound like you.” If you’re from the South (like me) or from the North or the East or West, speak on the page as you would in life, then edit it to make it read well. If you’re not from the Appalachians don’t try to sound like the Beverly Hillbillies. If you’re not an intellectual with a PhD in English Literature or Medieval French poetry, don’t try to write like it.

Mary Karr is a good example of how an authentic Voice can work in a literary setting and still sound natural. I’m Southern, but not as Southern as Mary Karr (My father is from New York). My writing doesn’t have much of that Texas twang to it, but what it does have I plan to keep, ya’ll. By the way, her book, “The Art of Memoir” is a must-read for any budding memoirist.

To sum it all up, if I had to do it over again, I’d take some writing classes first. Not so much as to get bogged down in the process, but the way I learned how to write to my present stage of ability was the hard way. I probably could have saved myself a few years! Although I initially thought the key to getting published was telling a great story, I discovered that, while there are millions of great stories waiting to be told, about the only ones that get a real publishing deal are those that are told well. I hope Saigon Kids is in that category.

Notes

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Ex-pat Brats Come of Age in Saigon

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

I feel fortunate to be able to extend my vision into the farthest reaches of human experience. This superpower has been granted to me by a lucky stroke of cultural creativity. I happen to live in an era when tens of thousands of creative people are looking back across the vast sweep of their lives, and turning those experiences into stories.

Take for example my friend Sandy Hanna. Over the years I’ve known her, she intimated that she lived in Saigon when she was a child. Her claim hung in the air, so far past the scope of my experience, I had no ability to visualize it.

Thanks to the cultural trend to read and write memoirs, Hanna took it upon herself to resurrect those memories from long ago. Her memoir Ignorance of Bliss brings that the period alive in my imagination. A ten year old blond girl trying to make her mark in the black market in Saigon informs one of the most exotic Coming of Age stories I’ve read. By writing the story, she offers her life in order to enrich mine.

It turns out the book represents a microculture – that is, that collection of oldsters who spent a portion of their childhood in Southeast Asia at the dawn of the conflagration.

Writing Prompt: What microculture would your memoir exist in?

Out of that collection of people, I discovered another author, Les Arbuckle, who like Hanna felt compelled to tell the story of his childhood in that war torn country. His book is called Saigon Kids, An American Military Brat Comes of Age in 1960’s Vietnam.

Anytime I can compare two memoirs that touch similar themes, or whose stories intertwine, I learn so much about the content and art of memoir writing.

In some ways, Saigon Kids by Les Arbuckle and Ignorance of Bliss by Sandy Hanna appear almost identical. For example, both kids were able to take advantage of their parents’ lack of understanding of the permissiveness of the society, allowing each of them to find astonishing gaps in parental control. Their freedom provides a shocking prelude to the incredible chaos which would soon envelope that country.

Despite the similarities between the two stories, they were also totally different, representing a stark contrast between the kinds of trouble a ten year old female and a fourteen year old male might get into.

With these rich weaving of differences and similarities, the two books combine to create an education in the experience of military brat kids, navigating pre-war Saigon, with their gender-appropriate world views.

In a previous post, I dug deeper into Sandy Hanna’s story. In this and the next post I’ll go deeper into Les Arbuckle’s.

Saigon Kids by Les Arbuckle is a great example of the raw adolescent male Coming of Age memoir. Following in the footsteps of the classic bestsellers, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, it reveals the flaws and edgy mistakes that adolescent boys make on their way to becoming young men.

Neither Les Arbuckle or Sandy Hanna make any effort to hide their willingness to take the low road, at a time in their lives when experimentation preceded wisdom.

Learning that authors are willing to admit the dark side of adolescent experiences was an early milestone in my own evolution as a memoir writer. When I saw Tobias Wolff reveal his misadventures in This Boys Life, I thought “oh, so it’s okay to be flawed in a memoir.” Apparently Les Arbuckle learned the same lesson, because he was exceptionally brutal with his own self-image. I asked him how he arrived at such an honest approach to some of his less savory behavior.

Me: I was impressed at how raunchy and raw you made yourself appear in the memoir. Weren’t you afraid your kids or people who know you as an adult would think less of you?

Les: I did have a certain amount of concern about how some of my adventures and misbehaving might be perceived, but after reading a lot of memoirs I decided that it’s okay if some people get offended by an experience I wrote about. I was most concerned about how my fellow Saigon Kids would feel, but they seemed to like the book a lot. I think a memoirist, to be relevant, has to put their real self on the page and not sugar-coat or downplay the truth of who they were at the time. No one puts everything they ever did wrong on the page, but you have to tell at least some of the bad, as much as it might hurt. Getting to the emotional truth of a situation is difficult, but it makes things believable and shows that the writer is a human being, like everyone else.

Writing is, in many ways, like playing jazz: No matter how good you play, someone’s not going to like it, and no matter how bad you play, someone will like it. In any artistic endeavor there is always the fear of rejection and criticism, but you just have to say what you say and let the chips fall where they may. Fear is the enemy of all Art.

Me: Like me, you didn’t start out as a memoir writer. You had to learn as you went. What was that like for you to go from being a musician to writing and publishing a whole memoir?

Les: What I liked about beginning to write at such a late age is that one doesn’t need the kind of background that’s required, for instance, to learn to play a musical instrument well, or the level of education/math required to dabble in sciences such as computer engineering, or medicine. Trigger reflexes are not necessary for writing (like they are in playing music at a high level) and the conventions and rules of good writing can be absorbed by most people at almost any age. There are a great many good books on the subject.

Writing gave me the opportunity to create my own world, (or re-create, as in my memoir) and live in that world a little each day. As a life-long musician, it was interesting to delve into the creative aspects of writing and experience something that, had I tried my hand much sooner, could have been a career. Like music, Journalism is a problem-filled career choice, but almost anything worth doing is difficult in one way or another.

Although the “literary life” can be a lonely endeavor, participating in Writing Groups allowed me to improve my writing while developing social contacts I still maintain. My writing pals were (are) of all ages and walks of life, and helped give me a perspective about my stories that I could have gotten no other way.

Me: Thanks Les. I’m so glad you arrived at the craft. Thanks to your willingness to learn how to tell your story, and then to do all the hard work of putting it out there, readers are treated to an amazing (and in some ways gut wrenching) view of what it was like to grow up in that place and time.

Notes

Les Arbuckle’s home page

Sandy Hanna’s home page

My article about Sandy Hanna’s memoir Ignorance of Bliss

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

How traveling helped them find themselves

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

A young man in the 60s went off to the jungles of Southeast Asia, not to face enemies with machine guns but to confront that transition all of us must face – the voyage from childhood to adult.

As Neill McKee fulfilled his mission for the CUSO, the Canadian version of the Peace Corps, he had to teach the local school kids. On weekends he traveled with his buddy Peter, to immerse himself in the nature and culture of the region.

In his memoir, Finding Myself in Borneo, McKee generously offers a front row seat to his adventure in an interesting part of the world. But I want more from a memoir than Finding Myself in Borneojust exotic sights. I expect to learn about the author’s inner journey as well. McKee’s memoir satisfies that desire by showing me how his adventure in Borneo helped him launch from child to adult.

The Memoir Revolution has provided a literary genre through which we can explore this fascinating life transition. By reading memoirs like Neill McKee’s, we discover the infinite variety of ways people acquire the prerequisites of adulthood, such as finding a relationship, a way to earn a living, a set of beliefs, and a place to call home.

In addition to the usual hassles of growing up, Neill McKee adds another dimension. He complicates everything by going forth into a foreign land. And yet, his impulse to leave home has a remarkably familiar ring. Traveling in order to find one’s deeper truths is at the heart of Joseph Campbell’s universal myth, the Hero’s Journey.

In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the earliest and most famous stories in Western civilization,  Ulysses traveled around the Mediterranean in an attempt to find his true home. Unlike the Odyssey, McKee’s journey does not involve magic and monsters. But the young man was so smitten with epic heroes that he decided the island of Borneo was the model for Mordor, the land of evil in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Even though he saw himself in the land of Mordor, McKee was not on a quest to defeat evil. His mission was to travel beyond his own youthful impulses and mature into adult life.

Another author finds herself through foreign service
Another memoir demonstrates that traveling to search for a wiser version of yourself can continue in later life. When Janet Givens crossed the threshold from the first half century to the second, she and her husband joined the Peace Corps. They were looking to energize their entry into this new chapter of their lives.Home on Kazakh Steppe Janet Givens

The caricature of midlife crisis is a middle-aged guy in a red convertible sports car having an affair. Memoirs transcend caricatures. Instead they describe unique characters who question the trajectory of their lives and look for creative ways to re-calibrate.

In her memoir At Home on the Kazakh Steppe, Janet Givens turns to foreign service as the tool with which to reinvent herself. Following in the footsteps of classic heroes, she trades her comfortable home in the US for a tiny room among people, most of whom speak a language she couldn’t understand.

I recommend the book for anyone who wants to vicariously experience a courageous search for purpose. Read it if you have ever considered self-sacrifice and volunteerism in later life. As a bonus, you will gain a first hand glimpse into an obscure corner of the former Soviet Empire,

Homecoming: Memoirs heroes bring back knowledge

If you have ever traveled to, or lived in an exotic location, one obvious way to entertain readers is to show them the sights. However, memoir readers want to know about the psychological dimensions of the hero’s inner world. So be prepared to show them how your exotic outer world changed you forever.

Whether you were invited into a parlor for a ritual cup of tea, or tried to bargain with a local vendor, or any of a thousand other small glimpses into every day life, your memoir provides a feel for the psychological and social dynamics of a place. You become homegrown, amateur version of a cultural anthropologist.

Writing exercise
During your transition from an earlier version of yourself to the present one, did you find some of your truths in faraway lands? If so, write a scene that intrigued you, disrupted some preconception, showed you new sides of yourself, or in some other way altered your beliefs about your identity and your place in the world.

Hero’s Journey: reporting the adventure to those who didn’t go

In the universal myth of the Hero’s Journey, the main character goes out into the land of the adventure, grows through hardship and longing, and finally achieves a goal. Ignorance is replaced by wisdom. Anger by forgiveness. Confusion by clear vision.

But even after scaling the moral mountain, the story is not complete until the hero returns home to teach these lessons to the community.

The effort to bring wisdom back to the community is exquisitely illustrated by both Neill McKee in Finding Myself in Borneo and by Janet Givens in At Home on the Kazakh Steppe. Both the Peace Corps, and its Canadian cousin, the CUSO, encourage participants to return after their service to share insights with fellow country men and women.

Both McKee and Givens took this part of their assignment seriously, logging in the many hours required to compose a memoir. By letting us vicariously accompany them, the authors give all of us the opportunity to see ourselves in intimate connection with the Other, thus providing us with an ever deeper empathy for the global citizenship of planet earth.

Empathy and exotic adventure right here at home

When Firoozeh Dumas in Funny in Farsi, or Carlos Eire in Learning to Die in Miami immigrated to the United States, they had to adjust to culture in this country as a foreign land. Their “foreign travel” memoirs provide an eye-opening perspective on the hall of mirrors that is created when one looks at one’s self as the Other.

The “foreign land” doesn’t really even require crossing national borders. For example, when I left my ethnic neighborhood in Philadelphia to go to college in Wisconsin, to my naive eyes the Midwest was strange and bewildering. Then while I was still struggling to adapt to one shift in reality, the  60s counter-culture erupted, transforming an already bewildering coming of age experience into a psychedelic one. Thinking my Way to the End of the World by Jerry Waxler

Writing prompt
Write a scene about stumbling into some patch of culture out of your ordinary experience that forced you to find new attitudes, or different parts of yourself.

Memoirs mentioned in this article
At Home on the Kazakh Steppe, a peace corps memoir by Janet Givens
Finding myself in Borneo by Neill McKee
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas
Learning to Die in Miami by Carlos Eire
Thinking my Way to the End of the World by Jerry Waxler

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Notes
For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Author Interview: Memoir into Fiction

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

After years of working on her story as a memoir, Wendy Baez switched to fiction. In my previous article, [click here to read it], I commented on my own observations about the impact of her novel Catch a Dream. In today’s post, I share our conversation in which she explores insights, techniques, and recollections. Her perspectives are especially informative because she is also a writing teacher and coach.

Jerry Waxler: Catch a Dream describes such an intense experience. It surprises me that most of it really happened and that you started writing it as a memoir. Wow. Tell me more about the events that you actually lived through.

Wendy Brown Baez: The experience of being in Israel was incredibly profound and a story I was compelled to write. I arrived there as part of a Christian commune. After ten years of living together, we broke up in Israel. I had to de-program myself from group-think. Was it okay to be feminine? Was it okay to put my son in school? I hadn’t worked for ten years—we took in the homeless and lived on donations. It was a very emotional time of betrayal and disappointment. I was very idealistic and naïve and Israel brought me down to earth. The awakening I experienced was extraordinary and it happened in an extraordinary place.

Jerry Waxler: So if it was a story you knew you wanted to tell, why didn’t you ultimately publish it as a memoir?

Wendy Brown Baez: I spent years trying to write it as a memoir, but I kept struggling to get it right. One problem with the memoir is that I had already fudged some of the story, a touch of fiction in some scenes. For example my character’s first meeting with Levi is a composite of my memory and someone else’s.

Another problem was the complexity of my backstory. Living in a Christian commune seemed too complicated.. My backstory also included my being kidnapped and raped ten years earlier. I wanted the book just to be about my journey through Israel and I couldn’t figure out how to make it a memoir while stripping away all these extra storylines.

Jerry Waxler: What happened that switched you from memoir-writing mode to fiction writing mode?

Wendy Brown Baez: I attended the Bookbaby Independent Author’s Conference last year and left knowing I was going to publish with them. I have a stack of manuscripts so I had to make a choice.

One day I thought to myself what if I changed Catch a Dream to a novel? The names Lily Ambrosia and Rainbow Dove popped into my head. I immediately had a visual of these two young women and it just felt right. By changing it to fiction, I could remove all the backstory. This meant the story was less focused on reflecting on my experience and more focused on taking the reader on a journey. It meant I could make things up! It was very freeing to let go of the backstory.

I then had to add the backstory of what had motivated Lily and Rainbow to be on the road. I enhanced Lily’s sense of rootlessness. The descriptions remain the same and the pivotal scenes remain the same. Many of the conversations are recorded as they happened (in particular with Levi, Jonah, and Asher, and between Dov and Asher).

I did fall in love with a man who was very mysterious and who rejected me because I asked him to slow down, based on group advice. I made up the conversations between Lily and Rainbow and embellished their personalities. I took out mental meanderings and journal entries.

Jerry Waxler: When you say “group advice”, I’m trying to visualize a group that could advise you on the specialized skill of translating real life experience into a novel. How did you manage to find such a group?

Wendy Brown Baez: This wasn’t a formal group, just people I asked to read my work. Some are writers, some not, but I worked with a professional editor on the longer memoir and it was quite a struggle. I had to explain everything as she had never had a ’60s experience of living freely and hitch-hiking and raising children together cooperatively. Another young writer friend said, I just don’t get why anyone would live that way. And yet, as soon as I changed the characters’ names and described what they were doing, people were nodding their heads and saying they could picture it.

The beta readers I picked to read Catch a Dream never saw my earlier memoir writing, only the novel as it reached completion. Some knew me and my story and some did not, some are writers but mostly I chose people who like to read, and some with Jewish backgrounds. Readers who know me try to figure out who the characters are in real life and which parts were true and are a bit confused until I tell them it is fictionalized!

Jerry Waxler: In Catch a Dream, you mention that you had been violently raped. This is such a profound, disruptive experience. I wonder how much of your journey in Israel was really a search for healing from that trauma.

Wendy Brown Baez: I have written (and shared publicly) other stories and poems about the rape. I didn’t want it to be the central theme of the book, I wanted to emphasize the search for personal and spiritual meaning. The healing started in Israel, instigated by standing up to the attacker (true story) but it took trauma therapy years later to fully heal. (more stories!)

Jerry Waxler: I love some of your long paragraphs where Lily goes into amazing reveries. I’m not sure what to call them, “riffs” or “rants” or “internal soliloquys” – these are just so lovely and powerful, some of the coolest writing I’ve seen in a memoir. What can you tell me about that style of writing?

Wendy Brown Baez: The inner workings of my thoughts came out of journaling. I wrote Catch a Dream separately from the longer memoir because the experience of living in Israel was so dynamic and complicated and extraordinary and deserved its own book. I am also a poet, a performance poet, so the riffs maybe come from my poetic voice. One advantage of fictionalizing is that I can exaggerate impacts, responses, and emotions. (Lily’s lament, It’s all my fault. Rainbow’s accusatory conversation with Levi: fiction)

Riff tends to mean short repetitions (in music), soliloquies are like talking to yourself: these are short monologues meant for an audience. I just wrote them because these things were on my mind, but I really don’t know what to call them. Inner reflections meant to be shared….

I was reading a lot of Anais Nin at the time I wrote those journals. She wrote down everything that happened to her and her reactions, very detailed insights into a woman’s psyche and emotions, analyzing herself and others. In fact, I used to wonder how she got anything else done! She was married to two men at the same time, wrote erotica for money, and based her novels on her true life experiences. In a way, her entire diaries are riffs!

Jerry Waxler: Would you have kept these lovely “riffs” if you had published it as a memoir?

Wendy Brown Baez: I would have kept the riffs in the memoir but I did take some liberties with style, for example I switch to second person in the bar scene, that maybe wouldn’t work as well in memoir. I would say that the inner thoughts and emotional responses came from my direct experience and conversations and some scenes were fictionalized. As a writing instructor I believe that the more we know ourselves, become aware of our inner workings and reflect on our writing process, the better we can create characters that resonate emotionally with readers. I give my participants questions to ponder such as What are you afraid to write about? What do you want people to know about you? How can you view your actions differently? as a tool for self-discovery– I think that makes us better writers. So memoir and fiction blend in self-reflection.

Jerry Waxler: What more can share about the experience of turning it from a memoir to a novel?

Wendy Brown Baez: Because the story was originally written as memoir, people respond to it as if it is true. Readers after publication say, This sounds just like you! The line between memoir and fiction are blurred and I am hoping it’s a good thing!

I have to gently remind them that Lily’s opinions and observations may be flawed. I do not want to be considered an expert on Israeli history or politics–I hope that a novel with a flawed main character will excuse me!

To show that Lily became assimilated into Israeli (therefore Jewish) culture gradually, I fabricated the story about how she lost her cross. In real life, I returned home still wearing my cross, although I kept a kosher kitchen and Jewish holidays. (My Israeli boyfriend used to say I was more Jewish than he was!)

I also knew that by keeping the memoir’s structure and pace, it was not a traditional novel. There is not a definitive cliff hanger or a resolution and that’s why the questions in the back are very important to me. I wanted to raise questions more than answer them.

After I had the first copy in my hands I realized that it is my love letter to a country embroiled in conflict.

Notes
Catch a Dream by Wendy Brown-Baez
Wendy Brown-Baez’s home page

For my article about the impact Catch a Dream had on me, and some of the life lessons and memoir lessons I drew from the novel, click here.

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

Parent’s Story: Personal History or Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

In almost every memoir writing class or group, one person says “I really want to write about a parent.” Early in my study of the memoir genre, such a goal seemed off-point. After all, a memoir is a first-person introspect account of the author’s life experience.

However, over the years, by reading an ever-widening selection of memoirs, I have grown to respect the desire to contain all aspects of one’s life journey into the form of a story. Stories of parents run the gamut.

On one extreme are the author’s attempts to ghost write or inhabit their parent’s

Farewell Aleppo

earlier lives. Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Yaeko Sugama-Weldon and Linda E. Austin captures the first person account of Linda Austin’s mother growing up in pre-war Japan. Andrew X. Pham in Eaves of Heaven  tells the story, through his father’s eyes, of being caught in the cross fire of north and south during the Vietnam war. Both base their stories on intense interviews and the familiarity of a close personal relationship to get inside the perspective of the main character.

Linda Joy Myers, a thought-leader in the memoir movement wrote a whole memoir Song of the Plains, about her sometimes frustrating effort to see inside her ancestors’ points of view. Her story is a tale of reminiscences, speculation, interviews, and research.

Other authors such as Miranda Seymour, author of Thrumpton Hall  and Alexandra Styron, author of Reading my Father  dig into the archival records their father’s left behind, sprinkled with a smattering of the author’s own early memories. Alex’s Wake by Martin Goldsmith  chronicles the author’s maddening search in Europe to trace the tragic journey his uncle and grandfather made on the ill fated St. Louis when they tried and failed to escape Nazi persecution.

Barack Obama shared his insights into the African origins of his father (and by extension other African Americans) in Dreams of Our Fathers . And author Helene Cooper did the same in her memoir of growing up in Liberia, in House on Sugar Beach.

This desire to understand ancestors arises as a natural extension of the same curiosity that drives one to know one’s own story. And so when I come across another example of a child’s attempt to chronicle a parent, I accept it as an honorable and welcome contribution to the memoir literature. Even if such stories are not always able to go inside the protagonist’s inner perspectives, these authors do their best to learn how their ancestor’s history contributed to the author’s psychological evolution.

The latest example of this drive to find a parent’s life is Farewell Aleppo: My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home by Claudette Sutton.

A young girl knows her parents come from Syria but she doesn’t know what that means. And the stories she hears from various members are so complicated with various surprising twists and turns, with brothers who move from country to country, and return or don’t return to Syria. As a young woman, she has little hope of being able to sort it out into a coherent story.

Were her grandparents really from Syria? Most of the Jews she meets have ancestors from Europe. Her own family’s stories of middle eastern Jewish communities seem unreal.

As she matures and has kids of her own, she begins to wonder how she can learn more. Eventually she begins to ask questions and gather information. Through interviews and research she constructs the story of her father’s clan.

In gathering her father’s stories, she uncovers amazing features of twentieth century history, including some fascinating insights that are rarely known or discussed in our popular culture. into the cultural cross roads and sanctuary city. In addition to the existence of a large Syrian Jewish community, her father’s story provides insights into the existence of a substantial Jewish community in Shanghai, which swelled during World War II, with Jews looking for safe haven from the Nazis. In Claudette Sutton’s story, we can’t go deep into her father’s emotions as a young man. And yet, even without his internal voice, we can feel the thrill and nervous tension of watching the historic events of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, and other profound events that shaped the journey of this international group of souls who had been wandering for two millennia, looking for a safe home.

Typically a memoir is about the journey of an individual, and the narrative takes us deeply inside the author’s own point of view. Even though Farewell to Aleppo does not sit firmly within the point of view of either author or protagonist, it nevertheless offers a brilliant insightful story of the life of an ancestor. This form at the intersection of personal history and memoir brings alive the journeys of recent ancestors, supplying the author and her family with important information about their heritage and offering the rest of us a vibrant, personal view of the events of recent history.

Writing Prompt

What were your parents doing before you were born? Write down a few stories from family lore. If parents or other older relatives are still alive, ask questions to try to flesh in this folklore and develop the scenes and emotions that will turn them into stories.

Notes

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