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.

Two Inspiring Memoirs about Suffering

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

I rarely shy away from the hardship portrayed in memoirs. On the contrary, I have come to expect that setbacks are milestones on the road to hope. This uplifting quality of memoirs is summed up nicely in the Latin phrase my older brother penned on his tombstone. “ ,” meaning, “To the Stars through Hardship.” In my favorite memoirs, each author climbs to the best parts of themselves by enduring the hardship they encounter along the way.

However, my admiration for suffering was severely challenged nine years ago, when I began to read Sixty Five Roses by Heather Summerhayes Cariou. It was about the author’s sister, Pam, who had Cystic Fibrosis. Before I picked up this book, I had no idea a child could struggle so hard just to breathe. As I allowed my mind to enter the scene, I gasped for air.

Picturing that family, frantically caring for this suffocating little girl, overloaded my own emotions. It was too much. I set the book aside.

My reluctance to read the book presented me with a terrible dilemma. I would not be able to experience Heather Cariou’s triumph until I was willing to experience her pain. So for years Sixty Five Roses floated near the top of my reading pile, bypassed time after time by books which involved less suffering.

Recently, I grabbed a memoir, Trapped by Fran Macilvey, about a child who grew up with Cerebral Palsy. From earliest childhood, the author coped with her physical limitations. And after she came to terms with the cruel accident that damaged her body, she had to climb above the emotional scars that resulted from all those years she wished she could run, jump, and play with the healthy kids.

Fran Macilvey’s memoir is a journey of courage, of growth and change. Her frustration pushed me out of my comfort zone, where I felt the courageous shift beyond mere acceptance, to a lifelong search for dignity.

I didn’t want the book to end. So after the last page of Trapped, I returned to Heather Summerhayes Cariou’s Sixty Five Roses. This time, I vowed to stick with the pain until it led me to the inevitable conclusion of compassion and courage.

I am so glad I did. This memoir of a young person trying to grow up in the shadow of her sister’s terrible disease was one of the most beautifully written of the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read.

Knowledge of Death inspires life

This book also searches for the highroad hidden within the misery of circumstances. As Heather’s sister, Pam, inches closer to the early death expected for all sufferers of Cystic Fibrosis in those years, the family attempts to thrive. This terrifying situation creates an almost superhuman challenge for the author, of course. It is also terrifying for me, as I wonder with increasing urgency how the author will lead through death toward a strong, hopeful conclusion.

Heather pulls it off, showing how her sister and family looked squarely at death and defied it with a love for life. Thank you for sharing this lovely experience, Heather. You have lifted my heart and given me courage. Death and birth, sorrow and joy, effort and fear are flip sides of the human experience. Your sister showed us how to embrace both sides.

As a result, Sixty Five Roses does more than tell the story of a child’s suffering. It turns that valiant struggle into one of the most lyrical and uplifting memoirs I’ve read, taking me on a fearless journey to the shores of death.

Bonus of reading both memoirs

Because the family in both Trapped and Sixty Five Roses had to work so hard to ease the suffering of one child, the two books together provide a primer on the psychology of families with a special-needs child. In both stories, the healthy siblings learned early that their own problems are less urgent in comparison.

Reading the two books in sequence also taught me a surprising lesson about the influence of first-person versus third-person point of view on the way I was able to relate to the pain.

Even though Fran Macilvey suffered the terrible burden of a body that didn’t work right, one thing that made it easier to read was the fact that the suffering was told through her own eyes. After a lifetime of coping with her physical disability, she had learned how to create some distance from her own struggles. As a result, her own emotional tools allowed me to immerse myself in her situation while also remaining buffered from it.

On the other hand, in Heather Summerhayes Cariou’s story, the author had to witness the suffering of her younger sister. Her heart was ripped to shreds as she attempted to live her own life, and yet at the same time pour her compassion to her sister. Her aching heart completely opened me up to the pain.

Conclusion
I grew up reading science fiction. While standing on a crowded trolley car or subway in Philadelphia, I explored the galaxy. At the time, I didn’t realize that to a large extent I was reading in order to shut out the people around me. Decades later, I extended my exploration to include memoirs. By reading memoirs, I traverse the vast variety of human experience. It is truly the greatest and most exciting frontier, understanding of the people around me by reading their stories from inside their own points of view.

Thanks to frank, gorgeous writing such as Fran Macilvey’s Trapped and Heather Cariou’s Sixty Five Roses I no longer need to keep it outside my realm of experience.

Notes

Link to Sixty Five Roses – Goodreads page
Link to Trapped by Fran Macilvey Goodreads page
Link to Fran Macilvey’s home page

In one of my favorite memoirs, Here if you Need Me, Kate Braestrup faces the death of her husband and ends up proposing an uplifting way to look at good and evil. Tackling these huge topics through Story is one of my favorite things.)

In another one of my favorite memoirs, Gary Presley in Seven Wheelchairs takes his search for adulthood beyond mere acceptance of life in a wheelchair, toward the inexorable search for dignity and self-worth.)

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

Two Fools at a Party: Serious Side of Humor

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

(This is the second article about Victoria Twead’s memoirs. For the first, click here.)

Despite my enjoyment of Victoria Twead’s memoir, Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools, something didn’t seem right. When the couple moved from dreary England to a

Memoir by Victoria Twead

Memoir by Victoria Twead

fixer-upper in sunny Spain, instead of hating the hardship they laughed. I worried that their frivolous attitude missed the opportunity to make some serious points.

To learn more about this adventuresome couple, I read another of their memoirs. In Two Old Fools on a Camel they moved from their by-now cozy village in Spain to a concrete building in the desert of Bahrain. In their new, barren surroundings, they were to teach kids of edgy, rich parents. They did this to earn money. That’s a scary twist. What happened to the golden years when you could retire to a life of leisure? To add to the discomfort, during their visit, a political uprising briefly shut down the country.

After considering both memoirs, my worry about their serious purpose began to evaporate. I could see that underneath the humor was a willingness to go out on demanding adventures. Their fearless attitude fits perfectly with my understanding of the Hero’s Journey.

I first learned about the mythical basis for modern storytelling from Chris Vogler’s book, Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Once I recognized the universality of the Hero’s Journey, it was easy to see its fingerprints all over my favorite memoirs. (I go into more details of this idea in my book Memoir Revolution.

The Tweads, like so many memoir authors, follow the Hero’s Journey model closely, going forth into the land of adventure. In their case, first into Spain and then into Bahrain. Unlike mythical characters, the heroes of memoirs search for psychological achievements. For the Tweads, the quest was for dignity in midlife. And like heroes in myths, the Tweads were willing to accept major discomfort during their pursuit.

In fiction, our heroes usually deal with discomfort by ignoring it. For example, in John Wayne’s war and western movies, the actor was famous for appearing to simply not care about extraordinary discomfort. In real life, though, the rest of us need to develop coping methods.

This is where the Tweads took me into new territory. They used humor, and even went so far as to pull practical jokes. For example, teaming up with fellow teachers, one of them dressed up in an outlandish costume, and then hid. When an unsuspecting victim entered the room, the trickster jumped out, trying to scare the daylights out of the newcomer.

After reading hundreds of memoirs, I can’t think of another one in which the hero uses practical jokes to break the tension. (See note below) At first, I feared the zaniness of their approach reduced the gravitas of their serious work. Aren’t practical jokes for children? Aren’t we supposed to outgrow that impulse?

My misgivings evaporated after reading a scholarly book on the subject. Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde. Hyde’s book shows how pranksters form an important theme in mythology. Because the Trickster messes around with the values of society, Western civilization has spent centuries trying to suppress this impulse. Despite this effort to stamp out the Trickster, he or she routinely appears in mainstream culture. First of course, are the practical jokes of children. In adult life we see the Trickster alive and well in horror movies, Halloween customs, and slapstick comedy. Victoria Twead’s use of pranks to survive adventure offers a refreshing, upbeat spin on this fundamental notion of trickery and surprise.

Heroes Return to the Community

The final stage of the mythical Hero’s Journey involves the hero’s return to the community to share hard-earned lessons. This is in fact the task of every memoir writer. Each of us invites readers to learn from our experience. Victoria Twead does this as well, and like everything else she does, she goes the extra mile.

In addition to passing her messages to us by writing many books , Victoria Twead shares herself on the Facebook group she co-founded with Alan Parks, (see note)    .

It was in that group that I discovered yet another dimension of Victoria Twead’s commitment to humor. In the Facebook group, she sets a light tone, asking members to leave their serious intentions at the door, before entering. Through these policies, the Facebook group attempts to bring a “party atmosphere” to the internet.

The levity on the Facebook group confused me in a similar way to the levity in the memoirs. “It’s too light,” I worried. “Where are the intense discussions about the meaning of life?” Finally, I accepted that group members have been invited to this gathering, not to ponder but to party.

Celebration!

The Facebook group is devoted to celebrating the joy that memoirs bring to writers and readers. I learned quite a bit about celebration during the sixties, when, in the pauses between anti-war demonstrations, we often got together for parties. Fifty years later, Victoria Twead and her cohorts on We Love Memoirs apply the notion of celebration to the internet.

It turns out that partiers, like tricksters, have roots that extend to the very beginnings of human culture. In the book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (see link below), social historian Barbara Ehrenreich traces celebration from the free-wheeling hoopla of pagan rituals. Similar to the way Western civilization tried to suppress the Trickster, there was a centuries-long effort to stamp out public celebration. In modern times, public revelry has been corralled into special holidays, such as New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras. Perhaps, if Ehrenreich is watching, she might add a chapter in her book on celebration to include We Love Memoirs, and other internet attempts at partying.

Serious points galore

After thinking about the Twead’s memoirs, I’ve discovered plenty of serious lessons. They harnessed the myth of the Hero to charge into life with full vigor. They used the myth of the Trickster to help them survive the discomforts of their adventures. And after they returned they used the ancient system of Story to share their adventures with us “couch warriors.” Finally, they gathered us together on the internet to for public revelry.
Even the Two Fools in the titles of their memoirs raise a serious issue. In ordinary usage, the word “fool” is a put down, but I don’t see the Tweads that way. I think they are more like Shakespearean fools. In Shakespeare’s plays, while most of the characters were caught up in the drama of the moment, the Fool was the one who lightly danced on top of reality and revealed the truth.

If Victoria Twead and her husband are Fools, maybe we would be smart to follow in their footsteps.

Notes and Links

The memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young was laugh-out-loud funny too. In the memoir, he attempted to earn his way into fame, and was willing to be outrageous in order to get into the public eye. But throughout the book, his zany behavior was driven by a serious needs. He occasionally dove into situations that came close to tragic, such as commitment to his relationship, his misgivings about fatherhood and his struggle with alcoholism. Read my 2007 review of that book by clicking here,

Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Chris Vogler

Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy byBarbara Ehrenreich

We Love Memoirs Facebook Group

Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools
Two Old Fools: Ole! 
Two Old Fools in Spain Again
Two Old Fools on a Camel, a New York Times bestseller.

Victoria keeps publishing  books! For a complete list, see her author page on Amazon.

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

Memoirs Helped Her Conquer Midlife

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

victoria-twead-two-old-fools-coverWhen I was growing up in the 1960s, “midlife crisis” conjured the image of a fifty-year-old guy driving a red convertible sports car accompanied by a giddy twenty-year-old blond. Thanks to the Memoir Revolution, we no longer rely on such clichés. Instead, we can read detailed accounts of the infinitely varied experience of real people.

Take for example, the midlife journey depicted in Victoria Twead’s “Old Fools” memoir series. (The fools in her self-effacing titles refer to the author and her husband.)

In the first memoir of the series, Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools, when Victoria Twead reached midlife, she was itching for a change from dreary English winters. She convinced her husband that they should buy a fixer-upper in a village in southeast Spain. He agreed to a five-year trial. If they still loved it by the end of that period, they would stay. With the clock ticking, they began the laborious project of turning a dilapidated house into a cozy home.

By most measures, that achievement would have been sufficient to declare their approach to midlife a smashing success. But for Victoria Twead it was only the beginning. The next mountain she wanted to climb was a literary one. She wrote a memoir about their move to Spain. Her good-humored writing brightened the dark spots, turning the whole messy experience into Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools.

Their not-so-foolish decision to move to Spain followed by the even less foolish effort to write about it were merely the first couple of steps in what I have come to see as Victoria Twead’s ferocious response to midlife. Following Dylan Thomas exhortation, she was not going gentle into that good night.

But then life in Spain hit a bump more serious than outmoded plumbing and collapsing walls. Their money began to run out. Instead of retreating, they blasted out of their comfort zone into yet another adventure, taking jobs as visiting teachers in the small middle-eastern country of Bahrain. After that crazy year, she had enough material for her next memoir, Two Old Fools on a Camel. (I’ll talk more about it in my next article.)

By this time, the reading public had discovered her books, and in a wonderful example of “art meets life” the income from her memoirs began to sustain her lifestyle.

As if this wasn’t enough to confirm Victoria’s qualification as a ferocious midlife conqueror, she had another mountain to climb. In order to share her books, she forged a relationship with fellow ex-pat Alan Parks, and established a Facebook group called We Love Memoirs.  The group attracts people from all over the world. And unlike other such groups on the internet, the moderators keep this one buzzing. That’s amazing. Isn’t the internet supposed to belong to the young? (I’ll say more about the group in my next article, also.)

Victoria Twead’s relentless climb to higher versions of herself represents an important change in our culture’s view of midlife. Formerly considered the beginning of the end, many of us view the period as the beginning of the next interesting chapter. For a more serious exploration of this trend, read Marc Freedman, MD’s book The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.  In it, Freedman points out that naturally, with our increased life spans, we are going to search for the next great adventure.

This big shift in our thinking about midlife happens to coincide with that time in my own life. Once my age approached a half a century, it raised the possibility that my life was half over. Like Twead, I too wondered how to climb higher rather than sink lower. During my research into that question, I discovered that memoirs are the key, for me and many others in this situation.

For memoir writers, a crucial step for revising life’s timeline is to become the author of one’s own book. By using the ancient template of Story to help make sense of the whole journey, we have discovered a roadmap that lets us know where we’ve been and helps us figure out where we’re going. (I’ve documented the use of Story to help us understand ourselves and each other in my book Memoir Revolution A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire )

Victoria Twead offers a great example of the trend to see midlife as a time to grow. If you decide to follow in her footsteps, to boldly seize the future, to overcome your own limits, and grow toward a better version of yourself, keep in mind all three dimensions of her approach.

First, if you lust for experience, go ahead and bust through your limits. Move to another country or achieve some other difficult or seemingly impossible dream.

Second, whether or not you are inclined to a new round of adventures, turn to memoir writing to explore and share the experiences you’ve already had.

And third, hop onto social media to create and join online communities and “party” with like-minded people from all over the world.

I’ll say more about Victoria Twead’s approach to midlife, to memoirs and to community in my next article.

Notes
Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools
Two Old Fools: Ole! 
Two Old Fools in Spain Again
Two Old Fools on a Camel, a New York Times bestseller.

Victoria keeps publishing  books! For a complete list, see her author page on Amazon.

Facebook group, We Love Memoirs, http://www.facebook.com/groups/welovememoirs

Other memoirs about renewal at midlife
At Home on the Kazakh Steppe by Janet Givens. She and her husband joined the Peace Corps at around 50 years old.

Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed
David W. Berner quit his job as a radio newscaster and became a school teacher

The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife by Marc Freedman,

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

Stories Help this Author Grow

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

An article and interview about David W. Berner’s Night Radio: A Love Story

Every memoir shows life through the author’s eyes, and each one provides an example of how the author turned life into a good story. One of my favorite memoir authors, David W. Berner has taught me many lessons in both arenas. Berner’s writing explores powerful parts of human experience, and his writing style is flexible and far ranging.

By following his life story, I have learned not only about writing a memoir, but also what it means to be a creative, energetic writer at midlife, ferociously stretching for new angles and new creative styles.

In his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, he wrote about the challenges of redefining himself in midlife. The book was written in a straight, narrative form.

In his second memoir Any Road Will Take You There he tries to make better sense of being a father and understanding his own father. He wrote it as a travel memoir, about the road trip he took with his friend and sons.

His third memoir, There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, A Life in Pets is again about his sons and father as explored in stories about their pets. He wrote this one as a collection of short stories.

Now, in his fourth book, Night Radio: A Love Story, he’s tackled the complex and sexy challenge of a young man in college who must sort out the difference between lust and commitment.

When I was trying to become an adult in the 60s, I learned about men from novels such as those by Henry Miller, which sensationalized the freedom of promiscuity. Such fictional characters provided little, if any, guidance to help me sort out these confusing issues. Now thanks to the Memoir Revolution, I hope young people can find better guidance from memoirs than I had back then. So when I heard that Night Radio is about that period, I thought this empathetic, insightful author would offer honest, compassionate insight into that important period of life.

However, it wasn’t a memoir and neither the publisher nor author ever said it was based on the author’s life. I should have just let it go and accepted that it wasn’t going to provide insight into this young man’s mind.

And yet, I wanted to believe in the authenticity of this main character. For one thing, Berner had written three memoirs, so he has plenty of practice writing from his own, authentic voice. And he, too, had been a radio announcer. Surely, I thought, he would place himself in the main character’s mind. So I kept wondering if the character in the book was a fabrication or a reflection of the truth. Finally, I asked Berner to help me tease apart the difference. I was not disappointed.

Interview with David W. Berner about his Memoir Night Radio

Jerry: When I started reading Night Radio, I found myself tangled up trying to figure out which parts were invented and which parts were you. Could you help me figure out how to sort this out?

David: Night Radio has what I call “experiential truths” in it. There are scenes that may be based on real events, but not necessarily tell the true details of that event. The scene is important to advance the narrative, but unlike memoir there is no need to stick to the absolute truth of an event. It can be shaped and massaged into what the story needs. I always get asked about the drinking party at the college radio station depicted in Night Radio. Did that happen? Well, the drinking party happened, sort of, but te what the characters end up doing on the floor of the station’s office is *not* true. At least it’s not *my* truth. It didn’t happen to me, but it wouldn’t be out of the question for this to have happened at a college radio station somewhere, at sometime. This brings me to authenticity. And that’s key here. It may not be fact, but it has to ring true.

Jerry: I was so curious about what it was like being you during that period. I guess I’m projecting my own desires on you. You wanted to write a novel, but I wished you had written a memoir. Why did you choose to write fiction?

David: I think there are a number of stories out there from very well known broadcasters and journalists who have written memoirs about their careers, legends in the industry. I’m not one of them. I’m a respected, long-time journalist and broadcaster, but not in that one-percent, if you will. I believed a fictionalized story with all the things I wanted to say about broadcasting, rock ‘n’ roll and the redemptive powers of love could be said, hopefully, more powerfully in a fictional story.

So many have said that fiction can get to a bigger truth. Sometimes, I think they are right.

“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” — Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” — Jessamyn West
“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” — Picasso

I think, in the case of Night Radio, fiction tells the wider truth.

Jerry: But that’s just it. The Memoir Revolution came into being to serve readers who no longer want a wider truth. We want specific truths so we can see into each other’s minds, and decide the wider truth for ourselves. And as a memoir writer and journalist, you were a great person to reveal it.

Maybe I’m being too personal here, but what I’m trying to figure out is Jake’s struggle with the awkward transition between the delights of lust and sex, versus the long-term commitment of authentic relationship. You did a great job of taking me inside that transition. In fact, your excellent writing evoked memories of my own inner debates during that period. My younger male self struggled enormously to steer through passion, and during that transition, I made a lot of mistakes. I included some of those awkward moments in my own memoir, but on every page, I had to resist the impulse to say, “And I was such an idiot.”

When I started reading Night Radio, and was still under the mistaken impression you had put yourself into the character, I thought you were being so heroic, opening up your thought process for all to see.

Now that you’ve convinced me this is really fiction, I’m not so sure if you were being brave. Maybe the opposite was the case. By couching it within fiction, you could completely deny the whole mess. Was that your intention? Did fiction enable you to explore that character without revealing personal, embarrassing choices and states of your own mind.?

David: This is a fascinating question, in essence, do we write fiction because the truth is too close to home? I do not believe I wrote Night Radio to avoid, in some way, calling attention to myself. I’ve written about other issues and emotions in my earlier memoirs that are pretty close to the bone. So writing about very personal feelings, is not a concern. Plus, I am *not* Jake. There are aspects of me in Jake, certainly. And the character’s issues with commitment and/or fidelity are a very human thing, I think, especially for young men trying to figure it all out. Plus, some are only modeling the behavior of their fathers. That’s somewhat the case for Jake. His father has had his own struggles with these issues and whether it’s overt or just through the DNA, sons of such fathers will also have to deal with these matters. It’s inevitable. Here’s the final say on this: everything a writer puts down on paper has a little of him in it. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, whether it’s painfully obvious or squeezed between the lines, it’s there and any writer who tells you differently is not telling you the truth.

Jerry: So now that you’ve written your first novel, are you dropping memoir altogether and switching over to writing fiction?

David: I’m glad you asked. Roundfire Books, will publish October Song: A memoir of music and the journey of time most likely in the first part of 2017. I believe October Song is a unique story of time and music. I played in a band many years ago. Nothing much. Just a bar band. I was a teenager and did it into my early 20s. But I always played music, and still play some guitar. But it’s really just about having some fun. Now and then, I’ll write a song. I’ve never professionally recorded or published music. On a whim I entered a national contest and was quite unexpectedly named a finalist and was asked to perform at a well-known music venue in Virginia to see how far the song would go. The memoir is about the road trip there and the experience of the competition, and most importantly about the passage of time. When are we at the moment when we should give up our crazy dreams? When do we say…”well, I guess I’m not going to be President of the United States,” and for me that was “that rock-n-roll star.” All of us have those dreams, right? Ultimately October Song is an examination of the passage of time, love, the power of music, and the power of dreams.

Jerry: That’s perfect. Another memoir. And the subject of the memoir fits in perfectly with the image you portray through your memoirs.

In the beginning of your first memoir, Accidental Lessons, you become convinced that you are not living life to the fullest, and to fulfill that desire, you need to change. Now here you are a few years later. You’ve been a high school teacher. A college teacher. You’ve written two memoirs, a collection of short stories, a novel. And you’ve got another memoir coming out about your passion for music. What a relentless, creative journey you’ve been on.

In my experience, most memoir writers are responding to a similar desire, to find themselves by creatively shaping their lives into stories. What advice could you offer us, based on your mid-life quest to reclaim your soul through creativity?

David: You hit the nail on the head – “reclaiming your soul through creativity.” I believe that my writing has done that. I didn’t write *to* do that; it was not calculated in some way, as journal writing might imply. But I have always been a storyteller in one form or another. From delivery newspapers as a paperboy in Pittsburgh, to my radio work, to writing journalism, to music and songwriting, to writing memoirs and now fiction. And for one reason or another, in the last 8-9 years, I have been a faucet of stories. I don’t know why that is, really. Maybe I am on a quest to understand my world and my place in it. But I don’t think people who are reclaiming their place in the world have to write a book or a memoir to “see” themselves or “find” themselves. That can be done in myriad of ways. And it’s a natural process for all of us. Looking in the mirror, really looking, is important to find steady ground, to be happy (whatever that means), or redeem or create relationships with people and the world. What makes us uniquely human? The stories we tell. No other species on earth tells stories. Only us. To be quintessentially human, we must tell stories. I must tell stories.

Notes

Night Radio: A Love Story by David W. Berner
Accidental Lessons by David W. Berner
Click here for the article I wrote about Accidental Lessons.
Any Road Will Take You There by David W. Berner
Click here to read my article about Any Road Will Take you There
There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard by David W. Berner

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

Interview: How to turn memories into a memoir

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

In a previous post, I described some of the many reasons I loved the memoir Accidental Soldier by Dorit Sasson. In this interview, I ask her to help aspiring memoir writers understand how she did such a great job turning life experiences in a good story.

Jerry: How long did it take to write the memoir?

Dorit: I downloaded a bunch of scenes during 2012-2013, but I didn’t actually run with a first draft until I started Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner’s well-known “Write Your Memoir in Six Months” online course. Best decision ever to jumpstart the entire process plus, I got the accountability and structure. Mind you, I started writing the first real draft with a six month old baby while in mourning for my mother, who recently passed. So if I can do it, anyone can!

By June 2014, many of those “downloads” started to become scenes. June 2014 to March 2015 was the period when I revised and wrote constantly working exclusively with Brooke Warner until reaching the finish line.

Jerry: There is something “impeccable” about the structure – with a beginning fraught with confusion and uncertainty, many intermediate challenges – beautifully executed – and then a nicely designed ending that leaves me satisfied that you (and I) have reached the conclusion of that journey. When you started your memoir writing journey, you had to figure out how to turn memories of a complex, formative period of your life into a good story. So how did you evolve that lovely, dynamic arc?

Dorit: Thank you so much Jerry for these kind words. It’s so thoughtful of you to say and notice. What you are seeing is the result of a lot of mentoring and writing. Brooke and I really worked closely on each chapter to ensure that each scene advanced some element of the heroine’s journey. Eventually I figured out on my own to ask myself four major questions that went like this:

1. What’s the purpose of this scene?
2. How does it advance the heroine’s journey?
3. What’s at-stake for my character?
4. How can I show her transformation and growth?

Jerry: Can you share some insight, or even some specific recollection when you began to shift from seeing yourself through the lens of a collection of memories and began seeing yourself evolve in the pages of a well structured story?

Dorit: Great question. And yes, this is an important yet hard one for memoirists to learn. First, I invested in myself as a writer by signing up for the online course and then hired Brooke as my personal writing coach and editor to help me reach the finish line.

Then, I wrote like crazy. This helped build the muscle I needed to think like a memoirist. I was also working from a place of pressure. My mother had recently died. I was dealing with a lot of emotional stuff. My sentences had a lot of power that I had never written before. When you work from a place of pressure, some amazing stuff can happen and surprise you.

I wanted to prove to myself I could write this memoir having written mostly academic type stuff for teachers.

I invested, practiced and took copious notes on our course lectures. I read what works well and what doesn’t in terms of memoirs. I kept trying to figure out the purpose of each scene. Some chapters went through 20 revisions until I finally got it. There’s no shortcut to figuring out structure because it’s individual for each story arc.

But there was one thing that worked very well to my advantage and that was the timeline of my service in the Israel Defense Forces, (IDF) which framed the structure of my memoir and the service in itself was structured. This inevitably helped with deciding which scenes from my service to include and the overall narrative arc of the memoir.

Jerry: I am blown away at the natural rhythm of interior fretting and exterior choices – it’s as if you have learned an exquisite dance between inner voice and outer actions – did you consciously develop this rhythm? Say more about how.

Dorit: I am pleased that you took notice of this. Once Brooke and I nailed the heroine’s journey, I knew that the only way for me to express my character’s fears and doubts about leaving Mom and getting inducted in the IDF, was to balance the events with my thoughts and feelings. This is what added the psychological layer to my cultural story.

As an American immigrant trying to figure out the “right” way of behaving in Israel and the added layer of becoming a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, the inner voice was the only way for me to express this cultural and emotional dissonance, which also represents the bigger picture of the story arc — leaving the familiar for the sake of the unfamiliar.

As a character, I was expected to be strong, and my introvertedness was mistaken for independence. So to answer your question, I wanted to bring that part of myself as a character to also show what was at stake. To show how my fear and doubts was the result of leaving one country behind for the sake of serving in another and the challenge of leaving one’s family. What I went through was a really lonely experience and the inner thoughts really accentuate the feelings of that lowly immigrant and IDF soldier.

Jerry: Similarly, I’m blown away at the natural weaving of backstory into the narrative – this leads to one of the most interesting backstory weavings I’ve ever seen in a memoir. So again, is it a knack you developed consciously? If so, please say more about how you found this rhythm.

Dorit: The backstory developed mainly with revisions and once I felt confident tackling the structure of scenes.

With each scene, I kept asking myself if there was something in the backstory that my reader needed to know. I turned on my “inner editor” and kept challenging myself not to assume anything that might leave my reader hanging or confuse him/her.

Brooke asked pertinent and stellar questions which forced me out of my “writer head.” This is why I truly believe that every writer needs a real good editor to handle this journey. The role of an editor for a writer’s journey is so crucial and especially that for a memoirist. I don’t quite understand how writers can publish a book without the expertise of an editor.

Jerry: I find the best relationships between author and editor to be an exquisite partnership, almost a dance of mutual desire for creative excellence, with plenty of acceptance and flexibility on both sides. The editor must give feedback assertively enough for the author to understand, and meanwhile the editor cannot superimpose too much of her own concept of the story – the author must stay true to her vision of the story while at the same time creatively adapting to the suggestions of the editor. The partnership also relies on the sympatico shared vision of the two partners. I admire editors who know how to do this dance. But my question relates to you as an author. Was it difficult for you to do your part, staying true to the story while accepting input, and being able to bounce back from the hurt that your writing wasn’t perfect so you could charge forward to the revision, staying true to both your vision and your editors?

Dorit: How I love this question and the way you put it – “editors who know how to do this dance.” It’s so so true.

I will be honest – this wasn’t such an easy process at first but I was determined to go full speed ahead with the writing of the story despite the feedback. The magical “a-ha” moment with my editor slowly developed particularly when she asked various questions about my IDF service, relationships and life in Israel and terms that needed clarification. At first I thought, “Is she going to be like my mother or some kind of nagging editor who is going to question every single thing?”

But I was surprised. She distanced herself enough to let me tell the story. She honored my voice. She gave me space to write and revise. This is crucial.

I also slowly realized that she wasn’t just after clarification. She was trying to also help me see the big picture of each scene and how it contributes to the narrative arc. It was then I realized that I picked her for a reason – she was “ga-ga” over structure and I knew that was where I needed a winning editor in this department.

So here’s the magic which clearly made all the difference. On our weekly coaching calls, she asked me a variety of questions – some clarifying and some bigger picture types that she would then include as part of her editorial feedback. So I actually heard myself talk about the experiences I went through which got me out of my “writer head” but also motivated me to such a fierce degree to translate the experiences into writing.

Writing and speaking are such different mediums but when you can hear yourself talk, you become more invested in your story because you’re also trying to help the editor understand the bigger and smaller pieces and help yourself sort it out as well.

Having this speaking element complement the writing was in fact, the winning combination. This process motivated me and powered up my revision and writing muscles for hours at an end.

I will also say that this process has a lot to do with an editor’s personality. I felt listened to. Because I was motivated by the process, I was also determined to “win my editor over” to prove that I could take the revisions to the next level.

Each time I forked over another revision, I trusted that she knew what she was doing and where she wanted me to go with this story even thought I didn’t know if the revision would be better or the same. When I got that final pat on the back, it was for a revision well-earned and I could continue forging on knowing that I was making progress. In the process, she also earned my trust because I was divulging areas of my life with someone outside my circle.

Jerry: Did you keep contemporaneous notes during the period you wrote about? If so, say more about the notes when you first wrote them? If so, how valuable were they for the book?

Dorit: I kept journals during my IDF service to help me understand the kind of craziness I was going through at the time. In one entry I wrote, “I intend to write a book of my experiences one day to help me figure out all this craziness.” I intuitively knew that what was going on paper was the result of the emotional experiences of serving in a foreign military and adjusting to life as an immigrant.

By writing these entries in English, I was able to give voice to these experiences using my mother tongue. Those notes later find their way into the story arc of the memoir as individual scenes.

Because of the structure of military life, I did not have the luxury of writing every day, but they documented very well the kinds of challenges I was going through at the time. So all I had to do was just pick up a journal and I was immediately transported to that point of time.

Jerry: What other methods did you use for getting back in touch with the moments about which you write.

Dorit: To get in touch with that eighteen year old immigrant self who was one foot out of America and one foot in Israel in IDF uniform, I did a few important things which really helped me get into my character’s shoes:

1. I listened to well-known Israeli songs on Youtube that are especially associated with the army and especially of that time period which helped me get into my character’s head.
2. From time to time, I looked at old army photos, which reminded me of what I was like as a young adult. Boy am I glad I still have these because they were the visual reminders I needed to reconnect to that eighteen year old who had no idea what she was doing in the IDF!
3. I occasionally reread some of the journals I kept and the letters Mom wrote to me. I did not let research however bar me from writing.

Notes
Dorit Sasson’s Home Page

Accidental Soldier on Amazon

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

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