In Memoirs, Misery is Simply a Step toward Hope

by Jerry Waxler

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

A participant in a recent memoir workshop asked me if all memoirs need to be about misery. I assured her there is no such rule. However, it is true that hard living makes good reading and at the end of a well-told story, the reader feels lifted by the triumph of overcoming hardship.

For example, in the memoir Here I Stand, Jillian Bullock starts as a young girl in a state of innocence with a loving stepfather who adores her, but he has one problem. He works for the mob and occasionally finds it necessary to assassinate friends. Eventually, his mob ties drive the family apart. Without him, Jillian loses her safe place. First, her “boy friend” rapes her. Then her mother gets involved with an abusive man. The young girl runs away, but doesn’t have anywhere to go. Homeless and starving, she ends up at the local brothel where she receives shelter in exchange for services.

When I started reading memoirs, I set limits on the topics I would read. Sex-for-money was definitely not on my list. However, the longer I study, the more I ambitious I become, craving to understand the variety of human experience. My quest has taken me into combat, physical and mental disability, extreme Muslim, Christian, and Jewish childhoods, and even occasionally to the dark side of sexuality. These stories help me untangle my attitude about situations that previously tied me in mental knots.

So I inched my way into Here I Stand, ready to bolt if it didn’t feel authentic or if I felt strangled by helplessness or despair. The deeper into the story I traveled, the more I trusted this author to maintain authorial control, guiding me through difficulties and then back out to safety. She achieves this effect through excellent story telling. Each chapter is paced well, with an enormous sense of tension and drama, and the gradual, tragic deterioration of circumstances.

The book makes this downward slide look easy, but I am in awe of the effort the author must have made in order to convert the overwhelming feelings of betrayal and humiliation into good reading. As Bullock says in the interview I conducted with her, it took years for her to untangle the heavy load of emotions and see events clearly enough to make them worthy of a story. By the time her story reaches readers, it has been transformed through the lens of the storyteller, and through that lens, the misery is only a step along the path.

When she attempts to steer through these initial setbacks, the impulses that appear appropriate to her child-mind lead her deeper into problems. I feel horror at the direction she heads, trying to imagine how she will make it back to solid ground. In the back of my mind, I’m also wondering how any of us survive the dangerous period of adolescence when we have the power to make decisions that will affect us for the rest of our lives.

Jillian’s saving grace is her determination to reclaim her dignity. Despite abysmal poverty and vulnerability, she keeps trying, until finally she claims her own “agency” — that wonderful literary term that means that the character consciously chooses her next step rather than having the next step chosen for her.

For strength in her darkest hours, she reaches out to the vision of her now-deceased stepfather. I love visionary moments in memoirs, because they provide a glimpse into the spiritual dimension, a sort of anti-gravity or pull from above. Somehow the visions give her the strength to keep going. Finally, she returns to her flawed mother, the only family she has.

After so many hardships, she manages to apply herself to school. That impulse to get an education saves her. The book is a tribute to the power of hope, effort, courage, and learning. As a reader, it answers my own prayer that people with determination can escape from hopeless situations. I am grateful to Jillian Bullock for sharing her journey with me.

The book is not just hopeful for the reader. The author also gains surprising benefits. By exposing hidden parts of herself, she magically converts secrets that could have separated her from people into pathways that connect her. Just as the younger Jillian Bullock was bolstered by those who helped her, the adult Jillian Bullock attempts to pay it forward, helping young people find their own high road. Through the memoir and her work in the community, she passes along the lessons and strength she learned on her journey.

Writing Prompt
When did you first realize that you were making choices that would take you in the direction you wanted to go? In other words, when did you assert your right to steer the ship, rather than let it be steered for you?


More examples of memoirs about falling from the grace of the family into the chaos of the world where they journey through the vulnerable dark side of sexuality and drugs, and find their way home. In all these cases, education plays a role in redemption.

Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum, about a girl like Bullock who runs away. Unlike Bullock, Erlbaum finds a shelter.
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro. This girl runs away to a rich man who keeps her like a modern-day fallen concubine.

Townie by Andre Debus III about a boy who learns to use his fists to survive the mean streets of a blue-collar town.
Tweak by Nic Sheff about his descent from a privileged home to a drug-infested wasteland. His redemption is only a future promise. This darker version of the fall without a definite rise at the end is humanized by the companion memoir Beautiful Boy by David Sheff about his father who tries to save him.

Another memoir that transforms misery into hope
Diane Ackerman’s 100 Names for Love in which she cares for her husband after a massive stroke.

Click here to read an interview with Jillian Bullock, author of Here I Stand

Jillian Bullock’s Home Page

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

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

Color of Water, a memoir of race, family and fabulous writing

by Jerry Waxler

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

James McBride’s mother, Ruth, taught her twelve children to reach for their dreams.  For example, a little-known clause in New York City’s educational system allowed her to send her kids to any school. She sent them to the best in the city where they were often the only blacks in the class. Despite her intense involvement in their lives, they knew little about her past. When James was a young boy, struggling to understand his racial identity, he asked her, “Are you white?” She evaded the question, replying, “I have light skin.” He couldn’t figure it out, and kept hounding her. “What color is God?” he asked. “He’s the color of water,” she said. “He doesn’t have any color.”

James McBride’s search for his racial identity intensified during adolescence. While his older siblings were earning college degrees, McBride rebelled so hard he ended up on a street corner, hanging out with punks stealing and dealing on their way down. In their company, something finally clicked and he realized the street corner was a dead end.

I should not be too surprised that McBride suffered while searching for his identity. During my adolescence, I too went through a period of uncertainty and anxiety so severe it turned self-destructive. One challenge for me was to figure out how a Jew was supposed to fit in to the Christian Melting Pot. After reading McBride’s memoir, I realize I had it easy compared to this boy with a white mother and a black father, trying to find his place in a culture that takes race far too seriously.

Surrounded by an all-black cast of siblings, neighbors, and extended family, he had no trouble finding the black half of his heritage, but his white relatives were a closed book. After college, less troubled but still curious, he applied his journalistic skills to discover the white half.

His requests to his mother became more focused, and finally after a lifetime of secrecy and angry refusal, she started talking. His interviews with her resulted in the New York Times bestselling memoir “Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” which weaves his mother’s tales of her youth into the author’s memories of his childhood.

Ruth’s reticence about her past reflected much that she preferred to forget. She grew up as an orthodox Jew in a small town in the south, shunned by her schoolmates, and raised by a cruel father who treated his wife and two children like servants. When Ruth set out to start her own life, she rejected everything about her father including his racism. She fell in love with and married a black man, triggering her entire family to reject her. The cut-off went in both directions. She broke off contact and eventually converted to Christianity.

If he wrote about his whole life, why wasn’t it an autobiography?

McBride’s life contains more than enough material for an entire memoir, and yet by the end of the book, we have also learned his aging mother’s history, a combined story that spans 80 years. This extended timeline defies the generally accepted rule that the journey of an entire life is an autobiography, a form supposedly more suitable for celebrities, politicians, and generals.

To write for strangers we’re supposed to limit ourselves to tighter timelines that focus on one particular aspect or period. Despite the broader scope of “Color of Water,” the book was fabulously successful, selling more than a million copies. How did this apparent autobiography earn such a prominent position as a highly acclaimed memoir?

In my opinion, “The Color of Water” compels me to turn pages for the same reason any good book does. The author has achieved expertise as a storyteller. McBride’s writing style was fostered by the years he worked as a professional journalist, reinforcing the comment I heard recently at a writing conference that the best preparation for any writer is to take a job as a reporter.

One scene offers an example of the lively nature of his writing. McBride’s older brother told him there was a surprise waiting in the closet. McBride peered into the dark to see what it was. The brother shoved him in and slammed the door. So far it sounds like a normal prank. The additional twist was that another brother, waiting quietly at the back of the closet, suddenly screamed and attacked, scaring McBride out of his wits. The two brothers had schemed to maximize the mischief, providing the reader with a vivid image of the loving mayhem that permeates McBride’s home.

Stylistically, the “Color of Water” jumps back and forth through time, interspersing tales of his mother’s childhood with his own. He even pops forward into the present, describing his trip to the small southern town where his mother grew up. As a reader I enjoy his time-weaving, but as a writer I find his style less accessible to analysis than a simpler, more chronologically organized tale. I wonder if his creative license comes from his years as a journalist or as a jazz musician, or more likely, both.

Somehow, McBride managed to achieve it all, thus proving that the power of memoirs is not in the rules but in the craft. Thanks to his excellent storytelling, James McBride ushered me into his life, where I joined the other million readers who also learned about the trials, pleasures, and challenges of this family and this man. Together we shared his tribute to his mother, Ruth McBride, and became one person wiser in our exploration of the vast range of human experience.

Writing Prompt
Write about a prank, an accident, or some explosive moment that left you disoriented and lets you show your characters in an almost otherworldly state of mind.

Writing Prompt
Look again at misadventures of your adolescence that you typically think of as stupid, misguided mistakes. Challenge your automatic self-attacks by writing about those events as if they were valuable experiments or detours along the longer road of growing up. For the purposes of this exercise, push your self-critic aside. Instead of judging yourself, simply tell the story.

Writing Prompt
Scan your life story writing, and pick an important scene you wish you could deepen. Interview a parent or sibling or, if they are not available, imagine you are interviewing them. Ask about their role in this scene, or their ideas about it, or about similar situations that they might have experienced. Use this real or imagined conversation to help flesh in some background to deepen your own scene.


For the Amazon link to Color of Water, click here.

For James McBride’s Home Page, click here.

Another bestselling memoirist John Grogan, author of Marley and Me, also started his career as a journalist. To read more about my take on Marley and Me, click here.

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

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

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

Self-image changes in step with society

by Jerry Waxler

Henry Louis Gates, author of the memoir “Colored People,” grew up in Piedmont, a small town in the northeastern corner of West Virginia. The town was geographically in a hollow, and through the eyes of a child, looked picturesque, even cozy. In those simpler times in the 1950’s and 60’s, people got along with each other, except when race entered the picture.

Gates’ first inkling that race was going to make life complicated started in grade school. When he first became best friends with a white girl in his class, neither of them noticed they had different colored skin. Over time, this became more of an issue, and she began to pull away. Gradually, Gates noticed increasingly important issues, such as not being allowed to eat with whites, and that the paper mill only hired blacks to work on the loading dock.

As Gates tried to sort out his role as a black man in a white-dominated culture, millions of other people were doing the same thing, not just asking questions, but taking to the streets to demand answers. This was a strange and powerful time in our history. We were a nation that preached equality with the fervor of religion. But in practice, Jim Crow laws limited the rights of blacks all over the south.

I don’t know what stirred up such a bold call to action. Perhaps it was the fact that little more than a decade earlier, Americans had risen up to smash Hitler and had become accustomed to destroying great evils. Perhaps the pervasive eye of television made the world too small to hide the fact that so many governmental and social policies contradicted our shared dream of equality. But for whatever reason, society was tackling the same problem collectively that Gates was facing individually.

Gates described a compelling scene to demonstrate the intensity. Late in his teen years, when segregation had become illegal, Gates and his friends showed up at an all-white bar, the only black faces in the crowd. He survived the ensuing confrontation without physical injury, providing himself forever with the pride of knowing he risked his own safety to defend American idealism.

In the end of this crescendo of social conscience, Gates shares a gentler image of the fading of segregation. The paper mill held their annual picnic, one for whites and another for blacks. Even though the separate but equal doctrine was dead, that last picnic had a wistful quality, as people fully engaged in their own culture and enjoyed each other for exactly who they were. It was a lovely scene that provided me with a fascinating puzzle. As we blend into the larger culture, we lose some of the characteristics of our separate one.

Gates’ life story was compelling enough as an individual journey. He increased its value by artfully weaving his private life into the trends of the world. To paraphrase John Donne “no person is an island.” While it seems like a lucky break for Gates that he was learning about himself during the Civil Rights movement, I step back to see if I can find ways my life has interacted with the world. And I find many.

For example, even though I was born two years after World War II, I was profoundly affected by the ripples of despair and hope that emanated through my generation. And then, during the Vietnam War, I was deeply affected by the protests, the fear, and the pain of divisiveness. Looking further across the decades, I see sweeping changes in attitudes towards gender, race, religion and spirituality, age, career, marriage, and sex.

And everything seems to be speeding up. Our lives are impacted each year by some new radical change. Just in the last twenty years, cell phones have connected people wherever they are. Politics in faraway places we never heard of implode into our lives in terrorism. The price of homes went up, seemingly bringing with it unlimited wealth, and then crashed creating a financial crisis throughout the world. The oil that heats our homes and fuels our cars could be running low, becoming more expensive, and at the same time, damaging the atmosphere. My car is contributing to the melting of the ice caps. We’re all connected, and it’s all changing.

Social trends are not always obvious when we’re in them. Like a rowboat rising and falling on the surface of a large wave, we might not even notice we are being moved. To me, this is one of the most wonderful benefits of memoir writing. By encompassing a larger view, we see not only what happened inside our own lives, but we also fit in to a broader context, connecting our individual stream with the ocean of humanity.

Writing Prompt – social change that changed the way you saw yourself
Focus on some powerful transition or theme or period in your life. Then look for parallel changes in the culture. What was going on in the people, the media, or other larger scope that helped or hindered your personal development? If you can’t find an obvious parallel, the way Gates does in “Colored People,” look for subtler ones.

Describe examples of these cultural influences, from news stories, or from stories you know about other people. See if you can weave your individual life with the trends that are taking place in the people around you.

Check out these other essays inspired by memoirs about the mixing of cultures and search for identity:
Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Dreams of our Fathers by Barack Obama

For the podcast click the player below or download it from iTunes: [display_podcast]

Good hair in the melting pot

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

During the cultural rebellion of the sixties, like many white kids, I tried to reach across the racial divide by emulating black slang and embracing soul music. My dark brown hair grew longer, and by the time I returned home from the University of Wisconsin that first summer of 1966 it had curled into a tangle that looked vaguely like an Afro. My great-uncle Ben, with whom I had always got along, said “I didn’t know we had anything like that in the family.” We never spoke civilly to each other again. In Madison, Wisconsin the following year, some boys drove to campus to beat up kids who looked like me. They jumped out of their car, threw me to the ground and kicked me for a while to let me know that long hair was against the American way.

A memoir by Henry Louis Gates called “Colored People” made me think more about that incident. After all, this is the Melting Pot. We’re supposed to be able to absorb all kinds of people — the northern Europeans with their blond hair, Irish with their red hair, Mediterraneans, with their jet black hair. My own ancestors, eastern European Jews, inherited dark curly hair from our Semitic ancestors. Blending hasn’t always been easy. As each group arrived, a cry went throughout the land “We already know who we are and you are not us.” After a couple of generations, the children lost their accents and adopted clothes and customs that helped us blend. We intermarried. Voila. We’re in the mix.

But the resistance to blacks has persisted longer than for most other groups. I’ve thought about the reasons and the problems of that lack of mixture my whole life, but I’ve never thought about it as clearly as I did when I read Gates’ memoir, in which he explains what it was like growing up in the segregated south. As I listen to Gates, the magic of story reading takes over and I’m with him in the 1950’s and 60’s. At home he saw people of one color, and on television he saw another. As he ponders this contrast, and tries to sort out his place in the mix, one of the most revealing insights is the chapter on hair.

As a child, Gates’ barber complimented him on having a “good grade of hair,” or “good hair” meaning it wasn’t too curly. His good grade came with his genes, while others had to work for the desired straightness by greasing hair down and flattening it with a tight stocking cap. They ironed their hair. They used home chemical concoctions of potatoes and lye to defeat the curls. Or they spent big money on a chemical procedure call “processing.”

Through Gates’ story, I begin to see that hair has deep significance, and the more I think about how it fits into our emotional lives, the more of its power I see. Absence of hair is important to men who lose it at middle age, and the loss of hair during chemotherapy is one of the demoralizing marks of cancer. Prison camp inmates and new military recruits often have their hair shaved to reduce their individuality. Older people hide their gray to look young, while young people enhance sexual charisma by primping, extending, dying, or spiking.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that black people, to improve their image, would like to manage the impression their hair conveys. Working in my dad’s drugstore in the early 60’s I often saw black guys wearing these tight caps, or “do rags” as they were called. And my dad stocked a whole section of specialized hair products. Looking at it from the outside it seemed mysterious. Now I see they were trying to do the same thing Americans had been doing for centuries, trying to achieve entry into the Melting Pot, so they could participate in the American dream.

Hair defines the group a person is in. That simple, yet profound observation sends me searching. Surely something so important must insinuate itself in other aspects of my life. As I look for more evidence of the importance of hair I spot another crucial period.

Before I turned forty, my prematurely gray hair made me look like an old guy, an outsider among the young people I walked past every day at the university where I worked. I decided to dye it back to its original color, to reclaim my membership in the younger generation. The first time I went to visit my friends Larry and Ivy for lunch, their eyes opened wide. “It’s like instant youth.” My membership restored, I have been dying my hair ever since, despite research that suggested prolonged hair dying might cause a deadly form of cancer. When I was knocked down and kicked because my hair was too long, it never occurred to me to cut it. Now, I am once again placing my acceptance into a group above my own safety. With my dark hair, I’ll signal my membership in the youthful American Melting pot, even if it kills me.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about times in your life when you liked your hair, or didn’t like your hair. What message was your hair broadcasting?

When have you changed your hair to try to redefine or accentuate your acceptance into a group?

When has some one else’s hair sent you a message you had a hard time accepting?

Have you ever had the experience of being an outsider because of your hair, like the time I came home with long hair and was outside my family’s comfort zone, or like the way my friend’s blond daughter provoked cat calls in Egypt, where she stuck out like a… blond in Egypt.


It turns out that my college hair style now has a name. It wasn’t really an Afro. It was a Jewfro.

To learn more about the African American attitude towards hair in the melting pot, see the documentary called “Good Hair” by producer and performer Chris Rock.

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

More memoir writing resources

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

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

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers

Myths and Memoirs – am I a victim?

by Jerry Waxler

I’m reading a book by journalism professor, Jack Lule about using myth to find story. I recommend his book Daily News, Eternal Stories to anyone who is looking to find a structure for their story. Lule wrote it to explain why some news stories jump into the headlines, while others don’t. My purpose in reading it is to pass along ideas that can help you structure your memoir.

His first myth is “The Victim.” In his example, a man on a cruise was murdered by terrorists, and elevated by the news media to the status of a hero. Since the man was in a wheelchair, the only reason the terrorists could possibly have for killing him was that he was an American. They used him as a symbol, killing him out of hatred for the nation. The news media accepted the terrorist’s symbolic message, allowing the man to stand in as proxy for all Americans. And once the victim became accepted as a symbol, he could be used for an additional purpose. The media and politicians used his story to send a message back to the terrorists. It’s as if the terrorists were saying “we hate you and we’re going to kill this guy to prove it,” and the American media responded by saying, “Oh yeah. Well we are strong anyway, and you don’t scare us, and we’re going to admire this man to prove it.” Many people who have been elevated throughout history from victim to hero were used in this symbolic way to represent their group. The murderers hated the group and used the victim as a symbol, and the admirers showed love for this victim, and rallied around in order to strengthen their identity and defy the murderers. For example, many of the Christian martyrs are remembered because of the way they were singled out.

While this myth is powerful in news and history, it is not an easy myth to apply in memoir. I believe one reason this is difficult to use in memoir is because to be elevated from victim to hero, your story must be told by others. If the news media declares that you have been singled out as a representative, then you can be elevated. It doesn’t work as well if you declare yourself a victim. On the contrary, you look like a complainer if you come forward and say “I’m a victim.” It loses its mythological power. In fact, “I’m a victim” can deflate a story, taking the energy out of it.

In scanning my experience with memoirs, I can think of one effective tale of a victim, Nien Chang’s “Life and Death in Shanghai.“ Her daughter was “arrested” or more accurately “disappeared” by the Red Guard during the infamous Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s. It’s a beautiful tale, carried not so much by tragedy of the daughter’s victimization but by the mom’s strength, and her struggle to hold up and maintain her poise despite persecution. The crime that Chang’s family was being persecuted for was their western education. As western readers, we can identify with their victimization. In the same manner as Lule’s mythical victim, the hatred that was being directed at that family was symbolically directed at us!

In most memoirs, even if the author has undergone horrific suffering, the energy that moves the reader is not the suffering but the courage required to cope with it. For example, in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, he never complains about being the victim of his father’s abandonment. On the contrary the whole book is a sort of celebration of survival. The reading public didn’t canonize McCourt for being a victim, but rather placed him on their shoulders for surviving.

For memoirists, the victim myth is a cautionary tale. Be careful about declaring yourself a victim. It probably won’t help your heroic image. Consider the dynamics of Tommie Smith’s memoir, a Silent Gesture. The reason I went to see Smith at a book signing this year, and bought his book, was because I wanted to understand the greatness of a man. He came from a poor black family in the segregated south, went on to set world records as a runner, won Olympic Gold in 1968. Then on live television in front of millions of people, he raised his fist in the Silent Gesture. In the tumultuous 60’s this was seen by blacks as courageous. From the media’s standpoint, it was defiant. Smith was blacklisted. He went on to teach and coach, but without the fanfare or success he deserved. See my previous post about Smith on this blog.

As a reader, and a student of history, I ought to be loving every minute of this memoir. But it doesn’t turn out to be a page turner. I think one problem with the telling of this powerful story is that he became entangled in the dark side of the myth making process. Instead of being adored by the media as a Gold Medalist, Smith was turned into an ingrate who abused his privileged position. No advertising contracts, television spots, or fancy coaching jobs resulted from his spectacular athletic achievement. He should have been singled out as a hero, but because of one wildly audacious act, from the glory of victory he slid away into anonymity, or perhaps more accurately like Nien Chang’s daughter, he “disappeared.”

His story is messier than the one Lule singled out in his section on the Victim. Smith was not a guy in a wheel chair, murdered outright. He was at the time, the fastest man alive, and then after he stepped off the podium, he was just a guy, trying to raise a family. It becomes a difficult story to tell. If you are stripped of your glory by the media, who then will tell the story of your courage and survival? It’s a fascinating question. Probably the only credible answer is in a memoir.

I recommend Smith’s memoir for anyone who wants to get inside his experience, whether you are curious about those events and the man behind them, want to learn more about memoirs, or are curious about the workings of the myths that drive our public stories. The book offers lessons for memoirists. How fame doesn’t guarantee success. How the public is fickle, and seems to have a mind of its own. And how myths of heroes and victims play out in Smith’s life.

As you read it, embrace what you like, and consider what you would do differently. From such an interesting life, he ought to be able to shape a compelling story that would again grab the attention of the world. He had the podium, and used it for a silent gesture. A memoir gives him a chance to tell it in words.

What approach would you use? Leave a comment here and let me know.

Barack Obama’s memoir ends with a homecoming

by Jerry Waxler

I finished Barack Obama’s “Dreams from my father.” I had been concerned earlier in the book that his emphasis on ideas might dull the edge of his memoir. So it was with some surprise when I got to the last third of the book, and found him shifting away from ideas, and switching into pure storytelling mode. That is a fascinating literary device. I wonder sometimes how conscious an author is of such stylistic development, transforming from his style in the beginning, a memoir mixed with an essay, into a strictly story telling style at the end. In any case, it worked, and I found that the ending was quite satisfying.

What impressed me about this story was that it was a Homecoming. Homecomings are the classic ending of the Hero’s Journey. This idea of homecoming turns up a lot in stories, but each story has its own spin on what Homecoming means. In the Odyssey, Ulysses really returned to his ancestral home. In the first Star Wars, Luke Skywalker came “home” to Princess Leah, who later turned out to be his sister. So it was a return to his “true home.” Obama’s homecoming also has an interesting twist. It was not the home he was born in, but the place his African father was born. When you have roots in more than one place, where is your home? It’s a question all travelers and transplants face. I think Obama raised this question beautifully, and without answering it, let the story do his work for him, by showing us what it was like for him to visit his African family, and let us feel it, see it, hear it ourselves through the art of storytelling.

In Alex Haley’s famous novel and mini-series, Roots, the author went back to Africa to look for his own roots buried in history, highlighting the longing and the frustration to see backwards through time, through layers of generations, and lost history. This attempt to find deep, ancestral roots has universal elements, as many of us wonder where we came from, and can’t ever quite scratch that itch. Take me for example. My grandparents fled Russia during the pogroms, a horrible period in Jewish history, in which Russian thugs and militia pillaged Jewish towns, a sort of state-sanctioned vigilante movement to terrorize Jews. When my grandparents came over to this country, they went through the Ellis Island immigration process, and some clerk on Ellis Island gave them an English spelling for their Cyrillic name. In their case it was Waxler, in others Wexler, Wachsler, Wechsler. Who knows what the original name was? Over time, the area where they left was subjected to the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s and Hitler’s massacres, and the German invasion, shrouding my ancestry deep in the fog of history. But I still wish I knew what it was like, who those people were, how they lived.

In Obama’s case, unlike the vast majority of African Americans, he had a chance to actually visit the land of his African father. That is fascinating! Obama’s life represents the cross roads of black and white, African and American. What a GREAT story. When he meets his own extended biological family, he acts as a sort of representative to explore the tragedy of black ancestors being kidnapped from African villages, forcibly resettled, and then put in forced labor for a couple of hundred years to help other people succeed. We can’t change the past, but hopefully through the telling and sharing of the story, we can empathize, learn, grow together and heal.

I don’t know Obama’s future as a politician. But I do know that by opening a window into his own experience, he has helped me grow richer in understanding. By sharing his story, he has already fulfilled one of the roles of a leader.

Click here to read the first part of my review of Dreams from My Father.

Blind veteran finds his voice by writing

 by Jerry Waxler

After finishing the memoir, Shades of Darkness, I felt I had learned a lot about the author, George Brummell, as a person, his cultural experience growing up in the segregated south. His ticket out to the larger world was the United States Army. I could feel him growing up in Korea. It was a nicely told coming of age story, and then, just when it looked like he was turning into a real adult, his life exploded in a landmine in Vietnam. He was blinded and maimed, and then when he returned, he had to invent himself again. Through the magic of memoir he took me on his journey, as he kept growing. He graduated from college, became director of the Blinded Veterans Association, and wrote this memoir.

I knew he was lecturing and outreach to encourage others to tell their story. To find out more about his experience writing the memoir I set up an interview. He has a melodic voice, and as he was speaking each sentence, I could almost hear him lining up the next, so his thoughts flowed together in a lovely, somewhat unusual sort of continuum. Here is what he said when I asked him to tell me about writing his memoir.

GB: “When I came back from Vietnam I wasn’t doing too well, and writing the memoir helped me organize my thoughts. Putting my thoughts on paper was elevating for me. It was quite therapeutic. I needed it at the time, especially those times that were not the best for me. When I began to write it had a tendency to take away my thoughts, and I could drift back to my childhood days and think of things that I could probably have done a little bit better. It was just exciting to be able to see what I have accomplished in writing.

When I first started writing I often thought how difficult it would be to organize my thoughts and not repeat myself. I thought that would be a real challenge. I like challenges, and that was a challenge to me to do that. I was in college at the time, I felt it was a way to improve my life. Writing is like driving or a lot of other things that we do. In most cases, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Writing the book prepared me for the career that I had with the Blinded veterans association which required me to do a lot of writing.

After so much practice I found myself in a position to be able to write a little bit better than a lot of my peers. It also helped me in terms of promotion, because a couple of times they asked the applicants to write what they could do for the organization, and I was able to express myself fairly well.

I knew as a blind person a lot of what I was going to do in my life would require me to speak, because as a blind person a lot of things you cannot do with your hands, other than a lot of manual labor, and I wasn’t interested in that. I found that in order for me to improve my speech, I had to read. And of course writing was an adjunct to that. The more I wrote, the more I was able to organize my thoughts and to be able to speak.

JW: “Did you get much training in story writing?”

GB: Not really. As a youngster, living with my grandmother, she was illiterate, and I wrote letters to her daughter and sisters. They were in Philadelphia and she didn’t have a telephone. Otherwise, my only writing class was a remedial writing course, which I took because I was a high school dropout and then in college I took English 101 and 102.

When I took the remedial writing course, I was recording my memoirs at the time, and I asked the instructor to let me use those recordings as my English assignment. My instructor thought my writing was quite interesting. Then in English 101 and 102, the instructor let me use recordings as well.

After that, I took a non-credit course in creative writing. Again, I was able to submit papers for that class from my own material. By that time I was hooked. And as a social work major, I had to do a lot of writing, and a lot of editing. I really enjoyed editing. I worked with my writing person to get my coursework on paper. I went through it with her, and she retyped it, and I edited and she retyped it. So I had a lot of editing experience while I was in school.

And again while I was at work, we did a brochure. And I went along with the person who was writing the brochure, and she would read and ask the directors what changes we wanted to make, and I saw that I stood a little bit taller than my peers in terms of editing. All of them had more education than I did, their vocabulary was greater, but once it was put on paper, I could make it sound better.

JW: And that skill shows in your book.

GB: That’s the only training I had, other than what I got from my own experience. I thought I could write a book better than the ones I had read, such as, “If you can see what I hear” – hell, I could write my own experiences. Why not do it from the point of view of an African American?

See for more information and excerpts from his book.

Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father, first thoughts

by Jerry Waxler

I’ve been listening to Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. My reason for picking it up was because I wanted to know more about this person who has become a political celebrity in the last year. What I was really looking for was a genuine insight into his life that would help me learn more about him than I could learn through the marketing hyperbole, superficial glosses, and spin doctors.

The central purpose of memoirs is to share a view of the protagonist’s life experience. That’s a minimum requirement. But in addition to this central purpose, almost all memoirs try to accomplish other tasks as well. Travel memoirs show us a foreign country. Tell-all books turn into public confessions. Memoirs often are used as platforms to explain part of history or even teach a lesson. For example, Foster Winans’ memoir shows us the workings of stock brokers. Tracy Kidder’s memoir shows us the workings of a particular section of the army in Vietnam. Shirley Maclaine used her life experience to teach her ideas about how people should relate to the cosmos. Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” uses his experience in a death camp as a teaching tool to show readers how to live a better life. If the memoir does its central job of sharing personal experience, it can make a good read, despite the other purpose. But if the other purpose takes center stage, it sometimes drains too much energy away from the personal experience and the book falls flat. I wondered if Obama would let me know his experience, or would his experience be drowned in his message?

The audio book starts out with a preface from his current situation as a politician. I became concerned that it was going to be more a political lecture than a memoir. His speaking voice is clipped and not as dramatic as the professional readers I had become accustomed to on other audio books, and his vocabulary uses a few more college words which slows down the narrative a bit. As he told of growing up I was distracted by his non-dramatic reading voice and the occasional sense that he was lecturing or making too many sociological points, but I continued listening, and gradually was drawn into his experience. That’s the job of any memoir, to help me enter the protagonist’s shoes and see the world from inside his experience. I think he does a decent job of sharing his experience.

Obama is in a position to share a fascinating insight into being black because he was raised by his white mother and her parents, and so he has seen this issue from both sides. I have heard glimpses of what it is like for black people who as children are innocent of race, and as they come of age start to realize that American culture still struggles with this ugly scar. What a disturbing insight for any young person to realize they are in a group that is disliked by another group, and that other group has power over them.

His experience reminded me of when as a teenager I read about the capture of Adolph Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust. Reading the horrific accounts of Nazis hating groups and wanting to kill them made me realize that being Jewish is dangerous. As I’ve grown older, every few years another instance of group prejudice breaks into violence and murder; the civil war in northern Ireland, the Serbs and Croates, Tutsis and Hutus. And in the shocking aftermath of 9/11, hundreds of millions of people realized they could be hated and killed for being part of western civilization. To stop the outrage, we turned to the old standby. Find the cultural identity of those who hate us, and kill them first.

Perhaps the only antidote to this human problem of groups hating each other is to understand other people as individuals. And I can think of few better ways than through writing and reading memoirs. Obama’s coming of age tale helps me understand what it is like to be black in America. He tells me not from the point of view of a sociologist but from inside one person’s experience. Through the magic of memoir, he invites me into his thoughts, his revelation, his own real life. By reading, I enter the life of a black teenager, trying to evolve from an innocent and protected child into an adult, trying to understand from inside his life experience our complex cultural attitudes about being black and white in America, or in his case both.

Click here to read the second part of my review of Dreams from My Father.

Tool for learning memoir, author’s first book a triumph over odds

by Jerry Waxler

I was excited last night when I reached the end of George Brummell’s memoir, Shades of Darkness. The very last paragraph in the book is about him volunteering to help other struggling people tell their story. (Note to myself: I’ve got to be careful about telling what excites me in a book. It’s usually the highlight or end, and I don’t want to spoil the party for someone who wants to read it.)

This book has most of the themes of memoir that I talk about in my book, Learn to Write your Memoir, available from my website, . Brummell’s book expanded my world by showing me black culture, the Vietnam war, and being blind. It had triumph over a variety of odds. And it had superb storytelling qualities, showing me in scenes what life was like.

The pace of the first half is built in high tension scenes. In the second half, it’s more vignettes with spaces between them. The author is skimming across the surface. While these passages make it more difficult to suspend disbelief, they work well in the overall tale. One of the skills the author clearly picked up in his years of schooling and work is the knack of storytelling. His skill makes this a good book for an aspiring memoirist to study. (Compare for example Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. This memoir is so sophisticated that it is much more difficult for a beginner to tease out lessons. Studying Didion’s book is like trying to learn algebra by studying Einstein’s theory of relativity.)

Brummell’s book is an example of the magical interaction between story and life. By compressing his decades into the space of a book, he was able to share them with me, someone who would have no way of knowing anything about George Brummell any other way. Telling his story opens his life up to others, like a book. And by writing, he organizes the events of decades and places them in a narrative. It helps the author’s life and also becomes a tool to help others overcome obstacles themselves.

60’s Nostalgia memoirs of growing up black

by Jerry Waxler

I am reading two memoirs right now written by blacks about their journey through the 60’s. They are George Brummell’s Shades of Darkness, and Tommie Smith’s A Silent Gesture. They are two very different books, and reading them at the same time I can look for things that are different and things that are the same. Reading memoirs is a great way to learn about writing them.

Both of these books are about growing up poor and black in the segregated south. That’s proof that what was incredibly boring and mundane while you were living it as a child can years later become fascinating in your memoir. If the reader has never experienced that side of life, it gives a window into something they didn’t know. If the reader did experience those things, the book can evoke nostalgia, that fascinating emotion that transports us into our own memories. Since I’m not black, reading the history of these two black men during those times informs me of their individual struggles, and the eternal struggle that human beings have always fought against the oppressive confinement of a dominant culture. There is also a degree of nostalgia for me as I am transported back into that great swell of civil rights compassion that filled the boomers’ “first golden years” – the sixties.

The differences  between the two books are also instructive. George Brummell’s book is written in scenes. You can visualize the events on every page, feeling the Vietnam battle scenes, and then feeling what it’s like to learn how to get around while blind. Like a work of fiction he brings you into the scene, but doesn’t comment on it, letting you walk in his shoes and draw your own conclusions. Tommie Smith’s book is almost the opposite, with relatively few scenes, and a great deal of discussion about what he was thinking and why he did things. The two different styles could help you see for yourself how to build (or not build) suspense and emotional intimacy with your reader.