Lost Memories: A Daughter’s Memoir about her Demented Mom

by Jerry Waxler

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

When Martha Stettinius reached young adulthood, she and her fiercely independent mom parted ways. Years later, Mom’s cognitive decline forced the two women to reunite. After grasping the seriousness of her mother’s condition, Stettinius gradually incorporated this extra responsibility in her already busy life.

As a novice Alzheimer’s caregiver, Martha had much to learn. She quickly realized her mother needed more care than she was able to offer at home. Through experimentation and research, Stettinius learned about the types of facilities, and the theories behind them. So over time, two things were taking place. Stettinius was gaining expertise in what it takes for a daughter to care for a mother with Alzheimer’s. And at the same time, she had to relearn her relationship with her mother. In a surprising twist, this opportunity to care for her mother became the culmination of their mother-daughter relationship.

Martha Stettinius chronicles their journey in the memoir Inside the Dementia Epidemic. The memoir works on multiple levels. First, is Stettinius’ attempt to make sense of her evolving relationship with her mother. Second, is the story of her growing need to find the best care possible. And third is her desire to share this important information with others who face similar challenges. To achieve these three things, Stettinius was determined to create a readable, interesting book.

An unusual story of mother-daughter bonding
Since her mother often didn’t even seem to be tracking their conversation, Stettinius needed to learn new rules. One thing she learned about caregiving for Alzheimer’s was that since her mother was losing touch with the past, it was the daughter’s responsibility to do the remembering for both of them.

When the author tells her mother, “I love you,” it’s difficult to know if Mom’s smile was connected to the moment or was only an automatic reflex. Stettinius solves the dilemma by choosing to infuse her mother’s smiles and words with their shared history. Through Stettinius eyes, mutual love informs every syllable and gesture.

In the early stages of writing the book, Martha intended to use it as a way to hold on to her mother’s rapidly fading past. As the book evolved, she discovered that her relationship with her mother was actually growing deeper. She wanted to share this hopeful message with others in similar situations. And more practically, she wanted to help others learn the ins and outs of the Alzheimer’s caregiving experience.

With these goals in mind, she fretted that too much specific information about her mother’s life would shift the reader’s focus into the past. However, she was also concerned that too little would leave the reader without context. As a memoir writer, Stettinius had to decide how much of her mother’s actual history should she include in the memoir.

She decided to focus mainly on the mission to help readers learn from her experience. To achieve the goal, she applied her best understanding of craft, sought feedback, and revised again and again. Eventually, informed by feedback from editors, beta readers, and her own intuition, she decided that to reach readers in the most meaningful way, she had to reduce the backstory to a minimum.

The resulting book neither drags us back in time, nor ignores the past. Rather it offers an alchemical fusion of both. By turning confusing events into a narrative, she makes more sense of them for herself. By publishing the story she turns her painful experience into lessons that could help others.

Writing Prompt
What experience in your life could help someone else? Write an overview of such a story, or write a scene in which you learned a lesson you wish you could share.

Backstory: How to Find the “Right” Amount in Your Memoir
Many memoir writers struggle with the question about how much backstory to include. Too little risks lack of context. Too much could bog down the story. To assist with your decision, consider the example of Inside the Dementia Epidemic. Stettinius researched her mother’s life, and wanted to tell it to the world. However, in order to write a book that would be meaningful to readers, she chose to cut back on the detail about her mother’s younger years.

The resulting memoir centers on the daughter’s journey to care for her mother, a powerful story involving the progression of the disease and the relationship of the two women. As readers, we benefit from her hard work and commitment to her craft. However, in order to fit it all into a good story, she had to compromise. Only the author knows about the painful decision to cut interesting anecdotes.

When making decisions about your own memoir, there is no “right” and “wrong.” Your story emerges from your specific circumstances. From this raw material, you must shape a story that will convey your meaning to readers.

To make the most informed decision about how to construct your final version, get feedback from readers. And also expand your options by reading memoirs. After you read each one, ask yourself “What is it about this story that makes this particular literary choice effective, or not?”

When you finally publish the book, it will have gone through a series of such difficult decisions. And of course, none of them are perfect. You are simply doing your best to offer readers the most interesting possible representation of your experience.

For another article on how much backstory to include in your memoir, click here.

Writing Prompt
Write a synopsis of your proposed memoir. In one version, include your early life to show the reader how you grew up. In a second version of the synopsis, start at a later time, with a central dilemma or challenge in your life. Is there enough information in this second version to allow readers to experience the emotions you are trying to communicate? Are there things about your early life you want to explore in the story? How do you feel about these two books? Which one would focus the reader and help them understand your experience in the way you intend?

Other memoirs about caring for those who can’t care for themselves
When Stettinius attempted to write about Alzheimer’s, she was not speaking as an expert, but as a daughter whose life that had been profoundly altered by the problem. Carol O’dell was in a similar situation. After caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s she wrote Mothering Mother. When Diane Ackerman’s husband had a severe stroke, she knew a lot about the brain but hardly anything about caring for someone with a dysfunctional one. She wrote a fascinating account of caregiving for him after he lost his ability to speak in 100 Names of Love.

Jill Bolte Taylor was a brain expert but that didn’t help her when she suffered a massive stroke. She wrote about her recovery in My Stroke of Insight. Even though Jill Bolte Taylor’s book is about her own stroke, caregiving plays an important role in her story. The person who came to her rescue was none other than her own mother who helped her daughter in her hour of darkest need, a reminder that even in adulthood, service between parents and children can flow in both directions.


Martha Stettinius’ home page

Inside the Dementia Epidemic on Amazon

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

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

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

A Memoir About her Father’s Secret Pain

by Jerry Waxler

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

When I started the blog Memory Writers Network, I assumed that memoirs are only about the author. Over time, I have read a number of excellent books that reflect their author’s powerful curiosity toward parents and grandparents. Recently I read about a daughter who desperately wants to understand her father. In Breaking the Code Karen Fisher-Alaniz tries to break open the code of her father’s silence and make sense of his experience as a soldier in World War II.

The story starts when her father hands her a binder with hundreds of letters he sent home from Hawaii six decades earlier.  Before that moment, she knows very little about his military service and doesn’t even know the letters exist. She attempts to grasp the significance of what he has just given her. What secrets might they contain? But when she expresses her intention to read every one, he pulls away. “Why would you want to do that? Those are just some old letters.” The story tugs back and forth between the daughter’s search for understanding and the father’s conflicted feelings about whether he could or even should remember what went on.

Storyline 1: A daughter searches for her father’s military past

Karen’s search begins with the letters themselves. They are hard to read, and soon she realizes they are missing important details. During the war, U.S. military censors blacked out any phrase that could compromise security, so letters from most soldiers were sanitized, giving the letters a superficial quality. She is not going to learn as much from the letters as she hoped.

When Karen interviews her father for more information, she quickly realizes how troubled he is about those events. Why was he guarding his memories so jealously? This is the central tension of the book – between the curiosity that links people together and the secrets that keep them apart.

In addition to satisfying her own curiosity she also wants to help him. Over the years, he has had nightmares and she wonders if sharing his secrets will relieve the burden that he has been carrying alone for so long. And yet, she is torn, afraid that by asking him too many questions, she will stir up the pain and make it worse. She wakes up in a panic, worried about how to get inside his head without upsetting him. These emotions that pull her in opposite directions create the tension in this storyline.

Her quest raises issues that are important to many aspiring memoir writers. As we try to understand the forces that influenced our early life, we sometimes bump into situations that our parents would prefer to forget. Millions of our parents have experienced combat and other traumas, such as abuse, neglect, or deprivation. Going back another generation or two, we might run into other horrors such as extermination camps and lynchings. If we pry into those buried memories, how do we know whether we’ll increase the pain or relieve it? Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s memoir has brought this question into sharp focus.

James McBride’s Color of Water is another memoir in which a child attempts to storm the gates of a parent’s well-defended memories. In this memoir about coming of age in a mixed-race family, his attempt to understand his mother’s world brings him into conflict with her desire to keep secrets. Click here for my essay on Color of Water.

Ordinary life as a backdrop for suspense

For those aspiring memoir writers who think their lives are too normal or don’t contain unique elements, Breaking the Code provides an excellent example of the drama that might be hidden just out of sight. Interspersed with research into the deadly time in her father’s life, she has to drop her kids off at school and meet her friends for a cup of coffee. Her ordinary life was just one step away from his extraordinary past.

Writing Prompt
What intense human drama is represented in your memories? Often, we spend years actively wishing they never happened. As a result, these powerful memories might be buried in the cave of forgetfulness. If you feel safe and brave, write a brief synopsis of the situation, giving it the full impact it might have if you were to write about it thoroughly and openly. Even if you decide to put it back in the cave, the exercise will give it a little more light and perhaps a glimmer of possibility that you can accept it, even if you don’t love it.

Try the same exercise for family history. These memories might be difficult to fill in, but for the purposes of this exercise, imagine that you could penetrate the mystery of a parent’s humiliation, escape, persecution, or other difficult memory. What do you wish you know? How much might you actually be able to guess or reconstruct?

Storyline 2: A soldier’s life during World War II

The other story frame is about her father. We try to peer into his experience during the war and his development as a young man. I have not read many stories of soldiers during WWII so I was curious to learn about life in a tent city. He had plenty of spare time to write letters home, as he watched group after group of men shipping out to the front.

His evasive conversation and struggles to remember are fairly common in post-combat veterans who have become accustomed to sheltering their families from the horrors they have seen. After years of not talking about these memories, many veterans tend to seem quiet or distant.

However, Alaniz’s father had been put into a situation that cruelly exaggerated this need for silence. He was involved in code breaking and was told that because of his top-secret mission, if he revealed anything that compromised security, he would be executed without a court martial. That threat must have been terrifying to the young man, but looking back, he can only remember small glimpses of it. Eventually he dredges a frightening example of this excessive security.  He was in the hospital and the doctor asked him what he had been doing when he was injured. Armed guards who had been stationed at the door of his room rushed in with guns drawn to stop the conversation. Because of his situation, despite the death that surrounds him on all sides as soldiers ship out to kill and be killed, his letters maintain a cheerful innocence.

In Carlos Eire’s Learning to Die in Miami, letters between the boy and his parents were censored by Castro’s agents, so they too created a surreal lack of honesty about the suffering in his life just as Alaniz’s father was forced to only report pleasantries in his.

The letters link two timeframes

In the movie Titanic, an old woman looks at a necklace and remembers her youthful voyage on the ill-fated ocean liner. The necklace acted as a sort of magical amulet that links the former time with the present one. In Breaking the Code, the packet of letters plays a similar role. In some scenes, the daughter handles the letters in the present, and in others I picture the father writing them sixty years earlier. The letters draw our attention back and forth between the two stories. Her time-travel technique perfectly suits the charter of every memoir writer who is essentially attempting to unite past to present through the pages of a written story.

Writing Prompt
What prop, symbol, or document can usher your reader smoothly across time?

PTSD, Suppressed Memories and Unresolved Grief in Later Life

Her father buried his memories so effectively over the years that the nightmares finally stopped. Then they were awakened by the terrifying events of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. This is one of the important aspects of this memoir. Even though his trauma occurred more than a half of a century earlier, it was still lurking under the surface.

The book provides a testimony to society’s responsibility first to avoid sending soldiers into harm’s way, and second, to help care for those who return. As the saga of Breaking the Code continues, Alaniz offers some lovely insights into the ways she and her father attempted to bring closure to these deep psychic wounds.

In the spirit that “listening is an act of love,” Karen Alaniz’s profound, deep listening offered her father the opportunity to turn the isolated and fragmented memories of his experience in war into a story that we can all share in peace.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

Here are a few memoirs in which the author tried to make sense of an ancestor’s life:

Andrew X. Pham’s Eaves of Heaven, a ghost-written account of his father’s experience in war-torn Vietnam
Alexandra Styron’s, Reading my Father about her father’s life as a literary giant
Amanda Seymour’s Thrumpton Hall about her father’s passion for his English country house, and the fall of the British class system
Linda Austin’s Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a ghost-written account of her mother’s childhood in Japan and subsequent move to the United States.
Barack Obama’s Dreams of Our Fathers in which he visits the African village where his father was born
Mei Ling Hopgood’s Lucky Girl. She travels to China to meet her biological family

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.

Mom of Troubled Teens Tells Her Side of the Story

by Jerry Waxler

After Debra Gwartney’s divorce she packed up her two kids and moved a thousand miles to try to get them away from their father. She thought she was “starting over.” The new start however, was the beginning of a nightmare. In “Live Through This,” Gwartney recounts how her two daughters, age 12 and 14, dropped out of school, took drugs and slept in crash houses. With their tattoos, body piercings and heavy black makeup, Mom hardly recognized them. When she tried to reel them in, they withdrew further, until finally they hopped a freight train and moved to a different city.

There were many reasons I was interested in the story. For one thing, in my early twenties, I went through my own extreme rebellion, living in a garage on food stamps and not speaking to my parents for a year. In all the years since, I never tried to make sense of it from my parents’ point of view. Reading about another mom who watched her children fall apart revealed the other side of the story.

A parent suffering through the rebellion of a child is an important, under-reported facet of family life. Most kids rebel to some extent, and despite all the suffering and confusion that parents must feel, most of the social attention to the matter is limited to half measures and shared confusion. “Live Through This” provides a parent’s eye view of an emotional wrenching experience, as these girls hurl back in their mother’s face the life she was trying to build for them.

In addition to letting us see the girl’s bad behavior, Gwartney describes her own, including some glaring flaws in her parenting. She didn’t just break up with the girls’ father. She hated him so much she took the girls a thousand miles away, and throughout the hell of their rebellion she continued to do everything she could to turn them against their father. The story ought to be used as a textbook of how not to behave. And yet, while having screwed up so profoundly, Gwartney simply lets it all hang out.

In the book, she does not try to recruit us to hate her husband. She allows us to make our own decision. Nor does she justify her behavior in  a flurry of self-analysis and defense. She just tells the story. This turns out to be one of the hallmarks of powerful memoir writing. Tell the story and let the reader go for the ride. From that point of view, “Live Through This” is impeccable storytelling.

However, there is an aspect of the storytelling that aspiring memoir writers can learn from. Gwartney played fast and loose with chronology, as if she threw the pages up in the air, and didn’t take the time to assemble them correctly. In the middle of one scene, the narrative morphed into another time frame, and then from there, she might hop backward or forward, so quickly and with so little warning, I often lost track of where I was. She made me work far too hard to figure out where we were in time and space. Through the lurches, I kept reading because I loved  the underlying story. But it would have been far more enjoyable if she had held me hand and led me through the journey with more authority and grace.

Of course, storytelling does allow some breaks in chronological sequence, but to keep the reader immersed in suspension of disbelief, the author must deftly transition from one time frame to another. This usually involves far fewer leaps than there are in “Live Through This.” For example, in “Ten Points” by Bill Strickland, the author guides me through two well-defined time frames. In the present, the author attempted to win a cycling race. Inside himself, another story played out, in which he confronted the demons of his childhood. At all times, Strickland artfully let me know which timeframe I was in, and both stories, the cycling one in the present and the disturbing childhood scenes in the past let me maintain my sense of suspense, a sign of an effective technique.

In addition to well constructed flashbacks, another out-of-sequence technique is the essay-like focus that occasionally crops up in memoirs. For example, in the coming of age story “A Girl Named Zippy” by Haven Kimmel, the book is a chronological account of the author’s childhood. However, it is not strictly in order, and that’s okay because she controls my attention using other devices. For example, in one chapter, she focuses on the shenanigans of a particular friend. It is a gentle, barely discernible shift from story into essay style. Another example is “Seven Wheelchairs,” Gary Presley’s mainly chronological account of coming to terms with life from a seated position. In the chapter about his relationship with wheelchairs, he jumps out of his timeline to talk about the various contraptions he has relied on for mobility. He does this effectively, and I found myself just as engaged in that chapter as I was in the story, without a sense of disruption.

In general, most stories can and in my opinion should unfold in the same sequence they were lived. When the story moves along in that order, I jump on board and go with the flow. However, according to Brian Boyd, in “On the origin of stories” humans have evolved to grasp storylines. The capability is wired into our brains and we’re good at it. My ability to stick to Debra Gwartney’s underlying dramatic tension supplies a good example of this innate strength.

Debra Gwartney’s amazing journey offered me all the benefits that I enjoy from a memoir. And then in a fabulous closing scene, one of the best final lines I’ve read in a memoir, she redeemed all flaws. A good ending makes all the pain of the journey worthwhile. In fact, this is a fundamental notion of storytelling. The story’s tension primes the reader to crave release. Then in that moment when we cross the finish line, if we feel lifted and inspired, the way I did when closing “Live Through This,” we will race to recommend it to our friends.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene from your rebellion period when you were trying to step away or differentiate from your parents. Write one scene in which you were in flagrant violation of their rules. Write another in which you tried to explain to yourself or to them why you had to “do this” even though they couldn’t understand.

Click here to visit Debra Gwartney’s home page.

Note about wrapper stories
Bill Strickland’s technique of a story in the present that helps set up a story in the past is what I call a “wrapper story.” Another example is A. M. Homes search for her own genealogical past in “Mistress’s Daughter.” In “Color of Water” James McBride searches for his mother’s history. Such memoirs maintain my attention by artfully flipping back and forth between two stories, maintaining crisp, easy-to-follow dramatic tension throughout. A famous wrapper story was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which starts with sailors on a boat telling a story. The whole book takes place in the body of the story. Then at the end, the sailors come back to recount the way it worked.

Notes about Parent memoirs
Other memoirs that took me down a parent’s road were Robert and Linda Waxler’s “Losing Jonathan” and David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy.”

Notes about favorite endings
My other two favorite endings in memoirs were Matthew Polly’s, “American Shaolin” and Joan Rivers’, “Enter Talking.”

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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.

Interviewing is an Act of Love, Even After Memory Starts to Fail

by Jerry Waxler

Last year I visited a recording booth run by the nonprofit organization StoryCorps. The purpose of the booth was to invite people to interview and record stories of their elders. Thanks to its presence in communities and the publication of stories through National Public Radio, StoryCorps has become an influential advocate for the simple act of asking, listening, and recording the stories of our elders and each other.

Thanks to the publicity and outreach of the StoryCorps, and other social factors, the general culture has become increasingly interested in preserving the stories of their elders. And yet, for many people, a sensitive topic arises. They fear it may be too late, because Alzheimer’s is stealing their loved ones’ memories.

And so it was with great interest that I recently heard that the StoryCorps is investigating this exact problem, trying to find the stories of those whose memory is starting to fail. The program is called the Memory Loss Initiative. To learn more, I interviewed Dina Zempsky, senior outreach coordinator of the initiative.

My first question related to my surprise. How could an interviewer reach past the ravages of the disease to reclaim the past. Zempsky explained that short term memory deteriorates before long term memory, so people who forget what happened five minutes ago can have a clear memory of something that took place 50 years ago. I knew this was true in principle, but didn’t realize these memories would be accessible in coherent stories .

Zempsky assured me that the Memory Loss Initiative has successfully helped many people gather such stories. She said, “When people actually make the effort to interview their parents, the resulting stories are usually clearer and more interesting than people expect.” And the session of storytelling does more than simply pass on information. Zempsky explained that the families of Alzheimer’s sufferers have come to expect failure and disappointment in their attempts to communicate. These interviews allow them to share intact memories, offering everyone a sense of success, restoring dignity through the simple act of asking and listening.

I asked Zempsky to help me understand, “Why don’t people know about these memories? Why aren’t more families connecting to these past experiences?”

She said, “Even when their memory is intact, most of us don’t take the time to sit down and ask questions.”

Her answer hurt me with the same nostalgic regret I have heard from so many others. Even when my parents were alive and clear minded, I didn’t ask them about their younger days. In the absence of any intentional attempt to elicit the past, their history remained hidden.

When I hung up the phone, I was stunned by this offer of hope for people who think it’s too late. To learn more, I turned to another national organization whose members preserve stories, called the Association of Personal Historians. One Personal Historian, Sarah White, shared her experience interviewing a client with failing memory.

“My client and I had completed the interviews, and they went much as other people suggest — he was able to recall past events quite clearly,” said White. “In fact, he did a masterful job of dictating his life story; completely without notes, he delivered a story with a clear sense of what each episode meant in the big picture of his life. It was an honor to be witness to that act. He had been a great attorney, and all that courtroom prowess was evident as he worked from what was left of his memory.”

She continued, “Only specifics such as names and dates were missing. I certainly didn’t want to pause him to ask “Now what was that guy’s name? How was it spelled?” while he was in the midst of that creative act. But now he’s a couple years older and foggier.  So my problem is figuring out how to fill in the blanks that his mind didn’t supply the first time and is having even more trouble this time around.”

The solution for this particular elder was to research the details amidst his personal papers. But for the rest of us, this is a cautionary tale. Get those stories while there is still time. One step you can take is to go to the StoryCorps website, under Memory Loss Initiative, and learn from the interviewing tips.  If you live near one of their booths, you could visit them in person, and directly benefit from their recording studios and interviewing guidance. Or you can hire them to visit your organization. To keep their work alive, make a charitable contribution.  Visit their website for more details.

And while you are preserving the memories of your loved ones, consider preserving your own. Research indicates that education, mental exercise, and other mental stimulation can reduce the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Of course, it’s not possible to know for sure, but just as physical exercise protects the heart and arteries, it makes sense that mental stimulation will protect your neurons. And it’s fun to stay mentally active so it’s a win-win situation. While you challenge yourself to write the stories of your life, you will stimulate your mind in the present, create a legacy of your past, and at the same time increase your chances for mental vigor for years to come.


StoryCorps Memory Loss Initiative, click here.

To read my observations of the StoryCorps experience, click here.

For more information about Association of Personal Historians, visit their website. And if you want to make the most of what they have to offer, consider their annual conference, to be held near Philadelphia in October, 2009.

Sarah White’s home page is http://www.whitesarah.com/

Give Thanks for Your Family Stories

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

Thanksgiving is a banquet for the senses, with a table overflowing with food, and the room overflowing with relatives, now a year older and hopefully wiser. And yet family gatherings often arouse tension. We fear arguments with some visitors or feel a hole where we wish we could see a loved one, or wonder about a new potential spouse. Our anxiety seems ungrateful. This feast ought to be a time of joy. To shift attention to the positive aspects of such meetings look at them as opportunities to learn and share each other’s stories.

Listening, as the saying goes, is an act of love, and your willingness to open up and let their stories in will create a lovely, kind, and energetic atmosphere. But the old conversation patterns have a mind of their own. Instead of hoping the energy will shift, take a leadership role. To steer the conversation in a new direction, you need to prepare.

When you are in a safe, healthy space, right now for example, list a few things you wish you knew about each person. Then, in the press of food and family, if you feel a wave of annoyance coming on, switch it to curiosity. Look at your list, take a deep breath, and ask a question. You might at first feel a moment’s hesitation, like you are being rude for breaking into the old pattern. But the surprise will last just a moment, as the other person adjusts his thinking to focus on your question. By asking them to talk about a specific time in their lives, your curiosity will arouse memories. If you press forward, asserting your real interest, you have a good chance of shifting their attention into a reverie about the good, or strange, or formative times. Their story telling will (hopefully) arouse more interesting emotions than the ones you interrupted.

It’s easier if you get this storytelling focus started early in the day, before the old patterns set in. Broadcast the message that you expect them to tell at least one story that you haven’t heard before. And for best results, make suggestions. It’s almost like pitching them some of the writing prompts you would use to develop your memoir. “Tell us about your first day at your first apartment.” “Tell us about where you were when you saw a beautiful sunset.” If you don’t have time to arrange this before the holiday, do it when you first walk in. Write something up. Claim you need these stories for a writing project you’re working on. (And if you write the stories afterwards, then this claim will be true.)

Once you get the ball rolling, if you feel people steering towards boring territory, say, “The rule today is a story we’ve never heard,” or, “I already knew about that situation. But I can’t picture it. Tell me who else was there, what the walls looked like, what did you smell?” You can lead people away from negative feelings by pushing the clock forward. What happened afterwards? Where did you go next?

And if they get stuck in a story you know, listen to it with fresh ears. See if you can imagine being there with them during their original experience. Your curiosity will instigate new questions that will pop you into a fresh perspective. You could think or blurt out, “Hey, wait a minute. That sounds similar to another time in your life.” Or, “Oh. I didn’t realize that happened so soon after you moved.”

In addition to gaining material for your family storybook, you will achieve immediate benefits. Speakers will feel the unusual sensation that people are actually listening to parts of their lives. This is a warm and disarming sensation, that draws everyone closer and reaches across boundaries. For example, if an old-timer tells you about a youthful experience, it puts them on a level playing field with younger family members. And then, when you give a younger person the floor, they will feel empowered by an audience of adults who are suddenly interested, not in finding fault, but in finding entertainment. And for new couples, visitors, and distant relatives, it will give everyone an opportunity to appreciate this whole person.

To prepare to listen to their stories, think ahead about stories of your own. Dig up a story you’ve never told before. Perhaps you never told it because you feel a little embarrassed. This is good. It’s an opportunity to tell people things about yourself that will give them a more intimate and less formulaic impression. Your willingness to share parts of yourself in a room full of people is a good way to flap your memoir wings. So as you look forward to the Thanksgiving holiday, or any time when extended families get together, use stories to create intimacy, defuse tension, and develop a deeper sense of gratitude for the people in your life.

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

To improve your memoir, break down the code

by Jerry Waxler

My dad owned a neighborhood drugstore in north Philadelphia, and on the nights he was able to make it home for dinner, most of the conversation centered around him telling us about the menagerie of characters who streamed through the store and gave him endless raw material. We sat and dutifully listened, but since there was no rule about equal air time, I grew up without having picked up even a smattering of skill to help me tell stories of my own.

In fact, I spent quite the next several decades story-less, feeling awkward about reporting on what happened to me. And though I didn’t realize it at first, I gradually noticed that my lack of storytelling was cutting me off from people. Stories are how we tell each other who we are, and so without stories, I felt isolated. Once I noticed how important it was to be able to tell stories, I set out to learn in adulthood what I had not learned as a child.

It turns out that with a little digging you can find storytellers who will teach you their craft. For example, Charles Kiernan, coordinator of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild, has been studying story telling for years. For him, storytelling is a performance art. He looks like Mark Twain, including the flowing mane of hair and bushy mustache, and when he dresses in period costume, it’s like listening to your own copy of Mark Twain. In addition to the performance and folklore aspects of storytelling, he’s also interested in creating them.

Here’s the simple, powerful lesson he shared with me, that he’ll be teaching in more detail at the Augusta Heritage Folkarts Festival in West Virginia, July 8-13, 2007. Say you’re sitting around at a family gathering, and the older adults start telling stories about Uncle Bob. The ones who knew Uncle Bob start laughing, and everyone else glazes over. They never met Uncle Bob, they didn’t know his pranks, or the sadness underneath his smile, so the story isn’t working for them. The problem is that so many family stories contain codes. The people who know the code can make sense of the story, and those who don’t know the code are left out.

It’s like that old joke about a newly convicted criminal in the penitentiary. Someone down the cellblock screams out the number “68” and all the other prisoners crack up laughing. The newbie asks what is going on, and his cellmate says, “We’ve heard these jokes so many times, we just tell them by the number.” It’s the same with family stories. As storyteller Charles Kiernan, coordinator of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild, explains it, say you’re at the dinner table celebrating a holiday with your extended family. You start telling stories about Uncle Bob, and all the adults who knew Uncle Bob crack up, while the kids who don’t remember Uncle Bob glaze over. Why are they staring at the ceiling, waiting for an excuse to get away from the table?

Kiernan’s family-oriented workshop will teach students to slow down and instead of telling stories in code that only insiders understand, they’ll learn to tell the story in a way that can be understood by listeners who never met Uncle Bob. The trick is to describe him in more detail. What did he wear? What was his hair like? What room do you picture him in? Sit down with someone who didn’t know him and describe him in as much detail as possible, so your listener could pick Bob out of a crowd.

If you want to tell a story, look closely at your language, and “unpack” it, laying out its content for everyone to appreciate. With a little learning you can turn the joke known only to the old inmates into a joke you can share with kids and strangers.

While this advice sounds simple, I consider it to be brilliant. For one thing, it acknowledges an important fact. Just because we think we’re telling a good story doesn’t mean the listener is hearing a good story. That in itself is a powerful piece of information, because most of us think that when we tell about events, we are doing the best possible job sharing the story. It turns out, the storyteller plays a crucial role, shaping a bunch of events into something worth listening to. Once we realize this fact, we can start looking for tricks to give our stories more impact.

Secondly, the message is brilliant because it is extraordinarily fundamental, sweeping across all aspects of storytelling. For example, I was preparing to write a description of my years in college, and was hoping to explain how the music of the times influenced my feelings. I could hope that by simply mentioning that the Beatles were intense or important, I might be able to convey what I was feeling, since everyone really knows about the Beatles. But I remembered Kiernan’s advice about avoiding code words, and thought how that applies to those icons of the sixties. If I just mention the word, “sixties” or “Beatles” I might hope everyone understands what I mean. But they will only get what they think, not what I think. That’s like the prisoner saying “68.” I have to tell a story.

So how can I unpack my thoughts and feelings about the Beatles? I’ll talk more about that in my next blog entry, and put into a scene what I mean by the coded word “Beatles.”

Stories heal families

By Jerry Waxler

When I was a teenager, I started pulling away from my parents. I didn’t understand who these people were, and didn’t think we had much in common. Ignoring all the support mom and dad had given me, the safe and sane home, I longed to escape their influence. When I moved out of my childhood home in Pennsylvania, I tried to put many miles behind me, first moving 1,000 miles to go to school in Wisconsin, and then moving 2,000 more miles to Berkeley, California. The geographical separation was only an external symptom of what I was feeling in my heart. I was trying to shake them off. Sometimes I didn’t speak to them for a year, and never reached out for support. All of this distance was accompanied by enormous pain. I had cut myself off from my family, and wondered why I felt so alone.

But I couldn’t figure out how to break through this wall, and see them as real people. Somehow I had built up such profound edginess I simply couldn’t approach them. So I stayed away, hurting them and myself in the process. While my situation sounds extreme, I have spoken to many adults who hold on to complex, painful resentments about their parents, and would greatly benefit by finding a way back home.

For example, when memoirist Gretchen Gunn first decided to write about her childhood, she knew she had lots of interesting material. She grew up in a hippie commune. And as a tiny child, she witnessed first hand the culture of the early seventies, where people, including her parents valued their own desires above common sense or standards of decency. But Gretchen felt unable to tell the story because she was so angry with her dad’s irresponsibility and abandonment. She thought her anger would get her in trouble, so she decided to write it as fiction. That turned out to be a great choice, because the more she tried to tell the story, the better she understood it.

To write a good story, the goal is to not describe characters like they belong in a cartoon. If they look empty, or the same as every other character you have read about, they will not be interesting to read. Instead of a superficial gloss, you have to look more closely for signs they are human. If your vision is clouded by strong feelings of resentment, disappointment, or other confusing emotions, getting to the human story beneath the cloud of emotions might happen in layers rather than all at once.

So when Gretchen wrote her early drafts, she expressed her disgust, but when approaching the story in this way, it didn’t seem interesting. So she shifted her image of him from a bad person to simply a dead person. By killing off her father, she was able to see the whole situation more clearly. He was out of the picture, and out of her life, and instead of hanging on to her fury, she let him go. This shift in perspective was so profound that she lost her grip on her gripes. There was no more point in being angry, and she felt like she released a huge weight, allowing her to see events more clearly than ever. Even though she had been writing fiction, the act of turning her life into a story had set her free from the demons of the past, and gave her deeper insight into her childhood and her parents.

After my self-imposed exile in California, I moved back to Pennsylvania in 1971. But moving closer geographically did not bring me closer in my heart. I went months at a time without calling home, and skipped most holiday gatherings. After decades of therapy, I went to graduate school and got my Master’s degree in counseling, and started to see the secret everyone else seemed to know better than me, about the ever-present intimacy between a parent and child. My interest in mom increased, and I spoke with her every week, trying to understand how to relate to this person who not only gave birth to me, but taught me how to be a human being. Week by week, year by year, our conversations cleared away whatever issues had kept us separate. Fortunately, my mom lived to 87, which gave me plenty of time to transform my attitude. Finally, I got it! She was a person! A good person. She longed to make the most of her life. She strived to stay fit. And I finally noticed she had many devoted friends who looked up to her. I became one of her admirers. We became friends! At the end of an aerobics class, she wasn’t feeling well, and a neighbor took her to the hospital. When she lay in bed, a few days before the end, she turned to me and said, “I lived a good life.” And so she had, and together, we were at peace with that.

Families are an ocean of memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Families are like the ocean – no matter where your life takes you, eventually all memories, like rivers flow back into the family. So when my sister said she was moving out of her old house, I thought it was a great opportunity to help her go through a transition, and at the same time, take a swim in my family memories. Well, that’s a story I can’t tell yet, because I’m going to help her tomorrow, but I’m sure it will release a story or two.

We’re both interested in the past. For one thing, we’re the only two people left alive who grew up in that row home in northwest Philadelphia. So I was interested when she told me she signed up for a memoir class at the West Laurel Hill Cemetery. What a great idea, having a memory writing class at a cemetery. And it’s the same cemetery where my brother was laid to rest, so the three of us will be together again for the first time in years, sharing memories about life in the family ocean.