Teaching Memoirs, Meeting Locals, Making Memories

by Jerry Waxler

When my wife’s sister, Judy, heard that her local writing group was looking for a writing teacher, she mentioned my name. She has been encouraging us to come to visit her town, Salida, with lots of artists, tucked in a valley amidst the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. If it worked out, I could teach memoir writing, while making a few memories of my own.  The directors of the group checked out my blog and other material on my website, and we began to brainstorm about how it would work.

All the memoir classes I had taught previously were broken into two hour segments. This workshop would go for eight hours straight, so one challenge would be to tailor the course to this new format. And I worried about my stamina. Would they need to carry me out on a stretcher at the end of the day? Over the next few weeks, I worked out a class schedule that I felt would offer the same value as the individual sessions. And the best way to find out if I could survive an all-day class was to try. My wife and I agreed the Rockies would create a welcome diversion from south eastern Pennsylvania, so we said “Yes. Let’s do it.”

In September, we flew in to the Denver Airport. On our drive to Chaffee County, we stopped at Colorado Springs to walk through the Garden of the Gods, a magnificent collection of brilliant orange spires, like fingers reaching up to the sky. We only had an hour to appreciate what it had taken God a million years to create. The rest of the drive was almost as spectacular. Along the canyon of the Arkansas River, the mountain faces kept changing color and texture, as if each section had been formed during a different era. I felt like I was watching the history of the earth unfold before my eyes.

In Salida, Judy showed us around the local art shops and historical buildings. The renovated Steam Plant is the home of the theater where she volunteers, and that night she took us to a rock concert, where we listened to good quality regional rock and roll, standing or swaying on a dance floor with the locals.  The next day, we ate breakfast at Bongo Billy’s Cafe, which like the Steam Plant, is a restored historical building. On the red brick walls hang works of local art and a poster that offered, “How to Build a Global Community.” I stood there and read every suggestion, as if the poster could help me understand the heart of Salida. One rule was “Visit people, not places.” I liked that rule and thought I could honor it on this trip, starting with the 25 people who had signed up for my class.

At 8 AM the next morning, arriving early at the church where the workshop was to be held, I greeted people on their way in and asked them what they wanted to accomplish in the class. Every good story starts with desire. The personal introductions segued naturally into a formal class, in which I offered an overview of memoir writing. Then it was time to learn techniques. After the first lesson, about finding the timeline, I gave a writing prompt. “Write a scene about one of the homes you lived in.” Their heads went down, and pens moved, allowing them the opportunity to ideas into action.

When it was time to read aloud, I asked them to break into groups of three so each could read their writing to two others. The room buzzed with energy while I sat alone and planned my next module. When they were done, I spoke some more, we discussed more, and they wrote and read to their small groups. The lunch break was in the adjoining kitchen, with a feast of pot luck dishes that included salads, cookies, and fruit. And then we started again.

By mid-afternoon, we had been focusing for five hours and I was running out of energy, but I couldn’t stop now. I had to press on, in an excellent example of life imitating art. The next lesson was about the long middle of a story, which could become bogged down in the passage of time. To keep the story moving, the protagonist must face and overcome obstacles. I gave one more prompt. “Write about a significant obstacle in your life.” Heads bowed, and when they looked up, this time I asked them to share their writing with the whole group.

One by one, they shared critical moments: near deaths, loves lost, disease, and recovery. I leaned forward in my chair, inspired by the variety and depth of human experience, and the power of memoir writing to shape those memories and share them. Some students choked back tears. Others were more stoical, while the rest of us nodded, and murmured in empathy. Many said, “It’s the first time I shared this with strangers.” Of course the details are protected by confidentiality, but now that the stories have been told in one group setting, my experience tells me the participants will have an easier time sharing stories in the future.

After each reading, I commented on how it fit into the course material and how they might develop it further. When we ran out of time, I thanked them for sharing their lives, and we were done. But it wasn’t over quite yet. While we were cleaning up, many people walked up and thanked me. “You helped me think about my life in a new way.” These expressions of appreciation made me feel my day was a success.

I carried out to the car the few remaining books from the stack I had brought with me to sell, one a how-to guide for writing memoirs, and the other a workbook for overcoming obstacles that can interfere with writing. On the drive back to our lodging, I shared thoughts about memories and family with Judy, who had attended the class as well.

When I returned to our room, my wife was excited by her own adventure. She had spent most of the day at an equestrian competition, watching riders roping, herding, and other events. When Janet is around horses, she’s happy, so the day was a success for her too.

To continue the horse theme, I suggested we take a trail ride to see more of the beautiful countryside. Asking around, we found a recommendation for Bill’s Sport Shop in Leadville. The next morning, we met the trail guide, George, a salty man with smiling eyes, and lots of creases in his face who bragged about his recent 77th birthday. We brushed the horses, (mine was named Ringo), saddled up and walked out amidst the big peaks and big skies of Colorado, through scrubby arid hillocks, and stands of pine trees. George turned around in his saddle to tell us about his life, working in a mine, losing his best friend in 1969 and even some bits about his love life. His love for his herd of 30 horses was obvious, considering he knew each one by name and told us anecdotes about many of them.  I was the last of the three riders, and Ringo was a little pokey so sometimes George’s voice drifted back to me and other times I ambled in silence.

Four hours later, we took the saddles off, and he let us give the horses their treat of grain. As we were leaving, I asked him, “Are you a cowboy?” He said, “I’m going to be a cowboy when I grow up.” Getting to know George, who had lived and worked in this area his whole life, I felt like I had fulfilled the suggestion on the poster at Bongo Billy’s. We were not just visiting places, but meeting people as well.

We pulled on to the road and headed out of town, back towards the Denver Airport. Leaving the mountains behind, my wife said, “I like this trip. Maybe you can find more places to teach memoir writing workshops.” “I don’t know hon. I’ll ask around.”

Note

To purchase a copy of  the poster, “How to Build Global Community” by Melinda Levine, search on the internet. For example, I turned up this link.

Chaffee County also hosts summer white water rafting down the Arkansas River, skiing at nearby Monarch Mountain, mountain climbing – it’s surrounded by fourteen thousand foot peaks of the Fourteeners. It is also on the route of the famous “Ride the Rockies” bicycle tour.

A dog made famous by an expert storyteller

by Jerry Waxler

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

John Grogan’s memoir about a dog and his family was a huge success while in print, and then went galactic when produced as a movie starring Jennifer Aniston. Because “Marley and Me” was so popular, I avoided it, preferring to stick to the byways. But the book kept calling to me, especially after my review of a bird-buddy memoir, “Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg. So I finally put “Marley and Me” on the reading pile. Now I’m a fan, happy to revel in the pleasures and pains of this story.

There’s nothing fantastic or magnificent about a young family and a dog. And so, to earn its success it must have been told exceptionally well. That offers an excellent learning opportunity for the rest of us who want to turn the events of our lives into stories worth reading.

Suspenseful writing is not just for murders

Suspense sounds like an emotion best suited for horror or murder movies. However, every story needs to build up enough pressure to keep the reader turning pages. Grogan is an expert at applying this pressure without car chases or ticking bombs. His main tool for generating suspense is embarrassment.

Awkward social situations are regular features in stories. For example, when characters are preparing a wedding, there is the implied suspense they might humiliate the family by canceling. Or in a teen story, the protagonist may act against their values in order to avoid being humiliated by peers. I find such tension as gut wrenching as a murder mystery, and considerably more likely to occur in real life.

Marley’s oafish doggy behavior constantly makes the reader squirm. In one scene, the family walks through a picturesque town square, with people calmly eating dinner at outdoor cafes. Grogan hints that Marley is about to disrupt the peace and so my heart beats faster. I cringe as they tie Marley to the table. Even though I know it’s coming, I want to stand up and shout “NO” when Marley breaks into a run, dragging the table across the square. After it’s over, I can’t relax, because Grogan keeps me wondering about Marley’s next caper.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about an embarrassing incident. If you’re like me you have probably blotted out your embarrassing moments, so it might be harder to find them than almost any other type of memory. This reluctance to reveal embarrassing situations reduces the impact of my stories. When Joan Rivers tells stories, she goes straight for her most revealing, embarrassing, awkward details, the things most of us would keep secret, and as a result, her stories are world famous.

Foreshadowing or teeing up the shot

The technique of letting the reader know something is going to happen is called foreshadowing, and is an important element in the author’s page-turning arsenal. Grogan uses a variety of foreshadowing techniques in “Marley and Me.”

I compare one of his techniques to teeing up a golf ball. First he plants the problem in the reader’s mind, like the fact that on his birthday, there was no party and he was dejected. Later his wife springs a surprise party, proving his family really does love him. By planting the problem in your mind first, and then swinging later, Grogan heightens the tension as well as the ensuing relief.

In the previous example, you don’t even realize you were set up until you’re struck by the surprise. At other times, he informs you in advance. So when John and his wife visit the litter of puppies, the seller introduces them to the puppies’ mild mannered mom. But the cagey sales woman evades questions about the dad. After they put money down on Marley, a crazed, filthy dog comes barreling past. This was the father of the puppies and his out-of-control behavior sets us up to worry about what’s going to happen later.

Writing Prompt
It’s natural to want to relieve the tension of a story immediately after establishing it. But sometimes you can generate more satisfaction by waiting. Scan the stories you have written for your memoir, and tease apart the initial tension. Then insert a delay before resolving it.

Establish mood by reporting what other people say

Marley had been invited to act in a movie that was going to be shot in a neighboring town. The Grogans, late to the appointment, pull up to a blockade near the movie set. When the cop learns who they are, he shouts to another policeman, “He’s got the dog.” In that moment, the reader learns about an important emotion because one of the characters says it.

Writing Prompt
Look through your anecdotes and scenes for an episode that would be heightened in this way. Was there someone nearby who said something intense or important or focused that would highlight the emotional impact you are trying to convey?

Establishing the emotional authenticity of a dog

I think pets are people, but since they don’t speak English, the writer must use a variety of techniques to convey the dog’s intentions and “thoughts.” Body language is one such device. Marley crashes through the crowd, or jumps up and puts his paws on people’s shoulders. Another technique is to point out cause and effect. If there’s a thunderstorm and Marley claws at the dry wall trying to dig his way out of the room, it doesn’t take a dog psychologist to know that Marley is terrified of thunder. So now we know one of his fears, even though he can’t speak.

Now that we know one of Marley’s hang-ups we can use it to supply even more information, by putting words in the animal’s mouth. For example, after lightening damages the house, Grogan interprets the look on Marley’s face. “It was as if he was saying, ‘See, I told you so.'” Grogan’s portrayal of Marley’s “thought” process is part of the fun of the book.

Understanding a dog’s entire life span

A dog’s life span is short enough that a human can see the whole thing unfolding, from beginning to end. And so, while this is a love story, it is also an exploration of the peculiar fact that we don’t live forever. “Marley and Me” is about loving and losing. We meet Marley as a tiny pup, befriend him, love him, watch him grow up, and then grow older. By focusing on the love between man and dog, Grogan has offered a lovely, uplifting lifelong buddy story, and he makes it seem so easy.

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.