Magazine Writer To Personal Historian, Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the second part of my interview with Carla Odell, a magazine writer I met at the Philadelphia Writing Conference who is turning her talent from life writing for magazines to the entrepreneurial project of writing life stories for individuals. To read the first part of the interview, click here.

Jerry: So how do you transition your interviewing skill from a magazine article mentality, with its brief size and specific point, to a much larger book length work?

Carla: In addition to the one book I wrote from start to end, I also help writers organize their own life stories. During this process, I write or suggest stand-alone chapters that all come together…by magic. Really. After years editing, I know how to bring stories full circle, and I can do it in books too. For instance, the book I did two years ago started with a fire in their barn in the early ’80s. I brought it back there in the second to last chapter with the rebuilding of the barn, then ended with a moment from her recent past. And I mean, I listened. It took about three days. While the barn wasn’t the most compelling part of her story, it was sort of emblematic of other life stops and starts and even though there was no chronology I could weave a cohesive, progressive life story.

Jerry: When you dug in to find the story, your customer’s willingness to cooperate was paramount. Do your interviewees reveal enough material to make a good psychologically rich story?

Carla: Usually yes. When I was in magazine work, we found our subjects because they had already discussed their story somewhere…in a local paper, on the radio, etc. Doing personal history/memoir editing can be more challenging. There’s a need to confess, or purge, just to finally reveal it to someone. But there is also a fear.

A good example is a woman I interviewed who spoke about her father in very broad terms, about their family time when she was a girl, and his old age before he died. No matter how many times I brought him up, she always said the same thing: “I loved my father very much.”

Finally one day, while we were talking about something not even remotely related, she went into a little more detail. “I was never comfortable around my father’s friends.” I used the opening to see if I could go deeper. From some hints she had told me about her background, I asked, “Did you fear they were engaged in illegal activity?” She admitted this to me, and after that she was able to reveal more. But because the book was for her children, we had to suppress most of that material. I felt that even though we didn’t write about it, she was grateful to have the opportunity to talk about it for the first time in her life.

Jerry: Interesting. Another personal historian, Foster Winans, told me that people often reveal things to him they had never told another person. . .

A book length story requires a lot of craft. How did you manage to take their life experiences and turn them into a book length story?

Carla: Actually, that is exactly my mission: to fulfill my own and my customer’s expectations of good writing. However, keep in mind that we were producing personal histories, not memoirs. There is a difference.

Personal histories don’t follow the plot line of novels: no rising action, climax, denouement. A memoir is different because there’s a lesson/realization in this genre, so it will follow more of a storyline.

Jerry: This is an excellent explanation of the difference. When I first heard about Personal Historians, I thought they were writing ghost written memoirs. But unless they go incredibly deep into the introspection process that wouldn’t be possible.

Carla: Even though personal histories aren’t propelled by a dramatic arc the way a more literary memoir tries to achieve, I still do everything I can to craft a good story. For example, I ask my interviewees at the beginning of each challenge in their lives, exactly where they are heading at the end. That helps create the cycle of chapters each of which starts with a goal and ends with a conclusion.

Jerry: So when the process is finished, how does it work out? How do your subjects feel after you have completed the work?

Carla: Before I started writing my book length project, I sent her the chapter breakdowns for approval. She was amazed that I was able to categorize and organize EVERYTHING she’d told me.

When the book arrived, she had a big party. She ordered 20 copies first time around, then another 50! Besides her family and some close friends, I’m not sure who got one. Sadly, her husband passed a few months after we finished. After the service, at her home, she had the book out, opened to the chapter about their wedding. I was touched. There’s something about print. I know people who do legacy videos, which are nice. But there’s nothing like holding a book  – a book about your life – in your hands.

I saw the same reaction in people whose articles appeared in magazines. There is nothing like holding the article in your hands. Even though subjects always knew what I had written about them, I always, always heard from them when the magazine hit the stands. Their excitement was off the charts. Always! I loved that! Everyone deserves their 15 minutes of fame. But when it comes in printed form, it will last a lifetime.

That’s why I am so sad to see the death of so many magazines…

Jerry: Me too! I can’t believe you had such a fulfilling career in an industry that is no longer able to support you. Now you’re trying to figure out how to make the most of your love for writing.

Carla: I love life story writing. I want to do it for the rest of my life.

Jerry: I guess you’re trying to write your own tragedy to triumph life story. (laughing)

Notes
Carla Merolla Odell’s home page

Philadelphia Writers Conference

Association of Personal Historians

Foster Winans, Personal Historian

For a writing conference near you, click here: Shaw Guide to Writing Conferences

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

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

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

Magazine Writer To Personal Historian, Pt1

by Jerry Waxler

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

Southeast Pennsylvania is a great place for writers. One reason for our collective interest in word craft is because we are in the extended ecosystem of New York City, the publishing capitol of the world. Or at least it used to be. Nowadays, I meet a surprising number of writers from New York City who have been downsized from the dwindling industry and are hoping to find a niche in the more loosely structured writing life of the twenty-first century.

The Philadelphia Writers Conference, held the second weekend of every June, is a natural place for such writers to network. That’s where I met Carla Odell, a former magazine editor. She is trying to reinvent herself as a personal historian, that is, someone who charges money to interview people and turn their lives into stories.

Because of my intense interest in memoirs, I’ve always been curious about personal histories, but I’ve never quite grasped how that would work. To me, memoir writing is an extraordinarily introspective process, involving years of delving into memory to reorganize and shape experience in a way that would make sense to a reader. How does a personal historian incorporate the introspective insights necessary for the interior shading and detail that I have come to expect from a good memoir?

My meeting with Carla at the Philadelphia Writers Conference turned out to be a perfect opportunity for me to learn more about the writing industry she is coming from, and the more entrepreneurial version of writing toward which she is attempting to move.

Jerry: Tell me more about your attempt to start a business to write people’s personal histories. How did you get interested in doing that?

Carla: I worked as an editor in the women’s market for almost 30 years. The majority of my work was telling tragedy-to-triumph-type tales.

Jerry: I love that you were being paid to find and shape tragedy-to-triumph stories. What a wonderful training for a memoir writer. What was that like? How did you tease out the information from an interview and shape it into a story?

Carla: I had terrific training as a reporter/editor. Because I was always on a deadline, I didn’t have time for extraneous stuff, and that helped condition me to get to the meat quicker. I did some celebrity reporting too, and you have to get in and out. Celebs are funny: You are their very best friend…for a half hour. I’m exaggerating; sometimes I had longer. But you have to be intentional. You can’t go in and say, “So, tell me about your childhood.” You can’t do that with a personal history either. That’s why “research” is important here too: spending time with their mementos, photos. Also, no matter how long a piece is going to be, while I’m researching or interviewing, I’m already writing it in my head. I jot down notes so I don’t lose my thoughts. I can’t say much more on how I do it, other than what I sent previously. It just happens. I have a good sense for symmetry.

Jerry: Most of the work of writing a memoir is about the introspective aspect of figuring out how all those events fit into the emotional dynamics of a person’s life. How did you capture this “vicarious introspection” – what did it feel like to search through another person’s memory and look for structure?

Carla: Yes, you really need to get into first person view point. For short pieces, I usually do this over the phone, just typing notes when something jumps out at me. These notes provide good compass points for when I go back and listen/transcribe. I also type notes to myself with ideas of where to start and place a turning point. Saves a lot of time especially with deadlines.

As for their voice, I do a pretty good job getting to the language nuances. I think it’s the unrealized actress in me. With magazine work, though, we often knew what the moment or turning point was before we even decided to write the article.

Jerry: Ooh. That’s really interesting. When someone sits down to write their own memoir, they often have to tease the turning points out and then see the way the story will work. For an article, you already know the main newsworthy aspect of the story before you begin. Could you give me an example of such a pre-assigned turning point for an article?

Carla: There were so many…. A mom who lost her daughter to a drunk driver and turned to politics so she could affect policy; a victim of domestic violence who, after that final episode, left and became an attorney specializing in prosecuting DV cases. This was part of a larger in-depth special issue on what was, at the time, the new Battered Women Defense in courtrooms coast to coast. Oh, I did an article on an American nurse in Somalia. It started as just a general overview of what her days were like, and it led to a series on women doing humanitarian work and the moment they knew their “old lives” were over and they were on their way to something more important.

Jerry: A big part of your work was interviewing. That’s a very cool skill in itself. What insights can you offer about how you interview?

Carla: I talk as little as possible. I ask no qualifying questions (but I take notes to go back) because a subject will often “go” somewhere unexpected if there’s nothing to remind her/him of the question at hand.

Of course, if the subject goes on in what seems to be a nonsensical tangent, I will bring the subject back. There’s an old reporter’s trick where you repeat the last part of the last thing they say, questioningly. For instance, if the subject says, “I got this ring for my 25th anniversary.” “Your twenty-fifth anniversary?” “Yes, it was a very special event at the Waldorf. Every one I loved was there. It was such a surprise.” “A surprise?” “Yes, my family went to great lengths…” So if a subject is going on and on, I will do that, and he or she will realize it might be time to get back to the story. Also, watching expressions gives you the tone.

Here’s an example: I did a short piece for a woman who was born in Germany right after the war. As a young adult, she lived in West Berlin but had a friend in the East, and traveled to see her regularly. She was very animated, telling the story of a particular night she was detained on her way home. While it was a frightening episode, I decided, after watching her, to make that part of her story…funny. And she loved it!

However, I don’t only rely on talking. We sat down with her photo albums and documents and I listened as she uncovered each item of memorabilia.

I’ve used recipes as chapters, maps with notations. With one woman we used excerpts of her annual holiday letters to friends as chapter heads. (She wanted to do it chronologically, so we made it fun.)

It’s strange to be sitting among other people’s stuff and listening to a lifetime in the course of what turns out to be about three workdays.

To read part 2 of this interview, click here.

Notes
Carla Merolla Odell’s home page

Philadelphia Writers Conference

Association of Personal Historians

Foster Winans, Personal Historian

For a writing conference near you, click here: Shaw Guide to Writing Conferences

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

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

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

What Creative Nonfiction (CNF) Means to Memoir Writers

by Jerry Waxler

I was invited by Christine Weiser and Carla Spataro, publishers of Philadelphia Stories, to participate in a panel of writers at the 2010 “Push to Publish” writer’s conference. My job would be to offer insights about the Creative Nonfiction Craze. At first, I hesitated. The last time I thought about this literary genre was at the same conference, last year. How could I speak authoritatively about it? I reviewed what I knew.

The first Creative Nonfiction book I read was in 1981. The microcomputer revolution was kicking into high gear and I devoured the trade rags, welcoming news releases from chip manufacturers with the same enthusiasm as I greeted Beatles album in the 60s. I was especially excited when 8-bit microprocessors gave way to the new 16 bit variety. The book “Soul of a New Machine” by Tracy Kidder offered an inside look. He camped out in a computer research lab, and from his intimate position, he introduced me to the engineers who sweated, brainstormed through the night, and then kept coming back for more, vowing to climb the highest intellectual mountains they could find. “Soul of a New Machine,” for which Kidder received a Pulitzer Prize, was a harbinger of the Creative Nonfiction wave.

Flash forward almost thirty years. In 2010, memoirs are everywhere. Hundreds of them spill off my shelves onto the floor. On my blog, I’ve posted hundreds of essays and interviews about reading and writing memoirs. I wrote one book about how to write a memoir, and I’m working on a manuscript about the importance of memoirs in the twenty-first century. The center-piece of my project is my own memoir-in-progress.

I look back across the decades and see how one thing led to another. The Creative Nonfiction genre, referred to by its abbreviation CNF, is now so widely respected it runs like a river through the literary landscape. And the memoir wave flows into and through it, fed by the individuals who share their nonfiction experiences.

Memoir Writers are Immersion Journalists

Kidder’s technique of reporting on a situation by hurling himself into the midst of it became known as “Immersion Journalism,” a specialized branch of the Creative Nonfiction wave. By participating in his subject, he was able to portray a gripping personal account of computer development. The strategy has matured over the decades, allowing a generation of journalists to turn facts into engaging stories. Memoir writers do the same thing and use many of the same tools. Here are some of the CNF techniques they share.

Immersion — You researched your material by living it.
Protagonist — Share yourself so the reader can identify with you.
Suspense — Generate reader interest with delay, urgency, and dramatic conflict.
Scenes — Let the reader see, hear, smell, touch, taste the things you did.
Character –Give characters real emotions, cues and quirks.
Dialog — Show people talking.
Story arc — Use dramatic tension and release, character development, and other story glue.

Memoirists Branch Out to Other CNF Topics

As you craft your memories into readable form, you attend classes, read books about writing, and share your work with critique groups. The final product, a finished memoir, offers interior as well as literary benefits. But what can you write next? Thanks to the skills you have learned while writing your memoir, you can go in a variety of directions.

By applying immersion journalism, suspense, characterization, and other CNF ideas, you can discover book ideas almost anywhere. You might even decide to use immersion journalism techniques to enhance your memoir itself. Many memoirs contain elements of investigative journalism. This can be especially helpful if you feel insecure about the importance of your own life. If you don’t think you are interesting enough to read about, weave in another theme, based on your observations. These satisfy the reader’s urge to learn more about the world and potentially make the book more exciting, relevant, and readable.

Some memoir writers find interesting material by taking a trip. For example Doreen Orion’s memoir “Queen of the Road” is about her travels around the United States with her husband in a luxury RV. In “Zen and Now” author Mark Richardson follows the same route Robert Pirsig traveled on his famous Zen motorcycle trip. Sarah MacDonald went to India and wrote about her religious tourism in “Holy Cow.” Author Stephen Markley actually set about to write a book about writing a book. His memoir “Publish this Book” was immersion journalism about itself. As readers, we are guided by cultural habits as old as civilization. If the protagonist is interested and interesting, we keep reading.

The crossovers go both ways. Successful CNF author Tracy Kidder tried his hand with a memoir about his service in Vietnam titled “My Detachment.” The title is apt, since his character was eerily detached from the surrounding war, a character trait that might explain his successful career as an observer.

CNF Authors Attain the Status of Experts

The reason CNF is so successful is because people like stories. But they also want other forms of information such as advice, analysis, self-help, and calls to action. Many aspiring memoir writers try to fulfill these needs by offering information along with the memoir. But in my experience, too much information derails the story’s momentum and disrupts the suspension of disbelief.

Many memoirs successfully offer non-fiction insights by taking advantage of reliable story-telling techniques. They stay as close as possible to the thick of the story and allow lessons to emerge naturally from it. The best practice is to tell the story first. Let the story enter the reader’s mind, and then by the end of the story, it will feel normal that you want to figure out what you were going through.

This notion of ending with a conclusion about life runs very deep in the nature of stories. The most primal of children’s stories often end with a lesson. “And that’s the reason the skunk has a stripe” or “that’s the reason you should follow your mother’s advice.”

Here are a few memoirs that show first and then tell.

  • International charity work: “Three Cups of Tea,” by Greg Mortenson
  • Flaws in the Foster Care System: “Three Little Words,” by Ashley Rhodes Courter
  • False imprisonment: “Picking Cotton,” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton
  • Parenting of a special-needs child: “Slant of Sun,” by Beth Kephart,
  • Historical insight into the final years of Jim Crow south: “Colored People” by Henry Gates
  • Right and left hemisphere brain function: “My stroke of insight,” by Jill Bolte Taylor

All of these writers earned their understanding through life experience.

Crossing from Nonfiction to Fiction

Many writers cross between fiction and nonfiction. Both literary forms require appreciation for the compelling structure of a story, and both require excellent language arts.

Dani Shapiro wrote a crash-and-burn memoir, “Slow Motion” about her collapse in a heap of sex and drugs when going to college. She has also written several novels. Same with Alice Sebold. She wrote a memoir “Lucky” about being raped in college and also wrote an acclaimed novel “Lovely Bones” about a girl who had been raped. Beth Kephart wrote several memoirs including “Slant of Sun” about raising a son. Then she switched to writing Young Adult novels.

Can Fiction Writers Learn to Write Creative Nonfiction?

Fiction writers already have an excellent grasp on the elements of Story. Now to write Creative Nonfiction, they surrender their license to invent. The results might lack some of the precision they were able to achieve by adding any detail they wanted. But I think lack of precision is an attractive aspect of memoirs and may even be one of its signatures. We nonfiction readers understand that reality is messier than fiction. In fact, a few messy details add realism the way flaws in handmade objects increase their value.

I Joined the Panel

Once I realized that memoir writing falls under this umbrella of Creative Nonfiction, I knew I would be able to contribute to the panel.  So I agreed to join. At the conference, five of us sat in front of an audience of around 40 writers. It turned out I needn’t have worried. The atmosphere was congenial and collaborative. Perhaps I was feeling the glow of the lovely Rosemont College campus on the main line or perhaps it was the glow of collegiality fostered by Carla and Christine, the producers of Philadelphia’s Push to Publish. Whatever the cause, everyone seemed to feel at home and ready to share and help each other. I felt at ease, sitting with fellow writers, talking about a subject I love. After all I had lived the story, and now I was prepared to share my conclusions.

Notes
Interesting Article: Why should fiction writers write nonfiction? Carol Ottolenghi

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.

Author and creative writing teacher helps me steer between fact and fiction

by Jerry Waxler

Last year, I attended a writing conference at Rosemont College hosted by Philadelphia Stories journal. At one of the sessions, I met Susan Muaddi Darraj and purchased a book of her collected fiction called “Inheritance of Exile.” The protagonist of the stories was a Palestinian woman who grew up in South Philadelphia in circumstances similar to Muaddi Darraj’s own childhood.

The characters in “Inheritance of Exile” felt authentic. I loved their introspective world, their frustration, despair, and hope. I connected with their romances and their interaction with their families. And I even deepened my imagination of my own ancestors who also were immigrants in Philadelphia. [See my essay on that topic here.]

The interplay between fact and fiction enhanced my reading, but I wanted to know more about how it felt to the writer so I asked Susan Muaddi Darraj to help me understand how she the world she is creating with the one about which she is writing. And since she is a writing teacher, I wanted to know what she tells her students.

Jerry Waxler: When I was a student, literature was taught as an art form that had value in its own right. Now that I’ve become obsessed with memoirs, my view of literature has shifted. I now look at stories as a window into the human condition. Judging from the authenticity of your characters and situations, I’m wondering how you feel about the connection between story and life. Are stories art? Or are they a way to share the experience of human beings? Or some of each?

Susan Muaddi Darraj:
I do think literature serves multiple purposes. Its primary purpose is to serve as art — that aesthetic goal is always first and foremost. But literature also has an opportunity to comment and describe other worlds to the reader — not monolithic “worlds,” but a view of life as experienced by that particular author. For example, in this story collection, “Inheritance of Exile,” I tried to express what life was like for not all Palestinian emigres, but for a particular socio-economic class of emigres who had settled into a working-class, urban environment.

JW: Writers must learn all sorts of micro-skills such as word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, characterization and so on. The authentic characters in your stories make me wonder if writers also need to be exquisite observers. Must we also get degrees in psychology, sociology, and anthropology?

SMJ: No, but you still need to do your research as a writer. The best writing I have ever read is that in which it is clear that the author has spent time conducting or doing research of some kind — and the research could take place on many levels: looking up the right word for a particular object, researching the jargon used by archaeologists because you’ve decided to make one of your characters an archaeologist, etc.

JW: Can explain how you learned the skills of careful observation?

SMJ: Reading, watching, listening, always keeping a notebook in my purse…

JW: How do you teach these skills of careful observation to aspiring writers, or recommend that they learn?

SMJ: The writer’s notebook is a lost art form in itself! I always tell my students (I teach a fiction workshop in the Johns Hopkins graduate writing program) that keeping a notebook to jot down observations and ideas is vital.

JW: Could you share some insight or examples of the way the notebooks help you add vitality to your stories.

SMJ: I am a marvelous eavesdropper — I listen to conversations around me all the time and am always affected by the tone of people’s voices, their diction, as well as the stories they tell. I write those observations down. I also clip out news items or articles or pictures that strike me in some way. For example, who knows when I will need to describe a log cabin some day in a story I’m writing? If I do, I have a photograph clipped out of a magazine, to give me some parameters.

JW: I struggle to understand how fiction writers create characters. For example, are they composites stitched together from a variety of observations? That seems risky to me. Can a writer really invent a person from whole cloth or cobble one together from bits? Especially in first person stories such as yours, creating the thoughts and feelings of real people seems difficult. Could you say more about how you invent your characters?

SMJ: My characters are not composites, although I suppose they are sometimes inspired by particular traits I do observe in people in the real world. My characters seem like real people to me, and so I often spend a lot of time just thinking about them in my mind before I commit them to paper. I think about them in terms of “How would x react to this particular event?” Their responses to people and reactions to incidents tells me a lot about their personalities, their fears, their desires.

JW: Did you grow up telling stories, or was story telling a learned skill? Was a family hobby? If it was learned, how did you come to it?

SMJ: My father is a wonderful storyteller and a great writer as well. He told us stories every night — things he invented, stories he spun based on prompts we would give him (“Tell me a story about a fish, or about going to the supermarket,” etc…). And my mother taught me to read quite early, so I always had a book with me everywhere I went — long car rides were a joy for me, for example. I could finish two books in the time it took us to drive from Philadelphia to visit my grandparents in New York.

JW: Many aspiring memoir writers wonder if their lives would be best told in fictional form.  What do you think about this option? What are the pros and cons?

SMJ: Every work of fiction is inspired to some degree by the author’s life. The limit to this is that if a character is based too closely on you, you will be afraid, hesitant, to allow that character to behave badly. And that’s just not realistic — people behave badly all the time, and it’s quite interesting when they do. They make poor choices, etc. Once you have committed a character to paper, then you have to cut the umbilical cord with him or her and just allow him or her to be…

JW: Your protagonists are young women who grew up in Philadelphia in an immigrant home. So while you have not written about your own life, you have written things that you know. Did you find this confusing, steering your characters, settings, and situations in the strange space between actual experience and imagination?

SMJ: Not really. The cultural aspects of the stories are things that I know, but most things were invented, such as the particular situations, etc.

JW: John Barth, author of “End of the Road,” came to speak at the University of Wisconsin in the 60’s. After the lecture, I asked him if his novels were based on real life, and he looked disgusted. What do you feel when someone asks you if your stories are autobiographical? Do you think it’s a disrespectful question?

SMJ: I just think that, in recent years, because of the growth of memoir as a genre, readers want fiction to also be based on the author’s life. It’s one way of grasping the work, or accessing it — that is, to make it connect to the real life of the writer. I don’t think it’s a disrespectful question, but it is wearying when people ask me that, because I feel that it doesn’t recognize the art of invention, the work it takes to sit down in a chair and create this fictional world.

JW: As a published writer, you expose your thoughts, your imagination, your mental world. It’s a goal all writers strive for, and yet, I suspect once we get there, it has its pros and cons. Could you share your experience of what it’s like letting people “in” to see parts of your mind.

SMJ: I have no complaints! It’s been nothing but fun. I admit that if I were a New York Times bestselling author who was doing lots of interviews and traveling all the time, I would probably miss my writing time a bit. All writers, in the end, are solitary people — it’s the nature of the job — and I think we crave that quiet time.

Susan Muaddi Darraj Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Looking for the onramp at Philadelphia “Push To Publish” writer’s conference

by Jerry Waxler

At the Philadelphia Stories’ “Push to Publish” conference in the Fall of 2009, I peered into a room filled with cabaret tables, each with an editor on one side and an empty chair on the other. Christine Weiser, who along with Carla Spataro organized the conference, stood guard at the door. When the moment arrived she opened the gate and the pack of us hustled in, eager to sop up every one of our allotted 15 minutes.

“Speed dating” is my favorite way to meet editors. In fact it’s my only way. Over the last ten years, I’ve met a dozen of them, and from each interview I take away some insight about the gatekeepers who stand between me and my future readers. Probably the most informative meeting was the very first, when a young editor told me, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.” Since then I have refined my message, learning to be as clear and concise as possible. I’ve also become increasingly curious about them. By turning the tables and asking them to talk about themselves, I deepen my respect for them as real people with whom I may some day do business.

At many conferences, attendees only get one chance, but “Push to Publish” offers multiple interviews. First I headed to Fran Metzman who represented the online Journal Wild River Review, as well as the printed Schuylkill Valley Journal. I told her of my interest in finding a outlet for my essays about memoir writing. Even though Metzman was responsible for fiction at these journals, she also writes a nonfiction column on women’s issues for Wild River Review. “Yes, submit a proposal,” she said. “Just be sure to do a professional job.”

My other date was with Christine Yurick, the publisher of the new print publication “Think Journal.” I asked her to describe her journal’s specific slant. She said she likes structured stories. I was puzzled.

“I assumed that by definition a story has a structure.”

“No, not all,” Yurick said. “Some journals emphasize experimental pieces.”

This explained why I sometimes can’t understand literary journals. Today’s ah-ha revealed that these publications differ in their philosophy of Story. I filed the concept away for future reference, to help me look for the place most appropriate for my writing.

When we finished, she said she would check out my blog and get back to me if she thought there was a match. Note to Self: “Gatekeepers read blogs.”

The net result of the two interviews was a glimmer of hope that literary journals might someday provide an onramp into publishing.

Creative Nonfiction Craze

When it was time to go to the first workshop, I selected a panel called “Tapping Into The Creative Nonfiction Craze.” The assigned room was locked, so about 40 of us trooped down to the auditorium, and arranged chairs into a makeshift meeting area. Our numbers and eagerness suggested that Creative Nonfiction is indeed a craze. And yet, despite its popularity, most literary journals still publish mainly fiction and poetry. The one exception, not surprisingly, is the journal “Creative Nonfiction” which is devoted exclusively to the genre.

As each panel member offered their observations about writing stories of truth, I began to grow optimistic that perhaps memoir writers have a widening channel through which to publish their work. Curtis Smith reinforced my suspicion when he said, “thanks to the proliferation of online and print journals, this is a great time to be a writer.”

The last time I heard offer such an upbeat claim for writers was years ago when Kurt Vonnegut said in an interview that during the 1950s many writers got their start by publishing in magazines. His nostalgia made me curse the day I was born, wishing to be alive in a good time for writers. Curtis Smith claimed those times had returned. Happy day!

Continuing my search for the onramp to publishing, I attended another panel called “The Joys of Small Press.” Moderator Barbara Berot said that small presses are an easier entry point for new writers. Marc Schuster, Acquisitions Editor for PS Books, pointed out another advantage. “Big publishers are looking for products that will sell while small presses are looking for books they love.” Another panelist Debra Leigh Scott said that because of advances in printing technology, the cost of starting your own small publishing house has never been lower.

Like so many other people in the business, these panelists agreed “there isn’t much money in writing.” From there, the session sputtered back and forth between the strategies of publishing and the difficulties of earning money. Naturally I would like to be rich, but I keep this motivation at bay, because the more I think about money, the more likely that I’ll focus on its absence.

Curtis Smith, the same guy who cheered me up in the previous panel, offered a way out.  “Keep your day job and write for fun.” His reassuring smile reminded us that money is only one of the many rewards of writing.

In my younger years, when offered a choice between a dark thought and a happy one, I always chose dark, believing that was automatically the smarter of the two. I soon became adept at seeing darkness at the end of every path. After a few years, I had my fill of smart despair, and decided I’d rather be happy. I diligently studied the art of finding something pleasurable in almost every situation.

The business of writing provides a perfect opportunity to exercise this discretion. Given the choice between misery and fun, I follow Curtis Smith’s advice and choose fun. In fact, fun is precisely the reason I attend writing conferences. By coming together with other writers, I enjoy the pleasure of their company, transforming writing from an isolated activity to a social one.

At the end of the day, I thanked Christine Weiser for another great conference. She said, “By the way. Would you be willing to submit some of your essays to the Philadelphia Stories blog?” Here was another opportunity to participate in the writing community, and another way to reach readers and writers. “I’d love to,” I said and walked out to my car. Skipping past puddles from the all-day autumn rain, I eagerly anticipated the approaching winter, looking forward to a whole season full of excuses to stay inside and write.

This is the second article I wrote about the 2009 Push To Publish Conference.  To read Part 1, click here.

Philadelphia Push To Publish, Lessons in Courage from a Writing Conference

by Jerry Waxler

For weeks I considered dedicating a precious Saturday to attend the “Push to Publish” conference, hosted by Philadelphia Stories. I enjoyed the event last year and thought I ought to do it again. Now, I needed to commit the time.

By Saturday morning my preference to meet writers won and I drove into pouring rain, to find myself back along the winding paths and elegant buildings of the Rosemont College campus on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The registration room was packed, and looking around I spotted a likely networking candidate, a young man sitting alone. “What do you write,” I asked. “A memoir,” he said. Jackpot. The memoir gods were smiling.

He was an undergrad in the English Department at University of Delaware. “People think I’m crazy to write a memoir when I’m so young.” I looked at him. “I think they’re the ones who are crazy. It’s your story. You should tell it any time you want.” Just then, a woman I knew from another regional writing group leaned in to interrupt us. “Aren’t you the memoir guy? There’s someone I want you to meet.”

I excused myself from the youngest memoir writer I’ve met, and was introduced to a woman, perhaps in her 40s, who had written about her family history. She told me a fascinating tale complete with twists and turns. “I’m finished the draft. Now, before I spend a lot of time editing it, I came to the conference to see if anyone believes I’m wasting my time.” I looked at her. Had she really come here searching for naysayers? “Ouch,” I said. “Why would anyone tell you that? And if they did, why would you believe them?” She shrugged and I moved on.

Waiting on line for coffee, the woman in front of me turned, smiled, and stuck out a hand. I clasped it in greeting, but instead of introducing herself, she pointed to the man next to her. “This is my husband. I talked him into writing a novel.” I asked her, “How did that work for you?” She said, “It was great” and they both laughed.

We sat down together to eat our continental breakfast, and I said, “I’m into memoir writing.” He said, “If I wrote about my life, it would put everyone to sleep.” I chewed my bagel and tried to imagine an entire life with no dramatic tension. Finally, I said, “It’s not about spectacular events. It’s about great story telling.”

He grew quiet. “Well, actually, I have written a couple of stories about myself.” He went on to describe an incident from his childhood that completely grabbed my attention, like I was back there with him, and we were in danger together. I said, “How could anyone fall asleep? That story is enchanting.” (No, I won’t tell it. It’s his story, not mine.)

On my walk through the rain to hear the keynote speech, I wondered, “Why do so many people think there’s something wrong with writing their own stories?” The keynote speaker, Lise Funderburg, didn’t have this problem. She published a memoir about her relationship with her father. Apparently, one of her goals as a writer is to share herself.

In fact, most of the talk consisted of tips she had learned about the writing life. For example, “You have to be okay with rejection. And that doesn’t stop. In fact, it still hurts me when I’m rejected.”

“Well,” I thought. “That’s a consistent message. Writing is hard work, with long periods of uncertainty, plenty of pain and for most of us not too much money. So, if it hurts so bad, why is this room full of people again?”

Funderburg went on to read a passage from her recently published memoir, which I have not yet had an opportunity to read, called “Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home: A Memoir.” It’s about discovering her relationship with her father while he was dying of cancer. The passage was rich in imagery, full of kindness and conveying the same sparkle in her words as danced in her eyes. At the end, I raised my hand and asked, “How did you find your voice?” She hesitated for a moment, and said, “Finding my voice was really a very long journey around a big circle until I finally came back to just being myself.”

Dodging rain drops and puddles on my way to the next section of the conference, I thought, “Even her voice is an expression of herself. No wonder it hurts to be rejected. We’re pouring ourselves out to other people. What a crazy thing to do.”

I realized that in addition to learning the art of self-expression, writers must learn courage. We imagine, we write, we polish, and then we beg gatekeepers for the opportunity to share our work with readers. But Lisa Funderburg didn’t shrivel back from the task, and her story provides one more inspiring example of a writer pushing through obstacles to reach higher goals.

Notes

Visit the Amazon Page for the memoir Pig Candy by Lise Funderburg
Lise Funderburg’s Home Page

Click here for the essay I wrote about last year’s Philadelphia Stories Conference

Fiction built on a foundation of real life

By Jerry Waxler

Fiction seems entirely different from memoirs. And yet, when I look at actual examples of the two forms, I discover their intimate connection, each breathing life into the other. A good memoir is more compelling than a raw dump of facts. It generates dramatic tension by using fiction techniques like suspense and character development. And good fiction requires believable characters and real psychological interactions in order to capture our attention.

Last fall, I attended a writer’s conference organized by Philadelphia Stories held amidst stately trees and classic architecture of Rosemont College. There I met Susan Muaddi Darraj, creative writing professor and author of a book of short stories, “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly.” The protagonists in her stories are girls growing up in Palestinian families in South Philadelphia. The author, as it happens, grew up in a Palestinian family in South Philadelphia. “Write what you know,” the teachers say. Apparently Darraj took this advice.

The parallel between her life and her characters made me curious. Even though “Inheritance of Exile” is fiction, it’s apparently grounded in her own experience. I decided to read her book to learn what I could about the relationship between life and art.

Inheritance of Exile is written in an intimate, first person account
How does she or any fiction writer create a world authentic enough to let me enter? Surely they don’t create an entire world from scratch. I imagine they take a page from the memoirist’s book, describing a fictional world based on the things they see in the real one.

In Muaddi Darraj’s fiction, I hear her protagonist’s inner voice and see her family, friends, and culture. For example, in more than one story in “Inheritance of Exile,” the protagonist’s parents hang a blue stone to fend off the evil eye. I don’t know much about Palestinian culture, so I have no way to know if they do indeed follow this ritual. But it wouldn’t make sense for the author to invent such a thing. Even though I don’t know for sure if the blue stone is “real,” her story connects me to old world hopes and fears.

In one story, the protagonist was criticized by her mother for sitting in a way that she revealed the bottom of her foot, a gesture considered an insult. I found this detail interesting. Then, a few weeks after reading it, I saw a news article in which an Iraqi threw his shoes at President Bush as a highly publicized insult. Aha! External corroboration.

The character’s father ran a sandwich truck in Philadelphia. It reminded me of the truck parked outside the University of Pennsylvania, where I often bought my lunch during the years I worked there. The Lebanese guys who made delicious falafels were lovely and even though I was just a customer, I soon felt close to them. “Inheritance of Exile” now lets me imagine additional dimensions of their lives. For the first time I think of their whole situation, raising American children in an immigrant home in Philadelphia. This book of fiction, of invented reality, expands my understanding of the real people around me.

Coming of Age has changed over the decades
When I was growing up, I read several Coming of Age stories such as “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and “Portrait of the Artist” by James Joyce. The protagonists of these books were full of angst, disenfranchisement, anomie – moods that were hallmarks for their times, when readers and publishers focused on the existential problems of young men. Times have changed.

Forty years later, Inheritance of Exile offers a different view of Coming of Age, describing this life journey through a female author’s eyes at the beginning of the Twenty First Century. Her struggles for social and emotional wholeness sound very different than the authors I read in high school, and deepens my understanding of the search for identity in today’s culture.

To read my essay on the shifting gender orientation of contemporary literature – click here

Immigrants are us
My parents grew up in Philadelphia, children of immigrants. I know so little about how that felt, and now it’s too late to ask. But I can learn a little more about the experience of children of immigrants by reading stories. For example, one of Darraj’s characters resented her mother’s accent because it sounded foreign. This resentment felt eerily familiar.

My maternal grandmother was born in the United States, and through fanatical attention to elocution, had developed a Proper British accent. Her husband immigrated from Russia when he was a young man, and sixty years later, he still pronounced the letter “W” as if it was a “V.” According to family lore, my grandmother was not particularly fond of him, and now I wonder how much his pronunciation grated against her ambition to become unambigously American. I’m starting to realize that one reason my parents never taught me Yiddish or talked about the Old Country was that they wanted to forget their past.

Susan Muaddi Darraj’s character, like other immigrant children, wanted to blend in with Americans and yet at home she had to relate to a very different culture. This character’s emotions teach me about my own grandparents, my parents and myself.

Literature is a window into society
Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, in his lecture series “Understanding Literature and Life” claims that literature portrays the world and culture of the author, so for example to learn how Greeks thought, we read Greek plays. And one place to seek insight into an Arab immigrant community in South Philadelphia might be in the stories of “Inheritance of Exile.” They contain emotionally compelling situations that capture my attention and transport me to a world that feels authentic, even though they make no claim to factual reporting.

Writing Prompt
What community or social phenomenon does your memoir explore?  How do characters in your story behave towards each other? What lessons do you detect in the unique workings of your family? Look for an anecdote that might evoke some powerful observation about families or communities, tension among people, or aspirations to gain entry into privileged social situations.

Links

For more about Philadelphia Stories, click here
Click here Susan Muaddi Darraj’s home page
Amazon page for “Inheritance of Exile”
To hear the wonderful lecture series, “Understanding Literature and Life” by Arnold Weinstein published by the Teaching Company click here.

A Healthy Community Needs a Healthy Writer’s Group

by Jerry Waxler

A regional writing group in which I participate asked me to contribute to an application for a 501c3 status as a non-profit community organization. Since this is a topic about which I have been passionate for years, I had a number of ideas that I had never written in one place. Now, as I research the ways a writing group helps the community, I extend the conversation out to you. If you need such a document in your own writing group, or you want to offer your ideas and suggestions  to our group, please write your comments, links, and suggestions, below.

Since 2001, when I joined a writing group called Writers Room in Doylestown, PA, I considered writing groups a crucial part of my life. I am now the workshop chairman for the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, GLVWG where I have volunteered at monthly meetings and the annual conferences, served on the board, and spoken at area Libraries, and I am on the Board of Directors of the non-profit group, Philadelphia Writers Conference. Why do I invest so much of my time and energy into writing groups? Because I have observed that healthy writer’s groups contribute to healthy individuals and communities.

GLVWG, like every writing group, consists of people who are engaged in a three-dimensional endeavor. First, members reach inwards, developing the skills to converting thoughts to writing. Second, they reach towards their peers, to encourage each other, develop networks, and create a healthy organization. And third, they reach out to surrounding neighborhoods and towns, using the craft of writing to engage others in the larger community.

So it turns out when writers come together in a non-profit organization like GLVWG, their writing, which is often perceived as a solo activity, is transformed into a contribution to the “common weal.”

Activities sponsored by GLVWG

GLVWG engages in a variety of activities, all staffed by volunteers.

  • Monthly meetings
    Library Talks
    Firehouse Friday, public reading
    Annual conference
    Monthly discussion circles
    Workshops
    Newsletter

None of these activities compete with commercial ventures, and taken together offer a wide array of benefits to individual, group, and community.

Communities need more facilities to teach the life skill of writing

Writing is a life skill, necessary for all sorts of communication. However, after our formal education is over, there are few places where we can improve these skills. Our community is under-served in this regard. GLVWG provides such training opportunities, offering a place where community members gather to share creative passion, and learn about writing.

Through GLVWG, published authors contribute to the community

The writing group attracts published authors to the area, and also brings the ones already in the area out of their homes and into the community, where they offer talks and booksignings at local independent and chain bookstores, craft fairs, and libraries.

Writing promotes regional culture

Culture, as expressed through such media as music, drama, and writing, represent the creative expression of society. Writers make an especially important contribution to culture, because in addition to its artistic merits, writing also informs. The members of GLVWG contribute to this culture in many ways. We write for entertainment, for the healing of self and others, and call our neighbors out for social action. Taken as a whole our writing forms the backbone of human culture.

Writing helps democracy and civic life

As many social commentators have observed, reading is necessary for a healthy democracy. In order to read, we need writers. GLVWG writers participate in all the local and regional media. Our members are reporters, bloggers, and contribute to group newsletters.

Writing groups help kids, families, and schools

GLVWG reaches out to young people. Parents and teachers pass on the value of writing to their children, encouraging them to explore poetry and storytelling. GLVWG runs a high school writing contest to stimulate and reward young writers. The young people who participate appreciate the opportunity to turn their creative energy towards the development of fictional worlds, giving them an outlet, as well as teaching them tools for their future employment and satisfaction.

Writing groups help seniors

Verbal activities are good for seniors, increasing mental stimulation and purpose, and reducing isolation. Many of our members are seniors. In addition, our members teach classes at senior centers. And as we teach and learn the arts of story writing, we preserve the stories of community members.

Writing groups help community religious institutions

Our members contribute to publications in their houses of worship, extending the connections of individual members into their own groups.

GLVWG collaborates with other nonprofits to provide cultural activities

Our group does not work on its own. We collaborate with a local theater to stage public readings. Members work with local senior centers to provide instruction. And we cooperate with a local non-profit storytelling guild, and book and art festivals. GLVWG provides people a place to gather, be entertained and learn. We have been featured in local radio, television, and on the internet.

Conclusion

Our culture relies extensively on the written word, and yet individual writers and aspiring writers often feel isolated. Non-profit writing groups provide an incubator where such individuals can learn their craft, and extend their verbal interests beyond themselves out into the community. It’s a perfect example of a win-win investment. By nurturing and supporting writers, we increase the health of the community.

Notes

Writers Room, Doylestown, PA founded by Foster Winans, is no longer in existence.
Philadelphia Writers Conference, held in June, is the oldest continuous writing conference in the United States.
Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group holds an annual conference in the spring, meetings, workshops, readings, and other activities.

My Day at a Writer’s Conference – or – The Benefits of Showing Up

by Jerry Waxler

On Saturday morning, a sunny autumn day, I left my home amidst the browning corn fields of Philadelphia’s northern exurbs. Thirty miles later, turning onto estate-lined roads of the Main Line, I reached Rosemont College, rich with serious stone buildings nestled amidst old-growth trees, the perfect setting for an intellectual feast. The college’s MFA program was hosting a regional writing conference called Push to Publish, organized by Philadelphia Stories magazine, a literary journal founded and run by Christine Weiser and Carla Spataro. I was looking forward to this opportunity to spend a day soaking up the ambiance of writers, learning, and networking.

In the lobby, looking for the registration desk I felt the buzz of writers, with our desire to put words on paper, to organize thoughts, and reach out to people. This ever-present tension between writing in private and reaching out to the public is at its most paradoxical when we get together in person.

The keynote speech turned out to be invigorating and liberating. Beth Kephart, whose work I did not know, started as a memoir writer, who, as her career proceeded, extended her writing to other forms, most recently winning awards as a young adult novelist. As her writing skills and interests develop, Beth follows her creative compulsion and then finds people who understand it. This is the refreshing message I drink in; it’s okay to speak from my heart and then find a market, rather than the other way around.

The writer’s journey is a long walk through a desert and talks like Beth Kephart’s are the oases of cool succor, mixed with a bit of prophecy that if I keep going, I too will reach ever more interesting connections with readers. (Click here for Beth Kephart’s blog.)

Outside, tiptoeing around the stinky ginkgo berries, whose smell I knew well because of the tree outside my grandmother’s house in the Logan district on North Broad Street, a professional-looking man with a rich German accent introduced himself. He’s a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and wants to publicize science. I told him my interest and asked him about his writing style. When he told me he was still writing in the academic mold, I launched into my pitch that the best way to reach readers is to bring himself into the page. “That’s interesting,” he said. “When I show my students photos I’ve taken around the world, they ask me what the trip was like. They want to know about me.” It was really fun sharing this insight about popularizing science with a university professor. I need to do this more often.

At lunch I sat down with a couple of women and asked what they write. One of them said, “I’m Ethel David. I wrote a book called, “My Lover the Rabbi, My Husband the Doctor.”

“How interesting,” I replied. “I saw that book on the display table. How nice to meet the author.”

The other woman said, “And I’m Cheryl Grady, her Boswell,” referring to the fact that Ethel spoke and Cheryl wrote.

“So,” I said. “Your husband was both a doctor and rabbi. That’s incredible.”

“No. I really had an affair with a rabbi while I was married to a doctor.”

Pause. “Don’t you feel awkward writing about it?”

“At 92 years-old, honey, I can say anything I want.” I had to ask her to repeat her age several times. Her voice was so lucid and strong, I would have figured her to be around 70. After she showed me family photos from 1916, I went back to the table where Larry Robin, owner of the oldest independent bookstore in Philadelphia, Robin’s Book Store was glad to sell me a copy of the book.

While most conferences provide the opportunity to speak with an editor or agent, this one offered “speed dating” letting you talk to more than one for a generous 15-minute block. First I spoke with Michelle Wittle, a blogger for Philadelphia Stories, and then Peter Krok, publisher of the Schuylkill Valley Journal. I told Peter about my interest in memoir and essay writing. He expressed interest in my writing because he too is interested in memoir. He said his book of poetry, “In Search of An Eye,” is essentially an introspective journey. I have thought about the fact that poetry is an expression of the poet’s life, and so I decided to look more closely at Peter Krok’s book of introspective poetry to learn more about this relationship between memoir and poetry. I went back to Larry Robin, and bought a copy of “In Search of An Eye” by Peter Krok.

For a review, of this chapbook, click here.

Another unusual aspect of the Push to Publish conference was that all the meetings were panel discussions. Workshops at other regional conferences I’ve attended, like the Philadelphia Writers Conference, and the Lehigh Valley Writers Group are taught by individuals. I felt that the bevy of writers in each session was more in keeping with the boutique flavor of the conference, and made the publishing journey more accessible. The panelists’ varying perspectives and conversations generated energy. Perhaps it felt refreshing simply witnessing that there are lots of writers who are out there “doing it.”

One of the women who moderated two panels was Susan Muaddi Darraj a Palestinian-American and Senior Editor of The Baltimore Review. Her book of short stories called “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly,” won the Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction from Foreword Magazine. This was a curious regional twist, since in my day, South Philadelphia was synonymous with Italian. I wondered what it would be like growing up a generation later as a Palestinian immigrant.

And since I’m interested in everything about turning life into story, I wanted to learn more about what it would be like translate her ethnic childhood into fictional stories. So I went back to Larry Robin and bought Susan Muaddi Daraj’s book, “The Inheritance of Exile.” By this time Larry was very pleased with me.

“So, Larry,” I said while he was writing up my order. “What do you think about the state of the world?” Larry has a huge white beard, and I knew from several years of acquaintance and work with him that he is one of those radicals who never got the message that the sixties were over. He said, “It’s about time. People are starting to wake up.”

I laughed, getting flashbacks to my own radical days in the sixties, when I tried to make sense of Marx’s dire predictions about the inevitable fall of capitalism. “So,” I said, “We’re finally reaping the fruits of our greed.” Larry’s eyes sparkled. Ah. Two old hippies sharing a laugh over a pile of books. On the walk to my car, I felt weary. In this morning’s bright sunshine, the cool wind blowing through multi-colored leaves felt invigorating, but now in the spreading afternoon dimness, the same breeze felt foreboding. It was time to go home.

I’ve heard that Philadelphia has a burgeoning art scene. Art, and most interesting to me, writing, shape the imagination of a community, and I’m delighted to participate in, and contribute to that pool of creative energy. At the end, I felt a vigorous passion, having met these people with their interest in sitting alone and putting words on a page, and then lifting their attention from the page to the public, reaching out to offer those words as part of the binding, the substrate, the collective communication that helps pull together a bunch of individuals into a society.

Note
Earlier this year I read a book of short stories, called “Apologies Forthcoming,” by a Chinese American author, Xujun Eberlein about growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. (Click here for an essay I wrote about her book.)

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below.
You can also download the podcast from iTunes:
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Reach deep into memory to build a scene

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.)

I wish I could portray what it was like to be a nerd in high school. I had few friends and for four years, my main interest in life was studying and reading. The best way to share my nerdiness is to show scenes, bringing readers into the halls of my high school to see for themselves. And yet when I try to describe my life in high school, I feel like I’m trying to peer into the hidden memories of a stranger. Who was that guy? Fortunately, memoir writers have tricks. By prying into the hazy past, we can find far more detail than we had first expected.

One way to get started is to list facts. It was 1961 when I started attending Central High School in Philadelphia, an all-boys, all-academic school, where more than 90% of my classmates were heading to college. There was actually a minimum grade required for admission. No slackers permitted! Every morning, I walked down to wait for the trolley, an electric contraption that clanked, hissed and squealed on tracks. By the time the trolley reached Broad and Olney it was packed. The doors thwacked open, and I stepped into the hectic terminal, crossed Broad and walked down past the girls’ high school. I didn’t know any girls, and just kept walking. As I reached Ogontz, I looked up at the school perched on a hill. Then my imagination fades. I can’t see inside the building.

Since my eyes don’t seem to be working, I try stirring up smells, touch, and sounds. Groping like a blind man, I reach out and my hand lands on a blackboard. I am transported into ninth grade algebra. My teacher calls me up to the front of the class to show a homework problem. With chalk in hand, scratching the board and smelling the dust, I feel the excitement, hoping my work is right and terrified that it’s wrong. I love algebra, and I love my algebra teacher Mr. Abrams. His passionate demand for excellence would change the course of my life. He is short, and on the last day, after a year of looking up to him, I am horrified to hear a student say, “Mr. Abrams. Would you stand up on a chair so I can kneel down and take your picture?”

Ah-ha! That’s the secret. The events that emerge from memory are loaded with emotions. The emotions make the memory stick. And that’s the problem. I was an intellectual, among a crowd of intellectuals, and emotions were not in our vocabulary. We wanted to get into top schools and that meant being serious, all the time. No wonder I don’t remember much.

But there is hope. I’ve already discovered one scene. Surely there must be others. I grope again, touching the glazed cinder block walls that on hot days radiate a soothing coolness. In this tactile mode, I feel a weight in my hand. It’s my briefcase, so loaded with books I can barely close it. I smell today’s sandwich, dig around in the bottom and find pencils and stab myself on the point of the compass that I use for drawing circles in geometry class. I snap the clasp. There is a particular hallway I keep going back to outside my chemistry class. The windows seem far away, and the hall is dimly lit.

The main focus of every conversation is to drill each other about things we are supposed to know for tests. We also try to stump each other about the definition of vocabulary words. As I try to listen in on these conversations, I again feel a complex thrill of emotion, desperate to sound smart, mixed with fear that I might sound stupid. I try to home in on one conversation.

Our chemistry teacher is extraordinarily flat. Not only doesn’t he have a sense of humor. He doesn’t express emotions of any kind. In one lesson, he teaches us the laboratory notation for a chemical reaction that does nothing. Think for example of pouring water over rocks. No dissolving, no heat, no change in color. When that happens we are supposed to write “NR” which stands for “No Reaction.”

Emerging from class into that dark hallway, I walk with an awkward gait, compensating for the heavy briefcase in my hand. Another student turns to me and loudly quips, “Hey. Let’s just call him ‘NR.'” It feels good to show a little disrespect for our teacher. And the scientific terminology is a nice touch. We all laugh. Looking back, I realize why the memory stands out from the haze – we are a bunch of nerds laughing at someone who has even more trouble expressing emotion than we do ourselves.

While it’s not a complete scene, I’m adding more components, and if I persist I could end up with boys’ names, and what they looked like, and what more they said to each other, to show how these particular nerds behaved on this particular day in this particular hallway. Even if I only find one or two such scenes, readers will see for themselves that I was a nerd. And at the same time, I’m benefiting from it too. The ghostlike quality of those years has always given me the eerie feeling that I was a shadow, an outline with no substance. By discovering scenes, I feel my past self gradually taking on flesh and bones, filling in who that boy was back then, and making me feel more whole and continuous of a person today.

Writing prompt
What scene do you wish you could remember? List facts, descriptions, names of places, names of people. Do they remind you of anything else you didn’t think of until you started writing? Touch objects. Find a particular object, and while you are touching or looking at it, look around and describe what you see. Name a person and talk to him or her. What are you saying? Remember anything that person said or probably said, and listen to the voice. What does this tone of voice tell you about the person or their background? How does the conversation make you feel?

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