Lessons for memoir writers from my first year of blogging

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.)

One of the speakers at last year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference was veteran news reporter Daniel Rubin. Fewer people are reading newspapers these days, so Rubin’s bosses at the Philadelphia Inquirer went looking for readers online. They asked him to write a blog. This experiment in new journalism achieved two goals. First, inquirer.typepad.com let the Inquirer participate in what turned out to be a robust stream of Philadelphia blogs. And secondly, it changed Rubin’s writing style. Like any newspaper reporter, Rubin had been taught to leave himself out. As a blogger, he had to put himself in. His two year stint transformed him from a silent observer to an engaged one.

Newspaper reporters aren’t the only ones trained to keep themselves out of their writing. My high school English teachers taught me never to write the word “I.” And for many years, I earned my living writing technical manuals that sound as if the author doesn’t exist. When I wanted to tell my own story, I couldn’t figure out how to write in a livelier, more personal style. Then I discovered blogs. Blog audiences expect to know the writer, personally. To fulfill that expectation, I’ve learned to insert opinions, observations, and anecdotes.

Blogs give everyone in the world the opportunity to share themselves. Some bloggers include pictures of their kids or their garden or the view from the window of their vacation home. While many of these online scrapbooks are frivolous, others offer serious memoir information, tips, and insights. People who sell services also use blogs to create a personal connection. It’s the modern equivalent of the corner store, when people actually knew the family from whom they were buying.

Experiment to find the best blog topic and material
A blog gives you the opportunity to experiment with your material, and since blogs are free, you can start as many as you like. After several attempts, I decided to write a blog about memoirs. I speculated that book reviews and interviews with memoir writers would keep it interesting for readers, and informative and engaging for me as well.

When I started I didn’t know how any of this would actually work out. Would I be able to generate fresh material? Would my vision stay focused enough to entertain and inform readers? Would it become repetitive or trite? Now for the past year, every month, I’m previewing 15 books, finishing five, and posting essays about several. I’ve done interviews with memoir writers, and have networked with a number of bloggers and other internet denizens. I have figured out how to keep the material fresh for me and hopefully my readers. It was only through the test of time that I could learn these lessons, and the knowledge I gained by doing it empowers me to do more.

You can accumulate more than a writing style
If you are reading this article because you want to gather material for a memoir, then you are already looking for a way to bring your own life experience out into the open. A blog is a perfect place to explore and experiment. Gather snips of experience, whether from years ago, or from yesterday, and see how it works. This can be intimidating, at first, for a variety of reasons, one of the most common of which is “why would anyone want to read this stuff.” That’s a great question, and perhaps the ultimate question, but here’s the twist. Instead of using the question as a doubt that drags you down, use it as fuel that drives you forward. Really, honestly ask, “Why would anyone read this stuff?” and as you passionately search for the answer you will gradually transform your writing from material that only interests you to material that will interest others.

Writing a blog means taking the story you find inside yourself and placing it out in the open, where anyone can examine it. Putting it out there is half the job. The other half is to figure out if it makes sense to anyone. That’s what makes blogs so powerful. They generate a low volume conversation with those visitors who want to let you know what they think. It’s a little like stand-up comedians, who find out if their jokes are funny by listening for laughter. As a blogger you find out if your posts make sense by reading the comments. By paying attention to this feedback, you can tweak your writing in a direction that works for this group of people, who like any focus group represent a larger audience.

These readers become part of your micro-community
After blogging for a while, I occasionally hear from repeat visitors. This means that through my writing, I’ve tapped into a micro-community of like minded people. By blogging within a particular focus, my blog has become a sort of forum where people interested in this topic can stay connected.

Many of my readers share similar desires to mine. They want to develop community, find their voice, organize their material, and become accustomed to reaching towards the public. These shared desires bond us across space and time. We become both an audience and a community. So if you are wondering how to hook up with readers and writers, and develop your writing skills in the process, then jump into the blogosphere. Tell your story, and offer feedback about the ones you find.

Note: This year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference will take place June 6, 7, 8, 2008. See this link for details.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

StoryCorps – a national initiative to gather oral memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

I went to WHYY last week to see Boomervision. That’s the name of a series of gatherings hosted by Coming of Age in Philadelphia, to explore issues of boomers reaching a new milestone in their lives. Outside, pulled up on the sidewalk of the WHYY studio was a mobile van with the logo of “StoryCorps,” painted on the side. I had heard about this organization that travels around the country recording oral histories. People come to the StoryCorps van and interview someone they know. The StoryCorps gives them each a copy of the recording, and files a copy in the Library of Congress. It’s a way to remember parts of life and make those memories available for posterity. The door was open and I went inside.

The young man who was sitting there, Mike Rauch, greeted me, and I asked him questions about what he does and how it works. Most people come here with a relative, and the younger one asks the older one questions. But there is no formula or rule. Some people come more than once. He told me that one woman in New York has been into the recording booth 70 times. She brings friends, relatives, even strangers, and interviews them about their lives. We were sitting in the kitchen of a converted travel trailer. The other half was the sound studio. While Mike and I sat talking at the cramped kitchen booth, a 90-something year old black woman was sitting right next to him, looking off to the side, trying not to intrude on our conversation.

She had just finished doing a recording and was waiting for her niece to pick her up. I turned to her and asked, “How did you feel about doing this interview?” Her eyes jumped to life when she looked up at me, and sparkled for a moment. She said, “It was okay.” Then paused. “I just remember so much. So much,” and she looked at the floor. Mike said, “Yes, she was saying things that her niece had never heard, even though they had been through this same material many times before.” I asked Mike if telling their story hurts people sometimes. He said, “Oh yes, we keep a box of tissue in there. People cry a lot, but they never want to stop talking. And they remember happy moments, too.”

I asked him what it was like being there day after day listening and helping with these interviews. He said, “I’m fascinated by the variety of the stories. These situations are all so unique. You can’t make this stuff up.” I was wondering if this was a career position for him. “I’m at that point in my life when I’m trying to carve out a niche for myself. I’m going to start a video and animation production company with my brother.” I thought how interesting to see the span of life. Here he is, trying to understand where his life is going, and he’s sitting next to a woman in a wheelchair, majestic in her abundance of days. Two hours ago they had never seen each other, and then he listened to her tell her niece memories from six and seven decades earlier. Now these two were bonded by story.

Next week, I’m going back. David Isay, founder of the StoryCorps will be speaking in Philadelphia and signing his book Listening is an Act of Love.

Learn more about StoryCorps from their website, www.storycorps.net

Memoir Writing Prompt – Your Rocky Story

by Jerry Waxler

After hearing journalist Michael Vitez speak at the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, I’m reading his book Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, And Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps by Michael Vitez, Sylvester Stallone, and Tom Gralish. Vitez and his Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Tom Gralish parked themselves at the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made famous by Sylvester Stallone’s movies. The stairs are so famous that 30 years later, people from all over the world stop by so they can feel the Rocky Balboa’s victory run for themselves.

Vitez’s talk at the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference was about his experience as an immersion journalist. Immersion journalism is the practice of entering into a situation in order to write about it. For example, he researched a story about what it’s like to be a highway toll taker, by spending weeks parked inside a toll booth. Another time he hung out in an intensive care unit with families of patients in life or death situations. This is the story that earned him the Pulitzer Prize. When Vitez heard that people were still running up the Rocky Stairs, he took a break from his Philadelphia Inquirer office and went to see for himself. Within a few hours he realized he had discovered a cultural phenomenon. People pulled up in cabs, ran up the stairs, sometimes gasping for air, and when they reached the top they leapt, danced or whooped. Vitez decided it would make a good story, and so he and his Pulitzer winning photographer spent around 200 days through all four seasons on location. After Tom Gralish snapped the photos Vitez asked people what they were thinking.

Generally, they were thinking about their own dreams, and how the Rocky movies had awakened in them a sense of purpose and hope that they wanted to experience for themselves in Philadelphia. As I read through the 52 vignettes about the people from all over the world, I saw many of them as mini-memoirs. This landmark stirred up stories about overcoming obstacles on the way to achieving dreams. Sometimes they were already fulfilled and sometimes the dreams still pointed to the future.

Each of us has a life filled with experience but it’s not always easy turning that experience into a story worth reading. Vitez’s experiment at the Rocky Stairs could help. Just as those people who had just huffed up the stairs told Vitez about the upward journey of their lives, you could imagine doing the same thing. Or come to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and experience it yourself. From that exercise, distill the hopes and dreams that drove you to be who you are today, and continue to drive you to be who you will be tomorrow.

What did you long to accomplish? What big dreams called you to a different dimension, a new beginning, a lofty goal? Some of the dreams that drove you have long since drifted into the past, so you have to dig deep to recall the freshness and enthusiasm of your youth. Perhaps you stayed resolutely on course, letting your desire guide you like True North. Or your actual journey may have diverged from your plan. If you had to let go of dreams, remembering them now might awaken disappointment and even pain. But whatever your dreams were at any particular time in your life that was the force that drove you. By getting in touch with your longing, you will reveal vital, interesting aspects of your story.

At the Philadelphia Writers Conference, Michael Vitez told how when he first had the idea for the book, he reached out to Sylvester Stallone for an endorsement from Rocky himself. His attempts to get through to Stallone were rebuffed by an overzealous gatekeeper. After a year of trying, Vitez finally penetrated the walls surrounding Stallone, who immediately loved the book and agreed to participate. So Michael Vitez, whose mission was to report on other people’s Rocky Stories, told us a Rocky Story of his own.

Writing Prompt
Do you have a Rocky story waiting to be told? Do you see how a Rocky Story could help organize a memoir or essay?

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.

Boomer memoir is a step towards social activism

by Jerry Waxler

Terrorism! Melting ice caps! Another traffic jam! When is someone going to do something about this mess? While I am waiting for “them” to change the world, “they” are waiting for me. It’s time to break this impasse by taking action. But how? I already tried to bring about world peace by disrupting a campus when I was in college in 1968. It was scary confronting a mob of police, and I don’t believe the world has become more peaceful as a result of those actions. Now that I’m older, I’m looking for better methods. I recently became inspired by a talk hosted by the “Coming of Age” organization in Philadelphia. The main speaker was the CEO of AARP, Bill Novelli, who echoed the sentiment of his book, 50+: Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America in which he claimed that I can join an army of new oldsters to help move the world in a positive direction. A week later I went to another Coming of Age event and heard similar ideas eloquently delivered by Marc Freedman, author of Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America.

When I was a kid, I thought that older people were the problem. They seemed so invested in the status quo. Now that I’m one of them, I find old people aren’t so bad after all. In fact, I feel just as passionate about changing the world as when I was 20. While Novelli and Freedman spoke of a variety of ways that others have chosen to pitch in and move their own little corner of the world, I have a grand idea. It seems to me that the missing element in modern civilization is that we don’t seem to be doing a good job of learning from our mistakes. And in my opinion, that’s where the army of us oldsters can help significantly. We’ve seen the world go by for more years than others have, and have gained an appreciation for what matters in the long run, and what fizzles out.

It’s not that I have all the answers. But if there is any wisdom at all to be gained from experience, and my experience tells me there is, then I’d say we need to communicate more of our life story. And we’ve been born at the perfect time. Just as boomers are reaching “that certain age” technology has provided new opportunities for us to collaborate. The printing press brought ideas from individual minds out into the public, broke us free from a layer of oppression, and opened the way for the Renaissance. The internet makes the printing press look like an old relic. We’re ready to take this thing global, and who knows what rebirths we can bring about?

By developing a community of thinking people who talk about life in an inquiring way, we can learn from each other. Your wisdom is contained in your life experience. Share it with the world! Even if you don’t know how writing could change your world, start writing anyway. Your experience turns into stories that are authentic, in a voice that is authentically yours. That’s all that matters now. Find the authentic voice and share the authentic experience. As you go, you’ll discover the sense you’ve made of your past, and then discover the impact your experience has on others. By writing and organizing your story, without even knowing how, you are already beginning to serve. And like any service to others, you’ll be the first to reap the rewards.

Writing about life will give you more energy. Even if you already have plenty of energy, writing will give you more. And if you are too tired to write, writing will wake you up.

Writing will make you more knowledgeable about how to write and how to tell stories. You can press these enhanced skills into service as you discover things you want to share with the world.

By writing about your own life experience, you open up parts of yourself to others. This makes the world a friendlier, more intimate place to live.

Write for a cause, write for a community, write for posterity, write to share yourself. Write to change the world.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

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

Bill Novelli, CEO of AARP, transforms life for boomers

by Jerry Waxler

I drove down to attend a Town Meeting in Philadelphia. The meeting was called “Coming of Age, Ignite the Revolution” for the over 50 crowd. I loved the meeting’s slogan, so appropriate here a few blocks from Independence Hall. Igniting revolution seems the right thing to do, in these times when the status quo seems to be sliding in the wrong direction. I wanted to be reminded that people really do change the world. The meeting was hosted by Philadelphia community organizer Dick Goldberg, a Director of Coming of Age. His guest was the CEO of AARP, Bill Novelli, author of “50+ Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America.”

I found Novelli to be charismatic, speaking with enthusiasm and conviction about how AARP was founded 49 years ago by Ethel Percy Andrus, an individual who wanted to help older people, and at the same time saw them as an army of social activists, using their experience to make the world a better place. He had my attention, because I’m hoping that I can direct my own energy towards changing the world, and looking for ways to join with others to do it. Even though  it’s so much easier to meet people online, it was great to be face to face with people who are interested in making the most of life after 50.

The meeting was held at the convention center across the street from the studio of public television station, WHYY, and was being recorded for televising in the fall. I’ve never been to a televised meeting before, so that was a new experience. And when it came time to ask questions, I walked over to the microphone, an amazing feat for me, considering I would have been too shy to ask a question in public before I went through the Toastmasters program. So I really am getting better as I grow older. Thank God for Toastmasters, and the life long development of new skills.

I said to a room full of strangers, “I just celebrated my 60th birthday last week.” This was funny because in that room being 60 was a credential, and so I was actually bragging about it. I continued, “But when I think about what defines me as a boomer, I don’t think about my age now. I think about trying to stop a war in 1967 by sitting in a university building. I’m not interested now in protest, but am interested more than ever in making the world a better place. I came here tonight looking for institutions that can help. I always thought of AARP as an instrument of social self-defense. It sounds like you’re saying that AARP can also be an institution of social development. Is that true?”

In Novelli’s opening remarks he had talked about AARP as such an institution, but he kept coming back to individuals doing it on their own. I want institutions that can pull people together and create change, and wasn’t sure how much he was assigning to me alone, and how much his institution can help people work collectively. At least now I know the intention is there, and want to learn more about how it is helping.

After the meeting I met a couple of people involved in the Center for Intergenerational Learning, based at Temple University, and learned about their programs. Robert Tietze, Executive Director of Experience Corps, a program in which senior volunteers mentor school kids, including a branch at my old elementary school, Pennypacker, in West Oak Lane. And Aviva Perlo, Peer Counseling Coordinator of Intercommunity Action, Inc, a program in which seniors coach other seniors

My original goal was to learn something that I could write about in my blog about memoirs, and I thought the evening was wrapping up a little skimpy in that area. Then a woman asked me what school I had been protesting at in 1967. I told her it was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She said, “I was there, too.” I studied her face, trying to imagine if I ever saw her pass me on the campus. Every once in while, the wind blows and the veil of time flutters. Forty years ago, 1,000 miles away, I was hoping to change the world, and now, here in Philadelphia is a woman from that same time and place, trying to work towards social change, at Temple University’s Center for Intergenerational Learning. Ahh.. There was the lesson I was looking for. This coincidence reminded me that life is one unified flow. But I don’t need to passively wait for coincidences. I can do it myself. Memoir writing is a form of personal activism, that links together the past and present, and makes the journey of life more whole.

10 reasons to take a memoir writing class in a cemetery

I attended a memoir class at a cemetery yesterday. There were about 25 people who walked through the gates of the cemetery for a happy reason, to participate in a community outreach program hosted by West Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Bala Cynwyd, outside of Philadelphia. Thank you for hosting this event,West Laurel Hills! I love community outreach in any form, and while this comes from a surprising direction, I’ll take it. And I love writing classes. The writing teacher, Mary Beth Simmons was also reaching out to the community. And there we were, enjoying the company of physical people, rather than electrons on a computer screen, which seems to be where much of the socializing is taking place these days. One of the participants is my sister, which adds an additional dimension to my memoir writing. The experience was so much fun, I thought I’d list some of the benefits. Perhaps this will help motivate you to take a memoir writing class at your local cemetery or wherever you can find one,

  • When listening to people introduce themselves, and hear their writing, it confirms that everyone has a story.
  • Free writing in groups is fun, and opens mysterious parts of your mind.
  • The desire to write has lots of power. Many people seem both drawn to and intimidated by it, like a tall mountain.
  • The history is in there, waiting to get out. Every time I think about my past, it gets easier to think about it.
  • Meet writing teachers like Mary Beth Simmons, the director of Villanova University’s Writing Center, who like a midwife, helps people give birth to their story.
  • It makes cemeteries less creepy and more like real places.
  • I learned about how someone’s grandmother or great aunt (I’m not sure which) from a small town really ran away and married the trapeze artist from the traveling circus . Life is at least as strange as fiction.
  • It’s okay to share with strangers – things I did when I was 10. In fact, sharing bits of ourselves made me feel closer to everyone in the room.
  • It’s a good excuse to hang out with your sister. Comparing and hearing memories with a sibling adds texture to the past as well as enriches my relationship with her today.
  • I made another memory. What was yesterday’s memoir class is tomorrow’s memoir material.