Memoir Summit at the Birthplace of the Revolution

by Jerry Waxler

I grew up surrounded by icons of the American Revolution: the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Valley Forge National Park. Even in elementary school I felt proud of the role my region played in the birth of the nation. Now that I’ve grown up, I feel another surge of pride, this time about the contribution our region is making to the Memoir Revolution. With our substantial infrastructure of writing programs and groups of every variety, it’s a wonderful place for writers. However, in most cases, we life writers have had to tag along with the more numerous fiction writers. Now, I’m thrilled to announce an event that celebrates the growing movement toward writing stories about real people.

At the free Memoir Summit on the beautiful campus of Rosemont College on Philadelphia’s Main Line, four authors and teachers share their passion for the genre. The goal is to inspire writers and aspiring writers to come together for an afternoon, deepen their understanding of the genre, and gain insights into how to turn their own lives into stories.

The first speaker, Beth Kephart offers her awesomely enriched point of view, as a writer of both memoir and fiction. She has published 16 books, five of which are memoirs. She writes prodigiously about memoir on her own blog, and recently published a book for memoir writers called Handling the Truth.  The book has been mentioned in Oprah’s magazine O.  Beth teaches memoir writing at the University of Pennsylvania and was recently honored as one of the 50 most influential Philadelphia Writers. Come and be influenced!

Linda Joy Myers will be joining us from Berkeley, California. She is the founder of National Association of Memoir Writers, and a passionate proponent of the healing and sharing that comes from writing your story. As a therapist, teacher and memoir writer, she steers readers and students toward the elegant solution of applying storytelling to the puzzles of life. Her books include her own memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother: A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness and a handbook for memoir writers called Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story. She hosts an online Memoir Telesummit, and so it is fitting that she is an honored guest at this first Philadelphia Memoir Summit. Come and learn about the healing power of writing your memoir.

Robert Waxler is a professor of literature at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He teaches his college students how to use literature to gain insights into their own lives. When he himself encountered difficulties in the lives of his two sons, he turned to the written word to help him make sense of the profound emotions. He recorded his journey of grieving and healing in his two memoirs, Losing Jonathan and Courage to Walk. Robert Waxler co-founded an organization called Changing Lives through Literature that partners with the judicial system to offer selected convicts an alternative sentence. Instead of going to jail they read and discuss novels. The method leverages the power of the written word to help people grow. Come and let Bob Waxler share his views with you about how turning your life into literature can help you, as well.

I have been following and writing about these three speakers for years. The essays on my blog go deep into the experiences of Beth Kephart in Slant of Sun, Linda Joy Myers in Don’t Call Me Mother, and Robert Waxler in Losing Jonathan and Courage to Heal. And I’ve interviewed all three. I love what they are saying and doing. In their books about reading and writing, they are as passionate as I am about promoting literature by helping and encouraging you to write your life.

When I first became intrigued by memoirs in my fifties, I realized that until then, I had immersed myself in fiction stories. Memoirs gave me an opportunity to apply the principles of literature to the process of living. Once I began to do so, I gained an exciting way to look at myself and others. After I read each memoir, I ponder its meaning and share my findings on my blog.

After doing this hundreds of times, I published Memoir Revolution, which chronicles the birth of the life-into-story movement of the twenty-first century. As the fourth speaker at the Philadelphia Memoir Summit, I’ll share perspectives on the Memoir Revolution and offer six steps to help you get started and keep going on your own memoir. Come and join the revolution!

This fascinating interplay between life and literature is also the subject of Robert Waxler’s book in progress called Linguistic Beings: How Literature Helps us To Understand Ourselves and the World. From his manuscript, I learned there is a name for the process of carefully thinking about what you read. Waxler quotes Sven Birkerts who said, “[Deep Reading means] we don’t just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity.*” The term Deep Reading perfectly describes how memoir reading and writing help us become “more human.” By writing your own memoir, you can dream your life in the vicinity of your words, and offer others the opportunity to do the same.

Whether you’ve already written about your life, or are only considering it, come join these speakers and an audience of other aspiring memoir writers. Together, we can spend an afternoon dreaming about writing in the vicinity of each other.

Here is a longer quote about Deep Reading from Robert Waxler’s manuscript, reprinted with permission: “Deep reading is a risky but rewarding encounter with our rhythms and needs, our own feelings and emotions, and it offers a way of making sense of that encounter. Through such reading, we discover how we are all connected to others and to our own evolving stories. We experience our own plots and stories unfolding through the imaginative language and voice of others, and we desire to move on.” Robert Waxler

For more information about the Memoir Summit click here.

For more information about Philadelphia’s annual writer’s conference, click here.

Links to Articles about these speakers

Interview and seven part blog about Beth Kephart’s “Slant of Sun”
Use this memoir as a study guide: lessons 1 to 3
Lessons 4-5 from Beth Kephart’s Memoir, Slant of Sun
Four More Writing Lessons from Reading a Memoir
Memoir Lessons: Mysteries of emerging consciousness
Memoir Lessons: Moms, Quirks, Choices
Lessons from Kephart: Labels, Definitions, Language
Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond
Interview with Beth Kephart

Interview with Linda Joy Myers: A leader of memoir writers tells her own story
Link to Linda Joy Myers’ Blog

Blog about another talk I gave with Robert Waxler: Revealing Death and Other Courageous Acts of Life
Essay about Robert Waxler’s Courage to Walk
My Interview with Robert Waxler, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Another way to write about childhood, memoir review Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

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

Tracy Seeley was born into a nomadic family in the Midwest. As soon as she settled into one home, her father’s demons and dreams forced him to search for a better place. After each move, Tracy left parts of herself behind. When she was old enough, she fled Kansas in search of her own place in the world. She earned her doctorate in English Literature at the University of Texas. She taught on the east coast at Yale University, and then shifted to the west coast to teach at the University of California in San Francisco.

In her adult places, when she told her educated peers where she grew up, their standard response was “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” The quote from the Wizard of Oz implied that Tracy’s childhood was irrelevant to her sophisticated world. Her life had become fractured in two ways. First her childhood was spread across thirteen homes, and second, her adult world was split off from the world in which she grew up. No wonder she wanted to return to the Heartland and make more sense of how it all fit together. Her lovely memoir, “My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” chronicles her exploration of her origins, as she attempts to find a unified story.

Story of researching yourself

Tracy’s story reminds me of “Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls. In both books, restless parents failed to deliver a safe, stable environment. After each author grew up and settled down, she returned to her chaotic beginnings and tried to knit together the pieces by finding the story.

The two memoirs make an instructive duo, because each author chose to construct her narrative in very different ways. Jeanette Walls did the research outside the page. In her memoir, “Glass Castle.” we are inside the little girl’s point of view, following her journey of growing up. In “Ruby Slippers,” Tracy Seeley starts her memoir as an adult, wondering how she grew up. She takes us on a guided tour of her investigation into her past.

Every memoir writer steers between these two frames-of-reference. In the first time frame, we live through the situation, becoming the person we are today. In the second frame, we look back, trying to make sense of how we got here.

I have written a number of essays about the Coming of Age genre as told from the child’s point of view, in bestsellers like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club, and Jeannette Walls, Glass Castle. In part two of this essay, I will dig deeper into Tracy Seeley’s memoir about rediscovering the roots of her self.

Click here to see Part 2 of this review of Ruby Slippers.

Notes: Other memoirs about researching self

Another memoir about researching a childhood was A. M. Homes, Mistress’s Daughter. The book takes us on her journey to find her biological parents and reconstruct their past. In Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour, as well as in “Reading my Father” by Alexandra Styron, a daughter creates the story of her father’s life through a combination of memories and his journals and letters.

In some memoirs, the early chapters tell the story of childhood, and then later reflect on earlier events. For example towards the end of “Glass Castle,” Jeanette Walls struggles to make sense of her relationship with her parents. In “Look Me In The Eye,” John Robison first tells of his childhood, and then later in the book explores how his earlier experiences had been shaped by Asperger’s Syndrome.

Amazon Page for My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas
How Did John Robison End His Memoir Look me in the Eye
Why so many memoirs of dysfunctional childhood?

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.

Memoir interview about privacy, activism, style

Interview with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg about her memoir “Sky Begins at Your Feet,” Part 2 by Jerry Waxler

This is Part 2 of the interview I conducted with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg about her memoir “The Sky Begins at your Feet.” In Part 1, (to read Part 1 click here) Caryn shares observations about the spiritual and religious journey. In this Part, she discusses community activism, privacy, style, and other issues that may help memoir writers learn more about their craft.

(Note: Caryn will be checking in during the blog tour to read and respond to your comments.)

Jerry Waxler: During the period covered in the memoir, you are also very much engaged in organizing an environmental conference, weaving your activism about earth into consciousness raising about breast cancer. This is a fabulous double-value of your story. Do you see the book as a tool of advocacy for ecology work, as well as health?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I see the health issues as relating directly to the environment, and I knew this book very much had to be a bioregional book. By bioregionalism, I mean the tradition of learning from your community and eco-community how to live, how to steward your home place and be a good citizen, and how to find greater meaning and purpose in your life through connection to the land and sky. The conference was actually a bioregional congress, focused on bringing people together from throughout the continent to network, share resources, and inspire each other in living more fully in our home communities. I hope the book does inspire people to, most of all, learn more about their environment, and from that learning, develop a greater connection with their local land, which will naturally lead to the kind of advocacy and stewardship that creates enduring ecological change. I also hope the book helps people see not just more of the connections between cancer and ecological degradation and destruction, but between healing and finding kinship with the trees, fields, birds, skies and other aspects of our homes around us.

Note: For more about the bioregionalism movement, click here.

Jerry Waxler: How has this memoir been received in your ecology activist community?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: It’s been received very well so far, and next week, I’ll be reading it at another bioregional congress, this one at The Farm in Tennessee, so I’ll see more how it speaks to people in that community.

Jerry Waxler: I love the characters in your community. So many people reach out with compassion, to help you with food, with caring for your family, and of course the all-important emotional support. In the process of telling about these people, aren’t you to some extent impinging on their privacy? Many memoir writers are confused about how much to say, how much detail to include, whether to change names, and so on. How did you balance your friends’ privacy with your desire to tell the story of friendship and community.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: This was an issue I thought long and hard about, and basically, anyone who showed up more than once, I contacted when the book was in its final draft, and sent them a copy of the book to read, letting them know that if there was anything they couldn’t live with, they should tell me. Few people asked me to change anything, but I thought asking was the ethical thing to do. I also shared the final draft with all my doctors, my children, my mother and siblings. I worked hard in editing to remove any references to people (there were just a few) I had larger conflicts with because I didn’t want to use my writing in any way to play out those conflicts. Occasionally, when I did present something unflattering about anyone, I changed the name of that person and that person’s identifying characteristics.

Jerry Waxler: You went through a terrifying period, facing the loss of part of your body, and a profound alteration of body image. In the memoir, you have explained and explored this loss of part of yourself, in far greater detail than most of us imagine. What I’m interested in knowing more about is what it felt like to write about this profound relationship between flesh and life. What sort of processing did you do while you were writing about this impending loss? Was it traumatic to write about it? Did writing the memoir help you understand more or cope more or come to terms more with this loss?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I write through whatever life gives me, so I wrote through cancer, not always coherently, but writing helped me sort out my feelings and also helped me make what was happening more real. The writing itself wasn’t traumatic although I’m aware that we can re-ignite trauma in our lives sometimes if we write obsessively about such events (as researched in the work of James Pennebaker and others). Before I lost various body parts, I wrote to those parts of my body (and I wrote some about this in the memoir), using writing itself as part of the ceremony of letting go of my breasts or uterus or ovaries. For me, it’s very important to create ceremonies that involve writing and sometimes spoken words as a way to name the rite of passage, so yes, all the writing helped me come to terms with losses. At the same time, time itself is wildly effective at helping people, including me, make peace in such situations.

Jerry Waxler: In a couple of places in the book you use Flash Forwards. For example, you say “I had no idea she would be killed in an accident in 5 years.” The character had no way of knowing this from within her own Point of View. Stylistically, this raises an important puzzle for memoir writers. The Author, the person sitting at the computer typing the book, is older and knows so much more than the Protagonist, the younger one undergoing the experience. How did you steer between these two sets of knowledge? What can you tell us about the relationship between the Author’s POV and the Protagonist’s? How does the unfolding of the Protagonist’s Point of View in the story help reveal what the Author is going to know in the future?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I purposely wrote this book very much from the perspective of being in the future, looking back. Particularly with the big stories of our lives, I think the added perspective of the author in the present can help readers better understand the various ramifications and unfoldings of the story. Two pieces of advice that influenced me were from a poet, who once told me how much we need to let our experiences ripen over time until we can find the real essence of the story or poem that wants to be told, and my oncologist, who said however I felt about my cancer experience would continually unfold and change over time. Also, when telling stories in which mortality is a kind of character, I think having the perspective of time passing allows an author to go much deeper into the hard stuff — the terror and sadness, grief and confusion — without making the reader feel too overwhelmed.

Jerry Waxler: The book contains quite a bit of concrete information about the medical diagnosis and treatment. How do you see your role in that regard? While writing it, were you thinking about how it could help cancer patients and their loved ones demystify the technicalities of this journey? How has that turned out so far?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I knew that I had to share at least some technical information because going through serious illness is often a technical journey as well as an emotional and spiritual one. I also wanted to demystify the genetic mutation discussion surrounding breast cancer. Because of fears many have about losing insurance if they reveal that they have the BRCA1 or other genetic mutation, it’s a difficult thing to talk about, and yet we’re only going to change the crazy biases of insurance companies by talking about things like this in print and out loud. I also was lucky enough to know I wouldn’t be dropped from my insurance although several of my doctors told me how careful they were in medical records never to write “BRCA1” but use a symbol instead so that the patient would be protected. I also find that people going through cancer, at some point or another, want and need to know about the technical aspects of their cancer; for example, is the cancer particularly aggressive or slow-growing? We get that information often from numbers on a page, and it’s difficult at times but important to understand these aspects or we won’t have the information we need to make the most informed decisions possible about treatment options.

Jerry Waxler: Are you reaching out to offer the book to that audience?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: Given that one out of three of us will have a cancer diagnosis in our lifetimes, that audience is actually very large. Just about all of us have had cancer or been close to someone who had cancer, so yes, I did want to reach out to that audience, but this is also a book about losing a parent, finding strength in the land and sky, connecting with community, and making greater peace with living in a flawed, aging and still miraculous body.


Click here for Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s website

Click here for more information about Caryn’s Transformative Language Arts Program at Goddard College

Click here for the Transformative Language Arts Network

Click here to visit the Amazon page for The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

This interview is part of the blog tour hosted by Women on Writing. To see Caryn’s Blogtour page, click here.

Instant regional memoir at a Bed and Breakfast

By Jerry Waxler

The one and only time I was on a white water rafting trip I was on business. We were wooing an important customer who insisted we join him on the water. Never a big fan of risky behavior, I found myself paddling a boat in water moving so fast it could kill me. My heart was pounding from more than exertion. As we steered our craft around yet another area where the surging river was trying to smash us against rocks my experienced raft partner screamed above the roar of the water, “Paddle, Paddle, Paddle.” The river is the Youghiogheny, a well known watering hole for whitewater enthusiasts located in southwest Pennsylvania in the town of Ohiopyle. Later, while the rest of the group slept in tents, I retired to a bed and breakfast, the Quiet House. It was comfortable, and lived up to its name.

One of the things I like about Bed and Breakfasts is that the owners are locals, and can offer insider tourist information. But I wasn’t in the market for Ohiopyle tourist information that day. I had already seen quite a bit of this area on other trips, and didn’t think I had much more to learn. I knew about the five star resort, the Nemacolin, former home to a PGA tour golf course. In fact, last year, I had a massage at their spa. And I had visited the nearby Frank Lloyd Wright house, the famous Falling Water museum. What more could there be in this backwoods town in Pennsylvania?

As I was saying goodbye, I mentioned that I had been boating on the Youghiogheny and asked my host if he goes out on the river much. Marty, said he goes out in February, when the river has been quiet, undisturbed by visitors. I caught a reverential glint in his eye. People fascinate me. You can walk past them in the supermarket and not give them a glance, and yet they may have lived complex, rich, and entertaining lives that could fill volumes. Standing up from breakfast, ready to head to the car, it occurred to me that this man had a profound connection with the area. I said, “You must know a lot about the history of this place.” That got him started and he told me the whole story.

When Marty first moved here, he was managing a family farm. There was no commercial interest in boating on the river, until a couple of guys recognized its potential. Soon people started paying them to lead rafting trips. These guys bought a piece of land in Ohiopyle, and that was the beginning of the whitewater tourism in the area. Their rafting customers needed lodging, so the brothers approached Marty. He rose to the occasion, started a campground and turned it into a successful business. Marty has watched the river go from being just a river to becoming a thriving sports and nature destination.

Then we got onto a subject that completely surprised me. It turns out George Washington not only slept here. He fought here. A couple of miles away was the site of his first military operation. In a fascinating twist of fate, in 1754, when George Washington was a 22 year old soldier in the Virginia Colonial army, he attacked some French soldiers a couple of miles away from where Marty and I were standing. This attack on the French was one of the triggers that started the French and Indian War. For you non-history buffs, this is the war featured in the movie The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day Lewis. In those days, this area was considered the western frontier, fought over by the French and the English to gain control of the interior of the vast continent.

To gain more insights, I visited ,Fort Necessity National Park and Museum a couple of miles from the Quiet House Bed and Breakfast, and learned a boatload of background about how the area figured into the prelude to the American Revolution. Beyond the French and Indian war, the museum also exhibited artifacts and information about the National Road, which started out as a rough path along which settlers trudged on their journey west. Of course it also played a role in the tragic destruction of the indigenous people. When the United States was born, the National Road, which looks like little more than a country highway across the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, was the first federally funded road in the new country.

Such material seems at first glance more like a regional history than a memoir. But if Marty were to write about it, he could intertwine his entrepreneurial pursuits and his friendships with other entrepreneurs, his love for the river, and his knowledge of the history of the area. By using his life journey as the framework, the reader could see this part of the world through his knowledgeable eyes. And for me, this conversation was yet another proof that memoirs are everywhere. Here, tucked away in a little bed and breakfast in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, I saw a series of life events start to take the shape of a story. How many times has Marty told these stories? And how much more could he share if they were written?