by Jerry Waxler
The anthology The Times They Were a Changing coedited by Linda Joy Myers, Kate Farrell, and Amber Lea Starfire offers many glimpses into the lives of women during the 60s. The book taught me about a fascinating era in recent American history. It also provided many examples of life-changing moments, full of the passion and intensity of the human condition. This focus on high-intensity moments makes the collection a valuable demonstration of an important aspect of life-story writing.
For many aspiring memoir writers, such high-energy moments lurk under the surface waiting to spring out of hiding. I discovered my own hidden pool of intensity in the first memoir workshop I ever attended. The event took place at a high-energy writing club in a converted storefront in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Along with twenty writers, I considered the possibility I could turn my life into stories. At the end of the first session, the teacher told us to go home and write a story about ourselves.
The scene that came to my mind happened in Berkeley California in 1971 when I lived in a garage, stopped wearing my glasses so I was effectively blind, and went for weeks at a time without speaking. My fallen-apart life after college made sense in that crazy, hippie era. And yet looking back on it later in life, it had always seemed so out of context with my bachelor’s degree in physics and my original goal of becoming a doctor.
Despite my embarrassment and confusion about that period, my mind kept returning to it. Perhaps I was driven to that scene by horror, or by a lifetime of silence. For whatever reason, I attempted to portray my life as a hippie.
At the next session, my voice trembling with embarrassment and exhilaration, I read my piece. In it I revealed that when I was 24 years old, I wanted to live like a chimpanzee and had made plans to move to Central America to eat fruit from the trees. Instead of being horrified, my fellow writers laughed. That laugh changed my life.
I looked around the room. Everyone was relaxed. I realized that reading my story had not upset them or turned me into a pariah. On the contrary, several of them spoke to me afterward and recalled some zany or compelling memory of their own. Paradoxically instead of increasing my shame, sharing the story dispelled it.
Without this wall of shame to hold me back, I became increasingly energetic about discovering my own past. Like an investigator, I unearthed anecdotes I had never before tried to put into words. Then once I found them, I needed to convert them from stubs into a well constructed story. That meant that for the first time in my life, I had to learn how to write stories.
Before that time, my main experience trying to convert bits of my life into stories took place in a psychotherapy office. In my forties, I spent an hour every week attempting to collect myself by using my words. I found so much benefit to the system of trying to express myself that I went back to school and received my master’s degree in Counseling Psychology so I could help others do the same. At the age of 52, I watched my clients attempt to find words with which they could explain their lives. I let them ramble along, helping them choose which part of their lives they would talk about on any given day.
When I began to write my memoir, I realized that by attempting to find the story of my life, I could create a coherent understanding of myself, not just in bits and pieces but across entire eras. By reading memoirs, I realized that every author had achieved this same goal. And by writing the story, they had found a new way to share their lives with the world.
To help other people figure out how to do it, I began teaching memoir writing classes. In my early workshops, I asked writers to record scenes that came to mind. Often the first scenes that jumped onto paper were ones that were too powerful to be communicated in ordinary life. Many said this was the first time they had tried to describe this incident.
Over a period of years, I kept noticing that students used the memoir workshop as an opportunity to reveal their most profound life moments. Sometimes, I would tell writers about this phenomenon. In one such workshop, a woman raised her hand and said, “So you are telling me that once I write about and reveal my powerful secret, I’ll no longer feel as compelled to keep it hidden?”
“Exactly,” I said. “When you see the words on paper and then read them aloud in a group, your memory won’t generate the horrifying results that you expect.”
At the next session, she read a piece about her husband’s suicide. After reading it, she looked around the room at the murmurs and nods of empathy, and said, “I get it. That’s amazing.”
Sometimes the peak moment jumps out before the writing exercise even begins. I gave a talk at a church one Sunday morning to churchgoers who arrived before the services began. This was the best-dressed group of people I had ever spoken to. I explained to them that by writing their experiences in a memoir, they can reveal things that are too personal to talk about. A woman in the back of the room raised her hand. With trembling voice she said, “You mean that I can finally write about my experience of being sexually abused as a child?” I assured her that this was indeed possible. Her tearful “thank you” gave me another glimpse into the relief that can be experienced when peak experiences no longer need to be kept secret.
Lessons for memoir writers
Consider episodes in your life that burns under the surface, imprisoned by a lifelong commitment to secrecy. Such memories are often surrounded by mental keep-out signs. A common sentiment is, “I could never tell that!”
By pretending the moment never happened or fearing you can never share it, you are stuck forever with your unspoken memory. Without the additional perspective of dialog or literary expression, the offending moment remains in its original form. Instead of eradicating the pain, your silence reinforces it. Aided by the literary act of memoir writing, you can commute this life sentence. Follow the example of the authors of Times They Were a Changing. Try turning it into a story.
When such memories first appear in your mind, they might sound boring, scary, taboo, mundane, or gritty. Don’t worry if the vignette does not contain deadly force, celebrities or unique moments in history. If it is boiling in your mind, write the first draft.
After you write the first draft, enhance it through scenes, description and other techniques. By crafting the memory into a story, with a compelling beginning, middle, and end, you create a container for it. Turning private pain into a public one generates deeper insight into what happened, how you survived, how you moved on to the next step and the step after that.
Your decision to write about the experience as if for strangers is not the end of your journey. To turn it into a polished piece, you still have a long road ahead. How do you develop it into a story with a beginning, middle and end? If you are like me, you not only must do the introspective work of uncovering your past. You also must travel the creative journey of learning to write Creative Nonfiction. By crafting your own life into a readable story, you will see it through fresh eyes. Gradually you will discover that whatever tension made the moment important to you will also be interesting to readers.
Your creative effort to turn life into story presents an elegant escape from silence. As you continue the journey, eventually you will turn a corner. When you look back, you realize your memory is no longer frightening. The episode that formerly burned under the surface and refused to be revealed has now become the story that must be told.
Writing Prompt 1
List a few interesting scenes that jump into your mind. What part of your life seems unmentionable? Upheavals, changes, betrayals, first loves, shifts in awareness. All the things that make life hard also make stories good.
Writing Prompt 2
Pick one of your incidents. Write about it as if you were there, complete with description of what you see, hear and think. Then, using that event as an anchor for your story, cast your net a little wider. What happened next? Look for another scene afterward that represents the immediate outcome.
If the scene was tragic, you might have always felt stuck with it. Then write about how you survived. Did you fight, or rebel, or reach out for support? The scenes *after* the peak event might reveal how to turn this into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The scenes after the main one will show courage, social support, and other positive experiences that helped you push forward.
Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.
Click here for more about the themes in Times They Were a Changing
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.