A Book of Short Stories Expands My Memoir Collection

by Jerry Waxler

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

I consider myself a “non-literary” reader, by which I mean that I prefer my stories told with minimum literary flare, and maximum emphasis on the power of the story. My desire for narrative stories has been endlessly satisfied by hundreds of book-length memoirs, but I have not been nearly so successful finding stories of shorter length.

In shorter stories, there is simply not enough space to build a close relationship between reader and writer. To compensate for this lack of space, most of the short life stories I have come across create power by using tricky detours, leaps, metaphors, and dream-like inserts. For example, here’s one such story that turns a summer job into a wild ride, packed with emotional storms, search for identity, and comic images.

Most of the time, I find that too much reliance on literary technique distracts me from my desire for a straightforward journey, and so, I stick with the longer form. Recently, though, I decided to expand my horizons and take a look at an anthology The Times They Were a Changing, edited by Linda Joy Myers, Amber Lea Starfire and Kate Farrell. The book contains narratives by women who were coming of age during the late sixties and early seventies.

After the first story, I quickly changed from skeptic to believer. Every page compelled me to move to the next, and by the end, I felt satisfied by the entire experience. As I do after every memoir I read, I ask myself why it worked. In this case, I had to ask that question not about an individual story, but about the whole collection, and found two principle reasons why the collection grabbed my attention at the beginning and satisfied me by the end.

First, I wondered how each entry makes up for its short length without reliance on intense literary technique. The answer is that each one focuses on the powerful crucible of some life-changing event. The intensity of the events carry me with gut-wrenching power. I have lots of experience with life-changing events. In my memoir classes for beginners, after I coach students to dredge their minds for anecdotes, the stories that emerge first are often the memories they have bottled up for years. These are peak moments that don’t make good conversation, fraught with embarrassment, humiliation, fear, and confrontation. Such memories seethe silently under the surface, and when I say “Go ahead and write,” they burst onto paper. The anthology, The Times They Were a Changing contains a whole book full of these burning moments.

In each story, I travel with an author into one intense moment in the feminine version of the 60s counterculture. If this was a book-length memoir, I would expect to turn the page and accompany the same author to the next step. However, in the anthology, I turn the page to someone else’s key event. And even though all the stories occurr around the same era, the experiences they report are drastically different. Here is an abbreviated list of topics:

Motorcycle gangs in the midst of flower children
Rock band groupie in a one-night stand
Birth of modern Feminism
Workplace inequality
Out-of-body drug experience
Defying Dad
Sit-ins for women’s equality in the university
Pregnancy and abortion
Hitch hiking
Radical politics

Despite their excellence and intensity, the individual short stories still don’t provide me with the immersion of a book-length memoir. A book allows me to forget my own world and enter the world of the writer. These short stories, when standing on their own, would feel too isolated, like snips of a life rather than deep sharing. However, when they all hang together in one collection, they are transformed into parts of a larger work.

That’s the second way The Times They Were a Changing creates fullness from these short pieces. Like a pointillist painting whose individual dots add up to a beautiful image, the collection combines individual stories into a worldview-shifting insight into the experience of growing up female in the 60s.

By juxtaposing this variety of perspectives, the editors have created a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This anthology is a compelling, satisfying reading experience that sets a high bar for the emerging genre of life story collections.

Suggestions for Writers

In addition to good reading material, the stories in this anthology offer excellent teaching moments. Each story has a beginning, middle, and end, with many variations of subject, emotional challenge, and pacing to name just a few of their distinctive characteristics. To develop your own expertise as a life story writer, consider the collection as a set of writing prompts to trigger you to write your own exciting, life changing story. Try this. Write a short story using each entry in Times They Were a Changing as a writing prompt. For example, write:

A story about a brief romantic encounter.
A story about your scariest next door neighbor
A story about a date gone desperately wrong
A story about a rebellious confrontation with a parent
The rudest, most demeaning treatment you received on a job
A time you were transported by drugs, music, trauma, or love to leave your body
The most pride (perhaps mixed with anger and fear) you ever felt when standing up for your rights
The most humiliated you ever felt with your parents
A creepy, immoral, or illegal thing you did in your youth that you have never told anyone before. (You could burn this one after you write it. Or better yet, read it in your memoir critique group.)

Perhaps a reader would not find each story satisfying by itself. But when arranged in chronological order and presented as a collection, the pieces add up. Perhaps like Times They Were a Changing, the stories in your anthology will create an overall understanding of your life. And with additional focus on transitions, you might even turn your collection into a memoir.


For a humorous example of a memoir composed of short stories all related to one author’s relationship to spicy food, read Sharon Lippincott’s Adventures of a Chilehead.

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

Read more about the authors by clicking here.

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 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.

Short Story and Six Writing Prompts: Locate Love in Space

by Jerry Waxler

I am mainly interested in full length memoirs, so when I clicked on a short life story about a woman in India, I only intended to glance at it. However, the style and subject matter drew me in and before I knew it, I reached the end. “Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad” by Bhaswati Ghosh expanded my horizons, extending my curiosity to the smaller art form and the larger world.

Global Graffiti Magazine, Bhaswati Ghosh, Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad

“Love in Hyderabad” is about the author’s move from the city where she grew up, Delhi, India, to a more picturesque location, Hyderabad, replete with joyful sensory input, cultural and culinary diversity, and a profusion of birds in a park near her urban apartment. The move coincides with her marriage, so she is adjusting to life as a married woman against this magnificent backdrop.

This short story sings to me. It’s an ode to India, to Hyderabad, to birds, food, and to love itself. Despite its brevity, this piece contains many components that I typically enjoy in a full length work.


Bhaswati transports me to a magical city of light and beauty. How much of the beauty does she create through the wide-eyed lens of her own delight, and how much is “real?” It doesn’t matter. As a memoir reader, I attune to her pleasure — she is my guide and I am happy to see the place the way she sees it.
Writing Prompt 1
Look for a location that played a key role in your story. In that place, sketch a scene or situation that filled you with emotion. Include what you saw, felt, heard, smelled, and tasted. Scan your memoir-in-progress to see if this portrayal of place might let readers feel closer to you and your story.

Writing Prompt 2
When you moved from one community or region to a new one, consider how this transition evoked a slew of emotions such as nostalgia, curiosity, adventure, disorientation, discomfort and fear. What new unfamiliar aspects of yourself were you able to feel and express in this new place?

Natural beauty as a story “character”

Birds seem to occupy all the empty spaces in the story, as if they are the glue that holds the world together. Birds play an important role in my life, too. As I write this, one of my three cockatiels sits on my shoulder nibbling on my ear. I glance out my window to see birds perched at seed-filled feeders. In addition to my passion for the creatures themselves, I am drawn to the uplifting language of their soaring and singing.

Writing Prompt 3
Look for pockets of natural beauty within your own memoir. Where do the birds display, fly, and sing? Plants also add life. Where do you walk through a stand of beautiful trees or admire the flowers in well-tended gardens? Try inserting some of these in your story to populate your place with life.

Writing Prompt 4
If your location lacks natural wonders, try highlighting those absences by focusing on the lonely tree, the single bird, the weed growing through the crevice. When I was in college in Madison, Wisconsin on winter days so cold it hurt to breathe, when the lake was frozen into a sheet of barren, stark white, I can’t recall a single living thing other than my fellow students.

Character arc

In “Love in Hyderabad” the exotic setting and the sense of adventure provides a perfect backdrop for falling in love. However, this story does not center on whether the protagonist will “get the guy.” The couple are already married. Once I comprehend the situation, I relate to Bhaswati’s budding romance with just as much affection as I would if it took place in circumstances with which I am more familiar. Even though they were already married, I was enchanted by their progress, as their emotions caught up to their marital status.

The story provides variations and surprises that play with my expectations, demonstrating that even after a lifetime of reading and watching, new twists are possible. The constant that “Love in Hyderabad” shares with all good stories is that by the end, the protagonist has resolved the dramatic tension. Bhaswati’s love for her husband, for her circumstances, and for her life, give me that sense of goodness that makes her story worth reading, and by offering it to me, she makes my life more valuable as well.

Writing Prompt 5
When you write about your own life, you know the events and you know the feelings, but you don’t always know how to frame them into a story. Here are three suggestions for ways you can find the emotional arc.

1) Write a scene about a time when you wanted something. In memoirs, the desire is usually psychological. For example, you wanted emotional safety, or respect from other people, or the pride of achievement. Then scan through events, noting how you pursued that desire. How did you grow, and what did you learn during this pursuit?
2) Scan your major transitions and look for lessons. (eg: generosity pays, cynicism destroys, people need each other). Assume that this lesson is the conclusion of a story. Now that you have the end, look for the beginning. What events set this lesson in motion.
3) Read through your growing chronologically arranged file of events and scenes and look for patterns. (Eg: “I’m repeatedly drawn to partners that I intend to fix, and then discover they are not going to change.” Or, “art and creativity keep coming up as driving forces in my life. What’s that about?”) Use these repeating patterns, and look for compelling scenes to carry the reader through the body of the story. Now that you have the center of the story, look for the beginning — how do you want to first introduce the pattern, and then an end, what lesson or conclusion does it lead to?.

Writing Prompt 6
Review the way your story works, following this scheme. You started out pursuing some sublime or psychological goal. Life got in the way and you kept overcoming the obstacles. In the end, you learned something about yourself and your life. Now, with that synopsis in hand, write your beginning and ending paragraphs.

Click here for an essay about another newlywed couple moving to a different city, “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” by Lisa Fineberg Cook.

Click here to read another essay about a short story about clowns by Sean Toner

More memoir writing resources

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