A Mormon, Mennonite, and Jew Convert to Spirituality

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

I recently read two smartly-written memoirs that traced their author’s search for spiritual truths. Despite the fact that the two authors grew up in different religions, their paths were remarkably similar to each other. And as it happens, their journeys were remarkably similar to my own.

A Mormon, Mennonite and a Jew. When we reached our teen years, we began to view our parents’ religion more as a bond that connected families than a source of Truth. For answers to the deeper questions of human existence, all three switched allegiance, and viewed school as a place of worship.

But as we attempted to become adults, we ran into problems. While books could feed our intellect, our souls were starving. Eventually we couldn’t tolerate the pain. Something had to give. And so, each one of us was led to love and spirituality. The parallels and differences in our journeys provide three very different examples of how to find a relationship with a loving God, feeling guided by rules without feeling diminished by them.

Martha Beck

Martha Beck’s first memoir Expecting Adam leads readers on the author’s escape from Utah, the home of the Mormon church to Harvard grad school, arguably the Vatican of the Enlightenment.

After she becomes pregnant, she learns her fetus has the genetic code for Down’s Syndrome. Her Harvard colleagues assume the only smart choice is to terminate the pregnancy, leading her to a crisis at the intersection of love and science. She chooses love. But even though she is ready to reject Harvard, she is not yet willing to give up on her religion.

Martha Beck’s second memoir, Leaving the Saints takes place in Utah, where she returned to reclaim her faith and community. Over time she comes to believe that inclusion into her religious community demands intellectual dishonesty. After much soul searching she abandons her religion, turning instead to a belief in spirituality.

Martha Beck’s two memoirs synergize, each adding depth and wonder to the other. And yet each is a good read on its own.

Rhoda Janzen

In Rhoda Janzen’s first memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, a New York Times bestseller, she moves from her intellectually stimulating life in California to her laid back hometown in Michigan. Instead of hating her Midwestern town, she seems grateful for its simplicity. It turns out that even for a smart PhD, there is plenty of food for thought among the common people. The simple premise of “Returning Home,” (or Nostoi as they call it in Greek) drives this lovely story of self re-discovery.

In her second memoir Mennonite Meets Mr. Right, Janzen falls in love with a religious guy, not a restrained and proper Mennonite but a Pentecostal, the most intelligent but least intellectual guy she ever expected to love. She goes to church with him where she finds parishioners celebrating a joyous personal relationship with God. The book brilliantly teases apart the paradoxes between intellect, spirituality and religion.

Rhoda Janzen’s two memoirs, like Martha Beck’s, are each beautiful in their own right, and even better together. I listened to the audio versions, narrated by the author. With Janzen’s quirky, expressive voice and inventive use of language, she hosted one of my all-time favorite book listening experiences.

Jerry Waxler

The third of this trio is my own memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World, about my journey to the edge of sanity to find a belief system. In my teens, I lost interest in my Jewish upbringing. Growing into my intellectual birthright as a well-educated citizen of the Enlightenment, I thought that humans were completely crazy to have invented such an annoying unprovable concept as God. As far as I was concerned, calculus and physics were sufficient to solve all my problems.

During that crucial time in my life, when I should have been preparing for adulthood, I felt increasingly empty and confused. Maintaining absolute adherence to scientific thinking, I desperately searched for a belief system. Without one, I thought my mind would implode. When the pain became too great to bear, my intellectual rigidity burst and I discovered that the only way to stay sane was to allow in a spiritual dimension.

Memoirs enable us to describe introspective danger and redemption

In later years, when I looked back at my search for truth, I wondered how I would ever be able to describe my terrifying journey. But without any coherent language to explain my internal struggle, I could barely make sense of it myself.

In the early 21st century, what at first looked like a modest, inconsequential shift in book-buying tastes turned into what I call the Memoir Revolution. In this new wave, writing classes offer instruction and bestseller lists provide social context to help anyone turn disjointed memories into a story. That social permission to repackage my life into a story ushered me into a rewarding creative project, and plugged me into one of the most upbeat cultural movements of our time.

To immerse myself in the “Revolution,” I read hundreds of memoirs. From each one, I learned that it is possible to tell the story of one’s deepest hopes and fears.

Among my growing library of human experience, I began to notice other authors who also struggled to find authentic beliefs. For example, Dani Shapiro searched among wisdom traditions in Devotion. Deborah Feldman broke free from the micromanagement and misogyny of her Hasidic sect in Unorthodox. Nuns escaped the suffocating religiosity of their orders in order to find themselves, in The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong and An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson. And two mothers whose loss of a baby almost drove them crazy until they found spirituality: Lorraine Ash in Life Touches Life and Sukey Forbes in Angel in my Pocket.

These and other hints of spirituality showed me that memoirs are allowing us to expose our inner worlds.

My understanding of the power of this literary medium jumped up a notch when I discovered the two fabulous stories by Martha Beck and Rhoda Janzen. Like me, they devoted their precious life energy to find an authentic faith. I finally accepted I had found a real memoir subgenre, in which the search for a belief system was the central theme.

These three authors, Beck, Janzen, and I, agonized over our connection to family, broke free of those traditions in order to connect with the secular power of rationality, and then when that still wasn’t enough, had to agonize again. For each of us, losing our faith in the sacred truths of rationality was every bit as wrenching as losing a religion. The three memoirs end up in three different versions of the modern system of beliefs known as spirituality in which love provides the foundation for everything.

Historically we’ve expected religious leaders to dictate our relationship to a higher power. But in the great dispersal of autonomy in Western society, we continue to evolve from the authority of institutions to the wisdom of individuals. Each of us wants to know these truths on our own. And to learn those truths, we go on a journey. Memoirs enable us to share those journeys.

In high school literature classes I learned that it is possible for an author to encapsulate a whole world in the written narrative. I inhabited those brilliantly conceived fictitious worlds for a few hours. When I closed each book, I slid back into my own hidden inner world.

The Memoir Revolution is ushering in a new era that will help readers and authors solve some of the most profound problems of our times. Memoirs help us accept people who think and live differently from ourselves. These stories across the lifespan help us understand our own and each other’s stages of life. And they dive into the paradox of knowledge which, from a scientific viewpoint is unprovable and yet from a personal viewpoint is undeniably knowable.

The Memoir Revolution offers us a new instrument through which we can observe our own and each other’s inner worlds and find the common ground that unites us in our individuality. This is far more than just a literary movement. It introduces the potential for a new science of the soul.

Writing prompt
What spiritual or “belief system” features of your life are ending up in your published or work-in-progress memoir?

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

Launching into Adulthood – Search for Beliefs

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the fourth in my series about launching into adulthood, inspired by Elna Baker’s memoir New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance. It completes the triad of challenges both she and I had to undergo in order to transform from child to adult. Click here for my post on sex and here for my post on finding a job.

Every week, my parents took me to synagogue where men in robes chanted on the dais, preparing to slide open the doors of the ornate tabernacle. In slow motion, they reverently cradled the holy Torah in their arms, removed its lavishly embroidered cover and silver protecting plate and set it on a table. Then they unrolled the scrolled parchment, and read from it in voices so filled with emotion I thought they might cry.

By the time I reached high school, I began to feel silly about going to a building and chanting. School books became my sacred texts. When I read a physics problem or a literary novel, I felt smart and empowered. By the time I left for college, I knew that God had no place in my life.

However, I soon discovered that my belief in my all-powerful intellect left important gaps. For one thing, when studying science I found myself in the company of loners, more interested in equations than in each other. My focus on knowledge made me feel lonely. And I was disheartened by problems that brilliant minds didn’t seem to be able to solve such as injustice and war.

To fill the holes left by my intellectual belief system, I joined anti-war protests. Linking arms with people who wanted peace made me feel less alone, and more capable of stopping the insanity. Together we could fix the world.

My euphoria ended abruptly when the police decided to “keep the peace” by bashing us with clubs and burning our lungs with tear gas. I slunk away, bewildered by my lack of power. The violent confrontation destroyed my belief in an orderly method of correcting social ills.

I had reached an impasse. Religion seemed irrelevant, and science and collective action seemed to have little effect on the evils of the world. My eager, idealistic mind imploded. Stumbling forward into nothingness, I felt that with nothing to believe in, there was no particular reason to be alive.

As if in answer to my desperation, someone introduced me to a mystical teaching that included a higher power, but skipped the robes and scrolls. Instead, the system led me to the sacredness within my own soul. This belief system lifted me out of despair, and invited me to see the universe through more hopeful, loving eyes.

When I finally settled into the rhythm of adult life, I could barely remember the insane turmoil of those younger years. In fact, I didn’t want to remember. I pushed away that troubling ten-year period as if it happened to someone else.

Then, forty years after my tumultuous launching into adulthood, I began writing a memoir about my complex, journey from child to adult. I quickly encountered a difficulty. Whenever I tried to write about my relationship toa Higher Power, I felt that I might be stepping on someone’s toes. I imagined whole counsels of the defenders of various faiths who might take offense. At first, I thought I was shy about describing religion because being Jewish in the wrong place had often led to death. But when I started to teach memoir writing classes, I realized the problem extended beyond any one group or system. Many aspiring writers were reluctant to talk about their beliefs. They all had various excuses but it boiled down to a general fear that they weren’t qualified to talk about their own beliefs.

This appeared to me to be the final frontier of the Memoir Revolution. We had collectively accepted the most intense revelations about mental illness, sexual variations, and a vast variety of life styles, but many of us didn’t know how to turn our own search for truth into a good story.

So when reading memoirs, I kept looking for those writers who had crossed these barriers and chose to share their introspective journeys without worrying about who they might offend. One of the most courageous, and clearest of these was Elna Baker.

In Elna Baker’s memoir, New York Regional Mormon Singles Dance, the protagonist grows up in an intense Mormon household. After she moves to New York City, she continues to identify with Mormon ideas and culture. However, most of the boys she meets run the other way when they learn her religion forbids sex outside marriage.

Should she toss away her belief system in exchange for a sexual relationship? The stakes are enormous. Losing her virginity means eternal damnation of her soul. And for her, the soul is not some abstract concept. She takes her soul very seriously.

When her atheist boyfriend says he doesn’t believe in the existence of the soul, it’s her turn to be horrified. She confronts him with one of the sweetest, most convincing defenses of the soul I’ve ever seen., and she does it without any reference to theology or ancient texts. Through her eyes, it’s easy to see that her boyfriend’s soulless approach increases the risk of interior deadness. By contrast her belief nurtures a vibrant interior life.

But her conviction about the existence of the soul doesn’t solve her immediate dilemma about whether or not to have sex. On the contrary, she wonders if lowering the barriers and establishing an intimate connection with another individual might be the best thing she can do for her soul,.

To steer through this unsolvable problem, she pleads for guidance. “God, if you’re there, I need help. Speak to me.” I connected instantly with her appeal to a higher authority. In fact, I felt so interested in her inner appeal, I had to ask myself why a young Mormon woman’s plea to God would resonate so strongly with an old Jewish man.

Then, it hit me. Elna Baker’s story helps me understand the dark, confusing time when I was struggling to become an adult. I too felt lonely and my loneliness led me deeper and deeper into confusion. At the time, I assumed my loneliness was caused by my inability to connect with people. Now New York Mormon helps me see that by cutting myself off from an inner dialog, I had isolated myself even more.

Elna Baker’s attempt to dialog with God helped me find language to understand the quandary of modern culture. Those of us who try to live in a post-religious world have no one with whom to discuss our dilemmas in the privacy of our own minds.

Perhaps this helps explain why the Twelve Step programs are so helpful for many participants. By insisting on belief in a higher power, the Twelve Steps offer members an inner sponsor. Such an interior conversation with a higher power provides a valuable tool to stay on the high road, transcending self-involved, addictive thoughts.

New York Mormon even helps me understand why my parents took me to synagogue. When the rabbi chanted on the dais about a relationship with God, every one of us in the congregation was attempting to reach up and achieve the same thing. We were all affirming our belief that having a connection with a higher power is a valuable tool for a healthy life.

So why was I, as a young man, so quick to reject this connection? New York Mormon helps me understand that, too. When Elna Baker grew up, she was handed a belief system as a complete package. The package said “You are a Mormon and you believe all the things a Mormon believes.” Unfortunately, her religion, like mine, didn’t include instructions for how to survive the questioning stage in life when we are trying to use our intelligence to put all the pieces together.

As a result, those parts that seem to make no sense instigate the need to challenge the entire system. And when we reject the whole system, as many of us do, we find ourselves in a crisis of identity, creating an unforeseen obstacle on our journey to grow up.

Power of the Memoir Revolution

Around a hundred years ago, William James, chairman of Harvard’s psychology department, delivered a series of lectures that resulted in his influential book Varieties of Religious Experience. James knew that his elite academic audience rejected religion on the grounds that its claims couldn’t be proven in chemistry or physics labs. However, he urged them to shift their attention from the science of matter to the science of mind. Within the realm of the mind, the influence of religion is easy to observe. He cited numerous examples of experiences such as ecstasy, conversion, faith, and even healing.

James’ attempt to include spirit as a legitimate area of psychological study was lost in the scientific revolutions of the twentieth century, during which Freud claimed that all religion is a hoax, and radical behaviorists claimed there is no such thing as personal experience. The study of religious experience went out of fashion for a hundred years.

Over the course of the intervening century, we have become far more sophisticated about inner experiences. Through cognitive psychology, we have developed an appreciation for the power of thought. Through MRI and other brain imaging techniques, we have developed a deeper understanding of the mysteries of personal experience. Through mindfulness meditation, we have proven that mental patterns influence blood pressure and other physical symptoms of stress. But until recently, we have lacked the tools with which to share the incredibly personal struggle each of us goes through to find a belief system that will sustain us.

Now, in the twenty-first century, through memoirs such as the one written by Elna Baker, we are developing a language that enables us to continue the work begun by William James.

Her perspectives, along with the tens of thousands of memoirs already written or now under development, are enhancing our shared vocabulary about personal experience. Rather than splitting us into separate camps, each of which tries to prove its God is better, the Memoir Revolution gives us the opportunity for the first time in history to share a dialog about our individual interior worlds.

Writing Prompt
Write a few scenes and a synopsis that reflects your emerging belief system as you made the transition into adult life. (For example, church membership, seeking, rejecting or embracing parent’s religion, ah-ha moment about God, attending a yoga class, etc)

Notes

For more discussion and examples about using memoirs to explore personal spirituality see my book Memoir Revolution, about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

Click here for Elna Baker’s home page.

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.

More memoirs about spiritual launching

When Mary Johnson was trying to grow up and find rules to live by, she decided to devote her life to a transcendent conversation. In her memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst she tells of joining Mother Theresa’s order, renouncing possessions and devoting her life to serving God. Instead of rejecting her parents in order to become more worldly, she rejected their normalcy and went the other way.

Return to Need for Spiritual Belief Systems

Spirituality and religious searching are not completed during the launching period. Many adults return years later to establish a guidance system that helps them cope with grief or to find the spirituality that will allow them to face trauma and mortality.

Lorraine Ash explores spirituality and personal relationship to God first in her memoir Life Touches Life, after the loss of her baby in the eighth month of pregnancy. After writing that memoir, she didn’t stop searching. Her search for a personal relationship to God is continued in Self and Soul. Click here for my article about these two books.

Two more memoirs of a search for beliefs later in adulthood:
Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup. A chaplain uses religion to help others and at the same time find her way after her husband’s death. Click here for my article.

Devotion by Dani Shapiro. A woman in middle age goes on a quest to find truth amid a variety of belief systems. Click here for my article.

Father Joe: the Man who Saved my Soul by Tony Hendra, who leaned on his mentor for insight, hoping this kind monk would help him steer through his own barren internal life.

The Path: One Man’s Quest by Donald Walters who left home to join a spiritual commune led by Paramansa Yogananda. Click here for my article

American Shaolin by Matthew Polly, who joined a Chinese monastery to learn martial arts, Click here for my article.

The Islamist by Ed Husain, who rejected the gentle religion of his parents. When he saw someone knifed, Husain realized that the power-hungry demands of his new crowd distorted his higher values. He returned to the roots of his religion to find the compassion and divinity his parents had been attempting to teach. Click here for my article.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior who tried to stray from religion but found that to find her way, she needed deeper insight into a loving universe. Click here for my article.

Expecting Adam by Martha Beck. Attempting to push away from the intellectual rigor of her graduate program in Harvard, she accepts the mystery of mothering a Down Syndrome child. Click here for my article.

Stress Fracture by Tara Meissner. A psychotic episode, involving visionary experiences of instructions to murder and other destructive imagery, decided that to preserve her sanity she needed to distance herself from the otherworldly teachings of her religion. Click here for my article.

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, the scandalous rejection of my Hasidic Roots  Accepting or Rejecting the entire system

Wisdom Born in One Memoir Inspires a Second

Or: Write the Memoir But Don’t Stop Growing
by Jerry Waxler

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

Memoirs often crush me with human suffering and then, in that fallen state, I accompany the protagonist, trying to find the lessons that will help us survive. In fact, the very nature of storytelling lends itself to the search for answers. In the beginning of every story, the protagonist sets off on a journey to find something. By the end, that search leads to some conclusion.

For example, Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a terrifying, life altering stroke in the first half of the memoir, My Stroke of Insight. In the second half, she discovers that she has become a gentler, more compassionate person. By accompanying the author through her stroke, and then through the lessons she learns, I am treated to her elevated version of reality.

I recently discovered an author, Lorraine Ash, who accomplished a similar effect, spread across two books. What started as the suffering and coping in the first book, Life Touches Life, ended with the profound conclusions she shares in the second, Self and Soul published ten years later.

Lorraine Ash became pregnant late in her 30s, and as her due date approached, she became increasingly excited about the arrival of her first baby. On a routine visit to the doctor, in the eighth month of pregnancy, the technician frantically adjusted her machine, trying to find the heartbeat. More tests revealed that the baby had died of an infection, requiring a cesarean section. The expectant parents had to replace the excitement of a new baby with the emotions of a devastating loss.

The baby’s death crushed Lorraine’s understanding of her relationship with God, and unraveled her as a person. Just as maddening as the loss of her daughter was the feeling that the little girl, Victoria Helen, was still with her. The love she felt for her daughter refused to die, making it impossible to follow the advice of grief counselors and friends who urged her to let go and move on. So for the sake of her sanity, she made it her mission to include Victoria Helen into the family.

Because she was a professional writer, her impulse was to write about her journey. Her research put her in touch with many women who experienced similar grief but didn’t know how to talk about it. They, too, had been instructed to let go and move on. Lorraine Ash offered them a different approach – to include the deceased baby in their lives. Instead of letting go, she showed them how to use their love to take them deeper into the essence of who they were as loving human beings. The story of her loss, and her search for healing culminated in the memoir, Life Touches Life, in 2004.

After the publication of the memoir, her mission to find peace and spiritual truth continued. Through her research, she came into contact with sufferers of other losses and traumas. She realized that her spiritual approach to grieving and growing would help many of these people develop a deeper foundation. Lorraine discovered for herself and wanted to share with others that a devastating loss can be part of an amazing, loving life.

After years of research into wisdom literature, developing her own spiritual beliefs and understanding, and counseling people who were trying to absorb losses, she published a second book, Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life. Self and Soul goes beyond the event that instigated her search. In Self and Soul, she shares truths that could help not only bereaved mothers but anyone looking for a peaceful, powerful view of their place in the universe.

In modern times, when so many of us have disengaged from the packaged belief systems offered by religion, our place in the universe seems poorly defined. Self and Soul offers us the hard-earned lessons from an author whose suffering sent her on a pilgrimage to understand how she, and by extension, we, can find our own spiritual center.

Organization of the book and a lesson for memoir writers
Many scholars think that civilization is built on the foundation of Story. Traditional societies used lofty, stylized myths to teach fundamental lessons about being human. The Memoir Revolution modernizes that tradition, allowing us to apply the story-form to our own unique circumstances. The more I study memoirs and the wisdom that emerges from them, the more I have come to appreciate that stories light the way through the complexities of life.

By my definition, a memoir reveals a sequence of events, told as they unfold over time. Stylistic exceptions allow authors to move chunks of chronological around, using flashbacks, or interweaving two time frames, but in general, the reader is expected to follow the sequence of events.

At the end of a story, a final wrap-up called the denouement gives storytellers a chance to summarize their findings and offer lessons they’ve derived. In Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight she offers the wisdom of living through a stroke. Lorraine Ash’s memoir Life Touches Life ended with conclusions she drew after the stillbirth of her baby. However, she kept learning. Ten years after the publication of her first memoir, she published Self and Soul, a sort of book-length denouement in which she offers an extended version of the lessons she learned since the first.

The two books offer a fascinating model for any memoir writers who wonders if they are really ready to write their memoir, or if they need to take more time to grow. Lorraine Ash’s two books offer an elegant answer to that question. Write one memoir now, in which you express who you are and the best lessons you have been able to develop. And don’t stop growing. Use the lessons you have learned through the earlier journey, and continue to live, opening yourself to the next chapter of your life.

Notes

For an example of a memoir that reveals a search for truth as a chronological unfolding see Dinty Moore’s search for Buddhism  in The Accidental Buddhist, in which he develops a deeper understanding of Buddhism by traveling to various ashrams.

For another memoir about a spiritual journey through various themes, see Dani Shapiro’s Devotion.

More examples of memoirs that end with essay-like conclusions about lessons learned:

  • My Ruby Slippers, by Tracy Sealey about her search for her roots in Kansas, and her conclusions about the roots of the national culture that can be found in the Heartland.
  • Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes Courter which describes her childhood in foster care that ends with her plea for more wisdom and advocacy for children caught in that system.
  • Picking Cotton by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Canino about a man falsely imprisoned for a brutal rape, and released after DNA evidence proved his innocence. The book ends with a plea by accuser and accused to modify laws and raise awareness of the dangers of turning innocent men into victims of the justice system

Links for Lorraine Ash

http://lorraineash.com/selfsoul.htm
http://www.LorraineAsh.com,
www.facebook.com/LorraineAshAuthor
or @LorraineVAsh .

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

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

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.

This Memoir Teaches How To Grow up with Books

by Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

The memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Professor Karen Swallow Prior is about a young girl trying to make sense of life. She is not content to mindlessly accept what she’s been told by her elders. Nor does she mindlessly surrender to the tribal rituals of her schoolmates. She needs to find the truth for herself. Her memoir is about her process of deeply questioning her world, and the mistakes and lessons she learns along the way. As a young intellectual, naturally she turns to books for many of her answers.

Her memoir recounts how authors like John Donne, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Arthur Miller offer a rich source of insight. Their wisdom helps her steer through dilemmas, maintain dignity and find the high road. The memoir is one of the best I’ve seen about the intellectual development of an inquiring mind.

Professor Prior’s journey took me back to my own intellectual development. During high school, my favorite classics by Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas did not teach me how to live. They were more like magic carpets transporting me to another place and time. When I was finished, I moved on to the next. My attitude toward books became more serious in college during the 60s. Desperate to figure out how to grow up, I poured my intensity into books. I lingered with each one, immersed myself in it, lived within the world the author created. Tragically, the books that seized my imagination were by despairing authors like Ferdinand Celine, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett.

By the time I reached the end of that journey, instead of being prepared to face adulthood, I had lost all hope. I knew that if I didn’t find something to live for, I would die. A lifeline came to me in the form of a few pages of an obscure photocopied book that opened me to something called a spiritual path. I became a seeker, latching onto the presence of God. Things suddenly brightened. I switched reading material again, this time immersing myself in an eclectic mix of mystical writings such as Kahlil Gibran, Rumi, and the anonymously written Way of the Pilgrim. These writings provided me with a cosmic context. No longer alone in the universe, my journey made sense.

However, despite the enormous influence books have had on my life, I have read few memoirs in which books play a central role. * Now, riding Karen Prior’s magic carpet about growing up with books, I return to my youth and wonder what it would have been like to have deeper appreciation for the social lessons embedded in my classics.

In college during my hours of deepest need, I was not interested in what adults told me. I wanted to read my truths in books. I opened to each one as if it might contain the key. What if I had read a book like Karen Prior’s, that showed me how to find longer lasting guidance. Would I have grown through that period faster, with less pain and fewer mistakes? I can’t turn the clock back to my own youth, but it makes me wonder about the influence of memoirs on young people today.  Perhaps some of them will suspend their disbelief, join her and other memoir authors on their journeys of discovery and then return to their own lives, enriched with new possibilities.

Unlike the authors of most of the books I read in high school, who were inaccessible and mostly dead, Karen Prior is very much alive. To learn more about her I looked her up on the web, and found she also writes articles for the Atlantic Monthly. In her articles, she is a ferocious evangelist for the value of reading. In an age filled with fear and confusion that young people are falling away from books, she urgently points out that literature is the conduit through which we pass values to the next generation.

In addition to being a science-based appeal to the power of reading, the article also addresses one of the central problems I faced as a young man. How does an intellectually voracious young person develop a notion of transcendence without resorting to doctrine?

In the article “Does Reading Make Us More Human?” Prior offers one of the most universal, least doctrine-based answers I have ever seen. She says, “What good literature can do and does do — far greater than any importation of morality — is touch the human soul.” She calls the process “Deep Reading” and makes an astonishing claim for its importance.

She says the word “read” does not just apply to written symbols. We also use the same word “read” when we attempt to understand another person’s feelings. She goes on to draw this far reaching conclusion. “In this sense, deep reading might be considered one of the most spiritual of all human activities.” Her sweeping statement shocks me. I need to deep-read her assertion that Deep Reading is spiritual. When I open my mind to her perspective, I see how it beautifully expresses the reason I love memoirs.

A work of literature, by itself is just a collection of words. By deep-reading it, we bring to life the author’s passion, years of deep thought, insight, and wisdom. Deep Reading reveals that behind every book is an author and every time we deep-read a book, we enter an intimate connection with that author. Engaging in that sophisticated, mature and interior relationship with an author is essentially a spiritual act. Her assertion agrees with my own definition of spirituality. If God is love, and God is within each one of us, by opening up to each other’s stories, we touch God.

Her experiences as a child and a teacher, and the effort she subsequently poured into writing her Atlantic articles and her memoir all add up to a life devoted to the relationship between literature and life. And by offering her lessons to the rest of us, she adds to our cultural awareness of the impact books have on our lives.

Memoirs share many journeys

In each decade of my life, I am accompanied by a different set of books. After I had learned as much as I could in my thirties from my round of spirituality books, I needed escape so I read murder mysteries. When I realized that escape wasn’t getting me anywhere, I shifted to an obsession with self-help and psychology books to learn how to relate to people and be my own best self. In my late-fifties, when I realized that life is a fascinating story, I switched again, this time reading the stories of other people.

Memoirs provide a different type of reading experience than I’ve had during previous periods. Instead of isolating various dimensions of life, this genre ties them all together. Each memoir lets me dance inside an author’s world, discovering what drives them to excel and what tries to crush their spirit, how they learn to keep going and how they turned all of that into a book.

Now I do the same dance inside Karen Swallow Prior’s memoir and I feel like I’m in a hall of mirrors. Deep-reading about her experience of learning lessons from literature makes me feel like I am in heaven. No. It’s better than that. Pondering every memoir makes me feel like I’m in heaven. Pondering this one makes me feel like I’m in heaven gazing up at heaven’s sky.

Written across that sky, I read an important message for memoir writers. After we make mistakes, learn lessons, read books, and grow up, we have the opportunity to pass our wisdom along to those who follow. By learning to translate our lives into stories, we are offering ourselves to others in a universal form, leading ourselves and our readers more deeply into what it means to be human.

In my book Memoir Revolution, in a chapter titled Finding a Language for Individual Spirituality, I explore the way memoirs enable us to share our views of transcendent truth. Professor takes my argument one step further and proposes that our individual experience, when deeply appreciated, is itself transcendent. Your memoir could contribute to this great spiritual awakening. By pouring your life experience into the stream of wisdom, you help others learn and grow.

Karen Prior’s memoir provides yet another demonstration of the profound ability of the Memoir Revolution to break down walls between strangers, to give us a way to share our wisdom and lessons. By deep reading memoirs, we can find our connection with each other, and by writing our own, we can offer others the opportunity to deeply read us.

Writing Prompt
The obvious writing prompt that emerges from this book relates to the power books have had in your own life. Write a scene in which a book strongly influenced the course of your thinking, providing lingering guidance.

Writing Prompt
You may also have counter-examples, books that tore you down. When I was in college, and struggling with my own obsessive sense of rebellion, I became infatuated with the despairing authors in 20th century Europe. I read these too deeply for my own good. If you have any counter-examples in which the ideas in a book took you off track, write a scene or story about one of those, too.

Writing Prompt
At the end of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me is a long list of study questions suitable for a literature class. These study questions raise an interesting possibility for your memoir. Could you imagine young people, or people in your target audience, discussing some facet of your life, in order to understand their own? Review the scenes or chapters in your own memoir in progress, and write a study question about some principle or challenge that could stir up conversation.

Notes

Amazon Link: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Atlantic Articles: How Reading Makes Us More Human
What Maya Angelou Means When She Says ‘Shakespeare Must Be a Black Girl’

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury made the case that it was important to preserve books, but I do not recall any deep message about how a young person could apply lessons from any of the individual books to his or her own development.

* Another memoir that uses literature to explain principles of life is Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. Click here for my essay about that memoir.

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.

Dani Shapiro Seeks Spiritual Meaning through Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

During her late teens, when Dani Shapiro was attempting to grow up, an older man convinced her to linger in the helplessness of childhood where he would take care of her forever. The memoir “Slow Motion” chronicled the detailed, painful story of her interrupted crossing into adulthood. I appreciated the book because I too suffered a messy launching and her story inspired me to dig deeper into that period in my life.

Now, her second memoir “Devotion,” provides a fascinating sequel. Starting decades after the happy ending of her first, she describes her journey into adulthood. “Devotion” is not so much about becoming an adult as it is about making sense of life’s scary setbacks. How do you find inner peace in a world that crushed your father in a car accident, gave your son a rare neurological disorder that threatens to destroy him, and blew up buildings by using business travelers as weapons? The author’s thirst for answers sends her on a quest for transcendent meaning.

Dani Shapiro’s father was an Orthodox Jew, devoted to the detailed rituals of his religion. As a sophisticated young woman, the daughter rejects his path, instead emulating her mother’s indifference to religion. As a result, whatever comfort he might have derived from his structured beliefs is unavailable to her. Now, in the messy world of adult setbacks, she wonders if she could find strength from her father’s religion. She does an impeccable job, curiously seeking to understand how his rituals anchored him. She continues to investigate, wondering if his path might suit her needs.

Turning to ancient religious ritual is only one of the directions for Dani’s search. What makes this book so intriguing is her willingness to explore other directions as well. In the United States of the twenty-first century, many people look for a more personal version of truth, in an eclectic offering of teachings, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, yoga and Sufism. These studies have amalgamated into a pursuit sometimes dubbed “New Age religion” for want of a better term.

In the ‘60s, when I began my own search beyond the religion of my ancestors, I turned east, and traveled to India. But nowadays, the teachings have been imported to the West, and Dani Shapiro, a mother of a small child in Connecticut, did not have to travel far. As she opened herself to the universe of possibilities, the guiding hand of curiosity and serendipity led her to an ashram within a few hours of her house.

Like her failed launching, her search for spirituality gave me flashbacks. As a teenager, my first effort at finding Truth consisted of expunging all traces of my parents’ Jewish religion from my mind. I assumed that science and common sense would provide all the data I needed. After a few years, my anti-religious approach led me to the brink of despair, where I realized that if I didn’t find some sort of transcendent purpose, I would die. As one of the stops on my quest, in 1975, I visited a small yoga center near my home in southeast Pennsylvania. In a darkened room, with incense burning, I swayed to the melodious chanting of a young, handsome Indian guru named Amrit Desai. I was surrounded by a roomful of seekers who were also looking for meaning in the wake of the ‘60s. I continued my journey onto a different branch of the New Age, and The Kripalu Center moved north to Massachusetts where it grew and thrived. Then, 30 years later, Dani Shapiro turned up at the door. Her memoir reveals much about her own hunger for spirituality and also sheds light on the nature of spiritual seeking in our time.

By the end of her lovely book about a modern American woman seeking answers to the transcendent questions of the universe, I wasn’t sure if she really found what she was looking for. At first this lack of finality unsettled me and I continued to consider its meaning. Then I saw a different message embedded in the story. The memoir was not about finding answers, but about openly, even brazenly, asking questions. On reflection, I love her refusal to declare winners and losers in the search for Truth. By opening herself to all possibilities, she has invited us to do the same.

Notes
Dani Shapiro’s Website

The author is teaching a course called “Devotion: Crafting Your Journey Inward Through Memoir”, September 23-25, 2011, at Kripalu in Massachusetts. Click here for more details
My essay about “Slow Motion.”
More memoirs of emerging into adulthood

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.

Spiritual memoirs, interview with author Rick Skwiot

by Jerry Waxler

During the late 60s, when I was almost finished college, I wondered what life was going to be like out in the world. One source of inspiration came from books like Henry Miller’s sexy novels, Sexus, Nexus, and Plexus. Miller fled the United States to live in France, learning how to write and commune with the locals. W. Somerset Maugham wrote about a different type of expatriate adventure in Razor’s Edge, more of a spiritual quest than a drunken carousal. My own search for truth took me to California, which in the days of the hippies did sometimes feel like a foreign country.

Now decades later, I want to tell the story of my escape and self-discovery. To help me learn how to do that, I read memoirs. I recently finished an excellent one by Rick Skwiot who in the 80s went to Mexico to find a truer aspect of himself than he was able to find in corporate America. His quest was somewhere between the fast living of Henry Miller and the soul searching of Somerset Maugham, and contained some of the elements of my own travels. It’s too late to interview Maugham, Miller, or the other world travelers who haunted my imagination during my formative years. But Rick Skwiot is alive and willing to talk about the writing of “San Miguel Allende.”. Here is the first of several parts of an interview in which I ask him about writing the memoir.

Jerry Waxler: When did the story of your memoir, “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing” take place?

Rick Skwiot: I first went to San Miguel in 1983. The book spans the next few years, when I was living in San Miguel and returning to St. Louis to do freelance work whenever I needed money–that is, whenever I was flat broke and had no choice. That lasted until 1989 or 1990.

Jerry: Your title is interesting. I’ve rarely seen memoirs with a place name in the title. Why was the place so important that it deserved to be the first part of your title?

Rick: When teaching fiction writing I tell students that setting determines character, and character in turn determines plot. I think the same often applies to memoir, and certainly in this case. The people and culture of San Miguel–both Mexican and gringo–had such a profound collective influence on this period of my life that I perceived the town as the major “character” in my memoir. While on the surface, my story appears to be about my own transformation, the agent of that change was the town and its people.

Jerry: Moving to another country combines the element of escape, that is, getting away from your regular life, with its opposite, that is trying to establish the patterns of a new life. I enjoyed the anxiety and difficulty of your settling into this new place. That theme of being a stranger in a new land is a fundamental aspect of the hero myth, and I recommend your book as an excellent model of that sense of trying to settle in and make sense of a new set of rules. Now that you have written about this experience of going forth into a foreign land and adapting to its rules, would you consider this model as useful for other books you have written or want to write?

Rick: It has been said that there are only two dramatic plots: 1) Someone takes a trip, and 2) A stranger comes to town. Some books, like my memoir, combine these two–as do my two previous novels and the one I’ve just completed. While that writing-workshop adage is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there’s also some truth in it, if applied loosely. In good books, whether fiction or memoir, we encounter characters who take trips of one sort or another–physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or whatever–and who arrive as strangers in new worlds. As readers we subconsciously and consciously look for character development, for change, for chaos made into order. In going to a foreign land where different values and modes of living exist, a character is forced to examine most everything about himself or herself, and there are built-in conflicts in culture, language, and more, which make for good drama. All to say, in answer to your questions, yes, this is a useful model, and it makes me feel somewhat embarrassed by how little overall imagination I’ve exhibited in regards to plot.

Jerry: The second part of your memoir’s title, “A Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” is equally interesting. What made you believe that aspect of the trip was important enough to put in the title?

Rick: It was always a spiritual search for me–a quest to find my own soul. I was then reading Jung, who devoted his life–on his own behalf and ours–to such a search. That quest was the essence of my Mexican experience. At the time I was compelled to head to Mexico, I had become somewhat dead inside. Intuitively, I sensed that I had become overly cerebral and detached from nature–and as a result detached from my own soul. My rebirth came not by rethinking my ideas, but through reconnection with nature, both the nature out in the world as well my own human animal nature. And my connection came through the senses.  Hard for me to put this in a few sentences, as it took me 200 pages to describe it in my memoir. But I believe the path to the soul must often pass through the senses.

Jerry: I have met many aspiring memoir writers who wish they could convey the spirituality of their lives. I think you have done an excellent job doing exactly that. But rather than defining spirituality, you show how it pervaded a number of your experiences, such as love and romance, letting go of rigid structures, folk religion, visiting a holy site, and an extraordinarily poignant, even chilling portrayal of a funeral. Your method of portraying spirituality as a pervasive essence makes an interesting model for how other writers could achieve the same goal. When you wrote your memoir, did you have an idea how you were going to write about spirituality? Or did you let the scenes speak for themselves, allowing spirituality to peek out from the edges?

Rick: I think your last comment comes closest to answering the question, How to convey spirituality in a story? Spirituality has to do with the unknowable mystery of life and, for a writer, thus can only be approached indirectly. As with emotions, you can’t really describe it as you would a physical object, or argue for it, or beg for it, but must use concrete objects, sensory details and action to do so, to represent it metaphorically. We are genetically hard-wired, I believe, to respond emotionally to well-wrought stories–we’ve been telling them for a million years or longer, from tales of the hunt around the campfire to today’s memoir and the story of search for meaning and self-actuation. The tried and true conventions of storytelling–conflict, the hero’s quest, dramatic irony, pointed dialogue, revelation, resolution, etc.–still apply and give us tools to transmit emotion of all sorts, including the spiritual variety. Those who wish to convey the emotion of a spiritual quest would be well served, I think, by studying the dramatic arts, which include fiction-writing techniques. When I write, whether it be memoir or fiction, I work to put the reader in the place of the story, so it becomes the reader’s experience as well, so the reader visits the scene in his or her imagination and feels the emotion. I want the words to disappear, for the reader to get beyond the intellectual surface of the page and into the imaginative world of the story. In the case of this memoir, I did not set out to write about spirituality per se, but to write about a pivotal time in my life where I went through a great transformation, part of which was opening myself up to the non-rational in life. To do that effectively and make people feel it, I had to use all my tricks as a creative writer.

Jerry: How has your sense of your spiritual quest changed and grown over the years?

Rick: It never ends. One strives to stay centered, balanced, but without always succeeding. When I get off base I try to return to the things I learned in Mexico: to appreciate small blessings, to acknowledge greater forces, to live inside my body and in the moment. I return to Jung and Zen writings, and to the gods and spirits of my childhood pantheon, which reside in nature, both animate and inanimate. Then comes the rebirth, if one is lucky, when the world again seems new, fecund and inviting.

End of part 1

Click here to read Part 2, about turning notebooks into a memoir.

Part 3, A Memoirist Talks About the Backstory of His Memoir

Click here for Part 4 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Tenacity of a Writer

Click here for Part 5 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Novelist or memoirist

Notes

Rick Skwiot’s Blog, “New Underground”

Rick Skwiot’s Home Page

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.

A memoir of mourning helps make sense of loss

By Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

The first half of the memoir “Losing Jonathan” by Robert and Linda Waxler is about their attempt to stop their son’s fall into heroin addiction. At the center of the story was a good kid, loved by his family and friends, a college grad bursting with potential and a desire to change the world. By the time his parents discovered his problem, all of that was tearing apart. Horrified to learn that Jonathan was in trouble, his parents were torn out of their ordinary lives and hurled into pleading and research, therapists and rehab.

They felt caught in the cruel undertow of drug addiction. Something was stealing their son and they couldn’t stop it. After a stint in rehab, they hoped he had returned to them. And then the call came. A tainted dose of heroin had ended his life. The second half of the book recounts the following years of their grieving. The book is told from both their points of view with Robert’s passages written in straight font and Linda’s in italics.

The father’s journey

During the year they knew about Jonathan’s addiction, Robert struggled to hold on to his own emotional center, relying on his family, friends, and his Jewish faith. After his son’s death, he turned even more desperately towards these supports. Meanwhile, his mind was churning, second-guessing what more he could have done, and struggling to make sense of a world in which such things could happen. Amidst his thoughts are wonderful images of the young boy in his earlier life, full of hope and promise.

Robert Waxler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, has devoted his life to teaching literature as well as finding the wisdom within it. He believed so deeply in the power of writing that he founded a program called “Changing Lives Through Literature,” to help convicted criminals find their way to social responsibility.

So when he tried to cope with his own loss, he looked towards literature for help. In “Losing Jonathan,” he writes, “Literature helped me keep my anger in check. It gave me a sense of proportions, of tolerance. But it didn’t foreclose on passion, nor did it serve as an escape from Jonathan’s death. Sometimes standing in an empty room, I will yell out loud at Jonathan, even now, and wonder why this tragedy happened.”

The mother’s journey

Linda was so overwhelmed, she didn’t know what to say. Neither did her neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances. So they avoided her. At the time when she needed the most support, she felt most alone.

“Losing Jonathan” revealed the effects of the passage of time, showing grieving as a sequence of inner adjustments. After a few years, Linda began to reclaim her poise enough to greet people and look them in the eye. Robert writes, “Near the end of the fourth year, Linda wrote her own article about grief, a stunning composite of her feelings and her knowledge. It was published in several places including the Providence Journal Sunday Magazine. She was stretching, touching others, rejoining a community, becoming a writer of her own life.”

In the fifth year, Robert writes, “We were like the wedding guest who listens to the tale of the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem, disturbed by the spell cast by his turbulent journey, but wiser now. At the end of the poem, the Mariner is gone, leaving the wedding guest to stand alone, forlorn, stunned into wonder at the vision:

And now the Wedding Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn;
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.”

Many layers of grieving

Memoirs of grieving have a special place in my library, since they take me on the author’s spiritual journey, trying to reclaim the meaning of life after its loss. In another memoir, “Here if you need me,” Kate Braestrup wrote about losing her husband in a freak accident. Then, she had to get on with her life. In the end, she arrived at a lovely conclusion, summarizing her feelings about death in a compelling and uplifting chapter on good and evil. When I’m asked which memoir is my favorite, this is usually the one that comes to mind.

Now I realize after reading “Losing Jonathan” that I loved the Waxlers’ memoir for similar reasons. Like Kate Braestrup they were on a quest to wrest their sanity back from the abyss. At first they were thirsty for support from their community. Then, after five years, Linda suggested, “We should try to write a book. It would be a way of honoring Jonathan’s life. Sustaining it.” The suggestion reflected Linda’s desire to give back to the community some of the strength they had given her. And the vehicle for their gift was a book.

Publishing the book was a social act, a generous gift to each other and the world. I feel encouraged by the willingness of these authors to share their inner process with the rest of us, to give us insights, tips, and guidance to help us stay strong and wise during our own recovery from loss.

Click here for the Amazon page for Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler

Click here for the Amazon page for Waxler’s second memoir, Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler

Writing prompt
If you suffered a loss, describe the situation. Show the external signs of your suffering (tears, blank staring, incoherent cries, or inappropriate silences, pounding the wall). Show the impact on relationships (arguments, withdrawal). Write about how you tried to find meaning, (discussions, readings). Where did you turn to help you make sense? Describe the ideas that helped you patch together the universe. Write a scene that shows you emerging from the valley.

Notes about multiple voices in a memoir
I have read several memoirs that speak from more than one point of view. “Color of Water” by James McBride includes extensive passages taken from interviews with his mother. “The Kids Are All Right” is told by all four Welch siblings. In “My Father’s House” the author Miranda Seymour occasionally steps outside the narrative of the book to discuss its assertions with her mother. “Picking Cotton” is written in the voices of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino who was brutally raped, and Ronald Cotton, the man who served seven years in jail for the crime he didn’t commit.

Writing Prompt about multiple voices
Consider giving prominent characters in your story their own voice. If practical, interview these people. Observe the interplay between their perspective and yours and try to imagine how a memoir might include their observations or even their voice.

Another memoir that fast-forwards at the end
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg in “The Sky Begins at your Feet” continues with an epilog that shares the years of survival after her surgery. Coincidentally, Mirriam-Goldberg also believes in the power of literature to change lives and community. See her organization for literature and social change, Transformative Language Arts Network

Writing Prompt for epilogs
If you need to explain how life kept going after the presumed end of your memoir, consider tacking on a postscript that shows what happens after the main or central story is over.

Read an interview with Robert Waxler

To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.

Note

For another view of a son’s fall into addiction see the pair of memoirs: “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff  and “Tweak” by Nic Sheff  see my essay, Matched pair of memoirs show both sides of addiction

More memoir writing resources

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.

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

Learn the inner and outer dimensions of memoir writing

by Jerry Waxler

I have been a fan of Linda Joy Myers ever since I read her memoir “Don’t Call Me Mother.” (Also see my essay “Mothers and Daughters Don’t Always Mix“) The book was straightforward and elegant, transforming a painful past into a compelling story. When I reached out to learn more about how she wrote it, she explained that writing the memoir was itself a journey that lasted more than a decade. During that period, she developed a more sophisticated understanding of her own childhood and at the same time learned the craft of storytelling.

Linda Joy wanted to share these benefits with others so she offered memoir writing workshops and then started the National Association of Memoir Writers, an organization that offers courses, teleseminars, support, and other benefits to aspiring memoir writers everywhere.

I already knew that Linda Joy brings compassion and insight to the memoir field, so I was eager to read her new book “The Power of Memoirs, Writing Your Healing Story.” The book covers the basics of scene and plot to help writers weave the skein of events into a story worth reading. It also offers valuable tips for writers you won’t find in other books, such as insight into the knack of accepting feedback from a critique group, in my opinion one of the most important tools any writer can have.

And then, Linda Joy goes beyond craft and turns inward towards the heart of the matter. As a professional psychotherapist, Linda Joy helps her clients work through their memories. In this book, she performs a similar service for aspiring memoir writers. In hefty, substantive chapters like “Psychology of Memoir Writing,” “The Dark Stuff,” and “The Power of Writing to Heal” Linda Joy provides excellent guidance to help you decipher your memories and bring them to the page.

Families matter

A key goal of a memoir is to portray other characters in your life. This can be especially complex when trying to explain parents, grandparents, and siblings who were influencing you while you were under construction. They are part of you. And so, the more you understand those relationships the better you understand yourself. “The Power of Memoir” offers tips about how to write about family. By seeing them through the eyes of a writer, you will gain fresh perspectives and piece together a more sensible story about your family than the one that was shapelessly tangled in memory.

Spirituality

I have been searching for years to find language to express the spirituality of life. Linda Joy’s “Power of Memoir” contains a superb section about this topic. When writing a memoir, we review our past and explore the way we were influenced by our higher power, our religious framework, and other aspects of the inner connections known broadly as “spirituality.”

However, the past is not the only time frame at work here. You actually write the memoir in the present, a journey that both require spiritual strength and generates it. Linda Joy lovingly offers guidance that fosters this connection with the inner self, to help you get in touch with spirituality right here and now.

Psychology Research

While many authors and teachers observe the healing nature of memoir writing, these observations do not constitute the kind of scientific research that would support its use as a form of therapy. To find such evidence, Linda Joy turns to the research of psychologist James Pennebaker from the University of Texas who has spent his academic career studying this question. His research offers a fascinating look at the emotional benefits of writing. Linda Joy also cites brain imaging research that offers additional evidence for these benefits.

This book will help you write yours

So whether you want to write your memoir because you are curious about yourself, or you want to heal old hurts, or you want to share your journey with other people, or you want to strengthen your brain, or you consider writing to be a wonderful hobby, or you wish to publish a book and enter the stream of culture – for any of these reasons, you will benefit from traveling in Linda Joy’s company while discovering the Healing Power of your own memoir.

Home page for Power of Memoir

Click here to read my essay about Linda Joy’s Memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother

“Don’t Call Me Mother” Amazon Link

Click for my essay about Linda Joy’s Memoir

Read an interview with Linda Joy Myers here.

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.

Memoir author speaks of spirituality, religion, and cancer

Interview with author Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg by Jerry Waxler

When Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg was diagnosed with breast cancer, she and her friends were busy organizing a conference to protect the environment. So her journey through doctor’s offices, chemotherapy, and surgery takes place against a rich back drop of family, spirituality, and rivers of community support. (“I have cancer, but I also have friends.”) She skillfully and generously shares her experience in the memoir “The Sky Begins at your Feet,” offering insights that expand my horizons about life as well as about life writing.

Caryn is also a poet, a writing teacher, and the founder of Goddard College’s Master’s Degree Program in Transforming Language Arts. In the following two-part interview she offers observations about writing this memoir, and suggestions that may help any memoir writer overcome difficulties on their quest to share their own stories.

In Part 1 below, Caryn offers observations about how she conveys spirituality, religion, and grieving. In Part 2, (click here to read Part 2) she talks about style, privacy, and some of the ways her memoir has touched the public.

Jerry Waxler: For many people, the two words “religion” and “spirituality” seem so different as to almost be opposite to each other. And yet in your view, you straddle the fence nicely between them. This is a powerful addition to the memoir literature I have read, because I know of many people who wish they could convey their spirituality but don’t know how to find the language. You are so eminently comfortable with the most intimate details of your own search for transcendence I wonder if you could explain how you came to be so comfortable sharing these intimate details of your life.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: As a seeker and a writer, I find the two yearnings — to create and to connect with the sacred — to come from the same impulse: to feel as fully alive as possible. How to write about religion and spirituality wasn’t really something I thought much about; it simply happened because both spirituality and religion are vital parts of my life. I guess I see religion as one part of spirituality that’s institutionalized, and added to the institutional mix is community, group dynamics, group governance, etc., which can be messy but also beautiful. Last week when I went to Yom Kippur services, I had a moment of looking around and thinking how odd and amazing it was that I knew so many of the people around me from various parts of my life, but here — at our services — we entered collectively into the somewhat tribal, confusing and challenging practices of Judaism. I also found it wild that I shared some of the most intimate communal prayers with people, some of whom I didn’t share anything else intimate with ever. That’s the magic of collective spirituality: you can share profound moments with people who drive you crazy, people you hardly know, people you know from other contexts too. I’ve also always been Jewish plus. What I mean by that is that I’ve explored other traditions from Sufi dancing in my 20s through Buddhism in my 30s and 40s to Yoga today.

JW: You use a substantial amount of Jewish lore and practice in the memoir. Of course, not all readers have a background in these references, so it seems that the memoir takes a step into an interesting territory for any memoir writer who might ask, “How much of my unique background will be interesting to readers?” When you wrote the references to Judaism, did you worry that non-Jews would not understand it?

CMG: Some of my own spiritual journey through cancer has included Jewish traditions, myths and practices because integral to my story. At the same time, I tried to contextualize and explain references so that non-Jews would better understand them. Because I live in Kansas, where there is a very small Jewish population, I’ve also done readings from this book, and I find that people tend to understand the Jewish context. Some things, such as the story of Jacob, are well-known to many people, as is the tradition of a Bar Mitzvah. Other aspects I found that people could understand with a bit of reference. I wasn’t worried about this issue just as I don’t think Christian or Buddhist or Moslem authors would need to filter their spiritual experience when telling a story with spiritual aspects.

JW: Can you offer any advice to other memoir writers who wish they could authentically describe their own transcendent beliefs.

CMG: It’s like writing anything: you have to find your own truest words, dive into it, and surrender to what wants to be said instead of what you think you should say. At the same time, I think it’s far more effective to describe the big stuff of life — spiritual struggles, traumas and wounds, giant yearnings or losses — by entering through the backdoor. By that, I mean you can convey the depth of what you’re writing by aiming toward specific detail and specific moments instead of making pronouncements about what it all means. In fact, I think it’s dangerous to try to say what it all means too fast or sometimes at all. For example, I described the moment of my father’s death as surprisingly ordinary, and I told readers how I paced back and forth on the deck, what the sky was like, how my voice sounded when describing the moment I found out I would need chemo. Our sensory experiences — what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch — are powerful tools for bringing readers to the vital and living emotions and realizations we find, which never happen in a vacuum, but always somewhere at some time, such as sitting in a lawn chair in early autumn and suddenly seeing a crow land on a dying tree, and knowing something new at that moment.

JW: I love the way you use the concept of “grieving” in the book. At one point you say you were grieving your loss of strength. Another time you say, “another part of me I sloughed off.” In popular use, the word “grieving” tends to be used for coping with the death of a loved one. You are using it in a broader sense here. Please say more about how the process of grieving has been extended to help you adjust to life through its various stages and changes.

CMG: There are all kinds of causes for grief in this life, and luckily, all kinds of causes for joy too, sometimes even joy and grief simultaneously. For me, it was important to name what I was losing, whether it was my breasts, my strength, my sense of humor, my father, etc. as a way to tell my true story. I needed to look at the loss and feel the grief because my life as continually illuminated how the only way out is through. I also realize that as I age — just as all of us — I will be losing things all along the way, such as the capacity to run down the street, or sleep eight hours straight (well, I already lost that one!), or get through a day without discomfort or pain, and certainly the speed at which I live my life and how much I can get done in an hour. That great poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” states, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master/ so many things are filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” I also heard a novelist, Julia Glass, on the radio the other day say that all novels are really about how to go on with life in spite of whatever happens. I hope my memoir also points toward how to go on with life, and to find greater life in learning from whatever life gives us.

Links

 

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.


Be Here Now by Writing a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

When I first heard the phrase “Be Here Now” in the early seventies, it was from the title of a book by Ram Dass. According to the book, the best way to live a full life is to savor your direct experience, whether smelling a flower, watching a sunset, or even when experiencing the sadness of a loss. By paying close attention, you can penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos. As a hippie, I had little interest in learning from the past. And I certainly wasn’t spending much time planning for the future. So I didn’t think Ram Dass was telling me anything new.

Then I went to work for a living and staggered under the pressure. No wonder I had avoided working for so long. This was hard! I looked for tools to help me regain my poise and one of the most powerful turned out to be the one I didn’t think I needed — To Be Here Now. I started to meditate, and with practice I did occasionally spot glimpses of peace right there in the office. I was grateful to take advantage of this ancient technique from the East. But the mystics never said success was easy. It may take a life time to get it right. Meanwhile, I continued to look for additional ways to make each moment better.

One evening I complained to my therapist about feeling anxious. She said I would feel better if I brought my attention back to the moment, and she taught me a trick. Use words to describe my immediate surroundings. She said this verbal exercise would stimulate the cerebral cortex and put my conscious mind back in control. I looked around her office and noted her diploma hanging on the wall, her desk piled with papers, and her compassionate face. Her dog lying on his side slapped his tail against the floor. Sure enough, describing the office calmed me then, and when I see it now in my mind’s eye I feel reassured once again.

Despite all the valid reasons for staying in the present, however, the past plays an important role. I don’t want to forget the achievements that still give me pride, and I certainly don’t want to brush away the hard-won lessons that continue to help me find my way today.

The problem is not that memories exist but that there are so many of them, pulling me in a thousand directions. The more years I try to ignore them, the more confusing they become. As I grow older and watch some of the graces of my body fade, rather than wanting to let the memories go, I want to make sense of them.

I line my memories in order on a piece of paper and begin to notice sequences that make sense. Step by step, I increase my understanding of who I was, who I am, and who I am trying to become. Once I see myself taking shape on the page, I realize my life is turning into a story. I already know about the power of stories. Every time I read a suspenseful book or watch a movie, my attention is collected within the author’s tale. I am “Being Here Now” inside their story.

I gain that same benefit for my own life by writing about it. Writing reveals my role. I’m the hero in this story, and as the main character, I create an inner continuity that allows the past to flow into the present. Looking at the past isn’t an escape, after all. On the contrary, organizing my life into a story helps me collect my energy and apply myself with conviction to living in the world today.

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.

Note
The “Be Here Now” philosophy was expressed beautifully in William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” which starts out with the following quote. “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.” The poem is famous for its implication that all of eternity is within grasp in the moment. When reading the rest of the poem for the first time, I made the remarkable discovery that it is mostly about animal rights. It’s as if he has revealed how the Eastern notion of souls can help Westerners find a new relationship with their world, replacing domination with harmony. Within the moment lies eternity, and within the compassion for a horse lies the ocean of God’s love. Who is this man Blake, and why is he so intrigued by the souls of animals and the human responsibility to care for them? He passed along the insights he had 200 years ago. Which Now is real?

Since it’s in the public domain, I’ll copy it here in its entirety:

Auguries of Innocence
by William Blake

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

A dove-house fill'd with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro' all its regions.
A dog starv'd at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.

A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.

A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing.
The game-cock clipt and arm'd for fight
Does the rising sun affright.

Every wolf's and lion's howl
Raises from hell a human soul.

The wild deer, wand'ring here and there,
Keeps the human soul from care.
The lamb misus'd breeds public strife,
And yet forgives the butcher's knife.

The bat that flits at close of eve
Has left the brain that won't believe.
The owl that calls upon the night
Speaks the unbeliever's fright.

He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov'd by men.
He who the ox to wrath has mov'd
Shall never be by woman lov'd.

The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider's enmity.
He who torments the chafer's sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night.

The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother's grief.
Kill not the moth nor butterfly,
For the last judgement draweth nigh.

He who shall train the horse to war
Shall never pass the polar bar.
The beggar's dog and widow's cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.

The gnat that sings his summer's song
Poison gets from slander's tongue.
The poison of the snake and newt
Is the sweat of envy's foot.

The poison of the honey bee
Is the artist's jealousy.

The prince's robes and beggar's rags
Are toadstools on the miser's bags.
A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.

It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

The babe is more than swaddling bands;
Every farmer understands.
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity;

This is caught by females bright,
And return'd to its own delight.
The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar,
Are waves that beat on heaven's shore.

The babe that weeps the rod beneath
Writes revenge in realms of death.
The beggar's rags, fluttering in air,
Does to rags the heavens tear.

The soldier, arm'd with sword and gun,
Palsied strikes the summer's sun.
The poor man's farthing is worth more
Than all the gold on Afric's shore.

One mite wrung from the lab'rer's hands
Shall buy and sell the miser's lands;
Or, if protected from on high,
Does that whole nation sell and buy.

He who mocks the infant's faith
Shall be mock'd in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne'er get out.

He who respects the infant's faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
The child's toys and the old man's reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply.
He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of knowledge out.

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.
Nought can deform the human race
Like to the armour's iron brace.

When gold and gems adorn the plow,
To peaceful arts shall envy bow.
A riddle, or the cricket's cry,
Is to doubt a fit reply.

The emmet's inch and eagle's mile
Make lame philosophy to smile.
He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne'er believe, do what you please.

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out.
To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.

The whore and gambler, by the state
Licensed, build that nation's fate.
The harlot's cry from street to street
Shall weave old England's winding-sheet.

The winner's shout, the loser's curse,
Dance before dead England's hearse.

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro' the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.

God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.



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