More Fantasy Techniques To Help Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Memoir writers face the daunting task of turning life experience into a story. To do so, we must select from a variety of storytelling techniques, and find the ones most suitable for our own situations. In this part of my multi-part essay about fantasy techniques in memoirs, I review two more, inspired by a close reading of Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”

Weapons and weapon masters in Memoirs

Each James Bond adventure begins with a visit to Q, who provides special purpose tools of war, communication, and deception. This mythical role of the weapons master turns up in a variety of stories. “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was loaded with experts in the intricate arts of swords, axes, and arrows. And the role of the weapon master is alive and well in Andre Agassi’s memoir, “Open.”

The first weapon in “Open” is the tennis machine, code named The Dragon. This device acquires an almost mythical power over the boy, who had to return every ball that belched forth from the depths of the beast. His father custom tailors the machine, making his father the first weapon master in the book.

The weapon at the heart of the story are his tennis racquets. Agassi is obsessed with his racquet, its grip, and above all its strings. Agassi’s weapon maker is the guy who strings them. Before a match, he won’t let anyone touch his weapon. The psychological intensity of his obsessions with the proper care of his tools build to an almost magical crescendo, blurring the line between real life and fantasy.

Warriors also rely on their mode of transportation. A car or horse often contributes to the protagonist’s power. Agassi recounts several scenes in which driving in a fast car is an important part of his life.

Other memoirs offer variations on importance of tools and weapons. In “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly, the main weapon was the fighter’s own body. Many of the martial artists turned parts of their body into “iron.” Other memoirs focus on the machinery of transportation. For example, Mark Richardson in “Zen and Now” talks at length about keeping his motorcycle in working order. Doreen Orion in “Queen of the Road” focused on details of her luxury motor home, an effective device that proves that with enough creativity you can create a story out of just about anything.

Writing Prompt
Most of us don’t have advanced involvement with weapons, but if you let your imagination roam, you might see tools with which you defend or express yourself. Musical instruments could fill this slot nicely. How did you care for your violin or guitar? If cooking was important, you may have cared for your pots and pans. Gardeners, sculptors, painters all have special equipment that must be cared for, often with ritualistic attention. If you had a special relationship with your mode of transportation, write a scene to show the power and intensity. Horses are especially rich sources of drama. What rituals went into maintaining your motorcycle or  bicycle?

Magic Potions in Memoirs

The protagonists of fairy tales and fantasy fiction often use potions to gain special strengths, cures, or visions. There are truth serums, knockout drops, and antidotes to poison.

In the middle ages, alchemists searched for the elixir of life, that would grant immortality. And of course, deep in Christianity is the communion, drinking wine in order to become  one with the divine presence. In everyday life, we take cough syrup, alka-seltzer and an endless variety of intoxicants, to help us find fun, forgetfulness, and liberation.

Potions played a key role in Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” His sports trainer had a knack for concocting special drinks, some to build the tennis champ up before he played, some to sustain him during a long match, and other’s to help him recover. Agassi spoke with awe about these potions, to which he ascribed great power over his state of health, strength and stamina.

Probably the most common use of potions is to intoxicate. These mental releases sometimes open windows, and just as often close doors. When Agassi was in a dark funk, he took crystal meth, a move that gave him temporary pleasure and jeopardized his entire career.

Writing Prompt

What meds, coffee, vitamins, mind altering drugs and alcohol or other “magic” potions played a role in your journey?


This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” For the start of the series, see
When is a memoir by a celebrity not a celebrity memoir?

For the Amazon page for Open, click here.

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.

Cast of Characters in His Chosen Clan

by Jerry Waxler

I used to think that heroes tended to be lonely but when I read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” I realized they are not so lonely after all. It’s true they must leave home to go off on their adventures, which at first makes them seem isolated. But they soon collect allies. King Arthur was surrounded by his Knights of the Roundtable. The Hobbits traveled with a band of companions called the Fellowship, and in the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy gathered the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man. Similarly, memoir protagonists often attract a group of friends and followers.

Consider world famous tennis player, Andre Agassi, hero of the memoir “Open.” Before he could afford to hire companions, his brother accompanied him on tours. As his career grew, so did his band of allies. He hooked up with professional sports trainers and strategists, a personal racquet stringer, and a spiritual mentor. This cast of supporting characters culminated in a perfect match with his soul mate, Steffi Graf, another world-famous tennis player.

Agassi did more than mention these people. He freely shared his debt to them, almost devotionally letting us see that even though he was the one out in the spotlight, his crew deserved a substantial portion of the credit for his success. One of his most damning criticisms of his first wife, Brooke Shields, was that she didn’t grasp the importance of the clan in his life.

Most memoir authors don’t have an entourage. For example, in “Zen and Now,” author Mark Richardson rode his motorcycle alone, occasionally meeting people on the road. One reason I found this book so haunting was because the author’s soul mates lived in a different time. In the present, he could only gather their ghosts. At the other extreme, in “The Path, One Man’s Quest on the Only Path there is,”  Donald Walters moved into an ashram. Sarah McDonald is somewhere in the middle. Her year in India is assisted by a couple of friends and the staff at her apartment, who help her understand the local culture.

A chosen family plays a central role in my own story. When I left home, I turned into a classic loner, essentially a recluse. Later, the pendulum swung and I moved in to a commune where I could enjoy both extremes. I could be as withdrawn as I wanted to be by closing the door to my room, and when I wanted company, I simply walked out into the kitchen to be with my band of allies.

Writing Prompt

The power of the chosen clan may add depth and interest to your own memoir. In different stages in your life, what micro-community gave you social context? Write a few scenes that show how you relied on them for support and companionship.


This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” For the start of the series, see
When is a memoir by a celebrity not a celebrity memoir?

For the Amazon page for Open, click here.

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.

Shapeshifting, Costumes, and Imposters in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

In myths, characters can sometimes change shape, for example transforming from man to wolf. Cinderella’s fabulous night out transformed her from a maid to a princess. The notion of moving from one role to another is not limited to fairy tales. Through costumes, cosmetics, hair style, and role-playing, we often alter the way we present ourselves to one another. In previous posts, I showed how ancient storytelling techniques helped Andre Agassi share his life in the memoir, “Open.” In this article, I show how changing shape or “shapeshifting” can help you add impact and authenticity to your memoir.

For the first 18 years of our lives, while we are trying to figure out who we are, our body is changing shape. So during our coming of age, we are all shapeshifters. During this period in Andre Agassi’s life, he had the additional complication of becoming famous. The public was trying to form an image of him, just as he was trying to form an image of himself. As a young man searching for his own teenage identity, he occasionally rebelled against rules, wearing different, non-regulation clothes. The public came to see him as a rebel.

His mane of gorgeous hair became his trademark. When it began to fall out in gobs he desperately tried to hang on to his old identity with wigs, terrified of being seen as a balding man. Finally he accepted the inevitable. He shaved his head, and radically changed his public image.

Writing Prompt

What alterations in your appearance could add nuance to passages in your memoir? Perhaps as you describe your shape, you will learn why people related to you the way they did.

Actors change shape all the time

Ironically, the person who encouraged Agassi to let go of this charade and shave his head was his first wife, Brooke Shields. This is especially interesting because during the course of their relationship, Shields was building her career as an actress and Agassi became increasingly unnerved by Shields’ ability to assume any role she was assigned to play. If she could play any character on demand, how did he know when she was sincere and when she was just acting?

These observations about his relationship with Shields show the confusing psychological aspects of being an actress as well as getting to know one. Through his eyes, I saw the connection between actors and the mythology of shapeshifting. Actors are paid to shift their shape.

Reluctant Shapeshifting is Common, Too

Whether we choose our new role, or have it thrust on us, it can take time to adjust. The transition period can be awkward or downright uncomfortable. When I first earned my Master’s Degree, I felt confident with clients, but in public, I didn’t feel like a therapist. Known as “imposter anxiety” this discomfort in a role is more common than you might think. For example, in “Down Came the Rain,” Brooke Shields looked at her newborn baby and was horrified to realize she wasn’t able to instantly shift into the new frame of reference of being a mom.

Writing Prompt

Consider situations in your own life when you felt like you were in a role that was “not really you.” This lag time during which you struggle to accept your role can help your readers relate to your growing-pains. Write a scene that shows your struggle. If later, you resolved the feeling and settled into the role, write a scene that shows your adaptation.


This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” For the start of the series, see
When is a memoir by a celebrity not a celebrity memoir?

For the Amazon page for Open, click here.

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.

Riddle of the Sphinx – Stand Straight for Dignity

by Jerry Waxler

My brother had a curved spine with the fancy name “scoliosis.” So I knew that Linda Wisniewski’s memoir, “Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage” would have something to do with posture. However, after reading it I wondered if posture played a central enough role in the story to warrant a position in the title. It’s true that when she was diagnosed with this problem, it made her feel like she had a defect, like there was something diminished in her character. Was that enough?

I kept thinking about Linda’s posture, and how it might have affected her life, and soon noticed that my first impression of people was influenced by how straight they stood. This observation provided an insight into something I might have known earlier if I had thought about it, but I didn’t. These signals we send and receive are nonverbal, without words. And therefore, we may find ourselves affected by such things, without necessarily thinking them through. It was only by reading the memoir that I began to wonder what such an experience might feel like.

After thinking about it, it was easy to see for myself that the charisma of a person can be affected by their posture, but what about their self-image? Recently I came across a fascinating observation from an analysis of the ancient drama “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. In a lecture series “Understanding Literature and Life” Professor Arnold Weinstein recites the famous riddle of the Sphinx. “What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” The answer is “humans.” Professor Weinstein points out that the riddle is not about legs. It’s about posture. As children, we crawl. To join the world of adults, we stand up. As we grow old, we stoop, using the cane to remain as upright as possible. Humans equate dignity with an upright spine, and when standing up is hard, we try harder.

Another suggestion about posture came from Martin Luther King’s autobiography, which was posthumously crafted from his notes and speeches by Clayborne Carson. King exhorted people to maintain their dignity despite the crushing weight of prejudice and Jim Crow laws. He said, “No one can ride on your back if you stand up straight.”

Throughout the memoir “Off Kilter,” Linda Wisniewski does press forward to find her dignity in the midst of the many social and psychological issues facing women in the twentieth century. And so, while she does not quote Martin Luther King or Sophocles, her tale is definitely about the struggle to achieve dignity, providing personal echoes of this universal principle.

Memoir itself is a triumph of the human spirit

By showing how her curved spine affected her, she helped me think more deeply about this aspect of life. She helped me understand my brother’s condition. Even at his full six feet five, he was, in a sense, unable to stand up straight, and found his dignity in other ways, through serving and healing people. She helped me understand the struggles of the women of the twentieth century, who strived to find their dignity despite old roles that encouraged them to be submissive. And she helped me realize the importance of posture as a general symbol for human dignity.

While nothing could straighten out the curvature of her spine, Linda’s effort has elevated her stature in a different way. She shared a story, and that act creates a dignified connection between us that transcends the shape of her spine. By teasing, tweaking, and perfecting the narrative of her life journey, she has become a woman who stands tall despite the forces of age, culture, and gravity.

Story behind the book

The history behind Linda’s title might reveal something of its sweeping implications. Before she wrote the book, she wrote an essay about her scoliosis that attracted the attention of author Maureen Murdock who praised Linda’s story and encouraged her to extend it. Since Maureen Murdock is famous for her interest in symbolism, perhaps her guidance contributed to the deeper meaning conveyed in Linda Wisniewski’s memoir.


For more about Linda Wisniewski, her memoir and for buying options, visit her home page.

I recommend the audio version of a book about Martin Luther King’s life, “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Martin Luther King, Clayborne Carson assembled from King’s letters, notes and speeches.  I listened to the version from which includes original recordings of many of his speeches.

To learn more about Maureen Murdock’s work, visit her home page.

Visit the Teaching Company for lectures about literature, philosophy, and other topics of value to memoir writers. For the lecture series mentioned in this essay see: “Understanding Literature and Life” by Professor Arnold Weinstein.

Lessons memoir writers can learn from Zombies

By Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Brad Pitt recently bought the movie rights to “World War Z,” a thriller by Max Brooks. Once Pitts star-powered name became attached to the project, everyone wanted to write books or shoot movies about creatures who looked human but have no soul. Thriller writer Jonathan Maberry jumped in with “Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead.” To research the book, he interviewed over 250 experts, including the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control, and his local police rapid response team. He even interviewed me, asking for a therapist’s point of view about the fear and mass trauma that might result from a Zombie outbreak.

Even though I have no interest in writing about Zombies, I regularly take writing classes from Maberry, finding his instruction helpful in unpredictable ways. In this lesson he was making the point that fiction writers can use research to create a more compelling world. I pondered how to apply the principle to memoirs. As I look through my bookshelf, I discover many examples in which factual reporting adds clarity and depth to a memoir writer’s story.

David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy” reports the background of his son’s addiction to Crystal Meth. Doreen Orion’s first memoir, “I know you really love me,” recounts her experience of being stalked by a patient. During this extended intrusion, she became an expert in the psychological as well as the legal problems of stalking.

When Linda Joy Myers wrote her memoir “Don’t Call Me Mother” she visited the wheat fields and train stations that played such an important role in her childhood in the Great Plains. She rode the trains to awaken vivid memories. And she studied the history of Iowa and Oklahoma, and visited cemeteries and courthouses to track down records of her genealogy.

Kate Braestrup’s memoir “Here If You Need Me” describes exquisite details of the natural habitat of Maine. Foster Winans went to the library to find out the weather in New York on key days in his memoir, “Trading Secrets.” (His advice: “weather ought to be considered another character.”)

Memoir writers even toss in facts for entertainment. For example, in Doreen Orion’s second memoir, “Queen of the Road,” she was at a club listening to a local country music band, when a little girl got up on stage and did a clog dance. Just for fun, Orion inserted a brief explanation of the history of clog dancing.

When I dig back into my own past, many facts seem hazy. Research helps fill them in. For example, to help me remember the riot in 1967 that changed my life, I found two documentary movies, “The War at Home” and “Two Days in October” both covering the Dow Chemical protest riot in Madison Wisconsin. In one of them, an interview with a young man reminded me how much we truly believed that protests could eradicate injustice and create world peace. We even threw poverty into the mix of problems we were going to solve. To help organize my memories about high school, I signed up for and have corresponded with a couple of guys I have not seen in decades.

My goal is remarkably similar to Jonathan Maberry’s. We both want to tell a good story. So I keep listening and keep learning lessons about the relationship between life and story. For example, in a previous discussion he told me that flaws in real people prepare him to write deeper characterization in his novels, a discussion I reported in another essay.

I wonder what else I can learn from Jonathan’s lesson about Zombie folklore. Their current popularity is simply the latest chapter in a centuries-old fascination. In the middle ages, there was the Golem, a Jewish myth about a person who had no soul. In the nineteenth century Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was created from inanimate body parts. And  in the Wizard of Oz, the Tin Man and Scarecrow wanted to inject human qualities into their inanimate bodies. Looking at my own life through the metaphor, I see the lesson I was looking for.

When I was a young man, I was fascinated by math and science, and bent my entire will into interpreting the universe as a sort of machine. I became obsessed with finding all the physical rules, and the longer I followed this path, the more depressed I became. By the time I was 23, I had lost my will to live.

Finally, from sheer desperation I dipped into the spiritual ideas that were permeating the culture in 1970. Those ideas restored my hope. Ever since, I have invested at least part of my attention to finding the spirit in every day life. Until recently, I thought this interior journey was a private one that couldn’t possibly concern readers. But now that Jonathan has pointed out the vast numbers of people who want to know more about Zombies, I wonder if their curiosity would extend to the true story of a guy who spent his life trying not to be one. It looks like the Zombie wave could add more spirit to my life story than I first realized.

Writing Prompt
List some research that can contribute to your story. For example, list specific examples of people you could interview, points in history you could learn more about, or health and medical details that would help explain what you were going through.

Writing Prompt
What puts the soul or deeper humanity in your story? List specific instances of some of the more sublime aspects of your life, such as spirituality, service to others, creativity, and desire to see others succeed?

Note – Turning Nonfiction into Fiction
Maberry’s research was creating a modern folklore to help him understand what makes Zombies tick and what the rest of the world thinks about it. He’s already used this technique. Author of one of the most successful and authoritative books about Vampire Folklore, Maberry wrote a thriller trilogy, starting with Ghost Road Blues, based on that creature. Now he’s doing it again.

Maberry’s extensive research into Zombie lore is turning into a novel. “While researching plagues and epidemics ZOMBIE CSU, I began speculating on how this info could form the backbone of a novel.  The concept blossomed from there: a plague that reduces people to a state that simulates death while creating uncontrollably violent behavior.  That idea became PATIENT ZERO, which will be my first mainstream thriller, set for release in March by St. Martins Press.”

Many fiction writers start with facts. For example, Jason Goodwin studied the Ottoman Empire as an historian. Later he turned his knowledge into a setting for fiction, having recently published the murder mystery, “The Snake Stone,” set in the city Istanbul that he had come to know so well.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Storytellers shed light on the horrors of war

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

Amidst a lifetime of events, some memories are like scorpions that guard the gate of our own past. In my journey to understand as much as possible about life writing, I consider the question many aspiring life writers raise. “Should I approach painful memories, and if so should the memories become part of my story?” Of course there is no one right answer, so I look for lessons contained within painful memoirs I read.

I recently read “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” by Jim McGarrah, an engaging and well-written memoir about a soldier’s experience in Vietnam. I have a special affinity with Vietnam, because I was one of the students on the home front pleading to bring those boys home. Now after all these years, I finally get to see what I was protesting and it’s far more disturbing than I could have imagined.

While the author brings me into the jungle, and lets me share his pain, his psychological reality is so enormous I wanted a guidebook to help me find my way through his and my emotions. It turns out I found such a guidebook, “Achilles in Vietnam, Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,” by medical doctor and PTSD specialist, Jonathan Shay. For years, Shay has been working with Vietnam vets who have been so unnerved by their war experience that the memories yank them back into the fray, without warning.

Shay has explained trauma in an unusual way. He juxtaposes quotes from Homer’s Iliad side by side with conversations among Vietnam vets. It turns out that Homer was an expert on the psychological trauma of war, and this ancient epic that has been lurking in literature classes for centuries contains insights that help Shay explain what soldiers feel.

Soldiers’ love and loss
When I first heard someone claim that soldiers risk their lives because of their love for each other, I thought the word “love” was preposterous. But Shay and Homer convinced me that buddies on the battlefield do indeed care about each other with an intimacy we expect from brothers, or “best buddies.” (English is a bit weak in this regard, but apparently the Greek word philia comes closer.) What I don’t understand is what it must feel like to see such a beloved comrade explode into parts, vaporize, or bleed out in front of your eyes. It’s incomprehensible, and yet it happens, and changes a soldier’s life profoundly. As Jim McGarrah says in “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” “At that moment I started going insane.”

Absence of community compassion
When people in civilian life lose a loved one, they attend services in the company of community and family, and sit quietly in prayer to honor the dead. Shay calls this shared grief “communalization” and says it is one of the most important factors that keeps people balanced after loss. It is almost entirely missing from the combat soldier’s experience. When a soldier loses a buddy, the body is destroyed, lost, or shipped out in a bag. Soldiers are not encouraged to show their emotions. They get right back to fighting, and if they try to talk about what happened when they get home, civilians are unable to relate. The isolation feeds upon itself and creates a cauldron of inner pain.

Demonize the enemy at your own peril
In Homer’s time, truces were regularly declared to gather up and mourn those who had fallen on the battlefield. This act of mutual respect helped keep everyone in harmony with a universe that would continue to exist long after this particular war was over. In modern warfare, soldiers increase their will to kill by convincing themselves that the people they are fighting are less than human. Shay claims this attitude leads to atrocity and despair on and off the battlefield.

Defiling the body
Achilles ties Hector’s body to a chariot and drags it around the walls of Troy, using it as a weapon to demoralize the enemy. When I first read the book I thought it indicated that Greeks were a barbaric culture. But according to Shay, my assumption was incorrect. Achilles’ moral downfall meant that he as an individual had fallen into a barbaric state, and this fall according to Shay, was one of the central tragedies of the Iliad. During the Vietnam War, soldiers on both sides defiled bodies in order to fill the enemy with hatred, fear, and disgust. Loss of respect for the body undermines what it means to be human, and contributes to the unraveling of sanity that lingers long after the war is finished.

Berserking or “losing it”
I’ve seen soldiers in movies, screaming and running towards the enemy. I thought of it as an entertaining bit of theatrical exaggeration. I now realize that this is a very real state of temporary insanity in which soldiers slip outside the bounds of rational thought.

“Berserking” drastically increases the risk of death, and the results for those who survive are also tragic. Jim McGarrah, in a state of exhaustion and rage, performed reckless acts that haunted him for the rest of his life. Jonathan Shay suggests that modern military training actually encourages this loss of control. He warns that this tolerance towards “berserking” is a misguided strategy that hurts soldiers during their irrational behavior, and later damages their ability to return to civilian life.

The value of reading and writing painful memoirs
After Jim McGarrah left the war, there was no science of PTSD and soldiers were told to take it like a man or forget it. So when it finally dawned on McGarrah that he needed help, he had to overcome enormous resistance. He did finally reach out, and even though he doesn’t go into detail about the psychological work he did at the Veterans Administration, I already know the outcome. He faced his memories, no matter how horrific, turned them into a story and from those stories created a book. Thanks to the magic of reading and writing, I have spent hours with him in the jungles, accompanied him during his berserk episodes, sat with him in the recovery room after the wound that got him back to civilian life, and shared some pangs of his emotions, as well as one empathetic individual can do.

By sharing his story, McGarrah has opened himself up to one of the most important elements that veterans are missing, the “communalization” of his grief. Jim McGarrah and I have shared a few hours of pain and commiseration about some of the most painful experiences a human must endure, the loss of life and love during combat. My belief is that in the process of sharing these hours, we have regained a little of what was lost.


Jim McGarrah’s “A Temporary Sort of Peace” was awarded the Legacy Nonfiction Prize for 2010 from the Eric Hoffer Foundation.

To read an exclusive interview with the author, click here.

For a readable explanation of PTSD and its treatment, read “Sanctuary” by Dr. Sandra Bloom, based on years of clinical work, mainly with survivors of systematic child abuse.

To read my essay about another traumatic memoir, “Lucky” by Alice Sebold, click here. She quotes another widely regarded source book for PTSD is “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” by Judith Herman.

Why Write Memoirs after Combat or Other Trauma

Other war memoirs:
Tracy Kidder, “My Detachment”
Tobias Wolff, “In the Pharoah’s Army”
William Manchester, “Goodbye Darkness”


Many soldiers walk away from deadly injury and regain their sense of purpose. For “Shades of Darkness” author, George Brummell, the post-war challenges of coping with his blindness became his urgent task, and he went on to increase his education, and become director of the Blinded Veterans Association.

Memoirs of people who have crashed and burned are not just about soldiers. Many of life’s most severe problems dismantle the sense of self that keeps us safe. In this article I talk about four people who walked into traps of various sorts and felt their lives becoming dismantled.

More about the psychological trauma of war
Jonathan Shay says that an important contribution to a soldier’s unraveling is a sense of betrayal, that the organization is not protecting him. For example, faulty weapons in Vietnam were interpreted as a sign that the military really wanted the soldiers to die. I knew that most Vietnam soldiers felt betrayed by the lack of civilian support, but I was surprised to learn that many soldiers hated the officers who were directing them in battle. The hatred was based on the belief that decisions were made more for the officer’s own career advancement than on the safety of soldiers or effective military strategy. Shay suggests this attitude about rear-echelon officers had a parallel in the Iliad. In ancient mythology the gods on Mount Olympus manipulated the outcome of the battle based on childish selfish desires.

The soldiers in Homer’s time used mythology and rituals to appease the gods. Modern soldiers have no such talismans. Once a modern soldier becomes convinced “The System” is capricious, irrational, and malevolent, they cross into a state of alienation from society and authority, and many of them carry this alienation back with them when they return home. Such betrayal from above undermines the basis for a sane, healthy energetic involvement in society.

Follow this link to read a powerful article about Jonathan Shay’s introduction to Moral Injury of war.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

Is horror based on life? I asked author Jonathan Maberry.

By Jerry Waxler

I asked horror writer Jonathan Maberry why the characters in his Bram Stoker award winning supernatural thriller Ghost Road Blues, are so vivid, so horrible, and strong. He said because they were based on his experience. As he grew up, he struggled to overcome the helplessness and brutality of his abusive father. Then, even after the external abuse stopped, he still had to face the demons that had already become part of his memory.

Maberry’s frankness took me inside this battle waged in real life. To become a fully empowered human being he had to overcome the darkness implanted by his abusive father. His first attempt to push aside his father’s cruel legacy was to study martial arts. He achieved black belt after black belt, and then as a world class martial artist, he began to teach self-defense, and helped kids and women deal with bullying. He has made a lifetime career not only of conquering the evil in his own life but helping others conquer it in theirs. His ultimate platform is the written page. Through writing he can share the insides of this battle, and hundreds of thousands can learn from it. Maberry’s personal struggle against the memories of a father bent on destroying the dignity of a small child is embedded in his novel, Ghost Road Blues.

Based on my interview with Maberry, I came to see horror writing through his eyes. Previously I thought horror stories were simply abstract battles with ghouls and vampires, in a senseless appeal to the darker side of human nature. Such an appeal had no interest for me. After the interview, I realized horror is not some abstract force. Horror reaches into the roots of the human psyche, because for many people, that’s where it has been planted. Children look up to their parents as gods, and when those gods betray them, their budding personalities become clouded by the darkness of horror like some sort of demonic plot to hurt people from inside their own mind. From then on, the battle becomes an interior one.

After our talk, I realize for many people reading such stories helps define the the battleground where good and evil can duke it out. And the reason they need to think about it in this symbolic way is because it is so difficult to talk about in terms of the actual memories. Even the recipients of such abuse bury their memories, afraid to remember at all, or afraid to hurt the perpetrator, or afraid to make themselves look like victims, or ashamed of having provoked it or given in to it. Abuse perpetrated against children defies our sense of fair play so profoundly, the only people who talk about it are politicians who defend us against the bogeymen who prowl our neighborhoods and prey on our children, predators so demonized they are not too dissimilar from the ghouls and werewolves of horror stories. See Maberry’s book, Cryptopedia, another Bram Stoker award winner, written with co-auther David Kramer, for an encyclopedic discussion of other creatures that fascinate and horrify us.

In my opinion, child abuse perpetrated by someone who knows the child has been protected by a collective bargain of silence. As long as it remains hidden behind closed doors, it continues to fester. Now, in the memoir age, that silence is breaking down. I believe that Maberry’s story hints at one of the first great sea changes of the twenty first century, when people are speaking more openly in memoirs and blogs about the variety of experience. In earlier years, much of that information would stay hidden to the grave. Now, domestic child abuse is emerging as a story worthy of our collective discussion and consideration. We no longer need to couch it in terms of vampires and ghouls. We can uncover it in the very real struggle of ordinary people right here on earth, and finally begin to shed light into these darker places of human experience.


In part two of this article, I’ll review one of the best memoirs I’ve read, Ten Points by Bill Strickland in which, like Maberry, the author offers hope that while abuse is possible in real life, so is redemption.

Click here to learn more about Jonathan Maberry’s novels and nonfiction writing about the horror genre.

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.

Myths and Memoirs – am I a victim?

by Jerry Waxler

I’m reading a book by journalism professor, Jack Lule about using myth to find story. I recommend his book Daily News, Eternal Stories to anyone who is looking to find a structure for their story. Lule wrote it to explain why some news stories jump into the headlines, while others don’t. My purpose in reading it is to pass along ideas that can help you structure your memoir.

His first myth is “The Victim.” In his example, a man on a cruise was murdered by terrorists, and elevated by the news media to the status of a hero. Since the man was in a wheelchair, the only reason the terrorists could possibly have for killing him was that he was an American. They used him as a symbol, killing him out of hatred for the nation. The news media accepted the terrorist’s symbolic message, allowing the man to stand in as proxy for all Americans. And once the victim became accepted as a symbol, he could be used for an additional purpose. The media and politicians used his story to send a message back to the terrorists. It’s as if the terrorists were saying “we hate you and we’re going to kill this guy to prove it,” and the American media responded by saying, “Oh yeah. Well we are strong anyway, and you don’t scare us, and we’re going to admire this man to prove it.” Many people who have been elevated throughout history from victim to hero were used in this symbolic way to represent their group. The murderers hated the group and used the victim as a symbol, and the admirers showed love for this victim, and rallied around in order to strengthen their identity and defy the murderers. For example, many of the Christian martyrs are remembered because of the way they were singled out.

While this myth is powerful in news and history, it is not an easy myth to apply in memoir. I believe one reason this is difficult to use in memoir is because to be elevated from victim to hero, your story must be told by others. If the news media declares that you have been singled out as a representative, then you can be elevated. It doesn’t work as well if you declare yourself a victim. On the contrary, you look like a complainer if you come forward and say “I’m a victim.” It loses its mythological power. In fact, “I’m a victim” can deflate a story, taking the energy out of it.

In scanning my experience with memoirs, I can think of one effective tale of a victim, Nien Chang’s “Life and Death in Shanghai.“ Her daughter was “arrested” or more accurately “disappeared” by the Red Guard during the infamous Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s. It’s a beautiful tale, carried not so much by tragedy of the daughter’s victimization but by the mom’s strength, and her struggle to hold up and maintain her poise despite persecution. The crime that Chang’s family was being persecuted for was their western education. As western readers, we can identify with their victimization. In the same manner as Lule’s mythical victim, the hatred that was being directed at that family was symbolically directed at us!

In most memoirs, even if the author has undergone horrific suffering, the energy that moves the reader is not the suffering but the courage required to cope with it. For example, in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, he never complains about being the victim of his father’s abandonment. On the contrary the whole book is a sort of celebration of survival. The reading public didn’t canonize McCourt for being a victim, but rather placed him on their shoulders for surviving.

For memoirists, the victim myth is a cautionary tale. Be careful about declaring yourself a victim. It probably won’t help your heroic image. Consider the dynamics of Tommie Smith’s memoir, a Silent Gesture. The reason I went to see Smith at a book signing this year, and bought his book, was because I wanted to understand the greatness of a man. He came from a poor black family in the segregated south, went on to set world records as a runner, won Olympic Gold in 1968. Then on live television in front of millions of people, he raised his fist in the Silent Gesture. In the tumultuous 60’s this was seen by blacks as courageous. From the media’s standpoint, it was defiant. Smith was blacklisted. He went on to teach and coach, but without the fanfare or success he deserved. See my previous post about Smith on this blog.

As a reader, and a student of history, I ought to be loving every minute of this memoir. But it doesn’t turn out to be a page turner. I think one problem with the telling of this powerful story is that he became entangled in the dark side of the myth making process. Instead of being adored by the media as a Gold Medalist, Smith was turned into an ingrate who abused his privileged position. No advertising contracts, television spots, or fancy coaching jobs resulted from his spectacular athletic achievement. He should have been singled out as a hero, but because of one wildly audacious act, from the glory of victory he slid away into anonymity, or perhaps more accurately like Nien Chang’s daughter, he “disappeared.”

His story is messier than the one Lule singled out in his section on the Victim. Smith was not a guy in a wheel chair, murdered outright. He was at the time, the fastest man alive, and then after he stepped off the podium, he was just a guy, trying to raise a family. It becomes a difficult story to tell. If you are stripped of your glory by the media, who then will tell the story of your courage and survival? It’s a fascinating question. Probably the only credible answer is in a memoir.

I recommend Smith’s memoir for anyone who wants to get inside his experience, whether you are curious about those events and the man behind them, want to learn more about memoirs, or are curious about the workings of the myths that drive our public stories. The book offers lessons for memoirists. How fame doesn’t guarantee success. How the public is fickle, and seems to have a mind of its own. And how myths of heroes and victims play out in Smith’s life.

As you read it, embrace what you like, and consider what you would do differently. From such an interesting life, he ought to be able to shape a compelling story that would again grab the attention of the world. He had the podium, and used it for a silent gesture. A memoir gives him a chance to tell it in words.

What approach would you use? Leave a comment here and let me know.