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 Classmates.com 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.

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Memoirs as a journey from blindness to sight

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.)

David Sheff’s memoir “Beautiful Boy” oscillates between the uplifting joy of his son’s Coming of Age, and the tragedy of his son’s tragic fall into addiction to crystal meth. All the ugly stuff is there, how Nic lied, broke in and stole from his own parents and neighbors, slept in alleys and drug houses but refused help. And then there were the drug-free periods when this beautiful boy was back, a delightful human being, full of creative spirit and enormous promise.

Sheff, a professional journalist, recounted his son’s self-destructive journey, starting with the first suspicions. Then came the confrontations, the efforts to control his son’s behavior, and the gut wrenching worry. The horrible fact is that millions of parents ask themselves every day or even every hour, “Where is my child?” “Will this be the call from the police?” “What must I do to stop the downward slide?” “Should I pay for another round of rehab, or is that last relapse a sign that I must write this child out of my life?”

The book has all the elements of a compelling drama. There is the author’s loving second wife, and their two sweet younger children. There is the constant anxiety, and the play by play experience of watching the son grow up, and then fall apart. Sheff applies his journalism skills to report on the special hazards of methamphetamine addiction: the high rate of relapse after rehab; the irrational behavior of the addict when craving the drug or under its influence; the denial and lying. And then, the experience begins to take a toll on David Sheff himself.

It’s no secret that stress undermine health, and sure enough, the author’s extended periods of frantic worry almost kill him. About two thirds of the way through the book David has a life threatening brain hemorrhage. Until then, Nic’s father and step-mother had been going to Al-Anon meetings and hearing that they cannot change the addict. The addict himself is the only one who can do that. Al-Anon’s message is that the people around the addict need to figure out how to take care of themselves. But a parent’s job is to take care of a child. Right? So while hearing the Al-Anon messages they had not yet embraced them. Now, after the hemorrhage, they have no choice. At last, we remember this memoir is by the father, and now the story shifts inward to his own introspective journey.

Nic’s biological mother had played only a minor role through the course of the book. David rarely spoke to her, except to make arrangements to hand Nic back and forth between the two homes, one with dad in northern California during summer and the other with mom in southern California during the school year. When Nic started disappearing, they called each other to get information about where he might be.

Three pages from the end of the book, Nic’s biological parents have their first therapy session together. It turns out that they went through a bitter divorce when Nic was little more than a toddler. I try to understand what it felt like to be Nic, raised by parents who resented each other and who lived hundreds of miles apart.

I don’t know whether to laugh in relief or cry in rage that it has taken this much anguish to force these two people into a therapy session with their son. I, as do most therapists, believe that all the members of a family influence each other. With his two parents split apart, I picture Nic split apart inside himself, too. It must have taken a superhuman effort to hold these warring parts of himself together.

For most of the book, I was sucked into the premise that it was all about Nic. When will he come back? Will he completely resolve the addiction? But that’s the son’s journey. I finally realize this is David Sheff’s’ memoir. I want to understand more about his inner world. Will he awaken psychologically and spiritually, so he can offer his love to his two younger children and his wife, and stay centered, healthy, and supportive himself? David Sheff’s inner journey begins close to the end of the book and runs out of room. After finishing Beautiful Boy, I could see that dad was just getting started.

I felt a little cheated that it took the author so long to start looking within himself. Then I look at my pile of memoirs and realize that most of the authors continue through the darkness for a really long time. Dani Shapiro in “Slow Motion” took forever to realize she was destroying herself. Jeanette Walls in “Glass Castle” took forever to grow up and get away from the clutches of her weird parents. Frank McCourt had to grow up and get away from his destructive father in “Angela’s Ashes.” Jim McGarrah had to fight in a war, and then go home to figure out how to heal in “A Temporary Sort of Peace.” William Manchester in his World War II battle memoir “Goodbye Darkness” first had to show us his demons, before finally coming to terms with them in the final chapters.

Despite the fact that David Sheff’s knowledge of himself remained hidden for so long, it did finally force itself to the surface. This long climb, known as the Character Arc, creates hope, letting me know that through the circumstances of life, the character is becoming a better, smarter, deeper person. This journey the author has taken through the course of his memoir fulfills my faith in the human experience – that if we keep hacking at it we will end up smarter by the time we die than when we started. This faith is one of the unspoken agreements we have with the authors of our books. We conspire together to promote this lovely truth about life, that in living we learn and grow, or as stated more poetically in the lyrics of Amazing Grace, “I once was blind but now I see.”

Writing Prompt – Character Arc
As you look for a structure for your life story, your job is to find a meaningful segment or point of view that will provide the reader with a compelling experience. One way to look for this segment or point of view is to find the lessons contained within it. Of course, your end result does not need to beat the reader over the head with such a lesson but if you can find this Character Arc, and hold it in mind, it can help develop a compelling time frame and structure for your memoir. Name the life lessons you think you have drawn from your experiences. For each one, brainstorm how it might fit as a template for your memoir.

Writing Prompt – Drugs and alcohol
While the horrific downward slide of David Sheff’s son is hopefully a minority experience, millions of people are affected by substances. Often the abuser creates a wall of denial, convincing him or her self that they can handle it and it doesn’t affect anyone else. Write an anecdote about how you or people in your life have been affected by substances. If you have a romantic notion of your own use when you were younger, write the experience from your parents’ or partner’s eyes. If you were deeply affected by someone else’s abuse, write a story seeing what that experience might have looked like from their eyes.

Note

David Sheff’s son Nic also wrote a memoir, called “Tweak” about his experience as an addict. I am just getting started on it. “Tweaked” is the slang term that describes the frantic mental state of a methamphetamine high. From what I have read so far, the book is quite explicit and should be eye opening about the other side of the drama.

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

Escaping the prison of what might have been

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.)

Tony Cohan, author of the memoir “Native State” grew up listening to his father speak about popular musicians with the awe usually reserved for gods. Cohan’s father, Phil, produced a variety show in the heyday of radio, and famous performers like Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante filled dad’s heart with admiration and also put food on his table. It was natural for young Tony to want to grow up to be one of the performers his dad revered. At 13-years-old Tony played his first gig as a drum player at a high school dance. Then he moved “up” to bars and strip clubs. A few years later, his ambition took him to North Africa and Spain, where he played with the hippest jazz performers, but nothing satisfied him. No matter how far he progressed as a musician, his life remained stuck in dimly lit nightclubs, poverty, drugs, and danger.

Flash forward a couple of decades. Cohan is earning his living as a successful writer, living in Mexico with his girl friend. This explains why he felt stuck all those years. Music was taking him in the wrong direction. He wasn’t able to find satisfaction until he escaped his original goal. Empathizing with Cohan’s frustration, I turn pages, wanting him to find his true dream.

I have met many men and women whose lives started in one direction, say towards a profession, or marriage and babies, or the family business. Then they end up somewhere else. Often the change in direction leaves them or their parents confused, as if they have disrupted destiny or lost a crucial component of their own identity.

Later in life, they look back and wonder about the discrepancy between the initial story and the later one. If they describe it as they originally felt it, it raises issues of disappointment and regret, or anger and rebellion. They feel echoes of the initial confusion. All these years later, something about the transition into adulthood still feels “wrong.” And yet if they don’t include it, the story feels incomplete, as if they are ignoring major events.

I had such a fracture in my own Coming of Age. On the rare nights when dad could get away from the store to join the family for dinner, he told stories about his customers. His tone about most people was overly familiar, jocular, often condescending. But when he talked about doctors, the tone changed. As a pharmacist, he was simply fulfilling their orders. They were his gods. I didn’t want to be one of the mortals, the everyday people who became the butt of dad’s jokes. I wanted to be one he respected. To achieve that dream, I became increasingly tense about amassing knowledge. My intellectual drive constricted my view of myself and my role in the world.

By the time I was 18, I had become hyper-focused on science, math, and medicine, and becoming a doctor was the only Truth worth living for. Then, something very strange and disturbing happened. I entered college during the sixties, when cultural and political upheaval stirred my world into a frenzy. I became interested in philosophy and literature. Shaken loose from my original obsession, I started rebelling against everything, and then dropped out to pursue some hippie utopian fantasy.

I replay the events over and over. I was a hardworking and competent young man with a well-stocked arsenal of academic gifts already in place by the time I was 18. I wanted this one thing so badly. Then, like a clown stepping on a banana peel, I slipped and fell on my ass. For years, I thought my academic pratfall meant I was a failure. I didn’t live up to my own or my father’s expectations. Now as I review Tony Cohan’s story, I see my life journey from a different point of view.

When I threw myself into the social revolution and rejected everything my father and family stood for, it was not an accident. It was a choice. Math and science satisfied me mentally but cut me off emotionally from the rest of the world. Something inside me was crying out for release. Like a prisoner who takes advantage of a riot to cover his escape, I used the sixties to help me break out.

It turned out to be a messy process. Without my father’s dream, I was on my own. In the following decades, I explored a rich variety of life styles, shared my days with a far broader set of companions, pursued creative outlets in computers and psychology, writing and spirituality. The life that I actually lived is fine, despite the fact that it’s different from the one I thought I was heading towards.

For most of my life, I have tried to forget that loss of momentum, hating the accompanying emotions of failure and regret. Who wants to dwell on the crappy past? But finally, now that I apply my storytelling intelligence, I begin to see how one boy’s life played out. The events in high school and college, while seeming so vast at the time, were just the beginning of the story, not the end. In the beginning I thought I understood how life was supposed to be. And then came the decades of learning how it actually was. As I translate the fragments of my life into my life story, I develop a much deeper understanding of my own path.

In one sense, we are all “trapped.” First we are confined by the expectations instilled in us by our family, community, and society. Second, we feel trapped by what already happened. As life plays out, our past choices limit us to only a sliver of the infinite possibilities that might have been.

Yet, in addition to these two confinements there are also two freedoms. First, we apply our intelligence and creativity to make the best choices in each new moment. Second, as storytellers, we are free to interpret our past in the most interesting and engaging way. That original story of who we were supposed to be was just a springboard. Now it is our choice to craft the story of what actually happened. By exploring the past as a storyteller, we can become more accepting of this complex person, with all the twists and energy that have emerged from the cauldron of the past.

Writing Prompt
What initial story did you feel constrained to follow? Which parts did you end up fulfilling? Which parts did you not? Write an anecdote about a time when you felt your earlier dream slipping away. Write another one about an early image of yourself coming true.

Writing Prompt
Consider any regrets you might have about an earlier direction that felt like it slipped away. Look at those experiences as a storyteller, and create a positive reason for turning in the new direction. Write a story in the third person about a satisfied person who lived the life you actually lived. In your story, let this satisfied person meet a miserable person who followed the course you originally thought you were supposed to follow.

Writing Prompt
Another approach is to develop an alternative reality in fiction. By setting yourself free in the world of imagination, you can discover entire lifetimes. Write an anecdote about a key transition. Use it as a basis for a fictional story, and see where your imagination takes your character.

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Reach deep into memory to build a scene

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.)

I wish I could portray what it was like to be a nerd in high school. I had few friends and for four years, my main interest in life was studying and reading. The best way to share my nerdiness is to show scenes, bringing readers into the halls of my high school to see for themselves. And yet when I try to describe my life in high school, I feel like I’m trying to peer into the hidden memories of a stranger. Who was that guy? Fortunately, memoir writers have tricks. By prying into the hazy past, we can find far more detail than we had first expected.

One way to get started is to list facts. It was 1961 when I started attending Central High School in Philadelphia, an all-boys, all-academic school, where more than 90% of my classmates were heading to college. There was actually a minimum grade required for admission. No slackers permitted! Every morning, I walked down to wait for the trolley, an electric contraption that clanked, hissed and squealed on tracks. By the time the trolley reached Broad and Olney it was packed. The doors thwacked open, and I stepped into the hectic terminal, crossed Broad and walked down past the girls’ high school. I didn’t know any girls, and just kept walking. As I reached Ogontz, I looked up at the school perched on a hill. Then my imagination fades. I can’t see inside the building.

Since my eyes don’t seem to be working, I try stirring up smells, touch, and sounds. Groping like a blind man, I reach out and my hand lands on a blackboard. I am transported into ninth grade algebra. My teacher calls me up to the front of the class to show a homework problem. With chalk in hand, scratching the board and smelling the dust, I feel the excitement, hoping my work is right and terrified that it’s wrong. I love algebra, and I love my algebra teacher Mr. Abrams. His passionate demand for excellence would change the course of my life. He is short, and on the last day, after a year of looking up to him, I am horrified to hear a student say, “Mr. Abrams. Would you stand up on a chair so I can kneel down and take your picture?”

Ah-ha! That’s the secret. The events that emerge from memory are loaded with emotions. The emotions make the memory stick. And that’s the problem. I was an intellectual, among a crowd of intellectuals, and emotions were not in our vocabulary. We wanted to get into top schools and that meant being serious, all the time. No wonder I don’t remember much.

But there is hope. I’ve already discovered one scene. Surely there must be others. I grope again, touching the glazed cinder block walls that on hot days radiate a soothing coolness. In this tactile mode, I feel a weight in my hand. It’s my briefcase, so loaded with books I can barely close it. I smell today’s sandwich, dig around in the bottom and find pencils and stab myself on the point of the compass that I use for drawing circles in geometry class. I snap the clasp. There is a particular hallway I keep going back to outside my chemistry class. The windows seem far away, and the hall is dimly lit.

The main focus of every conversation is to drill each other about things we are supposed to know for tests. We also try to stump each other about the definition of vocabulary words. As I try to listen in on these conversations, I again feel a complex thrill of emotion, desperate to sound smart, mixed with fear that I might sound stupid. I try to home in on one conversation.

Our chemistry teacher is extraordinarily flat. Not only doesn’t he have a sense of humor. He doesn’t express emotions of any kind. In one lesson, he teaches us the laboratory notation for a chemical reaction that does nothing. Think for example of pouring water over rocks. No dissolving, no heat, no change in color. When that happens we are supposed to write “NR” which stands for “No Reaction.”

Emerging from class into that dark hallway, I walk with an awkward gait, compensating for the heavy briefcase in my hand. Another student turns to me and loudly quips, “Hey. Let’s just call him ‘NR.'” It feels good to show a little disrespect for our teacher. And the scientific terminology is a nice touch. We all laugh. Looking back, I realize why the memory stands out from the haze – we are a bunch of nerds laughing at someone who has even more trouble expressing emotion than we do ourselves.

While it’s not a complete scene, I’m adding more components, and if I persist I could end up with boys’ names, and what they looked like, and what more they said to each other, to show how these particular nerds behaved on this particular day in this particular hallway. Even if I only find one or two such scenes, readers will see for themselves that I was a nerd. And at the same time, I’m benefiting from it too. The ghostlike quality of those years has always given me the eerie feeling that I was a shadow, an outline with no substance. By discovering scenes, I feel my past self gradually taking on flesh and bones, filling in who that boy was back then, and making me feel more whole and continuous of a person today.

Writing prompt
What scene do you wish you could remember? List facts, descriptions, names of places, names of people. Do they remind you of anything else you didn’t think of until you started writing? Touch objects. Find a particular object, and while you are touching or looking at it, look around and describe what you see. Name a person and talk to him or her. What are you saying? Remember anything that person said or probably said, and listen to the voice. What does this tone of voice tell you about the person or their background? How does the conversation make you feel?

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

6 Life Story Writing Prompts Inspired by a Book of Short Stories

By Jerry Waxler

Xujun Eberlein’s book of short stories “Apologies Forthcoming” are accounts of growing up in the 1960’s in China. [Read my review and interviews.] Since the stories are based on her life and times, I thought I could learn a few lessons about how to turn life into story. I was right. Here are some of the lessons I learned for writing a memoir, along with some writing prompts to help you apply these lessons to your own life.

Interaction of individual and society
When Xujun was a young girl, deadly fighting broke out between two factions of Red Guards, mostly teenagers who fought each other with deadly force to prove themselves the true upholders of the Chinese Revolution. Because of social upheaval, her parents lost their jobs, she was unable to go to school, and her sister died. These stories provide extraordinary examples of that strange and complex fact of life: our individual journey is intertwined with our society.

Writing Prompt
Review the periods you want to write about and look for historical forces and trends that were shaping your own experience. How did the economy affect your household wealth? What members of your family have been influenced by war? What community upheaval or natural disaster or social trend took place? When you have identified a meaningful intersection between your individual life and the larger community, write a story about it.

Use the short story medium to shape your memoir
When trying to describe real life, the multitude of themes, dreams, and people become tangled, making it difficult to weave it all together. Xujun solves this problem by biting off one specific challenge at a time. Focusing on that one theme, she develops its context, then shows how the emotions rise, crescendo and resolve.

In one of the stories, the main character had an affair with a married man. As time went on, the girl’s emotional dependence grew. She became jealous of the man’s wife, and fell farther into despair. In the end, she broke through the tangle of emotions with a surprise. In another story, she left her family and went to the country to work in the fields. As a city-girl in a town of farmers, she clumsily stumbles against local customs, creating disturbing tensions.

Even though each story stands on its own, they add up to provide insight into a young girl’s life in that time and place.

Writing Prompt
What Xujun did in fiction, you could do in reality, developing a series of stories that gradually add up to portraying your life. Review your list of powerful transitions, such as a love gained or lost, an accident, illness, peak accomplishment, or realization that changed. (If you don’t have such a list, start it today.) Describe a single scene that represents that transition. Then surround this scene with context to turn it into a self-contained story. At the beginning, introduce the dramatic tension. Then encounter and respond to obstacles. In the end, resolve the dramatic tension. (To extend it beyond a self-contained story, end the piece with a hint of the dramatic tension that comes next.)

Create empathy for the protagonist
Xujun’s protagonists stir my compassion. In each story, I worry about the protagonist’s plight, feel the loss of her sister, want her world to be more sane. Her goodness and suffering help me suspend disbelief and accompany her through her trials. Like the fairy tales of Cindarella and the Ugly Duckling, Xujun’s protagonist is often misunderstood. Xujun the author should know about being misunderstood. She is smart, but the people around her don’t care. China in the Cultural Revolution has turned against smart people.

Writing Prompt
Review one of your favorite anecdotes, or write a new one, and then step back and look at it from a reader’s eyes. What emotions will help readers bond with you. How have you been an outsider in your own world, misunderstood by people you are reaching towards? Will readers be urging you to grow, to find your niche, to be loved?

Friends
When Xujun’s protagonist relates to the people in her life, whether coworkers, friends, or family, I feel her respect for them and her desire to be respected in return. These emotions haunted me so much I asked the author why she was so focused on friends. She asked me where I saw it, and I said, “Everywhere.” She replied that friendship was a revered part of her culture. It also happens to be a wonderful part of my life, too, and yet in my writing, friendships often disappear into the background. Her stories inspired me to pay more attention to the emotional clout supporting characters can convey.

Writing prompt
Consider how friendships can enrich your readers’ experience of your life. Friends’ perspectives help you see your world in a different light, their companionship provides relief from loneliness and gives you someone to talk to, and their support helps you overcome obstacles. Write a scene that emphasizes such interactions.

Sexuality while coming of age
As Xujun’s protagonist grows from child to young adult, her friendships become complicated. Later in life, she again feels a tug of war between sexual attraction and friendship. She masterfully shares the power of these emotions, while at the same time maintaining the privacy of her world and the decorum of mine. This delicate balance of intimacy and power is known in literary as well as psychological circles as “maintaining appropriate distance.”

Writing prompt
You may assume that sexuality is too heavy-handed or too personal a subject to include at all, or perhaps you have gone to the other extreme, including erotic scenes that may offend or drown your readers. Consider using Xujun’s model, and follow a path down the middle. Try writing a scene in which you convey as authentically as possible your unique experience, while understating or hinting at the mechanical parts. The power of the written word is that it gives readers the opportunity to fill in the rest.

Unique characteristics make us all “foreign” to someone
When Xujun tells about her life in China in the sixties, I lean into every word, drinking in glimpses of a portion of this foreign, mysterious world I have never seen. So what does this have to do with writing my own memoir? I can’t change my past to be as exotic as Xujun’s. But perhaps I don’t need to.

When I look at my life through the mirror, I realize that growing up in a row home in Philadelphia is foreign to Xujun. This fact becomes more apparent when I look at my bookshelf. In every memoir, my curiosity about the author’s world compelled me to turn pages. Whether I was learning about Brooke Shields’ postpartum depression, or Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s life in the foster care system, or Linda Joy Myers’ childhood in a broken home in the Midwest, or Barack Obama being raised by a white mother and visiting his African father, or the authors of “The Pact” who grew up on the mean streets of New Jersey, or Henry Louis Gates or George Brummell, growing up in the segregated south. We are all exotic to each other.

Writing Prompt
Identify parts of your life that reflect your unique past. Did you grow up on a farm? Went to a university? Joined the army? Had kids? One of them had a disability? As you list the parts of your life that make you unique, consider what you look like to someone who grew up in a different world. Write three character sketches of readers who might think parts of your life were foreign.

Conclusion
Xujun’s collection has reached my desk at an exciting time. Short stories are in a resurgence. This medium offers many of the pleasures of a book, but within a more compact form. They explore fascinating issues of growing up in another culture, during a complex time. And they offer insights into writing that can help you write about your life.

Notes:
For an example of stories that emphasize foreignness, see She collected stories by Italian American women. Louise DeSalvo and Edvige Giunta, editors, “The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture.” (Feminist Press, 2002) Louise DeSalvo is the author of a valuable book about memoir writing called “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.”

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.

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.

Notes

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”

Note

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.

Story untangles distorted memories and reveals truths

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

During one fateful day in ninth grade, I discreetly positioned a science fiction book on my desk and was reading it while the English teacher droned on. I was so absorbed in the exploration of the galaxy that Mr. Disharoon walked up behind me, caught me red handed and confiscated the book. I always assumed the ‘C’ I received in that class, my only ‘C’ in high school, was based more on revenge than poor performance.

The first version of that story, the one that automatically comes to mind, looks at Mr. Disharoon as the villain, a self-righteous jerk who busted me for reading in his English class. How ironic! Later when I was rejected from a highly competitive college, I blamed Mr. Disharoon’s mean spirit.

Now that I write about that incident, I look deeper, and I immediately see flaws in my original version. For one thing, I was the one who was breaking the rules, and he was doing his job by enforcing them. It would be self-serving of me to forgive myself for the crime, while blaming him for the punishment. I shift to his point of view. Through his eyes I see a bratty kid who doesn’t seem interested in learning.

I spot another problem with the proposition that Mr. Disharoon ruined my life. This was not the only English class I struggled with. The following year, in a rare visit to a teacher’s office, I went to ask my tenth grade English teacher Mr. Barsky for help. I wasn’t doing well in his class, either. The final blow to my interpretation of events came a few weeks ago, when I was corresponding with a fellow writer. I was telling her I sprinkle commas or semi-colons wherever the mood strikes me. She seemed surprised, pointing out the pleasures and virtues of correct punctuation. The conversation sounded familiar. I realized I’ve often defended myself as a “free spirit” amidst the rules of English. Ah-ha! I was reading the science fiction book because I didn’t care about my teacher’s stupid rules. I deserved the ‘C’.

I am fascinated to discover that I have permitted this important story of my past to remain in its original form for decades. To learn more, I look more closely at the characters. As a young man, I was almost obsessed with obedience, so when I was caught in such a defiant act, I was not only breaking rules. I was undermining my own self image. It was overwhelming to think I’d blown it so badly, so instead of taking the blame myself I shifted it over to Mr. Disharoon. He was the jerk, not me. This “logic” made sense when I was 14 years old. Once I had developed this explanation, it took on a logic of its own. The thousandth time I remembered the episode, I saw it the same way I did when it first happened.

But wasn’t there any truth at all to my original interpretation? How could I have been so far off the mark? I look for evidence to prove Mr. Disharoon was a spiteful man, but I can’t find any. In fact, his office provided a hang out for a coterie of adoring students. I stick myself back into the scene, and try to understand what I was thinking. At that time in my life, I had fallen so deeply in love with science fiction books that when I read one, I became lost in its world and couldn’t let it go. Robert Heinlein’s “Tunnels in the Sky” had seduced me into joining a band of explorers stranded on a remote planet, facing the dangers of the mysterious stobors and that was preferable to being in an English class. When Disharoon snatched my book he ripped me away from that world. I felt violated. I see his face, ordinarily pale, now flushed under snow white hair. In addition to being disgusted with myself, I realize I was angry with him.

All these years, I’ve been focused on my belief that he didn’t like me, but now I recognize my own feelings of dislike. This realization shocks me. As a “good boy” I took great pride in my obedience to teachers. They were the gods of my world, and in order to succeed, I needed to serve them, even worship them when possible. Now as I hear his bass voice and his exaggerated elocution as if he was some kind of damned radio announcer, he seems full of himself. Pompous. What did he know? Screw him and his damned rules. I was such an obedient robot-like teen, this memory stands out as the only example of defiance from those years. That’s kind of cool! I had guts in a nerdy sort of way.

All of these lessons about myself come from the simple act of trying to tell a proper story. When I tried writing it in the form it has always presented itself in my mind, it didn’t sound right. To turn it into a readable story I had to strip away the layers of self-righteousness and expose the actual events. In the process, I feel lighter. I’ve released my load of blame and I learned more about the events that shaped me.

To listen to this blog, click on the podcast link below.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Prompt: Select a memory in which you felt hurt or wronged. (Be sure it’s a safe one. Don’t jump into a memory unless you are ready.) Step back from your own feelings, and especially from your sense of outrage, and describe the situation the way an observer would who was not partial to either party.

Note: The book I was reading in high school was Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky about a group of young people who were exploring the universe through “tunnels” or “wormholes.” The warning they were given to beware of the “Stobors” turned out to be a meta-warning, which really meant “Beware of some unknown danger which you don’t know about now but it’s out there.” “Beware of the stobors” has become one of those classic Robert Heinlein phrases that has passed down through generations of his readers.

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

Help my aging dad tell his story

I received this question in a comment yesterday, and it is so rich in the story of the human condition I am bringing it forward and answering it in this post.  It was posted by Judy as a comment on my blog Be Here Now by Writing.

Dear Jerry,

My Dad is 89 years old. My Mom is in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimer’s, and he is in assisted living where they were together until recently. He is terribly depressed, since this is virtually their first time apart in 63 years, but the one thing that can still light him up is his stories. If I give him a cue, he will be off and running. He used to write many of his stories at a writers’ group my mom organized for many years, and I have some of these stories. My husband and I have been transcribing them and reading them to him, and he loves this.

He was invited to present one of them at a story writing workshop at Assisted Living, but since he is nearly blind, he couldn’t read it. The Activities Director offered to read it for him (a particularly wonderful, emotional story) and he said okay, but it was devastating for him. It turned out that he had rehearsed the story many times in his head in order to be able to tell it eloquently. When she read his words, he was terribly upset, even though he had agreed.

What do you think should be done with his stories? He has a zillion of them in his head and as I’m writing to you, I’m thinking that maybe we need to create an index of them so that when someone says the title or word, he can then tell the story. It seems to give him back a big part of himself. The story that was read this weekend was called “Silent Conversation” and it was about an incident that occurred years ago with my daughter who was about 9 at the time. It was a gorgeous story. Any advice or input regarding how to use his stories to light him up would be greatly appreciated.

Judy

Hi Judy,

Thanks for sharing this rich story, filled with emotion and the drama of the human condition. That’s the magic of stories. Even in your tiny comment, I feel like I know him and you. How lovely that you have found the pleasure he gets from tapping into his stories. That’s awesome! And he has a little built in audience in the story writing workshop that his own wife created. That is so poetic I’m getting goosebumps.

Your tiny story paints a powerful picture. He wanted to be the one to tell the story. There’s a buzzword for this desire. It’s called “communalization” and is typically used for recovering from trauma. I think it also applies to aging people who feel isolated in their experience. He wants to communalize his experience by sharing it with others. We are social animals and the story helps draw us together at any age.

He isn’t losing his functioning to remember his stories. And it sounds like with all that rehearsing he has the passion for telling them well. So the solution is simple, and you sort of present it yourself. Let him do the talking. So what if it’s not told in the exact same words as it was originally written? What it loses in polish it will gain in spontaneity. And because he is doing the talking, it will make him feel understood and heard.

I wasn’t quite sure if he also wants to record more, or if he would be content with repeating the stories you already have. In either case, you could improve the situation with some technology. Buy him a digital recorder (these little devices have become really powerful and convenient). He can record the story over and over until he gets it right. Then you can copy it to an iPod and he or anyone can play them on demand. (I’d be happy to tell you a little more about the technical issues if you want.) Or you and your husband could read his written stories into a tape recorder so he could listen to them. Or train Dragon Naturally Speaking to transcribe them into text. All these technologies are cheap and straightforward.

The missing ingredient for many people is the availability of a helpful support team. But he has that. Not only does he have the life writing group at his assisted living facility. He also has loving children who are interested in his story telling and searching for ways to help him.

Sincerely,

Jerry Waxler

Listening Is An Act of Love

by Jerry Waxler

Last week, when I was visiting WHYY studio in Philadelphia I saw the mobile StoryCorps van and interviewed facilitator Mike Rauch about what StoryCorps does. It intrigued me so much, I went back to Philly last night to hear Dave Isay the founder of StoryCorps speak at the National Constitution Center. He was explaining StoryCorps, talking about is own path, and sharing some of the stories from his book. StoryCorps is a non-profit corporation, and according to Dave Isay, it’s the fasting growing nonprofit corporation in the country. Now, if that’s not a trend, I don’t know what is.

Learning about other people’s lives, through their stories is gripping the national imagination. I think it’s because we’re tired of watching sitcom actors play out their perfectly scripted lives. We want real people. In my opinion, this is the reason for the scrapbooking craze, the blogging craze, and the memoir craze. Now we’re poised for the audio story craze.

At the current rate, the StoryCorps is gathering 7,000 stories a year, and it’s growing exponentially, with new facilities and programs coming online all the time. During the question and answer period, a schoolteacher asked if the stories ever become repetitive. Dave Isay said, “No. At first I also had that fear, that we would start hearing the same story over and over. But it never happened.” He added that in his opinion the most important recipient of the story was the family member who was in the recording booth hearing intimate details for the first time. More often than not, people break down and cry in the middle of the telling. These are touching, intimate moments that open up pathways among people.

Before the age of electronics, say in the nineteenth century and before, people had to use each other for entertainment. They told stories, played the piano, participated in parlor games. This gave them time to get to know each other. When I was growing up, that all changed. We glued ourselves to the tube and let others do the entertainment for us. That’s been going on long enough, and we’re growing weary of being strangers to each other.

Dave Isay’s book is called “Listening is an Act of Love.” As a therapist, I have found his title to be true. Part of my training was to keep my mouth shut and listen. It doesn’t sound like much, but sometimes it’s the most generous, caring, healing thing you can do. Now, Dave Isay and the StoryCorps want to show everyone that same power. Dave Isay’s book “Listening is an act of Love” contains a number of stories as told by people in the StoryCorps booth. Remarkably, all profits from the book go to support the mission of the StoryCorps.

The stories are not edited, nor do they provide much backstory. After reading memoirs, it’s easy to see the many differences between oral and written life story. But rather than focus on the differences, here are a few ways that oral storytelling fits in with the charter of writing your life story.

  • Use story listening to help you learn about yourself. To research his memoir, Foster Winans interviewed people in his life to ask them how they remembered him.
  • Use story telling as a way to dredge up material. It’s amazing how much comes to mind when you are telling a story. Sit with someone who really cares. Ask each other questions. Let the story emerge. You’ll find material you had not thought about in years.
  • As you write your memoir, you will become more sensitized to the variety of human experience. By seeing your own story from the inside, you will want to know other people’s stories. And this will open you to the inner lives of the people in your family and beyond.
  • As you read memoirs, do the same thing a listener would do in that recording booth. Slow down, and listen. You will realize that everyone has an inner life, and reading about it will expand the range of your understanding of the human condition.

For more information about this piece, see this links:
Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center
StoryCorps
WHYY Philadelphia’s Public Television and Radio Station
My previous essay on StoryCorps

Tell stories for more thankful holiday gatherings

by Jerry Waxler

The holidays bring together a mélange of generations, family units, and significant others, bonded by blood, marriage, love, and shared life experience. Then why did I feel more dread than joy? I didn’t understand my own reactions to the holidays until I started writing family stories, and then the answer leapt off the page. There were just too many stories in one room. The chiefs in their own homes are now guests. Siblings connect in a secret code that sounds foreign to their spouses. Fully grown adults behave like children, and kids who are ordinarily the cutest, now must compete with even smaller ones. The clash of roles has always confused me, and I’m not alone. Many people struggle to sort out their feelings about holiday gatherings.

Now that I see the problem, I’ve worked out a solution. My interest in storytelling helps me focus on the interesting, curious, or historical features of my clan. By looking for their stories, I become engaged with people more intimately, and my curiosity reveals who we are as individuals and as a group. I’m not claiming writing is a panacea, but it has helped me stay on top, like a surfer riding the energy rather than falling in. Here are some suggestions for applying this strategy to your own holiday gathering.

Connect with each person by writing scenes
Before the holidays, in your imagination go around the table, visualizing each person. Watch the memories that play through your mind, and when a scene jumps out, describe it. Don’t worry how important the scene is. Even if it seems trivial, write about it. What did you see? Who was there? What happened first? Then what? Your writing exercise will open you to a deeper channel through which you can learn about your relationship.

For example, I try to imagine my father at the holiday dinner. At first, all I see is a tangle of people eating, drinking, and getting through the hour. Then I shift to a different family gathering, Passover which combines a feast with a ritual service. My father tells us to read a passage from the book of instructions. Then we do things like dip a toothpick into radish and taste it. While the book provides stage directions, my father is the director. This is interesting. I’m not accustomed to seeing him in that role and find this memory soothing. By writing that scene, I cast my father in a light that would help me relate to him at the Thanksgiving meal.

If you feel anger towards someone, that’s more problematic. The initial temptation is to complain, but that only makes you feel worse. Step back and with your storytelling curiosity look for scenes that evoke a range of emotions, such as drama, passion, or pleasure. If you suspect it’s going to sound like another round of ranting, continue brainstorming until you light on a memory that sparks your interest. Then tell the story. Describe the external circumstances, the furniture, the smells of cooking, the sound of voices or clatter of dishes. Out of the scene will emerge a more complex picture of your connection with this person. The exercise may help you develop a more sophisticated container into which you can pour your heart.

Your interest in people changes the dynamics
Family preconceptions remain frozen in time, so older relatives see younger ones as if they are children, and younger ones see elders as the powerful parental figures they once were. These prescribed roles force interactions into a groove that confines each of you into only a sliver of your whole personality. Break past these limits by telling people you are writing about their lives. Ask the questions you will someday wish you had. As you sit there with paper and pen or tape recorder, eyes wide with interest, the focus shifts. Now you are empowering people to be themselves, in toto, opening a door into their real lives, not just their ritualized position in the clan. Even though you are talking about the past, your interactions in the present become more authentic and intimate.

To evoke vivid responses ask for sensory descriptions. If you can get them to wade through a pile of leaves as they walked to elementary school, or describe the dresser and mirror in their childhood bedroom they will probably become energized with fresh stories, rather than the routine ones they usually tell. Test the question by posing it to yourself. If it stirs up memories, there’s a good chance it will work on your relatives. If it leaves you blank, try something more specific. If the atmosphere during the larger gathering is not conducive to reverie, pull your interviewee aside before or after the meal and talk in a more private setting.

Write about those you miss
The holidays are a ritual time to come together as a tribe, but what about the people you won’t be with? They might be cut off by a feud, a death or divorce, or they are on a battlefield, in a hospital, a nursing home, or a prison. Longing is itself a form of connection that links people at a distance. Stories go further by reminding you of the love and joy and other qualities about them that are the reason you miss them in the first place. Write about a peaceful time, or a peak time, or any story that awakens your connection.

By looking for fresh ways to describe the people around you, you will gain poise not only for the day. You’ll generate insights and written passages that help you through the year. And you just might find some lovely bonding opportunities with the people in your life.