Two-Memoir Series about Youth, Midlife, and Responsibility

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the second part of a review of David Berner’s Any Road Will Take You There. Click here to read the first part.

In Accidental Lessons, David Berner’s first memoir, a middle-aged man looks for himself in the wider world. From one point of view, it’s the classic midlife abandonment, leaving his wife and kids. But there’s a twist. Instead of running away from responsibility, he takes a job as a school teacher and helps students grow.

David Berner’s second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, seems to follow a similar thread. Again, he leaves home to find meaning. But again, Berner is not exactly running away. This time he hits the road, but in a motor home. And he takes his sons with him.

The characters in Any Road Will Take You There are supposedly following the path of the beat generation of fifty years earlier, when young rebels flaunted the values of society.  But during this updated version, a middle-aged man celebrates social responsibility. By taking his sons along for the ride, Berner attempts to inspire them with the same book that inspired him in his youth. Passing along social values to one’s sons is the very definition of “tradition” and a fabulous sendup of Jack Kerouac’s rebellion. The interplay of the two forces, running away and returning, creates fascinating harmonics.

Within the container of the road trip, Berner is able to ponder the rebelliousness of his youth, and place those youthful impulses within the context of his mid-life crisis. With each passing mile, he moves farther and farther into his commitment to his children. Instead of renewing his commitment to self-indulgence, the way mid-life crises are expected to do, Berner renews his commitment to care for others.

Leaving Home is Only the First Half of the Hero’s Journey
According to Joseph Campbell’s influential book, Hero of a Thousand Faces, the story of the young warrior leaving home to find his place in the world is at the heart of civilization. Campbell finds some variation of this image of “going forth” in every culture on earth.

This desire to find truths somewhere else is not just ancient history. In modernity we continue to travel outward as if our lives depend on it. That spirit drove Europeans west across the American frontier. Jack Kerouac updated the image to a new generation. On the Road was like a starter pistol that launched ten thousand cars. When I drove to San Francisco in 1969, I was not simply looking for good weather. By rejecting my parents’ values, and even their presence in my life, I was following this exciting idea — find truth by abandoning everything you know and believe.

A decade later, most of us former hippies figured out how to establish our adult lives. To do so, we had to reconcile an important flaw in our idealism. By leaving everything behind we had fostered a valueless, chaotic society. But how had we been so misled by the universal myth of the hero? Surely a fundamental guideline of human experience couldn’t have been so out of kilter.

At the time, I couldn’t make sense of how far off track I’d gone, but I kept asking the question. Now, the Memoir Revolution is providing answers. When David Berner looks back across his life, the outward bound passion of our youthful rebellion is shown in a new light. David Berner and other middle-aged chroniclers of the social experimentation of the sixties are helping us update the Hero’s Journey to the twenty first century. Or more accurately, we are rediscovering that the Hero’s Journey has contained that deeper wisdom all along.

It turns out that by celebrating the “going forth” part of the Hero’s Journey, modern cultures have been glossing over the crucial outcome of the Hero’s Journey. At the end of the classic story, the hero returns home. As a returned adventurer, the ultimate goal of the hero is not to conquer the unknown. In the next leg of the journey, the goal is to bring back wisdom to share with the community. In its complete form, the Hero’s Journey is about building and sustaining communities.

David Berner’s memoir Any Road Will Take You There reminds us of this necessary completion of the Hero’s Journey. He springboards from Kerouac’s image of leaving home, but Berner’s variation on this journey has a wonderful twist. He exposes mid-life, not as a time to leave home, but as a time to reevaluate and renew his commitment to his community. As a teacher to his students and his sons, Berner reminds us that the hero’s journey ends with wisdom that will help maintain social values and raise responsible children.

Mid-life crisis corrected
In middle age, it’s natural to fear the whispers of one’s own mortality. As long as our culture only values the “going forth” half of the Hero’s Journey, these fears might prod us to renew our youthful attempt to leave everything, as if by going outward we can become heroes again. But by prolonging the adventuresome half of the journey, we miss the reward offered to us throughout the history of civilization. Instead of going out again, we can find peace and fulfillment by accepting the call to return.

David Berner’s story offers us that image. Instead of focusing on the first half of the Hero’s Journey, he glorifies the second. By returning to his children, and the students in his school, he offers his wisdom to young people so that they can live wiser lives, themselves.

The story of Any Road Will Take You There is seductively simple. Rent a van and go on holiday. However, Berner’s apparently simple send up of On the Road creates a complex backdrop. His first memoir Accidental Lessons adds even more context. Through his two memoirs, the author transforms his midlife crisis into a meditation about generations, about the responsibilities of fathers, about the power of literature to transform individual lives.

On The Road was Jack Kerouac’s roman a clef, that is a novel based on the adventures of one of the great reporters of the Beat Generation. David Berner has done an excellent job updating that message with a true life message of his own. By writing his memoir, Berner compares the “going forth” of the Beat movement in the sixties with the “return home” of the Memoir Revolution in the twenty-first century. In our era, we can complete the cycle: grow up, learn about the world, then by writing a memoir, bring our wisdom to the next generation.

Notes
David Berner’s Home Page
Click here for my review of Accidental Lessons
Click here to read an interview I did with David Berner

For another memoir about an idealistic response to midlife, read Janet Givens At Home on the Kazakh Steppe about a woman who volunteered for a Peace Corps stint at age 53. Click here for Janet Givens’ home page.

Click here for a list of memoirs I have read by authors who have written more than one.

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

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

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Two Midlife Memoirs: A Sequel Shows Command of Structure

by Jerry Waxler

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

I met David Berner in the pages of his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, so reading his second memoir Any Road Will Take You There feels like hanging out with an old friend. The second memoir turned out to be quite different from the first, so in addition to the pleasure of spending a few more hours with this kind, thoughtful man, I was fascinated to read about him from such a different perspective. The two memoirs together spin a multi-layer tale that offers interesting insights — into the man and into the memoir genre’s potential for rich literary value.

In the first memoir, Accidental Lessons, Berner, terrified that his life is superficial, quits his job and separates from his wife. The cliché of midlife suggests a man running away from responsibility and trying to live out his childhood. However, Berner doesn’t follow that hackneyed model. He takes a job teaching at a school in an under-privileged neighborhood. To find his new self image, he attempts to help other young people find theirs.

Accidental Lessons is framed within his year as a new teacher, a position that is accompanied with a bit of humiliation. While other teachers have been doing it for years, he is a total novice. He teaches his young students how to prepare for life, and at the same time, he is learning similar lessons. By the end, he’s starting to get the hang of it.

His story structure, bracketed within the rhythm of a school year, is a perfect canvas on which to paint a journey.  But I didn’t fully appreciate Berner’s cleverness in finding a good wrapper for a memoir until I read his second book.

Sequel Does Not Simply Follow Chronologically
Many second memoirs simply follow the chronological sequence, picking up where the first one left off. For example, Frank McCourt’s first memoir Angela’s Ashes was about growing up in Ireland and his second memoir ‘Tis was about becoming an adult in New York. Carlos Eire’s first memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana was about his childhood during the Cuban Revolution. Despite Carlos Eire’s fascinating experiments with flashbacks and flashforwards, in essence his second memoir, Learning to Die in Miami is a sequel to his first, mainly about his attempt to survive as an orphan in the United Stated.

However, David Berner’s second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, does not simply continue the journey of the school teacher. Instead, the second memoir jumps to a different model altogether. In the second memoir, he rents an RV and takes a road trip with his two sons and an old buddy. The small troupe drives along the same route Jack Kerouac’s characters travel in the landmark book On the Road.

Kerouac’s book, published in 1957, foreshadowed the counterculture of the 1960s and inspired many young men to hit the road and find their truths somewhere other than home. It certainly exerted a profound influence on young David Berner. In Any Road Will Take You There, he tries to pass this literary inspiration to his sons. So the outer story is the road trip itself. And that deceptively simple storyline provides a backdrop on which he paints a complex inner journey.

Because the road trip gives him time to think, the memoir turns into a meditation. Through mini-essays disguised in reveries, Berner explores the relationship of fathers and sons through three generations. And by contrasting his road trip with Jack Kerouac’s he offers new insight into the meaning of the Beat Generation fifty years later. I’ll say more about these deeper dimensions of the memoir in the second and third parts of this review.

Lesson for Memoir Writers
In addition to its artistically brash move to a new structure, Berner’s second memoir contains an interesting clue for writers who wonder. “How much backstory should I include in my memoir?”

The first memoir, Accidental Lessons, provides a wonderful example of a memoir that includes hardly any backstory. He jumps right into his crisis, without saying much about his earlier life. Even though the memoir offers very little backstory about Berner’s previous life, it offers fabulous backstory for David Berner’s second memoir. By reading the first, you gain insight into the character in the second.

The fact that Berner branched out into an entirely different model for his second memoir is a tribute to his commitment to the genre. Each book is excellent in its own right, and together they offer valuable lessons for memoir writers. First, you don’t need to be limited by any one model, and second the road might be longer than you think. There may be a sequel in there waiting to be told.

Writing Prompt
Does your story have enough complexity to break it into two parts? If so, describe the story arc of each of the two parts. How would the first part provide backstory for the second?

This is the first part of a series about David Berner’s memoir Any Road Will Take You There. For the second part, click here.

Notes
David  Berner’s Home Page

Click here for my review of Accidental Lessons

Another author who writes memoirs in different structures is Sue William Silverman. Her first memoir I Remember Terror Father Because I Remember You was a Coming of Age story. Her recent memoir (her third) is Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew in which she embeds parts of her adult life in stories in a pop culture style.

Coming Soon: a list of memoirs I have read (or in some case previewed) by authors who have written more than one.

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

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

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

How Boys Become Men – or – Can Memoirs Stop the Violence?

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

As a boy in a Muslim community in England, Ed Husain’s pleasure was to follow his father to the mosque and pray. In high school in the 1990s, he fell in with a group of boys who said that prayer was for old people, and that the urgent mission of every Muslim should be to destroy western culture. These ideas appealed to Husain. Overriding his father’s objections, he joined the demonstrations and was soon helping to organize them.

When I read Ed Husain’s excellent memoir, The Islamist, I was offended by his choice to turn against his father. Couldn’t he see his father’s perspective was deeper and wiser than his own? Wasn’t it obvious he was attacking the very government that gave him the freedom to protest in the first place? While I was criticizing Husain, I felt a tug from my own past. I also turned against my father’s peaceful ways and “middle class” values.

Throughout high school, I worked in my father’s drugstore and came to believe the best way to please him would be to become a doctor. When I flew from Philadelphia to Madison, Wisconsin in 1965, I was well on my way with excellent grades and a passion for science.

But the Vietnam war was ramping up and so were the protests. The cultural upheaval coincided with my own young-man’s need to assert myself. In 1967, I stood outside the Commerce Building in Madison, Wisconsin, dodging tear gas canisters. A thousand kids with red, fiery eyes and tears streaming down our cheeks, snapped our arms in furious irony, screaming “Sieg Heil” at the club-wielding police. I had crossed a threshold into an angry state of mind where tearing down “the system” took priority over a mere detail like my future.

Even though Husain’s ideology was light-years away from mine, our hearts followed similar paths. Both of us believed that our political beliefs were righteous and important. Both of us felt responsible to take any action necessary to change the world to conform to our beliefs. This sense of righteous urgency caused both of us to turn against fathers’ peaceful approach, replacing it with a pressured, bold one more suited to young men.

What drives boys crazy?
In 1997, 30 years after my blowout in Madison, I went to graduate school to study counseling psychology. I wanted to understand what makes people (including me) tick. In one class, a female professor explained that women often fall short in the quality of “assertiveness.” As therapists we should encourage them to develop that trait in order to achieve equality in relationships and better self-esteem. But what about males? I never heard a lecture or read a book about helping men who felt a need to push the world to match their view. As I continued to read more memoirs, the cast of boys who turned violent on their journey to manhood kept growing

Examples of Boys Going Through Violence on the Path to Grow Up
When Andre Dubus III was young, he felt humiliated by his subservience to bullies. To compensate, he learned to fight, and got better and better until fighting became his life. His memoir Townie is a journey through this painful, violent transition from boy to man.

Fighting is not limited to the streets of working class neighborhoods. Two intellectual, middle class boys fell in love with the potential for kicking and punching. Mark Salzman, in his memoir Lost in Place, became obsessed with learning to fight. Later he went to China to study karate. Another highly educated boy, Mathew Polly did the same. His memoir American Shaolin recounts his residence in the Chinese fighting school made famous by the television show Kung Fu.

Because of my violent experiences during the anti-war movement, I was fascinated to read about the extreme case of Bill Ayers. In Bill Ayers’ memoir Fugitive Days he chronicles the militant, sometimes violent Weather Underground movement. Undeterred by the paradox that he was trying to promote peace by planting bombs and inciting riots, his memoir provides a perfect window into this quality of young men, with our overabundance of assertiveness.

In some boys’ minds, the war protests were the problem and had to be stopped with force. I learned about their anger one night in Madison, Wisconsin when a carload of clean-cut boys piled out of a car, and singled me out because of my long hair. They threw me down on the ground and repeatedly kicked me. As they pounded their message into my body, I knew I had traveled far, far away from my original orderly goal of becoming a doctor and had entered a crazy world where boys use force to start and stop wars.

PTSD – the aftermath of too much assertiveness
We boys back home had it easy. The real fighting was taking place with guns and bombs, blood, death and ruined lives. Memoirs about boys in combat offer a glimpse into that violent world, and usually move beyond it, trying to pick up with pieces of sanity when attempting to reenter society.

In Temporary Sort of Peace Jim McGarrah starts his journey as a high school boy, transfers his life force to the jungles, sitting alone listening to and shooting at noises in the dark. The journey continues into his mental life as he attempts to sort out nightmare from reality. In Until Tuesday, Luis Carlos Montelvan fights military enemies in Iraq and suffers the tragic invisible wounds of PTSD. When he returns, he must fight both to maintain his ability to operate in society, and also fight to raise awareness of the value of service dogs to help mentally and physically wounded veterans.

What is the name for this overabundance of pushiness ?
Despite the far reaching social ramifications of the young male mind’s willingness to become violent, I didn’t even know a name for the impulse. It didn’t seem like the assertiveness I learned about in school. Assertiveness training involves such sophisticated social skills as negotiating, compassion for the other, and taking both sides into account. The boys who turn violent are beyond negotiating. In fact, their angry mindset willfully excludes the other side’s point of view. This young male willingness to fight seemed to have a strangely philosophical slant. My own, and Ed Husain’s anger, as well as the anger of the boys who beat me up, were all based on some abstract notion that through violence we would make the world a better place. Whether defending our homes, our ideals, or simply our street corners, boys seem willing to take up arms.

In the psychology section of the bookstore, I found a couple of books about raising boys, but they didn’t give me insight into the quality I was trying to name. Then I hit paydirt in two books by Jonathan Shay, M.D.

Jonathan Shay, by day, is a psychiatrist who works professionally with combat veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In his private life, he studies Greek classics. He combines the two seemingly disconnected passions in his two books, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming and Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. In these books, he refers back to the Greeks as masters of war. Part of their expertise resulted in their understanding of young men. Greeks knew how to stir men to fighting fury by appealing to this righteous quality call Thumos (sometimes spelled Thymos). Shay uses this insight from the ancient Greeks to help him guide combat veterans back from the broken state caused by their fighting instinct.

After  I learned the name for this quality, I saw it everywhere: in the goose-stepping soldiers of the Third Reich, harnessing young men to assert the need for a racially pure world; to the modern day Islamists who preach a worldwide conquest to bring the truths of Islam to the world; to the gangbangers who righteously defend their own turf and colors against incursion from boys one or two streets away.

Can Memoirs Help?
Now, when I look at the future of the world, I wonder if every young person must repeat these mistakes, or if somehow we oldtimers could convince young people to take into account our experience. By definition, we are already too old to be taken seriously by young men in this heated state. But perhaps those young men who stop long enough to read a book might gain hints and glimpses into the way youthful minds work. By giving them books that share our own experiences, perhaps we could give a few young people a way to see past their excessive assertiveness before they fall into some of these traps.

It may seem like wishful thinking to hope that reading books will help straighten out angry young minds, but many young people are influenced by books, and during that precious window when they are trying to figure out life, sometimes books slip into their inner spaces and give them a cause or image that could help.

For example, in Erin Gruwell’s Freedom Writer’s Diary, the high school students’ lives were being ripped apart by young men killing in order to protect territory and honor. To help her students understand their need to fight, Gruwell assigned them to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which a man from the wrong group provoked murder with a simple gesture. “Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?” Erin Gruwell’s teenagers gained deep wisdom about the tragedy that surrounded them in Los Angeles, through Shakespeare’s ability to reveal universal human truths. They read literature, and they wrote their own stories, and through these stories they grew.

The fascinating truth in the Memoir Revolution is that through the magic of memoirs, millions of us can read Freedom Writer’s Diary and learn powerful lessons about redirecting Thumos to socially productive outlets.

At the end of his memoir Townie, Andre Dubus III outgrows his need to fight, and turns instead to writing stories. Mark Salzman, in his memoir Lost in Place, also grows up fighting. In a later memoir, called True Notebooks, Salzman volunteers to teach young gangbangers how to write. Many of these boys were incarcerated for murder committed as part of their gang identity. As Salzman lets them write about their lives, and then share those writings, they realize that these “enemies” are people just like them. From these encounters, mutual understanding emerges from behind the curtain of Thumos. Salzman’s story offers a stunning window into the inherent sense of decency hidden within their roiling hearts and makes me wonder what their lives might have been like if these kids had been in writing classes before they murdered, rather than after.

In David Gilmour’s Film Club, a father became frightened when he saw his son approach the edge of the boy-to-man abyss. As a professional film reviewer, Gilmour took a chance, offering the boy the opportunity to drop out of school in exchange for a commitment to watch movies with Dad. The gamble paid off, as chronicled in this memoir about using story as a healing tool.

In the memoir Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle works with gang members in Los Angeles, helping them find alternatives to shooting each other. He doesn’t use story writing as a tool to help them. And yet, by writing and sharing his story with the rest of us, he helps us understand the hearts and minds of these young criminals who, with just a tiny shift in focus become devoted family men.

Memoirs by authors who have survived Thumos and come out the other end, can offer deeper understanding about the road to maturity. By sharing our lives through memoirs, we survivors can’t necessarily change the world drastically or solve all its problems, but we can hope to give young readers the chance to make better decisions. In fact, Ed Husain is attempting to do just that. Following the publication about his own transition beyond Thumos to Wisdom, he has become an activist in this cause, trying to help young Muslims choose a nonviolent course, not toward world domination but toward spiritual peace.

NOTES
When asserting their need to grow up, not all boys turn to violence
Of course not all boys use violence to express their needs for identity. In Publish this Book, Stephen Markley’s anger sent him running not to the barricades but to the typewriter. In his memoir Open, Andre Agassi fought against his father’s demands to become a tennis champion. Despite his rebellion, he continued to play tennis, expressing his defiance by breaking rules like wearing colored shorts on the tennis court instead of the regulation whites.

When Frank Schaeffer was growing up in a Christian commune, L’Abri, his father was a famous preacher. Instead of rebelling against his father’s belief system, Frank Jr confronted his own father, accusing him of being too weak. As a firebrand activist, Frank Jr demanded a more rigorous, intense interpretation of doctrine. Frank Jr’s angry righteousness made him an important formative influence in the Christian Right to Life movement, as chronicled in his fascinating memoir Crazy for God.

In Colored People by Henry Louis Gates, the boy was laid up in the hospital in a nearby larger town. A chaplain came by to play chess with him. During the chess matches, he slipped in a little mentoring, letting the boy know there is a wider world. As he grew, he became more assertive. In one scene, he angrily confronts the customers and management in a restaurant which refused to serve him. In the end, though, he made it past Thumos in one piece, and turned his attention to extreme learning. His  journey into academia eventually transformed him from a boy in a small Jim Crow town to a Harvard Professor.

Tragically, many boys turn their violence not against the world but against themselves. Drugs and other jail-worthy behaviors often end up tearing a boys life apart, in his search for the appropriate expression of inner turmoil. Tim Elhajj’s memoir Dopefiend is an excellent story about a boy who pries himself loose from the deadly grip of drugs, and then must somehow figure out how to get back into the game of life. The memoir Tweak by Nic Sheff is about a boy still in the throes of this inward battle. And in Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler the young man succumbs to a deadly dose of heroin, losing the battle altogether, leaving his family to pick up the pieces.

(This is a revised version of a post first posted Aug 26, 2010)

Amazon page for “The Islamist

Link to an article I wrote about “The Islamist” and another memoir, Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Memoir About A Crazy Artist Helps me Understand the World!

by Jerry Waxler

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

Based on the title, Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman I looked forward to reading an exciting memoir. The word Bohemian drives me crazy with curiosity because in the 60s I was infatuated with the people who were trying to live their lives as a work of art. I hoped that Slash Coleman’s memoir would offer a modern version. And to add to the mystique, advance notices mentioned his grandparents who had been artists in France before the war. That was exactly the period I wished I could know more about. I wanted to jump in and join this man’s life. So I took the book with me on my silent retreat, looking for some interesting entertainment to pass the time between sessions of meditation.

When I left for my retreat, I also brought another book, Trickster Makes this World, Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde. The two books don’t seem to have much in common. One is a coming of age memoir and the other a scholarly treatise on a type of mythology with which I was not familiar. But when I started reading, I kept finding wonderful surprises, each one adding value to the other.

Because of my longstanding love affair with the Hero’s Journey, I love to apply mythology to the meaning of stories. According to Joseph Campbell, this universal myth portrays a protagonist who travels to the world of adventure to find transcendent meaning. Until my weeklong retreat, I assumed that this simple structure could explain just about every meaningful story.

This coincidence of reading these two books together changed the way I think. In Trickster Makes this World, Lewis Hyde highlights the importance of a different type of myth. In a trickster myth, the protagonist stays right here, in the thick of mundane life and shakes things up. The trickster tests limits, mocks rules, and allows us to face the absurdity, and even futility of human experience. The goal is not destruction but rejuvenation.

Hyde then goes on to show how in modern society, artists are our tricksters. Hyde offers the example of Marcel Duchamp, the Frenchman who created an international stir by submitting a urinal as a work of art. The work was later touted as a major landmark in 20th century art. Duchamps was constantly looking for ways to break the boundaries. He didn’t even like his own art, relentlessly searching for the next breakthrough, eternally dissatisfied with the last.

Slash Coleman’s memoir offers an even better example. In Bohemian Love Diaries, he ceaselessly moves from one art form to another, from music, sculpture, performance art, street theater, and of course story telling, bending boundaries, breaking rules, looking for truth within truth within truth, like a hall of mirrors that can only truly be represented by the next work of art.

By reading Lewis Hyde’s book at the same time as I was reading Slash Coleman’s memoir, I had accidentally concocted a two-book self-study class that showed me a new way to look at art, and also an insight into the surreal social upheaval that I lived through in the sixties.

As children, my generation grew up listening to stories about the GIs who went overseas to conquer evil. But by the time we were teenagers, we had become infatuated with the wisdom our heroes had brought back with them. We fell in love with the anti-art of the theater absurd and other avant garde forms that attempted to show the meaninglessness of beauty and the beauty of meaninglessness. Those Bohemian ideas inspired our generation. Instead of coming of age as heroes we would tear down the rules of society, and demonstrate their absurdity.

As hippies and radicals, or as Ken Kesey called us, pranksters, we attacked the status quo in order to shake everyone up. We hoped that by disrupting the existing order we could make room for a better way to live. LSD also known as “Acid” was the perfect trickster tool. When acid was thrown up against the mind, the veneer of reality melted and left only the absurd essence.

Slash Coleman followed the same model. When he wanted to alter the consciousness of his intensely middle-class conservative audience he threw the acid of his own naked dancing on the veneer of their staid, stable lives. His life became a street performance, dressing and undressing in any way he could to turn life into art that disrupted the status quo.

Even the book’s structure is the work of a trickster. By shifting focus at the last minute, he plays with the classical meaning of the character arc. Instead of seeing his character arc alone in his own mirror, he takes a step back and as his field of vision widens, he sees previous generations standing over his shoulder. Brilliant. Iconoclastic. Disturbing. This is why I love memoirs. Stories of our lives are the acid that destroys the illusion that our own view of life is the only one. We are not alone.

I’m not suggesting that to read Slash Coleman’s book you need to read Lewis Hyde’s. On the contrary, Bohemian Love Diaries is a fun, easy, seditious romp through one troubled young man’s search for meaning. I love it on its own. I just love it more because of the way in one fell swoop, the combination of the two books helped me understand my generation’s crazy attempt to unseat order in the 60s, my deep-seated fear of story-endings that cause despair, and my own desperate passion for seeing life as a work of art.

Notes

Article about Art in Trickster Makes this World

Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman

Another article about mythology in memoir

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Ten Things to Learn from a Combat Memoir, Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

In David Bellavia’s memoir, “House to House,” he shares the life of a modern soldier and in the process extends my understanding of the memoir genre. In this second part of my essay about the book, I offer more lessons that I learned from the book, and a few writing prompts to help you apply these lessons to your own memoir in progress.

Click here for part 1

Memoir as trauma debriefing or confessional

Mental health care workers are trained to administer a type of mental-first-aid called trauma debriefing, in which victims are encouraged to talk about the horror. The technique is supposed to help them assimilate the experience more effectively. I believe that writing a book has a similar therapeutic effect. To write your story, you expose events that had become trapped inside your mind. Writing a memoir allows you to find your words, and to share those words with interested readers.

Of course, a good story has to go beyond these introspective goals. A memoir has a responsibility to please a reader with a satisfying overall story arc, and a character who learns lessons through the course of his journey. With craft, a good memoir can achieve both goals.

What is Bellavia’s character arc? Throughout House to House, the author struggled with the intense emotions of the hunter and the hunted. Later, when he recounts his story, he doesn’t offer philosophical lessons. Instead, he looks for his own emotional truths. I did not blame Bellavia for failing to resolve the problems of war. Instead, I accepted that he needed to find his own inner peace. Like William Manchester’s Pacific War memoir, “Goodbye Darkness,” the lesson seemed to be that he survived, that he was brave, and that somehow, someday, he would be able to get his demons to back off.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene in which you found emotional relief by telling a story.

Fear is a dangerous master

The author joins the army to prove to himself and to his father that he is not a coward. His need to prove his lack of fear drives him into situations so dangerous even he admits they blur the line between courage and recklessness. His finest hour might, in retrospect, have been his most foolish.

Writing Prompt
When did fear force you to make a hasty decision?

Paradox of a soldier’s family life

In order to prove his manliness on the battlefield, Bellavia, or any soldier, must withdraw his presence from his wife and child, thus offering one manly service at the expense of another. As his tour of duty drew to a close, he decided that the pendulum had swung too far towards country and he chose to move back to family. The author never claims to identify the right path through this dilemma. However he does an excellent job of exploring the paradox and lets us accompany him through his own heartache about it.

Writing Prompt
When did you have to choose between two roles, and then realize it was time for the pendulum to swing back?

No atheists in fox holes

Enemy soldiers scream out to Allah to help them defeat these foreign invaders. The prayers unnerve Bellavia and his men. Whose side is God on anyway? In response, Bellavia screams prayers, too, appealing to his own God. The outburst is another example of the soldier’s interior process in the thick of battle, and a demonstration of the old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes.

When he faces the most dangerous situation imaginable, running back into a house from which he has a good chance of not leaving alive, he prays more quietly, trying to find a spiritual place within himself where he can accept death.

Writing Prompt
What situation forced you to remember God?

Boys trying to cross into manhood

Poet and philosopher Robert Bly, the famous popularizer of male mythology, observes that societies throughout history have implemented warrior-rituals to help males make the transition from boy to man. Nowadays, boys grab any method they can find, whether it’s jumping into a gang, going hunting with Dad, or excelling at sports. Many other boys, especially nerds like me, flounder without rituals, never sure how they will know when or if they are entitled to adopt the title “man.”

Bellavia’s memoir “House to House” is filled with young men attempting to face their fear and develop their courage on the battlefield. They are following one of the classic methods for moving from boy to man.

Writing Prompt
What major milestones marked your crossing from child to adult? (sex, career, respect from peers, drugs or alcohol, education, independence, home, etc.)

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by David Bellavia

Notes
William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness about the Pacific war.

Essay: How Boys Become Men? (Hint: Memoirs Help)

Click here for my post on George Brummell’s memoir, Shades of Darkness about growing up in Jim Crow  south, injured in Vietnam, and reclaiming his dignity in adulthood

Click here for my interview with Jim McGarrah author of “A Temporary Sort of Peace” about the trauma of his combat tour in Vietnam

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

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

More Reasons Veterans Should Write Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

If you sign up for the military, your life is separated into at least two chapters, before your first day of service, and after. Then, when you leave the service, you add another chapter, to find your place in civilian society. Writing a memoir can help you organize and collect these sections into one compelling whole. Here is the second part of my essay about reasons why veterans should write memoirs.

Click here for part one of this essay

Resume Your Coming of Age Goals

People sign up for military service during the period in their lives when they are looking for a path into adulthood. We all go through that period, discovering our new identity beyond the childhood home. Military service offers a leap into that next stage, and once you enter the system, you know where you fit in to the larger world.

When you reenter civilian life, many of the advances you reaped in the military no longer apply. Your training probably doesn’t translate well into a civilian career. And the sense of purpose, of belonging, and structure are gone. You must start over, searching for a new place. In a sense, you are going back to the day before you entered the recruiter’s office. You are now looking for a second path that can carry you competently into adult civilian life.

Writing is a powerful tool to help reconnect with the person you were when you started, and the person you were trying to become. By pulling the pieces together into a story, you can reconnect them, and resume your journey. For example, by writing about life as a teenager, you get in touch with your first kiss, first car, first job, first questions about the possibility of God. When you lay these moments out in the form of a narrative, you find a self-image that makes sense across the span from civilian to warrior and back to peace again.

Restore Purpose and Idealism

In the book “Flourish,” psychologist Martin Seligman digs into the challenges of combat trauma. According to Seligman, who founded the Positive Psychology movement, the psychological care given to veterans focuses too much on falling apart and not enough on growth and resilience.

Many psychologists agree with Seligman that having a purpose for living is one of the crucial requirements for a healthy life. In fact, the search for purpose drives many young people to join the military in the first place. They risk their lives in defense of family, community, and country. However, when their mission is over it is difficult to remember the earlier ambitions and dreams, especially when memory is clouded by the fog of war.

If your earlier purpose no longer seems to apply to your life as a civilian, you are missing one of the great foundations of a healthy life. And your sense of purpose might be undermined further if during war, you suffered the side-effect noted by military psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, M.D. According to Shay’s books “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America,” many soldiers return to civilian life with their idealism in tatters. Without faith or dreams, they have little to stop them from sinking into cynicism and despair.

Writing a memoir can help. By searching for the meaning in their memoir, veterans can reconstruct the meaning of their lives. For example, David Bellavia, author of the Iraq war memoir House to House developed a sense of responsibility to publicize the experience of soldiers, as well as to commit himself to his family.

When Luis Carlos Montelvan returned from service in Iraq his mental and physical wounds left him incapacitated. He was better able to navigate civilian life after  he was chosen to participate in a program that uses service dogs to help wounded veterans. However, he continued to struggle for a purpose until he realized the importance of the service dog program. He became an outspoken advocate to help the public understand the invisible wounds of PTSD and his memoir Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him provided us with an important look inside the mind of a combat veteran.

Some veterans redirect energy toward promoting peace, or reducing gang violence. When Mark Bounds, left the army as chief of staff at a training center, he entered the civilian educational system to help young people become more responsible adults.  Whatever path you choose, writing your memoir can help you find your direction.

Building Bridges from War to Peace

In combat, soldiers earn respect by becoming experts at violence. When they return, this very skill sets them apart from the society they defended and our respect mingles with fear. After the Vietnam war, returning veterans were stigmatized by the violence of that war, adding a terrible psychological burden to the trauma they already suffered. And even the heroes of World War II had to fight with this stigma. Most of them felt obligated to shield their loved ones from war by hiding behind a wall of silence.

Writing a memoir is an antidote to this sense of separation. Just as memoirs can break down the walls between people of different races or lifestyles, it can break down the alienation between veterans and civilians. I have spent many hours vicariously terrified by combat, thanks to memoirs like James McGarrah’s Vietnam experience in “Temporary Peace” and William Manchester’s struggles on the Pacific front during WWII in “Goodbye Darkness”. David Bellavia took me on another emotionally grueling journey in “House to House,” about the war in Iraq. By now I have a good idea of how gruesome and dangerous that world can be.

So when a veteran shows up in one of my memoir workshops, ready to talk about their military service, I will encourage them to build bridges. By teaching them to write their story in language an outsider could understand, I could help them cross the chasm that separates their world from mine. In this era of the memoir, veterans no longer need to hide, but can be welcomed back into civilian life as messengers from another dimension of human experience.

More Articles
How Boys Become Men
Mark Bounds’ shift to Civilian educational system
Interview with Vietnam vet Jim McGarrah
Storytellers Shed Light On the Horrors of War
Luis Carlos Montelvan’s Home Page

Healing Combat Trauma website

More memoir writing resources

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Stephen Markley Interview Part 1: Launching from College to Career

by Jerry Waxler

Stephen Markley, fresh out of college, decided to write a book about “publishing this very book,” a catchy idea which made it all the way from his imagination into my book store. (Read my review of “Publish This Book” here.) In this first part of a six part interview, I talk with Stephen about his transition from college into the working world.

Jerry Waxler: In my teens I read “Catcher in the Rye” and “Lord of the Flies” about the terrors of trying to grow up. In my early twenties I read books like Henry Miller’s “Sexus” about remaining a perpetual adolescent. But I had no literary heroes who actually grew up and became responsible adults. The absence of such role models may have contributed to my ineptitude at becoming an adult myself.

Flash forward 40 years: I am on the other end of adulthood reading your book about the complexities and anxieties of this life transition, joining you on your struggle to become a fully functioning career guy. I wondered if your book could have helped me, or more importantly could actually help a few people now who are struggling out of their college world and into the first leg of adulthood.

Did you read books in which this transition into adulthood helped you visualize where you were heading, or did you notice the same gap I did?

Stephen Markley: I certainly didn’t think of it that way at first, but since the book has come out, I’ve realized there really is a pretty noticeable gap of reading material about this life stage. I’ve since read a pretty awesome book by a guy named Keith Gessen called “All the Sad Young Literary Men,” and I think guys like Dave Eggers and Chuck Klosterman definitely speak to that moment in life, but as far as literary influences for “Publish This Book” I promise I had no overt ones.

Jerry: Were you conscious of this book fitting into that space?

Stephen: At first, not at all. It wasn’t until about halfway through that I began to realize I wasn’t just writing about trying to publish a book but also about this moment in life that it turns out is very, very familiar to people. After reading the first three chapters, a fortysomething guy in my writing group said, “This reminds me so much about my life after college, it’s eerie.” It meant nothing to me at the time, but it turns out that was an important moment in the book’s development.

Jerry: Have you heard from readers who appreciate this empathy for their own struggle to boost themselves across this threshold?

Stephen: Absolutely. The bulk of the e-mails and Facebook communiqués hit on this point first and foremost. People note moments in the book that they recognize from their own experiences: hating their jobs, not finding a job, being broke, struggling to figure out what they want to do, missing college, ending things with a significant other. People love to get these things off of their chests, and I think I just managed to articulate it well enough that it resonates with people living through a certain time and experience.

Jerry: Have you had feedback from readers who recognize the gift you are offering them of a sort of confused flawed role model on the journey towards “real life?”

Stephen: Well, “gift” may be a strong word. As I wrote the book, it wasn’t until I was 100,000 words in that I actually knew it was going to be read by anyone, so I generally didn’t think of myself as offering a gift so much as just generally bitching. Bitching humorously, but bitching nonetheless. Still, there’s a lot of bitching going on in anyone’s life, so it’s easy to empathize. I offered myself not as a confused, flawed role model, just as a guy who has problems like anyone and dreams like anyone. I worried in the book that my story was too normal, too uninteresting to merit attention (there’s a whole chapter on it), but I think that’s what makes people write to me and say, “Hey, man, this exactly what I’m going through right now.” Because most of us just have normal American lives, but even those normal lives are full of drama and conflict and hope and tragedy and hilarity and intrigue and wonder.

Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book by Stephen Markley

by Jerry Waxler

Scanning the memoir shelves at Barnes and Noble, I picked up a book I never heard of called Publish This Book by Stephen Markley. The subtitle tickled my imagination, “The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book.” Interesting! I kept reading the cover copy. The author is 24, a surprising age for a memoir writer. I flipped it open to sample the style, and liked what I saw. So I bought it.

Many new memoirs languish on my reading pile for months. Markley’s book, with its promise of irony, suffered no such fate. I began reading it almost immediately. And unlike many other memoirs that I set aside after 10 or 20 pages, “Publish this Book” never stalled out.

I loved the style and sense of humor (I laughed out loud quite a few times), and kept finding fabulous observations about the human condition and the project of writing a memoir. I made it all the way to the end, where there was one more test to go. Would I recommend it to others? Absolutely! I was delighted with the experience, and felt it was a worthwhile read.

Almost four decades ago, I too struggled to make the transition from child to adult, a nerve wracking period filled with confusion and bad choices. Much of my life since then, I have been trying to make sense of the chaos of college during the Vietnam War and the post-college hippie detour. Many years of therapy helped, but my best leap towards understanding came when I turned my life into a story. I find that reading and writing memoirs is the best way to make sense of a life. And even though “Publish this Book” takes place now, in the twenty-first century, it provides fascinating glimpses into the mind of a young man trying to become an adult.

In addition to helping me understand my youth, the book provided a window into today’s world. It’s crazy out there, and instead of Vietnam, there are many other obstacles. “Publish this Book” helps me see this world through younger eyes.

And finally, I imagine college kids themselves would appreciate it. After all, Markley recently emerged from those hallowed halls himself. If I was that age, I would be interested in knowing what to expect. I looked on Amazon to see what other readers thought. Several reviewers liked it as much as I did. The reviews were sort of “positive flames” ranting about how great the book is.

I’ve decided this book ought to be the next Big Thing and the author Stephen Markley ought to become a cult hero, as embedded in our cultural canon as J.D. Salinger or Kurt Vonnegut, who captured the anxiety of being young and trying to grow up. So I had to hurry and interview Markley before he became too famous. It turned out he is as prolific and generous with his interviews as he is with his book. Read my six part interview with Stephen Markley, starting here.

Notes

Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.