Exclusive Interview with Xujun Eberlein Part 2

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

I recently read “Apologies Forthcoming,” a book of short stories by Xujun Eberlein, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. (Amazon Page, Xujun’s Home Page, Longer Introduction to this Interview) I highly recommend her book for anyone interested in that period, or interested in converting life into story, or simply looking for a good read. In this exclusive interview, I ask her about the project of converting her memories into stories. Her answers offer insights that could help anyone who is interested in the relationship between memory and story.

This is part two of the interview. For Part 1, click here.
Jerry Waxler: You write so beautifully in English. What special challenges did you have to overcome?

Xujun Eberlein: Well, I have always loved to write. My first short story, written in Chinese, was published a year before I entered college in China in 1978. In 1982, one of my short stories caused me big political trouble, while in 1985 a novella won a literary prize. After I came to America in the summer of 1988, my writing was suspended for 13 years.

When I write in English, the biggest obstacle for me is vocabulary. You grow up with your native expressions for things, feelings, actions, even simple gestures, and when you try to find homologous terminology in the second language, you are tongue-tied, that is extremely frustrating.

When I was young, whenever I read a new expression or adage in a newspaper or book, I hand-copied it into a notebook and made my own customized lexicon. That was how I acquired a large Chinese vocabulary. It is kind of ironical that at mid-age I’m repeating the same painstaking process for English now. I envision doing this for the rest of my life.

While the disadvantage of writing in a second language is obvious, there is an advantage as well: you bring “new” expressions to the second language from your native tongue, and when you are doing it right you can create a “third” language with freshness. To do it right requires practice and a sensitive eye. One thing I learned from years of writing in English is that, if a “foreign” expression flows well with your prose, use it; otherwise it is better to go with an idiom.

JW: You have won awards for your writing, and have been published in literary journals. Please comment on what drives you as a writer.

XE: I want my writing to be both entertaining and have depth, and I write to raise questions rather than give answers. I also crave beautiful language, for which I know I have a long way to go. Like the ancient Chinese poet Du Fu said, “I won’t rest in death if my words haven’t astounded readers.”

I want to strive for quality, not quantity. There are too many books out there already; no one needs to read your book. That is, unless it’s good. The word “prolific” is not as attractive to me as “superb,” I guess. Or perhaps it is just an excuse for allowing myself to write slowly. (Laughs)

JW: I know it’s difficult to describe the creative process, but I ask anyway, in case you might reveal some secret. How would you explain the process of transforming a memory into a story?

XE: When I write a story that is memory-based, one technique I use is to first work up individual scenes. In this case there must be something deeply disturbing or unforgettable that makes one want to write about it years later, and the memory of details is usually pictorial or impressionistic. That is, the memory naturally provides you scenes. To make a good story you need several scenes. At first the scenes are disconnected. I just write down the scenes separately, then figure out how to connect them. This process includes shuffling the scenes to settle on a more intriguing order.

JW: I feel so comfortable inside your stories, and find there is an almost hypnotic rhythm that pulls me in. Is this a quality you have thought consciously about?

XE: For me this is really a trial and error process. I aim to maintain a story flow that is captivating and keeps the story progressing, but usually the first draft is far away from that goal. After I finish a draft I would put it aside for a while, then rearrange it with a fresher eye, cutting or adding material to accomplish the goal. So, unfortunately, it is not something that simply emerges from my pen (or keyboard) but the result of substantial adjustment. I find that, more often than not, reordering paragraphs results in a better rhythm.

JW: There is some sort of innocent intensity about your friendships that calls out to me. I’m curious to know if you worked particularly to achieve this effect.

XE: In China, we have the tradition of valuing friendship higher than even our own family. An old Chinese adage goes, “Wife is clothing, friends are limbs.” It is kind of sexist (as the old times were), but you get a feeling for the importance of friendship. Traditional Chinese literature is full of friendship stories. The most popular classic novel “Three Kingdoms,” epic of an entire dynasty, is centered around three sworn blood brothers. When I wrote my stories I wasn’t very conscious of depicting friendship, but since that was part of life and culture, a realism writer who is loyal to reality would naturally reflect that aspect. Those things are just in my blood. On the other hand, Americans don’t have the same culture. From my perspective the role of friendship here is not as strongly important as it is in Chinese life. This may have something to do with individualism, I suppose.

JW: What favorite memoirs or other books have informed your style or voice or approach to telling about your past?

XE: Hmm. I liked the writing of a lot of the contemporary memoirs published in the United States, such as The Liar’s Club, Wild Swans, Fierce Attachments, Angela’s Ashes, etc., however I rarely finished reading every one of them. On the other hand, some less critically acclaimed memoirs, for example The Man Who Stayed Behind, glued me from cover to cover. I guess good language is not a sufficient factor to sustain my reading interest. A memoir has to tell good real stories as well as raise a lasting question. So it is my goal to have all those elements in the book-length memoir I’m working on now.

To read the blog entry about what I learned about fact and fiction from reading Xujun’s two different representations of the events surrounding her sister’s death, click here.

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

Interview with story writer Xujun Eberlein

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

I recently read “Apologies Forthcoming,” a book of short stories by Xujun Eberlein, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. ( Short Story Fact or Fiction) I highly recommend her book for anyone interested in that period, or interested in converting life into story, or simply looking for a good read. In this exclusive interview, I ask her about the project of converting her memories into stories. Her answers offer insights that could help anyone who is interested in the relationship between memory and story.

Jerry Waxler: When did you first start thinking about writing your memories of growing up in the period of the Chinese Cultural Revolution?

Xujun Eberlein: If ever I had a mid-age crisis, I think it started in the fall of 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. As I wrote in a personal essay, “The Camphor Suitcase,” which won an award from Literal Latte recently, several things came to my attention in that fall triggering the desire to write about my sister’s death and those days. (This essay will be available on line in the near future, at Literal Latte‘s site.)

JW: When did you actually start writing?

XE: Checking my computer, I see the earliest file is dated December 16, 2001. That was an attempt to translate one of my old stories into English, trying to warm up with the idea of writing in a second language.

In the spring of 2002, I took an unpaid leave from work and revisited my hometown, Chongqing. During that visit two things hit me hard: my big sister’s tomb could no longer be found, and my mother had lost all my diaries from age 12 to late 20s. On the other hand, I retrieved my sister’s diary, which contains entries from her final three years of life. Upon returning home I began to write a memoir piece about my sister’s death from memory. It took many reincarnations to become what you see today. In the summer of 2004 I attended the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers Conference, and workshopped the piece there. It was my instructor, Bill Roorbach, who suggested the title to “Swimming with Mao.” In late 2005, I submitted a modified, longer version to Walrus and it was accepted and subsequently published in the magazine’s 2006 summer issue. (You can read this article by clicking here.)

JW: During those initial attempts, when you were deciding between fiction and non-fiction, what criteria pulled you one way or the other?

XE: I started to write nonfiction mainly because I thought this genre would better preserve my work’s historical value. However I soon realized the limitation of nonfiction on the range of subjects I would like to write about. I guess I write fiction also because I’ve had my heart set in that genre for much longer time. The two genres use different craft techniques; both interest me. It is a challenge to do both well and I like challenges.

JW: In your fiction, was it hard to steer between facts and imagination? Did you worry that fictionalizing might disturb the memories?

XE: It never occurred to me in writing fiction there exists a choice between facts and imagination, nor have I ever worried that fictionalization might perturb my memory. If I had any worry, it was that I might limit my imagination to personal experience. For some writers, it takes a big leap to transcend experience-based stories. I think I am like that. In my collection, about half of the stories can be said to be based on my own experience. The other half came from attempts to transcend and broaden that experience.

JW: When writing fiction, do you draw mainly on life experience or do you branch off into pure imagination?

XE: To continue from the previous answer, it is often a stage in writing maturity to unleash oneself from one’s own memory. This said, even writing with pure imagination one can’t avoid using elements from memory. It’s like in a science fiction movie, an object as a whole may look completely alien, however if you dismantle it you’ll find that every component has its origin from an earthly object.

JW: The non-fiction piece, “Swimming with Mao,” contains an account of your search for your sister’s truth. And yet it also conveys a sense of intimacy and sorrow. What sorts of dramatic devices did you apply to achieve the emotional effects?

XE: I wasn’t consciously applying any fiction techniques. Partly because this was my first attempt in English writing (if you don’t count my scientific dissertation at MIT); at the time I hadn’t written any fiction since my maiden days in China. Even after I began to write fiction in English, I found my mindset would switch with the change of genre, as if a button were being automatically pressed. My non-fiction pieces are more of the essay style, even though my storyteller’s nature tends to head for entertaining anecdotes.

JW: Reading about the loss of your sister I am overwhelmed by the complex grief one little individual had to endure. How did you feel about writing such a painful memory?

XE: It was very difficult emotionally. My big sister was my idol and mentor in my childhood. Our parents were always either busy at work or being denounced or detained; whatever problems I had, I took to my sister and she was always able to help. Her death created a big hole in my mind and life, even after I grew up it still wasn’t easy to look back. That was partly why it took me so long before attempting to write about it. I constantly cried when I was writing.

Adding to the emotional difficulty was the desire to give myself a conclusion about her death. Was it an accident? If so, could it have been avoided? If not, was her action meaningful? Was it a wasted sacrifice? For several drafts I really did not know what the conclusion was. In this sense this time-consuming writing did help me sort out feelings and thoughts. As to whether it gets easier, I don’t really know. It is still hard for me to reread what I’ve written without being teary again.

JW: How has the passage of time helped or hindered your understanding of those disturbing events?

XE: I think at the time a significant personal event happens to us, we are living in it and we are not spectators. We are either overwhelmed by it or unable to see its significance. To sort out feelings and find meaning we need distance, both in time and in space. Sometimes it takes a recurrence in history for us to understand better. In my case, if I hadn’t left China and lived in the United States, I might not have dug open this old wound. Even if I did, I might have different thoughts about it.

In Part 2 of this interview, I ask Xujun more questions about the creative process, of turning memories into written words.

For my blog entry about what I learned about fact and fiction from reading Xujun’s two different representations of the events surrounding her sister’s death, click here.

For more details about Xujun’s life and writing, including more information about her book, awards, and other publications, see her website. http://www.xujuneberlein.com.

Collapsed lives that turned into memoirs

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.)

When I was 17, my brother was in medical school and I intended to follow. I was getting A’s in advanced placement math and science, and after school I worked part-time in a research lab in one of the top medical schools in the country. Six years later, Ed had earned his credentials as a cardiologist, while I was living in a leaky garage, collecting food stamps, and going weeks without talking to anyone. Transforming from child to adult was horrifically difficult for me, and for a couple of desperate years, I teetered on the brink of failing altogether.

For most of my life, I buried these memories. First I was busy getting myself back together. Then, looking back towards what “might have been” seemed too disappointing to dwell on. But forgetting the past turns out to be a temporary state. As I try to explain my journey through life, those bad decisions and lost dreams keep coming back, fragmented, unkind, and confusing. Since I want to reveal an authentic tale of who I am, I might as well gather the broken bits of the past and figure out how to portray them. By shaping them into a tale that is interesting to others, I can share parts of myself that have been hidden, and learn more about myself in the process.

To learn how to tell a story of lost dreams, I turn once again to the vast repository of published memoirs. I’ve just finished reading three memoirs and a book of short stories by people who have tackled the daunting task of writing about a life that went down as they tried to grow up. Like me, they came close to ruination. Their tales from the brink show that even in the worst of times, there are glimpses into the richness and complexity of the human condition. By exhuming the remains, these storytellers revealed glimpses of wisdom and hope, buried along with the regrets.

“Slow Motion, a memoir of a life rescued through tragedy” by Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro at 18 had three markers of the top echelons of society: wealthy parents, beauty, and entry into a top college. By the time she was 20 she had dropped out of school to model and act. Instead of being discovered by a talent scout, she was recruited for a different kind of talent, becoming the kept woman of a married man, a lawyer who made her feel special by picking her up in limousines, supplying her with drugs, alcohol, and jewelry, and flying her around the world to keep himself entertained. Drinking and drugging heavily, she was falling rapidly into despair when her parents’ catastrophic car accident changed her life. Her parents’ suffering woke her out of her self-involved stupor and she began to get her life back on track.

“Native State” by Tony Cohan
Tony Cohan’s father, Phil, was a radio producer in the 1940’s who worked with stars like Jimmy Durante and Frank Sinatra, so big they were still household names a half a century later. So when Cohan, the son, started playing drums as a teenager, it was easy for him to rise into the company of movers and shakers. But unlike his father, who reveled in popular music, Cohan was drawn to the darker world of drugs, jazz, and the beat down ideas of the beat generation who dressed themselves in cynicism to cloak their despair. His fascination with that movement opened a trap door into degradation, homelessness, and addiction. Eventually his passion for writing helped him switch to a more sustainable approach, allowing him to clamber back to solid footing.

“A Temporary Sort of Peace” by Jim McGarrah
When Jim McGarrah was a teenager, he was a baseball player, lined up for an athletic scholarship. After his girl friend dumped him, McGarrah rebelled against the college route his family expected him to follow. Defying his father’s vehement protests, he enlisted, knowing he would be sent to Vietnam. He thought his decision would make a man out of him, bring glory, defend his country, and all the other positive reasons young soldiers go to war. Within a few months of his arrival he began to unravel. All those good intentions could not protect him from war’s massive assault on his sanity. By the time he got back to the states, he was a wreck, suffering from PTSD, so now to achieve a satisfactory life meant overcoming a profound psychological injury, perhaps a topic for another memoir.

“Apologies Forthcoming”
by Xujun Eberlein
If things go wrong while growing up, we often look back and blame ourselves. But some lives go off course due to forces outside our control. Take for example, Xujun Eberlein, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Education was a central element of her ambition. When Chinese society turned against education, her parents were denounced, and schools closed. Armed teenagers with essentially identical ideas fought each other with deadly force, simply to prove their superior idealism, tearing apart Xujun’s life along with millions of others. She has written about her experiences in a book of fiction short stories, called “Apologies Forthcoming,” and is currently working on a memoir.

In these examples, each author spent thousands of hours organizing their experience into a readable tale. The product of that effort is a book, not just a work that sits silently on a shelf, but one that speaks to me. While I strive to shape my own life into a story, I consider their lives. They experienced despair and returned. Then after some period of gestation, they strive to understand what happened, to explain it, and above all to share it. And through the magic of story writing and story reading, the authors and I have entered into an intimate relationship.

In a future essay, I’ll draw from these stories cautionary observations about the risks of growing up. By understanding the pitfalls of youth, we can learn more not only about telling our own hopes, but also gain insights into the journey children in every generation travel on their way to becoming adults.

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

Veterans seek healing by cycling through Vietnam

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.)

In 1998 a group of American veterans joined their former Vietnamese enemies on a bicycle ride from Hanoi to Saigon. They rode through villages and countryside, much of it unchanged since the war. The venture was documented in a recently released video, “Vietnam: Long Time Coming,” from Kartemquin Films. Villagers waved and children, who had been playing in the paddy fields, ran shouting and laughing towards the stream of brightly clad cyclists. These idyllic scenes highlighted the enormous shift in perspective between the past and the present.

Outside, in the world around them, the world seemed peaceful, while much of the real drama was taking place inside their minds, where memories boiled and occasionally erupted into tears. I empathized with the courage it must have taken to face the country where deep scars were burned into their psyche, and several times I cried along with them.

I first learned about this movie because of my interest in a memoir by one of the participants, George Brummell. In “Shades of Darkness,” George wrote about growing up black in the segregated south, coming of age in Korea, and being blinded by a land mine in Vietnam. Back in the states he learned how to navigate without sight, earned a college degree, and eventually became a director of the blinded veterans association. (Click here to read the essay I wrote about George Brummell’s book Shades of Darkness.)

George and the others who returned to Vietnam for this ride were reaching out towards a new relationship with this place where their lives had been changed forever. Through the documentary movie “The Long Time Coming” I was able to witness that experience and gain a deeper understanding of the psychological aftermath of war. This may seem like a highly specialized concern, but the pain spills out to family, friends, and the community. People are affected for decades when combat veterans feel that they have crossed over a chasm that can only be traversed in one direction, and once on the other side, they cannot find their way back. The existence of that pain in my fellow human beings stirs my desire to understand more.

The movie “Long Time Coming” illustrates that revisiting the past is one of the tools that can help heal in the present. Even though you can’t always return to the scene physically, you can create some of the same effects by writing. Visiting the past through writing can enable you not only to recreate the situation, but also to apply to those memories some of the wisdom you have gained in the intervening years. In some cases, building bridges backwards through time can create a pathway from pain back into hope.

While the most obvious healing strategy of the movie was simply revisiting the scene, there were other strategies being employed. One of the American veterans was a psychologist who conducted meetings and spoke individually with the American vets who were trying to cope with their emotional wounds. The discussions with each other and with a therapist helped them reorganize the thoughts and feelings awakened by this experience. And their connections, friendships, and warmth with former enemies soothed some of the war wounds, as well.

I’ve heard the claim that war is one of the greatest expressions of love, because soldiers must risk their lives for each other. The problem of course is that war requires a common enemy, and so it turns bloody and leaves lingering effects that are not loving at all. Team sports also have the ability to draw people together in a common goal, and that’s what the TEAM bicycle ride in Vietnam was about. These riders, instead of fighting against each other, were joining together to fight the common “enemy” – moving their bicycles towards Saigon. As their focus shifts from danger and betrayal to beauty and friendship, one of the American veterans says, “I feel like this happiness now, riding this bike in Vietnam, is pushing out some of the hatred that had been filling my cup.”

The camera followed bikers up a long mountain road in 100 degree heat. The hand cyclists struggled most because the arm levers did not provide the same mechanical advantage as the foot powered ones. As these slower riders reached the top, those who had already gathered there rushed forward to offer hugs and celebratory whoops. After this outpouring of affection, one of the Vietnamese hand cyclists said, his voice filled with excitement, “This is something both disabled and able bodied people dream of. This experience, though exhausting, is what gives meaning to life.”

He didn’t mean just climbing a mountain on a hot day in a bicycle built for someone without legs. He was surrounded by loving new friends, the honor of being part of a team, the rapprochement of former enemies reaching out to each other. It was a healing moment for him, and for me.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Prompt: Write about a time when working together towards a common goal made you feel closer to someone.

Writing Prompt: Select a memory that you have bad feelings about, and pretend you are writing fiction. Applying your wisdom and imagination, reorganize the events so that this character learns some powerful lesson, or accomplishes or triumphs in some way.

Note, links and resources
The ride was organized by a non-profit group called World TEAM Sports –http://www.worldteamsports.org/. The documentary was produced by another non-profit, Kartemquin Films, best known for the award winning documentary Hoop Dreams about inner city youth looking to basketball to elevate their prospects in life. You can help the organization by shopping at: http://www.kartemquin.com/

An excellent book for understanding more about PTSD is “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character” by Jonathan Shay. Because of the profound effects of PTSD, neurologically and on the very foundation of character, many of the methods in psychology are not sufficient to unravel the damage wrought by combat. And yet, there is much research and compassionate work that has helped veterans suffering from PTSD. In addition to helping them cope with their specialized needs, I believe these therapies and strategies can help other people who suffer with an irreconcilable relationships with painful memories.

For an example of one person’s successful strategy to channel inner directed shame into bicycle racing read the moving memoir “Ten Points” by Bill Strickland. Another memoir in which a soldier seeks healing by revisiting the past is William Manchester’s “Goodbye Darkness.”

For more about revisiting the past, see my essay about the movie Pursuit of Happyness, which portrayed Chris Gardner’s life. For him, it was a return to the trauma and triumph of his youth.

To learn more about how two groups can join to become one by sharing a common task, see the famous sociology experiment by Muzafer Sherif et al (1954) The Robbers Cave experiment. For example, see the Wikipedia entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muzafer_Sherif

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

“Good shame” improves memories

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

One Friday night in 2007, I drove 50 miles to Philadelphia to hear a lecture by John Bradshaw, the author of bestsellers “Homecoming” and “Healing the Shame that Binds You.” He has been writing about shame for so long the Philadelphia Inquirer dubbed him the Shaman of Shame. Despite his world-class credentials, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend an evening learning about this edgy topic when I could be relaxing at home. But curiosity prevailed, and I’m glad I went. The evening’s insights have helped me answer some of the deepest mysteries of my life. My powerful ah-ha resulted from Bradshaw’s simple observation that there are two types of shame.

The nasty variety of shame is the one I have always run away from. This disturbing emotion creates a crashing loss of self-worth. I’ve always hated this feeling so completely that I thought in order to be a good person I had to completely eradicate it from my mind. Experts like Bradshaw believe the self-loathing of shame creates much of the suffering in the world, giving people an excuse to hurt themselves and each other.

The insight Bradshaw offered me was to see that shame also has a positive function. When I see this emotion through Bradshaw’s compassionate eyes I recognize that when it is good, this feeling helps me maintain humility, avoid anti-social behavior, and reel me back from mistakes. Bradshaw uses the analogy of cholesterol, which comes in two forms. The bad one clogs your heart and can kill you, and the good one protects your blood vessels from damage and can save you. This clever analogy has already helped me reformulate my hatred for shame, allowing me to look past its ugly exterior.

This lesson is especially valuable for me now that I am researching my memoir. As I scavenge through the past looking for material, I turn over many rocks, and I don’t always like what I find. My first inclination is to replace the rock and back away. This is an especially enticing option considering the fear, “If you reveal this part of yourself, people will despise you.” If I listen carefully to this warning, I end up hiding all the things that make me human. When I remember my teenage years for example, my mind is clouded by this fear, and I try to stuff my memories back down into the darkness. But I’m tired of running away from own humanity. I want to explore what it has meant to be me. With some exposure to the light, the pain eases and I accept parts of myself I have been avoiding for decades.

Take for example shoplifting. This was especially evil for me, since my dad owned a drugstore. If I thought it through, I would have hated shoplifters. However, as a 12-year-old, I didn’t think it through. And after the deed was accomplished, I didn’t know what to do with the disgust and fear that accompanied each stolen ballpoint pen or candy bar. I buried those feelings, and every time they lurch into view they reduce my sense of self-worth. Nearly fifty years later, in light of Bradshaw’s insight, I look again.

Now I realize feeling disgusted with myself was part of the emotional package that steered me away from that behavior. So now, instead of running away from the memory, I talk myself down from the self-anger, annoyance and secrecy and gradually more details emerge from their dirty hiding place. I see myself furtively glancing over my shoulder. Will I be caught? (How comical that I didn’t know my furtive glances could be interpreted by an intuitive observer.) I listen to my tense, confused, almost dopey thought process, and hear my confusion. “Why am I doing this? It doesn’t feel like me.” I see a young boy experimenting with the rules of property and power. And now I even see hope, because there is an inner voice that is trying to convince me to do better. Shame formerly seemed like a tattoo that would mark me to my dying day. Now I see that it can fade, and I can grow.

While I expand my insight into the relatively innocuous shame of a good boy being bad, there are all sorts memories that can cause memoir writers to shy away from their past, some of them so horrific they seem outside the range of human decency; cheating, betraying, chaos on the battlefield, teenage pranks that went too far, crimes. I recently read a memoir “Ten Points” by Bill Strickland. When he remembered his father’s psychological abuse, he hated not his father but himself. Like many abused children, he thought the situation was his own fault, because if he had tried harder he should have been able to stop the torture. The memories made him feel filthy, and as an adult, he determined to break their hold. His victory came within reach when he realized the horror was “just shame.” Once he found a label, he was able to pry back the curtain and gain control over emotions that threatened to destroy him. His experience is a good example of the positive power John Bradshaw is offering anyone who wants to heal from the pain of humiliation or self-doubt or disgust with their own memories.

I drove down to John Bradshaw’s meeting prepared to face the thing I feared the most. Two hours later, as I walked back to my car, I felt lifted, perceiving hope where there was previously only disgust. I had been given a light that would help me learn from my past, give me more compassion for other people, and would let me share myself with more energy and understanding.


The John Bradshaw lecture was hosted by Acorn, and produced by Dolores Proto, the director of a recovery house in Philadelphia. Learn more about the Acorn organization here: http://www.foodaddiction.com/ This organization runs programs designed to help people cope with overeating, food addiction, and other shame-based addictions.

For writers, shame holds an additional challenge. Exposing one’s writing in public can feel daunting, especially considering that many writers are shy and would rather stay private. If you are one of the people who like me have resisted publishing because of the shame of shyness and self-exposure, or fear of rejection, see the section in my How to Become a Heroic Writer book about Going Public.


Click here to see my full review of Bill Strickland’s memoir, Ten Points.

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

Unbearable Courage of Living

By Jerry Waxler

To become more knowledgeable about living, I try to find out as much as I can about dying. This is easy information to find, because writers have so much to say on the subject. Death is such an important topic, Hemingway suggested to a young writer that he hang himself and have a friend cut him down just before he died so he would have something to write about.

Perry Foster, author of the memoir “Hands Upon My Heart: My Journey Through Heart Disease and Into Life” didn’t have to go to that extreme. Death came looking for him. Foster was an apparently healthy business man, until a cardiology exam. Then he found himself staring into the jaws of death and the only way to survive was to let masked people rip open his chest and stop his heart.

His memoir brought me face to face with the unbearable courage of living. He takes me to the waiting room, the gurney, and the operating room, and makes it easy to empathize with his predicament. While he’s a nervous wreck, so am I. He lets me feel his sweaty hands and his edgy outbursts so well it makes my skin crawl. He portrays a real flesh and blood character, not a cartoon caricature.

One of the things I learn is that when a real person is confronted by death, he doesn’t necessarily put on a happy face. Foster is afraid almost to paranoia that his care is inadequate. He accuses people of misleading him. And he is shocked that just when he thinks his situation is under control, he is back for another emergency visit to the cardiologist. His edgy reactions heighten my anxiety and while I would have intuitively thought such human frailty would have made me feel more distant, the end result is greater intimacy.

This treatment of death is so different from the way it is usually handled in fiction. In a murder mystery, for example, the victim might scream for a moment, then either expire or escape. In a war movie, bodies fly through the air, and die in droves, while the tough guy shrugs off pain. In Hands upon my heart, I linger in that state between life and death, grappling with the feelings, and trying to sort out what to do next. This is real human emotion, and I feel connected with his fear, anger, and confusion. As Natalie Goldberg would say, “this writing cuts close to the bone.”

In my desire to become a more alive human being, I can read Perry Foster’s book and learn about the project of bumping up against mortality, and coming back. And even though he didn’t claim to be tough or courageous, his experience inspires me to carry on as a person, and face the unknown.

Of course Perry Foster didn’t choose to be in this situation, and so it’s possible to dismiss his tale as simply reporting from the position of a victim. But one element of his experience did require a conscious choice. After he struggled through this painful and humiliating experience, being pushed along from doctor to doctor and feeling his life ticking away with every beat of his heart, he chose to write the story.

He didn’t have to do this. He could have kept his feelings private, and when someone said to him, “That must have been a heck of an experience” he could have just nodded, and said “Yes it was.” Instead, he undertook another arduous journey, this one of his own free will. He chose to write his story. He gained the skills, wrote the pages, and exposed his inner world to other people’s opinions.

Since I want to write about my life, I gain courage not only from his experience in the book but also his experience of the book. Within his lessons about his heart are embedded the other lessons about how one man faces the daunting task of translating his very personal life experience into a written story. And by assigning himself that task, Perry Foster has invested his own time and experience to help me learn to live a better life.

Read more about how life and death keep coming up in stories: “Life and Death in Memoir

The quote about Hemingway was taken from David Morrell’s book “Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing.” See more about Morrell’s work at http://www.davidmorrell.net

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Memoir of abuse and redemption, book review

by Jerry Waxler

One of the best memoirs I have read is about a guy who wants to score 10 points in bicycle racing. Whether or not he achieves his cycling goal, Ten Points by Bill Strickland gets 10 points from me for delivering everything I want from a memoir; dramatic tension, passionate love among lovely people, a complex and troubled villain, a battle against obstacles. And the ending fulfills the dramatic tension established in the beginning. It even has a geographical tie for me. It’s set in the Lehigh Valley Velodrome in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, just a few miles from where I live. And the writing contains some of the most lyrical phrasing I have seen this year, providing that elusive buzz that used to keep my nose glued to the classics, hoping for a phrase or concept that would set my mind dancing. The only memoir whose prose moved me more was Beryl Markham,’s West with the Night. When I look at the two books side by side, I am awed by the diversity of human experience.

West with the Night was about a woman coming of age amidst the wonders of Africa in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, when lions and elephants owned the land. As a little girl she hunted with the tribesmen. Then in her teens, she rode her horse wild and free throughout the region. Then she soared even higher, flying her plane above the savannah. Ten Points by Strickland is a sort of post-modern contrast to Markham’s West with the Night. Instead of riding a horse through the vast uncharted savannas of Africa, Strickland expends enormous amounts of energy going around and around a paved track riding a tiny machine. Strangely enough, they are both seeking the same goal; freedom. While Markham strives for ever greater freedom in the outside world, Strickland pedals faster and faster around that race course looking for freedom inside his own psyche.

Strickland’s quest seems like an unlikely place to find anything other than heartache. He is the underdog, hopelessly outclassed by the international champions with whom he is riding, forcing him to strive with superhuman determination. His desperate desire to overcome insurmountable odds makes the book is so powerful. But what does he stand to gain by winning these puny ten points, while the racers against whom he is competing are racking up hundreds? It turns out, this is the way he has chosen to set himself free from his inner demons.

The demons are nothing more nor less than some of the most horrific memories of child abuse I ever thought I could tolerate. Reading some of his most abusive memories felt like I was squeezing myself through a disgusting tube, so I could get out the other end and rejoin him in his quest for becoming a complete person. The abuse he suffered as a child reached a crescendo, some of the details of which leave me so breathtakingly shamed I’d rather not remember them, let alone repeat them. For reasons Strickland never understood, the abuse stopped, but of course the memories didn’t. The book is about him trying to overcome the backward downward suction of those memories. How could he ever overcome the demons in his own psyche? Isn’t he stuck with them for life? That’s what keeps me turning pages.

I hate stories in which the bad guys are so powerful that they always come out on top. I want to identify with a hero who stands a chance. In Ten Points, Bill Strickland gives it his all, and I’m rooting for him the whole way. And get this. The big firepower that helps him defeat his demons is his determination to win at bicycle racing and his determination to love his wife and daughter. So much warmth flows among these three people I feel I am sharing some of the most profoundly loving relationships in all of literature. And so, when Strickland promises his four year old daughter he will win Ten Points, his love for her binds him to his racing in an almost mystical commitment. By making this promise, the cycle of abuse passed down from his grandfather to his father to him stops right here.

I love this big ammo. It’s a stunning affirmation of ordinary life lived to its fullest. The most horrible stuff I ever don’t want to imagine, stuck seemingly forever in this guy’s memory, and his best antidote is his belief in the good things in normal life. When he throws himself into race, I can feel every turn of the wheel, every drop of spit and sweat that blows back from the riders who are beating him.

Through the drama and even poetry of his struggle, Strickland conveys the authentic power of racing to help him overcome his demons. And so, his experience teaches me something about how the human psyche can be healed. But why does it work? Is it a known psychological tool? I wonder where I have seen such a method used before and the best I come up with is Viktor Frankl’s model, that finding a purpose in life heals most psychological woes. Whatever the reason, striving for those ten points enabled Strickland to inject some sort of spiritual cleansing through his veins to help clear out the filth his father put there. Strickland’s love for his daughter, his urgent need to achieve purity through excellence, his commitment not to hate his father but to rise above him, and the partnership with his wife add up to a bittersweet creation, at one time showing some of the worst of the human condition, and in response to it, some of the best. His memoir is a great bicycle racing story, a great book about the love of a family, and a great book about the battle of good versus evil. In the end, he wins. Not the ten points. He wins his soul.


To read an interview with the author of Ten Points, Bill Strickland, click here.

To read more about the relationship between horror writing and real life, see my essay on that subject along with an interview with Jonathan Maberry.

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

By Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Your story works like your skin

by Jerry Waxler

When you cut your skin, you bleed, and if you don’t clean it, infection sets in. Human beings also have another type of skin, made not of flesh but of stories. This skin provides a sense of purpose, of safety, of place in the world. When it’s healthy it is resilient enough to shrug off an annoyance, or a small setback. But the slings and arrows of fortune occasionally break through this skin and then it no longer protects us. In our vulnerable state we must continue to live and make decisions designed to seal up the hole, to protect us from the insult ever happening again. The decisions we make in this state often affect us far longer than the original injury itself. Like broken flesh that develops a life threatening infection, a damaged story can be dangerous.

Take for example the crashing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. We watched in horror as our story of safety was penetrated, and then through that gaping wound poured two full fledged military invasions, and subsequently many more dead bodies and torn lives.

While that incident shows how the minds of millions of people can be damaged, we each have individual stories, and these can be damaged, too. Violence is the bluntest way, but there are others. A lover or business partner cheats, and the world becomes dark, no longer worth living in. Betrayal doesn’t even require another person. You can betray yourself. When addicts start wrecking their lives, they cling for dear life to the story that everything is fine. But at some point, the realization crashes in that they are letting themselves down. “I’m a rotten person” creates a dangerous hole in their story.

During this wounded period your decisions are not made in the clearest frame of reference. The urgent need to patch up the hole, might lead you to choices whose consequences continue to resonate years later. The cry for deliverance often rips people up more than the initial event. The jilted lover, the avenging family, the self-imploding addict, the litigious spouse, the almost athlete or artist, create even more wounds in the name of setting the story straight.

Despite this messy process, eventually we do stand up, ready to move on. And then, when we are calmer and wiser we can regain some of the ground we lost during the throes of pain. Look past at the initial pain, and from the place of safety you feel right now, approach this as a valuable opportunity for review and deeper understanding. How did you regain your sense of self? What decisions did you make, and how did they affect you later? By reviewing the decisions and actions you made during trauma, you can learn about yourself, reduce the pain and backwards suction of those memories, make amends, and find new and higher ground.

When you come upon traumatic moments in your own story, you will probably realize that you have not applied much retrospective wisdom to that time in your life, having naturally fallen into a longstanding habit of pretending it never happened. And this is one of the vast, profound, unsung benefits of writing about your life. By organizing your thoughts and putting them in order, you regain control and understanding over your own story. It’s one of my favorite things about memoir work. The best repair for a damaged story is to tell stories.

However, there are many challenges in retelling the story of old wounds. Foremost is breaking the pact of forgetfulness you had made with yourself. Remembering might feel dangerous. In my next blog, I’ll tell about a trauma I experienced, and how revisiting it has helped me revise and heal my original view.

Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a searing memoir of trauma

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

After listening to the audio version of Alice Sebold’s memoir, “Lucky,” I’m exhausted. She does a spectacular job of bringing me right into her experience, starting from the details of the attack, the numbing and disorienting results of the trauma, the eventual identification of the perpetrator, a detailed, harrowing account of the trial, and along the way, I felt disturbed. If I didn’t know it already, I am now convinced rape is a form of torture every bit as real as the horrors of war.

And it happens without the military ceremonies, the awards of valor, the training, weapons, or body armor. A college girl innocently walks to her dorm, and two hours later, she’s a prisoner of post-traumatic stress disorder. Trauma does not sit comfortably in the mind, so when we’re not in it we try to forget it. And yet, whether we want to think about it or not, it’s real and it’s awful. By sharing her experience, Sebold reminds us of its reality.

So what would make such a book worth reading? Like any story of another human being, such an authentic, well-crafted tale might be your best chance to see life from that other side. If you know anyone who has suffered this trauma, ever expect to be strong enough to help such a person, or want to switch the word rape from an abstract news item to a deeper understanding of the human condition, this book will do it for you. And while the focus is on her own rape-induced PTSD, late in the book, she realizes that war ravaged veterans suffer from many of the same psychological problems as rape victims.

When looking through this book for lessons about your own memoir, take into account that this is the culmination of decades of self-examination, teaching, and writing. Despite all of the power Sebold brings to the project, or perhaps because of it, her writing is exquisitely simple and accessible. Not once in the whole book, not a single sentence, does she pull away into her own world and leave me out of it. She never hides behind fancy, or even pretty words. Through all that training she has learned to be simple and direct. She tells the story. I am so impressed by the simplicity and rawness of her telling, and think it offers a valuable example for any writer.

If you have ever suffered a violent trauma, and you have never been sure how to write about it, or if you feel it’s too raw to put in a memoir, “Lucky” can perhaps offer some insights. Not only is the storytelling simple. It’s also open. I recently interviewed horror writer Jonathan Maberry, author of Bram Stoker award winning novel “Ghost Road Blues.” He explained that the emotional basis for his horror writing is his own actual memory of violent physical abuse. By sharing his real emotions, he injects his writing with the real power of life. He used the word “authentic” and I think it’s a quality that readers have a sixth sense about. If a writer shares real emotion, we feel it.

It is this sixth sense for authenticity that pulls me in so deeply to Sebold’s Lucky. If you can find the authenticity of your own experience, and harness it into a story, you will not only capture your reader, but will also capture the essence of your experience. It’s this combination of real shared experience, real to you and shared in an authentic way with the reader that makes memoirs so exciting, a window into our individual universes.

When our experiences are so raw, our initial attempts to describe them usually spill out in an unpleasant, disorganized way. We say the same things over and over. We hide. We don’t have words to describe our complex feelings. The trauma breaks down all the sense that has come before, and even turns sense upside down. How can you describe a life that itself no longer feels safe or reasonable. After violent trauma, victims feel isolated inside this strange senseless world. As they try to regain order, they want to reconnect with people. Humans live together in a shared experience. We like to believe our world has the same rules that other people have. In fact, one definition of insanity is that you think your world works differently than everyone else’s.

So to regain sanity, trauma victims try to convince other people that their story makes sense. But how? The people they are trying to tell also feel disturbed by the trauma and shrink away from hearing it. Perhaps the only way to find that connection with others is through writing. People accept terrible things in movies and books. Writing seems to bypass our natural abhorrence, and we can let in some of the horror. It bridges the gap between trauma and normalcy.

Sebold has spent much of her life processing on her attack, starting with her first rage filled poem about the rape shortly after the event. She has taken years to turn the emotional upheaval and horror into a story that is readable by others. And finally, by creating this story, she is able to share it with others who have suffered, or those who give care to sufferers, or anyone looking to understand the dark side of human experience in a way that allows them to hang on to their hope.

While writing doesn’t convert horror into amiable pleasantries, it does transform it into something that makes a sort of sense. In fact, much of life is an accumulation of stories, and we turn to these stories to find sense. Look at the very core of religion, much of which is communicated in stories. And we try to make sense about all kinds of things by telling stories. Writing breaks down the walls that isolate you from others and it also breaks down the walls that separate you from your own experience. So by telling your story, even about something that makes no sense, in a way the story itself makes it feel more organized, more like it fits in with the way the world works. Look to the storytelling to incorporate these events into your life and keep going.


The motivation behind writing a memoir can add an interesting dimension to our understanding of the events that take place on the page. In the quote below, Sebold explains:

“One of the reasons why I wrote it is because tons of people have had similar stories, not exactly the same but similar, and I want the word ‘rape’ to be used easily in conversation. My desire would be that somehow my writing would take a little bit of the taboo or the weirdness of using that word away. No one work is going to accomplish the years of work that need to be done, but it can help.”

In fact, her intention has certainly been realized in my own willingness to write about this troubling topic and talk about it in my writing classes. I believe this is one of the great powers of the memoir revolution — that as more of us turn life into story, we build a shared language that breaks through all sorts of silences and helps us increase our mutual compassion and understanding.

Click here for another article on using memoirs to heal self-concept after trauma

More memoir writing resources

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.