If Not Conflict, What Fierce Determination Drives a Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

In the memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints, Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner, travel to Turkey to help a friend manage a small inn. It seems like a pleasant getaway that combines travel, friendship, and an entrepreneurial spirit. As they visit museums and historical sites, try new cuisines, befriend locals, and in Angie’s case, have romances with them, the women become increasingly smitten with the place. By the end, they fulfill the book’s sub-title, clearly communicating their love for the country.

Turkey has played a crucial role in world religion and commerce for millennia, and yet I grew up learning hardly anything about its history. Through the eyes of these two American women, I gain a fascinating glimpse into this crossroads of Moslem and Christian traditions, and even delve into pre-Christian goddess power. I also gain another glimpse of the expat experience.

In my younger years I read about macho Americans like Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway consuming their way across Europe, sucking in unlimited quantities of alcohol, food, and women. By contrast, Anatolian Days and Nights is almost a sendup of those excesses. Stocke and Brenner have modest appetites, spiced with a delicate mix of curiosity and compassion.

In fact, the women behave so nicely, it makes me ask a fundamental question: “Don’t all satisfying stories need conflict?” Ever since Ulysses traveled through the Greek and Turkish isles, threatened by monsters, imprisoned by sex goddesses, and fighting to the death with his wife’s suitors, readers have demonstrated their gluttony for conflict. Fiction writers satisfy this desire by inventing all sorts of exaggerated dangers and setbacks. Memoir writers, on the other hand, extract tension from the desire, fear, and courage enmeshed in a lifetime of memories.

So what tension in Anatolian Days and Nights keeps me reading? Were the two women at risk, traveling alone in a male-dominated world? Were they afraid? Actually, apparently not. If anything, the locals seem eager to protect them. If it wasn’t driven by the desperation to stay alive, or the gluttony to consume, what is the fierce determination that propels them to the end of their journey and me reading to the last page?

The Importance of Character Arc as a Driving Force in Memoirs

To engage me in a story, the author must convince me something in their character is missing or under-developed. The rest of the story leads me on a treasure hunt to work through the tension and choices of life. By the end, the character convinces me they have achieved this thing. This important payoff to a story is often thoroughly obvious in fiction. But in memoirs it can be more difficult to point out, and after I’ve read a satisfying story I go back to see what the character has learned.

For example, by the end of Accidental Lessons, David Berner is oriented to serving humanity rather than merely having a good job. At the end of Seven Wheelchairs, Gary Presley has wrapped his mind around the destiny of living on wheels instead of legs. At the end of Dope Fiend, Tim Elhajj has traveled beyond his minimum goal of abstaining from heroin. He has also figured out how to be a father to his son.

However, when I looked for a hard-fought character arc in Anatolian Days and Night , at first I couldn’t find it. Since both women were gentle, curious, and generous at the beginning, I did not feel any urgent pressure for them to grow along these lines. Their main goal seemed to be to understand Turkey, rather than themselves. And yet, I still closed the book feeling satisfied. What had the authors done for me and for themselves that made me turn pages?

Search for Identity as an Important Type of Character Arc

In memoirs, there is a special type of character arc — the search for identity. In this type of story, the missing ingredient that provides the impetus for forward momentum is the protagonist’s desire for a clearer sense of who they are. By the end, the character finds their true self and satisfies their quest.

This need to “know thyself” has been responsible for some of the blockbuster memoirs of our era. In fact, the modern memoir movement was started largely by the success of Coming of Age memoirs like This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. In each of these books, the young character must figure out “who am I?” The answer to this question is, of course, not simple.

Coming of Age stories are driven by a variety of questions that must be answered on the journey from child to adult, including issues of sexuality, career, family, spirituality. And one of the most fascinating struggles is one of the most abstract — the fierce determination of a young person to find identity. By the end of a satisfying memoir, the character must find enough of a sense of self to know how to steer themselves in the coming years, or at least suggest that they are heading toward such a clear identity.

This journey to find identity is not limited to Coming of Age. By lining up my collection of memoirs in the order of the life-period they describe, it becomes apparent that people of all ages try to figure out who they are. The first Coming of Age stage, finishes around say 18 years old. But there is a second stage of this transition to adulthood that is also crucial. Many memoirs are about the struggles during this second period, say from around 18 to 26 years old, when we have to make important adjustments to our identity so we can survive in the world.

For example, at the beginning of Japan Took The JAP Out of Me, Lisa Fineberg Cook is a newly-wed party-girl. By the end, she is less self indulgent and more oriented to work and service. At the beginning of Wild, Cheryl Strayed is a dysfunctional young adult, with no direction, quick to try a new guy or a new drug. She walks 100s of miles across wilderness trails to find a new vision of herself and ends with the moral strength to establish herself in the adult world. Similarly, at the beginning of Slow Motion, Dani Shapiro is almost ready to become a young woman when she falls into a trap of drugs and sex. By the end, she outgrows her fascination with the power of her own beauty, and enters the adult world of personal responsibility.

Adopted kids have a particular challenge, as evidenced in two memoirs about girls who are just about to launch into the world when they are contacted by their birth mothers. In Mei Ling Hopgood’s Lucky Girl a Chinese American adoptee travels to China to learn about her birth family. In Mistress’s Daughter, AM Homes conducts an intense investigation, trying to understand her birth family in order to understand herself.

Sometimes, a person much later in life begins to ask pressing questions about who they are. These later searches for identity can also make compelling stories. For example in the memoir Catfish and Mandala Andrew X. Pham realizes he can never be happy until he makes peace with his Vietnamese origins. He quits his engineering job in California and rides through Vietnam on a bicycle, trying to understand his roots. In My Ruby Slippers, Tracy Seeley, an English professor in San Francisco, ejected from her comfort zone by cancer, travels to Kansas to try to understand her roots. Both authors become seekers for their own identity, and they both use the notion of place in order to help them learn more.

Why is the Search for Identity So Important?

In thrillers, the compelling force is obvious. Stop the assassin. By comparison, finding your identity seems woefully abstract. Despite the apparent vagueness of this propelling force, in memoir after memoir, authors uproot their lives in order to understand their identity. Their fierce determination to answer the question “who am I?” drags readers along for the ride. Perhaps this need for identity is more visceral and fundamental than we think. For those of us interested in the psychological journey of human experience, the longing for identity appears to be every bit as life-affirming and page-turning as stopping an assassination.

Anatolian Days and Nights is good evidence of the importance of this quest. Like the hero in Somerset Maughm’s The Razor’s Edge, who left home in order to find his truth, Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner left their familiar lives and traveled east. They were seekers, looking for whatever wisdom Turkey could offer them about themselves.

By diving into Turkey, they fulfilled a sublime search not just for that country’s identity but for their own. It was a search that was important enough to drive them half-way around the world, and significant enough to keep me reading, and then to recommend their story to anyone looking for a satisfying experience.

Notes

Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints by Joy Stocke and Angie BrennerClick here for Amazon Page
Click here for Anatolian Days and Nights Home Page

There’s a word for that! I thought I understood the meaning of the word “mandala” as a sort of symbolic geometric shape. But I couldn’t figure out why Andrew X. Pham used the word in his title. I looked it up the in the dictionary and find that it means: In Jungian psychology, a symbol representing the effort to reunify the self. Perfect!

For more about the desire that drives a memoir, see my essay:
What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?

Although this is the first memoir I’ve read about love for a culture, it adds to my collection of the subgenre about friendship. Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is a tribute to her friendship with Carolyn Knapp. And Father Joe by Tony Hendra, is a paean to his spiritual mentor.

More Expats: Recently I read the memoir San Miguel D’Allende, about Rick Skwiot’s attempts to find himself in Mexico. And in Native State, Tony Cohan describes his attempts to settle into the jazz and drug scene in northern Africa. Both follow the Anatolian Nights model of searching for self in a foreign land.

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.

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

Interview with Memoir Author Lisa Fineberg Cook

By Jerry Waxler

Firewood heats you twice, once when you chop it and once when you burn it. I find the same applies to memoirs, which warm me when I read them and then again when I dive back into them for lessons. In some cases, memoirs warm me a third time when I interview the author and find out more about her process. In this entry, I have the pleasure to speak with Lisa Fineberg Cook, a generous writer who has shared her experience in “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me.” In this three part interview she answers questions about how it felt to share her life, and what is a JAP anyway.

(To read the first of my three part review of her memoir, click here.)

Jerry Waxler: Of course, all of us make mistakes and go through rough spots. But most of us try to forget those things, and bury them deep in the vaults of memory. For memoir writers, though, such material becomes the basis for the story. As I write my own memoir, I see that in many situations I was neither a kind or wise person. I think, “Dear Lord, the protagonist in this story was a jerk. Do I really want to portray myself that way?”

Your memoir portrays edgy moments that you might not be particularly proud of, and yet there they are in plain sight, and you are the one who shared them. How did you feel when you saw your flaws first showing up on the page? Were you horrified? Did you learn things about yourself?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I have never been particularly concerned with hiding flaws.  I think flaws make people more interesting and because I look for humor in just about every situation, flaws can be especially funny. As far as learning things about myself, I think I learn more in reflection than I do in the moment.  I’m usually just trying to figure out how to deal with a situation when I’m in it and then later — sometimes even months or years later, I’ll look back and think how differently I’d handle that situation now, or how valuable that lesson was and I didn’t even realize it at the time. When I’m learning things about myself after the fact, it seems like useful information to be incorporated rather than a revelation.

Jerry Waxler: Tell me about the reasoning that ran through your mind as you decided to reveal moments that most people would try to hide into public stories.

Lisa Fineberg Cook: When I wrote JAP, my husband gave me great advice, which was to choose my audience and write solely for that person (or people depending) and not to concern myself with trying to write universally.  So when I sat down and started writing, I wrote as though I was having a series of anecdotal conversations with my girlfriends. I could imagine us at a bar, having cocktails while I regaled them with amusing stories about my plight in Japan. When we talk to friends, in a relaxed atmosphere, we are much less inclined to edit ourselves down to a superficial exterior that looks good and is in control.  Besides which, revealing moments are funny.

Jerry Waxler: While writing the book, how much did you discover about yourself or about the experiences during that period of your life by seeing yourself emerge on the pages of the book?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: What’s true is that I actually wrote the book using another name for both myself and my husband.  I wanted distance from myself and to be as objective as possible — I didn’t want to protect my image in any way because that would have ruined the story for me — so I began to think of the character as someone else entirely and then when it was sent to the publisher they told me I had to change back all the names to mine and my husband’s actual names.  That was weird because I really had begun to think of this person as a third person.

I think what’s important to remember too is that I was crafting a story, not documenting my autobiography.  I purposely edited my character to a fit the story the way I wanted it.  It is me but  not completely me and I certainly played up the Jappiness for humor and consistency.  Nora Ephron has a great line which is ‘memoirs are novels that your agent tells you will sell better as a memoir.’ (I’m paraphrasing slightly but that’s the gist of it).  I wanted the book to be entertaining more than anything else and I made stylistic choices about my character that were suited to this story in order to keep it funny.

Jerry Waxler: How much about the book did you understand before you started, and how much was revealed during the writing?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I had never written a book before and I really wanted to know what it felt like to finish it.  I continued to envision myself writing the last sentence and then the words ‘The End’ and emailing the final manuscript to my agent and the dedication and so on and so forth…

I think of the writing process now much the same way I do about raising a child.  I knew I wanted to be a mother absolutely but when the time actually comes, you know less than nothing about being the parent of an infant.  So basically you just show up and hope you’re getting it right most of the time.  By the time your infant is a toddler, you know what its like to have an infant. When your toddler is in preschool, you know what its like to have a toddler and so on…

How I relate that to writing this book and any subsequent projects I’m working on, is that I knew I wanted to write this book and I figured if I showed up every day to work on it, it would turn into something which would eventually resemble a book. I sort of learned about this whole process after each stage had been completed and by the time I was holding an advanced copy in my hands, I took about two minutes to say ‘wow, this is so cool,’ and then it was on to the next project because there is still so much I don’t understand yet and I can’t wait to find out.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

Click here to read part 2, in which Lisa Fineberg Cook continues to offer observations about writing the memoir.

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.

Spoiled brat? What does spoiled even mean?

by Jerry Waxler

Lisa Cook Fineberg grew up in Los Angeles, a town where, by the rules of contemporary culture, the world bows down in submission to hot young women. But her memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is not about life as a princess. It’s about moving beyond her self-indulgent youth, and trying to find her way to the next step. When Lisa marries, she moves to Nagoya, Japan where the lack of chic hair salons or appreciation for her appearance hurtles her into a different world.

(This is the second of a three part review. To see the first part, click here.)

After the long flight, the newlyweds arrive at their supposedly-furnished apartment and discover there are no bed sheets. The prospect of sleeping on a bed without sheets throws Lisa into a panic. She wonders if she will be able to survive in Japan. Her husband coaxes her through it. “It’s an adventure,” he says. “You can handle it. If you can’t handle it we’ll go home.” She submits to his emotional support and reaffirms her original intention . “That’s okay. I’ll try to stick it out.”

During Lisa’s reaction, readers must make a choice. We could either say, “Dear Lord. It’s only a night with an inconvenient sleeping arrangement. Get over it.” Or we could cheer for her, the way her husband did. And that is the real charm of the book. Lisa lets us in on the debate she is having within herself. She generates dramatic tension when she feels discomfort, and then relieves the tension when she decides she can do it.

Subways show passage beyond “spoiled”

In another scene, she shows the tedium and crush of riding the subway to work. At first glance, her discomfort might seem “spoiled.” But when you think about it, why is she riding to work on a subway, anyway? Wouldn’t a princess take a cab? And she isn’t going shopping. She’s on her way to teaching an English language class, another non-princess-like activity. The subway scenes show excellent examples of her transition from youth to maturity. To go from princess to working woman, the only way she could do it was to push ahead, explore, experience it for herself, and keep trying.

Memoir Writer’s Courage

Some of her behavior to her husband and coworkers is clearly selfish. One scenes shows her unwillingness to be kind to a woman who reaches out to her. In another scene, she becomes furious because her husband doesn’t make a big enough fuss about her birthday. The scenes  provide emotional vulnerability that engages the reader. They also provide insight into the challenges faced by every aspiring memoir writer.

When we had to make the transition from the freedom of youth to the responsibility of adulthood, many of us tried to prolong our entitlements. Even as we were pushed into the new world, we clung to the notion that other people were supposed to serve us. In the process we made self-involved decisions. Like Lisa, we threw hissy-fits, angry at our fate and ready to ignore other people’s feelings on order to survive our own. After the snit was over, most of us forgave ourselves, forgot about it and moved on.

Memoir writers choose a different path. We look back on those memories squarely, and observe our behavior carefully.  When we consider scenes in which we ignored the rights and feelings of other people, we feel a pang of shame. I have read many memoir scenes that are clearly not included because the author was proud of their behavior, but because they are willing to fearlessly face them. In order to provide the full emotional experience to our readers, memoir writers remember the ups and downs and we share things about ourselves that most people hide.

Before the memoir wave, we tried to resolve unwanted memories by pretending they never happened. Memoirs offer us a different way of relating to our past, allowing us to face our memories, share them, and acknowledge those experiences as steps along our own long journey.

Writing prompt
Pick a moment when you felt the world was falling apart, but which in retrospect was just a temporary inconvenience. Looking back on it, you can see it was just your mind freezing up, demanding better circumstances. Write the scene with the outrage and hurt and victimization you felt at the time. Let the reader feel your pain.

Spoiled in creature comforts but generous in explanations

I love the way Lisa thinks about things and then clearly and thoughtfully communicates what she sees. For example, in her teen years she feels entitled to buy hair products, designer clothes, and look attractive. But she also realizes that some boys have a different form of entitlement. They treat her like an object and push her around. She decides to stay away from boys who have that attitude and she advises all young women to do the same. In a couple of simple sentences, she provides a primer on manipulative relationships and guidance on how to steer through that period of discovery in a young woman’s life.

Such simple clarity takes place on every page, where she offers observations in clear, sensible language. The writing reminds me of the famous advice to entertainers. “Work hard to make the audience think it’s easy.” So even though the younger Lisa Fineberg Cook is spoiled, years later she sits in front of a blank page and works hard to clearly show me her life. By revealing her vulnerable moments, Lisa paradoxically also demonstrates her courage as a writer, a revealer, and an explorer of self.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

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.

Cultural Crossroads: Memoir of An American Princess In Japan

by Jerry Waxler

The memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is based on a familiar premise: a young woman marries and moves to a different city to follow her husband’s job. From this raw material, Lisa Fineberg Cook takes us on a rich, complex journey. The title is an extraordinarily clever play on words, referring to the acronym Jewish American Princess, or JAP. It refers to the fact that her sense of privilege and entitlement were squeezed out of her by the realities of her move to Japan.

As the title suggests, Japan plays an important role, but an American in Japan is only one of several contrasting cultural realities that make this book so delightfully multi-dimensional. Lisa grew up in Los Angeles, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. In Japan, she lives in Nagoya, which feels insulated. When she takes a trip to Tokyo, an international city with more global connections, she contrasts it to Nagoya, with its dearth of designer clothes and modern hair stylists. The less outgoing social conventions of her adopted city combined with the  clumsiness of crossing the language barrier force her to shift her cultural gears into speeds so slow she didn’t even know they existed.

Launching into Adulthood

The cultural transition that dominates this book is Lisa’s journey from the familiar world of a young adult to the strange new world of adulthood. Cook doesn’t just saunter into this transition. She catapults into it. Just before the memoir starts, the most important thing in her life was to beautify herself and attract boys. She marries and then flies to Japan where she must settle down and adapt to the adult world of compromise, when she actually had to work for things, and sometimes wait for gratification.

At the threshold of this new world, Cook describes adulthood through the eyes of a newcomer who is shocked that she must leave her entitlements behind. During her adjustment to marriage, she faces the mundane chores of house cleaning, laundry, and entertaining neighborhood women. The newlywed arguments are superb and insightful, offering a glimpse behind those closed walls at the way both partners are adjusting to their new roles. Just as Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball kept us engaged in newlywed problems thanks to humor and cultural contrasts, Lisa Fineberg Cook does the same thing. She keeps the story moving, thanks to excellently executed contrasts between L.A. and Japan.

Adapting to Japan While Growing Up

When Lisa meets her Japanese neighbors, she tries desperately to read social cues that are either absent or so understated as to be invisible to the American eye. The mismatch generates many opportunities for humorous misunderstanding and dramatic tension. There are also opportunities for insight.

For example, when she teaches English to Japanese girls, she encourages them to think independently. However, her efforts are frustrated by their social conventions. They seem to believe their highest social priority is to think exactly the same thoughts as everyone else. When one student furtively asks Lisa for help with an English poem, the teacher recognizes and admires the social risk the girl is taking. But like feeding a hummingbird, she must hide her excitement so she doesn’t scare the girl away. The situation highlights the contrast between American exuberance and Japanese reserve.

Tarnishing the Glow of Sexual Charisma

Another fascinating cultural insight in the memoir was the difference between beautiful women, head-turners who command the attention of a room, versus the rest of humanity, who walk into a room barely noticed. I sometimes wonder what it feels like to be a beautiful woman who attracts attention by simply looking good. Fortunately, I don’t have to reincarnate to find out. I can just read memoirs. In “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” Lisa Fineberg Cook explores the question through a sexy girl’s eyes. For example, she talks to her friend Stacy about how good it feels to walk past construction workers in L.A. in order to get an ego boost from a wolf whistle.

In Japan, Lisa discovers a fascinating twist to this experience of being stared at. When she commutes to her job on a crowded train everyone looks at her, a situation she is probably accustomed to at home, but this gaze is colder and more remote, as if the other passengers are examining a strange specimen. Her size, her shape, the color of her hair and skin, attract attention not because she is delicious but because she is different. Again, like so much of the memoir, this experience helps her grow beyond the entitlements of youth and move on to the next stage in her life.

Each time I turned the page, I learned more about how people must learn about and get along with each other. In each contrast, whether between sexy single and married adult, Japanese and American, charismatic and ordinary individuals, husbands and wives, I feel like I am peering into the heart of the human condition. Lisa Fineberg Cook’s life experience taught me many lessons about her in particular, about the people she encountered, and about writing memoirs. I’ll say more about these lessons in the next part of this essay.

(This is the first of a three part review. To see the second part, click here.)

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

Other Memoirs About Launching

Another book of a launching and pop culture is Jancee Dunn’s “Enough About Me” – Jancee left home to enter a career at Rolling Stone magazine, while she shifted her self-image from child to adult.

A similar transition takes place in “Sound of No Hands Clapping” by Toby Young, an excellent transition from a wild and often drunk single, to a married young father, looking to convert his attention from self to family.

Most of the drama of “Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls is about surviving mistakes made by her parents. When she is ready to take responsibility for herself, she emerges from poverty and into adulthood like a rocket.

Frank McCourt’s Coming of Age represents a dark difficult transition. Unlike Lisa Fineberg Cook’s “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” by the time McCourt reaches the end of “Angela’s Ashes,” he had no idea how to be an adult. He describes his launching in much greater detail in his second memoir, “Tis.”

For another article about launching into adulthood: How These Memoir Authors Emerged Into Adulthood

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Spiritual memoirs, interview with author Rick Skwiot

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of part 1

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

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

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

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

Notes

Rick Skwiot’s Blog, “New Underground”

Rick Skwiot’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Seeking Truth in a far off land, “American Shaolin” Part 3

By Jerry Waxler

In the 1960s, Timothy Leary suggested “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Many young people, myself included, were seduced into thinking that these three steps would lead to wisdom. For several years I jettisoned social norms. At the end of that road, I believed in nothing. Leary’s formula had emptied me without offering anything in return. To fill the void, I looked Eastward and found a teacher in India who, unlike Leary, advised me to get a job. According to his system, I could best achieve spirituality in a sort of parallel universe while I continued to live in the world. Essentially, he recommended that I drop back in

Recently I read about another young man looking to the Orient to find deeper Truth. Matthew Polly, author of the memoir “American Shaolin,” dropped out of Princeton and joined a monastery in China to study martial arts for two years. Polly’s path required hard work and sacrifice. By the time he arrived in China, he had already learned how to speak Mandarin, certainly a harder project than any self-respecting hippie would have attempted. And that was only the beginning. In China, Polly devoted hours every day to practice Kung Fu. His intense commitment earned him the respect and friendship of his fellow monks.

Writing Prompt
Do you have a story about dropping out, or seeking truth? What prompted you? Where did you go for answers? What did you sacrifice? Who did you talk to? What did you see, feel, or hear on your search? How satisfied were you with the results?

Describing introspective experiences

Polly studied religion at Princeton, and must have amassed a mountain of complex ideas. But he didn’t travel all the way to China to learn more intellectual concepts. He could have done that in the comfort of his college library. He wanted to go beyond books to find a more ethereal “Knowing.” When he achieved such a moment of introspective transport, he attempted to describe in words the subtle observations that could only be seen within his own consciousness.

Then, out of curiosity he asked other people if they ever felt anything similar. To his surprise, many people told him about their own transcendent experiences. His description of these conversations provided one of the simplest, clearest treatments I have read about the direct perception of spirituality.

Writing Prompt
Write about a time when you perceived an alternate reality, perhaps while listening to music, or on a starry night, or in a dream, or in prayer or meditation, or in the physical exhilaration and release after a hard bike ride, hike, swim, or climb.

Seeking is just one aspect of his story

My own reading of “American Shaolin” focuses on Polly’s curiosity about his inner reality. But that was not his only theme. He also told about his Coming of Age. The book described the emerging connection between China and the U.S. It was also a story about learning to fight, and it was a travelogue. That’s the magic of stories. They package the intricate weave of life within an unfolding narrative. Authors show what they see, and readers draw their own conclusions.

Writing Prompt
List the various themes and dimensions of your own life journey that you believe readers will appreciate.

Seeking takes us to strange places, where rules are not what we think

In the famous bar scene in the movie Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker saw the menagerie of strange looking creatures, it was obvious that he had entered a different world, to survive he would need to learn and adapt to unfamiliar rules.

In Matt Polly’s memoir, there were many indications that he was not in Kansas anymore. When Polly went to the hospital near the Shaolin Temple, he was shocked to find out how poorly equipped it was, and the floors were made of dirt!  When he traveled to a remote rural region, most people had never seen a white man.  The economic system was an unpredictable mix of socialism and capitalism – the official term was, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Apparently, this meant that anyone could earn money, and if the Party bosses wanted to take some for themselves, they just changed the rules.

Writing Prompt

When you moved to a different region, or into a different subculture, what changes let you know you were in a “foreign” land? Write a scene to show your surprise.

Here’s one of mine

In Berkeley in 1971, in my usual dire state of loneliness, I went to visit a girl who knew some friends of mine from the University of Wisconsin. When she answered the door, I told her the names of our mutual friends. I was relieved when she softened and invited me into her candle lit pad. Behind her, another girl reclined dreamily on cushions. As I was sitting down to join them, the first girl asked me my sign. I said “Gemini” and they looked at each other. She became stern and distant, and then asked me to leave. Shaken, I walked out to the street, alone again, wondering what I had done wrong.

Notes

This is my third essay on the memoir “American Shaolin.” To read the other essays, click the links below:
Princeton Student transfers to the School of Hard Knocks or Learning Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple

Flawed heroes and mechanical body parts: Shaolin Memoir Part 2

Click here for the Amazon Page for “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly.

For more background about the modern history of China, see my essay about the memoir, “The Man on Mao’s Right.

Princeton Student transfers to the School of Hard Knocks or Learning Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple

by Jerry Waxler

Every week, the television show “Kung Fu,” opened the doors of a magic kingdom in which the hero, a peaceful warrior named Kwai Chang Caine, avoided violence except when he needed to save innocent people from persecution. Then, he crushed his opponents. Dreamy flashbacks showed Caine with his teacher, Master Po, in an exotic oriental temple. When the student was ready to go into the world, he lifted a kettle of red hot embers between his forearms, forever burning the Shaolin Temple into his skin and my mind.

Recently, I saw a memoir “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly, a young man who dropped out of Princeton to study Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple in China. I was stunned to learn the place was real and even more astonished that it still existed. At first I resisted reading the book, afraid the real world might ruin my fantasies. Finally curiosity won. I jumped in to “American Shaolin” and kept turning pages to the end.

Matthew Polly left his Ivy League school, and traveled to a small town in China, where he moved into a small sparsely furnished room, took a vow of celibacy, and began his studies. The memoir contained many interesting themes: a search for identity, for spiritual meaning, for the soul of China, and it was a book about men and fighting.

What are men really like?

I’ve never understood girly-girls. Their world view seemed as inaccessible as say, inhabitants of the planet Venus. That was before I started reading memoirs. Now I can see into the mind of anyone who takes the time to write about themselves, expanding my insight across gender lines in a way I never considered possible.

It turns out, I don’t know much about gender-drenched men, either, having lived a watered-down version of masculinity. I never played sports, never was in a fight, never served in the military, never hung out in bars. Matthew Polly’s book has taken me inside a more masculine world than the one I inhabit, and now I know more about that half of the world, too.

From Polly, I learned that some things about men remain consistent across drastically different cultures. For example, after a hard day of strength, agility, and fight exercises, Shaolin monks went out drinking. Talking shop about their day’s practice, their conversations also included that favorite male topic, women, demonstrating the influence of lust across cultural lines.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene when you were attracted to or repelled by a stereotyped male or female trait, such as “too macho” or “too cute.” In the same scene, or another one, write how you felt about your own gender traits?

Wooing and Other Bargaining

Despite his vow of celibacy, Matt Polly did occasionally try to woo a Chinese girl. His attempted liaisons were complicated by four decades of Communist party propaganda that taught Chinese citizens to beware of westerners. The girls were suspicious of Matt and at the same time attracted to him, providing a weird, intriguing mix of politics and sexuality.

On one occasion, he had a hot date the night before an important fight. During dinner, his coach created such an embarrassing scene the girl walked out in frustration. Afterwards, the coach said to Matt, “It’s just as well. If she stayed it would have made your legs weak.” When Polly did finally sleep with a Chinese woman he described the scene with lyrical tenderness. But then she expected him to marry and he fell back to another famous male stance, fear of commitment.

Trying to get a girl into bed was not the only maneuvering going on. One-upsmanship occurred in a variety of situations. Of course, in fighting, the opponents must constantly try to get the upper hand. The focus on strategy set the stage for all sorts of situations of bargaining and maneuvering. For example, he had evidence he was overpaying for rent and tuition, and he tried to negotiate with the temple managers to lower the price. The maneuvering on both sides demonstrated the business-like mentality of the place.

Forty years of hatred for capitalism did not stamp out the Chinese instinct for bargaining any more than it stamped out sexual attraction. Polly’s description of Chinese bargaining strategies helped me understand the expression “inscrutable oriental.” The men were employing a technique known in the west as a “poker face.” To beat your opponent, you must hide your feelings.

I used to think it was tacky to write about money, but I have since come to realize the stuff keeps showing up in real life as well as in good stories. In “American Shaolin,” Polly uses money to show the power struggles among people, to offer insights into his own circumstance, and to provide another window into the Chinese culture. Strangely enough, the tense negotiations between Polly and the managers of the Temple did not ruin my impression of Polly or the Temple. It simply helped me fill in additional aspects of their world, proving once again that the mundane side of human nature, when told well, can breathe authenticity and tension into ordinary situations.

Writing Prompt
Bargaining is a common activity, when we try to get what we want through arguing, or pleading, or strategy. Write a scene when you had to get something from someone, whether for love, or money, or power. Show your plan. Or show how you acted impulsively, without a plan. How did it work? How well did the other person defend their own needs? What did they do to resist your request? Who was the better strategist?

Notes
Click here for the Amazon Page: “American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China by Matthew Polly”

Matthew Polly’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Making memories, remembering memories, writing memories

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

When my wife’s sister, Judy, heard that her local writing group was looking for a writing teacher, she mentioned my name. She has been encouraging us to come to visit her town, Salida, with lots of artists, tucked in a valley amidst the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. If it worked out, I could teach memoir writing, while making a few memories of my own.  The directors of the group checked out my blog and other material on my website, and we began to brainstorm about how it would work.

All the memoir classes I had taught previously were broken into two hour segments. Students had to come and go four times. This workshop would go for eight hours straight, so we would be together non-stop. Would we have the stamina to sustain the creative journey all in one continuous march? It seemed that the immersion might offer many benefits that would offset the difficulties. We all agreed to make it happen.

In September, we flew in to the Denver Airport. On our drive to Chaffee County, we stopped at Colorado Springs to walk through the Garden of the Gods, a magnificent collection of brilliant orange spires, like fingers reaching up to the sky. We only had an hour to appreciate what it had taken God a million years to create. The rest of the drive was almost as spectacular. Along the canyon of the Arkansas River, the mountain faces kept changing color and texture, as if each section had been formed during a different era. I felt like I was watching the history of the earth unfold before my eyes.

In Salida, Judy showed us around the local art shops and historical buildings. The renovated Steam Plant is the home of the theater where she volunteers, and that night she took us to a rock concert, where we listened to good quality regional rock and roll, standing or swaying on a dance floor with the locals.  The next day, we ate breakfast at Bongo Billy’s Cafe, which like the Steam Plant, is a restored historical building. On the red brick walls hang works of local art and a poster that offered, “How to Build a Global Community.” I stood there and read every suggestion, as if the poster could help me understand the heart of Salida. One rule was “Visit people, not places.” I liked that rule and thought I could honor it on this trip, starting with the 25 people who had signed up for my class.

At 8 AM the next morning, arriving early at the church where the workshop was to be held, I greeted people on their way in and asked them what they wanted to accomplish in the class. Every good story starts with desire. The personal introductions segued naturally into a formal class, in which I offered an overview of memoir writing. Then it was time to learn techniques. After the first lesson, about finding the timeline, I gave a writing prompt. “Write a scene about one of the homes you lived in.” Their heads went down, and pens moved, allowing them the opportunity to ideas into action.

When it was time to read aloud, I asked them to break into groups of three so each could read their writing to two others. The room buzzed with energy while I sat alone and planned my next module. When they were done, I spoke some more, we discussed more, and they wrote and read to their small groups. The lunch break was in the adjoining kitchen, with a feast of pot luck dishes that included salads, cookies, and fruit. And then we started again.

The next lesson was about the long middle of a story, which could become bogged down in the passage of time. To keep the story moving, the protagonist must face and overcome obstacles. In an excellent example of life imitating art, by this time, we had been focusing for five hours and we had to press on. I gave one more prompt. “Write about a significant obstacle in your life.” Heads bowed, and when they looked up, this time I asked them to share their writing with the whole group.

One by one, they shared critical moments: near deaths, loves lost, disease, and recovery. I leaned forward in my chair, inspired by the variety and depth of human experience, and the power of memoir writing to shape those memories and share them. Some students choked back tears. Others were more stoical, while the rest of us nodded, and murmured in empathy. Many said, “It’s the first time I shared this with strangers.” And now, we all knew, and the secret had become an opportunity for shared compassion.

After each reading, I commented on how it fit into the course material and how they might develop it further. When we ran out of time, I thanked them for sharing their lives, and we were done. But it wasn’t over quite yet. While we were cleaning up, many people walked up and thanked me. “You helped me think about my life in a new way.” These expressions of appreciation made me feel my day was a success.

When I returned to our room, my wife was excited by her own adventure. She had spent most of the day at an equestrian competition, watching riders roping, herding, and other events. When Janet is around horses, she’s happy, so the day was a success for her too.

The next day, we looked around for a trail ride that we could take through the Rocky countryside. We found a guide, George, a salty man with smiling eyes, and lots of creases in his face who bragged about his recent 77th birthday. We brushed the horses, (mine was named Ringo), saddled up and walked out amidst the big peaks and big skies of Colorado, through scrubby arid hillocks, and stands of pine trees. George turned around in his saddle to tell us about his life, working in a mine, losing his best friend in 1969 and even some bits about his love life. He knew every one of his herd of 30 horses by name and told us anecdotes about many of them.  My horse Ringo was a little pokey so sometimes George’s voice drifted back to me and other times I ambled in silence.

Four hours later, we took the saddles off, and he let us give the horses their treat of grain. As we were leaving, I asked him, “Are you a cowboy?” He said, “I’m going to be a cowboy when I grow up.” Getting to know George, who had lived and worked in this area his whole life, I felt like I had fulfilled the suggestion on the poster at Bongo Billy’s. We were not just visiting places, but meeting people as well.

We pulled on to the road and headed out of town, back towards the Denver Airport. Leaving the mountains behind, my wife said, “I like this trip. Maybe you can find more places to teach memoir writing workshops.” “I don’t know hon. I’ll ask around.”

Note

 

Click here. for brief descriptions and links to other posts on this blog.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Is a Travel Memoir Really a Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

When I started studying memoirs, my original focus were the conventional ones like Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” or Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle.” At first, I didn’t understand why some travel books were sold as memoirs. Travel books weren’t about the author’s childhood, and they included a lot of journalistic descriptions of the places they were traveling through. And yet I realized they were first person accounts that let me get inside the author’s point of view and see the world.

To understand more about what goes into a travel memoir. I read a few like Doreen Orion’s travel memoir, “Queen of the Road,” and Mark Richardson’s “Zen and Now.” I’ve also dabbled in others like Tom Coyne’s walk around Ireland recounted in “A Course Called Ireland” and Rosemary Mahoney’s solo trip in Egypt, “Down the Nile Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff.”

Based on my research, I decided travel books indeed could be considered as a sort of memoir. In fact, in my perfect world, the book store would have a whole bank of memoirs and autobiographies, including sub-sections for Coming of Age, Overcoming Hardship, and Travel memoirs, to name a few. Here are a few of the features of travel memoirs you might consider when reading your next one, or planning your own.

On the road alone means inside your mind

Travel provides the fascinating unfolding, as places appear in the distance, come closer, and then whiz by, fading into the past. From this perpetual flow of locations, comes a variety of outer experience.

And while the miles disappear under the tire, hull, or shoe, the protagonist’s main activity is… nothing. With nothing to do but move your body from A to B, traveling is a sort of meditation in its own right, providing the protagonist ample time to reflect. That’s what Bob Pirsig did in his classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and when Mark Richardson road his motorcycle along the same path, he too reflected about life in “Zen and Now.”

Since Doreen Orion is traveling with her husband in an RV she has other options. She can read, or banter with her husband. Considering she is a psychiatrist, I wonder if her absence of introspection is a sort of subterranean irony, a feature I have noticed throughout Orion’s entertaining approach to her material.

Wrestling with your Stuff

Traveling raises all sorts of issues about stuff. First you have make a list of what to take, buy what you need, and then pack your luggage. You have to store it somewhere and lug it along. Sometimes you can’t fit much. On his motorcycle ride, Mark Richardson could only bring a couple of pairs of underwear. When he stopped in a motel, he methodically unpacked his saddlebags, including motorcycle repair tools. Then the next morning, he packed them up again. At the other extreme, Doreen Orion packed her luxury RV with all sorts of amenities, such dozens of pairs of shoes. But even she had limits. One day she jumped in the tagalong SUV and went shopping, and when she tried to put the purchases away, she realized she had run out of room for her stuff.

Describe the people you meet

During travel, you meet people, and these meetings add character to the journey. Richardson tells about the small town girl working in the motel, and the Russian couple who own it. He describes other bikers he meets at stops, and he looks up some of the same people who had met with Pirsig during the original ride. He even stops in a town and speculates about which tree Pirsig and his son might have sat under, and asks some of the locals to help him figure it out, while Orion chats up the other campers at the RV parks – neighbors for a night.

Focus on your vehicle (boat, feet, RV, motorcycle)

In “Zen and Now” Mark Richardson focuses in detail on his motorcycle. This is a neat trick that emulates Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Both motorcyclists do an excellent job of showing how their world has collapsed down to their vehicle and the stretch of road they are on right now. By describing the motorcycle they let you feel intimately connected with their contracted world. Doreen Orion also showed us her small world by bringing inside the cab of her luxury RV in “Queen of the Road.”

Journalistic accounts of the world

In the musical “Sound of Music,” Julie Andrews walks along a country road with the kids, and suddenly they all burst into song. It’s entertaining, albeit a little out of place. Something similar takes place in a travel memoir, when the author decides to insert a little background description about something they are seeing. My quirkiest example is in Doreen Orion’s “Queen of the Road.” In a night club she visited with her husband, a girl performed a clog dance. Orion included a brief history of clog dancing. Not your typical memoir material, but it worked as a lovely way to pass the time in her company. Of course, the scenery, the towns, and the people are all fodder for the writer’s research, should they choose to add a few details about the world they are moving through.

Getting there and back is a perfect container for a story

The whole purpose of a good story is to portray a sort of journey, that takes the protagonist as well as the reader from the beginning of the book to the end. Travel memoirs turn this into a literal journey from one geographical location to another. When you insert your experience into travel, you allow your reader to go along with you as you prepare, pack, and go forth from your home. Leaving your familiar world behind, you enter a new world with different rules and make progress through obstacles. This allows for the curiosity and adventure of discovery, as well as the contrast with the familiar. At the end, you complete the journey, providing the appropriate metaphorical as well as circumstantial ending.

By breaking the protagonist out of the daily grind, travel memoirs still provide plenty of room for an inner journey, too. Under the stress of confusing situations, or the tedium of the passing miles, or the curiosity of new observations, travelers discover new things about themselves. As the outer miles go by, the inner journey is also underway, making the travel memoir an excellent framework for writing about life.

Notes

For discussion about some of the classic memoirs, see my essay, “Why so many memoirs about dysfunctional childhood?

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.

Break the Rules! A Travel Memoir with a Twist of Zen

By Jerry Waxler

In the early 1970’s, Robert Pirsig was overwhelmed by too many thoughts. To sort himself out, he took a motorcycle trip with his son and a couple of friends and wrote about the trip in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” The book wasn’t just about a motorcycle ride. It was also about his troubled relationship with his son, and also about his passionate belief in a philosophical idea he called “Quality.” The book became a cult classic, selling four million copies, and many of its followers continue to read it over and over, finding new meaning on each page. Others, like me, felt lost.

Now, decades later, I traveled Pirsig’s road again, not by rereading his book but by letting another author, Mark Richardson, take me on a tour. Richardson thoroughly researched Pirsig’s life and set off on his own motorcycle to follow the route from Minneapolis to San Francisco. Richardson’s book is more accessible than Pirsig’s, and I was able to relax while reading “Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” It was a good trip.

Because of the fame of the seventies classic, millions of people have some curiosity about the subject, and Richardson fulfills their curiosity by jumping all the way in. This is full immersion journalism. He entered the situation and reported what he saw.

Writing Prompt

Fantasize for a moment about what situation you would be willing to spend time jumping into. To keep it practical, consider a trip you’ve already taken, or take advantage of some research you’ve already accomplished. From a less constrained point of view, expand your options to things you wish you could do. Keep in mind that Richardson’s actual motorcycle trip only took a couple of weeks.

Travel is a brilliant device for a publishable memoir

According to some memoir pundits, if not the Memoir Police themselves, a publishable story is supposed to describe a fixed period of time. According to this view, it’s easiest to grip a reader and more importantly, a publisher, if you can stay within a discrete period. I’m just kidding about the Police. There’s really no such rigidly enforced code. Even if you can define the rules, most memoirs break them anyway. For example, Jeanette Walls’ block buster memoir, “Glass Castle” is supposedly about her childhood, but then it continues, trickling over into her adult years. The same is true of John Robison whose “Look me in the eye” covers most of his life, more like an autobiography than a memoir.

However, if you want to publish, it doesn’t hurt to follow as many rules as possible. And placing your story into a time-limited wrapper appears to make a book more sellable. I was recently at a writing conference (Philadelphia Stories at Rosemont College) in which Tom Coyne told about his idea for a memoir. His concept of walking through Ireland and visiting every golf course sold and became the successful memoir, “A Course Called Ireland”. Similarly, Doreen Orion proposed going for a trip with her husband in an RV around the United States. She sold it and wrote “Queen of the Road.” Another book that works this way is “Down the Nile Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff,” by Rosemary Mahoney, about the author’s fascination with the River Nile and the fulfillment of her fantasy.

Richardson broke a variety of other “rules”

At first Richardson’s book looks like it’s going to be about the motorcycle journey taken by Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” And then, Richardson veers off in a variety of directions, musing upon the meaning of his own life, including memories from long before the period being described, for example the tensions and dynamics in his own marriage, and an anecdote about the time he met President Jimmy Carter in Africa.

Regularly breaking out of chronological sequence, he jumps around going on extended flashbacks, musings, and philosophy. He includes discussions with people he meets on the road, and recounts what they say, even when it has nothing to do with Pirsig. And instead of avoiding abstract ideas, he jumps in and describes Pirsig’s philosophy. After each detour, he returns to the point in the story where he left off.

As I think more about the book by Robert Pirsig, that I read years ago, I realize it was a complex mixture of his outer motorcycle trip and the inner journey of his own mind. Now I see that Richardson’s book follows even this aspect of the earlier work. Mark Richardson’s “Zen and Now” emulates Pirsig’s rambling writing and thinking style. The resulting weave of threads is so sophisticated and yet so easy to read and understand that the best word I can think of to describe it is “Virtuoso.”

The one rule he didn’t break was to put a finite time period on his memoir. He did this precisely. Mark Richardson’s wrapper story covers the couple of weeks during which he rode his motorcycle from Minneapolis to San Francisco. It’s tight, except for the strange fact that the material actually covers decades. It’s a feat of literary legerdemain. While claiming to confine himself within the short span of his motorcycle journey, Richardson takes us on his own inner journey, allowing us to get to know him, and see the world through his eyes.

Links:

Mark Richardson’s Zen and Now Website
Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Mark Richardson
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig