by Jerry Waxler
After reading Tim Elhajj’s memoir “Dopefiend” about recovering from addiction, I learned many lessons that could help other memoir-writers-in-training develop aspects of their own work.
Grittiness, Chaos and Order
New York City is the perfect place for getting lost in addiction. That’s where Dani Shapiro lost her way in her memoir Slow Motion. The city felt like a co-conspirator in her seduction. But Elhajj turned that expectation upside down. For him, New York City supported his recovery. By getting out of his old haunts, sticking with the recovery community, and taking advantage of New York’s educational system, Elhajj was able to climb out of chaos into competence.
Look for intricate ways that the environment shaped your journey. If you lived in a city, how did urban life affect you? If you lived in a small town, a farm, a small town, a military base, how did the particular culture of the place influence your development?
Starting at the bottom and then building up
Addicts obey the law of the street, doing whatever they must, without concern for their impact on others. In extreme situations, that means falling below minimum standards of morality, stealing and trading sex for money.
“Dope Fiend” starts with Elhajj in recovery. However, even though his addiction is in the past, it leaves powerful after-effects. He must recover not only from drugs but also from the chaotic, self-involved, impulsive code of the addict, in order to participate in the socially responsible law of the citizen.
A good book takes the reader on a ride through the protagonist’s character development. To turn your own life into a good book, visualize the chart of your moral development. Do you start at the bottom and move up, the way Elhajj did? Or like Nic Sheff in Tweak, did you at first only pretend to be giving up your faults? Or did you start out in life full of promise but then erupt with insecurities and fall into your shadow-self the way Dani Shapiro did in Slow Motion and I did in my memoir in progress? Chart your own graph.
Tim Elhajj does an excellent job of showing how the Twelve Step programs saved him from his fall. He kept the story fresh by focusing on his own unique experience, and avoided, as much as possible, the insider lingo.
Any story about a group needs to explain just enough detail about the rules and insider routines. If you explain too little, the reader could become confused, and if you explain too much the reader could feel like you are teaching or preaching. Consider the various groups you have belonged to, whether the military, a sports team, a music group, cult, religion, fire department, writing club, or anything else. Write scenes that show the unique attitudes within the group while making it fresh enough to give the reader a sense of participation.
The Twelve Step programs are built on trust in a higher power, which makes them, in my opinion, essentially spiritual organizations. Elhajj’s book takes us inside the experience of the Twelve Steps and explores their impact on his life.
Write a scene that includes a spiritual awakening or an acceptance or insight into your relationship with a higher power.
Some of the strongest scenes of moral awakening take place in conversations between the author and his mentor. When Elhajj presents a problem, his mentor reminds him to think about his principles. For example, when he hits on a woman who just starting recovery, his sponsor tells him she is too vulnerable and he should respect her boundaries. When Elhajj presses the point, the older man asks him if this is what he really wants. It is advice-giving at its best, forcing Elhajj to consult his own budding moral compass.
Note: Another excellent of mentoring is in Henry Louis Gates’s Colored People. When Gates is stuck in a hospital bed, a visiting minister recommends he extend his vision beyond the boundaries of his small town.
Find a scene that includes you receiving some advice from a parent, friend, teacher or some other mentor. Show how the advice influenced you.
Lessons Learned: The character arc
Listening is an incredibly important skill, and one of the first and most fundamental lessons taught to therapists. Elhajj’s memoir shows how he learned this crucial topic. He lets us see his frustration when people give him clumsy advice. He also shows his admiration of those people who listen to him and then speak gently. Later he takes advantage of the bad examples and the good ones, when he speaks to his son. It is one of the best examples of learning to listen that I have seen in literature.
What life ah-ha have you learned? Write a scene that shows it.
Fathers and sons
Elhajj starts his story as a young father who was so lost in his own confusion, he barely even tried to guide his own son. Gradually, he begins to find himself, and the stronger he grows, the more he longs for the privilege of giving his son the kind of example every young man needs. Dopefiend is about Elhajj’s journey to become a complete man, and his desire to be a good father is an important part of that journey. His own son forces him to grow, giving fresh meaning to Wordsworth’s famous line, “the child is father of the man.”
What intense experience did you have with your father, or son, or with your mother or daughter? Search through generations, and look for patterns. For example, what resentment did you have about your parent that you then saw reflected in yourself and your children?
Denouement of a memoir
The book is a saga of the transition from a dope fiend to a responsible member of society. At the end of Dopefiend, Elhajj achieves many of the successes of a healthy life. In addition to sobriety, he has a budding relationship with his adult son, a loving partner, and a rapprochement with his mother. Through the journey, he often benefits from the kindness of people who want to help him. It is as if, despite all his efforts to destroy his life, God or some higher power, or perhaps just the goodness of people, keep showering him with forgiveness, with second chances, with alternatives. Some spark of insight allows him to take advantage of these gifts and grow to become a complete person.
Such insights into human nature are one of my favorite reasons for reading memoirs. Their message allows readers to close the book with warm feelings, hopeful about the ways of the world. As a result of these good feelings, grateful readers will recommend the book to their friends, as I do to you.
What lesson did life teach you? Write about it in scenes, or in reflection to see if it could perhaps make a good denouement for your story.
Click here to read an essay about Dopefiend as an extended Coming of Age story.
For a fascinating example of a book that leads deep into the secret world of a group, read Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman.
For a grittier look at an active addiction, read “Tweak” by Nic Sheff. Click here for an article about Nic Sheff’s addiction and his father’s desperate attempt to save him.
For another memoir with an excellent, uplifting message, read Kate Braestrup’s “Here if you Need Me.” Click here for an article about grieving in memoirs.
For 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.