8 Lessons and Prompts from Tim Elhajj’s Recovery Memoir

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.

Writing Prompt
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.

Writing Prompt
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.

Twelve Steps
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.

Writing Prompt
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.

Spirituality
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.

Writing prompt
Write a scene that includes a spiritual awakening or an acceptance or insight into your relationship with a higher power.

Mentors
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.

Writing prompt
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.

Writing Prompt
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.”

Writing Prompt
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.

Writing Prompt
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.

Notes
Click here for Tim Elhajj’s home page
Click here for Dopefiend on Amazon

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.

Escaping the prison of what might have been

By Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More memoir writing resources

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

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

What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?

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.)

Dani Shapiro’s memoir “Slow Motion” is a study in desire. When she enters Sarah Lawrence, one of the top liberal arts schools in the U.S., she is young, beautiful, and rich. Then, a man 20 years older swoops into her life, picks her up in his limousine and showers her with flowers. At first she is disgusted. Then she gives in, and starts taking more and more of his gifts. The problem is he’s the step-dad of her best friend, he’s married, and he’s a liar. Every time he pulls another creepy stunt, I want to scream, “Run!”

I’ve heard plenty of real-life stories of people’s lives being destroyed by love affairs and addiction. Now this book puts me inside the head of someone choosing a self-destructive track, and I find her desires almost incomprehensible. How can a person want something that is going to hurt them? This book gives me a chance to peer into one such person’s path. If I can understand how desire works for Dani Shapiro, I hope to learn more about desire in other memoirs, and in my own life.

For more insight, I turn to one of the great explainers of human nature, the psychologist Abraham Maslow. In the 1940’s, Maslow wanted to push psychology beyond illness, so he studied highly motivated, challenged, and satisfied people. Based on his research, he developed an explanation known as Maslow’s Hierarchy. This famous model says that people satisfy basic needs first and then move up to more sublime ones. I tried to apply the hierarchy to Dani Shapiro’s memoir.

Dani Shapiro on food and drink.
At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy are the biological needs. You would think hunger and thirst would be the first things that a person with money would satisfy. But when you look closer, you see how Dani distorts these needs. She accompanies her lover to the finest restaurants, orders any food she wants, and then either doesn’t eat it, or eats it and goes to the bathroom to throw it up. She is starving.

Similarly Shapiro’s relationship with drink is far more complex than simply satisfying a biological need. In one restaurant, Lenny, her lover, is disappointed that they don’t stock vintage wine from 1959, so he reluctantly settles for 1961. As he raises his glass, he says to Dani, “This wine is older than you are.” He is using drink as a tool of power and sexuality. As she becomes more dependent on alcohol, she drinks to fog her mind. Over and over, her biological needs are distorted by power and self-destruction.

Dani Shapiro on safety.
After the biological needs are met, Maslow says we try to achieve safety. Dani perverts this need, too. Even though she doesn’t see it, the reader can see that she is consciously moving out of safety and into danger.

Dani Shapiro on social needs.
The next rung up the ladder are social needs, such as friendship, intimacy, and family. Dani’s family, many of them highly successful, ought to be a major source of support. Except for the fact that they hate each other so venomously they had no room in their hearts for Dani. When she seeks satisfaction from her lover, he drains her like a vampire, sucking so much of her energy she doesn’t even have friends. What’s a reader to do? I want her to get this guy out of her life. And yet if she removes him, she might fall for another shallow, powerful man. To satisfy me, she must gain a clearer understanding of her own social needs.

During high school, instead of pursuing drama or writing, her extra-curricular activity is cheer leading. During college she models, seeking to be paid for her beauty. Her goal is to maximize the amount of praise and power she can earn from her looks. From this point of view, her affair with Lenny seems ideal. He shower her with wealth, his perfect trophy mistress. Unfortunately, Dani’s approach to social needs keeps her trapped in the bottom three rungs.

Dani Shapiro on esteem and actualization.
According to Maslow, once the basics are taken care of, people look for esteem, from others as well as from themselves. At the pinnacle are expressions of creativity, excellence, service, and sacrifice. I want Dani to reach the top two rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy, where life starts getting really interesting. These goals turn out to be Dani Shapiro’s saving grace.

When she first enters Sarah Lawrence as a young woman right out of high school, her path seems assured. Then she drops out, throwing away an opportunity. After much suffering, she stops her downward spiral, by rejecting her parasitic lover and overcoming her substance addictions. Ready to reclaim her life, she makes a call to the dean at Sarah Lawrence. “I want to come back.”

In the end, this desire for creative expression sets her back on track. She finds her strength, enters a community of supportive students and teachers, and moves towards safety, social rewards, and esteem. Her memoir provides a beautiful example that despite the many twists and turns of life the desire to create a story leads towards the triumph of the human spirit.

Writing Prompts:
Look for an experience that will help you understand each of Maslow’s five levels in your life. As you look at these needs in your life, look for anecdotes that will illustrate them:

Did you ever starve, or ever look at food as the enemy?

Did you ever feel undermined by your lack of safety, or so safe you felt compelled to find adventure?

Did you ever feel so lonely you reached out to people you would typically avoid, or so glutted with people you wanted to escape?

List some of the ways you have searched for esteem. Write a paragraph or story about how each one succeeded or failed.

What was the most sublime goal you ever reached for? What is the most sublime goal you are reaching for now?

For further work along these lines, look for the intertwining of desires. For example, Dani wanted love, so she starved herself to look thin. She wanted esteem, so she reached towards a guy who treated her like dirt. A high school grad who wants esteem might sign up for the military, putting himself in harm’s way in order to achieve a higher goal. After college, to “find myself” I pushed away from my family, diminishing my social network.

Notes:
Here’s a Wikipedia article about Maslow’s Hierarchy if you would like to know more.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs

Here is a well maintained commercial site which explains Abraham Maslow’s ideas in order to promote management and organizational strategies.
http://www.abraham-maslow.com/m_motivation/Hierarchy_of_Needs.asp

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

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.

Self-image changes in step with society

by Jerry Waxler

Henry Louis Gates, author of the memoir “Colored People,” grew up in Piedmont, a small town in the northeastern corner of West Virginia. The town was geographically in a hollow, and through the eyes of a child, looked picturesque, even cozy. In those simpler times in the 1950’s and 60’s, people got along with each other, except when race entered the picture.

Gates’ first inkling that race was going to make life complicated started in grade school. When he first became best friends with a white girl in his class, neither of them noticed they had different colored skin. Over time, this became more of an issue, and she began to pull away. Gradually, Gates noticed increasingly important issues, such as not being allowed to eat with whites, and that the paper mill only hired blacks to work on the loading dock.

As Gates tried to sort out his role as a black man in a white-dominated culture, millions of other people were doing the same thing, not just asking questions, but taking to the streets to demand answers. This was a strange and powerful time in our history. We were a nation that preached equality with the fervor of religion. But in practice, Jim Crow laws limited the rights of blacks all over the south.

I don’t know what stirred up such a bold call to action. Perhaps it was the fact that little more than a decade earlier, Americans had risen up to smash Hitler and had become accustomed to destroying great evils. Perhaps the pervasive eye of television made the world too small to hide the fact that so many governmental and social policies contradicted our shared dream of equality. But for whatever reason, society was tackling the same problem collectively that Gates was facing individually.

Gates described a compelling scene to demonstrate the intensity. Late in his teen years, when segregation had become illegal, Gates and his friends showed up at an all-white bar, the only black faces in the crowd. He survived the ensuing confrontation without physical injury, providing himself forever with the pride of knowing he risked his own safety to defend American idealism.

In the end of this crescendo of social conscience, Gates shares a gentler image of the fading of segregation. The paper mill held their annual picnic, one for whites and another for blacks. Even though the separate but equal doctrine was dead, that last picnic had a wistful quality, as people fully engaged in their own culture and enjoyed each other for exactly who they were. It was a lovely scene that provided me with a fascinating puzzle. As we blend into the larger culture, we lose some of the characteristics of our separate one.

Gates’ life story was compelling enough as an individual journey. He increased its value by artfully weaving his private life into the trends of the world. To paraphrase John Donne “no person is an island.” While it seems like a lucky break for Gates that he was learning about himself during the Civil Rights movement, I step back to see if I can find ways my life has interacted with the world. And I find many.

For example, even though I was born two years after World War II, I was profoundly affected by the ripples of despair and hope that emanated through my generation. And then, during the Vietnam War, I was deeply affected by the protests, the fear, and the pain of divisiveness. Looking further across the decades, I see sweeping changes in attitudes towards gender, race, religion and spirituality, age, career, marriage, and sex.

And everything seems to be speeding up. Our lives are impacted each year by some new radical change. Just in the last twenty years, cell phones have connected people wherever they are. Politics in faraway places we never heard of implode into our lives in terrorism. The price of homes went up, seemingly bringing with it unlimited wealth, and then crashed creating a financial crisis throughout the world. The oil that heats our homes and fuels our cars could be running low, becoming more expensive, and at the same time, damaging the atmosphere. My car is contributing to the melting of the ice caps. We’re all connected, and it’s all changing.

Social trends are not always obvious when we’re in them. Like a rowboat rising and falling on the surface of a large wave, we might not even notice we are being moved. To me, this is one of the most wonderful benefits of memoir writing. By encompassing a larger view, we see not only what happened inside our own lives, but we also fit in to a broader context, connecting our individual stream with the ocean of humanity.

Writing Prompt – social change that changed the way you saw yourself
Focus on some powerful transition or theme or period in your life. Then look for parallel changes in the culture. What was going on in the people, the media, or other larger scope that helped or hindered your personal development? If you can’t find an obvious parallel, the way Gates does in “Colored People,” look for subtler ones.

Describe examples of these cultural influences, from news stories, or from stories you know about other people. See if you can weave your individual life with the trends that are taking place in the people around you.

Notes
Check out these other essays inspired by memoirs about the mixing of cultures and search for identity:
Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Dreams of our Fathers by Barack Obama

For the podcast click the player below or download it from iTunes: [display_podcast]

Good hair in the melting pot

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.)

During the cultural rebellion of the sixties, like many white kids, I tried to reach across the racial divide by emulating black slang and embracing soul music. My dark brown hair grew longer, and by the time I returned home from the University of Wisconsin that first summer of 1966 it had curled into a tangle that looked vaguely like an Afro. My great-uncle Ben, with whom I had always got along, said “I didn’t know we had anything like that in the family.” We never spoke civilly to each other again. In Madison, Wisconsin the following year, some boys drove to campus to beat up kids who looked like me. They jumped out of their car, threw me to the ground and kicked me for a while to let me know that long hair was against the American way.

A memoir by Henry Louis Gates called “Colored People” made me think more about that incident. After all, this is the Melting Pot. We’re supposed to be able to absorb all kinds of people — the northern Europeans with their blond hair, Irish with their red hair, Mediterraneans, with their jet black hair. My own ancestors, eastern European Jews, inherited dark curly hair from our Semitic ancestors. Blending hasn’t always been easy. As each group arrived, a cry went throughout the land “We already know who we are and you are not us.” After a couple of generations, the children lost their accents and adopted clothes and customs that helped us blend. We intermarried. Voila. We’re in the mix.

But the resistance to blacks has persisted longer than for most other groups. I’ve thought about the reasons and the problems of that lack of mixture my whole life, but I’ve never thought about it as clearly as I did when I read Gates’ memoir, in which he explains what it was like growing up in the segregated south. As I listen to Gates, the magic of story reading takes over and I’m with him in the 1950’s and 60’s. At home he saw people of one color, and on television he saw another. As he ponders this contrast, and tries to sort out his place in the mix, one of the most revealing insights is the chapter on hair.

As a child, Gates’ barber complimented him on having a “good grade of hair,” or “good hair” meaning it wasn’t too curly. His good grade came with his genes, while others had to work for the desired straightness by greasing hair down and flattening it with a tight stocking cap. They ironed their hair. They used home chemical concoctions of potatoes and lye to defeat the curls. Or they spent big money on a chemical procedure call “processing.”

Through Gates’ story, I begin to see that hair has deep significance, and the more I think about how it fits into our emotional lives, the more of its power I see. Absence of hair is important to men who lose it at middle age, and the loss of hair during chemotherapy is one of the demoralizing marks of cancer. Prison camp inmates and new military recruits often have their hair shaved to reduce their individuality. Older people hide their gray to look young, while young people enhance sexual charisma by primping, extending, dying, or spiking.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that black people, to improve their image, would like to manage the impression their hair conveys. Working in my dad’s drugstore in the early 60’s I often saw black guys wearing these tight caps, or “do rags” as they were called. And my dad stocked a whole section of specialized hair products. Looking at it from the outside it seemed mysterious. Now I see they were trying to do the same thing Americans had been doing for centuries, trying to achieve entry into the Melting Pot, so they could participate in the American dream.

Hair defines the group a person is in. That simple, yet profound observation sends me searching. Surely something so important must insinuate itself in other aspects of my life. As I look for more evidence of the importance of hair I spot another crucial period.

Before I turned forty, my prematurely gray hair made me look like an old guy, an outsider among the young people I walked past every day at the university where I worked. I decided to dye it back to its original color, to reclaim my membership in the younger generation. The first time I went to visit my friends Larry and Ivy for lunch, their eyes opened wide. “It’s like instant youth.” My membership restored, I have been dying my hair ever since, despite research that suggested prolonged hair dying might cause a deadly form of cancer. When I was knocked down and kicked because my hair was too long, it never occurred to me to cut it. Now, I am once again placing my acceptance into a group above my own safety. With my dark hair, I’ll signal my membership in the youthful American Melting pot, even if it kills me.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about times in your life when you liked your hair, or didn’t like your hair. What message was your hair broadcasting?

When have you changed your hair to try to redefine or accentuate your acceptance into a group?

When has some one else’s hair sent you a message you had a hard time accepting?

Have you ever had the experience of being an outsider because of your hair, like the time I came home with long hair and was outside my family’s comfort zone, or like the way my friend’s blond daughter provoked cat calls in Egypt, where she stuck out like a… blond in Egypt.

Note

It turns out that my college hair style now has a name. It wasn’t really an Afro. It was a Jewfro.

To learn more about the African American attitude towards hair in the melting pot, see the documentary called “Good Hair” by producer and performer Chris Rock.

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

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers


Follow that car! How drama reveals the inner story

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.)

Six mornings a week, my dad commuted to his drugstore in North Philadelphia. By closing time, he had been there for almost 14 hours, but I never heard him complain. He enjoyed his work, and it may never have occurred to him that there was anything to complain about. When I was in high school, I started working with my dad at the store. Every Friday afternoon I took the subway, and on Saturday afternoon drove with my mom. My job was stocking shelves, serving customers, occasionally counting pills to help fill prescriptions, and eating lots of candy bars. Sometimes mom packed dinner, and sometimes I walked down to the Horn and Hardarts cafeteria at Broad and Erie and brought back a hot meal to eat at the store. By the end of the day, we were all ready to go home. Around 9:30 I mopped the floor, then descended rickety stairs to check the cellar door. Finally we positioned bars across the windows, set the alarm, and went outside.

One Saturday, we drove south on 17th Street, turned left on to Ontario, and started east towards Broad Street, when a large man ran out between two cars and flagged us down. He knocked on the window, yelling at us to open up, gesturing down the street towards some unseen quarry. It was a cop, fiddling with his holster, preparing to draw his gun. As my mother reached over her shoulder to unlock the door, the strangest thing happened. Her hands grabbed wildly at the latch as if she was pulling up, but time after time her fingers missed and the door remained locked. I watched in growing horror as precious time slipped away.

This is exactly what always bothered me about my mother, and here was yet another proof. She was a klutz, and just in the most urgent moment, she failed to come through. I cursed the luck that gave me such an incompetent mother. Losing patience, the cop ran to a taxi that pulled up behind us. The driver of that vehicle knew how to open his door. The cop jumped in and they pulled around us and drove off in pursuit. Meanwhile, I was filled with wonder at how my mother who had been opening car doors her whole life could have failed at such a simple task, and fumed the whole way home.

At first glance, such intense moments appear to be excellent material for a memoir. Jeanette Walls’ wildly successful memoir, “Glass Castle,” seems like a collection of such experiences. But taken as a whole, her book is more than a compilation of zany moments. Each episode contributes to an intimate, compassionate portrayal of real human beings. Memories are simply the raw material for memoirs, like pigments for a painter or clay for a sculptor, and shaping them into the story is not an exhaustive collection but an artistic synthesis. So no matter how many high powered incidents come to mind, I still don’t necessarily end up with a readable book that authentically portrays my life. To turn anecdotes into a life story, there is much creative work to do.

For one thing, I must place the experience in context. We didn’t just appear on that street. We arrived there through the natural course of our daily lives. So I back up and explain what we were doing there in the first place. That episode with the cop makes the whole night come to life — the drugstore, the neighborhood, and my relationship with my parents. As this anecdote falls onto paper, I begin to see the world of that teenage boy, broadening my insight into the night and also expanding my understanding of how it fit into my whole life.

For example, I’m not very well coordinated myself, and during my teenage years I was especially disappointed by my lack of agility. Feeling my frustration with my mom that night awakens the recognition that neither of my parents nor any of us three kids were athletic. I have recently been reading about hereditary factors that cluster together the characteristics of nerdiness and lack of physical coordination. (see my Asperger’s article). The incident with the car lock suggests that this might help explain the Waxler family. I file that observation for future consideration.

The incident stirs up an observation about my relationship with my dad. He was a loving man, and always treated me with kindness and respect, but we never talked much. I don’t remember having had a single conversation with him, which made him seem distant. Now that I am reading about us as two characters in a story, a fact jumps out. Working in the drugstore with my father, gave me an opportunity to spend large swaths of time shoulder to shoulder with him, helping him in the store that supported the family. Now I realize we were partners, in a manly sort of way. I’ve envied other boys who worked with their dad on the farm or the family business, and now I realized until I was 18, I was one of those boys.

The fact that we had to put bars on the window and set the alarm, and that a cop was running around chasing criminals, foreshadows the fact that a few years later, corner drugstores would become targets for violent crime. When I went away to college, dad’s good friend, Sam Dreidink, who owned a drugstore a few miles away, was held up at gunpoint. On the way out, the robbery completed, his assailant shot Sam in the stomach. He lived, but in terrific pain for the rest of his life. A few months later, my dad was held up. During the robbery, he was forced to his knees with a shotgun pointed at his head. They stole his money and whatever narcotics he had in stock. When they left, he was still whole in body, but that incident ended his years in the drugstore.

My mom lived 70 more years, during which I discovered her apparent lapses in “common sense” often moved conversations in unexpected directions, offering the people in her life zest and interest, cleverness and fun. Her lack of predictability turned out to be one of her endearing traits, and instead of feeling manipulated or confused by her approach, I became one of her many admirers. Forty years after that night in the car, I knew that behind a thin facade of silliness, she was an authentic, fascinating person. Which makes me wonder as I read my story if she knew exactly what she was doing, and in her own klutzy way she was protecting her family from a man with a gun.

Writing Prompt: Write an anecdote from your life that has dramatic intensity. Using that anecdote as a core, backtrack and describe what lead up to it. Also, go forward and see what happens afterward. Try it a few times, or with a few anecdotes, to see if you can find a beginning, middle, and end. Could this be a chapter in your memoir? Could it become a standalone short story?

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

Writing Prompt
Take one of your written dramatic anecdotes. You now have three different points of view about the same event. One is the memory of what it felt to be back there. Another is a reader, reading a written story about characters in the incident. The third is an adult, with a much broader understanding not only of the incident but who the people are, where they’ve been, and where they are going. Dance amidst these three points of view find new thoughts and connections that help put it in place. Consider what the people wanted. What were they thinking when they performed this particular action? What other episode does this story remind you of? How did your or their flaws influence the course of events? How have you or they changed since then?

Keep your memoir in touch with changing gender roles

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.)

After high school, instead of going to college Jancee Dunn looked for work. She got a job at Rolling Stone magazine, and became a celebrity interviewer. As I read her memoir, “But Enough About Me” it struck me that this book was completely different from the books I read when I was younger. For one thing practically all the books I read in high school and college were by men. I started reviewing books that influenced me at different periods of my life, and discovered remarkable patterns, both in myself and in the culture around me.

Sensitivity to current gender roles
In the 60’s, I knew a few things about feminist issues, but those issues took a backseat to my male-oriented questions. For example, would I end up fighting in Vietnam, and how in God’s name was I supposed to form a relationship with a girl when I was too shy to talk to her? Decades later, my relationship with women and feminism have evolved. In addition to outgrowing my bashfulness, I have come to expect women in leadership roles in every walk of life. Women are professionals and business people, warriors, politicians, and of course, writers.

Once I focus on these changes in gender roles, both in individuals and in the culture, I understand so much more about how to write to today’s audience. It turns out I have to toss away many of the lessons I learned while I was growing up. For decades, I’ve eliminated the obsolete “him” to refer to the “universal man.” That’s a given in our present culture. Now, looking more carefully, I see additional nuances that need to be adjusted.

Increasing sensitivity to the role of women as consumers
When people talk about movies now, it is common to hear some categorized as “chick flicks.” The publishing world has its own version of this called “chick lit” routinely mentioned at writing conferences by the editors and agents who decide what books are hot. Just a few years ago, I didn’t understand these terms. Now I would describe them as stories with greater emphasis on relationships, feminine success stories, and in general presenting the world through a feminine point of view. The culture has become sensitized to the variety of ways men and women are looking for information and entertainment. And this collective discussion has helped me tune in, too.

So how does this realization help a memoir writer?
As I make the journey from being a reader of books to a writer, this line of thinking offers me additional insights. I was already looking at my audience as a collection of cultures, and generations. Now I add genders to the mix. To learn more, I turn toward the memoirs I am reading.

In John Robison’s memoir “Look Me in the Eye” he reaches out to his mother later in life to try to sort out their memories. And Jancee Dunn in her memoir “But Enough About Me” portrays her respectful connection with her father. These comments about relationships to an opposite sex parent provide a glimpse into the way gender begins to affect us from the time of birth. The presence of our parents in a memoir can share these attitudes with readers.

Just as I am striving to catch up to the current feminine role, some women my age are trying to do the same. In a writing group, one woman fretted that her voice sounded too “personal.” I didn’t understand her concern. Since we were discussing her memoir, I assumed “personal” was exactly what she was trying to achieve. Then I realized she may be struggling with some of the same issues I am. During her education, she too read mostly male writers. Now, writing her memoir in the twenty first century, she needs to update her sensibility to the modern acceptance of a feminine literary voice.

Another memoir rich with this historical unfolding of the relationship between the sexes, “Navy Greenshirt: A Leader Made, Not Born” by Diane Diekman. The author enlisted in the Navy in 1972. When she started, it was a man’s world, by almost any definition. And yet she brought an attitude of relentless mutual respect, expecting to be treated with dignity and insisting on treating others the same way. Her focus on the high road broke barriers. By the time she left, she had advanced to the rank of Captain.

I was never a woman and I was never in the navy, and so all of my ideas about what such a career would have been like were formed from lurid headlines, snap generalizations, and simplistic assumptions. Reading Diekman’s memoir I traveled territory that was inaccessible in my own experience. Through the author’s eyes, I witnessed an honorable group of men and women, devoting their lives to serve their country, while at the same time doing their best to keep up to date with the evolving sexual mores of our times.

Kate Braestrup, author of the memoir “Here If You Need Me,” is a member of the State Game Wardens Service in Maine. Despite her bullet-proof, or more correctly “ballistic” vest, she doesn’t attend crime scenes to catch bad guys but as a chaplain, she brings her natural warmth to provide spiritual support. She did not claim that only a woman could do this job. In fact, the previous chaplain was a man who moved on to offer spiritual guidance to motorcycle gangs. So her effectiveness was not because of her gender, but in harmony with it. She let me feel how her femininity contributed to the pleasures and wholeness of being human.

When Jim McGarrah, author of the Vietnam war memoir “A Temporary Sort of Peace” told his dad he was joining the military, his dad tried to stop him. “All I thought when my father argued violently to keep me from enlisting was that he must be jealous because his war was over and I might win more medals in mine. I don’t think I ever considered he had learned through experience that the word man was just the back half of the more important word human, or that being a better human rather than a better man might be a loftier and more beneficial goal.”

McGarrah spent a lifetime recovering from his 1960’s teenage assertion of “manliness.” And as he struggled to regain wholeness, he was hampered not only by the backward drag of post-traumatic stress, but also by his attitude towards women. Overcoming his training that they were subservient was part of his psychological journey, and like Diekman, and for that matter all of us who lived and grew through these decades, his personal maturing of relationships between genders paralleled the culture’s.

As I research my own memoir, I too look across these decades and see how my understanding of the two genders during this period has deepened in step with the awareness of my culture. By exploring these evolving relationships I am treated to another profound truth. That is that memoir writing is not a static snapshot, but a moving story that sweeps across time, showing who we were, how we have grown, and how we continue to keep step with an evolving world.

Marketing prompt: To turn your writing from a journal for yourself to a written communication that will be enjoyed by readers today, ask who are they, and what will they get from your writing. Write a sketch of a typical reader. How old? What have they learned so far? Where are they heading next?

Writing prompt: Who are your favorite authors? Write about the different payoffs you get from the male versus female authors?

How will your gender affect your own story? How do you think key moments would be different if you were the other gender? (Use this insight to consider how each gender might respond to your story.)

Note: Gender in my life reading
If I read books by women agonizing over meaning, I don’t remember them. All my writers were men. Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Ferdinand Celine. Surely there were women authors who also agonized. They just didn’t come under my scrutiny. About 15 years ago, I read my first book by a feminist, “Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem” by Gloria Steinem, a book I found to be informative more about self-help than about being a particular gender.

One of the best books I have read about memoir writing is called Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by literature professor Louise DeSalvo. She offers many important insights into how writing your story can change your life. While the book did not emphasize feminist perspectives, DeSalvo is a world expert. Earlier in her career, she made her name as a top scholar on Virginia Woolf, one of the first of the modern feminine writers.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Rediscovering why I read books throughout my lifetime

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.)

Books have always played an important role in my life, influencing, informing, and entertaining. Now I want to pass forward to others the benefits I have received. One of the steps of offering my thoughts to “the world” is to visualize who might be on the receiving end. Communication does, after all, require a speaker and a listener. So who are “those people” out there to whom I am speaking? One approach to understanding how books work for them is to explore how books have worked for me. By picking apart the way books have worked in my life, I hope to learn how other people use books.

When I lay out my recollections on paper, patterns emerge, much simpler and more sensible than expected, letting me identify the way I used books differently in various eras of my life. Perhaps this fact should have been obvious to me from the start, but it wasn’t and now once again, I find myself learning more about the changes across the lifespan by going back and reviewing my own.

Different reasons for reading at different stages in life
In early teen years, I fell into a torrid love affair with science fiction, a genre that let me suspend my own limitations, and join forces with people who adventured through the known and unknown universe. Regular trips to the library and a large paperback collection fed my passion for fantasy. Then in high school, I switched to more serious literature, like Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas, basking in the hypnotic rhythm of their language and stories. It didn’t bother me that they described a world that took place 100 years earlier. In fact, in one of my favorite books from that period, “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Mark Twain transported the protagonist back several hundred years, combining literature with science fiction.

When I was twenty, I desperately wanted clever people to tell me what life was going to be like, so I ran towards the darkness of a culture driven mad by World War II. One of the most intellectually demanding books I ever read, “The One Dimensional Man” by Herbert Marcuse left me feeling that all was insanity and all was lost. Mentors like Samuel Beckett and Joseph Heller offered a cynical emptiness, so deep and despairing that by the time I stopped reading I had entered my own hell. Perhaps I was experiencing “Clinical Depression” or perhaps I had simply spent too much time absorbing post-World War II despair. Whatever it was, I had my fill of the dark.

To regain some of the lightness required for survival, I reached towards spirituality, reading books by mystical authors who offered me insights into a reality that made more sense than the one I had constructed so far. One was Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yoga [See my essay on a memoir about Paramahansa Yogananda by clicking here.] There were many others. Rumi, the ancient Persian poet who continues to influence and uplift. Kahlil Gibran. The Book of Mirdad. The Way of the Pilgrim, about a Russian monk who learns the art of constant prayer. Some potent books, like Stewart White’s “Betty Book” were recommended by a friend who had found them on dusty shelves of a used bookstore. (Ah-ha! It’s not just bestselling books that influence a reader.)

I finally got back on my feet, and as a young working man, I returned to mysteries. Their repetitive formula soothed me by unmasking the villain and reducing the chaos of the world.

In my forties I discovered self-help books. During this period, authors taught me psychological skills to help me survive the working life, and improve my chances for aging gracefully. My foray into self-help reached a zenith in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, whose ideas formed the foundation for going back to school for a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. I continued my fascination with self-help and psychological literature, to help me continue to grow, as well as to give me insights with which I could help others.

When I approached sixty, I switched again, reading memoir after memoir to learn what sorts of lives people have written.

My changing tastes offer many insights
When I look back over the decades, what looked originally like a thousand disjointed bits of information fall into a nicely organized shape. Of course there were exceptions that don’t precisely fit into this convenient stratification, but those don’t disrupt the basic lesson — That as I grew, I used books in different ways. My insights about books through the years becomes a lens through which I can learn more not only about myself, but about how I interacted with the world around me.

Like almost every task in my memoir project, evaluating my past adds information to my present. I see so much more about my relationship with books, and book authors, a realization that will deepen my understanding of how to reach my readers. In further essays, I will write more about how these changing relationships might affect the way I organize my life story, ideas that I hope will inspire you to understand more about your own relationship with your potential audience.

Writing Prompt: For each period in your life, write about the books you read, and why you read them. List your favorite titles, and describe the impact they had on you. Place this list in order, and see if you can identify any patterns about how they changed over the years.

Note: Memoirs are so varied they provide a variety of the benefits I have looked for in the course of my reading. Memoirs can be exhilarating, provide lots of entertainment, and offer lessons about life. Articles about the spirituality of memoirs can be found here.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Celebrity interviewer turns the camera on herself

By Jerry Waxler

(You can also listen to the podcast. Click the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Jancee Dunn was an ordinary girl from the suburbs of north New Jersey who dropped out of college, became a cub reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, and stayed there for 18 years. At her zenith she told the world about celebrities on MTV and Good Morning America. In the memoir “Enough About Me, How a Small-town Girl Went from Shag Carpet to the Red Carpet” she became the object of her own reporting. Thanks to her reporting skills, I empathized with her as she started her career, a nobody waiting at the doors of some of the most famous people in the world. “Oh my God, what must it feel like meeting a famous girl band, or rock and roll star?” Naturally her knees turned weak, but she went in anyway, and I kept turning pages.

For example, she interviewed singer Barry White, who gave her a big wet kiss at the door and treated her to a romantic dinner for two. Then she closed the door behind her. When she emerged a couple of hours later I don’t know what happened, in a virtuoso example of informing without revealing. Her discretion could provide a good model for other aspiring memoir writers who wonder how to explain awkward situations without getting into trouble.

During an interview with an unnamed celebrity who recently completed a month at rehab, he suggested that drugs were only a phone call away and asked if she would like to get high. She politely declined, and then went to the bathroom where she called her sister to explain the situation. Her sister said, “Are you crazy? Get out of there.” Jancee said, “But he’s so persuasive.” When she arrived home later, feeling shaken, she phoned her father, who talked to her about the routine details of his afternoon plans. His patter about gardening and errands soothed her and reminded her of all that was stable in her life.

Turned to the reader and offered interviewing tips
Walking with Jancee into interviews made me curious about how she worked her magic, getting the stars to say things they hadn’t said a thousand times. How did she work her way into their confidence? Occasionally she turned towards me and offered an insider tip. For example, in one of her more elaborate strategies, she started a celebrity interview by sharing a tidbit of gossip she heard about the star on the radio that very morning. Excited by this news, the star called over her publicity manager and they had a good laugh. By then, everyone was loose, and treated Jancee as a fine, generous person.

The anecdote showed me Jancee was smart, and gave me some insights into the mind of a celebrity. But I kept thinking about her interviewing tips long after I closed the book. In retrospect I see she was doing the same thing with me that she was doing with her stars. She was taking me into her confidence, making me feel like an insider. I felt her generosity and opened up to her. By turning towards the reader, she connected with me. I’m going to file this strategy away. Perhaps I can offer my own readers insider insights that will make them feel open with me.

Memoir of an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances
While I enjoyed learning about her interviews, this is a memoir, and I wanted to know more about her as a person. Rather than trying to be a star herself, she explored her life as an ordinary person. Her refusal to claim stardom for herself became a story element, providing a dramatic contrast between her own life and the lives of her interviewees. Her father was a manager at J.C. Penney’s, so loyal he named his daughter “Jancee” as a tribute to his employer’s initials. As children, when she and her sisters visited the department store, they were treated like royalty by the other employees. It was like being the fairy princess of suburbia.

In other memoirs, the exotic tastes and smells of food demonstrate the author’s ethnic life. Jancee uses food to show her background, too. Her family ate only beige and tasteless food. Think macaroni and cheese and Velveeta on white bread. These unremarkable food choices set a tone for her life.

What about inner struggles? Without the dark, there’s no way to emphasize the light. In Jancee’s memoir, the darkness came through her relationships with men. Her two disastrous boyfriends provided insight into her struggle to grow. The first guy was a sort of innocent sleaze, who left most of her self-respect intact. The second one was more self-involved, and his neediness and lack of care for her inner process pulled her into a darker place. When she started lying to her family, I wanted to cry out, “You’re going the wrong way! Turn back!” Eventually she realized that her strength came not from this self-involved guy but from within herself and her roots. As she pulled away from him, I felt dramatic relief, the sign of a good story.

Jancee found a compelling central arc to tie her book together
While she was paid to inform us about the world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Jancee really celebrated the world of normal people, returning to her unglamorous roots as her safe haven. This contrast between her ordinary life and the lives she reported created dramatic tension. As the subtitle says, it wasn’t just about the famous nor just about suburbia but about how a suburban girl interviewed famous people. By the end of the book, she made it clear she was a regular person, with ordinary feelings, family, and circumstances.

So how did her simple life relate to the life of the stars? In one scene, she joins singer Loretta Lynn making fudge. They were talking so much, the fudge didn’t turn out right, and the next day, a courier delivered a better batch to Jancee’s door. It was a gesture that reached across the divide, a star saying “look, I’m ordinary too.” While the masses of celebrity watchers long for the stratospheric heights of stardom, Jancee raises the possibility that at least some of the stars aspire to normalcy.

I love her comfortable, trendy approach, not only to her stars, but to her readers. Through years of experience as a reporter and interviewer, she has apparently gained the knack of turning to the reader or viewer. I too am looking for a comfortable open voice, and her example inspires me. I look for other opportunities in my life when I have been forced to open my voice, such as in public speaking at Toastmasters, or doing interviews, or writing letters. It turns out that blogs are an excellent tool for finding a voice. Blogging creates a conversational atmosphere that leads to a more intimate connection with readers.

Many themes run through Jancee Dunn’s memoir. Her suburban roots, her meteoric rise as a reporter, her relationships with family and men. And yet, in thinking about the book, my mind returns to the central theme. Her ordinariness pulls the whole thing together. And while the subtitle of the book claims she made it to the Red Carpet, I’m not so sure. I find Jancee’s real intention is right there in her dedication, in which quotes Emily Dickenson. “Who am I? I am nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?” Thanks, Jancee for grounding me in ordinary life, while you share your story, your insights, and your tips for interviewing the stars.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Prompt: If you can’t find dramatic tension in just one theme of your life, look for two themes and explore the contrasts and conflicts between them.

Note: Memoir writers sometimes think the only way to get published is to be famous. If you’re looking for a counter-example, check out A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, a popular memoir by a very ordinary person. It’s her writing and observation that makes it so interesting.

Visit Amazon’s listing of Jancee’s book by clicking this link.

Check out Jancee’s website to see what she’s up to these days.