Three writing prompts to flesh in memories

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

When I explore my memories of adolescence, one of two things happens. Either I draw a blank or I land on a random bit of my past that contributes little to my memoir. Darn that mind. Why can’t I just sit down and develop the story of me? To move past this impasse and extract relevant information from the confusing cloud of memories, I rely on a series of writing prompts.

Writing Prompt 1: To learn about a scene, pick a detail and stretch

I want to remember high school which is hard for me because that whole period is foggy. I’ve found that if I have one fact, I can start from there and extend my memory from one fact to the next. So I stir the pot and a single image floats by – home room, where a teacher took attendance, made announcements, and then sent us on our way. I remember nothing. Then I see one person. I sat next to a guy named Wanenchak. But I don’t remember anything about him. Well, I do remember a little. He was trim, had light hair, and was a nice guy. Bit by bit, one fact leads to another, putting words and descriptions on hazy times. Wanenchak was Greek Orthodox. I didn’t know what that meant so I asked him. That’s one more fact about him, and it also divulges an interesting fact about me. I was terribly withdrawn, so the fact that I remember his religion tells me that despite my lack of attention to fellow classmates, I was interested in this dimension. While the exercise has not yet burst open the doors to an unforgettable scene, it did yield some raw material I didn’t have when I started.

Writing prompt 2: List key events, transitions, and influences
Even though high school feels vague, if I step back and scan those four years, highlights emerge from the haze. These noteworthy facts don’t in themselves tell a story, but they add to my understanding and perhaps will provide valuable raw material. Here’s a list I developed by looking for major events.

  • Influential teachers: Mr. Warshaw, my ninth grade math teacher started me on a path of love for math, and Mr. Hofkin, the science teacher in my senior year, established my curiosity about physics.
  • Sports: I never played any ball sports, but since I was an incessant walker, I hoped I could survive the rigors of track. I was wrong. A few weeks of waking up before dawn to train for track and field I had to drop out with excruciating shin splints.
  • My failure to stick with the English honors program: Despite my passion for reading, I never really understood what English teachers were trying to get me to do, so while I remained in the math and science honors class I was excluded from English. This always made me feel like an outsider.
  • Crash! I went on two dates in four years. One of my two dates ended in a car crash when I was so distracted I ran a red light.

Writing Prompt 3: To find the framework, look for desire
To create a story worth reading, I’m going to need emotions. I can’t write about romance. I didn’t have any. It was an all-boys high school and I worked every weekend at my dad’s drugstore. Where else can I look for drama? I ask myself, “What did I want?” and in answer, I see my two friends, Joe and Ed. I desperately wanted to be accepted by these guys. So I try to find scenes that represent my desire.

Joe was a strikingly handsome soccer player, and second in our all academic school. His dad was a steelworker, and the large family lived in a small row home, three kids to a room. One day in the lunch room, without provocation or warning, Joe threw a glass of chocolate milk on my clean white shirt. Standing there feeling defiled, with the brown liquid soaking into my chest, I searched his face for some clue that might explain why he had done it. Instead of apologizing, he seemed amused and curious, as if he was studying my response.

In another scene, I was in my kitchen at home talking to my friend Ed on the phone. We all lived pretty far away from each other because Central High in Philadelphia was a citywide school, and kids commuted there from all over the city. Ed was a Jewish intellectual who was becoming increasingly committed to his religion. He had asked me what I believed in, and I didn’t offer a clear enough answer. He told me I was worthless because I don’t believe in something enough to die for it. I started to cry.

These scenes are more than interesting moments. They build the framework of a story about three 16 year old boys trying to use their developing intellect to understand the morality of life. I’m ahead of Joe. At least I don’t need to experiment to find out what it feels like to hurt a friend. But I’m not yet up to Ed. Even though his delivery is cruel, he’s right. I haven’t yet figured out what I believe.

***

Out my hazy memories of high school I unearth more and more raw material, and begin to see a structure. This is the power of writing prompts. They stimulate thoughts along a particular line, and shake loose a variety of memories and ideas I didn’t even realize were in there. I brainstorm at the detail level to describe characters and settings. I brainstorm highlights, the main events that provide substance. And to find the emotion that propels me through those events I look for desire. Gradually I begin to gather the pieces of a compelling story.

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

Your character evolves through time – a memoir prompt

By Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

Look at the sky. Then look again. Nothing changed, and yet everything changed. Ticks of the clock add up and after enough of them, the earth turns again. Day by day, you brush your teeth, wash dishes, watch the news. As the days gather into years, kids grow, you learn skills, achieve goals, and your character evolves. To discover the richness of detail within these moments, look back at the landscape as the years rolled by. To bring the features into focus, ask questions.

For example, I ask myself, “How did creativity enter my life?” On my computer file, I list the decades and then peer into my life journey by answering this question for each decade.

Age: 0-19
I sewed costumes in cub scouts for a dress up performance. Sometimes we dressed up as Indians but this time we were Robin Hood’s Merry Men. I still can sew the saddle stitch.

In junior high, I assembled models of warships. In the fifties, the armaments of World War II were an important part of my fantasy life. I wished I had the knack to paint the trim more realistically, but didn’t feel confident about my color sense. (Ah-ha! An old regret lurking in an innocent childhood activity.)

In high school biology, our teacher showed us how to embed objects in clear, solid acrylic. I ordered the kit and went to work like an aspiring chemist, pouring half the concoction into a mold, and letting it harden. Then I placed a shiny penny on top and poured in the rest of the goo. My bedroom reeked but I didn’t mind. I was creating!

Age: 20-29
In college I loved to dance. I practiced moves in my room in front of the mirror, and then showed them off at parties. It felt like magic. As the music flowed through my body I converted it into motion. I also loved to sit and listen. I felt lifted by The Beatles, Joan Baez, John Coltrane. Classical music sent me to the stars, from Beethoven’s symphonies, to Bach’s choirs. I drank in operas, quartets, and soloists. Many of my friends in college were jazz musicians. I know spectating is different than creating, but my appreciation for other people’s music touches such a deep chord I consider it to be part of my own relationship with creativity.

Age: 30-39
Two decades after I wanted to paint those model battleship, I finally tried my hand at painting, in oils and acrylics on canvas. I had never learned to artistically represent objects, so I stuck with abstractions. My passion was exploring the colors on the palette and on the canvas. That encounter with painting amplified my understanding of color by a hundred fold. I still have the paintings, and I love them.

My computer programming jobs involved graphics and images. I instructed the computer to create and analyze pictures one pixel at a time. I wasn’t an artist, but my work brought me inside the technology of images. And the actual coding was a creative challenge in its own right.

I took singing lessons, first in a little neighborhood music school, and then at my voice teacher’s home. I knew from her compulsive yawning how bored she was with me. She was a frustrated opera singer, and my puny attempts must have seemed so insignificant in comparison. But she gave me enough confidence and skill to join my first choir, where I’ve been singing ever since.

Age: 50 and beyond
Many music teachers thought if you didn’t know a musical instrument by the time you were five years old, it was too late. Fortunately in the 1990’s scientists discovered that neurons can grow at any age. So I started taking piano lessons. Unlike my singing teacher, my piano teacher was interested in my adult learning. I could see in her eyes an admiration for my growing neurons.

I started to write a memoir, a process which is teaching me how writing can organize life. And the best teaching tools I can find are the stories everyone else tells. Using the lessons I learn from all other writers, I create my own story. Culture begets culture. I joined writing classes, and gathered together decades of miscellaneous writing experience into a form that will let me share my life with strangers.

Writing Prompt
On a sheet of paper or computer file list the decades of your life. Then write notes about how creativity entered your life during that period. Brainstorm connections with the arts, crafts, music, hobbies, activities with kids, or the creativity you expressed in your career.

This writing prompt reveals a broad overview. After you’ve gone through the list a few times, you may find entry points into specific scenes. For example, I could write the scene of standing at the piano next to my voice teacher, then another one in my car singing scales along with my audio taped lesson on my way to work. The scenes of creativity could be sprinkled throughout other events in my life to offer readers a connection with my inner world. Just as important as looking back, I see the tenacious place creativity has held in my life and look forward to decades of satisfaction ahead.

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

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

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

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

5 Memoir Starters for Beginners

by Jerry Waxler

To learn more about the cultural passion for memoirs, and reasons you should write your own, read my book Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire, available on Amazon. Click here for the eBook or paperback.

When you face a daunting task, the only way to start is to take the first step. But what if even the first step seems daunting? Like the Gumption Trap in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you can’t start your journey until you make peace with that first step. Memoir classes are one excellent way to coach you onto the road. And in fact there may be even gentler ways to start. Use techniques for self-reporting that you can find within ordinary life. If you’re already doing some of these, use them as the starting point from which to extend your writing and turn it into a more complete story of your life.

Letters and newsletters
For at least two thousand years, letters were an important way for people to keep in touch at a distance. The telephone made it so much easier to connect that it looked like personal letter writing was fading into oblivion. Now, with the development of blogs, email, and online family newsletters, writing is making a comeback. By writing letters to your relatives and friends, or articles for your family or group newsletter you can keep in touch while you develop parts of your memoir.

Job and school applications
A more structured method of organizing your past comes when you apply for a job or school. On the application you list previous employment, education, and related achievements. While it doesn’t include much narrative, it’s an ordered sequence of major events in your life, and as such demonstrates a fundamental technique of memoir writing. Expand the list by adding more events, including births and deaths, relationships, moves, and other critical changes in your life. Your list will help you frame out your memoir.

Online profiles
LinkedIn and Facebook want me to explain to strangers who I am. Online dating services want even more information. These profiles convey a glimpse of who we are through tiny fragments like favorite books, pets, and sports. At first I hated trying to tell about myself this way. When I approached it more playfully, I realized it’s not a bad exercise for creating the persona of the protagonist of my memoir.

Twelve Steps Moral Inventory
The fourth step of the Twelve Steps program is designed to help people climb out of the traps of the past by conducting a “fearless moral inventory.” If you have ever been through this process, you have already engaged in a courageous detailed self-examination. If you have never been through this process, look around for books about facing difficult memories, such as, John Bradshaw’s books, “Homecoming” and “Healing the shame that binds you.” While originally intended for addicts, these resources offer advice for anyone who wants to face regrets, embarrassment, and shame. By unraveling the knots of the past, you can set yourself free from backward pulls. And as you develop your story, you’ll find the strength, hope, and other emotions to help you move forward.

Keep a journal or diary
Journaling is a fantastic habit that can help you deal with emotions, get you in touch with your writing voice, and gather your memories. Journaling means writing just for you with no concern about a potential audience. By setting aside readers, you soothe the inner critic, allowing you to put words on paper, without worrying about what anyone thinks. (Stephen King in On Writing says to write your first draft with the door closed.) The goal is simply to find a safe place to transfer words from mind to paper. As you write in your journal, you sort out emotions of the day, as well as sorting out events that took place decades ago. Experiment. Brainstorm. Sketch. For example, snoop around your high school homeroom for a few journal sessions. Who sat next to you? What did you have for lunch? What set the class tittering? Get creative about asking yourself questions. You’ll be amazed at what turns up on paper, and with practice, you’ll develop an easier relationship with converting mental images into a written narrative.

Notes

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

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

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

What was grandmom really like?

by Jerry Waxler

My grandmother was looking at me, her mouth drawn taught. She had just found out that I had to climb in through the basement window to get into my house. This was not something a good boy does, she said, and backed it up with a financial incentive to never do it again. She wasn’t a harsh disciplinarian. She was an advice-giver. Most of the advice she gave me was more suitable for old people, like when she told me to think positively in order to feel better. I ignored her, letting myself think anything I damned well pleased, even if it made me miserable, as it often did. I knew she meant well, but I didn’t really care. I never understood what she wanted from me, so I kept my distance, and obeyed her advice, or pretended to.

As I grew up, I continued to see her as a remote figure, more interested in molding me than relating to me, and this connection prevented both of us from opening up and sharing ourselves with each other. It’s only recently, as I delve back into my memories that I see beyond these rigid impressions of her and uncover nuances of our relationship.

To see grandmom as a whole person, I recall the family lore about her own childhood. She lost her father when she was 12 and had to quit school to work as a bookkeeper in the Philadelphia department store, Strawbridge and Clothier. Her paychecks kept the family afloat, and then paid to put her brother Ben through college. He ended up graduating from Wharton, and then married into a textile family, while grandmom’s life remained modest. Her husband with his small neighborhood pharmacy was content with just getting by, and it was only thanks to her financial sense that they lived comfortably. When I visited their home on North Broad Street, in the midst of shops and a few yards from the heavily trafficked street, I would lose myself amid the thick bushes in her yard and imagine myself in a vast forest.

In high school, I was fascinated by numbers. When I noticed grandmom poring over the page full of numbers and symbols in the evening paper I asked her about them. I had stumbled on a topic we could talk about. Grandmom taught me which symbols represented preferred or common shares and how much dividend the stock was paying. I ordered annual reports to match the company face with its name. Then she hooked me up with her stockbroker and with her help and savings from working at my dad’s drugstore, I bought a few shares. Later, when I got to college, I moved on to calculus, which had the power to put a man on the moon, and I hoped, enough power to explain the mysteries of the universe. I lost interest in the list of numbers on the stock page and ended that connection with my grandmother.

A few years later, she took up still-life painting. We used to joke about her being like Grandma Moses. Now that I’m sixty myself, I no longer see her creative efforts as a joke. Now I see them as an inspiration. Her inquisitive mind kept trying new things. She never gave me any advice about art or life long learning. Instead she showed me by example.

Throughout my childhood, whenever we went to visit, we would sit dutifully while grandmom played the piano. The vibrant, youthful look on her face as she played leads me to believe she was getting at least as much pleasure from it as we were. She never gave me advice about service either, but later in her life I discovered she had been volunteering at a nursing home. One of her pleasures was to entertain the residents by playing the piano for them, a practice she continued when she moved into the same home.

It is only in this retrospective storytelling that I begin to see past all the advice and look more closely at the life she actually lived, her dignity, her desire to grow and her willingness to serve others. As a complete person, she has so much more to offer, adding richness to my own story, who I was, who I am now, and who I am yet to become.

Writing prompt
Which characters in your early life remain stuck in the simplistic mold into which you originally poured them? One of the most interesting things about writing memoirs is to revisit these characters and flesh them in. Looking back from your adult vantage point, consider what they wanted, and why they acted the way they did, allowing them to evolve from distant figures to real people. Write about a character who seemed distant when you were younger, and fill in some details that takes the reader (and you) beyond first impressions.

Relive your memoir by acting: Pursuit of Happyness

 by Jerry Waxler

I found insight into the power of memoirs from a surprising source, the movie Pursuit of Happyness. The movie is based on a true story about Chris Gardner, down on his luck in San Francisco in 1981. Gardner, played by superstar Will Smith, is working at a dead end sales job that has left him unable to pay his rent. Gardner, a single father, struggles to stop the downward slide into homelessness. Despite his effort, he continues to fall, sleeping on trains, in bathrooms, and shelters. And through a tenacity that is almost incomprehensible in its ferocity, he keeps his wits and determination, striving to provide for himself and his son.

Then he gets a break. He is accepted as a stockbroker trainee at a major financial firm, Dean Witter. But it’s not over yet. He must prove himself before he can get the job. He grips this first rung on the ladder while circumstances continue to pull him down into the abyss. To earn enough money to live, after a full day at Dean Witter he goes out to ply his other sales job, selling diagnostic equipment to doctors. Then he retrieves his kid from daycare, and starts the nightly search for a place to sleep. In the end his tenacity pays off. He is accepted as a stockbroker. It’s based on a true story, and the real man went on to become a millionaire and a social activist.

In the bonus material at the end of the DVD, there is an interview with Chris Gardner that turns this from a good movie into a fascinating exploration of a memoir. When they started filming a movie of his life, the producers asked Gardner, who by this time was a wealthy man, if he would he be able to handle the emotional turmoil of revisiting this humiliating, dark period in his life. He was willing to try, placing himself in an unusual position of watching Hollywood specialists reenact his circumstances. For example, they recreated the day care center where he had to drop off his boy, and designed a set to mimic the station bathroom where he slept when there was no room at the homeless shelter. Through the process Gardner saw his life acted out.

As you organize your thoughts about your own memoir, consider the power of reenactment. You can gain many of the benefits Gardner got, without having a multi-million dollar Hollywood production team. A much more modest effort to act out your past can provide you with surprising insights.

While I don’t have acting or drama experience myself, I have experienced the power of reenactment in a type of therapy group called psychodrama. In this method, without formal props or acting training, the psychodrama leader directs the group through a reenactment. The actors are selected from your fellow group members. As each actor comments on how the drama feels from their own point of view, you find yourself revisiting important scenes in your life, this time accompanied by concerned participants and observers.

If you don’t have access to a psychodrama group, you can achieve insights with a few friends. Organize the scene, and play out the various roles. I’m not talking about stage acting here. No one is going to pay to see it. It’s like a primitive sketch that helps you see things in a new light. You can even do it alone. Imagine the scene yourself, put yourself in each character’s shoes and see what you would say.

Consider this example. I try to remember a scene with my brother. We’re in the basement. He is studying and I am soldering a transistor, helping him build a hi-fi kit. The room is dark, except for the lamps each of us is working under. He is building the hi-fi because he’s moving away to go to Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, which would make him 17 and me 10. I don’t remember the conversation, so I pretend. I say, “Ed, I enjoy helping you. I’m going to miss you.” Now I ask a friend to pretend to be Ed, but the friend doesn’t know what to say. So we switch places. My friend, now playing me, says, “Ed, I enjoy helping you.” Now that I’m sitting in Ed’s chair, I imagine what he would say. I struggle but don’t say anything. As Ed, I’m preoccupied with studying, and nervous and excited about going away. Sitting in his chair helped me understand how he felt. We’re boys. Of course we don’t talk about feelings. Now I’m me again. I feel lonely. I’m glad he’s letting me help him with the soldering.

So what feelings did Chris Gardner report about making a movie of his life? Here’s what he says in the interview at the end of the DVD. “I didn’t know if I was ready for it. But this whole process, this entire production helped me tremendously, by helping me to create, if you will, new memories of San Francisco, instead of the film I had been running in my mind for the last 23 years. It’s part of letting go. It’s been a beautiful experience in that regard.” By revisiting the past, he has relieved some of its pain.

There is a powerful symbolic gesture at the very end of the movie that evokes the mysterious journey through time. Actor Will Smith walks along the street, ready to embark on his new life. Across his path walks the actual man Chris Gardner, successful, and now famous. Smith turns around to look at the person he will become 23 years later.

Writing prompt: Pick a scene in your past that continues to hold mystery and power. To help you write about it, think of it as a stage play, and you are the screenwriter and director. Write stage directions. And then try acting it, either exactly as it happened or improvise to create another way it might have happened.

Memoir of an American yogi – read like a writer

by Jerry Waxler

I’ve read excellent memoirs about a spiritual journey and reviewed two of them on my blog. You can see these reviews by clicking the links for Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies” and Martha Beck’s “Expecting Adam,” Both of these books stayed engaged in the author’s dramatic unfolding. Not all books about spiritual searching stick so close to the writer’s feelings. It’s a common tendency to shift from personal experience to explaining the teachings. I have nothing against using personal experience to teach. In fact, it can form the basis of an excellent teaching book. [see my book review of two books that teach] However, too much teaching may detract from the dramatic tension. To keep the reader turning pages, be sure to convey the unfolding of your own dramatic tension.

To understand more about the dilemma between drama and information, consider a memoir by Donald Walters, called “The Path, One Man’s Quest on the Only Path there is.” This memoir straddles the two goals, teaching quite a bit about a spiritual path while staying connected with the author’s journey. Walters is the disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of another spiritual memoir, “Autobiography of a Yogi.” I read “Autobiography of a Yogi” in the seventies. Steeped in the rich, diverse spiritual culture of India, it is an extravaganza of occult and mysterious perspectives. When I came across the memoir of his American disciple, Donald Walters, I thought I could continue the journey started in the Autobiography of a Yogi, and learn about another memoir in the process. [Note: Walters’ memoir, “The Path” is also available from audible.com.]

The book starts with Walters growing up with his American parents in Europe in the 1930’s. Walters was well educated, preparing him to become a high-powered participant in the world. Since adolescence, though, Walters discovered he was not content with the ordinary goals of growing up and making a living, so he searched for deeper meaning. After stumbling upon Autobiography of a Yogi in a bookstore in New York, Walters went to California, met Yogananda, renounced worldly life and became a monk. Since he found what he was looking for, the original dramatic tension was resolved. At least it was resolved partly. I still wanted to know how he would relate to life in a monastery, a lifestyle so different from his past and from his culture.

Then, much of the middle of the book showed me events in the monastery and conversations with Yogananda that all ended with some spiritual point, or principle. This emphasis on teaching might have stopped the action of the memoir, but I stuck with the book anyway. When I make it to the end of a book, I can learn a lot by asking “What was it about the book that kept me turning pages to the end?” For one thing, as a student of world religions and spirituality, I found interest in the teachings themselves. And despite a heavy dose of Yogananda’s teaching, the book kept me in touch with people, through dialog, and anecdotes. As the characters grew older, I continued to empathize with them, wondering how their understanding would evolve.

Walters’ first climb as a young seeker ended when he found his teacher. On the next leg of his climb, he was integrating the teachings and applying them in his life. Gradually, I began to notice another dramatic theme unfolding. He started to take on duties as a minister and a leader in the organization, shifting the story arc from a young man who looked up to others to a teacher who had to learn how to lead. This is a problem I’ve had to face over the years, feeling discomfort as I made a gradual transition from beginner to elder, from student to teacher. I was curious to see how this transition worked for him.

Finally, there was a dramatic twist. The story shifted again, keeping my interest still further. Walters spent his entire adult life serving the organization that was founded by Yogananda, the Self Realization Fellowship or SRF. Then, he was forced out of the organization. That was an enormous blow, apparently undermining his life’s work. And yet, in a way it was expansive, showing him and the reader one of the fundamental dramatic tensions in the spiritual journey. To find spiritual insight, it’s natural to gain insight into our personal relationship with a higher power by absorbing the teachings of a group. Entering the group creates paradoxes and dramatic tension between the individual’s needs and the organization’s. Walters show us the mounting tension. As he became more deeply aware of his own spiritual development, he was asked to take on more responsibility for the group. Then, finally, when he was forced out of the SRF, he was on his own again. How poetic! He went full circle, or as the Greeks call it nostoi or “coming home.” Walters’ story shows us how the group helped him find his spirituality, but the fulfillment he achieved, in the end belonged to him.

Writing Prompt:
If you want to write about spiritual unfolding, sketch out the story arc that will keep the reader engaged. What drove you at the beginning? What questions about life needed to be answered? What obstacles did you overcome to reach those insights? What events will show your growing awareness, and the breaking down of previous walls? How will the unfolding story finally show that you relieved the tension you introduced in the beginning?

Two memoirs that teach

by Jerry Waxler

I’m reading two books that take a teaching approach to memoir writing. Instead of focusing primarily on the life the author, they use the author’s personal experience to provide an in-depth look at a topic they learned about. The two books are “I Know You Really Love Me: A Psychiatrist’s Journal of Erotomania, Stalking, and Obsessive Love by Doreen Orion, and “China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power” by Rob Gifford. If you are unsure how to turn your life experience into a great read, Orion’s and Gifford’s approach could expand your options.

In “I know you really love me,” Doreen Orion has written about her experience of having been stalked for years by a woman who had the delusion that she and Orion were secret lovers. Orion, a psychiatrist, met the woman who came to the hospital looking for treatment. The patient became obsessed with Orion and then began years of stalking, fortunately not violent, but astonishingly intrusive. Because of the depth of her delusions and her instability, there was never a guarantee it wouldn’t reach a crisis point and turn violent. Many murders are committed by jealous lovers, and since Orion’s stalker believed they were lovers, there was a risk this would end tragically. And to make matters worse, the laws against stalking are vague and ineffectual, so Orion not only had to deal with her stalker, but with a disinterested legal system as well. To protect herself she had to become an advocate for legal reform to improve laws and help other victims of stalking. After reading this page turner, I know more about delusional obsessive love (erotomania) and stalking than I thought I would ever know.

China Road by Rob Gifford teaches an entirely different sort of lesson. While Orion was forced to become an expert in erotomania because of a twist of fate, the only pressure Gifford was under was his own obsession to more deeply understand China. To satisfy his obsession (can obsessions ever really be satisfied) Gifford immersed himself in his subject, traveling for months across Route 312, China’s equivalent to our old Route 66, and like Route 66, extends across the breadth of China. This road parallels the old Silk Road, one of the oldest trade routes in the world. His journey, symbolically from east to west, shows the transformation of the Chinese culture from the quintessentially eastern civilization into a great westernized power. He does so through conversations, research, and personal observations. It’s a terrific read, and provides me with fascinating, complex, and very personal insights into the Chinese people and the course of their history.

While both of these books serve the purpose of teaching books, they are also memoirs, based on personal experience. As I try to tease out what they are doing, reading these memoirs like a memoir writer, I look more closely at how they have harnessed life story to keep the reader’s attention. How are these personal stories like memoirs embedded in a context of knowledge? The most immediate observation is that in both books, the author is clearly in the frame, sharing sensory and emotional impressions. As you read, you are walking miles in the author’s shoes, empathizing with their needs and emotions.

To grab this empathy, each book starts by engaging the reader in the author’s personal challenge. The protagonist wants something, at the beginning of the book, and then achieves it at the end. Orion is in danger. She wants safety and to get her normal life back. To protect herself and others like her, she digs for deeper insight. Gifford wants to fulfill his dream of understanding the Chinese people. Also, Gifford uses traveling along the road to keep the reader engaged. He starts out at one end of the road and strives to reach the other end. It’s tangible, as well as symbolic and provides a satisfying impression of motion and achievement.

Writing Prompt

To decide how you are going to tell about your life, consider how your life has taken you into contact with knowledge, by choice or by chance. For example becoming expert at a disease because you cared for someone who has it, or learning on the job in a nerve wracking business environment, or being a peace corps volunteer in an exotic culture, or an astronaut, or your wife’s passion for horses, or any of a million other ways life might have carried you into a specialized area of learning. If your life connected you with knowledge, then you can share that part of your life with the reader, and teach them something while they are turning pages. Harness your curiosity and the reader’s curiosity as two wings of a bird that will carry the reader through your story.

Wisdom evolves as you live your memoir

By Jerry Waxler

To research the memoir she is writing, QuoinMonkey visited her childhood home. At first the lush vegetation crowding the house looked like the work of a zealous gardener. Then she realized the house was vacant and surrounded by weeds. To get her arms around this disturbing sight, she posted on her blog a photo and a haiku named “You Can’t Go Back“. Another blogger, ybonesy, commented that the weeds were trying to consume the house. I tried to lighten the mood with physics, pointing out that seeing your childhood home is a sort of time travel, like when you watch a star and realize you’re seeing the light it emitted a million years ago. I appreciated the opportunity to brainstorm the passage of time: the haiku, the photo, time travel, and return to the earth. Yet I was still unsettled, wishing I knew the appropriate response to seeing a childhood home turning decrepit.

Later I was listening to the audio memoir, The Path by Donald Walters, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. As a young seeker he tried to penetrate the secrets of the universe by reading the Bible, but he was upset by the story of Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden Eden for eating the fruit of wisdom. Walters complained, “What sort of God would want us to remain in ignorance?” As I pondered this question, an insight leapt into my mind and for the first time the story of Adam and Eve made more sense to me than it ever had.

When I was young, all I saw in this story was the deception of the snake, and the disobedience against a direct command. I cried, “No. No. Not the apple! You have it all. Stick with the pleasure.” Now, I realize how much depth there is in the story. They were young, naked, and sexy, but physical pleasure wasn’t enough. Their temptation was for knowledge. Instead of being ignorant and self-involved, as I had first supposed, I now see them as courageous. They chose wisdom. In exchange, they must grow old. Now, as I grow older, I’m seeing for myself the terrible price of that bargain. I lose everything, including eventually my own life. In exchange, I want to enjoy every bit of the wisdom that is owed me.

A few days after I had this insight, I was teaching a memoir class, and one of my students wanted to write about his spiritual unfolding. A number of events over the years had convinced him that there was more going on in the universe than he could see on the surface. He glimpsed this transcendent aspect of life through visionary experiences, unexplainable “coincidences,” and inspirational insight. He wanted to write about what he had observed. It would be a sort of work of art to express the way the universe had made itself known to him through his life.

In my opinion, the journey towards spirituality is a wonderful topic for a memoir. I recently read two such memoirs, one by Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, and the other by Martha Beck, Expecting Adam. Both books rely on a fundamental storytelling technique, called the “character arc” which stimulates the reader’s curiosity to see how the protagonist grows. To create this sense of development in your own memoir, look for your evolving wisdom. Even in a collection of essays, show how you started skeptical and self-involved, and then gradually understood more, until finally you understand a lot.

Over the decades our childhood home grows old. Even our body becomes less fun. Yes, I know all the hype, and believe me I’m hanging on to my body for dear life, but the progression is pretty obvious to me already, and I’m only sixty. So if the body is aging, becoming less enchanting, less thrilling, finally less sexy, why should anyone want to keep turning pages to the end of the story? To find the closure to this tale, the redemption, the reason you or anyone would want to get to the end, I suggest we go back to the beginning and look at the bargain God made with Adam and Eve. Unfolding wisdom is the reward. Look for that wisdom and share it with your reader. The evolution of the central character will make a good story to read, and incidentally will also make a good story to live.

Writing prompt: What stories illustrate the evolution of your wisdom? What incidents in your life exposed a guiding hand, a compassionate presence, a coincidence that “couldn’t have happened.”

Memoir Writing Prompt – Your Rocky Story

by Jerry Waxler

After hearing journalist Michael Vitez speak at the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, I’m reading his book Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, And Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps by Michael Vitez, Sylvester Stallone, and Tom Gralish. Vitez and his Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Tom Gralish parked themselves at the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made famous by Sylvester Stallone’s movies. The stairs are so famous that 30 years later, people from all over the world stop by so they can feel the Rocky Balboa’s victory run for themselves.

Vitez’s talk at the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference was about his experience as an immersion journalist. Immersion journalism is the practice of entering into a situation in order to write about it. For example, he researched a story about what it’s like to be a highway toll taker, by spending weeks parked inside a toll booth. Another time he hung out in an intensive care unit with families of patients in life or death situations. This is the story that earned him the Pulitzer Prize. When Vitez heard that people were still running up the Rocky Stairs, he took a break from his Philadelphia Inquirer office and went to see for himself. Within a few hours he realized he had discovered a cultural phenomenon. People pulled up in cabs, ran up the stairs, sometimes gasping for air, and when they reached the top they leapt, danced or whooped. Vitez decided it would make a good story, and so he and his Pulitzer winning photographer spent around 200 days through all four seasons on location. After Tom Gralish snapped the photos Vitez asked people what they were thinking.

Generally, they were thinking about their own dreams, and how the Rocky movies had awakened in them a sense of purpose and hope that they wanted to experience for themselves in Philadelphia. As I read through the 52 vignettes about the people from all over the world, I saw many of them as mini-memoirs. This landmark stirred up stories about overcoming obstacles on the way to achieving dreams. Sometimes they were already fulfilled and sometimes the dreams still pointed to the future.

Each of us has a life filled with experience but it’s not always easy turning that experience into a story worth reading. Vitez’s experiment at the Rocky Stairs could help. Just as those people who had just huffed up the stairs told Vitez about the upward journey of their lives, you could imagine doing the same thing. Or come to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and experience it yourself. From that exercise, distill the hopes and dreams that drove you to be who you are today, and continue to drive you to be who you will be tomorrow.

What did you long to accomplish? What big dreams called you to a different dimension, a new beginning, a lofty goal? Some of the dreams that drove you have long since drifted into the past, so you have to dig deep to recall the freshness and enthusiasm of your youth. Perhaps you stayed resolutely on course, letting your desire guide you like True North. Or your actual journey may have diverged from your plan. If you had to let go of dreams, remembering them now might awaken disappointment and even pain. But whatever your dreams were at any particular time in your life that was the force that drove you. By getting in touch with your longing, you will reveal vital, interesting aspects of your story.

At the Philadelphia Writers Conference, Michael Vitez told how when he first had the idea for the book, he reached out to Sylvester Stallone for an endorsement from Rocky himself. His attempts to get through to Stallone were rebuffed by an overzealous gatekeeper. After a year of trying, Vitez finally penetrated the walls surrounding Stallone, who immediately loved the book and agreed to participate. So Michael Vitez, whose mission was to report on other people’s Rocky Stories, told us a Rocky Story of his own.

Writing Prompt
Do you have a Rocky story waiting to be told? Do you see how a Rocky Story could help organize a memoir or essay?

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.