Revealing Death and Other Courageous Acts of Life

by Jerry Waxler

I met Robert Waxler online last year when I was reviewing his memoir  “Losing Jonathan” about his son’s heroin addiction. During the first half of the book, Robert and his wife Linda tried to stop their son’s downward slide. In the second half, they grieved his passing. I admired his courage to share this journey and was even more impressed by Robert’s second memoir, “Courage to Walk,” about another family tragedy. His surviving son, Jeremy, was stricken with a mysterious, deadly illness and the book is about the family’s journey to stay hopeful and safe.

As an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Robert has been delving into the power of the written word for a lifetime. Now, as he looked for strength to sustain him through his trials, he turned to the deep insights shared by his favorite authors. And then he turned to books again, as the vehicle through which he could pass his story to readers.

In addition to our mutual interest in literature, naturally we were curious about our shared last name. Neither of us had ever met a Waxler to whom we weren’t related. Over the course of the year, we discussed the possibility of giving a joint presentation about memoirs. Recently, I arranged such a talk sponsored by the Philadelphia Writers Conference.

Robert and Linda drove down from Dartmouth, Massachusetts a day early to do some sightseeing. We agreed to meet outside the museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall in Philadelphia; a fitting backdrop, since his ancestors and mine were Russian Jewish immigrants. My sister joined us to extend our greetings, one Waxler clan to another.

We sat in the coffee shop at the museum and talked with energy, jumping enthusiastically from one topic to another. Since our ancestral records no longer exist, we wondered if our easy flow indicated a shared ancestry. A woman walked by and Robert called out her name. She was an old friend of his and his wife’s from Massachusetts who just happened to be in this spot, hundreds of miles from home. My mother had an expression, “coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous.” Was this a sign?

Even though we had agreed for months that we would give a joint presentation, I didn’t know exactly what that meant. How would we interact in a way that would bring value to our audience? The next morning over coffee, I proposed the way we would organize the talk, and he agreed. Then we drove to the lovely campus of Montgomery County Community College to a lecture hall where about 20 people were already seated, including two of my cousins. Linda Waxler, who coauthored “Losing Jonathan” sat in the back of the lecture hall with my sister and her husband. I smiled thinking how fitting it was that a memoir workshop had turned into a family affair.

I introduced the talk with the enthusiasm I always bring to this topic. “In the memoir age, we read books by people who spend years turning their lives into literature. Today we’re going to meet an English professor who turned to the written word to cope with his personal tragedy. Then in the second half, we’ll give you some pointers on how to turn your own lives into literature.”

Robert Waxler stood, radiating the authority that he had gained from a lifetime of teaching. He described how he grappled with his emotions and beliefs during Jonathan’s fall from a lovely, promising childhood into heroin addiction, and how he stood on that precipice between despair and faith. Then, he explained his decision to turn that experience into “Losing Jonathan.” Last year, when I read this memoir, I wrestled with my prejudice that English professors are not free to express this much frank emotion. What would his colleagues and students think? But now, listening to him speak so eloquently about how he placed these precious experiences on the page, it felt so right. As a man of letters, of course he wanted to locate these profoundly human events in the world of literature.

When he started, he seemed to be gathering his thoughts, selecting elements of his memory and intention. By the time he finished, his voice was strong and there was a cadence to his speech. I have always admired the way a good professor can lean into his topic and share not only his information but also his enthusiasm about the subject. Today, the professor enveloped us in his vision, not by speaking about someone else’s writing, but by sharing his own intentions as a writer, a father, and a human being.

Then it was my job to turn the audience’s attention back to their own goals. I realized there wasn’t enough time to conduct a real workshop, but in the small amount of time available, I wanted to convince everyone that the problems of writing a memoir are solvable. “When you look back through your memories, they fly out at you in a variety of bits and pieces, entangled in time, and at first only make sense to you. As you write scenes and accumulate them in sequence, they begin to take shape. As you see the material of your life take shape on the page, you gradually tame the flood of memories and begin to craft them into a story worth reading.”

After my portion of the talk, I opened the floor to questions. Ordinarily in memoir workshops the majority of questions are about how to write about life, but today the audience wanted to pour out their empathy to a couple who lost a child to drugs. One of the raised hands belonged to my cousin. In a shaky voice, she said, “Thank you so much for writing about this.” I could hardly hear her and asked her to say more. She continued, “I was twelve years old before I found that my uncle died. It was a suicide and no one would talk about it.”

I thought, “Oh. That family nightmare.” I was a little boy when my father’s nephew, after graduating medical school, had a mental breakdown and killed himself. The family immediately imposed a silence around the event, and I never understood the emotional impact. Now, I saw the shock in my cousin’s face these many years later.

Linda Waxler, from the back of the room, spoke up with a strong, purposeful voice. Looking directly at my cousin, Linda said, “That’s the reason we wrote “Losing Jonathan.” When he died, people pulled away from us. We wanted to educate people to understand that when someone dies, that’s the time to pull together. Silence is the most painful response.”

Their exchange reminded me that people have a tendency to hide extraordinary things about themselves, even events that cry out for compassion. I have heard the issue expressed in my memoir workshops, where writers express fear and uncertainty about how much of their lives to reveal. To direct the audience’s attention back to their own writing, I said, “We often think we must keep our secrets hidden in order to be accepted, but in fact, the secrets themselves keep us separated. Memoir writing lets us explore and share these parts of ourselves. When hidden material is told in a story, it takes on a universal quality that we can all relate to.”

My other cousin spoke up. “It’s true. We always had secrets. My mother wouldn’t tell any of her friends when I was divorced. No one wanted to talk about that back then.”

I responded, “Times are changing, and memoirs are helping break down these barriers. Jeannette Walls, author of the bestseller “Glass Castle,” said that before she wrote her memoir, she was deeply ashamed of her poor, chaotic childhood. Now, thanks to her book and others like it, we are sharing many things that once were hidden.”

At the end of the meeting, people gathered around to thank us. I love these moments after a talk when people pour back some of the energy that I poured out. I looked at Bob and smiled. If we had been forty years younger, we would have given each other high fives. As we said goodbye, Robert and I promised to do it again. “We can call ourselves the Two Waxlers,” I said, “and give talks about how memoirs matter.” “Yes, a road tour,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

I realized how comfortable I was with all these people, a comfort level that for most of my life had been entirely foreign to me. For decades, I felt distant from my family. Now I was wondering how much of my distance was based on my secret. After I left my childhood neighborhood in Philadelphia to go out into the world, I decided that being part of a minority religion made me an outsider. Writing my memoir has given me more confidence to accept all these parts of myself. Letting go of my secrets feels like letting go of my walls.

As I walked across the parking lot to my car, I thought about my mom’s image of a God who tries to let us know He is there, without really letting us know. I wondered how clever He might be feeling right now, arranging things so that an English professor and his wife could learn hard lessons about life, and then write and speak about what they learned to help other people get in touch with their own secrets. When I give memoir workshops, my focus in on helping other people learn about their own lives, but today I felt the guilty pleasure of having learned something about my own.

Notes

To read an essay I wrote about Robert Waxler’s memoir “Courage to Walk” click here.

To read an essay about “Losing Jonathan,” click here.

To read an interview with Robert Waxler about his memoirs, click here.

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.

An agent teaches writers to face their hopes and fears

By Jerry Waxler

The publishing game can be maddening. Not only must you write the best possible book. You must then sell it to a publisher. Many writers feel overwhelmed at this stage asking themselves and each other, “How can I possibly turn into a sales person?” Supposedly, the “solution” is to find a literary agent who will sell it for you. The cruel irony is that you still must learn to sell your book to an agent. I decided to avoid the whole mess by publishing my first books and sell them at my workshops.

However, occasionally I look up to the cathedral in the sky, where happy published writers hang out at tea parties, and I wonder if I will ever gain admission. To learn how to storm those gates, I recently attended an all day workshop on the subject. The event was  hosted at one of the region’s premier writing events, the Philadelphia Stories “Push to Publish” conference, and the speaker was literary agent, Sheree Bykofsky, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published

At first I intended to be an interested bystander, learning what other people must achieve. The morning of the workshop, I dusted off one of my favorite works in progress, a book about the importance of memoir writing, and on an impulse dashed out a one page query as fast as I could type. Quickly scanning my work, in a surge of self-congratulation, I approved my first draft.

When I arrived at the workshop I put my query on the pile with the other 24 aspiring writers. Our fate was in Sheree’s hands. When she started, she pointed to the pile and said, “I receive 200 of these a day and my job is to throw them out as quickly as possible. I’m just warning you. You are all going to hate me.” I rejected her gloomy prediction. The others might hate her, but I was sure she was going to love my query, and in return I could already feel my blossoming love for her.

She picked the first one up and said, “It’s not formatted correctly. It needs to look like a formal business letter.” She threw it aside and moved on. The next one went into the reject pile because it was right and left justified. “Always format queries ragged-right.”

I congratulated myself. I did those two things correctly. I was still in the running. She picked up the next one and said, “This is double spaced. No good.” She tossed it with the others. This surprised me. I raised my hand. “I thought that the industry standard for submitting to editors is double space.”

“No,” she said. “Not true for queries. They need to be single spaced.”

“Darn,” I thought. “She won’t like my line spacing. But I’m sure she’ll like everything else about it.”

When she started to review mine, she said, “It’s double spaced.” And then, perhaps feeling the positive vibes I was sending her, she kept commenting. “There are capitalization problems.” Finally, she correctly noted, “This looks like you wrote it quickly. Slow down and be sure your query shows off your best work.” Then she tossed it in with the other rejects. The criticism that hurt the most was her complaint about capitalization. How could she throw away my great idea because of typography details. It turned out her prediction was right. I did have to fight with my own feelings of loathing.

Despite her negative feedback, I knew my book had merit, and after the disappointment washed through me, I realized she was teaching a nifty lesson. In a little over a half an hour she had drilled into us how to get past the first round of gate keeping. I simply need to pay careful attention to formatting and other details. With a little extra effort, I could surmount this obstacle.

I learned another, even more important lesson. I had just been rejected by an agent and I was still breathing. It felt like a rite of passage. Instead of feeling defeated, I felt brave. I could do this. So I kept listening and learning about the writer’s relationship with an agent. In addition to general information, she helped me clear up some misconceptions.

Because agents often turn up at writing conferences, I suspected they only do business with people they have met in person. This discouraged me, because I only have the chance to meet a couple of agents a year. When I asked her about it, she said it wasn’t true. She has sold lots of books for authors she has never met.

Another impression that had blocked me from seeking an agent was my fear that I might pick the wrong one. I was behaving like a teenager who refuses to date for fear of entering a relationship with the wrong partner. Like that lonely teenager, I had mythologized the perfect agent as being so godlike, she didn’t exist. After today’s demonstration, I decided agents are human and fallible and that when I am ready to enter into such a relationship, I would be happy to look for a human business partner, rather than holding out for a mythical one.

Finally, she told us not to pay attention to the people who predict the end of the industry. “Publishers need books, and I sell a lot of them.”

At the end of the day, she told us how to craft an elevator speech in which we would describe our book to an agent in one minute. She then gave us fifteen minutes to craft our pitch. Then each of us stood in front of the room and gave our spiel. This was my chance to redeem myself.

This time, instead of nit-picking my formatting, she listened to the substance of my book idea, and apparently she liked what she heard. She praised me, in front of the room, a wonderful feeling that made up for my earlier disappointment. Later, she invited me to send her the book proposal.

Sheree Bykofsky’s class transformed my attitude about the whole category of literary agents from scary gatekeepers into potential allies. I decided that if they insist on letter-perfect formatting in the query letter, it’s a requirement I can live with. Now, instead of seeing the publishing business as an unattainable castle, I began to see it as less threatening and more inviting, with lots of doors, where agents greet people and occasionally help some enter. I decided it’s a little like dating. You try and fail, and try again and fail again, and learn along the way, until eventually you get it right. I’m not in yet, but I’m getting closer. At least now I know what to bring with me when I knock.

Note
Read my article about a creative nonfiction panel at the Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish Conference.
What Creative Nonfiction (CNF) Means to Memoir Writers

Sheree Bykofsky Associates, Literary Agent

List of suggestions for submitting your best work,Submit Manuscripts That Shine

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.

Teaching Memoirs, Meeting Locals, Making Memories

by Jerry Waxler

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

All the memoir classes I had taught previously were broken into two hour segments. This workshop would go for eight hours straight, so one challenge would be to tailor the course to this new format. And I worried about my stamina. Would they need to carry me out on a stretcher at the end of the day? Over the next few weeks, I worked out a class schedule that I felt would offer the same value as the individual sessions. And the best way to find out if I could survive an all-day class was to try. My wife and I agreed the Rockies would create a welcome diversion from south eastern Pennsylvania, so we said “Yes. Let’s do it.”

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

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

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

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

By mid-afternoon, we had been focusing for five hours and I was running out of energy, but I couldn’t stop now. I had to press on, in an excellent example of life imitating art. The next lesson was about the long middle of a story, which could become bogged down in the passage of time. To keep the story moving, the protagonist must face and overcome obstacles. I gave one more prompt. “Write about a significant obstacle in your life.” Heads bowed, and when they looked up, this time I asked them to share their writing with the whole group.

One by one, they shared critical moments: near deaths, loves lost, disease, and recovery. I leaned forward in my chair, inspired by the variety and depth of human experience, and the power of memoir writing to shape those memories and share them. Some students choked back tears. Others were more stoical, while the rest of us nodded, and murmured in empathy. Many said, “It’s the first time I shared this with strangers.” Of course the details are protected by confidentiality, but now that the stories have been told in one group setting, my experience tells me the participants will have an easier time sharing stories in the future.

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

I carried out to the car the few remaining books from the stack I had brought with me to sell, one a how-to guide for writing memoirs, and the other a workbook for overcoming obstacles that can interfere with writing. On the drive back to our lodging, I shared thoughts about memories and family with Judy, who had attended the class as well.

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

To continue the horse theme, I suggested we take a trail ride to see more of the beautiful countryside. Asking around, we found a recommendation for Bill’s Sport Shop in Leadville. The next morning, we met the trail guide, George, a salty man with smiling eyes, and lots of creases in his face who bragged about his recent 77th birthday. We brushed the horses, (mine was named Ringo), saddled up and walked out amidst the big peaks and big skies of Colorado, through scrubby arid hillocks, and stands of pine trees. George turned around in his saddle to tell us about his life, working in a mine, losing his best friend in 1969 and even some bits about his love life. His love for his herd of 30 horses was obvious, considering he knew each one by name and told us anecdotes about many of them.  I was the last of the three riders, and Ringo was a little pokey so sometimes George’s voice drifted back to me and other times I ambled in silence.

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

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

Note

To purchase a copy of  the poster, “How to Build Global Community” by Melinda Levine, search on the internet. For example, I turned up this link.

Chaffee County also hosts summer white water rafting down the Arkansas River, skiing at nearby Monarch Mountain, mountain climbing – it’s surrounded by fourteen thousand foot peaks of the Fourteeners. It is also on the route of the famous “Ride the Rockies” bicycle tour.

Reading error teaches a writing lesson – or – A good character is hard to define

By Jerry Waxler

Part of relating to a good story is to feel a personal connection with its characters. Now I need to develop the knack of portraying the people in my life onto the pages in my memoir. I have attended workshops, and read how-to books about this skill, but it has been eluding me until recently when I stumbled upon a valuable insight. By incorrectly reading a series of short stories, I had an aha-moment about how reader and writer work together to form characters. This discovery will help me bring my characters to life.

I first noticed my reading problem last year when I read a lovely collection of short stories, “Apologies Forthcoming” by Xujun Eberlein about life in China during the Cultural Revolution. [ To read that essay, click here.] In one story, a student was relocated to join peasants in the countryside. In another story, a young factory worker struggled to make friends. I imagined the second story was about the same person as the first. My interpretation was wrong. The link was created by my imagination, not the author’s.

Recently, I read another book of short stories, “Inheritance of Exile” by Susan Muaddi Darraj. [To read that essay, click here.] I am attracted to short stories, both as a reader and a writer. So I jumped into the collection, enjoying each story individually. But again I noticed my mind making incorrect or unsubstantiated assumptions, unconsciously bridging a character from one part of a book to another. The fact that I repeated my mistake made me curious to learn more about this mental habit.

In many collections of stories, this effect is used intentionally. Readers expect the detective Adam Dalgleish in P.D. James’ mysteries to maintain his quirky personality from one novel to another. His ability to completely override compassion in the service of his job became his trademark, and so the reader of these novels forms an expectation that he will continue to behave in this way. As a result of this agreed continuity, the author of a series can portray deeper characters over a longer period of time than they could in just one story.

All kinds of series are built on exactly this principle. Star Trek allows us to get to know their recurring characters across a range of stories. Sitcoms, comic books, and book series take advantage of the reader’s accumulating familiarity with characters.

By digging deeper into the way my mind insisted on linking characters together across pages, I now see more about the way authors create characters. Books don’t tell us everything about a character all at once. They drop in a fact here and a scene there, and the reader’s mind accumulates a deeper understanding of that character in bits and pieces across many pages. In any longer book, this effect of continuity is a crucial tool for authors, but I never noticed it quite so clearly as when I saw it happen accidentally across multiple stories.

Now that I see the bridging, I can use it to help me offer my reader a better, more satisfying connection with the supporting characters in my memoir. Take my older brother, for example. He’s an important enough person in my life that I would want my reader to know more about him. So how do I bring him to life?

Ed towered over me in my youth, at first because he was seven years older than me and later because he was really tall. Six feet five inches and too thin he should have easily made it onto the basketball team. But like me and my dad, he was not particularly athletic, and he walked with a slight tilt because of his scoliosis. When he was cut from the team, he responded with an intensity of disappointment I wouldn’t have expected. Perhaps he had hoped a team sport would help further his ambition to be a doctor, or maybe he really wanted to play basketball. I was too young to ask, and now it’s too late.

Armed with this collection of observations, I begin to look for places in my memoir to expand his character. Hopefully the reader will do what I do when I read, and accumulate an image of Ed as an authentic, multi-faceted person. I hope they will see my relationship to him, and how he affected my life. As I gather information about him, I notice a peculiar thing. By writing about him years later, I am bridging across the years, and revisiting our relationship. I too am feeling this authentic connection grow, as I accumulate wisdom across the span of time.

Writing Prompt

Start a file that contains anecdotes, vignettes, and personal characteristics of important characters. Add to this file over time, through brainstorming, free-writing, explore your photo albums, or conduct interviews. This file will provide source material to help you build authentic characters in your memoir.

Yin and Yang of Storytelling – Dramatic Tension of Opposites

by Jerry Waxler

Writing your memoir? Memoir Revolution provides many examples and insights into how to authors are translating life into story.

An author’s job is to tie us in knots, forcing us to search for relief on the next page. Thrillers easily generate tension when the hero races to find and defuse a bomb. But how do writers create tension from ordinary life? To find out how one writer achieves this creative task, I peered into the collection of short stories, “Inheritance of Exile” by Susan Muaddi Darraj.

Each story shows characters caught in the emotions and circumstances of ordinary life, and yet despite their ordinariness, I feel engaged in their struggles, turning the page to learn more. As I seek to understand how Susan Muaddi Darraj has accomplished her hold on me, I notice a particular feature of the writing. She has superbly tapped the power of opposites.

Opposites generate texture in every aspect of ordinary life: sad and happy, rich and poor, young and old, hope and despair. It’s the yin-yang of nature, that oriental principle that claims each polarity contains its opposite. I knew about the principle, but I never noticed it as a tool for storytelling. Now I discover the secret hidden in plain sight.

Opposites, by their nature, create tension, like the sparks that jump across the two terminals of a battery. The tension pulls together when opposites attract, or pushes apart when we want to maintain our distance from the other. By juxtaposing the two sides and allowing us to feel the contrast, the writer generates energy, creating an intellectual and artistic feast. Here are examples of the opposites I noticed in these stories:

Girl and boy romance

While describing a relationship, the author maintains her protagonist’s feminine needs, and at the same time, she shows a deep empathy and understanding of the boy’s perspective.

Child and parent have two very different views

She shows characters at different stages of Coming of Age, wanting to grow up, and at odds with their parents. This universal tension can be confusing and polarized. And yet, somehow, Inheritance of Exile brings enormous compassion to these situations by giving us deeper understanding of the parents’ point of view.

Tension between rich and poor

To earn a few dollars, she sells hand-made baskets at a craft fair. People with lots of money stop by to look. The contrast between their economic situation and hers crackles with tension.

Hoodlums and law abiding working people

A working man is robbed at gun point, showing the stark contrast between these two lifestyles. The man works hard, pushing himself through the daily grind to support his family. The hoodlums break the law and steal what he built up. The scene creates an intense contrast of these opposing life choices.

Relationships with Father vs. Mother

The protagonist’s relationship with her mother and with her father are each formidable, each rich in emotion, tension, and love. The real power, though, comes from the juxtaposition of the child’s relationship with each. The difference in her connection with each of these two parents creates enormous tension that the character must sort through, and which drag me deep into their family dynamic. Mother-love and father-love, so different and so authentic, create dramatic tension that drives me not only to turn pages, but to ponder these truths of the human condition after I have closed the book.

Palestinian (immigrant) culture and American (dominant) culture

Of course, every immigrant copes with these two opposing forces – the confining boundaries of the culture-of-origin, and the inexorable crucible of the melting pot that demands escape from that confinement. Susan does an artful job of showing her characters moving sometimes easily and sometimes awkwardly between these two different states.

Life is a balance of opposites

All of life is caught in the pincers of endless pairs of opposites. Opposites create revolutions, hatreds, and passionate love. At a more ordinary level, we strive to balance or solve cold and hot, hunger and fullness, loneliness and anger. At every level of life, from physics and biology, individual life, and the history of civilizations, opposites move us forward. Find these opposites in your story to propel your reader’s attention forward as well.

Writing Prompt

To accentuate dramatic tension in your own story, look for the opposites. Use the same ones I noted from reading Inheritance of Exile or look for others: educated and not, healthy and sick, and so on.

Notes

The famous graphic symbol of yin and yang is a circle with the two black and white interlocking shapes. It is called Taijitu. Here’s a link to a wiki page.

Visit Susan Muaddi Darraj’s Portfolio

Visit Amazon’s page for Inheritance of Exile

More memoir writing resources

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.

My Day at a Writer’s Conference – or – The Benefits of Showing Up

by Jerry Waxler

On Saturday morning, a sunny autumn day, I left my home amidst the browning corn fields of Philadelphia’s northern exurbs. Thirty miles later, turning onto estate-lined roads of the Main Line, I reached Rosemont College, rich with serious stone buildings nestled amidst old-growth trees, the perfect setting for an intellectual feast. The college’s MFA program was hosting a regional writing conference called Push to Publish, organized by Philadelphia Stories magazine, a literary journal founded and run by Christine Weiser and Carla Spataro. I was looking forward to this opportunity to spend a day soaking up the ambiance of writers, learning, and networking.

In the lobby, looking for the registration desk I felt the buzz of writers, with our desire to put words on paper, to organize thoughts, and reach out to people. This ever-present tension between writing in private and reaching out to the public is at its most paradoxical when we get together in person.

The keynote speech turned out to be invigorating and liberating. Beth Kephart, whose work I did not know, started as a memoir writer, who, as her career proceeded, extended her writing to other forms, most recently winning awards as a young adult novelist. As her writing skills and interests develop, Beth follows her creative compulsion and then finds people who understand it. This is the refreshing message I drink in; it’s okay to speak from my heart and then find a market, rather than the other way around.

The writer’s journey is a long walk through a desert and talks like Beth Kephart’s are the oases of cool succor, mixed with a bit of prophecy that if I keep going, I too will reach ever more interesting connections with readers. (Click here for Beth Kephart’s blog.)

Outside, tiptoeing around the stinky ginkgo berries, whose smell I knew well because of the tree outside my grandmother’s house in the Logan district on North Broad Street, a professional-looking man with a rich German accent introduced himself. He’s a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and wants to publicize science. I told him my interest and asked him about his writing style. When he told me he was still writing in the academic mold, I launched into my pitch that the best way to reach readers is to bring himself into the page. “That’s interesting,” he said. “When I show my students photos I’ve taken around the world, they ask me what the trip was like. They want to know about me.” It was really fun sharing this insight about popularizing science with a university professor. I need to do this more often.

At lunch I sat down with a couple of women and asked what they write. One of them said, “I’m Ethel David. I wrote a book called, “My Lover the Rabbi, My Husband the Doctor.”

“How interesting,” I replied. “I saw that book on the display table. How nice to meet the author.”

The other woman said, “And I’m Cheryl Grady, her Boswell,” referring to the fact that Ethel spoke and Cheryl wrote.

“So,” I said. “Your husband was both a doctor and rabbi. That’s incredible.”

“No. I really had an affair with a rabbi while I was married to a doctor.”

Pause. “Don’t you feel awkward writing about it?”

“At 92 years-old, honey, I can say anything I want.” I had to ask her to repeat her age several times. Her voice was so lucid and strong, I would have figured her to be around 70. After she showed me family photos from 1916, I went back to the table where Larry Robin, owner of the oldest independent bookstore in Philadelphia, Robin’s Book Store was glad to sell me a copy of the book.

While most conferences provide the opportunity to speak with an editor or agent, this one offered “speed dating” letting you talk to more than one for a generous 15-minute block. First I spoke with Michelle Wittle, a blogger for Philadelphia Stories, and then Peter Krok, publisher of the Schuylkill Valley Journal. I told Peter about my interest in memoir and essay writing. He expressed interest in my writing because he too is interested in memoir. He said his book of poetry, “In Search of An Eye,” is essentially an introspective journey. I have thought about the fact that poetry is an expression of the poet’s life, and so I decided to look more closely at Peter Krok’s book of introspective poetry to learn more about this relationship between memoir and poetry. I went back to Larry Robin, and bought a copy of “In Search of An Eye” by Peter Krok.

For a review, of this chapbook, click here.

Another unusual aspect of the Push to Publish conference was that all the meetings were panel discussions. Workshops at other regional conferences I’ve attended, like the Philadelphia Writers Conference, and the Lehigh Valley Writers Group are taught by individuals. I felt that the bevy of writers in each session was more in keeping with the boutique flavor of the conference, and made the publishing journey more accessible. The panelists’ varying perspectives and conversations generated energy. Perhaps it felt refreshing simply witnessing that there are lots of writers who are out there “doing it.”

One of the women who moderated two panels was Susan Muaddi Darraj a Palestinian-American and Senior Editor of The Baltimore Review. Her book of short stories called “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly,” won the Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction from Foreword Magazine. This was a curious regional twist, since in my day, South Philadelphia was synonymous with Italian. I wondered what it would be like growing up a generation later as a Palestinian immigrant.

And since I’m interested in everything about turning life into story, I wanted to learn more about what it would be like translate her ethnic childhood into fictional stories. So I went back to Larry Robin and bought Susan Muaddi Daraj’s book, “The Inheritance of Exile.” By this time Larry was very pleased with me.

“So, Larry,” I said while he was writing up my order. “What do you think about the state of the world?” Larry has a huge white beard, and I knew from several years of acquaintance and work with him that he is one of those radicals who never got the message that the sixties were over. He said, “It’s about time. People are starting to wake up.”

I laughed, getting flashbacks to my own radical days in the sixties, when I tried to make sense of Marx’s dire predictions about the inevitable fall of capitalism. “So,” I said, “We’re finally reaping the fruits of our greed.” Larry’s eyes sparkled. Ah. Two old hippies sharing a laugh over a pile of books. On the walk to my car, I felt weary. In this morning’s bright sunshine, the cool wind blowing through multi-colored leaves felt invigorating, but now in the spreading afternoon dimness, the same breeze felt foreboding. It was time to go home.

I’ve heard that Philadelphia has a burgeoning art scene. Art, and most interesting to me, writing, shape the imagination of a community, and I’m delighted to participate in, and contribute to that pool of creative energy. At the end, I felt a vigorous passion, having met these people with their interest in sitting alone and putting words on a page, and then lifting their attention from the page to the public, reaching out to offer those words as part of the binding, the substrate, the collective communication that helps pull together a bunch of individuals into a society.

Note
Earlier this year I read a book of short stories, called “Apologies Forthcoming,” by a Chinese American author, Xujun Eberlein about growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. (Click here for an essay I wrote about her book.)

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Lessons memoir writers can learn from Zombies

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.)

Brad Pitt recently bought the movie rights to “World War Z,” a thriller by Max Brooks. Once Pitts star-powered name became attached to the project, everyone wanted to write books or shoot movies about creatures who looked human but have no soul. Thriller writer Jonathan Maberry jumped in with “Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead.” To research the book, he interviewed over 250 experts, including the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control, and his local police rapid response team. He even interviewed me, asking for a therapist’s point of view about the fear and mass trauma that might result from a Zombie outbreak.

Even though I have no interest in writing about Zombies, I regularly take writing classes from Maberry, finding his instruction helpful in unpredictable ways. In this lesson he was making the point that fiction writers can use research to create a more compelling world. I pondered how to apply the principle to memoirs. As I look through my bookshelf, I discover many examples in which factual reporting adds clarity and depth to a memoir writer’s story.

David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy” reports the background of his son’s addiction to Crystal Meth. Doreen Orion’s first memoir, “I know you really love me,” recounts her experience of being stalked by a patient. During this extended intrusion, she became an expert in the psychological as well as the legal problems of stalking.

When Linda Joy Myers wrote her memoir “Don’t Call Me Mother” she visited the wheat fields and train stations that played such an important role in her childhood in the Great Plains. She rode the trains to awaken vivid memories. And she studied the history of Iowa and Oklahoma, and visited cemeteries and courthouses to track down records of her genealogy.

Kate Braestrup’s memoir “Here If You Need Me” describes exquisite details of the natural habitat of Maine. Foster Winans went to the library to find out the weather in New York on key days in his memoir, “Trading Secrets.” (His advice: “weather ought to be considered another character.”)

Memoir writers even toss in facts for entertainment. For example, in Doreen Orion’s second memoir, “Queen of the Road,” she was at a club listening to a local country music band, when a little girl got up on stage and did a clog dance. Just for fun, Orion inserted a brief explanation of the history of clog dancing.

When I dig back into my own past, many facts seem hazy. Research helps fill them in. For example, to help me remember the riot in 1967 that changed my life, I found two documentary movies, “The War at Home” and “Two Days in October” both covering the Dow Chemical protest riot in Madison Wisconsin. In one of them, an interview with a young man reminded me how much we truly believed that protests could eradicate injustice and create world peace. We even threw poverty into the mix of problems we were going to solve. To help organize my memories about high school, I signed up for Classmates.com and have corresponded with a couple of guys I have not seen in decades.

My goal is remarkably similar to Jonathan Maberry’s. We both want to tell a good story. So I keep listening and keep learning lessons about the relationship between life and story. For example, in a previous discussion he told me that flaws in real people prepare him to write deeper characterization in his novels, a discussion I reported in another essay.

I wonder what else I can learn from Jonathan’s lesson about Zombie folklore. Their current popularity is simply the latest chapter in a centuries-old fascination. In the middle ages, there was the Golem, a Jewish myth about a person who had no soul. In the nineteenth century Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was created from inanimate body parts. And  in the Wizard of Oz, the Tin Man and Scarecrow wanted to inject human qualities into their inanimate bodies. Looking at my own life through the metaphor, I see the lesson I was looking for.

When I was a young man, I was fascinated by math and science, and bent my entire will into interpreting the universe as a sort of machine. I became obsessed with finding all the physical rules, and the longer I followed this path, the more depressed I became. By the time I was 23, I had lost my will to live.

Finally, from sheer desperation I dipped into the spiritual ideas that were permeating the culture in 1970. Those ideas restored my hope. Ever since, I have invested at least part of my attention to finding the spirit in every day life. Until recently, I thought this interior journey was a private one that couldn’t possibly concern readers. But now that Jonathan has pointed out the vast numbers of people who want to know more about Zombies, I wonder if their curiosity would extend to the true story of a guy who spent his life trying not to be one. It looks like the Zombie wave could add more spirit to my life story than I first realized.

Writing Prompt
List some research that can contribute to your story. For example, list specific examples of people you could interview, points in history you could learn more about, or health and medical details that would help explain what you were going through.

Writing Prompt
What puts the soul or deeper humanity in your story? List specific instances of some of the more sublime aspects of your life, such as spirituality, service to others, creativity, and desire to see others succeed?

Note – Turning Nonfiction into Fiction
Maberry’s research was creating a modern folklore to help him understand what makes Zombies tick and what the rest of the world thinks about it. He’s already used this technique. Author of one of the most successful and authoritative books about Vampire Folklore, Maberry wrote a thriller trilogy, starting with Ghost Road Blues, based on that creature. Now he’s doing it again.

Maberry’s extensive research into Zombie lore is turning into a novel. “While researching plagues and epidemics ZOMBIE CSU, I began speculating on how this info could form the backbone of a novel.  The concept blossomed from there: a plague that reduces people to a state that simulates death while creating uncontrollably violent behavior.  That idea became PATIENT ZERO, which will be my first mainstream thriller, set for release in March by St. Martins Press.”

Many fiction writers start with facts. For example, Jason Goodwin studied the Ottoman Empire as an historian. Later he turned his knowledge into a setting for fiction, having recently published the murder mystery, “The Snake Stone,” set in the city Istanbul that he had come to know so well.

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Boomer memoir is a step towards social activism

by Jerry Waxler

Terrorism! Melting ice caps! Another traffic jam! When is someone going to do something about this mess? While I am waiting for “them” to change the world, “they” are waiting for me. It’s time to break this impasse by taking action. But how? I already tried to bring about world peace by disrupting a campus when I was in college in 1968. It was scary confronting a mob of police, and I don’t believe the world has become more peaceful as a result of those actions. Now that I’m older, I’m looking for better methods. I recently became inspired by a talk hosted by the “Coming of Age” organization in Philadelphia. The main speaker was the CEO of AARP, Bill Novelli, who echoed the sentiment of his book, 50+: Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America in which he claimed that I can join an army of new oldsters to help move the world in a positive direction. A week later I went to another Coming of Age event and heard similar ideas eloquently delivered by Marc Freedman, author of Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America.

When I was a kid, I thought that older people were the problem. They seemed so invested in the status quo. Now that I’m one of them, I find old people aren’t so bad after all. In fact, I feel just as passionate about changing the world as when I was 20. While Novelli and Freedman spoke of a variety of ways that others have chosen to pitch in and move their own little corner of the world, I have a grand idea. It seems to me that the missing element in modern civilization is that we don’t seem to be doing a good job of learning from our mistakes. And in my opinion, that’s where the army of us oldsters can help significantly. We’ve seen the world go by for more years than others have, and have gained an appreciation for what matters in the long run, and what fizzles out.

It’s not that I have all the answers. But if there is any wisdom at all to be gained from experience, and my experience tells me there is, then I’d say we need to communicate more of our life story. And we’ve been born at the perfect time. Just as boomers are reaching “that certain age” technology has provided new opportunities for us to collaborate. The printing press brought ideas from individual minds out into the public, broke us free from a layer of oppression, and opened the way for the Renaissance. The internet makes the printing press look like an old relic. We’re ready to take this thing global, and who knows what rebirths we can bring about?

By developing a community of thinking people who talk about life in an inquiring way, we can learn from each other. Your wisdom is contained in your life experience. Share it with the world! Even if you don’t know how writing could change your world, start writing anyway. Your experience turns into stories that are authentic, in a voice that is authentically yours. That’s all that matters now. Find the authentic voice and share the authentic experience. As you go, you’ll discover the sense you’ve made of your past, and then discover the impact your experience has on others. By writing and organizing your story, without even knowing how, you are already beginning to serve. And like any service to others, you’ll be the first to reap the rewards.

Writing about life will give you more energy. Even if you already have plenty of energy, writing will give you more. And if you are too tired to write, writing will wake you up.

Writing will make you more knowledgeable about how to write and how to tell stories. You can press these enhanced skills into service as you discover things you want to share with the world.

By writing about your own life experience, you open up parts of yourself to others. This makes the world a friendlier, more intimate place to live.

Write for a cause, write for a community, write for posterity, write to share yourself. Write to change the world.

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

Writing Conference: Tip for Memoirists – Use myth to find story

by Jerry Waxler

The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group (www.glvwg.org) held its annual meeting April 27-28, 2007, and I found all sorts of valuable writing insights, that I want to share with memoir writers.

I went to a workshop for non-fiction writers given by Jack Lule, professor of journalism at Lehigh University, and author of “Daily News, Eternal Stories, the mythological role of journalism.” His talk was about using mythology to write non-fiction stories. I knew I was going to be interested in his ideas, because I have been reading and writing about how to use the Hero’s Journey to help write the story of your life. My ideas on this topic were derived from several books, mainly Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, as well as other experiences in my workshops, and my own analysis of storytelling. So I was looking forward to hearing what a university professor had to say on this topic. I was not disappointed.

The first thing he did was emphasize the importance of story. This might seem surprising coming from a journalist. Journalists are supposed to just write what they see. Right? But Lule started noticing some news caught fire, and some didn’t. He began looking for the reason for this difference, and he realized that when a story just conveys information, it does not generate energy. The stories that have the most energy are organized as a story, not as “information.”

This is a powerful observation for an aspiring memoirist who is trying to gather the facts of their life and turn them into a good read. But the next problem is the obvious question, “how do you find the story?” I’m glad you asked. Through years of observation, Lule realized that the stories that caught the public’s imagination looked a lot like myths. The idea that myths are built in to our collective consciousness is a familiar perspective to those scholars who study Carl Jung. His ideas have become canonical observations in the cultural and psychological thinking of the twentieth century.

This could be a fabulous insight to help journalists or memoirists who want to organize information into a story. But what good is this information for those of us who have don’t have time to go back to school, or read dozens of books on Greek, Norse, or Celtic mythology, and then derive from all that reading the lessons that could help our writing?

That’s where teachers and writers like Jack Lule come in. Through examples and explanations his book helps us find the “myth power” that fuels the story. Some of the myths he mentioned in his talk are the “trickster”, the “great mother,” and the “hero figure.” Armed with this information, we can then use it to find the myth that applies to our facts. Such insights could help us organize our memoir, make it more compelling and engaging. With the help of Lule’s book, which I immediately bought, I expect to find additional ways to use myth for storytelling. myths that Lule offers.

I’ve already written about the Hero’s Journey in both of my books, Four Elements for Writers, and Learn to Write your Memoir in Four Weeks. Now leaving this workshop I felt that in just 50 minutes, my writing reach had been extended. It was a great way to spend an afternoon, and I expect to be able to make use of this information for the rest of my life.

More memoir writing resources

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

Writing Conference: Tip for Memoirists, memoir as literary non-fiction

by Jerry Waxler

The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group (http://www.glvwg.org/) held its annual meeting April 27-28, 2007, and I found all sorts of valuable writing insights, that I want to share with memoir writers.

As a memoir writer, I am writing about life experience, so it was with eager anticipation that I attended a talk “Writing from life experience” by keynote speaker Gary Fincke, professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, and author of a book called “Amp’d, a father’s back stage pass” about rock and roll bands – not just any rock and roll band, but his son’s. Fincke attended more than 60 concerts, and then wrote a book about his experience. This is a style of reporting called Immersion Journalism. Years ago I read a pioneer in this genre: Tracy Kidder’s “Soul of a New Machine,” in which he moved into a computer lab, and wrote about their development process. The book launched not only Kidder’s career, but also launched an entire genre of what has become known as literary non-fiction.

As a writing teacher and a writer, Fincke thinks a lot about how to write what you see. In his genre of literary non-fiction, he doesn’t have to be a distant observer. He includes himself in the picture. This style of journalism bumps up and begins to overlap with what memoirists try to do. We show the life we lived, a life in which we were active participants. Memoirists are all immersion journalists. We inhabit the world of the protagonist but when we try to report on what we see, there is one difference from journalism. We observe life not through our present eyes, but through our memory.

One of the most interesting tips Fincke offered about how to write about life experience was so simple. It was to “look again.” The first time you see something, you only see the surface. When you look again you see it deeper. Another great piece of advice was to describe things specifically. He didn’t just describe the backstage at every or any rock concert. He described a particular one, the particular smells, the beer cooler, the ratty sofa. And then he said, “Don’t just talk about what you think. Readers want to see and experience things for themselves.” It was all great advice.

Since Fincke will be publishing his memoir early next year, I asked him what are the differences between memoir and journalism. He said one key difference is that in memoir, you want to return to the state of mind that you were in when you originally experienced it. That strikes me as being a significant point.

When you write about something you are observing now, you have more control over your state of mind. I can look up from my computer and describe the two book cases next to me, four shelves each, the uneven way books are lined up, some on top of each other, and the top of the cases piled high with recent acquisitions. I could focus on one book, a chemistry book sits snugly on the shelf. I have not referenced this book for years, while the ones I’m using for my current projects lie heaped in piles on the floor. Because I’m in the present writing about the present, I can dance and weave, playing around all I want with the details, and my feelings about those details, But when I write a memoir, I have to rely on memory. Memory is a strange animal. It can be a beast that snarls, and wants me to remember the hurt first, filtering all facts through the lens of my feelings.

When I studied chemistry in high school, it was not my A subject. I feel myself walking in the hall after class, fearing the other kids understand the material more than I do, and afraid that means they like me less. Am I remembering it because it’s a “real” incident or because in that time, I was always worried about whether I was liked? Now, I look again. This time I see the teacher showing us a supersaturated solution, a clear liquid. He threw in a grain of sand and from the clearness exploded beautiful blue crystals, somehow both jagged and orderly. That transformation from the possible into the real fills me with some subtle hope. Beauty is sometimes hidden, and it just takes a grain of sand to reveal it.

When Gary Fincke’s memoir is published next year, I will look at his two books and see how his observations differ. In Amp’d, he wrote as an immersion journalist, using his current powers of observation to describe his son during those concerts. In the other, his memoir, he observes through the filter of memory. These differences in the way we report reality are issues every memoirist faces.