Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life

by Jerry Waxler

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

David W. Berner, author of the memoir “Accidental Lessons” should have been satisfied with his successful career as a newscaster. Instead he hated chasing the latest sensational story in order to increase ratings. His distaste for his work infected his marriage. His wife couldn’t stand living in the shadow of this hollow man and so, they parted.

The memoir “Accidental Lessons” begins with the demolition of David W. Berner’s life and for the rest of the book, he builds himself up. He goes back to school to earn teaching credentials and he takes a job in a public high school. As a beginning teacher, he makes freshman mistakes with students, and when he tries to date a young woman, he behaves like an amateur there, too.

Can a beginner be a hero?

When I read a thriller, I expect the hero to know exactly what to do. However, I enjoy memoirs for the opposite reason. The protagonists of most memoirs are beginners whose journey is paved with mistakes. That’s the case in Coming of Age stories which are, by definition, about beginners. Children in blockbusters like Jeanette Walls in “Glass Castle” must make the journey from helplessness to adulthood. Readers cheer her, not because of her expertise, but because of her vulnerability.

Children are not the only beginners. Adults often find themselves starting over. Will readers cheer for older beginners, the way they do for young ones? David Berner’s memoir suggests that the answer is “yes.” His place at the bottom of the totem pole contrasts sharply with his success in broadcasting. And yet, as he bumbles along, trying to figure out how to make a positive impact on these kids, it is easy for me to cheer him on. I turn the pages, thinking, “Please grow.” “Please learn.”

Writing Prompt
In your own memoir, you might cringe at the mistakes and frustrations of starting over. Rediscovering these periods also highlights your courage. Write about a situation in your life that pushed you out of your comfort zone and forced you to take a new approach.

Writing Prompt
All memoir writers expose situations and emotions that most people keep hidden. We writers must learn new language arts. And we have to overcome reluctance and press on with tenacity. To get in touch with your vulnerability and courage, write a scene that shows you overcoming some emotional obstacle on your writing journey.

Second Coming of Age

At the beginning of the 21st century, more of us stay active well past the traditional retirement years. So how do we find meaning during our extended years? Stories like “Accidental Lessons” are perfect demonstrations of how such a “second act” can succeed.

David Berner’s new career is not just about regaining his earning power. In order to feel good about himself he needs to help young people feel good about themselves. He needs these kids as much as they need him. And even though as a new teacher he doesn’t know all the procedures of his position, he knows enough about life and love.

Through the memoir, he shows his sometimes-clumsy attempt to let his students understand he cares about them. In some cases his effort pays off, providing support to the kids and meaning to the teacher. I find the book to be a wonderful exploration of one man’s effort to create a more worthwhile life than the one he constructed the first time.

Teachers serve kids (and readers) in exchange for a sense of purpose

I love the fact that David Berner finds meaning through teaching. This is the third inspiring high-school teaching book I’ve read. The first two were “Teacher Man,” by Frank McCourt, and “Freedom Writer’s Diary” by Erin Gruell. In each of these books, an adult pours out information and support in the hope that children will grow. In exchange for their effort, they achieve their own sense of purpose.

Each of these teachers then wrested stories from their mundane experiences. By turning life into story, they created additional social value from their effort. I didn’t have to leave my home in order to vicariously experience their sense of purpose and uplift, and to learn more about my own years in a classroom, through the eyes of a teacher.

In the external world, David Berner traded in a glitzy career for an incredibly unglamorous one. However, inside himself and inside the kids, beautiful things were happening. Just as he filled himself up with his journey, by sharing it, he filled me up too.

Writing Prompt
What sorts of other new skills or crafts do you want to learn, “before it is too late”? Write a scene in which you are taking steps to achieve those goals.


David W. Berner’s Home Page

Three Part Interview with Author David W. Berner
Interview Part 1
Interview Part 2
Interview Part 3
The author of the memoir Accidental Lessons answers questions about the craft and experience of writing the book.

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.

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.

Why memoirs are becoming so popular

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

Carol O’Dell has never been in headlines. She was an ordinary woman raising a family when her mom’s mind started failing. When O’Dell asked her mother to move in, their relationship became laced with the humiliation and confusion of dementia, madness in the midst of normalcy. It’s a story worth knowing for millions of people in the sandwich generation. To learn more about it, read her memoir called Mothering Mother. And there’s another lesson you can learn from O’Dell’s book. If you think your own life is not famous enough to be worth reading, take another look at what is happening to the memoir genre. You don’t have to be spectacular. You just need to be you, and find the story in your experience.

For proof that people want to know about each other, stand in the checkout line at your local supermarket, look around at the ordinary people. You could reach out and touch them, if you wanted to get smacked, and yet you know absolutely nothing about them and they know nothing about you. Most of us prefer it that way, trying to blend in so we won’t stand out. Then, turn around, to see, also within reach, the tabloid racks, covered with photos of celebrities entering or leaving rehab, getting married and getting divorced. An entire industry brings their private lives into the supermarket, a testimony to the fact that people are curious about other people.

But why should we want to know so much about these particular people who have thrust themselves into the public eye?? All we learn from them is the artificially self-indulgent world of celebrity. Sometimes it’s fun but most of the time it’s plain sordid. I think we’re getting tired of limiting our curiosity to movie stars. I know I am. There is a whole world of people, and I want to learn who they are, what makes them work, how they feel, how they grow.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my desire to know about ordinary people. Look at the popularity of blogs, through which people share snips of our lives, pictures of our kids and pets, and what we did last night. Millions of people are reading this stuff. Memoirs are the next wave in this curiosity about each other. Memoirs let us go deeper, sharing what it was like to grow up, or to take care of someone in need, or to suffer a loss, or fight in a war. We can learn so much about each other through memoirs. It’s an exciting expansion of our ability to know the world.

Most of us only know the private lives of a few people; the ones in our family, and perhaps one or two close friends. Everyone else we see only in the fragments we come across in life situations or tales we share in conversations. As a therapist I hear more, but even in this environment memories arise in disjointed fragments, spread out over time, and not delivered in sequence. If any of them wanted me to really know about their lives, the best way would be to write their memoir.

It turns out that a memoir is by far the best way to find out what it’s like to be someone else. For example, Brooke Shield’s memoir Down Came the Rain, informed me about postpartum depression. Alice Sebold in Lucky informed me of the problems of coping with the aftermath of rape, an unmentionable topic if ever there was one. Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam takes me inside the experience of expecting and then raising a baby with Down Syndrome. William Manchester in Goodbye Darkness brings me face to face with the gore of war, of being shot at and watching friends die in front of you.

None of these topics are pleasant, and so, they don’t come up in polite conversation. And that’s precisely the reason I don’t know much about them. People don’t talk about these things, so how can I ever learn them? In fact, these topics are so unmentionable, people in these situations often feel isolated. But in memoirs, we can be frank. Writers record thoughts in private, and readers, also in private, enter the writer’s experience and learn what it’s like. If the information becomes too intense, they can take a break. No one has to react, offer platitudes, or hide their discomfort.

The insights from memoirs take me far beyond my experience, and far beyond my comfort zone. I would never have asked George Brummell what it was like to grow up black in the segregated south, starting to come of age in Korea, and then after being injured in Vietnam, starting over again, now blind. But I can read about it in his book Shades of Darkness. I wouldn’t know what it was like to be beaten by a stepfather, or to feel the other heartaches of a broken family the way I could by reading Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life. And while I might imagine what it was like for a daughter to take care of a mom with Alzheimer’s I would never have been able to see it so intimately as by reading Carol O’Dell’s Mothering Mother.

One of the powers of any good book is to invite the reader into a different world. Sometimes it’s sheer escape from our everyday life. But while we’re out of our world, what are we learning? I went through a decade when I was only reading murder mysteries. The battle between good and evil put me into a wonderful hypnotic state. But after years of escaping into the same type of world over and over, I was getting bored. Now that I’m reading memoirs, I not only get out of my own world. I also have a wonderful opportunity to enter other people’s worlds. By reading their lives, I understand a lot more about the people around me. One person’s story at a time, I’m finding that ordinary people at the checkout counter are much more interesting, varied, and offer many more lessons than the menagerie of celebrities facing me on the covers of tabloids.


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.

Myths and Memoirs – am I a victim?

by Jerry Waxler

I’m reading a book by journalism professor, Jack Lule about using myth to find story. I recommend his book Daily News, Eternal Stories to anyone who is looking to find a structure for their story. Lule wrote it to explain why some news stories jump into the headlines, while others don’t. My purpose in reading it is to pass along ideas that can help you structure your memoir.

His first myth is “The Victim.” In his example, a man on a cruise was murdered by terrorists, and elevated by the news media to the status of a hero. Since the man was in a wheelchair, the only reason the terrorists could possibly have for killing him was that he was an American. They used him as a symbol, killing him out of hatred for the nation. The news media accepted the terrorist’s symbolic message, allowing the man to stand in as proxy for all Americans. And once the victim became accepted as a symbol, he could be used for an additional purpose. The media and politicians used his story to send a message back to the terrorists. It’s as if the terrorists were saying “we hate you and we’re going to kill this guy to prove it,” and the American media responded by saying, “Oh yeah. Well we are strong anyway, and you don’t scare us, and we’re going to admire this man to prove it.” Many people who have been elevated throughout history from victim to hero were used in this symbolic way to represent their group. The murderers hated the group and used the victim as a symbol, and the admirers showed love for this victim, and rallied around in order to strengthen their identity and defy the murderers. For example, many of the Christian martyrs are remembered because of the way they were singled out.

While this myth is powerful in news and history, it is not an easy myth to apply in memoir. I believe one reason this is difficult to use in memoir is because to be elevated from victim to hero, your story must be told by others. If the news media declares that you have been singled out as a representative, then you can be elevated. It doesn’t work as well if you declare yourself a victim. On the contrary, you look like a complainer if you come forward and say “I’m a victim.” It loses its mythological power. In fact, “I’m a victim” can deflate a story, taking the energy out of it.

In scanning my experience with memoirs, I can think of one effective tale of a victim, Nien Chang’s “Life and Death in Shanghai.“ Her daughter was “arrested” or more accurately “disappeared” by the Red Guard during the infamous Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s. It’s a beautiful tale, carried not so much by tragedy of the daughter’s victimization but by the mom’s strength, and her struggle to hold up and maintain her poise despite persecution. The crime that Chang’s family was being persecuted for was their western education. As western readers, we can identify with their victimization. In the same manner as Lule’s mythical victim, the hatred that was being directed at that family was symbolically directed at us!

In most memoirs, even if the author has undergone horrific suffering, the energy that moves the reader is not the suffering but the courage required to cope with it. For example, in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, he never complains about being the victim of his father’s abandonment. On the contrary the whole book is a sort of celebration of survival. The reading public didn’t canonize McCourt for being a victim, but rather placed him on their shoulders for surviving.

For memoirists, the victim myth is a cautionary tale. Be careful about declaring yourself a victim. It probably won’t help your heroic image. Consider the dynamics of Tommie Smith’s memoir, a Silent Gesture. The reason I went to see Smith at a book signing this year, and bought his book, was because I wanted to understand the greatness of a man. He came from a poor black family in the segregated south, went on to set world records as a runner, won Olympic Gold in 1968. Then on live television in front of millions of people, he raised his fist in the Silent Gesture. In the tumultuous 60’s this was seen by blacks as courageous. From the media’s standpoint, it was defiant. Smith was blacklisted. He went on to teach and coach, but without the fanfare or success he deserved. See my previous post about Smith on this blog.

As a reader, and a student of history, I ought to be loving every minute of this memoir. But it doesn’t turn out to be a page turner. I think one problem with the telling of this powerful story is that he became entangled in the dark side of the myth making process. Instead of being adored by the media as a Gold Medalist, Smith was turned into an ingrate who abused his privileged position. No advertising contracts, television spots, or fancy coaching jobs resulted from his spectacular athletic achievement. He should have been singled out as a hero, but because of one wildly audacious act, from the glory of victory he slid away into anonymity, or perhaps more accurately like Nien Chang’s daughter, he “disappeared.”

His story is messier than the one Lule singled out in his section on the Victim. Smith was not a guy in a wheel chair, murdered outright. He was at the time, the fastest man alive, and then after he stepped off the podium, he was just a guy, trying to raise a family. It becomes a difficult story to tell. If you are stripped of your glory by the media, who then will tell the story of your courage and survival? It’s a fascinating question. Probably the only credible answer is in a memoir.

I recommend Smith’s memoir for anyone who wants to get inside his experience, whether you are curious about those events and the man behind them, want to learn more about memoirs, or are curious about the workings of the myths that drive our public stories. The book offers lessons for memoirists. How fame doesn’t guarantee success. How the public is fickle, and seems to have a mind of its own. And how myths of heroes and victims play out in Smith’s life.

As you read it, embrace what you like, and consider what you would do differently. From such an interesting life, he ought to be able to shape a compelling story that would again grab the attention of the world. He had the podium, and used it for a silent gesture. A memoir gives him a chance to tell it in words.

What approach would you use? Leave a comment here and let me know.

Foster Winans says “Use context when writing memoir”

By Jerry Waxler
To learn more about how to write a memoir, I spoke with Foster Winans, author of the bestselling book Trading Secrets, (St. Martin’s Press, 1986), a memoir about his involvement in an insider trading scheme while he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal. It hit the best seller charts, partly because his situation made headlines, and also because of the excellent writing. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, was excerpted in “Esquire Magazine,” inspired the Oliver Stone film “Wall Street,” and won Foster rave reviews from critics, who said, “Winans can make you feel what is happening better than most fiction writers.”

Since then he has written more than thirty books, including ghost writing memoirs about other people’s lives. This gives him an intimate involvement in the memoiring process. I learned about Foster’s memoir ideas a number of years ago, when I took a class at the writing center he founded in Doylestown, the Writers Room. To find out more about how he applied his journalistic skills to his own story, I spoke with him in his office in Doylestown down the street from the Writers Corner, the new tenants of the original Writers Room.

One of the tips he told me about writing memoirs was the value of context when writing your own story. The more grounded you are in the concrete facts of life around you, the more capable you will be at telling a story that your reader will relate to. “If you’re unclear, your reader will pick it up immediately.” To gain a detailed recollection of his own story, he did things like visiting the public library to find the weather report for the night of a key incident. His book shows this dedication to detail. In fact, this attention to the way Foster’s world worked is a good reason for aspiring writers to read his memoir. I highly recommend Trading Secrets, as a perfect example of how a memoirist can employ the events in the world around him to drive the story forward.

While this was a memoir about Foster’s experience, there is exquisite attention to the detail of Foster’s world. Of course, there are the expected descriptions of city streets, limousines, and country homes. Any writer needs to let the reader see the room or surroundings, to set the stage, as it were. But he goes further, showing us not only what his world looks like but how it works. He describes how editorial decisions are made at the Wall Street Journal. He shows what a stock broker does in between deals. He even tells about ups and downs of the stock market, to show us the way his world was moving and being moved by money.

Take a few moments to sketch out this method for your own memoir. Consider how the world around you affected you, and how you could research and portray the workings of that world to help the reader stay engaged in events in your life. So for example, if I was going to write about going to college in Wisconsin in the sixties, I would read books about the protest years at Wisconsin. I could visit the campus, and walk through the buildings where I walked when I went to school, and take photos to place in my folders. A student in the memoir class I taught yesterday wanted to tell about a crisis in his life because a routine eye operation had gone bad. To help us see his world, he could research similar operations, and tell about the incidence of blindness, its causes, where people go for help, and what sorts of outcomes can be expected. Such information would help his readers place his personal experience in context with the experience of people around him, and in turn around us as well.

Foster also addressed a common question memoirists ask. How did he pull all the information together to turn all these events and memories into a story? For this, he employed another skill from his journalism training, a keen appreciation for research and organization. He wrote out all the facts of his story on index cards, and then shuffled them around until they fell into place in the story. He suggested this system for others. In fact, he found it written in an essay, and has been using it to great effect, offering yet another demonstration that writers can learn by reading. Once Foster had the basic outline together, he created a folder for each outline point, and started putting information about that key point into that folder. “I became an insane filer.” He said his research was exhaustive, and felt like he was preparing for a marathon. By the time he actually sat down to write the book, it took him four weeks. “It was all in the preparation.”

In addition to skills he learned as a journalist, he also employed basic storytelling and screenwriting techniques to help him organize his story. In the parlance of drama, each crisis or turning point in a story is called a “beat.” By looking for the beats in his own experience, he was able to construct the pacing and flow of his story. His goal was to end each chapter with a cliff hanger. As Foster said, “The job of the writer is to get the reader to turn the page.”

To some writers, Foster’s advice for pulling together a memoir might sound too formal, suitable more for a dispassionate journalist than an intimate portrayal of one’s inner life. But his journalistic tendencies don’t interfere with his appreciation for the emotional intimacy a memoir can generate. He told me a moving story about an incident with his mother that was triggered while he was writing his memoir. To give the reader background about his life, Foster described his relationship with his mother, who he described as controlling and intrusive. It was a perspective he felt needed to be told. But his mother stayed true to her intrusive form, and insisted on reading it. He warned her she may not like it, but ended up acquiescing. When he came down to the kitchen the next morning, she was still sitting at the table where he left her the night before. She asked, “Is that the way you really see me?” They had a long talk, perhaps more open than they ever could have had under any other circumstance, and from that experience, Foster found a greater degree of understanding and peace with his mother than he dreamed possible. “In the end, I realized I did not need to embarrass my mother to make the story work so I removed the negative references, replacing them instead with the things I admired about her.”

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

by Jerry Waxler

The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group ( 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.