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.

Memoir Writing Prompt – Your Rocky Story

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Beatles and other loaded words in your memoir

by Jerry Waxler

“Beatles.” This word contains the memories of a generation. Who among us has not seen videos of them waving as they disembarked from the plane on their first American tour? As they’re playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the Ed Sullivan show, the camera pans to the girl screaming so hard she has to hold onto her face with both hands so her head won’t explode. Since such scenes were part of your life, you might want to tell about them. But to a listener these culturally loaded words sound like clichés. Events that happened to you also happened to hundreds of millions of others. We’ve heard and seen these images until we are weary of them.

If you tell a story with loaded words, people will hear what they already know, rather than learning about you. The loaded words will wash out the individual meaning from your story. So how do you write about the past, without falling into this trap? Use the storyteller’s advice. Slow down, set up the scene, and tell the reader how they affected you in particular.

So how could I unpack the meaning of the word Beatles and turn it into a unique image in my own life? I can see myself standing at the record store in Madison, Wisconsin, where I stopped on my way home every day from class, to stare at the rack of new releases. My mind was blazing with an almost supernatural desire, as if each album might release a Genii that would grant my every dream. But describing a boy standing at a record rack doesn’t give the reader much to go on. To share my unique feelings, I have to set up a scene in a way that you’ll be able to relate to.

Here’s a piece of advice on this topic by author and writing teacher Philip Gerard, from his book “Writing a book that makes a difference.” He says, “The key is always to include your reader in the process by which you arrive at your position. Instead of demanding that the reader experience anger or love simply because you say so, create for your reader the same experience that led to your reaction.”

So I try to remember a scene that would help me show my relationship to music in the sixties and I remembered the summer when the Revolver album was released. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I wanted to get back to campus early. When I returned in mid-August, all the summer classes were over, and even the faculty and staff were away on vacation. Madison, Wisconsin was essentially a ghost town. I didn’t have anywhere to live yet, but an acquaintance was out of town and told me I could crash at her place.

I walked in to the apartment building, musty from years of student tenants, and set down my belongings. My stuff was stored in another friend’s basement so all I had with me was a suitcase and the Revolver, which I had picked up from the record store on my way in to town. As soon as I sat down, I took out the album, turning it over and searching the graphics, the liner notes, and even the names of the production staff as if they might reveal some secret.

Ripping off the flimsy cellophane, I pulled the record envelope out, and then grabbed the record by the edges between my open palms to avoid letting any finger oil smudge the surface. Positioning the record over the turntable, I dropped it gently, feeling the anticipation not only that this would be the first time I listened to it, but also disappointment that this would be the last time I would ever listen to it for the first time. This troubled me because records lose 40% of their quality after the first playing, wearing down the little plastic ridges that jiggle the needle to create the sound.

In rapt attention, I turned towards the speakers and listened. And as I entered each new song, I felt a wave of excitement. Somehow the Beatles had broken with their genre over and over, as if they were inventing a new style of rock and roll in each song. I was especially smitten by the haunting violin accompaniment like cries of sadness, wails really, on “Eleanor Rigby.” I wondered who she was, and why I felt so drawn to her.

That afternoon, I left the apartment to buy food, and I saw a girl walking my way. A person! As she came nearer, I smiled. The smile of a stranger always made me feel okay, like the world was safer and more fun. So I smiled at this stranger, and she kept walking past me, as if she didn’t see me. Despite the long, cruel winters, Madison in August is blazingly hot and muggy. I looked around at the apartments that would in a few weeks be teeming with kids living in every possible space. The houses had not been painted recently nor were the gardens groomed. It was a student neighborhood, run by landlords we never saw, and kids who were just passing through. And now they were empty. I wondered where my home was. Certainly not Pennsylvania. I was no longer a child, and it was time to get away from there. And I didn’t feel at home here either, where there were no other students, and the only person I saw didn’t even smile at me.

The one thing I did have, the one element in my life that made me feel connected at that moment was the Beatles. Their passion for breaking with all the things that were wrong with the world leapt out at me. But rather than providing simple answers, they asked questions, set to music. Not just any music but orchestral music and fresh melodies and rhythms. They poured their creative energy into the album to let me know they shared my sense of urgency. We had entered a pact in which we agreed that our questions were important, were powerful. I closed my eyes, and hummed along with the lyrics, already starting to burn into my memory.

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

I too lamented about life, while those violins tore into my heart. Hearing the lyrics made me feel more peaceful, understood, and one with the world.

To improve your memoir, break down the code

by Jerry Waxler

My dad owned a neighborhood drugstore in north Philadelphia, and on the nights he was able to make it home for dinner, most of the conversation centered around him telling us about the menagerie of characters who streamed through the store and gave him endless raw material. We sat and dutifully listened, but since there was no rule about equal air time, I grew up without having picked up even a smattering of skill to help me tell stories of my own.

In fact, I spent quite the next several decades story-less, feeling awkward about reporting on what happened to me. And though I didn’t realize it at first, I gradually noticed that my lack of storytelling was cutting me off from people. Stories are how we tell each other who we are, and so without stories, I felt isolated. Once I noticed how important it was to be able to tell stories, I set out to learn in adulthood what I had not learned as a child.

It turns out that with a little digging you can find storytellers who will teach you their craft. For example, Charles Kiernan, coordinator of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild, has been studying story telling for years. For him, storytelling is a performance art. He looks like Mark Twain, including the flowing mane of hair and bushy mustache, and when he dresses in period costume, it’s like listening to your own copy of Mark Twain. In addition to the performance and folklore aspects of storytelling, he’s also interested in creating them.

Here’s the simple, powerful lesson he shared with me, that he’ll be teaching in more detail at the Augusta Heritage Folkarts Festival in West Virginia, July 8-13, 2007. Say you’re sitting around at a family gathering, and the older adults start telling stories about Uncle Bob. The ones who knew Uncle Bob start laughing, and everyone else glazes over. They never met Uncle Bob, they didn’t know his pranks, or the sadness underneath his smile, so the story isn’t working for them. The problem is that so many family stories contain codes. The people who know the code can make sense of the story, and those who don’t know the code are left out.

It’s like that old joke about a newly convicted criminal in the penitentiary. Someone down the cellblock screams out the number “68” and all the other prisoners crack up laughing. The newbie asks what is going on, and his cellmate says, “We’ve heard these jokes so many times, we just tell them by the number.” It’s the same with family stories. As storyteller Charles Kiernan, coordinator of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild, explains it, say you’re at the dinner table celebrating a holiday with your extended family. You start telling stories about Uncle Bob, and all the adults who knew Uncle Bob crack up, while the kids who don’t remember Uncle Bob glaze over. Why are they staring at the ceiling, waiting for an excuse to get away from the table?

Kiernan’s family-oriented workshop will teach students to slow down and instead of telling stories in code that only insiders understand, they’ll learn to tell the story in a way that can be understood by listeners who never met Uncle Bob. The trick is to describe him in more detail. What did he wear? What was his hair like? What room do you picture him in? Sit down with someone who didn’t know him and describe him in as much detail as possible, so your listener could pick Bob out of a crowd.

If you want to tell a story, look closely at your language, and “unpack” it, laying out its content for everyone to appreciate. With a little learning you can turn the joke known only to the old inmates into a joke you can share with kids and strangers.

While this advice sounds simple, I consider it to be brilliant. For one thing, it acknowledges an important fact. Just because we think we’re telling a good story doesn’t mean the listener is hearing a good story. That in itself is a powerful piece of information, because most of us think that when we tell about events, we are doing the best possible job sharing the story. It turns out, the storyteller plays a crucial role, shaping a bunch of events into something worth listening to. Once we realize this fact, we can start looking for tricks to give our stories more impact.

Secondly, the message is brilliant because it is extraordinarily fundamental, sweeping across all aspects of storytelling. For example, I was preparing to write a description of my years in college, and was hoping to explain how the music of the times influenced my feelings. I could hope that by simply mentioning that the Beatles were intense or important, I might be able to convey what I was feeling, since everyone really knows about the Beatles. But I remembered Kiernan’s advice about avoiding code words, and thought how that applies to those icons of the sixties. If I just mention the word, “sixties” or “Beatles” I might hope everyone understands what I mean. But they will only get what they think, not what I think. That’s like the prisoner saying “68.” I have to tell a story.

So how can I unpack my thoughts and feelings about the Beatles? I’ll talk more about that in my next blog entry, and put into a scene what I mean by the coded word “Beatles.”

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, memoir as literary non-fiction

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.

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.