Interview about the relationship between literature and life

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second of a three part interview with Robert Waxler, author of the memoirs “Losing Jonathan” and “Courage to Walk.” Waxler is a professor of English Literature at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and founder of the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature.” In this part of the interview, I ask Waxler about the relationship between literature and life.

Jerry Waxler: In your books, when you quoted a passage from literature, I felt you were using literature to help you explain things to yourself, as if you were using literature as a source of strength. So first of all, thank you for expanding my vocabulary of self-help tools. I wonder to what extent you have consciously thought about the use of literature as a repository of wisdom to help you get through life?

Robert Waxler: Now this could be a book in itself. I helped start a program back in 1991 called “Changing Lives Through Literature” precisely because of my deep belief in the power of literature to make a difference in people’s lives. Literature can teach us important lessons about life; it can give us strength, as you suggest. When we read good literature, we realize we are not alone. We learn about empathy, about ourselves and about others. As the story unfolds, our own lives unfold. We see ourselves and others, understand the complexity of human character, and see how singular each life is, and yet recognize how universal certain patterns and behavior seem to be. I try to show (and tell) my students this all the time.

Jerry: A common problem for memoir writers is deciding how to tell their story without intruding on the privacy of other characters. So I was surprised to see how much you had written about your son Jeremy’s life. What can you share about his willingness to be portrayed, or any fears you might have had about sharing his private life with your readers?

Robert: Yes, this is a particularly sensitive issue, especially given some of the issues that “Courage to Walk” attempts to address. I would never want to write anything that would harm Jeremy or Linda. And this story is so much a story about vulnerability and how we are all powerless, how human weakness is at the core of our humanity and how we should not be ashamed of that fact, that we should instead see it as a strength, as an important way of building compassion and community. It is difficult for Jeremy and for Linda and myself as well, to relive these very traumatic events as they are narrated in “Courage to Walk.” These events take us close to the core of our mortal human selves. Our hope though is that the story will get people thinking more about the meaning of compassion and vulnerability, the need for all of us to confront our finitude, and not to feel so much the shame but the beauty of it.

Jerry: While memoirs are about real life, they seem to be journalism. But they are also stories, so they seem a lot like “literature.” What do you think? Are memoirs “literature” or not?

Robert: I am not sure I am an “expert” on memoirs, but I’ll give you my view on this. To begin, the word “literature” itself is problematic. I am not sure people can agree these days on a definition. Are we talking about canonical works—Shakespeare’s plays, for example? Or can we assume that Stephen King is also writing “literature”? And what about a book such as “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac or “Night” by Elie Weisel? Not exactly non-fiction, but not really memoirs either. Are they “literature”?

And then there is an important issue about memoirs and memory. We recover the past through the present, and, in this sense, I suppose, as you suggest, memoirs are introspective and psychological portraits. But memory is a very tricky process. What we filter through the present about the past is not the past but our recollection of the past. Someone writing a memoir wants to stay true to the facts as he remembers them, of course, but the truth of an event is not simply in the facts. So that too complicates the issue.

I think there is a very fine line between literature and the memoir. In both cases, the writer is trying to get to the “truth” of the experience. Literature might be an invented story; memoirs might be based in fact. But, in an important sense, all narrative is invented—in the same sense, that we create our selves and our identity through the actual experiences of our lives. Our lives are our stories, and our stories are our lives.

Jerry: As you were putting your life on paper, what were you learning about yourself and your circumstances that you didn’t know before you started?

Robert: I learned about how powerless we all are as human beings from the beginning, and how that knowledge is a good thing. It can help build a more compassionate and reasonable community if we let it. We are all filled with fear and anxiety from birth; we need others to help us along the way. I don’t know why we should be ashamed of that. If anything, we should be ashamed of the ways we distance ourselves from others, pretend to be powerful and independent, set up foolish defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from that truth. I also learned that it is very, very difficult as a parent not to try to do everything possible to help our children, even if they don’t want our help. It’s a difficult line to draw—between obsession and compassion. They need their freedom, and we need ours, but we all need each other.

To read Part 1 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

To read Part 3 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

Interview about crossing from academic to popular writing

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler
To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.

More memoir writing resources

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

Author and creative writing teacher helps me steer between fact and fiction

by Jerry Waxler

Last year, I attended a writing conference at Rosemont College hosted by Philadelphia Stories journal. At one of the sessions, I met Susan Muaddi Darraj and purchased a book of her collected fiction called “Inheritance of Exile.” The protagonist of the stories was a Palestinian woman who grew up in South Philadelphia in circumstances similar to Muaddi Darraj’s own childhood.

The characters in “Inheritance of Exile” felt authentic. I loved their introspective world, their frustration, despair, and hope. I connected with their romances and their interaction with their families. And I even deepened my imagination of my own ancestors who also were immigrants in Philadelphia. [See my essay on that topic here.]

The interplay between fact and fiction enhanced my reading, but I wanted to know more about how it felt to the writer so I asked Susan Muaddi Darraj to help me understand how she the world she is creating with the one about which she is writing. And since she is a writing teacher, I wanted to know what she tells her students.

Jerry Waxler: When I was a student, literature was taught as an art form that had value in its own right. Now that I’ve become obsessed with memoirs, my view of literature has shifted. I now look at stories as a window into the human condition. Judging from the authenticity of your characters and situations, I’m wondering how you feel about the connection between story and life. Are stories art? Or are they a way to share the experience of human beings? Or some of each?

Susan Muaddi Darraj:
I do think literature serves multiple purposes. Its primary purpose is to serve as art — that aesthetic goal is always first and foremost. But literature also has an opportunity to comment and describe other worlds to the reader — not monolithic “worlds,” but a view of life as experienced by that particular author. For example, in this story collection, “Inheritance of Exile,” I tried to express what life was like for not all Palestinian emigres, but for a particular socio-economic class of emigres who had settled into a working-class, urban environment.

JW: Writers must learn all sorts of micro-skills such as word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, characterization and so on. The authentic characters in your stories make me wonder if writers also need to be exquisite observers. Must we also get degrees in psychology, sociology, and anthropology?

SMJ: No, but you still need to do your research as a writer. The best writing I have ever read is that in which it is clear that the author has spent time conducting or doing research of some kind — and the research could take place on many levels: looking up the right word for a particular object, researching the jargon used by archaeologists because you’ve decided to make one of your characters an archaeologist, etc.

JW: Can explain how you learned the skills of careful observation?

SMJ: Reading, watching, listening, always keeping a notebook in my purse…

JW: How do you teach these skills of careful observation to aspiring writers, or recommend that they learn?

SMJ: The writer’s notebook is a lost art form in itself! I always tell my students (I teach a fiction workshop in the Johns Hopkins graduate writing program) that keeping a notebook to jot down observations and ideas is vital.

JW: Could you share some insight or examples of the way the notebooks help you add vitality to your stories.

SMJ: I am a marvelous eavesdropper — I listen to conversations around me all the time and am always affected by the tone of people’s voices, their diction, as well as the stories they tell. I write those observations down. I also clip out news items or articles or pictures that strike me in some way. For example, who knows when I will need to describe a log cabin some day in a story I’m writing? If I do, I have a photograph clipped out of a magazine, to give me some parameters.

JW: I struggle to understand how fiction writers create characters. For example, are they composites stitched together from a variety of observations? That seems risky to me. Can a writer really invent a person from whole cloth or cobble one together from bits? Especially in first person stories such as yours, creating the thoughts and feelings of real people seems difficult. Could you say more about how you invent your characters?

SMJ: My characters are not composites, although I suppose they are sometimes inspired by particular traits I do observe in people in the real world. My characters seem like real people to me, and so I often spend a lot of time just thinking about them in my mind before I commit them to paper. I think about them in terms of “How would x react to this particular event?” Their responses to people and reactions to incidents tells me a lot about their personalities, their fears, their desires.

JW: Did you grow up telling stories, or was story telling a learned skill? Was a family hobby? If it was learned, how did you come to it?

SMJ: My father is a wonderful storyteller and a great writer as well. He told us stories every night — things he invented, stories he spun based on prompts we would give him (“Tell me a story about a fish, or about going to the supermarket,” etc…). And my mother taught me to read quite early, so I always had a book with me everywhere I went — long car rides were a joy for me, for example. I could finish two books in the time it took us to drive from Philadelphia to visit my grandparents in New York.

JW: Many aspiring memoir writers wonder if their lives would be best told in fictional form.  What do you think about this option? What are the pros and cons?

SMJ: Every work of fiction is inspired to some degree by the author’s life. The limit to this is that if a character is based too closely on you, you will be afraid, hesitant, to allow that character to behave badly. And that’s just not realistic — people behave badly all the time, and it’s quite interesting when they do. They make poor choices, etc. Once you have committed a character to paper, then you have to cut the umbilical cord with him or her and just allow him or her to be…

JW: Your protagonists are young women who grew up in Philadelphia in an immigrant home. So while you have not written about your own life, you have written things that you know. Did you find this confusing, steering your characters, settings, and situations in the strange space between actual experience and imagination?

SMJ: Not really. The cultural aspects of the stories are things that I know, but most things were invented, such as the particular situations, etc.

JW: John Barth, author of “End of the Road,” came to speak at the University of Wisconsin in the 60’s. After the lecture, I asked him if his novels were based on real life, and he looked disgusted. What do you feel when someone asks you if your stories are autobiographical? Do you think it’s a disrespectful question?

SMJ: I just think that, in recent years, because of the growth of memoir as a genre, readers want fiction to also be based on the author’s life. It’s one way of grasping the work, or accessing it — that is, to make it connect to the real life of the writer. I don’t think it’s a disrespectful question, but it is wearying when people ask me that, because I feel that it doesn’t recognize the art of invention, the work it takes to sit down in a chair and create this fictional world.

JW: As a published writer, you expose your thoughts, your imagination, your mental world. It’s a goal all writers strive for, and yet, I suspect once we get there, it has its pros and cons. Could you share your experience of what it’s like letting people “in” to see parts of your mind.

SMJ: I have no complaints! It’s been nothing but fun. I admit that if I were a New York Times bestselling author who was doing lots of interviews and traveling all the time, I would probably miss my writing time a bit. All writers, in the end, are solitary people — it’s the nature of the job — and I think we crave that quiet time.

Susan Muaddi Darraj Home Page

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

Author Interview: Curtis Smith talks about publishing in Literary Journals

By Jerry Waxler

At this year’s Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish conference,  Curtis Smith played an important role, by throwing in a few choice comments about how much fun writing is. (To read more about his comments, click here ). One of the parts of writing that seemed to be working especially well for Curtis was his regular publication in literary journals. Since he was getting so much satisfaction from that aspect of his craft, I asked him to share some tips and pointers with the rest of us. Our interview follows:

Jerry Waxler: Your bio says you have published in 50 journals. Could you say more about how you found these journals? How much legwork do you do to become familiar with the journals in your “space.”

Curtis Smith: In the pre-internet days, I found them using books like The Writers Market or Dustbooks Small Press directory.  I’d familiarize myself with them mainly through the stories reprinted in the annual anthologies like Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, or the O’Henry series.  Sometimes I’d order a particular journal; other times I’d go to the local college library, which carried quite a few lit journals.  These days I mainly use websites like Duotrope or New Pages to find markets.  And I visit the journals’ websites and see what kind of work they post.

JW: Do each of the journals tend to have their own “voice” — and if so, when searching for a journal you will submit to, how much must you understand their voice preferences?

CS: Some journals do have a unique voice, the independents mostly, print places like Hobart and Monkeybicycle and online places like Smokelong.  These days, a website will give you a good indication of a journal’s aesthetic.  I think if you’re dealing with a journal affiliated with a college, you can find the turnover of editors may lead to a somewhat less defined voice–that said, many university-sponsored journals are beautiful and have a long history of publishing great work.

JW: How did you decide which journals would be most appropriate for the nonfiction essays you wrote about your relationship with your young son?

CS: That’s been more of a crapshoot–since many journals only have one or two essays per issue, it was harder for me to get a feel for that.  Some markets I did target–I had a piece in The Humanist and a few others in special theme issues.

JW: During your writing process, do you ever write with a particular editor or publication in mind?

CS: Rarely–sometimes I’ll see a call for a theme issue that piques my interest, but usually I just write for myself.

JW: You mentioned at the Philadelphia Stories conference that once you have published in a journal, you develop a rapport with the editor. Could you say more about that process or give an example of how it has worked for you.

CS: I’ve been lucky to click with a few editors–the collection of essays coming out next year will feature three essays that first appeared in Lake Effect and two that first appeared in Mississippi Review.  I’ve developed a long relationship with other editors with my fiction–my last two story collections featured a trio of very long stories that first came out in The Greensboro Review.  I also have a couple places that have taken a number of my flash fictions.  If I enjoy an editor and his journal, I’ll gladly submit more in the future.

JW: When your work is published in a journal, of course the journal’s stamp of approval gives you authority as a writer. I imagine, then, that as an aspiring writer, you would want to be accepted into the most prestigious publication, the higher the better. Right? How do you even know which journal is more prestigious and which is less so?

CS: Of course you want your work to appear in the best journal possible.  And there are some wonderful journals out there, but outside that first tier of places like The Paris Review and Ploughshares and Georgia Review, there are any number of fine journals putting out great work.  How does one know which journals are good?  I think you just have to keep your eyes open–check out the annual anthologies like the Best American Series and Pushcart and see where they’re getting their work from.  Listen to what your friends are reading and where they’re publishing.

JW: What sorts of feedback do you get when publishing in a journal? Do you hear from readers? Is it like a tree falling in a forest? Is there a specialized audience that gets to know your work?

CS: It used to be pretty rare that you’d get feedback.  If you were lucky, you’d get a Pushcart nomination or a mention in the Best American series.  But now with the advent of social networking sites like Facebook, you get a lot more feedback.  If I read a story or essay I enjoy, I make sure to drop a line to the author if we’ve hooked up on a site – and many people do it in return.  The audience is pretty much limited to writers and fans of lit fiction and journals, but it is a bigger audience than before.

JW: Do you put much of your own marketing/networking energy into publicizing your piece in the journal?

CS: Not much beyond a posting on Facebook.  I add links to online pieces to my website.  I save the bigger pushes for my books.

JW: Please give examples of journals you published non-fiction essays in, and some thoughts about why these particular ones worked out for you.

CS: I’ve published a number of essays in Mississippi Review and Lake Effect.  Others have appeared in Turnrow, Bellingham Review, Philadelphia Stories, Red Cedar Review, Inkpot, The Humanist, and a number of others.

The two essays from Mississippi Review were theme issues, so they worked out because my work could address those themes.  And the same for the Humanist.  The others were just nonfiction spots in lit journals–and I think they fit because my writing comes from a fiction-writer’s perspective, and I bring fictional techniques into my work.

JW: Many of the readers of my blog “Memory Writers Network” do not come from a “literary” or “creative writing” background. They are just looking to develop the best writing skills possible so they can share parts of their lives. Are there journals that would appeal to this segment of the writing public, the well-told stories, that would not necessarily earn high grades in a creative writing class?

CS: That’s an interesting question.  I’m not sure.  I’m guessing that journals would, by nature, appeal to the folks with literary and creative writing backgrounds.  That said, I think there are some wonderful journals that have fine literary work that is also very accessible.  For the readers of your blog who are interested in nonfiction more than fiction, I’d suggest Creative Nonfiction or Fourth Genre.  The online journal Brevity is also very interesting (short-short nonfiction).

Notes

Click here for Curtis Smith’s home page.

Click here for Philadelphia Stories Home Page

Looking for the onramp at Philadelphia “Push To Publish” writer’s conference

by Jerry Waxler

At the Philadelphia Stories’ “Push to Publish” conference in the Fall of 2009, I peered into a room filled with cabaret tables, each with an editor on one side and an empty chair on the other. Christine Weiser, who along with Carla Spataro organized the conference, stood guard at the door. When the moment arrived she opened the gate and the pack of us hustled in, eager to sop up every one of our allotted 15 minutes.

“Speed dating” is my favorite way to meet editors. In fact it’s my only way. Over the last ten years, I’ve met a dozen of them, and from each interview I take away some insight about the gatekeepers who stand between me and my future readers. Probably the most informative meeting was the very first, when a young editor told me, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.” Since then I have refined my message, learning to be as clear and concise as possible. I’ve also become increasingly curious about them. By turning the tables and asking them to talk about themselves, I deepen my respect for them as real people with whom I may some day do business.

At many conferences, attendees only get one chance, but “Push to Publish” offers multiple interviews. First I headed to Fran Metzman who represented the online Journal Wild River Review, as well as the printed Schuylkill Valley Journal. I told her of my interest in finding a outlet for my essays about memoir writing. Even though Metzman was responsible for fiction at these journals, she also writes a nonfiction column on women’s issues for Wild River Review. “Yes, submit a proposal,” she said. “Just be sure to do a professional job.”

My other date was with Christine Yurick, the publisher of the new print publication “Think Journal.” I asked her to describe her journal’s specific slant. She said she likes structured stories. I was puzzled.

“I assumed that by definition a story has a structure.”

“No, not all,” Yurick said. “Some journals emphasize experimental pieces.”

This explained why I sometimes can’t understand literary journals. Today’s ah-ha revealed that these publications differ in their philosophy of Story. I filed the concept away for future reference, to help me look for the place most appropriate for my writing.

When we finished, she said she would check out my blog and get back to me if she thought there was a match. Note to Self: “Gatekeepers read blogs.”

The net result of the two interviews was a glimmer of hope that literary journals might someday provide an onramp into publishing.

Creative Nonfiction Craze

When it was time to go to the first workshop, I selected a panel called “Tapping Into The Creative Nonfiction Craze.” The assigned room was locked, so about 40 of us trooped down to the auditorium, and arranged chairs into a makeshift meeting area. Our numbers and eagerness suggested that Creative Nonfiction is indeed a craze. And yet, despite its popularity, most literary journals still publish mainly fiction and poetry. The one exception, not surprisingly, is the journal “Creative Nonfiction” which is devoted exclusively to the genre.

As each panel member offered their observations about writing stories of truth, I began to grow optimistic that perhaps memoir writers have a widening channel through which to publish their work. Curtis Smith reinforced my suspicion when he said, “thanks to the proliferation of online and print journals, this is a great time to be a writer.”

The last time I heard offer such an upbeat claim for writers was years ago when Kurt Vonnegut said in an interview that during the 1950s many writers got their start by publishing in magazines. His nostalgia made me curse the day I was born, wishing to be alive in a good time for writers. Curtis Smith claimed those times had returned. Happy day!

Continuing my search for the onramp to publishing, I attended another panel called “The Joys of Small Press.” Moderator Barbara Berot said that small presses are an easier entry point for new writers. Marc Schuster, Acquisitions Editor for PS Books, pointed out another advantage. “Big publishers are looking for products that will sell while small presses are looking for books they love.” Another panelist Debra Leigh Scott said that because of advances in printing technology, the cost of starting your own small publishing house has never been lower.

Like so many other people in the business, these panelists agreed “there isn’t much money in writing.” From there, the session sputtered back and forth between the strategies of publishing and the difficulties of earning money. Naturally I would like to be rich, but I keep this motivation at bay, because the more I think about money, the more likely that I’ll focus on its absence.

Curtis Smith, the same guy who cheered me up in the previous panel, offered a way out.  “Keep your day job and write for fun.” His reassuring smile reminded us that money is only one of the many rewards of writing.

In my younger years, when offered a choice between a dark thought and a happy one, I always chose dark, believing that was automatically the smarter of the two. I soon became adept at seeing darkness at the end of every path. After a few years, I had my fill of smart despair, and decided I’d rather be happy. I diligently studied the art of finding something pleasurable in almost every situation.

The business of writing provides a perfect opportunity to exercise this discretion. Given the choice between misery and fun, I follow Curtis Smith’s advice and choose fun. In fact, fun is precisely the reason I attend writing conferences. By coming together with other writers, I enjoy the pleasure of their company, transforming writing from an isolated activity to a social one.

At the end of the day, I thanked Christine Weiser for another great conference. She said, “By the way. Would you be willing to submit some of your essays to the Philadelphia Stories blog?” Here was another opportunity to participate in the writing community, and another way to reach readers and writers. “I’d love to,” I said and walked out to my car. Skipping past puddles from the all-day autumn rain, I eagerly anticipated the approaching winter, looking forward to a whole season full of excuses to stay inside and write.

This is the second article I wrote about the 2009 Push To Publish Conference.  To read Part 1, click here.

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.

Fiction built on a foundation of real life

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

Fiction seems entirely different from memoirs. And yet, when I look at actual examples of the two forms, I discover their intimate connection, each breathing life into the other. A good memoir is more compelling than a raw dump of facts. It generates dramatic tension by using fiction techniques like suspense and character development. And good fiction requires believable characters and real psychological interactions in order to capture our attention.

Last fall, I attended a writer’s conference organized by Philadelphia Stories held amidst stately trees and classic architecture of Rosemont College. There I met Susan Muaddi Darraj, creative writing professor and author of a book of short stories, “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly.” The protagonists in her stories are girls growing up in Palestinian families in South Philadelphia. The author, as it happens, grew up in a Palestinian family in South Philadelphia. “Write what you know,” the teachers say. Apparently Darraj took this advice.

The parallel between her life and her characters made me curious. Even though “Inheritance of Exile” is fiction, it’s apparently grounded in her own experience. I decided to read her book to learn what I could about the relationship between life and art.

Inheritance of Exile is written in an intimate, first person account
How does she or any fiction writer create a world authentic enough to let me enter? Surely they don’t create an entire world from scratch. I imagine they take a page from the memoirist’s book, describing a fictional world based on the things they see in the real one.

In Muaddi Darraj’s fiction, I hear her protagonist’s inner voice and see her family, friends, and culture. For example, in more than one story in “Inheritance of Exile,” the protagonist’s parents hang a blue stone to fend off the evil eye. I don’t know much about Palestinian culture, so I have no way to know if they do indeed follow this ritual. But it wouldn’t make sense for the author to invent such a thing. Even though I don’t know for sure if the blue stone is “real,” her story connects me to old world hopes and fears.

In one story, the protagonist was criticized by her mother for sitting in a way that she revealed the bottom of her foot, a gesture considered an insult. I found this detail interesting. Then, a few weeks after reading it, I saw a news article in which an Iraqi threw his shoes at President Bush as a highly publicized insult. Aha! External corroboration.

The character’s father ran a sandwich truck in Philadelphia. It reminded me of the truck parked outside the University of Pennsylvania, where I often bought my lunch during the years I worked there. The Lebanese guys who made delicious falafels were lovely and even though I was just a customer, I soon felt close to them. “Inheritance of Exile” now lets me imagine additional dimensions of their lives. For the first time I think of their whole situation, raising American children in an immigrant home in Philadelphia. This book of fiction, of invented reality, expands my understanding of the real people around me.

Coming of Age has changed over the decades
When I was growing up, I read several Coming of Age stories such as “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and “Portrait of the Artist” by James Joyce. The protagonists of these books were full of angst, disenfranchisement, anomie – moods that were hallmarks for their times, when readers and publishers focused on the existential problems of young men. Times have changed.

Forty years later, Inheritance of Exile offers a different view of Coming of Age, describing this life journey through a female author’s eyes at the beginning of the Twenty First Century. Her struggles for social and emotional wholeness sound very different than the authors I read in high school, and deepens my understanding of the search for identity in today’s culture.

To read my essay on the shifting gender orientation of contemporary literature – click here

Immigrants are us
My parents grew up in Philadelphia, children of immigrants. I know so little about how that felt, and now it’s too late to ask. But I can learn a little more about the experience of children of immigrants by reading stories. For example, one of Darraj’s characters resented her mother’s accent because it sounded foreign. This resentment felt eerily familiar.

My maternal grandmother was born in the United States, and through fanatical attention to elocution, had developed a Proper British accent. Her husband immigrated from Russia when he was a young man, and sixty years later, he still pronounced the letter “W” as if it was a “V.” According to family lore, my grandmother was not particularly fond of him, and now I wonder how much his pronunciation grated against her ambition to become unambigously American. I’m starting to realize that one reason my parents never taught me Yiddish or talked about the Old Country was that they wanted to forget their past.

Susan Muaddi Darraj’s character, like other immigrant children, wanted to blend in with Americans and yet at home she had to relate to a very different culture. This character’s emotions teach me about my own grandparents, my parents and myself.

Literature is a window into society
Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, in his lecture series “Understanding Literature and Life” claims that literature portrays the world and culture of the author, so for example to learn how Greeks thought, we read Greek plays. And one place to seek insight into an Arab immigrant community in South Philadelphia might be in the stories of “Inheritance of Exile.” They contain emotionally compelling situations that capture my attention and transport me to a world that feels authentic, even though they make no claim to factual reporting.

Writing Prompt
What community or social phenomenon does your memoir explore?  How do characters in your story behave towards each other? What lessons do you detect in the unique workings of your family? Look for an anecdote that might evoke some powerful observation about families or communities, tension among people, or aspirations to gain entry into privileged social situations.

Links

For more about Philadelphia Stories, click here
Click here Susan Muaddi Darraj’s home page
Amazon page for “Inheritance of Exile”
To hear the wonderful lecture series, “Understanding Literature and Life” by Arnold Weinstein published by the Teaching Company click here.

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

Stylistic innovation in Sean Toner’s clown story

by Jerry Waxler

While most of the memoirs I review are book length, I recently read an award winning short story “The Head Clown” by Sean Toner, published in a wonderful online literary collaboration called “webdelsol.com.”

“Head Clown” is about Toner’s summer by the ocean, where he worked in a bookstore, and to earn a few extra dollars he took a job dressing up as a clown and selling balloons on the boardwalk. From this mundane situation, the author has crafted a brash, luxurious tale that worked the magic all good stories are supposed to do. It opened a window into the author’s world, his people, his attitudes, his sweaty palms. By focusing tightly on each moment he brought me into his world, endowing scenes with color and character, creating depth of emotion and variety of insight. Toner’s exquisite attention on small details provided me with so much pleasure I was sorry to see it end.

One of the writer’s noblest jobs is to offer his or her self-awareness to the reader. In fact, when I was younger I received much of my appreciation for the nuances of life through the eyes of authors like Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens. Their wordplay revealed the creative power within each moment, providing some of my most intellectually stimulating sensations.

Nuance versus clarity
Despite my passion for rich writing, I had no idea how to emulate it myself. Writing in a journal for years, words flowed freely, but without an audience, my style never grew. Then to earn a living, I wrote technical manuals. When I finally turned my attention to a broader audience, I focused entirely on clarity. I achieved simplicity, but my “just-the-facts” style lacked the verbal pleasure my favorite authors had given me.

Sean Toner’s story awakened memories of sitting with a book and enjoying the words rolling around in my mind, making strange connections, sending shivers of activity through my brain, setting off other recollections too distant to even identify, like the rumbling of thunder that seemed to rattle the substrate of reality itself.

“Head Clown” comes to me at a perfect moment in my journey as a writer. I recently listened to an audio course from the Teaching Company called “Building Great Sentences, Exploring the Writer’s Craft” by Professor Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa. In it he regrets the loss of style in modern prose. His observations started me pondering.

As a hippie in the 1960’s, I lived in Spartan rooms, sleeping on the floor. Piles of books fed my mind, but no decorations or knick-knacks personalized my space. Professor Landon and Sean Toner, like participants in a literary intervention, helped me see I had done the same disservice to my writing style as I had done to my life style. With their help, I gained the courage to fling off my literary hair shirt and open up to the joys of excellent sentences. Here are a few tips I took away from Sean Toner’s “Head Clown” and Professor Landon’s Teaching Company lectures.

Short is not the goal
One of the measures of effective writing, according to many modern systems, is to reduce the length of sentences. Software programs even use sentence length as a measure of “good” writing. Landon warned against judging a sentence by its length. Some long sentences are horrible, and others are beautiful, clear, and uplifting. He showed the difference, and offered suggestions for long sentences that inform and entertain.

One plus one equals three?
When I edit, I often try to simplify my descriptions, following Sol Stein’s famous advice, “one plus one equals a half.” In his book “On Writing,” Stein said it’s punchier to use one adjective than two. While his idea enhances simplicity, it risks stripping away nuance.

Brooks Landon offers an alternative. He observes that if the first word that comes to mind is insufficient, you naturally want to say it again a slightly different way to express the truth. By adding a couple of different approaches to an idea, you can offer the reader several slants that elaborate on your view.

While Sol Stein’s advice often leads to tighter writing, I appreciate Brooks Landon’s permission to say something in more than one way. His perspective expands my options to give more to my readers.

Speculation
When writing a scene, we are taught to look to the senses, what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch. But this formula misses the additional vein of material running behind our eyes and between our ears. Our thoughts provide the reader an additional way to relate to our viewpoint. For Landon, this is the hallmark of good writing: “Bring your unique self to your reader.”

Sean Toner offers an excellent example. He looks out the window at a woman crossing the back yard. She stops and talks to some children. He can’t see what they are looking at, so he offers several possibilities. His speculation intensifies my curiosity, drawing me into the external scene and also providing a glimpse into Toner’s mind.

Metaphor
Landon loves metaphors, but he has a hard time convincing his writing students to use them. I know why his students are reluctant to follow his advice. Metaphors are as risky as crossing a pit of alligators by crawling along a slimy log. A bad metaphor sounds weird, and so the writer must work harder and take more chances. It’s easier just to walk around. Sean Tone is not shy about metaphors. For example he compares a tall fair-skinned man to a golden sycamore, allowing me to see the sun shining through the canopy of a forest. The image deepens my connection with both Sean’s imagination and this aspiring clown’s appearance.

Humor
When Toner looks out the window and tries to understand what the woman and children might be pointing to, he speculates that they may be looking at a dirty magazine or a man buried up to his shoulders in dirt. The resulting laugh creates an extraordinarily sophisticated psychological sensation. By pulling me so far into his own mental process, Toner has created a moment of intimacy, like brushing up against a stranger at a party, a thrill of forbidden contact. The laugh provides an abrupt and pleasurable discharge of that tension.

This interplay between intimacy and distance is one of the purposes of memoir. We tell about our life experience, which brings us all closer. At the same time, we turn the events into a story, which allows us to take a step back. Whether your memoir is as short as a man buried up to his shoulders, or as tall as a golden sycamore, you too can use word play, speculation, metaphor, and humor to contribute to the multi-dimensional power of your story.

Writing Prompt
Follow each of these strategies from “Head Clown” to add style to your anecdote.

Notes
For more about Sean Toner, see his home page.
For more about the Teaching Company lecture series, by Brooks Landon, University of Iowa, click here.

Style, humor, and other tips from Doreen Orion’s Travel Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Lots of artists have tried to represent a starry sky, but few of their paintings became famous. What was it about Van Gogh’s rendition that was more popular than everyone else’s? The difference is not in what he painted but how. Style makes a difference in writing, too. Lots of people write about motoring around the country in a portable home. But Doreen Orion wrote her travel memoir “Queen of the Road” skillfully enough to attract an agent, a publisher, a bookstore, and then a reader (me). I bought it, read it to the end, and enjoyed it enough to share with you.

If you have any doubt that style is at least as important as content, consider “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss, a book about punctuation (!) that is so cleverly written there are three million copies in print.

Writing tip: To capture the attention of agents, publishers, and readers, you don’t need a perfect style. Just the best one possible. So start from where you are and then proceed: take classes, practice, and read about writing. In addition read books that have a style worth emulating. For example, by reading “Queen of the Road,” you can discover and imbibe some of author’s way with words.

Comedy as a stylistic choice
One reason I kept turning pages was Orion’s comedy. Her riffs start out restrained and dry, and then she exaggerates and twists so by the time I realize she’s joking I’m already laughing out loud. One of her humor tactics is to put herself down. In a style reminiscent of Joan Rivers she portrays herself as superficial, a lover of fashion above all else. By creating this shallow character, she sets up gags, provokes banter with her husband, and gives herself plenty of room to grow. This head room comes in handy in her Character Arc, when she shows the personal lessons she learns during her travels.

How does she do it?
In a discussion I had with Doreen on the Writer’s Forum, AbsoluteWrite.com, I asked the writer how she developed her knack to make me laugh.

Doreen Orion:
“When I decided I wanted to concentrate on comedy in my screenwriting 10 years ago, I started challenging myself to be funnier in “real” life. I really do think like most knacks or talents, it is something that gets better with practice. So, I did. The feedback I got was mainly from other people not getting my jokes (or in some cases getting ready to punch me). I also took screenwriting workshops which helped a lot.”

She continues with another tip that could help any writer improve their style.

Doreen Orion: “I’ve been screenwriting for a decade, and along the way have studied acting somewhat (not to be an actor, just to understand the process actors go through), in order to write scripts actors would be attracted to, as well as help me in my character development and dialogue. No matter what I’m writing – scripts or books – I say EVERYTHING out loud on my final edits. If it’s dialogue, I actually act it out in voices. It’s amazing what I find that worked in my head, but doesn’t when spoken.”

The bus as a crucible for romantic comedy
Putting two people together in a confined space generates dramatic tension. If they hate each other, the situation turns vicious, like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, duking it out in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” If they love each other, it comes out comically, like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Orion’s marriage tends towards the comic variety.

In one passage that had me laughing out loud, she is nervous because her husband is tailgating the car in front of them. She says, “Listen, I don’t want to be a nag and I know whenever I tell you you’re getting too close, you just lament that you could have bought a system with radar, but don’t you think…?”

“Why would I need a system with radar when I’ve got the Nagavator,” he chuckled.

When I listen to impeccably timed verbal sparring on reruns of “Frazier,” “Seinfeld” or “Everybody Loves Raymond, ” I wish I too had a team of comedy writers to script my snappy retorts. So when I heard Doreen and Tim going at it so cleverly, I assumed Doreen made it up. It turned out my guess was wrong. Her written scenes actually replay real-life banter. Here’s what Doreen said when I asked her about it.

Doreen Orion: “Tim and I have always laughed together. A lot. I honestly don’t think many days go by in my life where he doesn’t make me laugh so hard I cry. I believe that being funny is like any other “talent,” if you work at it, you get better. So, since we also enjoy trying to top each other, Tim has definitely made me funnier over the years. As a result, our humorous dialogue isn’t really writing; it’s dictation.”

Funny dialog transcribed from real life
The next question is, “how do writers repeat dialog so accurately?” I asked Doreen if she could share her technique.

Doreen Orion: “I’ve never used a recorder – I just write it down. During our Queen trip, since I hoped I’d get to write a book, whenever Tim and I had some funny interchange, I’d just jot it down. Whenever we took day trips away from the bus in our Jeep, I had a small notebook, took notes on people we met/places we saw and again, any funny dialogue, then would transcribe those notes into a file on my laptop later that day on our return.”

Keep notes
A whole slew of memoirs take advantage of contemporaneous notes and journals the authors kept during the period they cover in their book. For example, when Alice Sebold, author of “Lucky” was going to the police station to identify her rapist, her writing teacher Tobias Wolff looked her in the eye and said, “Remember everything.”

Joan Didion, author of “Year of Magical Thinking” kept notes during her year of grief. Martha Beck’s memoir “Expecting Adam” and Kate Braestrup’s “Here If you Need Me” both use notes they kept during the period. Carol O’Dell journaled while she was caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. Then she relied extensively on her journals when she wrote the memoir “Mothering Mother.”

In addition to recording events, journaling serves another purpose. Journals help the writer organize ideas into a coherent whole, one of the basic elements of mental health. So by deciding you are going to write a memoir next year, you might be able to gain a number of benefits. You become more conscious and organized about your life, and then as you become clearer about what you went through, you can share your observations with your readers.
———————

Note:
Even memoirs about a period many years earlier can take advantage of journals. William Manchester’s World War II memoir “Goodbye Darkness,” published in 1980, refers to his wartime diaries.

And when Xujun Eberlein researched her memoir essay about growing up in China, she had lost her own diary, but did find one kept by her sister during these tragic years.

Note:
Read my other essays about Doreen Orion’s Queen of the Road

Identity moves too in Doreen Orion’s travel memoir
Pets, motion, and other tips from a travel memoir
Doreen Orion’s brilliant memoir about last year’s midlife crisis

Seeing History Through The Eyes of One Man

by Jerry Waxler

Note: Read more about the cultural passion for memoirs, and reasons you should write your own “Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire.”

Ji Chaozhu’s memoir “The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, Life Inside China’s Foreign Ministry” let me enter the modern history of China, a country so vast and so important on the world stage, it seems like I ought to be talking about it in hushed tones. This planet cannot be understood without understanding this nation of a billion people, and yet, just a few decades ago, China was an ancient dragon, trapped in what looked like an unshakable slumber, set upon by the British and then the Japanese, and creaky in its old ways. Then came Mao Zedong who shook the dragon awake. But he did it behind an impenetrable curtain erected by mutual distrust. Western journalists were excluded and few westerners had inside information.

To visit the Amazon page for Man on Mao’s Right, click here

In the early 70’s, the walls between the U.S. and China became porous and news and diplomats began to speak. Now in our time, the walls are collapsing and the cultures growing towards each other in ways I couldn’t have imagined. So how do I catch up on all that history?

Ji Chaozhu’s memoir offers a crash course in the history of modern China, provided through the eyes of a man who was in the thick of it. Ji was an English translator for the two main characters of Communist China, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Ji Chaozhu was present during some of the most powerful diplomatic exchanges in the twentieth century.

History this large teaches me about the human race
Chairman Mao believed that China was being held back by their culture’s strong emphasis on worshipping authority and ancestors. He was afraid these backward-looking tendencies had made his country weak. To bring China into modernity he felt it was crucial to undermine respect for the past.

Mao stirred up distrust for what he called “The Four Olds,” Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. The strategy went too far, and this disrespect for the past plunged the country into chaos. In what Ji Chaozhu calls the dark ages of modern China, from 1966 to 1976, mobs of teenagers publicly humiliated and beat people who had attained the very things that make a civilization successful. Like everything that happens in China, the proportions were staggering. Ji estimates that a million people were beaten to death or forced into suicide for their educational, artistic, and social achievements.

Ji Chaozhu compares the period known as the Cultural Revolution with the book “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding in which a group of boys stranded on an island lose all civilized values and revert to the behavior of animals. By outlawing respect for the past, Mao transformed China into a gigantic real-life “Lord of the Flies.”

What does this have to do with the memoir you might wish to write? In my opinion – everything. Memoir writers are the keepers of our culture’s pas. We maintain the long view. By remembering and passing along our stories, we link the past with the present. Ji Chaozhu’s life provides a wonderful motivation to capture and share the story of your life. One person at a time, we memoir writers recount life across decades and help people young and old develop their own best understanding of how to live.

Lessons about ghost writing
Fleeing the invading Japanese armies in the late 30’s, Ji’s family moved to the United States. As a young boy, Ji grew up in America, an outsider intent on blending in. As a student at Harvard, he made many American friends, and enjoyed the bourgeois perquisites of western life. When he left Harvard and moved back to China to support Mao’s new government, he was an outsider again. His years in the U.S. cast a shadow over his authentic Chinese identity.

I love stories about mixing cultures, perhaps because of my own grandparents’ immigration to the United States and my experience of growing up Jewish, a minority religion in a Christian dominated country. Like me, Ji’s two cultures made him feel like an outsider and kept him under constant pressure to unify his two identities. These contrasts and tensions between cultures provide a rich layer that holds my interest.

Ji Chaozhu spent his entire adult life translating back and forth between the two cultures. But when it came time to translate his own long life into a story that could be appreciated by the west, he turned to an accomplished memoir writer and biographer, Foster Winans. Foster brings his all-American past to the table, as well as his skill at converting the events of a lifetime into compelling prose.

Long Span of Time, some good things about a long life
Ji experienced many setbacks in his life. When his family was forced by the invading Japanese army to flee their ancestral lands, his father told him that the Chinese people are like ants who continue to strive and climb, finally reaching their destination, not on wings, but by great and powerful persistence.

His father’s advice to be patient helped Ji cope when, during the Cultural Revolution, he was repeatedly transferred from his diplomatic mission to work on pig farms, supposedly to scrub away his “bourgeois tendencies.” In reality this punishment was regularly imposed by the paranoid regime to maintain absolute obedience.

Memoir Writers Bring the World Together
When Mao won control over the government of China, United States leaders were so disappointed they behaved like small children. At an important diplomatic meeting between the two countries in1954, Zhou En Lai extended his hand in friendship to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Dulles turned and walked away. His insulting gesture made front page news all over China and poisoned the relationship between the two countries for 20 years. As Theodore White later wrote, “It was probably the most expensive display of rudeness by any diplomat anywhere, ever.”

Throughout the Cold War, when the U.S. and China seemed so far apart they would never see eye to eye, Ji stayed focused on his father’s advice, believing in the power of persistence. Over time, he witnessed a much greater understanding between the two nations. And still, Ji keeps applying his passionate belief in harmony across the cultural divide. When thanking the people who had helped him bring his story to the west he says,

“I am indebted to all these good people for taking such care with my legacy and helping me open a window into the soul of modern China in a way that I hope will bring us all closer together.”

In Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing” he says that writing is like magic. It allows people to communicate across space and time. When reading a memoir like Ji Chaozhu’s “Man on Mao’s Right” I feel this magic multiplied by a thousand-fold, or perhaps a billion. By sharing his own world, Ji Chaozhu has opened up a channel through which I can feel the connections of entire nations. And that’s true for all memoir writers. Through our individual story, we help communicate the entire experience of a lifetime, break down the barriers of difference, and create deeper mutual understanding.

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

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

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

Memoir writing tips from 60’s singer Dee Dee

by Jerry Waxler

Dee Dee Phelps was a singing celebrity in the 60’s. Just out of high school, she joined Dick St. John to form the duo Dick and Dee Dee, had some chart-topping singles, and went on to national television, international tours, and singing with a few big name stars, and a lot of smaller ones. Forty plus years later, Dee Dee Phelps wrote a memoir about those times, “Vinyl Highway, Singing with Dick and Dee Dee.”

While the book contains many celebrity scenes, on stage and hobnobbing with stars, she also shows me her life as a real person: what it was like for her as a young girl, surrounded by the hassles of the record business and how it felt working with her distant, at times emotionally abusive relationship with her singing partner Dick St. John who was intense and ambitious, and who thought of himself as both the brains and the talent of the duo. He treated her as an instrument of his own success. And she shares her long-term love with her emotionally unavailable manager Bill Lee.

Aspiring memoir writers wonder, as we dig back into our memories, how we could ever convincingly portray the dreams, the fears, or the passion of our past. It’s a daunting challenge. Dee Dee succeeded at this task. In her memoir Vinyl Highway I feel like I am back there with her, feeling her mix of awe at being involved with world famous people, exhaustion at being herded along from show to show, frustration with her business and singing partner, and so on.

She succeeds her task, not by telling me what she felt but showing me the scenes that made her feel that way. She crafts each scene to show the actions of the people around her, neither glamorizing nor complaining about them. While she describes her world, she understates her own emotions, allowing me to draw my own conclusions. This writing style is powerful, and follows a tradition developed by such masters of literary non-fiction as Tracy Kidder, Tobias Wolff, and Alice Sebold. In their memoirs they report emotionally complex situations, without beating me over the head with their emotional reactions. They make the reader do the emotional work. To learn how to write about emotions from your own life, take a closer look at how Dee Dee Phelps achieves this effect in Vinyl Highway.

[To explain more about Dee Dee’s writing style I will be interviewing her in a future blog.]

As I admired Dee Dee’s page-turning style of storytelling, something bothered me. It wasn’t just her writing style that was sparse. She kept her feelings so under control it puzzled me. When her partner Dick was rude, I was thinking, “How can she put up with it?” And when her manager, with whom she was in love, sent her mixed signals, instead of asking for clarification, she kept silent. I felt like something must be burning under the surface, something almost tragic, as if she was a passenger in her own life.

Finally it dawned on me. She was staying silent because she was accurately reporting the true feelings of a “good girl” at a time when good girls were trained to be unassertive. Dee Dee was honestly portraying her state of mind, just watching the world without a sense of being able to change it much. It’s an interesting psychological study of a pre-feminist mentality. And I think Dee Dee’s insistence on an authentic style brings this out by letting me see it, rather than her telling me about it.

The way she portrayed her state of mind offers another lesson for memoir writers. To portray the most authentic picture of what life was like for you, stick as close as possible to reporting the thoughts and emotions you had during the original scene. Resist the temptation to retrofit your childhood experience with your adult understanding. Of course, you can see the situation more clearly now, through your adult eyes. But by inserting too much of today’s insight, you take the reader out of the scene, and into the present. This breaks their connection with the actual experience, and creates more distance between the reader and the book. To keep readers engaged, let them get into the scene the way it happened. You can report how you grew up in your next memoir.

Dee Dee’s memoir pulled me along with her. It was a different time, and she showed me a glimpse of what those times were like for her, which is exactly what memoirs are supposed to do. It was a wild ride, and you can share it in Dee Dee’s memoir, Vinyl Highway.

[In the second part of this review of Vinyl Highway, Singing with Dick and Dee, I will talk more about the overall structure, and Dee Dee’s character arc through her journey, how she developed and grew.]