Collapsed lives that turned into memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

When I was 17, my brother was in medical school and I intended to follow. I was getting A’s in advanced placement math and science, and after school I worked part-time in a research lab in one of the top medical schools in the country. Six years later, Ed had earned his credentials as a cardiologist, while I was living in a leaky garage, collecting food stamps, and going weeks without talking to anyone. Transforming from child to adult was horrifically difficult for me, and for a couple of desperate years, I teetered on the brink of failing altogether.

For most of my life, I buried these memories. First I was busy getting myself back together. Then, looking back towards what “might have been” seemed too disappointing to dwell on. But forgetting the past turns out to be a temporary state. As I try to explain my journey through life, those bad decisions and lost dreams keep coming back, fragmented, unkind, and confusing. Since I want to reveal an authentic tale of who I am, I might as well gather the broken bits of the past and figure out how to portray them. By shaping them into a tale that is interesting to others, I can share parts of myself that have been hidden, and learn more about myself in the process.

To learn how to tell a story of lost dreams, I turn once again to the vast repository of published memoirs. I’ve just finished reading three memoirs and a book of short stories by people who have tackled the daunting task of writing about a life that went down as they tried to grow up. Like me, they came close to ruination. Their tales from the brink show that even in the worst of times, there are glimpses into the richness and complexity of the human condition. By exhuming the remains, these storytellers revealed glimpses of wisdom and hope, buried along with the regrets.

“Slow Motion, a memoir of a life rescued through tragedy” by Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro at 18 had three markers of the top echelons of society: wealthy parents, beauty, and entry into a top college. By the time she was 20 she had dropped out of school to model and act. Instead of being discovered by a talent scout, she was recruited for a different kind of talent, becoming the kept woman of a married man, a lawyer who made her feel special by picking her up in limousines, supplying her with drugs, alcohol, and jewelry, and flying her around the world to keep himself entertained. Drinking and drugging heavily, she was falling rapidly into despair when her parents’ catastrophic car accident changed her life. Her parents’ suffering woke her out of her self-involved stupor and she began to get her life back on track.

“Native State” by Tony Cohan
Tony Cohan’s father, Phil, was a radio producer in the 1940’s who worked with stars like Jimmy Durante and Frank Sinatra, so big they were still household names a half a century later. So when Cohan, the son, started playing drums as a teenager, it was easy for him to rise into the company of movers and shakers. But unlike his father, who reveled in popular music, Cohan was drawn to the darker world of drugs, jazz, and the beat down ideas of the beat generation who dressed themselves in cynicism to cloak their despair. His fascination with that movement opened a trap door into degradation, homelessness, and addiction. Eventually his passion for writing helped him switch to a more sustainable approach, allowing him to clamber back to solid footing.

“A Temporary Sort of Peace” by Jim McGarrah
When Jim McGarrah was a teenager, he was a baseball player, lined up for an athletic scholarship. After his girl friend dumped him, McGarrah rebelled against the college route his family expected him to follow. Defying his father’s vehement protests, he enlisted, knowing he would be sent to Vietnam. He thought his decision would make a man out of him, bring glory, defend his country, and all the other positive reasons young soldiers go to war. Within a few months of his arrival he began to unravel. All those good intentions could not protect him from war’s massive assault on his sanity. By the time he got back to the states, he was a wreck, suffering from PTSD, so now to achieve a satisfactory life meant overcoming a profound psychological injury, perhaps a topic for another memoir.

“Apologies Forthcoming”
by Xujun Eberlein
If things go wrong while growing up, we often look back and blame ourselves. But some lives go off course due to forces outside our control. Take for example, Xujun Eberlein, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Education was a central element of her ambition. When Chinese society turned against education, her parents were denounced, and schools closed. Armed teenagers with essentially identical ideas fought each other with deadly force, simply to prove their superior idealism, tearing apart Xujun’s life along with millions of others. She has written about her experiences in a book of fiction short stories, called “Apologies Forthcoming,” and is currently working on a memoir.

In these examples, each author spent thousands of hours organizing their experience into a readable tale. The product of that effort is a book, not just a work that sits silently on a shelf, but one that speaks to me. While I strive to shape my own life into a story, I consider their lives. They experienced despair and returned. Then after some period of gestation, they strive to understand what happened, to explain it, and above all to share it. And through the magic of story writing and story reading, the authors and I have entered into an intimate relationship.

In a future essay, I’ll draw from these stories cautionary observations about the risks of growing up. By understanding the pitfalls of youth, we can learn more not only about telling our own hopes, but also gain insights into the journey children in every generation travel on their way to becoming adults.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

6 thoughts on “Collapsed lives that turned into memoirs

  1. Hi Jerry – I’m Michelle25 from AbsoluteWrite commenting for the first time.

    You do such a wonderful job of describing the essence and beauty of memoirs – not to mention the specific ones that I always feel I have to read after you bring them up! “Getting a glimpse into the human condition,” “exhuming the remains,” and the process of gestation and explanation – great stuff.
    I knew I wanted to be a writer for a long time – even before I had any life experiences to tell of. Much of my life growing up lacked the discord that’s often necessary for a good story, but once I got in my twenties I found some. Sometimes I feel like I was consciously looking for it. I mention this at the end of my book.

    Anyway, I might be marketing my book as fiction, but I have to wonder if anyone will ever ask if it’s true? First person POV from a female narrator my age…I always wonder how close to life others’ fiction is sometimes. But as long as it’s a good story, that’s what counts!

  2. Other’s stories help us focus on our lives and put our memories in a different perspective. When we read how emotional events shaped another life it gives us something to home in on. Even if it’s only by way of comparison, it’s another way to see.

  3. Marianne,

    Thanks so much for your compliments. It’s great that you are here from the writer’s forum, (a great place for writer’s to communicate.)

    There is a very thin boundary between authentically told story and memoir, and I find they can scratch the same itch in both reader and writer. I’ve done some interviews about this issue (search my blog for Naomi Gal). I’m reading “The Power of One” a cult world-classic “based on a true story.” And next week I’m going to be talking to Xujun Eberlein, the author of a book of short stories about writing her life experiences as fiction.

    I don’t recommend looking too hard for discord. Instead look for passion and power. There is plenty inside every life. It’s the storyteller’s job to find it.


  4. Thanks for your comment, Leah. It’s good to hear from you. Yes, memoirs are one of the best ways I’ve found to understand what goes on from another person’s point of view.


  5. Hi Jerry,

    Thanks for the great article. As a journalist turned fiction writer, with a whole lot of personal real life thrown in, I am utterly drawn to memoir. Your site has been a valuable find as I explore the realm of life-story writing.


  6. I just did a short blogpost on how journaling (and undoubtedly lifewriting) might help relieve stress and aid in healing and in putting life events in better perspective. It is not shameful to have lost one’s moorings, rather I believe most people can understand or relate to that, or at least feel sympathy.

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