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.”

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