by Jerry Waxler
Harry Bernstein was 93 years-old when he published his first memoir “Invisible Wall” about his childhood in England before the first World War. His nonagenarian achievement changed the landscape for aspiring memoir writers who wonder if they are too old. Bernstein, now 98, is basking in the publication of his second memoir, “The Dream,” about immigrating to the United States.
There have been lots of immigrant stories, so what makes this one worth reading? For one thing, he’s so old he offers a modern-day tale about Coming of Age during the 1920’s. That’s amazing. There are other twists. Chicago feels different than the more familiar New York setting. And since he grew up in England, his language is less of a barrier than for other immigrants, but at first no one understood his regional British accent.
The story comes alive when Harry describes characteristics of each member of his family. Harry’s own father is the villain, a selfish drunk, a menacing tyrant, cruel to everyone in the family; his brother is a humorless aspiring rabbi; his mother the victim of his vicious father; and his grandfather secretly earns his living as a beggar.
So here’s the tip. When you are afraid people will think your life was just like everyone else’s, focus on unique people and circumstances and find the dramatic tension that turns a “typical” story into a suspenseful, unique one.
I eagerly track the outcomes of his decisions
When they first land in the States, they are dirt poor. That starts to change when Harry lands a job in the U.S. post office. What could be more secure? But he doesn’t take it seriously, intending to go to college in a few months. Then, tension with his father escalates. To extricate his mom from this abusive relationship, he talks her into moving to New York, quitting his job just in time for the Depression, quickly sliding back into poverty. Then Harry meets the love of his life with whom he remains married for 67 years. In hindsight, perhaps it was the right move after all. When viewed through such a wide lens, the daily grind becomes a big story, and as I watch him careening through the events like a blindfolded driver through an obstacle course, I keep turning pages wondering where each situation will lead.
The outcome of your choices become part of your connection with readers. Focus on decisions that altered the course of your life. Sometimes the results weren’t what you wanted, leading to regrets and even shame. This is a good opportunity to revisit those regrets. Re-tell the embarrassing experience. Then go back further. What lead up to it? When you reach the fateful decision, stop and look around. What else was going on? What pressures and fears affected the decision? Keep going, past the bad memory and show how you moved and grew through the following years.
Parallel with Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes”
Harry Bernstein’s two memoirs resemble Frank McCourt’s, “Angela’s Ashes” and “Tis.” Both authors had drunken, neglectful fathers. Both first volumes tell of hardships in the mother country and both second volumes start with the immigrant experience in America. The similarities didn’t bother Harry Bernstein’s publishers, who apparently figured that if the public liked McCourt’s memoir, they might buy a similar one.
As you plan your own memoir, read lots of published memoirs and consider the similarities between your story and other proven sellers. This is your chance to follow in the footsteps of success, taking advantage of similarities for your marketing material, while maintaining the integrity and authenticity of your own memories.
Reading is a pathway to writing
Harry, desperate for work during the Great Depression, eventually landed a job reading and critiquing stories. This is the second time I’ve read about someone earning a living during the Depression by reading. The first was in Sydney Sheldon’s memoir, “The Other Side of Me.” His experience as a professional script reader put food on the table, and at the same time provided insight into what makes stories work. His modest job provided a stepping stone towards a fabulously successful career as a novelist and screenwriter.
Both authors, Sheldon and Bernstein, learned that reading books can help you write them, and that turns out to be a perfect piece of advice for any writer. Read like a writer, picking apart books to see what works and what doesn’t. I am putting this method into practice myself. As I read memoirs and write reviews about them for this blog, I am gaining many of the benefits that these aspiring writers did.
Biggest lesson, how your own creative work can inspire hope
When my mother was in her 80’s she read the memoir, “Color of Water,” by James McBride, a black man with a Jewish mom. To share her thoughts with her peers, and to find out what they thought, she arranged a book review at a meeting room in her apartment building. About 40 people showed up to discuss the book. During that lively gathering something else was going on. They were seeing for themselves that an old lady doesn’t need to slow down. It was amazing to me how much confidence and love Mom’s activity inspired. For years after that event they came up to her in the lobby, asked her what she was reading and told her how much they admired her. She became a local hero.
Harry Bernstein is the oldest guy I know to have published a memoir, and so, in addition to the story he tells within the pages, the publication of the book creates a story about the story, offering a powerful message to hundreds of millions of people. “There’s still time. Start now. It’s never too late. You can do it! And as you create your own story, in addition to documenting your life events, under the surface your effort will offer your readers a larger lesson about inspiration and hope.”
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.