by Jerry Waxler
Writing a memoir is hard work, and to keep myself motivated, I compiled a list of all the reasons for persisting. Of course, I improved my familiarity with the many parts of my past. That was the reason I started writing a memoir in the first place. Another of my original motivations was my desire to bust through my overwrought sense of privacy. As soon as I began to read my pieces in a critique group, I felt that people were interested and accepted me in ways I had not expected. As a result, I loosened up.
Each month, I found a new benefit for writing my memoir, until I began to joke that my mission was like George Washington Carver’s, who had done an exhaustive study of everything you could do with a peanut. I acquired items for my list in a variety of ways. Some I experienced myself. Others I learned by watching students in my workshops or groups. And some I speculated must be true. For example, I assumed that after I told my own story, I would gain the skills to write other people’s stories, as well. The benefit seemed self-evident, but I was not yet ready to test it.
Then, last year, David Bank asked me to write profiles for his organization’s website. Bank is the director of Encore Careers, a site devoted to helping people find new careers in the second half of their lives. My job would be to interview career changers and post their stories. The assignment gave me the chance to meet people and apply my writing skills.
One such career changer was Judy Cockerton. From her website, I learned that she was a Massachusetts toy store owner who sold her business so she could devote her life to helping kids in foster care. Before I called her, I considered my mission – to show readers her journey from business woman to social activist.
During the interview, I asked her to walk me through the steps. As a social entrepreneur, Judy Cockerton spoke in urgent tones when she listed all the deficiencies in the foster care system. However, my job was to learn about her career change, so I steered the interview, asking for scenes that would evoke each stage in her journey.
From my work with memoirs I’ve learned the importance of the initial desire. Judy Cockerton’s desire was easy to find. She remembered the exact moment in her kitchen when she read an article in the newspaper about a child who was supposed to be protected by foster parents and yet had been forgotten. Her heart opened to the plight of these children, setting the stage for everything that followed.
During the middle of any story, the protagonist must overcome obstacles. I found many such scenes in Judy Cockerton’s journey. She visited foster homes to learn more and quickly realized that since not everyone can take a child in, there are ought to be other ways for people to participate. She envisioned a community where people could live and contribute to the care of the children. Next she needed allies to help her implement her vision.
Judy Cockerton was not finished helping foster kids so how could I provide a satisfying ending to the article? I called her back and asked “Tell me about a moment when you knew you were on the right track.” By this time the first Treehouse community had already been built and people were living there. She took me on a verbal tour of the place, describing the children playing, with adults and elders enjoying the multi-generational camaraderie. The mountains in the background completed the scene, which gave me, and hopefully readers, the thrill of her success.
Finished, or So I Thought
The structure of my article followed the structure of any good story. Start with a desire, overcome obstacles, and finally reach a conclusion. I was confident I had nailed this fundamental structure. But after I submitted the article, I realized I had one more lesson to learn. My editor, Terry Nagel, wanted me to move Judy’s success to the beginning. At first it didn’t make sense. You don’t tell the ending of a story first. It would break the suspense.
Difference Between Article and Memoir Structure
My editor insisted, and I kept seeking to understand how the suggestion would improve the article. After thinking about it, I saw what was going on. I was learning the difference between a book and an article.
Before I even the first page of a memoir, I have already become curious about the protagonist. Before I started Joan Rivers’ “Enter Talking,” I knew she succeeded at the end. Before I read Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea,” I read the book blurb and knew he built schools for kids in Pakistan. This preliminary information motivates me to read the book. But when I read an article, all I know is the title.
That’s why my editor was telling me to move Cockerton’s success up to the top. I needed to give the reader enough information to stir their curiosity. From article writing workshops, I knew that the second paragraph, or the “nut graf” as they call it in the business, is supposed to tell the reader where the article is heading. But until now the advice sounded like a meaningless formula. Once I tried it for myself, I saw how it worked.
Thanks to my study of memoirs, I was learning how to structure a life story. And now, thanks to the assignment from encore.org, I was learning how to apply these skills to describe the journeys of other people. This experience validated my claim that memoir writing results in broader writing benefits. And the rewards keep accumulating. Writing those profiles gave even more insights that helped me increase my range and learn new ways to turn life into story.
Here are links to a few reasons for writing your memoir.
Here are links to four profiles I wrote about career changers for Encore.org:
Encore Careers is a subsidiary of Civic Ventures, a community service organization founded and directed by Marc Freedman. Freedman is the author of “Encore, finding work that matters in the second half of life.” According to their About page, “Civic Ventures is leading the call to engage millions of baby boomers as a vital workforce for change.” Here is a link to an article I wrote after being inspired by Marc Freedman at Philadelphia’s Boomervision conference series.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.