By Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
Henry Louis Gates grew up in a small town in West Virginia in the 1950s where he was taught he shouldn’t associate with girls until he married one. Then a fractured hip landed him in a hospital in a university town 60 miles away. During his protracted stay, with his leg suspended in traction, he was befriended by a minister who let him in on the good news that in some forms of Christianity, God and girls can peacefully coexist. By the time his hip healed, his mind had opened to a more liberal set of rules than the ones he had been taught as a child.
After I finished reading Gates’ memoir, “Colored People” I tried to understand why I related so empathetically with his life, and I kept returning to that scene in the hospital, which drew me in so vividly I felt I too had stopped by to encourage him to live as fully as possible. The more I think about the scene, the more power I find in it.
One thing that makes the scene memorable is the hospital’s distance from his home. He traveled far away to find wisdom, a story element that has echoes in many of the great stories of our culture, like Homer’s Odyssey, or the Wizard of Oz. I too left home, traveling a thousand miles away to college in order to find my own deeper meaning. So I feel an intuitive rapport with this notion that leaving town stimulates deeper thought.
What part of your memoir took place far from home? What realizations did you have on your journey?
His broken hip hurts, and his body is being stretched by traction. He also worries about falling behind in school, and wishes he was playing with his friends. These physical and emotional discomforts generate compassion, illustrating the lesson writing coaches have been telling me for years; discomfort and tension help readers relate to the protagonist.
When beginning memoir writers first explore memories, we may not know what to do with unsettling moments. Most of our lives we have skated around the regrets, traumas, weaknesses. But good memoir writing is different from the breezy overview you might tell a new acquaintance at a party. Memoir writing digs deeper, searching for the material that will convey an authentic account of your journey, complete with ups and downs.
In your own memoir, what scenes of physical or emotional pain can draw the reader in to caring about you?
Regular visits from kind, supportive adults brings this scene to life. A doctor realized how lonely Gates was, and stayed to play chess. A minister talked to him about religion and growing up. What a lovely gift these strangers offered Gates, not only giving him the comfort of companionship, but also helping him understand some things about life.
What advisors have helped you shift your beliefs? It could be a word from a stranger, as it was in Henry Louis Gates’ young life. Or an uncle, mentor, friend, teacher, or book. Write your ideas before you received the advice and after. Describe the scene when your idea-altering experience took place.
My writing example
I was working on a computer project at my first “real” dayjob at United Engineers. Then the project was canceled and I was crestfallen. A grizzled old engineer said to me, with a twinkle in his eye, “Nolo bastardo carborundum.” I looked puzzled. He said, “It’s fake-latin for ‘Don’t let the bastards wear you down.'” I roared with laughter, and discovered that with a little wisdom, a dash of humor, and the supporting hand of a fellow human being, you can get through situations that otherwise could make you miserable.
The impact ideas have on life
Before he went into the hospital, Gates believed that being around girls was the devil’s work. After talking to a visiting minister, he believed that God was fine with girls. This is an exciting example of the power of ideas. With hardly any external action, a change of mind profoundly influenced his goals and choices.
Ideas have always played an important role in my own life. In high school I believed I needed to accumulate knowledge in order to become an adult, so I studied hard. After a year in college, my idea changed. I believed it was up to me to fix the world, so I protested. By the end of those four years, my idea changed again. I believed that my actions didn’t have any influence on the world, and I collapsed into a tangle of despair. When I was 24, I stumbled upon a spiritually-oriented set of ideas that let me steer through the extremes. I believed what I did mattered to the people in my life, and that was enough to get me back on my feet and into the game of life. At each stage, my ideas affected the way I felt and the path I chose.
Yet, despite the crucial role that ideas played in my own life, I rarely hear them mentioned in writing courses. In this age of cinema and television, story writers are taught to focus on action. But that skips over one of the most important things in human experience, the way we think. Storytellers know the importance of the human thought-process, and for eons have been weaving their protagonist’s ideas into the action. Now I have to train myself to do the same.
I sift through piles of anecdotes. Taken one by one, these individual incidents do not add up to a compelling whole, so I look for the sequence that, like DNA encoding, binds isolated events together, maintaining forward motion while revealing inner truth. I believe to find the links between the episodes, we need to pay attention to our mental process.
Ideas told us what choices are available, and which ones are best. Ideas created the expectations of what was “supposed” to happen, and these expectations lead to our disappointment or joy. Ideas defined our judgment of other people. Discover within your ideas the forces that shaped you, and can shape the most compelling story.
Identify a few key ideas that drove you. Watch how they changed over time. For example, your religious ideas guide you through ethical choices. Your ideas about psychology helped you overcome barriers between people. Perhaps you decided to trust people instead of hate them, or realized that forgiveness helps the forgiver as much as the ‘forgivee.’ See if you can find specific moments or scenes when these ideas changed.
In a future essay, I’ll experiment with scenes from my own memory, and brainstorm ways that the scenes and the ideas interact.
See the classic text on the relationship between beliefs and mental well being, “Existential Psychotherapy” by Irvin D. Yalom
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