by Jerry Waxler
This is the second of a three part interview with Robert Waxler, author of the memoirs “Losing Jonathan” and “Courage to Walk.” Waxler is a professor of English Literature at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and founder of the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature.” In this part of the interview, I ask Waxler about the relationship between literature and life.
Jerry Waxler: In your books, when you quoted a passage from literature, I felt you were using literature to help you explain things to yourself, as if you were using literature as a source of strength. So first of all, thank you for expanding my vocabulary of self-help tools. I wonder to what extent you have consciously thought about the use of literature as a repository of wisdom to help you get through life?
Robert Waxler: Now this could be a book in itself. I helped start a program back in 1991 called “Changing Lives Through Literature” precisely because of my deep belief in the power of literature to make a difference in people’s lives. Literature can teach us important lessons about life; it can give us strength, as you suggest. When we read good literature, we realize we are not alone. We learn about empathy, about ourselves and about others. As the story unfolds, our own lives unfold. We see ourselves and others, understand the complexity of human character, and see how singular each life is, and yet recognize how universal certain patterns and behavior seem to be. I try to show (and tell) my students this all the time.
Jerry: A common problem for memoir writers is deciding how to tell their story without intruding on the privacy of other characters. So I was surprised to see how much you had written about your son Jeremy’s life. What can you share about his willingness to be portrayed, or any fears you might have had about sharing his private life with your readers?
Robert: Yes, this is a particularly sensitive issue, especially given some of the issues that “Courage to Walk” attempts to address. I would never want to write anything that would harm Jeremy or Linda. And this story is so much a story about vulnerability and how we are all powerless, how human weakness is at the core of our humanity and how we should not be ashamed of that fact, that we should instead see it as a strength, as an important way of building compassion and community. It is difficult for Jeremy and for Linda and myself as well, to relive these very traumatic events as they are narrated in “Courage to Walk.” These events take us close to the core of our mortal human selves. Our hope though is that the story will get people thinking more about the meaning of compassion and vulnerability, the need for all of us to confront our finitude, and not to feel so much the shame but the beauty of it.
Jerry: While memoirs are about real life, they seem to be journalism. But they are also stories, so they seem a lot like “literature.” What do you think? Are memoirs “literature” or not?
Robert: I am not sure I am an “expert” on memoirs, but I’ll give you my view on this. To begin, the word “literature” itself is problematic. I am not sure people can agree these days on a definition. Are we talking about canonical works—Shakespeare’s plays, for example? Or can we assume that Stephen King is also writing “literature”? And what about a book such as “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac or “Night” by Elie Weisel? Not exactly non-fiction, but not really memoirs either. Are they “literature”?
And then there is an important issue about memoirs and memory. We recover the past through the present, and, in this sense, I suppose, as you suggest, memoirs are introspective and psychological portraits. But memory is a very tricky process. What we filter through the present about the past is not the past but our recollection of the past. Someone writing a memoir wants to stay true to the facts as he remembers them, of course, but the truth of an event is not simply in the facts. So that too complicates the issue.
I think there is a very fine line between literature and the memoir. In both cases, the writer is trying to get to the “truth” of the experience. Literature might be an invented story; memoirs might be based in fact. But, in an important sense, all narrative is invented—in the same sense, that we create our selves and our identity through the actual experiences of our lives. Our lives are our stories, and our stories are our lives.
Jerry: As you were putting your life on paper, what were you learning about yourself and your circumstances that you didn’t know before you started?
Robert: I learned about how powerless we all are as human beings from the beginning, and how that knowledge is a good thing. It can help build a more compassionate and reasonable community if we let it. We are all filled with fear and anxiety from birth; we need others to help us along the way. I don’t know why we should be ashamed of that. If anything, we should be ashamed of the ways we distance ourselves from others, pretend to be powerful and independent, set up foolish defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from that truth. I also learned that it is very, very difficult as a parent not to try to do everything possible to help our children, even if they don’t want our help. It’s a difficult line to draw—between obsession and compassion. They need their freedom, and we need ours, but we all need each other.
To read Part 1 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.
To read Part 3 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.
Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.