by Jerry Waxler
When Doreen Orion’s husband noticed they were getting older, he suggested they buy a recreational vehicle, take a year off from work and drive across the country. She fought the idea at first. (What’s a story without some sort of conflict?) It sounded cramped, and she would only be able to take a hundred pairs of shoes. Eventually she gave in, went on the trip and wrote about it in this delightful memoir, “Queen of the Road.”
When I first started studying memoirs, one question I asked was “Are travel books really memoirs?” It seems like cheating, since the events just took place last year. But upon reflection and further reading, I have discovered that books like this one are lovely containers for musings and sharing of the author’s life experience. So if this is cheating, give me more.
In fact, by understanding how she put her book together, I see the goal of a memoir. It is designed to take you inside a real person’s experience of life. Inside the author’s point of view, we see what they see and how they see it. It’s the closest thing to mind-melding we can get on this planet, and if the author sees interesting things in a fun way, we enjoy the experience. Doreen Orion satisfies these goals fabulously.
As a traveler, she sees interesting stuff. Traveling across country provides endless opportunities for description, so like any memoir writer, she had to select the scenes that will add up to a good read. Her choices tend towards a mix of “famous yet quirky” like the vast Wall Drugstore in South Dakota, a huge mountain-carved statue of Chief Crazy Horse, and that strange place a guy built in Florida in the 1920’s out of chunks of Coral. (see my notes below for more about these travel details.)
Her observations inside the bus are just as interesting as what took place outside. She has some great scenes with her husband, while he drives and she sits there with the dog and cats. She keeps it interesting by playing up her fear of crashing, rolling, and smashing when they approach overpass or hit a bump. She portrays her phobias with grace and humor.
Within this mix we are working through Doreen’s midlife crisis. Since I (along with a few million boomers) am recently discovering the weird fact that I keep getting older every day, midlife is a topic that is particularly interesting. Considering that both Doreen and her husband are psychiatrists, she could have applied a lot of analytical fire power, but instead of getting all heavy about it, she just has fun.
So let’s see. It’s a midlife crisis book. A travel book. A memoir. A romantic comedy. An introduction to the RV lifestyle. It even has cats and dogs. This tremendous variety becomes one of its most intriguing stylistic features. And it’s a story. Her scenes add up nicely to give me a picture of the whole trip. She lets me feel the rhythm of their day: sleeping late; socializing with neighbors in the RV camp where everyone is just passing through; unhitching their tow-along Jeep to do some sightseeing; and then back on the road, bouncing along, navigating, and making jokes to pass the time.
And that brings up a valuable lesson for writers. Just as important as the fun things she sees is the fun way she describes them. Her style is engaging and keeps the pages turning, a crucial requirement for any publishable book. I always get in trouble with the literati when I say things like this, but Doreen Orion’s memoir reminds me of Shakespeare’s plays, at least in one regard. To appeal to a mixed audience, Shakespeare laced the dialog with sophisticated innuendos for the intellectuals and gags to keep everyone guffawing. Orion does the same thing in Queen of the Road. She’s funny.
Within this simple premise of a travel book about two people at midlife, there are hidden a number of clever layers that create a wonderful read as well as a wealth of ideas that you might be able to apply to your own memoir. In fact, I find so many aspects of the memoir enjoyable and informative that when I tried writing them all, I ran out of time before I ran out of ideas. In future posts, I’ll have more to say about the many lessons from Doreen Orion’s Queen of the Road.
Write two synopses of your memoir. The outside story will describe events in the world. The inside story will describe emotions, such as fear, hope, and disappointment. Each of these stories should feel like a journey, with a beginning, middle and end.
About 20 years ago, I saw a documentary on public television about a guy who had built a sort of artistic compound, out of thousand pound blocks of cut Coral. I was intrigued by the weird fact that no one understood how this man moved this big rocks without any equipment. When I was in Florida, I went to see this strange out-of-the-way tourist attraction myself, and I was delighted to read Doreen Orion’s view of the place. Here is a note I found on the web with a link to the full article.
The Secrets of Coral Castle
Coral Castle in Homestead, Florida, is one of the most amazing structures ever built. In terms of accomplishment, it’s been compared to Stonehenge, ancient Greek temples, and even the great pyramids of Egypt. It is amazing – some even say miraculous – because it was quarried, fashioned, transported, and constructed by one man: Edward Leedskalnin, a 5-ft. tall, 100-lb. Latvian immigrant. Working alone, Leedskalnin labored for 20 years – from 1920 to 1940 – to build the home he originally called “Rock Gate Park” in Florida City.
Crazy Horse Statue
During the 1930’s, Chief Henry Standing Bear watched in silence as faces of great white leaders emerged from the ancient granite of Mount Rushmore in his ancestral Sioux homeland: George Washington in 1930, Thomas Jefferson in 1936, Abraham Lincoln in 1937 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1939. Finally, in the fall of 1939, the Sioux leader wrote an appeal to a Connecticut sculptor who had worked on the monument: ”My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.”
Half a century and eight million tons of rock after the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, acted on that appeal, the defiant eyes of Chief Crazy Horse once again glare across the Black Hills of South Dakota. One year from now, on June 3, 1998, sculptors plan to dedicate an 87-foot-tall version of his fearsome visage, a monument taller than the Great Sphinx of Egypt and higher than the heads of Mount Rushmore, 17 miles away.