By Jerry Waxler
Each memoir I devour reveals another corner of human experience. Take for example the memoir by Jon Reiner, “The Man Who Couldn’t Eat,” about a man suffering from an auto-immune condition that is destroying his intestines. When he stops eating, he learns many lessons about food, perseverance, courage and the loving support of friends. Here is part two of my list of ways the book taught me about turning memories into memoirs.
Extraordinary look at a doctor/patient relationship
Because Jon Reiner has been a patient for so many years, he forms profound relationships with his physicians, sometimes drawing an almost spiritual strength from their care. As a result, he is able to offer an unusually intimate look at the relationship between a patient and doctor.
What unusual slant of life can you share in your memoir? As you read your draft material, identify an aspect of your life which you took for granted, but which readers might find unusual or informative.
Loyalty through thick and thin
One of the powerful strengths of the human condition is the social support that we give each other in times of need. This quality suffuses our lives so subtly that we barely notice it, and then during times of need, the loyalty of friends can become a life-giving force. That is certainly the case for Jon Reiner. His friends and family stood by him, overlooking the ugly side of his desperation. In fact, his wife’s willingness to stay with him through his trials creates one of the best love-in-marriage stories I have read.
What resilient commitment of friends or family can add an inspiring note to your story?
Titles are important
Every book establishes a contract or “hook” with prospective readers. By the time you read the first line, your expectations have already been established by the title, subtitle, and blurb. When I picked up the “Man Who Couldn’t Eat,” I was curious about how that would feel, and what he learned from the experience. I doubt I would have been as interested in a book called “My Life with Crohn’s Disease.” Both titles are factually true, but the one that went to press sets up a compelling expectation that makes me want to read it.
And then I did read it, accompanying Reiner for the period when he was fed intravenously. He saw food as something that happened to other people. After finishing the book, I felt satisfied that it had delivered the impact its title and blurb promised.
As you develop the central idea of your memoir-in-progress, maintain a file of possible titles and blurbs, to help you imagine what a reader will see the first time they glance at the finished work. This file can help you organize your book along lines that will make future readers curious.
Radical honesty of memoir heroes: why am I crying for a jerk?
Jon Reiner is one of the most unnerving, edgy, confused protagonists I have ever cheered for. His behavior is often unsympathetic, self-involved, and yet, despite these flaws, my heart goes out to him. Raunchy, sympathetic protagonists highlight one of the fundamentals of memoir writing: hard living makes good reading.
When I started submitting pieces of my own memoir to critique groups, I realized with rising horror that the protagonist I was describing had been a jerk. That was the first time the thought had occurred to me. Before then, I always wanted to think of myself as the good guy in the room. Writing the memoir showed me that I behaved poorly, just like people I mentally criticize. I’m one of them! Ultimately, I realized that dropping this pretense of perfection is one of the most important reasons for writing the memoir.
If you want readers to stay interested, allow them in to see the real you. Jon Reiner obviously did that. Despite his less-than-noble behavior, I reached the end of the book and felt it was a worthwhile experience. Now, I know things about him that his non-memoir reading friends do not. I have faith in his ability to grow, and by extension he has increased my faith that any of can learn from our own experiences.
Other edgy, yet sympathetic memoir protagonists
Debra Gwartney, “Live Through This” – About a mom who helplessly watches, and fumbles as her children disintegrate into street life.
Andre Dubus III, “Townie” About a blue collar street kid who first turned to violence and then to writing in order to find himself.
Janice Erlbaum, “Girl Bomb” About a teenager who ran away from home to live in a shelter in New York City.
Blog Post: Ten Reasons to Read a Memoir About a Man Who Couldn’t Eat, Part 1
Click here for Jon Reiner’s Home Page
Click here for The Man Who Couldn’t Eat on Amazon
For 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.