by Jerry Waxler
Robert Waxler and his wife Linda wrote the memoir “Losing Jonathan” about the death of their eldest son. Robert Waxler’s second memoir, “Courage to Walk” is about his younger son who suffered a paralyzing spinal infection. Both books explore the father’s love for his sons, informed by his lifelong love for literature. In addition to being an English Literature professor at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, Waxler also co-founded the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature” which provides convicted criminals with the opportunity to read and write their way to a deeper understanding of social responsibility.
In this first of a three part interview, I ask Waxler about his process of writing the two memoirs.
Note: Robert Waxler and I are not related.
Jerry Waxler: You wrote two books involving your relationship to your sons. What was it like writing a second memoir? What was easier and what was harder the second time? What knowledge did you bring with you from the experience of writing the first?
Robert Waxler: The love a father feels for a son is beyond the boundaries of language as is the loss of a son, but both books try to capture that sense of love and the sense of mortality that we all share. When I wrote about the loss of my oldest son, Jonathan, I started by sitting outside on my back porch and without any specific purpose or direction let language flow out of me into a notebook. It was about a week after Jonathan’s death, and I wanted to try to remember as much as possible about the battle he had fought the last year of his life. It was a compulsion, I suppose. I had never written this kind of narrative and was not thinking about publishing the story. That was the summer of 1995. I wrote about 50 pages, as I recall, in a very short time, and then didn’t look at it again for a couple of years. I couldn’t.
Finally, about five years later, I began to think that perhaps this story could help other families in similar distress, and so I returned to it, shaped it, tried to find the meaning in it, and published it in the Boston Globe Magazine on Father’s Day in 2001. The response to the story was overwhelming, and I realized that a book might make a difference to others. It was also one way of keeping the memory of Jonathan alive. It took me another couple of years to get the language and the story to a point where I felt satisfied with it, as close to the truth of the experience as I was capable of saying it, in other words. It was important to me to make sure that readers saw Jonathan as a complex human being in the midst of a difficult struggle, that they felt the sense of love and the sense of loss that all families could experience, that this story could be their story as well.
The writing of the second book about the sudden spinal trauma of my younger son, Jeremy, was easier in some ways and harder in other ways. I started writing in a notebook right away, not because I was thinking about publishing a book, but because I knew that writing itself would be helpful for me, and I wanted a record of the experience and my thoughts about the experience. I wrote as the events unfolded, and I had no clear idea, from day to day, how these experiences would work out, whether Jeremy would recover, the extent of his recovery, the daily impact on all of us in the family, and so on. In addition, Jeremy’s suffering was compounded for me by the haunting memories of what had happened to Jonathan.
Jeremy’s recovery is a miracle to me now, but it took a while for that to become clear to me. Compared to “Losing Jonathan,” “Courage to Walk” was written over a relatively short period of time, and it captures the curve of the family experience as it unfolds over a relatively short period of time as well. In many ways, though, I think it is a more complex and probing story and meditation. It is written with a great deal of care. I hope people will find it helpful.
I did make extensive journal notes for “Courage to Walk,” which I suppose is somewhat unorthodox, in this context. It takes shape through my consciousness, my imagination, my reading, my reflection on the journal material, etc. It is, as a couple of people have suggested, a mix of medical thriller and meditation. That’s part of its uniqueness, I believe. It is very real, at times, but it has its surrealistic dimension as well. I hope it has a spiritual quality too.
JW: After reading your two memoirs, I could almost visualize you as a character in a novel. Did you ever think about your portrayal of yourself in that way?
RW: I take that as a compliment. I hope that readers get to know the characters in these memoirs as well as they get to know the characters in a novel. I have an old-fashioned sense that we can learn a lot from the characters in stories if we can visualize them, even identify with them, feel what they feel. The protagonist (me) in “Losing Jonathan” is the same person that appears in “Courage to Walk,” a father agonizing over a son, a college professor in love with his family (wife and children) and with great literature, a man who wants to be helpful but at times seems obsessed and at times is clearly powerless, a person who is mortal and vulnerable, as we all are. In “Courage to Walk,” though, I think I am perhaps more weighted down and obsessed, in an ironic way, at times, less hopeful than I was in “Losing Jonathan” –probably because of what happened to Jonathan. The irony of course is that “Courage to Walk” is much more upbeat in the end than “Losing Jonathan,” although both books, I hope, celebrate the human spirit. I think that my son Jeremy is the real hero of “Courage to Walk.”
To read Part 2 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 this blog, click here.
To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.