by Jerry Waxler
Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.
Most nights, my dad worked at his drugstore until 10 PM. On Wednesday, his evening off, he joined the family for dinner. Using the table as a pulpit, Dad’s voice swelled with excitement. “This guy walked in and showed me a half empty tube of ointment. He said it wasn’t working.” Then Dad laughed. “He wanted to return it. Can you believe it?” He slapped the table. My mother, sister, and I ate quietly, and when Dad paused we said “Umm,” giving him the desired reassurance that the other guy was crazy. Then he plowed on to another anecdote and another.
He seemed to enjoy filling us in on his day, but he didn’t ask me about mine. And if he had, I wouldn’t know what to say. My thoughts were wrapped up with solving algebra or calculus problems, so when someone asked me how things were going, I shrugged. “I dunno.”
For decades I assumed that since I had not grown up telling stories, I would never learn. Then in my fifties, I became interested in memoir writing. The problem was that without storytelling skills, I would never be able to write the story of my life.
Even though I knew it was too late, I figured there wouldn’t be any harm reading books about how to write stories. First, I studied Robert McKee’s popular tome called simply Story. This detailed guide for screenwriters shed light on the mechanics of the craft. Another book for screenwriters, Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey opened my eyes further, by comparing the structure of modern movies with the ancient Hero myth popularized by Joseph Campbell. Gradually I gained confidence that storytelling can be learned, and like Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, I demanded it as my inalienable right.
Through networking, I found a variety of writing groups. Some at my local library; some listed on the internet; some monthly meetings and some annual conferences. Gradually, my assignments for the classes began to interest me. I still needed to make them interesting to others.
Writing teachers want me to add sensory information in order to bring scenes to life. In my imagination, I revisit the kitchen table of my youth, trying to reproduce the experience. I feel myself leaning over my plate, wolfing down the boiled broccoli, mashed potatoes and baked meat loaf drowning in ketchup, squirming on the vinyl bench that wraps around two sides of the Formica table. Sounds echo sharply off the pale yellow and blue tile wall and linoleum floor. But what I really want to describe is not my sensory experience of the room. I want to finally express that high school boy’s feelings, all bottled up in math homework.
What am I thinking when Dad is telling his stories? I see that he is only checking with us to be sure we are listening. He dominates the room with his feelings, rather than giving us the psychic space to get in touch with our own. I wish I could say, “Hey Dad. What about me?” Now, by writing a memoir I can finally give that boy a voice.
Scene by scene, my memories converged into a story. But as they took shape, I encountered another problem. In addition to needing the skill to tell my story, I needed the courage. This is private material. No one needs to know this much detail about me.
I struggle to manage the fear of a recurring fantasy. I visualize a crowd of angry townspeople summoning me to a public trial. I’m onstage and they heatedly shout, telling me I’m arrogant for thinking I’m entitled to publish. My vivid fears of public speaking invade my mind, turning the solo act of writing into a terrifying spectacle.
Fortunately, Dad offered me an inspiration that helped me out of this jam. Later in his life, he grew frustrated with his limited communication skills, so he attended a Dale Carnegie public speaking course. They helped him improve his ability to communicate to an audience. With his newfound ability, he was elected president of his pharmacy group. He showed me that at any age, if you want to improve yourself along lines that seem impossible, jump in and try.
I followed his example. I joined Toastmasters, International, an organization designed to help people gain confidence in their ability to speak. After my first attempt to speak at Toastmasters, I ran away for a year, unable to face the humiliation. During that year I studied books about overcoming social anxiety and spoke with a therapist. Finally, I returned, and after an additional year of practice, I was able to share myself in front of a group.
My newfound courage to speak freed me from my fears about writing, too. I began to reveal my life stories in writing groups, and then I leapt past my local groups to the global reach of the Internet. I enjoyed feedback in person and online without feeling afraid.
Dad and I both discovered how to increase the reach of our communication. By doing so, we expanded our social horizons. Now, I can finally share my stories. And thanks to the swell of popular interest in reading and writing memoirs, I have found a whole community of fellow authors who want to share theirs. We’re collectively going beyond the dinner-table question “what did you do today?” Together we are answering the broader question, “what did you do this life?”
Describe the way storytelling was handled in your house or community.
Write a scene in which you felt overwhelmed and excluded by someone’s storytelling.
Write another scene in which storytelling felt warm, inviting and empowering.
Write about the first time you felt proud to have written a story.
This is a rewrite of an article published April 17, 2009 titled The Birth of an Adult Storyteller.
More memoir writing resources
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.
To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.
To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.
You touched me Jerry. I’ve been struggling with this for years. I’ve got pieces of manuscripts started, but the question of what to do with them is constantly in flux. Now my children are grown and my parents have moved on and I’m left with how to leave something. I have a greater appreciation for my Dad than I was able to achieve during his lifetime. I’ve been humbled by the challenges of life, work, parenthood and marriage. And the experiences have given me a greater understanding of where Dad was coming from. I’m greatful for your blog. Thanks for your time. I’m working to refine how I want to share my stories on my blog and your guidance is an inspiration.
I check your blog regularly, anxious to hear your insights and stories. You influence my life, and in turn the lives of those I influence. It’s interesting that I see this concept so well when I apply it to you, and yet I wonder what the point of my memoir writing actually is.
Nice piece, Jerry. I wonder what the exact relationship is between those wrinkles and stories though. The more wrinkles we have, the more stories we get? Perhaps. And do those wrinkles actually conceal stories, or do they reveal them? Nice piece, Jerry.
Thanks Garret. I’m so glad you are finding guidance and inspiration from my blog. It’s also true that your feedback supports and inspires me. It’s a magical circle. I’m glad you have discovered more about your dad while writing than you knew while he was alive. This is something that can offer enormous hope for the many people who are afraid it’s too late.
Thanks so much for being a regular, Travelinoma. That is such a neat thing that my writing has resonated with you. So if as a reader you see the harmony of that process, the next step as a writer is to find readers that resonate with your writing. But just in case you become impatient, keep a list of all other benefits to make writing worthwhile- stimulating mental challenge, develop skills, add a drop to the ocean of culture, seek truth about self and others, uncover the story, find a road map to take you forward, etc.
Thanks for the compliment, Bob. Your “nice piece” makes the writing worth my while. I just finished Steve Martin’s memoir, Born Standing. Comedians do it for the laughter. Writers’ rewards are less immediate, but just as welcome.
As for what exactly those wrinkles mean, one thing I know for sure. Everyone I know who tries to find the stories behind them feels renewed and rewarded by the effort.
Don’t be too rough on your dad’s storytelling… Here you are, years, later telling the ointment story, LOL…
Seriously, though, this was a real thought-provoking post. I like the way you wrestled so honestly with the desire to experience the “writers’ rewards”.
Thanks for stopping by, Terri. I’d love to turn back the clock and have a long talk with him about this subject, but since I can’t do that, I might as well do it in writing.
Every time I put something “out there” I cringe and feel naked. I want to delete it and take it all back. I war with my private side (learned from my youth: it’s our business, no one else’s) and my need to, as you say, tell stories. I have to ride out the almost nauseous feeling in my stomach. But I know no other way to tell my truth and stories and hope that truth helps or comforts another than to be vulnerable.
But it is never without risk. When we write our stories, and a reader is critical, unkind, or dissects them, it is difficult not to let it penetrate our egos, hearts and our very identity. After all, that’s exactly what we’ve revealed.
Thank you for sharing your journey– makes me feel like less of a freak in my own path.
By the way, my dad used to dominate dinner table conversation too. It was his pulpit.
Hi Julie, Thanks for sharing the feelings you have when you write. Here’s the peculiar thing. Many people simply walk away from the challenge, before they even reach the fear. So by facing your fear, you are actually expressing a state of courage.
For me, the fear does come in waves, but so does the courage. It’s a much more intense, exciting, less complacent state of mind, than not writing. You would think every sane person would run away from a lifestyle that includes this self-inflicted intensity but every writing conference and networking event is filled with people who struggle with these issues in varying degrees.
Pingback: Unmissable Memoir Posts from Around the Web… October Edition | "CommuniCATE" Resources for Writers