by Jerry Waxler
Lisa Cook Fineberg grew up in Los Angeles, a town where, by the rules of contemporary culture, the world bows down in submission to hot young women. But her memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is not about life as a princess. It’s about moving beyond her self-indulgent youth, and trying to find her way to the next step. When Lisa marries, she moves to Nagoya, Japan where the lack of chic hair salons or appreciation for her appearance hurtles her into a different world.
(This is the second of a three part review. To see the first part, click here.)
After the long flight, the newlyweds arrive at their supposedly-furnished apartment and discover there are no bed sheets. The prospect of sleeping on a bed without sheets throws Lisa into a panic. She wonders if she will be able to survive in Japan. Her husband coaxes her through it. “It’s an adventure,” he says. “You can handle it. If you can’t handle it we’ll go home.” She submits to his emotional support and reaffirms her original intention . “That’s okay. I’ll try to stick it out.”
During Lisa’s reaction, readers must make a choice. We could either say, “Dear Lord. It’s only a night with an inconvenient sleeping arrangement. Get over it.” Or we could cheer for her, the way her husband did. And that is the real charm of the book. Lisa lets us in on the debate she is having within herself. She generates dramatic tension when she feels discomfort, and then relieves the tension when she decides she can do it.
Subways show passage beyond “spoiled”
In another scene, she shows the tedium and crush of riding the subway to work. At first glance, her discomfort might seem “spoiled.” But when you think about it, why is she riding to work on a subway, anyway? Wouldn’t a princess take a cab? And she isn’t going shopping. She’s on her way to teaching an English language class, another non-princess-like activity. The subway scenes show excellent examples of her transition from youth to maturity. To go from princess to working woman, the only way she could do it was to push ahead, explore, experience it for herself, and keep trying.
Memoir Writer’s Courage
Some of her behavior to her husband and coworkers is clearly selfish. One scenes shows her unwillingness to be kind to a woman who reaches out to her. In another scene, she becomes furious because her husband doesn’t make a big enough fuss about her birthday. The scenes provide emotional vulnerability that engages the reader. They also provide insight into the challenges faced by every aspiring memoir writer.
When we had to make the transition from the freedom of youth to the responsibility of adulthood, many of us tried to prolong our entitlements. Even as we were pushed into the new world, we clung to the notion that other people were supposed to serve us. In the process we made self-involved decisions. Like Lisa, we threw hissy-fits, angry at our fate and ready to ignore other people’s feelings on order to survive our own. After the snit was over, most of us forgave ourselves, forgot about it and moved on.
Memoir writers choose a different path. We look back on those memories squarely, and observe our behavior carefully. When we consider scenes in which we ignored the rights and feelings of other people, we feel a pang of shame. I have read many memoir scenes that are clearly not included because the author was proud of their behavior, but because they are willing to fearlessly face them. In order to provide the full emotional experience to our readers, memoir writers remember the ups and downs and we share things about ourselves that most people hide.
Before the memoir wave, we tried to resolve unwanted memories by pretending they never happened. Memoirs offer us a different way of relating to our past, allowing us to face our memories, share them, and acknowledge those experiences as steps along our own long journey.
Pick a moment when you felt the world was falling apart, but which in retrospect was just a temporary inconvenience. Looking back on it, you can see it was just your mind freezing up, demanding better circumstances. Write the scene with the outrage and hurt and victimization you felt at the time. Let the reader feel your pain.
Spoiled in creature comforts but generous in explanations
I love the way Lisa thinks about things and then clearly and thoughtfully communicates what she sees. For example, in her teen years she feels entitled to buy hair products, designer clothes, and look attractive. But she also realizes that some boys have a different form of entitlement. They treat her like an object and push her around. She decides to stay away from boys who have that attitude and she advises all young women to do the same. In a couple of simple sentences, she provides a primer on manipulative relationships and guidance on how to steer through that period of discovery in a young woman’s life.
Such simple clarity takes place on every page, where she offers observations in clear, sensible language. The writing reminds me of the famous advice to entertainers. “Work hard to make the audience think it’s easy.” So even though the younger Lisa Fineberg Cook is spoiled, years later she sits in front of a blank page and works hard to clearly show me her life. By revealing her vulnerable moments, Lisa paradoxically also demonstrates her courage as a writer, a revealer, and an explorer of self.
More memoir writing resources
To see 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.