by Jerry Waxler
I consider myself a “non-literary” reader, by which I mean that I prefer my stories told with minimum literary flare, and maximum emphasis on the power of the story. My desire for narrative stories has been endlessly satisfied by hundreds of book-length memoirs, but I have not been nearly so successful finding stories of shorter length.
In shorter stories, there is simply not enough space to build a close relationship between reader and writer. To compensate for this lack of space, most of the short life stories I have come across create power by using tricky detours, leaps, metaphors, and dream-like inserts. For example, here’s one such story that turns a summer job into a wild ride, packed with emotional storms, search for identity, and comic images.
Most of the time, I find that too much reliance on literary technique distracts me from my desire for a straightforward journey, and so, I stick with the longer form. Recently, though, I decided to expand my horizons and take a look at an anthology The Times They Were a Changing, edited by Linda Joy Myers, Amber Lea Starfire and Kate Farrell. The book contains narratives by women who were coming of age during the late sixties and early seventies.
After the first story, I quickly changed from skeptic to believer. Every page compelled me to move to the next, and by the end, I felt satisfied by the entire experience. As I do after every memoir I read, I ask myself why it worked. In this case, I had to ask that question not about an individual story, but about the whole collection, and found two principle reasons why the collection grabbed my attention at the beginning and satisfied me by the end.
First, I wondered how each entry makes up for its short length without reliance on intense literary technique. The answer is that each one focuses on the powerful crucible of some life-changing event. The intensity of the events carry me with gut-wrenching power. I have lots of experience with life-changing events. In my memoir classes for beginners, after I coach students to dredge their minds for anecdotes, the stories that emerge first are often the memories they have bottled up for years. These are peak moments that don’t make good conversation, fraught with embarrassment, humiliation, fear, and confrontation. Such memories seethe silently under the surface, and when I say “Go ahead and write,” they burst onto paper. The anthology, The Times They Were a Changing contains a whole book full of these burning moments.
In each story, I travel with an author into one intense moment in the feminine version of the 60s counterculture. If this was a book-length memoir, I would expect to turn the page and accompany the same author to the next step. However, in the anthology, I turn the page to someone else’s key event. And even though all the stories occurr around the same era, the experiences they report are drastically different. Here is an abbreviated list of topics:
Motorcycle gangs in the midst of flower children
Rock band groupie in a one-night stand
Birth of modern Feminism
Out-of-body drug experience
Sit-ins for women’s equality in the university
Pregnancy and abortion
Despite their excellence and intensity, the individual short stories still don’t provide me with the immersion of a book-length memoir. A book allows me to forget my own world and enter the world of the writer. These short stories, when standing on their own, would feel too isolated, like snips of a life rather than deep sharing. However, when they all hang together in one collection, they are transformed into parts of a larger work.
That’s the second way The Times They Were a Changing creates fullness from these short pieces. Like a pointillist painting whose individual dots add up to a beautiful image, the collection combines individual stories into a worldview-shifting insight into the experience of growing up female in the 60s.
By juxtaposing this variety of perspectives, the editors have created a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This anthology is a compelling, satisfying reading experience that sets a high bar for the emerging genre of life story collections.
Suggestions for Writers
In addition to good reading material, the stories in this anthology offer excellent teaching moments. Each story has a beginning, middle, and end, with many variations of subject, emotional challenge, and pacing to name just a few of their distinctive characteristics. To develop your own expertise as a life story writer, consider the collection as a set of writing prompts to trigger you to write your own exciting, life changing story. Try this. Write a short story using each entry in Times They Were a Changing as a writing prompt. For example, write:
A story about a brief romantic encounter.
A story about your scariest next door neighbor
A story about a date gone desperately wrong
A story about a rebellious confrontation with a parent
The rudest, most demeaning treatment you received on a job
A time you were transported by drugs, music, trauma, or love to leave your body
The most pride (perhaps mixed with anger and fear) you ever felt when standing up for your rights
The most humiliated you ever felt with your parents
A creepy, immoral, or illegal thing you did in your youth that you have never told anyone before. (You could burn this one after you write it. Or better yet, read it in your memoir critique group.)
Perhaps a reader would not find each story satisfying by itself. But when arranged in chronological order and presented as a collection, the pieces add up. Perhaps like Times They Were a Changing, the stories in your anthology will create an overall understanding of your life. And with additional focus on transitions, you might even turn your collection into a memoir.
For a humorous example of a memoir composed of short stories all related to one author’s relationship to spicy food, read Sharon Lippincott’s Adventures of a Chilehead.
Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.
Read more about the authors by clicking here.
Click here for more about the themes in Times They Were a Changing
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.