Turning Journals and Notebooks Into a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

When Rick Skwiot moved to Mexico in the 1980s, he had two goals. He wanted to find himself spiritually and also find his writing voice. Years later, he wrote about the trip in the memoir “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.”

In the first part of this interview I asked Rick to help me understand more about the spiritual aspects of his search. Now in this and following parts, I ask about his literary journey. The book explains that he wanted to be a writer. I wanted to learn more about how he fulfilled those dreams by turning his powerful life experience into a book that invites readers to relive it with him.

Jerry Waxler: You mentioned your writing journals quite a bit, since writing was one of the things you did to pass the time. Explain how you used your writing notebooks while you were in Mexico.

Rick Skwiot: My journals were crucial in my development as a writer. Not only did I record events of my life, but I also, as you suggest, wrote fictional scenes there, experimented with writing styles, penned criticism on the books I was reading, recorded my dreams and more. It was a mishmash of fact and fiction that would likely misinform and mislead any reader other than myself. My journals were a cauldron from which a writer emerged, finally. They also taught me the discipline of writing every day and thinking every day, examining my life and the world around me with a sense of writerly investigation. For a writer, most everything is research and potential material, which makes us such charming companions, half vulture, half snake-in-the-grass.

Jerry: As you were attempting to write the memoir, what help were your original contemporaneous notebooks? How did it feel reading that old material?

Rick: A curious thing occurred regarding the notebooks’ content. I had mined the notebooks/journals years earlier when writing my two novels set in Mexico, and had not revisited them in perhaps ten years. But when I did I found that the fictionalized versions of events, from my novels, had come to be my reality, how I remembered things. My contemporaneous reporting of events shocked me at times, for I had not remembered things that way at all. This showed how unreliable memory (and perhaps a memoir) can be, and alerted me to the power and truth of fiction. I was also surprised by how hungry I was back then. I was on a compulsive quest to find myself, and my journal notes underscore how serious and driven I was, how dead set on saving myself. It was somewhat frightening in retrospect, for I saw what peril I was in at the time, and found myself feeling sympathetic and paternalistic toward my former self.

Jerry: How have your habits and strategies with notebooks changed over the years? How do you use them now?

Rick: Nowadays I don’t keep a regular journal and only start doing so when I am beginning to work on a book. Then I use a notebook to sketch out plot, dialogue, scenes, characters, etc. So it is more of a workbook than a journal. Also, I think my life has become much more mundane–which is a mixed blessing–and doesn’t inspire journal entries. Also, I have come to trust my memory, which is a writer’s capital, his material. I know everything that has happened to me is in my mind, in my conscious or unconscious, and that it will surface in some form when I need it. I noted this in particular when writing my childhood memoir, Christmas at Long Lake. When I began writing a scene and put myself in that place emotionally and, through the imagination, physically, I began to see and remember–the sights, smells, words, feelings–from my childhood. It was in some ways a very moving experience, spending time again, in that way, with my late parents, when they were young and vital. Most bittersweet and affecting for me.

Jerry: Many aspiring memoir writers look at their pile of notes, their many memories, and feelings, and are daunted by the prospect of turning them into a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. What was that like for you, as you tried to find a theme or organization or thread of this book?

Rick: That’s always the most agonizing and daunting part of writing a book, organizing and structuring it. What I try to do, and what I advise my writing students to do, is to think in terms of scenes–as in theater, compressed, meaningful action that takes place in real time at one location with a few important characters, and dialogue that drives the narrative forward and reveals character. I will note down what scenes I feel are obligatory, scenes I know I want in the book, somewhere, or that need to be there. Then I start to organize them in some effective way–whether it’s chronologically, thematically, geographically or whatever. I often do use a schematic in doing this–I draw boxes that represent scenes–so I can see what needs to happen first, what relationships and interconnections there are between various incidents and characters, and so I can easily move things around. Once I arrive at a workable ordering of the scenes, I can write them (or often I write the scenes first and worry later about where they go.) The last thing then is to write the summary and transitions, the authorial intrusions, if any, and needed exposition. Of course this is a very messy and recursive process, and difficult and potentially heartbreaking. You can write the whole book and then see that one particular scene is out of place, so you have to tear the book all apart and do another organization and a lot more work. This was even more daunting in the pre-computer days, when each draft meant having to re-type the whole manuscript. But I was happy to do it, as I thought such rigors weeded out the dilettantes and other writers not as insanely committed as I.

Jerry: There was a rhythm to the way the book was set up, with your initial burst of enthusiasm, some rethinking, then a trip back to the states and the start of a second round. I liked the rise and fall and rise again. It felt organic and natural. This is especially important for writers because the middle of a book is supposed to be the hardest, keeping the energy moving during the “long middle.” It’s hard enough to get the overall structure. You have done an excellent job of finding internal structure too. Talk about how you worked through the material looking for the shape.

Rick: I am gratified that the book’s structure “felt organic and natural,” because it was arrived at after a lot of trial and error and anxiety. Yes, I did labor over it, and it changed shape drastically over the ten years of its gestation. At last–and this came after numerous drafts over the years–I settled on starting the book in the middle of things, at the pivotal and dramatic point when I broke my ankle playing basketball on the Mexican team. Then most of what happens in the first half of the book is told in flashback. This gave me the opportunity to order things thematically and control pacing. Part two, my return to Mexico, is told more chronologically. The key for writers is the get the story going right off the bat, to get and hold the reader’s interest and attention. Once you have some conflict or problem on the table that captivates the reader, then you can begin to layer in some of the needed exposition, in a judicious way. This applies to creative nonfiction as well as fiction. It is perhaps the most difficult thing about writing a book, keeping the narrative driving forward.

End of Part Two

In the next part, I ask more questions about Rick Skwiot’s journey as a writer.

Click here for Part 1 of the interview with Rick Skwiot

Click here for Part 3, A Memoirist Talks About the Backstory of His Memoir

Click here for Part 4 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Tenacity of a Writer

Click here for Part 5 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Novelist or memoirist


Rick Skwiot’s Blog, “New Underground”

Rick Skwiot’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Memoir Interview with Matthew Polly Author of “American Shaolin”

by Jerry Waxler

Matthew Polly’s memoir, “American Shaolin” chronicles the two years he learned Kung Fu in an ancient temple in China. The trip took place in the 90s when the giant nation was moving rapidly out of isolation and into the global economy. In this interview, I ask Polly questions about writing his memoir, about Coming of Age, and about seeking Truth.

Jerry Waxler: In your childhood you moved from one home to another, creating a radical shift in your self-image and your need to fit in. Then you moved from the Midwest to a top Ivy League school, a huge cultural change. Then again, you made the transition to China. I’m fascinated by these major transitions, because transitions always contain power, as we try to reclaim our center in the new place. My question, though relates to you as the memoir writer. How did writing the book help you make sense of the transitions?

Matthew Polly: It forced me to re-experience my time in China. Also because the book was written 10 years after I’d gone, I was able to look back at my younger self from a certain distance.

JW: Did writing help you gather all these disparate parts into a unified whole?

MP: I don’t know. I’m not sure we are ever really a unified whole. What it did more than anything was to put that part of my life to rest. I stopped thinking about China as much.

JW: What were some of the issues, if any, of going from a private person, known mainly by your friends, to a public one, known by strangers? Of course as an author, you now want to be known by as many strangers as possible. Help us understand this shift out of privacy.

MP: It didn’t bother me at all, strangely enough. As you said, I wish more strangers knew about me, provided they actually bought the book. I don’t get stopped on the street, but I do receive a fairly large amount of email from people wanting to compliment the book or talk about the book or ask for advice. On the one hand, this is highly flattering; on the other, it is a new burden, because I try to reply to everyone in detail. The other big difference is that it gave me a huge increase in credibility as I was researching my next book about the sport of mixed martial arts, which was nice.

JW: The years at the Shaolin Temple represent remarkable self-sacrifices. You gave up so much. You invested years to learn a new language. You became a foreigner in a foreign land, a celibate monk who worked hard every day to learn to fight. You immersed yourself voluntarily in the third world poverty of rural China. And yet, you never ask the reader for sympathy or admiration. How did you achieve your “this is just the way it was” style of writing? Did you workshop to weed out self-consciousness? What steps did you go through to generate the sincere, revealing tone of the book?

MP: It’s the old saying: “tragedy plus time equals comedy.” It was ten years later. And it was hard to feel sorry for myself when so many good things came out of the sacrifice. For one, I was a stronger and more interesting person. For two, I won the Rhodes scholarship almost solely on the strength of the trip. (My grades weren’t that great.) If I had written the book right after my return as I tried and failed to do, there probably would have been much more “feel sorry for me” to it.

JW: At first you were peaceful, almost a wimp. But later, you hit people in the face until they bled, and got so fired up with adrenaline you were screaming with rage. This raised some weird moral questions for me. This wasn’t an action movie. You were really hurting people. I started to worry, “hey, maybe he’s not such a nice guy after all.” When you portrayed yourself as an aspiring “bad ass” did it make you cringe, and ask “was I really that crazy?” Or did you appreciate discovering that side of yourself? Do you like to think of yourself that way now?

MP: I often ask myself: “Did I really do all those things? Was I that crazy?” But I am happy I integrated my shadow self. It wasn’t that I didn’t have that anger inside me; it’s just that it was terribly repressed. But as you suggest, as the anger came out it started to worry me that I was becoming a bad person, a bully. It didn’t bother me to reveal that. I thought there was a great moral lesson in it. What really bothered me was writing that first chapter where I revealed that I had been a wimpy kid who had been bullied. I wrote that chapter last. I still had strong feelings of shame over my cowardice as a child.

JW: I really loved your comments about visionary experience and other direct experiences of transcendent presence. It was fascinating that you found a surprising number who had such experiences themselves. How did you feel about turning such private experiences into a public statement? Does it make you feel vulnerable? Did anyone ever accuse you of being weird for expressing this interest?

MP: I was concerned about revealing it in the Lao-tzu sense: “The knowers do not say, and the sayers do not know.” But I felt an obligation to reveal it and let people know that Shaolin wasn’t just about learning how to fight, it was also a spiritual center. That kung fu is a form of spiritual practice and that I knew that for a fact because I had directly experienced it.

No one ever accused me of being weird. Quite the opposite. I received a number of emails early on from people who have had their own spiritual experiences. Some were very interesting, some were slightly disturbed. I think it is the Upanishads that says something to the effect, “the line between divinity and insanity is as thin and sharp as a razor’s edge.” But I may have that quote wrong.

JW: You were apparently on a spiritual search and yet after three years of studying religion and philosophy, your memoir contains hardly anything about your belief system. I consider this absence of preaching to be an impressive feat. You stuck to your story rather than reported your belief systems. Please comment on your choice to hold back so completely on ideas, belief, theology, and so on.

MP: That is very astute of you to notice and kind of you to say. The grandiose answer would be: Jesus taught through parables. The truth is I’m very uncomfortable when people evangelize, so I didn’t want to do that to readers of my book. I felt that the moral thing to do was simply recount my experiences as best I could and let the readers draw their own conclusions.

JW: Are you tempted to write more about what you believe? Why or why not.

MP: No, I’m opposed to it. I think of myself primarily as a colorful storyteller, not a preacher or a missionary. It strikes me as dangerously arrogant to believe that “I know the truth and you should believe as I do, because I tell you so.” It’s the sin of pride. It’s a short step between writing about what you believe and expecting others to do the same.

JW: I was delighted with the way you end the book. I don’t like to discuss endings in detail, because I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that the last section of the book and especially the last line created an excellent effect, wrapping up the whole thing in one fell swoop. The end is an important part of any book, because that’s when readers are trying to make sense of what they just read, and the writer must guide them from his life back to theirs. You performed this part of your task beautifully. Was it hard for you to come up with the ending? What went in to creating it? Did you know where the book was going to end when you started it?

MP: Thank you. The story goes: I had finished the manuscript. My book editor read it and suggested that I should really go back to the Temple and see how it had changed for the closing chapter. I pitched the idea to Slate, so I could cover the cost of the trip. (Your readers can find the article here.)

The final two paragraphs of the book just flowed out of me. I didn’t know what I was going to write until I reread what I had just written. When that happens, it is almost always great material.

JW: How did this brainstorm about the ending work in with the overall structure of the rest of the book? Did finding the right ending make you rethink the beginning?

MP: I liked how the ending had turned out so much that I went back and rewrote the entire manuscript. It wasn’t the structure so much as the quality of the work. I’d reached a new level with the epilogue and I needed to improve the rest of the book to match it.

JW: What are you working on next?

MP: I’ve been researching a book about mixed martial arts (MMA). It has involved getting hit in the head frequently. Probably not the best thing for a writer.


Click here for the Amazon Page for “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly.

To read my essays about the memoir “American Shaolin,” click the links below:
Princeton Student transfers to the School of Hard Knocks or Learning Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple

Flawed heroes and mechanical body parts: Shaolin Memoir Part 2

Seeking Truth in a far off land, “American Shaolin” Part 3

For more background about the modern history of China, see my essay about the memoir, “The Man on Mao’s Right.

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.

Author Interview: Curtis Smith talks about publishing in Literary Journals

By Jerry Waxler

At this year’s Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish conference,  Curtis Smith played an important role, by throwing in a few choice comments about how much fun writing is. (To read more about his comments, click here ). One of the parts of writing that seemed to be working especially well for Curtis was his regular publication in literary journals. Since he was getting so much satisfaction from that aspect of his craft, I asked him to share some tips and pointers with the rest of us. Our interview follows:

Jerry Waxler: Your bio says you have published in 50 journals. Could you say more about how you found these journals? How much legwork do you do to become familiar with the journals in your “space.”

Curtis Smith: In the pre-internet days, I found them using books like The Writers Market or Dustbooks Small Press directory.  I’d familiarize myself with them mainly through the stories reprinted in the annual anthologies like Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, or the O’Henry series.  Sometimes I’d order a particular journal; other times I’d go to the local college library, which carried quite a few lit journals.  These days I mainly use websites like Duotrope or New Pages to find markets.  And I visit the journals’ websites and see what kind of work they post.

JW: Do each of the journals tend to have their own “voice” — and if so, when searching for a journal you will submit to, how much must you understand their voice preferences?

CS: Some journals do have a unique voice, the independents mostly, print places like Hobart and Monkeybicycle and online places like Smokelong.  These days, a website will give you a good indication of a journal’s aesthetic.  I think if you’re dealing with a journal affiliated with a college, you can find the turnover of editors may lead to a somewhat less defined voice–that said, many university-sponsored journals are beautiful and have a long history of publishing great work.

JW: How did you decide which journals would be most appropriate for the nonfiction essays you wrote about your relationship with your young son?

CS: That’s been more of a crapshoot–since many journals only have one or two essays per issue, it was harder for me to get a feel for that.  Some markets I did target–I had a piece in The Humanist and a few others in special theme issues.

JW: During your writing process, do you ever write with a particular editor or publication in mind?

CS: Rarely–sometimes I’ll see a call for a theme issue that piques my interest, but usually I just write for myself.

JW: You mentioned at the Philadelphia Stories conference that once you have published in a journal, you develop a rapport with the editor. Could you say more about that process or give an example of how it has worked for you.

CS: I’ve been lucky to click with a few editors–the collection of essays coming out next year will feature three essays that first appeared in Lake Effect and two that first appeared in Mississippi Review.  I’ve developed a long relationship with other editors with my fiction–my last two story collections featured a trio of very long stories that first came out in The Greensboro Review.  I also have a couple places that have taken a number of my flash fictions.  If I enjoy an editor and his journal, I’ll gladly submit more in the future.

JW: When your work is published in a journal, of course the journal’s stamp of approval gives you authority as a writer. I imagine, then, that as an aspiring writer, you would want to be accepted into the most prestigious publication, the higher the better. Right? How do you even know which journal is more prestigious and which is less so?

CS: Of course you want your work to appear in the best journal possible.  And there are some wonderful journals out there, but outside that first tier of places like The Paris Review and Ploughshares and Georgia Review, there are any number of fine journals putting out great work.  How does one know which journals are good?  I think you just have to keep your eyes open–check out the annual anthologies like the Best American Series and Pushcart and see where they’re getting their work from.  Listen to what your friends are reading and where they’re publishing.

JW: What sorts of feedback do you get when publishing in a journal? Do you hear from readers? Is it like a tree falling in a forest? Is there a specialized audience that gets to know your work?

CS: It used to be pretty rare that you’d get feedback.  If you were lucky, you’d get a Pushcart nomination or a mention in the Best American series.  But now with the advent of social networking sites like Facebook, you get a lot more feedback.  If I read a story or essay I enjoy, I make sure to drop a line to the author if we’ve hooked up on a site – and many people do it in return.  The audience is pretty much limited to writers and fans of lit fiction and journals, but it is a bigger audience than before.

JW: Do you put much of your own marketing/networking energy into publicizing your piece in the journal?

CS: Not much beyond a posting on Facebook.  I add links to online pieces to my website.  I save the bigger pushes for my books.

JW: Please give examples of journals you published non-fiction essays in, and some thoughts about why these particular ones worked out for you.

CS: I’ve published a number of essays in Mississippi Review and Lake Effect.  Others have appeared in Turnrow, Bellingham Review, Philadelphia Stories, Red Cedar Review, Inkpot, The Humanist, and a number of others.

The two essays from Mississippi Review were theme issues, so they worked out because my work could address those themes.  And the same for the Humanist.  The others were just nonfiction spots in lit journals–and I think they fit because my writing comes from a fiction-writer’s perspective, and I bring fictional techniques into my work.

JW: Many of the readers of my blog “Memory Writers Network” do not come from a “literary” or “creative writing” background. They are just looking to develop the best writing skills possible so they can share parts of their lives. Are there journals that would appeal to this segment of the writing public, the well-told stories, that would not necessarily earn high grades in a creative writing class?

CS: That’s an interesting question.  I’m not sure.  I’m guessing that journals would, by nature, appeal to the folks with literary and creative writing backgrounds.  That said, I think there are some wonderful journals that have fine literary work that is also very accessible.  For the readers of your blog who are interested in nonfiction more than fiction, I’d suggest Creative Nonfiction or Fourth Genre.  The online journal Brevity is also very interesting (short-short nonfiction).


Click here for Curtis Smith’s home page.

Click here for Philadelphia Stories Home Page

Memoir author talks about writing, sharing, and healing

By Jerry Waxler

Bill Strickland’s memoir, “Ten Points,” weaves together three things: a promise he made to his daughter, a summer of cycling to fulfill that promise, and his insights into the wounds of his own childhood. To see my review of his memoir, click here. To learn more about his experience of digging so deeply into his past and then sharing it with the public, I asked Bill Strickland to answer a few questions about writing and publishing his memoir. Here is the second part of the interview I conducted with him.

Jerry: Many writers feel a concern about sharing their private lives in public. I imagine this was even more intense for you, given the very personal nature of some of your disclosures. What was it like to share these private experiences?

Bill: At first I was terrified. When I first met my agent David Black, I couldn’t even look him in the eye as I tried to describe what I thought the book might be, even without details. I also hated sending the story to my mother, but it turned out to be good; we talked like we never had before ? a conversation that made its way into the end of the book.

After I submitted the manuscript, and it made the rounds through the offices at Hyperion, I was speaking to someone about the book – of course, right? – and the experience was so bizarre that it cured me of shock. I was lucky to be able to realize that everyone was going to know the worst parts of my life. And I’m luckier, I think, that for some reason I don’t very much care.

David Black, my agent, gave me some great advice when he read my first chapters. “Get ready for everyone on earth to understand you,” he said. And that’s been true: When I lose my temper at work with friends or I’m snotty at work or something, it’s not because I’m having a bad day but because my dad stuck a gun in my mouth ? that sort of thing. Everyone else has all these potential motivations that are hidden so we assume they’re just having a crappy day or are sick or tired or justified in their actions. But for me, now, for everyone who’s read my book the temptation is to attribute everything I do to something they’ve read. I don’t hold that against them. It’s probably hard not to do.

Most people are nervous when they approach me to talk about the story. They’re not sure if mentioning some scenes will open some sort of traumatic wound that’s been scabbed over. I try to put them at ease, and also try to apologize for the graphic nature of the story.

The bizarre thing is that I’m more myself now than I ever was. Rather than being driven or affected by shame, all the mistakes I make are my own mistakes, all the anger is my own, all the stupid decisions are just me being a stupid human, which is all I ever wanted. I’m more me than ever, yet to everyone else, I’m more the character in the book than ever.

The only concession I think I make is that when I give a book reading I try to select a section based on the audience. The story about my father making me race the killer poodle works pretty well.

Jerry: What advice would you give to people about looking at their own darker memories, and how to decide whether to dig deeper, or keep them hidden, or share them with others?

Bill: I imagine that the best way to go about our lives is different in at least some measure for each of us. Mining the hole inside me worked out; it might not for someone else. For me, it worked out that to be successful in a sport I fell in love, I had to spend a lot of time immersed in suffering, turmoil, unpredictability and other conditions that evoked my memories – and that one positive trait I possess, tenacity, was the answer to the memories as well as the sport.

Jerry: How would you describe what happened to you by writing this book – for example was it healing, redemption, therapy?

Bill: It felt like I was purified in some kind of fire. I don’t think I can make up for the rotten things I’ve done, nor do I think I have to make up for the things that were done to me. I just wanted to be shed of all of them, start fresh. My idea was never that I would be perfect, or even necessarily a better person. I just wanted to be a person.

The races themselves were the vehicles of my transformation . . . the experience of trying so hard, of failing, of succeeding only to fail again, of being outmatched but not quitting, then of having to quit anyway – all of that thrust my childhood back into my life. So my introspection took place at 30 mph, 180 beats per minute, 500 feet off the back of the pack or rubbing elbows with a whirling madman. Bike racing, as it turns out, feels like being burned clean.

Jerry: Some of the humiliating experiences your dad put you through were extremely difficult for me to read. Did you ever consider damping the book down to make it more palatable?

Bill: My editor at Bicycling magazine, Steve Madden, pushed me to be honest about my life in a feature story I wrote about cardiac health back in 2003. I was recounting my family’s cardiac history, and starting writing not just about the physical heart but the emotional concept of heart, and in a draft I dropped the detail that my father had once shot my dog, and I remember Steve saying, “That goes in,” then asking for more. At that time in my life I wasn’t going to tell anyone all that had happened to me, but the incidents I sketched out in that article marked the first time I’d admitted that what went on in my past wasn’t some hilarious caper of misadventures and loveable anti-heroes; that started a change that developed as I wrote the book.

Jerry: What role did writing play in helping you come to terms with your past?

Bill: Writing, as it turned out, was a way to process it, organize it, make sense of it. There was no narrative to my quest until I made it a narrative, in other words. I mean, we all decide where the stories begin and end in our lives — plenty of incidents related to that story happened before and after the framework of the book, but I made sense of my life within those particular boundaries.

One of the oddities about my personality is that I often seem to not know, or fully understand, what I think or believe until I write it down. It’s been this way for me as long as I can remember, just the way I relate to the world, a quirk of my mental make-up. I was one of those kids, for instance, who could learn how to hit a cue ball or build a go-cart from reading about it more so than from watching it demonstrated.

Jerry: I recently met John Bradshaw, who has spent his whole life working on the topic of shame. This fascinates me, since as near as I can tell it’s one of the main deterrents to introspection. Help me understand your willingness to stare your disturbing memories in the face and keep going.

Bill: Well, I was desperate. When Natalie was born, I was actually terrified that I might turn into the kind of monster my father had been. My choices were either to leave, to destroy myself, or to destroy the monster that was in me and wanted out. (I had no idea there was another option, which I found out only at end of that long season, which was to unmask the monster and see that it was only shame.)

At the end of the last race of the season, when I failed to get the ten points and had to deal with my failure and the fact that it had happened right in front of Natalie and my wife and my friends, I realized that the monster I’d always feared was nothing but shame. And I knew that exposing shame to the world would be the best way to neutralize it ? which meant I wanted to not only write my story but publish it so I would become transparent. I also wanted to keep my promise to Natalie. I couldn’t give her ten points (the score), but I could give her Ten Points (the book).

It wasn’t that I faced shame like some brave and noble human, but rather that the racing, the failing at racing, and the succeeding at admitting I’d failed, shone a bright light on the shame that was in me. I mean, there it was: I couldn’t not see it.

Jerry: Do you speak or do any sort of advocacy for victims of child abuse?

Bill: I don’t feel qualified to speak knowledgeably about anyone’s abuse except my own, or about the causes, effects or other commonalities. I just haven’t done that much research. The one thing I feel confident saying, which is in the book, is that I believe all of us contend with our own personal demons (though the intensity and source varies) and that for each of us, our obsessions, whatever they are – bike racing for me, stamp collecting, gardening, or whatever – can teach us all we need to overcome or learn to live with those demons.

Jerry: What’s next?

Bill: I’m done writing about myself. Next summer the paperback of Ten Points comes out. There has been some interest in movie rights to the story, though that’s notoriously unpredictable and not to be counted on, and I’m not inclined to see many of the scenes from the book acted out.

Next summer is also the release of a book I co-wrote with Johan Bruyneel (Lance Armstrong’s team director), We Might as Well Win (Houghton-Mifflin). Stories from Bruyneel’s life illustrate all he’s learned about how to win, whether it’s in the Tour de France or in life.

This is the second of a two part interview. To read more of this interview, click here.
Note: Foster Winans reports a similar experience in which revealing his observations of childhood helped him deepen his relationship with his mother, rather than alienating her as is so often feared. I comment more on Foster’s experience in this review.

Memoir of Redemption: Author Shares His Writing Experience

By Jerry Waxler

I recently reviewed Bill Strickland’s memoir Ten Points. It strikes me as being a “perfect memoir” – it’s a great read, it has a powerful sense of love and redemption, and the author opens up generously into his inner process. In order to delve even deeper, I asked him answer a few questions. Just as he was generous in his memoir, he was also generous in sharing his insights about writing it. This is the first of a two part interview.

(To read my review of the memoir, click here.)

Jerry: When did you realize you were going to write your life experience in a memoir?

Bill: As I started training for that season, I was taking notes and writing about the races, because that’s generally what I do ? try to make sense of my life by writing about it. But at that time, the writing was strictly for me. One of my training friends, Jeremy, who makes a few appearances in the book, rode many early 5 a.m. morning rides with me, during which we talked and talked, as cyclists do to fill the miles. He was a book editor (now an agent) and he kept telling me, “You have a book. This is a book. Write this book.” But I kept hesitating, because Jeremy, along with everyone else, didn’t know the full story. He only knew what I’d told everyone: That I was trying to score ten points to show my five-year-old daughter, Natalie, that any of could achieve something impossible, and to show her that we should ask much, and expect much, of those we love. Jeremy, like other people, that I’d had a tough life; I’d never been shy about spinning yarns about my white-trash family, turning us into comic-heroic misfits.

I didn’t tell anyone though, in detail, about the horrors of my life and what I really hoped to accomplish by scoring ten points ? destroying the monster I believed lived in me. I knew if I wrote a book, it would only be if I told the full, true story.

As the season wore on, and I wrote more, some of the stories of my past began to lay over the stories of the bike races in ways that seemed natural. And the act of racing itself, the suffering and the survival and the triumph and tragedies, was like opening a pipeline to my childhood. After the racing season was over and I’d had that final epiphany about shame, telling the story was not only okay to me, but almost mandatory.

Jerry: How long did it take you from the time you started to the time you finished writing?

Bill: From the end of the racing season through the rest of 2004, from October to Dececember, I kept writing scenes and what felt like chapters. At my agent’s urging, in 2005 I began working on a proposal, and we submitted a 50-page proposal that spring. It had a long chapter that also worked as a kind of introduction; a summary; and a summary of every chapter I’d planned.

Hyperion bought the book in the spring 2005 and I began writing for a May 2006 deadline. I mostly hit that deadline, with an 80,000-word manuscrpt. My editor, Leslie Wells, asked me what the book might look like with less cycling, more present day family stories, and a little tighter. She made some suggestions about which parts worked and where her interest flagged, and I ended up liking her ideas so much that I cut about 12,000 words and tried to focus on the most compelling race action rather than document each race. That, in turn, made the connections to my past even sharper. I turned in a final draft in August of 2006, and it was published July of 2007.

Jerry: What can you share about persisting, overcoming slumps, and making it to the end?

Bill: There was never a slump for me. Rather, in the spring of 2006, in the middle chapters, I could sometimes forget I was writing a book and that there was an end. The process seemed to exist only for itself, which I found sort of satisfying but also mystifying; I could get lost in the writing for days. Each week I tried to look at the book as a whole and see where I was, in a way kind of reminding myself that I was trying to complete this big, long thing.

I never had periods where I felt blocked or stumped. There were definitely times when I went off-track, or when I felt drained. I simply took a few days off, tried not to think about the book, then came back to it. I get great joy from the act of writing, even when it’s hard, maybe especially when it’s hard. To me it’s less about persistence than the incredible good luck that I am able to do this. When I get a chance to write, it’s a gift.

Jerry: What were your writing habits?

Bill: I don’t keep track of words or hours or consecutive days. I would guess that I write something, whether it’s fresh copy or playing with something already written down, just about every day. But I don’t know for sure. I write until I know I should stop for any of three reasons – I am exhausted or I can sense the next sentence and know I’ll be able to pick up the flow, or I have reached what I think of as a “turn,” in the story, which I define to myself as the end of a section that moves in a certain direction or with a certain rhythm. Or, sometimes, I need to take out the garbage or let the cat in or something, too – life’s mundanities rule us as much as our passions.

I’m also a fan of revision, so I like to just get something on paper and then tune it.

I write on computer, edit on paper, and like to move about the house with my laptop. I also wrote a fair bit of the book in our local bike shop, South Mountain Cycles.

Jerry: I am stunned by the brilliance of the story telling and phrasing. How much of this skill was learned before you decided to write a memoir, and how much after?

Bill: I have to say that I was surprised to hear myself called a good storyteller (by my agent, readers and editors). It’s not that I thought of myself as a bad storyteller but I’d never tried to tell a long story and didn’t know if I could, whereas I’ve always more or less known I can write some striking sentences.

In a strange way that is almost embarrassing to discuss, I think that deciding to be honest about who I am, for the first time in my life, opened up my writing in a way that changed it. I realize this sounds precious or maybe makes me sound like a sophomore in a creative writing class, but I now believe that I was always holding something back in my writing, what I gave to my writing, or the chances I was willing to take with language and sound and rhythm and image.

Jerry: What memoirs did you read to learn the art of memoir writing?

Bill: I didn’t want to read other memoirs as I wrote mine, especially those that dealt with abuse. I wanted to prevent anything from the abuse canon from slipping into my story; I wanted the details and whatever patterns or connections there might be in that area to come to the story strictly from my experience, even if they are part of a common experience . . . if that makes any sense. I guess you could say I don’t mind being derivative as long as I’m original.

I did have some reference points. I’d read Bill McKibben’s book, Long Distance, which is about a year he spent trying to become a world-class cross-country skiier. I still think Tim Krabbe’s book, The Rider, captures the entire feeling of a bike race better than any other book (or movie). A book about swimming, of all things, Water Dancer, by Jenifer Levin, showed me something important about language in its cadences; I realized that I wanted the writing about the racing to be extremely physical – to feel harsh or hard or as if it were slipping away from the reader, or hitting them in the face, and I worked hard to try to accomplish that through word choice and rhythm. I kept reading Worstword Ho, by Samuel Beckett, because I thought the pacing was a good model, and because some phrasing in it became important to me: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In fact, as I raced I used to repeat, like a mantra, “fail better,” and I had that in the book for a bit but the idea of a racer quoting Beckett seemed too outlandish to be accepted as real. I used it as the epigram, at least.

Jerry: Tell me more about your approach to finding the story amidst your memories.

Bill: I found that, to be effective as a storyteller, I had to quickly get to a point where I was able to view the story as a story rather than as therapy. I don’t think I could create tension, character, setting within the confines of a therapeutic recounting. A story, even the ones that feel loose, are structured. I was writing certain ways, introducing certain things at certain points, ending things at certain times, revisiting at certain times, for storytelling effect. I talk about the people in the book as characters, which I think can be disorienting for people who want to talk about me, or Natalie as people. We’re both, but those people inside that book are more characters to me. I mean, I counted up once and Natalie has less than 300 lines of dialog in the book — a fraction of a fraction of everything she said to me over the course of that year. Her dialog in that book is the dialog of that particular character, whereas Nat and I have this whole, nearly boundless yearlong mess of our life together.


This is Part 1 of a Two Part Interview. To read part 2, click here.

To see the Amazon page for this book, click here.

To read more about Bill Strickland and Ten Points, click here


Interview with 60’s Celeb Dee Dee Phelps, Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

This is part two of an interview with Dee Dee Phelps, singer in the sixties duo, Dick and Dee Dee and author of the memoir Vinyl Highway, Singing with Dick and Dee Dee. To see my earlier post, click here. I also posted a two part book review that starts here. For more information about Dee Dee’s history, book, and appearances, visit her website.

Jerry: You had a variety of picturesque experiences on stage and with other 60’s celebrities. How did you decide what to keep in the book and what to leave out?

Dee Dee: From the memoir classes and my own reading of literally hundreds of memoirs, I discovered that, for me, the most interesting ones were written like fiction, in other words, narrative non-fiction. I learned the principals of how to do this in the memoir classes. So I had to pull memories that would move the story along. I had no idea what length was required and before the book was complete, I’d written 130,000 words. I was told by an editor that I had to cut the word count down to 100,000, or the book would be too thick and the paper to print it so expensive, the book would be priced at $45.00 for a paperback!

In shock, I appeared incapable to choose what 30,000 words to cut. Fortunately, a script editor for Warner Brothers took the project on and eliminated a number of entire chapters, as well as references to anything that went on in those chapters. It worked. I refined it and found we were just under 100,000 words. When I started a recent blog, I was able to stick in a few of the eliminated stories, like the brief story of Roy Orbison.

Jerry: Was it obvious to you when you first thought about writing the book where you would start the story and where you would stop it, or did you have to go through soul searching to find the book’s structure?

Dee Dee: It was obvious to me to start the story at the beginning of the Sixties when Dick and I recorded our first record and to continue until the act broke up, at the decades end. What was interesting to me was to discover that what I thought was a linear process (start at the beginning and write on through to the end) turned out to be a collage. I often thought of incidents and scenes I wanted to include and just inserted them into the middle of things. The story had a rough structure, but I kept adding to it at random.

Jerry: When delving back into your memories, what sort of emotional stuff did you churn up?

Dee Dee: Since singing with Dick occurred when I was a teenager and continued into my early twenties, and I’m now middle aged, I can look at that time with a certain emotional detachment. Although some of it was difficult, none of it was traumatic. Now I look back and see how funny much of it was. I tried to write the book to relay the humor of it all, to make people happy and to bring some fond memories back. We have enough bad news in the press and world at large. In the Sixties we knew how to have a good time (as the Beach Boys said, “Fun, Fun, Fun.”). I tried to remember what those times were really like and to offer a portrait for the reader.

Jerry: Were there things too hot to handle that you felt in the end weren’t appropriate for the book?

Dee Dee: I remembered that “perception equals reality.” In other words, what is true for one person may not be true for the person standing next to them. We had a great discussion in one of the memoir classes about how much trouble we could get into (lawsuits, or anger) by using the real names of people. Basically, we were encouraged to tell what happened from our hearts, and not worry about the response from some people who might not like the way they are portrayed. I worried about this, as I was not always portraying my singing partner, Dick, in a positive light. But I was truthful with what really happened. Knowing Dick’s nature, I feared what the consequences might be for me in writing this book. But strangely enough, Dick passed away in the middle of the process, so he never had a chance to read it.

I have a sense of honor about the reputations of others and left out a number of negative incidents about certain entertainers that they wouldn’t want revealed. Since I had no agenda, I just wanted to tell the amazing story of what it was like to travel the country on rock and roll tours in the Sixties, a time of racial segregation, before computers and cell phones. Nowhere does it say that you have to drag every negative thing you witnessed about another person onto the written page. I feel a book is a reflection of the writer’s consciousness and each person will chose what to include and what to leave out according to their own dictates and conscience.

Jerry: One of my favorite things about memoirs is that writers often report that writing about the past helps them understand it better than when they lived through it. What was your experience? Were there insights that helped you understand more about who you are as a person?

Dee Dee: Through writing out all the various incidents and noting which ones I chose to write about and which to leave out, I saw a pattern emerging. My “ah-ha” moment came when I realized how powerless I felt at the time, how I allowed Dick St. John to convince me that he had all the talent and I was lucky to be along for the ride. I realized, with great joy, that all the happy and sad experiences in life are just a learning curve. Now I’m a powerful woman who speaks up when I feel that something isn’t right. But I had to learn that over time.

Jerry: When the book went public, were there any surprises about people’s reactions, or surprising feelings about raising those old images?

Dee Dee: When the book went public, I got several phone calls from singers I’d performed with as Dick and Dee Dee. They were glad I set the record straight. Releasing the book has brought wonderful experiences into my life. I’ve learned and grown as both a writer and book promoter (you have to be both) and have traveled to promote the book to Washington, DC and New York City. I’m now doing book readings and getting out to meet the public. It brings me the greatest joy to try to help others who are struggling with writing their own books.

So many new people have helped me, both in providing vintage videos and photos of the act, to helping promote the book. I am so grateful and aware of how much the internet has played a part in this wonderful experience, creating a huge network of new friends and renewing old acquaintances. We are, indeed, a world community.

Jerry: What advice would you offer anyone who wants to write about their life story?

Dee Dee: If anyone wants to write their life story I’d only say, “Go for It.” It’s such a tremendous experience to be “in the flow,” creating something from nothing. I remember advice from Aram Saroyan, one of my memoir teachers. He said, “Mind is shapely.” In other words, if you just show up (90% of writing is showing up and 10% is hard work and talent) your mind will create story from all the various images it holds. Trust the process.

The other thing he used to say was, “First thought, best thought.” We tend to edit what we write immediately after writing it, which is the left brain critic trying to decide if we can do better, or write the story in another way. Forget analyzing. Write, just write. The time for true editing will come later.

Plan the same time every day and make a firm commitment to write for whatever time you decide, anywhere from half an hour to four hours. Then keep that commitment. You will find that during the rest of the day, when many duties take your attention, the subconscious mind is working on the writing process and the next day you know exactly what to write next. If you stay in the flow with consistent effort, it’s very difficult to get “writers block.”

Jerry: What’s next?

Dee Dee: I have a second memoir in mind, the story of the Seventies which I spent going back to the land in Big Sur. Some amazing experiences took place there. I’d also like to write a book about the process of writing a memoir and also about prosperity groups. Please visit my blog: http://blog.dickanddeedee.com to continue a relationship with me. Also, the website (www.dickanddeedee.com) is great fun. We keep posting new videos as they come up and tell what is going on with book promotion.

I think memoirs are becoming more and more popular because they are about real people and real events, just as reality TV is taking over from scripted shows. Thank you for your wonderful website and the chance to chat with other potential memoir writers.

Blind veteran finds his voice by writing

 by Jerry Waxler

After finishing the memoir, Shades of Darkness, I felt I had learned a lot about the author, George Brummell, as a person, his cultural experience growing up in the segregated south. His ticket out to the larger world was the United States Army. I could feel him growing up in Korea. It was a nicely told coming of age story, and then, just when it looked like he was turning into a real adult, his life exploded in a landmine in Vietnam. He was blinded and maimed, and then when he returned, he had to invent himself again. Through the magic of memoir he took me on his journey, as he kept growing. He graduated from college, became director of the Blinded Veterans Association, and wrote this memoir.

I knew he was lecturing and outreach to encourage others to tell their story. To find out more about his experience writing the memoir I set up an interview. He has a melodic voice, and as he was speaking each sentence, I could almost hear him lining up the next, so his thoughts flowed together in a lovely, somewhat unusual sort of continuum. Here is what he said when I asked him to tell me about writing his memoir.

GB: “When I came back from Vietnam I wasn’t doing too well, and writing the memoir helped me organize my thoughts. Putting my thoughts on paper was elevating for me. It was quite therapeutic. I needed it at the time, especially those times that were not the best for me. When I began to write it had a tendency to take away my thoughts, and I could drift back to my childhood days and think of things that I could probably have done a little bit better. It was just exciting to be able to see what I have accomplished in writing.

When I first started writing I often thought how difficult it would be to organize my thoughts and not repeat myself. I thought that would be a real challenge. I like challenges, and that was a challenge to me to do that. I was in college at the time, I felt it was a way to improve my life. Writing is like driving or a lot of other things that we do. In most cases, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Writing the book prepared me for the career that I had with the Blinded veterans association which required me to do a lot of writing.

After so much practice I found myself in a position to be able to write a little bit better than a lot of my peers. It also helped me in terms of promotion, because a couple of times they asked the applicants to write what they could do for the organization, and I was able to express myself fairly well.

I knew as a blind person a lot of what I was going to do in my life would require me to speak, because as a blind person a lot of things you cannot do with your hands, other than a lot of manual labor, and I wasn’t interested in that. I found that in order for me to improve my speech, I had to read. And of course writing was an adjunct to that. The more I wrote, the more I was able to organize my thoughts and to be able to speak.

JW: “Did you get much training in story writing?”

GB: Not really. As a youngster, living with my grandmother, she was illiterate, and I wrote letters to her daughter and sisters. They were in Philadelphia and she didn’t have a telephone. Otherwise, my only writing class was a remedial writing course, which I took because I was a high school dropout and then in college I took English 101 and 102.

When I took the remedial writing course, I was recording my memoirs at the time, and I asked the instructor to let me use those recordings as my English assignment. My instructor thought my writing was quite interesting. Then in English 101 and 102, the instructor let me use recordings as well.

After that, I took a non-credit course in creative writing. Again, I was able to submit papers for that class from my own material. By that time I was hooked. And as a social work major, I had to do a lot of writing, and a lot of editing. I really enjoyed editing. I worked with my writing person to get my coursework on paper. I went through it with her, and she retyped it, and I edited and she retyped it. So I had a lot of editing experience while I was in school.

And again while I was at work, we did a brochure. And I went along with the person who was writing the brochure, and she would read and ask the directors what changes we wanted to make, and I saw that I stood a little bit taller than my peers in terms of editing. All of them had more education than I did, their vocabulary was greater, but once it was put on paper, I could make it sound better.

JW: And that skill shows in your book.

GB: That’s the only training I had, other than what I got from my own experience. I thought I could write a book better than the ones I had read, such as, “If you can see what I hear” – hell, I could write my own experiences. Why not do it from the point of view of an African American?

See www.georgebrummell.com for more information and excerpts from his book.