Writing a life: memoir or autobiography?

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

(Note: This article began as a review of Strawberry Roan by Judy Beil Vaughan, and over time turned into a longread about the intricate relationship between memoir and autobiography. If you are a writer wondering how your memoir will work, or a reader, wondering about how to make better sense of these two types of life writing, consider the creative way Judy Beil Vaughan bridged the divide.)
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Will the Examined Life Become a Memoir Subgenre?

by Jerry Waxler

This is the fourth part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Click here to read part one

If the only books you read are ones you find in the bookstore, you might conclude that memoir writers limit their attention to small segments of life. However, many aspiring memoir writers who attend my writing workshops have a much broader agenda. They are interested in discovering the meaning of their entire lives and are trying to envision the character arc not just across a few years, but across decades.

Unfortunately, this desire to portray the panorama of a life violates a central mandate of the memoir genre. According to agents, editors, and teachers, a memoir should be about a slice of life, preferably a short one. According to these rules, if you include too much, for example including your childhood and adulthood in the same story, you bump up against the label “autobiography” which supposedly guarantees a rejection.

I have heard fiction writing teachers say “the less backstory the better,” and that “you always need less backstory than you think you do.” Modern readers supposedly are too impatient to stick with a character for too long. The trend toward shorter, tighter time frames reaches a crescendo in the hit television series, 24. Each one-hour episode chronicles the events of an hour in story-time.

This was not always the case. In early versions of the novel, authors were allowed to trace the origins of their characters. In one of my favorite novels Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, the power of the story arises from the pressures that build up across decades. And Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders traces the course of the protagonist’s whole life.

Now, as increasing numbers of people are drawn by the allure of the memoir revolution, we are beginning to notice that this literary form can help us make sense of who we are and where we’ve been. Memoirs are a perfect place to tie together the chapters of your life, to see how one thing led to another, and to discover the wisdom hidden within our own experience. As we look back across decades and try to capture their psychological complexity, the backstory is crucial.

Our reading preferences are beginning to reveal this awakening curiosity. Blockbusters such as Angela’s Ashes and Glass Castle, provide intimate insight into the way their protagonists grow up. Those books and others like them helped launch the memoir revolution. And another reading trend provides even more proof that we are interested in the way people emerge into adulthood. Harry Potter, one of the bestselling stories of all time, was about a young person Coming of Age. He had so much to figure out, and so do we. Apparently, we collectively crave deeper understanding of this process.

I recently found a memoir Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe by Dawn Novotny that demonstrates this longer search for meaning. By including her whole life, Novotny showed me how all the parts fit together. If she had limited her story just to the neglect and abuse during childhood, I would never have learned how that childhood led to her failed marriages. If she only wrote about her troubled young adulthood, I would never have understood the period of growth and wisdom that came later. Over this longer time frame, she portrayed a compelling dramatic arc.

By including all the stages of her life, Novotny allowed me to experience her fascinating journey, from shame, to troubles, to redemption. These long-term developments are among the most satisfying rewards of lifestory reading and writing, and I’m glad Ragdoll Redeemed extended beyond the “standard” definition of memoir.

Tips for your Memoir

When you first attempt to write the story of your life, you may be tempted to follow Dawn Novotny’s lead and include the whole thing. I encourage you to submit to that temptation, at least for early drafts. Once you record the whole thing on paper, you have a number of options.

For example, this longer version could provide wonderful raw material from which to find a shorter segment with a tighter focus. Or you could break it into sequential volumes, the way Frank McCourt did with Angela’s Ashes and Tis, or the way Mary Karr did with Liar’s Club and Cherry, or the way Haven Kimmel did with A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch. Or perhaps you will be so excited to have been through this creative process, you will decide to ignore the rules and publish it in its entirety.

You don’t need to decide now. By the time you are ready, perhaps the industry will change, as it always does. Perhaps some memoir of a complete life will cross over and become a New York Times bestseller and establish the validity of Life Reviews as a sub-genre, and then publishers will be just as interested in the story of your lifetime as you are.


Other memoirs from my reading list that offer a life review: Boyd Lemon’s Digging Deep about his attempt to understand his three failed marriages. Harry Bernstein’s Golden Willow about the journey of his 67 years of marriage. Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man recaps his journey as a teacher. And Alan Alda’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed about a lifetime journey as an actor.

Dawn Novotny, RagDoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe

Dawn Novotny’s blog and home page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?

Jerry Waxler

This is part 1 of the essay. Click here for part 2, Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir.

Click here for part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview, and Click here for part 3b

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

During dinner, my dad told endless stories about the characters who came into his corner drugstore in North Philadelphia. His shoptalk intrigued me so much that I started to work there every weekend, and extended hours during the summer. Through high school, I spent more time with my father than I did with my friends. By the time I left for college, I knew everything about Dad’s daily grind, but I never asked him about his earlier life, and he never volunteered.

Decades went by, during which I struggled to find myself. By the time I became curious about his early life, it was too late. He died without telling me anything about how he had come to own a drugstore, or what it was like to be the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant. Sometimes I wonder if my ignorance of his younger years contributed to my own confusion. If we had established a storyline about the challenges of going from boy to man, I could have relied on him instead of making so many mistakes on my own.

In my dad’s generation, it was normal for parents to pretend they were never young. Nowadays, that social convention is changing rapidly. With each passing year, our cultural interest in memoirs grows and our fear of revealing ourselves fades. This trend to see life as a story has opened many people to their own past, as well as their parents’.

If you decide to write your parents’ story, you will follow many of the same steps you would if you were writing your own. Gather facts and anecdotes and place them in chronological order, and then look for the psychological power that will draw a reader from one page to the next.

The first step is to gather the anecdotes you already know and type them into a file. When you arrange them in chronological order, you’ll begin to transform isolated events into a continuous narrative. You’ll reveal insights about how one thing led to another, and you’ll see a shape that you might not have noticed before. If your parents are able and willing to talk about themselves, you can join the growing legion of people who know that now is the right time to

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to procrastinate. In addition to the challenge of finding time and energy, you also must overcome anxiety about asking them so many personal questions. Perhaps they don’t really want to talk about their lives? Interviewing requires a different form of conversation than most of us are accustomed to. I will share tips about  overcoming objections and interviewing in later parts of this essay. If you are motivated to achieve the goal, learning the skills is merely a step along the way.

To counter the reasons to stall, focus on the many reasons to proceed. When you see their lives unfold as a story, you will gain a deeper insight into their humanity. They had hopes, desires, pressures from their parents, and if they were like most people, they defied their parents in ways that may still cause shame. Informed by this new information, you will understand them and also gain insights to yourself. And during the course of the conversations, you will have an opportunity for intimacy, breaking through some of the posturing that separates parents from children.

A memoir is more than a sequence of information. After you gather the information, you still have to find its shape.  To do it well, you need to think like a story writer. Look for unifying concepts, dramatic tension, and beginnings, middles, and endings. Your search for artistic elegance will force you to go deeper. Stories are built on the unfolding of psychological stakes, so to write a good story you must understand what makes your characters tick.

Even though I arrived at my curiosity about my own parents too late to learn about their early life, they emerged as characters in the pages of my memoir. For the first time, I imagined the pride my father might have felt when his son chose to work at the drugstore instead of playing with friends. And then, again for the first time, I wondered what disappointment he must have felt when I drifted off to my troubled, chaotic quest. These speculations awaken a more complex, rounded impression of his journey than I had before I began writing.

If you decide that this is the year to write about your parents, you will discover them as important characters in your own story, and reveal a mysterious resonance between your real life and the literature you create. As you develop your skills and experience as the author of their stories, you will gain deeper insights into your relationship with them than you ever dreamed possible.

Recommended memoirs about parents by children

Cherry Blossoms  in Twilight by Linda Austin
Ghost written memoir of her mother’s life starting with childhood in Japan before and during World War II.

More About Linda Austin’s Cherry Blossoms: Interview Part 1
Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin

Reading my Father by Alexandra Styron
Search for her father’s life. Essentially an autobiography of her famous father William Styron as told through the eyes and voice of his daughter.

Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham
Ghost written memoir of his father’s life in Vietnam through the late 50s to early 70s.

Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour
By a daughter about her father’s obsession with a British country manor during the deterioration of the British class system.

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Search for a man’s identity by trying to find his father’s story.

Color of Water by James McBride
A man’s search for his own identity by trying to understand his mother’s past.

Mistress’s Daughter by A. M. Homes
Lucky Girl by Meiling Hopgood
An adopted daughter struggles to understand her biological parents.

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.

Ghost Wrote Her Mother’s Memoir, Part 3

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third part of an interview with author Linda Austin about her memoir Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. Linda’s mother grew up in Japan before World War II. After the war, she married an American serviceman and then moved to the United States. The memoir is a product of extensive interviews Linda conducted with her mother, and is written in the first person from Yaeko Sugama’s point of view. Click here [link] for my thoughts about the memoir and the first part of my interview with her. I continue the interview here.

Jerry Waxler: Your mother mentions her shame in a few places. For most people, shame creates a barrier so strong we try to hide the subject altogether. How did shame enter into your interviews? What convinced her to open up?

Linda Austin: The divorce was almost unbearably shameful to my mother. She eventually became used to the idea of divorce in America because it became so common, but in the 1970s  it was not. Even my sister and I were embarrassed. My mother still considers her divorce a badge of shame to her and her Japanese family, but because she feels a sense of victimization, she is open to talking about it to me and her American friends, so that wasn’t a problem. Talking about it too much was the problem. There were also some issues with her mother and brother, but again, since it wasn’t her fault she’s okay talking about it–to an American audience. I think I’m the one most embarrassed about the world seeing the intimate life of my mother.

Jerry Waxler: What did you learn about her or her family from the memoir that you didn’t know before?

Linda Austin: I learned why my mother behaves the way she does, which is one reason why I strongly encourage telling life stories. What happens to us affects who we are and how we behave. Once I cried with my mother while parked in the lot of the Social Security building. She had told me about some incidents with her mother, and suddenly I saw how that affected her own behavior toward me. I so wished I had known this long ago so I would have understood her own foibles and not have been so angry. I felt so bad for not understanding.

Jerry Waxler: How did writing and publishing the memoir affect your own sense of identity?

Linda Austin: I think I’ve always had a strong sense of Japanese identity. I mean, I love natto!  [Note: For a definition of natto, see this Wikipedia entry.] When I was a child, there weren’t any brown people in our schools so my sister and I kept our heads low. But my mother enjoyed her Japanese heritage and my dad still loves things Japanese, so my sister and I were exposed to as much Japanese as possible for living in a small lily-white town in the Midwest. Thank goodness for Chicago.

Writing the book and getting lots of compliments and speaking requests really changed me as a person, though. My mother was astonished to see her painfully shy daughter speak comfortably in front of a crowd of about 100. “I didn’t recognize you!” I became much more confident and outgoing and took leadership positions in the Japanese and the writing/publishing communities in St. Louis. I called myself a renaissance woman.

Jerry Waxler: How does it feel going out on book signings and revealing so much about your own mother? Does it feel strange…? Liberating…? Generous…?

Linda Austin: When I’m doing presentations, I think only about the message I want the audience to take away:  that the enemy’s people are the same as you and me inside, and that we should write down our stories for our families. I’m passionate about both those messages. I don’t talk about the divorce or anything too personal. Only when I get home and see another book sold on Amazon, or a review posted, I cringe. It’s not even my story, but I feel a sense of protectiveness towards my mother and a sense that this information belongs to our family, not to strangers. It takes guts to show your lifewritings to others because if you’ve done a good job and told your story in all its glory and pain, it’s like you’re standing naked in front of them. So it really takes guts to publish for the public. Sometimes you don’t think about that until somebody you don’t know wants to read your book.

Jerry Waxler: Have you considered writing a memoir from the point of view of an American girl with mixed race parents trying to come to terms with her own identity?

Linda Austin: I have, but there are too many very good, similar stories published, although with American-born all-Asian-heritage kids struggling to make sense of living in the U.S. with two traditional Asian parents. Even as a half-Japanese, I can relate to Linda Furiya’s Bento Box in the Heartland. Grace Lin did a fabulous job with her children’s chapter books, Year of the Dog and Year of the Rat, which inspire me–those are fiction based on truth, and I would consider doing something like that. Nowadays, diversity is cool, so some of the pressures I felt seem passé.

This finishes part 3 of a 3 part interview

Click here for Part 1 of article and interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin


Linda Austin’s home page:

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight By Yaeko Sugama Weldon and Linda E. Austin

For 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.

Ghost Wrote Her Mother’s Memoir, Interview Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

Linda Austin was the daughter of an American serviceman and a Japanese mother. Her parents met in Japan when he was stationed there after World War II. They then moved to the United States where Linda was born and raised. When Linda set out to understand her mother’s early life, she decided to write it as a first person story. Based on extensive interviews and research, she wrote Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. Click here [link] for my thoughts about the memoir and the first part of my interview with her. I continue the interview here.

Jerry Waxler: Did your mother talk much about these experiences, as you were growing up? Many kids have the experience of hearing about a few specific stories over and over. We roll our eyes and think “I’ve heard that story a hundred times?” Did that happen in your house?

Linda Austin: My mother did tell us the same stories over and over, but it took a long time for my sister and I to get bored of them because they were just so different than anything we knew growing up in the U.S. Actually, I had decided by my early twenties that I should capture those stories somehow since they were so unique. In those days, that meant audio tape recordings, and I did do a couple of those on cheap equipment because that’s all we had in the house. I never heard the WWII stories until I was a prying adult.

Jerry Waxler: What convinced you to make the transition from a bunch of anecdotes to a continuous, sequential story?

Linda Austin: It always was going to be a memoir. My mom had just too fascinating a life. She’d complain while I interviewed her that nobody wanted to hear about her tough, sad life, not understanding that that’s what was so interesting. The hard part was segueing the stories together and blending the mix of anecdotes, history, and culture–thank goodness for word processing! Many memoirs have transition bumps from story to story, but I think I did a pretty good job blending. An elementary-school librarian helped with organization and editing.

Jerry Waxler: When you started the memoir, were there places where you felt you needed to fill in but were afraid to ask? Did you ever feel you were prying or disrespectful? If so, how did you handle those feelings?

Linda Austin: My mom is very open about her life, unusual for a Japanese woman, but I guess she’d become Americanized quite well. I was afraid to ask some things because she would be way too open! I had to work on stories about my father very carefully to avoid upsetting her for days. I would only ask a couple questions at a time and then avoid the topic for awhile. That was a very difficult dance, and I stumbled many times. Editing was a fight because she would have liked some revenge in the book. My dad was amazing in that he never asked about what I would write and seemed to trust me. Incidentally, he and my step-mom love the book.

Jerry Waxler: Describe the interviewing process. What sort of questions did you ask? What was your mother’s attitude? Describe a situation when you were interviewing that might help us understand some of the challenges of interviewing your mother.

Linda Austin: My mother liked telling stories and talking about the festivals, but hated being interviewed, and she thought I was crazy for writing about her life. She thought her life was difficult and sad so who’d want to hear about that. She also thought since everyone in Japan had lived through those tough times that her story was nothing special. Her best friend at the time, Frankie, pushed her to get her life written down and actually started typing the stories while I was out of the country for a year. If it weren’t for Frankie, there might not be a memoir. Still, Mom would get really irritated when I wanted to know little details, like explaining the Japanese bathroom or kitchen. “Who cares about that?!” I repeated many times during the questionings, “I want to know, and your grandchildren will want to know. This is all new to us.” Sometimes telling stories and explaining details led her to make beautiful sketches, usually on scrap paper, which I tidied up for printing and added to the book.

The other difficulty was when she didn’t remember what she thought about events and experiences, if she even thought about some of them at all. Kids don’t always analyze how they feel, and in Japan in those times people were not supposed to think for themselves and were to do and believe what the government told them. I think the Japanese are more stoic and definitely more reticent about feelings anyway, at least in those days. One reviewer complained there wasn’t enough about how my mother felt. Well, I did the best I could with what I had to work with. Therein lies the difficulty of ghostwriting and the value of fiction.

This finishes part 2 of a 3 part interview

Click here for Part 1 of article and interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin


Linda Austin’s home page:

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight By Yaeko Sugama Weldon and Linda E. Austin

For 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.

Parent’s Memoir: Finding Roots Across Generations

by Jerry Waxler

Memoir writers reach back through time to find our own story. Is it still a memoir if we reach into our mother’s memory to find her story? That’s what I wanted to find out when I read “Cherry Blossoms in Twilight.” The book is about Yaeko Sugama Weldon, who grew up in a small rural town in Japan before World War II, married a serviceman and moved to the United States. Her daughter, Linda Austin, grew up in America with a Japanese mother and an American father. Naturally she was curious about her mother’s earlier life, and as her mother aged, Linda began to put it all together. After extensive interviews and edits, Cherry Blossoms is the result.

Is it co-authored or ghost written? Is it a memoir or a biography? These distinctions blur into artistic interpretations rather than hard definitions. For example, in the memoir “Color of Water,” when James McBride searched for his mother’s past, he maintained his own point of view, with occasional well-marked shifts into his mother’s voice. In Cherry Blossoms, Linda Austin drops out of the frame and lets her mother tell the story.

Thanks to Yaeko’s willingness to explore her past, Linda Austin has the opportunity to delve deep into her mother’s journey. It’s an achievement that many people, me for example, wish they had achieved with their own parents.

The book is pleasant, easy, and informative. Since it is written for a younger audience, it does not go into deep analysis of emotionally sensitive topics, but despite this lightness, it gives profound glimpses into painful subjects, like war, prejudice, family splits, and abandonment. Because Yaeko does not hide her pain or the difficulties in her family, the memoir feels authentic and respectful, allowing me to stay connected with the protagonist’s emotions and experiences. In the end, it satisfies my criteria for a fascinating memoir and has convinced me to extend my definition of memoirs to include assisted ones.

To learn more about this book, and the experience of the author in working with her mother, I interviewed Linda Austin. Here is part 1 of that interview:

Jerry Waxler: I love this book. It’s short and easy to read, and yet it feels complete, and authentic. Nice work! So tell me what made you decide to write it as a children’s book?

Linda Austin: Thank you, Jerry. My mother had a lot of stories of when she was a little girl, in a different culture and era of history, plus the many Japanese festivals are fun for kids. I also wanted to preserve the children’s songs she taught us, so I thought the obvious audience for all of this would be upper elementary and older school children. And my mother speaks simply, too—perfect for a younger audience.

Jerry Waxler: How has the decision to write it as a children’s book worked out? Are you happy with the choice? What sort of feedback are you getting?

Linda Austin: It didn’t work out that well as a children’s book, partly because as an indie-published book it could not get pre-pub reviews from the all-important Kirkus or School Library Journal which librarians use to help determine which books to stock in their libraries. The kids I know who have read it love the children’s parts, but lose interest when my mother moves to the U.S. as an adult. Instead, I was shocked to hear all the praise from older adults who had lived through WWII in the U.S. – they loved comparing their experiences to my mother’s in Japan. Another, less shocking, development was that university libraries wanted it, I’m sure for its unique perspective of WWII—I’m proud to say that Princeton carries it.

Jerry Waxler: In addition to interviewing, what other research did you do? Did you go back to her home, or interview people who knew her when she was young?

Linda Austin: Believe it or not, I have never been to Japan. It’s very expensive, the time was never right, my relatives speak only Japanese and I speak only English. My mother rarely went back to Japan. Mostly I had to research WWII history and what was going on in Japan during the War. I read books and searched online. If I could not verify something I either left it out or stated it as an opinion or personal belief. I had a Japanese gentleman and his wife who are close in age to my mother review the book for details of the Japanese culture of that time.

Jerry Waxler: If it’s not too personal, what role if any did your father play in helping you construct the story?

Linda Austin: My dad played almost no role in writing the story. He knew I was working on this so a couple of times he suggested things to ask my mother about, and he graciously reviewed bits that pertained to him and his early relationship with my mother. It is all my mother’s story and her perspective. My parents had a bitter divorce, so writing the sections about my father was very difficult for both my mother and I as she is still very hurt. I had to negotiate difficult terrain and we had some arguments. I had to keep reminding my mother that this was a children’s book.

Jerry Waxler: Your time frame continues into her adulthood. Since this is a children’s book, I might have thought you would be tempted to stop when she was no longer a child. Tell about your decision about where to end.

Linda Austin: It was logical the book should end when she moved to America, but she was about 28 years old then. I tried to make the adult-life part shorter, less detailed, and of interest to at least middle-school kids. This is actually the second edition out there because I learned so much from the St. Louis Publishers Association that I just had to re-do the original. I honed down the grown-up years and added songs, photos and a concordance and glossary of Japanese terms specifically for the kidlit market. Because of the sales channel setup, I can’t tell if the book sells to schools.

Many times I’ve thought to create a fictionalized version of this book just for kids because the story is an important learning experience for youngsters and fiction allows freedom to develop the story in a way they would respond to better. On the other hand, adults tell me they want to know more about what happened to my mom in the U.S.! I’m lost between audiences.

This finishes Part 1 of a 3 part interview.

Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin


Linda Austin’s home page:

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight By Yaeko Sugama Weldon and Linda E. Austin

Color of Water, by James McBride: a memoir of race, family and fabulous writing

I am reading another story of a father’s life, written by his son called Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham about his father’s life through the Vietnam war.

For 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.

Your Autobiography is the First Step Towards Writing Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

The first draft of my memoir included my entire life, starting from my first year in the apartment above my dad’s drugstore in north Philadelphia. What was it like developing from a baby into me? I poked and prodded at my past and sorted the resulting scenes into chronological order. After a year of research and another year of writing, I was able to read about my dramatic tensions, the dynamics of family and friends, hopes and fears, obstacles and allies. My life made far more sense than ever before.

And so, perhaps that is the end of the project. Writing my life from beginning to end is a real accomplishment that makes me proud of myself, not only for of having written it, but also for having lived it.

But I don’t feel done. I want to take the next step and share my life with others. The problem is that readers don’t want a compendium of my entire life. They want a Story – that is, a dramatic form that we all have learned since we were children. My life does not by itself contain this form. To engage readers, I must find it. First I must craft a blurb dramatic enough to attract interest. Then I need to write the book so it compels readers from the first page to the last.

What do you cut away to make it more pleasing?

To create his crowd-pleasing statues, Michelangelo started with a raw block of marble. His task was to chip away everything that didn’t belong. Memoir writers face a similar task. The compelling story lurks somewhere within the vast range of memory. Now we have to figure out what to remove. That’s not so easy. Life was all one thing. Splitting off parts of it may feel disturbing or even painful. And yet, if the final product is as beautiful as Michelangelo’s Pieta, this creative pain would be worthwhile.

Pain is not the only reason it’s hard to remove parts of your life. While polished stories are bounded by the first page and the last, daily life provides no sharply defined markers. Day after day, events run together. We have to find the story within those days, through our own creative process.

Say I want to share my visit to an Ashram in India in the ’70s. Should I start when I board the plane, or do I back up and start the journey as a Jewish nerd growing up in north Philadelphia? Do I finish when I return to the U.S. and move into a commune, or do I move forward a few months when I return to my cubicle as an engineer in the Nuclear Power industry?

Suppose I want to tell about the incredible thrill of receiving a standing ovation from the board of directors of a nonprofit writing group when I was 50 years old. Do I start with the phone call I received from the director? “I appreciate the honor, Foster, but I’ve never done anything like this before,” I said. “You’ll do fine,” he said. “Just be yourself.” Or do I backup and show how incredibly shy I was just two years earlier, so nervous  at my first talk at Toastmasters my voice was swallowed up in a hoarse whisper, and I sat down flushed with humiliation after polite applause.

Wending my way through these options requires more than simply finding the most interesting scenes. I need to reveal the forces that propelled my life along its path, and more importantly why a reader should follow me.

A different metaphor, don’t tear anything away

Perhaps the image of a block of marble is misleading. Life is not really a shapeless blob. In its own way, the entire journey was a lovely creation, the life of a complete human being. Perhaps the transformation from the innocence of a little baby all the way to the end is a sort of Pieta in its own right, and we are all destined to end up draped across God’s lap.

The challenge is to somehow offer readers my sense of this fullness, but to do so at a smaller scale. Perhaps, if I adjust my lens to a higher magnification I can see my own passion play embedded in each moment like William Blake’s “world in a grain of sand.” Focusing on the drama, pleasures, and intrigue of a smaller part of life might not require any chipping away after all.

A popular form of computer graphics, called a fractal, looks like a beautiful set of swirls, a sort of mathematical paisley print with teardrop shapes intertwined in miraculously intricate patterns. The remarkable thing about fractals is that when you zoom in closer and closer, you continue to see exotic beauty and detail. The intricate patterns within a tiny fraction of the image are every bit as mesmerizing as the designs that emerge in a canvas as big as the night sky.

I tinker with focal distance, zooming in on particular events. Around each one I see a cluster of passions, needs, and dreams. That younger guy who flew to India was following an inner drive that had started years earlier, before he even knew his own path. And that older guy who spoke to a group of nonprofit leaders had a different constellation of circumstances and emotions.  What was he thinking? Why was it such a milestone? Now my challenge is less about cutting out and more about homing in on the details that surround a key event. By identifying the drama in each situation, I can develop a bright, creative reflection of that one part.

My original project of writing about my life resulted in a book that was too long and too complete to be accessible to most readers. But now I have transformed that longer work into a sourcebook, from which I can draw more tightly focused artistic renderings. Hopefully, the end result will please readers as much as the whole thing has pleased me.

Writing Prompt

From your entire scope of memories, select a particular incident, and try telling it as a self-contained story. What was the driving force of the event? Where would you start? Where would you end? Develop it as a short story. Try events of various sizes and see how they hang together as stories in their own right. For another exercise, try to organize the same set of events as a chapter in a larger memoir. Finally, imagine writing a whole book, with this event as its centerpiece.

To see examples of fractals on the web, type the search term “Fractal Images” into your search engine.

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.

How does John Robison end his memoir of lifelong learning?

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

The first chapter of John Robison’s memoir “Look me in the eye” was called “Little Misfit,” because Robison didn’t know how to get along with other kids, and he never seemed to do anything right. That might have set the stage for a Coming of Age story, but by the time he was 16, he had many more questions than he had answers. He left home and set off on a journey to figure it all out. His self-discovery took him the rest of his life. And I believe that’s why I love this book so much. The book does turn out to be a Coming of Age story — one that never ends.

The first time I heard a 65 year old woman say, “I’m trying to figure out who I’m going to be when I grow up” I laughed. And I also agreed with her sentiment. Decades trickle by, families grow up, jobs come and go, but exactly which morning are we supposed to wake up and say, “Oh. That’s what it was all about.” The only way I’ve found to tie it all together is to find the story. And that’s what Robison did. He lived, he learned, he grew, and then he wrote about it. Now I want to understand how he did it so I can do it too.

The long middle
Most people who consider writing a memoir wonder if our years in the office or taking kids to soccer have turned us into drones, and so we utter the familiar cry, “Who would want to read about me?” We can go a long way towards answering that question when we review events and look under the surface. The passions and desires unfolded day by day, too slowly to make sense of at the time. Gradually, those days accumulated into our unique story, and now in retrospect we can find their significance.

To learn how you might tell your own long periods, consider the way John Robison showed his years in an office as a technology worker. Rather than excruciating detail, he highlighted key points. He described a few pranks in keeping with his passion for practical joking. He felt good about some of his contributions to the company, and felt bad about the corporate mentality and the lack of appreciation for individual initiative. He showed what he went through in snapshots, giving us the picture without boring us. His scan across those years, provides the insight you can see when you look back across your own journey. The middle years were steps on a longer road.

I always wondered why the Israelis had to cross the desert for 40 years. Now that I’m studying stories, I realize those long years represent a sort of “baking period” in the middle of life during which the inner self continues to grow. John Robison didn’t shy away from the fact that he worked in an office. And by looking at those jobs through the longer lens of a memoir, he revealed their secret. They were steps on a longer road. By including these periods, “Look Me in the Eye” offers a role model for all us who seek to understand how to transform memories into a story.

Robison’s persistent desire to grow creates a potential problem. Every good story ends with relief of dramatic tension. Through the book, we readers have been growing with him, step by step. How do we know when we’ve reached the goal? Robison signals the conclusion of his journey by using an ancient storytelling technique. When Robison grows older, he moves back to the town where he started.

Moving back to the suburbs doesn’t sound like much of a story element, but it turns out the simple idea of returning home has enormous power in storytelling circles. It even has a Greek name, “nostoi.” (I love it when I know a Greek name for a concept.) Once you start to look for it, you will discover this simple device everywhere. Ulysses returns to his home at the end of Homer’s Odyssey. The Hobbits return home at the end of Lord of the Rings. Homecoming can be symbolic as well. For example, in Barack Obama’s “Dreams of Our Father,” Obama returns to the home of his African father, a sort of ancestral returning.

Robison started in life unable to connect with other children, but easily being able to turn within his own mind. The adults around him had no clue what was going on, and he was frequently shamed for his differences. Had he stayed home, and accepted the shaming comments he might have turned out to be the failure everyone expected him to be. When John Robison went on his journey of self-discovery, he wasn’t setting out to be a hero. He simply wanted to learn how to live well.

When Robison set out into the world, one of his first jobs was working as a special effects engineer for the famous rock and roll band, KISS. His own differences gave him the opportunity to see a different slice of life. Through the course of his years, he was learning about himself, and how to make the best use of his talents and personality.

Towards the end of “Look Me in the Eye,” Robison shifted his attention to raising his youngest son who had inherited some quirky Aspergian tendencies, such as fascination with machinery. So dad took his boy to the train yard to watch the big locomotives. It was a lovely scene, with a powerful storytelling twist. This little boy faced similar issues to the ones Robison faced, but this second time around, the child was neither lonely nor a “misfit.” By this time, Robison knew enough about his condition to help his son cope with it. Robison started his memoir in his own childhood, and ended raising his own children, a dramatic circle I found extremely satisfying.

Return from Hero’s Journey Armed with Wisdom
In fact, Robison story continues past the end of the memoir. He now gives talks to help parents cope and guide nerdy, withdrawn, Asperger’s spectrum children. He also speaks to children, helping them understand each other and themselves. Robison’s story emulates the classic Hero’s Journey. When the Hero Returns, his or her experiences can be used to serve the community. That turns John Robison’s memoir not into the finish line of his lifetime, but simply the end of a chapter. The next page begins with a life of involvement and service.

Writing Prompt
To decide where you want to begin the journey of your memoir, consider what sort of place and situation you were in when you started. Look at your hometown, your religion of origin, your initial dreams. Then as you come to the end of your story, see where you can “return” either physically to the same location, or symbolically to your roots.


The Hero’s Journey provides fascinating material for any writer. To learn more about how to apply these ideas to your story, read Chris Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers.”

In my book, “Four Elements for Writers” I explore the way you can turn this myth towards your own writing behavior, and use it to develop tenacity and courage. [link]

Another book that uses exquisite understanding of storytelling principles is Sound of No Hands Clapping. (Click here to see my review.) This explores a powerful use of the “character arc” in memoir. The author, self-conscious as ever, teaches a lesson about storytelling embedded in his memoir, repeating ideas he heard in a workshop from famous storytelling teacher Robert McKee.

To learn more about Robison’s work with Asperger’s Syndrome, or to see how he is doing, check out his blog, jerobison.blogspot.com For more information about the Asperger’s condition, he recommends the website, http://www.aspergersyndrome.org/

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

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.