The Genius of an Uplifting Memoir Conclusion

This Is How I Save My Life: From California to India, a True Story of Finding Everything When You Are Willing to Try Anything by Amy B. Scher

At the beginning of Amy Scher’s memoir, This is How I save My Life, she is riddled with pain, weakened in every muscle of her body. Her young life is drowning in a blur of doctors, medications, and crises. She has tried everything. Nothing works. But she, and her parents, are not ready to give up.

And then, along comes an experimental stem-cell treatment at a small clinic in New Delhi, India. Really? Is she going to risk her life to save her life? As a reader, I’m skeptical. If she’s already tried the best doctors, why will this method work? But I like her writing, and I like her challenge, so I keep reading.

When she lands in Delhi, she has to adjust to the assault on her senses, colors, smells, noise. So what does she do? She manages, amazingly to turn Delhi, India into a character with a personality all its own. The way she portrays India is unique, interesting… and alive!!! It seems like everyone in India is painting outside the lines. And everywhere she turns, India is beckoning to her to let go of her rigid preconceptions and join in its exuberant chaos. I fell in love with Amy Scher’s personalization of Delhi. But wait there’s more.

At the clinic where her treatment will be administered, she meets an ensemble cast of patients and caregivers. To bring this experience to the reader, she repeats the same brilliant technique she used for Delhi. She turns the clinic into a character, too. In this way, she makes her trip so much more easily understandable. As characters, both the city and the clinic, offer lessons, joy, and companionship.

Reading this memoir reminds me of the importance of good writing – she provides humor, insight, and some of the most artfully interwoven backstory I’ve ever seen. And while all these features make the book easy and enjoyable to read, the highlight of this memoir is her journey of self-discovery. She constructed her story arc so well, I offer it as a “textbook” example of the story arcs at the heart of every good memoir.

Every memoir needs three basic components

First, every memoir needs to start with a high stakes question. Amy Scher’s debilitating illness is a perfect setup to capture our attention. However, spoiler alert, this initial challenge is a moving target. As the story proceeds, the challenge gradually shifts. I’ll have more to say about this challenge in a moment.

Second, as she moves toward resolving the problem, the author must encounter many obstacles. Her illness provides a constant stream of setbacks. Other setbacks arise from the discomfort, anxiety, and adjustment to such an exotic environment. So this requirement is satisfied as well.

Third, as she confronts each obstacle, she must exert psychological and emotional effort required to move from initial problem, through the obstacles, toward a conclusion. We want to see how our hero will push through all the obstacles in order to reach the conclusion.

While This is How I Save my Life perfectly exemplifies these three essential parts, Amy Scher modifies the formula a little and in the process makes its story arc exceptional.

At the start of the book, her main challenge seems to be medical. So if that continued to be the main challenge, the conclusion would be a cure. Naturally, as a compassionate human being, I would be thrilled to see the author throw away her pill bottles and get up and dance. But memoir readers tend to want to learn about psychological, social, or moral self-development. Memoir readers are actually psychology geeks – we have a thirst for understanding how people grow.

This notion of a character growing wiser, or more mature, or more accepting during the course of a memoir is one of my favorite things about the genre.  I believe that the whole genre is devoted to reminding our culture of a simple concept about being human that has been lost in the hectic pace of modern times: that is, that adults can continue to grow throughout their lives.

Memoirs chart a path to the high road

I claim that memoir readers long to witness this feature of human courage – we want to admire people who climb to a higher elevation. But until the Memoir Revolution, our culture offered only a tiny handful of metaphors to help us visualize our upward moral mobility. In fact, I can only think of two.

In the Japanese culture, you take your shoes off when entering the home in order to symbolize that you are going to a higher spiritual plane. Just a step higher, but to a different plane. So simple, and yet it says so much. Similarly, when I heard Martin Luther King’s exhortation to “take the high road,” I knew exactly what he meant. There is some higher elevation that we all know about. And yet if we all know about the importance of the high road, why does the modern, educated Western world invite so little discourse about it? As a culture, we are suffering from a poverty of insight into the path to the high road.

That impoverishment ended when we began reading memoirs. Each one is a roadmap of one author’s journey toward their higher inner qualities. In a sense, the genre is a sort of human university, and by immersing ourselves in the stories of people who have gone through these journeys, we have discovered a language of hope and courage at the heart of the human condition.

Until the Memoir Revolution, few of us had thought about our own life transitions in these terms. We lived, year after year, and filed away memories in their messy repository, only jumping out randomly, or during a conversation.

And so, chances are that when you read your first few dozen memoirs, you had a hard time fathoming how these particular authors had arrived at a coherent, readable account. Who were these unusual individuals, you might have asked? What made them so unique? But when you look more carefully, you realize they started out just like you, with a pile of memories and then years working out how the past fit together into a good story.

Once you decide it might be worthwhile for you to do something similar, at first all you have are a pile of disorganized memories as well. They have no inherent organization. Rather these bits of your past will only acquire the organizational framework of “story” after you’ve taken a lengthy, verbal journey to put the pieces together in a new form.

Read memoirs to learn how to find your own map

To help you find the wisdom embedded in your own life, take some time to make more sense of the memoirs you read. In each one, review how the author went from the challenge at the beginning, to a satisfying conclusion at the end. As you understand the way they portrayed their character arc, you can begin to do thought experiments, to see which parts of your life might line up accordingly. Amy Scher’s storyline offers a great example of the hope and courage available within the genre.

When the book starts, the main goal of the protagonist is to heal her physical disease. As the story proceeds, she gradually shifts her goal from the medical problem of curing a disease to a psychological and spiritual quest to become a better person. That gradual shift from curing a physical disease at the beginning, to her growing awareness of her psychological well-being by the end creates an exceptionally clever story arc.

So if you were looking for a recipe for healing chronic life-wrecking Lyme disease the story might be a bit disappointing. But if you are looking for a story about a really sick person coming to some sort of spiritual understanding of the healing process, you will find this book exciting and uplifting.

But when you take off your white coat, leave the lab and enter the streets of Delhi, life is no longer even remotely predictable. And what had begun as an attempt for a medical cure turned out to be a pilgrimage, whose ultimate lesson was that it’s okay to let go. And like heroes throughout the ages, once she learned her lesson she returned to the world to let the rest of us know.

One problem with this East Meets West lesson about reality is that we Westerners are afraid that if we let go of too much, chaos would ensue. There is no easy way to reconcile that fear, but if you want to find a good way to gather the two ways of looking at the world and hold them within the embrace of one good story, read Amy Scher’s memoir.

Instead of teaching us about one or two of India’s spiritual belief systems, she exposes the roots of those beliefs. India teaches her that to find her new truths, she must break through old boundaries. This is in a sense the very foundation of the Hero’s Journey – the hero must “go forth into the land of adventure” in other words, to start the journey the Hero must “let go.”

As she proceeds through the course of her treatment, she gradually discovers that it’s not the medicine that is healing her. The healing results from the courage to let go.

In her memoir, the mystical magic of India emerges organically, directly from its culture of acceptance, of controlled chaos, of believing that the truth is there waiting for you if you just let it in. In her own unique, subtle, innovative way, she shows the path to healing is through acceptance – once you let go, you let in the light.

What if letting go leads to chaos

This idea of letting go of emotional control is foreign to the educated Western mind. Still reeling from the cultural horror of the Dark Ages, we grow up believing that science is the bulwark against ignorance. Thanks to the great promises of analytical thinking, if you know the mathematical formula you can predict the exact trajectory. If you construct a proper experiment, you arrive at the best truth.

When you leave the sterile research lab with its white coats and controlled variables and enter the streets of Delhi, life is far messier than Western science would lead us to believe. Even in high school physics they taught me that the predictions only work when you ignore the messy details. And in medicine, the complexities of the body often outstrip the skills of the body.

So we’re stuck in an impasse. Western science is a bulwark against ignorance, except when it’s not. And Eastern (Indian) thinking is too wild, too out-of-the-box, to uncontrolled. This is where Amy Scher story introduces us to ideas that easily cross between the two cultures.

While it is lovely to appreciate Amy’s story as a literary experience, it’s even more intriguing when you can extend these insights into a framework that will make sense to your Western trained mind. If you want a little guidance, consider this quote. Dan P. MacAdams is a psychologist who has spent his life exploring how our individual sense of self, our very personhood, is wrapped up in the stories we tell about ourselves. In his book called The Stories We Live By he calls upon Western psychology to explain why Amy Scher’s ending feels so right.

But coherence isn’t everything. Some stories seem too coherent to be true. We do not need perfect consistency in order to find unity and purpose in life. Indeed, a good life story is one that tolerates ambiguity. Such a story propels the person into the future by holding open a number of different alternatives for future action and thought. Our stories need to be flexible and resilient. They need to be able to change, grow and develop as we ourselves change. Openness is a difficult criterion to judge in personal myth, for there is always the danger of too much openness reflecting lack of commitment and resolve. Still the personal myth that welcomes change and growth is superior to the one that is less welcoming. Without openness our personal myths run the risk of becoming rigid, stagnant, and brittle.

Dan McAdams PhD, Stories we live by, page 111

The principle at the heart of This is How I Saved My Life is that the stories we live by must have flexibility and expansiveness in them if we intend to be mentally healthy. When Amy Scher ventured forth to India in the hopes of finding her own truth she had to let go of the crazy notion that she knew everything.

Amy went on a pilgrimage, on a hero’s journey, to learn these lessons. She didn’t learn them from Dan MacAdams’ graduate Psychology classes on personality formation. Instead she learned them from the citizens of India who must embrace ambiguity in order to survive. Then she brought back her truth the way heroes are supposed to do. In Amy Scher’s story, the notion of letting go is indeed revealed as a beautiful truth in its own right.

The mix of East Meets West proposed by Amy Scher’s memoir is innovative, in the same way the music and culture of the sixties led to innovative mind expanding perspectives. It took an expansive, open mind to follow the artistryof Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar’s famous mashup. If you are ready to go for a similar expansive journey into the intersection of the two cultures through Story, take a deep breath and go for a ride through This is How I Save My Life.

If you have been trained in Western thinking, you might find it a bit scary. What if we “let go” too much? The dilemma between too much control and too little does not lend itself to an easy answer. But if you want to find a good way to gather the two ways of looking at the world, and hold them in your mind within the embrace of one good story, read Amy Scher’s memoir.

NOTES

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Journals of Spiritual Awakening Turn into a Novel

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

My soul trembled in empathy when reading Wendy Baez’s novel Catch a Dream. The main character traveled through the Land of Israel desperately seeking the elusive truth that lies at the intersection of culture, religion, and self.

The main character’s search for spiritual sanctuary in the land of milk and honey echoes an ancient story I prayed about every Saturday. As I grew older, I discovered that across the globe, billions of people look for guidance from a a man who walked in this same land.

Despite all these reasons to be curious, I had never pictured myself wandering through contemporary Israel. After I read Catch a Dream, I can’t get that image out of my mind.Catch a Dream Wendy Baez

How did Wendy Baez create such a moving story about a woman traveling with her ten year old son, penniless, looking for handouts like a modern version of an ancient pilgrim? It sounds like the fever dream of a novelist driven to invent an extreme plot that would provide the backdrop for a modern Biblical story.

But it wasn’t a fantasy. The author really went on such a trip with her son. For many months, she tried to find herself reflected in the eyes and hearts and even the history of the people of Israel. She kept copious notes about her soulful experience, hoping to someday turn them into a book.

Despite years trying to transform her experience into a memoir, she couldn’t figure out how to construct a good story from her actual tricky detours and complex subplots. Finally, she decided to write it as fiction. That decision freed her to modify it to suit her storytelling needs.

The authenticity and psychological power of her main character arises straight from the author’s journals. By calling it fiction she could distance herself from the constraints of truth and zero in on the dramatic urgency. The book grew strong and deep when nourished by the influences of both fiction and memoir.

By reading and analyzing a number of fiction authors who turn to real life for characters and situations, (see notes) I learned how memoirs and novels differ in more ways than just fact versus fake. The two genres of writing invite different story arcs.

A fiction reader might expect this novel to end with the main character marrying and settling down. But Wendy Baez’s actual journey ended on a more ambiguous note. That’s where Catch a Dream blurs the line between the two forms. Instead of ending the novel with a fantasy ending, she allows the character to sound like a real person, with deep ambiguous needs.

Because the authenticity of the character arises from Wendy Baez’s own emotional complexity, her supposedly fictional novel took me on one of the most authentic searches for self I have ever read.

In addition to a search for self, Catch a Dream was a great story about Israeli identity, about ex-pat life, an awesome ode to the character’s best friend, an unbelievably conflicted love relationship, and a “love letter to Israel.” Each of these themes offered a good reason to read the book.

Reading memoirs and writing my own has sensitized me to the psychological journey of being a human being. For example, the psychological trials of being a parent, of being addicted to drugs, of losing a loved one, etc. Among the many aspects of being human that I have learned from reading stories, is the challenge of become an adult. Catch a Dream takes me on a fascinating, unique ride through that critical stage.

When any young person attempts to leave the nest and launch into the wider world, they must accept certain assumptions about what it means to be an adult. For example, they need to earn a living, find a relationship, start a family, and so on. Not every young person easily accepts these conditions. I have read some fascinating memoirs by people who, make mistakes or drag their feet while trying to transition from child to adult.

The most familiar impediment to becoming an adult is drug addiction. For example in Tim Elhaj’s memoir Dope Fiend, heroin addiction spoils his initial opportunity to step out into the world, and so he must reinvent himself in order to reach the next step. Dani Shapiro in Slow Motion  does the same thing with sex and cocaine. Both are excellent books by writers who spent many years “finding themselves” through writing.

In addition to drugs, another, more abstract, disruption often turns up in memoirs. A young person’s search for truth can provide a wall of confusion and pain, as it did for a number of authors.

For example, in his memoir Ashes in the Ocean  Sebastian Slovin had to make sense of his father’s suicide. In An Incredible Talent for Existing, Pamela Jane  needed to find herself amid the collective mental breakdown known as the 60s.

In the memoir New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, Elna Baker  struggled throughout her launching to decide whether to stick with the celibacy regulations taught by her Mormon roots, or to leave those rules and enter the ones offered by the dating game in New York City.

In the memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst, Mary Johnson,  refused to accept the social rules of marriage and family offered by her middle class upbringing. Instead, she made the radical decision to throw away conventions and join Mother Teresa’s religious order.

In my own memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World  my own upbringing and tendencies as a scientist and philosopher sounded good in theory, but as I tried to grow up in the sixties, my abstract ideas ran headlong into the complexity of real life.

Wendy Baez’s novel Catch a Dream is a perfect example of a launching story about a woman desperate for clarity about her relationship to spirituality and religion. To find herself, she joined a religious group (this took place outside the scope of her novel). Then she went out on her own, trying to find her own spiritual and religious homeland. She seemed obsessed by the thought: If Christ was here, shouldn’t I be too?

Catch a Dream is thought provoking at the intersection between childhood and adulthood, at the intersection between Christian, Jew, and Moslem, at the intersection between sexual love and committed relationship.

Her novel enriched me along each of these lines. And as if that wasn’t enough, her exemplary stylistic choices and talent made the novel an absolute pleasure to read. Some of her “riffs” or mental “soliloquys” are so passionate and clearly written, they seem like music.

To learn more, about her creative choices I interviewed Wendy Baez. Her comments offered lovely insights into the relationship between memoir and fiction. I’ll post that interview next week.

Notes
Catch a Dream by Wendy Brown-Baez
Click here for my interview with Wendy Brown-Baez about her decision to write her life experience as fiction.
Wendy Brown-Baez’s home page

Click here for links to other stops on Wendy Baez’s WOW Blog Tour

Click here to read my interview with Sharon Gerdes about turning her postpartum psychosis into a novel

Click here to read my article about Sharon Gerdes “fictional memoir”

Click here to read my interview with Israeli born novelist and writing teacher Naomi Gal talks about the relationship between her real experience as a person and the main character in her novel Daphne’s Seasons

Click here to read my article about a book of short stories The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly by Palestinian/American author Susan Muaddi Darraj

Click here to read my article about Xujun Eberlein’s book of short stories, Apologies Forthcoming about growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

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

Two Midlife Memoirs: A Sequel Shows Command of Structure

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

I met David Berner in the pages of his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, so reading his second memoir Any Road Will Take You There feels like hanging out with an old friend. The second memoir turned out to be quite different from the first, so in addition to the pleasure of spending a few more hours with this kind, thoughtful man, I was fascinated to read about him from such a different perspective. The two memoirs together spin a multi-layer tale that offers interesting insights — into the man and into the memoir genre’s potential for rich literary value.

In the first memoir, Accidental Lessons, Berner, terrified that his life is superficial, quits his job and separates from his wife. The cliché of midlife suggests a man running away from responsibility and trying to live out his childhood. However, Berner doesn’t follow that hackneyed model. He takes a job teaching at a school in an under-privileged neighborhood. To find his new self image, he attempts to help other young people find theirs.

Accidental Lessons is framed within his year as a new teacher, a position that is accompanied with a bit of humiliation. While other teachers have been doing it for years, he is a total novice. He teaches his young students how to prepare for life, and at the same time, he is learning similar lessons. By the end, he’s starting to get the hang of it.

His story structure, bracketed within the rhythm of a school year, is a perfect canvas on which to paint a journey.  But I didn’t fully appreciate Berner’s cleverness in finding a good wrapper for a memoir until I read his second book.

Sequel Does Not Simply Follow Chronologically
Many second memoirs simply follow the chronological sequence, picking up where the first one left off. For example, Frank McCourt’s first memoir Angela’s Ashes was about growing up in Ireland and his second memoir ‘Tis was about becoming an adult in New York. Carlos Eire’s first memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana was about his childhood during the Cuban Revolution. Despite Carlos Eire’s fascinating experiments with flashbacks and flashforwards, in essence his second memoir, Learning to Die in Miami is a sequel to his first, mainly about his attempt to survive as an orphan in the United Stated.

However, David Berner’s second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, does not simply continue the journey of the school teacher. Instead, the second memoir jumps to a different model altogether. In the second memoir, he rents an RV and takes a road trip with his two sons and an old buddy. The small troupe drives along the same route Jack Kerouac’s characters travel in the landmark book On the Road.

Kerouac’s book, published in 1957, foreshadowed the counterculture of the 1960s and inspired many young men to hit the road and find their truths somewhere other than home. It certainly exerted a profound influence on young David Berner. In Any Road Will Take You There, he tries to pass this literary inspiration to his sons. So the outer story is the road trip itself. And that deceptively simple storyline provides a backdrop on which he paints a complex inner journey.

Because the road trip gives him time to think, the memoir turns into a meditation. Through mini-essays disguised in reveries, Berner explores the relationship of fathers and sons through three generations. And by contrasting his road trip with Jack Kerouac’s he offers new insight into the meaning of the Beat Generation fifty years later. I’ll say more about these deeper dimensions of the memoir in the second and third parts of this review.

Lesson for Memoir Writers
In addition to its artistically brash move to a new structure, Berner’s second memoir contains an interesting clue for writers who wonder. “How much backstory should I include in my memoir?”

The first memoir, Accidental Lessons, provides a wonderful example of a memoir that includes hardly any backstory. He jumps right into his crisis, without saying much about his earlier life. Even though the memoir offers very little backstory about Berner’s previous life, it offers fabulous backstory for David Berner’s second memoir. By reading the first, you gain insight into the character in the second.

The fact that Berner branched out into an entirely different model for his second memoir is a tribute to his commitment to the genre. Each book is excellent in its own right, and together they offer valuable lessons for memoir writers. First, you don’t need to be limited by any one model, and second the road might be longer than you think. There may be a sequel in there waiting to be told.

Writing Prompt
Does your story have enough complexity to break it into two parts? If so, describe the story arc of each of the two parts. How would the first part provide backstory for the second?

This is the first part of a series about David Berner’s memoir Any Road Will Take You There. For the second part, click here.

Notes
David  Berner’s Home Page

Click here for my review of Accidental Lessons

Another author who writes memoirs in different structures is Sue William Silverman. Her first memoir I Remember Terror Father Because I Remember You was a Coming of Age story. Her recent memoir (her third) is Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew in which she embeds parts of her adult life in stories in a pop culture style.

Coming Soon: a list of memoirs I have read (or in some case previewed) by authors who have written more than one.

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.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Memoir of a Nervous Breakdown: Her Mind Betrayed Her

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

One night, when my dad came home from work, Mom told him in hushed tones that a neighbor had suffered a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t understand what that meant. Decades later, after I had achieved my master’s degree in counseling psychology, I still wasn’t able to form a clear mental image of a “nervous breakdown.”

The condition came into focus only after I began reading memoirs. In Darkness Visible, the famous author William Styron describes his psychotic break during severe depression. And in Unquiet Mind, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison describes her experiences during bipolar disorder.

As the Memoir Revolution continues to mature, increasing numbers of us are stepping forward to share the extraordinary experiences that impact our ordinary lives. In a recent memoir Tara Meissner takes advantage of this new freedom. Her memoir Stress Fracture provides a deeply introspective, well researched, and carefully explained account of her breakdown and recovery.

Stress Fracture begins with Tara Meissner growing up and like anyone else, striving toward a satisfying happy life, when, for some reason, her mind trips into freefall. Her strange thoughts lead to even stranger conclusions. Flooded with false reasoning that makes it impossible to function, she is confined in a hospital for her own protection. From inside the chaotic bubble, she wrestles with her thoughts, attempting to get them back into line with reality. The betrayal by her mind brings her pursuit of happiness to a screeching halt. And then, gradually, due to relentless effort to return to normalcy, she recovers and finds the words with which to describe her horrifying experience. Continue reading

Immersed in a Memoir about Life, Love and Loss

by Jerry Waxler

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

I wrestled with the decision to read Eleanor Vincent’s memoir, Swimming With Maya about losing her college-age daughter. Did I really want to experience so much pain? However, memoirs about suffering also offer the author’s courage and personal growth, two of my favorite features of memoirs. After I previewed the writing style and assured myself of its quality, I dove in. By the end, I felt fulfilled and inspired by the author’s journey through heart-breaking tragedy to find meaning and dignity.

Early in the book, the author’s daughter Maya dies from a freak accident and as a result, the mother can’t face life. Stuck in agony about her lost daughter, she herself is lost. The quest to find herself carries me through the book like a rafter on rapids. On every page, I wonder, “how she is going to learn to live again?”

Jumping into the memoir Swimming with Maya feels like an immersion in love and longing. The author’s love for her lost daughter is nearly overwhelming, larger than life, larger and deeper than everything. Eleanor Vincent spends every waking minute torn between the past and her own need to figure out how to move on.  The love story of a child who is gone forever vibrates with authenticity and power.

During this long period of grief she grabs onto every possible technique to reduce her pain. She attempts to keep her daughter alive by savoring every moment they had together. And since she believes in life after life, she even talks to Maya and feels her presence. In an unusual twist, Maya also lives in the chest of a man who received a heart transplant supplied by the dying girl. Caught by her fixation on her daughter, Eleanor establishes a relationship with this organ recipient and his family.

Eleanor Vincent’s grief is made more complicated by fears that she caused her daughter’s accident. Was she a bad mother? What could she have done differently? She feels trapped by these questions. Her obsessive guilt is yet another way she keeps Maya alive, turning their relationship over and over in her mind. She rips herself apart to get to the bottom of why she raised Maya so poorly.

This period of self-examination reveals many unattractive aspects of her own life. Her impulses to leave men for no particular reason, to betray men, to move on a whim, put me in an awkward position. I feel judgment rise in my throat. I don’t like these choices. She should have provided a more stable environment for her children. At the same time, I admire her for exploring herself, looking for meaning and answers.

This strange bittersweet mix of criticizing her actions and admiring her willingness to examine them provides one of the most profound gifts of reading memoirs. Rather than looking at this clumsy mothering from outside and clucking my tongue in disapproval, I’m inside her mind, with her, trying to figure it all out.

To overcome her obsessive guilt, she talks to her therapist about her own childhood. She grew up in an environment as chaotic as the one she gave Maya. Her own history gives her clues about her own bad mothering decisions. Then she dives one level deeper and pieces together her own mother’s story. Her mother too had a chaotic childhood.

The story of Eleanor Vincent’s inquiry into her past reveals another profound truth about reading and writing the stories of our lives. Behind each of our stories, are more stories, and as we peel them back and watch the layers fold and unfold, we become wiser about the way life works. This is therapy at its best and soul-searching memoir-writing at its best.

The way she peels back the layers of generations  puts her in the same category as Linda Joy Myers, Don’t Call Me Mother. Both memoirs offer insight into the multi-generational cause of family behavior.

Long Middle Gives Room to Grow and Change

During an epic story such as Lord of the Rings the hero must go through many trials and lessons over a long period. The sheer length of this long middle provides the hero with enough time to incorporate lessons into the fiber of his being. By the end of the story, he is essentially a different person than he was at the beginning.

Eleanor Vincent’s journey works in a similar way. She starts out with nothing but the pain and memories of a lost daughter. Then she gradually fills in blanks, while attempting to become a more accepting, wiser person. Her memoir is not only about gathering information. It’s about growing over time. A book with such a profound character arc fills me with hope about the human condition.

Some of my favorite memoirs achieve this goal, of growing over time, deeper and deeper, until the character at the end of the story thinks differently than at the beginning. Many of these are grieving stories, perhaps because grieving forces us to rethink ourselves in such profound ways. *

At the end of Swimming with Maya, I look back across the ground we’ve covered. From gut-wrenching sorrow, the exploration of many bad choices, and the search for new ways of growing, Eleanor Vincent relentlessly, courageously seeks comfort and insight. In gripping page after gripping page, her self-examination raises many intricate responses in my heart and mind. Judgments… compassion… wishing for a better past… working with her toward a better future. Watching her reactions and my own helps me grow wiser about this profound challenge of living gracefully despite death.

Amazon link to Swimming with Maya:

Eleanor Vincent’s Website

* Memoirs about the Long Journey to Maturity and Wisdom
Madeline Sharples, Leaving the Hall Light On about her survival of her son’s gruesome suicide, and many years of effort to move on.

Dawn Novotny, Ragdoll Redeemed about a woman who was sick of being limited by her passive self-image. Living in the shadow of her step-mother-in-law Marilyn Monroe. , She grew psychologically through the course of the book

Susan Richards, Saddled is a fascinating journey of a woman trying to find herself. A horse helped her grow.

Mary Johnson, Unquenchable Thirst showing her long journey into and through Mother Theresa’s religious organization, Missionaries of Charity.

John Robison, Look Me in the Eye shows a deeper understanding of self despite Asperger’s

Slash Coleman, Bohemian Love Diaries is about his attempt to find a deeper self. By the end of the book, he is wiser but reveals that he has not completed the journey.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

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

Turning a Tragedy into a Memoir of Becoming

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

When I first picked up the memoir Replacement Child by Judy Mandel, I quickly learned from the title and blurb that it was about a girl born into a family that had suffered a trauma. A plane crashed into their house, killed the family’s oldest child, and disfigured the youngest! At first, the shocking nature of the trauma drew me in. That is exactly what every memoir attempts to do, build a bond of curiosity with the reader. And yet, when we start writing our memoirs, few of us know how to achieve this seemingly simple goal.

When you first start to write, you might have no idea of what to call the book or even what it is “about.” Gradually, you construct a story and at some point in your writing journey you begin to wonder how you are going to explain it to readers. Growing attuned to this potential future experience of your readers becomes an important step in completing the work. How can you turn the events of a life into a simple message? That is a wonderful question and answering it will take you on a journey of self-discovery.

By reading Judy Mandel’s memoir, you can imagine how she might have gone through this process. In her childhood, overshadowed by this one horrid event, she had to discover who she was and how she would fit into the world. Despite her normal need to move outside and establish herself as a person, everything in her childhood home wanted to keep collapsing back to the moment when the airplane crashed and her sister burned to death. Considering the power of the moment, it must have been difficult for Judy Mandel to grow up, and even more difficult to tell the story. But in fact she did both. In the memoir, she unpacked all those years and spread them out on the page, allowing us to accompany her through the period of growing up under the shadow of trauma and even giving us the bonus of her struggle to tell the story.

Complex Task of Comprehending Trauma

The family had been devastated by a plane that exploded into their house, a trauma that severely impacted her parents’ ability to enjoy their lives. To try to compensate, they gave birth to Judy, as a “replacement child.” Her presence was supposed to ease their pain about the baby who had been killed. This put her in the strange position of competing for affection with a sibling she never even met. Much later in life, she came across the psychological notion of a Replacement Child and realized that other children grow up under a similar shadow. A child who was attempting to fill a deceased one’s shoes was destined to insecurity.

However, her actual life was far more complex than simply replacing a lost child. The book is about growing up in the aftermath of trauma. I have read memoirs about growing up in all kinds of dysfunctional families, like alcoholism and neglect but this is the first one I can think of about a child who grew up in the shadow of violent trauma. It’s an interesting and powerful topic for millions of children who grew up as second or third generation sufferers of war and persecution, and a haunting consideration for me.

At the end of the 19th century, Russia, like so many host countries before, had turned against the Jews and launched violent attacks and harsh laws designed to force them to convert or get out. About two million of these Jews fled to the United States to build a new life. Every one of those immigrants left after having directly witnessed or heard about Russian soldiers coming into town, rounding up Jews, murdering men and raping women. My grandparents would have been among that group, as would the grandparents of almost everyone I knew. Looking back on my childhood, I replay the faces of my parents and their friends, and in my mind’s eye, I see a people attempting to escape some pain. Perhaps the whole lot of them were suffering from the aftereffects of their immigrant-parents’ trauma.

Judy Mandel’s childhood was overshadowed by yet another wound. Her sister, Linda, had been disfigured by the accident. Growing up with a disfigured sister placed Judy under strange pressures, not to look too pretty, not to make it look too easy. And Judy often had to sit on the sidelines while their parents attended to the enormous ongoing medical needs of the older sister. The worst challenge for Judy was that Linda, with all of her scars and memories was one of the few connections that Dad had with his lost daughter. This difficult situation trapped Judy in a catch-22, wishing to bring some joy ot the family to make up for the pain of that awful event and yet sometimes feeling guilty about being spared that suffering.

So actually there were three family pressures woven into Judy Mandel’s attempt to become a person: her birth as a replacement for a lost sibling; her parents who were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress; and growing up with a sibling who had special needs for attention. These are powerful, important issues, and anyone interested in trying to understand the complexities of growing up could learn by reading this book.

In fact, this is exactly the type of story that started the Memoir Revolution. One of the first, Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life (1989) told his bleak story about trying to grow up, raised by a single mom and an absentee dad. His memoir was one of the first in the wave of Coming of Age stories about children trying to figure out how to become adults under the terrible burden of inadequate parenting. Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes (1996) and Jeanette Walls in Glass Castle (2005) took us further on this path, showing us how hard it can be to turn from child to adult. Judy Mandel’s memoir Replacement Child takes us further still, showing us life in a particular family under very different types of burdens than what we would have expected.

When I studied Family Therapy in graduate school, I was fascinated by the complex interweaving of siblings, parents, and grandparents. Trying to make sense of anyone’s upbringing struck me as being one of the most sophisticated and complex studies anyone could hope to learn. Now, I have found such learning in every Coming of Age memoir. In addition to taking me inside the complexities of individuals, they also show me the intense, intricate interactions of families.

But Judy Mandel’s memoir is hardly a psychology book. In fact, it is a well-told story, with obvious passion for the craft of storytelling. One intriguing demonstration of this devotion to storytelling craft can be found by observing the author’s choices about chronology.

Authorial Control over the Reader’s Sense of Chronology

As the author explains in the book itself, she reconstructed the timeline of all the events. And yet, the book unfolds in an unusual sequence, mixing chapters from at least three periods in her life. One of the dangers of writing outside of chronological order is that the reader will feel lost. But by adding dates to the chapter titles, the author keeps us oriented. Occasionally I wondered why she had chosen to intertwine events the way she had, but in retrospect I can see a wise, insightful artistic decision.

This mix between journalistic authority of the exact chronology, and the intricate interweaving of the story in time, creates an interesting effect. She develops a story arc along a number of lines: the day of the crash; the growing up of the author; the ongoing health of the family; and even her attempt to research and reconstruct the past. Through it all, she builds suspense and understanding, while at the same time keeping us oriented by leading each chapter with the date and in some cases the time of day of the incidents in each chapter.

Her whole life had been consumed, overwhelmed, overshadowed by the events of a few hours on that fateful day. By interspersing the horror of that day, bit by bit, throughout the telling of her memoir, she showed in a creative way how the suspense of that crashing plane kept grinding through her life like a bad dream that she could never escape. In retrospect, it seems like this was the only way to tell the story, one of the subtlest demonstrations I can think of in which the story itself demands to be told in a particular order.

To read my interview with Judy Mandel about writing and publishing Replacement Child, click here.

Notes
For more information about Judy Mandel’s Replacement Child, see her website.

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is another good example of liberties with a timeline being useful in revealing the unfolding story.

Another memoir in which an author attempted to find a diagnosis for his strange childhood was Look Me in the Eye by Jon Robison. He learned late in life that he had Asperger’s which helped him form a better understanding of how his mind works. I believe memoirs in general will help all of us make some of these connections, not necessarily through psychological diagnosis but by sharing our unique stories. For more about this subject read my book Memoir Revolution.

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.

In Memoirs, Misery is Simply a Step toward Hope

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

A participant in a recent memoir workshop asked me if all memoirs need to be about misery. I assured her there is no such rule. However, it is true that hard living makes good reading and at the end of a well-told story, the reader feels lifted by the triumph of overcoming hardship.

For example, in the memoir Here I Stand, Jillian Bullock starts as a young girl in a state of innocence with a loving stepfather who adores her, but he has one problem. He works for the mob and occasionally finds it necessary to assassinate friends. Eventually, his mob ties drive the family apart. Without him, Jillian loses her safe place. First, her “boy friend” rapes her. Then her mother gets involved with an abusive man. The young girl runs away, but doesn’t have anywhere to go. Homeless and starving, she ends up at the local brothel where she receives shelter in exchange for services.

When I started reading memoirs, I set limits on the topics I would read. Sex-for-money was definitely not on my list. However, the longer I study, the more I ambitious I become, craving to understand the variety of human experience. My quest has taken me into combat, physical and mental disability, extreme Muslim, Christian, and Jewish childhoods, and even occasionally to the dark side of sexuality. These stories help me untangle my attitude about situations that previously tied me in mental knots.

So I inched my way into Here I Stand, ready to bolt if it didn’t feel authentic or if I felt strangled by helplessness or despair. The deeper into the story I traveled, the more I trusted this author to maintain authorial control, guiding me through difficulties and then back out to safety. She achieves this effect through excellent story telling. Each chapter is paced well, with an enormous sense of tension and drama, and the gradual, tragic deterioration of circumstances.

The book makes this downward slide look easy, but I am in awe of the effort the author must have made in order to convert the overwhelming feelings of betrayal and humiliation into good reading. As Bullock says in the interview I conducted with her, it took years for her to untangle the heavy load of emotions and see events clearly enough to make them worthy of a story. By the time her story reaches readers, it has been transformed through the lens of the storyteller, and through that lens, the misery is only a step along the path.

When she attempts to steer through these initial setbacks, the impulses that appear appropriate to her child-mind lead her deeper into problems. I feel horror at the direction she heads, trying to imagine how she will make it back to solid ground. In the back of my mind, I’m also wondering how any of us survive the dangerous period of adolescence when we have the power to make decisions that will affect us for the rest of our lives.

Jillian’s saving grace is her determination to reclaim her dignity. Despite abysmal poverty and vulnerability, she keeps trying, until finally she claims her own “agency” — that wonderful literary term that means that the character consciously chooses her next step rather than having the next step chosen for her.

For strength in her darkest hours, she reaches out to the vision of her now-deceased stepfather. I love visionary moments in memoirs, because they provide a glimpse into the spiritual dimension, a sort of anti-gravity or pull from above. Somehow the visions give her the strength to keep going. Finally, she returns to her flawed mother, the only family she has.

After so many hardships, she manages to apply herself to school. That impulse to get an education saves her. The book is a tribute to the power of hope, effort, courage, and learning. As a reader, it answers my own prayer that people with determination can escape from hopeless situations. I am grateful to Jillian Bullock for sharing her journey with me.

The book is not just hopeful for the reader. The author also gains surprising benefits. By exposing hidden parts of herself, she magically converts secrets that could have separated her from people into pathways that connect her. Just as the younger Jillian Bullock was bolstered by those who helped her, the adult Jillian Bullock attempts to pay it forward, helping young people find their own high road. Through the memoir and her work in the community, she passes along the lessons and strength she learned on her journey.

Writing Prompt
When did you first realize that you were making choices that would take you in the direction you wanted to go? In other words, when did you assert your right to steer the ship, rather than let it be steered for you?

Notes

More examples of memoirs about falling from the grace of the family into the chaos of the world where they journey through the vulnerable dark side of sexuality and drugs, and find their way home. In all these cases, education plays a role in redemption.

Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum, about a girl like Bullock who runs away. Unlike Bullock, Erlbaum finds a shelter.
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro. This girl runs away to a rich man who keeps her like a modern-day fallen concubine.

Townie by Andre Debus III about a boy who learns to use his fists to survive the mean streets of a blue-collar town.
Tweak by Nic Sheff about his descent from a privileged home to a drug-infested wasteland. His redemption is only a future promise. This darker version of the fall without a definite rise at the end is humanized by the companion memoir Beautiful Boy by David Sheff about his father who tries to save him.

Another memoir that transforms misery into hope
Diane Ackerman’s 100 Names for Love in which she cares for her husband after a massive stroke.

Click here to read an interview with Jillian Bullock, author of Here I Stand

Jillian Bullock’s 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.

Nine Reasons To Read Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

The more memoirs I read, the more lessons I learn, first about the literary form, second about other people, and third about myself. These benefits intertwine to form one of the best systems of self-development I know. Here are nine benefits, along with a few titles of memoirs that exemplify each one.

Reason #1: The Fascination and Relief of Story Reading

A good memoir offers the same release as any engaging story, allowing me to lose myself in the author’s world… a fine turn of phrase… a fascinating dramatic incident… a character I care about, travelling along an interesting path. All these factors contribute to my satisfaction.

Enough about me by Jancee Dunn: Enters the world of a young celebrity interviewer
The Sound of No Hands Clapping by Toby Young: Shares the world of an ambitious writer
The Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner: offers wisdom about physical illness
Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum: A runaway teen lives in the shelters of New York city

Reason #2: Inspiration based on life experience and loss

My grandmother used to say: “This too shall pass.” I didn’t understand her platitudes when I was young. They make more sense now in the pages of each memoir, which starts with an author facing a challenge and then proceeds through the journey to a resolution. In every case, life goes on and characters grow.

Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup: After losing a beloved husband, she searches to recover from grief and find the meaning of life and death.
Mothering Mother by Carol O’Dell: a daughter cares for a mother suffering from dementia
Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham: a non-standard childhood with her two uncles
Expecting Adam by Martha Beck: She pays homage to her Down Syndrome baby.
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott; She shares her search for the meaning of life
Shades of Darkness by George Brummell: A black man escapes Jim Crow south by joining the army. His war injuries blind him and he must grow through another round.

Reason #3: Insight into cultural mixing, the melting pot of modernity

In modernity, cultures and races mingle at an ever increasing rate. Now, more than ever, we urgently need to understand each other. Through memoirs I penetrate the veil of the Other, by accompanying them on their journey. I accompanied a multi-racial boy, Barack Obama, who visited ancestors in an African village. I accompanied a girl who grew up in Michigan, Mei Ling Hopgood, when she traveled to Taiwan to visit her birth family. I grew up with an Iranian girl, Firoozeh Dumas, in California, a young Jewish immigrant, Harry Bernstein, in Chicago, and a black man, Henry Louis Gates, in the waning years of Jim Crow south. Memoirs turn the American melting pot into a vibrant, detailed, emotionally challenging and enriching personal experience.

Dreams of our Fathers by Barack Obama: A man of mixed heritage seeks his identity at home and in Africa
Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: An African woman seeks asylum in Holland, and discovers that western culture holds the antidote to the injustice she suffered at home.
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas: An Iranian child grows up trying to adapt to the American culture.

The Dream by Harry Bernstein: A Jewish immigrant arrives in the U.S. melting pot before the depression.

Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham: A Vietnamese American returns to Vietnam to make sense of his roots

Colored People by Henry Louis Gates: A black man in Jim Crow south tries to outgrow the limitations his culture has placed on him.

Reason #4: See deep into another’s point of view, including gender, war, celebrity

In order to live in the world, I need insights into the way other people think and feel. By reading memoirs, I no longer need to guess. Each author tell me themselves.

Athletes
Open by Andre Agassi: A famous tennis player shares his hopes, dreams and fears.

Performers
Enter Talking by Joan Rivers: A Jewish college grad attempts to escape the ordinary success mandated by her parents and enter the magical kingdom of entertainment.

Vinyl Highway: Singing as “Dick and Dee Dee” by Dee Dee Phelps: A young woman is invited into a singing duo and finds herself on television and on tour in the sixties.

Soldiers
Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester: A veteran returns to the scene of his Pacific battles and tries to put his demons to rest.

A Temporary Sort of Peace by Jim McGarrah: A Vietnam combat soldier struggles to survive the war with his life and sanity intact. He just barely makes it.

House to House by David Bellavia: A vivid, gut wrenching account of house to house combat in Iraq.

Mental challenges
Look me in the eye by John Robison: A man with an unusual approach to life finds out in middle age that he has been living with undiagnosed Asperger’s

Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison: in the 1980s the author revealed the damaging effects of bipolar disorder, as told from the insider’s point of view.

Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields: about giving birth and realizing she had  postpartum depression

Girls
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro: a beautiful girl is seduced by power, drugs, and sex and must find her way back.

Name All the Animals by Alison Smith: small town girl must find her sexuality against the pressures of religion and grief.

A Girl Named Zippie by Haven Kimmel: a small town girl, who turns ordinary life into a fascinating journey.

Boys
Father Joe by Tony Hendra: about his fascination with the monastery and his admiration of a mentor.

True Notebooks by Mark Salzman about teaching writing to convicted juvenile offenders.

Townie by Andre Dubus, III about growing up as a fighter, trying to maintain his pride in a world that constantly tried to strip it away.

American Shaolin by Matthew Polly: An American college student moves to a Chinese temple in order to study martial arts.

Illness
Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner: a man suffers from Crohn’s disease and learns about life without food.

Seven Wheelchairs by Gary Presley: a man suffers polio and then learns to live with it. (Coming of Age in a wheelchair)

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor: a neuroanatomist suffers a massive stroke and during rehabilitation draws conclusions about the right and left halves of the brain.

Spirituality
Devotion by Dani Shapiro: She searches for deeper meaning in spirituality and religion.
Accidental Buddhist by Dinty Moore: A man trying to immerse himself in Buddhist practices and beliefs.

Fatherhood
The Film Club by David Gilmour: A father agrees to let his son drop out of high school with the proviso that they watch movies together.

Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler: A young man falls under a mysterious illness, and his father writes of the grief and search for courage.

Reason #5: To share their story, authors overcome shame and privacy

Some memories evoke the emotion of shame, which tries to convince us to lock our thoughts away and never reveal them. It requires courage to share such memories with the world. Every time someone achieves that goal, it offers a role model for other aspiring memoir writers. Here are some of the books that in another age would have been kept locked in terrible secrecy.

Lucky by Alice Sebold: A girl is brutally raped in college and must go on a journey of self-discovery, making sense of her life after trauma.

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff: A young man grows up with edgy, directionless experimentation.

Ten Points by Bill Strickland  In raising his little girl, the author tries to make peace with the abuse in his own childhood.

Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner: The author falls in love with a man who starts out charming, and the more she commits to him, the more violent and dangerous he becomes.

I Know Horror Father Because I Know You by Sue William Silverman: Sexually abused as a child, she shares a disturbing account of growing up fearing the man responsible for caring for her.

Reason #6: In the River of Culture, Writers and the Writing Life

All memoirs reflect the journey from life to literature, but when memoirs take us inside the writing life, we gain an even deeper appreciation for the written words that form the fabric of our culture. These stories shed light on the nobility and magic of being literate human beings.

On Writing by Stephen King: A famous author shares the story of becoming a writer.
Mentor by Tom Grimes: A student at the Iowa Writers Workshop shares an account of his relationship with the director of the program.

Only as good as your word, advice from my favorite writing mentors by Susan Shapiro: Shapiro tells of her long journey as an aspiring New York writer, by sharing the stories of important influences.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico – Memoir of A Sensual Quest For Spiritual Healing by Rick Skwiot: The author leaves his corporate job and moves to Mexico to find himself and his writing voice.

Mentor by Tom Grimes: An aspiring author enters Iowa Writers Workshop and practically worships at the altar of the craft.

Reason #7 Learn about the development of identity

Until I started reading memoirs, I thought childhood development was something I would only read about in textbooks. Now, in Coming of Age memoirs, I accompany people on the journey from infant to fully formed adult. Along the way are the strange trials and learning during the adolescent years when we must construct our notions of self. But Coming of Age doesn’t always follow a straight path, or necessarily finish by the age of twenty. Many authors tell of their ongoing effort to become themselves.

Coming of Age
Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls: Tales of chaotic upbringing land on the bestseller lists.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: A boy in Ireland with a drunk father and overwhelmed mother, must figure out how to grow up.

Townie by Andre Dubus III: A boy grows up relying on his fists. As he grows, he becomes curious about his father, a famous story writer, and gradually trades in his gloves for a pen.

Name all the animals by Alison Smith: A girl loses her brother in a tragic accident, and grows up struggling to find herself.

Extended or Late Coming of Age
Accidental Lessons by David Berner: He loses his marriage and career, and becomes a schoolteacher, starting over in his 50s.

Dopefiend by Tim Elhajj: Squandering his teen years in heroin addiction, he finally becomes clean at the age most of us are finished Coming of Age. The memoir is his journey to discover what adult life is all about.

Tis by Frank McCourt: After he arrives in New York, he must invent his own life. Through trial, error, and education, he gradually develops into a fully formed adult.

Life Summary
In many of my memoir workshops, people over 50 try to make sense of the events of their lives. I love this journey of discovery, and at the same time I am aware of the fine line that distinguishes memoir from autobiography. If you attempt to describe your whole life, the result is usually considered less literary, and more historical. However, I have seen evidence that with a sincere, artistic attempt to find the story, such writers can develop a compelling work. And how else will we ever learn to understand the entire journey, unless we write about it? For now, most of the people who achieve bookstore success with this type of memoir are already famous. In the future, I believe ordinary people will achieve success with this form.

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill: An editor in a venerable publishing house in England writes about the journey of life.

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda: His journey through life recounts formative experiences that help us appreciate the impact of extended periods of time.

Golden Willow by Harry Bernstein: After the age of 95, when his acclaimed memoir Invisible Wall was published, Bernstein continues to write two more memoirs. The third one, Golden Willow is written from the point of view of a man in his 90s, looking back on the sweep of life experience.

Moll Flanders by Daniel Dafoe is a fake autobiography written in 1721 about a woman who struggles to find her way, and often loses it, in her journey through life. Considering that it has survived as a classic for almost 300 years suggests that a lifetime can make good reading, when portrayed with expert storytelling skills.

Reason #8 Extend my vision to other parts of the world

At every stage of my life I have been influenced by wars and global politics. In high school, I was traumatized by repercussions of the Holocaust. In college, I was lost in the upheaval of the Vietnam War. In recent years, the power struggles of the mid-east have taken center stage. Over the years, I’ve been disturbed and intrigued by developments in India, Asia, and Africa. Now memoir writers take me on intimate tours of those conflagrations and forces of history.

Man on Mao’s Right by Ji Chaozhu: History of China during the reign of Chairman Mao.

Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson: Glimpse of the back country of Mongolia

House on Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper: Growing up privileged in Liberia

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Asar Nafisi: an English literature teacher faces danger in post-revolutionary Iran.

Vietnam: Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham: After Coming of Age in America, Pham quits his job and goes on a bicycle tour through Vietnam to discover his roots.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba, an African boy falls in life with practical gadgets and manufactures a windmill to generate electricity.

Reason #9 Learn about people attempting to relate to each other

When I was young, romantic love and lust were so tangled I had no idea how to tell one from the other. Over the years, I came to believe that the principle difference between the two comes to light in the commitment of a mutually respectful partnership. This simple insight took years of trial and error, but now that I read memoirs, I can speed up the movie. Memoirs tell of the emotional complexity of love, babies, sex, extended families, careers, and all the other things that go into a couple’s life.

Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Cook Fineberg: a newlywed woman moves with her husband to Japan and in this foreign culture must also discover herself within the relationship.

Digging Deep by Boyd Lemon: In this retrospective attempt to understand his three failed marriages, Lemon completely exposes his own limitations. While it was happening he assumed it was all their fault, but now looking, he realizes his only contribution to the relationship was money.

Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story, by Judith Dickerman-Nelson, she falls in love and becomes pregnant at the age of 16, and has much to figure out about love, social approval, commitment, and becoming a couple.

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman: a woman attempts to make a marriage work within the many rules and constraints of her Hasidic culture.

Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner: Her young love goes terribly wrong when she discovers her new husband is an abuser.

Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener: Tells the whole journey of love, marriage, and then surviving his illness and death when he is struck with cancer.

(This is a rewrite of an article published January 4, 2008 called Eight Reasons to Read Memoirs by Jerry Waxler)

Notes

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 self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

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

Notes

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

Notes

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.