Writing a Memoir Penetrates the Fog of Memory

or Watching My Dad Watching Me
by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

On my dad’s eightieth birthday, my sister and I took my parents to dinner. To stir my usually reticent father to speak, we asked him what it was like raising us. He said, “I took Jerry to a baseball game once. He read the whole time.” We all laughed at the image. What a nerd I was!

But his comment unsettled me. Of all the experiences we had together, why did that one come to mind? Did he resent me for obsessive reading? I had long since forgiven him for being away at his drugstore 14 hours a day. Now, for the first time in my life, his comment made me wonder what he thought about me. However, he grew quiet, and I let the matter drop. My childhood seemed so far away. I would probably never understand his part in it. I had a hard enough time remembering my own.

One reason I can barely remember my childhood is because I spent most of it inside the covers of a book. I read in my room, at the dinner table, and on trolleys and subways, always more fascinated with the invented world of fiction than in the world around me. I became so absorbed in stories, I sometimes forgot about the boy turning the pages. Once, in ninth-grade English class, I was visiting another planet with the characters in Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, when my teacher grabbed the book from my hand. I looked up at his red face, momentarily confused. How did he even see me?

My strategy to read my way through life fell apart when I landed in Madison, Wisconsin in 1965. Even before the riots started, I had no idea how to relate to this teeming mass of 30,000 students. To survive those tumultuous years, I tried to lose myself in the despairing cynical literature of the time, like Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which turned the butterfly image upside down. The book described a boy who turned  into a giant beetle. For the first time, books were taking me into worlds worse than the one I was trying to escape. I turned to marijuana, angry music, and confusing friends. Drowning in a sea of kids, I descended into confusion that took me years to fix.

After college, I reversed the downward slide by reading books about spirituality. Their promise of transcendent reality shone on my light-starved soul, guiding me out of the woods and back toward normalcy. When I felt strong enough to get a job, I turned to self-help books. Each one gave me deeper insight into the boy turning the pages. My journey continued in a therapist’s office, and then in real life, with friends and a family of my own. For forty years, I continued to work at becoming a healthy adult, and books were always right there with me.

In the early 2000s, I discovered memoirs. By diving into a memoir I still lost myself in another person’s world. However, instead of becoming less of a person, I was becoming more. Over and over, after I experienced the world through the author’s eyes, I added compassion and wisdom to my own. The next step seemed obvious. I needed to write my own.

As a slow, methodical memoir writer, I discover incidents buried under years of forgetting. Like an archeologist, I extricate them from the rubble of details and wonder what value each artifact might offer. I place them into the context of the book of my life, and through the chemistry of a growing narrative, they acquire deeper meaning. And because books were so important to me, some of the treasures in my memory relate to my passion for reading.

For one of my birthdays, around my fourteenth, I received a gift-wrapped book from Dad. I assumed it was the Hardy Boys book I asked for. The library didn’t stock the popular mystery series, so I was looking forward to this gift to increase my supply. I tore away the paper, expecting to reveal a photo showing the young sleuths. Instead, I found a boring orange book with no dust jacket. I opened it to see an old-fashioned typeface.

“What’s this?” I asked, making no attempt to hide my disappointment.

“I wanted you to try something different. It’s about a guy stuck on an island. Give it a chance.”

I put the book down, my face tense with the effort of holding back tears. “I won’t read it. Please, please give me the book I asked for.”

He insisted, and I ran to my room. Why was he doing this to me? What did he even know about books, anyway? On the one night a week when he came home for dinner, he sat in his chair, picked up a novel, and within minutes had passed out, the book face down on his lap.

I would show him. I would just stay in my room until he relented. A few days later, Dad gave in and bought me a Hardy Boys book. However, instead of exchanging Robinson Crusoe, he told me to keep them both. The ugly book in its boring orange cover sat next to my bed while I enjoyed yet another episode of the Hardy Boys.

After I finished reading the mystery, my obsession with books got the better of me and I picked up Robinson Crusoe. Pushing past my reluctance, I began reading. Within the first few pages I adjusted to Defoe’s antiquated sentences, and quickly lost myself in the story, identifying with this lonely, resourceful man trying to survive in a hostile world. I loved my life on that island, and loved Daniel Defoe for giving it to me.

When my journey came to an end, I was hooked on classics, and walked to our local library for more. Reading classics for pleasure became a passion, and for years, I found endless pleasure in novels by European authors such as Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas and American ones like Jack London and Mark Twain.

When I first recorded the incident, it didn’t have any particular importance. After I wrote it and tinkered with it, the anecdote deepened. My father’s solution to this challenge was more clever than I realized. He caved to my demand in a way that allowed us both to win. It never occurred to me he was that smart. Then, in my growing manuscript, I can follow events from one year to the next. Through this lens,.

Through the lens of story, I see my early life from both sides. Dad wasn’t perfect. He was just a guy trying to earn a living and at the same time figure out what to do with his teenage son. Concerned about my obsessive reading so he used his influence to bump it up a notch. His small intervention had a longlasting effect.

By turning anecdotes into a narrative I connect the dots. Dad’s observation about me reading at the ballpark helps me visualize from another person’s point of view that I was trying to disappear inside a book. But I wasn’t invisible after all. I had a father who tried to influence his son’s behavior in ways I couldn’t yet appreciate.

Before I started writing the memoir, memories of my teenage obsession immediately led me back to the red face of an angry English teacher grabbing a book from my hand. Now that I’m working through more memories, I have the opportunity to see the kind face of my father, handing me a book that would invite me into the foundations of western literature. As my manuscript evolves, instead of remembering a dad who was too busy to raise me, I can now watch him watch over me.

Writing Prompt
Your early memories were put in place before you had the intellectual tools to make sense of them. There they remain in their original form, until you write about them (or talk to a therapist). To use memoir writing to help you make more sense of your memories, think of various incidents with a caregiver. When one such anecdote jumps out of your mind, write it. After it’s on paper, look at it more closely for clues about what was going on in your world and in theirs. Place the anecdote on your timeline, and consider its context. What other incidents does it remind you of? When another scene jumps to mind, write that one too. Even if you don’t see the connection at first, put this one into your timeline. Repeat this exercise several times. Then step back and attempt to portray a richer picture of these interactions than the one that first came to mind.


Read more about how my obsession with reading classics for pleasure almost killed me by clicking here.

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.

This Memoir Teaches How To Grow up with Books

by Jerry Waxler

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

The memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Professor Karen Swallow Prior is about a young girl trying to make sense of life. She is not content to mindlessly accept what she’s been told by her elders. Nor does she mindlessly surrender to the tribal rituals of her schoolmates. She needs to find the truth for herself. Her memoir is about her process of deeply questioning her world, and the mistakes and lessons she learns along the way. As a young intellectual, naturally she turns to books for many of her answers.

Her memoir recounts how authors like John Donne, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Arthur Miller offer a rich source of insight. Their wisdom helps her steer through dilemmas, maintain dignity and find the high road. The memoir is one of the best I’ve seen about the intellectual development of an inquiring mind.

Professor Prior’s journey took me back to my own intellectual development. During high school, my favorite classics by Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas did not teach me how to live. They were more like magic carpets transporting me to another place and time. When I was finished, I moved on to the next. My attitude toward books became more serious in college during the 60s. Desperate to figure out how to grow up, I poured my intensity into books. I lingered with each one, immersed myself in it, lived within the world the author created. Tragically, the books that seized my imagination were by despairing authors like Ferdinand Celine, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett.

By the time I reached the end of that journey, instead of being prepared to face adulthood, I had lost all hope. I knew that if I didn’t find something to live for, I would die. A lifeline came to me in the form of a few pages of an obscure photocopied book that opened me to something called a spiritual path. I became a seeker, latching onto the presence of God. Things suddenly brightened. I switched reading material again, this time immersing myself in an eclectic mix of mystical writings such as Kahlil Gibran, Rumi, and the anonymously written Way of the Pilgrim. These writings provided me with a cosmic context. No longer alone in the universe, my journey made sense.

However, despite the enormous influence books have had on my life, I have read few memoirs in which books play a central role. * Now, riding Karen Prior’s magic carpet about growing up with books, I return to my youth and wonder what it would have been like to have deeper appreciation for the social lessons embedded in my classics.

In college during my hours of deepest need, I was not interested in what adults told me. I wanted to read my truths in books. I opened to each one as if it might contain the key. What if I had read a book like Karen Prior’s, that showed me how to find longer lasting guidance. Would I have grown through that period faster, with less pain and fewer mistakes? I can’t turn the clock back to my own youth, but it makes me wonder about the influence of memoirs on young people today.  Perhaps some of them will suspend their disbelief, join her and other memoir authors on their journeys of discovery and then return to their own lives, enriched with new possibilities.

Unlike the authors of most of the books I read in high school, who were inaccessible and mostly dead, Karen Prior is very much alive. To learn more about her I looked her up on the web, and found she also writes articles for the Atlantic Monthly. In her articles, she is a ferocious evangelist for the value of reading. In an age filled with fear and confusion that young people are falling away from books, she urgently points out that literature is the conduit through which we pass values to the next generation.

In addition to being a science-based appeal to the power of reading, the article also addresses one of the central problems I faced as a young man. How does an intellectually voracious young person develop a notion of transcendence without resorting to doctrine?

In the article “Does Reading Make Us More Human?” Prior offers one of the most universal, least doctrine-based answers I have ever seen. She says, “What good literature can do and does do — far greater than any importation of morality — is touch the human soul.” She calls the process “Deep Reading” and makes an astonishing claim for its importance.

She says the word “read” does not just apply to written symbols. We also use the same word “read” when we attempt to understand another person’s feelings. She goes on to draw this far reaching conclusion. “In this sense, deep reading might be considered one of the most spiritual of all human activities.” Her sweeping statement shocks me. I need to deep-read her assertion that Deep Reading is spiritual. When I open my mind to her perspective, I see how it beautifully expresses the reason I love memoirs.

A work of literature, by itself is just a collection of words. By deep-reading it, we bring to life the author’s passion, years of deep thought, insight, and wisdom. Deep Reading reveals that behind every book is an author and every time we deep-read a book, we enter an intimate connection with that author. Engaging in that sophisticated, mature and interior relationship with an author is essentially a spiritual act. Her assertion agrees with my own definition of spirituality. If God is love, and God is within each one of us, by opening up to each other’s stories, we touch God.

Her experiences as a child and a teacher, and the effort she subsequently poured into writing her Atlantic articles and her memoir all add up to a life devoted to the relationship between literature and life. And by offering her lessons to the rest of us, she adds to our cultural awareness of the impact books have on our lives.

Memoirs share many journeys

In each decade of my life, I am accompanied by a different set of books. After I had learned as much as I could in my thirties from my round of spirituality books, I needed escape so I read murder mysteries. When I realized that escape wasn’t getting me anywhere, I shifted to an obsession with self-help and psychology books to learn how to relate to people and be my own best self. In my late-fifties, when I realized that life is a fascinating story, I switched again, this time reading the stories of other people.

Memoirs provide a different type of reading experience than I’ve had during previous periods. Instead of isolating various dimensions of life, this genre ties them all together. Each memoir lets me dance inside an author’s world, discovering what drives them to excel and what tries to crush their spirit, how they learn to keep going and how they turned all of that into a book.

Now I do the same dance inside Karen Swallow Prior’s memoir and I feel like I’m in a hall of mirrors. Deep-reading about her experience of learning lessons from literature makes me feel like I am in heaven. No. It’s better than that. Pondering every memoir makes me feel like I’m in heaven. Pondering this one makes me feel like I’m in heaven gazing up at heaven’s sky.

Written across that sky, I read an important message for memoir writers. After we make mistakes, learn lessons, read books, and grow up, we have the opportunity to pass our wisdom along to those who follow. By learning to translate our lives into stories, we are offering ourselves to others in a universal form, leading ourselves and our readers more deeply into what it means to be human.

In my book Memoir Revolution, in a chapter titled Finding a Language for Individual Spirituality, I explore the way memoirs enable us to share our views of transcendent truth. Professor takes my argument one step further and proposes that our individual experience, when deeply appreciated, is itself transcendent. Your memoir could contribute to this great spiritual awakening. By pouring your life experience into the stream of wisdom, you help others learn and grow.

Karen Prior’s memoir provides yet another demonstration of the profound ability of the Memoir Revolution to break down walls between strangers, to give us a way to share our wisdom and lessons. By deep reading memoirs, we can find our connection with each other, and by writing our own, we can offer others the opportunity to deeply read us.

Writing Prompt
The obvious writing prompt that emerges from this book relates to the power books have had in your own life. Write a scene in which a book strongly influenced the course of your thinking, providing lingering guidance.

Writing Prompt
You may also have counter-examples, books that tore you down. When I was in college, and struggling with my own obsessive sense of rebellion, I became infatuated with the despairing authors in 20th century Europe. I read these too deeply for my own good. If you have any counter-examples in which the ideas in a book took you off track, write a scene or story about one of those, too.

Writing Prompt
At the end of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me is a long list of study questions suitable for a literature class. These study questions raise an interesting possibility for your memoir. Could you imagine young people, or people in your target audience, discussing some facet of your life, in order to understand their own? Review the scenes or chapters in your own memoir in progress, and write a study question about some principle or challenge that could stir up conversation.


Amazon Link: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Atlantic Articles: How Reading Makes Us More Human
What Maya Angelou Means When She Says ‘Shakespeare Must Be a Black Girl’

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury made the case that it was important to preserve books, but I do not recall any deep message about how a young person could apply lessons from any of the individual books to his or her own development.

* Another memoir that uses literature to explain principles of life is Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. Click here for my essay about that memoir.

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.

10 More Brief Book Reviews for Memoir Readers and Writers

by Jerry Waxler

Here are ten more of the memoirs I have read in my research to learn about people and their stories. To see a longer list, click here.

“This Boy’s Life: A Memoir” by Tobias Wolff

“This Boy’s Life” is a story of a young boy growing up with a single mom.  It’s a Coming of Age tale that pried open the door and started allowing in stories of ordinary people, presaging the Memoir Revolution. (He was noted as Alice Sebold’s Creative Nonfiction professor in her memoir “Lucky.”) By publishing the story of his childhood, Wolff offers our generation a new opportunity to explore that period of our own lives.

“She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts” by Haven Kimmel

This is about an ordinary girl living in a small town in the Midwest. Her brilliant authorial voice commands attention and offers entertainment. It’s an excellent example of how great storytelling can turn ordinary life into compelling reading. It’s also a good example of a memoir sequel, following Kimmel’s first equally engaging memoir “A Girl Named Zippy.”

“What I know for sure, My story of growing up in America” by Tavis Smiley

This is a classic tale of rising from poverty into fabulous success through the power of personal charm, hard work and relentless ambition. Unique features of the book include a highly disciplined black family in a mostly white town in the Midwest, and a crossover story of a black man succeeding in white America, starting with his election as class president of his almost all-white high school. In addition, it is an example of a ghost or co-written book with David Ritz.

“The Liar’s Club: A Memoir” by Mary Karr

Mary Karr grew up in a complex childhood filled with emotional drama, including alcohol, mental breakdown, and economic hardship. But equal to the power of her circumstances is the power of her voice. It is one of the most commanding voices of any memoir I have read, filled with clever observations that ring true. Her insights provide a new way of experiencing childhood. I would go anywhere with Karr, which is why I ordered her second memoir, Cherry. (I’m falling behind. She has already released her third.) I consider “Liar’s Club” to be one of the canonical Coming of Age tales that launched the revolution. (Others are “Glass Castle,” by Jeanette Walls, “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt, and “This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff.)

“The Last Lecture,” Randy Pausch, Jeffrey Zaslow

Randy Pausch was invited to give a “last lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University, not because he was retiring but dying of pancreatic cancer. In his lecture, he shared wisdom he acquired during his brilliant but brief career as a professor. The lessons were picked up by Wall Street Journal Columnist Jeff Zaslow and turned into a book called “The Last Lecture” in which Pausch shared his experience of life in short essays that translate life experience into rule the reader could live by.

The fact that the book was so fabulously successful is a testament to Pausch’s insights. Its popularity also hints at an unspoken respect for those who offer wisdom as they approach death. Like a hero soldier who throws himself on a grenade, offering a model of superhuman generosity as his final legacy, Zaslow proves you can do good things even when you are going to die.

“The Kids are All Right: A memoir” by Diana Welch, Liz Welch, Amanda Welch, Dan Welch

“The Kids are all Right” was written by an ensemble cast of four siblings. Their mom was a Soap Opera star so it may look at first like this is a “celebrity memoir,” in which case the only reason to read it would be to learn more about mom. But the memoir doesn’t belong to the mom but to her four children who, after both parents died, had to come of age in challenging circumstances. It’s an example of the experience of becoming orphaned, an example of the transition from privilege to suffering and confusion. It’s an example of a memoir written from more than one voice. And it is a portrait of siblings who turned towards each other in order to survive adversity.

“True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall” by Mark Salzman

Mark Salzman was a successful author who volunteered to teach creative writing to violent juvenile offenders. As he teaches them to write, they teach him who they are and how they landed in this prison, offering an amazing window into their world, their dreams, their youth and confusion, and their suffering. It’s also a window into the power of writing to reveal inner worlds. The author authentically reproduces street language, and captures individual voice tone and rhythm, slouches and expressions. Judging from the title of the memoir, it’s an amazing display of how a writer can use writer’s notebooks to capture the tone of real experience.

The book raises awareness about a segment of our population that most of try to shut out of our mind. The author was recruited into this work by Sister Janet Harris, of the Inside Out Writers program, an organization in Los Angeles that tries to humanize imprisoned kids.

“Teach with Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from The Freedom Writers” by Erin Gruwell

This is the memoir of Erin Gruwell, the mastermind behind the Freedom Writers, a band of Los Angeles high school students who delved into the meaning of their lives by writing and sharing their diaries. In “Teach With Your Heart” Erin Gruwell offers deeper insight into a world I have already started learning about. Combined with “The Freedom Writers Diary” book and movie, I now have an excellent appreciation for Gruwell’s work and her world.

Click here to see my essay about the Freedom Writers Diary.

“Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour

Miranda Seymour as an almost-aristocrat just when the British Aristocracy was breathing its last gasp. “Oh, no,” I thought, when I first saw it. “Not another book about the demise of aristocracy! I thought I knew it all after watching the fabulous television shows “Brideshead Revisited” and Upstairs Downstairs.” But those were nearer the beginning of the Twentieth Century when the class system was starting to crumble. Miranda Seymour’s memoir takes place at the end of the century. Miranda’s father George was the last of a dying breed, while Miranda herself grew up in the post-aristocratic era. She needed to find her own way, and become her own person, making it a terrific Coming of Age story of a woman who had to move from the old world to the new one. Her transformation was captured in a memorable line. “I was dancing topless in Los Angeles, in a bar where I was the only white.” She uses research into her father’s life, including extensive use of his diaries and letters.

“Courage to Walk” by Robert Waxler

(Publishedby Spinner Publications )

Jeremy Waxler, a vibrant young athlete and lawyer, loses control of his legs, and becomes paralyzed. The search for the cause and cure of his mysterious illness reads at first like a medical thriller, except it’s not a book about medicine. It’s about the love of a father for his son. In a previous memoir, “Losing Jonathan,” published in 2003, Robert Waxler recounts the loss of his first son to an overdose. In this current memoir, Waxler watches in horror as his second beloved son teeters on the edge of life. Waxler again travels into the abyss, trying to make sense, telling the story as a reporter, a father, and a philosopher. Robert Waxler is a professor of literature, and he uses this vast reservoir of wisdom offered by other writers to help maintain his balance.

Links to Amazon Pages

“This Boy’s Life: A Memoir” by Tobias Wolff

She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel

“What I know for sure, My story of growing up in America” by Tavis Smiley

“The Liar’s Club: A Memoir” by Mary Karr

“Last Lecture,” Randy Pausch, Jeffrey Zaslow

“The Kids are All Right: A memoir” by Diana Welch, Liz Welch, Amanda Welch, Dan Welch

“True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall” by Mark Salzman

“Teach with Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from The Freedom Writers” by Erin Gruwell

“Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour

“Courage to Walk” by Robert Waxler
(Publishedby Spinner Publications )

More memoir writing resources

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

Annotated List of Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

When I talk about the power of memoirs, people often ask, “which ones do you recommend.” The answer is “It depends.” There are so many memoirs, of all manner of experience, in various styles, by ordinary people and celebrities, about recent memories or distant ones, of tragedy and comedy. Do you want entertainment, empathy, insight, or all three? Since I am a lover of memoirs, I keep searching and finding new styles, new subjects, and deeper lessons. Here is a list of the memoirs I’ve read which provide the insights and experience for the MemoryWritersNetwork . They  represent the community of memoir writers as well as the community of humanity. I have added a brief note with each. This list is in no particular order.

“Dreams of our Fathers,” by Barack Obama
A boy with a white mother and black father grows up poor, and tries to understand his heritage. This is the story of his self-discovery.

Related Post: Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father, first thoughts

“Don’t Call me Mother,” Linda Joy Myers
It’s a detailed saga of growing up in an emotionally abusive environment, “orphaned” not by death but by abandonment into the care of her emotionally erratic grandmother.

Related Blog: Mothers and Daughters Don’t Always Mix

“Ten Points,” by Bill Strickland
Child abuse in the past, contrasted with the healing effects of bicycle racing and loving family life in the present. Compelling writing. A great cycling memoir.

Related Blogs: Memoir of Redemption: Author Shares His Writing Experience,
Memoir of abuse and redemption, book review

“Angela’s Ashes,” by Frank McCourt
Childhood in poverty, alcoholism, and Irish culture. Ends with “coming home to America.” This book was one of the early shots in the current Memoir Revolution, signaling that the story of an ordinary person could become a best seller.

Related Blog: Finished Memoir: Angela’s Ashes

“Glass Castle,” by Jeanette Walls
Zany, out-of-control girl’s childhood on the move in the American west. Despite the laughs, it’s really about overcoming a tragically dysfunctional family. Blows the doors off the isolation of childhood. See my essay, “Why Coming of Age memoirs ought to be a genre.

“Running with Scissors,” by Augusten Burroughs. Zany, out-of-control boy’s childhood. Disturbing images, and situations that a child ought never be exposed to, including sexuality contributed to its notoriety. Good example of ripping open dark childhood secrets.

“Sleeping Arrangements” by Laura Shaine Cunningham
Girl’s childhood in New York Jewish immigrant family, raised by loving, quirky uncles after the death of her mother.

“A Girl Named Zippy” by Haven Kimmel
Loving observations of an ordinary childhood in the mid-west. A good example of an ordinary coming of age made readable by a powerful authorial voice.

“Name All the Animals,” Alison Smith
A small town mid-western childhood, marred mainly by the tragic death of a brother. It also shows her sexual self-discovery.

“Three Little Words,” Ashley Rhodes Courter
Experiences of her difficult childhood in foster care. As an adult she became a spokesperson for improvement of the foster care system. An excellent example of a memoir used to further social advocacy.

Related Essay: Who protects the children? Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

“Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir” by Carol D. O’Dell
Taking care of her mother with Alzheimer’s this sandwich-generation mom and daughter has to manage to take care of herself emotionally while she tends to a mom with a disintegrating sense of self. The book provides a good example of journaling as a tool for surviving difficulty and writing a memoir.

Related Essay: Memoir about Caregiving for Mother offers lessons for life

“An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison
Life with mental illness, Bipolar disorder back when it was called manic-depression. The author was a researcher and clinician in mental health. This was a groundbreaking book that showed mental illness from the inside.

“Look Me in the Eye,” by John Robison
Life with Asperger’s. He lives an unusually nerdy and withdrawn childhood, focused more on technology and people. Later in life he realizes that his characteristics match the profile of Asperger’s, a revelation which has given his life new purpose. It’s an unusual book in that it covers the lifespan from childhood to the present. Using parenthood as a sort of closure is a nice touch at the end.

Related essay: John Robison’s Asperger’s gave me permission to write about myself

“Mistress’s Daughter,” A.M. Homes
Trying to find her true identity by connecting with her biological parents. It explores family, genealogy, and adoption.

“Slow Motion” by Dani Shapiro
Literary woman coming of age while lost in a bottle. Major component is terrible family dysfunction.

Related Essay: What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?

“Life in a Bottle” by Susan Cheever
Literary woman coming of age while lost in a bottle. Privileged life, “upper class American.”

“Beautiful Boy, a Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” by David Sheff
Addiction of a son and journalistic exploration of meth addiction. This is a companion to “Tweak” by David’s son, Nic Sheff.

“Tweak, Growing up on Amphetamines” by Nic Sheff
Addiction by a meth addict, and gritty kid-on-the-street, tragedy of over-privileged kid, twelve steps. This is a companion to “Beautiful Boy” by Nic’s father, David Sheff.

Related Essay: Matched pair of memoirs show both sides of addiction
See also Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Losing Jonathan

“Expecting Adam,” by Martha Beck
Spiritual awakening, mothering a child with Down Syndrome, escape from over-intellectualized self-image.

“Down Came the Rain” by Brooke Shields
Postpartum Depression of a celebrity.

Related Essays:

Brooke Shields teaches mommies and memoir writers
5 Reasons why I read Brooke Shields’ “Down Came the Rain” even though I avoid celebrity memoirs

“Funny in Farsi,” by Firoozeh Dumas
An Iranian-American immigrant tells about her family’s adjustment to America with compassion and humor.

Related Essay: Iranian in America makes love and laughter

“Colored People” Henry Louis Gates
Cultural mixings, growing up black just on the cusp of the civil rights era, portrayal of small town, Jim Crow,  life in West Virginia

“Invisible Wall” by Harry Bernstein
Cultural mixings, growing up in England on the edge of anti-semitism –he was a child before World War I. He was 92 when he wrote the book.

“The Dream” by Harry Bernstein
A follow up to his first memoir, Invisible Wall, this tells about his first years in the U.S. after immigrating from Britain in the 20’s. It’s a good example of an immigration story (a British Jew to Chicago) and a fabulous example that it’s never too late. He was 93 when he wrote it.

Related Essay: Harry Bernstein’s Second Memoir, Still Writing at 98!

“Here if you need me,” by Kate Braestrup
Grief and spirituality, Maine woods, religion versus spirituality, secular religion. Excellent treatment of Good and Evil.

Related Essay: Kate Braestrup’s memoir transforms grief into love

“Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion
Grief from a more psychological vantage point, from a famous essay writer. Example of a sophisticated essay style.

“Queen of the Road” by Doreen Orion
A married couple, both psychiatrists, take a year off to travel the U.S. in an RV and cope with midlife crisis.

Essays about Doreen Orion’s “Queen of the Road”:
Style, humor, and other tips from Doreen Orion’s Travel Memoir
Identity moves too in Doreen Orion’s travel memoir

Pets, motion, and other tips from a travel memoir
Doreen Orion’s brilliant memoir about last year’s midlife crisis

“Zen and Now” by Mark Richardson
Traveling the U.S. on a motorcycle to cope with midlife crisis, and research the same road traveled by Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

Related Essay: Break the Rules! A Travel Memoir with a Twist of Zen

“Vinyl Highway” by Dee Dee Phelps
Sixties nostalgia of a rock singer, of “Dick and Dee Dee” fame, and the story of a girl coming of age.

Related Essay: Fame and Story Structure in Dee Dee’s 60’s memoir
To read the two part interview with the author: Click Here for Part 1 and … Here for Part 2

“In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson” by Sue Erikson Bloland
Life with a famous parent, and some (not enough) analysis of the phenomenon of fame.

“Native State” by Tony Cohan
Life with a parent obsessed by celebrities — excellent flashbacks of the sixties counter-culture, and musical culture of Jazz, a great story about a coming of age that struggled to stay on the rails.

“Shades of Darkness” by George E. Brummell
Growing up black in the Jim Crow south and then losing his sight as a result of a Vietnam war injury. Good example of a well-written self-published book, good portrayal of living a full life under the added burden of disability.

Related Essay: Blind veteran finds his voice by writing

“Seven Wheelchairs,” by Gary Presley
A lifetime in a wheel chair after polio, includes much story telling, some essay style, and important exploration of his thoughts.

Related Essay: Gary Presley’s Memoir Defangs the Horror of Aging and Disability

“Hands Upon My Heart,” Perry Foster
He survived a heart attack. The story of his botched heart surgery. A bit edgy. Excellent first-time self-published book.

Related Essay: Memoir writing lessons from the heart

“Trading Secrets,” Foster Winans
Surviving a legal setback. He was a journalist for the Wall Street Journal who landed in jail due to an insider trading indiscretion. He is now a ghost-writer.

“Temporary Sort of Peace,” by James McGarrah
Surviving Vietnam War PTSD, really gritty. Botched coming of age. He’s an English professor and poet now.

Related Essay: Storytellers shed light on the horrors of war

“Lucky,” Alice Sebold
Surviving the trauma of a violent rape. The tragic personal cost of rape, and the long journey back. Sebold is an acclaimed novelist. The title “Lucky” is based on a comment by a cop who said she was lucky her rapist let her live.

Related Essay: Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a searing memoir of trauma

“My Detachment,” by Tracy Kidder
The boring, dreary, humiliating experience of being an officer in a meaningless war. Kidder is famous as one of the founders of the Creative Nonfiction movement with his first immersion reporting “Soul of a New Machine.” He has written a number of immersion books. This one is not about other people. It’s about his own life.

“In Pharoah’s Army,” Tobias Wolff
Another founder of the literary memoir movement, in this book Tobias Wolff writes about the meaninglessness of soldiering in Vietnam.

“Three Cups of Tea” by Gregg Mortenson
Life of service and insight in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A fabulous book of international service, and “finding meaning through service.” Sub-theme: To conquer enemies, make them friends.

Related Essay: “Find meaning through service” or “Making peace with the peasants of Pakistan”

“The Pact” by Sampson Davis, et al
Triumph against the odds, three black doctors who rose from the mean streets of New Jersey to become doctors. Wonderful story of young men using education and mutual respect to escape poverty and the ghetto.

“On Writing” by Stephen King
This famous and wildly successful writer shares his writing life and tips about writing.

“Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott
Musings and personal essays on her experience as a writer, offered as support and insight to others.

“Sound of No Hands Clapping” by Toby Young
Writer about promoting. This is funny, and more psychologically insightful than it looks. Great look at the zany pressure of “making it” as a writer.

“Don’t Have Your Dog Stuffed” by Alan Alda
Alda’s fame don’t prevent this lovely autobiography to be intimate and sincere. He displays his life (including childhood) in show biz, lifelong curiosity about people, science and drama

“Enough About Me” by Jancee Dunn
A young woman coming of age gets a job interviewing celebrities and becomes something of a celebrity herself, while still managing to see herself as a small town girl.

Related Essay: Celebrity interviewer turns the camera on herself

“The Path: One Man’s Quest on the Only Path There is” by J. Donald Walters
When Walters comes of age, he follows Yogananda. It’s an insider look into a religious movement.

“Thank you and OK! An American Zen Failure in Japan,” by David Chadwick
Seeking spirituality in Japan. A travel book of Japan, and a story of spiritual coming of age.

“Traveling Mercies” by Anne Lamott
Spiritual musings, more essay than memoir.

“Fear is No Longer my Reality,” by Jamie Blyth
This is a combination memoir and self-help book. This minimizes the memoir aspect, interspersing it with commentary from friends and experts. Jamie Blyth was famous because of his appearance on a television show, and the book leverages that fame.

Related Essay: Afraid to write your memoir? Read this book!

“I know you really love me,” by Doreen Orion
Orion is a psychiatrist who was stalked for years by an obsessive patient. She writes about the experience, psychology, and laws of stalking from a first person point of view.

“Fugitive Days” by Bill Ayers
Out-of-control sixties political protesting. This book was made famous during the Obama campaign. Good (sometimes shocking and extreme) scenes of the anti-war fervor.

Related Essay: Read banned memoirs: Criminal or Social Activist

“Sky of Stone” by Homer Hickham
Coal mining town in West Virginia faces a possible corporate takeover. The author is famous for his first memoir Rocket Boys which became a movie and smash hit. It’s an example of what a powerful, polished storyteller can do with a set of memories which he had pushed aside for 30+ years.

“The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir” by Bill Bryson
A story of childhood in the fifties, emphasizing historical information about the times and humor about a boy growing up in a small town.

“The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood” by Helene Cooper
Helene Cooper grew up in the African country of Liberia. The country was founded by freed American slaves in the early 19th century, and the founders established themselves as a privileged class. Helene Cooper grew up and watched her world torn apart by violent, tribal anarchy.

“The Man on Mao’s Right” by Ji Chaozhu
A key figure in Mao Tse Tung’s government looks back over more than 60 years of public and private life. Co-written by an American journalist, Foster Winans, the book is a well told page turner that pulls you into history from the inside.

Related Essay: Seeing history through the eyes of one man

“Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back” by Frank Schaeffer
This is a fascinating insight into the political-evangelical culture of the late Twentieth Century as seen through the eyes of one of its architects. Frank Schaeffer grew up in a commune run by his famous theologian parents, and used those experiences to launch his own wild ride through history.

Related Essay: One man’s battle with sexuality changed the world

“Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin
A powerful insight into becoming a world famous comedian, starting from an ordinary childhood. It gives step by step instructions for stage performance, growing famous, and then looking back.

Related Essay: Celebrity lessons for writers

“Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg
Life with a famous and very smart parrot. Pets, science, intelligence. A bird buddy story.

Related Essay: Life with a famous parrot, Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg

“Marley and Me” by John Grogan
An awesome buddy story of a man, his family, and his dog. Made into a movie, the story has the emotion, drama, warmth. It’s a powerful example of how a good writer can transform life into the magic of story.

Related Essay: A dog made famous by an expert storyteller

“Enter Talking” by Joan Rivers
This is the story of her journey from being an ordinary, ambitious college girl to becoming a successful, soon to be world-famous comedian. It’s emotional, authentic and inspiring.

Related Essay: Memoir by Celebrity Joan Rivers Offers Lessons for Aspiring Writers

“Color of Water” by James McBride
A black journalist grew up with a white Jewish mother. The book is an ode to her, and a racially complex journey of self-discovery.

Related Essay: Color of Water, a memoir of race, family and fabulous writing

“Picking Cotton, Memoir of Injustice and Redemption” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, with Erin Torneo
“Two lives were ruined that night.” A double tragic story, about a woman whose life was ripped apart by rape and a man wrongly sent to prison for violating her. The heart of the book comes when the mistake is discovered, they become friends and social advocates. Excellent example of a book used for social advocacy.

Related Essay: Mistaken Identification: A memoir of injustice and redemption

“Black, White, and Jewish” by Rebecca Walker
This is a Coming of Age, Search for Identity story, by the daughter of a famous black author Alice Walker and a successful white father. The split in her world was compounded by both race and class. She spent her young life shuttling between their two very different worlds.

“The Freedom Writers Diary : How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them,” by the Freedom Writers, Zlata Filipovic and Erin Gruwell
A collection of diary entries by an ensemble cast of teenagers trying to discover their own peace in the “undeclared war” of race and gangs in Los Angeles.

Related Essay: Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

“Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You” by Sue William Silverman
This disturbing memoir is about sexual abuse starting from infancy and extending throughout adolescence. Thought provoking, well-written, confessional, reflecting on the intimate pain of a damaged childhood.

Related Essay: Fearlessly Confessing the Dark Side of Memory in this Memoir of Sexual Abuse

“Losing Jonathan” by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
This is about the loss of a son to addiction, and the parents who wrestle with grief and the meaning of life.

Related Essay: A memoir of mourning helps makes sense of loss

“Crazy Love” by Leslie Morgan Steiner
A young, successful woman, graduate of Harvard and editor at Seventeen Magazine, fell in love with a man who had been abused as a child. Soon he started hitting and choking her. It’s the story of how her love kept her prisoner, and reveals an inside look at how a smart, motivated and loving woman can feel trapped in an abusive marriage.

“American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China” by Matthew Polly
The author dropped out of Princeton to go and study Kung Fu in China. It’s a fight book, a cultural exploration, and a young man in search of his own identity.

“The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body” by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
Mirriam-Goldberg survived breast cancer while she was organizing an environmental conference. Includes spirituality, family, and community.

Related Interview: Memoir author speaks of spirituality, religion, and cancer

“Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo” by Zlata Filopovic
This is a published diary of an 11 year-old girl, without comment or additional narrative, tells the daily challenges of growing up in a tragic descent of a healthy girl, in a healthy family community into the besieged, senseless, desolate, catastrophe of war. It’s an example of “Diary” as “Memoir.”

Related Essay:  A diary for social change. A young girl’s terrible experience of war.

“Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage” by Linda Wisniewski
Wisniewski grew up  feeling like she didn’t fit in – on one level because of the scoliosis that made her feel less straight, and on another level because of her mother’s willingness to let girls take second place.

Related Essays: Riddle of the Sphinx – Stand Straight for Dignity
The powerful story of an ordinary woman

“My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour
Seymour grew up in an old English country home. Her father was quirky at best, and narcissistic and obsessive at worst. The story is told with deep appreciation for the love and troubles of her family, and the continued deterioration of the British Class system through the second half of the Twentieth Century. Two unusual devices in the book are her mother’s occasional introjections, and extensive research based on her father’s diaries.

“Rocky Stories” by Michael Vitez, photographs by Tom Gralish
This is a collection of profiles of people who race up the “Rocky Stairs” in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Vitez parked there off and on for a year, took the picture of jubilant Rocky followers, and asked them to explain what triumph they were hoping for or celebrating. Through these moments you can sometimes glimpse the trials of a whole lifetime.

Related Essay: Memoir Writing Prompt — Your Rocky Story

More memoir writing resources

10 More Memoirs I Recommend

5 More Memoirs I Recommend


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.

Rediscovering why I read books throughout my lifetime

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.)

Books have always played an important role in my life, influencing, informing, and entertaining. Now I want to pass forward to others the benefits I have received. One of the steps of offering my thoughts to “the world” is to visualize who might be on the receiving end. Communication does, after all, require a speaker and a listener. So who are “those people” out there to whom I am speaking? One approach to understanding how books work for them is to explore how books have worked for me. By picking apart the way books have worked in my life, I hope to learn how other people use books.

When I lay out my recollections on paper, patterns emerge, much simpler and more sensible than expected, letting me identify the way I used books differently in various eras of my life. Perhaps this fact should have been obvious to me from the start, but it wasn’t and now once again, I find myself learning more about the changes across the lifespan by going back and reviewing my own.

Different reasons for reading at different stages in life
In early teen years, I fell into a torrid love affair with science fiction, a genre that let me suspend my own limitations, and join forces with people who adventured through the known and unknown universe. Regular trips to the library and a large paperback collection fed my passion for fantasy. Then in high school, I switched to more serious literature, like Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas, basking in the hypnotic rhythm of their language and stories. It didn’t bother me that they described a world that took place 100 years earlier. In fact, in one of my favorite books from that period, “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Mark Twain transported the protagonist back several hundred years, combining literature with science fiction.

When I was twenty, I desperately wanted clever people to tell me what life was going to be like, so I ran towards the darkness of a culture driven mad by World War II. One of the most intellectually demanding books I ever read, “The One Dimensional Man” by Herbert Marcuse left me feeling that all was insanity and all was lost. Mentors like Samuel Beckett and Joseph Heller offered a cynical emptiness, so deep and despairing that by the time I stopped reading I had entered my own hell. Perhaps I was experiencing “Clinical Depression” or perhaps I had simply spent too much time absorbing post-World War II despair. Whatever it was, I had my fill of the dark.

To regain some of the lightness required for survival, I reached towards spirituality, reading books by mystical authors who offered me insights into a reality that made more sense than the one I had constructed so far. One was Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yoga [See my essay on a memoir about Paramahansa Yogananda by clicking here.] There were many others. Rumi, the ancient Persian poet who continues to influence and uplift. Kahlil Gibran. The Book of Mirdad. The Way of the Pilgrim, about a Russian monk who learns the art of constant prayer. Some potent books, like Stewart White’s “Betty Book” were recommended by a friend who had found them on dusty shelves of a used bookstore. (Ah-ha! It’s not just bestselling books that influence a reader.)

I finally got back on my feet, and as a young working man, I returned to mysteries. Their repetitive formula soothed me by unmasking the villain and reducing the chaos of the world.

In my forties I discovered self-help books. During this period, authors taught me psychological skills to help me survive the working life, and improve my chances for aging gracefully. My foray into self-help reached a zenith in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, whose ideas formed the foundation for going back to school for a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. I continued my fascination with self-help and psychological literature, to help me continue to grow, as well as to give me insights with which I could help others.

When I approached sixty, I switched again, reading memoir after memoir to learn what sorts of lives people have written.

My changing tastes offer many insights
When I look back over the decades, what looked originally like a thousand disjointed bits of information fall into a nicely organized shape. Of course there were exceptions that don’t precisely fit into this convenient stratification, but those don’t disrupt the basic lesson — That as I grew, I used books in different ways. My insights about books through the years becomes a lens through which I can learn more not only about myself, but about how I interacted with the world around me.

Like almost every task in my memoir project, evaluating my past adds information to my present. I see so much more about my relationship with books, and book authors, a realization that will deepen my understanding of how to reach my readers. In further essays, I will write more about how these changing relationships might affect the way I organize my life story, ideas that I hope will inspire you to understand more about your own relationship with your potential audience.

Writing Prompt: For each period in your life, write about the books you read, and why you read them. List your favorite titles, and describe the impact they had on you. Place this list in order, and see if you can identify any patterns about how they changed over the years.

Note: Memoirs are so varied they provide a variety of the benefits I have looked for in the course of my reading. Memoirs can be exhilarating, provide lots of entertainment, and offer lessons about life. Articles about the spirituality of memoirs can be found here.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Showing ideas is harder than telling them

by Jerry Waxler

I’m a person who admires ideas, so when I try to talk about my life, I want to talk about ideas. And yet, storytelling is largely about action. How do I turn my predilection for ideas into a story? That’s why I’ve developed a method to gather together scenes for a memoir, but even with this method some things are harder to show. Take for example my recent memory about how important books were in my life. Books are filled with ideas, and ideas were important to me especially in high school and college. How will I ever describe the centrality of ideas, when ideas themselves do not make good storytelling material?

To help me understand this question, I’m looking at the way other memoirists handle the same issue. Take for example, Tommie Smith’s “Silent Gesture.” He is a teller, telling about his life. I am interested, and keep turning pages. I like him and what he’s done and what he stands for, and want to know more about him. And while he occasionally shows me a scene, a lot of the book is filled with him telling me about his thoughts. Tommie might say, “I was good at running and kept winning race after race.” It’s accurate and informative. But I can’t enter into it with him. On the other hand, George Brummell in “Shades of Darkness” shows everything. In Brummell’s book, he walks down the street tapping his cane, stumbling into things, cursing when he gets lost. I can feel his situation. I’m there with him.

So how would I tell about the importance of books in my life? I could list them, and tell about them. For example, “Catch 22 made a big impression on me, along with other books that broke down the barriers of logic, and showed me that all is not as it seems.” Nice statement but it doesn’t take you into my life. So I look for a scene that includes a book. Here’s one. This scene provides a window into my world. It takes longer to write but it lets a reader get to know me a little more, and see a couple more parts of my world. By the way, this snip of narrative is not polished. To write a blog every day I’m going to have to publish drafts, not something I like to do. Let me know if you think the unpolished writing distracts from the point. Here’s my example of a scene with a book:

For my birthday, when I was twelve, my father gave me Robinson Crusoe. It was a plain orange book. It didn’t even have a picture on the cover. I placed it in the little stand by my bed, and just glowered at it for weeks. I wanted a Hardy Boys book. I used to go to the candy store where there was a shelf of Hard Boy books. I would pick them up and just stare at them. I could feel their mystery calling to me. But when I begged dad to let me exchange Robinson Crusoe for a Hardy Boys book, he refused. It was one of the few times I felt pressure from my dad. I knew it was the right thing to do and I knew I was being a brat. It was a case of pleasure taking priority over conscience. Finally I gave in and started to read it. Once I adjusted my mind to the old fashioned language, I got into it. I started to feel more smitten with this guy landing on an island and trying to survive. When I was done, what had started out as an insult turned out to be an opening. I was hooked on classic literature. And what started as a reason to feel separated from my dad turned into a reason to feel grateful to him. His gift to me that birthday was more than just a book. He gave me a gift by pressuring me to stretch beyond my limits.

That scene conveys an idea about my relationship to books. Now, if I’m going to include such an abstract point in my memoir, I need to look for others. Oh there’s another one. In ninth grade, I was more interested in the science fiction book I was reading than I was in my English class. The teacher walked up behind me and caught me in the act of reading. It’s an ironic sin to be caught reading a book in English class, but he never forgave me.