Coming of Age in the Shadow of Vietnam

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

Memoir writers are forensic historians, attempting to reconstruct the stories buried in the past. Take for example, Sandy Hanna, a marketing executive and artist, looking forward to retirement, Her childhood must have seemed like a distant dream.

But the mystery of those times called to her, begging to be told. In fact, her military father “The Colonel” ordered her to tell the story. He wanted to let others know that just Ignorance of Bliss Sandy Hannabefore the Vietnam war started, there were levers of choice and power that could have averted the catastrophe. If only we had applied wisdom instead of force.

Her adventure began in 1960 when her family lived in Saigon. While her father investigated the feasibility of the United States military involvement in that remote part of the world, this ten year old girl had to figure out how to grow up.

Thanks to the less protective parenting style of those times, and the hyper-resourceful instincts of kids who grew up in the military, Sandy’s older brother figured out how to start a small black-market business. The little girl discovered her brother’s scheme and threatened to expose him unless he cut her in on the action. She didn’t need the money. She just had a thirst for adventure.

If she had been in the States, she might have been playing jacks or hopscotch. In Saigon, she entertained herself by selling baby powder and chocolate at a street market among the locals. She came home looking all innocent to her unsuspecting military parents. Her precocious business venture provides a fascinating variation on the resourceful way kids everywhere can get themselves into trouble.

But when you take into account that her coming of age occurred in the epicenter of the coming war, the story takes on a deeper meaning, shrouding the innocence of her childhood in the shadows of one of the great conflagrations of modern times.

A few years after her escapades, college campuses would explode with screams to stop the war, and the verdant jungles of Vietnam would explode with the screams of those who were participating in it. Protesters, police, soldiers, displaced civilians, and the many millions touched by the counter culture were all swept up in the chaos.

After the waves receded, Sandy Hanna, like the rest of us tried to get back to the hard work of becoming an adult. But as she approached retirement she thought, “If not now, when?”

Now, at last, almost 60 years later Hanna offers Ignorance of Bliss, one of the gutsiest, quirkiest tales of coming of age I have read, complete with mystery, with a brilliant, cunning child-hero, a colorful cast of characters (including a pet monkey), and a feel-good ending too cool for me to risk spoiling.

A little girl’s view of Saigon, from inside the home of a top military attache, bursts with insight into the delicate balance that holds civilization together, shows how small actions can create large results, and how coming of age in a crazy world often requires a bit of craziness in response. The whole thing would look terrific on the big screen.

Many boomers who saw such a movie might walk out of the theater with a nagging need to reconstruct their own stories about growing up during that era.

At first, you might recoil from such a desire. Our culture is saturated with evocative symbols of that era such as Woodstock, the Beatles and Cheech and Chong on the fun side and all the hellish images of foot soldiers in jungles on the bad side. But in reality, we have far less understanding of the introspective experience of the individuals who had to make sense of their own lives during that period..

For most of the hippies, soldiers, Jesus freaks, Hari Krishnas, stoners, groupies, Hell’s Angels, dropouts, and any of the other menagerie of counter-cultural extremes, those years have always seemed better left buried. The whole thing was so embarrassing and confusing, that in order to return to a normal life, our whole generation allowed itself to hide behind the clichés..

As boomers take stock of where we’ve been, our first memories often reinforce the clichés and embarrassment. Such first-glances are far too simplistic to do justice to our intricate passage tinto adulthood. A book length memoir is the only medium rich and deep enough to convey those inner journeys.

If you accept the challenge posed by Sandy Hanna’s memoir, you will find yourself immersed in one of the most important activities in civilization. Civilization requires the steadying influence of the longer view of history, which can only be seen through the eyes of elders.

From the stories of people who grew up in the midst of those changes, we learn so much from each other about the way humans respond to the forces of history. And by sharing these psychologically rich narratives, you will be offering your life to increase our collective wisdom, one story at a time.

Developing your story in a readable form might sound scary or hard. But I have watched many writers go from disbelief, to hard work, to completed publication. I know it can be done. (For more insight into this process, read my book Memoir Revolution.)

Here are a few other memoirs of the Vietnam War and Counterculture era I’ve read and one that I’ve written. I’m sure there will be many more as boomers retire and try to find the story of those complex times:

Thinking my Way to the End of the World by Jerry Waxler
An Incredible Talent for Existing by Pamela Jane
Hippie Chick: Coming of Age in the ’60s by Ilene English

Times They were a Changing — a book of short stories by women about that time edited by Amber Lea Starfire and Linda Joy Myers

A Temporary Sort of Peace by Jim McGarrah
A soldier in the thick of combat, horrifies himself. A great look at the horror of being a soldier, and a great prelude to the return to sanity memoir Offtrack.

Offtrack by Jim McGarrah
After the crushing psychological trauma of combat in Vietnam, McGarrah uses the horse people who run race tracks as a sort of half way house to return to society.

Click here. for brief descriptions and links to other posts on this blog.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Interview with Editors of 60s Memoir Anthology

by Jerry Waxler

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

In my previous post, I wrote about an anthology, The Times They Were a Changing, in which the stories and poems of 48 women spotlight a segment of the 60s experience. Collectively their words helped me understand an important segment of cultural history, and also extended my appreciation for the role of short-stories in the Memoir Revolution. In today’s post, I ask the editors of the anthology to help me understand how they put it together and why. Linda Joy Myers acts as their spokesperson.

Jerry Waxler: Is it called an anthology or a collection?

Linda Joy: We always called the Times They Were A-Changing “collection” an anthology because the range of themes and topics were consistent—the ’60s and ’70s—and because we included poetry, too. Early on all three editors discussed the various themes that were part of the era that we wanted to make sure were included, so the whole book is an arc of the era. As we researched the era through documentaries, films, music, and biographies, we were reminded of the many social, cultural, and political movements occurring simultaneously over a short time. To capture as much variety as possible in our stories and poems we developed subthemes, naming them by lyrics or slogans of the times.

Notes from the Underground: Early 60s
Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out: Hippie Counterculture
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Feminism and Women’s Rights
Social Unrest: Political Movements
Age of Aquarius: Spiritual and Human Potential Movements

Jerry:  It seems like creating an anthology requires specialized skills. How did you learn to do such a great job. Were there any models or prior attempts to inform you?

Linda Joy: We are all avid readers, and bring our reading and writing skills into this. It seemed intuitive, and we each contributed our vision to the project. We knew what the era meant to us, and we all remembered the feeling of those times and what they’d given us in the realm of creativity, inspiration to find our own voice, the ability to think out of the box, and the willingness to take risks.

Kate had edited and published a themed anthology that focused on the mother-daughter relationship and had edited several anthologies for the California Writers Club. The writers club developed a model of three editors—a small enough number to provide consistency in editorial direction, but had the advantage of a tiebreaker. Amber, who had also edited two anthologies for the Story Circle Network, is a wonderful manager and set up clear benchmarks, a doable timeline for selection, editing, manuscript formatting, proofing, and submission based on her own publishing experience.

An online company called Submittable, that helps editors create a system for receiving and reviewing work, is a great service. We sorted by themes and subthemes, set up keywords, scores, and made editorial comments viewable by all the editors. The professional tools that Submittable offered were essential to the success of our work.

Our publisher, She Writes Press, was supportive of a themed anthology, particularly one that showcased women’s experiences during a breakthrough era for women. Brooke Warner, co-founder of SWP, was willing to take the risk with us and trust our editorial abilities.

Jerry: How did you get so many great stories?

Linda Joy: We placed our ads in Poets and Writers, WOW! Women on Writing, Story Circle Network, where we knew there would be a lot of interested writers. The Story Circle Network conference is where our idea was born into the world, at a dinner under a 700-year-old oak tree on a windy evening. We placed our Call for Submissions with various writing groups we belonged to, and shared our project with writer organizations in newsletters, listservs, and blogs.

We decided to combine a contest with an opportunity for publication. The contest allowed us to advertise in publications that featured contests, while the opportunity to be published appealed to a wider reach. Our target groups were women writers, not celebrities or well-known feminine activists. We wanted women who could write, who were our peers, and who would create a grassroots publication.

We received about 270 submissions—it was a challenge to choose the best. We all read every story and loved our job.

Visit our website to meet our prizewinners and contributing authors whose works cover a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Many of our authors have written blog posts about their writing process which appear on our website.

Jerry: How did you tune and refine the stories so expertly (such consistent style!)

Linda Joy: Each of us had a set to edit, but we all read and re-edited each other’s group, partly because we were hungry to read ALL the stories and see them evolve, and partly because we wanted to make sure there was consistency. We created a rubric of what we wanted to see in each story and poem and “scored” the stories accordingly. Of course, we had to leave room for that je ne sais quoi, that mystery of why a story works too.

It was important to us that each story had a narrative arc of development, and brought home an insight that our readers could relate to. Each story needed to be a slice of life at the time and also reflect on the meaning of those times, either then or now. We wanted the stories to be pithy yet entertaining. Some of them are about painful experiences from that time that the writers had never before put into words and others are written from experiences on high—however you choose to interpret that word. This is the power of writing stories—shaping our experiences into a meaningful narrative that transcends the literal experience.

In developing the subthemes and keywords on our website and within the Submittable database, we grouped stories and poems by category and rank. We wanted to include a range of experiences as well as geography in our final selection.

Jerry: Why did you decide to include poetry in a book of stories? How do you see them fitting together?

Linda Joy: All of us who lived through this era know that poetry, song, and spontaneous eruptions of creative expression were part of it. Not all experiences can be properly shared in narrative form. It only seemed right to include poetry and invite another way to share the impressions, the moments of the era with impressionistic snapshots that brought us back to a feeling, a moment in time. We loved being able to include poetry.

Through the process of sharing our book we’re discovering how many women want to know, discuss, and share these changing times. We hope it may be the beginning of an important dialogue.

Jerry: I love your work with memoir writers and am a fan of your own memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother. So I was especially intrigued by the story you wrote in the Times They Were a Changing as a young woman trying to find herself in the sixties. How did your own personal experiences of the era come into play as you created this book?

Linda Joy: I had always wanted to write about the ‘60s and ‘70s, but hadn’t done it yet. It was such a confusing and exhilarating era, a time of my young adulthood, a time of confusion yet opportunity. Everything I’d known and believed before was fractured and out of the those pieces, along with my generation, I learned to find myself through art, through the new psychologies that were evolving at the time, through journaling, poetry, and books that invited self-expression and authenticity. So I was thrilled when Amber and Kate agreed to join me for this project. I can say now that it kickstarted my way into writing a new memoir about—yes, the ’60s and 70’s, and I can thank the courage of all the writers I was reading to help me find my own.

Notes

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

Read more about the authors by clicking here.

Click here for more about the themes in Times They Were a Changing

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

To order 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.

The Sixties Had Many Struggles. Here’s One I Missed.

by Jerry Waxler

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

When I landed at the University of Wisconsin in 1965 I was a virgin, never smoked dope, had never been drunk, and had never heard of Vietnam. Even if I knew we were at war, it wouldn’t have bothered me. War preserves our freedom, right? Within weeks, I saw a picket line, my first warning that life was about to change. Soon I grew long hair and visited the record store every day hoping for new albums by the Beatles, Stones, and Bob Dylan.

Our cultural fever was fearless and far ranging. We hated war and poverty. We intended to eliminate them. We hated the stupid rules that restricted sex, so we ignored them. We were going to change consciousness itself. With the help of marijuana, I broke loose from old fashioned notions of personal responsibility. Money? Who needs it? When I read my first book by Alan Watts, I saw exactly what he meant. All of life is an illusion and we young people were reinventing it. What an exciting time!

Sweaty palms and gut wrenching drama: confronting “The Man”

To convince The Man of our new truths, we locked arms outside classrooms and refused to let anyone in. When police stormed the building, beating us with clubs, we ran in disbelief, furious and confused. Didn’t they see we were right? That conflict between two opposing desires is the basis for the dramatic tension that has driven stories since the beginning of time. It is the reason many of us know we lived through some good stories.

However, despite all the story material provided by those colorful times, memoir writers seem to be avoiding the era. After reading hundreds of memoirs, I can only think of two that took me all the way into the mentality. **

Where are all the other boomers who will provide their own experience during that time? Recently, I found a fascinating stash, like an archeological treasure buried in the minds of its authors. It’s a collection of short stories and poems called The Times They Were a Changing, co-edited by Linda Joy Myers, Amber Lea Starfire and Kate Farrell. I settled back and went for the ride, turning the pages from one good story to the next. The stories not only took me into the past. They offered me the wisdom and uplift that I gain when I set aside my own point of view and see the world through other eyes.

Women Wanted to Change the World, Too

In these stories, I learn that women needed to confront the Man in a very different way than I did. They had to confront him when they asked their fathers what subject they were allowed to major in. They had to confront him when they asked for permission to leave their dorms at night or which job they were permitted to perform. But these women had drunk the potion of “we can change the world.” Why not change gender relationships too?

Like the war protestors, they discovered that The Man fought back. When Dorothy Alexander tells her dad that she is no longer restricted by the old ways, he screams at her. Get out of my house. I never want to see you again. Reading that scene, I vicariously feel her anger, pride, and fear, every bit as much as when I stood in front of a club-wielding cop. I turn the page. Tell me more!

Before I started gathering my past into a memoir, the sixties felt like a big, fascinating, mess, during which I joined a generation who thought that the path to wisdom required that we destroy the path. What did we end up with after all that drama? Most of our pipe dreams went up in smoke. We didn’t eliminate poverty or war, and drugs turned out to be less groovy than they first appeared. And in just six years, from 1965 to 1971, I effectively dismantled my life, forcing me to start over.

During my journey back to wholeness, I discovered that the best way to improve my relationship to the world was to tune in to the stories people tell about themselves and each other. For example, this method helped me improve my relationship with my older sister.

She seemed to be angry with me all the time, but I could never figure out why. I asked her to meet me for lunch so we could try to get to the bottom of it. The clatter of the restaurant faded into the background as we began to tell each other about childhood. She revealed her resentment about the way Dad gave his sons more freedom to choose schools and majors than he gave her. I was surprised and told her I had never noticed he was granting us more privilege. She was surprised by my lack of complicity. Now, years later, I finally saw the pain his preferences had caused.

Our conversation helped me understand why my sister resented me, and gave me my first personal understanding of what it felt like to be a woman before the shift. How could I have missed the whole thing? I couldn’t answer that question until I read the following story in The Times They Were a Changing.

Author Judith Barrington describes a crowded party, with loud music, booze and dancing. All the participants are female, bursting with the power of expressing themselves without worrying about the opinions of men. They wear blue jeans and some of them have even disrobed in an expression of defiance against all the crap about their bodies imposed by men. There is a commotion at the door. Two women have just entered dressed in fashionable dresses, makeup, coiffed hair and other symbols of male domination. The chatter in the crowd turns to a commentary about this turn of events. Why are they here? These aren’t feminists. Maybe they aren’t women at all. Maybe they are men dressed as women in order to crash our party. One of the women in the crowd says disdainfully, “Bloody men think they belong everywhere.”

The comment yanked me out of the story and brought me back to my body, where I found myself in an awkward position. I am a man. I can’t change my gender. Does that mean I’m not even welcome to keep reading? Of course not, I thought. That’s the power of reading. We set ourselves aside and go for the ride. So I climbed back into the story. Inside I see men as the enemy. In my state as an empathetic reader, I find that interesting, even mind expanding. I open my mind and drink in the mood of the time.

When I finish reading, I know more than I ever did back then. And my ignorance now makes better sense. If such parties were taking place at the University of Wisconsin, I certainly didn’t know about them. And if women were meeting to demand their rights, I didn’t know a thing about it. Despite the many benefits I have enjoyed as a male in a post-liberation world, I had no clear image of how we arrived here, nor was I able to empathize with the situations that women experienced during that turmoil.

Sharing stories heals wounds. After my sister and I processed the sins of our father, I told her that even though flying from Philadelphia to Madison may have looked glamorous, I regretted that I had more freedom than I knew how to handle. She had never realized how lost I felt there. By the end of the conversation, we understood each other. We’ve been good friends ever since.

After reading The Times They Were a Changing, I now have a much better understanding of the experiences of women in my generation. And even though I didn’t have a chance to witness the transition when it was first happening, now through the magic of memoirs, I am invited as a guest with a front row seat.

The Times are Changing Again

The title of this collection is for me a double entendre. In addition to the obvious meaning that the times back then were changing, I am fascinated by the changes today. The Memoir Revolution, in which we are participating right now, has fewer photo-opportunities. I doubt that I would watch a movie about a crowd of writers sitting at their desks. But inwardly this revolution overflows with all the drama that life has to offer. A million aspiring memoir writers are collecting their lives into the shape of a Story and imagining the possibility of sharing those stories with each other. Our new revolution liberates us from silence, lets us step out of our cliques and pains and ushers in an era of cultural dialog, with mutual respect and the exhilarating power of page turning stories.

Writing Prompt
What time in your life are you convinced “no one will ever understand.” Even if you can’t imagine ever writing it, set aside your doubts and try writing one scene. Think of any time related to that experience even if it seems too trivial to bother with, or at the other extreme, even if it seems too intense to ever capture in words. Write that scene by simply reporting what you were seeing, feeling, and thinking. Free-write. Don’t worry about excellence. It’s just a first draft. When you finish writing that scene, consider the powerful result. You have begun to translate a memory into a story. Later, by learning to polish and revise it, you can develop it into something with a beginning, middle and end, or you can add it as a chapter to a longer work. Feel free to type your brief episode into the comments below.

Reading Prompt
Look for memoirs that describe events similar to the one you experienced. Read the memoir, and then think about how that author translated life into story. If you want to ask about a memoir related to your situation, feel free to leave it in the comment section. Perhaps I or another commenter can offer a suggestion.

Notes

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

** Memoirs I’ve reviewed about the sixties: Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days, takes me into his over-the-top war protests. Read my essay:  in Read banned memoirs: Criminal or Social Activist?  And Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God offers a look at growing up in a Christian commune named L’Abri in Switzerland. Read my essay, Memoir of a commune stirs hope for a healthier world

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.

Why Boomers Should Write Memoirs about the 60s

by Jerry Waxler

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

When my parents were growing up in Philadelphia during the Roaring Twenties, they went home at the end of the day to parents who spoke Yiddish or heavily accented English. I wish I could understand their second-generation immigrant experience, or what life was like during the Great Depression or World War II. Millions of boomers share my curiosity about their parents but few of us have begun to record our own stories. When I ask people why not write a memoir, I hear all sorts of reasons. “I’m too busy.” “I don’t know how.” “My experience was similar to millions of others.” “If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand.” I know all these objections already. In order to write my memoir, I had to push through them myself.

I knew that people who had not lived through that period relied on clichés with lots of hair, dope, and rock and roll. But these images from movie and music snips and bits of conversation around the dinner table are not like reading a memoir. In a memoir, the author carefully crafts the world as they saw it, creating the ambiance of the times. I think the word “story” ought to be capitalized the way God is, because a Story invites the reader to set aside their own world and enter the author’s. Once inside, clichés disappear, replaced by unique, authentic responses to specific circumstances. This is true even for books that cover the same general circumstances.

Amid the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read, I have often seen the same themes repeated. I’ve read several books about young girls growing up in small towns, children coming to terms with their mixed-race identity, adoptees trying to understand which family is the real one, mothers trying to raise a child with intellectual challenges, and so on. Despite their similarities, each person has their own life and tells their own story.

Even though millions of my peers experienced the iconic events of the 60s, my exact story was my own, a drama with the specific circumstances of being me, my reactions, my observations, my careening path. So I set aside the fear that someone else has already published my life and I begin to write.

When I start, crazy memories spring out of hiding and clutch at me. At first I’m afraid that revealing emotional moments might make me seem like a victim, a dupe, or a confused bundle of nerves. I want to stuff my memories back into their cave. Then I think of my parents who remained hidden, and I think of my respect for the memoir authors who have welcomed me into their lives, and I press on.

The first story I share in a writing group describes a violent anti-war riot in Madison, Wisconsin in 1967. I wonder if listeners will judge me for the quality of the writing or for my naïve choices and raw emotions. But no one in the group expresses disdain and many express appreciation so I continue to write. Soon, I find myself deep in the darkness that enveloped me after the riots. When I realized how hopeless I felt to change the world or understand my role in it, I turned toward nihilism, embracing the notion that Nothing Matters with religious conviction.

I sit at my computer during my morning writing hours, looking back on that period and trying to make sense of it. Then for the rest of the day, I set those feelings aside and go about my pleasant, upbeat life. My writing desk gives me a vantage point from which I can understand far more about those times than I had any hope of doing while I was living through them.

However, being willing to face the past was only the beginning. As a novice storyteller, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever capture those feelings on paper. After I took a few memoir classes and started to develop a sense of chronology and scene-building, a larger story began to emerge. I remember my first days in Madison, Wisconsin, transplanted to the teeming campus from my quiet Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, I see a bookish young man who wanted two things: to become a doctor and to understand Absolute Truth. I didn’t know how dangerous my search would  be.

A perfect storm of cultural upheaval was brewing on the horizon: the Pill; the threat of the draft; a divisive, frantic, anti-war effort that inherited a sense of righteousness from the recent civil rights movement; affordable air travel; access to hallucinogenic drugs; eroding authority of organized religion and the influx of eastern mysticism. As each wave of change arrived, I tried to adapt. But like a boxer who must face a new opponent in each round, I ran out of fight, and went down — at one point, literally, after being attacked by a group of boys who wanted long-haired troublemakers like me to go back east where we belonged.

Hundreds of millions of people experienced their own version of those times, storing endless reels of movies in their minds. I imagine boomers all over the world occasionally pulling out one of their reels. If they have no reason to examine it more closely, they quickly return it to its shelf. If they attempt to write a memoir, they look more carefully at the scenes, and begin to place isolated events into context.

Gradually, the sequences add up. I see the influences of parents, culture, substances and desires, insecurities, and all the other things that make me human. Between the peaks and troughs, the glue of normalcy holds it together from day to day. And I begin to see how the shocks in one chapter lead to character development in the next. After setbacks, I find strength, courage, and eventually even wisdom. As happens in all good stories, the protagonist grew. A life that has been translated into a story transcends memory and achieves the richness of its many dimensions.

The harder I work to craft events so they make sense to a reader, the more they make sense to me. Or maybe “make sense” is too strong. They become more integrated. I learn to accept them as part of the continuous process of being me. I become more comfortable “in my own skin” or more accurately, more comfortable in my own memories. Converting memories from a jangle of isolated snaps into a coherent story is rewarding. It’s challenging. It leads to wholeness.

In the early stages of my writing, I am struck by the depressing self-inflicted immolation of my academic ambition. However, storytelling doesn’t stop with the problems. A good story takes both reader and author beyond the setbacks to the resurrection that comes next. So I look beyond the 60s. What new person emerged from the ashes of the old? For that, I explore the spiritual and religious dimensions of my life.

In Madison, Wisconsin, I went to classes surrounded by 30,000 kids, many of them blond, the vast majority of them northern European and Christian. Desperate to feel accepted, I felt swept up in the possibility of becoming part of that herd. If being Jewish separated me from them, I would separate myself from feeling Jewish.

Without knowing the far reaching effects of my defiance, I distanced myself from religion. As a result, I could no longer turn to the absolute moral authority that had guided my parents. Like many of my peers, I struggled to find my own direction. The first leg of the quest led straight into the abyss. Then, when I thought I could go no lower, I found a spiritual belief system in which everything mattered. That was the beginning of a period of rebuilding, during which I had to figure out how to live a meaningful life under the aegis of spiritual rather than religious principles.

As I search for my story, I return to my curiosity about my parents. All I knew about them was summed up in a couple of clichés about immigrants and the Great Depression, but I knew nothing about their specific, day-to-day circumstances. I wonder if reading their memoir would have brought us closer to each other during my own transition, perhaps even giving me a safety-net that would have softened my fall. I’ll never know how it would have changed my past, but as I put my story together, I gain a renewed appreciation for the challenges that each of us faced. My parents had to figure out how to cross the threshold into adulthood and so did I. By seeing the story of my own transition, I am drawn closer to theirs.

In the age of memoirs, more of us are taking the time to look back and develop the stories of our lives. By openly exploring the experiences of our youth, we can learn about the common humanity that binds us to our parents. And by leaving our stories for the next generation, our children will have a far greater ability to appreciate the context from which they have come.

Notes
For a memoir that shared the journey from organized religion to spirituality, read Frank Schaeffer’s, Crazy for God. It tells of his childhood, with an intense belief in Christianity, as guided by the wildly innovative interpretations of his parents, then into the intense certainty of the religious right, and finally to a journey to find his own inner guiding light.

Another memoir that reveals the journey from absolute religion to trust in an individual relationship with God: Carlos Eire’s Learning to Die in Miami

Three memoirs about black and white parents
Barack Obama’s Dreams of Our Fathers,
James McBride’s Color of Water
Rebecca Walker’s Black White and Jewish

Books that Search for the Life of an Ancestor
James McBride, Color of Water
Andrew X. Pham, Eaves of Heaven
Karen Alaniz, Breaking the Code
Jeanette Walls, Half Broke Horses
Linda Austin, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight

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.

How to write a profile

by Jerry Waxler

Writing a memoir is hard work, and to keep myself motivated, I compiled a list of all the reasons for persisting. Of course, I improved my familiarity with the many parts of my past. That was the reason I started writing a memoir in the first place. Another of my original motivations was my desire to bust through my overwrought sense of privacy. As soon as I began to read my pieces in a critique group, I felt that people were interested and accepted me in ways I had not expected. As a result, I loosened up.

Each month, I found a new benefit for writing my memoir, until I began to joke that my mission was like George Washington Carver’s, who had done an exhaustive study of everything you could do with a peanut. I acquired items for my list in a variety of ways. Some I experienced myself. Others I learned by watching students in my workshops or groups. And some I speculated must be true. For example, I assumed that after I told my own story, I would gain the skills to write other people’s stories, as well. The benefit seemed self-evident, but I was not yet ready to test it.

Then, last year, David Bank asked me to write profiles for his organization’s website. Bank is the director of Encore Careers, a site devoted to helping people find new careers in the second half of their lives. My job would be to interview career changers and post their stories. The assignment gave me the chance to meet people and apply my writing skills.

The Assignment
One such career changer was Judy Cockerton. From her website, I learned that she was a Massachusetts toy store owner who sold her business so she could devote her life to helping kids in foster care. Before I called her, I considered my mission – to show readers her journey from business woman to social activist.

The Interview
During the interview, I asked her to walk me through the steps. As a social entrepreneur, Judy Cockerton spoke in urgent tones when she listed all the deficiencies in the foster care system. However, my job was to learn about her career change, so I steered the interview, asking for scenes that would evoke each stage in her journey.

The Beginning

From my work with memoirs I’ve learned the importance of the initial desire. Judy Cockerton’s desire was easy to find. She remembered the exact moment in her kitchen when she read an article in the newspaper about a child who was supposed to be protected by foster parents and yet had been forgotten. Her heart opened to the plight of these children, setting the stage for everything that followed.

The Middle
During the middle of any story, the protagonist must overcome obstacles. I found many such scenes in Judy Cockerton’s journey. She visited foster homes to learn more and quickly realized that since not everyone can take a child in, there are ought to be other ways for people to participate. She envisioned a community where people could live and contribute to the care of the children. Next she needed allies to help her implement her vision.

The End

Judy Cockerton was not finished helping foster kids so how could I provide a satisfying ending to the article? I called her back and asked “Tell me about a moment when you knew you were on the right track.” By this time the first Treehouse community had already been built and people were living there. She took me on a verbal tour of the place, describing the children playing, with adults and elders enjoying the multi-generational camaraderie. The mountains in the background completed the scene, which gave me, and hopefully readers, the thrill of her success.

Finished, or So I Thought

The structure of my article followed the structure of any good story. Start with a desire, overcome obstacles, and finally reach a conclusion. I was confident I had nailed this fundamental structure. But after I submitted the article, I realized I had one more lesson to learn. My editor, Terry Nagel, wanted me to move Judy’s success to the beginning. At first it didn’t make sense. You don’t tell the ending of a story first. It would break the suspense.

Difference Between Article and Memoir Structure
My editor insisted, and I kept seeking to understand how the suggestion would improve the article. After thinking about it, I saw what was going on. I was learning the difference between a book and an article.

Before I even the first page of a memoir, I have already become curious about the protagonist. Before I started Joan Rivers’ “Enter Talking,” I knew she succeeded at the end. Before I read Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea,” I read the book blurb and knew he built schools for kids in Pakistan. This preliminary information motivates me to read the book. But when I read an article, all I know is the title.

That’s why my editor was telling me to move Cockerton’s success up to the top. I needed to give the reader enough information to stir their curiosity. From article writing workshops, I knew that the second paragraph, or the “nut graf” as they call it in the business, is supposed to tell the reader where the article is heading. But until now the advice sounded like a meaningless formula. Once I tried it for myself, I saw how it worked.

Thanks to my study of memoirs, I was learning how to structure a life story. And now, thanks to the assignment from encore.org, I was learning how to apply these skills to describe the journeys of other people. This experience validated my claim that memoir writing results in broader writing benefits. And the rewards keep accumulating. Writing those profiles gave even more insights that helped me increase my range and learn new ways to turn life into story.

Note
Here are links to a few reasons for writing your memoir.

Refute these 14 reasons not to write your memoir
Ten reasons anyone should write a memoir

Here are links to four profiles I wrote about career changers for Encore.org:

Judy Cockerton, Toy Store Owner Transforms Foster Care in Massachusetts

From Basic Training to Training Teachers

Retired as a Nurse, Hired as a Nonprofit Leader

Media Executive Puts Her Experience to Work Para Los Ninos

Note

Encore Careers is a subsidiary of Civic Ventures, a community service organization founded and directed by Marc Freedman. Freedman is the author of “Encore, finding work that matters in the second half of life.” According to their About page, “Civic Ventures is leading the call to engage millions of baby boomers as a vital workforce for change.” Here is a link to an article I wrote after being inspired by Marc Freedman at Philadelphia’s Boomervision conference series.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Creative brain jam in Philly ties it all together

 by Jerry Waxler

I went to Philadelphia last week to see a few people sit at a table and chat. The promoters called it a “panel discussion.” To me it was as good as a rock concert. The panelists entertained the audience by sharing themselves, using words instead of musical notes. The occasion was another one of those Boomervision talks I enjoy down at WHYY public television studio. The Boomervision talks are hosted by WHYY and Coming of Age, and were introduced by Coming of Age director Dick Goldberg. This evening’s panel was called “You are what you create.”

I love these gatherings because they are my best opportunity to hear people share their observations about life and growing older. Imam Miller, a Muslim preacher, said that growing older at any age makes most sense when you are growing towards God. Community activist, Irma Gardner-Hammond “preaches” by telling stories. I loved that she has found this method to share wisdom. And professors, Mary and Ken Gergen, also told some fine stories. They publish the Positively Aging newsletter, which reports on the good news about aging.
The riff that impressed me most during the evening was a woman in the audience who stood up and said she had raised 6 kids by herself, because their dad ran off. Now the kids have kids and she has to raise them too, and it never ends, and so how can she be creative under so much pressure. The room grew quiet, and I could feel my heart weighted down with the heaviness of her life. Irma suggested she expand the meaning of creativity to embrace the challenges of surviving under adverse circumstances. Ken Gergen, in a kind voice reached out to her with the music of his mind, and suggested that if she could tell the story of her life, that she might find in it the strength to carry on. His voice awakened echoes of Viktor Frankl’s tune, that finding meaning is what makes life worthwhile.

Before the program the technicians set up their camera equipment. The production assistant, watching the large overhead monitor, said in monotone, “a little to the right.” The panelist’s caring face inched closer to the center of the screen. “A little to the right.” The camera intoned again. When he was satisfied he said, “Set” and shifted his attention to the next panelist. As I sat in the audience watching these arcane workings of the television studio, a man behind me leaned over and asked me who I am and what I do. I squirmed. I’ve never had an easy time talking about myself, but now that I’m researching my memoir, I am far more open up with strangers than I ever have been in my life. His name was RegE, and he asked me where I went to high school, and I told him Central High. He gestured to his wife, Geri. “She went to Girl’s High.” That’s the school that I passed every day on my way to and from the trolley stop at Broad and Olney. She asked me if I was one of the Central High boys who hung around talking to the girls as they came out of school. I blushed, remembering how much of a nerd I was. She might as well have asked me if I wrestled alligators. “No. I worked at my dad’s drugstore.” RegE asked where the drugstore was. I said, “Seventeenth and Tioga,” Now it was Geri’s turn to dime on her husband. She said, “RegE grew up a few blocks from there, at Seventeenth and Erie.” I lived the first year of my life in the apartment above the store, and worked there all through high school. RegE and I had spent some of the crucial years of our lives within a few blocks of each other.

So there I was at WHYY’s Boomervision panel, returning to Philadelphia to understand my own life. In a way, meeting RegE and his wife is as close to coming home as I can get. The city has changed dramatically since I grew up in North Philadelphia, and so have the people with whom I have shared my cabin on this spaceship earth. It’s a vast ever-changing world, and one that makes no sense whatsoever, until we create the stories that bring us all together.

See also a blog entry on a previous Boomervision talk by clicking here.

Boomer memoir is a step towards social activism

by Jerry Waxler

Terrorism! Melting ice caps! Another traffic jam! When is someone going to do something about this mess? While I am waiting for “them” to change the world, “they” are waiting for me. It’s time to break this impasse by taking action. But how? I already tried to bring about world peace by disrupting a campus when I was in college in 1968. It was scary confronting a mob of police, and I don’t believe the world has become more peaceful as a result of those actions. Now that I’m older, I’m looking for better methods. I recently became inspired by a talk hosted by the “Coming of Age” organization in Philadelphia. The main speaker was the CEO of AARP, Bill Novelli, who echoed the sentiment of his book, 50+: Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America in which he claimed that I can join an army of new oldsters to help move the world in a positive direction. A week later I went to another Coming of Age event and heard similar ideas eloquently delivered by Marc Freedman, author of Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America.

When I was a kid, I thought that older people were the problem. They seemed so invested in the status quo. Now that I’m one of them, I find old people aren’t so bad after all. In fact, I feel just as passionate about changing the world as when I was 20. While Novelli and Freedman spoke of a variety of ways that others have chosen to pitch in and move their own little corner of the world, I have a grand idea. It seems to me that the missing element in modern civilization is that we don’t seem to be doing a good job of learning from our mistakes. And in my opinion, that’s where the army of us oldsters can help significantly. We’ve seen the world go by for more years than others have, and have gained an appreciation for what matters in the long run, and what fizzles out.

It’s not that I have all the answers. But if there is any wisdom at all to be gained from experience, and my experience tells me there is, then I’d say we need to communicate more of our life story. And we’ve been born at the perfect time. Just as boomers are reaching “that certain age” technology has provided new opportunities for us to collaborate. The printing press brought ideas from individual minds out into the public, broke us free from a layer of oppression, and opened the way for the Renaissance. The internet makes the printing press look like an old relic. We’re ready to take this thing global, and who knows what rebirths we can bring about?

By developing a community of thinking people who talk about life in an inquiring way, we can learn from each other. Your wisdom is contained in your life experience. Share it with the world! Even if you don’t know how writing could change your world, start writing anyway. Your experience turns into stories that are authentic, in a voice that is authentically yours. That’s all that matters now. Find the authentic voice and share the authentic experience. As you go, you’ll discover the sense you’ve made of your past, and then discover the impact your experience has on others. By writing and organizing your story, without even knowing how, you are already beginning to serve. And like any service to others, you’ll be the first to reap the rewards.

Writing about life will give you more energy. Even if you already have plenty of energy, writing will give you more. And if you are too tired to write, writing will wake you up.

Writing will make you more knowledgeable about how to write and how to tell stories. You can press these enhanced skills into service as you discover things you want to share with the world.

By writing about your own life experience, you open up parts of yourself to others. This makes the world a friendlier, more intimate place to live.

Write for a cause, write for a community, write for posterity, write to share yourself. Write to change the world.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers

Bill Novelli, CEO of AARP, transforms life for boomers

by Jerry Waxler

I drove down to attend a Town Meeting in Philadelphia. The meeting was called “Coming of Age, Ignite the Revolution” for the over 50 crowd. I loved the meeting’s slogan, so appropriate here a few blocks from Independence Hall. Igniting revolution seems the right thing to do, in these times when the status quo seems to be sliding in the wrong direction. I wanted to be reminded that people really do change the world. The meeting was hosted by Philadelphia community organizer Dick Goldberg, a Director of Coming of Age. His guest was the CEO of AARP, Bill Novelli, author of “50+ Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America.”

I found Novelli to be charismatic, speaking with enthusiasm and conviction about how AARP was founded 49 years ago by Ethel Percy Andrus, an individual who wanted to help older people, and at the same time saw them as an army of social activists, using their experience to make the world a better place. He had my attention, because I’m hoping that I can direct my own energy towards changing the world, and looking for ways to join with others to do it. Even though  it’s so much easier to meet people online, it was great to be face to face with people who are interested in making the most of life after 50.

The meeting was held at the convention center across the street from the studio of public television station, WHYY, and was being recorded for televising in the fall. I’ve never been to a televised meeting before, so that was a new experience. And when it came time to ask questions, I walked over to the microphone, an amazing feat for me, considering I would have been too shy to ask a question in public before I went through the Toastmasters program. So I really am getting better as I grow older. Thank God for Toastmasters, and the life long development of new skills.

I said to a room full of strangers, “I just celebrated my 60th birthday last week.” This was funny because in that room being 60 was a credential, and so I was actually bragging about it. I continued, “But when I think about what defines me as a boomer, I don’t think about my age now. I think about trying to stop a war in 1967 by sitting in a university building. I’m not interested now in protest, but am interested more than ever in making the world a better place. I came here tonight looking for institutions that can help. I always thought of AARP as an instrument of social self-defense. It sounds like you’re saying that AARP can also be an institution of social development. Is that true?”

In Novelli’s opening remarks he had talked about AARP as such an institution, but he kept coming back to individuals doing it on their own. I want institutions that can pull people together and create change, and wasn’t sure how much he was assigning to me alone, and how much his institution can help people work collectively. At least now I know the intention is there, and want to learn more about how it is helping.

After the meeting I met a couple of people involved in the Center for Intergenerational Learning, based at Temple University, and learned about their programs. Robert Tietze, Executive Director of Experience Corps, a program in which senior volunteers mentor school kids, including a branch at my old elementary school, Pennypacker, in West Oak Lane. And Aviva Perlo, Peer Counseling Coordinator of Intercommunity Action, Inc, a program in which seniors coach other seniors

My original goal was to learn something that I could write about in my blog about memoirs, and I thought the evening was wrapping up a little skimpy in that area. Then a woman asked me what school I had been protesting at in 1967. I told her it was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She said, “I was there, too.” I studied her face, trying to imagine if I ever saw her pass me on the campus. Every once in while, the wind blows and the veil of time flutters. Forty years ago, 1,000 miles away, I was hoping to change the world, and now, here in Philadelphia is a woman from that same time and place, trying to work towards social change, at Temple University’s Center for Intergenerational Learning. Ahh.. There was the lesson I was looking for. This coincidence reminded me that life is one unified flow. But I don’t need to passively wait for coincidences. I can do it myself. Memoir writing is a form of personal activism, that links together the past and present, and makes the journey of life more whole.