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.

Notes

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.

Memoir About A Crazy Artist Helps me Understand the World!

by Jerry Waxler

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

Based on the title, Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman I looked forward to reading an exciting memoir. The word Bohemian drives me crazy with curiosity because in the 60s I was infatuated with the people who were trying to live their lives as a work of art. I hoped that Slash Coleman’s memoir would offer a modern version. And to add to the mystique, advance notices mentioned his grandparents who had been artists in France before the war. That was exactly the period I wished I could know more about. I wanted to jump in and join this man’s life. So I took the book with me on my silent retreat, looking for some interesting entertainment to pass the time between sessions of meditation.

When I left for my retreat, I also brought another book, Trickster Makes this World, Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde. The two books don’t seem to have much in common. One is a coming of age memoir and the other a scholarly treatise on a type of mythology with which I was not familiar. But when I started reading, I kept finding wonderful surprises, each one adding value to the other.

Because of my longstanding love affair with the Hero’s Journey, I love to apply mythology to the meaning of stories. According to Joseph Campbell, this universal myth portrays a protagonist who travels to the world of adventure to find transcendent meaning. Until my weeklong retreat, I assumed that this simple structure could explain just about every meaningful story.

This coincidence of reading these two books together changed the way I think. In Trickster Makes this World, Lewis Hyde highlights the importance of a different type of myth. In a trickster myth, the protagonist stays right here, in the thick of mundane life and shakes things up. The trickster tests limits, mocks rules, and allows us to face the absurdity, and even futility of human experience. The goal is not destruction but rejuvenation.

Hyde then goes on to show how in modern society, artists are our tricksters. Hyde offers the example of Marcel Duchamp, the Frenchman who created an international stir by submitting a urinal as a work of art. The work was later touted as a major landmark in 20th century art. Duchamps was constantly looking for ways to break the boundaries. He didn’t even like his own art, relentlessly searching for the next breakthrough, eternally dissatisfied with the last.

Slash Coleman’s memoir offers an even better example. In Bohemian Love Diaries, he ceaselessly moves from one art form to another, from music, sculpture, performance art, street theater, and of course story telling, bending boundaries, breaking rules, looking for truth within truth within truth, like a hall of mirrors that can only truly be represented by the next work of art.

By reading Lewis Hyde’s book at the same time as I was reading Slash Coleman’s memoir, I had accidentally concocted a two-book self-study class that showed me a new way to look at art, and also an insight into the surreal social upheaval that I lived through in the sixties.

As children, my generation grew up listening to stories about the GIs who went overseas to conquer evil. But by the time we were teenagers, we had become infatuated with the wisdom our heroes had brought back with them. We fell in love with the anti-art of the theater absurd and other avant garde forms that attempted to show the meaninglessness of beauty and the beauty of meaninglessness. Those Bohemian ideas inspired our generation. Instead of coming of age as heroes we would tear down the rules of society, and demonstrate their absurdity.

As hippies and radicals, or as Ken Kesey called us, pranksters, we attacked the status quo in order to shake everyone up. We hoped that by disrupting the existing order we could make room for a better way to live. LSD also known as “Acid” was the perfect trickster tool. When acid was thrown up against the mind, the veneer of reality melted and left only the absurd essence.

Slash Coleman followed the same model. When he wanted to alter the consciousness of his intensely middle-class conservative audience he threw the acid of his own naked dancing on the veneer of their staid, stable lives. His life became a street performance, dressing and undressing in any way he could to turn life into art that disrupted the status quo.

Even the book’s structure is the work of a trickster. By shifting focus at the last minute, he plays with the classical meaning of the character arc. Instead of seeing his character arc alone in his own mirror, he takes a step back and as his field of vision widens, he sees previous generations standing over his shoulder. Brilliant. Iconoclastic. Disturbing. This is why I love memoirs. Stories of our lives are the acid that destroys the illusion that our own view of life is the only one. We are not alone.

I’m not suggesting that to read Slash Coleman’s book you need to read Lewis Hyde’s. On the contrary, Bohemian Love Diaries is a fun, easy, seditious romp through one troubled young man’s search for meaning. I love it on its own. I just love it more because of the way in one fell swoop, the combination of the two books helped me understand my generation’s crazy attempt to unseat order in the 60s, my deep-seated fear of story-endings that cause despair, and my own desperate passion for seeing life as a work of art.

Notes

Article about Art in Trickster Makes this World

Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman

Another article about mythology in 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.

Memoir About Growing Up Leads to Surprise Ending

by Jerry Waxler

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

Slash Coleman’s memoir Bohemian Love Diaries takes me on the journey of a child who attempts to grow up, handicapped by the problem that the only way he can make sense of life is through art. With his constant companion, his writing journal, he relentlessly turns every aspect of his life, including his own name, into a work of art.

As he grows toward adulthood, he attempts to form a loving relationship. At first his artistic obsessions seem like they are going to work beautifully. The women to whom he is attracted are fascinated by his creativity. However, sustaining the relationships is another matter. By attempting to avoid the orderliness of life, he undermines the day to day requirements of caring for self and others.

As his search for a sustainable relationship continued, I noticed fewer and fewer pages until the end. I desperately feared that there would not be enough time to wrap it up successfully. Oh, no, not a perfect book with an imperfect end! I needed the story to be redeemed.

Good endings are important for me, because as a young man, seeking my own identity in the 60s, I was almost driven mad by the despairing implications of so many of my favorite books. Since then, I have had an aversion to unhappy endings, and believe that my sanity relies on a continued supply of redemptive conclusions.

I didn’t want to lose faith in Slash Coleman, but I couldn’t see how he had enough room to pull his unfulfilled romances into a satisfying end. And then boom. He pulled it off and in a surprising twist expanded my appreciation for good endings. By widening the camera angle, he showed me how coming of age is a family endeavor. The ending also helped me understand how a person in the thick of a dilemma, without any clear conclusion to his own circumstances, can wrap up a story. Even though the character has not found his own redemptive end, the story itself finds an ending.

The book shows me the extreme creativity that Slash Coleman will apply in order to offer his readers an uplifting experience. In an earlier passage, he attempted to spiritually awaken his audience by dancing in front of them naked. I don’t believe he succeeded in that particular art form, but I think he came close to doing it in this one. I walked away from the memoir with that lift of joy and hope that is the payoff for reading a good book.

Notes

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

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

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

If Not Conflict, What Fierce Determination Drives a Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

In the memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints, Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner, travel to Turkey to help a friend manage a small inn. It seems like a pleasant getaway that combines travel, friendship, and an entrepreneurial spirit. As they visit museums and historical sites, try new cuisines, befriend locals, and in Angie’s case, have romances with them, the women become increasingly smitten with the place. By the end, they fulfill the book’s sub-title, clearly communicating their love for the country.

Turkey has played a crucial role in world religion and commerce for millennia, and yet I grew up learning hardly anything about its history. Through the eyes of these two American women, I gain a fascinating glimpse into this crossroads of Moslem and Christian traditions, and even delve into pre-Christian goddess power. I also gain another glimpse of the expat experience.

In my younger years I read about macho Americans like Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway consuming their way across Europe, sucking in unlimited quantities of alcohol, food, and women. By contrast, Anatolian Days and Nights is almost a sendup of those excesses. Stocke and Brenner have modest appetites, spiced with a delicate mix of curiosity and compassion.

In fact, the women behave so nicely, it makes me ask a fundamental question: “Don’t all satisfying stories need conflict?” Ever since Ulysses traveled through the Greek and Turkish isles, threatened by monsters, imprisoned by sex goddesses, and fighting to the death with his wife’s suitors, readers have demonstrated their gluttony for conflict. Fiction writers satisfy this desire by inventing all sorts of exaggerated dangers and setbacks. Memoir writers, on the other hand, extract tension from the desire, fear, and courage enmeshed in a lifetime of memories.

So what tension in Anatolian Days and Nights keeps me reading? Were the two women at risk, traveling alone in a male-dominated world? Were they afraid? Actually, apparently not. If anything, the locals seem eager to protect them. If it wasn’t driven by the desperation to stay alive, or the gluttony to consume, what is the fierce determination that propels them to the end of their journey and me reading to the last page?

The Importance of Character Arc as a Driving Force in Memoirs

To engage me in a story, the author must convince me something in their character is missing or under-developed. The rest of the story leads me on a treasure hunt to work through the tension and choices of life. By the end, the character convinces me they have achieved this thing. This important payoff to a story is often thoroughly obvious in fiction. But in memoirs it can be more difficult to point out, and after I’ve read a satisfying story I go back to see what the character has learned.

For example, by the end of Accidental Lessons, David Berner is oriented to serving humanity rather than merely having a good job. At the end of Seven Wheelchairs, Gary Presley has wrapped his mind around the destiny of living on wheels instead of legs. At the end of Dope Fiend, Tim Elhajj has traveled beyond his minimum goal of abstaining from heroin. He has also figured out how to be a father to his son.

However, when I looked for a hard-fought character arc in Anatolian Days and Night , at first I couldn’t find it. Since both women were gentle, curious, and generous at the beginning, I did not feel any urgent pressure for them to grow along these lines. Their main goal seemed to be to understand Turkey, rather than themselves. And yet, I still closed the book feeling satisfied. What had the authors done for me and for themselves that made me turn pages?

Search for Identity as an Important Type of Character Arc

In memoirs, there is a special type of character arc — the search for identity. In this type of story, the missing ingredient that provides the impetus for forward momentum is the protagonist’s desire for a clearer sense of who they are. By the end, the character finds their true self and satisfies their quest.

This need to “know thyself” has been responsible for some of the blockbuster memoirs of our era. In fact, the modern memoir movement was started largely by the success of Coming of Age memoirs like This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. In each of these books, the young character must figure out “who am I?” The answer to this question is, of course, not simple.

Coming of Age stories are driven by a variety of questions that must be answered on the journey from child to adult, including issues of sexuality, career, family, spirituality. And one of the most fascinating struggles is one of the most abstract — the fierce determination of a young person to find identity. By the end of a satisfying memoir, the character must find enough of a sense of self to know how to steer themselves in the coming years, or at least suggest that they are heading toward such a clear identity.

This journey to find identity is not limited to Coming of Age. By lining up my collection of memoirs in the order of the life-period they describe, it becomes apparent that people of all ages try to figure out who they are. The first Coming of Age stage, finishes around say 18 years old. But there is a second stage of this transition to adulthood that is also crucial. Many memoirs are about the struggles during this second period, say from around 18 to 26 years old, when we have to make important adjustments to our identity so we can survive in the world.

For example, at the beginning of Japan Took The JAP Out of Me, Lisa Fineberg Cook is a newly-wed party-girl. By the end, she is less self indulgent and more oriented to work and service. At the beginning of Wild, Cheryl Strayed is a dysfunctional young adult, with no direction, quick to try a new guy or a new drug. She walks 100s of miles across wilderness trails to find a new vision of herself and ends with the moral strength to establish herself in the adult world. Similarly, at the beginning of Slow Motion, Dani Shapiro is almost ready to become a young woman when she falls into a trap of drugs and sex. By the end, she outgrows her fascination with the power of her own beauty, and enters the adult world of personal responsibility.

Adopted kids have a particular challenge, as evidenced in two memoirs about girls who are just about to launch into the world when they are contacted by their birth mothers. In Mei Ling Hopgood’s Lucky Girl a Chinese American adoptee travels to China to learn about her birth family. In Mistress’s Daughter, AM Homes conducts an intense investigation, trying to understand her birth family in order to understand herself.

Sometimes, a person much later in life begins to ask pressing questions about who they are. These later searches for identity can also make compelling stories. For example in the memoir Catfish and Mandala Andrew X. Pham realizes he can never be happy until he makes peace with his Vietnamese origins. He quits his engineering job in California and rides through Vietnam on a bicycle, trying to understand his roots. In My Ruby Slippers, Tracy Seeley, an English professor in San Francisco, ejected from her comfort zone by cancer, travels to Kansas to try to understand her roots. Both authors become seekers for their own identity, and they both use the notion of place in order to help them learn more.

Why is the Search for Identity So Important?

In thrillers, the compelling force is obvious. Stop the assassin. By comparison, finding your identity seems woefully abstract. Despite the apparent vagueness of this propelling force, in memoir after memoir, authors uproot their lives in order to understand their identity. Their fierce determination to answer the question “who am I?” drags readers along for the ride. Perhaps this need for identity is more visceral and fundamental than we think. For those of us interested in the psychological journey of human experience, the longing for identity appears to be every bit as life-affirming and page-turning as stopping an assassination.

Anatolian Days and Nights is good evidence of the importance of this quest. Like the hero in Somerset Maughm’s The Razor’s Edge, who left home in order to find his truth, Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner left their familiar lives and traveled east. They were seekers, looking for whatever wisdom Turkey could offer them about themselves.

By diving into Turkey, they fulfilled a sublime search not just for that country’s identity but for their own. It was a search that was important enough to drive them half-way around the world, and significant enough to keep me reading, and then to recommend their story to anyone looking for a satisfying experience.

Notes

Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints by Joy Stocke and Angie BrennerClick here for Amazon Page
Click here for Anatolian Days and Nights Home Page

There’s a word for that! I thought I understood the meaning of the word “mandala” as a sort of symbolic geometric shape. But I couldn’t figure out why Andrew X. Pham used the word in his title. I looked it up the in the dictionary and find that it means: In Jungian psychology, a symbol representing the effort to reunify the self. Perfect!

For more about the desire that drives a memoir, see my essay:
What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?

Although this is the first memoir I’ve read about love for a culture, it adds to my collection of the subgenre about friendship. Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is a tribute to her friendship with Carolyn Knapp. And Father Joe by Tony Hendra, is a paean to his spiritual mentor.

More Expats: Recently I read the memoir San Miguel D’Allende, about Rick Skwiot’s attempts to find himself in Mexico. And in Native State, Tony Cohan describes his attempts to settle into the jazz and drug scene in northern Africa. Both follow the Anatolian Nights model of searching for self in a foreign land.

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.

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

In Memoirs, Misery is Simply a Step toward Hope

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

Jillian Bullock’s Home Page

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

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

8 Lessons and Prompts from Tim Elhajj’s Recovery Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

After reading Tim Elhajj’s memoir “Dopefiend” about recovering from addiction, I learned many lessons that could help other memoir-writers-in-training develop aspects of their own work.

Grittiness, Chaos and Order
New York City is the perfect place for getting lost in addiction. That’s where Dani Shapiro lost her way in her memoir Slow Motion. The city felt like a co-conspirator in her seduction. But Elhajj turned that expectation upside down. For him, New York City supported his recovery. By getting out of his old haunts, sticking with the recovery community, and taking advantage of New York’s educational system, Elhajj was able to climb out of chaos into competence.

Writing Prompt
Look for intricate ways that the environment shaped your journey. If you lived in a city, how did urban life affect you? If you lived in a small town, a farm, a small town, a military base, how did the particular culture of the place influence your development?

Starting at the bottom and then building up
Addicts obey the law of the street, doing whatever they must, without concern for their impact on others. In extreme situations, that means falling below minimum standards of morality, stealing and trading sex for money.

“Dope Fiend” starts with Elhajj in recovery. However, even though his addiction is in the past, it leaves powerful after-effects. He must recover not only from drugs but also from the chaotic, self-involved, impulsive code of the addict, in order to participate in the socially responsible law of the citizen.

Writing Prompt
A good book takes the reader on a ride through the protagonist’s character development. To turn your own life into a good book, visualize the chart of your moral development. Do you start at the bottom and move up, the way Elhajj did? Or like Nic Sheff in Tweak, did you at first only pretend to be giving up your faults? Or did you start out in life full of promise but then erupt with insecurities and fall into your shadow-self the way Dani Shapiro did in Slow Motion and I did in my memoir in progress? Chart your own graph.

Twelve Steps
Tim Elhajj does an excellent job of showing how the Twelve Step programs saved him from his fall. He kept the story fresh by focusing on his own unique experience, and avoided, as much as possible, the insider lingo.

Writing Prompt
Any story about a group needs to explain just enough detail about the rules and insider routines. If you explain too little, the reader could become confused, and if you explain too much the reader could feel like you are teaching or preaching. Consider the various groups you have belonged to, whether the military, a sports team, a music group, cult, religion, fire department, writing club, or anything else. Write scenes that show the unique attitudes within the group while making it fresh enough to give the reader a sense of participation.

Spirituality
The Twelve Step programs are built on trust in a higher power, which makes them, in my opinion, essentially spiritual organizations. Elhajj’s book takes us inside the experience of the Twelve Steps and explores their impact on his life.

Writing prompt
Write a scene that includes a spiritual awakening or an acceptance or insight into your relationship with a higher power.

Mentors
Some of the strongest scenes of moral awakening take place in conversations between the author and his mentor. When Elhajj presents a problem, his mentor reminds him to think about his principles. For example, when he hits on a woman who just starting recovery, his sponsor tells him she is too vulnerable and he should respect her boundaries. When Elhajj presses the point, the older man asks him if this is what he really wants. It is advice-giving at its best, forcing Elhajj to consult his own budding moral compass.

Note: Another excellent of mentoring is in Henry Louis Gates’s Colored People. When Gates is stuck in a hospital bed, a visiting minister recommends he extend his vision beyond the boundaries of his small town.

Writing prompt
Find a scene that includes you receiving some advice from a parent, friend, teacher or some other mentor. Show how the advice influenced you.

Lessons Learned: The character arc
Listening is an incredibly important skill, and one of the first and most fundamental lessons taught to therapists. Elhajj’s memoir shows how he learned this crucial topic. He lets us see his frustration when people give him clumsy advice. He also shows his admiration of those people who listen to him and then speak gently. Later he takes advantage of the bad examples and the good ones, when he speaks to his son. It is one of the best examples of learning to listen that I have seen in literature.

Writing Prompt
What life ah-ha have you learned? Write a scene that shows it.

Fathers and sons
Elhajj starts his story as a young father who was so lost in his own confusion, he barely even tried to guide his own son. Gradually, he begins to find himself, and the stronger he grows, the more he longs for the privilege of giving his son the kind of example every young man needs. Dopefiend is about Elhajj’s journey to become a complete man, and his desire to be a good father is an important part of that journey. His own son forces him to grow, giving fresh meaning to Wordsworth’s famous line, “the child is father of the man.”

Writing Prompt
What intense experience did you have with your father, or son, or with your mother or daughter? Search through generations, and look for patterns. For example, what resentment did you have about your parent that you then saw reflected in yourself and your children?

Denouement of a memoir
The book is a saga of the transition from a dope fiend to a responsible member of society. At the end of Dopefiend, Elhajj achieves many of the successes of a healthy life. In addition to sobriety, he has a budding relationship with his adult son, a loving partner, and a rapprochement with his mother. Through the journey, he often benefits from the kindness of people who want to help him. It is as if, despite all his efforts to destroy his life, God or some higher power, or perhaps just the goodness of people, keep showering him with forgiveness, with second chances, with alternatives. Some spark of insight allows him to take advantage of these gifts and grow to become a complete person.

Such insights into human nature are one of my favorite reasons for reading memoirs. Their message allows readers to close the book with warm feelings, hopeful about the ways of the world. As a result of these good feelings, grateful readers will recommend the book to their friends, as I do to you.

Writing Prompt
What lesson did life teach you? Write about it in scenes, or in reflection to see if it could perhaps make a good denouement for your story.

Notes
Click here for Tim Elhajj’s home page
Click here for Dopefiend on Amazon

Click here to read an essay about Dopefiend as an extended Coming of Age story.

For a fascinating example of a book that leads deep into the secret world of a group, read Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman.

For a grittier look at an active addiction, read “Tweak” by Nic Sheff. Click here for an article about Nic Sheff’s addiction and his father’s desperate attempt to save him.

For another memoir with an excellent, uplifting message, read Kate Braestrup’s “Here if you Need Me.”  Click here for an article about grieving in memoirs.

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

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

Coming of Age Never Ends

by Jerry Waxler

Some of the most popular memoirs of our time have been about the period of life called Coming of Age. In fact stories of childhood and adolescence, such as Jeanette Walls’ Glass Castle and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes arguably ignited the explosive interest in the memoir genre. However, not all Coming of Age stories proceed from childhood in an orderly fashion.

For example, Dani Shapiro started with the advantages of a wealthy upbringing, but her memoir Slow Motion is about her detour into drugs and sex. When she regained her footing, Shapiro headed back to college. Another author, Tim Elhajj, fell off the tracks much earlier in his life. During adolescence, when he should have been learning about dating and trying to keep up his grades, Elhajj was scoring his next hit of heroin. By the age most of us were trying to start a career, he was getting serious about quitting drugs, but unlike Shapiro he couldn’t go back. He needed to start over.

At the beginning of Elhajj’s memoir, Dopefiend: A Father’s Journey from Addiction to Redemption, he is morally, emotionally, and financially bankrupt. He starts adulthood from the very bottom, a moral infant, obsessed as all addicts are by the need for a fix. It’s a powerful place to start a memoir, jolting the reader into the central question: how is this man going to become a full-fledged adult, long after that ship was supposed to have sailed? His story lets me feel the frustration and courage of overcoming his own impulsive behavior.

His saving grace was a close association with the Twelve Step programs, which helped him do more than stop drugs. The program gave him the tools to build the social, ethical, and spiritual foundation he needed to climb, like ivy toward the light. Year after year, he continued to grow more mature, to learn moral values and adult responsibilities. His memoir resonates with my belief that character development is one of the most exciting things about literature and about life.

I too have been on a lifelong journey to make sense of my life. Unlike Elhajj, I did not destroy my youth with heroin. Instead I turned my intellectual prowess to thoroughly tear apart every value I was supposed to live for. By the time I finished college, I too had become a mental and moral infant, with no sense of responsibility to my society and no sense of direction. Only by finding a spiritual path was I able to climb back from chaos and start my rehabilitation.

As a result of decades of personal development, I became fascinated by the potential for adults to keep growing. In my late 40s, I went back to graduate school to became a therapist. When I started talking to therapy clients, I discovered that I’m not so unusual after all. Many people who have achieved adulthood in calendar years, still are looking to achieve maturity in other dimensions of their lives.

In the 21st century, many memoir writers are stepping forward to share the complexities of their long, slow, intricate Coming of Age. Tim Elhajj’s memoir about finding himself later in life has, more clearly than any book I’ve read so far, shared the rewards of continued searching and growing. His project of self-discovery is a perfect example of the adage, “What I am is God’s gift to me. What I become is my gift to God.”

In my next blog posting, I will share a number of writing prompts and lessons I derived from Tim Elhajj’s Dopefiend.

Notes

Click here for Tim Elhajj’s home page
Click here for Dopefiend on Amazon

Click here to read an article about the relationship between Young Adult fiction and Coming of Age memoirs.
Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre

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

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

Relationship between Fiction and Memoir, Interview Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second part of my interview with Marie Lamba, author of the young adult novel, “Over My Head.” In this part of the interview, I continue to seek understanding of the relationship between young adult fiction and the Coming of Age period in memoirs.

To read the first part of the interview click here

Jerry Waxler: Adult fiction is sorted on bookstore shelves by genres such as romance, mystery, and sci-fi/fantasy/horror. Are YA books separated along similar lines? Your book “Over My Head” reads to some extent like a romance. Would you or would booksellers categorize it as a YA romance?

Marie Lamba: It’s a contemporary YA or a romantic YA.  There is young YA for the tween crowd and older YA for more mature audiences (think PG13-R).  Then of course there is paranormal, dystopian, chick-lit, fantasy, literary, you name it.

Jerry Waxler: In Over My Head, there is an incredible amount of inter- and intrapersonal deception. Almost everyone was lying to each other, or to themselves. Girls lie in order to get guys, to save face, to override parental authority, to hurt each other, to protect each other, to brag. It was a deception fest. Naturally the lying created enormous dramatic tension. Did you accentuate this quality of human nature because of your own experience of what young life is really like, or is this just the way you felt these particular characters needed to act, or what?

Marie Lamba: Jerry, I’m sure you NEVER lied as a teen, but I might have once_ or twice? Teens try to be good, they really do, but sometimes it’s the lie that allows them to continue to be viewed that way, or to test out new identities or to fix what they may have broken, or to break what is too perfect.

The tougher the mess, the bigger the lies can be until they are so ridiculous that only the truth will do. Lies, like secrets, are also great story devices. As writers we do highlight elements in life, heightening them to make a story really shine.  In real life you might have one grand humiliating moment, in a book the character can experience a virtual fest of humiliation. Now that’s a story.

Jerry Waxler: Actual people are infinitely varied, and the situations that drive us have all sorts of nuances and details. I read memoirs so I can learn about these unique aspects of real people. However, in the genre fiction that I read as a young man, such as, mysteries, thrillers, and sci/fi fantasy, the characters often have far less human individuality or depth. Where do you see your books falling on this spectrum? Do your YA books aspire to offer authentic, unique challenges of real human beings, or more formulaic characters of a genre?

Marie Lamba: I hope that my books contain characters that are nuanced and not stock.  The bad guy has a soft side, the good girl does something horrible, they all have their own arcs and purposes and dreams. They say there are no original stories. But people are original.  I hope that by putting my own spin on characterization that I’m creating characters that are fresh and original and that feel real.

Jerry Waxler: What sort of real-world observations do you use to help you authentically portray your characters? For example, do you keep a writer’s notebook about growing up, or interview young people, or does it pour from your imagination?

Marie Lamba: It definitely flows. Once I have a good feel for the characters, that’s all it takes for me.  It helps that I’m surrounded by teens as a mom and that I’m an older girl scout troop leader. And I definitely remember my teen self vividly. No journal required for that.

Jerry Waxler: When creating your novels, what sorts of real life experience did you bring to your books? Can you offer any example of how you mined your own memory for situations, age appropriate emotions, characters and psychological tension?

Marie Lamba: It doesn’t take much for any of us to remember a time when we were heartbroken or mortified or how it felt to be in a fight with a really close friend. These are such visceral experiences that plucking those emotions to use in a story is a natural thing for most writers. In “Over My Head,” the uncle’s illness plays an important role. My brother-in-law actually had the same disease as the uncle in the book, and he passed away shortly after 9-11.  The novel is dedicated to his memory, and Sang feels what I felt_helplessness and a deep desire to do something, anything, to help.  So adult emotions and experiences can also be helpful in shaping the YA world.

Jerry Waxler: Have your characters ever taught you interesting lessons about yourself or about human nature? In other words, as you watch a character develop in your book, does the behavior or attitude of your fictional character help you piece together some aspect of real life?

Marie Lamba: In a way, a book is more than you are. You are creating different characters, points of view, experiencing things you never would have experienced otherwise.  I think it forces me to look harder especially at the villains in our lives to find a speck of good in even the worst of us, and writing difficult scenes forces me to linger and feel things that in real life I would eagerly speed past.

Jerry Waxler: In the last 5 or 10 years more and more writers are interested in memoir writing and the trend seems to be accelerating. I wonder if fiction writers are more open to real-life experience. Years ago, when the novelist Carl Barth visited the University of Wisconsin campus, I asked him if his fiction had been influenced by his life. He snapped at me like I was insulting him. Nowadays, I have met many fiction writers who are more open to discussing the relationship between their stories and their lives. What do you think? Have you noticed any change over the years in the attitude about using real life situations in fiction?

Marie Lamba: We fiction writers do have a dilemma. We want to be free to create honest stories, and this of course includes experiences from our past, but if the veil between truth and fiction is lifted, how can we feel free to be as frank? In my work, most things are a composite of experiences put together, plus a healthy dose of make believe. Is there a trend for writers to own up to the memoir-like aspects of their fiction?  Not for this writer.

The real truth is that people love to see themselves in your books. Even when they truly aren’t in there.  It’s pretty fascinating.

Jerry Waxler: What are you working on next? Are you going to stay within this period or are your characters going to grow older?

Marie Lamba: My YA novel “Drawn” again deals with a 17 year old teen, but the next novel I’m currently stirring around in my brain will probably reach into the 20-30 year old adult range.  And, hey, who’s growing older?

Notes
Marie Lamba’s novel “Over My Head” was described by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry as “a funny, touching, and at times heart-breaking young adult novel about the search for love.” She is also author of the young adult novel “What I Meant…” (Random House), which was dubbed “an impressive debut” by Publisher’s Weekly..

Marie Lamba’s Home Page

Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre

Click here for a more detailed article that compares Coming of Age memoirs with Young Adult fiction.

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

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

Interview: Young Adult Fiction versus Coming of Age Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

I am fascinated by Coming of Age memoirs because they provide a window into the many emotional challenges that people undergo on their journey to becoming adults. Recently, I realized that Young Adult fiction is about that same period of life. To learn more about the way Young Adult fiction handles that period of human development, I read the novel “Over My Head” by Marie Lamba in which a 16-year-old girl falls in love with a college boy. Is it real love? To find out, she must process her own feelings as well as advice and opinions from friends and parents.

When I started reading, I was afraid I had entered a girl-zone where I didn’t belong. The more I read, the more engaged I became, appreciating my privileged front-row seat, where I watched the emotional and social challenges of a girl trying to make the leap to adulthood. “Over My Head” zooms into one particular aspect of Coming of Age: that awkward period when humans first steer through the outrageously intricate connection between romance and sex. The hero of the novel must learn those lessons under the spell of emotions so compelling they have an almost mystical power.

I have spent the last five years infatuated with the way memoirs allow us to see each other through the medium of a story. Memoir authors go deep inside themselves and then bring that intimate detail out into social awareness. Marie Lamba reminds me that the real people who write fiction also share their insights into the human condition. After reading the book, I asked the author her opinions about the relationship between real life and fictional characters.

Jerry Waxler: In “Over My Head” your character was 16-year-old character had to sort out romantic feelings from sexual ones. Some people advised her that the boy might be using her while others urged her to jump in. Her challenges represent the dilemma teens face in real life. When composing your novel, how conscious were you about representing these real-life Coming of Age challenges?

Marie Lamba: Hi Jerry.  Thanks so much for speaking with me about this.  I think when you write for the young adult market, it’s almost always a coming of age story. This is a time when we search for who we are as individuals.  The conflict of trying to make big decisions based not on the thoughts of our peers or our family, but on our own feelings and beliefs is key. This forces us to examine who we really are.  When I write about these sorts of things, it’s just natural for me. I don’t consciously plot out a coming of age structure, it just evolves from the characters and the plot.

Jerry Waxler: (laughing) Wow, I think you ought to be teaching a course in developmental psychology… In most Coming of Age memoirs, one of the protagonist’s tasks is to understand the relationship with adults, especially parents. We have to grow toward adulthood and yet at the same time, push adults away. I thought you did a great job in Over My Head portraying this dilemma.

When you were writing Over My Head, or when you read other Young Adult novels, how do you like to see the relationship between the young characters and their authority figures? How does the relationship of your fictional characters with their adults relate to your own observations of these relationships in the real world?

Marie Lamba: Family, whether absent or all-too-present, looms large in everyone’s lives. Intrinsically, children want to please their parents, even terrible parents, sadly. But there comes that moment when the point of view of even the very best parent seems so foreign for that child. That is when the child does take that giant step away from the parent and sees that maybe she’s on her own.  Pleasing your parents or listening to them isn’t always what’s right. That can be quite a revelation.

In YA fiction, the main character needs to have some independence, or needs to be fighting for independence, or the story just isn’t dynamic to me.

Jerry Waxler: The audience of YA is supposed to be 14 to 21. That’s a big range, considering the difference in reading level, emotional and life experience. So when you write, what is the age of the audience you visualize?

Marie Lamba: These days, the YA audience stretches straight up into adulthood. It’s not unusual for me to hear from adults that they related to my novels and that it took them back to their own teen years. And I also hear from readers who are much younger than I’d expect saying that they really related to the characters in my books. I guess I don’t really think about the audience, though. I think about the characters and strive to create as authentic a voice for the ages they are. For OVER MY HEAD, Sang was 16 going on 17, so that’s where my focus in voice and tone went.

Jerry Waxler: In adult life, a few years difference in age rarely makes much difference. But in a teenager’s life, each year brings them closer to adult empowerment. When will I be able to drive? When will I be able to earn freedom from my parents? When will I be old enough to earn the optimum romantic partner?

You bring out these tensions powerfully in “Over My Head” with the romance between a 16-year-old girl and 20-year-old boy. The age difference creates a big power imbalance. What interest brought you to the story of a 16-year old hero and her 20 year old love interest? How does age-related envy and power imbalance play out in your favorite YA stories?

Marie Lamba: There are all sorts of imbalances in relationships in novels, but age is a biggie. The younger character finds herself wondering if she’s mature enough, envying the freedoms of the older character, perhaps even glorifying what is mundane to an older person.  In OVER MY HEAD, the age difference isn’t exactly 4 years.  Sang is almost 17 and Cameron is just 20, but with him in college it is a great divide indeed.  He has a separate life from his summertime world, and this raises a lot of red flags about who he really is.

In my previous novel, WHAT I MEANT… all the teens were around the same age.  The adults had tremendous power and one especially diabolical aunt used this to set the heroine up to take the blame on numerous occasions. With OVER MY HEAD, Sang is 2 years older, and ready for true independence. I selected an older love interest to up the stakes and to really force Sang to be at odds with her youthful self and her family.

A favorite YA of mine, IT’S NOT SUMMER WITHOUT YOU by Jenny Han also involves a girl smitten by an older boy. The separation forced by him going off to college, coupled with the death of his mom, create huge rifts between the two, and the heroine wonders if he’s changed, or if he was ever who she thought he was. And perhaps she didn’t know her own heart either.

Jerry Waxler: I felt your novel “Over My Head” had especially good control over the passage of time. I wondered if part of that authorial control is related to the age of your characters. Since we all went through the school system during those years, your school-year markers remind us of our own coming of age. (Harry Potter capitalizes on this structure too, making each book correspond with a school year.) In addition, an illness in the family creates additional time pressure, and then toward the end, we hear the drumbeat of the approaching school year. Do you pay special attention to the suspense around the passage of time? Do you have any set rules about how to keep the reader moving through time?

Marie Lamba: I’ve learned through writing a number of novels to always keep a fictional calendar for my stories. Weekends make a difference. So do holidays.  So does the weather, the phases of the moon, stuff like that. With my manuscript DRAWN, which has a time travel element, this was especially critical.  I had to track the present day time as well as the critical events of the 1460s.  

I always know the big climactic event of the book before I write, and having a count-down to this helps me plot the pacing and keep the tension going.  An author (now I can’t remember who) once said that the things that keep story engine going are a secret or a ticking time bomb, preferably both. I always try to go for both.

Jerry Waxler: Sometimes YA books jump over into an adult readership. For example, Harry Potter obviously made the leap to a cross-generational readership. And sometimes adult books are picked up by young people. J.D. Salinger apparently wrote “Catcher in the Rye” for an adult audience, and then young people realized that the subject matter was about them, and they took it for themselves. So when you write about your young people, what sort of attention are you paying to the possible interest adults might have in reading your books?

Marie Lamba: With YA books, parents are often the ones who okay or nix the purchase, whether at a bookstore or online or at the library/school level.  Because of this, we YA authors are actually really conscious about the level of profanity and sex we put in a novel.  Win over the teens, lose the parents? It’s a delicate balance. I strive for authenticity, and then I assess how critical a curse word is or a sexual thought. If it truly is critical to the story, in it goes.

As for appealing to adults as readers, I believe that any well-told authentic story will speak to us all.

Interview to be continued

Notes
Marie Lamba’s novel “Over My Head” was described by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry as “a funny, touching, and at times heart-breaking young adult novel about the search for love.” She is also author of the young adult novel “What I Meant…” (Random House), which was dubbed “an impressive debut” by Publisher’s Weekly..

Marie Lamba’s Home Page

Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre

Click here for a more detailed article that compares Coming of Age memoirs with Young Adult fiction.

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

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

Memoir Author Finds Drama in Everyday Life

By Jerry Waxler

In this last part of my interview with Lisa Fineberg Cook, author of “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” I ask her more questions about her writing process and her decisions about the way she put her memoir together.

(To read the first of my three part review of her memoir, click here.)

Jerry Waxler: Many writers wonder how to find dramatic tension within their ordinary lives. I think your scene about being disappointed by not having sheets on your bed makes a great example. I think most of us have had moments when creature comforts fail to meet our expectations and we sink into an emotional stew. So maybe it’s not a JAP problem but a human problem. From that point of view, your scene of being disappointed about a sheetless bed makes a statement about how people handle unexpected loss of comfort. When writing your memoir, what did you think about this creative project of turning ordinary experiences into compelling story elements?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: It’s the little things that we can all relate to.  For me, to walk into my new home — first ever as a married woman — at ten o’clock at night in an entirely different part of the world and not have sheets on a bed when I was so tired that all I wanted to do was fall down — seemed like the cruelest form of deprivation I could imagine  (LOL!)  Looking back now thirteen years later, not having sheets on a bed seems pretty insignificant so my threshold for little inconveniences is much higher but at the time it seemed symbolic of the whole experience – I imagined at the time that this must be what the Peace Corp is like! Again, perception is key in all of life’s experiences and at the time it seemed  huge to be deprived in that way.

In other anecdotes too, it’s the little things, like when I was in downtown Nagoya and found the store that sells American products, I was so happy I cried — Kraft Macaroni and Cheese woo hoo!

Jerry Waxler: You structured the book, along lines of domestic responsibilities. Because of my preference for chronological story telling, I would have expected this organization to disrupt the story, but it didn’t. In fact, it pulled me along, consistently guiding me through your experience. What sort of training or experience went into developing your knack for writing in a story flow so naturally that even when you messed around with the organization, it still felt like a good story?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I wrote the laundry section in my head and when it came time to put it on paper, I liked the idea of organizing the sections into domestic chores. However, I felt that I wanted to chronicle the first of the two years as it was the more significant of the two, so even though it’s sectioned into domestic topics, it does follow the year and doesn’t jump around.  This happened organically by the way, I didn’t necessarily plan it but it evolved in a way that made too much sense to ignore.

Jerry Waxler: The title emphasizes two aspects of your journey, the trip to Japan and your loss of princess status. In addition, the book is also about the transition from single and spoiled to married and responsible. Memoir writers, especially with commercial ambitions, are supposed to stick with one particular theme. What sort of angst or decisions went into incorporating the multiple facets into the container of one story?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I had no angst whatsoever (is that bad to admit? LOL!) Truthfully, I felt like the theme was all about perception and expectation.  Wherever someone grows up, there are societal expectations and perceptions about how to behave, how to mold yourself, how to succeed, choices you make, creature comforts, etc..  When a woman gets married, there again are the expectations and perceptions about how to behave, what it means to be a wife.  Then when you combine the change of single to married and take a person out of their comfort zone — entirely mind you — and put them in a place that also has very strict, structured societal expectations and perceptions (very different from your own) — it is yet another way of having to figure out how to make sense of it all and how to make it work for you as opposed to against you.  None of it was easy and what’s true is that if I had decided to write the book immediately after returning to the States, it would NOT have been a humorous book, it would have been a much more serious, angst-filled memoir because Japan was incredibly challenging for me, very painful and an enormous growth experience. But again, with time and perspective, humor wins out and I feel like the humor is a way of saying ‘I’m over it. I win.  Japan 0, Lisa 1.’

Jerry Waxler: When I grew up in the fifties and sixties, being Jewish was not particularly hip. In fact, as far as I remember, most Jews tried to hide their religion. It’s interesting that you are putting Jewishness in the name of your book, and also interesting that the contents of the book has almost nothing to do with the religion. You use JAP as a sort of stand-in for culturally privileged, entitled young woman. So is JAP now a word that can apply to any girl of any religion who feels entitled to a world of comfort and privilege, or were you really trying to say something in particular about being Jewish?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I think there’s definitely a stigma attached to Jewishness, or if not a stigma then a stereotype about what a Jewish man or woman looks like, acts like, sounds like and while I do believe stereotypes have elements of truth running through them, it is obviously not an exclusive and accurate portrait of anyone. I love being a Jewish woman and most of my women friends who are Jewish are beautiful, smart, successful and very funny. In regards to the use of the word JAP, it’s interesting because I have so many girlfriends (both Jewish and not) who commented after reading the book ‘wow, I’m more of a JAP than I thought.’ (Almost all of them said ‘Lisa there is no way I could have stayed past the first laundry experience. I would have come straight home.’) And in truth, the term is more about a particular attitude towards lifestyle and behavior than being a Jewish woman — again I think a ‘JAP’ mentality has to do with expectations, particularly when it comes to dealing with service based industry; how they will be treated, dealt with, immediately attended to, provided with excellent service – that sort of thing.  I definitely do not think this is an exclusively Jewish characteristic, however, I do know some Jewish women who would be considered the Olympians of JAP-ness.

Jerry Waxler: Thank you for your time. I think you have a great knack for communicating and look forward to reading more of your work. What else of yours can I read and what are you working on next.

Lisa Fineberg Cook: This is my first published work and I am currently working on two projects – one is the sequel to JAP which is titled LumberJAP about the three years we spent in rural Maine post-Japan and a novel titled Greedy Bitches which is a dark comedy.

Click here to read part one of my interview with Lisa Fineberg Cook.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

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