More about Why Choose to Write Fiction Instead of Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

In the previous post, I interviewed David Kalish, author of the novel, The Opposite of Everything, about his ten-year journey to write his memoir, resulting in a fictionalized version. Why did he change genres? How did he choose his fictional storyline and characters from among the facts?

These important issues arise for many writers, whether novelists or memoirists who wonder how to create an engaging narrative from their observation of the human condition. In this second part of the interview, we dig deeper into David Kalish’s choice, trying to understand the relationship between his life experience and his powerful characters.

The Luxury of Deniability
Jerry Waxler:  I’ve been working on my memoir for ten years, and feel good about the story but not so good about the privacy that telling the story violates. I’m jealous of your ability to say in your acknowledgements “No one in this book is real.” What an awesome freedom that gives you. How did the freedom of deniability influence the decision to move toward fiction?

David Kalish: Interestingly, it wasn’t until after I completed my novel that the connection between fiction and deniability became clear. Until that point, the consuming process of writing the book, making sure it held together, and getting it published overwhelmed any concern over whether I’d offend anyone.

But several months before my book was released, a family member had a negative reaction to a synopsis of it on my website. The synopsis said that this family member’s fictional counterpart in the book was “overbearing” and pushed the main character off a bridge. My family member told me he feared the novel would make him look bad. He made the comment without reading the book. “How do I explain to my friends what’s real and what’s not?” Then and there I realized I needed to more proactively emphasize that the novel, despite its resemblance to my real life, is fiction. I crafted an acknowledgment to address his concerns, and struck the adjective “semiautobiographical” from all marketing materials. As I now say in the acknowledgment, any resemblance to real-life people is coincidental to my goals as a novelist to create a fully realized story with a narrative arc.

So the lesson here is, simply calling something “fiction” may not be enough to deny any violation of privacy. I suggest backing it up with a carefully worded acknowledgment and perhaps a dedication too. Even that may not be enough, however. The family member and I still are not on regular speaking terms, and he still hasn’t read the book.

Downer POV character
Jerry Waxler: Your character does some pretty excruciatingly rude things. He pushes people away. His relationship to his father is filled with neurotic blame and loathing. This guy was making such horrible decisions about his relationships, there were moments I wasn’t sure I wanted to accompany him on this journey.

As a memoir junkie, I am accustomed to thinking of the protagonist as a real person. So at first I thought, “This guy is incredibly rude.” Then I vacillated thinking “Wow. This guy is being incredibly honest about his own lousy behavior.” Then I thought “Wow. If I had cancer, maybe I would be a real jerk, too.”

But I had to reel my mind back from all of those assessments. It’s fiction, and you were free to create this character any way you wanted. Why did you choose to make him a jerk? Was it because you were a jerk? Were you drawn toward confessing your own bad behavior in real life? Did you exaggerate it for effect, dancing on the edge of intriguing readers and angering them?

David Kalish: I disagree that my protagonist is universally unlikeable. Yes, there are readers who may be turned off by his anti-social tendencies at the outset of his journey, but most people I’ve spoke with find him and his world entertaining enough to go along for the ride. They enjoy his humor, his hapless behavior, his intellectual zaniness. They connect with the darkness he’s going through. People give him a long leash as he discovers his place in the world.

But given that some people think Daniel Plotnick is a jerk, I’ll address that. To create Plotnick, I started with myself. I was a bit of a jerk, admittedly, in my younger days. In real life, I DID lock my wife out of our apartment, based on my lawyer’s advice. Indeed, for the novel, I softened my “jerkiness.” I planted reminders he’s morally conflicted about locking her out, and in fact doesn’t change the locks on her – he changes the locks on himself.

The dramatic requirements of the novel influenced my depiction. On the outset of his emotional journey, Plotnick is in conflict with his wife, his father, and the world. He just wants to be left alone. As the book progresses, he reconciles with people and puts his life back together. In his bizarre way, he finds love and renewal in the world.

I didn’t have a model in mind for an edgy character, although I took cues from the bizarrely dark behavior of the protagonist and lesser characters in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

Wife is smarter than main character. Could you invent such powerful behavior?
Jerry Waxler: Your edgy main character meets a women with astonishing sexuality and cleverness who has a relentless way of bypassing his defenses, ignoring his cynicism and mean-spirited behavior in order to help him heal. His self-involvement and her ability to cut through it provides a fascinating mix. I love these two people!

In a way, his wife was the hero of the story, and the main character was being rescued. (It would be like a version of Hamlet in which Ophelia figured out how to help Hamlet heal from his fatal flaw.)This premise is so complex and intricate, it’s hard for me to imagine you made this up. I’m wondering if life experience handed you this surprising flawed hero and his surprisingly strong wife.

Even if it wasn’t entirely a memoir, it seems to me that at least some of its power was shaped by your own experience. This raises the maddening question any writer might ask him or herself. How would one evolve from the power of real life into (hopefully) the even greater power of fiction?  In other words, for all of us aspiring writers, even if we don’t intend to write memoir, how much of our lives should we be expecting to move to the page? I know you can’t answer for the mob of writers lining up at the starting gate ready to start the marathon of memoir writing. But after having run the marathon of writing an unpublished memoir, and then tacking a second marathon of turning it into a novel, could you share some pearls of wisdom about how the power of real life has informed your writing?

David Kalish: The second wife in my novel is totally modeled after my actual second wife. Like Sonia in the book, she is a strong-minded, purposeful Colombian doctor who has a unique way of looking at the world and expressing it. The fact she’s from a foreign culture allowed me, as a writer, to view her with fresh eyes and, to an extent, capture her mannerisms, dialogue, and quirks on the page. Of course, I exaggerated everything for effect. But what I didn’t exaggerate was how much she helped me when I was going through my disease. She never beat around the bush. She told me in no uncertain terms how to cope. Her interesting way of nurturing me was what I needed to find strength to face up to my mortality. I’m a lucky guy that way. Of all the characters in the book, she’s one of the closest to my real-life counterpart.

All writers need to mine their personal lives for material for their writing. But my material is particularly rich, and so I probably went deeper than most. I think we all have characters in our life, but my tendency is to stretch real-life personalities and events to make them more interesting. Writing, to me, is a constant flight from boredom – and a lot more happens in fiction than in real life. Much of real life is spent doing very little of interest to fiction readers.

Click here for Part 3

Notes
For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

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

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

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

Stylistic Choices in Creative Nonfiction, Interview Pt 2

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

In this second installment of my interview with Sue William Silverman, we continue to talk about her latest memoir The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. In the first segment, I asked her about her stylistic choices. In this one, I dig a little further, trying to learn more about the unusual writing style with which she successfully portrayed a woman attempting to blend into the dominant culture.

Jerry: You seem so obsessive about pop culture. In addition to your passion for Pat Boone, you show how you were afraid to move from one city to another because your new home doesn’t have a cable channel with your favorite television show. And later in the book, you seem to be obsessed with Superman. As I’m reading this memoir, I’m feeling that you are relying on pop culture as a sort of talisman to ward off your fears and insecurities. By immersing yourself in pop culture, you hope to finally melt into the melting pot. That’s a fascinating part of your story, and you do it beautifully, but you communicate your obsession in a really unusual way. You show your obsession by diving so far in, you become a character inside the pop culture. Rather than an observer, your writing takes you into the stories of pop culture so when reading the memoir, I feel like I’m inside your mind, and your mind is inside the television show, or the fan-worship or the Superman comic. Tell me more about those stylistic choices.

Sue William Silverman: One section of the book you’re referring to is “I Was a Prisoner on the Satellite of Love,” in which I was obsessed with the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is now (sadly) off the air. Not only did I love the show, but I was particularly smitten with one of the robots on it, Crow.

Anyway, I wrote the chapter or section almost as if it were an episode of the TV show, so I included Crow, adding his interjections at appropriate times.

Here is a short excerpt from it to better show what I mean. My writing is in blue and I put in red ink the sections where Crow speaks, and these are real lines of his, from the TV show, that I “borrowed” for my book.

To set the scene: My husband, “M,” and I have just flown into Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we’re moving for his new job, from our home in Georgia.

Rich, our realtor, glides to the curb in a black Jaguar. He leaps from the car, enthusiastically welcoming us to west Michigan. I barely shake his hand before collapsing in the back seat, forcing M. to sit in front. Let him schmooze with Rich, listen to the glowing Chamber of Commerce sales pitch. Let him hear about this “perfect” house, that “perfect” neighborhood. [“Hour after hour of heart-pounding small talk,” Crow says, in a mock-stentorian voice.]

Just two years ago…, we bought our first house [in Georgia], only recently completing the re-decoration. That’s the house in which I want to live. But now, because of this job offer, we must sell it. I must give up my adjunct teaching job. I must leave my therapist and my group. [“Goodbye,” Crow calls. “Thanks for the Valium!”] Worse, I fear I might also have to leave Crow – Crow, the robot, whom I think I love more than my husband. At least it feels as if I’m leaving Crow behind. Surely, though, I reassure myself, cable television stations in Michigan – just as in Georgia – must air the Comedy Central series Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which Crow is one of the stars. But all in all it feels as if I’m leaving my life behind—or as if I’m being abandoned. [“Does anyone have a copy of Final Exit?” Crow asks, innocently.]

In another chapter of the book, “An Argument for the Existence of Free Will and/or Pat Boone’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” I write as if I’m part of a Superman and Lois Lane comic book, an episode in which the young singing sensation Pat Boone visits The Daily Planet. This comic book, published back in 1959, actually exists.

It seemed the perfect invented structure in which I, playing the role of a newspaper reporter, could interview Pat Boone to help him understand why he hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (because of his conservative political and religious views). It’s not a conversation I could ever actually have in person with him, so I surreally portray us all as comic book characters, a format in which I could encourage Pat Boone to be more of a liberal Democrat, along those lines.

Why do this? Because by playing with structure and format (that TV show and the Superman comic book), I’m better able to draw both myself as well as the reader inside the actual experience. Everything we write needs to have its own voice, its own tone, its own structure to best work in conjunction with the content and context.

One thing I love about creative nonfiction is its openness of form. It’s a genre that encourages writers to experiment and push the envelope.

In the next section of the interview, I ask Silverman more about the angst of assimilation and her desire to be included as an “Anglo-Saxon.”

Notes
Sue William SIlverman’s Home Page
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

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

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

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

Writing a Memoir Penetrates the Fog of Memory

or Watching My Dad Watching Me
by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

Memoirs Connect Us by Sharing Our Hidden Worlds

by Jerry Waxler

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

The anthology The Times They Were a Changing coedited by Linda Joy Myers, Kate Farrell, and Amber Lea Starfire offers many glimpses into the lives of women during the 60s. The book taught me about a fascinating era in recent American history. It also provided many examples of life-changing moments, full of the passion and intensity of the human condition. This focus on high-intensity moments makes the collection a valuable demonstration of an important aspect of life-story writing.

For many aspiring memoir writers, such high-energy moments lurk under the surface waiting to spring out of hiding. I discovered my own hidden pool of intensity in the first memoir workshop I ever attended. The event took place at a high-energy writing club in a converted storefront in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Along with twenty writers, I considered the possibility I could turn my life into stories. At the end of the first session, the teacher told us to go home and write a story about ourselves.

The scene that came to my mind happened in Berkeley California in 1971 when I lived in a garage, stopped wearing my glasses so I was effectively blind, and went for weeks at a time without speaking. My fallen-apart life after college made sense in that crazy, hippie era. And yet looking back on it later in life, it had always seemed so out of context with my bachelor’s degree in physics and my original goal of becoming a doctor.

Despite my embarrassment and confusion about that period, my mind kept returning to it. Perhaps I was driven to that scene by horror, or by a lifetime of silence. For whatever reason, I attempted to portray my life as a hippie.

At the next session, my voice trembling with embarrassment and exhilaration, I read my piece. In it I revealed that when I was 24 years old, I wanted to live like a chimpanzee and had made plans to move to Central America to eat fruit from the trees. Instead of being horrified, my fellow writers laughed. That laugh changed my life.

I looked around the room. Everyone was relaxed. I realized that reading my story had not upset them or turned me into a pariah. On the contrary, several of them spoke to me afterward and recalled some zany or compelling memory of their own. Paradoxically instead of increasing my shame, sharing the story dispelled it.

Without this wall of shame to hold me back, I became increasingly energetic about discovering my own past. Like an investigator, I unearthed anecdotes I had never before tried to put into words. Then once I found them, I needed to convert them from stubs into a well constructed story. That meant that for the first time in my life, I had to learn how to write stories.

Before that time, my main experience trying to convert bits of my life into stories took place in a psychotherapy office. In my forties, I spent an hour every week attempting to collect myself by using my words. I found so much benefit to the system of trying to express myself that I went back to school and received my master’s degree in Counseling Psychology so I could help others do the same. At the age of 52, I watched my clients attempt to find words with which they could explain their lives. I let them ramble along, helping them choose which part of their lives they would talk about on any given day.

When I began to write my memoir, I realized that by attempting to find the story of my life, I could create a coherent understanding of myself, not just in bits and pieces but across entire eras. By reading memoirs, I realized that every author had achieved this same goal. And by writing the story, they had found a new way to share their lives with the world.

To help other people figure out how to do it, I began teaching memoir writing classes. In my early workshops, I asked writers to record scenes that came to mind. Often the first scenes that jumped onto paper were ones that were too powerful to be communicated in ordinary life. Many said this was the first time they had tried to describe this incident.

Over a period of years, I kept noticing that students used the memoir workshop as an opportunity to reveal their most profound life moments. Sometimes, I would tell writers about this phenomenon. In one such workshop, a woman raised her hand and said, “So you are telling me that once I write about and reveal my powerful secret, I’ll no longer feel as compelled to keep it hidden?”

“Exactly,” I said. “When you see the words on paper and then read them aloud in a group, your memory won’t generate the horrifying results that you expect.”

At the next session, she read a piece about her husband’s suicide. After reading it, she looked around the room at the murmurs and nods of empathy, and said, “I get it. That’s amazing.”

Sometimes the peak moment jumps out before the writing exercise even begins. I gave a talk at a church one Sunday morning to churchgoers who arrived before the services began. This was the best-dressed group of people I had ever spoken to. I explained to them that by writing their experiences in a memoir, they can reveal things that are too personal to talk about. A woman in the back of the room raised her hand. With trembling voice she said, “You mean that I can finally write about my experience of being sexually abused as a child?” I assured her that this was indeed possible. Her tearful “thank you” gave me another glimpse into the relief that can be experienced when peak experiences no longer need to be kept secret.

Lessons for memoir writers
Consider episodes in your life that  burns under the surface, imprisoned by a lifelong commitment to secrecy. Such memories are often surrounded by mental keep-out signs. A common sentiment is, “I could never tell that!”

By pretending the moment never happened or fearing you can never share it, you are stuck forever with your unspoken memory. Without the additional perspective of dialog or literary expression, the offending moment remains in its original form. Instead of eradicating the pain, your silence reinforces it. Aided by the literary act of memoir writing, you can commute this life sentence. Follow the example of the authors of Times They Were a Changing. Try turning it into a story.

When such memories first appear in your mind, they might sound boring, scary, taboo, mundane, or gritty. Don’t worry if the vignette does not contain deadly force, celebrities or unique moments in history. If it is boiling in your mind, write the first draft.

After you write the first draft, enhance it through scenes, description and other techniques. By crafting the memory into a story, with a compelling beginning, middle, and end, you create a container for it. Turning private pain into a public one generates deeper insight into what happened, how you survived, how you moved on to the next step and the step after that.

Your decision to write about the experience as if for strangers is not the end of your journey. To turn it into a polished piece, you still have a long road ahead. How do you develop it into a story with a beginning, middle and end? If you are like me, you not only must do the introspective work of uncovering your past. You also must travel the creative journey of learning to write Creative Nonfiction. By crafting your own life into a readable story, you will see it through fresh eyes. Gradually you will discover that whatever tension made the moment important to you will also be interesting to readers.

Your creative effort to turn life into story presents an elegant escape from silence. As you continue the journey, eventually you will turn a corner. When you look back, you realize your memory is no longer frightening. The episode that formerly burned under the surface and refused to be revealed has now become the story that must be told.

Writing Prompt 1
List a few interesting scenes that jump into your mind. What part of your life seems unmentionable? Upheavals, changes, betrayals, first loves, shifts in awareness. All the things that make life hard also make stories good.

Writing Prompt 2
Pick one of your incidents. Write about it as if you were there, complete with description of what you see, hear and think. Then, using that event as an anchor for your story, cast your net a little wider. What happened next? Look for another scene afterward that represents the immediate outcome.

If the scene was tragic, you might have always felt stuck with it. Then write about how you survived. Did you fight, or rebel, or reach out for support? The scenes *after* the peak event might reveal how to turn this into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The scenes after the main one will show courage, social support, and other positive experiences that helped you push forward.

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.

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.

Show Don’t Tell: Difference Between Fiction and Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Why are memoirs so popular? Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn the reasons for this important cultural trend.

The rule “Show don’t tell” can help writers find a strong, clear storytelling voice. However, because it is mainly taught to fiction writers, we memoir writers have to apply our own interpretations in order to adapt it to our genre.

In a previous essay, I explored the fact that we have all been influenced by ideas. Since ideas are important in the journey of our lives, they might authentically enter into our memoirs. Exposition about influential ideas could offer a valuable contribution to your readers.  In this essay, I continue to explore the ways memoirs differ from fiction.

I don’t mean to imply that good memoirs ignore the powerful methods of storytelling. On the contrary, a good memoir converts the bits of our real lives into the shape of a story. When we do a good job, we offer readers an informative, engaging entry into our world.

However, if we adhere too closely to techniques that work in fiction, we miss opportunities to help readers understand our authentic, real-life experience. To develop a strong memoir writing voice, consider the differences between fiction and memoir writing. Here are three areas in which the forms differ.

Fiction writers make stuff up

In fiction, a novelist can show ominous emotions by adding a wolf’s howl or a foul smell, or covering the sky with dark clouds. Need tactile sensation? Blow some snow in your character’s face. Need a gloomy room? Put a layer of grime over everything. The ability to invent actions and descriptions creates a whole palette of experience that can keep a fiction reader engaged.

Memoirs rely on real-world settings. What if the setting doesn’t evoke the right mood? To add emotional depth, memoir writers can simply invite readers inside our interior. As protagonists we know we hate this situation and we know why. To help the reader understand, we can just say it. For example, in Freeways to Flipflops when Sonia Marsh searches for a school in Belize for her younger son, she realizes he would have had better educational opportunities back home. A key aspect of her dramatic tension arises from the worry that perhaps she was hurting her younger son at the same time as she was trying to protect her older one. To convey this fear, she lets us “hear” her thoughts. It is a simple and direct way to share her inner battle. Her fretting “shows” the pain and confusion of the situation, and strengthens the point perfectly.

In my memoir, if I felt bad about myself during the 70s, I could relate it to the way I felt at the end of a day at the foundry when every inch of exposed skin was covered in a film of black grit. These memories are a combination of showing and telling – telling my thoughts in which I show my experiences. Another way thoughts could keep the reader engaged would be to suggest some hypothetical action. “I wanted to scream.” The protagonist shifts from feeling things directly, to becoming a narrator telling the feelings.

Note
This shift into the mind of the narrator at the time of the story is relatively common in memoirs. This is different from the less common technique of shifting into the mind of the present-day narrator. When you comment on the past from the point of view of the present-day narrator, you are asking the reader to jump back and forth between two versions of yourself. Whether or not this is an effective technique for you will depend on the way you want to structure your story.

Novels Condition Us to See Characters from the Outside

We read endless novels written in third person. The statement “he pulls out his gun” focuses our gaze on the character’s external actions. We have grown so accustomed to this external point of view that we might feel confused hearing too much of what the character thinks, relying instead on their actions and speech. This makes sense in fiction when we are not inside anyone’s mind.

By contrast, the first person point of view prevalent in memoirs provides an entirely different vantage point, taking us inside the main character’s mind. From this point of view, we have direct access to the character’s thoughts, not just through external cues but within the reality of being that person.

After I realized I was allowed to reveal my thoughts, my scenes became stronger and my critiquers thanked me. I also pay attention to the memoirs I read, and discover that I enjoy learning what the protagonist of a memoir thinks. In fact when a memoir author relies too heavily on external detail, and too little on his or her own thoughts, the book often feels “fake” to me, as if the author is trying to write a novel, rather than a memoir.

Actors condition us to guess a character’s thoughts from external cues

On the page, a story might describe one character speaking and the other character smirking. On the screen, an actor could squeeze complex subtexts into the smirk. With just the right twist of lips, eyebrows and voice, the actor could imply “I know you didn’t mean what you just said,” or “I love you and I don’t really care what you say. Just keep talking.” or “Yes, yes. Whatever. My mind is a million miles away.” As viewers we have become accustomed to “reading” all this subtext into the actor’s intentions, based on the nonverbal cues. Our verbal minds don’t need to be engaged.

In addition to the nuances of an actor’s face, moviegoers rely on yet another nonverbal channel of communication. Background music lets us know what to feel. After a lifetime of watching shows with soundtracks, we have become accustomed to believing that feelings can and should be expressed without words.

Memoir writers do not have access to the facial nuances of a professional actor or the musical score to set the mood. Instead we employ our own unique tools. When we attempt to portray the subtlety of emotion, we can share what we think.

Share Your Inner World

Woody Allen has become famous for portraying characters who think before, during and after every important action. His career is based mainly on the joke that only weak-minded, obsessive people  think. There is an ironic twist embedded in his send-up. His characters reflect the human condition more accurately than do the characters who populate “Hollywood” movies.

Unlike the external view provided by fiction, memoirs allow us into the interior of human experience. People really do think, and memoirs are taking the mute button off the mind and letting us learn about each other’s thoughts.

Memoirs let us see, hear and experience what it was like for someone else to grow up, struggle to find dignity, and adapt to change. We learn where this person has been and can listen to their thoughts. We see the world through their eyes and we keep turning pages to see how the situation unfolds.

Instead of paying actors to communicate human experience through body language and invented situations, we are paying our neighbors, peers, and other memoir writers who have learned how to express their own thoughts, feelings and observations.

Writing Prompt
Read through your memoir-in-progress and find a spot where you have been struggling to “show” the emotions and thoughts. Since you can’t invent things in the external environment, try revealing something about what’s going inside your mind.

Notes
For an entertaining and informative book about how to live in a culture which celebrates action over thinking, read Quiet, The Power of Introverts by Susan Caine.

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.

Grace Notes and Self Confidence Tracy Seeley Interview Pt. 5

by Jerry Waxler

In the previous sections of my interview with Tracy Seeley about her memoir “My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” I asked her about conforming to the structure  and style of memoirs. In this last part of the interview, I ask a few closing questions.
Click here for Part 1 of my essay on “Ruby Slippers”.

Click here for Part 1 of my interview with Tracy Seeley

Anecdote that works like a Grace Note

Jerry Waxler: While living in a small community in Kansas, you became infatuated with a run-down home, a fixer-upper a thousand miles away from where you live. If you bought it, affordably, for not much more than you would pay for a doghouse in San Francisco, you could have a second home and return to stay in it anytime. It felt so real at the time, until reality set in. Naturally you used the scene to explore some lovely observations about visiting Kansas, and the choices between San Francisco and this pastoral setting. That scene stuck with me, and I kept thinking about it. It seemed an intimate part of the story and yet somehow incidental, like a grace note.

This anecdote resonates with me because my wife and I often have similar fantasies on vacations, wondering if we could buy a home wherever we happen to be. We laugh at ourselves and let the impulse go. So it is with interest and curiosity that I see you doing the same thing. There must be some psychological intuition to settle in the new place. Surely that instinct has been driving wanderers from place to place throughout history. “Let’s settle here.” Condominium sales people make a living out of this instinct. And perhaps that is what your father felt when he went on to the next home.

Do you have any thoughts or comments about the value of “grace notes,” that is, seemingly loosely related anecdotes in memoirs? Do you have a favorite one in your book or in your reading that appears to be out of place, and yet resonates perfectly?

Tracy Seeley:  I think that’s part of the magic of a book.  What strikes a writer as a grace note, or momentary aside, will resonate powerfully with a reader, while something the writer thinks is monumental will just slide by someone else.  I love anecdotes that momentarily seem out of the main line of the story because they remind us that the world is a richly interconnected place, thick with story and meaning even over there in the margins.

I don’t know if I have a favorite anecdote, though I’m awfully fond of the encounter I had with the man who lived in Matfield Green, the one who brought his aerial photo over for me to see.  I really treasured that moment at the time, and it helped me understand what having such a deep love for a little place could look like.

Self confidence as a writing professor

Jerry Waxler: One of the standard fears that most memoir writers face is “My writing isn’t good enough.” I wonder if that fear ever occurred to you, especially considering you are a university professor. Do you worry that as a professor, you are exposing yourself to being less than perfect? What sort of discussion did you have with yourself about the vulnerability of exposing your writing?

Tracy Seeley:  I’ve never met a writer who thought his or her writing was good enough!  So yes, the thought crossed my mind once or twice.  But I also recognize it as just that: only a fear.  It’s only a story I tell myself.  When I hear it, I shoo it away.  If I change the wording a little, I can easily say, “my writing is good enough.”  It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough.

And I think that being willing to expose my writing to public scrutiny is a good model for students.  I sometimes even take passages of my own writing into class to explain why something doesn’t work, or how I revised something from bad to better to best.  It’s important for student writers, or any aspiring writer, to see that every work is flawed, and every finished book began as a big jumbly mess.  It’s part of the process.

Does that mean it’s easy to make that leap from private writer to published author?  No—but it’s part of the deal, so I took a deep breath and jumped.

What else of yours can I read?

Jerry Waxler: Now that I’m a Tracy Seeley fan, what’s next or what else of yours can I read?

Tracy Seeley:  After this summer book tour ends, I’ll be eager to get on to the next book.  I’m just starting to think about it, so don’t want to say too much, though I know it won’t be a memoir, and I can promise it will also be essay-like in interweaving different kinds of stories and moving across time.  How’s that for cryptic?

Meanwhile, I have two essays you might enjoy: “Cartographies of Change” in Prairie Schooner (Summer 2010); and “Monument Rocks” in The Florida Review (Winter 2008).  Both grew out of material I cut out of My Ruby Slippers.

You can also subscribe to my blogs!  (addresses below)  The Tracy Seeley one is on hiatus at the moment, but there’s a lot of good, fun material there about slow reading and slow living.  The My Ruby Slippers blog is about the summer tour and will also delve further into the book once I’m not on the road and have more time for it.

Tracy Seeley’s Blogs: MyRubySlippers and TracySeeley

Tracy Seeley’s Home Page
Amazon Page for My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Conversation versus Story Style in Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

In the previous two sections of my interview with Tracy Seeley about her memoir “My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” I asked her about conforming to the typical structure of memoirs. In this fourth part of the interview, I look for insights into some of her stylistic choices.

Click here for Part 1 of my essay on “Ruby Slippers”.

Click here for Part 1 of my interview with Tracy Seeley

Style: Conversation versus story

Jerry Waxler: I’d like to crunch in on one specific scene in your book in order to help me understand your stylistic choices. In the scene, you are trying to understand whether or not you should feel guilty about the slaughter of American Indians. You wonder, “How many generations later must people feel responsible?” Your inner debate opens into a flashback in which a student in one of your English classes was anxious about this exact point. You recount the conversation you had with this student, and then you transition from the flashback into speculation about what you might have said to him that would have helped the whole class come to some clearer understanding of their responsibility to history.

I love this scene, and love your clear thinking and intellectual guidance along this fascinating line of questioning. You were in control of my reading experience, and I never felt jarred out of place or out of point of view.

But the scene raises all sorts of stylistic questions. First, it’s a flashback to a debate. That’s unusual right there. And then your speculation about what you might have said doesn’t take place inside any scene. Sharing your thoughts to this extent is not typically part of storytelling. However, there is one medium where such a fluid sequence of thoughts would be perfectly normal. In an energetic conversation, we naturally introduce concepts and anecdotes to illustrate a point. I read somewhere that the best Creative Nonfiction writing comes when you try to imagine telling it to a smart, curious friend. I feel like that’s what you are doing.

The first time I thought that conversational styles might be okay in memoirs was when I was listening to Frank McCourt’s memoir “Tis.” I shouted “ah-ha!” when I realized that his narration was almost indistinguishable from great conversation. Reading “Tis” was like listening to Frank McCourt having an elaborate enjoyable, entertaining conversation. Actually, it sounded like he was having the conversation with himself, which was even more fun.

I find much of this fluidity in Ruby Slippers, a lovely mesmerizing flow of philosophy, story, and reflection. As a reader, I love this form. As a writer, I find it daunting. How can I write across two different genres? And is it really story writing? What are your thoughts? How did you steer between these styles of essay and conversation versus straight storytelling?

Tracy Seeley:  Well, first, I think writers should be able to do whatever they want as long as it works.  I’m on Twitter, and nearly every day something comes across my feed: “Seven Rules for Writers,” or “Ten Rules…” or “Twenty….”  And I think it’s all pretty much hogwash.  Many of the writers we revere most as a culture look at “rules for writers” and laugh.

The idea that a story has to move in strictly chronological order is one of those rules.  A lot of great stories often move back and forth in time.  The problem arises when a writer relies on flashbacks because they can’t think of a more effective way to explain background or suddenly need to explain a character’s motives for something.  Then flashbacks don’t serve the story.  They’re just a gimmick.

But to get back to my own strategy.  My choices were largely made in some gray zone I call aesthetic intuition.  It’s like the way a skilled football player just knows where to run on the field to catch the ball coming toward him, or a soccer player knows how high to jump to meet the ball at the right angle to head it into the goal.  That kind of knowing comes from lots of practice and watching better players do things.  Writing is like that for me, and I made a lot stylistic decisions intuitively, at least initially.  Of course, then the conscious mind kicks in and asks, “Okay, but does that really work here?  How exactly do I make it work?”

Literary or aesthetic intuition, of course, isn’t something we’re born with.  It’s shaped by our reading and educational history and intellectual inclinations and character.  I’m very synthetic in my thinking, which means I like bringing things together, following chains of association, seeing connections between disparate events and ideas.  I love bringing a whole assorted bag of things together that you would never be able to fit in a simple, linear narrative strung together with scenes.  That’s why I’m drawn to writers like Woolf, or Rebecca Solnit, or W. G. Sebald, the great German writer and Nobel Prize winner.  His Rings of Saturn leaves me open-mouthed every time.

Stylistically, the way to make these strategies work, like moving from the main narrative to a flashback, or from the main line into a digression and back, is to maintain a consistent tone, and never, ever forget a reader’s need not to be abandoned along the way.   I like your description of the conversational feeling you got reading the book.

Lovely Easy Language arts.

Jerry Waxler: When I enjoy a book, I try to understand why. Of course, a great story with a strong character arc is essential. But each page needs to be enjoyable too, and so, aspiring memoir writers need to pay attention not only to good story telling but also to good sentence construction. Some people say that the language needs to be beautiful. I have conflicted feelings about the degree of beauty the language should have. Mary Karr’s “Lit” is a good example of writing so exquisite that I found myself thinking more about her exquisite metaphors than about the story. I go more toward the camp that wants the language to be practically invisible. Your writing achieved that state that I enjoy: clear, compelling, easy to read, and yet it still evokes thought provoking, sometimes moving images and ideas. During your journey to acquire your language arts, can you think of any particular tip or advice that moved you along, that made your sentences clearer?
Tracy Seeley:  I love beautiful sentences, and I lean toward lyric, complex constructions.  I love semi-colons.  I’ve also learned to rein that tendency in a bit, but still it’s there.  I sometimes struggle with writing simply declarative sentences like “It rained on Wednesday.”  I mean, really?  That’s it?  Still, beauty can get carried away with itself and we can fall in love with gorgeous sentences that bring too much attention to themselves.

My language arts story is a long and involved one—my mother took me to the library every week when I was a kid, I majored in English, then got a Ph.D. in literature, and now have been teaching literature and writing for nearly half my life.  So the best advice I have is to read, read, read.  And read writers with a wide range of aesthetic sensibilities. You’ll absorb a lot by osmosis, and can study more closely those writers you love.

In your own sentences, a few tips can help: Use strong subjects and verbs; use fresh language; stay focused on the juicy, concrete, physical world in your descriptions so that readers can really see what you do; keep adverbs and adjectives to a minimum, and learn to edit.

One of the best books for learning stylistic editing and creating what I call “juicy” writing is Sin and Syntax: Crafting Wickedly Effective Sentences by Constance Hale.  Great book that practices what it preaches.  It’s delightful.

Jerry Waxler: The only memoir I know of that does such a lovely job tying together facts of life into a philosophy of life is Kate Braestrup’s “Here if you need me.” Can you recommend any others that achieve this sort of pleasurable, uplifting, and delicately interwoven philosophy that emanates organically from the story?

Tracy Seeley:  The one that comes most clearly to mind is Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: a Spiritual Geography, which I’ve mentioned before as a memoir of place.  I’m sure there are others, but they’re not coming to me at the moment.  Or maybe I’m a rare, special bird.  But I doubt it.

Notes
Tracy Seeley’s Home Page
Amazon Page for My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Memoir writer on conforming, rewriting, publishing

By Jerry Waxler

Every memoir writer must strive to shape the events of their lives into stories that will be worth reading. This creative project requires some understanding of the memoir form, so that when a reader picks up your memoir, they will have some idea of how you fit into the genre.

In my previous post, I interviewed Tracy Seeley about her memoir “My Glass Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” I asked her to comment on the fact that she uses techniques that don’t conform to the “typical memoir.” In this third part of the interview, I follow this line of questioning about how it felt to buck a trend in publishing, and then continue with questions about her writing technique.

Click here for Part 1 of my essay on “Ruby Slippers”.

Click here for Part 1 of my interview with Tracy Seeley

Jerry Waxler: One of the reasons that writers strive so mightily to conform to the rules is because we want to please agents and editors. The common wisdom requires every writer to explain how their work fits into the industry, and that means proving it sounds a lot like previous works. What sort of thought process helped you fit Ruby Slippers into this system and find a publisher who understands your particular, unique approach?

Tracy Seeley:  When I started looking for an agent, with hopes of getting a big commercial deal, I was very naïve.  It became clear very quickly that because I wasn’t already well-known for a field of expertise, wasn’t a rock star or former star, and didn’t have a controversial or sensational or highly dramatic story to tell, I was in for a hard time in the big leagues.  It just wasn’t going to happen.

So I started looking for a small press that was committed to publishing literary nonfiction without having such an overriding commercial concern for publishing only those things that would sell millions of copies.  That’s not to say that small presses don’t want to be commercially viable, and they do sell books (thank goodness), but they have a bit wider view of what’s valuable in a book.

Small presses, too, though, want to know how your book is like others that have gone before (and gone on to succeed), as well as how it’s a new and exciting, one-of-a-kind thing.  It’s a funny kind of challenge to describe your work in both terms.  But My Ruby Slippers does belong to a tradition of what I call memoirs of place–and I was able to place it in great company.  I think of works like Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, Kathleen Norris’s Dakota, or Joan Didion’s Where I Was From.  Didion, by the way, is another great nonfiction writer who isn’t worried about fitting the mold.  She thinks a lot on the page.

At the same time, memoirs of place tend to be about having deep roots in the place being written about.  Because I didn’t have that kind of relationship with place, but was looking for one, it was relatively easy to show that My Ruby Slippers was also doing something new.  And even though it told the story of my breast cancer experience, it’s pretty radically different from breast cancer memoirs in general.  So I was able to thread the needle pretty easily.

Jerry Waxler: I read in one of your interviews that you rewrote the book several times. Are you saying you really wrote a whole new draft? It’s hard enough to write a book once. How did that feel?

Tracy Seeley:  When I first started My Ruby Slippers, I wasn’t sure if or how to include the story of my having breast cancer.  So I started with just the Kansas story: traveling back, revisiting houses, etcetera.  But that didn’t really work, because the cancer story was such an integral part of who I was on that journey and how I saw the world I found out there on the road.  At the same time, I had no clue about how to weave the two story threads together.  So I set aside the Kansas-only draft and started over.  That was about 100 pages.   The second 100-page effort tried to tell the Kansas and cancer stories together, and I don’t even remember what I tried on that one, but it clearly didn’t work.  The connections seemed arbitrary, the transitions between them clunky.  So I set that pile aside, too.

Eventually, just by messing around with different free-writing episodes and taking a lot of long walks, I figured out the common link between the two stories–which was the theme of displacement and learning to be at home and at peace in the world.  At home both physically, geographically, and metaphysically or spiritually.  Once I got that, I started again and drafted “Prelude,” the opening chapter of the book.  It ties both stories and themes together.  At that point, I could go back and pull things out of both early drafts.  About half that earlier material made it into the book, much revised, differently structured, but there.  The other half went various other places, including a published essay or two.  Most it fell into the abyss.  But that’s okay.  It got me where I needed to go, and then I didn’t need it anymore.

I later ended up cutting out four chapters about revisiting houses in Colorado, where I was born and lived until I was four.  Except for a few small bits, that material’s all still in a drawer waiting for someone to turn it into magic.  Maybe I’ll get back to it one of these days.

Jerry Waxler: Now that your work has been published, how do you feel about the way you put it together. Does it satisfy? Do you feel you succeeded in telling your story?

Tracy Seeley:  No writer is completely happy with a finished work.  I look at My Ruby Slippers and see all kinds of things I would do differently now.  But at the same time, I’m very satisfied.  I think I told the story I wanted to tell, and did it in a way that I think is rich and multi-layered.  It’s literary in a way I value, and is the kind of book I like reading–and that seems a great thing.  I learned a lot doing it, and with luck, my next book will be even better.  But I’m getting such great, heartfelt responses to this book, I have no complaints.

Notes
Tracy Seeley’s Home Page
Amazon Page for My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Stretching the Memoir Form, Tracy Seeley Interview, Part 2

By Jerry Waxler

This is part 2 of my interview with Tracy Seeley, author of “Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas.” In this section I ask her to share her thoughts about stretching outside the standard definition of memoirs. The topic is important to any memoir writer who is trying to share their own unique lives within the form of the genre.

Click here for Part 1 of my essay on “Ruby Slippers”.

Click here for Part 1 of my interview with Tracy Seeley

Jerry Waxler: Memoirs are sometimes thought of as novels based on real facts. I think it makes sense to aspire to story telling. That’s what I teach also, because after all, our goal as memoir writers is to tell a good story. But as a reader, as well as a writer, I also find great pleasure in going beyond the structure of a novel, and considering the many ways that memoirs differ from fiction.

If there is such a thing as a “straight story model” of memoir writing, you seem to have stretched it in a number of ways, which I found expansive, enjoyable, and effective. I believe your memoir offers a much richer palette than the straightforward scenes that make up a typical storyline. I want to explain what I’m talking about before I ask you for your opinion about the process of stretching the story form. I see three ways that your memoir broke out of the mold.

One, Daisy Chaining

Before I even started reading the book, I knew from the title and blurb that it was going to be about your search for self in Kansas. As I continued to read, I found you daisy chaining from your own history, to your family history, to the state of Kansas. Along the way, you pondered many truths and questions such as the relationship between history and current events, east and west, urban versus rural life, parents and children, the deteriorating economy of the middle states. When people write memoirs, they are encouraged to find a theme, a particular aspect of it that will pull the reader from beginning to end. I find it interesting that you had woven several themes.

Two, Historical foundations

The second way you broke out of classical story-form is that you have embedded so much history of Kansas into the storyline. This is unusual, because you are telling history. And yet, you maintain my suspension of disbelief throughout by taking my proverbial hand and letting me know that we are exploring this information together. I am inside your head while you are discovering these things.

Three, deep, rich, philosophical denouement

The third break in “classic story form” is that your denouement, the conclusion, the ultimate destination of your story is not a physical location or an external set of events. For example at the end of “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt disembarks in New York, as clueless about where he has been or where is going as a human being can be. All he knows is that he is in New York. Growing up for him meant biologically growing. He still had many years to go before life would make sense. On the other hand, your memoir takes me not only on an external journey through place but also on a huge inner journey. The destination of “Ruby Slippers” is a deep understanding of the intertwining of self and place, and the intertwining of the people in a place. The ending was a lovely, surprising, creative, clear, compelling philosophical conclusion.

Despite your breaking of these “rules,” I found your memoir to be one of the most insightful and moving ones I have read. I have several questions about your innovative style and structure.

Jerry Waxler: When trying to figure out how to write the book, how did you process on this perceived requirement that a “story” has a well-defined theme and story line, does not break out into an historical overview, and relies more heavily on the external conclusion? Did you feel compelled to stay in that mold? Did you wrestle to break out? Had you developed an alternate theory of writing the memoir that allowed you find these other directions?  Did you feel like a maverick?

Tracy Seeley: (laughing) You’ve touched on so many interesting ideas here, and the thought of being a maverick appeals to me so much! And thank you for loving its non-rule-following qualities so much.

I do think My Ruby Slippers does some things that most contemporary memoirs don’t, and I hope it opens up the field a bit.  I feel eternally frustrated by those who say that literary nonfiction and memoir in particular should be nothing but story: scene, scene, narrative arc, etcetera.  There are great books that do that, but it’s very limiting, I think, to say that nonfiction should model itself only on the novel or short story.

I came to writing My Ruby Slippers with a background in literary study, and I’d spent years reading back through the history of nonfiction, especially the essay.  Before the contemporary scene came along, what we now call “creative nonfiction” was vastly more varied, less rule-bound.

One of my great literary heroes and models is Virginia Woolf, who mixes fiction and nonfiction modes, writes in wildly digressive fashion, leaving the main narrative to ruminate for awhile before returning to it.  Take a look at one of her great essays, “Street Haunting” if you get the chance.  It’ll knock your socks off.  I think we can agree that even though she breaks about every rule there is, her writing still comes out alright.  Even in her autobiographical writing, like Moments of Being, she’s not just building scenes.  There’s a strong presence on the page of her, the writer, reflecting on, commenting on, and digressing from the main narrative line.  I like reading that mind at work on the page.

So I didn’t struggle with breaking out of a mold, because I really don’t like it to begin with and had other models to work from.  I think of My Ruby Slippers as a book-length essay that exploits many of the forms that nonfiction can take—and all of those parts help tell the story of who I am and how I see the world.

Jerry Waxler: Two. The writing world seems to keep driving us toward the chute of pure story. Most writing mentors and classes, editors, critiquers, and agents, tend to want stories built only from scenes along a simple straightforward line. This feedback can be incredibly helpful up to a point, but when I want to stretch slightly outside the boundaries, there is a drive to bring me back into the formula. When reading memoirs, I sometimes see this pressure distorting the beginning of the memoir, when the first chapter feels to me to have been  manipulated by editors who are trying to force drama into the “all-important” first pages because we readers are supposed to have short attention spans. I also know of teachers/critics who discourage memoir writers from adding anything that is not a scene, in an ultra-orthodox attempt to enforce show-not-tell. Show-don’t-tell is a hard rule for memoir writers who want to share the inner workings of mind, and authentic, thoughtful observations about the world. Of course I completely agree that too much reliance on ideas can also ruin a story, so I understand there is a balance. And that’s just it. How do you find mentors and editors to lead you between the Scylla of too many ideas and the Charybdis of too restrictive a story form?

Tracy Seeley: The edict to “show, not tell” does a serious disservice to creative nonfiction writers, and to the genre.  It’s not the same as fiction, even though it may share many techniques, and it shouldn’t be forced to be fiction made out of “true facts.”

Weaving ideas into story, or weaving multiple themes together as I do in My Ruby Slippers, or writing digressive asides, are things that nonfiction should be allowed to do.  In the contemporary literary world, many nonfiction writers are doing fantastic, innovative work doing just those things.  Still, the question is how to strike a balance: how to make sure everything serves the ultimate aims of the work, and how to not let any one part overbalance the rest.  I wrestled with this throughout writing My Ruby Slippers, trying to find that balance, and trying to make sure that when I did veer off the path to explore ideas or to ruminate on the subject, it all served my own developing story.

But the question you ask, about editors and publishers, is about what sells (or what is perceived to sell), and that’s a different matter altogether.  I don’t know how to reform the commercial publishing world.  I would say, though, that there are many small presses that value, publish and promote work that might be quieter or more innovative and less obedient to the common dictates like “show, don’t tell” or “only one theme, please,” or “single, linear storyline only.”  I’m thrilled to be working with a publisher like that now.  The University of Nebraska Press really got my book, and didn’t bat an eyelash at the embedded history or the sections that show and  tell.  If you want to do that kind of writing, and I think every nonfiction writer should (ha!), look for readers, mentors, and publishers with a little wider view of the literary world.

It seems a terribly impoverished view to say that a writer should never include, as you say, “the inner workings of mind, and authentic, thoughtful observations about the world.”  That’s one of the gifts that creative nonfiction gives us.  We ought to use it.

Notes
Tracy Seeley’s Home Page
Amazon Page for My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Revealing Death and Other Courageous Acts of Life

by Jerry Waxler

I met Robert Waxler online last year when I was reviewing his memoir  “Losing Jonathan” about his son’s heroin addiction. During the first half of the book, Robert and his wife Linda tried to stop their son’s downward slide. In the second half, they grieved his passing. I admired his courage to share this journey and was even more impressed by Robert’s second memoir, “Courage to Walk,” about another family tragedy. His surviving son, Jeremy, was stricken with a mysterious, deadly illness and the book is about the family’s journey to stay hopeful and safe.

As an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Robert has been delving into the power of the written word for a lifetime. Now, as he looked for strength to sustain him through his trials, he turned to the deep insights shared by his favorite authors. And then he turned to books again, as the vehicle through which he could pass his story to readers.

In addition to our mutual interest in literature, naturally we were curious about our shared last name. Neither of us had ever met a Waxler to whom we weren’t related. Over the course of the year, we discussed the possibility of giving a joint presentation about memoirs. Recently, I arranged such a talk sponsored by the Philadelphia Writers Conference.

Robert and Linda drove down from Dartmouth, Massachusetts a day early to do some sightseeing. We agreed to meet outside the museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall in Philadelphia; a fitting backdrop, since his ancestors and mine were Russian Jewish immigrants. My sister joined us to extend our greetings, one Waxler clan to another.

We sat in the coffee shop at the museum and talked with energy, jumping enthusiastically from one topic to another. Since our ancestral records no longer exist, we wondered if our easy flow indicated a shared ancestry. A woman walked by and Robert called out her name. She was an old friend of his and his wife’s from Massachusetts who just happened to be in this spot, hundreds of miles from home. My mother had an expression, “coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous.” Was this a sign?

Even though we had agreed for months that we would give a joint presentation, I didn’t know exactly what that meant. How would we interact in a way that would bring value to our audience? The next morning over coffee, I proposed the way we would organize the talk, and he agreed. Then we drove to the lovely campus of Montgomery County Community College to a lecture hall where about 20 people were already seated, including two of my cousins. Linda Waxler, who coauthored “Losing Jonathan” sat in the back of the lecture hall with my sister and her husband. I smiled thinking how fitting it was that a memoir workshop had turned into a family affair.

I introduced the talk with the enthusiasm I always bring to this topic. “In the memoir age, we read books by people who spend years turning their lives into literature. Today we’re going to meet an English professor who turned to the written word to cope with his personal tragedy. Then in the second half, we’ll give you some pointers on how to turn your own lives into literature.”

Robert Waxler stood, radiating the authority that he had gained from a lifetime of teaching. He described how he grappled with his emotions and beliefs during Jonathan’s fall from a lovely, promising childhood into heroin addiction, and how he stood on that precipice between despair and faith. Then, he explained his decision to turn that experience into “Losing Jonathan.” Last year, when I read this memoir, I wrestled with my prejudice that English professors are not free to express this much frank emotion. What would his colleagues and students think? But now, listening to him speak so eloquently about how he placed these precious experiences on the page, it felt so right. As a man of letters, of course he wanted to locate these profoundly human events in the world of literature.

When he started, he seemed to be gathering his thoughts, selecting elements of his memory and intention. By the time he finished, his voice was strong and there was a cadence to his speech. I have always admired the way a good professor can lean into his topic and share not only his information but also his enthusiasm about the subject. Today, the professor enveloped us in his vision, not by speaking about someone else’s writing, but by sharing his own intentions as a writer, a father, and a human being.

Then it was my job to turn the audience’s attention back to their own goals. I realized there wasn’t enough time to conduct a real workshop, but in the small amount of time available, I wanted to convince everyone that the problems of writing a memoir are solvable. “When you look back through your memories, they fly out at you in a variety of bits and pieces, entangled in time, and at first only make sense to you. As you write scenes and accumulate them in sequence, they begin to take shape. As you see the material of your life take shape on the page, you gradually tame the flood of memories and begin to craft them into a story worth reading.”

After my portion of the talk, I opened the floor to questions. Ordinarily in memoir workshops the majority of questions are about how to write about life, but today the audience wanted to pour out their empathy to a couple who lost a child to drugs. One of the raised hands belonged to my cousin. In a shaky voice, she said, “Thank you so much for writing about this.” I could hardly hear her and asked her to say more. She continued, “I was twelve years old before I found that my uncle died. It was a suicide and no one would talk about it.”

I thought, “Oh. That family nightmare.” I was a little boy when my father’s nephew, after graduating medical school, had a mental breakdown and killed himself. The family immediately imposed a silence around the event, and I never understood the emotional impact. Now, I saw the shock in my cousin’s face these many years later.

Linda Waxler, from the back of the room, spoke up with a strong, purposeful voice. Looking directly at my cousin, Linda said, “That’s the reason we wrote “Losing Jonathan.” When he died, people pulled away from us. We wanted to educate people to understand that when someone dies, that’s the time to pull together. Silence is the most painful response.”

Their exchange reminded me that people have a tendency to hide extraordinary things about themselves, even events that cry out for compassion. I have heard the issue expressed in my memoir workshops, where writers express fear and uncertainty about how much of their lives to reveal. To direct the audience’s attention back to their own writing, I said, “We often think we must keep our secrets hidden in order to be accepted, but in fact, the secrets themselves keep us separated. Memoir writing lets us explore and share these parts of ourselves. When hidden material is told in a story, it takes on a universal quality that we can all relate to.”

My other cousin spoke up. “It’s true. We always had secrets. My mother wouldn’t tell any of her friends when I was divorced. No one wanted to talk about that back then.”

I responded, “Times are changing, and memoirs are helping break down these barriers. Jeannette Walls, author of the bestseller “Glass Castle,” said that before she wrote her memoir, she was deeply ashamed of her poor, chaotic childhood. Now, thanks to her book and others like it, we are sharing many things that once were hidden.”

At the end of the meeting, people gathered around to thank us. I love these moments after a talk when people pour back some of the energy that I poured out. I looked at Bob and smiled. If we had been forty years younger, we would have given each other high fives. As we said goodbye, Robert and I promised to do it again. “We can call ourselves the Two Waxlers,” I said, “and give talks about how memoirs matter.” “Yes, a road tour,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

I realized how comfortable I was with all these people, a comfort level that for most of my life had been entirely foreign to me. For decades, I felt distant from my family. Now I was wondering how much of my distance was based on my secret. After I left my childhood neighborhood in Philadelphia to go out into the world, I decided that being part of a minority religion made me an outsider. Writing my memoir has given me more confidence to accept all these parts of myself. Letting go of my secrets feels like letting go of my walls.

As I walked across the parking lot to my car, I thought about my mom’s image of a God who tries to let us know He is there, without really letting us know. I wondered how clever He might be feeling right now, arranging things so that an English professor and his wife could learn hard lessons about life, and then write and speak about what they learned to help other people get in touch with their own secrets. When I give memoir workshops, my focus in on helping other people learn about their own lives, but today I felt the guilty pleasure of having learned something about my own.

Notes

To read an essay I wrote about Robert Waxler’s memoir “Courage to Walk” click here.

To read an essay about “Losing Jonathan,” click here.

To read an interview with Robert Waxler about his memoirs, click here.

More memoir writing resources

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

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