Author and creative writing teacher helps me steer between fact and fiction

by Jerry Waxler

Last year, I attended a writing conference at Rosemont College hosted by Philadelphia Stories journal. At one of the sessions, I met Susan Muaddi Darraj and purchased a book of her collected fiction called “Inheritance of Exile.” The protagonist of the stories was a Palestinian woman who grew up in South Philadelphia in circumstances similar to Muaddi Darraj’s own childhood.

The characters in “Inheritance of Exile” felt authentic. I loved their introspective world, their frustration, despair, and hope. I connected with their romances and their interaction with their families. And I even deepened my imagination of my own ancestors who also were immigrants in Philadelphia. [See my essay on that topic here.]

The interplay between fact and fiction enhanced my reading, but I wanted to know more about how it felt to the writer so I asked Susan Muaddi Darraj to help me understand how she the world she is creating with the one about which she is writing. And since she is a writing teacher, I wanted to know what she tells her students.

Jerry Waxler: When I was a student, literature was taught as an art form that had value in its own right. Now that I’ve become obsessed with memoirs, my view of literature has shifted. I now look at stories as a window into the human condition. Judging from the authenticity of your characters and situations, I’m wondering how you feel about the connection between story and life. Are stories art? Or are they a way to share the experience of human beings? Or some of each?

Susan Muaddi Darraj:
I do think literature serves multiple purposes. Its primary purpose is to serve as art — that aesthetic goal is always first and foremost. But literature also has an opportunity to comment and describe other worlds to the reader — not monolithic “worlds,” but a view of life as experienced by that particular author. For example, in this story collection, “Inheritance of Exile,” I tried to express what life was like for not all Palestinian emigres, but for a particular socio-economic class of emigres who had settled into a working-class, urban environment.

JW: Writers must learn all sorts of micro-skills such as word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, characterization and so on. The authentic characters in your stories make me wonder if writers also need to be exquisite observers. Must we also get degrees in psychology, sociology, and anthropology?

SMJ: No, but you still need to do your research as a writer. The best writing I have ever read is that in which it is clear that the author has spent time conducting or doing research of some kind — and the research could take place on many levels: looking up the right word for a particular object, researching the jargon used by archaeologists because you’ve decided to make one of your characters an archaeologist, etc.

JW: Can explain how you learned the skills of careful observation?

SMJ: Reading, watching, listening, always keeping a notebook in my purse…

JW: How do you teach these skills of careful observation to aspiring writers, or recommend that they learn?

SMJ: The writer’s notebook is a lost art form in itself! I always tell my students (I teach a fiction workshop in the Johns Hopkins graduate writing program) that keeping a notebook to jot down observations and ideas is vital.

JW: Could you share some insight or examples of the way the notebooks help you add vitality to your stories.

SMJ: I am a marvelous eavesdropper — I listen to conversations around me all the time and am always affected by the tone of people’s voices, their diction, as well as the stories they tell. I write those observations down. I also clip out news items or articles or pictures that strike me in some way. For example, who knows when I will need to describe a log cabin some day in a story I’m writing? If I do, I have a photograph clipped out of a magazine, to give me some parameters.

JW: I struggle to understand how fiction writers create characters. For example, are they composites stitched together from a variety of observations? That seems risky to me. Can a writer really invent a person from whole cloth or cobble one together from bits? Especially in first person stories such as yours, creating the thoughts and feelings of real people seems difficult. Could you say more about how you invent your characters?

SMJ: My characters are not composites, although I suppose they are sometimes inspired by particular traits I do observe in people in the real world. My characters seem like real people to me, and so I often spend a lot of time just thinking about them in my mind before I commit them to paper. I think about them in terms of “How would x react to this particular event?” Their responses to people and reactions to incidents tells me a lot about their personalities, their fears, their desires.

JW: Did you grow up telling stories, or was story telling a learned skill? Was a family hobby? If it was learned, how did you come to it?

SMJ: My father is a wonderful storyteller and a great writer as well. He told us stories every night — things he invented, stories he spun based on prompts we would give him (“Tell me a story about a fish, or about going to the supermarket,” etc…). And my mother taught me to read quite early, so I always had a book with me everywhere I went — long car rides were a joy for me, for example. I could finish two books in the time it took us to drive from Philadelphia to visit my grandparents in New York.

JW: Many aspiring memoir writers wonder if their lives would be best told in fictional form.  What do you think about this option? What are the pros and cons?

SMJ: Every work of fiction is inspired to some degree by the author’s life. The limit to this is that if a character is based too closely on you, you will be afraid, hesitant, to allow that character to behave badly. And that’s just not realistic — people behave badly all the time, and it’s quite interesting when they do. They make poor choices, etc. Once you have committed a character to paper, then you have to cut the umbilical cord with him or her and just allow him or her to be…

JW: Your protagonists are young women who grew up in Philadelphia in an immigrant home. So while you have not written about your own life, you have written things that you know. Did you find this confusing, steering your characters, settings, and situations in the strange space between actual experience and imagination?

SMJ: Not really. The cultural aspects of the stories are things that I know, but most things were invented, such as the particular situations, etc.

JW: John Barth, author of “End of the Road,” came to speak at the University of Wisconsin in the 60’s. After the lecture, I asked him if his novels were based on real life, and he looked disgusted. What do you feel when someone asks you if your stories are autobiographical? Do you think it’s a disrespectful question?

SMJ: I just think that, in recent years, because of the growth of memoir as a genre, readers want fiction to also be based on the author’s life. It’s one way of grasping the work, or accessing it — that is, to make it connect to the real life of the writer. I don’t think it’s a disrespectful question, but it is wearying when people ask me that, because I feel that it doesn’t recognize the art of invention, the work it takes to sit down in a chair and create this fictional world.

JW: As a published writer, you expose your thoughts, your imagination, your mental world. It’s a goal all writers strive for, and yet, I suspect once we get there, it has its pros and cons. Could you share your experience of what it’s like letting people “in” to see parts of your mind.

SMJ: I have no complaints! It’s been nothing but fun. I admit that if I were a New York Times bestselling author who was doing lots of interviews and traveling all the time, I would probably miss my writing time a bit. All writers, in the end, are solitary people — it’s the nature of the job — and I think we crave that quiet time.

Susan Muaddi Darraj Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Author Interview: Curtis Smith talks about publishing in Literary Journals

By Jerry Waxler

At this year’s Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish conference,  Curtis Smith played an important role, by throwing in a few choice comments about how much fun writing is. (To read more about his comments, click here ). One of the parts of writing that seemed to be working especially well for Curtis was his regular publication in literary journals. Since he was getting so much satisfaction from that aspect of his craft, I asked him to share some tips and pointers with the rest of us. Our interview follows:

Jerry Waxler: Your bio says you have published in 50 journals. Could you say more about how you found these journals? How much legwork do you do to become familiar with the journals in your “space.”

Curtis Smith: In the pre-internet days, I found them using books like The Writers Market or Dustbooks Small Press directory.  I’d familiarize myself with them mainly through the stories reprinted in the annual anthologies like Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, or the O’Henry series.  Sometimes I’d order a particular journal; other times I’d go to the local college library, which carried quite a few lit journals.  These days I mainly use websites like Duotrope or New Pages to find markets.  And I visit the journals’ websites and see what kind of work they post.

JW: Do each of the journals tend to have their own “voice” — and if so, when searching for a journal you will submit to, how much must you understand their voice preferences?

CS: Some journals do have a unique voice, the independents mostly, print places like Hobart and Monkeybicycle and online places like Smokelong.  These days, a website will give you a good indication of a journal’s aesthetic.  I think if you’re dealing with a journal affiliated with a college, you can find the turnover of editors may lead to a somewhat less defined voice–that said, many university-sponsored journals are beautiful and have a long history of publishing great work.

JW: How did you decide which journals would be most appropriate for the nonfiction essays you wrote about your relationship with your young son?

CS: That’s been more of a crapshoot–since many journals only have one or two essays per issue, it was harder for me to get a feel for that.  Some markets I did target–I had a piece in The Humanist and a few others in special theme issues.

JW: During your writing process, do you ever write with a particular editor or publication in mind?

CS: Rarely–sometimes I’ll see a call for a theme issue that piques my interest, but usually I just write for myself.

JW: You mentioned at the Philadelphia Stories conference that once you have published in a journal, you develop a rapport with the editor. Could you say more about that process or give an example of how it has worked for you.

CS: I’ve been lucky to click with a few editors–the collection of essays coming out next year will feature three essays that first appeared in Lake Effect and two that first appeared in Mississippi Review.  I’ve developed a long relationship with other editors with my fiction–my last two story collections featured a trio of very long stories that first came out in The Greensboro Review.  I also have a couple places that have taken a number of my flash fictions.  If I enjoy an editor and his journal, I’ll gladly submit more in the future.

JW: When your work is published in a journal, of course the journal’s stamp of approval gives you authority as a writer. I imagine, then, that as an aspiring writer, you would want to be accepted into the most prestigious publication, the higher the better. Right? How do you even know which journal is more prestigious and which is less so?

CS: Of course you want your work to appear in the best journal possible.  And there are some wonderful journals out there, but outside that first tier of places like The Paris Review and Ploughshares and Georgia Review, there are any number of fine journals putting out great work.  How does one know which journals are good?  I think you just have to keep your eyes open–check out the annual anthologies like the Best American Series and Pushcart and see where they’re getting their work from.  Listen to what your friends are reading and where they’re publishing.

JW: What sorts of feedback do you get when publishing in a journal? Do you hear from readers? Is it like a tree falling in a forest? Is there a specialized audience that gets to know your work?

CS: It used to be pretty rare that you’d get feedback.  If you were lucky, you’d get a Pushcart nomination or a mention in the Best American series.  But now with the advent of social networking sites like Facebook, you get a lot more feedback.  If I read a story or essay I enjoy, I make sure to drop a line to the author if we’ve hooked up on a site – and many people do it in return.  The audience is pretty much limited to writers and fans of lit fiction and journals, but it is a bigger audience than before.

JW: Do you put much of your own marketing/networking energy into publicizing your piece in the journal?

CS: Not much beyond a posting on Facebook.  I add links to online pieces to my website.  I save the bigger pushes for my books.

JW: Please give examples of journals you published non-fiction essays in, and some thoughts about why these particular ones worked out for you.

CS: I’ve published a number of essays in Mississippi Review and Lake Effect.  Others have appeared in Turnrow, Bellingham Review, Philadelphia Stories, Red Cedar Review, Inkpot, The Humanist, and a number of others.

The two essays from Mississippi Review were theme issues, so they worked out because my work could address those themes.  And the same for the Humanist.  The others were just nonfiction spots in lit journals–and I think they fit because my writing comes from a fiction-writer’s perspective, and I bring fictional techniques into my work.

JW: Many of the readers of my blog “Memory Writers Network” do not come from a “literary” or “creative writing” background. They are just looking to develop the best writing skills possible so they can share parts of their lives. Are there journals that would appeal to this segment of the writing public, the well-told stories, that would not necessarily earn high grades in a creative writing class?

CS: That’s an interesting question.  I’m not sure.  I’m guessing that journals would, by nature, appeal to the folks with literary and creative writing backgrounds.  That said, I think there are some wonderful journals that have fine literary work that is also very accessible.  For the readers of your blog who are interested in nonfiction more than fiction, I’d suggest Creative Nonfiction or Fourth Genre.  The online journal Brevity is also very interesting (short-short nonfiction).


Click here for Curtis Smith’s home page.

Click here for Philadelphia Stories Home Page

Looking for the onramp at Philadelphia “Push To Publish” writer’s conference

by Jerry Waxler

At the Philadelphia Stories’ “Push to Publish” conference in the Fall of 2009, I peered into a room filled with cabaret tables, each with an editor on one side and an empty chair on the other. Christine Weiser, who along with Carla Spataro organized the conference, stood guard at the door. When the moment arrived she opened the gate and the pack of us hustled in, eager to sop up every one of our allotted 15 minutes.

“Speed dating” is my favorite way to meet editors. In fact it’s my only way. Over the last ten years, I’ve met a dozen of them, and from each interview I take away some insight about the gatekeepers who stand between me and my future readers. Probably the most informative meeting was the very first, when a young editor told me, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.” Since then I have refined my message, learning to be as clear and concise as possible. I’ve also become increasingly curious about them. By turning the tables and asking them to talk about themselves, I deepen my respect for them as real people with whom I may some day do business.

At many conferences, attendees only get one chance, but “Push to Publish” offers multiple interviews. First I headed to Fran Metzman who represented the online Journal Wild River Review, as well as the printed Schuylkill Valley Journal. I told her of my interest in finding a outlet for my essays about memoir writing. Even though Metzman was responsible for fiction at these journals, she also writes a nonfiction column on women’s issues for Wild River Review. “Yes, submit a proposal,” she said. “Just be sure to do a professional job.”

My other date was with Christine Yurick, the publisher of the new print publication “Think Journal.” I asked her to describe her journal’s specific slant. She said she likes structured stories. I was puzzled.

“I assumed that by definition a story has a structure.”

“No, not all,” Yurick said. “Some journals emphasize experimental pieces.”

This explained why I sometimes can’t understand literary journals. Today’s ah-ha revealed that these publications differ in their philosophy of Story. I filed the concept away for future reference, to help me look for the place most appropriate for my writing.

When we finished, she said she would check out my blog and get back to me if she thought there was a match. Note to Self: “Gatekeepers read blogs.”

The net result of the two interviews was a glimmer of hope that literary journals might someday provide an onramp into publishing.

Creative Nonfiction Craze

When it was time to go to the first workshop, I selected a panel called “Tapping Into The Creative Nonfiction Craze.” The assigned room was locked, so about 40 of us trooped down to the auditorium, and arranged chairs into a makeshift meeting area. Our numbers and eagerness suggested that Creative Nonfiction is indeed a craze. And yet, despite its popularity, most literary journals still publish mainly fiction and poetry. The one exception, not surprisingly, is the journal “Creative Nonfiction” which is devoted exclusively to the genre.

As each panel member offered their observations about writing stories of truth, I began to grow optimistic that perhaps memoir writers have a widening channel through which to publish their work. Curtis Smith reinforced my suspicion when he said, “thanks to the proliferation of online and print journals, this is a great time to be a writer.”

The last time I heard offer such an upbeat claim for writers was years ago when Kurt Vonnegut said in an interview that during the 1950s many writers got their start by publishing in magazines. His nostalgia made me curse the day I was born, wishing to be alive in a good time for writers. Curtis Smith claimed those times had returned. Happy day!

Continuing my search for the onramp to publishing, I attended another panel called “The Joys of Small Press.” Moderator Barbara Berot said that small presses are an easier entry point for new writers. Marc Schuster, Acquisitions Editor for PS Books, pointed out another advantage. “Big publishers are looking for products that will sell while small presses are looking for books they love.” Another panelist Debra Leigh Scott said that because of advances in printing technology, the cost of starting your own small publishing house has never been lower.

Like so many other people in the business, these panelists agreed “there isn’t much money in writing.” From there, the session sputtered back and forth between the strategies of publishing and the difficulties of earning money. Naturally I would like to be rich, but I keep this motivation at bay, because the more I think about money, the more likely that I’ll focus on its absence.

Curtis Smith, the same guy who cheered me up in the previous panel, offered a way out.  “Keep your day job and write for fun.” His reassuring smile reminded us that money is only one of the many rewards of writing.

In my younger years, when offered a choice between a dark thought and a happy one, I always chose dark, believing that was automatically the smarter of the two. I soon became adept at seeing darkness at the end of every path. After a few years, I had my fill of smart despair, and decided I’d rather be happy. I diligently studied the art of finding something pleasurable in almost every situation.

The business of writing provides a perfect opportunity to exercise this discretion. Given the choice between misery and fun, I follow Curtis Smith’s advice and choose fun. In fact, fun is precisely the reason I attend writing conferences. By coming together with other writers, I enjoy the pleasure of their company, transforming writing from an isolated activity to a social one.

At the end of the day, I thanked Christine Weiser for another great conference. She said, “By the way. Would you be willing to submit some of your essays to the Philadelphia Stories blog?” Here was another opportunity to participate in the writing community, and another way to reach readers and writers. “I’d love to,” I said and walked out to my car. Skipping past puddles from the all-day autumn rain, I eagerly anticipated the approaching winter, looking forward to a whole season full of excuses to stay inside and write.

This is the second article I wrote about the 2009 Push To Publish Conference.  To read Part 1, click here.

Is a Travel Memoir Really a Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

When I started studying memoirs, my original focus were the conventional ones like Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” or Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle.” At first, I didn’t understand why some travel books were sold as memoirs. Travel books weren’t about the author’s childhood, and they included a lot of journalistic descriptions of the places they were traveling through. And yet I realized they were first person accounts that let me get inside the author’s point of view and see the world.

To understand more about what goes into a travel memoir. I read a few like Doreen Orion’s travel memoir, “Queen of the Road,” and Mark Richardson’s “Zen and Now.” I’ve also dabbled in others like Tom Coyne’s walk around Ireland recounted in “A Course Called Ireland” and Rosemary Mahoney’s solo trip in Egypt, “Down the Nile Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff.”

Based on my research, I decided travel books indeed could be considered as a sort of memoir. In fact, in my perfect world, the book store would have a whole bank of memoirs and autobiographies, including sub-sections for Coming of Age, Overcoming Hardship, and Travel memoirs, to name a few. Here are a few of the features of travel memoirs you might consider when reading your next one, or planning your own.

On the road alone means inside your mind

Travel provides the fascinating unfolding, as places appear in the distance, come closer, and then whiz by, fading into the past. From this perpetual flow of locations, comes a variety of outer experience.

And while the miles disappear under the tire, hull, or shoe, the protagonist’s main activity is… nothing. With nothing to do but move your body from A to B, traveling is a sort of meditation in its own right, providing the protagonist ample time to reflect. That’s what Bob Pirsig did in his classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and when Mark Richardson road his motorcycle along the same path, he too reflected about life in “Zen and Now.”

Since Doreen Orion is traveling with her husband in an RV she has other options. She can read, or banter with her husband. Considering she is a psychiatrist, I wonder if her absence of introspection is a sort of subterranean irony, a feature I have noticed throughout Orion’s entertaining approach to her material.

Wrestling with your Stuff

Traveling raises all sorts of issues about stuff. First you have make a list of what to take, buy what you need, and then pack your luggage. You have to store it somewhere and lug it along. Sometimes you can’t fit much. On his motorcycle ride, Mark Richardson could only bring a couple of pairs of underwear. When he stopped in a motel, he methodically unpacked his saddlebags, including motorcycle repair tools. Then the next morning, he packed them up again. At the other extreme, Doreen Orion packed her luxury RV with all sorts of amenities, such dozens of pairs of shoes. But even she had limits. One day she jumped in the tagalong SUV and went shopping, and when she tried to put the purchases away, she realized she had run out of room for her stuff.

Describe the people you meet

During travel, you meet people, and these meetings add character to the journey. Richardson tells about the small town girl working in the motel, and the Russian couple who own it. He describes other bikers he meets at stops, and he looks up some of the same people who had met with Pirsig during the original ride. He even stops in a town and speculates about which tree Pirsig and his son might have sat under, and asks some of the locals to help him figure it out, while Orion chats up the other campers at the RV parks – neighbors for a night.

Focus on your vehicle (boat, feet, RV, motorcycle)

In “Zen and Now” Mark Richardson focuses in detail on his motorcycle. This is a neat trick that emulates Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Both motorcyclists do an excellent job of showing how their world has collapsed down to their vehicle and the stretch of road they are on right now. By describing the motorcycle they let you feel intimately connected with their contracted world. Doreen Orion also showed us her small world by bringing inside the cab of her luxury RV in “Queen of the Road.”

Journalistic accounts of the world

In the musical “Sound of Music,” Julie Andrews walks along a country road with the kids, and suddenly they all burst into song. It’s entertaining, albeit a little out of place. Something similar takes place in a travel memoir, when the author decides to insert a little background description about something they are seeing. My quirkiest example is in Doreen Orion’s “Queen of the Road.” In a night club she visited with her husband, a girl performed a clog dance. Orion included a brief history of clog dancing. Not your typical memoir material, but it worked as a lovely way to pass the time in her company. Of course, the scenery, the towns, and the people are all fodder for the writer’s research, should they choose to add a few details about the world they are moving through.

Getting there and back is a perfect container for a story

The whole purpose of a good story is to portray a sort of journey, that takes the protagonist as well as the reader from the beginning of the book to the end. Travel memoirs turn this into a literal journey from one geographical location to another. When you insert your experience into travel, you allow your reader to go along with you as you prepare, pack, and go forth from your home. Leaving your familiar world behind, you enter a new world with different rules and make progress through obstacles. This allows for the curiosity and adventure of discovery, as well as the contrast with the familiar. At the end, you complete the journey, providing the appropriate metaphorical as well as circumstantial ending.

By breaking the protagonist out of the daily grind, travel memoirs still provide plenty of room for an inner journey, too. Under the stress of confusing situations, or the tedium of the passing miles, or the curiosity of new observations, travelers discover new things about themselves. As the outer miles go by, the inner journey is also underway, making the travel memoir an excellent framework for writing about life.


For discussion about some of the classic memoirs, see my essay, “Why so many memoirs about dysfunctional childhood?

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.

Reading error teaches a writing lesson – or – A good character is hard to define

By Jerry Waxler

Part of relating to a good story is to feel a personal connection with its characters. Now I need to develop the knack of portraying the people in my life onto the pages in my memoir. I have attended workshops, and read how-to books about this skill, but it has been eluding me until recently when I stumbled upon a valuable insight. By incorrectly reading a series of short stories, I had an aha-moment about how reader and writer work together to form characters. This discovery will help me bring my characters to life.

I first noticed my reading problem last year when I read a lovely collection of short stories, “Apologies Forthcoming” by Xujun Eberlein about life in China during the Cultural Revolution. [ To read that essay, click here.] In one story, a student was relocated to join peasants in the countryside. In another story, a young factory worker struggled to make friends. I imagined the second story was about the same person as the first. My interpretation was wrong. The link was created by my imagination, not the author’s.

Recently, I read another book of short stories, “Inheritance of Exile” by Susan Muaddi Darraj. [To read that essay, click here.] I am attracted to short stories, both as a reader and a writer. So I jumped into the collection, enjoying each story individually. But again I noticed my mind making incorrect or unsubstantiated assumptions, unconsciously bridging a character from one part of a book to another. The fact that I repeated my mistake made me curious to learn more about this mental habit.

In many collections of stories, this effect is used intentionally. Readers expect the detective Adam Dalgleish in P.D. James’ mysteries to maintain his quirky personality from one novel to another. His ability to completely override compassion in the service of his job became his trademark, and so the reader of these novels forms an expectation that he will continue to behave in this way. As a result of this agreed continuity, the author of a series can portray deeper characters over a longer period of time than they could in just one story.

All kinds of series are built on exactly this principle. Star Trek allows us to get to know their recurring characters across a range of stories. Sitcoms, comic books, and book series take advantage of the reader’s accumulating familiarity with characters.

By digging deeper into the way my mind insisted on linking characters together across pages, I now see more about the way authors create characters. Books don’t tell us everything about a character all at once. They drop in a fact here and a scene there, and the reader’s mind accumulates a deeper understanding of that character in bits and pieces across many pages. In any longer book, this effect of continuity is a crucial tool for authors, but I never noticed it quite so clearly as when I saw it happen accidentally across multiple stories.

Now that I see the bridging, I can use it to help me offer my reader a better, more satisfying connection with the supporting characters in my memoir. Take my older brother, for example. He’s an important enough person in my life that I would want my reader to know more about him. So how do I bring him to life?

Ed towered over me in my youth, at first because he was seven years older than me and later because he was really tall. Six feet five inches and too thin he should have easily made it onto the basketball team. But like me and my dad, he was not particularly athletic, and he walked with a slight tilt because of his scoliosis. When he was cut from the team, he responded with an intensity of disappointment I wouldn’t have expected. Perhaps he had hoped a team sport would help further his ambition to be a doctor, or maybe he really wanted to play basketball. I was too young to ask, and now it’s too late.

Armed with this collection of observations, I begin to look for places in my memoir to expand his character. Hopefully the reader will do what I do when I read, and accumulate an image of Ed as an authentic, multi-faceted person. I hope they will see my relationship to him, and how he affected my life. As I gather information about him, I notice a peculiar thing. By writing about him years later, I am bridging across the years, and revisiting our relationship. I too am feeling this authentic connection grow, as I accumulate wisdom across the span of time.

Writing Prompt

Start a file that contains anecdotes, vignettes, and personal characteristics of important characters. Add to this file over time, through brainstorming, free-writing, explore your photo albums, or conduct interviews. This file will provide source material to help you build authentic characters in your memoir.

Yin and Yang of Storytelling – Dramatic Tension of Opposites

by Jerry Waxler

Writing your memoir? Memoir Revolution provides many examples and insights into how to authors are translating life into story.

An author’s job is to tie us in knots, forcing us to search for relief on the next page. Thrillers easily generate tension when the hero races to find and defuse a bomb. But how do writers create tension from ordinary life? To find out how one writer achieves this creative task, I peered into the collection of short stories, “Inheritance of Exile” by Susan Muaddi Darraj.

Each story shows characters caught in the emotions and circumstances of ordinary life, and yet despite their ordinariness, I feel engaged in their struggles, turning the page to learn more. As I seek to understand how Susan Muaddi Darraj has accomplished her hold on me, I notice a particular feature of the writing. She has superbly tapped the power of opposites.

Opposites generate texture in every aspect of ordinary life: sad and happy, rich and poor, young and old, hope and despair. It’s the yin-yang of nature, that oriental principle that claims each polarity contains its opposite. I knew about the principle, but I never noticed it as a tool for storytelling. Now I discover the secret hidden in plain sight.

Opposites, by their nature, create tension, like the sparks that jump across the two terminals of a battery. The tension pulls together when opposites attract, or pushes apart when we want to maintain our distance from the other. By juxtaposing the two sides and allowing us to feel the contrast, the writer generates energy, creating an intellectual and artistic feast. Here are examples of the opposites I noticed in these stories:

Girl and boy romance

While describing a relationship, the author maintains her protagonist’s feminine needs, and at the same time, she shows a deep empathy and understanding of the boy’s perspective.

Child and parent have two very different views

She shows characters at different stages of Coming of Age, wanting to grow up, and at odds with their parents. This universal tension can be confusing and polarized. And yet, somehow, Inheritance of Exile brings enormous compassion to these situations by giving us deeper understanding of the parents’ point of view.

Tension between rich and poor

To earn a few dollars, she sells hand-made baskets at a craft fair. People with lots of money stop by to look. The contrast between their economic situation and hers crackles with tension.

Hoodlums and law abiding working people

A working man is robbed at gun point, showing the stark contrast between these two lifestyles. The man works hard, pushing himself through the daily grind to support his family. The hoodlums break the law and steal what he built up. The scene creates an intense contrast of these opposing life choices.

Relationships with Father vs. Mother

The protagonist’s relationship with her mother and with her father are each formidable, each rich in emotion, tension, and love. The real power, though, comes from the juxtaposition of the child’s relationship with each. The difference in her connection with each of these two parents creates enormous tension that the character must sort through, and which drag me deep into their family dynamic. Mother-love and father-love, so different and so authentic, create dramatic tension that drives me not only to turn pages, but to ponder these truths of the human condition after I have closed the book.

Palestinian (immigrant) culture and American (dominant) culture

Of course, every immigrant copes with these two opposing forces – the confining boundaries of the culture-of-origin, and the inexorable crucible of the melting pot that demands escape from that confinement. Susan does an artful job of showing her characters moving sometimes easily and sometimes awkwardly between these two different states.

Life is a balance of opposites

All of life is caught in the pincers of endless pairs of opposites. Opposites create revolutions, hatreds, and passionate love. At a more ordinary level, we strive to balance or solve cold and hot, hunger and fullness, loneliness and anger. At every level of life, from physics and biology, individual life, and the history of civilizations, opposites move us forward. Find these opposites in your story to propel your reader’s attention forward as well.

Writing Prompt

To accentuate dramatic tension in your own story, look for the opposites. Use the same ones I noted from reading Inheritance of Exile or look for others: educated and not, healthy and sick, and so on.


The famous graphic symbol of yin and yang is a circle with the two black and white interlocking shapes. It is called Taijitu. Here’s a link to a wiki page.

Visit Susan Muaddi Darraj’s Portfolio

Visit Amazon’s page for Inheritance of Exile

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

Fiction built on a foundation of real life

By Jerry Waxler

Fiction seems entirely different from memoirs. And yet, when I look at actual examples of the two forms, I discover their intimate connection, each breathing life into the other. A good memoir is more compelling than a raw dump of facts. It generates dramatic tension by using fiction techniques like suspense and character development. And good fiction requires believable characters and real psychological interactions in order to capture our attention.

Last fall, I attended a writer’s conference organized by Philadelphia Stories held amidst stately trees and classic architecture of Rosemont College. There I met Susan Muaddi Darraj, creative writing professor and author of a book of short stories, “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly.” The protagonists in her stories are girls growing up in Palestinian families in South Philadelphia. The author, as it happens, grew up in a Palestinian family in South Philadelphia. “Write what you know,” the teachers say. Apparently Darraj took this advice.

The parallel between her life and her characters made me curious. Even though “Inheritance of Exile” is fiction, it’s apparently grounded in her own experience. I decided to read her book to learn what I could about the relationship between life and art.

Inheritance of Exile is written in an intimate, first person account
How does she or any fiction writer create a world authentic enough to let me enter? Surely they don’t create an entire world from scratch. I imagine they take a page from the memoirist’s book, describing a fictional world based on the things they see in the real one.

In Muaddi Darraj’s fiction, I hear her protagonist’s inner voice and see her family, friends, and culture. For example, in more than one story in “Inheritance of Exile,” the protagonist’s parents hang a blue stone to fend off the evil eye. I don’t know much about Palestinian culture, so I have no way to know if they do indeed follow this ritual. But it wouldn’t make sense for the author to invent such a thing. Even though I don’t know for sure if the blue stone is “real,” her story connects me to old world hopes and fears.

In one story, the protagonist was criticized by her mother for sitting in a way that she revealed the bottom of her foot, a gesture considered an insult. I found this detail interesting. Then, a few weeks after reading it, I saw a news article in which an Iraqi threw his shoes at President Bush as a highly publicized insult. Aha! External corroboration.

The character’s father ran a sandwich truck in Philadelphia. It reminded me of the truck parked outside the University of Pennsylvania, where I often bought my lunch during the years I worked there. The Lebanese guys who made delicious falafels were lovely and even though I was just a customer, I soon felt close to them. “Inheritance of Exile” now lets me imagine additional dimensions of their lives. For the first time I think of their whole situation, raising American children in an immigrant home in Philadelphia. This book of fiction, of invented reality, expands my understanding of the real people around me.

Coming of Age has changed over the decades
When I was growing up, I read several Coming of Age stories such as “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and “Portrait of the Artist” by James Joyce. The protagonists of these books were full of angst, disenfranchisement, anomie – moods that were hallmarks for their times, when readers and publishers focused on the existential problems of young men. Times have changed.

Forty years later, Inheritance of Exile offers a different view of Coming of Age, describing this life journey through a female author’s eyes at the beginning of the Twenty First Century. Her struggles for social and emotional wholeness sound very different than the authors I read in high school, and deepens my understanding of the search for identity in today’s culture.

To read my essay on the shifting gender orientation of contemporary literature – click here

Immigrants are us
My parents grew up in Philadelphia, children of immigrants. I know so little about how that felt, and now it’s too late to ask. But I can learn a little more about the experience of children of immigrants by reading stories. For example, one of Darraj’s characters resented her mother’s accent because it sounded foreign. This resentment felt eerily familiar.

My maternal grandmother was born in the United States, and through fanatical attention to elocution, had developed a Proper British accent. Her husband immigrated from Russia when he was a young man, and sixty years later, he still pronounced the letter “W” as if it was a “V.” According to family lore, my grandmother was not particularly fond of him, and now I wonder how much his pronunciation grated against her ambition to become unambigously American. I’m starting to realize that one reason my parents never taught me Yiddish or talked about the Old Country was that they wanted to forget their past.

Susan Muaddi Darraj’s character, like other immigrant children, wanted to blend in with Americans and yet at home she had to relate to a very different culture. This character’s emotions teach me about my own grandparents, my parents and myself.

Literature is a window into society
Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, in his lecture series “Understanding Literature and Life” claims that literature portrays the world and culture of the author, so for example to learn how Greeks thought, we read Greek plays. And one place to seek insight into an Arab immigrant community in South Philadelphia might be in the stories of “Inheritance of Exile.” They contain emotionally compelling situations that capture my attention and transport me to a world that feels authentic, even though they make no claim to factual reporting.

Writing Prompt
What community or social phenomenon does your memoir explore?  How do characters in your story behave towards each other? What lessons do you detect in the unique workings of your family? Look for an anecdote that might evoke some powerful observation about families or communities, tension among people, or aspirations to gain entry into privileged social situations.


For more about Philadelphia Stories, click here
Click here Susan Muaddi Darraj’s home page
Amazon page for “Inheritance of Exile”
To hear the wonderful lecture series, “Understanding Literature and Life” by Arnold Weinstein published by the Teaching Company click here.

Stylistic innovation in Sean Toner’s clown story

by Jerry Waxler

While most of the memoirs I review are book length, I recently read an award winning short story “The Head Clown” by Sean Toner, published in a wonderful online literary collaboration called “”

“Head Clown” is about Toner’s summer by the ocean, where he worked in a bookstore, and to earn a few extra dollars he took a job dressing up as a clown and selling balloons on the boardwalk. From this mundane situation, the author has crafted a brash, luxurious tale that worked the magic all good stories are supposed to do. It opened a window into the author’s world, his people, his attitudes, his sweaty palms. By focusing tightly on each moment he brought me into his world, endowing scenes with color and character, creating depth of emotion and variety of insight. Toner’s exquisite attention on small details provided me with so much pleasure I was sorry to see it end.

One of the writer’s noblest jobs is to offer his or her self-awareness to the reader. In fact, when I was younger I received much of my appreciation for the nuances of life through the eyes of authors like Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens. Their wordplay revealed the creative power within each moment, providing some of my most intellectually stimulating sensations.

Nuance versus clarity
Despite my passion for rich writing, I had no idea how to emulate it myself. Writing in a journal for years, words flowed freely, but without an audience, my style never grew. Then to earn a living, I wrote technical manuals. When I finally turned my attention to a broader audience, I focused entirely on clarity. I achieved simplicity, but my “just-the-facts” style lacked the verbal pleasure my favorite authors had given me.

Sean Toner’s story awakened memories of sitting with a book and enjoying the words rolling around in my mind, making strange connections, sending shivers of activity through my brain, setting off other recollections too distant to even identify, like the rumbling of thunder that seemed to rattle the substrate of reality itself.

“Head Clown” comes to me at a perfect moment in my journey as a writer. I recently listened to an audio course from the Teaching Company called “Building Great Sentences, Exploring the Writer’s Craft” by Professor Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa. In it he regrets the loss of style in modern prose. His observations started me pondering.

As a hippie in the 1960’s, I lived in Spartan rooms, sleeping on the floor. Piles of books fed my mind, but no decorations or knick-knacks personalized my space. Professor Landon and Sean Toner, like participants in a literary intervention, helped me see I had done the same disservice to my writing style as I had done to my life style. With their help, I gained the courage to fling off my literary hair shirt and open up to the joys of excellent sentences. Here are a few tips I took away from Sean Toner’s “Head Clown” and Professor Landon’s Teaching Company lectures.

Short is not the goal
One of the measures of effective writing, according to many modern systems, is to reduce the length of sentences. Software programs even use sentence length as a measure of “good” writing. Landon warned against judging a sentence by its length. Some long sentences are horrible, and others are beautiful, clear, and uplifting. He showed the difference, and offered suggestions for long sentences that inform and entertain.

One plus one equals three?
When I edit, I often try to simplify my descriptions, following Sol Stein’s famous advice, “one plus one equals a half.” In his book “On Writing,” Stein said it’s punchier to use one adjective than two. While his idea enhances simplicity, it risks stripping away nuance.

Brooks Landon offers an alternative. He observes that if the first word that comes to mind is insufficient, you naturally want to say it again a slightly different way to express the truth. By adding a couple of different approaches to an idea, you can offer the reader several slants that elaborate on your view.

While Sol Stein’s advice often leads to tighter writing, I appreciate Brooks Landon’s permission to say something in more than one way. His perspective expands my options to give more to my readers.

When writing a scene, we are taught to look to the senses, what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch. But this formula misses the additional vein of material running behind our eyes and between our ears. Our thoughts provide the reader an additional way to relate to our viewpoint. For Landon, this is the hallmark of good writing: “Bring your unique self to your reader.”

Sean Toner offers an excellent example. He looks out the window at a woman crossing the back yard. She stops and talks to some children. He can’t see what they are looking at, so he offers several possibilities. His speculation intensifies my curiosity, drawing me into the external scene and also providing a glimpse into Toner’s mind.

Landon loves metaphors, but he has a hard time convincing his writing students to use them. I know why his students are reluctant to follow his advice. Metaphors are as risky as crossing a pit of alligators by crawling along a slimy log. A bad metaphor sounds weird, and so the writer must work harder and take more chances. It’s easier just to walk around. Sean Tone is not shy about metaphors. For example he compares a tall fair-skinned man to a golden sycamore, allowing me to see the sun shining through the canopy of a forest. The image deepens my connection with both Sean’s imagination and this aspiring clown’s appearance.

When Toner looks out the window and tries to understand what the woman and children might be pointing to, he speculates that they may be looking at a dirty magazine or a man buried up to his shoulders in dirt. The resulting laugh creates an extraordinarily sophisticated psychological sensation. By pulling me so far into his own mental process, Toner has created a moment of intimacy, like brushing up against a stranger at a party, a thrill of forbidden contact. The laugh provides an abrupt and pleasurable discharge of that tension.

This interplay between intimacy and distance is one of the purposes of memoir. We tell about our life experience, which brings us all closer. At the same time, we turn the events into a story, which allows us to take a step back. Whether your memoir is as short as a man buried up to his shoulders, or as tall as a golden sycamore, you too can use word play, speculation, metaphor, and humor to contribute to the multi-dimensional power of your story.

Writing Prompt
Follow each of these strategies from “Head Clown” to add style to your anecdote.

For more about Sean Toner, see his home page.
For more about the Teaching Company lecture series, by Brooks Landon, University of Iowa, click here.

Writing Conference: Tip for Memoirists, memoir as literary non-fiction

by Jerry Waxler

The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group ( held its annual meeting April 27-28, 2007, and I found all sorts of valuable writing insights, that I want to share with memoir writers.

As a memoir writer, I am writing about life experience, so it was with eager anticipation that I attended a talk “Writing from life experience” by keynote speaker Gary Fincke, professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, and author of a book called “Amp’d, a father’s back stage pass” about rock and roll bands – not just any rock and roll band, but his son’s. Fincke attended more than 60 concerts, and then wrote a book about his experience. This is a style of reporting called Immersion Journalism. Years ago I read a pioneer in this genre: Tracy Kidder’s “Soul of a New Machine,” in which he moved into a computer lab, and wrote about their development process. The book launched not only Kidder’s career, but also launched an entire genre of what has become known as literary non-fiction.

As a writing teacher and a writer, Fincke thinks a lot about how to write what you see. In his genre of literary non-fiction, he doesn’t have to be a distant observer. He includes himself in the picture. This style of journalism bumps up and begins to overlap with what memoirists try to do. We show the life we lived, a life in which we were active participants. Memoirists are all immersion journalists. We inhabit the world of the protagonist but when we try to report on what we see, there is one difference from journalism. We observe life not through our present eyes, but through our memory.

One of the most interesting tips Fincke offered about how to write about life experience was so simple. It was to “look again.” The first time you see something, you only see the surface. When you look again you see it deeper. Another great piece of advice was to describe things specifically. He didn’t just describe the backstage at every or any rock concert. He described a particular one, the particular smells, the beer cooler, the ratty sofa. And then he said, “Don’t just talk about what you think. Readers want to see and experience things for themselves.” It was all great advice.

Since Fincke will be publishing his memoir early next year, I asked him what are the differences between memoir and journalism. He said one key difference is that in memoir, you want to return to the state of mind that you were in when you originally experienced it. That strikes me as being a significant point.

When you write about something you are observing now, you have more control over your state of mind. I can look up from my computer and describe the two book cases next to me, four shelves each, the uneven way books are lined up, some on top of each other, and the top of the cases piled high with recent acquisitions. I could focus on one book, a chemistry book sits snugly on the shelf. I have not referenced this book for years, while the ones I’m using for my current projects lie heaped in piles on the floor. Because I’m in the present writing about the present, I can dance and weave, playing around all I want with the details, and my feelings about those details, But when I write a memoir, I have to rely on memory. Memory is a strange animal. It can be a beast that snarls, and wants me to remember the hurt first, filtering all facts through the lens of my feelings.

When I studied chemistry in high school, it was not my A subject. I feel myself walking in the hall after class, fearing the other kids understand the material more than I do, and afraid that means they like me less. Am I remembering it because it’s a “real” incident or because in that time, I was always worried about whether I was liked? Now, I look again. This time I see the teacher showing us a supersaturated solution, a clear liquid. He threw in a grain of sand and from the clearness exploded beautiful blue crystals, somehow both jagged and orderly. That transformation from the possible into the real fills me with some subtle hope. Beauty is sometimes hidden, and it just takes a grain of sand to reveal it.

When Gary Fincke’s memoir is published next year, I will look at his two books and see how his observations differ. In Amp’d, he wrote as an immersion journalist, using his current powers of observation to describe his son during those concerts. In the other, his memoir, he observes through the filter of memory. These differences in the way we report reality are issues every memoirist faces.