Wisdom Born in One Memoir Inspires a Second

Or: Write the Memoir But Don’t Stop Growing
by Jerry Waxler

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

Memoirs often crush me with human suffering and then, in that fallen state, I accompany the protagonist, trying to find the lessons that will help us survive. In fact, the very nature of storytelling lends itself to the search for answers. In the beginning of every story, the protagonist sets off on a journey to find something. By the end, that search leads to some conclusion.

For example, Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a terrifying, life altering stroke in the first half of the memoir, My Stroke of Insight. In the second half, she discovers that she has become a gentler, more compassionate person. By accompanying the author through her stroke, and then through the lessons she learns, I am treated to her elevated version of reality.

I recently discovered an author, Lorraine Ash, who accomplished a similar effect, spread across two books. What started as the suffering and coping in the first book, Life Touches Life, ended with the profound conclusions she shares in the second, Self and Soul published ten years later.

Lorraine Ash became pregnant late in her 30s, and as her due date approached, she became increasingly excited about the arrival of her first baby. On a routine visit to the doctor, in the eighth month of pregnancy, the technician frantically adjusted her machine, trying to find the heartbeat. More tests revealed that the baby had died of an infection, requiring a cesarean section. The expectant parents had to replace the excitement of a new baby with the emotions of a devastating loss.

The baby’s death crushed Lorraine’s understanding of her relationship with God, and unraveled her as a person. Just as maddening as the loss of her daughter was the feeling that the little girl, Victoria Helen, was still with her. The love she felt for her daughter refused to die, making it impossible to follow the advice of grief counselors and friends who urged her to let go and move on. So for the sake of her sanity, she made it her mission to include Victoria Helen into the family.

Because she was a professional writer, her impulse was to write about her journey. Her research put her in touch with many women who experienced similar grief but didn’t know how to talk about it. They, too, had been instructed to let go and move on. Lorraine Ash offered them a different approach – to include the deceased baby in their lives. Instead of letting go, she showed them how to use their love to take them deeper into the essence of who they were as loving human beings. The story of her loss, and her search for healing culminated in the memoir, Life Touches Life, in 2004.

After the publication of the memoir, her mission to find peace and spiritual truth continued. Through her research, she came into contact with sufferers of other losses and traumas. She realized that her spiritual approach to grieving and growing would help many of these people develop a deeper foundation. Lorraine discovered for herself and wanted to share with others that a devastating loss can be part of an amazing, loving life.

After years of research into wisdom literature, developing her own spiritual beliefs and understanding, and counseling people who were trying to absorb losses, she published a second book, Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life. Self and Soul goes beyond the event that instigated her search. In Self and Soul, she shares truths that could help not only bereaved mothers but anyone looking for a peaceful, powerful view of their place in the universe.

In modern times, when so many of us have disengaged from the packaged belief systems offered by religion, our place in the universe seems poorly defined. Self and Soul offers us the hard-earned lessons from an author whose suffering sent her on a pilgrimage to understand how she, and by extension, we, can find our own spiritual center.

Organization of the book and a lesson for memoir writers
Many scholars think that civilization is built on the foundation of Story. Traditional societies used lofty, stylized myths to teach fundamental lessons about being human. The Memoir Revolution modernizes that tradition, allowing us to apply the story-form to our own unique circumstances. The more I study memoirs and the wisdom that emerges from them, the more I have come to appreciate that stories light the way through the complexities of life.

By my definition, a memoir reveals a sequence of events, told as they unfold over time. Stylistic exceptions allow authors to move chunks of chronological around, using flashbacks, or interweaving two time frames, but in general, the reader is expected to follow the sequence of events.

At the end of a story, a final wrap-up called the denouement gives storytellers a chance to summarize their findings and offer lessons they’ve derived. In Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight she offers the wisdom of living through a stroke. Lorraine Ash’s memoir Life Touches Life ended with conclusions she drew after the stillbirth of her baby. However, she kept learning. Ten years after the publication of her first memoir, she published Self and Soul, a sort of book-length denouement in which she offers an extended version of the lessons she learned since the first.

The two books offer a fascinating model for any memoir writers who wonders if they are really ready to write their memoir, or if they need to take more time to grow. Lorraine Ash’s two books offer an elegant answer to that question. Write one memoir now, in which you express who you are and the best lessons you have been able to develop. And don’t stop growing. Use the lessons you have learned through the earlier journey, and continue to live, opening yourself to the next chapter of your life.


For an example of a memoir that reveals a search for truth as a chronological unfolding see Dinty Moore’s search for Buddhism  in The Accidental Buddhist, in which he develops a deeper understanding of Buddhism by traveling to various ashrams.

For another memoir about a spiritual journey through various themes, see Dani Shapiro’s Devotion.

More examples of memoirs that end with essay-like conclusions about lessons learned:

  • My Ruby Slippers, by Tracy Sealey about her search for her roots in Kansas, and her conclusions about the roots of the national culture that can be found in the Heartland.
  • Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes Courter which describes her childhood in foster care that ends with her plea for more wisdom and advocacy for children caught in that system.
  • Picking Cotton by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Canino about a man falsely imprisoned for a brutal rape, and released after DNA evidence proved his innocence. The book ends with a plea by accuser and accused to modify laws and raise awareness of the dangers of turning innocent men into victims of the justice system

Links for Lorraine Ash

or @LorraineVAsh .

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.

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

I Left my Heart In… Kansas? Memoir Review Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

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

(Click here for Part 1 of this review.  Coming soon: an original interview with Tracy Seeley)

The memoir “Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” chronicles Tracy Seeley’s search for herself. She travels from San Francisco back to her origins in the Midwest, tracks down old neighbors and friends of her family and asks them, “What was going on with Mom and Dad?”

Early in her inquiry she wearies of crunching into her parents’ motivation. The task doesn’t offer the insight she expected. She decides that to understand herself, she needs to understand Kansas. She lets us meet the people in Kansas who love their land, and she immerses us in their perspective. She digs deeper and researches the past. What was it like through the centuries to live in Kansas, or pass through Kansas, and finally to be passed over by travelers across the country who look down from 30,000 feet? Her search leads her back to the economic frenzy that drove people there in the nineteenth century to kill native inhabitants, plunder vast bison herds, and plow under the Great Plains.

She shows us the Heartland not through the eyes of an expert historian but through the eyes of a woman trying to understand herself. Subtly, gently, and almost inevitably, she expands up to another level and asks how Kansas fits into the psychology of the entire nation. Her charter to make peace between these two parts of the country is extremely important to her. Having grown up on the Great Plains and then lived in Connecticut and San Francisco, she now needs to unify these parts of the country in order to find her own peace.

Her quest for wholeness coincides with a media-declared rift of red and blue states, an adversarial picture that appears to draw us apart. I hate this split, and have my own longings to unite these apparently disparate aspects of our country. For one thing, as Abe Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I have another, more personal reason. I grew up in Philadelphia, and arrived in college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison as a self-proclaimed big city intellectual. After four years, I discovered that many of the people to whom I felt most authentically connected had grown up in the Midwest. They seemed more straightforward, and somehow disarmed my overly complex emotional defenses. So even though Tracy Seeley was searching for herself, I felt that she represented my interests as well. I leaned forward, page by page, as she turned the curiosity of an English professor toward solving the dilemmas of real life.

Search for self turns into a philosophy of life

Typical Coming of Age stories follow a fairly simple trajectory. A child sets out to become an adult. The satisfaction at the end results when the person has figured out how to face the world. Tracy Seeley’s memoir is not a typical Coming of Age story. It begins not through the eyes of a little girl, but a sophisticated college professor seeking to understand her origins. Her search starts as a psychological investigation. Then it expands to wider and wider circles, from her self to her family, her community, state, and nation, and finally Nature.

Many stories end with an exit ramp, called a “denouement” where, after the body of the action, the author and reader relax, say goodbye, and prepare to return to the real world. Tracy Seeley’s denouement is one of the most satisfying I’ve seen in memoirs. As she collects all the information she has gathered, the heartlands and coastlands become parts of one whole, just as people, nature, and place are all parts of each other. The conclusion of the story is not a set of logical facts, but a poetic impressionistic image of optimistic wholeness. When I first picked up the book, I suspended disbelief and entered her state of mind. By the end, I want to reread it so I can return there.

Her ending demonstrates the amazing, expansive possibilities for the memoir genre. Each book takes us deep into the workings of whatever is meaningful in the author’s world. If at the beginning of the memoir, the author starts out attempting to answer a philosophical question, the most satisfying conclusion is a philosophical answer.

The title and substance of “Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” plays on one of the most widely known stories in modern times. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy leaves her home in search for love. Her quest leads her to the city of Oz where she finds that the Wizard does not have all the answers after all. In the conclusion of that story, she realizes that the good qualities of life have been in front of her all along. Her parents do love her, but to appreciate that love she had to develop some qualities within herself. The story makes a powerful point for modern life. To find wholeness, we have to be willing to go both ways on the golden highway, to unite the worldly knowledge of city and university with the simplicity of nature and family. Ruby Slippers updates Wizard of Oz to modern times. It’s a remarkable achievement of philosophical art.

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

Other memoirs that focus on place
Colored People, Henry Louis Gates, West Virginia in Jim Crow south.
House on Sugar Beach, Helene Cooper, A privileged girl grows up in Liberia, Africa.
Thrumpton Hall, Miranda Seymour, a daughter explores the history of the English Country Manor where she grew up.

Writing Prompts, Place
What place made an impact on you? Changed you? Frightened you? Made you long to stay forever?

Write a scene about moving to a new place and feeling out of place.

Memoirs that end with a philosophical denouement
My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor
Here if You Need Me, Kate Braestrup

Writing Prompt, Great Dualities
How can you help the reader understand more about some great dilemma in your life, such as “right wing and left wing” or “religion versus spirituality,” “city versus country,” “black versus white”? Of course you may be tempted to back up your ideas by quoting ideologies or belief systems. Such idea-based reasoning might be good for normal conversation, but in stories, too many ideas jolt the reader out of suspension-of-disbelief. Set aside your ideology and theories and try to make your points through scenes, with dramatic tension, and realizations to help the reader identify with your dilemmas. Write one or even a sequence of scenes, complete with characters, dialog, historical context, that show how the dilemma tore at you, and how you reacted.

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 Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond

by Jerry Waxler

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

After you live for a few decades, you look back and find you have learned many lessons from your own School of Hard Knocks. When you read a memoir you have the privilege of attending someone else’s school, learning what they learned, gaining some of their wisdom. You can look back on their experience, too, and learn more from it in retrospect than you learned the first time.

In this post, I wrap up the last of the twenty lessons I found in Beth Kephart’s Slant of Sun. I have delved into this enjoyable, well-written book, a process I have grown accustomed to. After reading a memoir, I go back and consider it again. I hope you will do the same. By studying the lessons that other people learned in their School of Hard Knocks, you will gain the skill and courage to offer readers an insider look at your own.

Slant of Sun is a great example of a buddy book!

A mom loves her only son. They hang out together and share many, many hours. She is constantly trying to understand him. But this memoir is not a biography of him. It is about their relationship. He is important in relation to her and vice versa. They are buddies.

I notice certain, noteworthy features of books in which the protagonist is tightly focused on one other character. In addition to understanding each individual, you are also learning about the way they relate to each other. The relationship becomes a sort of third character. Look at how close these two are. He actually emerged from her body, and relies on her every minute, as intimate as a relationship can be. Slant of Sun focuses so tightly on this one other character, she subtitled the book One Child’s Courage.

Another example of a buddy book is Courage to Walk about Robert Waxler’s love and concern for his adult son. When I first read Courage to Walk I was surprised by the author’s attempt to get inside his son’s head. Now, after reading “Slant of Sun” I see the similarity. Obsessing on your child’s thoughts is part of being a parent.

Two more examples of buddy memoirs involve non-human friends: Alex and Me about Irene Pepperberg’s relationship with a parrot, and Marley and Me about John Grogan’s relationship with his dog.

Some relationship books show the dark side of interpersonal connections. Consider the destructive relationship between Leslie Morgan Steiner and her abusive husband in Crazy Love.

Writing Prompt
What individual in your life might make a strong character that would carry a chapter, or two, or an entire book? Try writing that person’s profile and a description of the relationship. What was your connection? How close were you? How did you treat each other? How much did you think about that person?


At the end of a story, the author’s job is to build a bridge to help the reader return from the world inside the book back out into the real world. This last segment is called the denouement. The end of memoirs can sometimes be a lesson learned, or a segue forward in time, taking the narrator from the younger life in the memoir out into the life of the memoir writer.

In Beth Kephart’s denouement, she shares her concern about the medical, family and community response to children in Jeremy’s situation, and the difficulties for a young mother of a child with special needs. Despite the fact that she isn’t an expert, I welcome her views. In my opinion, she has earned the right to speak authoritatively about the child mental health care system.

Many memoir authors take advantage of the denouement to offer lessons that have resulted from experience. At the beginning of the memoir, Here if You Need Me Kate Braestrup loses her husband in a freak auto accident. During the following years, she goes to school to become a minister, and then works for the Maine State Game Wardens, helping comfort survivors of deadly accidents and crimes. By the end of the book, Braestrup earns the right to draw conclusions about the most profound topics of good and evil, life and death.

In Three Little Words, Ashley Rhodes Courter describes her upbringing in the foster care system. By the end, she is speaking to groups to help raise awareness about improving the foster care system.

Writing Prompt
What conclusion have you drawn from the experiences in your memoir? Write a synopsis of these lessons, and consider if they might work at the end of your book, to share with readers things that they might be able to use. This “lessons learned” ending is especially relevant if you intend to give talks to audiences who might be interested in applying your experience in their own lives.

People age. Books don’t.

When I read Slant of Sun I was bonding with Beth and her son in an earlier time frame. Which is a strange bit of time travel, because it is 15 years later, and their lives have moved on. When I ask her questions about the book, in the interview which I will post next, I can feel her striving valiantly to return to that earlier time. Unlike a fiction writer, who can leave her characters behind, a memoir writer continues to live with her characters, forever.

Last year I read Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filopovic. She was 11 when she was catapulted to fame by the diary she kept of her experience in the war in Sarajevo. Ten years later, when I read the book, she was in college. I reached out to ask her a few questions and she politely declined. She wanted to grow up.

Even though we aspiring memoir writers cannot see the future, and don’t know what it will feel like to publish a book that captures a part of ourselves, these are good questions to ask yourself. Once a memoir is out in the world, you will have to live with it for a long time. As another memoir author, Bill Strickland, (Ten Points) told me in an interview, that someone came up to him and started talking about his past. The first time it happened he was horrified by the intrusion. Then he remembered, “No wonder they know. I told them.”

Writing Prompt
Write an imaginative story about what it will feel like in ten years when a reader asks you about a passage in your ten year-old memoir.

You’re neither too old nor too young

You don’t have to be old to write a memoir. Beth Kephart was in her thirties when she wrote hers. Another of my favorite memoirs, Publish This Book was written by 24 year old, Stephen Markeley. And don’t worry about being too old, either. The Invisible Wall was written by 93 year-old Harry Bernstein. Forget your age. Write the story.

Here are links to all the parts of my multi-part review of Slant of Sun by Beth Kephart and an interview with the author:

Use this memoir as a study guide: lessons 1 to 3

Lessons 4-5 from Beth Kephart’s Memoir, Slant of Sun

Four More Writing Lessons from Reading a Memoir

Memoir Lessons: Mysteries of emerging consciousness

Memoir Lessons: Moms, Quirks, Choices

Lessons from Kephart: Labels, Definitions, Language

Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond

Interview with Beth Kephart

Visit Beth Kephart’s Blog
Amazon page for “A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage” by Beth Kephart

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.