Mom of Troubled Teens Tells Her Side of the Story

by Jerry Waxler

After Debra Gwartney’s divorce she packed up her two kids and moved a thousand miles to try to get them away from their father. She thought she was “starting over.” The new start however, was the beginning of a nightmare. In “Live Through This,” Gwartney recounts how her two daughters, age 12 and 14, dropped out of school, took drugs and slept in crash houses. With their tattoos, body piercings and heavy black makeup, Mom hardly recognized them. When she tried to reel them in, they withdrew further, until finally they hopped a freight train and moved to a different city.

There were many reasons I was interested in the story. For one thing, in my early twenties, I went through my own extreme rebellion, living in a garage on food stamps and not speaking to my parents for a year. In all the years since, I never tried to make sense of it from my parents’ point of view. Reading about another mom who watched her children fall apart revealed the other side of the story.

A parent suffering through the rebellion of a child is an important, under-reported facet of family life. Most kids rebel to some extent, and despite all the suffering and confusion that parents must feel, most of the social attention to the matter is limited to half measures and shared confusion. “Live Through This” provides a parent’s eye view of an emotional wrenching experience, as these girls hurl back in their mother’s face the life she was trying to build for them.

In addition to letting us see the girl’s bad behavior, Gwartney describes her own, including some glaring flaws in her parenting. She didn’t just break up with the girls’ father. She hated him so much she took the girls a thousand miles away, and throughout the hell of their rebellion she continued to do everything she could to turn them against their father. The story ought to be used as a textbook of how not to behave. And yet, while having screwed up so profoundly, Gwartney simply lets it all hang out.

In the book, she does not try to recruit us to hate her husband. She allows us to make our own decision. Nor does she justify her behavior in  a flurry of self-analysis and defense. She just tells the story. This turns out to be one of the hallmarks of powerful memoir writing. Tell the story and let the reader go for the ride. From that point of view, “Live Through This” is impeccable storytelling.

However, there is an aspect of the storytelling that aspiring memoir writers can learn from. Gwartney played fast and loose with chronology, as if she threw the pages up in the air, and didn’t take the time to assemble them correctly. In the middle of one scene, the narrative morphed into another time frame, and then from there, she might hop backward or forward, so quickly and with so little warning, I often lost track of where I was. She made me work far too hard to figure out where we were in time and space. Through the lurches, I kept reading because I loved  the underlying story. But it would have been far more enjoyable if she had held me hand and led me through the journey with more authority and grace.

Of course, storytelling does allow some breaks in chronological sequence, but to keep the reader immersed in suspension of disbelief, the author must deftly transition from one time frame to another. This usually involves far fewer leaps than there are in “Live Through This.” For example, in “Ten Points” by Bill Strickland, the author guides me through two well-defined time frames. In the present, the author attempted to win a cycling race. Inside himself, another story played out, in which he confronted the demons of his childhood. At all times, Strickland artfully let me know which timeframe I was in, and both stories, the cycling one in the present and the disturbing childhood scenes in the past let me maintain my sense of suspense, a sign of an effective technique.

In addition to well constructed flashbacks, another out-of-sequence technique is the essay-like focus that occasionally crops up in memoirs. For example, in the coming of age story “A Girl Named Zippy” by Haven Kimmel, the book is a chronological account of the author’s childhood. However, it is not strictly in order, and that’s okay because she controls my attention using other devices. For example, in one chapter, she focuses on the shenanigans of a particular friend. It is a gentle, barely discernible shift from story into essay style. Another example is “Seven Wheelchairs,” Gary Presley’s mainly chronological account of coming to terms with life from a seated position. In the chapter about his relationship with wheelchairs, he jumps out of his timeline to talk about the various contraptions he has relied on for mobility. He does this effectively, and I found myself just as engaged in that chapter as I was in the story, without a sense of disruption.

In general, most stories can and in my opinion should unfold in the same sequence they were lived. When the story moves along in that order, I jump on board and go with the flow. However, according to Brian Boyd, in “On the origin of stories” humans have evolved to grasp storylines. The capability is wired into our brains and we’re good at it. My ability to stick to Debra Gwartney’s underlying dramatic tension supplies a good example of this innate strength.

Debra Gwartney’s amazing journey offered me all the benefits that I enjoy from a memoir. And then in a fabulous closing scene, one of the best final lines I’ve read in a memoir, she redeemed all flaws. A good ending makes all the pain of the journey worthwhile. In fact, this is a fundamental notion of storytelling. The story’s tension primes the reader to crave release. Then in that moment when we cross the finish line, if we feel lifted and inspired, the way I did when closing “Live Through This,” we will race to recommend it to our friends.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene from your rebellion period when you were trying to step away or differentiate from your parents. Write one scene in which you were in flagrant violation of their rules. Write another in which you tried to explain to yourself or to them why you had to “do this” even though they couldn’t understand.

Click here to visit Debra Gwartney’s home page.

Note about wrapper stories
Bill Strickland’s technique of a story in the present that helps set up a story in the past is what I call a “wrapper story.” Another example is A. M. Homes search for her own genealogical past in “Mistress’s Daughter.” In “Color of Water” James McBride searches for his mother’s history. Such memoirs maintain my attention by artfully flipping back and forth between two stories, maintaining crisp, easy-to-follow dramatic tension throughout. A famous wrapper story was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which starts with sailors on a boat telling a story. The whole book takes place in the body of the story. Then at the end, the sailors come back to recount the way it worked.

Notes about Parent memoirs
Other memoirs that took me down a parent’s road were Robert and Linda Waxler’s “Losing Jonathan” and David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy.”

Notes about favorite endings
My other two favorite endings in memoirs were Matthew Polly’s, “American Shaolin” and Joan Rivers’, “Enter Talking.”

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.

Celebrity Lessons for Writers

by Jerry Waxler

I picture Steve Martin in dozens of situations. I’ve seen him tell jokes on talk shows, woo a woman in the movie “Roxanne,” and anxiously fuss over his daughter in “Father of the Bride.” The more I think about Steve Martin, the more I remember him. It feels like we have been hanging out together for years. So when I heard about his memoir, “Born Standing Up,” I should have jumped for joy. But instead, my impulse was to run away. One reason for this aversion is that I prefer the lives of “ordinary” people. Another reason is that I’ve been burned.

Years ago I purchased a memoir by Ruth Gordon, an actress whose performances enchanted me in movies like “Harold and Maude.” I looked forward to reading more about her, but the prose was so boring, the situations so leaden, I actually returned the book for a refund. From that experience I formed the prejudice that celebrity memoirs are on the shelf because the author is famous, not because the book is good.

My conclusion was based on a sample size of one, hardly an impressive scientific test. Furthermore, famous people exert enormous power in our culture, and unless I break down and read their memoirs, I’m going to remain ignorant about them. So when an online friend suggested that Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up” was authentic and introspective I decided to give it a try. It turned out to be an excellent book about a boy’s climb from ordinary childhood to international fame.

Desire, Effort, Sacrifice

When Martin was a child, he looked at the stage and knew he wanted to be on it. At first he thought he could achieve success by performing magic acts. Later he incorporated comedy into his routine and then banjo playing. Basically, he didn’t care what he did, as long as he performed. Of course, reaching the stage was only the beginning. To be invited back, he had to learn how to please audiences. It was a long journey.

Writing Prompt

Consider your own life achievements. What sacrifices and hardships did you make in order to achieve some greatly desired goals?

Writers want to reach the public, too

Most writers think they will be finished when they type the last word. They seldom anticipate the public leg of their journey. And yet, to succeed we must reach out to readers. Many memoir writers are interviewed on radio, speak at meetings, and greet people at book signings. People want to learn more about us. So we writers need to face audiences gladly, learn to please them, and damp down our sensitivity to the weird mix of scrutiny, criticism, and indifference.

Hardly any of us will become famous in the way Steve Martin is, and yet his memoir provides insight into our situation. Like so many successful artists and performers, Steve Martin claims his fame had more to do with persistence than talent. He relentlessly pursued public attention, and refused to accept defeat. Week after week, he found an open microphone or a low paying gig, stood in front of the crowd, failed miserably, tried to learn from his experience, and did it again.

Famous writers often tell similar stories. Stephen King persisted despite many rejections, and I’m beginning to believe that willingness to reach for the public is indeed the entry fee. Martin sought fame as if his life depended on it. It makes a good story. His desire established the momentum. We accompany him through those years as he tried to fulfill that desire despite seemingly impossible odds.

As writers, we need to develop this dramatic tension in the stories we write. And to succeed, we also need to follow the dramatic tension in real life. By following our desire, we make choices and take chances that lead us further towards our dream of communicating with readers.

Writing prompt

What tenacious drive did you follow? Making babies.. your career.. your art or sport? Write a scene of rejection or failure, and show how you picked up and kept going.

Even spectacular success becomes just another chapter in a long life

His fame grew so large he was performing in large halls where he was barely visible from the back. And yet, surprisingly, even during this period of exploding fame, he continued to experience terrible anxiety attacks, private hells he can’t really describe. He was intensely lonely and scared much of the time.

Then Martin walked away from comedy and shifted to movie making. He says he never looked back. He even claims he forgot about those years when he was trying so hard to earn a living by making people laugh. Considering how much psychological pain he suffered during this period, it makes sense that he would forget it when he moved on to the next chapter in his life. Later, when he tried to write about it, this period came into focus and took its rightful place in the whole journey of being Steve Martin.

This is an excellent example of the way life really works. When we move on to a new challenge, a new city or relationship or career, we often have trouble remembering the old one. We don’t even know we’ve forgotten. The years are simply gone. By writing we can re-integrate those lost parts, making ourselves more whole.

Did it for you dad

Martin’s story includes a tragic portrayal of his relationship to his father. He could never please his dad, and so he kept wondering what he could do to impress the old man. When his dad was close to death, Martin reached out to him and said, “I did it for you, dad.” Then turning to the reader he says, “I should have said, ‘I did it because of you.'” In other words, he became a successful comedian in order to break past his dad’s relentless disapproval.

By sharing this intimate moment, Martin proves the point that celebrities are people. The work of a memoir is to offer that humanity to readers. And so, I’m glad I read this book about a celebrity, who was also a real human being, who wanted the same things I want, and who was later willing to take the time to go back, organize those experiences and share them with me in his memoir.

Please comment about your best or worst celebrity memoir, or your experience with tenacity.

Another memoir “Enter Talking” by Joan Rivers also highlights the shocking tenacity needed to go from obscurity to fame. She also endured years of hardship and rejection. To read my essay about Joan Rivers‘ tale, click here.

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.