His Relationship to Girls Changed in this Scene

By Jerry Waxler

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

Henry Louis Gates grew up in a small town in West Virginia in the 1950s where he was taught he shouldn’t associate with girls until he married one. Then a fractured hip landed him in a hospital in a university town 60 miles away. During his protracted stay, with his leg suspended in traction, he was befriended by a minister who let him in on the good news that in some forms of Christianity, God and girls can peacefully coexist. By the time his hip healed, his mind had opened to a more liberal set of rules than the ones he had been taught as a child.

After I finished reading Gates’ memoir, “Colored People” I tried to understand why I related so empathetically with his life, and I kept returning to that scene in the hospital, which drew me in so vividly I felt I too had stopped by to encourage him to live as fully as possible. The more I think about the scene, the more power I find in it.

One thing that makes the scene memorable is the hospital’s distance from his home. He traveled far away to find wisdom, a story element that has echoes in many of the great stories of our culture, like Homer’s Odyssey, or the Wizard of Oz. I too left home, traveling a thousand miles away to college in order to find my own deeper meaning. So I feel an intuitive rapport with this notion that leaving town stimulates deeper thought.

Writing Prompt
What part of your memoir took place far from home? What realizations did you have on your journey?

His broken hip hurts, and his body is being stretched by traction. He also worries about falling behind in school, and wishes he was playing with his friends. These physical and emotional discomforts generate compassion, illustrating the lesson writing coaches have been telling me for years; discomfort and tension help readers relate to the protagonist.

When beginning memoir writers first explore memories, we may not know what to do with unsettling moments. Most of our lives we have skated around the regrets, traumas, weaknesses. But good memoir writing is different from the breezy overview you might tell a new acquaintance at a party. Memoir writing digs deeper, searching for the material that will convey an authentic account of your journey, complete with ups and downs.

Writing Prompt
In your own memoir, what scenes of physical or emotional pain can draw the reader in to caring about you?

Mysterious Strangers
Regular visits from kind, supportive adults brings this scene to life. A doctor realized how lonely Gates was, and stayed to play chess. A minister talked to him about religion and growing up. What a lovely gift these strangers offered Gates, not only giving him the comfort of companionship, but also helping him understand some things about life.

Writing Prompt
What advisors have helped you shift your beliefs? It could be a word from a stranger, as it was in Henry Louis Gates’ young life. Or an uncle, mentor, friend, teacher, or book. Write your ideas before you received the advice and after. Describe the scene when your idea-altering experience took place.

My writing example
I was working on a computer project at my first “real” dayjob at United Engineers. Then the project was canceled and I was crestfallen. A grizzled old engineer said to me, with a twinkle in his eye, “Nolo bastardo carborundum.” I looked puzzled. He said, “It’s fake-latin for ‘Don’t let the bastards wear you down.'” I roared with laughter, and discovered that with a little wisdom, a dash of humor, and the supporting hand of a fellow human being, you can get through situations that otherwise could make you miserable.

The impact ideas have on life
Before he went into the hospital, Gates believed that being around girls was the devil’s work. After talking to a visiting minister, he believed that God was fine with girls. This is an exciting example of the power of ideas. With hardly any external action, a change of mind profoundly influenced his goals and choices.

Ideas have always played an important role in my own life. In high school I believed I needed to accumulate knowledge in order to become an adult, so I studied hard. After a year in college, my idea changed. I believed it was up to me to fix the world, so I protested. By the end of those four years, my idea changed again. I believed that my actions didn’t have any influence on the world, and I collapsed into a tangle of despair. When I was 24, I stumbled upon a spiritually-oriented set of ideas that let me steer through the extremes. I believed what I did mattered to the people in my life, and that was enough to get me back on my feet and into the game of life. At each stage, my ideas affected the way I felt and the path I chose.

Yet, despite the crucial role that ideas played in my own life, I rarely hear them mentioned in writing courses. In this age of cinema and television, story writers are taught to focus on action. But that skips over one of the most important things in human experience, the way we think. Storytellers know the importance of the human thought-process, and for eons have been weaving their protagonist’s ideas into the action. Now I have to train myself to do the same.

I sift through piles of anecdotes. Taken one by one, these individual incidents do not add up to a compelling whole, so I look for the sequence that, like DNA encoding, binds isolated events together, maintaining forward motion while revealing inner truth. I believe to find the links between the episodes, we need to pay attention to our mental process.

Ideas told us what choices are available, and which ones are best. Ideas created the expectations of what was “supposed” to happen, and these expectations lead to our disappointment or joy. Ideas defined our judgment of other people. Discover within your ideas the forces that shaped you, and can shape the most compelling story.

Writing Prompt
Identify a few key ideas that drove you. Watch how they changed over time. For example, your religious ideas guide you through ethical choices. Your ideas about psychology helped you overcome barriers between people. Perhaps you decided to trust people instead of hate them, or realized that forgiveness helps the forgiver as much as the ‘forgivee.’ See if you can find specific moments or scenes when these ideas changed.

In a future essay, I’ll experiment with scenes from my own memory, and brainstorm ways that the scenes and the ideas interact.

For more about Henry Louis Gates’ contribution to African American Literature, try this link.

See the classic text on the relationship between beliefs and mental well being, “Existential Psychotherapy” by Irvin D. Yalom

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.

Steve at work – life lessons arise from conflict

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

I needed to work with Steve on a project. Since we had never worked together, I went to his cubicle to break the ice. As I approached his face darkened. He reached over, lifted his phone, and slammed it down, accompanied with a curse to drive home his point. “Shit!” he said to no one in particular, then looked up. “What do you want?” I don’t know when Steve decided he didn’t like me, but from that moment the deal was sealed.

For the last few years, I had been attending graduate school at night. My study of counseling psychology was teaching me how to sit quietly in an office and help clients cope with their stress. My situation with Steve was different. I was the one who was out facing the world, and I didn’t understand how to handle my hurt and frustrated feelings. I made an appointment with a therapist, and from our discussion I realized I have been avoiding conflict my whole life. But this time I couldn’t run away. I needed to deal with it, and that meant developing a new life skill.

So I did what I always do when things get tough. I bought a pile of books. At night I read about conflict resolution and the next day tried out my lessons in the “laboratory” at the office.

The most basic principle was to quit putting all the blame on the other guy. Looking at this situation as entirely his fault left me powerless to change it. Breaking out of the habit of blaming required a strange internal debate. “Of course it’s his fault,” I thought. And then I countered, “but that attitude does me no good.”

The second principle was to try to put myself in his position and imagine what the world looked like through his eyes. It was a mind expanding exercise, and while I obviously couldn’t know his view, speculating about it provided insights. After thinking about the situation with an open mind, I considered the possibility that I represented some sort of threat. I tried to look less threatening by smiling more and asking what I could do to help him.

Another technique I learned from my books was to make deposits into an “emotional bank account.” I hoped that by asking him about his family, I could establish rapport and increase the trust. Unfortunately, Steve blocked my emotional offerings right from the beginning.

For a year I tweaked my conflict resolution strategies. Nothing worked. To survive emotionally, I said supportive things to myself, like “This too will pass”, and “I can handle this.” I used deep breathing and muscle relaxation. Except for a couple of bad days, I kept my nose above water. Eventually, for issues unrelated to me, he left the company. Life returned to the ordinary pressures of the office, and I forgot about him, until I started looking for ways to write my memoir.

It’s hard to tell stories about life in an office when years keep rolling by, with nothing more to show for them than wrinkled skin and gray hair. And yet, ignoring those years doesn’t seem right either. As I ponder this storytelling conundrum, I believe the scenario with Steve provides a solution. Not only does this edgy situation provide a glimpse into how those years worked. It also provides some powerful lessons about what makes life worth living. Here are a few lessons I found by exploring this particular situation.

The characters in my life are real people
In good stories, all the characters have reasons for their actions. To discover these motivations, writing instructors suggest you develop a portrait of every character. Where did they grow up? What do they want? When I stretched beyond myself to see the world through Steve’s eyes, I was being forced to learn not only how to reduce conflict, but also to portray richer, more complex characters in my story.

Not everyone likes me
A world in which everyone liked me would seem so bland. I can add texture by learning this profoundly simple lesson in life: There are some people who think I’m stupid, nuts, edgy, a poor excuse for a human being. Accepting this fact makes me a more resilient person as well as a better storyteller.

I’ve grown
As I tried to cope with this office conflict, I had to exercise patience, and some of the other good qualities that elevate humans closer to angels. He forced me to learn and grow. All those years of plodding through life may have looked like they were going nowhere, but on some inner dimension, my character was evolving. The inner development of the character lingers in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.

I don’t see Steve’s eventual departure as a victory of good over evil. Rather I see it as a logical step in a longer story. He came, challenged me to grow, finished his work and moved on to help others find deeper meaning and greater strength. It turns out that Steve was one of my greatest teachers.

Writing Prompt
Consider an endless sequence of actions in your life, such as going to work, or school, or gardening, or getting your hair done. One way to represent repeated experiences in your memoir is to look for peak anecdotes that will represent the activity. Look for any anecdote that jumps out. See if you can tell it as a good story. If so, there’s a good chance you can use it to stand in as an example for all the repetitions.

Writing Prompt
Think of someone who really didn’t like you. If you feel safe, try writing a story from that person’s point of view. (If it doesn’t feel safe, try this exercise in fiction, changing names, hair color, or whatever is necessary to gain some distance.) What did that person see when they looked at you? Why was it okay from their point of view to see you that way? Now, still in their point of view, write a portrait of someone that person actually did like.

For one of the best observations about the working life I’ve ever read, consider this passage from Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

“It was all those people in the cars coming the other way,” she says. “The first one looked so sad. And then the next one looked exactly the same way, and then the next one and the next one, they were all the same.”

“They were just commuting to work.”

She perceives well but there was nothing unnatural about it. “Well, you know, work,” I repeat. “Monday morning. Half asleep. Who goes to work Monday morning with a grin?”

“It’s just that they looked so lost,” she says. “Like they were all dead. Like a funeral procession.” Then she puts both feet down and leaves them there.

I see what she is saying, but logically it doesn’t go anywhere. You work to live and that’s what they are doing. “I was watching swamps,” I say.

Recommended Books
Resolving Conflict Sooner, The powerfully simple 4-step method for reaching better agreements more easily in your everyday life,” by Kare Anderson

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey

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