Two Types of Trainings in Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

In a famous scene from Star Wars, when warrior Luke Skywalker was learning how to fight, his mentor told him to close his eyes and “feel the force.” The training was a crucial step in the young man’s journey and a perfect demonstration that heroes need to learn skills in order to succeed.

To see how this applies to memoir writing, consider the brilliant, detailed treatment of training and mentors in Andre Agassi’s memoir, “Open.” To become proficient as a tennis champ, Agassi relied heavily on sport trainers. In his description of his training, Agassi offers us a bonus, demonstrating the distinction between two fundamental types of training. One type could be called “fight training” relevant for battle. In his case, the battle was tennis. The other form of training was his ordinary schooling, which was supposed to teach him how to live in peacetime, if he had stuck with it. His struggle to balance these two types of training became a key dramatic tension in his memoir.

Tension between School and Sports

As a teenager, Agassi was sent away to live in a special high school for aspiring tennis champions. He only attended ordinary classes for a few hours a day and the rest of the time he practiced to become a fighting machine on the tennis court. He hated the mundane schoolwork and pressured his trainer to let him drop out. After Agassi quit, he became even more immersed in tennis. He listened to his coaches and worked hard, constantly striving to succeed.

His progress, at first glance, seems like a perfect model for a successful life: study, challenge yourself to get ahead, and rise to the top of your field. Despite Agassi’s success on the tennis court, he had the nagging regret that he had missed one of the foundations of being a human being. His lack of general education did not interfere with his ability to earn a living but it gradually revealed itself as a missing piece in his heart. When he began to search for fulfillment off the tennis court, he tried to fill in this piece, not by going back to school himself but by building a school that would give this opportunity to others.

Writing Prompt

Write about your own two types of training. Consider the type of training that prepared you for battle. Perhaps you were a soldier and you really did have weapons training, or an athlete, a violinist, or any other skill that you used to make your way in the world. Show scenes of the warrior training, including classrooms, coaching sessions, discussions with mentors.

If you can’t think of any obvious “warrior training” loosen your definition and use metaphors to search for your warrior side. For example, if you went to business school or fashion school, imagine it prepared you to go forth to do battle in your career. If you engaged in social activism, or fighting against poverty or ignorance, what training helped you fight these “battles”? If you engaged in sports for fun, write a scene of those competitive situations to see what warlike aspects of yourself you can reveal. Or perhaps your warrior nature is expressed in board and computer games. Such activities are inherently competitive. You win, they lose. Write a scene about these skills and activities, to see if they can reveal more about that aspect of your experience.

In the peacetime type of training, how did you learn to live with people, socially, understanding your culture, your home and hobbies, and the less competitive aspects of life. What lesson or experience gave you the wisdom to be smarter about just being yourself? What mentors, beliefs, books, or classrooms helped you become a wiser person, easier to live with, more helpful to your community, family, and friends?

When and how did you feel torn between the practical form of training and the more general, peaceful one? Which aspect was over-accentuated, and which under?

When have you passed the training along, paying it forward, or returning to your community to share your learning with others?

Note
Another example of the way training can change lives, is, The Pact by Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, Rameck Hunt in which three boys in the ghettoes of north New Jersey band together to overcome their environment and became doctors.

Note

This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”

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.

Myths Suggest a Universal Template for Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

To share our life story, we first explore our interior landscape, searching for information that will make sense to ourselves. But when we try to explain our past to readers, it must do better than simply make sense. It must be interesting. So writers go on another quest, looking for techniques that will help them tell a good story. But not all of us know how to do that. Take me for example. Despite years of consuming stories, I didn’t know the first thing about creating one.

My first foray into the nature of storytelling came from a weighty book called simply “Story” by Robert McKee. McKee, a writing teacher, explained the steps needed to create a screenplay. His matter-of-fact approach gave me hope that I could learn enough about the structure to perhaps someday create my own.

My next burst of understanding came from Joseph Campbell’s “Hero of a Thousand Faces.” Campbell’s explanation was based on a lifetime of studying world mythology. From his complex research he drew elegant conclusions about the importance of storytelling for human society.

I also attended workshops which taught me the various components of stories, such as characters, dialog, and plot. In one workshop, Jack Lule, a professor at nearby Lehigh University, shared his insights into the way mythology can help explain why some news stories resonate with public interest and some fall flat. He wrote about this topic in his book  “Daily News, Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of Journalism.”  See my article on Jack Lule’s talk about myths and news.

All these parts of the storytelling puzzle fascinated me but I couldn’t figure out how to put them all together. Then I hit paydirt. The book “Writer’s Journey” by Chris Vogler explained how storytellers and mythmakers have been following a template since the beginning of recorded history. From the basic system outlined by Chris Vogler, I saw the parts of stories more clearly and began to form ideas about how I could apply these principles to my own life.

At first I was surprised by the simplicity of his ideas, but over time grew to see them as an inevitable connection of all humans throughout civilization. From that point of view, it made perfect sense that mythology is loaded with universal story telling devices. For example, here are some of the techniques that could be applied to memoir writing.

Mentors, Trainers and Training
Weapons, Weapon Masters
Talismans
Potions
Shape shifting
Chosen Clan, Allies
Coming Home or Nostoi

Some of these mythmaking devices look fanciful, completely disconnected from real life. And yet, with a little imagination, you can see how these techniques might highlight subtle aspects of your own story. To illustrate how this works, I will point out echoes of these mythological structures, suggested by Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open,” and then offer suggestions about how you can use them yourself.

In following posts, I will focus on each of these topics, give examples, and offer writing prompts for your own memoir in progress.

Note

This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”

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.

Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to use your story to heal, connect and inspire, .

As long as I can remember, I have been trying to figure out who I am. In high school, I thought I had solved my identity problem by falling in love with math. But despite my proficiency in advanced placement calculus, life remained a mystery. In college, I moved to physics, hoping the laws of the material universe held the key, but Newton’s laws and Maxwell’s equations left me ignorant about who I was. I broadened my inquiry to include history, literature, and music. Even then, I still couldn’t answer the simple question, “Who am I?”

In my 20s I turned to spirituality, in my 30s to career, in my 40s to self-help and psychology, and in my 50s I thought I could write my way out of my jam. But like scratching an itch on a phantom limb, no matter how hard I rubbed, I was never able to relieve the pressure. It was only when I began to read memoirs and write my own that I began to find answers to my perennial question.

To write a memoir, I peer into my memory and pull together facts and scenes. Then I watch myself take shape on the pages. Within that story emerge the components of self and identity that have eluded me for so long. Depending on the angle of vision, I discover many dimensions of self, each one offering insight, validation, and a different way to make sense of my journey on earth. Here are ways that memoir reading and writing have helped me discover my self.

“Coming of Age” — the Journey to adulthood

Memoirs about Coming of Age explore the period when a young person tries to understand who they are supposed to become. First they learn about themselves from parents, siblings, neighbors, and friends. Then they crawl, stumble, and race in various directions, until they finally find ground firm enough to support their weight. Here are several Coming of Age memoirs that have shown me how other people did it.

Examples:

Frank McCourt, “Angela’s Ashes.” McCourt grew up in Ireland with a father steeped in alcohol. The book is all about a boy learning who he is and how he is supposed to head out into life.

Jeanette Walls, “Glass Castle.” She went from ragamuffin adventurer child to successful television personality, two extremely different identities. Thanks to great writing, she turns her struggle into a wonderful read, but underneath it all, she is traveling the same road we all must, to go from zero to 20.

Mark Salzman, “Lost in Space.” Salzman shares his obsessive approach to growing up, learning Karate and Chinese language on his journey from boy to man.

Haven Kimmel, “A Girl Named Zippy.” An ordinary girl from a small town proves that growing up, even when uneventful, contains plenty of drama and importance.

My Coming of Age

I had a relatively healthy childhood. I lived with both my parents and regularly visited both sets of grandparents who lived a half hour from my home. Neither of my parents were addicted, or abusive, or suffered from mental illness. We weren’t too poor or too rich. My studious habits and love of science fit perfectly with my upbringing as a pharmacist’s son. By the time I left for college, my self-image had fixated on a specific and well-formed plan. I knew i would become a doctor. My older brother was already in medical school and I thought all I had to do was follow his lead. When my plan fell apart, so did I, sending me on a decade-long journey to find a new plan.

Writing Prompt

Describe your own Coming of Age. When you reached early adulthood, what messages about yourself had you incorporated into the story of who you were and where you were heading?

More ways that reading and writing memoirs help you find your identity:

Melting pot and cultural identity

Many memoirs teach about the power of the Melting Pot – leaving behind your, or your ancestors’ identity and finding one you can share in your new, blended culture.

Write: What was your own journey, and the journey of your parents and grandparents to identify as members of a modern culture?

Shifting sands of time

After you reach adulthood, and embark on the true journey of you, the world keeps changing, the people around you change, and even your body changes. All these developments require modifications and amendments to your story-of-self.

Write: What changes in self-concept have taken place through the course of your adult life?

Spirituality and religion

While the traditional view of “religion” placed you firmly within the definition of your religion of birth, many of us in the 21st century seek our concept of self in a more universal set of beliefs known as “spirituality.” By writing your story and reading others, you can find and define your identity along these lines

Healing and rebuilding from traumas

Writing a memoir offers you an opportunity to change your frame of reference from being the victim of your own life, to becoming its author. By crafting the words that describe your evolution as a person, you can gain control and develop inner strength and wisdom to help you heal and resolve issues from the past.

Write: What events or circumstances in your life do you regret? Instead of trying to erase them from memory, use your creative mind to forge a story of survival, courage, and wholeness.

See my article on the recovery of self-concept after trauma by clicking here.

Re-storying after loss

After you’ve lost someone dear to you, your life must go on without that person. Reconstructing your self-concept in their absence requires deep work, sometimes real convalescence as you reshape your story-of-self.

The identity of geography

While we think our self-concept goes with us wherever we go, many memoirs tease out the profound influence place can have on our image of who we are. In Song of the Plains by Linda Joy Myers, and Ruby Slippers by Tracy Sealey, the authors explore the journey from heartland to coast and back again. In Jew Store by Stella Suberman, the family shifts its identity from urban to rural America.

The evolving relationship to gender and sexuality

In my younger days, sorting out all the variables of gender identity and sexuality seemed like a great puzzle. Through the decades, so many more options and variables have been added. From the tidal wave of sexual liberation in the 60s, to the cultural shift in male-female relations in the second half of the twentieth century, to the great blurring of gender identity in the 21st century, our relationship to these supposedly fixed features keeps changing. And I’ve found yet another shift in my relationship to gender and sexuality in older years. To find the true you  beneath the every changing sands of time, what better way than authoring your story.

Go wider and deeper in your relationship to the “Other”

Your self concept exists in relationship to the people around you. In an community or primitive tribe, you would have defined your Self as “someone who belongs to this group.” In today’s churning, shrinking world, we are challenged to include “outsiders.” Since our group is now diverse, it throws our own identity into question. If “I am a member of this group” I need to understand who these people are. Memoirs take you inside the experience of this enormous diversity and turn your global neighbors from strangers into friends. In the process, your own notion of self-identity expands, extending beyond the cultural constraints of people who look exactly like you.

Deepen your insight into the introspective voice

The only way to know other people’s thoughts is either by what they say, or what we guess. When I was growing up and trying to understand people, I read literature, which unfortunately only gave me insight into the characters invented by fiction writers. By developing a familiarity with the memoir genre, you are ushered into the introspective world of the people around you. And by writing your own memoir, you challenge yourself to become more aware of the narrative you tell yourself.

To read more about the psychological notion of self-concept, read my article on Mental Health Survival Guide

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Memoirs Show Two Sides of the Islamic Revolution

by Jerry Waxler

I have always loved escaping into a good book. In my younger years, I escaped into the invented world of fiction. Nowadays, I escape into the lives of real people, through whose eyes I see a different view of my own world. Two memoirs I read within the same month provide a perfect example of this educational benefit. Ed Husain’s “The Islamist” took me inside the Islamist movement in Britain, and Nazara Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” showed life in Iran under Islamist rule. The knowledge I learned in one book deepened my understanding of the other, amplifying the value of each.

Ed Husain, “The Islamist”

Ed Husain was a teenager in Great Britain in the early 1990s. His parents and most of his neighbors were immigrants from Bangladesh. In fact, he didn’t have any white friends. His family’s spiritual approach to the Muslim religion cultivated a prayerful, almost mystical atmosphere in his home life. Then, as a teenager, Husain fell in with a crowd of boys from the Indian sub-continent who felt prayer was obsolete. Their goal was to overthrow Westernized governments and create the kind of world God intended, one all-encompassing Islamic state. At first, Husain’s loyalty was torn between his parents and his new friends. Gradually he aligned with his activist peers, fighting against Western values such as freedom and democracy.

The Islamists didn’t want their anti-Western message to be the dominant one. They wanted it to be the only one. When other activities were scheduled on campus, Husain and his friends stayed up late into the night creating plans to disrupt the competing event. They agreed in advance on the lies they would tell to make themselves look innocent and divert attention from their predatory practices. Whenever pressed on their unethical or manipulative behavior, they quickly shifted the conversation to global politics, claiming all their actions were caused by colonialism. I was especially intrigued by their coaching to “speak sharply,” to create an aura of fury and righteousness around their words. Between their angry tone, their rehearsed lies, and their instant shift to global politics, they controlled, and won, debates among the young Muslims on campus who were struggling to find their own path.

Azar Nafisi, “Reading Lolita in Tehran”

After reading about Ed Husain’s firebrand belief that Islamic law should take over the world, I read a memoir by Azar Nafisi, an Iranian girl who grew up under the secular government of Shah Pahlavi. The Shah promoted Western culture and violently suppressed opposing Muslim groups, earning a reputation as a ruthless tyrant in some circles and a forward-looking leader in others.

Taking advantage of the respect afforded to women in Iranian society, Nafisi attended college in the United States to study English Literature. Like many other intellectuals in the 1970s, she took part in the anti-U.S. demonstrations that pervaded campuses in the wake of the Vietnam war. She rallied against Western culture and especially agitated for the removal of Shah Pahlavi who was denounced as a “pawn of the West.” In a classic case of “be careful what you wish for,” within a few years, her revolutionary dream came true. Shortly after she returned to Iran in 1979, the Shah was deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini took over, bringing into power an Islamist government similar to the one Ed Husain would be advocating 15 years later.

Iran’s fundamentalist rulers quickly squeezed out so-called “decadent elements.” Reminiscent of the excesses of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, bands of armed young men patrolled the streets looking for women who dared walk with an unrelated man, who had a wisp of hair showing from beneath her veil, or who possessed cosmetics in her handbag. Women were flogged, imprisoned, and executed for such crimes. Nafisi lost her teaching position for refusing to wear the veil.

Two sides of the same page

The two books cover the Islamist movement from two entirely different perspectives and in two vastly different styles. Husain’s journey from boy to man leads him to street corners where edgy, pressured boys hand out fliers and engage in aggressive rhetoric. Later, after Husain distances himself from the movement, he begins a historical investigation trying to tease apart these two threads of his religion. In ancient writings, he discovers the religion of his father, the one that encourages an introspective, worshipful relationship to God. Husain also tracks the political aspect of the religion, and shows how it emerged in the twentieth century through the inflammatory writings of a few men who have had an increasing influence, especially on young Muslims in recent decades. While these men claim ancient authority, Husain finds their thinking to be more closely aligned to Karl Marx than to the Koran.

Nafisi is driven by ideas, too, but of a very different variety. She seeks her wisdom in English Literature. On her tongue, passages from Vladimir Nabokov and F. Scott Fitzgerald come alive, providing a rich poetic subtext to her own narrative. Her compatriots are the young women who have been forced by the Islamist Revolution to hide their femininity and enter the university through a separate door so they can be searched for cosmetics. When her girls come to a private literature class held in her home, they remove their scarves and Nafisi sensually describes their locks of hair. She bites into pastry, pours coffee over ice cream, and, above all, revels in the delicious pleasures of her beloved literature. Whereas Husain’s investigation is done with the protection of the democratic freedoms of Great Britain, Nafisi’s drama plays out in a police state, where students are seized and held in secret and summarily executed in the night because they showed signs of “Western decadence.”

The Muslim religion doesn’t need to be this way

In college, when Husain saw a boy murdered, he realized his terrible mistake. He started to suspect Islamism wasn’t promoting religion after all, but was merely using religious ideas to promote a political agenda. Trying to clarify these conflicting ideas, he moved to the Middle East to learn Arabic so he could read the Koran in its original language. In the Prophet’s teachings, he found an introspective, mystical religion which teaches a personal relationship with God and respect for people, including women and non-Muslims. Based on his findings, Husain returned to the prayerful beliefs of his parents. Through his writings, public appearances, and participation in the British government, he promotes democratic ideals, and raises awareness of the dangers of this divisive movement.

Two books weave a fascinating story

Before I read these books, I only knew about Islamism and life inside Iran from news bites and articles. After accompanying each author through years of personal, in-depth experience, I understand so much more. On one end of this matched set, I saw the Islamist ideas Ed Husain found so invigorating and urgent. I felt his pulse quicken as he rose to the challenge of dominating the world. On the other end, I saw how these very ideas were forged by the men of Iran into bars that imprisoned Azar Nafisi and her students, and stole their freedom and dignity.

The End

Writing Prompt
If you have been part of a political or a religious movement, your memories might seem insignificant, as if you were swept up in something of which you were a tiny part. But these events may have affected millions of people. Your feelings and observations as a believer and participant could offer a valuable contribution to social discussion. List or journal a few notes about the forces that influenced your life and look for scenes that would portray these experiences in your memoir.

Note
For another book that sheds light on the difference between the Muslim faith and the Islamist movement, read Greg Mortenson’s memoir, Three Cups of Tea. Click here for my essay on that powerful story.
Find meaning through service” or “Making peace with the peasants of Pakistan

Book Links
The Islamist, Why I became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left by Ed Husain

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Note
As Husain was growing up to become a young man, he was swept up in a political movement that preached not only the domination of the world, but also the domination of women. This reminds me of another memoir I read, a year ago. Frank Schaeffer, on his way through adolescence, also experienced an exploding interest in ideas that place women in a subservient position. Schaeffer, author of “Crazy for God” grew up in a spiritually oriented Christian commune in Switzerland in the 1960s. As he entered adulthood, his focus shifted from God to women’s reproductive systems. Using his father’s extensive political connections, Schaeffer brought his intense interest in abortion into the heart of U.S. politics, where they took root in the religious right. Maybe Freud was right. Maybe it is all about sex.

See my article about Frank Schaeffer’s memoir by clicking here: One man’s battle with sexuality changed the world

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Answers to Frequently asked questions about “How to write a memoir”

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third entry in my series of answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Memoir Writing. These are some of the questions I hear about how to write a memoir.

Why does my past feel vague or ordinary?

As our days slip into the past, we toss the memories into the storage bins of mind where they grow dusty and tangled. As we look back on them in their disorganized state, naturally they look unkempt. In raw form, memories are merely a conglomeration, not a story.

When someone tells you about any event, whether a baseball game, a childhood memory, or a tour of duty on a battlefront, your interest will be generated as much by the shaping of the story as by the actual experience.

What turns life into Story?

To recreate your story, you root through the pile, pull out bits, line them up, and link them together. That is an introspective art, requiring frank exploration through old dreams and experiences. To create an interesting story from these parts, you need to develop storytelling skills by attending writing conferences and workshops, reading books about writing, and reading memoirs. Then practice, practice, practice.

Start to gather the events of your life into chronological order, and write the scenes as if you are there. Then look for the motivations and obstacles that caused you to solve problems and grow. When stirred in the right proportion, these ingredients create a magical potion to transport readers to an alternate reality.

How do successful authors improve the readability of their work?

All successful writers hone language skills to present readable prose that makes sense and keeps readers reading. Here are some of their ingredients:

—    Metaphors
—    Speculation about what others were thinking
—    Humor
—    Background material about the community and times

In addition to language arts, you will stimulate your readers’ emotions by using “emotional arts.” For example,

—    Guide the reader along lines of the protagonist’s desire
—    Offer glimpses of frustration or foreboding
—    Build up suspense before revealing solutions
—    Include only scenes that contribute to dramatic impact

Can I embellish scenes to make my story more interesting?

Memoir writers employ a variety of methods to make memories more readable. Some examples:

—    Combine several minor characters into one
—    Combine or prune repetitive incidents into one that represents the pattern.
—    Sharpen a scene by guessing at details, such as the color or style of clothing.
—    Invent specific dialog to convey the essence.

Depending on where you draw the border between truth and art, you might love these techniques or hate them. Since no governing body can dictate whether they are right or wrong, you must choose your own path. Whichever way you decide, you will explicitly state your contract with your reader in the front matter, explaining your attitude towards composites and accuracy.

Should I use flashbacks?

Once you understand the straight story, there are several reasons to modify the sequence:

—    Sneak backstory into a flashback.
—    Dive into the thick of things. Then rewind to the first event. – “In medeas res”
—    Bounce back and forth between two characters’ points of view
—    Essays follow the logic of ideas, not a chronology of events.

If you see a perfect opportunity to write out of order, take it. But if you want to keep it simple and straightforward, that’s okay too.

Other answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Memoir Writing

Frequently Asked Questions about Published Memoirs

Frequently asked questions about “Should I write a memoir?”

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.

Life’s desires create the chapters of our story

by Jerry Waxler

Every time I finish reading a memoir, I wonder how the author turned life into a story. After years of trying, I believe I have found a simple formula. Each book follows the author from the seed of some desire, through the journey, until they achieve their goal. Now all I need to do is apply that formula to my own memories. For every desire that propelled me, I search for the path it forced me to travel.

When I review my life, I immediately see my desire to become an adult. I remember that journey well because I had to struggle so long and hard to make it. Many aspects of early life eluded me. I couldn’t figure out how to relate to my family, or my peers. I couldn’t figure out sex, or money, or where to live. As soon as I was able, I moved 1,000 miles, from the east coast to the Midwest, and when that wasn’t far enough, I moved to the other coast, 3,000 miles from Philadelphia.

We all face this fundamental need to grow up, so it’s not surprising that some of the most popular memoirs of our era have been about the complex, sometimes disturbing process of Coming of Age. For example, Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle,” and Mary Karr’s “Liar’s Club,” all guide us through that period in the author’s life.

When we finally reached adulthood, we embark on the long middle, when career and family carry us along for decades. My long career journey, from foundry worker to technical writer and programmer, then on to graduate school for counseling psychology took up most of my life, a journey so long and complex I can only make sense of it by looking back. Amidst those years, I traveled a number of other important paths, each driven by some need for love, survival, success. The desires were different, but the cycle was the same: I wanted. I tried. I overcame obstacles. This cycle, repeated dozens of times, provided the raw material for stories through the middle of life.

Then aching knees and sagging skin announced the passing years. At first I clung to youth, creating the stereotypical mid-life crisis. Time moved further and soon, I faced a new challenge. At 62 years old, I must invent myself again, adapting to a new stage of body-mind development. I dub this period my Second Coming of Age.

To prevent some of my earlier errors, and hopefully smooth my path, I scan for stories through the years, bringing me to today. What desires are creating the next chapter of my life, right now? I make a list. More than ever, I want to “give back” to society. I also thirst for spirituality. And my passion for creativity, rather than fading, continues to intensify.

It turns out that writing my memoir satisfies most of these desires. Writing gives me a daily dose of creativity and skill-building. It helps me become more psychologically tuned to my self and my world. And it gives me opportunities to connect with writers and readers in a meaningful way. It even brings spiritual rewards. As I continue to discover the protagonist of my memoir, I look for deeper principles that will help me make sense of the entire book of my life.


Writing prompt

List the things you desired or needed during your first Coming of Age. Pick one desire and list the obstacles that stopped you from achieving that thing. Now write a scene that shows you facing and overcoming that obstacle.

Writing Prompt
List desires that are motivating you now. (For example, learning your heritage, connecting with readers, improving your credentials, satisfying a creative urge, serving a cause.) Pick one, and list the obstacles. Write a scene that shows you facing and overcoming one of these obstacles.

Link: See my article on Maslow’s Hierarchy for another discussion of the needs of human beings.

Note
The universal stages of life were explored in the Twentieth Century by psychologist Erik Erikson in his stages of Psychosocial development.

His stages of psychosocial development continue to inspire psychology students to slap their head and saying “Of course!”

Note

William Shakespeare said it superbly in an often quoted line from “As You Like It”

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ brow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” – As You Like it, Jaques (Act II, Scene VII, lines 139-166)

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).

Notes

Click here for Curtis Smith’s home page.

Click here for Philadelphia Stories Home Page

Princeton Student transfers to the School of Hard Knocks or Learning Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple

by Jerry Waxler

Every week, the television show “Kung Fu,” opened the doors of a magic kingdom in which the hero, a peaceful warrior named Kwai Chang Caine, avoided violence except when he needed to save innocent people from persecution. Then, he crushed his opponents. Dreamy flashbacks showed Caine with his teacher, Master Po, in an exotic oriental temple. When the student was ready to go into the world, he lifted a kettle of red hot embers between his forearms, forever burning the Shaolin Temple into his skin and my mind.

Recently, I saw a memoir “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly, a young man who dropped out of Princeton to study Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple in China. I was stunned to learn the place was real and even more astonished that it still existed. At first I resisted reading the book, afraid the real world might ruin my fantasies. Finally curiosity won. I jumped in to “American Shaolin” and kept turning pages to the end.

Matthew Polly left his Ivy League school, and traveled to a small town in China, where he moved into a small sparsely furnished room, took a vow of celibacy, and began his studies. The memoir contained many interesting themes: a search for identity, for spiritual meaning, for the soul of China, and it was a book about men and fighting.

What are men really like?

I’ve never understood girly-girls. Their world view seemed as inaccessible as say, inhabitants of the planet Venus. That was before I started reading memoirs. Now I can see into the mind of anyone who takes the time to write about themselves, expanding my insight across gender lines in a way I never considered possible.

It turns out, I don’t know much about gender-drenched men, either, having lived a watered-down version of masculinity. I never played sports, never was in a fight, never served in the military, never hung out in bars. Matthew Polly’s book has taken me inside a more masculine world than the one I inhabit, and now I know more about that half of the world, too.

From Polly, I learned that some things about men remain consistent across drastically different cultures. For example, after a hard day of strength, agility, and fight exercises, Shaolin monks went out drinking. Talking shop about their day’s practice, their conversations also included that favorite male topic, women, demonstrating the influence of lust across cultural lines.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene when you were attracted to or repelled by a stereotyped male or female trait, such as “too macho” or “too cute.” In the same scene, or another one, write how you felt about your own gender traits?

Wooing and Other Bargaining

Despite his vow of celibacy, Matt Polly did occasionally try to woo a Chinese girl. His attempted liaisons were complicated by four decades of Communist party propaganda that taught Chinese citizens to beware of westerners. The girls were suspicious of Matt and at the same time attracted to him, providing a weird, intriguing mix of politics and sexuality.

On one occasion, he had a hot date the night before an important fight. During dinner, his coach created such an embarrassing scene the girl walked out in frustration. Afterwards, the coach said to Matt, “It’s just as well. If she stayed it would have made your legs weak.” When Polly did finally sleep with a Chinese woman he described the scene with lyrical tenderness. But then she expected him to marry and he fell back to another famous male stance, fear of commitment.

Trying to get a girl into bed was not the only maneuvering going on. One-upsmanship occurred in a variety of situations. Of course, in fighting, the opponents must constantly try to get the upper hand. The focus on strategy set the stage for all sorts of situations of bargaining and maneuvering. For example, he had evidence he was overpaying for rent and tuition, and he tried to negotiate with the temple managers to lower the price. The maneuvering on both sides demonstrated the business-like mentality of the place.

Forty years of hatred for capitalism did not stamp out the Chinese instinct for bargaining any more than it stamped out sexual attraction. Polly’s description of Chinese bargaining strategies helped me understand the expression “inscrutable oriental.” The men were employing a technique known in the west as a “poker face.” To beat your opponent, you must hide your feelings.

I used to think it was tacky to write about money, but I have since come to realize the stuff keeps showing up in real life as well as in good stories. In “American Shaolin,” Polly uses money to show the power struggles among people, to offer insights into his own circumstance, and to provide another window into the Chinese culture. Strangely enough, the tense negotiations between Polly and the managers of the Temple did not ruin my impression of Polly or the Temple. It simply helped me fill in additional aspects of their world, proving once again that the mundane side of human nature, when told well, can breathe authenticity and tension into ordinary situations.

Writing Prompt
Bargaining is a common activity, when we try to get what we want through arguing, or pleading, or strategy. Write a scene when you had to get something from someone, whether for love, or money, or power. Show your plan. Or show how you acted impulsively, without a plan. How did it work? How well did the other person defend their own needs? What did they do to resist your request? Who was the better strategist?

Notes
Click here for the Amazon Page: “American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China by Matthew Polly”

Matthew Polly’s Home Page

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.

Philadelphia Push To Publish, Lessons in Courage from a Writing Conference

by Jerry Waxler

For weeks I considered dedicating a precious Saturday to attend the “Push to Publish” conference, hosted by Philadelphia Stories. I enjoyed the event last year and thought I ought to do it again. Now, I needed to commit the time.

By Saturday morning my preference to meet writers won and I drove into pouring rain, to find myself back along the winding paths and elegant buildings of the Rosemont College campus on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The registration room was packed, and looking around I spotted a likely networking candidate, a young man sitting alone. “What do you write,” I asked. “A memoir,” he said. Jackpot. The memoir gods were smiling.

He was an undergrad in the English Department at University of Delaware. “People think I’m crazy to write a memoir when I’m so young.” I looked at him. “I think they’re the ones who are crazy. It’s your story. You should tell it any time you want.” Just then, a woman I knew from another regional writing group leaned in to interrupt us. “Aren’t you the memoir guy? There’s someone I want you to meet.”

I excused myself from the youngest memoir writer I’ve met, and was introduced to a woman, perhaps in her 40s, who had written about her family history. She told me a fascinating tale complete with twists and turns. “I’m finished the draft. Now, before I spend a lot of time editing it, I came to the conference to see if anyone believes I’m wasting my time.” I looked at her. Had she really come here searching for naysayers? “Ouch,” I said. “Why would anyone tell you that? And if they did, why would you believe them?” She shrugged and I moved on.

Waiting on line for coffee, the woman in front of me turned, smiled, and stuck out a hand. I clasped it in greeting, but instead of introducing herself, she pointed to the man next to her. “This is my husband. I talked him into writing a novel.” I asked her, “How did that work for you?” She said, “It was great” and they both laughed.

We sat down together to eat our continental breakfast, and I said, “I’m into memoir writing.” He said, “If I wrote about my life, it would put everyone to sleep.” I chewed my bagel and tried to imagine an entire life with no dramatic tension. Finally, I said, “It’s not about spectacular events. It’s about great story telling.”

He grew quiet. “Well, actually, I have written a couple of stories about myself.” He went on to describe an incident from his childhood that completely grabbed my attention, like I was back there with him, and we were in danger together. I said, “How could anyone fall asleep? That story is enchanting.” (No, I won’t tell it. It’s his story, not mine.)

On my walk through the rain to hear the keynote speech, I wondered, “Why do so many people think there’s something wrong with writing their own stories?” The keynote speaker, Lise Funderburg, didn’t have this problem. She published a memoir about her relationship with her father. Apparently, one of her goals as a writer is to share herself.

In fact, most of the talk consisted of tips she had learned about the writing life. For example, “You have to be okay with rejection. And that doesn’t stop. In fact, it still hurts me when I’m rejected.”

“Well,” I thought. “That’s a consistent message. Writing is hard work, with long periods of uncertainty, plenty of pain and for most of us not too much money. So, if it hurts so bad, why is this room full of people again?”

Funderburg went on to read a passage from her recently published memoir, which I have not yet had an opportunity to read, called “Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home: A Memoir.” It’s about discovering her relationship with her father while he was dying of cancer. The passage was rich in imagery, full of kindness and conveying the same sparkle in her words as danced in her eyes. At the end, I raised my hand and asked, “How did you find your voice?” She hesitated for a moment, and said, “Finding my voice was really a very long journey around a big circle until I finally came back to just being myself.”

Dodging rain drops and puddles on my way to the next section of the conference, I thought, “Even her voice is an expression of herself. No wonder it hurts to be rejected. We’re pouring ourselves out to other people. What a crazy thing to do.”

I realized that in addition to learning the art of self-expression, writers must learn courage. We imagine, we write, we polish, and then we beg gatekeepers for the opportunity to share our work with readers. But Lisa Funderburg didn’t shrivel back from the task, and her story provides one more inspiring example of a writer pushing through obstacles to reach higher goals.

Notes

Visit the Amazon Page for the memoir Pig Candy by Lise Funderburg
Lise Funderburg’s Home Page

Click here for the essay I wrote about last year’s Philadelphia Stories Conference

Memoir interview about privacy, activism, style

Interview with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg about her memoir “Sky Begins at Your Feet,” Part 2 by Jerry Waxler

This is Part 2 of the interview I conducted with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg about her memoir “The Sky Begins at your Feet.” In Part 1, (to read Part 1 click here) Caryn shares observations about the spiritual and religious journey. In this Part, she discusses community activism, privacy, style, and other issues that may help memoir writers learn more about their craft.

(Note: Caryn will be checking in during the blog tour to read and respond to your comments.)

Jerry Waxler: During the period covered in the memoir, you are also very much engaged in organizing an environmental conference, weaving your activism about earth into consciousness raising about breast cancer. This is a fabulous double-value of your story. Do you see the book as a tool of advocacy for ecology work, as well as health?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I see the health issues as relating directly to the environment, and I knew this book very much had to be a bioregional book. By bioregionalism, I mean the tradition of learning from your community and eco-community how to live, how to steward your home place and be a good citizen, and how to find greater meaning and purpose in your life through connection to the land and sky. The conference was actually a bioregional congress, focused on bringing people together from throughout the continent to network, share resources, and inspire each other in living more fully in our home communities. I hope the book does inspire people to, most of all, learn more about their environment, and from that learning, develop a greater connection with their local land, which will naturally lead to the kind of advocacy and stewardship that creates enduring ecological change. I also hope the book helps people see not just more of the connections between cancer and ecological degradation and destruction, but between healing and finding kinship with the trees, fields, birds, skies and other aspects of our homes around us.

Note: For more about the bioregionalism movement, click here.

Jerry Waxler: How has this memoir been received in your ecology activist community?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: It’s been received very well so far, and next week, I’ll be reading it at another bioregional congress, this one at The Farm in Tennessee, so I’ll see more how it speaks to people in that community.

Jerry Waxler: I love the characters in your community. So many people reach out with compassion, to help you with food, with caring for your family, and of course the all-important emotional support. In the process of telling about these people, aren’t you to some extent impinging on their privacy? Many memoir writers are confused about how much to say, how much detail to include, whether to change names, and so on. How did you balance your friends’ privacy with your desire to tell the story of friendship and community.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: This was an issue I thought long and hard about, and basically, anyone who showed up more than once, I contacted when the book was in its final draft, and sent them a copy of the book to read, letting them know that if there was anything they couldn’t live with, they should tell me. Few people asked me to change anything, but I thought asking was the ethical thing to do. I also shared the final draft with all my doctors, my children, my mother and siblings. I worked hard in editing to remove any references to people (there were just a few) I had larger conflicts with because I didn’t want to use my writing in any way to play out those conflicts. Occasionally, when I did present something unflattering about anyone, I changed the name of that person and that person’s identifying characteristics.

Jerry Waxler: You went through a terrifying period, facing the loss of part of your body, and a profound alteration of body image. In the memoir, you have explained and explored this loss of part of yourself, in far greater detail than most of us imagine. What I’m interested in knowing more about is what it felt like to write about this profound relationship between flesh and life. What sort of processing did you do while you were writing about this impending loss? Was it traumatic to write about it? Did writing the memoir help you understand more or cope more or come to terms more with this loss?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I write through whatever life gives me, so I wrote through cancer, not always coherently, but writing helped me sort out my feelings and also helped me make what was happening more real. The writing itself wasn’t traumatic although I’m aware that we can re-ignite trauma in our lives sometimes if we write obsessively about such events (as researched in the work of James Pennebaker and others). Before I lost various body parts, I wrote to those parts of my body (and I wrote some about this in the memoir), using writing itself as part of the ceremony of letting go of my breasts or uterus or ovaries. For me, it’s very important to create ceremonies that involve writing and sometimes spoken words as a way to name the rite of passage, so yes, all the writing helped me come to terms with losses. At the same time, time itself is wildly effective at helping people, including me, make peace in such situations.

Jerry Waxler: In a couple of places in the book you use Flash Forwards. For example, you say “I had no idea she would be killed in an accident in 5 years.” The character had no way of knowing this from within her own Point of View. Stylistically, this raises an important puzzle for memoir writers. The Author, the person sitting at the computer typing the book, is older and knows so much more than the Protagonist, the younger one undergoing the experience. How did you steer between these two sets of knowledge? What can you tell us about the relationship between the Author’s POV and the Protagonist’s? How does the unfolding of the Protagonist’s Point of View in the story help reveal what the Author is going to know in the future?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I purposely wrote this book very much from the perspective of being in the future, looking back. Particularly with the big stories of our lives, I think the added perspective of the author in the present can help readers better understand the various ramifications and unfoldings of the story. Two pieces of advice that influenced me were from a poet, who once told me how much we need to let our experiences ripen over time until we can find the real essence of the story or poem that wants to be told, and my oncologist, who said however I felt about my cancer experience would continually unfold and change over time. Also, when telling stories in which mortality is a kind of character, I think having the perspective of time passing allows an author to go much deeper into the hard stuff — the terror and sadness, grief and confusion — without making the reader feel too overwhelmed.

Jerry Waxler: The book contains quite a bit of concrete information about the medical diagnosis and treatment. How do you see your role in that regard? While writing it, were you thinking about how it could help cancer patients and their loved ones demystify the technicalities of this journey? How has that turned out so far?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I knew that I had to share at least some technical information because going through serious illness is often a technical journey as well as an emotional and spiritual one. I also wanted to demystify the genetic mutation discussion surrounding breast cancer. Because of fears many have about losing insurance if they reveal that they have the BRCA1 or other genetic mutation, it’s a difficult thing to talk about, and yet we’re only going to change the crazy biases of insurance companies by talking about things like this in print and out loud. I also was lucky enough to know I wouldn’t be dropped from my insurance although several of my doctors told me how careful they were in medical records never to write “BRCA1” but use a symbol instead so that the patient would be protected. I also find that people going through cancer, at some point or another, want and need to know about the technical aspects of their cancer; for example, is the cancer particularly aggressive or slow-growing? We get that information often from numbers on a page, and it’s difficult at times but important to understand these aspects or we won’t have the information we need to make the most informed decisions possible about treatment options.

Jerry Waxler: Are you reaching out to offer the book to that audience?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: Given that one out of three of us will have a cancer diagnosis in our lifetimes, that audience is actually very large. Just about all of us have had cancer or been close to someone who had cancer, so yes, I did want to reach out to that audience, but this is also a book about losing a parent, finding strength in the land and sky, connecting with community, and making greater peace with living in a flawed, aging and still miraculous body.


Links

Click here for Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s website

Click here for more information about Caryn’s Transformative Language Arts Program at Goddard College

Click here for the Transformative Language Arts Network

Click here to visit the Amazon page for The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

This interview is part of the blog tour hosted by Women on Writing. To see Caryn’s Blogtour page, click here.