Memoir author speaks of spirituality, religion, and cancer

Interview with author Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg by Jerry Waxler

When Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg was diagnosed with breast cancer, she and her friends were busy organizing a conference to protect the environment. So her journey through doctor’s offices, chemotherapy, and surgery takes place against a rich back drop of family, spirituality, and rivers of community support. (“I have cancer, but I also have friends.”) She skillfully and generously shares her experience in the memoir “The Sky Begins at your Feet,” offering insights that expand my horizons about life as well as about life writing.

Caryn is also a poet, a writing teacher, and the founder of Goddard College’s Master’s Degree Program in Transforming Language Arts. In the following two-part interview she offers observations about writing this memoir, and suggestions that may help any memoir writer overcome difficulties on their quest to share their own stories.

In Part 1 below, Caryn offers observations about how she conveys spirituality, religion, and grieving. In Part 2, (click here to read Part 2) she talks about style, privacy, and some of the ways her memoir has touched the public.

Jerry Waxler: For many people, the two words “religion” and “spirituality” seem so different as to almost be opposite to each other. And yet in your view, you straddle the fence nicely between them. This is a powerful addition to the memoir literature I have read, because I know of many people who wish they could convey their spirituality but don’t know how to find the language. You are so eminently comfortable with the most intimate details of your own search for transcendence I wonder if you could explain how you came to be so comfortable sharing these intimate details of your life.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: As a seeker and a writer, I find the two yearnings — to create and to connect with the sacred — to come from the same impulse: to feel as fully alive as possible. How to write about religion and spirituality wasn’t really something I thought much about; it simply happened because both spirituality and religion are vital parts of my life. I guess I see religion as one part of spirituality that’s institutionalized, and added to the institutional mix is community, group dynamics, group governance, etc., which can be messy but also beautiful. Last week when I went to Yom Kippur services, I had a moment of looking around and thinking how odd and amazing it was that I knew so many of the people around me from various parts of my life, but here — at our services — we entered collectively into the somewhat tribal, confusing and challenging practices of Judaism. I also found it wild that I shared some of the most intimate communal prayers with people, some of whom I didn’t share anything else intimate with ever. That’s the magic of collective spirituality: you can share profound moments with people who drive you crazy, people you hardly know, people you know from other contexts too. I’ve also always been Jewish plus. What I mean by that is that I’ve explored other traditions from Sufi dancing in my 20s through Buddhism in my 30s and 40s to Yoga today.

JW: You use a substantial amount of Jewish lore and practice in the memoir. Of course, not all readers have a background in these references, so it seems that the memoir takes a step into an interesting territory for any memoir writer who might ask, “How much of my unique background will be interesting to readers?” When you wrote the references to Judaism, did you worry that non-Jews would not understand it?

CMG: Some of my own spiritual journey through cancer has included Jewish traditions, myths and practices because integral to my story. At the same time, I tried to contextualize and explain references so that non-Jews would better understand them. Because I live in Kansas, where there is a very small Jewish population, I’ve also done readings from this book, and I find that people tend to understand the Jewish context. Some things, such as the story of Jacob, are well-known to many people, as is the tradition of a Bar Mitzvah. Other aspects I found that people could understand with a bit of reference. I wasn’t worried about this issue just as I don’t think Christian or Buddhist or Moslem authors would need to filter their spiritual experience when telling a story with spiritual aspects.

JW: Can you offer any advice to other memoir writers who wish they could authentically describe their own transcendent beliefs.

CMG: It’s like writing anything: you have to find your own truest words, dive into it, and surrender to what wants to be said instead of what you think you should say. At the same time, I think it’s far more effective to describe the big stuff of life — spiritual struggles, traumas and wounds, giant yearnings or losses — by entering through the backdoor. By that, I mean you can convey the depth of what you’re writing by aiming toward specific detail and specific moments instead of making pronouncements about what it all means. In fact, I think it’s dangerous to try to say what it all means too fast or sometimes at all. For example, I described the moment of my father’s death as surprisingly ordinary, and I told readers how I paced back and forth on the deck, what the sky was like, how my voice sounded when describing the moment I found out I would need chemo. Our sensory experiences — what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch — are powerful tools for bringing readers to the vital and living emotions and realizations we find, which never happen in a vacuum, but always somewhere at some time, such as sitting in a lawn chair in early autumn and suddenly seeing a crow land on a dying tree, and knowing something new at that moment.

JW: I love the way you use the concept of “grieving” in the book. At one point you say you were grieving your loss of strength. Another time you say, “another part of me I sloughed off.” In popular use, the word “grieving” tends to be used for coping with the death of a loved one. You are using it in a broader sense here. Please say more about how the process of grieving has been extended to help you adjust to life through its various stages and changes.

CMG: There are all kinds of causes for grief in this life, and luckily, all kinds of causes for joy too, sometimes even joy and grief simultaneously. For me, it was important to name what I was losing, whether it was my breasts, my strength, my sense of humor, my father, etc. as a way to tell my true story. I needed to look at the loss and feel the grief because my life as continually illuminated how the only way out is through. I also realize that as I age — just as all of us — I will be losing things all along the way, such as the capacity to run down the street, or sleep eight hours straight (well, I already lost that one!), or get through a day without discomfort or pain, and certainly the speed at which I live my life and how much I can get done in an hour. That great poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” states, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master/ so many things are filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” I also heard a novelist, Julia Glass, on the radio the other day say that all novels are really about how to go on with life in spite of whatever happens. I hope my memoir also points toward how to go on with life, and to find greater life in learning from whatever life gives us.

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.


10 Ways Writing Helps Develop the New You

by Jerry Waxler

Until my mid-40s, I was so shy, I spent most of my spare time reading and writing. As I grew older, I tried to improve my social skills. The most important step was to go back to school and earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, where I learned a variety of techniques to relate to people, especially the fine art of listening. I also completed the program at Toastmaster’s International to overcome my fear of public speaking. Then I started teaching workshops, shifting my lifelong passion for learning from the back of the classroom to the front. My efforts to connect with people have turned the years after 50 into some of the most vigorous and interesting of my life.

And yet, even in these years of social involvement I continue to spend time alone, writing. My words create a sort of social currency, allowing me to share myself in surprising ways. In fact, putting words on paper makes the rest of life richer and more fulfilling. It’s not a result I would have expected, but here it is, an exciting discovery, especially in the internet age when we have so many ways to offer our writing to each other. In fact, writing has turned out to be such a valuable self-development tool, I would like to share ten of my observations with you.

1. Improving writing skills is a never ending job (and that’s a good thing)

Writing is a part of life. We fill out applications, and write emails. An employer or teacher may have directed us to write. At times, we write to a larger audience, for example with a letter to the editor, or a newsletter article. Strangers expect interesting, clear phrasing, and so we strive to give them our best sentences, word choices, timing and rhythm. The challenges are infinite, and so are the emotional and intellectual rewards.

2. Learning connects you with energetic peers

Conferences, workshops, and classes invigorate our writing skill as well as our connection with fellow learners. By taking classes, we affirm the importance of knowledge and open the gates to acquire more. Our early education turned us from babies into complete humans, and later education makes us more completely human.

3. Writing about favorite topics creates online micro-communities

The thousands of students and teachers at the University of Wisconsin in the 60’s offered endless opportunities for debate and study. Now the internet restores this stimulation. Without leaving home, we write what’s on our mind, and those who share our interests gather and discuss.

4. Serve causes and community

Information is the lifeblood of a community, motivating us to place our energy where it’s needed, and enabling us to make crucial, complex decisions about social policy. In the television age, newscasters provided information while we sat silently on the sofa. In the internet age, we play a more active role. By writing and publicizing, we weave our perspective into the fabric of culture and community.

5. Develop brain cells

Since the mid-90s scientists have learned the incredibly exciting fact that the human brain can generate new connections at any age. “Use it or lose it” now applies just as much to brain cells as it does to biceps and triceps. Writing forces us to coax words out of storage, to imagine situations, to develop clear sentences. It keeps the language centers alert, sustaining the skills we will appreciate in the years ahead.

6. Explore inner space

Writing, like meditation, familiarizes you with what goes on inside your own mind. Whether you’re trying to ease mental worries or trying to gain some sense of organization or control, writing lets you plumb the depths of your interior.

7. Learn almost anything by writing

If you want to deepen your knowledge about a topic, write about it. As you try to explain your material to a reader, you must develop the logical flow that ties it together. Gradually you increase your expertise in the subject, learning by teaching.

8. Improve self-management skills

When you work for a paycheck, your boss keeps your nose to the grindstone. When you write articles or books, you are your own boss, and so, you must establish your own goals and rules. The self-management skills that get you to the desk will help you accomplish goals in other areas of life, as well.

9. Life review – “I am the person who lived this story”

Who you are today is the sum total of the life you lived so far. To find that sum, write about it. By scanning memory and collecting the story, you find fascinating strengths, connections, and challenges, jewels amidst the refuse pile of old memories, creating a more nuanced appreciation for where you’ve been and who you are.

10. Write the story of who you are going to become

An important turning point in my life came from the practical suggestions in the book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. One of his techniques was to write a mission statement. Writing lets me clarify vague images and flesh in details. As I see the story develop, I can hold it up to the light, turn it this way and that, shape it, and use it to help me fulfill my dreams.

Leave a comment:
How has writing helped you find energy, connection, insight, peace, or any other value you would like to share?

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.

Is memoir a genre? Consider these matched pairs.

by Jerry Waxler

For more insight into the power and importance of memoirs, read the Memoir Revolution and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.

I first became aware of matching pairs of memoirs after the publicity campaign last year for the memoir “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff, whose son Nic was addicted to crystal meth. The dad’s memoir was accompanied by the memoir, “Tweak”, written from Nic Sheff’s point of view, about the nightmarish period of his addiction. The two books created a well-deserved media splash, including the interview I heard on national public radio. I read both books and learned so much, seeing this tragic situation from two different, and yet intimately connected perspectives.

Then, I read a less self-conscious pair of memoirs, Joan Rivers’ “Enter Talking” and Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up.” Written decades apart, these memoirs describe the journey of the two comedians from anonymity to fame. Despite their overlapping topics, I felt as curious through the second as I was through the first. The two books complemented each other, giving me deeper insight than either would have done alone.

Recently I read the New York Times bestseller “Color of Water” by James McBride, son of a black Christian father and a white Jewish mother. I found the book informative and uplifting. After I finished, I noticed a similar book near the top of my reading pile, “Black, White, and Jewish,” by Rebecca Walker. Previously, I might have rejected it on the premise that one memoir about mixed-race parents was enough. But now, I was eager to learn more.  “Black, White, and Jewish” turned out to be invigorating, another excellent read, and another window into one of my favorite topics, an individual’s search for identity.

Despite the superficial similarities of the two books, they were massively different. Rebecca was trained in literary arts. James was journalist and jazz musician. Rebecca’s mother was Alice Walker, the famous black author of “The Color Purple.” James’ mother was an anonymous white woman, whose only claim to public attention was that she was usually the only white person in the room. Rebecca spent her childhood shuttling back and forth between posh white communities on the east coast and multi-racial communities in San Francisco. James lived exclusively in black urban areas. The differences go on and on.

Each of the books informed me in ways the other had not. By reading memoirs, comparing them, and adding up my experience, I am increasingly convinced these tales of real life are emerging as a full-fledged genre.

What is a genre?

When a reader picks up any detective novel, the expected formula for the book is that someone dies and then the protagonist sleuths to unmask the killer. Of course, within the formula, the author introduces all manner of variations. The murder could be motivated by power, revenge, or greed. The detective could be a grandmother in town for the holiday, a hard-nosed cop, or a burned out private eye.

At first, it may seem impossible to fit memoirs into a well-defined formula. But despite the infinite variations in people’s lives, memoirs all share certain features, and these shared features appear to define a category. While every memoir stretches the “rules” in some way, they have enough in common that I have put together the features of what looks like a genre to me.

A memoir is a story

A memoir is driven by the power of its story, a formula as old as recorded history. In the beginning of a story, the protagonist feels some need, frustration, or desire. Circumstances force the protagonist on a journey, moving past obstacles by making choices. Eventually, a little older and hopefully wiser, the protagonist reaches some conclusion, and the dramatic tension is relieved.

Inside the protagonist’s perspective

Memoirs place our point of view inside the protagonist’s mind. Seeing the world from a real person’s mind generally feels significantly more nuanced and less predictable than what we expect in fiction.

Looking back with greater wisdom

While the bulk of a memoir takes place within a particular period, the reader knows that the author is writing this book after the experience is complete. This is tricky because we know the author has gained wisdom about this experience, but the story starts before the protagonist knew what was coming. A strong memoir will release information slowly and in its own time, stringing us along and building suspense. As a memoir reader, I enjoy this intriguing relationship between author and protagonist, and am always eager to reach the end to learn what lessons the author has discovered.

Character Arc of the protagonist is a valuable aspect of a memoir

The stories we admire most tend to be the ones that allow the protagonist to grow. For example, they gain insight into their moral responsibilities, or achieve emotional closure that convinces us they will be less likely to repeat their mistakes.

Truth

Memory is slippery. Conversations can seldom be remembered word for word even a few hours later, and major events which seem clear in one person’s mind might be remembered differently by a sibling. Memoir writers do their best, and readers expect that the story is told as truthfully as possible through the eyes of a fallible human being.

How will you fit your lifestory into this budding genre?

There is a good chance the main theme of your life has already been covered in someone else’s memoir. There are books about immigration, dysfunctional parents, foster kids, searching for spirituality in an ashram, coming under fire in Vietnam, losing a loved one, or any of dozens of themes that have been written elsewhere.

And yet, despite the similarities between your story and ones that have already been written, yours will be different because this one is about you. It’s written in your voice, through your perspective, with the particular characters in your life, and the beliefs that sustained you or pulled you astray. All the things that make your life unique will make your memoir unique. By telling your own story, and then publishing it so others can read it, you take your place on the shelf amidst the rest of the authentic life story literature of the twenty-first century.

Notes
One of the first memoirs I reviewed for my blog was about the search for identity by another young man with mixed race parents, “Dreams of Our Fathers” by Barack Obama.

Essay about James McBride’s search for identity in “Color of Water”
An essay about Joan Rivers’ tenacity in “Enter Talking”

Essay about Steve Martin’s fame in “Born Standing Up”

Essay about two memoirs by an addicted son and his father, click here.

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.

Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

The Freedom Writers Diary is a collection of diary entries written by inner-city high school kids in Los Angeles. When I first heard about it, I thought the book would be too scattered and too youthful to have anything to do with memoir writing. After I started reading, I discovered these authors were doing essentially the same thing any memoir writer does; telling stories about their lives, and sharing them with the world.

I was stunned by the intensity of their circumstances. In the classroom, the kids separated themselves into racially defined groups – Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and Whites.  Out on the street, many were members of rival gangs, killing and being killed for the color of their skin. Most of them had been shot at, and almost all had lost at least one friend to gang violence. The cultural tension portrayed a more complicated view of the American Melting Pot than I ever knew, and highlighted the terrible tendency of human beings to group together with their “own kind” and to exclude and misunderstand “the other.”

This particular classroom was designated for the throwaway kids, the ones who would never make it. Their home life was racked by poverty and drugs, and broken families. Some had been evicted and a few had even been homeless. When Erin Gruwell, a new teacher fresh out of college, walked into her English class, two things seemed obvious to everyone but her. First, these kids would continue their murderous hatred for each other, and second, none of them would graduate high school.

Through her innovative use of literature and journal writing, the young teacher defied both of these predictions, offering her students opportunities to escape their apparent fate. They raised their test scores, crossed racial lines to form deep friendships, finished high school and went on to college.

Uses of Journaling

To try to overcome their initial hostility to her and to each other, Erin Gruwell asked them to write about their personal lives. She had no idea she was turning on a spigot that released a flood of revelation and sharing. Through the writing, members of the class opened up to each other, breaking out of rigidly defined racial identities.

The journey to tolerance was helped by Gruwell’s use of world literature, especially the recollections of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of another diarist, Anne Frank. After reading Anne Frank’s diary, the students realized they were not the only ones persecuted. The Holocaust’s impact on the kids was so strong, Gruwell wanted to teach them more. She took them to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and she introduced them to several Holocaust Survivors. By visiting these horrors of recent history, they began to open their eyes to the futility and horror of racial hatred.

Shakespeare helped, too. The kids thought it was stupid that the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet would kill each other merely for being born with the wrong name. Then Gruwell pointed out the similarities to their own situation. They made the connection and learned another lesson about prejudice.

After four years of sharing their stories with each other, working together to raise money for educational projects, and becoming avid students of the literature of tolerance and survival, these kids traded in their hatred for harmony. Over and over they use the word “family” to describe their feelings for their fellow classmates.

The Power of Sharing Private Experience

Now that their diary entries have been published, the rest of the world can share their moral journey, too. Like the shape-shifters in magical myths, they tear off the masks of gang bangers, of druggies and anti-social kids who will never amount to anything, and reveal real people, with real dreams for family and a safe society. Their experience makes me dream of the possibilities.

After they graduated, the book ended but the kids kept pushing their agenda. Using the public awareness generated by the book, Gruwell and the Freedom Writers formed a non-profit organization, the Freedom Writers Foundation, to bring the message of hope to other schools.

Their public relations campaign shifted into high gear when the Freedom Writers experience was produced as a movie starring Hilary Swank. The production moved me as deeply as the book did, and will extend the reach of their message even farther, proving this amazing lesson about memoir writing. By telling the story of our own lives, we reach beyond ourselves, sharing experiences that potentially help other people grow, turning private lives into a public act of social change.

Writing Prompts
Write a situation in which you felt empathy for someone who was on the other side of some wall, contained behind the boundaries of your pre-judgment. Write what it felt like before the connection was established, and then what it felt like as the wall started to crumble and you saw the real person beyond it.

Consider some interaction you have had with a person from the “wrong” race or religion. Tell a story about your interaction. Stretch your imagination and try to tell the same story from their point of view.

Write about a period in your life when you felt stuck behind a façade, in which others saw you differently than you saw yourself. Write a story about taking off that mask.

Write a story about a book that made a difference in your life.

Write a story about a teacher who made a difference in your life.
Notes

The Freedom Writers Diary : How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, by Freedom Writers, Zlata Filipovic, with Erin Gruwell

Freedom Writers Foundation

Read my essay “The Terrible Logic of Uncivilized Boys” about Mark Salzman’s creative writing class inside a juvenile detention center for gang members in Los Angeles,

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.

To learn more about my self=help book about overcoming the psychological obstacles to writing, click here.

Fearlessly Confessing the Dark Side of Memory in this Memoir of Sexual Abuse

by Jerry Waxler

For more insight into the power and importance of memoirs, read the Memoir Revolution and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.

When I talk to people about writing memoirs, sometimes they chuckle nervously and say, “Oh, I don’t want to remember all of that.” When I first heard this reaction, it puzzled me. The speaker appeared to assume that writing about their past will force them to divulge information they would rather keep quiet. It’s as if they were afraid that by merely writing their past, their secrets would fly out into the air.

As I learned more stories and dug deeper into my own, I found that some dark memories are so compelling they draw you in and frighten or upset you. When you try to seal them back in their crypt, they continue to haunt. The courageous memoirist actively faces these fears and crafts them into stories. Under the guidance of our inner storyteller we gain power over our own memories.

Recently I heard about a memoir that offers an extreme example of this challenge. Throughout her childhood, Sue William Silverman was molested repeatedly by her father, a successful banker and diplomat. The assaults took place within the walls of their home where his manipulation and rage silenced every protest before it was uttered. Silverman’s memoir “Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You” offers the tragic story of a childhood, betrayed by the adult who was supposed to care for her.

At first, the topic of this memoir horrified me. I would have given it a wide berth, like crossing the street to avoid passing a beggar. And yet such is the magic of memoirs that it has allowed me to explore situations I would rather avoid. Reading is a powerful form of empathy. Now I pressed past my reluctance to share her experience.

I found the book disturbing as expected, and yet, in a way inspiring because of its frankness. It offers another validation that memoirs can take me into the dark pockets of the human condition. Researchers have found that a staggering percentage of children are abused. (see note) And despite the widely known statistics the human story of their plight is hidden from view. Few of us know what to say about this upsetting and confusing subject, and so the topic is avoided in polite company.

The public, with its voracious appetite for sound bites and quick solutions, is occasionally exposed to pleas for harsher sentences for the few predators who are caught. Meanwhile, abuse continues unabated, most of it taking place privately and quietly within the home.

While Silverman’s memoir does not offer a political or legal solution, it does hint at a reasonable first step. By sharing the story of the psychological damage, the trauma and breach of trust, we collectively shine light into the darkness of these private hells. Without such stories, sexual abuse is just a word, a statistic, devoid of the sad terror and emotional truths of each situation.

The silence that protects victims also protects perpetrators

Victims have important reasons for hiding the things that happened to them. There is the stigma of shame, often made worse because the victim is made to feel responsible. And there is the risk of angering the perpetrator. Until the memoir age, many wounded people have never felt empowered to share their stories. Now more people are telling and more listening. In my optimistic vision, I see memoirs tearing down walls, and I feel a surge of hope like the crowds who were swinging sledge hammers in the final hours of the Berlin Wall.

A polished voice helps to earn the public’s ear

Writing in a journal allows us to turn our feelings into words, and helps us gain power over our own thoughts. However, if you want to go to the next step and tell your story to the public, you need two more things. One is the courage to publish. And the other is the willingness to craft the experience into a readable form. Every writer discovers they need to develop skills in order to earn readers, and memoir writers are no different.

In this aspect of confession, Silverman excels. Through her writing skills, she engages my reader’s mind, moving me through each scene and then on to the next. I feel protected by her authorial presence, which occasionally cools me with beautiful language, like a drizzle tickling my skin on a hot summer day.

Her terrible story written in pleasing language, transforms me from a complete stranger to an empathetic listener, learning about the strange, complex desperate love-hatred between father and daughter. I deepen my understanding of her as an individual, and also of us as a race, perceiving the vast and sometimes horrifying range of human experience.

She also wrote a book to help you write your memoir
Silverman’s memoir offers an excellent model of good writing about bad memories. After writing two memoirs, she recently published a guide that can help anyone tell their story. “Fearless Confessions, a Writers Guide to Memoir” offers a roadmap through this difficult terrain.

Statistics about Child Abuse
If you think this is an isolated problem, you are probably under that impression because of the impenetrable silence that surrounds it. For statistics, click here.

For more on Sue William Silverman:

Click here for her website.

Click here for her Women On Writing Blog Tour

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.

Your Autobiography is the First Step Towards Writing Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

The first draft of my memoir included my entire life, starting from my first year in the apartment above my dad’s drugstore in north Philadelphia. What was it like developing from a baby into me? I poked and prodded at my past and sorted the resulting scenes into chronological order. After a year of research and another year of writing, I was able to read about my dramatic tensions, the dynamics of family and friends, hopes and fears, obstacles and allies. My life made far more sense than ever before.

And so, perhaps that is the end of the project. Writing my life from beginning to end is a real accomplishment that makes me proud of myself, not only for of having written it, but also for having lived it.

But I don’t feel done. I want to take the next step and share my life with others. The problem is that readers don’t want a compendium of my entire life. They want a Story – that is, a dramatic form that we all have learned since we were children. My life does not by itself contain this form. To engage readers, I must find it. First I must craft a blurb dramatic enough to attract interest. Then I need to write the book so it compels readers from the first page to the last.

What do you cut away to make it more pleasing?

To create his crowd-pleasing statues, Michelangelo started with a raw block of marble. His task was to chip away everything that didn’t belong. Memoir writers face a similar task. The compelling story lurks somewhere within the vast range of memory. Now we have to figure out what to remove. That’s not so easy. Life was all one thing. Splitting off parts of it may feel disturbing or even painful. And yet, if the final product is as beautiful as Michelangelo’s Pieta, this creative pain would be worthwhile.

Pain is not the only reason it’s hard to remove parts of your life. While polished stories are bounded by the first page and the last, daily life provides no sharply defined markers. Day after day, events run together. We have to find the story within those days, through our own creative process.

Say I want to share my visit to an Ashram in India in the ’70s. Should I start when I board the plane, or do I back up and start the journey as a Jewish nerd growing up in north Philadelphia? Do I finish when I return to the U.S. and move into a commune, or do I move forward a few months when I return to my cubicle as an engineer in the Nuclear Power industry?

Suppose I want to tell about the incredible thrill of receiving a standing ovation from the board of directors of a nonprofit writing group when I was 50 years old. Do I start with the phone call I received from the director? “I appreciate the honor, Foster, but I’ve never done anything like this before,” I said. “You’ll do fine,” he said. “Just be yourself.” Or do I backup and show how incredibly shy I was just two years earlier, so nervous  at my first talk at Toastmasters my voice was swallowed up in a hoarse whisper, and I sat down flushed with humiliation after polite applause.

Wending my way through these options requires more than simply finding the most interesting scenes. I need to reveal the forces that propelled my life along its path, and more importantly why a reader should follow me.

A different metaphor, don’t tear anything away

Perhaps the image of a block of marble is misleading. Life is not really a shapeless blob. In its own way, the entire journey was a lovely creation, the life of a complete human being. Perhaps the transformation from the innocence of a little baby all the way to the end is a sort of Pieta in its own right, and we are all destined to end up draped across God’s lap.

The challenge is to somehow offer readers my sense of this fullness, but to do so at a smaller scale. Perhaps, if I adjust my lens to a higher magnification I can see my own passion play embedded in each moment like William Blake’s “world in a grain of sand.” Focusing on the drama, pleasures, and intrigue of a smaller part of life might not require any chipping away after all.

A popular form of computer graphics, called a fractal, looks like a beautiful set of swirls, a sort of mathematical paisley print with teardrop shapes intertwined in miraculously intricate patterns. The remarkable thing about fractals is that when you zoom in closer and closer, you continue to see exotic beauty and detail. The intricate patterns within a tiny fraction of the image are every bit as mesmerizing as the designs that emerge in a canvas as big as the night sky.

I tinker with focal distance, zooming in on particular events. Around each one I see a cluster of passions, needs, and dreams. That younger guy who flew to India was following an inner drive that had started years earlier, before he even knew his own path. And that older guy who spoke to a group of nonprofit leaders had a different constellation of circumstances and emotions.  What was he thinking? Why was it such a milestone? Now my challenge is less about cutting out and more about homing in on the details that surround a key event. By identifying the drama in each situation, I can develop a bright, creative reflection of that one part.

My original project of writing about my life resulted in a book that was too long and too complete to be accessible to most readers. But now I have transformed that longer work into a sourcebook, from which I can draw more tightly focused artistic renderings. Hopefully, the end result will please readers as much as the whole thing has pleased me.

Writing Prompt

From your entire scope of memories, select a particular incident, and try telling it as a self-contained story. What was the driving force of the event? Where would you start? Where would you end? Develop it as a short story. Try events of various sizes and see how they hang together as stories in their own right. For another exercise, try to organize the same set of events as a chapter in a larger memoir. Finally, imagine writing a whole book, with this event as its centerpiece.

Note
To see examples of fractals on the web, type the search term “Fractal Images” into your search engine.

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.

A dog made famous by an expert storyteller

by Jerry Waxler

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

John Grogan’s memoir about a dog and his family was a huge success while in print, and then went galactic when produced as a movie starring Jennifer Aniston. Because “Marley and Me” was so popular, I avoided it, preferring to stick to the byways. But the book kept calling to me, especially after my review of a bird-buddy memoir, “Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg. So I finally put “Marley and Me” on the reading pile. Now I’m a fan, happy to revel in the pleasures and pains of this story.

There’s nothing fantastic or magnificent about a young family and a dog. And so, to earn its success it must have been told exceptionally well. That offers an excellent learning opportunity for the rest of us who want to turn the events of our lives into stories worth reading.

Suspenseful writing is not just for murders

Suspense sounds like an emotion best suited for horror or murder movies. However, every story needs to build up enough pressure to keep the reader turning pages. Grogan is an expert at applying this pressure without car chases or ticking bombs. His main tool for generating suspense is embarrassment.

Awkward social situations are regular features in stories. For example, when characters are preparing a wedding, there is the implied suspense they might humiliate the family by canceling. Or in a teen story, the protagonist may act against their values in order to avoid being humiliated by peers. I find such tension as gut wrenching as a murder mystery, and considerably more likely to occur in real life.

Marley’s oafish doggy behavior constantly makes the reader squirm. In one scene, the family walks through a picturesque town square, with people calmly eating dinner at outdoor cafes. Grogan hints that Marley is about to disrupt the peace and so my heart beats faster. I cringe as they tie Marley to the table. Even though I know it’s coming, I want to stand up and shout “NO” when Marley breaks into a run, dragging the table across the square. After it’s over, I can’t relax, because Grogan keeps me wondering about Marley’s next caper.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about an embarrassing incident. If you’re like me you have probably blotted out your embarrassing moments, so it might be harder to find them than almost any other type of memory. This reluctance to reveal embarrassing situations reduces the impact of my stories. When Joan Rivers tells stories, she goes straight for her most revealing, embarrassing, awkward details, the things most of us would keep secret, and as a result, her stories are world famous.

Foreshadowing or teeing up the shot

The technique of letting the reader know something is going to happen is called foreshadowing, and is an important element in the author’s page-turning arsenal. Grogan uses a variety of foreshadowing techniques in “Marley and Me.”

I compare one of his techniques to teeing up a golf ball. First he plants the problem in the reader’s mind, like the fact that on his birthday, there was no party and he was dejected. Later his wife springs a surprise party, proving his family really does love him. By planting the problem in your mind first, and then swinging later, Grogan heightens the tension as well as the ensuing relief.

In the previous example, you don’t even realize you were set up until you’re struck by the surprise. At other times, he informs you in advance. So when John and his wife visit the litter of puppies, the seller introduces them to the puppies’ mild mannered mom. But the cagey sales woman evades questions about the dad. After they put money down on Marley, a crazed, filthy dog comes barreling past. This was the father of the puppies and his out-of-control behavior sets us up to worry about what’s going to happen later.

Writing Prompt
It’s natural to want to relieve the tension of a story immediately after establishing it. But sometimes you can generate more satisfaction by waiting. Scan the stories you have written for your memoir, and tease apart the initial tension. Then insert a delay before resolving it.

Establish mood by reporting what other people say

Marley had been invited to act in a movie that was going to be shot in a neighboring town. The Grogans, late to the appointment, pull up to a blockade near the movie set. When the cop learns who they are, he shouts to another policeman, “He’s got the dog.” In that moment, the reader learns about an important emotion because one of the characters says it.

Writing Prompt
Look through your anecdotes and scenes for an episode that would be heightened in this way. Was there someone nearby who said something intense or important or focused that would highlight the emotional impact you are trying to convey?

Establishing the emotional authenticity of a dog

I think pets are people, but since they don’t speak English, the writer must use a variety of techniques to convey the dog’s intentions and “thoughts.” Body language is one such device. Marley crashes through the crowd, or jumps up and puts his paws on people’s shoulders. Another technique is to point out cause and effect. If there’s a thunderstorm and Marley claws at the dry wall trying to dig his way out of the room, it doesn’t take a dog psychologist to know that Marley is terrified of thunder. So now we know one of his fears, even though he can’t speak.

Now that we know one of Marley’s hang-ups we can use it to supply even more information, by putting words in the animal’s mouth. For example, after lightening damages the house, Grogan interprets the look on Marley’s face. “It was as if he was saying, ‘See, I told you so.'” Grogan’s portrayal of Marley’s “thought” process is part of the fun of the book.

Understanding a dog’s entire life span

A dog’s life span is short enough that a human can see the whole thing unfolding, from beginning to end. And so, while this is a love story, it is also an exploration of the peculiar fact that we don’t live forever. “Marley and Me” is about loving and losing. We meet Marley as a tiny pup, befriend him, love him, watch him grow up, and then grow older. By focusing on the love between man and dog, Grogan has offered a lovely, uplifting lifelong buddy story, and he makes it seem so easy.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Memoir by Celebrity Joan Rivers Offers Lessons for Aspiring Writers

by Jerry Waxler

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

After learning so many lessons from Steve Martin’s memoir “Born Standing Up,” I wanted more, so I jumped in to Joan Rivers’ memoir “Enter Talking.” Her path was remarkably similar to his. Year after year she too made a fool of herself in a desperate bid to please people, persisting through darkness, despair and frustration. What strange alignment of the stars caused these two comedians to suffer so we could laugh?

(To see my essay about Steve Martin’s journey click here.)

While their tales may seem to apply only to the stratospheric world of big celebrity performers, both started as ordinary people. And so, I found lessons in both their journeys that helped me on my struggle to travel from no readers to as many as possible.

Innovation makes publishers nervous

One contradiction sits mysteriously at the center of both their journeys. On one hand, audiences and talent scouts want to be entertained by a fresh voice, and on the other hand, gatekeepers shy away from an act that is too different from the ones that are already making money.

The road to success is littered with the dead acts and fatigued performers who have given up before making it through the gauntlet. And that’s exactly what makes Rivers and Martin so interesting, so informative, and in the end so famous – their relentless pursuit of unique excellence and their refusal to follow the herd. By continuing to push, inch by painful inch, they made almost imperceptible progress, polishing their act, gaining allies, and after each disappointment learning a lesson that would help them do better next time.

Their experience applies directly to memoir writers. Each memoir is its own thing. No one has ever done your particular life story before in your particular voice. But gatekeepers seek books that are similar to ones already on the bestseller list. How do you please them and stay true to yourself at the same time? These two memoirs offer insights into this seemingly impossible challenge.

Different decade, different coast

While the two memoirs bear remarkable similarities, they also have many differences. Steve Martin’s home base was Los Angeles from which he traveled to college campuses and small clubs all over North America, coping with endless miles of loneliness. Rivers’ home base was New York and her endless search was around town, begging agents’ secretaries for a few minutes with the boss, begging for stints at night clubs, venturing out of town for gigs in the Catskills, and a stint at the Second City Improv in Chicago.

Pacing of the memoir works like a thriller

Despite her relentless efforts, for six years Joan Rivers only had scattered success in a few clubs and occasional tours. But the Holy Grail of national exposure on television eluded her. When Jack Paar invited her on to his influential television show, she thought she had arrived. Weirdly, after the show he told his producers not to invite her back, calling her a “liar.” He didn’t understand that her ironically exaggerated stories were jokes. Crushed, she returned to small clubs.

After a few years, she was no longer a kid, and agents started to call her “old news,” and said if she was going to succeed she would have already done so. Over and over she hit the wall of rejection. This heart breaking cycle continued for hundreds of pages, like in a thriller in which the smell of disaster encourages readers to move on to the next page.

Finally, finally, at the very end of the book, her agent practically forced Johnny Carson’s producers to accept her for a spot. From the moment she walked on to the set, Carson clicked with her humor. He laughed. He fed her lines. And he praised her on camera. The tension broke, and the next day her agent called to tell her she would not earn less than $300 a week for the rest of her life. In a surge of joy and accomplishment, Rivers shouted at the world “I was right.”

Satisfying Character Arc

I found the almost abrupt end of the book to provide a focused emotional release equivalent to a well placed punch line. I think at least some of the satisfaction results from her character arc. As we follow her from amateur to professional comedian, the story arc shows us not only her external journey. It takes us deep inside Rivers’ psyche.

When she first tried her hand at comedy, she repeated jokes learned from other comedians. Gradually she tried more authentic material, improvised from her own experience. When she saw the irreverent performances of Lenny Bruce, she realized that he ferociously battled ignorance by telling truth more bluntly than it had ever been told. She had an epiphany that truth is the one thing that makes life worth living and she vowed to incorporate confession as the centerpiece of her comedy.

For example, she was hired at the last minute to take someone’s place in a performance. Many times in her career, she had been hired to do a gig and then fired after the first night by producers who hated her act. So she worked her fear into the routine. “I don’t know how long I’ll be working here. I notice they wrote my name in pencil on the poster out front.” She turned her vulnerability into a joke.

Her most vulnerable disclosures came from the arguments with her parents, who expected her to be more “normal.” She was a middle class girl with a degree from a prestigious college, daughter of a respected doctor. Desperate to succeed she moved out of the suburbs to live practically homeless in Manhattan, a move that so outraged and frightened her parents, they threatened to have her committed. By baring these fights with her parents she brings the same relentless commitment to honesty to her memoir as she offers onstage.

The memoir is a stunning expose of herself, her sorrow, the bitterness between her and her parents, and her struggle to find her own unique place in the world. The rejection and arguments didn’t tear her apart. Instead, the adversity seems to have made her strong, and provided the basis for a public career that has spanned 40 years, giving her the rare opportunity to become rich and famous by being exactly who she is.

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

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

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

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

Mistaken identification – a memoir of injustice and redemption

by Jerry Waxler

The memoir “Picking Cotton” begins with the home invasion and rape of Jennifer Thompson a college student in a small southern town. Society cried out for justice, and in response, Ronald Cotton was convicted to a life sentence. Eleven years later, he was fully exonerated, having been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. This memoir tells the story of both victims, about their journey through that dark night, and the years that followed, explaining what went wrong, and how they picked up the pieces.

When the search began for the monster who had assaulted Jennifer Thompson, Ronald Cotton seemed to fit the part. This young black man had already been in trouble with the law and he had been dating a white girl, two facts that attracted police. He told them there had been a mistake, because he was out with friends that night. Unfortunately, he realized too late that the outing had been on a different night. At the time of the rape, he was actually home asleep on the sofa, a fact sworn to by members of his family. The all-white jury weighed their testimony against Jennifer Thompson’s positive identification. “That’s him,” she said under oath, and so Cotton went to jail.

After the trial, no longer worried about her attacker being on the loose, Jennifer had to face the disruption of her safety and normalcy. Eventually she reclaimed her life, married and started a family. Cotton meanwhile was trying to avoid despair. Early in his incarceration, he learned that another black man had privately bragged about committing the rape. Yet, a botched appeal dismissed this jailhouse confession.

Finally, a sympathetic defense team took up the case. Despite disturbing discrepancies in his trial, the new lawyers could not make a dent in Cotton’s life sentence. It was only after DNA testing that police interrogated the real rapist who officially confessed, including details he could only have known if he had been present at the crime. After 11 years in prison, Cotton was released.

In typical stories of crime and punishment, a diligent detective gradually pries the mask off the villain, and exposes hidden evil. In “Picking Cotton” investigators pried off the demon’s mask to reveal an innocent man.

Memoir as a tool for Redemption

Having been certain that Ronald Cotton was her attacker, it was difficult for Jennifer Thompson-Cannino to revise her mental image of him. And yet, she needed to do something. Haunted by the awful fact that her identification had ruined years of his life, she finally reached out to apologize. When she discovered he had forgiven her, she wanted to do more. Jennifer became actively involved in trying to raise awareness that a victim’s identification should not be considered infallible.

Out of the rubble of that destructive night, a friendship developed that could hopefully save lives. The two appear together on talk shows, trying to put a human face on the tragedy of wrongful imprisonment, especially when based solely on a single person’s memory. Their advocacy aided by the publicity generated by the memoir has contributed to revising guidelines for witness identification, hopefully reducing the psychological influence that can be exerted by police to steer the victim towards their preferred perpetrator.

Stylistic and Emotional Strengths of Picking Cotton

The book alternates between two points of view. For example, in one section we watch the police lineup from Jennifer’s eyes, and later we see that lineup through Ronald’s eyes. Their journey starts out in this treacherous, bleak territory – the rape, the trial, life inside a prison. Then, as they try to make the most of their situations, their paths lead them back towards a lighter place. Their first encounter was based on fear, terror, and error, while their second was based on love and forgiveness, and the effort to transform a wrong into a right. The memoir takes us along on this emotional and moral journey, moving from the external activity of criminal investigation, to the higher moral justice of actual truth.

Thinking at the moral edges

The story of “Picking Cotton” raises many issues. It engages the reader in race relations, justice, and injustice. It involves gender politics, violence, and the power of men over women. It reveals problems with identification, one of the foundations of our legal system. And it digs deep into the challenge of “redemption,” that effort to turn back the clock and make up for what happened in the past.

When I was younger I hoped I could discover the underlying truth that governs the world. I wanted this Truth to exist in science, or in philosophy, or spirituality. But I kept finding that facts and theories could not contain the entire human condition. Rather, through my study of memoirs, I find that within each lifetime or situation, there is a system of right and wrong that is every bit as cosmic as the absolute truth I had always looked for.

In every memoir, I find an author’s perspective that extends my understanding farther and farther. From their point of view, my own logic does not necessarily apply. Instead of my search for one absolute truth I have shifted my focus. In the world of real people, I no longer look for the one right answer. Instead, I seek to understand their stories.

Writing Prompt: Thinking and Writing About Your own Redemption

After a wrong has been committed, how much time and energy do we put into trying to make amends? While we can’t turn the clock back, can we restore some of the decency and dignity of our lives? The Twelve Step Programs suggest that it is worthwhile in many cases to not only face mistakes but try to learn their story, so we can do everything within our power to make them right. The Ninth Step says, “We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” If there are areas in your memoir that you feel might have caused pain to others, consider the Twelve Step suggestions. Are there ways you could help? Have you used the situation to grow? What have you learned? Could your story help someone else avoid a similar situation?

While most of us don’t have the near-miraculous opportunity Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton had to set the record straight, we can pay it forward, to help others who are in a similar situation, or to spread the word and share the story by writing a memoir.

Amazon page: “Picking Cotton Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption,” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo”

For the Picking Cotton’s home page, including appearances by the authors click here.

For the site that campaigns against wrongful imprisonment, see the Innocence Project.

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.

Note
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.