How Can an Adult Learn to Write Stories?

by Jerry Waxler

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

Most nights, my dad worked at his drugstore until 10 PM. On Wednesday, his evening off, he joined the family for dinner. Using the table as a pulpit, Dad’s voice swelled with excitement. “This guy walked in and showed me a half empty tube of ointment. He said it wasn’t working.” Then Dad laughed. “He wanted to return it. Can you believe it?” He slapped the table. My mother, sister, and I ate quietly, and when Dad paused we said “Umm,” giving him the desired reassurance that the other guy was crazy. Then he plowed on to another anecdote and another.

He seemed to enjoy filling us in on his day, but he didn’t ask me about mine. And if he had, I wouldn’t know what to say. My thoughts were wrapped up with solving algebra or calculus problems, so when someone asked me how things were going, I shrugged. “I dunno.”

For decades I assumed that since I had not grown up telling stories, I would never learn. Then in my fifties, I became interested in memoir writing. The problem was that without storytelling skills, I would never be able to write the story of my life.

Even though I knew it was too late, I figured there wouldn’t be any harm reading books about how to write stories. First, I studied Robert McKee’s popular tome called simply Story. This detailed guide for screenwriters shed light on the mechanics of the craft. Another book for screenwriters, Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey opened my eyes further, by comparing the structure of modern movies with the ancient Hero myth popularized by Joseph Campbell. Gradually I gained confidence that storytelling can be learned, and like Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, I demanded it as my inalienable right.

Through networking, I found a variety of writing groups. Some at my local library; some listed on the internet; some monthly meetings and some annual conferences.   Gradually, my assignments for the classes began to interest me. I still needed to make them interesting to others.

Writing teachers want me to add sensory information in order to bring scenes to life. In my imagination, I revisit the kitchen table of my youth, trying to reproduce the experience. I feel myself leaning over my plate, wolfing down the boiled broccoli, mashed potatoes and baked meat loaf drowning in ketchup, squirming on the vinyl bench that wraps around two sides of the Formica table. Sounds echo sharply off the pale yellow and blue tile wall and linoleum floor. But what I really want to describe is not my sensory experience of the room. I want to finally express that high school boy’s feelings, all bottled up in math homework.

What am I thinking when Dad is telling his stories? I see that he is only checking with us to be sure we are listening. He dominates the room with his feelings, rather than giving us the psychic space to get in touch with our own. I wish I could say, “Hey Dad. What about me?” Now, by writing a memoir I can finally give that boy a voice.

Scene by scene, my memories converged into a story. But as they took shape, I encountered another problem. In addition to needing the skill to tell my story, I needed the courage. This is private material. No one needs to know this much detail about me.

I struggle to manage the fear of a recurring fantasy. I visualize a crowd of angry  townspeople summoning me to a public trial. I’m onstage and they heatedly shout, telling me I’m arrogant for thinking I’m entitled to publish. My vivid fears of public speaking invade my mind, turning the solo act of writing into a terrifying spectacle.

Fortunately, Dad offered me an inspiration that  helped me out of this jam. Later in his life, he grew frustrated with his limited communication skills, so he attended a Dale Carnegie public speaking course. They helped him improve his ability to communicate to an audience. With his newfound ability, he was elected president of his pharmacy group. He showed me that at any age, if you want to improve yourself along lines that seem impossible, jump in and try.

I followed his example. I joined Toastmasters, International, an organization designed to help people gain confidence in their ability to speak. After my first attempt to speak at Toastmasters, I ran away for a year, unable to face the humiliation. During that year I studied books about overcoming social anxiety and spoke with a therapist. Finally, I returned, and after an additional year of practice, I was able to share myself in front of a group.

My newfound courage to speak freed me from my fears about writing, too. I began to reveal my life stories in writing groups, and then I leapt past my local groups to the global reach of the Internet. I enjoyed feedback in person and online without feeling afraid.

Dad and I both discovered how to increase the reach of our communication. By doing so, we expanded our social horizons. Now, I can finally share my stories. And thanks to the swell of popular interest in reading and writing memoirs, I have found a whole community of fellow authors who want to share theirs. We’re collectively going beyond the dinner-table question “what did you do today?” Together we are answering the broader question, “what did you do this life?”

Writing Prompts
Describe the way storytelling was handled in your house or community.

Write a scene in which you felt overwhelmed and excluded by someone’s storytelling.

Write another scene in which storytelling felt warm, inviting and empowering.

Write about the first time you felt proud to have written a story.

Notes:

This is a rewrite of an article published April 17, 2009 titled The Birth of an Adult Storyteller.

Toastmasters International

More memoir writing resources

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

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

Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?

Jerry Waxler

This is part 1 of the essay. Click here for part 2, Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir.

Click here for part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview, and Click here for part 3b

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

During dinner, my dad told endless stories about the characters who came into his corner drugstore in North Philadelphia. His shoptalk intrigued me so much that I started to work there every weekend, and extended hours during the summer. Through high school, I spent more time with my father than I did with my friends. By the time I left for college, I knew everything about Dad’s daily grind, but I never asked him about his earlier life, and he never volunteered.

Decades went by, during which I struggled to find myself. By the time I became curious about his early life, it was too late. He died without telling me anything about how he had come to own a drugstore, or what it was like to be the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant. Sometimes I wonder if my ignorance of his younger years contributed to my own confusion. If we had established a storyline about the challenges of going from boy to man, I could have relied on him instead of making so many mistakes on my own.

In my dad’s generation, it was normal for parents to pretend they were never young. Nowadays, that social convention is changing rapidly. With each passing year, our cultural interest in memoirs grows and our fear of revealing ourselves fades. This trend to see life as a story has opened many people to their own past, as well as their parents’.

If you decide to write your parents’ story, you will follow many of the same steps you would if you were writing your own. Gather facts and anecdotes and place them in chronological order, and then look for the psychological power that will draw a reader from one page to the next.

The first step is to gather the anecdotes you already know and type them into a file. When you arrange them in chronological order, you’ll begin to transform isolated events into a continuous narrative. You’ll reveal insights about how one thing led to another, and you’ll see a shape that you might not have noticed before. If your parents are able and willing to talk about themselves, you can join the growing legion of people who know that now is the right time to

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to procrastinate. In addition to the challenge of finding time and energy, you also must overcome anxiety about asking them so many personal questions. Perhaps they don’t really want to talk about their lives? Interviewing requires a different form of conversation than most of us are accustomed to. I will share tips about  overcoming objections and interviewing in later parts of this essay. If you are motivated to achieve the goal, learning the skills is merely a step along the way.

To counter the reasons to stall, focus on the many reasons to proceed. When you see their lives unfold as a story, you will gain a deeper insight into their humanity. They had hopes, desires, pressures from their parents, and if they were like most people, they defied their parents in ways that may still cause shame. Informed by this new information, you will understand them and also gain insights to yourself. And during the course of the conversations, you will have an opportunity for intimacy, breaking through some of the posturing that separates parents from children.

A memoir is more than a sequence of information. After you gather the information, you still have to find its shape.  To do it well, you need to think like a story writer. Look for unifying concepts, dramatic tension, and beginnings, middles, and endings. Your search for artistic elegance will force you to go deeper. Stories are built on the unfolding of psychological stakes, so to write a good story you must understand what makes your characters tick.

Even though I arrived at my curiosity about my own parents too late to learn about their early life, they emerged as characters in the pages of my memoir. For the first time, I imagined the pride my father might have felt when his son chose to work at the drugstore instead of playing with friends. And then, again for the first time, I wondered what disappointment he must have felt when I drifted off to my troubled, chaotic quest. These speculations awaken a more complex, rounded impression of his journey than I had before I began writing.

If you decide that this is the year to write about your parents, you will discover them as important characters in your own story, and reveal a mysterious resonance between your real life and the literature you create. As you develop your skills and experience as the author of their stories, you will gain deeper insights into your relationship with them than you ever dreamed possible.

Recommended memoirs about parents by children

Cherry Blossoms  in Twilight by Linda Austin
Ghost written memoir of her mother’s life starting with childhood in Japan before and during World War II.

More About Linda Austin’s Cherry Blossoms: Interview Part 1
Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin

Reading my Father by Alexandra Styron
Search for her father’s life. Essentially an autobiography of her famous father William Styron as told through the eyes and voice of his daughter.

Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham
Ghost written memoir of his father’s life in Vietnam through the late 50s to early 70s.

Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour
By a daughter about her father’s obsession with a British country manor during the deterioration of the British class system.

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Search for a man’s identity by trying to find his father’s story.

Color of Water by James McBride
A man’s search for his own identity by trying to understand his mother’s past.

Mistress’s Daughter by A. M. Homes
and
Lucky Girl by Meiling Hopgood
An adopted daughter struggles to understand her biological parents.

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.

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.

Catch-up grief: how visiting my brother helped me grow

by Jerry Waxler

When my older brother Ed was diagnosed with cancer, he was 37, married, with two young children and the owner of a growing cardiology practice in a small town in Georgia. It did not take long for the disease to rip it all away. When he died, I was 30, still entrenched in my protracted struggle to grow up. We were living almost a thousand miles apart and so I experienced his death once removed, as if the loss was happening to someone else.

As I write my memoir, these 32 years later, I discover the gaping hole his death created, as if I was postponing my grief until I was mature enough to better understand what happened. I now watch our relationship unfold in slow motion, and this time I intend to learn as much as possible about what happened and what I missed.

Much of my childhood is hazy, and as I struggle to remember it, I sometimes gain clarity by comparing notes with my sister. I had no such opportunity with my brother, at least not in physical conversations. But by imagining discussions with him, I have improved my memory as well as my peace.

It started in a psychiatrist’s office. I was complaining about the fact that after decades of earning my living sitting in front of a computer, I didn’t feel comfortable telling people I was a therapist. Even though I had my Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, and was working with clients, I was still not able to see myself as a mental health care provider. In fact, I often tried to hide it.

The psychiatrist, Lyndra, was helping me sort out my self-image problem by using a sort of modified hypnosis, called EMDR. I sat with closed eyes while she alternately tapped my knees and told me to think about how I could break past my reluctance. Out of the haze, my brother appeared. He was kind and respectful, the same as I remembered him in life, and he “gave me his blessing” telling me how proud he was of my new role.

The vision boosted my confidence, helping me proceed more energetically along my new path. The following year, I conceived of a book in which Ed was a character who communicated with me from the Other Side. I imagined he must have achieved great wisdom by then, and I asked him to help me sort out the meaning of life. Although I still have not figured out how to tie together the loose ends of the book, the hours I spent with him in my imagination helped me restore our connection.

During the process, vignettes about our early relationship peeked from their hiding places. When he was trying to earn a place on his high school basketball team, he needed a place to practice. I helped him build a court in my grandmother’s yard. We dug the hole, poured in concrete, and erected the backboard. The summer before he left for college, he assembled a hi-fi system from a kit. He taught me how to read the color code on the transistors and solder them onto a circuit board. I was 11. The following summer, we played chess out on the patio. I had been studying chess books, and we were an even match. Sometimes he would make me play two or three games in a row, leaving me begging for mercy, and yet at the same time feeling bonded to him in the strange way competition connects opponents.

After he moved away to college, I had a premonition. I was watching a drama on television about a young boy who heard news of his older brother’s death. An inexplicable rush of sadness washed over me. And then there it is. I see myself at 30 flying down to Georgia to be by his side as he lay dying and instead of feeling grief, all I could feel was admiration.

I can’t go back to change the way I reacted, but I can use my writing to reorganize my thoughts and feelings now. By illuminating early memories, my writing has helped me appreciate growing up with him. I am developing a richer range of emotions about his passing. And moving forward, I have made better sense of his absence, filling in some of that gap with warm stories, images, and sometimes even a sense of his presence.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene in which you were together with someone you miss.

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.

Reading error teaches a writing lesson – or – A good character is hard to define

By Jerry Waxler

Part of relating to a good story is to feel a personal connection with its characters. Now I need to develop the knack of portraying the people in my life onto the pages in my memoir. I have attended workshops, and read how-to books about this skill, but it has been eluding me until recently when I stumbled upon a valuable insight. By incorrectly reading a series of short stories, I had an aha-moment about how reader and writer work together to form characters. This discovery will help me bring my characters to life.

I first noticed my reading problem last year when I read a lovely collection of short stories, “Apologies Forthcoming” by Xujun Eberlein about life in China during the Cultural Revolution. [ To read that essay, click here.] In one story, a student was relocated to join peasants in the countryside. In another story, a young factory worker struggled to make friends. I imagined the second story was about the same person as the first. My interpretation was wrong. The link was created by my imagination, not the author’s.

Recently, I read another book of short stories, “Inheritance of Exile” by Susan Muaddi Darraj. [To read that essay, click here.] I am attracted to short stories, both as a reader and a writer. So I jumped into the collection, enjoying each story individually. But again I noticed my mind making incorrect or unsubstantiated assumptions, unconsciously bridging a character from one part of a book to another. The fact that I repeated my mistake made me curious to learn more about this mental habit.

In many collections of stories, this effect is used intentionally. Readers expect the detective Adam Dalgleish in P.D. James’ mysteries to maintain his quirky personality from one novel to another. His ability to completely override compassion in the service of his job became his trademark, and so the reader of these novels forms an expectation that he will continue to behave in this way. As a result of this agreed continuity, the author of a series can portray deeper characters over a longer period of time than they could in just one story.

All kinds of series are built on exactly this principle. Star Trek allows us to get to know their recurring characters across a range of stories. Sitcoms, comic books, and book series take advantage of the reader’s accumulating familiarity with characters.

By digging deeper into the way my mind insisted on linking characters together across pages, I now see more about the way authors create characters. Books don’t tell us everything about a character all at once. They drop in a fact here and a scene there, and the reader’s mind accumulates a deeper understanding of that character in bits and pieces across many pages. In any longer book, this effect of continuity is a crucial tool for authors, but I never noticed it quite so clearly as when I saw it happen accidentally across multiple stories.

Now that I see the bridging, I can use it to help me offer my reader a better, more satisfying connection with the supporting characters in my memoir. Take my older brother, for example. He’s an important enough person in my life that I would want my reader to know more about him. So how do I bring him to life?

Ed towered over me in my youth, at first because he was seven years older than me and later because he was really tall. Six feet five inches and too thin he should have easily made it onto the basketball team. But like me and my dad, he was not particularly athletic, and he walked with a slight tilt because of his scoliosis. When he was cut from the team, he responded with an intensity of disappointment I wouldn’t have expected. Perhaps he had hoped a team sport would help further his ambition to be a doctor, or maybe he really wanted to play basketball. I was too young to ask, and now it’s too late.

Armed with this collection of observations, I begin to look for places in my memoir to expand his character. Hopefully the reader will do what I do when I read, and accumulate an image of Ed as an authentic, multi-faceted person. I hope they will see my relationship to him, and how he affected my life. As I gather information about him, I notice a peculiar thing. By writing about him years later, I am bridging across the years, and revisiting our relationship. I too am feeling this authentic connection grow, as I accumulate wisdom across the span of time.

Writing Prompt

Start a file that contains anecdotes, vignettes, and personal characteristics of important characters. Add to this file over time, through brainstorming, free-writing, explore your photo albums, or conduct interviews. This file will provide source material to help you build authentic characters in your memoir.

The powerful story of an ordinary woman

by Jerry Waxler

I first met Linda Wisniewski seven years ago at a critique group in Doylestown, PA. Within a few months she announced that one of her essays was going to be broadcast on her local public radio station. I was impressed by her accomplishment, proud to know the author of one of these radio essays. She left the group, and later I heard from a friend that Linda was teaching a course in memoir writing at the Bucks County Community College. Recently, I saw her again, at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania autographing copies of her memoir, “Off Kilter.” Thanks to her persistent passion for telling her story, I can read her book and ponder the gifts her life has now offered me.

The crisis that drives the book is the author’s relationship to her mother. As Mom slipped towards dementia, their relationship became strained. Mom struggled inconsistently, sometimes accepting her fate and other times bitterly afraid of going into a nursing home. During this disturbing reversal of roles, when a child must care for her parent, problems that have been buried for a lifetime bubble to the surface.

Naturally, Mom raised Linda to be a good girl. The problem was that Mom’s idea of a “good girl” was fashioned from an older world, when girls were supposed to stay invisible and do what they were told. Linda didn’t want to follow this training. She wanted to expand towards the freedom of an American woman in the Twentieth Century. These two opposing views of a woman’s role played out in a million homes, as daughters tried to find their identity in a world drastically different from the one their mothers were trying to teach. The resulting schisms were buried for decades under layers of politeness and other charades.

With Mom’s strength failing, and Linda thinking it was time for a nursing home, the stress reaches a crescendo, and Mom explodes, “You’ve made a mess of my life.” This attack jumped out at me. What a hurtful thing to say! I wondered what the “mess” was. My first interpretation was that Mom was looking for a handy target to blame for the downward slide of old age. Then I realized that Linda’s development as a proud, independent woman did create a mess. It messed up her mother’s goal of raising a submissive daughter.

Mom’s outburst makes me wonder what other hurtful things she said to her daughter through the years. Since Mom has been teaching her daughter the importance of being passive, it seems surprising that she would use such an aggressive outburst. And again, putting myself in Linda’s shoes, I saw another lesson embedded in Mom’s behavior. That is, if you want to manipulate another person, then cause them pain.

Psychology lessons from Off Kilter

When I was in graduate school, I took a course called “Assertiveness.” I had always assumed the assertiveness meant “pushy,” so I was surprised by how much insight the word contained. The professor explained it this way.

When you need something from another person, such as love, or privacy, you must communicate. Consider these two approaches. One option is to express your needs in words, using simple statements to help the other person understand what you are feeling. This style of communication called “assertiveness” leaves people feeling good about themselves and draws them closer to each other. The other option is to convey your displeasure by causing the other person pain, in effect punishing them for not giving you what you wanted. The pain causes the other person to pull away, resulting in isolation. Or else the hurt one fights back, creating a sickening embrace of attack and counter-attack.

Through the years since I took the class, I have often seen this dynamic play out in the behavior of individuals and nations, sometimes using aggression to cause pain, and other times using clear communication to reduce pain and enhance mutual understanding. But seldom have I seen it represented with more exquisite insight than in Linda Wisniewski’s tale of trying to help her mother.

I am not my mother

When Mom lashes out, it would be tempting for Linda to draw on her childhood training and respond in the way her mother taught her. Her choices were limited. She could either become aggressive, like her mother, and lash back. Or she could remain quiet, becoming the victim. Of course, neither course is desirable. The high road was to break away and strive towards clear, patient communication. Linda beautifully portrays the power of these difficult choices, as she tries to respect and love her mother, while not “becoming” her mother.

Lifelong process in this adult Coming of Age story

Using flashbacks, Linda shows her journey from child to adult, striking upward like a climber on a hard scrabble mountain. During the climb she was too young and too caught up in the process of growing to be able to step back and understand her family dynamics. As a result, she entered adulthood with unresolved issues. Now, as Mom is growing old, they struggle for warmth amidst their interpersonal tensions. At first, a cloud of doubt descends upon me, making me feel pessimistic about the possibility of love in such a situation.

As I ponder the memoir Off Kilter, I find another dimension that offers me uplifting hope and optimism. By writing her story, Linda has performed a remarkable service to herself and her readers. She has broken the code of silence, and exposed her family dynamics to the world, where we can all compare notes. In a sense, she has taken the high road of assertiveness, not only in her relationship to her mother, but more broadly, as a responsible neighbor and friend. This assertive book can help readers understand her, and by sharing her experience, she helps us understand ourselves.

Links

“Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage”  by Linda Wisniewski
Linda Wisniewski’s Home Page
Amazon Link for Off Kilter
For another book about a daughter caring for her mother, see Carol O’Dell’s Mothering Mother
To read my essay about Mothering Mother, click here.

Give Thanks for Your Family Stories

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Thanksgiving is a banquet for the senses, with a table overflowing with food, and the room overflowing with relatives, now a year older and hopefully wiser. And yet family gatherings often arouse tension. We fear arguments with some visitors or feel a hole where we wish we could see a loved one, or wonder about a new potential spouse. Our anxiety seems ungrateful. This feast ought to be a time of joy. To shift attention to the positive aspects of such meetings look at them as opportunities to learn and share each other’s stories.

Listening, as the saying goes, is an act of love, and your willingness to open up and let their stories in will create a lovely, kind, and energetic atmosphere. But the old conversation patterns have a mind of their own. Instead of hoping the energy will shift, take a leadership role. To steer the conversation in a new direction, you need to prepare.

When you are in a safe, healthy space, right now for example, list a few things you wish you knew about each person. Then, in the press of food and family, if you feel a wave of annoyance coming on, switch it to curiosity. Look at your list, take a deep breath, and ask a question. You might at first feel a moment’s hesitation, like you are being rude for breaking into the old pattern. But the surprise will last just a moment, as the other person adjusts his thinking to focus on your question. By asking them to talk about a specific time in their lives, your curiosity will arouse memories. If you press forward, asserting your real interest, you have a good chance of shifting their attention into a reverie about the good, or strange, or formative times. Their story telling will (hopefully) arouse more interesting emotions than the ones you interrupted.

It’s easier if you get this storytelling focus started early in the day, before the old patterns set in. Broadcast the message that you expect them to tell at least one story that you haven’t heard before. And for best results, make suggestions. It’s almost like pitching them some of the writing prompts you would use to develop your memoir. “Tell us about your first day at your first apartment.” “Tell us about where you were when you saw a beautiful sunset.” If you don’t have time to arrange this before the holiday, do it when you first walk in. Write something up. Claim you need these stories for a writing project you’re working on. (And if you write the stories afterwards, then this claim will be true.)

Once you get the ball rolling, if you feel people steering towards boring territory, say, “The rule today is a story we’ve never heard,” or, “I already knew about that situation. But I can’t picture it. Tell me who else was there, what the walls looked like, what did you smell?” You can lead people away from negative feelings by pushing the clock forward. What happened afterwards? Where did you go next?

And if they get stuck in a story you know, listen to it with fresh ears. See if you can imagine being there with them during their original experience. Your curiosity will instigate new questions that will pop you into a fresh perspective. You could think or blurt out, “Hey, wait a minute. That sounds similar to another time in your life.” Or, “Oh. I didn’t realize that happened so soon after you moved.”

In addition to gaining material for your family storybook, you will achieve immediate benefits. Speakers will feel the unusual sensation that people are actually listening to parts of their lives. This is a warm and disarming sensation, that draws everyone closer and reaches across boundaries. For example, if an old-timer tells you about a youthful experience, it puts them on a level playing field with younger family members. And then, when you give a younger person the floor, they will feel empowered by an audience of adults who are suddenly interested, not in finding fault, but in finding entertainment. And for new couples, visitors, and distant relatives, it will give everyone an opportunity to appreciate this whole person.

To prepare to listen to their stories, think ahead about stories of your own. Dig up a story you’ve never told before. Perhaps you never told it because you feel a little embarrassed. This is good. It’s an opportunity to tell people things about yourself that will give them a more intimate and less formulaic impression. Your willingness to share parts of yourself in a room full of people is a good way to flap your memoir wings. So as you look forward to the Thanksgiving holiday, or any time when extended families get together, use stories to create intimacy, defuse tension, and develop a deeper sense of gratitude for the people in your life.

For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

Listening Is An Act of Love

by Jerry Waxler

Last week, when I was visiting WHYY studio in Philadelphia I saw the mobile StoryCorps van and interviewed facilitator Mike Rauch about what StoryCorps does. It intrigued me so much, I went back to Philly last night to hear Dave Isay the founder of StoryCorps speak at the National Constitution Center. He was explaining StoryCorps, talking about is own path, and sharing some of the stories from his book. StoryCorps is a non-profit corporation, and according to Dave Isay, it’s the fasting growing nonprofit corporation in the country. Now, if that’s not a trend, I don’t know what is.

Learning about other people’s lives, through their stories is gripping the national imagination. I think it’s because we’re tired of watching sitcom actors play out their perfectly scripted lives. We want real people. In my opinion, this is the reason for the scrapbooking craze, the blogging craze, and the memoir craze. Now we’re poised for the audio story craze.

At the current rate, the StoryCorps is gathering 7,000 stories a year, and it’s growing exponentially, with new facilities and programs coming online all the time. During the question and answer period, a schoolteacher asked if the stories ever become repetitive. Dave Isay said, “No. At first I also had that fear, that we would start hearing the same story over and over. But it never happened.” He added that in his opinion the most important recipient of the story was the family member who was in the recording booth hearing intimate details for the first time. More often than not, people break down and cry in the middle of the telling. These are touching, intimate moments that open up pathways among people.

Before the age of electronics, say in the nineteenth century and before, people had to use each other for entertainment. They told stories, played the piano, participated in parlor games. This gave them time to get to know each other. When I was growing up, that all changed. We glued ourselves to the tube and let others do the entertainment for us. That’s been going on long enough, and we’re growing weary of being strangers to each other.

Dave Isay’s book is called “Listening is an Act of Love.” As a therapist, I have found his title to be true. Part of my training was to keep my mouth shut and listen. It doesn’t sound like much, but sometimes it’s the most generous, caring, healing thing you can do. Now, Dave Isay and the StoryCorps want to show everyone that same power. Dave Isay’s book “Listening is an act of Love” contains a number of stories as told by people in the StoryCorps booth. Remarkably, all profits from the book go to support the mission of the StoryCorps.

The stories are not edited, nor do they provide much backstory. After reading memoirs, it’s easy to see the many differences between oral and written life story. But rather than focus on the differences, here are a few ways that oral storytelling fits in with the charter of writing your life story.

  • Use story listening to help you learn about yourself. To research his memoir, Foster Winans interviewed people in his life to ask them how they remembered him.
  • Use story telling as a way to dredge up material. It’s amazing how much comes to mind when you are telling a story. Sit with someone who really cares. Ask each other questions. Let the story emerge. You’ll find material you had not thought about in years.
  • As you write your memoir, you will become more sensitized to the variety of human experience. By seeing your own story from the inside, you will want to know other people’s stories. And this will open you to the inner lives of the people in your family and beyond.
  • As you read memoirs, do the same thing a listener would do in that recording booth. Slow down, and listen. You will realize that everyone has an inner life, and reading about it will expand the range of your understanding of the human condition.

For more information about this piece, see this links:
Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center
StoryCorps
WHYY Philadelphia’s Public Television and Radio Station
My previous essay on StoryCorps

Tell stories for more thankful holiday gatherings

by Jerry Waxler

The holidays bring together a mélange of generations, family units, and significant others, bonded by blood, marriage, love, and shared life experience. Then why did I feel more dread than joy? I didn’t understand my own reactions to the holidays until I started writing family stories, and then the answer leapt off the page. There were just too many stories in one room. The chiefs in their own homes are now guests. Siblings connect in a secret code that sounds foreign to their spouses. Fully grown adults behave like children, and kids who are ordinarily the cutest, now must compete with even smaller ones. The clash of roles has always confused me, and I’m not alone. Many people struggle to sort out their feelings about holiday gatherings.

Now that I see the problem, I’ve worked out a solution. My interest in storytelling helps me focus on the interesting, curious, or historical features of my clan. By looking for their stories, I become engaged with people more intimately, and my curiosity reveals who we are as individuals and as a group. I’m not claiming writing is a panacea, but it has helped me stay on top, like a surfer riding the energy rather than falling in. Here are some suggestions for applying this strategy to your own holiday gathering.

Connect with each person by writing scenes
Before the holidays, in your imagination go around the table, visualizing each person. Watch the memories that play through your mind, and when a scene jumps out, describe it. Don’t worry how important the scene is. Even if it seems trivial, write about it. What did you see? Who was there? What happened first? Then what? Your writing exercise will open you to a deeper channel through which you can learn about your relationship.

For example, I try to imagine my father at the holiday dinner. At first, all I see is a tangle of people eating, drinking, and getting through the hour. Then I shift to a different family gathering, Passover which combines a feast with a ritual service. My father tells us to read a passage from the book of instructions. Then we do things like dip a toothpick into radish and taste it. While the book provides stage directions, my father is the director. This is interesting. I’m not accustomed to seeing him in that role and find this memory soothing. By writing that scene, I cast my father in a light that would help me relate to him at the Thanksgiving meal.

If you feel anger towards someone, that’s more problematic. The initial temptation is to complain, but that only makes you feel worse. Step back and with your storytelling curiosity look for scenes that evoke a range of emotions, such as drama, passion, or pleasure. If you suspect it’s going to sound like another round of ranting, continue brainstorming until you light on a memory that sparks your interest. Then tell the story. Describe the external circumstances, the furniture, the smells of cooking, the sound of voices or clatter of dishes. Out of the scene will emerge a more complex picture of your connection with this person. The exercise may help you develop a more sophisticated container into which you can pour your heart.

Your interest in people changes the dynamics
Family preconceptions remain frozen in time, so older relatives see younger ones as if they are children, and younger ones see elders as the powerful parental figures they once were. These prescribed roles force interactions into a groove that confines each of you into only a sliver of your whole personality. Break past these limits by telling people you are writing about their lives. Ask the questions you will someday wish you had. As you sit there with paper and pen or tape recorder, eyes wide with interest, the focus shifts. Now you are empowering people to be themselves, in toto, opening a door into their real lives, not just their ritualized position in the clan. Even though you are talking about the past, your interactions in the present become more authentic and intimate.

To evoke vivid responses ask for sensory descriptions. If you can get them to wade through a pile of leaves as they walked to elementary school, or describe the dresser and mirror in their childhood bedroom they will probably become energized with fresh stories, rather than the routine ones they usually tell. Test the question by posing it to yourself. If it stirs up memories, there’s a good chance it will work on your relatives. If it leaves you blank, try something more specific. If the atmosphere during the larger gathering is not conducive to reverie, pull your interviewee aside before or after the meal and talk in a more private setting.

Write about those you miss
The holidays are a ritual time to come together as a tribe, but what about the people you won’t be with? They might be cut off by a feud, a death or divorce, or they are on a battlefield, in a hospital, a nursing home, or a prison. Longing is itself a form of connection that links people at a distance. Stories go further by reminding you of the love and joy and other qualities about them that are the reason you miss them in the first place. Write about a peaceful time, or a peak time, or any story that awakens your connection.

By looking for fresh ways to describe the people around you, you will gain poise not only for the day. You’ll generate insights and written passages that help you through the year. And you just might find some lovely bonding opportunities with the people in your life.