Character Development of a Novel’s Hero

By Jerry Waxler

When the protagonist of the novel “Bread Alone” went to work in a bakery, she found her own strength. That’s the central premise of the novel. Through creative striving, through effort and overcoming obstacles, the protagonist grew. In this regard, “Bread Alone” provides an uplifting, even inspiring answer to the question asked by almost every good story, “How did the character grow?” I asked the author Judi Hendricks to tell me more about the importance of the character arc for her and her characters.

Jerry Waxler: Okay. I get that the character Wynter had a different experience in the break up of the marriage than you did in real life, but there is one area of your life that your protagonist seems to accurately reflect. You both went from incomplete people to much more aware and fulfilled people by working in the bakery. As a reader, I love this inner arc, which shows your character’s personal development. This is one of the reasons I read memoirs, to see how people grow, and I’m glad you reflected that part of your life in the novel. I know you’ve said you just follow your characters and your characters tell you what happens, but I wonder if you could say anything specifically about this aspect of story crafting which portrays the growing wisdom of the protagonist as she travels from the beginning of the story to the end.

Judi Hendricks: I should clarify that comment about following my characters to see what happens–I think that applies mainly to specifics of the story, not so much to the character’s arc.  In one class where I workshopped the first few chapters of Bread Alone, one of the other participants said, in essence, “Your main character is a nincompoop.  She’s totally spoiled and clueless and not very likeable.  Why don’t you make her smarter and don’t let her feel so sorry for herself and so entitled?”

My response was, “That’s the whole point of the story.  She has to change and grow or there’s no story.”

I usually have at least a vague idea of how my characters will develop, who they’ll be at the end.  But the things that happen along the way, I discover as I write.

Jerry: Okay, so flash forward. You have written a bunch of novels, and you are actually a writer now. So this whole story would make a great memoir. In the beginning was an unformed young bakery worker who attends a memoir class and realizes she could play with reality. This marks the transition into the next stage in her life. Over the coming years, like Wynter in Bread Alone, the protagonist of this memoir is becoming a deeper person, as she writes novels, and finds her voice, her audience, and her stride as a mature writer.

So if you were to look back and see yourself as the protagonist in this memoir or novel about the birth of a writer, could you offer us a scene, a revelation, a key moment, perhaps at a book signing or the completion of yet another manuscript when you said to yourself something like, “Hey, this is my life. I’m a writer.”

Judi: First of all–what a great idea for a novel!

The realization hit me as I was beginning my second book, Isabel’s Daughter.  I’d gotten a two-book contract from my UK publisher and I had to produce a manuscript in 18 months, whereas I’d had no deadline for Bread Alone and ended up taking four years to write it.  I had only the most nebulous idea for a story and was facing a huge amount of research about New Mexico and art and a bunch of other topics I knew nothing about.  I rented a little house in Santa Fe for a month and my husband and I drove over with all my books and my computer and we had a fun weekend playing tourists, and then Monday morning he got on a plane and went back to L.A. and I freaked out.  I spent most of the day walking around town in a daze, envisioning having to give back my advance.

That night I called my husband, practically in tears and he gave me his best halftime locker room pep talk.  The next morning I sat down at the kitchen table and organized my research materials, outlined a 30-day plan for what I needed to accomplish, read over the story notes I had to date and then I just started to write.  That’s when I knew I was a writer.

Jerry: What are you working on next?

Judi: Part three of Bread Alone– Baker’s Apprentice was part 2..

Notes

To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

More of my interview with Judi Hendricks

A Novelist Plays at the Border of Fact and Fiction

How a Novelist Strives for Authentic Reality

Explore Painful Memories by Writing Fiction

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.

How a Novelist Strives for Authentic Reality

By Jerry Waxler

In this part of my interview with novelist Judi Hendricks, I ask her to describe how she walks the line between fact and fiction in her novel “Bread Alone.”

Jerry Waxler: When I read “Bread Alone” I was impressed by how realistic and rich the dialog was. It was just very real. I enjoy dialog that has a rich real flavor, and always wonder how writers do it. How do you bring your dialog to life?

Judi Hendricks: You have no idea how big of a compliment that is. When I first began to write fiction, dialog was the hardest thing for me.  There are so many ways to do it badly, and I did every one of them.  I’ve always been an incorrigible eavesdropper, so at first I tried to write the way people actually talk, which is incredibly boring, full of um and you know and sentence fragments that go nowhere.  I read a lot of novels and books on writing, and I took a lot of classes, and I learned that the biggest problem with my dialog was that it went on far too long.

When you’re writing dialog you have to decide with each conversation between your characters, what exactly is the point of this exchange?  Once you know that, you must ruthlessly cut everything that doesn’t pertain to that point.  And if you don’t know what the point of an exchange is, you have to get rid of the whole conversation, no matter how cool it sounds.  The other thing about dialog is to be constantly aware, and to make the reader aware, that what a character says is not necessarily what she thinks or feels.  Everyone’s got an agenda; every conversation has subtext.  To me, that’s one of the biggest things that brings dialog to life.  This applies to memoir as well as to fiction.

Jerry: I have heard that people often ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” I could see how this line of questioning could lead to a tangle if you have to start explaining which parts are true and which are invented. Maybe that’s why many writers try to dodge the question altogether. How does that work for you?

Judi: “Where do you get your ideas?” is the second most frequently asked question, right after “How did you get your agent?” and I’m always tempted to laugh.  It’s almost like there should be a catalog company with a warehouse in Kansas where you can order ideas over the internet.  My best response is that ideas are organic.  Your life is like a big compost pile full of thoughts, dreams, memories, experiences…all of which lie there and rot and become this very fertile substance from which ideas sprout spontaneously.  As for the truth, that’s a more slippery thing.  I don’t believe that a story has to be real to be true.

Jerry: Do you keep a writing notebook to jot down notes you observe or think? Do you insert snips of overheard conversations into your novels?

Judi: I actually have several notebooks.  One by the bed, one in the car, one in my purse.  As I get older and my memory gets worse, I feel like I have to write down the ideas I don’t want to forget.  A few of my best lines are gems I overheard in an elevator or sitting in a café.  Those are like a gift from the writing gods.

Jerry: Many new writers ask, “What if a character sues or hates me for writing the story?” Obviously you side stepped this issue by writing fiction. It’s what the spies call “plausible deniability.” You could say, “Oh, no. It’s fiction. That wasn’t really you.” But this is a complex mental and emotional game. You must juggle parts of reality with parts of imagination. Did it feel strange distorting real events for the purposes of the story?

Judi: It really is a kind of game…a game of “what if,” like my writing about the robbery. Personally, I’ve never had any trouble distorting or changing or embellishing reality.  When I was growing up I got in trouble for it; now I get paid for it.  Sometimes when I try to write nonfiction it’s harder to remember what actually happened than to recall the little nuances and embroideries I concoct around so many events.

Jerry: Interesting. Experts, like Brian Boyd in “The Evolution of Stories” propose that humans began to tell stories as a sort of cognitive playground where they experiment with alternate scenarios. You seem to be the perfect model for that theory. In “Bread Alone” you turned your imagination loose at the boundaries of reality. So on your fifth novel, how has that connection between life and fiction evolved for you over the years?

Judi: Bread Alone was my first novel, and my most personal one, partly because I actually experienced some of the things I wrote about.  But no matter what I’m writing about, it becomes very real to me. Part of writing fiction is digging deeper and deeper, not just into your characters, but into yourself, mining your own emotions and memories.  You discover your character’s emotional reality by drawing upon your own.  For example, in Isabel’s Daughter, my second novel, the protagonist is a woman who was abandoned as a child, grew up in an orphanage and foster homes.  I’ve never been abandoned; my family was excruciatingly normal, so I don’t know anything about that.  But my experience includes that feeling of not being fully engaged in life, of being an outsider–and it was that feeling I had to mine when I wrote this character.

Everything you write is filtered through your experience, your sensibilities.  Even if it’s a totally fictional story with characters that are completely unlike you, it’s still almost impossible to separate the writer from the work.  That’s why it’s so hard not to read criticism of your work as criticism of yourself.

If I only knew what my thought process was as I tried to figure out the story structure…  It’s the same for me now, working on my fifth novel, as it was with Bread Alone.  I just keep writing to discover what happens.  There’s a certain amount of ceding control to the story, which I know sounds very woo-woo, but there you are.

Notes

To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

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.

A Novelist Plays at the Border of Fact and Fiction

by Jerry Waxler

I constantly scan for wisdom that can help me translate my life into story, so I was intrigued recently when  fiction writer Grace Marcus told me about a friend who walked into a memoir class and walked out with an idea for her first novel “Bread Alone.” When author Judi Hendricks agreed to speak to me about her creative process, I prepared by reading the book, about a woman crushed by the betrayal of her husband, went to find herself by baking bread. The novel seemed so rich with the emotional journey of real life, I felt sure that my talk with Judi would be productive. Here is part one of our interview.

Jerry Waxler: So is it true? Did you get the idea from your first novel after attending a memoir class? If so, please share the events and choices that brought you to that conclusion?

Judi Hendricks: I’ve always said my career as a novelist began in a bakery, which seems appropriate, because the longer I practice both writing and baking the more similarities I see between them.  Bread is a process–slow, arduous, messy, unpredictable.  You can say all the same things about a book.  Bread is composed of distinct ingredients, that merge and become dough–a completely different entity which then takes on a life of its own.  A book follows that same process.

In my twenties and thirties, I had so many different jobs.  If there had been such a thing as adult ADD then, I’m sure I would have been diagnosed with it.  I worked as a journalist, then in public relations and advertising.  I worked in public television, then at Delta Airlines, then I had my own travel agency.  I wore suits and carried a briefcase.  I kept thinking everything would be fine if I could just find the right job. When I finally landed at the McGraw Street Bakery in Seattle, I thought I had found my calling.  Which I had–just not in exactly the way I first imagined.

Time and circumstance intervened, and later in a different city I found myself in a creative non-fiction class with an assignment to write an essay about something I loved to do.  I wrote about making bread.  This was almost seven years after my job at the McGraw Street Bakery had ended, and yet all these memories suddenly came flooding back.  The essay became a memoir of my time at the bakery.  I never intended to write anything longer than 30 pages, but something about the piece nagged at me.  I kept rewriting it.  Every time I thought I was finished, it drew me back to the computer.

Jerry: Why did you go to that memoir class? What was your goal?

Judi: Actually my goal was to avoid having to get another job.  I’m not kidding.  I was “between engagements” and I was hoping if I stalled long enough I’d either win the lottery or figure out what I was supposed to be doing.  The only reason I took that particular class was I knew I could write nonfiction because I’d made a living doing it.  I was also sure I couldn’t write fiction because I had a file cabinet full of aborted short stories.

Jerry: What inspired you to flip from nonfiction to fiction?

Judi: It was not a conscious choice.  I remember the exact moment when I crossed the line between memoir and fiction.  I was writing about something that happened at the bakery right after I started working there.  We had a robbery one night, and the police decided that it was an inside job because the cash box was kept in a fairly unusual place, behind the huge tins of baking powder in the store room, and the thief apparently went right to it.

Suspicion immediately fell on our dishwasher–a fifteen-year-old boy–we’ll call him Josh.  His parents had just been through a really nasty divorce, and he was living with his mother, but all he ever talked about was getting enough money together so he could go find his dad in Kansas City.  Coincidentally or not, he disappeared shortly thereafter.  Within a week we had a new dishwasher–a pretty16-year old girl we’ll call Kristi.  This information is totally unrelated to the robbery.  She wasn’t even working there when it happened.
But what if she had been?

Somehow my brain made the leap that it would be more interesting that way.  What if Kristi liked nice clothes and she had an old car that needed repairs and insurance and gas…what if she stole the money and let Josh take the fall?  What if he knew and didn’t tell because he was crazy about her?  Or…what if she took the money for him because she was crazy about him?  Without any conscious decision on my part, I’d just become a fiction writer.  None of this stuff ended up in the book, but it seemed to me that my course was set.

Jerry: Fascinating! You were willing to write about “real life” but with a twist. That’s an interesting intuition. Didn’t it feel strange veering away from reality like this? I’m trying to understand why you wrote fiction instead of just sticking with the facts.

Judi: I never imagined writing about myself anymore than I imagined writing a novel.  Bread and the bakery were just two things I was passionate about.  I think almost everyone has had an experience like that–one of those magical times that exerts an almost gravitational pull on you.  You know there’s a reason for it; you just don’t know what it is.  You keep revisiting it and reliving it in your head until it becomes almost your personal mythology.  For me, the bakery was that experience.

Yes, the thought of writing a novel was daunting.  So for months I didn’t acknowledge that’s what I was doing.  At around 350 pages, it became clear that it had gone beyond a short story, but it was a scary step to admit to myself–much less anyone else–that it might be a book.  That sounded like an engraved invitation to humiliation and failure.  (I do subscribe to that school of thought that says if you don’t admit you’re trying something, then you cannot possibly fail.)

The Scottish astronomer David Brewster said,
“It is a curious circumstance, that when we wish to obtain a sight of very faint star, we can see it most distinctly by looking away from it, and when the eye is turned full upon it, it immediately disappears…”

Focusing on the bakery enabled me to see the story I was trying to tell, framed within the experience of making bread.

This is part one of the interview. In the next part we’ll dig further into the relationship between fact and fiction.

Notes
To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Myths Suggest a Universal Template for Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note

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

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Author and creative writing teacher helps me steer between fact and fiction

by Jerry Waxler

Last year, I attended a writing conference at Rosemont College hosted by Philadelphia Stories journal. At one of the sessions, I met Susan Muaddi Darraj and purchased a book of her collected fiction called “Inheritance of Exile.” The protagonist of the stories was a Palestinian woman who grew up in South Philadelphia in circumstances similar to Muaddi Darraj’s own childhood.

The characters in “Inheritance of Exile” felt authentic. I loved their introspective world, their frustration, despair, and hope. I connected with their romances and their interaction with their families. And I even deepened my imagination of my own ancestors who also were immigrants in Philadelphia. [See my essay on that topic here.]

The interplay between fact and fiction enhanced my reading, but I wanted to know more about how it felt to the writer so I asked Susan Muaddi Darraj to help me understand how she the world she is creating with the one about which she is writing. And since she is a writing teacher, I wanted to know what she tells her students.

Jerry Waxler: When I was a student, literature was taught as an art form that had value in its own right. Now that I’ve become obsessed with memoirs, my view of literature has shifted. I now look at stories as a window into the human condition. Judging from the authenticity of your characters and situations, I’m wondering how you feel about the connection between story and life. Are stories art? Or are they a way to share the experience of human beings? Or some of each?

Susan Muaddi Darraj:
I do think literature serves multiple purposes. Its primary purpose is to serve as art — that aesthetic goal is always first and foremost. But literature also has an opportunity to comment and describe other worlds to the reader — not monolithic “worlds,” but a view of life as experienced by that particular author. For example, in this story collection, “Inheritance of Exile,” I tried to express what life was like for not all Palestinian emigres, but for a particular socio-economic class of emigres who had settled into a working-class, urban environment.

JW: Writers must learn all sorts of micro-skills such as word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, characterization and so on. The authentic characters in your stories make me wonder if writers also need to be exquisite observers. Must we also get degrees in psychology, sociology, and anthropology?

SMJ: No, but you still need to do your research as a writer. The best writing I have ever read is that in which it is clear that the author has spent time conducting or doing research of some kind — and the research could take place on many levels: looking up the right word for a particular object, researching the jargon used by archaeologists because you’ve decided to make one of your characters an archaeologist, etc.

JW: Can explain how you learned the skills of careful observation?

SMJ: Reading, watching, listening, always keeping a notebook in my purse…

JW: How do you teach these skills of careful observation to aspiring writers, or recommend that they learn?

SMJ: The writer’s notebook is a lost art form in itself! I always tell my students (I teach a fiction workshop in the Johns Hopkins graduate writing program) that keeping a notebook to jot down observations and ideas is vital.

JW: Could you share some insight or examples of the way the notebooks help you add vitality to your stories.

SMJ: I am a marvelous eavesdropper — I listen to conversations around me all the time and am always affected by the tone of people’s voices, their diction, as well as the stories they tell. I write those observations down. I also clip out news items or articles or pictures that strike me in some way. For example, who knows when I will need to describe a log cabin some day in a story I’m writing? If I do, I have a photograph clipped out of a magazine, to give me some parameters.

JW: I struggle to understand how fiction writers create characters. For example, are they composites stitched together from a variety of observations? That seems risky to me. Can a writer really invent a person from whole cloth or cobble one together from bits? Especially in first person stories such as yours, creating the thoughts and feelings of real people seems difficult. Could you say more about how you invent your characters?

SMJ: My characters are not composites, although I suppose they are sometimes inspired by particular traits I do observe in people in the real world. My characters seem like real people to me, and so I often spend a lot of time just thinking about them in my mind before I commit them to paper. I think about them in terms of “How would x react to this particular event?” Their responses to people and reactions to incidents tells me a lot about their personalities, their fears, their desires.

JW: Did you grow up telling stories, or was story telling a learned skill? Was a family hobby? If it was learned, how did you come to it?

SMJ: My father is a wonderful storyteller and a great writer as well. He told us stories every night — things he invented, stories he spun based on prompts we would give him (“Tell me a story about a fish, or about going to the supermarket,” etc…). And my mother taught me to read quite early, so I always had a book with me everywhere I went — long car rides were a joy for me, for example. I could finish two books in the time it took us to drive from Philadelphia to visit my grandparents in New York.

JW: Many aspiring memoir writers wonder if their lives would be best told in fictional form.  What do you think about this option? What are the pros and cons?

SMJ: Every work of fiction is inspired to some degree by the author’s life. The limit to this is that if a character is based too closely on you, you will be afraid, hesitant, to allow that character to behave badly. And that’s just not realistic — people behave badly all the time, and it’s quite interesting when they do. They make poor choices, etc. Once you have committed a character to paper, then you have to cut the umbilical cord with him or her and just allow him or her to be…

JW: Your protagonists are young women who grew up in Philadelphia in an immigrant home. So while you have not written about your own life, you have written things that you know. Did you find this confusing, steering your characters, settings, and situations in the strange space between actual experience and imagination?

SMJ: Not really. The cultural aspects of the stories are things that I know, but most things were invented, such as the particular situations, etc.

JW: John Barth, author of “End of the Road,” came to speak at the University of Wisconsin in the 60’s. After the lecture, I asked him if his novels were based on real life, and he looked disgusted. What do you feel when someone asks you if your stories are autobiographical? Do you think it’s a disrespectful question?

SMJ: I just think that, in recent years, because of the growth of memoir as a genre, readers want fiction to also be based on the author’s life. It’s one way of grasping the work, or accessing it — that is, to make it connect to the real life of the writer. I don’t think it’s a disrespectful question, but it is wearying when people ask me that, because I feel that it doesn’t recognize the art of invention, the work it takes to sit down in a chair and create this fictional world.

JW: As a published writer, you expose your thoughts, your imagination, your mental world. It’s a goal all writers strive for, and yet, I suspect once we get there, it has its pros and cons. Could you share your experience of what it’s like letting people “in” to see parts of your mind.

SMJ: I have no complaints! It’s been nothing but fun. I admit that if I were a New York Times bestselling author who was doing lots of interviews and traveling all the time, I would probably miss my writing time a bit. All writers, in the end, are solitary people — it’s the nature of the job — and I think we crave that quiet time.

Susan Muaddi Darraj Home Page

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.

Yin and Yang of Storytelling – Dramatic Tension of Opposites

by Jerry Waxler

Writing your memoir? Memoir Revolution provides many examples and insights into how to authors are translating life into story.

An author’s job is to tie us in knots, forcing us to search for relief on the next page. Thrillers easily generate tension when the hero races to find and defuse a bomb. But how do writers create tension from ordinary life? To find out how one writer achieves this creative task, I peered into the collection of short stories, “Inheritance of Exile” by Susan Muaddi Darraj.

Each story shows characters caught in the emotions and circumstances of ordinary life, and yet despite their ordinariness, I feel engaged in their struggles, turning the page to learn more. As I seek to understand how Susan Muaddi Darraj has accomplished her hold on me, I notice a particular feature of the writing. She has superbly tapped the power of opposites.

Opposites generate texture in every aspect of ordinary life: sad and happy, rich and poor, young and old, hope and despair. It’s the yin-yang of nature, that oriental principle that claims each polarity contains its opposite. I knew about the principle, but I never noticed it as a tool for storytelling. Now I discover the secret hidden in plain sight.

Opposites, by their nature, create tension, like the sparks that jump across the two terminals of a battery. The tension pulls together when opposites attract, or pushes apart when we want to maintain our distance from the other. By juxtaposing the two sides and allowing us to feel the contrast, the writer generates energy, creating an intellectual and artistic feast. Here are examples of the opposites I noticed in these stories:

Girl and boy romance

While describing a relationship, the author maintains her protagonist’s feminine needs, and at the same time, she shows a deep empathy and understanding of the boy’s perspective.

Child and parent have two very different views

She shows characters at different stages of Coming of Age, wanting to grow up, and at odds with their parents. This universal tension can be confusing and polarized. And yet, somehow, Inheritance of Exile brings enormous compassion to these situations by giving us deeper understanding of the parents’ point of view.

Tension between rich and poor

To earn a few dollars, she sells hand-made baskets at a craft fair. People with lots of money stop by to look. The contrast between their economic situation and hers crackles with tension.

Hoodlums and law abiding working people

A working man is robbed at gun point, showing the stark contrast between these two lifestyles. The man works hard, pushing himself through the daily grind to support his family. The hoodlums break the law and steal what he built up. The scene creates an intense contrast of these opposing life choices.

Relationships with Father vs. Mother

The protagonist’s relationship with her mother and with her father are each formidable, each rich in emotion, tension, and love. The real power, though, comes from the juxtaposition of the child’s relationship with each. The difference in her connection with each of these two parents creates enormous tension that the character must sort through, and which drag me deep into their family dynamic. Mother-love and father-love, so different and so authentic, create dramatic tension that drives me not only to turn pages, but to ponder these truths of the human condition after I have closed the book.

Palestinian (immigrant) culture and American (dominant) culture

Of course, every immigrant copes with these two opposing forces – the confining boundaries of the culture-of-origin, and the inexorable crucible of the melting pot that demands escape from that confinement. Susan does an artful job of showing her characters moving sometimes easily and sometimes awkwardly between these two different states.

Life is a balance of opposites

All of life is caught in the pincers of endless pairs of opposites. Opposites create revolutions, hatreds, and passionate love. At a more ordinary level, we strive to balance or solve cold and hot, hunger and fullness, loneliness and anger. At every level of life, from physics and biology, individual life, and the history of civilizations, opposites move us forward. Find these opposites in your story to propel your reader’s attention forward as well.

Writing Prompt

To accentuate dramatic tension in your own story, look for the opposites. Use the same ones I noted from reading Inheritance of Exile or look for others: educated and not, healthy and sick, and so on.

Notes

The famous graphic symbol of yin and yang is a circle with the two black and white interlocking shapes. It is called Taijitu. Here’s a link to a wiki page.

Visit Susan Muaddi Darraj’s Portfolio

Visit Amazon’s page for Inheritance of Exile

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

Fiction built on a foundation of real life

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

Fiction seems entirely different from memoirs. And yet, when I look at actual examples of the two forms, I discover their intimate connection, each breathing life into the other. A good memoir is more compelling than a raw dump of facts. It generates dramatic tension by using fiction techniques like suspense and character development. And good fiction requires believable characters and real psychological interactions in order to capture our attention.

Last fall, I attended a writer’s conference organized by Philadelphia Stories held amidst stately trees and classic architecture of Rosemont College. There I met Susan Muaddi Darraj, creative writing professor and author of a book of short stories, “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly.” The protagonists in her stories are girls growing up in Palestinian families in South Philadelphia. The author, as it happens, grew up in a Palestinian family in South Philadelphia. “Write what you know,” the teachers say. Apparently Darraj took this advice.

The parallel between her life and her characters made me curious. Even though “Inheritance of Exile” is fiction, it’s apparently grounded in her own experience. I decided to read her book to learn what I could about the relationship between life and art.

Inheritance of Exile is written in an intimate, first person account
How does she or any fiction writer create a world authentic enough to let me enter? Surely they don’t create an entire world from scratch. I imagine they take a page from the memoirist’s book, describing a fictional world based on the things they see in the real one.

In Muaddi Darraj’s fiction, I hear her protagonist’s inner voice and see her family, friends, and culture. For example, in more than one story in “Inheritance of Exile,” the protagonist’s parents hang a blue stone to fend off the evil eye. I don’t know much about Palestinian culture, so I have no way to know if they do indeed follow this ritual. But it wouldn’t make sense for the author to invent such a thing. Even though I don’t know for sure if the blue stone is “real,” her story connects me to old world hopes and fears.

In one story, the protagonist was criticized by her mother for sitting in a way that she revealed the bottom of her foot, a gesture considered an insult. I found this detail interesting. Then, a few weeks after reading it, I saw a news article in which an Iraqi threw his shoes at President Bush as a highly publicized insult. Aha! External corroboration.

The character’s father ran a sandwich truck in Philadelphia. It reminded me of the truck parked outside the University of Pennsylvania, where I often bought my lunch during the years I worked there. The Lebanese guys who made delicious falafels were lovely and even though I was just a customer, I soon felt close to them. “Inheritance of Exile” now lets me imagine additional dimensions of their lives. For the first time I think of their whole situation, raising American children in an immigrant home in Philadelphia. This book of fiction, of invented reality, expands my understanding of the real people around me.

Coming of Age has changed over the decades
When I was growing up, I read several Coming of Age stories such as “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and “Portrait of the Artist” by James Joyce. The protagonists of these books were full of angst, disenfranchisement, anomie – moods that were hallmarks for their times, when readers and publishers focused on the existential problems of young men. Times have changed.

Forty years later, Inheritance of Exile offers a different view of Coming of Age, describing this life journey through a female author’s eyes at the beginning of the Twenty First Century. Her struggles for social and emotional wholeness sound very different than the authors I read in high school, and deepens my understanding of the search for identity in today’s culture.

To read my essay on the shifting gender orientation of contemporary literature – click here

Immigrants are us
My parents grew up in Philadelphia, children of immigrants. I know so little about how that felt, and now it’s too late to ask. But I can learn a little more about the experience of children of immigrants by reading stories. For example, one of Darraj’s characters resented her mother’s accent because it sounded foreign. This resentment felt eerily familiar.

My maternal grandmother was born in the United States, and through fanatical attention to elocution, had developed a Proper British accent. Her husband immigrated from Russia when he was a young man, and sixty years later, he still pronounced the letter “W” as if it was a “V.” According to family lore, my grandmother was not particularly fond of him, and now I wonder how much his pronunciation grated against her ambition to become unambigously American. I’m starting to realize that one reason my parents never taught me Yiddish or talked about the Old Country was that they wanted to forget their past.

Susan Muaddi Darraj’s character, like other immigrant children, wanted to blend in with Americans and yet at home she had to relate to a very different culture. This character’s emotions teach me about my own grandparents, my parents and myself.

Literature is a window into society
Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, in his lecture series “Understanding Literature and Life” claims that literature portrays the world and culture of the author, so for example to learn how Greeks thought, we read Greek plays. And one place to seek insight into an Arab immigrant community in South Philadelphia might be in the stories of “Inheritance of Exile.” They contain emotionally compelling situations that capture my attention and transport me to a world that feels authentic, even though they make no claim to factual reporting.

Writing Prompt
What community or social phenomenon does your memoir explore?  How do characters in your story behave towards each other? What lessons do you detect in the unique workings of your family? Look for an anecdote that might evoke some powerful observation about families or communities, tension among people, or aspirations to gain entry into privileged social situations.

Links

For more about Philadelphia Stories, click here
Click here Susan Muaddi Darraj’s home page
Amazon page for “Inheritance of Exile”
To hear the wonderful lecture series, “Understanding Literature and Life” by Arnold Weinstein published by the Teaching Company click here.

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

6 Life Story Writing Prompts Inspired by a Book of Short Stories

By Jerry Waxler

Xujun Eberlein’s book of short stories “Apologies Forthcoming” are accounts of growing up in the 1960’s in China. [Read my review and interviews.] Since the stories are based on her life and times, I thought I could learn a few lessons about how to turn life into story. I was right. Here are some of the lessons I learned for writing a memoir, along with some writing prompts to help you apply these lessons to your own life.

Interaction of individual and society
When Xujun was a young girl, deadly fighting broke out between two factions of Red Guards, mostly teenagers who fought each other with deadly force to prove themselves the true upholders of the Chinese Revolution. Because of social upheaval, her parents lost their jobs, she was unable to go to school, and her sister died. These stories provide extraordinary examples of that strange and complex fact of life: our individual journey is intertwined with our society.

Writing Prompt
Review the periods you want to write about and look for historical forces and trends that were shaping your own experience. How did the economy affect your household wealth? What members of your family have been influenced by war? What community upheaval or natural disaster or social trend took place? When you have identified a meaningful intersection between your individual life and the larger community, write a story about it.

Use the short story medium to shape your memoir
When trying to describe real life, the multitude of themes, dreams, and people become tangled, making it difficult to weave it all together. Xujun solves this problem by biting off one specific challenge at a time. Focusing on that one theme, she develops its context, then shows how the emotions rise, crescendo and resolve.

In one of the stories, the main character had an affair with a married man. As time went on, the girl’s emotional dependence grew. She became jealous of the man’s wife, and fell farther into despair. In the end, she broke through the tangle of emotions with a surprise. In another story, she left her family and went to the country to work in the fields. As a city-girl in a town of farmers, she clumsily stumbles against local customs, creating disturbing tensions.

Even though each story stands on its own, they add up to provide insight into a young girl’s life in that time and place.

Writing Prompt
What Xujun did in fiction, you could do in reality, developing a series of stories that gradually add up to portraying your life. Review your list of powerful transitions, such as a love gained or lost, an accident, illness, peak accomplishment, or realization that changed. (If you don’t have such a list, start it today.) Describe a single scene that represents that transition. Then surround this scene with context to turn it into a self-contained story. At the beginning, introduce the dramatic tension. Then encounter and respond to obstacles. In the end, resolve the dramatic tension. (To extend it beyond a self-contained story, end the piece with a hint of the dramatic tension that comes next.)

Create empathy for the protagonist
Xujun’s protagonists stir my compassion. In each story, I worry about the protagonist’s plight, feel the loss of her sister, want her world to be more sane. Her goodness and suffering help me suspend disbelief and accompany her through her trials. Like the fairy tales of Cindarella and the Ugly Duckling, Xujun’s protagonist is often misunderstood. Xujun the author should know about being misunderstood. She is smart, but the people around her don’t care. China in the Cultural Revolution has turned against smart people.

Writing Prompt
Review one of your favorite anecdotes, or write a new one, and then step back and look at it from a reader’s eyes. What emotions will help readers bond with you. How have you been an outsider in your own world, misunderstood by people you are reaching towards? Will readers be urging you to grow, to find your niche, to be loved?

Friends
When Xujun’s protagonist relates to the people in her life, whether coworkers, friends, or family, I feel her respect for them and her desire to be respected in return. These emotions haunted me so much I asked the author why she was so focused on friends. She asked me where I saw it, and I said, “Everywhere.” She replied that friendship was a revered part of her culture. It also happens to be a wonderful part of my life, too, and yet in my writing, friendships often disappear into the background. Her stories inspired me to pay more attention to the emotional clout supporting characters can convey.

Writing prompt
Consider how friendships can enrich your readers’ experience of your life. Friends’ perspectives help you see your world in a different light, their companionship provides relief from loneliness and gives you someone to talk to, and their support helps you overcome obstacles. Write a scene that emphasizes such interactions.

Sexuality while coming of age
As Xujun’s protagonist grows from child to young adult, her friendships become complicated. Later in life, she again feels a tug of war between sexual attraction and friendship. She masterfully shares the power of these emotions, while at the same time maintaining the privacy of her world and the decorum of mine. This delicate balance of intimacy and power is known in literary as well as psychological circles as “maintaining appropriate distance.”

Writing prompt
You may assume that sexuality is too heavy-handed or too personal a subject to include at all, or perhaps you have gone to the other extreme, including erotic scenes that may offend or drown your readers. Consider using Xujun’s model, and follow a path down the middle. Try writing a scene in which you convey as authentically as possible your unique experience, while understating or hinting at the mechanical parts. The power of the written word is that it gives readers the opportunity to fill in the rest.

Unique characteristics make us all “foreign” to someone
When Xujun tells about her life in China in the sixties, I lean into every word, drinking in glimpses of a portion of this foreign, mysterious world I have never seen. So what does this have to do with writing my own memoir? I can’t change my past to be as exotic as Xujun’s. But perhaps I don’t need to.

When I look at my life through the mirror, I realize that growing up in a row home in Philadelphia is foreign to Xujun. This fact becomes more apparent when I look at my bookshelf. In every memoir, my curiosity about the author’s world compelled me to turn pages. Whether I was learning about Brooke Shields’ postpartum depression, or Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s life in the foster care system, or Linda Joy Myers’ childhood in a broken home in the Midwest, or Barack Obama being raised by a white mother and visiting his African father, or the authors of “The Pact” who grew up on the mean streets of New Jersey, or Henry Louis Gates or George Brummell, growing up in the segregated south. We are all exotic to each other.

Writing Prompt
Identify parts of your life that reflect your unique past. Did you grow up on a farm? Went to a university? Joined the army? Had kids? One of them had a disability? As you list the parts of your life that make you unique, consider what you look like to someone who grew up in a different world. Write three character sketches of readers who might think parts of your life were foreign.

Conclusion
Xujun’s collection has reached my desk at an exciting time. Short stories are in a resurgence. This medium offers many of the pleasures of a book, but within a more compact form. They explore fascinating issues of growing up in another culture, during a complex time. And they offer insights into writing that can help you write about your life.

Notes:
For an example of stories that emphasize foreignness, see She collected stories by Italian American women. Louise DeSalvo and Edvige Giunta, editors, “The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture.” (Feminist Press, 2002) Louise DeSalvo is the author of a valuable book about memoir writing called “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.”

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.

Exclusive Interview with Xujun Eberlein Part 2

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

I recently read “Apologies Forthcoming,” a book of short stories by Xujun Eberlein, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. (Amazon Page, Xujun’s Home Page, Longer Introduction to this Interview) I highly recommend her book for anyone interested in that period, or interested in converting life into story, or simply looking for a good read. In this exclusive interview, I ask her about the project of converting her memories into stories. Her answers offer insights that could help anyone who is interested in the relationship between memory and story.

This is part two of the interview. For Part 1, click here.
Jerry Waxler: You write so beautifully in English. What special challenges did you have to overcome?

Xujun Eberlein: Well, I have always loved to write. My first short story, written in Chinese, was published a year before I entered college in China in 1978. In 1982, one of my short stories caused me big political trouble, while in 1985 a novella won a literary prize. After I came to America in the summer of 1988, my writing was suspended for 13 years.

When I write in English, the biggest obstacle for me is vocabulary. You grow up with your native expressions for things, feelings, actions, even simple gestures, and when you try to find homologous terminology in the second language, you are tongue-tied, that is extremely frustrating.

When I was young, whenever I read a new expression or adage in a newspaper or book, I hand-copied it into a notebook and made my own customized lexicon. That was how I acquired a large Chinese vocabulary. It is kind of ironical that at mid-age I’m repeating the same painstaking process for English now. I envision doing this for the rest of my life.

While the disadvantage of writing in a second language is obvious, there is an advantage as well: you bring “new” expressions to the second language from your native tongue, and when you are doing it right you can create a “third” language with freshness. To do it right requires practice and a sensitive eye. One thing I learned from years of writing in English is that, if a “foreign” expression flows well with your prose, use it; otherwise it is better to go with an idiom.

JW: You have won awards for your writing, and have been published in literary journals. Please comment on what drives you as a writer.

XE: I want my writing to be both entertaining and have depth, and I write to raise questions rather than give answers. I also crave beautiful language, for which I know I have a long way to go. Like the ancient Chinese poet Du Fu said, “I won’t rest in death if my words haven’t astounded readers.”

I want to strive for quality, not quantity. There are too many books out there already; no one needs to read your book. That is, unless it’s good. The word “prolific” is not as attractive to me as “superb,” I guess. Or perhaps it is just an excuse for allowing myself to write slowly. (Laughs)

JW: I know it’s difficult to describe the creative process, but I ask anyway, in case you might reveal some secret. How would you explain the process of transforming a memory into a story?

XE: When I write a story that is memory-based, one technique I use is to first work up individual scenes. In this case there must be something deeply disturbing or unforgettable that makes one want to write about it years later, and the memory of details is usually pictorial or impressionistic. That is, the memory naturally provides you scenes. To make a good story you need several scenes. At first the scenes are disconnected. I just write down the scenes separately, then figure out how to connect them. This process includes shuffling the scenes to settle on a more intriguing order.

JW: I feel so comfortable inside your stories, and find there is an almost hypnotic rhythm that pulls me in. Is this a quality you have thought consciously about?

XE: For me this is really a trial and error process. I aim to maintain a story flow that is captivating and keeps the story progressing, but usually the first draft is far away from that goal. After I finish a draft I would put it aside for a while, then rearrange it with a fresher eye, cutting or adding material to accomplish the goal. So, unfortunately, it is not something that simply emerges from my pen (or keyboard) but the result of substantial adjustment. I find that, more often than not, reordering paragraphs results in a better rhythm.

JW: There is some sort of innocent intensity about your friendships that calls out to me. I’m curious to know if you worked particularly to achieve this effect.

XE: In China, we have the tradition of valuing friendship higher than even our own family. An old Chinese adage goes, “Wife is clothing, friends are limbs.” It is kind of sexist (as the old times were), but you get a feeling for the importance of friendship. Traditional Chinese literature is full of friendship stories. The most popular classic novel “Three Kingdoms,” epic of an entire dynasty, is centered around three sworn blood brothers. When I wrote my stories I wasn’t very conscious of depicting friendship, but since that was part of life and culture, a realism writer who is loyal to reality would naturally reflect that aspect. Those things are just in my blood. On the other hand, Americans don’t have the same culture. From my perspective the role of friendship here is not as strongly important as it is in Chinese life. This may have something to do with individualism, I suppose.

JW: What favorite memoirs or other books have informed your style or voice or approach to telling about your past?

XE: Hmm. I liked the writing of a lot of the contemporary memoirs published in the United States, such as The Liar’s Club, Wild Swans, Fierce Attachments, Angela’s Ashes, etc., however I rarely finished reading every one of them. On the other hand, some less critically acclaimed memoirs, for example The Man Who Stayed Behind, glued me from cover to cover. I guess good language is not a sufficient factor to sustain my reading interest. A memoir has to tell good real stories as well as raise a lasting question. So it is my goal to have all those elements in the book-length memoir I’m working on now.

To read the blog entry about what I learned about fact and fiction from reading Xujun’s two different representations of the events surrounding her sister’s death, click here.

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

Interview with story writer Xujun Eberlein

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

I recently read “Apologies Forthcoming,” a book of short stories by Xujun Eberlein, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. ( Short Story Fact or Fiction) I highly recommend her book for anyone interested in that period, or interested in converting life into story, or simply looking for a good read. In this exclusive interview, I ask her about the project of converting her memories into stories. Her answers offer insights that could help anyone who is interested in the relationship between memory and story.

Jerry Waxler: When did you first start thinking about writing your memories of growing up in the period of the Chinese Cultural Revolution?

Xujun Eberlein: If ever I had a mid-age crisis, I think it started in the fall of 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. As I wrote in a personal essay, “The Camphor Suitcase,” which won an award from Literal Latte recently, several things came to my attention in that fall triggering the desire to write about my sister’s death and those days. (This essay will be available on line in the near future, at Literal Latte‘s site.)

JW: When did you actually start writing?

XE: Checking my computer, I see the earliest file is dated December 16, 2001. That was an attempt to translate one of my old stories into English, trying to warm up with the idea of writing in a second language.

In the spring of 2002, I took an unpaid leave from work and revisited my hometown, Chongqing. During that visit two things hit me hard: my big sister’s tomb could no longer be found, and my mother had lost all my diaries from age 12 to late 20s. On the other hand, I retrieved my sister’s diary, which contains entries from her final three years of life. Upon returning home I began to write a memoir piece about my sister’s death from memory. It took many reincarnations to become what you see today. In the summer of 2004 I attended the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers Conference, and workshopped the piece there. It was my instructor, Bill Roorbach, who suggested the title to “Swimming with Mao.” In late 2005, I submitted a modified, longer version to Walrus and it was accepted and subsequently published in the magazine’s 2006 summer issue. (You can read this article by clicking here.)

JW: During those initial attempts, when you were deciding between fiction and non-fiction, what criteria pulled you one way or the other?

XE: I started to write nonfiction mainly because I thought this genre would better preserve my work’s historical value. However I soon realized the limitation of nonfiction on the range of subjects I would like to write about. I guess I write fiction also because I’ve had my heart set in that genre for much longer time. The two genres use different craft techniques; both interest me. It is a challenge to do both well and I like challenges.

JW: In your fiction, was it hard to steer between facts and imagination? Did you worry that fictionalizing might disturb the memories?

XE: It never occurred to me in writing fiction there exists a choice between facts and imagination, nor have I ever worried that fictionalization might perturb my memory. If I had any worry, it was that I might limit my imagination to personal experience. For some writers, it takes a big leap to transcend experience-based stories. I think I am like that. In my collection, about half of the stories can be said to be based on my own experience. The other half came from attempts to transcend and broaden that experience.

JW: When writing fiction, do you draw mainly on life experience or do you branch off into pure imagination?

XE: To continue from the previous answer, it is often a stage in writing maturity to unleash oneself from one’s own memory. This said, even writing with pure imagination one can’t avoid using elements from memory. It’s like in a science fiction movie, an object as a whole may look completely alien, however if you dismantle it you’ll find that every component has its origin from an earthly object.

JW: The non-fiction piece, “Swimming with Mao,” contains an account of your search for your sister’s truth. And yet it also conveys a sense of intimacy and sorrow. What sorts of dramatic devices did you apply to achieve the emotional effects?

XE: I wasn’t consciously applying any fiction techniques. Partly because this was my first attempt in English writing (if you don’t count my scientific dissertation at MIT); at the time I hadn’t written any fiction since my maiden days in China. Even after I began to write fiction in English, I found my mindset would switch with the change of genre, as if a button were being automatically pressed. My non-fiction pieces are more of the essay style, even though my storyteller’s nature tends to head for entertaining anecdotes.

JW: Reading about the loss of your sister I am overwhelmed by the complex grief one little individual had to endure. How did you feel about writing such a painful memory?

XE: It was very difficult emotionally. My big sister was my idol and mentor in my childhood. Our parents were always either busy at work or being denounced or detained; whatever problems I had, I took to my sister and she was always able to help. Her death created a big hole in my mind and life, even after I grew up it still wasn’t easy to look back. That was partly why it took me so long before attempting to write about it. I constantly cried when I was writing.

Adding to the emotional difficulty was the desire to give myself a conclusion about her death. Was it an accident? If so, could it have been avoided? If not, was her action meaningful? Was it a wasted sacrifice? For several drafts I really did not know what the conclusion was. In this sense this time-consuming writing did help me sort out feelings and thoughts. As to whether it gets easier, I don’t really know. It is still hard for me to reread what I’ve written without being teary again.

JW: How has the passage of time helped or hindered your understanding of those disturbing events?

XE: I think at the time a significant personal event happens to us, we are living in it and we are not spectators. We are either overwhelmed by it or unable to see its significance. To sort out feelings and find meaning we need distance, both in time and in space. Sometimes it takes a recurrence in history for us to understand better. In my case, if I hadn’t left China and lived in the United States, I might not have dug open this old wound. Even if I did, I might have different thoughts about it.

In Part 2 of this interview, I ask Xujun more questions about the creative process, of turning memories into written words.

For my blog entry about what I learned about fact and fiction from reading Xujun’s two different representations of the events surrounding her sister’s death, click here.

For more details about Xujun’s life and writing, including more information about her book, awards, and other publications, see her website. http://www.xujuneberlein.com.