Tragedy and courage in memoirs

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

Recently I read a terrifying memoir about a mother’s loss of her baby, Losing Malcolm by Carol Henderson. The book takes me on a journey of primal fear.

First, I ride her wave of unbridled hope for the new life growing within her, culminating in the otherworldly surge of love when the baby is born. The wave crashes when he is diagnosed with a life threatening birth defect. The surgeons lift her spirits from the depths of despair by offering hope for a rare risky neonatal open heart surgery.Losing Malcolm Carol Henderson

Long ago, I stopped exposing myself to fictional horror. Stopping monsters just isn’t worth the emotional turmoil. Now I ask myself why am I willing to accompany an author on her real life horror. To answer that question, I compare the two types of emotional journeys.

In both forms of storytelling, the evil is too great to be stopped by ordinary people. Additional help must be recruited. For example, when aliens from another galaxy invade earth, the military mobilizes. Eventually the military wins, the killing stops, and order is restored.

In the tragic memoir, Losing Malcolm, the “villain” at first is death. If the baby’s defective heart cannot be repaired, all hope is lost. The specially-trained heroes are called in. But when the risky heart surgery fails and the baby dies, the enemy instantly shifts. Death is no longer the enemy.

Now, the antagonist in the story is despair. Despair threatens to destroy the main character’s sanity, and disrupt her grip on the very meaning of life. The psychological horror of despair threatens to unravel everything. To defeat despair the hero must journey back to wholeness.

Perhaps reading a grieving memoir is a learned skill. When I started reading memoirs, years ago, I sometimes ran away from a book with too raw and painful a topic. But over the years, as I have grown more acclimated to the genre, I no longer slow down to ask myself “why should I put myself through that experience?”

By now, I have read many grieving memoirs. Throughout each one, I keep turning pages, accepting the hero’s pain as the price I pay for the generous, uplifting ending. The victory at the end of Losing Malcolm is the psychological realignment of the hero’s attitude and direction, so that she is able to absorb that tragedy and move back into a world that once again makes sense. By my willingness to walk hand in hand with an author who has been to the depths, I am also treated to the pleasure of that author leading me back into the light.

The pleasure of reading Losing Malcolm is enhanced by excellent story construction, a compelling writer’s voice, and a sprinkling of powerful inline excerpts from the author’s contemporaneous journals. These passages heighten the sensation of being right there with her. Good writing can’t remove the pain, but it does let the story reach deep into my heart, while I remain safely in my comfortable chair.

Reading memoirs has enhanced my appreciation for the many aspects of being a human being. By learning from each author’s journey, I become a deeper person with a greater range of understanding for the complex experiences my fellow humans must undergo. When I close one of these books, I feel not only wiser about the presence of evil in the world, but also about the uplifting power of courage and hope.

Writing Prompt
What situation in your life brought you so low you felt there was no point in going on, or you didn’t think you had enough sanity to even survive? Write an overview of the situation. Write a scene that shows your despair. Write another that shows your journey back to hope.


Carol Henderson’s Losing Malcolm page
Amazon link for Losing Malcolm

Other grieving parent memoirs of lost babies:
Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes, Amazon link
Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash.  Link to my article

Memoirs by grieving parents of young adult children
Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples Amazon link
Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Link to my article:
Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Link to my article

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

Interview with Susan Weidener About Memoir Workshops Pt 4

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

This is part 4 of the interview. Click here to read Part 1.

In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells her adult coming-of-age story, through the journey of meeting and losing her husband, and then reclaiming her life. In this part of this interview I ask her about her passion for helping other writers find their own life story.

Jerry Waxler: Tell me about your memoir workshops. You talk about the healing nature of memoir writing? Explain more about that.

Susan Weidener:  When you delve into the truth of your story, you remove the “cellophane;” you reveal yourself. That’s when the healing begins. It’s how we deal with trauma that defines whether we can move on and create something new from tragedy.

I provide writing prompts, talk about writing techniques and how to find the compelling narrative of the memoir.  Time for solitude and writing is provided.  We come together in small groups and read our work, and then the whole group meets for the “read-around.” The women find themselves writing about things that had “gathered cobwebs” over the years.  Once they put pen to paper and write it, the power of that memory or that time in their lives to hurt and cause anguish is taken away.  Afterwards, they tell me they feel at peace with it.  I’m not a therapist, but I can see they feel empowered.  So the writing is a way to heal, a way to make sense of our lives.

I started the Women’s Writing Circle because I wanted to offer a place to share writing in a supportive atmosphere, to ease the solitary nature of writing.  Although I didn’t start the Circle as a memoir group, it largely evolved into that, although some of the women are choosing to couch their stories as fiction and write in third person.  I co-facilitated a memoir writing workshop with Mary Pierce Brosmer, who founded Women Writing for (a) Change in Cincinnati. Mary was a visionary when it came to the women’s personal writing movement. I offered a memoir writing weekend retreat last spring and a mastering writing workshop this past October.  I am planning another mastering writing workshop this spring.

Jerry Waxler: When you teach memoir writing, how do you motivate your students to go from raw memory to writing about themselves in a form that strangers could read?

Susan Weidener:  I don’t call them “students,” rather I facilitate a supportive atmosphere for adults to share their stories and find their voice. The story may be about addiction, loss, about difficult childhoods.   The motivation to get it on paper is usually there by the time they come to me. Taking a workshop, reading a piece out loud and hearing an immediate response from others, energizes them.

I also offer one-on-one memoir writing consultation.  We start with one memory and expand from there with details. I teach professional writing strategies, and how to distill the story to one compelling time in their lives so they have a rough draft after the first session.  I ask them to write about the meaning behind the memory, to look at the people they are writing about, not in black and white, but in shades of gray, if they can.

Jerry Waxler: How did you feel about letting your sons see so deeply into your feelings? Were you worried about letting them see this side of yourself?

Susan Weidener:  My older son has not read the book and my younger son just took a copy the other day, so I am not sure what he thinks.  I wrote the story for myself and for John, yet I was always cognizant that this book would be passed along in our family as the years went by.  While you write the disturbing, I think you have to keep in mind:  Is this something I want my family to read years from now? If the answer is ‘no,’ my advice would be to steer clear of that detail, that incident.

I hope my sons appreciate that by writing my story and their father’s story, it was an act of generosity and goodwill.  It was meant to reach a larger audience than just our immediate family and friends.

Jerry Waxler: What are you working on next?

Susan Weidener:  I am completing my second and final memoir.   It is called Morning at Wellington Square.  Wellington Square is the name of the bookshop where the Women’s Writing Circle meets.  This memoir picks up from where Again in a Heartbeat left off.  Hopefully, it is an illuminating and engaging story of a single woman in middle age; the challenges of raising two children and being a reporter for a big city newspaper, the craziness of dating, the joy of finding life’s passion through a community of writers who meet at Wellington Square.

Click here for Part 3, in which I ask questions about writing the memoir

Click here for a link to the Amazon page for Again in a Heartbeat
Click here for Susan Weidener’s Home Page.

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

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

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

Interview with Susan Weidener About Writing Her Memoir Pt 3

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

This is part 3 of the interview. Click here to read Part 1.

In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells about the life and death of her relationship to her husband. In this part of this interview I ask her about her writing voice, and the choices and rewards of publishing.

Jerry Waxler: You started as a journalist. Journalism tends to require an impersonal voice. And then you evolved into a memoirist which requires a storytelling voice. Was that a difficult transformation? What sort of effort, training, stylistic transitions did you have to take to go from writing about other people to writing a story about yourself.

Susan Weidener:    Great question.  As a journalist I had to stay objective and behind the scenes.  Writing memoir was a huge reversal in that regard and felt uncomfortable at first. But newspaper work taught me the economy of words which is very useful when writing a book. As a journalist, I was trained to observe people, to capture details, meaningful quotes; to look “for the story.” At the paper, I interviewed a lot of people and wrote profiles.  I had to distill the interview, make the piece engaging; a “good read,” as we call it in the business. In that sense there is not a lot of difference between journalism and writing a book.

I read a lot, study other writers’ techniques. One of my favorite books is Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast.  I loved how he handled writing memoir, so clear, such an astute observer of life and those around him, yet he was in the story and you felt you knew the man when you finished the book.  Of course, he was a journalist too!

Jerry Waxler: When you finished and published your memoir, did you feel it was worth the effort? When you look back through the whole experience of writing and publishing, what was the most rewarding aspect?

Susan Weidener:  Yes! It’s been one of the most rewarding journeys of my life.  What a thrill to hold a book in hand, share it with others, talk about it at libraries and signings.  The most rewarding aspect without a doubt has been the people I’ve met because of the book.  The connections and the conversations have been extraordinary.

Jerry Waxler: Until a few years ago, landing a publishing deal was a long, competitive road. Many authors feared they would never make it to the finish line so why even start? Now, with self-publishing options, the barriers have been lowered, and anyone who wants to share their story can do so. So how did you puzzle that choice out for yourself? What agony or factors went into your publishing choice?

Susan Weidener:  For me, it was fairly simple.  I know a lot of writers and I had heard some pretty horrible stories.  People waited for years, their work languishing, never seeing the light of day. One author had a well-known literary agent, but she couldn’t sell his manuscripts. Another told me he had a traditional publisher, and they virtually did nothing to promote his book. He barely broke even after years of research and work.

I already had more than 2,000 bylines published in the Inquirer, and that didn’t include my published stories in several weeklies and dailies before that.  So I did not need validation, if you know what I mean.  I was intrigued by self-publishing. It is very exciting. You own the copyright to your work; royalties are a lot higher than through a traditional publisher because you take the risk.  As a deadline-oriented person, I felt it was crucial to know the book would be published and not get stuffed in a drawer.  I also wanted the book as a way to encourage others to think about writing their stories by offering workshops and retreats, to work with both non-fiction and fiction writers as their editor.  My book was instrumental in that.  So for me, it was not just about book sales, but having a book as a “calling card” for other endeavors associated with writing and earning a living.

Jerry Waxler: How has that worked out? How do you feel about the results?

Susan Weidener:  Reviews of self-published books are hard to come by and Barnes and Noble won’t stock self-published books in their stores because of a corporate policy. You have to do all your own marketing, but you would do that in any case, even if you go with a traditional publisher. In essence, you have to become very entrepreneurial which means mastering social networking, blogging, building a platform.  For me, that platform is the Women’s Writing Circle because it keeps me active in the community and on the Internet.

The main challenge is getting the word out about your book; that and not letting your creativity go by the wayside because you are so caught up in marketing you don’t work on your writing.  There is a momentum you hope builds.  Interviews like this are wonderful as a way to introduce potential readers to my book, which is for sale as a paperback on Amazon and through numerous distributors, and as an eBook on Kindle.

Click here for Part 2, in which I ask questions about writing the memoir
Click here for Part 4, in which Susan talks about her workshops

Click here for a link to the Amazon page for Again in a Heartbeat
Click here for Susan Weidener’s Home Page.

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

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

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

Interview with Susan Weidener About Writing Her Memoir Pt 2

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells about the life and death of her relationship to her husband, and the subsequent resurrection of her life. In the first part of this interview I asked her about her radical honesty. In this memoir, I ask more questions about the process of writing the memoir.

Click here to read Part 1 of this interview.

Jerry Waxler: When did you first think about writing the memoir? How long was it until you actually started? How long did it take to finish?

Susan Weidener:  Shortly after I left my job as a journalist, I attended a women’s writing retreat in Kentucky. We sat in a circle at night and read to each other. Tears and laughter flowed from poems and memoirs of sneaking kisses with neighborhood boys, fathers who had done the unthinkable to their daughters, babies who had died without warning.  I remember afterwards I went up to my room, opened the window and looked up at the moon breaking through a bank of clouds. It had been 13 years since my husband’s death, but he had never really left my side. He was my dream come true. Could I write the story?  And why would anyone want to read it?  What could I possibly say that hadn’t already been said a million times before?  I decided I needed to write it, anyway. It took another two and a half years after the retreat to finish the book, although I did work a fulltime job in 2009 and could only write on nights and weekends.

Jerry Waxler: How much did you edit it? What can you share about your editing process, such as how many times through the book, or number of readers who gave you feedback.

Susan Weidener:  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of editing and critique.  I started the Women’s Writing Circle in November, 2009 as a way to bring together a community of writers.  It was at our first read-around that I met the woman who would become my editor. She was a professional editor already.  I always say she “held the magic wand.”  She taught me how to take my journalistic recounting of a memory and make it dramatic and compelling.  I also began reading parts of my memoir to the other women in the writing circle.  Their critique and comments were invaluable.  I wrote at least eight drafts before I was satisfied with the final version. I gave a copy of the completed manuscript to a former colleague from The Philadelphia Inquirer and to a family therapist.  Both provided additional editing and copy editing.  Of course, I edit manuscripts myself, but there is no way you can edit your own work.  You need an objective person, a professional.

Jerry Waxler: Readers want to become immersed in an engaging story. How did you challenge yourself to transform your events not only into a readable account, but into an account worth reading? What aspects of your book and your writing did you strive toward in order to achieve these effects?

Susan Weidener: I challenged myself to be unafraid to write the disturbing. A writer’s job is to question; to bring to light what’s left in the dark, what’s unsaid. Stories that can do that have a universal message; they engage readers. This whole business of falling in love, finding the person who makes it all worthwhile, and then losing that person whether it be through death or life circumstance; the bitterness and resentment that follows . . . it is something I believe most people relate to. I also had a great “character” in John.  He was a complex and interesting man.  John penned his memoir the year before he died.  He called it “scriptotherapy.” How true!

I think first person narrative is harder than writing in third person.  There is not as much “distance.”  When we write our memoir, we must step back, take the longer view. On the other hand, when you write in first person, when you are the narrator of your own story, you have lived it.  Who better than you to chronicle that this is real, this is true?   At the same time, you ask yourself, is this story larger than me?  That’s where the craft of writing comes in.  It takes hard work and skill to craft a story, move it along, and portray real people, not cardboard characters.  I needed to stay focused on one question:  “What is my story about?” Repeating that question over and over is your mantra as a writer.

Jerry Waxler: Did you ever feel like giving up? What techniques or attitude adjustments helped you keep going?

Susan Weidener: It all feels a bit overwhelming, writing a book, but believing in your story is what carries the day and gave me the motivation to finish.  I loved the “lessons” along the way.  I learned so much about myself.  I had been hard on John because I was losing my dreams and youth.  There were other revelations, too.  John was irreplaceable, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t do it all over again in a heartbeat.

I love to write, but I discipline myself to write every day.  I write early in the morning, grab a cup of coffee.  I work for about two hours and then take a break and go to the gym. I’ll pick it up again in the afternoon, if I can.  I don’t worry about revising right away; rather I let it “percolate” overnight or for a few days, think about it and then come back to it.  It’s not like pushing toothpaste out of a tube.  I try and keep my “inner critic” to a dull roar.  Eventually, there comes a point where you have to say, “This is it. I’m going to stop here.” Otherwise, you can be caught in a vicious cycle of editing and self-doubt.

Click here to read Part 3 of this interview.

Click here for a link to the Amazon page for Again in a Heartbeat

Click here for Susan Weidener’s Home Page.

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

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

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

Interview with Memoir Author Susan Weidener About Honesty

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells with breathtaking clarity the entire lifespan of her relationship with John, from their first date, to falling love, getting married, having children, and then sinking into despair during her husband’s slow untimely death. I love the memoir because of its simplicity and power, and the ruthless honesty of her emotions, which were far from politically correct. After he is gone, the story continues, as Susan turns toward grieving and reclaiming her hold on life. The memoir does a wonderful job portraying this huge emotional journey. In addition to being a writer, Susan Weidener encourages and nurtures others to tell their story. In this part of the interview, I ask her about the experience of writing the memoir.

Jerry Waxler: One of the unique things about your memoir is its span of time, covering the period from when you first met your future husband, and ending as you attempt to recover your life and find a new beginning. So many aspiring memoir writers struggle to decide on the appropriate span for their stories. What can you share about the way this particular scope of time appeared right for you?

Susan Weidener: When I started the project, my thought was to write about being widowed and dating again as a middle-aged woman with two young sons. As the memoir progressed and I began to write about my husband, the women who critiqued my book said, “We want more about John.” I realized they were right. The real story was meeting John, falling in love and our ordeal with cancer.  I wanted to write about myself as a young woman living the life she had always dreamed.  Then the illness enters, shatters our lives. What happens when Prince Charming makes a dramatic and tragic exit?  Does true love only come once and, if so, is that enough? I included the three years after my husband’s death to describe the loss, the fear of being alone. There are no fairy tale endings, but you find the strength within yourself to be on your own.

Jerry Waxler: At the beginning of the memoir, I loved your portrayal of falling in love — These are compelling, detailed scenes that let us accompany you on your emotional journey. As a reader, I found them pleasurable and romantic. What was that like for you as a writer, to remember to a time before the loss, all the way back to the beginning of your relationship?

Susan Weidener:  Thank you. Writing memoir is living twice, which is painful and elating.  There were moments as I wrote about our first trip together as husband and wife to West Point when I felt John in the room with me again.  Writing about the day he and I stood under Kissing Rock, the place along the Hudson River where cadets would take their dates, and John told me about some of the girls he had brought there . . . it brought back memories of John’s inimitable sense of humor.  When I wrote the scene where John and I dance at our wedding to “As Time Goes By,” and John says to me, “Here’s looking at you kid,” I cried for all we once had and all we lost. Memoir, as you know, is not for the faint of heart.

Jerry Waxler: You did not portray yourself as an easy person to fall in love with, nor were you infinitely graceful and patient about your husband’s failing health. I think this aspect of your memoir represents one of the best things about where culture is heading in the 21st century. We’re dropping the pretense that we are perfect and trying to make peace with our own and each other’s unique quirks, and flaws. And by showing our flaws, we also show our strength in continuing to grow and to carry on despite setbacks. I felt inspired and consoled by your edgy imperfect behavior. But how did it feel to write about yourself in this exposed way? Wasn’t it strange to let people see those aspects of yourself? What prompted you to be so open about your own humanity?

Susan Weidener:  I agree with you.  Writing honestly is healthy, a way of moving forward and coming to terms. And what good is a memoir if it is not honest?  Then it is fiction.  Of course, we want to appear heroic, but that isn’t always the case.  Our fragility, our imperfections are what make us human.  It resonates with readers.  It makes a story engaging. By accepting my flaws, I found a place of healing.  Why wasn’t I kinder to him at the end of his life?  That question haunted me for years.  As I wrote my memoir, I began to see how almost anyone would have reacted much like I did when confronting the loss of their dreams, the person they loved more than any other.  Chronic illness affects an entire family, not just the person going through it.  Our society has a very difficult time dealing with death.  One of my hopes with Again in a Heartbeat is that showing my imperfections and what I went through as John’s illness progressed and he pulled away from me, helps others in similar situations be kinder and more forgiving to themselves.

Jerry Waxler: How has it worked out to be so open? Have you found that people think less of you for having been flawed?

Susan Weidener:  Quite the opposite.  People approach me and often say: “You were so honest!”  They tell me they admire my candor and my courage.  One woman said my book “touched her heart and her life.”  It doesn’t get much better than that. When people read my story, they want to share their own experience with marriage, cancer, being single. The conversations are amazing!

Click here for Part 2, in which I ask questions about writing the memoir

Click here for a link to the Amazon page for Again in a Heartbeat
Click here for Susan Weidener’s Home Page.

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

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

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

Make sense of loss: Grieving in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

After losing a loved one we are hurled into an emotionally pressured period called “grieving.” Words can’t contain the initial shock, so we turn to ritual. After the funeral, our loss moves inside, throbbing as a constant reminder, later surfacing in random moments. Whether we overcome the shock quickly or linger in a demoralized state for years, the world has changed forever, breaking time into parts, before the loss and after. Gradually, we reclaim our strength, but we are not sure if these parts can ever be knitted together.

When we first approach our memoir writing project, we look back across the landscape of our lives. Our research awakens scenes, before, during, and after each great loss. Placing them in order, we revisit the whole sequence, from the joy of companionship, through the tragedy of the loss, and the courage to climb back.

To turn this sequence into a continuous narrative, we look for lessons from other authors who have done the same thing. Here are several examples of memoirs that describe the journey of grief. Each book demonstrates how to collect the upheavals of life into the container of a story.

Love letter to the deceased

Gail Caldwell’s memoir, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is like a love letter to her perfect friend, Caroline Knapp. The book celebrates their friendship and then passionately reveals the journey beyond their friendship. In Gail Caldwell’s beautiful book, death cannot steal such a precious bond.

Losing a child

In the first half of Losing Jonathan by Linda and Robert Waxler, the parents try to drag their son back from the brink of addiction, and then after his death, they must come to terms with their grief. The book offers much wisdom about the role of philosophy, literature, and community support in the journey to cope with loss.

Losing a husband and finding a path

At the beginning of  Here If You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup, a young mother loses her husband in a freak auto accident. Then she must raise her young children, and at the same time make peace with God’s plan. To achieve both goals, she decides to earn a living as a minister.  In seminary, she studies the Bible, delving into it not as the final word but as an inspiring source to help her learn and grow. I love her brand of seeking, a mix of organized religion, faith, and real world observation.

An essayist describes her own grief

At the beginning of Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s husband dies suddenly and she turns her prodigious powers of observation on herself, describing the resulting thoughts and feelings. Unlike other writers in this list, Didion did not reach toward a spiritual system or a belief in the transcendent. The absence of this dimension turns the tragedy into a barren ache that leaves me feeling helpless in the face of mortality.

Grieving and seeking are intimately related

Generally the word “grieving” describes the journey of recovering from the loss of a loved one. Similar emotional repair is often needed after losing anything we love. After the tragedy of 9/11, we realized that normal life could suddenly explode and turn into a nightmare. Our sense of safety was dead, and we had to find our way back.

Dani Shapiro’s memoir Devotion is about her journey to recover from both types of loss, the death of her father years before and her need to make sense of the fragility of life. She explores that sadness, and the need to make sense of it, not only emotionally, but more importantly, to find belief in something greater than herself. In “Devotion” the process of grieving becomes intimately related to the process of seeking a higher truth.

My Family’s Grieving

There is no particular time frame around grieving and in fact the process can be substantially delayed. When my brother died, I was in the middle of a confusing period of my life. I did not process my feelings about him until thirty years later when I saw the whole sequence come to life in the pages of my memoir. By writing, I was able to feel a closer connection to him and deeper understanding of my own feelings.

In the development of my memoir, I also saw how his death shook the family and how each of us came to terms with it in our own way. Decades after my brother’s death, my father still appeared to be shaken. Like other men of his generation, he remained silent about his emotions right up to the end. My mother on the other hand, went on a journey of self discovery. She learned from yogis, rabbis, television preachers, and books. Over the years, I watched her grow. Even as she became wiser, she was never satisfied and continued to learn.

Writing Prompt

What loss have you touched upon in your memoir research? Write a scene before the loss, when you felt an innocent, joyful sense of connection. Write another one soon after the loss, then several more scenes later, as your emotional response evolved. Set these scenes out on a time line, and graph the ups and downs of one of your emotions. Try hope for example, or faith. Fill in additional scenes along the line to offer you and your reader a richer understanding of the evolution of this emotion over time.

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.

Revealing Death and Other Courageous Acts of Life

by Jerry Waxler

I met Robert Waxler online last year when I was reviewing his memoir  “Losing Jonathan” about his son’s heroin addiction. During the first half of the book, Robert and his wife Linda tried to stop their son’s downward slide. In the second half, they grieved his passing. I admired his courage to share this journey and was even more impressed by Robert’s second memoir, “Courage to Walk,” about another family tragedy. His surviving son, Jeremy, was stricken with a mysterious, deadly illness and the book is about the family’s journey to stay hopeful and safe.

As an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Robert has been delving into the power of the written word for a lifetime. Now, as he looked for strength to sustain him through his trials, he turned to the deep insights shared by his favorite authors. And then he turned to books again, as the vehicle through which he could pass his story to readers.

In addition to our mutual interest in literature, naturally we were curious about our shared last name. Neither of us had ever met a Waxler to whom we weren’t related. Over the course of the year, we discussed the possibility of giving a joint presentation about memoirs. Recently, I arranged such a talk sponsored by the Philadelphia Writers Conference.

Robert and Linda drove down from Dartmouth, Massachusetts a day early to do some sightseeing. We agreed to meet outside the museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall in Philadelphia; a fitting backdrop, since his ancestors and mine were Russian Jewish immigrants. My sister joined us to extend our greetings, one Waxler clan to another.

We sat in the coffee shop at the museum and talked with energy, jumping enthusiastically from one topic to another. Since our ancestral records no longer exist, we wondered if our easy flow indicated a shared ancestry. A woman walked by and Robert called out her name. She was an old friend of his and his wife’s from Massachusetts who just happened to be in this spot, hundreds of miles from home. My mother had an expression, “coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous.” Was this a sign?

Even though we had agreed for months that we would give a joint presentation, I didn’t know exactly what that meant. How would we interact in a way that would bring value to our audience? The next morning over coffee, I proposed the way we would organize the talk, and he agreed. Then we drove to the lovely campus of Montgomery County Community College to a lecture hall where about 20 people were already seated, including two of my cousins. Linda Waxler, who coauthored “Losing Jonathan” sat in the back of the lecture hall with my sister and her husband. I smiled thinking how fitting it was that a memoir workshop had turned into a family affair.

I introduced the talk with the enthusiasm I always bring to this topic. “In the memoir age, we read books by people who spend years turning their lives into literature. Today we’re going to meet an English professor who turned to the written word to cope with his personal tragedy. Then in the second half, we’ll give you some pointers on how to turn your own lives into literature.”

Robert Waxler stood, radiating the authority that he had gained from a lifetime of teaching. He described how he grappled with his emotions and beliefs during Jonathan’s fall from a lovely, promising childhood into heroin addiction, and how he stood on that precipice between despair and faith. Then, he explained his decision to turn that experience into “Losing Jonathan.” Last year, when I read this memoir, I wrestled with my prejudice that English professors are not free to express this much frank emotion. What would his colleagues and students think? But now, listening to him speak so eloquently about how he placed these precious experiences on the page, it felt so right. As a man of letters, of course he wanted to locate these profoundly human events in the world of literature.

When he started, he seemed to be gathering his thoughts, selecting elements of his memory and intention. By the time he finished, his voice was strong and there was a cadence to his speech. I have always admired the way a good professor can lean into his topic and share not only his information but also his enthusiasm about the subject. Today, the professor enveloped us in his vision, not by speaking about someone else’s writing, but by sharing his own intentions as a writer, a father, and a human being.

Then it was my job to turn the audience’s attention back to their own goals. I realized there wasn’t enough time to conduct a real workshop, but in the small amount of time available, I wanted to convince everyone that the problems of writing a memoir are solvable. “When you look back through your memories, they fly out at you in a variety of bits and pieces, entangled in time, and at first only make sense to you. As you write scenes and accumulate them in sequence, they begin to take shape. As you see the material of your life take shape on the page, you gradually tame the flood of memories and begin to craft them into a story worth reading.”

After my portion of the talk, I opened the floor to questions. Ordinarily in memoir workshops the majority of questions are about how to write about life, but today the audience wanted to pour out their empathy to a couple who lost a child to drugs. One of the raised hands belonged to my cousin. In a shaky voice, she said, “Thank you so much for writing about this.” I could hardly hear her and asked her to say more. She continued, “I was twelve years old before I found that my uncle died. It was a suicide and no one would talk about it.”

I thought, “Oh. That family nightmare.” I was a little boy when my father’s nephew, after graduating medical school, had a mental breakdown and killed himself. The family immediately imposed a silence around the event, and I never understood the emotional impact. Now, I saw the shock in my cousin’s face these many years later.

Linda Waxler, from the back of the room, spoke up with a strong, purposeful voice. Looking directly at my cousin, Linda said, “That’s the reason we wrote “Losing Jonathan.” When he died, people pulled away from us. We wanted to educate people to understand that when someone dies, that’s the time to pull together. Silence is the most painful response.”

Their exchange reminded me that people have a tendency to hide extraordinary things about themselves, even events that cry out for compassion. I have heard the issue expressed in my memoir workshops, where writers express fear and uncertainty about how much of their lives to reveal. To direct the audience’s attention back to their own writing, I said, “We often think we must keep our secrets hidden in order to be accepted, but in fact, the secrets themselves keep us separated. Memoir writing lets us explore and share these parts of ourselves. When hidden material is told in a story, it takes on a universal quality that we can all relate to.”

My other cousin spoke up. “It’s true. We always had secrets. My mother wouldn’t tell any of her friends when I was divorced. No one wanted to talk about that back then.”

I responded, “Times are changing, and memoirs are helping break down these barriers. Jeannette Walls, author of the bestseller “Glass Castle,” said that before she wrote her memoir, she was deeply ashamed of her poor, chaotic childhood. Now, thanks to her book and others like it, we are sharing many things that once were hidden.”

At the end of the meeting, people gathered around to thank us. I love these moments after a talk when people pour back some of the energy that I poured out. I looked at Bob and smiled. If we had been forty years younger, we would have given each other high fives. As we said goodbye, Robert and I promised to do it again. “We can call ourselves the Two Waxlers,” I said, “and give talks about how memoirs matter.” “Yes, a road tour,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

I realized how comfortable I was with all these people, a comfort level that for most of my life had been entirely foreign to me. For decades, I felt distant from my family. Now I was wondering how much of my distance was based on my secret. After I left my childhood neighborhood in Philadelphia to go out into the world, I decided that being part of a minority religion made me an outsider. Writing my memoir has given me more confidence to accept all these parts of myself. Letting go of my secrets feels like letting go of my walls.

As I walked across the parking lot to my car, I thought about my mom’s image of a God who tries to let us know He is there, without really letting us know. I wondered how clever He might be feeling right now, arranging things so that an English professor and his wife could learn hard lessons about life, and then write and speak about what they learned to help other people get in touch with their own secrets. When I give memoir workshops, my focus in on helping other people learn about their own lives, but today I felt the guilty pleasure of having learned something about my own.


To read an essay I wrote about Robert Waxler’s memoir “Courage to Walk” click here.

To read an essay about “Losing Jonathan,” click here.

To read an interview with Robert Waxler about his memoirs, click here.

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.

Courage to Write, Passion to Read

by Jerry Waxler

Robert Waxler found his athletically active son, Jeremy, on the floor, unable to move his legs. Rushed, to a hospital, doctors first suspected a back injury. Tests revealed it to be more sinister, requiring emergency surgery. The memoir “Courage to Walk” by Robert Waxler starts like a medical thriller, but soon the lens of the book widens to include the family’s search for emotional survival. Jeremy’s medical crisis awakened echoes of a previous tragedy. Twelve years earlier, Jeremy’s older brother Jonathan died from a heroin overdose. Now, Robert and his wife Linda had to face a new trial.

The book blurb forms a contract with the reader

Before I even purchased the book, I knew from the blurb that the author was an English Literature professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. I knew that “Courage to Walk,” was about the crippling and potentially deadly illness of a second son, and I knew about the death of Robert and Linda’s oldest son, Jonathan.

This preliminary information not only motivated me to buy and read the book. It also set my expectations for what I would encounter inside. I was looking forward to learning about the relationship between this father and his son, and I wanted to learn more about the private emotions of a man who earned his living as an intellectual. Since Waxler had written two memoirs, I had the added incentive that if I liked one, I could also read the other.

Courage to Live, To Love, and To Write

The title “Courage to Walk” refers to the son’s courage to reclaim the use of his legs and return to his place in society. However, there are other forms of courage in evidence. Robert Waxler lived for twelve years under the burden of his previous loss and now he must cope with this new danger. While Jeremy was struggling to stand up physically, Robert Waxler struggled to stand up emotionally in a world that threatened to swallow the ones he loved.

Like any memoir writer, I imagine this author struggled with the dilemma of how much of his private life to share. And since college professors are being paid to tell students how the world works, I imagine he would have even more incentive to hide his vulnerability. The fact that Robert Waxler chose to reveal this family struggle makes his memoir an exquisite example not only in the courage to walk, but also the courage to write.

Professors and emotions

When I started reading “Courage to Walk” I assumed this professor would adhere to my stereotype that “intellectuals hide in their ivory tower.” Suspicious of his ability to express emotion, I was overly critical at first of his occasional literary references. For example, he inserted a poem by Emily Dickenson. “Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune–without the words, and never stops at all.”

“Interesting,” I thought. “But what does Waxler think?”

To explore the suffering a parent must undergo, he quoted Simone Weil’s interpretation of the Bible. Weil said, “A mother, a wife, if they know the person they love is in distress will … suffer some equivalent distress.”

“Yes,” I thought. “I can appreciate this point that a parent would suffer, but why quote Simone Weil?” As I became accustomed to Waxler’s style my prejudice faded and I realized that the quotes were not creating distance between us at all. In fact, they invited me into his inner life. Upon reflection, it made perfect sense that Robert Waxler’s self-portrait ought to include a love of books, poetry, and plays. The references added depth to his character and through the course of the book, I saw how he used literature as a container large enough to include both passionate love and soul-crushing worry.

I thought of the poet William Blake, about whom Robert Waxler wrote his doctoral thesis. William Blake illustrated his poetry with etchings to offer readers an additional window into his soul. Robert Waxler achieved a similar purpose, showing me how other authors embellished his thoughts.

Waxler’s passion for books leaps around the world

While Jeremy Waxler was confined to his room, he read a pile of books. Robert listed the titles of the book, explaining their value for his son. “Like medicine on a shelf, these books need to be taken in and digested by a sensitive reader, and Jeremy is just that kind of reader, the kind that lets language seep deep through the skin and permeate the heart. Such reading gives him buoyancy, a lightness of being. Good books stir his blood and transport him to some other place.” Father and son shared this passion. Books were their common love.

I too am a lover of books. During my college years, I often saw the world in terms of the book in which I was currently immersed. After I graduated, few people in my life were interested in what I was reading, and my literary interest went into hiding. “Courage to Walk” reminds me that I’m not the only one with this impulse to turn toward books for sustenance.

This discovery comes at a perfect time for me. Thanks to blogging, I have been able to share my love for books with a larger crowd than at any time since I was a university student. With access to the purported billion plus people on the internet, bibliophiles everywhere can trade notes, enjoy each other’s company, and spread the word. Book lovers unite!

Writing Prompt for Memoir Readers
What memoirs make it onto your reading list? Look at the memoirs you recently read. What did you know about the author and his or her story that pulled you to read it? What similarities or differences with your own situation added to your curiosity? What questions did you hope to answer about the human condition in general or the author’s situation in particular?

Writing Prompt for Memoir Writers
In your own life or your memoir-in-progress, consider what your book blurb will tell potential readers about the journey they are about to embark on. What special audience might be interested in unique features in your story such as job, cultural or family background, geographical community, or some other special interest group? Brainstorm freely, and see which items would catch your eye if you came upon this book while browsing.

While Robert Waxler’s last name interests me, we are not related.


To read Part 1 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.
To read Part 2 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.
To read Part 3 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler

More memoir writing resources

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

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

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers

Interview about crossing from academic to popular writing

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third of a three part interview with Robert Waxler, author of two memoirs about his relationship to his sons: “Losing Jonathan” published in 2003 and “Courage to Walk” published in 2010. Waxler is a professor of English Literature at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and founder of the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature,” which uses literature to help criminals find their place in society. In this part of the interview, I asked Waxler how he moved his writing from an academic audience to a popular one.

Jerry Waxler: By writing memoirs, one might say you are playing hooky from the responsibilities of your day job. Instead of studying other people’s literature, you are creating some of your own. What did that feel like, shifting out of your role of English professor to a writer of an accessible, very personal, and intimate sharing of your actual life?

Robert Waxler: Well, yes, people comment about this, although I don’t fully embrace this apparent dichotomy. I remember giving a reading of “Losing Jonathan” at Rice University in Texas, and one of the Vice President’s there came up to me at the reception to tell me how surprised he was by my presentation. He was very moved, he said, but he had thought that as a professor I was going to offer a more academic discussion about heroin addiction. He had apparently been taken back by the emotional quality of the book and the reading.

Literature is about the heart as much as the head, and it is the emotional response that comes from deep reading that I try to evoke in the classroom as well as mindful interpretation. As an English professor, I think an important part of my job is to keep alive an understanding of how vulnerable we all are as human beings, how fragile our lives really are. Literature helps move people in that direction.

So for me, the writing of a memoir is not a different role; it is precisely what I should be doing just as discussing other people’s literature is also central to the job. I agree that we have often assumed that literature professors should distance themselves from the affective quality of the story, keep the feelings out of it, in other words–but that is, I think, a mistake.

Jerry: People who write at work usually need to unlearn their professional style in order to reach the public. Please share some of your own journey in developing the voice for your memoirs. When did you start aspiring to a publically readable voice, and what steps did you take in order to achieve it?

Robert: Some of my writing has been what could be called ” academic” in this context. Especially academic journal  articles, etc.  But I have always liked to think of myself as a “public” person in this regard. Much of my work has been out in the community, trying to convince people that reading and discussing literature is a worthwhile activity, perhaps one of the more important ways to keep us human.

The challenge for me in writing these memoirs was really learning how to write narrative descriptions, dialogue, and so on. I have given a lot of public lectures, written newspaper articles, appeared on radio, and so on for some time, and so have developed what could be considered a non-academic style of discourse, but it did take me some time to figure out how best to capture the “truth” of these family stories in what might be considered a creative non-fiction (memoir) genre. If I have been successful at that, it was mainly through trial and error–and, of course, the fact that I have read a lot of books.

Jerry: Good storytelling is supposed to show scenes and avoid telling ideas. Since you are passionate about ideas, I would imagine such a rule places you in an awkward position. How do you deal with this “show don’t tell” rule while at the same time showing the importance of ideas in your life?

Robert: It did take me a while to fully understand that: “Show don’t tell.”  An early reader of a very rough draft of “Losing Jonathan” told me I needed a lot more description and dialogue–that I was, in other words, telling rather than showing. That is probably the professor in me. In “Courage to Walk”, I did cut some of the more philosophic passages (Heidegger, in particular) because I realized that the discussion was becoming so abstract that it hurt the flow of the story and so blunted the implications. The book is short and can probably be read in one sitting (if you sit long enough!), but it is no doubt a book that demands slow reading at times, contemplation and a lot of thought, but it also, I hope, offers a compelling story. I think it does.

Jerry: What’s your next writing project?

Robert: With another professor, I am writing an academic book on why reading and writing should be central to 21st century pedagogy –especially in this age of images and screens. It should be out the beginning of next year.

To read Part 1 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

To read Part 2 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler
To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

A memoir of mourning helps make sense of loss

By Jerry Waxler

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

The first half of the memoir “Losing Jonathan” by Robert and Linda Waxler is about their attempt to stop their son’s fall into heroin addiction. At the center of the story was a good kid, loved by his family and friends, a college grad bursting with potential and a desire to change the world. By the time his parents discovered his problem, all of that was tearing apart. Horrified to learn that Jonathan was in trouble, his parents were torn out of their ordinary lives and hurled into pleading and research, therapists and rehab.

They felt caught in the cruel undertow of drug addiction. Something was stealing their son and they couldn’t stop it. After a stint in rehab, they hoped he had returned to them. And then the call came. A tainted dose of heroin had ended his life. The second half of the book recounts the following years of their grieving. The book is told from both their points of view with Robert’s passages written in straight font and Linda’s in italics.

The father’s journey

During the year they knew about Jonathan’s addiction, Robert struggled to hold on to his own emotional center, relying on his family, friends, and his Jewish faith. After his son’s death, he turned even more desperately towards these supports. Meanwhile, his mind was churning, second-guessing what more he could have done, and struggling to make sense of a world in which such things could happen. Amidst his thoughts are wonderful images of the young boy in his earlier life, full of hope and promise.

Robert Waxler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, has devoted his life to teaching literature as well as finding the wisdom within it. He believed so deeply in the power of writing that he founded a program called “Changing Lives Through Literature,” to help convicted criminals find their way to social responsibility.

So when he tried to cope with his own loss, he looked towards literature for help. In “Losing Jonathan,” he writes, “Literature helped me keep my anger in check. It gave me a sense of proportions, of tolerance. But it didn’t foreclose on passion, nor did it serve as an escape from Jonathan’s death. Sometimes standing in an empty room, I will yell out loud at Jonathan, even now, and wonder why this tragedy happened.”

The mother’s journey

Linda was so overwhelmed, she didn’t know what to say. Neither did her neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances. So they avoided her. At the time when she needed the most support, she felt most alone.

“Losing Jonathan” revealed the effects of the passage of time, showing grieving as a sequence of inner adjustments. After a few years, Linda began to reclaim her poise enough to greet people and look them in the eye. Robert writes, “Near the end of the fourth year, Linda wrote her own article about grief, a stunning composite of her feelings and her knowledge. It was published in several places including the Providence Journal Sunday Magazine. She was stretching, touching others, rejoining a community, becoming a writer of her own life.”

In the fifth year, Robert writes, “We were like the wedding guest who listens to the tale of the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem, disturbed by the spell cast by his turbulent journey, but wiser now. At the end of the poem, the Mariner is gone, leaving the wedding guest to stand alone, forlorn, stunned into wonder at the vision:

And now the Wedding Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn;
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.”

Many layers of grieving

Memoirs of grieving have a special place in my library, since they take me on the author’s spiritual journey, trying to reclaim the meaning of life after its loss. In another memoir, “Here if you need me,” Kate Braestrup wrote about losing her husband in a freak accident. Then, she had to get on with her life. In the end, she arrived at a lovely conclusion, summarizing her feelings about death in a compelling and uplifting chapter on good and evil. When I’m asked which memoir is my favorite, this is usually the one that comes to mind.

Now I realize after reading “Losing Jonathan” that I loved the Waxlers’ memoir for similar reasons. Like Kate Braestrup they were on a quest to wrest their sanity back from the abyss. At first they were thirsty for support from their community. Then, after five years, Linda suggested, “We should try to write a book. It would be a way of honoring Jonathan’s life. Sustaining it.” The suggestion reflected Linda’s desire to give back to the community some of the strength they had given her. And the vehicle for their gift was a book.

Publishing the book was a social act, a generous gift to each other and the world. I feel encouraged by the willingness of these authors to share their inner process with the rest of us, to give us insights, tips, and guidance to help us stay strong and wise during our own recovery from loss.

Click here for the Amazon page for Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler

Click here for the Amazon page for Waxler’s second memoir, Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler

Writing prompt
If you suffered a loss, describe the situation. Show the external signs of your suffering (tears, blank staring, incoherent cries, or inappropriate silences, pounding the wall). Show the impact on relationships (arguments, withdrawal). Write about how you tried to find meaning, (discussions, readings). Where did you turn to help you make sense? Describe the ideas that helped you patch together the universe. Write a scene that shows you emerging from the valley.

Notes about multiple voices in a memoir
I have read several memoirs that speak from more than one point of view. “Color of Water” by James McBride includes extensive passages taken from interviews with his mother. “The Kids Are All Right” is told by all four Welch siblings. In “My Father’s House” the author Miranda Seymour occasionally steps outside the narrative of the book to discuss its assertions with her mother. “Picking Cotton” is written in the voices of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino who was brutally raped, and Ronald Cotton, the man who served seven years in jail for the crime he didn’t commit.

Writing Prompt about multiple voices
Consider giving prominent characters in your story their own voice. If practical, interview these people. Observe the interplay between their perspective and yours and try to imagine how a memoir might include their observations or even their voice.

Another memoir that fast-forwards at the end
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg in “The Sky Begins at your Feet” continues with an epilog that shares the years of survival after her surgery. Coincidentally, Mirriam-Goldberg also believes in the power of literature to change lives and community. See her organization for literature and social change, Transformative Language Arts Network

Writing Prompt for epilogs
If you need to explain how life kept going after the presumed end of your memoir, consider tacking on a postscript that shows what happens after the main or central story is over.

Read an interview with Robert Waxler

To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.


For another view of a son’s fall into addiction see the pair of memoirs: “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff  and “Tweak” by Nic Sheff  see my essay, Matched pair of memoirs show both sides of addiction

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.