More Tips about Constructing the Timeline of a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

Real life happens in sequence, first one thing and then another. However, when we store those events in memory, they tangle together in chaotic piles. To construct a story, we must extract snips from memory and arrange them into chronological order. We also must find their “psychological order” to convey the dramatic tension that drags the reader as well as the author through a chain of causes and their effects.

As readers and viewers, we expect protagonists to travel along a compelling arc. Now, to write a memoir, we must “go back to school” to learn how to reframe life events. Where do we get such training? In addition to instructional books and classes, we can learn from reading memoirs to see how the author shuffled events into chronological and psychological order.

Take for example, the way Jon Reiner creatively weaves events in both time and importance. His memoir, The Man Who Couldn’t Eat, describes the year during which he suffers and recovers from an acute attack of Crohn’s disease. To understand his predicament we need to know how he arrived here. The book starts with a bang when Reiner collapses from crushing intestinal pain. As he struggles to maintain consciousness, scenes from the past drift in and out of his delirious mind, adding backstory right there in the urgent startup.

Elegant techniques such as this one, and Cheryl Strayed’s memories as she hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild, rely on convincing us that the character has a powerful reason for doing a lot of thinking. Like James Thurber’s brilliant device of setting stories inside Walter Mitty’s imagination, when we successfully keep the reader inside the character’s mind, we maintain suspension of disbelief.

Remembering a scene is only one way to portray the past. You could do something in the present that brings the past into focus. For example, you could return to your childhood home the way Tracy Seeley does in My Ruby Slippers. As she walks around her old neighborhood, naturally she thinks about the past. Or you could dig up old letters your father wrote home from the war the way Karen Alaniz does in Breaking the Code. Jon Reiner uses another clever variation of this technique. He meets an old high-school flame for a lunch date. Since he can’t eat, and maybe they weren’t such great friends after all, their encounter is conflicted and interesting, and it doubles as link between the past and the present.

Backstory does not always require entire scenes. Sometimes the narrator simply tells us about something from the past. For example, Jon Reiner indicates that he is on a first-name basis with his doctors because his chronic disease has forced him into an intimate relationship with them over the years. He provides this information, at least in part, by simply informing us, rather than going back in time and showing how the relationships evolved.

Such information can seem perfectly natural to the reader, and yet, it touches on an important stylistic issue in memoir writing. Information you supply to the reader can straddle two timeframes, the one in the character’s mind, and knowledge offered by the narrator years later. If the reader thinks the information is being delivered by the narrator, it could break them out of the time of the story and yank them into the time of the narrator To become more aware of the tension between character and narrator, pay attention to the timeframe of every sentence. I’ll say more about this tension between the character and narrator in another blog post.

Move it back into Chronological order

You may be seduced into using flashbacks because when you wrote your first draft, a scene from an earlier period jumped into your mind and you let it flow into your narrative. Later, when you reread it, you think, “nice touch.” After all, your unconscious mind dished it up right there, so perhaps that’s where it belongs. But another interpretation is that your unconscious mind is reminding you of an event important enough to deserve its own scene.

Writing Prompt

Review your manuscript or free-written draft, and when you spot a mention of an earlier event, zoom in on it. Instead of simply mentioning it in passing, pull it out into its own paragraph or more and try writing it as a full scene. Then insert it into the appropriate chronological sequence elsewhere in your story. This exercise can help you share important scenes organically within the storyline.

Unabashedly Tell Some History

At the opposite extreme, instead of avoiding flashbacks, jump all the way in and tell the whole thing the way Helene Cooper does. Her memoir House on Sugar Beach is about growing up wealthy amid poverty in Liberia. The book shows the class tension that she experienced as a child in the African nation, which is then torn apart by violent upheaval. In order to help readers make sense of those events, she inserts a history lesson about Liberia, filling in important background information that most American readers have never heard.

The technique of inserting a history or biography lesson into the flow of a memoir is especially common in stories about the lives of parents. These inserted stories-within-stories provide background that occurred before the author was born.

In Breaking the Code, Karen Alaniz Fisher provides background about her father’s life during World War II.

In My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor provides a biographical sketch of her parents, neatly inserted into her own early childhood.

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight  by Linda Austin takes a different approach, reconstructing the story of her mother’s early life, based on interviews. Andrew X. Pham does something similar. In Eaves of Heaven, he describes his father’s life in Vietnam, providing a fascinating view of the wars that tore apart his family and country.

Lucky Girl by Mei-ling Hopgood is about an adopted Chinese girl growing up in the Midwest. When she meets her biological family, she tells their history and what led to giving her up for adoption.

In Color of Water, James McBride spends considerable time reconstructing his white mother’s childhood, based on interviews with her and others in her earlier life.

Writing Prompt

If you are wondering how to gracefully insert backstory, consider turning it into unabashed history. Write it as clearly as possible, and take special care to craft the transitions from your main story to this inserted one, and then back out again. Insert this snip and try it out on readers.

Just How Much History Should You Include?

Martha Stettinius’ memoir, Inside the Dementia Epidemic is about caregiving for the author’s mother who is losing her cognitive ability. While writing the book, Stettinius’ desire to include her mother’s history took her directly into the conflict about how much backstory to include. Advocates for concision told her to cut straight to the matter at hand, and at the same time, she intuitively felt that a story about her mother’s deteriorating mind needed to include a synopsis of her previous life.

In the final analysis, Stettinius, like every memoir writer, had to steer through these decisions, to determine not only how much to include, but also how to do it gracefully. Stettinius succeeded, as did all the authors I’ve mentioned. By working out their challenges with time, character development and suspense, they successfully set the reader’s expectation and then fulfill those expectations. These memoirs and the hundreds of others I have read demonstrate over and over that Story is a form that is flexible and expansive enough to allow us to convert the events of our lives into compelling, inspiring, and informative drama.


This is the fourth essay in a series about how to structure a memoir.
How Should I Begin My Memoir?
One of the most puzzling questions about how to structure a memoir is “Where do I begin?”

How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir?
Since memoirs are a psychologically oriented genre, we want to include enough background to show how it all began. But how much is the right amount?

Should You Use Flashbacks in Your Memoir?
Flashbacks provide important background information, but you need to use them carefully so you don’t confuse your reader.

More Tips about Constructing the Timeline of a Memoir
The timeline of a memoir contains the forward momentum, and the laying out of cause and effect, so it’s important to learn the best techniques for laying it out.

Beware of Casual Flashforwards in Your Memoir
In real life, we can’t know the future, so to keep your memoir authentic, try to avoid sounding like a prophet.

How a Wrapper Story Helps You Structure Your Memoir
When you try to tell your own unique story, you might find that you need an additional layer of narration to make it work. Here are a few examples of writers who used wrapper stories.

Telling a Memoir’s Backstory by Seesawing in Time
If you want to tell about the childhood roots of your adult dilemmas, you could follow the example of these authors who wove the two timeframes together.

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.

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

George Orwell and Memoirs: How Literature Changes Lives

by Jerry Waxler

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

This interview refers to the boook Orwell and the Refugees by Andrea Chalupa. To read my two posts about the book click here and here.

In her book Orwell and the Refugees, author Andrea Chalupa tells how the history of her family intersected with the history of the world. Her grandparents fled the Soviet Ukraine, where, in the 1930s, Joseph Stalin was killing millions of people. The family lived in exile at a time when many people in the West still thought of Stalin as an ally. That’s where George Orwell comes in. His book Animal Farm was an attempt to expose the truth about Stalinist Russia. A copy of Animal Farm reached the refugee camp where Andrea Chalupa’s uncle read it as a boy. Years later, her grandfather wrote a memoir about those events. This entire saga is described in a book published by the granddaughter in 2012. As a memoir enthusiast, I love seeing history through the eyes of these three writers. George Orwell exposes Stalin’s cruelty. Chalupa’s grandfather puts a human face on the millions of refugees. Finally, through the granddaughter’s eyes, I see how Stalin’s madness ripped through history, like a tsunami crashing upon the shores of modernity, and then receding as people grew, recovered, and entered new phases of their lives. To learn more about the creation of this extravaganza of history and literature, I interviewed Andrea Chalupa.

Jerry: Animal Farm was a powerful influence in my high school reading list, so when I read your story, I relate it to the feelings I had about it as a young man. Considering how Stalin affected your family, I am curious to know what if any effect the book had on your younger years. What are your memories of Animal Farm? Did you read Orwell in high school? When you read it, did you resonate with any personal sense of history about it?

Andrea: I don’t remember reading Orwell in school, but I grew up hearing the stories from my family that Orwell allegorizes in Animal Farm. But I didn’t read the novel until I was 26 and looking for inspiration and energy while working on a screenplay about Stalin’s famine in Ukraine. When I finally read Animal Farm, I felt incredibly grateful that someone “pop culturized” exposing Stalin and the Soviet Union. It had a massive impact in paying tribute to the countless victims.

Jerry: It’s interesting that you didn’t know about the actual physical existence of the Orwell manuscript hidden in your family archives. So I know you didn’t know about the original copy of the book. Do you remember anyone talking about the book when you first read it?

Andrea: No, no one. It was such a surprise and makes me wonder what other priceless possessions are in my family!…

Jerry: When you grew up, how aware were you of your grandfather’s past? Do you remember any incidents about how his past entered into your childhood awareness, say in passing comments or stories around the dinner table, or even hushed tones or avoiding WWII movies, or whatever?

Andrea: I grew up very aware and sensitive to what my family had escaped, their stories of survival. My parents and grandparents spoke openly about these things when the mood hit them. In sixth grade, I made a presentation to my class about Stalin’s 1933 famine in Ukraine and started crying. The stories I heard from my grandfather of surviving nearly being starved to death, seeing entire villages slowly wither and disappear, the stories of people driven to madness from hunger left a big impression on me at a very young age. The famine had only to be merely mentioned to get me to finish my dinner as a kid and eat every last bite, a tactic my parents sometimes employed. But I didn’t learn of the extent of my grandfather’s time as a political prisoner during Stalin’s purges and the torture he endured–I just knew that he was in prison, a victim of the KGB; but that was something that no one spoke openly about. Though one time, my parents had a party and one of the guests was a doctor. When he met my grandfather–whose hands slightly shook–he asked him, “Parkinsons?” My grandfather responded, “No, KGB.”

Jerry: Had you heard about the existence of your grandfather’s memoir when you were younger? When did you first learn about it?

Andrea: I didn’t learn about his memoir until my last year of college when I was working on a history thesis about underground religious movements in Soviet Ukraine. My mother brought it up as something that might be useful to my research since my grandfather witnessed religious persecution by the Soviets, and fearless monks continuing to practice and heal people.  He wrote his memoir shortly before he passed away, and she held on to it for almost ten years before giving it to me. His memoir primarily focuses on his time as a political prisoner, the torture he endured, and miraculously surviving and being released from prison–all these things were too painful for my mother and the rest of my family to talk about. That’s why I had to essentially “go looking” in my own way, by studying Soviet history in college.

Jerry: Did you read it? If so, what was that like?

Andrea: I did read it. It was written in Ukrainian, which I can barely read; so I went to Ukraine after college and found a translator. I got to read his memoir for the first time while I was backpacking through Ukraine. It was incredibly moving, his spiritual descriptions of relying on God in “this hellish machine,” as he described the Soviet Union. The first time I read it, I was overwhelmed and cried. I had to remind myself of the many happy years he had helping raise me in sunny and beautiful California. Orwell said it best, the horror of a totalitarian regime is “unimaginable.”

Jerry: Have you considered making your grandfather’s memoir available to other readers?

Andrea: I would love to. His memoir certainly was an inspiration to me, and I know it would be to anyone who reads it. It opens with him as a little boy watching the Bolsheviks battle the Czar’s army on his family’s farm, and he describes growing up as the Soviet Union grows up. So he gives a lot of wonderful, historically valuable insight into this dramatic time. But the richness and power of his writing comes through most during his arrest and his life in a secret KGB prison. I have done preliminary research into finding a publisher for it. The same time I received his memoir, I began researching and dreaming up an idea for the screenplay about Stalin’s famine that led me down a different rabbit hole. But now that the script is with a production company, I want to focus on getting my grandfather’s memoir published.

Jerry: What impulse originally stirred you to write this book Orwell and the Refugees?

Andrea: The ebook stemmed from a talk I gave on this little known history to the National Press Club. I had been invited to give a talk at the National Press Club after giving a presentation about Orwell’s refugee camp edition of Animal Farm to the U.S. Ukraine Foundation–I think I just brought the book in to their office one day and it turned into an impromptu presentation!  In preparing my talk for the National Press Club, I wrote a longer speech than I had time to give; I decided to present all my research in an ebook–an outlet that could fit all the research I kept gathering.

Jerry: When did you decide to publish it as an ebook?

Andrea: As a journalist and writer, I had been following the ebook trend for some time, watching it evolve from a “kiss of death” that turned off publishers to an attractive mainstream option. Journalists were just turning to ebooks to showcase longer, in-depth stories. It was an incredibly exciting project for me, because I had just spent two years pitching my screenplay to anyone who would listen, only to get it into the hands of professionals who would take another x amount of years just to produce it; I was hungry for the immediacy of sharing an ebook.  My ebook explores the history I dramatize in my screenplay; so it felt like a relief to finally get it out into the world and in front of an audience versus a few producers.

Jerry: What feedback have you received from other people who were affected by these events in history, say descendants of refugees like yourself?

Andrea: I’ve made new friends and learned so much from people who reached out to me after I gave a talk or after they heard me share this history on NPR. People have written to me through Facebook just to share their story or send me their memoir or pages of other invaluable information, or helped piece together missing links I couldn’t find elsewhere. It’s really been a highlight of this experience and gave me a sense of community.
After I gave my talk at the National Press Club, during the Q&A, about a dozen people in the audience raised their hands with comments that I had captured their childhood growing up in the displaced persons camps of Europe. The looks on their faces were very touching and humbling. It was an unforgettable experience for me.

Jerry: In my view, your writing voice in Orwell and the Refugees spans nonfiction genres, combining essay and history in a first person perspective. But that’s just me as a reader. What was it like for you as a writer? Where do you see this voice evolving in your own writing path?

Andrea: Orwell and the Refugees was originally intended to be a 25 minute lecture. There was just too much good information that couldn’t fit into a 25 minute talk. So the research, intended for a speech, is presented as it was written–to be spoken. At the time, I had been reading a lot of Orwell’s essays, and he had a wonderful, frank voice and I think that also influenced my writing style.

Jerry: What’s next?

Andrea: I have a fantasy of one day writing and producing a screenplay about the displaced persons camps of postwar Europe. I had interviewed a lot of people about their experiences, people who were children at the time. And they made life in these refugee camps seem like an endless summer camp. They acknowledged, of course, that this wasn’t so for the adults, who had to worry and act for the sake of the future.

In the meantime, I want to arrange for the publication of my grandfather’s memoir, so it can be shared in its entirety. In Orwell and the Refugees, I only published the sections that show my grandfather living through the horrifying events Orwell satirizes in Animal Farm. I wanted to show the real Animal Farm through the eyes of a survivor.

Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm by Andrea Chalupa

Andrea Chalupa’s Home Page

If you are intrigued by the relationship between literature and life, check this essay I wrote on the subject.

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

Memoirs Extend History a Little and Wisdom a Lot

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the second post inspired by Andrea Chalupa’s Orwell and the Refugees. Click here for the first.

When I began to write my memoir, I realized how little I knew about my grandparents. I never asked them what it was like to leave their homeland in Russia and travel to a new life in America. Nor did I ask my parents what it was like to grow up in Philadelphia as the children of immigrants. My ignorance was uncanny. Did I really have so little curiosity about them? How could I be so self-involved?

Recently, I met a woman whose ancestors grew up in the same part of the world my grandparents did. Unlike me, Andrea Chalupa knows about them because her grandfather wrote a memoir. And because she knows and cares so much about those events, she wrote a book that captures the spirit of those times. Chalupa’s book, called Orwell and the Refugees, tells about the great historical forces that shaped her family’s life.

In the 1930s, a couple of decades after my grandparents escaped, Joseph Stalin felt threatened by separatists in the Ukraine and decided the best solution would be to murder its entire population. The resulting famine-genocide was one of the great horrors of the twentieth century, but it was hidden behind the iron curtain of Stalin’s propaganda machine. In fact, many people in the west saw Stalin as a good guy and a bulwark against fascism.

When George Orwell decided to expose the cruelty of the communist regime, he had to overcome the resistance of those who didn’t want to hear anything bad about Russia, so he couched his frightening story in an allegory about farm animals. In 1945, after Animal Farm was published, it was translated and smuggled into the refugee camps in Eastern Europe, where Chalupa’s grandfather was trying to raise his children. In fact, Chalupa’s uncle still owns the copy of Orwell’s Animal Farm that he read in the refugee camp.

The presence of that book in the camps is the most fascinating thing about this whole story. Within those crowded makeshift communities, people maintained their dignity and hope by educating their children. These are the dramas that bring out the magnificent side of history — not the horrifying actions of murderers, but the pervasive attempt of ordinary people to stay balanced and strong in the midst of horror.

Thanks to her grandfather’s memoir, Chalupa provides a personal perspective on history, showing the human drama taking place during those turbulent times. The book by the grandchild weaves a rich tapestry of interlocking stories. The book’s title Orwell and the Refugees reminds me of one of the important authors who informed my own teenage search for meaning. Inside Orwell and the Refugees, I learn about that author’s attempt to spread truth and hope. And the very existence of Orwell and the Refugees provides yet another dimension. It shows me how, like a magic camera, our grandparents extend our vision a few more decades than we can see for ourselves.

When I first read George Orwell’s Animal Farm in the 1960s, it filled me with terror. Was the world really this dangerous? To get a better handle on my intense questions I turned to dark confusing novels by authors like Ferdinand Celine, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Their fictional perspective felt so real, it undermined my trust in humanity and filled me with anxiety and dread.

It never occurred to me to ask my parents and grandparents to tell me what they remembered. I didn’t know that out of horror, springs courage. Years later, after the horror is in the distant past, we can look back at the whole sequence. My own grandparents, by explaining their escape, their courage, and their eventual success, could have offered me balm for the poisonous cynicism that overpowered me.

I wasn’t so fortunate. When I was a child, the prevailing opinion seemed to be that it wasn’t appropriate for adults to tell about their early lives. However, according to research by child-psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, parents who don’t tell their stories contribute to their children’s limited understanding of their role in the world. It certainly appears to have been the case for me. The way my parents and grandparents presented themselves, it felt like they dropped from the sky.

By passing her grandfather’s story along to us, Chalupa performs an act of social generosity, reminding us that the stories of individual lives contribute to the wisdom of society. Thanks to the explosion of interest in memoirs, more of us are writing our own stories and asking our parents for theirs. As a result, from now on, our children will be able to see beyond the stories in history books or the stories at the dinner tables. They will be able to draw conclusions about the way the world works from the lives and experiences of their own ancestors.

Writing Prompt
Remember that to you it was just ordinary life. To your children and grandchildren, it is something they only know from history, fiction or dinner table stories. You can help them understand your life in a much more authentic way by telling your story. What history would you pass on?


Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm by Andrea Chalupa

Andrea Chalupa’s Home Page

Read more of my essays about your parent’s memoir by clicking the links below:
Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?

Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir
Parent’s Memoir Part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview
Parent’s Memoir Part 3b, Guide for Ghost Writer’s Interview

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

How eBooks Revolutionize Your Memoir Options

by Jerry Waxler

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

I recently read, Orwell and the Refugees by Andrea Chalupa, eagerly absorbing the human drama unfolding on its pages. The author’s grandfather survived Stalin’s infamous famine-genocide in the Ukraine, so she grew up surrounded by stories involving mid-century Russia. Naturally she had an enormous stake in the outcome of these historical events, and her passion for the subject drove the story forward.

And just as exciting as the content inside the book were the possibilities the book raised for other authors who wonder how they will find readers. Orwell and the Refugees reports on one cultural upheaval, and it is also an example of another. The book shows how the changes in publishing are expanding our ability to connect with each other.

Her story is about one of the greatest dramas in human history. Stalin’s starvation campaign affected millions of Ukrainians, and indirectly impacted hundreds of millions of others. And millions of people have grown up horrified by the strange and terrible allegory portrayed in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. However, despite this vast impact, none of this is in today’s news, and it’s unlikely many readers are heading to the bookstore to buy a book on either topic. The history of George Orwell’s impact on Ukrainian refugees seems too specialized and obscure for a commercial publisher.

Many aspiring memoir writers face similar problems. We know our story has dramatic impact that would intrigue some subset of people. But when we learn how to pitch it to a publisher or agent, we find that we must demonstrate its salability. It’s difficult to guarantee the five or ten thousand readers that traditional publishers need. Until recently, such authors would either squash the impulse to write about their lives, or they would polish a manuscript for years, shop it around, and then lovingly lay it to rest.

In the new millennium, we no longer need to jump over the barrier of the mass market. Electronic publishing gives us the freedom to focus on telling our story as artfully as possible so whoever reads it will enjoy it and tell their friends. In the new millennium, aspiring authors build momentum not on a sure business case but on the passion of storytelling. And as Orwell and the Refugees demonstrates, once we are released from commercial considerations, we can take advantage of some additional literary freedoms.

Cut Across Rules to Engage the Modern Mind

If Orwell and the Refugees was published traditionally, a bookseller or librarian would not know where to shelve it. Does it belong with books about the history of Eastern Europe, or the history of English literature, or is about the investigative journalism of a woman whose grandfather wrote a memoir? Because Chalupa published her story as an eBook, she didn’t have to worry about these distinctions. By cutting across categories, she is free to express herself in a variegated style and high-energy content that suits the broad interests of a hungry mind.

Its length is another radical departure from the past. Traditionally, its petite size would have kept it out of a bookstore or library because without a spine, you can’t see it on the shelf. However, it recalls a much older tradition. Some of the most influential books in history have been short enough to be considered pamphlets, such as the incendiary Common Sense by Thomas Paine, a 48 page work that helped ignite the American Revolution. Orwell and the Refugees is unlikely to start a revolution but it’s a great example of one, allowing us to regain access to this important, short form. The book is filled with intrigue and information, without being so long as to be overwhelming.

Which Niche Markets Beckon Your Book

Just because Chalupa did not convince a publisher that Orwell and the Refugees would sell thousands does not mean that such sales are impossible. Publishers often take the wrong side of this bet, as evidenced by endless stories of successful books that were rejected before they found a home. Even Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, was rejected at first.

When you look more closely at Orwell and the Refugees you can imagine an enormous number of potential readers. Millions of people could be curious to know the background of George Orwell’s ominous allegory about cruel tyrants, and millions more might want to know about grandparents displaced in the upheaval of Europe and Russia. Orwell and the Refugees places those events into historical context as a chilling personal account seen through the eyes of someone whose family suffered from the horror directly.

In fact, in my own household, the word Ukrainian never had any particular significance. My grandparents came from Kiev, wherever that is. In light of Orwell and the Refugees I looked at a map. It turns out that three of my four grandparents were refugees from the same region as Chalupa’s ancestors, as were the millions of Jews who escaped Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. Now that I have come across this information, I’m fascinated. Her niche is not so small after all.

It’s not easy to know in advance how your book will be received. In the epilog to Rachel Simon’s memoir Riding the Bus with My Sister, she says that the success of the book took her completely by surprise. Instead of the occasional person who wanted to read about a girl and her sister, she was inundated by buyers who desperately wanted to learn more about caring for their disabled siblings. Pleasing the vagaries of the public is not something any of us can predict, even the professionals. So the best bet for any memoir author is to tell your story as well as you can and then reach out and let readers know where to find it.

Writing Prompt
What niche audience might be interested in your story? (For example, boomers, veterans, survivors of a particular illness or injury, spiritual seekers, children of aging parents, etc.) How will you connect with these readers?

Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm by Andrea Chalupa

Andrea Chalupa’s Home Page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

What Is the Nonfiction Bonus in your Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

In fiction writing classes, we learn that to create a powerful bond with readers, every bit of information must directly serve the power of the story. While that prevailing rule dominates genre fiction, I have found that successful memoirs often violate it. Memoir readers are curious about the world, and so we also want formation that satisfies our intellectual curiosity.

I first heard the term “nonfiction bonus” from children’s book editor Ellen Roberts who was referring to the fact that story readers enjoy learning. After I thought about the concept, I scanned my book shelves and realized all the things I learn. In Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields, I learn about postpartum depression. In Diane Ackerman’s 100 Names for Love I learn about the neurological details of the stroke-induced aphasia that afflicted her husband. In Running the Books by Avi Steinberg, I learn about the culture inside prisons, as well as  historical notes about the prison system.

Sometimes, a history lesson is a side effect of a great story. In Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers, I learn about the radical fringes of the anti-war movement. In Colored People by Henry Louis Gates I learn about the waning days of the Jim Crow culture in the south. In Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire, I learn about the history of the Cuban revolution.

I’m not the only one who enjoys learning from memoirs. In the epilog to her memoir, Rachel Simon said that Riding the Bus with My Sister touched a nerve among people who wanted to learn about caring for a sibling with mental disabilities. This powerful nonfiction bonus motivated Rosie O’Donnell to star in a movie based on the book.

The nonfiction bonus in the Orchard by Theresa Weir apparently didn’t bother Oprah who recommended the book through her television show and magazine. I don’t mind either when Weir explains pesticides and the economics of the small farm. These added facts might slightly briefly slow the dramatic tension. But they more than make up for any detrimental effect by lending the book an air of authority and providing insight into an issue about which I am eager to learn.

Most memoirs follow the model of Riding the Bus or Orchard, in which the nonfiction bonus takes back seat to the primary value of the story. However, in some books, the priority is reversed – information plays the primary role, and the story is merely a container for it. When reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, I was eager to learn about international memory competitions. His story helped move the information along, and I loved both aspects, the information and the story.

The distinction between story and background information is blurred even further in Jon Robison’s memoir Look Me In the Eye. The story is about growing up with Asperger’s so it’s impossible to distinguish the drama of his life from a description of what it is like to live with that condition. Robison’s condition was finally diagnosed properly when he was an adult, a diagnosis which helped him understand a great deal about his own childhood. Many readers were able to learn from his experiences how to make sense of their own childhood, or to understand their children. The nonfiction bonus was so important in this book that his memoir is filed in the bookstore not under Biography but under Psychology, and Robison frequently lectures on the challenges of Asperger’s and the autism spectrum.

This Dilemma Might Inspire Maturity

This balance between story and information has an important implication for many memoir writers, who, when telling about their lives, also want to explain things about their world. I empathize with their desire to embed information in their story, and also agonize with them over the disturbing conflict. Should they tell a “pure,” “tight” story and leave out the information, or is that information indeed an authentic and important way to fill in the blanks? I face similar questions in my own memoir-in-progress. Whether I’m telling a story about my new job as an engineer, or my discoveries on a spiritual path, I want to make my experience available to a reader, not just as sensory information but through the intellect as well.

The most interesting nonfiction bonus in my own manuscript is the historical perspective of how the decades have changed me. In the early 60s, still under the spell of the Leave-it-to-Beaver, and Father-Knows-Best generation, my entire focus was on doing well at school. In the late 60s, my trajectory was thrown radically off course by the counter-culture and war protests. In the 70s, I tried to recover from the chaos of the previous decade by immersing myself in the spiritual searching so popular in that era. In the 80s I returned to the workforce to establish my place in the emerging computer industry. By the late 90s, I had grown weary of cubicles, and was ready for the next step. And in the 21st century, my life shifted toward the exciting possibilities for positive-psychology and self-development that is starting to emerge in the new millennium.

With our current emphasis on short-term consequences, I believe my longer view offers an important perspective about the way life unfolds across time, but I wonder how much I can fit in to a compelling story. The dilemma has me stymied, forcing me to read more memoirs and seek more insights. This is not the first puzzle I have had to solve in order to write my memoir and every time I solve a problem, I feel like I have matured, both emotionally and creatively. It looks like there may be a nonfiction bonus not only for the readers of my memoir but also the writer, as my effort to write my story is turning into one of the most invigorating chapters in my life.

Writing Prompt
How about you? In your journey to tell your story, what dilemmas have you faced between wishing you could convey specific information, and the fear that your information will drag the story down?

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

Seeing History Through The Eyes of One Man

by Jerry Waxler

Note: Read more about the cultural passion for memoirs, and reasons you should write your own “Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire.”

Ji Chaozhu’s memoir “The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, Life Inside China’s Foreign Ministry” let me enter the modern history of China, a country so vast and so important on the world stage, it seems like I ought to be talking about it in hushed tones. This planet cannot be understood without understanding this nation of a billion people, and yet, just a few decades ago, China was an ancient dragon, trapped in what looked like an unshakable slumber, set upon by the British and then the Japanese, and creaky in its old ways. Then came Mao Zedong who shook the dragon awake. But he did it behind an impenetrable curtain erected by mutual distrust. Western journalists were excluded and few westerners had inside information.

To visit the Amazon page for Man on Mao’s Right, click here

In the early 70’s, the walls between the U.S. and China became porous and news and diplomats began to speak. Now in our time, the walls are collapsing and the cultures growing towards each other in ways I couldn’t have imagined. So how do I catch up on all that history?

Ji Chaozhu’s memoir offers a crash course in the history of modern China, provided through the eyes of a man who was in the thick of it. Ji was an English translator for the two main characters of Communist China, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Ji Chaozhu was present during some of the most powerful diplomatic exchanges in the twentieth century.

History this large teaches me about the human race
Chairman Mao believed that China was being held back by their culture’s strong emphasis on worshipping authority and ancestors. He was afraid these backward-looking tendencies had made his country weak. To bring China into modernity he felt it was crucial to undermine respect for the past.

Mao stirred up distrust for what he called “The Four Olds,” Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. The strategy went too far, and this disrespect for the past plunged the country into chaos. In what Ji Chaozhu calls the dark ages of modern China, from 1966 to 1976, mobs of teenagers publicly humiliated and beat people who had attained the very things that make a civilization successful. Like everything that happens in China, the proportions were staggering. Ji estimates that a million people were beaten to death or forced into suicide for their educational, artistic, and social achievements.

Ji Chaozhu compares the period known as the Cultural Revolution with the book “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding in which a group of boys stranded on an island lose all civilized values and revert to the behavior of animals. By outlawing respect for the past, Mao transformed China into a gigantic real-life “Lord of the Flies.”

What does this have to do with the memoir you might wish to write? In my opinion – everything. Memoir writers are the keepers of our culture’s pas. We maintain the long view. By remembering and passing along our stories, we link the past with the present. Ji Chaozhu’s life provides a wonderful motivation to capture and share the story of your life. One person at a time, we memoir writers recount life across decades and help people young and old develop their own best understanding of how to live.

Lessons about ghost writing
Fleeing the invading Japanese armies in the late 30’s, Ji’s family moved to the United States. As a young boy, Ji grew up in America, an outsider intent on blending in. As a student at Harvard, he made many American friends, and enjoyed the bourgeois perquisites of western life. When he left Harvard and moved back to China to support Mao’s new government, he was an outsider again. His years in the U.S. cast a shadow over his authentic Chinese identity.

I love stories about mixing cultures, perhaps because of my own grandparents’ immigration to the United States and my experience of growing up Jewish, a minority religion in a Christian dominated country. Like me, Ji’s two cultures made him feel like an outsider and kept him under constant pressure to unify his two identities. These contrasts and tensions between cultures provide a rich layer that holds my interest.

Ji Chaozhu spent his entire adult life translating back and forth between the two cultures. But when it came time to translate his own long life into a story that could be appreciated by the west, he turned to an accomplished memoir writer and biographer, Foster Winans. Foster brings his all-American past to the table, as well as his skill at converting the events of a lifetime into compelling prose.

Long Span of Time, some good things about a long life
Ji experienced many setbacks in his life. When his family was forced by the invading Japanese army to flee their ancestral lands, his father told him that the Chinese people are like ants who continue to strive and climb, finally reaching their destination, not on wings, but by great and powerful persistence.

His father’s advice to be patient helped Ji cope when, during the Cultural Revolution, he was repeatedly transferred from his diplomatic mission to work on pig farms, supposedly to scrub away his “bourgeois tendencies.” In reality this punishment was regularly imposed by the paranoid regime to maintain absolute obedience.

Memoir Writers Bring the World Together
When Mao won control over the government of China, United States leaders were so disappointed they behaved like small children. At an important diplomatic meeting between the two countries in1954, Zhou En Lai extended his hand in friendship to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Dulles turned and walked away. His insulting gesture made front page news all over China and poisoned the relationship between the two countries for 20 years. As Theodore White later wrote, “It was probably the most expensive display of rudeness by any diplomat anywhere, ever.”

Throughout the Cold War, when the U.S. and China seemed so far apart they would never see eye to eye, Ji stayed focused on his father’s advice, believing in the power of persistence. Over time, he witnessed a much greater understanding between the two nations. And still, Ji keeps applying his passionate belief in harmony across the cultural divide. When thanking the people who had helped him bring his story to the west he says,

“I am indebted to all these good people for taking such care with my legacy and helping me open a window into the soul of modern China in a way that I hope will bring us all closer together.”

In Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing” he says that writing is like magic. It allows people to communicate across space and time. When reading a memoir like Ji Chaozhu’s “Man on Mao’s Right” I feel this magic multiplied by a thousand-fold, or perhaps a billion. By sharing his own world, Ji Chaozhu has opened up a channel through which I can feel the connections of entire nations. And that’s true for all memoir writers. Through our individual story, we help communicate the entire experience of a lifetime, break down the barriers of difference, and create deeper mutual understanding.

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.

Awakening bad memories helps shape your new life

by Jerry Waxler

One night in the summer of 1968, I walked along a busy street in Madison Wisconsin with my friend Ely, a soft-spoken math graduate student, and his girl friend Joan. We were enjoying the cool evening breeze, in a college town relatively quiet during the summer holiday. Then we heard shouting. I turned around and saw five boys rushing towards us. I shouted at them to stay away, and the ringleader tackled me and threw me down. Then the others swarmed around me and kicked. Ely asked them to stop. A boy punched him in the mouth and split his lip.

Joan screamed, and passing cars honked. Then a getaway car pulled up and the boys drove off. The intern at the hospital expressed no interest in how violated I felt. Reluctant to order an X-ray, he brushed off my headache. “Of course it hurts,” he said. “You were kicked in the head.” It turned out, he was right. I had no serious physical injury. By now almost dawn, two policemen took me back to look for my contact lens. When I was a protester, I hated the police, but now, these two men were shining their flashlights, bending down and looking for the tiny piece of plastic that enabled me to see. I felt an unexpected flush of gratitude.

Joan had written the license number, and with the help of a hippie lawyer we found that the ringleader was the son of the police chief of a small town 50 miles away. The lawyer and I split the settlement of $75.00. The rest of the summer I slunk around, racing into shadows when cars approached. In the fall, surrounded by thousands of returning students, I felt safe enough, and I let the incident slip into the past. After a few months I forgot it entirely.

Thirty three years later, in 2001, I was traumatized along with hundreds of millions of others by airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center. I wanted to help in some way so I took a workshop to qualify as a helper in community traumas. To learn how to conduct a group discussion, we were asked to talk about something that had happened to us. As I prepared, I unearthed my memory of being beaten.

Until that time, I had never thought in detail about the scene. Now as I tried to explain it, I saw it more clearly, describing who was there, what happened next, and so on. The event seemed important, so I tried to go deeper by writing about it. As it took shape on paper, it gradually changed from a vague, disturbing set of memories into a story.

With the Vietnam War raging, my attention was diverted from typical college concerns. All I could think about was the war. I didn’t think it was justified or fair, so I protested. I wanted to protect myself, the Vietnamese people, and the boys who were getting sent into danger. I thought my goals were noble, so why would anyone attack me?

To tell a more complete story, I tried to picture one of the high school boys in his home, eating dinner with his dad, who was probably a veteran of World War II. Dad was praising the soldiers who were out with machine guns and artillery hunting down the enemy. This was how Americans defend their freedom. Dad expressed his fear that if protesters stopped the war, it could unleash chaos, and threaten their way of life. The protesters must be stopped. So his sons protest the protesters by beating up someone with long hair. They were upholding the values of their family and country.  Under the circumstances, their actions were the most honorable thing they could have done.

Now, these many years later, I know a lot more about war trauma than I did back then. I imagine that one of those boys had an older brother serving in Vietnam. Instead of being kicked, he was getting shot at and watching his companions blown to pieces before his eyes. If he lived, he would for years continue to be assaulted by memories that repeatedly tear him apart. Flashbacks are the other way humans deal with trauma.

While flashbacks sound like the opposite of forgetting, these two reactions have one thing in common. They both leave you powerless to think clearly about the original experience and so the events remain stuck in their original shape. Only later, after you start trying to communicate, can you slow down and put things together.

Writing the memories gives me new power over them
I never understood the way the mugging influenced the following years. I always thought my profound depression was caused by some generalized angst. I didn’t make the connection with the trauma because I had forgotten it. I had not made the connection between being attacked and my loss of interest in protesting. I just thought my disengagement from the protests was because the whole thing was too emotionally exhausting. Now I see that beating was intended to stop me from protesting, and I got the message. My body wounds healed, but that part of me that wanted to share my opinions never did.

Writing the story reveals another powerful truth about that night in 1968. It was just one moment in time. Storytelling drags and pushes me to the next day and the next, until eventually I find myself on more stable ground. I find myself more whole.

How can writing help me grow?
As my storytelling reveals that night as one night in my six decades of life, I consider my decision to stop expressing my opinion. Must I for the rest of my life please everyone for fear they won’t like me and beat me up? If I am true to myself, I inevitably will displease some people. Everyone is different and unique. Now, instead of being limited by the decisions of a scared young man, I am working on a more public approach to my opinions that allow me a more vibrant relationship to the world. Diving into painful memories has helped me grow towards expressing my greater potential as an individual unique, human being.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about a time when you felt wronged. After you write it from your point of view, write another story about that experience from the other person’s point of view, seeing the way they justified their action initially, and the way they justified or forgave themselves afterwards.

Writing Prompt
In an experience you had that seemed traumatic, write a story in which that experience was the beginning, and then proceed from there. Look for a way to resolve the dramatic tension by reaching stable ground, or coming to terms with the trauma, or find some new direction or lesson that resulted in a positive ending.

For another essay I wrote about PTSD and the horrors of war, click here.

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