Interview with a Memoir Writer – Childhood with Traumatized Parents

by Jerry Waxler

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

In my previous blog post, I wrote about a memoir by a woman who grew up under the terrible shadow of a tragedy. Judy Mandel wrote Replacement Child to share a childhood that had been distorted by a few horrifying hours in her parents’ lives that took place before she was born. Through the extraordinary medium of memoir, she was able to translate that trauma and the subsequent journey into a fascinating story. In this blog post, I interview Judy to ask her more about her experience writing and publishing the book.

This blog is part of a blog tour for Judy Mandel’s Replacement Child. For more information from the author, see her website.

Jerry Waxler: You had to face a lot of painful memories to write this memoir, and yet you did it anyway. Were you ever tempted to try to forget, and make it go away? How did you move beyond that impulse and face it and write about it?

Judy Mandel: In fact, I had been very successful in pushing all the memories down so far that it was like an excavation to unearth them. I can’t explain why I felt compelled to keep doing that, like picking a scab. You know there will be blood, but somehow you feel it will heal faster that way.

Jerry Waxler: Anyone who met you couldn’t possibly even imagine this tragic background and complex family life in the midst of a suburban community. Your sister Linda of course bore the signs of the tragedy on her skin for all to see, but you only had them inside. So growing up, how did that feel, having this vast amount of secret life contained within an ordinary one?

Judy Mandel: An interesting thing I discovered after I wrote the book, and many of my childhood friends read it. They knew about the accident, or some version of it, but never ever mentioned it to me in all the years we grew up together. Even my closest friends had never said anything. They were counseled not to by well-meaning parents. But I think if the discussion had been out in the open, both within my family and outside my family, it would have been a healthier way to deal with it and would have eliminated the feeling of secrecy. As a kid, I felt mostly a subterfuge that I couldn’t identify.

Jerry Waxler: Now that you have written a book about those experiences, you have transferred the scars from inside to outside. Describe how that has changed the way you see yourself in relationship to strangers. When you meet a stranger, do you feel more understood? Does the expression “more comfortable in your own skin” apply? How would you describe it?

Judy Mandel: What an insightful question! Sometimes when people ask me about myself, in the way people do when you meet, I am tempted to just give them a copy of Replacement Child–or tell them to read it if they haven’t. Other times, I almost feel like I have nothing left I can tell them about myself if they’ve read it.

Jerry Waxler: You have obviously worked hard on this memoir to create a story from all these memories and your research. From a mess of memories, you have created a coherent narrative. If possible, please compare how that feels to go from before writing it to having it on paper. Was it satisfying, fulfilling? Would you do it again?

Judy Mandel: The interesting thing is that once you give your inner story a narrative, it has a shape that it didn’t have before. And it is unchangeable. Before writing my story, my personal narrative morphed frequently, as I suspect it does for everyone. To your other questions, I would say I had no choice but to write this story and I can’t imagine doing anything like this again.

Jerry Waxler: Before 9/11, I spent zero time thinking about being struck by an airplane. After 9/11, this completely changed. The similarity of the experience to your childhood tragedy seems so strange and otherworldly. As a reader, it feels like a mini-9/11. Of course the cause and scope were different but in your individual life, the disruption had struck you in a similar way. That’s my reaction to reading the book. How did you react to that juxtaposition? When you realized that getting struck by a crashing airplane had become part of our collective traumatic experience, how did that influence your relationship to your memories? How did that affect your willingness to write about it?

Judy Mandel: I believe that victims of a tragic event, no matter the scope, are part of a club that none of us wanted to join. Realizing the very long tentacles of a tragedy, through a family, and even through generations, changes your view of the world. When I watched planes crashing into the towers on 9/11, I felt like it was my worst nightmare. I think, because of my family history, I have always believed that anything can happen–and 9/11 brought that home to me in a powerful way. When the Boston Marathon bombings happened, I felt the same way, and deeply sad for the families effected. I also connect very strongly to survivors of the Holocaust and their children–replacement children in some sense. Some say that an entire generation of Jews are replacements for those lost. That’s a subject I’m delving into for possibly an upcoming project. As I wrote in a recent blog post of mine, ultimately, we have to grapple with random acts of evil, accident or nature. All we can do is realize that each day is a gift, and any day that we find peace, and our loved ones are safe and well, is a good day.

Jerry Waxler: I completely sympathize with the thousands of hours your family obsessed about your sister’s final moments. The horror played through the family psyche like a nightmare or a PTSD flashback. Through your creative passion and hard work you captured those moments in words. Shaping these scenes into a story must have been such a profound labor of love and passion. You finally contained within story the culminating focusing moment that controlled your and your family’s history. That seems so profound to me. Now through the hard work and creativity of your writing and the magic of empathetic reading, strangers like me have shared some of that pain. How do you feel about making the private hell accessible  to empathy from strangers? Does it feel like we are sharing your burden in some way? Has it relieved you from a life sentence of facing this pain alone?

Judy Mandel: Thank you for seeing the work in that way. You come close to asking why we write. It makes me think of the quote from Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” That is true for me as well. Writing those scenes, especially the more graphic ones, helped me figure out how I felt and what I thought. It was the only way I could make sense of it. Which brings me to the other reason for writing and reading, to try to make some sense of the world and the human condition.

Jerry Waxler: I have recently written an essay about the structural techniques of writing memoirs. In one essay, I show how some authors have alternated back and forth between the two time frames, telling the earlier story of their childhoods in alternating chapters with their adult timeframe.  In example of this method, I show how each of the two time frames sticks with chronological order. Your memoir uses the interwoven time frames, with more than two separate threads. I counted at least three (your story of growing up, the day of the crash, and looking back from the present while you were constructing the memoir). Could you help me and your readers understand your thought process deciding how to weave time among chapters? How did you arrive at this system as the best way to tell your story?

Judy Mandel: I started with the trajectory of the crash itself, since it fascinated me and I delved into every detail I could find. The first chapter I wrote was the actual scene in my mother’s kitchen when she heard the blast and flash of fire, and the ensuing melée. I knew I needed my childhood scenes to illustrate the different aspects of my relationships with members of my family, and to underscore my isolation and finally the characteristics of a classic replacement child. My present day chapters came last, to give perspective to the book. Coming up with the structure was a slow process. I experimented with different ways to tell the story. I did this visually, using index cards with a brief description of each chapter and posting them on bulletin boards. The boards lined a hallway in my house for months. I would re-arrange them every few days and see how the order worked. When that didn’t seem like enough information, I used the actual chapters, spread out in an entire room in my house. So, it wasn’t an easy or entirely scientific method!

Notes

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.

Interview with Memoir Activist – Founder of National Association of Memoir Writers

by Jerry Waxler

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

After writing my memoir for a few years, I wanted company, so in 2007 I began posting my thoughts on a blog called Memory Writers Network. I envisioned that by sending my essays out into the world, I would connect with like-minded writers. Over the next few years, such a network indeed materialized.

Readers commented on the blog or emailed me to thank me. Many of them included links to their own work, and some shared my interest in creating virtual communities. Shirley Showalter, and Sharon Lippincott, and later Kathleen Pooler and Linda Joy Myers sent “let’s get together and write” vibes into the ether. Linda Joy even created an organization called the National Association of Memoir Writers to gather aspiring writers under one virtual roof. Thanks to these collaborations, as well as my local critique groups and classes, memoir writing turned from an isolated activity to a social one. We were gathering to help each other find our stories.

With each passing year, I found more memoirs to read, more aspiring memoir writers to support, and more groups springing up. I thought I detected a mass movement, and dove in even deeper. The longer I studied, the more robust the movement became. I recently published my observations in the Memoir Revolution, a sort of memoir of my investigation into the birth of this cultural development which has begun to change the way we look at ourselves and each other. To celebrate both the book and the movement it represents, I will be speaking at the prestigious annual Memoir Telesummit hosted by the National Association of Memoir Writers.

The Telesummit, in its tenth year, is a day-long series of meetings, free and accessible by phone, will offer interviews with me and other experts about writing, publishing and marketing memoirs. Whether you are just now deciding to write your life story, or wondering how you would publish or sell it once you complete it, the experts at the Telesummit will offer you enthusiastic, in-depth information and guidance.

I recently asked Linda Joy Myers to help us understand the Telesummit, what it is and why she has worked so passionately for so long to encourage memoir writers. Like all of us, Linda Joy Myers has a story. I knew the roots of that story, chronicled in her memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother. In this interview I learn how those earlier experiences led to her memoir activism.

A Memoir Activist Tells Her Story, Interview with Linda Joy Myers

Jerry Waxler: In your memoir, you talk about the experience of being in an orchestra in high school. I imagine that experience of a young woman, making music in an orchestra pit, seeing and hearing how the music of each one contributed to the sound filling the room. Compared with that, writing is so lonely. When you fell in love with writing, how did you first adapt to this solo activity?

Linda Joy Myers: Actually, playing a musical instrument is a singular activity–you alone can make the music happen, you have to rely on your strength, perseverance, and ongoing discipline to create music. Yes, it’s special to be in a group to play, but every day you practice alone. Just like when you write.

Jerry Waxler: You wrote a memoir and have famously shared the stunning length of time it took you. Fifteen years. That’s a long time to work on a single project. How did you manage to stick with it? Were you ever tempted to set the whole thing aside and give up? What brought you back into the project?

Linda Joy Myers: I hate to admit how long it took, but for a looong time, I was not “writing a memoir” or “writing a book.” The story of my family, three generations of mothers who had abandoned their daughters, seemed unusual, perhaps a cautionary tale for others to learn from. The gripping emotional toll for several generations was something obvious to me even as a child, and later when I looked for books that could help me sort it all out, I found none. It seemed so out of the ordinary to have a mother who acted like my mother, at times even tender and loving when she visited, then who let me know I was NOT her daughter when I visited her when I was older. Even her letters were signed “Love, Mother,” and some of them were tender or reminiscent. I suppose confusion about all this was one reason to write my story. As I wrote, I acted as my own witness, I needed to sort it all out.

So I began and stopped, and began again. I would stop for a year or more, overwhelmed either by the plot, where to start, whose voice to use, or the sheer emotional toll it took to try to wrap words around my memories. I stopped too because there were parts of my life that were simply too painful to write about. But it seemed the memoir was chasing ME–tapping me on the shoulder, getting my attention. It told me that I was a coward, and was I really going to give up on the story I had wanted to write??

Finally, I quit running from it. I turned around to face it and committed to finish the book. I hired a coach and supplied her 20 pages a week until it was done. More time passed until it was published, and it was revised several times after that, but getting the first draft out was important.

Jerry Waxler: When did you first start to think you could help others write their memoirs? What sort of motivation drove you to create a place where other memoir writers could congregate?

Linda Joy Myers: My love of memory and reminiscence, which isn’t valued much by society, drove me to recognize that if I wanted to be happy in work other than doing therapy, I needed to choose something that was interesting to me which I could sustain, so I began to teach memoir writing. I had taught in psychology programs for several years, and my first degree was in education, so I knew how to teach. I started with a group of three, and offered memoir writing trainings for therapists, and memoir writing groups in person, for a while twice a week, for 15 years. I loved the exploration that we all did together, digging into the layers of personhood as well as the layers of craft and story making itself.

Jerry Waxler: As the leader of NAMW, you are in a sense the orchestra leader. But the analogy isn’t perfect. We are all out here writing on our own and only come together occasionally. How do you see yourself in relationship to this loose conglomeration of writers, teachers, and other participants? Help us understand the role you see yourself playing in this movement I call the Memoir Revolution.

Linda Joy Myers: I’m doing what I love. I thought that if I started an organization, we could all gather under its umbrella and talk about memories, story, and share the intimacy that writing memoirs brings to a group. And we share the creative process, which has been an important part of my life since I was a child and began learning piano and cello, and later I learned more about the process of creating something from nothing through painting and sculpture.

Jerry Waxler: I have glommed on to the National Association of Memoir Writers as a wonderful safe and supportive place for turning self into story. What sorts of other feedback have you had from members? What sorts of dialogue with members helps you keep the organization serving the goals of members who want to write and share their life stories?

Linda Joy Myers: People tell me that they are getting a lot out of our programs at NAMW. The free monthly Roundtables invite people to get to know us and learn from the presenters without being members, and there are a lot of free resources on the site. Members enjoy connecting with each other and with me on a regular basis, asking questions, saying hello to each other, and discussing various publishing, marketing, and writing questions on our Facebook site. Everyone needs an outlet where they can share this special challenges and rewards of writing!

Jerry Waxler: Thank you for offering the Telesummit to members, and thank you for inviting me to participate. I find it one of the best places on the Internet where a variety of memoir specialists come together to talk about the various aspects of the genre. What do you hope attendees will take home from this event?

Linda Joy Myers: People join us from all skill levels with different needs, so each person will take what they need from the presenters. However, I try to offer a well-rounded group of experts–in writing, marketing, and publishing–so they can learn about various aspects that have to do with writing and publishing.

This Telesummit is celebrating the “Memoir Revolution” which is the title of your book, and bringing three top memoir specialists in: Denis Ledoux, who started over 15 years ago offering programs for memoir writers, long before the “memoir craze” began; and Matilda Butler, whose Women’s Memoirs programs focus on the voices of women as they write their stories. I’m pleased that Stephanie Chandler, who is a whiz at marketing and creativity at helping writers find their position on the net and develop their brand, and Joel Friedlander, another marketing, book design, and self-publishing guru, can join us. As they say, it takes a village–and that is what the memoir revolution is all about–a village, a community of writers who passionately care about sharing their stories and creating a great book. At the same time, we all become each other’s best-friend-networkers. That’s how I met you: on the web!

Jerry Waxler: There are so many aspects to writing a memoir, from digging deep within yourself, to learning to construct a story, editing, publishing and even marketing. I notice this broad range in the topics you offer in the Telesummit. Do you ever wish it was easier? What do you tell aspiring memoir writers about the gamut of activities required to go from start to finish?

Linda Joy Myers: Sure, at times we are all too busy trying to write, learning about platform, figuring out how to blog and post to Social Media. Sometimes, I have to unplug and just let it go, even when the things on my to-do list are still shouting at me–and this is true for everyone I know. Still, it’s a world that invites us to join in with our own voices, this writing-publishing-blogging-sharing world. We are free to express in ways that were unthinkable only a decade ago, and that is not going to change. People’s lives are enhanced by being able to reach out and touch someone!

People can tune into our NAMW monthly Roundtable Discussions, which are always free, and join our membership teleseminars each month–as a member you have access to over 130 audios and articles in the membership area–and you will learn so very much about all aspects of the writing life.

Jerry Waxler: When I started writing my memoir, I couldn’t have foreseen the lovely experience of learning to construct a story, and learning to see myself through the lens of story. After I had been writing for a few years, I experienced these things for myself, giving me some of the most intriguing creative rewards of my life. As a memoir activist, how do you try to communicate these future benefits to potential writers? What do you wish they could know about the process?

Linda Joy Myers: I talk about the invitation and magic that writing offers us. Everyone who is interested in writing has written enough to have experienced moments when the writing seems to have a life of its own, when writing reveals thoughts and feelings and even new memories–and these moments are a kind of ecstasy that lift us from our “regular” lives to another level of existence. While writing is also hard work, these special moments are the gift of the muse, a reward for perseverance and ongoing attention to our stories. I enjoy reminding people about this!

Notes

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.

Interview: On Publishing the Memoir Breaking the Code

By Jerry Waxler

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

In the fourth part of the interview with Karen Fisher-Alaniz, author of the memoir, Breaking the Code we talk more about writing and publishing the memoir.

Jerry Waxler: Finally getting the book into print must have been a fabulous sense of completion. Now you are in a new leg of your journey, speaking to people about an actual book instead of a book in progress. Congratulations!

Tell us about your publishing choices, and why you chose the particular route you did?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: I believed in my book. I believed in my father’s story and that it was time for it to be told. But after sending out queries, I was getting some nice comments but no requests for more. There is a moment that stands out for me. I was at a writer’s conference and they had a time when authors were standing behind a table signing their books and chatting with conference attendees. Some were traditionally published, others were self-published. Some were famous, others were not. I looked around and thought, I’m not making myself crazy about this anymore. If I don’t have serious interest from a publisher by the end of 2010, I’m going to self-publish the book. My father was in his late 80’s, plus there were a couple of important war time anniversaries in 2011, so I knew that would be a good year to publish. When I let go of the traditional publishing as the only mode, I felt so free. I felt almost giddy. I knew that one way or another I would publish my memoir.

The funny thing is that just a few hours later, I had one agent and one editor seriously interested in the book. They both requested the first 50-pages. I know it sounds crazy, but the big-time New York agent just didn’t feel right to me. On the other hand, the editor from Sourcebooks had said, “It’s like our parents had these whole lives that we never knew about.” And I knew he got it. I sent him the pages and he skipped protocol and sent me a contract within about a month.

Jerry Waxler: Fascinating. That’s a great example of “letting it go!” So how is this publishing method working for you? I’d love to hear pros and cons. So many memoir writers face this challenge.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: With the advent and perceived ease of self-publishing, many writers are going straight to self-publishing. I’m not sure that is the best thing to do. It’s still so new that the typical reader, as well as bookstore owners, librarians and such, are still struggling with it. I had a couple of experiences with it. When my book first came out, when I traveled, I would go into bookstores and offer to sign stock or just tell them about the book in hopes they’d order it. Well, I was told by my publicist that when I do this I should begin the conversation this way, “_my book, which is published by Sourcebooks.” So, I always did that and was received very well. But one time, at an independent bookstore, I forgot to say I was published by Sourcebooks. I didn’t realize it at the time; all I knew was that the buyer for the store was very rude. She was short with me and said emphatically that she would be taking a percentage because they have a hard time selling those kinds of books. I’m still standing there, naively thinking she’s referring to memoirs or war stories. But the percentage thing threw me off. I hadn’t heard that before, so I asked about it. When she realized I wasn’t self-published, but was traditionally published, her whole demeanor changed. All of a sudden she was nice. It made me mad.

Unfortunately, I’ve found this to be an ongoing problem and something that those in the book selling industry are frustrated with. There are a lot of self-published authors who don’t put enough effort into editing, learning about their craft, and ensuring the book is it’s absolute best before it is printed. I feel like there needs to be some kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for books. We need to know they’ve been meticulously edited and beta tested.

On the other side, there is a lot of traditional-publisher bashing. I hear what people say about traditional publishers and it’s just not my experience. As a debut author, I was told not to expect an advance. But I did get an advance. I was told that I would have little or no control over my book. I was involved in every aspect of it. I was told that publishers just aren’t doing any marketing or publicity anymore — that they leave that for the author to do. That wasn’t true either. My publicist even got my father and I interviewed on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition. I had a very good experience with my publisher. Maybe Sourcebooks is the exception, maybe they’re not.

One thing a publisher has that an author just doesn’t is education, expertise, and connections. When I visited their offices in Chicago, I was really struck by the fact that these people have degrees in things like marketing, publicity, public relations, and so forth. Whole teams of people were working on my book. There’s just no way I could know everything they know, no matter how many years I studied. Publishers vary, of course. Smaller and mid-sized publishers like mine are often overlooked. Most authors shoot high and hope for one of the Big Six New York publishers. I feel like I had the best possible publisher for my book. I’m not sure I would have gotten the attention I did, if I’d chosen one of the mega-publishers.

Where self and traditional publishing converge is in the area of marketing your book. While my publisher did an amazing job in the months following the publication of Breaking the Code, there is a time limit. A best-selling author I know said that they give you a good three-weeks, and then they are on to other books. I had about two months where my book was a priority. That gradually dwindled off. It was like my publisher had been driving on the highway a hundred miles an hour, then pulled over and let me drive in really slow traffic. At this point, the shift changed to me. Self-published authors are at the forefront of knowing how to market their books. I’ve learned a lot from websites, workshops, and publications that are geared toward self-published authors. They are the experts at finding creative ways to keep your book selling.

I hear a lot of people use the phrase, “Traditional versus Self-publishing.” I don’t think it has to be that way. The two are not against each other and in fact can complement each other. Most people don’t know how little money a first-time author makes. In fact, most don’t even come close to making even the most meager of livings from their books until they have three out. Authors that are making a living at writing books have many, many books out. They also create multiple streams of income by adding in speaking engagements, and creating various web-based programs. They also supplement their writing income by self-publishing ebooks related to their subject. There are a ton of options out there. So, if your goal is to make your living at writing, it can be done. The timing is better than ever.

Jerry Waxler: One of the things that fascinates me about memoirs is the way so many of them bubble up out of the context of a person’s life, almost like a story that wants to be told. Because of this deep enmeshment between the author’s life and their book, the book holds a powerful important place in their life experience, and as a reader, I’m keenly aware of and appreciative of this connection between the life and literature. However, it leads to a dilemma for the published memoir writer.

After writing a book that is key to their entire lives, they want to keep writing. Some, like Frank McCourt, go on to write other memoirs. Some, like Jeanette Walls, go on to write historical fiction or like Andrew X. Pham, a ghostwritten biography. Others, like Alice Sebold and Beth Kephart branch over to fiction. Some, like me, mainly want to write about the process of writing a memoir. Where do you see your direction? Do you have another book in you? What’s next?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: That’s such a good point. When I do book events, there is definitely a good deal of teaching and encouraging others to write their own story. I’m passionate about that. We all think we’ll have more time to get our stories, or those of our loved ones, written down. But sadly, for some time runs out. My message is to Write Now: Because It’s Later Than You Think, won’t be changing anytime soon.

I am working on two nonfiction books right now. The first, Running in Circles is a humorous memoir about raising a son who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). My son just turned 18 and is a senior in high school. I finally feel like we made it to the other side. But it has been a real struggle — especially when he was young. People joke about ADHD and throw the term out every time they feel a little burst of energy. That’s not what ADHD is. But if you spend any time talking to parents, you’ll see the heartbreak, the frustration, and the guilt. I’ve been through all of those things. But I’m far enough out from it now to have some insight. And truth is, a lot of our experiences were downright hysterical. I always tell people that if I’d just stopped at two children, I would have been that annoying parent who had all the answers for your kid. And then there was Caleb.

The second book I’m working on is another veteran story. Drawing Me Home is the story of Vietnam Veteran, Michael Reagan. He is a talented portrait artist. He worked hard to build up a business with his art, in a beautiful, waterfront art studio. He raised more than $10 million for charity by drawing portraits of celebrities. He has met presidents, celebrities, and politicians. He was the official artist for the University of Washington for more than 30-years. When he was asked to do a portrait of a soldier who died in Iraq, his life changed. The soldier’s widow was so profoundly affected by the portrait that he knew what he had to do. He gave up everything; his art studio, his career at the U of W, prestige, paycheck, and notoriety, to dedicate his life to drawing portraits of fallen soldiers. He’s drawn 3,000 to date. His tragic past is woven into the present in the most amazing way. Miracles abound.

If I do branch out in the future, it would be into children’s books. I taught elementary school for a number of years, and I’ve written several children’s books. I’d love to see those published and I’d love to interact with children around books again.

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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

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

Turning Dad’s WWII Secrets Into a Memoir, Pt 3

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is Part 3 of an interview with author Karen Fisher Alaniz about writing, publishing, and reflecting on her memoir Breaking the Code. In this part, she focuses on how she chose to organize the book. This is a crucial question every memoir writer faces. How do you go from a mountain of notes and memories to a memoir worth reading.

Jerry Waxler: There were a number of ways you could have structured this book. For example, like Linda Austin, in Cherry Blossoms in Autumn, you might have attempted to reconstruct your father’s early experience. You chose instead to use two timeframes, one in which you were the investigating daughter, and the other in which you reconstructed the original time of his war experience. I’m really curious about the thought process that led you to structure it the way you did. Did you model your book after any particular memoir or story structure? Did you try more than one structure before you settled on the final one?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Each chapter of Breaking the Code has two or three letters my father wrote during the war. But very early on, I tried writing the story without including the letters. But what I found myself doing was quoting the letters or saying that I’d read XYZ in his letter. It didn’t make for a cohesive, natural story. I’d only written a handful of chapters when I realized I was going to want to include the letters, and center the text around them. I was also getting encouragement from my critique group. Some of the ladies were little girls during the WWII years and they were a good barometer for how important the information in the letters was. Like everything with this book, the structure developed naturally. Once I’d written maybe 30-pages, I knew it was reading like I wanted it to read. But remember, I had 400-pages of letters to work with. So one of the hardest parts was deciding what to leave out.

Jerry Waxler: How long was it from the time you conceived the book to the time you published it?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: The evolution of the book was such an organic process that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I started writing it. Originally, I was simply going to transcribe the letters. Then I decided to write in the story between the letters. The whole process took years. It was nine years from the time my father gave me the letters he wrote during the war, to the time the book was published. Not all of that time was spent writing it though. It was a slow and often halting process. You just can’t rush memories to the surface, and that was certainly true for my father. If I could condense the actual writing of the book, it probably took about two years.

Jerry Waxler: Like most memoir authors, you had to sort through the events in order to decide where to end it. Explain the thought process that led you to deciding where the story was finished.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Well, the funny thing is that I actually finished writing the book before I had any real resolution to the story. My father was still suffering terribly from flashbacks and nightmares. I’d written the book with a very unsatisfying ending. Basically, in the final chapters I wrote about the reality of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; there are no neatly tied up, happily-ever-after endings. PTSD can wax and wane, but it’s always there. Of course, when we went to Hawaii, my father came back a different man. And that changed the end of the story.

Jerry Waxler: You use photos in the book. That’s interesting. I have often thought while reading a memoir that I wish I could see the images, but then I tell myself these are two different media, and that the absence of images levels the playing field and gives the reader the chance to fill in the story with their own imagination. Tell us about the decision making process and internal debates that led to your inclusion of photos.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: My father saved everything. He had photos and memorabilia. He did have a scrapbook for some of that. But a lot of it he would just put into a manila envelope with a word or two about the contents and hand it to me. It was usually after the subject contained in the envelope had been discussed. Or sometimes he even gave me an artifact before we talked about it. It was like finding treasure for me. Eventually, I took all those treasures and put them in a notebook, in archive safe sleeves.

I imagined the book with photos. But I also knew that that’s a publishing decision. I had heard that it is expensive to include photos, so I didn’t have many expectations. But my editor at Sourcebooks, Peter Lynch made a decision before I was even done with the edits. He wanted to include photos, perhaps somewhere in the middle of the book. But then I decided to visit the publishing company in Chicago. I hand carried my father’s scrapbook and a few of his original letters. Once Peter had a look at it, he decided that the photos had to have a bigger part than simply a section in the middle somewhere. I think that the decision to use a photo at the beginning of each chapter was brilliant. The art department did an excellent job.

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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

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

Birth of a Memoir: Turning Her Father’s Secrets Into a Story

by Jerry Waxler

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

When Karen Alaniz’s father handed her a packet of the letters he wrote 60 years earlier, she embarked on a quest to finally understand his experiences during World War II. The whole experience then triggered a second quest. She wanted to turn the entire experience into a memoir. In this second part of a four-part interview, I ask her more questions about interviewing her father about his past traumas, crafting a book, and then publishing the resulting story.

Jerry Waxler: Tell me about the moment when you realized, “ah, I want to write a book about this process.”

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: There were a couple. When my father finally revealed what he’d done during the war and the trauma surrounding it, I started to see the story as if it was a movie. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s the way I see Story when I read. I started seeing my father’s story that way.

Also, I joined a Christian critique group. It wasn’t a perfect fit for what I wanted to do, but many of the women were published writers. They all had expertise and knowledge that I needed. Everything about book writing was new to me, so I soaked it all up. Every week, members would bring a few chapters or an article they were working on. We would all get a copy and follow along as the writer read it. We’d write comments on the pages and then take turns talking about it. There was a lot of give-and-take conversation. I learned so much from that. I learned how readers read, what draws a reader through the manuscript, and what stops them.

At this point, I wasn’t sure if this was a story I wanted to find a publisher for or if I wanted to simply write it and just have copies printed for my family. But I wasn’t thinking about that much. I just wanted to get it written down in the best form I could. But at the meetings I was being encouraged. People seemed to genuinely like my writing. They said they couldn’t wait until the next meeting so they could learn more. Some of them even made comments insinuating that they assumed this was going to be a published book. Little seeds were being planted. Then one day after the meeting, two of the women stayed and talked to me. One of them said, ‘Have you ever considered that this isn’t just your dad’s story–that it’s your story too?”

Without realizing I was doing it, I had been bringing chapters each week, going over them in the group, and then sharing how discovering my father’s story had impacted me. Of course, I didn’t know I was doing this. But looking back, it was true. I was going through this very emotional experience as a daughter, but in writing the book, I had separated myself from it.

I went home and started thinking about what the book would be like if it was a memoir. What if I wrote myself into the story? My first thought was that I didn’t want to do that. It was my father’s story — not mine. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Before the next meeting, I had written my experience into a few chapters. The ladies loved it. I did too. And it didn’t feel so fractured this way. It also gave me an outlet for talking about my own truth, my own experience.

Jerry Waxler: While trying to make sense of your father’s letters, what else were you doing to try to gather facts about his war experience?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: The research aspect was relatively minor for this book, but I do have some. When I initially wrote it, I didn’t want to be stopped by research. So, I devised a system where I left a long string of dots like this; ————–.. , when research was required. I left enough dots so that it would catch my eye when I went back through the document. Then I would just keep writing.

It ended up being a good system because there were times when I couldn’t seem to move forward with the story. I don’t acknowledge that Writer’s Block exists – but that’s what some people would call it. When that happened, I went through the manuscript and found a place where I needed to do some research and worked on that. It ended up being a great thing to do. No matter how much I was struggling with the story line or direction of the plot, I could always research something and so, I was moving forward every day and that kept me from ever getting truly stuck.

My research came from printed sources, as well as the internet. A section of my, Breaking the Code notebook was for documenting where I found things. It was a very simple system.

Jerry Waxler: Please share something about your writing process. Did you have a daily writing habit. Did you take courses. Did you have a critique group? Anything you can say about the writing life that brought you from initial idea to final completion would be fascinating.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Writers always want to know how an author’s day is structured. I want to know that about other authors too. I think we hope that by doing what the author does, we can achieve what s/he has achieved. But the truth is, you have to fit writing to your life and nobody else’s. So, keep that in mind as I share what works for me.  I was very proactive in learning what I needed to in order to get where I wanted to be. But having a very structured writing life doesn’t work for me.

I have relapsing-remitting Multiple Sclerosis (MS). It’s not something I talk about very often. But I want people to know that you don’t have to have a perfect writing life in order to create something truly wonderful. Your dreams can come true despite and sometimes because of–difficult circumstances. For me, having MS means that my health is unpredictable. I may do very well for months, and then suddenly be hit with severe fatigue and weakness. It’s also unpredictable within a day; sometimes my mornings are better and sometimes late at night is better. The way I look at it, as long as I’m moving forward each day, then it was a good day. I’ve learned to take care of myself too. For example, if I’ve had a book event that took a lot from me, I take a few days off to recoup. I manage my health issues but I never use them as an excuse. To me, that gives MS way too much credit.

I do keep to somewhat of a schedule. But it’s not based on a particular time of day. I write for three hours a day, most days. I rarely take a day off. That three hour chunk of time is for “new writing.” I don’t spend it editing or rewriting or anything like that. I write at home, at a local coffee shop, or a nearby university library. My home office is filled with all of the things I love. It’s filled with inspiration. There is an old chimney that goes from floor to ceiling. It’s rather an eye sore. Inspiration stuck one day and I thought, well, if you can’t camouflage it, embellish it. That’s kind of the rule in our old house; it was built in 1907. So, that chimney is now the centerpiece. I stick anything and everything that inspires and informs me. For Breaking the Code, I had copies of photos from the 1940’s, fabric from that era, memorabilia, and things like that. I also bought a couple of CD’s of 1940’s music. I think those things help me get into the mood of the book.

When I decided I wanted to write a book, I took advice I heard at a writer’s conference years ago. The speaker said that if there’s something you want to learn to do with your writing, “become a student of it.” I did that over and over. For example, I wanted to learn how to end my chapters in a place that makes the reader want to turn the page and read, “just one more page” before bed. So, I studied James Patterson’s writing. I like his novels, but what’s amazing to me about his writing is that he has very short chapters and yet at the end of each one, you want to turn the page. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stayed up for just one more, and then just one more, again. Though the genre isn’t even close to my memoir, it was a technique I wanted to learn. So, after reading it for pleasure, I went back through with a highlighter and sticky notes. For anything you want to learn to do, this technique works.

I read a lot of memoirs; I always have. I love them. But I had only read memoirs for pleasure. I’d never really sat down and tried to figure out what I like about a particular one. You have to look at it critically and that takes a whole different mindset.  Like everyone else in the world, I know what I like (to read) when I read it. But I never had to figure out what it was that made a particular memoir work for me. So, I reread some of my favorite memoirs and picked up newer ones too. Again, after reading for pleasure, I went back through with a highlighter and sticky notes. It was like peeking behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain. The answers are all there, you just have to look for them. So I studied memoir. I had to define what it is that actually works and what it was I wanted to do in my own memoir.

There are a lot of people who want to be a writer. But you have to be completely honest. You have to ask yourself, “How badly do I want this?” And, “Am I willing to do what it takes?” I took a lot of steps but what it all came down to is that I purposed myself to learn what I needed to learn. I attended the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association conference. It’s expensive and time-consuming, but the opportunities for learning and making connections with publishers and agents are huge. I joined writer’s forums like Absolute Write and the Yahoo group, Life Writer’s Forum. I chatted with other writers constantly. Writers are a very helpful bunch. I went to workshops. When I learned that there were a couple of writer’s groups in a town 50-miles from me, I committed to traveling there twice a month. I not only made some great friends there, but all the little bits and pieces of information I attained were adding up.

As I got closer to completion of my manuscript, I started studying things like how to write a query and book proposal. I worked on those even though I didn’t have anyone to send them to yet. And when I did get to that point, I researched agents and editors I thought would be enthusiastic about my book. Note that I didn’t say agents and editors I could send my book to. That wasn’t good enough. Maybe it’s because my memoir was so personal, I’m not sure, but I was not willing to send it to just anybody. So, after I read the Writer’s Market, or Agent Query, I’d make a list of agent/editor’s names and then research each one. I Googled the agents’s name, adding the word “interview.” You can learn a lot from an interview. If it’s a good interviewer, you will hear the agent’s heart, their soul, their mission.  And that helps you send your book only to those who are right for your book.

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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

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

Memoir Interview: Breaking into Her Father’s Secrets Pt 1

by Jerry Waxler

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

I recently reviewed Breaking the Code by Karen Fisher Alaniz, a memoir largely about the secrets that prevent people from knowing each other. More specifically, it’s about the secrets veterans keep when they return from war. And more specifically still, it’s about a daughter’s quest to understand her father’s life in World War II. As she taps into his memories, she encounters the traces of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that roil under the surface decades later. In other words, the book tackles a lot of powerful topics, and offers insights into each one. Today, I have the added privilege of interviewing the author about her experience of writing and publishing it. This is the first part of a four part interview.

Jerry Waxler: My wife’s father was also in the Pacific theater during World War II, and she’s only had a couple of conversations with him about that experience. Now that you have shared your story about a war that so deeply affected that generation, you must be exposed to a lot of reactions from people who are trying to open up to their own memories. Tell me more about the way this book has struck the Vets and children of the WWII vets that you have spoken to.

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: My memoir seems to resonate with people from many different directions. One of the most poignant experiences I had was shortly after the book came out. I was invited to speak at a Retired Military Officers Club. It was a rather formal event and I was so intimidated. After a lovely dinner, I started my presentation. I talked about the experience of discovering what my father really did during the war. That lead to talking about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PtSD); how it manifested in my father, and specifics of a particularly vivid flashback. I spoke of the fear he developed of sleeping. He didn’t even want to take his nap for fear of the nightmares that had plagued him for several years. My father even said a few words, but he stuck to the code-breaking process. Afterward, the retired officers came up and shook my father’s hand, thanking him for his service. It was beautiful. Many of the wives took the opportunity to talk to me, sharing very briefly, the profound and long-standing struggles of their mate.

I went home that night, knowing that in some small way, our talk had been at least a conversation starter. However, my overwhelming thought was a sort of “so what?” So, they’d heard the story. But what did it really matter? I mean, sure, hearing that someone else has been in your shoes is helpful, but just like with my father, I felt helpless to help them in any meaningful way. But that changed when I opened my email the next day.

The subject line said, “me.” I opened it to find a three-page letter. It was from one of the men. He said he was so emotional that he didn’t talk to me or my father. He had, in fact, left quickly after our presentation. He went on to tell me about his military service. He shared some of the horrible things he’d seen and done while in Vietnam.

When he went to Vietnam, he had just married his high school sweetheart. When he came back, he wasn’t a boy; he was a man. In fact, his wife had said many, many times that he didn’t come back at all. She didn’t know the man that returned. His personality had changed. His wife said many times over many years that she thought he had PtSD. He was hyper-vigilant about keeping his family and himself safe. He had a temper. He was distant. But she stuck with him. What he said next moved me to tears, “I just always thought I was a bad father, a bad husband, a bad friend, a bad son. My wife says I wasn’t like that before, but I always thought of PTSD as something that only the weak soldiers get. I thought it was a big, fat damn excuse for bad behavior. Your talk last night changed that. I think I have PtSD and I want to get help. Can you help me?”

For more than 40-years this poor man had blamed himself for what war had clearly done to him. That letter did two things. It broke my heart and it propelled me in the direction of finding out what help is available for people like him.

Jerry Waxler: What sorts of other suppressed memories, military or otherwise have you heard about that children wish they could learn from their parents?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: Children of the Greatest Generation want to know their parent’s stories, whether war-related or not. What I find is that many families follow the same pattern my father and I did. My father didn’t share that much about the war when I was young, or even as I had a family of my own. I had a general knowledge of his WWII experiences. Of course, in my father’s case, he was sworn to secrecy. But I find that other children have the very same experience. And then as we age and our parents or grandparents age, they simply stop telling the stories. In fact, often they build a very tall wall around that period of time. But the most interesting thing now is that for many of us our children are grown, our jobs are stable, our lives aren’t so hectic, and we have this sense that we want to know who we came from. We want to know that heritage and we want to pass it on. But our parents have denied us for so long, that they don’t seem to want to talk about it anymore.

The encouraging part of this journey is that I find it really doesn’t take much to get that conversation started again. You have to be persistent. You have to make story-sharing a priority in your life and then you just have to go for it.

Jerry Waxler: In the book you share quite a bit of internal conflict about whether or not to pry these secrets from him. On the one hand, you hoped it would be the right thing to do, to release his secrets, share them with you and unburden himself. On the other hand, you were often afraid that awakening the memories would only make him feel worse. By the way, you did a great job of showing this dilemma, and I appreciate that you never provided a simplistic answer that firmly solved the question one way or the other. So now that the book is out in the world, and you have heard from readers, what more can you share about how this conflict all resolved in your mind. Are you glad you did it? Do you still beat yourself up or question yourself? Is there an anecdote or moment that can help us understand how you feel about your sense of purpose that kept you going through to the end of this project?

Karen Fisher-Alaniz: The quick and direct answer to the question is this; I’m glad we went through this process together. I’m glad my father’s story was finally told and shared with the world. I put a lot of hope and faith in the fact that in the long run, this would be good for him. I now think that was a bit naïve. You have to understand how I came to this belief.

I worked for eight years in a program for children with emotional and behavioral issues. Many of them had been rescued from horrible situations of abuse. When I worked with them, part of what I did was help them journal through. If they were very young, I transcribed their memories for them. After some time of doing this, and other types of reading and writing, like keeping a gratitude journal, I saw absolutely stunning transformations. They were like the Lotus flower. Brought up in the mire, they blossomed into something beautiful. So, when my father was suffering so, I thought it would help him to talk about it. There were many, many times when I questioned my belief that this would help him and I think part of that was because of his age and part was that it is just so difficult to see someone you love hurting. You wish you could take it from them. I wish I could take that pain from my father. I wish I could take the guilt over his friend’s death from him and he could just live out his days in peace.

But once the memories came to the surface, there just wasn’t a way to turn back. Every time I wanted to stop, or my resolve was challenged, something would put me back on track again. Some little step forward would be taken, or a tiny beam of light would shine on a new area.

All of this said, I don’t want to over simplify what bringing up painful memories can do. I wish that the steps my father took when we created an Intentional Time of Remembrance could be replicated by others with a trauma in their past with a guarantee of peace at the end. For my father, it was healing. I wish it was as simple as replicating a journey. But it’s not. A Vietnam Veteran sat next to me at a dinner several months ago. I’ve never forgotten his words. He said, “I’ll never tell my story. I wasn’t one of the good guys.”

Notes
Karen Fisher-Alaniz’s Web Page Link

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

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

Tim Elhajj about Writing and Publishing His Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third and final part of my interview with Tim Elhajj, author of the memoir Dopefiend. In the first part of the interview, we discuss shame, self-acceptance, and anonymity. In the third part, we will talk about writing and publishing. In Part Two, we take a fresh look at writing about the Twelve Steps. In this part of the interview, Elhajj talks about writing the book and publishing it.

Jerry Waxler:  You published the book through a publisher. These days, the whole writing community is buzzing about the potential for self-publishing. Help me understand your decision. Why did you choose to go with a publisher? How long and hard was the journey to find an agent or editor?

Tim Elhajj: I wasn’t sure I wanted to self-publish my first book. I created a proposal that included a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and the first three chapters and then sent it around to a short list of publishers and agents. I targeted publishers and agents that had worked with stories similar to mine within the previous year. I’m glad I did it the way I did, but I wouldn’t be so averse to self-publishing for my next project. It’s really not that hard, especially if you have a background as a writer and are comfortable with the technical requirements of pulling the manuscript together.

Jerry Waxler:  Over my years of researching the publishing industry, I have developed various fantasies and fears. In one fantasy, a team of expert editors would transform my raw manuscript into a world class work of literature. In a second version of this fantasy, the publisher doesn’t edit it at all, leaving all my mistakes exposed to the world. In a third scenario, the editor seizes control over voice and pacing and completely distorts my message. So how does your actual experience fit these extreme examples?

Tim Elhajj: The publishing industry has some odd conventions. I had to learn to stand up for myself with what I wanted for the story. I had to do the job I imagine a good agent would do for a writer. Really had to advocate for myself, for what I wanted from my story. I feel like I did a pretty good job for a first time author with no agent. I got 99% of what I wanted. But I’ll tell you this-I wouldn’t work with a publisher again without an agent. I’d rather write, then deal with that end of the business. It’s exhausting work.

Jerry Waxler: You did a great job of telling an excellent story. How did you prepare for this task? I note that you are a technical writer and that you went to a liberal arts college, Hunter. With this diverse writing background, what was your learning curve like when you attempted to turn your life into a story? Was it hard to learn the memoir writing voice?

Tim Elhajj: My blog was a huge help finding a voice that I am comfortable with. I have a very modest readership, but it’s not about the hits or raw numbers. It’s about finding a way to get comfortable with the work, a way to put it out there.

Jerry Waxler: I love the sparseness of your writing style. With simple anecdotes and scenes, you are able to develop a complex, complete story. Out of all the twists and turns of your life, how did you manage to select just the scenes that worked?

Tim Elhajj: Most of the anecdotes in the book were ones that I tell in AA meetings or around the dinner table to entertain my kids. Telling a story doesn’t always work the same way as writing a story. You have to make certain adjustments for the page. The audience is potentially different and some things may need more explanation, or transitions to get it to all make sense, but it all came out of that one big insight that I discussed earlier, about my relationship to my son and the program. That was the key to the rest of the book.

Jerry Waxler: You introduce a walk-on character who is not really there. He is like an apparition, or hallucination of one of your old drug buddies, and serves as a grim reminder of the life you could have been stuck in. The technique added dramatic power. However, it created a slight disturbance in my reading mind. I murmured to myself, not in a bad way, “Wait, what is that? Is it a literary device? A hallucination?”

Using this visionary element opens the door to the memoir author’s fantasy world, which I think could provide additional rich material for a memoir. (William Manchester uses a similar device in his memoir “Goodbye Darkness” in which he is haunted by the demons of his past.)  What can you tell about your decision to use that particular character in the story?

Tim Elhajj: You’re speaking of Chopper Cassidy. I changed the name, but this character is modeled from the first young man I knew who had died of a drug overdose. I must have been about fifteen or sixteen at the time.

I wanted to give the reader a sense for the weight of my past indiscretions and poor choices. Most writers of recovery memoirs can just show what their active addiction was like, but I had a very specific structure in mind for the book, so I needed to do something different. I wanted something tangible and big. I had read and admired Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament and he does something similar to give the reader a sense for the weight of his religious upbringing by Orthodox Jewish parents.

This is one of the parts of the book that I had to fight with the publisher to keep. I am so glad you liked it, and that you understood what I was trying to achieve. It is a little disconcerting to see something like this in memoir, but I feel like it’s okay to push boundaries. Take risks. Experiment.

Jerry Waxler: I first met you in an online critique group. You were submitting pieces of the memoir to the group. Apparently it helped you polish your work. Please tell us more about the value of the critiquing process in your development as a writer, and in the development of this particular book.

Tim Elhajj: I’ve really fallen into a comfortable groove with my writing group. What’s most beneficial to me is that act of looking at others work. I have to learned to quickly identify the one or two things that I think will most improve the work, so that I can respond to the group and keep my membership active. This has allowed me to develop a finer sense for evaluating and revising my own work. And, of course, I also benefit from the feedback I get from the others. I have the good fortune to have many fine writers-like yourself, Jerry!-looking and commenting on my work.

Jerry Waxler:  One problem with critique groups is that they generally only give feedback about short sections at a time. It’s harder to find readers who will review the whole book. How did you overcome that challenge? Did you have many readers? Were you part of a group? Anything else you can share about reviewing the book while you were writing it?

Tim Elhajj: I have my wife who reads my longer manuscripts and offers incredibly helpful reviews. Sometimes you really do need someone to look at the work in the context its meant to have as a final manuscript. But it’s also helpful to get buy in on scenes, synopsis, and big ideas. When a book goes from idea to actual chapters-when the writing takes off and starts to move to its own cadence-then I like to narrow my feedback to one or two people who have a sense for what I’m trying to achieve.

Jerry Waxler:  When I write or edit my memoir, my creative attention forces me to integrate forgotten or discarded parts, and so on. Over time, this introspective work has made me more confident about my life. How would you describe the impact that memoir writing has had on you? [an anecdote would be awesome]

Tim Elhajj: I would say my writing keeps me in my office until all hours of the night. It’s hard work, but I love it. Wouldn’t have it any other way. I am sort of a loner anyhow. If I weren’t writing, I might just be staring out the window, thinking. Much better to write it all down. Try to make an entertaining story. My writing helps me to connect with people-readers. It’s an important outlet that I wouldn’t have without the writing. I’d like to think I’d still be a thoughtful person, but my life would be a little poorer without the potential for readers.

Notes
Click here for Tim Elhajj’s home page
Click here for Dopefiend on Amazon
Click here to read eight lessons you can learn from Dopefiend

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

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

Memoir Interview: A Fresh, Personal Look at Twelve Steps

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second part of my interview with memoir author Tim Elhajj about his memoir, “Dopefiend: A Father’s Journey from Addiction to Redemption,” in which he portrays his recovery from heroin addiction in the Twelve Step program. Dopefiend provides a fresh, authentic look at this subject, which has been written about in many other books. It’s a question that arises for many memoir writers: “How do I portray my own individual perspective on a topic that has already received wide coverage?”

In the first part of the interview, we discuss shame, self-acceptance, and anonymity. In the third part, we will talk about writing and publishing. In the third part of the interview, Elhajj talks about writing the book and publishing it.

Jerry Waxler: Dope Fiend is a wonderful insight into the Twelve Steps, for several reasons. Probably at the top of my list is your relationship with your sponsor. He seems to be like a guardian angel. I am fascinated by the great relationship you developed with him. The way I read this relationship, the man himself was somewhat distant and insc`-rutable. I guess that’s a good thing, because it wasn’t about him. His main act seemed to be to ask you if your actions matched your basic principles. Perfect.

I wonder if you could comment on the way you included your sponsor, who was clearly made a crucial contribution to your journey. What decisions did you make about portraying him? Did you feel you needed to protect him, or hide him, because of his privacy and anonymity? Any light you can shed on your portrayal of his character would be interesting.

Tim Elhajj: My sponsor was a huge factor in my success. I wanted to show the reader how that relationship worked for me, but I didn’t want to lose sight of the bigger story, the story about my relationship with my son. I think in some ways my relationship with my sponsor echoes the parental relationship I was trying to build with my son. My sponsor’s willingness to express his love for me is a nice foil for those first few hesitant steps I took reaching out to my son, offering him small praise or just the time required to pass a baseball back and forth. My sponsor was an important and necessary part of the story, but I also wanted him to be somewhat anonymous, to fall out of the story after his appearance on stage. This is what twelve step fellowships are about–part of the wonder of how these programs work is that people from all different walks are thrust together in common cause, recovery. It’s transitory by nature. To protect his privacy, I changed my sponsor’s name, as I did with most everyone’s name. Only my wife and I have our real names used in the book.

Jerry Waxler:  The Higher Power often presents a big obstacle for people who first try to embrace the Twelve Steps. And yet, it is a fundamental part of the program. In her memoir, “Lit’ Mary Karr spends a lot of time worrying about whether to accept a Higher Power. “Is there really a God? Am I really praying?” In your memoir, you did not express or seem to feel any reluctance about this aspect of the Twelve Steps, and if you fretted about it at all, it was so brief and mild, I missed it. Your acceptance of these principles turned the book, into a subtle, understated ode to spirituality.

That’s my perception. Tell me about your intentions. Did you intentionally downplay your internal debate about Higher Power, or did you simply absorb and accept that part of the teaching? During the creation of the memoir, what sort of decisions did you make about how to portray this aspect?

Tim Elhajj: I have always believed in God, but I have also always been somewhat cynical about the practical value of this belief. I am especially skeptical about religion. Spirituality, though, seems a bit different to me. At least, the type of spirituality I have learned by practicing the steps. If I can develop enough faith in myself, the courage to move forward despite my own fears–concrete ways to practice these and all the spiritual values embodied in the steps–then I am capable of making great changes in the way I live my life. To me, it’s all very practical. And, I would say, very spiritual, too.

Jerry Waxler:  I saw that you offer group discussion topics. What sorts of groups have you found interested in working with these questions?

Tim Elhajj: I think you are talking about the reading guide posts I’m publishing on the blog for Dopefiend. Each month, I write a short post that explores some aspect of the spiritual value assigned to one of the chapters or a meditation on the step associated with the value. I try to tie the action of the chapter into the value used in each of the chapter headings, as well as some thoughtful questions for the reader. I try not to add any spoilers, so feel free to read them over, even if you haven’t read the book.

I plan to do reading guide for all twelve chapters. I’m about to post the one for chapter four any day now. I hope they encourage people to buy the book, or at the very least consider the questions. I’d invite everyone to check it out: http://dopefiend.telhajj.com/category/reading-guide/

Notes: Other mentors in memoirs: Father Joe by Tony Hendra. Nic Sheff’s sponsor in Tweak was also revealing, but did not have the same depth of relationship.

Notes
Click here for Tim Elhajj’s home page
Click here for Dopefiend on Amazon
Click here to read eight lessons you can learn from Dopefiend

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

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

Memoir Interview: Shame, Addiction and Anonymity

by Jerry Waxler

In a previous post, I reviewed eight lessons you can learn from the excellent memoir “Dopefiend: A Father’s Journey from Addiction to Redemption” by Tim Elhajj. In this interview, I asked him for more insight into the process of writing the book, and what it felt like to see his story come to life on the page. In the first part of the interview, we discuss shame, self-acceptance, and anonymity.

Jerry Waxler: Your book, Dopefiend hit my memoir buttons such as excellent scene based story building, moral dilemmas that led inexorably to character development, and the drama of ordinary life. Thank you for all the work you did to turn your life into a story and then sharing that story with me.

Which leads me to my first question. Now that you are a responsible adult, with an established career, how did it feel to write a memoir about yourself as a young man who didn’t have a clue about his responsibility to other people? Were you squirming with annoyance or disbelief at your younger self’s lack of preparation for life?

Tim Elhajj: Not really, no. And I’m not even sure why that is. Certainly my behavior as an addict was immoral and irresponsible. I’m not proud of the fact that my first marriage ended as a result of my out-of-control needs. Nor am I happy that my son grew up in a home that didn’t include me. Perhaps I am being too easy on myself, but I like to think that I’ve learned to accept my past for what it is: the unfortunate but all too common circumstances of heroin addiction.

One of my goals with the book was to offer a hopeful story for single parents who might find themselves in similar circumstances, coming into recovery separated from their children, or ostracized from their families. What I learned is that even if you don’t resume a relationship with your previous partner, you might still be able to hammer out a satisfying relationship with your child. But to make something like that work, it’s going to take a lot of forgiveness. While I can’t make someone else forgive me, a good place for me to start is with forgiving myself. If I can get that right, I stand a much better chance that others will naturally fall back into my life, if they are meant to be there. But it all starts with me and my own ability to get on with my life.

Jerry Waxler: Over the period during which you developed the memoir, how did your relationship to the protagonist (your younger self) evolve? Did you grow to like him, accept him, resent him…?

Tim Elhajj: The big awareness I had about myself and my life came with the idea for the book itself: I wanted to tell the story of my relationship with my son, using each of the spiritual values at the heart of twelve step programs. The events I describe at the end of the book actually happened about six years ago. I don’t want to give away the ending of the book, but these events caused me to reevaluate my whole experience in recovery, especially with regard to AA’s twelve steps and my relationship with my son. I realized that by practicing these principles, I had somehow achieved what I had always hoped for with my son, but could never figure out how to orchestrate on my own. With that awareness, I was able to map out the entire story of my recovery, as told through the prism of my relationship with my son. I remember getting really excited the more I thought about it. As if in having this awareness, I had found the secret key to decipher some aspect of my life. In some ways I had.

Jerry Waxler: I notice that you list your day job on your website. So without a pseudonym, that leaves you out in the open. Were you worried that revealing your past would upset your employer or coworkers?

Tim Elhajj: No, not really. I did mention Dopefiend to my manager a few weeks before it came out. He was supportive and I wasn’t surprised. I expected he would be. Prior to publishing the book, I had already “come out” in a few other stories I had published in various journals and newspapers. One of the first stories that I had published was in The New York Times, and it was about my relationship with my son, really a similar version of the story in Dopefiend, but much shorter and without any mention of me being an addict. Dan Jones, the editor who published the story for The New York Times, pointedly asked me about leaving that part out of the essay. I told him I wouldn’t do it. I didn’t want anyone to think badly about me. Mr. Jones, who is just a mensch of an editor, published my story without altering it. But then the more I thought about it, the more I realized: What the hell kind of essayist writes around being a recovering heroin addict, one of the most salient facts of his life? If I wanted to write memoir, I knew I’d have to come to terms with being open about who I am and the life I’ve led. And, really, that was the right choice for me. I don’t think every story I write needs to be about my recovery or my addiction, but evaluating one’s life openly and honestly, without shame or fear, is the right path for me. It’s like the advice Tobias Wolff wrote to Mary Karr as she set out to write the Liar’s Club. “Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else,” Mr. Wolff wrote. “Take no care for your dignity.”

Jerry Waxler: You explore your profound relationship with the Twelve Step programs. Isn’t anonymity one of the principles of the Twelve Steps? Did you worry that you were violating that principle?

Tim Elhajj: Anonymity is one of the traditions of most every twelve step program. As far as the book goes, I was careful not to mention AA or any other fellowship by name in the book, so I think I did okay with the spirit of the tradition.

I am very interested in this question of anonymity and twelve step programs. I think it may have been helpful at some point, but I wonder if that point may have already passed. Twelve step meetings appear in television and movie dramas, even parodied in popular culture. I think people deserve a nonfiction perspective to go along with the fiction and satire. And not just a single person’s perspective either. I’d encourage others to share their stories and experiences as well. It’s really an interesting subculture and phenomena.

And, really, twelve step programs are only a single piece of the bigger picture of resources and therapies available for recovering people. I’d like to hear nonfiction stories from other people who have used different methods to find their way into recovery. No one should be afraid of the truth. The truth can’t hurt you.

In Part Two, we take a fresh look at writing about the Twelve Steps. In the third part of the interview, Elhajj talks about writing the book and publishing it.

Notes
Click here for Tim Elhajj’s home page
Click here for Dopefiend on Amazon
Click here to read eight lessons you can learn from Dopefiend

For 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.

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.