A novelist comes alive in a memoir, or is it the other way around?

by Jerry Waxler

Rick Skwiot, author of “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” also wrote several fiction books, making him a good resource to help me understand the relationship between these two apparently very different narrative forms. In the first parts of this interview I asked him about; his spiritual quest, turning notebooks into a memoir, and more about his life as a writer. In this fifth part of our interview, I ask him about fiction, fact, and finding an end.

Jerry Waxler: You have written several fiction books. Which did you learn first, memoir writing or fiction writing?  Have themes from your journey to Mexico infused your other writing? If so, how?

Rick Skwiot: Learning how to write fiction came first with me, long before I ever thought of writing a memoir, though “learning” it is a never-ending journey, perhaps like “learning” philosophy or learning wholeness. However, like fiction writing, memoir writing is creative writing, and all the tools and approaches that I learned as a novelist I applied to my two memoirs: how to organize my material for dramatic effect, develop interesting characters, modulate and pace the story, construct emotion-laden scenes, build taut and tense dialogue, keep the narration driving forward, etc.

Fiction writing also helped sharpen my imaginative powers, which certainly come in handy when writing a memoir. For example, in my childhood memoir I wrote a scene in which I imagined my widowed grandmother’s secret lover (whom I learned about 50 years after the fact) meandering North St. Louis streets after being chased from her flat prior to our Christmas morning arrival. Appropriate turf for a memoir, I think, the memoirist’s thoughts, feelings, and imagination.

As to themes from my Mexico journeys infusing my other writing, yes, they do, for they have become part of me. They show up quite plainly in my two early Mexican novels, particularly in Sleeping With Pancho Villa, though in an indirect and subtle way, I hope. The playwright Arthur Miller once said that all drama attempts to answer the question, “How does a man make for himself a home?” That can be said of novels and memoirs as well. I think the spiritual quest is central to that search for home. All men and women have something of Odysseus in them, and lives that parallel the Odyssey—we are all trying to find ourselves and our place in the world, to vanquish monsters and false suitors and navigate threatening seas to return home.

Jerry: How did writing a memoir help your fiction?

Rick: Writing a memoir helps put the author in touch with his or her deepest feelings. It is both, from time to time, a melancholy and an uplifting process. But digging into oneself and one’s past in an honest way helps a writer recognize what’s important—what resonates with you, what moves you, what frightens you. Those things are probably what should drive one’s fiction writing as well. Overall it helps you see yourself better and more honestly, which will make you stronger as a fiction writer and as a human being.

Jerry: How much help did you receive from other writers, say in critique groups. Did other writers help you gain perspective and create a clean, straightforward portrayal of your journey?

Rick: I got some valuable feedback on early drafts from writers and intelligent readers alike. Actually, the concept of starting the book at the time I broke my ankle came from a reader who is not a professional writer but a yoga instructor in Mexico. When he made the suggestion, it was like a curtain going up and I saw the rightness of it. (I’ve learned to trust my heart on fielding criticism, rejecting suggestions that don’t really resonate with me, and embracing those that feel like revelation or, conversely, sting.) Most writers benefit from good critiques, and it is very difficult to operate without them. However, it is not always easy to find. Fortunately I do have some friends who are novelists, and we read each other’s works-in-progress.

Jerry: What are you working on next?

Rick: I have just finished a “final” draft of a novel, Key West Story, in which a down-and-out writer in Key West, suffering from writer’s block, penury, and self-doubt, is visited by an angel—a young Ernest Hemingway reincarnate—sent down to get this worthy yet misguided soul back on track as a man and a writer. Together they set off to Cuba in Hemingway’s fishing boat, to attempt to smuggle out a Cuban Navy salvage diver, a Santeria priestess and maps to sunken Spanish galleons. Although it has certain autobiographical elements, probably best written as fiction, not a memoir.

Jerry: One last thing. I am very sensitive to downbeat endings. For one thing, my experience with the existential and nihilistic literature popular in the sixties depressed me profoundly. Once I overcame that depression, I have tended towards literature that lifts. From that point of view, your book challenged me. I found the pervasive death and poverty depressing. And yet, in the end, I felt uplifted, not by what you found in Mexico but what you found inside yourself. This theme of a young person trying to find himself is one of my favorite themes. But you had to finesse your personal rewards within the gritty reality around you. I can see a dynamic tension between these two opposing forces, your insistence to grow and the severe limitations that poverty placed on the people around you. How did you feel about portraying this tension?

Rick: I have spent my life trying to balance those opposing forces, the yin and yang, my melancholy and my exuberance—product, perhaps, of a mercurial Slavic soul. The world has always been a difficult and dismal place for our species, with threats and evil lurking, but also an enveloping home with great beauty and riches. Life is struggle, for everyone, and those who have the inner resources and high spirits to fight on in the face of great adversity are those we most admire. Like you, I want to hear their stories, not the stories of quitters, pessimists and whiners. The protagonists don’t have to succeed in reaching their goals, but they have to strive with great heart. When we read these stories, we see it is the struggle that ennobles us and the thing that matters most.

Click here for Part 1 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Spiritual memoirs

Click here for Part 2 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Journals and Notebooks

Click here for Part 3 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Backstory of a memoir

Click here for Part 4 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Tenacity of a Writer


Rick Skwiot’s Blog, “New Underground”

Rick Skwiot’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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

A Memoirist Talks About the Backstory of His Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Writing a memoir is a journey. In addition to finding and writing material, we also strive to improve our skills, the same road taken by the authors of all those books that have entertained and informed us since the beginning of our lives. In addition to the lessons they have recorded between the covers of their books, many writers are also happy to teach. In this third part of my interview with Rick Skwiot, novelist, writing teacher, and author of the memoir “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” I pry into his insights about writing.

Jerry Waxler: I was intrigued to see you immersed with these characters. You wanted deeply to learn from them about letting go and just living. And yet, you kept diving into your books. It was an interesting character portrayal of yourself, a guy who wanted to find himself in the culture and yet kept finding himself in books. I can relate! How self-conscious were you of this self-portrait? Did you have to work at the self-portrayal, or did this emerge naturally from events.

Rick Skwiot: I don’t think I consciously crafted a self-portrait here. I was just trying to report on this guy who went to Mexico and found himself, and how that came about. For most any memoirist, there are two first-person characters: the author/narrator who is writing it and the historical character who experienced the events in the book’s scenes. The author has some temporal distance from that other first-person character, in my case, the man I was some 25 years ago. I think I was able to write about him with some detachment because he isn’t me, but a character from my past who has no current existence. This was even more apparent to me when I previously wrote my childhood memoir, Christmas at Long Lake, which takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1953, when I was six years old. In fact, in early drafts I used third person to describe the six-year-old Rickey, since he seemed another person to me. (My agent and the first few publishers who read the manuscript found this rather off-putting, and I subsequently agreed and changed it to first person.) Anyway, in writing San Miguel de Allende, Mexico I was able to draw from extensive journals I kept in those days, a day-by-day reporting of what I did, what I read, and what I thought. So I was able to recount fairly accurately who I was in those days, and to perceive the significance of events then thanks to the authorial distance of some decades.

Jerry: In your book you show scenes when you are reading great works of literature or working on your own writing. I enjoy this aspect of your book. You let me watch your literary coming of age, during which you drink in the literature that came before you so you can learn how to write your own. Could you say a bit about your choice to put your literary passions into the story of your stay in San Miguel Allende.

Rick: I think you’ve said it pretty well, Jerry. The great literature I was being exposed to then for the first time affected me deeply and altered me–it was an important part of my experience. And these were the giants I was, and am still, measuring myself against as a writer. I know there are all sorts of writers just as there are all sorts of people, but in my heart I never really wanted to be a commercial writer but a writer of literature. This was a great and difficult leap for me, to aspire to do that, as I came from a working-class environment where there were no writers, much less literary artists. Being a creative artist just wasn’t on the radar for me. But as I grew and developed and gained confidence, I kept raising my goals and expectations for myself. As I show in my memoir, at the time I first went to San Miguel de Allende I was still very unsure of myself as a writer and an artist–I had hopes, but that was it. But I also had some great mentors who pointed the way–Chekhov, Simenon, Cather, Hemingway, et al. These were my instructors and role models. They were pivotal in my development and important characters in my life, even though I had never met them. Thus they had to be characters in my book.

Jerry: Fascinating. That explains a lot. Your journey from a working class family to an young man who wanted to be a literary writer is an unspoken subtext to the memoir driving the protagonist. It’s like I am now seeing the backstory that makes the book work even though in the book you don’t show scenes from that childhood. I love it. Many memoir writers struggle with how much backstory to put into their memoir, and now I’m seeing that sometimes it’s okay to let the  character’s personality speak for itself.

Rick: Exactly. The reader will get it if it is embedded honestly…I’m now writing a novel in which an angel from Writer’s Heaven, Ernest Hemingway, acts as a mentor to my protagonist, so I’ve been immersed in what the real-life Hemingway had to say about the craft of writing. I think his “Iceberg Theory” from Death in the Afternoon applies here: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, there would be no struggle, no story, if our protagonist had come from, say, a family of writers or artists or successful people who paved the way for him–or at least it would have been a different type of struggle. But I knew my working-class backstory (and the role it played in my struggle) and had previously written about it with affection in my childhood memoir Christmas at Long Lake. There you see that while I had no material class advantages to speak of, I was given one great gift, a hard love that granted me emotional security and kept me grounded–which ultimately enabled me to venture out spiritually, intellectually and artistically. As to my Mexican memoir, I sensed rightly, I think, that any extensive digression into my childhood or my frugal family background would interfere with the narrative drive and perhaps come off as self-indulgent.
In the next part, I ask more questions about Rick Skwiot’s journey as a writer.

Click here for Part 1 of the interview with Rick Skwiot

Click here for Part 2 of the interview with Rick Skwiot


Rick Skwiot’s Blog, “New Underground”

Rick Skwiot’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Turning Journals and Notebooks Into a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

When Rick Skwiot moved to Mexico in the 1980s, he had two goals. He wanted to find himself spiritually and also find his writing voice. Years later, he wrote about the trip in the memoir “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.”

In the first part of this interview I asked Rick to help me understand more about the spiritual aspects of his search. Now in this and following parts, I ask about his literary journey. The book explains that he wanted to be a writer. I wanted to learn more about how he fulfilled those dreams by turning his powerful life experience into a book that invites readers to relive it with him.

Jerry Waxler: You mentioned your writing journals quite a bit, since writing was one of the things you did to pass the time. Explain how you used your writing notebooks while you were in Mexico.

Rick Skwiot: My journals were crucial in my development as a writer. Not only did I record events of my life, but I also, as you suggest, wrote fictional scenes there, experimented with writing styles, penned criticism on the books I was reading, recorded my dreams and more. It was a mishmash of fact and fiction that would likely misinform and mislead any reader other than myself. My journals were a cauldron from which a writer emerged, finally. They also taught me the discipline of writing every day and thinking every day, examining my life and the world around me with a sense of writerly investigation. For a writer, most everything is research and potential material, which makes us such charming companions, half vulture, half snake-in-the-grass.

Jerry: As you were attempting to write the memoir, what help were your original contemporaneous notebooks? How did it feel reading that old material?

Rick: A curious thing occurred regarding the notebooks’ content. I had mined the notebooks/journals years earlier when writing my two novels set in Mexico, and had not revisited them in perhaps ten years. But when I did I found that the fictionalized versions of events, from my novels, had come to be my reality, how I remembered things. My contemporaneous reporting of events shocked me at times, for I had not remembered things that way at all. This showed how unreliable memory (and perhaps a memoir) can be, and alerted me to the power and truth of fiction. I was also surprised by how hungry I was back then. I was on a compulsive quest to find myself, and my journal notes underscore how serious and driven I was, how dead set on saving myself. It was somewhat frightening in retrospect, for I saw what peril I was in at the time, and found myself feeling sympathetic and paternalistic toward my former self.

Jerry: How have your habits and strategies with notebooks changed over the years? How do you use them now?

Rick: Nowadays I don’t keep a regular journal and only start doing so when I am beginning to work on a book. Then I use a notebook to sketch out plot, dialogue, scenes, characters, etc. So it is more of a workbook than a journal. Also, I think my life has become much more mundane–which is a mixed blessing–and doesn’t inspire journal entries. Also, I have come to trust my memory, which is a writer’s capital, his material. I know everything that has happened to me is in my mind, in my conscious or unconscious, and that it will surface in some form when I need it. I noted this in particular when writing my childhood memoir, Christmas at Long Lake. When I began writing a scene and put myself in that place emotionally and, through the imagination, physically, I began to see and remember–the sights, smells, words, feelings–from my childhood. It was in some ways a very moving experience, spending time again, in that way, with my late parents, when they were young and vital. Most bittersweet and affecting for me.

Jerry: Many aspiring memoir writers look at their pile of notes, their many memories, and feelings, and are daunted by the prospect of turning them into a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. What was that like for you, as you tried to find a theme or organization or thread of this book?

Rick: That’s always the most agonizing and daunting part of writing a book, organizing and structuring it. What I try to do, and what I advise my writing students to do, is to think in terms of scenes–as in theater, compressed, meaningful action that takes place in real time at one location with a few important characters, and dialogue that drives the narrative forward and reveals character. I will note down what scenes I feel are obligatory, scenes I know I want in the book, somewhere, or that need to be there. Then I start to organize them in some effective way–whether it’s chronologically, thematically, geographically or whatever. I often do use a schematic in doing this–I draw boxes that represent scenes–so I can see what needs to happen first, what relationships and interconnections there are between various incidents and characters, and so I can easily move things around. Once I arrive at a workable ordering of the scenes, I can write them (or often I write the scenes first and worry later about where they go.) The last thing then is to write the summary and transitions, the authorial intrusions, if any, and needed exposition. Of course this is a very messy and recursive process, and difficult and potentially heartbreaking. You can write the whole book and then see that one particular scene is out of place, so you have to tear the book all apart and do another organization and a lot more work. This was even more daunting in the pre-computer days, when each draft meant having to re-type the whole manuscript. But I was happy to do it, as I thought such rigors weeded out the dilettantes and other writers not as insanely committed as I.

Jerry: There was a rhythm to the way the book was set up, with your initial burst of enthusiasm, some rethinking, then a trip back to the states and the start of a second round. I liked the rise and fall and rise again. It felt organic and natural. This is especially important for writers because the middle of a book is supposed to be the hardest, keeping the energy moving during the “long middle.” It’s hard enough to get the overall structure. You have done an excellent job of finding internal structure too. Talk about how you worked through the material looking for the shape.

Rick: I am gratified that the book’s structure “felt organic and natural,” because it was arrived at after a lot of trial and error and anxiety. Yes, I did labor over it, and it changed shape drastically over the ten years of its gestation. At last–and this came after numerous drafts over the years–I settled on starting the book in the middle of things, at the pivotal and dramatic point when I broke my ankle playing basketball on the Mexican team. Then most of what happens in the first half of the book is told in flashback. This gave me the opportunity to order things thematically and control pacing. Part two, my return to Mexico, is told more chronologically. The key for writers is the get the story going right off the bat, to get and hold the reader’s interest and attention. Once you have some conflict or problem on the table that captivates the reader, then you can begin to layer in some of the needed exposition, in a judicious way. This applies to creative nonfiction as well as fiction. It is perhaps the most difficult thing about writing a book, keeping the narrative driving forward.

End of Part Two

In the next part, I ask more questions about Rick Skwiot’s journey as a writer.

Click here for Part 1 of the interview with Rick Skwiot

Click here for Part 3, A Memoirist Talks About the Backstory of His Memoir

Click here for Part 4 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Tenacity of a Writer

Click here for Part 5 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Novelist or memoirist


Rick Skwiot’s Blog, “New Underground”

Rick Skwiot’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

Interview with Diana Raab about Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey

by Jerry Waxler

Diana Raab’s memoir “Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey” interweaves the power of writing with the courage of facing cancer. The mix proves to be a model for any memoir writer, who aspires to turn life experience into words on a page, and then share those words with the world. In a previous post, I reviewed the book. In this interview, I ask Diana more about writing her memoir.

Jerry Waxler: You mention that your surgeon prodded you to write in your journal. That’s the first time I’ve heard of a surgeon giving this type of advice. What went through your mind when he said that?

Diana Raab: This was definitely not a typical request. The fact is my plastic surgeon knew that I was a writer and also knew that I was depressed following my surgery. He understood my passion for writing and how much I believed in the healing power of writing. I think it was just intuitive and very wise of him to make this demand of me. Indeed I was surprised when he suggested it, but at the same time, quite appreciative for his sensitivity.

Jerry: I know you edited a book about writing journals and notebooks (Writers and their Notebooks). Tell us about the history of your involvement with journals.

Diana: My mother gave me my first journal when I was ten years old after my grandmother committed suicide in my childhood home. She didn’t know of any other way to help me cope with the loss of my beloved grandmother who was also my caretaker. She told me to pour my feelings onto the pages of my journal. That seemingly innocent gesture set the platform for a lifetime as a writer and for journal-keeping. Later during my teen years, I wrote in my journal to help me navigate through a tumultuous adolescence. I then journaled when my children were young and then again to help me through my cancer journey, which resulted in my recent self-help memoir, Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey.

Jerry: How much did you journal during your illness, and how would you describe the emotional effect that resulted from your journal writing sessions?

Diana: While still in the hospital I journaled twice a day. Once home I journaled once a day and/or whenever I had the need. The mere act of journaling was very cathartic for me. I was home recovering from surgery on September 11th, 2001. It was a very difficult time for me. My emotions were bubbling over as I was dealing with my own personal loss and the loss to my country and the city of my youth. I speak a lot about this in my book.

I always feel better after expressing myself on the page, during both good and bad times. My times with my journal are precious. It is one way I take care of myself, in the same way I go to the gym or for a beach walk. If you journal on a regular basis,  not only do you document the events you are going through, but you also document the feelings, sensations, sights and sounds that you might not recall at a later date and this in and of itself is very healing.

Jerry: When you were writing in your journal, had you decided by then to write a book about the experience?

Diana: Even though all of my eight books began on the pages of my journal, I typically don’t write with the intention of publishing a book. It just sometimes ends up that way. Because of my background as a registered nurse, it is intuitive for me to write a combination memoir and self-help book like Healing With Words.

Jerry: I feel you were courageous to write about cancer. Naturally there are privacy issues, and many of us feel shame and vulnerability around illness in general and cancer in particular. When you weighed the pros and cons of coming forward with your story, what was the deciding factor to go ahead with it?

Diana: I feel no shame. Vulnerability, yes but I believe that’s healthy.

After my first cancer diagnosis I had no intention of writing a book. I kept a journal for my own healing purposes. I did not want to write another breast cancer book because at the time there were so many books on the market. I am also a very private person and I preferred not to expose myself in such a public way. The actual impetus for writing Healing With Words happened five years later when I was diagnosed with my second cancer diagnosis of multiple myeloma. My friends and colleagues convinced me that I had a story which must be told. People were inspired by the way I handled my cancers. I never wanted sympathy or to be a victim. The story was simply that I had two cancers and just wanted to move on with my life. I did not make cancer my life.

In fact, once I was interviewed and was asked if someone was to write a book about me, what should it be called. My sister-in-law, Serena had the best response. She said it should be called, “Sometimes Up, Sometimes Down, but Always Forward.” This best describes me.

Jerry: After a cancer diagnosis, death stalks you like a murderer, and yet ordinary life waits for your attention every morning. It’s like being on the razor edge between life and death. What an enormous experience for anyone, and as a memoir writer you somehow had to put it into words. What are your thoughts or advice about turning this dizzying balancing act into a memoir?

Diana: I have been plagued by two cancers in five years and the diagnoses have completely riveted my life. I decided not to make cancer my life. I appreciate life and treasure it. I also want to teach others to do the same and to become empowered by journaling.

Jerry: Even with the profound danger and life threatening situation of cancer, I know many people who still might stop themselves from telling their story. People who could be sharing the most amazing courage and insights say “What’s so special about me?” What would you tell a person who used this argument to stop themselves from writing their story?

Diana: Only do what you are compelled to do. What I tell my students is that most often memoirists have a story which they don’t necessarily want to tell, but they have a burning need to tell. I believe people should write, not necessarily to become published but just for the healing power of writing. The decision to publish can come later. In the same vein, you should not write about what you think will sell, but what you are passionate about.

Jerry: You don’t write much backstory from your life. What were the pros and cons of talking more about your past? Were you tempted to say more about your past, your childhood for example, or your career?

Diana: Healing With Words is my second memoir and deals primarily with my cancer journey. My first memoir, Regina’s Closet had more of the back story dealing with my childhood. Typically a memoir is about a slice of life with a theme, and not about an entire life like an autobiography.

You might also be interested in knowing that both these memoirs were part of my thesis for my MFA in Writing in Spalding University’s Low-Residency MFA Program.

Jerry: Even though I am not a poetry reader, I felt your poems gave me a window into your heart. Please say a little about your interest in poetry, how writing it affected you, and what went into your decision to include it in the book.

Diana: I began writing poetry later in life. Basically I turn to poetry when I am overwhelmed with emotions and feel the need to be succinct and when I am pressed for time. I wrote a lot of poetry following my surgery, because I spent a lot of time sleeping and poetry seemed to fit into my program.

Diana Raab’s website ||| Diana Raab’s Blog

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Healing With Words, Hers and Yours

by Jerry Waxler

Breast cancer occurs with breath-taking frequency. It will strike one in eight American women in their lifetime, making it a present danger for every woman. To understand more about how that feels, I read Diana Raab’s memoir “Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey.” She offers the story of her own journey, detailing the emotional and technical challenges of being diagnosed with cancer, undergoing treatment, and surviving.

Cancer  is a strange way to face death, every bit as deadly as a bullet, but without the suddenness. When it strikes, we look back and realize with horror it has been building under the surface. After the diagnosis, cancer patients must continue with ordinary life, getting through each day with dignity, while death lurks in the wings. And even after the cancer has been eradicated, it is never really final, leaving its mark and requiring ongoing courage.

If breast cancer were to surface in a woman in my life, before now I would have been able to offer general compassion. Now Diana Raab has helped me tune in to the details of the situation. From the perspective of a person who has been diagnosed with the disease, she shows me the demoralizing effects, and also the courage, the community support, and the medical procedures that sustained her. (* see note)

For those readers who must cope with cancer, Raab offers some of the wisdom that helped her survive emotionally. Her most important tool, the one she loves and that has contributed to the title of the book, is her belief in the healing power of writing.

Throughout her illness, Raab wrote in her journal regularly, tapping into her heart and mind and pouring words on to the page. Much later, she decided to share her experience with readers, offering us a chance to grow along with her, witnessing her danger and her strength. For readers who are coping with cancer themselves, she includes writing prompts at the end of each chapter. The blank pages silently invite your words, allowing you to transcend the isolation and wordlessness of cancer.

Once you have written in your journal, you may desire to publish your story or you may not. Many aspiring memoir writers ask “why should I write my story?” While there are many reasons to consider, one factor to take into account is the value your story might have for other people. Consider the support  that Raab has shared with her readers, and then consider offering your own.

In an interview I will post tomorrow, Diana Raab shares more about writing and sharing this aspect of her life.

Diana Raab’s website ||| Diana Raab’s Blog

Diana Raab believes so deeply in the value of journaling, she edited an entire book on the subject. ” Writers and their Notebooks” contains essays by a number of writers who share their habit of writing in a journal. The essays describe a wide variety of uses for keeping a journal, including self-development, finding a better writing voice, and developing material for publishable pieces. I highly recommend this book for every writer.

(*) Another excellent memoir about a woman who had to traverse these dangerous and troubling experiences was Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s book “Sky Begins at your Feet.” See my interview with Caryn by clicking here.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

What is the difference between journaling and memoir writing?

by Jerry Waxler

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

When a man in one of my writing workshops complained that he hates reading his own journals, I knew exactly what he meant. I wrote in a journal every day for almost 10 years, but whenever I looked through one of my own books, I quickly became bored. My journals were so personal, so informal, and had so little thought towards future readability, even I didn’t want to read them.

However, I loved the process of pouring words on to paper. During these sessions, I became clearer about my own thoughts. And journaling provided a perfect postscript to meditation, helping me put to rest all those memories and ideas that I stirred up while I was sitting with my eyes closed. After years of practice transferring the contents of my mind on to paper, I became a faster, more agile writer. But despite these benefits, the journals themselves were neither informative nor entertaining, and I finally grew tired of writing only for myself.

To communicate with other people, I couldn’t just say the first thing that came to mind. I had to filter and organize my thoughts, then build up a coherent narrative. Ultimately, I decided the most interesting way to connect with people would be to try to write a memoir. So I began remembering and recording vignettes, putting them into order and finding their shape.

The best way to ensure that my writing would be readable was to share it with fellow writers. The feedback from critique groups caused me to rethink my style and adjust my phrasing. This goal of communicating with readers was turning out to be as different from journaling as walking around the house in my pajamas was different from suiting up to stand on a podium. The private act takes place simply and automatically, while the one that is intended for an audience needs attention detail and to concern for social convention.

Of course, informal writing had its advantages. During those relaxed sessions, I was able to catch my inner critics off guard, allowing me to engage my psyche in an authentic discussion. I didn’t want to give that up. And it turned out, I didn’t need to. On the contrary, memoir writing has become a natural extension of my earlier experience. Now, instead of letting my mind roam wherever it wants, I simply direct it towards particular situations. Once I start thinking about a scene, I am back in journal writing mode, allowing words to flow freely.

I still discover interesting phrases, ideas, and memories that I had not thought about before I started. But now, instead of setting my writing aside and forgetting about it, I use it as raw material with which to build a larger work. And editing does not detract from its introspective clarity. In fact, as I polish my draft, I take time to ponder my original thinking, making it clearer not only for my audience but also for me. By the time I finish dressing up my writing in a form that will appeal to readers, I have turned it from an isolated product into a public one.

More memoir writing resources

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

A diary for social change. A young girl’s terrible experience of war.

by Jerry Waxler

Zlata Filopovic was an ordinary 10 year-old girl, living in Sarajevo, a cosmopolitan city in Eastern Europe. Her family was well educated, and had warm friendships with neighbors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. In 1992, in the name of ethnic purity, armed men encamped in the mountains overlooking the city and began a protracted campaign of terror. Artillery shells destroyed homes, businesses, and schools. Zlata’s apartment building lost electricity and gas so the family had to burn furniture to stay warm. When their water was cut off, her father risked sniper fire to fetch supplies from a distribution center. She stopped going to school, stopped playing outside. The family abandoned the rooms that faced the mountains. Month by month her life descended farther into chaos.

And day by day, she wrote in her diary short, innocent, and sweet entries to record the events, the things she lost, her friendships, and longings. Diaries are usually too introspective and too fragmented to add up to a readable book. Somehow Zlata Filopovic’s diary transcended these limits. Perhaps the readability of her entries arose naturally from the war itself. Dramatic tension erupted when, frightened by explosions, her family scrambled to the basement, not knowing how long they would be there or what would be left of their world when they emerged.

French journalists discovered that Zlata was recording her daily observations and passed the information along to publishers. Billing Zlata Filopovic as a “modern Anne Frank,” the book “Zlata’s Diary” sold out of its first run of 50,000 in France.

When she started writing, all she wanted was a way to record her private thoughts. Once published, the book became an instrument of social awareness, publicizing the plight of the Sarajevo people. The French authorities arranged her escape to Paris where she became an international spokesperson for the war’s assault upon innocence.

Erin Gruwell, a high school teacher in Los Angeles, instructed her class to read “Zlata’s Diary.” To Gruwell’s students, the racial hatred that had ruined Zlata’s childhood sounded eerily similar to their own gang infested neighborhoods. Literature intersected with life when Zlata accepted an invitation to visit Los Angeles to speak to the students. Her story exploded their neighborhood boundaries and instantly catapulted them into a sense of participation in a larger world. They in turn wrote about the meeting in their own diaries.

Their inspiring entries relating the war in Sarajevo to the undeclared war on the streets of Los Angeles eventually became published in another book, “The Freedom Writers Diaries.” The book was made into a movie, thus making the unlikely link between a little girl suffering a war in Eastern Europe and the millions of American kids and teachers who have been inspired by the Freedom Writers Diaries.

Zlata’s book expanded my world, too, offering an intimate, multi-cultural portrayal of a child trying to grow up amidst hardship, prejudice, and violence. The lesson that Zlata taught in her diary entries was that war stinks. There’s another lesson, as well. Through writing, one person, alone in her room, can reach the world.

Writing Prompt

What main “lesson to the world” do you think readers might draw from your life experience? Will it be a cautionary tale, a lesson of survival, or an appeal for harmony and empathy?

Most stories contain many messages. For example, in addition to a prayer for peace, Zlata’s story also portrays the wisdom of youth, the love of a mutually respectful family and community, companionship of a pet, and how people survive under extreme conditions. Extend your imagination and write about other images and ideas your readers might experience through your eyes.


Amazon page for Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo by Zlata Filipovic

Click here for my essay: Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

Carol O’Dell kept a diary, while caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. Writing in the diary helped her stay sane, and afterwards, she used the immediacy of the writing to help her write her excellent book about the experience, “Mothering Mother.”   Read mhy essay and interview on Mothering Mother:

Memoir about Caregiving for Mother offers lessons for life

5 Memoir Starters for Beginners

by Jerry Waxler

To learn more about the cultural passion for memoirs, and reasons you should write your own, read my book Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire, available on Amazon. Click here for the eBook or paperback.

When you face a daunting task, the only way to start is to take the first step. But what if even the first step seems daunting? Like the Gumption Trap in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you can’t start your journey until you make peace with that first step. Memoir classes are one excellent way to coach you onto the road. And in fact there may be even gentler ways to start. Use techniques for self-reporting that you can find within ordinary life. If you’re already doing some of these, use them as the starting point from which to extend your writing and turn it into a more complete story of your life.

Letters and newsletters
For at least two thousand years, letters were an important way for people to keep in touch at a distance. The telephone made it so much easier to connect that it looked like personal letter writing was fading into oblivion. Now, with the development of blogs, email, and online family newsletters, writing is making a comeback. By writing letters to your relatives and friends, or articles for your family or group newsletter you can keep in touch while you develop parts of your memoir.

Job and school applications
A more structured method of organizing your past comes when you apply for a job or school. On the application you list previous employment, education, and related achievements. While it doesn’t include much narrative, it’s an ordered sequence of major events in your life, and as such demonstrates a fundamental technique of memoir writing. Expand the list by adding more events, including births and deaths, relationships, moves, and other critical changes in your life. Your list will help you frame out your memoir.

Online profiles
LinkedIn and Facebook want me to explain to strangers who I am. Online dating services want even more information. These profiles convey a glimpse of who we are through tiny fragments like favorite books, pets, and sports. At first I hated trying to tell about myself this way. When I approached it more playfully, I realized it’s not a bad exercise for creating the persona of the protagonist of my memoir.

Twelve Steps Moral Inventory
The fourth step of the Twelve Steps program is designed to help people climb out of the traps of the past by conducting a “fearless moral inventory.” If you have ever been through this process, you have already engaged in a courageous detailed self-examination. If you have never been through this process, look around for books about facing difficult memories, such as, John Bradshaw’s books, “Homecoming” and “Healing the shame that binds you.” While originally intended for addicts, these resources offer advice for anyone who wants to face regrets, embarrassment, and shame. By unraveling the knots of the past, you can set yourself free from backward pulls. And as you develop your story, you’ll find the strength, hope, and other emotions to help you move forward.

Keep a journal or diary
Journaling is a fantastic habit that can help you deal with emotions, get you in touch with your writing voice, and gather your memories. Journaling means writing just for you with no concern about a potential audience. By setting aside readers, you soothe the inner critic, allowing you to put words on paper, without worrying about what anyone thinks. (Stephen King in On Writing says to write your first draft with the door closed.) The goal is simply to find a safe place to transfer words from mind to paper. As you write in your journal, you sort out emotions of the day, as well as sorting out events that took place decades ago. Experiment. Brainstorm. Sketch. For example, snoop around your high school homeroom for a few journal sessions. Who sat next to you? What did you have for lunch? What set the class tittering? Get creative about asking yourself questions. You’ll be amazed at what turns up on paper, and with practice, you’ll develop an easier relationship with converting mental images into a written narrative.


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.

Memoir about Caregiving for Mother offers lessons for life

by Jerry Waxler

According to caregiver.org 50 million people in North America are informally caring for the elderly while 8.9 million of those caregivers face the added burden of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Carol O’Dell, author of the memoir “Mothering Mother” was one of those people. Not only was her mother no longer able to care for herself. She had literally lost her mind.

There is nothing pretty about the helplessness of aging, but unless our parents and everyone we love die fast and young, at some point we can no longer push aside the recognition that aging happens. One way to prepare for that realization is by learning about the experiences of those who have gone before us. Through such lessons as offered by the memoir “Mothering Mother,” we gradually do the emotional and spiritual work to accept the variety of stages of our lifetime journey.

O’Dell built a room onto her house and invited her mother to live with her family. By becoming her mother’s primary caregiver, O’Dell immersed herself more deeply into caregiving than she anticipated. She had to set herself aside, the way a mother sets herself aside to care for a newborn. But this was no cuddly infant. This was her mother, lost in forgetting so profound, she not only forgot the past. She forgot how to be human. It’s like a horror movie in which some evil force has stolen the person’s true self, leaving behind the shell.

O’Dell didn’t have the choice to send her mother to a care facility. For one thing, she and her husband were concerned that they could not financially afford to get adequate care for her mother. For another thing, O’Dell had promised her mother  she would care for her at home.

There were times the strain was so severe she felt she was losing her own mind. Her experience was consuming, draining, demoralizing, overwhelming, even traumatic. Her memoir gives me a powerful glimpse into her emotionally complex situation. And she does it without overwhelming me. I found myself wanting to know more and actually raced along to see what would happen next.

One of the reasons I wanted to know more about her experience was to try to understand how she coped. If she could cope with this situation then there is hope for humanity. And in fact, she did exactly that. She cared for her aging, failing mother to the best of her ability and in the process earned my respect. Her ordinary life gave her the material to inform millions of people what that experience was like. While O’Dell’s experience seems overwhelming, by sharing it with us, she also shares some of the strength and sanity she gained by immersing herself so deeply into the final throes of her mother’s life.

Writing a memoir is exactly the opposite of the mental deterioration of dementia. By writing a story about taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s, O’Dell was exercising that part of her brain, the prefrontal cortex, that distinguishes humans from the other creatures on the planet. The very act of writing helps the writer cope, and once the story is written, it can be reread, reorganized, and shared. This organizational ability of the brain is the basis for much of what we consider sane and sacred about being human. While Carol O’Dell can’t erase her mother’s suffering or her own, she can write about it, choosing her words and phrases and images. These simple tools let her organize events into a story. And through this process she can reclaim some of the humanity that was lost and offer it to us as a gift.

More memoir writing resources

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

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