How to write a profile

by Jerry Waxler

Writing a memoir is hard work, and to keep myself motivated, I compiled a list of all the reasons for persisting. Of course, I improved my familiarity with the many parts of my past. That was the reason I started writing a memoir in the first place. Another of my original motivations was my desire to bust through my overwrought sense of privacy. As soon as I began to read my pieces in a critique group, I felt that people were interested and accepted me in ways I had not expected. As a result, I loosened up.

Each month, I found a new benefit for writing my memoir, until I began to joke that my mission was like George Washington Carver’s, who had done an exhaustive study of everything you could do with a peanut. I acquired items for my list in a variety of ways. Some I experienced myself. Others I learned by watching students in my workshops or groups. And some I speculated must be true. For example, I assumed that after I told my own story, I would gain the skills to write other people’s stories, as well. The benefit seemed self-evident, but I was not yet ready to test it.

Then, last year, David Bank asked me to write profiles for his organization’s website. Bank is the director of Encore Careers, a site devoted to helping people find new careers in the second half of their lives. My job would be to interview career changers and post their stories. The assignment gave me the chance to meet people and apply my writing skills.

The Assignment
One such career changer was Judy Cockerton. From her website, I learned that she was a Massachusetts toy store owner who sold her business so she could devote her life to helping kids in foster care. Before I called her, I considered my mission – to show readers her journey from business woman to social activist.

The Interview
During the interview, I asked her to walk me through the steps. As a social entrepreneur, Judy Cockerton spoke in urgent tones when she listed all the deficiencies in the foster care system. However, my job was to learn about her career change, so I steered the interview, asking for scenes that would evoke each stage in her journey.

The Beginning

From my work with memoirs I’ve learned the importance of the initial desire. Judy Cockerton’s desire was easy to find. She remembered the exact moment in her kitchen when she read an article in the newspaper about a child who was supposed to be protected by foster parents and yet had been forgotten. Her heart opened to the plight of these children, setting the stage for everything that followed.

The Middle
During the middle of any story, the protagonist must overcome obstacles. I found many such scenes in Judy Cockerton’s journey. She visited foster homes to learn more and quickly realized that since not everyone can take a child in, there are ought to be other ways for people to participate. She envisioned a community where people could live and contribute to the care of the children. Next she needed allies to help her implement her vision.

The End

Judy Cockerton was not finished helping foster kids so how could I provide a satisfying ending to the article? I called her back and asked “Tell me about a moment when you knew you were on the right track.” By this time the first Treehouse community had already been built and people were living there. She took me on a verbal tour of the place, describing the children playing, with adults and elders enjoying the multi-generational camaraderie. The mountains in the background completed the scene, which gave me, and hopefully readers, the thrill of her success.

Finished, or So I Thought

The structure of my article followed the structure of any good story. Start with a desire, overcome obstacles, and finally reach a conclusion. I was confident I had nailed this fundamental structure. But after I submitted the article, I realized I had one more lesson to learn. My editor, Terry Nagel, wanted me to move Judy’s success to the beginning. At first it didn’t make sense. You don’t tell the ending of a story first. It would break the suspense.

Difference Between Article and Memoir Structure
My editor insisted, and I kept seeking to understand how the suggestion would improve the article. After thinking about it, I saw what was going on. I was learning the difference between a book and an article.

Before I even the first page of a memoir, I have already become curious about the protagonist. Before I started Joan Rivers’ “Enter Talking,” I knew she succeeded at the end. Before I read Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea,” I read the book blurb and knew he built schools for kids in Pakistan. This preliminary information motivates me to read the book. But when I read an article, all I know is the title.

That’s why my editor was telling me to move Cockerton’s success up to the top. I needed to give the reader enough information to stir their curiosity. From article writing workshops, I knew that the second paragraph, or the “nut graf” as they call it in the business, is supposed to tell the reader where the article is heading. But until now the advice sounded like a meaningless formula. Once I tried it for myself, I saw how it worked.

Thanks to my study of memoirs, I was learning how to structure a life story. And now, thanks to the assignment from encore.org, I was learning how to apply these skills to describe the journeys of other people. This experience validated my claim that memoir writing results in broader writing benefits. And the rewards keep accumulating. Writing those profiles gave even more insights that helped me increase my range and learn new ways to turn life into story.

Note
Here are links to a few reasons for writing your memoir.

Refute these 14 reasons not to write your memoir
Ten reasons anyone should write a memoir

Here are links to four profiles I wrote about career changers for Encore.org:

Judy Cockerton, Toy Store Owner Transforms Foster Care in Massachusetts

From Basic Training to Training Teachers

Retired as a Nurse, Hired as a Nonprofit Leader

Media Executive Puts Her Experience to Work Para Los Ninos

Note

Encore Careers is a subsidiary of Civic Ventures, a community service organization founded and directed by Marc Freedman. Freedman is the author of “Encore, finding work that matters in the second half of life.” According to their About page, “Civic Ventures is leading the call to engage millions of baby boomers as a vital workforce for change.” Here is a link to an article I wrote after being inspired by Marc Freedman at Philadelphia’s Boomervision conference series.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

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

Turn economic hardships into stories of strength

by Jerry Waxler

Jutting out of the landscape of our lives are those times when we struggled to provide for ourselves and our family. Whether we were transitioning to a new career or scrambling to recover from a layoff or other setback, we stumbled through uneven and unfamiliar territory. Years later, we take pride in our effective decisions and the cunning with which we applied old skills and learned new ones. We overcame discouragement and other obstacles and survived. Now as we tell the story of those triumphs, we develop our role as the hero at the center of our own life.

But what about today’s challenges? In the last few years, millions of us lost savings and jobs, forcing us into economic changes we didn’t anticipate. In some distant future, when we write the memoir of these times, we will again discover the resilience, strengths, and the excitement of the story. But for now, it’s hard to feel like a hero, constrained as we are by the narrower scope of just getting through the day.

One way to improve your perspective is to develop as quickly as possible the story of these hard times. Stories let you grasp the whole situation, letting strength dominate worry. Through stories you can find courage, poise, and make better sense of your choices. And stories have one more benefit. They let you share your experiences, providing an opportunity for mutual support. I have been following two organizations who have taken a keen interest in turning stories of economic survival into the shared experience of a community.

One group, called Civic Ventures, was founded by Marc Freedman, author of the book “Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life by Marc Freedman.” Freedman’s organization, Civic Ventures now also publishes the Encore Careers website to provide a forum for people going through the transition to a new career. The site is loaded with stories of people who have reinvented themselves, turning loss and frustration into a catalyst for renewal.

The other organization that is encouraging people to tell their stories is First Person Arts, . Their programs help people share the artistry of life experience through paintings, video, and written works. First Person Arts even conducts “story slams” in Philadelphia, adding live performance to the teller’s repertoire.

Because of the historic changes in the economy in the last year, First Person Arts has launched a national story writing contest, to solicit stories of how individuals are coping and adapting and reacting to hardship. Inspired by the explosion of storytelling in the Great Depression, the First Person Arts contest encourages people to find their stories and share them. For more about the contest, click here.

To organize your story, consider the universal framework that converts life experience into a narrative form that other people will relate to. In the beginning there is a protagonist who wants something – in this case economic survival, with a dash of dignity and satisfaction. On the road towards that goal, you push through or outsmart the obstacles. You gather allies and skills, and overcame discouragement. By the end, you achieve some goal. To help you get the ball rolling, I’ve listed a few questions. Try answering them as if you are giving an interview. (If you’d like, post them here, or on other storytelling sites.)

“What was your goal?”

Look for a mix of motivations that drove you forward. Be specific (“I want my old job back”) or general, (“I want to find satisfaction”). In fact, this may be the most important part of the exercise. By trying to explain what creates the dramatic tension in your story, you will begin to see it more clearly yourself.

“What were the main obstacles that blocked you from achieving that goal?”

The external ones will be relatively obvious, like money, education, or age. But like any good story, there is also an inner dimension. What did you fear? What options were you reluctant to face? Did you impulsively lunge forward, meaning your biggest obstacle was lack of clear thinking? Turn storytelling into a mirror. As you explain your story to others, you’ll understand more about yourself.

“What tools, allies, and choices helped you overcome these obstacles?”

In any good story, the thrill is seeing the protagonist overcome the enemies, and reach the end of the maze. How did you do it? What mentors gave you  advice? What learning did you acquire? Cleverness is a fun story element. What choice felt especially cunning?

“What milestones did you pass?”

Describe the important milestones to let the reader see how things moved from beginning to end.

“When did you know you ‘arrived’?”

The satisfaction of reading the story comes from achieving or releasing the dramatic tension you established at the beginning.

“What would tell others who want to make this journey?”

A good story often has a second payoff. After the external goal is achieved (you got the job), you can offer the reader the additional reward of offering what you learned or how you grew.

It will take additional effort and skill to polish your interview and turn it into something fun to read. But it’s worth it. While you challenge yourself to achieve the goal, you’ll also be gaining some lovely benefits, not the least of which is to increase your ability to tell a story. Learning this knack of telling your story could be the best investment you can make, because once you own the skill, it will pay dividends for the rest of your life.