From Complex Memories to the Compelling Title of Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

When you first consider the possibility of writing the story of your own life, you have not yet pulled experiences out of their storehouse in memory. Over time, the anecdotes take shape on paper, and you search for a beginning, middle, and end. From within your pages emerge story arcs. How did you grow up? How did you survive some assault on your dignity? How did you move to the next step? Some themes emerge gradually and others jump out as surprises. During a reading, or during a workshop, or while you are showering, you realize how long you’ve been struggling to please your dad, or you recognize the power of some dream that you’ve always taken for granted. You see how such a theme would hold the story together and drive the reader’s curiosity.

A memoir is born. But what to call it? How do you label your journey through life in a brief title that announces to potential readers that this book is worth reading? And just as important, what title will hold your own interest and help you tighten the concept of the book?

Fortunately, like every aspect of the memoir writing process, you don’t need to face this question alone. Every memoir you read offers an example of how one author turned a life into a story, and then labeled that story in a few enticing words. Take for example, the memoir Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh. Before reading the book, the title might sound simple, light and breezy. I think of a fun loving family leaving Los Angeles to try out the adventure of a lifetime.

However, in these simple words, the title evokes powerful images, metaphorically comparing life in Southern California to the laid-back life on the beach. Despite the breeziness of the title, Sonia Marsh’s life was anything but simple. The book actually describes one of the most pressured, complex periods of the author’s life.

However, despite the contrast between the breeziness of the title and the difficulty of the life it describes, I never felt betrayed or misled. On the contrary, the deeper I went into the story, the more meaning I found in the title. I realized it provided a micro-guidebook, showing the family’s initial optimistic hopes for the journey, and then as I proceeded, I discovered the irony of the title. This journey was not so simple as it first appeared.

At the start of the story, Sonia Marsh’s teenage son decides he can do whatever he wants. His sense of entitlement looks like the beginning of a terrifying descent. He crosses a line when he lifts his fist to his mother and instead of smashing her face, he puts a hole through the wall. His behavior is heart wrenching and frightening.

His dad was busy at his corporate job, and had no insights into how to change his son’s behavior. So it was up to Mom to come up with the next step. Some moms might be paralyzed with fear, or turn the matter over to the police or ship the boy off to military school or call in the therapists. Sonia Marsh does something different. Like one of those mothers who lifts an automobile off her child, Marsh attempts to get Los Angeles’ Freeway culture off her son’s back by moving her family to the Central American nation of Belize. Freeways to Flipflops is the story of that journey.

This is part 1 of a three-part essay about titling your memoir.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)


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Making memories, remembering memories, writing memories

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

When my wife’s sister, Judy, heard that her local writing group was looking for a writing teacher, she mentioned my name. She has been encouraging us to come to visit her town, Salida, with lots of artists, tucked in a valley amidst the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. If it worked out, I could teach memoir writing, while making a few memories of my own.  The directors of the group checked out my blog and other material on my website, and we began to brainstorm about how it would work.

All the memoir classes I had taught previously were broken into two hour segments. Students had to come and go four times. This workshop would go for eight hours straight, so we would be together non-stop. Would we have the stamina to sustain the creative journey all in one continuous march? It seemed that the immersion might offer many benefits that would offset the difficulties. We all agreed to make it happen.

In September, we flew in to the Denver Airport. On our drive to Chaffee County, we stopped at Colorado Springs to walk through the Garden of the Gods, a magnificent collection of brilliant orange spires, like fingers reaching up to the sky. We only had an hour to appreciate what it had taken God a million years to create. The rest of the drive was almost as spectacular. Along the canyon of the Arkansas River, the mountain faces kept changing color and texture, as if each section had been formed during a different era. I felt like I was watching the history of the earth unfold before my eyes.

In Salida, Judy showed us around the local art shops and historical buildings. The renovated Steam Plant is the home of the theater where she volunteers, and that night she took us to a rock concert, where we listened to good quality regional rock and roll, standing or swaying on a dance floor with the locals.  The next day, we ate breakfast at Bongo Billy’s Cafe, which like the Steam Plant, is a restored historical building. On the red brick walls hang works of local art and a poster that offered, “How to Build a Global Community.” I stood there and read every suggestion, as if the poster could help me understand the heart of Salida. One rule was “Visit people, not places.” I liked that rule and thought I could honor it on this trip, starting with the 25 people who had signed up for my class.

At 8 AM the next morning, arriving early at the church where the workshop was to be held, I greeted people on their way in and asked them what they wanted to accomplish in the class. Every good story starts with desire. The personal introductions segued naturally into a formal class, in which I offered an overview of memoir writing. Then it was time to learn techniques. After the first lesson, about finding the timeline, I gave a writing prompt. “Write a scene about one of the homes you lived in.” Their heads went down, and pens moved, allowing them the opportunity to ideas into action.

When it was time to read aloud, I asked them to break into groups of three so each could read their writing to two others. The room buzzed with energy while I sat alone and planned my next module. When they were done, I spoke some more, we discussed more, and they wrote and read to their small groups. The lunch break was in the adjoining kitchen, with a feast of pot luck dishes that included salads, cookies, and fruit. And then we started again.

The next lesson was about the long middle of a story, which could become bogged down in the passage of time. To keep the story moving, the protagonist must face and overcome obstacles. In an excellent example of life imitating art, by this time, we had been focusing for five hours and we had to press on. I gave one more prompt. “Write about a significant obstacle in your life.” Heads bowed, and when they looked up, this time I asked them to share their writing with the whole group.

One by one, they shared critical moments: near deaths, loves lost, disease, and recovery. I leaned forward in my chair, inspired by the variety and depth of human experience, and the power of memoir writing to shape those memories and share them. Some students choked back tears. Others were more stoical, while the rest of us nodded, and murmured in empathy. Many said, “It’s the first time I shared this with strangers.” And now, we all knew, and the secret had become an opportunity for shared compassion.

After each reading, I commented on how it fit into the course material and how they might develop it further. When we ran out of time, I thanked them for sharing their lives, and we were done. But it wasn’t over quite yet. While we were cleaning up, many people walked up and thanked me. “You helped me think about my life in a new way.” These expressions of appreciation made me feel my day was a success.

When I returned to our room, my wife was excited by her own adventure. She had spent most of the day at an equestrian competition, watching riders roping, herding, and other events. When Janet is around horses, she’s happy, so the day was a success for her too.

The next day, we looked around for a trail ride that we could take through the Rocky countryside. We found a guide, George, a salty man with smiling eyes, and lots of creases in his face who bragged about his recent 77th birthday. We brushed the horses, (mine was named Ringo), saddled up and walked out amidst the big peaks and big skies of Colorado, through scrubby arid hillocks, and stands of pine trees. George turned around in his saddle to tell us about his life, working in a mine, losing his best friend in 1969 and even some bits about his love life. He knew every one of his herd of 30 horses by name and told us anecdotes about many of them.  My horse Ringo was a little pokey so sometimes George’s voice drifted back to me and other times I ambled in silence.

Four hours later, we took the saddles off, and he let us give the horses their treat of grain. As we were leaving, I asked him, “Are you a cowboy?” He said, “I’m going to be a cowboy when I grow up.” Getting to know George, who had lived and worked in this area his whole life, I felt like I had fulfilled the suggestion on the poster at Bongo Billy’s. We were not just visiting places, but meeting people as well.

We pulled on to the road and headed out of town, back towards the Denver Airport. Leaving the mountains behind, my wife said, “I like this trip. Maybe you can find more places to teach memoir writing workshops.” “I don’t know hon. I’ll ask around.”



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