Ex-pat Brats Come of Age in Saigon

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

I feel fortunate to be able to extend my vision into the farthest reaches of human experience. This superpower has been granted to me by a lucky stroke of cultural creativity. I happen to live in an era when tens of thousands of creative people are looking back across the vast sweep of their lives, and turning those experiences into stories.

Take for example my friend Sandy Hanna. Over the years I’ve known her, she intimated that she lived in Saigon when she was a child. Her claim hung in the air, so far past the scope of my experience, I had no ability to visualize it.

Thanks to the cultural trend to read and write memoirs, Hanna took it upon herself to resurrect those memories from long ago. Her memoir Ignorance of Bliss brings that the period alive in my imagination. A ten year old blond girl trying to make her mark in the black market in Saigon informs one of the most exotic Coming of Age stories I’ve read. By writing the story, she offers her life in order to enrich mine.

It turns out the book represents a microculture – that is, that collection of oldsters who spent a portion of their childhood in Southeast Asia at the dawn of the conflagration.

Writing Prompt: What microculture would your memoir exist in?

Out of that collection of people, I discovered another author, Les Arbuckle, who like Hanna felt compelled to tell the story of his childhood in that war torn country. His book is called Saigon Kids, An American Military Brat Comes of Age in 1960’s Vietnam.

Anytime I can compare two memoirs that touch similar themes, or whose stories intertwine, I learn so much about the content and art of memoir writing.

In some ways, Saigon Kids by Les Arbuckle and Ignorance of Bliss by Sandy Hanna appear almost identical. For example, both kids were able to take advantage of their parents’ lack of understanding of the permissiveness of the society, allowing each of them to find astonishing gaps in parental control. Their freedom provides a shocking prelude to the incredible chaos which would soon envelope that country.

Despite the similarities between the two stories, they were also totally different, representing a stark contrast between the kinds of trouble a ten year old female and a fourteen year old male might get into.

With these rich weaving of differences and similarities, the two books combine to create an education in the experience of military brat kids, navigating pre-war Saigon, with their gender-appropriate world views.

In a previous post, I dug deeper into Sandy Hanna’s story. In this and the next post I’ll go deeper into Les Arbuckle’s.

Saigon Kids by Les Arbuckle is a great example of the raw adolescent male Coming of Age memoir. Following in the footsteps of the classic bestsellers, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, it reveals the flaws and edgy mistakes that adolescent boys make on their way to becoming young men.

Neither Les Arbuckle or Sandy Hanna make any effort to hide their willingness to take the low road, at a time in their lives when experimentation preceded wisdom.

Learning that authors are willing to admit the dark side of adolescent experiences was an early milestone in my own evolution as a memoir writer. When I saw Tobias Wolff reveal his misadventures in This Boys Life, I thought “oh, so it’s okay to be flawed in a memoir.” Apparently Les Arbuckle learned the same lesson, because he was exceptionally brutal with his own self-image. I asked him how he arrived at such an honest approach to some of his less savory behavior.

Me: I was impressed at how raunchy and raw you made yourself appear in the memoir. Weren’t you afraid your kids or people who know you as an adult would think less of you?

Les: I did have a certain amount of concern about how some of my adventures and misbehaving might be perceived, but after reading a lot of memoirs I decided that it’s okay if some people get offended by an experience I wrote about. I was most concerned about how my fellow Saigon Kids would feel, but they seemed to like the book a lot. I think a memoirist, to be relevant, has to put their real self on the page and not sugar-coat or downplay the truth of who they were at the time. No one puts everything they ever did wrong on the page, but you have to tell at least some of the bad, as much as it might hurt. Getting to the emotional truth of a situation is difficult, but it makes things believable and shows that the writer is a human being, like everyone else.

Writing is, in many ways, like playing jazz: No matter how good you play, someone’s not going to like it, and no matter how bad you play, someone will like it. In any artistic endeavor there is always the fear of rejection and criticism, but you just have to say what you say and let the chips fall where they may. Fear is the enemy of all Art.

Me: Like me, you didn’t start out as a memoir writer. You had to learn as you went. What was that like for you to go from being a musician to writing and publishing a whole memoir?

Les: What I liked about beginning to write at such a late age is that one doesn’t need the kind of background that’s required, for instance, to learn to play a musical instrument well, or the level of education/math required to dabble in sciences such as computer engineering, or medicine. Trigger reflexes are not necessary for writing (like they are in playing music at a high level) and the conventions and rules of good writing can be absorbed by most people at almost any age. There are a great many good books on the subject.

Writing gave me the opportunity to create my own world, (or re-create, as in my memoir) and live in that world a little each day. As a life-long musician, it was interesting to delve into the creative aspects of writing and experience something that, had I tried my hand much sooner, could have been a career. Like music, Journalism is a problem-filled career choice, but almost anything worth doing is difficult in one way or another.

Although the “literary life” can be a lonely endeavor, participating in Writing Groups allowed me to improve my writing while developing social contacts I still maintain. My writing pals were (are) of all ages and walks of life, and helped give me a perspective about my stories that I could have gotten no other way.

Me: Thanks Les. I’m so glad you arrived at the craft. Thanks to your willingness to learn how to tell your story, and then to do all the hard work of putting it out there, readers are treated to an amazing (and in some ways gut wrenching) view of what it was like to grow up in that place and time.

Notes

Les Arbuckle’s home page

Sandy Hanna’s home page

My article about Sandy Hanna’s memoir Ignorance of Bliss

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Memoirs teach cultural anthropology in modernity

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

Whenever a new wave of immigrants arrives in the United States, they and their kids must find their identity somewhere in the space between their old country and their new one. It’s an age-old process, and one which my own immigrant grandparents and parents had to undergo.

Growing up in a household in which my parents still spoke their parents’ mother tongue, Yiddish, I had plenty of opportunity to observe the effects of growing up in the melting pot. Over time, I came to understand a peculiar thing about the struggle every immigrant must face. For four hundred years, immigrants have been trying to find their new culture by stripping away their old one.

So does that make us a nation of 100 cultures, or none at all? It is the question implied every time we try to sort out our own heritage, or wonder about a new neighbor or coworker with a different accent.

Understanding how this Melting Pot works could be the subject of an advanced degree in Cultural Anthropology. But thanks to the Memoir Revolution, all of us have easy access to a charming tool that entertains while it educates. We can all become amateur cultural anthropologists by reading memoirs. Memoirs take us through the entire process of blending as seen through the eyes of a variety of participants.

Take for example, Albert Nasib Badre. His memoir Looking West describes his move from Beirut, Lebanon to the United States. As a boy in Beirut, he venerated all things American. And so, when his professor father said they were moving to the United States, the little boy was ecstatic.Looking West memoir by Al Badre

Perhaps his fearlessness about blending was helped by his own family folk lore. According to legend, his Middle Eastern ancestors acquired their blue eyes from crusaders who swept through Lebanon almost a thousand years earlier.

Despite his enthusiasm for blending, he had to undergo many of the difficult tasks that all immigrants must face when trying to find themselves in their host country. Probably the hardest thing about moving to the new country for Badre was losing his close knit set of friends and extended family. Badre grew up in Beirut before the civil war tore the city apart. As a child he walked out of his home, and could visit or greet cousins and friends. His community connections were so deep and rich, they make American social interactions look more like the wild west than a civilized country. When he arrived here, his social relations fell to a tiny fraction of what they had been.

Badre’s memoir does not dwell on the difficulties of immigration though. He dives into the complex task of growing up and becoming an individual in a society which prizes self-determination.

The search for a suitable career.

One of the requirements for growing up is to figure out what you are going to do for a living. For some of us, this search for a calling can feel mundane, and not contain much interesting dramatic tension. For others, the search can be so sublime it could fill a whole book. Badre’s search is closer to the latter. His search for a career was propelled by a combination of serendipity, mentoring, trial and error, and a deep desire to serve higher principles.

Despite his father’s relentless advice to be practical, he continued to pursue idealistic educational goals. Those were the days of a true liberal arts education and so, he followed his heart, studying mostly theology and philosophy.

When it came time to earn a paycheck, though, his father’s advice made more sense. After a failed attempt to become a social worker, he went back to school and ended up with one of the most sophisticated careers available. In the early days of computer technology, he latched on to the emerging field of human-computer interaction, and became a leading expert in the field.

His journey to find a mate was also intricate and exquisitely told, complete with old fashioned courtship, failed attempts, and impulsive choices. And his attempt to sort out his preference for Protestantism versus Catholicism reads like a theological thriller.

I can’t think of another memoir that so deeply engages me in the author’s search for intellectual, theological, and career self-development. He set out as a child absolutely determined to live in an integrated way, true to his own beliefs. And through the course of his story, he succeeded.

Memoirs of immigrants help explain the American experience

Al Badre’s story, like all memoirs, is a blend of the universal and the particular. It has the familiar elements of a boy struggling to come of age, trying to figure out a mate, a job, and a belief system.

He seems to have been born for the challenge of finding himself. In a complex dance between old customs and new, he looks to his parents for guidance about finding his career, his marriage, and even his belief system. Then in a gesture toward the independence of his adopted country, he takes their advice into account and then sets out to find his own truths.

Using the essence of American Independence and seeing the Melting Pot as the ultimate license to explore the best version of himself, he selects from the vast menu of choices, tries out more than most of us have the patience to explore, and then gradually through hard effort, becoming a self-actualized citizen of modern times.

Memoirs help explain the human experience

Early in the 2000s, when I became interested in writing my own memoir, I realized that I needed to read a few. That simple intention quickly expanded, once I realized that reading memoirs is a window into the souls of my fellow travelers.

Over the years, I have accompanied many people, sometimes through hell, and always up mountains, attempting to climb to higher versions of themselves. In every case, when the hero achieved the mission, the resulting satisfaction transcended the ordinary circumstances of life. What started as a project to make sense of myself has led me increasingly into a deeper understanding of the people around me. Memoirs offer a combined education in sociology, psychology, anthropology, feminism, and even spirituality.

Al Badre’s story describes far more than one man’s move from Beirut to the United States. The memoir represents a new way for all of us to find the best in ourselves and to see the best in each other.

By reading such stories, we come to understand that the guy or gal with a different accent, skin color, or religion has a thought process, grows through life stages, worries about couples and kids and copes with losses just like us. And as each of us tries to make sense of differences, we are also on a quest to understand what we share.

The Memoir Revolution lets us join together to become better citizens of modernity, and also to extend a welcoming hand to those who are ready to join us in the brave world of modern, blended culture.

Other memoirs of blending cultures

Carlos Eire’s move to the United States was far more problematic than Al Badre’s. In Eire’s first memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, he grew up privileged and wealthy in Cuba, with a Spanish ancestry that put his family in a ruling class. But to escape Castro, Carlos was shipped to the United States. Without money or even parents, Eire’s second memoir Learning to Die in Miami, portrays the hardships of life in the new country.

An even more radical example is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She moved to the melting pot in Europe from her tribal culture of Somalia, where it is still considered normal to arrange marriages for teenage girls and to perform female genital mutilation.

Ayaan Hirsi Alli in her memoir Infidel at first looked at Western Culture as a safe haven to escape from the harsh treatment of women in her native land. Gradually she grew to respect, and then to embrace, and then to love Western culture. She sought an education in political science and became outspoken advocate for the modernization of her former homeland. Her memoir is a fascinating look at Western culture as seen through an African Muslim lens.

A light-hearted ride through the Melting Pot is provided by the Iranian American author Firoozeh Dumas’ memoir Funny in Farsi, about growing up in a family who had emigrated from Iran and had to find their new blended identity in California.

The memoir Freedom Writers Diary is about a class of high school students trying to identify themselves in warring tribes based on their ethnic origins. Through literature and journaling, teacher Erin Gruwell showed them how to see themselves not as “the Other” but as equals. By the end,, they were able to shed their sense of separateness and danger. It is the perfect Melting Pot story.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Journey of a Lebanese-American Immigrant by Al Badre

Click here. for brief descriptions and links to other posts on this blog.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Coming of Age in the Shadow of Vietnam

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

Memoir writers are forensic historians, attempting to reconstruct the stories buried in the past. Take for example, Sandy Hanna, a marketing executive and artist, looking forward to retirement, Her childhood must have seemed like a distant dream.

But the mystery of those times called to her, begging to be told. In fact, her military father “The Colonel” ordered her to tell the story. He wanted to let others know that just Ignorance of Bliss Sandy Hannabefore the Vietnam war started, there were levers of choice and power that could have averted the catastrophe. If only we had applied wisdom instead of force.

Her adventure began in 1960 when her family lived in Saigon. While her father investigated the feasibility of the United States military involvement in that remote part of the world, this ten year old girl had to figure out how to grow up.

Thanks to the less protective parenting style of those times, and the hyper-resourceful instincts of kids who grew up in the military, Sandy’s older brother figured out how to start a small black-market business. The little girl discovered her brother’s scheme and threatened to expose him unless he cut her in on the action. She didn’t need the money. She just had a thirst for adventure.

If she had been in the States, she might have been playing jacks or hopscotch. In Saigon, she entertained herself by selling baby powder and chocolate at a street market among the locals. She came home looking all innocent to her unsuspecting military parents. Her precocious business venture provides a fascinating variation on the resourceful way kids everywhere can get themselves into trouble.

But when you take into account that her coming of age occurred in the epicenter of the coming war, the story takes on a deeper meaning, shrouding the innocence of her childhood in the shadows of one of the great conflagrations of modern times.

A few years after her escapades, college campuses would explode with screams to stop the war, and the verdant jungles of Vietnam would explode with the screams of those who were participating in it. Protesters, police, soldiers, displaced civilians, and the many millions touched by the counter culture were all swept up in the chaos.

After the waves receded, Sandy Hanna, like the rest of us tried to get back to the hard work of becoming an adult. But as she approached retirement she thought, “If not now, when?”

Now, at last, almost 60 years later Hanna offers Ignorance of Bliss, one of the gutsiest, quirkiest tales of coming of age I have read, complete with mystery, with a brilliant, cunning child-hero, a colorful cast of characters (including a pet monkey), and a feel-good ending too cool for me to risk spoiling.

A little girl’s view of Saigon, from inside the home of a top military attache, bursts with insight into the delicate balance that holds civilization together, shows how small actions can create large results, and how coming of age in a crazy world often requires a bit of craziness in response. The whole thing would look terrific on the big screen.

Many boomers who saw such a movie might walk out of the theater with a nagging need to reconstruct their own stories about growing up during that era.

At first, you might recoil from such a desire. Our culture is saturated with evocative symbols of that era such as Woodstock, the Beatles and Cheech and Chong on the fun side and all the hellish images of foot soldiers in jungles on the bad side. But in reality, we have far less understanding of the introspective experience of the individuals who had to make sense of their own lives during that period..

For most of the hippies, soldiers, Jesus freaks, Hari Krishnas, stoners, groupies, Hell’s Angels, dropouts, and any of the other menagerie of counter-cultural extremes, those years have always seemed better left buried. The whole thing was so embarrassing and confusing, that in order to return to a normal life, our whole generation allowed itself to hide behind the clichés..

As boomers take stock of where we’ve been, our first memories often reinforce the clichés and embarrassment. Such first-glances are far too simplistic to do justice to our intricate passage tinto adulthood. A book length memoir is the only medium rich and deep enough to convey those inner journeys.

If you accept the challenge posed by Sandy Hanna’s memoir, you will find yourself immersed in one of the most important activities in civilization. Civilization requires the steadying influence of the longer view of history, which can only be seen through the eyes of elders.

From the stories of people who grew up in the midst of those changes, we learn so much from each other about the way humans respond to the forces of history. And by sharing these psychologically rich narratives, you will be offering your life to increase our collective wisdom, one story at a time.

Developing your story in a readable form might sound scary or hard. But I have watched many writers go from disbelief, to hard work, to completed publication. I know it can be done. (For more insight into this process, read my book Memoir Revolution.)

Here are a few other memoirs of the Vietnam War and Counterculture era I’ve read and one that I’ve written. I’m sure there will be many more as boomers retire and try to find the story of those complex times:

Thinking my Way to the End of the World by Jerry Waxler
An Incredible Talent for Existing by Pamela Jane
Hippie Chick: Coming of Age in the ’60s by Ilene English

Times They were a Changing — a book of short stories by women about that time edited by Amber Lea Starfire and Linda Joy Myers

A Temporary Sort of Peace by Jim McGarrah
A soldier in the thick of combat, horrifies himself. A great look at the horror of being a soldier, and a great prelude to the return to sanity memoir Offtrack.

Offtrack by Jim McGarrah
After the crushing psychological trauma of combat in Vietnam, McGarrah uses the horse people who run race tracks as a sort of half way house to return to society.

Click here. for brief descriptions and links to other posts on this blog.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Memoirs, privacy, fame, and family

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

When I was little, my family watched the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday. I was mesmerized by the silly, shallow host, so devoid of emotion he appeared to be a cartoon version of himself. As I became more savvy about mass media, I realized that celebrities cultivate this empty look, so audiences don’t worry about what they think.

When I was around 40 years old I went to a therapist and asked him to help me understand myself. He said “tell me your story.” After years of individual sessions, I grew into a deeper version of myself, with a greater appreciation for how my mind works. But something was missing. Therapy had not shown me how to understand other people.

In the early 2000s, I discovered memoirs. From the first one, I allowed my imagination to enter the tangled mind of another person. Through the familiar structure of storytelling, I watched that character travel through some aspect of their lives, from discomfort and confusion towards some meaningful conclusion. The more I read, the more I learned. Book by book, my understanding of the people around me grew.

Memoirs are similar to traditional entertainment in that they take us out of ourselves. However, instead of replacing our thoughts with the silly and exaggerated personalities of celebrities, or the formulaic plots of thrillers and mysteries, memoirs open our hearts and minds to the full complement of human insights, frailty and courage.

Through memoir reading, I became a passionate student of human nature in all its depth and variety. And as I increasingly expanded my understanding of these authors, I realized that I was growing in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. Understanding myself was not an isolated project. By knowing others, I was coming to make better sense of myself.

Thanks to the Memoir Revolution, millions of us have entered into a complex multi-dimensional social conversation. By reading the accounts of people who have struggled for years to craft stories of their inner lives, we learn to see the ancient form of Story as a key to the wisdom and strength of the human experience. And in expanding our understanding of Story to include the story-of-self, we are beginning to discover the stories embedded in our own memories.

Is it possible to be both public and authentic?

In New York Times bestseller Glass Castle, television personality Jeannette Walls came out from behind the camera to reveal her gritty childhood, growing up in poverty and neglect. Instead of ruining her public image, she became even more famous for sharing her past.

TEDx speaker and activist Rachel Lloyd stands in front of audiences, but instead of inviting them to look at her, she invites them to look at prostitutes and pimps. Lloyd’s memoir Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale challenges us to trade in the superficial glimpses we see portrayed on television and movies, and take a closer look at this dark corner of human experience. In a surprising poignant twist, in exchange for our honest gaze, she offers us hope and compassion.

Brooke Shields steps out from behind the glamour of her public persona to provide insight into the disturbing, disappointing and very unattractive phenomenon of postpartum depression in her memoir Down Came the Rain.

Going public with your ordinary life

Unlike Ed Sullivan who became famous for pretending to be no-man, Frank McCourt became famous for being everyman. His memoir, Angela’s Ashes was one of the early books in the modern memoir movement that demonstrated that sharing private life can raise social awareness.

Of course only a few ordinary people will ever be catapulted into the fame of a Frank McCourt, but all of us can use our words and stories to tease apart our own intricate journeys and find our social and psychological truths. In fact, sometimes those deepest truths are the very ones that make publicity seem like the last thing in the universe we would ever want.

Take tragedy for example. No one wants to talk about it. So when we experience it, we often feel totally alone. This is the opposite of fame, living in a vacuum, where our pain is too real, and too complex to be shared with anyone.

Memoirs break through that isolation. Through memoirs both writer and reader can participate in an open, healing process. Carol Henderson, in her tragic memoir Losing Malcolm takes us behind the numb disbelief and anger, so poignant she wondered how she could ever go on. Lorraine Asch in Life Touches Life and Sukey Forbes in Angel in my Pocket reveal similar journeys. Robert and Linda Waxler, in Losing Jonathan share their journey of grief about losing their son to a drug overdose. All these authors share the courage they required to absorb despair and rise above it, and the courage to share these intimate vulnerable feelings.

But it’s scary to show the real me

When Ed Sullivan projected himself into my family’s living room each week, he always said “we have a really big show.” It has taken me decades to understand that while he was showing the talent of his guests, he had an almost fanatical determination to hide their inner worlds.

Most of us try to follow his example, getting along by dumbing down what we share about ourselves. This reluctance to express your messy inner world might make it easier to get along with people, but it makes it much harder to get along inside your own mind. How can you ever know yourself if you spend too much time pretending not to be you?

This concern about offending people comes up often in classes about memoir writing. Aspiring authors fear that exposing real feelings will offend people. By coincidence, when I was first learning about memoirs, two of the authors in my writing group had to reconcile the conflict between truth and loyalty to their family.

R. Foster Winans, my first memoir teacher, told about his own struggle not to upset his mother while he was still revising his memoir Trading Secrets about insider trading. And Linda Wisniewski, a member in my first critique group, had to overcome loyalty to her family in order to publish her memoir Off Kilter about her battle for self esteem.

For a much more radical, and public version of revealing family secrets, consider Tara Westover, the author of the NY Times bestseller Educated. Her family tried to convince her that her own memories of childhood were false. She struggled in the deepest, darkest regions of her heart to fight against the tide of their threats and the undermining, crazy feeling that her own story would be hated and rejected by her family.

But if she couldn’t tell her story, they still owned her truth. Westover went on to earn a doctorate in History at Cambridge University. Her dissertation was about the conflict between loyalty to the family versus loyalty to one’s self. In the end, she found the strength to write her own story.

Most of us don’t need to go to that extreme. By banding together with a group of fellow writers, we begin to pull together our healing story to the best of our understanding. By constructing our story, in our words, we gain authorial control over our own personhood.

To advance your own memoir writing journey, join me and up to 8 aspiring memoir writers next month at our online class and group coaching at Memoir University. Take the journey from 2018 into 2019 by making progress on your healing story. For more information, click here: Write Your Healing Memoir. Starts Dec 6

Notes
For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Author Interview: Memoir into Fiction

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

After years of working on her story as a memoir, Wendy Baez switched to fiction. In my previous article, [click here to read it], I commented on my own observations about the impact of her novel Catch a Dream. In today’s post, I share our conversation in which she explores insights, techniques, and recollections. Her perspectives are especially informative because she is also a writing teacher and coach.

Jerry Waxler: Catch a Dream describes such an intense experience. It surprises me that most of it really happened and that you started writing it as a memoir. Wow. Tell me more about the events that you actually lived through.

Wendy Brown Baez: The experience of being in Israel was incredibly profound and a story I was compelled to write. I arrived there as part of a Christian commune. After ten years of living together, we broke up in Israel. I had to de-program myself from group-think. Was it okay to be feminine? Was it okay to put my son in school? I hadn’t worked for ten years—we took in the homeless and lived on donations. It was a very emotional time of betrayal and disappointment. I was very idealistic and naïve and Israel brought me down to earth. The awakening I experienced was extraordinary and it happened in an extraordinary place.

Jerry Waxler: So if it was a story you knew you wanted to tell, why didn’t you ultimately publish it as a memoir?

Wendy Brown Baez: I spent years trying to write it as a memoir, but I kept struggling to get it right. One problem with the memoir is that I had already fudged some of the story, a touch of fiction in some scenes. For example my character’s first meeting with Levi is a composite of my memory and someone else’s.

Another problem was the complexity of my backstory. Living in a Christian commune seemed too complicated.. My backstory also included my being kidnapped and raped ten years earlier. I wanted the book just to be about my journey through Israel and I couldn’t figure out how to make it a memoir while stripping away all these extra storylines.

Jerry Waxler: What happened that switched you from memoir-writing mode to fiction writing mode?

Wendy Brown Baez: I attended the Bookbaby Independent Author’s Conference last year and left knowing I was going to publish with them. I have a stack of manuscripts so I had to make a choice.

One day I thought to myself what if I changed Catch a Dream to a novel? The names Lily Ambrosia and Rainbow Dove popped into my head. I immediately had a visual of these two young women and it just felt right. By changing it to fiction, I could remove all the backstory. This meant the story was less focused on reflecting on my experience and more focused on taking the reader on a journey. It meant I could make things up! It was very freeing to let go of the backstory.

I then had to add the backstory of what had motivated Lily and Rainbow to be on the road. I enhanced Lily’s sense of rootlessness. The descriptions remain the same and the pivotal scenes remain the same. Many of the conversations are recorded as they happened (in particular with Levi, Jonah, and Asher, and between Dov and Asher).

I did fall in love with a man who was very mysterious and who rejected me because I asked him to slow down, based on group advice. I made up the conversations between Lily and Rainbow and embellished their personalities. I took out mental meanderings and journal entries.

Jerry Waxler: When you say “group advice”, I’m trying to visualize a group that could advise you on the specialized skill of translating real life experience into a novel. How did you manage to find such a group?

Wendy Brown Baez: This wasn’t a formal group, just people I asked to read my work. Some are writers, some not, but I worked with a professional editor on the longer memoir and it was quite a struggle. I had to explain everything as she had never had a ’60s experience of living freely and hitch-hiking and raising children together cooperatively. Another young writer friend said, I just don’t get why anyone would live that way. And yet, as soon as I changed the characters’ names and described what they were doing, people were nodding their heads and saying they could picture it.

The beta readers I picked to read Catch a Dream never saw my earlier memoir writing, only the novel as it reached completion. Some knew me and my story and some did not, some are writers but mostly I chose people who like to read, and some with Jewish backgrounds. Readers who know me try to figure out who the characters are in real life and which parts were true and are a bit confused until I tell them it is fictionalized!

Jerry Waxler: In Catch a Dream, you mention that you had been violently raped. This is such a profound, disruptive experience. I wonder how much of your journey in Israel was really a search for healing from that trauma.

Wendy Brown Baez: I have written (and shared publicly) other stories and poems about the rape. I didn’t want it to be the central theme of the book, I wanted to emphasize the search for personal and spiritual meaning. The healing started in Israel, instigated by standing up to the attacker (true story) but it took trauma therapy years later to fully heal. (more stories!)

Jerry Waxler: I love some of your long paragraphs where Lily goes into amazing reveries. I’m not sure what to call them, “riffs” or “rants” or “internal soliloquys” – these are just so lovely and powerful, some of the coolest writing I’ve seen in a memoir. What can you tell me about that style of writing?

Wendy Brown Baez: The inner workings of my thoughts came out of journaling. I wrote Catch a Dream separately from the longer memoir because the experience of living in Israel was so dynamic and complicated and extraordinary and deserved its own book. I am also a poet, a performance poet, so the riffs maybe come from my poetic voice. One advantage of fictionalizing is that I can exaggerate impacts, responses, and emotions. (Lily’s lament, It’s all my fault. Rainbow’s accusatory conversation with Levi: fiction)

Riff tends to mean short repetitions (in music), soliloquies are like talking to yourself: these are short monologues meant for an audience. I just wrote them because these things were on my mind, but I really don’t know what to call them. Inner reflections meant to be shared….

I was reading a lot of Anais Nin at the time I wrote those journals. She wrote down everything that happened to her and her reactions, very detailed insights into a woman’s psyche and emotions, analyzing herself and others. In fact, I used to wonder how she got anything else done! She was married to two men at the same time, wrote erotica for money, and based her novels on her true life experiences. In a way, her entire diaries are riffs!

Jerry Waxler: Would you have kept these lovely “riffs” if you had published it as a memoir?

Wendy Brown Baez: I would have kept the riffs in the memoir but I did take some liberties with style, for example I switch to second person in the bar scene, that maybe wouldn’t work as well in memoir. I would say that the inner thoughts and emotional responses came from my direct experience and conversations and some scenes were fictionalized. As a writing instructor I believe that the more we know ourselves, become aware of our inner workings and reflect on our writing process, the better we can create characters that resonate emotionally with readers. I give my participants questions to ponder such as What are you afraid to write about? What do you want people to know about you? How can you view your actions differently? as a tool for self-discovery– I think that makes us better writers. So memoir and fiction blend in self-reflection.

Jerry Waxler: What more can share about the experience of turning it from a memoir to a novel?

Wendy Brown Baez: Because the story was originally written as memoir, people respond to it as if it is true. Readers after publication say, This sounds just like you! The line between memoir and fiction are blurred and I am hoping it’s a good thing!

I have to gently remind them that Lily’s opinions and observations may be flawed. I do not want to be considered an expert on Israeli history or politics–I hope that a novel with a flawed main character will excuse me!

To show that Lily became assimilated into Israeli (therefore Jewish) culture gradually, I fabricated the story about how she lost her cross. In real life, I returned home still wearing my cross, although I kept a kosher kitchen and Jewish holidays. (My Israeli boyfriend used to say I was more Jewish than he was!)

I also knew that by keeping the memoir’s structure and pace, it was not a traditional novel. There is not a definitive cliff hanger or a resolution and that’s why the questions in the back are very important to me. I wanted to raise questions more than answer them.

After I had the first copy in my hands I realized that it is my love letter to a country embroiled in conflict.

Notes
Catch a Dream by Wendy Brown-Baez
Wendy Brown-Baez’s home page

For my article about the impact Catch a Dream had on me, and some of the life lessons and memoir lessons I drew from the novel, click here.

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

Journals of Spiritual Awakening Turn into a Novel

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

My soul trembled in empathy when reading Wendy Baez’s novel Catch a Dream. The main character traveled through the Land of Israel desperately seeking the elusive truth that lies at the intersection of culture, religion, and self.

The main character’s search for spiritual sanctuary in the land of milk and honey echoes an ancient story I prayed about every Saturday. As I grew older, I discovered that across the globe, billions of people look for guidance from a a man who walked in this same land.

Despite all these reasons to be curious, I had never pictured myself wandering through contemporary Israel. After I read Catch a Dream, I can’t get that image out of my mind.Catch a Dream Wendy Baez

How did Wendy Baez create such a moving story about a woman traveling with her ten year old son, penniless, looking for handouts like a modern version of an ancient pilgrim? It sounds like the fever dream of a novelist driven to invent an extreme plot that would provide the backdrop for a modern Biblical story.

But it wasn’t a fantasy. The author really went on such a trip with her son. For many months, she tried to find herself reflected in the eyes and hearts and even the history of the people of Israel. She kept copious notes about her soulful experience, hoping to someday turn them into a book.

Despite years trying to transform her experience into a memoir, she couldn’t figure out how to construct a good story from her actual tricky detours and complex subplots. Finally, she decided to write it as fiction. That decision freed her to modify it to suit her storytelling needs.

The authenticity and psychological power of her main character arises straight from the author’s journals. By calling it fiction she could distance herself from the constraints of truth and zero in on the dramatic urgency. The book grew strong and deep when nourished by the influences of both fiction and memoir.

By reading and analyzing a number of fiction authors who turn to real life for characters and situations, (see notes) I learned how memoirs and novels differ in more ways than just fact versus fake. The two genres of writing invite different story arcs.

A fiction reader might expect this novel to end with the main character marrying and settling down. But Wendy Baez’s actual journey ended on a more ambiguous note. That’s where Catch a Dream blurs the line between the two forms. Instead of ending the novel with a fantasy ending, she allows the character to sound like a real person, with deep ambiguous needs.

Because the authenticity of the character arises from Wendy Baez’s own emotional complexity, her supposedly fictional novel took me on one of the most authentic searches for self I have ever read.

In addition to a search for self, Catch a Dream was a great story about Israeli identity, about ex-pat life, an awesome ode to the character’s best friend, an unbelievably conflicted love relationship, and a “love letter to Israel.” Each of these themes offered a good reason to read the book.

Reading memoirs and writing my own has sensitized me to the psychological journey of being a human being. For example, the psychological trials of being a parent, of being addicted to drugs, of losing a loved one, etc. Among the many aspects of being human that I have learned from reading stories, is the challenge of become an adult. Catch a Dream takes me on a fascinating, unique ride through that critical stage.

When any young person attempts to leave the nest and launch into the wider world, they must accept certain assumptions about what it means to be an adult. For example, they need to earn a living, find a relationship, start a family, and so on. Not every young person easily accepts these conditions. I have read some fascinating memoirs by people who, make mistakes or drag their feet while trying to transition from child to adult.

The most familiar impediment to becoming an adult is drug addiction. For example in Tim Elhaj’s memoir Dope Fiend, heroin addiction spoils his initial opportunity to step out into the world, and so he must reinvent himself in order to reach the next step. Dani Shapiro in Slow Motion  does the same thing with sex and cocaine. Both are excellent books by writers who spent many years “finding themselves” through writing.

In addition to drugs, another, more abstract, disruption often turns up in memoirs. A young person’s search for truth can provide a wall of confusion and pain, as it did for a number of authors.

For example, in his memoir Ashes in the Ocean  Sebastian Slovin had to make sense of his father’s suicide. In An Incredible Talent for Existing, Pamela Jane  needed to find herself amid the collective mental breakdown known as the 60s.

In the memoir New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, Elna Baker  struggled throughout her launching to decide whether to stick with the celibacy regulations taught by her Mormon roots, or to leave those rules and enter the ones offered by the dating game in New York City.

In the memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst, Mary Johnson,  refused to accept the social rules of marriage and family offered by her middle class upbringing. Instead, she made the radical decision to throw away conventions and join Mother Teresa’s religious order.

In my own memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World  my own upbringing and tendencies as a scientist and philosopher sounded good in theory, but as I tried to grow up in the sixties, my abstract ideas ran headlong into the complexity of real life.

Wendy Baez’s novel Catch a Dream is a perfect example of a launching story about a woman desperate for clarity about her relationship to spirituality and religion. To find herself, she joined a religious group (this took place outside the scope of her novel). Then she went out on her own, trying to find her own spiritual and religious homeland. She seemed obsessed by the thought: If Christ was here, shouldn’t I be too?

Catch a Dream is thought provoking at the intersection between childhood and adulthood, at the intersection between Christian, Jew, and Moslem, at the intersection between sexual love and committed relationship.

Her novel enriched me along each of these lines. And as if that wasn’t enough, her exemplary stylistic choices and talent made the novel an absolute pleasure to read. Some of her “riffs” or mental “soliloquys” are so passionate and clearly written, they seem like music.

To learn more, about her creative choices I interviewed Wendy Baez. Her comments offered lovely insights into the relationship between memoir and fiction. I’ll post that interview next week.

Notes
Catch a Dream by Wendy Brown-Baez
Click here for my interview with Wendy Brown-Baez about her decision to write her life experience as fiction.
Wendy Brown-Baez’s home page

Click here for links to other stops on Wendy Baez’s WOW Blog Tour

Click here to read my interview with Sharon Gerdes about turning her postpartum psychosis into a novel

Click here to read my article about Sharon Gerdes “fictional memoir”

Click here to read my interview with Israeli born novelist and writing teacher Naomi Gal talks about the relationship between her real experience as a person and the main character in her novel Daphne’s Seasons

Click here to read my article about a book of short stories The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly by Palestinian/American author Susan Muaddi Darraj

Click here to read my article about Xujun Eberlein’s book of short stories, Apologies Forthcoming about growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

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

Tragedy and courage in memoirs

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

Recently I read a terrifying memoir about a mother’s loss of her baby, Losing Malcolm by Carol Henderson. The book takes me on a journey of primal fear.

First, I ride her wave of unbridled hope for the new life growing within her, culminating in the otherworldly surge of love when the baby is born. The wave crashes when he is diagnosed with a life threatening birth defect. The surgeons lift her spirits from the depths of despair by offering hope for a rare risky neonatal open heart surgery.Losing Malcolm Carol Henderson

Long ago, I stopped exposing myself to fictional horror. Stopping monsters just isn’t worth the emotional turmoil. Now I ask myself why am I willing to accompany an author on her real life horror. To answer that question, I compare the two types of emotional journeys.

In both forms of storytelling, the evil is too great to be stopped by ordinary people. Additional help must be recruited. For example, when aliens from another galaxy invade earth, the military mobilizes. Eventually the military wins, the killing stops, and order is restored.

In the tragic memoir, Losing Malcolm, the “villain” at first is death. If the baby’s defective heart cannot be repaired, all hope is lost. The specially-trained heroes are called in. But when the risky heart surgery fails and the baby dies, the enemy instantly shifts. Death is no longer the enemy.

Now, the antagonist in the story is despair. Despair threatens to destroy the main character’s sanity, and disrupt her grip on the very meaning of life. The psychological horror of despair threatens to unravel everything. To defeat despair the hero must journey back to wholeness.

Perhaps reading a grieving memoir is a learned skill. When I started reading memoirs, years ago, I sometimes ran away from a book with too raw and painful a topic. But over the years, as I have grown more acclimated to the genre, I no longer slow down to ask myself “why should I put myself through that experience?”

By now, I have read many grieving memoirs. Throughout each one, I keep turning pages, accepting the hero’s pain as the price I pay for the generous, uplifting ending. The victory at the end of Losing Malcolm is the psychological realignment of the hero’s attitude and direction, so that she is able to absorb that tragedy and move back into a world that once again makes sense. By my willingness to walk hand in hand with an author who has been to the depths, I am also treated to the pleasure of that author leading me back into the light.

The pleasure of reading Losing Malcolm is enhanced by excellent story construction, a compelling writer’s voice, and a sprinkling of powerful inline excerpts from the author’s contemporaneous journals. These passages heighten the sensation of being right there with her. Good writing can’t remove the pain, but it does let the story reach deep into my heart, while I remain safely in my comfortable chair.

Reading memoirs has enhanced my appreciation for the many aspects of being a human being. By learning from each author’s journey, I become a deeper person with a greater range of understanding for the complex experiences my fellow humans must undergo. When I close one of these books, I feel not only wiser about the presence of evil in the world, but also about the uplifting power of courage and hope.

Writing Prompt
What situation in your life brought you so low you felt there was no point in going on, or you didn’t think you had enough sanity to even survive? Write an overview of the situation. Write a scene that shows your despair. Write another that shows your journey back to hope.

Notes

Carol Henderson’s Losing Malcolm page
Amazon link for Losing Malcolm

Other grieving parent memoirs of lost babies:
Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes, Amazon link
Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash.  Link to my article

Memoirs by grieving parents of young adult children
Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples Amazon link
Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Link to my article:
Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Link to my article

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

Grieving memoirs – a different slant

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

Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis is a memoir about two strong-willed people whose relentless mutual attraction chips away at their individuality. When they discover that they are happier together than apart, their relationship is born. The memoir continues past consummation, into a marriage fueled by an unquenchable thirst to live life to its fullest.

From the beginning, John’s rare form of cancer hung over the marriage like a sword. Instead of slowing them down, the threat egged them on to passionately engage in culture, nature, friendships, and each other.Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis

Both of them were on the cusp of retirement, anyway. So they seized this opportunity to cut short their successful careers and devote the rest of their lives to each other. Then time ran out. In a breathless chronology, the author leads us blow-by-devastating-blow through her husband’s medical setbacks.

Shirley Melis relies on the skills she honed during her career as a professional writer to pull readers into the details of their bliss together and then their frightening ordeal. She used scenes supported by dialog and contemporaneous material (letters and journal entries) to cut away the distance between reader and writer and allows us to enter her world.

The couple’s care for each other turned John’s downward slide into another chapter in their passionate love story. While their doctors fought his disease with the full weight of medical science, Shirley and John threw their full weight into trust in the future. They were determined to defy mortality and make plans for the next adventure. The power of love transforms the ending of their story into a sort of crescendo.

To satisfy readers, the ending of a memoir must wrap up the entire story in a way that allows the reader a visceral reaction—goosebumps, say, or a smile—that inspires them to recommend it to a friend. Banged-Up Heart achieves those goals in a way that surprised me.

In just about every memoir about loss I can think of, death takes place early enough in the book to allow plenty of time for the author’s recovery. This bridge from death back to life is one of the great gifts that grieving authors give to the rest of us.

Examples are plentiful. Susan Weidener’s memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, is also about a marriage ended prematurely by cancer. Like Banged-Up Heart, Weidener’s memoir shares the entire life span of her relationship to her husband, from the romance, through building a life together, and having children. Then the ripping away of a too early death. Weidener’s memoir, however, goes on to the next stage in her journey, as she tries to rebuild her life.

Rebuilding is the entire focus of Kate Braestrup’s memoir, Here if You Need Me. We barely meet Braestrup’s husband, who was killed in a freak auto accident at the beginning of the book. The lion’s share of the story describes the author’s long journey back, raising her kids and growing as a person. In the end, she offers a lovely perspective on the nature of good and evil, providing readers with the gift of her own hard-earned wisdom.

Memoirs about the death of a child also guide us through death’s aftermath, as the authors strive to cope with their devastating loss. For examples, check out any of these moving memoirs: Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Leave the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash, and Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes.

Well-defined story arcs about loss and the subsequent grieving process have earned an important place in my taxonomy of memoir subgenres, because each one provides wisdom regarding this fundamental journey of the heart.

I assumed that Banged-up Heart would similarly explore the arduous climb back to sanity and acceptance. But as I approached the end of the memoir, John was still battling for his life, and both of them were still struggling to visualize their adventures after he recovered. During this period, Shirley was too focused on hope to spend time grieving. As the pages flew by, I began to wonder how she would have room to wrap up the story.

In my impatience, I felt there were many details that didn’t add momentum to the story. Yet I carried on, drawn forward by the compelling writing, and my empathetic connection with this terrifying situation.

Amid so many upheavals and disasters, I wanted to learn as much as possible about Melis’ thoughts. In every other grieving memoir I have read, the nuances of the author’s interior landscape were crucially important. For me, that is the payoff for reading a story about loss. I want to accompany the author on this noble search to reclaim a sense of meaning. But instead of emphasizing her inner landscape, the author focused mainly on what was happening around her.

During this run-up to the end, with John in his deathbed, Shirley beside herself with worry, and me juggling my own expectations about where this was going, the story took a surprising turn. The result dashed my expectations and broke out of the “grieving story arc.” And it did so in a most satisfying way. Like the final moments of the movie The Sixth Sense, which shifted the premise of the entire story, the ending of Banged-up Heart caused me to toss out the expected storyline of a grieving memoir.

Melis’ exquisite, loving description of placing John’s remains in his final resting place helped me understand exactly what she was trying to do and gave me a rush of recognition. “Oh, that’s what the memoir was about.”

By ending the book the way she did — not with feelings of loss, but with admiration and love for her husband — the intent of Melis’ book instantly flipped. This was not the journey of sorrow and recovery, which I had expected, but a book about courage, respect, mutual support, and how two loving people can create life in each other’s eyes.

Although the story structure was unconventional, in the end, the book met my expectations after all, by offering me the two great gifts I expect from all satisfying memoirs: first, the life and mind of the author, and second, deep insight into a universal aspect of human experience.

By letting me into her life she showed me the unique nuances of her situation. She met and fell in love with John while still trying to recover from the death of her first husband, complicating her approach to grief. John was an unusual character, full of complex ideas and extraordinary talents. Their relationship was only a couple of years old. These individual variations gave me a sense of being with a specific person, at a specific time.

These specific features of their love offered me a fresh perspective on the universal experience of loss. The emergence of universal insights out of the cauldron of individual experience is why I love memoirs so much.

Love is one of the great driving forces of human experience. Some even say that love is the primary force and that all other emotions derive from it. And yet in the memoir genre, love is usually neatly tucked behind the thoughts, dreams, and needs of the protagonist. Shirley Melis’ memoir Banged-up Heart brings love out of its supporting role and places it front and center, as the hero of her story.

Memoirs that represent other relevant subgenres

Memoirs that Review multiple relationships

These memoirs review the life of several relationships across the author’s lifespan. Instead of praising one relationship, they lead us on the protagonist’s attempt to make better sense of these crucial features of emotional life:
Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse by Kathy Pooler,
Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers his Marriages by Boyd Lemon
Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro

Memoirs devoted to loving one other person

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell — Love and loss of a friend.
100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman — Her tribute to her husband mixed with the caregiving and cognitive rehabilitation after his stroke.

Notes
Shirley Melis’ Home Page

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

Interview With Memoir Editor Brooke Warner

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

After reading Dorit Sasson’s excellent memoir Accidental Soldier I asked the author for insights into her writing process. She gave much of the credit to her editor, Brooke Warner. Her answer confirms a “secret” that has taken me many years to fully appreciate. Good, publishable writing relies on a collaboration between author and editor. To learn more about this creative relationship, I reached out to Brooke Warner,Magic of Memoir by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers herself, to see what the memoir world looks like from her point of view.

Jerry: One of the things I loved most about Dorit Sasson’s book Accidental Soldier was the exquisite sensitivity to her mental voice. She seemed totally tuned in to her own interior process and exquisitely capable of sharing it. That’s so important n memoirs, because one’s thought-stream gives readers the opportunity to learn how a character thinks.

When I asked Dorit how she learned the subtle skill of writing her thoughts, she said you taught her. How did you learn to inspire and guide authors to pull these introspective realizations out of mind and onto the page?

Brooke: In reading your book, Memoir Revolution, you identify something really important about memoir writing when you write that memoir writers are tapping into psychology and literature without necessarily realizing they are doing so.

My parents are both psychologists, and while I never studied psychology in school, I’ve been exposed to therapy in various contexts my whole life. My mom runs a retreat center, and since I was fairly young I’ve been privy to the power of sharing story, and how self-expression heals and helps us better understand ourselves. This has given me a bedrock for how I hold people in their memoir process. It’s not therapy, but I do have a certain sensibility that leans that way, in addition to compassion for the writers I work with.

Jerry: Wow. I’m so impressed by the way you’ve taken the sensitivity training from your home life and applied it to your working life. Interesting! That explains your insights into the workings of your clients’ minds, but how did you get so knowledgeable and sensitive to the form of memoirs?

Brooke: I make no apologies for the fact that it’s my favorite genre. I’ve probably edited and/or published somewhere around 300 memoirs. My professional background is as an editor for a Seal Press, a women’s press in Berkeley, and I started She Writes Press in 2012, and we publish a lot of memoir as well. I teach a six-month memoir intensive with Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers. We’ve co-authored two books together, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir and an anthology The Magic of Memoir. And I wrote an ebook called How to Sell Your Memoir. Finally, Linda Joy and I are co-leading our second annual conference this October in Oakland, also called “Magic of Memoir.” So I’m pretty entrenched in memoir all around.

Jerry: That’s amazing. No wonder you’re good! You have invested a huge portion of your creative life into helping authors shape their life into stories. Cool. What got you into this line in the first place and what keeps you engaged in it with so much commitment?

Brooke: The memoir thing started for me when I started working at Seal Press in 2004. I’d worked in publishing for five years before I started working at Seal, but it wasn’t until Seal Press that my editorial focus became so strongly memoir-focused. During those eight-plus years as an acquiring editor and ultimately Executive Editor, the vast majority of the projects I acquired and edited were memoirs.

I also read tons of memoirs during those years because I was reading the competition. I was learning what made memoir work, and I was reading the best and most famous memoirists—those memoirists who started the revolution, like Caroline Knapp, Mary Karr, Annie Lamott, Joan Didion, Vivian Gornick. (I read almost exclusively women authors during those years, with the exception of James Frey and Augusten Burroughs probably.)

On a more immediate level, I was working with memoirists who were baring their souls. I witnessed firsthand what they went through to get these projects out, and then what they experienced when their memoirs came out in the world. There was often a lot of praise and good reviews, but I also saw and experienced the backlash against memoirists, and specifically women memoirists.

Part of my passion for this genre comes from a kind of Momma Bear instinct. I didn’t actually become a mother until 2010, but for years before that I was a mom of sorts to my authors. In-house editors get very close to their authors, and I’m no exception. I was part-mother, part-therapist, part-friend, part-midwife, part-taskmaster. You wear a lot of hats, and I was well-suited to these roles. I was personally impacted, and oftentimes awed, by what my authors went through to bring their stories into the world. I have been a champion of this genre as a result of walking the path with my authors, and feeling that what memoir writers do is hugely courageous, and one of the most vulnerable acts I know of. I believe memoirists should be celebrated, each and every one of them, and instead they’re so often met by criticism from family and friends, and cultural criticism for the very act of writing personal story. All memoirists need champions, and champions of memoir need to voice their support. Amy Ferris, a Seal author (her memoir is called Marrying George Clooney) and my dear friend, says that memoir saves lives. And I absolutely know this to be true. It saves the lives of the writers who write them as much as the people who need to read them.

Jerry: Because of all the years that Linda Joy Myers has put into building a community of memoir writers, I consider National Association of Memoir Writers to be one of the most important hubs of the Memoir Revolution. What is it like for you, being in a position where so many people come to look for help finding the stories of their lives?

Brooke: I agree, and I love my partnership with Linda Joy Myers. We have a really similar sensibility, and she’s an equally passionate advocate for memoir and memoirists. I feel so lucky to teach alongside her. When we met, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit!

As far as what it’s like to be in my position, it’s wonderful, and sometimes hard. What’s hard about it is that so many people have the dream that their book can be a breakout bestseller. And a lot of people come to me for coaching, or join my classes, and what they want more than anything is validation—that their story is not only worthwhile, but well-written, going to get agented, going to get a big advance, going to sell tons of copies.

Of course most of the memoirs I work on these days don’t go on to get big agents, big advances, or become bestsellers. The publishing climate is the most contracted it’s ever been. The only memoirists who are getting those kinds of agents and advances are people who are already famous, or who have big author platforms, or who have something that’s trending in such a way that the traditional industry sees a project as a risk worth taking.

I love meeting writers. I love hearing that people are working on memoir. I also love hearing that they’ll publish no matter what, because I know how difficult it is out there right now, and in fact the high barriers to publishing is one of the main reasons I started She Writes Press, to provide an alternative to authors who were being met by rejections from the traditional world for really beautifully written books. (Ours is a model in which the sole determinant of whether or not we publish a book is the writing, not author brand or model.)

I’m encouraged because I think there are countless brilliant books whose authors are committed and willing to take them to the finish line, with or without a traditional deal. The new revolution that we’re in the middle of is the Indie Revolution, and a lot of memoirists are riding this wave. And so I love talking to writers of all stripes, but I also try to gently introduce a bit of publishing realism to those who have stars in their eyes about a publishing paradigm that no longer exists.

Jerry: Nicely said.

Interview to Be Continued

Notes and links
See my review of Dorit Sasson’s excellent memoir Accidental Soldier, edited by Brooke Warner
To visit Brooke Warner’s home page, click here.
Green-Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing by Brooke Warner
The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey by Linda Joy Myers PhD and Brooke Warner
Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers

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

Memoirs Helped Her Conquer Midlife

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

victoria-twead-two-old-fools-coverWhen I was growing up in the 1960s, “midlife crisis” conjured the image of a fifty-year-old guy driving a red convertible sports car accompanied by a giddy twenty-year-old blond. Thanks to the Memoir Revolution, we no longer rely on such clichés. Instead, we can read detailed accounts of the infinitely varied experience of real people.

Take for example, the midlife journey depicted in Victoria Twead’s “Old Fools” memoir series. (The fools in her self-effacing titles refer to the author and her husband.)

In the first memoir of the series, Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools, when Victoria Twead reached midlife, she was itching for a change from dreary English winters. She convinced her husband that they should buy a fixer-upper in a village in southeast Spain. He agreed to a five-year trial. If they still loved it by the end of that period, they would stay. With the clock ticking, they began the laborious project of turning a dilapidated house into a cozy home.

By most measures, that achievement would have been sufficient to declare their approach to midlife a smashing success. But for Victoria Twead it was only the beginning. The next mountain she wanted to climb was a literary one. She wrote a memoir about their move to Spain. Her good-humored writing brightened the dark spots, turning the whole messy experience into Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools.

Their not-so-foolish decision to move to Spain followed by the even less foolish effort to write about it were merely the first couple of steps in what I have come to see as Victoria Twead’s ferocious response to midlife. Following Dylan Thomas exhortation, she was not going gentle into that good night.

But then life in Spain hit a bump more serious than outmoded plumbing and collapsing walls. Their money began to run out. Instead of retreating, they blasted out of their comfort zone into yet another adventure, taking jobs as visiting teachers in the small middle-eastern country of Bahrain. After that crazy year, she had enough material for her next memoir, Two Old Fools on a Camel. (I’ll talk more about it in my next article.)

By this time, the reading public had discovered her books, and in a wonderful example of “art meets life” the income from her memoirs began to sustain her lifestyle.

As if this wasn’t enough to confirm Victoria’s qualification as a ferocious midlife conqueror, she had another mountain to climb. In order to share her books, she forged a relationship with fellow ex-pat Alan Parks, and established a Facebook group called We Love Memoirs.  The group attracts people from all over the world. And unlike other such groups on the internet, the moderators keep this one buzzing. That’s amazing. Isn’t the internet supposed to belong to the young? (I’ll say more about the group in my next article, also.)

Victoria Twead’s relentless climb to higher versions of herself represents an important change in our culture’s view of midlife. Formerly considered the beginning of the end, many of us view the period as the beginning of the next interesting chapter. For a more serious exploration of this trend, read Marc Freedman, MD’s book The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.  In it, Freedman points out that naturally, with our increased life spans, we are going to search for the next great adventure.

This big shift in our thinking about midlife happens to coincide with that time in my own life. Once my age approached a half a century, it raised the possibility that my life was half over. Like Twead, I too wondered how to climb higher rather than sink lower. During my research into that question, I discovered that memoirs are the key, for me and many others in this situation.

For memoir writers, a crucial step for revising life’s timeline is to become the author of one’s own book. By using the ancient template of Story to help make sense of the whole journey, we have discovered a roadmap that lets us know where we’ve been and helps us figure out where we’re going. (I’ve documented the use of Story to help us understand ourselves and each other in my book Memoir Revolution A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire )

Victoria Twead offers a great example of the trend to see midlife as a time to grow. If you decide to follow in her footsteps, to boldly seize the future, to overcome your own limits, and grow toward a better version of yourself, keep in mind all three dimensions of her approach.

First, if you lust for experience, go ahead and bust through your limits. Move to another country or achieve some other difficult or seemingly impossible dream.

Second, whether or not you are inclined to a new round of adventures, turn to memoir writing to explore and share the experiences you’ve already had.

And third, hop onto social media to create and join online communities and “party” with like-minded people from all over the world.

I’ll say more about Victoria Twead’s approach to midlife, to memoirs and to community in my next article.

Notes
Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools
Two Old Fools: Ole! 
Two Old Fools in Spain Again
Two Old Fools on a Camel, a New York Times bestseller.

Victoria keeps publishing  books! For a complete list, see her author page on Amazon.

Facebook group, We Love Memoirs, http://www.facebook.com/groups/welovememoirs

Other memoirs about renewal at midlife
At Home on the Kazakh Steppe by Janet Givens. She and her husband joined the Peace Corps at around 50 years old.

Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed
David W. Berner quit his job as a radio newscaster and became a school teacher

The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife by Marc Freedman,

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