Writing a life: memoir or autobiography?

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

(Note: This article began as a review of Strawberry Roan by Judy Beil Vaughan, and over time turned into a longread about the intricate relationship between memoir and autobiography. If you are a writer wondering how your memoir will work, or a reader, wondering about how to make better sense of these two types of life writing, consider the creative way Judy Beil Vaughan bridged the divide.)

Strawberry Roan by Judy Beil Vaughan seemed perfectly suited to my reading preferences. I love stories in which companion animals (birds, dogs, horses) have an important impact. And I’m intrigued by stories of the American Southwest. (For another article I wrote about a memoir in which riding horseback played an important role, Click Here. )

Sure enough, the author’s connection with horses, training them, loving them, admiring them, grieving for them, provided compelling stories. And her explorations of the rugged beauty through remote settings delivered the full immersion in the majesty and mystery of her relationship to nature. In fact, she awakened feelings more majestic than I have ever experienced directly, but which matched my vicarious experience within the pages of the fabulous West with the Night by Beryl Markham about growing up in the mid-century profusion of wildlife in Africa.

Because of her style of storytelling and the intensity of each chapter (which in some cases read like short stories in their own right), she took me deep into her confidence, sharing a lifetime of formative, powerful experiences.

I soon found out that Judy Beil Vaughan, a retired neurologist, did not limit her book to simple stories about the wonder of a girl and her horse. In an early demonstration of her mastery over horses, a passive-aggressive incident with a boy she wanted to impress offered the first example of the transparent honesty of her memoir.

Many emotional forces intersected with her love for horses. Perhaps most significantly, she had to modify her feelings to fit in with her family business. When a buyer came to claim one of her beloved horses, she had to balance business with love.

Her emotions around horses were also woven with her father’s needs. He was driven to be around horses, to train and sell them, and to become a serious contender in the world of showing and breeding. Judy accepted those needs as an important aspect of her own journey. Even after she followed her own dreams as a medical doctor, she always returned to participate in his.

So in addition to a story about a girl and her horse, it was a story about a girl and her father. I have read several memoirs in which this desire to know and understand a father is the central theme of the story. If Judy Beil Vaughan had written such a tightly focused memoir, that never-ending pressure to please and understand him would have taken center stage. But Strawberry Roan includes many stories which have nothing to do with that relationship.

Some of the most poignant scenes are those in which she felt driven to serve others, first volunteering as a worker in the civil rights movement, and then serving as a doctor in a state hospital, a setting which required tremendous self-sacrifice. I felt honored to accompany her on these journeys.

Through her deep introspection, her honesty about her feelings, and her passion to craft each chapter or story as a powerful offering to the reader, Strawberry Roan fulfilled my expectations of a memoir. And more.

It’s that “and more” that pushed me to deepen my understanding of the sometimes-subtle differences between autobiography and memoir, a distinction that continues to plague memoir writers struggling to decide how much to keep into their growing manuscripts.

Memoir purists would probably disagree with Judy Beil Vaughan’s choice to keep pushing into the next legs of her life. Some of the themes were big enough to justify a separate book. Do the multiple themes in Strawberry Roan cross over the line into that category often maligned by literary writing teachers, the dreaded “autobiography”, and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing? It’s a question which almost every memoir writer must sort out at some point during the development of their own growing interest in memoirs. The choices Judy Beil Vaughan made in composing her life stories offer a fascinating study in exactly this question.

How much to include in one memoir?

Any memoir teacher (including me) would encourage you to focus your story on one theme or, as I like to think of it, one “mission.” Say in a “Coming of Age” the author’s “mission” is to grow up, and so most such books might start to wrap up around say 18 years  old. Or the book might be about Launching, in which the “mission” is to transition from home out into the world. Such a book might end somewhere say in the character’s twenties. Or it might be a grieving memoir, which would end when the person has successfully come to terms with their loss.

If you try to write about your whole life it’s said by almost everyone that this makes it an autobiography – this is a big no-no. “Don’t write an autobiography” is often touted as one of the central rules of memoir writing.

A memoir, as it’s understood and taught in the literary world, limits itself to one central aspect of the author’s life. I have read hundreds of satisfying books that follow this rule. As a reader, I am the grateful beneficiary of the author’s extra work to strip away extraneous stuff and lead me on a specific journey through a specific aspect of life.

Such memoirs became bestsellers for a good reason. Each book focuses on a digestible part of the author’s life and takes the reader on a well-structured journey through that experience In the wise words of William Zinsser, the sage of good memoir writing,:

“I’ll read almost anybody’s memoir. For me, no other nonfiction form goes so deeply to the roots of personal experience—to all the drama and pain and humor and unexpectedness of life…What gives them their power is the narrowness of their focus…

Think narrow, then, when you try the form. Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction.”

William Zinsser, On Writing Well. (The quote was offered to me by fellow memoir teacher Wendy Bancroft, in personal correspondence.)

That’s the reason I love reading book length memoirs. By allowing me to look through that window, they have opened me up to an infinite source of wisdom and empathy about the people with whom I share this planet.

I also believe in the healing power that writing such a book offers its author. To develop such a focused story you must bring your attention back over and over to identify and condense the meaning of that portion of your life. In that reflective process, there is a tremendous opportunity to make peace with your own past.

If you don’t obey the rule, is it still a memoir?

However, Judy Beil Vaughan chose not to limit herself by this standard, stripped down focus. As she had done when facing so many other challenges in her life, (relationships, medical school, the civil rights movement, religion, alcoholism, public service) she did not let the definition stop her from telling the story she felt she needed to tell.

By breaking out of the definition, though, she didn’t sacrifice story values. Her powerful chapters provide focused story-power, with strong emotional stakes.

And her self-disclosure and introspective honesty satisfy one of my main requirements for a memoir. It should be an open, authentic journey into the author’s quest for self understanding. Being able to see yourself in such an open and honest light offers psychological rewards, both for writers and readers.

In this regard Strawberry Roan exceeded my expectations. She opened herself with unrestrained honesty about the raw fragility of being an actual human being. Within the context of her story, her missteps are not bad things. They are human things. And they demonstrate one of the most valuable purposes of the Memoir Revolution. Within the context of the stories of our lives, our flaws become steps toward our true, higher selves. Memoirs provide all of us with an opportunity to use the “bad” parts of our lives, the parts we wish had never happened, as fuel for the journey to become better.

By her honesty, her emotional depth, the profound linkage throughout the book of emotional pressures that led to heroic responses, no way does this fall into the category of autobiography. Because in fact, the thing that makes that word pejorative is its connotation that the story is devoid of deep psychological principles. In the end, I would have to come up with a new hybrid category for this book, perhaps “memoir-plus”?

Mercy for the hard-working memoir writer

So Strawberry Roan is a book length memoir. Or is it a book of overlapping, interwoven short stories? Or is it an autobiography with heart? I’m not sure. What I do know is that it is an incredible life achievement for the author, and reading it was an incredible privilege for me.

Her hybrid model gives her the creative license to show many facets of her life and actually gives me a broader understanding of her character than I might get from a whole book that is centered just on one theme.

Sure, I could imagine a book with a tighter focus, for example one on growing up in the Southwest with the grandeur of nature and a horse-obsessed father. A second memoir might be about her journey as a neurologist through the public sector. But frankly, I am not convinced that either of those books would have been as captivating or shown the extent and depth of her multi-dimensional life as the one she actually did write.

What I am sure of is that if she’d chosen to write two books the task would have taken her additional years of writing, editing, and revising. And therein lies the problem with the narrowly-focused memoir. To tell multiple stories, you must write multiple books. That’s what tireless, bestseller authors sometimes do.

To learn how Frank McCourt’s life turned out after Angela’s Ashes, I read his two sequels, Tis and Teacher Man. And Harry Bernstein, in his 90s, did something similar with his three memoirs, Invisible Wall, Dream and Golden Willow. Others who did the same tireless service to the genre include Sue William Silverman, Mary Karr, and Dani Shapiro to name a few more.

But they’ve devoted their lives to this effort to retell what has come before. This daunting dedication is not for everyone.

Teasing apart the focused story is hard

When you first look back at your life through the lens of memories, you only see a disorganized heap of memories, with some factoids jutting out at random angles. No story exists yet, except perhaps specialized, and simplistic ones like “I had kids and a career” or some variation on that.

For the vast majority of people who come to my memoir classes, the idea of separating out one specific focal point for their stories provokes the maddening question: “Out of all the events in my life, how exactly do I slice out the material for a well-crafted memoir?”

If you could flash forward to the end of your memoir writing project, this could be a glorious question. By teasing apart all this material, and finding the coherent parts, your completed memoir will be about your self-development through that particular challenge.

However, finding those coherent parts takes time, sometimes years, especially for those of us who come to the craft of storytelling late in life. For us, we must learn the art of story writing at the same time as we are learning the introspective journey of our own lives.

So I always encourage writers to postpone these questions of thematic purity. Early in the process, simply grab a memory, write it, and place it in chronological order.

Over time, your evolving manuscript will suggest connections that coalesce into segments. Some will turn into chapters. Some may be large enough to cross several chapters. Others might suggest an entire book. Finding these units of your story takes time and effort. The wisdom of your life is gradually revealed in the stories which you will find through this process.

Ode to the hardworking memoir writer

Every published memoir you read offers an example of a person who has turned some focused psychologically compelling part of the author’s life into a good book. Each author spent all these thousands of hours, reviewing, savoring, confessing the past, and above all, reconstructing memories to find the ones that will make a good story.

Strawberry Roan is such a book, in this case, by a retired neurologist, who spent her life in two intense, passionate pursuits, medicine and horseback riding. Then, in retirement she revisited her decades of experience and turned those earlier experiences into a book. In truth, this effort has been a third massive chapter in her life. I am filled with awe at the effort she had to exert in order to provide me with these good stories.

Actually, memoir authors like Judy Beil Vaughan (or you) are doubly heroic. First, they have to find themselves as characters in their story. And then they go on a second journey to become writers. Two heroes in one. The character in the story becomes a hero, in the author’s eyes, and the author becomes a hero in mine.

Th stories in Strawberry Roan stretch the simple one-theme ideal of a memoir. And yet the book achieved (and in some cases exceeded) my expectations of the compelling storyline and involvement in the inner journey of its author.

Judy Beil Vaughan has found a style in which she has incorporated the best of both. She has strong, emotionally compelling storylines in each story. And then by stacking the stories, she has managed to guide me through her entire life.

I am madly in love with our culture’s newfound ability to let us get to know each other’s lives so deeply and completely (a cultural trend I celebrate in my book Memoir Revolution). Each memoir I’ve read leads me through some aspect of the author’s life. My heart overflows with gratitude for having been given that front row seat. In fact, through the magic of vicarious experience, I’ve to some extent experienced it myself.

Thank you Judy Beil Vaughan for going through all this work to generously share your life. Your hard work has made it possible for me to sit down with your book, and spend a few invigorating hours, living and riding in the American Southwest, becoming a doctor, and wrestling with various demons. At the end, I close the book, to face my own life, fortified with hope in the journey of being human.

Writing Prompt

List a few major events or components of your life you might attempt to turn into short stories. For example:

Career
Spirituality
Creativity in whatever form (visual, dance, music, writing, etc)
Living in a group
Relationships, romance, etc.
Attempt to adapt to some historical shift
Need to adapt to a different culture (immigration, ex-pat, etc.)
Addiction, incarceration, brush with the law
Grieving and loss
Midlife and beyond

Write a paragraph about each of these (or others that are relevant to you). Visualize how you would expand each one into a short story. Could you imagine a theme strong enough to carry a whole book?

NOTES

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

 

How memoirs increase empathy

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

During my training to become a therapist, one of the more esoteric instructions I received was that when a client told me about their situation, I was supposed to pay attention to my own feelings.

I found this instruction unsettling, given that I had no idea how to observe my own feelings. It soon became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to help other people until I learned how to steer through the complexities of my own emotions.

Hoping to correct my deficiency, I read Emotional Intelligence, by Dan Goleman, and was heartened by his assertion that this “intelligence” was learnable. So I started on a long road of self-development, to increase my sense of empathy.

Years of being in therapy helped, but the real breakthrough came from a surprising direction. From reading memoirs.

I’ve always enjoyed losing myself in books. The problem was that in my younger years, all my reading matter was written by males. They involved very little emotional intelligence.

So for example, I read lots of books about people dying, but instead of learning about the emotions of loss, the story centered on finding the killer.

Other emotions were similarly superficial or ignored altogether. Take children for example. A mother’s love for a child was given a vague gloss. Cute but without any depth. And the experience of falling in love was a linear operation, with little time spent appreciating its complexity.

Back then, my reading preferences exposed me mainly to people who barely bothered to feel their lives. But when I decided to broaden my emotional horizons, I switched to reading memoirs. By immersing myself in each author’s inner world, I experienced what it was like for that one individual. And after I completing each one, I pondered how I felt about it, similar to the instruction in my therapy training.

One reason reading memoirs had such a profound influence on me was because I was also trying to write one. In order to effectively communicate my experience, I needed to learn how to communicate emotion. And the only way I, with my tin inner ear, could know if I’d succeeded, would be to get feedback from readers. So I joined a critique group, composed of others who were also trying to turn their lives into stories.

Together with a few people, all in a similar situation,  I discovered an exponential benefit. By sharing our works-in-progress, we were becoming each other’s teachers, not just in writing but in empathy.

The directive to “pay attention to my own feelings” became crucial when critiquing my fellow memoir writers. To give them feedback about the quality of their writing, I had to tune into the emotions they aroused in me.

In this way, the empathy-enhancing effects of memoir reading were accentuated (or “potentiated” in the parlance of neurobiology) – and as a result, year over year, I could observe myself growing increasingly curious about the whole range of emotions that had once eluded me.

As I continue to gain emotional sensitivity, I keep pushing the limits. Glad, sad, mad, might sound simple, but in their infinite variety of expression and nuance, they continue to draw me out of myself and into an intimacy with the human condition I never knew was possible. Memoirs were an incredible source for this never-ending variety.

Perhaps one of the most complex, enjoyable and emotionally satisfying memoirs I’ve read recently (or perhaps ever) is a surprisingly light hearted little book about cancer, named The Dog Lived and So Did I by Theresa Rhyne. As I set myself aside, and entered Theresa Rhyne’s story, I was in for a feast of emotion, artistically organized into a fulfilling tale.

For a guy who was looking for deeper insight into the realms of emotion, this book is especially valuable, because it weaves together three stunningly intricate emotional experiences: the threat of mortality, loving a pet or child, and most stunning of all is the entanglement of two people attempting to partner up.

Rhyne offers a rich drink from the cup of emotion, providing nuances about her specific circumstances that allow me to turn each of these situations over and over in my mind in new, unique ways. And it all added up to a terrific story.

In the case of cancer, first her dog, then (spoiler alert) she herself, must go through the grueling rigors of chemotherapy. But while the medical details of such a process might be cold and clinical, in a memoir the journey becomes warm and inspiring, filled with the intricacies of misery and courage.

And her relationship with her dog raises astonishing emotional complexity. While Marley and Me by John Grogan brought us closer to the family dog, The Dog Lived takes it a step further, making the relationship almost indistinguishable to the emotions you might expect with a troubled child. And in her love for her pet, it is easy to feel the full protective embrace of a mother’s love.

Finally, there was the romance – that terrifying process that in my younger male mind, I wrote off as a caricature only relevant in cheesy novels. I used to pretend that partnering was easy, or more to the point, if it was difficult, I didn’t want to know about it.

After I’d read enough memoirs, I developed a far more nuanced appreciation for the ups and downs of finding a romantic partner. Theresa Rhyne’s story pried me open further, making me even more willing to include the aching pain of romance into my ever widening circle of empathy.

The thing that makes this particular memoir so emotionally rewarding is the expertise with which the author weaves these three themes. Each one is as complex and nuanced as any good theme should be, and yet they add power to each other, providing a far greater story in combination.

Her memoir demonstrates the vast difference between mere memories and the stories they generate. Anyone who had to look back on this collection of past events, all one might see in memory might be a bratty dog with behavior problems, two incredibly disruptive scary cancer experiences, and an attempt to forge a relationship against unbelievable odds.

I am in awe of this nearly-impossible challenge that every memoir writer faces – to take the life dealt to you by destiny, and turn it into a satisfying page turner that resonates long after the book is closed.

How Theresa Rhyne pulls the whole thing together into such a lovely memoir is a testimony to her skill as a writer, and also a testimony to the enormous humanity of this genre – it is designed for exactly this deep human need – to enable us to immerse ourselves in each other’s emotional experiences.

I’m not the only one who could benefit from a course in empathy. My hope is that as more people discover the nuances of the human experience, as shared in memoirs like this, we will all grow more empathetic to the difficulties and joys of being human together.

Writing prompts

Write a paragraph about our most complicated romantic encounter

Write a paragraph about an encounter with cancer or some other life threatening and disruptive health issue.

Write a paragraph about a relationship with a pet, child, or someone else who both relied on you and caused you problems.

If you are feeling adventuresome, try to weave these three high-intensity interactions in your life into one compelling story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Footote about empathy and neurons

How could I, or anyone for that matter, truly be learning how to be more empathetic? Wasn’t I stuck with the amount of empathy I was born with? Based on the most up-to-date neuroscience, our adult brains can change. Through effort and lots of training, I was able to increase the number of neuronal connections responsible for my sense of empathy.

Our brains contain a feature called “mirror neurons” which enable us to empathetically relate to each other’s emotions. So in a sense, the best way to raise our aptitude about our own emotions is to carefully pay attention to each other’s.

NOTES

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

Checklists for Memoir Writers

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

To write a memoir, you have to carve out a few minutes each day to make progress. Despite the apparent simplicity of this requirement, many, if not most, aspiring writers consistently find it difficult to prod themselves to act.

The problem is that at any given moment there are a thousand other things to do, and in order to write, you need to convince yourself this task is more important than the other 999.

To understand why that is so difficult, consider the primary job for which your brain evolved – survival.

You have a strong motivation to go to work, since your paycheck depends on you doing your job. No work. No paycheck. You die. Easy choice!

But your writing project carries no such life and death stakes. If you go without writing no one will die as a result. And your brain knows it!

So, when you direct yourself to sit still and write, your ancient brain wiring simply yawns, and moves on to more urgent matters. To write your memoir, you need to trick yourself into thinking that writing really is urgent.

That’s where self-help strategies come in, to convince your brain that your daily writing is as important as breath itself. If you’ve ever seen (or been) a cigarette smoker, attempting to not take that next hit, you know exactly what I mean. The brain’s habit circuit is so strong, it can cause you to do things that could kill you.

While teenagers routinely convince themselves and each other to start self-destructive habits, writers must read books in order to learn how to start more positive behaviors. Once you get addicted to a daily writing habit, you will feel a sense of desire and even urgency to translate thoughts into words.

The urge to write might be less intense than the craving for a cigarette or a hit of crack, but with a good motivation and at the right time in your life, fostering a writing habit will be strong enough to get the job done.

How I started my own daily habit is a long story. But the important thing about that process is that building the habit was done in small steps over a period of years.

Reading articles like the one you are reading now is one such step. And reading entire books on the subject is an even bigger one. (See the notes at the end for some of the books I’ve read, and one that I’ve written.)

As a self-help junkie, I am already a nut about the subject of getting things done.

So when I was gifted a lovely, short book called The Checklist Book by Alexandra Franzen, I devoured it in a couple of hours.

Of course checklists are as familiar as your grocery shopping list. In fact they are so familiar most self-help authors don’t even bother to mention them. So reading a whole book about this simple habit was a refreshing opportunity to focus a lot of attention on something I already know, and in the process to renew my faith in its power.

The checklist scales things down to a delightfully bite size chunk. Which is the scale where habits live. By persistently making progress on small steps, over and over, you can achieve mighty things.

The special power of the lowly checklist arises from the barely noticeable burst of satisfaction you get from actually checking the box. It sounds so trivial, but in that tiny act, you are harnessing the same brain chemical, dopamine, that forces heroin addicts to seek their next fix.

Admittedly checking an item only releases a small surge of rewarding neurotransmitters, which is why we barely notice it. It’s the repetition that turns that series of tiny surges into a life changing habit.

Your brain is already wired to turn small rewards into unstoppable motivations. So instead of letting the dopamine surge of meaningless acts (like playing video games, checking your twitter feed, or eating potato chips) develop strong neural pathways, trick your brain into harnessing those powerful systems to write.

Transforming your habit-system from self-destructive behavior to creative acts that can make you feel better about yourself and move you in directions of your choosing – that’s an awesome outcome for the tiny Checklist book.

As for how to apply checklists to move your memoir-writing project forward, you will need to adapt them to your own current challenges.

For example, if you are just gathering anecdotes, you might write, “write one memory” on your check list.

Or if you are organizing your time line, put on your list, “add five events to my timeline file.” Timelines are a powerful tool to help you sort out what happened, when.

Or if you are much further and you have a bunch of organized anecdotes, you might say, “pull together one segment into a chapter.” Chapters help you start organizing your anecdotes into a book length form.

Or if you completed the first draft, write a few paragraphs that explain exactly what this main character is trying to achieve. By describing your character’s mission, you can make better sense of the journey on which you are taking your reader.

Or if you’ve written your memoir and you are trying to figure out where you could speak about your book. “Email one local library today to find out if they host zoom meetings.”

When facing a task that keeps slipping away from you, you can even turn your attention toward your long term self-development. Your checklist could say, “read one page of the self help book currently on my reading pile.

At every stage along the way, you can gain momentum by listing a small task, and then achieving that task. You’ll send a tiny surge of satisfaction through your brain. Nature has been employing this trick for hundreds of millions of years to program us to do her bidding. Now, to write your memoir, take advantage of this ancient strategy.

As you continue to craft the story of your life, one check mark at a time, you will come to see that the small steps that carried you day by day throughout the difficult periods of your life, added up to make you the hero you are today.

NOTES

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

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.