Stories Help this Author Grow

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

An article and interview about David W. Berner’s Night Radio: A Love Story

Every memoir shows life through the author’s eyes, and each one provides an example of how the author turned life into a good story. One of my favorite memoir authors, David W. Berner has taught me many lessons in both arenas. Berner’s writing explores powerful parts of human experience, and his writing style is flexible and far ranging.

By following his life story, I have learned not only about writing a memoir, but also what it means to be a creative, energetic writer at midlife, ferociously stretching for new angles and new creative styles.

In his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, he wrote about the challenges of redefining himself in midlife. The book was written in a straight, narrative form.

In his second memoir Any Road Will Take You There he tries to make better sense of being a father and understanding his own father. He wrote it as a travel memoir, about the road trip he took with his friend and sons.

His third memoir, There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, A Life in Pets is again about his sons and father as explored in stories about their pets. He wrote this one as a collection of short stories.

Now, in his fourth book, Night Radio: A Love Story, he’s tackled the complex and sexy challenge of a young man in college who must sort out the difference between lust and commitment.

When I was trying to become an adult in the 60s, I learned about men from novels such as those by Henry Miller, which sensationalized the freedom of promiscuity. Such fictional characters provided little, if any, guidance to help me sort out these confusing issues. Now thanks to the Memoir Revolution, I hope young people can find better guidance from memoirs than I had back then. So when I heard that Night Radio is about that period, I thought this empathetic, insightful author would offer honest, compassionate insight into that important period of life.

However, it wasn’t a memoir and neither the publisher nor author ever said it was based on the author’s life. I should have just let it go and accepted that it wasn’t going to provide insight into this young man’s mind.

And yet, I wanted to believe in the authenticity of this main character. For one thing, Berner had written three memoirs, so he has plenty of practice writing from his own, authentic voice. And he, too, had been a radio announcer. Surely, I thought, he would place himself in the main character’s mind. So I kept wondering if the character in the book was a fabrication or a reflection of the truth. Finally, I asked Berner to help me tease apart the difference. I was not disappointed.

Interview with David W. Berner about his Memoir Night Radio

Jerry: When I started reading Night Radio, I found myself tangled up trying to figure out which parts were invented and which parts were you. Could you help me figure out how to sort this out?

David: Night Radio has what I call “experiential truths” in it. There are scenes that may be based on real events, but not necessarily tell the true details of that event. The scene is important to advance the narrative, but unlike memoir there is no need to stick to the absolute truth of an event. It can be shaped and massaged into what the story needs. I always get asked about the drinking party at the college radio station depicted in Night Radio. Did that happen? Well, the drinking party happened, sort of, but te what the characters end up doing on the floor of the station’s office is *not* true. At least it’s not *my* truth. It didn’t happen to me, but it wouldn’t be out of the question for this to have happened at a college radio station somewhere, at sometime. This brings me to authenticity. And that’s key here. It may not be fact, but it has to ring true.

Jerry: I was so curious about what it was like being you during that period. I guess I’m projecting my own desires on you. You wanted to write a novel, but I wished you had written a memoir. Why did you choose to write fiction?

David: I think there are a number of stories out there from very well known broadcasters and journalists who have written memoirs about their careers, legends in the industry. I’m not one of them. I’m a respected, long-time journalist and broadcaster, but not in that one-percent, if you will. I believed a fictionalized story with all the things I wanted to say about broadcasting, rock ‘n’ roll and the redemptive powers of love could be said, hopefully, more powerfully in a fictional story.

So many have said that fiction can get to a bigger truth. Sometimes, I think they are right.

“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” — Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” — Jessamyn West
“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” — Picasso

I think, in the case of Night Radio, fiction tells the wider truth.

Jerry: But that’s just it. The Memoir Revolution came into being to serve readers who no longer want a wider truth. We want specific truths so we can see into each other’s minds, and decide the wider truth for ourselves. And as a memoir writer and journalist, you were a great person to reveal it.

Maybe I’m being too personal here, but what I’m trying to figure out is Jake’s struggle with the awkward transition between the delights of lust and sex, versus the long-term commitment of authentic relationship. You did a great job of taking me inside that transition. In fact, your excellent writing evoked memories of my own inner debates during that period. My younger male self struggled enormously to steer through passion, and during that transition, I made a lot of mistakes. I included some of those awkward moments in my own memoir, but on every page, I had to resist the impulse to say, “And I was such an idiot.”

When I started reading Night Radio, and was still under the mistaken impression you had put yourself into the character, I thought you were being so heroic, opening up your thought process for all to see.

Now that you’ve convinced me this is really fiction, I’m not so sure if you were being brave. Maybe the opposite was the case. By couching it within fiction, you could completely deny the whole mess. Was that your intention? Did fiction enable you to explore that character without revealing personal, embarrassing choices and states of your own mind.?

David: This is a fascinating question, in essence, do we write fiction because the truth is too close to home? I do not believe I wrote Night Radio to avoid, in some way, calling attention to myself. I’ve written about other issues and emotions in my earlier memoirs that are pretty close to the bone. So writing about very personal feelings, is not a concern. Plus, I am *not* Jake. There are aspects of me in Jake, certainly. And the character’s issues with commitment and/or fidelity are a very human thing, I think, especially for young men trying to figure it all out. Plus, some are only modeling the behavior of their fathers. That’s somewhat the case for Jake. His father has had his own struggles with these issues and whether it’s overt or just through the DNA, sons of such fathers will also have to deal with these matters. It’s inevitable. Here’s the final say on this: everything a writer puts down on paper has a little of him in it. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, whether it’s painfully obvious or squeezed between the lines, it’s there and any writer who tells you differently is not telling you the truth.

Jerry: So now that you’ve written your first novel, are you dropping memoir altogether and switching over to writing fiction?

David: I’m glad you asked. Roundfire Books, will publish October Song: A memoir of music and the journey of time most likely in the first part of 2017. I believe October Song is a unique story of time and music. I played in a band many years ago. Nothing much. Just a bar band. I was a teenager and did it into my early 20s. But I always played music, and still play some guitar. But it’s really just about having some fun. Now and then, I’ll write a song. I’ve never professionally recorded or published music. On a whim I entered a national contest and was quite unexpectedly named a finalist and was asked to perform at a well-known music venue in Virginia to see how far the song would go. The memoir is about the road trip there and the experience of the competition, and most importantly about the passage of time. When are we at the moment when we should give up our crazy dreams? When do we say…”well, I guess I’m not going to be President of the United States,” and for me that was “that rock-n-roll star.” All of us have those dreams, right? Ultimately October Song is an examination of the passage of time, love, the power of music, and the power of dreams.

Jerry: That’s perfect. Another memoir. And the subject of the memoir fits in perfectly with the image you portray through your memoirs.

In the beginning of your first memoir, Accidental Lessons, you become convinced that you are not living life to the fullest, and to fulfill that desire, you need to change. Now here you are a few years later. You’ve been a high school teacher. A college teacher. You’ve written two memoirs, a collection of short stories, a novel. And you’ve got another memoir coming out about your passion for music. What a relentless, creative journey you’ve been on.

In my experience, most memoir writers are responding to a similar desire, to find themselves by creatively shaping their lives into stories. What advice could you offer us, based on your mid-life quest to reclaim your soul through creativity?

David: You hit the nail on the head – “reclaiming your soul through creativity.” I believe that my writing has done that. I didn’t write *to* do that; it was not calculated in some way, as journal writing might imply. But I have always been a storyteller in one form or another. From delivery newspapers as a paperboy in Pittsburgh, to my radio work, to writing journalism, to music and songwriting, to writing memoirs and now fiction. And for one reason or another, in the last 8-9 years, I have been a faucet of stories. I don’t know why that is, really. Maybe I am on a quest to understand my world and my place in it. But I don’t think people who are reclaiming their place in the world have to write a book or a memoir to “see” themselves or “find” themselves. That can be done in myriad of ways. And it’s a natural process for all of us. Looking in the mirror, really looking, is important to find steady ground, to be happy (whatever that means), or redeem or create relationships with people and the world. What makes us uniquely human? The stories we tell. No other species on earth tells stories. Only us. To be quintessentially human, we must tell stories. I must tell stories.

Notes

Night Radio: A Love Story by David W. Berner
Accidental Lessons by David W. Berner
Click here for the article I wrote about Accidental Lessons.
Any Road Will Take You There by David W. Berner
Click here to read my article about Any Road Will Take you There
There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard by David W. Berner

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

Interview: How to turn memories into a memoir

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

In a previous post, I described some of the many reasons I loved the memoir Accidental Soldier by Dorit Sasson. In this interview, I ask her to help aspiring memoir writers understand how she did such a great job turning life experiences in a good story.

Jerry: How long did it take to write the memoir?

Dorit: I downloaded a bunch of scenes during 2012-2013, but I didn’t actually run with a first draft until I started Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner’s well-known “Write Your Memoir in Six Months” online course. Best decision ever to jumpstart the entire process plus, I got the accountability and structure. Mind you, I started writing the first real draft with a six month old baby while in mourning for my mother, who recently passed. So if I can do it, anyone can!

By June 2014, many of those “downloads” started to become scenes. June 2014 to March 2015 was the period when I revised and wrote constantly working exclusively with Brooke Warner until reaching the finish line.

Jerry: There is something “impeccable” about the structure – with a beginning fraught with confusion and uncertainty, many intermediate challenges – beautifully executed – and then a nicely designed ending that leaves me satisfied that you (and I) have reached the conclusion of that journey. When you started your memoir writing journey, you had to figure out how to turn memories of a complex, formative period of your life into a good story. So how did you evolve that lovely, dynamic arc?

Dorit: Thank you so much Jerry for these kind words. It’s so thoughtful of you to say and notice. What you are seeing is the result of a lot of mentoring and writing. Brooke and I really worked closely on each chapter to ensure that each scene advanced some element of the heroine’s journey. Eventually I figured out on my own to ask myself four major questions that went like this:

1. What’s the purpose of this scene?
2. How does it advance the heroine’s journey?
3. What’s at-stake for my character?
4. How can I show her transformation and growth?

Jerry: Can you share some insight, or even some specific recollection when you began to shift from seeing yourself through the lens of a collection of memories and began seeing yourself evolve in the pages of a well structured story?

Dorit: Great question. And yes, this is an important yet hard one for memoirists to learn. First, I invested in myself as a writer by signing up for the online course and then hired Brooke as my personal writing coach and editor to help me reach the finish line.

Then, I wrote like crazy. This helped build the muscle I needed to think like a memoirist. I was also working from a place of pressure. My mother had recently died. I was dealing with a lot of emotional stuff. My sentences had a lot of power that I had never written before. When you work from a place of pressure, some amazing stuff can happen and surprise you.

I wanted to prove to myself I could write this memoir having written mostly academic type stuff for teachers.

I invested, practiced and took copious notes on our course lectures. I read what works well and what doesn’t in terms of memoirs. I kept trying to figure out the purpose of each scene. Some chapters went through 20 revisions until I finally got it. There’s no shortcut to figuring out structure because it’s individual for each story arc.

But there was one thing that worked very well to my advantage and that was the timeline of my service in the Israel Defense Forces, (IDF) which framed the structure of my memoir and the service in itself was structured. This inevitably helped with deciding which scenes from my service to include and the overall narrative arc of the memoir.

Jerry: I am blown away at the natural rhythm of interior fretting and exterior choices – it’s as if you have learned an exquisite dance between inner voice and outer actions – did you consciously develop this rhythm? Say more about how.

Dorit: I am pleased that you took notice of this. Once Brooke and I nailed the heroine’s journey, I knew that the only way for me to express my character’s fears and doubts about leaving Mom and getting inducted in the IDF, was to balance the events with my thoughts and feelings. This is what added the psychological layer to my cultural story.

As an American immigrant trying to figure out the “right” way of behaving in Israel and the added layer of becoming a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, the inner voice was the only way for me to express this cultural and emotional dissonance, which also represents the bigger picture of the story arc — leaving the familiar for the sake of the unfamiliar.

As a character, I was expected to be strong, and my introvertedness was mistaken for independence. So to answer your question, I wanted to bring that part of myself as a character to also show what was at stake. To show how my fear and doubts was the result of leaving one country behind for the sake of serving in another and the challenge of leaving one’s family. What I went through was a really lonely experience and the inner thoughts really accentuate the feelings of that lowly immigrant and IDF soldier.

Jerry: Similarly, I’m blown away at the natural weaving of backstory into the narrative – this leads to one of the most interesting backstory weavings I’ve ever seen in a memoir. So again, is it a knack you developed consciously? If so, please say more about how you found this rhythm.

Dorit: The backstory developed mainly with revisions and once I felt confident tackling the structure of scenes.

With each scene, I kept asking myself if there was something in the backstory that my reader needed to know. I turned on my “inner editor” and kept challenging myself not to assume anything that might leave my reader hanging or confuse him/her.

Brooke asked pertinent and stellar questions which forced me out of my “writer head.” This is why I truly believe that every writer needs a real good editor to handle this journey. The role of an editor for a writer’s journey is so crucial and especially that for a memoirist. I don’t quite understand how writers can publish a book without the expertise of an editor.

Jerry: I find the best relationships between author and editor to be an exquisite partnership, almost a dance of mutual desire for creative excellence, with plenty of acceptance and flexibility on both sides. The editor must give feedback assertively enough for the author to understand, and meanwhile the editor cannot superimpose too much of her own concept of the story – the author must stay true to her vision of the story while at the same time creatively adapting to the suggestions of the editor. The partnership also relies on the sympatico shared vision of the two partners. I admire editors who know how to do this dance. But my question relates to you as an author. Was it difficult for you to do your part, staying true to the story while accepting input, and being able to bounce back from the hurt that your writing wasn’t perfect so you could charge forward to the revision, staying true to both your vision and your editors?

Dorit: How I love this question and the way you put it – “editors who know how to do this dance.” It’s so so true.

I will be honest – this wasn’t such an easy process at first but I was determined to go full speed ahead with the writing of the story despite the feedback. The magical “a-ha” moment with my editor slowly developed particularly when she asked various questions about my IDF service, relationships and life in Israel and terms that needed clarification. At first I thought, “Is she going to be like my mother or some kind of nagging editor who is going to question every single thing?”

But I was surprised. She distanced herself enough to let me tell the story. She honored my voice. She gave me space to write and revise. This is crucial.

I also slowly realized that she wasn’t just after clarification. She was trying to also help me see the big picture of each scene and how it contributes to the narrative arc. It was then I realized that I picked her for a reason – she was “ga-ga” over structure and I knew that was where I needed a winning editor in this department.

So here’s the magic which clearly made all the difference. On our weekly coaching calls, she asked me a variety of questions – some clarifying and some bigger picture types that she would then include as part of her editorial feedback. So I actually heard myself talk about the experiences I went through which got me out of my “writer head” but also motivated me to such a fierce degree to translate the experiences into writing.

Writing and speaking are such different mediums but when you can hear yourself talk, you become more invested in your story because you’re also trying to help the editor understand the bigger and smaller pieces and help yourself sort it out as well.

Having this speaking element complement the writing was in fact, the winning combination. This process motivated me and powered up my revision and writing muscles for hours at an end.

I will also say that this process has a lot to do with an editor’s personality. I felt listened to. Because I was motivated by the process, I was also determined to “win my editor over” to prove that I could take the revisions to the next level.

Each time I forked over another revision, I trusted that she knew what she was doing and where she wanted me to go with this story even thought I didn’t know if the revision would be better or the same. When I got that final pat on the back, it was for a revision well-earned and I could continue forging on knowing that I was making progress. In the process, she also earned my trust because I was divulging areas of my life with someone outside my circle.

Jerry: Did you keep contemporaneous notes during the period you wrote about? If so, say more about the notes when you first wrote them? If so, how valuable were they for the book?

Dorit: I kept journals during my IDF service to help me understand the kind of craziness I was going through at the time. In one entry I wrote, “I intend to write a book of my experiences one day to help me figure out all this craziness.” I intuitively knew that what was going on paper was the result of the emotional experiences of serving in a foreign military and adjusting to life as an immigrant.

By writing these entries in English, I was able to give voice to these experiences using my mother tongue. Those notes later find their way into the story arc of the memoir as individual scenes.

Because of the structure of military life, I did not have the luxury of writing every day, but they documented very well the kinds of challenges I was going through at the time. So all I had to do was just pick up a journal and I was immediately transported to that point of time.

Jerry: What other methods did you use for getting back in touch with the moments about which you write.

Dorit: To get in touch with that eighteen year old immigrant self who was one foot out of America and one foot in Israel in IDF uniform, I did a few important things which really helped me get into my character’s shoes:

1. I listened to well-known Israeli songs on Youtube that are especially associated with the army and especially of that time period which helped me get into my character’s head.
2. From time to time, I looked at old army photos, which reminded me of what I was like as a young adult. Boy am I glad I still have these because they were the visual reminders I needed to reconnect to that eighteen year old who had no idea what she was doing in the IDF!
3. I occasionally reread some of the journals I kept and the letters Mom wrote to me. I did not let research however bar me from writing.

Notes
Dorit Sasson’s Home Page

Accidental Soldier on Amazon

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Best Ever “Launching” Memoir Review

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

Note: The word “launch” in the title of this article refers to the act of leaving home. When a ship launches, it simply glides down into the water. When a young adult goes out into the world, it can be much more complicated. Memoirs about launching are one of my favorite subgenres, and Dorit Sasson’s Accidental Soldier is one of my favorite representatives of that subgenre.

When Dorit Sasson was on the threshold of becoming an adult, her top priority was to get away from her neurotic mother. The obvious escape route led to her father’s homeland, Israel. But when she arrived there, she followed a surprising impulse. She volunteered for the Israeli army. This led her on an unusual road to womanhood, forcing her to shed her insecurities and to become more comfortable as a person.

Everything about her memoir, Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service and Sacrifice in the Israel Defense Forces, fascinated me.

It was one of the most complex, well-developed launching-from-child-to-adult stories I’ve read. In an impeccable story arc, it begins with a young woman, struggling to findAccidental Soldier the inner strength to face the world. As she copes with a series of obstacles, she gradually learns and grows.

One of her main challenges is her search for identity. Her journey from the U.S. to Israel created an important inner conflict, forcing her to figure out which nationality would define her. In Israel she was the “New Yorker” creating a subtle tension, never quite belonging to any one group. The group-identity struggles continue as she longs to be accepted by the other soldiers in her unit.

Figuring out which group one belongs to is often a crucial step in the process of growing up and has figured prominently in some of my favorite memoirs.

For other examples of young people trying to find their cultural identity as part of their search for adult self, read New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker, in which a young Mormon woman trying to fit into mainstream New York; Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas, in which she tries to figure out if she is Iranian or American; Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham about a young Vietnamese American on a similar search. And My Father’s Gardens by Karen Levy, another memoir about the tension between Israeli and American identity.

Accidental Soldier is deliciously psychological in other ways, too. It digs deep into the dysfunctional relationship with her mother. And the book provides a wonderful example of how fretful thoughts add to a suspenseful story.

Fortunately, by the end, the author achieved satisfaction. As a result, so did I.

Her denouement provide an excellent example of the way a memoir author can lead readers beyond the pages of the book, and provides a foreshadowing of life to come.

To learn more about how she crafted the book, I reached out and asked her for insights about how she achieved this level of professionalism, psychological insight, and good story telling. Our dialog follows in the next post.

Notes

For another memoir about a young woman entering a war with a camera rather than a gun, see My Journey Through War and Peace: Explorations of a Young Filmmaker, Feminist and Spiritual Seeker by Melissa Burch

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Is your memoir Boomer Lit?

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

We all know the images of the groovy sixties. The exuberant rock and roll, hallucinogenic drugs, and soldiers in jungles waiting for helicopters to evacuate the wounded. But even with all those images to help me fill in the blanks, I looked back on those years in a daze. And I knew many other boomers who felt as confused and overwhelmed by those memories as I was. Now, thanks to the Memoir Revolution, we can find the words to explain what was going on in our hearts.

Pamela Jane’s memoir Incredible Talent for Existing is just such a story. For Pamela Jane, the sixties were a time of turmoil, obsessive soul searching, and and confusion about who she was supposed to be. For those of us with radical beliefs, living felt like a curse. How could we grow up to be adults when the adult world was evil and corrupt? Pamela Jane was one of those who were so disrupted by those beliefs, it took a lifetime to heal.

The iconic image that best illustrates the interior pain of the sixties can be seen in the familiar, shocking clip of a monk setting himself on fire to protest the war. At the time, I couldn’t imagine being willing to suffer so much in the name of Truth. However, after reading An Incredible Talent for Existing, I realized that Pamela Jane, along with many others, had been conducting a slower and less visible form of self-immolation. She was psychically destroying herself. And because her self-destruction was invisible, she had to go through a long, lonely journey to pull herself together.

When the dust settled after the sixties, and the Flower Children had to figure out how to become adults, their clothes weren’t so colorful, and photos of them going to therapy or struggling alone in sorrow no longer seemed interesting, so society moved on, and Pamela Jane had to find herself, no longer surrounded by a mass movement but now struggling to regain her sanity.

Now that decades have passed, she can look back on that period and piece together the story. This is the duel nature of the Memoir Revolution. It gave Pamela Jane the opportunity to figure out her story and share it. And by reading her memoir, the rest of us have the opportunity to go into her heart and mind, behind the flashy images of Woodstock and hippies and listen to her story. For some of us this story might be a way to make sense of an extreme notion of the sixties. For others, like me, it is a way to see myself reflected in the story of another person. I know about her pain because I traveled the same path.

During that period, I too had been engaged in the same psychic self-destruction, and went through decades trying to reconstruct myself. Like Pamela Jane I searched for therapists, groups, ideas, or anything else I could grab onto. And like her, I took advantage of the Memoir Revolution to write about it in my memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World. But until I read Incredible Talent for Existing, I had never read a story about anyone else who had experienced the sixties in that way.

After reading Pamela Jane’s Incredible Talent for Existing, I was struck by the similarities of our stories. Like me, she attempted to destroy everything she had been taught. Like me, she was trying to heal society by destroying it. After a few years of energetically, willfully fighting against the entire basis for sanity, she, like me, succeeded, not in destroying the ills of society, but destroying herself.

When we extreme rebels emerged from our mass psychosis, we looked around in a daze. Instead of pioneers of utopia, we had become stragglers, poorly prepared for the ordinary world. After a long, often painful climb, we made it to adulthood.

But how could we ever explain the logic of voluntary self-immolation? There was no language for it. Most of us chose to hide this embarrassing experiment. We didn’t even understand it ourselves. As a result, one of the most important periods in our lives remained hidden behind superficial clichés that revealed nothing about our inner state.

Finally, the Memoir Revolution has given us a voice. Thanks to the popularity of memoirs many of us are attempting to turn our experiences into good stories. By writing these stories we can understand our own past, and by sharing them we pass along lessons and insights to others.

The Memoir Revolution is our answer to the counterculture of the sixties. In the sixties we tore apart everything we believed. In the Memoir Revolution we are knitting it back together.

Whatever your experience was in the sixties, whether a soldier, a hippie, a housewife, a mother, a resident of a commune, cult, or clan, you had a personal, unique experience that is trapped in your mind until you give it voice. And memoirs give you that voice.

Many more stories are already started  in computers and file cabinets, anecdotes and insights waiting to be knitted together into a coherent whole. I know how hard it is to travel that long journey from snips to a completed memoir. During that time, I had to peel away layers of forgetting, and at the same time, learn the art of story writing. I took around 12 years from the time I started. Pamela Jane, already an accomplished author, took 22 years to complete hers.

When you read Pamela Jane’s memoir or mine you will learn two stories that go behind the surface to reveal some of the painful aspects of trying to become an adult during that period. And for a broader sample covering a wider variety, read Times They were a Changing, an anthology edited by Linda Joy Myers and Amber Lea Starfire. To witness the deconstruction of a combat soldiers, from eager young man to broken soldier is Jim McGarrah’s A Temporary Sort of Peace. His sequel Off Track tells about starting to knit himself back together as a worker at the racetrack. Bill Ayers memoir Fugitive Days takes us inside an extreme version of the war protest movement. If you read these books and the many out there that I don’t yet know about you can appreciate the powerful nature of turning confusing memories into a compelling story.

By writing a memoir, you can perform an amazing service for yourself, your peers, and anyone else trying to understand the human condition. By diving under the surface of your situation and writing your inner story, you can finally bring the reality of those or any other times out from behind the clichés and into our shared understanding.

Notes

This blog is part of the WOW Blog Tour. For more essays on An Incredible Talent for Existing by Pamela Jane see this website

See my essay about Jim McGarrah’s Vietnam combat memoir

See my review of Times They Were a Changing, a collection of short stories about the sixties.

Read my memoir, Thinking My Way to the End of the World. my own story of being thrown off course by the sixties, and then needing to search for a path out of the pit into which I had fallen.

I can only think of one other time in history when a massive number of people attempted to dismantle their own belief systems. By some sort of cosmic coincidence, that mass psychosis was happening in China at the same time as the counterculture was happening in the U.S. During the so-called Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government joined up with the mob mentality to consciously dismantle the psyches of a billion people. See my review of a book of short stories about the Cultural Revolution.

In the Part 2 of this essay on Pamela Jane’s memoir, I will discuss the way memoirs can be about a familiar subject and yet entirely unique.

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

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Why memoirs teach more than literature Pt 3

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This is the third part of a four part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I explain how writing as well as reading stories shows kids how to combine literature and life.

The memoir Freedom Writers Diary was about an innovative high school teacher, Erin Gruwell, who brought the messages of the great authors out of the clouds and into her students’ lives. At first she did it by showing life lessons contained in the classics. For example, she pointed out the gang wars that fueled the tragic tension in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

To demonstrate an even more intimate connection between literature and life, Gruwell invited a young author Zlata Filopovic to visit the classroom. When Zlata Filipovic was eleven years old, she wrote a diary about being pinned down by mortar fire in her hometown, Sarajevo. After publishing Zlata’s Diary, she became known as the “new Anne Frank.”

Another visitor, Miep Gies, was directly involved with Anne Frank’s diary. Gies, whose family protected Anne Frank, brought the Holocaust out of the history books and into Erin Gruwell’s classroom. She proved to the high school class that writing enables real people to share their lives.

Gruwell completed the circle that joins literature to life by inviting her students to write about their own experiences. Their diaries created connections across gang boundaries, and beyond neighborhoods all the way out to the rest of the world.

Gruwell’s groundbreaking work wasn’t finished yet. By publishing the story, she invited us to become students in her classroom. From her memoir, we learn that stories are not just about abstract characters. Her memoir bursts our story-reading minds out of the pages and into the world.

Gruwell’s students learned from each other’s diaries that the people sitting next to them in class had lives just like theirs. Our shared memoirs provide the same lesson on a much wider scale, helping us understand each other around the globe.

The need for life lessons doesn’t stop the day we leave our formal education. As we grow, we need to develop more fulfilling social patterns or adapt to new eras in our lives. And memoirs can help.

For example, everyone who tries to write a memoir is attempting to incorporate story writing into their adult lives, Elna Baker offers valuable lessons, first within the pages of her memoir New York Mormon, and then beyond it. Her attempts to become an actress, then a story performer, and finally a memoir writer provide a model of incorporating Story into real life. She also offers other lessons that could be valuable to adults. Her attempt to understand her relationship to God within or without the constraints of religion offers a brilliant look into one person’s attempt to follow this universal search. And her insights into the social power of trying to remain slim provides a valuable window into the challenge one faces when staring into the barrel of an ice cream cone.

Similarly, Erin Gruwell’s story, Freedom Writer’s Diary, is not just for kids, but for any English teacher or parent who wants to learn how to use literature to help kids grow. By watching Gruwell’s students connect the dots that separate them from each other, the entire world learned a valuable lesson about how life writing connects us all.

Reading and writing memoirs can help anyone at any age, to learn and grow beyond the assumptions we’ve always made about ourselves, so we can see ourselves as characters in a rich drama of interesting, vibrant, self-aware people.

In the second part of this essay, I describe how the Memoir Revolution is providing the tools that could help literature classes link the essential tool of Story to the essential task of growing up.

In the fourth part, I’ll dive into brain science. It turns out that brain imaging backs up everything I’ve been saying about memoirs. Isn’t science amazing?

Notes

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

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Why Memoirs are Better Than Literature Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

Great literature provides insights into true genius through the ages, but in this second of a three part essay, I claim that a far better way to raise young people is to assign  memoirs. Click here to read part 1.

Turning toward memoir as a more accessible approach to literature

In my late teens, I opened my heart and mind to the lessons contained in great literature. Over the next few years, brilliant authors like Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Samuel Beckett convinced me that adults are stupid and life sucks. These observations fueled my horror, and I pulled farther and farther away from adult life, convinced that it was all wrong, and young people were going to need to reinvent civilization. Even though great literature was unravelling my sanity, I continued drinking it in, like an addict, unaware that the substance giving me pleasure was also destroying me.

Tragically, the destructive influence of great literature didn’t stop my literature professors from supplying more. Looking back, I don’t blame them for wanting to me read these works of great literary merit. However, looking forward, I think young readers today can tap into a far more constructive source of wisdom.

In the twenty-first century, the Memoir Revolution allows adults to pass wisdom to the next generation, without the distortions and exaggerations of invented worlds and fictitious circumstances. Even though memoirs are crafted to maximize dramatic intensity, their greatness does not result from metaphor and hyperbole, to be picked apart in search of the finest phrase. The genius of this genre arises from its ability to immerse the reader in a slice of the author’s actual experience. If any picking apart is warranted, it would be to learn more about how the story can help readers make better sense of life.

To Grow Up, We Must Create Our Own Stories

To grow from child to adult, every one of us must construct stories of ourselves. Our initial co-writers in this endeavor are our parents, siblings, and caregivers. As we grow, we take into account glances from strangers, or watching our parents interact with outsiders. When we go to school, our interactions with teachers and students influence our self-understanding. And throughout the years, see ourselves reflected in the books, movies and television shows of our culture.

From this accumulated information, we construct a self-image that looks a lot like a story. Story is an ancient form of thought in which a protagonist seeks the solution to some problem. Reaching inexorably toward that goal, the hero must press, past obstacles toward an answer. By shaping our self-images in this form, we develop our own sense of confidence and purpose, providing ourselves with a roadmap for the future.

Literature professors could provide an enormous service by showing us how to apply well-crafted stories as models that would enable us to improve the shape of our own. But their charter until now has been focused on the power of story for its own sake. The Memoir Revolution offers them an opportunity to combine their love for literature with their charter to pass along the narrative art of civilization.

The memoirs on my shelves contain hundreds of brilliant life lessons, gained by authors through the course of their lives. By reading these memoirs, I’ve learned about life through each author’s eyes. Each memoir demonstrates the alchemy of converting the senselessness of real life into the elegant, universally admired elixir of Story. Now, all that needs to happen is for literature professors to discover the power of the memoir. The teachers can fulfill their original charter, by helping students learn the elegant structure of a well-told story. At the same time, the students can immerse themselves in the author’s life, learning features and insights about a wide variety of human experiences.

A Memoir Conveys Clear, Important Truths about Launching

A great example of a memoir that helps define a young person’s adjustment to adult life is New York Mormon Regional Halloween Dance. In it, author Elna Baker pursues the fundamental mission of trying to grow into adulthood. Compare the lessons Elna Baker learned about growing up with the books that influenced me as a young man.

Henry Miller’s characters remain trapped in the never-fulfilled state of sexuality. Elna Baker tries to understand how modern people use sexuality in their quest for mutual commitment.

In The Great Gatsby, the hero tries to learn about life from a man whose money flows from an exaggerated ocean of wealth. Elna Baker’s memoir is about the realistic challenge of developing competencies in order to earn a living.

In Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham’s character travels to remote regions to understand his relationship with spirituality. Elna Baker leaves home, not to escape her responsibilities but to accept them, hoping to find her truths in the same place she earns her living

Growing up requires the power of choosing

In New York Mormon, Elna Baker experiments, learns from the results, and takes the next step, informed by the last. This healthy approach to life sounds so obvious it shouldn’t even require mentioning, and yet when I was a young man, I immersed myself in an endless series of novels in which the “heroes” were trapped by indecision, trying to make sense of an overwhelming world. By identifying with them, I was undermining my will to grow up. As a result, I made what at the time seemed like a rational choice. I “dropped out,” attempting to solve the problem of adulthood by refusing to become one.

If, as a young man, I had been reading memoirs like Elna Baker’s I would have been inspired by her willingness to make choices. She does not fight against adulthood. Instead, she strives to make the most of it. Her proactive approach to acquiring the competencies of adulthood offer more guidance in one book than my years of exploring and studying the literary canon ever did.

Elna Baker represents a generation of memoir heroes who act with purpose, learn to move toward the next step, and take notes so they can pay their stories forward to those of us who need to travel that journey ourselves.

In the third part of this essay, I will tie together educational, scientific, and literary trends that suggest our collective will is already moving in the direction of using Story to help us learn to be social.

Notes

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

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Why Memoirs Should be Taught as Literature Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This is the first part of a three part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I explain how my love for literature helped unravel me and I introduce the way memoirs by literature professors suggest a new approach.

 

When I was thirteen years old, I discovered that all the interesting stuff happened inside books. I grabbed every spare moment to lose myself in spaceships heading for distant galaxies. By the age of sixteen, in the early 1960s, I graduated from sci-fi to the great writers, such as Dickens, Dumas, and Twain. Their works, either assigned in school, or borrowed from my local library, took me on a wild ride through great adventures in fascinating times and places.

These authors were clearly geniuses at self-expression. I felt smarter when I read these books, but sadly I was only smart about the author’s invented world. I had learned almost nothing about how to become an adult. In fact, many of my favorite books provided in-depth examples of how NOT to become an adult.

For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the narrator seeks truth by attaching himself to a narcissistic caricature of a man. In the Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, a young man attempts to find his truths, not within his own world, but by leaving everything he knows. In Henry Miller’s novels, the author searches for himself through sexual liberation which leads him into emotional chaos.

My English teachers showed me how to appreciate elegant structure, fine turns of phrase, and symbolism. However, when I lost myself in each book, I ignored their interest in history and technique. Instead, I left my own boring mind behind and entered the crafted intellectual framework created by the author. It turned out this was not a good idea.

I spent hours in disturbing worlds such as those created by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. From them, I learned that the future was going to be grim and hopeless. So when the angry anti-war riots began in the mid-60s, I wasn’t only fighting against the war. I was fighting for my soul, hoping to escape the helplessness my anti-heroes had inspired.

Protest marches and riots did nothing to restore my hope, so I returned to the method of escape that I knew so well, clinging ferociously to literary geniuses who took me into ever darker perspectives. Samuel Beckett completely deconstructed reality in his plays and novels. Joseph Heller in Catch 22 introduced a mocking cynicism to World War II. Ferdinand Celine smashed the notion of the novel, turning the very form into a distorted shape that made me gasp with pleasurable pain. I was drowning, and instead of throwing me lifelines, my literary heroes were teaching me how to drown better.

For example, I identified with the boy in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis who grew up and turned into a beetle. Growing up cost him his innocence and his parents’ love. Kafka’s book, along with so much of the literature of the day, hammered home the point that by entering adulthood we would lose our souls.

Arthur Miller captured the essence of spiritually dead adults in Death of a Salesman. The play’s anti-hero Willy Loman tried to cope with his emptiness by deceiving himself. Humbert Humbert, the anti-hero of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, was an even creepier master of self-deception. Instead of blaming himself for sexually abusing a little girl, he blamed her, thus demonstrating how far adults will twist their own values in order to serve their own needs.

After years of absorbing these stories, I was terrified of adulthood, convinced that growing up would make me ugly and shallow. My parents believed that sending me to college would prepare me for life. By the end of those four years, I felt far less prepared to be an adult than when I started.

Why Humans Need To Direct Literature Back to its Central Goal
To maintain civilization, each generation must pass along sophisticated social lessons. In preliterate societies, these lessons were communicated in oral stories, with simple, powerful messages. But by the twentieth century, society seems to have forgotten this essential purpose of stories. Instead, stories were being used in one of two ways.

Stories were used as pure entertainment for the masses, with no lesson at all. Those were the genre fiction novels and movies, the thrillers and mysteries, comedies and romances. And for the educated elite, stories became intellectual playthings to be admired for artistic sophistication, but again with no particular emphasis on helping kids understand life.

As an intellectual young man, I desperately sought lessons about life. Unfortunately, I was born at a time when the message embedded in almost every book taught that there’s really no point to grow up at all. It’s true that great literature contained an internal elegance and brilliance, but the underlying message was awful.

Memoirs Demonstrate How Literature Ought to Work
Forty years later, I learned valuable lessons peeking out from behind the twists and turns of literary stories. My belated insight came from reading Professor Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita In Tehran. As an English literature professor in Iran, she tries to convince her students that Western literature is not evil. She uses the villain in Nabokov’s Lolita as an example. According to Nafisi, Humbert Humbert’s manipulation of a little girl reveals the corrupt morality of turning women into things.

Through Nafisi’s eyes, Nabokov’s novel becomes an important window into the dark secrets of the human psyche. It’s quite simple, really. He is embedding the message in irony, saying one thing and meaning another. But to explain this lesson to her students, as well as to us, her readers, she uses an incredibly tricky device. She simply walks outside her classroom into the streets of Iran, where armed thugs treat women like things.

By artfully describing the events and their impact on her, she turns her life from a series of events into literature. While she teaches her students about Nabakov’s book, she uses her own life-as-literature to teach us about our place in the world.

For example, she recounts an episode that occurs one morning when she attempts to enter campus. A guard angrily blocks her. “Take that rouge off this instant. Don’t you know that it is a criminal act?” The guard rubs Nafisi’s face raw trying to get off the red, which is in fact her own natural coloring. The incident leaves Nafisi feeling violated and naked.

Thanks to Nafisi’s brilliant writing and a lifetime of symbolic thinking, she spins the two parallel dimensions, weaving together her real world experience with her intellectual insights into the literature.

My English teachers did not have the advantage of showing us reality. Instead, they were limited to the lessons inside the books, making the incorrect assumption that I didn’t need to learn lessons about life. Nafisi’s ability as a memoir writer adds a crucial dimension to her teaching toolkit allowing her to help students grow up.

When I first read Lolita so many years ago, I felt disgusted by Nabokov’s clever trick of taking me inside the mind of a creepy man who has no ability or interest in self-reflection. In my youthful view, the novel provided more proof that adults stink. Now, with Azar Nafisi’s help, I see a sophisticated insight into the darkness of manipulative men who use women as things. It would have been a good lesson, but because it was couched in irony, in the distorted viewpoint of a first-person anti-hero, the lesson was out of my reach.

Because memoirs are written “straight” (not “slant”) and from a first person point of view, it is easy and natural to enter Azar Nafisi’s world and feel her pain. By letting me experience what it is like to be on the receiving end of abuse, she makes me want to cry or vomit about the way millions of women are treated, just a few thousand miles away. Thankfully, her story also provides hope by revealing the compassion of people such as Nafisi herself, who risk their own safety to help kids build up their self-esteem.

In the second part of this essay, I describe how the Memoir Revolution is providing the tools that could help literature classes link the essential tool of Story to the essential task of growing up.

Epilog to Part 1
It has been forty-five years since I have been a student of an English literature professor, so I consider the possibility that in recent times, literature professors have expanded their view of literature to include not just the author’s world but the reader’s as well. To learn more, I turned to the friendship I formed with Robert Waxler, an English professor at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who wrote two excellent memoirs, and happens to have the same last name as me.

His two memoirs share a lifetime of love for literature, as well as for his two sons, so I assumed he would be able to relate to my passion for life lessons. However, in a book he recently wrote about English literature, the Risk of Reading, he describes in detail the method of line by line explication, attempting to take us into the lines of great literature with the reverence usually associated with scripture. In my opinion, this approach glorifies complexity and undermines the value of literature as a teaching tool for social development. Click here to read the review I wrote about his Risk of Reading. Click here for an essay about his memoir Courage to Walk, and here for an interview I conducted with Robert Waxler about the relationship between literature and life.

However, in two other memoirs by literature professors, I discover that Azar Nafisi is not alone in her application of literature as a tool for life.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, by literature professor Karen Swallow Prior reveals how literature helped her steer through the challenges of growing up, and like Nafisi, she teaches her college students how to see their own lives reflected in literature. Click here for my essay about Booked by Karen Swallow Prior.

In Freedom Writer’s Diary, Erin Gruwell shows her high school students how literature could help them find their own higher truths and then goes further to show how writing about their own lives can deepen their search for truth. Click here for my essay about Freedom Writer’s Diary

Notes

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

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

A Cat Memoir Reveals Life’s High Stakes

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

Many aspiring memoir writers wonder if their lives are sufficiently interesting to justify a whole book. But we’ve all experienced the building blocks of good stories if we’ve ever felt shame, dashed hopes, fears or personal conflict. A well-crafted story weaves these less pleasant elements of the human experience together with ordinary events to turn the mundane into the sublime.

For an example of the way emotional undercurrents transform everyday life into a good story, read Anne Kaier’s memoir Home with Henry in which the author rescues an injured cat and brings him home. After she saves his life, she turns her attention toward his social health. She wants him to become a congenial member of the family. Despite this lightweight exterior, Anne Kaier’s story is driven by emotions every bit as powerful as any in the human panoply.

Home with Henry is a meditation on human existence, and how the love that seeps into our hearts, even from a humble source, has the power to turn despair into joy. For a memoir junky like me, the book is also a meditation on life stories, showing that emotions of love and loneliness shine just as brightly off simple circumstances as they do from more serious ones, the way a diamond brilliantly reflects sunlight when held at just the right angle.

By fixing her gaze on a detail, she takes us all the way into it
Fiction accentuates emotion by focusing on isolated, exaggerated events. Consider for example Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea in which a fisherman goes out for the day’s catch. He tries his best and comes home with a pile of bones. Old Man and the Sea generates intensity with grit, determination, and the cruelty of nature but beneath the macho exterior, there is an old man who seeks his dignity.

Home with Henry, like Old Man and the Sea, isolates a feature of life, and goes deep. Every day, the author struggles to coax the cat out of his self-protective stance and into a relationship. Externally Anne Kaier’s urban townhouse seems far more placid than a shaky fishing boat. Her emotional struggle with the cat seems far less dangerous than fighting off sharks. And yet within her ordinary circumstances, she struggles to find her dignity with no less urgency than Hemingway’s fisherman.

Since Anne Kaier also writes poetry, I expected her memoir to be informed by a poet’s mind. But I didn’t know what a memoir written by a poet would sound like. After reading it, I see how her deliberate, almost poetic fixation, word by word, phrase by phrase, constructs a narrative that shapes the ordinary feelings of loneliness into the structure of a good story.

William Shakespeare’s sonnets offer an example of how a poet turns an ordinary emotion into a sublime tribute. How can so much profound power be contained within the events that we take for granted every day? Another poet, William Blake, explains it this way. You can see the world in a grain of sand, an outrageous claim that is demonstrated over and over, not just in poetry but in stories as well. Ernest Hemingway reveals his hero’s soul in one day of fishing, and Anne Kaier explores her soul through her relationship to a cat.

What makes her childlike voice so haunting?
Every writer searches for a voice that will linger in the reader’s mind, inviting imagination back to the story the way a good song plays out in memory long after the physical recording stops. Anne Kaier’s voice provokes thought, and it lingers. What is it about this voice?

Her short simple sentences slow my mind and pull me all the way into her interior perspective. Does she speak this way to her cat and nephew, hoping the simplicity will suit them? Is this her normal interior voice, a slow, peaceful, hypnotic voice developed over the years as a survival tool for loneliness? Is it a poetic voice? Whatever the reason, the simplicity of language is important to the story, and worth absorbing as I attempt to make sense of why this little book “works.”

Loneliness and the power of low stakes writing
The backstory of Home with Henry is that Anne Kaier bought that townhouse alone because the years kept passing and a mate had not yet appeared. The ticking of this “clock of life” adds the dimension of mortality. This danger may not be as fast and frightening as Hemingway’s sharks, but it is no less ominous. The threat of death is the great awakener, in stories as well as in life, causing us to evaluate our actions, and choose wisely.

Her life in that townhouse feels so normal, hardly worthy of a story, but in the presence of that ticking clock, loneliness feels like death, or at least like death row, waiting to be released one way or the other. Home with Henry doesn’t dwell on loneliness. On the contrary, it highlights the potential release that might be forthcoming from a cat’s company. But behind the story, there is playfulness, like laughing at a cat who stares at a dancing beam of light, with coiled muscles, pouncing with every intention of killing it, if it could only catch the damned thing.

Happy endings?
When I was in college, I fell into deep despair, fueled in part by my addiction to literature with cynical endings. Despite the misery each one provoked, I felt compelled to keep reading stories that celebrated meaninglessness. When I finally kicked the habit, I realized I could serve my own psychological needs far more effectively by looking at books as fountains of hope. I eagerly look toward the end of each one in order to replenish my supply.

Throughout Home with Henry, the author tries to accept that the cat might be too ornery and independent for this type of relationship. Struggling to move past that stuck point represents the dramatic tension of the outer story. From one point of view, the outcome is utterly predictable. Even so, my story reading mind suspended me deliciously above the dark chasm of failure. At the end, (spoiler alert) instead of “girl gets guy” as would happen at the end of a romance novel, this memoir ends with “girl gets cat.” Even though it was predictable, my entire body relaxed once I was certain they were going to live happily ever after.

The apparent simplicity of Home with Henry is made infinitely more poignant when you take into account how much gravitas Anne Kaier has known in her life. In a memoir workshop I attended a couple of years ago at the Philadelphia Writers Conference, she explained the rare congenital skin disease that almost killed her in infancy, and continued to weigh heavily on her ever since.

In a journal article, she writes about her condition with a combination of brutal honesty, journalistic precision, and literary excellence. By reading this article, one understands the range of her voice, a range that suggests that even when an author finds one’s voice, other voices are also available.

Anne Kaier’s life and work offers hope to any writer who searches for the words to express one’s life, whether in essays, a short stories, a book length memoir, or in poetry. Through the magic of creative effort, we can learn to find the words that weave the magic carpet that lifts readers away from everyday life into the writer’s transformative world.

Notes

Read Anne Kaier’s runner up for Best American Essay of 2013.

Anne Kaier’s home page 

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

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Launching into Adulthood – Search for Beliefs

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This is the fourth in my series about launching into adulthood, inspired by Elna Baker’s memoir New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance. It completes the triad of challenges both she and I had to undergo in order to transform from child to adult. Click here for my post on sex and here for my post on finding a job.

Every week, my parents took me to synagogue where men in robes chanted on the dais, preparing to slide open the doors of the ornate tabernacle. In slow motion, they reverently cradled the holy Torah in their arms, removed its lavishly embroidered cover and silver protecting plate and set it on a table. Then they unrolled the scrolled parchment, and read from it in voices so filled with emotion I thought they might cry.

By the time I reached high school, I began to feel silly about going to a building and chanting. School books became my sacred texts. When I read a physics problem or a literary novel, I felt smart and empowered. By the time I left for college, I knew that God had no place in my life.

However, I soon discovered that my belief in my all-powerful intellect left important gaps. For one thing, when studying science I found myself in the company of loners, more interested in equations than in each other. My focus on knowledge made me feel lonely. And I was disheartened by problems that brilliant minds didn’t seem to be able to solve such as injustice and war.

To fill the holes left by my intellectual belief system, I joined anti-war protests. Linking arms with people who wanted peace made me feel less alone, and more capable of stopping the insanity. Together we could fix the world.

My euphoria ended abruptly when the police decided to “keep the peace” by bashing us with clubs and burning our lungs with tear gas. I slunk away, bewildered by my lack of power. The violent confrontation destroyed my belief in an orderly method of correcting social ills.

I had reached an impasse. Religion seemed irrelevant, and science and collective action seemed to have little effect on the evils of the world. My eager, idealistic mind imploded. Stumbling forward into nothingness, I felt that with nothing to believe in, there was no particular reason to be alive.

As if in answer to my desperation, someone introduced me to a mystical teaching that included a higher power, but skipped the robes and scrolls. Instead, the system led me to the sacredness within my own soul. This belief system lifted me out of despair, and invited me to see the universe through more hopeful, loving eyes.

When I finally settled into the rhythm of adult life, I could barely remember the insane turmoil of those younger years. In fact, I didn’t want to remember. I pushed away that troubling ten-year period as if it happened to someone else.

Then, forty years after my tumultuous launching into adulthood, I began writing a memoir about my complex, journey from child to adult. I quickly encountered a difficulty. Whenever I tried to write about my relationship toa Higher Power, I felt that I might be stepping on someone’s toes. I imagined whole counsels of the defenders of various faiths who might take offense. At first, I thought I was shy about describing religion because being Jewish in the wrong place had often led to death. But when I started to teach memoir writing classes, I realized the problem extended beyond any one group or system. Many aspiring writers were reluctant to talk about their beliefs. They all had various excuses but it boiled down to a general fear that they weren’t qualified to talk about their own beliefs.

This appeared to me to be the final frontier of the Memoir Revolution. We had collectively accepted the most intense revelations about mental illness, sexual variations, and a vast variety of life styles, but many of us didn’t know how to turn our own search for truth into a good story.

So when reading memoirs, I kept looking for those writers who had crossed these barriers and chose to share their introspective journeys without worrying about who they might offend. One of the most courageous, and clearest of these was Elna Baker.

In Elna Baker’s memoir, New York Regional Mormon Singles Dance, the protagonist grows up in an intense Mormon household. After she moves to New York City, she continues to identify with Mormon ideas and culture. However, most of the boys she meets run the other way when they learn her religion forbids sex outside marriage.

Should she toss away her belief system in exchange for a sexual relationship? The stakes are enormous. Losing her virginity means eternal damnation of her soul. And for her, the soul is not some abstract concept. She takes her soul very seriously.

When her atheist boyfriend says he doesn’t believe in the existence of the soul, it’s her turn to be horrified. She confronts him with one of the sweetest, most convincing defenses of the soul I’ve ever seen., and she does it without any reference to theology or ancient texts. Through her eyes, it’s easy to see that her boyfriend’s soulless approach increases the risk of interior deadness. By contrast her belief nurtures a vibrant interior life.

But her conviction about the existence of the soul doesn’t solve her immediate dilemma about whether or not to have sex. On the contrary, she wonders if lowering the barriers and establishing an intimate connection with another individual might be the best thing she can do for her soul,.

To steer through this unsolvable problem, she pleads for guidance. “God, if you’re there, I need help. Speak to me.” I connected instantly with her appeal to a higher authority. In fact, I felt so interested in her inner appeal, I had to ask myself why a young Mormon woman’s plea to God would resonate so strongly with an old Jewish man.

Then, it hit me. Elna Baker’s story helps me understand the dark, confusing time when I was struggling to become an adult. I too felt lonely and my loneliness led me deeper and deeper into confusion. At the time, I assumed my loneliness was caused by my inability to connect with people. Now New York Mormon helps me see that by cutting myself off from an inner dialog, I had isolated myself even more.

Elna Baker’s attempt to dialog with God helped me find language to understand the quandary of modern culture. Those of us who try to live in a post-religious world have no one with whom to discuss our dilemmas in the privacy of our own minds.

Perhaps this helps explain why the Twelve Step programs are so helpful for many participants. By insisting on belief in a higher power, the Twelve Steps offer members an inner sponsor. Such an interior conversation with a higher power provides a valuable tool to stay on the high road, transcending self-involved, addictive thoughts.

New York Mormon even helps me understand why my parents took me to synagogue. When the rabbi chanted on the dais about a relationship with God, every one of us in the congregation was attempting to reach up and achieve the same thing. We were all affirming our belief that having a connection with a higher power is a valuable tool for a healthy life.

So why was I, as a young man, so quick to reject this connection? New York Mormon helps me understand that, too. When Elna Baker grew up, she was handed a belief system as a complete package. The package said “You are a Mormon and you believe all the things a Mormon believes.” Unfortunately, her religion, like mine, didn’t include instructions for how to survive the questioning stage in life when we are trying to use our intelligence to put all the pieces together.

As a result, those parts that seem to make no sense instigate the need to challenge the entire system. And when we reject the whole system, as many of us do, we find ourselves in a crisis of identity, creating an unforeseen obstacle on our journey to grow up.

Power of the Memoir Revolution

Around a hundred years ago, William James, chairman of Harvard’s psychology department, delivered a series of lectures that resulted in his influential book Varieties of Religious Experience. James knew that his elite academic audience rejected religion on the grounds that its claims couldn’t be proven in chemistry or physics labs. However, he urged them to shift their attention from the science of matter to the science of mind. Within the realm of the mind, the influence of religion is easy to observe. He cited numerous examples of experiences such as ecstasy, conversion, faith, and even healing.

James’ attempt to include spirit as a legitimate area of psychological study was lost in the scientific revolutions of the twentieth century, during which Freud claimed that all religion is a hoax, and radical behaviorists claimed there is no such thing as personal experience. The study of religious experience went out of fashion for a hundred years.

Over the course of the intervening century, we have become far more sophisticated about inner experiences. Through cognitive psychology, we have developed an appreciation for the power of thought. Through MRI and other brain imaging techniques, we have developed a deeper understanding of the mysteries of personal experience. Through mindfulness meditation, we have proven that mental patterns influence blood pressure and other physical symptoms of stress. But until recently, we have lacked the tools with which to share the incredibly personal struggle each of us goes through to find a belief system that will sustain us.

Now, in the twenty-first century, through memoirs such as the one written by Elna Baker, we are developing a language that enables us to continue the work begun by William James.

Her perspectives, along with the tens of thousands of memoirs already written or now under development, are enhancing our shared vocabulary about personal experience. Rather than splitting us into separate camps, each of which tries to prove its God is better, the Memoir Revolution gives us the opportunity for the first time in history to share a dialog about our individual interior worlds.

Writing Prompt
Write a few scenes and a synopsis that reflects your emerging belief system as you made the transition into adult life. (For example, church membership, seeking, rejecting or embracing parent’s religion, ah-ha moment about God, attending a yoga class, etc)

Notes

For more discussion and examples about using memoirs to explore personal spirituality see my book Memoir Revolution, about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

Click here for Elna Baker’s home page.

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

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

More memoirs about spiritual launching

When Mary Johnson was trying to grow up and find rules to live by, she decided to devote her life to a transcendent conversation. In her memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst she tells of joining Mother Theresa’s order, renouncing possessions and devoting her life to serving God. Instead of rejecting her parents in order to become more worldly, she rejected their normalcy and went the other way.

Return to Need for Spiritual Belief Systems

Spirituality and religious searching are not completed during the launching period. Many adults return years later to establish a guidance system that helps them cope with grief or to find the spirituality that will allow them to face trauma and mortality.

Lorraine Ash explores spirituality and personal relationship to God first in her memoir Life Touches Life, after the loss of her baby in the eighth month of pregnancy. After writing that memoir, she didn’t stop searching. Her search for a personal relationship to God is continued in Self and Soul. Click here for my article about these two books.

Two more memoirs of a search for beliefs later in adulthood:
Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup. A chaplain uses religion to help others and at the same time find her way after her husband’s death. Click here for my article.

Devotion by Dani Shapiro. A woman in middle age goes on a quest to find truth amid a variety of belief systems. Click here for my article.

Father Joe: the Man who Saved my Soul by Tony Hendra, who leaned on his mentor for insight, hoping this kind monk would help him steer through his own barren internal life.

The Path: One Man’s Quest by Donald Walters who left home to join a spiritual commune led by Paramansa Yogananda. Click here for my article

American Shaolin by Matthew Polly, who joined a Chinese monastery to learn martial arts, Click here for my article.

The Islamist by Ed Husain, who rejected the gentle religion of his parents. When he saw someone knifed, Husain realized that the power-hungry demands of his new crowd distorted his higher values. He returned to the roots of his religion to find the compassion and divinity his parents had been attempting to teach. Click here for my article.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior who tried to stray from religion but found that to find her way, she needed deeper insight into a loving universe. Click here for my article.

Expecting Adam by Martha Beck. Attempting to push away from the intellectual rigor of her graduate program in Harvard, she accepts the mystery of mothering a Down Syndrome child. Click here for my article.

Stress Fracture by Tara Meissner. A psychotic episode, involving visionary experiences of instructions to murder and other destructive imagery, decided that to preserve her sanity she needed to distance herself from the otherworldly teachings of her religion. Click here for my article.

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, the scandalous rejection of my Hasidic Roots  Accepting or Rejecting the entire system

Launching into Adulthood – Find a Job

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This is a continuation of the series of articles about launching into adulthood inspired by Elna Baker’s memoir New York Mormon Regional Halloween Dance. Click here for the post about the journey from sex to love, and here for my article about the search for beliefs.

When I was 22, about the right age to become an adult, I decided that people who go to work every day were soulless drones. My decision to avoid adult responsibilities added many years to my transition into adulthood. Years later, I looked back on the mess I’d made of my launching years and assumed most of the confusion stemmed from the mass psychosis of the 60s, when millions of us had worked ourselves up into an anti-adult frenzy.

As I continued to grow through my protracted process of becoming an adult, I discovered that many people struggle to find the right job, even ones too young to know the difference between a hippie and a beatnik. (Answer: same thing, different decade)

In my fifties, when I finally returned to school for a graduate degree in counseling psychology, I took a course in career counseling and learned that helping people find a satisfying job is a whole career in itself. My career counseling course taught me the facts of other people’s struggles to find work, but I didn’t understand their stories until I began reading memoirs. Memoirs ushered me through the many tasks of growing up, including the sometimes-fascinating journey to earn money.

Some memoir authors have to find jobs in difficult circumstances. For example, Harry Bernstein’s second memoir, The Dream, takes place during the Great Depression. When he is walking around the city looking for work, he passes a mob of unruly men, shoving each other, frantically hoping to be selected for a job.

Some authors face obstacles within themselves. For example, in John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye, the author shows how his Asperger’s syndrome contributes to solving technical problems. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Asperger’s contributes to anti-social behavior toward his bosses that makes it difficult to hold down a job.

Some of the most interesting stories about finding work are by individuals who long, as I did, for a creative career. For example, Joan Rivers’ memoir Enter Talking describes the author’s desire to earn a living by making audiences laugh. Steve Martin is another world-famous comedian whose memoir, Born Standing Up, tells about his climb from a boy who wanted to do magic tricks to a household name.

At first these performers had to scrounge for work wherever they could get it. Joan Rivers regularly performed at strip clubs. Steve Martin, early in his career, was hired to perform at a restaurant. Even though the place was empty, the owner told him to perform anyway, because it would attract customers. Steve Martin’s performance to an empty room is not much different from the daily task of writing any memoir. At first, we all “perform” to an empty room.

Just as Steve Martin’s performance was supposed to attract customers, we writers hope to attract future readers. By giving the best performance we can muster, pouring our hearts onto the page, we establish exactly the kind of intimate connection that audiences seek.

Memoirs by stage performers underscore their author’s passion to move audiences, whether they do it from the stage or from the page. This desire to connect with an audience in both forms is beautifully portrayed by aspiring actress Elna Baker in her memoir New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance. To achieve her goal of becoming an actress, she moves to New York city and auditions for roles.

While waiting to be called back, she takes a job as a demonstrator in a toy store. The job requires acting skills, but instead of transporting audiences to higher realities, she is paid to convince children to fall in love with expensive dolls. She also works as a waitress in a bar, a job filled with colorful possibilities, especially since she doesn’t drink alcohol.

After a few such experiences, she notices that her attempts to become an actress are generating interesting anecdotes. So while she waits to be cast in someone else’s story, why not play herself in her own story? She discovers a hip storytelling scene, in venues such as The Moth in New York, This American Life on NPR, and  First Person Arts in Philadelphia. She tells her stories to live and radio audiences, using her acting skills to dramatize her journey to become an actress. Eventually her oral stories make their way into writing, and then become a memoir.

Elna Baker’s struggle to earn a living through storytelling resonates with the desire lurking in every memoir writer’s heart. We too hope that by sharing our stories, we can earn a more public place in society, lifting and entertaining readers, one at a time. Most of us wouldn’t complain if those readers also were willing to pay for the privilege. In reality, few of us will earn enough money to supplement our careers, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

For example, when Stephen Markley graduated college, he was desperate to earn a living as a writer. At the age of 24, he pitched an idea to write a memoir about writing a memoir. Against impossible odds, he sold it, resulting in the excellent book, Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book. For both Stephen Markley and Elna Baker, the project of earning a living became ridiculously intertwined with writing stories about earning a living.

Memoir writers exist beyond the last page of the book
Elna Baker’s search for a career doesn’t end with a satisfying conclusion. By the last page, she has not “made it” as an actress. Sadly, she is not sure what she’s going to do. In a previous post I wrote about the ambiguity of Elna Baker’s sexual launching. By the end of the book, she didn’t achieve her goal of finding love any more than she found a career. Despite the ambiguity of the ending, I loved the book and highly recommend it. But why was I satisfied with a character who seemed to feel stranded at the end?

I have been asking myself the same question since Frank McCourt got off the boat at the end of Angela’s Ashes and ended with all sorts of unresolved problems. After reading Elna Baker’s memoir, I realize the answer goes to the heart of the difference between fiction and nonfiction.

At the end of novels, we know their heroes live only inside the imaginary world created by the author. They have no life of their own. Unlike them, memoir heroes continue to grow and change. At the very least, we know they have spent a considerable amount of time and effort figuring out  how to share their stories. And we usually know a great deal more about them than that. We can look up their circumstances on their websites, follow their job history on linkedin, read their blogs, and watch their interviews.

The fact that fiction characters only live inside the story is called “the fourth wall” and when those characters reach out to talk to the audience, they are said to “break the fourth wall.” Memoir characters break the fourth wall all the time.

One of my main pleasures in reading memoirs is this connection with a live person. Inside the pages of the book, I learned about them inside the bounds of their stories. In addition, I often have an opportunity to find out more about how they live outside the pages.

We relate to heroes in thrillers and myths because of their larger-than-life achievements, grace, beauty, courage, and other mythical qualities. We bond with memoir heroes for entirely different reasons. As real people, they help us understand that humans are flawed, they can teach us amazing things about life, and for those of us aspiring to write memoirs, they can teach us about writing our own.

So when I heard Elna Baker was teaching a life-writing course at First Person Arts in Philadelphia, I signed up. I joined a room full of aspiring storytellers, and when she walked into the training room with her four-legged companion, she didn’t just break the fourth wall. She exited her story and helped us with ours.

By this time, she was a producer for the NPR series This American Life, and well on her way to earning a living as a storyteller. It turned out she was not only a great teller. She was a great listener and teacher, as well. After each of us shared a glimpse of our lives, she offered wise advice for how to strengthen the story and make it more accessible and compelling.

Some of us were young, and looking to launch ourselves into the wage-earning part of our lives. Others of us were much older, looking to launch from a private to a more public version of ourselves. In either case, we shared the performer’s passion, wanting to reach out to an audience, in exchange for a couple of dollars, a few laughs and tears, and if we were lucky, applause at the end of the story.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene about struggling to figure out the right job. Perhaps you talked to a career counselor, or took a job you knew was “wrong” for you, or tried to get into a career that seemed perfect, but something got in the way. After you write this scene of struggle, write another one in which you enjoyed a moment at work – for example, joking with coworkers, or finishing a project.

Notes

Click here for Elna Baker’s home page.

Click here to listen to a recording of Elna Baker’s story about demonstrating baby-dolls here:

Click here for Philadelphia’s First Person Arts [LINK]

Click here for Stephen Markley’s memoir, Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book.

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

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

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.