Losing yourself to find your new truth

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

Merging yourself in the Other

In my early teens I learned how to lose myself by entering into the minds of detectives and space adventurers. In more recent years, I’ve shifted to actual people, whose memoirs enable me to leave my life for a while and enter theirs.

After years of memoir reading, I am a well-seasoned lifestory traveler, but the variety of human experience is so vast, I continue to encounter surprising, insightful, unique adventures.

I recently completed such a vicarious journey with a young woman named Erica Elliott who, when she was trying to figure out what to do with her life, went to teach school children at the Navajo Reservation.

She quickly fell in love with the indigenous people and their culture, and thanks to an incredible ability to set herself aside, she merged so thoroughly with them that she sometimes actually forgot she was a foreigner. Even more remarkably, they seemed to forget, as well.

Thanks to the magic of memoirs, she took me on that journey with her, showing me things about being Navajo that could only be known by insiders, and helping me more than ever understand the ancient culture that our pioneer forebears were so intent on destroying. Erica Elliott’s memoir opened a portal and let me travel back in time to a people who lived closer to the land.

Coincidentally, Erica Elliott’s memoir intersected with my fascination with mysteries. Her observations about Navajo culture validated everything I learned from the many detective novels I’ve read by Tony Hillerman. It also reminded me of a very different experience of Native American culture. During many hours in my childhood, I sat glued in front of the television, watching the good guys (all white) killing the marauding “Indians.”

Back then, I had no appreciation for the fact that the Indians were fighting in order to protect their own homes. Nor could I have known this seemingly innocent entertainment was conditioning me to see white people as “us” and people of color as “other.” I am so glad that I now live in a time when stories let us see each other, no matter what color, in a more spiritual light. Through Erica Elliott’s eyes, their “otherness” simply disappears.

But this book is actually two stories in one. In addition to an immersion in an ancient culture, it’s also the story of a young woman trying to find her path to adulthood.

Leaving child self to enter adult self – launching

At that time in life when we must go forth from our family of origin, and declare our individual identity, most of us follow the prescribed sequence – get married, get a job, start a family. For Erica Elliott, curiosity burned like lava. The possibilities were endless. The entire world beckoned.

In her state of massive questioning, she let go of all previous assumptions about who she was. It was a daredevil stunt… throwing herself into the unknown… a true hero’s journey.

I have met or read about many people who struggled mightily to reinvent themselves during that transition. In fact, I was one of those people myself.

Fed up with the ills of Western culture, at the end of the 60s, I attempted to become a hippie, which meant I tried to divest myself of all social norms. And once I started down that road, I wanted to keep going. As luck would have it, Jane Goodall showed up in town (Berkeley, California) and praised the innocence of primates. Her message was the sign I’d been looking for. I decided that living like a chimpanzee would be the most noble path. In a sense, I went berserk.

One reason I was willing to throw everything away was the Vietnam war lapping at my doorstep. I couldn’t picture myself entering adulthood holding a gun. But while I was running the other way, many young men were hoping that military service would be a valid, and honorable gateway into adulthood.

Jim McGarrah was just such a recruit. In his memoir A Temporary sort of Peace about his stint as a combat soldier in Vietnam, McGarrah had every right to expect that his experience would be a healthy, ordinary, rite of passage. But on the battlefield, with death all around him, having given up everything, with nowhere else to turn, McGarrah became unraveled. He too went “berserk.” Since he was holding a rifle at the time, berserking turned into a deadly affair.

The thought-leader who helped me find a language for battlefield breakdown was Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who spent his life trying to understand the psychology of war, by treating PTSD in combat veterans, and by interpreting Homer’s classics, The Odyssey and The Iliad. (I was grateful to Shay for finally explaining the point of those obscure stories, which I also read in high school.)

While the psychology of warriors seems off-topic from Erica Elliott’s lyrical journey to serve those in desperate need, it all has the stamp of young people, trying to grow up by throwing away their old selves.

See notes at the foot of this article for more examples of intense, sometimes desperate young people, who tried to destroy their childhood limitations in order to find their adult truths.

Memoirs provide an encyclopedia of life transitions

Memoirs about the transition to grow up are written by people who have gotten to the other side of that turmoil, often many years later, and are looking back on it hoping to make better sense of what took place. (See notes below for a couple of fun exceptions.)

Looking back from that stable position in adulthood, it is really difficult to sort out the memories and explain what happened back then, even to yourself.

This problem of making sense of our younger selves has often left adults speechless about their own younger years. But now, in the twenty-first century, we have the cultural benefit of memoirs to help us shine a beacon on those difficult transitions.

There’s no better way than a memoir to forensically reconstruct who you were and how you became the person you are.

And in addition to writing your own story, you can read many others. Memoirs create a free worldwide university course, (a MOOC or massively open online course) where we can lose ourselves in any number of these journeys, and see how they feel. And after reading, we can close the book, wiser about the way another person’s experience, and a little wiser about our own.

Erica Elliott’s intense journey with the Navajos was often profoundly uncomfortable and at times even dangerous. Her memoir let me accompany her on that entire journey, in only a few hours in the comfort of my home. And yet, despite these vast differences in the scope of our investment, both she and I were attempting to achieve the same goal –we were both trying to give up who we’d been in order to become better, wiser, broader.

How about your transition to adulthood?

Perhaps your own launching was as wildly experimental as Erica’s, mine, Jim McGarrah’s or others that you’ve read about. Or perhaps it was more routine.  But whatever  your specific path, in order to get from one side of that journey to the other, you had to redefine yourself.

To learn more about your own transition, try writing the sequence of events. A simple ordered list will start you on the journey to remember your past. And if you keep at it, learning to write scenes, and gather them into a narrative, you will be embracing one of the coolest most educational hobbies in the universe. You might discover things about yourself that you had not considered before, adding to your wisdom. And ultimately, you might be able to pass these insights along to others.

The Memoir Revolution is the synergism of two exciting forces in society – on the one side, it is an invitation to those of us who attempt to see our own life journeys through the lens of a story. And on the other side, it is an invitation to those of us who are curious about the lives of others to discover this deep way to enter into (and lose ourselves in) their lives.

Writing prompt

When you were trying to find your adult self, what sort of detours or experiments did you make in order to go out of the ordinary life, and try to lose yourself in another?

Notes and Links

Erica Elliott’s memoir website

Buy Medicine and Miracles on Amazon

A really cool interview with the author about the experience which led to this memoir.

A few more examples of memoirs of drastic launchings

An excellent memoir about this impulse to throw away your childhood identity is Unquenchable Thirst, by Mary Johnson. When she sought the best way to become an adult, she attempted to stamp herself out in the service of God and the poor. She defied her parents to become a nun in Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

A very different example of giving up your former identity in order to find a new adult one was explored in the launching memoir the Orchard by Theresa Weir. She was a footloose young woman, with no sense of purpose or direction. Seemingly on a whim, she married into one of the most stable families imaginable, a family of apple growers with deep roots to the land. Instead of leaving some stable life and going into the unknown, Weir left behind her instability and tied herself down.

Berserking was sadly quite common in the 60s, when the normal rhythm of growing up middle-class was disrupted by anti-establishment values. Here’s an intense example of another person who like many of us in those days knew what she was running away from, but was muddled about what to run toward. Pamela Jane’s An Incredible Talent for Existing. See my essay about this memoir by clicking here. https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/is-your-memoir-boomer-lit/

Some more of my essays about launching

(Read more about berserking in my essay about combat and PTSD. https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/homer-iliad-ptsd/

And read another my essay about this launching impulse here: https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/boys-to-men/.

Finding an adult belief system is another challenge of becoming an adult. If the belief system you inherited from your parents does not fulfill your idealistic impression for your own destiny, you must go on a search for a belief system of your own. https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/launching-pt3-beliefs/

Read more memoirs of spiritual launching here: https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/lists-of-two-memoirs-by-same-author/memoirs-about-spiritual-launching/

Another article I wrote about the tasks of launching: https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/launching-memoirs-chronicle-main-tasks-to-grow-to-adulthood/

Another variation: A memoir about Midlife re-launching

In Doreen Orion’s memoir Queen of the Road, she and her husband leave their careers for a year and hit the road. It’s a travel memoir and a midlife relaunching memoir in one: https://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/orion-memoir-midlife-crisis/

For a memoir about writing a memoir during the process of launching, read Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book by Stephen Markley about the author’s attempt to find his adult career by writing the very book you are reading. Here’s an essay I wrote about Stephen Markley’s memoir.

A stylistic note about Medicine and Miracles: The infamous pull-out first chapter

At the beginning of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, she famously lost her boot on a mountain top – – perhaps an ironic “cliffhanger” at the very beginning captured enough attention to engage the reader to turn pages to learn how she survived that event.

Erica Elliott’s pull-out first chapter serves a similar purpose, getting us deeply engaged in the character and causing us to turn pages. Astonishingly the pull-out first chapter, which I must admit was one of the best I’ve ever read, actually takes place in a second memoir. I don’t want to give too much away. You should read the book to see what I mean. But if you are considering writing a memoir, figuring out which scene will set the pace for the rest of the story will become one of your most complex puzzles. This book provides a powerful example.

NOTES

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

Self help for memoir writers

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

Early in my journey to write my memoir, I encountered an age-old problem. My mind was devilishly clever at undermining me. Who will read it? It’s not interesting. I’m not good enough. I’ll do it later. I’ll do it someday.

If my goal had been to jump into an ice-cold swimming pool, perhaps I could have overcome my reluctance by screaming “Just do it.”

But weaving my reflections on the past into a good story required thousands of small steps.  Other than perhaps the first one of sitting in front of the computer, none responded very well to screams.

Writing a memoir turned out to be a journey in its own right, in which I had to steer through all sorts of fears, self-doubts and other mental obstacles I encountered on the way. I soon realized I was creating two parallel hero’s journeys.

Hero’s Journey #1 was the story I was trying to write about a character trying to discover a better version of himself.

In order to create that story, I had to go on Hero’s Journey #2, developing introspective skills, teasing out scenes, and courageously facing the tasks of writing and revising.

When I started writing my memoir, though, I didn’t see myself as the hero of anything. However, one thing I did know a lot about was self-help, which I had been studying for years. While most self-help books and recordings focused on becoming a better business person, I extracted those aspects that would make me a more creative person.

So when I became attracted to memoir writing, I realized that achieving my goal required a specialized application of the self-help field. Another source of psychological insight into the creative process came from the helping profession of psychotherapy. I had recently graduated with a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and had often considered my psychotherapy training in relationship to the creative process.

One of the most important and exciting bits of self-help advice I had come across was to “write as if you were speaking to an interested audience.” That advice has motivated me for years, because as I write, I find myself engaged with the people who might want to hear what I have to say. This desire to communicate makes writing so much easier and more interesting.

The fact that you are reading this places you in that category of a curious audience, interested in what I have to say about memoirs, so I’m thinking of you when I write. ?

If you are attempting to write your memoir, be sure to populate your imaginary audience with compassionate memoir readers who are deeply interested in other people. These readers want to know all about you. By maintaining a loving, mutually respectful relationship with this imaginary audience, you will be able to turn your writing sessions into engaging stories about the dramatic tensions, the difficulties, and the courage of your journey.

As I continued to gather strategies, I shared them with other writers. Teaching self-help  workshops to writers was a new venture for me. Instead of just thinking about these techniques for myself, I began to see them as shareable skills writers can learn together.

Based on the workshops, I compiled a self-development workbook called How to Become a Heroic Writer, Train Your Brain to Build Habits, Overcome Obstacles, and Reach Readers.

If you have an interest in the techniques and insights afforded by the self-help and psychology movements, take a look at my book. Working through the lessons and writing exercises will provide you with a series of interlocking skills that will arm you for the journey to become a writer.

Notes

NOTES

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

Lifelong learning: tips for memoir writers

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

After all the living to acquire our experiences, in past generations, those experiences disappear into forgotten boxes in the attic. Today we have the opportunity to resurrect that lost wisdom by sharing the experiences of our lives. Such stories provide us with a vast encyclopedia of insight into the human condition.In the previous post [link] I introduced two of my favorite international coming of age memoirs, both about childhood stints in Saigon just before the war. The stories expand my cultural reach, from the limitations of each reader’s life into the tsunami known as Vietnam. In addition to their specific historical significance from fifty years ago, the very existence of these two memoirs represents a cultural tsunami in the present. – we are living at a time when it is acceptable to find the story of your life.

After reading the Vietnam memoir Saigon Kids, the author Les Arbuckle provided a wonderful overview of his process to learn how to tell the story Here is our conversation for anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps.

Me: So tell me the origin story of Saigon Kids. What made you decide to write it, and I guess just as important what made you think you could?

Les: I first thought about telling this story when I was talking to a friend’s wife way back in 1988. She had become interested in writing screenplays and it occurred to me then that my adventures in Vietnam might make a good movie. But I didn’t know anything about writing screenplays, so I set the idea aside.

The story kept nagging at me. There are between 10 and 15 million Military Brats in the US and my story is, in some ways, their story too. I wanted to be the one to tell it.

Many years went by and at the ripe old age of fifty-three in 2002, I realized that if I was ever going to tell my story, I had to get started. But I didn’t want to just write it for myself. I was going to write it well enough to attract a literary agent and a publisher, rather than self-publish.

Since I still didn’t know how to write screenplays, I figured I’d write it as a memoir. As it turns out, I didn’t know anything about writing memoirs either, but my ignorance made it possible to get started without worrying about the details.

At this stage in my life, I had no experience in the world of writers and writing, except for a 500-word technical article I had penned for the Jazz Educators Journal in 1993 (The Music of Bill Evans: “Laurie”). I wasn’t worried about my lack of experience. I had a great story to tell, which I figured was what made the difference (it didn’t).

I wrote the whole book in about three weeks. I simply wrote down every memory I could muster, rearranged everything in chronological order as best I could, and then began struggling to make it better, a little at a time.

Me: Wow. What an amazing accomplishment. Congratulations for taking this big leap.

Les: I knew I had a long way to go, so I reached out to a mystery writer I knew, Zach Klein, (author of the Matt Jacob Series).

I was having trouble writing either descriptive or action prose. Zach suggested I do what Hemingway did: Just say it: “John threw the stick into the lake.” I immediately read the first Hemingway book I could get my hands on, “A Movable Feast,” and studied his style. I also used the Internet to review scenes of Old Saigon, paying particular interest to those scenes that resembled parts of my stories. This helped quite a bit with the descriptive portions of the book, tweaking my memory and inner eye enough to effectively add details I had forgotten. My daughter even gave me a vintage book about Saigon in the 1950′ and ’60’s that contained many familiar pictures of the city I once knew and its inhabitants.

Zach informed me that, unlike fiction or fantasy literature, memoirs are not “plot driven.” In a memoir, the narrative usually takes the form of an “arc” where the writer shows that in the course of the story he/she has changed in some meaningful way, and is no longer the person they were at the beginning of the story. Zach suggested I read a lot of memoirs and get a feel for the oeuvre, so I loaded up on every memoir I could find.

Me: Zach sounds like an incredibly helpful resource. It’s so cool that he offered you his wisdom about a genre that is not even his specialty.

Les: What I eventually learned was that memoirs are held to a higher literary standard than Fiction or Fantasy, and there were a lot of no-no’s to take into consideration (no lying!). Sustaining a 96,000-word narrative is not easy, either. Had I known how difficult the task was that I set for myself, I may never have started, but that’s one of the only good things about my ignorance of the literary world.

Over the next fifteen years I would read around 200 memoirs or so (who counts?). Based on my reading, I learned the importance of having strong themes. Because of my interest in the Military Brat phenomenon of constantly moving around, and needing to learn how to quickly adapt, I began to focus on the theme of belonging, of having a real home, friends, and community, and moving constantly. These are themes all Brats can relate to, so I tried to keep them front and center in the narrative.

Me: I totally agree that reading memoirs is a great way to learn how to write one.

Les: Then I hired a Professional Editor in Seattle named Anne Mini. I sent her the MS and a check and a few months later she sent the MS back. This was in the Spring of 2008 and that Summer I moved to Southern California and began working on her edits.

Anne was detailed beyond belief. Zach was kind and generous. Anne was not. She wasn’t unkind, however, she just told me the harsh truth and held a candle up to the workings of the literary world and the standards required of a memoir writer. In my memoir, “Saigon Kids”, I mention a teacher named Sister Kenneth who kept me after school every day for the entire first grade. Her approach was much like Anne’s: Absolutely no nonsense, tell the full truth about every detail of the manuscript, and give the appropriate amount of encouragement.

Anne gave me a literary beating from which I hope to never recover. She marked up every page, including the back, and every paragraph, and then put together a fifty-page summary with even more remarks, critiques, and suggestions.

She also told me not to commit the greatest sin of the memoir genre: Don’t try to make yourself look like a hero.

Anne Mini emphasized the scene building aspects quite a bit. She would write in the margins, “What did that look like?” “What did you feel there?” “Tell me more about xxx”

She suggested I join a writer’s group and get some fresh eyes on my prose, so I looked around San Diego, found a group at the Encinitas Library and began going every Thursday night. The group helped a lot because, as Anne explained, even though a person might not be a great writer, anyone inclined to join such a group is probably an excellent reader and can give valuable feedback.

Me: More awesome advice! That is so nicely said. In memoir groups, each person is giving you expert feedback on what they liked. She said it more clearly and succinctly than I’ve ever heard it stated before.

Les: One realization I had around this time: Words have rhythm: Accentuate. Wonderful. Technology. Dot. Hyperventilating. When words are strung together into sentences, the sentences acquire a rhythm. When sentences are combined to create paragraphs, the paragraphs acquire a rhythm that is sensed on a very subtle level (Avoid boredom! Vary your sentence length!). And rhythmic paragraphs become chapters, and the rhythm of the chapters creates the rhythm of the book.

We weren’t in Encinitas long. My wife’s father got sick, so in December of 2009 we moved back to Boston. I sought out another writing group and found the Walpole Writer’s Group, which at the time had been in existence for about ten years. WWG was a big group, and had some real good writers, including one retired teacher of English, a professional Technical Writer, and a woman who eventually published several children’s books. Their insights were very helpful.

Finally, in March of 2010 I got a call from the person who would become my agent. He had liked my query letter and asked for the full manuscript. When he read it he said that he noticed a lot of errors and small issues. He would ordinarily have passed on it, he said, but he kept wanting to read further and thought that was a good sign. His specialty was Military History and he told me he found the story to be a fascinating look at a world (the world of Military Brats in Vietnam) of which he knew nothing.

Me: That’s a great story. Typically you hear about editors having zero tolerance for errors in the query. This guy saw past that. Nice.

Les: I worked with his editor for a few months, and at one point we decided that it would be helpful to have the story start with a scene that was exciting; something to get the blood flowing. The Coup scene initially occurred about two-thirds of the way into the book. It contains a lot of violent action and emotion, and we felt it might draw the reader into the story, make them want to find out how things got to that point. We tried moving it to the front of the book and it seemed to work. After that first chapter I flashed back to the real beginning of the book (when my family was in Florida) and proceeded chronologically.

One of the concepts Anne Mini drilled into me was that the writer must speak with their own authentic voice and not adapt affectations from other writers. You have to sound like you, not Jeanette Walls or JR Mohringer or whomever it is you admire. This was particularly difficult because I had no idea what my “voice” was. But as Theresa and I worked on my MS I began to realize that some of the things she objected to were my own little verbal idiosyncrasies, the “me” in my voice.

It was years before Roger (my agent) found a willing publisher. One of the problems we had with finding a publisher was the same problem I experienced finding an agent: when agents/publishers see the word “Vietnam” they think they know what it’s about — “choppers,” “Charlie,” “incoming,” and “rice paddy.” Their eyes glaze over and the query gets deleted. We endured six years of “no”, until a small publisher in Florida offered a deal. We took it.

Me: I have heard so many stories about how long and hard it is to find a publisher. You made it across the desert. Congratulations!

Les: Well, the story isn’t over yet. We still had a few more rounds of edits. After the first round of edits I had gone back over the manuscript and put back in some of the “me” that we had edited out, but when I started working with the editor assigned to me by Mango (my publisher), I sometimes faced the same problem.

For instance, in the first chapter, referencing Mother’s shaking hands and voice, I wrote: “The shakes have got a grip on her throat, too.” Mango’s editor, suggested that I change that sentence to something like, “Her throat was quivering with fear,” which would have been correct. But that’s not how I would say it. That’s how Mango’s editor might have said it. It’s a Southern thing…

The moral of this story is “don’t be afraid to sound like you.” If you’re from the South (like me) or from the North or the East or West, speak on the page as you would in life, then edit it to make it read well. If you’re not from the Appalachians don’t try to sound like the Beverly Hillbillies. If you’re not an intellectual with a PhD in English Literature or Medieval French poetry, don’t try to write like it.

Mary Karr is a good example of how an authentic Voice can work in a literary setting and still sound natural. I’m Southern, but not as Southern as Mary Karr (My father is from New York). My writing doesn’t have much of that Texas twang to it, but what it does have I plan to keep, ya’ll. By the way, her book, “The Art of Memoir” is a must-read for any budding memoirist.

To sum it all up, if I had to do it over again, I’d take some writing classes first. Not so much as to get bogged down in the process, but the way I learned how to write to my present stage of ability was the hard way. I probably could have saved myself a few years! Although I initially thought the key to getting published was telling a great story, I discovered that, while there are millions of great stories waiting to be told, about the only ones that get a real publishing deal are those that are told well. I hope Saigon Kids is in that category.

Notes

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

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

Learn Practical Philosophy by Reading Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn how writing your memoir can change the world.

I love the challenge of solving a good murder. In every mystery, I lose myself in the detective’s thought process. The two of us figure out who might have done it and how they might be avoiding detection. Criminals must be caught. Criminals are devious. Everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise.

Somewhere in my forties I realized I had spent an enormous amount of time thinking like a detective but I knew comparatively little about the way anyone else thought. When I noticed this gap, I switched my reading to include psychology, theology, linguistics, and artificial intelligence, and I listened to an awesome college course about Epictetus and the practical philosophy of the Greeks. I finally went to graduate school for a degree in counseling psychology, a great leap forward. But other than detectives, I had hardly any experience thinking like another person.

Memoirs elegantly resolve this deficiency. Reading a memoir, like reading a mystery, gives me the pleasure of losing myself inside another person’s thought process, a welcome reprieve from thinking like myself. At the same time, they expand my vocabulary of the human condition.

Inside memoirs, I think about the world through the minds of daughters, moms, and wives, survivors of poverty and mental illness, combat soldiers and immigrants, children, elders, adventurers and addicts. From their first-person point of view, I learn how they feel. And even more intriguingly, I learn how they think.

Inside each memoir, I listen to the protagonist’s thoughts and discover how their system of thought helps or hurts their ability to get through life. My favorite memoirs are ones in which the protagonist grows wiser during the course of the story. This involves them having some realization about how to think about their situation differently than when they started. By following these lessons, memoirs create a university of practical philosophy.

The lessons themselves are familiar, available from a variety of sources. Love conquers. Forgiveness relieves tension. Acceptance banishes anger. But inside memoirs, we accompany a person through the journey of learning those lessons. After a period of years, through setbacks and triumphs, the protagonist learns some deeper lesson.

An excellent example of this process is Martha Stettinius’ memoir Inside the Dementia Epidemic. Despite the gritty reality of caring for her mother, or perhaps because of it, she is learning profound lessons that sustained her through this period. The memoir itself is not philosophical in the traditional sense. However, it offers a healing world view. After reading it, I feel enriched in my understanding of fundamental ideas about life. In the next two posts, I will describe the practical philosophy the author grows toward through the course of her experience.

Notes

Martha Stettinius’ home page

Inside the Dementia Epidemic on Amazon

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.

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

How Boys Become Men – or – Can Memoirs Stop the Violence?

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

As a boy in a Muslim community in England, Ed Husain’s pleasure was to follow his father to the mosque and pray. In high school in the 1990s, he fell in with a group of boys who said that prayer was for old people, and that the urgent mission of every Muslim should be to destroy western culture. These ideas appealed to Husain. Overriding his father’s objections, he joined the demonstrations and was soon helping to organize them.

When I read Ed Husain’s excellent memoir, The Islamist, I was offended by his choice to turn against his father. Couldn’t he see his father’s perspective was deeper and wiser than his own? Wasn’t it obvious he was attacking the very government that gave him the freedom to protest in the first place? While I was criticizing Husain, I felt a tug from my own past. I also turned against my father’s peaceful ways and “middle class” values.

Throughout high school, I worked in my father’s drugstore and came to believe the best way to please him would be to become a doctor. When I flew from Philadelphia to Madison, Wisconsin in 1965, I was well on my way with excellent grades and a passion for science.

But the Vietnam war was ramping up and so were the protests. The cultural upheaval coincided with my own young-man’s need to assert myself. In 1967, I stood outside the Commerce Building in Madison, Wisconsin, dodging tear gas canisters. A thousand kids with red, fiery eyes and tears streaming down our cheeks, snapped our arms in furious irony, screaming “Sieg Heil” at the club-wielding police. I had crossed a threshold into an angry state of mind where tearing down “the system” took priority over a mere detail like my future.

Even though Husain’s ideology was light-years away from mine, our hearts followed similar paths. Both of us believed that our political beliefs were righteous and important. Both of us felt responsible to take any action necessary to change the world to conform to our beliefs. This sense of righteous urgency caused both of us to turn against fathers’ peaceful approach, replacing it with a pressured, bold one more suited to young men.

What drives boys crazy?
In 1997, 30 years after my blowout in Madison, I went to graduate school to study counseling psychology. I wanted to understand what makes people (including me) tick. In one class, a female professor explained that women often fall short in the quality of “assertiveness.” As therapists we should encourage them to develop that trait in order to achieve equality in relationships and better self-esteem. But what about males? I never heard a lecture or read a book about helping men who felt a need to push the world to match their view. As I continued to read more memoirs, the cast of boys who turned violent on their journey to manhood kept growing

Examples of Boys Going Through Violence on the Path to Grow Up
When Andre Dubus III was young, he felt humiliated by his subservience to bullies. To compensate, he learned to fight, and got better and better until fighting became his life. His memoir Townie is a journey through this painful, violent transition from boy to man.

Fighting is not limited to the streets of working class neighborhoods. Two intellectual, middle class boys fell in love with the potential for kicking and punching. Mark Salzman, in his memoir Lost in Place, became obsessed with learning to fight. Later he went to China to study karate. Another highly educated boy, Mathew Polly did the same. His memoir American Shaolin recounts his residence in the Chinese fighting school made famous by the television show Kung Fu.

Because of my violent experiences during the anti-war movement, I was fascinated to read about the extreme case of Bill Ayers. In Bill Ayers’ memoir Fugitive Days he chronicles the militant, sometimes violent Weather Underground movement. Undeterred by the paradox that he was trying to promote peace by planting bombs and inciting riots, his memoir provides a perfect window into this quality of young men, with our overabundance of assertiveness.

In some boys’ minds, the war protests were the problem and had to be stopped with force. I learned about their anger one night in Madison, Wisconsin when a carload of clean-cut boys piled out of a car, and singled me out because of my long hair. They threw me down on the ground and repeatedly kicked me. As they pounded their message into my body, I knew I had traveled far, far away from my original orderly goal of becoming a doctor and had entered a crazy world where boys use force to start and stop wars.

PTSD – the aftermath of too much assertiveness
We boys back home had it easy. The real fighting was taking place with guns and bombs, blood, death and ruined lives. Memoirs about boys in combat offer a glimpse into that violent world, and usually move beyond it, trying to pick up with pieces of sanity when attempting to reenter society.

In Temporary Sort of Peace Jim McGarrah starts his journey as a high school boy, transfers his life force to the jungles, sitting alone listening to and shooting at noises in the dark. The journey continues into his mental life as he attempts to sort out nightmare from reality. In Until Tuesday, Luis Carlos Montelvan fights military enemies in Iraq and suffers the tragic invisible wounds of PTSD. When he returns, he must fight both to maintain his ability to operate in society, and also fight to raise awareness of the value of service dogs to help mentally and physically wounded veterans.

What is the name for this overabundance of pushiness ?
Despite the far reaching social ramifications of the young male mind’s willingness to become violent, I didn’t even know a name for the impulse. It didn’t seem like the assertiveness I learned about in school. Assertiveness training involves such sophisticated social skills as negotiating, compassion for the other, and taking both sides into account. The boys who turn violent are beyond negotiating. In fact, their angry mindset willfully excludes the other side’s point of view. This young male willingness to fight seemed to have a strangely philosophical slant. My own, and Ed Husain’s anger, as well as the anger of the boys who beat me up, were all based on some abstract notion that through violence we would make the world a better place. Whether defending our homes, our ideals, or simply our street corners, boys seem willing to take up arms.

In the psychology section of the bookstore, I found a couple of books about raising boys, but they didn’t give me insight into the quality I was trying to name. Then I hit paydirt in two books by Jonathan Shay, M.D.

Jonathan Shay, by day, is a psychiatrist who works professionally with combat veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In his private life, he studies Greek classics. He combines the two seemingly disconnected passions in his two books, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming and Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. In these books, he refers back to the Greeks as masters of war. Part of their expertise resulted in their understanding of young men. Greeks knew how to stir men to fighting fury by appealing to this righteous quality call Thumos (sometimes spelled Thymos). Shay uses this insight from the ancient Greeks to help him guide combat veterans back from the broken state caused by their fighting instinct.

After  I learned the name for this quality, I saw it everywhere: in the goose-stepping soldiers of the Third Reich, harnessing young men to assert the need for a racially pure world; to the modern day Islamists who preach a worldwide conquest to bring the truths of Islam to the world; to the gangbangers who righteously defend their own turf and colors against incursion from boys one or two streets away.

Can Memoirs Help?
Now, when I look at the future of the world, I wonder if every young person must repeat these mistakes, or if somehow we oldtimers could convince young people to take into account our experience. By definition, we are already too old to be taken seriously by young men in this heated state. But perhaps those young men who stop long enough to read a book might gain hints and glimpses into the way youthful minds work. By giving them books that share our own experiences, perhaps we could give a few young people a way to see past their excessive assertiveness before they fall into some of these traps.

It may seem like wishful thinking to hope that reading books will help straighten out angry young minds, but many young people are influenced by books, and during that precious window when they are trying to figure out life, sometimes books slip into their inner spaces and give them a cause or image that could help.

For example, in Erin Gruwell’s Freedom Writer’s Diary, the high school students’ lives were being ripped apart by young men killing in order to protect territory and honor. To help her students understand their need to fight, Gruwell assigned them to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which a man from the wrong group provoked murder with a simple gesture. “Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?” Erin Gruwell’s teenagers gained deep wisdom about the tragedy that surrounded them in Los Angeles, through Shakespeare’s ability to reveal universal human truths. They read literature, and they wrote their own stories, and through these stories they grew.

The fascinating truth in the Memoir Revolution is that through the magic of memoirs, millions of us can read Freedom Writer’s Diary and learn powerful lessons about redirecting Thumos to socially productive outlets.

At the end of his memoir Townie, Andre Dubus III outgrows his need to fight, and turns instead to writing stories. Mark Salzman, in his memoir Lost in Place, also grows up fighting. In a later memoir, called True Notebooks, Salzman volunteers to teach young gangbangers how to write. Many of these boys were incarcerated for murder committed as part of their gang identity. As Salzman lets them write about their lives, and then share those writings, they realize that these “enemies” are people just like them. From these encounters, mutual understanding emerges from behind the curtain of Thumos. Salzman’s story offers a stunning window into the inherent sense of decency hidden within their roiling hearts and makes me wonder what their lives might have been like if these kids had been in writing classes before they murdered, rather than after.

In David Gilmour’s Film Club, a father became frightened when he saw his son approach the edge of the boy-to-man abyss. As a professional film reviewer, Gilmour took a chance, offering the boy the opportunity to drop out of school in exchange for a commitment to watch movies with Dad. The gamble paid off, as chronicled in this memoir about using story as a healing tool.

In the memoir Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle works with gang members in Los Angeles, helping them find alternatives to shooting each other. He doesn’t use story writing as a tool to help them. And yet, by writing and sharing his story with the rest of us, he helps us understand the hearts and minds of these young criminals who, with just a tiny shift in focus become devoted family men.

Memoirs by authors who have survived Thumos and come out the other end, can offer deeper understanding about the road to maturity. By sharing our lives through memoirs, we survivors can’t necessarily change the world drastically or solve all its problems, but we can hope to give young readers the chance to make better decisions. In fact, Ed Husain is attempting to do just that. Following the publication about his own transition beyond Thumos to Wisdom, he has become an activist in this cause, trying to help young Muslims choose a nonviolent course, not toward world domination but toward spiritual peace.

NOTES
When asserting their need to grow up, not all boys turn to violence
Of course not all boys use violence to express their needs for identity. In Publish this Book, Stephen Markley’s anger sent him running not to the barricades but to the typewriter. In his memoir Open, Andre Agassi fought against his father’s demands to become a tennis champion. Despite his rebellion, he continued to play tennis, expressing his defiance by breaking rules like wearing colored shorts on the tennis court instead of the regulation whites.

When Frank Schaeffer was growing up in a Christian commune, L’Abri, his father was a famous preacher. Instead of rebelling against his father’s belief system, Frank Jr confronted his own father, accusing him of being too weak. As a firebrand activist, Frank Jr demanded a more rigorous, intense interpretation of doctrine. Frank Jr’s angry righteousness made him an important formative influence in the Christian Right to Life movement, as chronicled in his fascinating memoir Crazy for God.

In Colored People by Henry Louis Gates, the boy was laid up in the hospital in a nearby larger town. A chaplain came by to play chess with him. During the chess matches, he slipped in a little mentoring, letting the boy know there is a wider world. As he grew, he became more assertive. In one scene, he angrily confronts the customers and management in a restaurant which refused to serve him. In the end, though, he made it past Thumos in one piece, and turned his attention to extreme learning. His  journey into academia eventually transformed him from a boy in a small Jim Crow town to a Harvard Professor.

Tragically, many boys turn their violence not against the world but against themselves. Drugs and other jail-worthy behaviors often end up tearing a boys life apart, in his search for the appropriate expression of inner turmoil. Tim Elhajj’s memoir Dopefiend is an excellent story about a boy who pries himself loose from the deadly grip of drugs, and then must somehow figure out how to get back into the game of life. The memoir Tweak by Nic Sheff is about a boy still in the throes of this inward battle. And in Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler the young man succumbs to a deadly dose of heroin, losing the battle altogether, leaving his family to pick up the pieces.

(This is a revised version of a post first posted Aug 26, 2010)

Amazon page for “The Islamist

Link to an article I wrote about “The Islamist” and another memoir, Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

List of Memoirs that Show Various Aspects of Family

by Jerry Waxler

Writing your memoir? Memoir Revolution provides many examples and insights into how to authors are translating life into story.

In a previous post, Family Psychology Lessons in Memoirs, I showed how Sonia Marsh’s Freeways to Flipflops is an excellent example of a family in midlife crisis, and in another post The Many Roles of Family In Your Memoir, I showed how that book demonstrates a type of do-it-yourself family therapy.

Her memoir started me thinking about the complexities of adding families to life stories. Their influence on us is important, and yet it adds an additional layer of complexity to an already-complex task. To help you organize your ideas about how to include your family or group experience into your memoir here are a number of books that include the author’s involvement with this important group.

Beginnings of the Family
We must undergo many profound emotional adjustments on the journey from a single person, to a married one, to a married person with children. My favorite book for learning about the transition from single to married is the memoir Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Feinberg Cook in which the author offers a terrific rendition of a young wife’s initial insights into the shift from free-agent to committed partner.

The transformation from a married guy to a married guy with a child is explored nicely in the quirky memoir Sound of No Hands Clapping by Toby Young and also in a memoir called Man Made by Joel Stein about his fear that he won’t be masculine enough to impress his new son. A less humorous book about a woman’s transition to motherhood is Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields about her postpartum depression.

Another story about a young couple with a baby is Ten Points by Bill Strickland. As a young father, he attempts to overcome the anger and dark memories of his own abusive childhood. He uses his own desperation to outgrow the mistakes of his own father, in order to support the innocence of his tiny daughter. This echo of trauma from one generation to another offers powerful emotional themes that could help you awaken the internal power of your story.

Self-involved parents who forget to raise kids
The memoir She Got Up off the Couch by Haven Kimmel is about how her mother went back to school and her father had an affair. It’s a fascinating look at the way the innocence of a child is distorted by the adult dreams and confusions of parents who are trying to find themselves.

Another memoir about a child whose innocence was overlooked is In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas, and another even more outrageous book in which self-involved parents forget to protect a child’s innocence is Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.

At the extreme are memoirs of the dark side of families, for example the devastating sexual abuse of Sue William Silverman in Because I Remember Terror, Father I Remember You, and the horrific alcoholism and neglect of Frank McCourt’s father in Angela’s Ashes.

When two parents divorce and go their separate ways, their lack of grace often undermines the kids’ ability to grow up, In Dani Shapiro’s Slow Motion, the author has a horrific launching into adulthood. As she retraces her past she exposes the nightmare that results from her father’s family hating her mother. The influence of an angry split is evidenced also in the memoir Tweak by Nic Sheff whose parents lived hundreds of miles apart. He found his solace in crystal meth. In Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love by Debra Gwartney, Mom hated Dad’s immaturity and decided she needed to get 1,000 miles away from him. Two of her young daughters took their upbringing into their own hands, running away and living on the street.

Changing Family after the Empty Nest
The family enters another phase when the kids move out. This back end of family life rarely makes it into adventure or hero stories. In the modern era, with longer life spans and more complex, varied goals, this later period turns up in many memoirs. How will the parents find fulfillment?

An extreme version of the empty nest is the death of a child. Madeline Sharples’ in Leaving the Hall Light On, struggles to keep her bipolar son sane and alive. After he commits suicide, she must keep her family together, for the sake of her own sanity, as well as for her husband and other son. She grieves and then must go on. Over the course of the following years, she relentlessly pursues creativity and self-healing.

In Robert Waxler’s first memoir Losing Jonathan, his eldest son loses the battle with addiction. The memoir, co-authored with his wife, is a book of grieving and healing. In his second memoir, Courage to Walk, Waxler’s younger son, by this time a professional with a vibrant independent life of his own, is stricken by a mysterious, crippling illness. The possible death of his second son awakens echoes of the loss of his first.

Trying to understand your parents
Memoir writers often return to their family of origin to try to make sense of growing up. Many of these memoirs concentrate only on one parent, reflecting the often slanted relationship we have with these powerful individuals in our lives.

Learning about mom’s younger years
Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Linda Austen, is about a mother who grew up in pre-war Japan.

Caregiving for Alzheimer’s Moms
When our parents grow old, they often raise intense emotions. As caregivers for our parents we reverse our roles, and find ourselves in an impossible tug of war trying to care about others in our lives at the same time. Two excellent memoirs, Mothering Mother by Carol O’Dell and Dementia Epidemic by Martha Stettinius are especially poignant because of the extra complexity of Alzheimer’s, tearing apart not just the body but the mind. These two women, at the height of their capacity to give and provide, must turn toward the women who raised them in a profound, poignant new relationship.

Understanding Dad
Joel Stein’s humorous book Man Made makes a joke about a man who is afraid he won’t be masculine enough for his son. A less humorous question arises for many boys who don’t feel masculine enough for their dads. Here are a few memoirs about guys trying to make sense of their fathers.

Drama by John Lithgow, traces his own life in theater in relationship to his father’s. This is another one of my favorite celebrity memoirs. Andre Agassi’s Open covers similar ground, showing how his father imposed his obsessions on the boy, who as a result became a world champion. What a complex conflict! He must juggle resentment at his father’s manipulation with appreciation for the glamorous, complex life that resulted.

Chasing the Hawk: Looking for My Father, Finding Myself by Andrew Sheehan, a wonderful exploration not only of his father’s life but of the lifespan of the whole extended family. This is one of the best “extended family over time” stories I have read.

Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family by Qui Duc Nguyen, reconstructing his father’s life during a brutal captivity by the Viet Cong

Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham, tells of his father’s life across war torn Vietnam.

The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer is a sort of ode to the absent dad. The star of his life is a placeholder for a guy who never shows up.

Women too, wonder what makes Dad tick. Here are memoirs about that search.

Breaking the Code by Karen Alaniz is about a father who experienced emotional trauma while fighting in the Pacific during WWII.

Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour is about her father who inherited an English country manor. He felt so connected with the place his identity merged into it at around the same time as country manors throughout Great Britain were being demolished and dismantled.

Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron by the daughter of the famous novelist, William Styron

The Impact of Early Death of a Spouse
The whole span of a marriage, from courtship to the end is hastened by the untimely death of a husband. Adapting and finding one’s self anew is the subject of powerful memoirs.

Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener, is about her courtship, young relationship, and early death of her husband, and her subsequent journey to find herself.

Here if you Need Me by Kate Braestrup. The death of her husband forces her to figure out her own career, and figure out how to overcome grief. The journey of an individual is actually the journey of a family.

Impact of Illness: Caregiving for a Spouse
100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, caregiving for a spouse after he suffers a severe stroke. Includes some of the best spouse-as-buddy writing I have seen.

Adopted children
When a child grows up with adopted parents, it raises the challenge: which one is my “real” family. Two memoirs handle this question with profound inquiry and insight. Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood tells about a girl raised in the Midwest who goes to China to meet her biological family. Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes investigates the mysteries of her biological parents, whose only relationship to each other was in a surreptitious affair.

Akin to the Truth by Paige Strickland
Twice Born by Betty Jean Lifton

Additional mentions of family
In Tim Elhajj’s Dope Fiend, as a recovering addict he makes desperate attempts to repair the damage his drug use had created in his relationship to his mother.

Family that Includes a Dog
Marley and Me by John Grogan and Oogy, the Dog Only a Family Could Love, by Larry Levin, two excellent stories about how the love for a dog becomes part of the fabric of the family.

Couple as Buddies
Some famous buddy stories in movies, like Thelma and Louise, or Bonnie and Clyde, show how two people bounce off each other in friendship and enterprise. Couples in real life sometimes do the same. I have read a few memoirs that highlight the delightful partnership of the partners.

When Sonia Marsh and her husband moved to Belize, the two adults had become partners in the family adventure. In Freeways to Flipflops, they fight, they work together, in an excellent story of a partnership under duress.

Queen of the Road, Doreen Orion about her taking a year off to travel in an RV. Her interaction with her husband provides humor, mutual respect and support. When I visualize them riding together in the front two seats of their decked-out RV, I think it would make an excellent movie about a couple with an empty nest.

Cancer, fading away of a parent
Kids are All Right by Diana Welch about siblings who gather like a flock, as their mother suffers the wasting of cancer.

Chasing the Hawk: Looking for My Father, Finding Myself by Andrew Sheehan, already mentioned for its portraiture of Dad, also recounts the ending of his father’s life due to cancer.

Chosen Families
In some memoirs, a group of people form an ensemble cast that resembles a chosen family, people who turn toward each other for companionship, understanding, and support.

An Unquenchable Thirst, by Mary Johnson, about a young woman who chooses to join Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

The Path by Donald Walters (Swami Kyriyananda), about a member of a group of devotees of Paramahansa Yogananda

Father Joe: The Man Who Saved my Soul by Tony Hendra, about his relationship to his mentor, a sort of chosen father.

In Fugitive Days, Bill Ayers portrays the members of his fellow war protestors as a chosen family.

In the combat memoir House to House by David Bellavia, the author chooses his life-and-death responsibility to his fellow soldiers over a commitment he made to his wife.

In Mentor by Tom Grimes, the author’s relationship to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop resembles a loosely knit chosen family.

In Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, the women with whom she shared her year in prison became like family to each other.

Writing Prompt
How will your family figure in as a “character” in your memoir? List and describe the members of the group. Write a scene that demonstrates the way they interact with each other. Write a scene that demonstrates the way they supported you. Write another one that shows you wanting to hide from them or break out of their influence.

Notes
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page Author of Freeways to Flipflops

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Nine Reasons To Read Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

The more memoirs I read, the more lessons I learn, first about the literary form, second about other people, and third about myself. These benefits intertwine to form one of the best systems of self-development I know. Here are nine benefits, along with a few titles of memoirs that exemplify each one.

Reason #1: The Fascination and Relief of Story Reading

A good memoir offers the same release as any engaging story, allowing me to lose myself in the author’s world… a fine turn of phrase… a fascinating dramatic incident… a character I care about, travelling along an interesting path. All these factors contribute to my satisfaction.

Enough about me by Jancee Dunn: Enters the world of a young celebrity interviewer
The Sound of No Hands Clapping by Toby Young: Shares the world of an ambitious writer
The Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner: offers wisdom about physical illness
Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum: A runaway teen lives in the shelters of New York city

Reason #2: Inspiration based on life experience and loss

My grandmother used to say: “This too shall pass.” I didn’t understand her platitudes when I was young. They make more sense now in the pages of each memoir, which starts with an author facing a challenge and then proceeds through the journey to a resolution. In every case, life goes on and characters grow.

Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup: After losing a beloved husband, she searches to recover from grief and find the meaning of life and death.
Mothering Mother by Carol O’Dell: a daughter cares for a mother suffering from dementia
Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham: a non-standard childhood with her two uncles
Expecting Adam by Martha Beck: She pays homage to her Down Syndrome baby.
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott; She shares her search for the meaning of life
Shades of Darkness by George Brummell: A black man escapes Jim Crow south by joining the army. His war injuries blind him and he must grow through another round.

Reason #3: Insight into cultural mixing, the melting pot of modernity

In modernity, cultures and races mingle at an ever increasing rate. Now, more than ever, we urgently need to understand each other. Through memoirs I penetrate the veil of the Other, by accompanying them on their journey. I accompanied a multi-racial boy, Barack Obama, who visited ancestors in an African village. I accompanied a girl who grew up in Michigan, Mei Ling Hopgood, when she traveled to Taiwan to visit her birth family. I grew up with an Iranian girl, Firoozeh Dumas, in California, a young Jewish immigrant, Harry Bernstein, in Chicago, and a black man, Henry Louis Gates, in the waning years of Jim Crow south. Memoirs turn the American melting pot into a vibrant, detailed, emotionally challenging and enriching personal experience.

Dreams of our Fathers by Barack Obama: A man of mixed heritage seeks his identity at home and in Africa
Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: An African woman seeks asylum in Holland, and discovers that western culture holds the antidote to the injustice she suffered at home.
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas: An Iranian child grows up trying to adapt to the American culture.

The Dream by Harry Bernstein: A Jewish immigrant arrives in the U.S. melting pot before the depression.

Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham: A Vietnamese American returns to Vietnam to make sense of his roots

Colored People by Henry Louis Gates: A black man in Jim Crow south tries to outgrow the limitations his culture has placed on him.

Reason #4: See deep into another’s point of view, including gender, war, celebrity

In order to live in the world, I need insights into the way other people think and feel. By reading memoirs, I no longer need to guess. Each author tell me themselves.

Athletes
Open by Andre Agassi: A famous tennis player shares his hopes, dreams and fears.

Performers
Enter Talking by Joan Rivers: A Jewish college grad attempts to escape the ordinary success mandated by her parents and enter the magical kingdom of entertainment.

Vinyl Highway: Singing as “Dick and Dee Dee” by Dee Dee Phelps: A young woman is invited into a singing duo and finds herself on television and on tour in the sixties.

Soldiers
Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester: A veteran returns to the scene of his Pacific battles and tries to put his demons to rest.

A Temporary Sort of Peace by Jim McGarrah: A Vietnam combat soldier struggles to survive the war with his life and sanity intact. He just barely makes it.

House to House by David Bellavia: A vivid, gut wrenching account of house to house combat in Iraq.

Mental challenges
Look me in the eye by John Robison: A man with an unusual approach to life finds out in middle age that he has been living with undiagnosed Asperger’s

Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison: in the 1980s the author revealed the damaging effects of bipolar disorder, as told from the insider’s point of view.

Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields: about giving birth and realizing she had  postpartum depression

Girls
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro: a beautiful girl is seduced by power, drugs, and sex and must find her way back.

Name All the Animals by Alison Smith: small town girl must find her sexuality against the pressures of religion and grief.

A Girl Named Zippie by Haven Kimmel: a small town girl, who turns ordinary life into a fascinating journey.

Boys
Father Joe by Tony Hendra: about his fascination with the monastery and his admiration of a mentor.

True Notebooks by Mark Salzman about teaching writing to convicted juvenile offenders.

Townie by Andre Dubus, III about growing up as a fighter, trying to maintain his pride in a world that constantly tried to strip it away.

American Shaolin by Matthew Polly: An American college student moves to a Chinese temple in order to study martial arts.

Illness
Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner: a man suffers from Crohn’s disease and learns about life without food.

Seven Wheelchairs by Gary Presley: a man suffers polio and then learns to live with it. (Coming of Age in a wheelchair)

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor: a neuroanatomist suffers a massive stroke and during rehabilitation draws conclusions about the right and left halves of the brain.

Spirituality
Devotion by Dani Shapiro: She searches for deeper meaning in spirituality and religion.
Accidental Buddhist by Dinty Moore: A man trying to immerse himself in Buddhist practices and beliefs.

Fatherhood
The Film Club by David Gilmour: A father agrees to let his son drop out of high school with the proviso that they watch movies together.

Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler: A young man falls under a mysterious illness, and his father writes of the grief and search for courage.

Reason #5: To share their story, authors overcome shame and privacy

Some memories evoke the emotion of shame, which tries to convince us to lock our thoughts away and never reveal them. It requires courage to share such memories with the world. Every time someone achieves that goal, it offers a role model for other aspiring memoir writers. Here are some of the books that in another age would have been kept locked in terrible secrecy.

Lucky by Alice Sebold: A girl is brutally raped in college and must go on a journey of self-discovery, making sense of her life after trauma.

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff: A young man grows up with edgy, directionless experimentation.

Ten Points by Bill Strickland  In raising his little girl, the author tries to make peace with the abuse in his own childhood.

Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner: The author falls in love with a man who starts out charming, and the more she commits to him, the more violent and dangerous he becomes.

I Know Horror Father Because I Know You by Sue William Silverman: Sexually abused as a child, she shares a disturbing account of growing up fearing the man responsible for caring for her.

Reason #6: In the River of Culture, Writers and the Writing Life

All memoirs reflect the journey from life to literature, but when memoirs take us inside the writing life, we gain an even deeper appreciation for the written words that form the fabric of our culture. These stories shed light on the nobility and magic of being literate human beings.

On Writing by Stephen King: A famous author shares the story of becoming a writer.
Mentor by Tom Grimes: A student at the Iowa Writers Workshop shares an account of his relationship with the director of the program.

Only as good as your word, advice from my favorite writing mentors by Susan Shapiro: Shapiro tells of her long journey as an aspiring New York writer, by sharing the stories of important influences.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico – Memoir of A Sensual Quest For Spiritual Healing by Rick Skwiot: The author leaves his corporate job and moves to Mexico to find himself and his writing voice.

Mentor by Tom Grimes: An aspiring author enters Iowa Writers Workshop and practically worships at the altar of the craft.

Reason #7 Learn about the development of identity

Until I started reading memoirs, I thought childhood development was something I would only read about in textbooks. Now, in Coming of Age memoirs, I accompany people on the journey from infant to fully formed adult. Along the way are the strange trials and learning during the adolescent years when we must construct our notions of self. But Coming of Age doesn’t always follow a straight path, or necessarily finish by the age of twenty. Many authors tell of their ongoing effort to become themselves.

Coming of Age
Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls: Tales of chaotic upbringing land on the bestseller lists.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: A boy in Ireland with a drunk father and overwhelmed mother, must figure out how to grow up.

Townie by Andre Dubus III: A boy grows up relying on his fists. As he grows, he becomes curious about his father, a famous story writer, and gradually trades in his gloves for a pen.

Name all the animals by Alison Smith: A girl loses her brother in a tragic accident, and grows up struggling to find herself.

Extended or Late Coming of Age
Accidental Lessons by David Berner: He loses his marriage and career, and becomes a schoolteacher, starting over in his 50s.

Dopefiend by Tim Elhajj: Squandering his teen years in heroin addiction, he finally becomes clean at the age most of us are finished Coming of Age. The memoir is his journey to discover what adult life is all about.

Tis by Frank McCourt: After he arrives in New York, he must invent his own life. Through trial, error, and education, he gradually develops into a fully formed adult.

Life Summary
In many of my memoir workshops, people over 50 try to make sense of the events of their lives. I love this journey of discovery, and at the same time I am aware of the fine line that distinguishes memoir from autobiography. If you attempt to describe your whole life, the result is usually considered less literary, and more historical. However, I have seen evidence that with a sincere, artistic attempt to find the story, such writers can develop a compelling work. And how else will we ever learn to understand the entire journey, unless we write about it? For now, most of the people who achieve bookstore success with this type of memoir are already famous. In the future, I believe ordinary people will achieve success with this form.

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill: An editor in a venerable publishing house in England writes about the journey of life.

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda: His journey through life recounts formative experiences that help us appreciate the impact of extended periods of time.

Golden Willow by Harry Bernstein: After the age of 95, when his acclaimed memoir Invisible Wall was published, Bernstein continues to write two more memoirs. The third one, Golden Willow is written from the point of view of a man in his 90s, looking back on the sweep of life experience.

Moll Flanders by Daniel Dafoe is a fake autobiography written in 1721 about a woman who struggles to find her way, and often loses it, in her journey through life. Considering that it has survived as a classic for almost 300 years suggests that a lifetime can make good reading, when portrayed with expert storytelling skills.

Reason #8 Extend my vision to other parts of the world

At every stage of my life I have been influenced by wars and global politics. In high school, I was traumatized by repercussions of the Holocaust. In college, I was lost in the upheaval of the Vietnam War. In recent years, the power struggles of the mid-east have taken center stage. Over the years, I’ve been disturbed and intrigued by developments in India, Asia, and Africa. Now memoir writers take me on intimate tours of those conflagrations and forces of history.

Man on Mao’s Right by Ji Chaozhu: History of China during the reign of Chairman Mao.

Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson: Glimpse of the back country of Mongolia

House on Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper: Growing up privileged in Liberia

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Asar Nafisi: an English literature teacher faces danger in post-revolutionary Iran.

Vietnam: Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham: After Coming of Age in America, Pham quits his job and goes on a bicycle tour through Vietnam to discover his roots.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba, an African boy falls in life with practical gadgets and manufactures a windmill to generate electricity.

Reason #9 Learn about people attempting to relate to each other

When I was young, romantic love and lust were so tangled I had no idea how to tell one from the other. Over the years, I came to believe that the principle difference between the two comes to light in the commitment of a mutually respectful partnership. This simple insight took years of trial and error, but now that I read memoirs, I can speed up the movie. Memoirs tell of the emotional complexity of love, babies, sex, extended families, careers, and all the other things that go into a couple’s life.

Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Cook Fineberg: a newlywed woman moves with her husband to Japan and in this foreign culture must also discover herself within the relationship.

Digging Deep by Boyd Lemon: In this retrospective attempt to understand his three failed marriages, Lemon completely exposes his own limitations. While it was happening he assumed it was all their fault, but now looking, he realizes his only contribution to the relationship was money.

Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story, by Judith Dickerman-Nelson, she falls in love and becomes pregnant at the age of 16, and has much to figure out about love, social approval, commitment, and becoming a couple.

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman: a woman attempts to make a marriage work within the many rules and constraints of her Hasidic culture.

Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner: Her young love goes terribly wrong when she discovers her new husband is an abuser.

Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener: Tells the whole journey of love, marriage, and then surviving his illness and death when he is struck with cancer.

(This is a rewrite of an article published January 4, 2008 called Eight Reasons to Read Memoirs by Jerry Waxler)

Notes

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

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

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

Let us now praise those who serve – a new way to earn fame

By Jerry Waxler

I thought I saw Brooke Shields in a restaurant in Princeton. I didn’t want to be rude and stare, but the woman I was with had no such problem. She said, “Yup, that’s her.” Now, decades later, I still feel I have a special relationship with Brooke. I’ve heard similar star-struck stories all my life. For example, I once walked into a shoe store in Sausalito, California and the salesman gushed that Daryl Hannah had been shopping there a week earlier.

I worry about all this adulation of good looking people, and wonder if we are collectively heading in the same direction as teenagers whose first love is based solely on physical attraction. Such choices often end in disaster.

I wish we could base our collective admiration on qualities that run deeper. And I believe this is exactly the role memoirs could serve. Whether or not I knew the author before I started reading a memoir, by the time I finish, I feel we have grown closer, like traveling companions who have shared many miles.

Through memoirs I know the inner workings of all sorts of people. I know Haven Kimmel’s childhood in a small town in the Midwest. I know Kate Braestrup’s climb out of grief amidst the streams and forests of Maine. I know the horrors Jim McGarrah experienced in Vietnam, and the psychological cruelty endured by Sue William Silverman. I know what it was like for Rebecca Walker to grow up black, white, and Jewish.

While all these writers earn my regard, some emerge from the pages, using their books as a platform from which they can raise awareness of some cause.

Henry Louis Gates and Tavis Smiley raise awareness of intercultural relations in America. Firoozeh Dumas tirelessly advocates to improve relationships between the U.S. and the people of Iran. Ashley Rhodes-Courter lobbies to improve the foster care system in America. John Robison educates the public about Asperger’s. Greg Mortenson started the Central Asia Institute to educate poor children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton publicize the plight of wrongfully incarcerated prisoners.

Several memoirists offer the power of words, not just inside their book but also in classrooms and other literary programs, trying to call our attention to that power in our own lives.

Erin Gruwell started the Freedom Writers Foundation to promote educational reform. English professor Robert Waxler founded a program, Changing Lives Through Literature, CLTL, which offers the alternative sentence of studying books, helping convicted criminals escape their pattern of crime, and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg developed a group, Transformative Language Arts, dedicated to using language to transform and heal society.

My love for all these memoir writers continues to grow. Through stories and activism, we swap passion and build sustainable relationships based on a more solid foundation than beauty.

I don’t mean to imply that the people who tell their story necessarily look bad. In fact, even Brooke Shields has earned her place on this list. Her memoir “Down Came the Rain,” tells about her struggle through the dismal terror of postpartum depression. She has shared her potentially humiliating experience in order to raise awareness of an important mental health issue. In the process she also shows me there is more to her than just a pretty face.

Writing Prompt
Consider ways your life experience could serve a cause, through advocacy or activism. Try writing your book blurb or a press release about your memoir that emphasizes the public service of your private life.

Notes

More about Transformative Language Arts Network

More about the Freedom Writers Foundation

More about Changing Lives Through Literature alternative sentencing program

Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s home page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

Frequently asked questions about published memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Aspiring memoir writers ask me all kinds of questions, like “What’s your favorite?” or “How about those Million Little Pieces?” or “What is a memoir, anyway?” I will answer many of these common questions in groups, over the next month or two. Today’s questions are about published memoirs. Please feel free to add comments, questions or answers of your own.

What is a memoir?

In the old days, before 2000, memoirs were mainly to let people learn about famous people. Since the beginning of the Twenty First Century, definitions have changed. Now, memoirs are well-written stories, often about ordinary people. Published memoirs traverse the spectrum of human experience including Coming of Age, romance, war, family, mental and physical illness, career, religion, care giving, aging, culture clash, and the journey of self-discovery.

What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?

Until a few years ago, an “autobiography” was considered to be a historical record of a person’s life, without much effort to find a compelling story line. Such lifeless books are a dying breed. Nowadays, the term autobiography can refer to any first person attempt to communicate authentic human experience, crafted into well-told dramas. In fact, a book with the label “autobiography” may contain as much dramatic tension and character development as a book that calls itself a memoir.

For more on this subject, see my essay titled: Your Autobiography is the First Step Towards Writing Your Memoir

What is the difference between a memoir and a novel based on a true story?

Some novels claim they are based on actual events. This assertion does not offer readers much guidance. For all we know, only a thin web of facts links the story to reality, leading to endless speculation about where truth ends and fiction begins. However, if the book is to fulfill the charter of fiction, all scenes must serve the dramatic tension, whether they are true or not.

For example, the novel “Power of One” by Bryce Courtenay was billed as “fiction based on his life,” so Courtenay was free to create any scenes that propelled his story. The book ends in a life and death confrontation between two enemies, a scene filled with dramatic impact, but so slick and coincidental I can’t imagine it happened in real life.

By contrast, memoirs follow facts. Since life situations seldom wrap up with a tidy ending, memoirs tend to be rougher-hewn, sometimes ending on a philosophical note. Kate Braestrup’s powerful book “Here If you Need Me” ends with an analysis of Good and Evil, which flows as a beautiful conclusion to the story.

What is the difference between a memoir and a diary?

The goal of most diaries is to pour words onto paper, without intending it to be read by a stranger. You may not even intend to reread it yourself. By contrast, a memoir is crafted to communicate with strangers. To achieve this goal, the first draft is only the beginning. It may require years to learn the skills and develop the compelling stories.

What is your favorite memoir?

To research memoirs, I have been reading them for several years, and comment on the ones that interested me and which I believe would provide insight to other memoir writers. I have posted annotated list of books, each one offering a window into someone’s world while at the same time providing examples of the way an author translated life into story.

Here is my first list with more than 70 memoirs, annotated with comments.

Here are ten more books with mini-reviews.

It’s hard to say which ones are my favorites. The answer depends on what you are looking for. My favorite memoir of “good versus evil” is Kate Braestrup’s “Here If You Need Me.” My favorite ones driven by the writer’s voice are, “A Girl Named Zippy” and “She Got Up Off the Couch,” both by Haven Kimmel, and “Liar’s Club” by Mary Karr. My favorite for giving me permission to be a nerd is John Robison’s “Look Me in the Eye.” My favorites for insight into the workings of recent history are “Man on Mao’s Right” by Ji Chaozhu, “Crazy for God” by Frank Schaeffer, and “The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood” by Helene Cooper. My favorite for overcoming the darkness of an unsupported childhood is “Don’t Call me Mother,” by Linda Joy Myers. My favorite for allowing me to explore the dark side of human experience from the safety of my room are: “Slow Motion” by Dani Shapiro, “Lucky,” by Alice Sebold, and “A Temporary Sort of Piece” by Jim McGarrah. My favorite for a year in a motor home is “Queen of the Road” by Doreen Orion. And an even cleverer transformation of travel into memoir is “Zen and Now” in which author Mark Richardson takes a motorcycle ride along the road originally travelled by Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” How Zen is that? Each month I find new categories, and new favorites.

“Are memoirs true?” or “How about those Million Little Pieces”?

When James Frey’s memoir “Million Little Pieces,” was selected for Oprah’s book club, his sales skyrocketed. Then Oprah discovered that parts of the book were fiction. Summoning the offender to her television show, she rebuked him in front of millions of viewers. Like an angered parent, she furrowed her brow, tightened her lips, and leaning close said menacingly, “How dare you?” The incident affected our culture so broadly that for more than a year the topic of memoirs almost always provoked a question “How about Oprah and that guy who lied?” Her outburst did more than expose one case of fraud. It raised a much more troubling problem. How can we trust memoir authors when we can’t even prove the accuracy of our own memories? My advice: Speak your own truth, and do your best to surround yourself with others who wish to do the same.

To read my whole essay about truth in memoirs, click here.