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.

10 More Brief Book Reviews for Memoir Readers and Writers

by Jerry Waxler

Here are ten more of the memoirs I have read in my research to learn about people and their stories. To see a longer list, click here.

“This Boy’s Life: A Memoir” by Tobias Wolff

“This Boy’s Life” is a story of a young boy growing up with a single mom.  It’s a Coming of Age tale that pried open the door and started allowing in stories of ordinary people, presaging the Memoir Revolution. (He was noted as Alice Sebold’s Creative Nonfiction professor in her memoir “Lucky.”) By publishing the story of his childhood, Wolff offers our generation a new opportunity to explore that period of our own lives.

“She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts” by Haven Kimmel

This is about an ordinary girl living in a small town in the Midwest. Her brilliant authorial voice commands attention and offers entertainment. It’s an excellent example of how great storytelling can turn ordinary life into compelling reading. It’s also a good example of a memoir sequel, following Kimmel’s first equally engaging memoir “A Girl Named Zippy.”

“What I know for sure, My story of growing up in America” by Tavis Smiley

This is a classic tale of rising from poverty into fabulous success through the power of personal charm, hard work and relentless ambition. Unique features of the book include a highly disciplined black family in a mostly white town in the Midwest, and a crossover story of a black man succeeding in white America, starting with his election as class president of his almost all-white high school. In addition, it is an example of a ghost or co-written book with David Ritz.

“The Liar’s Club: A Memoir” by Mary Karr

Mary Karr grew up in a complex childhood filled with emotional drama, including alcohol, mental breakdown, and economic hardship. But equal to the power of her circumstances is the power of her voice. It is one of the most commanding voices of any memoir I have read, filled with clever observations that ring true. Her insights provide a new way of experiencing childhood. I would go anywhere with Karr, which is why I ordered her second memoir, Cherry. (I’m falling behind. She has already released her third.) I consider “Liar’s Club” to be one of the canonical Coming of Age tales that launched the revolution. (Others are “Glass Castle,” by Jeanette Walls, “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt, and “This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff.)

“The Last Lecture,” Randy Pausch, Jeffrey Zaslow

Randy Pausch was invited to give a “last lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University, not because he was retiring but dying of pancreatic cancer. In his lecture, he shared wisdom he acquired during his brilliant but brief career as a professor. The lessons were picked up by Wall Street Journal Columnist Jeff Zaslow and turned into a book called “The Last Lecture” in which Pausch shared his experience of life in short essays that translate life experience into rule the reader could live by.

The fact that the book was so fabulously successful is a testament to Pausch’s insights. Its popularity also hints at an unspoken respect for those who offer wisdom as they approach death. Like a hero soldier who throws himself on a grenade, offering a model of superhuman generosity as his final legacy, Zaslow proves you can do good things even when you are going to die.

“The Kids are All Right: A memoir” by Diana Welch, Liz Welch, Amanda Welch, Dan Welch

“The Kids are all Right” was written by an ensemble cast of four siblings. Their mom was a Soap Opera star so it may look at first like this is a “celebrity memoir,” in which case the only reason to read it would be to learn more about mom. But the memoir doesn’t belong to the mom but to her four children who, after both parents died, had to come of age in challenging circumstances. It’s an example of the experience of becoming orphaned, an example of the transition from privilege to suffering and confusion. It’s an example of a memoir written from more than one voice. And it is a portrait of siblings who turned towards each other in order to survive adversity.

“True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall” by Mark Salzman

Mark Salzman was a successful author who volunteered to teach creative writing to violent juvenile offenders. As he teaches them to write, they teach him who they are and how they landed in this prison, offering an amazing window into their world, their dreams, their youth and confusion, and their suffering. It’s also a window into the power of writing to reveal inner worlds. The author authentically reproduces street language, and captures individual voice tone and rhythm, slouches and expressions. Judging from the title of the memoir, it’s an amazing display of how a writer can use writer’s notebooks to capture the tone of real experience.

The book raises awareness about a segment of our population that most of try to shut out of our mind. The author was recruited into this work by Sister Janet Harris, of the Inside Out Writers program, an organization in Los Angeles that tries to humanize imprisoned kids.

“Teach with Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from The Freedom Writers” by Erin Gruwell

This is the memoir of Erin Gruwell, the mastermind behind the Freedom Writers, a band of Los Angeles high school students who delved into the meaning of their lives by writing and sharing their diaries. In “Teach With Your Heart” Erin Gruwell offers deeper insight into a world I have already started learning about. Combined with “The Freedom Writers Diary” book and movie, I now have an excellent appreciation for Gruwell’s work and her world.

Click here to see my essay about the Freedom Writers Diary.

“Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour

Miranda Seymour as an almost-aristocrat just when the British Aristocracy was breathing its last gasp. “Oh, no,” I thought, when I first saw it. “Not another book about the demise of aristocracy! I thought I knew it all after watching the fabulous television shows “Brideshead Revisited” and Upstairs Downstairs.” But those were nearer the beginning of the Twentieth Century when the class system was starting to crumble. Miranda Seymour’s memoir takes place at the end of the century. Miranda’s father George was the last of a dying breed, while Miranda herself grew up in the post-aristocratic era. She needed to find her own way, and become her own person, making it a terrific Coming of Age story of a woman who had to move from the old world to the new one. Her transformation was captured in a memorable line. “I was dancing topless in Los Angeles, in a bar where I was the only white.” She uses research into her father’s life, including extensive use of his diaries and letters.

“Courage to Walk” by Robert Waxler

(Publishedby Spinner Publications )

Jeremy Waxler, a vibrant young athlete and lawyer, loses control of his legs, and becomes paralyzed. The search for the cause and cure of his mysterious illness reads at first like a medical thriller, except it’s not a book about medicine. It’s about the love of a father for his son. In a previous memoir, “Losing Jonathan,” published in 2003, Robert Waxler recounts the loss of his first son to an overdose. In this current memoir, Waxler watches in horror as his second beloved son teeters on the edge of life. Waxler again travels into the abyss, trying to make sense, telling the story as a reporter, a father, and a philosopher. Robert Waxler is a professor of literature, and he uses this vast reservoir of wisdom offered by other writers to help maintain his balance.

Links to Amazon Pages

“This Boy’s Life: A Memoir” by Tobias Wolff

She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel

“What I know for sure, My story of growing up in America” by Tavis Smiley

“The Liar’s Club: A Memoir” by Mary Karr

“Last Lecture,” Randy Pausch, Jeffrey Zaslow


“The Kids are All Right: A memoir” by Diana Welch, Liz Welch, Amanda Welch, Dan Welch

“True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall” by Mark Salzman

“Teach with Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from The Freedom Writers” by Erin Gruwell

“Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour

“Courage to Walk” by Robert Waxler
(Publishedby Spinner Publications )

More memoir writing resources

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

Annotated List of Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

When I talk about the power of memoirs, people often ask, “which ones do you recommend.” The answer is “It depends.” There are so many memoirs, of all manner of experience, in various styles, by ordinary people and celebrities, about recent memories or distant ones, of tragedy and comedy. Do you want entertainment, empathy, insight, or all three? Since I am a lover of memoirs, I keep searching and finding new styles, new subjects, and deeper lessons. Here is a list of the memoirs I’ve read which provide the insights and experience for the MemoryWritersNetwork . They  represent the community of memoir writers as well as the community of humanity. I have added a brief note with each. This list is in no particular order.

“Dreams of our Fathers,” by Barack Obama
A boy with a white mother and black father grows up poor, and tries to understand his heritage. This is the story of his self-discovery.

Related Post: Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father, first thoughts

“Don’t Call me Mother,” Linda Joy Myers
It’s a detailed saga of growing up in an emotionally abusive environment, “orphaned” not by death but by abandonment into the care of her emotionally erratic grandmother.

Related Blog: Mothers and Daughters Don’t Always Mix

“Ten Points,” by Bill Strickland
Child abuse in the past, contrasted with the healing effects of bicycle racing and loving family life in the present. Compelling writing. A great cycling memoir.

Related Blogs: Memoir of Redemption: Author Shares His Writing Experience,
Memoir of abuse and redemption, book review

“Angela’s Ashes,” by Frank McCourt
Childhood in poverty, alcoholism, and Irish culture. Ends with “coming home to America.” This book was one of the early shots in the current Memoir Revolution, signaling that the story of an ordinary person could become a best seller.

Related Blog: Finished Memoir: Angela’s Ashes

“Glass Castle,” by Jeanette Walls
Zany, out-of-control girl’s childhood on the move in the American west. Despite the laughs, it’s really about overcoming a tragically dysfunctional family. Blows the doors off the isolation of childhood. See my essay, “Why Coming of Age memoirs ought to be a genre.

“Running with Scissors,” by Augusten Burroughs. Zany, out-of-control boy’s childhood. Disturbing images, and situations that a child ought never be exposed to, including sexuality contributed to its notoriety. Good example of ripping open dark childhood secrets.

“Sleeping Arrangements” by Laura Shaine Cunningham
Girl’s childhood in New York Jewish immigrant family, raised by loving, quirky uncles after the death of her mother.

“A Girl Named Zippy” by Haven Kimmel
Loving observations of an ordinary childhood in the mid-west. A good example of an ordinary coming of age made readable by a powerful authorial voice.

“Name All the Animals,” Alison Smith
A small town mid-western childhood, marred mainly by the tragic death of a brother. It also shows her sexual self-discovery.

“Three Little Words,” Ashley Rhodes Courter
Experiences of her difficult childhood in foster care. As an adult she became a spokesperson for improvement of the foster care system. An excellent example of a memoir used to further social advocacy.

Related Essay: Who protects the children? Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

“Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir” by Carol D. O’Dell
Taking care of her mother with Alzheimer’s this sandwich-generation mom and daughter has to manage to take care of herself emotionally while she tends to a mom with a disintegrating sense of self. The book provides a good example of journaling as a tool for surviving difficulty and writing a memoir.

Related Essay: Memoir about Caregiving for Mother offers lessons for life

“An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison
Life with mental illness, Bipolar disorder back when it was called manic-depression. The author was a researcher and clinician in mental health. This was a groundbreaking book that showed mental illness from the inside.

“Look Me in the Eye,” by John Robison
Life with Asperger’s. He lives an unusually nerdy and withdrawn childhood, focused more on technology and people. Later in life he realizes that his characteristics match the profile of Asperger’s, a revelation which has given his life new purpose. It’s an unusual book in that it covers the lifespan from childhood to the present. Using parenthood as a sort of closure is a nice touch at the end.

Related essay: John Robison’s Asperger’s gave me permission to write about myself

“Mistress’s Daughter,” A.M. Homes
Trying to find her true identity by connecting with her biological parents. It explores family, genealogy, and adoption.

“Slow Motion” by Dani Shapiro
Literary woman coming of age while lost in a bottle. Major component is terrible family dysfunction.

Related Essay: What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?

“Life in a Bottle” by Susan Cheever
Literary woman coming of age while lost in a bottle. Privileged life, “upper class American.”

“Beautiful Boy, a Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” by David Sheff
Addiction of a son and journalistic exploration of meth addiction. This is a companion to “Tweak” by David’s son, Nic Sheff.

“Tweak, Growing up on Amphetamines” by Nic Sheff
Addiction by a meth addict, and gritty kid-on-the-street, tragedy of over-privileged kid, twelve steps. This is a companion to “Beautiful Boy” by Nic’s father, David Sheff.

Related Essay: Matched pair of memoirs show both sides of addiction
See also Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Losing Jonathan

“Expecting Adam,” by Martha Beck
Spiritual awakening, mothering a child with Down Syndrome, escape from over-intellectualized self-image.

“Down Came the Rain” by Brooke Shields
Postpartum Depression of a celebrity.

Related Essays:

Brooke Shields teaches mommies and memoir writers
5 Reasons why I read Brooke Shields’ “Down Came the Rain” even though I avoid celebrity memoirs

“Funny in Farsi,” by Firoozeh Dumas
An Iranian-American immigrant tells about her family’s adjustment to America with compassion and humor.

Related Essay: Iranian in America makes love and laughter

“Colored People” Henry Louis Gates
Cultural mixings, growing up black just on the cusp of the civil rights era, portrayal of small town, Jim Crow,  life in West Virginia

“Invisible Wall” by Harry Bernstein
Cultural mixings, growing up in England on the edge of anti-semitism –he was a child before World War I. He was 92 when he wrote the book.

“The Dream” by Harry Bernstein
A follow up to his first memoir, Invisible Wall, this tells about his first years in the U.S. after immigrating from Britain in the 20’s. It’s a good example of an immigration story (a British Jew to Chicago) and a fabulous example that it’s never too late. He was 93 when he wrote it.

Related Essay: Harry Bernstein’s Second Memoir, Still Writing at 98!

“Here if you need me,” by Kate Braestrup
Grief and spirituality, Maine woods, religion versus spirituality, secular religion. Excellent treatment of Good and Evil.

Related Essay: Kate Braestrup’s memoir transforms grief into love

“Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion
Grief from a more psychological vantage point, from a famous essay writer. Example of a sophisticated essay style.

“Queen of the Road” by Doreen Orion
A married couple, both psychiatrists, take a year off to travel the U.S. in an RV and cope with midlife crisis.

Essays about Doreen Orion’s “Queen of the Road”:
Style, humor, and other tips from Doreen Orion’s Travel Memoir
Identity moves too in Doreen Orion’s travel memoir

Pets, motion, and other tips from a travel memoir
Doreen Orion’s brilliant memoir about last year’s midlife crisis

“Zen and Now” by Mark Richardson
Traveling the U.S. on a motorcycle to cope with midlife crisis, and research the same road traveled by Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

Related Essay: Break the Rules! A Travel Memoir with a Twist of Zen

“Vinyl Highway” by Dee Dee Phelps
Sixties nostalgia of a rock singer, of “Dick and Dee Dee” fame, and the story of a girl coming of age.

Related Essay: Fame and Story Structure in Dee Dee’s 60’s memoir
To read the two part interview with the author: Click Here for Part 1 and … Here for Part 2

“In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson” by Sue Erikson Bloland
Life with a famous parent, and some (not enough) analysis of the phenomenon of fame.

“Native State” by Tony Cohan
Life with a parent obsessed by celebrities — excellent flashbacks of the sixties counter-culture, and musical culture of Jazz, a great story about a coming of age that struggled to stay on the rails.

“Shades of Darkness” by George E. Brummell
Growing up black in the Jim Crow south and then losing his sight as a result of a Vietnam war injury. Good example of a well-written self-published book, good portrayal of living a full life under the added burden of disability.

Related Essay: Blind veteran finds his voice by writing

“Seven Wheelchairs,” by Gary Presley
A lifetime in a wheel chair after polio, includes much story telling, some essay style, and important exploration of his thoughts.

Related Essay: Gary Presley’s Memoir Defangs the Horror of Aging and Disability

“Hands Upon My Heart,” Perry Foster
He survived a heart attack. The story of his botched heart surgery. A bit edgy. Excellent first-time self-published book.

Related Essay: Memoir writing lessons from the heart

“Trading Secrets,” Foster Winans
Surviving a legal setback. He was a journalist for the Wall Street Journal who landed in jail due to an insider trading indiscretion. He is now a ghost-writer.

“Temporary Sort of Peace,” by James McGarrah
Surviving Vietnam War PTSD, really gritty. Botched coming of age. He’s an English professor and poet now.

Related Essay: Storytellers shed light on the horrors of war

“Lucky,” Alice Sebold
Surviving the trauma of a violent rape. The tragic personal cost of rape, and the long journey back. Sebold is an acclaimed novelist. The title “Lucky” is based on a comment by a cop who said she was lucky her rapist let her live.

Related Essay: Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a searing memoir of trauma

“My Detachment,” by Tracy Kidder
The boring, dreary, humiliating experience of being an officer in a meaningless war. Kidder is famous as one of the founders of the Creative Nonfiction movement with his first immersion reporting “Soul of a New Machine.” He has written a number of immersion books. This one is not about other people. It’s about his own life.

“In Pharoah’s Army,” Tobias Wolff
Another founder of the literary memoir movement, in this book Tobias Wolff writes about the meaninglessness of soldiering in Vietnam.

“Three Cups of Tea” by Gregg Mortenson
Life of service and insight in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A fabulous book of international service, and “finding meaning through service.” Sub-theme: To conquer enemies, make them friends.

Related Essay: “Find meaning through service” or “Making peace with the peasants of Pakistan”

“The Pact” by Sampson Davis, et al
Triumph against the odds, three black doctors who rose from the mean streets of New Jersey to become doctors. Wonderful story of young men using education and mutual respect to escape poverty and the ghetto.

“On Writing” by Stephen King
This famous and wildly successful writer shares his writing life and tips about writing.

“Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott
Musings and personal essays on her experience as a writer, offered as support and insight to others.

“Sound of No Hands Clapping” by Toby Young
Writer about promoting. This is funny, and more psychologically insightful than it looks. Great look at the zany pressure of “making it” as a writer.

“Don’t Have Your Dog Stuffed” by Alan Alda
Alda’s fame don’t prevent this lovely autobiography to be intimate and sincere. He displays his life (including childhood) in show biz, lifelong curiosity about people, science and drama

“Enough About Me” by Jancee Dunn
A young woman coming of age gets a job interviewing celebrities and becomes something of a celebrity herself, while still managing to see herself as a small town girl.

Related Essay: Celebrity interviewer turns the camera on herself

“The Path: One Man’s Quest on the Only Path There is” by J. Donald Walters
When Walters comes of age, he follows Yogananda. It’s an insider look into a religious movement.

“Thank you and OK! An American Zen Failure in Japan,” by David Chadwick
Seeking spirituality in Japan. A travel book of Japan, and a story of spiritual coming of age.

“Traveling Mercies” by Anne Lamott
Spiritual musings, more essay than memoir.

“Fear is No Longer my Reality,” by Jamie Blyth
This is a combination memoir and self-help book. This minimizes the memoir aspect, interspersing it with commentary from friends and experts. Jamie Blyth was famous because of his appearance on a television show, and the book leverages that fame.

Related Essay: Afraid to write your memoir? Read this book!

“I know you really love me,” by Doreen Orion
Orion is a psychiatrist who was stalked for years by an obsessive patient. She writes about the experience, psychology, and laws of stalking from a first person point of view.

“Fugitive Days” by Bill Ayers
Out-of-control sixties political protesting. This book was made famous during the Obama campaign. Good (sometimes shocking and extreme) scenes of the anti-war fervor.

Related Essay: Read banned memoirs: Criminal or Social Activist

“Sky of Stone” by Homer Hickham
Coal mining town in West Virginia faces a possible corporate takeover. The author is famous for his first memoir Rocket Boys which became a movie and smash hit. It’s an example of what a powerful, polished storyteller can do with a set of memories which he had pushed aside for 30+ years.

“The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir” by Bill Bryson
A story of childhood in the fifties, emphasizing historical information about the times and humor about a boy growing up in a small town.

“The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood” by Helene Cooper
Helene Cooper grew up in the African country of Liberia. The country was founded by freed American slaves in the early 19th century, and the founders established themselves as a privileged class. Helene Cooper grew up and watched her world torn apart by violent, tribal anarchy.

“The Man on Mao’s Right” by Ji Chaozhu
A key figure in Mao Tse Tung’s government looks back over more than 60 years of public and private life. Co-written by an American journalist, Foster Winans, the book is a well told page turner that pulls you into history from the inside.

Related Essay: Seeing history through the eyes of one man

“Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back” by Frank Schaeffer
This is a fascinating insight into the political-evangelical culture of the late Twentieth Century as seen through the eyes of one of its architects. Frank Schaeffer grew up in a commune run by his famous theologian parents, and used those experiences to launch his own wild ride through history.

Related Essay: One man’s battle with sexuality changed the world

“Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin
A powerful insight into becoming a world famous comedian, starting from an ordinary childhood. It gives step by step instructions for stage performance, growing famous, and then looking back.

Related Essay: Celebrity lessons for writers

“Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg
Life with a famous and very smart parrot. Pets, science, intelligence. A bird buddy story.

Related Essay: Life with a famous parrot, Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg

“Marley and Me” by John Grogan
An awesome buddy story of a man, his family, and his dog. Made into a movie, the story has the emotion, drama, warmth. It’s a powerful example of how a good writer can transform life into the magic of story.

Related Essay: A dog made famous by an expert storyteller

“Enter Talking” by Joan Rivers
This is the story of her journey from being an ordinary, ambitious college girl to becoming a successful, soon to be world-famous comedian. It’s emotional, authentic and inspiring.

Related Essay: Memoir by Celebrity Joan Rivers Offers Lessons for Aspiring Writers

“Color of Water” by James McBride
A black journalist grew up with a white Jewish mother. The book is an ode to her, and a racially complex journey of self-discovery.

Related Essay: Color of Water, a memoir of race, family and fabulous writing

“Picking Cotton, Memoir of Injustice and Redemption” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, with Erin Torneo
“Two lives were ruined that night.” A double tragic story, about a woman whose life was ripped apart by rape and a man wrongly sent to prison for violating her. The heart of the book comes when the mistake is discovered, they become friends and social advocates. Excellent example of a book used for social advocacy.

Related Essay: Mistaken Identification: A memoir of injustice and redemption

“Black, White, and Jewish” by Rebecca Walker
This is a Coming of Age, Search for Identity story, by the daughter of a famous black author Alice Walker and a successful white father. The split in her world was compounded by both race and class. She spent her young life shuttling between their two very different worlds.

“The Freedom Writers Diary : How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them,” by the Freedom Writers, Zlata Filipovic and Erin Gruwell
A collection of diary entries by an ensemble cast of teenagers trying to discover their own peace in the “undeclared war” of race and gangs in Los Angeles.

Related Essay: Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

“Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You” by Sue William Silverman
This disturbing memoir is about sexual abuse starting from infancy and extending throughout adolescence. Thought provoking, well-written, confessional, reflecting on the intimate pain of a damaged childhood.

Related Essay: Fearlessly Confessing the Dark Side of Memory in this Memoir of Sexual Abuse

“Losing Jonathan” by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
This is about the loss of a son to addiction, and the parents who wrestle with grief and the meaning of life.

Related Essay: A memoir of mourning helps makes sense of loss

“Crazy Love” by Leslie Morgan Steiner
A young, successful woman, graduate of Harvard and editor at Seventeen Magazine, fell in love with a man who had been abused as a child. Soon he started hitting and choking her. It’s the story of how her love kept her prisoner, and reveals an inside look at how a smart, motivated and loving woman can feel trapped in an abusive marriage.

“American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China” by Matthew Polly
The author dropped out of Princeton to go and study Kung Fu in China. It’s a fight book, a cultural exploration, and a young man in search of his own identity.

“The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body” by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
Mirriam-Goldberg survived breast cancer while she was organizing an environmental conference. Includes spirituality, family, and community.

Related Interview: Memoir author speaks of spirituality, religion, and cancer

“Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo” by Zlata Filopovic
This is a published diary of an 11 year-old girl, without comment or additional narrative, tells the daily challenges of growing up in a tragic descent of a healthy girl, in a healthy family community into the besieged, senseless, desolate, catastrophe of war. It’s an example of “Diary” as “Memoir.”

Related Essay:  A diary for social change. A young girl’s terrible experience of war.

“Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage” by Linda Wisniewski
Wisniewski grew up  feeling like she didn’t fit in – on one level because of the scoliosis that made her feel less straight, and on another level because of her mother’s willingness to let girls take second place.

Related Essays: Riddle of the Sphinx – Stand Straight for Dignity
The powerful story of an ordinary woman

“My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour
Seymour grew up in an old English country home. Her father was quirky at best, and narcissistic and obsessive at worst. The story is told with deep appreciation for the love and troubles of her family, and the continued deterioration of the British Class system through the second half of the Twentieth Century. Two unusual devices in the book are her mother’s occasional introjections, and extensive research based on her father’s diaries.

“Rocky Stories” by Michael Vitez, photographs by Tom Gralish
This is a collection of profiles of people who race up the “Rocky Stairs” in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Vitez parked there off and on for a year, took the picture of jubilant Rocky followers, and asked them to explain what triumph they were hoping for or celebrating. Through these moments you can sometimes glimpse the trials of a whole lifetime.

Related Essay: Memoir Writing Prompt — Your Rocky Story

More memoir writing resources

10 More Memoirs I Recommend

5 More Memoirs I Recommend

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.

Lessons memoir writers can learn from Zombies

By Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Brad Pitt recently bought the movie rights to “World War Z,” a thriller by Max Brooks. Once Pitts star-powered name became attached to the project, everyone wanted to write books or shoot movies about creatures who looked human but have no soul. Thriller writer Jonathan Maberry jumped in with “Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead.” To research the book, he interviewed over 250 experts, including the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control, and his local police rapid response team. He even interviewed me, asking for a therapist’s point of view about the fear and mass trauma that might result from a Zombie outbreak.

Even though I have no interest in writing about Zombies, I regularly take writing classes from Maberry, finding his instruction helpful in unpredictable ways. In this lesson he was making the point that fiction writers can use research to create a more compelling world. I pondered how to apply the principle to memoirs. As I look through my bookshelf, I discover many examples in which factual reporting adds clarity and depth to a memoir writer’s story.

David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy” reports the background of his son’s addiction to Crystal Meth. Doreen Orion’s first memoir, “I know you really love me,” recounts her experience of being stalked by a patient. During this extended intrusion, she became an expert in the psychological as well as the legal problems of stalking.

When Linda Joy Myers wrote her memoir “Don’t Call Me Mother” she visited the wheat fields and train stations that played such an important role in her childhood in the Great Plains. She rode the trains to awaken vivid memories. And she studied the history of Iowa and Oklahoma, and visited cemeteries and courthouses to track down records of her genealogy.

Kate Braestrup’s memoir “Here If You Need Me” describes exquisite details of the natural habitat of Maine. Foster Winans went to the library to find out the weather in New York on key days in his memoir, “Trading Secrets.” (His advice: “weather ought to be considered another character.”)

Memoir writers even toss in facts for entertainment. For example, in Doreen Orion’s second memoir, “Queen of the Road,” she was at a club listening to a local country music band, when a little girl got up on stage and did a clog dance. Just for fun, Orion inserted a brief explanation of the history of clog dancing.

When I dig back into my own past, many facts seem hazy. Research helps fill them in. For example, to help me remember the riot in 1967 that changed my life, I found two documentary movies, “The War at Home” and “Two Days in October” both covering the Dow Chemical protest riot in Madison Wisconsin. In one of them, an interview with a young man reminded me how much we truly believed that protests could eradicate injustice and create world peace. We even threw poverty into the mix of problems we were going to solve. To help organize my memories about high school, I signed up for Classmates.com and have corresponded with a couple of guys I have not seen in decades.

My goal is remarkably similar to Jonathan Maberry’s. We both want to tell a good story. So I keep listening and keep learning lessons about the relationship between life and story. For example, in a previous discussion he told me that flaws in real people prepare him to write deeper characterization in his novels, a discussion I reported in another essay.

I wonder what else I can learn from Jonathan’s lesson about Zombie folklore. Their current popularity is simply the latest chapter in a centuries-old fascination. In the middle ages, there was the Golem, a Jewish myth about a person who had no soul. In the nineteenth century Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was created from inanimate body parts. And  in the Wizard of Oz, the Tin Man and Scarecrow wanted to inject human qualities into their inanimate bodies. Looking at my own life through the metaphor, I see the lesson I was looking for.

When I was a young man, I was fascinated by math and science, and bent my entire will into interpreting the universe as a sort of machine. I became obsessed with finding all the physical rules, and the longer I followed this path, the more depressed I became. By the time I was 23, I had lost my will to live.

Finally, from sheer desperation I dipped into the spiritual ideas that were permeating the culture in 1970. Those ideas restored my hope. Ever since, I have invested at least part of my attention to finding the spirit in every day life. Until recently, I thought this interior journey was a private one that couldn’t possibly concern readers. But now that Jonathan has pointed out the vast numbers of people who want to know more about Zombies, I wonder if their curiosity would extend to the true story of a guy who spent his life trying not to be one. It looks like the Zombie wave could add more spirit to my life story than I first realized.

Writing Prompt
List some research that can contribute to your story. For example, list specific examples of people you could interview, points in history you could learn more about, or health and medical details that would help explain what you were going through.

Writing Prompt
What puts the soul or deeper humanity in your story? List specific instances of some of the more sublime aspects of your life, such as spirituality, service to others, creativity, and desire to see others succeed?

Note – Turning Nonfiction into Fiction
Maberry’s research was creating a modern folklore to help him understand what makes Zombies tick and what the rest of the world thinks about it. He’s already used this technique. Author of one of the most successful and authoritative books about Vampire Folklore, Maberry wrote a thriller trilogy, starting with Ghost Road Blues, based on that creature. Now he’s doing it again.

Maberry’s extensive research into Zombie lore is turning into a novel. “While researching plagues and epidemics ZOMBIE CSU, I began speculating on how this info could form the backbone of a novel.  The concept blossomed from there: a plague that reduces people to a state that simulates death while creating uncontrollably violent behavior.  That idea became PATIENT ZERO, which will be my first mainstream thriller, set for release in March by St. Martins Press.”

Many fiction writers start with facts. For example, Jason Goodwin studied the Ottoman Empire as an historian. Later he turned his knowledge into a setting for fiction, having recently published the murder mystery, “The Snake Stone,” set in the city Istanbul that he had come to know so well.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Escaping the prison of what might have been

By Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Tony Cohan, author of the memoir “Native State” grew up listening to his father speak about popular musicians with the awe usually reserved for gods. Cohan’s father, Phil, produced a variety show in the heyday of radio, and famous performers like Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante filled dad’s heart with admiration and also put food on his table. It was natural for young Tony to want to grow up to be one of the performers his dad revered. At 13-years-old Tony played his first gig as a drum player at a high school dance. Then he moved “up” to bars and strip clubs. A few years later, his ambition took him to North Africa and Spain, where he played with the hippest jazz performers, but nothing satisfied him. No matter how far he progressed as a musician, his life remained stuck in dimly lit nightclubs, poverty, drugs, and danger.

Flash forward a couple of decades. Cohan is earning his living as a successful writer, living in Mexico with his girl friend. This explains why he felt stuck all those years. Music was taking him in the wrong direction. He wasn’t able to find satisfaction until he escaped his original goal. Empathizing with Cohan’s frustration, I turn pages, wanting him to find his true dream.

I have met many men and women whose lives started in one direction, say towards a profession, or marriage and babies, or the family business. Then they end up somewhere else. Often the change in direction leaves them or their parents confused, as if they have disrupted destiny or lost a crucial component of their own identity.

Later in life, they look back and wonder about the discrepancy between the initial story and the later one. If they describe it as they originally felt it, it raises issues of disappointment and regret, or anger and rebellion. They feel echoes of the initial confusion. All these years later, something about the transition into adulthood still feels “wrong.” And yet if they don’t include it, the story feels incomplete, as if they are ignoring major events.

I had such a fracture in my own Coming of Age. On the rare nights when dad could get away from the store to join the family for dinner, he told stories about his customers. His tone about most people was overly familiar, jocular, often condescending. But when he talked about doctors, the tone changed. As a pharmacist, he was simply fulfilling their orders. They were his gods. I didn’t want to be one of the mortals, the everyday people who became the butt of dad’s jokes. I wanted to be one he respected. To achieve that dream, I became increasingly tense about amassing knowledge. My intellectual drive constricted my view of myself and my role in the world.

By the time I was 18, I had become hyper-focused on science, math, and medicine, and becoming a doctor was the only Truth worth living for. Then, something very strange and disturbing happened. I entered college during the sixties, when cultural and political upheaval stirred my world into a frenzy. I became interested in philosophy and literature. Shaken loose from my original obsession, I started rebelling against everything, and then dropped out to pursue some hippie utopian fantasy.

I replay the events over and over. I was a hardworking and competent young man with a well-stocked arsenal of academic gifts already in place by the time I was 18. I wanted this one thing so badly. Then, like a clown stepping on a banana peel, I slipped and fell on my ass. For years, I thought my academic pratfall meant I was a failure. I didn’t live up to my own or my father’s expectations. Now as I review Tony Cohan’s story, I see my life journey from a different point of view.

When I threw myself into the social revolution and rejected everything my father and family stood for, it was not an accident. It was a choice. Math and science satisfied me mentally but cut me off emotionally from the rest of the world. Something inside me was crying out for release. Like a prisoner who takes advantage of a riot to cover his escape, I used the sixties to help me break out.

It turned out to be a messy process. Without my father’s dream, I was on my own. In the following decades, I explored a rich variety of life styles, shared my days with a far broader set of companions, pursued creative outlets in computers and psychology, writing and spirituality. The life that I actually lived is fine, despite the fact that it’s different from the one I thought I was heading towards.

For most of my life, I have tried to forget that loss of momentum, hating the accompanying emotions of failure and regret. Who wants to dwell on the crappy past? But finally, now that I apply my storytelling intelligence, I begin to see how one boy’s life played out. The events in high school and college, while seeming so vast at the time, were just the beginning of the story, not the end. In the beginning I thought I understood how life was supposed to be. And then came the decades of learning how it actually was. As I translate the fragments of my life into my life story, I develop a much deeper understanding of my own path.

In one sense, we are all “trapped.” First we are confined by the expectations instilled in us by our family, community, and society. Second, we feel trapped by what already happened. As life plays out, our past choices limit us to only a sliver of the infinite possibilities that might have been.

Yet, in addition to these two confinements there are also two freedoms. First, we apply our intelligence and creativity to make the best choices in each new moment. Second, as storytellers, we are free to interpret our past in the most interesting and engaging way. That original story of who we were supposed to be was just a springboard. Now it is our choice to craft the story of what actually happened. By exploring the past as a storyteller, we can become more accepting of this complex person, with all the twists and energy that have emerged from the cauldron of the past.

Writing Prompt
What initial story did you feel constrained to follow? Which parts did you end up fulfilling? Which parts did you not? Write an anecdote about a time when you felt your earlier dream slipping away. Write another one about an early image of yourself coming true.

Writing Prompt
Consider any regrets you might have about an earlier direction that felt like it slipped away. Look at those experiences as a storyteller, and create a positive reason for turning in the new direction. Write a story in the third person about a satisfied person who lived the life you actually lived. In your story, let this satisfied person meet a miserable person who followed the course you originally thought you were supposed to follow.

Writing Prompt
Another approach is to develop an alternative reality in fiction. By setting yourself free in the world of imagination, you can discover entire lifetimes. Write an anecdote about a key transition. Use it as a basis for a fictional story, and see where your imagination takes your character.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]