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]

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

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

Dani Shapiro’s memoir “Slow Motion” is a study in desire. When she enters Sarah Lawrence, one of the top liberal arts schools in the U.S., she is young, beautiful, and rich. Then, a man 20 years older swoops into her life, picks her up in his limousine and showers her with flowers. At first she is disgusted. Then she gives in, and starts taking more and more of his gifts. The problem is he’s the step-dad of her best friend, he’s married, and he’s a liar. Every time he pulls another creepy stunt, I want to scream, “Run!”

I’ve heard plenty of real-life stories of people’s lives being destroyed by love affairs and addiction. Now this book puts me inside the head of someone choosing a self-destructive track, and I find her desires almost incomprehensible. How can a person want something that is going to hurt them? This book gives me a chance to peer into one such person’s path. If I can understand how desire works for Dani Shapiro, I hope to learn more about desire in other memoirs, and in my own life.

For more insight, I turn to one of the great explainers of human nature, the psychologist Abraham Maslow. In the 1940’s, Maslow wanted to push psychology beyond illness, so he studied highly motivated, challenged, and satisfied people. Based on his research, he developed an explanation known as Maslow’s Hierarchy. This famous model says that people satisfy basic needs first and then move up to more sublime ones. I tried to apply the hierarchy to Dani Shapiro’s memoir.

Dani Shapiro on food and drink.
At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy are the biological needs. You would think hunger and thirst would be the first things that a person with money would satisfy. But when you look closer, you see how Dani distorts these needs. She accompanies her lover to the finest restaurants, orders any food she wants, and then either doesn’t eat it, or eats it and goes to the bathroom to throw it up. She is starving.

Similarly Shapiro’s relationship with drink is far more complex than simply satisfying a biological need. In one restaurant, Lenny, her lover, is disappointed that they don’t stock vintage wine from 1959, so he reluctantly settles for 1961. As he raises his glass, he says to Dani, “This wine is older than you are.” He is using drink as a tool of power and sexuality. As she becomes more dependent on alcohol, she drinks to fog her mind. Over and over, her biological needs are distorted by power and self-destruction.

Dani Shapiro on safety.
After the biological needs are met, Maslow says we try to achieve safety. Dani perverts this need, too. Even though she doesn’t see it, the reader can see that she is consciously moving out of safety and into danger.

Dani Shapiro on social needs.
The next rung up the ladder are social needs, such as friendship, intimacy, and family. Dani’s family, many of them highly successful, ought to be a major source of support. Except for the fact that they hate each other so venomously they had no room in their hearts for Dani. When she seeks satisfaction from her lover, he drains her like a vampire, sucking so much of her energy she doesn’t even have friends. What’s a reader to do? I want her to get this guy out of her life. And yet if she removes him, she might fall for another shallow, powerful man. To satisfy me, she must gain a clearer understanding of her own social needs.

During high school, instead of pursuing drama or writing, her extra-curricular activity is cheer leading. During college she models, seeking to be paid for her beauty. Her goal is to maximize the amount of praise and power she can earn from her looks. From this point of view, her affair with Lenny seems ideal. He shower her with wealth, his perfect trophy mistress. Unfortunately, Dani’s approach to social needs keeps her trapped in the bottom three rungs.

Dani Shapiro on esteem and actualization.
According to Maslow, once the basics are taken care of, people look for esteem, from others as well as from themselves. At the pinnacle are expressions of creativity, excellence, service, and sacrifice. I want Dani to reach the top two rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy, where life starts getting really interesting. These goals turn out to be Dani Shapiro’s saving grace.

When she first enters Sarah Lawrence as a young woman right out of high school, her path seems assured. Then she drops out, throwing away an opportunity. After much suffering, she stops her downward spiral, by rejecting her parasitic lover and overcoming her substance addictions. Ready to reclaim her life, she makes a call to the dean at Sarah Lawrence. “I want to come back.”

In the end, this desire for creative expression sets her back on track. She finds her strength, enters a community of supportive students and teachers, and moves towards safety, social rewards, and esteem. Her memoir provides a beautiful example that despite the many twists and turns of life the desire to create a story leads towards the triumph of the human spirit.

Writing Prompts:
Look for an experience that will help you understand each of Maslow’s five levels in your life. As you look at these needs in your life, look for anecdotes that will illustrate them:

Did you ever starve, or ever look at food as the enemy?

Did you ever feel undermined by your lack of safety, or so safe you felt compelled to find adventure?

Did you ever feel so lonely you reached out to people you would typically avoid, or so glutted with people you wanted to escape?

List some of the ways you have searched for esteem. Write a paragraph or story about how each one succeeded or failed.

What was the most sublime goal you ever reached for? What is the most sublime goal you are reaching for now?

For further work along these lines, look for the intertwining of desires. For example, Dani wanted love, so she starved herself to look thin. She wanted esteem, so she reached towards a guy who treated her like dirt. A high school grad who wants esteem might sign up for the military, putting himself in harm’s way in order to achieve a higher goal. After college, to “find myself” I pushed away from my family, diminishing my social network.

Notes:
Here’s a Wikipedia article about Maslow’s Hierarchy if you would like to know more.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs

Here is a well maintained commercial site which explains Abraham Maslow’s ideas in order to promote management and organizational strategies.
http://www.abraham-maslow.com/m_motivation/Hierarchy_of_Needs.asp

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

Lessons for memoir writers from my first year of blogging

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.)

One of the speakers at last year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference was veteran news reporter Daniel Rubin. Fewer people are reading newspapers these days, so Rubin’s bosses at the Philadelphia Inquirer went looking for readers online. They asked him to write a blog. This experiment in new journalism achieved two goals. First, inquirer.typepad.com let the Inquirer participate in what turned out to be a robust stream of Philadelphia blogs. And secondly, it changed Rubin’s writing style. Like any newspaper reporter, Rubin had been taught to leave himself out. As a blogger, he had to put himself in. His two year stint transformed him from a silent observer to an engaged one.

Newspaper reporters aren’t the only ones trained to keep themselves out of their writing. My high school English teachers taught me never to write the word “I.” And for many years, I earned my living writing technical manuals that sound as if the author doesn’t exist. When I wanted to tell my own story, I couldn’t figure out how to write in a livelier, more personal style. Then I discovered blogs. Blog audiences expect to know the writer, personally. To fulfill that expectation, I’ve learned to insert opinions, observations, and anecdotes.

Blogs give everyone in the world the opportunity to share themselves. Some bloggers include pictures of their kids or their garden or the view from the window of their vacation home. While many of these online scrapbooks are frivolous, others offer serious memoir information, tips, and insights. People who sell services also use blogs to create a personal connection. It’s the modern equivalent of the corner store, when people actually knew the family from whom they were buying.

Experiment to find the best blog topic and material
A blog gives you the opportunity to experiment with your material, and since blogs are free, you can start as many as you like. After several attempts, I decided to write a blog about memoirs. I speculated that book reviews and interviews with memoir writers would keep it interesting for readers, and informative and engaging for me as well.

When I started I didn’t know how any of this would actually work out. Would I be able to generate fresh material? Would my vision stay focused enough to entertain and inform readers? Would it become repetitive or trite? Now for the past year, every month, I’m previewing 15 books, finishing five, and posting essays about several. I’ve done interviews with memoir writers, and have networked with a number of bloggers and other internet denizens. I have figured out how to keep the material fresh for me and hopefully my readers. It was only through the test of time that I could learn these lessons, and the knowledge I gained by doing it empowers me to do more.

You can accumulate more than a writing style
If you are reading this article because you want to gather material for a memoir, then you are already looking for a way to bring your own life experience out into the open. A blog is a perfect place to explore and experiment. Gather snips of experience, whether from years ago, or from yesterday, and see how it works. This can be intimidating, at first, for a variety of reasons, one of the most common of which is “why would anyone want to read this stuff.” That’s a great question, and perhaps the ultimate question, but here’s the twist. Instead of using the question as a doubt that drags you down, use it as fuel that drives you forward. Really, honestly ask, “Why would anyone read this stuff?” and as you passionately search for the answer you will gradually transform your writing from material that only interests you to material that will interest others.

Writing a blog means taking the story you find inside yourself and placing it out in the open, where anyone can examine it. Putting it out there is half the job. The other half is to figure out if it makes sense to anyone. That’s what makes blogs so powerful. They generate a low volume conversation with those visitors who want to let you know what they think. It’s a little like stand-up comedians, who find out if their jokes are funny by listening for laughter. As a blogger you find out if your posts make sense by reading the comments. By paying attention to this feedback, you can tweak your writing in a direction that works for this group of people, who like any focus group represent a larger audience.

These readers become part of your micro-community
After blogging for a while, I occasionally hear from repeat visitors. This means that through my writing, I’ve tapped into a micro-community of like minded people. By blogging within a particular focus, my blog has become a sort of forum where people interested in this topic can stay connected.

Many of my readers share similar desires to mine. They want to develop community, find their voice, organize their material, and become accustomed to reaching towards the public. These shared desires bond us across space and time. We become both an audience and a community. So if you are wondering how to hook up with readers and writers, and develop your writing skills in the process, then jump into the blogosphere. Tell your story, and offer feedback about the ones you find.

Note: This year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference will take place June 6, 7, 8, 2008. See this link for details.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Listening Is An Act of Love

by Jerry Waxler

Last week, when I was visiting WHYY studio in Philadelphia I saw the mobile StoryCorps van and interviewed facilitator Mike Rauch about what StoryCorps does. It intrigued me so much, I went back to Philly last night to hear Dave Isay the founder of StoryCorps speak at the National Constitution Center. He was explaining StoryCorps, talking about is own path, and sharing some of the stories from his book. StoryCorps is a non-profit corporation, and according to Dave Isay, it’s the fasting growing nonprofit corporation in the country. Now, if that’s not a trend, I don’t know what is.

Learning about other people’s lives, through their stories is gripping the national imagination. I think it’s because we’re tired of watching sitcom actors play out their perfectly scripted lives. We want real people. In my opinion, this is the reason for the scrapbooking craze, the blogging craze, and the memoir craze. Now we’re poised for the audio story craze.

At the current rate, the StoryCorps is gathering 7,000 stories a year, and it’s growing exponentially, with new facilities and programs coming online all the time. During the question and answer period, a schoolteacher asked if the stories ever become repetitive. Dave Isay said, “No. At first I also had that fear, that we would start hearing the same story over and over. But it never happened.” He added that in his opinion the most important recipient of the story was the family member who was in the recording booth hearing intimate details for the first time. More often than not, people break down and cry in the middle of the telling. These are touching, intimate moments that open up pathways among people.

Before the age of electronics, say in the nineteenth century and before, people had to use each other for entertainment. They told stories, played the piano, participated in parlor games. This gave them time to get to know each other. When I was growing up, that all changed. We glued ourselves to the tube and let others do the entertainment for us. That’s been going on long enough, and we’re growing weary of being strangers to each other.

Dave Isay’s book is called “Listening is an Act of Love.” As a therapist, I have found his title to be true. Part of my training was to keep my mouth shut and listen. It doesn’t sound like much, but sometimes it’s the most generous, caring, healing thing you can do. Now, Dave Isay and the StoryCorps want to show everyone that same power. Dave Isay’s book “Listening is an act of Love” contains a number of stories as told by people in the StoryCorps booth. Remarkably, all profits from the book go to support the mission of the StoryCorps.

The stories are not edited, nor do they provide much backstory. After reading memoirs, it’s easy to see the many differences between oral and written life story. But rather than focus on the differences, here are a few ways that oral storytelling fits in with the charter of writing your life story.

  • Use story listening to help you learn about yourself. To research his memoir, Foster Winans interviewed people in his life to ask them how they remembered him.
  • Use story telling as a way to dredge up material. It’s amazing how much comes to mind when you are telling a story. Sit with someone who really cares. Ask each other questions. Let the story emerge. You’ll find material you had not thought about in years.
  • As you write your memoir, you will become more sensitized to the variety of human experience. By seeing your own story from the inside, you will want to know other people’s stories. And this will open you to the inner lives of the people in your family and beyond.
  • As you read memoirs, do the same thing a listener would do in that recording booth. Slow down, and listen. You will realize that everyone has an inner life, and reading about it will expand the range of your understanding of the human condition.

For more information about this piece, see this links:
Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center
StoryCorps
WHYY Philadelphia’s Public Television and Radio Station
My previous essay on StoryCorps

Memoirs Start Last Night

by Jerry Waxler

You start making memories every day. Last night for example, I went to a dramatic reading in Philadelphia. Jerry Perna’s play was dramatically read by himself and several actors, as part of a joint effort to provide actors with opportunities to express their craft.

The reading was being produced for a live video feed through the New Century television station, located in Newtown. My friend Mike Shoeman introduced me to the CEO of New Century, Ariel Schwartz. Instead of asking him for his story, I pitched my idea to publicize memoir writers. I would have preferred learning more about him, but I observed something about myself. When I had two minutes with the CEO of a television station my tendency was to talk about myself. That’s a good observation to file for further reference. Perhaps I’ll be able to use it in my memoir.

Speaking of memoirs, before the show I asked Jerry Perna how much of his play was based on his life. He said, “About 99.9%” Then watching the show, I saw what he meant. It treated issues of growing up in the sixties and his character’s relationship with his father. Afterward, I asked him if writing and performing it was therapeutic, and he said it was “more therapeutic than therapy.”

So what does going to a play have to do with writing memoirs? Here are a few ways that last night informs the project of writing about life:

* Life is a series of memories, starting from last night. That’s why people try to capture their memories in diaries or blogs (like this one). Or photo albums of birthdays and vacations. It’s all grist for the memoir mill. Lesson: Record memories.

* The play took place near the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. When I was in Central High School in Philadelphia, I did a research paper about the Pullman Rebellion. It turns out that the governor of Illinois called in the national guard to break up a strike against the Pullman Railroad. To research that school paper, I took the subway and trolley down to the hallowed grounds of the University of Pennsylvania to pour through the card catalog and go to find a dusty, precious book in the stacks. Now, every time I walk on that campus I remember powerful feelings evoked from the past. Lesson: Visit old haunts and write the memories .

Because I’m writing this blog entry, I’m reviewing a memory that happened as recently as last night. So I can apply memory writing techniques to find out more about it. Namely, I ask, “What was the emotional power in the scene? What did people want from me? What did I want, hope, and fear?” The event contained the possibilities for new beginnings, of a connection with the Philadelphia cultural scene, with several fellow writers I met, and with the people associated with New Century, Mike Shoeman, president of Life Act Coaching, Marta Reis, and Ariel Schwartz. Culture is a strange and powerful beast. It wants to give and share, and to do those things it needs to create community. Artists, writers, performers, and everyone associated with culture are hungry to develop community. Lesson: You can meet people who want to meet you when you offer something to their culture.

So where would this evening go in my memoir? Is it the culmination of a lifetime process, or the beginning of the rest of my life? Of course the answer is both. Lesson: Life keeps generating memories, and I can gather these memories together into a story.