Sharing Stories and Loving Mothers

by Jerry Waxler

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

Last fall, one of the students in my creative nonfiction sobbed as she read us her moving story about her mother. The rest of us sat quietly, absorbing the emotional impact. Kirsten’s love for her mother filled the room.

A few weeks after the class ended, I received an email from Kirsten announcing a writing competition. The winners would present their stories about motherhood in front of an audience. I have been toying with the idea of performance storytelling to see if my years of interest in book length memoirs would translate into a five minute story. So I decided to send in a submission.

I unearthed the eulogy I had delivered at my mother’s funeral thirteen years earlier. With some reshaping it started to sound like a story, but it was way too long. Every day I shaved off a few words, so by the deadline, I could read it in five minutes.

I arrived at the audition imagining I would be standing on a stage, straining to see a director sitting in a darkened theater. When I walked in though, Kirsten was sitting with her co-producers, Kristina Grum and Lauren Hale at a table in a brightly-lit room. Before I had a chance to feel intimidated, they cheerfully greeted me. In answer to my questions, they explained that “Listen to Your Mother” had been founded by Ann Imig in New York City and was spreading. This year, 2015, LTYM events would be held in 39 cities.

When Lauren started her stopwatch, I began to share the lessons my mother taught me after her 70th birthday party. When I finished, Kirsten reached for the Kleenex and laughed as she dabbed the tears from her eyes. That seemed like a good sign.

They said they hoped I would be participating. I said that even if I didn’t, it was already a cool experience. The following week, I was accepted in the cast. Yay.

Every morning on the treadmill, I practiced reading the talk aloud. In order to maintain a fresh, expressive voice, I visualized each scene. For example, when I said Mom swam laps in the pool, or did aerobics with women half her age, I tried to see her doing these things. When I showed up for our first rehearsal, I felt prepared. I was less ready for the fact that I was the only male.

During the introductions they told of wanting or not wanting to be pregnant, the emotional upheaval of a miscarriage, falling in love with their newborns, or in some cases not falling in love. When I was younger, such feminine topics would have reminded me of all the other places I urgently needed to be. However, now that I have studied hundreds of memoirs, I have grown comfortable with the vast spectrum of human experience.

My feeling of being included in their experiences was aided by the very thing we had come to achieve. Each author’s well-crafted story invited me into her world. By the end of the second rehearsal, I had learned so much about motherhood, I felt that I had earned an honorary membership in the Mommy Network.

I arrived at the event around noon, on one of the first gorgeous days of spring. The modern building was appropriately named Steel Stacks, set against the haunting backdrop of the hulking remains of the Bethlehem Steel towers.

Performing the sound check in an empty theater felt slightly spooky, like a premonition of something that was really going to happen. After each of us read a sentence or two, we moved to a waiting room off the lobby, chatting and pacing. Finally, the signal came and we filed past the audience to the stage.

The reading began, and I listened attentively to now-familiar stories about loving babies, wanting babies, having babies and of course, loving mothers. It was a real feast of motherhood. The difference was that I was listening in the company of almost two hundred strangers.

When it was my turn, I walked to the lectern, and with the bright lights in my eyes, I looked out over the dimly lit audience. But I wasn’t nervous. All the love in that room gave me strength.

Before I started crafting my story, I assumed the phrase “Listen to your mother” was about learning lessons. In fact, the title of my story was “what I learned from my mom.” But in that room full of people, I realized we weren’t just listening to their words. We were listening to their presence.

When I first heard Kirsten reading her story in my nonfiction class, I admired her determination to find the best words to express her love for her mother. Then, when I received the invitation to participate in Listen to Your Mother, I joined a whole group of people striving to do the same thing.

Dave Isay, the founder of Storycorps, popularized the simple, powerful slogan that listening is an act of love. In that theater we directed that loving act toward our mothers. Those weeks I spent crafting my story, sharing it with my fellow cast members, and then participating in a theatrical production to read my story to an audience demonstrates the basic principle of the Memoir Revolution. We take a step back from our hectic lives and listen. To listen even more deeply, we find the story. And to spread the love, we share those stories, so others can listen, too.


Click here to watch my LTYM story. 

Click here for a link to all 2015 LTYM youtube videos

Click here for the Listen to Your Mother home page

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

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

Mom of Troubled Teens Tells Her Side of the Story

by Jerry Waxler

After Debra Gwartney’s divorce she packed up her two kids and moved a thousand miles to try to get them away from their father. She thought she was “starting over.” The new start however, was the beginning of a nightmare. In “Live Through This,” Gwartney recounts how her two daughters, age 12 and 14, dropped out of school, took drugs and slept in crash houses. With their tattoos, body piercings and heavy black makeup, Mom hardly recognized them. When she tried to reel them in, they withdrew further, until finally they hopped a freight train and moved to a different city.

There were many reasons I was interested in the story. For one thing, in my early twenties, I went through my own extreme rebellion, living in a garage on food stamps and not speaking to my parents for a year. In all the years since, I never tried to make sense of it from my parents’ point of view. Reading about another mom who watched her children fall apart revealed the other side of the story.

A parent suffering through the rebellion of a child is an important, under-reported facet of family life. Most kids rebel to some extent, and despite all the suffering and confusion that parents must feel, most of the social attention to the matter is limited to half measures and shared confusion. “Live Through This” provides a parent’s eye view of an emotional wrenching experience, as these girls hurl back in their mother’s face the life she was trying to build for them.

In addition to letting us see the girl’s bad behavior, Gwartney describes her own, including some glaring flaws in her parenting. She didn’t just break up with the girls’ father. She hated him so much she took the girls a thousand miles away, and throughout the hell of their rebellion she continued to do everything she could to turn them against their father. The story ought to be used as a textbook of how not to behave. And yet, while having screwed up so profoundly, Gwartney simply lets it all hang out.

In the book, she does not try to recruit us to hate her husband. She allows us to make our own decision. Nor does she justify her behavior in  a flurry of self-analysis and defense. She just tells the story. This turns out to be one of the hallmarks of powerful memoir writing. Tell the story and let the reader go for the ride. From that point of view, “Live Through This” is impeccable storytelling.

However, there is an aspect of the storytelling that aspiring memoir writers can learn from. Gwartney played fast and loose with chronology, as if she threw the pages up in the air, and didn’t take the time to assemble them correctly. In the middle of one scene, the narrative morphed into another time frame, and then from there, she might hop backward or forward, so quickly and with so little warning, I often lost track of where I was. She made me work far too hard to figure out where we were in time and space. Through the lurches, I kept reading because I loved  the underlying story. But it would have been far more enjoyable if she had held me hand and led me through the journey with more authority and grace.

Of course, storytelling does allow some breaks in chronological sequence, but to keep the reader immersed in suspension of disbelief, the author must deftly transition from one time frame to another. This usually involves far fewer leaps than there are in “Live Through This.” For example, in “Ten Points” by Bill Strickland, the author guides me through two well-defined time frames. In the present, the author attempted to win a cycling race. Inside himself, another story played out, in which he confronted the demons of his childhood. At all times, Strickland artfully let me know which timeframe I was in, and both stories, the cycling one in the present and the disturbing childhood scenes in the past let me maintain my sense of suspense, a sign of an effective technique.

In addition to well constructed flashbacks, another out-of-sequence technique is the essay-like focus that occasionally crops up in memoirs. For example, in the coming of age story “A Girl Named Zippy” by Haven Kimmel, the book is a chronological account of the author’s childhood. However, it is not strictly in order, and that’s okay because she controls my attention using other devices. For example, in one chapter, she focuses on the shenanigans of a particular friend. It is a gentle, barely discernible shift from story into essay style. Another example is “Seven Wheelchairs,” Gary Presley’s mainly chronological account of coming to terms with life from a seated position. In the chapter about his relationship with wheelchairs, he jumps out of his timeline to talk about the various contraptions he has relied on for mobility. He does this effectively, and I found myself just as engaged in that chapter as I was in the story, without a sense of disruption.

In general, most stories can and in my opinion should unfold in the same sequence they were lived. When the story moves along in that order, I jump on board and go with the flow. However, according to Brian Boyd, in “On the origin of stories” humans have evolved to grasp storylines. The capability is wired into our brains and we’re good at it. My ability to stick to Debra Gwartney’s underlying dramatic tension supplies a good example of this innate strength.

Debra Gwartney’s amazing journey offered me all the benefits that I enjoy from a memoir. And then in a fabulous closing scene, one of the best final lines I’ve read in a memoir, she redeemed all flaws. A good ending makes all the pain of the journey worthwhile. In fact, this is a fundamental notion of storytelling. The story’s tension primes the reader to crave release. Then in that moment when we cross the finish line, if we feel lifted and inspired, the way I did when closing “Live Through This,” we will race to recommend it to our friends.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene from your rebellion period when you were trying to step away or differentiate from your parents. Write one scene in which you were in flagrant violation of their rules. Write another in which you tried to explain to yourself or to them why you had to “do this” even though they couldn’t understand.

Click here to visit Debra Gwartney’s home page.

Note about wrapper stories
Bill Strickland’s technique of a story in the present that helps set up a story in the past is what I call a “wrapper story.” Another example is A. M. Homes search for her own genealogical past in “Mistress’s Daughter.” In “Color of Water” James McBride searches for his mother’s history. Such memoirs maintain my attention by artfully flipping back and forth between two stories, maintaining crisp, easy-to-follow dramatic tension throughout. A famous wrapper story was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which starts with sailors on a boat telling a story. The whole book takes place in the body of the story. Then at the end, the sailors come back to recount the way it worked.

Notes about Parent memoirs
Other memoirs that took me down a parent’s road were Robert and Linda Waxler’s “Losing Jonathan” and David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy.”

Notes about favorite endings
My other two favorite endings in memoirs were Matthew Polly’s, “American Shaolin” and Joan Rivers’, “Enter Talking.”

More memoir writing resources

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

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