My niece reminded me I’m getting old

by Jerry Waxler

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

While searching the internet for my own last name, I found an article by a Caroline Waxler, about a television show “Mad Men” that shows office workers in the sixties. Caroline, who happens to be my niece, knew abstractly that women had come a long way but didn’t comprehend how far. Could it have really been that bad just a few decades ago? To find out she asked her mother. The discussion not only gave her deeper insight into the history of feminism. It also provided mother and daughter an opportunity to share their stories.

The article was interesting to me, not only because Caroline is on the web. She’s always up to something. Her latest adventure is launching the website mainstreet.com, which manages to combine the seemingly unrelated world of celebrities and personal finance. The more interesting aspect of the article for me was that it challenged one of my basic assumptions about the transmission of human knowledge. Until I read the article, I assumed Caroline would have known exactly what life was like in the sixties. I had some vague notion that the information would ooze over to her through the media, discussions with older people, and her extensive education and reading. Now that I’ve thought it through more clearly, I recognize my folly. By the time she entered the business world, the behavior that shocked her on “Mad Men” was no longer just obsolete. It was illegal. Most of the upheaval took place before Caroline was born and was over by the time she was a little girl.

As I thought about Caroline’s revelation that times have changed, I had a revelation of my own. Many powerful culture trends are obscure only a generation later. This simple observation offers me a new way to look at my past. Instead of seeing events through my own eyes, I gain fresh perspective by seeing my world from the point of view of a younger person who didn’t know my world. I brainstormed this notion and turned up a few scenes that I can add to my stack of vignettes.

  • After a day at my all-boys high school, I took the subway to work at my father’s neighborhood drugstore in North Philadelphia. Family-owned drugstores and all-boys public high schools are nearly extinct.
  • Occasionally I took the subway by myself into center city, and sat in the balcony of the Philadelphia Academy of Music to hear orchestra rehearsals, or went to the listening room of the main branch of the Public Library to hear classical music on scratchy 78 RPM records.
  • On summer evenings, before we had air conditioners, our family sat on the patio of our row home and talked to the neighbors. One summer, when my brother Ed was home from college, we sat out on the porch and played chess every day. He was a nerd, too.
  • While waiting for dinner I sprawled on the living room floor, reading the comic section of the newspaper. Our television was in the basement, which is also where Ed assembled a high fidelity amplifier he was going to take with him to his college dorm. I helped him by following the diagram and soldering transistors.
  • I was a freshman in college when I first heard the word “marijuana.” I had no idea what it meant, and didn’t even know the concept of recreational drugs.

As I look back through my life, I realize that culture is not a steady thing. The world around me has changed in small ways that gradually accumulate. Only when I look across a few decades do I see how the small changes added up to profound differences. A memoir is a perfect place to highlight these changes, explore them, turn them into stories, and share them with others. By striving to explain these differences more clearly, I can add depth that will help people learn about the past, while sharing the authentic world in which I lived.

To listen to this blog, click on the podcast link below.

Writing Prompt
In the period of your memoir, what lifestyle “givens” that seem so obvious inside one period might seem foreign to people a generation later?

Writing Prompt
Remember a situation when you were telling a younger person about your life and you realized that they didn’t know what you were talking about. Fundamental differences are hard to explain, which makes them excellent writing exercises. Take such a situation, slow it down, and write it in richer detail that will provide some of the background that will make it more understandable to someone who wasn’t there.

Note: Some people could accuse me of narcissism for looking at the internet for my name, like looking in the mirror too long. Others call it smart marketing. I have written an essay on the question of whether a memoir is narcissistic. I still need to write one about the blurry line between narcissism and self-marketing.

Note: Here’s Caroline Waxler’s article if you want to read her thoughts and her mom’s response.

Note: I’m reading a remarkably simple and powerful memoir, Colored People: A Memoir by Henry Louis Gates Jr. about growing up in the fifties in West Virginia. He wrote it for his kids, who didn’t know his world. And I get to watch, and share his observations, learning about a slice of life I did not see for myself.

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

Is it narcissistic to write your memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

(This blog is also available as an audio file. See the Podcast player control at the end of this post.)

A woman in my workshop wondered if it’s narcissistic to write a memoir. I take such objections seriously, because they can drain away enthusiasm from this project. To help anticipate and refute these objections, I’ve compiled a list of some of the top reasons people have proposed for not writing a memoir and offered suggestions on how to bust through each one.

But before you invest too much time in refuting any specific reason, step back and consider the way you achieve any goal. Take for example going on a vacation. The suitcase is too small, traffic clogs the road to the airport, and the flight is delayed. But you don’t turn back. You keep going. The obstacles are part of the journey, and in a sense are steps along the way. You are determined to reach your destination and after you push through obstacles, you reach the beach. Writing a memoir is the same thing. You want it, you overcome the obstacles, and you reach your goal.

If you feel mired in objections, switch your perspective. Instead of feeling like a victim of objections, become a strategist, turning your intelligence towards defeating doubts. Like a martial artist, turn doubt against itself. Doubt your doubt. Think skeptically about what it claims. Punch holes in it and watch its energy deflate. So now, with a critical eye, the reasons why some people worry that writing memoirs is self involved.

Is it because thinking about yourself is bad? Such a restriction would stop you from more than just writing your memoir. Without self-awareness you would be stuck. Understanding yourself is a generous act that can help you become a kinder person, more willing to serve others, less angry, more harmonious. By reducing the grip of regrets, and other self-involved emotions from the past, you become lifted out of your own worries, and as a result more caring toward others.

Perhaps you fear that it’s wrong and shameful to expect other people to read your story. I suppose at first glance that might seem self-involved… unless it’s a well-told story that gives the reader pleasure or simply offers them another slant of the human condition. You’re giving them a gift, and so, it would be selfish to withhold it.

To find out more about this concern of memoirs and narcissism, I turned to an article from the wonderful collection of essays in Slate Magazine’s Memoir Week. In this collection, there is a history of memoir bashing by Ben Yagoda. The article makes the claim that the spate of memoirs proves we’re becoming more narcissistic. To back up the claim, Yagoda includes impressive sounding quotes by famous writers. But just because a bunch of people express strong opinions doesn’t make their opinions right. I think their case falls apart when you look behind the curtain and see what they are doing. These writers are standing on their public platform complaining that other people want a share of the platform. Apparently they would prefer you pay attention only to them, or to people they deem worthy. Perhaps they sincerely believe the world will be a better place if we only allow the elite to speak to us. But that seems so out of step with our times. Haven’t we evolved beyond this point of view?

In the 19th century, the masses “knew their place” at the bottom of the pile, waiting for truths to come from pundits. In the 20th century, we became a faceless mob, drowning in logos, and slogans, fodder for marketers who wanted to know us only by our demographic categories so they could sell us stuff. Ironically, when my generation was growing up, we all decided to express our individuality the same way, by wearing blue jeans. The marketers had a field day. Rather than breaking out of the mold, we created a new one. I think many of us are ready to move beyond the authoritarian model of the 19th century, and the anonymous masses of the 20th century. In the 21st century, we want to share ourselves freely with others who have exuberant passion for life in all its diversity.

Out of the demographics of the billions are arising energetic and generous people who break through the wall of sameness and tell others about their individual history, a story that has evolved through the years of their lives, and that represents a life they have actually lived. Through blogging and memoirs, writers share the story of themselves and in turn want to know the stories of each other.

Each of us is an individual. We can’t get around that fact. We’re stuck with it. The challenge is not to become less of an individual but to become more caring about the other individuals on the planet. So we stretch beyond ourselves. To become a more generous, socially responsible, kind, respectful person we strive for a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be those other selves.

A wonderful way to break down the walls that keep us apart is to read someone else’s memoir. And a great way to jump into the ocean of humanity is to tell your own story. By telling your story, you participate in a world of mutual respect, giving voice to your own individuality and in the process expanding the vision and compassion of those who want to learn about you. Telling your story will help the world stay balanced and sane. So if you’re wondering if your story is worth telling, don’t worry about those people who don’t want to hear it. Reach out to the people who do.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

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.

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