Why Boomers Should Write Memoirs about the 60s

by Jerry Waxler

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

When my parents were growing up in Philadelphia during the Roaring Twenties, they went home at the end of the day to parents who spoke Yiddish or heavily accented English. I wish I could understand their second-generation immigrant experience, or what life was like during the Great Depression or World War II. Millions of boomers share my curiosity about their parents but few of us have begun to record our own stories. When I ask people why not write a memoir, I hear all sorts of reasons. “I’m too busy.” “I don’t know how.” “My experience was similar to millions of others.” “If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand.” I know all these objections already. In order to write my memoir, I had to push through them myself.

I knew that people who had not lived through that period relied on clichés with lots of hair, dope, and rock and roll. But these images from movie and music snips and bits of conversation around the dinner table are not like reading a memoir. In a memoir, the author carefully crafts the world as they saw it, creating the ambiance of the times. I think the word “story” ought to be capitalized the way God is, because a Story invites the reader to set aside their own world and enter the author’s. Once inside, clichés disappear, replaced by unique, authentic responses to specific circumstances. This is true even for books that cover the same general circumstances.

Amid the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read, I have often seen the same themes repeated. I’ve read several books about young girls growing up in small towns, children coming to terms with their mixed-race identity, adoptees trying to understand which family is the real one, mothers trying to raise a child with intellectual challenges, and so on. Despite their similarities, each person has their own life and tells their own story.

Even though millions of my peers experienced the iconic events of the 60s, my exact story was my own, a drama with the specific circumstances of being me, my reactions, my observations, my careening path. So I set aside the fear that someone else has already published my life and I begin to write.

When I start, crazy memories spring out of hiding and clutch at me. At first I’m afraid that revealing emotional moments might make me seem like a victim, a dupe, or a confused bundle of nerves. I want to stuff my memories back into their cave. Then I think of my parents who remained hidden, and I think of my respect for the memoir authors who have welcomed me into their lives, and I press on.

The first story I share in a writing group describes a violent anti-war riot in Madison, Wisconsin in 1967. I wonder if listeners will judge me for the quality of the writing or for my naïve choices and raw emotions. But no one in the group expresses disdain and many express appreciation so I continue to write. Soon, I find myself deep in the darkness that enveloped me after the riots. When I realized how hopeless I felt to change the world or understand my role in it, I turned toward nihilism, embracing the notion that Nothing Matters with religious conviction.

I sit at my computer during my morning writing hours, looking back on that period and trying to make sense of it. Then for the rest of the day, I set those feelings aside and go about my pleasant, upbeat life. My writing desk gives me a vantage point from which I can understand far more about those times than I had any hope of doing while I was living through them.

However, being willing to face the past was only the beginning. As a novice storyteller, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever capture those feelings on paper. After I took a few memoir classes and started to develop a sense of chronology and scene-building, a larger story began to emerge. I remember my first days in Madison, Wisconsin, transplanted to the teeming campus from my quiet Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, I see a bookish young man who wanted two things: to become a doctor and to understand Absolute Truth. I didn’t know how dangerous my search would  be.

A perfect storm of cultural upheaval was brewing on the horizon: the Pill; the threat of the draft; a divisive, frantic, anti-war effort that inherited a sense of righteousness from the recent civil rights movement; affordable air travel; access to hallucinogenic drugs; eroding authority of organized religion and the influx of eastern mysticism. As each wave of change arrived, I tried to adapt. But like a boxer who must face a new opponent in each round, I ran out of fight, and went down — at one point, literally, after being attacked by a group of boys who wanted long-haired troublemakers like me to go back east where we belonged.

Hundreds of millions of people experienced their own version of those times, storing endless reels of movies in their minds. I imagine boomers all over the world occasionally pulling out one of their reels. If they have no reason to examine it more closely, they quickly return it to its shelf. If they attempt to write a memoir, they look more carefully at the scenes, and begin to place isolated events into context.

Gradually, the sequences add up. I see the influences of parents, culture, substances and desires, insecurities, and all the other things that make me human. Between the peaks and troughs, the glue of normalcy holds it together from day to day. And I begin to see how the shocks in one chapter lead to character development in the next. After setbacks, I find strength, courage, and eventually even wisdom. As happens in all good stories, the protagonist grew. A life that has been translated into a story transcends memory and achieves the richness of its many dimensions.

The harder I work to craft events so they make sense to a reader, the more they make sense to me. Or maybe “make sense” is too strong. They become more integrated. I learn to accept them as part of the continuous process of being me. I become more comfortable “in my own skin” or more accurately, more comfortable in my own memories. Converting memories from a jangle of isolated snaps into a coherent story is rewarding. It’s challenging. It leads to wholeness.

In the early stages of my writing, I am struck by the depressing self-inflicted immolation of my academic ambition. However, storytelling doesn’t stop with the problems. A good story takes both reader and author beyond the setbacks to the resurrection that comes next. So I look beyond the 60s. What new person emerged from the ashes of the old? For that, I explore the spiritual and religious dimensions of my life.

In Madison, Wisconsin, I went to classes surrounded by 30,000 kids, many of them blond, the vast majority of them northern European and Christian. Desperate to feel accepted, I felt swept up in the possibility of becoming part of that herd. If being Jewish separated me from them, I would separate myself from feeling Jewish.

Without knowing the far reaching effects of my defiance, I distanced myself from religion. As a result, I could no longer turn to the absolute moral authority that had guided my parents. Like many of my peers, I struggled to find my own direction. The first leg of the quest led straight into the abyss. Then, when I thought I could go no lower, I found a spiritual belief system in which everything mattered. That was the beginning of a period of rebuilding, during which I had to figure out how to live a meaningful life under the aegis of spiritual rather than religious principles.

As I search for my story, I return to my curiosity about my parents. All I knew about them was summed up in a couple of clichés about immigrants and the Great Depression, but I knew nothing about their specific, day-to-day circumstances. I wonder if reading their memoir would have brought us closer to each other during my own transition, perhaps even giving me a safety-net that would have softened my fall. I’ll never know how it would have changed my past, but as I put my story together, I gain a renewed appreciation for the challenges that each of us faced. My parents had to figure out how to cross the threshold into adulthood and so did I. By seeing the story of my own transition, I am drawn closer to theirs.

In the age of memoirs, more of us are taking the time to look back and develop the stories of our lives. By openly exploring the experiences of our youth, we can learn about the common humanity that binds us to our parents. And by leaving our stories for the next generation, our children will have a far greater ability to appreciate the context from which they have come.

For a memoir that shared the journey from organized religion to spirituality, read Frank Schaeffer’s, Crazy for God. It tells of his childhood, with an intense belief in Christianity, as guided by the wildly innovative interpretations of his parents, then into the intense certainty of the religious right, and finally to a journey to find his own inner guiding light.

Another memoir that reveals the journey from absolute religion to trust in an individual relationship with God: Carlos Eire’s Learning to Die in Miami

Three memoirs about black and white parents
Barack Obama’s Dreams of Our Fathers,
James McBride’s Color of Water
Rebecca Walker’s Black White and Jewish

Books that Search for the Life of an Ancestor
James McBride, Color of Water
Andrew X. Pham, Eaves of Heaven
Karen Alaniz, Breaking the Code
Jeanette Walls, Half Broke Horses
Linda Austin, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight

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

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

Parent’s Memoir Part 3b, Guide for Ghost Writer’s Interview

by Jerry Waxler
This is part 3b of the essay, “Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?” Click here for part 3a. In this final part, I give more tips to help you interview your parents so you can generate material for a compelling memoir.

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

Go deeper with coded family anecdotes

You may already have heard some of the stories for so long, they acquire a rigid sameness, with details and phrases you have heard dozens of times. Use your curiosity to break through the crust of repetition. Ask about other parts of the situation, or where they lived during that time, or how old they were when this event happened, or which parts made them happiest.

For example, I remember my Mom told the story about Dad’s father standing up at their wedding and saying, “To the bride and groom, I give a car.” Her tone of voice when she mimicked him always sounded pompous.  I wish I had asked more about it. “That was an expensive gift. Were you surprised when your new father-in-law told you? Was he wealthy? Did many of your peers have cars? Did you have mixed feelings about accepting such an expensive gift from him? How were you making a living during that period?”

Here are more unasked questions:
—    “I heard that Grandmom spent her last years in bed. What sorts of situations did that lead to? Tell me about a time when you served her meals there. How did you feel only seeing her in bed?”
—    “I only knew Grandpop when he was retired. Show me a scene that will help me visualize him. What did you do with him evenings and on weekends? What was it like going to worship by his side?”

What incident have you filed away under “I’ve heard that a hundred times.” Take a page from my unwritten book, and ask your own parents questions while there is still time. Write questions that would help you see it more completely.

Break taboos

Over the years, you have learned to avoid topics your parents prefer not talking about. In order to get the story,  you need to break these taboos. Consider James McBride’s memoir “Color of Water.” His mother had angrily told him to mind his own business whenever he asked her about his past. As she grew older, he realized her past was going to die with her and he grew increasingly insistent. He finally convinced her to talk. From their interviews emerged one of the hallmarks of the memoir generation. As a son, McBride was grateful, and as a reader, so was I.

When your parents express reluctance:

—    Let them know how much you want to understand their story.
—    Point out that no one is perfect, so there’s no point in pretending they were. Why not turn take advantage of all that experience and turn it into a good story?
—    There is power in revealing the truth. For one thing, you don’t have to worry about hiding secrets. And for another, when you share your hardships you also share the courage it took to overcome them. [For more tips about responding to their objections, click here.]

Review and Edit

After each session, you face the technical hurdle of transcribing it to typewritten material so you can edit. If you don’t want to type it yourself, consider hiring someone to do this tedious work. A good place to look for such resources is on the website of the Association for Personal Historians. (APH) [www.personalhistorians.org]. Some people have had success speaking into the software called Dragon Naturally Speaking which converts speech into text.
When you have the interviews in written form, you can weave the information into scenes that readers can enter. Insert new material into your chronological file to show how one situation flows into another, and also give you insights into what is missing. When you hit a puzzle, turn it into a question for further rounds of interviews.

Their character takes shape

When you remember things about your family, you are looking back to your own childhood point of view. To write your parents’ memoir, you need to see those events through their memories, not yours. Try to set yourself aside and listen to the way they explain it, even if it is substantially different from the way you remember it. In fact, this entire project is going to help you enter their frame of reference, seeing the world as they did.

Once they start talking, they may share reminiscences about things they had not discussed in years, joining you in bursts of collaborative energy. As you pull together scenes and link them together, their budding story gradually takes shape. How far this goes will depend on your artistic drive and tenacity, and on their willingness to explore the psychological and social forces that shaped them. The more you polish it, deepen it, and structure it, the more readable it will become.

Wherever you decide to stop, you will find that through the course of the project you have gained understanding, and helped them connect some of the dots in their own past experiences. What started as a literary or historical exercise ends as an opportunity to build intimacy and mutual respect. It’s true that writing a memoir takes time and to achieve your goal you must overcome emotional hurdles. But in the end, everyone wins.

If you don’t have the time and do have the money, you could hire a writer to do the research and create the book of their lives. To find a writer or videographer for your life story, contact Association of Personal Historians.
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.

Parent’s Memoir Part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview

by Jerry Waxler
This is part 3a of the essay, “Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?” Click here for part 2, Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir.

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

Writing your parent’s memoir is a big project. To make it more manageable, break it into steps. First, write the old familiar anecdotes and place them in chronological order. Take your time, digging up the snips and glimpses you have heard over the years. Brainstorm with siblings, cousins, and with your parents to make sure you have everything.

Next, begin to work with your parents to develop the timeline. Ask them to go through the years and list the dates of important events: when were they born, changed schools, moved, married, had children, got their first job, or other any milestones they feel are crucial. As you put these events into your file, you can check to see if your anecdotes are in order. “Did that come before or after the move to the new home?” By the time you finish this second step, you will have a wonderful repository of what you know, and when it all took place.

Seeing these story fragments come together will stir new questions. How did they transition from one segment of their lives to another? What were the underlying emotional drivers? Who were the other important characters? What did places look like? To turn the fragments into a readable story, you will shift from a left-brain researcher to a right-brain explorer.

Interview Prompts

To learn who your parents were, you will need to learn a wider range of their experiences, such as jobs, sports, dating, illness, siblings, art, hobbies, and so on. Along with the factual information, you will need to learn about emotions, such as loves, fears, and hopes.
Don’t expect to find all this information methodically. Instead, start loosely, let them talk freely. During editing you can organize the material. This is the same method I recommend for writing a memoir. When you research your own memoir, stir up lively anecdotes by asking yourself questions called “writing prompts.” For example, you ask yourself to describe each of the houses you lived in, or describe situations when your hair or clothing style was especially important.

You can use a similar strategy when conducting interviews, asking stimulating “interview prompts.” For example,
—    “Tell me all about your education.”
—    “What was Grandmom like in the kitchen?”
—    “What was it like going out on dates in those days?”

“When did your hair became part of a story. Did it ever fall out, change color, or did someone say something flattering or rude about it?” You are likely to generate a fun, readable scene that will bring the past to life.

Growing your skill as an interviewer

Your style of listening plays an important role. Try to emulate your favorite television or radio interviewers. A good interviewer knows how to respond to the vagaries of conversation, steering between the extremes of too much and too little direction. If you exert too much control, you stifle authenticity and miss surprises. Too little direction allows disorganized, flabby rambling.
Strike a balance between these extremes. If they lead you into new territory, relax and see where they are heading. By staying with them, you can take advantage of potentially important inner associations. If you decide they are drifting away from useful material, for example philosophizing about the economy or complaining about the neighbors, you can gently steer them back to the task at hand.

Richer detail makes better reading

If your interviewee tends to speak in terms of ideas, summaries, and overviews, their memories won’t allow a reader inside their experience. To write compelling scenes, ask for more sensory information, dialog, and thought processes. “What did you see, hear, taste, touch and smell?” In addition to the senses, ask them about their introspective world. If they don’t tell you much about their feelings, ask follow-up questions.
—    What did you want?
—    What did you fear?
—    What got in the way?
—    What did you do in order to get back on track?

For example, if they say, “When we moved, I felt disoriented.” You could say, “Could you describe where you were and what it looked like.” It might take a few tries but eventually you could change this to, “When I walked into the new house, the painters still had their scaffolding up, the plywood floors were covered in splattered paint and cigarette butts. I started to cry.”

In Part 3b, I continue with suggestions for interviewing strategies that will generate a readable memoir.

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

Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir

by Jerry Waxler
This is part 2 of the essay, “Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?” Click here for part 1. Click here for part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview, and Click here for part 3b

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

When you ask your parents if you can write their history, they might block you with statements like: “Let sleeping dogs lie,” or “I can’t remember all of that,” or “No one would care.” Instead of letting these objections frustrate you, use them as conversation starters. “Really?” you say. “Tell me more about what you mean.” Let them explain why remembering makes them uncomfortable. By quietly listening, you will change the mood from a debate to a collaboration, and will shed more light on their relationship to the past. When they finish, offer comforting, reassuring reasons why you want to work with them to overcome these obstacles. Here are a few insights that might help you address some common concerns about writing a memoir.

Writing my memoir means my life is over
After a visit with my parents, I stood up to go. My mother expressed her frustrated with the lack of physical affection between me and my father and insisted that we hug. As I put my arms around him, he laughed nervously and exclaimed. “What? Am I dying?” He implied that a hug meant the end of his life, when in fact it was intended to be a celebration. Many people make a similar mistake about memoir writing, assuming it means that life is over. When you take the time to write one, you realize that it lets you reap life’s lessons and joys.

I’m too boring
When I grew up, my parents apparently believed we ought to hide anything that makes us look different. They wanted to look average. People who grew up in that generation became so accustomed to pretending they were like everyone else, that they came to believe it themselves.

In the twenty first century, our fascination with memoirs has flipped that convention upside down. In the Memoir Age, we have become curious about other people and assume they are curious about us. Instead of hiding messy emotions in order to appear boring, we reveal internal conflicts that bring us to life.

Hidden within ordinary life, you will discover that you are utterly unique. For example, my childhood in a row home in Philadelphia seemed thoroughly ordinary. Perhaps my after-school job at my dad’s drugstore made me different from most of my peers. I didn’t know anyone else who worked for their father. Digging deeper, I recall my dad’s brother who had achondroplasia, or dwarfism. When I was a teenager, I went with Uncle Harry to help him collect rent from the apartment buildings my grandfather owned, and I felt disturbed by the children who stopped and stared at his short legs and head too large for his body. Harry’s problem was visible to everyone, but Dad’s nephew, Jules, was another matter. Handsome, athletic, and a brilliant scholar, Jules graduated medical school by the age of 21, and was a psychiatrist by the time he was 24, when some secret turmoil caused him to hang himself. The family tried to cover up the tragedy, writing Jules out as if he never existed. Before the memoir age, it seemed natural to hide these facts. Now, I wish my father had been a memoirist, and left a record of how these complex experiences made him feel.

I have read and studied 200 memoirs, and continue to be fascinated by the enormous variety of human experience. Memoir authors write about growing up, about families, hardship, war, travel, spirituality, and so on. By sharing their authors’ lives, memoirs promise to deepen and expand our ability to live together on this planet.

I refuse to criticize my parents
To write about your parents, you must break down two sets of facades. The ones that block them from admitting to you that they are real people, and the ones that block them from admitting their own parents are real, as well.

Many people believe it’s a sin to criticize their parents. As a result they are stuck with shallow, unexplored images. I am glad that we are beginning to open our minds to an honest evaluation of those relationships . According to child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, we need our parents’ stories in order to stay healthy ourselves. Authentic stories allow us to honor our parents for who they really are, rather than some glossy, idealized image.

To open up about their younger years, your parents will have to accurately portray their relationship with their parents. Certainly they might need some convincing. Let them see that you are not looking to blame anyone but only want to understand the realities in which your ancestors lived. By convincing them to reveal their childhood experience, you will be encouraging them to develop more compassionate relationships with their parents just as you are trying to do yourself.

What’s the point of returning to the past?
At first it might seem logical that writing a memoir would detract from focus on the present. However, almost everyone already keeps a photo album for the purpose of hanging on to the past. Flipping through the album, you glimpse echoes of the past and savor its pleasure.

Beneath the smiles in those photos were more complex, ambiguous feelings. Writing awakens that complexity. Perhaps fear of writing about the past is a way to try to resist the pain that might be lurking under the surface. If your parents are attempting to make hard times disappear by pretending they never happened, their strategy cannot possibly succeed. Burying emotional pain is like burying toxic waste. When it emerges from its hiding place, it is still poisonous. By writing about it, you can, help them disarm it and find embedded lessons, forgotten friendships, and the strength that carried them through.

By getting those earlier times on paper, you give them the opportunity to add meaning and order to what otherwise might seem like a chaotic batch of memories. I have found that memoir writing is compatible with a vibrant, energetic focus on the present moment.

My sister has it all wrong
With stunning regularity my mom and her sister argued about their family memories. Mom said something about her parents’ unhappy marriage and my aunt would vehemently disagree. “That’s not the way it happened.” A battle ensued, each of them intent to prove her version to be true and the other false.

To accommodate heated differences of opinion, interview the warring parties separately. Listen openly to both versions. You will no doubt favor one interpretation over the other, but keep your favoritism to yourself. Maintain harmony by validating each person’s version of the truth. “That’s the way you remember it. I’m okay with that.”

Learn more about the pressures in the family by trying to understand how the hot button works. What words or details throw them into a tizzy? If you can tiptoe around the edgy topic, you may be able to gain insight that helps portray the pressure without raising hackles. If you hoped to learn the Real Truth, such irreconcilable disagreements might frustrate you. However, memoirs do not offer an absolute version of truth, but only each person’s best recollection. That’s what memoir writing is all about. Delving into their recollection helps you understand more about them. And they played such an important part in your life, you learn about yourself as well.  In the next part of this essay, I offer insights into the process of interviewing them.


Click here to read about “be here now” while writing a memoir.

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.

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

Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?

Jerry Waxler

This is part 1 of the essay. Click here for part 2, Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir.

Click here for part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview, and Click here for part 3b

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

During dinner, my dad told endless stories about the characters who came into his corner drugstore in North Philadelphia. His shoptalk intrigued me so much that I started to work there every weekend, and extended hours during the summer. Through high school, I spent more time with my father than I did with my friends. By the time I left for college, I knew everything about Dad’s daily grind, but I never asked him about his earlier life, and he never volunteered.

Decades went by, during which I struggled to find myself. By the time I became curious about his early life, it was too late. He died without telling me anything about how he had come to own a drugstore, or what it was like to be the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant. Sometimes I wonder if my ignorance of his younger years contributed to my own confusion. If we had established a storyline about the challenges of going from boy to man, I could have relied on him instead of making so many mistakes on my own.

In my dad’s generation, it was normal for parents to pretend they were never young. Nowadays, that social convention is changing rapidly. With each passing year, our cultural interest in memoirs grows and our fear of revealing ourselves fades. This trend to see life as a story has opened many people to their own past, as well as their parents’.

If you decide to write your parents’ story, you will follow many of the same steps you would if you were writing your own. Gather facts and anecdotes and place them in chronological order, and then look for the psychological power that will draw a reader from one page to the next.

The first step is to gather the anecdotes you already know and type them into a file. When you arrange them in chronological order, you’ll begin to transform isolated events into a continuous narrative. You’ll reveal insights about how one thing led to another, and you’ll see a shape that you might not have noticed before. If your parents are able and willing to talk about themselves, you can join the growing legion of people who know that now is the right time to

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to procrastinate. In addition to the challenge of finding time and energy, you also must overcome anxiety about asking them so many personal questions. Perhaps they don’t really want to talk about their lives? Interviewing requires a different form of conversation than most of us are accustomed to. I will share tips about  overcoming objections and interviewing in later parts of this essay. If you are motivated to achieve the goal, learning the skills is merely a step along the way.

To counter the reasons to stall, focus on the many reasons to proceed. When you see their lives unfold as a story, you will gain a deeper insight into their humanity. They had hopes, desires, pressures from their parents, and if they were like most people, they defied their parents in ways that may still cause shame. Informed by this new information, you will understand them and also gain insights to yourself. And during the course of the conversations, you will have an opportunity for intimacy, breaking through some of the posturing that separates parents from children.

A memoir is more than a sequence of information. After you gather the information, you still have to find its shape.  To do it well, you need to think like a story writer. Look for unifying concepts, dramatic tension, and beginnings, middles, and endings. Your search for artistic elegance will force you to go deeper. Stories are built on the unfolding of psychological stakes, so to write a good story you must understand what makes your characters tick.

Even though I arrived at my curiosity about my own parents too late to learn about their early life, they emerged as characters in the pages of my memoir. For the first time, I imagined the pride my father might have felt when his son chose to work at the drugstore instead of playing with friends. And then, again for the first time, I wondered what disappointment he must have felt when I drifted off to my troubled, chaotic quest. These speculations awaken a more complex, rounded impression of his journey than I had before I began writing.

If you decide that this is the year to write about your parents, you will discover them as important characters in your own story, and reveal a mysterious resonance between your real life and the literature you create. As you develop your skills and experience as the author of their stories, you will gain deeper insights into your relationship with them than you ever dreamed possible.

Recommended memoirs about parents by children

Cherry Blossoms  in Twilight by Linda Austin
Ghost written memoir of her mother’s life starting with childhood in Japan before and during World War II.

More About Linda Austin’s Cherry Blossoms: Interview Part 1
Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin

Reading my Father by Alexandra Styron
Search for her father’s life. Essentially an autobiography of her famous father William Styron as told through the eyes and voice of his daughter.

Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham
Ghost written memoir of his father’s life in Vietnam through the late 50s to early 70s.

Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour
By a daughter about her father’s obsession with a British country manor during the deterioration of the British class system.

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Search for a man’s identity by trying to find his father’s story.

Color of Water by James McBride
A man’s search for his own identity by trying to understand his mother’s past.

Mistress’s Daughter by A. M. Homes
Lucky Girl by Meiling Hopgood
An adopted daughter struggles to understand her biological parents.

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.

A memoir of mourning helps make sense of loss

By Jerry Waxler

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

The first half of the memoir “Losing Jonathan” by Robert and Linda Waxler is about their attempt to stop their son’s fall into heroin addiction. At the center of the story was a good kid, loved by his family and friends, a college grad bursting with potential and a desire to change the world. By the time his parents discovered his problem, all of that was tearing apart. Horrified to learn that Jonathan was in trouble, his parents were torn out of their ordinary lives and hurled into pleading and research, therapists and rehab.

They felt caught in the cruel undertow of drug addiction. Something was stealing their son and they couldn’t stop it. After a stint in rehab, they hoped he had returned to them. And then the call came. A tainted dose of heroin had ended his life. The second half of the book recounts the following years of their grieving. The book is told from both their points of view with Robert’s passages written in straight font and Linda’s in italics.

The father’s journey

During the year they knew about Jonathan’s addiction, Robert struggled to hold on to his own emotional center, relying on his family, friends, and his Jewish faith. After his son’s death, he turned even more desperately towards these supports. Meanwhile, his mind was churning, second-guessing what more he could have done, and struggling to make sense of a world in which such things could happen. Amidst his thoughts are wonderful images of the young boy in his earlier life, full of hope and promise.

Robert Waxler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, has devoted his life to teaching literature as well as finding the wisdom within it. He believed so deeply in the power of writing that he founded a program called “Changing Lives Through Literature,” to help convicted criminals find their way to social responsibility.

So when he tried to cope with his own loss, he looked towards literature for help. In “Losing Jonathan,” he writes, “Literature helped me keep my anger in check. It gave me a sense of proportions, of tolerance. But it didn’t foreclose on passion, nor did it serve as an escape from Jonathan’s death. Sometimes standing in an empty room, I will yell out loud at Jonathan, even now, and wonder why this tragedy happened.”

The mother’s journey

Linda was so overwhelmed, she didn’t know what to say. Neither did her neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances. So they avoided her. At the time when she needed the most support, she felt most alone.

“Losing Jonathan” revealed the effects of the passage of time, showing grieving as a sequence of inner adjustments. After a few years, Linda began to reclaim her poise enough to greet people and look them in the eye. Robert writes, “Near the end of the fourth year, Linda wrote her own article about grief, a stunning composite of her feelings and her knowledge. It was published in several places including the Providence Journal Sunday Magazine. She was stretching, touching others, rejoining a community, becoming a writer of her own life.”

In the fifth year, Robert writes, “We were like the wedding guest who listens to the tale of the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem, disturbed by the spell cast by his turbulent journey, but wiser now. At the end of the poem, the Mariner is gone, leaving the wedding guest to stand alone, forlorn, stunned into wonder at the vision:

And now the Wedding Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn;
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.”

Many layers of grieving

Memoirs of grieving have a special place in my library, since they take me on the author’s spiritual journey, trying to reclaim the meaning of life after its loss. In another memoir, “Here if you need me,” Kate Braestrup wrote about losing her husband in a freak accident. Then, she had to get on with her life. In the end, she arrived at a lovely conclusion, summarizing her feelings about death in a compelling and uplifting chapter on good and evil. When I’m asked which memoir is my favorite, this is usually the one that comes to mind.

Now I realize after reading “Losing Jonathan” that I loved the Waxlers’ memoir for similar reasons. Like Kate Braestrup they were on a quest to wrest their sanity back from the abyss. At first they were thirsty for support from their community. Then, after five years, Linda suggested, “We should try to write a book. It would be a way of honoring Jonathan’s life. Sustaining it.” The suggestion reflected Linda’s desire to give back to the community some of the strength they had given her. And the vehicle for their gift was a book.

Publishing the book was a social act, a generous gift to each other and the world. I feel encouraged by the willingness of these authors to share their inner process with the rest of us, to give us insights, tips, and guidance to help us stay strong and wise during our own recovery from loss.

Click here for the Amazon page for Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler

Click here for the Amazon page for Waxler’s second memoir, Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler

Writing prompt
If you suffered a loss, describe the situation. Show the external signs of your suffering (tears, blank staring, incoherent cries, or inappropriate silences, pounding the wall). Show the impact on relationships (arguments, withdrawal). Write about how you tried to find meaning, (discussions, readings). Where did you turn to help you make sense? Describe the ideas that helped you patch together the universe. Write a scene that shows you emerging from the valley.

Notes about multiple voices in a memoir
I have read several memoirs that speak from more than one point of view. “Color of Water” by James McBride includes extensive passages taken from interviews with his mother. “The Kids Are All Right” is told by all four Welch siblings. In “My Father’s House” the author Miranda Seymour occasionally steps outside the narrative of the book to discuss its assertions with her mother. “Picking Cotton” is written in the voices of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino who was brutally raped, and Ronald Cotton, the man who served seven years in jail for the crime he didn’t commit.

Writing Prompt about multiple voices
Consider giving prominent characters in your story their own voice. If practical, interview these people. Observe the interplay between their perspective and yours and try to imagine how a memoir might include their observations or even their voice.

Another memoir that fast-forwards at the end
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg in “The Sky Begins at your Feet” continues with an epilog that shares the years of survival after her surgery. Coincidentally, Mirriam-Goldberg also believes in the power of literature to change lives and community. See her organization for literature and social change, Transformative Language Arts Network

Writing Prompt for epilogs
If you need to explain how life kept going after the presumed end of your memoir, consider tacking on a postscript that shows what happens after the main or central story is over.

Read an interview with Robert Waxler

To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.


For another view of a son’s fall into addiction see the pair of memoirs: “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff  and “Tweak” by Nic Sheff  see my essay, Matched pair of memoirs show both sides of addiction

More memoir writing resources

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.

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

Help my aging dad tell his story

I received this question in a comment yesterday, and it is so rich in the story of the human condition I am bringing it forward and answering it in this post.  It was posted by Judy as a comment on my blog Be Here Now by Writing.

Dear Jerry,

My Dad is 89 years old. My Mom is in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimer’s, and he is in assisted living where they were together until recently. He is terribly depressed, since this is virtually their first time apart in 63 years, but the one thing that can still light him up is his stories. If I give him a cue, he will be off and running. He used to write many of his stories at a writers’ group my mom organized for many years, and I have some of these stories. My husband and I have been transcribing them and reading them to him, and he loves this.

He was invited to present one of them at a story writing workshop at Assisted Living, but since he is nearly blind, he couldn’t read it. The Activities Director offered to read it for him (a particularly wonderful, emotional story) and he said okay, but it was devastating for him. It turned out that he had rehearsed the story many times in his head in order to be able to tell it eloquently. When she read his words, he was terribly upset, even though he had agreed.

What do you think should be done with his stories? He has a zillion of them in his head and as I’m writing to you, I’m thinking that maybe we need to create an index of them so that when someone says the title or word, he can then tell the story. It seems to give him back a big part of himself. The story that was read this weekend was called “Silent Conversation” and it was about an incident that occurred years ago with my daughter who was about 9 at the time. It was a gorgeous story. Any advice or input regarding how to use his stories to light him up would be greatly appreciated.


Hi Judy,

Thanks for sharing this rich story, filled with emotion and the drama of the human condition. That’s the magic of stories. Even in your tiny comment, I feel like I know him and you. How lovely that you have found the pleasure he gets from tapping into his stories. That’s awesome! And he has a little built in audience in the story writing workshop that his own wife created. That is so poetic I’m getting goosebumps.

Your tiny story paints a powerful picture. He wanted to be the one to tell the story. There’s a buzzword for this desire. It’s called “communalization” and is typically used for recovering from trauma. I think it also applies to aging people who feel isolated in their experience. He wants to communalize his experience by sharing it with others. We are social animals and the story helps draw us together at any age.

He isn’t losing his functioning to remember his stories. And it sounds like with all that rehearsing he has the passion for telling them well. So the solution is simple, and you sort of present it yourself. Let him do the talking. So what if it’s not told in the exact same words as it was originally written? What it loses in polish it will gain in spontaneity. And because he is doing the talking, it will make him feel understood and heard.

I wasn’t quite sure if he also wants to record more, or if he would be content with repeating the stories you already have. In either case, you could improve the situation with some technology. Buy him a digital recorder (these little devices have become really powerful and convenient). He can record the story over and over until he gets it right. Then you can copy it to an iPod and he or anyone can play them on demand. (I’d be happy to tell you a little more about the technical issues if you want.) Or you and your husband could read his written stories into a tape recorder so he could listen to them. Or train Dragon Naturally Speaking to transcribe them into text. All these technologies are cheap and straightforward.

The missing ingredient for many people is the availability of a helpful support team. But he has that. Not only does he have the life writing group at his assisted living facility. He also has loving children who are interested in his story telling and searching for ways to help him.


Jerry Waxler