Author and creative writing teacher helps me steer between fact and fiction

by Jerry Waxler

Last year, I attended a writing conference at Rosemont College hosted by Philadelphia Stories journal. At one of the sessions, I met Susan Muaddi Darraj and purchased a book of her collected fiction called “Inheritance of Exile.” The protagonist of the stories was a Palestinian woman who grew up in South Philadelphia in circumstances similar to Muaddi Darraj’s own childhood.

The characters in “Inheritance of Exile” felt authentic. I loved their introspective world, their frustration, despair, and hope. I connected with their romances and their interaction with their families. And I even deepened my imagination of my own ancestors who also were immigrants in Philadelphia. [See my essay on that topic here.]

The interplay between fact and fiction enhanced my reading, but I wanted to know more about how it felt to the writer so I asked Susan Muaddi Darraj to help me understand how she the world she is creating with the one about which she is writing. And since she is a writing teacher, I wanted to know what she tells her students.

Jerry Waxler: When I was a student, literature was taught as an art form that had value in its own right. Now that I’ve become obsessed with memoirs, my view of literature has shifted. I now look at stories as a window into the human condition. Judging from the authenticity of your characters and situations, I’m wondering how you feel about the connection between story and life. Are stories art? Or are they a way to share the experience of human beings? Or some of each?

Susan Muaddi Darraj:
I do think literature serves multiple purposes. Its primary purpose is to serve as art — that aesthetic goal is always first and foremost. But literature also has an opportunity to comment and describe other worlds to the reader — not monolithic “worlds,” but a view of life as experienced by that particular author. For example, in this story collection, “Inheritance of Exile,” I tried to express what life was like for not all Palestinian emigres, but for a particular socio-economic class of emigres who had settled into a working-class, urban environment.

JW: Writers must learn all sorts of micro-skills such as word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, characterization and so on. The authentic characters in your stories make me wonder if writers also need to be exquisite observers. Must we also get degrees in psychology, sociology, and anthropology?

SMJ: No, but you still need to do your research as a writer. The best writing I have ever read is that in which it is clear that the author has spent time conducting or doing research of some kind — and the research could take place on many levels: looking up the right word for a particular object, researching the jargon used by archaeologists because you’ve decided to make one of your characters an archaeologist, etc.

JW: Can explain how you learned the skills of careful observation?

SMJ: Reading, watching, listening, always keeping a notebook in my purse…

JW: How do you teach these skills of careful observation to aspiring writers, or recommend that they learn?

SMJ: The writer’s notebook is a lost art form in itself! I always tell my students (I teach a fiction workshop in the Johns Hopkins graduate writing program) that keeping a notebook to jot down observations and ideas is vital.

JW: Could you share some insight or examples of the way the notebooks help you add vitality to your stories.

SMJ: I am a marvelous eavesdropper — I listen to conversations around me all the time and am always affected by the tone of people’s voices, their diction, as well as the stories they tell. I write those observations down. I also clip out news items or articles or pictures that strike me in some way. For example, who knows when I will need to describe a log cabin some day in a story I’m writing? If I do, I have a photograph clipped out of a magazine, to give me some parameters.

JW: I struggle to understand how fiction writers create characters. For example, are they composites stitched together from a variety of observations? That seems risky to me. Can a writer really invent a person from whole cloth or cobble one together from bits? Especially in first person stories such as yours, creating the thoughts and feelings of real people seems difficult. Could you say more about how you invent your characters?

SMJ: My characters are not composites, although I suppose they are sometimes inspired by particular traits I do observe in people in the real world. My characters seem like real people to me, and so I often spend a lot of time just thinking about them in my mind before I commit them to paper. I think about them in terms of “How would x react to this particular event?” Their responses to people and reactions to incidents tells me a lot about their personalities, their fears, their desires.

JW: Did you grow up telling stories, or was story telling a learned skill? Was a family hobby? If it was learned, how did you come to it?

SMJ: My father is a wonderful storyteller and a great writer as well. He told us stories every night — things he invented, stories he spun based on prompts we would give him (“Tell me a story about a fish, or about going to the supermarket,” etc…). And my mother taught me to read quite early, so I always had a book with me everywhere I went — long car rides were a joy for me, for example. I could finish two books in the time it took us to drive from Philadelphia to visit my grandparents in New York.

JW: Many aspiring memoir writers wonder if their lives would be best told in fictional form.  What do you think about this option? What are the pros and cons?

SMJ: Every work of fiction is inspired to some degree by the author’s life. The limit to this is that if a character is based too closely on you, you will be afraid, hesitant, to allow that character to behave badly. And that’s just not realistic — people behave badly all the time, and it’s quite interesting when they do. They make poor choices, etc. Once you have committed a character to paper, then you have to cut the umbilical cord with him or her and just allow him or her to be…

JW: Your protagonists are young women who grew up in Philadelphia in an immigrant home. So while you have not written about your own life, you have written things that you know. Did you find this confusing, steering your characters, settings, and situations in the strange space between actual experience and imagination?

SMJ: Not really. The cultural aspects of the stories are things that I know, but most things were invented, such as the particular situations, etc.

JW: John Barth, author of “End of the Road,” came to speak at the University of Wisconsin in the 60’s. After the lecture, I asked him if his novels were based on real life, and he looked disgusted. What do you feel when someone asks you if your stories are autobiographical? Do you think it’s a disrespectful question?

SMJ: I just think that, in recent years, because of the growth of memoir as a genre, readers want fiction to also be based on the author’s life. It’s one way of grasping the work, or accessing it — that is, to make it connect to the real life of the writer. I don’t think it’s a disrespectful question, but it is wearying when people ask me that, because I feel that it doesn’t recognize the art of invention, the work it takes to sit down in a chair and create this fictional world.

JW: As a published writer, you expose your thoughts, your imagination, your mental world. It’s a goal all writers strive for, and yet, I suspect once we get there, it has its pros and cons. Could you share your experience of what it’s like letting people “in” to see parts of your mind.

SMJ: I have no complaints! It’s been nothing but fun. I admit that if I were a New York Times bestselling author who was doing lots of interviews and traveling all the time, I would probably miss my writing time a bit. All writers, in the end, are solitary people — it’s the nature of the job — and I think we crave that quiet time.

Susan Muaddi Darraj Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Looking for the onramp at Philadelphia “Push To Publish” writer’s conference

by Jerry Waxler

At the Philadelphia Stories’ “Push to Publish” conference in the Fall of 2009, I peered into a room filled with cabaret tables, each with an editor on one side and an empty chair on the other. Christine Weiser, who along with Carla Spataro organized the conference, stood guard at the door. When the moment arrived she opened the gate and the pack of us hustled in, eager to sop up every one of our allotted 15 minutes.

“Speed dating” is my favorite way to meet editors. In fact it’s my only way. Over the last ten years, I’ve met a dozen of them, and from each interview I take away some insight about the gatekeepers who stand between me and my future readers. Probably the most informative meeting was the very first, when a young editor told me, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.” Since then I have refined my message, learning to be as clear and concise as possible. I’ve also become increasingly curious about them. By turning the tables and asking them to talk about themselves, I deepen my respect for them as real people with whom I may some day do business.

At many conferences, attendees only get one chance, but “Push to Publish” offers multiple interviews. First I headed to Fran Metzman who represented the online Journal Wild River Review, as well as the printed Schuylkill Valley Journal. I told her of my interest in finding a outlet for my essays about memoir writing. Even though Metzman was responsible for fiction at these journals, she also writes a nonfiction column on women’s issues for Wild River Review. “Yes, submit a proposal,” she said. “Just be sure to do a professional job.”

My other date was with Christine Yurick, the publisher of the new print publication “Think Journal.” I asked her to describe her journal’s specific slant. She said she likes structured stories. I was puzzled.

“I assumed that by definition a story has a structure.”

“No, not all,” Yurick said. “Some journals emphasize experimental pieces.”

This explained why I sometimes can’t understand literary journals. Today’s ah-ha revealed that these publications differ in their philosophy of Story. I filed the concept away for future reference, to help me look for the place most appropriate for my writing.

When we finished, she said she would check out my blog and get back to me if she thought there was a match. Note to Self: “Gatekeepers read blogs.”

The net result of the two interviews was a glimmer of hope that literary journals might someday provide an onramp into publishing.

Creative Nonfiction Craze

When it was time to go to the first workshop, I selected a panel called “Tapping Into The Creative Nonfiction Craze.” The assigned room was locked, so about 40 of us trooped down to the auditorium, and arranged chairs into a makeshift meeting area. Our numbers and eagerness suggested that Creative Nonfiction is indeed a craze. And yet, despite its popularity, most literary journals still publish mainly fiction and poetry. The one exception, not surprisingly, is the journal “Creative Nonfiction” which is devoted exclusively to the genre.

As each panel member offered their observations about writing stories of truth, I began to grow optimistic that perhaps memoir writers have a widening channel through which to publish their work. Curtis Smith reinforced my suspicion when he said, “thanks to the proliferation of online and print journals, this is a great time to be a writer.”

The last time I heard offer such an upbeat claim for writers was years ago when Kurt Vonnegut said in an interview that during the 1950s many writers got their start by publishing in magazines. His nostalgia made me curse the day I was born, wishing to be alive in a good time for writers. Curtis Smith claimed those times had returned. Happy day!

Continuing my search for the onramp to publishing, I attended another panel called “The Joys of Small Press.” Moderator Barbara Berot said that small presses are an easier entry point for new writers. Marc Schuster, Acquisitions Editor for PS Books, pointed out another advantage. “Big publishers are looking for products that will sell while small presses are looking for books they love.” Another panelist Debra Leigh Scott said that because of advances in printing technology, the cost of starting your own small publishing house has never been lower.

Like so many other people in the business, these panelists agreed “there isn’t much money in writing.” From there, the session sputtered back and forth between the strategies of publishing and the difficulties of earning money. Naturally I would like to be rich, but I keep this motivation at bay, because the more I think about money, the more likely that I’ll focus on its absence.

Curtis Smith, the same guy who cheered me up in the previous panel, offered a way out.  “Keep your day job and write for fun.” His reassuring smile reminded us that money is only one of the many rewards of writing.

In my younger years, when offered a choice between a dark thought and a happy one, I always chose dark, believing that was automatically the smarter of the two. I soon became adept at seeing darkness at the end of every path. After a few years, I had my fill of smart despair, and decided I’d rather be happy. I diligently studied the art of finding something pleasurable in almost every situation.

The business of writing provides a perfect opportunity to exercise this discretion. Given the choice between misery and fun, I follow Curtis Smith’s advice and choose fun. In fact, fun is precisely the reason I attend writing conferences. By coming together with other writers, I enjoy the pleasure of their company, transforming writing from an isolated activity to a social one.

At the end of the day, I thanked Christine Weiser for another great conference. She said, “By the way. Would you be willing to submit some of your essays to the Philadelphia Stories blog?” Here was another opportunity to participate in the writing community, and another way to reach readers and writers. “I’d love to,” I said and walked out to my car. Skipping past puddles from the all-day autumn rain, I eagerly anticipated the approaching winter, looking forward to a whole season full of excuses to stay inside and write.

This is the second article I wrote about the 2009 Push To Publish Conference.  To read Part 1, click here.

Philadelphia Push To Publish, Lessons in Courage from a Writing Conference

by Jerry Waxler

For weeks I considered dedicating a precious Saturday to attend the “Push to Publish” conference, hosted by Philadelphia Stories. I enjoyed the event last year and thought I ought to do it again. Now, I needed to commit the time.

By Saturday morning my preference to meet writers won and I drove into pouring rain, to find myself back along the winding paths and elegant buildings of the Rosemont College campus on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The registration room was packed, and looking around I spotted a likely networking candidate, a young man sitting alone. “What do you write,” I asked. “A memoir,” he said. Jackpot. The memoir gods were smiling.

He was an undergrad in the English Department at University of Delaware. “People think I’m crazy to write a memoir when I’m so young.” I looked at him. “I think they’re the ones who are crazy. It’s your story. You should tell it any time you want.” Just then, a woman I knew from another regional writing group leaned in to interrupt us. “Aren’t you the memoir guy? There’s someone I want you to meet.”

I excused myself from the youngest memoir writer I’ve met, and was introduced to a woman, perhaps in her 40s, who had written about her family history. She told me a fascinating tale complete with twists and turns. “I’m finished the draft. Now, before I spend a lot of time editing it, I came to the conference to see if anyone believes I’m wasting my time.” I looked at her. Had she really come here searching for naysayers? “Ouch,” I said. “Why would anyone tell you that? And if they did, why would you believe them?” She shrugged and I moved on.

Waiting on line for coffee, the woman in front of me turned, smiled, and stuck out a hand. I clasped it in greeting, but instead of introducing herself, she pointed to the man next to her. “This is my husband. I talked him into writing a novel.” I asked her, “How did that work for you?” She said, “It was great” and they both laughed.

We sat down together to eat our continental breakfast, and I said, “I’m into memoir writing.” He said, “If I wrote about my life, it would put everyone to sleep.” I chewed my bagel and tried to imagine an entire life with no dramatic tension. Finally, I said, “It’s not about spectacular events. It’s about great story telling.”

He grew quiet. “Well, actually, I have written a couple of stories about myself.” He went on to describe an incident from his childhood that completely grabbed my attention, like I was back there with him, and we were in danger together. I said, “How could anyone fall asleep? That story is enchanting.” (No, I won’t tell it. It’s his story, not mine.)

On my walk through the rain to hear the keynote speech, I wondered, “Why do so many people think there’s something wrong with writing their own stories?” The keynote speaker, Lise Funderburg, didn’t have this problem. She published a memoir about her relationship with her father. Apparently, one of her goals as a writer is to share herself.

In fact, most of the talk consisted of tips she had learned about the writing life. For example, “You have to be okay with rejection. And that doesn’t stop. In fact, it still hurts me when I’m rejected.”

“Well,” I thought. “That’s a consistent message. Writing is hard work, with long periods of uncertainty, plenty of pain and for most of us not too much money. So, if it hurts so bad, why is this room full of people again?”

Funderburg went on to read a passage from her recently published memoir, which I have not yet had an opportunity to read, called “Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home: A Memoir.” It’s about discovering her relationship with her father while he was dying of cancer. The passage was rich in imagery, full of kindness and conveying the same sparkle in her words as danced in her eyes. At the end, I raised my hand and asked, “How did you find your voice?” She hesitated for a moment, and said, “Finding my voice was really a very long journey around a big circle until I finally came back to just being myself.”

Dodging rain drops and puddles on my way to the next section of the conference, I thought, “Even her voice is an expression of herself. No wonder it hurts to be rejected. We’re pouring ourselves out to other people. What a crazy thing to do.”

I realized that in addition to learning the art of self-expression, writers must learn courage. We imagine, we write, we polish, and then we beg gatekeepers for the opportunity to share our work with readers. But Lisa Funderburg didn’t shrivel back from the task, and her story provides one more inspiring example of a writer pushing through obstacles to reach higher goals.

Notes

Visit the Amazon Page for the memoir Pig Candy by Lise Funderburg
Lise Funderburg’s Home Page

Click here for the essay I wrote about last year’s Philadelphia Stories Conference

Fiction built on a foundation of real life

By Jerry Waxler

Fiction seems entirely different from memoirs. And yet, when I look at actual examples of the two forms, I discover their intimate connection, each breathing life into the other. A good memoir is more compelling than a raw dump of facts. It generates dramatic tension by using fiction techniques like suspense and character development. And good fiction requires believable characters and real psychological interactions in order to capture our attention.

Last fall, I attended a writer’s conference organized by Philadelphia Stories held amidst stately trees and classic architecture of Rosemont College. There I met Susan Muaddi Darraj, creative writing professor and author of a book of short stories, “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly.” The protagonists in her stories are girls growing up in Palestinian families in South Philadelphia. The author, as it happens, grew up in a Palestinian family in South Philadelphia. “Write what you know,” the teachers say. Apparently Darraj took this advice.

The parallel between her life and her characters made me curious. Even though “Inheritance of Exile” is fiction, it’s apparently grounded in her own experience. I decided to read her book to learn what I could about the relationship between life and art.

Inheritance of Exile is written in an intimate, first person account
How does she or any fiction writer create a world authentic enough to let me enter? Surely they don’t create an entire world from scratch. I imagine they take a page from the memoirist’s book, describing a fictional world based on the things they see in the real one.

In Muaddi Darraj’s fiction, I hear her protagonist’s inner voice and see her family, friends, and culture. For example, in more than one story in “Inheritance of Exile,” the protagonist’s parents hang a blue stone to fend off the evil eye. I don’t know much about Palestinian culture, so I have no way to know if they do indeed follow this ritual. But it wouldn’t make sense for the author to invent such a thing. Even though I don’t know for sure if the blue stone is “real,” her story connects me to old world hopes and fears.

In one story, the protagonist was criticized by her mother for sitting in a way that she revealed the bottom of her foot, a gesture considered an insult. I found this detail interesting. Then, a few weeks after reading it, I saw a news article in which an Iraqi threw his shoes at President Bush as a highly publicized insult. Aha! External corroboration.

The character’s father ran a sandwich truck in Philadelphia. It reminded me of the truck parked outside the University of Pennsylvania, where I often bought my lunch during the years I worked there. The Lebanese guys who made delicious falafels were lovely and even though I was just a customer, I soon felt close to them. “Inheritance of Exile” now lets me imagine additional dimensions of their lives. For the first time I think of their whole situation, raising American children in an immigrant home in Philadelphia. This book of fiction, of invented reality, expands my understanding of the real people around me.

Coming of Age has changed over the decades
When I was growing up, I read several Coming of Age stories such as “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and “Portrait of the Artist” by James Joyce. The protagonists of these books were full of angst, disenfranchisement, anomie – moods that were hallmarks for their times, when readers and publishers focused on the existential problems of young men. Times have changed.

Forty years later, Inheritance of Exile offers a different view of Coming of Age, describing this life journey through a female author’s eyes at the beginning of the Twenty First Century. Her struggles for social and emotional wholeness sound very different than the authors I read in high school, and deepens my understanding of the search for identity in today’s culture.

To read my essay on the shifting gender orientation of contemporary literature – click here

Immigrants are us
My parents grew up in Philadelphia, children of immigrants. I know so little about how that felt, and now it’s too late to ask. But I can learn a little more about the experience of children of immigrants by reading stories. For example, one of Darraj’s characters resented her mother’s accent because it sounded foreign. This resentment felt eerily familiar.

My maternal grandmother was born in the United States, and through fanatical attention to elocution, had developed a Proper British accent. Her husband immigrated from Russia when he was a young man, and sixty years later, he still pronounced the letter “W” as if it was a “V.” According to family lore, my grandmother was not particularly fond of him, and now I wonder how much his pronunciation grated against her ambition to become unambigously American. I’m starting to realize that one reason my parents never taught me Yiddish or talked about the Old Country was that they wanted to forget their past.

Susan Muaddi Darraj’s character, like other immigrant children, wanted to blend in with Americans and yet at home she had to relate to a very different culture. This character’s emotions teach me about my own grandparents, my parents and myself.

Literature is a window into society
Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, in his lecture series “Understanding Literature and Life” claims that literature portrays the world and culture of the author, so for example to learn how Greeks thought, we read Greek plays. And one place to seek insight into an Arab immigrant community in South Philadelphia might be in the stories of “Inheritance of Exile.” They contain emotionally compelling situations that capture my attention and transport me to a world that feels authentic, even though they make no claim to factual reporting.

Writing Prompt
What community or social phenomenon does your memoir explore?  How do characters in your story behave towards each other? What lessons do you detect in the unique workings of your family? Look for an anecdote that might evoke some powerful observation about families or communities, tension among people, or aspirations to gain entry into privileged social situations.

Links

For more about Philadelphia Stories, click here
Click here Susan Muaddi Darraj’s home page
Amazon page for “Inheritance of Exile”
To hear the wonderful lecture series, “Understanding Literature and Life” by Arnold Weinstein published by the Teaching Company click here.

My Day at a Writer’s Conference – or – The Benefits of Showing Up

by Jerry Waxler

On Saturday morning, a sunny autumn day, I left my home amidst the browning corn fields of Philadelphia’s northern exurbs. Thirty miles later, turning onto estate-lined roads of the Main Line, I reached Rosemont College, rich with serious stone buildings nestled amidst old-growth trees, the perfect setting for an intellectual feast. The college’s MFA program was hosting a regional writing conference called Push to Publish, organized by Philadelphia Stories magazine, a literary journal founded and run by Christine Weiser and Carla Spataro. I was looking forward to this opportunity to spend a day soaking up the ambiance of writers, learning, and networking.

In the lobby, looking for the registration desk I felt the buzz of writers, with our desire to put words on paper, to organize thoughts, and reach out to people. This ever-present tension between writing in private and reaching out to the public is at its most paradoxical when we get together in person.

The keynote speech turned out to be invigorating and liberating. Beth Kephart, whose work I did not know, started as a memoir writer, who, as her career proceeded, extended her writing to other forms, most recently winning awards as a young adult novelist. As her writing skills and interests develop, Beth follows her creative compulsion and then finds people who understand it. This is the refreshing message I drink in; it’s okay to speak from my heart and then find a market, rather than the other way around.

The writer’s journey is a long walk through a desert and talks like Beth Kephart’s are the oases of cool succor, mixed with a bit of prophecy that if I keep going, I too will reach ever more interesting connections with readers. (Click here for Beth Kephart’s blog.)

Outside, tiptoeing around the stinky ginkgo berries, whose smell I knew well because of the tree outside my grandmother’s house in the Logan district on North Broad Street, a professional-looking man with a rich German accent introduced himself. He’s a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and wants to publicize science. I told him my interest and asked him about his writing style. When he told me he was still writing in the academic mold, I launched into my pitch that the best way to reach readers is to bring himself into the page. “That’s interesting,” he said. “When I show my students photos I’ve taken around the world, they ask me what the trip was like. They want to know about me.” It was really fun sharing this insight about popularizing science with a university professor. I need to do this more often.

At lunch I sat down with a couple of women and asked what they write. One of them said, “I’m Ethel David. I wrote a book called, “My Lover the Rabbi, My Husband the Doctor.”

“How interesting,” I replied. “I saw that book on the display table. How nice to meet the author.”

The other woman said, “And I’m Cheryl Grady, her Boswell,” referring to the fact that Ethel spoke and Cheryl wrote.

“So,” I said. “Your husband was both a doctor and rabbi. That’s incredible.”

“No. I really had an affair with a rabbi while I was married to a doctor.”

Pause. “Don’t you feel awkward writing about it?”

“At 92 years-old, honey, I can say anything I want.” I had to ask her to repeat her age several times. Her voice was so lucid and strong, I would have figured her to be around 70. After she showed me family photos from 1916, I went back to the table where Larry Robin, owner of the oldest independent bookstore in Philadelphia, Robin’s Book Store was glad to sell me a copy of the book.

While most conferences provide the opportunity to speak with an editor or agent, this one offered “speed dating” letting you talk to more than one for a generous 15-minute block. First I spoke with Michelle Wittle, a blogger for Philadelphia Stories, and then Peter Krok, publisher of the Schuylkill Valley Journal. I told Peter about my interest in memoir and essay writing. He expressed interest in my writing because he too is interested in memoir. He said his book of poetry, “In Search of An Eye,” is essentially an introspective journey. I have thought about the fact that poetry is an expression of the poet’s life, and so I decided to look more closely at Peter Krok’s book of introspective poetry to learn more about this relationship between memoir and poetry. I went back to Larry Robin, and bought a copy of “In Search of An Eye” by Peter Krok.

For a review, of this chapbook, click here.

Another unusual aspect of the Push to Publish conference was that all the meetings were panel discussions. Workshops at other regional conferences I’ve attended, like the Philadelphia Writers Conference, and the Lehigh Valley Writers Group are taught by individuals. I felt that the bevy of writers in each session was more in keeping with the boutique flavor of the conference, and made the publishing journey more accessible. The panelists’ varying perspectives and conversations generated energy. Perhaps it felt refreshing simply witnessing that there are lots of writers who are out there “doing it.”

One of the women who moderated two panels was Susan Muaddi Darraj a Palestinian-American and Senior Editor of The Baltimore Review. Her book of short stories called “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly,” won the Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction from Foreword Magazine. This was a curious regional twist, since in my day, South Philadelphia was synonymous with Italian. I wondered what it would be like growing up a generation later as a Palestinian immigrant.

And since I’m interested in everything about turning life into story, I wanted to learn more about what it would be like translate her ethnic childhood into fictional stories. So I went back to Larry Robin and bought Susan Muaddi Daraj’s book, “The Inheritance of Exile.” By this time Larry was very pleased with me.

“So, Larry,” I said while he was writing up my order. “What do you think about the state of the world?” Larry has a huge white beard, and I knew from several years of acquaintance and work with him that he is one of those radicals who never got the message that the sixties were over. He said, “It’s about time. People are starting to wake up.”

I laughed, getting flashbacks to my own radical days in the sixties, when I tried to make sense of Marx’s dire predictions about the inevitable fall of capitalism. “So,” I said, “We’re finally reaping the fruits of our greed.” Larry’s eyes sparkled. Ah. Two old hippies sharing a laugh over a pile of books. On the walk to my car, I felt weary. In this morning’s bright sunshine, the cool wind blowing through multi-colored leaves felt invigorating, but now in the spreading afternoon dimness, the same breeze felt foreboding. It was time to go home.

I’ve heard that Philadelphia has a burgeoning art scene. Art, and most interesting to me, writing, shape the imagination of a community, and I’m delighted to participate in, and contribute to that pool of creative energy. At the end, I felt a vigorous passion, having met these people with their interest in sitting alone and putting words on a page, and then lifting their attention from the page to the public, reaching out to offer those words as part of the binding, the substrate, the collective communication that helps pull together a bunch of individuals into a society.

Note
Earlier this year I read a book of short stories, called “Apologies Forthcoming,” by a Chinese American author, Xujun Eberlein about growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. (Click here for an essay I wrote about her book.)

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below.
You can also download the podcast from iTunes:
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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

Creative brain jam in Philly ties it all together

 by Jerry Waxler

I went to Philadelphia last week to see a few people sit at a table and chat. The promoters called it a “panel discussion.” To me it was as good as a rock concert. The panelists entertained the audience by sharing themselves, using words instead of musical notes. The occasion was another one of those Boomervision talks I enjoy down at WHYY public television studio. The Boomervision talks are hosted by WHYY and Coming of Age, and were introduced by Coming of Age director Dick Goldberg. This evening’s panel was called “You are what you create.”

I love these gatherings because they are my best opportunity to hear people share their observations about life and growing older. Imam Miller, a Muslim preacher, said that growing older at any age makes most sense when you are growing towards God. Community activist, Irma Gardner-Hammond “preaches” by telling stories. I loved that she has found this method to share wisdom. And professors, Mary and Ken Gergen, also told some fine stories. They publish the Positively Aging newsletter, which reports on the good news about aging.
The riff that impressed me most during the evening was a woman in the audience who stood up and said she had raised 6 kids by herself, because their dad ran off. Now the kids have kids and she has to raise them too, and it never ends, and so how can she be creative under so much pressure. The room grew quiet, and I could feel my heart weighted down with the heaviness of her life. Irma suggested she expand the meaning of creativity to embrace the challenges of surviving under adverse circumstances. Ken Gergen, in a kind voice reached out to her with the music of his mind, and suggested that if she could tell the story of her life, that she might find in it the strength to carry on. His voice awakened echoes of Viktor Frankl’s tune, that finding meaning is what makes life worthwhile.

Before the program the technicians set up their camera equipment. The production assistant, watching the large overhead monitor, said in monotone, “a little to the right.” The panelist’s caring face inched closer to the center of the screen. “A little to the right.” The camera intoned again. When he was satisfied he said, “Set” and shifted his attention to the next panelist. As I sat in the audience watching these arcane workings of the television studio, a man behind me leaned over and asked me who I am and what I do. I squirmed. I’ve never had an easy time talking about myself, but now that I’m researching my memoir, I am far more open up with strangers than I ever have been in my life. His name was RegE, and he asked me where I went to high school, and I told him Central High. He gestured to his wife, Geri. “She went to Girl’s High.” That’s the school that I passed every day on my way to and from the trolley stop at Broad and Olney. She asked me if I was one of the Central High boys who hung around talking to the girls as they came out of school. I blushed, remembering how much of a nerd I was. She might as well have asked me if I wrestled alligators. “No. I worked at my dad’s drugstore.” RegE asked where the drugstore was. I said, “Seventeenth and Tioga,” Now it was Geri’s turn to dime on her husband. She said, “RegE grew up a few blocks from there, at Seventeenth and Erie.” I lived the first year of my life in the apartment above the store, and worked there all through high school. RegE and I had spent some of the crucial years of our lives within a few blocks of each other.

So there I was at WHYY’s Boomervision panel, returning to Philadelphia to understand my own life. In a way, meeting RegE and his wife is as close to coming home as I can get. The city has changed dramatically since I grew up in North Philadelphia, and so have the people with whom I have shared my cabin on this spaceship earth. It’s a vast ever-changing world, and one that makes no sense whatsoever, until we create the stories that bring us all together.

See also a blog entry on a previous Boomervision talk by clicking here.

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.