Frequently expressed fears about publishing a memoir

by Jerry Waxler

After writing their memoir, many people stop at the threshold, worried what they might encounter in the world of public storytelling. In this section, I answer Frequently Asked Questions about the fears that block memoir writers before their work reaches the world.

What if I’m too shy to sell my book?

If you feel shy about revealing your life, try to break the task down into small, achievable steps. In my experience, the safest first audience are your fellow aspiring writers who may share some of your anxieties and hopes. By joining a critique group, you can audition your material and get feedback. Try a few more critique groups and after a while you’ll feel more confident. A good next step is a blog. This free self-publishing tool allows you to share your life with one tiny corner of the vast universe of the public. As your blog grows, hopefully your confidence will too. Eventually sharing your story will feel more natural.

Will going public place me in danger?

No one can guarantee safety, and so, all of us must steer between the extremes of paralyzing fear and bold action. To keep fear in its rightful place, think of it as an advisor, and not a master.

Will I be sued or hated?

It’s relatively easy for someone to sue you, and even if their legal grounds are frivolous, you must defend yourself. As a result, you may imagine potential law suits lurking on every page. How do memoir writers make peace with this possibility? The first line of defense is to realize that someone will need to go to a lot of trouble and expense to sue you, so probably mere annoyance will not be enough to provoke this sort of response.

Some writers say that the very people who they thought would hate the book were flattered to see themselves in print. Some, like Linda Wisniewski say it’s her story and other people are entitled to their reaction. Others, like Sue William Silverman, wait until their abuser has passed. She was afraid her relatives would hate her for outing her father’s abuse, but instead they reached out to her and empathized, wishing they could somehow turn the clock back to those years and protect her. In, “Crazy Love,” Leslie Morgan Steiner’s first husband was one of the most abusive men I have seen in nonfiction. She apparently came to some sort of agreement with him before the book went to press. Here are a few other ways writers minimize the risk of incurring wrath:

  • By including more than one point of view you can imply that your own observations are your subjective reality, and others may differ.
  • Skip or only hint at the most incriminating observations.
  • Alter facts to obscure the person’s identity.
  • Write fiction.

Must I reveal every aspect of my life?

Writing a memoir initially seems like it may expose you to ridicule. Once you actually reveal secrets, you may be surprised to discover that your confessions make you appear to be a deeper, more authentic character. No longer under pressure to keep secrets, you trade in privacy for self-confidence. “I am who I am, and did what I did.” By telling your secrets, you become a more open and energetic contributor to your culture.

Of course, there may be parts of your life you still prefer to keep to yourself. You may want to protect your family and friends, or you may still be processing part of yourself that is not yet ready for public scrutiny. As you experiment in your drafts and critique groups, you gain discernment about which parts of yourself to reveal and which to keep private.

What if my sister or brother disagrees?

Even in casual situations, people have different recollections of the same event. Sometimes you can agree to disagree. Other times, the disagreement escalates, loaded with surprising tension, and a struggle for ownership of the past.

Some memoir writers weave disagreements right into their story. For example, “The Kids are all right,” by Diana Welch, “Night of the Gun,” by David Carr, “Mistress’s Daughter,” by A.M. Homes, and “My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour.

If appropriate, discuss your memories with those who were involved, seeking to understand their point of view. Foster Winans, in an early draft of his memoir “Trading Secrets” painted a dark, damaging portrait of his mother. She read the draft, and they talked for hours, turning the pain into an opportunity for understanding. The published version took this new, deeper appreciation into account.

In the end, this is your story and you have the right to tell it. In fact, gaining confidence and ‘ownership” of your own life story is one of the greatest benefits of writing it.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Why Coming of Age Memoirs ought to be a genre

by Jerry Waxler

One of the most haunting books I read in high school was James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” His childhood in Dublin was radically different from mine in Philadelphia, so I couldn’t figure out why his story moved me. Now, I look back and realize we both experienced the terrible anxiety of being young. During the period between the ages of say 13 and 23, I struggled to relate to my family and to excel in school. I clumsily attempted to learn the rules of friendships, sexuality, money, and responsibility. And far too often, my best effort led me to a dead end. Finally, I was spit onto the shores of adulthood, gasping for air.

Even on that terra firma, I felt shaky. You mean I have to keep going? When does it get easy?

To learn why life had not turned out according to plan, I spent years in talk therapy and read scores of self-help books. I went to graduate school to learn how to provide psychotherapy to others. But my understanding of that long, unsatisfying transition from child to adult still eluded me. How could i help others if my own transition to adulthood felt confusing? Finally, I found the solution. I can learn about that period of my life by reading memoirs.

Some of the most popular modern memoirs have been about that stage in the author’s development. The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr tells about growing up in Texas with two parents who were drowning in their own lives. Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls tells of a chaotic childhood, traveling from town to town escaping her father’s demons. In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt grew up in Ireland in a family where alcohol and poverty played a key role. And This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff tells of an ordinary boy with a single mom. She tries to take care of him, but to a large extent, he has to take care of himself.

These Coming of Age tales make one thing clear. Parents have flaws. They can’t always be there. They make mistakes that cause their family to suffer. Each of these dramas reminds me of the extreme vulnerability of children and the importance of parental guidance.

These books often show the role of money. For example, Tobias Wolff’s mother married a man she didn’t love in order to provide a home for her son. Jeanette Walls ate margarine sandwiches to stave off hunger. Frank McCourt scavenged bits of coal that had fallen off trucks, and his mother waited at her husband’s factory on payday to try to get his check before he could drink it away.

Alcohol comes up a lot. Sometimes the parents are drunk, and sometimes it’s the kids who have started to explore the anesthetic properties of drinking. Religion is often invoked as a way to keep kids in line, which in turn creates confusion about these belief systems. Other institutions come up as well. Kids spend a lot of time in school, where they must survive tests from teachers as well as from peers. And constantly, parents and society try to counsel the kids on how to behave.

Until the last few years, no one was ever supposed to talk about life inside their home. It wouldn’t be “right.” Coming of Age memoirs have broken through the taboo. Now that we’re comparing notes, we finally can discard once and for all the syrupy-fake television families of the 50s like “Leave it to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” Reality is much more complicated that they led us to believe.

But memoirs reveal more than secrets. They also reveal wisdom. In our younger years, we lacked the sophisticated thinking that would have let us make sense of what was going on. When we return to take another look, we identify the causes that tied it all together.

For example, in high school I did schoolwork while my peers were out playing in the back alley. Every Friday and Saturday evening I worked at my dad’s drugstore. At the time, anyone else might have immediately understood my pervasive loneliness but to me it was a mystery. Now, as I write my memoir, my adult mind untangles events and it all makes more sense.

James Joyce started the Twentieth Century by writing a semi-autobiographical story about his Coming of Age. At the beginning of the Twenty First Century such stories are becoming a regular feature of our culture. In my high school English class I also read poetry. William Wordsworth said, “The child is father of the man.” I knew it was important but its meaning was just out of reach. Now, thanks to reading and writing memoirs, I grasp the way that child gave birth to the person I am today.

Here are more Coming of Age stories.

— “Name all the animals” by Alison Smith. A Midwestern girl loses her brother, and discovers her sexuality amidst her grief.
— “Sleeping arrangements” by Laura Shaine Cunningham. An orphan in the Bronx was raised by two uncles, in a zany, heartwarming rendition of New York in the 50s.
— “Invisible Wall” by Harry Bernstein. A young man in Great Britain before and during World War I (yes, that’s a one) lived in a neighborhood split through the center of the street.
— “Colored people” by Henry Louis Gates. A black boy growing up in a tiny town in Jim Crow south finds himself. And he uses the book to try to explain this culture to his children.
— “Don’t call me mother” by Linda Joy Myers. A girl orphaned not by death but by abandonment, struggling to grow up despite her many emotional obstacles.
— “Black, White and Jewish” by Rebecca Walker. This is a book of self-discovery by the daughter of the famous author, Alice Walker.
— “Color of Water” by James McBride. A young black man explores the history of his white Jewish mother and in the process also discovers himself.
— “Tweak” by Nic Sheff. This young man falls into the clutches of crystal meth. Like any hard addiction, this one refocused his entire journey on the goal of getting high. It’s a sobering look at how badly drugs distort Coming of Age.
— “Funny in Farsi” by Firoozeh Dumas. An Iranian-American explores her childhood in America. These adventures of the Melting Pot update the many generations of immigrants who have tried to become part of this amalgamated culture.

Harry Potter was a coming of age story, about the hero’s adventure growing up in an unusual high school.

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.

Mothers and Daughters Don’t Always Mix

by Jerry Waxler

Linda Joy Myers’ mother wanted to have fun, so she abandoned her little girl and moved from the Great Plains to the big city of Chicago. Linda Joy was raised by her grandmother, an erratic woman given to harsh rules enforced by rage. Linda Joy grew up with a heavy load of disheartening memories.

After years of therapy, trying to sort out her feelings about her self-involved and mentally abusive caregivers, she began to write it all down. That first attempt turned out to be the beginning of a long journey. She tried again and again, and with each iteration, her story became more readable and less toxic than the one before. It took fifteen years from her first attempt to the publication of her memoir, “Don’t Call Me Mother.”

This book demonstrates the power of persistence. By crafting the story until she got it right, Linda Joy Myers discovered amidst the wreckage of that little girl’s childhood an intact human being, complete with courage, confidence, and dreams. Storytelling transformed her heartbreaking childhood into one stage in a much longer saga. Her suffering and then her healing provide both a tragedy and an inspiration about the wisdom a human can achieve in one life time.

In the preface of “Don’t Call Me Mother” she says, “Wrestling with words and images, putting myself into the story as a character, in the first person, present tense, forced me to integrate the self that I was with the witness I have become. This memoir has given me a profound sense of completion with the past, and a wonderful freedom. As I healed through the writing of this book, it too has evolved into a love song… The women who had once been my curses — my eccentric, wild, emotion-wracked mother and grandmother-became my teachers.”

Click here for Linda Joy Myers’ home page:
Click here for the Amazon page for her book:

I joined the author on her healing journey
Even if she had not told me that writing the book helped her heal, I can feel it for myself. I join this little girl, cringing with her during Grandma’s rages, and feeling relieved when they go on their annual trip to visit great grandmother, her mother’s mother’s mother, the most stable figure in Linda Joy’s childhood. Looking for sighs of relief, of beauty and pride, I pour my heart into each moment of pleasure – her passion for cello playing; the encouragement of her music teacher; her first boy friend, a fellow musician; the wheat fields, like golden oceans, that offer a sense of unlimited space.

As she begins to plan for college I lean forward into the future with her, straining towards escape from her stifling childhood, and longing for the day when she will be old enough and balanced enough to write the book I hold in my hands. Imagining that day converts horror to hope, knowing that the little girl grew up to write this story.

Breaking the code of silence

In addition to rejection by her mother and erratic and often abusive behavior of her grandmother, Linda Joy also fended off inappropriate sexual advances from her father during his annual visit. The people who gave her life used their power to confuse and undermine her. And like most abused kids, she learned the code of silence.

I have heard many people in memoir workshops struggle with such memories, explaining, “I wouldn’t want to talk about my family in that way. It would be disrespectful.” Their reticence followed them into adulthood and continues to foster their shame.

Linda Joy’s mastery over her secrets, provides an inspiring example for any writer who longs to create a whole story from disturbing raw material. Such a journey towards openness takes you across treacherous internal terrain, overcoming the fears and confusion that have always protected these secrets.  Then, you face additional challenges from people who don’t want to hear about child abuse. “Who wants to know things like that?” “That can’t be true.” “You’re exaggerating.” “You’re making excuses.” Only gradually do the walls of shame and secrecy break down. Through experimentation, the stories make sense, expose wounds, let in light, and integrate the past in one continuous whole that brings you to a healthier present and increases your enthusiasm for the future.

The reader and writer look for common ground

When you pick up a book, any book, you naturally ask yourself, “Why should I share my time and energy walking in this author’s shoes on this particular journey?” Of course, all readable books contain some crucial elements. They use polished prose, create dramatic tension, and then successfully resolve that tension. “Don’t Call Me Mother” succeeds in all these standard areas. In addition to generic qualities, each book has particular virtues. For me, the virtue of “Don’t Call Me Mother” is that through the magic of storytelling she brings her childhood to life, and then transforms it in front of my eyes. I share the story of her abuse, and then as she grows, I share the triumph of her eventual self-understanding.

The writer also asks questions. “How do I find and please my audience?” Another way to ask this question is “Who will want to read my book, and why?” The writer’s questions turn out to be mirrors of the ones asked by readers. When the writer’s answer matches the reader’s, two people who have never met are ready to spend hours in each other’s company.

Writing Prompt
Discovering why someone will read your story becomes part your quest as you try to open your life to the reading public. Describe the person who will read your book, and what questions or curiosities would your book address?

Another question, perhaps less obvious but just as important is, “Who will not want to read this book?” Since most of us would like to be loved by everyone, it might be hard to admit that not everyone is going to become a fan. By working out in advance who is not going to be one of your readers, you can focus more on pleasing the people who like you and letting the others read some other book.

Out of triumph, the desire to help others
In addition to helping herself, Linda Joy’s passion for finding the story of her own life has evolved into a passion to help others do the same. She offers individual counseling in the Berkeley area, teaches workshops, and has founded The National Association of Memoir Writers, an internet organization, that brings memoir writers together, and offers instruction and programs to help people take the journey of developing their own memoir.

For many years, Linda Joy dropped the “Joy” from her name, feeling it didn’t accurately reflect her character. Recently she has reintroduced it, choosing to allow the quality of happiness back into her name. While her memoir contains many deep and painful moments, her book reminds me of John Kennedy who said, “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” According to this definition, Linda Joy’s life offers all of us cause for joyful celebration.

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Too many secrets hide my spark

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

When I was 12 years old, I used to sneak out by myself and set fire to autumn leaves. The excitement of the flames blinded me to the danger. Fortunately I never did any damage and was never caught, but now I look back on my actions with horror. I hate the way these memories make me feel, and generally avoid talking about things that make me sound like a criminal. As I work on my memoir, such memories confuse me. Should I include them or leave them out?

Of course I could pretend they never happened. But that solution perpetuates a problem I’ve been trying to overcome since I was a child. I used to believe that people weren’t supposed to have emotions, and I did my best to pretend I had none. The earliest example of this belief comes from seventh grade. I was scandalized when my fellow classmates burst into laughter over some sexual innuendo. How childish! To distance myself from humiliating feelings, I spent my teenage years doing homework or working at my dad’s drugstore. When I wanted a break, I read science fiction novels. This tendency to separate myself from emotions made me seem distant and aloof. I was in a sort of self-imposed exile from the human condition. It took years to break through my own walls.

Gradually with the help of therapy, a graduate program in counseling, and the support of compassionate friends, I learned that emotions are as necessary for a satisfying life as eating. I knew I was making progress when, in my fifties, I walked into the office at Villanova University’s graduate program in counseling psychology. Two of my tenured professors were experimenting with a remote controlled whoopee cushion. They roared with laughter every time the device let loose a simulated fart. I laughed along with them, perhaps not with their childlike glee, but at least I wasn’t horrified, the way I would have been when I was 12.

Now that I’m writing my memoir, I wrestle with every detail that was illegal, immoral, or embarrassing. It all seems so private, and yet it’s all part of my life. How do I decide? To do this right, I remember that the end product of my disclosure is not an encyclopedia. It’s a story. When Michelangelo was sculpting David, he started with a block of granite, and tossed away the rubble to expose the beauty hidden within. By writing a memoir I must discover the real me in a pleasing form.

I dredge through memories, not certain yet what to put in. At this stage, I’m just looking for the raw material. The most dramatic period was during my college years at the University of Wisconsin in Madison during the Vietnam War protests. My adult years are less colorful. I reminisce about my visit to the Great Pyramids on my 30th birthday, and then feel the frustration on my 31st birthday when my boss ordered me to help clean out the septic system.

I slip again into the turmoil of my adolescent years, and as I muse I notice a powerful connection. Around the same time I was in junior high school glowering at classmates for laughing at sexual references, I was sneaking out at night on secret missions to start fires. Wow. Freud claimed that if repressed emotions don’t come out one way they’ll come out another. My adolescence would have made a terrific demonstration of his point.

That’s interesting but must I write it in a memoir for all to see? My childhood preference tells me to skip the whole mess. But to sanitize my story means overriding decades of effort to break out of this shell. Without edgy moments, my memoir will be about a boring person. If I include them, I will be able to show the tension between what is and what can be. By acknowledging the messiness of the journey, I not only make myself appear more human. I discover some of the most exhilarating aspects of my experience. My imperfections are exactly what forced me to grow. Over the years I’ve been weak, confused, afraid. And it’s okay! That’s what drives me to become stronger, more accepting, smarter, and braver.

By releasing myself from my habit of secrecy, I learn about my own human nature, and can apply my learning to understand others. For example, my teenage misadventures help me appreciate the complexity of that period for other people as well. It turns out that sharing the authentic story can also forge intimate connections between people. When readers and writers share tales, we connect sublime parts of ourselves: our desire to learn, grow, love, and be loved.

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