Self help for memoir writers

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

Early in my journey to write my memoir, I encountered an age-old problem. My mind was devilishly clever at undermining me. Who will read it? It’s not interesting. I’m not good enough. I’ll do it later. I’ll do it someday.

If my goal had been to jump into an ice-cold swimming pool, perhaps I could have overcome my reluctance by screaming “Just do it.”

But weaving my reflections on the past into a good story required thousands of small steps.  Other than perhaps the first one of sitting in front of the computer, none responded very well to screams.

Writing a memoir turned out to be a journey in its own right, in which I had to steer through all sorts of fears, self-doubts and other mental obstacles I encountered on the way. I soon realized I was creating two parallel hero’s journeys.

Hero’s Journey #1 was the story I was trying to write about a character trying to discover a better version of himself.

In order to create that story, I had to go on Hero’s Journey #2, developing introspective skills, teasing out scenes, and courageously facing the tasks of writing and revising.

When I started writing my memoir, though, I didn’t see myself as the hero of anything. However, one thing I did know a lot about was self-help, which I had been studying for years. While most self-help books and recordings focused on becoming a better business person, I extracted those aspects that would make me a more creative person.

So when I became attracted to memoir writing, I realized that achieving my goal required a specialized application of the self-help field. Another source of psychological insight into the creative process came from the helping profession of psychotherapy. I had recently graduated with a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and had often considered my psychotherapy training in relationship to the creative process.

One of the most important and exciting bits of self-help advice I had come across was to “write as if you were speaking to an interested audience.” That advice has motivated me for years, because as I write, I find myself engaged with the people who might want to hear what I have to say. This desire to communicate makes writing so much easier and more interesting.

The fact that you are reading this places you in that category of a curious audience, interested in what I have to say about memoirs, so I’m thinking of you when I write. ?

If you are attempting to write your memoir, be sure to populate your imaginary audience with compassionate memoir readers who are deeply interested in other people. These readers want to know all about you. By maintaining a loving, mutually respectful relationship with this imaginary audience, you will be able to turn your writing sessions into engaging stories about the dramatic tensions, the difficulties, and the courage of your journey.

As I continued to gather strategies, I shared them with other writers. Teaching self-help  workshops to writers was a new venture for me. Instead of just thinking about these techniques for myself, I began to see them as shareable skills writers can learn together.

Based on the workshops, I compiled a self-development workbook called How to Become a Heroic Writer, Train Your Brain to Build Habits, Overcome Obstacles, and Reach Readers.

If you have an interest in the techniques and insights afforded by the self-help and psychology movements, take a look at my book. Working through the lessons and writing exercises will provide you with a series of interlocking skills that will arm you for the journey to become a writer.

If you have specific questions about the book, or about your own project, feel free to drop me an email using the contact form on this page – I will be happy to respond.

Notes

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

The journey to become a memoir writer is long – and that is okay. Your life itself took time so you know how things unfold across weeks, months, and years. And you know that many guides, peers, and other sources of inspiration and strength helped you along the way.

Notes

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

The journey to become a memoir writer is long – and that is okay. Your life itself took time so you know how things unfold across weeks, months, and years. And you know that many guides, peers, and other sources of inspiration and strength helped you along the way.

Notes

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

The Nine Best Attitudes for Memoir Writers

by Jerry Waxler

When I was still a hippie in 1970, I attended a poetry workshop at the University of California at Berkeley. A member of the group questioned a particular word in the poem I had just read aloud. I felt confused. What gave these people the right to comment on my words? All eyes were on me, and I said, “I used that word because it was the one I wanted.” The room grew quiet, and the leader jumped in. “We don’t allow that response. If you want to participate, you must be willing to discuss your choice.” But I didn’t know how to discuss my poem. It had never even occurred to me that I would need to. I slid into my own thoughts, and at the end of the class, I slipped away.

1) Accept Input

Thirty years later I grew weary of writing only for myself. To find readers, I would need to learn how my words sounded to others. So I joined a critique group. At first I felt anxious about accepting their input, but I overrode my anxiety and began to listen. Soon I realized how valuable some of their suggestions were, and my writing skill took a leap forward.

Learning to accept input was by far the most important step I have ever taken towards improving my craft. And the lesson had nothing to do with language skills. It was about receptivity. From this one life-skill, all others flowed. Here are eight of the most important.

2) Aim towards a goal

To plan the success of your memoir, visualize the top of the mountain, setting long term goals so you know where you are heading. Then break the big goal into steps, and strive to achieve each one along the way.

3) Look inside yourself

To tell your story, you must discover what goes on inside your own mind. Some of us were born curious about the workings of our mind, while others cultivate this curiosity. Meditation provides a structure for your introspective journey. Journaling also helps transfer musings from mind to page.

4) Be curious about other people

To bring your own memoir into focus, read memoirs. You’ll learn things about other people’s ambitions, dreams, disappointments. And they have much to teach you about translating life into story.

5) Embrace imperfection

Ancient artists sketched horses on cave walls. Even though the pictures were primitive, a viewer today still understands their intention. Art only gestures towards reality, and yet the effort reaches deep into the psyche and provides lasting satisfaction. So as you tell your life, look for ways to improve your representation, while at the same time accepting the artistry and imperfection of your product.

6) Give the gift of story

We go to movies, read books, gossip about the lives of politicians and movie stars. Our minds are filled with other people’s stories, but few of us give away our own. Since you have always enjoyed receiving stories, try giving some back.

7) Form and follow habits

People who only write when they are in the mood stop dead when they don’t feel like it. This approach provides sporadic results. To press forward, write every day. Instead of waiting for the mood to move you, learn to move your mood.

8) Persist

When you first start, naturally you’re full of enthusiasm. Then you run into the long middle. To finish, you must keep going. Maintain your energy by hankering for a goal that urgently calls to you, and then overcome the obstacles of fatigue, discomfort, and discouragement.

9) Dare to succeed

To write, you must use your mind as an instrument, and to write successfully you must improve that instrument as much as possible. Dare to acquire the attitudes that will accelerate your success, fearlessly moving upward towards the pinnacle of your dreams.

Note

Writing classes and conferences do not teach great attitudes. That oversight leaves many of us wondering why our writing isn’t moving forward. To fill this gap, see my self-help book for writers, “Four Elements for Writers” available from my website. [LINK]

Afraid to write your memoir? Read this book!

by Jerry Waxler

Jamie Blyth was one of the 25 hot bachelors competing on the Reality Television show, the Bachelorette. While all the contestants were anxious to win the girl, Jamie faced an additional challenge. He had been fighting for years to overcome frightening bouts of anxiety. Appearing on the show was his way of proving to himself he could stare into the jaws of his worst fears and survive. Even though he didn’t win the contest, he did succeed in appearing in embarrassing situations on national television. Oprah Winfry saw his victory as an inspiring example of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. She invited him onto her show where he shared his story with millions of viewers.

Just a few years earlier, Jamie was so terrified to talk to girls, his heart raced and he couldn’t breathe. He thought he was going to die. First, he tried the obvious defense. He stopped dating, and became increasingly isolated and lonely, a common problem for people with social phobia. He took a job as a sales person and to his horror felt the same anxiety flooding him during important sales calls. Unwilling to give in to these limitations, he kept looking for solutions. Finally, with therapy, self-help books, and relentless effort he reduced his anxiety enough to confront his two worst fears in one crazy act – selling himself to a girl, in front of a national audience.

With co-author Jenna Glatzer he shared the details of his story in “Fear is no longer my reality,” a combination memoir and self-help book. The book is a wonderful resource for anyone suffering from social anxiety. It also contains interesting lessons for memoir writers.

Click here for the Amazon page for Fear is No Longer My Reality
Click here for Jenna Glatzer’s Home Page

A growing interest in the inner workings of other people
Many people think that Reality Television is a sign the world is falling apart. I have a different perspective. I think shows about real people indicate the world is falling together. We’re getting more interested in each other. This is an exciting development for memoir writers. In these more curious times, people are more likely than ever to want to know what goes on in your mind, what choices you have made, hardships you have suffered and overcome. But are you ready to satisfy their curiosity?

To write your memoir, you sit alone, turning inward, coaxing memories from your mind out your fingers and onto a page, where they sit silently, patiently, waiting for readers. Finding readers requires action. You must leave your desks and reach out to the public. This intimidates most writers, who don’t feel comfortable persuading anyone of anything. We ask ourselves, “Why should they be interested in me? Who are they anyway? And why should I care what they think?”

The commonly quoted statistic is that more people are afraid of public speaking than of dying. (A good joke about this is that most people at a funeral would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.) Public speaking is only one manifestation of a broader problem. People are nervous about exposing themselves to strangers. For example, we fear that by talking about ourselves online we are opening ourselves to danger. Such misgivings about your relationship to the public can stifle your writing. Why bother to write what you’re unwilling to share?

Fear of the public certainly contains valid concerns, which the anxious mind then amplifies into predictions of catastrophe. Once formed, such predictions are hard to ignore. Following this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, you would naturally want to stay as isolated as possible. And that becomes a pattern which increases loneliness and reduces options. To tell people your story, take a page from Jamie Blyth’s book. He learned to fight back against these energy-draining thoughts and emotions, and thereby expanded his options in the world.

While I’ve read a number of self-help books about social anxiety, “Fear Is No Longer My Reality” by Jamie Blyth and Jenna Glatzer is the first memoir I’ve read on the subject. It lets me feel Jamie’s frustration and panic, and then lets me share his efforts to move beyond these limitations.

Things to learn from the style of the book
Jamie’s story was co-written by Jenna Glatzer, a founder of the online writing community AbsoluteWrite.com. It turns out that ghost written memoirs are fairly common, since many people would like to have their story told, without necessarily going through the skill building required to write it themselves. I belong to an organization dedicated to this craft, the Association of Personal Historians, and understanding how someone can help someone else tell their story is one of the things about memoirs that I continue to research.

From the structure of the book, I learned several nonfiction techniques. For example, Jenna included interviews with Jamie’s friends and coworkers, as well as interview snips from experts on social anxiety.

Jenna Glatzer’s other book on Social Anxiety

To learn more about social anxiety, I looked up Jenna Glatzer’s other book on this subject, co-written with psychologist Paul Foxman. “Conquering Panic and Anxiety Disorders: Success Stories, Strategies, and Other Good News.” It’s a compilation of first-person stories about facing and overcoming social anxiety. Reading this series of two or three page accounts of individual battles with social anxiety gave me an overview of the way this fear of the public can affect a variety of people, and also gave me an example of an anthology approach, another format that can work well for some types of lifestory telling.

Jenna herself has suffered from this debilitating anxiety, which makes her an expert in her own right, struggling along with the people she is writing about. By writing these two books about social anxiety she followed the classic advice, “write what you know”, turning a problem into an opportunity, thinking about the problem in far greater detail and more personally than most people who are not similarly obsessed with the issues. Her personal experience increases the level of intimacy and personal connection between the author and the reader, making the book more valuable as a resource to someone who wants to push through fear of the public, and open themselves up to the risks and the pleasures of people seeking to know each other in new, more imaginative, and more intimate ways than ever before.

Note
I couldn’t find any books specifically oriented to helping writers overcome social anxiety, and so I added a chapter on this subject to my self-help book for writers, Four Elements for Writers, by Jerry Waxler, M.S. available from my website.

Note
I am one of the many people who have been through Toastmasters, International, an almost magical program which allowed me to work through my fears of public speaking in a safe environment, complete with gentle helpful tips from peers, and a method that worked for tens of thousands of people.

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Rediscovering why I read books throughout my lifetime

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Books have always played an important role in my life, influencing, informing, and entertaining. Now I want to pass forward to others the benefits I have received. One of the steps of offering my thoughts to “the world” is to visualize who might be on the receiving end. Communication does, after all, require a speaker and a listener. So who are “those people” out there to whom I am speaking? One approach to understanding how books work for them is to explore how books have worked for me. By picking apart the way books have worked in my life, I hope to learn how other people use books.

When I lay out my recollections on paper, patterns emerge, much simpler and more sensible than expected, letting me identify the way I used books differently in various eras of my life. Perhaps this fact should have been obvious to me from the start, but it wasn’t and now once again, I find myself learning more about the changes across the lifespan by going back and reviewing my own.

Different reasons for reading at different stages in life
In early teen years, I fell into a torrid love affair with science fiction, a genre that let me suspend my own limitations, and join forces with people who adventured through the known and unknown universe. Regular trips to the library and a large paperback collection fed my passion for fantasy. Then in high school, I switched to more serious literature, like Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas, basking in the hypnotic rhythm of their language and stories. It didn’t bother me that they described a world that took place 100 years earlier. In fact, in one of my favorite books from that period, “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Mark Twain transported the protagonist back several hundred years, combining literature with science fiction.

When I was twenty, I desperately wanted clever people to tell me what life was going to be like, so I ran towards the darkness of a culture driven mad by World War II. One of the most intellectually demanding books I ever read, “The One Dimensional Man” by Herbert Marcuse left me feeling that all was insanity and all was lost. Mentors like Samuel Beckett and Joseph Heller offered a cynical emptiness, so deep and despairing that by the time I stopped reading I had entered my own hell. Perhaps I was experiencing “Clinical Depression” or perhaps I had simply spent too much time absorbing post-World War II despair. Whatever it was, I had my fill of the dark.

To regain some of the lightness required for survival, I reached towards spirituality, reading books by mystical authors who offered me insights into a reality that made more sense than the one I had constructed so far. One was Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yoga [See my essay on a memoir about Paramahansa Yogananda by clicking here.] There were many others. Rumi, the ancient Persian poet who continues to influence and uplift. Kahlil Gibran. The Book of Mirdad. The Way of the Pilgrim, about a Russian monk who learns the art of constant prayer. Some potent books, like Stewart White’s “Betty Book” were recommended by a friend who had found them on dusty shelves of a used bookstore. (Ah-ha! It’s not just bestselling books that influence a reader.)

I finally got back on my feet, and as a young working man, I returned to mysteries. Their repetitive formula soothed me by unmasking the villain and reducing the chaos of the world.

In my forties I discovered self-help books. During this period, authors taught me psychological skills to help me survive the working life, and improve my chances for aging gracefully. My foray into self-help reached a zenith in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, whose ideas formed the foundation for going back to school for a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. I continued my fascination with self-help and psychological literature, to help me continue to grow, as well as to give me insights with which I could help others.

When I approached sixty, I switched again, reading memoir after memoir to learn what sorts of lives people have written.

My changing tastes offer many insights
When I look back over the decades, what looked originally like a thousand disjointed bits of information fall into a nicely organized shape. Of course there were exceptions that don’t precisely fit into this convenient stratification, but those don’t disrupt the basic lesson — That as I grew, I used books in different ways. My insights about books through the years becomes a lens through which I can learn more not only about myself, but about how I interacted with the world around me.

Like almost every task in my memoir project, evaluating my past adds information to my present. I see so much more about my relationship with books, and book authors, a realization that will deepen my understanding of how to reach my readers. In further essays, I will write more about how these changing relationships might affect the way I organize my life story, ideas that I hope will inspire you to understand more about your own relationship with your potential audience.

Writing Prompt: For each period in your life, write about the books you read, and why you read them. List your favorite titles, and describe the impact they had on you. Place this list in order, and see if you can identify any patterns about how they changed over the years.

Note: Memoirs are so varied they provide a variety of the benefits I have looked for in the course of my reading. Memoirs can be exhilarating, provide lots of entertainment, and offer lessons about life. Articles about the spirituality of memoirs can be found here.

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