Interview about crossing from academic to popular writing

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third of a three part interview with Robert Waxler, author of two memoirs about his relationship to his sons: “Losing Jonathan” published in 2003 and “Courage to Walk” published in 2010. Waxler is a professor of English Literature at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and founder of the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature,” which uses literature to help criminals find their place in society. In this part of the interview, I asked Waxler how he moved his writing from an academic audience to a popular one.

Jerry Waxler: By writing memoirs, one might say you are playing hooky from the responsibilities of your day job. Instead of studying other people’s literature, you are creating some of your own. What did that feel like, shifting out of your role of English professor to a writer of an accessible, very personal, and intimate sharing of your actual life?

Robert Waxler: Well, yes, people comment about this, although I don’t fully embrace this apparent dichotomy. I remember giving a reading of “Losing Jonathan” at Rice University in Texas, and one of the Vice President’s there came up to me at the reception to tell me how surprised he was by my presentation. He was very moved, he said, but he had thought that as a professor I was going to offer a more academic discussion about heroin addiction. He had apparently been taken back by the emotional quality of the book and the reading.

Literature is about the heart as much as the head, and it is the emotional response that comes from deep reading that I try to evoke in the classroom as well as mindful interpretation. As an English professor, I think an important part of my job is to keep alive an understanding of how vulnerable we all are as human beings, how fragile our lives really are. Literature helps move people in that direction.

So for me, the writing of a memoir is not a different role; it is precisely what I should be doing just as discussing other people’s literature is also central to the job. I agree that we have often assumed that literature professors should distance themselves from the affective quality of the story, keep the feelings out of it, in other words–but that is, I think, a mistake.

Jerry: People who write at work usually need to unlearn their professional style in order to reach the public. Please share some of your own journey in developing the voice for your memoirs. When did you start aspiring to a publically readable voice, and what steps did you take in order to achieve it?

Robert: Some of my writing has been what could be called ” academic” in this context. Especially academic journal  articles, etc.  But I have always liked to think of myself as a “public” person in this regard. Much of my work has been out in the community, trying to convince people that reading and discussing literature is a worthwhile activity, perhaps one of the more important ways to keep us human.

The challenge for me in writing these memoirs was really learning how to write narrative descriptions, dialogue, and so on. I have given a lot of public lectures, written newspaper articles, appeared on radio, and so on for some time, and so have developed what could be considered a non-academic style of discourse, but it did take me some time to figure out how best to capture the “truth” of these family stories in what might be considered a creative non-fiction (memoir) genre. If I have been successful at that, it was mainly through trial and error–and, of course, the fact that I have read a lot of books.

Jerry: Good storytelling is supposed to show scenes and avoid telling ideas. Since you are passionate about ideas, I would imagine such a rule places you in an awkward position. How do you deal with this “show don’t tell” rule while at the same time showing the importance of ideas in your life?

Robert: It did take me a while to fully understand that: “Show don’t tell.”  An early reader of a very rough draft of “Losing Jonathan” told me I needed a lot more description and dialogue–that I was, in other words, telling rather than showing. That is probably the professor in me. In “Courage to Walk”, I did cut some of the more philosophic passages (Heidegger, in particular) because I realized that the discussion was becoming so abstract that it hurt the flow of the story and so blunted the implications. The book is short and can probably be read in one sitting (if you sit long enough!), but it is no doubt a book that demands slow reading at times, contemplation and a lot of thought, but it also, I hope, offers a compelling story. I think it does.

Jerry: What’s your next writing project?

Robert: With another professor, I am writing an academic book on why reading and writing should be central to 21st century pedagogy –especially in this age of images and screens. It should be out the beginning of next year.

To read Part 1 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

To read Part 2 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler
To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.

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.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Interview about the relationship between literature and life

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second of a three part interview with Robert Waxler, author of the memoirs “Losing Jonathan” and “Courage to Walk.” Waxler is a professor of English Literature at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and founder of the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature.” In this part of the interview, I ask Waxler about the relationship between literature and life.

Jerry Waxler: In your books, when you quoted a passage from literature, I felt you were using literature to help you explain things to yourself, as if you were using literature as a source of strength. So first of all, thank you for expanding my vocabulary of self-help tools. I wonder to what extent you have consciously thought about the use of literature as a repository of wisdom to help you get through life?

Robert Waxler: Now this could be a book in itself. I helped start a program back in 1991 called “Changing Lives Through Literature” precisely because of my deep belief in the power of literature to make a difference in people’s lives. Literature can teach us important lessons about life; it can give us strength, as you suggest. When we read good literature, we realize we are not alone. We learn about empathy, about ourselves and about others. As the story unfolds, our own lives unfold. We see ourselves and others, understand the complexity of human character, and see how singular each life is, and yet recognize how universal certain patterns and behavior seem to be. I try to show (and tell) my students this all the time.

Jerry: A common problem for memoir writers is deciding how to tell their story without intruding on the privacy of other characters. So I was surprised to see how much you had written about your son Jeremy’s life. What can you share about his willingness to be portrayed, or any fears you might have had about sharing his private life with your readers?

Robert: Yes, this is a particularly sensitive issue, especially given some of the issues that “Courage to Walk” attempts to address. I would never want to write anything that would harm Jeremy or Linda. And this story is so much a story about vulnerability and how we are all powerless, how human weakness is at the core of our humanity and how we should not be ashamed of that fact, that we should instead see it as a strength, as an important way of building compassion and community. It is difficult for Jeremy and for Linda and myself as well, to relive these very traumatic events as they are narrated in “Courage to Walk.” These events take us close to the core of our mortal human selves. Our hope though is that the story will get people thinking more about the meaning of compassion and vulnerability, the need for all of us to confront our finitude, and not to feel so much the shame but the beauty of it.

Jerry: While memoirs are about real life, they seem to be journalism. But they are also stories, so they seem a lot like “literature.” What do you think? Are memoirs “literature” or not?

Robert: I am not sure I am an “expert” on memoirs, but I’ll give you my view on this. To begin, the word “literature” itself is problematic. I am not sure people can agree these days on a definition. Are we talking about canonical works—Shakespeare’s plays, for example? Or can we assume that Stephen King is also writing “literature”? And what about a book such as “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac or “Night” by Elie Weisel? Not exactly non-fiction, but not really memoirs either. Are they “literature”?

And then there is an important issue about memoirs and memory. We recover the past through the present, and, in this sense, I suppose, as you suggest, memoirs are introspective and psychological portraits. But memory is a very tricky process. What we filter through the present about the past is not the past but our recollection of the past. Someone writing a memoir wants to stay true to the facts as he remembers them, of course, but the truth of an event is not simply in the facts. So that too complicates the issue.

I think there is a very fine line between literature and the memoir. In both cases, the writer is trying to get to the “truth” of the experience. Literature might be an invented story; memoirs might be based in fact. But, in an important sense, all narrative is invented—in the same sense, that we create our selves and our identity through the actual experiences of our lives. Our lives are our stories, and our stories are our lives.

Jerry: As you were putting your life on paper, what were you learning about yourself and your circumstances that you didn’t know before you started?

Robert: I learned about how powerless we all are as human beings from the beginning, and how that knowledge is a good thing. It can help build a more compassionate and reasonable community if we let it. We are all filled with fear and anxiety from birth; we need others to help us along the way. I don’t know why we should be ashamed of that. If anything, we should be ashamed of the ways we distance ourselves from others, pretend to be powerful and independent, set up foolish defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from that truth. I also learned that it is very, very difficult as a parent not to try to do everything possible to help our children, even if they don’t want our help. It’s a difficult line to draw—between obsession and compassion. They need their freedom, and we need ours, but we all need each other.

To read Part 1 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

To read Part 3 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

Interview about crossing from academic to popular writing

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler
To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.

More memoir writing resources

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

Interview with Robert Waxler, English Professor and memoir author, Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

Robert Waxler and his wife Linda wrote the memoir “Losing Jonathan” about the death of their eldest son. Robert Waxler’s second memoir, “Courage to Walk” is about his younger son who suffered a paralyzing spinal infection. Both books explore the father’s love for his sons, informed by his lifelong love for literature. In addition to being an English Literature professor at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, Waxler also co-founded the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature” which provides convicted criminals with the opportunity to read and write their way to a deeper understanding of social responsibility.

In this first of a three part interview, I ask Waxler about his process of writing the two memoirs.

Note: Robert Waxler and I are not related.

Jerry Waxler: You wrote two books involving your relationship to your sons. What was it like writing a second memoir? What was easier and what was harder the second time? What knowledge did you bring with you from the experience of writing the first?

Robert Waxler: The love a father feels for a son is beyond the boundaries of language as is the loss of a son, but both books try to capture that sense of love and the sense of mortality that we all share. When I wrote about the loss of my oldest son, Jonathan, I started by sitting outside on my back porch and without any specific purpose or direction let language flow out of me into a notebook. It was about a week after Jonathan’s death, and I wanted to try to remember as much as possible about the battle he had fought the last year of his life. It was a compulsion, I suppose. I had never written this kind of narrative and was not thinking about publishing the story. That was the summer of 1995. I wrote about 50 pages, as I recall, in a very short time, and then didn’t look at it again for a couple of years. I couldn’t.

Finally, about five years later, I began to think that perhaps this story could help other families in similar distress, and so I returned to it, shaped it, tried to find the meaning in it, and published it in the Boston Globe Magazine on Father’s Day in 2001. The response to the story was overwhelming, and I realized that a book might make a difference to others. It was also one way of keeping the memory of Jonathan alive. It took me another couple of years to get the language and the story to a point where I felt satisfied with it, as close to the truth of the experience as I was capable of saying it, in other words. It was important to me to make sure that readers saw Jonathan as a complex human being in the midst of a difficult struggle, that they felt the sense of love and the sense of loss that all families could experience, that this story could be their story as well.

The writing of the second book about the sudden spinal trauma of my younger son, Jeremy, was easier in some ways and harder in other ways. I started writing in a notebook right away, not because I was thinking about publishing a book, but because I knew that writing itself would be helpful for me, and I wanted a record of the experience and my thoughts about the experience. I wrote as the events unfolded, and I had no clear idea, from day to day, how these experiences would work out, whether Jeremy would recover, the extent of his recovery, the daily impact on all of us in the family, and so on. In addition, Jeremy’s suffering was compounded for me by the haunting memories of what had happened to Jonathan.

Jeremy’s recovery is a miracle to me now, but it took a while for that to become clear to me. Compared to “Losing Jonathan,” “Courage to Walk” was written over a relatively short period of time, and it captures the curve of the family experience as it unfolds over a relatively short period of time as well. In many ways, though, I think it is a more complex and probing story and meditation. It is written with a great deal of care. I hope people will find it helpful.

I did make extensive journal notes for “Courage to Walk,” which I suppose is somewhat unorthodox, in this context. It takes shape through my consciousness, my imagination, my reading, my reflection on the journal material, etc. It is, as a couple of people have suggested, a mix of medical thriller and meditation. That’s part of its uniqueness, I believe. It is very real, at times, but it has its surrealistic dimension as well. I hope it has a spiritual quality too.

JW: After reading your two memoirs, I could almost visualize you as a character in a novel. Did you ever think about your portrayal of yourself in that way?

RW: I take that as a compliment. I hope that readers get to know the characters in these memoirs as well as they get to know the characters in a novel. I have an old-fashioned sense that we can learn a lot from the characters in stories if we can visualize them, even identify with them, feel what they feel. The protagonist (me) in “Losing Jonathan” is the same person that appears in “Courage to Walk,” a father agonizing over a son, a college professor in love with his family (wife and children) and with great literature, a man who wants to be helpful but at times seems obsessed and at times is clearly powerless, a person who is mortal and vulnerable, as we all are. In “Courage to Walk,” though, I think I am perhaps more weighted down and obsessed, in an ironic way, at times, less hopeful than I was in “Losing Jonathan” –probably because of what happened to Jonathan. The irony of course is that “Courage to Walk” is much more upbeat in the end than “Losing Jonathan,” although both books, I hope, celebrate the human spirit. I think that my son Jeremy is the real hero of “Courage to Walk.”

To read Part 2 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

To read Part 3 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler
To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.

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.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.