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
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.