Fiction built on a foundation of real life

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

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.

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

Be Here Now by Writing a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

When I first heard the phrase “Be Here Now” in the early seventies, it was from the title of a book by Ram Dass. According to the book, the best way to live a full life is to savor your direct experience, whether smelling a flower, watching a sunset, or even when experiencing the sadness of a loss. By paying close attention, you can penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos. As a hippie, I had little interest in learning from the past. And I certainly wasn’t spending much time planning for the future. So I didn’t think Ram Dass was telling me anything new.

Then I went to work for a living and staggered under the pressure. No wonder I had avoided working for so long. This was hard! I looked for tools to help me regain my poise and one of the most powerful turned out to be the one I didn’t think I needed — To Be Here Now. I started to meditate, and with practice I did occasionally spot glimpses of peace right there in the office. I was grateful to take advantage of this ancient technique from the East. But the mystics never said success was easy. It may take a life time to get it right. Meanwhile, I continued to look for additional ways to make each moment better.

One evening I complained to my therapist about feeling anxious. She said I would feel better if I brought my attention back to the moment, and she taught me a trick. Use words to describe my immediate surroundings. She said this verbal exercise would stimulate the cerebral cortex and put my conscious mind back in control. I looked around her office and noted her diploma hanging on the wall, her desk piled with papers, and her compassionate face. Her dog lying on his side slapped his tail against the floor. Sure enough, describing the office calmed me then, and when I see it now in my mind’s eye I feel reassured once again.

Despite all the valid reasons for staying in the present, however, the past plays an important role. I don’t want to forget the achievements that still give me pride, and I certainly don’t want to brush away the hard-won lessons that continue to help me find my way today.

The problem is not that memories exist but that there are so many of them, pulling me in a thousand directions. The more years I try to ignore them, the more confusing they become. As I grow older and watch some of the graces of my body fade, rather than wanting to let the memories go, I want to make sense of them.

I line my memories in order on a piece of paper and begin to notice sequences that make sense. Step by step, I increase my understanding of who I was, who I am, and who I am trying to become. Once I see myself taking shape on the page, I realize my life is turning into a story. I already know about the power of stories. Every time I read a suspenseful book or watch a movie, my attention is collected within the author’s tale. I am “Being Here Now” inside their story.

I gain that same benefit for my own life by writing about it. Writing reveals my role. I’m the hero in this story, and as the main character, I create an inner continuity that allows the past to flow into the present. Looking at the past isn’t an escape, after all. On the contrary, organizing my life into a story helps me collect my energy and apply myself with conviction to living in the world today.

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.

Note
The “Be Here Now” philosophy was expressed beautifully in William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” which starts out with the following quote. “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.” The poem is famous for its implication that all of eternity is within grasp in the moment. When reading the rest of the poem for the first time, I made the remarkable discovery that it is mostly about animal rights. It’s as if he has revealed how the Eastern notion of souls can help Westerners find a new relationship with their world, replacing domination with harmony. Within the moment lies eternity, and within the compassion for a horse lies the ocean of God’s love. Who is this man Blake, and why is he so intrigued by the souls of animals and the human responsibility to care for them? He passed along the insights he had 200 years ago. Which Now is real?

Since it’s in the public domain, I’ll copy it here in its entirety:

Auguries of Innocence
by William Blake

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

A dove-house fill'd with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro' all its regions.
A dog starv'd at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.

A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.

A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing.
The game-cock clipt and arm'd for fight
Does the rising sun affright.

Every wolf's and lion's howl
Raises from hell a human soul.

The wild deer, wand'ring here and there,
Keeps the human soul from care.
The lamb misus'd breeds public strife,
And yet forgives the butcher's knife.

The bat that flits at close of eve
Has left the brain that won't believe.
The owl that calls upon the night
Speaks the unbeliever's fright.

He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov'd by men.
He who the ox to wrath has mov'd
Shall never be by woman lov'd.

The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider's enmity.
He who torments the chafer's sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night.

The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother's grief.
Kill not the moth nor butterfly,
For the last judgement draweth nigh.

He who shall train the horse to war
Shall never pass the polar bar.
The beggar's dog and widow's cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.

The gnat that sings his summer's song
Poison gets from slander's tongue.
The poison of the snake and newt
Is the sweat of envy's foot.

The poison of the honey bee
Is the artist's jealousy.

The prince's robes and beggar's rags
Are toadstools on the miser's bags.
A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.

It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

The babe is more than swaddling bands;
Every farmer understands.
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity;

This is caught by females bright,
And return'd to its own delight.
The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar,
Are waves that beat on heaven's shore.

The babe that weeps the rod beneath
Writes revenge in realms of death.
The beggar's rags, fluttering in air,
Does to rags the heavens tear.

The soldier, arm'd with sword and gun,
Palsied strikes the summer's sun.
The poor man's farthing is worth more
Than all the gold on Afric's shore.

One mite wrung from the lab'rer's hands
Shall buy and sell the miser's lands;
Or, if protected from on high,
Does that whole nation sell and buy.

He who mocks the infant's faith
Shall be mock'd in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne'er get out.

He who respects the infant's faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
The child's toys and the old man's reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply.
He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of knowledge out.

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.
Nought can deform the human race
Like to the armour's iron brace.

When gold and gems adorn the plow,
To peaceful arts shall envy bow.
A riddle, or the cricket's cry,
Is to doubt a fit reply.

The emmet's inch and eagle's mile
Make lame philosophy to smile.
He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne'er believe, do what you please.

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out.
To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.

The whore and gambler, by the state
Licensed, build that nation's fate.
The harlot's cry from street to street
Shall weave old England's winding-sheet.

The winner's shout, the loser's curse,
Dance before dead England's hearse.

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro' the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.

God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.



To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Fame, laughter, and self discovery: a review of the memoir The Sound of No Hands Clapping

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

After the success of Toby Young’s first memoir, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” he received a call from a Hollywood producer who was impressed by Young’s knack for transforming a jerk into a lovable character. In a sense, Young was being called to Hollywood. Now all he had to do was write a screenplay, and his attempt to do so forms the basis for his second memoir “The Sound of No Hands Clapping.” Just as the title is a send up of a Zen Koan, Young’s second memoir is a sort of send up of itself. Did I really want to read a memoir about a writer trying to profit from his previous memoir?

The tongue in cheek tone reminded me of the way Jerry Seinfeld’s television show was supposed to be “about nothing.” But unlike Seinfeld’s characters, who never grow or learn, Toby Young grows in all sorts of ways. “The Sound of No Hands Clapping” turns out to be more than light entertainment. It provides insights into life and some excellent lessons for memoir writers.

For starters, consider the familiar problem expressed by many aspiring memoirists. “How do you tattle on someone without incurring a law suit?” Young provides one solution. Instead of naming the producer who hired him to write the script, supposedly “one of the most powerful men in Hollywood” Young calls him simply “Mr. Hollywood” and states that the facts are altered to hide this person’s identity. You might try a similar technique to avoid the wrath of someone you want to write about.

When Young fears his wife’s pregnancy might derail his writing career, he discusses with her the wisdom of having a baby at this time in their lives. These are universal questions ordinary people ask every day. It’s a riot listening to him trying to convince her not to have the baby, and her flipping his logic upside down with the ease of an advanced judo master. By listening in on their discussion, I had a laugh, gained wonderful insights into both the male and female perspectives, and frankly feel wiser about the decision points of this issue than when I started.

While Young tried to kick start his own career, his buddy Sean Langan was trodding a parallel path. Langan, now a successful documentary film director, also had recently married and had babies. As the two men approach their domestic responsibilities, I am entertained by a buddy tale while at the same time I’m learning how a young man thinks when deciding to settle down.

Young provides more observations about the life of a writer through detailed conversations with another friend, a screenwriter and television producer Rob Long. These conversations with his mentor provide insider glimpses into “The Business,” in an entertaining portrayal, loaded with information for would be screenwriters. It’s typical of Young’s personal connection with his readers that the knowledge falls not from the sky but from a friend.

Through the book, the author discusses his observations of three main themes — making it in the movie industry, how to harness celebrity culture to succeed as a writer, and the shift in mentality of growing from a footloose young man to a married father. He develops these topics with the care of an expert essayist, without ever interfering with the power of the story. In fact, I became so intrigued by his observations, I began looking forward to these excursions. The lesson for me is that a good writer can offer lovely compelling observations about life without interfering with the story.

To learn how to write a screenplay, Young attended a workshop with story guru Robert McKee, author of a classic tome on writing, called simply “Story.” McKee says that by the end of a successful story the protagonist has psychologically grown as if he or she had been through a fabulously effective course of therapy. While McKee applied his rule to stories in general, I believe it is especially relevant for memoirs, which by their nature explore the protagonist’s inner world. When reading a memoir, I often feel that what the author learned and how they learned it is the main payoff for reading the book.

Young played up his flaws. For example, he would apparently do anything to become famous. (He actually posed nude to garner publicity.) And while he loves his wife, he wonders if his love for his career is greater. By making such a big deal about his character defects, Young aroused my curiosity to see how he would outgrow them.

Near the end of the “Sound of No Hands Clapping,” Toby Young stumbles down into the alcohol addiction he thought he had overcome five years earlier. In finding his way back from this slip, he declares his wife to be his Higher Power, thus sealing his faith in domestic life. Young’s reference to the Twelve Step Programs may sound like it was tacked on to the end of the memoir and not particularly relevant. But anyone who has studied the Twelve Steps will find an added layer of wisdom. The Fourth Step states, “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Taking a fearless moral inventory is a worthwhile exercise for any memoir writer, and by tackling our own memoir with this same enthusiasm, hopefully we, like Toby Young, will discover insights to help guide us more authentically and fearlessly into the future.

(Note: I listened to the Audible.com version.)

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