Give Thanks for Your Family Stories

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

Thanksgiving is a banquet for the senses, with a table overflowing with food, and the room overflowing with relatives, now a year older and hopefully wiser. And yet family gatherings often arouse tension. We fear arguments with some visitors or feel a hole where we wish we could see a loved one, or wonder about a new potential spouse. Our anxiety seems ungrateful. This feast ought to be a time of joy. To shift attention to the positive aspects of such meetings look at them as opportunities to learn and share each other’s stories.

Listening, as the saying goes, is an act of love, and your willingness to open up and let their stories in will create a lovely, kind, and energetic atmosphere. But the old conversation patterns have a mind of their own. Instead of hoping the energy will shift, take a leadership role. To steer the conversation in a new direction, you need to prepare.

When you are in a safe, healthy space, right now for example, list a few things you wish you knew about each person. Then, in the press of food and family, if you feel a wave of annoyance coming on, switch it to curiosity. Look at your list, take a deep breath, and ask a question. You might at first feel a moment’s hesitation, like you are being rude for breaking into the old pattern. But the surprise will last just a moment, as the other person adjusts his thinking to focus on your question. By asking them to talk about a specific time in their lives, your curiosity will arouse memories. If you press forward, asserting your real interest, you have a good chance of shifting their attention into a reverie about the good, or strange, or formative times. Their story telling will (hopefully) arouse more interesting emotions than the ones you interrupted.

It’s easier if you get this storytelling focus started early in the day, before the old patterns set in. Broadcast the message that you expect them to tell at least one story that you haven’t heard before. And for best results, make suggestions. It’s almost like pitching them some of the writing prompts you would use to develop your memoir. “Tell us about your first day at your first apartment.” “Tell us about where you were when you saw a beautiful sunset.” If you don’t have time to arrange this before the holiday, do it when you first walk in. Write something up. Claim you need these stories for a writing project you’re working on. (And if you write the stories afterwards, then this claim will be true.)

Once you get the ball rolling, if you feel people steering towards boring territory, say, “The rule today is a story we’ve never heard,” or, “I already knew about that situation. But I can’t picture it. Tell me who else was there, what the walls looked like, what did you smell?” You can lead people away from negative feelings by pushing the clock forward. What happened afterwards? Where did you go next?

And if they get stuck in a story you know, listen to it with fresh ears. See if you can imagine being there with them during their original experience. Your curiosity will instigate new questions that will pop you into a fresh perspective. You could think or blurt out, “Hey, wait a minute. That sounds similar to another time in your life.” Or, “Oh. I didn’t realize that happened so soon after you moved.”

In addition to gaining material for your family storybook, you will achieve immediate benefits. Speakers will feel the unusual sensation that people are actually listening to parts of their lives. This is a warm and disarming sensation, that draws everyone closer and reaches across boundaries. For example, if an old-timer tells you about a youthful experience, it puts them on a level playing field with younger family members. And then, when you give a younger person the floor, they will feel empowered by an audience of adults who are suddenly interested, not in finding fault, but in finding entertainment. And for new couples, visitors, and distant relatives, it will give everyone an opportunity to appreciate this whole person.

To prepare to listen to their stories, think ahead about stories of your own. Dig up a story you’ve never told before. Perhaps you never told it because you feel a little embarrassed. This is good. It’s an opportunity to tell people things about yourself that will give them a more intimate and less formulaic impression. Your willingness to share parts of yourself in a room full of people is a good way to flap your memoir wings. So as you look forward to the Thanksgiving holiday, or any time when extended families get together, use stories to create intimacy, defuse tension, and develop a deeper sense of gratitude for the people in your life.

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

Awakening bad memories helps shape your new life

by Jerry Waxler

One night in the summer of 1968, I walked along a busy street in Madison Wisconsin with my friend Ely, a soft-spoken math graduate student, and his girl friend Joan. We were enjoying the cool evening breeze, in a college town relatively quiet during the summer holiday. Then we heard shouting. I turned around and saw five boys rushing towards us. I shouted at them to stay away, and the ringleader tackled me and threw me down. Then the others swarmed around me and kicked. Ely asked them to stop. A boy punched him in the mouth and split his lip.

Joan screamed, and passing cars honked. Then a getaway car pulled up and the boys drove off. The intern at the hospital expressed no interest in how violated I felt. Reluctant to order an X-ray, he brushed off my headache. “Of course it hurts,” he said. “You were kicked in the head.” It turned out, he was right. I had no serious physical injury. By now almost dawn, two policemen took me back to look for my contact lens. When I was a protester, I hated the police, but now, these two men were shining their flashlights, bending down and looking for the tiny piece of plastic that enabled me to see. I felt an unexpected flush of gratitude.

Joan had written the license number, and with the help of a hippie lawyer we found that the ringleader was the son of the police chief of a small town 50 miles away. The lawyer and I split the settlement of $75.00. The rest of the summer I slunk around, racing into shadows when cars approached. In the fall, surrounded by thousands of returning students, I felt safe enough, and I let the incident slip into the past. After a few months I forgot it entirely.

Thirty three years later, in 2001, I was traumatized along with hundreds of millions of others by airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center. I wanted to help in some way so I took a workshop to qualify as a helper in community traumas. To learn how to conduct a group discussion, we were asked to talk about something that had happened to us. As I prepared, I unearthed my memory of being beaten.

Until that time, I had never thought in detail about the scene. Now as I tried to explain it, I saw it more clearly, describing who was there, what happened next, and so on. The event seemed important, so I tried to go deeper by writing about it. As it took shape on paper, it gradually changed from a vague, disturbing set of memories into a story.

With the Vietnam War raging, my attention was diverted from typical college concerns. All I could think about was the war. I didn’t think it was justified or fair, so I protested. I wanted to protect myself, the Vietnamese people, and the boys who were getting sent into danger. I thought my goals were noble, so why would anyone attack me?

To tell a more complete story, I tried to picture one of the high school boys in his home, eating dinner with his dad, who was probably a veteran of World War II. Dad was praising the soldiers who were out with machine guns and artillery hunting down the enemy. This was how Americans defend their freedom. Dad expressed his fear that if protesters stopped the war, it could unleash chaos, and threaten their way of life. The protesters must be stopped. So his sons protest the protesters by beating up someone with long hair. They were upholding the values of their family and country.  Under the circumstances, their actions were the most honorable thing they could have done.

Now, these many years later, I know a lot more about war trauma than I did back then. I imagine that one of those boys had an older brother serving in Vietnam. Instead of being kicked, he was getting shot at and watching his companions blown to pieces before his eyes. If he lived, he would for years continue to be assaulted by memories that repeatedly tear him apart. Flashbacks are the other way humans deal with trauma.

While flashbacks sound like the opposite of forgetting, these two reactions have one thing in common. They both leave you powerless to think clearly about the original experience and so the events remain stuck in their original shape. Only later, after you start trying to communicate, can you slow down and put things together.

Writing the memories gives me new power over them
I never understood the way the mugging influenced the following years. I always thought my profound depression was caused by some generalized angst. I didn’t make the connection with the trauma because I had forgotten it. I had not made the connection between being attacked and my loss of interest in protesting. I just thought my disengagement from the protests was because the whole thing was too emotionally exhausting. Now I see that beating was intended to stop me from protesting, and I got the message. My body wounds healed, but that part of me that wanted to share my opinions never did.

Writing the story reveals another powerful truth about that night in 1968. It was just one moment in time. Storytelling drags and pushes me to the next day and the next, until eventually I find myself on more stable ground. I find myself more whole.

How can writing help me grow?
As my storytelling reveals that night as one night in my six decades of life, I consider my decision to stop expressing my opinion. Must I for the rest of my life please everyone for fear they won’t like me and beat me up? If I am true to myself, I inevitably will displease some people. Everyone is different and unique. Now, instead of being limited by the decisions of a scared young man, I am working on a more public approach to my opinions that allow me a more vibrant relationship to the world. Diving into painful memories has helped me grow towards expressing my greater potential as an individual unique, human being.

Writing Prompt
Write a story about a time when you felt wronged. After you write it from your point of view, write another story about that experience from the other person’s point of view, seeing the way they justified their action initially, and the way they justified or forgave themselves afterwards.

Writing Prompt
In an experience you had that seemed traumatic, write a story in which that experience was the beginning, and then proceed from there. Look for a way to resolve the dramatic tension by reaching stable ground, or coming to terms with the trauma, or find some new direction or lesson that resulted in a positive ending.

Note
For another essay I wrote about PTSD and the horrors of war, click here.

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

Reach deep into memory to build a scene

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.)

I wish I could portray what it was like to be a nerd in high school. I had few friends and for four years, my main interest in life was studying and reading. The best way to share my nerdiness is to show scenes, bringing readers into the halls of my high school to see for themselves. And yet when I try to describe my life in high school, I feel like I’m trying to peer into the hidden memories of a stranger. Who was that guy? Fortunately, memoir writers have tricks. By prying into the hazy past, we can find far more detail than we had first expected.

One way to get started is to list facts. It was 1961 when I started attending Central High School in Philadelphia, an all-boys, all-academic school, where more than 90% of my classmates were heading to college. There was actually a minimum grade required for admission. No slackers permitted! Every morning, I walked down to wait for the trolley, an electric contraption that clanked, hissed and squealed on tracks. By the time the trolley reached Broad and Olney it was packed. The doors thwacked open, and I stepped into the hectic terminal, crossed Broad and walked down past the girls’ high school. I didn’t know any girls, and just kept walking. As I reached Ogontz, I looked up at the school perched on a hill. Then my imagination fades. I can’t see inside the building.

Since my eyes don’t seem to be working, I try stirring up smells, touch, and sounds. Groping like a blind man, I reach out and my hand lands on a blackboard. I am transported into ninth grade algebra. My teacher calls me up to the front of the class to show a homework problem. With chalk in hand, scratching the board and smelling the dust, I feel the excitement, hoping my work is right and terrified that it’s wrong. I love algebra, and I love my algebra teacher Mr. Abrams. His passionate demand for excellence would change the course of my life. He is short, and on the last day, after a year of looking up to him, I am horrified to hear a student say, “Mr. Abrams. Would you stand up on a chair so I can kneel down and take your picture?”

Ah-ha! That’s the secret. The events that emerge from memory are loaded with emotions. The emotions make the memory stick. And that’s the problem. I was an intellectual, among a crowd of intellectuals, and emotions were not in our vocabulary. We wanted to get into top schools and that meant being serious, all the time. No wonder I don’t remember much.

But there is hope. I’ve already discovered one scene. Surely there must be others. I grope again, touching the glazed cinder block walls that on hot days radiate a soothing coolness. In this tactile mode, I feel a weight in my hand. It’s my briefcase, so loaded with books I can barely close it. I smell today’s sandwich, dig around in the bottom and find pencils and stab myself on the point of the compass that I use for drawing circles in geometry class. I snap the clasp. There is a particular hallway I keep going back to outside my chemistry class. The windows seem far away, and the hall is dimly lit.

The main focus of every conversation is to drill each other about things we are supposed to know for tests. We also try to stump each other about the definition of vocabulary words. As I try to listen in on these conversations, I again feel a complex thrill of emotion, desperate to sound smart, mixed with fear that I might sound stupid. I try to home in on one conversation.

Our chemistry teacher is extraordinarily flat. Not only doesn’t he have a sense of humor. He doesn’t express emotions of any kind. In one lesson, he teaches us the laboratory notation for a chemical reaction that does nothing. Think for example of pouring water over rocks. No dissolving, no heat, no change in color. When that happens we are supposed to write “NR” which stands for “No Reaction.”

Emerging from class into that dark hallway, I walk with an awkward gait, compensating for the heavy briefcase in my hand. Another student turns to me and loudly quips, “Hey. Let’s just call him ‘NR.'” It feels good to show a little disrespect for our teacher. And the scientific terminology is a nice touch. We all laugh. Looking back, I realize why the memory stands out from the haze – we are a bunch of nerds laughing at someone who has even more trouble expressing emotion than we do ourselves.

While it’s not a complete scene, I’m adding more components, and if I persist I could end up with boys’ names, and what they looked like, and what more they said to each other, to show how these particular nerds behaved on this particular day in this particular hallway. Even if I only find one or two such scenes, readers will see for themselves that I was a nerd. And at the same time, I’m benefiting from it too. The ghostlike quality of those years has always given me the eerie feeling that I was a shadow, an outline with no substance. By discovering scenes, I feel my past self gradually taking on flesh and bones, filling in who that boy was back then, and making me feel more whole and continuous of a person today.

Writing prompt
What scene do you wish you could remember? List facts, descriptions, names of places, names of people. Do they remind you of anything else you didn’t think of until you started writing? Touch objects. Find a particular object, and while you are touching or looking at it, look around and describe what you see. Name a person and talk to him or her. What are you saying? Remember anything that person said or probably said, and listen to the voice. What does this tone of voice tell you about the person or their background? How does the conversation make you feel?

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

Fact and fiction of a girl in the Chinese Cultural Revolution

by Jerry Waxler

When I was in college in 1968, I grew long hair as a protest against my parents’ generation. The old ways obviously hadn’t worked, so it was up to me to unravel everything I knew and start over. I didn’t realize that at the same time, on the other side of the world, a billion Chinese people were trying to do the same thing. Repeating slogans like “Smash the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas,” Chairman Mao had stirred up a frenzy against the wisdom of the past. Since education was traditionally held in high regard, smashing the “olds” included shutting down schools, mocking and denouncing teachers, and shipping students into the country to work in fields. This social movement was known as the Cultural Revolution.

Xujun Eberlein was an educated girl, living in a small city in China during that period. Her father was the president of an educational institute and her mother was a school principal so the Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc on their family. Both parents lost their jobs, her beloved older sister died, and Xujun were taken from home and inserted into a rural village to live and work with peasants.

After the fanaticism waned, she returned home, then moved to the U.S. and earned a doctorate from one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the past kept calling to her, and in the fall of 2001, she began to write stories about growing up. After several years honing her English writing skills, she started winning awards and placing pieces in competitive literary magazines. Recently she published a book of short stories “Apologies Forthcoming” based on her experience.

When I first picked up Xujun Eberlein’s book of fiction, I hoped it would offer me deeper understanding of the task of turning life into story. My hope was richly rewarded. Like any good story, her tales lifted me out my own world and offered me a glimpse of hers. I read about a little girl seeing her father on his knees on a stage, being forced to denounce himself in front of his community. In another story, a young woman tried to adjust to her new life of poverty in a rural community. In still another, the protagonist reached out to men for friendship, and for the first time confronted the complexities of sexuality. In every story I felt two things: the pleasure of losing myself, and a sense that I was witnessing a period of history through the eyes of someone who was there.

Surprisingly, my suspension of disbelief gave me the freedom to enter that world without picking it apart for historical accuracy. To learn more lessons about this connection between her stories and her history, I read one of Xujun’s memoir essays, available online in the literary magazine, The Walrus. You can read it here. It’s a wonderful and tragic story, and another window into her heart and into those times.

Like the Rosetta Stone, I tried comparing these two different versions of the same events. My comparison of Xujun’s multi-dimensional attempts to tell the story of her life gave me some of the clearest understandings I’ve had so far about how story and memoir intertwine.

While fiction can freely break loose from actual historical fact, the story must give the reader an emotionally authentic compelling experience. One of the best ways fiction writers can tap into such authentic emotions is by drawing on the realities of the world around them, and especially the world they have experienced themselves.

On the other hand, nonfiction writers must adhere to historical facts. Even though this seems to offer fewer choices, a nonfiction writer has an almost unlimited supply of raw material contained within tens of thousands of days of memories. To transform these historical facts into an engaging story we must draw on fiction techniques, such as pacing, language arts, suspense, and surprise.

As I ponder these observations, I wonder what lessons I can learn from Xujun herself. She has poured enormous amounts of time and energy in the pursuit of good stories, so I asked Xujun to discuss some of her own experiences as a writer, and what it has been like to return to an earlier time, to awaken and review her memories.

Click here to read the first part of the interview I conducted with her.

Notes:

For more details about Xujun’s life and writing, including more information about her book, awards, and other publications, see her website. http://www.xujuneberlein.com.

She also blogs about her observations about life in the United States, about China, and about life in general. http://www.insideoutchina.com

To read more interviews with fiction writers about the relationship between fiction and life see:
Interview with Naomi Gal
Interview with Jonathan Maberry

More memoir writing resources

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

Follow that car! How drama reveals the inner story

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.)

Six mornings a week, my dad commuted to his drugstore in North Philadelphia. By closing time, he had been there for almost 14 hours, but I never heard him complain. He enjoyed his work, and it may never have occurred to him that there was anything to complain about. When I was in high school, I started working with my dad at the store. Every Friday afternoon I took the subway, and on Saturday afternoon drove with my mom. My job was stocking shelves, serving customers, occasionally counting pills to help fill prescriptions, and eating lots of candy bars. Sometimes mom packed dinner, and sometimes I walked down to the Horn and Hardarts cafeteria at Broad and Erie and brought back a hot meal to eat at the store. By the end of the day, we were all ready to go home. Around 9:30 I mopped the floor, then descended rickety stairs to check the cellar door. Finally we positioned bars across the windows, set the alarm, and went outside.

One Saturday, we drove south on 17th Street, turned left on to Ontario, and started east towards Broad Street, when a large man ran out between two cars and flagged us down. He knocked on the window, yelling at us to open up, gesturing down the street towards some unseen quarry. It was a cop, fiddling with his holster, preparing to draw his gun. As my mother reached over her shoulder to unlock the door, the strangest thing happened. Her hands grabbed wildly at the latch as if she was pulling up, but time after time her fingers missed and the door remained locked. I watched in growing horror as precious time slipped away.

This is exactly what always bothered me about my mother, and here was yet another proof. She was a klutz, and just in the most urgent moment, she failed to come through. I cursed the luck that gave me such an incompetent mother. Losing patience, the cop ran to a taxi that pulled up behind us. The driver of that vehicle knew how to open his door. The cop jumped in and they pulled around us and drove off in pursuit. Meanwhile, I was filled with wonder at how my mother who had been opening car doors her whole life could have failed at such a simple task, and fumed the whole way home.

At first glance, such intense moments appear to be excellent material for a memoir. Jeanette Walls’ wildly successful memoir, “Glass Castle,” seems like a collection of such experiences. But taken as a whole, her book is more than a compilation of zany moments. Each episode contributes to an intimate, compassionate portrayal of real human beings. Memories are simply the raw material for memoirs, like pigments for a painter or clay for a sculptor, and shaping them into the story is not an exhaustive collection but an artistic synthesis. So no matter how many high powered incidents come to mind, I still don’t necessarily end up with a readable book that authentically portrays my life. To turn anecdotes into a life story, there is much creative work to do.

For one thing, I must place the experience in context. We didn’t just appear on that street. We arrived there through the natural course of our daily lives. So I back up and explain what we were doing there in the first place. That episode with the cop makes the whole night come to life — the drugstore, the neighborhood, and my relationship with my parents. As this anecdote falls onto paper, I begin to see the world of that teenage boy, broadening my insight into the night and also expanding my understanding of how it fit into my whole life.

For example, I’m not very well coordinated myself, and during my teenage years I was especially disappointed by my lack of agility. Feeling my frustration with my mom that night awakens the recognition that neither of my parents nor any of us three kids were athletic. I have recently been reading about hereditary factors that cluster together the characteristics of nerdiness and lack of physical coordination. (see my Asperger’s article). The incident with the car lock suggests that this might help explain the Waxler family. I file that observation for future consideration.

The incident stirs up an observation about my relationship with my dad. He was a loving man, and always treated me with kindness and respect, but we never talked much. I don’t remember having had a single conversation with him, which made him seem distant. Now that I am reading about us as two characters in a story, a fact jumps out. Working in the drugstore with my father, gave me an opportunity to spend large swaths of time shoulder to shoulder with him, helping him in the store that supported the family. Now I realize we were partners, in a manly sort of way. I’ve envied other boys who worked with their dad on the farm or the family business, and now I realized until I was 18, I was one of those boys.

The fact that we had to put bars on the window and set the alarm, and that a cop was running around chasing criminals, foreshadows the fact that a few years later, corner drugstores would become targets for violent crime. When I went away to college, dad’s good friend, Sam Dreidink, who owned a drugstore a few miles away, was held up at gunpoint. On the way out, the robbery completed, his assailant shot Sam in the stomach. He lived, but in terrific pain for the rest of his life. A few months later, my dad was held up. During the robbery, he was forced to his knees with a shotgun pointed at his head. They stole his money and whatever narcotics he had in stock. When they left, he was still whole in body, but that incident ended his years in the drugstore.

My mom lived 70 more years, during which I discovered her apparent lapses in “common sense” often moved conversations in unexpected directions, offering the people in her life zest and interest, cleverness and fun. Her lack of predictability turned out to be one of her endearing traits, and instead of feeling manipulated or confused by her approach, I became one of her many admirers. Forty years after that night in the car, I knew that behind a thin facade of silliness, she was an authentic, fascinating person. Which makes me wonder as I read my story if she knew exactly what she was doing, and in her own klutzy way she was protecting her family from a man with a gun.

Writing Prompt: Write an anecdote from your life that has dramatic intensity. Using that anecdote as a core, backtrack and describe what lead up to it. Also, go forward and see what happens afterward. Try it a few times, or with a few anecdotes, to see if you can find a beginning, middle, and end. Could this be a chapter in your memoir? Could it become a standalone short story?

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

Writing Prompt
Take one of your written dramatic anecdotes. You now have three different points of view about the same event. One is the memory of what it felt to be back there. Another is a reader, reading a written story about characters in the incident. The third is an adult, with a much broader understanding not only of the incident but who the people are, where they’ve been, and where they are going. Dance amidst these three points of view find new thoughts and connections that help put it in place. Consider what the people wanted. What were they thinking when they performed this particular action? What other episode does this story remind you of? How did your or their flaws influence the course of events? How have you or they changed since then?

Listening Is An Act of Love

by Jerry Waxler

Last week, when I was visiting WHYY studio in Philadelphia I saw the mobile StoryCorps van and interviewed facilitator Mike Rauch about what StoryCorps does. It intrigued me so much, I went back to Philly last night to hear Dave Isay the founder of StoryCorps speak at the National Constitution Center. He was explaining StoryCorps, talking about is own path, and sharing some of the stories from his book. StoryCorps is a non-profit corporation, and according to Dave Isay, it’s the fasting growing nonprofit corporation in the country. Now, if that’s not a trend, I don’t know what is.

Learning about other people’s lives, through their stories is gripping the national imagination. I think it’s because we’re tired of watching sitcom actors play out their perfectly scripted lives. We want real people. In my opinion, this is the reason for the scrapbooking craze, the blogging craze, and the memoir craze. Now we’re poised for the audio story craze.

At the current rate, the StoryCorps is gathering 7,000 stories a year, and it’s growing exponentially, with new facilities and programs coming online all the time. During the question and answer period, a schoolteacher asked if the stories ever become repetitive. Dave Isay said, “No. At first I also had that fear, that we would start hearing the same story over and over. But it never happened.” He added that in his opinion the most important recipient of the story was the family member who was in the recording booth hearing intimate details for the first time. More often than not, people break down and cry in the middle of the telling. These are touching, intimate moments that open up pathways among people.

Before the age of electronics, say in the nineteenth century and before, people had to use each other for entertainment. They told stories, played the piano, participated in parlor games. This gave them time to get to know each other. When I was growing up, that all changed. We glued ourselves to the tube and let others do the entertainment for us. That’s been going on long enough, and we’re growing weary of being strangers to each other.

Dave Isay’s book is called “Listening is an Act of Love.” As a therapist, I have found his title to be true. Part of my training was to keep my mouth shut and listen. It doesn’t sound like much, but sometimes it’s the most generous, caring, healing thing you can do. Now, Dave Isay and the StoryCorps want to show everyone that same power. Dave Isay’s book “Listening is an act of Love” contains a number of stories as told by people in the StoryCorps booth. Remarkably, all profits from the book go to support the mission of the StoryCorps.

The stories are not edited, nor do they provide much backstory. After reading memoirs, it’s easy to see the many differences between oral and written life story. But rather than focus on the differences, here are a few ways that oral storytelling fits in with the charter of writing your life story.

  • Use story listening to help you learn about yourself. To research his memoir, Foster Winans interviewed people in his life to ask them how they remembered him.
  • Use story telling as a way to dredge up material. It’s amazing how much comes to mind when you are telling a story. Sit with someone who really cares. Ask each other questions. Let the story emerge. You’ll find material you had not thought about in years.
  • As you write your memoir, you will become more sensitized to the variety of human experience. By seeing your own story from the inside, you will want to know other people’s stories. And this will open you to the inner lives of the people in your family and beyond.
  • As you read memoirs, do the same thing a listener would do in that recording booth. Slow down, and listen. You will realize that everyone has an inner life, and reading about it will expand the range of your understanding of the human condition.

For more information about this piece, see this links:
Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center
StoryCorps
WHYY Philadelphia’s Public Television and Radio Station
My previous essay on StoryCorps

Tell stories for more thankful holiday gatherings

by Jerry Waxler

The holidays bring together a mélange of generations, family units, and significant others, bonded by blood, marriage, love, and shared life experience. Then why did I feel more dread than joy? I didn’t understand my own reactions to the holidays until I started writing family stories, and then the answer leapt off the page. There were just too many stories in one room. The chiefs in their own homes are now guests. Siblings connect in a secret code that sounds foreign to their spouses. Fully grown adults behave like children, and kids who are ordinarily the cutest, now must compete with even smaller ones. The clash of roles has always confused me, and I’m not alone. Many people struggle to sort out their feelings about holiday gatherings.

Now that I see the problem, I’ve worked out a solution. My interest in storytelling helps me focus on the interesting, curious, or historical features of my clan. By looking for their stories, I become engaged with people more intimately, and my curiosity reveals who we are as individuals and as a group. I’m not claiming writing is a panacea, but it has helped me stay on top, like a surfer riding the energy rather than falling in. Here are some suggestions for applying this strategy to your own holiday gathering.

Connect with each person by writing scenes
Before the holidays, in your imagination go around the table, visualizing each person. Watch the memories that play through your mind, and when a scene jumps out, describe it. Don’t worry how important the scene is. Even if it seems trivial, write about it. What did you see? Who was there? What happened first? Then what? Your writing exercise will open you to a deeper channel through which you can learn about your relationship.

For example, I try to imagine my father at the holiday dinner. At first, all I see is a tangle of people eating, drinking, and getting through the hour. Then I shift to a different family gathering, Passover which combines a feast with a ritual service. My father tells us to read a passage from the book of instructions. Then we do things like dip a toothpick into radish and taste it. While the book provides stage directions, my father is the director. This is interesting. I’m not accustomed to seeing him in that role and find this memory soothing. By writing that scene, I cast my father in a light that would help me relate to him at the Thanksgiving meal.

If you feel anger towards someone, that’s more problematic. The initial temptation is to complain, but that only makes you feel worse. Step back and with your storytelling curiosity look for scenes that evoke a range of emotions, such as drama, passion, or pleasure. If you suspect it’s going to sound like another round of ranting, continue brainstorming until you light on a memory that sparks your interest. Then tell the story. Describe the external circumstances, the furniture, the smells of cooking, the sound of voices or clatter of dishes. Out of the scene will emerge a more complex picture of your connection with this person. The exercise may help you develop a more sophisticated container into which you can pour your heart.

Your interest in people changes the dynamics
Family preconceptions remain frozen in time, so older relatives see younger ones as if they are children, and younger ones see elders as the powerful parental figures they once were. These prescribed roles force interactions into a groove that confines each of you into only a sliver of your whole personality. Break past these limits by telling people you are writing about their lives. Ask the questions you will someday wish you had. As you sit there with paper and pen or tape recorder, eyes wide with interest, the focus shifts. Now you are empowering people to be themselves, in toto, opening a door into their real lives, not just their ritualized position in the clan. Even though you are talking about the past, your interactions in the present become more authentic and intimate.

To evoke vivid responses ask for sensory descriptions. If you can get them to wade through a pile of leaves as they walked to elementary school, or describe the dresser and mirror in their childhood bedroom they will probably become energized with fresh stories, rather than the routine ones they usually tell. Test the question by posing it to yourself. If it stirs up memories, there’s a good chance it will work on your relatives. If it leaves you blank, try something more specific. If the atmosphere during the larger gathering is not conducive to reverie, pull your interviewee aside before or after the meal and talk in a more private setting.

Write about those you miss
The holidays are a ritual time to come together as a tribe, but what about the people you won’t be with? They might be cut off by a feud, a death or divorce, or they are on a battlefield, in a hospital, a nursing home, or a prison. Longing is itself a form of connection that links people at a distance. Stories go further by reminding you of the love and joy and other qualities about them that are the reason you miss them in the first place. Write about a peaceful time, or a peak time, or any story that awakens your connection.

By looking for fresh ways to describe the people around you, you will gain poise not only for the day. You’ll generate insights and written passages that help you through the year. And you just might find some lovely bonding opportunities with the people in your life.