Should this Memoir be Called: Courage of Motherhood?

by Jerry Waxler

Write your memoir! Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time.

When Sonia Marsh needs to save her family from potential harm-from-within, she instigates a move from Los Angeles to Belize. Her memoir, Freeways to Flipflops describes the move. To adapt and survive in a foreign land, she must learn a new set of rules. Take a water-taxi into town to shop for food, enroll her kids in a school that will prepare them for college, and find a dentist. At home such decisions were part of the humdrum routine of life. In this place they are difficult and even scary.

As I look back across the family’s journey, powerful character arcs emerge. Adapting to the foreign environment forces each character to grow along important dimensions. They start their journey with one set of beliefs about themselves and each other, and then, step by step, replace these beliefs with more empowering, complex and sophisticated ones that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

As I continue to poke and prod, trying to learn why this memoir holds together so tightly, another theme jumps out at me, hidden in plain sight. Sonia Marsh saves her family from disaster with as much story-worthy heroism as James Bond demonstrates when saving the world.

Her heroism should have been obvious but I am so accustomed to mothers playing their role in real life, and so unaccustomed to seeing them do it in literature. Now, with more careful thought I realize the Memoir Revolution is giving mothers a voice in our culture. Sonia Marsh’s From Freeways to Flipflops is a powerful example.

By shaping her year in Belize into a memoir, Sonia Marsh guides us through what on the surface looks like a zany adventure and then, page by page turns into a rich, complex story arc about a family moving into and beyond a crisis. The story casts her as one of the least typecast heroes I would expect.

Based on this theme, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the book titled “Courage of Motherhood.” I can see other slants in the book that she could have highlighted in the title. It could have been titled “Escape from LA” or “How to Save a Son” or “How Choosing One Nightmare Resolved a Worse One” or “Resolving the Midlife Crisis of a Family.” (I’ll comment more about the lifecycle of Sonia Marsh’s family in a followup posting.) Instead, Sonia Marsh called her memoir, Freeways to Flip-Flops: A Family’s Year of Gutsy Living on a Tropical Island. At least the word “family” is in the subtitle.

By reviewing her title, and the variety of other possibilities, you begin to see that it requires real imagination and lots of trial and error to come up with a good one that captures your imagination at the beginning and sustains it through to the end.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the many jobs of a title and more ideas about how to find one.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)


Another look through the eyes of a courageous mother is Madeline Sharples Leaving the Hall Light On, that allows us to see through a mother’s eyes as her son falls under the horrific weight of bipolar disorder to his suicide, and then her attempt to hang on to her sanity and dignity.

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

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

What is the Theme of Your Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

Write your memoir! Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time.

Along the journey of turning life into a story, many teachers will advise you to focus on a single theme. They say, “Avoid sounding like this book is a record of your whole life. If you do that, it will really be an autobiography. In order to write a memoir, you need to focus on a single driving theme. When you can tell me what your story is ‘about’ you can call it a memoir.”

The part of this advice that I love is that a memoir is not just about the events of a life. The events themselves are simply the framework. The “real story” is under the surface, in the emotional and dramatic pressures that carry the character and the reader forward from first page to last.

When I read a memoir that has earned a place on my shelf and in my heart, I reap the rewards of the author’s creative passion and endless hours required to turn the humdrum sequence of life’s events into the magical form of a story. By offering me this memoir, the author has given me the gift of “life as a story,” a gift that inspires me to see the power, dignity and hope that make ordinary lives worth living. The memoir also inspires me as a writer. When I return to my desk, I attempt to follow the same path, and perform the same magical conversion to my own experience.

The thing I hate about the advice is actually following it. As a memoir writer, my first ten thousand steps related to pulling events out of memory, lining them up on paper, developing scenes, finding emotional connections, recognizing compelling forces. When I teach memoir writing, I look at a room of people who lived lives with all the complexity life can bring. I don’t expect or advise them to look for a theme until they are far, far along in their process.

Finding the theme, a crucial requirement for a book you buy at the store, can seem ridiculously out of reach for the story you are attempting to understand about yourself. What do you mean, “What is the theme? It was my life!” Life has so many dimensions. Must you really limit your story to just one of them?

To learn more about how this works, I turn, as usual to the memoirs I read, and realize that when I dig under the surface, even the ones that are compelling, powerful stories have more than just one theme.

The humorous, ironic memoir Man Made by Joel Stein is “about” the attempt of a first time father to embrace his new role, as well as the theme identified in the title about his attempt to understand the meaning of “being a man.”

The crazy, wildly romantic Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman is not just “about” intense romances that don’t work out. It’s about a man trying to live as if his life is a work of art.

Linda Joy Myers’ Don’t Call Me Mother is not only about the heartbreaking abandonment by her own mother. It’s also “about” coming of age in a small town in the Midwest, about the power of extended family, and on a subtler level is about the long lens of forgiveness and wisdom that occurs later in life.

Saddled by Susan Richards is “about” a horse who saved her, but it’s also about a woman trying to find a career, and a life free of abusive men, and free of the self-abuse of alcohol.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell is “about” the friendship of two women, but it’s also “about” the evolution of adults who continue to find themselves, relying on dogs, and sobriety meetings, and each other.

Many of my favorite memoirs demonstrate that discovering who you are does not end at 20, or 25 or even 50. After finding sobriety, or after having a baby, or after leaving home, or making peace with your parents, you have the opportunity to Come of Age again.

In my next post, I’ll dig deeper into the title and theme of Sonia Marsh’s book Freeways to Flipflops. It has a remarkably simple title that points to a complex, complete slice of her life. And Sonia Marsh like other memoir authors and memoir activists, is a role model who can help the rest of us follow in her footsteps.

If you are past information-gathering and ready to develop a book that will appeal to readers, you will enter this outward-facing stage of your journey. As you struggle to find the single, emotionally grabbing principle that drives your story, you will realize you are also looking for the title, and the reverse is true as well. As you look for the title, it will help you find the theme.

This “high concept” is not just a superficial marketing ploy. It will provide you with a framework that can help you relate to your readers’ expectations. Then using that synopsis, you can reread your manuscript for yet another revision, keeping in mind the expectations your title establishes with your readers.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)


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

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

From Complex Memories to the Compelling Title of Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Write your memoir! Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time.

When you first consider the possibility of writing the story of your own life, you have not yet pulled experiences out of their storehouse in memory. Over time, the anecdotes take shape on paper, and you search for a beginning, middle, and end. From within your pages emerge story arcs. How did you grow up? How did you survive some assault on your dignity? How did you move to the next step? Some themes emerge gradually and others jump out as surprises. During a reading, or during a workshop, or while you are showering, you realize how long you’ve been struggling to please your dad, or you recognize the power of some dream that you’ve always taken for granted. You see how such a theme would hold the story together and drive the reader’s curiosity.

A memoir is born. But what to call it? How do you label your journey through life in a brief title that announces to potential readers that this book is worth reading? And just as important, what title will hold your own interest and help you tighten the concept of the book?

Fortunately, like every aspect of the memoir writing process, you don’t need to face this question alone. Every memoir you read offers an example of how one author turned a life into a story, and then labeled that story in a few enticing words. Take for example, the memoir Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh. Before reading the book, the title might sound simple, light and breezy. I think of a fun loving family leaving Los Angeles to try out the adventure of a lifetime.

However, in these simple words, the title evokes powerful images, metaphorically comparing life in Southern California to the laid-back life on the beach. Despite the breeziness of the title, Sonia Marsh’s life was anything but simple. The book actually describes one of the most pressured, complex periods of the author’s life.

However, despite the contrast between the breeziness of the title and the difficulty of the life it describes, I never felt betrayed or misled. On the contrary, the deeper I went into the story, the more meaning I found in the title. I realized it provided a micro-guidebook, showing the family’s initial optimistic hopes for the journey, and then as I proceeded, I discovered the irony of the title. This journey was not so simple as it first appeared.

At the start of the story, Sonia Marsh’s teenage son decides he can do whatever he wants. His sense of entitlement looks like the beginning of a terrifying descent. He crosses a line when he lifts his fist to his mother and instead of smashing her face, he puts a hole through the wall. His behavior is heart wrenching and frightening.

His dad was busy at his corporate job, and had no insights into how to change his son’s behavior. So it was up to Mom to come up with the next step. Some moms might be paralyzed with fear, or turn the matter over to the police or ship the boy off to military school or call in the therapists. Sonia Marsh does something different. Like one of those mothers who lifts an automobile off her child, Marsh attempts to get Los Angeles’ Freeway culture off her son’s back by moving her family to the Central American nation of Belize. Freeways to Flipflops is the story of that journey.

This is part 1 of a three-part essay about titling your memoir.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)


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

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Please Readers: What Do They Expect From Your Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

Before a reader picks up your memoir, they have formed a mental image of what lies inside. The title is only one of the bits of information they consider. The cover image might contribute, although many excellent books have plain covers. Readers also consider the subtitle, the blurb, the book’s website, the supportive quotes  on the back of the book or on the bookseller’s page, and they may even watch the video trailer.

As an aspiring memoir writer, these outward facing flourishes might seem impossible to imagine. The books you buy appear to be far more polished than yours, which still seems somewhat vague. You know you want to write your story, and hope that someday it will be worth reading, but you don’t yet have a catchy blurb, and perhaps can’t yet even say what it’s “about.”

The important thing to remember when you compare yourself with published authors is not whether your life itself is more interesting than theirs. Keep in mind that by the time their book reaches the store, it has been through a journey, during which they and their publishers had plenty of time to refine their message. If you are just beginning the journey, naturally the end seems a long way off. Having said that, these authors had to start somewhere and so do you.

Even at the very start of your memoir-writing process, try to envision the way potential readers will view your work. The closer you get to actually publishing it, the more important this outward facing creative project becomes. Fortunately, we memoir writers are also readers, so to figure out the mind of a prospective reader, we can learn a lot from our own process of searching for a book.

To help you develop your message, look at the books you’ve been reading and summarize the message that grabbed you. For example,

—    After scanning the title and blurb for David Bellavia’s House to House, I expected a heart-thumping account of urban fighting in Iraq, and that’s what I got.
—    When I started Matthew Polly’s American Shaolin, I was curious about his transformation from an intellectual college boy to a student of martial arts in the Chinese temple made famous by the Kung Fu television series. It fulfilled my expectations.

Themes like this seem to spring naturally from the events themselves, but there are many memoirs that probably felt very mundane to the author when they first started.  For example,

  • My reason for reading Seven Wheelchairs wasn’t that Gary Presley had polio but rather to learn how he coped with that condition.
  • Tim Elhajj’s Dope Fiend presented the climb of a young man from the quagmire of addiction back to competent adulthood.
  • Firoozeh Dumas’ Funny in Farsi is about  an immigrant Iranian in the U.S. I enjoyed accompanying her as she tried to develop a sense of American identity.
  • When I picked up One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing by Diane Ackerman, I knew before I read the first page that it was about taking care of her husband after his stroke.

As you search for the compelling core of your own story, step away from the catchy blurb and think about what it would be like for an author to look back on a life in a wheelchair, or growing up in a minority culture, or taking care of a husband after his stroke, or recovering from addiction. “Who would ever want to read about me” seems like a natural first thought. Then, “But I really want to tell my story” is the compelling thought that took over in each of these cases and motivated the author to keep going.

At first, you might have a hard time imagining how to boil your own story down to such a catchy kernel. But it turns out that the kernel of your own memoir might be lurking beneath the surface, in the psychological drama that was taking place inside your mind and emotions. By searching through your dreams and setbacks, you discover the drama that was taking place on a psychological plane. Why did you behave that way? What made you do those things? How did you overcome the fears, self-doubts, and discouragement?

Revealing your interior life

Many memoirs develop the interior story and bring it out into the open. For example, Look Me in the Eye by John Robison is not noteworthy because of a specific set of circumstances, but rather because his experiences all took place within the mental context of undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. William Styron’s memoir Darkness Visible brought depression into the public view, and Kay Redfield’s Unquiet Mind did the same for Bipolar Disorder.

These special psychological states of mind go on for years or a whole life, but in fact, all of us have been thrown into dramatic and important states of mind at various times. For example, grieving can become an incredibly important journey filled with drama. Similarly, when a crisis occurs in our lives for any reason, we must dig for courage, and attempt to overcome fears and discouragement. Such states of mind are ordinary in the sense that they happen to everyone, and extraordinary in the sense that they push us to the tipping point between courage and despair. Such states are worth writing about:


In grieving, we must somehow reclaim our sense of poise in a world which is now missing one of its most important features. By reading memoirs of such experiences we can learn how the author coped and increase our empathy and understanding of that process.

  • Robert Waxler’s Losing Jonathan, cowritten with his wife, chronicled the loss of the author’s son to a drug overdose, and the subsequent journey of grieving and healing.
  • In Kate Brestrup’s Here if You Need Me, after losing her husband in a freak auto accident, the author had to go on a long journey to understand not only her loss, but the very meaning of life and death.

Adapting to Midlife or other major changes

When you grow older, you realize that your self-image needs to adapt to new realities. A similar self-examination can take place when diagnosed with cancer, or anything that causes you to reframe your sense of self.

  • In My Ruby Slippers, Tracy Seeley is bounced out of her comfort-zone by a cancer diagnosis and goes looking for her roots in Kansas.
  • In Queen of the Road, psychiatrist Doreen Orion turned fifty and with her husband went looking for her new identity on a road trip through the United States.
  •  In Accidental Lessons, David Berner realizes that his successful career as a broadcaster is no longer fulfilling. He quits and takes a job as a school teacher.

Of course there is more to every memoir than just the few facts on the cover. Sometimes the sheer beauty of excellent storytelling can turn what appears on the surface to be ordinary into an exquisite act of art. Theresa Weir’s memoir Orchard is about marrying a farmer and moving to a farm. On the surface these facts look stunningly ordinary. Inside, the author weaves these features into a beautiful, revealing glimpse into the heart of her individual life experience.

Writing Prompt
Write a blurb for your proposed memoir that would emphasize your search for psychological identity and wholeness. Did you want to achieve dignity, purpose, or courage? What obstacles did you need to overcome in order to achieve this goal? How did you grow? What lessons did you learn?

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

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.