Ten Things to Learn From a Combat Memoir, Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

Most of us have never been in combat, and the exposure we do have is through news clips or war movies. Typically, the real events are locked away inside the troubled memories of those who have actually been there. Memoirs change that, giving us an insider’s view of the moment by moment events and sensations of war.

The memoir “House to House” by David Bellavia is a gritty account of urban combat in Fallujah, Iraq. At first I avoided Bellavia’s memoir, not sure I wanted to immerse myself in danger, bad smells, edgy trigger fingers, and enormous suffering. In the end I realized that at the very least, reading the book would help me relate to veterans, and would give me another glimpse into the creative journey of transforming life into story. When I started to read, the book glued me to my seat.

Most of the book takes place within the span of a couple of days during a brutal firefight. It expanded my understanding of combat, building on other memoirs I’ve read such as David Manchester’s “Goodbye Darkness,” about his experience in the Pacific invasions of World War II and James McGarrah’s memoir, “A Temporary Peace” about his experience in Vietnam. Here are 10 ways the book deepened my understanding of the world.

Cultivate communication between civilians and combat soldiers

During war, we pay soldiers to kill in the defense of our society. When warriors return to this society they often feel out of place, unwilling to speak openly about the most intense experiences in their lives. In most family settings, the violence of their memories would not make good dinner conversation. Fortunately, there is no such restriction against writing about it. By writing the story, warriors share what they’ve seen, and provide us all with words that can help us reach out to each other.

If you want to understand military combatants, read this book. It’s a guided tour of the thought process and circumstances of fear, power, explosions, and insane levels of human discomfort required in combat and it will provide you with insight into the mind of a warrior.

Writing prompt
What extreme or specialized experience have you had in your life that other people wouldn’t understand unless they had been there? Write a scene from such an experience. Even though the first draft might feel sketchy, imagine being able to polish it to really be able to allow readers to be in that experience with you.

Support for the affirmation “I’m not in Iraq”

Early in the Iraq invasion, my wife and I saw interviews with U.S. National Guard troops who enlisted before the war because they thought it would be a great way to spend weekends with friends. After being deployed to Iraq, their weekends turned mean with 110 degree summers, no showers and people shooting at them. Based on our empathy, my wife and I developed a system of coping with petty annoyances. If dinner burned or one of us was caught in traffic we said “we’re not in Iraq” to indicate that our challenges were minor compared with those soldiers. “House to House” reinforces this notion, making it impossible to complain about almost any discomfort.

Hatred for Military Commanders Was Not Just Limited to Vietnam

According to military psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, M.D. one reason that Vietnam Vets suffered so terribly from cynicism after the war was because of their hatred for the officers who sent them into battle. Their hatred poisoned them not only for the duration of the war, but after their return, as well. How could they serve a society which allowed such odious monsters to ruin their lives? After reading House to House, I realize the phenomenon was not limited to Vietnam. Bellavia apparently hated his officers just as much. This chilling information could provide important insight for anyone who wants to understand the spectrum of pain that runs through a veteran’s mind.

Humans as thinking predators

When the author hunted for insurgents in an abandoned home, his prey was also hunting for him. Despite all their body armor, automated weapons and communications devices, when you strip it down to raw emotions, each soldier is trying to become the hunter, not the hunted. It’s a primal part of life as a human animal, and worth reading if you want to understand the range of experience of being a soldier.

Action-packed memoir

Action movies and books lead you through a series of adrenaline-charged scenes. Memoirs, by contrast, usually take place in a psychological dimension, with a protagonist worrying not about exploding bombs but about hopes and fears. I usually think of action stories as being the opposite of memoirs. However, “House to House” defies my simplified categories. It’s a memoir that contains the wild, life threatening, and fast paced action of an adventure novel.

During the action, we see the world as he saw it, and listen to his inner dialog as he faces his fear. His exhortations to himself are fascinating. “You must do this,” he screams at himself to psych himself up. “Focus! Think! Snap out of it,” he screams when his mind is flooded with terror. This inner view during the heat of battle adds a psychological dimension to a mainly action-oriented story and demonstrates the astonishing range of human experience that can take place within a memoir.

Writing Prompt
List the scenes in your memoir that would create adrenaline if your reader could experience it the way you did.  For example, consider accidents, assaults, performances, embarrassing moments, first loves, betrayals, etc.

Click here for Part 2

Notes

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by David Bellavia

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

More Reasons Veterans Should Write Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

If you sign up for the military, your life is separated into at least two chapters, before your first day of service, and after. Then, when you leave the service, you add another chapter, to find your place in civilian society. Writing a memoir can help you organize and collect these sections into one compelling whole. Here is the second part of my essay about reasons why veterans should write memoirs.

Click here for part one of this essay

Resume Your Coming of Age Goals

People sign up for military service during the period in their lives when they are looking for a path into adulthood. We all go through that period, discovering our new identity beyond the childhood home. Military service offers a leap into that next stage, and once you enter the system, you know where you fit in to the larger world.

When you reenter civilian life, many of the advances you reaped in the military no longer apply. Your training probably doesn’t translate well into a civilian career. And the sense of purpose, of belonging, and structure are gone. You must start over, searching for a new place. In a sense, you are going back to the day before you entered the recruiter’s office. You are now looking for a second path that can carry you competently into adult civilian life.

Writing is a powerful tool to help reconnect with the person you were when you started, and the person you were trying to become. By pulling the pieces together into a story, you can reconnect them, and resume your journey. For example, by writing about life as a teenager, you get in touch with your first kiss, first car, first job, first questions about the possibility of God. When you lay these moments out in the form of a narrative, you find a self-image that makes sense across the span from civilian to warrior and back to peace again.

Restore Purpose and Idealism

In the book “Flourish,” psychologist Martin Seligman digs into the challenges of combat trauma. According to Seligman, who founded the Positive Psychology movement, the psychological care given to veterans focuses too much on falling apart and not enough on growth and resilience.

Many psychologists agree with Seligman that having a purpose for living is one of the crucial requirements for a healthy life. In fact, the search for purpose drives many young people to join the military in the first place. They risk their lives in defense of family, community, and country. However, when their mission is over it is difficult to remember the earlier ambitions and dreams, especially when memory is clouded by the fog of war.

If your earlier purpose no longer seems to apply to your life as a civilian, you are missing one of the great foundations of a healthy life. And your sense of purpose might be undermined further if during war, you suffered the side-effect noted by military psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, M.D. According to Shay’s books “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America,” many soldiers return to civilian life with their idealism in tatters. Without faith or dreams, they have little to stop them from sinking into cynicism and despair.

Writing a memoir can help. By searching for the meaning in their memoir, veterans can reconstruct the meaning of their lives. For example, David Bellavia, author of the Iraq war memoir House to House developed a sense of responsibility to publicize the experience of soldiers, as well as to commit himself to his family.

When Luis Carlos Montelvan returned from service in Iraq his mental and physical wounds left him incapacitated. He was better able to navigate civilian life after  he was chosen to participate in a program that uses service dogs to help wounded veterans. However, he continued to struggle for a purpose until he realized the importance of the service dog program. He became an outspoken advocate to help the public understand the invisible wounds of PTSD and his memoir Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him provided us with an important look inside the mind of a combat veteran.

Some veterans redirect energy toward promoting peace, or reducing gang violence. When Mark Bounds, left the army as chief of staff at a training center, he entered the civilian educational system to help young people become more responsible adults.  Whatever path you choose, writing your memoir can help you find your direction.

Building Bridges from War to Peace

In combat, soldiers earn respect by becoming experts at violence. When they return, this very skill sets them apart from the society they defended and our respect mingles with fear. After the Vietnam war, returning veterans were stigmatized by the violence of that war, adding a terrible psychological burden to the trauma they already suffered. And even the heroes of World War II had to fight with this stigma. Most of them felt obligated to shield their loved ones from war by hiding behind a wall of silence.

Writing a memoir is an antidote to this sense of separation. Just as memoirs can break down the walls between people of different races or lifestyles, it can break down the alienation between veterans and civilians. I have spent many hours vicariously terrified by combat, thanks to memoirs like James McGarrah’s Vietnam experience in “Temporary Peace” and William Manchester’s struggles on the Pacific front during WWII in “Goodbye Darkness”. David Bellavia took me on another emotionally grueling journey in “House to House,” about the war in Iraq. By now I have a good idea of how gruesome and dangerous that world can be.

So when a veteran shows up in one of my memoir workshops, ready to talk about their military service, I will encourage them to build bridges. By teaching them to write their story in language an outsider could understand, I could help them cross the chasm that separates their world from mine. In this era of the memoir, veterans no longer need to hide, but can be welcomed back into civilian life as messengers from another dimension of human experience.

More Articles
How Boys Become Men
Mark Bounds’ shift to Civilian educational system
Interview with Vietnam vet Jim McGarrah
Storytellers Shed Light On the Horrors of War
Luis Carlos Montelvan’s Home Page

Healing Combat Trauma website

More memoir writing resources

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.

Why Write Memoirs After Combat or Other Trauma

by Jerry Waxler

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

My friend Don mentioned that his writing group was thinking of offering fiction writing classes as a public service to veterans. The notion of serving those who serve their country inspired me and on an impulse I blurted out, “Maybe I could teach them memoir writing.” My offer caught me off guard. I had taught hundreds of civilians about memoir writing, but I had never taught a class full of veterans. Now that the thought was out in the open, I wondered how much I knew about teaching veterans to write, especially those who had been in combat.

Trauma debriefing

After the World Trade Center bombing, I wanted to help trauma survivors, so to supplement my master’s degree in counseling, I took a course offered by Pennsylvania’s department of emergency preparedness. The main technique they taught, called trauma debriefing, consisted of encouraging survivors to talk about their experience. The treatment seemed reasonable to me. Talking has always been the mainstay of counseling.

Later I learned that many researchers disagreed with the technique saying that if you talk about the experience, you might re-experience the trauma. I didn’t have enough information to form my own opinion, so I filed the debate in the back of my mind.

Memoir Writing as Trauma Debriefing

When I began to study memoirs, I realized that many of them were taking me on a journey through horrifically traumatic experiences like combat, rape, and abuse. But within the pages of the book, the horror had been transformed into a literary framework.

When I began to teach memoir writing, I extended my understanding of how this works. The participants often shared their most painful moments. After they read their passage aloud, something changed in the room. People became more relaxed and open with each other, as if they had gone through the actual experience together. The speakers said they had rarely if ever shared these moments with anyone, let alone strangers, and listeners reported a sense of empathy.

I felt that their revelations were similar to the trauma debriefing method with a key difference. Because they were in a memoir writing workshop, they were attempting to turn their horrible trauma into a good story. By packaging their memories in a shape that would be understandable by others, they had to restructure their  haphazard memories into an orderly sequence with a beginning, middle, and end. A story’s protagonist strives to achieve a goal, and along the way develops satisfying, philosophical insights. Memoir writers become philosophers of their own lives, searching for alternate perspectives and finishing with closure that would make sense to both the reader and the writer. By packaging their pain in the shape of a story, they gain control over it, masters of their own experience. For this reason, I believe combat veterans would benefit by attempting to convert their intense memories into the structure of a story, not to simply repeat the experience but to shape it.

In addition to helping themselves, they could help those who love them. After all, that’s what Homer did thousands of years ago, when he wrote the Iliad. We’ve been reading his account of battle ever since. By representing that world, so foreign to us civilians, combat veterans give us a deeper appreciation for their service, and we gain a more profound appreciation for the human costs of war.

Memoir writing is not for everyone. In addition to all the work and skill required to construct a story, memoir writers must also be willing to come out of hiding. When you first consider writing a memoir, the thought of divulging private aspects of yourself might seem horrifying. But if you stick with it, and add more and more anecdotes to your file, a story begins to emerge. Within that story, you uncover parts of yourself that had been forgotten or suppressed and you begin to forgive yourself for parts that you wish would disappear. As you find the words to explore these diverse aspects of yourself, you become more authentic and whole.

In the next section of this essay, I will explore more detailed ways that a memoir could help someone make sense of their experience in the military.

Click here for part 2 of this essay.

More Articles
How Boys Become Men
Mark Bounds’ shift to Civilian educational system
Interview with Vietnam vet Jim McGarrah
Storytellers Shed Light On the Horrors of War

Notes

Inspiring interview between Bill Moyers and Maxine Hong Kingston about why combat  veterans should write their stories.

Healing Combat Trauma website

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

Recovering Self-concept after Trauma

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third article in my series about using memoir reading and writing to deepen your understanding of your own self-concept. To start from the beginning, click here. Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity,

Identity ought to be a stable thing. Once you find it, you should be set for life. But in reality, your ideas about yourself undergo continuous adaptation. We all adapt to the slow changes that unfold over years. And sometimes, our peaceful self-image is threatened by assaults so deep and swift they shake the foundations of sanity. Betrayal, divorce, job loss, combat trauma,  crime, abuse, disease, or death of a loved one can rip apart our trust that we know how to live in the world. We hang on using prayer, social supports, or counseling. Even as we shrink away from the parts of our life that hurt, we try to return to our routines. Eventually, the past slides into the past while often leaving behind a sticky residue.

One way to gain power over the bitterness and confusion that have been left behind by trauma is to write about it. Write the entire period, from your initial sense of safety, to the coming storm, then the actual experience. Then comes the most important part. Continue your story through the long journey to recovery.

One problem with events that assaulted you is that you feel trapped, as if the memory has become a prison. The power of the unexpected event feels like a life sentence. By writing the whole experience, you can form a more intimate familiarity with the journey back to safety.

By becoming a storyteller of your own life, you gain control over the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, finding the words that help you integrate the turn of events into your understanding of how you fit into the world. And by shaping the experience into a form that can be shared with others, you turn private sorrow into social compassion.

Memoirs that provide examples of facing and recovering from trauma

Alice Sebold, “Lucky.” She explicitly describes the rape that stole her innocence. Then for the rest of her life she attempts to reclaim her ability to once again believe she is a good person in a safe world. For my essay about Alice Sebold’s Lucky, click here

Jim McGarrah, “Temporary Sort of Peace.”Altered forever by his devastating experience as a combat soldier in Vietnam, McGarrah turned to writing, and looked for himself amidst the rubble of his own story. For my interview with author Jim McGarrah, click here

David Manchester, “Goodbye Darkness.” This veteran heals his nightmares by visiting the Pacific islands where he fought in World War II. In addition to providing a powerful historical account, he also searches for identity and tries to put his demons to rest. For my essay about combat trauma, click here.

Jill Bolte Taylor, “My Stroke of Insight.” After a stroke destroys the left-half of her brain, she must make do with only the right half. Then she takes an 8 year journey of rehabilitation, becoming whole and learning profound lessons about her brain and self. For my essay about My Stroke of Insight, click here.

Gary Presley “Seven Wheelchairs.” Presley, an athletic teenager is stricken with polio and then spends decades coming to terms with life in a wheelchair. His recovery is not of body but of spirit, and inspires me to think about the nobility of the long road of life. For my essay about Gary Presley’s memoir, click here.

My shakeup and subsequent re-discovery

I entered college with advanced placement scores in math, majored in physics and was sure I would be a doctor. After five years of anti-war protests, marijuana, and nihilistic beliefs, I was living in a garage, not talking to anyone for weeks at a time, striving to escape civilization. I suffered what might have been called a “nervous breakdown” if anyone had focused enough on me to give it a label. I unraveled my sense of self, and became story-less, a man without a workable self-concept, reducing myself to raw nerves and meaninglessness. I was a living laboratory experiment demonstrating that a healthy story is a minimum requirement for life. Looking back, I see that I spent much of my adult life recovering from the disruption. Writing my memoir has helped me gain an overview of this lifetime journey.

Writing Prompt

Write about unexpected suffering that made you feel like your previous sense of self no longer made sense. To help you see the whole experience, start with an outline from before the event when you felt safe until after, when you reclaimed your poise. Let your writing carry you forward from the quicksand back onto solid ground. If writing a dismal portion pulls you down, balance that feeling by writing scenes of hope and healing.

Notes
This method applies to trauma that you can look back on. Writing such a story can help you grow to a place where you can find wisdom about past suffering. If you are currently experiencing trauma or out-of-control feelings, please seek social support from a compassionate caregiver.

Link to other articles in this series

Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity

Self-concept and memoir – launching problems and identifying with a group

Recovering self-concept after trauma

Self Concept and Memoirs: The Power of Purpose

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Fearlessly Confessing the Dark Side of Memory in this Memoir of Sexual Abuse

by Jerry Waxler

For more insight into the power and importance of memoirs, read the Memoir Revolution and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.

When I talk to people about writing memoirs, sometimes they chuckle nervously and say, “Oh, I don’t want to remember all of that.” When I first heard this reaction, it puzzled me. The speaker appeared to assume that writing about their past will force them to divulge information they would rather keep quiet. It’s as if they were afraid that by merely writing their past, their secrets would fly out into the air.

As I learned more stories and dug deeper into my own, I found that some dark memories are so compelling they draw you in and frighten or upset you. When you try to seal them back in their crypt, they continue to haunt. The courageous memoirist actively faces these fears and crafts them into stories. Under the guidance of our inner storyteller we gain power over our own memories.

Recently I heard about a memoir that offers an extreme example of this challenge. Throughout her childhood, Sue William Silverman was molested repeatedly by her father, a successful banker and diplomat. The assaults took place within the walls of their home where his manipulation and rage silenced every protest before it was uttered. Silverman’s memoir “Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You” offers the tragic story of a childhood, betrayed by the adult who was supposed to care for her.

At first, the topic of this memoir horrified me. I would have given it a wide berth, like crossing the street to avoid passing a beggar. And yet such is the magic of memoirs that it has allowed me to explore situations I would rather avoid. Reading is a powerful form of empathy. Now I pressed past my reluctance to share her experience.

I found the book disturbing as expected, and yet, in a way inspiring because of its frankness. It offers another validation that memoirs can take me into the dark pockets of the human condition. Researchers have found that a staggering percentage of children are abused. (see note) And despite the widely known statistics the human story of their plight is hidden from view. Few of us know what to say about this upsetting and confusing subject, and so the topic is avoided in polite company.

The public, with its voracious appetite for sound bites and quick solutions, is occasionally exposed to pleas for harsher sentences for the few predators who are caught. Meanwhile, abuse continues unabated, most of it taking place privately and quietly within the home.

While Silverman’s memoir does not offer a political or legal solution, it does hint at a reasonable first step. By sharing the story of the psychological damage, the trauma and breach of trust, we collectively shine light into the darkness of these private hells. Without such stories, sexual abuse is just a word, a statistic, devoid of the sad terror and emotional truths of each situation.

The silence that protects victims also protects perpetrators

Victims have important reasons for hiding the things that happened to them. There is the stigma of shame, often made worse because the victim is made to feel responsible. And there is the risk of angering the perpetrator. Until the memoir age, many wounded people have never felt empowered to share their stories. Now more people are telling and more listening. In my optimistic vision, I see memoirs tearing down walls, and I feel a surge of hope like the crowds who were swinging sledge hammers in the final hours of the Berlin Wall.

A polished voice helps to earn the public’s ear

Writing in a journal allows us to turn our feelings into words, and helps us gain power over our own thoughts. However, if you want to go to the next step and tell your story to the public, you need two more things. One is the courage to publish. And the other is the willingness to craft the experience into a readable form. Every writer discovers they need to develop skills in order to earn readers, and memoir writers are no different.

In this aspect of confession, Silverman excels. Through her writing skills, she engages my reader’s mind, moving me through each scene and then on to the next. I feel protected by her authorial presence, which occasionally cools me with beautiful language, like a drizzle tickling my skin on a hot summer day.

Her terrible story written in pleasing language, transforms me from a complete stranger to an empathetic listener, learning about the strange, complex desperate love-hatred between father and daughter. I deepen my understanding of her as an individual, and also of us as a race, perceiving the vast and sometimes horrifying range of human experience.

She also wrote a book to help you write your memoir
Silverman’s memoir offers an excellent model of good writing about bad memories. After writing two memoirs, she recently published a guide that can help anyone tell their story. “Fearless Confessions, a Writers Guide to Memoir” offers a roadmap through this difficult terrain.

Statistics about Child Abuse
If you think this is an isolated problem, you are probably under that impression because of the impenetrable silence that surrounds it. For statistics, click here.

For more on Sue William Silverman:

Click here for her website.

Click here for her Women On Writing Blog Tour

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.

User’s Guide to the Brain by a Writer Who Lost Half of Hers

by Jerry Waxler

Jill Bolte Taylor, author of the memoir, “My Stroke of Insight” studied brains for a living, a profession she entered to help people like her brother, who suffers from schizophrenia. Taylor, at the age of 37 already respected for her work at Harvard, found another, much more personal involvement with neurology. An artery burst and as blood flooded into her brain, she observed the changes in her thinking and her body. It was like a laboratory experiment taking place within her own skull.

When she awoke the morning of the stroke, she felt strange, increasingly helpless, and at the same time, she felt a surge of oneness with the universe, similar to what you might expect from a religious experience. In fact, she uses the Buddhist term, nirvana, to describe her state of mind.

This short book starts with an overview of anatomy to help readers understand what was taking place. Then, she describes the details of the actual event. Soon afterward she was reduced to the helplessness of a small child, nurtured back to health by her mother. Their loving relationship permeated the book. The real power of “My Stroke of Insight” comes from the lessons that Bolte Taylor learned about her brain.

Years ago, neurological research noted the different functions served by each half of the brain. Broadly speaking, the left half is oriented towards picking things apart. This side is the domain of mathematicians, scientists, and other people who rely on analysis. Scientists credit this side of the brain with civilization’s advance out of the dark ages and into modernity.

Like so many splits these days, fervent advocates on each side see the other side as the enemy. Artists and creative types have adopted the right half of the brain as their own, claiming it tends towards holistic thinking, inspiration, and harmony. And they say that the west’s love affair with the left-brain has created a society that too quickly picks things apart, making way for social ills like prejudice and the western tendency to dominate nature and each other.

The right half of the brain sounds lovely. Who wouldn’t want world peace and inner harmony? Well, it turns out that die hard left-brainers downplay the glory of the right-brain, fearing that such “holistic ideas” are wishy-washy and vague, and lack the discipline required for a proper technical understanding of the world. Until the stroke, Jill Bolte Taylor prided herself on her rigorous thinking, feeling confident in the sharp distinctions, judgments and analyses of her left-brain.

The stroke brought both extremes of this split world into dramatic focus. Instantly deprived of her ability to use her left brain, she felt a blissful state of unity and peace. At the same time, she had lost so much of her analytical firepower she couldn’t figure out how to use the phone. While her life drained away, she had to force herself to remember what a phone number looks like and how to call for help.

She survived, and it took her eight years to fully recover. During the arduous rehabilitation of her left brain, she noticed that whenever her analytical thinking returned, it was accompanied by judgments, anger, and petty annoyance, suggesting a connection between her left-brain and the darker side of her nature. Analysis apparently makes it too easy to put people into compartments, fostering a more arrogant, prejudiced, and aggressive state of mind. She hated these negative feelings and realized that while she adored intellectual pursuits, she now had to take into account their emotional cost.

To hang on to the peace that had been thrust on her by her stroke, she accumulated a repertoire of techniques that helped her balance the two sides of her brain. When she found herself slipping too far into judgment, she used these techniques to bridge back to a sense of peace. Some of the techniques she employed were:
—    Yoga Breathing Exercises
—    Self-soothing statements
—    Walking
—    Meditating

Her new mission, to see how brain balance creates world peace
While all of these methods are available in more detail through other self-help sources, Bolte Taylor’s contribution is to show us how they relate to brain function, and why it’s healthy to learn how to use the whole brain. She contends that the difference between an edgy, combative, and angry state of mind and a mind filled with love and peace is directly related to which side of the brain is in control.

She says, “I continue to work very hard to maintain a healthy relationship between what is going on in my right and left minds. I love knowing that I am simultaneously (depending on which hemisphere you ask) as big as the universe, and yet merely a heap of star dust.”

By reaching out to share her findings through her memoir and her public talks, she is continuing a lifelong trend. As a young woman, she wanted to help her brother’s schizophrenia. So she turned her scientific mind towards the study of brains. She used her left-brain analysis to help her brother. Then as a popularizer of brain research, she reached out to help more and more people. This desire to stretch beyond yourself and help the world is a strong function of the right-brain. In effect, the way she was making use of both sides of her brain was a preview of what she was about to learn.

The stroke sent her on a journey far away from her comfort zone, beyond the world she knew, to gather wisdom at the gates of death. She returned, armed with lessons she learned from her journey, and once again, she wants to use her observations to help others reach their full potential.

The brain is a powerful organ. It can make war or peace, and can lift people to the moon or dash them down into horror. The more I know about this organ between my ears, the more empowered I am to live my life with satisfaction, and effectiveness. So I appreciate Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, which inspires me to think more clearly about her situation and mine, and all the wonderful things we humans can learn from each other to help us live together. I call her book a User’s Guide to the Brain, and I am grateful for the information she has shared with me and wish her well on her quest to use her personal experience to uplift the world.

Writing Prompt
What lessons have you learned through your own experience? Did you learn about weight-loss, surviving divorce, how to stay spiritually balanced in an office environment, how to raise a child with a disability? Did you learn about immigration, or war, or disease, life in a wheelchair, or life in government service? The list of potential lessons is as diverse as human experience itself. Brainstorm about how to turn your knowledge into a message that can help other people. Have fun. Allow yourself to imagine. Some of your ideas, which may seem impossible today, could become tools to connect with and help other people tomorrow.

Note
I recently read a related memoir, Irene Pepperberg’s book “Alex and Me” – Pepperberg is another scientist, who, through a very different route, also arrives at the conclusion that wholeness leads the way towards greater wisdom.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s Home Page
Amazon page for “My Stroke of Insight”

 

 

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]

Storytellers shed light on the horrors of war

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

Amidst a lifetime of events, some memories are like scorpions that guard the gate of our own past. In my journey to understand as much as possible about life writing, I consider the question many aspiring life writers raise. “Should I approach painful memories, and if so should the memories become part of my story?” Of course there is no one right answer, so I look for lessons contained within painful memoirs I read.

I recently read “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” by Jim McGarrah, an engaging and well-written memoir about a soldier’s experience in Vietnam. I have a special affinity with Vietnam, because I was one of the students on the home front pleading to bring those boys home. Now after all these years, I finally get to see what I was protesting and it’s far more disturbing than I could have imagined.

While the author brings me into the jungle, and lets me share his pain, his psychological reality is so enormous I wanted a guidebook to help me find my way through his and my emotions. It turns out I found such a guidebook, “Achilles in Vietnam, Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,” by medical doctor and PTSD specialist, Jonathan Shay. For years, Shay has been working with Vietnam vets who have been so unnerved by their war experience that the memories yank them back into the fray, without warning.

Shay has explained trauma in an unusual way. He juxtaposes quotes from Homer’s Iliad side by side with conversations among Vietnam vets. It turns out that Homer was an expert on the psychological trauma of war, and this ancient epic that has been lurking in literature classes for centuries contains insights that help Shay explain what soldiers feel.

Soldiers’ love and loss
When I first heard someone claim that soldiers risk their lives because of their love for each other, I thought the word “love” was preposterous. But Shay and Homer convinced me that buddies on the battlefield do indeed care about each other with an intimacy we expect from brothers, or “best buddies.” (English is a bit weak in this regard, but apparently the Greek word philia comes closer.) What I don’t understand is what it must feel like to see such a beloved comrade explode into parts, vaporize, or bleed out in front of your eyes. It’s incomprehensible, and yet it happens, and changes a soldier’s life profoundly. As Jim McGarrah says in “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” “At that moment I started going insane.”

Absence of community compassion
When people in civilian life lose a loved one, they attend services in the company of community and family, and sit quietly in prayer to honor the dead. Shay calls this shared grief “communalization” and says it is one of the most important factors that keeps people balanced after loss. It is almost entirely missing from the combat soldier’s experience. When a soldier loses a buddy, the body is destroyed, lost, or shipped out in a bag. Soldiers are not encouraged to show their emotions. They get right back to fighting, and if they try to talk about what happened when they get home, civilians are unable to relate. The isolation feeds upon itself and creates a cauldron of inner pain.

Demonize the enemy at your own peril
In Homer’s time, truces were regularly declared to gather up and mourn those who had fallen on the battlefield. This act of mutual respect helped keep everyone in harmony with a universe that would continue to exist long after this particular war was over. In modern warfare, soldiers increase their will to kill by convincing themselves that the people they are fighting are less than human. Shay claims this attitude leads to atrocity and despair on and off the battlefield.

Defiling the body
Achilles ties Hector’s body to a chariot and drags it around the walls of Troy, using it as a weapon to demoralize the enemy. When I first read the book I thought it indicated that Greeks were a barbaric culture. But according to Shay, my assumption was incorrect. Achilles’ moral downfall meant that he as an individual had fallen into a barbaric state, and this fall according to Shay, was one of the central tragedies of the Iliad. During the Vietnam War, soldiers on both sides defiled bodies in order to fill the enemy with hatred, fear, and disgust. Loss of respect for the body undermines what it means to be human, and contributes to the unraveling of sanity that lingers long after the war is finished.

Berserking or “losing it”
I’ve seen soldiers in movies, screaming and running towards the enemy. I thought of it as an entertaining bit of theatrical exaggeration. I now realize that this is a very real state of temporary insanity in which soldiers slip outside the bounds of rational thought.

“Berserking” drastically increases the risk of death, and the results for those who survive are also tragic. Jim McGarrah, in a state of exhaustion and rage, performed reckless acts that haunted him for the rest of his life. Jonathan Shay suggests that modern military training actually encourages this loss of control. He warns that this tolerance towards “berserking” is a misguided strategy that hurts soldiers during their irrational behavior, and later damages their ability to return to civilian life.

The value of reading and writing painful memoirs
After Jim McGarrah left the war, there was no science of PTSD and soldiers were told to take it like a man or forget it. So when it finally dawned on McGarrah that he needed help, he had to overcome enormous resistance. He did finally reach out, and even though he doesn’t go into detail about the psychological work he did at the Veterans Administration, I already know the outcome. He faced his memories, no matter how horrific, turned them into a story and from those stories created a book. Thanks to the magic of reading and writing, I have spent hours with him in the jungles, accompanied him during his berserk episodes, sat with him in the recovery room after the wound that got him back to civilian life, and shared some pangs of his emotions, as well as one empathetic individual can do.

By sharing his story, McGarrah has opened himself up to one of the most important elements that veterans are missing, the “communalization” of his grief. Jim McGarrah and I have shared a few hours of pain and commiseration about some of the most painful experiences a human must endure, the loss of life and love during combat. My belief is that in the process of sharing these hours, we have regained a little of what was lost.

Notes

Jim McGarrah’s “A Temporary Sort of Peace” was awarded the Legacy Nonfiction Prize for 2010 from the Eric Hoffer Foundation.

To read an exclusive interview with the author, click here.

For a readable explanation of PTSD and its treatment, read “Sanctuary” by Dr. Sandra Bloom, based on years of clinical work, mainly with survivors of systematic child abuse.

To read my essay about another traumatic memoir, “Lucky” by Alice Sebold, click here. She quotes another widely regarded source book for PTSD is “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” by Judith Herman.

Why Write Memoirs after Combat or Other Trauma

Other war memoirs:
Tracy Kidder, “My Detachment”
Tobias Wolff, “In the Pharoah’s Army”
William Manchester, “Goodbye Darkness”

Note

Many soldiers walk away from deadly injury and regain their sense of purpose. For “Shades of Darkness” author, George Brummell, the post-war challenges of coping with his blindness became his urgent task, and he went on to increase his education, and become director of the Blinded Veterans Association.

Memoirs of people who have crashed and burned are not just about soldiers. Many of life’s most severe problems dismantle the sense of self that keeps us safe. In this article I talk about four people who walked into traps of various sorts and felt their lives becoming dismantled.

More about the psychological trauma of war
Jonathan Shay says that an important contribution to a soldier’s unraveling is a sense of betrayal, that the organization is not protecting him. For example, faulty weapons in Vietnam were interpreted as a sign that the military really wanted the soldiers to die. I knew that most Vietnam soldiers felt betrayed by the lack of civilian support, but I was surprised to learn that many soldiers hated the officers who were directing them in battle. The hatred was based on the belief that decisions were made more for the officer’s own career advancement than on the safety of soldiers or effective military strategy. Shay suggests this attitude about rear-echelon officers had a parallel in the Iliad. In ancient mythology the gods on Mount Olympus manipulated the outcome of the battle based on childish selfish desires.

The soldiers in Homer’s time used mythology and rituals to appease the gods. Modern soldiers have no such talismans. Once a modern soldier becomes convinced “The System” is capricious, irrational, and malevolent, they cross into a state of alienation from society and authority, and many of them carry this alienation back with them when they return home. Such betrayal from above undermines the basis for a sane, healthy energetic involvement in society.

Follow this link to read a powerful article about Jonathan Shay’s introduction to Moral Injury of war.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

Exclusive Interview with Xujun Eberlein Part 2

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

I recently read “Apologies Forthcoming,” a book of short stories by Xujun Eberlein, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. (Amazon Page, Xujun’s Home Page, Longer Introduction to this Interview) I highly recommend her book for anyone interested in that period, or interested in converting life into story, or simply looking for a good read. In this exclusive interview, I ask her about the project of converting her memories into stories. Her answers offer insights that could help anyone who is interested in the relationship between memory and story.

This is part two of the interview. For Part 1, click here.
Jerry Waxler: You write so beautifully in English. What special challenges did you have to overcome?

Xujun Eberlein: Well, I have always loved to write. My first short story, written in Chinese, was published a year before I entered college in China in 1978. In 1982, one of my short stories caused me big political trouble, while in 1985 a novella won a literary prize. After I came to America in the summer of 1988, my writing was suspended for 13 years.

When I write in English, the biggest obstacle for me is vocabulary. You grow up with your native expressions for things, feelings, actions, even simple gestures, and when you try to find homologous terminology in the second language, you are tongue-tied, that is extremely frustrating.

When I was young, whenever I read a new expression or adage in a newspaper or book, I hand-copied it into a notebook and made my own customized lexicon. That was how I acquired a large Chinese vocabulary. It is kind of ironical that at mid-age I’m repeating the same painstaking process for English now. I envision doing this for the rest of my life.

While the disadvantage of writing in a second language is obvious, there is an advantage as well: you bring “new” expressions to the second language from your native tongue, and when you are doing it right you can create a “third” language with freshness. To do it right requires practice and a sensitive eye. One thing I learned from years of writing in English is that, if a “foreign” expression flows well with your prose, use it; otherwise it is better to go with an idiom.

JW: You have won awards for your writing, and have been published in literary journals. Please comment on what drives you as a writer.

XE: I want my writing to be both entertaining and have depth, and I write to raise questions rather than give answers. I also crave beautiful language, for which I know I have a long way to go. Like the ancient Chinese poet Du Fu said, “I won’t rest in death if my words haven’t astounded readers.”

I want to strive for quality, not quantity. There are too many books out there already; no one needs to read your book. That is, unless it’s good. The word “prolific” is not as attractive to me as “superb,” I guess. Or perhaps it is just an excuse for allowing myself to write slowly. (Laughs)

JW: I know it’s difficult to describe the creative process, but I ask anyway, in case you might reveal some secret. How would you explain the process of transforming a memory into a story?

XE: When I write a story that is memory-based, one technique I use is to first work up individual scenes. In this case there must be something deeply disturbing or unforgettable that makes one want to write about it years later, and the memory of details is usually pictorial or impressionistic. That is, the memory naturally provides you scenes. To make a good story you need several scenes. At first the scenes are disconnected. I just write down the scenes separately, then figure out how to connect them. This process includes shuffling the scenes to settle on a more intriguing order.

JW: I feel so comfortable inside your stories, and find there is an almost hypnotic rhythm that pulls me in. Is this a quality you have thought consciously about?

XE: For me this is really a trial and error process. I aim to maintain a story flow that is captivating and keeps the story progressing, but usually the first draft is far away from that goal. After I finish a draft I would put it aside for a while, then rearrange it with a fresher eye, cutting or adding material to accomplish the goal. So, unfortunately, it is not something that simply emerges from my pen (or keyboard) but the result of substantial adjustment. I find that, more often than not, reordering paragraphs results in a better rhythm.

JW: There is some sort of innocent intensity about your friendships that calls out to me. I’m curious to know if you worked particularly to achieve this effect.

XE: In China, we have the tradition of valuing friendship higher than even our own family. An old Chinese adage goes, “Wife is clothing, friends are limbs.” It is kind of sexist (as the old times were), but you get a feeling for the importance of friendship. Traditional Chinese literature is full of friendship stories. The most popular classic novel “Three Kingdoms,” epic of an entire dynasty, is centered around three sworn blood brothers. When I wrote my stories I wasn’t very conscious of depicting friendship, but since that was part of life and culture, a realism writer who is loyal to reality would naturally reflect that aspect. Those things are just in my blood. On the other hand, Americans don’t have the same culture. From my perspective the role of friendship here is not as strongly important as it is in Chinese life. This may have something to do with individualism, I suppose.

JW: What favorite memoirs or other books have informed your style or voice or approach to telling about your past?

XE: Hmm. I liked the writing of a lot of the contemporary memoirs published in the United States, such as The Liar’s Club, Wild Swans, Fierce Attachments, Angela’s Ashes, etc., however I rarely finished reading every one of them. On the other hand, some less critically acclaimed memoirs, for example The Man Who Stayed Behind, glued me from cover to cover. I guess good language is not a sufficient factor to sustain my reading interest. A memoir has to tell good real stories as well as raise a lasting question. So it is my goal to have all those elements in the book-length memoir I’m working on now.

To read the blog entry about what I learned about fact and fiction from reading Xujun’s two different representations of the events surrounding her sister’s death, click here.

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

Interview with story writer Xujun Eberlein

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

I recently read “Apologies Forthcoming,” a book of short stories by Xujun Eberlein, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. ( Short Story Fact or Fiction) I highly recommend her book for anyone interested in that period, or interested in converting life into story, or simply looking for a good read. In this exclusive interview, I ask her about the project of converting her memories into stories. Her answers offer insights that could help anyone who is interested in the relationship between memory and story.

Jerry Waxler: When did you first start thinking about writing your memories of growing up in the period of the Chinese Cultural Revolution?

Xujun Eberlein: If ever I had a mid-age crisis, I think it started in the fall of 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. As I wrote in a personal essay, “The Camphor Suitcase,” which won an award from Literal Latte recently, several things came to my attention in that fall triggering the desire to write about my sister’s death and those days. (This essay will be available on line in the near future, at Literal Latte‘s site.)

JW: When did you actually start writing?

XE: Checking my computer, I see the earliest file is dated December 16, 2001. That was an attempt to translate one of my old stories into English, trying to warm up with the idea of writing in a second language.

In the spring of 2002, I took an unpaid leave from work and revisited my hometown, Chongqing. During that visit two things hit me hard: my big sister’s tomb could no longer be found, and my mother had lost all my diaries from age 12 to late 20s. On the other hand, I retrieved my sister’s diary, which contains entries from her final three years of life. Upon returning home I began to write a memoir piece about my sister’s death from memory. It took many reincarnations to become what you see today. In the summer of 2004 I attended the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers Conference, and workshopped the piece there. It was my instructor, Bill Roorbach, who suggested the title to “Swimming with Mao.” In late 2005, I submitted a modified, longer version to Walrus and it was accepted and subsequently published in the magazine’s 2006 summer issue. (You can read this article by clicking here.)

JW: During those initial attempts, when you were deciding between fiction and non-fiction, what criteria pulled you one way or the other?

XE: I started to write nonfiction mainly because I thought this genre would better preserve my work’s historical value. However I soon realized the limitation of nonfiction on the range of subjects I would like to write about. I guess I write fiction also because I’ve had my heart set in that genre for much longer time. The two genres use different craft techniques; both interest me. It is a challenge to do both well and I like challenges.

JW: In your fiction, was it hard to steer between facts and imagination? Did you worry that fictionalizing might disturb the memories?

XE: It never occurred to me in writing fiction there exists a choice between facts and imagination, nor have I ever worried that fictionalization might perturb my memory. If I had any worry, it was that I might limit my imagination to personal experience. For some writers, it takes a big leap to transcend experience-based stories. I think I am like that. In my collection, about half of the stories can be said to be based on my own experience. The other half came from attempts to transcend and broaden that experience.

JW: When writing fiction, do you draw mainly on life experience or do you branch off into pure imagination?

XE: To continue from the previous answer, it is often a stage in writing maturity to unleash oneself from one’s own memory. This said, even writing with pure imagination one can’t avoid using elements from memory. It’s like in a science fiction movie, an object as a whole may look completely alien, however if you dismantle it you’ll find that every component has its origin from an earthly object.

JW: The non-fiction piece, “Swimming with Mao,” contains an account of your search for your sister’s truth. And yet it also conveys a sense of intimacy and sorrow. What sorts of dramatic devices did you apply to achieve the emotional effects?

XE: I wasn’t consciously applying any fiction techniques. Partly because this was my first attempt in English writing (if you don’t count my scientific dissertation at MIT); at the time I hadn’t written any fiction since my maiden days in China. Even after I began to write fiction in English, I found my mindset would switch with the change of genre, as if a button were being automatically pressed. My non-fiction pieces are more of the essay style, even though my storyteller’s nature tends to head for entertaining anecdotes.

JW: Reading about the loss of your sister I am overwhelmed by the complex grief one little individual had to endure. How did you feel about writing such a painful memory?

XE: It was very difficult emotionally. My big sister was my idol and mentor in my childhood. Our parents were always either busy at work or being denounced or detained; whatever problems I had, I took to my sister and she was always able to help. Her death created a big hole in my mind and life, even after I grew up it still wasn’t easy to look back. That was partly why it took me so long before attempting to write about it. I constantly cried when I was writing.

Adding to the emotional difficulty was the desire to give myself a conclusion about her death. Was it an accident? If so, could it have been avoided? If not, was her action meaningful? Was it a wasted sacrifice? For several drafts I really did not know what the conclusion was. In this sense this time-consuming writing did help me sort out feelings and thoughts. As to whether it gets easier, I don’t really know. It is still hard for me to reread what I’ve written without being teary again.

JW: How has the passage of time helped or hindered your understanding of those disturbing events?

XE: I think at the time a significant personal event happens to us, we are living in it and we are not spectators. We are either overwhelmed by it or unable to see its significance. To sort out feelings and find meaning we need distance, both in time and in space. Sometimes it takes a recurrence in history for us to understand better. In my case, if I hadn’t left China and lived in the United States, I might not have dug open this old wound. Even if I did, I might have different thoughts about it.

In Part 2 of this interview, I ask Xujun more questions about the creative process, of turning memories into written words.

For my blog entry about what I learned about fact and fiction from reading Xujun’s two different representations of the events surrounding her sister’s death, click here.

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.