Interview: Lessons From a Flock of Memoir Experts

by Jerry Waxler

The National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW.org), offers a wonderful selection of resources to aspiring memoir writers, culminating in the all-day event called the Memoir Telesummit. Entry is free and you don’t have to go anywhere. The whole thing is conducted over the phone, so wherever you are, you can learn from passionate memoir advocates, authors, and experts. This year’s phone conference is on the fascinating topic of “Truth or Lies,” about the interface between memoir and fiction. For more details and to sign up, click here.

The meeting is hosted by NAMW founder Linda Joy Myers, PhD, a memoir expert, teacher and author, herself. The Telesummit reveals two more of her strengths, conference organizer and interviewer. Thanks to Linda Joy’s open, curious approach to guest speakers, these discussions consistently provide a pleasurable and worthwhile listening experience.

To find out more, I asked Linda Joy a few questions about the Telesummit, about her guests this year, about her passion for sharing memoir-work with the world, and about her own writing.

Jerry Waxler: What is a Telesummit and who should attend?

Linda Joy Myers: A Telesummit is another word for an all-day phone conference, and it’s free to everyone. It’s so great now that we can offer and attend professional conferences casually at home! I love the Telesummit because there’s such great energy when we have experts join us all in one day to offer their knowledge.

This year we are so pleased to have teachers and authors of memoir and fiction to talk with us about inspiration and skills needed to tell a good story. Robin Hemley, Dinty Moore, Jennifer Lauck, and three young memoirists Elisabeth Eaves, Nicole Johns, Anna Mitchael. Penney Sansevieri will talk to us about marketing. What a rich day!

Jerry Waxler: Because we are all flooded with an endless supply of information on the web, one of the best ways to filter information and find the useful bits is to follow people we trust. After following your work for several years, I have come to expect informative, generous, caring people who want to teach and help others to get to the heart of their own stories. I consider this one of the valuable services you offer to the memoir community. So help us understand your process, and how you select people for these events.

Linda Joy Myers: I love inviting people who are inspiring and who are experts in writing and teaching to speak to a larger group. It’s fun to share my passion for the work these people have done and whose skills and passions will fuel great writing in others. All these presenters—authors, real people who work hard at their craft—have so much to offer! I have read the books they have written, finely tuned, thoughtful works that have expanded my world. Each has his or her own style of course, and I’m transported into their worlds through their writing. I go for that gut feeling of “I HAVE to share this person with others!” I want everyone to be inspired and fueled for their writing journey.

Jerry Waxler: I believe memoir writing is a multi-dimensional project, and one reason I love NAMW is the brilliant way you integrate and balance all the dimensions of memoir writing. So let me explain what I mean by “dimensions.”

Memoir writers:
1.    Look inside themselves to sort out the memories and turn them into scenes.
2.    Improve themselves, heal wounds and integrate parts they long ago rejected or forgot.
3.    Reach out to other people, across barriers of culture, gender, and all the other isolating definitions we hide behind, and allow ourselves to connect with the world.
4.    Turn life experience into literature, and contribute their stories into the river of culture.

Throughout the year you do a lovely job balancing these aspects, so I’m not surprised to see the Telesummit extending across all four of these dimensions as well. Help me understand how your presenters will provide attendees with more insight and a greater appreciation for each of these dimensions.

Linda Joy Myers: Jerry, I love how you talk about what we do as memoir writers! There is so much to say about all these fabulous people –Robin, Dinty, Jennifer, and the talented young women writers Anna, Elisabeth and Nicole. All of them have done what you mention in various ways. Of course a humorous book like Anna Mitchael’s Just Don’t Call Me Ma’am has a different tone than Nicole Johns’s book about recovery in Rehab—yet both took me into their personal experience and made me want to keep reading. Elisabeth Eaves’s two books Wanderlust and Bare were very intense, introducing worlds, places, and experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise known.

Robin Hemley’s memoir Nola is so deep and thought provoking, I have to stop reading for a time to gather myself and absorb the complexity of it. His book Turning Your Life into Fiction is one of the best books I’ve read about story writing, drawing from your life, and all the angles to look at when drawing from your life for story.

Dinty Moore’s memoir From Panic to Desire shows me how the brief essay form can work, and makes me want to try that style. His book Crafting The Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction should be on every writer’s shelf. Jennifer Lauck’s first book Blackbird inspired me to finish my memoir, and I’ve enjoyed all her books—each of them a jewel of self-exploration and courage. She used her writing to help to sort out and heal a childhood of loss, adoption, and confusion—a great model for me, and now we’re colleagues!

I don’t know about you, but for me literature, including fiction, has helped me find solutions to the problems of life, starting way back when I’d search eagerly for insights and answers in books from Dickens to Atwood, Woolf to Steinbeck. Of course many, if not most, fiction writers have drawn upon their own lives to offer their marvelous stories to us, but memoir goes a step further—it offers us truth. Memoir promises that “The tale I’m telling you is the way it really happened, and here is my story, my learning, my mistakes, and my lessons. Take them to your heart, and allow my story to help you, change you, entertain you.” This is why memoir is such an important force in our lives now—inspiring lots of stories and writing that now can reach audiences very quickly and easily. Of course, they need to be edited and shaped so the reader can get the most out of them—but it’s a whole new world out there now!

Jerry Waxler: I think everyone has a story worth telling. But then in addition to having the story, they need to tenaciously develop the skills, put it all down on paper, and then polish it in a way that will be engaging to readers. What support and encouragement do NAMW programs offer people who travel this road? What steps do you suggest for these people? How will the Telesummit and other resources of NAMW help?

Linda Joy Myers: Creativity needs nurturing, regular feeding and watering, like plants. As creators who draw upon the inner self for our writing, we need to have input—stories, teachings, and the experiences of others who have walked the path of life, the path of writing, people who search for words to express the inexpressible.

NAMW and my team—friends who are writers like you—are always looking for new ways to meet that need, as well as offering a huge array of resources on the website. We have over 50 audios that members can download from the last several years, along with free articles and discussions that we want to offer the public to help them with their writing. The presenters all have books and websites that everyone who comes to the website can draw upon for inspiration.

The Telesummit gives everyone an opportunity—for free—to engage in a conversation with renown writers who led the way of creating works of excellence that help us know that we can pursue our dreams of writing, creating a story out of personal experiences that will touch and move others, and even help them in their lives. We all are searching for fellow travelers and here at NAMW, I’m excited to join together with communities who want to share with each other the special trip we are taking through life—and through art!

Jerry Waxler: I know that the mission of NAMW is to help members tell their own story, so I seldom hear you talk about your own memoir, “Don’t Call Me Mother” about a girl whose mother has severe attachment problems. I found it to be a valuable addition to the Coming of Age subgenre. You said that you worked on it for 15 years, so obviously during that period you continued to grow and learn about yourself. Could you say something about the influence that writing the book had on your own life and career and ability to help other people?

Linda Joy Myers: Thanks Jerry—it’s always great to have fans! When I began Don’t Call Me Mother, I was still in the middle of living with a situation where my mother didn’t acknowledge I was her daughter, and didn’t want people in Chicago to know she had grandchildren either. The title of the book comes from the first time I visited her in Chicago when I was twenty. As I grew up in Oklahoma with my grandmother, mother would come to visit, and while these were fraught with fights between them, mother would hug and kiss me, though coolly, but I was used to that. So it was a shock to find out that she had told no one she had a child. Over the years, I would occasionally bring the children to see her, but she’d rush us through back stairways, and admonish all of us not to call her mother or grandmother. I was proud of my 14 year old daughter — on one of the last visits she marched up to the hotel desk and announced she was Josephine’s granddaughter! But scared too because my mother could be quite cruel in her demands and control, and I didn’t want the children to be hurt by her.

As I grew up through the decades, I’d pondered the generational pattern I’d seen in my family—three generations of mothers and daughters who were lost from each other in various ways, who had conflicts with each other that lead to a permanent breach between my mother and grandmother. I saw this as tragic, and had already determined to break the pattern, but as long as my mother lived, it was hard to forgive something that continued to hurt me/us. Writing helped me to heal a lot of it, along with therapy. I was able to be with her when she died, where waves of compassion and forgiveness for this broken and lost person became part of the new story being lived out. That allowed me to move forward and with more resolution and a healed heart to finish the book.

When we write our first book, especially if it’s full of intense feelings and memories of past pain, it takes a lot of time. I hoped that my story of loss that leads to generational healing and forgiveness for all the mothers who did the best they could, who were themselves wounded, would help others find their way. I discovered the research about how writing heals—the work of Dr. James Pennebaker which I have written about in The Power of Memoir.

I was so pleased to find out that there are studies about how writing can heal—which as a therapist I had seen and experienced myself, but here was official research! It galvanized me to finish my memoir and to help others write theirs—starting with the notion of healing and finding a new perspective, moving toward creating a well-written story that changes others’ lives. As Toni Morrison says, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So I did, and so can everyone.

Jerry Waxler: What book are you working on next?

Linda Joy Myers: After writing my memoir, I took some time to write a novel about something I’m interested in—the story of the Kindertransport, children who were sent out of Germany during WWII to escape persecution. I weaved my background with music into this tale that featured a young girl who had to learn how to live without her parents—something I knew a lot about! I enjoyed bringing in the history of WWII in Berlin and England—and I took three trips to Europe to research the story. The fiction book is waiting for me to get back to more edits, but I did finish it, and loved writing fiction—and of course traveling and research. One of the best days was looking at newspapers in the British Library!  Another one was walking down the Unter den Linden in Berlin—a vibrant and healed city.

Linda Joy Myers: My next nonfiction book is Truth or Lie—On The Cusp of Memoir and Fiction—a topic we have discussed in the two Telesummits—as so many people are struggling with these issues. Do I tell my story as “truth” or allow some fictional shifts in the story is the theme of the book, with lots of discussion about the levels and stages of memoir writing, tools, tips, and techniques to help people write, sort through these questions, and polish a manuscript for publication. As you can see, I love this topic!

Notes

Click here to visit Linda Joy’s Power of Memoir Page

Click here to read my review of  “The Power of Memoir.”
[click here ]

Click here to read my article about her memoir, “Don’t Call Me Mother”

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.

Writing Conference: Tip for Memoirists – Use fiction to tell truth

by Jerry Waxler

The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group (www.glvwg.org) held its annual meeting April 27-28, 2007, and I found all sorts of valuable writing insights, that I want to share with memoir writers.

First, I went to an all day workshop presented by Regina McBride, author of several novels, including her most recent, The Marriage Bed. The purpose of the workshop was to help us get inside one of our characters, and open our imagination so we could write more naturally. This was an intriguing concept for me. As a non-fiction writer, I don’t have characters. But I want to learn more about character writing to help memoir writers. So that morning, for the purposes of the workshop, I invented a fictitious character that would be a version of me.

The exercises were based on work she had studied as an actor, and it was very simple. She turned out the lights, and guided us into a sort of “writing meditation.” (She didn’t call it that, but that’s essentially what it was.) She told us to relax, sit deeper in the chair, find areas of tension, and release them. Breathe deeply. Then long silences. Then she asked us to imagine we were in our character, and she suggested writing prompts that would get us going. Then she turned on the lights and we started writing.

Out of those exercises came some great writing by the other attendees, all of whom were fiction writers. I found my own invented character to be fascinating and events unfolded for him in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated, but that added to my understanding not only of him, but of me as well. He was a 26 year old man who had graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy. He had no sellable skills and no interest in acquiring any, and when he could no longer stand being broke, he took the job his brother-in-law offered him to be a furniture salesman. This has similarities to the way my post-college years worked. By changing my name, and putting myself in a fictional setting, I was able to describe, and feel, my clumsy approach to coming of age in a more poignant and convincing way than I could have if I had tackled this description head on. As I was writing it, tears came to my eyes, and after I read it, Regina said “I can feel the isolation.” She seemed very sad when she said it.

I have heard about this effect of writing fiction to capture one’s own life, and know from talking to people that this method has helped them get in touch with feelings and express them. But seeing it for myself made it part of my own experience. It opened doors of memory, and made available to me a powerful technique I recommend to other aspiring memoir writers.