These Memoirs Are Similar to Biographies

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This article continues the series inspired by Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness about raising her daughter through a maddening cycle of rebellion. For the first article in the series, click here

Rachel Pruchno wrote her memoir, Surrounded by Madness, at the intersection between a memoir and a biography. As a memoir, it is a first person account of a mother trying to raise a troubled daughter. As a biography, it records in detail that daughter’s journey through the first 18 years of life. This hybrid approach to memoir writing provides an important example of a structure that has been used by other memoirs and might give you some ideas about how to write yours.

All of us have intimate, long term relationships, for example, with parents, siblings, partners, friends, children, and colleagues. In many memoirs, these characters slip into the background. A husband or mother might be mentioned but never even have a speaking role in the drama. Other memoirs promote these characters into the limelight, sharing the stage, or sometimes even turning the stage over to the other character entirely.

Here’s an example of a memoir that focuses so much attention on the central figure that the author becomes almost invisible. In the memoir, Reading my Father, Alexandra Styron tells the story of her father, the famous novelist William Styron. She herself plays a minor role. Miranda Seymour’s memoir Thrumpton Hall is also mainly about her father. She tells of his obsession with his English Country estate, and in the process, allows us to see both her father and the fate of the gentry in the twentieth century. But we don’t learn much about her.

Some memoirs hover in the space between the two people. When James McBride attempted to figure out his heritage, his memoir Color of Water investigated his mother’s life as a Jew growing up in the south before she married a black man and moved up north. The memoir is about the son’s attempt to find his own truths, by learning more about hers.

A Dark and Troubling Journey

Rachel Pruchno’s story is a far more complex application of the “memoir as a biography” – As her daughter’s story proceeds, we are forced to face the fact that the person at the center of the story is so disturbing, we actually need a bridge back to sanity. And we use the storyteller as that bridge.

To stay hopeful, we readers are accustomed to link our destinies to the sane characters who walk away from the rubble. In the classic novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, readers maintain sanity by sticking with the chronicler, Ishmael, rather than the crazy main character, Ahab. Similarly, in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the teller of the tale offers the reader a bridge from the despair of the story to the survival of the storyteller.

Most of the memoir, Surrounded by Madness is about Rachel Pruchno’s daughter’s out-of-control behavior, and a mother who constantly strives to help the daughter get back on track. Just as in Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness, the final truth rests with the storyteller, rather than with the story’s central character.

In another example, Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, the initial story is about the life of her son, a brilliant young musician. As he falls prey to Bipolar Disorder, the emphasis shifts from raising him to trying to save him. Unlike Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness, the breakdown occurs early enough for readers to gain a clear understanding of what happens next. After her son’s suicide the memoir is all about the mother’s grieving and growing. In this sense, only the first part of the book is semi-biographical, and the second part is a hundred percent memoir.

More Approaches to the Memoir and Biography Hybrid

Many memoir writers are curious to learn the stories of their parents’ earlier lives. I’ve already mentioned Alexandra Styron’s portrayal of her famous father in Reading My Father. As a youngest child, rarely invited into the private life of her father, she saw his fame from a distance. To learn about him, she studied his papers, similar to the way any historian would have learned about him. And Miranda Seymour, author of Thrumpton Hall, also researched her father’s life by reviewing his diary. James McBride’s research in Color of Water feels like the work of a drowning man, who can only be saved by figuring out his mother. Setting aside for a moment that Barak Obama is president of the United States, his memoir Dreams of Our Fathers captures a young man’s thirst to understand his roots. All of these authors invested years of creative research and writing to make better sense of their parents.

Karen Fisher Alaniz is another daughter who tries to understand her father. She discovers  he has been so secretive about his World War II experiences because of the fact that he was involved in military secrets, and even half a century after the classified information could be used by the enemy, he still felt constrained by orders. The memoir, Breaking the Code, is a fascinating example of the way secrets separate people. The author’s instinct to break through the secrets in the final years of her father’s life offers a beautiful demonstration of that curiosity many of us feel about the lives of our parents.

In another story by a daughter, Susan Erikson Bloland grew up feeling jealous and ashamed by the fact that the public knew her father better than she did. Her memoir In the Shadow of Fame is not so much about the famous psychologist Erik Erikson as it is about the damaging effects of fame on the self esteem of the other members of the family.

Some writers want so badly to tell their parent’s story they create ghost written accounts. These first person “memoirs”, written by children in the voice of the parent, provide an extreme example of a child’s desire to understand a parent’s earlier life. Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Linda Austen, is a ghost written account of a woman growing up in Japan before World War II, marrying an American serviceman, and moving to the United States. And Eaves of Heaven was written by Andrew X. Pham as a ghost-written memoir about his father’s life growing up in Vietnam, surviving the hardships of colonialism, rebellion, and imprisonment. Both stories were based on extensive interviews.

Friend or Companion

When memoirs are about a friend, spouse or companion, the story is more a biography of the relationship than of the person. For example, Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell is as much about the friendship between two women as it is about the other woman. In a more troubling memoir about a relationship, Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner is about her relationship with an abusive husband.

In two memoirs, a wife has lost a husband, and tells about that relationship from beginning to end. Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener is the biography of her relationship with her husband, from courtship, to his early demise, and then through her grieving. Naked: Stripped by a Man and Hurricane Katrina by Julie Freed includes a biography of her relationship with her husband, and then her struggle to make sense of that relationship after he leaves her.

An unusual account of a relationship is Father Joe, The Man Who Saved My Faith by Tony Hendra. The memoir is the relationship between Hendra and his spiritual mentor. Like any memoir, it provides an opportunity to share a slice of life that readers might not have experienced. Tony Hendra’s mentor is a monk, and the memoir provides a peek into a monastery, a sort of atavistic example of an ancient tradition of men living apart and devoting their lives to God.

The Other Character Is Not Always Human

Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg is by the famous researcher of a famous parrot. Pepperberg’s groundbreaking research into the linguistic aptitude of the parrot escaped the limits of scientific journals and went public, giving the world insight into the uncanny brilliance of the African Gray parrot. The memoir offers fascinating a glimpse into the personal relationship between the two creatures.

Similarly Marley and Me by John Grogan tells the story of a relationship with a dog. The ensemble cast includes the whole family, but throughout the story, it’s clear that the dog is the star.

Less famously, Oogie, a Dog Only a Family Could Love by Larry Levin creates a similar effect. This memoir adds gravitas to dog ownership by mixing in issues of dog fighting, and also creating a loving environment for two adopted boys.

Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him by Luis Carlos Montalvan is about a veteran who suffers from PTSD and how his relationship to a service dog helps him regain his dignity. Saddled by Susan Richards is a memoir about her life, with an emphasis on the healing effects of caring for her horse.

Conclusion

As you develop ideas about your own memoir in progress, consider your other characters. Perhaps one of them deserves top billing in the title, or in a different telling of the same story, you could portray the character’s influence from offstage. Or you might find that your best story is a hybrid, hovering between yourself and the other character or switching from one to the other. When Rachel Pruchno started writing her memoir, Surrounded by Madness, she focused almost entirely on her daughter. As the story reached a conclusion, the focus shifted, and suddenly the author took center stage. Similarly, Madeline Sharples first wrote about her son, and then shifted emphasis to herself. These creative decisions are determined both by the specific events of your life and by your goals in writing your memoir. By reviewing the wide range of possible structures offered by memoirs you read, you can open your imagination to the story that best expresses who you are and what story you want to share with the world.

Writing Prompt

What one main character in your memoir might zoom up into center stage? Write a synopsis of the memoir as if it was about this one other character, or about the relationship with this person.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website
Madeline Sharple’s website
Susan Weidener’s website
Karen Fisher Alaniz’s website
Julie Freed’s website

 

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

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

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

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

Memoirs Connect Us by Sharing Our Hidden Worlds

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

The anthology The Times They Were a Changing coedited by Linda Joy Myers, Kate Farrell, and Amber Lea Starfire offers many glimpses into the lives of women during the 60s. The book taught me about a fascinating era in recent American history. It also provided many examples of life-changing moments, full of the passion and intensity of the human condition. This focus on high-intensity moments makes the collection a valuable demonstration of an important aspect of life-story writing.

For many aspiring memoir writers, such high-energy moments lurk under the surface waiting to spring out of hiding. I discovered my own hidden pool of intensity in the first memoir workshop I ever attended. The event took place at a high-energy writing club in a converted storefront in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Along with twenty writers, I considered the possibility I could turn my life into stories. At the end of the first session, the teacher told us to go home and write a story about ourselves.

The scene that came to my mind happened in Berkeley California in 1971 when I lived in a garage, stopped wearing my glasses so I was effectively blind, and went for weeks at a time without speaking. My fallen-apart life after college made sense in that crazy, hippie era. And yet looking back on it later in life, it had always seemed so out of context with my bachelor’s degree in physics and my original goal of becoming a doctor.

Despite my embarrassment and confusion about that period, my mind kept returning to it. Perhaps I was driven to that scene by horror, or by a lifetime of silence. For whatever reason, I attempted to portray my life as a hippie.

At the next session, my voice trembling with embarrassment and exhilaration, I read my piece. In it I revealed that when I was 24 years old, I wanted to live like a chimpanzee and had made plans to move to Central America to eat fruit from the trees. Instead of being horrified, my fellow writers laughed. That laugh changed my life.

I looked around the room. Everyone was relaxed. I realized that reading my story had not upset them or turned me into a pariah. On the contrary, several of them spoke to me afterward and recalled some zany or compelling memory of their own. Paradoxically instead of increasing my shame, sharing the story dispelled it.

Without this wall of shame to hold me back, I became increasingly energetic about discovering my own past. Like an investigator, I unearthed anecdotes I had never before tried to put into words. Then once I found them, I needed to convert them from stubs into a well constructed story. That meant that for the first time in my life, I had to learn how to write stories.

Before that time, my main experience trying to convert bits of my life into stories took place in a psychotherapy office. In my forties, I spent an hour every week attempting to collect myself by using my words. I found so much benefit to the system of trying to express myself that I went back to school and received my master’s degree in Counseling Psychology so I could help others do the same. At the age of 52, I watched my clients attempt to find words with which they could explain their lives. I let them ramble along, helping them choose which part of their lives they would talk about on any given day.

When I began to write my memoir, I realized that by attempting to find the story of my life, I could create a coherent understanding of myself, not just in bits and pieces but across entire eras. By reading memoirs, I realized that every author had achieved this same goal. And by writing the story, they had found a new way to share their lives with the world.

To help other people figure out how to do it, I began teaching memoir writing classes. In my early workshops, I asked writers to record scenes that came to mind. Often the first scenes that jumped onto paper were ones that were too powerful to be communicated in ordinary life. Many said this was the first time they had tried to describe this incident.

Over a period of years, I kept noticing that students used the memoir workshop as an opportunity to reveal their most profound life moments. Sometimes, I would tell writers about this phenomenon. In one such workshop, a woman raised her hand and said, “So you are telling me that once I write about and reveal my powerful secret, I’ll no longer feel as compelled to keep it hidden?”

“Exactly,” I said. “When you see the words on paper and then read them aloud in a group, your memory won’t generate the horrifying results that you expect.”

At the next session, she read a piece about her husband’s suicide. After reading it, she looked around the room at the murmurs and nods of empathy, and said, “I get it. That’s amazing.”

Sometimes the peak moment jumps out before the writing exercise even begins. I gave a talk at a church one Sunday morning to churchgoers who arrived before the services began. This was the best-dressed group of people I had ever spoken to. I explained to them that by writing their experiences in a memoir, they can reveal things that are too personal to talk about. A woman in the back of the room raised her hand. With trembling voice she said, “You mean that I can finally write about my experience of being sexually abused as a child?” I assured her that this was indeed possible. Her tearful “thank you” gave me another glimpse into the relief that can be experienced when peak experiences no longer need to be kept secret.

Lessons for memoir writers
Consider episodes in your life that  burns under the surface, imprisoned by a lifelong commitment to secrecy. Such memories are often surrounded by mental keep-out signs. A common sentiment is, “I could never tell that!”

By pretending the moment never happened or fearing you can never share it, you are stuck forever with your unspoken memory. Without the additional perspective of dialog or literary expression, the offending moment remains in its original form. Instead of eradicating the pain, your silence reinforces it. Aided by the literary act of memoir writing, you can commute this life sentence. Follow the example of the authors of Times They Were a Changing. Try turning it into a story.

When such memories first appear in your mind, they might sound boring, scary, taboo, mundane, or gritty. Don’t worry if the vignette does not contain deadly force, celebrities or unique moments in history. If it is boiling in your mind, write the first draft.

After you write the first draft, enhance it through scenes, description and other techniques. By crafting the memory into a story, with a compelling beginning, middle, and end, you create a container for it. Turning private pain into a public one generates deeper insight into what happened, how you survived, how you moved on to the next step and the step after that.

Your decision to write about the experience as if for strangers is not the end of your journey. To turn it into a polished piece, you still have a long road ahead. How do you develop it into a story with a beginning, middle and end? If you are like me, you not only must do the introspective work of uncovering your past. You also must travel the creative journey of learning to write Creative Nonfiction. By crafting your own life into a readable story, you will see it through fresh eyes. Gradually you will discover that whatever tension made the moment important to you will also be interesting to readers.

Your creative effort to turn life into story presents an elegant escape from silence. As you continue the journey, eventually you will turn a corner. When you look back, you realize your memory is no longer frightening. The episode that formerly burned under the surface and refused to be revealed has now become the story that must be told.

Writing Prompt 1
List a few interesting scenes that jump into your mind. What part of your life seems unmentionable? Upheavals, changes, betrayals, first loves, shifts in awareness. All the things that make life hard also make stories good.

Writing Prompt 2
Pick one of your incidents. Write about it as if you were there, complete with description of what you see, hear and think. Then, using that event as an anchor for your story, cast your net a little wider. What happened next? Look for another scene afterward that represents the immediate outcome.

If the scene was tragic, you might have always felt stuck with it. Then write about how you survived. Did you fight, or rebel, or reach out for support? The scenes *after* the peak event might reveal how to turn this into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The scenes after the main one will show courage, social support, and other positive experiences that helped you push forward.

Notes

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

Click here for more about the themes in Times They Were a Changing

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.

Interview with Venerable Memoir Teacher, Denis Ledoux Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

In my previous post, I ask Denis Ledoux questions about memoir writing and what it was like to have been a teacher so early, before the Memoir Revolution was even a glimmer on the horizon. In this post, I complete the interview, asking him questions about ethnic background in memoirs and teaching teachers.

Jerry: In addition to teaching memoir writers, you teach teachers. I love the way that extends your influence out into the culture. Say more about that. What do your memoir teachers come to you already knowing and what do they come to learn?

Denis: In 1996, I wrote the first of my workshop leader materials—I call it the Memoir Professional Package. People were writing to me from around North America asking me if there was anyone teaching memoirs in their area, and other people were writing to me to inquire if they could teach my workshop. At the time, there was much less material available for people wishing to teach. The whole explosion of web teaching materials had not yet occurred. I took four months to write my first Memoir Professional Package. That Memoir Professional Package was priced at $200 and almost immediately sold 40 of them. Since them I have added to the materials so that, in addition, to the Curriculum Manual and the Presenter’s Manual, we now include the Editor’s Manual and the Speaker’s, the Personal Historian Practice Manual, and a number of instructional MP3s and e-booklet.

Today, while some of the people who purchase the packages are seeking to earn a full-time income, most are seeking to do meaningful work regardless of income (retired people for instance) or to earn income that is additional to their regular income. Most prospective memoir teachers who approach me about learning to lead memoir workshops in their communities and about doing other memoir work are looking to find an interesting avocation. Most are not what you’d call entrepreneurs, interested in wresting a living. Instead many are retired or have a spouse to help them out. They have an interesting and reward future ahead of them. Memoir work is so gratifying,

Jerry: Do you feel that memoir teachers need to have written their own memoirs

Denis: When I taught French at one school, I taught with a woman who was not a native speaker. She had learned French in college and had a very anglophone accent. Being a native speaker, I could speak much better, fluently, than she. And, yet, she was a wonderful teacher who instilled in her students a love for French and francophone cultures. Many native speakers were simply nowhere near as good as she in teaching In the same way, a memoir writer may not know how to teach writing, not know how to break material down so that it can be absorbed. I do not think that it is a sine qua non that the memoir teacher by a published writer. Having said that, I would feel uncomfortable studying with someone who did not practice memoir writing regularly. (My colleague the French teacher traveled regularly to francophone countries and was often in attendance at French-language movies.) In summary, I would say asking a person to teach simply because s/he had written a memoir is like asking a person to teach a language because s/he is a native speaker. Not a good idea. One has to understand best practices and a teacher is that person.

Jerry: When I was first looking for memoir books, of course yours was one of the first I found. Another one that was available when I started to study the genre was by Louise DeSalvo, “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.” In addition to teaching memoir writing, she also wrote about her own cultural experiences as an Italian-American. Her passion for her culture-of-origin set the stage for my ongoing interest in this aspect of our life stories. Most of us are still so deeply influenced by the culture of our ancestors.

So I was intrigued to see your attention to your cultural history as a French-American, a sub-culture I have not been heavily exposed to. I love this ability of memoirs to keep stretching us into other byways and pathways of the human condition. By writing about your own cultural background and inviting your students to write about theirs, you must be an expert by now in the American “melting pot” experience. So how do you feel about culture in memoir? How do our ancestral cultures affect our own stories?

Denis: As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a home with three generations. My grandparents lived upstairs and I got to know my extended family very well as they visited with my grandparents. Mostly, I did not have the experience that immigrant children often have of their family of being different. Who they were was who I was also. We lived in a community where half of the people were Francos (as we French-Canadian-Americans call ourselves) so I had a sense we had a “right of place.” It is because of this “right of place” that I continue to live in Maine.

Conversely, when I studied American history I understood it to be the history of the country that fate had put me in but American history did not feel like my history—it was the history of another people. For instance, I did not study about the Civil War as a Northerner (that terms itself implies a culture that was clearly not mine) but as someone who was outside the margins of the conflict. Now I think this feeling of being at a distance from the lived experience of so many others is a great preparation to be a memoir writer and teacher. So many of us have some experience or other of being different and at some distance from the majority experience—not everyone but many people.

There is always a tension between the need to assimilate and the need to differentiate, between the resistance to balkanization and the urge to be part of a community.

I always urge people to explore their ethnic, religious, cultural background. I’ve had Anglo-Americans in my workshops tell me they had no ethnic background. “Excuse me!” I usually respond. Here in New England, Anglo-Americans (we call them Yankees) tend to be Protestants who attend plain, white, clapboard churches where’s there’s no holy water, no statues of the bleeding heart of Jesus. They can’t pass up their Indian pudding on holidays and have a high sense of privacy so that you can work next to them for a decade and never find out some essential details of their lives like they were divorced two years ago and have now remarried, etc.  “Excuse me! What was that about no ethnic culture that colors our days!”

Jerry: I am fascinated by the comparison between the book-length form of a memoir and the much shorter form, often called the “personal essay.” Naturally the two very different sizes lead to a different emphasis, different time frame. In fact, they are different in many ways. As a memoir teacher, how do you approach these two forms? Do you separate them or combine them? Do you specialize in one over the other? I know it’s a broad question but I would love to get some ideas about how you see the short form as part of the movement toward writing life stories.

Denis: I teach only the memoir. I tell prospective clients/students that if they want to work with the personal essay they ought to find another coach/teacher. The personal essay uses personal material to make a statement. It is one head talking to another. The memoir uses personal material to create a feeling, an impression, an affiliation between writer and reader. It is one heart speaking to another. It is walking in the footsteps of the writer. I have nothing against the personal essay. It’s just that I am not particularly interested in it.

Notes
Turning Memories Into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux
Denis Ledoux’s website, The Memoir Network
Denis’ memoir writing blog

More memoir writing resources

For a more literary explanation of how memoirs heal, read the book Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo, a literature professor at Hunter college. The book immerses you in the way memoir writing heals.
Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo

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.

How Can an Adult Learn to Write Stories?

by Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

Most nights, my dad worked at his drugstore until 10 PM. On Wednesday, his evening off, he joined the family for dinner. Using the table as a pulpit, Dad’s voice swelled with excitement. “This guy walked in and showed me a half empty tube of ointment. He said it wasn’t working.” Then Dad laughed. “He wanted to return it. Can you believe it?” He slapped the table. My mother, sister, and I ate quietly, and when Dad paused we said “Umm,” giving him the desired reassurance that the other guy was crazy. Then he plowed on to another anecdote and another.

He seemed to enjoy filling us in on his day, but he didn’t ask me about mine. And if he had, I wouldn’t know what to say. My thoughts were wrapped up with solving algebra or calculus problems, so when someone asked me how things were going, I shrugged. “I dunno.”

For decades I assumed that since I had not grown up telling stories, I would never learn. Then in my fifties, I became interested in memoir writing. The problem was that without storytelling skills, I would never be able to write the story of my life.

Even though I knew it was too late, I figured there wouldn’t be any harm reading books about how to write stories. First, I studied Robert McKee’s popular tome called simply Story. This detailed guide for screenwriters shed light on the mechanics of the craft. Another book for screenwriters, Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey opened my eyes further, by comparing the structure of modern movies with the ancient Hero myth popularized by Joseph Campbell. Gradually I gained confidence that storytelling can be learned, and like Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, I demanded it as my inalienable right.

Through networking, I found a variety of writing groups. Some at my local library; some listed on the internet; some monthly meetings and some annual conferences.   Gradually, my assignments for the classes began to interest me. I still needed to make them interesting to others.

Writing teachers want me to add sensory information in order to bring scenes to life. In my imagination, I revisit the kitchen table of my youth, trying to reproduce the experience. I feel myself leaning over my plate, wolfing down the boiled broccoli, mashed potatoes and baked meat loaf drowning in ketchup, squirming on the vinyl bench that wraps around two sides of the Formica table. Sounds echo sharply off the pale yellow and blue tile wall and linoleum floor. But what I really want to describe is not my sensory experience of the room. I want to finally express that high school boy’s feelings, all bottled up in math homework.

What am I thinking when Dad is telling his stories? I see that he is only checking with us to be sure we are listening. He dominates the room with his feelings, rather than giving us the psychic space to get in touch with our own. I wish I could say, “Hey Dad. What about me?” Now, by writing a memoir I can finally give that boy a voice.

Scene by scene, my memories converged into a story. But as they took shape, I encountered another problem. In addition to needing the skill to tell my story, I needed the courage. This is private material. No one needs to know this much detail about me.

I struggle to manage the fear of a recurring fantasy. I visualize a crowd of angry  townspeople summoning me to a public trial. I’m onstage and they heatedly shout, telling me I’m arrogant for thinking I’m entitled to publish. My vivid fears of public speaking invade my mind, turning the solo act of writing into a terrifying spectacle.

Fortunately, Dad offered me an inspiration that  helped me out of this jam. Later in his life, he grew frustrated with his limited communication skills, so he attended a Dale Carnegie public speaking course. They helped him improve his ability to communicate to an audience. With his newfound ability, he was elected president of his pharmacy group. He showed me that at any age, if you want to improve yourself along lines that seem impossible, jump in and try.

I followed his example. I joined Toastmasters, International, an organization designed to help people gain confidence in their ability to speak. After my first attempt to speak at Toastmasters, I ran away for a year, unable to face the humiliation. During that year I studied books about overcoming social anxiety and spoke with a therapist. Finally, I returned, and after an additional year of practice, I was able to share myself in front of a group.

My newfound courage to speak freed me from my fears about writing, too. I began to reveal my life stories in writing groups, and then I leapt past my local groups to the global reach of the Internet. I enjoyed feedback in person and online without feeling afraid.

Dad and I both discovered how to increase the reach of our communication. By doing so, we expanded our social horizons. Now, I can finally share my stories. And thanks to the swell of popular interest in reading and writing memoirs, I have found a whole community of fellow authors who want to share theirs. We’re collectively going beyond the dinner-table question “what did you do today?” Together we are answering the broader question, “what did you do this life?”

Writing Prompts
Describe the way storytelling was handled in your house or community.

Write a scene in which you felt overwhelmed and excluded by someone’s storytelling.

Write another scene in which storytelling felt warm, inviting and empowering.

Write about the first time you felt proud to have written a story.

Notes:

This is a rewrite of an article published April 17, 2009 titled The Birth of an Adult Storyteller.

Toastmasters International

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.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to 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)

Notes

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.

How to Start Writing Your Memoir

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

If you have ever wanted to shape your memories into stories, there has never been a better time. Thanks to the popularity of bestselling memoirs by ordinary people, many of us are wondering if we could record our past into a readable form. Before we start, though, two simple questions block the way. How do you do it? And why would anyone care? These two questions sound like insurmountable obstacles. Yet, when you make a sincere effort to find answers, you will be learning an invigorating craft, and also finding a new way to look at your own journey.

If you are not an accomplished writer, don’t let that stop you. You weren’t a professional when you started other activities. Just learn the basics and then practice, practice, practice.

The fundamental building block of all storytelling is the scene. To write about your experience, jump into the memory and report what you see, hear, feel and think. Dialog is often used in memoirs, with the understanding that the words are only a best guess at what was said. Once you start writing, you will be amazed at how interesting your account will be to a curious, empathetic reader.

Over time, you will build a stockpile of anecdotes. These may seem fragmented, until you apply the simple organizing principle of chronological order. By placing your anecdotes in sequence, the form of a story will begin to emerge.

How to make your story interesting

You wouldn’t believe your life was worth writing if by “story” you imagining the kinds of tales my dad told every night after coming home from the drugstore. He would say something like, “The doctor next door came in late again today and his patients kept begging me for information.” Such dinner-table stories vented some emotion or highlighted some powerful or humorous incident. We rolled our eyes or laughed, and that was the end of the story.

However, when you read memoirs, you’ll notice many differences between crafted stories and casual ones. Memoirs present characters who start out with some emotional challenge. The character then proceeds toward a goal, overcoming obstacles, experimenting, and learning from mistakes. By the end of a written story, the events make sense in a larger context and both the reader and the writer feel okay about the whole thing

To learn how to express your life through story, you need to reveal more information about yourself than you might typically be inclined to do in conversation. Such disclosure may seem daunting at first. Many beginners assume their revelations will create divisions and tension.  In many cases I have found the opposite to be true. Opening yourself up allows people to see you as more accessible, and can actually increase intimacy with loved ones.

Written stories also tend to explore mundane details of life far more than spoken stories do. The reason is that when you write a story, you are attempting to provide sensory information so readers can visualize who you are and where you’ve been. You can help them do so by letting them walk with you to school, or go on a first date. What kept you busy after school? Describe each room in your house, and write a scene that happened in each one. Describe your neighborhood, or the games you played with your friends. These details seem unimportant when you’re speaking, but they will help a reader feel connected to your experience.

When writing your memories, put yourself in the mind of a reader. That is easy to do since you have been enjoying stories since your parents started reading them to you as a child. By learning to convey your memories in this form, you provide readers with pleasure, provide yourself with the satisfaction of creating a written piece, and gain an insight into a craft that has entertained you throughout your life.

What you need to start your memoir

A writing habit
Write a few minutes every day. This will accomplish two important goals. First the writing will add up over time. Second, the habit will create momentum, which makes it much easier to write.

Writing prompts
Ask yourself questions: Write a scene about a bad hair day, a great vacation, a day with a best friend. By developing a list of such questions you can stimulate all sorts of surprise gifts from your unconscious.

A curious supportive audience
To write with freedom and energy, find or imagine a warm, curious audience. Your first such audience might be at a local library where you join with others who help each other write stories.

Read memoirs
By reading memoirs, you will appreciate the skill and patience with which other writers achieved the task. Every one you read provides an example from which you can draw lessons about how to write your own.

Read books and take classes about writing memoirs
There are an abundance of teachers, in classrooms, in books, and online, eager to help you get started.
Notes

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.

Memoir Revolution: What It Is and Where It’s Heading

by Jerry Waxler

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

When I attended my first memoir writing class in the summer of 2004, I quickly realized I wasn’t alone.  Many others were reviewing their memories in search of interesting stories. To learn more, I began reading memoirs, many by authors whose main claim to fame was that they had taken the time to turn their lives into stories.

Each book offered a rich, generous window into the author’s life. To organize my thoughts and share them, I posted essays on my blog. Again, I found I wasn’t alone. Through the internet, I started corresponding with other memoir bloggers and then with memoir writers. We were forming online communities!

I began teaching workshops where I introduced students to techniques for finding their own narratives. Once they realized they could translate the chaos of memories into the order of stories, they expressed their appreciation. Their excitement added to mine.

In 2008, a book publisher heard me speak and said I ought to write about my big ideas. “What big ideas?” I asked. “You know. What you’ve been saying about the importance of memoirs for individuals and society.”

At first I resisted the suggestion. I have always been addicted to ideas, and thought that finally in my later life, I was ready to replace analytical thoughts with lyrical ones. However, I couldn’t resist the challenge. I thought that perhaps I could achieve both goals. I would try to turn my ideas about memoirs into a good story.

To illustrate my observations, I provided specific examples from my growing shelf of memoirs. I soon realized I was writing a book about books. This turned out to be one of the biggest ideas of all. In our literate society, we learn so much about life from the writings that have been recorded before us. As memoir writers ourselves we pass along what we have learned to the next generation.

After five years of reading, interviewing, writing and revising, my editors reassured me that the book was ready. In 2013, I published the Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire. (Paperback or Ebook) In the book, I explore the current interest in memoirs: where it came from, why it is having such a profound influence on readers and writers, what I have learned from it and what you can too.

One reason I felt so compelled to write the book was because of my belief that writing a memoir can be a powerful aid to self-understanding. Turning life into story moves events from their haphazard storage in memory back into a sequence. We see the scenes more clearly, and by finding the narrative that links them, we understand ourselves in a new light.

Unlike more isolated forms of introspection such as therapy and journaling, this one reaches outward. From the time you share a few anecdotes with fellow writers, you begin to see yourself the way others have seen you, providing an almost magical amalgamation of self and society.

When I was growing up in the sixties, I looked for my truth in the stories popular among young intellectuals. Authors like Franz Kafka, Joseph Heller, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus convinced me that life is meaningless. Their powerful literary works helped me dismantle my trust in the world, and without trust, I sank.

Now in the 21st century, memoirs offer a more healing collection of stories that weave the good and the bad in life into a purposeful narrative. Instead of undermining readers with disturbing twists of irony and dystopia, modern memoir authors shape real life, with its cruelties, vagaries and victories into an orderly container as ancient as civilization itself.

The bestselling authors in the front lines of the Memoir Revolution taught us about this healing potential of life stories. By sharing the psychological influences that shaped them Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life), Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) and Jeannette Walls (Glass Castle) gave the rest of us license to explore our own. Like published authors who have worked long and hard to discover the purpose and character arc of their protagonist, we aspiring memoir writers strive to find the same driving forces within our own lives.

Memoir-lovers in my experience intuitively recognize the potential that this genre has for healing us individually and collectively. My book, Memoir Revolution, backs up these intuitive views with research and examples about how the cultural passion for life stories serves us all.

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.

Listen to an interview with me and Linda Joy Myers of the National Association of Memoir Writers: [display_podcast]

How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

When you start writing your memoir, you might not know how much of your childhood to include. However, don’t let that uncertainty slow you down. Gather anecdotes with an open mind, recording any scene that feels like it “wants to be told.” The material that pours on to the page during your research phase could influence the final decision about how to structure the book.

Material about an early period might turn into a memoir itself. It might provide important flashbacks. Or even if you don’t use it, these old scenes will provide rich background to help you make more sense of your character.

In addition to writing your draft material with an open mind, read memoirs with the same flexible approach. By reading voraciously you learn the range of life experience that each author chooses to include. You learn what sorts of memoirs you love to read.

As an aspiring memoir author, you look past the content of each memoir to its structure. How did the book start, and how did the initial scene (or at least chapter) relate to the character’s main challenge? Did it grab your attention? How would you apply the beginning and ending of the memoir to your own memoir in progress?

After you’ve read a variety of memoirs and answered these questions, you will develop a “vocabulary” of memoir structures that will give you ideas about how to construct your own. For example, in this post, I’ll focus on the amount of childhood that is included in the memoirs I’ve read.

Start from Childhood

Some of the most successful bestsellers in the Memoir Revolution were about growing up. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club and Jeannette Walls’ Glass Castle all were on the New York Times bestseller list, and they all began in childhood. One reason their stories grabbed so much attention was because these children endured abusive, chaotic situations. Our hearts go out to Frank McCourt as he wanders the street hoping to find a piece of coal that might have spilled off the delivery truck so he could heat the house for his mother and siblings. We want to send in Social Services to protect Jeanette Walls, whose parents moved for no reason, choosing poverty over work.

Less prevalent are books about childhood without gut-wrenching danger. The key to storytelling is creating and resolving conflict, so if there is no monstrous father in the picture, or rockets smashing into nearby apartments, (Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filapovic) the story’s conflict must come from other aspects of the human drama.

No matter how cushy our material circumstances, we all had to grow up, and in our own way, each of us knows the emotional dangers and hardships of that process. Our attempts to find safety and wholeness amid these ordinary challenges can provide an excellent story.

Memoirs about Non-horrific Childhood

Laura Shane Cunningham, author of Sleeping Arrangements lost both her parents, a profound loss that was softened by the care of the two compassionate uncles who raised her. Her unusual freedom and attempts to find emotional wholeness makes a great story. Even more normal was Haven Kimmel’s life in a small town. In her memoir, a Girl Named Zippy, she energizes the reading experience with a terrific, ironic humor.

Tell About Childhood as the First Installment

A Girl Named Zippy was Kimmel’s successful first memoir. Her second memoir She Got Up Off the Couch essentially continued the story from where the first one left off. This strategy of writing sequential memoirs has been employed by some very successful authors,

Frank McCourt followed his smash hit Angela’s Ashes with a second memoir ‘Tis and a third, Teacher Man. Mary Karr, after the Liar’s Club, moved on to the next phase in her life in the memoir Cherry, and then recounted her long struggle with alcoholism in Lit. Harry Bernstein wrote three books about his life, starting with Invisible Wall, about being a child in England before World War I. His second was The Dream about being a young immigrant to the U.S., and his third was Golden Willow about the span of life that took him into his 90s. For each of these authors, the book about childhood was the first installment in a much longer work which added up to a de facto trilogy.

Late Childhood: Transition into Adulthood

Early childhood might feel like the most psychologically important period, when you are learning to be a person. It is also might seem too far away from your adulthood or your memories might be too vague and unrecoverable, or too “normal.” However, there is another segment of Coming of Age that creates enormous psychological pressure for many of us. During the period called “launching,” we leave our dependence on our family and enter the adult world. The challenge is that we are making decisions that will affect us for the rest of our lives, but our adult minds are not yet fully developed. The launching process can make a fascinating, high energy, dangerous story, as evidenced by these:

Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum. Desperate to get away from her mother’s boyfriend, Erlbaum hurled herself out on the street unprepared to care for herself. She lands in a girl’s shelter for a year in a great example of trying to grow up too fast.

Dopefiend by Tim Elhajj. His entry into adulthood was derailed by addiction to heroin, so when it’s time for him to take a stand and launch himself into the adult world, he starts out with enormous disadvantages

Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro made it all the way to college drug free and then lost her way. This is one of the best “derailed launching” books I’ve read.

Publish This Book by Stephen Markley. When he gets out of college, he has to figure out how to make a living. “I know,” he thinks, “I’ll write a book about writing a book.” It’s a fun read and at 26 years old, he happens to be one of the youngest memoir authors I’ve covered.

Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Fineberg Cook. She marries a schoolteacher and leaves her life as a spoiled Los Angeles party girl. In Japan, she learns to be a housewife and an expat at the same time. This is a later period in launching when she has her first taste of adult responsibility.

Tell the Whole Thing in One Book

Coming of Age stories don’t necessarily end at age 18 or 20. After all, this is simply the prelude to the rest of life, and often the story of childhood merges into the next leg or two of the journey. Even though Glass Castle is famous as a Coming of Age story, with many mesmerizing scenes of Jeanette Walls’ childhood, the book doesn’t end when she moves out of her house. It ends well into Walls’ adulthood when she attempts to make peace with her parents.

Even if your childhood doesn’t have sufficient drama to make it a story in its own right, you may have a sense that it is part of your “story that must be told.” If you keep coming back to that period of your life as an important aspect of the character you need to portray then challenge yourself to find a way. Memoirs, like any creative work, allow room for your own approach. It may take you longer than you originally hoped, but over a period of development, you gradually see how to knit the whole thing together. And as you creatively knit together your memoir, you will also knit together the fragments of your life, allowing you to see the whole thing in one story.

Consider Susan Gregory Thomas’ compelling memoir, In Spite of Everything. The book offers a terrific example of a story that starts with childhood and keeps going. Her childhood seems like a magical, storybook life, disrupted by the tragic breakup of her parents, a nightmarishly chaotic adolescence, through her college years, her young married life, and then to the heart-wrenching breakup of her own marriage. She keeps this long journey fraught with compelling tension that carries the reader all the way through.

In the next few posts, I continue to dig into more of the structural decisions that will help you turn your manuscript of life events into your compelling story.

Notes

This is the second part of the series about how to structure a memoir.
How Should I Begin My Memoir?
One of the most puzzling questions about how to structure a memoir is “Where do I begin?”

How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir?
Since memoirs are a psychologically oriented genre, we want to include enough background to show how it all began. But how much is the right amount?

Should You Use Flashbacks in Your Memoir?
Flashbacks provide important background information, but you need to use them carefully so you don’t confuse your reader.

More Tips about Constructing the Timeline of a Memoir
The timeline of a memoir contains the forward momentum, and the laying out of cause and effect, so it’s important to learn the best techniques for laying it out.

Beware of Casual Flashforwards in Your Memoir
In real life, we can’t know the future, so to keep your memoir authentic, try to avoid sounding like a prophet.

How a Wrapper Story Helps You Structure Your Memoir
When you try to tell your own unique story, you might find that you need an additional layer of narration to make it work. Here are a few examples of writers who used wrapper stories.

Telling a Memoir’s Backstory by Seesawing in Time
If you want to tell about the childhood roots of your adult dilemmas, you could follow the example of these authors who wove the two timeframes together.

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

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

Interview with Susan Weidener About Memoir Workshops Pt 4

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

This is part 4 of the interview. Click here to read Part 1.

In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells her adult coming-of-age story, through the journey of meeting and losing her husband, and then reclaiming her life. In this part of this interview I ask her about her passion for helping other writers find their own life story.

Jerry Waxler: Tell me about your memoir workshops. You talk about the healing nature of memoir writing? Explain more about that.

Susan Weidener:  When you delve into the truth of your story, you remove the “cellophane;” you reveal yourself. That’s when the healing begins. It’s how we deal with trauma that defines whether we can move on and create something new from tragedy.

I provide writing prompts, talk about writing techniques and how to find the compelling narrative of the memoir.  Time for solitude and writing is provided.  We come together in small groups and read our work, and then the whole group meets for the “read-around.” The women find themselves writing about things that had “gathered cobwebs” over the years.  Once they put pen to paper and write it, the power of that memory or that time in their lives to hurt and cause anguish is taken away.  Afterwards, they tell me they feel at peace with it.  I’m not a therapist, but I can see they feel empowered.  So the writing is a way to heal, a way to make sense of our lives.

I started the Women’s Writing Circle because I wanted to offer a place to share writing in a supportive atmosphere, to ease the solitary nature of writing.  Although I didn’t start the Circle as a memoir group, it largely evolved into that, although some of the women are choosing to couch their stories as fiction and write in third person.  I co-facilitated a memoir writing workshop with Mary Pierce Brosmer, who founded Women Writing for (a) Change in Cincinnati. Mary was a visionary when it came to the women’s personal writing movement. I offered a memoir writing weekend retreat last spring and a mastering writing workshop this past October.  I am planning another mastering writing workshop this spring.

Jerry Waxler: When you teach memoir writing, how do you motivate your students to go from raw memory to writing about themselves in a form that strangers could read?

Susan Weidener:  I don’t call them “students,” rather I facilitate a supportive atmosphere for adults to share their stories and find their voice. The story may be about addiction, loss, about difficult childhoods.   The motivation to get it on paper is usually there by the time they come to me. Taking a workshop, reading a piece out loud and hearing an immediate response from others, energizes them.

I also offer one-on-one memoir writing consultation.  We start with one memory and expand from there with details. I teach professional writing strategies, and how to distill the story to one compelling time in their lives so they have a rough draft after the first session.  I ask them to write about the meaning behind the memory, to look at the people they are writing about, not in black and white, but in shades of gray, if they can.

Jerry Waxler: How did you feel about letting your sons see so deeply into your feelings? Were you worried about letting them see this side of yourself?

Susan Weidener:  My older son has not read the book and my younger son just took a copy the other day, so I am not sure what he thinks.  I wrote the story for myself and for John, yet I was always cognizant that this book would be passed along in our family as the years went by.  While you write the disturbing, I think you have to keep in mind:  Is this something I want my family to read years from now? If the answer is ‘no,’ my advice would be to steer clear of that detail, that incident.

I hope my sons appreciate that by writing my story and their father’s story, it was an act of generosity and goodwill.  It was meant to reach a larger audience than just our immediate family and friends.

Jerry Waxler: What are you working on next?

Susan Weidener:  I am completing my second and final memoir.   It is called Morning at Wellington Square.  Wellington Square is the name of the bookshop where the Women’s Writing Circle meets.  This memoir picks up from where Again in a Heartbeat left off.  Hopefully, it is an illuminating and engaging story of a single woman in middle age; the challenges of raising two children and being a reporter for a big city newspaper, the craziness of dating, the joy of finding life’s passion through a community of writers who meet at Wellington Square.

Click here for Part 3, in which I ask questions about writing the memoir

Click here for a link to the Amazon page for Again in a Heartbeat
Click here for Susan Weidener’s Home Page.

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

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

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

Interview with Susan Weidener About Writing Her Memoir Pt 3

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

This is part 3 of the interview. Click here to read Part 1.

In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells about the life and death of her relationship to her husband. In this part of this interview I ask her about her writing voice, and the choices and rewards of publishing.

Jerry Waxler: You started as a journalist. Journalism tends to require an impersonal voice. And then you evolved into a memoirist which requires a storytelling voice. Was that a difficult transformation? What sort of effort, training, stylistic transitions did you have to take to go from writing about other people to writing a story about yourself.

Susan Weidener:    Great question.  As a journalist I had to stay objective and behind the scenes.  Writing memoir was a huge reversal in that regard and felt uncomfortable at first. But newspaper work taught me the economy of words which is very useful when writing a book. As a journalist, I was trained to observe people, to capture details, meaningful quotes; to look “for the story.” At the paper, I interviewed a lot of people and wrote profiles.  I had to distill the interview, make the piece engaging; a “good read,” as we call it in the business. In that sense there is not a lot of difference between journalism and writing a book.

I read a lot, study other writers’ techniques. One of my favorite books is Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast.  I loved how he handled writing memoir, so clear, such an astute observer of life and those around him, yet he was in the story and you felt you knew the man when you finished the book.  Of course, he was a journalist too!

Jerry Waxler: When you finished and published your memoir, did you feel it was worth the effort? When you look back through the whole experience of writing and publishing, what was the most rewarding aspect?

Susan Weidener:  Yes! It’s been one of the most rewarding journeys of my life.  What a thrill to hold a book in hand, share it with others, talk about it at libraries and signings.  The most rewarding aspect without a doubt has been the people I’ve met because of the book.  The connections and the conversations have been extraordinary.

Jerry Waxler: Until a few years ago, landing a publishing deal was a long, competitive road. Many authors feared they would never make it to the finish line so why even start? Now, with self-publishing options, the barriers have been lowered, and anyone who wants to share their story can do so. So how did you puzzle that choice out for yourself? What agony or factors went into your publishing choice?

Susan Weidener:  For me, it was fairly simple.  I know a lot of writers and I had heard some pretty horrible stories.  People waited for years, their work languishing, never seeing the light of day. One author had a well-known literary agent, but she couldn’t sell his manuscripts. Another told me he had a traditional publisher, and they virtually did nothing to promote his book. He barely broke even after years of research and work.

I already had more than 2,000 bylines published in the Inquirer, and that didn’t include my published stories in several weeklies and dailies before that.  So I did not need validation, if you know what I mean.  I was intrigued by self-publishing. It is very exciting. You own the copyright to your work; royalties are a lot higher than through a traditional publisher because you take the risk.  As a deadline-oriented person, I felt it was crucial to know the book would be published and not get stuffed in a drawer.  I also wanted the book as a way to encourage others to think about writing their stories by offering workshops and retreats, to work with both non-fiction and fiction writers as their editor.  My book was instrumental in that.  So for me, it was not just about book sales, but having a book as a “calling card” for other endeavors associated with writing and earning a living.

Jerry Waxler: How has that worked out? How do you feel about the results?

Susan Weidener:  Reviews of self-published books are hard to come by and Barnes and Noble won’t stock self-published books in their stores because of a corporate policy. You have to do all your own marketing, but you would do that in any case, even if you go with a traditional publisher. In essence, you have to become very entrepreneurial which means mastering social networking, blogging, building a platform.  For me, that platform is the Women’s Writing Circle because it keeps me active in the community and on the Internet.

The main challenge is getting the word out about your book; that and not letting your creativity go by the wayside because you are so caught up in marketing you don’t work on your writing.  There is a momentum you hope builds.  Interviews like this are wonderful as a way to introduce potential readers to my book, which is for sale as a paperback on Amazon and through numerous distributors, and as an eBook on Kindle.

Click here for Part 2, in which I ask questions about writing the memoir
Click here for Part 4, in which Susan talks about her workshops

Click here for a link to the Amazon page for Again in a Heartbeat
Click here for Susan Weidener’s Home Page.

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

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

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