Interview with Susan Weidener About Writing Her Memoir Pt 2

by Jerry Waxler

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

In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells about the life and death of her relationship to her husband, and the subsequent resurrection of her life. In the first part of this interview I asked her about her radical honesty. In this memoir, I ask more questions about the process of writing the memoir.

Click here to read Part 1 of this interview.

Jerry Waxler: When did you first think about writing the memoir? How long was it until you actually started? How long did it take to finish?

Susan Weidener:  Shortly after I left my job as a journalist, I attended a women’s writing retreat in Kentucky. We sat in a circle at night and read to each other. Tears and laughter flowed from poems and memoirs of sneaking kisses with neighborhood boys, fathers who had done the unthinkable to their daughters, babies who had died without warning.  I remember afterwards I went up to my room, opened the window and looked up at the moon breaking through a bank of clouds. It had been 13 years since my husband’s death, but he had never really left my side. He was my dream come true. Could I write the story?  And why would anyone want to read it?  What could I possibly say that hadn’t already been said a million times before?  I decided I needed to write it, anyway. It took another two and a half years after the retreat to finish the book, although I did work a fulltime job in 2009 and could only write on nights and weekends.

Jerry Waxler: How much did you edit it? What can you share about your editing process, such as how many times through the book, or number of readers who gave you feedback.

Susan Weidener:  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of editing and critique.  I started the Women’s Writing Circle in November, 2009 as a way to bring together a community of writers.  It was at our first read-around that I met the woman who would become my editor. She was a professional editor already.  I always say she “held the magic wand.”  She taught me how to take my journalistic recounting of a memory and make it dramatic and compelling.  I also began reading parts of my memoir to the other women in the writing circle.  Their critique and comments were invaluable.  I wrote at least eight drafts before I was satisfied with the final version. I gave a copy of the completed manuscript to a former colleague from The Philadelphia Inquirer and to a family therapist.  Both provided additional editing and copy editing.  Of course, I edit manuscripts myself, but there is no way you can edit your own work.  You need an objective person, a professional.

Jerry Waxler: Readers want to become immersed in an engaging story. How did you challenge yourself to transform your events not only into a readable account, but into an account worth reading? What aspects of your book and your writing did you strive toward in order to achieve these effects?

Susan Weidener: I challenged myself to be unafraid to write the disturbing. A writer’s job is to question; to bring to light what’s left in the dark, what’s unsaid. Stories that can do that have a universal message; they engage readers. This whole business of falling in love, finding the person who makes it all worthwhile, and then losing that person whether it be through death or life circumstance; the bitterness and resentment that follows . . . it is something I believe most people relate to. I also had a great “character” in John.  He was a complex and interesting man.  John penned his memoir the year before he died.  He called it “scriptotherapy.” How true!

I think first person narrative is harder than writing in third person.  There is not as much “distance.”  When we write our memoir, we must step back, take the longer view. On the other hand, when you write in first person, when you are the narrator of your own story, you have lived it.  Who better than you to chronicle that this is real, this is true?   At the same time, you ask yourself, is this story larger than me?  That’s where the craft of writing comes in.  It takes hard work and skill to craft a story, move it along, and portray real people, not cardboard characters.  I needed to stay focused on one question:  “What is my story about?” Repeating that question over and over is your mantra as a writer.

Jerry Waxler: Did you ever feel like giving up? What techniques or attitude adjustments helped you keep going?

Susan Weidener: It all feels a bit overwhelming, writing a book, but believing in your story is what carries the day and gave me the motivation to finish.  I loved the “lessons” along the way.  I learned so much about myself.  I had been hard on John because I was losing my dreams and youth.  There were other revelations, too.  John was irreplaceable, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t do it all over again in a heartbeat.

I love to write, but I discipline myself to write every day.  I write early in the morning, grab a cup of coffee.  I work for about two hours and then take a break and go to the gym. I’ll pick it up again in the afternoon, if I can.  I don’t worry about revising right away; rather I let it “percolate” overnight or for a few days, think about it and then come back to it.  It’s not like pushing toothpaste out of a tube.  I try and keep my “inner critic” to a dull roar.  Eventually, there comes a point where you have to say, “This is it. I’m going to stop here.” Otherwise, you can be caught in a vicious cycle of editing and self-doubt.

Click here to read Part 3 of this interview.

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 Memoir Author Susan Weidener About Honesty

by Jerry Waxler

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

In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells with breathtaking clarity the entire lifespan of her relationship with John, from their first date, to falling love, getting married, having children, and then sinking into despair during her husband’s slow untimely death. I love the memoir because of its simplicity and power, and the ruthless honesty of her emotions, which were far from politically correct. After he is gone, the story continues, as Susan turns toward grieving and reclaiming her hold on life. The memoir does a wonderful job portraying this huge emotional journey. In addition to being a writer, Susan Weidener encourages and nurtures others to tell their story. In this part of the interview, I ask her about the experience of writing the memoir.

Jerry Waxler: One of the unique things about your memoir is its span of time, covering the period from when you first met your future husband, and ending as you attempt to recover your life and find a new beginning. So many aspiring memoir writers struggle to decide on the appropriate span for their stories. What can you share about the way this particular scope of time appeared right for you?

Susan Weidener: When I started the project, my thought was to write about being widowed and dating again as a middle-aged woman with two young sons. As the memoir progressed and I began to write about my husband, the women who critiqued my book said, “We want more about John.” I realized they were right. The real story was meeting John, falling in love and our ordeal with cancer.  I wanted to write about myself as a young woman living the life she had always dreamed.  Then the illness enters, shatters our lives. What happens when Prince Charming makes a dramatic and tragic exit?  Does true love only come once and, if so, is that enough? I included the three years after my husband’s death to describe the loss, the fear of being alone. There are no fairy tale endings, but you find the strength within yourself to be on your own.

Jerry Waxler: At the beginning of the memoir, I loved your portrayal of falling in love — These are compelling, detailed scenes that let us accompany you on your emotional journey. As a reader, I found them pleasurable and romantic. What was that like for you as a writer, to remember to a time before the loss, all the way back to the beginning of your relationship?

Susan Weidener:  Thank you. Writing memoir is living twice, which is painful and elating.  There were moments as I wrote about our first trip together as husband and wife to West Point when I felt John in the room with me again.  Writing about the day he and I stood under Kissing Rock, the place along the Hudson River where cadets would take their dates, and John told me about some of the girls he had brought there . . . it brought back memories of John’s inimitable sense of humor.  When I wrote the scene where John and I dance at our wedding to “As Time Goes By,” and John says to me, “Here’s looking at you kid,” I cried for all we once had and all we lost. Memoir, as you know, is not for the faint of heart.

Jerry Waxler: You did not portray yourself as an easy person to fall in love with, nor were you infinitely graceful and patient about your husband’s failing health. I think this aspect of your memoir represents one of the best things about where culture is heading in the 21st century. We’re dropping the pretense that we are perfect and trying to make peace with our own and each other’s unique quirks, and flaws. And by showing our flaws, we also show our strength in continuing to grow and to carry on despite setbacks. I felt inspired and consoled by your edgy imperfect behavior. But how did it feel to write about yourself in this exposed way? Wasn’t it strange to let people see those aspects of yourself? What prompted you to be so open about your own humanity?

Susan Weidener:  I agree with you.  Writing honestly is healthy, a way of moving forward and coming to terms. And what good is a memoir if it is not honest?  Then it is fiction.  Of course, we want to appear heroic, but that isn’t always the case.  Our fragility, our imperfections are what make us human.  It resonates with readers.  It makes a story engaging. By accepting my flaws, I found a place of healing.  Why wasn’t I kinder to him at the end of his life?  That question haunted me for years.  As I wrote my memoir, I began to see how almost anyone would have reacted much like I did when confronting the loss of their dreams, the person they loved more than any other.  Chronic illness affects an entire family, not just the person going through it.  Our society has a very difficult time dealing with death.  One of my hopes with Again in a Heartbeat is that showing my imperfections and what I went through as John’s illness progressed and he pulled away from me, helps others in similar situations be kinder and more forgiving to themselves.

Jerry Waxler: How has it worked out to be so open? Have you found that people think less of you for having been flawed?

Susan Weidener:  Quite the opposite.  People approach me and often say: “You were so honest!”  They tell me they admire my candor and my courage.  One woman said my book “touched her heart and her life.”  It doesn’t get much better than that. When people read my story, they want to share their own experience with marriage, cancer, being single. The conversations are amazing!

Click here for Part 2, 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.

Stephen Markley Interview Part 6: Post-publication blues?

by Jerry Waxler

Writers who aspire to publish a book are eager to reach the finish line. Then when they cross the line, that particular race is over but life goes on and presents new challenges. I asked Stephen Markley a few questions about how what changed after he published “Publish this Book.”

Does writing a memoir limit your life?

Jerry Waxler: Your writing teacher didn’t want you to publish this book because he warned you that your first book defines you, and he said the memoir “wasn’t you.” Is this another bit of satire? I’m not sure how a memoir wouldn’t be you?

Your writing teacher’s advice is probably not that far off from one of the common fears I’ve heard from many aspiring memoir writers. They are afraid that if they write their memoir, it would mean their life is over, as if at the end of the memoir they are supposed to put down pencils down the way you would during an exam, and everything after that is cheating.

So what do you think, now that you’ve published it? Was the writing teacher right? Did it lock you into a direction you didn’t want to go? Was it the end?

Stephen Markley: I certainly hope it’s not the end. Look, I want from my career what every writer wants: the ability to choose whatever project interests me regardless of commercial relevance. Whether this will ever happen remains to be seen. I certainly found it was easier to publish a non-fiction book, so I can’t disregard that, but I do want to write fiction and follow my other passions and let my intellectual curiosity take me where it will. What my professor feared was that I would be essentially trapped in this young-guy-snarks-on-the-world shtick without any way of returning to some of that darker literary territory that I was writing when we first met.

To a degree, that trap has been sprung and I am caught in it, but I’m not worried yet. “Publish This Book” is partly an advertisement for books to come: it’s saying to readers, “Hey, here’s what I did with a memoir. Any interest in other genres?” To the extent that I get people telling me that they look forward to reading a novel, I think it’s succeeding in some small way.

Basically, I’ve resigned myself to being a writer with a small following. I doubt I’ll ever have the mainstream success of some of those big-timers who can throw together a book based on a reliable script every year or so. It’s just not who I am, and writing the same book over and over again does not interest me.

Marketing the book

Jerry: Are you really running around to colleges the way you planned to do in the book?

Stephen: Well, I just quit my job at Cars.com and plan to spend the summer out and about on the east coast driving around doing bookstore signings. Then in the fall, I’m going to go full bore at colleges again. My reasoning is that if ever there was a time to be young and unemployed and a little stupid, this is it. I’ll stay with friends, drink a lot, and kiss a pretty girl or two. I doubt I’ll look back when I’m fifty and wonder what would have been if I’d stayed in my cubicle making a reliable $35k a year.

What’s next?

Jerry: What are you working on for your next project?

Stephen: What I’m working on now is either an unwieldy disaster that I will give up at some point or an inspired fictional experiment. I feel the same way about it now as I did when I was at roughly the same point in writing “Publish This Book”: I’m not at all sure if it’s going to work, but I’m having a hell of a lot of fun writing it. It’s about writing (again), but also about the current cultural and political epoch. I have a feeling almost everything I write for the rest of my life will in some way be about the past decade: the years 2001-2010 have just been too breathtaking in horrific and wonderful ways to not dedicate an entire branch of literature to them.

Mostly, I just want “Publish This Book” to sell enough copies and garner enough fans that I can write and publish for the rest of my life. It’s really rare to get an opportunity like this: to be young and single and unattached and constantly inspired and ferociously hungry. There aren’t enough hours in the day to get every idea I have onto paper. I sometimes blink and wonder if all this has actually happened for me. Only once, I spotted someone in public reading my book. It was on the Brown Line in Chicago, and I did a double-take when I saw the cover. I just wanted to walk up and hug her.

Notes

Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

To read my review of the book, click here.

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.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Interview about crossing from academic to popular writing

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third of a three part interview with Robert Waxler, author of two memoirs about his relationship to his sons: “Losing Jonathan” published in 2003 and “Courage to Walk” published in 2010. Waxler is a professor of English Literature at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and founder of the alternative sentencing program “Changing Lives Through Literature,” which uses literature to help criminals find their place in society. In this part of the interview, I asked Waxler how he moved his writing from an academic audience to a popular one.

Jerry Waxler: By writing memoirs, one might say you are playing hooky from the responsibilities of your day job. Instead of studying other people’s literature, you are creating some of your own. What did that feel like, shifting out of your role of English professor to a writer of an accessible, very personal, and intimate sharing of your actual life?

Robert Waxler: Well, yes, people comment about this, although I don’t fully embrace this apparent dichotomy. I remember giving a reading of “Losing Jonathan” at Rice University in Texas, and one of the Vice President’s there came up to me at the reception to tell me how surprised he was by my presentation. He was very moved, he said, but he had thought that as a professor I was going to offer a more academic discussion about heroin addiction. He had apparently been taken back by the emotional quality of the book and the reading.

Literature is about the heart as much as the head, and it is the emotional response that comes from deep reading that I try to evoke in the classroom as well as mindful interpretation. As an English professor, I think an important part of my job is to keep alive an understanding of how vulnerable we all are as human beings, how fragile our lives really are. Literature helps move people in that direction.

So for me, the writing of a memoir is not a different role; it is precisely what I should be doing just as discussing other people’s literature is also central to the job. I agree that we have often assumed that literature professors should distance themselves from the affective quality of the story, keep the feelings out of it, in other words–but that is, I think, a mistake.

Jerry: People who write at work usually need to unlearn their professional style in order to reach the public. Please share some of your own journey in developing the voice for your memoirs. When did you start aspiring to a publically readable voice, and what steps did you take in order to achieve it?

Robert: Some of my writing has been what could be called ” academic” in this context. Especially academic journal  articles, etc.  But I have always liked to think of myself as a “public” person in this regard. Much of my work has been out in the community, trying to convince people that reading and discussing literature is a worthwhile activity, perhaps one of the more important ways to keep us human.

The challenge for me in writing these memoirs was really learning how to write narrative descriptions, dialogue, and so on. I have given a lot of public lectures, written newspaper articles, appeared on radio, and so on for some time, and so have developed what could be considered a non-academic style of discourse, but it did take me some time to figure out how best to capture the “truth” of these family stories in what might be considered a creative non-fiction (memoir) genre. If I have been successful at that, it was mainly through trial and error–and, of course, the fact that I have read a lot of books.

Jerry: Good storytelling is supposed to show scenes and avoid telling ideas. Since you are passionate about ideas, I would imagine such a rule places you in an awkward position. How do you deal with this “show don’t tell” rule while at the same time showing the importance of ideas in your life?

Robert: It did take me a while to fully understand that: “Show don’t tell.”  An early reader of a very rough draft of “Losing Jonathan” told me I needed a lot more description and dialogue–that I was, in other words, telling rather than showing. That is probably the professor in me. In “Courage to Walk”, I did cut some of the more philosophic passages (Heidegger, in particular) because I realized that the discussion was becoming so abstract that it hurt the flow of the story and so blunted the implications. The book is short and can probably be read in one sitting (if you sit long enough!), but it is no doubt a book that demands slow reading at times, contemplation and a lot of thought, but it also, I hope, offers a compelling story. I think it does.

Jerry: What’s your next writing project?

Robert: With another professor, I am writing an academic book on why reading and writing should be central to 21st century pedagogy –especially in this age of images and screens. It should be out the beginning of next year.

To read Part 1 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

To read Part 2 of my interview with Robert Waxler, click here.

Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books

Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler
To read an essay about Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Courage to Walk” click here.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Learn the inner and outer dimensions of memoir writing

by Jerry Waxler

I have been a fan of Linda Joy Myers ever since I read her memoir “Don’t Call Me Mother.” (Also see my essay “Mothers and Daughters Don’t Always Mix“) The book was straightforward and elegant, transforming a painful past into a compelling story. When I reached out to learn more about how she wrote it, she explained that writing the memoir was itself a journey that lasted more than a decade. During that period, she developed a more sophisticated understanding of her own childhood and at the same time learned the craft of storytelling.

Linda Joy wanted to share these benefits with others so she offered memoir writing workshops and then started the National Association of Memoir Writers, an organization that offers courses, teleseminars, support, and other benefits to aspiring memoir writers everywhere.

I already knew that Linda Joy brings compassion and insight to the memoir field, so I was eager to read her new book “The Power of Memoirs, Writing Your Healing Story.” The book covers the basics of scene and plot to help writers weave the skein of events into a story worth reading. It also offers valuable tips for writers you won’t find in other books, such as insight into the knack of accepting feedback from a critique group, in my opinion one of the most important tools any writer can have.

And then, Linda Joy goes beyond craft and turns inward towards the heart of the matter. As a professional psychotherapist, Linda Joy helps her clients work through their memories. In this book, she performs a similar service for aspiring memoir writers. In hefty, substantive chapters like “Psychology of Memoir Writing,” “The Dark Stuff,” and “The Power of Writing to Heal” Linda Joy provides excellent guidance to help you decipher your memories and bring them to the page.

Families matter

A key goal of a memoir is to portray other characters in your life. This can be especially complex when trying to explain parents, grandparents, and siblings who were influencing you while you were under construction. They are part of you. And so, the more you understand those relationships the better you understand yourself. “The Power of Memoir” offers tips about how to write about family. By seeing them through the eyes of a writer, you will gain fresh perspectives and piece together a more sensible story about your family than the one that was shapelessly tangled in memory.

Spirituality

I have been searching for years to find language to express the spirituality of life. Linda Joy’s “Power of Memoir” contains a superb section about this topic. When writing a memoir, we review our past and explore the way we were influenced by our higher power, our religious framework, and other aspects of the inner connections known broadly as “spirituality.”

However, the past is not the only time frame at work here. You actually write the memoir in the present, a journey that both require spiritual strength and generates it. Linda Joy lovingly offers guidance that fosters this connection with the inner self, to help you get in touch with spirituality right here and now.

Psychology Research

While many authors and teachers observe the healing nature of memoir writing, these observations do not constitute the kind of scientific research that would support its use as a form of therapy. To find such evidence, Linda Joy turns to the research of psychologist James Pennebaker from the University of Texas who has spent his academic career studying this question. His research offers a fascinating look at the emotional benefits of writing. Linda Joy also cites brain imaging research that offers additional evidence for these benefits.

This book will help you write yours

So whether you want to write your memoir because you are curious about yourself, or you want to heal old hurts, or you want to share your journey with other people, or you want to strengthen your brain, or you consider writing to be a wonderful hobby, or you wish to publish a book and enter the stream of culture – for any of these reasons, you will benefit from traveling in Linda Joy’s company while discovering the Healing Power of your own memoir.

Home page for Power of Memoir

Click here to read my essay about Linda Joy’s Memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother

“Don’t Call Me Mother” Amazon Link

Click for my essay about Linda Joy’s Memoir

Read an interview with Linda Joy Myers here.

More memoir writing resources

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

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

A leader of memoir writers tells her own story

by Jerry Waxler

I have long admired Linda Joy Myers as a thought-leader in the memoir movement. In addition to writing an amazing memoir about her own journey, she is the founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers which brings resources and support to anyone who wants to develop the story of their life. Now she has added another contribution to the field with her book, “The Power of Memoir: Writing Your Healing Story.” In this interview, I ask Linda Joy to share more thoughts about her journey as a writer and teacher.

Jerry Waxler: When did you first become interested in writing your memoir?

Linda Joy Myers:
At first, I wrote my stories as journal entries and poetry. My inner critic was very noisy and nasty, so I kept my writing small and private. For a while, I was confused about whose story I was telling. Because my story is about three generations, actually about five generations of mothers and daughters, I didn’t know where to start. I wrote two novel length versions that had to do with of the imagined story of my great-grandmother, born in 1873, three years before Custer’s Last Stand. And I wanted to explore the early life of my grandmother who was raising me. I knew her as an older woman, when she would tell me the stories of her early life, but her most interesting story she tried to keep from me: her elopement when she was 16! It caused quite a scandal.

My story? Well, it took one of my mentors to invite me to tell my own story, which I hadn’t yet claimed. I was raised with huge admonitions against “airing the dirty laundry” of the family, and my story would definitely do that. It was hard to break all those rules! So it took many years, lots of classes, and lots of “I’m NOT going to write this darn thing.” As I tell people, the memoir kept chasing me until I turned around and agreed to write it. When I did, the old ghosts became silent. I suppose it helped that those who would get upset at me for telling the family tales were dead. Well, most of them. Some of my extended family eventually freaked out that I had written a memoir, even though I left their dastardly deeds out of consideration and respect. Now I might write it all, as I have nothing to lose. So there might be another memoir someday.

JW: When you did you first become interested in teaching others how to write memoirs?

LJM: One day I stumbled upon the research that Dr. James Pennebaker and other psychologists were doing on the healing power of writing stories. Time stopped as I sat there at my desk, enthralled,  everything silent, as energy rushed through my body. I began searching for all the research on the topic I could find–this was in 1999-2000. I called Dr. Pennebaker to find out more, and I met him in person. Inspired, I began teaching therapists how they could use writing to help clients, using Xeroxed memoir stories from my favorite memoirs and articles about the writing as healing research. In these workshops I was blown away by the stories that came out of people who were not “writers.” I decided to write my first book “Becoming Whole–Writing Your Healing Story” to share the great news of the research and the amazing stories that came out of my workshops. Teaching people “the good news” was the most fun I’d had in a long time.

JW: You have said in interviews for your own memoir “Don’t Call me Mother” that you made huge sweeping changes, even throwing out a manuscript and starting over. It sounds like you were burning with creative desire to tell that story well. Could you say more about the sheer length and persistence of this effort for you? What kept you going?

LJM: I worked on the memoir for more than a decade, and during most of that time I was still trying to heal. I got stuck a lot, and quit working on it many times, feeling defeated and overwhelmed by how hard it was to write when the issue I was trying to heal was still being lived out. My mother continued her abandonment of me and her grandchildren, and I discovered how little she claimed us all when she was dying. None of her few friends in Chicago had any idea she had a daughter or grandchildren! So the situation of being denied and abandoned was a continuous wound. I envisioned my book as being able to help others with similar situations.

After my mother’s death, I had a new version of my story, finally feeling some resolution, and became serious about finishing the book. After many agents passed on it, I needed to see it published, so I and a couple of friends started our own publishing company, and we each published our work.

As I prepared the final versions and edits of “Don’t Call Me Mother,” I saw the through line of the narrative, and the theme became clear. I edited out all the pieces that didn’t fit the theme, which turned out to be about 56,000 words. Actually, it felt like a relief to cut it down to size, and I felt happy about finally finishing the story. The editing process and getting a completed book was as healing as writing it.

JW: I read an interview with Mary Karr, author of “The Liar’s Club” in which she talks about how vulnerable kids are. Typically, people only talk about this vulnerability in therapist’s offices. When the memoir wave started, people started to write and read about their vulnerable childhood in books. As a teacher of memoir writing, how do you feel about your clients “coming out of the closet” so to speak and writing about these exquisitely private scenes? Does it help? Is it scary?

LJM: These kinds of books about abuse were being written in the 1980s, but memoirs were not popularized as literature until Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life” or Mary Karr’s “Liar’s Club,” among others.

As a teacher and coach, I see people digging deep into truths never before shared with a living soul. We in the groups feel honored that we are allowed to witness this kind of courage–the  survival skills of our writing partners and the amazing spirit of determination that many people need just to grow up, to live, and to move forward in their lives.

I am humbled and moved each week by their bravery and willingness to put the truth on the page and share it with us. My students tell me frequently how their lives have changed because of this writing, along with the witnessing and compassion they received in the workshop. One woman tells me that she loves her mother now, but when we started, she could barely stand to be in the same room with her.  She wrote both the dark and the light stories about her family, and integrated a whole new relationship with her elderly mother. I love outcomes like this, and she is one of many.

JW: In your therapy work, what seeds do you plant that might help people use the medium of writing to help them organize their thoughts and emotions?

LJM: Most of my therapy clients do very little writing, but when they do, they find it helpful and are often surprised at what shows up in their journal. They focus on significant scenes where they’re stuck, the turning point moments of trauma that even after years of work keep haunting them. They sometimes write during the session, which helps them to focus, or they bring in their journal or dreams. The problem is that most people write very abstractly, but when I can convince them to use scenes, they really do write differently and with more healing power. I talk about the healing power of scene writing in “The Power of Memoir.”

JW: It seems that when someone first starts writing a memoir, they ought to have a background in psychology. By the time they finish their memoir, they need expertise in creative writing and literature. How do you steer through these two aspects of memoir writing?

LJM: When I studied literature it seemed so obvious to me that writing had a psychological component, but in the lit classes this was almost never acknowledged. I’d always thought I wanted to bring the two together somehow, but for a long time couldn’t see how to do it. I kept working on my own writing, and then the studies by Dr. Pennebaker and others were published. After I discovered that exciting research, I had a sense of how to integrate my version of healing and psychology with writing–through writing healing stories.

JW: In coming years, how do you see the memoir writing trend balancing between the two disciplines of introspection and literature?

LJM: It’s hard to predict if memoir writing is a brief trend or if the interest in other people’s stories will continue. Perhaps we are all voyeurs at heart. After all, in previous times, people were not cut off from each other the way we are now, in our boxy houses, in front of TVs or computers all the time. People gathered together and knew each other’s business, for better or worse. They helped each other learn from life and each other about how to live. Extended families and communities had a lot of interaction, input, and guidance. People knew what was going on behind most of the closed doors. I wonder if some of that is missing now. Perhaps memoirs throw open those closed doors and invite us all in to see what is going on, to learn how others are living. Perhaps memoirs are fulfilling some kind of universal social need. We’ll see.

JW:
I love the “voice” of your book “The Power of Memoir.” For example, in the lovely sections on how memoirs relate to family and to spirituality, you offer a great deal of focused information in clear, easily accessible language. How did you find this particular voice or style?  Did you experiment? Did you workshop your nonfiction voice?

LJM: I am unaware of my “voice.” It just comes out the way it comes out. It is my voice I guess. I used to be confused about what “voice” meant, thinking that I had to do something special to create a “voice.” But we don’t. However, we do need to keep practicing our writing to get comfortable enough with our ideas and themes to earn the voice that really belongs to us. I don’t think writers should worry about their voice. They just need to write, to say what is true for them, and keep learning about grammar, syntax, and writing skills. And, it’s really important to read good literature of all kinds–fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Watch good films, and view real art. All of the arts feed our souls and influence our writing.

JW: What are you working on next?

LJM: I’m starting to put together a proposal for a book that will help young adults write a memoir. My agent Verna Dreisbach has created a wonderful organization called “Capitol City Writers” that presents programs for young people to help them learn about all aspects of writing help to give them a head start with their writing career. I used to work with families in crisis and loved working with the youth in those families. Young people already have so many stories they need to tell. You do not have to be old to write a memoir. Even a ten year old has stories. If we can create a book that encourages and helps young writers, that would be terrific. Right now the idea is still in the creative imagination.

For links to all of Linda Joy Myers’ work, click here.

Click here to see my review of “Power of Memoir”

Click here to read more about Capitol City Writers

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Answers to Frequently asked questions about “How to write a memoir”

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third entry in my series of answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Memoir Writing. These are some of the questions I hear about how to write a memoir.

Why does my past feel vague or ordinary?

As our days slip into the past, we toss the memories into the storage bins of mind where they grow dusty and tangled. As we look back on them in their disorganized state, naturally they look unkempt. In raw form, memories are merely a conglomeration, not a story.

When someone tells you about any event, whether a baseball game, a childhood memory, or a tour of duty on a battlefront, your interest will be generated as much by the shaping of the story as by the actual experience.

What turns life into Story?

To recreate your story, you root through the pile, pull out bits, line them up, and link them together. That is an introspective art, requiring frank exploration through old dreams and experiences. To create an interesting story from these parts, you need to develop storytelling skills by attending writing conferences and workshops, reading books about writing, and reading memoirs. Then practice, practice, practice.

Start to gather the events of your life into chronological order, and write the scenes as if you are there. Then look for the motivations and obstacles that caused you to solve problems and grow. When stirred in the right proportion, these ingredients create a magical potion to transport readers to an alternate reality.

How do successful authors improve the readability of their work?

All successful writers hone language skills to present readable prose that makes sense and keeps readers reading. Here are some of their ingredients:

—    Metaphors
—    Speculation about what others were thinking
—    Humor
—    Background material about the community and times

In addition to language arts, you will stimulate your readers’ emotions by using “emotional arts.” For example,

—    Guide the reader along lines of the protagonist’s desire
—    Offer glimpses of frustration or foreboding
—    Build up suspense before revealing solutions
—    Include only scenes that contribute to dramatic impact

Can I embellish scenes to make my story more interesting?

Memoir writers employ a variety of methods to make memories more readable. Some examples:

—    Combine several minor characters into one
—    Combine or prune repetitive incidents into one that represents the pattern.
—    Sharpen a scene by guessing at details, such as the color or style of clothing.
—    Invent specific dialog to convey the essence.

Depending on where you draw the border between truth and art, you might love these techniques or hate them. Since no governing body can dictate whether they are right or wrong, you must choose your own path. Whichever way you decide, you will explicitly state your contract with your reader in the front matter, explaining your attitude towards composites and accuracy.

Should I use flashbacks?

Once you understand the straight story, there are several reasons to modify the sequence:

—    Sneak backstory into a flashback.
—    Dive into the thick of things. Then rewind to the first event. – “In medeas res”
—    Bounce back and forth between two characters’ points of view
—    Essays follow the logic of ideas, not a chronology of events.

If you see a perfect opportunity to write out of order, take it. But if you want to keep it simple and straightforward, that’s okay too.

Other answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Memoir Writing

Frequently Asked Questions about Published Memoirs

Frequently asked questions about “Should I write a memoir?”

More memoir writing resources

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

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

Lord of the Flies in Los Angeles: The terrible logic of uncivilized boys

by Jerry Waxler

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

When I was a teenager I read a disturbing fantasy about a group of boys stranded on an island. Without any adults to enforce the rules, the characters in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” turned against each other. Their vicious behavior made me wonder, “Could civilization really fall apart that quickly?” Recently I found a chilling answer in the memoir “True Notebooks” by Mark Salzman. At the urging of Sister Janet Harris, founder of a program called the InsideOut Writers, Salzman volunteered to teach creative writing to a class of juvenile offenders. Not only did “True Notebooks” remind me that boys murder each other right here in American cities.

By telling them to write he allowed them to express things they would never have spoken. When the boys read their work, they engaged in some remarkable exchanges that showed me how they think and feel.

It looks like William Golding made some realistic assumptions about the brutality that boys are capable of, but the mental process of the Los Angeles gang members was more sophisticated than I expected. The gangsters maintained fierce loyalty towards their group, passionately defended their honor, and loved their mothers. Rather than being outlaws, they were actually doing their best, even risking their lives to follow the code of their neighborhood tribe.

However, while they were obeying the laws of one tribe, they were breaking the laws of another. When they murdered the kids of the wrong color, they crossed a line. Now that they were murderers, society could look at them with disgust. They had become the enemy.

When Salzman dragged my mind to the other side of the razor wire fence, I was at first horrified. But the more I listened, the more I saw real children with feelings and dreams and minds. A sob welled up in my throat, caused not by their failure, but my own. We all know there are kids out there being led down these paths.

Can’t we reach out and help them, before they veer too far off the path, the way another memoir writer, Erin Gruwell, was able to do? In Freedom Writers Diary she tells of using writing and literature to help high school kids see each other as human beings rather than enemies. (For more about Erin Gruwell’s memoir, the Freedom Writers Diary, see this link.)

As I broke past my reluctance and started looking at the world through the eyes of these murderers eyes, a light started to dawn. I realized their behavior was more civilized than it first appeared. I grew up watching war movies, during which I cheered every time an enemy died. It was part of my training as a civilized person. Any enemy holding a gun must be shot before they shoot you. The boys in prison had learned the lessons of civilization too well. They had joined their neighborhood army to defeat the enemies in the other neighborhoods. They were doing their best to follow the laws of civilization.

Once a rival was defined as an enemy, his life lost all meaning, making it easy to pull the trigger. My first impression was that these boys were learning some awful, primitive, tribal custom. Now I see that in their youthful enthusiasm, they were playing at the same “kill thine enemy” approach that I grew up admiring.

An even more horrifying observation comes to mind. I’ve been doing the same thing with these boys as they did to each other. I’m perpetuating the situation by my willingness to throw their lives on the garbage pile. If I want to stop them from dehumanizing their enemies, I have to stop dehumanizing them.

William Golding’s book “Lord of the Flies” created a sense of terror at the Shadow Side that lurks within the human heart. Salzman did the opposite. He showed me a glimpse of compassion where I least expected it.

When each of Salzman’s boys read his stories, the other boys responded with empathy. They began to see each other as real people instead of enemies. This willingness to open up and see their enemies as people is similar to what happened to me. Before they told their stories, they were outlaws and murders, consigned to the other side of an impenetrable line. After listening to them, the line moved, and I discovered they are people. As I watched their hearts open to each other, and mine open towards them, I am reminded of a much deeper lesson of civilization than “kill thine enemy.” The ultimate way to defeat enemies is to turn them into friends.

Writing Prompt
Have you ever felt like “The Other” for example when visiting a cultural center where you felt like an outsider? What emotions, vulnerabilities, or other human elements would you like to let these people know in order to convince them you are a real person.?

Writing Prompt
When have you felt entitled to remove the rights of others? By hating them, what aspects of that group’s members must you ignore?

Note
Salzman was recruited to teach a writing course by Sister Janet Harris, of the Inside Out Writers program,

Note
Amazon Page: “True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall” by Mark Salzman

Note

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

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

Catch-up grief: how visiting my brother helped me grow

by Jerry Waxler

When my older brother Ed was diagnosed with cancer, he was 37, married, with two young children and the owner of a growing cardiology practice in a small town in Georgia. It did not take long for the disease to rip it all away. When he died, I was 30, still entrenched in my protracted struggle to grow up. We were living almost a thousand miles apart and so I experienced his death once removed, as if the loss was happening to someone else.

As I write my memoir, these 32 years later, I discover the gaping hole his death created, as if I was postponing my grief until I was mature enough to better understand what happened. I now watch our relationship unfold in slow motion, and this time I intend to learn as much as possible about what happened and what I missed.

Much of my childhood is hazy, and as I struggle to remember it, I sometimes gain clarity by comparing notes with my sister. I had no such opportunity with my brother, at least not in physical conversations. But by imagining discussions with him, I have improved my memory as well as my peace.

It started in a psychiatrist’s office. I was complaining about the fact that after decades of earning my living sitting in front of a computer, I didn’t feel comfortable telling people I was a therapist. Even though I had my Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, and was working with clients, I was still not able to see myself as a mental health care provider. In fact, I often tried to hide it.

The psychiatrist, Lyndra, was helping me sort out my self-image problem by using a sort of modified hypnosis, called EMDR. I sat with closed eyes while she alternately tapped my knees and told me to think about how I could break past my reluctance. Out of the haze, my brother appeared. He was kind and respectful, the same as I remembered him in life, and he “gave me his blessing” telling me how proud he was of my new role.

The vision boosted my confidence, helping me proceed more energetically along my new path. The following year, I conceived of a book in which Ed was a character who communicated with me from the Other Side. I imagined he must have achieved great wisdom by then, and I asked him to help me sort out the meaning of life. Although I still have not figured out how to tie together the loose ends of the book, the hours I spent with him in my imagination helped me restore our connection.

During the process, vignettes about our early relationship peeked from their hiding places. When he was trying to earn a place on his high school basketball team, he needed a place to practice. I helped him build a court in my grandmother’s yard. We dug the hole, poured in concrete, and erected the backboard. The summer before he left for college, he assembled a hi-fi system from a kit. He taught me how to read the color code on the transistors and solder them onto a circuit board. I was 11. The following summer, we played chess out on the patio. I had been studying chess books, and we were an even match. Sometimes he would make me play two or three games in a row, leaving me begging for mercy, and yet at the same time feeling bonded to him in the strange way competition connects opponents.

After he moved away to college, I had a premonition. I was watching a drama on television about a young boy who heard news of his older brother’s death. An inexplicable rush of sadness washed over me. And then there it is. I see myself at 30 flying down to Georgia to be by his side as he lay dying and instead of feeling grief, all I could feel was admiration.

I can’t go back to change the way I reacted, but I can use my writing to reorganize my thoughts and feelings now. By illuminating early memories, my writing has helped me appreciate growing up with him. I am developing a richer range of emotions about his passing. And moving forward, I have made better sense of his absence, filling in some of that gap with warm stories, images, and sometimes even a sense of his presence.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene in which you were together with someone you miss.

Memoir interview about privacy, activism, style

Interview with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg about her memoir “Sky Begins at Your Feet,” Part 2 by Jerry Waxler

This is Part 2 of the interview I conducted with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg about her memoir “The Sky Begins at your Feet.” In Part 1, (to read Part 1 click here) Caryn shares observations about the spiritual and religious journey. In this Part, she discusses community activism, privacy, style, and other issues that may help memoir writers learn more about their craft.

(Note: Caryn will be checking in during the blog tour to read and respond to your comments.)

Jerry Waxler: During the period covered in the memoir, you are also very much engaged in organizing an environmental conference, weaving your activism about earth into consciousness raising about breast cancer. This is a fabulous double-value of your story. Do you see the book as a tool of advocacy for ecology work, as well as health?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I see the health issues as relating directly to the environment, and I knew this book very much had to be a bioregional book. By bioregionalism, I mean the tradition of learning from your community and eco-community how to live, how to steward your home place and be a good citizen, and how to find greater meaning and purpose in your life through connection to the land and sky. The conference was actually a bioregional congress, focused on bringing people together from throughout the continent to network, share resources, and inspire each other in living more fully in our home communities. I hope the book does inspire people to, most of all, learn more about their environment, and from that learning, develop a greater connection with their local land, which will naturally lead to the kind of advocacy and stewardship that creates enduring ecological change. I also hope the book helps people see not just more of the connections between cancer and ecological degradation and destruction, but between healing and finding kinship with the trees, fields, birds, skies and other aspects of our homes around us.

Note: For more about the bioregionalism movement, click here.

Jerry Waxler: How has this memoir been received in your ecology activist community?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: It’s been received very well so far, and next week, I’ll be reading it at another bioregional congress, this one at The Farm in Tennessee, so I’ll see more how it speaks to people in that community.

Jerry Waxler: I love the characters in your community. So many people reach out with compassion, to help you with food, with caring for your family, and of course the all-important emotional support. In the process of telling about these people, aren’t you to some extent impinging on their privacy? Many memoir writers are confused about how much to say, how much detail to include, whether to change names, and so on. How did you balance your friends’ privacy with your desire to tell the story of friendship and community.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: This was an issue I thought long and hard about, and basically, anyone who showed up more than once, I contacted when the book was in its final draft, and sent them a copy of the book to read, letting them know that if there was anything they couldn’t live with, they should tell me. Few people asked me to change anything, but I thought asking was the ethical thing to do. I also shared the final draft with all my doctors, my children, my mother and siblings. I worked hard in editing to remove any references to people (there were just a few) I had larger conflicts with because I didn’t want to use my writing in any way to play out those conflicts. Occasionally, when I did present something unflattering about anyone, I changed the name of that person and that person’s identifying characteristics.

Jerry Waxler: You went through a terrifying period, facing the loss of part of your body, and a profound alteration of body image. In the memoir, you have explained and explored this loss of part of yourself, in far greater detail than most of us imagine. What I’m interested in knowing more about is what it felt like to write about this profound relationship between flesh and life. What sort of processing did you do while you were writing about this impending loss? Was it traumatic to write about it? Did writing the memoir help you understand more or cope more or come to terms more with this loss?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I write through whatever life gives me, so I wrote through cancer, not always coherently, but writing helped me sort out my feelings and also helped me make what was happening more real. The writing itself wasn’t traumatic although I’m aware that we can re-ignite trauma in our lives sometimes if we write obsessively about such events (as researched in the work of James Pennebaker and others). Before I lost various body parts, I wrote to those parts of my body (and I wrote some about this in the memoir), using writing itself as part of the ceremony of letting go of my breasts or uterus or ovaries. For me, it’s very important to create ceremonies that involve writing and sometimes spoken words as a way to name the rite of passage, so yes, all the writing helped me come to terms with losses. At the same time, time itself is wildly effective at helping people, including me, make peace in such situations.

Jerry Waxler: In a couple of places in the book you use Flash Forwards. For example, you say “I had no idea she would be killed in an accident in 5 years.” The character had no way of knowing this from within her own Point of View. Stylistically, this raises an important puzzle for memoir writers. The Author, the person sitting at the computer typing the book, is older and knows so much more than the Protagonist, the younger one undergoing the experience. How did you steer between these two sets of knowledge? What can you tell us about the relationship between the Author’s POV and the Protagonist’s? How does the unfolding of the Protagonist’s Point of View in the story help reveal what the Author is going to know in the future?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I purposely wrote this book very much from the perspective of being in the future, looking back. Particularly with the big stories of our lives, I think the added perspective of the author in the present can help readers better understand the various ramifications and unfoldings of the story. Two pieces of advice that influenced me were from a poet, who once told me how much we need to let our experiences ripen over time until we can find the real essence of the story or poem that wants to be told, and my oncologist, who said however I felt about my cancer experience would continually unfold and change over time. Also, when telling stories in which mortality is a kind of character, I think having the perspective of time passing allows an author to go much deeper into the hard stuff — the terror and sadness, grief and confusion — without making the reader feel too overwhelmed.

Jerry Waxler: The book contains quite a bit of concrete information about the medical diagnosis and treatment. How do you see your role in that regard? While writing it, were you thinking about how it could help cancer patients and their loved ones demystify the technicalities of this journey? How has that turned out so far?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I knew that I had to share at least some technical information because going through serious illness is often a technical journey as well as an emotional and spiritual one. I also wanted to demystify the genetic mutation discussion surrounding breast cancer. Because of fears many have about losing insurance if they reveal that they have the BRCA1 or other genetic mutation, it’s a difficult thing to talk about, and yet we’re only going to change the crazy biases of insurance companies by talking about things like this in print and out loud. I also was lucky enough to know I wouldn’t be dropped from my insurance although several of my doctors told me how careful they were in medical records never to write “BRCA1” but use a symbol instead so that the patient would be protected. I also find that people going through cancer, at some point or another, want and need to know about the technical aspects of their cancer; for example, is the cancer particularly aggressive or slow-growing? We get that information often from numbers on a page, and it’s difficult at times but important to understand these aspects or we won’t have the information we need to make the most informed decisions possible about treatment options.

Jerry Waxler: Are you reaching out to offer the book to that audience?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: Given that one out of three of us will have a cancer diagnosis in our lifetimes, that audience is actually very large. Just about all of us have had cancer or been close to someone who had cancer, so yes, I did want to reach out to that audience, but this is also a book about losing a parent, finding strength in the land and sky, connecting with community, and making greater peace with living in a flawed, aging and still miraculous body.


Links

Click here for Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s website

Click here for more information about Caryn’s Transformative Language Arts Program at Goddard College

Click here for the Transformative Language Arts Network

Click here to visit the Amazon page for The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

This interview is part of the blog tour hosted by Women on Writing. To see Caryn’s Blogtour page, click here.