Memoir writing lessons from the heart

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

Perry Foster was an ordinary business man until he found himself on the wrong end of a cardiology exam. Now he bears a scar on his torso that looks like it was zipped shut, which makes him a member of the zipper club. When he chose to record his experience he was not drawing upon years of training as a writer. He simply wanted to tell his story and his memoir “Hands Upon My Heart: My Journey Through Heart Disease and Into Life” is the result. Whenever I read a memoir, I look for lessons. How did the author put it together? How did his words create the emotions as I was reading? I have found that new authors, in their passion to explain what happened, often provide lessons every bit as good as the ones I learn from the pros.

Memoir like a novel
One of the most basic lessons in this book is Foster’s knack of telling a story like a novel – that is, he lets me see events for myself. His descriptions are so quintessentially “show don’t tell” that reading the book is like attending a “show don’t tell” seminar. Take for example a stressful scene in a doctor’s office when Foster’s wife pulls out a bottle and takes two aspirin, showing the headache rather than telling it. And precisely because the example is so basic, its lesson is easy to learn. If he had written, “she had a headache,” he would be reporting a fact that was inside her head, not his. A slightly improvement would be dialog. If she had said “I have a headache” at least he would not be reading her mind. But now she becomes the one who is telling. When he shows her taking the two aspirin, readers can see the evidence for themselves.

Foster also does a good job staying within a time frame. He immerses himself within each scene, providing sensations that let me lose myself in his world. Since the book starts around the time he learns his heart is failing, I know little about his history until he is sedated for a surgical procedure. In his drug altered state, he describes a picture perfect flashback from his childhood. This ploy supplies background about his family, and the flashback also provides pacing, letting me linger there with him while surgeons are poking at his body.

His observations include his own thoughts, feelings, and body reactions. These internally directed observations take me inside his experience. “Does anyone ever wake during surgery?” he asks his surgeon. He notices the taste of perspiration dripping from his upper lip. After this frightening meeting he becomes furious with his wife for trying to relax while she was waiting. “You’re buying a romance novel,” he asked in a restrained voice. “How could she?” he thinks.

Edgy characters make me turn pages
From the beginning Perry Foster showed me his messy emotions. He was afraid for his heart, angry at the doctors, and edgy with his wife. His thoughts are often judgmental, and paranoid, and I think, “No wonder this guy’s heart is a wreck.”

I also wonder how he could be so honest about these feelings. This is a big issue for me, because my instinct is to hide my imperfections. “Hands Upon my Heart” shows me that disclosing authentic feelings, even if edgy and flawed, creates human warmth so palpable I want to pick up the phone and ask him about his health.

Perry Foster’s nervous tension serves another purpose. It increases dramatic tension. Consider Shakespeare’s characters Hamlet, and Ophelia, or Romeo, and Juliet. Their edginess creates suspense because you’re never sure what they’ll do next. Foster achieves the same effect. I kept turning the pages to see how he will juggle the pressure of his disturbing emotions.

Will he grow?
I love character development in a book. By the time I reach the end I’m hoping some lesson has been learned. Because this is such a satisfying payoff for me, as soon as I recognize the character flaw I start anticipating how the person will grow. It’s part of the suspense that keeps me reading. I found this suspense especially acute in “Hands Upon my Heart,” where Foster seemed like such a likable guy, I couldn’t wait for him to find inner strength and peace.

In the end the author does become more accepting of his situation and his wife, but his changes did not match what I expected, resulting in a feeling of being let down. What can I learn from that? It feels like a variation on the famous advice offered by Anton Chekhov. If you show a gun in the first scene of a play, you should fire it by the end. It looks like this advice could also be applied to character development. When the beginning of the book shows dramatic tension in the character, then by the end that tension should be relieved.

My expectation that Foster was supposed to grow during the course of the book raises a fascinating question. Should a memoir take me on a perfectly crafted ride, or must it follow the course of events, precisely? My view is that from the same raw material, a storyteller could craft a thousand different stories. The memoir I end up actually reading is not the person’s life, but rather a creative representation of it. And it turns out that telling the best possible story provides a benefit to the writer as well as the reader. The more you strive to tell a good story, the more you learn about your life. Perry Foster’s “Hands Upon my Heart” has stimulated and informed my thinking about these issues, and as I look for the story within my own life, Foster’s work will be one of the sources for my deeper understanding.

See my other essay about Perry Foster’s memoir by clicking here.

See also: Dee Dee Phelps was another adult learner who developed her writing skill not as a professional writer but through workshops. Read her insights in the interviews we reported here.

See also: Chekhov’s Gun, a wikipedia entry

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

Unbearable Courage of Living

By Jerry Waxler

To become more knowledgeable about living, I try to find out as much as I can about dying. This is easy information to find, because writers have so much to say on the subject. Death is such an important topic, Hemingway suggested to a young writer that he hang himself and have a friend cut him down just before he died so he would have something to write about.

Perry Foster, author of the memoir “Hands Upon My Heart: My Journey Through Heart Disease and Into Life” didn’t have to go to that extreme. Death came looking for him. Foster was an apparently healthy business man, until a cardiology exam. Then he found himself staring into the jaws of death and the only way to survive was to let masked people rip open his chest and stop his heart.

His memoir brought me face to face with the unbearable courage of living. He takes me to the waiting room, the gurney, and the operating room, and makes it easy to empathize with his predicament. While he’s a nervous wreck, so am I. He lets me feel his sweaty hands and his edgy outbursts so well it makes my skin crawl. He portrays a real flesh and blood character, not a cartoon caricature.

One of the things I learn is that when a real person is confronted by death, he doesn’t necessarily put on a happy face. Foster is afraid almost to paranoia that his care is inadequate. He accuses people of misleading him. And he is shocked that just when he thinks his situation is under control, he is back for another emergency visit to the cardiologist. His edgy reactions heighten my anxiety and while I would have intuitively thought such human frailty would have made me feel more distant, the end result is greater intimacy.

This treatment of death is so different from the way it is usually handled in fiction. In a murder mystery, for example, the victim might scream for a moment, then either expire or escape. In a war movie, bodies fly through the air, and die in droves, while the tough guy shrugs off pain. In Hands upon my heart, I linger in that state between life and death, grappling with the feelings, and trying to sort out what to do next. This is real human emotion, and I feel connected with his fear, anger, and confusion. As Natalie Goldberg would say, “this writing cuts close to the bone.”

In my desire to become a more alive human being, I can read Perry Foster’s book and learn about the project of bumping up against mortality, and coming back. And even though he didn’t claim to be tough or courageous, his experience inspires me to carry on as a person, and face the unknown.

Of course Perry Foster didn’t choose to be in this situation, and so it’s possible to dismiss his tale as simply reporting from the position of a victim. But one element of his experience did require a conscious choice. After he struggled through this painful and humiliating experience, being pushed along from doctor to doctor and feeling his life ticking away with every beat of his heart, he chose to write the story.

He didn’t have to do this. He could have kept his feelings private, and when someone said to him, “That must have been a heck of an experience” he could have just nodded, and said “Yes it was.” Instead, he undertook another arduous journey, this one of his own free will. He chose to write his story. He gained the skills, wrote the pages, and exposed his inner world to other people’s opinions.

Since I want to write about my life, I gain courage not only from his experience in the book but also his experience of the book. Within his lessons about his heart are embedded the other lessons about how one man faces the daunting task of translating his very personal life experience into a written story. And by assigning himself that task, Perry Foster has invested his own time and experience to help me learn to live a better life.

Read more about how life and death keep coming up in stories: “Life and Death in Memoir

The quote about Hemingway was taken from David Morrell’s book “Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing.” See more about Morrell’s work at

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