Thoughts are the Soundtrack of a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the third part of a review of David Berner’s Any Road Will Take You There. Click here to read the first part.

Before I wrote the first draft of my memoir, I visualized my past as a tangled web. When I gathered random anecdotes and placed them in chronological order, they began to connect, making it easier to see how one thing led to another. The next breakthrough came in critique groups where I learned that readers want to know more than the sequence of events. They want to know what I’m thinking.

Introspection is such an important feature in memoirs that a memoir without this dimension feels as if it is skimming the surface. By adding the mental track, the author does for memoirs what a good sound track does for movies. In both cases, the sound we hear helps us relate to what we see. The analogy with a movie sound track highlights a fundamental principle of all storytelling – a good story operates on two planes, inner and outer.

To feel engaged in any story, we need to understand the motivations of the characters. However, because our predominant cultural stories are formulaic, we often forget about this inner dimension. In thrillers, the good guys naturally want to chase the bad guys and bad guys naturally fight back. Similarly, in mysteries the detective needs to solve the crime, and in romances, the girl needs to get the guy. We don’t need to know much about the inner dimension in these stories because we assume they are roughly about the same every time.

Memoirs are about real life. We grow up, start a family, get a job, grow older, take a trip. Meanwhile, inside the protagonist of a memoir, all hell is breaking loose. Our search for love, dignity and understanding can become so vast, it seems to fill the sky. Memoirs provide insight into the characters’ deepest dreams and needs, and they achieve this effect with carefully crafted, cleanly integrated thoughts.

When Memoir Characters Need to Think a Lot
I am intimately familiar with the importance of thinking my way through major life transitions. When I attempted to pass through the gateway from child to adult, I struggled for years to think my way across the chasm. In fact, the working title of my memoir is Thinking My Way to the End of the World. So when I read memoirs, I take special note of the way the author reveals his or her inner process. Two recent examples illustrate the way memoir authors successfully include their thoughts.

When Cheryl Strayed was attempting to transition from girl to woman, she underwent a process of self-reevaluation. Her memoir, Wild, is about her attempt to do that reevaluation while taking a hike. The memoir on the surface is about a hike through the wilderness. Cheryl Strayed entices readers to turn the page to experience the trappings of her hike: blistered feet, fear of getting lost, heavy backpacks, and encounters with fellow hikers. But inside her mind, she is free to ramble, consider the past, and have inner discussions about the direction of her life.

Readers didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that her outer circumstances had little to do with her inner ones. The book was an acclaimed bestseller even before it appeared on the big screen, demonstrating that readers are interested in an author’s inner dimension and willing to go along for the inner ride.

Memoir author David Berner also needed to share a thoughtful life transition. In his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, he describes the meltdown that provoked him to leave his family and start a new life. In his second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, he returns to that decision to leave, and tries to figure out how to maintain his responsibility to his children. To reconcile the opposing parts of his desire, to leave and yet to remain loyal, he needs to think long and hard about responsibility, about his relationship to the boys, and about his father’s relationship to him.

To do all of this thinking, David Berner takes his sons and a buddy on a drive in a motor home. They roughly follow the path described by Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Each day a little more road passes under their wheels in perfect, chronological sequence. And as the miles go by, the boredom of travel invites introspection.

David Berner’s journey is less complex or picturesque than a hike through the wilderness. Reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s book, On the Road, this simple outer journey provides just enough forward momentum to keep readers engaged, while the much more dramatic story takes place inside his mind.

Occasionally one of Berner’s two sons says or does something that triggers a round of musing. Within each of these reveries, time moves more fluidly, leaping from one generation to another, like the point-counterpoint of jazz riffs, in which motifs intertwine, never going too far into one before the other intervenes, giving endless opportunities for contrast. Reconciling his inner conflicts, and figuring out how to renew his connection to the boys creates intense thoughts, written artfully in micro-essay, musing style.

These weren’t flashbacks. In a flashback, the reader must leap backward, and shift focus to a previous time frame. At the end of a flashback, the reader must leap forward again into the timeframe of the storyteller. This can create a jarring effect. On the other hand, David Berner’s musings comment on the past without actually returning to it.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. Berner is deciding whether or not to buy a memento on this trip. From there he remembers the emotional importance of travel in his life. The following paragraph explores this thought in greater depth.

“When I was a kid, the shortest family vacation would mean at least a cheap tee-shirt or salt water taffy to carry home for a cousin or the neighbor who took in the mail. And when my mother and father traveled to England to find the boyhood home of my grandfather, my mother’s dad, they returned with inexpensive fisherman sweaters and coasters with pictures of Westminster Abbey. My sons visited Abbey Road Studios with their mother on a European holiday, and their gift to me was a single white guitar pick. I loved that gift.”

After the introspective moment plays out, we look up and see we have traveled further on the road and the outer storyline picks up again. This alternating play between interior thought and exterior travel creates an almost musical rhythm.

How to use outer circumstances as the video for your own inner sound track
Both Cheryl Strayed and David Berner offer examples of the way a simple trip, from beginning to end, can be used as an opportunity to explore their inner lives. Each author faces an important life transition, to grow into adulthood, or to adjust to the changing landscape of middle age. The authors take us on a journey, during which we listen to their hearts and minds.

Their examples illustrate something all memoirs have in common. In the world of action, circumstances are unfolding. At the same time, inside the character, a series of thoughts and reactions play out, usually triggered by the external events. The events provide the visual framework. And the thoughts and musings offer readers a sound track.

If you wonder if your life transitions were interesting or important enough to write about, consider these two memoirs. In one, a girl is attempting to become a woman. In the other, a middle-aged man is attempting to renew his responsibility to his sons. What could be more ordinary? And yet, through the artful interplay of outer circumstance and inner response, we feel ourselves pulled into their lives. By the end of the journey, we have been enriched by the thoughts, ideas, and images that helped these authors adjust to great changes in their world views, and to adapt to new chapters in their lives.

Writing Prompt
What transition or challenge in your life required you to rethink your self-image?

What set of external circumstances unfolded while you were attempting to come to this inner shift?

Notes
David Berner’s Home Page
Click here for my review of Accidental Lessons
Click here to read an interview I did with David Berner

In the memoir Ten Speed, author Bill Strickland figures out his own deepest secrets while on a bicycle. He desperately needs to review his life in order to shake off the legacy of his father’s abuse, so he can fully love his daughter. Click here to read my article about Ten Speed.

Coming Soon: a list of memoirs I have read (or in some case previewed) by authors who have written more than one.

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.

7 thoughts on “Thoughts are the Soundtrack of a Memoir

  1. Your comments on introspection help memoir writers to deepen their reflections. But they also are important for fiction writers as well. Characters whose inner life is a blank don’t last long.

  2. Hi Lily,

    I know I’m being a little fanatical by pitting fiction against memoir. Obviously each has its own place. But for anyone who wants to write a memoir, being aware of these distinctions between the two forms can help you construct the best possible story from the raw material of your actual live.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  3. Jerry, your reviews of David Berner’s memoirs hold immense treasures for those of us writing memoir. I have clipped them to Evernote with specific references to back story and introspection. Thanks much for all you do for the community.

  4. Sherrey, I am so glad you find that my writing offers you some ideas. I look at what I do as a validation of all the work memoir writers do. And now you are validating my work. Thank you!! Through blogs and books, the Internet has allowed us to enter a massive conversation, and to participate in that conversation, we memoir writers search for and share our stories. It’s a grand system, and I’m so glad to be part of it. Thanks again for being part of the community. I am so glad we can occasionally hear each other through the gigantic background noise. 🙂 Jerry

  5. Thanks Artful Scholar (what a beautiful name). I checked out your gravatar page and love your mission. I’m so glad you find my articles helpful. Thanks for taking the time to let me know!! Best wishes, Jerry

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.