by Jerry Waxler
I’m reading two books that take a teaching approach to memoir writing. Instead of focusing primarily on the life the author, they use the author’s personal experience to provide an in-depth look at a topic they learned about. The two books are “I Know You Really Love Me: A Psychiatrist’s Journal of Erotomania, Stalking, and Obsessive Love“ by Doreen Orion, and “China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power” by Rob Gifford. If you are unsure how to turn your life experience into a great read, Orion’s and Gifford’s approach could expand your options.
In “I know you really love me,” Doreen Orion has written about her experience of having been stalked for years by a woman who had the delusion that she and Orion were secret lovers. Orion, a psychiatrist, met the woman who came to the hospital looking for treatment. The patient became obsessed with Orion and then began years of stalking, fortunately not violent, but astonishingly intrusive. Because of the depth of her delusions and her instability, there was never a guarantee it wouldn’t reach a crisis point and turn violent. Many murders are committed by jealous lovers, and since Orion’s stalker believed they were lovers, there was a risk this would end tragically. And to make matters worse, the laws against stalking are vague and ineffectual, so Orion not only had to deal with her stalker, but with a disinterested legal system as well. To protect herself she had to become an advocate for legal reform to improve laws and help other victims of stalking. After reading this page turner, I know more about delusional obsessive love (erotomania) and stalking than I thought I would ever know.
China Road by Rob Gifford teaches an entirely different sort of lesson. While Orion was forced to become an expert in erotomania because of a twist of fate, the only pressure Gifford was under was his own obsession to more deeply understand China. To satisfy his obsession (can obsessions ever really be satisfied) Gifford immersed himself in his subject, traveling for months across Route 312, China’s equivalent to our old Route 66, and like Route 66, extends across the breadth of China. This road parallels the old Silk Road, one of the oldest trade routes in the world. His journey, symbolically from east to west, shows the transformation of the Chinese culture from the quintessentially eastern civilization into a great westernized power. He does so through conversations, research, and personal observations. It’s a terrific read, and provides me with fascinating, complex, and very personal insights into the Chinese people and the course of their history.
While both of these books serve the purpose of teaching books, they are also memoirs, based on personal experience. As I try to tease out what they are doing, reading these memoirs like a memoir writer, I look more closely at how they have harnessed life story to keep the reader’s attention. How are these personal stories like memoirs embedded in a context of knowledge? The most immediate observation is that in both books, the author is clearly in the frame, sharing sensory and emotional impressions. As you read, you are walking miles in the author’s shoes, empathizing with their needs and emotions.
To grab this empathy, each book starts by engaging the reader in the author’s personal challenge. The protagonist wants something, at the beginning of the book, and then achieves it at the end. Orion is in danger. She wants safety and to get her normal life back. To protect herself and others like her, she digs for deeper insight. Gifford wants to fulfill his dream of understanding the Chinese people. Also, Gifford uses traveling along the road to keep the reader engaged. He starts out at one end of the road and strives to reach the other end. It’s tangible, as well as symbolic and provides a satisfying impression of motion and achievement.
To decide how you are going to tell about your life, consider how your life has taken you into contact with knowledge, by choice or by chance. For example becoming expert at a disease because you cared for someone who has it, or learning on the job in a nerve wracking business environment, or being a peace corps volunteer in an exotic culture, or an astronaut, or your wife’s passion for horses, or any of a million other ways life might have carried you into a specialized area of learning. If your life connected you with knowledge, then you can share that part of your life with the reader, and teach them something while they are turning pages. Harness your curiosity and the reader’s curiosity as two wings of a bird that will carry the reader through your story.