Why and How Writing a Memoir Evolved from Writing in a Journal

by Jerry Waxler

My college years were every parent’s nightmare. Instead of preparing for adulthood, I joined Vietnam war protests, became fascinated by hippie beliefs, and smoked lots of marijuana. For years afterward, my thoughts and emotions continued to race out of control, as if I was recovering from trauma. I tried many techniques to help me find inner strength, including meditation, exercise, and yoga. One of my favorite self-help techniques was journaling. I wrote in a journal for at least a half hour a day, for about 10 years.

Over time, I realized that I was falling in love with writing. During one of my many job changes, I mentioned my interest to the interviewer at a computer company. I got the job as a technical writer, and began earning my pay by putting together sentences. In my forties, I wanted to move beyond computers, so I went back to school for a master’s degree in counseling psychology. By the time I was fifty, I changed roles, sitting in the therapist’s chair, listening to clients who were attempting to sort out their lives.

Talking to people one on one seemed so slow. I thought if I could write what I know, it might help more people faster. To find my writing voice, I joined a writing group. Everyone said “Write what you know.” At first I assumed that meant “write about counseling.” But my articles about therapy and psychology seemed too abstract. When I learned about the growing interest in memoir writing, the advice “write what you know” took on a whole new meaning. I wanted to write a compelling story that communicated my lifetime of experience.

My years of journal writing had not prepared me to write so that strangers would understand what I was saying. To turn my life into a story, I embarked on another round of learning. I took memoir classes, read books about writing memoirs, and read memoirs by the score. In each memoir, I found insights into the human condition, as well as lessons about how memoirs work.

My biggest breakthrough came when I figured out that to write for strangers, I could no longer just please myself. At first I joined critique groups in which a few writers came together to swap pieces and give each other our sincere reactions. Over time, I was able to shift my writing voice with an audience in mind. Instead of the almost meditative quality of journal writing, I had to shift to a conversation. Once I got the hang of it, this new approach invigorated me. By visualizing a curious, compassion, supportive audience, I could return to the sense of flow I had when free-writing, typing as fast as I my fingers allowed.

There was another deficiency in my writing skill. To write for a stranger, I had to be sure my writing made sense. That meant I had to go back through my first drafts and edit. This too was a solvable problem, because I didn’t have to learn these new skills on my own.

I discovered a whole “shadow culture” of writing workshops, offered by local clubs, schools, online groups, and libraries. I couldn’t have done it without this supportive virtual community of aspiring writers who gather together in annual conferences, in monthly meetings, online blogs and personal correspondence.

The transition to memoir writer has been going on for ten years, during which I had to learn many micro-skills, practice for many hours, take courses, read books, and in general educate myself in the process of writing. In exchange for the effort, I’ve enjoyed one of the most rewarding periods in my life, leading to great personal satisfaction and a connection with a wonderful subculture of people like me who want to turn their lives into stories.

Throughout my experience, I relied on the basics of writing that I had learned when I wrote in a journal. Writing in my journal, had taught the knack of moving thoughts and ideas quickly and easily from mind to paper. This ease of moving thoughts to the page continued to be important when writing first drafts, when revising segments of earlier writing, and in all my correspondence and critiquing. And so, all those years pursuing the creative relief and uplifting pleasure of writing in a journal had been training me to find my passionate voice as a memoir writer.

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