by Jerry Waxler
This is the third part of a four part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I explain how writing as well as reading stories shows kids how to combine literature and life.
The memoir Freedom Writers Diary was about an innovative high school teacher, Erin Gruwell, who brought the messages of the great authors out of the clouds and into her students’ lives. At first she did it by showing life lessons contained in the classics. For example, she pointed out the gang wars that fueled the tragic tension in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
To demonstrate an even more intimate connection between literature and life, Gruwell invited a young author Zlata Filopovic to visit the classroom. When Zlata Filipovic was eleven years old, she wrote a diary about being pinned down by mortar fire in her hometown, Sarajevo. After publishing Zlata’s Diary, she became known as the “new Anne Frank.”
Another visitor, Miep Gies, was directly involved with Anne Frank’s diary. Gies, whose family protected Anne Frank, brought the Holocaust out of the history books and into Erin Gruwell’s classroom. She proved to the high school class that writing enables real people to share their lives.
Gruwell completed the circle that joins literature to life by inviting her students to write about their own experiences. Their diaries created connections across gang boundaries, and beyond neighborhoods all the way out to the rest of the world.
Gruwell’s groundbreaking work wasn’t finished yet. By publishing the story, she invited us to become students in her classroom. From her memoir, we learn that stories are not just about abstract characters. Her memoir bursts our story-reading minds out of the pages and into the world.
Gruwell’s students learned from each other’s diaries that the people sitting next to them in class had lives just like theirs. Our shared memoirs provide the same lesson on a much wider scale, helping us understand each other around the globe.
The need for life lessons doesn’t stop the day we leave our formal education. As we grow, we need to develop more fulfilling social patterns or adapt to new eras in our lives. And memoirs can help.
For example, everyone who tries to write a memoir is attempting to incorporate story writing into their adult lives, Elna Baker offers valuable lessons, first within the pages of her memoir New York Mormon, and then beyond it. Her attempts to become an actress, then a story performer, and finally a memoir writer provide a model of incorporating Story into real life. She also offers other lessons that could be valuable to adults. Her attempt to understand her relationship to God within or without the constraints of religion offers a brilliant look into one person’s attempt to follow this universal search. And her insights into the social power of trying to remain slim provides a valuable window into the challenge one faces when staring into the barrel of an ice cream cone.
Similarly, Erin Gruwell’s story, Freedom Writer’s Diary, is not just for kids, but for any English teacher or parent who wants to learn how to use literature to help kids grow. By watching Gruwell’s students connect the dots that separate them from each other, the entire world learned a valuable lesson about how life writing connects us all.
Reading and writing memoirs can help anyone at any age, to learn and grow beyond the assumptions we’ve always made about ourselves, so we can see ourselves as characters in a rich drama of interesting, vibrant, self-aware people.
In the second part of this essay, I describe how the Memoir Revolution is providing the tools that could help literature classes link the essential tool of Story to the essential task of growing up.
In the fourth part, I’ll dive into brain science. It turns out that brain imaging backs up everything I’ve been saying about memoirs. Isn’t science amazing?
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
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.