By Jerry Waxler
Xujun Eberlein’s book of short stories “Apologies Forthcoming” are accounts of growing up in the 1960’s in China. [Read my review and interviews.] Since the stories are based on her life and times, I thought I could learn a few lessons about how to turn life into story. I was right. Here are some of the lessons I learned for writing a memoir, along with some writing prompts to help you apply these lessons to your own life.
Interaction of individual and society
When Xujun was a young girl, deadly fighting broke out between two factions of Red Guards, mostly teenagers who fought each other with deadly force to prove themselves the true upholders of the Chinese Revolution. Because of social upheaval, her parents lost their jobs, she was unable to go to school, and her sister died. These stories provide extraordinary examples of that strange and complex fact of life: our individual journey is intertwined with our society.
Review the periods you want to write about and look for historical forces and trends that were shaping your own experience. How did the economy affect your household wealth? What members of your family have been influenced by war? What community upheaval or natural disaster or social trend took place? When you have identified a meaningful intersection between your individual life and the larger community, write a story about it.
Use the short story medium to shape your memoir
When trying to describe real life, the multitude of themes, dreams, and people become tangled, making it difficult to weave it all together. Xujun solves this problem by biting off one specific challenge at a time. Focusing on that one theme, she develops its context, then shows how the emotions rise, crescendo and resolve.
In one of the stories, the main character had an affair with a married man. As time went on, the girl’s emotional dependence grew. She became jealous of the man’s wife, and fell farther into despair. In the end, she broke through the tangle of emotions with a surprise. In another story, she left her family and went to the country to work in the fields. As a city-girl in a town of farmers, she clumsily stumbles against local customs, creating disturbing tensions.
Even though each story stands on its own, they add up to provide insight into a young girl’s life in that time and place.
What Xujun did in fiction, you could do in reality, developing a series of stories that gradually add up to portraying your life. Review your list of powerful transitions, such as a love gained or lost, an accident, illness, peak accomplishment, or realization that changed. (If you don’t have such a list, start it today.) Describe a single scene that represents that transition. Then surround this scene with context to turn it into a self-contained story. At the beginning, introduce the dramatic tension. Then encounter and respond to obstacles. In the end, resolve the dramatic tension. (To extend it beyond a self-contained story, end the piece with a hint of the dramatic tension that comes next.)
Create empathy for the protagonist
Xujun’s protagonists stir my compassion. In each story, I worry about the protagonist’s plight, feel the loss of her sister, want her world to be more sane. Her goodness and suffering help me suspend disbelief and accompany her through her trials. Like the fairy tales of Cindarella and the Ugly Duckling, Xujun’s protagonist is often misunderstood. Xujun the author should know about being misunderstood. She is smart, but the people around her don’t care. China in the Cultural Revolution has turned against smart people.
Review one of your favorite anecdotes, or write a new one, and then step back and look at it from a reader’s eyes. What emotions will help readers bond with you. How have you been an outsider in your own world, misunderstood by people you are reaching towards? Will readers be urging you to grow, to find your niche, to be loved?
When Xujun’s protagonist relates to the people in her life, whether coworkers, friends, or family, I feel her respect for them and her desire to be respected in return. These emotions haunted me so much I asked the author why she was so focused on friends. She asked me where I saw it, and I said, “Everywhere.” She replied that friendship was a revered part of her culture. It also happens to be a wonderful part of my life, too, and yet in my writing, friendships often disappear into the background. Her stories inspired me to pay more attention to the emotional clout supporting characters can convey.
Consider how friendships can enrich your readers’ experience of your life. Friends’ perspectives help you see your world in a different light, their companionship provides relief from loneliness and gives you someone to talk to, and their support helps you overcome obstacles. Write a scene that emphasizes such interactions.
Sexuality while coming of age
As Xujun’s protagonist grows from child to young adult, her friendships become complicated. Later in life, she again feels a tug of war between sexual attraction and friendship. She masterfully shares the power of these emotions, while at the same time maintaining the privacy of her world and the decorum of mine. This delicate balance of intimacy and power is known in literary as well as psychological circles as “maintaining appropriate distance.”
You may assume that sexuality is too heavy-handed or too personal a subject to include at all, or perhaps you have gone to the other extreme, including erotic scenes that may offend or drown your readers. Consider using Xujun’s model, and follow a path down the middle. Try writing a scene in which you convey as authentically as possible your unique experience, while understating or hinting at the mechanical parts. The power of the written word is that it gives readers the opportunity to fill in the rest.
Unique characteristics make us all “foreign” to someone
When Xujun tells about her life in China in the sixties, I lean into every word, drinking in glimpses of a portion of this foreign, mysterious world I have never seen. So what does this have to do with writing my own memoir? I can’t change my past to be as exotic as Xujun’s. But perhaps I don’t need to.
When I look at my life through the mirror, I realize that growing up in a row home in Philadelphia is foreign to Xujun. This fact becomes more apparent when I look at my bookshelf. In every memoir, my curiosity about the author’s world compelled me to turn pages. Whether I was learning about Brooke Shields’ postpartum depression, or Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s life in the foster care system, or Linda Joy Myers’ childhood in a broken home in the Midwest, or Barack Obama being raised by a white mother and visiting his African father, or the authors of “The Pact” who grew up on the mean streets of New Jersey, or Henry Louis Gates or George Brummell, growing up in the segregated south. We are all exotic to each other.
Identify parts of your life that reflect your unique past. Did you grow up on a farm? Went to a university? Joined the army? Had kids? One of them had a disability? As you list the parts of your life that make you unique, consider what you look like to someone who grew up in a different world. Write three character sketches of readers who might think parts of your life were foreign.
Xujun’s collection has reached my desk at an exciting time. Short stories are in a resurgence. This medium offers many of the pleasures of a book, but within a more compact form. They explore fascinating issues of growing up in another culture, during a complex time. And they offer insights into writing that can help you write about your life.
For an example of stories that emphasize foreignness, see She collected stories by Italian American women. Louise DeSalvo and Edvige Giunta, editors, “The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture.” (Feminist Press, 2002) Louise DeSalvo is the author of a valuable book about memoir writing called “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.”
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.