Interview: How to turn memories into a memoir

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

In a previous post, I described some of the many reasons I loved the memoir Accidental Soldier by Dorit Sasson. In this interview, I ask her to help aspiring memoir writers understand how she did such a great job turning life experiences in a good story.

Jerry: How long did it take to write the memoir?

Dorit: I downloaded a bunch of scenes during 2012-2013, but I didn’t actually run with a first draft until I started Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner’s well-known “Write Your Memoir in Six Months” online course. Best decision ever to jumpstart the entire process plus, I got the accountability and structure. Mind you, I started writing the first real draft with a six month old baby while in mourning for my mother, who recently passed. So if I can do it, anyone can!

By June 2014, many of those “downloads” started to become scenes. June 2014 to March 2015 was the period when I revised and wrote constantly working exclusively with Brooke Warner until reaching the finish line.

Jerry: There is something “impeccable” about the structure – with a beginning fraught with confusion and uncertainty, many intermediate challenges – beautifully executed – and then a nicely designed ending that leaves me satisfied that you (and I) have reached the conclusion of that journey. When you started your memoir writing journey, you had to figure out how to turn memories of a complex, formative period of your life into a good story. So how did you evolve that lovely, dynamic arc?

Dorit: Thank you so much Jerry for these kind words. It’s so thoughtful of you to say and notice. What you are seeing is the result of a lot of mentoring and writing. Brooke and I really worked closely on each chapter to ensure that each scene advanced some element of the heroine’s journey. Eventually I figured out on my own to ask myself four major questions that went like this:

1. What’s the purpose of this scene?
2. How does it advance the heroine’s journey?
3. What’s at-stake for my character?
4. How can I show her transformation and growth?

Jerry: Can you share some insight, or even some specific recollection when you began to shift from seeing yourself through the lens of a collection of memories and began seeing yourself evolve in the pages of a well structured story?

Dorit: Great question. And yes, this is an important yet hard one for memoirists to learn. First, I invested in myself as a writer by signing up for the online course and then hired Brooke as my personal writing coach and editor to help me reach the finish line.

Then, I wrote like crazy. This helped build the muscle I needed to think like a memoirist. I was also working from a place of pressure. My mother had recently died. I was dealing with a lot of emotional stuff. My sentences had a lot of power that I had never written before. When you work from a place of pressure, some amazing stuff can happen and surprise you.

I wanted to prove to myself I could write this memoir having written mostly academic type stuff for teachers.

I invested, practiced and took copious notes on our course lectures. I read what works well and what doesn’t in terms of memoirs. I kept trying to figure out the purpose of each scene. Some chapters went through 20 revisions until I finally got it. There’s no shortcut to figuring out structure because it’s individual for each story arc.

But there was one thing that worked very well to my advantage and that was the timeline of my service in the Israel Defense Forces, (IDF) which framed the structure of my memoir and the service in itself was structured. This inevitably helped with deciding which scenes from my service to include and the overall narrative arc of the memoir.

Jerry: I am blown away at the natural rhythm of interior fretting and exterior choices – it’s as if you have learned an exquisite dance between inner voice and outer actions – did you consciously develop this rhythm? Say more about how.

Dorit: I am pleased that you took notice of this. Once Brooke and I nailed the heroine’s journey, I knew that the only way for me to express my character’s fears and doubts about leaving Mom and getting inducted in the IDF, was to balance the events with my thoughts and feelings. This is what added the psychological layer to my cultural story.

As an American immigrant trying to figure out the “right” way of behaving in Israel and the added layer of becoming a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, the inner voice was the only way for me to express this cultural and emotional dissonance, which also represents the bigger picture of the story arc — leaving the familiar for the sake of the unfamiliar.

As a character, I was expected to be strong, and my introvertedness was mistaken for independence. So to answer your question, I wanted to bring that part of myself as a character to also show what was at stake. To show how my fear and doubts was the result of leaving one country behind for the sake of serving in another and the challenge of leaving one’s family. What I went through was a really lonely experience and the inner thoughts really accentuate the feelings of that lowly immigrant and IDF soldier.

Jerry: Similarly, I’m blown away at the natural weaving of backstory into the narrative – this leads to one of the most interesting backstory weavings I’ve ever seen in a memoir. So again, is it a knack you developed consciously? If so, please say more about how you found this rhythm.

Dorit: The backstory developed mainly with revisions and once I felt confident tackling the structure of scenes.

With each scene, I kept asking myself if there was something in the backstory that my reader needed to know. I turned on my “inner editor” and kept challenging myself not to assume anything that might leave my reader hanging or confuse him/her.

Brooke asked pertinent and stellar questions which forced me out of my “writer head.” This is why I truly believe that every writer needs a real good editor to handle this journey. The role of an editor for a writer’s journey is so crucial and especially that for a memoirist. I don’t quite understand how writers can publish a book without the expertise of an editor.

Jerry: I find the best relationships between author and editor to be an exquisite partnership, almost a dance of mutual desire for creative excellence, with plenty of acceptance and flexibility on both sides. The editor must give feedback assertively enough for the author to understand, and meanwhile the editor cannot superimpose too much of her own concept of the story – the author must stay true to her vision of the story while at the same time creatively adapting to the suggestions of the editor. The partnership also relies on the sympatico shared vision of the two partners. I admire editors who know how to do this dance. But my question relates to you as an author. Was it difficult for you to do your part, staying true to the story while accepting input, and being able to bounce back from the hurt that your writing wasn’t perfect so you could charge forward to the revision, staying true to both your vision and your editors?

Dorit: How I love this question and the way you put it – “editors who know how to do this dance.” It’s so so true.

I will be honest – this wasn’t such an easy process at first but I was determined to go full speed ahead with the writing of the story despite the feedback. The magical “a-ha” moment with my editor slowly developed particularly when she asked various questions about my IDF service, relationships and life in Israel and terms that needed clarification. At first I thought, “Is she going to be like my mother or some kind of nagging editor who is going to question every single thing?”

But I was surprised. She distanced herself enough to let me tell the story. She honored my voice. She gave me space to write and revise. This is crucial.

I also slowly realized that she wasn’t just after clarification. She was trying to also help me see the big picture of each scene and how it contributes to the narrative arc. It was then I realized that I picked her for a reason – she was “ga-ga” over structure and I knew that was where I needed a winning editor in this department.

So here’s the magic which clearly made all the difference. On our weekly coaching calls, she asked me a variety of questions – some clarifying and some bigger picture types that she would then include as part of her editorial feedback. So I actually heard myself talk about the experiences I went through which got me out of my “writer head” but also motivated me to such a fierce degree to translate the experiences into writing.

Writing and speaking are such different mediums but when you can hear yourself talk, you become more invested in your story because you’re also trying to help the editor understand the bigger and smaller pieces and help yourself sort it out as well.

Having this speaking element complement the writing was in fact, the winning combination. This process motivated me and powered up my revision and writing muscles for hours at an end.

I will also say that this process has a lot to do with an editor’s personality. I felt listened to. Because I was motivated by the process, I was also determined to “win my editor over” to prove that I could take the revisions to the next level.

Each time I forked over another revision, I trusted that she knew what she was doing and where she wanted me to go with this story even thought I didn’t know if the revision would be better or the same. When I got that final pat on the back, it was for a revision well-earned and I could continue forging on knowing that I was making progress. In the process, she also earned my trust because I was divulging areas of my life with someone outside my circle.

Jerry: Did you keep contemporaneous notes during the period you wrote about? If so, say more about the notes when you first wrote them? If so, how valuable were they for the book?

Dorit: I kept journals during my IDF service to help me understand the kind of craziness I was going through at the time. In one entry I wrote, “I intend to write a book of my experiences one day to help me figure out all this craziness.” I intuitively knew that what was going on paper was the result of the emotional experiences of serving in a foreign military and adjusting to life as an immigrant.

By writing these entries in English, I was able to give voice to these experiences using my mother tongue. Those notes later find their way into the story arc of the memoir as individual scenes.

Because of the structure of military life, I did not have the luxury of writing every day, but they documented very well the kinds of challenges I was going through at the time. So all I had to do was just pick up a journal and I was immediately transported to that point of time.

Jerry: What other methods did you use for getting back in touch with the moments about which you write.

Dorit: To get in touch with that eighteen year old immigrant self who was one foot out of America and one foot in Israel in IDF uniform, I did a few important things which really helped me get into my character’s shoes:

1. I listened to well-known Israeli songs on Youtube that are especially associated with the army and especially of that time period which helped me get into my character’s head.
2. From time to time, I looked at old army photos, which reminded me of what I was like as a young adult. Boy am I glad I still have these because they were the visual reminders I needed to reconnect to that eighteen year old who had no idea what she was doing in the IDF!
3. I occasionally reread some of the journals I kept and the letters Mom wrote to me. I did not let research however bar me from writing.

Notes
Dorit Sasson’s Home Page

Accidental Soldier on Amazon

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, 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.

Best Ever “Launching” Memoir Review

by Jerry Waxler

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

Note: The word “launch” in the title of this article refers to the act of leaving home. When a ship launches, it simply glides down into the water. When a young adult goes out into the world, it can be much more complicated. Memoirs about launching are one of my favorite subgenres, and Dorit Sasson’s Accidental Soldier is one of my favorite representatives of that subgenre.

When Dorit Sasson was on the threshold of becoming an adult, her top priority was to get away from her neurotic mother. The obvious escape route led to her father’s homeland, Israel. But when she arrived there, she followed a surprising impulse. She volunteered for the Israeli army. This led her on an unusual road to womanhood, forcing her to shed her insecurities and to become more comfortable as a person.

Everything about her memoir, Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service and Sacrifice in the Israel Defense Forces, fascinated me.

It was one of the most complex, well-developed launching-from-child-to-adult stories I’ve read. In an impeccable story arc, it begins with a young woman, struggling to find the inner strength to face the world. As she copes with a series of obstacles, she gradually learns and grows.

One of her main challenges is her search for identity. Her journey from the U.S. to Israel created an important inner conflict, forcing her to figure out which nationality would define her. In Israel she was the “New Yorker” creating a subtle tension, never quite belonging to any one group. The group-identity struggles continue as she longs to be accepted by the other soldiers in her unit.

Figuring out which group one belongs to is often a crucial step in the process of growing up and has figured prominently in some of my favorite memoirs.

For other examples of young people trying to find their cultural identity as part of their search for adult self, read New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker, in which a young Mormon woman trying to fit into mainstream New York; Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas, in which she tries to figure out if she is Iranian or American; Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham about a young Vietnamese American on a similar search. And My Father’s Gardens by Karen Levy, another memoir about the tension between Israeli and American identity.

Accidental Soldier is deliciously psychological in other ways, too. It digs deep into the dysfunctional relationship with her mother. And the book provides a wonderful example of how fretful thoughts add to a suspenseful story.

Fortunately, by the end, the author achieved satisfaction. As a result, so did I.

Her denouement provide an excellent example of the way a memoir author can lead readers beyond the pages of the book, and provides a foreshadowing of life to come.

To learn more about how she crafted the book, I reached out and asked her for insights about how she achieved this level of professionalism, psychological insight, and good story telling. Our dialog follows in the next post.

Notes

For another memoir about a young woman entering a war with a camera rather than a gun, see My Journey Through War and Peace: Explorations of a Young Filmmaker, Feminist and Spiritual Seeker by Melissa Burch

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, 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.

Is your memoir Boomer Lit?

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

We all know the images of the groovy sixties. The exuberant rock and roll, hallucinogenic drugs, and soldiers in jungles waiting for helicopters to evacuate the wounded. But even with all those images to help me fill in the blanks, I looked back on those years in a daze. And I knew many other boomers who felt as confused and overwhelmed by those memories as I was. Now, thanks to the Memoir Revolution, we can find the words to explain what was going on in our hearts.

Pamela Jane’s memoir Incredible Talent for Existing is just such a story. For Pamela Jane, the sixties were a time of turmoil, obsessive soul searching, and and confusion about who she was supposed to be. For those of us with radical beliefs, living felt like a curse. How could we grow up to be adults when the adult world was evil and corrupt? Pamela Jane was one of those who were so disrupted by those beliefs, it took a lifetime to heal.

The iconic image that best illustrates the interior pain of the sixties can be seen in the familiar, shocking clip of a monk setting himself on fire to protest the war. At the time, I couldn’t imagine being willing to suffer so much in the name of Truth. However, after reading An Incredible Talent for Existing, I realized that Pamela Jane, along with many others, had been conducting a slower and less visible form of self-immolation. She was psychically destroying herself. And because her self-destruction was invisible, she had to go through a long, lonely journey to pull herself together.

When the dust settled after the sixties, and the Flower Children had to figure out how to become adults, their clothes weren’t so colorful, and photos of them going to therapy or struggling alone in sorrow no longer seemed interesting, so society moved on, and Pamela Jane had to find herself, no longer surrounded by a mass movement but now struggling to regain her sanity.

Now that decades have passed, she can look back on that period and piece together the story. This is the duel nature of the Memoir Revolution. It gave Pamela Jane the opportunity to figure out her story and share it. And by reading her memoir, the rest of us have the opportunity to go into her heart and mind, behind the flashy images of Woodstock and hippies and listen to her story. For some of us this story might be a way to make sense of an extreme notion of the sixties. For others, like me, it is a way to see myself reflected in the story of another person. I know about her pain because I traveled the same path.

During that period, I too had been engaged in the same psychic self-destruction, and went through decades trying to reconstruct myself. Like Pamela Jane I searched for therapists, groups, ideas, or anything else I could grab onto. And like her, I took advantage of the Memoir Revolution to write about it in my memoir Thinking My Way to the End of the World. But until I read Incredible Talent for Existing, I had never read a story about anyone else who had experienced the sixties in that way.

After reading Pamela Jane’s Incredible Talent for Existing, I was struck by the similarities of our stories. Like me, she attempted to destroy everything she had been taught. Like me, she was trying to heal society by destroying it. After a few years of energetically, willfully fighting against the entire basis for sanity, she, like me, succeeded, not in destroying the ills of society, but destroying herself.

When we extreme rebels emerged from our mass psychosis, we looked around in a daze. Instead of pioneers of utopia, we had become stragglers, poorly prepared for the ordinary world. After a long, often painful climb, we made it to adulthood.

But how could we ever explain the logic of voluntary self-immolation? There was no language for it. Most of us chose to hide this embarrassing experiment. We didn’t even understand it ourselves. As a result, one of the most important periods in our lives remained hidden behind superficial clichés that revealed nothing about our inner state.

Finally, the Memoir Revolution has given us a voice. Thanks to the popularity of memoirs many of us are attempting to turn our experiences into good stories. By writing these stories we can understand our own past, and by sharing them we pass along lessons and insights to others.

The Memoir Revolution is our answer to the counterculture of the sixties. In the sixties we tore apart everything we believed. In the Memoir Revolution we are knitting it back together.

Whatever your experience was in the sixties, whether a soldier, a hippie, a housewife, a mother, a resident of a commune, cult, or clan, you had a personal, unique experience that is trapped in your mind until you give it voice. And memoirs give you that voice.

Many more stories are already started  in computers and file cabinets, anecdotes and insights waiting to be knitted together into a coherent whole. I know how hard it is to travel that long journey from snips to a completed memoir. During that time, I had to peel away layers of forgetting, and at the same time, learn the art of story writing. I took around 12 years from the time I started. Pamela Jane, already an accomplished author, took 22 years to complete hers.

When you read Pamela Jane’s memoir or mine you will learn two stories that go behind the surface to reveal some of the painful aspects of trying to become an adult during that period. And for a broader sample covering a wider variety, read Times They were a Changing, an anthology edited by Linda Joy Myers and Amber Lea Starfire. To witness the deconstruction of a combat soldiers, from eager young man to broken soldier is Jim McGarrah’s A Temporary Sort of Peace. His sequel Off Track tells about starting to knit himself back together as a worker at the racetrack. Bill Ayers memoir Fugitive Days takes us inside an extreme version of the war protest movement. If you read these books and the many out there that I don’t yet know about you can appreciate the powerful nature of turning confusing memories into a compelling story.

By writing a memoir, you can perform an amazing service for yourself, your peers, and anyone else trying to understand the human condition. By diving under the surface of your situation and writing your inner story, you can finally bring the reality of those or any other times out from behind the clichés and into our shared understanding.

Notes

This blog is part of the WOW Blog Tour. For more essays on An Incredible Talent for Existing by Pamela Jane see this website

See my essay about Jim McGarrah’s Vietnam combat memoir

See my review of Times They Were a Changing, a collection of short stories about the sixties.

Read my memoir, Thinking My Way to the End of the World. my own story of being thrown off course by the sixties, and then needing to search for a path out of the pit into which I had fallen.

I can only think of one other time in history when a massive number of people attempted to dismantle their own belief systems. By some sort of cosmic coincidence, that mass psychosis was happening in China at the same time as the counterculture was happening in the U.S. During the so-called Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government joined up with the mob mentality to consciously dismantle the psyches of a billion people. See my review of a book of short stories about the Cultural Revolution.

In the Part 2 of this essay on Pamela Jane’s memoir, I will discuss the way memoirs can be about a familiar subject and yet entirely unique.

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.

Life to Stories: 3 Habits, 3 Rules, 3 Stages

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

I entered college in 1965 as a bold young man, competent and smart, ready to take on the world. But those were the riot years, the time of the counterculture, during which I turned my attention to unraveling everything I believed. By the time I left college in 1969, I had been reduced to a mere shadow of myself, clinging to sanity by a thread.

After years of reconstruction, talking to a therapist, meditating, and writing in a journal, I once more entered the human race. But no matter how much I matured, I never stopped wondering what lessons lay hidden within the murky memories of my Coming of Age.

Then in 2004, I stumbled on a cultural trend that could help me make sense of those chaotic years. Bestselling memoirs invited readers into the messy process of growing up. Each author converted the chaos of memory into the compelling narrative of a good story. I wanted to try it for myself.

This goal at first seemed farfetched. I was not a story writer, and I could barely remember those troubled years. How would I ever describe the intricate feelings, thoughts and events that took me on that journey to nowhere?

Despite the seeming impossibility of the task, I didn’t think there would be any harm in trying. So I joined a writing group and quickly learned that to write a memoir, I needed to follow three habits.

Habit One. When I remembered even a vague incident, I wrote it. And in the act of forming sentences, I transformed hazy memories into descriptions in a computer file. These written snips helped me penetrate the fog that had shrouded my past. I was finding my words.

Habit Two. I shared my anecdotes with fellow writers in a critique group. Their comments about my pieces radically shifted my thoughts about myself. My past emerged from hiding and became an experience I could share with strangers. When I saw my life in other people’s eyes, it wasn’t so awful after all. It was actually kind of interesting.

Habit Three. I read memoirs and fell in love with the intimacy of sharing an author’s interior journey. After reading each book, I lingered and tried to learn how the author had transformed life into a story.

I repeated these three habits over and over: writing anecdotes, listening to reactions from fellow writers, and reading memoirs. I read so many memoirs, and found the phenomenon of turning life into stories so pervasive that I dubbed the phenomenon the Memoir Revolution. After I established my blog, I started to interview authors. I was continually surprised by the consistency in their answers. They were all learning about themselves at the same time as they were constructing their memoirs.

After several years, I felt satisfied by my collection of anecdotes. This completed Stage One. But I had reached a plateau. It was not yet a real story and I doubted that I would ever be able to make it as compelling as the ones I enjoy reading. Despite my fears, I kept researching, and soon discovered three rules that would convert my anecdotes into a story.

Rule One. Readers enter stories through well-constructed scenes. So I had to learn how to construct scenes. For example, instead of saying “I was in a riot,” I needed to write what I saw, heard, and felt. “Hundreds of us jammed into the hallway, defiantly blocking the passageway. Then the crash of breaking glass shattered our confidence. Screams filled the air as the police poured through the opening, striking students with long clubs. The role reversal shook me to the core. These were police. They were supposed to protect us. I turned and ran.” Writing scenes forced me to see myself through a reader’s eyes.

Rule Two. Sort memories into chronological order. When the past only lives in random memories, the various incidents remain fragmented. For example, every time I remembered the riot, I felt trapped in the horror of that troubling day. But when I sorted my anecdotes into chronological order, the end of each scene led to what happened next, turning the confusing past into the bones of an orderly and increasingly compelling narrative.

Rule Three. A story’s hero strives toward an important mission. For example, in mysteries, the detective’s mission is to identify the murderer. But what was the compelling mission in my memoir? If I could define what my character really wanted, I would gain two things. For the reader, I would create a good story. For myself, I would create a better understanding of my own path.

After years of applying these three rules, I finished Stage Two: a manuscript. Woohoo. It was an awesome accomplishment, but I doubted that the resulting book would compel a stranger to turn pages to the end. To complete my task, I had to learn the art and craft of leading readers through struggles toward hope.

To proceed to Stage Three, I hired an editor to improve the technical craft of the book. Based on her detailed recommendations, I revised the entire book. Then, I sent the results to readers, asking them if they could immerse themselves in the story. And more importantly, what did they find missing? Some of them said they read it straight through. A few even said they couldn’t put it down. When they told me about missing details, places that dragged or unanswered questions, I revised some more and sent it to other readers. After a final round of edits from my editor, it was ready for the world. (Click here to buy it.)

Before I started writing, all I knew about my long journey to hell and back was contained in murky, disturbing memories. By writing, I knitted bits and pieces of myself together and changed the past from an incoherent jumble into a compelling story with a hopeful end. This perspective enabled my readers to stay engaged in the story and helped me make peace with the person I had been.

So now you know my story. Well, you don’t know the story of my descent into hell and my climb out. That’s described in detail in my book. Rather you know the story of how I created that book.

And I hope you might be able to apply that story to your own life. What experiences of yours remain hidden, perhaps even from you? What recollections could reveal meaning, lessons, or help you become clearer about the past?

By following three habits –write, share, and read– you will turn vague memories into a collection of anecdotes and essays. That’s the first stage. And by applying the three rules – build compelling scenes, sort them into chronological order, and follow the hero’s purpose — you can create a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. That’s the second stage.

If you choose to go all the way to the third stage and turn your memories into a publishable memoir, you will be able to share yourself with readers through this universal system called Story. And by immersing yourself in the meaning of your own life, you’ll discover that sharing stories is more important than you may have realized.

Since the beginning of civilization people have looked to stories to show us the way. In the old days the heroes of those stories were mythological and lived on mountains. In the modern age, we look to each other in order to learn how to climb those mountains. By writing your memoir, you can show the rest of us how you found the best elements of yourself. Your example will encourage and support us on our own search for truth.

This mission to write your story may be scary at first. Perhaps like me you’ll even think it’s farfetched. But there’s no harm in starting. Like any hero, once you enter the land of the adventure, you will face the unknown. With courage, persistence, and effort, you will travel one of the most interesting creative journeys of your life.

Notes
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.

 

 

Sharing Stories and Loving Mothers

by Jerry Waxler

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

Last fall, one of the students in my creative nonfiction sobbed as she read us her moving story about her mother. The rest of us sat quietly, absorbing the emotional impact. Kirsten’s love for her mother filled the room.

A few weeks after the class ended, I received an email from Kirsten announcing a writing competition. The winners would present their stories about motherhood in front of an audience. I have been toying with the idea of performance storytelling to see if my years of interest in book length memoirs would translate into a five minute story. So I decided to send in a submission.

I unearthed the eulogy I had delivered at my mother’s funeral thirteen years earlier. With some reshaping it started to sound like a story, but it was way too long. Every day I shaved off a few words, so by the deadline, I could read it in five minutes.

I arrived at the audition imagining I would be standing on a stage, straining to see a director sitting in a darkened theater. When I walked in though, Kirsten was sitting with her co-producers, Kristina Grum and Lauren Hale at a table in a brightly-lit room. Before I had a chance to feel intimidated, they cheerfully greeted me. In answer to my questions, they explained that “Listen to Your Mother” had been founded by Ann Imig in New York City and was spreading. This year, 2015, LTYM events would be held in 39 cities.

When Lauren started her stopwatch, I began to share the lessons my mother taught me after her 70th birthday party. When I finished, Kirsten reached for the Kleenex and laughed as she dabbed the tears from her eyes. That seemed like a good sign.

They said they hoped I would be participating. I said that even if I didn’t, it was already a cool experience. The following week, I was accepted in the cast. Yay.

Every morning on the treadmill, I practiced reading the talk aloud. In order to maintain a fresh, expressive voice, I visualized each scene. For example, when I said Mom swam laps in the pool, or did aerobics with women half her age, I tried to see her doing these things. When I showed up for our first rehearsal, I felt prepared. I was less ready for the fact that I was the only male.

During the introductions they told of wanting or not wanting to be pregnant, the emotional upheaval of a miscarriage, falling in love with their newborns, or in some cases not falling in love. When I was younger, such feminine topics would have reminded me of all the other places I urgently needed to be. However, now that I have studied hundreds of memoirs, I have grown comfortable with the vast spectrum of human experience.

My feeling of being included in their experiences was aided by the very thing we had come to achieve. Each author’s well-crafted story invited me into her world. By the end of the second rehearsal, I had learned so much about motherhood, I felt that I had earned an honorary membership in the Mommy Network.

I arrived at the event around noon, on one of the first gorgeous days of spring. The modern building was appropriately named Steel Stacks, set against the haunting backdrop of the hulking remains of the Bethlehem Steel towers.

Performing the sound check in an empty theater felt slightly spooky, like a premonition of something that was really going to happen. After each of us read a sentence or two, we moved to a waiting room off the lobby, chatting and pacing. Finally, the signal came and we filed past the audience to the stage.

The reading began, and I listened attentively to now-familiar stories about loving babies, wanting babies, having babies and of course, loving mothers. It was a real feast of motherhood. The difference was that I was listening in the company of almost two hundred strangers.

When it was my turn, I walked to the lectern, and with the bright lights in my eyes, I looked out over the dimly lit audience. But I wasn’t nervous. All the love in that room gave me strength.

Before I started crafting my story, I assumed the phrase “Listen to your mother” was about learning lessons. In fact, the title of my story was “what I learned from my mom.” But in that room full of people, I realized we weren’t just listening to their words. We were listening to their presence.

When I first heard Kirsten reading her story in my nonfiction class, I admired her determination to find the best words to express her love for her mother. Then, when I received the invitation to participate in Listen to Your Mother, I joined a whole group of people striving to do the same thing.

Dave Isay, the founder of Storycorps, popularized the simple, powerful slogan that listening is an act of love. In that theater we directed that loving act toward our mothers. Those weeks I spent crafting my story, sharing it with my fellow cast members, and then participating in a theatrical production to read my story to an audience demonstrates the basic principle of the Memoir Revolution. We take a step back from our hectic lives and listen. To listen even more deeply, we find the story. And to spread the love, we share those stories, so others can listen, too.

Notes

Click here to watch my LTYM story. 

Click here for a link to all 2015 LTYM youtube videos

Click here for the Listen to Your Mother home page

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.

Brain Science, Memoirs, and Education

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the fourth part of a four part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I share some of the ways brain science supports the use of memoir reading and writing to learn about life at any age.

Thanks to rapid advances in brain imaging, scientists are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about the way people think. Some scientists, such as Matthew Lieberman, focus particularly on the way the brain’s wiring enables us to live and work in social groups. Lieberman popularizes his observations in his book, Social: Why our brains are wired to connect.

It turns out, social scientists are not only interested in the hardware of the brain. They are interested in the software, as well. Since every child needs information in order to supply that software, Lieberman offers some interesting suggestions about how brain science could help. By coincidence his suggestions happen to fit in perfectly with the arguments I’ve been making in previous parts of this essay, about the value of memoirs for education.

One of Lieberman’s suggestions for education relates to the fact that we learn better through stories than through facts. He specifically mentions how much easier it is to learn history when it’s presented in terms of stories. I completely agree with his suggestion and believe that many of us are already coming to a similar conclusion – learning is more fun when it is done through stories. The knowledge is not limited to school kids. People of every age are learning about life by following the stories of our fellow humans.

Another fascinating improvement to our educational system was suggested in Dan Goleman’s groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence. In that book, he suggested exercises for empowering kids to communicate their emotions at an early age. Goleman’s ideas have been widely adopted, except for one giant gap.

It would be even more valuable if kids could learn not just how other people feel but how they think. This important knowledge, as important as math and reading, is rarely taught except in specialized courses for psychology majors or grad students. However, the study of other people’s minds becomes infinitely more accessible when we learn it through their stories. By following the scientific wisdom of both Matthew Lieberman (learn through story) and Dan Goleman (increase emotional intelligence), it would make perfect sense to teach kids emotional intelligence by letting them read memoirs.

Lieberman’s second powerful suggestion is to set up the school system in such a way that older kids can teach younger ones. He gives the example of eighth graders teaching algebra to sixth graders. Such a method empowers both groups by combining the act of learning with the act of teaching. In Lieberman’s model, older ones take the material more seriously because they need to teach it, and the younger ones link learning the material to the social act of impressing the older kids.

Lieberman’s suggestion sounds awesome. I can see how it would help math-averse kids learn and retain the material, and teach nerdy math whizzes how to interact with people. My only quibble with his suggestion is that I don’t think it is as futuristic as it sounds. I think adults are already engaging in this method. By reading memoirs, they are learning from those who have gone through similar experiences. And by writing memoirs, they are gaining the social pleasure of becoming teachers.

When serious scientists like Matthew Lieberman and Dan Goleman popularize sophisticated advances in our institutions, they are showering our culture with wisdom from above. In addition, culture is driven by powerful unseen forces from below. Like undersea seismic events, such pressures drive us along lines in social trends that seem to be coming out of nowhere. The Memoir Revolution is such a trend, providing us with a whole new wave of information about the human condition, not from experts but from each other.

Cultural pioneers such as Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers Diary show us how to teach kids through storytelling and writing. Memoir writers such as Elna Baker in New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance offer stories about the struggles of growing from childhood into responsible adulthood. Memoir writers such as Martha Stettinius in Inside the Dementia Epidemic offer insights into caregiving for elders and writers such as Kate Braestrup in Here if You Need Me shine a light on grieving.

Neuroplasticity – grow your civilized brain cells
Another advance in brain science also supports the importance of memoirs for training students of any age. We now know that the wiring of the brain improves with exercise, so the more we use a part of our brain, the healthier and stronger it gets.

By teaching kids or adults how to tell the stories of themselves, we “exercise” the part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that enables us to tell stories. This new part of the brain is responsible for helping us live together in harmony as well as for self-regulation. By seeing life as a story, we vigorously exercise the prefrontal cortex, improving both the hardware and software that will make us wiser about our selves and each other.

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 third part, I focus on the way writing life stories is just as important as reading them.

Notes

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.

Why memoirs teach more than literature Pt 3

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 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?

Notes

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.

Why Memoirs are Better Than Literature Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

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

Great literature provides insights into true genius through the ages, but in this second of a three part essay, I claim that a far better way to raise young people is to assign  memoirs. Click here to read part 1.

Turning toward memoir as a more accessible approach to literature

In my late teens, I opened my heart and mind to the lessons contained in great literature. Over the next few years, brilliant authors like Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Samuel Beckett convinced me that adults are stupid and life sucks. These observations fueled my horror, and I pulled farther and farther away from adult life, convinced that it was all wrong, and young people were going to need to reinvent civilization. Even though great literature was unravelling my sanity, I continued drinking it in, like an addict, unaware that the substance giving me pleasure was also destroying me.

Tragically, the destructive influence of great literature didn’t stop my literature professors from supplying more. Looking back, I don’t blame them for wanting to me read these works of great literary merit. However, looking forward, I think young readers today can tap into a far more constructive source of wisdom.

In the twenty-first century, the Memoir Revolution allows adults to pass wisdom to the next generation, without the distortions and exaggerations of invented worlds and fictitious circumstances. Even though memoirs are crafted to maximize dramatic intensity, their greatness does not result from metaphor and hyperbole, to be picked apart in search of the finest phrase. The genius of this genre arises from its ability to immerse the reader in a slice of the author’s actual experience. If any picking apart is warranted, it would be to learn more about how the story can help readers make better sense of life.

To Grow Up, We Must Create Our Own Stories

To grow from child to adult, every one of us must construct stories of ourselves. Our initial co-writers in this endeavor are our parents, siblings, and caregivers. As we grow, we take into account glances from strangers, or watching our parents interact with outsiders. When we go to school, our interactions with teachers and students influence our self-understanding. And throughout the years, see ourselves reflected in the books, movies and television shows of our culture.

From this accumulated information, we construct a self-image that looks a lot like a story. Story is an ancient form of thought in which a protagonist seeks the solution to some problem. Reaching inexorably toward that goal, the hero must press, past obstacles toward an answer. By shaping our self-images in this form, we develop our own sense of confidence and purpose, providing ourselves with a roadmap for the future.

Literature professors could provide an enormous service by showing us how to apply well-crafted stories as models that would enable us to improve the shape of our own. But their charter until now has been focused on the power of story for its own sake. The Memoir Revolution offers them an opportunity to combine their love for literature with their charter to pass along the narrative art of civilization.

The memoirs on my shelves contain hundreds of brilliant life lessons, gained by authors through the course of their lives. By reading these memoirs, I’ve learned about life through each author’s eyes. Each memoir demonstrates the alchemy of converting the senselessness of real life into the elegant, universally admired elixir of Story. Now, all that needs to happen is for literature professors to discover the power of the memoir. The teachers can fulfill their original charter, by helping students learn the elegant structure of a well-told story. At the same time, the students can immerse themselves in the author’s life, learning features and insights about a wide variety of human experiences.

A Memoir Conveys Clear, Important Truths about Launching

A great example of a memoir that helps define a young person’s adjustment to adult life is New York Mormon Regional Halloween Dance. In it, author Elna Baker pursues the fundamental mission of trying to grow into adulthood. Compare the lessons Elna Baker learned about growing up with the books that influenced me as a young man.

Henry Miller’s characters remain trapped in the never-fulfilled state of sexuality. Elna Baker tries to understand how modern people use sexuality in their quest for mutual commitment.

In The Great Gatsby, the hero tries to learn about life from a man whose money flows from an exaggerated ocean of wealth. Elna Baker’s memoir is about the realistic challenge of developing competencies in order to earn a living.

In Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham’s character travels to remote regions to understand his relationship with spirituality. Elna Baker leaves home, not to escape her responsibilities but to accept them, hoping to find her truths in the same place she earns her living

Growing up requires the power of choosing

In New York Mormon, Elna Baker experiments, learns from the results, and takes the next step, informed by the last. This healthy approach to life sounds so obvious it shouldn’t even require mentioning, and yet when I was a young man, I immersed myself in an endless series of novels in which the “heroes” were trapped by indecision, trying to make sense of an overwhelming world. By identifying with them, I was undermining my will to grow up. As a result, I made what at the time seemed like a rational choice. I “dropped out,” attempting to solve the problem of adulthood by refusing to become one.

If, as a young man, I had been reading memoirs like Elna Baker’s I would have been inspired by her willingness to make choices. She does not fight against adulthood. Instead, she strives to make the most of it. Her proactive approach to acquiring the competencies of adulthood offer more guidance in one book than my years of exploring and studying the literary canon ever did.

Elna Baker represents a generation of memoir heroes who act with purpose, learn to move toward the next step, and take notes so they can pay their stories forward to those of us who need to travel that journey ourselves.

In the third part of this essay, I will tie together educational, scientific, and literary trends that suggest our collective will is already moving in the direction of using Story to help us learn to be social.

Notes

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.

Why Memoirs Should be Taught as Literature Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the first part of a three part essay about how memoirs can be used to offer wisdom to students. In this part, I explain how my love for literature helped unravel me and I introduce the way memoirs by literature professors suggest a new approach.

 

When I was thirteen years old, I discovered that all the interesting stuff happened inside books. I grabbed every spare moment to lose myself in spaceships heading for distant galaxies. By the age of sixteen, in the early 1960s, I graduated from sci-fi to the great writers, such as Dickens, Dumas, and Twain. Their works, either assigned in school, or borrowed from my local library, took me on a wild ride through great adventures in fascinating times and places.

These authors were clearly geniuses at self-expression. I felt smarter when I read these books, but sadly I was only smart about the author’s invented world. I had learned almost nothing about how to become an adult. In fact, many of my favorite books provided in-depth examples of how NOT to become an adult.

For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the narrator seeks truth by attaching himself to a narcissistic caricature of a man. In the Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, a young man attempts to find his truths, not within his own world, but by leaving everything he knows. In Henry Miller’s novels, the author searches for himself through sexual liberation which leads him into emotional chaos.

My English teachers showed me how to appreciate elegant structure, fine turns of phrase, and symbolism. However, when I lost myself in each book, I ignored their interest in history and technique. Instead, I left my own boring mind behind and entered the crafted intellectual framework created by the author. It turned out this was not a good idea.

I spent hours in disturbing worlds such as those created by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. From them, I learned that the future was going to be grim and hopeless. So when the angry anti-war riots began in the mid-60s, I wasn’t only fighting against the war. I was fighting for my soul, hoping to escape the helplessness my anti-heroes had inspired.

Protest marches and riots did nothing to restore my hope, so I returned to the method of escape that I knew so well, clinging ferociously to literary geniuses who took me into ever darker perspectives. Samuel Beckett completely deconstructed reality in his plays and novels. Joseph Heller in Catch 22 introduced a mocking cynicism to World War II. Ferdinand Celine smashed the notion of the novel, turning the very form into a distorted shape that made me gasp with pleasurable pain. I was drowning, and instead of throwing me lifelines, my literary heroes were teaching me how to drown better.

For example, I identified with the boy in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis who grew up and turned into a beetle. Growing up cost him his innocence and his parents’ love. Kafka’s book, along with so much of the literature of the day, hammered home the point that by entering adulthood we would lose our souls.

Arthur Miller captured the essence of spiritually dead adults in Death of a Salesman. The play’s anti-hero Willy Loman tried to cope with his emptiness by deceiving himself. Humbert Humbert, the anti-hero of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, was an even creepier master of self-deception. Instead of blaming himself for sexually abusing a little girl, he blamed her, thus demonstrating how far adults will twist their own values in order to serve their own needs.

After years of absorbing these stories, I was terrified of adulthood, convinced that growing up would make me ugly and shallow. My parents believed that sending me to college would prepare me for life. By the end of those four years, I felt far less prepared to be an adult than when I started.

Why Humans Need To Direct Literature Back to its Central Goal
To maintain civilization, each generation must pass along sophisticated social lessons. In preliterate societies, these lessons were communicated in oral stories, with simple, powerful messages. But by the twentieth century, society seems to have forgotten this essential purpose of stories. Instead, stories were being used in one of two ways.

Stories were used as pure entertainment for the masses, with no lesson at all. Those were the genre fiction novels and movies, the thrillers and mysteries, comedies and romances. And for the educated elite, stories became intellectual playthings to be admired for artistic sophistication, but again with no particular emphasis on helping kids understand life.

As an intellectual young man, I desperately sought lessons about life. Unfortunately, I was born at a time when the message embedded in almost every book taught that there’s really no point to grow up at all. It’s true that great literature contained an internal elegance and brilliance, but the underlying message was awful.

Memoirs Demonstrate How Literature Ought to Work
Forty years later, I learned valuable lessons peeking out from behind the twists and turns of literary stories. My belated insight came from reading Professor Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita In Tehran. As an English literature professor in Iran, she tries to convince her students that Western literature is not evil. She uses the villain in Nabokov’s Lolita as an example. According to Nafisi, Humbert Humbert’s manipulation of a little girl reveals the corrupt morality of turning women into things.

Through Nafisi’s eyes, Nabokov’s novel becomes an important window into the dark secrets of the human psyche. It’s quite simple, really. He is embedding the message in irony, saying one thing and meaning another. But to explain this lesson to her students, as well as to us, her readers, she uses an incredibly tricky device. She simply walks outside her classroom into the streets of Iran, where armed thugs treat women like things.

By artfully describing the events and their impact on her, she turns her life from a series of events into literature. While she teaches her students about Nabakov’s book, she uses her own life-as-literature to teach us about our place in the world.

For example, she recounts an episode that occurs one morning when she attempts to enter campus. A guard angrily blocks her. “Take that rouge off this instant. Don’t you know that it is a criminal act?” The guard rubs Nafisi’s face raw trying to get off the red, which is in fact her own natural coloring. The incident leaves Nafisi feeling violated and naked.

Thanks to Nafisi’s brilliant writing and a lifetime of symbolic thinking, she spins the two parallel dimensions, weaving together her real world experience with her intellectual insights into the literature.

My English teachers did not have the advantage of showing us reality. Instead, they were limited to the lessons inside the books, making the incorrect assumption that I didn’t need to learn lessons about life. Nafisi’s ability as a memoir writer adds a crucial dimension to her teaching toolkit allowing her to help students grow up.

When I first read Lolita so many years ago, I felt disgusted by Nabokov’s clever trick of taking me inside the mind of a creepy man who has no ability or interest in self-reflection. In my youthful view, the novel provided more proof that adults stink. Now, with Azar Nafisi’s help, I see a sophisticated insight into the darkness of manipulative men who use women as things. It would have been a good lesson, but because it was couched in irony, in the distorted viewpoint of a first-person anti-hero, the lesson was out of my reach.

Because memoirs are written “straight” (not “slant”) and from a first person point of view, it is easy and natural to enter Azar Nafisi’s world and feel her pain. By letting me experience what it is like to be on the receiving end of abuse, she makes me want to cry or vomit about the way millions of women are treated, just a few thousand miles away. Thankfully, her story also provides hope by revealing the compassion of people such as Nafisi herself, who risk their own safety to help kids build up their self-esteem.

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.

Epilog to Part 1
It has been forty-five years since I have been a student of an English literature professor, so I consider the possibility that in recent times, literature professors have expanded their view of literature to include not just the author’s world but the reader’s as well. To learn more, I turned to the friendship I formed with Robert Waxler, an English professor at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who wrote two excellent memoirs, and happens to have the same last name as me.

His two memoirs share a lifetime of love for literature, as well as for his two sons, so I assumed he would be able to relate to my passion for life lessons. However, in a book he recently wrote about English literature, the Risk of Reading, he describes in detail the method of line by line explication, attempting to take us into the lines of great literature with the reverence usually associated with scripture. In my opinion, this approach glorifies complexity and undermines the value of literature as a teaching tool for social development. Click here to read the review I wrote about his Risk of Reading. Click here for an essay about his memoir Courage to Walk, and here for an interview I conducted with Robert Waxler about the relationship between literature and life.

However, in two other memoirs by literature professors, I discover that Azar Nafisi is not alone in her application of literature as a tool for life.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, by literature professor Karen Swallow Prior reveals how literature helped her steer through the challenges of growing up, and like Nafisi, she teaches her college students how to see their own lives reflected in literature. Click here for my essay about Booked by Karen Swallow Prior.

In Freedom Writer’s Diary, Erin Gruwell shows her high school students how literature could help them find their own higher truths and then goes further to show how writing about their own lives can deepen their search for truth. Click here for my essay about Freedom Writer’s Diary

Notes

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.

A Cat Memoir Reveals Life’s High Stakes

by Jerry Waxler

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

Many aspiring memoir writers wonder if their lives are sufficiently interesting to justify a whole book. But we’ve all experienced the building blocks of good stories if we’ve ever felt shame, dashed hopes, fears or personal conflict. A well-crafted story weaves these less pleasant elements of the human experience together with ordinary events to turn the mundane into the sublime.

For an example of the way emotional undercurrents transform everyday life into a good story, read Anne Kaier’s memoir Home with Henry in which the author rescues an injured cat and brings him home. After she saves his life, she turns her attention toward his social health. She wants him to become a congenial member of the family. Despite this lightweight exterior, Anne Kaier’s story is driven by emotions every bit as powerful as any in the human panoply.

Home with Henry is a meditation on human existence, and how the love that seeps into our hearts, even from a humble source, has the power to turn despair into joy. For a memoir junky like me, the book is also a meditation on life stories, showing that emotions of love and loneliness shine just as brightly off simple circumstances as they do from more serious ones, the way a diamond brilliantly reflects sunlight when held at just the right angle.

By fixing her gaze on a detail, she takes us all the way into it
Fiction accentuates emotion by focusing on isolated, exaggerated events. Consider for example Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea in which a fisherman goes out for the day’s catch. He tries his best and comes home with a pile of bones. Old Man and the Sea generates intensity with grit, determination, and the cruelty of nature but beneath the macho exterior, there is an old man who seeks his dignity.

Home with Henry, like Old Man and the Sea, isolates a feature of life, and goes deep. Every day, the author struggles to coax the cat out of his self-protective stance and into a relationship. Externally Anne Kaier’s urban townhouse seems far more placid than a shaky fishing boat. Her emotional struggle with the cat seems far less dangerous than fighting off sharks. And yet within her ordinary circumstances, she struggles to find her dignity with no less urgency than Hemingway’s fisherman.

Since Anne Kaier also writes poetry, I expected her memoir to be informed by a poet’s mind. But I didn’t know what a memoir written by a poet would sound like. After reading it, I see how her deliberate, almost poetic fixation, word by word, phrase by phrase, constructs a narrative that shapes the ordinary feelings of loneliness into the structure of a good story.

William Shakespeare’s sonnets offer an example of how a poet turns an ordinary emotion into a sublime tribute. How can so much profound power be contained within the events that we take for granted every day? Another poet, William Blake, explains it this way. You can see the world in a grain of sand, an outrageous claim that is demonstrated over and over, not just in poetry but in stories as well. Ernest Hemingway reveals his hero’s soul in one day of fishing, and Anne Kaier explores her soul through her relationship to a cat.

What makes her childlike voice so haunting?
Every writer searches for a voice that will linger in the reader’s mind, inviting imagination back to the story the way a good song plays out in memory long after the physical recording stops. Anne Kaier’s voice provokes thought, and it lingers. What is it about this voice?

Her short simple sentences slow my mind and pull me all the way into her interior perspective. Does she speak this way to her cat and nephew, hoping the simplicity will suit them? Is this her normal interior voice, a slow, peaceful, hypnotic voice developed over the years as a survival tool for loneliness? Is it a poetic voice? Whatever the reason, the simplicity of language is important to the story, and worth absorbing as I attempt to make sense of why this little book “works.”

Loneliness and the power of low stakes writing
The backstory of Home with Henry is that Anne Kaier bought that townhouse alone because the years kept passing and a mate had not yet appeared. The ticking of this “clock of life” adds the dimension of mortality. This danger may not be as fast and frightening as Hemingway’s sharks, but it is no less ominous. The threat of death is the great awakener, in stories as well as in life, causing us to evaluate our actions, and choose wisely.

Her life in that townhouse feels so normal, hardly worthy of a story, but in the presence of that ticking clock, loneliness feels like death, or at least like death row, waiting to be released one way or the other. Home with Henry doesn’t dwell on loneliness. On the contrary, it highlights the potential release that might be forthcoming from a cat’s company. But behind the story, there is playfulness, like laughing at a cat who stares at a dancing beam of light, with coiled muscles, pouncing with every intention of killing it, if it could only catch the damned thing.

Happy endings?
When I was in college, I fell into deep despair, fueled in part by my addiction to literature with cynical endings. Despite the misery each one provoked, I felt compelled to keep reading stories that celebrated meaninglessness. When I finally kicked the habit, I realized I could serve my own psychological needs far more effectively by looking at books as fountains of hope. I eagerly look toward the end of each one in order to replenish my supply.

Throughout Home with Henry, the author tries to accept that the cat might be too ornery and independent for this type of relationship. Struggling to move past that stuck point represents the dramatic tension of the outer story. From one point of view, the outcome is utterly predictable. Even so, my story reading mind suspended me deliciously above the dark chasm of failure. At the end, (spoiler alert) instead of “girl gets guy” as would happen at the end of a romance novel, this memoir ends with “girl gets cat.” Even though it was predictable, my entire body relaxed once I was certain they were going to live happily ever after.

The apparent simplicity of Home with Henry is made infinitely more poignant when you take into account how much gravitas Anne Kaier has known in her life. In a memoir workshop I attended a couple of years ago at the Philadelphia Writers Conference, she explained the rare congenital skin disease that almost killed her in infancy, and continued to weigh heavily on her ever since.

In a journal article, she writes about her condition with a combination of brutal honesty, journalistic precision, and literary excellence. By reading this article, one understands the range of her voice, a range that suggests that even when an author finds one’s voice, other voices are also available.

Anne Kaier’s life and work offers hope to any writer who searches for the words to express one’s life, whether in essays, a short stories, a book length memoir, or in poetry. Through the magic of creative effort, we can learn to find the words that weave the magic carpet that lifts readers away from everyday life into the writer’s transformative world.

Notes

Read Anne Kaier’s runner up for Best American Essay of 2013.

Anne Kaier’s home page 

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.

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