Jerry Waxler teaches memoir writing at Northampton Community College, Bethlehem, PA, online, and around the country. His Memory Writers Network blog offers hundreds of essays, reviews, and interviews about reading and writing memoirs. He is on the board of the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference and National Association of Memoir Writers and holds a BA in Physics and an MS in Counseling Psychology.
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Around the age of fifty-five, I began to look for a new creative challenge, and decided that the most interesting thing I could possibly do would be to write the story of my life. This turned out to be an ambitious goal, because I didn’t know how to write stories and wasn’t even sure if an analytically-minded adult like me could ever learn. But if I didn’t try, I would never find out.
I started taking classes and practicing, and at each step, I learned some small idea or new way of looking at things. Then I used that idea to help me evolve to the next step. One of the most important of these ideas was that to write stories, be on the lookout for strong scenes.
A strong scene is like a grain of sand in the soft tissue of the psyche. Some memories go so deep into your psyche, they are powerful enough to fuel a whole book. In memoir classes, these life-changing moments often seem to explode from memory onto the page, as if they were too strong to be kept hidden forever. For example, at one of the first memoir classes I attended, I wrote about the time in 1967 when a peaceful war protest escalated into a riot. Decades later, when I thought of writing about my life, that scene was one of the memories that forced me to keep going, trying to turn those years into a good story.
Short stories tend to be more lighthearted than book length stories. Typically the shorter form romps among the normal stuff that happens every day and drives us crazy. Even though short stories are lighter, they still need enough focused intensity to keep a reader’s interest. To find that intensity, look for scenes in your life that feel like grains of sand. . . Moments you keep thinking about. . . Moments you need to wrap in the smooth container of a story.
For example, the scene that motivated the title of this article occurred twelve years ago. My wife and I recently moved across town and our new next door neighbors seem a bit standoffish. One spring day, I look out the window and see my wife talking to the neighbor. I think “Oh, how nice. They’re starting to break the ice.”
A few minutes later she runs in, practically crying. “Oh my God. I feel so humiliated. He was really upset about the length of our grass. You’ve got to get out there and mow right now.”
“You’re kidding right?” But I detect no tone of irony in her voice. I immediately begin building my case.
“I like the lawn long. It feels more natural. I don’t want to live on a golf course.”
She stares at me.
“The bunnies love it,” I continue. Mentioning bunnies always makes us both smile, but this time nothing. I keep pressing. “The groundhog looks so cute when he scampers through it.”
“None of that matters. They are really upset.”
“Okay,” I say reluctantly, hating to be bullied by neighbors. But now it isn’t just the neighbors. My wife is now in on it.
That’s the scene, but how could I turn it into a story? To take it further, I need more scenes. The fact that it continues to nag at me provides a thousand scenes. For the next twelve years, every time I decide if it’s time to mow, and every time I adjust the cutting depth, I have an inner debate – should I leave it a longer for the sake of the bunnies, or shorter for the sake of the neighbors?
Another scene involves me hearing evidence to backup my belief that longer grass is better. The day I heard the organic gardener on public radio saying that a longer lawn is healthier for the grass, I feel vindicated. I eagerly tell my wife the good news, only to find out she doesn’t really care.
So now I have a few scenes. How to tie them together? A good story needs to have a point. Where is this story going? In a fiction story, the author would invent some outrageous wrap up, creating a scene that heightens the humor, irony, or shock. It could involve vigilantes. Or my neighbor and I could discover we are distantly related and end up best friends. However, in a nonfiction piece, our creativity must work within the actual facts.
If I had been swayed toward the neat, lawn ethic of my neighbors, I could end the story as a converted lawn guy, and call the story “From Lawn Slob to Lawn Snob.” However, I stuck to my position. When I walk outside to the dividing line between our properties, his side, as short and bright green and mine variegated and wild looking. So what is the point of the story I would write? Since my neighbor and I both like to rescue feral cats. I could show how our harmony in one area has supplanted our tension in another. I could include a photo of us standing together holding a rescued cat, with the dividing lawn of the two lawns behind us, and call the article “Agree to Disagree.
But this isn’t an article about lawns. It’s an article about learning to tell stories, and to conclude such an article, I need to bring it back to the lessons I learned in my journey as a story writer. Find the strong scenes. Add supporting scenes. To develop a punchy conclusion, let your mind roam through the implications of the scenes. What did you learn? What were the ironies? When you find an ending that seems fun, work back through the scenes and try to glue them together in a way that seems to effortlessly lead to this clever conclusion. Voila! A storywriter is born.
ABOUT THE BOOK
When I attended my first memoir writing class in the summer of 2004, I quickly realized I wasn’t alone. Many others were reviewing their memories in search of interesting stories. To learn more, I began reading memoirs, many by authors whose main claim to fame was that they had taken the time to turn their lives into stories.
Each book offered a rich, generous window into the author’s life. To organize my thoughts and share them, I posted essays on my blog. Again, I found I wasn’t alone. Through the Internet, I started corresponding with other memoir bloggers and then with memoir writers. We were forming online communities!
I began teaching workshops where I introduced students to techniques for finding their own narratives. Once they realized they could translate the chaos of memories into the order of stories, they expressed their appreciation. Their excitement added to mine.
In 2008, a book publisher heard me speak and said I ought to write about my big ideas. “What big ideas?” I asked. “You know. What you’ve been saying about the importance of memoirs for individuals and society.”
At first I resisted the suggestion. I have always been addicted to ideas, and thought that finally in my later life, I was ready to replace analytical thoughts with lyrical ones. However, I couldn’t resist the challenge. I thought that perhaps I could achieve both goals. I would try to turn my ideas about memoirs into a good story.
To illustrate my observations, I provided specific examples from my growing shelf of memoirs. I soon realized I was writing a book about books. This turned out to be one of the biggest ideas of all. In our literate society, we learn so much about life from the writings that have been recorded before us. As memoir writers ourselves we pass along what we have learned to the next generation.
After five years of reading, interviewing, writing and revising, my editors reassured me that the book was ready. In 2013, I published the Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire. In the book, I explore the current interest in memoirs: where it came from, why it is having such a profound influence on readers and writers, what I have learned from it and what you can too.
One reason I felt so compelled to write the book was because of my belief that writing a memoir can be a powerful aid to self-understanding. Turning life into story moves events from their haphazard storage in memory back into a sequence. We see the scenes more clearly, and by finding the narrative that links them, we understand ourselves in a new light.
Unlike more isolated forms of introspection such as therapy and journaling, this one reaches outward. From the time you share a few anecdotes with fellow writers, you begin to see yourself the way others have seen you, providing an almost magical amalgamation of self and society.
When I was growing up in the sixties, I looked for my truth in the stories popular among young intellectuals. Authors like Franz Kafka, Joseph Heller, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus convinced me that life is meaningless. Their powerful literary works helped me dismantle my trust in the world, and without trust, I sank.
Now in the 21st century, memoirs offer a more healing collection of stories that weave the good and the bad in life into a purposeful narrative. Instead of undermining readers with disturbing twists of irony and dystopia, modern memoir authors shape real life, with its cruelties, vagaries and victories into an orderly container as ancient as civilization itself.
The bestselling authors in the front lines of the Memoir Revolution taught us about this healing potential of life stories. By sharing the psychological influences that shaped them Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life), Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) and Jeannette Walls (Glass Castle) gave the rest of us license to explore our own. Like published authors who have worked long and hard to discover the purpose and character arc of their protagonist, we aspiring memoir writers strive to find the same driving forces within our own lives.
Memoir-lovers in my experience intuitively recognize the potential that this genre has for healing us individually and collectively. My book, Memoir Revolution, backs up these intuitive views with research and examples about how the cultural passion for life stories serves us all.
Paperback: 190 pages
Publisher: Neuralcoach Press; 1 edition (April 9, 2013)
I received a copy of this book, at no charge to me, in exchange for my honest review. No items that I receive are ever sold…they are kept by me, or given to family and/or friends.
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