January 27, 2009

Memoir & Writing: Jerry Waxler, author of Learn to Write Your Memoir in Four Weeks

The Author

Jerry Waxler, M.S. is a speaker, workshop leader and memoir coach, who specializes in helping writers achieve their goals, basing his techniques on his Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, experience as a therapist, and a lifelong love for writing. He has written two books, “Four Elements for Writers,” a self-help book to help overcome obstacles and harness motivation to write, and “Learn to Write Your Memoir in Four Weeks, a Step by Step Guide to Writing the Stories of Your Life,” both available from his website, www.jerrywaxler.com. He is also the author of a blog, Memory Writers Network, which contains 150 essays about reading and writing memoirs, including book reviews, writing prompts, and instruction. To read more of his essays about reading and writing memoirs, visit his blog at www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog. Jerry is a board member of the Philadelphia Writers Conference, (www.pwcwriters.org) a member of the advisory board of the National Association of Memoir Writers, www.namw.org, and cofounder of the yahoo group, LifeWritersForum, groups.yahoo.com/groups/lifewritersforum.

The Book

Experiences come and go, trailing behind a string of memories, some fascinating, some ordinary, and everything in between. This workbook will show you how to reclaim those memories and turn them into stories you can share. In twenty eight lessons you’ll learn how to:

-Pull details from the tangled past.
-Describe scenes that engage the reader.
-Organize and shape your story.
-Navigate between truth and fiction.
-Cope with painful emotions.
-Get started and keep going.

“In bite-sized portions of advice and guidance, Waxler takes you through the process, beginning with giving yourself permission and advancing through all the stages of the process. Anyone thinking of putting down the bones – whether for posterity, notoriety, or therapy – will find much here to inspire, motivate, and validate.”
- Foster Winans, best-selling author of “Trading Secrets,” and co-author of “The Man on Mao’s Right” by Ji Chaozhu. http://www.fosterwinans.com/

"Jerry Waxler’s wonderful essay about my memoir told me so much about the way a reader has entered my story and enhanced it through his interpretations and consciousness. Thank you, Jerry, for reading my book and letting me and others know how it affected you. Blessings in all your work. You are a great gift to the memoir, storytelling, and healing world.”
- Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., president of National Memoir Writers Association (www.nmwa.org) and author of “Don’t Call Me Mother: Breaking the Chain of Mother-Daughter Abandonment”

“Jerry is going to help a lot of folks open up and tell the amazing stories that are inside them waiting to be told. I highly recommend memoir programs to everyone – fiction and non-fiction writers- even poets. As writers, we all need to look inward at our own experiences in order to make we write as rich and real as possible.”
- Jonathan Maberry, writing teacher, coach, and award winning author of the thriller “Ghost Road Blues” www.jonathanmaberry.com

Click the cover above to order Learn to Write Your Memoir in Four Weeks today!

On Memoir Writing

What do you think is the lure of memoirs for readers?
I think many people in the twenty first century are tired of headlines about the sex and drug habits of celebrities. We’re waking up to the wealth of experience lurking within the stories of our neighbors. Memoirs let us learn about other people, what they see, what they think, and what their experience is like, inside their own mind. In my opinion, the memoir wave reflects the fact that we have collectively become more curious about each other.

Do you think there is a bit of egotism on the part of the writer who focuses on memoirs as a means to “tell stories”?
I don’t at all agree with the concern that writing about personal experience is egotistical. Of course, to write a memoir you have to talk about yourself. But I don’t have a problem with that. I love people and want to know all about them, and the only way I can learn is if they tell me.

Reading memoirs lets me replace the cartoon-like impressions I form when I look at people from the outside. Their hair, clothes, and vocal nuances tell me hardly anything about who they are and where they’ve been. By reading memoirs, I am populating my mind with actual human being. Memoirs shatter misunderstanding and ignorance. I’m convinced that as more people write and read memoirs, it will lead to world peace.

A good memoir, though, is not just “spilling your guts out” or “whining.” Even if the first draft contains those features, the book has a long way to go before it is ready for the public. During the revision process, the writer diligently polishes and shapes. As you edit, you discover within all your ups and downs a story that offers the reader intellectual, emotional, literary, and even spiritual satisfaction.

Why did you, as writer, feel compelled to write your story?
For years, my main interest was writing about my ideas, so I rambled in my journal with no focus on making my words interesting to the public. When I started writing in earnest, I submitted my work to critique groups. Their consistent feedback was, “Your writing feels too impersonal, as if your ideas are falling from the sky.” I decided that to connect with readers, I needed to put myself into the frame. And since I didn’t know how to tell stories about myself, or for that matter tell stories at all, I started learning.

Why did you feel compelled to share this story with others?
This is a huge question. Why does any writer want readers? Stephen King says in his memoir, “On Writing” that writing is a sort of magic that transmits ideas from one person’s mind into another. I love this idea. By writing, I can share my thoughts, initiating an intimate connection with people I can’t even see. That begs the question, “Why should I want to do that?” I’m not sure exactly of the reason, but I am sure of the result. Extending my writing to a public audience has turned into the most exciting project in my life. In exchange for the hours I sit at my desk putting words on paper, I am instantly rewarded by the pleasure of creativity. Over time, my world has become richer, thanks to a network of readers and writers. And part of my payoff is the fantastic notion that somehow, through my writing, I will be able to serve people.

I know this last goal is lofty. How can my writing help people? To answer that question, I look back gratefully on all the books that have inspired and informed me. I feel like I have been lifted by their river of culture, and now I too want to contribute my words to the river. Together we writers have a responsibility to the world.

As my lifetime has carried me into the Twenty First Century I find increasingly interesting opportunities. The internet has flung open the doors that kept us hidden in our homes, blasting through the barriers of distance, and magically expanded our ability to meet people. Through my blog and podcasts on www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog, social networks like Facebook, Yahoogroups like lifewritersforum, that I co-host with Sharon Lippincott, and associations like National Association of Memoir Writers, founded by Linda Joy Myers, I strive to share myself, creating a micro-community of people who are passionate about turning their memories into the stories of their lives.

The Excerpts

From Chapter 9 of Learn to Write Your Memoir in Four Weeks: A Step by Step Guide to Writing the Stories of Your Life

Build a framework: The Timeline
Memory can jump anywhere it wants, so to tame it you need to apply an organizing principle. I suggest a timeline. By gathering the events and positioning them in the order they occurred, you will take an important step toward translating memories into memoirs. The timeline creates an order that lets you tell the sequence and lets readers understand it.

At first this may not seem possible – you didn’t keep extensive records. You’re not sure when things happened. Capturing a memory might feel like trying to catch a ray of light. Every time you think you have one, it slips away. Applying a simple timeline strategy will help you put them in place. Like a pointillist painter who adds a bit here and a bit there, soon the whole picture will start to take form.

Bonus Excerpt from Four Elements for Writers: How to Get Beyond “Yes-But,” Conquer Self-Doubt and Inertia, and Achieve Your Writing Goals

You’re already a writer
To gain deeper insight into writing, imagine a baby pointing at a ball. She hesitates, furrows her brow, and then says, “Ball.” She peers up into her father’s eyes. A smile crosses his lips. He reaches down to hug her, cooing, “That’s right, precious. It’s a ball.” Her word has a magical effect, opening the floodgates of love. From the very beginning she learns the intimate connection between words and love. That baby has a simple task – match the word to the object. As we grow, our challenges increase. We learn to infuse abstract ideas and emotions into our sentences. At each stage, our reward is the effective communication with our listener.

Writing simply extends our reach, allowing us to “speak” to listeners we can’t see. When we write a letter to a friend, we think of something we want to say, and then we form sentences to say it. Sitting at our desk, we are crafting missives to reach their mind.

We reach a higher level of complexity when we recount stories. From the first time we answer, “What did you do today?” our journey as story tellers begins. Storytelling runs so deeply in the human experience, it had already achieved astonishing sophistication at the dawn of western civilization. The ancient Greek epics of the Iliad and Odyssey were sung from memory in a live performance. Spoken words continue to be important for audiences. When we sit down to write a movie script, we offer audiences essentially the same thing Homer offered his. Whether we lift the audience with our words, inform them, or simply help them pass the time, we are offering them a few hours of our world.

Imagine yourself as a modern bard, telling your lover about your wild teenage years. You recall a time when you almost got in trouble with the law. You’ve never told anyone about this before, so it comes out in a flurry. You try to describe the events that lead up to the incident. You remember your heart jumping into your throat when you saw the flashing red lights. Your heart pounded as you pictured yourself calling your parents from the station. In desperation, you lied, and miracle of miracles, he believed you. And then you sat there in a puddle of elation and spent fear as you watched him walk back to his squad car and drive away.

But you get confused about the sequence. Your listener furrows her brow and says, “Slow down.” And you say, “Oops. I jumped ahead.” You go back and give a little more background. You reshape your words and continue.

The story appeals to you. It conveys powerful emotions, and has a good punch line, so a few weeks later you tell it to your lunch buddies. One of them says, “That’s fascinating, but there’s one thing I don’t get.” The next time you tell it at a party, it has more shape. It makes sense now from beginning to end. You get the desired laugh. You decide to write it.

Your initial draft flows easily, but as writing teacher Sol Stein says, first draft words come from the top of your head. They make sense but have no pizazz. You show the story to someone. They say, “That’s nice but I got a little lost in this one part.”

After a few tries, you appreciate the differences between speaking and writing. The reader cannot see your face or hear your intonations. You can’t answer questions to explain things you left out. And to help them understand where you’re coming from, you must somehow inject your enthusiasm and wit into words.

To accomplish this task you must improve your writing. It’s been years since you tried to increase your communication skills. It requires more work than you expected. Learning to show emotions this way feels like trying to tie your shoes while wearing mittens.

When you think you’re done, you send it to a fellow writer, with no explanation. Let the story speak for itself. You get feedback. It turns out you’re not done. You edit it further. You are preparing your story so a stranger can see and feel the things you desire to convey. In the end, the results are emotionally equivalent to what happened to that little girl who said “ball.” You want to transmit what’s inside your mind into someone else’s mind in order to close the gap between you, and somehow receive a spark of love in return.

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