Friday, April 29, 2011

The Power and Passion of Memoir...

I call it The Moment. You know, that split second where our lives are divided into the Pre-Diagnosis and Post-Diagnosis period. 

And I've always thought split was the perfect word for it too. Everything I was, everything I had, knew, and experienced was upended and turned inside out until I didn't recognize my life anymore.

Until I didn't even know me.

Every day since has been about pulling all those pieces all together, turning them right side up, and then  fitting them all back together. I even thought maybe I could find some meaning in it all. No easy task. But one of the ways my son and I have done it is by writing our stories down...

Anyway, I stumbled on this article , Recovering Self-concept After Trauma, by Jerry Waxler the other day, and it was a huge ah-hah read for me. Yes, I thought. That's it.

So I wrote Jerry. He's a speaker, educator, author, and therapist. I know of him and his passion for memoir; we both frequent the same writer's forum and he's been insanely helpful aiding struggling writers on there. But I didn't know him, so I was incredibly pleased he agreed to come talk to us a bit about the power of memoir. Scroll down for our chat.

You can read more about Jerry here on his website, Memory Writers Network. Also, you can check out more articles here,  his books The 4 Elements for Writers and Learn to Write Your Memoir in 4 Weeks here, and his blog here. A list of his events and workshops are here

Jerry Waxler

Can you tell us a little about yourself:
Haha! One of the reasons I became interested in memoir writing was because I never knew how to answer this question. Your intro is pretty good. I am a blogger, therapist, author, teacher, husband, cockatiel and horse lover. If you are still interested in a year or two when my memoir is published, you’ll be able to find a lot more in there.

Tell us a little about your mission. You’re so passionate about the art of memoir, as well as helping others; what drew you to this?
I have always been fascinated by what goes on inside my own mind, and frustrated at not understanding what goes on inside other people. Memoirs are the perfect solution. By writing a memoir, people dig deep into understanding themselves, and do it in a way that they can share with others. For me it is the perfect antidote to all sorts of social ills. By seeing into the mind of “the other” we increase our mutual compassion. By sharing the details of various types of journeys, we learn life lesson. We are transported out of our own reality, into someone else’s, giving us travel, entertainment, education. The list goes on.

How long did it take to write your books? Are more planned?
My first book “Four Elements for Writers” evolved from about ten years of interest in self-help and psychology literature. When I became involved with a writing community, I wanted to frame these techniques in a form that could help writers. The book emerged from the handouts and exercises I prepared for a series of workshops over a period of about two years. The second book “Learn to Write Your Memoir” also emerged from workshops. I love teaching. By teaching and learning from my students, I can refine my message. The second book took me about one year. I have several other books in progress. One is, of course, my own memoir. Since I had no prior training as a story writer, I have had to learn how to write stories at the same time as I sort out my past. That has been underway for about five years. The other book in progress is about the psychological and social importance of memoirs in the twenty first century. The interesting thing about this book is that I thought I was completely finished last year. One of my readers complained about its structure, and I decided I wanted to completely redo it. I essentially threw out the entire manuscript and started over. I have heard about writers doing this, but I never thought I would have the stomach for it. It turns out not to be so hard.

You’ve authored a blog and numerous columns. What inspired you to write books  too?
I love writing the blogs because they give me a sense of accomplishment, and when people like you find me and reach out, it gives me a sense of community. It’s very rewarding. I also love books. I have learned and grown so much from reading books. When you sit down with a book, you can move into the author’s frame of reference. It’s a wonderful medium, but writing a book requires a lot more patience than a blog.

Speaking of which, you have an amazing blog as well. Can you share what you hoped to accomplish and why with it?
Thanks for the compliment. In addition to creating an online community, the blog is a repository of ideas. So if I want to refer back to something I said a couple of years ago about a particular memoir or a particular challenge memoir writers face, it’s online. Also, blogs are a terrific way to let people see who you are and what you have to say. I recommend blog writing for anyone who has a message they want to share with the world.

You say there’s a deep power to memoir. That it can heal, lend insight to our lives and purpose, even after some sort of trauma or life crisis.
Yes, yes, yes! Find the narrative for your book, and you will develop a deeper sense of who you are, how you got here, and with a little practice, it can help you find where you are going.

 But there can be an intimidation to writing, especially for someone who never saw themselves as a writer. Can anyone tap into memoir, and find it helpful?  How do we get past that fear?
Sure. There is always plenty of intimidation when you try to do something creative. I look at such reluctance as a solvable problem. My book Four Elements for Writers offers psychological tools like how to refute your own self-defeating mental approaches, how to love your audience. There are other approaches, of course. Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way is all about healing from these kinds of self-downing attitudes. 

And how do you advise someone start out? Journaling? Diary?
Ah, you’re onto something here. Starting is the key. Once you start, it’s easier to keep going. In fact, one of the techniques I suggest in Four Elements for Writers is to break down difficult tasks into smaller, less intimidating ones. Journaling is a great tool for building momentum as a writer. In my book “Learn to Write Your Memoir” I offer a step by step guide.

Speaking of fear, you talk about sharing, how meaningful sharing your story can be.  But what about those who want to write just for themselves? Is it still beneficial? Writing memoir doesn’t mean you have to let others read it, or even *gulp* seek out publication?
Writing for yourself is a fabulous activity with many benefits. I have done it for years, and consider it one of the important self-development tools of my life. Memoir writing doesn’t take the place of journal writing. It’s simply a different medium. Memoir writing requires that you edit and shape your writing into a form that would make sense to a stranger. Even if no stranger ever reads it, you gain the benefit of trying to form your thoughts into the shape of a story, rather than the free-form of a journal.

What if you’re convinced you’re just a horrible writer?
That’s  a perfect example of a self-downing thought. First of all, your choice of words, “horrible” and “writer” are designed to make you feel bad. Imagine how rude you would feel to say such a thing to someone else. Why say it that way to yourself? Frame it in a way that encourages improvement. “You are a writer who has a message, and will improve your ability to communicate that message if you work on your craft.” This longer sentence doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as “horrible writer” but if you can shape your thoughts in this constructive manner, you will encourage yourself to grow. Another problem with “horrible writer” is that it doesn’t really mean anything. Who are you comparing yourself with? The healthiest person to compare yourself with is yourself in ten years. If you look forward to your constant improvement as a writer, imagine your pleasure when you can look back and say, “I am so much better now.”

One of the things I love is when you include a brief writing exercise for your readers to experiment with…do you have a favorite? Can you share it?
I write my essays based on things I read in memoirs, or challenges I have faced in a memoir class or when writing my own memoir. Then I try to imagine how a reader could apply the lesson to themselves. I don’t know if I have a favorite, but the one that got the most reader response was a writing prompt about hair. “Good hair in the melting pot.”

What do you hope your readers come away with after reading your work?
Inspiration to write about their lives.

On a less serious note:

If you had to choose between Hemingway, Vonnegut, and J.K. Rowling as the world’s best  author, and you couldn’t choose Vonnegut or Rowling, who would you pick?
Nice! Well, I think one reason readers are so smitten with Hemingway is because he was so driven to write stories based on his own experience. Of course, he was an unusually competent writer and a profound adventurer so he had unique advantages. But one thing of his we can emulate is to use the authentic power of our own experience to develop stories worth reading.

What would your last meal be?
I would fast.

Are you a milk chocolate, dark chocolate, or white chocolate kind of guy?
Nicely put. When I was in college, I saw a news article in which Lady Bird Johnson was asked to pick her favorite, and she said “They each have their own lovely qualities.” I thought it was such a perfectly executed side step, I pasted it on my wall, along with hundreds of other interesting newspaper clippings. I’d like to use Lady Bird Johnson’s device to answer your question.

A huge thank you to Jerry. (Readers, make sure to head over to the poll and give us your own chocolate pick, and yes, play favorites!)  And remember, if you buy and like Jerry's books (and any book you've found helpful, really) help spread the word.  Meanwhile, consider getting writing yourself. For yourself. These healing power in words...


  1. See you had to get chocolate in there, but did enjoy reading the interview.
    Take care, Gillian

  2. It's like my very own six degrees of sep. Everything somehow, some way, comes right back to chocolate. :)

    I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. Jerry was incredibly sweet for doing it and gave some great answers, didn't he?


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