Sunday, September 15, 2013

The psychology of memoir writing - Jerry Waxler (Part 2)

I'm so pleased to have Jerry Waxler back here with us. He has so much knowledge and interesting information about memoir, I'm sure we could go on and on. However, we'll touch on just a few topics here and hopefully you'll buy and read his book Memoir Revolution to learn more.

Back to Jerry.

In Memoir Revolution you talk about the psychology of memoir writing. I’m interested in that aspect as well and would like to ask you a few questions about it.

Madeline: Please discuss Dr. Pennebaker and his contribution to memoir.
Jerry: Dr. James Pennebaker is a researcher who studies the positive influence of writing. In a landmark study he demonstrated that students who wrote in their journals about some serious emotional dilemma ended up visiting the infirmary fewer times than students who merely wrote unemotional events, like what movie they saw. The results show in a controlled scientific way that writing heals not only the mind but also the body.

Such research helps academic and scientific institutions justify investing money in research. Also, if you’ve never done much writing about yourself, Pennebaker’s research can motivate you to get started. If you already love to write, and have been doing it for a while, you can decide for yourself how it makes you feel.

Madeline: In your experience, how does memoir writing aid healing? This is a subject very near and dear to my heart.
Jerry: For many years, journal writing has been used by individuals to help them improve self-understanding and weather emotional storms. When I was in my twenties, I went through a period of deep confusion. To survive, I wrote an hour a day in my journal. Those writing sessions were like a lifeline that kept me sane. I’ve heard of many other stories from people who journal or who otherwise turn to writing as a form of healing.

However, journaling is hardly ever intended for any other eyes than our own. As a result, even though we’ve reduced our confusion, we still might feel very much alone. When I realized I could develop a story that would allow me to share my life experience, I discovered a fascinating new healing dimension to writing.

Instead of just writing about myself for myself, I would write a story that would inform others, help me tie together the parts of myself, and help me delve deeper into the meaning and purpose of my life. I saw memoir writing as a perfect confluence of these three lifelong pursuits: appreciation of the Story as a method for understanding life, search for inner peace, and improving my understanding of my role in society.

I’m not the only one who has experienced this confluence. In the memoir blogging world, the “virtual community” where we are now having this discussion, many of us have enjoyed and want to share these benefits. You are an excellent example.

In your memoir Leaving the Hall Light On, when you were attempting to recover from the enormous personal shock of losing your son, the memoir itself is an expression of your need for a coherent understanding. I believe it is natural that you turned to the art of Story to express these life events.

I could go on and on about this subject, which is exactly why I wrote Memoir Revolution.

Madeline: And I highly recommend that all interested in memoir read Memoir Revolution. Here's another subject that comes up among memoirists all the time. Do you advocate telling our deepest darkest secrets in our memoirs?
Jerry: When people first think about writing a memoir, they often rush to their stash of embarrassing memories to make sure they are securely locked away. This impulse makes perfect sense. As social beings, we need approval and fear that revealing ourselves could make people think less of us. We might “lose face.”

However, these fears lead us too far in the opposite direction. We become so overprotective of our embarrassments that we tend to hide all kinds of things. We hide sexuality, failures, indiscretions, compulsions. We even hide faith and religion from each other. With so much hiding, we think we’re going to be more lovable because no one will be able to find any fault. But we end up making ourselves look bland and indistinguishable from everyone else. With all our unique characteristics tucked away in the vault, we feel invisible and alone. In a sense, by avoiding humiliation, we have created a sort of isolation chamber where we are the only ones who know the interesting stuff.

So when I think of “telling secrets” in memoirs, to me that means revealing our unique lives as we actually lived them. I think it is liberating to stop pretending we are exactly like each other, and to fully admit that we are unique.

It’s true that the things that make us unique are not always the thing we would share when we want to impress someone. However, after you’ve been writing your memoir for a while, you learn how to contain these parts of yourself in the universal structure of Story. When you learn to organize yourself into stories, the good and bad blend together into an authentic real-life journey. As a memoir writer, you become far more interesting than when you spend all your time hiding in order to pretend to be flawless like everyone else.

Madeline: Thanks for that clarification. Please tell us about your current writing projects. What are the challenges and what are the fun parts?
Jerry: I’ve been working on my own memoir since 2004. I have found it to be one of the most creatively stimulating periods of my life. I never wrote stories, so I am learning to construct a story. This is a fascinating learning process! I like the way you phrase the question, “challenges and fun.” In fact, the challenges ARE the fun, because I learn so much from striving towards excellence. In addition to organizing the material, I have been motivated to learn many microskills such as dialog, story structure, description, scene building. I’m still learning!

Because I am still learning to polish my story, I don’t feel it’s quite ready to be “released.” And like many other writers, I have some privacy issues I am still working on. However, during the years of writing the story, I have experienced huge benefits. I gain pleasure and satisfaction from sharing it in my critique groups, and getting feedback from beta readers. Over the years of writing, I have grown increasingly comfortable with my own past. This ability to know myself in stories was one of my main goals and I have achieved this already even as I continue to polish, revise, and improve my story-writing skills.

My real mission, the thing that gets me springing out of bed in the morning and racing to my writing desk, is joining together with everyone in the world who wants to write their stories. I’ve written a couple of books about this, including a unique one called Four Elements for Writers, a self-help book for aspiring writers who want to overcome the psychological obstacles such as self-doubt, finding the time, and embracing their audience. Based on workshops I offer to help overcome internal obstacles, I published the first version in 2005 and made it available from my website. I am rewriting that in an updated format, and will release it on Amazon in paper and eBook sometime later this year under the new title, “Writers: Train Your Brain!”

Memoir Revolution Synopsis
In Memoir Revolution, Jerry Waxler shows how memoirs link us to the ancient, pervasive system of thought called The Story. By translating our lives into memoirs, we discover the meaning and purpose that eludes us when we view ourselves only through the lens of memory. When we share these stories, we create deep connection and mutual understanding.

The author traces the emergence of the Memoir Revolution through his own journey from rebellion and chaos in the 60s; from mysticism to computers in the 70s; and from receiving talk therapy to providing it in the 80s and 90s. Through extensive commentary on over 100 memoirs, self-help and fictional works, Waxler draws you into the power of this literary movement, where you can find a voice for your own life experience.

Jerry's bio
Jerry Waxler shares his passion for life story writing on the blog Memory Writers Network which contains 100s of essays, interviews and book reviews. His two books, Learn to Write a Memoir and Four Elements for Writers are available from He teaches nonfiction writing at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is on the board of directors of the Philadelphia Writers Conference, and is an advisor to the National Association of Memoir writers. He has a B.A. in Physics and M.S. in Counseling Psychology.

Buy Four Elements for Writers

Buy Memoir Revolution

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