I am honored to have Jerry Waxler, author of the Memoir Revolution, as my guest today. He generously answers my many questions about the role of memoir in our lives today, and as a result I've divided our interview into two parts. Part 1 is here today. Part 2 will go live on September 15. Please come back then to continue enjoying our discussion. Jerry is passionate about life story writing and as a result has read hundreds of memoirs in researching his his book. Jerry Waxler knows about memoir.
Madeline: What does the Memoir Revolution mean? Why is it important?
Jerry: The Memoir Revolution is my name for the groundswell of interest in reading and writing life stories. I believe that this is an important development for our culture, a renaissance that teaches us how to use the ancient power of Story to interpret our own lives.
As the collective interest in memoirs continues to grow, more and more of us are discovering the value of it for ourselves. The Memoir Revolution helps us pull together our memories, teaches us how to find stories within them, and use those stories to connect with others.
Madeline: What is the difference between memoir and fiction?
Jerry: That’s a great question. Of course there’s the obvious difference that one is truth and the other invented. In addition, there are some crucial stylistic differences.
Fiction is mainly in third person so when we read novels, we observe characters from outside themselves. Memoirs take us inside the character’s point of view. That’s a radical difference. Entering into the protagonist’s mind lets us feel what it’s like to be someone else.
Madeline: What does memoir have in common with fiction?
Jerry: They both rely on the structure of Story. I first began to understand the power of this structure about 20 years ago, when I heard about the mythologist Joseph Campbell, According to him, humans have always used Story to make sense of life. Campbell’s wave keeps rippling throughout the culture. Recently, a book by Brian Boyd called “On the Origin of Stories” makes the case that storytelling was an important aspect of human evolution.
So when we read either novels or memoirs, we are enjoying an author’s attempt to turn life into this fundamental shape. My passion for memoirs arises from the fact that instead of learning the shape of an invented character’s life, we can learn about our own and each other’s.
Madeline: What is your favorite memoir and why?
Jerry: I have so many favorites. The one I happen to be reading at any given time is almost always my favorite at that moment, because I enjoy watching the story unfold. When I look back through the list of ones I’ve read, many jump out on top, like a parent who is proud of all the kids. I think of each one as my “favorite” within its own category.
John Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye is my favorite story about growing up with Asperger’s. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is a favorite for its importance to help start the Memoir Revolution. Haven Kimmel’s Girl Named Zippy is a favorite for its portrayal of ordinary childhood. AM Homes Mistress’s Daughter and Alice Sebold’s Lucky tie for favorites for incorporating journalistic research into the body of the narrative. Tracy Seeley’s Ruby Slippers is a favorite for incorporating personal essay into the body of the narrative. Kate Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me is a wonderful example of grief and the evolution of personal philosophy. Martha Stettinius’ Inside the Dementia Epidemic is a fabulous mother-daughter story, a wonderful caregiving story, and an activist memoir, since the author uses the memoir as a way to help raise compassionate awareness for caregivers for Alzheimer’s. Slash Coleman’s Bohemian Love Diaries is a fascinating coming of age story about a young man who sees life as art. Boyd Lemon’s Digging Deep is a wonderful example of looking back, and trying to make sense of the past. The list goes on and on. I explain my broad passion for these books and categories in my book Memoir Revolution.
Madeline: Thanks for those great recommendations. I now have a lot of reading to do. So, how is memoir evolving even today?
Jerry: What a great question. And a difficult one, because the answer depends on what corner of the memoir world you are watching. Not every corner is evolving.
Academic writing programs continue to deepen their students’ appreciation for the literary aspects of memoir. The publishing industry is troubling. For a while at the beginning of the trend, it looked like they were moving more and more toward the well-written lives of ordinary people. Now, with the contraction of bookstores and the advent of eBooks, they seem to be tending more than ever toward predictable commercial success. This need for sure winners seems to trap them in a search for celebrity and news.
I think the real evolution is not in the genre but in the culture, as more and more of us are interested in reading about other people’s lives and considering the possibility of writing about our own.
I saw an example of this shifting perspective when I was giving a talk about the Memoir Revolution to a church group. A woman raised her hand and asked if the expansion of the memoir movement meant it was alright for her to write the story of how she was abused as a young girl. When I said, “Yes,” she started to cry. She sobbed that she always assumed she would have to remain alone with her secret. This was the first time in her life that it occurred to her that she would ever be able to share it.
Madeline: Do you think memoir is getting more attention by agents and traditional presses now? When I was querying I was rejected many times because I wasn’t a celebrity. Is this still the case?
Jerry: Keep in mind that in the commercial publishing world, the publisher makes a huge financial commitment to bring a book to market. To earn back their money, they need to sell a lot of books. So when agents consider which books to represent, they must take into account factors like whether or not you are famous, or whether your particular issue is hot right now. It has become increasingly difficult for traditional publishers to gamble on ordinary people, even when their stories are unique and well told.
The good news for memoir writers is that our options for self-publishing have sky-rocketed. However, these new methods of publishing come with additional responsibilities. Finding readers falls largely on our own shoulders, so in addition to learning the craft and finishing books, we now must educate ourselves about book marketing.
To survive these times of rapid change, I encourage memoir writers to stick together. Online writing communities foster mutual support and learning, as well as an opportunity to tout and read each other’s books.
Madeline: Thank you so much, Jerry. I look forward to continuing our conversation on September 15.
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 Waxler shares his passion for life story writing on the blog Memory WritersNetwork 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 jerrywaxler.com. 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