I am very pleased to feature Memoir Author and Coach Jerry Waxler in this interview about his memoir, Memoir Revolution. In this book, Jerry traces the growth of memoir as a distinct genre worthy of literary recognition. Jerry’s passion for memoir is evident both in this book and in his blog, Memory Writer’s Network where he has offered in-depth analyses of over one hundred memoirs. My reviews of Memoir Revolution can be found on Amazon and Goodreads.
KP: In Memoir Revolution , your premise seems to be that “sharing our stories draws us into a global community and breaks down barriers.” Could you explain what you mean by it?
JW: Reading memoirs allows me to see the world through other people’s eyes. Through the magic of reading, I’ve been in combat, political and religious persecution. I’ve experienced being a mother, father, abused child, foster child, caregiver. I’ve experienced the world through the minds of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, yogis, Buddhists, and seekers. I’ve lived in Romania, Liberia, Russia, Belize, England, Iran, Japan, India, and so on. These intimate connections created by their stories reduces the distance between us, and makes me feel like we are all part of the same human community.
KP: Storytelling has been with us since ancient times. Why is this a time of revolution?
JW: Stories have been important to me since I was old enough to listen to my mother reading me stories. Throughout my school years and throughout much of my adulthood, I read novels and went to movies, influenced by the fictional situations and characters. In the 21st century, I discovered memoirs. These apply the ancient craft of storytelling to help us understand ourselves and each other. Why now? That’s a great question. I devoted a whole chapter to answering it in my book Memoir Revolution. I don’t think I can do it justice in this space.
KP: We’ve all heard that celebrity status is nearly required before your story will be noticed, let alone succeed. How does the memoir revolution change this dynamic?
JW: Traditional publishers need a staggering number of sales in order to pay for book designers, editors, marketers, warehouses and distributors. There’s always a chance that your or my memoir might catch on and sell 30,000 copies but if they don’t sell to the mass market the publisher loses money. Traditional publishers reduce the risk of such losses by leaning heavily toward famous people or people whose stories are provocative or notorious, for example having recently been in the news, or involving a major scandal.
However, we live in a remarkable time when there is a new option to publish it ourselves. Given this possibility, we can now imagine our book out there in the world. All we have to do is pour ourselves into the creative challenge of telling our story the best way we know how. Striving toward excellence is one of the most exhilarating things about the whole Memoir Revolution, causing millions of aspiring writers to learn techniques, understand story structure, and in general improve our understanding of how stories work. Then, once we’ve finally achieved this goal, we can use the internet and electronic distribution to find the niche of readers who happen to be interested in our story.
KP: I’ve been told that in order for a memoir to be successful, it has to be bigger than you. How can we turn the everyday stories of our lives into stories that matter— ones that transform and transcend barriers?
JW: “Bigger than you.” I never thought of it quite that way, but now that you mention it I love it. Our actual lives kind of meander from day to day, and include things like brushing your teeth and washing the dishes, running errands, and so on. Memoirs are portrayals of purified versions of ourselves, refined to focus on things like creative passion, emotional survival and the will to heal. So how do you find that deeper more profound story?
I find that searching for the story has been one of the most fascinating of my life. I wake every morning and run to my writing desk to try to put words around central themes. By attempting to give others a story worth reading, I also grow to have a deeper understanding of myself.
KP: I’ve been networking with memoir writers, interviewing them, and writing my own memoir, and one thing continues to amaze me. We’re all so willing to put our private lives out into the public. How do you explain that?
JW: Until I began to find my writing voice, I hated talking about myself. In fact, talking about myself felt dangerous. However, when I began to write, I looked at the silence that I had always assumed “protected” me in some way and realized that my shyness had isolated me. Privacy started to feel like a cloak of invisibility.
Writing the memoir has allowed me to let go of my secrets, and share my unique, authentic self. Even though I have not yet published it, I have shared it in critique groups and with beta readers, and listening to the way they react helps me see myself through their eyes. And by learning to open up in the pages of my memoir-in-progress I have become more willing to share anecdotes in writing and speaking than I ever thought possible. I’ve come a long way in my attitude about these issues of privacy, shame, and exposure. I credit the Memoir Revolution with this shift in my attitude about my relationship with the world.
KP: Any other messages from the Memoir Revolution you want to emphasize?
One of the reasons I wrote Memoir Revolution is to help people who are on the fence about whether or not to write a memoir. In addition to considering the benefits of this project, I encourage aspiring writers to avoid getting tangled in the reasons not to do it. I’ve heard all sorts of rules that make memoir writing seem very restrictive and confining. “A memoir shouldn’t be therapy. You shouldn’t do it for yourself. It shouldn’t be an autobiography. It shouldn’t be about too long a period of your life. It might make someone angry.” All these shouldn’ts make me dizzy.
Instead of answering all the questions before you even start, I suggest you jump in, and go one step at a time. The first step is to research your story. As an investigator and journalist, pull the information, memories and scenes together onto paper. During the second step you become a storyteller. Finding the story can be one of the most invigorating and engaging creative challenges of your life, showing you how to apply the art of Story to your experience. Through this lens, you will understand the dramatic tensions and arc of your own life. When you research your story structure, you will also be reading lots of memoirs, offering you a better appreciation of the stories that other people are living.
Consider publishing your memoir to be a third, separate step. If you keep that aside, you don’t have to worry about hurting anyone. You can take your time to strive for the best structure and voice. And you can learn to share and see yourself through story. Worry about all the additional baggage of publishing when you are really, truly ready.
Thank you Jerry for sharing your thoughts on writing a memoir and for inspiring us to participate in the “Memoir Revolution.”
Author Bio and Contact Information:
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 three books, Memoir Revolution, Learn to Write a Memoir and Four Elements for Writers are available from www.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.
Jerry can be reached on his website: Memory Writer’s Network
Facebook: Jerry Waxler
Google+ Jerry Waxler
Twitter @jerry waxler
The Memoir Revolution can be ordered from Amazon
How about you? Have you considered joining the “Memoir Revolution”?
Jerry has offered to give away a copy of “The Memoir Revolution” to a commenter whose name will be selected in a random drawing.
We’d love to hear from you. Please leave your comments below~
Wednesday, 10/16: An Interview with Memoir Author and Ex-Nun Karen Leahy: The Summer of Yes. Karen will give away a copy of her memoir to a commenter whose name will be selected in a random drawing.