My Search Led Me to Story
When I graduated high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Like my brother before me, I would study science and then go to medical school. At 18, I flew from my peaceful row home in Philadelphia straight into the turmoil of the anti-Vietnam War movement in Madison, Wisconsin. After six years of marijuana, rock and roll, and rebellion against “the system” the only thing I was certain about was that I didn’t want to have anything to do with growing up.
By 1971, I lived in a garage in Berkeley, California, going for days and then weeks without speaking to anyone. After attending a lecture by anthropologist Jane Goodall, I realized I could fulfill my destiny by living like a chimpanzee. I ate only fruit and stopped wearing my glasses so I was legally blind. I sold all my possessions for a one-way ticket to Central America where I would live on the beach and pick food from the trees.
When I was ready to leave, an old friend handed me a book which said my soul longed to return to God and that I would never be satisfied until I turned within. My mind leapt at the explanation so I replaced my chimpanzee-centric view of the world with a spiritual one and started to meditate. However, my passion for the inner life did not relieve my need to earn a living so I moved back east to be near my parents and got a job.
I still had to find my role in society, so I went to a therapist and each week told him about my struggle to live in the world. These weekly talks helped me tame my crazy decisions and feelings. Over time, I noticed these talks had a beneficial side-effect. To prepare for each session, I developed the habit of organizing my thoughts. Without realizing it, I was learning to tell my story.
The more I learned about my own story, the more curious I became about others. At 50, I returned to school and received a master’s degree in counseling psychology. As a therapist, I witnessed the soothing effect on clients when I asked them to tell me their story. Yet something was missing from these one-hour sessions. My clients’ lives, like my own, felt fragmentary.
I reached out to a mentor who suggested that to make sense of the whole journey, I should list events in chronological order. I went home and created my timeline. From that simple exercise, parts of my life that had always seemed disjointed began to fit together like the pieces of a puzzle. To help me turn these ordered memories into readable prose, I took a memoir class. There, I met other participants who were doing the same thing. We were finding our stories together.
To learn more, I read memoirs by the score, watching the years roll by through each author’s eyes, ears, sensations and thoughts. They let me into their lives and enriched my understanding of the world. I looked for more memoir classes, and found them offered in writing groups, senior centers, libraries, and schools. The bookstore offered an increasing number of memoirs by ordinary people. Talk shows featured more memoir authors, and I met an increasing number of people who wanted to shape their lives into stories. I had stumbled on a trend.
Like any trend, not everyone loved it. Some critics complained that writing about yourself is narcissistic. I tried to understand their point. According to the dictionary, narcissists believe they are admirable and above reproach. By contrast, most successful memoirs reveal flawed authors who make terrible decisions. Perhaps critics don’t think it’s healthy to spend so much time engaging in introspection. If that’s the case, their attitude contradicts the wisdom traditions of the world that promote introspection as a method to deepen selfless attitudes like generosity and forgiveness. Anyway, introspection is only the first half of writing a memoir. The second half requires craft and communication. Memoir writers build bridges across the chasms that separate us.
To learn more about the power of memoirs, I studied the thing called Story. From literary scholars and mythologists, I learned that since the beginning of recorded history, humans have been telling stories in order to make sense of life. I was experiencing this effect for myself. In the pages of my evolving manuscript, I watched my younger self desperately search for guiding principles, first in science, then in the counter-culture and finally in spirituality. Throughout those years, I craved pure rules and theories. Now, decades later, I discovered a unifying principle that tied it all together. In the shape of a story, I grasped real life with its messy wants, disappointments and realizations.
When I looked for teachers, I found them everywhere. I learned from literature professors, therapists, and creative-writing teachers. Above all, I reached out across the bridges that memoir writers had created from their lives to mine. In my younger years, I searched for my truths alone. Memoirs transformed my search into an enchanted one, looking for the story that connected me to society. Through blogs, groups, and social media, I found tribes of aspiring and accomplished memoir writers. By reading and writing together, our loosely knit groups fostered deeper appreciation for the power of Story within our own lives.
I decided to call this trend the Memoir Revolution. By exploring our lives and sharing them, we are breaking out of isolation and drawing together into a global community in which we empathize with each other’s race, religion, gender, economic and geographic history, infirmities, strengths, and longings.
Jerry Waxler is a lifelong learner. Starting in his teens with an obsession on math and physics, each decade he has devoted himself to a discipline of study. From his spiritual search in his twenties, to computer technology in his thirties, and psychology in his forties. In his fifties, he realized that the entire journey is a story, and he has been obsessed by memoirs ever since. His blog contains hundreds of essays about reading and writing memoirs, and his book Memoir Revolution describes the social trend that is opening our culture to explore and share the stories of our lives.
Sonia Marsh Says: What an amazing journey you’ve been through starting with a rebellious youth, attempting to find your role in society, and how writing parts of your life gave you a clearer picture of who you are.
I am on board with your global vision of sharing our stories and breaking down barriers through a Memoir Revolution.
As you mention, through your research,
“I learned that since the beginning of recorded history, humans have been telling stories in order to make sense of life.”
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