Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Interview with Jerry Waxler

by Jodi Webb

About Jerry Waxler, in his own words: "I grew up in Philadelphia and went to college in Madison , Wisconsin during the war protest years. Gasping across the finish line with my Bachelor’s Degree in Physics, I slid beneath the waves to become a depressed hippie in Berkeley , California . With the help of a spiritual teacher, I climbed back on to land, gave up meat, fish, eggs, drugs and alcohol, meditated, went to India , came back, joined a commune, became a computer programmer, then a technical writer. In my forties I realized I knew nothing about people, so I went to graduate school, earned a Master’s Degree in counseling psychology, gave therapy, started writing and teaching, and the rest is history."

JODI: In bookstores I often see memoirs and autobiographies crammed together in the same section? Are they the same?

JERRY: The definition of “memoir” or “autobiography” depends who you ask, and more importantly, it depends when you ask them. It seems like the definitions change from year to year. A few years ago, I would have said a memoir is more story-driven than an autobiography, and an autobiography is intended more for historians and grandkids. Nowadays publishers occasionally use the two words interchangeably. As a result, I now read the title, blurb, and reviews and form my own judgment.

JODI: Can you tell us how or why you became such a fan of memoir?

After I got my master’s degree in counseling psychology, I began to write self-help articles. My writing mentor, Jonathan Maberry ( said my essays sounded like they dropped from the sky. He advised me to insert myself. I had always been shy and had no idea how to tell personal stories, so I embarked on a journey of self-discovery. The deeper I went, the more fascinated I became. Soon, I was reading memoirs, and realized that each one gave me two gifts. First, it was a window into the life of another person, and second, it gave me some insight into the way life can be turned into story.

JODI: Why do you think memoir publication has exploded in the last few years? Why is the public so interested in reading about other people's lives?

JERRY: In the television age, we all sat on the sofa quietly watching celebrities. In the internet age, we sit at our computers and type. The internet has created a hundred million penpals. I think memoirs are a logical next step. We want to know more about each other.

Another thing that is changing is that talking about ourselves used to be taboo. Memoirs and talk shows have blown the cork out of that bottle. One stunning result has been that we are sharing stories about the journey from child to adult. Bestselling stories like “Liar’s Club” by Mary Karr have encouraged us to take a closer look at Coming of Age.

JODI: Do you feel memoir writing has always been popular in the form of journals, etc.? If so, why is it such a popular form of expression?

JERRY: I journaled for an hour every day for a decade. It gave me a wonderful opportunity for reflection, and helped me form the habit of translating my thoughts into sentences. This process is a fundamental tool for writers, and also a powerful self-help strategy. But while the journals were important to me at the time, I wouldn’t have expected anyone to ever read them. I needed to discover memoirs before I knew how to translate introspection into communication.

JODI: So have you made the jump from introspection to communication? Have you written a memoir?

JERRY: Once I became interested in memoirs as a way to understand life, I naturally wanted to write my own. I took classes and gathered material. As the project picked up steam, I discovered that while I had been reading stories my whole life, I have never told them, so I not only had to learn about my own life, but about the craft of storytelling. I attended writing conferences and connected with writers to learn as much as I could.

I was in a class taught by Jonathan Maberry when I decided to jump in. I wrote my first draft and that was only the beginning. The entire project has contributed to one of the most fascinating, and creatively stimulating challenges of my life.

JODI: Do you have any favorite memoirs you would like to recommend?

JERRY: I have many favorites ( . For example, right now I’m reading two memoirs, “Stones into Schools” by Gregg Morenson and “Spiral Staircase” by Karen Armstrong. Mortenson is the author of the memoir “Three Cups of Tea” (three million copies sold) in which he told about building schools in Pakistan. “Stones into Schools” starts where the first left off. Karen Armstrong was a nun, a scholar, and an interpreter of world religion. Her memoir takes me on a journey from religion to atheism, and then back to spirituality. These memoirs teach me to see the world through other people’s eyes.

JODI: How about books on writing memoirs?

JERRY: While there are lots of good books on the subject, I would like to give special praise to two. First is “The Power of Memoir” by Linda Joy Myers president of the National Association of Memoir Writers . In addition to her profound appreciation for the power of Story, she is a therapist and her book offers special sensitivity to the human drama, such as family dynamics and healing from trauma. The other book is the one I put together for my workshops. “Learn to Write your Memoir in Four Weeks.” It is the only short, simple, step by step guide I know of.

JODI: What are you working on right now?

JERRY: In addition to my memoir, I am working on a couple of manuscripts about using memoirs for self-help. I write an essay every week on my blog , and I teach and present at writer’s conferences and other venues. For example, I’ll be teaching an eight hour memoir workshop under the auspices of the Philadelphia Stories Journal , and I regularly give teleseminars and teleworkshops through the National Association of Memoir Writers. You can see my list of events here.

JODI: We’re excited that one of the events on your calendar is the Write it Right Conference in April!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent interview + timely topic = a winner all the way around!