They’re readers, writers, teachers and seekers, and they share their wealth of life experiences with others through their volunteer work at the library. Today, we’re back with our 10th volunteer profile. If you missed any of the others, you can get caught up (or binge read) here: Kathy, Alan, Shirley, Debbie, Chris, Linda, Karen, Johnny, and Ricki.
Meet Jerry. Everybody has a story, and Jerry Waxler, author, teacher, and facilitator of the library’s monthly memoir-writing group, wants to help you tell it — or at least write it down — whether it’s to pass it down to future generations or to organize your collection of random memories into a cohesive journey for your own understanding.
How long have you been volunteering a the library, and what do you do?
I’ve been volunteering since about 2016, leading a memoir-writing group that meets once a month.
What inspired you to help others write about their lives?
I first became interested in memoirs around 2003, when some of them were regularly reaching number one on The New York Times bestsellers list. After reading a few, I began to wonder if I could make better sense of my confusing college years in the 1960s by writing down my own story.
As I learned more about this literary form, I began to notice a lot of people were interested in writing memoirs. I thought it would be fun to work on the project in company with others. So in addition to learning to write my memoir, I learned how to start and lead writing groups.
From there I became interested in teaching, and got a part-time job teaching adult enrichment courses at Northampton Community College. In addition, I began teaching memoir writing to any group where I could wrangle an invitation, such as senior centers, churches and synagogues, and writing clubs. Throughout the years since I first stumbled on memoirs, I have found that this literary genre has enriched my life in a number of ways.
How did you get involved in the library?
Writing is by its nature a somewhat lonely activity, so I’ve always tried to figure out how to get together with other writers. There is an active writing group in the Lehigh Valley (www.glvwg.org) that holds an annual writing conference. They publicize their conference by sending volunteers out to give talks. One year I gave such a talk about memoir writing at the Parkland Community Library.
A couple of years later, the librarian who had formerly worked at Parkland, Maryellen Kanarr, was now at Emmaus. She asked if I’d be interested in starting a group there. It was perfect timing. I took her up on her offer and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Have libraries played any special role in your life?
During my childhood in the ’50s and early ’60s, I walked every week to my public library in West Oak Lane, Philadelphia. Occasionally I rode the subway into Center City and visited the library’s magnificent main branch just down the parkway from the Museum of Art. My constant reading annoyed my parents, not unlike the way today’s kids annoy parents with smartphones.
After college, I got out of the library habit and mainly bought paperback books. But now that I’m retired and looking for ways to get involved with the community, I discovered that this library is a perfect place for writers to gather. When we share stories about our lives, we are building community through story.
Who comes to the monthly writing group?
People come to write down some portion of their lives, whether to pass it along to their kids, or to enjoy the challenge of turning disjointed memories into a story.
Because the group meets during the day, many of the people who come are retired. Not all are elders. No matter how young you are, you have a history that you could write about.
But whatever got them to show up the first time, the ones who come back have discovered the pleasure of sharing written stories in a community of peers.
What happens in the sessions?
The sessions are a safe place for people who want to share writings about their lives. So the main event is the reading.
I take a few minutes to introduce the idea of a life story. Then, each participant introduces themselves, and, if they have brought a brief (say 500 to 1,000 word) piece to read aloud, shares that with the group.
Occasionally, I might comment on how the piece might fit into a longer work, or ask questions about their writing goals. Others also might comment. Then we move on.
I love being in these groups. Because we are all in it together, participants tend to become deeply invested in the group process, and so when they listen to other people reading their stories, there is a neat sense of connection.
Do your sessions also include any writing? About how many people typically attend?
The group varies anywhere from 4 to 15 people. Lately it’s been about 8 to 10 people. We don’t write during the meeting. We share writing we did at home.
What do you most enjoy about volunteering?
Life-writing groups offer a wonderful opportunity to grow wiser about the human condition. I always feel wiser after a meeting than I felt when I entered. Actually, I consider every participant to be a volunteer. Each one is freely giving their time in order to enrich the others in the group.
What do you want to tell people about the potential for writing about their lives?
As the decades pass by, memories pile up, some interesting, some painful, some funny or brave. Whether you try to remember, or try to forget, these memories swirl around in your mind in no particular order. By writing a story, you can pull all this material together and turn it from a messy pile into a coherent journey.
I’m not saying this is easy. On the contrary it is quite difficult! But therein lies the value. By putting in the effort to develop the story, you can gain a far more coherent understanding of your own past, and you will then have the opportunity to pass this value onto your kids and/or your culture.
So how about your own books?
When I was about 50, I realized that one of the best, most invigorating ways I could learn to become a better version of myself was to find my story. And because I have always loved books, I decided that trying to write one would provide me with an endless source of creative challenge.
Over the ensuing years, I have written four books, all of which are available at the library. One is a self-help book for writers, How to Become a Heroic Writer. Another, Memoir Revolution, is about the trend to write memoirs and a basic how-to book to learn the steps of writing one. And of course, I wrote my memoir, Thinking My Way to the End of the World, about trying to find purpose in the ’60s. Finally, Learn to Write Your Memoir in Four Weeks, was written before I started publishing on the web. I am currently working on rewriting and updating this book and hope to have the new edition available online in 2020.
I am also getting near the finish line of a story about my mid-life journey to transition from a computer guy to a lover of life stories. It will be about finding purpose later in life. The tentative title is Learning to Serve the World.
After these latest projects are done, I intend to settle down and just teach. Writing books is hard. I think I’ve scratched that itch.
What are your hobbies or interests outside of work and/or volunteering?
My main activity is writing. This is also my hobby. I also exercise every day, and one of my favorite things about going to the gym is that I spend a considerable amount of my time there, on the treadmill and exercise bike, revising my writing.
Can you share some of your favorite memoirs?
They are all my favorite. I love the effort that people put into finding their stories. Of course, the ones that hit bestseller lists have been vetted and edited to reach the top of a very lofty pile and are often stunning in their emotional power — Educated by Tara Westover and Inheritance by Dani Shapiro are current favorites — but I have also read and enjoyed many memoirs that have been self-published. I am grateful to memoir writers for providing the world with insights into what it is like to be them.
How about some ‘how to’ books (besides your own, of course) for anyone who might want to write their life story but can’t make it to the monthly sessions at the library?
I believe the most important writing books are the ones that give you confidence and inspire you to just write. There are three books that are considered classics in this regard. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. Anyone who wants to get started writing ought to read all three. They changed my life.
As for books about writing memoirs, there are a bunch of them. I know so many of them and know their authors. I find that all these books offer incremental insights into the project of writing a memoir. I don’t have any strong preferences. For me the best resource for writing memoirs is to read memoirs. And while the bestsellers are great for pure reading pleasure, I find that the ones that offer the best insights for writers are the self-published and small published ones. These will help you understand that life stories are a sort of folk art, that anyone can write one, and that we can all learn lessons about ourselves and each other by writing one.
And one of the best tools for learning how to write your own story is to attend a memoir group or start one of your own. Hearing your anecdotes aloud, and hearing others, will provide you with an ongoing inspiration to shape your own memories into a story.
[The Memoir-Writing Group meets monthly on the fourth Tuesday from 1 to 3 p.m. on Zoom. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for the login information.]
Do you have a special interest or talent that you’d like to share with others? Would you like to lend your energy to the library in other ways? Stop in and ask for a Volunteer Interest form at the desk!
[Disclaimer: the views, information or opinions expressed in ‘Meet Our Volunteers’ interviews are solely those of the volunteers and do not necessarily represent those of the library or its employees.]