If Not Conflict, What Fierce Determination Drives a Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

In the memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints, Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner, travel to Turkey to help a friend manage a small inn. It seems like a pleasant getaway that combines travel, friendship, and an entrepreneurial spirit. As they visit museums and historical sites, try new cuisines, befriend locals, and in Angie’s case, have romances with them, the women become increasingly smitten with the place. By the end, they fulfill the book’s sub-title, clearly communicating their love for the country.

Turkey has played a crucial role in world religion and commerce for millennia, and yet I grew up learning hardly anything about its history. Through the eyes of these two American women, I gain a fascinating glimpse into this crossroads of Moslem and Christian traditions, and even delve into pre-Christian goddess power. I also gain another glimpse of the expat experience.

In my younger years I read about macho Americans like Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway consuming their way across Europe, sucking in unlimited quantities of alcohol, food, and women. By contrast, Anatolian Days and Nights is almost a sendup of those excesses. Stocke and Brenner have modest appetites, spiced with a delicate mix of curiosity and compassion.

In fact, the women behave so nicely, it makes me ask a fundamental question: “Don’t all satisfying stories need conflict?” Ever since Ulysses traveled through the Greek and Turkish isles, threatened by monsters, imprisoned by sex goddesses, and fighting to the death with his wife’s suitors, readers have demonstrated their gluttony for conflict. Fiction writers satisfy this desire by inventing all sorts of exaggerated dangers and setbacks. Memoir writers, on the other hand, extract tension from the desire, fear, and courage enmeshed in a lifetime of memories.

So what tension in Anatolian Days and Nights keeps me reading? Were the two women at risk, traveling alone in a male-dominated world? Were they afraid? Actually, apparently not. If anything, the locals seem eager to protect them. If it wasn’t driven by the desperation to stay alive, or the gluttony to consume, what is the fierce determination that propels them to the end of their journey and me reading to the last page?

The Importance of Character Arc as a Driving Force in Memoirs

To engage me in a story, the author must convince me something in their character is missing or under-developed. The rest of the story leads me on a treasure hunt to work through the tension and choices of life. By the end, the character convinces me they have achieved this thing. This important payoff to a story is often thoroughly obvious in fiction. But in memoirs it can be more difficult to point out, and after I’ve read a satisfying story I go back to see what the character has learned.

For example, by the end of Accidental Lessons, David Berner is oriented to serving humanity rather than merely having a good job. At the end of Seven Wheelchairs, Gary Presley has wrapped his mind around the destiny of living on wheels instead of legs. At the end of Dope Fiend, Tim Elhajj has traveled beyond his minimum goal of abstaining from heroin. He has also figured out how to be a father to his son.

However, when I looked for a hard-fought character arc in Anatolian Days and Night , at first I couldn’t find it. Since both women were gentle, curious, and generous at the beginning, I did not feel any urgent pressure for them to grow along these lines. Their main goal seemed to be to understand Turkey, rather than themselves. And yet, I still closed the book feeling satisfied. What had the authors done for me and for themselves that made me turn pages?

Search for Identity as an Important Type of Character Arc

In memoirs, there is a special type of character arc — the search for identity. In this type of story, the missing ingredient that provides the impetus for forward momentum is the protagonist’s desire for a clearer sense of who they are. By the end, the character finds their true self and satisfies their quest.

This need to “know thyself” has been responsible for some of the blockbuster memoirs of our era. In fact, the modern memoir movement was started largely by the success of Coming of Age memoirs like This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. In each of these books, the young character must figure out “who am I?” The answer to this question is, of course, not simple.

Coming of Age stories are driven by a variety of questions that must be answered on the journey from child to adult, including issues of sexuality, career, family, spirituality. And one of the most fascinating struggles is one of the most abstract — the fierce determination of a young person to find identity. By the end of a satisfying memoir, the character must find enough of a sense of self to know how to steer themselves in the coming years, or at least suggest that they are heading toward such a clear identity.

This journey to find identity is not limited to Coming of Age. By lining up my collection of memoirs in the order of the life-period they describe, it becomes apparent that people of all ages try to figure out who they are. The first Coming of Age stage, finishes around say 18 years old. But there is a second stage of this transition to adulthood that is also crucial. Many memoirs are about the struggles during this second period, say from around 18 to 26 years old, when we have to make important adjustments to our identity so we can survive in the world.

For example, at the beginning of Japan Took The JAP Out of Me, Lisa Fineberg Cook is a newly-wed party-girl. By the end, she is less self indulgent and more oriented to work and service. At the beginning of Wild, Cheryl Strayed is a dysfunctional young adult, with no direction, quick to try a new guy or a new drug. She walks 100s of miles across wilderness trails to find a new vision of herself and ends with the moral strength to establish herself in the adult world. Similarly, at the beginning of Slow Motion, Dani Shapiro is almost ready to become a young woman when she falls into a trap of drugs and sex. By the end, she outgrows her fascination with the power of her own beauty, and enters the adult world of personal responsibility.

Adopted kids have a particular challenge, as evidenced in two memoirs about girls who are just about to launch into the world when they are contacted by their birth mothers. In Mei Ling Hopgood’s Lucky Girl a Chinese American adoptee travels to China to learn about her birth family. In Mistress’s Daughter, AM Homes conducts an intense investigation, trying to understand her birth family in order to understand herself.

Sometimes, a person much later in life begins to ask pressing questions about who they are. These later searches for identity can also make compelling stories. For example in the memoir Catfish and Mandala Andrew X. Pham realizes he can never be happy until he makes peace with his Vietnamese origins. He quits his engineering job in California and rides through Vietnam on a bicycle, trying to understand his roots. In My Ruby Slippers, Tracy Seeley, an English professor in San Francisco, ejected from her comfort zone by cancer, travels to Kansas to try to understand her roots. Both authors become seekers for their own identity, and they both use the notion of place in order to help them learn more.

Why is the Search for Identity So Important?

In thrillers, the compelling force is obvious. Stop the assassin. By comparison, finding your identity seems woefully abstract. Despite the apparent vagueness of this propelling force, in memoir after memoir, authors uproot their lives in order to understand their identity. Their fierce determination to answer the question “who am I?” drags readers along for the ride. Perhaps this need for identity is more visceral and fundamental than we think. For those of us interested in the psychological journey of human experience, the longing for identity appears to be every bit as life-affirming and page-turning as stopping an assassination.

Anatolian Days and Nights is good evidence of the importance of this quest. Like the hero in Somerset Maughm’s The Razor’s Edge, who left home in order to find his truth, Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner left their familiar lives and traveled east. They were seekers, looking for whatever wisdom Turkey could offer them about themselves.

By diving into Turkey, they fulfilled a sublime search not just for that country’s identity but for their own. It was a search that was important enough to drive them half-way around the world, and significant enough to keep me reading, and then to recommend their story to anyone looking for a satisfying experience.

Notes

Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints by Joy Stocke and Angie BrennerClick here for Amazon Page
Click here for Anatolian Days and Nights Home Page

There’s a word for that! I thought I understood the meaning of the word “mandala” as a sort of symbolic geometric shape. But I couldn’t figure out why Andrew X. Pham used the word in his title. I looked it up the in the dictionary and find that it means: In Jungian psychology, a symbol representing the effort to reunify the self. Perfect!

For more about the desire that drives a memoir, see my essay:
What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?

Although this is the first memoir I’ve read about love for a culture, it adds to my collection of the subgenre about friendship. Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is a tribute to her friendship with Carolyn Knapp. And Father Joe by Tony Hendra, is a paean to his spiritual mentor.

More Expats: Recently I read the memoir San Miguel D’Allende, about Rick Skwiot’s attempts to find himself in Mexico. And in Native State, Tony Cohan describes his attempts to settle into the jazz and drug scene in northern Africa. Both follow the Anatolian Nights model of searching for self in a foreign land.

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

10 thoughts on “If Not Conflict, What Fierce Determination Drives a Memoir?

  1. Jerry – This is a beautiful and astute piece. And I thank you for the lesson about memoir writing. You are right, Angie and I are seekers absorbing the essence of modern Turkey whose history is entwined with our own. One of our hopes is that readers can place themselves in our shoes and bring their own experiences into the story, much as you have shown here. Also, we were writing an anti-old-fashioned male travel book, one in which two women can go where angels fear to tread at times and not end up in battle.

    With best wishes,
    seeker and traveler, Joy

  2. Thank you so much for this post, Jerry. Now I can’t wait to read “Anatolian Days and Nights.” I also appreciated here your clear deliniation of memoir sub-types–along with example of each. When I lived in Vietnam during 2009-2010, I read Pham’s memoir and, though his story it very different than mine, it motivated me to begin working on my own memoir. Thanks again. I love following your blog.
    Kathy

  3. Thanks for your thanks and compliments, Kathryn. And Joy, thanks for sharing your years of experience and the effort and craft it took to turn them into a story. Best wishes, Jerry

  4. Jerry, thanks. Verywell done.

    My view is that writing a memoir is a journey back to the future. In his book “The Lessons of History” Will Durant wrote, “The past is the present rolled out for understanding and the present is the past rolled up for action.” Durant is referring to the history of mankind but I think his statement also applies to an individual’s history.

    Without reflection, life is just a string of incidents connected by the circumstantial passage of time. Like salmon, we get so immersed in swimming upstream we don’t see how the circumstances we encountered and the choices we made became a story with a plot and a point.

    With reflection, we become time travelers exploring yesterday through the rear-view mirror of today. We learn that the past gave birth to the present, that the present is the mother of the future. And that changes us because connecting the dots between yesterday and today reveals a path into tomorrow.

    “To look backward,” said Margaret Barber, “is to refresh the eye and render it more fit for its prime function of looking forward.”

    Writing a memoir can change your life. It changed mine, so I frequently leave the here and now for a brief but enlightening journey back to the future.

    –Bill

  5. Dear Jerry,

    Wow, I am knocked out by your blog! (In a good way ;-). There are so many articles here I want to read, but I need to get back to work on a laborious task: My 80,000-word memoir is being formatted to E-Book; ALL of my italics and underlining were wiped out in the transfer.

    So, I must get back to scrolling through the entire manuscript and re-formatting. That’s what I’ll be doing this afternoon, instead of reading more of your blog, which is what I would rather do 😀

    I just wanted to leave a quick note to thank you, not only for sharing your knowledge and insight on this genre, but for the way you honor and applaud all who attempt to commit their memories to print.

    I’ll be back –
    Have a lovely day!
    Eve

  6. Thank you for this wonderful post! I recently published my own memoir, about my struggles as a single mother moving to America.

    I appreciate your advice so much! I am hoping to write more in the future, and will definitely be referencing this post.

    Kudos to your work, I am looking forward to reading your future posts.

    -Bibi K.

  7. Great post. This reminds us how different effective books can be, how dramatic or narrative templates can be hard to see even when they’re in place.

    I love: “To engage me in a story, the author must convince me something in their character is missing or under-developed.”

  8. Thanks for the comment and compliment, Richard. Yes, the more I look at the variety of ways that people successfully tell their story, the more I am impressed by their creativity. Memoirs are often labors of love which result from many years of pondering to find the best way to tell the story. With all of that personal passion poured into the creation, naturally the story expresses not only the author’s experience but also their unique means of expression.

    Best wishes, Jerry

  9. Thanks for this comment expat and the link to your list. I just finished another expat book, Freeway to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh. She took her family to Belize to try to escape U.S. materialism. She would be happy to hear about your interest in expat memoirs. “Third Culture Kid” – interesting. A variety of this experience is Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala about being born in Vietnam. He moved to the U.S. and then went back to Vietnam to find his identity. Tbe whole notion of identity across culture comes up in both of Carlos Eire’s memoirs about a Cuban boy moving to the U.S. And how about Lucky Girl by Wei Ling Hopgood about an adopted Chinese girl growing up in the U.S. and then trying to understand her biological family. Great topic. Jerry

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