In your memoir, how does your character grow?

by Jerry Waxler

At the beginning of Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open,” the young protagonist hit tennis balls because his father ordered him to do so. As he grew older, he incorporated his father’s demands into his own motivation. As he won more and more games, inside himself, he knew something was missing. The book is essentially a search for that missing ingredient. Agassi transforms from a kid who wants to win, to an adult who wants to understand why he is alive. Eventually he realizes that working only for his own wealth and fame is not enough. The payoff of the story comes from his impulse to help underprivileged kids.

Agassi’s story offers an excellent model for a good memoir. The main character has flaws and moral dilemmas that set the story in motion. Through the course of events, he must solve all sorts of problems related to these flaws. By the end, something has shifted inside him, some lesson learned, some demon conquered. As I close this book, his  increased wisdom fills me with hope, a feeling that motivates me to recommend the book to my friends.

Most memoirs that I love end along similar lines, showing how the protagonist grows wiser. For example, at the beginning of “Here if you need me,” by Kate Braestrup, the protagonist was suddenly widowed. By the end, she didn’t call her husband back, but she did gain beautiful insights into the cycle of life and death. Brooke Shields in “Down Came the Rain” emerged from her post-partum depression with a more realistic, less idealized image of mommy-hood. Bill Strickland in “Ten Points” couldn’t undo the abuse he experienced as a child. Instead, he learned that embracing the horror of those memories led to inner peace.

That requirement for closure at the end of a story often stymies aspiring writers, who can’t at first visualize the satisfying ending that occurred during their own lives. They are afraid that if they report the events that actually happened, the reader will not feel particularly informed or uplifted. This question leads to the heart of the memoir genre. Our responsibility as writers is not just to repeat events but to share a creative way of looking at those events. Finding this shape, this wrapper, this satisfying ending is one of our most important challenges.

Even though all storytellers must end with a satisfying conclusion, memoir writers don’t have the luxury of being able to change the events to suit their needs. Instead, we must adjust the meaning, the implications, the interpretation. The typical exquisitely satisfying memoir does not arise from a perfect confluence of events, but from the wise reflection that shows what the protagonist has learned. Naturally when you first lived through experiences, the lessons did not leap out ready-made. The wisdom occurs to you later, when you go back to look for it, making the satisfying conclusion of your memoir as much a gift to you as it is to the reader.

Even though Agassi lived an interesting life, the structure of his memoir did not automatically arise from that interesting life. Consider an alternate structure. He could have ended his memoir with his fame and his marriage to one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Steffi Graf. But that happy ending would have made it just another forgettable celebrity memoir.

Instead, he and his ghost writer J. R. Moehringer focused on the inner journey, showing how he found a deeper set of values. He won at tennis, but his real love turned out to be helping children get an education. This expansion of his sense of social responsibility is known in literary analysis as a character arc. But I consider it to be more than just the reason to read a book. My term for it is “ending on higher moral ground” and I think it is a chance to find the value in living a life. Agassi found his true calling when he began to play tennis not just for himself but to raise money for those kids, a conclusion that leaves me with hope not only about Andre Agassi’s life, but the possibility for me to live a meaningful life, as well.

Writing Prompt
In your own story, find the values, the inner strengths, and beliefs that developed over time. Compare your character at the beginning and at the end of your proposed memoir. Write (or find) a scene at the beginning of the story which shows the flaw in your initial thinking. Through the course of the book, show a couple of lessons that led you to higher ground. Write (or find in your manuscript) a scene that shows the more mature reaction that will let the reader understand the development of your character, your maturity, or some other quality that will give your reader hope about the journey of your and their life.

Note

This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

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