by Jerry Waxler
After hearing journalist Michael Vitez speak at the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, I’m reading his book Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, And Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps by Michael Vitez, Sylvester Stallone, and Tom Gralish. Vitez and his Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Tom Gralish parked themselves at the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made famous by Sylvester Stallone’s movies. The stairs are so famous that 30 years later, people from all over the world stop by so they can feel the Rocky Balboa’s victory run for themselves.
Vitez’s talk at the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference was about his experience as an immersion journalist. Immersion journalism is the practice of entering into a situation in order to write about it. For example, he researched a story about what it’s like to be a highway toll taker, by spending weeks parked inside a toll booth. Another time he hung out in an intensive care unit with families of patients in life or death situations. This is the story that earned him the Pulitzer Prize. When Vitez heard that people were still running up the Rocky Stairs, he took a break from his Philadelphia Inquirer office and went to see for himself. Within a few hours he realized he had discovered a cultural phenomenon. People pulled up in cabs, ran up the stairs, sometimes gasping for air, and when they reached the top they leapt, danced or whooped. Vitez decided it would make a good story, and so he and his Pulitzer winning photographer spent around 200 days through all four seasons on location. After Tom Gralish snapped the photos Vitez asked people what they were thinking.
Generally, they were thinking about their own dreams, and how the Rocky movies had awakened in them a sense of purpose and hope that they wanted to experience for themselves in Philadelphia. As I read through the 52 vignettes about the people from all over the world, I saw many of them as mini-memoirs. This landmark stirred up stories about overcoming obstacles on the way to achieving dreams. Sometimes they were already fulfilled and sometimes the dreams still pointed to the future.
Each of us has a life filled with experience but it’s not always easy turning that experience into a story worth reading. Vitez’s experiment at the Rocky Stairs could help. Just as those people who had just huffed up the stairs told Vitez about the upward journey of their lives, you could imagine doing the same thing. Or come to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and experience it yourself. From that exercise, distill the hopes and dreams that drove you to be who you are today, and continue to drive you to be who you will be tomorrow.
What did you long to accomplish? What big dreams called you to a different dimension, a new beginning, a lofty goal? Some of the dreams that drove you have long since drifted into the past, so you have to dig deep to recall the freshness and enthusiasm of your youth. Perhaps you stayed resolutely on course, letting your desire guide you like True North. Or your actual journey may have diverged from your plan. If you had to let go of dreams, remembering them now might awaken disappointment and even pain. But whatever your dreams were at any particular time in your life that was the force that drove you. By getting in touch with your longing, you will reveal vital, interesting aspects of your story.
At the Philadelphia Writers Conference, Michael Vitez told how when he first had the idea for the book, he reached out to Sylvester Stallone for an endorsement from Rocky himself. His attempts to get through to Stallone were rebuffed by an overzealous gatekeeper. After a year of trying, Vitez finally penetrated the walls surrounding Stallone, who immediately loved the book and agreed to participate. So Michael Vitez, whose mission was to report on other people’s Rocky Stories, told us a Rocky Story of his own.
Do you have a Rocky story waiting to be told? Do you see how a Rocky Story could help organize a memoir or essay?
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.