Relive your memoir by acting: Pursuit of Happyness

 by Jerry Waxler

I found insight into the power of memoirs from a surprising source, the movie Pursuit of Happyness. The movie is based on a true story about Chris Gardner, down on his luck in San Francisco in 1981. Gardner, played by superstar Will Smith, is working at a dead end sales job that has left him unable to pay his rent. Gardner, a single father, struggles to stop the downward slide into homelessness. Despite his effort, he continues to fall, sleeping on trains, in bathrooms, and shelters. And through a tenacity that is almost incomprehensible in its ferocity, he keeps his wits and determination, striving to provide for himself and his son.

Then he gets a break. He is accepted as a stockbroker trainee at a major financial firm, Dean Witter. But it’s not over yet. He must prove himself before he can get the job. He grips this first rung on the ladder while circumstances continue to pull him down into the abyss. To earn enough money to live, after a full day at Dean Witter he goes out to ply his other sales job, selling diagnostic equipment to doctors. Then he retrieves his kid from daycare, and starts the nightly search for a place to sleep. In the end his tenacity pays off. He is accepted as a stockbroker. It’s based on a true story, and the real man went on to become a millionaire and a social activist.

In the bonus material at the end of the DVD, there is an interview with Chris Gardner that turns this from a good movie into a fascinating exploration of a memoir. When they started filming a movie of his life, the producers asked Gardner, who by this time was a wealthy man, if he would he be able to handle the emotional turmoil of revisiting this humiliating, dark period in his life. He was willing to try, placing himself in an unusual position of watching Hollywood specialists reenact his circumstances. For example, they recreated the day care center where he had to drop off his boy, and designed a set to mimic the station bathroom where he slept when there was no room at the homeless shelter. Through the process Gardner saw his life acted out.

As you organize your thoughts about your own memoir, consider the power of reenactment. You can gain many of the benefits Gardner got, without having a multi-million dollar Hollywood production team. A much more modest effort to act out your past can provide you with surprising insights.

While I don’t have acting or drama experience myself, I have experienced the power of reenactment in a type of therapy group called psychodrama. In this method, without formal props or acting training, the psychodrama leader directs the group through a reenactment. The actors are selected from your fellow group members. As each actor comments on how the drama feels from their own point of view, you find yourself revisiting important scenes in your life, this time accompanied by concerned participants and observers.

If you don’t have access to a psychodrama group, you can achieve insights with a few friends. Organize the scene, and play out the various roles. I’m not talking about stage acting here. No one is going to pay to see it. It’s like a primitive sketch that helps you see things in a new light. You can even do it alone. Imagine the scene yourself, put yourself in each character’s shoes and see what you would say.

Consider this example. I try to remember a scene with my brother. We’re in the basement. He is studying and I am soldering a transistor, helping him build a hi-fi kit. The room is dark, except for the lamps each of us is working under. He is building the hi-fi because he’s moving away to go to Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, which would make him 17 and me 10. I don’t remember the conversation, so I pretend. I say, “Ed, I enjoy helping you. I’m going to miss you.” Now I ask a friend to pretend to be Ed, but the friend doesn’t know what to say. So we switch places. My friend, now playing me, says, “Ed, I enjoy helping you.” Now that I’m sitting in Ed’s chair, I imagine what he would say. I struggle but don’t say anything. As Ed, I’m preoccupied with studying, and nervous and excited about going away. Sitting in his chair helped me understand how he felt. We’re boys. Of course we don’t talk about feelings. Now I’m me again. I feel lonely. I’m glad he’s letting me help him with the soldering.

So what feelings did Chris Gardner report about making a movie of his life? Here’s what he says in the interview at the end of the DVD. “I didn’t know if I was ready for it. But this whole process, this entire production helped me tremendously, by helping me to create, if you will, new memories of San Francisco, instead of the film I had been running in my mind for the last 23 years. It’s part of letting go. It’s been a beautiful experience in that regard.” By revisiting the past, he has relieved some of its pain.

There is a powerful symbolic gesture at the very end of the movie that evokes the mysterious journey through time. Actor Will Smith walks along the street, ready to embark on his new life. Across his path walks the actual man Chris Gardner, successful, and now famous. Smith turns around to look at the person he will become 23 years later.

Writing prompt: Pick a scene in your past that continues to hold mystery and power. To help you write about it, think of it as a stage play, and you are the screenwriter and director. Write stage directions. And then try acting it, either exactly as it happened or improvise to create another way it might have happened.

12 thoughts on “Relive your memoir by acting: Pursuit of Happyness

  1. I have mixed feelings about this. Psychodramas can be dangerous. Often when you replay bad situations, the negative feelings can overwhelm. This is especially true of people who experience a lot of anxiety or are worriers. Sometimes it can blow things out of proportion and make them worse. If you look up self-help myths or read What You Can Change and What You Can’t you will find that “venting” often makes people worse.

    I would advise only doing this if you have an experienced leader/team mate who will help you take this through to a resolution. I believe in focusing on solutions and changing your thinking.

    It may be better to replay the drama by changing it to how you wish it had been.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, Talia. I agree venting can make things worse. I encourage story telling, not venting. My premise is that if you can tell a story that a stranger would read, you have created more insight into your emotions than you had when you started. I have read Seligman’s excellent book “What you can change and what you can’t.” I respect his approach, but he was limited only to funded scientific research. The human experience has not been completely studied by science, so to keep growing, I think it’s important to keep an open mind. See Louise Desalvo’s “Writing as a way of healing” for a well researched treatment of the subject.

  3. I greatly enjoyed the Pursuit of Happyness – it brought me to tears but knowing that he rose above his situation under what must have been tremendously stressful and challening circumstances, is really inspiring. I can’t really think of a situation where I would want to re-enact anything, I don’t like living in the past and I would prefer to just try and learn something from it, maybe subconsciously, instead of focusing deliberately on the actual memory.

  4. Re-enacting might work for some, but how about re-evaluating? Think back to whatever the incident was, see it for what it was, and then act from there. Forgiveness works for me, whether forgiving myself or the person/people involved.

  5. I tend to agree with Talia and Lynn, Jerry.

    One of the scariest things about taking acting classes and doing workshops when I was younger was encountering unqualified teachers who wanted the students to go deep into their feelings and past experiences for class sessions in order to find triggers for the emotions and characters they were supposed to be portraying. The thing is, people would do that, sometimes recollecting very traumatic events, and then they’d get so caught up in the reliving that they’d experience the trauma all over again, sometimes even moreso because of the shock at having something they’d been repressing/suppressing resurfacing again. Then the instructors weren’t qualified to talk them down, as it were. It’s one reason I have issues with method acting courses and practice. It can be dangerous if not handled correctly.

    When I write about my past and occasionally current situations in my blog, I sometimes come out of it even more traumatized. If I did not have the tools I learned decades ago from a psychologist, I don’t know if I could deal with this reliving of some things. And some days, I don’t deal very effectively.

    Lynn is right about perspective. That is more what I try to do. And, frankly, I use it in my fiction too. Reevaluation is vital to our mental and emotional health. Reliving some things, however, can just be traumatic.

    So to borrow from Hill Street Blues, be careful out there. Some folks aren’t emotionally equipped to write, perform and thus relive their pasts. It’s fine if they have the tools, but if they don’t? It could be fatal.

    Just sayin’…

  6. Interesting perspectives on all fronts. I find that writing our memories (in a personal essay format) serves the same purpose as re-enacting would. If you’re showing the scenes in your writing, it has the same effect (for me) as acting them out.

    I loved that movie, now I want to get the DVD to see the extras!

  7. I haven’t watched the movie yet (it sits atop my TV, taunting me from time to time) simply because I’m not sure I’m ready to go through that emotional rollercoaster with him. I haven’t had any traumatic events in my past (lucky me) but I think if I get that involved in a (to me) fictional character’s life, I would probably not be a candidate for reenacting painful moments.

  8. I loved this movie, which I saw in the theater…now I want to read the book, and after reading your post, apparently I’ll have to get the DVD, too!

  9. What an interesting suggestion and what thoughtful comments.
    I can see the value in reliving a scene to help with a memoir, but Talia and Virginia Lee have made excellent points. If you are looking at recapturing a traumatic event, it’s best to have someone around who can handle what gets dredged up.
    I have done something similar with hypnosis and it’s a good tool for recasting an event after you’ve seen how it went the first time.
    Excellent post.

  10. I loved this post. Wonderfully done. I am thinking that I really need to see this movie. I love rags to riches stories, especially ones that are based on real life. I love that there are people in this world who refuse to lay down and “accept” what life throws at them. They stand and fight. Stories of this type bring hope to the people, and we need as much hope as possible these days.

    It was also very interesting to read about how you put yourself in your brother’s mind and explored how he must have been feeling that day. It is too easy to just go through life and gloss over the depth of feelings that run quietly under each action. With you being only 10, you probably couldn’t understand his nervousness and excitement at going away to college. But now, from an adult prespective, you can explore what he must have really been feeling that day. I just think that is fascinating.

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