Two-Memoir Series about Youth, Midlife, and Responsibility

by Jerry Waxler

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

This is the second part of a review of David Berner’s Any Road Will Take You There. Click here to read the first part.

In Accidental Lessons, David Berner’s first memoir, a middle-aged man looks for himself in the wider world. From one point of view, it’s the classic midlife abandonment, leaving his wife and kids. But there’s a twist. Instead of running away from responsibility, he takes a job as a school teacher and helps students grow.

David Berner’s second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, seems to follow a similar thread. Again, he leaves home to find meaning. But again, Berner is not exactly running away. This time he hits the road, but in a motor home. And he takes his sons with him.

The characters in Any Road Will Take You There are supposedly following the path of the beat generation of fifty years earlier, when young rebels flaunted the values of society.  But during this updated version, a middle-aged man celebrates social responsibility. By taking his sons along for the ride, Berner attempts to inspire them with the same book that inspired him in his youth. Passing along social values to one’s sons is the very definition of “tradition” and a fabulous sendup of Jack Kerouac’s rebellion. The interplay of the two forces, running away and returning, creates fascinating harmonics.

Within the container of the road trip, Berner is able to ponder the rebelliousness of his youth, and place those youthful impulses within the context of his mid-life crisis. With each passing mile, he moves farther and farther into his commitment to his children. Instead of renewing his commitment to self-indulgence, the way mid-life crises are expected to do, Berner renews his commitment to care for others.

Leaving Home is Only the First Half of the Hero’s Journey
According to Joseph Campbell’s influential book, Hero of a Thousand Faces, the story of the young warrior leaving home to find his place in the world is at the heart of civilization. Campbell finds some variation of this image of “going forth” in every culture on earth.

This desire to find truths somewhere else is not just ancient history. In modernity we continue to travel outward as if our lives depend on it. That spirit drove Europeans west across the American frontier. Jack Kerouac updated the image to a new generation. On the Road was like a starter pistol that launched ten thousand cars. When I drove to San Francisco in 1969, I was not simply looking for good weather. By rejecting my parents’ values, and even their presence in my life, I was following this exciting idea — find truth by abandoning everything you know and believe.

A decade later, most of us former hippies figured out how to establish our adult lives. To do so, we had to reconcile an important flaw in our idealism. By leaving everything behind we had fostered a valueless, chaotic society. But how had we been so misled by the universal myth of the hero? Surely a fundamental guideline of human experience couldn’t have been so out of kilter.

At the time, I couldn’t make sense of how far off track I’d gone, but I kept asking the question. Now, the Memoir Revolution is providing answers. When David Berner looks back across his life, the outward bound passion of our youthful rebellion is shown in a new light. David Berner and other middle-aged chroniclers of the social experimentation of the sixties are helping us update the Hero’s Journey to the twenty first century. Or more accurately, we are rediscovering that the Hero’s Journey has contained that deeper wisdom all along.

It turns out that by celebrating the “going forth” part of the Hero’s Journey, modern cultures have been glossing over the crucial outcome of the Hero’s Journey. At the end of the classic story, the hero returns home. As a returned adventurer, the ultimate goal of the hero is not to conquer the unknown. In the next leg of the journey, the goal is to bring back wisdom to share with the community. In its complete form, the Hero’s Journey is about building and sustaining communities.

David Berner’s memoir Any Road Will Take You There reminds us of this necessary completion of the Hero’s Journey. He springboards from Kerouac’s image of leaving home, but Berner’s variation on this journey has a wonderful twist. He exposes mid-life, not as a time to leave home, but as a time to reevaluate and renew his commitment to his community. As a teacher to his students and his sons, Berner reminds us that the hero’s journey ends with wisdom that will help maintain social values and raise responsible children.

Mid-life crisis corrected
In middle age, it’s natural to fear the whispers of one’s own mortality. As long as our culture only values the “going forth” half of the Hero’s Journey, these fears might prod us to renew our youthful attempt to leave everything, as if by going outward we can become heroes again. But by prolonging the adventuresome half of the journey, we miss the reward offered to us throughout the history of civilization. Instead of going out again, we can find peace and fulfillment by accepting the call to return.

David Berner’s story offers us that image. Instead of focusing on the first half of the Hero’s Journey, he glorifies the second. By returning to his children, and the students in his school, he offers his wisdom to young people so that they can live wiser lives, themselves.

The story of Any Road Will Take You There is seductively simple. Rent a van and go on holiday. However, Berner’s apparently simple send up of On the Road creates a complex backdrop. His first memoir Accidental Lessons adds even more context. Through his two memoirs, the author transforms his midlife crisis into a meditation about generations, about the responsibilities of fathers, about the power of literature to transform individual lives.

On The Road was Jack Kerouac’s roman a clef, that is a novel based on the adventures of one of the great reporters of the Beat Generation. David Berner has done an excellent job updating that message with a true life message of his own. By writing his memoir, Berner compares the “going forth” of the Beat movement in the sixties with the “return home” of the Memoir Revolution in the twenty-first century. In our era, we can complete the cycle: grow up, learn about the world, then by writing a memoir, bring our wisdom to the next generation.

David Berner’s Home Page
Click here for my review of Accidental Lessons
Click here to read an interview I did with David Berner

For another memoir about an idealistic response to midlife, read Janet Givens At Home on the Kazakh Steppe about a woman who volunteered for a Peace Corps stint at age 53. Click here for Janet Givens’ home page.

Click here for a list of memoirs I have read by authors who have written more than one.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

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.

Two Midlife Memoirs: A Sequel Shows Command of Structure

by Jerry Waxler

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

I met David Berner in the pages of his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, so reading his second memoir Any Road Will Take You There feels like hanging out with an old friend. The second memoir turned out to be quite different from the first, so in addition to the pleasure of spending a few more hours with this kind, thoughtful man, I was fascinated to read about him from such a different perspective. The two memoirs together spin a multi-layer tale that offers interesting insights — into the man and into the memoir genre’s potential for rich literary value.

In the first memoir, Accidental Lessons, Berner, terrified that his life is superficial, quits his job and separates from his wife. The cliché of midlife suggests a man running away from responsibility and trying to live out his childhood. However, Berner doesn’t follow that hackneyed model. He takes a job teaching at a school in an under-privileged neighborhood. To find his new self image, he attempts to help other young people find theirs.

Accidental Lessons is framed within his year as a new teacher, a position that is accompanied with a bit of humiliation. While other teachers have been doing it for years, he is a total novice. He teaches his young students how to prepare for life, and at the same time, he is learning similar lessons. By the end, he’s starting to get the hang of it.

His story structure, bracketed within the rhythm of a school year, is a perfect canvas on which to paint a journey.  But I didn’t fully appreciate Berner’s cleverness in finding a good wrapper for a memoir until I read his second book.

Sequel Does Not Simply Follow Chronologically
Many second memoirs simply follow the chronological sequence, picking up where the first one left off. For example, Frank McCourt’s first memoir Angela’s Ashes was about growing up in Ireland and his second memoir ‘Tis was about becoming an adult in New York. Carlos Eire’s first memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana was about his childhood during the Cuban Revolution. Despite Carlos Eire’s fascinating experiments with flashbacks and flashforwards, in essence his second memoir, Learning to Die in Miami is a sequel to his first, mainly about his attempt to survive as an orphan in the United Stated.

However, David Berner’s second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, does not simply continue the journey of the school teacher. Instead, the second memoir jumps to a different model altogether. In the second memoir, he rents an RV and takes a road trip with his two sons and an old buddy. The small troupe drives along the same route Jack Kerouac’s characters travel in the landmark book On the Road.

Kerouac’s book, published in 1957, foreshadowed the counterculture of the 1960s and inspired many young men to hit the road and find their truths somewhere other than home. It certainly exerted a profound influence on young David Berner. In Any Road Will Take You There, he tries to pass this literary inspiration to his sons. So the outer story is the road trip itself. And that deceptively simple storyline provides a backdrop on which he paints a complex inner journey.

Because the road trip gives him time to think, the memoir turns into a meditation. Through mini-essays disguised in reveries, Berner explores the relationship of fathers and sons through three generations. And by contrasting his road trip with Jack Kerouac’s he offers new insight into the meaning of the Beat Generation fifty years later. I’ll say more about these deeper dimensions of the memoir in the second and third parts of this review.

Lesson for Memoir Writers
In addition to its artistically brash move to a new structure, Berner’s second memoir contains an interesting clue for writers who wonder. “How much backstory should I include in my memoir?”

The first memoir, Accidental Lessons, provides a wonderful example of a memoir that includes hardly any backstory. He jumps right into his crisis, without saying much about his earlier life. Even though the memoir offers very little backstory about Berner’s previous life, it offers fabulous backstory for David Berner’s second memoir. By reading the first, you gain insight into the character in the second.

The fact that Berner branched out into an entirely different model for his second memoir is a tribute to his commitment to the genre. Each book is excellent in its own right, and together they offer valuable lessons for memoir writers. First, you don’t need to be limited by any one model, and second the road might be longer than you think. There may be a sequel in there waiting to be told.

Writing Prompt
Does your story have enough complexity to break it into two parts? If so, describe the story arc of each of the two parts. How would the first part provide backstory for the second?

This is the first part of a series about David Berner’s memoir Any Road Will Take You There. For the second part, click here.

David  Berner’s Home Page

Click here for my review of Accidental Lessons

Another author who writes memoirs in different structures is Sue William Silverman. Her first memoir I Remember Terror Father Because I Remember You was a Coming of Age story. Her recent memoir (her third) is Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew in which she embeds parts of her adult life in stories in a pop culture style.

Coming Soon: a list of memoirs I have read (or in some case previewed) by authors who have written more than one.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

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.

Caregiver on a Hero’s Journey – a model for your memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

Martha Stettinius’ life shifted rapidly from the ordinary challenges of raising a family to the extraordinary and disturbing responsibility of caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s. Martha scrambled to adapt, reaching outward to the mental healthcare community and inward toward deeper understanding. Thanks to the changes taking place in the literary landscape of the twenty-first century, Stettinius also took advantage of an ancient method to help her maintain her courage. The method, handed down in an unbroken chain since the dawn of civilization, is called Story.

I first learned about the importance of stories from a series of televised interviews that journalist Bill Moyers conducted with scholar Joseph Campbell. According to Campbell, every society in history has relied on a type of story he called the Hero’s Journey. When I first heard these ideas, they seemed quaint and archaic. The examples I knew, such as the Greek gods on Mount Olympus and the wolves and witches of Grimm’s Fairy Tales seemed out of step with modern life. I assumed Campbell’s observations had nothing to do with me.

However, when I began reading and analyzing memoirs, I discovered that Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey sheds light on the story structure used by contemporary memoir writers. Even though the details change from person to person and era to era, their underlying structure remains the same. The Hero’s Journey throughout human history has allowed us to discover that when facing difficult situations, we can rise to our higher selves.

Take for example the courageous work of Martha Stettinius, who had to care for her mother. In the following synopsis I show how her experience as a caregiver, as described in Inside the Dementia Epidemic, mirrors the Hero’s Journey. By discovering the structure within her memoir, you might get some good ideas about  to turn your own heroic struggles into a story.

Caregiving for Her Mother as a Hero’s Journey
Stettinius’ journey  starts in the familiar world of her home, taking care of her family, going to work, and getting through each day. Life goes on normally until her mother’s neighbors call with bad news. When her mother’s mental health deteriorates far enough, Stettinius is booted out of her normal life and in the terminology of the Hero’s Journey model, she is “called to adventure.”

A dementia ward is a radical departure from every day life. She has to challenge herself to enter their world. What do you say these people? How do you love them? Who are these caregivers and how can you participate with them to serve your mother?

The shocking transition from the ordinary world to the world of the adventure is summed up by the famous line in Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy emerges into colorful land of Oz, and looks around at dancing munchkins, the good witch says, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

To fit into this new land, Stettinius has to slow the pace of her own mind. By listening to the silences between words and tuning into her mother’s body language, she seeks a new basis for communication. She searches for the best people and institutions, learning how each one works, and striving to find ones that can help the most. Throughout the long middle, she overcomes discomfort and fears, and works diligently to partner with the staff who take care of her mother.

As a result of her heroic response, she grows more knowledgeable and confident, developing into a deeper, more mature version of herself.  By the end of the journey she has also grown closer to her mother. The story that began with pride of independence when the two women were apart ends in the pride of inter-dependence now that they have come together.

Telling the story is a heroic journey, too
After the story of Stettinus caring for her mother ends, another chapter begins. To become important to others, the story must be told. So Stettinius switches roles from the adventurer inside the story to the writer-hero sitting at her keyboard. By striving to tell her story in compelling scenes, she lets us release our grip on our own reality and enter hers.

Her instinct to share her wisdom fits perfectly with Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey. According to him, after the hero finishes the adventure, he or she returns home to offer lessons. In Native American stories, at the end of the adventure the hero returns with some magic ellixir or ritual that will help the tribe. In Lord of the Rings, the whole purpose of Frodo’s mission is to save the world from annihilation.

However, not all heroes return home to deliver wisdom. Ever since I read Homer’s Odyssey in high school, I wondered why the Greeks held Ulysses in such high regard. He was often self-serving and impulsive and when he finally arrived home, his own townspeople turned against him. What was I supposed to learn?

Now that I’m studying memoirs, I realize that there were two journeys represented in the Odyssey, and the second one was at least as important as the first. After Ulysses returned home, the next Hero’s Journey was traveled by Homer. Thanks to tireless composition, and then a lifetime of promotion, Homer turned the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the Lotus Eaters and a houseful of predatory suitors into cautionary tales, appreciated by readers for thousands of years.

Memoirs blur the lines between these two principle players. In memoirs, the protagonist-hero goes on adventures not to slay monsters, but rather to slay inner demons. Despite our falls and failings we strive to climb the mountains of dignity and mutual respect.  After we return from our adventures and think about what we have been through, we shift roles from adventurer to bard.

By telling the story, Homer transformed a life of suffering and adventure into shared wisdom. Martha Stettinius did the same thing when she chose to write Inside the Dementia Epidemic. Her willingness to share this story with others reflects this underlying desire of human nature. After our years of experience, we are drawn to find the story.

I can see Martha Stettinius’ heroism in both roles. As the protagonist she had to go forth and take care of her mother. Then as the storywriter, she had to endure the discomfort, expense and hard work of sharing her wisdom with her readers.

When memoir writers share experience with readers, everyone wins. The author gains wisdom by turning apparently haphazard events into a meaningful story. And readers take advantage of that work. Through the hypnotic experience of reading a good story, readers enter into the author’s world. Then they take away the gift, the magic elixir. Memoir readers apply the courage and lessons of the Hero’s Journey to their own lives and build up their own reservoir of hope.


Martha Stettinius’ home page

Inside the Dementia Epidemic on Amazon

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

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

Hero’s Journey as a Model for a Memoir, Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

Buy Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

Each memoir is the product of the author’s diligent, creative attempt to turn life into story so after I read each one, I want to learn lessons not only from the author’s life, but also from their craft. And so, when I read a story like Freeways to Flipflops, I delve into the wisdom of Sonia Marsh’s life experience, not as a collection of various interesting facts, but through the structure of her Story.

In the previous post, I explained how the mythological structure of the  Hero’s Journey helps me understand Sonia Marsh’s memoir. In this post, I’ll explain how you can learn more about that structure, where you can find more examples, and how you can apply it to your own memoir.

When I first learned about Joseph Campbell’s observation that humans have been telling stories of hero’s journeys since the beginning of time, it was like learning about a key that would unlock the meaning of life. However, his ideas were abstract, and I felt unsure about how to apply them.

The system became much clearer when I read Christopher Vogler’s excellent book for writing screenplays, The Writer’s Journey. Picking apart the steps in Vogler’s how-to book gave me the idea to try to apply this mythical journey to the way people live their lives. I soon noticed that the genre of memoirs often contains this simple, powerful story template. All sorts of memoirs involve leaving the familiar world, entering a strange one, and then returning.

The model became personal when I began to visualize my own transition from childhood to adulthood. The simplicity of my nerdy childhood, obsessed with my studies during the week and working in my dad’s drugstore every weekend was like the Hero’s Ordinary World. The rules of that world were blown to oblivion when I entered the campus of the University of Wisconsin in 1965. Like stepping on a landmine, I now needed to make sense of the counter-culture, marijuana, anti-war riots, new sexual mores, the draft, and all the while attempting to prepare myself for a career.

I have never been able to make sense of those chaotic times until I began to look back on them and cast them as a Hero’s Journey. Thanks to Joseph Campbell, Chris Vogler, and the millions of storytellers who have contributed to our civilization, this fundamental structure showed me how to shape the strange process of growing up into a story that makes its own sort of sense.

My breakthrough was not just about me. I began to see the universal process of Coming of Age as a journey from childhood innocence to adult competence. When we leave the ordinary world of our childhood homes, we are like heroes going out into the land of adventure.  Where does the story end? Returning home at the end of the story might mean returning physically to our childhood neighborhood, or it could be more symbolic. When we start our own families, we are symbolically returning to the family unit.

Here are more examples to show how the model can be applied, not as a simple formula, but as a basic structure that can be applied with infinite variation. Each author organizes their own circumstances into a story that makes sense to them, and just as important, a story they hope will make sense to others.

When John Robison was little he loved to watch trains. At the end of his memoir Look Me in the Eye about growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome, he took his son to watch trains.

In My Stroke of Insight, when Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist suffered a stroke, it forced her out of normal life into the land of the Adventure, where she had to learn new rules. One of the twists of homecoming occurs early in the book when the author returns home to be cared for by her mother. Later, after she gains new insights into life and the brain, she returns to her community to popularize a deeper understanding of the brain, using her own life as an example.

Travel memoirs make it easy to identify a journey. Lisa Fineberg-Cook was a party girl in Los Angeles, enjoying her hair salons, dates, and nights out with the girls. As a newly-wed, she flies to a town in Japan to become a school teacher. Her memoir Japan Took the JAP Out of Me deliciously contrasts with Freeways to Flipflops, because when Sonia Marsh flees Los Angeles she goes to a place that is wilder and poorer. When Lisa Fineberg-Cook and her husband flee Los Angeles, they go to a more traditional society with formal manners and exquisite etiquette. Each place has new unfamiliar rules but in opposite ways, demonstrating the resilience and variety of the Hero’s Journey. Japan Took the JAP Out of Me ends when Fineberg-Cook visits Los Angeles and goes to the hair salon with her girl friend, realizing that she now must see the old world through new eyes.

Another book with an obvious journey is Doreen Orion’s Queen of the Road. She and her husband cope with midlife crisis by taking a yearlong trip through the U.S. in a motor home. Orion’s character arc occurs toward the end of the book when she goes shopping and realizes that she has nowhere to put her new shoes. So she returns them, accepting the new reality that she can be a whole person without having a walk-in closet full of footwear.

Many stories use the hero’s geographical movement in a far more complex way. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes contains a tricky example of the hero’s return. He was born in New York City, so his adventure begins when the family “goes forth” to Ireland where he does most of his growing up. At the end of Angela’s Ashes, he returns to New York, a peculiar anti-heroic ending of the book. I wonder if there was something about that homecoming to America that called out to millions of readers.

In the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi grows up in Iran. As the child of a privileged family, she goes to the U.S. for an education. Then she returns to Iran to teach English literature. That should have been the ending, and in an uncomplicated world she would have lived happily ever after. Tragically, the increasing militancy of the Iranian Revolution turns her familiar world into the world of the adventure. Under the bizarre misogynist rules of militant Islamism, she feels like a stranger in her own home. In a sad twist of exile, she must “return” to the United States, not because it’s where she was born, but because it’s where she can find peace and sanity.

My Ruby Slippers by Tracy Seeley offers an intriguing variation of homecoming. She starts her journey by leaving her adopted home in San Francisco, returning to her childhood home in Kansas to try to understand her own childhood roots.

Even grief can be interpreted as a Hero’s Journey. In Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup, her husband dies suddenly, sending the young mother careening out of the familiar world of marriage into the grief-stricken world widowhood. She must reconstruct her life, attempting to “return” to normal.

Writing Prompt: Consider your own Hero’s Journey

When you look across the landscape of your own life experience, try to identify dramatic tension that can harness this ancient system of storytelling. Identify some broad sweeping changes. For example

We were all born, and had to undergo the transition known as Coming of Age, during which we pieced together the rules of life. During your Coming of Age, what particular challenges and adventures did you face? When you reached some sort of “destination,” a life you were willing to live, describe how that might have felt like a conclusion to your quest.

At the next stage of the life journey, typically around our early 20s, we transition from the unformed stage of early adulthood into the solid responsibility of family and home. What was this period like for you? Was it brief and predictable? Or was this transition difficult and even chaotic. What adventures or special challenges did you face during this important second stage of Coming of Age? What defined the “end” of the journey? Was it a career or family? What lesson or growth in your character will let the reader know the period has ended?

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

Memoir as a Hero’s Journey: Character Arc and Homecoming

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

In the beginning of the memoir Freeways to Flipflops, Sonia Marsh portrays a middle-class life in southern California. On the surface, this family seems ordinary and comfortable. But underneath the glossy exterior, trouble is brewing. Her teenage son is veering out of control, introducing a corrosive force that threatens to destroy their stability.

These problems force Marsh to consider making a huge change, but she isn’t sure what. One day a visiting plumber asks, “Have you thought about moving to Belize?” The question grows into a possibility, and then into a plan.

In the parlance of the Hero’s Journey, the plumber is a messenger, and the family answers the Call to Adventure. They leave the Ordinary World and move to Central America where they enter the World of the Adventure.

In this foreign land, the family encounters discomfort, inconvenience, edgy neighbors, and money problems. They valiantly press forward, finding schools for the kids and trying to make friends. But as fast as they solve one problem, new ones arise. Enemies turn against them, backstabbing and shunning them, and finally sabotaging their boat. This world grows increasingly dangerous and harsh. In the end, they can’t stomach the adventure anymore and retreat home to Los Angeles.

Heroes often return home at the end of the story. Ulysses famously returns to his home in Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War, and Dorothy returns home at the end of Wizard of Oz. The return home at the end of an adventure is so important there’s a Greek name for it: Nostoi. With the hero back home, the reader can close the book, satisfied that the story has reached closure. “Ah. Loose ends are tied up. The adventure made sense. I can return to my life.”

The fact that the Hero returns to the same geographic location highlights the fact that the most important transformation takes place in the Hero’s character. Before Dorothy is permitted to leave the Land of Oz, she must assertively confront the wizard. Once she finds her own courage, the door opens and she can return. The development of the character from the beginning of the story to the end is called Character Arc, and it expresses our culture’s deep faith in the possibility that we can grow over time.

Freeways to Flipflops provides a perfect example of this inner development. Externally, Sonia’s family needs to figure out where to find the boat that will take them shopping, where to buy cool birthday presents for the kids, and how to make money. Internally, they are trying to grow emotionally, and reclaim their emotional health. As they struggle through the outer events of their adventure, they are forced to view the world in new ways. Resolving their outer hardship forces them to solve their psychological challenges.

Adapting to this harsh environment has the same effect on the family as a wilderness drug rehab has on addicts. Marsh’s son realizes his parents and siblings are allies, and he rallies around the needs of the clan. In doing so, he learns that the entire world does not revolve around his desires. By the end of the book, he reorients his priorities in a more compassionate, socially responsible way. Dad’s character also develops through the course of the journey. Separation from the corporate grind helps him break out of his career stalemate. And even though Mom started this mission in order to help her family, by the end, she has grown too. No longer limited to acting inside the home, she has become an entrepreneur. And as a bonus, Sonia’s family experienced life outside the boundaries of the United States, an international perspective she had hoped to share with them.

The homecoming at the end of Freeways to Flipflops contains an important twist that adds energy and mystery to the story. If the only goal of the family’s move had been to stay in Belize, the whole adventure would have been a flop*. But settling into permanent life in Belize was only one of the family’s goals. A much more urgent goal was to resolve their family problems, and get their son back on track. From that point of view, they succeeded. Like Dorothy who was allowed to return home after she found the courage to confront the wizard, Sonia Marsh’s family was permitted to return home after the family achieved a new degree of maturity.

In the end of the classic Hero’s Journey, the hero brings back insights and wisdom to the community. Sonia Marsh’s memoir has achieved this heroic goal. By telling us her story about life in the Land of the Adventure, she lets us experience and learn from her lessons without leaving our chairs. And the greatest lesson Sonia Marsh offers aspiring memoir writers…? Messy experiences can be translated into tight, integrated, well constructed stories.

*The paradoxical nature of the family’s journey, turning defeat into victory, literally “flipped the flop,” offering a sneaky double-entendre of the title. Aren’t words amazing?

In Part 2 of this essay, I’ll offer examples of the Hero’s Journey model peeking through the seams of memoirs.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)


For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

Endings of Memoirs: She Returns Home

by Jerry Waxler

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s memoir, “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is about the first year of her two year trip to Japan and, like many successful books, the structure fits nicely into the model of the Hero’s Journey. In the Hero’s Journey, the universal myth made famous by Joseph Campbell, an ordinary person departs from their familiar setting, and enters the world of the adventure, which is governed by strange rules. The hero learns how to navigate within the new rules, overcomes obstacles and then returns home, armed with deeper wisdom.

(This is the third of a three part review. To see the first part, click here.)

I have become accustomed to discovering this structure at the heart of many stories that I like, so I was not surprised to see it peeking out through the pages of  “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me.” The author travels from her familiar world of Los Angeles to the land of the adventure, Japan, where she must learn new rules. Inside herself, she overcomes the character flaws of being a spoiled teenager, and gradually becomes an adult. Like every Hero’s Journey, the conclusion of “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” affirms the importance of challenging yourself in order to achieve deeper meaning.

Some of the iconic stories of our time have followed a similar pattern. “The Wizard of Oz” offers a perfect example. Dorothy leaves her home in Kansas and enters the land of Oz. Like Lisa Cook leaving Los Angeles, Dorothy is actually on two simultaneous journeys. On the outside, she must solve the puzzles of Oz. Inside herself, Dorothy wrestles with her immaturity to discover her strengths. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey loses his grip on ordinary life, and out in the cold cruel world he must reclaim his sense of purpose. In the memoir “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup travels a similar road. She doesn’t lose money, the way George Bailey does. She loses her husband in a car accident. To earn a living and also look for meaning, she becomes a law enforcement chaplain and learns to steer through a world of legal violations and the cruelty of death.

Stories that make me feel wonderful often end with a celebration of family and community. Dorothy returns to Kansas armed with the wisdom to appreciate her parents’ love, and the assertiveness to fend off her bullying neighbor. In “It’s a Wonderful Life” George Bailey discovers his importance in the community. In her memoir “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup discovers that the antidote to evil and despair is the support of the community.

A Nuanced Ending Links Friendship and Maturity

When Lisa Fineberg Cook returns to Los Angeles at the end of the year, she meets her old friend Stacy. They go shopping and talk about their usual topics. As Lisa puts it, “When it comes to handbags and swimming pools, Stacey always comes first.” After her year of learning to cope in Japan, I was afraid that Lisa was backsliding. Did she forget everything she learned? She seems to ask herself the same question. But then, Lisa offers Stacey some advice and it appears that Lisa really has grown. Her interaction with her old girlfriend provides a foil that lets us see what she might have been like if she had stayed in Los Angeles.  After a year away, Lisa’s world has expanded. Based on her well-earned maturity, our hero reaches back to her friend not in a needy way, but in a supportive one.

As the memoir finishes, I feel confident that the wisdom she found during her journey will help her relate more maturely to her husband, her students, and her friend. That’s a perfect example for the inner and outer trajectory of an excellent memoir.

Structural Bonus: One year, one trip

“Japan Took the JAP out of Me” offers another interesting insight for aspiring memoir writers. Even though she went to Japan on a two year contract, the memoir covers one year of that trip. The one-year cycle turns out to be an excellent mental model which helps readers visualize the beginning middle and end.

Writing Prompt
Experiment with different time frames for your own memoir. What period might help your reader form a better mental image of your journey?

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

Here are a few examples of memoirs that wrap their story in a well-defined period of time, or a trip, or both:

Queen of the Road, by Doreen Orion
She travels around the U.S. in an attempt to combat mid-life crisis, and then returns home, wiser. Click here to see my series about “Queen of the Road” here.

Accidental Lessons by David Berner
His career as a radio broadcaster ends around the same time as his marriage. To reconstruct his life along more meaningful lines, he becomes a school teacher in a lower income community. At 50 years-old, he is the oldest and the newest teacher. The story takes place during one school year. Click here to see my series about Accidental Lessons.

Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald
To escape a stalker in Australia, Sarah McDonald follows her fiancé to India, where she becomes a religious tourist for one year.

Zen and Now by Mark Richardson
This memoir is about a motorcycle trip that follows the same route as Robert Pirsig wrote about in the classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Richardson returns to the road, reminiscing about Pirsig, and as the miles roll by under his wheels, he has plenty of time to muse about his own life, as well. Click here to read my essay about Zen and Now.

My Ruby Slippers by Tracy Seeley
She returns to Kansas to try to make sense of her roots. The memoir loosely follows that journey. Click here to read my essay about Ruby Slippers.

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.

Myths Suggest a Universal Template for Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

To share our life story, we first explore our interior landscape, searching for information that will make sense to ourselves. But when we try to explain our past to readers, it must do better than simply make sense. It must be interesting. So writers go on another quest, looking for techniques that will help them tell a good story. But not all of us know how to do that. Take me for example. Despite years of consuming stories, I didn’t know the first thing about creating one.

My first foray into the nature of storytelling came from a weighty book called simply “Story” by Robert McKee. McKee, a writing teacher, explained the steps needed to create a screenplay. His matter-of-fact approach gave me hope that I could learn enough about the structure to perhaps someday create my own.

My next burst of understanding came from Joseph Campbell’s “Hero of a Thousand Faces.” Campbell’s explanation was based on a lifetime of studying world mythology. From his complex research he drew elegant conclusions about the importance of storytelling for human society.

I also attended workshops which taught me the various components of stories, such as characters, dialog, and plot. In one workshop, Jack Lule, a professor at nearby Lehigh University, shared his insights into the way mythology can help explain why some news stories resonate with public interest and some fall flat. He wrote about this topic in his book  “Daily News, Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of Journalism.”  See my article on Jack Lule’s talk about myths and news.

All these parts of the storytelling puzzle fascinated me but I couldn’t figure out how to put them all together. Then I hit paydirt. The book “Writer’s Journey” by Chris Vogler explained how storytellers and mythmakers have been following a template since the beginning of recorded history. From the basic system outlined by Chris Vogler, I saw the parts of stories more clearly and began to form ideas about how I could apply these principles to my own life.

At first I was surprised by the simplicity of his ideas, but over time grew to see them as an inevitable connection of all humans throughout civilization. From that point of view, it made perfect sense that mythology is loaded with universal story telling devices. For example, here are some of the techniques that could be applied to memoir writing.

Mentors, Trainers and Training
Weapons, Weapon Masters
Shape shifting
Chosen Clan, Allies
Coming Home or Nostoi

Some of these mythmaking devices look fanciful, completely disconnected from real life. And yet, with a little imagination, you can see how these techniques might highlight subtle aspects of your own story. To illustrate how this works, I will point out echoes of these mythological structures, suggested by Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open,” and then offer suggestions about how you can use them yourself.

In following posts, I will focus on each of these topics, give examples, and offer writing prompts for your own memoir in progress.


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.

The Protagonist of a Memoir Must have a Goal and Obstacles

by Jerry Waxler

A fundamental element in every story is the reader’s identification with the protagonist. This protagonist doesn’t just stand there. He or she wants something and then moves toward it, while readers turn pages, eager to overcome the obstacles. In Andre Agassi’s “Open” the pressure to push against obstacles generates enormous tension that makes the story move like a novel.

Identify the Protagonist’s “True Goal”

Andre Agassi obviously wanted to succeed at tennis. Or at least that was what his father wanted him to do. Even while Agassi was winning matches, inside himself, he felt lost. Over the course of the book, he discovered another set of goals. These were not the ones his father had imposed on him – fame and wealth through tennis – but the ones that came from his own heart. Until he discovered his passion for helping kids, his path was murky. In fact, this is one reason why the book felt so profoundly satisfying. His search was not simply to achieve his goal. First he had to find it.

Writing Prompt
To find the essence of your own story, identify the desires that drove you. This can be even more intriguing when you explore the way your goals changed over the years. List or describe the things you wanted when you were twenty. Make another list for what you wanted ten or twenty years later. Compare the lists. What changed? Write a paragraph or a page describing the evolution of your desires.

This celebrity’s inner obstacles were just as interesting as his outer ones

As a tennis player, each serve and volley was crucial. Agassi compared tennis to boxing, but much lonelier since tennis players never even touch each other. The image was apt as I could imagine him grunting, sweating, and struggling to fight off the blows from his opponent and land some of his own. Agassi describes many critical wins and losses, providing fascinating external drama.

But the heart of his story took place inside him. Even as he was becoming famous, he continued to feel confused and rebellious, creating a reputation as a bad boy. Hired to act in a television commercial, the director told him to say “Image is Everything.” Even though the motto was intended to sell cameras, his critics and fans jumped on the phrase, twisting the words that came out of his own mouth into a confession that he was in fact shallow and self-involved. Now, he had to fend off insinuations that he had no inner life. The media and fans made him their own creature, someone they could shape, since he obviously was having trouble shaping himself.

This pressure between his inner struggle to define himself and the outer pressure of the media to define him creates one of the most insightful portrayals of the celebrity culture I have ever seen. It is also evidence that a passionate memoir writer can delve into the facts of life and go deeper and deeper until he discovers authentic, unique, interesting dramatic tension.

Writing Prompt
Your own obstacles will be an important component of your story. Some of the outer ones will be easy to spot. You didn’t have enough money, or you lost a parent. Write one or more scenes, portraying how you overcome external obstacles.

In addition, to describing the things outside yourself, look within and describe inner problems. Perhaps you violated your own principles, or tried to please the wrong people, or perhaps there were things you only realized you wanted after the failure of your first round of desires. Write a scene that shows a moral or psychological dilemma. What emotions or beliefs got in your way? Continue to the next development. How did you overcome the obstacle?

This is part 2 of an article about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”  In Part 1, I pointed out that a memoir can be great even if it’s by a celebrity. In the next part of my search for the techniques that make the memoir work, I will look at the emotional flaws in the character, and conflicts with other characters.

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.

Seeking Truth in a far off land, “American Shaolin” Part 3

By Jerry Waxler

In the 1960s, Timothy Leary suggested “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Many young people, myself included, were seduced into thinking that these three steps would lead to wisdom. For several years I jettisoned social norms. At the end of that road, I believed in nothing. Leary’s formula had emptied me without offering anything in return. To fill the void, I looked Eastward and found a teacher in India who, unlike Leary, advised me to get a job. According to his system, I could best achieve spirituality in a sort of parallel universe while I continued to live in the world. Essentially, he recommended that I drop back in

Recently I read about another young man looking to the Orient to find deeper Truth. Matthew Polly, author of the memoir “American Shaolin,” dropped out of Princeton and joined a monastery in China to study martial arts for two years. Polly’s path required hard work and sacrifice. By the time he arrived in China, he had already learned how to speak Mandarin, certainly a harder project than any self-respecting hippie would have attempted. And that was only the beginning. In China, Polly devoted hours every day to practice Kung Fu. His intense commitment earned him the respect and friendship of his fellow monks.

Writing Prompt
Do you have a story about dropping out, or seeking truth? What prompted you? Where did you go for answers? What did you sacrifice? Who did you talk to? What did you see, feel, or hear on your search? How satisfied were you with the results?

Describing introspective experiences

Polly studied religion at Princeton, and must have amassed a mountain of complex ideas. But he didn’t travel all the way to China to learn more intellectual concepts. He could have done that in the comfort of his college library. He wanted to go beyond books to find a more ethereal “Knowing.” When he achieved such a moment of introspective transport, he attempted to describe in words the subtle observations that could only be seen within his own consciousness.

Then, out of curiosity he asked other people if they ever felt anything similar. To his surprise, many people told him about their own transcendent experiences. His description of these conversations provided one of the simplest, clearest treatments I have read about the direct perception of spirituality.

Writing Prompt
Write about a time when you perceived an alternate reality, perhaps while listening to music, or on a starry night, or in a dream, or in prayer or meditation, or in the physical exhilaration and release after a hard bike ride, hike, swim, or climb.

Seeking is just one aspect of his story

My own reading of “American Shaolin” focuses on Polly’s curiosity about his inner reality. But that was not his only theme. He also told about his Coming of Age. The book described the emerging connection between China and the U.S. It was also a story about learning to fight, and it was a travelogue. That’s the magic of stories. They package the intricate weave of life within an unfolding narrative. Authors show what they see, and readers draw their own conclusions.

Writing Prompt
List the various themes and dimensions of your own life journey that you believe readers will appreciate.

Seeking takes us to strange places, where rules are not what we think

In the famous bar scene in the movie Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker saw the menagerie of strange looking creatures, it was obvious that he had entered a different world, to survive he would need to learn and adapt to unfamiliar rules.

In Matt Polly’s memoir, there were many indications that he was not in Kansas anymore. When Polly went to the hospital near the Shaolin Temple, he was shocked to find out how poorly equipped it was, and the floors were made of dirt!  When he traveled to a remote rural region, most people had never seen a white man.  The economic system was an unpredictable mix of socialism and capitalism – the official term was, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Apparently, this meant that anyone could earn money, and if the Party bosses wanted to take some for themselves, they just changed the rules.

Writing Prompt

When you moved to a different region, or into a different subculture, what changes let you know you were in a “foreign” land? Write a scene to show your surprise.

Here’s one of mine

In Berkeley in 1971, in my usual dire state of loneliness, I went to visit a girl who knew some friends of mine from the University of Wisconsin. When she answered the door, I told her the names of our mutual friends. I was relieved when she softened and invited me into her candle lit pad. Behind her, another girl reclined dreamily on cushions. As I was sitting down to join them, the first girl asked me my sign. I said “Gemini” and they looked at each other. She became stern and distant, and then asked me to leave. Shaken, I walked out to the street, alone again, wondering what I had done wrong.


This is my third essay on the memoir “American Shaolin.” To read the other essays, click the links below:
Princeton Student transfers to the School of Hard Knocks or Learning Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple

Flawed heroes and mechanical body parts: Shaolin Memoir Part 2

Click here for the Amazon Page for “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly.

For more background about the modern history of China, see my essay about the memoir, “The Man on Mao’s Right.

Flawed heroes and mechanical body parts: Shaolin Memoir Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

When the hero of the television show “Kung Fu” smashed faces, I cheered him on, without pausing to consider that I don’t like pain, and usually admire people for more peaceful behavior. After reading the memoir “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly I have now had an opportunity to think more about what should have been obvious all along – if you hit someone in the face, it’s going to hurt.

Polly was raised to be a nice guy, intent on being kind to people, but he also wanted to learn how to stand up for himself. So when he dropped out of Princeton to learn to fight at a Chinese monastery, one of his goals was to become less of a nice guy and more of a “bad ass.”

Dark side of heroes

Polly analyzed his opponents during a fight, learning to intentionally mislead them so they wouldn’t be able to predict his next move. Inflicting pain was his goal, and he was proud to achieve it. But hurting people sounds like something bad guys do. Aren’t protagonists supposed to be “good”?

The question has haunted me my whole life, not just about heroes in books but about my own behavior. Somehow I had formed the idea that emotions made me look flawed, so I thought I was supposed to hide my emotions. As a result, I appeared stiff and remote, an image that turned people off. Instead of convincing them to like me more, my behavior gave them reasons to like me less.

As my memoir took shape, a more troubled and prickly young man emerged than I ever realized. However, when I saw this flawed character on the page, it didn’t look as bad as I had always feared. Instead, I realized many heroes have edgy, even repugnant character flaws. Homer’s Ulysses was impulsive. Hamlet was self-involved. Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict. And despite these flaws, or perhaps because of them, readers identify with the hero. So why shouldn’t the hero of my memoir also be flawed? This acceptance of my faults liberated me from the exhausting work of pretending I’m perfect.

Matthew Polly apparently understood this principle. He made no attempt to hide his bloodlust, or his inner conflicts. Underneath his exterior projection, I felt the adrenaline surging through his body and shutting down his thoughts tightening the bond between an authentic author and a curious reader.

Hard body parts are tools of the trade

In the Kung Fu tradition, fighters selected their own specialized fighting technique and that technique became their trademark. One type of specialty, called Iron Kung Fu, required the fighter to develop enormous strength and hardness in a part of their anatomy such as their forearm or neck.

Polly met a practitioner of Iron Crotch and accepted an invitation to go with the man to visit his rural village. The fighter, who was singularly unattractive, apparently benefitted at least in one way from focusing so much attention on his genitals. On the trip home, he stopped off at various homes to pay respects to a half dozen women, and the babies he fathered.

At first, the practice of Iron Kung Fu sounds weird and foreign. With a little reflection, you see that mixing matter with flesh is a common occurrence. In the childhood tale of Peter Pan, I was fascinated by Captain Hook’s prosthesis, and the peg legs often sported by pirates. Many modern Superheroes have non-flesh appendages such as the blades that spring out of Wolfman’s hands and the web that spins from Spiderman’s wrists.

Once you start looking, you notice real humans also use matter to extend their capability. Modern people wear breast implants, tooth implants, artificial heart valves and pacemakers, insulin pumps. Rappers mount diamonds on their teeth. Wigs are artificial. So are clothes, jewelry, and eye glasses. Exploring these extensions of self into matter can extend your understanding of how you operate in the world.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene about some inanimate extension of your own body, and see how it affected your emotional well-being, your sense of wholeness, or on the other hand, talk about how it felt foreign and strange.

Fighting Technique with an American Slant

Polly decided not to study the Iron Crotch technique. Instead he invented his own fighting specialty called “Crazy American.” Taking advantage of the prejudice Chinese people had about Americans, Polly acted like he was out-of-control, intimidating people without striking a single blow.

Writing Prompt
What sorts of manipulative behavior have you used in order to gain some influence over people? Write a scene about a time when you intentionally acted out or in other ways played a role, in order to create a desired effect in the people around you.

To read part 1 of my review about “American Shaolin” click here.

To visit the Amazon page for Matthew Polly’s Memoir, “American Shaolin” click here.

To visit Matthew Polly’s Home Page, click here.

Gary Presley in “Seven Wheelchairs” proposed the unusual idea that the wheelchair was an extension of himself. To read my essay on this compelling memoir click here.