A Memoir About Not Falling Apart

by Jerry Waxler

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

Because fiction writers can invent any situation they want, our favorite novels involve larger-than-life, perfectly orchestrated events. Many aspiring memoir writers are afraid that by comparison, their lives aren’t structured well enough to make a good story. However, before you decide if your life is memoir-worthy, take into account the fact that memoir readers acquire a taste for real life. As a result, memoir readers expect authentic, psychologically-driven events that provide insights into the human condition.

Occasionally, though, real-life setbacks smash into authors’ lives with the degree of intensity usually found in fiction. Julie Freed’s memoir Naked: Stripped by a Man and by Hurricane Katrina recounts just such an extreme situation. A seemingly happily married young woman keeps in touch with her husband, whose military assignment has taken him away from home. Then, without warning, he sends her an email asking for a divorce. The life they built together, including their new home and infant daughter, are suddenly abandoned. His break off surges like a violent storm, threatening to tear her apart. At the same time, Hurricane Katrina is barreling down on her home in Mississippi.

Even though Julie Freed’s memoir takes us on a ride through two simultaneous life-shattering tragedies, for memoir readers, the events are just the backdrop. The real story is about her courage to cope with her circumstances. Naked is a memoir about NOT falling apart. From that point of view, this story offers hope on every page. By the end, the author reaches a place of safety from which she can look back across the rubble and bravely share her experience with us.

The memoir provides an extreme example of what courage-expert Susan Jeffers recommends in her self-help book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. According to Jeffers, the fear of failure causes many of us to shrink away from enriching activities. She suggests that to live life to its fullest, we need to trust that we can gracefully survive unwanted experiences. Whether we are facing an annoying traffic jam, or a life-threatening hospitalization of a loved one, we must find ways to move forward with as much poise as we can muster.

To increase our resiliency, we practice self-help strategies such as using encouraging self-talk. We center ourselves through relaxed breathing and other meditative strategies of “being here now.” We reach out for support from others. We pray. And we read inspiring memoirs like Julie Freed’s Naked.

The Memoir Revolution has made available a wide variety of such stories about real people who have suffered setbacks, and yet who can “handle it.” By reading about their experiences, we have the opportunity to vicariously practice courage. When we close the book, we feel we have survived, or in Susan Jeffers’ terminology, we have discovered we can handle it.

Inside Julie Freed’s story, we feel the collapse of all the good things in life. Despite that collapse, she carries on, clinging to hope, to the support of her parents and friends, and to the love she feels for her baby. After she survives her larger-than-life setback, she continues to grow. Eventually she feels strong enough to return to these violently disruptive memories and write the story.

By writing, she sorts out the horrible events, earning for herself the higher perspective gained from the author’s vantage point. And by giving the story to us, she helps us experience her strategies. We learn how she reached out for help, how she headed for shelter, how she wove her own brand of assertive pride and humiliated horror, and we join her as she passes through the trauma and onto the next stage in her life.

Writing Prompt
What is your story of NOT falling apart? Write a scene from one of the most disturbing periods in your life. After writing it, step away from it, and breathe. Now, think of a later scene. In this next scene, show how you hung on to peace and sanity, attempting to ride out the challenge.

Notes

Click here for Julie Freed’s website

Click here to read an interview with Julie Freed about writing her memoir.

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.

Thoughts are the Soundtrack of a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

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

Before I wrote the first draft of my memoir, I visualized my past as a tangled web. When I gathered random anecdotes and placed them in chronological order, they began to connect, making it easier to see how one thing led to another. The next breakthrough came in critique groups where I learned that readers want to know more than the sequence of events. They want to know what I’m thinking.

Introspection is such an important feature in memoirs that a memoir without this dimension feels as if it is skimming the surface. By adding the mental track, the author does for memoirs what a good sound track does for movies. In both cases, the sound we hear helps us relate to what we see. The analogy with a movie sound track highlights a fundamental principle of all storytelling – a good story operates on two planes, inner and outer.

To feel engaged in any story, we need to understand the motivations of the characters. However, because our predominant cultural stories are formulaic, we often forget about this inner dimension. In thrillers, the good guys naturally want to chase the bad guys and bad guys naturally fight back. Similarly, in mysteries the detective needs to solve the crime, and in romances, the girl needs to get the guy. We don’t need to know much about the inner dimension in these stories because we assume they are roughly about the same every time.

Memoirs are about real life. We grow up, start a family, get a job, grow older, take a trip. Meanwhile, inside the protagonist of a memoir, all hell is breaking loose. Our search for love, dignity and understanding can become so vast, it seems to fill the sky. Memoirs provide insight into the characters’ deepest dreams and needs, and they achieve this effect with carefully crafted, cleanly integrated thoughts.

When Memoir Characters Need to Think a Lot
I am intimately familiar with the importance of thinking my way through major life transitions. When I attempted to pass through the gateway from child to adult, I struggled for years to think my way across the chasm. In fact, the working title of my memoir is Thinking My Way to the End of the World. So when I read memoirs, I take special note of the way the author reveals his or her inner process. Two recent examples illustrate the way memoir authors successfully include their thoughts.

When Cheryl Strayed was attempting to transition from girl to woman, she underwent a process of self-reevaluation. Her memoir, Wild, is about her attempt to do that reevaluation while taking a hike. The memoir on the surface is about a hike through the wilderness. Cheryl Strayed entices readers to turn the page to experience the trappings of her hike: blistered feet, fear of getting lost, heavy backpacks, and encounters with fellow hikers. But inside her mind, she is free to ramble, consider the past, and have inner discussions about the direction of her life.

Readers didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that her outer circumstances had little to do with her inner ones. The book was an acclaimed bestseller even before it appeared on the big screen, demonstrating that readers are interested in an author’s inner dimension and willing to go along for the inner ride.

Memoir author David Berner also needed to share a thoughtful life transition. In his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, he describes the meltdown that provoked him to leave his family and start a new life. In his second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, he returns to that decision to leave, and tries to figure out how to maintain his responsibility to his children. To reconcile the opposing parts of his desire, to leave and yet to remain loyal, he needs to think long and hard about responsibility, about his relationship to the boys, and about his father’s relationship to him.

To do all of this thinking, David Berner takes his sons and a buddy on a drive in a motor home. They roughly follow the path described by Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Each day a little more road passes under their wheels in perfect, chronological sequence. And as the miles go by, the boredom of travel invites introspection.

David Berner’s journey is less complex or picturesque than a hike through the wilderness. Reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s book, On the Road, this simple outer journey provides just enough forward momentum to keep readers engaged, while the much more dramatic story takes place inside his mind.

Occasionally one of Berner’s two sons says or does something that triggers a round of musing. Within each of these reveries, time moves more fluidly, leaping from one generation to another, like the point-counterpoint of jazz riffs, in which motifs intertwine, never going too far into one before the other intervenes, giving endless opportunities for contrast. Reconciling his inner conflicts, and figuring out how to renew his connection to the boys creates intense thoughts, written artfully in micro-essay, musing style.

These weren’t flashbacks. In a flashback, the reader must leap backward, and shift focus to a previous time frame. At the end of a flashback, the reader must leap forward again into the timeframe of the storyteller. This can create a jarring effect. On the other hand, David Berner’s musings comment on the past without actually returning to it.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. Berner is deciding whether or not to buy a memento on this trip. From there he remembers the emotional importance of travel in his life. The following paragraph explores this thought in greater depth.

“When I was a kid, the shortest family vacation would mean at least a cheap tee-shirt or salt water taffy to carry home for a cousin or the neighbor who took in the mail. And when my mother and father traveled to England to find the boyhood home of my grandfather, my mother’s dad, they returned with inexpensive fisherman sweaters and coasters with pictures of Westminster Abbey. My sons visited Abbey Road Studios with their mother on a European holiday, and their gift to me was a single white guitar pick. I loved that gift.”

After the introspective moment plays out, we look up and see we have traveled further on the road and the outer storyline picks up again. This alternating play between interior thought and exterior travel creates an almost musical rhythm.

How to use outer circumstances as the video for your own inner sound track
Both Cheryl Strayed and David Berner offer examples of the way a simple trip, from beginning to end, can be used as an opportunity to explore their inner lives. Each author faces an important life transition, to grow into adulthood, or to adjust to the changing landscape of middle age. The authors take us on a journey, during which we listen to their hearts and minds.

Their examples illustrate something all memoirs have in common. In the world of action, circumstances are unfolding. At the same time, inside the character, a series of thoughts and reactions play out, usually triggered by the external events. The events provide the visual framework. And the thoughts and musings offer readers a sound track.

If you wonder if your life transitions were interesting or important enough to write about, consider these two memoirs. In one, a girl is attempting to become a woman. In the other, a middle-aged man is attempting to renew his responsibility to his sons. What could be more ordinary? And yet, through the artful interplay of outer circumstance and inner response, we feel ourselves pulled into their lives. By the end of the journey, we have been enriched by the thoughts, ideas, and images that helped these authors adjust to great changes in their world views, and to adapt to new chapters in their lives.

Writing Prompt
What transition or challenge in your life required you to rethink your self-image?

What set of external circumstances unfolded while you were attempting to come to this inner shift?

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

In the memoir Ten Speed, author Bill Strickland figures out his own deepest secrets while on a bicycle. He desperately needs to review his life in order to shake off the legacy of his father’s abuse, so he can fully love his daughter. Click here to read my article about Ten Speed.

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.

These Memoirs Are Similar to Biographies

by Jerry Waxler

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

This article continues the series inspired by Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness about raising her daughter through a maddening cycle of rebellion. For the first article in the series, click here

Rachel Pruchno wrote her memoir, Surrounded by Madness, at the intersection between a memoir and a biography. As a memoir, it is a first person account of a mother trying to raise a troubled daughter. As a biography, it records in detail that daughter’s journey through the first 18 years of life. This hybrid approach to memoir writing provides an important example of a structure that has been used by other memoirs and might give you some ideas about how to write yours.

All of us have intimate, long term relationships, for example, with parents, siblings, partners, friends, children, and colleagues. In many memoirs, these characters slip into the background. A husband or mother might be mentioned but never even have a speaking role in the drama. Other memoirs promote these characters into the limelight, sharing the stage, or sometimes even turning the stage over to the other character entirely.

Here’s an example of a memoir that focuses so much attention on the central figure that the author becomes almost invisible. In the memoir, Reading my Father, Alexandra Styron tells the story of her father, the famous novelist William Styron. She herself plays a minor role. Miranda Seymour’s memoir Thrumpton Hall is also mainly about her father. She tells of his obsession with his English Country estate, and in the process, allows us to see both her father and the fate of the gentry in the twentieth century. But we don’t learn much about her.

Some memoirs hover in the space between the two people. When James McBride attempted to figure out his heritage, his memoir Color of Water investigated his mother’s life as a Jew growing up in the south before she married a black man and moved up north. The memoir is about the son’s attempt to find his own truths, by learning more about hers.

A Dark and Troubling Journey

Rachel Pruchno’s story is a far more complex application of the “memoir as a biography” – As her daughter’s story proceeds, we are forced to face the fact that the person at the center of the story is so disturbing, we actually need a bridge back to sanity. And we use the storyteller as that bridge.

To stay hopeful, we readers are accustomed to link our destinies to the sane characters who walk away from the rubble. In the classic novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, readers maintain sanity by sticking with the chronicler, Ishmael, rather than the crazy main character, Ahab. Similarly, in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the teller of the tale offers the reader a bridge from the despair of the story to the survival of the storyteller.

Most of the memoir, Surrounded by Madness is about Rachel Pruchno’s daughter’s out-of-control behavior, and a mother who constantly strives to help the daughter get back on track. Just as in Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness, the final truth rests with the storyteller, rather than with the story’s central character.

In another example, Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, the initial story is about the life of her son, a brilliant young musician. As he falls prey to Bipolar Disorder, the emphasis shifts from raising him to trying to save him. Unlike Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness, the breakdown occurs early enough for readers to gain a clear understanding of what happens next. After her son’s suicide the memoir is all about the mother’s grieving and growing. In this sense, only the first part of the book is semi-biographical, and the second part is a hundred percent memoir.

More Approaches to the Memoir and Biography Hybrid

Many memoir writers are curious to learn the stories of their parents’ earlier lives. I’ve already mentioned Alexandra Styron’s portrayal of her famous father in Reading My Father. As a youngest child, rarely invited into the private life of her father, she saw his fame from a distance. To learn about him, she studied his papers, similar to the way any historian would have learned about him. And Miranda Seymour, author of Thrumpton Hall, also researched her father’s life by reviewing his diary. James McBride’s research in Color of Water feels like the work of a drowning man, who can only be saved by figuring out his mother. Setting aside for a moment that Barak Obama is president of the United States, his memoir Dreams of Our Fathers captures a young man’s thirst to understand his roots. All of these authors invested years of creative research and writing to make better sense of their parents.

Karen Fisher Alaniz is another daughter who tries to understand her father. She discovers  he has been so secretive about his World War II experiences because of the fact that he was involved in military secrets, and even half a century after the classified information could be used by the enemy, he still felt constrained by orders. The memoir, Breaking the Code, is a fascinating example of the way secrets separate people. The author’s instinct to break through the secrets in the final years of her father’s life offers a beautiful demonstration of that curiosity many of us feel about the lives of our parents.

In another story by a daughter, Susan Erikson Bloland grew up feeling jealous and ashamed by the fact that the public knew her father better than she did. Her memoir In the Shadow of Fame is not so much about the famous psychologist Erik Erikson as it is about the damaging effects of fame on the self esteem of the other members of the family.

Some writers want so badly to tell their parent’s story they create ghost written accounts. These first person “memoirs”, written by children in the voice of the parent, provide an extreme example of a child’s desire to understand a parent’s earlier life. Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Linda Austen, is a ghost written account of a woman growing up in Japan before World War II, marrying an American serviceman, and moving to the United States. And Eaves of Heaven was written by Andrew X. Pham as a ghost-written memoir about his father’s life growing up in Vietnam, surviving the hardships of colonialism, rebellion, and imprisonment. Both stories were based on extensive interviews.

Friend or Companion

When memoirs are about a friend, spouse or companion, the story is more a biography of the relationship than of the person. For example, Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell is as much about the friendship between two women as it is about the other woman. In a more troubling memoir about a relationship, Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner is about her relationship with an abusive husband.

In two memoirs, a wife has lost a husband, and tells about that relationship from beginning to end. Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener is the biography of her relationship with her husband, from courtship, to his early demise, and then through her grieving. Naked: Stripped by a Man and Hurricane Katrina by Julie Freed includes a biography of her relationship with her husband, and then her struggle to make sense of that relationship after he leaves her.

An unusual account of a relationship is Father Joe, The Man Who Saved My Faith by Tony Hendra. The memoir is the relationship between Hendra and his spiritual mentor. Like any memoir, it provides an opportunity to share a slice of life that readers might not have experienced. Tony Hendra’s mentor is a monk, and the memoir provides a peek into a monastery, a sort of atavistic example of an ancient tradition of men living apart and devoting their lives to God.

The Other Character Is Not Always Human

Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg is by the famous researcher of a famous parrot. Pepperberg’s groundbreaking research into the linguistic aptitude of the parrot escaped the limits of scientific journals and went public, giving the world insight into the uncanny brilliance of the African Gray parrot. The memoir offers fascinating a glimpse into the personal relationship between the two creatures.

Similarly Marley and Me by John Grogan tells the story of a relationship with a dog. The ensemble cast includes the whole family, but throughout the story, it’s clear that the dog is the star.

Less famously, Oogie, a Dog Only a Family Could Love by Larry Levin creates a similar effect. This memoir adds gravitas to dog ownership by mixing in issues of dog fighting, and also creating a loving environment for two adopted boys.

Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him by Luis Carlos Montalvan is about a veteran who suffers from PTSD and how his relationship to a service dog helps him regain his dignity. Saddled by Susan Richards is a memoir about her life, with an emphasis on the healing effects of caring for her horse.

Conclusion

As you develop ideas about your own memoir in progress, consider your other characters. Perhaps one of them deserves top billing in the title, or in a different telling of the same story, you could portray the character’s influence from offstage. Or you might find that your best story is a hybrid, hovering between yourself and the other character or switching from one to the other. When Rachel Pruchno started writing her memoir, Surrounded by Madness, she focused almost entirely on her daughter. As the story reached a conclusion, the focus shifted, and suddenly the author took center stage. Similarly, Madeline Sharples first wrote about her son, and then shifted emphasis to herself. These creative decisions are determined both by the specific events of your life and by your goals in writing your memoir. By reviewing the wide range of possible structures offered by memoirs you read, you can open your imagination to the story that best expresses who you are and what story you want to share with the world.

Writing Prompt

What one main character in your memoir might zoom up into center stage? Write a synopsis of the memoir as if it was about this one other character, or about the relationship with this person.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website
Madeline Sharple’s website
Susan Weidener’s website
Karen Fisher Alaniz’s website
Julie Freed’s website

 

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.

Memoir Structure: Beginning Doesn’t Always Point to the End

by Jerry Waxler

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

This article continues the series inspired by Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness about raising her daughter through a maddening cycle of rebellion. For the first article in the series, click here

Well-structured stories start with a character on a mission. The protagonist’s desire generates the momentum that carries the reader through the middle. By the end, the reader expects some graceful conclusion. In a sense, the whole purpose of reading the story is to learn how the mission turned out.

Consider the structure of the Coming of Age subgenre. At the beginning, the child’s mission is to grow up. Through the middle, the child grows biologically and attempts to achieve emotional maturity as well. By the end, the mission has been accomplished.

However, not all memoirs end in the place the beginning pointed. Sometimes the story turns upside down. A dramatic example of such a shift takes place in the movie The Sixth Sense. In the last few moments of the movie, the audience is shocked to realize that one of the characters is really a ghost. Viewers walk out of the theater, replaying the story in their minds, to adjust their understanding of the events to fit in with the ending.

The ending of Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness has a similar effect. Throughout the book, the daughter evades her mother’s guidance. Page by page, I wait for things to improve, but instead of getting better, things grow worse. I begin to hope for a miracle and then accept that this miracle might never happen. How is this going to work? I don’t want to read a book that ends in despair.

By the time I finish the book, I accept the fact that the daughter does not live “happily ever after.” Far from it. But the book inspires hope anyway, not because of what happens to the girl but what happens to the story. The ending of the story flips the focus to the survival of the family. Somehow husband and wife hold together to continue to care for each other, and for their son.

Other examples of stories whose missions are thrown off course

Sometimes the shift in forward momentum occurs much closer to the beginning of the story. At the beginning of Lucky by Alice Sebold, a young woman goes off to college to prepare for her life as a writer. However, a violent rape traumatizes her and the rest of the memoir is about her search for peace.

At the beginning of Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup a young family wakes up, eats breakfast and the husband goes off to work, where he is killed in a violent accident. For the rest of the story, the protagonist must make peace with the loss, and reconstruct a new reality in which this beloved person is gone.

Madeline Sharple’s memoir Leaving the Hall Light On is about trying to raise a son who suffers from bipolar disorder. After his violent suicide, the focus of the story shifts to her own emotional survival. In a sense, the mission shifts twice. In the first part of the book, her mission is to save her son. In the second part of the book, her mission is to make sense of his death. In the third part of the book, her mission subtly shifts again. Instead of simply making peace with his death, she must continue to grow as a person.

Sometimes a secondary mission evolves gradually through the course of the story

In Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh, the author’s family moves to Belize, partly as an adventure, and partly to help her son get past his selfish involvement with teen culture in LA. Through the course of the year, Sonia keeps finding new ways to contribute to her family, so that by the end, when they return to LA, not only has she changed her son. She also changed herself.

Writing Prompt
If you are not quite sure of the ending of your memoir, perhaps the structure will become clearer if you take into account the evolution of your goals. How did your goals change from the beginning to the end of the story?

For example, Rachel Pruchno’s original goal was to usher her daughter into adult life. By the end, her goal was to save her family.

Write three scenes, one that reflects your goals at the beginning of the story. One that shows you discovering there is a new goal being revealed by your changes. And one that shows you achieving this secondary goal at the end. a scene that  scene at the end that showed the “success” as something different than you originally conceived.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website
Sonia Marsh’s website
Madeline Sharple’s website
Essay about Alice Sebold’s Lucky

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.

A Ticking Clock Lesson for Memoir Writers

by Jerry Waxler

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

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness is a treasure trove of lessons about memoir writing and about life. In the previous posts, I wrote about the “nonfiction bonus” — gifts of knowledge about the world. In this post, I write about gifts of knowledge about memoir writing. What can we aspiring memoir writers learn from Surrounded by Madness to help us turn life into memoir?

Coming of Age Provides the Suspense of a Ticking Clock

Pruchno’s memoir is a pageturner. How does she achieve the effect of getting a reader to want to know what happens next? I once heard a great tip from author-turned-literary-agent Marie Lamba who says that good stories contain ticking clocks.

The ticking sound conjures the image of a sweating man with wire clippers urgently trying to stop the explosion. However, almost any dramatic tension can be elevated by the pressure of time. When you are racing to a job interview, a traffic jam can create a thudding heart and a hand slammed against the steering wheel. This awareness of the importance of time can help you generate forward motion in your story.

Marie Lamba says that a good story contains at least two ticking clocks. To understand this notion, I read her young adult novel Over My Head. The teenage heroine is often worried about time, for example, hoping to get home in time for her curfew. On a slightly longer timeframe, in a few more weeks, the summer break will be over. Will she get together with her guy before he leaves for college? Turn the page to find out. And on a longer timeframe, a beloved uncle struggles with a dire medical condition.

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir about her daughter’s coming of age builds suspense with clocks ticking on every page. In the shorter time-frame, each crisis causes tension as the parents try to get to the bottom of the daughter’s latest mishap, hoping she didn’t sabotage herself, hoping there is an innocent explanation, hoping the next psychologist will provide the solution.

In addition to these immediate pressures, there is another underlying sense of urgency that stretches across the entire period of growing up. Every parent knows that a child must achieve a sense of personhood and in general understand the rules of adulthood before going out into the world.

In the Pruchno family, this ticking clock takes on increasing urgency, because after their daughter reaches legal emancipation, they will no longer be able to restrict her self-destructive behavior.  Instead of the joy of coming of age, that legal boundary between child and adult sounds to the Pruchnos like the threat of a detonating bomb.

Writing Prompt

The notion of the ticking clock provides a great model of how any memoir writer can enhance suspense and give readers incentive to turn pages.

In your memoir, what must happen by what deadline? Consider the natural time-frames built into life: the school year, the duration of a pregnancy, the length of a journey. Or the plans and expectations. Will I get the promotion? Will I be laid off? Will he propose? Will she accept? Money is often associated with time. You can’t find a job, and the mortgage is overdue.  Or you are in school, but if the money doesn’t hold for another year, you will need to drop out. List the deadlines in your story.View Post

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

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.

Courageous Memoir Author Explains Stylistic Choices

by Jerry Waxler

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

Sue William Silverman’s three memoirs offer inspiring examples of a writer’s willingness to overcome shame in order to share her story. Her first, I Remember Terror Father dealt with the shame of childhood sexual abuse. The second, Love Sick, takes us on the journey of sexual addiction. Her latest memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, tackles the strange and often hidden world of trying to fit into the dominant culture.

Shame is a crucial emotion. As John Bradshaw, the “shaman of shame” points out in his books and lectures, shame has a good side and a bad side. On the good side it keeps us behaving in a socially acceptable manner. A “shameless” person has no concept of social responsibility. On the dark side, shame makes us feel bad about ourselves, and as a result we stay silent about the things that cause it. Memoir writers must fearlessly face these aspects of ourselves, as emphasized in Silverman’s excellent book about memoir writing, whose title”Fearless Confessions” highlights the fact that courage is one of the prerequisites for writing a memoir.

As a Jew, Sue William Silverman grew up feeling like an outsider who wanted to fit in. The shame of being an outsider is familiar to anyone who feels like they don’t belong, whether because of skin color, religion, acne, birth mark, frizzy hair, stutter, poverty, or any of a thousand other causes for self-consciousness.Those of use who are the recipients of prejudice, whether real or imagined, must figure out how to overcome our sense of being different. Sue William Silverman’s book Pat Boone Fan Club takes advantage of the author’s willingness to share her shame and tell a story about her own journey to come to terms with her difference.

In the next few posts, I invite her to answer questions about her memoir, writing about assimilation, and how she developed the particular style of this book.

How does a “dreamy style” work in nonfiction
Jerry: Hi Sue William Silverman. I just reviewed my notes and see our first interview took place in 2009. So nice to speak to you again! And thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about Pat Boone Fan Club.

In your latest memoir, Pat Boone Fan Club, you take us on your journey through your obsessive, desperate, and for the most part, not-logical side of yourself, trying to see yourself reflected in the mirror of our cultural icons – you select Pat Boone as the representative of the most vanilla, most iconic “all-American” pop culture figure. You seem to be saying, “If only I could connect with Pat Boone, I would finally and completely become an American.”

Because this is a memoir, I would ordinarily assume it was all “factual” but because your account of the interview with Pat Boone is so dreamy, I can’t tell if it takes place as a sort of imaginary sequence in your own mind. Could you help me understand your stylistic choice.

Sue William Silverman: The meetings with Pat Boone absolutely take place! The three encounters with him are at the heart of the book. I interweave the actual meetings, our dialogue and interactions, with my thoughts – what you’re calling “dreamy.” Generally speaking, much of memoir is discovering the story behind the story, a movement toward what the facts mean. A simple rendering of “this happened, then this happened, and then this next thing happened,” is only part of a memoir. The other part is to be brought inside the narrator’s reflection of these events – what the author/narrator thinks about these events now, as she’s writing.

Let me show you an example from the book, which should clarify this. First, though, a quick summary: Pat Boone is a 1960s pop-music idol, now better known as a Christian conservative and wholesome, squeaky-clean family man with four daughters. In the book, I write about how, growing up, I had a crush on him. The crush went deeper than the fact that I liked his music. I wanted him to adopt me. Since my own father, my Jewish father, misloved me, Pat Boone seemed the safest man on the planet. In this memoir, I explore my ambiguity toward Judaism and my desire to pass as Christian, be part of the dominant culture and religion.

Anyway, okay, back to your question. In this short excerpt, the factual story is in blue ink, and I’ve inserted my thoughts and reflections in red ink. Just to set the scene, this takes place in Pat Boone’s green room after his Christmas concert. Marc is my partner who accompanies me. You also need to know that I am recovering from a rather serious illness. Pat Boone has just entered the room.

Marc and I stand up from the couch.

“Can I hug you?” Pat Boone asks, smiling.

When he enfolds my frail, ailing body, it feels like a laying on of hands.

Pat Boone will cure me.

“Would you like to sit here?” Marc nods toward the couch, beside me, where he’d been sitting.

Pat Boone shakes his head, pulling a chair directly in front of me. “This way I can see her better.”  Meaning me.  He settles onto the chair….

Pat Boone points to the velvet flower embroidered on my lavender jacket.  “At home, hanging on my wall, I have a photograph of a flower growing up through concrete,” he says.  “Like you.  Your childhood.  You are like a flower growing up through concrete.”

This is Pat Boone, too.  Not just the religious conservative.  But the April-love-love-letters-in-the-sand Pat Boone.  The Pat Boone offering innocence.  Redemption.  Answers….

He is as I always envision: perfect hair, smile, teeth, wife, daughters, career, life.  But I struggle to pay attention as he talks.  I’m weak, dizzy.  I’m just hoping not to pass out.  Even as I lean toward him, smiling, an enormous sadness wells up inside me.  I want to tell Pat Boone I’ve been ill.  I want him to know I was worried I’d miss the concert.  I’m equally sad that I look thin and frail.  I’d wanted to be perfect for him, match his own seeming perfection.  Instead, my skirt hangs loose.  I notice a small rip in the flower on my jacket.  My hair is limp, my face wan.  My only hope is that he won’t notice how sick I appear.  I don’t want to spoil this meeting after anticipating it for so long.

Hopefully, from reading the above, you can see how I move between the actual action unfolding – the “outer” story – and my own thoughts, or the “interior” story.

In the next part of the interview, I ask her about how she used pop culture as an entry point for her fantasy about becoming a “real” American.

Notes
Sue William SIlverman’s Home Page
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

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.

Memoirs Connect Us by Sharing Our Hidden Worlds

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

The anthology The Times They Were a Changing coedited by Linda Joy Myers, Kate Farrell, and Amber Lea Starfire offers many glimpses into the lives of women during the 60s. The book taught me about a fascinating era in recent American history. It also provided many examples of life-changing moments, full of the passion and intensity of the human condition. This focus on high-intensity moments makes the collection a valuable demonstration of an important aspect of life-story writing.

For many aspiring memoir writers, such high-energy moments lurk under the surface waiting to spring out of hiding. I discovered my own hidden pool of intensity in the first memoir workshop I ever attended. The event took place at a high-energy writing club in a converted storefront in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Along with twenty writers, I considered the possibility I could turn my life into stories. At the end of the first session, the teacher told us to go home and write a story about ourselves.

The scene that came to my mind happened in Berkeley California in 1971 when I lived in a garage, stopped wearing my glasses so I was effectively blind, and went for weeks at a time without speaking. My fallen-apart life after college made sense in that crazy, hippie era. And yet looking back on it later in life, it had always seemed so out of context with my bachelor’s degree in physics and my original goal of becoming a doctor.

Despite my embarrassment and confusion about that period, my mind kept returning to it. Perhaps I was driven to that scene by horror, or by a lifetime of silence. For whatever reason, I attempted to portray my life as a hippie.

At the next session, my voice trembling with embarrassment and exhilaration, I read my piece. In it I revealed that when I was 24 years old, I wanted to live like a chimpanzee and had made plans to move to Central America to eat fruit from the trees. Instead of being horrified, my fellow writers laughed. That laugh changed my life.

I looked around the room. Everyone was relaxed. I realized that reading my story had not upset them or turned me into a pariah. On the contrary, several of them spoke to me afterward and recalled some zany or compelling memory of their own. Paradoxically instead of increasing my shame, sharing the story dispelled it.

Without this wall of shame to hold me back, I became increasingly energetic about discovering my own past. Like an investigator, I unearthed anecdotes I had never before tried to put into words. Then once I found them, I needed to convert them from stubs into a well constructed story. That meant that for the first time in my life, I had to learn how to write stories.

Before that time, my main experience trying to convert bits of my life into stories took place in a psychotherapy office. In my forties, I spent an hour every week attempting to collect myself by using my words. I found so much benefit to the system of trying to express myself that I went back to school and received my master’s degree in Counseling Psychology so I could help others do the same. At the age of 52, I watched my clients attempt to find words with which they could explain their lives. I let them ramble along, helping them choose which part of their lives they would talk about on any given day.

When I began to write my memoir, I realized that by attempting to find the story of my life, I could create a coherent understanding of myself, not just in bits and pieces but across entire eras. By reading memoirs, I realized that every author had achieved this same goal. And by writing the story, they had found a new way to share their lives with the world.

To help other people figure out how to do it, I began teaching memoir writing classes. In my early workshops, I asked writers to record scenes that came to mind. Often the first scenes that jumped onto paper were ones that were too powerful to be communicated in ordinary life. Many said this was the first time they had tried to describe this incident.

Over a period of years, I kept noticing that students used the memoir workshop as an opportunity to reveal their most profound life moments. Sometimes, I would tell writers about this phenomenon. In one such workshop, a woman raised her hand and said, “So you are telling me that once I write about and reveal my powerful secret, I’ll no longer feel as compelled to keep it hidden?”

“Exactly,” I said. “When you see the words on paper and then read them aloud in a group, your memory won’t generate the horrifying results that you expect.”

At the next session, she read a piece about her husband’s suicide. After reading it, she looked around the room at the murmurs and nods of empathy, and said, “I get it. That’s amazing.”

Sometimes the peak moment jumps out before the writing exercise even begins. I gave a talk at a church one Sunday morning to churchgoers who arrived before the services began. This was the best-dressed group of people I had ever spoken to. I explained to them that by writing their experiences in a memoir, they can reveal things that are too personal to talk about. A woman in the back of the room raised her hand. With trembling voice she said, “You mean that I can finally write about my experience of being sexually abused as a child?” I assured her that this was indeed possible. Her tearful “thank you” gave me another glimpse into the relief that can be experienced when peak experiences no longer need to be kept secret.

Lessons for memoir writers
Consider episodes in your life that  burns under the surface, imprisoned by a lifelong commitment to secrecy. Such memories are often surrounded by mental keep-out signs. A common sentiment is, “I could never tell that!”

By pretending the moment never happened or fearing you can never share it, you are stuck forever with your unspoken memory. Without the additional perspective of dialog or literary expression, the offending moment remains in its original form. Instead of eradicating the pain, your silence reinforces it. Aided by the literary act of memoir writing, you can commute this life sentence. Follow the example of the authors of Times They Were a Changing. Try turning it into a story.

When such memories first appear in your mind, they might sound boring, scary, taboo, mundane, or gritty. Don’t worry if the vignette does not contain deadly force, celebrities or unique moments in history. If it is boiling in your mind, write the first draft.

After you write the first draft, enhance it through scenes, description and other techniques. By crafting the memory into a story, with a compelling beginning, middle, and end, you create a container for it. Turning private pain into a public one generates deeper insight into what happened, how you survived, how you moved on to the next step and the step after that.

Your decision to write about the experience as if for strangers is not the end of your journey. To turn it into a polished piece, you still have a long road ahead. How do you develop it into a story with a beginning, middle and end? If you are like me, you not only must do the introspective work of uncovering your past. You also must travel the creative journey of learning to write Creative Nonfiction. By crafting your own life into a readable story, you will see it through fresh eyes. Gradually you will discover that whatever tension made the moment important to you will also be interesting to readers.

Your creative effort to turn life into story presents an elegant escape from silence. As you continue the journey, eventually you will turn a corner. When you look back, you realize your memory is no longer frightening. The episode that formerly burned under the surface and refused to be revealed has now become the story that must be told.

Writing Prompt 1
List a few interesting scenes that jump into your mind. What part of your life seems unmentionable? Upheavals, changes, betrayals, first loves, shifts in awareness. All the things that make life hard also make stories good.

Writing Prompt 2
Pick one of your incidents. Write about it as if you were there, complete with description of what you see, hear and think. Then, using that event as an anchor for your story, cast your net a little wider. What happened next? Look for another scene afterward that represents the immediate outcome.

If the scene was tragic, you might have always felt stuck with it. Then write about how you survived. Did you fight, or rebel, or reach out for support? The scenes *after* the peak event might reveal how to turn this into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The scenes after the main one will show courage, social support, and other positive experiences that helped you push forward.

Notes

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

Click here for more about the themes in Times They Were a Changing

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.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

A Book of Short Stories Expands My Memoir Collection

by Jerry Waxler

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

I consider myself a “non-literary” reader, by which I mean that I prefer my stories told with minimum literary flare, and maximum emphasis on the power of the story. My desire for narrative stories has been endlessly satisfied by hundreds of book-length memoirs, but I have not been nearly so successful finding stories of shorter length.

In shorter stories, there is simply not enough space to build a close relationship between reader and writer. To compensate for this lack of space, most of the short life stories I have come across create power by using tricky detours, leaps, metaphors, and dream-like inserts. For example, here’s one such story that turns a summer job into a wild ride, packed with emotional storms, search for identity, and comic images.

Most of the time, I find that too much reliance on literary technique distracts me from my desire for a straightforward journey, and so, I stick with the longer form. Recently, though, I decided to expand my horizons and take a look at an anthology The Times They Were a Changing, edited by Linda Joy Myers, Amber Lea Starfire and Kate Farrell. The book contains narratives by women who were coming of age during the late sixties and early seventies.

After the first story, I quickly changed from skeptic to believer. Every page compelled me to move to the next, and by the end, I felt satisfied by the entire experience. As I do after every memoir I read, I ask myself why it worked. In this case, I had to ask that question not about an individual story, but about the whole collection, and found two principle reasons why the collection grabbed my attention at the beginning and satisfied me by the end.

First, I wondered how each entry makes up for its short length without reliance on intense literary technique. The answer is that each one focuses on the powerful crucible of some life-changing event. The intensity of the events carry me with gut-wrenching power. I have lots of experience with life-changing events. In my memoir classes for beginners, after I coach students to dredge their minds for anecdotes, the stories that emerge first are often the memories they have bottled up for years. These are peak moments that don’t make good conversation, fraught with embarrassment, humiliation, fear, and confrontation. Such memories seethe silently under the surface, and when I say “Go ahead and write,” they burst onto paper. The anthology, The Times They Were a Changing contains a whole book full of these burning moments.

In each story, I travel with an author into one intense moment in the feminine version of the 60s counterculture. If this was a book-length memoir, I would expect to turn the page and accompany the same author to the next step. However, in the anthology, I turn the page to someone else’s key event. And even though all the stories occurr around the same era, the experiences they report are drastically different. Here is an abbreviated list of topics:

Motorcycle gangs in the midst of flower children
Rock band groupie in a one-night stand
Birth of modern Feminism
Workplace inequality
Out-of-body drug experience
Defying Dad
Sit-ins for women’s equality in the university
Pregnancy and abortion
Hitch hiking
Radical politics

Despite their excellence and intensity, the individual short stories still don’t provide me with the immersion of a book-length memoir. A book allows me to forget my own world and enter the world of the writer. These short stories, when standing on their own, would feel too isolated, like snips of a life rather than deep sharing. However, when they all hang together in one collection, they are transformed into parts of a larger work.

That’s the second way The Times They Were a Changing creates fullness from these short pieces. Like a pointillist painting whose individual dots add up to a beautiful image, the collection combines individual stories into a worldview-shifting insight into the experience of growing up female in the 60s.

By juxtaposing this variety of perspectives, the editors have created a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This anthology is a compelling, satisfying reading experience that sets a high bar for the emerging genre of life story collections.

Suggestions for Writers

In addition to good reading material, the stories in this anthology offer excellent teaching moments. Each story has a beginning, middle, and end, with many variations of subject, emotional challenge, and pacing to name just a few of their distinctive characteristics. To develop your own expertise as a life story writer, consider the collection as a set of writing prompts to trigger you to write your own exciting, life changing story. Try this. Write a short story using each entry in Times They Were a Changing as a writing prompt. For example, write:

A story about a brief romantic encounter.
A story about your scariest next door neighbor
A story about a date gone desperately wrong
A story about a rebellious confrontation with a parent
The rudest, most demeaning treatment you received on a job
A time you were transported by drugs, music, trauma, or love to leave your body
The most pride (perhaps mixed with anger and fear) you ever felt when standing up for your rights
The most humiliated you ever felt with your parents
A creepy, immoral, or illegal thing you did in your youth that you have never told anyone before. (You could burn this one after you write it. Or better yet, read it in your memoir critique group.)

Perhaps a reader would not find each story satisfying by itself. But when arranged in chronological order and presented as a collection, the pieces add up. Perhaps like Times They Were a Changing, the stories in your anthology will create an overall understanding of your life. And with additional focus on transitions, you might even turn your collection into a memoir.

Notes

For a humorous example of a memoir composed of short stories all related to one author’s relationship to spicy food, read Sharon Lippincott’s Adventures of a Chilehead.

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

Read more about the authors by clicking here.

Click here for more about the themes in Times They Were a Changing

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.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Show versus Tell in a Memoir’s Internal Voice

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn about the power and importance of memoirs and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.

In her memoir Freeways to Flipflops, Sonia Marsh is a masterful fretter. She worries. She feels overwhelmed and helpless. She second-guesses herself. Maybe I shouldn’t have been a stay-at-home mom all these years. Was my move to Belize really best for all my children? Her thoughts feel incredibly honest and revealing, a window into her many misgivings.

By sharing her thoughts, Sonia Marsh allows us to see into her soul. She also provides an intriguing example for writers who are trying to figure out how much of their thought process they ought to include. When I started to write my own memoir, I assumed I knew the answer to this question.

I was taught that to write a story, you must “show don’t tell,” a piece of advice that was repeated so often it sounded like a mantra. In order to draw readers into the world of the story, the writer is supposed to create scenes complete with sensory impressions of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Since we don’t smell or see thoughts, and hear them only silently, I assumed I wasn’t permitted to reveal them.

However, years of attempting to follow this rule produced disappointing results. My critique partners complained that my story seemed remote and impersonal. I wasn’t revealing enough about my own thoughts and feelings. Finally I got the message.

In a workshop hosted by First Person Arts in Philadelphia, my fellow critiquers complained once again that something was missing from my scenes. Teacher Lise Funderberg, author of Pig Candy explained it to me this way. “If you don’t tell your readers why the scene is important to you, they won’t know why it should be important to them.” I went home and revised the passage. When I read it aloud at the next session, the eight people around the table stood and applauded.

Based on this new insight into my own memoir writing voice, I began to pay attention to the presence of thoughts in memoirs I love to read. I discovered that I often enjoy “hearing” what is going on inside the authors’ minds. However, I was not sure if they were  telling me their thoughts or showing me. After years of attempting follow the rule I have come to the conclusion that it is far more ambiguous than it first appears.

For example, in the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, the author teaches her students about the nuances of Vladimir Nabakov’s literature. Is she showing herself teaching, or is she telling us the literary theory? In my opinion, she is doing both at the same time. This happens a lot in real life. We tell each other all kinds of things. We even talk to ourselves.

When Frank McCourt walks alone around the streets of New York in his memoir ‘Tis, his observations of the city often amount to him telling himself what he sees.  He demonstrates the paradox of the “show don’t tell” rule by both violating and obeying it within the same thought-filled passages.

One of my most striking examples of “telling as a form of showing” comes from the memoir In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas about a young woman attempting to grow up. Susan blamed her disrupted childhood on the narcissistic excesses of her parents. They were children of the 60s, swept up in the notion that the world would be a better place if they acted as selfishly as possible. Susan Gregory Thomas became fascinated by the problem that the boomers thought of themselves as happy-go-lucky kids, but from her vulnerable position all she saw was a generation of really, really bad parents. Her view of the generations made her a spokesperson for Gen-X, a role she took seriously. Since she believed so deeply in the importance of these generational influences, it naturally became an important part of her memoir.

Susan Gregory Thomas’ telling is different from Sonia Marsh’s. One author tells about her analytical expertise and ideas, and the other about her own interior dilemmas. However, they share one thing in common. Their thoughts about the world have contributed to excellent stories, demonstrating the appropriateness of thoughts in the memoir genre.

Both examples reveal the blurred distinction between showing and telling. By telling her thoughts, (or is it showing them?) each author let us participate in her inner process. Because this rule is so important in understanding the art of storytelling, in my next post I will explore the difference between memoir and fiction writing and show how it influences the show-versus-tell decision.

Write
Examine your own manuscript for places that seem flat, and that might benefit from more insight into what was going on inside your own mind. Consider adding emotional depth and texture to the passage by sharing your own thoughts. After all, the first-person point of view lets us see the world through your eyes. Why not add the inner sense of hearing, and let us hear your thoughts as well? (Don’t add thoughts of the “narrator,” meaning the person you are today. As much as possible, limit your thoughts to the main “character” in the book, meaning the person you were during the scene.)

Footnote: For another article about the importance of ideas in memoirs, see my post about Colored People by Henry Louis Gates learned some things about life: His relationship to girls changed in this scene:

Notes
Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)
Lise Funderburg’s Home Page Author of Pig Candy
First Person Arts Home Page
My Article About Reading Lolita in Tehran
Susan Gregory Thomas Author of In Spite of Everything

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.

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)
Notes

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.